This was originally published in the Australian magazine 'Dark Animus' where it received mixed reviews, people loved or hated it which is always good. If you like it please let others know. This was written before I became ill, in some ways it's strangely prescient
Neither Fruit Nor Fish
It was a freak accident; everyone said so, the doctors who treated her, friends, even her family. Everyone. An ironic twist of fate, a fluke occurrence in the life of a girl who loved to be in control. For her, every calorie and morsel of nutrition in her diet was noted, every item of clothing always clean and pressed. A girl who had a strict regime of exercise to adhere to, to the exception of all else. Keep control, keep herself together, if you’re together then everything else will be together and your life will be stress free and happy.
Then, out jogging, she just happened to glance away at the wrong moment, just swing her head around to see what that car horn was for, or did she hear someone scream? Was that birdsong or a wolf whistle echoing through the dappled, humid wood?
It was none of these, it was a harbinger of darkness and pain.
She remembers it vaguely, remembers her golden hair swinging in front of her features as she turned her head to face forward and concentrate on the path, her well conditioned locks, those that she was so proud of, blurred her vision for one second, just long enough for her to have gathered enough forward momentum. Her eye registered the blur in front of her, something large? No something small, small and sharp and very close.
The thorn entered her eye socket at the top of the node between the nasofrontal vein and the dorsal nasal artery and vein just where the lacrimal bone meets the frontal bone. It had then travelled around the orbit of the eye towards the back of her head and along the sheath of the optic nerve, penetrating the brain's covering and piercing the frontal lobe. Remarkably, she seems to have escaped without any major damage. There are headaches of course but this is to be expected.
The thing that really bothered her was that the thorn may have been dirty, the eye patch was annoying at first but that was just temporary, it was the thought of dirt that bothered her. The thorn had missed her eye completely and gone round the orbit of the eye socket and into her head.
The eye patch was just a precaution.
The doctors kept telling her so and why would they lie? But dirt, she knew about dirt, dirt was everywhere and you had to clean. You had to eat the right things, get the right exercise and keep things clean if you wanted a good life, if you wanted people to like you. It must have been dirty, being outside, it couldn’t have been sterile and that didn’t seem to bother any of the doctors but she knew it must have consequences.
Insects had probably crawled across it, insects whose feet had crawled over a thousand other unmentionable things. They had probably inched down the thorn to catch others of their kind, biting and chewing, injecting venom, spreading sticky guts all over the small innocuous piece of wood that had pierced her brain, reached into her mind. People had probably brushed past it, dirty unwashed people, sweaty joggers and children with sticky investigative hands, but all the doctors would do was tell her the headaches were inevitable and not to worry. So she tried not to worry, tried to wait until the eye patch had come off and to ignore the headaches.
Still, it must have been dirty, must have. Dirt in her brain. A dirty mind. She laughed to herself, there was little humour in it.
The brain is never expected to come into contact with the outside world. It is safe, shielded behind the plated armour of the skull and the tissues that act as guardians for one of nature’s most impressive feats. Because of this, the brain has no immune system and no nerves with which to feel pain.
After they removed the patch she did all their silly tests: she read the letters and followed the finger with both eyes, looked at the coloured dots and even found Wally in a picture book.
“Headaches?” repeated the doctor as he thoughtfully rubbed the gleaming end of his stethoscope. “Well of course you’ll have headaches, that’s to be expected isn’t it? I mean with an injury like yours. Now the eye patch is off I’m afraid they will continue until you are used to binocular vision again.” The doctor looked at her, her head down and her hair hanging around her face. He took her posture to be that of someone that didn’t understand. “Binocular is with two eyes, Miss,” he said as she thanked him and got up to leave. “Take plenty of painkillers,” he added as she shut the door behind her.
There were no lights on in her flat, there rarely were anymore as the piercing brightness sharpened the pain in her head into shimmering lances. She poured bottled water into a glass, not tap water, with the headaches had come a strange aversion to tap water.
Into the water she dropped two painkillers and swirled them round watching, half mesmerized, as they fizzed and started to dissolve in the bottom of the glass, frothing the liquid like activated yeast in warm water.
She stared glumly around her room as she waited for the painkiller to finish dissolving completely. It was a mixture of muted whites and browns, chosen at first because it was easier than choosing a whole colour scheme and it showed dirt better for her endless cleaning rituals. Now she found the colours soft and comforting, womb-like. She drank the liquid in two large gulps then shivered at the cold as it passed through her gullet.
She decided to turn the heating up. Since the accident she had found it harder and harder to get warm enough. Maybe she needed to lie down.
