Gaarg. Gaarrgh. Gak

Gaarg. Gaarrgh. Gak – Short Story

Pamela Erens

I.

At the age of 27, Daniel Aker had reached that peak of physical robustness and appeal that is never sufficiently enjoyed at the time it is possessed. His bright blond hair was anchored to his well-shaped skull in tight corkscrews–a humorous feature that kept him from being placed in the very first rank by the female paralegals and ad reps that flirted with young lawyers and bankers in the beer bars of downtown Manhattan. There was a bit too much of the Little Prince in his looks: those curls, the bright blue eyes, the wide cheeks and small, childish chin. Still, his shoulders (two-eighty on the bench press at the O.K. Gym), his compact, V-shaped torso, his well-toned gluteus maximus and his sturdy, trunk-like legs gave him a certain status on the streets of Midtown, the Village, and Hoboken. He knew that girls turned their heads to look at him, that elderly women despised him without quite knowing why, that middle-aged men silently measured their pecs and bellies against his, then sighed and pulled their paper-laden satchels in front of their groins. Daniel worked at the investment firm of Dolan, Bear, and Schupack and was considered a competent and steady worker, loyal if not a star.

Daniel did not often take vacations out of the city–he kept no car and the dingy communal rentals of Fire Island and the Hamptons seemed less appealing than free concerts under the palms at the World Trade Center or a long solitary bike ride in the park. But this particular week in August his roommate had induced him to spend a long weekend at his parents’ beach house in Southhampton. Daniel rented a car at the Hertz on East 48th Street. Before driving off he meticulously checked the lights, tires, and brakes. He opened the hatch. The cover of the storage area was off of one of its hinges, and when he bent to adjust it he saw that it was altogether broken on that side. He signaled the supervisor, who walked over already mouthing a stream of justifications and challenges.

“… only one we got. I give you a five percent discount. The best I can do. Everybody’s gone out of town this weekend. I can rent to someone else in five minutes. Take it, leave it.”

For a moment Daniel cast his eyes in the direction of one of the few cars left in the lot, a green Lincoln Continental. It was much too showy for a drive into the country. Once again he felt the strangeness of having enough money to do almost anything he wanted and yet being prevented from doing it. Money was not freedom, exactly, as he’d once thought, but only an opportunity to wrestle with more and more obscure scruples for acting or not acting in any particular way.

He drove away in the car with the broken hatch, humming to himself from his large repertoire of Grateful Dead tunes. He had just gotten off of the expressway at Riverhead and was on the connector heading south when he noticed another car, a slate-blue compact with a rounded snout, disappearing and reappearing around the curves as it made its way toward him. Only when it was about to pass did it float slowly toward the median. Daniel wrenched the steering wheel to get out of the way, cursing; unbelievably, the other car followed, drifting calmly again into his path, then pushing its nose straight into the space between the two front seats.

Daniel was thrown through the shattered windshield twelve feet into the air and landed on the macadam next to his stalled, quivering car. In a moment, there were lights pulsing against his closed eyes, pinkish and white and yellow, and a grinding noise that built to an unbearable intensity and then faded to a prickly ongoing static. For a few moments he could not see or think. Then his vision cleared; in his mind’s eye Daniel saw shoes. Pair after pair of brown, laced shoes: some pairs pointing east, others propped toe-up against a bare wall, others splayed; shoes in a pile, shoes filling his entire field of vision. Now he felt he was striding somewhere, the air pulsing against his ears and lifting the moist locks at his neck. Then he was being covered with many blankets, too many blankets–it was very hot–so that he tried to throw them off, but angry, persistent hands kept forcing them back into place. The heat against his chest became so great that it was as if he were being held too close to a flame, and he beat his hands in the air and tried to call for help, wondering why anyone would be so pointlessly cruel as to keep him smothered like this. Then he understood: He had been left alone in a field; there were in fact no hands or blankets; the sensation of the blankets was simply the startling pressure of grief on his heart. Every creature in the world had withdrawn and left him lying here among the cool grasses, passed over by the wind. He saw the blood seeping out of him–a circumstance that did not surprise him–flowing between his legs as in a great miscarriage. His groin and intestines cramped several times so strongly that his vision faded to a dirty brown. He was being emptied of something. Although he could not see his own chest he knew that it had split and was evacuating blood and that nobody was near to press the pieces shut again.

