It used to reside in open plan offices that smelled faintly of yesterday’s soup. It used to curl up on keyboards and yawn at powerpoint presentations that were doomed to be made-viewed-discarded-made-viewed-discarded. And, once a month, it used to slink onto my bank statement and preen.
The Point didn’t enjoy its unexpected uprooting. It disappeared for long months, presumably butting its head against the closed glass of sliding doors that no longer allowed entrance. It must have spent hours beneath familiar windows, now closed just too far to admit it. I’d hear grumbling yowls in the night, as it yearned for what was and bemoaned what is.
And then one day, it finally wended its way back to me, with ears chewed until scalloped and with pale moons of bare skin along its flank, an inverse leopard. We started out slow: careful sniffs at a paint palette and a cautious paw batting a runaway sponge. Staring matches with spider plants, pressing close to a warm oven door, curling into loving arms.
There’s a kneading in my chest, a drawing out, a punching in, a folding over. I’m not quite sure what the end result is meant to be (and I’m doubtful it’s worth all the commotion). My lungs are doing their best to press on despite the surrounding churn, thin breath in, thin breath out, a constant battle against diaphragm.
Shoulders are corded tight, ratcheted two clicks past comfortable and tugging up toward my beleaguered neck. They too, appear to know something I don’t.
It slithered in from somewhere, maybe alongside that dream last night with all that frantic dismemberment and panicked swipes of fingerprints. Maybe it came in as I drew away from the present and slid toward the past without shuffling my thoughts into order first.
It’s refusing to answer questions in any case.
This feeling is the one that wants to consume everything in sight. Fill all bodily cavities until there is no room for churn or movement or tightness. There is only the sturdy counter press of repletion.
It always passes, sliding out of my skin and into another’s without any pattern or cause. In the meantime, this mound of flesh I call ‘mine’ will continue to jitter and jolt its way onward, desires and motives entirely opaque.
I spent the past few days bathing in a pool of like minds.
(Also a lot of sweat.)
There’s an inordinate sense of comfort when everyone around you shares your values, when you can speak to a stranger without carefully excising all the bits of your self that might prove controversial.
In times like these, the warmth and friendliness of fellow humans smooth over the bruises that bloom daily in the wake of the morning news. The songs that break lips begin to burn away the helplessness coiled around hearts. Determination long dimmed stokes at the touch of new hands.
And in the real world, where strangers don’t talk to strangers, eyes dance to avoid another gaze, and another bruise marks my skin, I’ll recall that this stalwart silence does not mean that I am alone.
Painkillers are saviours. With them, there’s a chance that things won’t escalate and I’ll get back to normal much sooner. With them, I’m less likely to do something stupid to make the pain go away. They’re an occasional safety net, a buffer that stops my brain from blowing its tolerance gauge.
But they also coat my brain in lethargy and sew my eyelids shut. They drain me of saliva and dangle me by the nape of my neck so my limbs hang heavy and helpless. My words come slow and cracked, and bruises bloom on my shins and shoulders.
I feel this need to gobble things up. Consume them before they disappear from existence, seize them in a spasmodic clutch that crushes as much as it holds.
Why the rush?
I suppose the future feels empty in its uncertainty. The potential it holds seems like so much Fool’s Gold when compared to the sure gleam in the seam of the present. I seize the day, uncaring that my clumsy grasp might cause a hundred futures to wink out, wriggling threads extinguished without a second’s thought.
I get told to relax a lot. Chill out. Go with the flow. See what happens. It turns out that this doesn’t really have any effect on a mind outraged by the paucity of knowledge available when told to make decisions.
And so I hold onto today like the Earth might turn its back on the Sun, refusing to bring it back around. I feel everything now, in case the future is a burnt out carcass hosting only maggots of misery.
Sometimes my grip releases. Hands go slack and shaky with the fear that those terrible futures might mean that there’s no point in consuming or clutching. There’s no point in holding on.
