I am only a student. That’s why she came to me, trusting that I would have a sufficient balance of knowledge and naiveté to serve her desperate need.
And I am woman. That’s why she came to me, trusting that I would not mark her concerns as mere hysterics.
What was this strange and destructive condition she bore? She spoke of hurting her husband and fleeing from her children so that she would never hurt them. She spoke of being pursued by authorities in dark garb.
She spoke a great many things that made me believe that I should refer her to a classmate in the newly formed psychiatry department.
But then, she demonstrated her condition.
As I stood in a momentarily empty hallway, she pulled one of her black gloves off and flexed the fingers of her right hand, and I witnessed what I thought to be a trick of the eyes at first.
She asked me to stand back. She began to breathe quite deeply and slowly. And yet despite her calm, a sheen of perspiration formed above her lip and at her temples. I noted first the flickers and sparks on her palm, and then, a flash!
An electric current seemed to spout from her palm, arcing up and then down. It struck the ground not far from my feet. I gathered my skirts and stepped back.
Before I could recover, before I could see if her hand was injured, she quickly slipped her glove back on. She pulled out a kerchief and wiped the perspiration from her brow.
Staring at the scorched pit in the wooden floorboard, I invited the woman in. And I fetched my notebook.
She had always had the condition since she could remember, though it wasn’t bad when she was a child. At worst she might shock someone with a jolt like that of static electricity, only with a somewhat fiercer bite. The condition grew more severe when she grew up, particularly after her first menses. It seemed to improve when she got married. But one night, she shocked her husband so badly that all his muscles tensed as if all contracted at once. He couldn’t breathe for several seconds. Only his eyes could move. And his terrified gaze found his wife. She had to pound on his chest to loosen the muscles, and slowly they did. He recovered with no other harm. And though she tried to tell him that it was her doing, he would not believe or blame her. He hoped it was some momentary spasm brought on by his physical passion.
Shortly after, the condition seemed to vanish altogether. For nine months it vanished. She was pregnant with her first child. After her daughter was born, the condition still did not return. But she became pregnant again, and she felt something stirring, something besides the nascent life that grew within her. Something that reminded her of the sensations that she felt when her condition manifested, when she discharged electricity. She never manifested while she carried the child. But as she delivered him into the world, light and heat poured in torrents from her skin toward the lamplights in the room, overwhelming them until they all burst.
It was morning. There was some light from the windows. And her son, thankfully, suffered no injury. He screamed and wailed, and was as beautiful as his sister had been when she was born. Nor were any doctors or nurses harmed. They all witnessed what happened, but afterward each was convinced that there had been some freak accident in the hospital’s electricity generators.
“After all,” the woman said upon finishing her account, “this is an age of reason. And to believe that a person’s skin can discharge enough electricity to cast an entire modern hospital into darkness…well, it defies reason.”
I explained to the woman that I was only halfway through my studies. I asked if she wouldn’t like for me to consult with a more experienced researcher, one of my professors perhaps.
But I admit, I was also eager to study this condition, for it was one that I had never before encountered either in life or in my studies. And yes, it did indeed defy reason. But there are many things in this world that appear to defy reason, and yet if one were to put the thing under a microscope, and peer far enough into the core, one could discover the reason.
So I agreed to investigate. And I told her that for the purposes of objectivity, I would thereafter refer to her as “Subject One.” For she was my first living subject of research. And she, taking my stipulation in stride, claimed that she would refer to me only as “Professor.” I objected, of course, explaining that there was no need for her to call me by anything other than my given name. What great mortification it would cause me should anyone ever hear her address me by a title I had not yet earned.
I kept a detailed notebook of my observations, beginning with the story she told upon our first meeting. I kept a separate notebook filled with data and my interpretations from the tests that I began to run.
First I interviewed her more thoroughly, asking and recording if she noted any specific sensations before and after the incidents—a pricking of the hair on her neck, for instance. I asked if the incidents occurred when she was in some particular environment, if it only happened when others were present, or also sometimes when she was alone, and if her condition was affected by thunderstorms at all. At last, I wondered if perhaps her condition could be some unforeseen consequence of humanity’s ever-increasing adoption of electric energy.
