My Poor Companion
BY ALYSSA ASQUITH
For a long time, I believe, my companion was alone. Our whole room has a lonely character: the walls are plain, and the floors are cold, and the air is still and odorless. A dense, gray brightness hangs from the ceiling, like a thick fog on a summer’s day. At night, when I retreat to my dreams, the brightness follows, hanging low and close.
My companion seems quite accustomed to the brightness. More than once, I have seen him lying out on his back, sleeping with his eyes open.
I was brought here, I suspect, to free him from a fit of melancholy. On occasion, when he seems to be slipping, as he naturally does, back into his melancholy, our captors will come with new gifts, to cheer him. Since my arrival, they have installed three landscape portraits, a chess board, a violin, a bread machine, a full length mirror, a small basketball hoop (and a small basketball), a potted plant, a set of barbells, twelve novels, three comic books, four journals, two encyclopedias, a feather boa, a sewing machine, fourteen hats, and a goldfish.
I think my companion loves me the best. Sometimes, if I sit by his feet, he will reach out and stroke my long hair, carefully, like a child stroking a kitten. Though we sleep in separate beds, I have often found him lying sideways, gazing at me with a look of wonder. When I cry, he will place his hand on my mouth and hold me to his chest, very tightly, as if he cannot bear the sound of my sadness.
Unfortunately — due, perhaps, to some remarkable administrative oversight — I seem to speak in a language he does not understand. I know this, as I have asked his name many times, and each time he responds with a different sound: the patter of rain on a metal roof; the movement of air through an empty tunnel; the crunching of gravel underfoot.
Of his various other possessions, his favorite is almost certainly the armchair by the window, where he spends most of his days, gazing out. The chair, I suppose — like the beds, and the brightness — must have come with the room. They all share the same lonely character. My companion will not touch his newer gifts, perhaps as a matter of principle.
Personally, I have tried to make the most of our confinement. Every morning, I water the plant and feed the goldfish. I have flipped through all three comic books at least twelve times and tried on each one of the hats. Occasionally, I will pick up the violin and try to play, very softly. When I do, my companion will cover his ears and begin to moan, as if in terrible pain. Naturally, this has been somewhat discouraging. Despite my best efforts, I am unable to lift the barbells.
Lately, my companion seems to have descended even further into his melancholy.
I believe our captors are to blame. Six days ago, just after breakfast, four of them came to our room unannounced and began to install a large, double bed. This, in itself, was not unusual: the men often come with gifts in the mornings, when my companion is at his most active. Once they had made up the new bed, however, they carried their tools across the room and began to disassemble my bed, in the corner.
At this point, my companion turned his head from the window and began to watch the men, wearing an expression of great suspicion. When they finished with my bed and started on his, he pushed himself up out of his chair and went to stand before them, emitting a series of low, rumbling noises, like the sound of waves crashing against a shore. But the men did not seem to understand him: their speech, I’ve noticed, is much sharper and harsher than his, like the sound of a smoke alarm or breaking glass, full of chirps and clicks.
Finally, my companion threw himself on the mattress, quite violently, and began to wail and thrash. After a brief struggle, the men managed to pull him back and sit him up against the wall. One massaged his thin shoulders, gently; another dabbed at his brow with a cloth and spoke to him in low, angry whistles, like the wind that comes before a storm.
At one point, overwhelmed by the calamity of the misunderstanding, I tried to approach the men and convey — in whatever manner I could — that they ought to leave my companion his bed. But the men never seem to listen. When I scream, they sometimes tilt their heads very slightly, as if they can detect a strange noise in the distance.
By the time they had finished disassembling the beds, my companion was coiled up on the floor, quivering terribly, in a fit of despair. Our captors stood around him in a half-circle, looking at one another with expressions of bewilderment. Eventually, they carried him back to his armchair, packed up their tools, and left.
Since then, my companion has been inconsolable. When night falls, and I try to coax him to bed, he will begin to sob uncontrollably, as if the notion of sleeping beside me is deeply offensive to him. I try my best not to take this personally. More than once, I have woken to the sound of him weeping from his armchair, an experience that always shrouds my dreams in an air of sadness.
I am growing concerned for my companion’s health. Over the past few days, he has begun to melt — quite literally — into his armchair.
