What’s My Name?

A short story.

I

After ten years in the same spot, Baku stopped sleeping in his scraggy basket tucked away in the recess below the bedroom window. Our cat didn’t move far at first, only a few feet to the rug at the foot of the bed. It was there, my husband and I would find him staring, longing it seemed, for hours on end at his abandoned basket.

Even though it was better to not have such a big, lazy moggy as a trip hazard in our cramped apartment, we caved in and moved Baku’s basket to where he preferred. But nothing changed. His staring continued unabated at the newly cleared space under the window.

Less than a week later, Baku moved further back; first, to my side of the bed, then to the bedside cabinet on the wall opposite the window. And with each move, the cat always made sure he had a clear view of his original haunt.

One morning, I placed Baku’s basket back under the window and tried to put him in it, but it was worse than jamming him in the carrier for the vet. He became all muscle; a taut, writhing, hissing beast. After a swipe vicious enough to draw blood, he escaped my grip and didn’t come back till supper. When home, he settled into his final choice: half a foot outside the bedroom, right in the middle of the doorway.

The first night Baku slept outside of the bedroom I lay in bed, my husband asleep beside me, playing one of those silly mental games you make up as a child. I was trying to see my bedroom through closed eyes; test the power of my mind’s eye to visualise all the bits in the right place and at the right distance from each other –  the muted shape of the radiator, the open door, the wardrobe, all patterned by moonlight sliced into strips by the window blind. But whenever I opened my eyes the real room was always misaligned, shifted a metre or so from my visualisation. Two worlds never quite in sync. I usually found the process soporific, but that night, as I started to drift off, a voice cut through the night’s silence as if spoken by a stranger cloaked by the bedroom’s darkness.

What’s my name?

My heart racing, I flung myself up and swiped at the light switch. Nobody there. I shook my husband awake to ask him if he’d heard the voice.

“How the hell was I supposed to hear anything when I was fast asleep? You were just dreaming.”

“But I wasn’t asleep. The voice came from the window. It was as real as you are now.”

He looked at me as if I was insane.

“We’re on the second floor, love. How could there be anybody outside the window?”

“It didn’t come from outside.”

He shook his head before letting it fall back on the pillow.

“Don’t be daft,” he said, turning away from me.

Unlike the ambiguity of a dream, the memory of the voice was still fresh the following morning. What’s my name? I could hear the intonation clearly. I could hear the rhythm – the faint hiss at the end of the first word to stretch the question, only to finish like a heartbeat with the final two syllables. But whenever I replayed these words, they came with no owner bar the imperfect darkness of closed eyes. I couldn’t even imagine one.

*

The following evening, as I was falling asleep, the words came for the second time and asked the same question. What’s my name? Startled I looked up, again, to find nothing, and when I woke my husband, he took even less time to call me daft.

The same happened for the next seven nights, always when I first began to sleep and only ever once. By this point, I was no longer waking my husband, except the time I screamed, I don’t know your stupid name.

Worried I was going insane, hearing voices, I phoned my doctor. Every night until my appointment the voice came to ask its question. But something changed. The voice moved. Whoever – or whatever – took a step towards me, away from the window, away from where the cat used to sleep, and towards the bed.

*

The doctor asked me: Do you hear a ringing sound at all? Do you feel you are unable to move when you hear the voice? How are you feeling? Have you lost interest in things? Are you anxious at all? Stressed?

She looked in my ears.

She asked me very little about the voice itself. It was clear to her that the origin of the words was in me – the spurious firing of inconsiderate neurones. She said it was most likely to be something called hypnagogic hallucinations.

“Have you heard of sleep paralysis or night terrors?” She asked.

“Of course. They’re the periods of time where the awake dream and cannot scream or move to escape the nightmares attacking them.”

“That’s right, like your experiences, they occur at the cusp of sleep.”

“I don’t think this is what I’m experiencing. I’ve never seen anything and I haven’t been paralysed.”

Bored of me already, she looked at her computer and scrolled her mouse.

“Yes, they scare me,” I continued. “But it’s not a night terror; it’s over in a flash.”

She looked back up at me, irritated with my trivialities.

“What you are experiencing is a lot less extreme than it can be, so you should consider yourself lucky. It’s not worth doing anything yet as it is likely to go away on its own. Come back if it persists. Come back if it gets worse.”

*

“Hypnagogic hallucinations?” My husband said, later that evening. “What a good word. Hyp-na-gogic. I like how the word turns mid-way through from short, stabby syllables, to that go-gic you suddenly have to mash in your throat.”

“I got a book out from the library. Hypnagogia and Other Realms. This is how Dr Lionel T. Moon describes it in the introduction…”

“Does he have a ‘PhD’ after his name on the front cover?”

“Of course. In big yellow block capitals. Anyway, listen.”

This is what I read:

Hypnagogia:  the edge of consciousness moments before sleep; the boundary where insights flash as the mind loosens and fragments; the fertile ocean where seers dive for their prophecies and scientists find their eurekas. We have all glimpsed this place – those visions of stumbling and falling that jumpstart us awake with a hypnic jerk on our attempts to cross the boundary into sleep. I wonder if that is why we say ‘fall asleep’. Because it is exactly what we are doing – falling through this threshold. And whenever we fall, whether in this world, or through the space between worlds, we must relinquish control.