II.

In the hospital, Daniel Aker, identified by a wallet found at the scene of the accident, was turned over to the care of a doctor named Lilia Probst. Under Dr. Probst there was a team of four specialists–a cardiologist, a neurologist, a kidney doctor, and an ear-nose-throat man–who in turn supervised numerous underlings, for there was much that needed to be repaired in Daniel Aker’s broken body. For the time being, however, that body felt to Daniel simply like an enormously weighty carapace, a sarcophagous with his face painted in oranges and blues on the outside. From inside came the tiny, muffled cries of his internal organs, like the squeaks and skitters of small creatures–mice, spiders, caterpillars–doomed to suffocation. Daniel detected however that he seemed to be breathing on his own. He shifted his eyes from left to right and back again–he imagined that he heard a horrible scraping sound when he did so–and for the first time he realized the limits of his world: a blurred interval three inches to each side of him, a direct line down to where his belly button must once have been, and a cone-shaped space rising up to the water-stained ceiling, dematerialized by the fluorescent light hanging in a bright bar straight above him.

Then he remembered he had a family.

The doctor came in to speak with him. He made out that she was a slender woman, rather young, her hair pulled back in a stubby ponytail. She had large hands that seemed to be threatening to chop him up as they advanced toward him, moving rapidly up and down and from side to side.

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

Daniel nodded, but was aware that his head did not move. He blinked rapidly several times and attempted to stretch his mouth into a response. “Aaaah,” he said. “Aaaah… Gaaaaaa. Gaa.” He felt immensely proud of the G.

“Good job!” The doctor sat down next to him on the bed and patted his chest–or the bed; he felt nothing–and her eyes, he thought, filled up with tears. This made Daniel wish to cry, too. He was instantly consumed by a desire to please this woman and to do whatever was needed to make her pain go away. He tried to shift to get a better look at her.

“Don’t,” she said, although again no motion had answered his intentions. “It will stress the organs. Don’t even attempt to speak again.” She looked down at her fleshy hands, now becalmed in her lap. “I’m bringing your parents and your sister in,” she continued. “They’ve been waiting for you to regain consciousness. Don’t try to speak to them. Just blink your eyes. They can see the life in your eyes.”

Before he could say, Please, don’t leave me, she was across the room and opening the door to a small collection of strangers.

His father, lumpish, with huge heaping shoulders–was this really his father? Had he always worn such dark, badly fitting suits, had he always looked so large? Had his jowls been so big, so loose, his face so dark and clotted? His mother–why did she hang back so shyly? His sister, her pretty blond hair tucked behind her ears–she was perhaps more familiar, but seemed older than he remembered. He attempted to fix her age in his mind. Eleven? No, older–at least sixteen. He scoured his mind for a recent image of her. The girl standing beside him, with his sister’s face, looked to be in her early twenties.

They gazed down at him. His father spoke in low tones Daniel could not decipher. His mother wept. His sister held his mother and looked straight ahead, like someone forcing herself to watch a grotesque movie. The little doctor came in and, with words that sounded like sharp snips of a scissors, scattered them. They ran to the door like small routed animals.

Daniel slept.

III.

There was sunlight coming through the sectioned windows of the room when the doctor entered and told him he had slept through much of the past week. She sounded angry. She told him that he must make an effort to be alert for his parents.

“They have been living in a hotel for days on end. They need a scrap of hope, a sign that you care to come back to them.” She flounced out the door, the back of her white jacket lifting like a sail.

In the moments of silence that followed, Daniel had a little time to prepare himself. With great effort he brought his mind back to the trio that had stood by his bedside: the dark older man, the slim, self-effacing woman, and the girl with the mask-like face. He could not deny that they resembled his family, but he was again made uneasy by certain deformations he must have overlooked in the past. Why did his father scowl and slump so? Why did his mother hide her mouth behind her hand? Why didn’t his sister greet him? He had always been good to her–teased her out of her blue moods, reassured her when a friend was cruel, given her the last piece of cake if she wanted it. Now he was in a bad spot and she ought at least to show the same kindness to him. He quickly reminded himself of the doctor: Anything she wanted him to do must be correct, must be necessary. He would exert himself to perform for these hangers-on, to whom he supposed he owed some loyalty.

