Copyright © 2021 Alby Stone
I see him. I know what he’s thinking. That it doesn’t matter, not really. After all, in the end everything returns to its original state. Flesh becomes dust, gases and water. Life and mind, generated by those elements, dissipate. Electricity, data and assorted chemicals: boiled down to the basics, that is all a human being is. Nothing much to get excited about. The animating spark is what counts. Why mourn the body when that spark is gone?
This is a place where sparks wink out all the time. A place of death and healing, of terror and joy. Abandon all hope, you who enter here, for all that will be revealed is truth – the truth of stethoscope and X-ray, blood test and ECG, CT scan and biopsy, bad news and good delivered by medical shamans in full regalia, the gowns and masks and gloves that mark them as travellers between worlds. The scalpels, probes and bone saws that explore, discover, and pronounce judgement. You can hope all you like but all you’ll get are diagnosis and prognosis. Make up your own scenario to fit.
And what flies forth when the verdict is death? Nothing with pigeon wings, harp and halo, that’s for sure. No sheet wrapped comedy ghost or glowing fragment of spirit floating upward to join a greater chorale. He’s seen them all, and that means he has seen nothing. There is no heaven or hell, no God or devil collecting these insubstantial remnants. Whatever they are – if they are – they go their own way, wherever that may be. The great mystery.
I see him. He’s not invisible, though no one else seems to notice his presence. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t conform to those medieval engravings or the Terry Pratchett books. He looks ordinary. He wears a black cotton jacket, threadbare and somewhat grubby, creased black trousers, boots that have a walked few miles too many, a washed-out indigo shirt. Eyes simultaneously sardonic and sad. Sometimes he looks like a teenager. Look again and his features are wrinkled and fissured as if etched with ancient texts in unknown scripts, words no longer understood by the living, though they spell out his singular power. This gift, this curse, is one he bears with some pride and not a little sorrow. He does not like to see the innocent suffer, the old to crumble into humiliating senescent misery, the stupid and reckless to reap the reward of folly. He does not even like to see the guilty, the monstrous, stare into the final void with fear and despair. He does not, cannot judge. That is not his role. What, then, is he for? What does he do?
Now I know. He releases.
I see him move among the injured and the sick. This is his triage. He doesn’t know I can see him. To be honest, I’m not sure I do, or that he is really there. He stands by an old woman whose eyes know the measure of her days even if her brain does not. She is so tired, so frail and pale, so bravely holding back tears. A younger woman, perhaps her daughter, worries by her side. He touches her hand, gently – lovingly. Not yet. He allows her a few more hours to say goodbye. He moves on, ignoring the flesh wounds and minor coughs, the anxious hypochondriacs and mentally ill who congregate at every A&E to unknowingly waste the professionals’ time. He homes in on a young man in a wheelchair, asleep or comatose, and shakes his head. This man, he knows, is a long-term drug addict, a sad creature who has for so long sought a chemical oblivion that is as close to death as he can come without being the real deal. Catholic guilt? Cowardice? Who knows what has kept him from fulfilling his secret wish? But tonight his deepest desire shall be granted. Death leans down and kisses his forehead. The young man’s slumber deepens, his breathing becomes ever more shallow. Then…
The young man slides from the wheelchair and crumples to the floor, Someone calls for help. An alarm sounds, doctors and nurses run. They arrive too late. There is no way back from those years of heavy substance abuse, that final shot at mortality. The releaser bows his head and moves on, heading my way. He stands before me, scratches his head, looks down at my foot and smiles, knowing the extent of my sickness, the intensity and sweep of the pain, the sorrow of knowing it was all my own stupid fault. Our eyes meet and knowledge ignites in the space between. I am not afraid and that intrigues him. Laughing silently, he wags a finger, drifts off to assess someone else. Then he is gone.
The rest is an eternity that passes in the blink of an eye. Time collapses as I understand that now is not the time of my release. Death will come for me, but not yet, not yet, maybe not for a long time.
There was an angel in the anaesthetic. Yeah, I’m sure of that if nothing else. It was all so hazy, so fractured, but she was the only constant. She flew above and within me, tiny and lost in the billowing folds of an oversize blue protective gown that flapped around her like unruly wings, flitting around the room like a moth torn between a myriad candles. I was afraid for her; I was sure she was falling, and could not bear the thought that she might hurt herself. But she maintained balance, making every tilt and teeter into a joke at the expense of the laws of physics.
