Stretching out in front of me were seemingly endless rows of wooden fences and walls of stone, brick, and cinder block. I guessed that they were sample sections, each one perhaps ten feet long, so densely packed together that from where I was, I couldn’t see any spaces between them. In addition to the great range of materials on display, there were many styles: simple and ornate, high and low, see-through and solid.
I didn’t spot any indication that they were either for sale or awaiting demolition. There were no construction vehicles or mobile offices, no barricades identifying the area as private or unsafe, and there was no one hovering nearby to offer information – or to chase me away.
As far as I know, house owners who have decided that they’ve got to have fences have three options: 1) build their own, 2) hire a handyman, or 3) explore hardware and home improvement stores (online and out in the “real” world), where they can choose from a few models. I’ve never heard of anything like this vast tract, with its myriad barriers occupying all the available space. I felt dizzy and had trouble breathing – as though the structures were closing in on me.
Resisting my fear, I moved closer and saw that the dividers did have tags with letters and numbers. Perhaps these were codes for price and availability, as well as memos about future destruction, but they couldn’t be interpreted by the casual passerby.
If I had designed the place, I would have attached a readable label about where each fence and wall could be used most efficiently – on a farm, suburban development, mountain road (near the crest or on the way up, along a sheer drop, with or without hairpin curves), city block, or at the outskirts of a forest (undeveloped or in the process of being stripped), just to cite some of the possibilities. I would also have included notes about the durability of different materials in different climates and about the fences’ suitability for:
protection from burglars and other uninvited company
decoration for those looking out / those looking in
guidance (if ordered with deluxe reflective paint) on a low-visibility road
containment of livestock
etc. (to cover purposes that I, as a fence-phobic person, can’t imagine)
But I myself neither owned nor wanted a place that would require any of the dividers displayed here.
After walking for the equivalent of several city blocks, I got beyond the area where the fences were packed together in dense rows. Now they were set up like model rooms in a department store, presumably to demonstrate various settings – front and back garden plots, houses separated by different amounts of land, rows of attached townhouses, farmhouses with horse runs and cow pastures.
The demonstration fences were surrounded by vegetation of the sort that I’ve seen at the curbs of ordinary streets, except that the plants here were disconcertingly uniform and orderly, staying perfectly within their borders. It all looked so artificial that when I reached down to touch some of the leaves, I was surprised to discover they were alive.
The fences themselves looked like toys to me – or trick images somehow projected onto the land. Even their splinters and dents were perfectly spaced and calibrated, as if to suggest (to nostalgia lovers) the length of time these structures had survived. Again I reached out to touch, and once again my fingers encountered what I had to accept as reality: solid pieces of wood, stone, and metal (jagged edges in all these materials), as well as some hollow posts, which emitted harmonious tones in response to my knocks.
I still saw no one.
There were acres of crops beyond the more densely settled areas, and farther away there were buffalo and llamas grazing on grasslands that stretched out of sight to the horizon. The landscape was unlike anything I had ever passed or read about in this part of the country. (I was assuming, as I always do on my path walks, that I was still somewhere in the vicinity of home.)
One high cast-iron fence was decorated with sculpted flowers and vines (also cast-iron) that projected out at least two inches from the main structure and snaked along its length and height. Now chipped and rusted, the fence had obviously been painted a shiny black in the past, and although most of the paint had also flaked off the vegetation, there were still enough traces left – small patches of intense sunflower yellow, firehouse red, emerald green, and royal blue – to evoke the pulsing riot of color that must originally have been here. Beyond the rails and posts was an extensive garden that had probably been wild in a picturesque way but by now simply looked pathetically forgotten.
I was enjoying the neglect – it conjured up magical gardens from my childhood reading and fantasies – until more of the paint flaked right off the fence and managed to spatter me like mud bouncing off car or bicycle wheels. I stepped back to shake it off my clothes and out of my hair, and by the time I looked up, both garden and fence had taken on a dark dull look, without any indication that they had just been displaying splashes of color.
The vertical wooden slats of the next fence, which had stars and planets carved into them, were so close together that only thin streams of light managed to pass between them. But when I put my face right up against them, I managed to make out a house through the openings. I also saw vines that had sprung up from the ground just beyond the fence. They had taken off across the lawn, wrapping themselves around every tree or bush in their path, climbing the side of the house, taking over the window frames, and engulfing the flower boxes on the sills. I only knew that these existed because of various flowers poking out through the vines right where the bottoms of the windows must be.
Given the conditions outside the place, it was hard to imagine anyone living inside it. At the very least, its occupants would have a hard time looking out the windows.
While I gaped, the fence sections spread apart and I felt odd wind currents drawing me into the garden: I was now standing in the middle of an overgrown flower bed.
The lush vegetation, the bright colors of the house (yellow, purple, and red) where the walls weren’t covered by the vines, the five fountains (water gurgling in them) presided over by giant statues of gods, goddesses and sleek beasts (missing enough arms, legs, and heads to qualify for a museum’s ancient sculpture hall), and a menagerie currently invisible yet unmistakably present, since I could hear much purring and chirping nearby, on the ground and overhead: it could all have been mistaken for the stage set of a feverish musical.
