Welcome! You’re just in time to witness the birth of a new horror …
As a worldly man, I thought that I understood it all. After my errors and indiscretions, I accepted my reassignment as a gentleman’s exile. When I met Lastri in the Market District and took her back to my company apartment, I wore my wedding ring and even left the photo of Lorraine and Jenny on the nightstand, just to be clear what kind of arrangement this was. When she finally stopped following me after I broke it off, I assumed that she realized there was no ticket waiting for her if and when I was finally welcomed back.
But now, as she lumbers towards me in this bar, yelling in her awful local language, I realize that I have never understood. That all of this was wrong.
Lastri is heavily pregnant but moves quickly, staggering forward and pulled by her swollen weight. On such a tiny woman, the disproportions would be comical if only her dark face and heavy brows weren’t contorted like a ceremonial mask, twisted in an almost religious anger. In her fury, she’s devolved into her native tongue and, even though I long ago gave up any interest in figuring out this culture, I know one of us is losing “face.”
In my experience, the people here smile inordinately and have byzantine systems of euphemisms and yay-saying. Everything modulated through a false enthusiasm, it used to infuriate me that I could never get a straight answer from my workers. With Lastri’s untranslated excoriations already attracting attention, however, I miss the civil charade.
I try to placate her, but she won’t stop and so my old habits come back, screaming at me. “Run.” I throw some paper money on the table for my drinks and head outside, but Lastri follows, circling me like the gibbous moon. Her chest heaves and the bulge beneath her shirt is waxing, the taut brown skin and downy hair pulsing towards me like a tide.
Passers-by gravitate towards us, falling into our orbit in a constellation of those glistening and ubiquitous tropical smiles. In the streets along the canal, they glitter in the setting of the orange sun and catch the first flickers of green and purple neon as the district begins to come alive.
“What do you want?” I finally shout. And everyone at the food carts and the bus stops and the merchants’ stalls stares at us. And I don’t know what she’s saying, but she starts to cry. She reaches out for me but I draw back, too late to again pretend that I don’t know her.
Then she screams again, but this time in a different wavelength. This is the sound of cats being gutted for violins. This is the sound that the moon makes before it brings up tsunamis. I feel the pull and deep inside I know that something is going to be destroyed.
Lastri buckles and collapses. The eyes of the surrounding crowd hold me like a web of banyan roots as the traffic and the roar of the great ruddy river in the canal are drowned beneath the insect buzz of voices on their cell phones. The crowd’s attention and the increasingly less tacit pressure of expectation push me down into her.
“Lastri,” I kneel beside her as she writhes and whimpers. “Are you all right?” Even if I spoke the language, I don’t think she’s saying anything I could understand.
I stand up. “She’s all right,” I try to lie to the crowd through gestures and movements of the head. But they swarm in on me like moths, the dusty second-hand clothes flapping like wings, the thick and hard skin of a world beyond my comprehension pressing in. In the distance, a siren is singing as it floats towards us and I pray to my own God that it is an ambulance for her and not something worse for me.
The paramedics arrive and as the small men in vests and caps roll Lastri into the ambulance, for an instant I think again of running. But buoyed by the gravity of pointing fingers and accusing eyes, I follow the stretcher into the ambulance without resistance. I ride along silently, as Lastri groans and the tight-lipped man reads her vital signatures. Sweat prickles against her forehead like a veil of glass beads, shimmering as she trembles.
When we finally stop, the sun has fully set and the lights within the small hospital are on but very low. In the manicured center of the roundabout driveway is a single, sad banana tree, bathed in the decorative floodlights that are sucking in the heavy black shapes of large, tropical night bugs. There is a mournful absurdity to it, so inexplicably alone in this otherwise crowded city, its oversized leaves twisting and reaching in the wind.
Lastri and the little men have already disappeared when I enter the lobby. Behind the desk is a receptionist, or, based on her white dress, likely a nurse. Along the walls, plastic seats are lined like blue teeth, empty aside from one bedraggled local man in jeans and a blue jacket. Head in hands, the stubble that presses out from between Blue Jacket’s fingers show that he hasn’t shaved in a few days. It’s as though he’s been rooted to the floor in a vegetative catatonia.
