I’ll tell you what I know, but I can’t make any promises.
They found their car about half a mile off the road in Badlands National Park, its front tires pulled right up to the edge of a cliff overlooking a burnt sienna and chalky-white striped geological scape that undulates unevenly like a long-dead city’s last monitored pulsations.
From the looks of it, they had gotten lost. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on most things, including how to get where they were going. I can’t imagine that either one of them won that argument. Or maybe they felt a spark of adventure, wanted to get a closer look at the surreal scenery– a moonscape that had fallen to earth–and broke the rules. Of course, his half-eaten corpse slumped over the steering wheel and the large black vulture feathers littering the floorboard suggested something more sinister. That’s about all the investigators could deduce, at least–that and the fact that he’d been dead for some time.
He was buried in his only suit. She is still nowhere to be found.
But I should back up.
A month before they disappeared, she woke up with blood in her mouth and a damp tangle of black feathers clenched in her fist. She sat there for a minute, staring at the crumpled feathers and rolling the metallic flavor of blood around on her tongue, trying to puzzle out this new level of savagery. Oh, she would have found a way to blame him, no doubt. At least at first, you know. Because it was habit. But he lay there as innocently as a corpse, dead to the roar of their box fan, the steady tapping of the blinds’ drawstring against the windowsill, the dark circle of blood on his pillow where his partially gnawed-off ear had leaked during the night. And the delicate fetal-shape of his body would have shaken her conviction that she’s always the victim.
She stood over him, jostling his shoulder, whispering, “Wake up. You’re bleeding.”
He didn’t respond.
Rolling her eyes, she moved to his hips and rocked the entire mass of his body, back and forth, only managing to jar open his eyelids and jaw. She paused and stared at his face with slight disgust. She was unimpressed by the dull whites of his eyes and the way his tongue oozed out of the corner of his mouth like a slug. He looked like a zombie. Maybe that’s what she was doing in her sleep—killing a zombie. Biting his head clean off to end his miserable purgatory.
She suddenly became nervous and wondered if he was breathing. She grabbed the cracked silver hand mirror on the bedside table and held it under his nose. When the glass fogged-up, she felt silly, guilty even, which then took its natural turn into agitation.
She leaned-in close to his in-tact ear and said at full speaking volume, “Wake up!”
He flinched and groaned.
“Get up! I think you need stitches,” she said.
She was already knotting the belt of her tattered green terry-cloth robe as he was reeling in his tongue and struggling to keep his eyes open. She could see the bloody ridge where his earlobe had been and imagined the countless times she’d sucked or nibbled on it during sex. But then she winced when she remembered that it was at present being converted to waste in her GI tract.
“Don’t you feel it?” she asked, flapping her arms up and down, exasperated. He still didn’t move.
“Your ear. Feel your ear!” she said, vigorously pointing to hers.
He groaned again, and abruptly sat up, straight and rigid like the shaft of a rake that had been stepped on. His eyes kept rolling back in his head, and she winced again as he absently dug his finger around in the open wound.
“What happened? I’m bleeding,” he said dreamily, rubbing his bloody fingers together in the universal gesture for money.
You’d think the realization of bloodshed would shake-off any lingering veils of sleep, but he groaned and collapsed back onto the pillow, staining it with more blood. She stomped over to the bed in a huff and spun his legs off the edge of the bed with a grand swoop of her arm, then grabbed his shoulders and heaved him up to a sitting position. She put slippers on him, his robe, taped a cotton ball to his earlobe to keep it from dripping, and grabbed his arm and pulled him over her shoulder Romance-novel style. Of course, he would have been too heavy to carry out of the house like that, so she probably dumped him into the rolling desk chair they kept in the computer room and wheeled him out. Who knows how she maneuvered his dead weight into the car, but they eventually got to the emergency room. And he didn’t open his eyes until the doctor stuck a needle filled with Lidocaine into his wound.
This kind of thing had been happening a lot, you see. But not like this—not with cannibalism or what have you. There was the time she woke up in a pile of brush in the backyard; another time in the tulip poplar in the front yard, draped over a low-hanging branch in nothing but her cotton panties; and another running through the woods behind their house; and another, sitting at the dinner table eating cold leftover chicken casserole with a butcher knife. Less and less often would a dream ripple and mutate into the insipid beige firmament of her bedroom ceiling, marking her safe return to consciousness. It was as if her senses were turning inside out, or something. It happens more than you think. But it didn’t really start getting to her until a week or so after she’d chewed his ear off, when she gouged up his face and crashed through the sliding glass doors leading to the back patio in her sleep. He had gotten up in the night to relieve himself and found her splayed out in the moonlight amidst a mosaic of twinkling glass, covered in what looked like soot or crude oil. It was like some evil force was in the process of devouring her. The whole bottom part of her face was blacked out and her arms and legs look pin-striped. It was just all the blood, though. Have you ever noticed that? How blood looks black in the dark?
