what the voices say


there are whispers at the window
bubble stitched faces the brave ones at my desk
saying over so near to silence
that my coffee is a cup of dragons I
look and it is I’m the colour of crowns there’s
trespass in my coiling fingerprints
there’s a place in the park tonight
in the starry smoke that no one will know










the photo booth

I wouldn’t recommended it, trying to thumb a ride on the road just out front of the locked gates of a mental hospital. It was cold and white, and there hadn’t been a car by in more than an hour. The two or three that had already passed by, had accelerated as they did. That it was Christmas morning didn’t help, I was sure.

The idea of me, an ex-patient, hitching a ride on a country road out front of the asylum from which I’d just been released, made me smile. But I had my shoes and a donated coat, and my pictures of her and I, and I knew that with these few things, I could wait until spring for a ride, if I had to.

By now she was just a dot on the rise in the road a mile away. We’d never been separated by such a distance before. Maybe I was finally on my own.

It was hard to believe, standing there, under the circumstances, that it had only been days before that Veronica told me that the walls of my room would bleed if I cut them with a razor. She said that the old hospital was dying anyway, and that the room I occupied was its last pulsing organ. Its acre of wooded land was its deathbed, and that I would be its final near-death experience.

So, on a night in late December, I took two hits of my smuggled-in acid and looked out of my second floor window, past the bars, believing that I saw gravity collapse stars into endless heroic outlines. Then I cut and waited to wash in the blood of the ancient hospital. But the walls didn’t bleed, so I had taped my razorblade back onto the underside of my night table drawer, and listened for the rest of the night to Perseus tap on the glass.

Veronica had been wrong. She was unreliable sometimes, too flamboyant, a thespian at heart. She took advantage of my boredom. I was her fond audience, and the dark spilling in through the window was her limelight. She was strong, too. Antipsychotics feared her. They stepped round her, respectfully, and obliterated everything else. And during morning rounds, she would cling to the florescent ceiling like a spider, and look down on me as the horn-rim, herring bone psychiatrist conducted his interrogation.

“Housekeeping says you’re destroying hospital property,” he’d said, the morning after the acid night. He said this tracing the cut lines on the walls with his fingertips. I was still tripping. It was the morning of Christmas Eve.

“So, evict me,” I said.

“Your next stop will be Isolation, Molly.” He paused for effect, still closely examining the wall. He was a thespian, too. “You don’t want to go there again.”

“Release me, then. Give me my shoes.”

“No.” He came and sat near my bed. “You’re still too vulnerable.”

“And the others schizos you cut loose, they aren’t? I’ll get along just fine on the outside, with a few pills.”

“And suicide…?”

“I hardly ever think of it anymore,” I said, “except at moments like these when I’m faced with your mania for it.”

“Are you having ideas? Are there voices encouraging you?”

“No. The voices are gone.” It was a lie, but fuck him. “You killed them all. It was a fucking slaughter. Now I’m stepping over bodies.”

He regarded me sternly for a moment, silent in saying the unsaid things of psychiatry.

Then I said, “It’s a trinket for you, isn’t it? Suicide, I mean. It’s a little paste jewel in your pocket. You finger it all day, worry over it, in with your coins and your keys. You even take it out occasionally, and gloat over it. Take an inventory, as you hold it, of all your patients devoured by the word.”

“Do you still believe in what happened in the photo booth?” he said. It was a quick unexpected thrust. Touché. He even allowed a trace of triumph to escape into the air, through his eyes. “You’ve only told us pieces of that story, but it seems very important to you. Central, even, to your being here.”

“You’ve made up your mind about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I have to say.”

“You still associate the photos with Veronica, don’t you?”

“Leave her out of it.”

“Is she still lurking, a voice that I haven’t yet slaughtered?”

The photographs. Oh how the doctors had smirked when I tried to explain them. Veronica and I, the two us jammed into a midway photo booth and posing for the camera. Photographic evidence of her existence. Two friends at a summer fair. Her smiling, me looking tired and a little hopeless. Four small precious snaps in a strip. I’d kept them safe for so long, fiercely preserving them from the deep hole that inevitably swallows all of the meaningful property of the insane and destitute. But the psychiatrist said that I was imagining Veronica, that only I appeared in the pictures.

Now they were in a file, under lock and key.

“She’s real,” I said, ashamed of the confusion I hoped didn’t show. “You can’t drug-away what’s real.”

“You’ve certainly tried over the years,” he said.

“Yeah well, have a drink on me tonight, doc, and celebrate your reserve and resistance to all that’s mind expanding.”

“Tell me what the photo booth experience means to you right now,” he said. “What happened?”

“It would be impossible to describe to someone whose entire philosophy is based on doubt.”

“Then pretend I’m someone else.”

Veronica floated down now, from the ceiling like a leaf from a tree, and sat next to me.

“I don’t believe in the photos, anymore,” I said.

“You’re lying.”

I felt Veronica stroke my hair. “It’s okay,” she said. “Tell him again. He’s just a failed bully. Tell him ten thousand times, if you must. Destroy him with honesty.”

Outside, crows had noisily descended onto the hospital courtyard. I walked to the window to watch, glossy stones black on the snow. I’d take Veronica’s advice, if only to move another dull morning along.

