Room 342, Ward 1

Zahreddine

I spent two weeks in the room. Coming in, shipping out, losing track of time. That’s destiny. It was for me. Knowing the role and how to play it. Knowing what I came here to find. That’s the hard part. Knowing what’s waiting on the other side. From my window I could see the overlapping hills confining me to the ward. There are no hills. The whole complex is underground. But you see what I mean? From my window I could breach into my lover’s lips and cull her heart with its veins. I could see the military parade on StalinAllee, the fertile dust of the Jordan Valley.

I don’t remember the first days but there was sun, and a gentle touch every now and again to tell me it would be all right, to feed me and bathe me, to force me to drink water from a rusty tap. They wanted to give me something for the fever but I refused to open my mouth, they said, because it reminded me of the rain.

I had been told I would lose account of the following months and spend most of my time in a wandering dream, mixing with the others like foodstuff rotting on a corner street. And then suddenly you’re awake, and if there’s anything left of the life you lived, any signs of the fields you plowed, well, you’d be lucky to touch them again.

I grew enormous, subtle, and dead. The destiny I owe to walking blindly with my cane in my mouth. It’s a simple life, after that. You’re never in, never out.

The first few days I was under a lot of medicine. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long. I had trouble hearing out of my left ear. He was sitting to my left. His bed was just a few steps away. He was the lucky one, I guess, lying beside the window. there were four others in the room but they were asleep most of the time.

After the first week, I started to recover some energy, and my body got used to the meds, to being held there, captive. I was training my ear to hear again, trying my best to pay attention to my surroundings, tapping inside the ear canal with a thin amber pin, something one of the witch doctors used and said would help. It didn’t do much but I needed a distraction.

At the time I wasn’t on a regular sleep schedule. My pattern was off. I was spending most of my time drifting in an in-between state, in that sleepless void where you’re not really awake but you’re not asleep either, dreamy, surreal, physically immobile, like there’s a light mist clouding over your eyes, everything shaking between frames, like it takes a lot longer to blink, and if you open them too wide you’ll start up again, and if you let them rest you’ll fall asleep, but something’s sitting on your chest and you’re not able to.

Being the youngest one there, I guess they felt sorry for me. My journey wasn’t supposed to go the way it did. I fell off course and I almost died. In some ways I feel like I did die. At the time, lying there on my back, paralyzed, biting my tongue to the intermittent eruptions of noise penetrating my ears, I wished I had really died. Being suspended in some sort of purgatorial waiting room while some force decides what to do with you gives you time to think about what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished. Most of us don’t accomplish shit so it gives us the time to regret, to remember.

When I was on the drugs, lying there in the caretaker’s arms, begging for mercy, he kept telling me, in his native voice, with his pained native eyes, welled behind an incredible frontal bone and nasal bone, so that I had to search for his eyes every time I opened mine, he kept telling me that I was suffering for my soul, doing the work I had never done. He was probably telling me to pull myself together, to do it right, to be strong, to forget the suffering, to become the suffering. The more I fought the more I suffered. In theory, I died.

I kept thinking, I remember, this is the hardest it’s going to get, and then it got harder. I entered the prism of my thoughts, became a thought-being. I remember thinking to myself, and I was thinking out loud because I thought the healers were answering me, I remember choking on my vomit and begging for mercy, asking, if I let go of this, then who am I? I was hearing my voice like it wasn’t mine. My body was steadily growing weaker. I could feel that I was shaking,  constantly, that they were pulling my body together, trying to warm me up, rubbing me with warm towels, dipping my feet in a warm bucket of water. They were telling me things but I couldn’t listen. At some point I remember seeing a long corridor of light, something I felt was beautiful, and I was trusting. And then, infinite darkness, and I was begging, screaming in the room to let them open my eyes, to open my eyes for me, to remove whatever sheet they had covered me with. I heard my voice, my voice that wasn’t mine, telling me that I think I need to suffer because without it I have to ask, who am I? Without death, I cannot live. The voice kept telling me, you’re trying to outsmart it, to demean it. And then, it disappeared.

