An excerpt from Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel

This story is excerpted from
Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel,
available now from Splice.

Leson, it seems, is stuck even in his words and cannot think of another way to say it, so he repeats to this doctor the refrain his brain has lately taken up: I am stuck. Can you help? To which question what can a doctor answer? Maybe see a specialist? The unit’s diagnostic program, confused by Leson’s complaint, had sounded its chime and sent him here. Now this doctor was sending him elsewhere. No-one respects the gravity of my condition, Leson thinks. It is clear Leson will have to come up with a treatment of his own.

This doctor, though, is a professional. He has been trained to operate the appropriate diagnostic apparatuses. He affixes nodes to Leson, auscultates and palpitates and prods Leson. Leson plays along. He coughs, turns, coughs again. He keeps his head straight. He feels a tiny prick. The doctor tells him — though not in so many words — that what is wrong must be inside. Leson, he says, I know a good man. Here, in the colony. He recommends psychiatry. But it seems impossible to Leson that his fault could come from himself. When inert matter does not move, he thinks, no-one blames its lack of motivation. No-one claims the stone at the mouth of the cave is depressed when it refuses to roll away on its own. No, what Leson needs is a lever, a harness, a gantry, and so he describes his stuckness again, and then there is only silence in the examination room. Leson thinks of the other patients in other rooms. The doctor thinks of the same thing. Down the hall, a squeegeeing sound starts up. A very large woman is bleeding from her eyes, and a nurse, annoyed, is brushing back the tide with the sole of his shoe.

In the end, the only things Leson gets out of his visit are a bright blue blood pressure cuff, a pad of prescription forms, and a thin metal instrument he cannot identify but which has a pleasing smoothness in his hand. Though the latter two items had, at the time he’d taken them, suggested future uses, Leson cannot say why he has stolen the blood pressure cuff. Perhaps the color? It was not even the one the doctor had used on him. At home, he puts it on, adjusts it. The bladder inside inflates until it pushes against his arm, displacing the flesh around his blood vessels so that some essence of Leson rises to the surface to be measured and studied. Leson’s arm tingles. He experiments with keeping the cuff inflated for longer and longer. There is a residual tingling in his arm. He puts the bulb down but leaves the cuff where it is. Perhaps, he thinks, he can inflate himself, squeezing the world around him until it reveals its answer. After such a prolonged absence of ideas, even this seems like a plan.

Such expansion, Leson thinks, would be, besides, strangely appropriate, as his dissatisfaction, the feeling of emptiness that preceded his dismissal from the service and the subsequent stuckness, had come from feeling no forward motion, no sense of progress, regress, or change. He could find no purpose. Now Leson would fill and move forward at once, and, best of all, he would avoid the need for any endogenous motivation. He had seen a frenzied zealousness driving men forward in the passage and on the front, but even though he had been engaged in the same work, he had never been able to find that same thing in himself. After a time his commanding officer, slowed no doubt by Leson’s enervation, had finally summoned the disgust necessary to discharge him. There had been no warning — just, out of nowhere, a detail was dispatched to clean out Leson’s bunk; idle hands, they’d been told. Soon after his dismissal, his family, too, had dissipated in the vacuum.

Leson, naturally, looked to his screen for answers. With more time to himself, he could take in yet more of this world, fill himself with its signals, and, with the help of the screen’s perfectly simulated voices and textures, even perhaps become an expert on the human condition, a man of the world. Or at least, Leson thought, a man of the colony. Why not? A man of the world might not only be one who could move about that world freely and without fear; perhaps a man of the world could also become so by expanding into the world, a colony unto himself. But even after hours of continued exposure, Leson, saddened, instead felt only the same sense of stillness. He did not feel full, not even a little sated. The only colonists ever to appear onscreen were test subjects kept in crates in a conspicuously small section of the screen, illustrating the effects on the human body of various native remedies — the rest was all passage-worms, the front, the passage. Leson would have learned more from staying in the service. Leson, though, could take a hint. He wrote down the names of the tested substances, transferring the information to the prescription pad any time he heard significant weight gain. He was not so different from others, he thought. He could learn to accept help.

