Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The King Knew Her Not

  

  

Ice-coated trees along the highway dipped toward the ground in swooping arcs.  The only color was the pure and frigid whiteness, the only shapes the graceful curves.  A thunderous crack announced another fracture of the web as a broken limb poked through the white blanket.

 

Monk concentrated on the road, but the white sparkled where his headlights shone, and then it faded into a vaporous after-glow at the fringes of the illumination. When the moon emerged from behind drifting clouds, its light cratered a lunar landscape along the sides of the highway.  With numbed fingers, he squeezed the steering wheel.

 

 

He heard the hum of the heater in his old Corolla and put his hand near its vent.  The moving air chilled as it contacted his skin.  Up ahead the emergency lights of a stalled car flashed, and he swerved around it, his car rocking before righting itself.  Something shoved hard against his back, and he felt behind him to push the carton of his books back onto the rear seat.  Glancing into the mirror, he saw that the rear defroster had not prevented a skin of ice from forming on his window. Through it, the frozen landscape lost its geometric beauty and appeared as a gray fog.  He wondered, idly, whether the clothes in his suitcase in the trunk were now frozen.

 

Driving through the deserted main street of a town whose name he had forgotten, passing houses where candlelight flickered in the windows, he started to turn into a driveway of a house where the pale yellow light shone through open curtains and where he could see the gray head of an old woman nodding in her chair.  She started, looked out at him as though he were an intruder, and lifted a phone to her ear.  He turned away, gazed down the street, past the ice encrusted trees, poles and power lines, until his eye caught a large square of light a few blocks ahead.

 

The hospital was a four-story building of Gothic design with spires on either side.  Between the towers was a flat roof on which sat a large cross, now burdened with long, jagged icicles.  The outside of the building was dark, but a strong light glared through the glass of the front doors and bounced off the shards of ice along the cobbled driveway.  Monk skidded to a stop in front of the entrance and stumbled on numb feet through the door into a lobby littered with pillows and blankets from beneath which hands were raised against the light, while bodies rolled on the floor in fitful rest. In one corner, a large, steaming coffee urn gurgled, and next to it was a huge pot with a ladle hanging on its side.

 

The nurse at the reception desk was gray haired with pale blue eyes that blinked when she looked up at Monk.  She managed a tired smile.  He clamped his jaws shut until he was sure he could make his teeth behave.

 

“I’m very cold,” he said.

 

She cast her glance about the crowded lobby and then back through the doors at the ice covered driveway.

 

“Well, sir, if you’ve been out for any time in this ice storm, I don’t doubt that.  Help yourself to some soup and coffee, and then we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 

Her smile was quick, but then she turned her attention to a pile of papers in front of her. Monk walked to the corner of the lobby and poured coffee into a white Styrofoam cup. Steam rose from it, but Monk could not feel the cup.  He tightened his grip so that he wouldn’t drop it. Sipping the coffee, he waited for the warmth, then downed the whole cup and waited again.  A sudden shiver convulsed his frame and the cup began to slide from his fingers.  He placed it onto the table next to the urn.  Swinging his arms back and forth in front of his chest, he paced around the lobby.   In the corner opposite the coffee urn a boy and girl, both about six or eight, sat cross-legged on the floor, their eyes intent on the brilliantly colored figures on the screen of a tablet. Monk looked over their shoulders at figures blasting away at other each other. Pulsing background music floated up from the game. The children continued playing without acknowledging his presence. He was still shivering and he now felt dizzy.  He concentrated on the screen.  It whirled, and the music got louder until he had to clasp his hands over his ears.  The walls of the lobby spun and then he did not hear or see anything.

 

 

When he awoke, he was covered with blankets but he could not stop trembling. A bright white light shone in his eyes from a round fixture over his head. On the wall opposite him was a wooden crucifix holding a carved, wooden Christ.  It seemed to be coated in ice.  He stared until the ice became dust.  People, some in white, some in pale green, flitted by. He called out but his voice was only a whisper. At last one turned and hurried across the room to his side. She wore a white uniform, with a white cap pinned to short brown hair, and she held a clipboard between her hands.

