[Liam Durcan lives and works in Montreal. His work has recently appeared in The Fiddlehead, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, The Paumanok Review, and will soon appear in an anthology from The Agony Press. He has recently finished his first novel].
aura n., pl. ... 3. Pathology. A sensation, as of a cold breeze or a bright light, that precedes the onset of certain disorders, such as an epileptic seizure or an attack of migraine. The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition.
It begins like this, she said. A man walks down the street from the door of the house that he has just opened, and after a trip of seven subway stops, bracketed by descent and resurfacing, glances at the mailbox on the corner and crosses the intersection. A car comes to a stop. He has rolled up and over the windshield and tumbled down into the same fractured spider-web just as the horn blast dies out. Everything is more real for a moment; people will comment on this as they speak of it to their loved ones over dinner. Everything came to a stop: noise, movements, respiration. Yes, it begins like this.
The day before last there was no man and little way to invent him. This intersection of vectors was still so far in the future that no one could imagine it. She could not foresee it any more than the weather that would be deposited on them in forty-eight hours, a Zen garden of isobars folding toward them from the west, all as vague as a midweek midday meal. A faint hunger was building.
She was in the office when the man invented himself, showered and found socks that most closely matched his pants. She was aware of him-soaped and partially dressed, looking for something in the refrigerator-and felt hunger as she held the lid on the photocopier down and saw the attenuated flash.
Coffee, instant. Crystals that look like a sort of stone but have no odor, not in the jar or the cup. Not in the pouring in between. Another powder for the changing of the color. He likes the powder. He could be bigger, spreading and filling the sky somewhere but feels that maybe this is him, condensed in his jar. The rain starts.
He did not think that is was going to rain. These things surprise him. Rain, the noise that the toilet makes, dark nights. He cannot shake this bewilderment and it makes him feel he is becoming prematurely addled and that living alone does not agree with him. He had planned to be unpacked by this time but cardboard boxes line the wall. He could use a television. He would drink coffee but needs water.
She spoke to her mother before she left. Sleepy eyed goodbye and a salad tumbling in a plastic bowl. I am imagining this, she thought, her mother’s look and the look of the hallway, always the same, never the same. I have been here before, all of it like a moment ago when her mother handed her the vegetables, I am imagining none of this, nothing could be more real. Wet inside, the vegetables thump against the plastic.
He brings order to whatever he has managed to cobble together, pencils, a notebook with lists written on the last pages, a calculator that is thicker than any model made today, an antique calculator but not so old that the paper tape hisses out of it. Into a corner, he moves and straightens objects-his collection. He has a briefcase similar to Mr. Efferdahl’s-No, Derek, he says, call me Derek-calf leather that is wrinkled where the surfaces meet. Her eyes narrow, close with each cycle of the copier-account key, format, letter size, number, no collate, toner- it begins like this, he walks.
Clouds like smoke, a diffusion of smoke and rain out of the air, transubstantiation and the body of our Lord, Jesus, his body and blood. A world awaits the calf-leather case at the end of his hand, even Mr. Efferdahl wants his case and why shouldn’t he? He wants his vegetables and pencils. But he keeps walking, maintains a good stride and passes others in the street, unaware.
She starts again, breakfast, shower, breakfast shower, it begins from the inside not from outside. She has had breakfast and removed her brown turtle-neck sweater from the closet. She has had nothing for breakfast, over and over again.
Hold on. Is this it? Mother, looking through her purse, disapproving or loving, but still the same look on her face. How could I ever know you? She turns the purse upside down and stars fall from it, a shower that makes her lose her breath. Mother. Mother, mother. The hormones make you sick in the morning and when you throw up it’s your pills in the vomit. It’s the hormones that make you sick, she would say.
Cold water and then air that stings, it fills your head, running against the inside of the skull. Breathe through your nose. Try to sit down. Hold on.
And then the impact. Denial, then the impact. The man had put down the umbrella and taken his jacket instead. He will be carrying too many things, the subway demands a free hand, one at least. He puts his jacket on, a windbreaker with a sound waterproof hood. With this he will not need an umbrella.
A trickle of blood. Its taste. Metallic, odd. She smells toner at the same time her mother tells her that her sweater is fit for the garbage. It is a phrase she overuses; one among many: beyond the pale, Bob’s your uncle. These were her father’s phrases too, once they were only his and then they were only hers. Her father tells her to mind her p’s and q’s and she is wondering how he is saying this to her and why he smells of toner. He hasn’t aged a second, she thinks; maybe dying does that to you. Maybe toner does this to you.
The door closes and he feels the rain for the first time, cool on his neck and so he lowers his head. A ground wet but without puddles. The body and the blood of our lord Jesus Christ. I like it and she says it’s fit for the garbage. I like it and I’ll wear it. Does he like it? How should I know? A woman knows. Leave me alone. Simply say the word and I shall be healed.
What kind of name is Efferdahl? Her mother asks, she screams. It is a beautiful name.
Beads of glass. A novena of a windshield, dimpled and glittering in gray light. Why have I forsaken you? Body and blood. At eight weeks the neural tube forms and from that cells move out along a kind of scaffolding to form the brain. All the pictures, an atlas of harelips and spina bifida, gifts of the medications, saving one brain, spoiling another. Risks, the doctor said, are always balanced by benefits. It is your decision, letter or legal, a shuddering.
