First published in Shallow Graves Magazine, April 2009
It must have been last Friday when all this began. I awoke with a tremendous start in the middle of the night sweating and panting as if I had had a night terror- but I have not had one of those since I was a child. (In fact, I have been unable to recall any of my dreams since I left the comfortable and protective home of my parents at eighteen years of age.) Yet I awoke very frightened. I pushed myself up into a sitting position and wiped the sweat from my face with my bed-shirt; my eyes stung from the salty perspiration. Frantically I looked about the bedroom and saw nothing but a sliver of moonlight shining through the draperies and falling upon the desk in the corner, and the silhouette of the dark and vacant wardrobe- but otherwise the room was still. I could hear the clock slowing ticking away the seconds in the lounge room and the heater hissing out its gas on the far wall near the kitchen- all else was silent. Someone, I felt, had been watching me, standing above me or perhaps looming in the doorway. I caught my breath and tried to stand up. And that’s when the pain started.
It had hit me full strength in the middle of my chest with a stone-like blow. By the force of it I had lost my wind and fell down to my knees. I clutched my chest, convinced I was having a heart attack. A bloodthirsty lion carried me in its iron jaws to ferocious agony, but soon it fell tired and slept, and the sharp pain dulled to a mild irritation. Then my head swelled and ached so suddenly that for a few moments I was unsure where I was or what was happening. Falling forward on the bed I grabbed my head with both hands, thinking I had to hold it together to keep it from bursting. The ticking clock fired its leaden cannonballs every second directly at my head, and the snake on the wall spewed a cloud of noxious gas into every pocket of my lungs. If I could have stood up, I surely would have thrown myself from the window. Yet I could not move; the pain was paralyzing, and I must have passed out- thank God. But when I finally came back around, I was lying on the kitchen floor in my trousers wearing but one loafer and my vest was hanging from my neck, torn to shreds. I pulled myself from the floor, feeling quite dazed, and tried to reorient myself and bring back some sense of control and focus. This proved impossible. I stumbled to the water closet and drank some water from the tap; it promptly came back up in a very violent manner. I dried my face with a towel and eventually made my way back to bed, bracing myself against the walls with much distorted balance. Along the way, I noticed the sun had started its daily routine. Light danced through the windows, and I determined by the sunrise that I had been unconscious for at least three hours.
This exact scenario has been repeating every night since, down to the very last and finest detail. I have been so distraught by the whole thing that after the first night I stopped going to work at the Times. I had not even the will to call in sick or, for that matter, call my department boss at all. They would either dismiss me or call the police if I did not contact them soon. After all, they were paying for this flat while I covered the war. The first morning after this entire thing began, I tried to at least wake up and call the office, but I could hardly make it to the bathroom let alone talk on the phone. Under normal circumstances I am anything but a derelict, but who could care about employment when one is so gravely ill. Just as a precaution, I unplugged the telephone from the wall and smashed it on the edge of the countertop- just as a precaution. The pain in my chest did not cease even by the second night; it remained a constant dull ache, flaring up whenever I tried to draw a deep breath. I suffered the first few days lying on my bed in agony, now and then I wandered to the loo- or to the kitchen for a bite of bread- in the late afternoon, when the sun was just beginning to set. By the dim light of dusk, I saved myself the anguish of turning on the electric lights. I wished not to be bothered by any light at all. Light only increased my misery and I felt like it was pushing my eyeballs out from the inside, so I kept the draperies tightly closed. I made it the task of yesterday’s dusk to break every light bulb in the flat with the broom’s handle.
