There is a cold, slithery sleepiness about this room. I sleep here for long hours. I sleep until my pillow curls up under my head. A soft wet patch appears right below the centre of my head. For quite some time after I have woken up and sipped my lactose-smelling morning drink, the back side of my head remains moist. When the attendant wipes my mouth with a tissue paper her hand touches the moist area to the back of my head and I find her pulling out another leaf from the tissue roll to wipe her fingers before she turns to pick the medicine files up.
I call this room my sleepy world. On days when I wish to amuse myself, I chuckle and ask my wife, “Did you spray the sleeping pill dust?” She is unsure of what to say but seeing me smile, she too does. Her hands holding a flask, about to pour a cup of warm water for me, or her tired stick-like fingers shuffling through freshly printed medical reports brought in by the receptionist minutes ago, seem to enjoy the humour for a little while. A stale half-eaten slice of a teacake lies next to the warm papers. She looks young for a moment. I look at her from another world and tell her, “You still carry lilacs between your eyebrows. They are still as pink as ever.” I smile at her again. Her fingers move slightly on the sheets of paper held in her hands. There is silence as the stem of a lilac bows down and kisses her eyelids.
I shut my eyes and fall asleep.
The sweeper enters after some time, trashes the remains of the teacake, cleans the table, and arranges the medical papers on it with undue care as though these are my next meal.
Even when my eyes are open I look sleepy and feel sleepy in my sleepy world. The attendants who come in from time to time ask me with varying degrees of concern if I am feeling sleepy.
Each time I nod my head both ways and murmur “no” and then fall asleep even before they have finished their task and left the room. Room 816, they say, is the number of this world in which I have been living for the greater part of the last five months. In between when I have sometimes gone home escorted by my remarkably strong-willed septuagenarian wife, I have missed this room, its sleepiness, and complained of lack of sleep on my own bed of over fifty years.
I don’t remember feeling so sleepy ever before in my long life of eighty-one years. But you know, his brain is as active as ever, I have heard my wife whisper to occasional visitors or to close relatives. He dozes off most of the times during the day but his thinking, reasoning, memory, and all other brain functions are perfect, he isn’t one bit senile, I have heard them observing with a sense of amazement. As though someone who is as weak and cold from inside as me ought to vegetate and can’t be expected to open his eyes and feel the season outside, or name all his medicines accurately, or, as it had happened the other day, correct my flustered wife, handling large sums of cash with a medical supervisor, when she had made a small error in subtraction. Three twenty-three, not three twenty-seven, I had uttered as loudly as possible, causing the officer to hush up in shocked disbelief and recollect himself after a good two minutes or so, arrange the notepads in his hands looking at me askance all the time, and leave a little too quickly.
I am also sometimes led to believe that maybe after all I am not all that unwell. The seasons change right in front of my eyes here outside the large glass panes of the windows. I can feel the fire of the scorching sun from the world out there. Lying inside an insulated air-conditioned room and listening to its slow soft monotonous buzz of cooling, I believe I drag my sticky fingers over my sweaty body. Invisible drops of sweat cling onto my wrist. I wish to wipe them off and look around for a napkin to do so. Sometimes I feel I can see the dry-as-timber greyish brown leaves of tall trees, life sucked out from them. One or two of them, I think, have come floating down upon my bed. They adorn the sides of the bed as used ribbons from the previous night’s party. I try to extend my hands to touch them, but they fly away as I attempt to partially lift my body from the bed and stretch towards them. Plastic tubes inserted at various places of my body pull me back and I, unable to muster the strength to sit up despite them, fall back on the pillows. At times I can see the crack of lightning tear the sky apart. I play the typical child and want to bury my face in the lap of some beloved elder. As I move my head in a hurry pretending to do so a needle arranged somewhere on my body pierces my skin. I wince and moan in pain. On occasions I can also see with some effort on a clear night some of the stars arranged as designs on the gaping black hole above our heads.
The world outside looks like a silent motion picture to me. Trees sway, clothes flap on the rooftops of high-rises, youthful teenagers run to balconies to watch gathering black clouds or to pick up a kite torn and fallen and helplessly stuck between drainpipes and on window sills. I can see it all from here when I am not sleeping. A moving train passes through my body, its speed and traction weigh me down. I watch the film happen in front of me, shot by shot, but miss hearing the dialogues and the finer non-verbal exchanges between actors on screen, stuck that I am to the bed on wheels with limited manoeuvrability and blinkered vision.
There is always some tremendous amount of movement within my body. I can feel the traffic as also the congestion at junctions and main nodes. Traffic merges, roads diverge, diversions are marked out within my body. Vehicles rush all along. I feel the movement up and down. My veins vibrate under the impact of the traffic with cars chasing one another, overtaking, turning upside down, getting stranded for a while after being hit and overturned. Billowing horns tear my ears apart. Impatient abuses at vehicles blocking the way pound my blood vessels. I try to toss and turn in the hope that I shall be able to silence the vehicles or immobilise them. But alas, nothing changes for the better.
