Before Dark by Vittorio Curtoni [M]

From the hinges of night: silence. Except the far-away swashing of the sea, this vast penetrating pulsation of ancient waters on the coasts of the island. Which could be Sicily, or Sardinia, or one of the Barbados. We have no datum points, no parameters.

We are immersed in a multilingual nirvana that fosters every possible hypothesis. On the other hand, what could it matter? Being in one place rather than another, I mean. Insignificant. I have travelled, I have flown unconscious, filled up with drugs that my body systems have managed to get rid of many hours after my arrival; and they took away my watch from the start. It was one of the main terms of the deal.

"You'll live in harmony with nature" they told me. "No more artificial times. Day and night, and hot and cold. The sun, the moon. The clouds. How long since you didn't look at a cloud?"

Even though here, to be frank, there is no trace of clouds. But perhaps it's simply because I arrived three days ago, and no storm has threatened us.

The rain would be better?

"Sure, of course, the rain would be better" says my roommate. Albin. An unusual name. But could be that to the French it's the top of triviality. I don't know. "Less hope. Everything out there irritates me. The trees, the beach, and most of all the sun... Merde."

I express myself in a tottering French; his Italian is the apex of approximation. But we understand each other. We have built a very bastard, very sanguine common dialect that allows our communication without extreme efforts. We had already decided, a priori, each of us, that going on from day to day, here or elsewhere, is the greatest suffering we can permit ourselves. So I preferred him to the many Americans they proposed: good people, of course, and perhaps much more vital than us, much more disposed to this death game, the terminal lottery; but, oh la la, the spirit of old Europe...

Albin is thirty-nine. He has a cancer in his prostate. He barely walks. Virtually he does not walk at all. He turns over in his bed, yes; and he manages with maniac voracity the remote control of our TV set, and picks up arcane shows in languages neither of us understands like Russian or German. Or the English of Australia, more incomprehensible to my ears than Chinese. Miracles of the satellite.

"This way", he explains, "I feel I'm still in touch with the world. I'm not isolated. Oh well", he snorts, waving his hands as far as the illness allows him, "out there there's a planet going on, and I hate the idea of being left behind..."

As if I didn't understand.

But when he really has to move; when he feels like watching a morning, or an afternoon, or perhaps a noon; when he insists on going to the toilet, refusing the hideous small plastic tubes and the other paraphernalia of our bodily functions: then he presses his finger on the button at the left of his bed and does not stop. And only the apparition of one of the nurses the Masters of Night have appointed for us can pacify him.

En passant: a very bureaucratic air blows here. The clinic is not large. Three floors, each one composed of twenty rooms. Sixty rooms in all. A hundred and twenty terminal patients. Very few, seems to me; but they say mobility is extreme. What if the three days I've spent in this room with Albin were, in their modesty, a record?

No. I don't even want to think of it.

At each floor, the rooms are numbered from one to twenty, and the nurses have no names. Only abbreviations. Our room is the fourteenth of the first floor. My nurse's name is A14One, because my bed is the first on the left. Albin's nurse's name is A14Two. And so on.

The apotheosis of human relationships.

They always come in together, our A14s. Unless one of us has pressed his button. They are young, and very pretty, and very desirable; and, according to what they say at the cafeteria, absolutely disposed to sex. Absolutely free of inhibitions. One of these days (or rather, one of those days when the worry of pain won't have me nailed in a nastily selfish way to my body) I'll try to check if the rumors are true.

I'll press my button and tell A14One: "Please draw the curtain."

And she will isolate me in my half of the room, away from Albin's pains, twins to mine, I suppose, even though there is nothing less communicable than pain; and when we are surrounded by this delicious screen of black plastic, I'll tell her: "Would you please undress?"