“It was late August,” I said. The crows fought over something dead. “A Saturday. A crummy little town full of dented pickup trucks and dilapidated tractors. Everything a bit rundown and faded. I’d been hitching. It was where my last ride had dropped me.”

“How old were you?”

“Eighteen,” I said. “There was a fair in town, the kind that comes to a small town late in summer. It was rundown and faded too, but not as much as the town. Especially at night when it lit up.”

“And you were very sad,” said Veronica, putting her hand on my knee.

“Sad.” The word was too small. “I was very sad.”

“You’d raised a little money….”

“I’d begged on the street, and had gotten enough for admission into the fair, and a little besides. Seemed the whole town was there that night. I ate a hotdog, and watched the midway from a corner. Loud out of date music over the PA. Devout born-again farmers playing crown and anchor, and trying to toss dimes into milk jugs. There were rides, too. Nothing too big. Just what could be brought in on the carny trucks. It smelled good, in a greasy smoky sort of way, like childhood.”

“It was already getting dark,” Veronica said.

“It was dark when we went into the photo booth,” I said. “I still had a few coins in my pocket. Veronica asked me to sit on her lap, so we’d both fit, and then she said, ‘Smile’.”

“But you didn’t smile,” said the psychiatrist. He jotted notes.

“No, I didn’t smile. The camera must have been broken. The flash popped four times, without me pushing a button, before I could compose myself.”

“And those are the pictures we have?”

“Give them back.”


“But they’re mine.”

“They only reinforce this delusion of yours,” said the psychiatrist. “I think you’re ready now to hear me say that.”

I wanted to be with the crows, to be unrecognisable in their strange order.

“Then the booth spit out the pics through a slot,” Veronica said, “and we stood in your corner on the midway looking at them, for a long time. You wept, a little.”

“Veronica and I looked at them for a long time, until the fair shut down for the night.”

“And the pictures were so beautiful, that you wanted to die,” said Veronica.

“I wanted to die long before we took the pictures.”

“What was that?” the psychiatrist said.

“All of the others,” I said. “The ones who’d followed me, everywhere since I was a kid. The voices and the faces that I couldn’t shake no matter how far I hitchhiked and doubled back. They wanted me dead. They harassed me until I bought the junk, enough to kill three people. I hid it in my backpack with the syringe and the spoon. Then they plagued me even more, to take it. Why aren’t you taking the goddamn heroin? End the pain, the pain. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks, before we got to that shitty little town.

“Tell me more.” The psychiatrist was leaning forward, greedily. “Tell me how they wore you down, how they whispered and tormented, how they surrounded you and made it impossible to escape.”

“They didn’t,” I said. “Not like that.”

“Tell me, every detail.”

“Tell him that I wouldn’t let you take the heroin,” Veronica said. “That you’re too dear to me. That’s all there was to it. I fought the others off. I protected you. That’s what this fool refuses to understand.”

“Veronica saved me.”

“Nonsense!” The psychiatrist began to rapidly tap his pen on his knee.

“He’s fishing for something,” said Veronica.

“She told me to dump the junk down a storm drain, and I did. The others shrieked at me not to do it, but Veronica told me that death always comes on its own to the patient heart. She protected me because she loves me, and I love her.”

“That’s impossible,” the psychiatrist hissed. “No one can love a hallucination. Now don’t you see why it’s our goal to cure you of all your false perceptions? You can’t live a normal life loving something for which there is no actual stimulus.”

“Yes you can,” Veronica said.

“Yes I can.”

“I’m increasing your medication,” said the psychiatrist. “And introducing some others.” He wrote furious notes.

“I won’t take it.”

“Then you’ll be punished.”

“Punished?” said Veronica.

“Punished?” I said. “Did you just say I’d be punished?”

“No. Yes, but I meant placed in isolation, for your own protection.”

“Veronica can walk through walls, doctor. You’re throwing pills at a fortress, and they’re just bouncing off.”

“This is noncompliance.” He spit the word out like a curse. His most dreaded enemy.

On Christmas morning, as the other patients lined up for their medication and Christmas stockings of mean charity, I was escorted, with my backpack, out of the building, through the courtyard and left outside of the gates in the falling snow.

A sour nurse had given me back my strip of photographs, and had me sign my Release. Veronica and I stood together on the road for a moment, and looked at ourselves caught in that long ago August moment; her smiling, and me looking tired and a little hopeless.

Then she stroked my cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I heard her say, as she slipped away.


You will see it, if you care to look, the sign over the broken wrought iron gate to his mind and marrow, that reads, Madness will Set You Free. He didn’t put it there. It just appeared one day, and it’s never gone away. Sometimes he looks up at it, as the crows fly by, listening to the whispered song of his dear choir, the voices holding their glorious, prolonged note that he has heard forever, and he wonders if the sign is true.

“Mr Virtue…?”

The bright white 2×2 metre isolation room had a telephone booth florescent ceiling light, and a yellow tile floor with a drain in the centre. In contrast, he wore a blue hospital gown, smeared with his own blood, and nothing else. They’d probably already burned his clothes, stinking like creation, of shit and sweat, as if he were his own primal season. But they hadn’t yet attended to his cut lip, or the scabbed over blows to his head. Earlier, as they restrained him, as they held him down with a mattress, someone had shone a penlight into each of his eyes, and had said, calmly, everydayishly, no contusion.

