By Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein
First, there was a stain at the head of the bed. Something amorphous, a certain discoloration without clear borders. I thought I spilled some coffee I’d had in the morning on the bedsheet, or perhaps I’d been careless with the wine I’d drunk the day before. I touched the stain, even smelled it, but I couldn’t determine its origin. For a moment it seemed slightly rough, but I told myself immediately that that would make no sense. Anyway, I placed a pillow over it and laid out the blanket, tucking it under the mattress to make sure the stain is hidden.
Late that night, I was eager to get into bed. I dropped my coat at the entrance hall and tossed my handbag on the table, I threw my clothes on the end of the bed, put on faded pajamas and lifted the blanket. I was about to lie down and relax, but to my utter surprise I saw that the stain expanded. From its place next to the pillow it had spread to the center of the bed, assuming the shape of a funnel. And not only that, but it had also swelled slightly, adopting a sort of thickness. A light brown rising with air bubbles, it had somehow glided to the center of the bed. It also had a sort of inner movement, almost as though it were breathing. But as I watched it closely I burst into laughter – clearly my sight was not as good as it used to be; apparently I had to get new glasses. How was it possible that a stain that had been created yesterday would grow and swell and become a living creature? It seemed like a wet mass, but as I stretched out my hand and touched it, it was dry and rough.
I stood there watching the stain, wondering if at this late hour I should remove the bed sheet, toss it into the laundry bag and put a new sheet, but I was overcome by strange dizziness, which removed any rational consideration. For some strange reason I was positive that even if I put a new bedsheet, the stain wouldn’t be removed. Suddenly my cell phone rang. A friend apologized for calling so late at night. She couldn’t find her wallet and she had no idea what to do. The panic that came from the phone made me alert. I suggested she should call and cancel her credit cards and she thanked me, and the conversation was quickly over. Exhausted, I collapsed on the inner side of the bed, curving my body so I wouldn’t touch the stain. Before I fell asleep I heard a strange whistle, and then a sort of ticking, as if at the heart of the stain was an old clock. I thought I really must remove the sheet at once, but instead I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Early in the morning, a cool wind awakened me. With eyes closed, I stretched a hand to further cover myself, and to my utter surprise I touched an obscure humidity. I opened my eyes and saw that the stain had expanded along the bed, and now it was as long as my body. Like me, it was covered with a blanket made of a pleasant fabric, and underneath it was that denseness that seemed alive, like exposed viscera, skinless tendons and muscles; a motionless stain that yet clearly exhibited invisible breathing. I could hear ticks coming from it, muffled yet distinct.
I was stunned. Petrified. My heart was pounding rapidly and sweat accumulated on my temples. My fingers crushed the blanket so hard I almost tore it. I couldn’t move. Various questions emerged and struck me: is someone hiding in the bed? An animal? A person? Maybe an unfamiliar material? Drug? Poison? Possibilities materialized in my mind, each one worse than the one before, but then dissipated when put to the test of pure reason. After a couple of minutes my breath became normal again, and I reproached myself for believing in such ridiculous horror stories. I decided to get out of bed at once and replace the dirty sheet with a new one.
But as I moved, the stain moved with me.
My left foot turned left, and the stain crawled to the left; my right leg folded, and the stain wrapped into itself; my hand stretched above my head and the stain broke forward to the headboard, lively, and now also chirping. To quiet the sound of my heart pounding, which emerged from every pore of my body, I yelled at myself to stop, this is complete nonsense, a hallucination; a stain in the bed cannot become a person’s shadow. Apparently I hadn’t woken up yet. Here, in a moment I will get up, wash the rebellious sheet—
As I got up a peep emerged from the stain, and somehow it vibrated, as if it contained water that moved from side to side. It gurgled and became quiet.
I collapsed on the floor and laid on the carpet for two hours, my eyes closed and my body trembling.
Rain pelted the window, gusty winds plucked at the treetops, hailstones fell on the street, making an aggravating rustle. I laid in bed next to the stain, listening to the winter storm. I’d been sleeping next to it for a week—not really sleeping but resting, stretching my body as it expanded with me. I placed my head on a high pillow and it poured toward the headrest.
