Colour in the Night
by Elizabeth Alexander
The light hurt my eyes but that was nothing new, almost every inch of me hurt already. My entire body seemed to be blanketed by a dull, persistent ache. Including my eyes. Hell, even my hair seemed to ache.
It was the light that was different. I’d been swimming in blackness and white noise for so long now. It may have only been hours or days but it felt like weeks and I welcomed the change.
My nose felt as though it was full of antiseptic. The reek of bleach and disinfectant made my eyes water yet the scent of old blood, stale vomit and sweat still seemed to linger around the edges.
Underneath this I caught the taste of boiled cabbages, carrots, over cooked lamb and undercooked potatoes. Overlaying everything now, seeming to move closer, an increasing medicinal whiff accompanied by cheap floral perfume.
Ah, I thought. Hospital smells. Gradually sound began to encroach. At first it was just general background noise. Electronic beeps and whines. A low-level background hum occasionally broken by murmurs of indistinct speech. Sounds, words and phrases. Tone and dialect without meaning.
If I strained for it, concentrated intensely the words became clearer but then were suddenly drowned out by the chaotic sounds of outside traffic. The sounds were all too close. Too busy. Piled on top of one another. Scrambling for attention. Too much information.
My senses were drowning. It seemed at one point that a truck was about to run straight through the room and over the bed where I lay.
I flinched, tried to leap away, crawl to safety, but found I was unable to move. Thick restraining straps over thin woolen blankets pressed me to the bed .
I tried to open my eyes and the lids flickered against bandages. Memories flooded through me, over me, filling my mouth like vinegar, suffocating me with pain and overwhelming me with distress.
I opened my mouth and screamed.
* * *
The sound of pounding soft soled feet echoed through my brain as they approached. Cries of “She’s awake!” I heard a click and a strange gurgling swish, liquid being drawn into a syringe. “Katrina!” I heard my name being called. ”Katrina, can you hear me?”
“We need you to calm down, dear.”
“We’ll have to sedate her.”
“No no no no” I whimpered as my hands clasped and unclasped, clutching on the empty air. “Can’t see!” I cried.
“Katrina, you have to be still. You’ve been hurt.”
Someone grabbed my arm, turned it. I felt the needle sink into my vein. A curious warmth spread outwards through my body and wrapped me in sunshine until I felt as though I was floating in the middle of a toasty little marshmallow. I lost all will to struggle. My limbs were made of butter. All I wanted to do is bask in the warmth, and maybe giggle. I sighed contentedly.
A niggling doubt worrying at the back of my brain. Surely I was upset at something, just a moment ago. I couldn’t quite seem to remember. Couldn’t quite seem to care. Everything was soft and cosy. Everything was a peculiar hazy shade of white. Ah yes, that was it. My eyes.
Another voice now, older, more assured. “Katrina. Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” I whispered. “what’s...” I licked my parched lips “What’s happening?”
“I’m Doctor Anita Malcolm. You’re in the hospital. You’ve been in intensive care for the past eight days. This is the first time you’ve regained consciousness.”
“Tied down?” I asked.
“We had to restrain you for your own safety,” Doctor Malcolm explained. “You suffered from an exceptionally high fever and began to go into convulsions.”
I sensed movement along my body, heard buckles sliding and the straps began to loosen.
“Were swollen and bloodshot, though that’s an understatement. The light seemed to be causing you extra distress. We’ll unbind them now.”
Cool hands lifted my head slightly and the bandage was gently unwound. My arms were free now and I reached up, removed the gauze and slowly flickered my lashes a couple of times, dislodging the detritus of sleep. My eyes seemed afraid to open. I willed the lids to move and gasped as needles of light dived through my corneas and lodged into my brain. Fuzziness prevailed at first, but little by little items in the room began to attain more distinction. My vision grew clearer, sharper.
Even in my marshmallow-cloud land I knew something was not quite as it should be. I knew the world shouldn’t be painted in the fluffy pink feeling that Dr Malcolm had injected me with, but I was also damn certain it shouldn’t be as I saw it now. I turned to see the Doctor, a trim figure in her mid-fifties. “Everything’s grey.”
“You can’t see?” she asked.
“No. I mean yes, I can see,” I replied. “You’ve got stud earrings on.” I struggled to sit, peering up at her as the nurse nearest moved to help me by adjusting the pillow. “They’re tiny Egyptian ankhs,” I continued. “One of them is crooked, and you have a small mole on your left cheek.”
She instinctively moved to touch the mole. “But you just said that everything was grey?”
“It is. Everything’s clear,” I explained. “There’s just no colour. Only shades of grey, from black to white.”
* * *
Doctor Malcolm’s voice droned on but I found it hard to concentrate, so much else seemed to be going on.
I’d awoken from the coma four days ago and after nine days asleep there was still so much to take in. Words of one syllable. Please, Doc; don’t you know I’ve been through a lot?
