by Levi Teal
Construction of the barricades has forced Reinhold to alter the route of his Sunday morning walk, which, with the entire village overset by the unexplained sequestration by barricade, he has undertaken every morning this week. He usually takes the bridge south out of town to the valley beyond, but now he circumnavigates the village along the barricades’ perimeter and then traverses each of the four streets that run adjacent to the village square. He prefers that his walks begin in isolation and end at the cafe. While the other villagers are attending Sunday services and praying to their god in the manmade cathedral built by masons, he enjoys the forest that their conjectural god theoretically made and is eventually driven back by loneliness to the public hub. He cannot explain why he longs for companionship—to him it is people who babble and brooks that communicate.
He does not feel quite right this morning, but he and many other villagers agree that the rations that come daily over the lip of the barricades have been causing mild muscular discomfort, clammy skin, and tightness in the joints—a minor impetus for these longs walks. The other impetus is that one cannot indefinitely bounce conversation against a wall as though it were a ball. He ignores the rations this morning, as a tastier morsel could be found under a workbench.
Shops in the square have garlands above dark windows and wreaths upon locked doors. He cannot understand why the appearance of the barricades has neutralized all activity, especially during the village’s favorite holiday. Why not carry on as before? The village is as afraid as it is bored. No one leaves the village anyway, so it is only the option of leaving that has changed, and that hardly seems reason to upend and disrupt a schedule, especially during a time of year that, for him, is pleasantly filled with company.
Shafts of green smoke rise from behind the barricades every half mile, as they have each morning, silently lifting about thirty feet before encountering a thermal inversion, where the smoke drifts horizontally and mingles with the white smoke from the village chimneys. Thankfully, the barricades haven’t stopped a resilient horticulturalist from roasting chestnuts near the square, and Reinhold buys a few to occupy his mouth.
With the brass handle of his cane he knocks on the doors of a few good friends, but none are answered. He approves of his reflection in a window—top hat, pocketwatch, scarf—and carries on.
Few people are about. The morning is brisk but pleasant, and the snow from the previous day is still white and soft. The cafe, too, is locked, and he must converse with either a bench or a lamppost if he wishes on this particular morning to converse at all. A concentration of footprints leads him to the cathedral in the square, where he makes an inquiry of one of many villagers headed into the cathedral—the baker’s daughter—about this spontaneous Saturday mass and receives in reply a packet of rations that she hands him, which this morning includes a leaflet. The old cobbler mutters as he passes through the cathedral’s twelve-foot, arched, golden door something about the snowfall being heavier in Hell than in the village should Reinhold be near the cathedral. Reinhold pockets the biscuit that he’s noticed even the birds let lie and unfolds the leaflet.
The village is under quarantine. It is suspected that a contagious disease has arrived in the village, the symptoms of which may include mild muscular discomfort, clammy skin, and tightness in the joints.
As he builds a fire in his flat he becomes terrifically uncomfortable, as though his skin is nauseous. His organs are full of ragwater. Young flames that aren’t yet taller than the kindling sear his forearms from a distance of three feet. An insect that touches down on his arm feels like a dentist’s pick. The leaflet offered nothing on the subject of countermeasures. He strips away his clothes and paces about the flat. The air moves his body hair in a sour way and it occurs to him that if his skin becomes more sensitive he’ll wish he’d shaved, but when he tries the razor on the fine hair above his elbow it burns like a branding iron.
The fire seems to sear him, though it doesn’t appear to. Nude, he can’t get near enough to the heat to stay warm without feeling the agony of a burn. Sitting in the cold room he may as well be on the moon with half his body melting in the dawn and the other half freezing in the dark. He stands on rotisserie.
Time becomes a tunnel that stretches away from him at both ends. He knows neither beginning nor end of the minute he’s amidst. Someone in another flat is moaning. Seasonal decorations he’s placed around his flat are divorced from him—they could be theatrical props rather than items he’s owned for years. They are part of a fantasy in which they are noticed by other people, in which other people come to his flat and notice them, in which other people come to his flat. Those and all of his carefully curated possessions are meaningless now that he cannot stand idle, lie down, sit, focus, remember. It hurts to move but moving is better than the derangement of holding still. The moaning is not coming from another flat but his own mouth. All his fluids are bile.
Time becomes a tunnel that stretches away from him at both ends so that he suffocates in the vacuum of a second. None of the other windows in the village have been lit this evening. He knows this because he’s passed the window hundreds of times. There is searing tenderness in his subdermal facial tissue and phantom cockroaches under his scalp.
