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The cage took five days to arrive instead of two. It was a simple, black, one-door folding crate for extra-extra-large dogs, four feet long and three wide and tall. They set it up at the foot of their bed. It looked natural and unnatural, like a family heirloom and a thing that belonged in the yard.
“This is a cage for an animal,” he said.
“I love it,” she said. “I never want to leave it.”
She crawled in and curled into a fetal position, and he latched the door. The metal bars of the padlocks slid home with a satisfying click.
It became a challenge to Sarah, her internal Everest, to see how long she could stay in the cage before the panic swelled and she squeezed the button to send Caleb an alert. It was like holding your breath underwater; she could do it only so long before her body forced her to take a breath and fill her lungs with anxiety and the need to leave the cage. With practice, though, she was able to hold her breath for longer and longer until she could stay in the perfect emptiness for an hour, an afternoon, a day.
It was only logical that the other furniture needed to go. Caleb had to shuffle sideways between the cage and armoire to reach the bathroom, and he couldn’t see Sarah from all angles. He placed an ad, emptied and wiped the armoire, and covered the cage. When the movers came, he watched from the bathroom, a pistol at his side, and trailed them from doorway to doorway as they wheeled it out. Then he locked the door, wiped the doorknobs and remaining furniture, and put the gun back in its case.
Every morning he unlocked the cage and touched her calf. She would jolt and crawl out, stretch, use the restroom, and eat. She answered whatever he said in monosyllables, and he stopped expecting responses. She dressed in a conservative blouse and long skirt, he in a vest and tie.
When they were ready, they sat on the sofa and recorded a video for his congregation. He delivered a short sermon, a talk on a verse and the news, and reminded everyone to favor faith not fear, prayer not worry, but to be wise and cautious. He directed those in need to the pantry and those with employment to a charity. She smiled with her mouth closed and told the viewers to be well.
Afterwards, she would scrub the makeup from her face, shower, and crawl into the cage in her pajamas. He would change into white pants and shirt and watch her settle.
“I don’t understand it,” he said in the second week. “I miss touching you.”
“I know you don’t understand,” she said. “But I need it. I want to be negated.”
After the cage came the mask, then the earmuffs, the body suit, the bowls, the rabbit water bottle, and the bucket, all of it black like the interlaced wire of the cage.
“I want it darker,” Sarah said one day after Caleb left the room. “I want it to look like my soul.”
It was too operatic, she knew, but it was what she wanted. She wanted the darkness and nothingness wrapped around her like her childhood bedroom when she’d had migraines, the sun-blocking curtains drawn, the door closed, her head under the blanket. She wanted a darkness entire and complete, like the dark in a cave when you turn off your headlamp and listen to the drip of the water slowly enlarging the stalagmites and stalactites with the minerals left behind. She wanted a darkness you could feel, that you could reach out and stroke like silk. When she was in it, cage locked and senses nulled, she felt a total and pervasive calm.
After the armoire went the bed, their dressers, the dining set, the desk in the office and the furniture in the other bedrooms, until the only places with furnishings were their bedroom and the backdrop of his services. Their bed he replaced with a cot he’d had since his scouting days, and he moved the cross from above his dresser to the wall above Sarah’s cage.
“The space needs to be lighter,” Caleb said. “The energy needs to flow.”
Wide open spaces were what he wanted. He threw open the curtains and blinds and strolled through the house and looked out at the birds singing and dancing. Once, he saw a bird mount another, and he’d looked away. He supposed that, to the animals looking in, he might seem on exhibit, but with the furniture gone and the windows on the walls like paintings in a gallery, he could almost fool himself into thinking the opposite, that he was on a trip to a museum or zoo.
One morning in the third week of the cage, she didn’t put on her ear muffs or mask after the sermon. Instead, she crawled into the cage and arched her back and presented herself. He sat on the cot and sneered. She looked him in the eyes and sneered back.
He unzipped and squatted to insert himself between the bars, and she contorted her body and turned her head to take him in her mouth. He laced his fingers into the top of the cage, and the joints of it rattled with his weight. His groan became a growl and her whimper a grunt, their sounds like those of the unconverted, the damned, the animals in the field.
When his legs and her neck were too sore to continue, he lay beside the cage and they laughed. She held a bar with one hand and he wrapped her fingers in his. When their breathing slowed, she pulled her hand back and covered away her senses. He lay on the cot and watched her, the room holy in its barrenness and purity of purpose, the sight of her miraculous in its deprivation, the cross above her on the wall, her body curled up like a lamb’s in the grass.
What Sarah felt was anger at what they’d woken up. It was a primal thing that had lived in the dark and only been resting, and now she couldn’t ignore it and instead of the perfect quiet emptiness she could sense it breathing in a corner of the cavern. She added the last purchases to her ensemble, then, the pièces de résistance, a chastity belt with leather straps and metal chains and faceplate and lock, and a muffle that locked behind her head. But even with that she couldn’t stop herself. When she’d feel the walls of the cavern shake, she’d run her hands over the cage bars until she found Caleb, and she’d take him in hand.
What Caleb felt was a great, shuddering guilt. It wasn’t Sarah he was disgusted with, but himself, his answering lust when he entered the room and saw her in her cage. He took it out on her, prodded her with the broomstick and thwacked what he could reach with the wooden spoon until her muffled and pleasured moans made him lose control again. He found a counselor to speak to by phone, anonymously, and what she said was they weren’t deviant or damaged or traumatized, they were privileged and healthy and whole and only experimenting playfully. He’d hung up on her. It didn’t feel playful to him.
Two months in, she lay quiet in the cage, the slow rise and fall of her chest the only sign of life. He performed seven-, fifteen-, and thirty-minute workouts in the dining room. He flung books sideways at the hole in a cornhole platform in the guest bedroom. He stared out the window at a squirrel. Then he went to the cage and unlocked it.
She looked around like a blind person searching for a voice then kicked him as he grabbed her by the calves and pulled. She made the same grunt again and again through the muffle. He stopped only when he heard the alarm and realized she’d pressed the button. He unlocked the muffle and she clenched it in her fist, the straps hanging limp from either side.
“Red,” she said. She hadn’t lowered her mask, and she directed her face not at his eyes but over his shoulder at the cross. “Red, red, red.”
“I don’t think I can take it anymore,” he said.
“You’re not the one who has to take it.”
She strapped the muffle on and pulled the door shut, fumbled with the latches and locks until she closed them. He sat against the wall and watched her with his fingers pressed to his neck, his pulse quick as a bird’s.