The sun hadn’t risen yet but the dark oven heat of August was enough to turn on the air conditioner and agitate Baker awake— even an economical setting of 83 degrees on the thermostat was pointless in keeping his room quiet. He sat naked on the edge of his bed, blinded by the pitch black room with its fustian curtain eclipsed against the streetlights outside his window. He felt the sweat perspire in long tails down his legs slinking into the carpet at his heels and listened to the chugging hum of the duplex’s HVAC south of his window, bending forward on his thighs and moaning imprecations toward that insomniatic wind engine. Baker pulled himself up and turned on his phone and used the screen’s light to pick-out his outfit for this important day, letting the animal of his eyes slowly adjust to the dim orb projected before him. A breathable navy acrylic tech-pant along with a baggy green t-shirt, with the front pocket as a touch of formality, would be sensible for a day spent driving in a hot car and walking outside more than was his typical. But these pants were difficult to match with shoes, and so he thought maybe his fitted red cotton shorts with sneakers would be most comfortable and most stylish. Was it acceptable to go to the doctor in shorts, though? Would the older people at work find his appearance slovenly?
He stopped mid-thought and was ambushed by a different fear as he stepped back from his closet; would this appointment make him late for work? His face was taught with concern at first but then an execrable smile tore across his face and he cackled in his mind at the stupidity of his worry. He doubted tardiness would mean anything at all after today. Who knows what may happen after today? It wasn’t advertised on their website but he had read the cues, he had picked up on the odd euphemistic language the pre-appointment survey used. Life Planning, Holistic Approaches to Mental and Emotional Wellbeing. Yes, he knew what happened at this clinic and if this course of action would be the way it had to be, the prognosis being as he hoped, the emails from his manager about his consistent failure to be on time, his anxious indecision on the clothes he wore would dematerialize along with all the other viperous nags in his life. That’s why he had set the appointment, no? To do just that. To stamp out those vipers at nearly any cost.
Yes, the cotton shorts would suit the day just fine as he dressed and opened the bedroom door and the sanguine light of a creaking sunrise masked his face as he walked toward the kitchen for his regular breakfast of granola with oat milk and cold coffee. He sat at the table and enjoyed himself, mulling over the sequence of questions he imagined the doctor would ask and what answers would benefit him the most while the sun molted its red skin and came up fully over the windowsill.
White chalky plastic wrap was draped over everything in the doctor’s office. The exam chair, the scale, the blood pressure machine, the standing medicine cabinets, the rolling stool, and the computer were all veiled in a powdered translucence, and clicking his tongue in disappointment, the Egyptian glided through the room tearing the wrap from its mantel as if he were seizing his enemies from hiding. Collecting the wrap from the floor and rolling it into his arms, he apologized to Baker for the conditions of his clinic. He had expected his nursemaid to ready the office for their first appointment of the day but given the time of morning, she must have been running late much like himself. A nurse assumedly, but a maid yet to be seen he joked. He urged Baker to take his seat in the examination chair and if he wouldn’t mind waiting only a moment longer, he would step outside and grab his doctor’s bag for their consultation.
Baker took his seat in the chair and thought about the strangeness of his doctor. He was a tall and very thin copper skinned man whose polished head, as far as Baker could tell, looked like it was shaved with a razor. His maroon loose-fitting scrubs and comfort-first athletic tennis shoes were typical but he wore a necklace made of square golden plates that laced closely to his neck and some kind of black paste painted thin ovals around his eyes. He hadn’t introduced himself or even given a name when he tore through the doors of the clinic and why he was completely soaked in sweat confused Baker. Maybe being late to his first appointment with his first patient had made the doctor nervous.
When he returned, he brought a large black cylindrical plastic case that stood up to the doctor’s upper thigh. Baker felt his neck go cool and watched as the Egyptian rifled through its contents, listening to the rattling clinking brushes and imagined what a doctor would keep in a case such as this one. This was a case better fit for a large microscope or centrifuge at a research laboratory rather than holding patient files or stethoscopes or tongue depressors but then Baker realized where he was at. The uniformity of all doctor’s offices, the furniture, the machines on wheels, the beige-colored walls with the wood laminate door and its steel blade door handle, the pharmaceutical advertisements along the wall showing elderly people exercising, and the nurse and doctor dressed in their monochrome scrubs had belied the circumstances of his visit. He reminded himself he hadn’t come here for bloodwork.
