My home is a doorway on the edge of the city where I boil in the sun by day and chill to stone under the stars at night. I exist on sufferance and charity, and like most on that diet I have grown thin as a finger. My skin is tattooed with dirt, and I inhabit my stench like a tent, but this does not disturb my neighbours who are kind, ordinary people. What makes them shrink from me is the certain belief I do not need to live like this; I could snap my fingers and have anything I wanted. What sort of madman would not want to change the foul circumstances I find myself in? What terrible guilt prevents me from elevating myself from my suffering? I must forgive them for not understanding that whatever I ask for, nothing will change: in another life, perhaps, I could sleep in a feather bed instead of this hard doorway, but we only have one life.
The day I joined the trial the great man himself was waiting for me at the entrance to the institute. I was impressed and humbled. He insisted on taking me for a tour of the complex and while we were walking through the labyrinth of halls and corridors and laboratories and courtyards, he asked if I understood that the trial would last for several months, possibly a year. The institute would be my home and I would not be allowed to leave, or to receive visitors or communicate with the outside world until the experiment was over.
I told him I was ready to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. My good fortune - wealth, love, peace of mind - was exactly that: good fortune. I knew that my blessings were unearned and felt that it was my duty to repay some small part of my debt.
Thus I entered the trial a true innocent and ignorant of everything. He must have thought me a fool. But then again, that is exactly what he wanted. When I applied to the program they made it clear that subjects must not be aware of the purpose of the experiment as this would inevitably affect the way they behaved, even if only subconsciously, and would contaminate the data, destroying years of work, and rendering their sacrifice worthless. It made perfect sense to me, and it was to no one’s surprise that I emerged from the selection process as the sole test subject.
Most people, not least my family and friends, thought that I was mad, signing up for an experiment which granted him full licence when I had no idea of its purpose or what would be done to me. My wife, I know, must have held me the biggest kind of fool, but she saw that it was something I needed to do, even if she could not understand why, and supported me without complaint.
She knew that I have always despised the sort of sophist who will dispute everything and do nothing. No matter how long they live, these people do not add one grain to the store of human knowledge. If the proper study of mankind is man, the increase of knowledge requires human testing. And the sad truth is that we are far less willing to participate in trials than we are to benefit from their results. We would rather argue endlessly about their likely outcome than commit ourselves to the pains of putting the question beyond doubt.
After the tour of the facility, the great man took me to the room which would be my home. While I unpacked my few belongings (I was told to bring no more than I could carry in one hand) he explained the daily routine of the institute. I would take my meals with the technicians in the refectory at dawn, midday and sun down. I would have no formal obligations, and was welcome to do as I pleased within the confines of the complex. There were open spaces where I could exercise and take the air, and several libraries, all of which I was free to use, but which, he explained apologetically, contained almost exclusively scientific books.
So began my cloistered life. I worried that I would find the isolation insufferable, and wondered how I would fare without my family, my friends, and the anchoring demands of work. In fact it was a relief to be free for once from everyday life, and to have the time to think or just sit and stare. The simplicity and smallness of my existence was a source of contentment rather than the opposite. If I hardly thought of those I left behind, I told myself it was because I knew that the experiment would end soon enough and I should enjoy this opportunity while I could.
I luxuriated in a series of identical untroubled days. Life at the institute was a balm for my soul which, I came to know, had suffered as much wear and tear in my five decades as my hard-worked body. Eventually I attained a level of serenity bordering on boredom. I am sure it was no coincidence that the next day, for the first time in several weeks, he put his head round my door. It was late in the evening and I was used to being left alone to listen to the huge institute quieten around me as most of the staff left at the end of the day. His presence irritated me and it must have shown because his sharp look said have you forgotten why you are here?
My heart sank through me. I had secretly imagined that I was already half way into the experiment which had proved so subtle as to be beyond my noticing. I was shocked to have my wishful thinking wiped away. He regarded me in silence for several seconds, then said we will begin tomorrow and left.
I had thought that my wanderings had taught me the layout of the whole institute but when he fetched me from my room the next morning I was quickly lost in a warren of corridors I had never seen before. After walking for several minutes we reached a blank room in the far wall of which was a tiny door that began to grind open as we approached. He gestured me inside.