No contusion? The cops had tried and failed.

“Mr Virtue?”

It was a tall, obese male nurse, with another standing behind him. Either one would be difficult to move; escape was impossible. The nurse was calling him by his alias, the one he had thought up when he arrived cuffed, in a cop hammerlock — Mr Virtue.

“We need to draw some blood and take your blood pressure, Mr Virtue,” the fat nurse said.

“No more sedation,” Virtue replied, sitting up. “No more goons holding me down.”

“Just try to trust us, and maybe there won’t be any need.”

Trust was a greasy sloping floor he’d skidded down before.

“Fuck you,” he said, spitting up a brown metallic tasting substance, which might have been blood or half-digested Pentecostal soup.

The BP cuff went round his bicep, and was unpleasantly inflated.

“You had no ID when you arrived,” the nurse said. “Where do you live?”

Virtue only shook his head.

“Do you take street drugs?”

“No, but I need a drink. I need a fucking cigarette.”

“Do you have allergies?”

“People,” he said, fists clenching and banging his thighs. “People give me spots, man. I swell up and itch. Sometimes I can’t breathe when they’re around. I go anaphylactic. Especially cops and nurses. Just give me a pill for people.”

“Is there anyone we can contact?”

“No,” he said. “Everyone’s here.” And he knew as the words dissolved into the florescent air, that he’d said the wrong thing.

He looked around the room, and all were present. The bus driver who told him to get off of the bus, even when he wasn’t on the bus; Natasha, who said she loved him, and who had laid her soul upon his cutting board, but who remained untouchable; Raymond, with whom he enjoyed shouting obscenities in public library; Chico, with his bleeding eyes peeking out from between the elastic bands wound tightly round his face, who Virtue had loud quarrels with, who brought his rubber band face so close to his own that Virtue swung his fists wildly at what no one else could see. And the choir, whose members were harder to observe, fading in and out. Infants who never aged and the foul smelling spirits with their backward faces. They never stopped singing their endless note — Ahhhhhhhh — in E-flat major — for forty-five years, never stopping once to take  a breath.

“They’re all here, baby,” he said to no one. “I don’t know how they all fit, but they’re here.”

Shut the fuck up — Chico said — You always tell them too much.

“Kiss my ass,” Virtue yelled, and swung his fists.

The nurses stepped back.

“Have you ever been on medication, Mr Virtue?”

It was a new voice. He stopped swinging and focussed on the door, listening very carefully.

It was a woman’s voice this time. She was a tall one, too. He knew before he even saw her. The tall ones’ voices were as lofty as ceiling beams. He had to look up to see their spoken words melt like lemon drops. She walked into the isolation room, the nurses exiting, but standing nearby.

“Are you in charge round here?” Virtue said.

“My name is Dr Elizabeth Chang,” she said. “I’m a psychiatrist.”

“You say that like it’s Christmas,” Virtue said, running his tongue over his cut lip, “like I’m gonna get presents.”

“What about it?” she said. “Have you ever been on medication? For the voices, the hallucinations, I mean.”

“Hallucinations?” he said, looking round him.

Shit! Fuck! Motherfucker! Shit! Shit! Fuck! — Raymond screamed.

Virtue covered his ears with his too tight fists.

“Mr Virtue…?” Chang said.

“Yeah,” he hollered, banging his ears, gasping, clenching his entire body. Then, quieter, rocking a bit, he said, “Sure, they gave me pills once. Little white and blue things. They crawled around in my mouth like bugs, like beetles with switchblade feet and napalm in their bellies. Like drones looking for a Pakistani wedding party. I spit ‘em out, and the goons put us all in a room just like this.”

“Us? Who is us?”

“Me and the gang,” he said, looking round him. “We played cribbage for three days.” He saw Natasha smile. Maybe she remembered. “They slid my food under the door. I never won a single game. Chico cheats.”

You’re a fucking whiner — Chico said.

“How long ago was that?”

“Several centuries.”

“Well medications have improved since then.” Dr Chang said. “Would you like to try something now? Something that would calm you, take the voices away?”

He frowned at the idea. Was it sloppy disdain in her voice?

Get off the bus — said the bus driver.

“I paid my fare,” Virtue said.

Get off my goddam bus!

“Mr Virtue…?” said Chang.

The choir sang louder.

“Who else have I got?” he said. “If they go away…?”

You’re a pussy — said Chico, bringing his bleeding eyes close, closing them hard so that the blood dripped off of his chin. Virtue could see the outline of a smile beneath the elastic bands around his mouth.

“The police want to take you to the Forensic Unit,” Chang said. “They’ll force you to take medication there, and you’ll be placed in with some very dangerous people. If you consent to treatment here, you’ll be certified, and I can keep you in relative comfort, get you cleaned up, let you stay on the P5 ward.”

“Psyche ward,” Virtue said, repulsed.

“Yes,” said Chang.

“It’s a petting zoo.”

“Will you let a doctor look at your cuts and bruises?”

“You want to kill them with pills,” Virtue said. “Would you take a pill to kill your friends, your family?”