Preliminary conclusions were immediately forthcoming. I devised the beginnings of a theory. The electrical bursts were always accompanied by an atypical degree of sudor. So, I initially referred to this…phenomenon as “galvanic diaphoresis,” for I had believed it to be the electrical activity that triggered the profuse perspiration in the subject. But I now believe it is the other way around, or rather, that the perspiration comes first.
The electrical bursts appeared to be triggered when the subject’s level of perspiration reached some tipping point. I was not quite certain of the particulars of this tipping point, whether it was volume or some other quality. The woman’s own skin was protected—perhaps by the sudor itself, which had some unique qualities, among them a specific aroma of cloves. But something else was involved, something that sparked the bursts. Perhaps some other internally produced component, or a compound in the atmosphere. I hadn’t quite reasoned that part out yet.
I managed to collect a reasonable volume of the subject’s sudor so that I may perform further examinations upon it. I compared it to my own.
The subject’s sudor served a purpose beyond that of ordinary human sweat (that of thermal regulation). Her sudor likely contained unique substances, exotic ions perhaps—if there were such things—that allowed for the safe conductance of far higher levels of electricity than a typical person could withstand. To what end, I did not know.
I took precautions. I set up lightning rods in the laboratory to draw any errant arcs of sufficient strength away from my instruments and from myself. I removed all flammable chemicals, papers, drapery, anything that might burn, save what I could not remove—the wooden floors and walls. And upon Subject One’s insistence, I would leave the room if she believed she felt a particularly intense episode coming on. Although, every time she forced me from the room, the episode she experienced was minor and none caused any damage other than to her own garb.
At rare times, she experienced a burst so suddenly that she had no time to sense its coming or to warn me. The meters I placed in the laboratory, and to which I connected the subject through conductive leads, were also of no help in that regard. The instruments were meant to be analytical, not predictive. I suffered a few burns upon my palms and right wrist.
I wore goggles of darkened glass to shield my eyes from the brightness and heat. I devised a pair for the subject as well, but she insisted that the bursts never bothered her own eyes—a comment that I noted for it bore further examination. It was a sound precaution. They were all sound precautions. For the day came that I witnessed the subject conduct a charge that overwhelmed all instruments, all senses.
I had never before seen lightning strike the ground. I have only ever glimpsed it bursting within shadowy banks of clouds, or from a distance, striking some point on earth that I could not see past hills or houses.
Even through the goggles of dark glass the brightness was unbearable. The heat was searing, suffocating. I threw up my arms to shield my eyes and my body from it, from the white fire.
I found myself rising from the ground. I had obviously collapsed from the strain of perceiving something that my ordinary human constitution was too fragile to perceive.
I found the subject lying on the ground as well, still unconscious. She was breathing, but I could not rouse her, so I went for help.
I prayed that she was all right, that she would not die. And I cursed myself for my researches, fearing they were responsible for the harm that had now befallen her.
Perhaps I was in some state of shock, not quite recovered myself, but as I stumbled down to a lower floor and through the halls, trying to attract the attention of my fellow students, calling for a doctor, I found that none seemed to hear me. To my own perceptions, I was crying out, pleading with a restrained desperation. But to others I must have been whispering. My muscles must have still been stiff from the shock. I could not touch anything. The nerves upon the ends of my fingers must have been deadened. I hoped the effect was not permanent.
Many passed by me, passed by me as if through me. They ignored me or did not hear me. Perhaps they did hear, but did not believe. I did not know.
I returned to my laboratory. Some strength had been restored to my limbs, and I thought I might be able to help the subject to her feet, or even half-carry her to the medical station on the bottom floor of the adjacent building.
I entered the laboratory hoping that I would find the subject sitting upright and wondering where I had gotten off to. But it was not to be so. She was still lying on the ground.
And she was not alone.
There was another. I had not noticed her before.
She did not move. She did not breathe.
I knew her.
I am no longer.
With hesitation, I reached out and tried to touch my own body, to no avail. My fingers passed through, just as they had done with the people whose attention I had tried to attract. Then I touched the subject’s body, and my fingers met resistance as if upon solid matter. I tried again to rouse her, and this time, I succeeded.
She rose and I expected for her to see me.
And she did.
Not the conscious me. But the body on the ground nearby. She began to breathe rapidly. Her eyes grew wide. Then she closed them and uttered a mild grunt. She opened her eyes. A tear spilled from the corner of one. She gathered her coat and bag, and she made for the door.