The others were asleep most of the time. When I started to gain consciousness I would watch them, half in a dream. I began noticing a man lying in bed, and I guess he wasn’t so terribly ill because he was always reading something, and I remember noticing that, and realizing at the time that I was noticing something, that my mind was aware of something, that I was there, that I am. I remember celebrating, in my heart, because I could barely move my body, could barely signal with my eyes. But I remember celebrating, that I was aware, that I am here, that I am alive, thinking, even if it’s all a lie, and this room, this infirmary is my purgatorial void, at least I am aware.

He may have also been deaf, or mute, or both, because the caretakers never spoke to him. Nobody ever spoke to him. Every so often a caretaker would come to his bed and hand him a note. Once I was stable, sitting upright, staring through the doorway into the massive corridor beyond, imagining it to be an immense prairie field I could run through, with my arms reaching for the sky, my tongue stretched out tasting the misty air, I noticed that in the entire time I had been there he had no visitors, he was completely alone. Even the others - I had begun noticing others, other beds, inside them patients - who spent the majority of their days, deep in an unshakable sleep, even they had visitors, coming by, older women, presumably mothers, younger children, probably their kids, probably the visitors were the reason they disappeared in the first place.

I never had visitors myself, so I wasn’t judging him or anything. I figured everyone I knew had gone off the rails or forgotten about me. If they were anything like me they wouldn’t have survived. If they were totally different they’d be enjoying themselves. But the others, the guys who were asleep most of the time, they were loved, and they were always visited by someone carrying flowers, biscuits, fresh fruits, leaving them at their bedside, waiting, ten, twenty minutes before realizing they weren’t going to open their eyes. At first, they’d spend an hour, reading, laughing to themselves, pretending that in some helpless void they were connecting, communicating in another medium, a channel, that was a word I heard often. They would get up from their seats, the caretakers would walk over. They would happily say, I met him today, in a channel, he was so sweet and calm, he thanks you for everything you do. The caretakers would smile, and they would leave. But I’m pretty sure they never met in those channels. The boys were more dead than asleep, and when they’d open their eyes, and the caretakers would say in their soft, nurturing voices, So and so has come by today, to see you, they were here all afternoon, reading to you, and they left these, the patient would just stare at the caretakers like they were speaking a foreign language, stare at them with emptiness in their eyes, pleading to be returned back to sleep, staring out with an emptiness that could only mean they had no fucking clue where they were.

I remember that he - the man who read - looked like he had been there longer than anyone else, like he was there by his own volition. He seemed to have a rapport with the caretakers, albeit a silent one. They let him be. When the officers came in for routine checks, taking down notes with an attitude that made it seem so precious, what they were doing, so relevant - they always ignored his bed, his body, motionless but for his arms holding an old book up to his face, turning the pages every minute or so. He must have been a fast reader, or he didn’t read and just turned the pages. Maybe the book was in a language he didn’t know. Anyway, the caretakers left him alone, leaving his pile of books untouched as they cleared the gifts from the others’ bedsides once they began to rot -  the flowers drying up and giving off an awful smell of death, the fruits growing mold. I remember realizing one day, watching him from the corner of my eye, I remember realizing, again, celebrating in my realization and in my being there, realizing that he didn’t seem afraid, that he looked confident, ready, prepared. Even, in his own oddly familiar way, he seemed happy, content, like he couldn’t have asked for more. I remember thinking, if it were me, and the only people who came to my bed were caretakers and officers, every once in a while, poking at me with their electrical sticks, injecting me with the ominous fluids they kept in their ominous vials, feeding me the peasant remains of waste and shit, and I couldn’t hear a thing, or say a thing, or I had no reason to hear or say anything, or I had chosen never to speak again and never to acknowledge a sound I heard, I remember thinking, well, if it were me, and I never moved from my spot, like I had lost feeling in both of my legs, and probably the skin and the muscles were so dried I had become a part of the mattress, a few feathers and springs, withering away like the last remains of autumn branches, well, I remembering thinking, before realizing I was in the same shoes as him, I remember thinking I would be horribly afraid, afraid of everything, shrieking every time they came near me, crying for help, trying desperately just to make some noise. And then I realized we were practically the same person. Maybe it is me, I thought, maybe I’m staring at this man thinking I am here, lying here in my helpless position, without a thought in the world but the hazy vision of my lazy right eye. Maybe they’re all me, I started thinking. Maybe this room is a collection of my thoughts, of my characters, of my inventions. Maybe they’re all here, trapped, sick, like me – because of me. Maybe I did die that day, that night, that hour, in the arms of a man who should’ve healed my soul, who was supposed to help me, to cure me, to deliver me from my fears, my demons - from the other side.

