I reach back into the Garden of Memory to read from my short story, "The Five A.M. Inquisitor," published in this writers' collective's first anthology, entitled Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation.
Here's the story.
The Five A.M. Inquisitor
“Morning,” he said.
But I had watched the night forever. I was out of mornings, I had used them up. I was out of everything.
“Morning,” I echoed, doubtfully (suppressing a laugh: it would hurt), turning the statement into a question.
“What?” he said, responding to this tone. “Do you have something against morning?”
“But is it? Morning? It doesn’t look any different from the last eight or ten hours...”
An appraising glance. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the watches of the night are all the same. Dark, solitary, voiceless, indistinguishable one from the next.”
The gray-eyed resident blinked and looked at a shoe; he had gone sleepless for this?
“How are you today?” he asked. His one question; all he wanted to know.
The one question I couldn’t answer. “I hardly know.”
My reply was not very helpful to medical opinion, and we began the old game of prying, trying to tease the body into giving up its secrets. Did I eat, did I drink? Not enough. Hardly anything.
I was sick. Nauseous.
“I’m not really in favor in using drugs to counter nausea,” the resident said, frankly. “We’re just masking a problem. I think maybe you should try to eat through it.”
Eat through it? Like a rodent? An insect?
Eat? I could barely tolerate liquids. A few drops at a time, a few halting sips, after a sustained, conscious effort — is the citadel still standing? the shaking stopped? all right, then take a few more sips, even though everything tastes like paint remover — were all I could manage. Eat through it? Easy for you to say. It wasn’t your cities that would fall, your fields and villages that would lie in ruins.
The five a.m. inquisitor blinked; sometimes (I’d noticed) one eye developed a little fit, a little rebellion of sleeplessness all its own. He looked across the bed to the clutter piled on the tray. “Music too,” he commented.
I held the headset in my lap. My hands rose automatically to the moisture in my own eyes (a characteristic gesture since the surgery), before I checked myself. “I just listened to Brahms’ Third,” I told him.
It was a confession, but a complicated one: part declaration, part challenge.
“So sad,” I added, in case he didn’t know. Why would he? “So incredibly sad.”
The inquisitor smiled, as if at some weakness, some childish display, and delivered a mild reproof. “Maybe you should be listening to something different. Something a little more upbeat. Something lighter. Mozart—“
“Mozart”— I could not believe my ears —“is not light.”
“A concerto,” he suggested, ignoring me. “Something—happier.”
Let me tell you, I thought, about the clarinet concerto. “Yes,” I said at last, replying to his suggestion, “there is delight, liveliness, cantabile — even light-heartedness —to be found in music. But do you not hear the deeper song?”
That day I started on a regime of liquids. I had ginger ale for breakfast, ginger ale for lunch, ginger ale for dinner. In the morning — the real morning, when the sun climbed above the neighboring building and flooded my window — the blue-suited food staff brought me a large tray loaded with plastic-covered comestibles. Without moving from my chair (for I could not move once the tray was in the room: it held me, paralyzed me, like the totem of some hostile deity), I could see that the tray contained oatmeal, juice, a ceramic mug of recently heated water that I was supposed to turn into tea, a small bowl of a greenish liquid that was sweating noxiously down the lip beneath its clear plastic covering — something clenched in my stomach at the smell — and several other plastic-housed items less easily identified. I could not bring myself to touch anything, and the glowering idol of the breakfast tray still dominated the room when the resident board of examiners made an appearance and delivered the inevitable request.
“We want you to eat,” the head of this body, a red-toned man with a serious face, gentle manner and slow, plains-state style of address (solid earth, big sky), told me, “but if it’s difficult just take a few bites of something. Anything... It’s a start.”
I nodded vaguely.
He turned his slow gaze to the intimidating accumulation of comestibles on the tray. “So what’s with the lumberjack breakfast?” he asked.
I nodded, vigorously, in reply. Took the words right out of my mouth.
“I don’t want any of that stuff,” I tell the red-headed resident and his board. “There isn’t really anything I can imagine wanting... except maybe...” I shrug. “A pickle.”
They look at me as at one deranged.
