cotard

     The pain floated away, and the world was quiet and dim. Before the event there was Simon. After there was only the body, extracted from a flipped car by men in jumpsuits who arrived in a hurry with sirens and lights. The car door was wrenched off its hinges by a hydraulic jaw, with a shriek that sent crows fleeing and silenced the frogs in the creek bed.
     They spoke urgent words at the body, blank syllables that never coalesced into meaning. One of them checked for a pulse, flashed a light in the body’s eyes, and seemed satisfied by what he saw. But he was upset about something happening to the body’s left leg. He kept talking about it, and sweating, and his partner shook his head and told him to shut up. They strapped the body onto a board and packed it into the ambulance, although the body didn’t sense that it was moving. It felt more as though the entire universe was tilting and twisting itself underneath the stationary body, arranging all things around it. One of the men slipped an IV into a saggy vein on the body’s forearm, and they sped from the scene in an eruption of dust. Again with sirens and lights. The body would later wonder if its place was back in that field, listening to the frogs croak and the leaves rustle. Instead, it spent two months in the hospital.
     "You’re awake, you’re awake,” the woman had occasion to cry one morning. But the body had never been asleep. Its eyes had been closed. Looking for Simon and not finding him. The woman resembled Frances, Simon’s wife. More than a resemblance. A facsimile. But the woman was not Frances, no more so than the body was Simon.
     I’m dead, said the body when the breathing tube was out and it could push air across its cords.
     “You’re not dead,” said the woman who looked like Frances. She was smiling through her tears. “You made it, you’re alive.”
     I’m dead, said the body. And it didn’t speak again that day.

                                                      ~~~

     On their first date, they talked about their jobs. Frances was an elementary school teacher. Simon was an actor, and a bicycle salesman at a shop owned by his dad’s best friend. “The bicycles pay the bills,” he said. He was waiting for that big break.
     On their second date, they’d talked about families. Frances was an only child, Simon had two brothers.  “Do you think you’ll want kids someday?” Frances had asked Simon, casually but not really casually because she wasn’t getting younger. And he replied that he loved kids.
     “Well, I love ferrets but I wouldn’t want to live with one,” she laughed.
     “No, I want kids, sure,” he said. “I want kids.”
     In truth he hadn’t given it much thought, and when he did give it some thought—two years into their marriage and following a series of similar conversations occurring at shrinking intervals—he realized that he had no desire whatsoever to be a father. It was just the sort of thing you say when you’re on a second date with an attractive woman and you haven’t been on a second date in years, and sometimes the ends justify the means.

                                                     ~~~

     “You suffered extensive injuries,” said the doctor.
     A fractured sternum. Four broken ribs on the left, one on the right. Bleeding around the brain. And then a litany of mysterious choices: a ruptured spleen that the doctor had delivered from the abdomen and thrown away (why stop there?); a nearly-severed tendon in the left wrist, which could be repaired at a later date with another, more expendable tendon from the same wrist (to what end?); an array of lacerations across the torso that had been sown shut (for aesthetic purposes at the funeral?) The left foot was a lost cause and no attempt at salvage was made. The lower leg was surgically amputated below the knee. This, at least, made sense. “Fortunate we could spare the knee,” the doctor said. “It will really improve your mobility options, down the road. All in all,” he said, “you’re lucky to be alive.”
     I’m dead, said the body. The doctor raised his eyebrows and, after a long pause, asked more questions about this, questions the body struggled with. It didn’t seem entirely truthful to say that it was dead, but the situation was difficult to parse. More accurate might be to say that Simon was dead. But the most precise statement would be: Simon has gone missing and is presumed dead. Usually in such a case the ambiguity arises because no body can be found. Here, obviously, not so.
     “Extremely, extremely rare,” said the doctor to the woman. “Only isolated reports. I’ve never seen a case.” A doctor who had never seen a dead body? Maybe this was humorous, it was hard to tell. Nothing was funny anymore, but people still laughed regardless. The nurses laughed. Even the woman laughed once, at something she saw on television during one of the long, silent visits to the body’s hospital room.