 

“Well, how are we feeling?” she asked, her voice like candy, her eyes on the clipboard.

 

“I’m very cold,” Monk replied.

 

“Yes, well you fainted. Dr. Shelby thinks you might be in shock. You didn’t have a coat on when you came in. Do you remember what happened to it?”

 

“No. I can’t remember too much.”

 

“Well, the doctor will be by to check you again, but first we do need some information.”

 

“Could I please have a blanket?” Monk asked.

 

“But you have one.”

 

“Then another, please.”

 

She shrugged and motioned to a young man in green.  He had a goatee that didn’t hide his bad skin, and a crooked smile.  He handed Monk a thin, gray blanket.  Monk cast it about his shaking shoulders like a shawl. He noticed that he was wearing a white hospital gown. The nurse handed him the clipboard, which had a pen attached to it by a chain.

 

“Fill this out, please,” she said.  “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

 

Monk jammed the clipboard between his knees but still it shook.  He could not feel the pen.  He managed to steady his hand long enough to write his name.  He stared at the box for address and wondered how he could list the Toyota.  He wrote the name of the last motel he had stayed in.  He stared at the rest of the questions, and then let the clipboard fall on the bed next to him.  He hunched his blankets more tightly around him.

 

A frown formed on the nurse’s face when she scanned the paper on the clipboard 

 

“Really, Mr. Monkowski,” she said,” perhaps we’re suffering a little loss of memory. You needn’t worry about giving away any secrets, we only want to help you feel well again.”

 

“That’s all I could fill out.”

 

“How about a telephone number?”

 

“The battery in my cellular phone is dead.”

 

She glanced toward the bottom of the form.

 

“How about somebody we can contact?  Your parents?”

 

“Dead.”

 

“Both.”

 

“Yes.”

 

She looked at the wedding band on his finger.

 

“Your wife?”

 

“No,” he replied.  “Not her.  Not anybody.”

 

“We do need somebody.  In case . . .” her voice trailed.

 

“There is nobody.”

 

“I see,” she said.

 

“I could use another cup of coffee,” Monk said.

 

A few minutes later, the man in green with the goatee padded into the room and handed Monk a white cup of black and steaming coffee.

 

All the tests had come back negative, and Dr. Shelby was puzzled.

 

“Mr. Monkowski, how are you feeling now?”

 

Monk gritted his chattering teeth.

 

“Well, we’ve checked you for mono, anemia, pneumonia, and other assorted infections.” Dr. Shelby paused, waiting, but when Monk said nothing, he continued, “And AIDS.  Nothing shows. Your wbc and rbc counts are not quite what they should be, and your blood pressure is a little low.  But nothing really explains your condition.”  He shuffled through the printouts in his hand. 

 

“Do you think the answer is there someplace?” Monk asked.

 

Dr. Shelby looked up from the papers and stroked his bushy moustache.

 

“Of course.  My guess is you have a viral infection that wouldn’t show up on these tests.  If not, we can’t rule out the possibility of some kind of bizarre allergic reaction. You say you’ve never experienced anything like this before?”

 

“No,” Monk said, “never.”

 

“You might have been in shock from your exposure during the storm, but if so, you are not now.  I saw the very early stages of frostbite on your toes and fingers, but we caught that in time. You should be all right now.”

 

His tone was almost accusatory, but he smiled, brilliant white teeth below his dull brown moustache.

 

“Just rest,” he said, “we’ll run a couple of more tests, and then we’ll see.”

