It began one ordinary Sunday. I stood from my desk after several hours with a particularly fizzing case of pins and needles in my right foot. Being a warm day, I’d barely dressed and sat down without shoes, socks or slippers. As I stretched, flexing my tingling foot, I noticed my pinkie toe had disappeared. I could still feel it, but beyond the hazy nub of what was left, saw nothing where its tip should’ve been. I sat on the bed and took the thing in hand. Definitely gone, but not lost. Invisible. I could feel it. Extending my toes, the sensation was no different than usual, as it was for the other, which remained entirely visible. Starting with the biggest, I pinched each toe.
By then the numbness was wearing off and my foot, but for its look, seemed normal. Market, home, roast beef, none and wee wee wee. I felt it. I felt the hump of it, the nail. I tucked my finger under its crook and tweaked the joint. I rounded the crease of skin (smelling my finger, sorry, after), massaged to where it joined the sole and up across the bridge. All correct. All like my left. No pain or discomfort. It’d simply disappeared. Standing, I circled my studio. I stamped and pressed it into the floor. I hoisted myself on tippy toe. Nothing untoward at all except it was invisible. Back at my desk, I googled “invisible toe” resulting in a list of sites for women’s socks and stockings. Other than some pages on phantom limb syndrome (fascinating, undoubtedly, but not entirely relevant), further enquiries returned nothing of use. At that I decided there was little to do but go to bed and see what the next day brought.
Time passed. Having lost my job at the onset of the lockdown, and with it the rhythms which parcelled out my days, it’s difficult to say exactly how long. When, anyway, I next looked at my foot, the outline of my pinkie had returned to view. But it wasn’t as it had been. It remained translucent, an apparition of a toe. I considered the significance of this. As I’d felt no pain, no loss at all in fact, only the mild perturbation of piqued interest, I thought less of how to stop it happening again than I did of its potential. I needed to know if the phenomenon was manipulable. I waited further, until I was certain my foot wouldn’t go back to how it’d looked before. The disappearance was permanent. This struck me as a Good Thing.
During the wait, I didn’t write. That seeming to be what had provoked the vanishing, I thought it better not to. I spent most of my time online, though did go out occasionally to run errands. I walked around the city too, which, having ridden out the months of quarantine, was a joy. My love for Paris had re-awoken. Everything looked beautiful: the boulevards, monuments, parks and cemeteries, though uncharacteristically unkempt, thrummed with shaggy, vibrant abundance. Even the people, who I’d never imagined I’d miss, seemed to lustre in the morning of the post-virus world. Add to that the secret of my petite, irrational transformation and every contact with the pavement frissoned with delight.
Satisfied enough time had passed, I tried to make my pinkie disappear again. But no matter how hard I tried, I failed. Thinking at all of my foot, or, god forbid, the toe itself, seemed to render the whole thing moot. It didn’t matter how long I stayed at my desk or how much I wrote, if, in some cranial nook, the slightest podiatric thought niggled, the attempt was wasted. To think at all about my foot was not, I concluded, to be transfixed as I’d been on that first occasion. On what though, was the question.
On nothing. I’d simply been transcribing, having nothing else to do, what thoughts occurred: speaking to the page, addressing myself to its emptiness. The toe, I realised, was tripping me up. To cut this tether, I tried a meditation.
Shifting my chair through ninety degrees, I sat directly beneath the skylight and looked out at a cloud-banked sky. My imagination took a blue pencil and I began to colour in. Starting at the edge of the frame, I filled in the sky neatly, smoothly and consistently, for as far as I could, until the pencil wore down to the nub. Then, taking the next one from the packet, a tone darker, I started over until that one too was worn to nothing. On and on I went, colouring from where I sat to the horizon, and only when there was no infinity left to shade, did I turn to my desk. I wrote a letter.
