Sleep ends abruptly.
On this occasion I’m jerked out of sleep by a rattling that passes through the room. The shuddering shake of objects – bottles, boxes, cases and the ephemera that covers most surfaces – jouncing off their shelves in a rising crescendo which, by the time it reaches the wheels of my bed, is forceful enough to bounce the bed up and down till it passes, tooth-rattling out the other side of the room. It’s not a pleasant way to wake, made less so by the tidying that will follow. The floor is now the container for most of the items that were on shelves, cabinet doors hang open slackjawed and in need of attention. The tremors have grown stronger of late, but no regularity. As far as I can tell, anyway. My only time-keeping devices are the counters and blips of the adjoining room, which I always secure when I sleep. There’s no clock in here, no natural light. I aim to sleep when tired and rise when awake, but the distinction has become… vague.
There are so many causes of sleeplessness – those within, such as the anxiety which withers my soul to a fragile thing, the dreams and nightmares which extend into wakefulness and back again; and those without, the juddering quakes which periodically sweep through and upset my space but leave the intensive medical unit curiously undisturbed. Thunder hums through the walls at odd hours, and the banging and shouting… Best left unspoken of. In summary: it is not a quiet place, this, nor well suited to long term occupation.
I gather myself up off the bed. My hands and arms are thin, those bony wrists that were ever a feature in my childhood now travelled throughout my limbs – I look like a knuckled twig. I blame the food. And the lack of sleep. Both conspire to wring vitality from me. Never mind. I tug the cuffs of my shirt and jacket back down, but they’re slightly too short to properly shoot my cuffs, which would feel pleasantly debonair, if redundant. There’s no one here to witness my effortless cool. I am alone, and waking is always a stark reminder of that. No matter where my dreams take me, I always come back here, even if it remains shrouded in hypnogogia. I’m anchored here by what lies intubated on the other side of that door. Presumably the chain is insufficiently rusted to effect my escape. Maybe one day I’ll just dream my way out of here, maybe one day you’ll permit me that.
So, to rising proper. I’ve got a coolbox which I can just about manage to fill every few days, from the unreliable and recalcitrant taps that fart and whistle before pissing forth lukewarm water. The box lives under those taps, since I’ve found it better to just leave them on and endure their piped wails than run out of water. That means there isn’t a lot to go around and my ablutions are more scanty than I’d like. My clothes at least are made of somewhat filth-resistant fabric, which sounds good but in reality makes them disturbingly slippery when trying to sleep and makes me all too aware of sweating, since it absolutely refuses to absorb the liquid. Attempting to wash them is like catching ice cubes. Convenient though. There’s also a small supply of odd papery medical gowns, but I can’t bring myself to present a naked rear to my small world, and wearing two in opposing directions just looks stupid. Even here, vanity is inescapable.
Under the reluctant taps lies the only convenient drain in the place, and while I was initially loath to piss in a sink, I’ve had to get over it. It’s not ideal, but with so many of my basic human needs catered for I can forgive the lack of company, daylight, variety, peace of mind… well, it’s a long list anyway. Breakfast suffers in its monotony too. I’ve a good store of pre-packaged meals, cunningly crammed into dehydrated pouches. I don’t always have the water to spare, but crunchy pasta is enlivened by a lipful of spit.
I take my self-medication seriously, as it’s the one resource that an anteroom to intensive care has in abundance. There are an embarrassment of choices, and although I originally stuck to those brand names or descriptions that I either recognized from books and film or whose purpose I felt I could infer from their scattershot approach to syllables, I’ve embraced experimentation. Coxcythil is for today. For the last… weeks? Probably, I’ve been trying a new one at breakfast each day. Frankly, it brightens the day, and frequently shortens it. Yesterday’s selection, Disophyllicatin, produced a temporary euphoria followed by sweating and hideous shadows in the corners of my vision. I’ve relegated that to the back of the cupboard for now.