Don’t let her put me in the morgue — cried Natasha.

“They’re obviously causing you distress, Mr Virtue,” Chang said.

“And your family doesn’t cause you distress,” Virtue said. “Occasionally?”

“Yes,” Chang smiled, “of course. But I can take time away from them, when I want to.”

“Ha! No you can’t,” Virtue pounded the floor. “You can’t take time away from them, at all. They’re always in your head, aren’t they? The anxieties they cause, and their smothering conditional love? Don’t lie to me. All of what they’ve said to you, done to you. The passive aggressive acquiescence. The religion. Their platitudes and bizarre poisonous illogic. False memories. The counterfeit Christmases. The viral dysfunction. Their dissatisfaction and mock appreciation. Their doubts, your doubts. Fear for their safety. Your fear of death, of abandonment, of watching them age and perish before your very eyes. The madness children will bring with them out of the womb. How the wealth of generations is redistributed. All of that’s pulsing through you, right now.”

“No, Mr Virtue,” Chang said. She’d hesitated — barely perceptive uncertainty. He’d hit a chord.

Go for it — Chico yelled.

“Oh, I can hear it like a siren,” Virtue said, smiling for the first time since his arrival. “Like someone scratching at the door to a cell she’s wanted to escape from since the moment she first felt the hands grab her round the throat and squeeze. You feel those hands squeezing right now, don’t you! You see their mute faces and their unblinking eyes. Don’t tell me you can take time away from that, and I won’t tell you that it’s easy for me.”

Virtue struggled now, to get to his feet. He’d aimed a communication beam right into the psychiatrist’s brain, and poured on the power. He would draw her in. He would introduce her to Chico. Chico would thank him. Chico was lonely.

A nurse stepped in to hold him down.

“Word salad,” Chang said to the nurse. “Olanzapine, 20 mg intramuscular injection. I’ll draw up the order.”

“Twenty milligrams?” said the nurse. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll be at the desk,” she said, “writing it up. Restraints if necessary. Prepare him, and I’ll arrange for transport to Forensics.” She walked away.

“Sorry, dude,” the nurse said to Virtue. “Things are about to get nasty for you.”

Your body’s a fire, Virtue — Chico said — Let ’em send you into hell.

Virtue looked up and saw the crows fly by. He saw the sign over the broken wrought iron gate, and said, “I’ll burn the whole fucking place down.”

prairie girl

Hearts were this way, she was aware. She tried to ignore the familiar polished stone. The one in her gut. The one that accompanied such ferocious understanding.

The freighters sat like continents on the bay. She watched the angels fly above them. It was Christmas Eve, and she knew those angels would soon sing. Their somber blue and amber eyes, pretending to understand nothing of the human world, suddenly knowing beyond all safe and reasonable measure.

That night she would sleep in the park, and wait for them. There was a frosty patch near the lake, just off the trail and hidden by trees. She had candles. She would recite poems. Jesus was a Capricorn, if anything was true. He’d enjoy a little bit of poetry. There’d be colours in the night. They said there wasn’t, but she knew there were. They would fall like an eiderdown to comfort her. Then the cold would be someone else’s problem. The park was a fine place to sleep.

Hearts were this way, she knew it. She knew because there was a Christmas Eve decades ago, when she was only seventeen years old. The night the voices finally came to guide her away. They’d been promising to do it for so long. But that was the night they finally embraced her, and made her their own.

It was on a white rolling prairie, studded with the lights of warm wheat farmers’ homes. The soil underneath them quiet like something waiting to jump. Coercing with a shock, when the time was right, the winter wheat to grow into an infinite spring-green ocean.

But that was still months away from the events she remembered now. When she’d sought shelter along the side of a snowbound highway, beneath the aurora borealis surging in the clear black Saskatchewan sky.

Her father had drunk too much that Christmas Eve. And though he was a man of few words, he had wiped the kitchen clean of her and her mother with eloquent swings of his fists. That’s why she was on the highway, her arms wrapped tightly round herself. She had escaped with no gloves or coat, and it was terribly cold.

She’d been walking for miles when she came to the top of a low hill. There in the distance, a quarter mile away, was the glare of a single stationary headlight. Oddly positioned and silent in the stillness. It shouldn’t have been there at all. Radio reports throughout the day had said the highway was impassible.

“Catastrophe,” whispered a familiar voice. Familiar, but unnamed. Naming the voices would come later.

She closed her eyes tightly and put her hands over her ears. She shook her head. She didn’t want to hear.

“Be careful,” said another voice. “There’ll be ghosts.”

She bent into the wind and walked on. Then she began to run, sliding on the ice under the snow.

When she arrived, she saw that the headlight belonged to a pickup truck, its frontend crushed against a telephone pole. The headlight’s twin had been smashed to pieces.

There were two bodies, laying on snow darkened by blood, where they’d landed after going through the windshield. A man and woman. Their unmoving eyes staring up at the northern lights, as patches of frost crystallised across their faces.

She slowly stepped closer.

There was a scattering of things surrounding the bodies that must have come through the windshield with them. Sunglasses, fast food containers and empty cigarette packages. And strangely, a baby’s bottle. She picked it up and then dropped it again, as though it had squirmed in her hand. The milk was beginning to freeze.