The day passed and I failed to eat anything at all. Even the few bites of the team’s recommendation escaped me. They wanted me to get going, at any price. I wanted to survive. The regime wobbled, it held by a thread; I did not want to be underneath if it toppled over.
Please, I begged, no violence. I implored invisible captors with fear in my eyes. A kind of dreary, timeless stalemate ensued, like a hostage event in a cop series.
Ginger ale for breakfast; ginger ale for lunch... I could not swallow more than a sip.
They told me, they warned me: either drink more liquid or we will have no choice but to bind you once more to a cross of tubes. I stared past the warnings, bound fast in the land of no speaking. I attended not to the well-meaning, though somewhat smirksome night nurse Naomi, spellbound as I was by the vision, invisible to others, of the fierce and horrible god Nausee. Why have you come for me? I whimpered. Why me? What do you want? Why do you linger, unsated, hour after hour? I begged for relief. I begged for a spell of abjuration and release: get thee hence, demon.
What will make you go?
Nurse Naomi held a hypo high in her hand. Nurse Naomi intended to spell relief in her own way.
Later in that long black night of the body, the charcoal executioner appeared in his surgical garb, his head wrapped as if for battle, his tunic opened across the chest, his face a strange dusky color. He said his name, but I missed it. I had never seen this man (if man he was) before. He had a different, slightly bullying aura about him: cool, detached, intimidating. With a glance at my prone dysfunctional form, the charcoal investigator reached for the plastic envelope that contained the waters of life and shook it, disdainfully. He muttered some figures, using terms and numbers (milligrams, maybe? something smaller?) that meant nothing to me, and whether these calculations were intended for the nurse’s confirmation or to convince me, or merely for his own satisfaction I could not discern.
He shook his head, displeased. “That’s not enough to sustain life,” he warned, looking down on me as if I were the unsatisfactory answer to a long and complicated equation. Yet these were merely words. His silence, his stance, the way his hands gripped the plastic bag told me much, much more:
“You are in the hands [these wordless speakers warned] of an angry god. Without our intervention — without mine — your transitory existence will come to an end. You will dry up like a withered leaf and blow away with the first cold breeze of winter.”
The eyes of the charcoal investigator went on examining the pitiful no-eat, no-drink slacker before him. He seemed to require some kind of reply.
Bad enough to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, I reflected, but it adds insult to injury to wake from surgery and find oneself entrapped in the broken body of a fifty year-old infant. Give me a better body, I protested inwardly, and I’ll give you a better recovery.
“—milligrams,” he repeated, gesturing to the bag, calculating its value. “That’s about two Cokes,” he remarked, a hiply technical comparison that seemed to throw my condition in a still worse light.
“I would like to drink those Cokes, doctor,” I replied, sincerely, “but I can’t.”
“I’ll give you this bag,” the charcoal inquisitor concluded, “and maybe one more, but after that...”
That night I am attacked by terrorists. They sneak up through my dreams, the most unlikely of visitors, now that sleep has been banned by constitutional decree. In my mind I play again the “relaxation tape” that has brought me this far. “Find a comfortable position,” the tape begins—okay, so much for good advice: no such thing as a comfortable position. The bed goes up and down all day, all night, spreading the stress around the sore spots. The place that holds me together is the sore spot. Many cunning shifts involving four pillows and eighteen sequentially married manual steps (lean left, grab pillow, place pillow, flex leg, lean back, scrunch rear, etc.) are instituted in strict order, lungs breathing hard from the exertion of trying to get comfortable, but still the fond repose that is sleep’s begetter escapes me. The ratty sleeve of care remains unknitted.
What state of unlooked-for oblivion overtakes me then – when? – some time in the still dark hours? I know it only by its sudden terminus, when violence breaks out on the bed, and I am coughing — well, chuffing: my cough is a pitiful thing — and lurching, pinned down on my back, across the wasteland of raveled blankets, sheets and pillows to the place where the mind last remembers secreting unemptied paper cups of detestable liquids.