They walked in slowly, skirting the bed, as if making sure that he was not planning to spring at them with claws. When they saw that, as before, he did not move a muscle, they cautiously approached. His sister came nearest, standing close to where he supposed his chest to be.

His mother was bolder today. He saw that her grey hair was arranged in neat tight scallops, as if she had just been to the beauty parlor. She asked him how he was feeling. Gold hoops hung from her earlobes. They twitched and leaped as she bent down to speak to him.

“His eyes moved, Daddy,” whispered his sister.

“Does he hear what we say?” his mother asked the doctor, who had re-entered in another brisk gust.

“We’re almost certain so. His scans show that his brain functioning in all four lobes is quite normal, considering. We haven’t wanted to test his grosser physical or mental reponses yet, when he’s still struggling to get his bearings.”

“I understand,” said his mother, as if she had been reprimanded. But then she burst out: “Does he realize his condition?”

“I’ve informed him.”

Daniel tried to remember what he had been informed. All that came back to him was the doctor sitting by his side, the mild scent that rose from her neck and shoulders–he tried to recall its name: was it lemon? or was that a flower?–and how he had loved her and known that it was his job to protect her from that moment forward. He did not recall her speaking to him. It seemed to him that they had merely sat for a long time without words but in perfect recognition.

He saw that the woman with the grey hair–his mother–was making an effort; he felt her emotion rolling toward him in a series of dense, moist waves. He felt that there was something he was supposed to do to help. But he was very tired. He closed his eyes and wished everyone would leave.

“He’s exhausted,” said the doctor. “But he knew who you were this time, I’m sure of that. Did you see the way his eyes followed each of you? Amnesiacs, Alzheimer’s patients–with them the gaze is different. Blank, frightened. Childlike. This was not that. He sees you.”

His mother wept. His father cleared his throat uncomfortably. His sister, to his surprise, bent down and gave the back of his hand a tender kiss. First, he thought: My hand! He was delighted to remember that he had one, and to know where it was located. Second, he thought: “That is a grown-up kiss.” He slit open his eyes. He saw his sister’s smooth face, her high intelligent forehead, her neat blond hair. She wore hoop earrings like her mother, but these were doubled and much larger. The rings chimed pleasantly against each other. “She’s a young woman,” he thought, and then he remembered that she had been married last year, in a ceremony in which he had been the best man. There had been a flagpole, and little strawberry candies in crystal dishes. He could not remember the groom. His sister caught his hooded look, and grinned, but did not make a fuss or alert her parents, who were busy whispering to each other. The doctor put her hands gently on the parents’ backs and pushed them toward the door.

He was left in silence. The sun seemed to have dropped in the sky, for the room was awash in a dim light, the tint that a movie screen takes on when the cameraman starts the fade to a new location. His sister’s smile had excited him and filled him with a strange new energy. He felt as if he would like to join the circle of visitors who had hovered over his bed so solicitous and subdued: to crack jokes with them, link arms, swap old family tales. He wondered when they would next visit and imagined conversing amiably, intimately, around a Scrabble board in the living room, or in front of the TV. He attempted to sit taller so as to clear the phlegm from his throat and speak, but his body did not make the slightest response to his internal command. He then sought to raise his head to view his torso and hips, thinking that observation might give him some clue as to his impotence, but his neck, too, would not budge. He could feel the neck cords straining, his chin reaching forward; he felt a sensation that he would have called pain except that it was not accompanied by the sensory pressure he associated with that term. It was something worse than pain, a sentience far below the muscle stratum, within the tissues or perhaps deeper, an intuition of things ripping, pulling free of their attachments, of some sort of internal ransack and violation.

He attempted to remain perfectly still.

Slowly, the disturbance abated. His organs seemed to be anchored, sound. He breathed.

It was just then that the doctor returned. Again the sun seemed bright in the windows–perhaps it was still in fact morning, after the passing of some clouds. She was accompanied by another woman who looked even younger than herself, a woman who was dressed in sweatpants and a loose red long-sleeved T-shirt.