On those days, when my brain coils tightly around itself and digs its jaws in deep, I need someone to slip their hand in mine and clutch me as though the Earth might spin no more. As though those future threads mean nothing compared to the need for a clumsy grasp today.
And on those days I’ll realise I don’t have to rush alone.
I’ve opted to donate my brain to the public. I slice away a wafer of grey each day, and post it for consumption, dissection and deliberation. Reassemble all those slices, and the shape of my thoughts starts to emerge – every normalcy and abnormality revealed.
People talk about the ‘courage’ it takes to paint the internet with the contents of your head, I suppose because there is a worry that others might take your weaknesses and wield them, or that others might view you to be less because of your revelations, or that you might discover that you’re unacceptably abnormal and a case for social exile.
Mostly nobody’s all that special. There are millions of brain spatters across the web. Each slice sets off a bell in a similar slice of someone else’s brain – commonality results far more than rejection.
I feel like most of us watch the world in the hope of finding others like us, people who make us feel a little less strange and alone. Some of us keep our brain firmly locked on the inside, lest it give away our less palatable selves. But that only serves to make us more afraid that nobody else is like us, we are alone in the universe with a bitter brain.
I find that sticking slices of brain on the web gives me an extra step of distance – I’m better able to look at myself and reflect on that complex lump of neurons. The shadow self that emerges looks different from my assumptions, visible in all its objective glory.
And so I keep on serving another slice. Bon appétit.
He’s stood at the end of an aisle with a backpack the size of a 1990s television hanging loosely from his shoulders. He’s getting repeated glances from those nearby, presumably because their teeth are rattling from the sound of the bass vibrating from his incongruently tiny earphones. Or possibly because he sniffs every three minutes, with a lengthy snarfing sound that makes it seem entirely possible that the entire carriage might disappear into the damp recesses of his nostrils. It’s possibly due to his cold (or allergy, or drug habit).
He’s doused himself in enough aftershave that nail varnish on the hands near him is starting to bubble and peel. A spark could result in conflagration, tearing through the wavering field of scent that surrounds him like a boxy Christmas pudding.
He’s got both hands out to grip a span of three hand holds, butt swaying back and forth with every crash from his thudding accompaniment. His backpack has been ramming repeatedly into the man behind him, who has apologetically slid closer and closer to the seat in front whilst attempting not to thrust his own crotch into someone’s face. His gymnastics have not been enough to save him from those hip thrusts.
Maybe backpack guy’s got rubbish sight. It would explain the blank way he ran his eyes over the woman next to him who’s been trying to reach a hand hold but has been forced to stretch on tiptoe because he’s still holding on to the grip in front of her. She’s too polite to say anything, she just keeps on stumbling backward and forward while he keeps right on looking through her.
He finally gets a seat, much to the relief of the guy behind him and the woman next to him. As their frowns fade to relief, backpack guy plants his bag on the floor and promptly flings his thighs out to the sides. His elbows follow suit.
I fear I’ll be transmuted into a millstone – rough around the neck, with an interminable grind that erodes temper and tether.
I’ll become sickly sweet, cloying and claggy even as the mouth gets rinsed again and again.
I’ll be a duty, one to tick off each day with a plummeting stomach and stiffening shoulders.
I’ll be an unreachable thorn latched in a once smooth flank. A ball and chain without a lock. An albatross that was shot without understanding just how heavy it would feel once wrapped around the neck.
And mostly I fear that all the while, I will know.
I’d never encountered anything that I couldn’t achieve so long as tried.
So I tried.
I held smiles on lips that no longer worked, turned precognition to maximum to put things in place before they were needed, and tried to follow the rules spoken on a million forums (not too much, not too little, not too keen, not too distant, be less annoying, be less pathetic).
I tried harder.
Helplessness began to claw its way up my throat over and over again, refusing to be swallowed back down. Wet footprints trod cheeks at first in darkness and then began to march in daylight.
