The Place of Quarantine

First Chapter


First, a sound is born – as if a copper string is trembling nearby. A tender echo responds at the farthest point of my consciousness, near its borderline. Then comes the notion that out there, beyond this border, is where my cradle once stood. Someone has willed me to abandon it; there is no return.

The sound becomes louder, more distinct, sharper. It contains a myriad of harmonics, each living its own life. Their chorus is unbearable; it grows, it drives me crazy – and suddenly breaks off at full crescendo. Silence reigns, and held within it a memory of the cradle, its final, barely perceptible trace. Its elusive image, the shadow of a strange, very alien yearning. As if someone has exclaimed, “What a pity!” – and then it’s gone, the trace lost amid a multitude of others. The sound of the copper string returns but now it is not so loud and is quite bearable. Contours and lines emerge out of the gray haze like an image on photographic paper. Little by little, they meld into a single whole to form a meaningful picture.

I see my hands resting on my knees, a flight of stairs, a handrail and walls. Beneath me there are more steps; I sit, hunched over, staring at the floor. My mind is empty; all I know is that this is the first time I have been here – on these steps, on this staircase. I sense that I am capable of remembering who I am, but I don’t have the strength. I am happy just sitting like this, doing nothing, not even changing my position. Staring at the concrete stairs and not thinking about anything.

Time passes and suddenly I am aware that I have been idle for too long. Something is urging me from within; “Theo,” I murmur out loud, and I know: this is my name. The sound remains; in search of its source, I look around me. Then I glance up and it becomes clear – there is no taut copper string. It’s all much more trivial: a dingy fluorescent tube hums and crackles over my head. It’ll burn out soon, I note mechanically, and I shudder – somewhere below a door slams.

Immediately, I start to feel extraneous sounds pressing in from all sides. It seems I can hear footsteps, laughter, irritated voices, a child’s wailing. I can hear car horns, screaming sirens, the noises of the city. Roaring waves and howling whirlwinds, the rustle of grass, leaves, paper…

I am anxious; my recent serenity evaporates. The door slams over and over again; I get up and lean over the bannister. There is nothing to see – down below there is only darkness and a flight of stairs disappearing into nowhere. “Mierda,” I whisper, starting back; my head is beginning to spin. It’s already clear I can’t stay here – and cannot afford to lose any more time. I give myself the once-over and see a gray coat, brown pants and a pair of blunt-toed boots. My outfit doesn’t impress me, but I have no choice in the matter. I raise my collar, zip my coat right up to my chin and take a step up the staircase.

Everything goes quiet again, as if on command; all that can be heard is the squeak of the soles of my boots. I climb several floors, each indistinguishable from the last. Every landing has a single bare door with no number or nameplate; there isn’t the slightest murmur coming from behind any of them, only deathly silence. I don’t dare knock, and, moreover, I have no desire to see anyone. I am devoid of any desires whatsoever, but I do have a purpose, although for now it’s unclear even to myself. Landing after landing, I keep climbing. There is a musty smell in the air; the light-gray walls are smooth, with no cracks or graffiti. “There is no life in this building,” I whisper to myself – and then, suddenly, I see the door on the next floor slightly ajar.

At the door stands a woman of about thirty in a blue cotton dress and summer shoes. She has lovely legs and an open, welcoming smile. I freeze in a daze: her presence is unexpected, hardly possible. I have almost become convinced that I’m all alone in this house and in this whole strange world. The woman is entirely real, however. “Welcome,” she says, opening the door a bit wider. Then she introduces herself, “I’m Elsa.” I just look at her, bewildered. Her voice echoes in the emptiness of the stairwell and seems to resonate within me, like the buzzing fluorescent light down below.

Then I realize it’s foolish to just stand there and enter in through the door, squeezing past Elsa on my way. She exudes warmth and a fresh fragrance, resonant of juniper and vanilla. For a brief second, it occurs to me the scent of her sex is probably as sweet as an exotic fruit – and I pass through into the living room and look around. Elsa closes the door, throws the chain and follows behind me.

“This is the living room,” she says. “There’s not much furniture but we don’t need any more – at least to my taste.”