For five days now I have suffered this sordid fever, forgetting almost entirely about my employment. I have resolved to ignore the pains in my chest, which are no longer constant but come and go every few minutes. It is after noon and I sit at my desk writing this record, unsure of what will become of me if a solution does not arise. The doctor came at my summons on Monday and gave me an examination. According to him, I suffer only from exhaustion and malnutrition. He could not explain the sudden chest and head pains, nor the routine fainting and strange circumstances I awaken to afterwards. Sleepwalking was suggested, but that seemed to me too simple and safe a diagnosis. Angry and dissatisfied I sent him away. The shortness of my temper surprised me as I physically threw the good doctor out of my flat and slammed the door behind him. Usually I am a very quiet and passive gentleman, hardly ever aroused to visible physical anger. That same night, when I awoke after the fear and sweating- and the deathly pains and fainting- I was lying prostrate on the floor of the lounge, bleeding from my forearms. My bookshelf lay splintered on the floor and every page from every book I own had been torn into blood-soaked shreds and was pasted over every wall. Walking into the washroom to wash up I cut my feet on broken glass. Apparently, I had smashed the mirror into a thousand pieces in some sort of blind rage. Shards of bloody glass were everywhere, thus explaining these lacerations on my arms.
After this morning’s blackout I rolled off the sofa intending to stand up and move to the writing table but, I was shocked to learn, I had no feet! I teetered for a moment on my ankles then fell to the floor, groping in panic for my feet but finding only the rounded ends of my shins. There was no wound of any kind; it was as if I had merely been born without feet, but I knew this was not so. I distinctly recall having had the ability to walk and run and dance, but now I reach down in bewilderment and find nothing! Twice today I forgot their absence and stood up quickly, only to fall even quicker. On my hands and knees I have been crawling around looking for my feet, thinking they might have just fallen off and found their way under the sofa or into a closet like an unwanted pair of shoes- but I cannot find them anywhere. Perhaps I will develop some balance, and in a couple of days will be proficient at my new locomotion.
It seems the duration of my blackouts might be increasing- it is very hard to tell. Thus, I am not quite sure what day it is. Further, I have no way of accurately discerning the time- the clock in the lounge is now nothing more than a pile of brass and wood and my Swiss timepiece is nowhere to be found. The sun seems to be a few hours from the horizon, so I will take my time finishing these notes and accurately record the current circumstances. Since Friday, the state of affairs has grown considerably worse. Tonight, awakened by the loyal nightly migraine, I made the unfortunate discovery that not only am I without feet, but now I am without knees. This wholly repulses me. They were here last night- I am positive. And no one has entered the flat overnight (yesterday I nailed some boards over the door for safety) so it would appear perfectly logical that I had either been born thus, or suffered a tragic accident as a child and am now left with these bulbous stumps- white and veined. Although, I assume, I once enjoyed having feet and knees, it is much easier to move about on these thick cushioned thighs than it was on the fragile, tapered shins.
Right now, I do not feel too horrible. I do not feel the slightest hunger in my belly and my head is rather cool and comfortable. Yesterday morning, if I am correct, I cleaned up the shredded books as best I could. They are all in a big heap now- in the dining room like a yard’s worth of raked leaves. The blood was rather difficult to wipe from the walls. In my fatigue, I could only manage to wet a bath towel and smear the blood around like paint- and now it is worse than before. In the washroom the broken mirror still clutters the floor, but I stopped going in there a couple of days ago, so there is no sense in trying to clean it up. Much to my relief I have been waking up on the sofa after the fits and blackouts, and the gauze I wrapped around my wounded arms a day or two ago is still intact, thought it is quite crusted and vile now. I refuse to enter the washroom to find clean gauze. The scene sickens me. Never have I seen so much spilt blood. I am still astonished that it all came out of me. Now that I think about it, I have not excreted any bodily wastes for at least three days nor have I taken any food or water, that I can recall. How long can a person go without sustenance? How long had I gone already?
Today I finally wrote a short memo to my employer explaining my situation.
[Reprinted with permission from London Times. – Editor]
Mr. Robert Greene
Have fallen ill- terrible virus. Unable to speak due to inflammation of throat. Fever is high and I am bed-ridden. Will be out for few days. Give blockade to Smythe. Next month’s deadline will be met. Give salary checks to Susie for immediate deposit, tell her sched. follow-up intv. w/ General Hawthorne. Don’t worry re: me. Back soon!