He is claustrophobic not in space but in time.
Dawn. Deep orange light comes unimpeded through the bare windowpane and lights up the rug upon which a portion of his nose lies, the size of an olive.
Birds and newspapers stir in the street.
He does not have mild muscular discomfort, clammy skin, and tightness in the joints. Subcutaneous fats are molten, sweat has darkened the rug, and he couldn’t force his palm to his forehead even if a glowing, haloed god materialized in his kitchen.
There is a sound.
On one of his walks years ago he heard thirty pounds of wet cabbage burst through the sodden bottom of a vendor’s burlap sack and splatter on the cobblestones. That same sound is made when his skin falls off. It is something like the strain of vomiting—the nausea is over and there is no real pain, but he is disoriented. Tormented. All thought and opinion are eclipsed; he knows not even his own name but only what he observes, and he knows not what he observes but that it is vertigo and gore. The night’s suffering has culminated in this moment of undefined duration, a horror outside of time, and it leaves him staring down at a violent lasagna he must not identify, that has him around the ankles like trousers in a restroom. That the new settee has been defiled by what looks like murder raises no concerns for him. The settee is part of life from an alternative timeline that involves brandy and affectatious goodbyes and haircuts. None of that matters as blood runs from his fingertips to the floor as though this is the intermission of a shower. There is a sensation of numbness; otherwise he feels fine.
Through the window he can see coming from behind the barricades pillars of smoke that today are cherry red.
It takes an hour to clean up. The pile of skin is lighter than he expects, but is awkwardly limp and slippery. He mops up what he can, but the rug may be forever discolored.
He has no notion of what to do, but it happens to be Sunday morning and the sun happens to be casting golden light upon the forest he cannot see beyond the barricades, so he decides he’ll have a walk. His cane, however, tophat, pocketwatch, and scarf—longstanding markers of his identity—no longer bear relevance.
The streets are empty, crates of rations unopened that today are stenciled instead of with the word rations with the word cure. It feels much like the quiet holiday morning it is, though he can hear villagers in agony inside their flats. When he spots movement in a window he stops and waves, unsure whether he has been seen or waved to in reply.
Traditional holiday mass is normally what Reinhold walks past every year on this day, with so many people in attendance that he can see them standing along the stained glass of the cathedral’s rear wall. Today the cathedral is silent. It is difficult to see through the windows, but it appears empty. He grabs the great door’s golden handle, which feels cold in a way that is unfamiliar, and goes inside.
It is grand and ornate on a scale he hadn’t imagined. A building has never produced in him the longing of Satie’s Gymnopedies, and it’s obvious now the sense of awe and music and filtered light that draw people to this room, the highest and largest he’s ever occupied. The room isn’t empty, though. From just inside the door he can hear someone who’s standing at the far end of the cathedral, near the alter, weeping as though she were beside him. He spends minutes walking up the aisle, marveling at tapestries and stained glass and arabesques and acoustics.
“How are you doing?” he asks the woman at the alter. Lipless, he slurs the words. Light pink fluid has soaked through the waistband of her dress. She looks up at him with unblinkable eyes. Her teeth are longer than he remembers human teeth to be.
“I always come here when I don’t know what to do, she says, but today I feel nobody is listening.”
“Yes,” she says turning to regard him, “that’s true.” How there can be no particles of dust floating through the broad columns of light that stand throughout the cathedral is beyond him. Her facial muscles move to cast an expression but he might as well be intuiting a foreign manuscript. “You are listening but how can I explain?”
“Those barricades aren’t going anywhere. Take your time.”
“It’s accurate, partially,” she says reaching up to fuss with hair she no longer has, “to say that we are having an out of body experience.”
He smiles and wonders how it looks.
“We have not died, but something has died. A part of my body has died and I feel also a part of my soul, but that’s not the word I mean.” She places her fingertips on her face, “My face,” she says, “has gone and without it I have no concept of myself.”
“Yes, I,” he agrees, “feel that too.”
“And what I’m wondering is whether my self image and,” as she speaks her voice spreads out into and warms the vaulted expanse so that it sounds like she is humming along with her own sentence, “my god might have been the same entity.”
“Well,” he says.
“On my vanity I keep perfume, skin cream, jewelry, and my holy book. I felt the same about all of them this morning. Or rather I,” she, her musclature glowing deep red, moves into a column of light, “felt nothing for them.”
He has not forgotten the barricades when he says, “We are free.”
Levi is the owner/operator of Yawp! Cyclery.