The Egyptian with his arms shoulder deep into the case froze for a moment, and Baker heard his hand trap something against the side of the case, and after a moment of struggle, he forcefully rent a packet of stapled papers crumpled together like a rolled newspaper from within and staggered to his feet and closed the office door behind him.
He turned around and gracefully dropped backwards onto his rolling stool, letting the weight of his fall skate him toward Baker in the exam chair, and after the inertia dissipated, he paddled the remaining distance with his feet, coming level with Baker’s knee.
The Egyptian sat tall on his stool and his shaved copper-skinned head radiated warmth like sheet metal malleted under the sun. And from the elevated chair, Baker saw his eyes fully. The whites were sun-gilded foil, flecked with veins of throbbing red cauterized at the edge of the azure irises, all encircled in charcoal rings like glass marbles pressed into soil. Baker was stricken as they flashed into his own and the coolness of his nape now seared hot while his blood rushed venously from his spine to his arms and settled in his legs. He cramped his hands against the cushion of his chair and watched as the Egyptian lazily smiled at him, his lips raised above his womanish teeth as he reached his hand out and touched Baker’s thigh, rubbing the skin just below the hem of his cotton shorts while his other hand pried open the rolled paper he had wrestled from the black case. He turned his eyes from Baker and began reading. The heat from his long fingers moving across his thigh made Baker begin to sweat and the air took on the musk of horses while he sat beneath him and silence ensued.
Baker glanced around the room, still reeling from the feverish flash and his mind trembled between the beauty and the vile that presented itself to him. And after five minutes had passed with his body pinned down by the dominion of his aura, the Egyptian spoke crystalline and perceant, swallowing the torn vacuum between them.
—You are Mr. Baker, aren’t you sir?
The Egyptian’s eyes shot back and forth between him and the paper he held in his hand, grinning for an answer. Baker swallowed and his words clotted in his mouth
—Yes I am
He swallowed hard again
—Is that my file?
The Egyptian let his eyes drift slowly back to the paper he was holding and the smile from his face flattened as he abruptly clutched the paper closed in one hand, patted Baker’s thigh three times paternally with the other, and bolted from his stool towards the counter sink. He turned on the sink and a shot of air blasted through the pipes before the white foam frothed from the faucet, eventually turning into limpid water as the steam worked around his dark hands as he pumped soap into them and rubbed them hard against each other.
He spoke without looking at Baker
—Yes, it is your file, sir. The survey and testimonial we had asked you to fill out beforehand. This is good, very good that we’ve met. I wouldn’t expect any mix-ups but yet it is always best to check one’s work and to leave no refuge for doubt, I apologize if things have appeared ramshackle or unconventional
He turned off the faucet and whipped his hands at his side, flinging water that stung on Baker’s shins
—But we are only getting started here at our clinic after all
Baker nodded and the Egyptian turned away from the sink and dropped to his stool once again and paddled toward the computer at the other end of the exam chair. He laced his fingers together in-front of his keyboard and hesitated for a moment, he looked away from the screen and then turned toward Baker, flashing his eyes golden over him
—Baker. That is an honest name. There is no bloated heraldry or ornamentation layed within that. B, a, K, e, R. and the letters on their own said in succession could be a name or some apothegmatic joke in another language. B, a, K, e, R, right? Do you speak any other languages Mr. Baker?
He mumbled at first, mentioning some Spanish courses he had taken in college as the Egyptian interrupted him
—Of course you don’t, your name comes from a guild, ascendent peasantry somewhere about 600 years ago. It’s essential to your honesty, your plainness, to be a monoglot. I would hope or like to think as much. One only needs a small lexicon to fire an oven or mill grain
He swiveled his stool and looked at Baker
—I believe in your pre-appointment survey you mentioned you have an interest in music. Did I read that correctly?