And she will take off the black coat with the white skull embroidered on the left breast; and then she'll take off her lingerie (black? white? or are other colors allowed?); and she'll be naked; and I can again admire that vital, organic, dense richness that surely, in this antechamber of death, my guardian angel must have in plenty; and I'll ask her to come near and to allow me, kindly, to thrust my tongue into her pubic hair, and then under, under the mons veneris, inside; and I'll be taken back in this petrified time to the days before my illness, when I was still one, whole, alive; and should I have an erection, I can ask her to lie down on my bed and fuck this nurse who is just an abbreviation; or perhaps (I don't know, I can't foretell a thing; it will depend on the circumstances) I'll ask her if she can, very kindly, put her mouth to my member and give me a metaphoric coitus.

Because I have always thought that a woman's mouth is a metaphor for the vagina. And vice versa.

That's why.

Fourth day. The night was a nightmare: Albin howling like a she-wolf in heat, but his were not moans of desire. And I was awake, and watched him, and listened to the ticking of my pain buttons; and I wished I could tell him: "But what do you care, my friend? Call for her. Call. She'll be immediately here. No need to suffer so much. We are not obliged."

But I didn't say a word. And he didn't press his button. When he fell asleep, around dawn, he was still shaking. His body never stopped jerking. Never.
Halfway in the morning I called for A14One. My body too was suffering in empathy. Obvious. The echoes of the agony in my bones, and the relentless jolting of my nerves. The right pupil that refuses to stay put. The trembling hand. The uncontainable wish to evacuate, accompanied by the fear of a crisis that requires morphine. Or whatever else.

"Take me out!" I shouted to A14One. "Out! To the beach! And get your colleague for Albin!"

A14One shook her head. "No. If he does not call for her, no."

Now, from the top of this cliff. The sea is so far-away, and so near. An easy jump. Ten yards? Twenty? I throw myself out of the chair, and that's the end. For the posterity: an image sadly stopped on the last frame, and so on.

"As you can imagine, the rate of suicides is rather high." The sympathetic face of the man, three weeks ago. White coat. Grizzled hair, spectacles, shoes lightly rustling on the linoleum of the clinic. He really looked like a doctor. "We can't prevent it. We don't want to prevent it. A terminal situation is what it is. Should you desire..."

"Yes?"

"Your nurse could help you find a good death. And this is the first guaranty we offer. The first of many."

The other guaranties: the Lottery. Once a month, a letter. Cold, precise, merciless. Bureaucratic.

"But according to which rules will they judge us?" I asked.

And the man who looked like a doctor, spreading his hands as if to embrace the whole past of the human race, and not only that, fixed his eyes upon my body supine on the bed and answered: "This I really can't say. I'm just proposing an alternative. Choose. What can I promise? Nothing. It's not up to me. Like you, I wait for orders. And mine is only an offer. Nobody obliges you."
Nobody obliges you when you have a cancer in your liver in metastasis, and a prospect of six months of life?

Nobody obliges you?

Someone betrayed. The rumor runs quick in the cafeteria, dispersing like a rustling of leaves at the first gusts of fall; and over our heads blows a cold, stale wind, a rancid bread that our worn out teeth can no longer chew.


As it seems, that's what happened: an obliging clinic has forged the case sheet of one of my colleagues (I can't find a better definition). Of another terminal patient, to be more specific. And he was, yes, a terminal patient; but his multiform, many-sided, versatile disease was not cancer. It was AIDS.


A shuffling of the cards. The wheel of luck turning. The monthly drawing. Let's keep our fingers crossed... Bingo!


The secret, incomprehensible, impenetrable criteria of the Masters of Night chose him. Mr AIDS. An infected blood. Virus in free fall in his veins, in his arteries, in his whole body. The final disease, the feared extinction for those who for centuries, for millennia, have refused to be extinguished.


And now: a seriously ill Master of Night. Or so they say, so they whisper. We hear that the next monthly drawing will be postponed, that all the guests of this sublime island will be subject to new, more radical checks. But I have nothing to fear. I have a cancer in my liver, and nothing more. Nothing less.

As if it wasn't enough.

Albin has recovered. He's very pleased with himself. Not stooping to pain- killers, he says, it's a trial of strength he does not wish to repeat, but now he feels more mature. A more grown-up man.

"But you are almost forty" I tell him, in an unusual interval of silence of our TV set. "What do you care? A more grown-up man? At your age? Does it make any sense?"