She woke up with his face hovering over hers, rimmed in bluish moonlight.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“What happened to me? What happened to you!” he replied.
Her eyes widened and she smiled. “You’re awake,“ she said. “You’re awake. But look at your poor face.” She brought her hands to his face, gently brushing her fingers across his lips and cheeks. He flinched and hissed air through his teeth. His lips were busted and swollen; he licked them and could taste blood. And his cheeks felt like pumice stone, like he’d been sprayed with shrapnel.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said, bewildered. “I’ve been asleep. But you’re bleeding. Everywhere.”
“I was flying, but I was trapped,” she mused. “The glass doors looked like open air.”
He must have felt sorry for her, like he’d found an animal that was broken all over and about to die. He ignored his own inexplicable, stinging injuries and drew her hand to his mouth, kissed it, flooding the shallow fissures of her knuckles with blood. You can still love someone and have no idea who they are anymore, you know. It’s a good and bad thing, I guess.
After cleaning himself up, he stuffed her nose with toilet paper, covered all the cuts on her arms and legs with band-aids and took her to the ER. She was uncomfortable in the waiting area and squawked about how cold it was. She nagged him to tell someone to turn up the heat, and he did even though he thought the climate of the emergency room was pleasantly neutral, just to keep her calm. They never agreed on climate, either.
Hospital records indicated that the nurse had taken her temperature once they were admitted into a room. It had been dangerously low—93 F—and the nurse had immediately pushed one of the cryptic blue buttons on the wall to alert a doctor. They had interrogated her, asked if she had been exposed to extremely cold temperatures recently, if she had taken any medications, experienced any flu symptoms, if she was allergic to anything, if she had had a bowel movement in the last forty-eight hours. The only thing out of the ordinary she had experienced was her sleepwalking. The doctor and nurse had bustled around her in blue and white swirls, securing heated bags of saline around her arms and legs with plastic wrap and lodging heating pads into the crooks of her neck, armpits, and then between her legs. Their final touch was a black ski mask, which they pulled over her head and cut a hole into where her nose was so that they could keep an eye on it.
Nothing could logically explain her body’s sudden hypothermic spell; it was declared a medical anomaly. Once her body temperature climbed back up to 98 F, the doctor set her nose with an exacting snap, and sent her away with a prescription for Codeine and a referral to a sleep pathologist.
She contacted Dr. Schwarmen the very next day. After his private animal psychiatry practice in Munich had gone bankrupt five years ago, Dr. Schwarmen had switched to somnology and begun treating sleep-disordered patients all over the world via telephone. He was so obviously a quack. He had one of those theatrically thick German accents where he prounounces his th’s as z’s and he skips over letters and words or switches back and forth from English to German in the same sentence; he was barely comprehensible. You couldn’t play a better quack on TV. She was his instant disciple, though. When you’re desperate and scared, you’ll believe anything—except when someone tells you you’re desperate and scared.
After telling Dr. Shwarmen that over the past couple of months she’d been feeling like reality was shifting from a stairway to a slide and that recently her sleepwalking had become a danger to herself and to others and that it seems, oddly enough, that she has been trying, in strange and bestial ways, to kill her husband in her sleep—in his sleep—and that black feathers have been mysteriously turning up in her hands and shirt sleeves and even in her underwear and that her nose had been in a constant state of soreness, though that was probably from the break, and that in general, she wasn’t doing well, Dr. Shwarmen paused, cleared his throat, and launched into a convoluted, though surprisingly pat diagnosis that she did not understand and yet ate up like it was her first meal in years.
“Es ist REM behavior disorder or a strong case of somnombolism,” Dr. Schwarmen said.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s that?”
Dr. Schwarmen explained that when she reaches REM sleep, she doesn’t fully go to sleep but maintains a state of low consciousness and acts out her dreams like she’s the puppet and the puppeteer at the same time.
“Okay,” she said, pausing. “What can I do about it?”
Dr. Schwarmen explained that it was probably due to stress and that an overabundance of material possessions were clogging the synergistic flow of her soul, say, like too much junk down the sink or the toilet, and now her subconscious and conscious mind were having to work together around the clock in order to right a world that has gone all wrong.
She twirled the phone cord around her finger as Dr. Schwarman spoke, her comprehension flickering in the midst of his hybrid German-English verbiage. Her finger was now red and swollen and she wondered if she could ever muster the will to cut off the blood supply long enough for her finger to turn black.