Sometime later, I stopped, descending from my dis-consciousness. The pages I’d filled, I dropped in the sink and set alight, burning them until the ashes could be washed down the plughole. It wasn’t until after I’d scrubbed their char from the chrome that I thought to check my feet. I peeled off my sock (worn now, habitually, as subterfuge) and my toe was gone. What’s more, as I dealt with my other foot, I discovered the little one on my left had disappeared too. I was delighted. The invisibility had spread inward from the furthest extremity, overtaking both pinkies, the next toe (“none”), and a small section of both feet. It looked as though, cartoonishly, I’d had bites taken out of me. I lay on the floor, lifting my legs to frame my feet in the window. The disappearing seemed symmetrical, mirrored on each foot. Quite the strange elation it was I felt, looking through me to the sky.
Fighting every urge, I knew I had to stay calm. The impulse was to throw myself into this newfound ability (yes) of making myself disappear. I wanted to see how long I could go; how quickly I could turn into something unseen; how long I could stay in one place and write myself invisible. But I knew it wasn’t wise. There were more experiments to do, preparations to be made, plans to formulate. Again, I restricted my writings; kept tabs on my toes. Although I was unable to divine (suffering ongoing troubles with the temporal) the rate of disappearance or the relation between the time passed at my desk and its longevity (by which I mean the lingering of complete invisibility), I did learn two things.
Firstly, no matter how long I waited, my feet would never return to how they’d been. There was, however, a degree of intermittence, a tide of translucence which washed back. That meant that, after a while, even though neither of my little ones returned, the parts of the other toes and my feet did smokily re-emerge. The process, then, was cumulative, but assuredly permanent. The second thing I learned was that, regardless of the disappearance, my clothes didn’t betray my loss; socks and shoes still rounding out with the heft of my anatomy. This was particularly relieving as it meant I could still go out and the public would be none the wiser. It also seemed, though further investigation was required, that bodily functions weren’t interrupted. Good news all around.
I decided I wouldn’t go home for Christmas, an especially controversial choice seeing as the borders had all been reopened. A slew of messages arrived from family. Though they came independently, I sensed coordination. My mother, stepfather, both together co-signed, my stepbrother Alex (definitely obliged) and sister, who sent a distinctly manipulative video of my nephew demanding my appearance. Offers to pay fares were made. Sarah even went so far as to suggest that dad was asking after me. That was hard to believe. So devolved was he into alcoholism, I doubted he was conscious of the season. The last time I’d spoken to him was the previous New Year’s and since had been unable to get him on the phone. Not amenable to the tug of that particular heartstring, I did however promise to be in touch by Skype for the day itself.
And I was. Christmas: a memory of pristine happiness and genuine pleasure. We spoke for several hours, my family and I, sharing our news and joys, indulging the idiosyncrasies of the occasion. I joined them as they relished post-mass mimosas, was propped on the table from grace and crackers to the lighting of Uncle Kev’s infamous, six-months-pissed Christmas pud, and watched from the mantelpiece as they opened their gifts. My voice was on the air as they sat around the living room after lunch, dozing in front of the Queen’s speech or helping Charlie put together the caterwauling gifts Father Christmas had brought. I had a view on it all and a comment or two besides. It was perfect. I felt no distance from them. No gripes of nostalgia or homesickness. I wanted little more than the soundwave of their love, and to be heard in turn when I had something to add. They are a delight, what has become my family, which is something physicality needn’t burnish. Not when presence is felt. And that is what I did feel most: present.
But I was less so than I’d ever been. Beneath the desk on which my laptop sat, were only half my feet. Yes, the invisibility had developed and spread. All of my toes had gone, and the frontier was advancing towards my legs.
When my family asked about my work and life, I answered as honestly as I could. I told them work was going great, I was starting to make real progress. True! I told them I was also doing well, and I was. After the hourless doldrums of quarantine, I’d stumbled on new motivation. I’d got going, moving again. There was nothing fake in the excitement I expressed about that. Life in Paris seemed better than it had since I’d arrived, a second honeymoon in the City of Light; also not untrue. Life was swell. I just allowed certain assumptions to skew the whats and whys I wasn’t explicit with. Omission, yes. But I’ve found that it becomes me.