"I've lived for six months on Tora-dol" he replies, without looking at me. He has his face turned toward the window that looks on to the cliff, and his eyes seem to melt with the sea, the rocks. He's completely absent. He speaks, but it's as if he wasn't here. "I can't say I felt no pain at all, but almost... And meanwhile a voice kept telling me that it was useless, that I was fucked off, done for, finished. Kaput. I had no hope. Here, at least, I have one."

I'm going out. I still manage to walk. At times. A great advantage. What's the use of it?

"Albin" I ask him, before crossing the threshold of the room "but what's the level of your pain today? Wouldn't it be better..." And my unspoken question remains caught in the air, like a bird forever prisoner of a cage; or perhaps, more precisely, like a stuffed bird prisoner in the motel of a psycho who kills his prettiest customers under the shower.

"Immortality" he sighs, lowering his head on the cushion. "Do you think it's a trifle?"

No, it's not a trifle. And I question, I try to decipher myself. Do you really believe it? Or is it just a choreographic fraud? A post-modern trick? How much is my sister, sweet Lucinda, paying to have me here?

"It will be absolutely free" assured me the man who looked like a doctor, while my insecure hand was signing the enormous sheaf of papers. "For you and your family. This is another guaranty. All free. Everything included. Even the flight. Nobody is trying to exploit your illness. What more can you wish for?"

What more can I wish for, you motherfucker? I want my liver back. I want my body back. And who gives a damn about this tropical sun that beats on my head, this so far-away, high, remote sun, on this wonderful, uncontaminated beach; in front of this sea that looks like the Paleozoic sea, so bright and clean and disquieting?


But really, what the fuck do I care? I pick up sand in my hands, and gaze with innocent eyes at the grass that grows above, on the rock; and I wish that a huge bat would come and wrap me up in his wings and take me away forever.

Forever.

A lump of night above Albin's bed. A black stain spreading and spreading, like crude oil from the bowels of a tanker.


I blink, yawn. I turn my head on the cushion. Maybe I'm dreaming. I don't know.
The white of the sheet does not exist anymore. All is darkness. Black. Albin has disappeared.


At the foot of the bed I see something jerking. Something that struggles and wriggles and jolts. Another bird in a cage?

But sleep is strong. Pressing.

I close my eyes, and dream; and from somewhere, from one or another dimension, the sound of a satisfied suck comes to me: a sink cleared with meticulous, deadly efficiency.

 


Morning. Albin is not here anymore. His bed is empty.
Albin is fucked off.
Albin has stopped suffering.
What a wisdom in those who cleaned up his last blood.

"It's a matter of loyalty" he tells me. He's fatherly, sympathetic. He terrifies me. "A thing we offer nobody but demand from others. A necessary quality, if we want to keep the hierarchic order of this place."

I have the horrible, repulsive feeling that he's about to bend over me to caress my hair, run a hand on my cheek; and though I'm on quite friendly terms with the amatory preliminaries of death, I'm petrified.

The close contact is, really, too much. I wasn't ready. I'm not ready.

"You must already know" he sighs. "You all know. Somebody betrayed. Somebody had the cheek to fake his case sheet. One of our brothers is dead. Frankly, this is something we can't permit."

Almost midnight. Over my bedhead, only the weak night bulb, an artificial light that does not bother him. And he, perched like a gigantic condor, a prehistoric vulture on my sheet, at my feet, weighs almost nothing. An ethereal, light, impalpable creature; but so physical, so concrete in the glitter of his teeth. Of the disproportionate canines.

"We imposed nothing to anybody. You signed. You agreed. You are a catholic, right? You'll remember the Ark of the Covenant, the deal with God, the rigor of the rules..."

Strangely, his breath does not stink. It does not smell of blood, of homicide. It only sheds a light aroma of withered flowers; the same odor that perhaps was in the air of Eden after our fall. Or at least that's something I can imagine.

"I realize you are not guilty, at the personal level. Your behavior is faultless. But here, unfortunately for you, only the group ethics matters."