The space beyond was huge and dim and had the taint of animal warmth. High up in the walls a series of vents let in a few slants of sunlight; after the saturated light in the antechamber my eyes struggled to adapt. I became aware of a monumental figure taking shape in the gloom above me: the tusks of a huge animal reared over me as if it were trying to root me out of the darkness. I stepped back in shock and saw the creature entire. A forest of wires bristled from its skin which was disfigured with oddly shaped cysts and wens, and seemed to glow with a grey light. The beast’s body was contorted as if by a terrific power it could barely contain. It was some relief to see that its legs were anchored to the floor by fat, metal hasps. In the gaps between the animals joints I caught glimpses of the mechanism inside: cogs the size of mill wheels, cylinders and pistons thick as tree trunks, and wires rivering everywhere like nerves.
I became aware that he was explaining the working of the apparatus, and had been for some time. I am sure I would have been perplexed even if I had listened intently from the outset, but as it was, I was completely lost. Only one thing was clear from the care with which he described the machine; it was, no less than I, at the heart of the experiment.
He suggested we would get a better view from the gantry that rose in a U around the sides and back of the beast. The height gave me a view of the shape and size of the thing entire which looked like nothing so much as a gigantic mechanical boar, but it did not help me comprehend its purpose. We walked along a gangway until we stood opposite a gaping hopper let into the back of the animal. The hole was pitch black and no mechanism was visible inside it.
I was peering down into the nothingness trying to make out the glint of a cog or spoke when he said let us begin. That made me look up. I held my breath, having no idea what would happen next, but fearing the worst. From inside his coat he produced a parcel of letters tied together with a piece of brown twine. He held them in both hands and offered them to me with reverence and ceremony. I remember thinking how ridiculous he looked, brandishing a wad of waste paper like that. It was the perfect anticlimax to my fears, and I almost laughed.
Do you recognise these? Of course I did not. The paper was yellow with age and the ink had a taint of brown that made it look as if it had once been black. The handwriting was old fashioned and formal and could have belonged to any one of the right age. It was the sort of intriguing but ultimately disappointing curiosity you find in any junk shop. The credulous think they are buying letters which, when read carefully and at leisure, will prove to be of historic interest, or a candid window into family life, but which always turn out to be a manifest of banality.
Are you sure? He asked. I did not reply. No matter. He tossed the parcel into the machine where it vanished without sound or trace. I felt, rather than heard, a distant rumbling, and then a pop of compressed air shot a ball of confetti out of a trumpet at the rear of the animal. Before it could fall, the paper was hit by a ferocious belch of flame and instantly incinerated.
It was only when I saw the ash falling like slow, dry rain, the letters irreparably destroyed, that I understood. I had never been close to my father. When I was young he had spent a lot of time away from home, traveling for work, and I hardly knew him. On one occasion I was so disturbed to see a disheveled stranger stroll into our house as if he owned it, that I ran away crying. My mother told me that from that day my father began sending me letters whenever he was away from home. At first she read them to me at bedtime, and then when I was older I was left to read them for myself. As time passed, I became more and more impatient at the way I was supposed to be impressed by his absentee expressions of interest which I found trite beyond endurance - he simply did not know me. In the end I was hardly able to bring myself to read them. I don't remember answering a single one.
I stood staring into the black hole of the machine unable to move. He walked away saying that was enough for today.
Contrary to what people believe, he did not persuade me to stay in the program, I persuaded myself. To have walked out would have been to turn my back on the experiment in which I believed (even though I did not know what it was), and would have exposed my high-minded self-sacrifice as a sham. I was also acutely aware that I had been caught out lying to myself about the letters. That tempered my anger a great deal, and if he had hurt me terribly, wasn't that exactly what I had volunteered for? There is no sacrifice in wandering through shady gardens, or reading for curiosity in a sumptuous library, or living at peace from your demanding family for a few weeks.
Nevertheless I kept to my room the next day and no one came to fetch me. They left food outside my door and went away. I lay on the bed pondering what to do, while the room turned dark around me. In the morning, when the servitor brought my breakfast, I told him I was ready to continue.
While I sat on the gantry watching the detritus of my life being fed into the machine, he explained that each day there would be two hours of operation in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. The experiment required me to be there to watch, but at other times I would be as free as I had always been. I nodded, but by this stage I don't think he needed, or was looking for, my consent.
It was a meticulous process and took a remarkably long time to destroy even a single, insignificant, item. First the object - a cup, a pencil - had to be located in a catalogue of my possessions, then validated and corroborated by an independent investigator, before it was finally consigned to oblivion. Even then the process was not complete: the destruction had to be recorded in a leather-bound ledger, padlocked to a heavy lectern at the far end of the gantry.