“In a manner of speaking, you mean. Right?” she asked.
Dr. Schwarmen answered in a loud and punctuated voice that startled her and made her stand at attention, “Nein. I am talking about the Western plague! Es ist imperative zat you transcend material reality for an hour a day zrough meditation for zee rest of your life!”
She gulped. “Meditation?” she asked. “A sleeping pill won’t work? A noise machine?”
“Nein. Meditation only. Only zen will you sleep.”
She was silent. She could hear a woman in the background telling Dr. Schwarmen that his mother was on line two.
“But I’ve never meditated before. I don’t even know where to start,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t even have a candle or mat. I’m too busy to be Buddhist.”
Dr. Schwarmen assured her that meditation was simple, only a three-step process: Lotus position, breathing, and flushing of the mind, which he repeated three times like he was reciting a nursery rhyme.
“Try it und call me in two weeks,” he said. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised! Google it. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
“Tschuss!” he said. “And remember: Was immer du tust, oder träumen zu können, beginne es. Kühnheit besitzt Genie, Macht und Magie! Now please hold while I transfer you to billing.”
Now, it’s always unsettling when someone you know blindly commits to the relatively radical prescriptions of a seeming crackpot. Sure, she read a couple of thin volumes about Eastern philosophy she’d picked up in one of those New Age stores around town, but all they did was give her a trunk of shiny generalizations she could adorn herself with. She would say things like, Once I can stop craving, I can stop suffering, and even lose some weight, or If I’m pushing back, I can’t move forward, or I need to kill myself, you know, in order to live, or I must relinquish the things I love and hate in order to find peace, and her eyes would glow madly like the windows of a wood-burning stove. I was by no means alarmed by any of it, though. It was almost endearing because she hadn’t been inspired or passionate about anything in forever, and here she was, deluded as a child. But investigators saw all of it differently, and when they found a Target receipt from a couple of weeks before they disappeared, they held as evidence because it implicated a sudden change in thought and behavior and thus, intent. She had purchased three items that day: a hot pink yoga mat for $45.00; a box of assorted incense for $7.99; and a miniature battery-powered fountain for $29.99. I can still see the picture on the cardboard box the fountain had come in. It showed a woman in pastel, loose fitting clothing, sitting in lotus position on a hot pink yoga mat with her eyes closed and her mouth stuck in the slight grin of a funeral-prepped corpse. The woman was crudely superimposed atop a prototypical mountain peak with multicolored ribbons of incense smoke encircling her like a stretched-out slinky, and the tiny fountain loomed large in the foreground and was splashed with the words, “Makes Real Mountain Spring Sounds.” She set up her meditation sanctuary beneath the bedroom window because it got the best light and because he lay on the couch in the living room all day, slipping in and out of consciousness and periodically getting up to eat and relieve himself. So for an hour a day, her fair skin pinking in the morning sunlight, she would channel the woman on the box, trying to achieve the serenity the picture promised.
At first, it was difficult to unclutter her mind. She couldn’t keep her eyes from boggling around behind her lids like toddlers fighting sleep. She thought about how over-priced the yoga mat was, how the fountain would probably end up being one of those products you use only once or twice before it breaks. She would have thought about dinner. Then she may have sunk deeper into the moment and began thinking about her body, how her rear end felt flat and sturdy like a tree trunk, how the tension in her arms and legs was gradually diffusing with each deep inhale and exhale, how her breath expanded and contracted her lungs, her ribs, her stomach. And her face would have begun to relax.
They stood outside the black vulture pen. It had been so long since they’d done anything nice together. He stood in front of her with his eyes closed, holding a baby vulture by her delicate talons. The baby frantically flapped her bald peach-fuzz wings and screeched, trying to escape. The other vultures in the pen were mad. There were seven of them, and one-by-one they were taking wing from plaster rock formations and hurling themselves into the netting between them and the baby.
He mumbled something with his eyes closed, but all she could hear was what sounded like the roar of rushing water.
“What!” she yelled. “What is that noise?”
He didn’t hear her, and he stood there mouthing something inaudible, staring at her with the baby vulture fluttering in his hands.
The strange roar grew so loud, she feared her eardrums would burst. She clamped her hands over her ears and crouched down.
“What is it?” she screamed.
She looked up into the vulture pen. On one of the simulated tree branches, all seven of the vultures stood side-by-side like a chorus line with their beaks wide-open, and she was struck by a nauseating pang of guilt, like she’d done something terrible that can never be undone.