“Its called cerebral achromatosia,” explained Dr. Malcolm, apparently speaking Chinese. I half closed my ears and once more studied my reflection in the small hand mirror.
My hair had always been dark blond, lately streaked with silver, the curls now hanging limp and greasy over my shoulders. My almond-shaped eyes had always been grey, of sorts, with pupils set amidst a starburst of pale hazel in silvery irises that were each circled by a ring of darkest charcoal. Now they were just grey. Shadows and light with shades of nothing in between. No hazel accent to my eyes or pale olive tint to my skin, no rosy blush to my cheeks and no colour to my lips.
I felt as though I was looking at myself through a black and white movie. Had Clara Bow felt this way the first time she caught sight of herself on the silver screen? I doubted it.
Doctor Malcolm’s explanation continued, interrupting my internal musings. “Possibly due to temporary focal brain damage sustained to the ventro-medial cortex. The last MRI indicated that the damaged area is healing quickly — a miracle in itself — and it is even possible that normal colour vision will return in due course.” She paused. “Katrina, in the circumstances I’d have to say that you are an incredibly lucky young lady.”
Lucky? I fought the urge to choke. I’d had a visit from the police the day before. She was right. I was lucky. I was alive. There had barely been enough left of Carrie and Louise — the two teenage victims — to scrape up with a spoon. The last public sighting reported that they had been seen earlier in the evening approaching strangers in the street to ask if they would buy alcohol on their behalf. I guess they lucked out.
I had sat quietly as the officers questioned me, oh so gently. I saw the looks. Let’s not upset the sole witness. Let’s not shatter her already disturbed mind. I stared at the wall, my breathing shallow and eyes wide, unblinking. Remembering the terror in the girls’ screams as I let the questions flow over me.
The police maintained that a street gang arranged for a gang rape then set loose vicious dogs for fun, with the added benefit that they helped to clean up the evidence.
That wasn’t how I remembered it. That certainly wasn’t what had begun to replay in my dreams. In my dreams, colour returned. The first two nights after awakening I had dreamed and screamed. Now though, something had begun to change inside of me.
Still staring at the wall, I began to giggle. A small hysterical hiccup wound its way from my throat, soon followed by a long streaming cackle that a Shakespearean witch would have been proud of. Eventually I began to speak. They sent for the hospital psychiatrist soon after.
The psychiatrist, Doctor Adams, offered the theory that the savagery of the attack, the sheer terror of it, had overloaded my brain and sent me into a form of free-fall amnesia. He hypothesised that being a normal, well adjusted human being I simply could not process the information I had seen, sensed and felt as being caused by humans. I had invented a comforting scenario of sorts, that monsters exist.
He assured the startled police officers that I was merely in an understandable state of shock. Post-traumatic stress of the most extreme manifestation resulting from incomprehension of Man’s inhumanity to man. Full recovery expected with counseling that would, naturally be available on an outpatient basis.
I listened in silence and smiled bemusedly. Personally, I thought Doctor Adams needed to update his definition of crazy. Considering that one of my earliest childhood memories is of my father trying to kill my mother, I considered Doctor Adams’ diagnosis doubtful.
Conditioned to violence at an early age, I have always dreamed of blood in one way or another. Now however, the blood in the dreams was fresher, more immediate. I was no longer hunted but the hunter. Darkness was no longer something to be feared, instead it was becoming something to be hungered for.
I kept my thoughts to myself. Crazy I may be, stupid I’m not.
* * *
My physical injuries were healing faster than anyone had anticipated and although my dreams continued unabated, the doctors’ opinions were that returning to the familiarity of home would be psychologically healing for both mind and body. I wasn’t so sure.
Late in the afternoon, eighteen days after the attack, I stood on the front step of the yellow brick built three-bed semi-detached suburban house I had shared with Stuart. I searched for my key. He hadn’t bothered to visit me in the hospital. Another thing to be thankful for.
I smiled sadly now as I remembered that Stuart was now officially my ex-husband, that he would never again be the cause of my tears. I had thought him a monster. Maybe I still did, but at least he was human.
I inserted my key into the lock, turned it and pushed the door open. There was no huge pile of mail to hinder my entrance, Tina Kowolski; my kindly neighbour had been minding the house in my absence.
The mail had been neatly stacked on the hall table; junk mail had even been sorted into a separate pile. The plants were watered and Lucy and Mina, my fat, lazy and oh so fluffy white angora rabbits, I decided, seemed fatter, lazier and incredibly well groomed as they hopped slowly toward me and began to snuffle at my boots.
“Pampered pets.” I murmured as I dropped my bag, kicked the door closed then bent down to scoop the cat-sized creatures into my arms.
