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The Coil

Act I, Scene 4: An Excerpt from Jesi Bender’s ‘Kinderkrankenhaus’

Play by Jesi Bender

{the fire burns, grows
curtains rise
dark set
a bell rings
lights rise}

Children in their dormitory get up, with Gnome the last to roll out of bed.

Image: Sagging Meniscus. (Purchase)

Approaching a group of children, Gnome: “I’m starving. I haven’t had anything to eat in days. When are they going to feed us?”

Eros: “You will. Eat when they want . . . SOMETHING. Oh, no, mmm, it’s part. Of healing. Trying to kill the germ. Inside us. You know, mmm — starve. A cold feed. A fever.”

the Shadow: “Fever — fee-fur. Fur. Fever. Free-ver. Fur-eve-r.” [wanders off mumbling]

Gnome: “I’m starving.”

Most of the children disperse to various activities across the dormitory. Doctor Schmetterling enters and walks around, observing different children. She writes notes about the children and occasionally the audience hears her notes —

“Disruptive.”
“Repetitive.”
“Where there is no language, behavior becomes nonhuman.”

Meanwhile —

Cinders: “You’re not going to get any frühstück here.”

Word appears {Breakfast}

Gnome: “How do you know these words?”

Cinders, shrugs: “I don’t know. I just hear them and then I know them. [pause] I can teach you the words I know if you want.”

Gnome: “Okay.”

Cinders: “That’s German but I think French is prettier. I could teach you that too. REGARDEZ!”

Gnome: “Okay. Either. Both.”

Cinders: “Can’t be both either and both.”

Gnome: “Why not?”

Cinders: “It will help you to look at the parts of the word in order to understand the meaning. Like regardez — it is like any word that starts with re . . .

Prefix appears {RE- (go back)}

“as in to re-do something. And gardez is the same as our word guard.

Words appear {GUARD (watch over to protect or control)}

“So basically — it means look. REGARDEZ!”

Gnome: “Ra-gar-day.”

Cinders: “Pretty good. Now tell me what sounds prettier — ich liebe dich or j’taime.”

Words appear {ICH LIEBE DICH}
Words appear {J’TAIME}

Gnome: “I don’t know.”

Cinders: “Which one?”

Gnome: “Pretty?”

Cinders: “You have to choose!”

Gnome: “Okay, okay. The last one, I guess.”

Cinders: “Yup, French. Told you. They both mean love. Liebe in German and aime in French.”

Gnome: “Lie-be and mmm.”

Cinders: “Liebe.”

Gnome: “Lee-bah.”

Cinders: “Pretty good. This could be fun. We could speak to each other in languages no one else knows. A whole bunch of languages at once.”

Gnome: “Like our own secret code.”

Cinders: “Yeah, but it might take a while. Besides pronunciation, there’s all the weird sentence structures and things.”

Gnome: “Why weird?”

Cinders: “Well, normally . . . Subject verbs something.”

Gnome: “Subject verbs something?”

Cinders: “Yes, but en Deutsche, etwas verbietet das Thema. And en Francais, sometimes le sujet quelque chose verbes. With apostrophes.”

the Shadow: “Apostrophe! ’ Apostrophe! ’ Apostrophe! ’ [ad infinitum]”

Nix, across the room: “A one-way fire. Apostrophe. Alliteration. EllipsisssSibilance. Synecdoche. Schenectady.”

Gnome remains silent.

Cinders: “Maybe it’s better to focus on words instead of grammar. We can forget grammar.”

Gnome: “What is that?”

Cinders: “What?”

Gnome: “Grammar.”

Cinders: “It’s just rules about how you use words.”

Gnome: “I don’t need that before I learn the words?”

Cinders: “No. We’ll keep it simple — you’ll learn how to name things before you’ll learn how to use them.”

Gnome: “But that’s the problem Doctor Schmetterling thinks I have — using words before understanding the rules about how to use them.”

Cinders: “That’s what she told you yesterday?”

Gnome: “That I don’t understand the rules — yes. I’m deviant.”

Cinders, short laugh: “Yeah, I don’t think anyone does. [looks at Gnome, and becomes more serious] I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s easy to learn rules, and if not, just to stay quiet. Other people here have it worse.”

Gnome, looking at the Shadow shouting about apostrophes: “Like the Shadow?”

Cinders, turning toward the Shadow: “No, the Shadow’s fine — always there for you. I’m talking about Python.”

Gnome: “Which one is that?”

Cinders: “The smallest one — the one with the white hair.”

Gnome: “Oh. What’s wrong with Python?”

