By Chef Cymoril_Melnibone
I wish I could think of a way of starting this story without it immediately becoming a depressing tale of woe. But if I want to tell it fully and truthfully, it’s predestined to be that way. If you would rather not remove your comfortable blinkers, please step away. You can’t put them back.
Even if I could begin somewhere like ‘I was happy child who grew up in halcyon maze of middle-class suburbs,’ it might make this all a little less harrowing to write.
But unfortunately there are plenty of us who do not get to have a fulfilling and pleasant childhood.
I don’t know if I was born with the first of my two afflictions – the jury is still out on the science of that one – but I do know that by the age of five I was already uncomfortable in my own skin. As far as I knew there wasn’t a name for it. I’d never heard anyone say they felt the same way, nor seen anyone behave in the ‘strange’ ways that I did.
Being alone with that particular torment made it even harder to cope.
By the time I started expressing who I was, and what I was, I couldn’t contain it any longer. It burned in my breast like a molten ball of lead; heavy and furnace-hot, sometimes making me gasp at the intensity.
And so I told my father. I told him why I was so strange, why I acted so ‘weird’ all the time.
“Dad, I think I’m really a girl,” I told him on my eighth birthday, after he presented me with a yellow toy truck and tickets to some football match.
Again, I’d like to tell you that my loving father listened quietly and carefully to my tearful confession, then hugged me and told me he loved me, no matter who I was.
Instead I have to tell you that these days, when I’m nervous or distressed, I impulsively run my fingers over the scars on the side of my head where he hit me with the metal toy truck until I stopped breathing.
I remember the huge x-ray machine taking pictures of my fractured skull, to check if I was healing. I remember the nurses being so kind – kinder than anyone had ever been to me.
When it was all over, when my head was at least physically whole again, I was given into the custody of my grandparents.
Sometimes, when my father was drunk, he would come around to my grandparent’s house and scream at them for looking after a ‘faggot’. He’d throw bottles at the house and smash up the letterbox, then leave on his motorbike, weaving dangerously down the road.
In the morning, as I helped my grandfather clean up, he would avoid looking at me, radiating such powerfully silent disappointment that I felt I would die.
When grandad eventually passed away from prostate cancer, my grandmother sent me to a boy’s boarding school – where I quickly learned to hide every true aspect of myself away from the world.
As the other boys around me began to change, I felt rising panic. Voices deepened, hair started to sprout in various places. Desperate to avoid the same fate, I searched for an escape from the creeping advance of puberty.
The answer to my predicament was to be found in the bathroom cabinet of my grandparent’s place when I went home in the holidays. There, tucked away in the back of the cabinet, were all the medications my grandfather hadn’t taken – the hormones designed to lower his testosterone and stop his cancer.
And so I took them. I eked the pills out as best I could, delaying the onset of puberty until I was old enough to leave school. But as I stayed the same and the others changed, the permissive bullying became worse. The slurs and taunts turned into pranks, and then into real violence. I discovered what hateful, animalistic things boys can be when they are alone with each other, temporarily unfettered by rules and regulations.
This time, the x-ray machine was smaller and quieter. The technology had advanced a little, but the nurses weren’t so kind. I heard the word ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ whispered behind my back, and the burly doctors were perfunctory and blunt.
It seemed that the pattern of my life had been set – and amongst those unhappy weeds, the second of my afflictions ripened, and began to flourish.
I won’t go into the details of my gender transition. Most of it is highly personal, and very painful to recount. Suffice it to say that by the time I was twenty-three, I had left my old life behind and started a new one.
The scars I bore were both physical and emotional. The former were easily explained with a string of practised lies about childhood sporting injuries. The latter were less comfortably concealed with medication and what therapy I could afford.
But I was happy, probably for the first time in my life.
I was truly at ease with both myself and the world. As long as I kept my mouth shut about my past, everyone assumed I was only what they saw; a short brunette with glasses, a faint limp, and a penchant for bright necklaces of coloured crystals.
I had a job, as a receptionist at the head office of a supermarket chain. I even had a couple of friends, and had been on a few dates that went nowhere.
So when the first symptoms began to appear, I tried to ignore them, for the sake of my own happiness.
At first, it was a subtle difficulty perceiving colours. If I looked at an object long enough, the colours would fluctuate, as though the ghosts of other hues were superimposed over the top.
But as time wore on, it became worse.
Afterimages would swim across my vision when I talked to people; the spectres of shapes and colours. Sometimes I’d become disoriented and dizzy, and would have to rush to the bathroom.
My colleagues jokingly asked if I was pregnant.
Whatever it was, I surmised that it must be neurological in origin. Silent migraines or some similar phenomena, probably stemming from the childhood trauma I had tried so hard to leave behind. But like that trauma, I could no longer wish it away.
The test results came back negative. MRI scans showed normal brain activity, but I was questioned closely about my childhood head injuries. I was given migraine medication, which didn’t help.
In fact, the medication seemed to make things worse.
I could perceive more now, in those ghosts of shapes and objects. When I looked at a person, I could see their features shift and distort over the top of themselves, an overlay of their life like a stuttering film. I would see them as a rosy-cheeked child, through to an old woman – all in a matter of seconds.
And when I looked at an object, the ghosts of its inanimate life would play out – a knitted sweater showed the afterimages of a sheep being shorn, then the wool being carded and knitted, and culminating in its eventual unravel and decay in some garbage heap.
It became almost impossible to navigate the world, surrounded by these haunts of past, present and future. A simple walk down the street meant stepping into a boil of shapes and colours, births, deaths and decays.
