It took only three days to find him, this time. Turned out he was very close, just across the road from her house and up in the air, painting a white wall blue. When she saw him, her heart did all the things a heart must do: it swelled, it leapt, it skipped a beat. She crossed without looking left or right and stopped directly under the ladder – because, of course, it had already happened to them both. The terrible luck.
She gripped a rung and looked up between his legs. A drop of paint spun from his roller to land on her cheek. She didn’t flinch. From this angle, his throat and chin seemed not quite human, the soft underjaw of a frog or fish. She shook the ladder lightly, made him look.
for we are two stars falling in the night sky
It wasn’t that he was her type, particularly. No one was, until all at once they were. Rough or smooth, hard or soft, dark or light – what did it matter? Certainly, he was the loveliest man in the world (again and again and always). Such thighs, such knees and wrists, and that taut crescent of belly visible beneath his paint-flecked T-shirt. Whatever type he was, it was the one; the only one for her was here, was him.
She said hello.
The man came down the ladder in a clatter of boots and knuckles. “Alright, love?”
“I’m crazy about you,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about you for days.” When she touched his face, he flinched.
“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry about this.”
They kissed: a sweet preliminary, not deep. This was the best part, the last pure moment. For these few lush beats, the fever stilled.
His skin against her palm was cool, like something vital had already left.
before thy beauty kingdoms tremble
Three days earlier, she’d woken up sick. Ah, crap, she’d thought, not now. But it was undeniable. She could feel the condition rising to the surface, scuttling up the nerve fibres, claw over claw. It announced itself in all the usual ways: the night before, she’d been restless, weepy; in the morning came the ache in her womb and the tenderness in her breasts. Acutely sharp senses bullied her out of bed, eyes watering in the sun’s flare, pillow rough against her cheek. Her body felt icy – T-shirt soaked with sweat – but her face was fever-hot. She could smell the grass outside, and the neighbour’s coffee.
Oh, and the sounds. Someone was playing music in the flat upstairs – a love song, of course. Oh, baby. And there she was, tearing up like a moron.
When she called in sick, her boss at the PR company was sympathetic. She was a model employee – unruffled, dependable – despite these bouts of illness that struck once or twice a year. “My girl, you need to start looking after yourself,” he told her. ‘We’re none of us as young as we were.”
The symptoms advanced predictably. Her head grew light and her heart weighty, waterlogged, but it also seemed too strong, straining to leap from her chest. Nausea as rich compounds sluiced through her bloodstream. Grimly, she noted she was low on supplies. Vitamins. Paracetamol. Condoms.
God. The first spasm hit while she was waiting in line at the chemist. A wrench in the groin, fuck. The man in front half turned and gave her a look of quickened but impersonal interest, some pheromonal tendril tickling his back brain. She managed to return a cool glance.
She felt malnourished, missing an essential mineral. The smell of the sweets at the till filled her mouth with saliva, but the thought of eating was sickening. Her reflection in a mirrored pillar was a vision of hunger. Lips full and parted, mouth a ripe fruit split to show its seeds.
There was an ad for blood-pressure meds on the wall, a middle-aged couple in each other’s arms; she had to look away. And Christ, the music. It was everywhere, piped through the walls. Songs of yearning. Songs of losing and finding. She tried not to listen, but the lyrics kept tripping her up: blunt lurches of the heart.
This part might go on for a week – two weeks, if she was unlucky. She went to bed early each night, but slept no more than a couple of hours. She cried in the dark. Solid food was repulsive, but she drank lots of water and took her vitamins. It was important to conserve energy, but also stupid to delay. Best to go all out from the start. By day ten, she’d be ravening. Weeping in public at the first dumb chorus.
Her heart maintained a consistent eighty-five beats per minute. She counted.
She hadn’t bothered with doctors for years, but there’d been a time, in the beginning, when she’d tried to get help. Age twenty-one, she’d waited on a hard bench at the women’s health clinic, hands clasped in her lap, between a pregnant lady and a teenager wanting the pill.
What was strange was that her right thumb could feel her left, but not vice versa – the left was rubbery, like something from a joke shop. She stroked it lightly. She was remembering holding hands with her first boyfriend, in high school. They’d kissed, and he’d touched her breasts, and she hadn’t been in love. Perhaps they’d gone further, or it was unclear how far they’d gone. She couldn’t quite recall.
A nurse was calling her name.