I tried harder.
My heart was rubbed raw with myriad microscopic failings. My ears began to ring with siren calls that drowned every scene with portents of failure.
And when I finally cut myself loose, I still didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand that the problem was not one of effort but one of being:
I needed to not be me.
Stuck with me, as it were, I came to recognise the futility of trying.
And yet sometimes those sirens still whisper sweet nothings.
No matter how hard you try, you will never be enough.
Guppy’s feet hurt. It turned out no-one had bothered to cobble the world outside (to be fair she could see why, it was the least interesting thing her eyeballs had ever bled over). Instead, it was full of mud and puddles and grit and rocks and miles and miles of emptiness.
The first day, she’d actually tried to pay attention to the journey so she could find her way back on the off-chance that they could escape. This proved to be doubly pointless: there was about as much differentiation as you’d find between the undersides of two slime covered paving slabs, and Grey’s knife never wavered from view.
By day two, she was envisioning herself being carried along in a golden palanquin so her shredded leather soles floated above that bloody miserable surface.
By day four, she’d decided that if she were king, she would command that the entire land be covered in paving slabs with lots of fruit vendors dotted around the place. And her subjects would be ordered to mill along making lots of noise so there wasn’t this head-exploding silence.
It turned out that Nate was even more miserable than she was (she felt a bit bad that this cheered her up). Grey kept him to heel through the entire march, and had been forcing him to tell the tiniest of lies over and over again.
This had resulted in his rag-doll body getting repeatedly spattered with vomit, though Grey somehow always managed to stay out of the splash zone.
Shame, thought Guppy.
She supposed that it was possible there might have been a little less vomit exiting Nate’s mouth than there had been at the beginning, so maybe his tolerance was getting better. Or maybe he was just a whole lot emptier.
Grey was looking grimmer, and Guppy suspected her threat to dump Nate was getting more likely by the day.
Time to take action.
They’d set up for camp in a small copse that offered some shelter from the constant drift of rain that spiderwebbed their clothing. As ever, they ate in silence, jaws working over leathered strips of meat and small pats of nut-tack. Grey had taken to stalking a few more strides away to sleep, though she made sure her blades were still all too visible in the grey light.
‘Nate!’ Guppy hissed at the huddled figure curled up at the foot of a wide oak. She kept one eye on Grey, who lay completely still across the small clearing.
The boy stirred and rolled slowly over to look at her.
‘What do you want, Guppy?’ He sounded completely exhausted, voice emptied of every trace of fear. She scrambled forward over the squishy ground.
‘You gotta figure this thing out, else she’s gonna boot you. And you don’t want to end up with another slaver again.’
He shook his head, voice rising. ‘I’ve tried! I’ve been trying for days! I’m just not like you.’
Guppy paused, chewing her lip. ‘See the thing is, Nate, I reckon that lying is all about what you think is the truth. If I know something’s a lie, then it tastes like a lie. But if I say something I think is the truth, then it never tastes bad even if I find out later I was wrong. So I don’t get hung up on truth, it’s all just what I think at the time. And maybe that’s why it don’t taste so bad when I lie, part of me knows it could be the truth, somewhere, for someone.’
Nate’s pale face wrinkled, ‘So you’re saying truth doesn’t exist?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘I’m saying I’ve never found it all that reliable. Maybe that could help you.’
He sighed, ‘I’ll try. But I don’t see how going with Grey is any better than being with a slaver anyway.’
She nodded, glancing back at the long lean shadow that lurked behind her. ‘I’m not sticking with her, we’ll run as soon as we can. But if you can’t lie, you’ll get dumped off somewhere.’
‘Why do you even care?’
Guppy scowled. ‘I bloody well nearly burnt my tongue off last time I dropped you in it. I don’t fancy trying that again.’
He snorted softly, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘Again.’ Grey’s voice pulled Guppy awake. Grey and Nate were standing a few paces away, their faces turned away.
