Philippe Manet’s eyes jerked around the room. Sometimes he saw a crucifix on the wall or a pole beside his bed, and at other times there were two of them, side by side or one on top of the other. He had no idea where he was. But that was nothing new. Philippe hadn’t known for weeks. He no longer recognized his mother or his sister. Sometimes he didn’t even respond to his own name when the nurses spoke to him.
“The water it wills the way . . . ,” Philippe began to say, but his words sputtered into a garble of nonsensical French.
He was vaguely cognizant of his own incoherence. He was also aware of the shadowy figure of a woman standing by his bed. Or was it two women?
“Georges knows, and Sylvie, too,” he said to her. “The water! It wills . . .”
A smell drifted to Philippe, and he stopped trying to speak. Something pleasant, even comforting. His eyes swung back and forth over his own hand until he felt dizzy. A plume of smoke drifted above his fingers. A wisp of a memory. Then it was gone.
A soft but cold hand gripped his fingers. The woman was nearer now. There was something familiar about her, but her presence conjured a contradictory sense of vulnerability and security. She spoke to him, but somewhere between his ears and his brain the words were lost. The woman was smiling. Or was she laughing at him? Philippe could not tell.
Then he noticed the lit cigarette, or possibly two, between his trembling fingers. And that sight relaxed him as much as its welcome aroma. He wanted to bring it to his lips, but his hand wouldn’t cooperate. Exhausted and nauseated from the double vision, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the pillow.
He began to drift off, but he was awakened by his own involuntary cough.
The odor was far more intense now. Foreign. An incomprehensible sense of danger welled inside him. His hand felt hot.
Philippe tried to focus on his fingers. The woman was nowhere to be seen—he had already forgotten her, anyway—but a flame flickered between his fingers. The pain engorged his hand. He jerked his arm away, but the searing discomfort had already spread to his back, buttocks, and thighs.
The smoke was thicker, breathing harder. Philippe gagged on the acrid smell of burning flesh, not comprehending that it was his own skin on fire. But enough of his brain function endured to experience the agony. He searched frantically for the right words. Instead of a cry for help, other words tumbled from his lips: “The water wills . . .” His cough choked off the rest of it.
He looked down and saw four legs engulfed in flames. The pain was immeasurable. With what little air he had left in his lungs, he unleashed a piercing scream.
But the roaring fire consumed his dying shriek as efficiently as it had the curtains.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Kalla. All rights reserved.