Monday, August 10, 2009

After Ragnarok

Andrew S. Taylor

In the hospital, the doctor, standing behind the dim lamp which he points toward me from the corner of the dark room, speaks.

“I'm not supposed to be here. They could have me censured. They might take away my carte blanche access to the pharmacy.” I see the silhouette of his hand move toward the silhouette of his head. A dark diagonal line with an orange ember at the tip protrudes from where his mouth should be. His face glows infernal orange. I see his lips, cheekbones, like a skull dimly irradiated from within. His eyes are hollow pits save for the reflected ember, twice reiterated. He burns, exhales, dissipates, and then he is all darkness, all shadow, all mouth. I press play on the tape machine near my pillow. The sounds of the ocean emerge. There is likely a tiny bead of metal listening near my bed, fastened behind the bookshelf or the vase, and now it is confused. Old technology, vanished politics.

“Doctor,” I ask, “what happens in this country to someone found to be a double agent? What is the penalty?”

Doctor turns and shrugs and smokes again. He paces behind the lamp, will not cross into the cone of light. He speaks slowly, smokes heavily. His voice drags like a corpse through dry dirt. “In that case, friend, we enter a curious mode of justice.” He hisses, clicks his tongue. “Here you may be found guilty of a crime of false consciousness. You call it lying where you come from. Or, perhaps theft.” Shrugs. Smokes. “We don't make that distinction here.”

I touch the bandage on the side of my face. The gauze is damp and sticky. With one eye still working, I catch a view through the window at night. They keep the curtains drawn at day. There is nothing out there but empty factories, and the occasional glow of a hand-held lantern. Men, I am told, who buy things from the back door of the hospital and sell them elsewhere. They call them Icers.

“What's my best shot?” I put it out there. I have to. The blind side of my face worms with heat and pain. Soon I will be incoherent again. The doctor is sparing with his opiates.

He stands by the window, considers the refuse. “A foreign agent - that's just espionage, the usual. Life in prison with some torture. A double agent, that's false consciousness. You worked both for us and against us. Back in the day, so long as the grainers were flush and bellies full, they'd be willing to take mercy. Invoke a lenience clause if you could show you helped us more than you harmed us, but you'd still face at least life imprisonment, with perennial visits from Uncle Twitchell and his magic car battery. But if the balance tilted against us, you'd be toast. Public toast. City Hall steps, even.” Smoke. Cough. Smoke.

I look at the length of my body, beneath the once-white blanket, spotted with agonies and, possibly, occasional ecstasies long extinguished. I am thin and uneven. “How old are the blankets and the sheets in this hospital, Doctor? I feel the ghosts of your numerous failures tapping at me.”

Doctor laughs. “They want attention. They want to sue me from the afterlife.” The ember falls to the floor in a helical dive. Then his voice deepens, his chest spreads. “You can say that you worked for them, and then for us, and then for them again, and that by the time you reached the third layer of subterfuge there was logically no more chance of loyalty to anyone. Once a layer of deception has been affixed to both sides, you are effectively a lone entity. The penalty for that is not as great as being found out as a foreign entity. You compromised yourself to both sides, and were merely fighting for survival betwixt your appointed contacts on each side of the border.”

I shift my weight. How long since I last moved, walked? I remember the border. Pine trees, wall, factories. Factories, wall, pine trees. And so on, back and forth by night. I remember the wall, loved the wall, loved the cold February stars through the pine trees and the smokestacks. The stars were always turning and returning. I was tired at night during the crossings and I dreamed often that I became fuel to the factory, was burned in an oven, and flew out through the smokestacks and up into the stars. I dreamt often of the dirt, the snow, becoming sap in the strong pine, shooting upwards, bleeding to death at the tip of the mountain.

I tell the doctor my latest fairy tale. “Doctor, there was a patient who used to stay next to me in this room. An old man in pajamas like a candy cane. Every night about an hour or two after the lights went out he would play with himself. He'd call out names, different names almost every night. I could never tell if he did because he thought I couldn't hear, or he did it because he thought I could.”

The doctor laughs again. His laugh is caustic. “They hate you for the dreams you gave them,” he says. The cigarette is nearly finished. “I won't be coming back here for a while.” He opens the window. A cold wind blows in. The wind sounds like the old man, calling out names. He tosses the cigarette. It falls into the night, another pinprick of light to join the Icers. He looks at something I can't see and grins. I see his eyes now, pupils the size of dimes. He leans out the window for a moment, seems to be looking for something else to say, and then turns and switches off the lamp.

“I can see the colors now, doctor,” I say. It's that lamp, followed by the sudden darkness. “The night is in the room with me, and it's swimming with colors.”

I cannot see the Doctor, only the colors, but I hear his footfall near the door on the far side of the room. Soon he will pass beyond into the unlit hall, the tunnel of dripping water.

“I'll leave the window open for you,” he says, and then departs.

I turn to the window. Dawn has not arrived. I touch the side of my face. Remembering that I used to wander, I call with my mind to the faraway creatures, the foxes and the hawks, the wild boar and the bear and the jack rabbit. I call to their husks, to arise from the soap vats, from the factories and the rusting canisters. Through the open window, I call to the remains of the world. I say, arise, and live. Arise, for Odin is amongst you once again.

My new novella "Swamp Angels" appears in the anthology Needles & Bones, recently published by Drollerie Press. My fiction has also appeared in Pindeldyboz, Thieves Jargon, Mud Luscious, Word Riot, Menda City Review, Monkeybicycle, Underground Voices, Mad Hatter's Review, The Cafe Irreal, Ellery Queen, decomP, and The Dream People. I live in Brooklyn, NYC. My blog can be found at

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