The Book of Screams

1 May 2017

Each day in hospital I wake
to a reading from The Book of Screams.
It comes, apparently, from the bathroom
situated two-thirds of the way along the hall.
No one talks while the screams linger.
I pass the time by counting in my head.
Thirty-five. Seventy-two. One hundred
and nine. Two hundred and thirty-one.
The screams are high-pitched and continuous,
as if she has been chosen for her ability
to hold the note, to produce abrasive chords
when her lungs must be almost airless and empty.
The ruckus shakes the thin partition around my bed,
it rattles the cups and saucers in the kitchen,
and threatens to shatter the high frosted panes
of glass that leach feeble light onto the floorboards.

At midday and again in the evening I reluctantly
listen to recitals from The Book of Screams.
Afterwards, the ward is sombre with silence.
By the third day, I cannot bear it any longer,
I tear the bandage from my eyes and march
down the corridor to see for myself, drawn
to the noise the way iron filings are attracted
to magnetic north. Two nurses cradle
a young girl, supine, in a bathtub.
Her eyes are closed, her lips collapse
into an involuntary O that corresponds
to the coordinates of her mouth. Her skin,
though I am not sure you can still call
it that, is the black of newly laid bitumen.

Impossible to comprehend agony—
to understand how one scream seems
to necessitate another, to grasp how a voice
can travel over rice paddies and rubber plantations,
under jungle canopies and down boulevards
resplendent with French architecture, before lifting
into the flying arches and buttresses of the mind,
until we are all dwelling in a cathedral of screams
whose substantial form cries out for mercy.

But I have no mercy to give. I gaze
in dumb horror at her right leg, where
the white ghost of her femur shines
through murky water, at the charred
oozing mess of a knee. Her body is
no more than a diaphanous veil hanging
between this world and the next.

Later, they tell me about the morning
of the bombing and its aftermath.
Now, when I hear the word napalm,
I remember that girl’s face,
her eyes opening as I turn
to leave, her raw cries staying
with me and spiralling outwards,
forever travelling, like radio waves
rolling end over end
into the windless chasms of space.

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