He presented these slips to the dispensary, and the dispensary in turn issued stapled bag after stapled bag, filling one plastic tub and then another. The man there warned Leson of the side effects and complications. A line formed behind Leson, and grew, and grew. Do not take these with these, or these with these, the man there said. Weight gain, the man there said. Impotence, the man there said. Suicidal ideation, the man there said. Leson could barely carry all the bags away.

Once he was home and had started his regimen of pills, suppositories, ointments, medicaments, and injections, it seemed to Leson that his time was better-spent — his sense of wellbeing had been thrown off even further, true, but he found that all the things onscreen, even those he’d seen before, held interest once again. He felt fuller. His sensations were once again sources of deep and abiding fascination to him. In fact, his raptness was such that he did not doze or sleep at all; without sleep, he did as much viewing as two Lesons. He may also have been speaking aloud to himself — shouting? — he could not tell. Every now and again, his neighbors complained. Leson! Knock that off! Leson! Leson, do you know what time it is? He would still himself, remain silent. Yes, Leson knew what time it was. His screen was set to the correct time, just like anyone else’s. He had decided it was better not to respond for now. All of what he did at this early stage was only preparation, after all; before any outreach could begin, one should have reach, range. And so Leson would first have to grow. Silently, he took another pill.

Leson’s regimen inflated himself around himself. In fitful daydreams, Leson imagined fibers twining around each other into wicks of muscle, calcifications of tissue, subduction zones under his skin rising in ridges. The growing pains, at times, were unbearable. There was fat, and there was muscle, and there must, underneath it all, also have been new bone. There were shelves of Leson, lobes, where once there had been only sheer cliff faces. He grew a tenth of an inch, in all directions, then another tenth, and another. The scale went around once, twice, and then continued, so that Leson had to do math in order to weigh himself. His waist expanded, sure, but so did his wrists, his fingers and toes, his neck, his ankles. All of his joints ached. He was losing shape, becoming blobular. Even if it had not been confiscated, he would no longer have been able to put on his jungle suit. His head did not fit in the bathroom mirror anymore.

The seams of Leson’s colony suit split when he sat down, when he bent over, when he reached for something across the table. He could see through to his overstretched skin. Would it, too, split when it had reached the limits of its pliability? Leson set his index finger to one of the iridescent striations that had appeared on his left arm and, with his thumb and middle finger, brought together skin that once hadn’t needed to be brought together, directing the unit’s automatic first aid station to suture him where he held himself. He had some trouble extricating his index finger after.

The result was underwhelming, looking necrotic and empty to Leson, like the result of a brush with a miniature passage-worm. Leson thought to retrieve the instrument he’d taken from the doctor’s office. Although this was not the use he’d foreseen for it, Leson could hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. He placed the needle end of the instrument against another of his striations, pinching the old skin back together and once again directing the automatic first aid station to suture him whole. Where his first pocket had been clumsy and loose, this new one seemed more like a pore opening onto the world. Permeability seemed a laudable goal to Leson then, something to which to aspire. He could afford, he thought, to let in more of the world, to grow through a kind of osmosis.

And so things continued with Leson, pocket by pocket. When the station had run out of binding, he considered how best to invite in the world. He settled upon stuffing his pockets with the grime that had accumulated near the baseboards and behind the furniture, all that now remained of his life before the stuckness. In time, these new catchments he had sewn into himself would foster new organisms, and this, Leson feared, would be uncomfortable, itchy and inflamed, but he thought of such discomforts as the cost of being in the world and he very badly wanted to pay his dues.