Christmas done my project began its second stage. Since being laid off, I had little choice but to trust in the beneficence of the French state. Having few expenses beyond rent, and with a small pot of savings to fall back on, I calculated I’d have enough to cover me, if my projections were correct, beyond the end of my task. Everything else was a question of management. There was, however, still much to discover. Toes aside, what the effects of invisibility were on a more significant joint, the ankle, say, or knee, was pressing, to say nothing of vital organs.
At least the disappearance moved at an equitable rate on both limbs, which meant my going seemed ordered and, therefore, I hoped, predictable. But it was something to watch. I was also nervous that, as the line of invisibility approached my mid-thigh, my fingers might begin to go. The worry was that, if I lost sight of my hands, I would end up unable to write, the only means (as far as I knew) of disappearing. Considering all this, I’d decided that the breaker moment was once my legs and groin had gone. That way I’d know if my body still worked, how internal organs went and for how long I’d keep my hands. It was a point at which I recognised, despite permanent losses, life would still be liveable. It’d be the last chance to bail.
A quick word about my cock. If it weren’t already obvious, I wasn’t romantically involved at the time. Which isn’t to say it was out of action, just that “action” wasn’t a shared pursuit. My “ex” had ended things about a month before the contagion spiked when her husband discovered some incriminating emails, and since then, and with the everything that followed, I’d become ambivalent about my dick. Symptomatic, I’m sure, of broader crises, I no longer regarded it with any pride or optimism. Lusts neither, except for the mechanical. All told, I was prepared to risk it. Not that I was wishing it off. Far from it. What I hoped was that, once gone, and no matter how pitiably so, the thing would continue to function as it had. Were it not to, however, I’d come to terms with the notion (notion) of the loss.
The balls, if my assumptions were correct, would go first and if I could still then produce ejaculate, I’d consider it the best sign towards the successful completion of my task. If they no longer worked, I’d abandon my disappearing act and count it as an unfortunate, but none-too-debilitating forfeiture. Should I continue, my experiment would go on with an eye to urinary abilities, sexual relegated to second place. Best case scenario, as with my feet, nothing but appearances would change and none of the sensation would be lost (I’m no monk).
On I went, writing every day and keeping track, whenever I stopped, of the advancing dissipation. Each time I sat at my desk I’d begin my letter detailing the changes I could see. I’d write about my feelings on the project, the disquieting lack of the least anxiety as I watched myself disappear. These comments were more or less introductory, a way of getting into the stream, to latch onto the voice of my interior which would lead me to imagined tête-à-têtes. When I struggled, as I sometimes did, I’d change the subject to whom I spoke. I might talk with my sister or maybe mum. Sometimes I’d talk with a childhood friend, and even, on the odd occasion, dad. Doing so allowed me to restart, repeat myself, double back, until the currents overcame my block.
These blockages, when they did arrive, tended to amass from momentary doubts. Momentary lapses, signal drops, between my words and the ear at which they were directed. Because beyond the trailing of my pen across the page, my longing was the thought of being heard. Like you can hear me now, a voice in your head, somewhere out of view, just behind you, at the base of your skull, say, in between your ears (unless you’re the type to mouth things out, in which case perhaps you hear me, sibilance and whisper). It was that, talk, which took me from myself, which, bit by bit, undid me. Word, yes, by word.
Over the course of several sessions writing, I began to notice that, whether I’d dressed or not, I no longer seemed to feel the cold. By then the invisibility was advancing up my shin. As it was mid-winter, the air bitter, this struck me as strange. Knowing the undoing of appearance was cumulative, it occurred to me that maybe its accumulation extended beyond the superficial. Did the disappearing continue past a point I could track it? It seemed plausible.
Initially I thought I’d just started to forget about my feet. Out of sight, as it were, out of mind. I could still locate them to pull on socks, still hold them, but the practice I’d had of counting the little pigs had hit a snag. I found that, totting myself up, I’d quickly lose count and need to begin the rhyme again. Perhaps it was nothing more than persistent absent-mindedness, freedom from needing to concern myself further with the none-entities of my toes, but some investigation, I decided, wouldn’t go amiss.