I am desperate. Unslaked, the urge to cough will tear me apart. Even in my dazed condition, I recognize the origin of the surface tickle in the deep right-hand quadrant of my throat, a place where the unseen enemy has established a beachhead. By day I have aimed elixirs at this point of irritation, but nothing seems to quell it. Now its alarm has been activated by the dream’s violent incursion — there is a bomb at the airport, I think, and a bacterial agent has been loosed on the city. I envision this secret killer in the midst of my flipped-tortoise struggle toward the imagined relief of the partially filled paper cup: it is white and gritty, like chipped paint. It is everywhere, it is inside my mouth. Unlikely, I think (or dream?), that anyone should bother to rescue me, an old man stranded in a foreign country by the collapse of his schemes, a failed visionary, one of history’s dust bunnies, but I struggle on. I reach the cup and drink my pitiful few sips, vowing never again to let myself slip heedlessly into slumber. I breathe hard, remembering myself. Perhaps someone will heed my warning; perhaps the commandos will not find me here.
But when I nod off again, the inner foe seizes his chance to foul the works. He makes a subtle raid from the deep sewers of the watery intestines, climbing upward through the esophagus until he can lob his foul incendiary into the root cellar beneath the tongue. I start awake, envisioning the brilliant chemical explosion in my mouth: its golden flares and maroon coronas are like the death of a star. I taste the bitter coating that spreads over my mouth and tongue, covering it with tiny sticker-stars of yechh. I pull myself bolt upright — a hopelessly deformed act without stomach muscles, requiring the balanced application of force from both arms and a hideously long time — with a single word on my filth-encrusted tongue:
Five a.m. My faithful inquisitor explains to me why I must eat. In order for us to send you home, he says, we have to see you’re capable of eating normally. “To arrive at eating normally,” he argues, “you must begin by eating something.” I agree this logic is unassailable.
“All right,” he says, a commander laying down his strategy, “you go on regular food today, and we’ll think about sending you home tomorrow.” My morning visitor is seeing a bridge that has not been built, I fear. I would walk across it if I could. In actuality I still can’t even drink the charcoal investigator’s two Cokes. “Even,” I begin, hesitantly, “...even after I threw up yesterday.”
He frowns. “You threw up?”
“It’s on the chart,” I reply.
“All right,” he says, despondently, “just a liquid diet today. Maybe you’re just someone who will take a little longer.” There is sadness in his tone, I sense. I watch him step quietly out of the room in his black inquisitor’s shoes.
Another day — of sleeplessness, endless shiftings, button-pumping the bed up and down, formal rotations from bed to chair, chair to bed, slow rolling sweeps down the corridor (the Ancient of Nights, leading the little dog “I.V.” behind him), contemplations of the dark, whispered bargains, dream treaties, breathless fallings-off cruelly interrupted by annunciatos of the heating system...
One more liquid day followed by one more sleepless night. At last I am determined to try the final ascent: food.
To implement my plan of escape I must beg the personal care attendant to purchase food for me from somewhere beyond the precincts of the hospital — that vast, multi-storied, vassal-ridden, slow-grinding city of the sick. I have swept away too many offering trays of greenish liquids dripping withered smiles down the lips of their bowls, brown concoctions of gravy and despair fogged with the peculiar odor of mass-concocted food, unidentifiable liquids frosted with icy crystals and tasting of the chemical factory. I have gone too far along the path of institutional rejection to turn back now; I have internalized revulsion. I will never re-educate the soul to eat that gunk; I need food from a happier kitchen.
Zora, the personal care attendant, once offered to go out to get me a newspaper. So now I rummage through the old clothing of my long-anticipated escape, scare up a few rumpled bills, and murmur my request. Zora sighs and looks into my eyes, shakes her head once, then mutters, “All right, Mr. Reese., but you better not get me into trouble.” In the hour after lunch the girl returns, having scoured the town for the last baked potato in hospital row. She has also brought lean roast beef, a puffy roll, a stunted banana with brown spots shaped like the continents, and a huge, gnarled, knobby, toad-skinned pickle. I thank her, gratefulness tearing my eyes. I press her to keep the change, but she refuses.
I unwrap the baked potato and break off the meagrest corner. I maneuver some whitish substance onto a white plastic fork (is this act familiar? do people do it every day? did I?) and plunge it determinedly into my mouth.