“A baby,” a voice said.

“No!” she said, shaking her head.

She looked around, everywhere. There was no baby on the snow.

“The angels have her already,” said another voice.

“No,” said yet another. “It’s with the ghosts. The ghost are all round us. Just listen.”

She tried to ignore them. The voices were irrelevant, weren’t they? The doctors had said so. But they’d also said that she was too young for a thing they called psychosis. She was just high-strung. She had spit out their pills. She didn’t believe in them. The doctors were liars, pompous and passionately blind to what was magical.

Snow seemed to fall now from invisible clouds. She was momentarily aware of meteors crisscrossing above.

And then she heard a soft noise. A cross between a squawk and a sigh, a baby sound. It came from in the dark cab of the truck.

For a moment she was unable to move, and was blinded by the headlight. If there was still a baby in the cab of the truck, she had to rescue it.

“It’s a ghost.”

“No,” she said, and strained to look through the broken windshield. And there was a baby, strapped into an infant’s car seat, held in place with a seat belt.

The baby looked back at her with soft brilliant eyes. Six months old, she guessed.

Carefully, she reached in and unfastened the buckles, mindful not to let the baby fall. Then, careful of the broken glass and tangled steel, she removed the child from the cab of the truck.

A boy, she assumed from the shades of blue in which he was wrapped. A happy boy, in spite of it all. He smiled at her, exposing the beginnings of his first tiny teeth.

“The angels don’t have him,” she said. “Neither do the ghosts.”

“He should be crying,” a voice said. “He should be cold and miserable. His parents are dead.”

“He doesn’t know,” she said.

“He knows something,” said another voice. “There is wisdom in that face.”

“No, he can’t.”

“Yes, and look.”

She did look and saw something disturbing. A halo? It couldn’t be. Mustn’t be. But it was. And his demeanor so calm in the radiance now surrounding him.

“Impossible,” said a voice. “It’s a baby from out of a truck. His parents were just a couple of farmers.”

“I’m not so sure.” she said.

There were whispers all around her, then. Whispers changing into song. Warming her frozen body. Removing all worry and confusion.

She looked up and saw ghosts and angels for the first time. Spirits of prairie Indians and farmers. Homesteaders and drifters. She suddenly knew whole histories, poverty and dusty depression roads. Victories over weather and land.

The ghosts weren’t frightening, and the angels not the bland cherubs stolen from Baroque ceilings. They were tangents and arcs. Galaxies and star clusters. Their voices exquisite, driving the orbits of planets. Filling hollows in space with matter and gravity.

She looked down at the boy in astonishment, and he reached up with a chubby hand to touch a tear on her face. And in that second all wisdom was hers, as she stood next to a ruined pickup truck with a single live headlight.

Who was this boy?

No one would believe it ever happened, though. They wouldn’t call it a miracle. They’d call it a delusion. They’d put her in a quiet room and leave her there. She couldn’t share it. She would always keep it secret.

Now a voice said, “She’s ours.”

* * * * * *

The police and ambulance arrived shortly after the snowplow, and she sat in the back of a cruiser, waiting to be driven home. The boy was in the ambulance. A policewoman told her that she was very brave.

The next day, Christmas, she rose early, packed a bag and took the money out of her jewelry box. Her father snored on the threadbare couch. Her mother was with a neighbour. It was approximately 4:45 a.m., when she left the house. Hearts were this way — it was only a mild revelation. She knew now that understanding was the only thing that mattered. Sunday school piety was a deceit.

There was a Greyhound station in town, five miles away. Buses went almost everywhere. Christmas glowed like a halo in the sky, on the snowy prairie and over the wrecked pickup truck, as she passed it by on her way.


She stands on the road, back from the ditch that separates her from the cow field, remaining alert for signs of ghosts, lurking in the rural night. There is dirt beneath her fingernails and mud on her shoes, from scrambling up steep hillsides on all fours and climbing trees for better views. That was earlier, before it became dark and the clouds began to conceal and reveal the stars, before sounds became menacing, before the air grew so cold against her bare legs and arms.

Now she crouches down and watches the road for headlights, approaching from either direction. She listens for the distant rev of an engine. Is it a stranger at the wheel? In his universe of darkness and the dashboard’s glow, accelerating behind the roll of a hill or a stand of trees, with only the engine’s sound as proof of his existence? Is he looking for her? She listens. There is only the silence, and her shadow cast by the moon.

The voices are quiet, for a moment. The voices that belong to no one, but that are adamant nonetheless. The voices that drive her into frenzy, lie to her, calm her with false friendship and relay bitter secrets that drive her to self-destruct. Voices of an inner society endeavouring to ruin its host. She listens. They are quiet, but they will return.

Then they will move slowly, dragging themselves. She will hear them, far-off, gasping, mouths open, snaggle-toothed, skin pitted and grey, their eyes moving too quickly and struck with rust. The voices will return. But please, she prays, not here in the dark.

Above her again, the stars come and go. One falling, burning, tearing itself apart in a blazing stripe across the sky.

Devon and Seth say she’ll climb too high. Devon, the voice that hisses like a snake, always sounding calm as he makes predictions.