‘I’m from Casta.’ Nate’s voice wobbled slightly, but there was no heave to his shoulders, not a single retch.
Guppy sat up, eyes widening.
‘You’re a servant from Casta.’ Grey’s voice was as bored as it had been the day before.
‘I’m a servant from Casta.’
‘Good, you need to keep your face from screwing up, it’s still easy to see you’re uncomfortable. Again.’
Guppy flopped back with a wild grin. He’d finally done it.
It was another three days before Casta came into view. Nate had only had four more vomiting incidents and was slowly getting better at keeping his face from scrunching.
The capital city rose from the landscape in stocky steep pillars of dark grey. Walls made of blocks bigger than Guppy herself soared far ahead and curved around as far as her eyes could see. But with the looming grey came a new scent that flared her nostrils, had her sticking her tongue out to taste. Salt, like an exaggerated tale with the barest hint of truth, but a subtle sting rather than an eye-watering punch.
‘Guppy! Pay attention.’ Grey’s fingers gripped her shoulder in a fierce pinch. ‘We need to get to the palace without anyone paying any attention to you. This isn’t going to happen if you keep gawping around. Get your head down.’
Guppy rolled her eyes and mouthed a silent imitation of her captor, but kept her head down as Grey walked them toward the heavily guarded gate in the wall.
At the very edge of her vision, she watched the city pass by. It smelt more or less the same as home, apart from the salt that hung in the air – bread and uncleaned drains and brew and sweat. She nodded to herself. This she could deal with.
And then she saw the palace.
There was no helping the gawp. She pulled to a halt to stare, barely noticing Nate run into her from behind.
The palace streaked straight up from the edge of the city, surrounded by ordered groves of ancient looking trees that were weighed down by heavily scented blooms. It was made of the same grey stone as the rest of the city, but the blocks were much smaller, allowing for an almost delicate construction that was bigger than any building Guppy had ever imagined, let alone seen.
Grey looked back over her shoulder, impatient frown ever present.
‘What did I tell you about gawping?’
Guppy shook the startled expression from her face, and trotted toward the perfumed grove.
It’s the tenderness of a piglet’s belly, the nestle of warm sheets, the helpless puddling of ice cream in summer sun.
It feels like I’ve only just realised how stabbable I am, how all these knotted organs are wrapped in flesh rather than the spined armour I always assumed I wore.
Like the Emperor’s new clothes, once I realised it wasn’t there, I was left naked and flinching at how easily a word could slip between a rib to puncture or nick.
Fear wraps his arms around me, holding me immobilised as I see your words approach. But they slip over my skin, loosening the clutch of those bony fingers and soothing the bruises beneath. They glide over ribs with the softest of pads, slow and gentle until the tide of anxiety is reversed.
Fear returns the next day, and the next, and yet your words never sharpen with impatience. A disgusted part of me watches the floundering and shrieks for me to weave back the armoured illusion I once wore.
I used to form relationships with a locked chest, living in fear that the lid might open or a rib might crack to reveal an uncurated and unsanitised heart.
That heart still had expectations and needs, but they were tattoos etched invisible under my skin. Those who failed to read these imperceptible instructions were subject to imperceptible resentment and anger – thick jagged lines that boiled beneath my skin’s surface.
It took pain to unlock the chest and strip away the opaque and callused layer that covered my feelings. I emerged raw and vulnerable from my shed skin, tattoos meeting the eyes of others for the first time.
I began to form relationships with my ribs spread wide open, the catch broken and hanging by a single rusted screw. My inner self was finally congruent with my outer self and my relationships were no longer rent by disparity.
One sharp tug by a pair of knowing eyes and my heart spills onto the table with a wet thwack, pulling itself toward those eyes with a hundred bloody arms.
The extremes of life scrape and soothe more loudly than they did before, and sometimes these tattoos cause burning shame or fear of rebuff.
But that old skin with its suffocating shielding would never fit me anymore.