THIS SMALL WORLD
JESSICA JUNE ROWE
Anca lived her life in a box. It wasn’t a very big box, no more than two feet on each side. But it was made of glass that was pretty and clear, so as she twisted herself inside it, burrowing into the tangle of her own limbs, she could tilt her head just so and see the swatch of grey-blue sky above.
When she was hit with a rare ray of sunshine, Anca would savor the warmth; the way sweat trickled down the back of her neck and gathered in her joints. When it stormed, static in the outside air made her little hairs strain for the glass and rainwater would distorted her view, but Anca would just curl a little tighter and imagine the drumming rain was music made just for her.
No matter the weather, though, there were always people to watch her. During the day, whenever Anca was awake, these towering figures hovered and bent and tip-toed forward to get a good look—to play money in the little hat, maybe even take a picture with her. They rarely stayed long. But there were always more watching-people to replace them, coming and going and tip-toeing around her.
Sometimes Anca wondered what it would be like to get up and walk away, too. The watching-people did it so easily. But for Anca, who had been in her box so long—she’d forgotten what it was like to move more than a centimeter this way or that.
If someone ever came to break the padlock that rested on top of her, a fat grey tumor growing out of her smoothness, she might not know how to unfold herself. She would have to be lifted out, and even then she’d stay box-shaped. Bereft of the comforting pressure of her container, she would struggle but never come untied, and all that air would make her feel weightless and empty.
When Anca thought of it like that, she was glad she lived inside glass walls.
That wasn’t to say Anca didn’t like a little human contact. The watching-people talked to her, sometimes, though she couldn’t talk back. Her English wasn’t very good, and there was never enough room to draw a full breath, let alone force air through her windpipe and make sounds like words.
Instead what Anca got was her handler, who came at sunrise to put the little hat down, and at sunset to take the hat and the money inside away. When he came, he’d always pat the glass, or run his fingers along the edges to test it for cracks—not that Anca would ever, ever let it break. Under his touch, Anca couldn’t help but shake, a splinter of happiness digging in and making her stagnant bones twitch and tremble, just a bit.
Anca was six when her Papa decided to move them to London. Mama was dead and so was the baby brother Anca never got to see, and every face she had ever found familiar came to the funeral. Her living room became a forest of burnt-out trees and it scared her; so many people, all sad, all in black. She spent most of the wake hiding behind the couch, carving yellow foam from a hole in the back. She was making a hiding place for the ragdoll her also-dead Grandmama made for her when she was a baby.
When the wake was over and most everyone had left, one of her aunties found her and knelt beside her, putting her bony hands on Anca’s shoulders. You’re being very good, Anca, suflețel. Are you okay? Are you excited to go to London?
That was the first Anca had ever heard of the place called London. Two weeks later, the couch with her ragdoll hidden inside was on the street in front of her home, and Anca and her Papa were on a train and then a plane, going far away. It was raining when they left and raining when they arrived, and it took a long time for her Papa to figure out how to buy tickets for the new train. Her Papa said they would need to learn English soon.
Anca went to school at her church to learn English, and other things, but she was never any good. She liked playing by herself instead, bending and folding around the climbing frames. She was very good at that. The church-teachers scolded her but her Papa was either working or asleep, no time for church or school or Anca, so he never told her to do anything about it.
Eventually she stopped going to the church-school, around the time her body started growing, changing in ways she didn’t like so much. She took the train by herself and wandered around the city. One day she ended up in Covent Garden, where she saw a man who would twist his body in a knot and fold down into a trunk, all while people watched and cheered.
Anca knew right away she wanted to the do the same.
She could stay in the box forever, she thought, and keep herself from growing. She could even make money, which her Papa said was so important. It was perfect. So she talked to the trunk-man and he introduced her to another man, a handler-man, and he’d set her up, he said. He’d put her in a box, and for a small fee he’d keep her there. He’d even deliver the rest of the money to her Papa, he said. Her handler was a good man.
It had been a long time since Anca had stepped into this small world; since she’d been locked in and carried to her spot on the South Bank. It had been so long she didn’t really think of her Papa much anymore—but he’d never come to be one of her watching-people, either, so why should she think of him? She hadn’t fit in London or in her long-ago home with its sad couch-filled streets, but she fit in her box just fine, and here she would stay. All she wanted was what she had: her box and her watching-people and the sky.
Anca would live her entire life in this box, an ankle at her ear, an elbow round her neck, a bit of breathing space in the contracted hollow of her stomach. At night, the watching-people left and the sunset made her shadow stretch and stretch.