Before Daniel could finish inventorying the new visitor, the doctor had seized his left leg and begun tugging it toward her. He could not feel her hands on his skin–it was possible that he no longer had skin. He watched her attempt to rotate his knee to the left, then to the right, then left again. All of a sudden he felt it–a column of sheer hot pain. He opened his eyes wide. His mouth opened and said, “Aaaaaah.”

The doctor did not look him in the eyes. She spoke rapidly to the other woman but so deafened was Daniel by the sensations she was creating in him that he did not hear what she said. He was aware however that the other woman was writing in a notebook. She looked up from time to time to gaze sadly at some spot in the vicinity of his nose.

The doctor pushed and pulled at the leg a bit more and then circled the bed to grasp his opposite leg. There it was again–like someone driving a bolt of steel through the center of the limb, shattering the bone, each disk of his spine splitting open like a rotten plum. Yet his skin, to a depth of several layers, remained numb.

They moved on to his arms, neck and head.

The doctor spoke only to the woman taking notes. After a while a part of Daniel’s mind was clear enough to make out parts of the conversation: “Mobility zero centimeters in the left elbow,” said the doctor; or: “pain response right forearm: 8. No, make that 8 plus.” When it was over the younger woman closed her notebook and stood next to Daniel, breathing rapidly, anxiously.

The doctor walked behind him and placed her hands on his head. “You were very good,” she said. And then: “I can’t shield you from the pain. The pain is good. It indicates a capacity for mobility.” She appeared in front of him again and made a place for herself on the bed beside him, as she had on that first day when he had decided he loved her. Did he still? Then he had felt her gratitude, her relief, at his return to life. He had felt that she had suffered, waiting for him, and that by surviving he had alleviated her suffering. Now his survival seemed insufficient. He had thought she understood him–that she had accepted him for what he was: broken, immobile, helpless. But he had been wrong. She wanted more: cooperation, effort. Change.

Once more she patted the rigid shell that was him. “I will not baby you,” she said. “We will work a little each day. This is Angela. From now on she will be in charge of your physical therapy sessions.”

IV.

Daniel imagined that his body quivered to throw off the last reverberations of anguish, but he knew even that primitive reflex had been denied him. Though his mind was in riot, he was perfectly still. Nothing moved. Nothing moved. If the air passed across his face, he could not feel it, and no muscle trembled in response. He attempted to work his throat, his palate, to give a final “Aaaahhh….,” one that was for himself alone and not for them, his two lady inquisitors. But these organs must have become spent with their effort. He was a tomb.

He must have slept the night, because the next thing he was aware of was the thin light of early morning, and the arrival of his breakfast. He was learning to count from one day to the next by this meal, the only solid one he was given: Corn Flakes in warm milk, fed to him patiently by a nurse whose enormous bottom rested half on and half off the bed. “Soggy, yuck,” the nurse commented as she slipped the plastic spoon between Daniel’s slightly parted teeth. She kept up a running patter as she worked. “But they have to be soggy or you might choke on them, dear. Get better soon and we’ll give you some nice, crisp Corn Flakes, that’s a fact!”

When Angela returned, she was alone. Daniel was ready for her this time. He instructed his body to be heavy, motionless. He willed it to harden beyond the rigidity it already possessed in order to achieve infinitely less malleable levels of being, and finally a state where it was organically incapable of movement. His body would become zinc, quartz, diamond, would become part of the elemental, resistant core of the Earth.

He willed his body back in time as well, to the era before ferns and mosses, before algae, before bacteria itself–life–existed.

Angela was wearing a blue T-shirt this morning, identical to the red one she had worn the day before. She grunted as she grasped his left ankle; she did not possess the doctor’s light grace. Daniel felt the iron shaft being driven through the marrow, deep into the bone’s privacy, but the edge of the injury was infinitesimally dulled; he felt his resistance as a cushion, a balm placed on the site of outrage. After some time, the therapist seemed to hesitate. She stopped, shook out her arms. She looked fatigued. She studied his face, and he felt he was smiling, although he knew he could not smile–not yet. She sat in a chair across from the bed, watching him, and then wrote for a long time in her notebook.

