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Schrödinger's Woman

by Jennifer Venner 3 months ago in fantasy · updated 3 months ago

by Jennifer Venner

I love cats. I've had cats most of my life, My first cat arrived for my 5th birthday in a cardboard box with flaps closed. She scratched and wailed as my aunt set the box on the table, plaintive wails, desperate scratches. She scrambled out when I opened the box and bit me when I picked her up. She was black and white and found among other kittens in a barn. She had distemper. Her eyes were rheumy and her motions weak. Within a month she was run over in our driveway by my uncle Doug's garbage truck. He didn't kill her. She wailed and scratched at the gravel, and my mother had to dig a hole, place her on its edge, and decapitate her with a gardening spade. When I came home from school, Mum's hands trembled only slightly when she told me Bubbles was dead but didn't suffer. "No more cats," she said.

• • •

I guess that's why I felt some excitement when Dr. Werckmeister put me in the ShrÖdinger Room. I wasn't doing well after the traumatic Trolleycar Experiment, when the driver, a nice guy who swept the floors in the lab, threw himself on the tracks, instead of making the decision to kill one person or five. Dr. Werckmeister was impressed by his self-sacrifice, but I had nightmares for weeks.

"It's a cat you'll never have to see, or hold, or even hear," said Dr. W. "Really, you are just monitoring the box."

It was either that or a week in a room with Borel's Monkeys. So far, they'd produced half a Doctor Seuss story, There's a Wocket in My Pocket!

The ShrÖdinger Room was quiet, too quiet. Dr. Werckmeister decided to make it hospitable, unlike the Theseus Room, where shipbuilders made a racket and you had to sleep in a hammock. The ShrÖdinger Room was like a hotel room, softly lit, with a sizeable bed and a proper shower. There were curtains, but they covered only blank walls. On the floor was the Experiment, an unassuming sleek red box, built to Dr. Werckmeister's very exacting specifications. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. On its top, near the head, was a beautiful combination lock with three filigreed dials.

I slid my hand along the Box's outer edge, feeling for some gap, but it yielded no opening. It was impenetrable. I sat next to it, put my ear to it, listened for a soft whimper, a scratch, a yawn. Nothing. For all I knew, this experiment was some bullshit ruse. But maybe that was the point? Dr. Werckmeister said the experiment would last two weeks. Then, presumably, the Box would open and the cat would reveal itself, Dead or Alive. While it was closed, the cat was neither, and both.

I could order meals for myself from the Institute's cafeteria, of course, but I was given no books, TV or internet. I couldn't call my mom and ask her how it had felt, decapitating poor Bubbles. Was she relieved? Sickened in her heart and mind at the cruelty of nature, and large vehicles? She grew up on a farm, where my grandfather drowned kittens with distemper. But taking the life of her daughter's beloved pet, that must have sucked.

The first two days were easy. I lounged on the bed, eating the crappy cafeteria food, all of it grown onsite in laboratories. With no window, I lay on my back and memorized the intervals between green flashes on the smoke alarm on the ceiling. I had trouble sleeping, however. The Experiment troubled me, and I faced the box as I lay in bed, just in case…what? Schrodinger clawed his way out, defying Dr Werckmeister, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein for that matter. But in a multiverse, SchrÖdinger does defy the law, or maybe the laws are different in the one where he escapes. How should I know? I’m not a physicist.

I didn’t volunteer at the Institute willingly. No one does. It is my civic duty, imposed by the World Government I don’t know…100 years ago? Every person between 17 and 23 must dedicate at least two years of his or her life to the Social Contract. The assignments are a lottery. I could have shoveled dead fish off the Florida coastline, or helped rebuild the London Underground after the Fall, or joined the nuclear waste removal project in Siberia. Watching a cat (or not watching a cat) die (or not die) was literally a piece of cake. I ordered chocolate cake, every night.

But on the third day, I became rather anxious, and the box I had so carefully tiptoed around seemed menacing, even deadly. I tried to lift it but it was very heavy. I couldn't even slide it an inch in any direction. I lay on my side and tried to find the edge where the object met the floor but there was none. The box was the floor. The floor was the box.

Then, I longed for SchrÖdinger the Cat. In my mind he was all cats, shapeshifting in the Experiment’s dark lair. I sang SchrÖdinger songs, mimicked petting a cat on a pillow on my lap. When the experiment ended I would carry SchrÖdinger to my dorm room in my arms and he would never have to be put in a box, ever again. He would curl his black body against in bed at night, purring. She would bat around a feathered toy with her orange paws. He would growl when he saw other grey cats. I had dreams now, of me and multiple SchrÖdingers in a vast cosmos, inexplicably its masters, bending time with our minds. SchrÖdinger was Catness. I was Womanness.

• • •

On day 5, I tested the combination lock. It was so exquisitely complex, there was no possible way I could fiddle with it until it opened. I needed the Code. I hunted for it everywhere in the tiny room, everywhere there was a crack, a gap, a crevice. The bed was attached to the floor. The bathroom fixtures were smooth and unconquerable. The floor was flawlessly white. There were no baseboards, the lamp was built into the wall and mattress and sheets had no identifying tags. The entire room was frictionless, lacking all context or history. No one who'd entered it had ever been born, and no one, I suspected, left it alive.

I didn’t know if I wanted to free the cat or if I needed something to hold me in place, to keep me from evaporating into the walls. There were no mirrors in even the bathroom. When I poured myself water, I held the glass perfectly still and tipped my head to catch my reflection on its taut surface. I saw an anxious face, but the angle was weird and I looked fatter too so I stopped.

But then, something happened. A layer of reality fell like the earliest leaves in autumn, revealing slowly the skeleton beneath. I didn’t see a bed and walls in their entirety anymore but as parts of something else. Then, everything in the room came alive. I spent an hour just gazing at the corner of my room, where the lamp light shaded into ever smaller gradients, diffuse like a sunset. A painting in the room, of a frozen lake, shimmered and the surface cracks, etched so delicately, were about to give way to spring. There were 14 cracks. The fake pear tree with its lonesome green plastic pear had 92 leaves. The vase of real marigolds, the only living thing besides me and Schrodinger, slowly, sadly, curled in on themselves and stiffened. Six marigolds. As the last day approached, I was afraid to leave the room, afraid to see the dead cat in the red box, afraid of the universe’s machinery commencing clicking and whirring again, like a watch’s telltale heart.

The Experiment existed only for itself. I practiced sitting on it, then lying on it, face down, my arms hanging off the sides, my chin on the dial. I didn’t need to free Schrodinger, he was right here, he and the red box and I were all the same. We were silent and pensive, together.

But then, I felt it. The box started to thrum. It seemed to expand and contract beneath me, a living thing. A living cat. SchrÖdinger was alive, and needed to get out, now! Before the isotope decayed completely and the hammer dropped on the tiny vial of potent vapour, the poison that would kill him instantly!

I turned the dials frantically, this way and that, and while they made satisfying clicking sounds, nothing caught on anything that sounded like unlocking.

But then, I knew it. I turned the topmost dial to zero, then right, to 14. I turned the next dial left to 92. The bottom dial to the right: 6

The lid on the box commenced turning, like hands on a clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock ..3...

A beautiful green light zoomed upwards, hitting the ceiling with a boom. Caught in its beam hung a sweet smoke, delicious, captivating…deadly. Before my mind’s eye closed on this world forever, I heard the softest, gentlest meow.


Jennifer Venner

I am from Toronto. My living is writing abstracts on science and tech. In 2015 I published my first novel, Blue Suicide with Iguana Press. I have published essays and short stories online in various publications. I am also an art historian.

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