Christopher Brownsword is the author of two novels Blind-Worm Cycle (Oneiros Books 2013) and The Scorched Highway (Oneiros Books 2013) as well as a collection of poetry Icarus was Right! (Shearsman Books 2010).
On my second day in Prague I made the acquaintance of a guy about my own age and of indeterminate origin named Vlady. I met him in the park across from the train station among the Ukrainian and Slovakian prostitutes, and the young drug pedlars, of which he was one, in New York Yankees baseball caps, tracksuit tops, designer jeans and trainers, and fake gold chains. (The layout of the park, its trees and flowers, at what angle the sky passed between them, left no impression on me; since departing Romania, my life had narrowed to a constricted essence.) Vlady agreed to hook me up with a few morphine sulphate tablets. An upshot of fever, my old spinal injury had become aggravated, causing me a shit-load of pain. ‘Any more you need,’ Vlady told me, when he came back with the goods, ‘I get you.’ His tongue punched through a carious grin like a prolapsed womb.
A few hours earlier I’d sat on the edge of my bed in the youth hostel trying to compose myself. The pain in my spine was so acute that I was unable to stand without spasms wrenching me onto the bed again. Tears of frustration burst from my eyes…I thought I might choke on them. I cursed myself out of despair, knowing I had little choice but to return my body to the tundra, that vast region of emptiness without attributes to judge in which direction I was bound or whether I was even mobile at all, and to remain there alone in fixity as I’d done for the past four or five years…without desire…my organism prolonged…in a state of limbo. In this state of limbo, this tundra, time was violently stripped-down. The disintegration of tissues was daily expedited by aggregate but observable only periodically via a kind of algorithm, so that for weeks it was possible to convince yourself you looked okay, then to confront the full horror of a month’s sickening dissolution all at once.
With bitterness and self-reproach I recalled the elation I’d felt on leaving England, the sense that a new phase in my life was imminent; as with certain types of insects, I’d tried to convince myself at the apex of my fever in Sighisoara and once more during my first night in Targu Mures, I was undergoing the brutal eclipse into metamorphosis…tear off my skin…begin again…with new nerves! Yet now, as reality crushed my delusions, I saw only loss and defeat rising to devour me, like a caterpillar that spins a cocoon around itself with intimations of becoming a butterfly, but to emerge as a moth!
Crawl back into my shell! Crawl back to larva!
Larva, I believe, is the Latin term for ghost. That’s all it was permitted me to exist as: a ghost…one whose mouth is able to bear the shape of a scream but who lacks the vocal chords to sound it.
It was Vlady who first approached me that afternoon in the park, the stench of burnt chrysalises all over my skin…brutal eclipse into metamorphosis…defeat rising to devour me! He claimed to recognise me from prison; had he specified the name of this prison or said where it was located, it might have provided a more clear indication of where he himself was from, though given the transient fate of many inhabitants of Eastern Europe, uprooted by ethnic clashes and economic hardships, there was no reason to assume Vlady’s sentence had been carried out in the same country as he was born. According to Vlady, we’d done time together in adjacent cells. I assured him of his error. ‘This is my first time in Eastern Europe,’ I said. ‘It’s no mistake,’ Vlady insisted; ‘I never forget a face. It’s a talent I have. Maybe you want to cancel the past. I understand this, of course. But don’t pretend with me that you’re English. Many English I’ve known, and none of them are talking like you!
Let’s forget about this for the moment,’ he went on. ‘It’s not important whether you want to feign your innocence or guilt in front of me…all men are equal in the eyes of the law…equally guilty…a criminal…he is just someone who cannot afford a team of lawyers to legitimise his crime…you know this the same as me. I’ve done you good favour…the medicine…as you call it…but I need medicine, too…a big risk I’ve taken, you understand, and I do it only because we’re comrades of jail-house…so perhaps buy me a beer?’
Closed in by municipal buildings advancing the urban panorama with geometric precision, and feeling congenial towards him since he’d sold me what I required (and by proxy of this become the arbiter between my suffering and relief), I consented to Vlady’s request; although I failed to see how our transaction qualified as him doing me a ‘favour.’ Nonetheless, this wasn’t the place to argue semantics with one of the dealers; besides, I reasoned, I could always excuse myself to use the toilet in the bar, and then slip away unseen. As we left the park I considered whether Vlady truly believed we’d done time together, or if he knew this to be a lie and was disseminating the myth of our mutual incarceration and shared penal misery so as to disarm me into becoming subordinate to him. Alternatively, he might have represented a guard or warden to me; his overall manner was cordial, but it was the cordiality of someone whose polite request could be enforced with a truncheon or a gun.
