The Melancholy of Anatomy

The Melancholy of Anatomy


Sleep is falling. The crumbs run in drifts down the street, collect in the gutters.

Sleep falls every day at noon here, with soothing regularity. Sometimes it melts on the way down, and falls as golden rain, or in cold weather, golden sleet, but mostly our siesta is warm and dry. The occasional sleepstorm is cozy and harmless: a war waged with croutons and dinner rolls. Once, years ago, when the children were young, we woke to find we were slept in: I opened the front door and the living room filled with gold. We had a sleepball fight around the sofa, which my wife won—she was always fierce in defense of her own. The drifts blew away by evening, but our house was gilded until the next rain, and the shrubs were like torches!

Where we live, the skies are heavy with sleep. Sometimes high-flying jets come down encrusted with it, like bees dusted with pollen. Fielded by Midas and thrown home, how beautiful these shining apparitions are. They roll unsteadily to a stop, transformed into fairy-tale coaches. A crack opens, a patch of golden coral swings aside, stairs descend, and then the baffled pilot emerges like a new Aphrodite from a peculiar Edenic shell.

Permanent banks and shoals of sleep drowse above us. They can be thick enough, it is whispered, to slow a plane to a standstill and hold it fast above the earth. Some planes disappear and are never found. Some fall to earth, but no human remains are discovered in the wreckage. Many years ago, a pilot landed a plane alone, and insisted forever after that everyone else got out above, forced open the emergency exits in mid-flight and stepped out into a landscape of gilt towers and archways.

Sleep sometimes coagulates in the shapes of animals: bruin and bunny are the most common, though I have seen sheep and cows as well. These form naturally, like snowflakes. Under favorable conditions these sleep-sheep "stalk the earth," the colloquial term for wafting or "mere wafting," as O'Sullivan pointedly calls it, eschewing what he calls the "credulous jargon of simpletons and charlatans." He is practically alone in his refusal to see familiar forms in sleep, of course. Animalcules take shape in every substance known to us; it is a tendency written into the very structure of matter, a statistically significant swerve towards animaloid structures, especially cute ones. The universe, we now know, is far from that chill mechanical model so unaccountably adored by physicists past. The world that gave rise to feathers, pill-bugs, cookies and whales is silly, showy, comfy. Above all, it is kind.

O'Sullivan and his humorless cronies are just the latest incarnation of our abstemious church fathers, who held it a sin to sink into the friendly pillowing of sleep, in which every living thing delights. Sleep, they taught, is the dross of souls rejected by God, who chews us up en masse, strains the juices through his baleen, and spits out the crud. "The damned will stay in hell as broth and yeast," says Luther. Sleep is that broth, that yeast.

Of course, sleep is literally both broth (add water) and yeast: a few grains of it scattered over warm, honey fattened water will bewitch bread into a fantasia of dough turrets, minarets, grottos, candelabras and credenzas, now sadly out of culinary fashion, but still traditional at Sleepmastide. Its flavor is unremarkable, though children love it, but I find it has a mild intoxicating effect, albeit short-lived. The taste is reminiscent of cardamom, with an incongruous hint of spearmint. A few grains on the tongue will calm a fretful baby; cooked up and injected, its effects are stronger but still mellow, hence its reputation as a drug for hippies and beginners, though it is probably more frequently taken by users of all descriptions than this reputation would suggest.

Exotic varieties of sleep, named for the region in which they're gathered, are popularly believed to have special qualities, though scientists say there is no significant difference between these and our domestic sleep. My private investigations (the wayward probings of a curious mind) have brought me to the same conclusion. These rare strains of sleep are some countries' biggest cash crop, so their governments turn a blind eye to the traffic, and are not very hospitable to foreign scientists who want to test on site the exaggerated claims that circulate about the properties of the sleep when fresh.

There are gnostic teachings of another sleep, the opposite in every respect of our sunny everyday sleep. One reads of a dark, greasy, subterranean sleep, which seeps out of solid rock and hardens into strange fungal forms, and plugs underground rivers with a glassy but flexible mass that can be reliquified by one blow of a pickaxe. Miners have staggered out of shafts and told tales of slow-motion tsunamis of sour treacle. Do not sample this sleep, they say; it will spoil your appetite for every other thing. Nevertheless, I cannot help wishing that someday I will be given a chance to taste it. I love sleep, I confess, and as I watch the grains fall slowly outside the window, I think how lucky we are. Into our difficult lives this surplus falls. This gift.

I have not mentioned the greatest consolation sleep grants us. At the proper time and with the proper ceremonies, you may make yourself a substitute out of sleep. How to do it must be writ in our genes. I watched my children miming it in sandboxes; like birds building nests, they needed no tutors. You may fail at every other endeavor, but you will not fail at this one. Even the clumsiest become deft and knowing as they pat and roll the golden column, persuading it into human form.