Standing on one leg (a feat (ha) I can assure you), I held an invisible limb under the shower. Not being a masochist, I ran the water tepidly, gradually easing it colder until it couldn’t be eased further. The water still hit the shape of me. More or less. On the leg it ran off me as it always had (and would if you were to go and douse your own), but towards the end, where the foot had been, its spread grew more diffuse. Difficult to say exactly what I was looking at, if there was any there left there to be seen.
Still the experiment went on. I could sense some degree of temperature, not cold but mild cooling. Nothing definitive. I cranked it towards hot. A little, admittedly, upset at what I’d discovered (until then, I’d believed the disappearance was only, absolutely skin deep), I rushed to the hottest point, the bathroom soon filling with steam. The water, my sorry arm can attest, was scalding. And yet, to my foot, it wasn’t. Warm, yes. A little. But even more clearly than it’d been with the cold, the disconnect between what my senses and remaining parts witnessed and what my missing limbs experienced, couldn’t be denied. The following experiments were conducted in quick succession; pen jabbed into leg (pressure, no pain), fork jabbed (same), leg pricked with pin (very slight twinge), leg cut with a kitchen knife (light pressure, no blood), cut deeper (same). For the first time, anxiety.
Half gone, I celebrated with a fine ejaculation. I’m in full working order, a semi-invisible man. I still “sit” at my desk, but more than ever verbiage approaches the approximate. (Sitting how? There’s nothing beneath my waist.) It took a while to get going, true. My proprioceptive clout no longer being what it was, concerted efforts were required before I could get a fist around anything of use. But a little exertion’s necessary now whenever missing parts require handling, whether to scratch, piss or indulge in a bit of self-love. I came a ghost load into a tissue. Ectoplasm. It felt fantastic. Like the first time I’d discovered I had it in me, eleven, twelve years old, hunched in the downstairs loo with one foot raised, sole to the door, extra defence in case someone tried to walk in and the lock didn’t hold. What a thing to know you’re able to do!
Yes, a celebration. My insides are fine and functioning. My fingers also haven’t shown the least diminishment, so, as hoped, I assume the invisible line will advance all the way up my torso, to the shoulders and back down the arms before my hands go. Perfect. In the end I’ll be a disembodied head and hands. Everything required for the tracking of this pen, now, across the page. Dropping the tissue into the bin did provoke a minor melancholy though. Success, sure, but for how long?
I don’t feel my feet at all anymore. Rarely think of them. It’s been months since I last pinched out my toes or went at myself with sensory experiments. Somewhere along the way, it stopped mattering. I hope that with a none-too-strenuous period of application, I’ll be able to locate them. If I hold my sides and slide my palms down my invisible haunches, invisible thighs, I can still find my knees. But I tend to lose interest after that or get distracted. The job will be to keep focus right down to the feet. Straightforward enough. But so far, I’ve been unable to. I tell myself it doesn’t matter. And as long as I can do it when I need to, it doesn’t. I am, however, beginning to wonder just what about myself I’d like to maintain.
The pleasure of a wank would be nice to have to hand (ha), but if things go as with my feet, a gradual receding from graspable consciousness, I can’t rely on it. What else do I have for pleasure? Since Christmas, I’ve spoken more than ever with my family, having rediscovered (to my great happiness) conversation with them to be a source of deep and enlivening well-being. I’m closer with them than I’ve been since the divorce. That, I’ll keep up for as long as possible. By Skype and, in the end, only voice.
My writing? Yes, I enjoy it too; the process, vouchsafed as it seems. The writings themselves? No. I still burn the pages at the end of every session. I’ve no interest in holding onto them. They’re conversations, a speaking of no more lasting potency than breath. A way of living, yes. Accumulatively, life itself, but transient and elusive as all that’s that. Of what passes between, now, my only interlocutor and I, I won’t say anything. Selfishly? Perhaps. If I tell you we loved one another, that we never stopped, it should be enough.