“You’ll fall,” he hisses. “In and out of rivers flowing through outer space, whirlpools and zephyrs. Physics will distort you, and no one will know your name.”

“I can’t go so high,” she says.

But then Seth tells her, “We will take you up. We have wings, we are rockets, we are comets. Take my hand, and let me take you there. I’ll release you when it’s right. I will follow you down, sing you songs, And in the end, I will weep.”

“Weep?” she asks. “Why weep?”

“I will weep for having let you fall.”

“Then leave me be,” she says, desperately. “Do that, and there’ll be no need for weeping.”

“But I enjoy a good cry,” Seth says. “And it is good to be seen weeping for a fallen creature.”

“Insanity,” she sneers.

“Is it? Wouldn’t your pills and injections work, if it were insanity?”

“No,” she cries, hands on her ears. “You don’t exist. You’re leaking out from inside of me. You’re rain water.”

“You’re ours,” Devon hisses. And she feels hands on her, a multitude of hands, pulling her up. She rises fast like a planet. The lights of the countryside are under cast stars. She passes through rivers in the sky, and soon sees the sun bleeding over the arc of the Earth, fingers reaching into the valleys and canyons. Filling her eyes with a golden throbbing.

“You think we are the product of a disordered mind,” Devon whispers into her ear, calmly and quietly, as she ascends. “But we are legion, my beloved.”

“Following you from your childhood,” Seth says, “to this place. Can you see us now?”

She can see them. Two at first and then thousands, dissolute angels, cruel faces and extorting hands. Then she’s let go, falling toward Earth, an incredible speed. She has a tail of fire. Seth does as he promised, and follows her down, singing strange songs. She lives lives she has never lived. She is men, forests, starving children, messiahs and wasteland. All of them placing grief into the palms of her hands.

She is falling past unseen things, suspended on the wind. Their minds are childish. They are dark.

“Look now,” Devon says, pointing down. “See how the Earth rushes at you like a bullet? Feel your stillness in space.”

“Yes,” she surrenders.

She closes her eyes. She stands in a field. Dawn. Lost, but looking. A car sounds its horn as it stops on the road, nearby. A man gets out. He smiles and waves, elated to have finally found her.

She has fallen.

hallucination inventory

the voices stand on the corner
of Brain Street and Soul
dressed like Sid and Nancy
laughing at the pills and voodoo

one whispers the
garden is an abattoir this
door has slammed for centuries
better the shame you know
you are the false sum

what else do you hear?
the psychiatrist asks
I hear you, I say
and he clicks his pen
the office is falling into him

his black hole gravity
is different than mine


To be homeless in a land of the housed, or was it homed? It was a common reflection for Rita. To her, not to be housed on her own terms was more than insult; it seemed a ridiculous waste of her energy and talents, spending every conscious moment in pursuit of a place to rest for the time when rest became compulsory, then risking it all fighting to maintain it. No one had mentioned this possibility to her in her youth, when security in her future middle age hadn’t been an unreasonable imagining.

Still, this place was a fortunate discovery. She stood there in the tall brown grass, in her threadbare raincoat and dull rubber boots. It was a wonder, she thought, as she dropped her bags in the wild untended garden, how a place like this could go lost to the city surrounding it, behind its overgrown hedges and hidden gateway. It was sure to be inventory on some realtor’s list. It was a mansion, after all. Even if it had seen better days – shutters hanging by single hinges and windows broken, the front door having been forced. It was a gothic tragedy.

She was standing next to a dormant fountain, a centre piece around which a weedy driveway arced, leading up to and then away from the grand front steps that went up to a splendid, if ramshackle, wraparound porch. The fountain was a little taller than her, made of marble, once alive with showery glistening cherubs and lavishly carved fish standing erect on their tautly coiled tails. The cherubs reaching skyward with their chubby hands, as if to touch the outer membrane of creation to exchange plasmatic sparks with God’s holy outstretched fingers. Now the pool at its base was dry and scattered with dead leaves.

Wasn’t this the very definition of fixer-upper? Where was the young couple, with more of the bank’s money than sense, to buy it and make it a home?

It was a romantic domestic idea. Just one of thousands that streamed into her head hourly. They would not cease.

“It’s a fucking dump,” said Henry. Henry was a new voice, acquired since she abandoned the olanzapine. He was a working class Londoner with a broad uncouth accent. “I’d rather live in a fucking tent.”

“It’s lovely,” Rita replied, dreamily.

“It’s a bad house,” whispered Natalie, the voice of Rita’s shaman. “Don’t go inside,” she warned. “You’ll be courting ghosts.”

“These ghosts scarier than you lot?” Rita said. She meant her collection of voices.

“Careful with that,” said another voice, familiar but without a real name, the voice of The Nun. The one that insisted Rita was possessed by demons, and that only prayer could save her. Rita ignored The Nun, slightly offended by the idea that she was possessed by mere demons and not Satan himself.

“I will go inside,” Rita said.

It was late October, cold overcast and now becoming dark. She hoisted her bags and climbed the stairs. The front door was long gone, leaving a dark open portal. She crossed the threshold and entered what must have been a greeting hall.

“It’s dark,” said Tony, her timid little boy. He needed her. The other voices bullied him. He’d disappeared while Rita was on antipsychotics, missing in some undiscoverable province of her mind, frightened and alone. But now he was back, and in her care.