Indeed, there is only a table, some chairs and a large sofa, which looks uncomfortable. There isn’t a single lamp, but soft neutral light streams in from the walls and ceiling. In the far corner is a kitchen with a chrome sink and an electric stove. To the right – a window; I go up to it and look outside. There is a mountainous landscape with pine trees and snow. Something vaguely familiar that pricks my memory.

“Don’t believe what you see,” Elsa says with a snicker. “It’s only an image; there are a lot of different ones. And please, do introduce yourself!”

I turn around – she is standing there with the same welcoming smile. “Sometimes they call me Theo,” I murmur cautiously, intrigued by the sound of my own voice. It sounds familiar; “Yes, Theo,” I repeat and try to grin in reply.

“I’m very pleased!” says Elsa, moving closer. “I’ve been so lonely on my own…”

I notice that when she speaks, her lips morph into an indistinct, blurry O. For some reason this doesn’t surprise me.

“I’ve already been here three days without a roommate,” she adds. “It’s a bit long, don’t you think?”

I simply shrug and look out the window again. A squirrel jumps in the branches of the nearest pine tree, soft snow sparkling in the sun. I don’t think I could imagine anything more real.

“Elsa,” I ask, glancing at the squirrel, “please, explain to me what’s happening. Where am I, what am I and who are you? I can’t remember a thing – was I ill? Have we been abducted and taken prisoner?”

Elsa stands next to me, running her finger along the windowpane. I note that she has finely manicured hands.

“You’re not going to like my answer,” she says, pausing slightly. “And it’s not likely to help – but I frankly don’t know how to say all this. I myself thought they were making fun of me…”

She falls silent, then turns toward me, “Well, for example… Now your head is empty, but perhaps you remember what a guest house is?”

“A house for guests. A house… We are guests…” I repeat after her. “And so what?”

Elsa frowns. “Or, maybe, you remember what a hospital or sanatorium is? Or, perhaps, a colony for plague victims, quarantine…”

As she says all this, she stretches her fingers – first on one hand and then the other.

“Hospital… So that means it’s an illness, right?” I try to look into her eyes. “Or some sort of accident?” Then a shudder runs right through me. “A colony… What is this? An epidemic? Some sort of terrible virus?”

“Oh, fuck…” Elsa says and looks me in the face. Then she throws up her hands, “No, you’d better look at this!” She goes to the kitchen cupboard, opens the door and holds out a laminated printout.

“This was lying on the table when I arrived here three days ago,” she says angrily. “Can you imagine what it was like for me? You remember what the word ‘death’ means, don’t you?”

Yes, for some reason I do remember this word. It evokes a sense of choking, the clang of iron, bad blood. Something that erases all meaning, like a damp sponge on a blackboard. A place where the sound of the copper string is lost and fades.

“The farthest point” rushes into my mind. “A cradle beyond the border…”

“Tantibus, the eternal nightmare,” I mutter, but Elsa shakes her head.

The sign is spelled out in capital letters and no punctuation:



“Nonsense!” I think to myself irritably and read the next lines out loud.



And then:



“There is nothing to fear,” Elsa repeats with a nervous laugh. “Over the last three days I’ve gotten used to the idea. Admittedly, I wasn’t that afraid in my old life either.”

We fall silent for a minute and look at each other. Then Elsa takes a step forward and stands next to me. I can sense her breathing, her warmth.

“You died back there,” she says quietly. “It is better to accept it; there’s no hidden agenda. I know this all sounds crazy but…”

To me, it doesn’t sound like anything. A complete absurdity, the dissonance of harmonics in the unbearably sharp copper sound. And – a premonition waiting nearby.

“In quarantine…” I murmur and move away from the window and Elsa. I sit down on the sofa and rub my temple with the palm of my hand while trying in vain to understand the meaning of the words. Then I say, “Nice joke,” and attempt to crack a smile. But the smile won’t form; my jaw is clamped tight.

Elsa waves her hand in annoyance. “I knew it! I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain it to you. This is no joke – out there you no longer exist. It’s all over – finita, forever, amen. You’ll remember soon enough, trust me. And then all your doubts will vanish away.”

