Vertigo

by Bianca Bellová

Translated from the Czech by Julia Sutton-Mattocks

There’s no avoiding it. Everyone suffers from it up here, even if they don’t speak about it. It grips your bowels like a citrus juicer. Vertigo seizes you with such strength that it paralyses you right from the tips of your fingers to your respiratory muscles. You have to resist it from the very first and crowd it out, as fast as you can, or it will eat you alive. The worst thing is that you won’t even be able to rid yourself of it when your feet are back on solid ground. Once you know what there is up here and become aware just how cold it is everywhere, you will never regain your composure. You are like the child who suddenly discovers that monsters really do exist and that they can’t be resisted, not even for half a minute. And that nothing is certain. 

At nursery I had a friend called Jenda Rokyta. Back then we both knew that our futures would be in space. We played rockets and crews and commanders. We played running out of resources, running out of oxygen, entering outer space, repairs in a vacuum and rescue missions in portable modules. Then, at school, Jenda abandoned his space fantasies (“What? What rocket? Don’t know what you’re talking about!” he rebuffed me once, when I had pretended to certain nostalgic reminiscences), just as the other children had ceased to cherish ambitions of becoming dustmen or fire fighters. He decided instead that he would be a mentalist. At first, he tested out primitive card tricks, during which you could see him clumsily switching the chosen card to the top of the pack under his hand. After a time, however, he worked his way up to a fairly professional level. With the help of a dozen or so questions, for instance, he could work out which card you’d taken from the pack and hidden in a sealed packet in your breast pocket. 

Once he really managed to dupe me. It was on a residential forest school trip and he was showing off in front of a crowd of girls. He told me to choose any number from zero up to a million and write it on a bit of paper. I then had to burn the paper in front of everyone and imagine my number written up in giant neon figures in the air. I really liked him but I didn’t want to make it easy for him, not then. I wrote down 64,461. Then I had to write down the name of a celebrity. It had to be someone everyone would know but whom no one knew I wanted to get to know better. So I wrote down Robert Plant. Again, I burnt it and imagined the name written up in giant illuminated letters. Then Jenda asked me a couple of questions and made an expression of hellish concentration. “Run and look in the rubbish bin… yup… Is there a peanut packet there? Look inside it!” Inside the peanut packet was a greasy bit of paper and on it were the words Robert Plant says hi, 64,461!

When Jenda’s card tricks ended successfully people would normally clap and cheer, and some of the girls would shriek hysterically. On this occasion, however, complete silence fell. Nobody could work it out, least of all me. Jenda sat on the bunk with his arms folded. He looked exhausted but was smiling triumphantly. I told him that if he didn’t tell me how he’d done it I would kill him, and my voice shook as I said it. The girls all started to shriek when I flung myself at Jenda and started to push him about. In no time at all, a teacher barged into the room and called a halt to things. Jenda didn’t stop smiling, not even with a shiner of a black eye. To this day I do not know how he did it, how he could have known in advance what I would think up.

These days Jenda Rokyta is serving time for credit fraud and I am up here, and God knows I would switch places with him in a flash. Did he know that beforehand too? Know what a pickle we’d both be in? Has that information been lying for years in some stinking rubbish bin? Because for warning of this, at least, I would have been grateful to him.

I’m in precisely the sort of situation that would have made my ex-wife, Linda, remark, “That didn’t turn out well for Daddy, then, did it?” It was a phrase I heard fairly often. My guess is that the little monkey has now learnt to say it with exactly the same intonation. She will say to her partner, “That didn’t turn out well for Daddy, then, eh?” and do so with the same insufferably indulgent smile as her mother. We contrive to conquer space, but our marriages fall into ruin as a result of indulgent smiles and the manner in which we place teaspoons. 

Nessun dorma. No one sleeps. Or, at least, I don’t sleep. I watch the glass of my space suit rapidly becoming covered in threads of fungus and I think of the icy flowers that used to grow on the windows of our cottage in the Eagle Mountains. It was where we went as children until our parents decided to sell the cottage and instead buy a houseboat at Slapy, which filled up with water after two seasons and sank to the bottom of the reservoir. It is not an aesthetically displeasing sight. In fact, it could almost be said to be beautiful. Slender shoots, all arranged into battle lines, develop on the glass of my visor. They multiply and come together to form magnified copies of themselves, which then form further, larger fractals, and so it continues until they become completely confused. The final and absolute fractal is God, in whom I generally don’t believe, though every now and then find myself believing once more. In the pale light of the LEDs on my space suit and the control panel the threads inside my helmet are gently rose in colour and give off a cloyingly sweet smell. It is as if a confectioner were spinning candy floss onto a wooden skewer inside my space suit. Sticky and sweet, so good to eat!

