You are on the train, considering the tips of your clean fingers against the dirty glass through which you watch the small shapes of bodies, the silhouettes on the street, hurrying past in long coats, clutching briefcases, or there, that one in jeans and a sweater, hunched shoulders beneath a backpack. Any one of them would do. You resist the temptation to look at faces because faces can be deceiving, faces can make you think there is such a thing as a person, the mass illusion everyone falls for until they learn what you have come to learn (too young, you are too young for such terrible knowledge) there are no people here, there are only bodies, separate from what they contain, husks. Useless, eventually.
Yours is useless now, or most nearly, though it doesn’t feel like it, the Doctors have assured you it is true, your body is moving towards disintegration even as it sits here with you on this train, behaving normally, moving with your breath and at your will. See, there, you move your hand against the glass because you decided to, you wipe your eyes because you wanted to (and your eyes are tired, but that is not a matter of alarm, you were up all night, so of course your eyes are tired), you sink further into the vague cushion of the seat, you do that, or your body does that because you tell it to, so no wonder you fell for the illusion of a body that belongs to you, no wonder you believed it, no wonder you loved it. Oh! How you love it still!
You look out the dirty window, blinking away the tears that have so quickly formed. You are leaving the city now. What city is this anyways? You have lost track. Later, you’ll ask someone. Where are we? And, not understanding, he will say, We’re on a train. The edge of the city is littered with trash, the sharp scrawls of bright graffiti, houses with tiny lawns, laundry hanging on the line, Christmas lights strung across a porch, though it is too late or too early for that. You close your eyes. Let me sleep, you say to your body. Right? But no, you must admit, your body needs sleep so the body’s eyes close and it swallows you, the way it’s always done, the body says sleep so you sleep, just like that, you are gone.
The hospital, the Doctors say, has been here for a long time. It’s one of those wonderful secrets, like the tiny, still undiscovered insects, like several sea creatures, like the rumored, but not proven aliens from other planets, like angels, like God, the hospital is one of the mysteries, something many people know for a fact which others discount variously as illusion, indigestion, dreams, spiritual hunger, fantasy, science fiction, rumor, lies, insanity.
It is made of brick and stucco (architecturally unfortunate but a reflection of the need for expansion) and it has a staff of a hundred and fifty. With a population that large, the rotating roster of patients, the salespeople who wander in offering medical supplies (not understanding what they do to sick bodies here) the food vendors, the occasional lost traveler (never returned to the world in quite the same way) it is remarkable that the hospital remains a secret.
The patients come to the auditorium for an orientation. Some, naively, bring suitcases. The Doctors do nothing about this. There is a point in the process when the familiar clothes are discarded. It’s not the same for everyone and the Doctors have learned that it’s best not to rush things.
The Doctors appear to be watching with bored disinterest as the patients file in. But this is not, in fact, the case. The Doctors are taking notes. They don’t need pen and paper to do this, of course. They have developed their skills of observation quite keenly. They remember you, when you come in, skulking at the back of the room, like the teenager you so recently were, sliding into the auditorium chair, and crouching over as though afraid you will be singled out as being too young to be here, but that is ridiculous as there are several children in the group flocking around that lady, the one with orangey-red hair and the red and yellow kimono draped loosely over purple blouse and pants, a long purple scarf wrapped around her bloody neck. For some reason she is laughing while everyone else is solemn, even the Doctors standing there in their white lab coats, their eyes hooded as though supremely bored. (Though you are wrong about this. The Doctors are never bored.)
The Doctors introduce themselves. They hope everyone had a good trip. They know there is some confusion and fear. That’s ok. It’s normal. It’s ok if there is none as well. That’s normal too. All the feelings are normal and no one should worry about them.
The Doctors explain that the doors are locked but anyone can leave at any time. Just ring the bell and we will let you out.
The orangey-red haired lady with the bloody neck raises her hand and the Doctors nod. You have to lean over to hear her raspy voice.
How often does that happen? How often does someone leave without going through with the procedure?
The Doctors confer amongst themselves. Never, they say in unison. It never happens.
The Doctors pass out room assignments and a folder that contains information about the dining hall (open for breakfast from six to nine, lunch from eleven-thirty to two, and dinner from five-thirty to eight) the swimming pool (towels and suits provided) the chapel (various denominational services offered throughout the week). The folder contains a map that designates these areas as well as the site of the operating rooms (marked with giant red smiley faces) and the areas that house the Doctors which are marked Private, though, the Doctors say, if there is an emergency it would be all right to enter the halls which, on the map have thick black lines across them.