I can feel myself getting cold; I’m shivering. Thousands of thoughts swarm in my head but my memory is empty. No, it’s not quite empty, not quite. Something is stirring within it, some small fragment, a trifle. Something is creeping up on me – gradually, slowly. And suddenly it rolls over me – a nightmare of premonition, an inescapable horror. Choking and chilling me like a huge wave…

I squeeze my eyes shut, maybe I even scream, drowning in an ocean of fear. An image flares up behind my retinas like a magnesium flash: a man on a motorbike in a black jacket with a rider sitting behind him, his face concealed by his helmet. And the dull sheen of steel – a pistol in an outstretched hand… I remember: next there will be a gunshot and instant, terrifying pain. I can sense with every nerve that this really did happen to me. Then something else emerges – a house in an olive grove and a woman in tears; with her is a balding man with a twisted mouth. A wild jungle and a large river. The streets of an old city that I somehow know to be Bern. And then everything fades; not even a hint remains. I am sitting on the couch, my face clasped in my hands, in a strange world that no one can imagine.

Then, little by little, my overwrought mind calms down. Somehow gathering the courage, I pry my eyelids apart. Elsa is standing next to me, looking at me considerately and shaking her head.

“I was exactly the same,” she says. “Also here in the living room, but sitting at the table, not on the couch. My first memory was of a helicopter flying over the sea, and a sudden explosion. Or rather, just the beginning of the explosion, a ball of flame, engulfing me from the right… Yes, it’s not easy to get used to at first. But now do you see that all this – the quarantine – is true?”

“Almost,” I answer curtly. The thought flashes into my head: I should probably do something. Maybe I should jump up, make a break for it, down the stairs and out onto the street? To disprove and expose this deception, if it exists, to simply check it out for myself, without Elsa. Without any laminated printouts or fake landscapes… But no, I don’t have the strength to act or even to contemplate doing so.

Elsa sits next to me, stroking my hand. I can barely feel her touch, but something passes between us all the same, a certain hint of intimacy. For a quarter of an hour we stare at the wall opposite us. Then she says, “Okay. I think you’ll soon get used to it, like I did. You are a man after all; it feels foolish to feel sorry for you. And now…”

Fixing her hair, she gets up and with a gesture invites me to follow her, “Let’s go!”

Obediently, I get up, and we go toward one of the two closed doors. “Here,” says Elsa, “this is your bedroom. I don’t want to leave you, but they warned me to avoid lengthy contact on the first day. So, off you go, stranger… who goes by the name of Theo. Get your head together and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

My head is spinning; flecks of light dance before my eyes. I really want to be left on my own. I nod, open the door and close it firmly behind me.

The bedroom has the same neutral light emanating from the walls and ceiling. To my surprise, it has no bed – only a soft armchair with a coffee table standing in front of it. On the opposite wall is a large screen. My room is more like a small cinema for private viewings than a bedroom.

I go up to the window; it looks out onto a small glade in the middle of a forest. A deer stands next to the trees, sniffing the air keenly. It doesn’t interest me – I recall that it’s only an image. A deceptive image – how many more like it are there?

“How many…” I mutter and suddenly feel an acute yearning for Elsa, from whom I have only been parted for a minute. My loneliness is as immeasurable and overwhelming as my recent fear. As if I’ve been left all alone, face to face with the boundless cosmos, the scale of which cannot be encompassed by human thought. I don’t want to remember, and thinking frightens me; my only wish is to have someone’s presence near – and I am barely able to suppress the urge to return to the living room or maybe even knock on my roommate’s door.

Something prompts me not to do this. Having taken a turn around the room, I sit down in the armchair and am just about to close my eyes when the screen flickers to life; a human face appears on it.

I see a high forehead with a small depression in the middle, sharp cheekbones, a tapering chin and sunken, sphinxlike eyes, slightly elevated at the corners. His lips are compressed into a thin line, and his unblinking gaze is directed straight at me. I am certain I have never known this person – no matter how hopeless my memory is.

“I am your friend,” he says crisply and clearly. “Your helper. Or perhaps your mentor or your counselor, your therapist. My title is not important; just take it as read that I am your Nestor.”

He is straitlaced and markedly formal. His lips do not move in sync with his words, but this doesn’t bother me much. Anyway, it’s better than just an indistinct O-shaped mouth.