The fear of the first days had been replaced by a vague alarm. The stain had not been removed, even though I’d changed the bed sheet twice. It was floating up and shrinking, spreading on the right side of the bed and then contracting itself and turning into a long worm. Something was existing next to me though I didn’t quite know what it was. My various speculations were all ruled out. I’d pondered for hours—what is this thing?—all I knew was that a certain physical relation between us existed. A sort of interaction that I didn’t understand, a reciprocal movement that I couldn’t figure out.
Before I got into bed I took off my clothes and laid naked next to the stain. At first, I was lying on my back, my head on the pillow and my body stiff, hands fixed on the sides, and my breath shallow. But after a couple of minutes, the thread stretching my body loosened and I relaxed. Lying on my side as my full breasts pressed against the mattress, a heavy thigh stretched forward, a light soft belly protruding down—my body was fully lax, almost as if it was about to be absorbed into the bed. And the stain adopted my body’s form, making chirps and whistles.
Had I been lying next to a man I definitely would have contracted my bulging belly, trying in vain to conceal its softness. Every once in awhile I dated men, sometimes I had a partner for a couple of months. Men tended to take off their clothes at once; passion blunts self-reservation. Maybe they thought there was no need to pretend for a woman who looked like me. I, by contrast, constantly compared myself to the body of an anonymous woman that had been engraved in my memory, a long thin stalk, so different from me that it was hard to believe we were part of the same species. I would loathe myself and detest the man next to me, and then make loud moans.
But next to the stain I’d spread myself, and it adopted the form of my body without creating any oppressive self-reservation. My leg moved to the side and the stain poured in the same direction, my arm folded above my head and the stain expand upward. A denseness that was an echo, a reflection, a blunt mirror that though it reflected my body, it provoked no comparison to other women, to other body types; an entity without judgment. For a moment I even thought it restored the ancient mysterious nature of femininity that had been utterly lost.
A howling wind came from the street. In the silence of the night, it was possible to hear night birds chirping. I was lying in bed, I’d looked outside the window. I saw a fuzzy moon and closed my eyes.
The stain had grown. Extended. Spread across more than half the bed. It had been here next to me for two weeks, enveloping a hidden movement, and I found that it was sprouting. Every morning, I slid a bit farther to the left side of the bed, but I could still relax comfortably. The moving stain emitted its ticking, its motion resembled mine but only bigger. Sometimes I moved my body only to watch it changing, crystallizing into a bulge that was swallowed into itself. A movement that in spite of being visible, occurred within itself. A hand moving aside and the stain dripped toward me; I recoiled so it wouldn’t touch me. But immediately it withdrew, making a gurgle, returning to the right side of the bed. I was lying on the left side of the bed, moving slightly farther away from the center, wishing to relax in the space left. I was thinking what would happen if the stain went on expanding, but I fended off the thought, and it dissipated and disappeared.
I began to suspect the stain was also crawling into my tablet. Late at night I couldn’t sleep, I surfed the web. Mostly I was on Facebook; a variety of unrelated posts blended into each together, making my loneliness yet another story emitted into the world. No longer was I feeling suffocated and breathless, as if I were alone in the world, but instead I saw smiling or sad faces, a tragic and then funny headline, photos of animals and then political declarations. So I also became part of a constant stream of impressions that emerged for a single second and then sank into the darkness, moderating any sadness or joy, illustrating well the proverb that all things must pass.
But I suddenly realized there was a link between the stain and the images on my tablet. As a lovely animal appeared—a dog surrendering to the hug if its owner, a cute cat looking out the window—the stain made a light, delicate chirp, almost pleasant, and I could feel a soft movement within it. As I watched an embarrassing or ugly image, it made a shrill peep, and something appeared to be moving with disagreeable sharpness. So, late at night, I was on the side of the bed, watching images, letters, numbers on my tablet, attentive against my wishes to the echoes they created in the stain. A recumbent full-bodied woman was watching pieces of reality that were visible for a couple of seconds and then sank into oblivion, drowning the oppressive silence of the night and her complaints, which nobody answered, in the echo that emerged from the entity next to her.
