The Body Electric
“There are many locked doors in this house,” Tesla told me skipping down the corridor, in her ruffled dress, giggling delighted. Her sounds should have been those of a playful child, but coming from her mouth, in that house, they seemed more like the distant laments of a ghost. Her face was covered by a veil, but it could not hide the red pallor of her lips or the way they curled in mischievous satisfaction whenever she troubled those around her. She was “the body electric”, sacrosanct mater familias, a child of barely nine.
After dinner on my first evening in the house, I had asked Arthur about the veil on Tesla’s face.
“That’s just for everyone’s safety,” he assured me.
“Safety from what?” I thought it was a religious thing.
He mumbled something about electricity and poison and left it at that.
“Oh, don’t pay attention to her rubbish, Marcus. She’s just teasing you,” Arthur put a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“She is right though. There are a lot of locked doors in your house.”
The night before I had gotten lost. I had wandered up to the wrong floor, last glass of scotch Arthur had forced on me in one hand, half-burnt out cigarette in another. The house was too big, like a castle. It belonged in a Gothic novel. Except I was no virginal heroine. I tried the doors. They were all locked.
On that particular evening, Arthur was sitting in his armchair, as content as a big cat after a meal. Much like a feline,meat, I noticed, pleased Arthur. Big and strong and Samson-like, short dark hairand neatly cut beard, he was a nice guy of the lovable brute variety. He was a carpenter – a whimsical profession considering his upbringing. He made a rack for my wine collection. We became friends. He said his family was strange. I didn’t believe him.
Tesla was reading a book by the fire. Some horrific children’s book of the old fashioned variety with ogres and pig hearts in sugar statues that would have terrified the sensitive hearts of modern parents anywhere but in that house. Tesla liked them.
The household consisted I was told of Madam Millie, Arthur’s mother, Arthur himself, Tesla and Arthur’s younger sister, Lily. Lily was ill. I didn’t see her. As to Tesla’s relation to Arthur, it remained a bit of a mystery. I was lead to believe they were rather cousins than brothers, but where was Tesla’s family then? Tesla hardly seemed the pitiful orphan type.
I got lost again that night. It was that house. Every corridor on every floor looked the same as if the architect that had built it hadn’t had much of an imagination or had deliberately built it to give people a headache. Like a hall of mirrors. Did I know where I was? No, I did not. The panelling was the same, the doors were the same, the carpeting, the chandeliers hung low, a diffuse glow shedding some light on the hallway to no avail. I might as well have been walking in darkness.
I wondered where Arthur was. Last I had seen him he was putting away the books Tesla had so carelessly disregarded on the floor. Tesla was used to being served. She never lifted a finger. Arthur offered to show me to my room. I brushed him off with a laugh. What was I, five? Apparently so.
“Arthur?” I called out a touch embarrassed, a touch afraid to break the gloomy silence.
No answer. The best solution was to turn back to the stairs and just go to the lowest level. That would lead to the entrance and then to the study.
Of course, there were floors beneath the ground floor. Or the steps stopped abruptly before I reached it and pretended that the first floor was actually the ground floor. Too much scotch. Arthur was an enabling horror when it came to alcohol.
I was annoyed so I decided to be extra rude and banged on all the doors. I could always blame it on the alcohol. Or Arthur. My knocking echoed like the sound of church bells in the night. One door was different. The moment my fist reached for it, it stopped mid-air. I couldn’t knock on it. A hand grabbed my fist from behind. I startled, but quickly recognized the big rough hands as belonging to Arthur.
“What are you doing all the way up here?” he asked with a smile, but I could sense he was worried.
“Up where?” I was confused.
“Never mind, let’s get you to your room. Can you walk by yourself?” he asked and I caught him stealing a glance toward the door.
“And if I can’t? Are you offering to carry me to my room? I’m not some damsel in distress,” I told him with a scoff, but immediately stumbled as if to prove him right.
“How about a shoulder to lean on then?” he offered and grabbed my arm before I had a chance to protest. As we headed down the corridor, he said: “Marcus, don’t try to go into that room again. It’s dangerous.”
“Whose room is it? Tesla’s?” I laughed to myself, but Arthur was being unusually serious.
“It’s Lily’s room,” he said.
“Your sister? Does she have a contagious disease or something?” I assumed.
“You could say that.” Not much of an answer.
