Palimpsest: A Short Story - 2018

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into the subject of a pioneering work of 20th century literature. He'd found, on the matt just below his letter box - on which nobody but him, being a solitary character, would ever pass - a small parcel, loosely bound with twine. Coarse brown paper hugged the contents, and bore Gregor's address and an insignia that to date remains unrecognised. The kettle issued a whistle to signal that it had performed its function in good grace. Soon, tea was poured into a simple vessel; the package had been deposited on the robust oak table that since the passing of Gregor's wife had come to dominate the kitchen. Sipping hot tea whilst ruminating on the package as though it were Schroedinger's own coffin, Gregor fingered the loose twine, finding the knot impossible to pick apart. Rusted kitchen scissors soon divested the package of its twine corset, and within seconds, the brown paper had relinquished its quarry: a faded, yellowed paperback book by a young Czech author of whom Gregor was scantly aware.


A pool of hot tea, barely contained by the haggard brick tiles of the floor, slowly giving off wraiths of steam. Shards of glass born of a broken pane form a font of tiny mirrors in an impromptu arrangement on the floor and in the sink. If one squinted through the empty frame, a simple vessel might be glimpsed having landed in the soft earth of the garden. Gregor Samsa had intercepted the package in a state somewhere between intrigue and optimism – nobody ever deigned to send him gifts – and these states, upon glancing across the first line of this 'Metamorphosis' abruptly flick-knifed to a state of distilled rage. He felt violated, intruded-upon and instantly paranoid. Once the mug had been launched through the window, jettisoning a veil of scalding water as it did so, he screeched back on his chair and stood, smashing the book against the table, in no discernible rhythm. Books are resilient agents and some have been known to endure almost as long as the contents of their pages. Having inflicted little but minor spinal damage upon his new acquisition, he slumped, jaded against the kitchen floor, adrenalised in spirit, fatigued in form. A hollow cough ricocheted echoes across the hard walls of the kitchen. Sleep slowly drew a curtain across his rage, and for an hour he drifted between dimensions, waking only as the aching crepuscular light beamed a ray across his heavy eyelids.


A mop leaned against the wall; a dustpan full of smashed ceramics and glass lay near it. At this point it became dark, the sun having at last sunk its valedictory rays beyond the horizon. He scoured the inside covers of the book for any clue as to the sender's identity – a futile pursuit. Aside from the printed words that had so gnawed at his sense of self, the book stood unblemished. It seemed integral to the purging of his malaise that the sender of this book were located for interrogation. He stared at the book as though submitting to the sublime coils of a mandala, hoping a micro-epiphany might be teased out. He took a pen and a sheet of paper, and began writing furiously, detailing the strangeness of his day so far, in compact but slightly hallucinogenic prose. A buzzard circled about the pylon that had planted itself at the base of his garden. As he scrutinsed the book - an examination so acute one might think Gregor Samsa had once dealt antiques as a profession – he felt a mantra forming deep in the folds of his larynx, rising bilious at the back of his throat, tugging back his tonsils like a stage curtain, skating across his tongue. Powered by a bellicose out-breath, the word 'Kafka!' fanfared from his lips.


'Kafka!'

'KAFKA!'


Why he hadn't before suspected that the author himself might have sent the parcel, led Gregor to query his cognitive faculties. Given their were only one name aside from his emblazoned anywhere across the package or its contents, he now presumed it obvious that the ailing Czech author himself had fired off this loaded missive. A sudden gust of conviction charged his spirit with purpose.

Now resolved to hunt down Kafka and assault him with a hail of questions at his bedside, he placed the book into a slim hessian bag, strapped on a pair of boots and left the house. His great aunt Svetlana had once and briefly been the nanny of one Johannes Hoffman, a poet and dramaturge whose theatre work had lent him modest fame in Salzburg. Joannes' younger brother had apparently become a doctor whose practice mainly took place within a ten mile radius of Vienna. There were rumours that he currently had the tubercular author under his care at a sanatorium somewhere near the city. Gregor Samsa set out from his modest little cottage beleaguered with only his notebook and a copy of the faded paperback in whose taut and disarming prose he had inadvertently come to star.


Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) lay crippled with consumption, emaciated, unable to eat. Author of 'The Trial', 'The Castle', and now this peculiar little fable that would come to cast such a potent shadow across 20th century literature, and in which Gregor has been unduly cast as protagonist, gurgling under morphine's obsidian glaze, dreamed of Felice. Sometimes his fiancee would come to him as a wraith, wrapped in a delicate white dress that met the floor like a bell-cup about her silken form. Her knoll was given voice as love letters – letters Kafka has addressed to her in forgone years, and her recital was to remind him of his youth – a sickly one, but driven with an irrepressible zeal for the state-changing and wondrous capacities of literature, which would function for him as a form of prayer. The sanatorium at Kierling would see soon his final days, and whilst he knew this and seldom feared death itself, he privately despaired that the last hours of consumption would blaze upon him a pain so unsympathetic that his own consciousness might be struck mute; this having transpired, he'd be an empty vessel, a spectre cursed with a heartbeat and thin breath, wandering the limbo planes, marshlands of indifference spattered with grey and ochre hues, reeds and bullrushes static at the ineffectual pumping of his exhausted lungs. Here he'd dwell in this dank and swampy waiting room - its desert floor, creased and leathery as the racked bronchioles within his ribcage, barely supporting his ghosted footsteps - until his heart, finally recognising the irrelevance of his continued presence in a tangible world, would murmur a departing plea for remembrance.


Gregor Samsa made his way into central Vienna, a hessian bag clutched tight to his hip, as though grail truths hummed from its depths – this book; this infernal tapestry into which his biography had been woven, promised to deliver him to the author of his malaise. Knocking on the door of his great aunt's compact apartment, he was greeted by the aroma of myriad aged cats, and by a squat maid, who announced at a volume incongruous to her message that Gregor's great aunt was sleeping. Could he call back? Perhaps. And yet the urge to locate Kafka threw him into impatience, and via force of will, he slipped forcibly past the maid, down the hall – all honeysuckle and lavender – and into his great aunt's bedroom. Svetlana was thin-skinned; her eye-sockets receded, with lips hard to discern from the skin that prefaced them. At eighty-four years of age, her spirit was impressively robust and her face quickly moved from perplexion to great happiness at the unexpected arrival of her great-nephew, whom she adored.


Tea was poured from the pursed mouth of an ostentatious and fanciful teapot, whose form were modelled after the looming spire of St. Stephens itself. Even the teacups betrayed a great love for her adopted city, with various landmarks painted earnestly across the china. A healthy shot of whiskey as a suffix to the pouring, and great-nephew and great-aunt ventured into an enthused catch-up. Subjects ranged across the well-being of various estranged kin, Gregor's profession (he had none, other than that of aspiring – or to his mind failed – writer), Russia's economy as written about by Kropotkin, and the shortcomings of a modern mattress compared to the time-honoured palliasse, whose straw filling gave both warmth and ample support. Svetlana spoke across all of these topics with lucidity and ease.

It transpired that Johannes Hoffman had long since fled Vienna, and was last heard to have fallen wholly in love with Antonin Artaud (4 September 1896 – 4 March 1948) , who had recently moved to Paris where in years to come he would manifest a new paradigm in theatre. Johannes longed to graze his face on Antonin's cheekbones, to feast on his lips and to gnaw at the perfect skin stretched across his stomach. He quickly came to realise that Artaud would never reciprocate his sexual cravings – despite a few brazenly absinthe-motored midnight fumbles – instead throwing his libidinous energy into the works he unleashed. This didn't deter him, and when Artaud got arrested in Ireland, babbling and in possession of a staff he believed to have once belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, Johannes would hurry to his aid, and testify as to not only his sanity but his genius and has been logged in courtroom transcripts as having repeatedly chanted 'Yahweh is gracious' as though in prayer for Artaud's fate. Artaud's own pantheon of worship is thought ironically to have predated any of the current dynasty of dissenting watch-keepers, which implies that in investing so much significance into the staff he carried, he may well have been truly mad. Or more likely, that he recognised that symbols of power remain symbols of power irrespective of their source.


Gregor, through transfixed by the plangent story-telling of his great aunt, pressed for news of Johannes' younger brother. His great-aunt explained that it was a matter of great secrecy that Kafka were under Dr. Hoffman's care. The sanatorium at Kierling had been inundated with activists protesting against the use of electro-shock therapy, believing it to cause irreparable neurological damage to the patients/subjects, citing Lou Reed's 'Kill Your Sons' - a song Reed would write fifty years later - as an evidence of this. Svetlana, bursting with light and canniness, went on to explain that if the general public learned that a soon-to-be-great author lay confronting death's gaze at the same premises, then Dr. Hoffman's work would be severely compromised. Learning this, Gregor Samsa knocked back the dregs of his tea, which had become so infused with whiskey that he gasped violently before slamming the cup onto the table. Embracing his aunt, he hummed the opening bar of a melody she used to sing to him as a child, kissed her on the cheek and left, bound for the sanatorium in Kierling. Thus far we have yet to decipher what this melody actually was. As he passed the squat maid, she issued a stoic grumble, a scowl clearly visible behind the professional veneer of a smile.


