You do not open your eyes in the dark. The people who came before you dance behind your eyelids, whispering words you do not understand. Each word reaches you, melodic yet loud, so that you cannot tell whether it is a song or a warning. Regardless, you do not live by the guidance of the old. If they died way back when the world was so much simpler and warmer, then they had nothing useful to say.
They did not make it through the invention of ‘modern’ technology, global communications, traceable bloodlines, and defeatable diseases. You, on the other hand, are the alpha of a pack in the wilderness where disease is but one enemy. Every day is a never-ending battle between the hearth and the cold, the livestock beneath the sanctuary and their brittle cages. You are strong; you are a survivor.
You are also smart, mentally secure enough that the silence does not scare you when the arctic wind charges in, beating down a window and putting out the sole fire that keeps your house alive. You are the only one who doesn’t jump, the only one who keeps to his book, feet planted on the floorboards. This is your house. No breeze will evict you so easily. That’s why they choose you to do it.
One of your lovers approaches you, limbs shaking. Her lips are already a purplish tone, but neither of you acknowledges it. What would you say? And it was so red! What happened!?
“The bulwark has been beaten down,” she tells you tenderly. The perpetual darkness of nature makes it impossible to see anything. Yet, by the string connecting your foolish hearts, you imagine a sliver of light bouncing off the spoon on the table and the ceramic burner to reveal the pleading tears in her eyes. Perhaps it is the cold already slipping its violence through the base of your brain.
While there are other people to do the task for the sanctuary, there is no other you. She calls you by a false name – Oliver – and it gives you a sense of responsibility, of power. The edge of each letter carries the blades and bullets that allowed one man to dominate another, so you imagine you might become that dominant victor. Your real name lies with ancestors long gone – and good riddance. You have no use for a name already six feet under when you’re determined to stay alive.
You do not heed the warnings over your shoulder, too bold for the blessings of the deceased. The snow swallows you up to your thighs as you trudge through the darkness to check the damage. An empty frame, the sheet that kept you safe now long buried by the storm. You circle around the sanctuary, where tools stay hidden beneath a tarp.
A sheet of bitumen kisses your blistered palms so eagerly that it draws blood as you lodge it into the frame. When the aperture is sealed, the safety of your lovers and your family and your enemies fills you with relief that leaves your chest warm in spite of the cold. If they are safe, you are safe. If they survive, you survive.
It’s in the split second of isolation that it takes you.
Obsidian teeth plunge into your neck before you get the chance to stop them, and the venom of the beast reaches your spine. Prismatic, they etch lines into your skin and blights that cry of disease. It marks you for death and you have nowhere to run. You pray for the snow to protect you, though it has never been your friend, pushing in on your weight so that you can slip from the grasp of the darkness.
It is much too late. Damnation settles in on the surface of your skin, incriminating shades of red and purple. Once it is inside you, it spreads, and you must be rid of the plague the only way you know how. Were you less cowardly, you would have stayed in the flurry, let the magical white have its way with you.
In minutes, you are no longer human. Your face meets the ground, the affectionate crunch of the snow protecting your jaw from the impact. The scent of things that no longer exist reach your nose, ancestors welcoming you to your grave. You did your job; your people will survive. You have played your role. It’s time to go.
The prospect of going out just like them leaves you bitter, gripping the frost in your fists with bubbling rage. It is not fair. A single mistake and game over? Bullshit. You are not like the others – you do not plan to die once you are dead. Everyone must learn how brave you are, how your magnificence cannot be stopped even by the curses of nature.
It is dangerous to move with the venom inside you, but when has danger ever stood in your way? With grit teeth and tight fists, you push yourself up as the cold racks your limbs. You are alive. You will never die.
Once inside, you hide everything beneath large fabrics, ponchos that blanket the swell and discolouration upon your feet. What they have yet to see, they need not know of. You made it back; you are brave and powerful. Nothing happened to you.
One of your lovers greets you with a kiss, and another pushes a bowl of soup into your hands. You cannot tell how warm it is – warmth is now alien to you, though it envelopes you through the vessels of these people. You consume it all, but it does not settle in your stomach. It is almost sickening. You do not know how to tell them, not when this warmth is the very thing stretching out the grins of glee on the faces of your circle.
