“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth...Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”
- Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
I have nothing left.
I’d lain awake for what felt like hours, unable to move, unable to think. My brain was like an engine that won’t turn over. The thoughts died seconds before they could reach the surface of my conscious mind. Despite the blanket weighing down on me, I was shivering.
Focus, look at something.
I studied the blades of the fan, imagining them spinning faster and faster until they flew free of the ceiling and embedded themselves into my flesh. I twitched. Rolling over, I reached under my pillow for the box cutter, before remembering that I’d smashed it under a rock just a few days prior. God, it felt more like months. Time was conspiring against me.
I looked at my right wrist. There, my skin was still unblemished. My left wrist told a different story.
The cuts ran horizontally, one after another, all the way to my elbow. They were pink and raw, with dried blood still caked onto them. What little space on my arm that wasn’t scar tissue was eerily moist and hard. Every inch burned to the touch.
Something is about to happen.
I could feel it, like a steam engine hurtling toward me. Something was about to break.
My alarm clock read 1:30 in the morning.
At 2:00, I was somewhere downtown. It had been raining on and off all night, and the pavement was slick beneath her shoes. Vaguely, I realized that I was dressed for spring afternoons, with my grey tank top and black skirt going down to my knees. I shivered like a sick animal, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, but I kept going. At the next intersection, I felt myself turning left, drifting in the direction of a neon sign that said 24 hours . I was in the middle of the street when the light of a thousand suns focused directly on me. It burned.
I genuinely believed for a few brief moments that it was the flash of a cellphone camera. My mind was seized by images of wild-eyed hawks descending upon me, grabbing my flesh in their talons, clawing at my skin, pulling my hair, calling me slut , stuffing a fistful of sewing needles into my mouth.
The screams filling my ears were my own, drowned out by a blaring horn. The light that paralyzed me came from the headlights of a cargo truck that had missed me by mere inches. When when the world faded into place like a polaroid photo, I was sitting on the frigid pavement, empty of feeling. The skies opened up, and a deluge of rain left me freshly soaked.
As I sat there, in the middle of the street, water filling up my shoes and weighing down my high socks, time did a strange thing.
It didn’t stop.
People kept moving, rain kept falling, thunder still crackled above me, and a streetlamp flickered and died. Time didn’t stop. Instead, it disappeared completely. There was no future, no past. There was simply me, lying in a heap on the damp sidewalk, where I always had been and always would be. I looked at my scars. I knew I was hallucinating, so there was no fear, only morbid fascination as maggots wiggled in the red gashes on my arm and my skin turned grey and fell away in clumps. I stood up and, leaning on the wall, stumbled into the convenience store.
I could almost cry. It was perfect, it was simple. Just one last push, and it would be like going to sleep. My arms felt so mercifully light as I opened the plastic casing. I held the knife gently, like it was a butterfly. The maggots were gone, and my arm was clean now. A little sapling poked through the skin. Its roots were my veins, and its leaves were dark purple.
“Ma’am, you’re not supposed to take the merchandise out of the packaging.”
The steel blade glinted in the florescent light. It looked like it had a halo.
Holding it was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. My bandages--how had I not seen them before--glowed like fresh snow.
It was an act of love, I realized. Of purification. I could make the cut and it would wrap my diseased brain in cotton, hold it down through the death rattles. It was like sex. It hurt me, scared me, stuck to me like filth, and yet to some sick, broken part of me, it felt good. It pulled me closer and closer to oblivion, brain-death, and if I could just hold out a bit longer, just cut a bit deeper, I would be free.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
Someone was speaking. I turned my head to see a woman that made absolutely no impression on me. Her features shifted and changed at random. The light in the store was blinding.
“I’m gonna need you to put that back.”
Before I could even register it, I was out the door, running at a full sprint into the cold night. My shoes were gone, but I still had the knife in my hand, unfolded. As my feet slammed against the pavement and the impact ran up my legs I thought briefly about being scolded as a child for running with scissors. I rounded a counter and fell to the ground. I tore at my bandages, and when they would not come off, I took a deep breath and cut through them with the knife. Someone grabbed my shoulders. Two people. Three. They tried to wrest the knife away from me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and my vision was obscured by tears, but I saw how deep I had cut, and if these people would just go away, I could finish it, I could be alone with the feeling and never have to-
“Shiiba, stay with me.” My eyes fluttered open. Someone’s face shimmered into view. It was Hatori. Behind her, there was a heavenly white glow, like the corona of a solar eclipse. I blinked at her. “Good. Okay, just...stay here. Relax.” I felt the touch of cold tile against my back and realized I was sitting up against a wall. Miki Hatori, the quiet girl with the stony glare, disappeared from view for a few moments, only to return with a first-aid kit. Without a word, she began cleaning the gashes with some kind of wet cloth. My skin tingled. I couldn’t feel anything except the damp fabric of my shirt pressing into my shoulders and the gentle thrum of my heart.