I know what happens next. I’ve already seen it in the other three who set foot on the surface of the planet. This thing will spread rapidly through my whole body and contaminate it with its fungal threads. It will grow into my guts and my stomach, enter my brain through my ears and, just before the very end, will compel its victim to perform a few amusing dance moves. Already, the fungus has half filled my lungs. I’m unable to breathe deeply. It’s like when you’ve been under water too long and know that you need to make a dash for the surface. It forces me to start coughing, but I barely hear it. It sounds comic, like the cough of a hamster or a guinea pig.

When I found those three, they were just amorphous mounds of matter covered in threads of fungus and little white lumps. It rather reminded me of my grandmother’s crumble-topped rhubarb pastries. No one prepares you for the filth of space, nor the special space suit, which comes complete with an inbuilt pressurised protection garment of the type used in the “hot zone” of the maximum-security biolaboratory at the Fort Detrick government research institute in Maryland. The pressure works in such a way that no filth can get inside even if the garment tears. But they reckon, of course, with a terrestrial, tame form of filth. The thing now growing on me wordlessly penetrates even this, the most resistant space suit we have ever thought up; a suit that is designed to withstand radiation, and both chemical and biological threats. It only takes one thing, one wrong decision on the part of the crew’s commander.

Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma! Tu pure, o Principessa, nella tua fredda stanza guardi le stelle che tremano d'amore e di speranza… Linda’s favourite aria, or, more accurately, the only aria she knows. Linda is a touch more superficial in this respect. She listens to Coldplay and Kryštof and such like, to the things that are served up to her on a plate. But she does try to educate herself, you have to give her that. Whenever someone exceptionally stupid came to visit, however, Linda would manage to convince them that she was an opera lover and that she loved Puccini’s Turandot above all else, and then she would waft Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma at them from YouTube. I have to admit that once or twice I called her a bimbo and a pop-culture princess, and once I laughed at her to the point that she burst into tears. I felt bad afterwards, of course, because nowhere in our prenup did it say that both partners had to read Hannah Arendt. In any case, it doesn’t matter now. 

My space suit is failing. The oxygen rebreather is spluttering its last. The blue warning light on the right-hand panel is blinking as if possessed. The temperature inside the suit is slowly approaching that surrounding it and I am shaking with cold. There is a smell of burnt sugar. I’m afraid to make any movement, since each provides the filth with a new battle ground on which to mount an attack. 

From time to time people down below ask us, only half in jest, whether we’ve ever seen God. They usually imagine an Old Testament Jehovah accompanied by an entourage of chubby infantile angels with curves that would delight a paedophile’s eye. I’ve never seen anything quite like that, but I’ve sure as hell seen my share of things that defy our control. Neither our calculations, nor our space suits nor our defensive capacities are equal to them. Up here, in this total silence, broken only by the buzzing of the instruments and the nearly imperceptible crackle of your expanding lungs, in the cold and complete solitude (although solitude is not quite the right word; something more absolute, even something inverse might be more to the point), the only thing that can offer you some little help is good, old-fashioned prayer. An Angel of God or a Hail Mary full of grace, or whatever you fancy really. You pray like an old woman, all of a sudden understanding just how lonely God is. You long for him to spare you the same loneliness, and, as you do so, vertigo rips you to shreds. Anything, you babble, anything that will allow me to feel that I’m not alone in space; a sleeping child’s elbow against my ribs, the reek of an unkempt tramp, my wife’s shrieking falsetto. Anything. And you beg Him, if he does nothing else, to deprive you of your consciousness before you see the fungal threads appearing on your own retinas. 

I wasn’t daft enough, of course, to walk right up to the three of them when I realised what was up. It’d been pretty clear from the earlier radio communication. By this, I don’t mean that I just had an inkling that something had gone wrong and that things were not going to plan. Rather, I felt with deep certainty that the rescue mission was pointless. What I’d heard and the cadence of the words had more than sufficed to stop me monitoring that whore, vertigo, and I let her seize me by the balls and squeeze. I lowered my guard. 

I didn’t even get close to them. I just flew the module low over their bodies so that I could get photo evidence for the report. I only touched down on that fucked up planet for the briefest of moments and still this filth found its way into the module. I didn’t attach great importance to my visor starting to cloud over. As always, when reality is at odds with our desires, we make believe that the reality simply doesn’t exist. You know how it is. You’re woken in the middle of the night by footsteps in the corridor of a flat that only you live in, yet their potentially fatal consequences only make you turn over and sleep on.

