Original Fiction: Neither Fruit nor Flesh by RJ Barker
It was a freak accident and everyone said so: the doctors who treated her, friends, even her family. Everyone. It was an ironic twist of fate, a fluke occurrence in the life of a girl who loved to be in control. Every calorie and morsel of nutrition in her diet was noted, every item of clothing always clean and pressed. A girl who had a strict regime of exercise to adhere to, to the exception of all else. Keep control; keep herself together. If you’re together then everything else will be together and your life will be stress-free and happy.
Out jogging, she glanced away at the wrong moment, swinging her head around to see what that car horn was for. Or did she hear someone scream? Or was that birdsong? Or was it a wolf whistle echoing through the dappled, humid wood?
No. It was darkness, and it was pain.
She remembers it vaguely now, remembers golden hair swinging in front of her face as she turned her head. Remembers concentrating on the path. Remembers, so well, how those well-conditioned locks that she was so proud of blurred her vision for not even one second. But for long enough; long enough for her to have gathered enough forward momentum.
Her eye, registering the blur in front of her. Something large?
Something small, small and sharp and very close.
The thorn entered the patient’s eye socket at the top of the node between the nasofrontal vein and the dorsal nasal artery and vein, where the lacrimal bone meets the frontal bone. It then travelled around the orbit of the eye towards the back of her head and along the sheath of the optic nerve to penetrate the brain’s covering and pierce the frontal lobe. Remarkably, she seems to have escaped without any major neural damage. She has headaches, of course, but this is to be expected.
The thing that really bothered her was that the thorn may have been dirty. Yes, the eyepatch was annoying at first, but that was just temporary. Her sight would be fine and the eyepatch was just a precaution; the doctors kept telling her so, and they knew about such things. But dirt? She knew about dirt. Dirt was everywhere, and you had to clean. You had to eat the right things, get the right exercise and keep things clean if you wanted a good life – if you wanted people to like you. It must have been dirty, being outside. It couldn’t have been sterile. That didn’t seem to bother any of the doctors, but she knew it must have consequences.
Insects had probably crawled across it, insects whose feet had crawled over a thousand other unmentionable things. They had probably inched down the thorn to catch others of their kind, biting and chewing and injecting venom and spreading awful guts all over the small, innocuous piece of wood that had pierced her brain and reached into her mind. People had probably brushed past it; dirty, unwashed people. Sweaty joggers and children with sticky, investigative hands.
But all the doctors would do was tell her that headaches were inevitable and not to worry. So she tried not to, tried to wait until the eyepatch came off and to ignore the headaches.
But it must have been dirty. It must have. Dirt in her brain. A dirty mind. She laughed to herself. There was little humour in it.
The brain is never expected to come into contact with the outside world. It is safe, shielded behind the plated armour of the skull and the tissues that act as guardians for one of nature’s most impressive feats. Because of this, the brain has no immune system and no nerves with which to feel pain.
After they removed the patch, she did all their silly tests. She read the letters and followed the finger with both eyes, looked at the coloured dots and even found Wally in a picture book.
‘Headaches?’ repeated the doctor, rubbing the gleaming end of his stethoscope with a sterile cloth. ‘Well, of course you’ll have headaches. That’s to be expected, isn’t it? I mean, with an injury like yours. Now the eyepatch is off, I’m afraid they will continue until you are used to binocular vision again.’ The doctor looked at her as she sat, head down, hair hanging around her face (her roots needed doing). He took her posture to be that of someone who didn’t understand. ‘Binocular means seeing with two eyes, Miss,’ he said as she thanked him and got up to leave. ‘Take plenty of painkillers,’ he added as she shut the door behind her.
There were no lights on in her flat. There rarely were. Their piercing brightness sharpened the pain in her head into shimmering lances. She poured bottled water into a glass, not tap water. With the headaches had come a strange aversion to tap water. The chlorine made her eyes sting.
Into the water she dropped two painkillers and swirled them round. She watched, mesmerized as they dissolved in the bottom of the glass, frothing like yeast in warm water.
Her room was a mixture of muted whites and browns. She had chosen those colours because it was simpler than choosing a whole colour scheme and it showed dirt better for her endless cleaning rituals. Now she found the colours soft and comforting, womb-like. She drank the liquid in two large gulps then shivered at the cold as it passed through her gullet.
Got to turn the heating up. Cold. Since the accident she had found it harder and harder to get warm enough. Maybe she needed to lie down.