Then, on the day I was ready to give up and flee back to my house, probably never to leave again, I saw the man who didn’t change.
His eyes darted about like he was watching invisible fireflies. I could tell from the pinched, headachey expression on his thin face that he was experiencing the same thing as me; that the world was dancing around him in an endless loop of unravelling existences. But the man himself was solid and real. He didn’t change at all. He had no ghostly film of his own.
And from the way his eyes stilled and locked onto me when he saw me – like a thirsty man spotting an oasis in an endless desert – I immediately knew that he saw me in the same way.
His name was James.
We sat in the café, trying to ignore the chaos around us; the tablecloth spooling into cotton being picked, then processed, then dyed and woven. We ignored the pretty waitress deteriorating into a soup of flesh and porous bones, picked over by graveyard insects.
James was twenty-seven, openly gay, and his life had been terrible, some of his experiences painfully similar to my own. As we spoke, staring at each other’s unchanging faces, he began to explain to me what he knew.
Soul cancer, he called it. No medical test could pick it up, because it didn’t seem to exist on any medically discernable level. He believed it was a residue on a person’s soul – a sort of psychic blight caused by a bad life. The damage separated the person’s soul from the world, allowing it to drift up and down reality and view what had been and what would be.
“How do you know all this?” I asked him.
He grimaced. I could tell he never really smiled.
“There have been others. We spotted each other easily, then talked to each other. We formed a sort of ‘support group for the damned’ and shared our knowledge,” he finished with a sardonic laugh.
His use of the past tense did not escape me.
“What happens near the end?”
“No-one can stand it for too long. Eventually you see everything; not just the tree growing from a seed, being cut down, fashioned into a chair and then rotting in a garbage pit. You see the supernovae that the atoms came from, you see the coalescing of our planet, the birth of the oceans, the rise and fall of civilisation, the decay of our sun and the heat-death of the universe as everything turns cold and dead.”
His hand missed the handle of his coffee cup, reaching for some after-image of it instead of the real thing. As he knocked it over, we saw the coffee beans maturing as berries on the trees, then being picked, dried and roasted, their whole existence spooling out in the wet spill on the tablecloth, its own life replaying beneath the new stain.
The hairs on the nape of my neck prickled,
“Why didn’t they just blind themselves?”
James made a sound that wasn’t laughter, hollow, an empty reflex.
“If you blind yourself, it only makes it stronger.”
“And what happens at the very end?”
“What do you think happens to a person who sees humanity consume itself and watches the universe die, over and over and over again?”
We met regularly for coffee in a brutalist building of concrete and iron. Concrete lasted and was less prone to the dizzying blur of birth and decay.
“Let me show you something,” James said.
He pointed to a young woman sitting against one wall, her phone clutched in her hand.
“If you concentrate, you can push through the images and see things that you want to see.”
“What kind of things?” I asked.
“How she got that little scar on her hand. What product she uses to dye her hair, what will eventually kill her.”
Focusing on the roiling blur of afterimages that made up the woman, I pared back the distraction of her clothes and cosmetics until I could only see her; just the life of this one human being, from start to finish.
“How does she die?” James whispered.
I saw her get older, plumper. I saw the bulge of pregnancy grow and then – “Childbirth. She dies in childbirth,” I told him, watching the woman bleed out, then the chill darkness of the morgue, followed by the roar of the crematory furnace.
I stared at James.
“How do I die?”
“It doesn’t work on us,” he said, hopelessness dulling his voice.
I practised on people on the bus and on the street. This man will die in Delhi of a gastrointestinal bug, this boy will die before he is ten, kicked in the head by a horse. Deaths spread out in front of me in a tapestry of white, red and black threads; hospital sheets, punctured organs and necrotic wounds.
I pushed back past the start of people’s lives, seeing who their parents were, seeing the nutrients rush from the stomach, to be converted to streams of proteins and fats that were fed into the placenta.
I watched an elderly woman’s death throes in a nursing home bed, and I clung to the thread of her life, watching and holding fast. As her body heaved a last breath and fell still, I felt the fibre of her soul in my mind, like a slippery ball of grey light, rising from her body.
Then it was gone – as though it had simply winked out of existence.
But the more I practised, the more I could follow.
I can see now, where the souls of the dead go. I have tracked the lives of thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people in this city. I have followed their lives to the end and beyond. It has become a compulsion that lends strange meaning to whatever time I have left.
I have seen the afterlife. I have seen a portal of white light that leads to somewhere else, a place that when I graze it with my mind, I feel a kind of joy I have never felt in my entire life.
I have also seen a place of scarlet darkness that fills me with such terror that leaves me shaking and sweating for hours afterward.
And I need to tell you that there is also something else.
There is also nothing.
The vast majority of the people I have watched through their deaths end up in an empty, infinite void. The little orbs of their souls hang there, alone, and scream. They scream and scream and SCREAM, the stuff they are made of resonating in an anguish so profound that it shapes the rest of their endless and pointless existence.
Of all the people I have followed, of all the lives I have followed to the very end? Only two have made it to that place of joy. Fewer than fifty have ended in the scarlet darkness.
All of the rest of you, the majority of people reading this story, will exist forever in the nothing.
So now you know what happens, now you know what waits for us on the ‘other side’.
In a strange way I’m glad that this has happened to me, that it allowed me to pass on the knowledge I have gained from my affliction.
In a sense, it has given my broken life some kind of meaning.
I just hope to God that my own soul is so damaged by this cancer that it crumbles to ash long before I die.