Inside the sanctuary, still unaware of your impurity, the melody of warmth bounces from wall to wall as malady spins you into a frenzy. At once, it is cruel and mocking, though you have danced to its song with love and mirth. Even when the light of the hearth defeats the dark, tendrils loom in the periphery, out to get you. Each calming phrase hides a knife behind her back. It is much too late when even the taste of soup leaves you alert, forgetting what is fear and what is reality. You know you should be dead. But you are a coward. So you recite the dramaturgy: back straight, lips plump, pulled from ear to ear. Nothing is wrong. Nothing happened out there.
That name does not protect you anymore. When she says it ever so softly, you flinch, palms flat against the reindeer fur the two of you have been sleeping on for lord knows how long. You are ready to leap. You cannot trust her. The name does not protect you now that you are already dead. She has to know what happened.
Yet, whether you have hidden so well beneath fabric you sheared from meals long ago or the bruises are not bright enough on your skin, she fails to notice. She reaches out to touch you and though you usually sleep with limbs entangled, the distance between the pair of you in that moment exceeds the stretch of every polar region in the world combined. She has to know, yet she does not. You shift your weight back onto the ground, only barely heated by the furnace. Some pathetic excuse about keeping the fire going tumbles from your lips as you scamper from her reach.
Everything inside you is unforgiving, binding you in coils embedded with blades. They are at your throat and at your calves and simply walking is torture, even when you are far away from her. She does not know, but she is only one of several partners who will lie with you and touch you. She has the decency to let you veil your cowardice with lies, but the others will not play along for a second. They will ask you what happened. You have a single answer loaded on your tongue: Nothing.
The fathers of your father drum along to the rhythm of your footsteps, singing the chorus of your doom. This is how we died, they croon. Symbols you never bothered to understand join the dance, a halo above your crown. You know instinctively that it’s your name. You do not know your own name.
There is no escape. Your legs give out. Your face meets the ground. Violence paints your cheeks, draws ribbons of blood from split flesh. You know better than to cry, than to contaminate wounds already contaminated. Breaking your nails against the ground, you continue the chase, dragging your corpse from all that pursues you. They must find it so beautiful, the way you continue through the struggle, adorned with blood and despair. They must love you so.
“Is this you?” He only knows you through rumours of your valour. When he catches you with large palms upon your shoulders and lifts you onto your bruised feet, his grin is huge – amusement exceeding performative niceties. He has no right to know what you are, but he does not give a damn. He had been scanning every detail of you from the follicles on your forearm to the weight of your bones long before you were aware of his existence. It is not difficult for him to know each and every one of your ailments. He finds them all hilarious.
Terror racks your chest, but when you pull away, he does not let go. You are far too magnificent for him to abandon. When his weather-beaten palms encircle your wrists, you notice he has his own dramaturgy to recite. Back straight, eyes wide, he too died long ago – and he wants you.
All that you had worked so hard to disguise surfaces, polluted by his gaze. He owns it now, damning it to savagery as he tears it from you, its parent. You quickly become an empty husk, carcass broken open for every scavenger to feast upon.
“It’s disgusting,” he sneers, though his tone is so beautiful and silky, you fail to comprehend his words. You disgust him, yet he cuts you up into little pieces and fills you into a sack for him to carry. He wants you, yet he forgets to put you away, even if you are nothing more than a meal.
As the threads of you come apart, the memory of your epitaph unwinds, slipping through your fingers. You cannot remember what you want them to say. And he was so brave!
And she was so beautiful!
You keep your eyes open in the dark. It is not something you can trust, not when you are surrounded by enemies and enemies in disguise. You do not lie with anyone, not when they are all out to ruin you, to put your rotting corpse on display and laugh at all that plagues you. They all pull their noses up in grieving grimaces. If you are not holding them close or accepting their company, then you are no longer functional – you are broken.
That is a lie. You are a survivor and the only way to keep being one is to keep watch. You lose track of the fires, more weary of the lashing flames than you are thankful for the heat. The sun becomes fearful of your gaze as you watch it from the window, crawling slowly beneath the clouds like it can evade you. Nothing escapes you. Not now that you have become this warrior.
“You will burn your eyes,” one of them warns you. You do not know how you know them, but they have a lot of nerve, moving into your personal space like they know you. Nobody knows you.
You ask them what they want, each word thick and sharp, an alternative to the serrated clubs that your fathers carried with them to sleep.
“Aren’t you tired?”
In the split second that you were busy looking at their face, a cloud had already jumped. Idiot.
“What happened to you?”
