Translated from Hebrew by Lavie Tidhar
This story is part of a special issue of Apex Magazine guest edited by Lavie Tidhar featuring international writers in support of his anthology The Apex Book of World SF.
When Benjamin Schneider came to my clinic and complained of mysterious coils on his left wrist, I wasn’t overly surprised. The term “hypochondriac” may have become overused years ago, but Benjamin nevertheless lived and acted as its perfect archetype. He had been that way ever since he was a child. I remember the first time he came to me, when I was still a minor family GP at the National Health clinic in town. He was about fourteen, short for his age, thin, curly and bespectacled, and a thorn was stuck, mortifyingly, in his behind. His mother, Mrs. Romina Schneider, did not spare him her wrath – “Every time, something strange has to happen to you!” she said – and the embarrassed child gritted his teeth and gave me a pleading look. His mother, too, gave me a look – the kind an older woman gives a younger woman she doesn’t trust, doesn’t want to trust, but is forced to, if only by the vagaries of the National Health Service. I don’t remember how I got her away from the room – one of the nurses helped me, perhaps – but five minutes later the thorn was removed, to the relief of everyone concerned. Benjamin’s grateful gaze was something I could never forget – if only because, for years afterwards, I received it from him, on average, about once a week.
The week after the thorn incident, for instance, he grazed the back of his neck on barbed wire – I had no idea how – and came to me to clean up the wound. I asked him if they didn’t have iodine at home, and he shrugged and didn’t reply. In fact, he never talked about himself, beyond – more or less – the medical reasons for his current visit. Every week he visited me, with one reason or another, as he grew up from a boy to a teen and then a man, still thin, still curly and bespectacled. When I opened my own clinic twelve years later, Benjamin was my first client.
His medical problems were always a little odd. He was bruised in unlikely places – his right ear, for instance; suffered diseases like an arthritis that had the same symptoms as gum disease, didn’t respond to medicine, and disappeared after a week; and indeed always healed miraculously and returned to me to verify the fact and perhaps discover some new ailments in the process. It is possible other doctors would have ridiculed him and his various ills, and certainly my cooperation with it and with him, but I couldn’t bring myself to be so cruel to him.
The coils, however, despite our long history together, were something new. I had sent him for an X-ray several days before, at his insistence. He brought the prints back to the clinic in the brown paper folder of the National Health, searched through them for a minute or two, and then found what he was looking for. I spread the print over the white fluorescent board designed for that purpose and examined it, not expecting to find anything out of the ordinary, or at least of the ordinary as considered in the case of Benjamin Schneider. But, to my surprise, something was there. Two greyish coils, half-transparent, testifying that whatever they were made of was not solid enough to completely block the X-rays. And there was something else that was odd in the picture, but to begin with I couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Does it hurt?” I asked. He shook his head. His arthritis had already disappeared. I examined the wrist myself, but externally it was not possible to discern anything out of the ordinary. I told him I had to think about it, and to come back to me in a few days. I looked at him, worried he might be upset by that, but he just nodded and left, satisfied, to all appearances, that his fate was in good hands. How little did you know, Benjamin. How little did we know.
I had quite a lot of work to do in the office that day, so I took the print home with me afterwards. I didn’t have a fluorescent board at home, so I hung the print before a desk lamp. I looked at it all through dinner, and for a change didn’t wait in vain for the phone to ring. The coils were odd, but there was also something familiar about them, and these were two separate things, the strangeness and the familiarity. After a while I lost my concentration and watched a little TV. One of the channels was showing a horror B-movie, and I watched it disinterestedly as my mind floated here and there on its own without my being fully conscious of it. It’s a way as good as any of dealing with problems, but this time the solution came not from that, but rather from the tiny part of me that was actually watching the television. One of the monsters there was sawing through the arm of another monster, and I noticed immediately the cheap special effect – the saw and the hand about to be cut were two separate images filmed at different times and joined artificially. It was easy to see that the saw didn’t really touch the arm. And it was the same phenomenon that I could see in Benjamin’s X-ray – the coils looked like an artificial addition to the picture.
There was something calming about this, of course. Incidents like this are not common, but sometimes, despite all precautionary measures, they happen. A foreign object finds its way between the camera and the subject, the result being spread in all its glory before my reading lamp. If Benjamin still needed it, I would send him for a repeat scan, and if not, all to the better.
And still the coils seemed familiar.
On his next visit I explained all this to him, apart from the strange feeling I had about the coils, and he seemed pretty happy. Another problem occupied him by now. He had something in his eyes. That’s how he put it, and I couldn’t get a better explanation out of him. I examined his eyes and could see nothing out of the ordinary, apart from a redness that could have been caused by a thousand and one things, most of them not worthy of attention. But when I examined his right eye through an ophthalmoscope I saw it: a tiny grey circle, barely seen against the redness of the cornea.
