The Stranger Asylum
Second place, Young Adult Short Story Contest
The Stranger Asylum
By Grace Chen
Loose flakes of snow blow across the icy white cape that all of Cor now wears. Winter has set in, making its home in the center of the land, and with the oblivion of gray leaning low overhead, there is nothing to do but wait, to huddle and dream of the sun.
Sern and I whisper about the Vagar Festival, which should be taking place now. Hallucinations of bazaars, colorful, piled against each other in marketplaces, blow in on the wind. We whisper about how we saw no warm orange lamps in preparation for the festivities on the train ride.
We whisper about the signs we saw during the train ride. Massive wooden boards, towering hundreds of feet above our heads, propped up by the snow, half-buried in the snow. Words painted in red, words that none of us understand.
And more than anything else, we whisper about the war between Cor and neighboring Holl. No one’s heard any news, not even the guards. Neither of us has met a Hollish person before. We wonder what they’re like. We wonder if government officials in Holl put up the same kinds of signs we saw, or endure the same winters we endure.
One night, our whispers draw the attention of a guard. He advances—we fall silent—and another guard stops him.
“What’re you doing?”
“Someone’s talking in that tent. You know the curfew rules.”
“It doesn’t matter; let them talk. No one cares what they say. You’re new, aren’t you?”
As the guards depart, Sern thinks for a long, hard moment. Then she whispers, “They don’t even care what we say.”
I nod, too chilled, too hungry to respond. There is nothing in me to draw upon, nothing to react to what she says.
“No matter how hard the wind blows, the crows eventually learn that we’re nothing but old clothes stuffed with straw.” Her words are slow, deliberating.
We breathe on our fingers, sitting on cots frozen solid, and fall into a frozen silence, a forever silence.
In the mornings, we walk from the quarters to the factory—a massive monster, reaching as far up into the sky as it does into the ground. The snow blows around the building, swirling in a wide arc, as if afraid of passing too close. Often the wind blows against us as we walk, and often the wind brings more snow. Sounds of shoveling surround us, but I have yet to see a clear patch of ground.
There is no future for us here, in this factory, this workhouse of war, in some northern corner of Cor. The guards taunt us by saying so. And perhaps they don’t mean it entirely. But as I work here, hour upon hour, standing until my ankles lose feeling, I suspect—I think—maybe they’re right.
They’ve finally bandaged my hands, with the soiled clothes of some other disappeared worker. The smell is almost insufferable, but at least my hands don’t rub directly against abrasive metal surfaces anymore. I try to think of them as gloves.
Sern’s eyes have begun to change. Her eyes are glassy, like the surface of newly fallen snow on an impossible sunny day. Her forehead is always pale, paler even than the ever-absent stars. And she talks to herself, running her fingers over the walls. Over and over again, she whispers.
“Scarecrows. Like scarecrows.”
Sern deteriorates for the next few weeks. She begins to wake me up in the middle of the night, pointing with earnest exclamations at the dark blank sky. Bruising my arm with her grip, she cries out, pleading: “Cerine!”
“What about Cerine?” I ask Sern, trying to be indulgent, trying to quiet her. “Do you want to go there? We’ll go there someday, if you want.”
“Cerine. Cerine,” she continues, until her voice drops with exhaustion. And when her bone-thin legs refuse to hold her any longer, she collapses into her cot with a heavy sigh, as if I am failing to understand something.
I wake up one day to find her shell.
The name “Cerine” echoes in my head. I’ve only heard of it. The richest city in Cor isn’t frequented by people like me. I imagine it’s where government officials make their homes and offices, where wood and paint congregate to become massive signs, where all the wealth in the country is sucked. The more I think about it, about why Sern was pointing me toward it, the more I want to go. Perhaps, if I ever escape this cage, I will go there before I go home.
Everyone is indifferent, plodding on like the future will forever mirror the present, like nothing else matters. The sky is a blanket of clouds every day, a sheet of gray. We are in a tunnel that stretches in all directions, with no way out. When will the mountain end? When will the tide run dry? When can I go home?