For a moment, suddenly, I started to remember a life I had lived, a life I left behind. I saw my sister’s face, I saw her calling out to me from a front porch, my head peering out the window from a few stories up. I saw us waving goodbye. I saw my feet, my legs, running, pushing against the grass, running for my life, footballs, footballs everywhere. I could taste the desert, the rain, the sand turned to sludge beneath my feet.

And suddenly, looking over at the man, unaware of my presence, uninterested in the remaining few passengers sharing this life, I felt a deep hatred for him, bitterness, anger, resentment. He had crippled me, forced me to be there, with him - he had me in his grip, turning the pages at will, choosing what to do with my life. He was undecided, and so he left me there to experience the emptiness of a room crowded with strangers whose eyelids would never lift.

I wanted to taste, to feel, to run and to love. I wanted those things I was remembering I had once. But for all my emotions, for all the ache in my heart, the pain in my stomach, the unendurable sight of the man I blamed for my torture, I could not fathom a sound, a whisper, a word. I could not even draw an expression, the simplest expression, on my face. The paralysis grows, deepens, widens until it has all your bones clenched in its grip, all your veins running through her walls, wormholes designed to make you dependent. And in the end, I realized, that for all my evolving senses, I looked as dead on the outside as I had in the beginning, my eyes could not withdraw their destitute glare, my face was withering, my cheeks losing their weight, losing the expression of my outer lips, as I tried, hopelessly to smile.

Finally, I resigned, after days of unrest, urging my lips to widen, my tongue to curl and my throat to gargle, to make the faintest sound, I resigned. I was losing to the expectation I could still be alive, in that way that we are living before we lose our life. I had lost everything but the vessel holding the pieces together, holding desperately onto my life, my state of being. With my resignation, I shut off, turned cold in the world, the world I shared with nobody else, and in that moment, looking over at the man, the beast I named my patron and my demon saint, I felt sorry for him, I felt something you might consider love, and when I felt it rise into my throat, my mouth watering, my fingers sweating, something deep within me swelled with life, and I felt joy.

We were now at the beginning of spring, the first, long solar eclipse announcing imminent renewal, the energies shifting in the basic, dilapidated room. Outside, they would say, the earth was unraveling her fairest skin, the world blossoming, the gifts of terrestrial life in bloom. One of the guys who had been asleep for months, whose eyes were now little sockets, barely open, slices of an eye that had been there, was finally coming to, and they realized he had chewed away all of his teeth, chewed them until they were welled within his gums, or swallowed whole. After a few warm days, days I spent watching my friend from the corner of my eye, forgetting the few images I had begun to remember, losing them to a sense of being, I saw the caretakers bring in a set of teeth, teeth that looked like they’d been stripped off a whale’s mouth, and they spoke among themselves, one of the teeth as sharp as the jaws of a shark, and I could see them struggle with the poor man, see them injecting him over and over again, to keep him lucid, so he would listen to commands, but to forgo the pain, to lose the pain, lose lose lose the pain so that pain is gone, drawn further and further and further into the distance, the creeping night sitting perfectly still, a few feet from the channeling whores.

After the operation they realized the teeth would not hold, his body was rejecting the invasion, his mouth had swollen so his lips and cheeks looked like enormous. Were it not for the dark, rusting infection, the black, blue and blister red of his wounds I would have thought he had swallowed a basketball. He spent a week, without managing a word, without managing a sound, unable to speak, the dead of his eyes returning to his face, so he looked now, with a swollen mouth, swollen cheeks, blistered and cut open, every now and then his wounds oozing yellow, green, crimson blood, like he was on the verge of death, like he would prefer it. One of the caretakers had had enough, decided it was too much of a sight, and they cut open his face, cut out the skin of his cheeks that had swollen to their enormous size, and in place of his teeth, of his old set of whale teeth, they put a fine row of needles, nails pinned, ironed into pointed little pens, and they dug them into his gums, fearing for the infection, they must have injected him over twenty, thirty times, and every five or ten minutes wiping his mouth with a handkerchief, drawing it away soaked in the acrid remains of a worsening infection. At the end of the day, at the end of the worst of days for the poor, poor man, one of the caretakers brought in a hose and sprayed at his face, spraying with real girth, so the area around his face, around his bed, was covered in rotten skin, mold, blood, infectious material, bacteria. Everything, diluted onto the walls. And then, as I awoke the following morning, it had all been cleaned, and the man had a smile on his face, and it looked like he had a keyboard of nails jutted from his gums and his bottom teeth had to be screwed into his face at an angle so they didn’t hold open his jaw, and they sprang out and under his upper lip like a tractor’s front, and his upper teeth cut right in between.

