Esther Leihang | January 2023
His mind was wide awake. He could not, however, move. He could not even feel his face. Not even his ears.
Then again, when have I ever felt my ears, big as they are?
He shook his head, figuratively speaking.
Don’t joke; you’re not that funny and this is not the time.
It was not just his ears. He could not feel his face, his head, his torso… nothing. He could not move.
He didn’t look forward to that experience in sleep paralysis where you can’t move an inch and then you get this nightmare about a goblin and it’s sitting on your chest… Only that didn’t happen. Which was a relief.
What did they say you have to do to snap out of it?
He found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Maybe he was slipping off to sleep again. He remembered reading about sleep paralysis; apparently you get it when your mind is starting to wake up but your body hasn’t yet, so you enter this chaotic world where you are mired in between dreams and reality in your mind and yet your body is still dead to the world; half-awake, half-comatose. That seemed logical. Now what did the article say about rousing yourself up?
Something about a toe…
Something confused him. Something felt very wrong.
When he was a young boy – perhaps ten or eleven – he’d gone hunting with his father, his uncle and two of his cousins. He had been useless in the forest. All he’d wanted to do was sit under the big tree behind the house, basking in its shade, snacking on stolen condensed milk from a can. But there he had been – mosquito-bitten, rain drenched and no sign of game. He remembered the day with particular distaste.
And there he suddenly was!
He was once again young, wearing a slightly tattered grey T-shirt and black pants that had moth holes in them. He had been asked to not wear any good clothes by his mother, he suddenly remembered.
How strange the things we remember when the situation calls for it!
He found himself even remembering having thought then why he would ever be expected to wear good clothes to go to a godforsaken forest in the middle of nowhere!
Wearing a sullen face, he trudged along the slippery non-existent path, afraid to fall, determined to enjoy his time away from his companions. He was supposed to get bamboo shoots. He did not even like bamboo shoots. Food tended to taste better in the wild but not even the wild, virgin forest could improve the taste of bamboo shoots; he sincerely did not like the fibrous food that he was sure was ever only meant to be used for furniture and chicken basket. He did not bother with the shoots but instead rested against a tree, nurturing his bad mood. His uncle called out to him from some distance away asking him to hurry. He waved back impatiently, thinking bitterly that he had never asked to even be a part of this stupid expedition.
And as suddenly as he’d found himself as a young boy, foraging for bamboo shoots on a trip he didn’t want to be in, he was out again. And he could not move. Again.
What is the matter with me?
His mind felt muddled, lacking the clarity that he’d had just a few minutes earlier when he was young and…
How had he seamlessly and un-problematically been back to that day from so long ago? He could feel himself there just as it had happened literally minutes earlier. But that had been so many years ago. He was forty-two; not eleven. He was lying down somewhere on a less than comfortable surface; not on a male-bonding exercise. He had not –
Dreams. That explains it.
He must have slipped off to sleep and have dreamed something from memory.
How strange the things we remember when the situation calls for it!
He frowned. He remembered thinking exactly that in his very realistic dream-memory just a few moments ago…
Well, at least he was not really out somewhere humid and miserable, gathering – of all things! – bamboo shoots to eat for dinner. At the very least, they could have carried shrimp paste and salt and chilly to improve the taste. But apparently those things were a luxury. He honestly didn’t see the point to forgoing luxury – if that – to feel like a man.
Where am I now?
He had assumed that his eyes were open but if they were, he was not seeing anything except glaring white. On second thought, he didn’t think his eyes were open at all. The white… it could be black; he could not truly tell. This alarmed him a little. When had he gotten to a point where he did not know if his eyes were open or closed or whether something was black or white? It seemed a very basic skill set to possess; or more precisely, to lack.
When he was seventeen, he had suffered from malaria. He was at school and he had fainted. Since he had been up to no good at the time – cutting class and drinking his father’s alcohol that he’d stolen the night before – he’d never told anyone how he’d begun to increasingly feel hot and clammy at the same time and then found himself on the floor of a disgusting urinal. He had not even taken three swigs of the liquid; he knew he was not drunk to have passed out. This had frightened him slightly. The world had been white even then. Or very bright. Something.