It is curious how the mind functions at such tense moments as these. Your manual functions operate the monitor, controls, levers and buttons, and your acquired skills work on controlling your breath and the trembling of your limbs. Meanwhile, your subconscious rifles furiously through its underground archive in an attempt to offer you any sort of usable information. 

The moment I saw the three collapsed mounds of fungus that had been my colleagues, confidants, rivals on the career ladder, comrades-in-arms and above all, for fuck’s sake, my friends, I recalled that bird. I found it in the fireplace at the cottage when I was a boy. We were there over Easter, the first time we had been there in a long time. Among the bits of charred log protruded the dried-out skeleton of a bird, all covered in feathers. It was probably a fledgling that had fallen down the chimney into the fireplace and been mummified in the airflow. It was impossible to spot at first, so perfectly did it blend into its surroundings. Its head stuck out on a vertical axis and its beak was slightly open. It looked as if it had failed to hide its indignation. 

I felt that the fact that I’d found it at Easter was a sign and it affected me greatly. I called everyone in. My brother looked bored, my mum, disgusted – “Could it be carrying some kind of disease?” But it evidently aroused Dad’s interest. 

I had an idea. “I’ll go and get the shovel and bury it in the garden!” But before I had time to race out of the room I heard Dad say it wouldn’t be necessary. I turned round and saw how, with one well-aimed jab of the poker, he had smashed the bird into lots of tiny little pieces that had scattered all over the grate.

“There,” said Dad with satisfaction. “Now you can make the fire as normal.”

Why, my darling subconscious, have you furnished me with precisely this memory? The image of my father’s look of satisfaction at a job well done? His demiurgic exclamation of “Dust thou art, my friend, and that’s as good as it’s going to get (or however it goes)”? Is this a hint, my darling subconscious, that I should set the module to autodestruct and thereby spare myself the disasters that, by-and-by, will randomly strike the module on its voyage through space? And, by extension, spare the whole of humanity, through which this fungus would spread in a single day? If so, my darling subconscious, you have cabbage for brains! You’ve been fooled by films like Alien and Space Odyssey. This is just a run-of-the-mill rescue module. It can fly from a space ship to the surface of a planet and back. It has a primitive oxygen recycling system and colourful lights on its control panel. At the construction stage, installing an autodestruct mechanism would have been about as high a priority as including a powder compact and puff. Let’s consider the topic of auto destruction closed. By the time this is over, I will be a mildewed Flying Dutchman roaming the cosmos for eternity. Try, you idiotic subconscious, to provide me with a more useful memory!

If I were down there right now, I suppose it would be about time to go to confession. It would be no small task. If I had to put together a list of my sins, to draw up what the Church of Scientology’s members nimbly compile with as much ease as they draw breath and give to the church’s elders to lock in a vault, it would definitely take up several densely written pages. Nothing about that bothers me. If, though, it came down to the one thing I would most like to erase, then it would be the awkward incident with the music box.

A colleague bought it for me when she was on a work trip to CERN. We were engaged – how shall we put it? – in casual extra-curricular relations. I rebuked myself only minimally as, at that point, my marriage to Linda was already on the rocks. My colleague, however, took our relationship seriously. It’s possible that she was even preparing to leave her family for me. The point, though, is that she brought me back this bit of junk, a music box made by Jobin of Switzerland, as a present. It was made of varnished lime wood, was topped with glass, and contained two rotating cylinders. One played a Chopin polonaise and the other, Tristesse. I don’t know what made me surround myself with women who thought I shared their love of classical music. 

It was saccharine to the point of suffocation and can’t have cost less than two hundred Swiss francs. I couldn’t think of a better way of legalising the thing than to give it to my own wife as an anniversary present. Linda was moved, perhaps even more so than when I had asked for her hand. She had tears in her eyes and kept repeating “But then… And there was I thinking our marriage was on the rocks.” I felt like an arsehole even then. Linda took the present as proof of my undying love and did her best to rescue our relationship from the dust. As a result, the agony was needlessly drawn out for another few years. Whenever we quarrelled, she’d lie on the bed and blast Tristesse defiantly from the music box. I should’ve known what would happen. It would’ve been for the best if I’d taken a hammer to that piece of junk and smashed it to smithereens. 