                                                      ~~~

     They demanded that it eat. Food was only texture and not much of that. I’m dead, said the body. It held its arm over the edge of the bed and let go of a juice cup, watched it speed to the ground, watched the scatter of liquid, washed-out red, as faded as everything.
     “Feel this,” cried the woman. She lifted the body’s hand and put it to its neck, where an artery throbbed. The body didn’t see how this proved anything. A thin grey stream propelled through pipes of papier-mâché, is this life? Pay no heed. Just a stream of effluent. The body contemplated snatching the fork from its meal tray, plunging it into a forearm, wrenching it into an eye socket, showing the woman exactly what detritus filled the bag.
     “Don’t be afraid,” she said. But the body was never afraid. Fear came from uncertainty.
     Physical therapists forced the body out of bed and into a wheelchair, to haunt the hallways. “You’re doing better”, they said. “You’re getting stronger.” But the body was never weak. It simply didn’t feel it should move, not all by itself. It wasn’t natural. When an apple falls from the tree, nobody asks why. And when it rests in the orchard dirt, nobody asks why it doesn’t rejoin the tree. All things know their place.
     It thought about the field and the wrecked car, the smell of gasoline in Simon’s nose, the ache in Simon’s chest and the agony in his leg, the name in his mind, Frances, and how the pain blossomed up to abolish all else, to raze him with the last burst of a shattered sun before rapidly fading to dusk, a guttering candle. And then, gone. Everything.

                                                      ~~~

     Simon didn’t want to be a father but Frances needed to be a mother. That’s what she said.
     “It’s a horrible time,” he said. The bicycle shop had closed and he’d worked briefly at a coffee shop but then it closed. He auditioned for a local mattress store commercial and lost the part to a man with a comb-over.
     “I’m nothing,” he said to her one night.
     “You’re an actor,” she said.
     “That’s like saying that your brother was a lawyer who sometimes plays board games, but now that he has been disbarred he’s just calling himself a board game player. We have no money and it’s horrible timing.”
     “There’s never a right time,” she told him, which is what everybody says, as though acknowledging a universal truth renders it irrelevant. “You’re an actor. And you’ll be a great father.”
     She stopped taking the pill. She filled a shopping basket with pregnancy tests and took one every three days. Months passed along with $300 in pregnancy tests. She covered a wall of their bathroom in craft paper and her daily temperatures were recorded and superimposed against time. She later added a tracking system for her pre-natal vitamins, notations for any hint of upper respiratory infections that could confuse her temperature baseline, and designated intercourse days. She would stand in the bathroom and survey her chart like a general, hands on hips. In his mind, he started calling it the War Room. He asked her to please only take a test if she missed a period, or at most once a week. She kept taking one every three days. Another $300 passed out of their lives.
     Maybe she was infertile, Simon thought to himself, or maybe he was sterile. Maybe she was infertile and he was sterile. Maybe they could adopt. Something like a five-year-old, already walking and talking and peeing in a toilet. But adoptions are expensive, so they’ll have to wait a few years. He can find a job, save up some money. It was a very viable alternative plan but before he had phrased in his mind exactly how he wanted to present it, a test came back positive. And another the next day, positive.

