The Fear of Contagion by Carl James Grindley was published in The Red Anthology of Hitherto Unknown Writers (No Record Press)
IF THERE IS a specter haunting Greenwich Village , it is me.
I can see thin streams of blue cigarette smoke curling up from a dozen crowded tables. I can hear the polite and continuous distracted rattle of coffee cups and wineglasses, glasses endlessly lifted and endlessly put back into place. I can hear someone cough. The previous speaker has just left the stage and now it is my turn. I clamber up the three short steps and stand in place. There is an audience. The stage occupies one corner of a small bar, and, at first, it seems that everyone is waiting for me to speak. I am staring down at a page of someone else's poetry, and out of necessity I open my mouth:
The underside is all waves
And brown wood. The missing and
Their explanations gather between the breath
Of two struggling perceptions; brine and
Sand contact in foam and broken
Crabs, their shells red and thin...
I lose my place, and I cannot fully control the words. They stumble out, half old and half blind themselves, sodden and lost in an alcoholic's inconstant tongue. I do not know if anyone has heard me. I think I was speaking too softly. I clear my throat. Starting again, and speaking barely in a mumble, I only get through two more lines of the poem before I lose my place again and let the pages slip through my hands. The pages slink to the ground in graceful arcs, like leaves falling from a tree in fall, or like snow falling onto bare branches. Shakily, I stoop to pick them up and try to begin again. My fingertips are hard and yellow, and the pages are dirty and crumpled. Down on one knee, quietly stammering and apologizing, I am having trouble getting back up. I have no idea what I am doing. The only thing I know is that I feel an amazing sadness building up. I can no longer find the poem I was trying to recite.
The room wanders around in grim arcs; I sway unsteadily on my one knee. The crowd talks through all of this. No one is paying attention to me at all. When I look around, faces abruptly turn away, people take quick drinks or drags from their cigarettes. No one wants to meet my gaze. No eyes look into my eyes.
I try to force a tired voice into action, seizing one dead sheet at random, skimming the words until my attention holds:
…spun in circles by
The world, I fell, turning
Into cold water and three migrating
Salmon, and they too will die,
As invisible as the distance between
The wood and its supporting water,
As visible as the hand that
Separates clams from non clams, anemone
From non anemone…
I cannot tell if anyone has heard me. I seem to be speaking in whispers and mumbles.
Today a gull
Got hit by a car. It
Was in the road with two
Other gulls eating something dead, and
A car came, and each gull
Tried to be the last gull
Eating something dead, and two gulls
Left and one didn't, then the
Whole process started again, complete.
No one wants to listen and I collapse to the floor and vomit some sour liquid.
And then, I am gone.
As far as I can tell, existence is divided into three equal parts: the Earth, the Nowhere Place, and Tummyland.
These are not my terms. They are the creation of hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of casually and carefully observed sleepwalkers, including a four-year-old girl who I once visited in the form of a dying bird. The bird, a darkling thrush, had just head-up and wing-bent smashed into a glass patio door, and as it lay twitching and winding down, I managed to stare out of its one good eye for one good moment.
The girl pointed at it and said to her brother: Back to the Nowhere Place with you.
They both giggled.
And off I went.
From a million stray glances, captured at speeds up to thirty thousand frames a year, the Earth is green, and it grows and glows. From a million perfectly private moments, I can tell you that the Earth is split into the Day Earth and the Night Earth. The Day Earth drifts beneath the sleeping stars, and the Night Earth squirms in its black bed.
The Earth is green and it vibrates like the gentle opening of a door, like a window streaming through with sun, like the wind caught in the channel beneath the eaves of a roof, it hisses and sings. The Earth is a song whose lyrics you do not know, but when you hear it, you always sing along. And the Earth is divided into the land and the water, and, for the most part, life on Earth, and residence on Earth for all its creatures, through its relentless pace, and in spite of its great promise, is full of almost unnoticeably bleak and cold truths: simple progressions through torment and torture. When things die they are flung away empty.
Another third of existence is the Nowhere Place, which during the moments of Earthly hush may come for its residents into subtle and savage focus. There are no features in the Nowhere Place. It is a landscape of absence. The environs describe a void: no stars to track, no clouds to follow, no soil to step on, and no air to breathe. And yet there is the sensation of self, the echo of steps, the memory of clouds, and an unfulfilled promise of night and the galaxy blazing somewhere distant and unseen overhead.
The Nowhere Place is every horror that does not exist, every monster that never lived, every fear that has no foundation, every angle that cannot be drawn, every noise that cannot pass through a human throat, every torment, everything unimaginable, and all of those all at once.
The Nowhere Place is a prism, where existence in all of its manifest colors is reduced and joined and shrunk into one uniform black and silent cacophony.
And there is the black tree and the constant dark rain that feeds it.
And the rain falls in never-ending, gentle, sightless sheets. And it describes a twisting and tearing, an affront to the lack of definition it implies, which is the lack of everything. And everything that it is not gives the rain a shape. And everything that is not the black tree gives it shape like a silhouette outlining a form.
Sometimes, like blinking, or turning my head to catch the memory of a once-familiar voice, I find myself suddenly looking through someone else's eyes, momentarily back on Earth, the joyous flood of air in my lungs, the sun high and smart in the sky above.
It was a long time before I was able to focus well enough to see the dark tree.
The moment I saw it clearly, it vanished.
Cap'n Happy loves the world and can readily tell the difference between it and everywhere else. Once, we were sitting by the banks of a wide river. A rowboat drifted down the river, and on the shore, a man with a net on the end of a long pole and two women enjoyed the warm weather. I gazed up at the clouds while Cap'n Happy droned on. It was interested in some birds, and lazily pointed out sparrows in flight. I could tell that It wanted a cigarette, and I reached into my pocket. I had a pack of Lucky Strike.
