The Poe Syndrome
by Jack Trammell
No one should
decide to kill themselves over the holidays. There are too many other events
competing for the attention of family and friends. Without debating the
merits of suicide on its own principle, it's simply a poor idea to carry
it out right before Christmas.
I've come to this conclusion because I did shoot myself in the head right before the holidays--figuratively, that is--and I've studied the results of that decision very carefully.
It just wasn't worth it. Nothing, at all, changed.
I stopped going to work; I quit bathing and shaving; I left my sole means of transportation on the side of the road; I quit eating; I stopped praying for anything at all. I started meditating on death; I found an old, crinkled copy of my Last Will and Testament and placed it prominently on the desk in my study.
I felt like one of the characters in an Edward Gibbons historical narrative--alive in name only, a footnote that would not stand any serious scholarly scrutiny. And despite the sage advice of an old university professor, the experience provided nothing I could magically transform into a moral imperative. There was no dramatic blooming of a literary flower.
I was dead.
The first night after I killed myself, a strange visitor invaded the house. I was sitting in a stupor on the divan, in the dark, when the body sidled closer and closer to me, until it was scant inches away. He was dressed in wrinkled black trousers and coat, with a tiny, straggling tie falling down from his neck like a trickle of blood. His hair arched out at odd angles, dissipating in the dark.
"Why are you here?" I asked.
"You summoned me," he said.
I laughed, angry at my own imagination. "That's ridiculous. You're not wanted here. I'll simply un-invite you."
"I'll be more than content to leave, in that case, although if you don't mind my impartial observation, you seem to be a little bit unstable at the moment. Are you certain that you know what you want?"
I laughed again. For the first time, I contemplated the possibility that I had taken my one act play to such extremes that I was hallucinating.
"That's quite presumptuous of you," I said, "coming in here like you're a friend of mine, or something. What gives you the right to speak to me about anything?"
"Oh, you know," he said in a low, threatening voice, "Indeed, my friend, you know exactly what right I have. The truth is that I'm heartily sick of this life. I'm convinced that everything is going wrong. As soon as I can locate a decent cup of coffee, I'll just step out and get myself embalmed for a couple of hundred years."
"Get out!" I screamed, jumping up. "Get away from me!"
They put me in one of those hospitals that people are too polite to call a hospital. I suppose that they must have come in the middle of the night and taken me away, for I don't remember exactly how or when I arrived there, or the circumstances of the journey.
My wife and children did come to visit me there, and there was something treacherous in the way that they refused to meet my eyes; something insidious in the way she looked at the ceiling as she spoke.
"I had to call them to come and get you," she said, her voice trembling and distant, as if she was whispering at the end of a long and narrow tunnel. "You wouldn't respond to anything. We thought you were dead."
I didn't reply, because the dead don't speak. I stopped looking at her because she was not looking at me.
Later, I was given a room that looked like an expensive hotel room with all of the paintings removed from the wall. I noted with a trace of irony that there was no Bible in the nightstand--presumably no one was permitted to seek help independently in such a place--and the curtains on the window concealed only a white brick wall. Hell, I think, must be something like that: beautiful windows that reveal absolutely nothing.
I sat on the bed while my former wife, a widow, gave a fluttering statement of the facts as she knew them to some men in long coats who had fancy silk ties inside of them that reminded me of flowers that had been poisoned and mashed into children's art.
"He's a musician," she said. "He plays for a professional strings group."
My head felt swollen. The voices faded in and out like music being played several rooms away when someone keeps opening and closing the door.
"His mother passed away last year, and it was very traumatic for him."
The dead should have the right to ignore the world, because it doesn't matter anymore. I lay down on the bed and tried to concentrate on absolute nothingness. I thought about where the universe finally comes to an end, and then what must lie beyond even that. I thought about the stars, and how they can make light a billion times brighter than anything a man can produce.
I did not sleep, though I did notice a man later, sitting near the window by the white brick wall. It was the same man from the night before.
"Why are you here?" I asked, sitting up.
He turned his gaunt face slowly. "You invited me."
"I did not invite you! Now get out before I call for help."