“This all seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? For a funny dream.”

“Shh…”

With Darkness as father, Night gave birth to twins. Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, the god of death; a relationship suggesting that an impression of the afterlife might be found in sleep. Should we then be worried that our dreams are so often filled with fear? Perhaps, but the hypnagogic experience contains no dreams, because we are not asleep. According to the researcher, Andreas Mavromatis, the somatosensory phenomena experienced in a hypnagogic state are characterised by their “externality, autonomy and vividness.” Simply put, they are as real as our waking state. Some even say that the land summoned to us by hypnagogia is enriched, as if it is viewed through a microscope of celestial optics that brings into focus a more fundamental reality. Or perhaps, it has also been suggested, the place behind our reality.

“Come off it,” my husband says as he brings my coffee to the sofa. “This is just new age bullshit, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. There’s a lot of evidence in the book. Anecdotal, sure, but not everyone can be lying; what would be the point? What annoys me, though, is that everyone having these hypnagogic experiences are all visiting fantastical, vivid wonderlands of pleasure. But what do I get? A creepy little voice with a stupid question. Don’t get me wrong, my so-called hypnagogic hallucinations feel very real, but they are so basic. No sights, no smells. Only the stupid voice. I don’t get to see any, and let me quote Dr Moon for you, ‘ecstatic rainbows unfolding into impossible geometry.’ Nor any ‘dragon seraphim descending through a spiralling Mandelbrot ether, spraying heavenly manna as they fly’.”

“So you’re jealous,” my husband said. “You want to be part of a crazy eighties fantasy film don’t you? Flying around the set of Labyrinth or something?”

“Most of all, I want it to stop. It’s creepy.”

“It’s really bothering you, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I’ll stop taking the piss. What can I do to help?”

“Nothing, I guess. Just be here. Don’t leave me alone at night.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Later, my husband was reading Dr Moon’s book. I settled down beside him on the sofa, knees tucked in. He put his arm around me and kissed the top of my head. Even Baku joined in and spread his purring mass across us both. I was feeling settled for the first time in a while, especially with a stomach full of my favourite comfort food – my husband’s cheesy pasta bake.

“You know,” he said. “Reading this, I think you should consider yourself lucky your fledgling night terrors haven’t reached the multimedia stage.”

He pointed to a colour panel which showed a renaissance painting depicting a vision of hell as a realm of endless torture populated by cursed abominations. We both read the text that followed the picture.

Not all the experiences people witness in the hypnogogic state are positive. Many have born witness to a hellish place of eternal terror. A place that Heironymous Bosch depicts in his paintings. A place where our cries for mercy go unheard, unable to travel further than our own insignificance.

“Jesus, that doesn’t sound good,” I said. We both continued to read the page that followed.

Some researchers postulate that by exploiting hypnagogic states we might gain knowledge of our mental nature and this knowledge could lead to a fundamental understanding of all thought.  But perhaps it’s not only thought we can learn about. Maybe something else too, something concrete, something ‘out-there’. And if it is ‘out there’, then maybe our access to this world is not a one-way street. It is not unfeasible to think that something could come to our waking world from that space. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this. After all, the cracks, the hinges, the gaps in between, are what lets the other side of anything through. Hell, then, might not be a destination, but somewhere on the way, an opportunist waiting to reach out and drag you from your path.

II

The doctor was wrong. The voice didn’t go away. In fact, it took another step closer to the foot of my bed to ask: What’s my name? Although this move amplified my fear, the increased proximity helped me understand a strange quality of the voice that had been confusing me. The voice was clearly in front of me, right there in my bedroom, but it sounded wrong. The words sounded as if they were being spoken in a room with different acoustics –one mimicking the sad echo of words spoken for the last time in your favourite ever home, now bare and empty, with your life packed up in a van outside waiting to take you away. The voice had escaped the domestication of the bedroom’s soft furnishings.

I told my husband this one morning, how the voice was getting creepier, sadder and, of course, closer.

“You know this might sound strange,” he said. “But you’ve reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years. When I was a child, no older than six, my father told me a fairy tale I now realise was to scare me into sleeping. He told me about the monster that was coming for me, hunting me down. He told me that everyone in our family belonged to a monster and that monster’s only job was to chase their allotted member. When our monster catches us, we die.”

He was waving his finger at me like his father might have to him.

“What a charming story for a six year old.”

“But he told me I wasn’t to worry. No. Not if I were good boy. You see, the monster starts off a very, very long way away, and they are very, very slow. And the monster could only move towards me, step by step, after I’d gone to bed, and then only when I had my eyes open. The monster comes much quicker to those naughty children who try and stay awake at night. So, once you go to bed, he said, make sure you close your eyes and don’t open them till morning. Don’t give your monster an opportunity to catch you.”

“Jesus, no wonder you sleep well. What do these monsters look like?” I asked.

“No one knows. Once you’ve seen your monster, the story goes, the next time you close your eyes, even if it’s to blink, will be the last time.”