My needs, indeed, have etiolated over time. The disappearance having reached my sternum, most of my appetites are gone. I’ve little interest in nourishment, beyond what minimum sustains me, and less and less in orgasm. I’m no longer, almost at all in fact, conscious of physical want. Neither for pleasure nor escape from discomfort, which I now rarely experience. The lack of food and drink have reduced digestive workings to minor interruptions. This means longer can be spent at my desk, hastening my going. I only stop when, mentally, I’m exhausted. I still require sleep.
My other pleasure is sitting and thinking. I sit under the window and hold out my hands. I read imaginary futures on them or else simply hold myself, touching the parts I can, like a blind person. Here is my forehead; here are the sockets of my eyes. This line is my jaw line, this dip my jugular notch. I ghost bodies other than my own, sculpting air. It’s how I’ve had, to hover close to me again, forms and faces, her occasional presence; how we stay together as the hourglass empties.
I’m thinking more and more about what’s left to be said. I know the end’s close. I’m reducing my calls home. It’s necessary. Despite how much I enjoy them, I have to cut back so that when the time comes, it won’t seem unusual or cause a panic. I begin by telling them my camera’s broken, then my computer has died. I place a carefully choreographed series of calls, timed to be missed, so every effort’s seen to be made while the frequency of our conversations drops considerably.
I speak to Alan, stepdad, when mum’s not home, phoning at a time I know she won’t be. I say goodbye to him first. Alex next. With those two, calls were less frequent, but they were in no way formalities. I’ve grown to love them both so much. Not that I could say it in so many words, nor offer the apologies I owe (to Alan in particular to whom I was the perfect shit when he first came into our lives). It isn’t from pride, shyness or even fear of my emotions. I just can’t give the game away. I don’t want to tip my hand, leave them thinking anything’s up. We talk about banalities. I keep the conversations short. Hanging up on them, I cry.
This is a more and more frequent occurrence. I never used to, but now I cry incessantly, deeply, heavily. Weight, surprisingly, has become the dominant sensation. I’m depressed; an existential counterbalance to my otherwise superfluous legerity.
Recently I realised my dimensions are strictly a category of the mind. If, say, I float my head before the mirror and raise myself mentally on tippy toes (call back to the early days), I see my height rise regardless of the lack of toes on which to tippy. So why stop there? I raise myself further, imagining I’m hoisted on the kitchen counter, stood on the desk, perched on top of the bathroom door. Why not? I’m as strong, athletic and flexible as my thoughts allow. Do I sit at my desk or stand? Who’s to say? It’s only a question of where I place my head. I’m transcending. First appetites and discomforts were left behind, now constraints of the physical too.
And yet, I feel heavier than ever. And the weight won’t leave me. Not in the absenting of writing, nor the unconsciousness of sleep. It’s invaded what remains of me. I dream tears and wake crying. Everything stalls. I’m crushed; my thinking unable to progress beyond acknowledging the rotten, fucking, heaviness of it. Of going. Going on and going away. Being almost done. Unable to stop or turn back. Too far gone.
I make ready to go. Heavy as I feel, there’s nothing else to do. I say goodbye to mum. I say goodbye to Sarah and her son. I try to call dad but don’t get through. Leaving him a voicemail, I tell him I’m thinking of him and that I love him. With him, I can say what I want without circumspection. It’s always been the prerogative of the drunk to express themselves grandiosely, and, if he’s compos mentis to comprehend, I imagine dad will consider my grandiloquence par for the delirious, inebriated course. I’ve been leaving, I may as well admit, messages for weeks in the hope he’d call me back. He hasn’t.
When I say goodbye to mum and Sarah, I don’t say a fraction of what I could. Mostly I concentrate on not sounding scared. My neck’s gone and my jaw’s going. So little left. I wasn’t expecting to be so upset by the disappearance of my face. I hadn’t thought up the word ‘til now, but I’ve deformed myself. I call them before the change is too great for me to keep the terror from my voice. Not blurting out what I’m doing, what I’ve done, takes all my strength. I try my best to keep it light. We talk about summer plans. They both ask if I’m coming home. I say yes.