I grabbed her wrist. “Don’t leave.”
She froze. Her gaze roved around the laboratory chamber, and I realized that she could hear me, but she could not see me.
She was sweating profusely, but she wasn’t galvanizing. I should have released her. Surely she would spark at any moment. I felt a surge even within myself. And so I did.
I let her go. “Go now, but we must meet again. For I have not yet solved the mystery of your condition, nor found you a cure. And I too now have a condition that I must remedy.”
The subject gazed down at my body. She gulped. “There is no cure or treatment for death,” she said.
And as she fled, the words she said, the truth that she had spoken aloud suddenly struck me as it had not struck me upon seeing myself lying still and stiff upon the ground, my physical body having ceased all its functions.
No cure or treatment for death.
I stared at my body as nervous spasms shook whatever remained of me…spirit or ghost.
I recovered myself in time to move to the window and watch my subject run away from the building, noting the sparks that erupted from the crown of her head.
I was not there when my body was found by a cleaning woman, who, I have heard, wailed and wept. I made sure to learn her name, for she was the first to weep and wail for me. And I hoped she would be the last.
Having nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, I returned to my research. I could not touch my notebooks. I could not run any further experiments. I could not record my observations and thoughts. But I could roam wherever I wanted without anyone noticing me. So I attended lectures that would have been forbidden to me otherwise. I spied upon the meetings of the professors of physics, particularly those who were studying the properties of electromagnetism. I peeked over the shoulders of my fellow students as they studied in the libraries.
I was not sure how much time was passing. Whenever my gaze fell upon a clock it could not settle. It wandered away and I would frown as if I had just attempted to look upon something too profound to puzzle out. As I did not know how much time was passing, I had difficulty ordering my thoughts. I had to repeat them to myself over and over so that I would remember them in proper sequence. But though I could not gauge time, I understood that I had plenty of it now.
I needed no sleep, no rest of any kind, no food, no drink.
But there was one urge that called to me, an instinct that grew keener as the days passed. I was learning little. So I followed the instinct.
I found my subject.
I could not say how I knew where she was, but I did. I found her quite easily.
And I found her in a miserable state.
She was abiding in an old abandoned tower, made of stone all around. I noted the bursts from afar. I also noted that as I approached, as I drew closer, the bursts of galvanic energy grew more infrequent, and by the time I entered the tower, they stopped altogether.
She was huddled in the corner, her body shaking, and occasionally jerking as if some spasm had passed through it. I had never seen her in such a state. She was sweating so much that her long dark hair was drenched. It had been tied in a bun that had come mostly undone. I wanted to speak. I wanted her to know I was there, but I hesitated, fearing that the sound of my voice would disturb her further.
“I know you are here,” she said.
“Yes, I am here.”
I approached. She turned her head toward me.
“Can you see me?” I asked.
She said nothing, but shook her head. The shaking of her body subsided somewhat.
“You must be freezing,” I said, glancing at a pile of bedding and clothes. “Do you have a coat?”
She said nothing in response. Though I did not need to sit, I sat across from her. Light faded to night. And night faded to dawn. She slept, shivering. And though I feared for her, I could do nothing to help her. I could touch her skin, but I could not touch her clothing. She woke at dawn, and still did not speak. But I knew that she knew that I was still there.
At last, my subject spoke to me. She said only three words. Three words that triggered a keen dread in the pit of my stomach.
“Let me go.”
But I could not.
I told her so.
“Let me go,” she moaned.
And though I could see she was in great pain, I could not and would not let her go.
That is cruel, I know. Villainous…I know.
She did not mean to kill me. She did not mean to keep me from passing on to whatever comes next, a glorious afterlife, an eternity, or perhaps oblivion. Though, she might not be the one keeping me from passing on. Perhaps I had somehow chosen to remain floating in her galvanic wake.
As I had watched her through the night, I saw sights that I should not have been able to see, that I did not see in others.
When I peered at her, my eyes shifting focus, I saw the layered piles of muscle under her skin. I saw the vessels that spread through her body from the great vein that descended from her heart to the microscopic threads that permeated the tips of her fingers. I saw her bones. The smooth dome of her skull. The tiny bones of her ear, fitted together with intricate precision. The line that slashed unnaturally across the radius of her left arm, where it had broken and healed again. I saw her organs, her faithfully pulsing heart, the wormy piles of intestine in her gut, the neat folds of her brain.