Leson paused in his labor, looking out of the greased window. A passage-worm slithered past, big as a unit, ganglia drifting in the atmosphere. Leson scratched at a hillock of himself and a pouch spilled open. Something inside drifted to the floor and scurried away. Men from the patrol passed, careful, paranoid. Leson thought of chipped concrete, of gravel, of sawdust. Slowly, he rubbed a dried eye. He had once been a stalk and now he was a pile. But a place must change to accommodate its inhabitants, Leson thought.

What Leson ate was made up mainly of powders and formulae, as it always had been, but, when it seemed he had reached his outermost boundaries without any resolution to his condition, he decided he’d have to branch out into the supposedly inedible flora of the colony. He worried about the things he would not be able to keep down, on their effects on his growth, but he knew something new was needed. Because these things had to be treated before human teeth could rend them, Leson stewed what he found in the cultures he’d cured in his pockets and pores. The resulting mixture disturbed the stuckness of his insides, it was true, but the effect was not freeing, not exactly. Still, Leson did continue to grow, through a kind of lasting, uncomfortable bloat. He felt, at times, like a termite mound. He could not supervise its comings and goings.

Time passed. On every passageway lever and disposal button, every wall and gate and trailing up the ramp of his unit, there were bits that had once been Leson, leavings, outpourings of his slow flood. He had thus found himself in an intractable dispute with the colony’s health official and the unit’s superintendent, both squeamish about entering his quarters, having been warned away from the unit by its fleeing former residents. There is something very bad happening there, they said. Very bad. People are falling ill, Leson, the super told Leson. They are being evacuated. Leson, slug-like, lolling and ecstatic with mood-altering substances and the shivering of another fever, smiled from his place on the carpet. These people brought with them some part of him wherever they went, and so yet another bit of him must have been freed. Open up in there, Leson! The colony health official is here with me. Instead, Leson inched forward, slowly barricading the door with his bulk. He felt as though about to burst. Leson! We’ll have to get the patrol.

So now Leson’s world has closed around him. Like his unit, his life has walls, a ceiling, a floor. He has not seen the star in months, has not breathed unrecirculated air. He has heard voices, but he is no longer sure they aren’t his own. His thoughts trend in a single direction. Perhaps they always have.

And so Leson groans, having grown to perfectly meet his unit’s measurements. It is almost a rumbling, this groan, the man has become so large. What it is not is a word. Outside, the superintendent has fallen ill, as has the colony’s health official. All of the curious, in fact, all those who came to see Leson, are swelling. The unit’s two remaining families — Leson’s neighbors — disappeared in the night, and now there is no-one to hear his grief. Leson is alone in his enclosure. Who knows what has become of these neighbors? Somewhere, in some other colony, a medical center is dealing with something that does not yet have a name and which causes an unaccountable augmentation.

Meanwhile, at last, a patrol is mustered. The men arrive at the unit with their machines and immediately begin dismantling the structure. They do not know they are there because of a former serviceman. They do not know there is anyone at all inside. The front cannot wait for answers, so the patrol does not ask questions; while the unfasteners work, passage-worms cross the passage into the colony, and the jungle spills through the cordon with them. The first floor of Leson’s unit is gutted and the parts are sorted and recommissioned, but one by one the patrol, too, falls ill. Soon their excavators and unfasteners and sterilizers stand idle next to the skeleton of the unit. The only walls that remain are Leson’s, and, with the others ripped away, the murals of stains on those walls are all the more evident. From the outside, Leson’s unit looks like a square of thin paper barely holding back some oleaginous substance. There is a noticeable convexity to the walls and the floor, even the ceiling. Those who pass by think it is probably best not to think about it.

Out on the streets of the colony Leson’s former neighbors blimp, go lopsided like overripe fruit. No-one walks; some are rolled here and there, but it is arduous work, and the well become weary at it and then fall ill, too. The elements bear down, but only the largest shelters can be occupied. Rows upon rows of units stand empty. Passage-worms roam the streets, cleaning the bloated and occasionally boring holes through them with their ganglia.