The receptionist looks at me. Still on the phone she points to the door I still hold ajar. The look on her face says, Stay in or go out.
It’s difficult, and when I finally do close the door, moths have flown in from outside – large and fuzzy, dusty things. They share the overly ornate markings of many creatures here near the equator, their backs scored like masks or maps. They flit around the florescent lights. Dark stars, they block out light instead of creating it.
This is not the atmosphere I recall from when Jenny was born. The air in that other room, half a world away, was electric with anticipation, but here is something darker and more humid. Here is something more serious than the creation of lives. This hospital, I now realize, must be some sort of intensive care maternity ward. A small sick building designed to quarantine ill omens, to hide or maybe punish mistakes.
At the far end of the room, two green double doors leading into the depths of the infirmary swing open and a small man in a white coat and thick-rimmed glasses emerges. His close-cropped iron hair makes me think that he’s got maybe a decade on me, but I’m an awful judge of how old these people are. He sees me and immediately walks over.
“Edward,” he says. “Mister . . . .?” The first part is not a question, since it’s obvious that I’m the only one here who could be me, but I won’t give him a surname to put on any forms.
“Yes,” I say. “What is it?”
The man, who I assume is a doctor, frowns. Even here, it seems, certain duties or circumstances allow one to dispense with typical cultural niceties. The Doctor’s obvious disgust for me would normally be refreshing, but I’ve already borne the brunt of too much real feeling tonight.
“Things are very serious, Mr. Edward. You wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. Do you understand that?”
I nod, but I don’t really.
“They might not make it,” he says. “Either of them.”
“I didn’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what to say.”
I sink into the closest chair because everything is swelling up around me like high waters in the canal during rainy season. The bright white walls and linoleum tile, the flickering of the fluorescent lights, its rising. Somewhere deep inside, a baby’s cry is getting louder and louder. Somewhere in the belly of this place, currents are moving. I can smell the building’s antiseptic breath and even the flowers on the reception desk as they decay and the rotting stench of all my failures, here and at home, come flooding back.
The rivers are washing over me. It’s too much reality to bear.
“Where should,” I begin, but the Doctor is no longer beside me. He has moved on. He is talking to Blue Jacket and now I realize why he was so forlorn; Blue Jacket isn’t waiting for good news.
Across the room, he is gesticulating at the Doctor and I can see that his smile has been irredeemably washed away, broken and quivering like dragonfly wings in the rain. The Doctor points to the set of double doors but Blue Jacket shakes his head vigorously.
As if in response, as if in a dream, the doors open and two women dressed in white emerge. Languid, they slide across the floor. As the doors swing, beyond them, I can hear a baby crying.
At first I take the women for patients, given that their long black hair is unpinned and cascades around their shoulders, but their white gowns are the same color and material as the nurse behind the desk. They also wear that same carved and inlaid smile that everyone here seems to possess. Not for the first time, the whole cultural obsession with smiling at even the worst of times strikes me as morbid. Whatever has happened, I can’t imagine that these smiling women offer any relief. No matter how accustomed they may be to death, it is still completely incomprehensible and borders on ghoulish.
Blue Jacket’s eyes fix on them and his mouth opens like a sinkhole, and then there is but a second of suction and then a burbling eruption as his wordless horror pours out and across the language barrier. Flailing, he swings and kicks at them as if to push himself backwards through the chair and the wall and out into the night. These women must be trained, however, so effortlessly does their long black hair and long white gowns, not typical orderly dress, flow like smoke as they avoid Blue Jackets limbs, then swirl around to his side, picking him up and dragging him towards the doorway.
I look around for another witness but the only other person here is the receptionist, still engaged in her inaudible and incomprehensible telephone conversation. Oblivious, she twirls her long ponytail around her long fingers and her long red nails that burn against the crisp white of her dress and her black, black hair. She must sense me watching her, because she smiles wider even though she does not turn to look.