The next day and the day after the same scene was repeated, except that Angela fired more quickly than before. Daniel lay with his eyes gazing upward, the ceiling spinning as his brain separated out the spotted strands of pain, and told himself that with a few more sessions like these his internal organs would simply mercifully give way. Angela put her head in her hands and breathed very slowly in and out, as if attempting to maintain her self-control. Then she left the room without writing in her notebook.

Very shortly the doctor was standing over him. She lectured him in long blocks of speech without pause.

“You don’t seem to understand. I considered you an intelligent young man. I saw it in your eyes, the day you came back to consciousness; I thought you took in the truth. But you hesitate, you don’t want to know. Must I spell it out for you?

“You are completely imprisoned by your body. Your essential organs are functioning–your liver, lungs, heart, kidneys–but hardly more than that. You are lucky to be alive, or perhaps you are unlucky. That is not for me to say. I am a doctor, not a philosopher. You are in my hands now and I am required to do the job that the state, your family, and my professional affiliations demand of me. I must bring you back to life. Again, let me make the situation completely clean

“You have no mobility in your head or neck. In your shoulders, arms, hands or fingers. In your torso, waist, hips, or spine. In your legs, knees, feet, or toes.

“Your eyes move. On the sheet of graph paper over there in the corner your brain spins out spirals and waves. Normal. That is how we know you are capable of regaining your motor functions. That and the pain. If you did not feel pain we would know that your nervous system had cut off these silent parts of your body. Exiled them. Declared them dead, no longer members of the corporate entity. Your body has not done that. Its yearning is still to remain intact. It will insist on its integrity.

“I know what you are trying to do. Angela is very young, but I have seen cases like this before. That is something our patients never realize: They are not unique. The most gruesome, bizarre, heaven-scarring cases: I have seen them. You want to be special, exempt from the process of healing. You are hiding from the mandates of your own body. Fool yourself then. Because while you cannot stir or speak or move your bowels, your body nevertheless acts. It crouches, waiting, gathers its forces. It plots to get well without you.

“Do you think your body concerns itself with your pain? It hungers for repair. It has a rage toward motion. Even if your brain was half dead, the manipulation Angela is practicing on you would result, gradually, in a softening of the tissues, a renewed yield and flexibility. After weeks of her treatment, there would begin to be some movement, very slight, in perhaps a toe or a finger: a reflex, perhaps, beyond your conscious control. Once this begins, you, the patient, begin to apply your own force to the locus of damage. We ask you to push, to pull, to bend, to point. Gradually, the body begins to respond to your directives. In its joy, it leaps farther than you request of it; it surprises you. You cannot possibly imagine the happiness you feel on that day, when you tell the body to move and it moves, it makes you master again, it dances to please you. It will surpass every agony you now feel and will feel. For several blissful moments, your terror is gone and you would pay again, with broken bones and crushed organs, to feel that sheer undiluted power.

“But you are rock. Angela has told me that you are more rigid today than on the first day we began work. That is only possible through will, perverse will.

“You want to die, do you? This hospital will not let you die. Not when you have a healthy heart and a healthy brain. You wish to be left in peace. We will not leave you in peace.”

V.

In a book Daniel had once read–he no longer remembered which, or when–the writer had described how an Australian aborigine, condemned by his tribal court of some crime, would undergo a remarkable bodily crisis. As he lay in the exposed patch of desert to which he had exiled himself, his heartbeat would begin to slow, his body temperature to drop. Within eighteen to twenty hours he would begin to convulse; within twenty-four hours all vital signs would cease, his body willed to death by his own guilt and shame. Daniel believed that such a transformation was possible; in fact, the account had impressed him greatly. He had been awed at the power of the mind to reward, deform or punish the body, and had often thought about this passage at his health club, imagining to himself the magnificence of, say, training himself to lift three times his weight, or to go without sleep for four days at a time. But turning it over in his mind now, as the hospital hushed and the lights snapped off in his room, he came to the conclusion that such power was possible only for believers. The generations before him–the scientists who had isolated sperm under a microscope and measured the relative properties of light and motion; his grandparents and great-grandparents who had first submitted to x-rays and bypass surgery–amounted to an inherited curse. His will would fail him. The aborigine had no doubt, while he, waiting for death, would constantly question: Is it coming off?. His mind was too skeptical. And therefore, as the doctor said, his body had a will of its own. It would resist him even as he attempted to resist the dictates of those who insisted he recover.

