Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

D.M. Mitchell

In my mind’s eye I can still see Jimmy wandering the grubby streets of my childhood. In his mangy carpet slippers and torn lank-top, muttering unintelligibly and snapping at passers-by. I can picture his hollow-cheeked pocked face, lizard skin beneath beetling brows. Never wore an overcoat, even in the winter, rain or snow. Over the years of my formation up until puberty- he became part of the childhood mythology of the neighborhood. In retrospect, though, he was just another dead-beat in an area full of dead- beats. He lived next door to the house with the overgrown garden where poisonous looking weeds erupted from the remains of an old sofa and a TV- set. The tales that surrounded his pitiful existence were typical little boy fabrications, except as it turned out, for one. He did keep his wife locked in a rear bedroom, feeding her on biscuits and water, and she did scream every night. She was acutely schizophrenic. Social workers in those days were very few and far between. Not that they're much use even now.

I recently returned to the old street to try and find his house and was unable to make out which one it was. Every garden seemed to have become overgrown. The stained-glass panels that had distinguished his door had apparently been removed. There seemed more rubbish in the street than ever and every third window was boarded over. I was forced to run a gauntlet of vicious stray dogs and dirty barely-dressed infants stared at me unflinchingly in a way that made me shiver. Before I left the area I was bitten badly by a black Labrador.

Jimmy drank himself to death twice. The first time, he keeled over in a public house, stone dead. An ambulance managed to get him lo the nearest medical facility available, in this case, the local lunatic asylum. There, they pumped his stomach of beer and an assortment of pills and massaged his heart. They were shocked when he sat boll upright on the table and demanded to be taken home. On being dropped off at said abode, he was so happy that he went back to the pub to celebrate.

Maybe he wanted death. I can't really imagine him wanting anything else. One night (I was thirteen at the time) while wandering the streets, as was my wont, I glanced up and caught sight of him leaning from a window above me. He was jutting out so far that I couldn't understand why he didn't fall. His head was tilted back and his face was exposed to the stars, his breath clouding in the chill air like smoke. His body twitched and his neck muscles were so taut that I expected them to snap. His jaws were working as though in some pitiful desire he was trying to articulate something beyond his power of expression. A thin strangled sound reached my ears. What was he calling? God? Death? Something older? Eventually the tension left him and he collapsed across the sill like a puppet whose strings had been severed. His head lay in his palms and he shook with agonizing sobs.

For a long time afterwards I was haunted in my dreams by his image leaning from a tower-window, smoke billowing from his mouth as unseen things wriggled in the darkness around me. I became nervous even seeing him in the street, panic-stricken if he chanced to mutter any thing to me. The hopelessness that saturated every cell of his body seemed to reach out towards me with fingers of nausea. Some years later I was walking home, again during the early hours of the morning, and glanced as I habitually did at the stained glass window in his front door. It was astonishingly out of keeping with the area and stood out quite remarkably from the rest of the ramshackle building. I often wondered how it managed to escape vandalism as long as it had. All of a sudden I heard the most inhuman shrieks imaginable coming from Jimmy's house. I had never heard anything like them before although I have since heard worse during a short visit to a mental hospital -the sound of soulless automata wailing in torment.

Something large and heavy hit the front door and I jumped backwards involuntarily. The religious icon in the glass panel began to bulge and buckle outwards alarmingly. Another voice I didn't recognize joined the screams, which eventually quieted. The window remained in its new state, the lead stretched permanently. I glanced around me. Several neighbors were watching from their windows so I moved on.

People forgot entirely about his wife until later. She must have had some family somewhere. They certainly had no friends. Jimmy always drank alone, ranting and cursing to himself, shadowboxing but never seriously bothering any one. One night he died for the second and last time. He managed to do it halfway down an alleyway this time, his trousers round his ankles. Nobody found him until the next day.

It must have been a fortnight later that the police forced entry to his house. I've heard descriptions of what the inside was like - the filth, the piles of mangy clothes, food, old newspapers with odd living creatures scuttling through it. I remember the youngest policeman coming outside to throw up in the flowerbed. The back bedroom must have been the worst. I stood next to a slack-faced fat man whose face was half covered with shaving foam as they carried out the body bag. I remember the stench as it passed. She'd been dead for months, apparently, while he'd left her food and water outside her room, removing it untouched later. She'd lay there rotting while he ate, drank, watched TV- and went to the pub. Some nights, even now, I can still see him leaning from his window at that impossible angle, begging the stars for some escape while below him the madwoman screams in her desolation at the prospect of being left behind as he aspires to the heavens of his futility.


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

(for my sister)

D.M. Mitchell

Mary met him on the bridge near her flat, under a treacherous sky like a dirty bruise. Her period had just ended and she'd celebrated with a handful of pills. None of her friends had answered her phone calls; maybe they were out already, in which case she'd bump into them eventually. But she suspected that they were in fact, simply not answering the phone, avoiding her. She was becoming needy. She decided to walk for a while on her own, then check out a few clubs when they opened for the nightly meat-trade.