I kissed their heads in turn and breathed deeply of their fur as the pair squirmed in my embrace. Mina began to squeal loudly, struggling to get down and Lucy, to my astonishment sank her sharp little teeth into my hand.
I bit back tears as I quickly returned them to the tiled floor. The bite hadn’t hurt, but the rejection had. I watched the errant pair hop toward the kitchen and out into the walled garden through the specially fitted low doggie door and surmised that this was some form of rabbit-devised punishment for my absence.
I followed into the kitchen and taking a glass from one of the overhead cupboards and the open bottle of single malt whisky from the counter I poured myself a drink. Lifting the glass to my lips I took a long swallow of the fiery amber contents, closing my eyes and sighing in appreciation.
I remembered Doctor Malcolm’s warning not to mix the prescribed sedatives or painkillers with alcohol and smiled, downing the rest of the glass and pouring myself another before grabbing the bottle and wandering upstairs to run myself a bath.
The steam was filling the room and hot, scented water was flowing into the pale green tub as I undressed. I pulled off my top and unhooked my bra, marvelling at the fact I was able to wear one in near comfort — the last time I’d had broken ribs the constricting undergarment had caused me additional pain for weeks.
My scars, too, were a source of amazement to the hospital staff as well as to myself. Since regaining consciousness my body seemed to be intent on catching up on lost time — my injuries appeared to be healing weeks ahead of schedule. The wounds from tooth and claw that decorated my shoulder, arm and sides should by all accounts have been puckered and red, angry looking and bruised. Instead they were freshly pink, and while still raised actually looked a little smoother than they had even that very morning.
I quickly shed the rest of my clothes, turned off the taps and moving the whiskey to the side of the bath stepped into the tub and sank down into the water.
Upending the bottle into my glass I quickly drank the remaining liquor, licking around the rim of the glass to catch any stray drops and setting the glass back down.
Beginning to feel pleasantly numbed; I slipped under the scented water, letting it fill my ears and nose as I lay beneath the surface. I held my breath and listened to the rhythmic thunder of my heartbeat drown out all thought as the light of the nearly full moon began to shine through the window.
* * *
Waking in strange places after a night of heavy drinking was not exactly a new experience, neither was feeling that some small yet offensive rodent had kindly decided to crawl into my mouth and die. Just a friendly entrée to the hangover from hell.
The whole place smelled foul, and for a moment I thought I was back in the warehouse, trapped forever in a nightmare without end. I shook my head and began to roll over, stopping short as I found myself with a face full of grass.
I groaned and didn’t dare to open my eyes. I hoped I’d been too drunk to drive; waking up naked in your own garden was one thing, waking up naked on the common surrounded by not so happy campers was a start to the day I could do without.
I eased one eye open a fraction, peered out through sleep-caked lashes, opened the other eye, snapped them both shut again and groaned with relief. I was in my own garden, I’d planted the bamboo myself, the pussy willow too.
I did a double take, glanced at the grass beneath me and froze. It was no mistake. The trees and shrubs were painted with a vibrant mixed palette of greens and browns. The sky was blue. The brittle late summer grass should have been yellow and sun parched. Some parts still were.
Those nearest to me were autumnal, glossy streaks of red and brown had candy coated the grass and clover before draining darkly into the dry cracked earth.
I raised my red stained hands to my face and studied them in horror; thick dirt caked my nails and on one wrist, stuck to the dried blood was a fluffy piece of pristine white fur.
I gagged, rolled to my hands and knees and retched. Small pieces of meat and tiny bones soon littered the grass amidst a pool of sodden red fur.
Panicked, I sprang to my feet and dashed toward the house. I did not bother to call for Lucy and Mina. I already knew there would be no answer.
The sight of the back door stopped me. The wood surrounding the doggie door was splintered and torn, the main door itself hung open, suspended crookedly from its one remaining hinge.
A tuft of silvered fur was snagged in the broken lower hinge. I tugged it free and rolled it in my fingers, feeling the silky texture. I smelled a sweet, familiar, floral scent and raised the fur to my nostrils. I breathed in deeply and smelled the unmistakable scent of jasmine.
Shaken, I clambered through the remains of the door, wandered through the kitchen, into the hallway and up the stairs. Back in the bathroom once more I surveyed the mess with a growing sense of horror. The bath plug had not been removed. Water had been sloshed onto the floor and over the mat. The contents remaining in the tub had turned a pale, cloudy pink.
I released the plug and the jasmine-scented water gurgled down through a drain that was soon clogged by fine beige and white hairs. The sides and bottom of the tub were scored, scratched.
Cleaning out the trap, I hooked up the shower and turned the faucet to the left, running the water until steam began to billow up from the flow.
I grabbed the flannel and soap and stepping into the steam began to scrub my body clean. I stayed under the scalding water until my mind was numb and my skin was red and ready to blister.
Colour had returned to my life. I really wished it hadn’t.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Alexander