She awoke with a start, curled up in her favourite chair by the fire. Absently, she wiped droplets of sweat from her top lip and went to refill the pans that were boiling merrily on the gas, adding more humidity to the twilit room. She realized she was floating. Not actually floating – her feet were still firmly in touch with the carpet – but mentally, she was in a fugue state. This couldn’t be right. She glanced around. The room was full of dirty plates. How long had it been? All this dirt, all this mess, clothes everywhere. She looked down at herself – clothes everywhere but on her. This wasn’t normal, not normal at all. No one would like her if she lived like this. A naked slattern surrounded by filth. God, her mother would have been so angry.
She gathered up dirty plates. Her doctors must be wrong. A specialist, that was what she needed, and with her inheritance she could afford it. She would see the best.
How do you react to this? she wondered. Silly, really. Surely she should be worried about herself, but instead she found herself worried that she would embarrass someone; the doctor, or the middle-aged nurse who was hovering over her, features rumpled with concern.
She must be in shock, she thought.
It wasn’t fair! To go from headaches to terminal illness in just ten days of tests. Then she tried to push feelings about herself away. Took a cup of tea from the nurse and sipped it, scalding her lips and barely noticing as she listened to the doctor talk.
‘The thorn had some fungal spore on it. When it pierced your eye and your brain, some of the spores were left in your brain. I am afraid it is growing. There’s nothing we can do. Your brain has no mechanism with which to fight this. Rest assured, though – we’ll make sure you are comfortable and given the best care possible. We will do everything we can.’
She nodded without thinking and repeated his last words ‘Everything you can…’ She nodded again.
The biological definition of Fungus is that:
They are eukaryotic (an organism that has DNA contained in a nucleus);
Grow as Hyphae;
Have rigid cell walls containing chitin (a strong material made of nitrogenous polysaccharides);
Obtain nutrients by secreting enzymes and absorbing digestion products from the substrate;
Produce spores for reproduction and dispersal.
She shut the book with a shudder. Were they in her head now? A web of chitinous fibres? A deadly snare that was slowly liquefying her brain and absorbing the nutrients, making her toned body into little more than fertiliser? Were her headaches the slow start of her slide into infancy as her faculties deserted her? How would it happen? Would she continue as she had been doing, her behaviour becoming odder until eventually they found a starved, half-rotted body stinking up her hot little flat? Or would she gradually be reduced to a drooling babe kept alive by machines and drips? She’d hate that. She would have to write something down and give it to the solicitor.
The doctor turned down the light at her request. Thankfully, now winter was here she could make appointments late in the day and stay out of the sunlight. The doctor put one of the slides he carried into a machine and the far wall lit up with the picture. Her head; it was the inside of her head. She should get used to this. Should be used to it. It always seemed strange, though, to be looking inside herself. She’d always thought that was meant to be therapeutic. She laughed. Meditation by imminent death. Seeing the ‘inner you’.
‘As you can see, the damage isn’t as extensive as we feared. Neither is the fungus as invasive as we believed,’ the doctor paused, ‘or as aggressive.’ He studied the picture. ‘I think we can safely say that the fungus causes the aversion to sunlight and the headaches. It seems to be attacking your brain, as we suspected, but very slowly. You may have five or six years of normal life left to you rather than six months.’ He smiled. He was young and obviously thought he was giving her good news. His breath smelt of stale Indian food, but it wasn’t as unpleasant as she would have found it four months ago. Terminal illness had given her a new perspective on the little things in life. She thanked the doctor, collected her bag, and left.
It was always dark. Somewhere in her brain, she knew she was meant to do things – had been meant to do things – but time had changed for her. An hour seemed a much shorter amount of time now. Sometimes days would go by and she would have no memory of moving. Was this part of it, too? The loss of her sense of time hadn’t hurt her in any way (she didn’t need to work), but sometimes it could be unsettling. She had bought plants and surrounded herself with greenery, given herself something to focus on and look after. One day she had sat down and when she got back up they were all dead. All gone brown, cracked and flaking away under her touch.
She glanced around and her eye caught something unusual. Something new, glimpsed between the bare stems of the plants in front of the window. What was on the curtains? Something black and sticky. She walked barefoot across the carpet, her skirt swishing gently against her legs. With a slight ‘tsk’ of irritation she unzipped the skirt and let it fall to the floor. Her hand reached out for the curtain. The brown material felt a little clammy and gave slightly under her hand, as if made of foam. She inspected the black smears on the curtain. The sweet scent of it tantalised her and made her itch for something that she wasn’t quite sure about.
No, but nearly. It was something approaching the gnaw hunger could create in your stomach. When had she eaten last?
She touched it, smeared the slimy black substance over her finger and brought it to her nose and breathed deeply. So sweet, and with the consistency of treacle. She brought it to her lips; just one taste. Should she taste it? It could be anything. But the smell! That sweet smell, so sweet it seemed to be clinging onto her flesh and wreathing her head in pungent narcotic clouds.
