An excerpt from Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There
Once or twice over the years I have peered out of the bathroom during Sister Luz’s gatherings. I have watched three or four of them, aging women in soiled habits, making themselves as small and inevident as physically possible, their bodies scrunched up and pressed to the ground, foetal in fact, utterly silent, as one never remembers being. This pre-human posture is the one in which they offer themselves to my wife’s memory. My wife, who it shames me to say you really do not remember. She was the one who used to hover around you like an aura, needle in hand, as though you were some kind of plaything that had gotten old. The one who used to set before you soup after soup, only to have it go cold, untouched, under your chin. The one who, before you arrived and after you departed, and ultimately while you were still here, knelt constantly on the floor beneath us, under this very table, flipping possessed through book after book. The one who hadn’t spoken to me in thirty or so years leading up to her death, except for the one day, many years after she had given up attending to you, when she crawled out from under the table only to say that we should not call you Pierre anymore. Alarmed by her emergence from terminal silence, I asked her then what we should call you instead. As she disappeared back under the table I heard her mutter “Ancient Hell” and my stomach twisted in pain or else fright, so that I scampered at once to the bathroom in bodily confusion. I sat on the toilet thinking about how old you might really be, and beginning to understand what consecutive lifetimes will do to the soul. I’d never heard her say anything so horrible before. It was only a few years later that I realised that I had misheard her, and that the name she’d given you was actually “Agent Vell.” And at that moment my stomach twisted even more tightly, sending me once again to the bathroom. I had been thinking at the time that your writing could no longer be described as actions, or literary sketches, or even prose. The last semblance of poetry had long been drained from your notebooks. You had become an author of reports. Reports—the form of condescension. The rhetorical manifestation of your face and its empty tone. The output of a machine. If a poem, Agent Vell, is a dance and a risk, then a report is a march and a certainty. A military march. That is why I was so moved when I understood my wife’s final designation for you. A perfect title. It was her recognition of your ignorance to her affection, your inability to register her motherly kindness, to embrace her with your eyes, just once, so that she could see the history of the world, and have some means to forgive you. She was fifteen when I met her, Agent Vell, somewhere on the vague road I followed on my way to here. Somewhere in the netherland between cultures. A tiny, beautiful, Japanese doll who inexplicably fixed herself to me, as a single fly sometimes pesters one for hours at a time. She brought as an offering the thing that no-one before her had thought to bring, the most obvious thing, the perfect thing, which I put on my face at once and have never again removed. I lost my virginity to her and eventually I would ruin her utterly. I know what you’re thinking. After fifty years of suffering in this apartment she looked neither particularly beautiful, nor Japanese. Her contempt for me was virtually her only feature by the time of her death. I have made a point of never trading in philosophies, Agent Vell, especially with someone like you, for whom there can be no wisdom. But let me tell you something I’m sure of, not because it’s wise but because it’s relevant to understanding my poor wife. There are only two sincere gestures of which humans are capable: a minute of self-immolation, and a lifetime of contempt. Everything else is contrivance. I can assure you that my wife’s contempt was as sincere as death. Excuse me, Agent Vell. Please do excuse me if I pass wind like that from time to time. I’m not lacking in manners, as you know. A soul, perhaps. Manners, no. The thing is that I don’t feel it coming, don’t notice the wind passing. I only hear the sound as it leaves, as though from someone else’s person. It usually precedes a change in temperature, the way a cat perceives a storm. And there it is again, sure as death, right on cue, another cold snap. As sudden as a swarm of bees blocking out the sun. Bear with me while I grab the milk. I’ll just lean on your shoulder again, if you don’t mind. At my age the weather is a mood but it’s also a pain. A pain in my joints, to be precise. Do you know that when she died my wife’s knees were fused into hunks of unmovable bone and muscle and nerve? Two huge male nurses tried to pry open the impenetrably clenched jaw that each of her legs had become, grunting and sweating, manipulating her from every angle with their giant, bloodless hands. How I blocked my ears at the sound of every joint and bone inside her, everything but her knees, seemingly snapping or else dislocating under duress. I can hardly bare to recall those animals, with shoulders like mountains and heads like boulders, as they wrestled pitifully with her colossal contempt. They seemed not to understand how small this apartment is. There were books falling down all over the place, like the building was rapidly caving in, or else melting. The table was turned over and pressed against the window. All to no avail. They carried her out exactly as they’d found her, on her knees indeed, like a Buddhist statue, the body-bag merely drawn over her head. And it was so that Sister Luz, at that time a young and desperate and frightened nurse in the local morgue, a university student and effectively a child, saw my dear wife for the first and last time, the frightening human image that would become the centre of her tiny faith.