“Is this what you think is coming for me? Do I have a monster?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bit of old family folklore to scare the kids to sleep. My Grandad told the same story to my Dad when he was young.”

“Hang on, didn’t your Granddad die in his bed? In his sleep?”

He looked away from me before answering.

“Not quite. That’s just a story our family tell. The reality is a lot grimmer. I should have told you this a lot earlier, but you might as well hear it now. My Grandfather died before I was born, but whenever my Dad talked to me about what happened to his father he would just brush me off with the same short story of a peaceful death that I’ve given you before and then quickly change the subject. I always felt something was amiss, like there was something I hadn’t been told, so I looked up events that happened around the time of his death in old newspapers at the library. And I found something. Something, I’d rather not have known. He did die in his bed, that part was true, but he was stabbed to death. Over two-hundred blows were recorded. So many it was impossible to be precise. The police claimed it was a home invasion that went wrong. But I don’t think it was as simple as that, because they never found my Gran. She just vanished. At first, she was a suspect but that was soon dismissed after the autopsy. The blows of the knife were too powerful to have come from her. I guess whatever happened to her it’s too late anyway. She’d be over a hundred by now.”

“Oh my God. I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Well, it’s hardly a charming conversation piece.”

I leaned over and held his head, tilting it to towards mine.

*

Everything changed.

One night, with the voice even closer, as if its owner leaned over the foot of the bed, I was asked the same question as always.

What’s my name?

But this time I felt the pressure of something sharp yet rough, like a ragged talon, drawing – etching – across the ball of my bare foot. I tried to pull away, I tried to scream, but nothing came. Down the gossamer flesh of the sole it went, inching its way cruelly, with slow deliberation, towards the heel. I could feel something emanating from the touch – a pain filled with the all the horror of death was forcing its way up my body through the veins in my leg, stretching every blood vessel to the point I thought my skin might split. It was searching for a home, searching for my centre. I tried and tried to move, to look up and stop what was happening, but my muscles were locked, my eyes sealed. Then, seconds before the subcutaneous tendrils that burrowed through me reached my heart, as suddenly as the first touch came, it withdrew from me and my volition returned. I leapt out of bed screaming and rubbing my skin as if to cast off crawling insects. There was, as always, nothing in the room. My husband jumped out of bed too, freaked by my reaction.

“What is it? What’s wrong? Are you ok?” He said.

“I’m ok, It was just a nightmare, sorry for waking you.”

“Was it the voice? Has it changed?”

“No, no. It’s fine. Please, just go back to sleep.”

I went to the bathroom and with the harsh strike of light upon pulling the cord I saw across my body every vein mapped as a raised network of red welts, etched into me like cat scratches. Struggling with the brightness, I covered my eyes for a moment. When I looked again the marks on my skin were gone.

Baku joined me in the bathroom and walked back and forth rubbing my legs, purring deeply.

“I guess, the night terrors have finally come for me,” I whispered while kneeling to stoke him.  

*

The next night I attempted to go without sleep. And with the aid of that creepy touch the night before and endless coffee I succeeded. Neither the voice nor its claw came. But I could not fight sleep another night. This was not the solution.

The voice came from the side of the bed. And now it didn’t sound like it came from an empty room, it sounded as if it came from an echoless place with walls that absorb all sound; a place so completely silent that you can hear the blood flow through your veins and the electrical shimmer of your nerves; a place that mimics the infinity of space. An unbearable place.

After it asked its question, I felt a cold grip around my arm. It wasn’t my husband who slept beside me. It couldn’t have been him, not unless he was a corpse, because whatever gripped me was so cold I could feel my flesh burning. It pulled on my skin like a tongue stuck to ice. I tried to move and shout for help but the cold now covered the whole of me like a frozen meat cocoon. As it suffocated me, I told myself it was just a night terror; I was having a bout of sleepparalysis and it will pass. This is not happening!

I tried to push through, to open my eyes and force myself awake, but I couldn’t muster any strength. Only when it restricted me to the shallowest gasps for air, when the muscles of my chest could move only millimetres, did it release me. When I opened my eyes it was morning. The whole night had passed, somehow, yet my body was heavy with the weight of insomnia.

*

I was a wreck the next night, too sleep deprived to avoid another night in bed. I could have tried the sofa but I didn’t want to be alone, even though my husband always slept deeply and quickly. That night I could hear the rhythm of his sleep begin within a minute of him putting his head down. Lying on my back listening to his breath I closed my eyes and prayed that I would not get another visit.

What’s my name?

This time, right above me; within inches of my face. If it were breathing I could have felt it, smelt its sourness. But there was nothing.

What’s my name?

Then a finger, or something that mimicked one, moved across my forehead, down the side of my face, and with a gruesome, fairy tale tenderness drew the hair behind my ear. Closer than ever before, as if from the gristle gluing the bones of my skull together, as if there was never such a thing as a space between us, no gap between its world and mine, it spoke words I have not heard before. Terrible words.

I am not here for you.

And for the first time it let me open my eyes.

It is often said about horror films that what you don’t see is more terrifying; the revealed monster is always a disappointment; the secret of terror is in the anticipation. But in real life this is not the case. What you can imagine cannot compare to the horror you will face. It is much, much worse to open your eyes.