All through the mess, all through the uproar and the clamor and the racing indecisiveness and the damage done to the room, all through the towering weeds bristling and racketing against the walls and the sight of a man with nails protruding from his teeth, all through the wincing and whining of the caretakers and the rumble of the spraying hose, my friend, my mentor, my companion continued reading, without batting an eye he went on reading, like he were waving over the shore on a hammock, on a calm spring morning, waving, waving.

He was like an elder statesmen. His presence comforted me once I realized he would be the last face I see. He looked beautiful to me, old and aged in a way I wanted to age but never would, like he had been somewhere and someone and people were trying their best not to forget him, to remember his name, to note down the birthdays missed and the celebrations they had. He was reading, always reading, holding the book with both of his thumbs. I realized I wasn’t going to be discharged, nobody had been discharged, the poor old souls were still asleep. The other man, the poor man who’s mouth they had dug like they were digging into a construction site, was making noise and building a racket and one day he disappeared. I’m sure he wasn’t discharged, I’m sure he just vanished into thin air, forgotten, dismissed, become too much of a nuisance to exist in such a space.

Soon after, I developed an infection in my entire body. It must have been my imagination because I wasn’t being tended to, but I felt a rash, cysts growing and bursting so that I felt constantly moist, wet from my ankles to the corner of my eyes, blisters that were growing just for the sake of exploding, leaving behind a bloody mess in a crater. These were the nights of that dreadful spring. The spring that had appeared with what I mistook for a promise. Those were the most terrible nights of the year.

As the months passed I tried my hardest to recover images from my youth, images of my life, of my existence, but nothing came to mind. I thought of that day, that day where I had seen some things, floating pictures I held onto with dear life until they vanished from my sight forever, I thought of that old day as the greatest day of my life, the last shred of proof that I was alive. I was trying my hardest to return to that day. Trying my hardest to return.

It was midsummer when finally everything changed. The air was pure, they had lifted the steel sheets that were covering the windows, and for the first time I can remember I saw to the outside. I don’t know why they did it. Who knows. But I woke one morning with the faintest ray of light breaching onto my face, rising from the center of my chest to the foot of my nose. Finally, it reached my eyes, and I felt myself squinting for the first time in almost a year. That day, I felt a breeze pass through the room, carrying a message, carrying something for me. I felt the breeze brush against my face, bounce off the wall and leave the way she came, outside. I heard, in the distance, a flock of birds, braving the interest of hunters. Leaves, branches, rolling in the smog. And then, I could hear crickets. Night came. The longest night of the year.

It occurred to me I didn’t know where we were. I hadn’t thought of it, I hadn’t ever tried. What difference would it have made, me knowing? Something stirred in me, brewing, I could feel it, the difference had been waiting for. It felt like I had finally opened my eyes.

That night, I found myself awake, my eyes drawn to the open window, the idea I was seeing bats and hawks passing our sight, the idea I saw them move with their elegant faces looking in, gazing at the disaster we had formed. I thought I was listening to owls outside, to the hyena’s cry in the mountains. I thought we might be over the first row of hills, I thought we might have risen, making our way up with the impending day. I felt like we were gazing over the horizon, rotating on our axis, so that the sea, dipping under a disappearing crest, was lost from my sight forever, and in the distance, as our vision tipped, turning over like a fighter jet gaining speed, changing direction to enter orbit, I saw the first few mountains leaning over the shore.