“Isn’t keeping her under lock and key a bit much though?” I asked. He didn’t say anything more. Arthur was the sort of obstinate fellow that explained himself once and assumed that explanation was valid for all other questions. Drowsiness overcame me and I fell asleep against Arthur’s shoulder like a baby. In the end, I was just like a damsel in distress. Passed out from the sheer excitement of my adventure.
When I woke up, I was in my room, in my bed, in my pajamas. I had a splitting headache and resolved not to drink again that day.
The first things Arthur greeted me with at breakfast were a smile and a beer.
“Sleep well?” Arthur asked as we took our seats at the dining room table and the vast amounts of food made my stomach rebel and I feared I might heave right then and there. I grabbed some harmless toast out of politeness while Arthur wolfed down a copious meal.
Tesla skipped into the dining room and I smelled trouble. She skipped when she was happy. She was happy only when she was sure she was going to upset someone. She sat down at the table and asked:
“Did you finally get a chance to meet Lily, Marcus?”
Arthur stopped eating and looked at her displeased, but said nothing.
“No, I wasn’t introduced,” I decided not to let a nine year old get the best of me. “I hear she’s sick.”
“Oh, is that what Arthur told you?” she chuckled and it sounded all too sinister.
“She is sick,” Arthur told her in a raised voice.
“Now, now, children, behave,” Madam Millie came into the room to pacify all sides. “My daughter,” she said and put a hand on my shoulder so I would know she was addressing me. “Became ill as a teenager after she became a donor for a transplant for Tesla. Arthur loves his sister very much and given he felt so powerless back then, he put all the blame on Tesla for it. It was nobody’s fault though. Lily made her own decision.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say. Under her veil, Tesla was smiling again. Someone was lying.
It was ten o’clock at night and I was standing in front of a door again. I didn’t remember how I got there. Arthur had found some old wine in the cellar. We had drunk it. All four bottles of it. Arthur insisted on keeping me drunk for the duration of my visit there. Did he think I would be a more docile guest if my judgment was clouded?
Could it be I was at Lily’s door again?
I thought about knocking, but remembered how my fist had refused to go anywhere near the door the previous night. Maybe the door was open. Although, hadn’t Tesla said there were many locked doors in that house? I tried it anyway. The door opened with a screech. Like it hadn’t been used in a while. It was a normal room, like all the other rooms in that house. Old furniture, thick rugs, big bold paintings, a queen size bed. A girl was sitting on the bed. Her face was covered by a veil.
“Lily?” I asked. She didn’t answer, but her head moved slightly as if she had cast her eyes downward. “Are you feeling better?” I was nervous for some reason. Was this Tesla playing some strange joke on me? Would I find the porcelain face of a life size doll beneath the veil?
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said all of a sudden as if sensing all the wild fantasies going through my head.
“I’m sorry, I just felt I had to come in. To make sure you were okay,” I said. Was that really why I kept finding myself in front of her door?
“You shouldn’t concern yourself with me,” she said and her voice was like the echo of a flowing stream. Tumultuous and pure.
I sat down on the bed next to her.
“You should listen to Arthur. He cares for you deeply,” she said.
“Do you mind if I ask to see your face?”
She did not move. Her face was turned toward me. Underneath her veil, I could see the faintest pallor, her full lips and her eyes shining. I reached out a hand and lifted the veil. Like you would that of a bride. Her eyes were magnificent, the colour of lightning right before it blinds you. It occurred to me these were the eyes of Tesla, not Lily, looking up at me and it was Tesla’s lips and Tesla’s breath that flowed into me when she pressed her lips to mine. I let the veil fall back on her face and promised I would come see her again the next night. Oddly enough, I easily found my way back to my room. I was learning.
I had a feverish dream about endless corridors that night as if I could envision every one of the house’s rooms, every one of its chandeliers and portraits, tea cups and imperfections. I startled awake when I realized I did not see the house as myself, but as someone else, from behind a veil. Arthur was sitting at the foot of my bed, looking defeated. There was an endless sadness about him as he looked at me and said:
“You opened the door didn’t you?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked for a moment still caught in the web of my dreams. “Arthur, it’s well after midnight. Why don’t we talk about this in the morning?”
“It’s already too late,” his voice was broken.
“Arthur.” I found myself awkwardly patting him on the back, trying to comfort him. I didn’t even acknowledge the moment when I collapsed.