The doctor, an overworked gynaecologist, seemed somewhat out of her depth. “So, these episodes, these … encounters. They appear to cause you distress?”
“Look, not all the time. Like now, I’m totally fine. Super calm. Not feeling much of anything.”
“I see. Perhaps you’re a bit depressed?”
“Or something else is bothering you.”
“Well.” She held out her left thumb. “I am literally not feeling, here. It’s been sort of numb for a few weeks now. Since the last time.”
The doctor took her hand. “Can you feel this?”
There was pressure, but it was distant, as if through a glove. “Mm.”
She closed her eyes while the doctor squeezed other bits and pieces: arms, toes, shoulders. Funny, she couldn’t think of his face, that first boyfriend. What she recalled was the sweetness and simplicity of their exchange. Pleasure for pleasure, touch for touch. Was this how it was for other people, all the time?
The doctor was saying something, but her voice was far away.
“I said, are you still with us? You were drifting off there.” The doctor was writing a worried note. “I’m sending you to a specialist.”
She came away with a handful of pamphlets: guidance for healthy eating, for handling stress, for safer sex.
my sweet lover comes to me on the perfumed wind
The search. The key was to survey large numbers of men. It meant a lot of walking around: days and nights pounding the pavement, eyes peeled. She used to go out to the clubs, but with age and experience she’d bothered less with setting. It could happen anywhere, she knew now, any time. Some enchanted evening, sure, but also at eight o’clock in the morning in the parking lot behind Liquor City. You had to be prepared.
She carried condoms. They were mostly a gesture – things didn’t work that way and often, in the moment, she forgot – but she did fear pregnancy. Despite everything, she hadn’t missed a period yet; perhaps she never would. What space for a child in this body, after all?
Fortunately, the condition increased stamina, drove her to keep scanning, face after face, body after body. So many variations on the basic phrasing: eyes and mouths, strides and postures. Could you be? Could you be loved? All could, potentially. Surely almost all had been desired, if only once in their lives. But not by her, not today. She was looking for the man she’d been dreaming of, weeping for; his face had not yet been revealed, but soon, soon she would see him in full.
She went home, threw up bile, drank a bottle of wine with some painkillers, checked herself in the bathroom mirror. She looked fantastic: flush cheeked, black eyed. A woman in the throes.
The specialist was young and eager, keen to take her blood. He had an image already pulled up on his computer when she walked through the door. “Bingo,” he said, swivelling the screen for her to see. The scene was pretty. A scattering of pale-gold globules, like drops of oil, drifting through a school of rosy doughnuts.
“The yellowish structures, in between the corpuscles? Those are your bad guys, right there.”
“Wait. This is blood? These things are in my blood?”
He explained: in the dormant phase of the disease, a small concentration of the organism remained, slopping in the bilges of the body. But in a flare-up, it would rouse, multiply, invade – blood, lymph, saliva, mucus membranes, sexual fluids. This triggered the production of neurotransmitters, the ones involved in arousal and attachment. “Oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, the usual culprits. Basically, you’re primed. As you’ve noted, this results in certain, uh, behavioural changes in the host.”
The gracious hostess, she thought. He told her the name: a word she didn’t know; Latin, maybe. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s pretty rare. And people with the diagnosis – well, they generally prefer to keep it quiet.”
An ancient parasite. Squeamishness was crawling up her back. Those golden grains clustering, latching on like ticks. Prickles of revulsion and fascination ran through her body, toes to scalp, from her belly to the tip of every nerve. “So, I can take something for it, then. To get rid of it.”
“Ah, oh,” the doctor said. “No.”
“I’m afraid not. It’s a virus.”
She stared at him. There was an odd itchiness around her heart, unscratchably deep. A tickle at her wrists. Minute creatures ferreting in her veins.
“You’re telling me there’s no treatment? At all?”
“Well. Our priority is obviously containment. Preventing transmission. During the active phase, some people find tranquillisers helpful? One of my patients – hah! – checks in to a secure clinic for the duration.” He seemed nervous, as if she might jump on him without warning. “Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about the cumulative damage.”
“You mean the numbness.”
“Also flattened affect. Emotional muting. You may have noticed.”
It was true. Beyond the visceral shudder, there was no real fear. Stick her with a pin, she wouldn’t flinch, or be much surprised, either.