And that’s what she was – a spirit joker, a stoned saint, eyes divinely smashed and wise and laughing at gravity’s limp attempts to take her down. She held the mask over my face and told me to inhale, and then she was in my lungs and kissing my blood goodnight. Unconscious, I knew she was at my shoulder when the surgeon deployed knife and saw. She closed my eyes and sang a wordless lullaby that spanned the time between the first incision and the final stitch.
I read the badge but couldn’t pronounce her name. ‘How do you say that?’
The blue eyes sparkled. She said it and I was still unable to form the sounds.
‘Take deep, slow breaths,’ she said, sparkling with both barrels.
That was when I went away and took her with me, her and that incredible, anarchic blue gown, deep into my lungs and blood and brain.
I didn’t return straight away. I was floating in a brilliant golden light, feeling safe and warm and free from pain. When I saw a tiny patch of blue like a wisp of gauze far off in that aureate immensity, I knew it was her. The face was a crude sketch of lines, careless slashes of blue on blue, but I knew.
‘Do you know where you are?’
‘Recovery room,’ I replied, and the light vanished, leaving my gaze fixed on a picture of a hospital room, imprinted like an antiseptic after-image. A machine bleeped, nurses bustled quietly, voices soft and tinted with relief or concern. Someone, I heard, was in trouble, blood pressure alarmingly low. Dimly, I realised they were talking about me. Surrounded by love and nestled within an angel’s gown of wings, I didn’t care.
Someone was holding my hand. I knew who it was, and that I was safe. Death had made a promise and the angel was there to deliver.
I choke off a scream as the pain intensifies. The little bastard has crept up on me again, sliding in from that nowhere-space it now inhabits. This time it manifests as an indescribable shredding of everything between toes and knee, the annihilation of what was in truth only a remembered shape. Gone but not forgotten.
Goblin laughter caresses my inner ear. I imagine a malevolent face painted in a sickly green radium glow edged in darkness, a crazed grin as it plans its next assault. It feels personal, and I guess it is. I feel its hatred. My zombie foot, erupting in razor shards, wiring me to the mains and flipping a switch, prickling and stabbing and fiery, toes exploding at random. Severance payback.
When I move, it weighs twice as much as the original. It waves from side to side of its own volition, rises and falls, twitches, and – a horror worse than the pain – it wiggles its toes. It presses itself forcefully and uncomfortably to the floor, itches, aches, cramps and burns. Its phantom flesh crawls with ghostly worms.
‘Bastard!’ Another toe explodes without warning. The imaginary face warps gleefully.
I know the theory. The brain – maybe the autonomous nervous system, the pathways mapped and marshalled by the vagus nerve – struggles to cope with major disruption like the loss of a limb. Its map is wrong. It compensates by repeating and reiterating the last known sensations experienced by the vanished body part, exaggerating to confirm and affirm the lie of continued existence. So my neural network believes the leg is there even though it has been removed. And why not? It has the evidence, the pains so acutely registered during the last days of contact, of connection. Experientially, the damned leg is still attached and wreaking havoc. Visual surveys do nothing to dispel the illusion; pain takes precedence over pictures. Seeing may be believing, but feeling is the dominant truth.
So I try the exercises, visualisation and mirroring to impose the remaining limb’s healthy sensations upon the phantom culprit, gradually dialling those down to zero, the neutrality of disappearance. Anything’s worth a shot. But no matter how I try, it doesn’t work. The haunting becomes less intense, even halts for hours at a stretch, but it always returns, usually at the most inopportune moments. I jerk and flinch when the pain bursts forth. Food flies from fork to floor, urine misses the target by an inch, a pen gouges the page, speech is interrupted by sudden streams of profanity as I respond the only way I can. Sleep only proceeds thanks to the intervention of opium. I restrict myself to a single dose of dihydrocodeine late at night, and not every night – one haunting at a time is more than enough to worry about. This sparing use buys me a few precious hours of relative peace.
As I write, the goblin unleashes another surprise, an unprecedented incineration of the phantom heel. This time, I’m unable to even screech or swear, as my body responds by becoming rigid for a good thirty seconds: no breath, no motion, no sound. I’m pretty sure that my heart stops beating until it passes, that neurotransmitters and the brain’s electrical impulses pause in mid-flow, temporarily stranded between dendrite and axon.
I see my pen has left scattered marks on the narrow feint page, untidy squiggles approximating letters of the alphabet. With a squint and a little imagination, they are just about legible.
I cannot deny the verdict.
Ultimately, my punishment is self-inflicted. I am the goblin, until nature takes its course and the revenant fades to nothingness. Or until death releases me from myself. But not yet.