Cinders: “Knows too much. [smiles] Python is very quiet, always watching, but when Python talks — it’s in a way that Doctor Schmetterling can’t understand.”

Gnome: “Like another language.”

Cinders: “Yes. Exactly.”

Gnome: “And that’s a bad thing? To be quiet?”

Cinders: “It’s bad to not have the Doctor understand you.”

Gnome, after a pause: “What makes you think Python’s smart? Maybe the language is just make-believe.”

Cinders: “You’ll see. Everything is a code. Python knows more than you do. Or me. Anyone here. I’ve seen Python read the future we carry in our skin. Read invisible things. Like time. Come on, I’ll show you. Maybe Python can tell you how to get out of here.”

Cinders takes Gnome by the hand and they head to the small cave situated in the middle of the dormitory’s wall. Getting down on their knees, they crawl and disappear into the cave, below a solitary ∑ carved at the pinnacle of its entrance.

{all stage lights die. The fire that rims the stage even dies once inside Python’s cave, though its heat is still felt like a quickening.}

{lights rise.}

The stage is a single, windowless cave. Besides Python, the only thing inside the cave is a bowl set up on a tripod. Inside are different treasures: a frog, a dead mouse, the shed skins of different snakes, and the jeweled backs of beetle shells like diadems. Below the bowl of treasures, in the center of the tripod’s legs, is a stone. It exists in the exact center — of the tripod, of the cave, of KINDERKRANKENHAUS. Gnome and Cinders enter, the same characters but portrayed by adults. Their larger bodies occupy the small space awkwardly, they bend and stoop, above Python and the shrine. Python is small, tight-lipped, with white-blond hair and the pallor of a corpse.

Python breathes steadily, audibly, with hands held ceremoniously above the bowl and does not seem to notice Cinders or Gnome have entered the cave. Python does not make eye contact.

Finally —

Gnome, holding hand across face: “Why does it smell so bad over here?”

Cinders: “Snakes. [points to pile] Python kills the ones that crawl in from the stone wall. They’re attracted to the cool. Python hits them in the head with that rock. [points to the rock] I think it’s got an almost sweet smell.”

Gnome: “It’s meat rotting.”

Cinders: “Yes.” [turns to Python] “Python, this is Gnome.”

Python does not respond, does not move.

Cinders: “Gnome like an elf.”

The cave begins to fill with smoke from the quieted stage. Cinders and Gnome cough, but Python inhales deeply. Vapors. A distant beat begins. Python begins mumbling numbers and letters of the alphabet slowly, enunciating like a child new to language.

Between the numbers, Cinders says —

“Speak in poetry!”
“god is a Number!”
“Sleep in a special place and it will reveal special dreams.”

Through the growing smoke, Python’s growing numbers, and Cinders interjections, Gnome shouts —

“What’s happening?”

Finally, Python, loudly: “Five, four, be, two, one, zarrow.”

Gnome: “What?”

Python, eyes shut, shouting: “ZARROW! ZARROW!”

Outside the cave, Dr. Schmetterling: “Hello! What’s going on in there?”

Python, opening eyes, looking toward the entrance: “No, O, no, 0!”

Cinders: “Oh no!”

A hand, the size of a German shepherd, enters the cave, feeling around.

Dr. Schmetterling, from outside: “Hello! Who’s in there?”

Cinders: “Kinder.”

Gnome, pressed against the wall of the cave: “Do you think the Doctor’s mad?”

Cinders: “They hate nothing more than when we don’t need them. They hate not being allowed in. Your mouth is a door, Gnome. Your tongue is the key.”

Python: “Tung, tung. Zarrow!”

The hand grabs Gnome by the ankle and begins pulling toward the entrance, now an exit. Python looks at Gnome for the first time and says, just as Gnome is pulled into the outside, —

“No U Elf.”

{lights die. Curtains fall.}

Fire begins anew, with increased strength.

{curtains rise. Lights rise.}

Inside the dormitory, Dr. Schmetterling drags Cinders (now again child patient) and Gnome (again child patient) out of the cave by their ankles. They stand on either side of the ∑ carved into the wall, smoke softly billowing out between them, now gray in the light.

Dr. Schmetterling: “What were you doing in there?”

Gnome, to Cinders: “What did Python say? ‘Know’ or ‘no’?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “I’m speaking to you! What were you doing in there?”

Gnome and Cinders remain silent.

Dr. Schmetterling, exasperated: “Look at me! Use your words! I expect an answer!”

Gnome and Cinders remain silent. Doctor Schmetterling grabs them each by their ear and pulls them toward the only door.

Dr. Schmetterling: “We will get some answers out of you (two/too). Wait here and do not move.”