She never spoke much about her meditations. We assumed they were mildly helpful, relaxing, energizing, but not curative. We knew they were already past the point of no return, stranded on different islands with different laws of physics. When I talked to him last, he told me that he thought her meditation was making things worse. He said she’d recently fallen asleep while meditating and came-to on the bathroom floor with a prickling pain in her nose, the hot water on full blast in the shower, and the bathroom filling with steam. She picked herself up, turned the shower off and went to the sink to rinse her parched mouth with cold water, drawing several handfuls to her mouth, swishing and spitting. A stabbing pain spread across her face and she put her hands over her eyes, moaning and hissing air through her teeth. She switched the light on to see herself better in the mirror and screamed when she saw the strange reflection staring back at her with black, beady eyes. Her nose had swollen to nearly twice its size, extending several inches outward from her face and eclipsing her mouth and chin with its dark shadow. She had also gone completely bald on the crown of her head, which was now ruddy and dry like baked prosciutto. She frantically pinched and hit her arms, telling herself to Wake up! Wake up!, and opened and closed her eyes in hopes that the dream would evaporate, but it never did.
Shortly thereafter, just two days before their disappearance, she told me about her sudden alopecia and pyramiding nose. She cried, told me she was scared, that she probably had one of those horrific rare diseases that doctors know nothing about and tap-dance around with experimental treatments until you die. She mentioned the black feathers again too. She had been finding more of them tangled-up in the bed sheets, under pillows, stuck to the skin of her arms like black band-aids. She said that Dr. Schwarmen advised her to go out in the sun more to absorb large quantities of Vitamin D and to eat more red meat—raw, if possible. He told her she was suffering from malnutrition, which is typically co-morbid with spiritual constipation and somnombolism. If left untreated, he warned, her condition could escalate into full-blown psychic anthropomorphication, which could be terminal.
She said she didn’t really understand what Dr. Schwarmen meant, but that she may as well do what he says since he’s the doctor. She said that he told her to continue meditating, though with greater vigor, and to Leeb! Leeb! Leeb!
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked her.
“I didn’t understand it at first either,” she said, “But I looked it up on Google, typed in l-e-e-b, just like it sounded, and it asked me if I meant l-e-b or l-i-e-b, you know, at the top of the page. So I looked up both.”
She said that Google said Leb is the German imperative form of the verb “to live,” and Lieb is the imperative form of “to love.” She said she’d tried calling Dr. Schwarmen back to clarify but kept getting the operator.
“It was a sign,” she said, “That I was meant to decide for myself what Dr. Schwarmen meant.”
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said. “How is a word game any sort of medical advice? How is any of all the bullshit he’s prescribed any sort of medical advice?”
She was quiet after that, like the phone signal had died and she wasn’t there anymore.
“Mom?” I said. Silence. And then, a hissing sound.
“Hello? What is that noise? Are you making stir-fry?”
“No,” she said. The hissing grew louder.
“I think the signal is dying.”
“I think so too,” she said.
“He was telling me to live, not love,” she said. “The word he said was leb. It makes the most sense. Why would a doctor ever prescribe love? It’s always about life, right? The Hippocratic oath. Eat, sleep, exercise, take a million prescriptions. You know. We all have needs. It’s survival first, then serenity, and then love.”
She stopped talking, and I didn’t say anything either. The hissing was getting to me. I was mad. I told her she was a stupid and silly woman and that she shouldn’t listen to anything that lunatic-doctor tells her, that she needed proper medical help. I told her I couldn’t believe how absurd she was being about all this.
She laughed through her nose, but I could tell she wasn’t amused, but sad, rather.
“Was I any less absurd before,” she asked, though I could barely make out her words anymore.
“Can you go into another room to get a better signal or something,” I asked. “The static is drowning you out.”
“It won’t make a difference,” she said.
“What about dad?” I asked
“Hello?” she said.
“What about him?” I asked louder.
“I think we’re going on a vacation. We’re long overdue for a vacation,” she said.
They left the following week, told no one where they were going or for how long. For two weeks they were gone before someone found him on the edge of the overlook, hard and picked apart in the driver’s seat. Must have taken them about sixteen hours to drive there through the open country, westward all the way. There were no hotel records though; no credit card transactions; no maps in the car. Without stopping, they must have just followed the signs toward a place they had never seen but knew had been there all along, waiting for them.
Before it all ended, they gazed at the vista before them—took in the spires, buttes, and pinnacles that sprawl tall and broad up close but begin to slouch as the distance grows, shrinking smaller and smaller toward the horizon until everything finally condenses into a single point and vanishes.
Photo by Molly Wald
Source: Ugly Overload