the box by toni kwadzogah

you’re a reflection, ever seen

            The flood of light dimmed, fluorescents clicked on, and Abigail let out a soft sigh. The skin on her cheeks and forehead burned, her hands tingled in the sudden cool. Sharp spasms rattled up her spine in rough waves, but she remained upright, wrists locked, shoulders down, back straight, neck wrenched. She stared down at the bleached white pages before her, rigid finger joints imperceptibly twitching, a teacup trembling slightly in her hands.

            The dull ache behind her eyes persisted now. Geometric blackness heightened the burn in her retinas. The outline of the room stood in dark negative; a protruding slab of stone from one wall, a worn table and chair in the center, greying frayed magazines stacked high, and the black surveillance camera above the door, ever watching; and the opposite wall emblazoned with faded text of the Laws of Soft Gender. The last few times the lights dimmed, the time between shortened in nearly undetectable increments. It had to have been about two days since she had a full night of sleep. Her bloodshot eyes skimmed over stacks of words.

            The reprieve could be a trick, like the artificial sun that blazed, with intermittent fluorescents shining cold onto her cot every late night(?) to early morning(?), through the thick, (now) translucent (after months[?] and months[?] of unbearably vivid light shining through dense, transparent) ceiling to floor to wall to wall glass. In those rare (enough to count on half of one hand) moments that the lights dimmed, and the fluorescents didn’t keep their nightly(?) watch, her eyes adjusted to the raw darkness, she could just see the outline of the watchtower as it stared back, unblinking and ever watching, even in its quietude. It waited, terrible and searing and hunkered down beyond that void, for a dissentient thought to scuttle out in the gentle reprieve and be caught in the volley of burning.


be clean and clear and bright

            “I thought they were supposed to be teaching her to take care of herself.”


            “I’m serious. She looks like garbage.”

            “She has bigger things to worry about than split ends.”

            “Like what? What position to nap in? If she has time to read some book four times, she can take two seconds to pull a comb through that bird’s nest.”


            “She’s not even trying. Her skin is so dry.”

            “Maybe she doesn’t want to.”

            “What? Try?”

            “You know she’s never been that kind of—”

            “That’s why she’s in there to begin with, Patricia.”

            “I know, but—”

            “But what?”



            “What do you think she’s thinking about?”

            “Nothing if she knows what’s good for her.”

            “I’m sure she’s not—”

            “She’s reading. Again. Jesus, her skin looks so dry.”

            “That’s probably because of the watchtower.”

            “How’s anyone supposed to want any of them afterwards if their faces look like old leather?”


you cannot anger

            A rumble rang up from the deep. The light strobed violently. She jolted out of sleep and swung her legs over the edge of the protrusion. Yells pitched upward into a cacophony of screams. The gaze of the tower shifted from the window. The door glowed, brighter and hotter until the room blazed and the window dimmed, dark enough to look through. She rose to her feet and slipped over to see.

            Abigail reached out to touch the glass, so clear and so transparent it felt as if she stood over the mouth of an endless void. She gazed upward; hundreds of rooms, with hundreds of human silhouettes, cloaked in the same white backglow, gazed back at her, in all directions. The tower, enshrouded in pale grey stone, jutted sharp and leering out of the blackness, it’s light dimming to nothing. It’s color began to dissipate, grey bleeding into concave glass, exposed gears and chains surrendering to glaring fire. She looked away and up, to the highest point visible in the burning halo of light, and her jaw dropped.

            A woman, or who appeared to be a woman, hung above all, flailing as she sunk toward the tower top. Drumming began, at first soft, and even, then grew to a thundering din. She felt the heat emanating; it warmed her face, burned her fingertips. The woman in the air paused, her feet skirting the top of the structure. The intercom crackled behind Abigail.

            “You will comply or you will be removed.”

            The walls vibrated; she could feel the glass shake under her palms. Her jaw hung open, tears began to fill her eyes; she backed away as the winch lowered, her fingers brushing over her cheekbones, to cover her mouth. The woman dropped into the fiery abyss; the screaming echoed in Abigail’s ears as she dissolved into nothingness.


you must be pliant

            “New girl hasn’t moved in a few days.”