I chew, teeth moving like miniature glaciers.
Absolutely nothing inside me celebrates this act or relishes this gift of life. Nevertheless, some of it disappears down the gullet. Wrinkled potato skin lingers on the plate; the pulp must have gone somewhere. “Enjoy your lunch?” nurse Mel asks me later. Oh yes, I reply, reciting proudly the names of my accomplishments — the roll (some crumbs), the potato (a quadrant), a thin slice of roast beef, a few skinny diameters of banana. I omit mention of the pickle (which I have wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a drawer), deciding I’m not quite ready for it yet, waiting for the hour when this strange craving will unambiguously declare itself.
And I am not sick. Hours pass; I am still here. Likewise at dinner time (do healthy people so affix their time? do they look forward to it?) I perform the same faint disappearing act with a cup, or some portion of it, of the noodle soup generously prepared for me by Mel in the staff kitchen. I munch a bite or two of leftover roll and cold cut too, just so I can add them to the victory list. Oh yes, I rehearse mentally, listen to these my great deeds: noodle soup, bread, beef — no pickle… Behold, world, and marvel. The nurses drift away; the hours run down. The old man on the other side of the curtain rumbles into sleep. The sum of my day’s mastications sits in my stomach. Just one more night, I tell myself: don’t blow it.
Some time during the watches of the night I am visited: a presence, leaning over my bed. Not, I realize, the five a.m. inquisitor. Nothing so well meaning. Something old, I think (something slight in me sensing something powerful outside of me), something that speaks without words and yet is very emphatic about declaring its presence, about wanting something. Something refusing to depart until it gets what it wants.
It is Bal.
I whisper the name, fearfully. I feel it shudder and laugh deep inside.
“All right, Bal,” I say, “what do you want? Can we make a deal here?” Bal leans closer in the shadows, impinging on the inner organs. She whispers her desires in the ancient and irresistible tongue.
Bal wants something, all right: simply everything.
“No, Bal, not ‘everything.’ You’re in for a fight, Bal.”
Bal knows how to fight. She sends me running straight to the bathroom, once, twice, three times. I lose count, before I stop running. “All right, Bal,” I say, panting on the bed, chilled, extra blankets pulled up tight around my neck, “what do you really want? Realistically.”
Bal leans forward. I feel a shroud-like silence, smelling of earth, draw round and whisper in my ear.
I listen. Bal wants the history of the world rewritten, in her honor.
Who or what is more important than Bal, goddess of digestion? Who deserves place before her?
“Not realistic, Bal,” I reply, though I see her point. “I don’t think I can do it.” But I know I have to appease her somehow. What good is the approval of the doctors if I can’t get along with Bal? “Take what you want,” I urge. “Everything. Just let me keep down what’s already there.” Take pleasure, Bal. Take the fatted calf. I’ll get by on a few leafy greens and sesame seed. All I want is my simple, earth-bound, short-ranged existence back, comesting comestibles, masticating, swallowing – just enough – moving the load downward, acid-washing it, dissolving it, breaking it down, pushing, always downward (don’t you come on back now, you hear?), deconstructing—in a word, eating. Also digesting.
Gotta eat, Bal. Please.
Bal’s not placated. She amuses herself by making cement factories in my intestines, clogging the works, backing up production. And that’s not even getting into elimination. Okay, let’s not get into elimination. What can I offer? What will she take?
I shuffle out of the darkened bedroom into the brightly lit corridor, passing the bathroom with a calculating glance, and once outside the door make my familiar rounds, plowing past the various work rooms, each with its own totally unbearable odor. The burnt gravy of death by cuisine dominates longer than any of the others, even the chemical rage of the disinfectants. Don’t blow it, I tell myself.
I rest. I try to rest. One last long dark night of the soul, I encourage myself, before the promised day of release.
Providing, that is, I can hold my cookies. Providing I can hold together: don’t get sick (I self-counsel), don’t collapse, don’t let nurse Naomi come marching in with a sharpened hypodermic to rescue you from a fugue state of despair, nausea, insomnia, and weakness woes; don’t fall off the bed and rip yourself open, don’t wake up screaming (at least not too loud), don’t wake up coughing gasping for air convinced some pack of bearded terrorists has chased you over the sands of your rasping throat to settle a long-standing grudge over an oil bill… Tell me, Bal, better to wake or to sleep? Perchance to dream?...