Lest I lose track, I’ve been making notes on the inside of the pharmacy cupboard – I say “cupboard”, but it’s a walk-in wardrobe of Narnian proportions – I’ve ended up with three basic categories: good, bad and neutral. The neutrals don’t appear to do much, the good provide either levity or estrangement from wakefulness, and the bad probably speaks for itself. I’ve always enjoyed taxonomies, and although I lack the training to identify the drugs by their names, I am breaking them down into their chief effects, insofar as they interest me. Thus, Disophyllicatin receives additional notes: “trippy”, “scary” and “sweaty”. It’s conceivable I could find a use for any of those traits in future, and it’s one of few activities where I can feel like I’m planning for the future.
At first I actually slept in the pharma-wardrobe since it’s almost long enough to lie down in without leading to advanced spinal curvature, and is a second set of doors I can close and lock. It’s hard being constantly fearful. Ultimately, it’s intolerable and I think we simply forget to be afraid. That, or it becomes a fresh baseline and all other internal measurements are so badly shot to fuck that I can’t tell if creeping dread is the same as feeling a bit queasy. Either that or my back still hurt badly enough that I abandoned the cupboard. At first, I’d hoped I might find more water in there, but neither plasma or saline appealed very much. What it did contain, beyond this cornucopia of chemicals was a very fine collection of medical tools, including but not limited to scalpels, drills, kidney-shaped dishes, odd prosthetics, spare teeth, tongs of a baffling array of sizes, and instruments for welding – presumably plates and screws through bone – which when turned unreasonably high proved sufficient for welding the hooks to the intensive care room doors. I suppose that’s a better explanation of why I feel safe enough to sleep out of the closet now. I know I can always go back in there though – the key never leaves my pocket. The thought of that, of course, prompts me to check and susurrus of mild panic as I recall I have more than one pocket.
Until the Coxcythil kicks in, I won’t know exactly how this day will play out. It’s possible I’ll spend much of it shuddering on the cot, or squatting feverishly over the sink (because pissing in it isn’t bad enough). With luck I’ll spend a few blissed out hours before I forced to heed your call. Not an actual call: you’re in hibernation. Nonetheless, I hear your voice as an itch that begins halfway down my spine, crawling with vicious toes from vertebra to vertebra, shoving my skin out of your way as you go, forcing your way under my shoulderblade and taking up residence in my neck. Wheedling your way through my skin and blood and bone into my ears and mind until I cannot stay away any longer. I aim to protract this period out as long as I can.
A person can begin to lose sense of themselves when alone for a lengthy period of time. I’ve undertaken a small project, taking advantage of the chemical insights I occasionally receive, as well as the endless, endless free time I have here. I’ve begun to write. Small stories, with no particular scope other than where I’m led each day. I can’t pretend they’re especially coherent, but it is the thing I can do. The cupboard has a healthy supply of paper (often determinedly fixed to clipboards) and pens and pencils. I suspect some of them are intended for marking flesh before incisions, but I try to keep that out of my mind while I’m writing. I wonder if any of them were used on you, to delineate the entry point of some tube or artificial vein…
They convulsed, and then died. It was if a wave caught them, raising them up in breathless anticipation before dashing the air from them. All around, death washed up, until he was the only living thing left in the square.
Those first days of the war were brutal. I remember watching from the window of our home as the gathered citizenry were butchered. It was a perfectly ordinary day, but aren’t they all – until they aren’t any more.
Spring had come and gone, leaving Vetapole in the first flush of summer. Green had crept out of the surrounding countryside and up the city walls, taking a firm hold of the roofs and snaring the terraces with leaves, whorls and tendrils of life. In a few days the first of the flowers would bloom, and our floral merchants and apothecarists would begin to prey upon them, the more common taking to the fields and greenhouses, while the bolder sought flora of a rarer and inevitably more dangerous kind. The more interesting flowers, quelletts, bloomed in the crevices of towers and between the roof tiles of the loftiest turrets of the city’s rings. Interesting in a hundred different ways, for their scents, their medicinal, spiritual or recreational value (depending on the vendor). Still others possessed properties in refined or raw form that were genuinely transformational. And each year the quelletts bloomed at greater and greater heights as the seeds were flung ever higher. It was a predictable cycle, but seemingly irresistible: the more desirable flowers simply refused to germinate at ground level unless they had chosen that locale. Eventually they would run out of surfaces at higher altitudes, and would be captured by the wind and whisked off to some other city. And then the trade would have no choice but to pursue them.