No matter how hard I try, my description could only ever be a jumble of half-meanings, but what I can say is that what came for me every night, what spoke those words, wasn’t physical. It wasn’t even a ghost. It was pure absence. Negative space. The totality of grief.

I am not here for you.

From the whirlpool of its gravity I felt a vacuum-pull, like suction, as it drew away and rolled over to my sleeping husband. I couldn’t turn my head but I could tell he was still sleeping from the corner of my eye – that shifting periphery where danger always reaches first.

Tell me my name.

Much deeper than the original question came this demand. Although its existence now floated above my husband, it was still addressing me.

Tell me my name!

But I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move.  Take me, I thought. Please, take me!

TELL ME MY NAME!

I couldn’t call out to my husband. I couldn’t wake him. But as soon as he began to scream, I no longer needed to. I shut my eyes. What else could I want but darkness?

*

A team of scientists have shown that as we pass into a hypnagogic state areas of the brain involved in motor function light up – our brains think we are interacting with this new reality in a physical manner, moving from one place to the next, turning our head this way or that, touching, feeling. In theory, an expert said, we might perform actions in this state that we are unaware of upon waking. Another expert claimed that the future ceases to exist for us as we fall asleep – in this new place, she said, our perceived actions may lose the consequences normally associated with them.

The jury didn’t care for these excuses. Nor did the judge. He said this was the most shocking piece of violence he had ever come across. So brutal, methodical and continued was the attack it would haunt him to the end of his days. As would, he said, my abhorrent inability to take responsibility for my actions; the cold absence of guilt. He said I’d eroded his faith in the human spirit; he would never have the same level of confidence in mankind, the same level of hope as before this case, because he now knew there are people like me in the world. Animals would not tolerate such cruelty, he said.

The evening when I got to see the entity that haunted my nights, I became my husband’s night terror. After his flesh had been rendered inch by inch with something like a candle flame, my husband was eviscerated, gutted as if he were a wild animal by my bare hands. There is far more to tell of his suffering, but I won’t dwell on it. However, I will say that the coroner reported that the majority of his wounds were committed pre-mortem – up to the point his heart failed. The prosecution claimed that I had somehow immobilised him (although they found neither chemical in his body nor restraint marks to blame). They informed the jury there was no murder weapon to find because I was the murder weapon; the police found his flesh deep under my broken nails the morning they found me at the crime scene. I had called them, apparently, quite calmly. The only witness to the event was Baku the cat, who, that morning, had returned to his spot under the window, cleaning his front paws as if nothing had happened.

Of my crime I have no memory, but sat in this cell I do know one thing that I didn’t know back then. I know its name; the name of my visitor; the name it kept asking me to give; the demand I could not meet. Now I realise that I have always known its name, because its name was, of course, my name. And what’s my name, you might ask? Well, it’s just a name, any old name. A name just like yours.

The End.

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Leaving twitter…

Just a quick note to tell anyone who knows me on Twitter that I have deactivated my account. This is not a Twitter thing, it is a Me thing. I may return at some point…

Bedside Cabinet

A short tale.

#

On the way home from the supermarket, a rather tall man with cropped hair and dark eyes sat beside me on the bus. His plain suit gave little away other than he was not one for buying clothes too often, something I think we can all be guilty of. His age? Fifty, perhaps, but he had one of those faces you think might have been aged by decisions others are often more fortunate not to have made.  All in all, entirely typical, except that as he sat next to me, his head darted about as if looking for someone; looking for someone who was looking for him. And he was scratching his right hand a little too vigorously. As I looked closer, I saw on the back of this hand a dark red mark like a puncture wound, but with something still in it. The skin surrounding the injury was peeling off in thick, curling strands like wood shavings. I couldn’t help but lean away from him.

When he stopped searching the bus, he turned my way and told me, of all things, that he had been living in Ikea for a year. And just that day – that very morning, in fact – he had decided to leave. He couldn’t have stayed another night, he said; not if he wanted to live.

“Although,” he added. “It might already be too late for that.”

It had all started so well for him, apparently. He would steal himself away, minutes before closing time, by ducking under a patterned throw or hiding inside a wardrobe like a magician’s assistant; one eye peeping out the gap until security walked their final rounds. For food, he would take a small picnic from the café or shop and it eat on the cool concrete of the warehouse floor, encircled by the dark auditorium of cardboard boxes and the flat pack furniture they contained. Cold hotdogs and dime bars were his sustenance. And even the jars of pickled fish he eventually learned to enjoy. He smacked his lips and the noise sent a wave of disgust through my body. It’s why the Swedish live so long, that fish, he claimed. As if to tell me some terrible secret, he leaned in closer, far closer than I wanted him, but revealed nothing other than that he used to change the times on the display clocks nightly. No one noticed, he said, and laughed until the laughs turned to coughs. He saw his only mistake as not learning the language, because when he would take to his bed – a different one every night – he had nothing to read.

“All the books on the shelves are in Swedish, you see.”