And I will. I’ll go to them when this is done. I’ll be around them, a fly on the wall, spirit in the air. If not my first port of call, it’ll soon follow. There’ll be a lot to learn when the moment comes. How things work in the outside world. I’ve already started practising. Leaving my room nights, I walk the building’s corridors and crawl, tiptoe, climb the walls. I can press myself, with the strength of imagined arms, against the ceiling of the narrow halls, spanning the corridor with my limbs, and go about like that. I can’t ghost through walls or doors. Not yet. We’ll see how far my imagination goes. How far it takes me. Perhaps I’ll only need to imagine myself a place to put me there. Or I’ll be free to make it with my voice, constructing the bits I’m unfamiliar with in confident utterance. We’ll see.
The question now is getting out. I’m favouring the window. There’s not long left so decisions must be made. Final preparations are underway. The other night, I went into the streets. Pushing focus to the brink of aneurysm, I managed to dress. I was a form, covered as I could be, hood on my head, scarf across my face. I walked down to the river, trying things out as I went. Little experiments of my agile abilities, games with myself. I undressed in a side street, stuffing my clothes into a rucksack, and leapt from the pavement to the rooftops. I crossed rue de Rennes in a single bound, barely more than a sprung step, roof to roof. Descending, I swung down the boulevard by the trees and from lampposts where there were no branches to grab. It was tremendous fun and terribly reckless: a reward for my work and escape from the weight. At Quai Voltaire, I threw my passport, phone, laptop and wallet into the Seine. That done, I hurried home. Unsure when the dawn would come, no time to dress, I danced my way across the rooves.
Little left to do. Bit more writing, one more call. Bit more writing and I’ll be gone.
My face falls away and the fear is on me. A respite from heaviness, but a sickening replacement. Panic besets me. My jaw’s gone, then my mouth, tongue. The invisibility creeps up my nose. I’m scared I’m going to lose my voice. Like lose, with the disappearance of vocal cords and the little ear bones, my own inner vibration. What’s more, I’m worried that when the line advances to the base of my brain, my functioning will be affected. How much of what I stand to lose, beyond mechanics, is me? Will I lose my mind? Anything’s possible. Nothing to do but see.
My eyes are a strange thing. They don’t disappear the way everything else has. First the globes turn white. I lose the blue of my irises. Sight’s unaffected. This keeps their going slow as I repeatedly rise from the desk to hover them before the mirror, checking their progress. Slowly, then, they darken, like waning moons, until there’s nothing left. I’m still not blind. Everything’s still here; furniture, desk, notebook, the pen in my hand, them, still dextrous, still under the command of my evaporating cerebral cortex. And the weight breaks. I laugh. I laugh and I’m ready.
Last pages, last letter, missive to her and this, which I may yet burn in the sink. And if I don’t, it’s only because I forgot, swept in a breeze to greater freedom: meditation on the sky, a scrawl or colour on it, a voice. Yes, a voice.
When will I know I’ve gone? Will I ever know it? I’ll keep talking. Keep blathering on, an ever-diminishing whisper. No? Here, not diminishing. A soundwave, vibration; sibilance and echo. You’ll, no, are, are hearing me, aren’t you? The top of my head will soon be gone. Will I know when? Will there be a pop? There is a pen where my right hand was. Where my left, a memory of her. Whatever happens, I must hold onto it. When the moment comes, I mustn’t let it go. The moment, how will I know it? Will the chatter stop? Will I drop my pen?
Originally from Wales, Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator based in Paris. His work has been published by La Manufacture de Livres and Open Pen.
‘Notes Towards a Disappearance’ is an adapted extract of a larger narrative.
LINK: ‘Chicken Basquaise’ – https://www.openpen.co.uk/unitedivided-chicken-basquaise/
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