Exactly seven years after clocking this veiled scowl from Svetlana's maid, Antonin Artaud would be subjected to his first session of electro-shock therapy by Dr. Gaston Ferdière, who believed that Artaud's preoccupation with magickal operations was attributable wholly to mental illness. Both of these things occurred at exactly the same time of day. And around seven hundred years after that, it was generally understood that it were more indicative of mental illness to NOT be preoccupied with magickal operations. Artaud, in a blizzard of peyote vistas and daemonic possession would violently react against the precognition that it would take a further seven hundred years for humanity to have done with the judgement of God.


The bus into Kierling was crudely piloted by an ornery man whose distribution of facial hair seemed utterly random. This dominated the gaze of Gregor Samsa for mere seconds as he boarded the vehicle and took in a resplendent panorama of Vienna from his seat. He savoured the rolling hills of the Klosterneuberg district, and whilst scan-reading pages from 'Metamorphosis' he wondered what flavour of history he might be walking into.


Kafka, hacking a rich, liquid bark from his ruined lungs, sits up with startled force – his head impacting on an overhead dangling light, spinning shadows across the walls and floor.


'How did you get in here and more pointedly, who in any hell are you?' - absently rubbing his head whilst fixing Gregor Samsa an intense stare between thick brows.


Gregor Samsa, standing by the door, some way from the hospital bed and from Kafka with his exoskeletal cage of tubes and monitors, breathes evenly and produces from his bag the battered paperback that lie at the navel of this investigation. He begins to read.


Kafka, stricken with puzzlement, listens for a few lines and then interrupts the reading:


'Yes, congratulations, I'm well-aware of the content of my own widley-ignored catalogue of whimsy, and thank-you for reminding me. Where is Dr. Hoffman and why has he permitted you to my bedside?'


'Dr. Hoffman permitted me to your bedside on the basis – quite accurately, though not in the manner he so believes – that you and I have a deeply personal connection.' He presses the covers of the book together and rests it on a clinical module by the door.


'And that would be...?'


'The protagonist of your 'Metamorphosis'...


'Yes?' Kafka coughs, wipes his hand on his hospital robe.


'Not only do we share the same name, but the qualities of character you outline in your...slice of whimsy... are aligned wholly to my own. You put me in your book, without ever having met me.'


Silence ranges to a warlike volume within the ward. Gregor Samsa blockades the door with a chair.


'I had no clue that you would come across the book. I didn't send you that copy.'


'Even if I did believe you, I'd still feel justified in visiting upon you, based on the alarming interplay of synchronicities here alone unleashed. You are trying to ruin me – trying to prompt me towards madness, trying to relinquish me of all sense of self-determination in my life, trying make me submit to the flow of your pen. You have written my biography in a specific dimension that you now try to invoke on this earth. You are trying, to put your words...in my mouth.'


Foaming, in the throes of a rising agitation, Gregor Samsa tears from his hessian bag the notebook onto which he has scribbled the preceding events of the day in his compact, lysergic prose. Ripping out tufts of paper, the spine leavening as he does so, he holds up a croft of bunched prose and screams -


'You. Are. Trying. To. Put. YOUR. Words. In My Mouth. You are trying to claim me within the domain of your literary invention. This is criminality reeked upon the soul, with tentacles that even now you lash with from the stasis of your bed. You are a potent, dangerous, pathological magus, and I damn you with all of my being.'


Franz Kafka, attempting to sound an alarm to the right of his bed, finds the room plunged into near darkness as Gregor Samsa rips out the cable that connects the alarm, cutting out whilst doing so the majority of light sources. He then pulls closed the curtain and begins to stuff fistfuls of paper ripped from his notebook into the author's mouth. Banding four finger together into a trowel of flesh and bone, he probes these sheafs deep into the author's throat, tears off a second clump and repeats the motion. Kafka writhes febrilely in his bed, tubes coming unplugged, hospital equipment skating across the floor tumbling calamitously in a barrage of broken dials and regulators. Gregor Samsa, elevated to a higher dimension by the purity of his rage, is held in a state of near-balletic seizure, stuffing pages from his notebook into Kafka's gnashing portal as though stoking the last fire on earth. The tumult is palpable, and desert winds can be readily imagined whipping about the ward , bringing to mind the cyclones wrought upon Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuberg while in Algiers, engaged in Enochian invocations.