I didn’t believe that he had been living in Ikea, of course, but there was a charm to the concept of that life. Imagine carrying your secret through the store during the day. You could watch people pass the space you hid your toiletries and the moveable panel in the wall you hung out your handwashing behind. On that bus, the strange idea of going to sleep on Ikean beds appealed much more than sleeping in my own.

Shuffling my shopping bags as I got ready to leave, for we were nearly at my stop, I thought I would entertain his fantasy and ask him why he left his home in Ikea that morning, why he felt it was dangerous to stay. He grabbed my arm with the speed of a pouncing cat and I nearly jumped out of my skin. To stop me from standing, he held on to me with the hand he had been scratching the whole time; the wounded, peeling hand.

“They moved in,” he said. “I could feel their presence, sense their creeping shadows shifting to their wicked dance, always just a step beyond the reach of the light.”

“Who moved in?” I asked, pulling my arm from his grasp, repulsed but intrigued.

“Not a who,” he said. “A what. Not a somebody, but a something.”

I told him I didn’t understand and that I had to leave, but trying to stand he grabbed my arm again.

“It came with the last delivery, in the boxes, in all the boxes, in every piece of furniture. They cut down the wrong forest, you see, the dark forest with the crooked, spiralling trees, bent and arched like twisted spines from the evil they sucked up through their long, vile roots. Roots that went all the way down to where death settles, down into the stratum of sorrow, where all that is good was long gone, filtered and discarded on its long journey downwards. And now this evil, this forest, has been cut down and fractured; chipped, shredded, and spread out among endless MDF boards to make up those furniture packs. Doled out like a minced up old cow whose meat weaves its way into a thousand cheap burgers, those wood fibres, possessed by death and revenge, are on their way to new homes. Countless homes. The forest spoke to me, told me everything in whispers from the dark. That forest had a spirit, you see, the worst kind. And now it will be everywhere.”

I looked back at the hand he still held me with before shaking myself free from his grip. I saw now that in his wound there was a splinter, a wooden splinter, and the peeling skin wasn’t only like wood shavings, it was wood shavings, coming off him like a chisel had been dragged over his flesh; his skin was imbued with a different softness from mine, a softness like living wood.

I lurched free and, nearly stumbling down the stairs while struggling to keep hold of my shopping bags, I ran from the bus and all the way home. Needless to say, I have never looked at my bedside cabinet in quite the same way again.

The End.

every invented god – on depression and meaning

Depression often comes to me with the belief that those who are not depressed are the ones actually living the lie; depression is how things really are, it is the correct, and only, face to put towards reality. It feels that those without depression have yet to see this truth; they have not seen that the meaning they have in their lives, the reason they value anything at all, is nothing but a god of their own invention.

Some people might not notice meaning as an entity, a thing – a vital organ – because it is not separate from them, it is them; the hidden-in-plain-sight source of their actions, their choices. This is why those who have never lost a sense of meaning sometimes struggle to imagine its absence. But the strength of meaning is deceptively weak, like gravity, which can be overcome by something as simple as a toyshop magnet. Meaning hides well the fact that it has a structure as fragile as forgotten floral foam, a structure built on foundations of faith, a faith which must, by definition, be a lie, because faith is a choice without reason, an effect without cause; faith has no real answer to the question why? because the answer might as well be anything – pick a card, any card.

Depression does not simply concern mood, it brings about a wholesale shift in perspective; it is about becoming a different person, the person you have never wanted to be; a person who realises that reason is nothing but a flimsy mask to cover the darkness beneath. And those suffering from depression know this darkness – this demon – is always lurking below, waiting to reach up and flay all meaning from the substance of our lives and leave nothing but shame for every lie – every invented god – we have ever mistaken for truth. When it comes, depression pushes the feeling of how good it once was to care out to some distant shore, far out of even imagination’s reach.

We might ask ourselves what a solution could even look like for our depression; what could the happy ending to the film adaptation of our lives possibly be? We might think we deserve a narrative arc as old as myth with a resolution of Manichean simplicity: good triumphing over evil. But then we would remember: art is entertainment, life is not. To feel normal once again, to escape the life-emptying havoc depression brings, we must become ignorant. We must forget that our doubts about the reasons for why we cherish anything at all are rooted in an unassailable truth. To break free we must achieve the impossible. We must believe the lies we tell ourselves.

***

Some therapies attempt to foster small, incremental improvements in motivation driven by a patient’s ‘values’. But depression can leave it impossible to find any values, or any means to form them; the foundation for the first brick is missing.  Therapy is not to blame for the difficulties finding a solution holds. Therapy, like everyone, has to use words – a code, zeros and ones – and words can feel limited to the paths of reason. When depressed, it might seem that words belong solely to a determinist universe, a reality where one is always one and never two or three; words leave their subjective truths behind and come to reside in the world of objects. In this change, the processes that modify every word, every behaviour – every everything – to include the deeper textures of comprehension, feeling and significance are stripped away. Language becomes little more than the simple decoding of its syntax; the world reading like an out-of-date textbook.

