Barthold awoke with a gasp.
He had been sleeping badly of late and rose each morning feeling heavier in the limb than he had the night before. He was old--now in his tenth decade--and could feel the weight of a lifetime pulling him to the ground.
He no longer slept through the night. He would already be in his chair--rocking quietly, revisiting his past, navigating the dead ends of broken memories--before the sun caught up with his day. Only then--when the world agreed that it was morning--would he leave his chair, stiff and drowsy, and shuffle over to the kitchenette to heat the water for his breakfast.
His body rebelled at the routine. It tolerated liquid but refused to consider solids until the shadows turned and pointed back the way they had come. He would wait. By noon his stomach would consent to hear the claims of a tea-softened biscuit or a little tomato puree, but cut short any argument that required teeth or their substitute.
He produced a stool every few weeks, from the residue of his youth perhaps, cast out like a woman or child after a bitter quarrel. He didn't look forward to the struggle and the resolution no longer came as a relief.
By mid-afternoon he would collapse on his mattress, the stiffness in his joints replaced by an inconsolable pain. He no longer changed his sheets or pillow coverings; he no longer noticed any stains or odors.
Every few weeks he would bathe, but only out of habit, or to infuse his bones with the soothing warmth of the water. Afterwards he would throw his clothing in--stirring them with a wooden spoon he kept in the room for that purpose--then hang them over the tub to dry.
He only slept a few hours in the afternoon, a shallow restless slumber during which he was vulnerable to nearly a century's worth of phantoms. They came in great hungry waves and tormented him with illusions of youthful vitality, hundreds of strangers bearing his name and his follies, hundreds more whose names he no longer recalled or even cared to recall, those he had known and others his mind invented for reasons he hadn't the will to decipher.
They would swarm him soon after he closed his eyes, like flies descending on a carcass, tasting the sweet nectar of aging flesh, impregnating it with subsequent generations, before flying off as he awoke, Lazarus-like, in time to bear witness to the sun's departure.
There were times when the last of this plague, heavy with the remnants of its feast, would still be buzzing round the old man's ears while he sat up in his bed. Briefly straddling two worlds at once, he would reach out for the past, for the phantom dancing with the weightlessness of youth, and not understand the heaviness of his own limbs.
He was fortunate most afternoons to be spared these apparitions and no longer dreamt at all at night. But there were occasions, at least once or twice in his lifetime, when the phantoms found the strength to toss him bodily from his own hallucinations, as though so disgusted with the flavor of his soul they had to spit him back onto his own plate.
On such occasions he would find himself alert, as if he had never been asleep at all, with a clear recollection of everything he had seen. It was not, as on those afternoons when he awoke with the buzzing in his ears, a fading reconstruction of his past, but an enduring presentation of another time and place, an illicit glimpse of his own world.
The last was nearly thirty years ago, when he had fallen asleep in the waiting room. He saw them let her die. Clad in masks and scrubs, the chirp and drone of incomprehensible machinery nearly drowning out their disinterested chatter. They watched without regret as her heart stopped beating, the frantic chirp replaced by a long sustained whine, a piercing cry for the indifferently departed.
He was already on his feet. Had he ever been sitting? His screams drew a concerned crowd. Where had they come from? They tried to get him to sit, but he resisted, shouting madly that they let his Maggy die. Security came and a doctor as well, to sedate him, and when his legs gave out they brought a wheelchair to take him to her.
She was as surprised as any to see the state he was in, for she wasn't ill, or even in a hospital for that matter. She was with her family physician, in consultation over a recurring bout of constipation. She laughed at his folly and wondered aloud at the state of his sanity. But later, when they were at home, alone in bed, she admitted how touched she was to discover the depth of his love.
He never mentioned the episode again, and they had another eighteen years together before her strength was sapped and finally overwhelmed by an insidious cancer. But he remembered the waiting room, and he knew every face and machine in the operatory that final evening. And he knew the doctors' instructions were not to resuscitate, and that this was Maggy's decision. And he knew that he would be going home alone.
That was a long time ago, but something from the experience had returned. And Barthold now found himself out of breath, in a squalid apartment, staring at a crumbling ceiling, trying to make sense of what he had seen, what he still saw, almost as clearly as if he were still there.