“You are not obliged to reciprocate my efforts or even my friendship,” he continues, “but you need to know you don’t have many allies – in fact, not more than two. Every quarantiner has his or her own Nestor – and, of course, a roommate in the apartment. The others are unlikely to be inclined to socialize with you.”

“Theo, my name is Theo,” I say, leaning forward. “I’m happy to meet you – and I have lots and lots of questions!”

Somehow, it almost becomes clear: all this, the entire situation, is anything but a prank. Neither a pointless trick nor a joke that has yet to be explained to me. My yearning and loneliness recede; I feel a surge of energy and a feverish desire to get to the bottom of everything at once.

The man on the screen shakes his head. Nevertheless, I continue, “Tell me, is this really death? Because I remember being shot… But what about after death – what is this place? And the main thing: How did I get here?”

Nestor wrinkles his mouth and raises his palm. “No, no, wait,” I say, not wanting to stop. “Can you tell me if anything is real here? Is there at least something tangible, solid and anchored, or is all this just an illusion, worse than a dream? Elsa smells of juniper, but I can’t feel the touch of her hands. The window has an image projected onto it, but what is beyond the window?”

“Here we go again!” Nestor chuckles. “At first, everyone is concerned with the same things – looking out the window or hugging their roommate… The words differ, of course, but the thrust of the questions don’t.”

He glances down for a second – perhaps to look through his papers – and then adds, “Tomorrow you will read our Brochure for new arrivals – as a first step, so to speak. It’s interesting you mentioned your dreams right away; they have a big role to play here. You will soon come to understand: each dream is like a swim in the open sea far from dry land. A journey – through fragments of memories, semibroken pathways and connections.”

“Soon…” I repeat after him and fall silent. The questions that have been bursting to come out suddenly seem superfluous, pointless. A new thought pierces me like the point of a blade.

“Tell me, Nestor…” I begin, then clear my throat and ask cautiously, “Tell me, Nestor, am I immortal?” My voice lets me down; the last word comes out as falsetto.

Nestor raises his eyes toward me. “Are you afraid of immortality?” he enquires curiously. “Or are you already afraid of death again – having barely succeeded in living through it, if you’ll forgive the paradox?”

“But who…” I begin again and fall silent, not knowing how to carry on. My eyes become heavy, my ears start to ring – a long, drawn-out note like the thrum of a copper string.

“In fact,” Nestor says suddenly, “it seems thoroughly unfair to me that you are so lost and confused – although, to be honest, who can one blame for injustice. But we do know that the notion of rebirth with one’s memory and ‘sense of self’ remaining intact should not be an alien concept to you, Theo. You are not a typical case – no ordinary ‘newcomer’ with a file just one page long.”

He looks down at his papers again, then raises his eyes and exclaims, “Just take the quantum field that you predicted! Or the new type of quasiparticle. Or, say, metaspace, which tells us more about you than the entire contents of your file!”

“I can hardly remember a thing,” I murmur as if trying to justify myself. Suddenly and swiftly, I am again completely drained of strength. My thoughts become confused; I feel overwhelmed by drowsiness. With each passing second, it sucks me down deeper and deeper, like a thick, sticky whirlpool.

Nestor waves his hand, “Yes, yes. Your memory will return – that’s what you have been put here for, just like everyone else. This is not a problem; you have no problems at all now. They have been left in the past – but you will have to remember how they started, what caused them and what they became afterward. You will have to recall the sheets of paper covered with symbols, your equations and your theories, and the dance of the conscions… It will all come back to you – but later; that’s enough for today. You have completely exhausted yourself. You need to sleep – for now, without any dreams or visions!”

And with that, the screen switches off and the back of the armchair reclines backward. My eyelids close of their own accord, flashes of color dance in the darkness and words spin in my head whose meaning is not clear to me: “firecrackers, gunpowder, pirates…” Suddenly, symbols flash before my eyes – a fragment of a formula chalked on a blackboard, an integral sign, the Greek letters pi and theta. They are important; they cannot be wiped out easily – neither with a damp sponge nor by any thought of one’s own demise.

There is one other thing that I need to know right away. “Listen, Nestor…” I say with the last of my strength, without opening my eyes. And immediately fall into a deep sleep.