Finally, the Doctors say, there is an assignment. This is the first step in the operation. The procedure cannot go any further until the first step is complete. The Doctors glance at each other and nod. Don’t be afraid, they say. Things are different here. Everything will be all right, and then, as an afterthought, almost as though they’d forgotten what they had been talking about, they say, find someone to love.
The auditorium is suddenly weirdly silent. As though the bodies have forgotten to breathe.
It’s simple really, the Doctors say. Love someone.
You look around. Are they nuts?
At the front of the room the Doctors are laughing. No one is sure what to do. You see everyone looking around nervously, you catch a couple people looking at you but they look away immediately. You’re not insulted by this. You expect it even.
The bloody neck lady raises her hand again. The Doctors nod.
Just one? she rasps.
The Doctors say, no, no, it can be one. It can be many.
And what happens next?
The Doctors shrug. They are organizing their papers and making their own plans for the evening. Apparently the meeting is over. Several patients stand, staring at the map in their hands, squinting at the exit signs.
Excuse me? the lady says again.
You can’t decide if you admire her persistence or find it annoying but you wish she’d do something about her throat, suck on a lozenge maybe.
The Doctors nod.
After we find people to love, what do we do?
The Doctors shrug. Love them, they say.
This seems to make perfect sense to her. She stands up. The children stand too. They leave in a group, like a kindergarten class, you think. Actually, you kind of want to go with them. But you can’t. You look at the map in your hand. You find your exit and you walk towards it, only glancing up to avoid colliding with the others. Love someone? What’s this shit all about? Love someone? Let someone love me, you think, angry at first and then, sadly. Let someone love me.
The bodies move down the long hallways, weaving around each other, pausing at doors with numbers and pictures on them. (Later, you find out the pictures are for the children who are too young to know their numbers.) The bodies open unlocked doors and the bodies see pleasant rooms painted yellow, wallpapered with roses, cream colored, pale blue, soft green, furnished with antiques and wicker. The bodies walk to the locked windows and stare out at the courtyard, a pleasant scene of grass and fountain, flowering fruit trees. The bodies open the closets filled with an odd assortment of clothes, plaid pants, striped shirts, flowery dresses, A-line skirts, knickers, hand-knit sweaters, and rain coats, all in various sizes. The bodies flick on the bathroom lights, which reveal toilets, sinks, tubs and showers, large white towels hanging from heated towel racks. The bodies look at the beds with feather pillows and down comforters. The bodies breathe, the bodies breathe, the bodies breathe. The bodies are perfect breathers. For now.
What if this is the strangest dream you ever had? What if none of this is true? The Doctors have not told you that your body has its own agenda, your mother has not held your hand and squeezed it tight, tears in her eyes, your father has never hugged you as though he thought you might suddenly float away, your hair has not fallen out, your skin become so dry it hurts, your swallowing blistered? What if all of this is only that you are having a strange dream? What if you aren’t sick at all, only sleeping?
The Doctors eat pepperoni and discuss astronomy, bowling, liposuction and who has been seen kissing when someone’s spouse was away at a seminar. The Doctors drink red wine and eat pheasant stuffed with gooseberries and cornbread, a side of golden-hashed potatoes, green beans with slivered almonds and too much butter. They discuss spectral philosophy, spiritual monasticy, and biological relativism. They lean back in their chairs and loosen belts and buttons surreptitiously, burping behind hands or into napkins. Dessert is served on pink plates, chocolate cake with raspberry filling and chocolate frosting. Coffee and tea is served in individual pots. The Doctors say they couldn’t possibly and then they pick up thin silver forks and slice into the cake, the raspberry gooing out. “What do you think they are doing now?” someone says. “Oh, they are crying,” several of the Doctors respond. The Doctors nod their knowledgeable heads. Yes. On this first night, the bodies are crying.