Kafka, one moment seismic with convulsions, the next utterly static – a blossom of spittle-flecked paper oozing from his near-dead mouth. His body has rebelled to a state of catatonic hypnosis, and as his parched throat slowly ingests the intensely-scribed pages, Gregor takes a seat on the floor next to the jammed door, and plants his head in the palms of his hands. Hours seem to pass in the shadow of minutes.


In these expanded minutes, Gregor Samsa, head pressed into hands, is conscious of the arc of every breath his body takes in and heaves out. Adrenaline has bowled him to the forefront of the living. Oblivious to even Kafka's dry, rhythmless rasp, he sits against the wall, counting his breaths, while visions grind away at his interior sensorium. Genuinely convinced that Kafka's slight tome has acted upon him as a thief of the soul, a magickal lantern, the ramifications of the district he once called 'self' are muddied with paranoia. Has he killed Kafka? Has he himself died? Is this ward the extent of the world?


He recalls a time where he had an optimism. The sharp burst of epiphany, cool as spring, that accompanied this recollection is quickly diminished - its validity smothered by doubt's shadow – the wick dampened, he remembers in fact that he'd only encountered optimism in works f literature, a concept whose connotations he had understood. He'd probably learned the colour, texture and shape of most emotions through dialogues with cultural artefacts rather than via life experiences and encounters with other people. In this wily, smoke-burnished capsule of daydream, where all temporality is quashed, a gnawing spectre of utter doubt made tatters of his soul's heavy flesh – he came to suspect, in these suspended seconds, that he'd actually never encountered anyone before today. What if Kafka had written him into existence as his pen struck the page and wrote out the words 'Gregor Samsa'.


Gregor is stirred with a gasp as Kafka barks out a blood-tinged gasp. Sprung to his feet, Gregor presses himself against the wall, with the force that might propel him toward it were the room revolving at high speed. He seems to adhere to the wall rather than merely stand against it.


Kafka's arms are outstretched like plucked wings, his elbows seem to be locked, as though his joints were calcifying at a horrific pace. A collar of ashen, mottle cartilage expands around the seam, fixing his arms in their crucifixion pose, at a stern right-angle to his head, in whose aghast cavity waggles a swelling pink tongue which begins coiling from the gaping mouth, elongating as pustules throw flecks of pink across his sterile gown. A crack, as his mandible snaps to dangle about his chin, liberating the progress of the tongue, whose tip now tickles at his sternum. The febrile popping of bones as gases are released issues a percussive symphony. Full body convulsions are now ultra- violent bilious throes; Kafka's sterile ward gown schisms down the centre, parting to display sheafs of skin separating in layers across his skeleton. The author screams a wordless, protracted shriek, as though trying to express every conceivable horror in a solitary, unending ur-syllable. His legs have detached from his pelvis, each with an ear-splitting splinter of sinew and ripping of bone, driving at an angle around his core, apparently without the muscular intervention of Kafka – his body now under the influence of agents and forces infinitely more potent than himself – merely an author. His legs come to rest parallel to his arms – his body now resembling a cracked letter 'H' on its side. In sympathy with his now joint-less arms, the knees begin to calcify, and once this pivot is vanquished his legs ripple like a furious ocean, the skin boiling at its surface until each leg is consistent in diameter across its extent. Gregor pukes a trombone of bile from the depths of his chambers, nauseated to the first flame of his essence.


Kafka's tongue now dangles by his groin, its lubricant viscosity compromised in favour of a texture more silken – the natural dapples of the tongue are smoothed out, and the tip begins to fray at the edges. The sedimented flaps of skin either side of his sternum are now heavy in number, and inscrutable legions of script begin to form across thin leather fields, slowly at first. Kafka's cataclysmic shrieking intensifies now, as, unable to arc his back into any form even neighbourly to the foetal position, loud gaseous pops are heard – his vertebrae are fusing together, the gelatinous layer between each disc made dust. He screams, horribly. Gregor's own noises of abjection are whispers in the shadow of the Czech's primordial and overlapping horror-shrieks. The flaps of skin parted by his sternum buckle at their source – trying to lever grip of their own new musculature. Ripping from a ribcage now frail as paper-mache, these encrypted flaps of leathery skin lie on the blood-and-vomit-flecked bedsheets, stitching themselves to his arms and legs.


