Marc Joan: Scales!

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I don’t understand why people are scared of the end. Personally, I admire the full stop; as punctuation marks go, it is wonderfully symmetrical, marking the end of each life sentence with a point, as though each life has led, in gradually diminishing perspective, to this beautiful singularity. Yes, I welcome it, this dot that terminates the I.

Of course, I can appreciate that people might not want to go; there may be children to support, spouses to love, ambitions yet to fulfil. But that’s different; that’s not the same as fearing death, per se. Perhaps it’s the concept of annihilation, the very nothingness of it, which repels people. Perhaps, for them, ­there is nothing worse than not to be.

Maybe I could change their minds.

You see, the physicians’ best-kept secret is this: medicine has hardly progressed beyond the poppy. Even today, opiates are their final solution: clouding the mind and clogging the bowels, but never blocking the sporadic bursts of breakthrough pain which drag themselves through organs like barbed-wire boli. And beyond the pain, of course, are the hundred daily humiliations, as strangers coax and clean emissions from this broken body.

You’d think that there’d be a better way. You’d think that the chemo-stripped scalp, the peeling skin mapping out new, roseate principalities, the dead wells of saliva and the throat’s lining baked to uncooked meat by blistering isotopes – you’d think all this would belong to another age: mercury for syphilis, a poultice for the pox. But no; fetishes and amulets now come in foil-sealed blister packs, and the shaman wears a white coat. That’s all.

As for me: what the disease hasn’t taken, the good doctors have eroded with Swann Morton scalpels and delicate poisons. And so it is that I am no longer fully human; just a bald, scaly, staggering, reptilian spectacle. One more exhibit in the hospital zoo, limping around the ward in a parody of bipedalism, tailed by a catheter bag.

Somehow, I’ve got to the end of the corridor, the one the visitors come down, and I’m looking through the fire-door, outside and down onto the dull, wet lawns of the hospital grounds.

The dark grass beneath the autumn trees is scattered with brown decay.

When I was a child, we lived in a big house, with a balcony on the first floor, overlooking gravel paths and bright flower beds. During the heat of the day, I would sit on the balcony, hoping to catch a cooling breeze. I would look down on the garden. 

“Come on”, somebody says, at my shoulder. I turn, but already there are firm hands under my arm. “It looks miserable out there, doesn’t it?” she says.

I would watch the lizards basking in the sun.

“Come on’” she says, leading me back to the ward. “It’s time for your little clean-out. You’ll feel so much better afterwards. It’ll make all the difference to you.”  I’m already different, I think, looking at my emaciated wrist encircled by her strong, healthy fingers.

They were large, grey-green creatures, Lilliputian dinosaurs, with chicken eyes and a frill down their backs.  They posed on the hot gravel, or on the dry red soil, front legs akimbo, cocking their heads at the grasshoppers, like pompous gourmets addressing the pastry tray.

The nurses gather round me, in cohorts of sterile blue and stethoscope silver, with soft yelps of encouragement, urging the burr-rasped vessel to emit its raspberry cordial. They are like brisk and fussy wolves, coming to pluck and pull the folded sheets away, to bare and wave their gleaming steel and needles. And I — I am just a straw man; prostrate, weak and scared, lying trembling on a bed.

In my boy’s world, I was a hunter-warrior, a Jim Corbett, a Robin Hood, blessed with the courage of heroes and the eye of an eagle. So, I lifted my Excalibur, and fitted a small round stone into its pouch. From my eyrie on the balcony, I took careful aim, and heroically pulled back the black rubber strips, cut from the inner tube of a car tyre.

“I’m sorry, dear,” one of them says, as I lie there, impaled on plastic spaghetti, the whimpering junction of tubes and conduits, syringes, catheters and bags. “I’m so sorry.”

I know the catapult must have made a ker-flap sound as it released the stone; I know that this must have been almost synchronous with the smack of impact.  But I don’t remember that. What I do remember is this. The lizard desperately running, running, but getting nowhere; running in circles, on and on, round and round on the gravel; forced into an orbit around the strike point, where the stone had mangled and broken one front leg. Like men lost in the desert, who unconsciously measure great circles in the sand, due to the imperceptible difference in length between one limb and the other, so the lizard, on a smaller scale, in its unbalanced, centrifugal reaction to the sudden, crippling blow.

I only realise it’s over when they pull back the pale blue curtain. I’d have thanked them, but my throat hurts so. As I cautiously inch my feet from mattress to floor, I feel wetness on my cheeks.

Sickened and ashamed, close to tears, I ran down the stairs and went into the garden, intending to right this shocking wrong with the only possible remedy. But I found only some bloody scales in the dust. In my mind, the creature has crawled into some hidden recess, where it dies pointlessly, in needless pain.”I’m sorry,” I said, as I paced the gravel path, past the hibiscus nodding its red reproach. “I’m so sorry.”  

Today is a good day; and on good days, like an ugly, bleeding reptile, tethered by the gravity of pain, I circle the ward, dragging my catheter bag behind me.

Justice of a kind, you may say. And so it is; so it is.


Marc Joan spent the early part of his life in Asia, and the early part of his career in biomedical research. He often draws on this background for his fiction, which is currently restricted to the more economical formats (short stories and novellas). Marc’s stories have been published in Madcap Review, Danse Macabre, and Hypnos, and accepted for publication in The Apeiron Review. Currently, he lives in England with his family.

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