And he bends. And yes, he stretches a hand over my hair, to hold it in his fist with strength, with rage; and then he pushes backward this head of mine that does not possess a will anymore, a coherent musculature; an then he descends, with a dart, on me; and his cold, icy lips, a pack, an iceberg, lean on my neck; and they open; and everything, everything...

"It's not unpleasant, isn't it?" he asks, smiling.

The veins in my neck throb. I just had two orgasms. My underpants and my pyjamas pants are soaked with sperm.

"Your nurse will clean you" he says. "They're good. They know what to do. We train them well."

He rises. Goes to the window. He's silhouetted against the feeble glimmer of the stars, an anemic light as if they had drained it with their big mouths, with their huge teeth. And he does not turn to look at me.

"I wasn't bound to do it" he says. "It's a gift. One more chance. For a man who behaved so well."

I don't know what to say. What to think. The pain has disappeared from my body. It seems I'm gone back, before the illness, and I can't believe it. It will pass, I have no doubts. Only pain has the necessary will-power to be always present.

"God has become so far away, so remote an enemy" he says, gazing at the sky. "His symbols stay, and they can kill us, sure, but God is not there anymore. He fled. He was afraid of the world he made. Maybe he'd like to give it to us, and maybe that's exactly what he's doing."

Panic, in its own way, is a good blanket. You can use it to cover yourself and close your eyes and pretend that nothing matters anymore, because anyway the apocalypse is guaranteed. You can roll under it and have resounding coituses with your senses of guilt, with anguishes and premonitions. You can scatter the seed of uncertainty, or rather of the certainty of disaster.

That's what we do today in the cafeteria. The few of us who found the strength to come down here to eat. Many stayed in their rooms, to have their solitary meals in the company of their nurses. Who never complain, never protest, always accept anything. I'd like to know how much they're paid; or do they all work for the final promise? Could be.

This morning carpenters, masons, plumbers have appeared. A cutter set them and their equipment ashore; a bus has taken them here; and now we hear loud bangs, hammer blows, curses. This hostel of our last days seems almost a living place.

And the three-floors building on the side of the clinic, where nurses and attendants live, is putting on faces we don't know. Walls rise; partitions collapse; bulkheads are born. On the whole, judging from these first hours of work, I think I can say they're preparing a maze. For frightened, cancer- ridden white mice.

At the near table, a tall, middle aged woman, her face devoured by acne, has noticed the twin holes in my neck. Her spoon stopped in mid-air, and she's staring thoughtfully at me. Who knows what she's imagining. In her shoes I'd do the same.

But I'm not the only one, and I'm glad of this; my guardian angel didn't act alone. Or perhaps he's done all of it. I don't know. Do they also know mercy?

Meanwhile, my body sings. I don't suffer anymore. Jesus Christ, I'm not suffering. I don't know how long it will last, and I don't care. I ate, hide myself under the common panic, and don't say a word. Talking of it would not be right.

When A14One delivered the letter, for a moment I thought I could faint. The black envelope of the Masters of Night. Inside, the black paper with the white letters impressed by an efficient, modern laser printer. The Lottery. The monthly drawing. My destiny.

A14One, gentle and respectful as always, left on tiptoe. I was in bed for a sudden pang in my abdomen: one of those stabs I know by heart, even though I was fooling myself in the hope of having overcome them. Thanks to the teeth of my Master. But their effect, it is so clear now, is just a balm fated to wear out from dawn to sunset. Or rather from sunset to dawn.

And now I know. There won't be a Lottery. Not this month. Not for us. The wrath of the Masters of Night is about to break out.

He's back to visit me. Who knows what I did to stir up his liking, provided that such a feeling is possible in a creature like him. Maybe, very simply, he comes here because Albin's bed is still empty, and so we can converse in peace, sweetly, behind a closed door; and the breeze that blows from the sea brings the aromas of salt, seaweed, shellfish.

And it soothes the ordeal of my cancer, which is now relentless.

He walks to and fro in the room. He looks nervous. He tells me muddled stories from his past. Four centuries ago, he says, he was a rabbi. Then he was taken by the pride of challenging the nameless God of his religion. He did things man should not do.