Be careful; be moderate. Drink enough liquid; float a moat on the bloat. Prepare a plan for breakfast. Prepare for the inquisition of the five a.m. physician. Walk, piss, move bowels, keep cool, keep warm, keep covered, keep the floppy ends of your sickrobes out of the toilet bowl, keep your pants on, keep your toes from cramping (you’ll need them to walk out of here), your knees flexed, your head elevated, your back supported, and your wounded gut cradled in the nervous extenuation of these your old appendages, your aching bones. Bal, I murmur, at the edge of self, you’ve taken enough already.
When the light of morning comes — blasting in like a floodlight triggered by a burglar’s toe — I am, astonishingly, asleep. So late? Morning already? something in me wails, dream-stuck, half-born, caught between worlds, neither here nor there, neither customary self nor the feisty old man with the oil bill nightmare. Why had there been no five o’clock inquisition? I’d counted on it. I feel disoriented without it. In its absence morning comes, abruptly, like the beam of a flashlight aimed in the eyes of a three-toed sloth, and I discover myself flat on my back, headphone plugged in my ears, staring up at a full panel of white-robed examiners. Who stare down at me.
Dreams, dream impersonations, dream struggles, ancient dreams of going back. Dream gods and goddesses and — Bal? Where did she go? She has left me alive, apparently; what’s left of me. I feel reasonably whole, though confounded, transfixed, speechless, counting the inner organs.
“So how did the night go?” asks the red-haired young posse chief in his plainsy drawl.
“The night...?” I blink at the daylight, trying to get a handle on the question. Does this serious-looking young man and his panel of white-gowned playmates really want to hear about the wrestling angels, the gaseous vigils, the long insomniac speculations while orderlies stockpiled equipment for the poor soul beyond the curtain, god’s face moving over the waters…? About Bal?
Don’t think so.
I cough. “Uh, I don’t know – I’m having some trouble...”
Remembering, for one thing, who I am.
“Waking up,” the team leader suggests.
“Yes.” I struggle to make myself vertical against the pillows, to stiffen to the light.
“What I mean is — what I want to know is — did you eat anything more last night?”
I should know the answer to this, I know, but the concepts throw me: eat? last night? You guys mind if I shower and shave first and get back to you later? But in my hour of need, as I am about to slobber out some confused reply, the necessary clue is provided by the fresh-faced five a.m. inquisitor, who has snuck into the room behind the others. He clears his throat and I notice him for the first time squeezed behind the semicircle posse of residents, a surprising back-bencher in this congress of appraisers. He catches my eye and says, “Didn’t the nurse make something for you?”
Yah; it all comes back. “Ram-Dass noodles,” I pronounce, authoritatively. “I had a bowl of Ram-Dass noodles. Uhm, also some roast beef...” I tell my tale of proud, tiny victories. I watch the morning team take this in, hoping they don’t quiz me too closely. If I eat enough to keep a pigeon alive, I will bob when I walk and coo in the dawn. I nod my gratitude to the five a.m. inquisitor, the bringer of morning, med-chat and Mozart-lite. How did he know, anyway? “All right, Mr. Reese,” the red-faced leader concludes, after a silence, in his slow-speaking, feet-on-the-ground manner, “we’re planning on cutting you loose today.”
I pick through the contents of the room, throwing out newspapers and paper cups with teeny puddles of liquid in their bottoms, gathering my clothes, tapes and books into a plastic bag. I open the drawers in the nightstand — nothing, nothing — then come upon what looks like the oozing remains of a knobby-skinned, ritually sacrificed bullfrog. It exudes a bouquet that puts formaldehyde to shame.
The pickle, I realize. Half-eaten. Who? Why?
Somewhere in the shadows, perched on a window beside the sickbed of some new casualty, Bal munches on her share of half-life, half-death, and licks her fingers when it’s gone. A disease too savvy to consume the host.