Something in me stirred, my spirit had been lifted from her paralyzing curse. With the impression of a gust of wind, I don’t know what brought me to my knees, but I rolled my legs, bending them, feeling my heels against the surface of the mattress, dropping them onto the floor, where the fallen blanket waited to host my feet, my soles cold to the material. I fell, crashing onto a line of tin plates, cans that held our refuse, our remains, cans that held our food, jugs of water, jugs of light. I looked around, from what I could see, nobody had their eyes on me, nobody could tell I was adrift, moving at my disabled speed. I realized I could crawl, like a snake, that I hadn’t been disabled, only mutilated by the deterioration of my spirit, my appearance, and my soul. What soul? I held onto a column, I let my head rest there, feeling the cold weight of my legs burning like they had been dipping into a fiery cauldron, I could feel them begging to be left alone. Why hadn’t they cut my legs off? Would it have been easier? Why hadn’t they taken my life? My sick, sorry life.

You don’t wake from a season’s slumber without wondering what’s real. Had I been dreaming? Was I moving through the final shutters of an immeasurable dream that had drifted into a vacuous hole, where time no longer reigned, leaving me helpless to the proverbial speed of purgatorial chores, waiting on my ticket, my name. Am I already there? Are you?

Turning my neck away from the column, looking over at a side of the room I had never seen, I witnessed, for the first time in a calendar year, the immaculate glow of moonlight. I was sure I could hear the noises I heard before I closed my eyes that night, in the arms of a spirit who had taken my life to hell. Maybe I had it planned all along. It had been so long.

Looking around at a room I came to memorize, to expect, knowing when I opened my eyes, when I closed them, it remained, as it were, the figments passing unnoticed, the details I could no longer explore, knowing the size they composed in a picture. But I saw everything from a different speed, a different angle. The sight of a set of jars drying on the window. The sight of a row of beds. Pliers, plugs. Cold feet. I started to crawl. With every motion of my elbows, my neck, my chin pressed against the ground, I could feel bones, joints, ligaments turning, cracking, measuring their weight and failing. And just like that, without interruption or a measured word of surprise, I felt a stinging pain in my right thigh. I could feel.

The darkest moment in the longest day of the calendar year. I heard the cries of a canine in the distance, a cry I took to be my own. A cry I hoped I could make, crawling my way to a peak, the horizon. I didn’t think she was there, the lone wolf, the hysterical hyena, but I heard her sing, I heard her pretty wails, and I imagined myself beside her, inside her, singing, exploring the liberty of my voice. And like that, I heard the hoarse tremble of a horn.

I was claiming each breath, feeling the rise from my lungs  as they expand, recede, taking the air into my plexus and letting go. I felt small, and alive, feeling the pleasant air brushing against my cheeks, passing over me in the quiet room. I heard another horn. I thought, I’m hearing them.

As my ears shifted away from a distant imagination to the surrounding presence of actual, occupied space, I started to hear a clatter, a clatter rising from all ends of the room. Noise after noise, sharp and terrible, loud shrieks and hissing like the room flooded with crickets, mosquitos, hissing cockroaches crawling into my ears. I saw, dark shadows, figments, sleepers starting to rise. I felt the presence of moving figures, my eyes darting back and forth, my arms reaching out to touch the living things. I felt loud open mouths crying to be heard, I could see the shapes conforming, terrible faces opening their mouths as wide as they could, shrieking, bellowing to the sky, to the open door, to the cold, concrete floor, bellowing without noise, without air.

I saw a figure raise himself towards me. One of the sleepers moved from his bed. I couldn’t tell if he was marching, running, or floating onto his way. He seemed locked in a single distance, no matter how much time passed he never seemed to slow but he never came or went, he stayed, unmoved, but I could tell that he was moving, his legs making way over the floor, his eyes holding still in their position.

Sounds rising and falling, like nails on a chalkboard, like ice melting on a third degree burn. I turned one way, turned back again. suddenly, I felt a hand hold onto my face. I saw it rise from a distant darkness, and seep right into sight, right in front of me. The fingers were long and lean, peeled and bruised at the knuckles and side. The thumb was gone, a tidy curve where the nail should have been. The hand touched the side of my face. I felt nothing. I must have felt something but I felt the cold of my knees, my weight. I must have been afraid because the next thing I did was fall on my face, my jaw splattering, spreading her incumbent tools along the floor. I was shivering, thinking myself cold, shivering, trying to hold on.