 

 

The new tests showed nothing. Dr. Shelby told Monk that he had ruled out everything except a viral infection. The doctor waited for Monk to offer a response, and when he did not he left.  Monk burrowed under the covers, and curled his body into a ball.  As he tried to sleep, an image of blue waters and tawny sand knocked on the door of his consciousness and forced it ajar.  He shut his eyes harder, willed the intrusion away, but it demanded to be seen.  Stepping out of the water onto the sand was the indistinct shape of a person.  Like the melody of a half remembered song, the scene flickered until he stared at a crack in the ceiling and the image faded.

 

The door opened and a nurse carrying a tray walked in. She was thin and ordinary looking, brown hair, brown eyes, her figure angular with only a gentle swelling for chest and hips. She set her metal tray down on the table next to his bed, and silently offered him a white tablet and a white cup of water. She watched as he placed the pill on his tongue, her lips pursed, and her eyes narrowed.

 

“Swallow, please,” she said in a gentle voice that he felt compelled to obey, and so he did.

 

 

It was the third or fourth time that she came that their hands touched. It was as though a warm current passed from her fingers to his and then traveled up his arm. He held her hand with the pill trapped between their palms.

 

“Have you ever seen the sun melting a pane of ice?” he asked.

 

“Of course,” she replied.  “But I am not the sun.”  She pulled her hand back, leaving the pill in his palm.  “Swallow,” she said, and he did.

 

 

 

Each evening after his meal, Monk lay under his covers until she came, and each time they held hands a little longer until she ordered him to swallow the pill.

 

“You are my sun,” he insisted.

 

“If that is how you see me,” she replied.  “But if you are feeling better, it must be the pill.”

 

“I don’t think so.  Why don’t we skip it for a couple of days?”

 

“I can’t do that.  Now swallow.”

 

 

Monk still shivered continuously except when the pill nurse held his hand. He would stop for a short period then, but only he knew about this respite. He did not think Dr. Shelby would understand.  At night after she left, he fought against the image in which the figure emerging from the water was becoming more distinct.  Every morning, the physician greeted his patient with a warm smile, checked the chart, and placed his cool, professional hands on Monk’s body. Monk quivered at the touch though he tried to will his muscles still. Dr. Shelby seemed not to notice, and he reassured Monk that he would soon be better. But after a week, his smile shortened, his touch became cursory, and a frown curled the corners of his mouth while he repeated the same comforting words. Then at the end of the second week, he announced in frigid tones that he could do no more, and that he was transferring Monk to another ward.

 

 

Monk’s room on the psychiatric floor was similar to the other except for the bars on the window.  Dr. Kaplan was older and his eyes bespoke the thousand sorrows he had heard over the years. He was a short, balding man, and his gray stubble comforted Monk. Maybe he will understand, Monk thought, and so he asked him if he could continue on his medication, but only if the same nurse could administer it. The doctor’s weary eyes deepened. He would check, he said, with Dr. Shelby, but he did not know about the nurse.

 

“But that’s the most important part,” Monk said.

 

“Won’t the pill be the same whoever gives it to you?”

 

“No,” Monk said.

 

“Well, we’ll have to see.  In the meantime, let’s talk.”

 

“If I do, will you speak to Dr. Shelby?”

 

“Yes, but no promises.  It’s his pill this nurse delivers.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“Tell me about this dream.”

 

“It’s not so much a dream.”

 

“You’re not asleep?”

 

“No.  It enters my mind when I try to sleep.  I push it away.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because,” Monk said, “I don’t want to see the person I know is in it.”

 

“Who is it?”

 

“A woman.  Her name is Barbara.”

 

“I see,” Dr. Kaplan murmured, “and what about her upsets you?”

 

“We were lovers.”

 

“Were?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And?”

 

“She was in my class.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Do you?”

 

“Tell me.”

 

“Another woman in the class, who was flunking, called a reporter she knew on the local paper.  The college was in a small town.  The paper carried the story above the fold like it was big news, and my contract was not renewed.   My wife can read.  We were about to separate anyway, and she filed for divorce.”      

 

“I see.  So you lost your wife and your job.”

