The Man Under the Bed

One day during a long illness, in which I am often bedridden, I find a man under the bed.

At first I think it is the shadows, but as my eyes adjust to the dark I see a thin form with white eyes, so white they almost glow, and gleaming white teeth. He looks like an Andamanese man I saw on my honeymoon in the Far East.

I howl like a samurai--I think it is the fever, the ringing in my ears, a vision of Death. At first I fear him and think he is there to take me to some indigenous underworld, but he barely has the strength to stand himself. And then I think it is a curse from my ex-wife, but she would have sent him with knives.

Sometimes the man under the bed presses each of my vertebrae one by one through the mattress, but when I peer over the edge, he pretends to sleep, holds his head like an egg. He wears no clothes but a thong and a sack, small as a gris-gris bag. With all my strength, I yank him from under the bed like a rug. He curls and cowers under my fist that I make slowly, grimacing with the effort.

I quickly find use for him. On the days I feel well enough to go out, together we break into the neighbor's house - I know where there is a hidden key - but only steal small things that we can lift and that will not be missed. A thimble. A match from a matchbook, hidden in the back. A crayon from a terraced box, Prussian Blue. A capful of lemon dishwasher detergent. I am careful not to overload the man; he is old and frail and it really slows him down if he carries too much, and he has no pockets. He leaves footprints of dust and I must walk behind him, brushing the soot out of the nap of the carpet with my hands.

There are times he must lead me when I cannot control my limbs - they flail, they shake, they writhe of their own accord, as if someone is pulling my strings. I close my eyes, take his hand, and hold on tight, but how do you anchor yourself to a ghost? Caawaaya, he coos.

The man is growing fragile and he is almost transparent; I see behind his eyes as if they are merely layers of velum. He is so weak now he can carry away no more than a hair. The neighbor's dog barks at him and the breath throws him into the window like a handful of snow. The man sometimes tries to speak to me but his words are so faint they evaporate on the lips. I am certain he will crumble into ash if I touch him. At night, I lie very still on the bed and fear the shifting in my sleep will cause wind currents to sweep him away, and then I will be alone. The quilt marks us off like an archeologist's grid. When the cat enters the room and stops, paw raised in the air, and then backs out, I realize that silence does weigh something.

One morning, I cannot make the man under the bed stir. I sweep him up in a dustpan and find the things he has collected under the bed: some of my prescription pills in Cornflower Blue, Seafoam Green, and Salmon Pink; vapors from my inhaler, like cobwebs barely visible to the naked eye; and a crumpled note. An unfilled prescription? No, it is my wife's handwriting, an old country song we had danced to at our wedding, a song about a stuttering cowboy who said I ain't got no home, no home, no home. The guests thought the record had skipped.

I carry him outside to the garden and shake him loose under my favorite tree, a Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas Tree because Judas's blood colors its red flowers. I do a little jig just to see, just to be sure he is gone from my bones and will shake them no more.

I watch the branches and there is no wind today. There is an Onge belief that the world rests on the branches of a tree, and sometimes the tree shakes the earth, and sometimes it is still.

About the author:

Lisa Sutter's fiction has appeared in Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture, among others, and she is currently the technical writer for a children's software company in Michigan. And no, she cannot feel it when someone pinches her twin sister on the arm in Los Angeles, so please do not ask her anymore.