The chair has a pale, orange-pink sort of color, and an off-white, almost imperceptible floral pattern. Sometimes, when I look very closely, I will notice that the skin on his arm has faded, ever-so-slightly, into the chair, so that the pink-white of the fabric can be seen, very faintly, on his skin. When I pull his arm back, away from the chair, his skin always makes the strangest sound, like a piece of tape being peeled off a floor.
My companion does not seem to share my concern. These days, whenever I touch him — even if only to stop him from melting — he makes a series of hiccups and grunts, as if to express his irritation. Needless to say, he no longer strokes my hair. My sobbing does not seem to trouble him.
His poor health may be due, in part, to his diet. Twice a day, the men come into our room and leave our meals in the doorway: two eggs, a slice of bread, and a carton of milk. The eggs are very cold, as if they have just been removed from the freezer, and the milk (also cold) often has an inexplicable taste of metal. The bread is whole grain — always untoasted and slightly damp. On occasion, bananas will accompany our meals, but I have learned to avoid these. The other day, when I bit into a peel, a scurry of spiders emerged suddenly and ran up the sleeves of my blouse.
My companion eats very little. Lately, I’ve found he will not eat at all unless I bring his tray from the doorway and set it down in his lap. Once he has the tray, he will begin to sip the milk, delicately; sometimes, he will dip his pinky in the egg yolk and take it up to his lips. Most often, he leaves his bread untouched, forcing me to stand behind his chair and insert small crumbs into his mouth while he sleeps, very gently, one at a time.
At long last, despite their previous missteps, our captors have brought us something truly wonderful — a little kitten.
The kitten is all gray, with a white speckled tail, and quite friendly and unafraid. Almost immediately, upon its arrival, it began to run about and inspect the room, brushing up against the walls and the bed, chirping and mewing and sniffing. It even allowed me, for a moment, to hold it, and gave me a tiny lick on the finger, though before long it squirmed to get down and went back to its running and sniffing.
My companion has not yet warmed to the kitten. When it brushed, for the first time, against the back of his chair, as it had brushed against the walls and the bed, he recoiled and lifted his legs to his stomach, as if he were afraid it might bite him. When it came around to the front of the chair, he let out a sharp, angry grunt and aimed a swift kick in its direction. The kick missed, but the poor thing ran, tail all fluffed, and hid beneath the bed. I was eventually able to coax it back out with a feather from the boa.
I don’t think my companion likes me anymore.
Sometimes, at night, I wake to find him staring, not with wonder, as he did before, but with stony contempt, and a faint trace of fear. Whenever he sees me approaching his chair, he emits a series of harsh, strident rattles, like the sound of a pebble stuck in a fan. His bouts of bad temper are growing more frequent.
The worst of these came yesterday, an hour or so after dinner. I was sitting out on the floor, inspecting the sewing machine (at the time, I had been hoping to make a small handkerchief for the kitten to wear on its neck). When I looked across the room, to the chair, I saw that my companion had fallen asleep: this time, however, his arms were folded in his lap, and his cheek, now pressed up against the chair, had begun to melt into the fabric.
I left the sewing machine at once and went over to examine him. It was not only his cheek, I realized, but his left nostril, and his left eyelid, too, which fluttered, quite gently, as he dreamed.
Carefully, I took a handful of pale, wispy hair and gave his head a swift yank.
At once, he pulled back and let out a roar. When he opened his eyes and saw me above him, he reached up and slapped me, once, across the face. It was a weak slap, but it hurt me deeply, and I stepped back, on the verge of tears, gesturing helplessly at the chair.
This only seemed to anger him further. With another roar, he gripped both armrests and pushed himself to his feet. Alarmed, I took three steps back, into the corner; my companion examined me for a brief moment and then looked away, as if in disgust. A great strength seemed to have come over him, and he turned this strength against the room: the violin went into the wall; the sewing machine went through the mirror; the end table went sideways and the fish bowl went with it. The bowl shattered, and the goldfish lay there, amongst the broken glass, flopping helplessly.
By the time his rage had expired, the bread machine, the chess board, the potted plant, and the three landscape portraits had all met the same fate as the unlucky goldfish. My companion stood at the center of the room, breathing deeply, looking out at the wreckage. I can’t say whether he felt remorse; his expression, I remember, was oddly blank, and his eyes never once met mine. At last, with a great, heavy sigh, he took three unsteady steps back to his chair and collapsed.
