There was more than one labyrinth, you know. It’s not like mazes, physical mazes, were a concept figured by Daedalus and Daedalus alone. There are plenty of labyrinths. There are plenty of minotaurs, too, though they’re likely named for other bastards. Once, twice a year, every village with a labyrinth has a reckoning. Every parent, pushed to the mouth of the structure by spearpoint, places their hands upon the shoulders of their children, each of them hoping to go home and live suffering only the minor trauma of knowing one was Almost. They sing for the children who are culled. They watch as the children enter the maze. They listen for the snarling of this or that monster. But this an unknowable trauma. A trauma visited upon one, two families at most. It is thus prescribed. Those families live stricken forever. The rest, living with Almost? Well, like any other trauma one sees or hears but doesn’t own, it passes. It’s a thing you grow numb to. Memory takes a big, rubber eraser to the child. Time buries the maze like a desert swallows a coin. The child lives or dies. The monster eats or doesn’t eat. Who alive would concern themselves with such recordkeeping?
When I was a girl, my father told me there were children who escaped the maze. Thirty years in this labyrinth, and that’s long felt like a cruel lie. There are no monsters here—in the dark, it’s hard to call anything a monster. Even I lack definition. I go to sleep praying that the wind I hear whistling has teeth. That I may know myself again, even as prey.
The city I once called my home is much kinder to its Chosen than others, or so I’ve heard. Parents, wailing their goodbyes, are allowed to give their child a pack of supplies. They are granted a final meal. When you are eating a meal for the last time, it isn’t so much the taste of the food that registers, the way its salts and fats explode on the tongue—the fact of it is enough. We ate at a local Coney Island. My plate was stacked high with gyro meat and hash browns. There were eggs. There was toast. When I finished, I ate a chili dog because no one could judge me. I asked for rice pudding. I asked for baklava. I was given both. My parents handed me a bag. It said Twelve Oaks Mall on it—they had gone all the way out to Twelve Oaks Mall for me. I smiled. A photographer came to our table and began taking pictures as I pulled out the paper. Here is what I took into the labyrinth with me:
I went into the mouth of the maze with all of this slung over my shoulder and stood resolute as they closed the door. A labyrinth is one, large, windowless room, all of it blacked out. I tried to use my cell phone. No signal. Had my parents loaded apps? They had. I set out a feast of junk food, played Candy Crush Saga, and waited to die.
In the dark, the world is one long room, bottomless. In the dark, the world is one single hallway, endless. In the dark of the maze, I waited to die. When that didn’t happen, I pressed forward. I tripped. I stumbled. I staggered. My legs were tangled in roots or snared by thorns whose origins I could not see. My clothes were torn at by time or blunder. Feeling around a corner, I put my hand into the mouth of a skull. I screamed.
The skeleton was wearing a Patagonia vest. When I put it on I checked its pockets and found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I put a cigarette to my trembling lip and lit it. The tobacco was stale, so I breathed stale fire. I coughed. I quieted myself. I cupped my ear and listened for any sign of life. The earth murmured. The air chittered. I searched the skeleton again. She had a pocket knife. I palmed it and went deeper into the maze.
I knew the maze had a heart and that the maze was like the arteries that carry things into and out of the heart and that I was a thing pumped in and pumped out. Not a cell, since I was foreign to the body in which I traveled, but plaque. Me and the skeleton and all of the other skeletons I’d yet to encounter, sticking to the walls, clinging on and hoping not to be swept to the heart’s glimmering core. And the monster, if there was a monster, was a white blood cell. There to repel us. There to seek out a weakness and destroy us with it.
We were human, those of us abandoned here. Our weakness was loneliness.
I ran out of jerky, which was to be expected. I wandered in the dark. I lived, but in the same sense that ghosts or the undead live, which is to say that I lived underground, which is to say that I lived long enough underground that most people must have forgotten me, and those who hadn’t were haunted by my memory.
The first thing that leaves you in the maze is your food. After that it’s your senses. You can count them as they leave. It is dark and you are blind. The whole world feels of dirt, tastes of dirt, smells of dirt. There is only the murmur of the earth. You lose sense of yourself as a person. You stop thinking of this as a sense of loss and instead realize that you are being whittled down to a fine point called hunger, and hunger is the only thing you can feel.
Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.
Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.
Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.
The world passes, and it is hard to know anything else. I try to think of the most basic things about my personhood, but they have been replaced by hunger. I have a pocketknife. I have clothing that hangs in scraps from my frame. I use the knife to carve some chunk of myself I don’t figure on missing. I use my clothes to tie off the wound. I chew on myself. My mouth is full of self and my body digests the self and I survive on the self. I continue. Ouroboros, the dragon itself a kind of maze.
The earth continues to murmur.
I can hear its language.