The room was cavernous, longer than it was wide, like a cathedral, but ribbed all around with massive tarred beams of roughly cut wood. On either side, the walls curved smoothly inward till they were indistinguishable from the ceiling. Looking up, it felt like he was gazing into the hull of a boat--a ship of tightly fitted stone, airless for all its size, and windowless but for the tiny black apertures, like arrow loops, that were scattered here and there along the perimeter.
Heavy chains descended from the ceiling bearing monstrous, smoking chandeliers, crudely wrought of iron and thickly crusted with wax. Each one had half a dozen arms radiating from its hub like the spokes of a wheel, splayed fingers of a wizened hand grasping at the gloom. They seemed to sag under the weight of their burden.
Barthold was on a platform of some sort, constructed from the same thick beams that ringed the hall. These, however, were tightly joined and finished in a deep and lustrous carmine. It appeared to be a table, though a table that could seat a hundred men and support the weight of a hundred more.
A hundred men were not seated at the table, nor were they convened atop it. But for Barthold, who lay motionless in a shallow porcelain vessel, the table was called on to hold but a mere handful of gleaming dishes and utensils.
Overhead, the chandelier rained hot wax on the assembly. There were perhaps a dozen figures in attendance, all were dressed in heavy woolen cowls, their faces hidden by extravagant and ridiculous masks--like those worn at festive masquerade balls.
The air was filled with a palpable tension, but not a word was spoken. For a long while the masked faces sat in a silence broken only by the splash of falling wax. Then, as a shadow passed over Barthold's face the attendants took up their knives and began tapping their chalices in unison. He had time only to see the flash of the serrated blade before it penetrated deep into his chest.
The ferocity of the action had him hurtling breathlessly back to a familiar place, where he lay motionless, unable to make the least sense of what he had seen. For the first time in many years, Barthold did not get up to see the day expire. But as the darkness filled the room he knew he had to move or never again witness the sun's return.
It had been many years since he could afford the cost of heating his little apartment; there was no hot water; even the oven was useless--a greasy filing cabinet for bundles of forgotten paperwork. Already, he could see his breath, and his body had begun to shake with ominous violence.
His limbs were heavier than ever. But he found the strength to get to his feet and was able to switch on the little electric heater near his window seat. The appliance gave off little warmth, but he knew that anything larger would leave him in the dark as well as the cold. Electricity was included in the rent, but there was only so much you could use at once.
Barthold was not entirely without resources. He had managed to rig a large heating element to his tub, and whenever he needed to have a bath he simply plugged it in like a giant kettle.
He began filling the tub. And while he waited for the water to heat, he shuffled over to the kitchenette to prepare a cup of tea. His eyes misted over as he remembered the early years with Maggy, when there wasn't even money for furniture. The two of them sat side-by-side in their crowded palace, on stacks of crates, a shared teabag and some buttered toast between them, an ironing board for a table.
Barthold slapped the tears away with the back of a hand, and left his tea to steep while he checked the bath. When he saw the steam he closed the bathroom door and started to undress. He used the wooden spoon to bring the water to an even temperature and climbed into the tub.
It would be a while yet before the water was hot enough to penetrate his bones, but he was in no hurry. At least the shaking had begun to subside. It was too bad about the tea. It was only after he'd settled himself in the water that he remembered it was still in the kitchen. He wouldn't climb out now to get it. There would always be time to drink it later. It would be tepid and bitter but he didn't mind. Some preferred it that way.
Outside, the clouds let loose a cold thin drizzle. The bathroom began to fill with a heavy fog. Steam condensed on the cold walls; overhead, it collected on the ceramic tiles and began dripping from the ceiling. As Berthold lay there, lost in the past, the silence was broken by the familiar splash of falling drops.
He was troubled for a moment, as though by an unexpected puzzle. He felt faint, and for a brief time everything went dark. Then his ears began to ring and he suddenly understood, and was glad. Outside his window he caught a glimpse of lightening flash crookedly across the sky. Then a crippling pain tore through his chest, and his heart broke.