Four men stand accused of the same crime. The judge turns to the first man. ‘How do you plead?’ ‘Not guilty.’ ‘Not guilty, your honour,’ the judge corrects him. ‘Not guilty, your honour,’ the man apologises. The judge passes his verdict: ‘Death by hanging!’ Next the second man steps forward. ‘How do you plead?’ ‘Not guilty, your honour.’ ‘Not guilty, your honour,’ the judge mocks. ‘You plead guilty!’ ‘Sorry, your honour,’ the second man replies, trying to keep his hands from shaking, ‘but my plea remains ‘not guilty.” The judge passes his verdict: ‘Life imprisonment and a public flogging!’ The third man takes to the stand and immediately pleads guilty. ‘Good,’ the judge smiles: ‘Ten years with the possibility of parole.’ Finally the last man stands before the judge. ‘And how do you plead?’ The man remains silent for a moment then answers: ‘On my hands and knees.’ The judge lays down his hammer: ‘You’re free to go.’
Vlady led me to a quiet bar with a large TV in the corner screening a Czech soap opera; he ordered a beer…lemonade for me. As we sat down by the window I searched my pockets to make certain the drugs were still there, fearing Vlady would strive to reclaim them. He was drumming his fingers on the table and glancing impatiently up and down the bar as if constrained to follow a single directive; absorbed by compunction towards submitting to an operative command which, like the mute hunger of insects, sustained itself by precluding any mechanism that didn’t at once serve its immediate need.
Through the window I observed beggars arranged prostrate on their elbows and knees, heads bent, hands outstretched, contorted like scorpions kissing their own tails. I placed one of the tablets on my tongue and washed it down with a sip of lemonade. Shadow-like projections on a crest of azure! Time to leave! I stood up. ‘I’m going for a piss,’ I said.
‘Come now,’ Vlady grinned, draining his beer and belching into the glass to amplify the noise, then seizing my arm with a firm grip while I stood over him, ‘let’s get some pussy!’ Already I could feel the morphine take effect…vast region of emptiness! The contours of Vlady’s body expanded to the four cardinal points of the room…flesh reconstituted into an ice field upon which I stepped out and began walking…to remain there alone in fixity! His words composed themselves along the furthest limit of sight, no longer a sound as such, but rather a distant conflagration, an arc of the sun.
Mute hunger of insects!
Tourists massed the streets, watched over at all times by hustlers and thieves for the merest hint of inebriation or confusion. ‘You should have seen her snatch,’ I heard an American with a striation of veins standing out on his arms say to his buddies; ‘it was like a slumbering wolverine!’
Here and there Gypsies propositioned Vlady and I on the edge of a courtyard or at the mouth of an alley…fingers darting over us in search of money or whatever else could be pilfered, and then sold; I kept my hand in my pocket to protect the drugs, as much from the Gypsies as from Vlady. These women sleep, I told myself, therefore they dream…cathedral of black orchids…ancient cataclysms…what form do their dreams take, what daemon consoles them? Their propositions emerged from wounds of bracken and gorse. ‘Feel my tits,’ a young Gypsy with shoulder-length blonde hair said, lifting up her t-shirt, which had blood on it.
‘Your nipples are bleeding,’ I informed her.
‘You can lick them, if you like?’
‘I’ll be all right, thanks for the invitation, though.’
‘Go on,’ Vlady prompted, ‘she has nice tits.’
The Gypsy wet her thumb and wiped away the blood. ‘Today I pierce them,’ she said; ‘I use needle in boiling water…but ring does not fit. I need…what do you say? Yes, I need plaster. Anyway, now they are clean…good for you to touch…no blood! Tonight is very hot…makes me horny to fuck! I have firm tits…you put cock between them…come in my face…I swallow it, sure! Two at a time in the ass, if that pleases you!’