Dr. Schmetterling exits.

Gnome and Cinders wait, standing by the door.

Eventually, quietly, Gnome: “I don’t understand how you think Python is so free when we’re all stuck together inside KINDERKRANKENHAUS.”

Cinders: “No, no. Python is free — inside a mind without end. Haven’t you felt the limits of your own mind? Its walls? Python’s mind is as open as the nighttime sky. A place so deep no shadow can be cast. It can read everything. Even what we can’t see.”

Gnome remains silent.

Cinders, continuing: “It takes a special heart to read a space between; only one that is broken — free — can recognize itself inside the gap . . . the chasm.”

Gnome: “Kazz-m?”

Cinders: “Chasm, chasm — open, an open, opening. Open my chest. [a finger like a buzzsaw] Brrrr.”

{pause.}

Gnome, bitterly: “Night is all shadow.”

Cinders: “No, a shadow can’t cast a shadow. Like a snake, it has no belly button. No center, no place it was attached to. Always there. Just out of reach.”

{pause.}

Gnome: “I don’t know what fortune Python said to me.”

Cinders: “Put the puzzle together.”

Gnome: “What do you mean? Python’s not saying anything. Nothing is there. No or Know and You and Elf because Python thinks I’m a gnome. And a bunch of zeros.”

Cinders: “Creatio ex nihilo.”

Gnome: “What?”

Cinders: “What Nix said, my friend. What are all of the things that could possibly mean?”

Gnome, angrily: “What? What do you mean? This makes no sense!”

Cinders: “Move beyond the actual words, Gnome. [pause] Possibility, Gnomon. Cast no shadow. Silence, all possibility!”

Doctor Schmetterling reenters the dormitory with a nurse. The nurse takes Cinders by the arm and exits the room. Doctor Schmetterling leads Gnome to an empty corner of the room and kneels down to be face-to-face.

Dr. Schmetterling: “Gnome. Do you think that this has been a good transition to the KINDERKRANKENHAUS?”

Gnome: “Transition?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “You realize you are here to get better, no?”

Gnome: “No! Yes! I do.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “You must try to get better. You realize that, no? If not, there will consequences.”

Gnome: “Yes, yes!”

Dr. Schmetterling: “Do you know what consequences are?”

Gnome, after a moment: “Not getting better?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “To say the least. Not getting better means you become diagnosed as something far worse than what you are now. We call it Lebensunwertes leben.”

Words appear {LEBENSUNWERTES LEBEN (. . .)}

Gnome: “Is that something about love something love?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “What?”

Gnome: “Love?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “No, you’re confused.”

Gnome: “So, if I don’t get better, then I get worse?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “Staying exactly the same is worse than getting worse. Not trying to get better, to get along with me and the others, is when you get worse. And you will have to work harder. We know because of who you are, you will lack empathy. You will have difficulty forming normal relationships. But you have to try.”

Gnome: “Like friends? I am! Cinders and me are friends.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “You shouldn’t be worried about friends. You should be worried about yourself and getting better. Friends like Cinders will only get you in trouble. Cinders is our oldest patient. And you don’t get old at the KINDERKRANKENHAUS.”

Word flashes.

Gnome: “Why not?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “We can’t keep patients here forever, if they’re not going to try and get better.”

Gnome: “Where do they go? If they’re still sick?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “You can’t go anywhere besides here to get better. This is your one shot, Gnome. One shot to get better, to become a functioning member of society. And if you can’t, then we can’t just release you, out into the world, society, if you are socially inadequate. That doesn’t make sense, does it?

Gnome: “I don’t know. I’m not sure where people go if they’re sick besides the hospital.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “Well, there is one other place. It is deep and it is dark and it is an absence forever. You don’t want to go there. I don’t want to send you there. But if you misbehave, if you don’t try to get better, then I will have no choice.”

Gnome remains silent. Doctor Schmetterling looks at him for a second.

Dr. Schmetterling: “Be good, Gnome. Because of the severity of your case, you don’t have many more opportunities to show me some improvement.”

Gnome, near tears: “I will. I will try. I just don’t know how to . . .”

Dr. Schmetterling: “You need to listen to what is being told to you. Or you will be locked inside yourself forever.”

Doctor Schmetterling exits. When she’s gone, Gnome whispers, terrified —

“The Lock. It’s real.”

JESI BENDER is the author of ‘Kinderkrankenhaus’ (Sagging Meniscus, 2021) and ‘The Book of the Last Word’ (Whisk[e]y Tit, 2019). Her shorter work has been nominated for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions, and can be seen in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, ellipsis, and Split Lip. Find her at her website.

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