“The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

The Beautiful Gears of Dying

Sandra Kasturi

You descend from above like a turkey vulture. Your smooth hands soothe my brow according to your programming. You change my bedpan or my diapers depending on how continent I’m feeling. We can put a man on the moon and create artificial intelligence, but somehow bedpan technology is still from the 1800s.

The skin they’ve given you is softer than a human’s. Though really, it’s an exoskeleton, protecting your central processing core and your AI interface, harder than diamond.

I want soup,” I say. “Bring me soup.”

You go to the dispenser and make it dispense soup, all without a sound, interacting with it via wireless transmission, if that’s what they still call it. I am old enough that I still find this miraculous, and consequently resent you for it. Can you resent a thing with no feelings, a thing that makes you feel good? You make me feel good, and I hate you even more.

I try to nap, but I can’t because of the thrum of pain, growing to a spike in the mid-afternoon, as always.

I’m no longer in control of my pain meds after the last incident.

You say, “Please maintain for another hour. Drugs will be administered then as needed.”

As fucking needed. You’re not alive, you don’t know what the fuck I need. I don’t say any of this out loud. What would be the point? You won’t get it. Why not say it out loud, then? You won’t get it. You won’t get it. I should say what I want.

I don’t.

The hour passes like the movement of a glacier across a barren plain, sharp, unsparing, relentless. I pick up a copy of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It’s the only thing I can stand right now. “The pain is a poem,” he writes. Yes. The pain is a poem.

You come back in precisely an hour of course since your timekeeping is accurate to a millionth millionth or whatever the hell, I don’t even know the measurement. You access the module and administer the meds.

The glacier recedes.

Ah.

Yes.

*

I wake up dry as an un-watered rosebush. For once, my diapers don’t need changing. You are not in the room and I am shocked at my despairing want of you.

I hate you all over again: it’s my morning creed, my renewal of vows. You are the preacher presiding over my ritual. Do you, pain, take you, hatred, to be your lawful wedded wife? Oh yes.

The doctor visits. You stand in the corner like a hat rack. It occurs to me that no one now would have a hat rack or even know what one is. This strikes me as absolutely hilarious. I laugh so hard that tears stream down my face and I start coughing. I cough so violently the doctor gets alarmed and sedates me. You do nothing.

Fuck you.

When I wake up, you are at my bedside. It is evening.

Why didn’t you stop him?” I say.

You say nothing, though you look like you are about to say something. I am not sure this is actually possible.

I can think what I want,” I say. “That’s the benefit of being terminal.”

Yes,” you say.

Agreement at last.

I hate you less.

*

I have lost feeling in my legs, everything below the knees. You massage me like you do every day, but today I can’t feel your hands on my feet.

I say nothing. What is there to say?

You know anyway. You know my body better than any lover, better than my doctor, maybe better than my future embalmer. Good, better, best.

Can’t you get me an exoskeleton to walk around in? If you get to have a skin suit, why can’t I have one?” Sometimes I like to ask absurd questions, just to see if I can confound you.

You don’t even blink. If you actually ever blink.

But there’s an infinitesimal pause before you say no. I could be imagining it. I like to imagine six impossible things before breakfast, so why not this?

Still. It’s interesting. And almost nothing is interesting to me these days.

*

I decide I can’t stand your soothing hands, your artificially soft skin that is actually harder than a diamond drill bit. I demand that you remove it, show me what’s underneath. I want you to look like a robot if you’re a robot. Like cats should look like cats and crocodiles like crocodiles. No one wants a crocodile wearing a person suit.

You pause for a fraction of a fraction of a second—I am sure of it this time—so I’m sure you have mathematically extrapolated to the nth degree what could possibly go wrong if you do this. Nothing could go wrong. I can’t even get out of this bed.

Take off the skin,” I say, like you’re some mechanical werewolf that can change simply by pulling down a zipper.

And you do it. Who knew.

You unpeel yourself, segmenting the skin like a dimpled navel orange. There’s a moment where triangles of your skin stand up off your metallic body and you look like the Sydney Opera House. The triangles fold away somehow, with an odd sound, a kind of whirr-snick, so soft I can barely hear it, but my hearing’s going, probably my brain too, so who knows.

You’re there in your metallic body. It’s odd. You still look sort of human. Your silvery hue makes you somehow compassionate, comforting, more than the human veneer. Now you are a machine that tends to the ill and dying. Comforting as an old-school mercury thermometer. As the cool back of a mother’s hand. Not what I expected.

Do they program you for kindness?” I ask.

You say, “Yes.” You are a later model. Questions about compassion asked of the earlier models resulted in explanations of algorithms and such. Turns out the terminally terminal don’t want to hear mathematics or standard deviations or explanations or anything really. Nothing except their own marriage to their pain, that prickle-imp riding their lungs and livers, whatever is failing terribly in their bodies. The finite geometry of death.

I am failing terribly. Kidneys. But you know this. You were there for the transplant two years ago. Now, that is failing too.

But was it you? It occurs to me that I don’t know. You all look the same. Though without your skin, your fleshy carapace, you are different. If you removed my skin, I would look the same as any other skinned human.

They say there is no sense in growing me a new organ: I am too old, and my body won’t take it. Not worth the expense. Or the bother.

If you lose your skin, do they give you a new one?

If you lose your self, do you get a new one?

*

Your brain is in your chest, behind some clear material. There’s a glow in there, and it’s beautiful, though not as beautiful as if you were clockwork, like an E.T.A. Hoffman creation, a Rube Goldberg device. Moving parts are prettier than non-moving parts but moving parts cause friction and heat and that’s a whole other equation we no longer need to solve. Thank you, science. Goodbye art and artefact and aardvark and ars moriendi.

I want to smash you right in your artificial heart, even if it isn’t really your heart at all, but some other device that belongs to Microsoft or Apple or to those Chick-Fil-A franchise assholes, for all I know.

You bring me more soup. I am grateful. I am grateful and I despise you.

*

I ask you to find me an old game I remember from my childhood called Mousetrap. You look it up in a millionth millionth of a second and the 3D printer prints it up in no time. It looks exactly like I remember it. It’s perfect.

I hate it.

The pain spikes again. It’s two hours to the next dose. It’s the glacier and the icebergs and the entire fucking Canadian Shield bearing down on me, that’s what it is.

The dose when it comes isn’t enough. I’ve hit the pain med singularity. Nothing from now on is going to be enough.

I ask you again to get me Mousetrap, but I tell you I want it to be beautiful. I can almost count the length of the pause this time. The 3D printer hums. You bring me Mousetrap and all the pieces are made of stars. Whatever it is, it catches the light and it is, yes, beautiful, but it’s trying too hard and it loses its beauty.

It’s trying too hard,” I say. “Beauty is . . .” I don’t know what beauty is. Or Beauty is. A working kidney would be beautiful but I am too far down on the list for another one and I am older than old, and besides, I am not beautiful.

I tell you to look up John Keats. And to read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.

Print me a kidney. A beautiful clockwork, steampunk kidney.”

You print me a kidney. It has hundreds of infinitesimal gears and it sits on my lunch tray. It makes a ticking sound, just like an old clock. I think the kidney is counting me down. That’s useful. Beauty is in usefulness. I feel clever and say it out loud to you. You say nothing.

*

I last another week. You access the module and are told that my pain meds can go up. I have a blissful couple of days. I am so high that everything sparkles. I tell you to put your skin back on. The Sydney Opera House erupts from your metallic sheen and folds back over you, that whirr-snick that might be in my head or might be real. You look human again, but there is something different. My eyesight is failing, but I can swear that you have a tiny gear above your mouth, like a beauty mark.

You are becoming beautiful as I am unbecoming. Or un-becoming. This makes me happy and I hate you a little less.

*

The end will come spiralling soon, a raging galaxy of the poetry of pain and the meshing and gnashing of clockwork gears in my insides. I don’t know what I’m saying. I have no gears inside; if I did I’d last longer.

I look at my clockwork kidney that is now humming on my bedside table. I’ve grown fond of it, like an ugly dog reluctantly adopted and then loved against one’s will.

Unprompted, you also bring me a clockwork eye, a lung, a heart. You are the Wizard of Oz giving me parts I was never missing in the first place. The artificial brain you bring me in all its gearish glory is an astonishment. You have defined beauty for both of us, though I never asked for it, really, and you, what do you know of feeling or of anything that matters? Or have you come so close to mimicking us that the empty gesture has in fact become fact, a thing that is now true?

You up the pain meds again. I am fairly certain this means overriding the protocols. I remember some of the routines from back when I was a doctor and still practised. But that was long ago, and in another country, and besides the wench is dead. I am dead. Soon. I think.

Make me beautiful,” I tell you. It’s one of the last days. Soon I’ll know the secret that everyone finds out eventually. The secret you can never know, even if you are given all your organs by the Wizard.

There is the longest pause I have ever seen from you—maybe two seconds.

Your skin whispers back from your body, and I see that you have changed underneath. You are thousands of small gears and clockworks. Lights glimmer, parts of you move. You are full of stars, like in that old science fiction movie.

You place your old skin over me. It moves along my body, soft, soothing. But it, too, has changed. I feel something like millions of tiny teeth gently pressing into me. I succumb to the beauty of machinery, of artificial you, of becoming not. If this is dying, it is a strange thing, stranger than I could possibly have imagined. The blanket of your skin, it’s final clockwork comfort, fitting over me like the Shroud of Turin.

Let my face always remain imprinted there. I say this out loud to you.

You say, “Yes, Mrs. Beautiful, yes.”

I wait for what is coming. The unwinding of my body into your skin. As to what will happen next, I no longer know.

I am not sure you do, either. We are new together. Let our gears mesh as they may, though the heavens fall.

You wait—each second an eternity because of what you are. Each second an eternity for me, too, because of what I must endure. I close my eyes now. Your skin smooths itself over my face. I am full of stars.

You stand next to me, place your clockwork hand on mine. The thing that comes next is coming soon. We wait together.


(Published in The Sum of Us, eds. Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, Calgary: Laksa Media Groups, Inc., 2017)

Advertisements

Women in Horror 2018

Click here to buy Sandra Kasturi’s Come Late to the Love of Birds at Amazon.ca.

Let the Night In

Shut the night out or let it in,
it is a cat on the wrong side of the door
whichever side it is on. A black thing
with its implacable face.
P.K. Page, from “Autumn”

Let us go to the moon, he says.
Such a relief to stand on that always
darkened face, cratered imperfect
cousin, beautiful sphere flying
into the celestial darkness.
We tire of the earth-tides, the salt-pull
on your bodies. But these vampires—
they often talk like that, as if every
statement came from a tipped top hat
and poetic frock coat, a white-shirted gleam.
Shut the night out or let it in, you wonder.

Make your mind up, invite him in to stay,
or firm your heart and door
to closing. It’s hard—when no one
else has known you, and your house
is empty even when you are there.
But then comes this thing, this strangeness,
with his lack of breath, his words stolen
from centuries, the cool hands
that you have let slip inside
because you yourself have always been
a cat on the wrong side of the door.

The moon, he says, let us fly there,
build our own dark cities on its unseen
face, rest in its comforting shadow.
You think of travelling, away
from the shopping malls and parades,
the smell of fried eggs, all the tickertape souls
that crowd you out of your own head
and you think, yes, let us go to the moon,
sail to its restful silence on a starlight
spaceship, restore this collapsed nova
inside you, this black thing.

We could go to the moon, he smiles,
I would always be awake; no sun could reach
those craters, nor our city with its own
dark cool heart. He has been charmed by the fairy
tale of physics in this century, the clear
voices from between the stars. Hush—he lays
you, bitten, down. The moon, like you,
is turning, its silvered breath stops,
curves to crimson joy, grave-fresh wakening.
Your eyes open—the moon and he both wait,
each with its implacable face.


October Country

as ever, for dear Mr. Bradbury

Those children who are born to autumn
do not suffer spring, nor its greening glance.
Our shuttered eyes abjure the flotsam
joy of the petal storm, the pale presence
of purple-buttered thistle or clover honey
spread over summer’s deranged-yellow heat.
We slip from the frozen grasp of winter’s cunny,
that pan-cracked, brittle, ice-slippered sweet,
deny the ceaseless renewal, the so-called grace
of each sorry songbird’s piercing April hymn,
and return to autumn’s apple-fired embrace,
its red-leaf-feathered, burnished golden limbs—
escaping winter, spring and summer’s treasons,
forswearing that tyranny of marching seasons.


Roc

We are come late to the love of birds
for we are come late to love.

Before we had been nothing:
a fossilized egg, a tired metaphor, old as mutton.

Now, the sharp twinge of middle age
and we are caught in love’s punctured balloon.

Its banana peel sobriety.
Furred epithet, feathered lash.

We are come late to the mythology of love,
the beefheart stain of the great winged roc

upon the ground of our imaginings,
soft like the centres of certain candies.