My focus magnified that brain. I could see not just its surface but its inner contours, each lobe, the dip of each sulcus, the hill of each gyrus. I compared these to the diagrams I had seen in the anatomy books. From every angle I examined her brain as it slept. And I saw something that did not appear in any of the medical texts that I had thus far seen.
I surmised it might be something unique to the female human brain, for the diagrams in the texts were all of male human brains. Or perhaps it was some anomalous tissue, but it appeared structured and organized, like a tiny additional lobe tucked just under the front of the brain. I wondered, could that lobe be linked to my subject’s condition. I wondered, could it be a cause.
Till that moment I had been marveling at my own strange condition, my ability to see what I should not have been able to see. And while I had been examining in some ordered fashion from skin to innards, I had not been examining with any particular purpose.
But now I did.
I shifted focus and found my subject’s sudoriparous glands.
Here, I found another anomaly. Each gland was accompanied by another thin but distinct section of tissue. And I wondered, could that section of tissue contain the components that produced the woman’s unique sudor, sweat that conducted massive galvanic charges, sweat that formed a protective layer over the woman’s skin, perhaps even permeating below the epidermic layer.
I stayed with her that day, walking with her as she returned to the rooms she kept, reciting to her the observations I had made during the night.
She had not manifested her condition all night. Nor did she spark now.
Perhaps the last great discharge had relieved some tension or pressure. I made note of it.
I could not tell if she listened, or if she understood what I said. I could only tell that she heard me. If I fell silent for a while and then resumed speaking, she would stiffen, close her eyes, and sigh.
She remained in her apartment, fixing herself a meager meal of soup and bread. She did not speak to me. Not until I told her that I might know how to help her.
“This anomalous part of your brain,” I said, “I surmise it either causes your condition or is meant to regulate it, or perhaps both.”
“Surgery!” She rose.
I raised my brows. “Assuming I am correct, then perhaps, perhaps yes, if we can find someone to perform the proper surgery upon your brain, you might be free of the condition. Of course, it must be someone trustworthy and skilled enough not to lobotomize you outright.”
“And what about you?” she asked, gazing in my direction, though not directly at me. “Will you continue to haunt me?”
“I don’t know. But perhaps the reason I am haunting you now is that I have not yet fulfilled my duty to you.”
Tears began to drip from her eyes. “Then help me find someone.” She moved toward the front door.
Once again, I was compelled to reach out and grasp her wrist. As I did, I felt a pulsing where our hands touched, a subtle repulsion, as if we were the same poles of a magnet. I released her.
“I am not certain that I am correct. It would be folly to seek surgery if a less severe solution can be found.”
“You saw me yesterday. It’s gotten worse since I…since the last time we were in your laboratory. I must do something, even it be something desperate.”
“I saw by day, but I saw you last night as well. You were quiet. Your body was quiet. No bursts at all.”
“A fluke,” she said. But then she turned her face toward me, and though she did not smile, she pressed her lips together and turned them up a bit. “Or perhaps it was because of you, a sign that you are indeed meant to help me.”
“Yes, in due time.”
“I feel that I have little time left. I do not wish to leave my children orphaned. But if I am not cured of this condition, I will do so. If my husband were to die as well, my sister would take them in. They would be safe. Better they burn with anger for me and then forget me, than that they burn in that terrible white fire.”
She turned again to the door.
“Marian, stop a moment.”
She stopped. “Am I to be Marian now?” she said with sober sarcasm. “What happened to ‘Subject One’?”
I followed my subject—I followed Marian out, trying to convince her to return to the university, to my laboratory. But she seemed to have another destination in mind. I wondered if it were possible that she already knew of a surgeon. I pictured some charlatan that she might have met before me in her search for a cure. Or even someone she might have met in those hazy days after my bodily death, when I was haunting not her but my own university. I pictured this dishonorable fiend performing gruesome butchery on Marian’s skull and the tender tissues of her brain.
I kept up my entreaties, not bothering to whisper, for only she could hear me, even if there had been other folk about.
Though she had not discharged even the smallest burst of galvanic force since the previous day before I found her in the tower, she avoided the busy walkways and kept to the empty back alleys.
In one such alley, Marian stopped and I fell silent. We had come upon robbery. An old man was roughly bounced between two men who grabbed at a pouch he was holding. When he defied the two men, one of them struck him.