The woman awoke with a start, curled up in her favourite chair by the fire. Absently she wiped droplets of sweat from her top lip and went to refill the pans that were boiling merrily on the gas, adding more glorious humidity to the twilit room. As she did this she realized she was floating. Not actually floating- her feet were still firmly in touch with the carpet-but mentally, she was in a fugue state. This couldn’t be right? She glanced around. The room was full of dirty plates, how long had it been? All this dirt, all the mess, clothes everywhere, she looked down at herself, clothes everywhere but on her, this wasn’t normal, not normal at all, no one would like her if she lived like this. A naked slattern surrounded by filth.
She gathered up dirty plates and resolved that her doctors were wrong, where had her time gone? A specialist, that was what she needed, with her inheritance she could afford it, she would see the best.
It was silly really, surely she should be worried about herself but instead she found herself worried that she would embarrass someone, the doctor or the nurse who was hovering over her, features rumpled with concern. How do you react to this, she wondered.
She must be in shock, she thought and tried to push her feelings about herself away so she didn’t have to think about them too much It wasn't fair! To go from headaches to terminal illness in just ten days of tests, well, it would upset anyone wouldn’t it? She took a cup of tea from the nurse and sipped it, scalding her lips and barely noticing as she listened to the doctor talk.
“The thorn had some fungal spore on it. When it pierced your eye and your brain some of the spores were left in your brain. I am afraid it is growing, there’s nothing we can do, your brain has no mechanism with which to fight this. Rest assured though, we’ll make sure you are given the best care possible, we will do everything we can.”
She nodded without thinking and repeated his last word , “everything.” She nodded again.
The biological definition of Fungus is that:
They are eukaryotic (an organism that has DNA contained in a nucleus);
Grow as Hyphae;
Have rigid cell walls containing chitin (a strong material made of nitrogenous polysaccharides);
Obtain nutrients by secreting enzymes and absorbing digestion products from the substrate;
Produce spores for reproduction and dispersal.
She shut the book with a shudder. Were they in her head now? A web of chitinous fibres? A deadly snare that was slowly liquefying her brain and absorbing the nutrients, making her toned body into little more than fertiliser? Were her headaches the slow start of her slide into infancy as her faculties started to desert her? How would it happen? Would she continue as she had been doing? Her behaviour becoming odder until eventually they found a starved, half rotted body stinking up her hot little flat? Or would she gradually be reduced to a drooling babe kept alive by machines and drips? She’d hate that, she would have to write something down and give it to the solicitor.
The doctor turned down the light at her request. Thankfully, now winter was here she could make appointments late in the day and stay out of the sunlight. The doctor put one of the slides he carried into a machine and the far wall lit up with the picture. Her head, it was the inside of her head. She should get used to this, should be used to it. It always seemed strange though, to be looking inside herself. She’d always thought that was meant to be therapeutic. She laughed, meditation by imminent death, seeing the inner you.
“As you can see the damage isn’t as extensive as we feared. Neither is the fungus as invasive as we believed,” he paused, “or as aggressive”. He studied the picture. I think we can safely say that the fungus causes the aversion to sunlight and the headaches. It seems to be attacking your brain, as we suspected, but very slowly. You may have five or six years of normal life left to you rather than the six months we first thought.” He smiled, he was young and obviously thought he was giving her good news, his breath smelt of stale Indian food but it wasn’t as unpleasant as she would have found it four months ago. Terminal illness had given her a new perspective on the little things in life. She thanked the doctor, collected her bag, and left.
It was always dark, somewhere in her brain she knew she was meant to do things, had been meant to do things but time had changed for her. An hour seemed a much shorter amount of time now. Sometimes days would go by and she would have no memory of moving. Was this part of it too? The loss of her sense of time hadn’t hurt her in any way, she didn’t need to work but sometimes it could be unsettling. She had bought plants, surrounded herself with greenery, given herself something to focus on and look after. She sat down one day and when she got back up they were all dead. All gone brown, cracked and flaking away under her touch.
She glanced around the room and her eye caught something unusual, something new glimpsed between the bare stems of the plants in front of the window. What was on the curtains? Something black and sticky, she walked barefoot across the carpet her skirt swishing gently against her legs. With a slight “tsk” of irritation she unzipped the skirt and let it fall to the floor. Her hand reached out for the curtain. The brown curtain material felt a little clammy and the material gave slightly under her hand, as if made of foam. She inspected the black smears that covered the material, the sweet scent of it tantalised her and made her itch for something that she wasn’t quite sure about.
Hunger? No but nearly, something approaching the gnaw hunger could create in your stomach. When had she eaten last?
