By Henry Astor
“The greatest crime in the world is not developing your potential.”
– Roger Williams.
Or so read the etching on the facade of the library that evaded his glance each day. He would ignore it on his way to work as a precariously employed humanities lecturer at a well-endowed yet austere private university in the northeastern United States. These days, he doesn't walk by the library much. It was early June, weeks past the end-of-semester grading deadline, and his students had yet to receive their midterm exams back. He had not published a paper in three years, nor mobilized on his dissertation in as much time. Instead, he was a prisoner of two daily activities.
First was the wood shop in the basement of the engineering building, where he would hew lumpy, asymmetrical figurines of animals out of pine scrapwood. He found some tranquility, or at least diversion, in the work, but he could never get his creatures quite right. Something was always slipping out of place, whether the lathe, the buzz saw, or his own fingers gripping a whittling knife. His hands were riven with scars from the latter, each slash at once an embarrassing reminder of failure and a taunt to try again. And try again he would, only to waste more wood and blood.
When he wasn’t in the shop, he ate, and ate without consequence. Every morning, a bomb went off in his body. Hunger, as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, as if there had been a poor harvest or a blight on the crops, a meager catch, a futile hunt. Hunger so manifest that it constituted a thing inside him rather than the absence of one. The hunger was always in control. He could warm up leftover dining hall chicken, disappear a whole sleeve of Chips Ahoy!, or even scramble some eggs if he could muster the will to cook, but he was never feeding himself, only the thing, the hunger-entity into which all his organs seemed to fall. Eating begat hunger. Sometimes he felt as if the little wooden sculptures were trapped in the pit of his stomach, slowly eating him from the inside out.
A dream is a vase without a bottom, each one a different shape, yet equally infinite. Wakefulness marks the shattering. Our impossible task, upon waking, is to remember, to locate the bottom of the vase while gluing the shards back together. In doing so, we encounter the incomprehensible wealth of pieces which, as we probe downward, collapse, becoming smaller and smaller until they fall out of the perception of the mind’s naked eye. We confront the endlessness of the abyss: a boundless universe inside the human brain.
He is a woman with flowing blonde hair, wearing a beige trench coat and a maroon scarf—he knows this despite the world around him being black and white. She is not who she thinks she is, doesn’t know where she came from or how she got there. The world around her is silent. A man passes by, presses a coin into her hand and says, “Look around.” A river of people flows behind the man, they pour out of apartments, stores, cars, shuffling and spilling over one another. Above them, a gray sun glints over the rows of concrete apartment blocks. She tries to discern what might be attracting the people’s attention, but her gaze won’t, can’t, latch onto any identifiable facial features: only skin where eyes, nostrils, and mouths must go. Another woman in the crowd stands still, a boulder in the torrent, her face in crisp definition against the anonymous mass. It appears she is screaming, but no sound escapes her lips. A two-syllable word? The woman repeats it over and over, her enunciation so pained and precise that her message can still be deciphered:
She looks around for anything that can be consumed, but the gray world is dead, inorganic. She opens her hands, signaling her confusion, and a clink of copper against concrete meets her eardrums, a deafening reverberation against the crushing silence. She looks down and sees the coin, kneels, picks it up, and looks back at the screaming woman.
“Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow,” faster now.
She pops the coin into her mouth.
The mortician would’ve completely forgotten the 18th cadaver of the day had she not noticed the little green leaves peeking out of its mouth. Curious, she thinks, he’s only been dead for three days. She runs her hand over his skin, but it flakes like tree bark. Using her scalpel, she tries to cut the usual rectangular incision around his abdomen and meets not the usual flesh but something hard. Fetching a bone saw, she completes the cut, hacking away at the trunk of his body, the smell of sawdust clashing with the sterile odor of the morgue. She recalls an anecdote from mortician school: the story of Roger Williams, a New England colonist whose body was swallowed by the tree under which he was buried. She sets what should have been the man’s organs on the stainless steel table next to her, neatly placing them in a row. His liver is a meticulously carved mahogany whale. His kidneys are two hummingbirds, each feather in their wings discernible. His intestine is a snake, scales forming a spiral pattern that traverses its body. His lungs are two bears, jaws agape and claws raised in combat like a medieval herald. His arms are now thick branches, and from his hands, cracked and gashed, sprout little white flowers with long petals. The menagerie conjures Noah’s Ark in the mortician’s mind, a caravan of creatures released from a dying world. In the place where the stomach ought to be, however, the mortician can find no animal – only a single copper coin.