Even had the morphine not been in my system, shutting off my erogenous zones, I doubt whether I would’ve responded in any way to the Gypsy’s advances; but this is mere conjecture, I suppose. With the tablets, I had want only to check out of the hostel and find a small room in a cheap hotel where I could hole up for a few days…time…violently stripped-down…deserts…tundras…small rooms in unfamiliar towns! Without a word of explanation to Vlady I began at a fast pace along the street, positive he wouldn’t tail my lead.
‘Hey, what’s this?’ Vlady shouted…rapid footsteps behind me…gaining…I glanced back; the Gypsy was on his arm.
‘I’m done,’ I called over my shoulder without slackening my pace. ‘I bought you a drink. I’m tired…enjoy the rest of your night.’
A distance of twelve feet between us!
‘No…wait…’ Vlady cried. ‘Wait a minute…didn’t I track down your medicine? One more favour…a little money to fuck!’
Eight feet…seven…five…he stands next to me…tightens the noose!
Translating the currency, I estimated the Gypsy was asking for the equivalent of just two pounds and fifty pence in English sterling! I gave her the money on Vlady’s behalf. They vanished into an alley together. A moment later Vlady returned. ‘Keep lookout,’ he said. ‘I don’t want her friends smashing my head in with the lead pipe! Do this one thing for me. It can be something I am always grateful to you for, okay? Remember, I never forget a face!’
Since he made no attempt to conceal it, I picked up on the undercurrent of a threat in Vlady’s tone and considered walking away, but I felt certain I’d bump into the bastard again if I did so. Perhaps I derived a kind of voyeuristic thrill listening to them fuck, as if their exchange of money and fluids at the foot of the alley, in all its feral and depraved aspects, somehow made their bodies cohere with the world in such a manner that my own was incapable of while it commenced to rot under the banner of anaesthesia. Whatever, it wasn’t long before Vlady stepped out from the alley, zipping up his fly. ‘You should try her…she’s very good…very corrupt!’
First sign of hesitation or weakness and…
The Gypsy stood off to one side of me. Her skin didn’t seem to fit right…like a snake driven back into the outer layer it’s just shed. Flanking the periphery of my field of view, she had the unreality of a mirage, her flesh a tract of permafrost. Around us, the city yielded dimensions that previously were buried under a substrate of ruins. Folded into the interval between our bodies was a domain a thousand miles wide composed of treeless valleys and wolf skulls. ‘Listen, Vlady, I’ve told you two or three times already…I’m not interested in fucking her!’
…either one of them will tear you apart!
‘Have it the way you like.’ Vlady turned to the Gypsy, shoved her. ‘Didn’t you hear him, dumb slut? He doesn’t want you, so fuck off!’ Without a word of dissent or the slightest reprisal the Gypsy took leave…flesh a tract of permafrost…cathedral of black orchids…ancient cataclysms…treeless valleys and wolf skulls. Vlady put his hand down the front of his jeans, rubbed his cock, and then brought his fingers up to my nose. ‘Sniff this…very moist.’
(I was thinking of the Gypsy (a thought which occurred in a microsecond and which I now unravel in parenthesis)…men tell me they’ll do this for me…imagined her as a child…they’ll do that for me…abused by a parent or sibling…but they always break their promises…running away because the authorities wouldn’t believe her or they themselves would abuse her…they put things inside me that weren’t meant to be put inside…and then living on the streets because she has no one she can trust…and when they’ve had enough of me they pass me around among their friends…too young to get a job…they make me do things I don’t like just so they can laugh at me…scared of being picked up by the police and returned to her aggressors…you can’t evaluate a person by what they say…the night is terrifying…only by what they do…she smokes crack or shoots smack to get through the night, and to curb the memories of her abuse…one time something was put up me so deep that I started bleeding and the man shouted at me because I was getting blood on his sheets but he was the one who put the thing up me even though I told him I didn’t want it like that and he just laughed and kept putting it up me…at first she can support her habit through petty theft, but soon the habit is unsustainable and she uses the only commodity she’s got…I had to take myself to hospital…and the cycle goes on for years…the doctor said I could never have a baby…she works the streets to feed her habit, but at the same time she needs the drugs to block out the ignominy of what she does to get them…the Virgin Mary never had nothing put inside her…and then one day she dies…but God still let her have a baby…a client strangles her and leaves the corpse among rubble or cuts her up and throws her in a river or she’s found with a needle in her arm or her body blurs into contusions and nobody gives a shit…all the things they put inside me…there are always other women…and now a baby can’t grow…other bodies…I pray to God every day…other holes…He listens to all our prayers even those of a sinner ‘cos there’s a place in my soul the men can’t touch and it’s from this place that I speak to Him…always someone to replace her.)