And just like before, he was there again – a scrawny, dishevelled teenager in need of a shower perhaps two days ago, in his old school uniform. He frowned hard at this development.
This is not right.
How was he entering his memory again? Was he asleep? He did not feel like he was asleep.
Muttering to himself, he slowly made his way back downhill from the urinal to the school. He wondered if he should just go home. He felt himself burning up with fever. His legs felt wobbly. His body felt like sludge. And he was still clammy and alternating unsteadily between feeling incredibly hot and then painfully cold. He had not been feeling good for some days now; he’d just never admitted to it because he saw it as being delicate, which was not a done thing. He was, after all, a young man. It had just not been as bad as this.
His fevered mind dredged up something from memory. If it served, he would be confined to bed for days on end – on the verge of death, in fact. In the meantime, while he battled for dear life, his supposed best friend would make his move on the prettiest girl in class and she would respond positively; she should have been his. He remembered lying on his bed at home, delirious from fever and in one bout of clarity, his mother softly crying and the nurse lamenting that if they’d known about his condition sooner, they could have had a better chance treating him.
Well, this time, I’ll just go straight home!
He staggered on, away from the school and on to his house. Something did bother him even in his confused mind.
How am I remembering the future?
Even if he was dreaming a memory, it did not make sense that he was remembering the outcome of this event, leave alone trying to alter said outcome. Lost in thought, confused by recent random memories and experiences of sleep paralysis, he reached his house and entered.
The thing with sleep paralysis, he found himself thinking, was that it was getting increasingly difficult to tell reality from dream-memories, especially when in his reality, he was bound as though by an invisible rope.
Where am I?
He did not think his bed was this uncomfortable! Surely he would have complained if it ever had been. And wherever this was that he was lying on, it was far from comfortable. All of a sudden, he felt someone – someone’s hands – squeezing his own hands. Panic set in.
Who is that? Why am I not able to see who is holding my hand? Why do I feel it as though removed from it?
He could not really explain. He did feel the hand and the soft pressure but he felt it as though feeling a phantom arm.
When he had his first child, he had been a doting father. One day he’d held her and she’d fallen asleep. He had not wished to disturb her sleep – because you never wake sleeping babies! – so he’d settled in the comfortable chair and went off to sleep himself. When he’d woken up, she was still asleep. To his distress, his right arm had also gone off to sleep. It had felt strange and unpleasant. Like rubber, but heavy rubber he knew was his own body but could not feel or move at will. He’d wanted her to wake up in a really bad way. And he’d really wanted to smoke. Desperate for it, in fact.
He remembered that feeling well. Right now, he badly wanted to see who it was who was holding his phantom rubber hands.
What is happening to me?
He walked out of the room and flicking a cigarette out from his pocket expertly like some flashy movie star, he stood with his back against the wall. He placed the cigarette between his lips, lit it with much flourish and took a deep satisfying drag.
This is what life is really all about!
He closed his eyes, blew smoke from his nostrils and grinned happily, idly pretending to be a cowboy relaxing after a hard day roping cattle or engaging in gun battles or whatever it was that cowboys did. Someone called out his name and he waved in the general direction of the voice. He was lost in a fantasy idyll, this was perfect and he did not wish to be disturbed.
He could still taste the cigarette. This was not right. It had been nearly two years since he had smoked his last; specifically ever since the doctor had told him he had cancer and it was probably due to his chain-smoking. It had not been enough of course; the damage had been done. But he was not touching the stuff again. So how was it that a dream could make him taste it all over again?
He suddenly realized one more thing that was not quite right about any of this – the paralysis and the memories. He thought about it for a while. When he finally could put a finger on it, he felt frightened.
He was very frightened.
The one important detail about the dreams from his memories? The situations had all happened, yes – the bamboo shoot expedition, the fever-induced delirious return from school, the day his baby slept in his numb arms. All of them. But his actions in them he’d never experienced. He’d not gone off alone to forage for bamboo shoots, he’d not walked home by himself, he did not remember his cowboy cigarette idyll.