This substitute or scapegoat is legally empowered to act as a person in your stead. Your substitute can vote for you, take a test or a beating, deliver a public speech, perform the marital duties, or commit suicide for you. Politicians are all substitutes, as are firemen, astronauts, and most people forced to make public apologies, but substitutes are often made for sadder, more personal reasons. I have watched friends grow ever more restless and unhappy, until one day the complaining stops, and I know they have gone to start a new life and left this diplomat behind. We say they are "dreaming." I am happy for them in their bright new world.

My children are already dreaming. So young! At their age I kept telling myself, a better time will come. I can endure this moment. And when the next moment came, I found I could endure that one too, and so on, to this day. But I don't think less of them for making their escape. We are all waiting for our chance. Out of care and duty leaps the shocking blossom of the new: vibrant, imperious, reeking of pollen. It is a subpoena, a lure, a gauntlet. If we are honest and brave we have little choice: we kick over our happy home and go. We step out of the airplane onto a golden cloud.

It is a terrible thing when it is the substitute that is sent to find a new life, a sign that a person yearns for change but cannot imagine creating it herself. The irony is that her failure of imagination marks her proxy too. When you see someone creeping through life, as if everything in the world were new, yes, but in its newness an assault, she is sure to be one of these.

An action is in the works to protect the rights of substitutes. It is bound to fail, because the substitutes themselves show no interest in it; the meetings of the Substitute's Union are all attended by solicitous originals who—in an odd reversal—are empowered to vote for their substitutes! These good-hearted citizens betray a basic confusion about the existential condition of the substitutes. If scapegoats feel pain, it is only the delegated pain of their originals.

Use your substitute well: you will not get another. If you use it too early—to feign a teen suicide, maybe, or escape the school bully—you must live out your own life from then on, and that is a hard, lonely prospect. People who use their substitutes frivolously find that they have given all their frivolity away, and are compelled to be serious characters from then on, while their substitute dutifully practises dissolution.

Eventually, of course, the substitute has suffered enough knocks that it no longer looks quite human. Dents alter the form little by little; scratches expose the waxy interior.

It is the originals' responsibility to lay their substitutes to rest when this time comes, but not surprisingly, they often fail to take this in hand. (Those battered pawns we've all seen staggering around are a civic disgrace.) When the original is ill or badly hurt, on the other hand, the substitute's pupils turn white, while if the original should die, the substitute falls in its tracks and turns to sleep again, sifting out of the sleeves and collar. This can be a brutal shock to family members who did not know their loved one was a substitute.

If an enterprising person is standing by, this sleep can be patted together again; it is the only time a person can make a second substitute. These secondary substitutes, lit as it were on the embers of the one before, have certain specific defects that do not vary: they cannot enunciate the consonants d or t, they cannot create nested sentence structures, they are color-blind, and they have recurring nightmares of spiral forms and infinitely mounting abstract quantities.

No substitutes can have children, in the usual run of things, although they make kind, responsible parents. A substitute wife can become "pregnant" and in due course deliver a waxy figurine, but this baby will not move or cry, since it has no original and is not a true substitute.

There is a mystical tradition that if two substitutes fall in love (true love must be specified, for many marriages are made up of a pair of substitutes, in fact nothing is more common), their child has a fifty-fifty chance of being an original. If such a child is born, and reality thus springs from the loins of artifice, then all people will fall to their knees before it. It will be the living god, and this can be proved by conjuring it to make a substitute for itself. The sleep will fall apart in the child's hands: the real Original can have no substitutes.

Last night I lay awake, and in one of the thousand insomniac hours before dawn I switched on a lamp. A fine scar on my wife's eyelid caught the light and gleamed like a gold thread. I turned back the sheets, I examined her entire body, and I found incontrovertible proof. My wife is a substitute. As I got out of bed, she mumbled something and reached for me. I touched her hand and saw her smile into the pillow.

I am not shocked. Is that dreadful? She could not endure the demands of our love and she left. I understand this as I have understood other surprises she has given me in the past. I feel lonely, and yet in a curious sense there is something right about this. I have spent my life in adoration of sleep. I may have loved it better—more carefully, more knowledgeably—than I've loved the people in my life. Its beauty, its mystery. The evidence it bears of a universe capable of mercy. Now when I say, I love sleep, I can also say, I love nothing else. Everything I love is made of it.

The sleep is falling steadily. I could go out and gather it. I could pat it together. My hands would know what to do. I used to be a pilot, did I mention that? I would like to make one more flight. This time I would not let my chance go by.

I could leave my life. I could change completely. Is it time?

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Excerpted from The Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson. Copyright © 2002 by Shelley Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.