Things could be worse, the doctor told her. There were more destructive strains of the disease. Some unfortunates were in the florid state almost constantly; their stressed and hypersensitised bodies tended to burn out young. “But mental attitude is so important,” he concluded. “This is a manageable condition. The vast majority of my patients go on to lead long and rewarding lives.”
On his monitor, the animalcules continued on their way, sculling through calm plasma seas.
his terrible arrows pierce me
and sickness seizes my heart
Now that she knew what it was, things started to make sense. She understood her history with the condition. Its genesis.
It had come to find her at nineteen: an undergrad, sweaty after a campus hockey match. There was this man, a grey-haired guy in a cardigan, like someone’s granddad, who’d been watching from the sidelines the whole way through the game. As she bent to drink from the tap by the change rooms, he came striding down the field, closing the distance too rapidly, before she could react. He was a big man, with a broad face that might have been kindly if not so rigid and flushed with need. He gripped her shoulders and stared into her eyes, as if about to give her some difficult message, full of wonderment and urgency. She didn’t pull away. Something was waking, deep in her body. Curiosity: cellular, naive. A stranger at the gates.
She’d never kissed anyone old. His teeth felt brittle against her tongue. Her mouth tingled with pinpricks of recognition, of atavistic warning. She let him take her hand, let him lead her away.
“Sorry for that,” he said, when they were done.
She got shakily out of his car, still holding her hockey stick. “No, no, it’s alright,” she said, and laughed. “It’s quite alright.”
And what was that, what fucked-up shit was THAT, she was thinking, as she walked away. Nothing – it was nothing, don’t think about it. She was laughing again; she couldn’t stop. It was exhilarating, as if she’d lain down in the path of an avalanche and stood up again, unscathed. (But no, that’s not how it goes; you lie down for an avalanche and then you die, you’re already dead …) When she got home, she fell across her mattress in her hockey kit and slept for fourteen hours.
And afterwards, so sick. In bed for weeks, uncomprehending. First cut is the deepest, like they say. It took her a long time to work out what to do, what she needed. A few false turns before she got it right.
“Every time,” she said, “I lose a little more.”
This was doctor number three, some years later. He was an elderly man with an impassive manner. He listened to her speak. He did not interject. She touched her ribs on the left side. “It’s this bit now.”
It wasn’t that sensation disappeared altogether. It returned in force when she was sick, of course and then retreated, as if each attack blew a few more fuses. The numb patches were cloud shadows on her skin, slipping from hands to lips to thighs. “But that’s not what upsets me. It’s this.” She moved her hand to her chest, over her heart. Cheesy, but that did seem to be where the absence was located. “I don’t feel … it’s like I don’t have the capacity …”
“Loss,” he said. “Progressive loss. Of joy, of pain. Farewell to desire. This is what we can expect.”
She let the hand fall.
He watched her for a moment. “Some people find it helpful to expose themselves to stimuli,” he said, not unkindly. “Visual materials.”
“You mean porn?” She laughed. Embarrassment was one of the first emotions to go, necessarily. “Doesn’t do much for me, these days.”
“Then something else. To stir the heart. Music?”
Before this all began, she’d liked music well enough. Had gone out dancing, like any young person. She shook her head. Music was the worst.
“Then poetry.” He took a small green book from a shelf. It was cloth-bound and battered, like something from a junk-shop bargain bin. She took it gingerly. Erotic Verse from the Ancient World. In general, she preferred not to read about other people’s loves.
“Take it,” said the doctor. “I myself have found some comfort in its pages.”
It sat on her desk for a week, like homework. She was reluctant to touch it. But eventually she braced herself and opened the table of contents. Greeks in love, Sumerians in love, Abyssinians, Mughals, Mayans. She turned the pages.
for love is pomegranate wine
is cool antimony
oh, my bridegroom I tremble before thee
in the bedchamber I would caress thee
my lion, my bridegroom
on this dark earth the fairest thing
She pushed the book away. All those old poets, lovestruck, lovesick; sick to death, every last one of them. It made her angry.
Still, she kept Erotic Verse for a while. She found herself opening it, every now and then: quick peeks, just long enough to catch a phrase, a couplet; sweet and sore. Long after she’d had to return the book to the doctor, lines repeated on her, like heartburn. Especially when something was brewing. When the illness was almost upon her again.