—Yes, mostly listening to things
The Egyptian swiveled hard back toward the computer and flailed his hand at the back of the tower, flicking a switch and powering on the computer. A logo of a vascular heart flashed on the screen and the computer chimed three arpeggiated notes as it booted, low-high-middle. The Egyptian smiled to himself
—I also enjoy music, Mr. Baker. It is very dear to me. During these consultations, I try to create a comfortable atmosphere for my patients and so I thought I would play some music while we talked? It should relax us both, give the room something more to play on than a dreadful conversation cornered in white walls, no? Something dreadful cornered in white walls is what it is after all. Even though I am a practitioner, who can go entirely unaffected by another’s raw misery without contouring its splintered edges into something smooth? Do you agree, Mr. Baker?
Baker watched as his doctor opened the web browser and began typing into the search bar. He couldn’t make out what was being typed or whether it was even in English, and the search continued to stretch out into thirty or so words as he still sat there typing, using numbers and special characters but it couldn’t be a web address, he hadn’t used any of those protocols and finally he saw him press something on the keyboard and the screen became a solid tacky bright red color with a yellow outline of an eagle and the other a pictograph of what Baker assumed to be a staircase.
A few moments passed and the Egyptian spoke stridently bringing the mesmerized Baker to
—Do you agree, Mr. Baker, do you agree?
—About what, I’m sorry
The Egyptian turned his head toward the ground with irritation in his voice
—First, do you agree to the music, but most importantly do you agree on the importance of shaving misery into something unsplintered
—Yes that’s fine play whatever you like
The Egyptian was still in anticipation as the air laid heavy on Baker’s chest
—Oh and well I suppose that makes sense
—Yes, I would say it makes the most sense over discarding something all together
And from the exam chair, he couldn’t be certain given his doctor had come into the clinic soaked with sweat, but with his head bent toward the ground and his profile on display making his sharp nose and the thin lines of his purple lips like drains chiseled in shaded sandstone, Baker thought he saw tears teeter over the levies of his charcoal eyelids and spill down through his face onto the floor. He pulled his head up and began clicking around the red page on his computer screen and out from the tinny speakers of the monitor came the sound of crude strings, plucking unrhythmically and dull against the surface of dry wood
—Do you like world music, Mr. Baker?
—I don’t think I’ve listened to very much of it
—Well, this is a collection of songs on the bow harp. It is one of the oldest harps known to have existed in human history. You may find this interesting, now Mr. Baker. Besides the use of modern materials to improve intonation and other negligible alterations, our contemporaneous iterations are nearly the exact same really. It is an instrument you might find played today mostly in poorer parts of North Africa or parts of the Near East, and of course as one of those inert curios of the devouring musicologist, but it’s origin is in Ancient Egypt, possibly dating back all the way to the Predynastic period, Mr. Baker. Are you familiar with history Mr. Baker? Well, what I am trying to say to you is that this is a very very old instrument. We are closer in time to Moses than he was to Predynastic Egypt, about a millenias worth of time. But anyways, what’s fascinating Mr. Baker is that there is archaeological evidence the instrument had spread throughout the ancient world by the 20th century B.C via Semitic and Greek colonization. Now, the Semitic people and the Egyptian people were commensurate in their musical arts— the Egyptians gave them their harps and flutes and they took their Eastern lyres, a trade worth the price of civilization itself. I mean, Mr. Baker, it doesn’t even need to be stated how the horizon of music expanded from this intermixing. And then came the belligerent Greeks who knew only how to sail, beat drums, and thieve, they studied both instruments and thus strings enlivened across the sailable world. Even slight variations of nearly the same harps have been discovered in Ancient China and fragments in pre-roman Europe, and there’s even speculation based on certain digs on funerary sites in the Yucatan that the American Indian Empires may have preserved the instrument well into the 14th century A.D. until their collapse. I would say it’s almost a certainty they would have had their own bow harp or maybe it’s possible they weren’t as isolated as we’ve been told to believe.
He swiveled back away from the computer and paddled closer to Baker and sat on the front edge of his stool and put his hands out in front of him as if he was holding the instrument on his lap
—Isn’t it so sweet sounding, Mr. Baker? The corded resonance flat against the glint of catgut strung in the cavity of the player’s arms. To think one then could see the world’s surface strewn with bow harps and all the world stirred with the same long pluck, springing and receding in fugue as one portion of the world rolled into day and the other into night. A world rarely conscious of itself besides the raw impulse of song
He closed his eyes and then slowly opened them and they were suns to Baker again as they flashed violent at him
—Would you like to start today Mr. Baker by telling me why you are here and what treatment you seek from me?
Baker sat up from his chair and crossed his arms
—I am seeking end-of-life services, physician assisted suicide
The Egyptian hummed and his eyes winced closed
—And how have you come to this decision so steadfastly
—My despair cannot be subdued by behavioral therapy nor pharmaceuticals. I have taken the typical steps in dealing with my condition but no psychiatrist or therapist has provided treatment that has improved my overall quality of life
The Egyptian hummed again
—Well, of course, Mr. Baker
He began flicking his fingers in the air plucking the strings of the phantom harp, distractedly closing his eyes and moving his head with the music
—Any fool for 10,000 years would have told you that. Of course, he had his antidotes too. He drank beer in the morning and only drank wine at night. He slept upright in a chair. He wore only white loose garments and sunned his chest hoping to irradiate his heart. He did not cook with milk during the most painful episodes of his grief in order to keep his blood quick and fluid. He laid with his woman, or himself most likely, repeatedly until he spasmed dry in case an impatient child tormented him from within. This was a medicine within our purview but now the same beast attempts at godcraft, blind in the dark only a moment ago but now convicted with vision. So now we no longer cast the sickness out, it is not a grim oil or effusion to be spilled away from our animal. It is you in your chemical overgrowth that is fixed in despair and confirmed by habit, no? But we can alter you, we can rework you. Is this not what the other psychiatrists have told you in more or less words?
—I’m not really sure what they say besides asking me questions about things that are meaningless and prescribing useless drugs. But I believe my condition is unalterable, though. I don’t consider it a sickness even. It is my state, a state that cannot be altered
The Egyptian halted his pantomime and opened his eyes at Baker
— By doctors or by anyone?
The Egyptian wrinkled his brow
—May I ask why you believe this?
Baker was quiet at first and then his voice warbled
—Because I do not seriously remember things
The tempo of the harp had quickened and as the players plucked their strings harder, the instrument’s primitive construction became apparent. The strings shook forcefully in their wooden seats tied onto the pegs at the top of the bow, giving the music a single high-pitched rattle that skimmed along the top of the song and the strings themselves, careening wildly in their player’s haste, clanged against each other creating a percussive cymbal noise as the distance of their quivering was never allowed to contract. The Egyptian paddled a few steps closer and Baker could feel the heat from his copper skin grow warmer on him and he was beguiled once again by whether his doctor’s eyes moistened with tears or if his face continued to sweat.
—How do you mean this exactly
Baker began to speak but he was stopped short by the anger in the Egyptian’s voice
—In what way do you not remember things seriously Mr. Baker? Are you blissfully amnesiatic? Do you find yourself waking up so to speak in places you do not remember how you arrived there? Are you confused as to what your name is or where you live or what you do for a living? Have you wandered into my clinic clueless?