He's not coherent. If I didn't know who he is, what he is, I'd say he's drunk. The three bites. Three nights in a row. The ritual carried out by a female who took a fancy to the idea of damning a servant to Jehovah. A woman who was living almost from the dawn of time.

"I am young" he tells me, perching on the small easy chair in a corner of the room. "This kind of life demands whole ages to be absorbed... To decipher the canons. And I still haven't made it."

And I wish I could press the button, call for A14One, because pain is overflowing from my lips like a too rich, too nourishing honey ingested by somebody who for months has lived on herbs and roots on a desert island; but the moment is wrong, and I understand it, and swallow, ingurgitate, and hope for an answer.

"The rite of the Great Hunt is very ancient for us. For those like me. A tribal ceremony, your anthropologists would say. Yours, mine..."

He's torn. Lacerated. Maybe he could cry. And meanwhile, even though it is night, the hammers and the adjustable spanners and the picks have not stopped. They beat, dig, modify. They build the labyrinth. The bunker for the cancerous guinea pigs.

"I was a man" he shouts, showing the sharp canines to the moon. "I still am. In part." He lowers his voice, his head. It almost seems he's asking for my absolution. "Blood changes your perception of the world. Blood, and the nocturnal life. Our elders have seen things that perhaps I'll never see, but lost the sense of human dignity. You are not livestock, are not cannon fodder."

"But you give us a hope" I whisper, clenching my teeth on the nameless beast that has stretched out its head from my belly. Tearing my bowels, my eyeballs, my ear-drums, in a taste of death perhaps more exuberant than death itself. And my fingers, my fingers are now unable to rise to the button by my bed. "Would you please call for the nurse? I'm dying."

He rises, he comes to the foot of my bed. "You don't have an ash stake, right?" he asks.

"No" I whimper.

"And should you have it, would you put it into my heart?"

"No, never" I moan. "You are my hope."

Then he presses the button. He picks up the edges of his cloak and goes out through the window. In flight. An ethereal moth that mingles with the dark of the night. Far, so far away now. Toward the outside world, the true world.

And while A14One inebriates my veins with something that kills pain, plans pleasure, forecasts the priceless break of a sleep without nightmares, without the slightest awareness of myself, I realize this: my companions and I are almost-dead, and they are non-dead; and yes, the Lottery separates us, and the terror of AIDS, and everything; but our almost-life is just a very painful prologue to their non-life; and I, while the throbs subside and the numbness descends, don't know, I really don't know which destiny I'd prefer to choose.

If I were elsewhere. If I weren't on this island.

They say this: we should not have betrayed them. They say this: responsibility is collective, so we all must pay for their dead brother. They say the Great Hunt is an ancient, noble rite, held in great consideration by their race. They say the game will be fair, because they are not bats, they can't see in the dark; and in the labyrinth of the building adjacent to the clinic, now that masons and carpenters and plumbers have finished their job and have left, they can't orientate themselves better than us. And they promise they will hunt us only one hour each night, from two to three a.m.

They say that the world is full of terminal patients and that the offer of this chance, the Hunt, is proof of huge generosity; they could exterminate us. Instead they'll give us drugs to recover our strength, harmless drugs that won't pollute our blood; and we'll have fun; it's going to be like a childish game, a very cruel game in the dark, but still a game; and should somebody come out of it alive, or marked by the three partial bites that grant immortality, he will be the winner of a very private Lottery.

I know what it's all about. It's the blood that goes to their heads; it's the insatiable thirst of the non-dead, the desire to hunt, the longing to chase their game like they did in other times, other centuries, before the clinic.

The longing for destruction of our world, on the wings of intelligent bombs. Of the computerized missiles of our surgical wars.

"Look for me" he whispers, a moment before they switch off the lights. "I am not Christ, but I am the source of eternal life."

 

Written by Vittorio Curtoni
Original title:
PRIMA DEL BUIO (1994) | Published in Fantasia, Nuovi Equilibri Editrice, Viterbo, 1995.

Fanged Films

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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