The condition grants some mercies, some powers. Dilated pupils, flushed cheeks, taut breasts: they never could say no, the men. She grasped the front of his T-shirt and pulled him away from the ladder, into the carport, down onto the concrete floor. She got his work pants around his knees, high on the scents of his armpits and groin, his turpentine hands. Loving it, loving it all, his hardening cock, his navel, the stray dark hairs on his shoulders and the freckles on his thighs; the fissures under his nails the funnels of his ears the cave of his mouth, the crevices the follicles the pores the points of entry. Her love grown sharp, needling under the skin. She straddled him, pushed him down when he tried to turn.
one thousand kisses give me
“What?” he gasped, pulling away for a moment. “What did you say?”
She pressed her mouth to his, tongued him wider and would not let him pull away. He was inside her now, but by this point that was not the point, was beside the point, the point had shifted, had forced itself up from her groin and into her chest and her throat, insisting, needing to be delivered by the mouth. She worked her tongue deep, making sure that every glowing syllable was stowed.
ten thousand kisses more
A million barbed seeds, a river of them, coursing through her body into his, binding them lips to lips and loins to loins, lacerating, tearing at membranes strained and inflamed, dragging her insides out – and just as the pain became too much to bear, a bone-twanging jerk in her pelvis as something convulsed, ripped free and coughed up out of her and oh
and oh it shakes my heart
it shakes the heart in my bosom
She pulled away with a gasp, and watched him shudder and groan and swallow it down. A moment’s stillness and then his shoulders stiffened and his neck jerked back; his skull whacked the concrete and his eyes rolled up.
She eased herself off him, panting. Too dizzy to stand. Her skull was a blown eggshell; her torso the chrysalis of something violently hatched and flown.
hence my tears fall like rain
hence my sorrows are abundant
The man lay quiet, drained, filled. Gently, she pushed his slack jaw closed. He was okay-looking. Full lips, deep black hair. A stocky, strong body. A cold sore on the corner of his mouth, skin scarred with old acne. As always, she wished briefly that things had gone a little slower. That there’d been time to lie beside him, to learn his real face, perhaps to speak, even. To do these tender things.
But that was silly. Already, her body was reconfiguring. Muscles relaxing, skin cooling. Objects losing their haloes. She picked the fleck of paint from her cheek and spat out the sour taste in her mouth.
His eyes flickered open. “Wait,” he said. “Wait, what?”
“Sorry,” she said. Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d been shouting. Maybe she had.
She could see he was starting to hear the music already, some knowing, tender tune starting up in his head. “What?” he repeated, fearful.
She should say more. Wish him luck, maybe, offer some tips. But her throat was sore and she was extremely tired. And oh, just look at the state of her, on her knees on the ground. As she got to her feet, he reached out to trail his fingers down her ankle, but she stepped away smartly. Pulled her skirt straight. Slight revulsion.
On the way home she stopped at a fast-food joint and ordered a toasted cheese sandwich. Hunger, thirst: those mild and undisturbing appetites. She set her tray down at a table near the back. There was a young couple sitting in the booth opposite, leaning into each other, shoulders and thighs touching casually as they ate. It was a peaceful time, these few hours afterwards. Her heart felt small and buoyant, its light beat barely perceptible. She examined her pale hands. Blood ebbing, pulling back from her extremities. She wondered how much further there was to go, how much still to lose.
Poor guy. It was all just beginning, for him. Tomorrow he’d wake up feeling so shit. Dread, fever, yearning. The palpitations, the bubbles of adrenalin, the painful arousal. Or whatever stuff went on with men – who really knew? It was good that he’d seemed sturdy. She always felt bad about the frail ones.
Most times, the specialist had told her, the disease was unidirectional. But in rare recorded cases, a sufferer could feed the virus back to its prior host, then receive it again, in a toxic feedback loop. Two people might stay together like that for years, ecstatically reinfecting one another in complex cycles of dormancy and flare-up, until the strain became too great. At the time, she’d felt wistful on hearing this. Her disease was the ordinary, lonely kind, passing itself ever forward, never repaid.
She bit into the sandwich. It was bland and filling. Already, spots of numbness were settling on her tongue, her little toes, the tip of her nose.
The lovers were whispering to each other. She could hear nothing, not even her own jaws chewing. No sound without, no sound within. But she supposed there must be music playing, in a place like this. There usually was.
Henrietta Rose-Innes is the author of NINEVEH, published by Aardvark Bureau, November 2016, RRP £8.99
Photograph by Alexander Frolov / Alamy