Many attempts at domestication had been made. My father maintained a series of hothouses in the upper floors of our home, and while he claimed success with the lesser, merely decorative species, the truly valuable quelletts stubbornly resisted his charms. In general they were content only to spread their petals where their forbears had hurled their seeds. Vicious little things; after germination, the flowers would swell until they audibly popped, launching their barbed seed pods into the air where the curious convection currents generated by our ringed city would fling them a little higher up. On detecting that they’d reached a desirable height those barbs would splay like fingers and take a tight hold before insinuating themselves into a crevice. There they would wait a season until the encroaching greenery of spring sent up their own spore scouts. On sensing the arrival of such sporaline prey, the quellett seeds erupted into activity, unfurling with a whipcrack, snatching up whatever tendril or airborne particle had disturbed its rest and beginning its germination with a little feast.
Though my father and brother were fascinated by them, I had always found them rather frightening. It might seem silly to be afraid of a flower, but I had nightmares about them for years. That’s no less silly, but that’s where they resided in my mind. It didn’t help that you might find some quellett hunter creeping up the outside of your bedroom window at some ungodly hour of the night in pursuit of the blooms. The sight of a black-clad thief pressing their finger to their lips at the child peering out through curtains was also enough to inspire nightmares. There were rules, and laws of course. The residents and owners of the building in which the flowers took root had primary ownership, but flowers are easily stolen, and our dwellings were well suited to climbing, since our economy depended in no small part on trade in the plants. A messy business, and deaths were not uncommon, either from florists falling to their deaths, or more rarely from rooftop fights.
We’d risen as a family as usual, my brother and I amicably squabbling over who got to the sink first, to the background sounds of our parents clattering in the kitchen with teas and breakfast. When dressed to a competent level, my brother – Asillo – and I shambled into the kitchen to find our father fussing with cups and bowls while our mother lounged by the tall open windows at the far end of the room. She was not a morning person, and I took after her in that. My first duty was presenting her with tea and squeezing in next to her to soak up some of the warm morning sun. Her hand in my hair is an abiding sensation of comfort and security. My father, aided by Asillo, brought the breakfast. Sticky toast, sweetham, and honey from the hive in the upper greenhouse. Early summer was always the sweetest season for me. While some families might bicker or discuss the day, our parents had been keen to encourage a peaceful first meal of the day filled with reading and a lazy pace of eating. I imagine our mother would still have been reading one of the reputedly dreadful novels she was so fond of, while my father would be deep into another botanical almanac or study on some obscure aspect of floristry. Asillo and I should in theory have been reading history or science papers for school, but we were vastly more keen on the gutter fiction magazines available on every street corner for half a penny.
“Boys,” my father announced, laying down what I could then see was indeed an almanac, which gave me accurate insight into what was coming, “today you’re going up on the roofs.”
It’s not every boy who’s sent to scramble around the ridges and gables… Asillo clapped his hands with glee, and I shrank closer to my mother. Not that it would dissuade my father. We’d spent many hours playing on the rooftops. It encourages coordination, and since they’re mostly flat, it was where many families and households spent their summers for meals and festivals. I didn’t mind the roof itself, I just didn’t want to go rooting for seed pods. Since it was not a school day I could hardly lay claim to being needed elsewhere and following breakfast we were gently shooed out of the windows.
The quelletts were not yet fully in season, but father drove my brother and I up onto the roofs in search of any early blooms. The thick glass roof of his greenhouses was hot under my hands as I clambered along past them, poking gingerly with a stick into the crevices and cracks between masonry and tile. In theory, the green nodules down the stick’s length should be enough to tease the quelletts into action, and I could hardly help flinching each time I pushed it into a gap. My brother, by contrast, didn’t care even a little bit. He showed admirably little fear of either the clawed seeds, or being several hundred feet away from the stone slabs of the square below. I was equally nimble, but a good deal more cautious.
It seems the Coxcythil is having some effect. For now I think I’d better curl up in bed. To be categorized later.