Soft like the quilted centres of our beds,
our quivering bird organs.

Give us the sweeping shadow,
down from the mountains of Araby.

Give us the claws that catch
us from the desert path, swoop us,

fat white sheep in the meadow,
into that prickled nest, high, up high.


Black as Bees

You are black as bees,
dark as the spine of a prison tower.
Your mouth opens—night
falls from it like a scythe.

You stitch me into the ground.
Needle me with the rain
of your disappointments.
You’re a crow, trapped
under the weight
of your own feathers.

You’re the snapping cur,
the winding constrictor,
the hole that never fills.

Your unhinged jaw
swallows me up
to the knees,
your boa body vast
in its hungry capacity.


Cleaning House

It’s these household rages that do me in,
fret me into a guitar-plucked hum,
a dissonance of dishes, roasting chickens
clucked quick into the oven, their crumb-
tossed, butter-paled bodies dimpling in glass pans,
heated caskets ready for the cremation
of Sunday dinner and the Monday dance,
the weekly pirouette of desperation.
There I am, humped in a chair by the window
in some nameless café, swallowing tea
by the styrofoam cupful, fat with sorrow
and dulled by a relentless certainty:
This clutching life, it ever groundward bends us,
makes us routine’s hostage; how watchfully it tends us.


The Bloody Chamber

for Angela Carter

These are the stories we tell ourselves
when the birds have fallen silent.
We tell ourselves that we have not seen
the dismembered bodies of our sisters.

We tell ourselves that the key never fit,
the egg remained clean, we were never touched
by the sorcerer at the door.
We say that doorways are safe, the entrance to our home
is clear, that the border between earth
and dirt has never been blurred.

But here’s the truth:

The sorcerer is always at the door,
a terrible magician whose close attention
will make you go limp.
He might tell you differently, but he has always
been there, with his basket—
a one-way trip to a strange marriage-bed,
a house of gold rooms
a skull in the window
wreathed with flowers.

But no girl ever asked, even when
tarred with honey and feathers:
What was inside Bluebeard’s egg?
Another key? A universe? A kiss?
What lies still in that ultimate womb-room?
Perhaps it’s just a bird. The beginnings of a bird,
the idea of a bird hatched from a fairy tale.

Perhaps love need not be murder,
the price of knowledge, not death
nor the dismemberment of siblings,
not the bloodied chamber,
but the clean, unbroken ovoid
of elliptical time.

Let us abandon eggs. Let us abandon
keys and locked rooms and stained
hearts and mattresses.

Let us go into memory
and marriage without fear.


The Soft Key

for Ursula K. Le Guin,
who taught me to love the written word


(i)

Still the socks and spoons, the hollow rattle
of domestication; hush husbands to bed,
churn daughters toward their rooms, the battle
unending as the pages tick-turn in your head.
Still their voices, their terrible beloved voices,
entangling the shoelaces and the heart-valves;
daily life become molasses-dream slow, no choice
but to grit and grimace while longing for a salve
to soothe the gnawing landlocked beast inside
that strains and leaps toward solitary joy—
the balm of books, each a gloried ride
through a strange world—a key, a beacon, a buoy.

Let drop tea towels and houses and spouses;
let rain the imagination’s unruly carouses.


(ii)

See? Here is freedom, strange as irregular
knitting. The other side of the wall is static
with bald poets, wry madmen and bizarre
women flapping their arms in the attic.
Compasses whirl past north and back again.
Roads take or don’t take, forests fly through space
and the islands are beset by dragons.
Dragons! Each gold-flickered eye, each trace
of translucent wing, a saw or song to the heart.
Is this the key, then? The door unclicked and swung
open, the oracle with her lips apart?
Or is it shut? Oiled and locked and the last bell rung?

Open the door, close the door, no matter—
the key turns both ways, toward before and after.


(iii)

A flock of thoughts curves down the horizon:
you back at your kitchen window, congealed
as a waxen effigy amongst the pans,
your head full of the latest invented world.
Foxgloves dip and foxpaws pad in the gloaming;
the hums and haws of crickets haven’t quite
begun, nor the varied voices combing
through the house. For now, a slow respite,
time enough for keys to soften doorways,
to lie between the clean white leaves of books,
spoon and nibble dappled words and graze
on chapters caught without net or hook.

Let pages turn as they may and locks come undone;
Let one world unravel, as another’s begun.