Sunday, February 24, 2013

Asylum Walk (51)

A man knew that something in his house was making him sick. He called it by various names: pest, fungus, disease, parasite; most often, it. It afflicted him continually but unpredictably: flaring up then subsiding, flaring up then subsiding—the episodes (or attacks, as he also called them) variable in their duration and severity. From his first inklings of the intruder—a vague uneasy sense, beginning in childhood, that he was not alone in the house—he built up, over years and then decades, a personal store of information about his adversary and how he might live with it (since, from the start, eradication—eviction—seemed impossible). This knowledge was not systematic but more like the scattered gleanings of folk wisdom. He knew them as practical commands: Rooms to avoid. Rooms to avoid in certain seasons. Foods that were usually safe, foods that should be shunned. Safe—safer—places for sleeping. Survival wiles.

He aged, and in a curious way did not age, according to the Dorian Gray paradox of chronic illness. While he withered visibly under the assaults, parts of him remained undeveloped, embryonic (“childlike,” said more hopeful observers)—frozen in the stages prior to the siege.

He felt a shameful intimacy with the invader. With what—whom?—did he exchange more messages? Warnings, alarms, updates, pleas, fragments of intercepted code.... What—whom—did he know better?

Yet sometime around his fiftieth birthday he decided he didn’t know enough. Something—fatigue, desperation, some late rally of his fighting spirit—drove him to study the enemy more closely. His knowledge, he decided, was too general, or perhaps too personal. He resolved to make an objective inventory of his entire house. Find out exactly where it lived. All the places—he expected these to be numerous—where it thrived. “Taking its measure,” he told himself grimly. (Grimly and happily, as one undertakes a dirty job long postponed.)

What he found was this: it lived everywhere. There was no corner, no tiny spot, of his house that it had not colonized long ago. His previous notion of “hot zones, ” dangerous areas, had been a mirage. A delusion masquerading as realism: hot zones imply that there are cool zones, safe ones.

He aged ten years in six months. The frozen embryo and the withered survivor made one gaunt remnant.

“I’ve lost my innocence,” he told a worried friend.

“By uncovering...a mystery?”

“It was always uncovered. But now I am too.”

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