"In this city everyone preys on everyone else." she thought, adjusting the dark glasses which she habitually affected as they hid the bags that had grown beneath her eyes. She liked to think the glasses made her seem almost tragic, like a doomed heroine in a film-noir. No! She decided she wasn’t tragic. She was predatory - a nocturnal beast, never waking up until at least four in the afternoon, just like her friends and acquaintances whom she only ever saw after dark. Vampires. She was glad she'd left her job, even though the money was starting to get tight.

Half of the world's human population is infected with Toxoplasma, parasites in the body-and the brain. Remember that. Toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite found in the guts of cats; it sheds eggs that are picked up by rats and other animals that are eaten by cats. Toxoplasma forms cysts in the bodies of the intermediate rat hosts, including in the brain.

He was standing with his back to her - short blonde hair, tight arse. Once upon a time she had suffered from chronic shyness, but years of drink, drugs and casual sex had given her the predatory, self-assured character that she had always admired in women. She walked over and stood next to him as he swiveled a face as placid as an insect's towards her. "What's your name?" she asked - not really interested - just a formality.

"Johnny.... “he grinned, playing her game. Joining in, following the rules on an autonomic level, she reached over and brushed a fly from the corner of his mouth. She knew that wasn't his name, but the lie actually reassured her.
His teeth looked quite sharp and glistened in the streetlight like those of a deep sea angler fish. She realized, with some surprise, that she violently wanted this man and it surprised her. Men, for her, were nothing more than an idle pastime - a habit long since emptied of any real pleasure, which came more and more often from a bottle or from pills.

Since cats don't want to eat dead, decaying prey, Toxoplasma takes the evolutionarily sound course of being a "good" parasite, leaving the rats perfectly healthy. Or are they? Oxford scientists discovered that the minds of the infected rats have been subtly altered. In a series of experiments, they demonstrated that healthy rats will prudently avoid areas that have been doused with cat urine. In fact, when scientists test anti-anxiety drugs on rats, they use a whiff of cat urine to induce neurochemical panic.

Beneath the bridge, shopping trolleys lay rusting in the mud of the riverbank. Drained of former associations and context, they had become abstractions, devoid of meaning - manifestations from the collective unconscious of a city that had been drained of feelings. Under a broken neon advert that read 'L VE S X', a lurid spray-painted voodoo face watched them inscrutably.

"Buy me a drink.." she said, putting her hand on his crotch. Beneath the material of his jeans, she felt him respond, and was delighted to find he was quite well hung. In the darkening sky above the factories, a black kite fell like a wounded bird - a sudden flurry of sewer rats in the dark green water of the river below.

"Do you often pick up strangers?" he asked, a lupine grin twitching the corner of his mouth.

"I don't believe in wasting time on bullshit." she smiled in a way she hoped looked seductive but which felt lopsided on her face, her tongue thick from the drugs.

"What ever happened to safe sex?" he asked.

"No point in that is there? Like alcohol free lager."

He stared piercingly at her for a second, then, seeming to have made up his mind, took her wrist roughly. On the palm of his hand she saw a tattoo of a double swastika designed to resemble a black sun.

"Let's have that drink..."

As they left the bridge, the dying sun tinged the clouds of industrial smog purple. Sodium lights came on here and there. At the entrance to an Underground station, the chaffing noise of the rubber handrail pattered ghost-words into the back of her tripping brain. An automatic advertisement hoarding changed at intervals and, for a second, she thought she glimpsed the black solar design she'd seen on his arm.

However, it turns out that Toxoplasma-ridden rats show no such reaction. In fact, some of the infected rats actually seek out the cat urine-marked areas again and again. The parasite alters the mind (and thus the behavior) of the rat for its own benefit. If the parasite can alter rat behavior, does it have any effect on humans?

In her flat, he impaled her brutally with no attempt at giving her pleasure. The sweat ran from her numb body as he treated her like a slab of meat. This was what she really wanted - annihilation, pure and beautiful. She slipped into and out of a blank space beyond awareness, each blow penetrating to her core, removing sensitivity until she felt as drained as a black sun...

......her eyes shot tracer lines.......
.........a dark halo appearing behind his head, pouring over them like ink,

the bed rolling like an ocean of jelly as she blacked out.

Her last impression was of his jaws opening impossibly wide....then a vision of rows of carcasses swinging on hooks. She smelled blood and woke gagging at the taste of her own bitten-through tongue.

