A version of ‘Alysm’ appears in Disturbing The Body, a new anthology of speculative memoir published by Boudicca Press. From chronic illness to major medical operations, to child-bearing and disability, the anthology is edited by Nici West and explores the ways women can feel at odds with their own bodies.
I am walking our dog in the park when the burning sensation infiltrates my throat, as though it is new-found land. The burning sensation makes me want to slip into the abandoned baby harness slung over a bench, then run towards a baying that escapes the heat in my blood. The burning sensation has instructions for daylight. In you. Out of you. Beyond you. The burning sensation says the fog expanding in your brain has accomplices. The burning sensation warns that the alphabet in your mouth will collide with lightening. I have the urge to place my dog on the swing (the creak of it is music, a calming balm) or on the silver slide winding into the sandpit studded with bright plastic buckets and shovels. I think of placing her on the multi-coloured roundabout decorated with treats that glimmer then vanish. She, a barking compass as the roundabout turns, as the world spins. I am myself yet I do not feel quite right. There is a thundering in my ears. My skin is clammy and warm. A heat rises in me. My mouth is dry with panic. There are clusters of people in the wide open park spaces, small colonies waiting to be ruptured by something dark, voracious and relentless. My dog tugs on the leash wanting to rummage for bones, oiled chip wrappers, coins with disintegrating bodies wielding knowing gazes.
Two nights later, it is just before midnight. I am standing in my room by the wardrobe when the taste leaves my tongue. It is sudden, intense, acute. My mother lingers in the doorway in her signature style, partially in and out of a room, talking about so-and-so relative who did not show up to a cousin’s baby’s naming ceremony back home. Her voice fades. The burning sensation in my throat escalates. Pathways there close up. There is a lump in my throat. I sense an alien force hijacking my system. I feel it moving inside me. My body is no longer mine alone. It is a host for something malevolent. I cannot breathe. I am feverish. My heart rate increases frenetically. My mouth seems constricted. I cannot open it to its full circumference.
We call the ambulance service. The operator asks me a hundred questions. A medical professional will ring me back, he says, but he is not sure when. Besides, he does not think this is urgent. I put the phone down in frustration. I am a Black woman; I do not have the time to fully rely on systems where the odds are stacked against me. I trust my instincts instead. We call a cab to the hospital. At the A&E department, after checking my stats, the doctor confirms my worst fears. You have a 50/50 chance, because of your breathing issues. It will get worse before it gets better and I don’t want to lie to you, it may not get better. I leave that room in a trance. It feels impossible to swallow properly. I am more aware of the sensation than ever. My every movement through the waiting area is heightened. I cannot see the facial expressions of those around me. They are a blur. Only the cracked blue siren spinning ahead holds my attention, ready to shatter as I pass through the exit doors.
I watch the news. A man in Kolkata dies from the virus, they say. He leaves behind a sweet shop and a wife. Three days later, his wife dies of a heart attack. I wonder what they, a childless couple, dream of now in the afterlife. I wonder who will inherit their dreams that remain on earth.
At night, I see parts of my body abscond onto the fading white lines in the park that form parameters for shadows to dodge. My throat is studded with constellations, curved and hovering above the line like a weapon ready for activation. My concave chest spilling antibiotic pills that will do nothing to curb the enemy. My lungs leaking childhood memories into the goalpost; they resurface partially, in ways that are out of sync. My body is drunk with sickness, mutating under a harsh, foreign glare of light that is unrecognisable. Not of the sky or electric bulbs, not of the lamps that I bend my head to in the dark like moored conspirators, writing poems urgently at night. The glare is misshapen, orange hued. A fever decorated with blood spots.
I go for slow walks. I struggle to breathe if I move too quickly. My chest hurts. I hear the sound of a thousand headless Kingfishers fluttering towards me, released from the faded hands of ancestors, slipping their bright feather under my tongue as nature’s thermometer, pressing their jittery bodies into mine as though leaning into an unruly species. Shrinking back again from me – imposter suns on the move into another horizon. I feel the fever glare subside, too, when I am outside. I see it shrouding the hands of a woman sitting at a bus stop, turning a wind-up soldier in her hand. It surrounds the head of a boy flicking through a copy of the Evening Standard magazine outside the DLR station. It seeps into a dead fox on the road, its final, pained expression oddly recognisable. Its innards splayed out on the concrete.
A man in America needs multiple pints of blood. The virus is eating through his blood and body voraciously, at an Olympian pace. The doctors do not know what to make of it. He is surrounded by strangers, machines but no family. It is the cruellest alienation in a time of need. I hope that he is dreaming in the lonely hours.
At the hospital, after receiving a chest X-ray, I pass a ward in which carcasses share one pulse. They sit up in beds wearing stethoscopes, holding weathered exit signs. I am lost, crossing one too many doors. I take several left turns that all lead to points of sickness. Finally, back to the room in Majors: I climb onto the bed awkwardly, careful not to split the paper-towel-like sheet, which tears anyway. I stare at the hulking cream machine to my right that checks a multitude of things in the body. The screen is lit but Super Mario is running across it. He will fragment into my heart rate per minute.
An older, portly, Black male nurse comes in to take my blood. He is gregarious and cannot stop talking. He calls me sister. He searches for a vein. He speaks to me with the kind of freedom and intimacy that occurs when Black people are solely in a space free of inhibitions. Kai! We are dying in droves from this virus, he says. It is everywhere. Plenty frontline staff gone, my sister. Several I know. One ambulance driver used to bring me pepperoni pizza sometimes, bring me Lamb biryani. Neville, a giant of a man with a big heart. He had time for everybody. Gone just last week. I start my shift beginning of this week and the other nurses tell me he didn’t make it. He leaves behind two daughters, a wife. Can you imagine?