There is no answer to that. Your jaw sits, locked with reticence. Another split second and this person grabs you – not the you above the mantle, but beneath it: raw, broken, bleeding skin, falling off limbs quickly growing cold. The audacity! you scream, burning with rage. They do not have the right to touch you, to look at your vulnerabilities. They do not get to see you weak. How dare they?
Strength blossoms from your progressive decline, curses spilling as you lunge at the person. Your hands find their throat, your fists their mouth. It is as briefly as they touched you that you pummel them before their eyes roll back and their heart stops beating. Somewhere between the damage, the venom must have entered them, for beneath the blood and fractures lay your own misshapen face.
“And she was so beautiful.” They cry, choking up on the last word. It is a prayer, a choir over the corpse. All your lovers need the gods to know, before the bloat, before the wickedness, before the disease: she was so beautiful. Not at all like the other corpses, not like you, not like your ancestors – she was loving and loved. She never hurt a single person in her short life. Were it not for the perpetual snowstorm, they might have buried her with lilac and called her a ‘spring bloom’.
It irritates you that they only congregate when the death is bright and spectacular. They were not like this when demons silently sucked your soul at night. They had no clue when wolves came to eat your flesh as it fell upon the floor. It irritates you that they only cry for you when you bare yourself to the world, and the fact makes you want to strip naked, disgust them with the truth.
“I won’t cry for you,” he tells you – he who already knows all there is to know. “I love the way you rot – like me.” Blade to your throat, it licks the pressure of your arteries each time he stands close to you and traces the spaces where tissues once worked together as a machine. The way he stretches out the spaces lets you know that was so long ago, you could never return to such a time or place. Between midbrain structures, even the voices of your ancestors have left a void. Through some twisted serendipity, you are not alone; you are alone with him.
He takes what is left of your hand. “Be with me.” You have forgotten how to say no. That is affirmation enough for him. He tells them your real name. You still do not know it, but all your lovers do, and they laugh and they cry. You are a coward, a phony. The dramaturgy is merely the devil’s scripture. You cannot act. You cannot perform. You want to die just like her. Maybe if you do, they will sigh, “And he was so brave.” Before the lies, the plague, the bloat: you were so brave. But they could never let you be a martyr.
Once he replaces you, everything becomes so simple. You do not need limbs where he is willing to use his own for you. You do not need to walk where he is perfectly capable of roaming. You do not even need all your lovers and enemies, because he can be anything you need him to be. As your body shrivels into a pearl trapped in the oyster of his fists, you outgrow the sanctuary – or it outgrows you.
The pair of you, or the fusion of you, leave in the dark. He has your eyes, the ones you pulped or tossed in a fire or whatever he tells you about your former self. You no longer know how to be cold. If he tells you that you are warm, who are you to disagree? You lost your sense of heat in a storm or a flood or standing too close to the gas when someone cooked. You cannot remember any of it; he remembers for you.
Between the folds of his palms, the last of you chafes away into a fine powder or smoke – it is his lungs that your remnants enter; you know not what form you carry. Night and day merge like you and him into a perpetual flow of time. You are finally ready to sleep forever.
Distance. That was your name. Distance, because your father and his fathers all knew how far you would go. Perhaps, despite their mortal ineptitude, they knew, too, of the bridges you would burn long before they had even formed. They must have struggled, choosing the name that would capture you and bless you and define you. Perhaps they should have asked you.
Personally – back when you had personhood – you might have chosen Overestimated, Pretence, or Performance. You can’t remember your existence before that. Truthfully, nor can he who boasts of a chronological omniscience. You would have called him Victory, Bloodshed, or Emptiness.
“I have to show you something,” you tell him, unquestioning of whether he wishes to see or not. It is not up to him. You lead him through darkness and snow, holding his hand as it burns your skin. You sing and cry, summoning the beast through whose womb you were reborn. You show him the horror.
He screams and sinks to the ground, clawing at the frost for refuge from the unfathomable disorder. For all his might, he does not know where to look. He closes his eyes, praying for his own survival. Hands clasped, he finally lets go of you. You roll across the ground – too nothing to know freedom anymore. And he was so beautiful!
You step into the darkness and your fathers welcome you home.
Toba Marison is a 19-year old Nigerian-British writer, third year Computer Science student, ambiguously disordered, and incapable of being touched without adverse effects.
*Image by Oscar Keys on Unsplash