The machine had many means of carrying out its purpose and it seemed to choose the most appropriate to the object at hand, whether that was grinding or crushing, fire or water, irreversibly dismantling it, evaporation or freezing, and perhaps others I had yet to see. The sophistication of the mechanism meant that it needed constant and careful maintenance, and was one of the reasons it ran for so few hours each day. The other was to prolong my agony.
That first day of real operation I was taken to eat at midday during the break for maintenance, but I could manage only a glass of water, and that was so cold it made me sick. When they bought me back to the room I sat cross legged on the gantry, rocking backwards and forwards keening softly as my world slowly ended around me. I was in shock, but it never occurred to me to ask for the experiment to be stopped.
You can imagine the reaction when the first news of what was happening at the institute leaked out. Some of my friends wanted me committed to an asylum for the insane whilst others were all for storming the building and forcibly freeing me. My kind, wise, wife persuaded the factions to forsake these plans, explaining that I believed in what I was doing, and that I must be left alone to complete what I had started: she had faith that some great good would come of it.
As the experiment progressed, I returned to myself and was, from time to time, calm enough to be able to watch the process as a detached observer rather than its victim. In doing so, I became painfully aware of quite how much of the world I had annexed to myself and grew ashamed: how much did one man need? In addition to treasured keepsakes like my father's letters, and things I used every day like my knife, there were possessions I did not need or even remember. Others I had purchased because I wanted them so badly at the time and had then put away never to be touched again. I became almost happy to hear the rumbling of the apparatus each morning, and my soul felt lighter and healthier at the end of each day.
After the first two weeks I was no longer expected to be in the same room as the machine while it operated, though I was required to remain close enough to hear the grinding, splintering, roaring sound of my life being consumed by the void. At the end of each day, if I had not been in attendance, I was brought to the apparatus room to read the catalogue of destruction. I returned to the routine of my first weeks in the institute, frequenting the libraries, walking in the open spaces, sitting in the sunlight and thinking - all to the subsonic accompaniment of the experiment.
My peace of mind did not last. As the days progressed I found it harder and harder to sleep, and I would be drawn to the apparatus room in the middle of the night. It was never locked and usually empty. Sometimes there was a maintenance crew working late, but they never disturbed me: I imagine that my visits might even have been tacitly encouraged as part of the experiment.
I studied the beast closely as if that would reveal its purpose, but it told me nothing. As far as I could see there was no rhyme or reason for what was happening, and if there was, it was probably best that I did not understand. I spent hours poring over the list of destroyed items, and saw that they had been arranged with great care. My possessions were presented in strata; the few items I still owned from my bachelor life were followed by those of my early marriage which were in turn displaced by the effects I had needed when my children were young and so on. Almost all of these objects were redundant, except as aids to remembering those passages in my life.
We like to think that our belongings are simply things, superficialities that we have collected accidentally over time and which do not embody anything of our true being. I am no longer sure that this is the case. When one imagines the long dead, all one can bring to mind are their statues and kitchen ware, their knives and jewellery, the toys that they gave to their children. These unimportant parts of us survive in a way that we do not.
I began to wonder what the machine was taking away from me, and what would be left at the end of the process: would I be a holy man or a lunatic, a beggar or a thief? If I found any comfort in this bleak time it was from the fact that my greed, however great, was finite and that I would soon be finished here, and could go back to my family and try to resume my life, or whatever was left of it. I decided to enjoy my remaining time in the institute as best I could. A day would come soon enough when I would have to leave and deal with the terrible effects of my decision.
The day the experiment ended was no different from any other. He came to my room before breakfast to ask if I would be attending the machine - something he often did on his way to work. I told him I would be in the Western library. I knew the sound of destruction was clearly audible from there, and I thought that was all that concerned him. Whatever you think best he said.
I had been reading for over an hour when I became aware of a change, as if a constant unconscious noise had suddenly stopped, or some animal had startled a placid landscape. I was hearing voices. I had grown so used to the mute destruction of my life that my first thought was that the ravages of the experiment had brought on hallucinations. At no point did I imagine that I was hearing real voices. I felt the low, subsonic growl as the machine shook itself into life and relaxed as the world returned to normal, except that I still heard the familiar voices floating on top of the low rumble of destruction. I shook my head to dislodge them, but the voices were in my head, and I could not shake them free. Then the world fell completely silent, a silence as unblemished and perfect as marble. For a moment I was terrified that I had shaken my head so violently I had made myself deaf. I wish I had. The screams echo in my bones even when I am asleep.