“Go back,” I said. “We can take another route.”
But Marian strode forth, and keeping some distance, she announced her presence.
“Leave him be, or I’ll go find a constable to sort you out.”
Despite the distance she’d left, the two men rushed toward her so quickly that she wasn’t able to run away. They grabbed either of her arms. I watched in horror and helplessness. The old man now strode toward them to defend his defender.
I felt my eyes shift focus and I saw the sheen of bluish perspiration forming on Marian’s skin. And as it did, I felt a surge within myself, a surge like the one I’d felt both times I had touched Marian.
As one of the men raised his hand to strike her, I reached out and grasped Marian’s shoulder. I could help her pull away. I could not touch them, but I could touch her, and I could help her pull away. But as I pulled, I felt that surge pass through my hand and into her. That surge of energy.
Marian gasped. Torrents of electricity arced from her hands. They struck the two men…and only the two men. The old man, standing right between us all, was unharmed.
He saw what she had done, and his eyes grew wide with wonder. Then he saw the two robbers on the ground, and he began to laugh.
“Saved by the ‘angel of lightning,’ no less!” he said.
He insisted on guiding Marian out of the alleyway, and when she recoiled, he raised his hand in appeasement and told that she could be on her way then, for he would be the one to find a constable to take care of those two.
And we all saw that despite what seemed a frighteningly grand burst of electricity, both robbers were still alive.
Marian did walk away after the old man assured her he expected no more trouble from the stunned robbers. But she walked slower now.
“I believe I understand,” I said, for my mind was gathering observations and sensations and notions, and assembling them into a preliminary conclusion. It bore further testing, but I believed I understood.
As I’d drawn closer to Marian when she lay in that tower wracked with galvanic spasms, her spasms abated. They did not return the whole time I was near. When I touched Marian, a surge of energy—galvanic energy—seemed to be pooled within me, ready to pass into her. It was as if I were a sort of “galvanic sink.” Or perhaps something even more than just a sink…
“I think I should remain close to you, Marian,” I said. “At least until we find a treatment. I think—“
“You tempered it,” she said. “I’ve never been able to control it like that, like having a spigot that I could turn to control how much I pour out.”
I smiled. “Yes! That’s my thought as well. I may be some sort of regulator.”
“I killed you.”
She did not stopped walking as she spoke. I turned to her, startled by the sudden non sequitur. Those silent tears were again spilling from her eyes.
“By accident,” I said. “I have forgiven you for that. I forgive you.”
She wiped the cuff of her coat across her eyes. “But I cannot forgive myself.”
“I have studied the incident. I may have played a part in triggering—“
“You did not. I know. I know how it feels when it’s about to happen. I felt it then. I had time to run. But I didn’t run.”
I frowned. “You have a loose grasp of how electricity works. There is no question of…outrunning it. Unless of course you are made of light. Are you? Made of light?”
She sniffed. “If I ever was, I am no longer.”
“I was not referring to the constitution of your soul.”
“What were your dreams, Professor? Did you dream of being married? Having children?”
I glanced away from her as we emerged from the alley. “I dreamt of doing what I have been doing these past many days, years. I dreamt of studying medicine and science.”
“Is that all?”
“Is that not enough?”
She sighed. “Strange, you seem so calm for one who has lost so much.”
“I have not yet done what you asked me to do.”
“You intend to cure my condition? You with your young and tender mind, fertile and full of seeds that I burned away in an instant? Can you do what all the great men of science have failed to do?”
I felt a shrug forming in my shoulders. I pushed it down. “I cannot know unless I make the attempt. And the attempt, that I can do.”
“Why? Why help me?”
“I will it so, but even if I didn’t, what else am I to do? A galvanic ghost am I. I can touch nothing now, nothing save for one thing. You. So what should I think, if not that the universe has assigned to me the responsibility to heal you. Or even just to keep you well, until someone else heals you. Someone who finds my research.”
“What will I tell the people who love you?” she said, her voice cracking as she sobbed.
“You need tell them nothing. There are none left to mourn me. My father was taken by war. My mother by illness.”
I hesitated, thinking. “They are far away.”
“All save one,” she said.
I glanced at her and found that she was smiling.
And as we approached another alleyway, she passed by it and remained on the path.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel