The psychiatrist peered through the lower half of his bifocals, as he turned the pages in the folder. A woman sat across from him, in restraints, adorned in cascading spiralling blue interlaced tattoos, visible from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and extending down to where they disappeared beneath the neckline of her t-shirt.
The psychiatrist was reading her casefile as though it were a grocery store tabloid. His eyebrows raised when he discovered juicy slivers of glib clinical gossip, something the neurologist had added, or a nurse. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encountered less titillating synoptic gibberish.
“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he said, a fingernail on his left hand having temporarily caught his attention. Then he turned the pages back to a place near the front, and said, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient claims not to have slept since 2001.
“No sleep for three days…; we’ll have to work on that. But you say you haven’t slept since 2001? That’s very interesting.”
“Do you want to say more about that?”
The psychiatrist shifted impatiently in his chair.
“Are you hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“I hear your voice,” she said. The psychiatrist shifted in his chair again.
“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork,” he turned more pages, “there are reports of observed symptoms of psychosis, perhaps even severe.”
It was the usual line of interrogation. Next, she thought to herself, he’ll ask me if I see things that aren’t there. He’ll without the apostrophe is hell. Then hell will ask me if I smell shit when there is no shit to smell.
“Can you see things that others don’t?” he said.
“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”
“Because they’re blinded by their mediocrity.”
“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”
It was true, she hadn’t slept in fourteen years, not since 2001, a result of a gravitational collapse, when her life reached a terrifying mass and density. Memories had become dreams and dreams memories, the molecules of each bonding into such close proximity that they were inseparable, perhaps irreversibly.
The cloudiness of childhood had returned, along with a ghost that had sat on her bed and stroked her cheek, saying it loved her. It had become a spider, crawling over her, then a leering thing looking down at her in her childhood bed, in the glow of nightstand lamplight. The doctors had attributed this to childhood sexual abuse. But maybe, she thought, it was just how a ghost loved a child, with grimly curious hands, a taut mouth and wide frenzied eyes. Suddenly, the only thing more frightening than sleep was the thought of awakening.
To fill the sleepless nights, she’d begun playing solitaire and drawing a mural on her walls and ceiling, in colourful pastels, as everything around her rejuvenated in the dark. During the day, she watched the cars on the highway from the window of her room in the boardinghouse, as everything decayed.
She had also begun to keep a journal on her computer, refusing to backspace as she typed. Backspacing was murder. It killed innocent letters, punctuation and numbers that existed only because she’d made typing errors.
At first she did this out of compassion, but then she realised that the protected letters were a code. In the beginning, the code was indecipherable, but then she became its Rosetta Stone. And only by decrypting the decree she had inscribed upon her body, from the top of her head to her toes, could she understand the code that described when and how to take action. She’d etched the decree into her flesh using razorblades and blue pigment. The ghost had tried to stop her, as though the code might reveal something horrible. It had.
“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” the psychiatrist said.
“You wouldn’t get it.”
As the sleepless years went by, she began to see the mural as an extension of the code, and used the Rosetta to interpret it. In the mural, the ghost had a body and a human face. And an accomplice. They walked confidently through their lives. They had family and security, and were loved and had respect.
“We’re also concerned about your cognitive impairment,” the psychiatrist said — “your decline. Your untreated psychosis is causing a loss of short term memory and other faculties, and it’s going to get worse without therapy. Soon, without medication, you won’t be able to recognise the passage of time, from one moment to the next.”
“Can you assure me that the moment that’s just passed is worth recognising?”
He paused a pause that filled the room, even the filthy corners and the spaces between the bars on the windows. Was he pondering her question, or just planning to retreat?
“Look,” he said. “This isn’t prison, but it is confinement. We want to help, but you can appreciate our need for security and structure. You’ve been found not guilty of a serious crime by reason of insanity. Refusing therapy is not an option here. I’ve asked them to be gentle with you, but that won’t last.”
“I can escape,” she said.
“No one ever has.”
“I can. Now that the work is done, I can finally sleep. That’s how I’ll escape. The dreams and memories have separated. I don’t fear sleep anymore, not since I found the ghosts, the faces in the mural. Fourteen years is a very long time to be awake, so I may never wake up again once I finally lay down.”
It was just the natural order of things. A year was how long it took for a tree to sprout and drop its leaves. It took twenty-five years for Saturn to orbit the Sun. And fourteen sleepless years was what it took to understand and find the ghosts.
She had first encountered them in a foster home a very long time ago, as the trees dropped their leaves and Saturn orbited. She was six years old, a foster child. It was the house of mister and missus ghost. She was a cast-off, and they had taken her in. But they had wanted something from her in return, something she didn’t have to give, something they intended to suck out of her.
They’d called her the girl, refusing to use her name. And they insisted that she call them father and mother, but she had refused, even after the beatings.
She knew these ghosts weren’t her parents, and her obstinacy had earned her a place in the cellar, in the cool dusky light of it, with things that creeped. She’d be left there for a week at a time. Then taken out and asked if she would concede, and call them father and mother. But she would not and, each time, she was returned to the hole beneath the house.
There she ate from shelves, hard to open jars of home-canned peaches and pears, and looked out of a small square window in the wall onto the winter lawn, covered in frost and then in snow.
Before the lady from the foster agency would come round, the girl was brought up, bathed and fed. Then missus ghost took her up to the room that was supposed to be hers, with the warm clean bed and the plush toys and picture books, and missus ghost would lock her in.
But before she did, missus ghost would say, “You tell that agency lady that you love us, dearly. And you tell her that you love your room, and all of the toys, and that we feed you good. You understand?” Then she twisted the little girl’s ear until it felt on fire, and shook her hard by her shoulders.
The girl only stared back in silence, though. And behind her blank stare, disorganised childish thoughts were forming into designs and an awareness of the importance of time. She knew no words for it, but sensed she had time for redress, and an endurance they lacked.
For a few days before the agency lady would arrive, the girl was allowed to sleep in her room to smooth over her gaunt fatigue. And that was when mister ghost came. Late in the night, turning on the lamp. When she awoke from her deep sleep, she saw him and his wide eyes, licking his lips, rubbing his hands together, perhaps to warm them, but they were always cold whenever they touched her.
“I’ve already prescribed a combination of medications,” the psychiatrist said. “I must insist that you take them. They’ll help you to sleep, and have other beneficial effects. But I’ll repeat that you must take them. The nurses and orderlies here follow strict policies of persuasion.”
Mister and missus ghost were surprisingly easy to identify by their mural faces, revealed by the Rosetta, and differentiated from the long strings of approach code in her journal. There were also her compressed memories of location and name.
She’d travelled by train, walked and hitchhiked to the house with the cellar. Then she hunkered down and watched them move through solid objects and conjure abundance. They were old ghosts now.
“I have come for you,” she whispered, on the outside of nighttime windows.
The psychiatrist released her onto the ward. The ghosts there were slouched, long fingered things. The hospital staff cast spells, fear and disunity, the patients shrinking. She took a corner in a threadbare easy chair, and wakefully dreamed of dreaming.
Her vengeance came on a night when the moon was a thin bit of scrap in the sky. She’d costumed herself in darkness, and was a mist that passed through recesses and knots in wood. And when she materialised, she stood above the ghosts in the house as they slept. It was strange that ghosts slept.
Her weapon was a knife that had found her years before, lying in an alley where she often walked before dawn. When it came into her hand, she immediately knew its history, knew why it had been thrown there, shimmering, calling out. There was murder in its blade. It was an experienced killer.
She yawned in her easy chair now, a thing she hadn’t done in fourteen years. The chair was so comfortable, and she was suddenly so drowsy. She closed her eyes, and glimpsed the possibility of dreams.
Soon, the staff would come with their medications, doctors and strong-armed goons. They’d smile and talk to her like she was a child, but would be ready for a struggle, unaware of her Rosetta Stone strength, of the hardness and wisdom, how the blue markings upon her skin would decipher their veiled anxieties, estrangements and hatreds. The staff might even try to strap her down, and inject her with potions. But she would be too powerful.
She’d sat on the edge of the bed, next to mister ghost, and stroked his cheek. He smiled and shifted, half-heartedly clearing his throat, but not waking. Then her hand went lower, as his always had, but she didn’t go nearly as far. It rested upon his chest, and he sighed deeply, his eyes moving rapidly under their lids. Then she ran the blunt edge of the knife along his throat.
When his eyes opened, he saw a woman in the feeble moonlight, behind a curtain of densely configured blue tattoos cascading down her face. He gawked with the once crazed eyes she remembered so well. The ones that had exposed his thirsts and obscene accelerated fascinations. She turned the knife round, so he felt the sharpened edge.
“Those are the eyes,” she said, with quiet satisfaction. “They’re what I’ve come for.”
“Please,” he said, so awake now, not recognising her. “Anything….” He swallowed hard, involuntarily, and it caused a trickle of blood.
“I never said please,” she said. “I never could. You never would have allowed it. You’d have hurt me more. I was powerless. It was rape, and I was so young.”
Missus ghost rolled over now, and her arm fell across her husband’s belly. She was almost snoring.
“You don’t know who I am, do you.”
“No,” he said. She was unrecogniseable behind the Rosetta Decree.
She said her name and he tensed further, but had no words. Then she removed the knife from his throat, and went for his once leering eyes.
His screams were soon accompanied by those of missus ghost, and were enough to fill the neighbourhood. Dogs barked, and a few nearby houselights came on, shining brightly. A man in his robe appeared on his porch across the street, with a cellphone in his hand. She remained sitting on the bed until the police cautiously surrounded her, then she dropped mister ghost’s eyes onto the floor.
Now she sat silently in the chair, surrounded by the team that had come to administer drugs.
“How come she won’t wake up?” said a doctor.
“Weak pulse,” a nurse said, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”
“Forget the cuff. Get the crash cart, room 3.”
“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”
“Let’s get her up. Call for a gurney.”
She was finally dreaming, and her dream had the mass and density of one that had waited too long to be dreamt. And as her heart gently failed, she was a child once more, but free of interference in the tall grass of a blue sky field surrounded by the buzz of summer insects. There was a tall wooden house nearby, that was a true refuge and that she could call her own. A bright red car motored by on the quiet highway, and someone waved out of the window.
The blue markings were gone. They’d fallen to the floor in a clatter. She was no longer her own Rosetta Stone. There was no need.