A sickening curiosity pulls me across the floor to the double doors. Through the window I see that Blue Jacket is almost to the end of the hall, the fight leeched from him as the two women in white carry him like placid wings to a far-off destination. Unbidden, I recall visiting the Royal Field Museum as a child and staring at a large and singular Sphinx Moth, spread and pinned under glass. The markings on its back had been the perfect imitation of a man’s face.
The Doctor has vanished, but at the far end of the hall, obscured by dim light, stands a new figure dressed in the unripe green color of surgical scrubs. I can barely see beyond the nurses and Blue Jacket, but the new party seems to be a woman, her hair wild and frizzed like the fronds of the banana tree in the breeze. Her face is obscured but I imagine, no, I know, that she, too, is smiling. They all turn together and disappear through a doorway.
Unable to watch further, I sit back down in the plastic chairs. From beyond the doors, the sound of infants in distress still seeps through. My stomach and intestines feel overfull, bile and anger and nausea rising up.
Why didn’t someone tell me where I was? Why didn’t someone tell me what was going on? My temples throb, my neck veins are fit to burst with angry blood. Angry with the company for sending me here. Angry with Lastri for beguiling me. Furious that she was either careless or deceitful enough to get pregnant and that she kept it to try to rope me in for money or a visa or a ticket out of here. Livid that I am in this awful hospital, which reeks of funeral flowers masking rotten meat, where babies scream and no one blinks and – yes, it even sounds like it’s starting to rain.
The sound like beads on glass shakes me loose. But after that one brief moment, the sounds of babies crying begins again, so loud and seemingly so close that I wonder if it is coming through the PA system. That would be fittingly morbid – this tiny hospital with smiling nurses that look like patients wandering through empty halls with the sounds of bawling infants piped in like music as the morose banana tree beckons outside.
Rising to leave, I cross the linoleum floor, thinking about all of the wrong choices I have made and where they have led me. Across the world, into the ex-pat bars, into Lastri, into this waiting room. Behind me is parade of sad possible Edwards who could’ve been good fathers or at least decent husbands, but now would never be. I don’t want any of it, here or there. It’s too much gravity when I feel so hollow and empty, pinned up and spread like a mimic of a man.
As I reach the door, the wailing gets softer, although not less intense or further away, but as if someone is turning down the volume. But I will not spend a moment longer here and, without looking back, I grasp the handle for one last bold movement, one final choice to leave.
But it does not open. I rattle the door in its frame, but even now, from behind me, there other hinges creaking. Turning, I see the Doctor is standing by the double doors across the room and the women in white are already gliding towards me. Their smiles grow wider as they draw closer and then the room falls immediately silent, the crying smothered, as their spider-long hands stretch out towards me.
“Mr. Edward,” the Doctor says. “I’m afraid that you must go with them.”
“No,” I say. “You don’t understand. I don’t know who she was. We weren’t serious. There wasn’t anything there.” I try to pull away, but bright red nails and fingers like bone bite into my arms. “We aren’t together.”
“Mr. Edward,” the Doctor says. “We know.”
He turns away and the women begin to drag me after. Although I pull against them, the deeper their fingers dig until they are tent-hooks in my sinews. Gasping, moaning, I stumble forward under their saw and, in doing so, I look at the one on my right. She faces straight forward, eyeing the door, but her grin now seems impossibly large. It cuts upwards like a gash; up past her cheekbones, up to the corners of her eye. She turns to me and reveals glistening white teeth, the ivory crescent of her wet mouth taking up half of her face. I shudder and look to the woman on my left, at her face and its new contortions.
It is worse. So much worse.
So I give in to them, these unreal things that reek of flowers. I let them steer me, almost unable to breathe beneath the smothering floral perfume dripping from their pores and the dark cascade of their hair. I watch my own feet seem to drift above the floor, pulled away by these awful wings on either side. The squares of linoleum fly by underneath, like the fields of a country I am just now seeing from above.
I hear the sound like rain on glass, but now it seems to be shaking and writhing, like beads in a rattle. Tiny glass beads, swirling like a whirlpool at the end of the hall. When we reach the end, the women drag me left, though another set of doors. Stopping our flight, I look up, careful not to look at either woman again. The room is cold and the walls are metal, inset with rows of small doors. I recognize them.
