“Just resting your eyes?” She snuggles closer.
“Not even that.” I’d rather stare blind at the night. At least that’s natural. Just an absense of light. The darkness behind eyelids is another matter.
“Well, if you’re not going to sleep, can you listen out for the cat.” She yawned and stretched under the covers. “I think he’s locked in. If you could-” She trailed off into another yawn.
I don’t sleep. I have never slept.
The sounds of her breathing grow regular and deep. Outside the muted buzz and roar of traffic. A distant television muttering. Words always seem more important when you can’t quite catch them.
They say that without sleep you first go mad. And then you die.
I’ve been lying to her all day. All week. For the three weeks since we met. That I don’t sleep might have been the first true thing she has heard from me.
A door slams. Far off. I wonder about it. What possibilities it closed on.
Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad. They say Euripides said that four hundred years before Christ drew breath. But it’s a lie. People like to pin wise sayings on dead men; the longer dead the better. But some truths just bubble from the ground. Seep from our bones.
She mumbles, dreaming already. A word escapes her. “Euripides.”
I don’t sleep. I don’t go mad. At least not entirely. I think it leaks away. I think it finds new homes in those around me.
When I was a baby I screamed. Not now and again, not when I was hungry, but any time I was awake. Twenty four and seven as they say.
My parents gave me up and I came to rest in St Agnes Children’s Home. I think a little madness bubbled out of me there and lodged awhile in Sister Constance-Patience. That or the screaming just tipped her over some ledge she’d sat on those many years. Either way, on a November night in eighty-seven, peace returned to St Agnes. Sister Constance-Patience had sewed my lips together with a dozen careful stitches.
Susan tosses in her dream, tries to speak. “MmmMgg.” She can’t. I push her away and she claws the pillow.
They took the stitches out the next day, and huddled the Sister away to a closed sect on a remote Scottish isle. It has to be said though, it did the trick. No more screaming. They took the thread out and threw it on the fire, but I can still feel it there. I have to break it every time I speak.
I used to wonder about dreams. What it would be like to dream.
As I grew, I poisoned those around me, spilling insanity night by night as I lay and watched the darkness, or read by candle-stubs. I was a child in Bedlam. I grew amongst broken people, amid murder, depravity, the howling damned.
I took to the wandering life, moving on, not to any place, just on.
It wasn’t until I ran from it that I first really heard the song. Until that point it was part of me, like the beating of my heart or the drawing of breath. ‘Away’ was the direction that lessened the song. Each mile stole colour and depth from the world but as the song dimmed, the madness fell away, mellowing to unease, disquiet, a shiver down the spine. Without the song I walked a brittle world of grey where food tasted of dust and ash, but I left no ruin in my path.
I gave up wondering about dreams and thought instead about death.
I made coffins. For John Price, of Penarthshire. I found a knack for the craft. A short apprenticeship and a long spell sawing, carving, joining coffins. I worked alone, with the dead as occasional company. Once three years passed without me breaking the thread that binds my lips. I made coffins for John Price, then for Price and Sons, and even when I had boxed all three sons and seen them in the ground, I worked on.
Sleep would not take me, and death too found me wanting.
Susan wakes with a scream that sounds like drowning.
“Oh God.” She reaches for the light.
“I’m sorry,” she says, shaking, cold with sweat. “Did I wake you?”
“No.” Threads snapping around my lips. The saltness of blood.
“I hear singing,” she says. “Do you hear singing?”
“No.” I hear the song. It’s always with me. Distant but pure.
I slip from the bed. “I have to go.”
“W-what?” She tries to blink away sleep.
“Going?” She rubs her eyes. There’s a twitch in her cheek.
She’s a strong one but the madness is in her now. She held it off day after day and I loved her for it, as much as one can love in three weeks. If I stay I’ll find her at her mirror cutting the lobes from her ears, or stealing babies and drowning them in the bath.
“You can’t go,” she says, almost wild. “I . . . You can’t.”
There are words I could speak, but would they help her? The words on my tongue I own. They live with meaning. But when they’re out past the barrier of teeth, past bound lips so carefully stitched . . . they’re dead things, corpses to lay out in pretty lies.