Aware that I was trespassing – no matter how involuntarily – and might also be trampling precious plants hidden by the wild vines, I stepped out of the flower bed and onto a dirt path just barely visible under an accumulation of dried leaves. My weight caused a loud crackling sound and released a sweet aroma from the unweeded mixture of ground cover (some mint, I think, and perhaps some anise and creeping thyme), and I was afraid that I’d be seized at any moment by an angry gardener or security guard. And why would anyone believe that I hadn’t meant to invade? Would I get a chance to apologize and assert my innocence? People have been shot for knocking on a stranger’s door merely to ask for directions or Halloween candy.
But nothing happened. Nothing external anyway. I did wonder later if the aroma I inhaled might have had a soporific or hallucinatory effect on me.
Hoping to find an exit before I was arrested and perhaps jailed, I tried to move along in a line parallel to the fence, which I assumed must arrive sooner or later at a gate. I was so focused on the ground, to avoid tripping or crushing any rare plants, that I almost crashed into another fence actually inside the garden. This one, made of wide-meshed chicken wire, encircled a small grove of thorny bushes that in turn seemed to be enclosing an area in which a woman was apparently attached to several vertical and horizontal beams that looked like a section of yet another fence.
When I say she was attached, I don’t mean that nails had been driven through any part of her. At least I saw no signs of such violence. She was obviously alive, and there was no blood dripping out of her. Nor did I see any dried blood on her hands or her clothes. But she was quite definitely fixed in place – propped up rather like a scarecrow, with her arms stretched out and draped over a cross beam that was at the height of her shoulders. Her feet were resting on a lower cross beam just inches above the ground. When I shifted my position, I could see that other beams behind her formed a small triangle, presumably to provide a stable base for her. Looking more carefully, I now spotted the tacks going through her shirt and jeans, fixing her to the various beams. It seemed to me that with one slight tug, she could have broken loose – if she didn’t mind some torn fabric.
The woman wasn’t moaning or scowling. In fact she looked as relaxed as if this just happened to be the spot where she regularly came out for a bit of air. And as far as I could tell she wasn’t trying to get away, though it’s possible that she was making tiny motions – undetectable to me or anyone appointed to watch her – to release herself.
Although I had begun to feel more favorably disposed towards fences (certainly intrigued) after seeing so many beautiful ones along the way, the beam woman put an end to that. Wasn’t she the pure embodiment of what was wrong with fences: the epitome of closing oneself in and shutting everyone else out?
And yet there she was, looking perfectly calm. Of course it’s possible that she had only adopted this expression when she became aware of my approach. She might be too proud to let a stranger see her in distress. On the other hand, total hopelessness might also account for a blankness that was only masquerading as serenity. And perhaps she knew that I myself would be trapped here with her soon enough and that there was no point in warning me, because there was nothing either of us could do about it, other than commiserate with each other.
It’s also possible that I had been too quick with my assumptions. The woman might be out here conducting research, watching to see how passersby reacted. Would they notice her at all, for instance? And if they did, would they stop to talk to her? Express sympathy? Offer to help her? Gathering data for such a study would be difficult, considering how few people were likely to come through here, but at least with her observatory right here in her own yard she didn’t have to waste time or effort on travel.
It seemed likelier that if such a project was in fact underway, it was simply (if brilliantly) calculated to distract her from the reality of her inescapable condition. It wasn’t as though she had anything like Odysseus’ motivation when he ordered his men to tie him to the mast before sailing past the Sirens – there was no beautiful singing here to lure her to her death – but she might be preventing herself from roaming away from the task at hand because it was so boring.
And anyway, her preference might have had nothing to do with it. She had perhaps been required (I don’t know by whom) to take the place of someone else who in turn had replaced a previous victim – enacting one of those primitive rituals studied by anthropologists, sociologists, and archaeologists. In which case she might consider her role an honor and wouldn’t pity me if it turned out that I was next in line.
But what if I freed her and escaped with her to the other side of the fences? Except that I didn’t see how I could get past the sharp wire to help her get down without both of us getting mauled. And we would probably be attacked by guard dogs lurking nearby. Even if she knew how to defuse alarms planted around her, I didn’t see where she could have tucked treats away to offer attack animals, and I doubted that medical rescuers could show up and reach us fast enough to be of any use.
Why hadn’t I immediately struggled to get back to the other side of her fence?
“Why are you staring like that?”
Stepping back, I tripped over a tree root. I hadn’t expected her to be capable of speech.
“What’s the matter? The crows don’t pay nearly as much attention,” she said. “Not that I mind them. They’re company when no one else is around. They’re quite willing to hang around and be friendly, since I don’t bother them.”
“You seem awfully cheerful,” I said.
“Why not? Why should I be gloomy?”
“It might motivate you to work yourself free. Or shout for help.”