This conversation occurred, if it occurred, many years ago.
-So what have you learned? It asked me.
This conversation is the first thing that I can say that I remember well.
Everything before it is indistinct or out of order.
The shore swayed in the still air. Suddenly, I was standing by the shore of a river. River water was only a few yards away, and the sun occasionally glinted off the current's ripples. My pants were rolled up, my shoes were off, and my shins were bare.
For as long as I could remember, I had been slashing, cutting, tearing my wrists open in a variety of dimly lit and dirty hotel restrooms. Arms of different color, arms of different length, arms of men, arms of women, sometimes arms of very young people, sometimes the arms of the elderly: I watched veins pull up blue and surprised and all-too-arterial-red in the blank air, saw the flicking tongue and slick sheen of blood on black and white octagonal tiles, on square tiles, on plastic backsplashes on wooden benches, on modified dressing tables, on marble slabs and gold-embossed taps. I saw the world reel and straighten in a blizzard of deliberate strokes, some lengthwise, some across the matted tissue of previous scars, some clumsy and right at the elbows.
For as long as I could remember, I had been standing in decrepit bathrooms, staring at cracked toilet tanks, stained sinks and the puzzled remains of garish wallpaper.
I remember waking up and seeing my hand holding a pen, seeing my hand writing in thick black illegible letters on a University letterhead. I remember putting down the pen and picking up a ten inch kitchen knife. I raised it to my neck, pressed the tip of the blade past the skin like a credit card. I felt a little trail of red, and heat. I heard the sound of a fist on a door. Then I screamed and drove the knife in almost to the hilt and the knocking grew louder and my vision began to waver. It took six more thrusts to enclose the Earth again in darkness.
For as long as I could remember, I had been alone, confused and sick.
I remember sitting in a bathtub, wearing a suit, a new briefcase open and balanced on my lap, staring at a new chef's knife. I remember rolling up the suit jacket and rolling up the shirt underneath and cutting my arms lengthwise. I could barely hold the knife and yet the only way to leave was to force myself to press down harder.
At first, I saw nothing. An impossibly long stretch of time compressed into a single moment, and began to crystallize in a fantastic arc of concentric circles, each leading back on itself.
And then, in the shades of nothing, the tree came into focus.
As soon as I could see the tree clear and swaying, I was somewhere else. I was standing on the grassy bank of a wide, slow-moving river. Slowly, deliberately, I sat down on the bank, and felt something sit down beside me, and place Its hand on my shoulder. I did not turn around, but watched the ripple of the current, and watched light cast itself on those ripples.
-So what have you learned? Cap'n Happy asked.
I tried to answer It, but my attention drifted away.
People hang themselves with all manner of nonsense: electrical cables; the belts of frayed and well-worn, yellowing dressing gowns; speaker wires; stretchy and striped old bungy cords; plain hemp ropes; nylon ropes; steel chains; dog collars; out-of-date ties; long streamers of dangerously frayed and mismatched bowling shoelaces; torn bed sheets; shirts; braided plant fibers; the candy-colored cords of electric guitars; the drawstrings of vertical blinds; impossibly complicated self-made ropes of twisted and hair-pulling Scotch tape… you name it. Go ahead and name it.
You name it, and the chances are, I have tied it around my neck and stepped off a chair, or jumped from a bridge, or let go of a branch, or relaxed at the waist, let myself lean ever so slightly forward, and hung myself.
The river hung motionless under an invisible sun, far away and out of sight.
-So what have you learned? It asked.
I tried to open my mouth, but the river held me fixed. It had a green smell, and I could see tiny insects in clouds near the shore. I could hear birdsong, and the calls of frogs. The rowboat, gently following the current, made small splashing sounds. The women were gesturing at the sky. I could not talk.
-It's beautiful, isn't it?
Obscured by clouds, the hazy afternoon sun filters down on us. Humid, healthy and earthy, the riverbank reeks with the honest smells of decaying leaves. Insects dart in and out of dust motes.
-Where are you?
-I don't know.
-Fair enough, It replied. Now who am I?
-I call you Cap'n Happy, don't I?
-You haven't yet, It said. But I don't suppose that matters anymore because you do now.
Now there were three riverboats. One had its sail raised and was leaving my field of vision, following the current. The other two had been dragged up the flat bank of the river, and were seemingly abandoned.
-Where do you go when you leave here?
-I go to the Earth.
I had to think about the answer for a while. The women on the bank were talking to each other. Straining to hear their words, I allowed myself to be lost in the clouds, staring blankly upwards. Somewhere high in the sky, birds wheeled on the warm currents in the air.
-To see beautiful things, like this day. Like those poems. The ones I heard in New York .
-To learn something. Something about beauty, or the beauty of life: it will somehow help, make things better.
-Well, off you go then.
If I allow my mind to wander, time seems to speed up, and I lose all sense of where or who or what I am. The scenes from the hotel bathrooms become ubiquitous, continuous, aggressive, and intrusive and I start to disappear into them, until I am simply the broken end of bottle, or the jagged end of cheap and rusted knife.
When I start to lose to myself, I see more and more and more and feel less and less and less until everything blurs, and melts, and strains and, eventually, I can take no more.
The universe gapes.
My mind reels, and I find myself back in the Nowhere Place, back underneath the branches of a dark tree I cannot see, far away from everything and alone with my thoughts.
As bad as the Earth is, it is infinitely better than the Nowhere Place, which is nothingness, and emptiness, and loneliness.
And Tummyland? Cap'n Happy never mentions Tummyland. It keeps Its big mouth shut.
The rest of this story is available, with many wonderful others, in the completed anthology