The last memory I can recall taunts me, but I sit in the dark and go through it constantly, because I can. It’s Christmas, and, as is tradition, there is an interview with a boy from another city-state who survived his local labyrinth. (Really he is a man, but legends are burnished forever in their youth.) A pretty young reporter (actually young) asks him what his experience of the labyrinth was like. He smiles (but you can see, in his eyes, that the question is a kind of trauma) and looks off into the distance beyond her and the camera. He says Well, the maze is just dark. Just darkness, all around. It’s hard to describe that, Dianne, what endless dark feels like, and I don’t think any metaphor I can come up with can explain the immense barbarity of it to you or anybody who hasn’t been there, but I’m the only one whose come out, so I’ll try. He breathes. It’s like teeth. It’s like being a piece of meat, portioned and shoved into a mouth full of teeth. Those teeth cut you. They grind you. They turn you into a paste that can be swallowed and digested. And the whole time you’re like, “okay, fine, swallow me,” but nothing comes to swallow you. You’re waiting for a thing to come and finish the job the maze started, but—and, it being Christmas, my parents turn off the viewscreen and ask to talk about something pleasant.
I can’t remember pleasantness, so I think of this moment and linger in spaces where the only noise I can hear is my own stomach, chewing me up from the inside. I think of this and wonder what he would taste like, if I could shove him into my mouth.
Before hopelessness, there’s the hope that you’ll make it. You walk past the labyrinth on the way to school. You see its edifice rise in the distance from your yard. It is familiar. It is comfortable. You are called and you laugh because you know this structure, you know it has a heart, you know you are coming back. All of your friends clap you on the back. They know, too.
But the maze has no heart. I remember playing a game once where the hero set out from home to a destination there was no map to. I remember not being very good. My hero got lost in the forest and survived. My hero got bit by a dog and survived. My hero wandered a system of caverns until her torch went out. The screen went black and the air went silent except for the occasional scuttle, the off-handed drippings of some stalagmite in the distance. My hero wandered and wandered for days and died of hunger. The game asked if I wanted to play again and I didn’t, but here I am.
Eventually, you stop playing. Eventually you become part of the game. I am a wall, cracked but otherwise immutable. I know they’ve sent others in after me but I haven’t seen them. They haven’t made it as far as I have. They’re all dead. I’m cracked and you could see right through me, see right through to the next wall. My fantasy is contact. My fantasy is for the hero to make her way to me, to find in me the beating heart of this place. I want her to lift her torch high. I want to blow her torch out. I want us to live on each other’s salt until there’s none left to lick. This makes me a monster, I know, but there’s a price for observing my monstrous body, there has to be. If my hero wants them, she may take my eyes. If the hero wants it, she may take my tongue. What she can’t have are my teeth, sharpened on innumerable suckled rocks. They’re the only thing the maze has given me.
My hero never materializes so I pray for another monster, another ex-person thrown into this maze so that she may be pulverized in the name of people who would just as soon forget her. The world is better at fashioning monsters. The world has more need of monsters than heroes, in truth, and when I sleep I dream that I am a figure that haunts children, teeth and fur conjured up by parents in the heat of a tantrum. I think of my fur and how long it’s been since I shaved. My legs, my neck, my breasts. Everything is covered.
I belong here now, this place is mine.
When the last day comes, I hear footsteps. I’ve heard them before and resolve not to be tricked, but they are loud and clattering. Boots. A piece of metal strikes the labyrinth’s wall. Buckets. A beam of light kisses the ceiling above me, then another, then another.
Barbaric. I can hear a voice saying that word. Inhumane. It takes seconds for me to process them, but I know they are speaking of the maze. I know they are speaking of my home. I try to think of how much time has passed, what it means that there are men and women in the labyrinth walking purposefully, as if they know the terrain. They have maps, I can tell. Cruel. They are taking stock of what they’ve done.
In the bag my parents gave me on the day I stopped existing, I’ve been carrying rocks sharpened against other rocks. I’ve been fastening those rocks to bones. I’ve been using those spears to hunt. Everything I kill is small and raw, but it is warm and it is bloody and I have been getting stronger. If these men and women brought a mirror, I might stand before it and find myself—
Yes. And I have grown to like the thought of myself inhabiting that word like I inhabit this maze. Out of necessity? Out of survival? Yes, but also by choice. There is a door that leads out of here and I have found it and I have chosen not to surface. There are men in here with maps and they are surveying my home, they will leave it and they will forget what they have seen. They aren’t expecting to see me.
In what little dark remains, I inventory the spears in my bag. I hear murmurs of shock and horror. I make sure my teeth are sharp. I am satisfied. I sling the bag over my shoulder and walk quietly toward their noise.
Colette Arrand is a transgender writer living in Athens, Georgia. She is the author of the chapbook To Denounce the Evils of Truth (Long Day Press, 2016), and her work has appeared in The Toast, Autostraddle, The Atlas Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @gh0stplanet.