People think better at night. A complicated exercise, income minus expenses that every time add up to a different amount, regular working hours plus overtime that make an unreasonable number—they all disappear late at night. Everything falls into place, the numbers make sense, an inner logic that agrees with the facts. I realized that exactly twenty-three days ago the stain appeared on the bed. Twenty-three nights and three hours since this small bulkiness at the head of the bed, which I thought had dripped from my coffee, became a lasting entity. I fell asleep next to it and expected to see it as I woke up in the morning.
Strangely, a certain intimacy was created between me and the stain, as if we were both part of a hidden plan. If I watched a movie, I was constantly attentive to the sounds it made; if immersed in Facebook, I wondered if it would generate a gurgle of pleasure or an inner movement, nervous and full of resentment; if I read the headlines, I was waiting to feel its internals currents. Sometimes I felt an unpleasant ticking coming from it, and I tried to speculate why it was annoyed.
The stain, so I’ve discovered, detested strong feelings. If my tablet revealed a young man holding back his tears facing his dying father, a woman’s face twisted by pain watching her sick child, a young girl crying as her lover travels far away, it made shrill sounds. For a moment, I thought I heard two pieces of metal rubbing each other, a creak that made me shiver, and I immediately removed the images, deleting faces showing pain or longing. The stain especially liked colorful images. Funny scenes made it rattle. Torn body parts, murder and rape only generated a tiny croak; violent scenes created a slight, almost unnoticed, movement. But it found a clear strong emotion, the heart artery fully exposed, detestable. An inner movement would become apparent, and though its source was obscure, clearly the stain expressed resentment, almost always accompanied by a loud, unbearable whistle. Stop it, enough, I yelled at it, but the stain was indifferent to my screaming. Only as the gliding tears were replaced by a smiling or violent face did the stain stop moving and seemed enveloped by pleasant tranquility.
When my son was a child, I used to tell him stories at bedtime. Lying in bed, wrapped in a duvet, his eyes were closing but they opened at once if the story was about a horrifying monster, a preying animal, robbers awaiting an unsuspecting convoy. But if accidentally a broken-hearted mother appeared in the story, or a beaten boy betrayed by his friend, rage filled his child’s eyes and his small hands clenched into fists. In a loud voice, he demanded that I remove these oppressive characters; he had no desire to listen to a story that fills the eyes with tears. He was only interested in an adventure with a happy ending. Well, no one is eager to unearth his inner abyss, overflowing with particles of pain and primordial tears, a crevasse implanted already in a newborn baby. And, no matter what a person does to please himself, the soul’s crevice would always remain open, and one story would suffice to make the pain erupt and break the thin crust covering it.
Thus, I also silenced my complaints, muted my bitterness, swallowed tears over my son living so far away from me, and delved into the characters on my tablet, funny or scary. And if, for a single moment, an aching or love-struck protagonist emerged, the stain revolted and made threatening sounds, and I would remove it at once, searching for a pleasant or chilling replacement. The stain and I were lying in bed, side by side, watching the small screen, facing a world of funny or intimidating adventures.
A full moon implanted in a bright winter sky always creates restlessness, an inner movement that can’t be comprehended. Something exceeds its proper place, but there is no telling what it is and how it can be fixed. An inner support is slightly shaken and can’t be righted. The stain was filling almost the entire bed, and I have shrunk to the far right end. A big, sharp moon glowed through the window.
The stain and I have lain next to each other for seven weeks. It was still expanding, its movements wider, exhibiting a reserved power. Sometimes when it moved, I grabbed the bed sheet, so as not to fall down. There was only a very narrow space left for me at the end of the bed—the stain was already touching me. I felt a cool wetness; it looked like a huge mollusk without its shell, but touching it felt scratchy and rough. But I didn’t recoil, I laid on my side; it never even crossed my mind to get up and sleep on the sofa. On the contrary, since I went to work every morning, I was eager to return home and lie beside the stain.