The room was dark, the figures were all moving, at the same speed, the same rate, steadily in motion, they curled around the room like snakes pitching in the dark. I’m not sure how long I spent on the floor, gazing with a disjointed mouth, watching like I had been waiting to be so amazed. I felt in the distance for something to hold onto. Finally, I found a beside railing. As I lay there, limp in the desert night, a hand dropped onto my shoulders. By some power I was urged to move, urged to rise up from my place. My feet were cold, I curled my toes, holding steady against the weight of another, lifting myself up. I saw him. I saw him. I had watched him for a whole season, right from where I had been lying. It was the first time, the only time, I looked into his eyes. He had his face turned to me the entire time and it was now, the only time, I really saw him. At first, I thought I was staring into the face of a dead man swallowing the contents of the room, but then I saw that his eyes were open. I could hear the others moving around the room, caving in to the midsummer swing. I think I might have heard a long, seductive purr before I heard anything else, and I noticed then his eyes were open. Have you ever looked in the eyes of a ghost before? Between us two, I couldn’t tell who was living and who was not.

He didn’t speak. I looked at his lips, down his chin onto his chest, where I noticed he had hair puffing out of his white infirmary gown. I looked further, deep down his stomach, onto his thighs. I touched him. He didn’t move, he didn’t struggle. I don’t know why but I put my hands against his chest, my palms onto his breast. I let them sit there, feeling the hairs against my skin. It made me feel, I don’t know, I felt safe, running my hands along his hairy chest. He felt lifeless, pulsating with a certain fear, hesitation, but lifeless, like all the life in his body was confined to his little thumbs, where he held his books all those days. I moved my hands toward his chin and onto his cheeks. All of the life had fled his body. Like he had dried up. Like a raisin. I don’t recall if I pulled his mouth open or if his jaw dropped slightly to the presence of my hand. but I saw, deep and disorderly, into his gaping mouth. I saw his tongue, I saw his lips, I put my thumb onto one of his lips. I dropped my face nearer to his. One of the others had let out a howl, and the room was filled with a raucous echo. My hands were shaking, my lips quivering. I could feel the perspiration on my temples, my palms, I could feel my eyes as I started to cry, for the first time in however long I had been there, I could feel wet tears streaming down my face. At the sound of another horn some of the others let out gut wrenching howls, screaming, writhing in pain, calling out with open mouths. I felt like the only man in the desert wilderness, the only one who could hear their calls.

I kissed the man I held. I looked into his eyes. I could feel his heart begin to beat. I let my thumb rest on his lips. I stood there, motionless, waiting on some esoteric sensation to drive me away. My hand crept around his face, holding onto his ear. I grabbed both of his ears and I lifted him towards me. He didn’t fight, he eased his head into my hands. I held his stare, his deep and sorrowful stare. His mouth gaped open. His lips, trembling. He spoke. “Are you afraid?”

His lips were shaking in my palms but he was not afraid. It was my own hands shaking that were causing him to shake. I fell onto his face, resting my forehead against his. I felt his hand reach up from the side of the bed and touch me. His hand crept its way to the side of my face. His other hand followed. I was crying. He held me by both of my ears. He let out a deep breath, he sighed. I heard him sigh, and then he moaned. I could feel his breathing into a light, light series of sighs and moans. I heard his lips separate. He took stronger hold of me. What happened after that I’m not really sure.

The darkness gave way to light. The screams had brought in the caretakers and the room was overrun by guards, brandishing their weapons, steel bats, rubber guns, I could hear the incessant beating. We never saw each other again. I’m sure only of one thing. Something I’ve had to deal with since that night, since coming alive under the cover of moonlight, since that fateful midsummer night chorus lifted me to my feet, lifted me from the bones. Something I’ve had to deal with, wandering the streets for my name.

He held me close and before the first strike against my back I heard something, I heard his lips separate and I heard him say what he had wanted to say. The one thing he ever said to me. The room was terrorized like the trenches on the frontier, but I’m not lying, I heard what I heard that night. The last thing he ever said before the bat took into his face.

He gripped me into his arms and spoke.

“Do you know what Bara is?”