Additionally – and he wished he hadn’t figured this out – these memory sequences were something he’d always known about. He was remembering again. As the situation called.
Do we not forget anything? At all?
He bitterly concluded that forgetting was the mind’s way of healing. And he was not healing.
They called it Living Ghost. Or some variation of that. Ghosts of living people, basically. Stories of it had always followed him around. This had a reason. People said he had one: a Living Ghost. A few times in his life, people had come up with tales of how they’d seen him around when he really had not been. They were starting to make sense to him now.
He was eleven and on a hunt with his relations. He had not wanted to be a part of it and he’d made sure the other people knew he was miserable. They had asked him to go collect bamboo shoots for dinner because he was annoying everyone. He had gone with his elder brother and not helped out one bit. Later, their bags heavy with bamboo shoots, they’d made their way back to camp. His uncle had chastised him over his wandering off on his own (there were snakes and predators around in the wild) and not returning sooner when he’d called. His black mood returning, he had surly replied that he had spent the entire time with his brother and they’d not seen any predators – animal or human. His brother had concurred. He had been angry. The adults had shrugged it away. Everyone was safe, after all.
He was seventeen. He was recovering from malaria and his classmates had come to pay him a visit. One of them – a girl who had an annoyingly shrill voice as he remembered – had mentioned how sick he’d looked the day they’d diagnosed him of the disease. She and her friend had gone on and on about how they’d called him but he had not responded. They said that he had not looked himself so they’d casually followed him till he got to his home, making sure he got there alright; that they’d returned to school once they saw him enter his house but that when they got back to school, he was still in school! He dismissed it. He had got home only late in the evening, and that too on the arms of his best friends, too weak to walk by himself. The only reason he was even on his feet was that he could not bear the thought of being borne on a stretcher. The shame of it! And his story – unlike theirs – could be corroborated by actual evidence by the people who half carried him home and by his parents who received him. Annoyingly, the girls had stuck to their story and that was how he’d got burdened with the taint of having a ‘living ghost’ in the first place.
He was twenty-three. His neighbour had joked about how happy he had looked the day before, smoking like he had not a care in the world! He had denied this vociferously, slightly still piqued that his daughter had slept for so long, still remembering the feel of his rubber arms. His neighbour had insisted he had seen him, swearing that he had waved at him negligently when he’d called out to him. He had not liked the implication. As it was, people whispered that he had a living ghost apparently just roaming around the place. Over the bottle they were sharing, he’d made his displeasure clear. And his neighbour had good-naturedly shrugged it off, saying he had probably been seeing things.
Suddenly he knew what all these stories had been!
It did not really make sense but it made sense too, at the same time.
Could it not be that he had gone back in time from where he was right now? To a time removed from now and back in the shell (for aren’t our bodies just shells for our souls?) that he’d occupied then? They said that if a living ghost saw its real self, the person would die. Perhaps he should be grateful that even as he accepted now that he indeed did have a “living ghost”, his ghost had never seen his then current self.
And yet, he began to think something else.
It would be better to have died then than be here right now.
He suddenly knew where he was. He was dying; as good as dead. His body was being kept alive by a machine, beeping ominously next to him. He was lying on a sparse hospital bed in the ICU. Two of his family members would be around by his side. He could not tell who. He could only vaguely feel their presence and their touch, hear their voice like it came from a far distance… and that too, only sometimes. Travelling back to a time when his body was young and fit, his mind clear and unburdened, felt better than this sick paralysis of verging between life and death.
He might not be real when he travelled back, but it was better than being this thing on a hospital bed.
He began to choose a memory to return to.
Esther Leihang is a hobby writer and a reader of fiction, mostly sci-fi and fantasy literature. She is inspired by the writings of Douglas Adams, JK Rowling, Andrew Kaufman, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and the likes. Her voyage in fiction is often interrupted by her job in the civil services which pays for her daily eggs and tea. In the hopes of hitching a ride through the galaxy in a passing TARDIS, she knows where her towel is. At all times.
Head to her Blog to read more of her writings.
Photo via Unsplash
Find The Mean Journal on Instagram @MeanPepperVine