Kafka's head, jawless and agonised, recedes into itself, only the tongue still giving evidence that there were ever a head at the top of this new appendage. As it recedes, the scream elevates in pitch, to a thin, shrill and gurgling whine as though the signal were being fed through the acoustic canals of a bird's beak. The tongue has now become silk, frayed at the edges; crimson silk, tough and immaculately-stitched, resting at the base of his groin, which itself has receded in echoes of the head. The fused spine, now arrow-straight, thicken at its outside into a leathery carapace, to which each of the skin sheafs is eagerly stitched. The convulsions are dying down – being as they were mere reactions enacted by the old agent in the face of early violations by its successor. Now utterly violated, there are scant figments of the original being, and so the reactions are cut to a dampened hum of slain weakness, like the whimpers of a dog in a bush, dying solitary.


The script illuminated by thin veins, emergent to the point of semi-legibility, strives to show entire paragraphs. The ailing Czech author no longer bears witness to symptoms of tuberculosis – he is now a colossal, steaming, flesh-textured book, classically-stitched. Stinking of leather and heaving with cyphers, no longer convulsing. Like the rivulets of smoke from a freshly-extinguished candle, subtle cones of gas churn from the pocks yet to seal, so much biological data has been released through the process of change. Beyond these releases, the huge tome is static upon its stained bedclothes. The book appears to generate its own light. Gregor Samsa, edging tentatively from the wall, leans into behold the new entity. Words are now fully manifested on broad flesh pages; familiar words.


Gregor Samsa drags his nails across his belly, something he always did in the throes of anxiety. He leans further over the resting flesh tome. Its leather covers, embossed with the natural imperfections in aged skin, seem to pant from within. His head floods with comforting images of Svetlana's Viennese teapot, and the musty calico slippers she'd wear even when doing her groceries, and the lampshade too tall for her to reach, that she'd ask him to empty of flies and dust once a year, at which point they'd each throw back a healthy shot of home-made banana vodka. Was Kafka so potent he could've even written Gregor's great-aunt into existence, with his spidery claustrophobic prose? The thought, irrespective of its veracity, proves too hideous for Gregor. He hoists a candelabra from the wall closest to him, and volleys it at the bed. Two yellow, pus-veined eyes flicker open from within deep folds of leather at the top of the flesh-book – lidless and accusatory. Gregor's face, a mask forged in hell, a violent gash of a mouth, leans in further – the words – the words scrawled across the simmering ochre pages of this flesh-book are his own – this book has become a volume of his own writings – the fistfuls of obsessive prose he stuffed into the mouth of the dying author have transgressed their initial medium to become branded across decayed and transfigured flesh, now contorting in pools of flame. If this isn't hell, he couldn't write a more convincing version of it. Dashing madly around the tiny ward he rips the remaining three candelabras from the walls and fires them at the seething, staring pages. Inferno swallows the room. Leaves of paper rimmed in black curl away like petals from the browning, creaking mass on the bed, pasting themselves to Gregor's cheeks, searing upon impact, embroidering themselves to his taut skin, cauterising flaps over his mouth. Now his muted scream dominates the room, in duet with the roar of the fire that steadfastly devours him, the stinking flesh-book, the blood-and-vomit-flecked bedsheets, the medical apparatus, the walls, the floor, the ceiling and this version of reality itself.

As Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012) awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transfixed on a peculiar news item – a fire at a Viennese sanatorium has thrown a fifty foot column of smoking prose into the air as local authorities attempted to extinguish it at the root. Nobody was recovered from the fire, despite their being rumours of it housing several convalescents semi-well-known in cultural circles. The thirty-year-old author had staggered out to his front door to intercept the post, only to find a newspaper from 1923, corseted in twine, on the muddied mat of the house where he lived with his wife.. He came to learn through colleagues that someone at UCLA had attempted to transcribe portions of prose that had endured the fire, and that collaged together in any order, they narrated a curious tale of literary invention and authorial legacy – it seemed this episodic collage of scraps would tell the same story however assembled. He determined to seek out the person that had transcribed these fragments and obtain a copy. 'A fifty-foot-plume of burning prose', he pondered. 'Why would anyone burn so many books?' He resolved to investigate the history of book-burning.

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