A boy, seemingly abandoned by his guardians, looking like nothing so much as an immense, greatly-enlarged tongue, reposes in the square outside Leson’s unit. His skin has transcended see-through; it looks instead as though turned inside-out and combed. Others might come along to help him — if there were others — but alone he cannot move himself, and so he has been there in the square for days. Rain has collected in the crevices of his body. Passage-worms swish past, taking away parts of the units to either side of the boy. A broken unfastener stands upside-down on the beaten dirt of the terrarium, and part of the low fence around the terrarium has come down. Something inside of this boy has collapsed, too, some important inner faculty. The sounds he is making would have embarrassed him before, when he was well, but they come out all the same. A moan, not words. In his bloodshot eyes, which roll back in his head and then return to focus somewhere above the plane on which other creatures still operate, one can just see his apprehension of the passage-worm opposite. He has never been this close to one.

The boy does not recall how he might have come to be here, or what he might have done to deserve this. Is he the superintendent’s son? The health official’s? Leson’s? Who does he belong to? Did someone roll him here and then disappear, or did he himself make his way here before bloating? His limbs don’t reach the ground; he could neither crawl nor claw his way anywhere now, so here he remains, for good or for ill. Is Leson’s unit his home, behind him, on the square? Is that why he is here? The passage-worm halts, its ganglia flickering in the light. The moons have risen in the sky, but the star is still shining. Somewhere inside the boy’s body, an enlarged organ is pushing aside some fraction of the faculties needed for continued functioning. Struggling, he takes a breath. Somewhere inside the boy, something is giving way. A stasis has been reached in the colony. It does not favor the colonists. The jungle’s squid-like diaphanous bats descend, secrete their essences, extend their proboscises, and gently lift the boy up. He disappears into the twilight. A strange, chunky rain falls in his wake.

Perhaps disappointed, the passage-worm closes on Leson’s enclosure. One by one, its ganglia press against the wall and wipe some part of it away, like jets of water playing on dusted glass. Leson, uncovered, weeps to see the world again — to see the trail of the boy leading upwards into the sky. Out flow his tears, and, along with them, the blood pressure cuff is finally delivered from inside the vastness he has become. The neighbors, the superintendent, the colony health official, the doctor, the patrol, the officer who’d discharged him: all of them and others slide out of Leson as manikins or manifestations of his grief. Their sloughed-off skins, like deflated balloons, drift lazily in the flood of jellied stuff pouring out of Leson and joining the boy’s effluence. This sludge is violet, yellow, blue, red, and all the shades in-between, all colors at once, distributed across a spectrum or in an indefinable single band, depending on the angle from which one views it. This sludge is thick enough that the unfastener stands up in it, but magnetized, in motion, drawn onwards by the passage. The run-off makes its way across the colony, carrying the furnishings of Leson’s unit and all the other things it picks up on its way.

As Leson empties and joins the boy in their combined current, but before he is finally spent, turned inside-out by the force of his expectoration — before, that is, what was once Leson floats on top of the last dregs of all he’d taken in, trickling along behind the rest on its way to the passage — perhaps Leson wonders if he has indeed been freed, or if his container has merely changed its shape to match his own. But then it is over and Leson’s skin gets hung up on the terrarium’s low fence and flaps under the last of the torrent, as though waving goodbye to it or else dismissing it.

The passage-worm, dragging itself just a bit too close to the former enclosure, accidentally impales this Lesonskin on its anterior ganglion. Without intending to, without even noticing, the worm rolls into the current and hoists aloft the last of Leson like a flag above its exostructure. Leson, what is left of him, flies for a moment before disintegrating simultaneously at every point touching the ganglion. One imagines this scene as a scene of triumph. Leson isn’t left to do so. Somewhere, though, something has finally moved. What is owed Leson?

About Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of the short story collection Babel, available now from Splice. His other books include Madeleine E. (Outpost19, 2016), The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H. P. Lovecraft (CCM, 2013), Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi, 2013), and Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM, 2012).