It began like a delirium. A fever that refused to leave me. Hot, melting, like the desert sun, mercilessly following me every waking minute. I was there, yet not there. A restlessness inside me made my sense of reality acute at times. Sometimes so much so that I could perceive every inch of the room from the name on every book cover down to the last speck of dust. Other times, the line blurred and I was not sure any of it ever existed. The bed, the room, the house, Tesla. It was perhaps one of those paranoid nightmares one has. I was so nervous about meeting Arthur’s family after his cryptic words that I was having a nightmare about what it would be like. I talked myself into that belief just to be catapulted back into the raw microscopic knowledge of my surroundings.
Madam Millie looked after me. She used a wet cloth to cool my face, hands and chest. It didn’t help. It felt more like I was a source of never ending heat and the cold water evaporated before it had a chance to touch my body. Madam Millie was a calm, kind nurse. She smelled like chamomile. It was all I could really cling to, that smell and the occasional touch to my forehead.
“Why haven’t you called a doctor?” I asked in one of my rare moments of clarity.
“You don’t need one. I’m afraid you’re more the victim of a curse than a disease,” she said with some regret in her voice. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough on the nature of the transplant Tesla underwent.”
One night, while I was having a strange vision of Arthur transforming into a lion and gouging my eyes out and feasting on them with the satisfaction he showed when fed meat, Tesla entered my room. The moment she stepped past the threshold, reality re-emerged and I half-stood up, panting and sweating, as if someone had finally pulled me out of a cauldron of smouldering magma.
Tesla was not wearing a veil. I covered my eyes.
“Too late for that,” she said and her smile was as malevolent as I had guessed it through the vaporous fabric of her veil. There was sweetness in it too, that belonged more to the mischief of children rather than true evil. But which smile was real? That of the child or that of the cruel adult inside a child’s body?
“Why aren’t you wearing your veil?” I asked as she approached the bed. Her eyes were not unlike those of Lily, unreal, like magic orbs of pure electric energy, sizzling away. Could she see with those eyes and how could I have not noticed them before? Surely, even behind her veil, such energy would shine through. I wondered if I had not been right before to assume it had been Tesla I had encountered in that room, not Lily. For Lily was no different from Tesla except in age. I touched a strand of Tesla’s hair. It was the same colour, the same length. Had the woman I had met been the adult hiding inside Tesla’s body? Was she a cursed princess from a fairytale that only returned to her true form at night?
“I don’t need to wear it in front of you any more,” she said. “I think we will very much enjoy having you around. It has been a while since we have had a man among us. Blame it on the predisposition to the feminine gene.”
“Us? Who is this us?” She turned to leave without another word. I stood up and wanted to follow her, but as soon as she stepped outside the room, my world was shattered again and I collapsed to the floor. Arthur, who was probably just coming to see me, rushed to my side and took me back to bed. The lion was back and was tentatively watching its prey from the corner. Arthur was sobbing into my shoulder. The ceiling was a churning vortex; the lion did not like it.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never meant for this to happen. Tesla ordered me to bring you here after I talked to them about you. I thought they only wanted to meet you. I’m sorry,” he said. I was amazed I could still hear him. Or was that still him? Or the lion?
The windows disintegrated, molecule by molecule and dark caves appeared beyond them. They were tunnels and they lead – of all places – to Nana’s orchard where I had spent my summers climbing trees, chasing chickens and fighting Tom, the neighbour’s boy, over the last apples. I hadn’t thought of that in years and the memory of such carefree days made me want to cry. No one should really grow up. Maybe Tesla’s adult body was the fake and the real Tesla was a child forced to be an adult.
I don’t know when I realized that I was actually crying. Or when it exactly dawned on me, it was not tears that were falling down my face, but my actual eyes, leaking away. It did not hurt. I only acknowledged it in passing. I wondered however how I could still see despite their absence. Or was I using a different kind of sight?
I could feel Arthur still cradling my body and sobbing.
“Marcus! Marcus! Marcus!” he kept calling out to me and then his pleading changed: “Marcus…Tesla! Tesla!!’ A surge of energy flowed through me like an electric discharge and filled the empty orbits my eyes had left behind. It was rooted into my brain and fed into me, like a wake up call to reality. But whose reality?
Now, I am a secret under a veil, behind a locked door in a house full of corridors, where all the doors and rooms and floors are the same. Sometimes I am me, your faithful narrator and friend; other times I am something else. And every time I am less of me and more of it. Like an electrical current going on and off, a switch in my head, but who flips it?
Every time a little bit less of me.
Until there will be nothing left of me but these words.
First published July 2014 in
Illustrations by Abdusselam Cifter