I wanted to run to the apparatus room but when I tried to lift myself out of the chair I could not move. I have no memory of what happened in the minutes that followed, and the next thing I remember is lying on the bed in my room, conscious but at some great distance from myself: I felt like an ox the slaughter-man has stunned. He was leaning over me, watching my face. There had been a terrible accident, he said. My wife and daughters had asked to come to see the process and by mistake…
He talked a great deal and I let the words wash over me. It was better if I didn't listen. I found myself standing in the corner of the room looking back at my body lying in the bed and him kneeling beside it. I could see from his face that despite the words he was saying, he was untouched by everything that had happened, or at least untouched in any way that I could understand. His mind was occupied by a world so large I could not conceive it. Looking at him I had the sense of myself as an atom of pigment in a fresco that wound round the walls of a gigantic palace.
Eventually he left me alone and I fell asleep immediately. When I woke the world was silent and grey, and it was hours before dawn, though whether it was the next day, or the day after I had no idea. Making no noise I got out of bed and walked out of the institute. At this distance in time I find it surprising that no one was watching over me in my room, and that I met no one on my way out of the building, but it was very early, and I think they assumed I would be prostrate for many hours after what had happened. It would have made no difference whatever they had done; even though I was as weak as a newborn nothing on earth could have stopped me from leaving, not even him.
I walked and walked until I could walk no more, and sat down in this doorway as the sun came up. My mind was a peach dismantled by wasps and I could do nothing for myself. The people here took pity on me and brought me water, and gave me what food they could spare. They were kind to me until they discovered who I was, and then they began to avoid me. Unfortunately by that time I had recovered enough to care for myself.
Since the event I have thought endlessly about what happened, and his part in it. Time and time again I have forced myself to the conclusion that he was completely innocent of the death of my family, innocent in the truest, most terrible, sense of the word. I have come to understand that when you know and remember everything, and can foresee all that will and will not happen, when you live in a mind where nothing is lost, the difference between life and death is negligible, and a stubborn insistence on the importance of the distinction can seem offensive or perverse. But I also know that for those of us who struggle to hold on to our memories, even of those who are dearest to us, in the face of the abrasions of life and the fog of old age, behaving as if time and death are simply stubborn illusions can make you seem like a very cold bastard indeed.
At first he tried to win me back with showy gifts: boils, arthritis, haemorrhoids, recurring fevers. It was shoddy and obvious. I searched for the wit and ambiguity of his earlier work, but all I found was a cliche. The dragging pain in my body that ate away my mind until I was barely aware of myself was a welcome friend. It would have broken my heart to have smiled, or to have stared in wonder at the heavy orange harvest moon in a world where my wife and children were dead. It was a relief to be so grievously, and unjustly punished. It took my mind off things.
I do not think he is capable of understanding what I am: it is impossible for him to make his mind that small or to inhabit the cage of contingencies within which we humans exist. But he must have sensed how I felt and realised that his kindnesses were having no effect; without any word or concession from me, my ills slowly abated. I became myself again, though broken and gravely aged.
One morning when I had been living in this doorway for over a year, I sensed the approach, not of a commotion, but of a stillness of the sort as I had felt on the last day of the experiment. I did not need to look up from the dirt; I knew it was him even before his shadow fell over me. Although we were surrounded by people and he spoke in a firm, clear voice, I knew that I was the only one who could hear a word that he said.
He explained that the experiment had concluded successfully and the trial was over, and therefore it was time to put things to rights. All that had been taken from me would be restored, as good as new, better even, and more…
I could tell that he had a great deal left to say so I looked up and asked where is my wife? He didn't hesitate: he drew her from behind his back where she had been hiding all the time, afraid and anxious, and placed her hand in mine. The lukewarm touch of her skin soft in my palm brought tears to my eyes.
The woman was kind and comely, but even through the thickness of my tears I could see that she was not my wife. I had not watched her belly grow round with our children, or seen the wrinkles flower around her eyes: I did not know her from Eve. And still I cried like a child, and could not stop.
It was not that he expected this sham to end my suffering that broke my heart, it was the fact that he could do no better. There is always a higher power to stop you from doing what you will, even if that higher power is only yourself: having taken my wife from me, he could not give her back.
It is many months since he came to call, and there have been no more fabulous offers. This is a bad neighbourhood for strangers and I doubt that he will come again.
For reasons I cannot understand I continue to exist. I am, but what I am I do not know. I am not the man I was, but I have no conception of what I have become. I am an experiment whose purpose I do not understand. I am a living reproach for those who are above reproach. Sometimes I imagine I have become the apparatus, and I exist solely to destroy the days that unfold endlessly before me. Each morning I watch the sun rise and know it dares not peep through the slits of my eyes for fear of going blind.