In a leaflet for the treatment of depression by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) I have seen a list of suggested ‘values’. They largely revolved around interaction with other people (family, friends, relationships), helping out (community, environment) and personal development (career, hobbies, etc.). But there was one listed ‘value’ that stood out: spirituality. Was it being suggested that by rooting your value system in something intangible, something not of this world, you could find yourself on the path to wellness? Was the saviour option really on the table? Probably not. But it serves to highlight a point about values and the route to them via language. To see the divine intervention of a guiding hand from above as the means out of depression is also to accept that any truth that transcends explanation cannot be summoned or chosen, or brought to bear through logic gates and equations. And not through language either. As Aquinas put it, “human salvation demands the divine disclosure of truths surpassing reason.Faith cannot be reasoned into existence with symbols, letters and words because the object of faith lies beyond reason. In fact, to quote Pascal perhaps, “the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.” Without the ability to apply reason to the article of faith, one becomes unable to rationally choose to believe. And in this sense of faith, spirituality becomes surprisingly like all the other ‘values’ –  that is, you cannot choose to value something any more than you can choose to like, say, football or jazz. It doesn’t work that way. If we are being honest with ourselves, a value, like faith, cannot be derived, it has to emerge or arrive. And if it does, you have to hope it grabs tight and never lets you go.

For me, it is the absence of value – of meaning – and the inability to bring it forth from nowhere, with the tools this world gives us, that is at the root of depression, and why it is so hard to climb out of.

***

If you suffer from depression, please, do what you can to help yourself; do whatever your depression will let you do. And take medication if you want. It can help. But it might also help to realise that sometimes the only way out of depression is time. Sometimes depression just has to be waited out because there is no other choice; like a muse, the sense of meaning will return when it pleases. It is a sad truth, but for some, it is still a truth.

If you can, do not be disheartened if you struggle with self-care and don’t beat yourself up if you see being able to do it as sign of wellness rather than a means to get there. And try not to be discouraged if you are not fitting the recovery narrative people like to see; it might not seem like it, but you are not the only one. Trust me. Depression may make you act badly or inappropriately towards others. You may make terrible decisions. But try to remember that you are ill and your options have been reduced, your will supressed, your world narrowed. If they care, people will understand. And, critically, try to keep in mind, as often as you can, that your suffering might just be here for a short time and soon your depression will no longer focus you like burning magnesium; and if it comes again, next time it might hang around more like a stubbed toe than nuclear waste. You have been better before so you might be better again. This is still a notion I cling to.

Soul Unit

A short piece of science fiction by Peter Burton

#

Scientist: Captain, you must look at this.

Captain: What are you showing me?

S: The first analysis is through from the latest earth we’ve found.

C: Tell me, what is it you lot do again?

S: My team is from the Department of Pantheological Ontology, and we’ve been charged with measuring Soul Units. They’re the basic unit of life force. One life equals one Soul Unit You may have heard them called Units of Consciousness. Basically, we’re looking to see how life and consciousness inhabit these new earths on a global scale, as a totality of being. For example, here we have looked at the total number of Soul Units – the living entities – on Earth-03.

C: Get on with it. What are you showing me?

S: This line here, you see can see it’s flat. Completely flat. Horizontal as it goes from left to right.

C: I know how a graph works.

S: Yes, of course, Captain. Well, from left to right, along the x-axis, is time. The scale I’m showing you is two years.

C: So the number of Soul Units, that is the number life forms, is staying constant over time. That can’t be right. That would mean nothing was dying or being born. You’ve made a mistake.

S: Not likely. I’ve had the data triple-checked independently.

C: And you’ve recalibrated the instruments?

S: Yes.

C: You understand that I have my doubts about whether these measurements can be true.

S: There is another explanation.

C: Go on.

S: When the life and death rate is considered for all living things, they match. Exactly. One in, one out. That is, when something dies something is born.

C: So, there is a limit for the number of living organisms on this earth?

S: Yes, but also a minimum. It’s as if there is an exact number of souls that cannot be destroyed, only recycled. Like energy.

C: You’re talking reincarnation here, right?

S: Yes.

C: Are there humanoids on this planet? Intelligent life?

S: Yes. Human’s actually, but they’re still pre-civilisation. It’s essentially Earth but tens of thousands of years ago.

C: What’s the resolution of your measurements? What the simplest life form with a Soul Unit.

S: Bacteria, Captain. Viruses have no measurable Soul Unit. No consciousness.

C: So a human could be reincarnated as a bacterium, a single-celled organism? Is that what you’re telling me?

S: It’s almost inevitable given the numbers. Humans, and the rest of intelligent life, comprise an almost non-existent proportion of the Soul Units when compared to bacteria. You’re far more likely to end up as a bacterial cell in a human than an actual human.

C: Are you telling me each bacterial cell is equivalent to a human in terms of Soul Unit measurement?

S: On this earth, yes. They each have an independent life force of the same magnitude. But this doesn’t mean everything has the same level of awareness.

C: Doesn’t it?

S: Actually, I’m not sure, to be honest.

C: So what you’re telling me is that here, on Earth-03, every soul is destined for an eternity as a bacterium with the odd blip as something else.

S: That’s correct.

C: This earth is messed up.

S: That’s correct too.

C: What about our earth? The Earth.

S: I don’t know. That information has been classified. Even from you, I’m afraid, Captain.

C: Look into it.

