John was startled awake by the sound of screaming. His eyes jumped open and for a moment he was blinded by the light. Then things began to swim into view. A hospital room, no surprise there, a smell of blood and antiseptic in his nostrils and then he realised it was him that was screaming.
It sounded wrong.
This was not his aged, croaking, earthy voice, it sounded like a cat or a girl. He wasn’t screaming though, he was startled, upset, but he was not making his mouth open or his lungs empty in that shrieking cacophony. He tried to lift his arms to stifle his mouth and they would not obey him, nothing would.
He felt himself lifted, as though he weighed nothing. The nurse seemed like a giantess, cartoonishly enormous, but even his eyes wouldn’t obey him as the world span and twisted about him. All was confusion, fear, vertigo as he tried to fathom what had happened to him. Had he become paralysed? Was he hallucinating? Were these the tortures of some hell that he had never believed in? The visions of a dying man.
The room span and twisted again and the vision changed. A young woman, holding him in her arms, but who was she? It took him a moment, a long moment, racking his memory until he recognised his mother. Not as the old woman, light as a bird in his arms as she gave her final breath, not as the fierce matron who had raised him after his father died, no. This was his mother as he’d never seen her, young, pretty, red-faced and sweaty, eyes out of focus from pain and drugs, cradling his tiny body against her bosom.
He was an infant again.
Or was he?
He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move. All he could do was mutely watching from behind his own eyes through the cringing embarrassment of sucking his own mother’s tit, of shitting and pissing himself helplessly. He was trapped, imprisoned in his own body and he went mad.
He screamed against the walls of his consciousness, metaphorically tearing with his nails at the fleshy coffin in which he found himself, looking for a word, a twitch, anything that showed he was having any impact at all upon this body, this new and old life.
When the madness passed he tried to think. Was this reincarnation? Then why was he himself again? He’d been an artist, not a scientist, not a priest, not a philosopher. He’d heard people talk about space curving back in upon itself and space and time being one. Was that what had happened? Had time curved back upon itself as well? Was he some ghost of his former life playing back over itself again, an echo? There was nobody he could ask, he couldn’t speak. All he could do was stare out through his own eyes and listen through his own ears when something was seen or said that had some bearing on his situation, though that was still limited to the things known in his lifetime.
There were no answers to be had.
A black depression descended as his life unfolded before him. Every mistake, every glory coming into being with relentless predictability. Every mistake he’d ever regretted, every triumph he’d ever had. The missteps anticipated and dreaded, the wonders dulled by repetition.
He felt the tarmac under his knees as, broken hearted, he cried in the street.
He cursed himself as a clumsy fool as his fumbling teenage self haltingly tried to make love.
He scowled from behind his own face at the mawkish grins and self congratulation at the birth of his son, who would later hate him.
He shook his head in resignation as he saw his marriage collapse through his own, ill-considered affairs, dulled by drink and mediocrity as he sought sensation and freedom.
Then the worst came. He felt his body grow feeble, ill, old. He felt the tremors come, the cough and the blood. His eighty years had come and gone for the second time while he watched it fly past, a mute and imprisoned spectator. Now he could barely see, barely hear, his prison was beginning to crumble around him as the sound of the softly beeping machines and the flicker of the fluorescent lights faded out.
Perhaps now, perhaps this time, he’d finally be free.