                                                    ~~~

     They sent the body back to Simon’s house, with a new artificial left leg to complement its existing dead right leg. “Just a temporary,” assured the doctor. “You can be fit with a more life-like model in a few weeks.” The fake leg seemed more genuine to the body: everybody, at least, acknowledged what it was. Is this the answer? Should every limb be removed and replaced with metal pipes and wood? They can open the body’s abdomen and finish what they’d started with the spleen. Wrench out the liver, tear out with stomach, pull out the intestines hand-over-hand. Fill the cavity with soil and rusty nails and bullet casings. Extract the heart like an ancient Mayan sacrifice. Will everybody still be amazed when it continues to beat? Will they put it on a parade float and drive it through town? Will the ventricles pulse against dusty air as the children gape and scream? The body can be erected as a statue in town square and watch the parade through eyes of painted glass, a pendulum clock in its chest tick-tocking, and nobody will confuse it for a man.
     The body dug through a cabinet in the basement. Simon had kept paperwork there. He had kept a car title, a birth certificate. Where else would the woman keep a death certificate? He found the discharge summary from the hospital, tucked into a bright blue folder. Just say it, thought the body. Just be honest, here in black and white. Maybe they couldn’t tell the woman the truth, didn’t have the heart, didn’t have the courage. This was official paperwork though. There was a column of diagnoses. Motor Vehicle Accident, it said. Sternal Fracture.Pulmonary contusion. Subdural hematoma. On and on. Traumatic Brain Injury. Cotard Delusion. There was follow-up with the doctor in four to six weeks. The body tore up the paperwork and left the pieces in the folder.
     The woman found the body sitting there, the folder in its lap. She had a sandwich for it.
The body had never revealed to the woman that it knew she wasn’t Frances—the body wasn’t sure if the woman herself even knew. It was easy to get confused here, in whatever place this was. Maybe nobody was what they thought anymore. Or maybe nobody ever was. Maybe the body had dreamt it was Simon, and awoke. Maybe the woman was dreaming she was Frances, and slept still.
     She offered it the sandwich but it shook its head. Sometimes, to pacify the woman, it would put food in its mouth and move teeth over it, swallow, let gravity pull it through whatever was still in there.
     “You’re not the only one who hurts,” said the woman.
     I don’t hurt, said the body.
     “Well lucky you,” said the woman. “I guess some things haven’t changed.”
     In what place do all the quickened bodies laugh though there is no humor, and eat though there is no taste, breath without air, sleep without rest? They hug their friends, they kiss their lovers, and there is nothing there, it means nothing more than a breeze scratching bare tree branches together, an asteroid colliding into a sunless dead moon, no one to see and no one to care. Mechanics, physics. 
     This is hell, said the body. The woman stared.
     “Yes,” she finally agreed.

                                                     ~~~

     Frances had a miscarriage in the fourth week. She’d had cramps and bleeding, and was inconsolable on the drive to the emergency department. “I know what’s happening, I know what’s happening,” she said, and she did know. They discharged her later that evening with a number to call if she needed to talk to somebody.
     “Thanks, we don’t need that,” said Simon. “We’ll talk it through.”
     “You never know,” said the nurse. “Just in case.”
     Frances sat in the bay window and Simon came beside and held her. “Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way,” he’d said. “Maybe this is a sign.” In truth he was terribly relieved. With his recent unemployment, they didn’t have the money. With their studio apartment, they didn’t have the room. And while he loved kids, he didn’t want to live with one.
     “How can you say that?” she’d asked. “How can you possibly believe that it was supposed to be this way?”
     He shrugged his shoulders, unprepared for this level of discourse. She pulled away from him.
     “It’s always been about you,” she said. “It’s always just been the Simon Show, hasn’t it?”
     “Look, everything happens for a reason,” he said. “How about this?” she screamed. She tossed her coffee in his face and then threw the empty mug after it. Bright blood streamed from Simon’s nose and through his fingers. “The reason is that you’re an asshole.”
     And she didn’t apologize, and he didn’t apologize, so that’s how it was at the end of things.

                                                        ~~~

     All things know their place. The body walked all day and into the night, until it found the spot. The earth is still torn, there is a long shallow trench that the bumper dug out as the car skidded through the mud.  The car is long towed away, but the body lies down in the dirt where it would have been. The body will wait here until the situation is resolved. And so it looks up at the sky with its dead eyes and please, it thinks. Let me live or let me die. 

                                                         ~~~

     Simon left home in anger. His nose had just stopped bleeding.
     “I’m going for a drive,” he said.
     “Just keep driving,” she said back to him. He slammed the door. He climbed into the car, peeled out into the night. The miles slipped under his wheels.
     What if I just… he thinks. What if I just…
     Suddenly the entire universe was rotating around him, Simon. As the world tumbles there is such a tremendous sound, where is it coming from? Such a rush, such a roar! The world is so loud sometimes, so loud and bright.

© 2020 by Brandon Barrett