“Don’t worry, Tony,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here together.”

The house smelled of mould, though the weather had been dry for two weeks, and something else. She opened a bag and took out a candle, lighting it with a plastic lighter she returned to her pocket. The candlelight illuminated the hall and part of the larger room beyond, the tall ceilings and ornately molded plaster, pale blue paint peeling, walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Rita heard the sound of small animals darting in the dark.

“Malevolence,” Natalie whispered. Her whispers always sounded like the hiss of wind in a darkened alley, setting Rita on edge.

“It’s a bit premature for that, Natalie, you old hag.” It was Samuel, mostly the voice of calm and reason. “This place is shelter. Shelter we need, yes?”

“I need no shelter,” Natalie said. “I am energy. My shelter is the cosmos.”

“Very poetic,” Samuel said.

Rita said, “Please, not now, you two. I want to explore before we settle down.”

Rita knew she must look in every room. There might be other homeless in the house, unwilling to share. Crazed on drugs. Drenched in murder. Demons and ghosts. This was an observation she had shared with Dr. Mazari, the city psychiatrist, nervous when she mentioned it casually during an appointment.

“Why don’t we find you a home, Rita?” he’d said. “A little apartment you can call your own. Somewhere where there’s staff to watch out for you. We could get your psychosis under control. No more taking chances in derelict buildings, exploring empty rooms.” Dr. Mazari loved his metaphors.

But she said she wouldn’t go back to one of those places. Where the youngsters they hired forced pills down her throat and laughed at her behind her back, as if she didn’t know. Where she was placed in the dusty papery continuum of some weary Social Worker’s caseload. Appointments with the last one so tedious that she pitied him. His face and wringing hands exposing his anguish as he evaded the daggers of his various office quandaries and catastrophic relationships. His obvious anxieties powering the orbits of moons round the planets of his cruelly acquired cynicism.

“Tell me who’s the caregiver then, doc?” she’d said.

Dr. Mazari hadn’t answered. He’d only stared at her for a moment and blinked. He’d clearly expected her to passively agree. Perhaps he also wondered at her eloquence, as though she was incapable of having thought such a proposal through ahead of time, based on her own lived experience.

They were always happier when she raved, and she had raved more often than she liked to admit. But not then in Mazari’s office. A parenthesis had hung in the room with them, then. Something subordinate, best placed in brackets and left unsaid.

Mazari scribbled something in Rita’s thin file, and dismissed her. She never returned.

Now she climbed a curving staircase, having crossed the sagging living room. The staircase was something from an old film noir classic, where Bogart might have stood, lighting a cigarette.

The light of the candle preceded her. For the moment, there was nothing else in the world. Or perhaps there was. She thought she could hear sounds beneath the creak of each ruined step. Laughter hiding behind each squeak and scrape.

“Stop laughing,” she said.

“But you’re funny, you are,” said Malcolm. Mischief Malcolm, he’d named himself. He who admonished her for not walking in traffic, cutting herself, shoplifting or spitting on cops. “Tip toeing around,” he said, “like there be monsters here.”

“There are,” Natalie said.

“There aren’t,” said Tony.

“Yes there bloody well are, little boy,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” Rita said, a little too loudly. Adding too much credence to the reasoning behind the conversation.

She reached the top of the stairs and could see a row of doors on both sides of the hallway before her. Bedrooms, she thought. She would be exploring for a half hour, at least. She hoped her candle would last.

The walls of the hallway were stained brown with water that had leaked in through the collapsing roof, and the ceiling sagged.

The first room was large and empty, obscenely spray painted. A window let in dim light. There was a decaying shoe on the floor and putrid blankets. A fuel can, likely empty, next to a broken kerosene lamp. Closet doors opened onto empty space, where whole wardrobes once hung, worn by a warm living breathing thinking person. Where was he or she now? Had there been joy in this room?

The next room was smaller and contained a solitary baby’s crib. The moon was breaking through the clouds outside and shone through the broken window. The abandoned crib seemed all the sadder in the silver light.

“Nursery,” Rita said.

“Baby ghosts,” whispered Natalie, “the most melancholy, robbed of life before life begins.”

“They’re with God,” said The Nun. “If they are baptised, that is. If not, they abide in purgatory forever. God is good.”

“God’s a dick,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” said Rita.

There was a smell in the room, sharing the air with that of mould and the foul dry rot of the building’s timber frame. It was like what she’d encountered when she first entered the house, only stronger now. A disturbing smell, triggering something inside of her. Something prehistoric, a signal to run. But she couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.

She exited the nursery into the hall and walked toward the next room, but stopped at the door. Here the disturbing smell was overwhelming. She felt it on her skin. She heard it in her ears.

“Don’t go in,” whispered Natalie.

“She might be right for once,” Samuel said.

“Enter in prayer,” said The Nun. “You shall fear no evil….”

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

Rita jerked her head and shoulders, as if to dislodge the voices. They felt like they clung to her.

“Leave me,” she said, and entered the room.