That first night is followed by other days and other nights and all around you life happens. There are barbecues, movies, tea parties and dances. The scent of seared meat, popcorn, and earl gray tea wafts through the halls. You are amazed to observe everyone behaving as if this is all just the usual thing. Even the children, sickly pale, more ears and feet than anything, seem to have relaxed into the spirit of their surroundings. They ride bicycles, scooters, and skateboards down the hall, shouting, Excuse me, mister! Excuse me! You can never walk in a line from one end to the other and this is how, distracted and mumbling under your breath, you come face to face with the strange orange-haired woman. She no longer wears the kimono but the scarf remains around her throat, bloodied purple silk trailing down a black, white and yellow daisy dress. Her head, topped with a paper crown, is haloed with orange feathers, downy as those from a pillow.
Where you going in such a hurry? she wheezes.
Upon closer inspection you see they are not feathers at all, but wisps of hair, her scalp spotted with drops of blood.
Name’s Renata, she thrusts her freckled fleshy hand towards you.
Excuse me! Excuse me!
You step aside to let a girl on a bicycle and a boy on roller skates pass. When you turn back to her, Renata is running after them, her bloodied scarf dangling down her back, feathers of orangey-red hair floating through the air behind her.
She’s as loony as a tune, wouldn’t you say?
You hadn’t seen the young man approaching behind the bicycle child and the roller-skating one. You haven’t seen him before at all. He stares at you with blue eyes, like a dog.
You don’t got a cigarette, do you?
You shake your head, vigorously. No. Of course not. It goes without saying.
In spite of his stunning white hair, he’s no more than five years older than you. He leans closer. I do, he says. Come on.
He doesn’t look back. You follow him, stepping aside occasionally for the racing children. You follow him through a labyrinth of halls. After awhile he begins to walk slowly, slinking almost. There are no children here, no noise at all. You follow his cue, pressing against the walls. You have an idea you have entered the forbidden area but what are they going to do anyway. Kill you? You snort and he turns those ghost-blue dog eyes on you as though with threat of attack.
You are a body following another body. Your heart is beating against your chest. Hard. Like the fist of a dying man. Let me out, let me out, let me out. You are a body and you are breathing but your breath is not your own.
The body in front of you quickly turns his head, left, right, looking down the long white hall. The body runs, and your body follows. Because he has your breath now.
What is love? The Doctors ponder this question in various meetings throughout the week. We have been discussing this for years, one of them points out, and still have come to no conclusion. The Doctors agree. There is no formula. No chemical examination. No certainty.
There’s been a breach, the Doctor in charge of such matters reports.
The Doctors smile. Let me guess, one of them says, Farino?
But the others don’t wait for a confirmation. They know it’s Farino.
Who’s he with?
They are surprised that it is you. Several of them say this.
The Doctors have a big debate. It lasts for several hours, but in the end, the pragmatists win out. They will not interfere. They must let things run their course. They end with the same question they began with. What is love?
It’s quick as the strike of a match to flame. One minute you are a dying body, alone in all the world, and the next you are crouched in a small windowless room beside a boy whose blue eyes make you tremble, whose breathing, somehow, involves your own. Of course it isn’t love. How could it be, so soon? But the possibility exists. He passes the cigarette to you and you hesitate but he says, Whatsa matter? Afraid you’re going to get cancer? You place the cigarette between your lips, you draw breath. You do that. He watches you, his blue eyes clouded with smoke.
Thanks. You hand the cigarette back. He flicks the ash onto the floor. The floor is covered with ash. From wall to wall there is ash.
This isn’t all mine, you know.
You nod. You don’t want to look stupid so you nod. He hands the cigarette to you and your fingers touch momentarily. You are surprised by the thrill this sends through your body. I sing the body electric.
You hadn’t realized you’d spoken out loud. I sing the body electric, you say. It’s from a poem.
You a fucking poet? he says.
You hand the cigarette back to him. Any moment now the Doctors could come and take you away. Any breath could be the last breath. His blue eyes remain locked on yours.
I mean, are you? A fucking poet? He doesn’t look away, and you don’t either.
He grins. He crushes the precious cigarette into the ashy floor. He leans over and his lips meet your lips. He tastes like ash and smoke. The gray powder floats up in the tumble of tossed clothes and writhing bodies. The bodies are coated with a faint gray film and maybe this isn’t love, maybe it’s only desire, loneliness, infatuation, maybe it’s just the body’s need, maybe it isn’t even happening, maybe you have already been cremated and you are bits of ash creating this strange dream but maybe you are really here, flesh to flesh, ash to ash, alive, breathing, in the possibility of love.
