For ten weeks he tosses and turns like a skiff in a storm, the elusive embrace of sleep constantly taunting him from a land beyond consciousness. He survives off the snatches of slumber he is able to grasp, though he awakens unsatisfied, his frustrations building. His only respite from his nightly torment is the rejuvenating light of the sun through the curtains. His wife, frustrated, suffers similar misfortune, a by-product of his condition. Her sleep is equally intermittent, her temper short.
After nine weeks, he is awakened from a brief rest from consciousness by the awareness of a sound. Upright in his bed, he surveys the darkness. Had it been a sound close by? Perhaps a mouse? An owl? Or perhaps a remnant of a dream, a fragment towing the line between the real and ethereal? His stirrings arouse his wife. She questions his reaction. He reassures her that all is well, a lie he tells many times, and resumes his fruitless attempts at rest.
Eight days later, as he lays drifting between sleep and wake, his eyes tracing the thin lines of the beams above as they appear in the moonlight, he once again hears a sound.
He sits upright. He knows this is no dream. His wife beside him does not stir. Wary, he slips from the covers. Passing by the fireplace, he takes hold of an iron poker, its weight reassuring in his hand. With racing heart and quickened breath, he opens the front door, the poker resting down by his side.
He is greeted by silence and stillness, the icy mist of the season his only visitor, flowing in through the vacant frame, chilling his bare feet. He returns to bed, propping the poker against the wall beside him.
After seven uneventful nights, he has settled back into his arduous routine. His eyes, refusing closure, scan the few objects visible in his bedroom. The beams along the ceiling, the frames of the window, the thin material of the curtains…
A figure, in the corner.
He sits bolt upright, grasping for his spectacles from his bedside table. As he slides them onto his nose, he finds he can no longer see it. As reassurance, he turns on the gas lamp. Its orange hue fills the room, the shadows it cast dance from its flickering flame. His wife awakens to see him staring into space. She once again questions his behaviour, but the kindly, wifely tone has left her voice, replaced by one of frustration, bordering on hate.
Six more times he wakes, six more times he sees the figure, six more times it fades. He attempts to leave his bedside lamp lit, perhaps to ward off his phantom, perhaps to seek refuge in its glow. His wife refuses. Her sleep is damaged enough already. Reluctantly, though strengthened by the daylight, he concedes.
Five more nights of darkness. On the fifth night he sees the figure again, a silhouette outlined against the curtains. This time, his glasses have remained on his face. He stares at the form; he does not blink. He slides out from the covers. He creeps silently across the room. He reaches out a hand, shaking, pale, for where the figure’s arm would be. He touches fabric. He recoils. But the figure does not move. What little rationale remains within his mind tells him it is his own jacket, hanging before the armoire. He mocks himself for his foolishness and reaches out to where the sleeve would end. But he does not grasp stitched fabric, but a hand. The shape seems human, the texture scaled. He recoils in horror, falling on his behind. From across the room his wife turns on her lamp, her sleep once more disrupted, her face a vision of rage. The room is light, the figure gone. And so, soon, is she.
Day four since she departed for her mother’s abode. He sits alone before his desk, face in palm, bathed in the corona of his desk lamp. Words, like sleep, like love, have abandoned him. He stares at the letters on the typewriter, a jumble begging to be unscrambled. He self-medicates with liquor, oral, dram after wretched dram. The embrace of drunkenness offers some comfort, the loss of consciousness provided by its excess an acceptable substitute for the sleep that has so long evaded him. Migraine is his waking default.
Three more days of intoxication, collapsing where he will, the lamps around him burning almost constantly throughout the night. He does not leave the house. He does not eat. By day, he shambles about, filling lamps with oil, checking locks and latches, stopping only to examine the haggard face of a stranger in each reflective surface he encounters.
At two o’clock one morning he awakens from an alcoholic coma in his own bed. The lamp has at some point gone out. He finds relief in not seeing the figure in the corner; he has not sighted it in several days. Though his head aches, he feels a burden lifted. Everything is as it should be. Everything is as it was. Everything.
Except that his wife is not beside him.
He holds his breath.
Then who else is breathing?
He grabs the poker from his bedside, waving it around frantically in the darkness. He slashes at air, at walls, at the covers on the bed, before collapsing into a corner, snivelling, shivering, whimpering, weeping, clutching the poker to his chest.
One night, he sits at his desk, staring at the one word he has plucked from his mind. Around him sit every lamp he owns, filled up, half alight, the other half waiting. He has taken to speaking with himself, sharing thoughts and feelings aloud, an act of desperation to fill the silence which consumes his life. He reaches for his bottle; he no longer needs the glass. His trembling fingers do not take hold, and as he attempts to lift it, it falls. Sobbing, he bends down to clear up the fragments, catching a glimpse through the curtains as he does so.
A figure stands beneath the streetlight, staring up at the house. Angered by the loss of his medicine, the loss of everything, he grabs hold of the poker and marches down. He opens the front door for the first time in an age and steps out into the mist. He sees the figure waiting. This time he is prepared. He marches up and swings his weapon with all the might his feeble body can muster. He loses his footing and falls to the ground. He looks up at his tormenter. It wears a suit, a coat, a hat, but its skin is that of a white snake. It lacks eyes, a nose, and has only the thinnest line of a mouth. A forked tongue protrudes mockingly.
The neighbours look out the window to see the recluse swinging a fire poker at thin air, tripping over cobblestones, his own feet, all the while babbling incoherently. It takes four men to subdue him. On investigating his house, the find a single word typed on his typewriter. A name. A name not belonging to his wife.