The room was the same as the others, empty but for things made insignificant by neglect and decay. An empty wooden crate, used syringes, a balled-up sleeping bag. Rita tried to hold her breath, extending her arm, holding the candle out in front of her, moving it from one side of the room to the other. Until she saw the eight ball eyes and stopped. The cloudy unseeing cataract eyes, bulging in the head of a dead man. A head with a gaping bloody bullet wound, tilted over onto his shoulder.

“Monsters,” one of the voices said.

“Shut up.” Rita jerked her head and shoulders.

“This is the fucking stink,” said Henry.

“Is he dead?” Tony said.

“Dead and in hell,” said The Nun.

Rita knelt next to the body, holding the candle close for a better view. She felt the molten wax drip across her fingers and hand. Death is so still, she thought. Nothing more silent, unmoving.

She stood abruptly. Suddenly sensing someone in the room with her. She turned and looked behind her.

“It’s him,” Natalie whispered. “Where’s God now? Nun, you bitch.”


There were undeniable footsteps beyond the candle light, breathing. Rita stepped forward to illuminate more of the darkened room. Nothing. But there, just beyond the candlelight. Movement, a figure dashing to the left.

“Who’s there,” Rita hissed.

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“I’m scared,” said Tony.

“Show yourself,” said Rita.

And the glowing figure stepped forward. Silver like the moonlight. Different from the ruined cadaver on the floor, but the same as well. The clothes were a match, but the face was mild young and unmarked by violence. Early twenties, she guessed.

“I’ll cast a spell,” whispered Natalie. “I’ll send him away.”

“Pray,” said The Nun.

“I’ll kick his fucking ass,” shouted Henry.

“What happened?” Rita said.

“I died,” said the ghost.

“But why?”

“I owed money I couldn’t pay. What does it matter now?”

“What was your name?” said Rita.

“Nigel,” said the ghost. Then, “You mustn’t stay here. There are more than me. Predatory. Watching you now.”

He’d been good, Rita thought. Bad choices.

“There is no other place for me tonight.”

“Anywhere is better. The street.”

There was shuffling in the dark. Heavy clumsy feet.

“They’ve been here a long time,” Nigel said.

“Burn it.”

“Malcolm’s right,” Henry shouted.

“Demons,” said The Nun.

“Not demons,” said Nigel.

“Do you hear them?” Rita said, surprised. “The voices?”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “But The Nun is wrong. They’re not demons. They were were human once. Worse than demons.”

A door slammed in the hall. Then all the doors slammed in the hall. Again and again. The remaining unbroken windows in the room shattered inward, spraying Rita with broken glass. She could hear low voices, murmurs and sighs. There was movement behind her. She turned to look. Nigel’s body was shifting. Awkwardly rising of its own accord. Its bulging eyes turning in their sockets.

“It’s not me,” said Nigel.

“Bloody well looks like you,” said Samuel.

“It’s them,” whispered Natalie.

“Who?” Rita said.

“They want you,” said Natalie, loudly now, with urgency. “Eat you alive. This place is hell,” she screamed.

Now Rita remembered the first room. She moved fast, keeping her hand round the flame of the candle so it wouldn’t go out. She ran down the hall and entered. There was the kerosene can. The one she assumed was empty. She picked it up. It felt heavy enough to be full. She removed the cap and sniffed. It was indeed fuel. She grabbed the blankets and ran, but was slammed against the wall by something unseen as she took to the stairs. She stumbled. But grasped the railing and continued down.

Vast patches of plaster had fallen away from the living room walls. Leaving holes, exposing large expanses of narrow pine shiplap, dry and flammable. She put her candle down and dropped the blankets in front of one of the holes, dousing them in kerosene. Then she doused the shiplap, soaking it.

Turning then, she saw her candle extinguished. The air was still. There was unfamiliar laughter, and she was thrown once more against the wall. Something snapped in her arm this time, accompanied by a paralyzing pain that rapidly occupied the full distance from her shoulder to her finger tips. She lay motionless in her agony. More laughter. Then an impact with her stomach. A boot. A kick to the belly. She knew the pain. She’d been kicked there before. Never fall down in a fight, she’d been told by someone more experienced than her. But what could she do now?

The strong smell of kerosene was sickening. Her hand felt for it, and found her plastic lighter in a pocket. She grabbed it with her good hand and heard the house shriek as she lit the blankets. The flames rose and took hold of the expose wood. The living room was immediately brightened by flame. Rita rolled onto her back and watch as the fire worked its way into the wall.

* * * * *

The glow on the north east horizon went mostly unnoticed at first. But slowly, the sirens began. And the city, early into its night, became aware that some unassigned calamity was taking place. Maybe even something that would win an editorial race to top story, to be displayed on the handheld screens of the citizenry.

“Close call,” said Henry.

“It was good to fucking burn it down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“You’re safe now,” said Nigel.

Rita felt a clean blanket over her. There was an oxygen mask on her face. She was on a gurney. Surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. The flames of the house could be seen over the tops of the overgrown hedges.

“Not a hospital,” she said.

“Your arm’s broken,” Nigel said, smoothing the bangs out of her eyes. “And you’ve inhaled too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this lot at bay. No voices while you’re in the Emergency Ward. Tell them that there were others in the house who started the fire. Maybe you’ll get out with just a cast and some pain killers.”

His voice was soothing. And unlike the others, he could actually be seen.