Baker shook his head as the Egyptian edged closer on his stool
—No no no, I don’t mean it like that. It isn’t like that, I mean nothing can impress upon me, nothing is recurring in me, nothing can return to me. I can’t rely on anything particular to surface in me when I must make decisions. I can’t remember expectations of myself or the expectations of others. I can’t remember regret or pleasure or people, really. I know their names but they are flat to me, I cannot seriously distinguish them from other people, I cannot remember particulars in any sense. Nothing can traumatize me or haunt me or torture me from my past, no future aspirations or fears can grip me in my present. I am memoryless and I am helpless in the heave of all the things around me, watching myself from beyond myself torn in one direction or the next. And it is by no means from not knowing things or people or secluding myself from the world. I talk to my coworkers and follow the natural rhythms of conversation and apprehend what they tell me about their lives. I’ve had friends and do the same. And I am very well connected with them and their lives on social media and people who are still local. I can tell you about my friend Rob who I went to college with and how he and his wife just moved to Honduras to work as humanitarians at a free women’s reproductive health clinic. I can tell you about Corey Massey who I work with at Royal Callers and how he and his girlfriend just found out they have a baby on the way. Or my date with Laura Cunningham who is on a keto diet but one time when she drank too much at my duplex and devoured my whole loaf of seven-grain bread before falling asleep half-naked on the kitchen floor. Or how about Mr. and Mrs. Baker who always expected me to never come back to Vandola after college and were disappointed when I did, hoping for a more ambitious son. But it’s not just people either, I know all kinds of information, doctor. I spend hours listening to music, watching video essays, reading news, watching reaction videos to that news I read about. But all these hours dedicated to information yield me nothing. I learn nothing. I comprehend nothing. Sure, recall is fine. Would you like me to list to you the greatest electronic albums of the 2010s? I can prattle you some names but ask me anything about them in seriousness and I will be mute
Baker leaned up out the exam chair and waved his hands as he talked
—And that really is it, doctor. I spend all waking hours immersed in life and its glut of happenings and circumstances and scenarios but when the time comes for remembrance, for me to see those inert particulars animate and affect me into some willingness, my memory is mute. And I cannot feel its absence in the moment, but only in a mercurial twitch of further inert recollection when the time has passed. I feel as if I am burdened with the recognition of a window angled away from the chair I am tied to, denying my sight as it rolls away from me further into darkness
Baker leaned back into the exam chair and sighed
—And this is why I wish to die, I am exhausted of the recognition
The Egyptian stared at the ground and Baker saw him flexing his hands below himself with a contemptuous grin. His eyes were no longer golden but cooled bronze amidst its scoria and he mouthed something to himself while Baker waited in silence. He lifted his head and yelled with strident fury
—May I ask you a candid question, Mr. Baker
Baker was still, paralyzed by the dint of his voice
—Why should I sully myself with the blood of a man for the sake of his pride?
Baker nervously mouthed words but nothing was said
—Why should I kill you when you don’t have the strength to bear the violence yourself?
The Egyptian jumped to his feet, sending the rolling stool across the room where it slammed against the counter behind him and crashed to the ground
— See Mr. Baker
He leaned over the exam chair and pressed both hands onto Baker’s forearms, pinning him where he sat
—I believe you misunderstand many a thing about your nature. And many things about myself for that matter. You have told me a very dreary story and while you are half-correct, as all of you always are, you have fiddled around in the dark and have worn your shirt inside out. You tell me you cannot remember, rather that you are plagued by an unremembrance that cannot be weathered— you elevate yourself as a cold seraph abandoned by the light of its own star where the weightlessness of all comings and goings is unbearable. But how can you not see the supposed absence you grieve is exactly the presence of your woe? You said it yourself Mr. Baker, right at the end there of that great swelling lamentation in the most endearing way a demented dog-angel could
He leaned closer to Baker’s face and the jaws gnashed at him
—Are you not sick of the recognition, Mr. Baker? Are you not pained by the forgetfulness, the inverted remembrance? Do you get the gist of what I am pointing out to you? It is not that you don’t remember things, it’s the exact opposite. Your memory is what brought you here, Mr. Baker, you are haunted by the memory that memory should impress upon you. It isn’t that you don’t remember things seriously, it’s that you are too seriously remembering. Your nature may be torment, Mr. Baker, but do not accuse the greatest Mercy bestowed upon this world, your sublime animalness, a complete present being, while it writhes in the god-flame of memory encouraging it to wish for death. You assume your misery flows from the window that denies you, you suppose that if only you could peer through its panes, a great willing power would return to you. A happy puissant man would emerge to shape things in his image. But since you are denied as you said, how can you be so sure? What if through that window sight only brought you more agony, more remembrance that you would misconstrue as unremembrance? Only a madman would assume his burning skin could be soothed by more flame
The Egyptian lifted his head from Baker’s face and stared coldly down at him. He walked slowly over to his cylindrical black case and rifled through its contents. He pulled out a long brown leather case with straps tied around it and unfurled it on the counter and withdrew a silver needle two feet in length that was as thin as a reed at its base and a strand of hair at its tip. He came back over to Baker and lifted his shivering hand and wrapped the needle in his fingers and tenderly clasped his hand over his.
—You are a thing created to suffer, Mr Baker, I do not doubt that. You are malformed, neither hound nor man. Man enough to ask for the dagger but hound enough to wait for the command of a master. But see, this is how you insult me, Mr. Baker. For what master would kill their own hound? If you cannot kill yourself, then what am I but a lunatic butcher, senselessly bloodletting my servants and carving my name into their hides. Do not come to me and ask me to behave in the likeness of that menace who hangs above flaying his own creation for I hate him for what he has done to you. Appeal to him for death or take him at his word and commit yourself to it
He bent over Baker once again and whispered into his ear
—I am no murderer Mr. Baker. But I will give you an opportunity here to prove me wrong, to show me you indeed are more than hound. Otherwise, you submit to me and are mine to care for
The Egyptian ran his finger parabolically under Baker’s chin and looked at the needle shaking in Baker’s hand
—It is sharp enough to cut through skin without awakening the nerves. Trace my touch and it will be painless
Baker trembled with the needle in his hand, he looked at the fine edge of its point, only seen by its glisten, and breathed heavily while the Egyptian crouched over him and the air waved from the heat of his body. Baker imagined the needle at his throat, he found it ecstatic, but his hand shook harder the more the thought possessed him
His hand spasmed and the needle fell to the floor, chiming as it pinwheeled and bounced on both of its ends falling at the feet of the Egyptian. Baker’s chest heaved in on itself and he sobbed, coughing and wheezing with tears burning down his face, he looked up as the Egyptian unpressed himself from his body
Baker inhaled deep and his voice shook with eyes burnt out
—I can’t do it myself
He winced, choked hard and wet, and he gurgled his words
—This is why I came to you. I need you to kill me. I cannot do it myself. I’ll pay you whatever you want, I just can’t do it myself. That’s why I came to you, oh God just please
The Egyptian’s eyes flooded and soft freshets poured down his face and he laid his head on Baker’s chest and let the water soak into his t-shirt
—Oh lamb my child, let me love you as he denies you. I do not mean to heap on more pain by taunting you, but I always must be certain what lies before me. And you are meek and weary and do not deserve the lashing of my tongue. But you will forgive me for I love you more than anything, and my love will quiet the wailings, my love admonishes he who gave you a mind that you cannot wield, abandoning you to claw at your own skin
He looked up into Baker’s eyes and saw they were lacerations, swollen with blood rash and wet with the oily tears of bile. His face was the larger wound, festering with rotten stench moaning agape and his jaundiced cheeks laid thin over his skull. The Egyptian shuddered and pangs tore through his body as he reached his long copper fingers and wicked up the tears that had rolled down Baker’s neck and dropped them on his tongue
—Mr. Baker I am going to make you better, give you over to a wholeness long forgotten and drown out that burning. No more forgetting, Mr. Baker. No more memory at all, a great amnesiatic ocean to bind you with the rest of all things divine so that you will finally live as your nature intended
Picking the needle off of the floor, he lifted Baker’s chin and with the celerity of his snapping wrist, the Egyptian stabbed the needle far up Baker’s nose, pricking four times in quick succession and a bloodied clotted mass fell from his nostrils into the doctor’s hand and Baker stared glassy and black into the Egyptian’s eyes, and slowly closed them, drifting off to sleep as he breathed heavy, murmuring things indiscernible and rolled to his side and began to sleep without dream
The Egyptian gingerly brushed his brown hair away from his forehead and kissed his face and sang into his ear
Now I have heard the expectations
Of God and his Men,
Whose proverbs are quoted so much
But what are their cult places?
They exist no more as they had never been
There will be no one to go nor return from there
So may your animal be fulfilled
And allow your heart to forget
Place myrrh upon your head
And stagger on your fours anew each morn
Each day the first
He turned off the lights and smiled to himself invisible amidst the darkness of the room as he righted his rolling stool and sat admiring the object of his love.
And the harps plucked twice, suspended and then relieved into the quiet of Mr. Baker’s patient breathing under the wings of the perched Egyptian.
— Elliott Neal is a writer based in New York working on his novel-in-progress, Vandola.