Dr. Torrey got together with the Oxford scientists, to see if anything could be done about those parasite-controlled rats that were driven to hang around cat urine-soaked corners (waiting for cats). According to a recent press release, haloperidol restores the rat's healthy fear of cat urine. In fact, antipsychotic drugs were as effective as pyrimethamine, a drug that specifically eliminates Toxoplasma.

When clarity reasserted itself, her whole body was aching as though she had severe sunburn. The sheets were sticky with her own blood. Something reptilian and insect-like moved in the back of her brain with sticky little feet. Storm clouds gathered in the muscles of her cramped thighs and shoulders. There was no sign of her date. There was also no trace of semen (for which she was grateful).

As she tried to sit upright, she was violently sick. Her whole torso had been tattooed with snakes and black solar images. In the centre of the design were two figures joined together like an alchemical Rebis.

When at last her stomach settled she decided to look around the flat to see if he'd walked off with anything. Not that she had much - some CDs, a handful of books and a shell-collection. She rolled up the bed-sheets disgustedly, throwing them in the bin by the door. Then, glancing up, she noticed that the door was still locked from the inside and sudden visceral terror hit her in the guts. She put a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming, realizing that the lunatic was still in her flat.

Her first impulse was to open the door and leave but the noise of slowly running water from the bathroom drew her. She'd not noticed it before, probably because she'd been throwing up. If he was still in there she could lock him in and have a better chance of escape. Someone who tattooed your body while you slept was bound to be at least a little dangerous.

Still not sure that parasites can manipulate the behavior of host organisms? Consider these other cases: The lancet fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum forces its ant host to attach to the tips of grass blades, the easier to be eaten. The fluke needs to get into the gut of a grazing animal to complete its life cycle. The fluke Euhaplorchis californiensis causes fish to shimmy and jump so wading birds will grab them and eat them, for the same reason. Hairworms, which live inside grasshoppers, sabotage the grasshopper's central nervous system, forcing them to jump into pools of water, drowning themselves. Hairworms then swim away from their hapless hosts to continue their life cycle.

As quietly as she could, she crept to the bathroom door which was slightly ajar, and reached for the handle. Her hands shook so badly that she fumbled and accidentally pushed it wide open.

He was hanging from a water pipe by a piece of wire that cut deeply into his throat. His tongue protruded blackly.
She sat numbly for a while, unable to think. After some time she decided to cut him down. She severed the wire with some pliers and dumped his body onto the tiled floor of the shower unit, but his weight made her overbalance and fall and for several seconds she lay with her face mere inches from his....her attention sucked into the vacuum of his dead eyes.

In a blind panic she hurled herself backwards across the floor, smacking her shoulder against a water pipe. Hauling herself up, and gripping the sides of the sink tightly, she began to throw up again. Looking into the mirror above the sink, she saw her retina split laterally ..........

.............revealing a space - blank - void of substance...
....inhabited only by a rippling magnetism....

Within her, new matrices began to form, new co-ordinates to mesh, new juxtapositions to fix.

The stars above her formed a cipher unlocked by her pain and his death.

The indices of her identity crumbled, pouring from her ruptured eyes to the surface of the mirror like crispy insects, overwhelming her with myriad images...

She heard the beating of titan wings, the roaring of flames as she crossed the threshold of being and a strangely familiar faceless face vaster than time loomed over her...

Her yearning was finally answered by the extinction she'd desired so badly.

A new head protruded from the wound and shed her the way a snake sheds its skin, dripping wet from its birth. The old husk whispered to the floor.

Johnny looked in the mirror at his new beautiful face - serene, cold and hungry.

Later he left the flat, it would be days before anyone came looking for her - and what would they find? Something barely resembling a human.

His new face was the sort that people didn't remember - too perfect, with no clearly distinguishing features. He could be a thousand different people.

He turned left at the end of the street and passed a builder's yard. Silence trickled down the walls, laying in coils at the bottom. Two large Dobermans in the yard sprang into action, barking and throwing themselves against the wire mesh of the gate. He smiled and placed his palms against the wire. The dogs began to lick his hands.
In her flat, the tap dripped……………


“He reached past my shoulders with a rod. I felt a shocking, unbearable pain. The room blacked out as if a switch had been thrown.. I was split apart by it; for the moment I was masterless.
The pain left, leaving only its searing memory behind. Before I could speak, or even think coherently for myself, the splitting away had ended and I was again safe in the arms of my master...
The panic that possessed me washed away; I was again filled with an unworried sense of well being...
"What are you?"
"We are the people... We have studied you and we know your ways... We come," I went on, "to bring you peace.. and contentment-and the joy of-of surrender." I hesitated again; "surrender" was not the right word. I struggled with it the way one struggles with a poorly grasped foreign language.
"The joy," I repeated, "-the joy of . . .nirvana." That was it; the word fitted. I felt like a dog being patted for fetching a stick; I wriggled with pleasure. “

(The Puppet Masters – Robert Heinlein)


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