 

“And Barbara.  I had my bags in the trunk of my car.  We had talked about going off together someplace, starting all over.  I stopped by her apartment to pick her up.  Her roommate came to the door.  She just said ‘your friend has gone away.’  Something in the way she said that, the look of disapproval on her face as though she wished she had the nerve to tell me what she really thought, caused me to snap.  I saw red, literally, and I forced my way in to look for Barbara, I was sure she must be in there.  The roommate followed me, saying over and over again, ‘Don’t you understand, she’s gone, she doesn’t want anything more to do with you.’  I may have hit the roommate to shut her up.  I don’t recall.  The police said I did.”     

 

“Go on.”

 

“There’s no more,” Monk said.  He shuddered and retreated under the blankets.   

 

“Monk,” the doctor continued, “you must continue to talk, you must.”

 

“Why?” Monk whispered.

 

“You’ll know when you get there.”

 

“I have nothing more to say, and nowhere to go.”

 

 

Dr. Kaplan walked to the window.  He pushed against it until it slid up.  He took a deep breath.

 

“You can feel spring coming,” he said.  He looked out the window.  “Come here, see for yourself, the ice is melting.”

 

Monk joined him and glanced where he was pointing.  He saw the pooling water next to the ice on the ground below.  He stood there shivering and then shuffled back to his bed and crawled beneath the covers.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

 

“I’m sending you back to your old room,” Dr. Kaplan said.

 

 

Sometimes Monk would awaken in the middle of the night, a cold sweat over his quaking body. The image had forced itself into a dream.  Blue waves splashed on tawny sand, and lush green foliage leaned down to kiss the warm waters.  He lay where the water swirled against the sand, his legs beneath the shallow surf that eddied about him.  Barbara walked out of the water and loomed above him, her arms outstretched, flecks of sunlight lighting her face above her soft and green flowing robes. But then she was draped in black, her mouth painted crimson and her skin corpse white.  She beckoned him to rise and join her.  She threw up her head to the darkening sky, her long black hair streaming in the quickening breeze, and opened her mouth to challenge the sky with her silent laughter. She turned away, and he stared hard at her disappearing back and cowled head.  When he blinked his eyes, she was gone.

 

 

Dr. Shelby visited him again and prescribed a tranquilizer.  In the early evening, the young nurse padded into his room and smiled at him as she had before. And as before, she clasped his hands with hers before she left.

 

The next evening, she sat down on his bed and stroked his forehead with her warm hand. until his shaking stopped, and that night he did not wake up from his dream, though he thought he still remembered the beach and its warm waves, green trees, and tawny sand. Each evening, she stayed a little longer, and each time his quivering subsided more, and his dream bothered him less and less.

 

Then one night about midnight when the ward was quiet except for the rasping snores and occasional groans of the other patients, she returned to the room and leaned over Monk’s bed until he awakened. He opened his eyes and smiled.

 

“We must hurry,” she said. “We don’t have much time.”

 

And Monk watched as she unbuttoned her uniform. She lifted the blanket and slid into the bed.

 

“Turn on your side,” she said.

 

“Why?”

 

“Turn,” she repeated.  “I think I understand.”

 

He rolled over to face the wall.  His body shook and he clenched the corner of the blanket in his fist.  He felt her hand untie the hospital gown, and then she pressed her flesh against his back.  He shivered, but then relaxed. His knees had been bunched against his belly and he now straightened them.  He felt her breath against the nape of his neck.  He thought he could sense the warmth of her eyes.

 

They did not talk, and they did not move.  The muscles of his face, so long knotted, now eased into a smile, and then his body quieted except for the stirring of his chest. 

 

As she arose to leave him, her warmth remained.  He found stillness, and then, finally, a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

 

Stephen Lewis has published seven print novels, and an ebook original.  His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangoliln Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine and Jewish Currents.  Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review, and “A Foolish Son” in the Copperfield Review. Although born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan, where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres with a view of cherry orchards and Grand Traverse Bay.