Almost of its own accord, her tongue emerged from her mouth and licked the black, sweet-smelling substance off her finger.
Like the best dark chocolate. Warmed through by the heat of her finger, it covered the inside of her mouth in velvet. She closed her eyes and would have gasped if that hadn’t meant opening her mouth and letting some of that glorious taste escape.
She saw the cat out of the corner of her eye.
Or what had been a cat.
It had been ginger, rangy – probably a street cat, as there didn’t seem to be a collar on it. This was before its accident. Before something had hit it and ripped open its flesh and scattered its guts all over the road. Someone had moved the cat to the side of the road; they must have, or it would have been completely flattened. She knew all this in a flash as soon as she saw it. Its flesh was a black, gelid mass, punctuated with shattered bones. The cat was slowly melting into a dark stain on the carpet. The dead animal had the same consistency as the substance on the curtains.
She threw up.
Her body didn’t reject what she had tasted; she had to stick her fingers down her throat to get rid of it. She drank water and then ate mints, which made her throw up again. How had it got there? Something so disgusting in her nice clean flat. Who would do something like that? Get a dead animal and put it in her flat. Why hadn’t she smelt it? Why hadn’t she noticed before?
Gingerly, she peered around the side of the couch. The cat wasn’t a recent addition. She caught herself breathing deeply, taking the scent of the rotting animal right down into her lungs. Disgust warred inside her with the sweet smell that lit up her senses. She stood and left the room, confusion marring her otherwise perfect face.
As she passed the mirror, she noticed her hair. What once had been golden and curling was now white and straight. She should have been shocked. But something settled over her, an acceptance of what was happening that she would never have believed was within her before the accident.
These are just symptoms of what is wrong with you. Get over it. At least you’re not dead. They said you should be dead by now.
And she went to bed. Went calmly to bed, leaving the cat and the thought of her ghost-white hair in the living room as if they had never been.
She awoke to the clean, fresh scent of a herbal pillow. Her thoughts were calm as she drifted up from the languorous depths of sleep. She turned her head slightly to burrow her face into the soft pillow.
Not a pillow. The cat.
During the night she had brought it through and laid her head upon it. As she stared at the cat, she noticed the individual fibres of her hair slowly withdrawing from the animal’s flesh.
Somewhere, in the quiet of her mind, she screamed. She screamed loudly, falling onto the floor and slamming her palms against her face until she bled and retreated into a merciful state of unconsciousness. But in the flat she only sat impassively and watched as her hair pulled itself free of the dead animal to dangle limply on the bed. Then she lay back down to sleep.
Four dogs, two cats, a pigeon, and something she wasn’t sure about had come to the flat. She’d spent a busy day arranging the bones into whole animals as best she could. Should bury them, really. Poor things. Not her fault they died. Should bury them. Hungry. When was the last time she’d been out?
The pans were full and boiling merrily, the central heating turned up to full, turning the whole flat into a steam bath. She’d never felt so warm, so comfortable, so fulfilled.
‘Do you come here often? That’s not a line; I come here a lot, and I’ve not seen you before.’
She moved slightly on the bed as last night’s memories played through her mind. Her hand brushed her naked body. So full!
‘Well, that’s pretty forthright of you! I guess I really want to come home with you, too. Now? Okay, I’ll get my coat.’
She snuggled deeper into his warmth. So long since she’s shared her bed.
‘Jesus Christ! It’s hot in here. And that smell! What the…’
She was comfortable atop him with her hair joining her physically to his flesh. Blood had soaked through the pillow and into the once-white bed sheets. Congealed blood, black around the hole made in his head by the tire iron.
So warm. So full.
No one visited her anymore. They always used to visit. She had always wanted to be liked, and be like them. But she had failed.
Maybe they should be like her? Her life was better, easier, more carefree. She could help them, she was sure. She could bring peace to them.
‘Look, mummy! That lady’s got no clothes on!’
She’d managed to climb nearly halfway up the fountain in the mall without being seen. After the first shout, the crowd started to gather. Some were whooping her on, others were calling the police. Some were shouting for help. She ignored it all and climbed on until she reached the top. She needed to be high up.
At the top of the ornamental fountain she balanced herself under the main air conditioning vent, arms outstretched. Sunlight streamed down onto her and she basked, all pain gone from her now. The sun no longer hurt; instead, it brought a feeling of renewal, of promise. Looking down, she saw the crowd had become a throng, baying and shouting, jeering and endlessly moving as people jostled for a better view – a view of her.
The split started just below her neck, then became two lines that ran quickly down the centre of each of her breasts, bisecting her nipples and coming together again just above her naval. Out of the split and into the air poured millions upon millions of tiny, white feathered spores of life.
And, as one, the crowd took a deep, shocked, breath.