She snorted. “And if I did want help, who do you think would hear me call out for it?”
“Well, at the moment I’m here. Maybe you can somehow make use of me.”
“I suppose that’s why you came?” She laughed at her own statement, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of it.
“I don’t know why I came, except to satisfy my curiosity. Not that I had any idea where it would take me.”
“What would the point be if you knew where you were going to wind up?” she said.
“I can’t believe that we’re standing here talking as though this is the most ordinary situation in the world.”
“But that’s just what we’re doing, whether you believe it or not.”
“What I want to know is, are you perfectly happy up there?”
“Perfectly happy?” She laughed so heartily that I heard some of her clothing rip. “Do you know anyone who’s perfectly happy?”
“Okay, I retract that question. How can you bear it is what I really want to know.”
“It’s actually quite comfortable once you get used to it. You can get used to just about anything, you know.”
“And you think that’s good?”
She smiled. “Well, everything’s relative, you know. I’d rather be out here than in the house, where there isn’t as much to see and the air gets stale.”
“But why can’t you do something about it – inside and out? Starting with freeing yourself?”
“My dear friend, you’re jumping to conclusions about what’s comfortable and what’s not. You should try for yourself before you act so sure about what’s obvious.”
“That sounds suspiciously like the way Atlas tricked Hercules into holding up the sky, and then got tricked into taking it back.”
“Not at all. I have no interest in palming my situation off on you.”
“You really don’t mind being there? Or is it just that you’d still be trapped by all the other fences even if you got down?”
“Unlike your own situation? Look at all those apartment buildings of yours that have locked doors. And staircases that you can use to leave the building but not to enter it? And what about all those signs saying that only residents and their visitors are allowed? When’s the last time you heard of an apartment building opening its lobby to the local homeless people?”
“Okay, never mind the fence issue,” I said. “What about your being attached to those beams?”
“Do you object to ballet dancers’ unnatural positions? Do you think violinists are crazy for spending so many hours of the day twisting their left arms in weird ways to hold up their instruments?”
“I do worry about people adjusting to unnatural situations without questioning the necessity or even realizing they’re adapting.”
“Okay, you’ve named your worry,” she said. “Please note that it predates our meeting.”
“So what? That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.”
“Ah! Irrelevant. Is anything ever totally irrelevant? Here’s something relevant. Are you any freer than I am? Do you ever test yourself – ever find out what you can endure, how much patience you have, how good you are at sitting still and whiling away the hours, how far you can go outside the walls? You come breezing in here – ”
“I didn’t exactly come breezing in,” I said. “I was sort of seized, though I admit it didn’t hurt.”
“That sounds like the kind of line you’d object to if I used it.” And then she said, using a higher pitch to suggest that she was quoting someone else’s words, “‘Somehow it just happened. It wasn’t my fault.’”
“I’m sorry if I sounded that way,” I said. “I don’t think it was my fault, but I also doubt that it’s your fault that you’re where you are.”
“But what if it is my fault, because I did something to make it happen or I’ve failed to undo something?”
“I’m not comfortable putting things in terms of blame or guilt.”
“And I have trouble believing that the universe, or nature, or whatever, gives a damn about our comfort, guilt, or any other preferences.”
“You call guilt a preference?”
I heard more material tearing as she shrugged. “How else to account for the innocent people who experience it and the crooks who don’t?”
“All the more reason that we should choose carefully for ourselves.”
“Well then, why don’t you choose to take my place for a while and see for yourself what it’s like after all?”
“Oh, no. I mean, no thanks.”
“I’m not trying to trick you,” she said. “I just thought you’d like to have a better idea – ”
“I appreciate the offer,” I said, “but I’d rather you got down so you could show me around your garden and – ”
Now she was the one who cried out involuntarily. “And what I’d rather do is have some time to myself now. You’re welcome to look around on your own. But I wouldn’t stay for long if I were you.”
“You’re disturbing the atmosphere.” And she closed her eyes against me.
As it turned out, I didn’t have any choice in the matter, because I was once again outside the fence, as suddenly and unexpectedly as I had found myself inside it. If it weren’t so absurd, I would say it was as though she had summoned me and then tossed me out.
The vegetation was thicker than I remembered it having been when I arrived. Or something else was keeping me from looking back at the fence. But I could still hear the beam woman’s breaths, deep and slow, when I reached the next fence – or rather when I got to where the next fence would have been if everything had remained in place. As it was, the fences were gone. I was on an ordinary city block – if there actually is such a thing.
“Fence Zone” is an excerpt from the Path Cycle.
After accumulating degrees in music and literature, Chris Gordon Owen was a Hodder writing fellow in Princeton. She then freelanced as a journalist, cellist, and copyeditor. Other sections of Path Cycle have appeared in Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments and the Chicago Quarterly Review. She is currently working with visual artist Ellen Grossman on a reconsideration of the Minotaur myth that implicitly reflects on present-day racist incarceration and xenophobic immigration policies. One of their collaborations was exhibited at the BRIC Arts Media Gallery. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons.