The most merciful thing in the world, I think,
is the inability of the human mind to
correlate all its contents.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Ophélie has the incredible gift of stopping time with her hair. I always sit to the left of the stage, in a blind spot from which I can watch her watch others. I am totally hidden behind the invisible veil created by the quantum collision of spotlight particles against the room’s shadows. Even when she spins around her sweat-slicked pole, I forget the curve of her ass to drown myself in the sea of her blonde locks, which sometimes cling to her perfect browbone and the lashes that tickle her rosy cheeks. I come to see her every Wednesday. Mireille serves me two espressos, two dry slutdirty martinis, a pint of beer, and two scotches, in that order. I’m the only girl who goes out to Cassiopée’s. The men don’t like me because I come to see their students who dance, their dancers. Ophélie gives rhythm to my weeks, she moves to what I like, she knows that I come, that I clap louder when she chooses “Judas” by Lady Gaga or “Money” by Cardi B. When she dances, it’s the insides of her eyelids that let her focus, she watches things play across them, maybe the literary works from her afternoon courses, maybe the surf at Haldimand beach, two minutes from downtown Gaspé, where she tans on Fridays before her shift. She spins and suspends herself on Baudelaire’s verses, a passerby in her own head, a runaway. Tonight, I’ve drunk far too much, two extra pints of beer, the guys yell at the girls onstage, they whittle away my patience, and the drunker I am, the violenter I feel, the fuckers, I’ll smash their faces in. I wait for Ophélie; she starts around midnight and dances three times until 3 a.m. Between all this, I plug away at my paperwork. Being seriously drunk helps me think. By drowning the anxiety and depression, I can pay better attention to the quivers of my body and the fire of my instinct, not the death in my head, the chasm in my stomach, or the tarry melancholy of my spleen. They howl like wolves in front of the stage, the gang of sickos. I wait for her, it should be her turn after Stacy. She emerges, silent as a serpent. Something is different about her tonight.
At the end of her number, she turns toward me.
I’m totally overwhelmed by the weight of her pupils, as if her long, artificially thick eyelashes were scratching my forehead. I keep my chin and eyes lowered to my documents, one hand on my temple to make me seem pensive. For a moment, by virtue of furrowing my brow too hard, I manage to forget Ophélie and refocus on my research.
The hum is a phenomenon involving a persistent and constant low-frequency sound, like the never-ending line of the cardiac monitor that follows a stopped heart. It has been heard in hundreds of places on Earth at various times in history, but in a particularly spectacular way in the last year. In the Rocky Mountains, at Mount Washington in New Hampshire, in a volcano in Hawaii, for example, but the department is interested because the hum was heard at the base of Mount Orford, in the mines near Fermont, and, more recently, at one of the gateways of the Gaspé Peninsula, the Matapedia Valley. While the phenomenon is normally known for being inaudible to all but a fraction of the population, recent events have apparently involved a vibration perceptible by entire crowds, like the infernal bass of a too-loud speaker, to the point of causing nausea and dizziness. News outlets the world over are going wild; in the United States, naturally, there’s talk of the trumpets of the Apocalypse or extraterrestrials in Area 51, while Japan is focused on the Big Bang’s vibrational backwash and quantum physics (more “particle” than “canticle” in this particular case). The University of Montreal mostly sends me to the forest to survey the seismic and biological activity, the asystoles of the tectonic plates under Forillon Park and in Gaspé Bay, as far as the gaping mouth at the end of the Saint-Laurent, at the tip of the Gaspésian peninsula, the end of the world.
After the dances comes the courtship. The dancers undulate through the room, caress strands of their hair, glance out from below them, hungry, like lionesses. It’s time to bid. I scribble with blurry vision, all mixed up, but I’m confident I’ll understand myself tomorrow. The girls never come see me; they work for the slobberers, the ones who howl after clefts and drool on their shirts, the ones who have twenty easy bucks. They deploy their garters and fishnets with the grace of peacocks, sliding through like a tide of Medeas, as easily as sand slipping through dainty fingers.
This evening, a glass is set down on my table. A lemon-ginger water that makes me look up.
It’s Ophélie who’s come to talk to me.
I’ve never thought of isolating her. I dunno, watching them dance and be free in a space that is theirs, the stage, is enough for me. If it pays for their studies, all the better. I don’t want to touch them, take advantage of them, pay them for intimacy.
But this evening, Ophélie comes to talk to me, and it feels weird, it feels not normal, I’m startled, my heart loses its rhythm, its timing, its cadence.
When her lips move, it feels like my eyelids are heavy, as though my pupils are cutting through the air, which feels solid to me, the way an axe splits firewood. A fissure in space between the earth’s vibrations on my paper and twenty transparent stiletto heels anchored on a floor slippery with vodka. I brace myself against the table with my elbow as my drink quivers on its thin glass stem. Ophélie smiles idly, everything spins, the air stops, space-time tears, clocks grind.
I swallow a mouthful and it gets caught in my gullet, forming a ball, a bubble that stops me from breathing for a second. An abnormal moment inscribed in history, an upheaval in universal time, an imbalance of order that skips a second in the fundamental calculus of things. I notice Ophélie’s glaucous eyes as she leans over my table in a blue one-piece that complements her Pleaser Flamingo heels in Oil Slick. She opens her mouth. When she parts her round lips, it’s an abyssal sound, an unexpected sound that comes from elsewhere, not from her lips. The earth quakes. I don’t get it right away, it’s like the Last Judgment set the hammer of my inner ear vibrating against an immediately pained anvil, but it’s not in my head, it’s not in my alcoholic psychosis, the alcohol brings me to the height of don’t-give-a-fuckism—and then the fear flashes in Ophélie’s eyes, the lights go out in the bar, panic breaks out, it’s the first big hum felt in Gaspé, the bowl of the valley creates a resonant chant, the sound unsettles matter.
In the time it takes the generator to start, everyone’s yelling, everything’s fluid, mixed up. I catch Ophélie as she crumples, her glass of lemon-ginger water slipping off the table and shattering on the floor. I don’t give a fuck about the chaos, the quaking earth, the hellish song. I call a taxi, I wrap my coat around Ophélie’s shoulders, she manages to straighten up, she struggles a little—disoriented—I can’t leave her here. I bring her back home. The taxi driver harps on about the incident, the city is chaotic as we pass through. There are no more functioning lights, people run through the streets.
I’m plagued by violent nightmares. It’s anxiety, the sickness of the century, nothing to be done about it. I didn’t take my Seroquel, that’s all. Sometimes my eyes open even though I’m asleep, the muscular paralysis of my REM sleep freezes me in place, I’m a prisoner in my own body. It’s a moment of incomparable vulnerability. I dream that I’m awake, the nighttime shapes of my bedroom furniture sometimes become silhouettes of ghostly trees, other times creatures that size me up. After this incident, my dreams will become a blur, sleeping dreams this time, flying canoes, underwater grottoes, monsters, Cthulhu, Ophélie as a scaly creature.
I lay out this specimen of a woman on my bed and notice that outside of the bar lighting, her skin is a strange pale gray. Gently, I choose a lock of her hair and roll it between my fingers, smiling, and Ophélie tenses. I stare at her skin, I note each detail of my Ophélie, so perfect. I take out a ten-inch knife with a very pure white blade from behind my back and cut the lock of hair. Ophélie tries to protest, but she can no longer move, the drug’s taking effect, her immobility thrills me, I’m all-powerful before her paralysis, I need to breathe, I need to calm down. I observe her eyes; not her irises, not her soul, I scrutinize her eyes like organs. I study the shape, measure their diameter, fiddle a bit with her eyelids. I repeat the same exercise with her nose, her ears, her hands, her legs, her feet; she’s naked, uncovered, and yet isn’t getting cold. Living organisms can adapt quickly to their environment. Wearing nothing causes us to not feel the cold. I manipulate her like a rigid doll and do some acrobatics to turn her onto her stomach. I bring the blade close to her skin and harvest a good inch of flesh from the base of her neck, she must surely be in pain, but she can’t say it, I see her looking at the screen next to my bed. I clip all her nails and swab the inside of her cheek. I then take out two long needles and stick them into her belly button, her bone marrow. The torture must be unbearable, I check the screen and wipe her forehead, her muscles relax and the pain disappears immediately, she doesn’t remember its exact sensation. Toward the end of my examination, I look at my screen again and rummage through Ophélie’s clothes to find a little stick with a shining red tip. I bring it close to her arm. Her cheek now pressed into the mattress, Ophélie cries abnormally brilliant tears of rage. I hold the tool and draw points on her skin, burning points much deeper than a tattoo, there’s smoke, it smells like méchoui. As I mark her, as I identify the specimen with her own laser, her eyes go wide, bloodshot, her veins swell under her skin, Ophélie furrows her brows and shouts that I’m “nuthin’ but a fuckin’ torturer.” She rages and kicks a table that splits in two. Surprised by her strength, I draw back a little and note the event down right away, I see the panic in her eyes again, the same as in the bar. I snatch up her shiny torture device and bury it gently between her eyes. The hum is a call to Ophélie, her peers have come looking for her, they know that humans want to study them. The device sinks into Ophélie’s perfect skull, a precise hole that separates her cerebral hemispheres in two. Triumphant, I talk myself through it, I ground myself, like the shrink explained in therapy. My body hurts, I reek of alcohol, I stretch out my arm to reach my bottle of Seroquel and take two, then I sleep like a log, a sleep that’s calm, dark, an extinguishment.
The programmed coffeemaker wakes me up; it’s the only thing that can drag me out of bed. This morning, it gives off a funny smell, like a whiff of wet cardboard that has nothing to do with my Italian beans. I crawl to the computer next to the bed, the residence rooms in Gaspé are six feet by ten, so my super-fancy coffeemaker’s right on my nightstand. I scroll through the news. Of course, the same story of strange noises in the mountains and the force of the one from yesterday. I try to find distraction, but the persistent smell of wet cardboard bothers me. It’s disgusting, maybe it’s mold, I look for whatever nastiness the others have left to rot in the communal kitchen. I’m really not in the mood, I’m fucking sore all over, my hoodie reeks, I’m teaching a class in thirty minutes and I need to post my samples before it starts. I yank open my closet door in search of clean clothes, and the smell hurts my throat all of a sudden. There, in a corner, sags Ophélie’s body, which I hid the day before. Her skin is gray-green, her eyeballs black, separated by a gaping hole in the middle of her skull. I vomit on her, I fall backward, how can an alien rot so quickly? I tear off the hoodie compressing my lungs to manage my panic attack, I need to concentrate, breathe, I tremble, I freeze in place, the fear of dying anchors me to the spot, and in my coffin of sweaty flesh, lying on the floor, I observe the etched arm of the female data point, a constellation, eight stars connected by bright red lines. Ophélie is my fifth specimen in Gaspé since the mountains began to rumble, five identical examinations, five times the same star map. As in those cases, the body will disintegrate, but the Pleasers will remain.
“Spécimen” copyright © Éditions Québec Amérique inc., 2021. Translation copyright © 2024 by E. S. Taillon. All rights reserved.