Some time passed. My companion did not turn away from his window, and I did not move from my corner. Eventually, the kitten crawled out from under the bed, very slowly, and went to sniff at the goldfish.
Later that night, our captors came in to carry away the mess. They took, not only the broken objects — the sewing machine, the shattered plant, the mirror — but other objects, too: the barbells, the encyclopedias, the comic books. I watched them from the corner with the kitten in my lap. From time to time, it squirmed to get away, but I held it, tight, by the scruff of its neck, until the men had gone.
I don’t know what will happen to me if I am taken from here. It would not, I imagine, be as simple as removing the violin or the mirror — I cannot sit in basements or attics or landfills — I would have to go somewhere: a factory; a dormitory; a supermarket.
I don’t have much to say of my previous life. All that comes to me now, through that dense, gray brightness, is a series of scattered images: my mother, waiting for me on a rocky shore, silhouetted by the ocean; an older man, in a suit and a tie, approaching me beneath an overpass; a storefront window; a sidewalk; a mountain; a light-pink armchair floating, suspended, in a room. Of these memories, the image of my mother is the strongest, and it comes to me, almost every night, in my dreams. It’s a still image — she never moves from the shore — but it seems to shimmer there, at the edge of the brightness, as if on the verge of coming to life.
The next morning, when the men came with our breakfast, I left my companion’s tray in the doorway and went to eat mine in the corner. He did not seem particularly troubled by this. Though I glanced up at him, here and there, as I ate, I never caught him looking back.
When he fell asleep, an hour or so later, I took his tray from the doorway and placed it at the end of the bed. After a few minutes, the kitten crawled out and began to lick the yolk from the egg; once it had tired of the yolk, it poked its nose inside the carton of milk and began to lap at that. By the time it was finished, only the bread, a half carton of milk, and the whites of the eggs remained. At this point, I carried the tray over to my companion and set it on his lap, rather abruptly, so that some of the milk spilled out of its carton and onto his trousers. My companion looked up at me, startled, but did not rise from his chair. To my satisfaction, I thought I could detect a faint hurt in his expression.
When dinner came, I repeated a similar procedure. This time, the kitten was able to eat almost an entire egg. My companion still had his breakfast in his lap, so I put the new tray down by his feet. I wasn’t sure how much he had eaten; I had, at one point, noticed him sipping the milk, but he’d never once turned to the bread, which by now had dissolved almost entirely into a brown, foamy puddle. As night fell, he sat limply with the tray in his lap, gazing out the window.
The kitten, I am pleased to announce, has been growing quite healthily. From time to time, it will eat too fast and vomit a yellow-white mess on the floor, but mostly it holds its meals well. Before long, I expect, it will be the size of a small panther, or a cheetah.
I cannot say the same for my poor companion. Day by day, his eyes retreat deeper into their sockets; the skin around his bones seems to be tightening, as if his skeleton is intent upon escaping him altogether. He sleeps constantly, sometimes in dreadful fits, quivering violently. Other times, he sleeps with the stillness of a corpse. Once or twice, on such occasions, I have been able to place the kitten in his lap and rest his hand on its head.
Our captors have now removed nearly everything from the room, save for the bed, the armchair, and us three — myself, the kitten, and my companion. In a way, this suits us. The kitten has learned to come when it’s called and stand up on its hind legs.
In this uncluttered environment, my companion seems calmer than before — perhaps still gloomy, but less agitated. He has become more patient with the kitten, which likes to climb all over his chest. Though he moves very little, his eyes are peaceful.
My companion has now grown so frail that I can lift him easily in my arms and cradle him, like a doll. When I put him down on the floor, he will roll back and forth or from side to side, as if struggling to right himself. At night, I carry him from his chair to the bed; he no longer has the strength to resist. In the morning, when the men come with our breakfast, they now see my companion lying beside me, often resting quite peacefully, sometimes with our sweet kitten curled up between us.
Last night, my companion wouldn’t be still. As he slept, he quivered violently, like a small motor, humming. After several hours, the quivering grew so tiresome that I had no choice but to carry him to the window and set him back down in his armchair.