My doctor says, with the indifference that necessarily accompanies professional expertise, there is a war! A war is raging inside of you. Can you feel it? I wonder which reply he is expecting. Yes, I can feel it, doctor, I can feel the indescribable pain. It is to feel death. Yes, doctor, I can feel it well enough for sure. Or, no, no doctor, it’s all still and numb inside. I can’t feel a thing. I wonder which response is the ideal medical response. What is expected of a terminally ill patient, I speculate. The injections push up the platelet count for a while, he says with a strange smile of satisfaction hanging around his moustache. But, he shakes his head, you have got demons inside. Live demons! They are looking to gobble up whatever they get on the way. Plasma, platelet, white blood cells, red blood cells, everything. The soldiers inside your body are all decapitated one by one, in a whirl, whoooosh, like that they are devoured by the demons. It’s a fight, a desperate fight. The drama of his speech spreads like ketchup spilled over from a bottle carelessly left open by a callous diner. Its red colour and thickness gradually seep into every corner of room 816. I turn my head slightly to catch a glimpse of my wife with tears cradled on the lower rim of her eyes. My soldiers need food to fight, I tell her. Can you get me some warm soup now?
One day my college friend comes to see me. You can see me, but you can’t see the real ones, I tease him. Which real ones? He asks, curious. The soldiers inside. Beheaded, blinded, their skins scathed by molten ash, nonetheless they are valiant fighters! I try to raise my arm to my forehead by way of signaling a salute. An intravenous drip channel line gets tugged forcefully and almost snaps. My wife, I hear, shrieks in nervousness.
Of late I have a regular visitor here. I have not exactly seen his face but I know he comes often. Every time there is a shadow at the door, I know he has arrived. Someone is standing just outside, I tell my wife one night. Her face is a tiny worn-out artefact of aged bones covered by pale yellow ragged skin. She looks at the door a couple of times uncertainly and then drags herself up to bolt the door. The door swings shut. The shadow outside disappears.
One night the visitor escapes my wife’s alert presence and steps in.
Isn’t it quite a sight? I ask him with a smile. Observe the room carefully, mate. You have an amazing constellation of objects and goods. Look at the arrangement! It is a room with the dead peace of well-arranged orderly chaos. Innumerable pipes of varying diameters and lengths hang around the bed. Bottles upside down trickle their contents into the veins of my hands. A long and narrow slit on my waist is meant to hold a tube in place and collect the residue of metabolic functions, the acid often reaching the brim of a steel pan, spilling out on the bed if I groan and whine and attempt to even slightly turn. Layers of sheets and plastic covers peep out from all sides below my body, a bright green in one corner oddly dominating over a faded much-used magenta. Isn’t it quite a sight?
It’s clumsy, he says.
How I long for a neat and sparse room!
I can take you to one such place. Neat and bare, he assures.
I clasp his hands in gratitude. Yes, please! I plead.
Tonight then? He asks.
Yes… I feel fresh and light at the prospect
Be ready then…
By all means…
“Remember honey, our cruise on the Mediterranean? How many years ago was it?” I ask my wife one evening before dinner.
She is not ready for a chat though.
The smell of butter on freshly made toast is dripping down the sides of the dish.
“The toast is well done today.” I approve of the meal.
She gets up to bring me medicine.
“Remember how green the sea was and how we travelled to the islands on small bobbing boats? The trees were blue against the sky. And one of these was a midnight journey. Thrilling!”
She looks at me with an unnamed expression in her eyes.
“You remember everything, isn’t it?”
“Everything! Like it all happened yesterday.”
It is late at night. My wife is deep in slumber.
I am throbbing with excitement.
Outside in the night sky the adolescent moon shines with fervour. A silvery path extends from its surface right up to the torn fluttering cobwebs outside the window creating splinters of moonlight. It looks grand, inviting, a journey worth the promise.
He finally arrives.
I have been waiting for you since the day before, I complain.
Come now, he ignores my complaint and helps me out of the bed.
We proceed. I suddenly stop and remember to ask him, you never told me who you are.
Me? He pauses. I am your boatman. The one who comes at midnight on moonlit nights so that my passengers can see their way as we move.
I smile, satisfied.
In front I see his boat wobbling in water. He stretches his hand to help me get in.
Thank you, boatman. Please row safely. I want this to be the most beautiful journey of my life.
It will be so. It always is.
His oars cut through the splashing waves and soon our boat is a tiny dot far away somewhere under the glint of moonlight.
Shrutidhora P Mohor
Shrutidhora P Mohor (born 1979) is an author from India writing literary fiction. She has been listed in several international writing competitions like Bristol Short Story Prize 2022, the 20th Bath Flash Fiction Award, the George Floyd Short Story Competition 2022, the 16 h Strands International Flash Fiction Competition, the Retreat West monthly micro competition April, September, and October 2022, the Retreat West quarterly themed competition March 2022. Her writings have been published by oranges journal July 2022, Fiery Scribe Review Magazine April and August 2022, National Flash Fiction Day Flash Flood June 2022, Ayaskala February 2022, Friday Flash Fiction September 2022, Courageous Creatives anthology September 2022, Spiritus Mundi Review September-October 2022, Contemporary Jo October 2022, Erato Magazine November 2022, The Lovers Literary Journal (forthcoming), Flash Fiction Magazine (forthcoming, November 2022), Vestal Review (forthcoming, December 2022), Bullshit Lit (forthcoming, September 2023). Mohor (she/ her) is the pen name for Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, MA Ph D, Faculty, Department of Political Science, St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, India. She does social science through literary fiction. Her Twitter handle is @ShrutidhoraPM and her Instagram username is @shrutidhorap