My mouth is frozen. A feeling of doom spreads down my back. I am certain the machine is beeping loudly but the nurse is oblivious. Super Mario is attempting to escape it. He does not know how he got there in the first place. The nurse keeps talking. My throat constricts. My expression is twisted. I am sure I will fall off the bed. I am convinced I will scramble away. I will use the whiteboard listing patients in the nurses’ area as a hoverboard. I will perform a disappearing act worthy of Houdini if it means I can get away from more bad news. Then he finishes, placing a cotton wool ball and plaster over the needle point in my skin, as bulbs of blood seep through it. He breezes out in the same cheery fashion he came in, off to deliver more tales to unsuspecting patients, clutching my blood samples like liquid jewels. I cannot breathe. The doctor tells me they are inundated. I am struggling to breathe for up to eight hours a day, I say. There is nothing they can do for me. They are only admitting those who need to be on ventilators. I oscillate between panic and short-lived relief. I am scared to be in the hospital. I am scared not to be there.
A school teacher in Arizona dies from the virus. Initially told she had a sinus infection, they say. Her students loved her they say. The image of her smiling warmly holds endless moments that can never be fully translated to an outsider’s eye. I wonder where her dreams will go. I ponder over who will collect them on the other side.
I see my lungs in the garden, edging towards the wonky washing line as though they have wisdom to impart.
I am locked away in my room for a month, where time slows down. I do not sleep at night in case I do not wake up. I drink Supermalt. I research people who survived the virus. I take notes. I sleep in the day time. I do deep breathing exercises at least four times a day. My grandmother rings me every Sunday from Benin praying for me, speaking in tongues while slowly going blind. She commandeers the spirits to guide me. My father, on a solar power research trip in the wilds of Benin, recommends boiling and drinking African herbs one cannot find in Britain. My older brother in Montreal asks what’s taking me so long to beat it, as if I hold the solution to a global pandemic with no cure on the horizon. I do not see my younger brother for two months. He is away but we have wonderful video chats. Every day he video calls me without fail. It is an anchor, his sheer determination that I will not fall into a slipstream of darkness to carry me away. We get to know each other in ways that feel new, invigorating.
I cannot embrace my family. My sister refuses to stop herself from bursting into my room on the odd occasion, her already worried expression crumpling even more. I am unable to hug our dog who understands that something is amiss. She scratches at my room door. She follows me when I make appearances in the kitchen, whimpering, wagging her tail, performing her favourite trick of standing on her hind legs and opening the fridge door. There are more terrible breathing episodes and emergencies. More trips to the hospital. In cab rides on the way there, my mother takes to looking at photos of my younger self, crying silently. I do not dare to interpret what this means in her mind. I tell her to put the photos away.
I am still here.
I must write letters to everyone I care about. I have to share our best memories in them. I must inform them of the joys they have brought to my life. I write a short story, a retelling of an old folk tale made pertinent by my hand. I am determined to fight. I am more stubborn than ever. Even in sickness.
I buy a mesh inhaler, an asthma pump, an oximeter, a thermometer. Instruments to monitor fluctuations in my body, to curb the panic when it comes. I check my body everyday. I reach for these items when the airways in my throat start closing up, when my hands flutter like the heads of ill-fated flamingos, when my chest feels as though it will cave in. During periods of insomnia, I imagine the items leaving our house, returning in the morning to the gap beneath my door, covered with permutations of possible cures. I am tired frequently. I try to push through. I avoid communal spaces. I must not infect anyone. I do not want to be seen struggling for breaths. The fear in their eyes is too palpable, the helplessness, the sense that fate will decide.
A 75-year-old man dies in Eastbourne from the virus due to underlying health conditions. A 34-year-old man from Los Angeles dies too after visiting Disney World. I am heart broken by the amount of loss. It is staggering. I wonder if their dreams will reconfigure in the ether.
I wait. While waiting I hold onto possibilities as sustenance.
I think of all the things I have not done.
I have never scaled the Inca trail in Machu Picchu.
I have never been reborn in the waters of Socotra.
I have never whispered a wish into the ears of statues in Ghana.
I have never searched for migrated birthmarks in the palm lines of women in Madagascar.
I have never fallen in love with an astronaut.
Three months pass.
One blustery morning, I step outside. I am at the front gate but really on the brink still. Fate is the Frankenstein-like creature stumbling in the traffic, infected, holding a bottle of Supermalt with my vein throbbing inside it. There are syringe needles pinned around his mouth. There is a tiny, darting, golden green chameleon shooting from this saliva-coated enclave. Come on, he urges tersely, his leaking grey eyes bulging out. He waves me over, the skin peeling from his left hand. In his right hand, he is clutching the lump in my throat like new fruit, mirroring it back to me. The pressure in my chest returns. There is an internal rhythm going haywire. My mouth is the shrunken Kalahari dessert. An intense splintering of sound in my brain occurs as though it will split and form its own hallucinations. My skin is slick with sweat. I take a deep breath. I am in pain but I do not hesitate. I walk towards Fate asking him about my share of fresh dew from the bottle, informing him of the versions of myself I will breathe life into; ready for me, ready for anything in the waiting, hollowed, unrecognisable world.
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian British writer. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask Award. Her short stories have been published internationally, including in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2017, Kwani? and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction. She was presented by Ben Okri at the London Short Story Festival as a dynamic writing talent to watch, and featured in ES Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Saboteur Awards, and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Irenosen was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018.
A version of ‘Alysm’ appears in Disturbing The Body, a new anthology of speculative memoir edited by Nici West and published by Boudicca Press. For more information and to buy a copy, visit the publisher’s website: boudiccapress.wordpress.com/buy-books
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