It took me an absurd amount of time to scribble this note (I prayed it was legible) and slide it out through the mail slot for the postman. Thankfully it landed stamp-side up so the postman would find it and send it off. At least this will buy me some time and keep the policeman from arriving at my flat. As I pushed the little envelope out the mail slot I peered through to make sure it landed properly. I saw a stack of newspapers on my doorstep. Squinting and cursing the brightness outside I managed to read the date on the Daily Telegraph. I refused to believe what my eyes were telling me. There was no way in hell it could be the fifteenth of August! I remember very clearly that this damn illness began on 19 July 1940. Hitler had just finished his address to the Parliament, and I had just finished an editorial on Churchill and a news article about the blockade on Japan. Just before I went home for the evening I filed a report on Germany’s recent attack on British ports. I remember trotting down the stairs from my office on the third floor at the Times, my brown leather shoes clacking on the cement steps. I burst through the revolving doors and into the mild summer evening, thoroughly enjoying my ten minutes walk down Pennington Street to Discovery Terrace. The smell from the Tobacco Docks across the street filled my lungs with its sweet aroma as I ran up to my second floor flat. After my evening shower, I fixed a simple meal of salmon and rice and ate at the dining table. There I sat for about an hour, and I recall quite vividly the traffic jam on the Tower Bridge a few miles away. Some man had leaped to his death that evening and the police were not letting any cars cross until they could fish out the body. Then I had a glass of Brandy and went to sleep. Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary, until I woke up.
I was so completely exhausted after the minuscule task of letter writing that I tried to retire to my bedroom early. After pulling myself off the floor I immediately felt faint. My vision tunneled and my ears buzzed with a growing blackness. I collapsed somewhere in the middle of the lounge. This has been happening more and more frequently, probably due to lack of nourishment. I think it must be close to sunset now, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Last night in my blackout, I covered all the windows with my shirts and trousers, sealing out the light with the masking tape I had in the closet; and over that, I nailed some wood planks to keep out the Nazis and any infernal light that may be trying to creep in and singe my sensitive skin. I suspect a few hours had passed when I awoke right here in this chair, at this desk, with a newly lit candle flickering by the wind of my arduous breath. From the waist down I am now completely absent. My trousers and belt still lie here and almost give the illusion of legs. I knew they would be the next to go. It is rather complicated to remain in this chair. I will quickly slide to the floor if I do not angle my torso just right and keep the bottom of my spine centred. This way I can lean backwards and have my hands free to write.
Have you ever realized how much of your body weight is in the legs? I feel so much lighter now. On my hands I can speed around my flat for hours- and it is wonderful exercise. For the last few minutes I “walked” around the flat looking for my legs, but I did not find them and honestly, that is fine with me. Had this all happened twenty years ago I would have lamented the disappearance of my penis, but at my age it was more of a burden anyway. But I speculate upon what it is that has plagued me; had the Germans released some terrible biological weapon on our great city? Was all of London now suffering as I? At least there is not a speck of light without this candle, and my rooms drown in a near pitch-blackness when I extinguish the flame.
Could it really have been more than a month since I had last been at the Times? How accurately had I kept track of those first few days? Looking back over this diary, I see that after the fifth day I lost all track of time. Had twice a fortnight elapsed since I first fell ill? I am losing my mind- there is no other explanation. How could I not be dead by now? I have not taken any fluids in many days. Through all the sporadic sleep and the pain that surges though my torso like so much agonizing poison I find it hard to accurately gauge my condition. I do not seem to be hemorrhaging much now and can still see relatively well this paper, but I am confused… fearful. Life before this infirmity I can scarcely remember. Taking into consideration my prominent position at the Times, I am confident that once I recover things will go back to normal. Never in my life have I been so unwell- though I vaguely remember my mother passing from a severe illness when I was a young lad. She was in the hospital, but exactly what she suffered from eludes me. I am certain that Father will come around soon to bring me my tea… I think I will go lie down….
