Butch blinked. But it wouldn’t go away. He could see it, the blood, like a red honeycomb, like a membrane, in his left eye. Then in his right. Before, the blood had poured from the sky, falling into his eyes. He’d had an urge to recoil, to curl himself up around the red spot spreading quickly across his retina, to envelop it in his muscles, tendons, bones, hair, everything that was undoubtedly him, and dissolve the vision inside him somehow.
He soon realized it was best to avoid the window, all windows. As long as he kept his gaze turned in toward the room, the crimson wouldn’t flare up, he saw people, men, their shadows. And didn’t look out the windows.
He remembered quite clearly the first time the vision had come.
He’d been standing at the intersection waiting for a tram when the sky had coagulated. He’d sidestepped the people crowding onto the tram, and looked. Watched the low cumuli in the slow-moving sky over Angel Station, saw them run through with a crimson vein, outlined in silver. Then the fleecy clouds let loose the red, caught him in the eyes, he’d had to lean against a lamppost.
The sky was red. It was dazzling. He tried to move, felt a drip, drop, drip on his shoulders, neck, scalp, knew that it was blood.
Then he split. Took off. Away from his turf. But the red flashes had found him.
Here he’d made a habit of staying away from the barred windows, even when the frost coated them in Arctic maps, hiding the sky, the vision was inside him still, and the jagged frost might’ve conjured up the image of a polar bear bleeding on fresh snow. Or something like that. Those kinds of fantasies he was happy to do without.
He wandered the corridors. Shuffled his feet. Got used to it. His first time here he’d been unstoppable, sleepless even after the nth Rohypnol. So they gave him some other chemical. He woke up screaming, woke the others, caused a disturbance. Finally, the shots hit the spot. And at last he sank into dreams. Awful ones. Colors and monsters tumbling over each other, and crimson always came out on top. The unmistakable crimson of bloody clouds from the planet Chaos.
And the faces. It wasn’t until later that he figured out what the red was. Where the overeager parts of his brain got it from and what released it into his scleral cells.
Now he fell asleep, sinking into himself and seeing faces. Most of them the sort he could easily do without meeting.
They were the kind of faces every tram is full of, every reading room and laundromat, greasy spoon and swimming pool, it was as if his brain were replaying every encounter he’d ever had, especially the fleeting ones from the streets, the subway. Faces.
The tour always began with the faces from his neighborhood, first to float in usually was the ugly mug of the newsdealer, then ladies, women, miscellaneous moms, eventually it dawned on him which cash registers, grocery stores, tram stops he’d seen them at, moms with shopping bags, with kids, then he would go gliding past the faces of his buddies, some he only knew from the waist up anyway, hunkered down in the pub in his dream, tipping back pints, he saw the sharp-witted Nothin Much and the dazzling Madla from SuperDrug, there was Steffie the scrawny waitress, leaning out the window, and her little sister, Dora the bitch, the famous TV Bingo winner, he saw faces that he recognized or half-recognized from the street, fellow bus riders, the familiar faces of strangers from the daily commute, he spotted a woman beautiful as a battleship, the one he’d met five years ago in the fall, the faces in his drowsy brain would change, one into the next, like a rotating picture flashing across crystal walls, and then it would happen, all of a sudden, one of the eyes in the dream would come to a stop directly in front of him, flicker, and then he could see the sclera’s red vein as it burst, oozing blood. And the blood would slowly engulf the picture. It flowed from the clouds and flowed from the faces, it was flowing towards him, he was sure.
In the daytime he was scared to blink his left eye, that was where the vision usually began. Otherwise he kept his cool, didn’t talk to anyone. At the beginning, though, he had spoken, just every now and then, for the sake of appearances.
He paced the corridors designated for that purpose. Ate off a plate whenever the staff put one in front of him. Washed the floor when he got a rag. Gave coherent answers during doctors’ rounds. Unquestioned, he said nothing.
To the glad-handers and other meddlesome types he made it plain that he was not to be disturbed. They thought he was nuts. He would sit, stare, lie down, stand, eat, and now even sleep, too. At first he’d suffered pangs of guilt about Luba, but his proud resolution, which although he didn’t realize it, he shared with probably seventy percent of the herbs, goofs, bam-bams, and other patients—namely, that he’d just get his act together and head back out into the streets, into the world, and especially back to her, Luba, to make amends for his obvious faults and failings—that resolution was what kept him on his feet.
He made up his mind not to sink any lower, and did his best to steer clear of the ones in whom he could sense the gaping abyss, of course in such a way as to avoid the windows if possible. The ones who reeked of the abyss had no resolutions left, or else hid them away deep inside themselves, in a pit of pain, in a salty ocean of tears occasionally stirred by waves or whipped by hurricanes of hysteria. They lived a life of medication-dulled desperation. He could sense it. Passing them in his tracks across the trampled linoleum, circling, always circling, in his hospital-issue slippers that went flip, flop, flip.
Maybe I oughta go see the eye guy, Butch said, blinking into the darkness in the corner. Nah, screw it, my problems’re of a mental nature, he diagnosticated. It didn’t occur to him till later that what he saw was really there and that only he could see it.
This wasn’t his first stay on the ward. But it was the first time he’d driven up to the hospital gates of his own free will, and in a cab no less.
In his Air France bag he carried only what was essential for his hygienic needs, or what he considered essential. The rest of his stuff he’d dumped in a trash can at the intersection. Wouldn’t grow mold in there, that’s for sure. He gave no thought to his unwitting good deed.
The first bum to grab one of his French souvenirs and pull it out into the light rewarded Butch from a distance with a crazy, incredulous smile. He didn’t give a damn. He’d hit bottom.
Even when Butch had tried to run, the vision had caught up with him. It was waiting here, too. And the view of the sky here was particularly grim. The vision had come again, mercilessly. Just as he was on his way to see her, Luba, firmly resolved this time to become a happy man.
The vision of blood had come and cut him down. By the trams again, at the noisy, dirty intersection. Angel Station. The pit. Just like before. It had been all he could do just to make the trip here, to the ward.
They’d taken him in, why not. Not exactly with open arms, but he looked needy enough. He looked awful. They wanted to know what sort of difficulties he was having. Some he told, some he didn’t. They asked his address: he gave Luba’s. Explained the wounds on his arms. They smiled. He squinted through the whole interview, but didn’t say a peep about the red, about the blood from the clouds. He only called one person, after a while, his old friend, Ginger. His buddy, he hoped.
After the evening feed, Butch would sit by the bathrooms in the room reserved for nicotine and the blabbermouths who even the nightly dose of meds couldn’t put to sleep.
This was where the inventive types congregated, the resourceful under-the-tonguers who pretended to swallow their pills but instead saved them up and sold them to the others, generally priced by size and color, the liars and the fibbers who needed to confess, even if only to the walls, and the more carvings and scrawls that appeared on those walls, spattered brown with the clotted blood of somebody’s farewell party, the more urgent the pleas of the endlessly tormented and the con men’s crazy sermons, weaving together or wailing solo … this was the place where the horny homos flocked, the greenhorns and the sissies who were afraid to sleep in the dorm.
Dorm, it was a warehouse … a white room kept locked tight in the day, clean as a scalpel and reeking of disinfectant, at night it erupted in the darkest of predatory odors, the clammy smell of fear and the stench of decay … that was the old men who’d spent every night in there for decades, and sometimes there was an almost imperceptible acrid smell, narrow and thin, and that was insanity, weaving its way through the other smells like a black thread through the maze of embroidery on a kitschy tablecloth, confusing them, turning them inside out, twisting and turning through the other smells, swerving, dodging, it was almost as if it were feeding on them. A warehouse of up to sixty male bodies, most of them either restlessly tossing and turning, or lying in the most impossible positions, heads racked with medication, bodies convulsed in a permanent cramp, like some scene from after a massacre.
Occasionally a nurse would come and break up the bunch by the bathroom, but most of the ones who gathered there were nuthouse vets, and the usual punishments, from revoking outdoor privileges to disciplinary speeches laced with the smell of burnt electrodes as the head doctor himself fucks you with the juice, so keep that rubber in your teeth, now hold it in there, son, wouldn’t want to lose that tongue … didn’t upset any of them, except maybe the masochists, who would just as soon’ve told the nurse: I’m sorry, mommy! and handed over the scourge themselves.
The insomniacs were feasting on pills, one of them, facing Butch, flirtatiously gummed a sneaker, trying to get his attention, while an ancient white-haired schizoid was swigging down the bug juice and in between scalding gulps shouting: Mine! and Mine! One greenhorn gestured to another like a high priest as he held forth about the afterlife and how he’d been there, the guy who’d fucked a goat paced from corner to corner, someone was hiccuping, somebody was shitting, and someone else was sobbing. Butch didn’t do anything. In accordance with the law of the jungle, he took someone else’s spot on the bench, as far from the window as possible, and kept his trap shut. Played with the threads prolapsing from the hem of his hospital gown like the slender intestines of some giant fairy-tale grasshopper (that was what he thought, but just to be safe he kept his metaphor to himself), and tried to ignore the other patients’ endless conversations and monologues.
Right from the start he’d sworn to himself that not only wouldn’t he listen to them, he didn’t want to remember them even. Not a word. Not a face. He tried to travel inside himself, grab hold of that first red thread somehow and pull himself into the red sediment that engulfed his brain, he wanted to trace his vision back to its origin and spook it, drive it out into the open, he wanted to know what it was, he wanted to know why, he longed not to go insane.
From Anděl [Angel] (Prague: Hynek, 1995). By arrangement with Suhrkamp Verlag. Translation copyright 2009 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.