There was one in his left eye too.
They both seemed familiar, just like the coils. They also seemed, as hard as it was for me to believe when watching something that was real and not a scan, unconnected. If the coils in his arm seemed like foreign bodies that had entered by mistake into the field of vision of the X-ray camera, then the circles in his eyes seemed like foreign bodies that had entered by mistake into the field of vision of reality.
I think I managed to hide the shock I felt. I gave Benjamin eye drops, closed the clinic early, and went home to rest. And watch TV. And think.
In the morning I arrived at the clinic two hours before opening time and dismantled the ophthalmoscope. I examined all the parts through a magnifying glass, but found nothing to explain the little grey circles that were similar to the little grey coils that were similar to nothing I knew even though my brain insisted otherwise.
I didn’t know how to reassemble the device and decided to just buy another. I had money, after all, and besides, it was tax-deductible. I spent the rest of the time before my first patient’s appearance in thoughts of this nature, which were relaxing in their simplicity and mundanity but which led me nevertheless, in one way or another, to the mystery of Benjamin’s grey parts; thoughts that were only halted with the appearance of the patient himself.
“Benjamin,” I said, surprised. He never came to me two days in a row. “Is everything all right?”
Usually, he would merely point at the source of pain or discomfort, speaking as little as possible, and let me complete the diagnosis on my own. Not today. “I have a crop circle,” he said.
“A crop circle. You know. Like the ones aliens make.”
“Benjamin—” I said, but he had already launched into an explanation that was exceptional both in its length and its content. Crop circles are giant circles, and sometimes more complex shapes, that are formed in wheat or corn fields by the pressing down of the stalks. All kinds of attributes are ascribed to them, and stories are told of strange things that have happened to the stalks. There are people who believe that they are proof of the existence of aliens. The rest of the world, of course, assumes it’s merely a practical joke.
“Fine,” I said. “I don’t really believe in aliens either, but let’s get back to you, Benjamin.”
He looked at me. “I have a crop circle,” he said again. “On my tummy.”
I stared at him, thinking about whether I needed to send him to see a psychiatrist. Then I had him lie down on the examination table, turned on the strongest lamp, and opened his shirt. I asked him to point to the place where the circle was, and he did.
Despite everything, I needed all my willpower not to laugh.
“Benjamin,” I said, “that’s your navel. Your belly button.”
“It’s a crop circle. Look at the hairs there, see what happened to them.”
“It’s only natural that the hairs around…” I said, and then I saw.
They were bent. Or stood, erect, in unnatural angles. Circles within circles, around the navel. But more than that – they were grey.
I passed my hand over his stomach, touching them. I wasn’t sure I was touching them all. It seemed to me that some passed through my palm, as if they were air. As if I was air. It was not a pleasant feeling. Under my hand, Benjamin shuddered. I felt a kind of electric current, something passing between us through my spread fingers, touching-not-touching his crop circle. Many things were suddenly clear. Many things. Little clues, grazed necks, strange illnesses, illogical pains. Aliens.
“What do you think?” he said. “Am I going to be all right?”
I looked at him, straight into his eyes. They were grey. There were strange geometries behind his eyes, and I thought I understood them. I didn’t say anything. His eyes grew large. Only after a moment I realised he was afraid. And only a little after that I realised he was afraid of me.
“You too, Dr. Katz,” he said. “You too!” And he passed out.
I climbed on the chair, and from there onto the table, and stood there, high, looking at the thin, silent man who had spent the majority of his life with imaginary diseases that were, at the end, quite real. Maybe he was in love with his diseases. Maybe he was in love with me. It didn’t matter. Not now, with the aliens controlling him – and me. I gritted my teeth and jumped, head first, into the crop circle, into his navel.
* * *
He still comes to visit me every week. Right after they released him from the hospital, he came to see me. How nice of him. Maybe he’s still in love with me, even after I jumped into him. They told me the doctors managed to recover his digestive system. My head, though…
He comes to visit me every week, and the little greys are in his eyes, on his hands, forming and growing, growing and spreading, all over his body. I have no mirror here, and I can’t look at my body, but I think it’s the same with me. I think I hope it is so. It’s hard to be sure, with a head like mine.
I think I see the world in black and white, or grey. Apart from Benjamin, no one would understand, of course. I know exactly what the medical thinking is. I know exactly what the people who surround me would think of anything I would say. I know what I would have thought. I’m well-behaved, but that doesn’t help. Only Benjamin, only Benjamin can help me. He and the little greys, the growing greys, the great big greys. Now, when I see the look in his grey eyes, when I imagine the touch of his hands, the coils in his wrists, beyond the reinforced glass window separating us, beyond the jacket enfolding me, I know that he loves me.
I love him too.
But most of all I love the greys.