He shook his head sadly, the narrow tie around his neck rippling. "You and I are both beyond help," he said. "The imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore every cavern with complete impunity. And the demons must sleep, or they will devour us. If they cannot be suffered to slumber, we perish, utterly."
I rolled off the bed and stumbled to the door, a massive slab of metal with a small barred opening near the top. "Help me," I shouted to anyone outside. "Get this man out of my room. Let me out! I don't want him to be in here!"
And it cut me to my very core to hear the words come out of my mouth and echo around the room like insane rubber balls. They were the first words I had uttered since killing myself.
"You are suffering from a variety of ailments," the doctor, or the analytical physician, or whatever the hell he was, said.
My wife nodded her head, tears at the corners of her eyes.
I didn't reply. Dead people don't carry on conversations.
"He's been talking to himself some, and we overheard the conversations. A young intern who studied literature figured out that he was quoting Poe."
I hated him that moment, oh, how I yearned for the demons of hell to come and incinerate him. It was not fair for them to be able to reach so far into a dead person's brain and provoke, without warning, such despairing anger.
"Poe?" she said, the tears suddenly falling away to curiosity. "Edgar Allan Poe?"
"Yes. Does that mean anything to you?"
I closed my eyes tightly and squeezed my eyelids so hard that I could feel the individual tendons straining.
"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague," he said. "We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called."
"Over-analyze me right into the grave," I said.
"You're not dying," he said slowly, bending his bony arms out of his wrinkled jacket and draping it over the only chair in the room. He would not leave me alone. "You're a fool to think of so paltry a consideration as your own individual life. Besides, if you had even an ounce of proper determination, you would have already been dead many times over, by your own hand. You lack the proper zeal for the deed, or perhaps I should say, you lack the heart for it..."
I launched the chair against the wall, shattering it into a storm of slivers, splinters, and sticks. The black jacket willowed to the floor as if it were as light as the wings of an angel.
"I don't need you here," I said. "I do have the heart, and the will, to wring your neck. Go betake the council of the other talking heads and spouting tomes."
I began a feverish search around the room for some kind of weapon, any type of tool that might supply the necessary force to conclude the matter with unquestioned finality. I was groping underneath the bed when I heard his voice again, and it occurred to me that the fiend simply would not go away.
"You can't do it," he said, mockingly.
A thousand disparate and needle-like thoughts careened around my skull, all of them of an evil and equally livid nature as would have made any ordinary moralist shudder with terror.
"Damn, you," I said. "If I can't find anything else in here, I'll use you."
I grabbed his hands ferociously, and with a great deal of straining and jockeying, maneuvered them around my throat. I squeezed them and squeezed them as tightly as I could, even daring to cross that threshold of pain that many never dare to venture close to, which would inevitably lead to a broken neck.
"Kill me," I said. "You will do it for me. Kill me!"
I squeezed harder and harder yet.
Eventually, my concentration seemed to drift away from my clenched hands, and more into a ringing darkness which, strange to say, made me smile as a man smiles when he has located some small portion of a hidden triumph.
A voice, speaking as if from the end of a long tunnel, faintly said: "Nothing more in the assassination way I hope? What nonsense do you talk!"
"Edgar. Edgar? Edgar!"
I raised an uncertain eyelid; then another.
My face felt numb where it had lain on the surface of a desk in front of me. There were scattered papers, a quill pen, an ink blotter, and a bottle--empty at present, excepting a narrow, amber circle of liquid in the very bottom of it.
"What are you trying to do, Edgar? You promised to stop doing this. Are you trying to kill yourself?"
"I don't feel very well."
"And no wonder. I heard you in here talking to yourself in a drunken stupor. You promised this would not happen again! You will kill yourself."
I did not answer. Unless, I suppose, one might have taken the trouble to peruse the scattered papers in front of me, reading them all with a cautious eye, and considered that my reply.
"It's almost Christmas," she said, her voice suddenly soft and forgiving. "Please, Edgar, consider the rest of us, if not yourself."
I looked around, but there was no other living person in the room but the two of us.
Even demons must slumber for a little while.
Quotations in this short story (slightly edited) come from the following Poe stories, in order of appearance: Some Words with a Mummy, The Premature Burial, A Descent into the Maelstrom, and The Purloined Letter.
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