Later, you lie alone on the clean white sheets in your room. You are waiting. Either he will come for you or they will. You stare at the ceiling. It is dimpled plaster dotted with specks of gold. You think it is beautiful.
Suddenly there is knocking on the door.
You open it but it isn’t the Doctors or the police and it isn’t him, it’s Renata.
Are you naked or dead? she says.
You slam the door. Your ash print remains on the bed, a silhouette of your body, or the body. She is knocking and knocking. You tell her to go away but she won’t. Exasperated, you grab your ash pants from the floor, step into them, zip and button the fly, open the door.
She is almost entirely bald now, but she still wears that ridiculous paper crown. She sees you looking at it. She reaches up to fondle the point. One of the children made it for me. Behind her you see the evidence of your indiscretion. Your ash footprints reveal your exact course. The hallway is eerily empty.
Where are the children now?
They’re gone, she croaks, stepping into the room, a few orange hairs wisping around her. Haven’t you noticed how quiet it is?
It is. It is very quiet. All you can hear is her breath, which is surprisingly loud. This place . . . you say, but you don’t continue. You were going to say it gives you the creeps but then you remember Farino. Where is he now? How can you hate this place when this is where you found him? You may as well relax. Enjoy this while you can. Soon you will be out there again. Just another dying body without any more chances left.
She opens your closet and begins searching through it. Have you seen my kimono? The one I was wearing when I arrived?
You tell her no. She steps out of the closet, shuts the door. They say it’s just like changing clothes, you know.
You nod. You’ve heard that as well, though you have your doubts.
She sighs. If you see it, will you let me know? She doesn’t wait for your reply. She just walks out the door.
You count to ten and then you look down the hall. There is only one set of ash footprints, your own. Are you there? you whisper. Are you there? Are you? Is anyone?
You cannot control the panic. It rises through your body on its own accord. Your throat tightens and suddenly it’s as though you are breathing through a straw. Your heart beats wildly against your chest, Let me out, let me out. The body is screaming now. Anyone? Anyone? Is anyone here? But the hall remains empty except for your footprints, the silent ashy steps of your life, and this is when you realize you have not loved enough, you have not breathed enough, you have not even hated enough and just when you think, well, now it’s over, the Doctors come for you, dressed in white smocks spotted with roses of blood and you are pleading with them not to send you back out there with this hopeless body and they murmur hush, hush, and don’t worry. But, though they say the right things the words are cold.
They take you down the long white halls, following your footprints, which, you can only hope (is it possible?) they have not noticed, until, eventually, you pass the room your footprints come out of, smudged into a Rorschach of ash as though several people have walked over them.
Hush, hush. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt any more than life. That’s a little joke. Ok, we’re turning here. Yes, that’s right. That door. Could you open it, please? No, no, don’t back out now. The instruments are sharp but you will be asleep. When you wake up the worst will be over. Here, just lie down. How’s that? Ok, now hold still. Don’t let the straps alarm you. The body, you know, has its own will to survive. Is that too tight? It is? We don’t want it too loose. Once, this was a long time ago, before we perfected the procedure, a body got up right in the middle of it. The body has a tremendous will to survive even when it goes against all reason. What’s that? Let’s just say it was a big mess and leave it at that. The cigarette? Yes, we know about that. Don’t mind the noise, all right? We’re just shaving your head. What? Why aren’t we angry? Can you just turn this way a little bit? Not really much left here to shave is there? We’re not angry; you did your assignment. What’s that? Oh, Farino. Of course we know about him. He’s right there, didn’t you notice? Oh, hey, hey, stop it. Don’t be like that. He’s fine. He just got here first. He’s knocked out already. That’s what we’re going to do for you now. This might—look, you knew what you were getting into. You already agreed. What do you want? Life or death? You want Farino? Ok, then relax. You’ve got him.
You are on a train. Your whole body aches. The body is a wound. You groan as you turn your head away from the hard glass. The body is in agony. Your head throbs. You reach up and feel the bald scalp. Oh! The body! The dream of the body! The hope of the body for some miracle world where you will no longer suffer. You press your open palms against your face. You are not weeping. You are not breathing. You are not even here. Someone taps the body’s shoulder.
You look up into the hound face of the train conductor. Ticket? he says.