She touched it, smeared the slimy black substance over her finger and brought it to her nose breathing deeply, so sweet and with the consistency of treacle. She brought it to her lips, just one taste? Should she taste it? It could be anything, but the smell, that sweet smell, so sweet it seemed to be clinging onto her flesh and wreathing her head in a pungent narcotic cloud
Almost of its own accord her tongue slowly emerged from her mouth and licked the black, sweet-smelling substance off her finger. Heaven, like the best dark chocolate, warmed through by the heat of her finger it covered the inside of her mouth in velvet. She closed her eyes and would have gasped if that hadn’t meant opening her mouth and letting some of that glorious taste escape.
She saw the rest of the cat out of the corner of her eye.
Or it had been a cat. It had been ginger, rangy, probably a street cat as there didn’t seem to be a collar on it. This was before its accident, before something had hit it ripping open its flesh and scattering guts over the road. Someone had moved the cat to the side of the road, they must have or it would have been completely flattened. She knew all this in a flash as soon as she saw it. Its flesh was a black gelid mass punctuated with shattered bones, the cat was slowly melting into a dark stain on the carpet. The dead animal had the same consistency as the substance on the curtains.
She threw up. Her body didn’t reject what she had tasted; she had to stick her fingers down her throat to get rid of it. She drank water, and then ate mints, which made her throw up again. How had it got there? Something so disgusting in her nice clean flat. Who would do something like that? Get a dead animal and put it in her flat. Why hadn’t she smelt it? Why hadn’t she noticed before?
Gingerly she peered around the side of the couch, from the state of the carpet the cat wasn’t a recent addition, she caught herself breathing deeply, taking the scent of the rotting animal right down into her lungs. Disgust warred inside her with the sweet smell that lit up her senses. She stood suddenly, and left the room, confusion marring her otherwise perfect face.
As she passed the mirror she saw her hair. What once had been golden and curling was now white and straight. A calmness abruptly settled over her, an acceptance of what was happening that she would never have believed was within her before the accident.
This is just symptoms of what’s wrong with you. Get over it, at least your not dead, they said you should be dead by now. She went to bed, went calmly to bed leaving the cat and the thought of her ghost white hair in the living room, as if they had never been.
She awoke to the clean, fresh scent of a herbal pillow. Her thoughts were calm as she drifted up from the languorous depths of sleep. She turned her head slightly to burrow her face into the soft pillow.
It was the cat.
During the night she had brought it through and laid her head upon it. As she stared at the cat she noticed the individual fibres of her hair slowly withdrawing from the rotting carcass.
Somewhere in the quiet of her mind she screamed, she screamed loudly falling onto the floor and slamming her palms against her face until she bled and fell into a merciful state of unconsciousness. In the flat she just lay there impassively and watched as her hair seemed to pull itself free of the dead animal and dangle limply on the bed. She smiled slightly, then lay back down to sleep.
Four dogs, two cats, a pigeon and something she wasn’t sure about had come to the flat. She’d spent a busy day arranging the bones into whole animals as best she could. Should bury them really. Poor things, not her fault they died. Should bury them. Hungry. When was the last time she’d been out?
The pans were full and boiling merrily, the central heating turned up to full turning the whole flat into a steam bath. She’d never felt so warm so comfortable, so fulfilled.
“Do you come her often? That’s not a line, I come here a lot and I’ve not seen you before.”
She moved slightly on the bed as last nights memories played through her mind, her hand brushed her naked body. So full!
“Well, that’s pretty forthright of you miss! I guess I really want to that too. Now? Ok, I’ll get my coat.”
She snuggled deeper into his warmth, so long since she’s shared her bed.
“Jesus Christ! It’s hot in hear and that smell, what the…”
She's comfortable atop him, her hair joining her physically to his flesh. Blood soaking through the pillow and the once white bed sheets, oozing from the hole made in his head by the golf club.
So warm, so full.
She shut the curtains, no one ever visited her anymore. They always used to visit. She wanted to be like them. Or they wanted to be like her? Well let them, let everyone, her life was better, easier, more carefree. She could help them, she was sure, bring peace to them.
“Look mummy! That woman’s got no clothes on!”
She did not, she’d managed to climb nearly halfway up the fountain in the shopping centre without being seen. After the first shout, the crowd started to gather, some whooping her on, others wanting to call the police. Some offers of help. She ignored it all and just climbed further, oblivious to all until she reached the top. She needed them here, needed to be high up above them.
At the top of the ornamental fountain she balanced herself under the main air conditioning vent, arms outstretched. Sunlight streamed down onto her and she basked. All pain gone from her, the sunlight brought a feeling of renewal, of promise. Looking down she saw the crowd had become a throng, baying and shouting, jeering and endlessly moving as people jostled for a better view of her.
The split started just below her neck, it became two lines that ran quickly down the centre of each of her breasts bisecting her nipples and coming together again just above her naval. Out of the split and into the air poured millions upon millions of tiny, white feathered, dots of life.
The crowd, almost as one, took a deep, shocked, breath.