Throughout the night, I did wake, from time to time — often half-dreaming, as I always am, in that foggy, gray brightness — and look over at him in the chair. At one point, I remember, his torso appeared to be floating, suspended, over the cushion, while the lower part of his body — his legs and his bottom — seemed to have gone altogether. Sometime later, I opened my eyes and saw only the feet, dangling just above the floor, still quivering. This, I thought to myself, at the time, was surely something I ought to address, perhaps in the morning, when I was well-rested. So I closed my eyes and returned to my dreams. I dreamed of stretches of cherry blossom trees, of dirt and sweat and Ferris wheels, of my mother’s face, still shimmering there, in the space between sleeping and waking.
I woke to the kitten licking my face. Our breakfast trays, I saw, had been left in the doorway; the men must have come and gone hours ago. Both cartons of milk had been overturned, and all that remained were the brown scraps of bread, already damp and frothy.
I sat up, still sticky-eyed and full of sleep, and looked over at the armchair.
It was empty.
At least, it seemed to be empty. As I approached, I thought I could see a faint outline of my companion’s face in the flowery pattern, his two sad eyes gazing out from the upholstery. I ran my fingers over the face, but felt only the roughness of the fabric. <
Suddenly, an awful, retching sound came from behind me. I turned around at once, expecting, for some reason, to find my poor companion standing in the doorway, making another of his strange noises, gesturing wildly with his hands.
Instead, I saw the kitten, at the center of the room, crouching over a pool of yellow vomit.
Out of instinct, I lowered myself into the chair.
I remained in the chair for a very long time, through the morning and into the evening. I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps I couldn’t bear to see my companion’s face again. Perhaps, I thought, if I sat long enough, I too would melt away; such a fate no longer seemed so terrible. It was, I realized — for the first time — a remarkably comfortable chair, soft but firm, with a faint smell of dew.
But, of course, I did not melt away. Eventually, the men came with our dinner.
At once, they seemed to notice something amiss. Instead of leaving our trays at the door, they came into the room and stopped by the chair. They began to make strange, screeching sounds, not unlike the sound of tires on asphalt; they flapped their arms and shook their heads and hopped from one foot to the other. Throughout it all, I sat with the back of my head resting against the chair, very still.
Finally, the men moved on from me and began to search the room. Two of them peered under the chair; three more got on their stomachs and crawled under the bed; an especially dense one looked under the kitten, which let out a sharp hiss and bit down on his hand. Before long, the men gave up their search and went out, though they returned shortly afterwards, this time with more men — older, somber-looking men, dressed in pale suits, with long ties that went all the way down to their toes. By now, I had moved from the chair to the corner. As the men came into the room, they stopped before the chair and bowed their heads, their lined faces grim and serious.
We stood in this mourning for a long time, full of the old men’s silence.
Gradually, the mourning lifted, and the men turned away from the chair. They began to search the room, as the others had done, though they searched with their eyes instead of their hands. The eyes moved carefully, with great deliberateness, from the trays, to the kitten, to the bed.
One by one, the eyes fell to me. I looked away. For the first time, I felt a trembling of shame.
Slowly, with the calmness of grief, the men began to pack up the room.
Now they have taken all but the chair. As I stand before it, gazing into the fabric, I can see no trace of my poor companion. I wonder, for the first time, if he was in pain. I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible.
The men will come for the chair soon. I suppose they will come for me, too, though I can’t say where they will take me. Perhaps they will take me to the mountains, or the jungle; perhaps I will live in a white, rocky desert, or load crates at a birdseed factory, or pack dirt into windowboxes. Perhaps, after all this time, they will take me home, to that rocky shore, where my mother waits for me, shimmering.
Throughout the room, the brightness has begun to lift. When I lie on my back and stare up at the ceiling, I can see the old men standing above me, heads still bowed, quiet and gloomy. If I look beyond them, up into the distance, I can see the white spokes of a Ferris wheel; the pink of cherry blossoms; the hard black of asphalt. The brightness rises up and up, over storefronts and sidewalks, past highways and mountains, to the open ocean, where it stops and hangs low, like the sky. Already, the faces of the gloomy men are growing dimmer, fading into the pinks and whites of the background. The air is thick with the taste of salt.