I already gave it to you.
He shakes his head.
You search through your pockets and find a wallet. The wallet is filled with bills but there is no ticket. I seem to have lost it, you say, but look, here, I can pay you.
The conductor lifts the large walkie-talkie to his long mouth and says some words you don’t listen to. Then he just stands there, looking at you. You realize he thinks he exists and you do too. The train screams to a long slow stop. He escorts you off.
You can’t just leave me here, you say. I’m not well.
Here’s your ride now, he says.
The police cruiser comes to a halt. The policeman gets out. He tilts the brim of his hat at the conductor. When he gets close to you, he looks up with interest. Well, well, he says.
There’s been some sort of mistake, you say. Please, I’m not well.
The conductor steps back onto the train. The windows are filled with the faces of passengers. A child with enormous ears points at you and waves. For a second you think you see Farino. But that isn’t possible. Is it?
The policeman says, Put your hands behind your back.
These aren’t my hands.
He slaps the cuffs on you. Too tight. You tell him they are too tight.
The whistle screams over your words. The train slowly moves away.
Aren’t you going to read me my rights?
The policeman leans into your face with bratwurst breath. Just ‘cause you shaved your head you think I don’t know who you are, he says. He steers you to the cruiser. Places one hand on your head as you crouch to sit in the backseat.
I know my rights, you insist.
He radios the station. Hey, he says, I’m bringing something special.
You drive past cows and cornfields, farmhouses and old barns. The handcuffs burn into your wrists. The head hurts, the arms hurt, the whole body hurts. You groan.
Whatsa matter? The policeman looks at you in the rearview mirror.
I’m not well.
You sure do look beat up.
I’ve been in a hospital, you say.
Is that right?
You look out the window at an old white farmhouse on a distant hill. You wonder who loves there.
The station is a little brick building surrounded by scrubby brown grass and pastures. The policeman behind the desk and the policewoman pouring coffee both come over to look at you.
Fucken A, they say.
Can I make my phone call?
The policewoman takes off the handcuffs. She presses the thumb into a pad of ink. She tells you where to stand for your picture. Smile, she says, we got you now Farino.
What is this body doing with you? What has happened? They list the crimes he’s committed. You insist it was never you. You never did those things. You are incapable of it. You tell them about the hospital, the Doctors, you tell them how Farino tricked you.
They tell you terrible things. They talk about fingerprints and blood.
But it wasn’t me, you insist.
Farino, they say, cut this shit and confess. Maybe we can give you a deal, life, instead of death. How about that?
But I didn’t, you say. I’m not like that.
You fucking monster! Why don’t you show a little decency? Tell us what you did with the bodies.
I was in a hospital. He switched bodies with me. He tricked me.
Oh fuck it. He’s going for the fuckin’ insanity shit, ain’t he? Fuck it all anyway. How long he been here? Oh, fuck, give him the fuckin phone call. Let him call his fuckin lawyer, the fuckin bastard.
You don’t know who to call. They give you the public defender’s number. No, you say, I have money. In my wallet.
That ain’t your money to spend, you worthless piece of shit. That belonged to Renata King, ok?
What? Is it coming back to you now? Your little amnesia starting to clear up?
How’d I end up with Renata’s wallet?
You fuckin ape. You know what you did.
But you don’t. You only know that you want to live. You want to live more than you want anything else at all. You want life, you want life, you want life. All you want is life.
What if this is really happening? What if you are really here? What if out of all the bodies, all the possibilities, you are in this body and what if it has done terrible things?
Listen, you say. You look up at the three stern faces. They hate you, you think, but no, they hate this body. You are not this body. The stern faces turn away from you. What can you say anyway? How can you explain? You sit, waiting, as though this were an ordinary matter, this beautiful thing, this body, breathing. This body. This past. This terrible judgment. This wonderful knowledge. The body breathes. It breathes and it doesn’t matter what you want, when the body wants to, it breathes. It breathes in the hospital, it breathes in the jail, it breathes in your dreams and it breathes in your nightmares, it breathes in love and it breathes in hate and there’s not much you can do about any of it, you are on a train, you are in an operating room, you are in a jail, you are innocent, you are guilty, you are not even here. None of this is about you, and it never was.
© 2006 by M. Rickert.
Originally published in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology,
edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel.
Reprinted by permission of the author.