S: I’ll try.

***

C: So now you’re saying every planet that has life is not just Earth-like, it is Earth?

S: Yes, in a way they are, Captain. The geography is certainly the same, as is the proximity to a star the same magnitude and age as our sun. They are in different stages of development, though, different eras if you like, but we have yet to find one that is pre-human. And any we find with a developed culture show differences in forms of governance, religion, science. But they are broadly similar in essence. The most significant difference, in my opinion, is the variation in terms of Soul Unit measurements.

C: So what’s the deal with the latest earth?

S: The Soul Unit measurements are off the scale.

C: Teaming with life then, is it?

S: No more than any other Earth.

C: So what gives?

S: I’ve made you some maps of the Soul Unit measurements so you can visualise where on each earth the individual Soul Units are. For a comparison take a look at Earth-14. Here, humans are the only organism with Soul Units, when we zoom into a country you can see that each dot represents a living human. But if we take, say Earth-03 again, where all life forms have a Soul Unit then you can see, because of the prevalence of bacteria, there is a good coating of Soul Units pretty much everywhere. But there are gaps, at the poles, areas on mountain peaks, deserts. If they were more advanced you would find gaps in sterile facilities, nuclear reactors, even in jam jars. Now, with this latest earth, Earth-18, there are no gaps, even at the molecular level. Every atom of everything – cats, dogs, rocks, handbags, tables, grains of sand, you name it – has its own Soul Unit measurement.

C: So everything is alive? Matter is alive?

S: To some degree, measurements are more intense in more complex items, life being the most complex and most intense. It’s called panpsychism: all matter, at every level, has an element of consciousness.

C: How is anything delineated? What does that mean for those that live down there?

S: Their civilisation is not very advanced as we would classify it; there are no cities or industry. The humans spend most of their time meditating while chewing psychedelic herbs.

C: That sounds pretty advanced to me.

***

S: I haven’t told you about Earth-17 yet, have I?

C: No.

S: Earth-17 has no Soul Units?

C: So, no life?

S: It has plenty of life, just like any other earth. Everyone is getting on with their daily business as normal. However, they are essentially zombies. But functional ones; indistinguishable from us except they are aware of nothing. Their brains are just input-output processing machines.

C: Lucky them.

S: However, I did find one difference while studying their fairly advanced knowledge base and culture. They don’t ever talk about or study consciousness. I believe that because they lack first-person awareness there is no way to know that it can exist. It just doesn’t come up as a topic let alone a possibility.

C: As I said, lucky them.

***

C: What’s going on with all these earths?

S: Looks like some kind of trial and error, Captain. An experiment, perhaps.

C: It does seem like that.

S: The different earths resemble mutations. They each show a variation on the principle of how some kind of life force – consciousness – is distributed.

C: Is there a form of selection going on? Evolution?

S: We don’t know yet. Have you tried to land on any of the earths?

C: We have, but it’s not possible.

S: Why?

C: When we get close to each earth’s atmosphere, the planet disappears. At least for the vessel approaching it.  We can observe them from a distance, but we can’t interact.

S: So they’re somewhere else? Another dimension?

C: Who knows? Maybe we’ve stumbled upon God’s workshop.

S: Or God’s playground.

C: It makes you wonder whether life is just a form of beta-testing, doesn’t it?

***

C: Don’t tell me, in this earth only the antennae of ants are conscious. No, it’s hotdogs. Only hotdogs feel.

S: I think that would be a blessing to the inhabitants on this earth, Captain. Although, I should really have said inhabitant. Singular.

C: Interesting Go on.

S: There’s one Soul Unit and it’s human. But this one Soul Unit is shared between all humans and it seems to have been the case as far we can measure back in time.

C: What do you mean, shared between them? Is it a global consciousness?

S: No. The whole population, at all times past and present, has the same Soul Unit. They share it, all at the same time and at every time, but it’s the same Soul Unit.

C: You’re going to have do better than that.

S: Ok. There’s one Soul Unit on this planet, one consciousness, one awareness. One person, if you prefer. And this Soul Unit, this person, is reincarnated upon death into another human. But reincarnation is time-independent on this earth. It doesn’t require a waiting room limbo or exact coordination of death and birth like Earth-03. The Soul Unit – the consciousness – can be reincarnated at any point in time. But because there is only one soul, it means there is only one life to live all the lives. Everything is experienced by one soul who is eventually reincarnated into every life – past, present and future. She is her own Mother, at some point; the torturer, his victim.

C: Do they realise this? Rather, does it realise this? If they do, then they must be a very virtuous people. Person. God, this is awkward. What I’m trying to say is that if I am you and you are me we’re not going to wrong each other, are we? We’re not going to cause each other any harm.

S: The single consciousness concept has come up numerous times in their culture, but it remains just that: a concept. One not taken very seriously.

C: Oh dear, that’s not going to be a pleasant realisation.

S: No, not considering what they’ve been doing to each other all this time.

C: Bad is it?

S: Very.

C: Anything else? Do they at least have democracy?

S: Yes, there are allusions to a form of it in some countries. Civilisation is relatively advanced compared to some of the earths. They’re in the nuclear age. Three main belief systems dominate religion: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Most people refer to their current year as 2019. The three most powerful nations are called America, Russia and China.