The woman on my left begins to whisper in my ear, her cold breath sending a wave of shivers across my scalp and breaking down my neck. I don’t understand the words, but they sound thick and wrong, as if obscured by too many teeth or a tongue too long for its mouth.
On the far end of the room, one of the doors in the wall begins to move. It rattles, then opens slowly, as if being pushed from within. Stooped and hunched over, a figure in green begins to back out of the tiny space. With its back to me, I can see the wild dark hair and I realize now that whatever those clothes are, they are not surgical scrubs or anything similar. It looks like a green dress, the hem worn thinner than lace and caked with filth.
Green Dress backs out slowly, mumbling a song to herself. The sounds are slurred and mushy, almost inaudible over the rattling sound of the rain or beads or rattles or bones, but her rising and falling inflection dredges up strains of lullabies I used to sing to Jenny half a lifetime ago. Still facing away, Green Dress begins to roll out a cart.
Green Dress pulls it out slowly and the body emerges feet first into the world. Then the legs roll into view. The now-flat stomach under the paper hospital gown, darkened now with intimate fluids. Then the arms, crossed over her breasts. Then the long dark hair over her shoulders.
The green woman pauses. The head of the body is still in the darkness, but I know what she’s going to reveal. I know that when she pulls out that last bit of Lastri, there will be a smile, a rictus, pulled across half her face. I even think that her eyes might be open. She might be staring at me.
So I look down again, down into the blank field of the tile. The flecks in the linoleum look like negative stars.
“Please,” I whisper, “please let me go. I’m so sorry. I’ll make it up, I promise.”
I hear Green Dress’s bare feet slap across the floor in front of me. Metal shrieks as she opens another cabinet and slides out a tray from within. Unable to resist, I steal a glimpse with downcast eyes.
In the center of the tray lays a tiny white sheet covering a bundle no larger than a bunch of bananas. Then Green Dress, her face still obscured by her wild hair, gently grips the corner of the sheet and pulls it away.
Seeing what lies beneath, I groan from the bottom of the emptiness inside. It reverberates through the coiled vacuum of my bowels.
Green Dress turns to me and brushes the shroud of hair from her face. It is almost worse.
Now I can see that she is twisted and ruined, her skin peeling like the bark of tropical trees and spider-bite victims. Two pits of blood red hatred burn and her teeth are broken and yellow. As she opens her mouth, wider and wider, the source of the rattle reveals itself as thousands of glass beads pour out around the stumps in her gums, falling to the floor with a sound like breaking water.
The smell of flowers on the other women is overpowered by the rotting stench of the green woman as she draws close to me. Her dark and withered hands peak in ragged nails that curve around themselves like roots. She cackles, the death smell blossoming over me. Green Dress speaks and the women in white hiss in reply.
I cry. “Yes, yes, I’m so sorry.”
Green Dress speaks again, but I have no idea what she means, so I just nod. She shrugs.
And then the women on each side stretch my limbs and I scream like a baby. Green Dress’s rotten nails dig into my stomach and I can feel the edges and movement in places inside me that I didn’t know had feeling. There is so much pain that I am begging to fall away when I see Green Dress hoist Lastri off of the cart. For a spindle-thin woman, she carries the body as if it were an empty shell.
And now I scream as I feel the pressure against my raw and exposed organs, as I feel Lastri’s long dark hair sticking to the sides of my sucking wounds as the green woman begins to cram the head into my abdomen. I scream even louder when I look down and see the smile on the Lastri’s body disappear beneath my ribcage. Distended, I fall to my knees as Green Dress crams the tips of Lastri’s toes inside me and then squeezes the edge of my lacerations together into a poorly welded crimp.
And now they laugh, all three of them, as Green Dress’s tattered nails burrow into my back. And my spine is cracking and my shoulder blades breaking as she presses the smaller bundle into the trench she’s dug.
And as I am bursting and crying and swollen beyond redemption, they open the back door and shove me into the night, to root or to rot. Out here, in this world that I have never understood, where the sky will be clear and the stars and the crescent moon will smile down forever.