He thought of how his family, if they understood, could spirit him out of this place, release him from his bondage with signatures on a few pieces of paper, bring him home and allow him the mercy of immobility, of stasis. He would regain his voice–he already was able to form a K sound in addition to G, and his throat and lips were the one part of his body that did not hurt when he roused them to exertion–and there would eventually be congenial talks from his place on the sofa. His sister and her husband, if she still had one, would drop by to chat and they would discuss books and baseball the way they’d used to. He would be the center of their little collective–it had badly needed a center, ever since he and his sister had gone off to school–and his upkeep would not be stressful for his mother, a mere matter of bathing and turning and changing him. They would even play Scrabble, if someone would sit out and place his files for him. His life might not be long, but it would be pleasant. And there was no reason, perhaps, that he might not live a long life after all.

He must find a way to signal his parents.

Rose, the nurse who served him his breakfast, entered his room promptly at 7 a. m. with her usual good cheer. “Blink your eyes, dearie, if you’re happy to see me today.” He blinked rapidly, content to play along. “Now blink twice if you don’t got yourself the best-looking piece of ass in this here whole hospital.” She laughed, a deep, vibrating bass, and waggled her massive bottom. Her breasts heaved up and down in her white nurse’s jacket. “Oh, darling,” she said. “It’s going to be a long time till you got the manhood for the likes of me. But I’ll wait for you, darling. Oh, you know I will.”

VI.

The next time Angela appeared, both the doctor and his family were with her. His family seemed to have been brought along as a sort of cheering section. When the therapist grasped his left shoulder, heaving and wincing, he heard his cries in a new way. Listening with his parents’ ears, he detected not just open-throated moans but gurgling sounds, gagging, high squeaks, rasps, and snarls. For a few moments he was ashamed, but then the pain made him forget his observers almost altogether.

“Good going, go on, keep going,” chanted the therapist.

“Help her. Help her!” demanded the doctor.

But Daniel could not help. From a distance he was aware of his mother’s and his sister’s eruptions of encouragement, their murmurs of concern and sympathy. Then his attention snapped back as he heard his father say: “Why doesn’t he work harder? Can’t you get him to cooperate?” His mother shushed him, but his father continued irritably, whether to the doctor or to Daniel it wasn’t clear: “Come on, come on, come on.” Daniel shifted his eyes in his father’s direction and saw those terrible humping shoulders, whose origin he suddenly remembered. In his teenage years, before becoming an insurance salesman, his father had worked baling hay on a farm and had one day gotten his collarbone broken by a kick from an agitated horse. He had never healed quite straight, and the accident had made him less, rather than more, sympathetic to the injuries of others. His mother had once confided in Daniel: “Of course he married me. For him, well, there weren’t that many choices.”

Now his mother whispered loudly, as if on a stage where it is understood that the character being spoken about cannot hear: “Dr. Probst says we have to have patience. She says time will eventually bring him around.”

Daniel waited for his sister to interrupt with some sort of sanity: a plea to end his torture, if only for a day; a point-by-point attack on the argument that restoring her brother’s health was necessarily for the best. But he heard nothing. He knew then that things were terribly wrong, that he had horrendously misjudged his situation. The doctor–he saw now that he hated her–had enlisted his loved ones, his only possible saviors, in her project to reclaim him. To try to communicate with them, in whatever fashion he could manage, was pointless. Perhaps, if they would only watch and listen, they could learn the language of his eyes and moans, but the doctor had thrown them off the track, had assured them there was no message to be detected. They could not imagine his simple appeal: to be allowed to remain as he was. For the doctor had convinced them that he must not merely live: He must move, eat, act. He must be whole.

Daniel prayed that all the noise, grief, touch, importuning would disappear. He pictured his body as a broad column of white light under a white sheet–dematerialized, exempt.

Later, sometime, his sister leaned forward and said, “Don’t resist so much. Give yourself up to the pain. Pretend you’re riding in a big barrel down a waterfall–let the pain smash you down on the rocks.”