This all happened a long time ago, though I’m not sure exactly when. Then, after a number of years, we crossed paths at this year’s New Year celebrations. Linda was there with her new boyfriend; a tattooed, loutish type from the gym. She still looked good as she laughed, an olive clasped between her teeth. By coincidence, we drew the Obamas in a game of assassins. I was Michelle and Linda was Barack. We had to hide behind the curtains together and it was – I’m not exactly sure how to put it – almost painfully nostalgia-inducing. I breathed in Linda’s scent and recalled the bare tree on the horizon above our house, the winter silhouette of which had often left me speechless. Into my mind also leapt sweaty hands on a white tablecloth, the smell of escalope on the hob, a pop-up book on the floor, the sound of our neighbour’s lawnmower, the canary in its cage and lemon cake; all of this useless, banal kitsch from the past. Linda suggested we go for coffee when I got back from my mission and allowed herself quickly and covertly to be embraced behind the curtain. I said “That sounds great, Barack,” and she laughed. When, at midnight, everyone was kissing, she squeezed my elbow, no longer laughing. I asked her whether I perhaps seemed a bit old to her to be going on the mission and she shrugged her shoulders in enquiry. “What do you think, Michelle?”

Since we’re doing confessions, it’s high time I admitted what really happened with Jenda Rokyta and his little trick. In the evening after his mentalist performance at the forest school I waited for him when he was going to the toilet. I crept up on him from behind and twisted his arm behind his back. I only wanted to know how he’d done it. At first, he shrieked “What are you doing, you stupid idiot? You trying to break my arm?!” But when he realised that I was in earnest, he tried to resist for a bit and then began to whimper. I wasn’t holding back at all and it really hurt him. Jenda cried as he told me how he’d done it. When I grasped how simple it’d been I felt a horrific sense of disappointment. I released Jenda from my grip and he kicked me in the shins on the way out. We were never as close again after that. I was furious with him for letting me in on the secret and wished I’d never found out. 

My weak cough is turning into an uncontrolled fit. I can feel the threads of this thing spreading their rampant way between my fingers. When I rub them I think back to the way I used to stroke the little monkey’s head. She had such delicate, fine hair. I was aware even then of how transitory our relationship was. She used to pretend that her gloves were ninjas. When one fell on the ground the other would try to save it. I was the super ninja and both ninjas would have to hide when I unfasted my seat belt and leant round to her from the front of the car. “Help!” the gloves would scream. “We can’t find our way to Louisa’s pockets!” I helped them find their way to Louisa’s pockets and Louisa would say “Thanks, super ninja,” and allow herself to be stroked. Her hair used to slip through my fingers just like the fungal threads that are now growing all over me. A couple of months after that she started school, her front teeth fell out and she started to say silly girlish things and “That didn’t turn out well for Daddy, then, eh?”

A light has appeared on the horizon. Even though my visor is now so overgrown with muck that it resembles the walls of an uncleaned aquarium, it appears to me, all of a sudden, as if somebody has turned on the lights. Maybe I’ve come up close to a star. Or the Demiurge is welcoming me into his open arms. I am reminded of the scientists who, in complete seriousness and in reputable journals, publish their theory that the space encircling us is merely a numerical computer simulation. Paradoxically, it’s quite comforting to know that I’m simply going through life according to an algorithm programmed into me by some malicious deity and that I am only a sort of simulacrum of a fool. Everything is programmed: that music box from Jobin of Switzerland, my daughter’s hair, Jenda Rokyta’s stupid performance, the whole of this botched mission, the tangled mass of fungus between my fingers and the controller that is blinking insufferably at me from my wrist. I haven’t made a mistake. This was how everything had to be. Thanks, processor! I laugh but it exhausts me and I break into a painful cough. 

The light outside is dazzling. I get the sense, as you do when the auditorium lights come on at the end of a concert, that the performance is over and there will be no more encores. 

The need to cough has passed. I can no longer breathe and it’s liberating. I can’t even feel the cold any longer, only Louisa’s fine hair between my fingers. The lights shine, there isn’t even a whisper from the audience. Somebody lets their seat squeak and others reprimand him. I was mistaken. It wasn’t the auditorium lights coming on. It was the spotlights on the podium. That son of a bitch Pavarotti is making his way onto the stage and everyone is pissing themselves with delight. The applause is deafening. When the orchestra starts to play the opening I realise I’m crying. It is Nessun dorma from Turandot. So, you see, kitsch is victorious when we are at our most vulnerable. Weakness punches me in my weak point. Vertigo seizes hold of me, but this time I’m no longer alone. Luciano is singing with me. Jenda Rokyta is at my right hand, shuffling cards and winking. Linda is sitting in the front row and, judging by the look on her face, is wallowing in tears of emotion. I know they believe in me; I know that I can do this. This is the finale!

Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All'alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!

Vanish, o night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win! 

I feel so blessed I could dance. 

Caitlyn Garcia