C: What strange names.

S: Here, have a look at a brief history of their earth I’ve generated.

C: This is horrendous. What were they thinking?

S: It’s a tough read, I know.

C: Do you remember when I asked you about what was going on with our earth?

S: Yes, Captain. I’m looking into it.

C: Don’t bother. Looking at this earth, and knowing what that poor bugger has had to go through, I rather not know.

The End.

The Tenth Row – A Short Story for Halloween

The Tenth Row was previously published in a Halloween special from the Yellow Chair Review (which now doesn’t seem to exist).

The Tenth Row

You take your place near the centre. It’s your favourite seat. The shifting light from the advert flickers across your face. It’s half past eleven on a Tuesday morning. You prefer this time to come to the cinema. Now that you’re unemployed, you come as often as you can afford to; it delays the crescendo of emptiness each afternoon brings. Like now, you often get the whole place to yourself. Even the usher has left. The trailers begin. You put your water bottle in the holder. You thumb a mint out of its packet and put it in your mouth. The movie starts. You enjoy the beginning. It’s your type of film.

There is movement to your right. A man now stands at the entrance, illuminated sporadically by the screen; you don’t understand why anyone would watch a film when they’ve missed the beginning. He’s wearing baggy jeans and a black hoodie. Scanning the cinema up and down, he moves forward. Hang on, you think, he looks familiar. But you don’t know from where. He starts walking up the stairs. He turns into your row – the tenth row. In an empty cinema he still chooses your row. Why? Closer he comes. Closer still. He sits down in the seat directly next to you. Luckily your coat is on the other side so you don’t have to move it for him. You expect an introduction, a grunt of acknowledgement at least, but he doesn’t say a word and neither do you. You don’t even turn to look at him. You wonder why someone would behave like this. You would like to get up, move to another seat, but your anxiety glues you to your chair – your anxiety has been playing up; it is one of the reasons you left your job. You know a better person would get up and move – sighing, tutting. But to you, moving would acknowledge the situation; bring it out in the open. You can’t cope with that.

Time sticks to every moment; seconds become hours. You can’t concentrate on the movie. You start to feel warm; a prickly sweat buds on your hairline and your palms get clammy. You want to take your jumper off but don’t want the attention the motion will bring. You want to disappear. Ten minutes finally pass.

He stands up. You can feel your heart. You wish the usher were here. He turns to face your way. He moves towards you. What is he doing? He tries to get in front of you. You do that half-standing-knees-to-the-side movement as he moves past you. You mutter an apology. Why? You watch him walk to the end of the aisle and turn around. You look away quickly, to avoid eye contact. He does look familiar, but from where? You hear him walk along the aisle behind you. You hear him sit directly in the seat behind you. This is worse. Much worse. You don’t even have you in your peripheral vision anymore. You can hear him breathing in the quiet parts of the movie; heavy and open-mouthed – a mucus-click before every exhale. You think you can feel the warmth of it on the back of your neck.

The usher walks in and looks around. You want to signal your distress to her, call for help. But you don’t. She walks out. Who is it behind you? Why is he familiar?  Doesn’t he live on your street? Someone you pass every now and again? Is that why you recognise him? Just a coincidence.  Or perhaps it was his parked car you bumped into and drove away from yesterday. Perhaps, it was his rear light you broke. Did he see you do it from his window? Has he followed you here? Does he want revenge? No. Don’t be silly. This is ridiculous. Deep breaths. It’s the anxiety talking.

Then it hits you. He’s that co-worker from ten years ago, when you were teenagers working in a fast-food restaurant. The unhealthy guy with long, greasy hair and creepy eyes that always lingered on the female customers as his upper lip twitched. The one who said weird things like: ‘painkillers should be banned because people should suffer, because it’s natural to suffer’. The one who kept showing you weapons he’d bought from that martial arts store in the market – strange sticks and blades he claimed were illegal. The one you think left a dead mouse in your rucksack. The one you had to talk to the boss about; the one you had to grass up about spitting in the food; the one you got sacked – he must have known you were responsible.

You think about leaving. You think closely about the action of standing, grabbing your coat and bottle, and walking out one step at a time. You will yourself to do it, but your nerves hold you rigid. Your muscles won’t yield.

You think of his hands reaching for you from behind. You think about a bag going over your head. You think about a hammer coming down on you. You think about a cold wire around your neck, stifling your screams as he garrottes you. You think about his hand taking handfuls of hair and snapping your head back so he can cut your throat. You think what the blade will feel like.

You’re blind to the film in front of you, paying attention only to the shuffles and creaks behind you. You’re pure anticipation. The film has ten minutes left. You need the toilet.

You feel his hand on the back of your chair. Oh God. Your body tenses as your chair tilts back. This is it. But he’s just steadying himself as he stands. You hear him walk down the aisle towards the exit. You turn to look as he gets further away. He stands by the exit. He looks back at you – he’s smiling. It’s him. It’s definitely him. He walks out. The film finishes. You wait for the credits to finish. The lights go on. The usher walks in. It’s time to leave.