He closes his eyes once he has a seat on the subway. He feels the train gain and lose momentum. Each door snapping shut, the mouth of a larger animal, the end of a breath. He is not a large man, smaller than her father or even Efferdahl, but heavy enough that his cheeks and his midsection jiggle as the train moves. He undoes the zipper to his jacket and pulls at the collar of her sweater. His eyes open and he wonders if he has packed his lunch. He touches the briefcase.
She sees him through the glass that separates the subway cars. His eyes open and he reaches for a case but she does not know why. He has his lunch. Vegetables and in a tupperware bowel, indistinct inside except for the carrots. You can see the carrots.
She knew, it wasn’t the sweater fit for the garbage. Words, does he know? He could be everybody, she thinks, anybody who makes this more than my situation. His first name is Derek. Well, at least that much you know. Does he know your state? Fine word. It is a beautiful name.
It is in a dream perhaps, that she sees Derek Efferdahl in his office, drinking coffee and smiling at his open window, her mother’s voice filling up the office space, falling from the sprinkler system, embarrassing her, corrugating papers, soaking the carpets. Droplets now on the glass of the copier through which she looks to see him eat his carrots because he has found his carrots. An arm wipes the globules away. Flash.
She smelled it on her hands, from the subway to the revolving doors and then in the elevator where it rose in her chest and was then exuded in a musky sweat that smelled like him. A feeling rising, like his hand on her thigh that time at the hotel, his hands on her waist and then under her sweater. The car windows fogged except where her hand print was, love, love. Call me Derek. A faint nausea that she was having now, Mother knew by the look on her face and the lack of sleep, but she tried to hide it and played the radio but saw it all, the pills of Tegretol in the bowl, floating, not yet dissolved except for their smooth surfaces. What are these? He said that night at the hotel. These are the biggest birth control pills I’ve ever seen, he said, laughing, and then they looked for his glasses.
She loses him on the subway platform, a crowd of commuters separating them, her mother’s voice raining through the station, think of the bigger sin, she says, now in front of her, sitting with Sister Eveline in the kiosk dispensing Lotto to those in line. Her mother has a microphone, taps it to make sure that it works and the air in the station reverberates. Venal and mortal, there is a difference, Justine, Sister Eveline echoes, Remember the difference.
He is gone now, the platform cleared and the train gone. Completely empty except for the artificial wind and the toner smell. A second more, a second more. How many had there been? She laughed, she would said Sister Eveline, with her cousin, they were terrors. There hadn’t been many but she did not know which way to fudge the numbers so she told him the truth, after which he was silent and they lay in the dark. But I waited patiently for the lord, and he inclined to me and heard my cry.
Outside the sky is a shade of blue that she has never seen and she stops and listens to the world spin, its quiet grind, its pull. Listen to me, her mother said, a visage of studied charity, you cannot carry this child. She held the sweater to her face, she knew it would be the toner, but it was him. You cannot put a child through this, the light like the sun behind, wiping the glass clean of the spray that glistened like sapphires in the blue sky.
Mind your father, Justine. Eyes that disappeared or became other eyes but were familiar, had that feeling of sadness and expectation. Justine. Something growing, billowing inside her, a feeling of warmth and an absolute certainty that it would be okay, everything would be okay, she would see to that. He pulled me out of a pit and out of miry clay. Sister Eveline crosses the street. Hold on, one hand trying to grip the collating tray, the ceiling illuminated as the search light passes. The warmth, the warmth. The beautiful certainty of love of the Blessed Virgin and his name. I cannot do it. And then the smell, acrid and infusing. Unmistakable .
How could you tell me to do this? How could you tell me to do anything?
This is the place. This is how it begins. He walks across the street still wet from the morning, his hood up although the sky is blue. She would give anything to see his eyes, to see if he had the eyes of her father or Efferdahl or maybe her eyes. She sees how it is going to be. It is all known to her and she cannot for a moment bear it. She has to stop it. She wants to say something but can only hear the grinding sound, the spinning. In this moment the world is oddly open, split wide and holding no secrets. She is omniscient now, the blue-robed Virgin and not the girl with the affliction, she is more than the affliction. She has perfect vision; the cars follow their paths as though they were on tracks, pieces of a game. She stops the bus that will obscure his vision but he keeps walking and she turns the yellow light prematurely red but the traffic continues and spirals and all she can do is reach out for him, to touch that jacket sleeve and prevent his path but when she reaches him, when she thinks she has the jacket in her grasp all the she can hear is the noise. He is gone and she is alone, standing on the pavement, flat on the surface of the moving world. Supernovas of buckling glass and the impact, the spinning of it all: the car dissolves, the grille becomes a different shuddering machine with a paper tongue lapping the tray and before the feeling overcomes her she feels the desperate need to explain herself, to say that she can experience things of such beauty, that for a moment purpose and circumstance are all one splendid sensation and she feels such sadness that no one else knows this and she will forget. She tries to open her mouth but nothing happens and before losing consciousness she sees the lights flooding the room, illuminating all.