            “Everyone has a refractory period after their first culling.”

            “It’s been six days.”

            “Shit, full days?”

            “Yep. Up to…”

            “Use facilities?”

            “And that’s it. Back to bed.”

            ‘“Ugh. We have a code gray. Over.”

            “Copy. Which one? Over.

            “1522-SX. Violation 18 under statute 4. Over.”

            “New girl?

            “Yep. Six days dormant.”

            “Copy. Out.

            “What are they gonna do to her?”

            “You’ll see. Depending on how well she complies.”


you misshapen thing

            She laid on her side, her lids burning even as she shielded them, curled tight around herself, every inch of her exposed skin peeling and unbearably itchy, her back awash in the watchtower’s light; as the drumming arced, peaked into an incessant drone, she pulled tighter in, her back ached, her eyes too dry to produce the tears that begged to slide down her wizened cheeks. At last the drumming quieted, but the light from the door did not die. Her eyes cracked open; she turned over. For the first time in her memory, she could see out into the column, clear through to the cells on the other side. The tower stood dark, jutting out of the blackness. She rose, slowly; her body, colored dark, darker brown to black, groaned with the effort. She shuffled toward the window, pressed her palms to the glass. It felt watery and cool, blissful to her gnarled fingers.

            All the walls of the column stood dark. Dread grew in her chest, pressing against her throat; her knees began to weaken. The ground rushed to catch her as her sight dimmed.


you will obey or be broken


            “I saw the message.”

            “And you’re just going to let them do this?”

            “You saw her just like I did. She has this coming.”

            “They’re going to kill her and your answer is she deserves it?”

            “She didn’t comply.”

            “She turned away from a person’s killing!”

            “She refused to watch a gender mutineer receive her rightful punishment. That is treason.”

            “She’s your child—”

            “Treason against gender—”


            “With intent to incite—”

            “You taught her to walk—“

            “Shut your mouth. With intent to incite gender rebellion and binary flouting.”

            “She doesn’t deserve—”

            “Quiet. Treason. If she wanted to live she would have served and did her work.”


            “It’s either her, or you.”


            “I know what you did. I know what you told her.”

            “Whatever you think happened—”

            “I told you to shut your mouth. I saved you. If I’d followed the law, you’d’ve skipped behavioral correction and gone to the cull. I saved you. Be grateful you’re not in her place.”

            “You raise a girl in your image and now you want to let them kill her.”

            “That is why this needs to happen. It’s her job to break.”

            “Garrett, please just think—”

            “Another word, and you’ll be right there with her.”


be his pillar

            The sun glared high above the sparkling silver lake, and grass, lush and springy under her feet, spread out and all around her. The leaves shuddered, rustled, newly minted and greened to brilliant vibrancy and she grinned, wide and bright, her jaw strained, threatening to crack with the weight of her unburnished joy.

            “Do you offer penance?” Abigail’s eyes cracked open. Watchtower light burned the back of her neck. Her fingers ached; it hurt to curl them as she did, her dry, peeling knuckles scraping against the pale pocked tabletop. Dark spots swam in her vision. A wave of nausea overtook her.

            “I will not apologize for existing.” Seconds crept by. Her skin prickled; the walls glowed white hot.

            “So be it.” She stared up at the small black circle in the lintel. Her lips, cracked and dry, splitting and bleeding, curled into an empty smile.


The Laws

You must be pliant and

easily bend to his will;

Yours is his only

            - I


You cannot anger

You cannot be immodest

unless you’re made to



You will obey or

be broken; you are not whole

without another half.



You are built to be

loved; not built to sadly be.

That is your purpose.



Your purpose is to

be of his use and you shall

solely be that use



Love him because he

deigns to love an incomplete

thing; and to shape it



You misshapen thing

you weapon of gluttony.

Bend; do not break him.



Hold him in your hands

do not be his destruction;

be his salvation



You’re a reflection,

ever seen, a mirror

to hold up to him



Be clean and clear and

bright; be his pillar; be his

peach; his perfection.