“I hear singing,” she says. “Oh God. It’s so beautiful.”
“I have to go.”
“I’ll die without you.” The madness is in her.
“You’ll die with me.”
“I’ll take a knife,” she says, staring past me. “Cut my heart out. You believe me don’t you?” She sees me now. “Have you ever been hurt, Ethan? Really injured?”
Her eyes flit to the scar that runs across my forehead, a white seam. I don’t know how I got it. I’ve always had that scar.
I back toward the door, naked. “I broke my leg once. In nineteen ninety I cut my arm with a chainsaw, nearly lost a hand . . .”
She rises, the sheet sliding from her breasts. “You were born in eighty-seven. That makes you three in nineteen ninety, Ethan.” She really is gorgeous. Not just her shape but the light it holds. “A chainsaw? Is anything you told me true?”
“Eighteen eighty-seven.” I find the doorhandle behind me.
“I have to go.” I open the door. The cat shoots past my legs.
I feel the madness pulsing between us. She knows my mind. The knowing throbs in both our heads. A pulse.
“How can you live like that, Ethan?”
I back into the hall.
“How?” she says.
And I’m gone.
How can I live like this? Am I living? Have I lived?
I won’t say Susan was the straw that broke my back. She carried more weight. I could have stayed with her. Loved her.
Maybe I’ve been sitting on the ledge that Sister Patience-Constance vacated. Maybe I’ve perched there decade after decade, watching the world grow older, and now Susan has pushed me. Just words. How can you live like that? And they hit hard enough to make me fall.
I’m running now. Running up Lansdowne Hill. First I walked, took a bus, caught a plane, your passport please Mr Gadon, a taxi, a train. And now I’m fifteen miles from the hospital where I was born. I can’t see too clearly. The song flows through me, filling my eyes. I’m running past houses, shops, weaving through traffic. My heart beats with the song and my legs will carry me anywhere.
The world is different here. Winter trees are wreathed in the promise of Spring. Coke cans sparkle in the gutter with the memory of flavour. The birds sing counterpoint and it makes me cry.
I sprint, Olympian, and the madness passes through in momentary seizures. Old women blink and shake their heads at the thoughts that rose then fell. A man lowers his hands and sees the marks on his child’s throat. They will both forget.
It’s stronger now. Stronger yard by yard. I vibrate with it, turn with it, speed and slow with it. Any more and my flesh will melt.
A Victorian house, four stories, no different from the one to the left or to the right. Except it’s so full of light that the bricks glow. There’s a sign outside. “Wendle’s Nursing Home.”
I walk to the door and it opens. The woman is fifty-something, plump, her hair full of static, lifting around her. “You’re him. You’re him. You’re him. The hymn.” The madness boils in her.
I pass her by. A corridor. One door. Another passage. Another door. In here. I’m pushing through molasses. Every step against a headwind. My hand is on the door and somehow it’s off its hinges. I’m stepping through splintered wood.
And there she is, sleeping. So old. So withered. So full of light. The scar on her forehead bleeds a brilliance too white to look at.
“Who?” My lips part easily. The thread is gone.
“Emily Gadon.” The mad woman has followed me from the entrance. “Emily. A hundred and three. Emily. A hundred and three. Emily.” Her words fit around the song.
“Tell me.” I turn to her. I watch the madness bubble in her eyes. Shared knowing pulses through us.
Emily Gadon has never woken. Not ever. They think she is a hundred and three, but the older records were lost in the last move. She could be older. She could be the oldest woman in the world for all they know. As old as me.
I’m at the bed. Death and dreaming seem small things now. The light makes a rosy glow of her flesh. I see her bones.
I bend toward her. My old scar blazes, a hot line above my eyes. Closer. Closer. I hear her breath. She smells of babies. The hands in mine are smooth.
Inches between us. Her face serene, sleeping.
Our foreheads touch. Scar to scar. Fault-lines fuse.
When they broke us we did not break even.
The stuff of life flows between us and there is only light and song.
Mark Lawrence, 2010
Original image by Julianna Horvath