Why am I still alive?
I thought back to the first day. Coming to school, armed for the first time with the knowledge that (1) I was fundamentally broken in a way I couldn’t begin to understand, and (2) I had this new failsafe with me. If I ever became overwhelmed, if I ever left this new and comfortable state of numbness and entropy, I had a box cutter in my pocket that would keep me safe.
How horribly irrational that must seem. If they had known, they would treat me like a leper, and they would be right. I am sick. I am diseased.
But I didn’t know it then.
Most of my first day at Nishidate is a blur but I remember sitting up against a wall at lunch time and just passing out. I came to a few minutes later, and two girls were looking down at me with a mixture of concern and disgust. I’d fallen asleep with my eyes and mouth open. I looked like a corpse.
I wiped the spit from the corner of my mouth and muttered an apology. I wanted to pull the box cutter from beneath my skirt and show them what I did with it, this new trick I’d learned to die without actually dying. I didn’t though. I just closed my eyes and faded.
“Shiiba, don’t, I need you to stay awake right now.”
Hatori’s voice seemed closer now. I opened my eyes again and the painful heavenly glow was now a dull, fluorescent yellowish-white. There was a scratchy humming noise coming from the ceiling. It was the light tubes, groaning with effort
“I want to sleep,” I heard myself say.
“I know. I know.”
The cold rag stung. The pain, not quite pain, but the sensation, anchored me to the moment. The moment: the blue tile of the bathroom, and the bright red on my arms.
Something was different. I couldn’t look at the cuts. I used to watch in detached awe at the way the blood beaded and ran. It was beautiful. These were something else entirely. The blood did not push through the skin. It flowed, spilled, like a cup of wine. The cuts were not cuts. They were gashes. They looked like mouths, and the white flesh hidden by the blood looked like wet tissue paper. I expected them to start screaming if I looked at them too long. This was worse than the maggots. Why?
Because it’s real , I thought.
It was real. The rent flesh and scarlet blood was real.
I was going to die.
I don’t want to die .
I felt myself sliding into the corner. My eyelids drooped and the world drifted away from my face until-
“Woah, careful. I gotcha.”
Hatori was holding me, leaning my body against the wall in a more stable position.
“I’m almost done cleaning it. I’ll bandage it up after that, and you should be okay.”
I nodded. “It looks bad,” I whispered.
“Well, the good news is, you didn’t hit any nerves or arteries. The bad news is, they’re deeper than any of these earlier ones, so when they scar over, they’re gonna be dark.” She paused. “You’ve been doing this for a while, huh?”
I nodded weakly.
She drew a roll of gauze from the kit and pursed her lips as she dressed my arm.
“All done,” she said a little while later.
The bandage fit snugly around my arm. It was warm.
Outside, it smelled like fresh rain and smoke. We were sitting on the bottom steps of a pedestrian bridge by the park. I don’t know how we got there. Hatori must have helped me walk. I barely had the energy to sit straight up. I looked at the fastener on the bandage, figured that the mechanism worked more like a hair clip than a needle. I thought about everything except the fact that I was here, alive, being taken care of by Miki Hatori of all people. I pulled my sleeve over my wrist and felt around for the button.
“I think it broke off,” said Hatori.
I felt my blood freeze.
All at once, I could feel the maggots, the lights, the talons, the frigid and permeating weight of the rain on my skin. I closed my eyes and waited for a merciful god to kill me.
Now everyone would see what I’d done to myself.
Hatori looked me up and down. “You’re shaking,” she said. I guess I was. She told me to close my eyes, and I did.
I felt her hand grip mine. There was friction, a soft shush ing sound of fabric against fabric, and then a gentle pressure around my wrist. I opened my eyes. Her bright red wristband was covering my bandages. “It’s yours,” she said. I just stared at her.
Something burst in my chest and I was overcome by a heady feeling of safety. I stopped hurting, just for a moment, and the lack of pain was in itself a little painful. I buried my face in my hands and shrunk against a horribly comfortable warmth around me, inside of me. I hadn’t realized how cold I had been.
Hatori took me in her arms, and I clung to her. I wept like a child into her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
And in a small, strange way, it was.