He wanted to laugh–he wondered where his sister had picked up this glib therapeutic vocabulary. Yet he found himself examining her words–might they, after all, have any meaning? He had broken an arm once during soccer practice in college, and, earlier, had hurt himself while playing silly kids’ games, once jumping from a stone wall and crushing two teeth. But had he ever “given himself up” to pain? Even in the broken-tooth incident, six years old, he’d clamped his bleeding mouth shut, held the howls and the panic in check. He had seen his body rise above the maiming, like an enormous blow-up clown, and had had contempt for the small deflated cringing flesh below. He had been rewarded for being brave–“our tough little Danny,” his mother said, using a nickname that even at that age he had detested. His uncle had called him a stoic, and when he’d asked what the word meant, his uncle, in his unhelpful way, had said, “The stoic is the man who believes that indifference is the only reasonable attitude toward life.”

As rods of flame splintered his body, he thought–not in words so much as in images, gleanings–Did giving oneself up to pain mean one felt it less, that in letting it saturate you completely it would somehow become diffused? Or was it rather that by this mental maneuver the body disappeared, annihilated by sensation, so that paradoxically one no longer had nerve endings and organs with which to feel? Did “giving up” release some obscure opiate in the brain, or clear the small white radiant space the gurus talked about, in which one could find peace amidst tortures? It seemed to Daniel rather that surrendering would only amplify the pain, give it license to increase, horribly, like a litter of wild dogs.

Before he fainted he had an image of a swami flinging himself on poison-tipped spears; then rolling, slowly and deliberately, on a bed of hot coals. The swami wore a calm, loving expression of complete satisfaction and Daniel wondered what made men bend themselves intentionally to suffering.

VII.

The room was empty. Within minutes after waking he could feel the change: a fluttering inside, a series of shy clicks and whisks, that signaled him his nerves were once again receiving signals from within, were renewing their delicate vibration. Random patches of his skin burned as if someone had put a match to them. Daniel wept, without tears. His body was continuing its betrayal: seeking motion, indulging agitation. The motion would begin in the deepest tissues and spread upward and outward: to the organs, the blood canals, finally the skin. His caretakers had seduced his limbs, whispered pretty tales to the lymph and glands and cartilage. The life inside him was abnormally, deformedly stirring, like a stunted fetus pressing to emerge.

Rose entered with his first dinner. She was not so jaunty as usual. She looked tired, he noticed, her eyes smoky and raw. It occurred to him that she must of course have a husband or lover and he decided that this man was making her unhappy. He remembered that there was a world of human relationships outside this room–of people who carressed, beat, loved each other.

But when Rose drew near to the bed, her expression and her manner changed completely.

“Well, hello, soldier,” she said, in her customary lively tone. “Meat loaf tonight. Yum, yum. They ground it up real good, so give it a try. Darling, I get a big rise out of sticking my fat fingers into that little mouth of yours but sooner or later you’re going to have to do this yourself. I can’t be your mammy forever. First they’ll get you on this baby food, then you’ll have solids, pretty soon they’ll be making you cut it up yourself.”

“Gaarg,” said Daniel. “Gaarrgh. Gak.”

Rose stopped mashing the meatloaf onto a fork and looked at him thoughtfully. “You, too, darling,” she said, although Daniel had been telling her that he did not accept; that never, never would he be fed again except by other hands.

When he had finished taking his food Daniel held her eyes for a long moment. She did not look away as he had feared. “Poison me,” he said with his eyes. “Find a way to put something in my meals. No one will know that it was you. Believe me, you’ll be doing me a favor.”

This time she seemed to understand. She folded the serving tray with a loud snap and raised her full bulk above his head. “You poor godforsaken thing,” she said. “God save your soul.”

Then he knew for certain that there would be no help, that he would be forced to return to the world, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others.

Rose lay the back of her hand against his forehead and he fought his terror at realizing that he could feel its dampness, the cool, oval fingernails.

Pamela Erens’s work has appeared in Chicago Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and other publications; she received a 1998 fiction fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts

COPYRIGHT 2001 Fairleigh Dickinson University

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