I jerked my head back. ‘Didn’t you use a condom?’
‘Condom,’ Vlady laughed, ‘what for? If she gets pregnant, that’s her problem, not mine. Besides, some men like to fuck a pregnant slut…maybe I’ve done her a favour…open door for her into new market! I’ve seen one of them get fucked with the baseball bats…she is eight months pregnant…so what…there’s money in it!’
Once more I said I was tired and would be leaving now.
‘Of course…you must go…but first, let’s have something to eat.’
I took the change from my pocket and told Vlady it was all I had. He wrapped his hands around the peak of his sports cap and sighed impatiently. ‘Don’t you have money in hotel or bank card?’
‘No,’ I lied, ‘only this.’
Vlady shook his head, the false display of fellowship he’d thus far avowed no longer so carefully tended. ‘It’s not enough,’ he said.
Eyes contracted with remote stratagems, like a shark building a visual profile of its kill by first sensing its electric field before engaging with it, Vlady snatched the few coins from my hand and counted them. ‘Okay,’ he went on with a smile of deference, an impromptu rearrangement of tactics and methods, ‘we’re comrades…we know one another long ago…we know iron disciplines together…and since you’ve done favours for me already tonight, I want to do something in return…just for you…I’d do this for nobody else…your medicines…I’ll get you more…this isn’t enough, what you’ve given me…’ (I ignored the fact he’d taken it from me rather than my having given it to him) ‘…but I want to help you…I want to do this for you…stay here…I’ll be twenty minutes…I hope less.’
‘I’ll wait right here,’ I said. ‘Don’t be too long!’ I knew Vlady was hustling me, but I was delighted to be extricated from him without a confrontation ensuing, one that might attract the attention of the police and result in the morphine being seized. As soon as he was out of sight, I set off in the opposite direction. The most ineffective methods of detachment to apply when a leech fixes itself to you, I was once told, are to pull it free or burn it off; in the first instance, the leech often leaves behind its teeth, while in the second, it regurgitates the contents of its stomach into your skin. Easier, by deduction, to allow the leech to have its fill!
For X-amount of time I wandered the streets, unsure of my location or how to get back to the hostel. In my youth I’d been at my most content during such moments, locked into the process of blind evolutionary drift…without meaning or purpose…prone to random switches and mutations…GATC…continually assembled and destroyed and recombined in myriad forms!
Descending a flight of concrete steps into a cellar, I found myself in a strip bar. With the exception of two Spanish tourists, a man and a woman in their mid-twenties, I was the only patron. I removed my left-side trainer and produced a handful of bank notes I’d kept hidden from Vlady beneath the insole, then bought a glass of coke and sat down at the opposite side of the room to the Spaniards, not wishing for any further companionship that night. A stripper was enacting her routine on a small stage with a pole in the centre. Her body was a more reliable guide to this city than any Baedeker! Through the inviolable screen of narcotics, it seemed as if I were watching some hybrid species of mammal performing in a zoo. The Spaniards disappeared behind a torn velvet curtain next to the stage where the strippers could be hired for private shows and fist-fucks. I finished my coke, belched, then left.
For several minutes, the image of the stripper remained on the screen of my mind in a recurring motif of postures. Perhaps in different circumstances her flesh might have opened a door to barely recognised parts of my brain under whose obliterating gaze the entire world would became transformed and reconfigured, as if a shadow were being thrown back by a shift of light to reveal an alien terrain.
Before me, however, there was only the tundra…the glacial breeze…the familiar perspective across the traverse…the empty skylines and plains.
I gulped down another tablet before entering a seedy-looking joint across the street, forgetting all about my previous desire to return to the hostel. The bar was laid out across three subterranean levels, each comprising a small room with minimal lighting, bare stone walls, and a few tables and chairs. I seated myself at a table soaked with blood…a dislodged incisor tooth in the midst of it which at first I thought was mine! I kept my hand on the tablets in my pocket. I had enough to last me the next day or two.
Comfort without joy!