…sleep will not come to me. For strictly documentary purposes I must remark that my abdomen has now vanished and I am- if you can imagine- a head with two arms and a rib cage. Only for the sake of being thorough do I mention this, for I have lost all attachment to what was once a complete and functioning human body. But what function did it really serve anyway? If you think about it long enough you will come to the same conclusion as I have- that the body is quite detrimental to the optimal performance of the mind and in fact does nothing of any import other than interfere with the mind. It is very possible that I am undergoing, admittedly in a much accelerated fashion, the next major leap in mankind’s evolution; and now I am driven to wonder if there is not some intimate correlation between this and the nightly blackouts.
I have brought the candle and this pen and paper to my bedroom since it is very likely that my disappearance will continue. That was not an easy chore, mind you. I had to move the candle as far as I could reach, then move my torso as far as I could while still being able to reach the candle- and then repeat the process with the pen and paper, swinging back and forth, time and time again, like a chimpanzee. Clumsily I knocked the candle onto the carpet and nearly set the flat ablaze. I smothered the small fire with my hands, frantically, and laid there for a few minutes to catch my breath. My landlord will surely want reimbursement, and I doubt my employer will pay for a new carpet. I must not forget to have Susie call someone immediately to replace it.
Ten minutes ago I suffered a horrifying seizure. My entire torso contracted and I must have bitten my tongue because blood is running down my disfigured chest. The abundance of blood sickened me and I vomited yet again. I was unable- or rather, unwilling- to crawl to the kitchen to clean up. Rest is what I need, that’s what Mother used to say- best way to beat a cold is to sleep it off. Something, I cannot recall what, startled me awake. My heart raced and I was worrying about an intruder, some murderer trying to break into my flat to slaughter me. When the seizure hit I fell backwards and tried to brace myself with my arms but one was missing! I landed headfirst against the wall with unexpected force. I do not think I caused much damage, however, because my head feels warm and is tingling nicely now. (Probably I suffered just a small bump like when I slipped on the wet sidewalk rushing to catch the opening ceremonies of the ’36 Olympics in Berlin. Got quite a headache and just barely missed the opportunity to photograph Hitler shaking the hands of the Negro athletes.)
When the seizure passed, I discovered I no longer had a ribcage, or a spine, or a sternum. From what I could feel with my only remaining hand, I was a head and neck attached to a shoulder blade and collarbone- and a sack of skin holding it all together. The inside of my neck and shoulder blade felt strange indeed. The skin that was suddenly in places it never was before felt soft and smooth, like fresh skin on a new baby. Moreover, the nerves and veins seem to have grown suitably. The inside of the collarbone is especially ticklish. This strange illness is not entirely unintelligent; it has left me my right hand, my writing hand. By degrees the responsibilities of the body have been relegated to the remaining parts- for instance, with my arm and hand I now have to clutch my head by the hair to, say, lay it down on the pillow- and logically, the need for a physical body should cease once there is no physical body.
…managed to fall asleep for a few minutes, but now my head is in unbelievable pain. I am fearful this is the end. Whosoever should read this after I am gone will know that I have not lost my mind, but have been taken by a horrible infirmity. Please publish posthumously… tell Edgar I always…. r… gr… n. [illegible]
…strange buzzing all around… don’t know if my eyes are open or shut. Candle has run down to nothing. I write only by touch… I do think my condition has improved… I am certain I can finally get a good night’s rest if I let out just a very little [illegible] from [illegible]… More likely than not this will be my last entry, for I am convinced that after tonight’s blackout I will be lacking my remaining arm. My head will probably roll off the sofa and I will be stuck staring at the dust mites underneath, or I will land face down and stare at the same stitch of carpet until the finish. No, that will not happen. There is only one step left after this arm goes. Oh! My head is on fire! I feel it must burst open soon- there is much too much pressure on my unfortunate brain. Strange light flashing on the inside of my eyelids and this buzzing in my ears is getting louder… I must… [Illegible]