One day I came home furious. I could hardly walk up the stairs; anger made my legs heavier. I opened the door and slammed it behind me, threw my handbag on the floor, took off my coat violently as the sleeves turned inside out, took off my clothes and hurried to bed. The phone rang a couple of times; maybe it was my son, but I didn’t answer. Someone rang the doorbell, perhaps a neighbor, yet I didn’t open it. All I wanted to do was lie beside the stain and plunge into my tablet. Facebook, Twitter, a short news release, a chapter of a familiar sitcom, I was watching them and listening to the stain, wishing to drown my pain in the pleasant humming it made.
On that day the chief doctor had reproached me for an error in the files, though it wasn’t my fault. A medical secretary must be extremely punctual, make sure all the details are accurate, never make a mistake when reporting tests, every letter and digit should be in place. But it turned out that the blood tests of one patient were mistakenly added to the medical file of another patient. The doctor stood at the office door and said in a decisive tone that this never should have happened, it could be life threatening, and then suggested that it might be about time to find a new medical secretary. My broken sentences were useless—the laboratory had sent the wrong file, it isn’t my fault, I only wrote down what had been sent to me—he spoke in a loud voice so everyone would see how strict and careful he was. The head nurse looked at me with demonstrated contempt and the few patients who sat next to the office lowered their gazes, pretending not to see my tears.
Finally, I got up and left the office. I’d had enough of the haughty doctor, who elaborated that there was no good medicine without an orderly procedure. I followed the rules, wrote down the numbers, and still an error had been made and everyone was sure it was a result of my negligence. Even if I could prove that the data from the laboratory was mistaken, no one would believe me. Justice, so I’ve learned, is made by the size of its executors. When I wished to put it on, everyone looked at me with contempt, with a touch of vulgarity. A secretary like me simply could not prove the doctor wrong. It was implausible and therefore impossible. I had better not try to claim I was right and spare myself the humiliation.
But next to the stain, the doctor and nurse turned into blurred, faceless images, only a background to the screen of my tablet. Funny videos and works of art, politicians giving speeches followed by beauty salons promising eternal youth, singers from the seventies and then women’s clothes—and the stain gurgled, hummed, kept an inner movement that was obvious in spite of not being fully visible.
An angry woman with messy hair was lying in bed, biting her nails next to an entity she couldn’t figure out, a swelling that had become part of her life. She preferred it over her son, temporary partners, her workplace for years. She found comfort in its inner movement, created by images on her tablet. The stain reacted to what she said but didn’t respond, reflected her movement but kept its own form, was not taken aback by her full body but rather stretched toward it.
A nightmare. A horrible dream. I could hardly breathe; cold sweat rolled down my back, my heart pounded rapidly. I couldn’t wake up from this distressing dream: I had returned home, took off my clothes and hurried to bed with my tablet, but to my utter surprise another woman was lying next to the stain. Not prettier, not younger, but someone else. Not me. A stranger. I was standing naked, facing her, watching her, not knowing what to say. How could someone else take my place?
As I was trying to stop my tears, wishing to fend off the pain that became sharper every minute, she stretched in bed. The soft arms spread upward, the back straightened, the full legs were pushed farther away from the torso—and the stain followed suit. The flowing swelling adopted the form of that woman, and when she relaxed the stain returned to its previous form. It became a mirror of this stranger, who acted very naturally, as if she had always been lying next to a stain that moved in accordance with her motion.
The rage woke me up. I opened my eyes and saw I had fallen off the bed. My naked body was on the cold floor, shrinking and shivering. My knee joints were stiff, my muscles exhausted; somehow I managed to get up and stand next to the bed. The stain now filled the entire bed, humming and sending invisible currents everywhere, making a silent ticking, indifferent to the fact that I wasn’t lying next to it.
A horrible cry came from my mouth, like an animal trying to escape a predator when it is so close it can smell its sweat. I reclined toward the bed and I tried to push the stain away to make room for myself, but my hand sank in the lively swelling; its inner breath was tranquil and the humming coming from it was constant and unchanging.
Cover photo: Edvard Munch, Woman’s Head against the Shore, 1899. Courtesy of the Art Institute Chicago