Thanatos Beach

Thanatos Beach

James Morrow
illustration by john jude palencar

Enjoy “Thanatos Beach,” by James Morrow, a story inspired by an illustration from John Jude Palencar.

“Thanatos Beach” is part of a five-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All five are based on a singular piece of art by John Jude Palencar and will be released for free on Tor.com every Wednesday in March.

Read the story behind these stories or purchase all five right now in a $2.99 ebook.

This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.

 

When Inez Montaugh first saw the magnetic-resonance image of her brain tumor, she marveled at its resemblance to Idaho, the state where she was born and raised. The contours of her birthplace and her neoplasm were practically identical: a surmounting obelisk, a ragged eastern edge, a vast southern mass. Inez immediately remarked on the coincidence, whereupon her twin sister, Alexis, likewise contemplating the ominous blob, said, “Jesus, sweetie, how can you be thinking of Idaho at a time like this?”

“How can I not be thinking of Idaho?” Inez replied. “Back home in Boise, I was never sick.”

“It’s where we expected to find it, the motor cortex,” said the neurologist, Dr. Goncourt. The three of them were standing in his consulting room, huddled around the backlit MRI like art students appreciating a Vermeer. “Hence your difficulties with gait and coordination.”

The smart and photogenic Montaugh sisters had come a long way since Idaho—to different but comparable East Coast liberal arts colleges, followed by failed marriages in Boston, successful psychoanalyses on the Upper East Side, and brilliant careers as, arguably, America’s premier women of letters. No less a figure than Noam Chomsky had once dubbed Inez and Alexis “the Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer of public intellectuals,” but whereas the sisterhood of Pauline and Eppie comprised two liberal Jews who answered poignant questions addressed to “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers,” Inez and Alexis were radical Brooklyn-based WASPs who staged plays, wrote novels, and routinely published essays dense with Continental philosophy and recondite cultural criticism (though at times it seemed to Inez that she was indeed managing a kind of advice column: “Dear Inez, My father-in-law consistently misreads Kierkegaard”). Earlier in the year, the committee in charge of MacArthur Fellowships had decided that both Montaugh sisters were equally deserving, Inez in the category of scholar (though she was no less a journalist) and Alexis in the category of journalist (though she was no less a scholar), and so arrangements were made for the sum of $500,000 to be transferred in installments to each of their respective bank accounts.

“Do you think it’s malignant?” asked Inez, her normally contralto voice entering a soprano register.

“When we speak of brain tumors, ‘malignant’ can mean two different things,” Dr. Goncourt replied in a tone both Inez and Alexis thought impossibly pedantic under the circumstances. “The term may indicate a cancerous mass that destroys healthy tissue through metastasis, but it can also mean a benign growth that threatens vital neurological functions.”

“So in either case, Inez would be well advised to have the thing removed,” said Alexis.

“May I speak candidly?” said Dr. Goncourt.

“Yes,” said Inez with fake bravery.

“I’m not a surgeon, but it appears that this neoplasm is poorly situated for excision.”

“Location, location, location,” said Inez, shivering as if standing naked in Nome, through the temperature in the room was surely no less than sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.

Correctly sensing that Dr. Goncourt was not amused by Inez’s sardonic remark, Alexis made the appropriate snickering noises.

“The next step is to get a biopsy,” the neurologist said.

“I need to visit the ladies’ room,” said Inez, uncertain whether she was about to endure an episode of vomiting or an attack of incontinence.

As it happened: both.

Forty-eight hours later, Inez submitted herself to a diagnostic procedure at the Maimonides Medical Center. The surgeon drilled a burr hole the size of a dime in her skull, inserted his hollow needle, siphoned up a sample of the tumor, and delivered the tissue to a pathologist. Inez returned home to her Flatbush Avenue apartment, a mere two blocks from Prospect Park. Later that day, Alexis moved in, explaining that she intended to cleave to Inez’s side “until you’re out of the woods.” Now came the ordeal of awaiting the pathologist’s verdict: two sisters from the same egg, incarcerated by the clock, glued to its lugubrious hands, each sticky minute taking an hour to pass, each hour a day. Against their better judgment, they visited the most prominent Internet cancer sites, becoming fluent in the language of dread. When at long last Dr. Goncourt summoned Inez back to his consulting room, she was prepared for him to do his Latinate worst.

Her neoplasm, she learned, took the technical—and to Inez familiar—name of glioblastoma multiforme, the second term, “multiforme,” tracing to such tumors’ heterogeneous nature. Being a mixture of cell types, GBM was essentially incurable. Even with surgery, radiation, and follow-up drugs, Inez surmised, she had no more than a year to live.

“I’m going to fight and win,” she declared, believing none if it. Welcome to Coney Island, ladies and gentlemen. Ride the Sarcoma Coaster.

“For your oncologist I recommend Jacob Leibowitz at Sloan-Kettering,” said Dr. Goncourt. “His success rate is second to none.”

And Inez thought: second to none because with GBM success is unknown.

Later that week, speaking with Dr. Leibowitz at the celebrated Manhattan cancer center, Inez learned that, just as there are varieties of infinity, so are there gradations of hopelessness. The tumor was inoperable, which meant that her twelve months on planet Earth had in all probability been reduced to six. Radiation appeared to be the only viable—if that was the word—choice, followed by the usual chemotherapeutic coda. Dr. Leibowitz proffered no cluster of straws at which she might grasp, nor a singleton straw, not even one splinter.

At this low point her fortunes, Inez could hardly have imagined that an amusing little man in a derby hat was about to enter her life, explaining that his employer routinely removed malignant tumors painlessly and permanently. But even in the fatalistic world of cancer, Inez would soon see, eucatastrophes will occur, though she herself had once railed against what she called “the immorality of miracles.”

“Even as I set down these words,” ran the penultimate sentence of her most famous book, The Beauty of the Morbid, “an angel is stalking indignantly out of God’s executive suite, disgusted with the vicissitudes of divine justice, making a total of ten billion such resignations since the beginning of time.”

 

*

 

The encounter with the dwarf occurred shortly after Inez’s fourth consultation with her oncologist, at which she, Alexis, and Dr. Leibowitz agreed that her treatments should begin at once. Before leaving Memorial Sloan-Kettering that Friday afternoon, Inez arranged to receive her first jolt of radiation on Monday at 8:00 a.m., with subsequent doses occurring each morning throughout the week. The women took the Q train back to Brooklyn—no bourgeois taxis for the Montaugh sisters, not when a populist subway was available—Alexis functioning throughout the journey as a human crutch, so badly had the tumor compromised her sister’s mobility.

Instead of returning to the apartment, they decided to stop off at their favorite performance bar, Franju’s on 9th Street in Park Slope. Inez wanted to get very drunk, and Alexis wanted Inez to get very drunk. The Slavic hostess didn’t mind seating them in the little theater in the back, since the evening’s entertainment, an American funk band called Off the Rails, would not be setting up before sundown. Both sisters ordered cocktails, a Boulevardier for Inez (Carpano Antica vermouth, Bulleit bourbon, Campari), a Jose Gregorio Stinger for Alexis (Pampero rum, Pernod, Galliano), which they consumed sitting on stools, hunched over a little round table, the surrounding brick walls hung with banal surrealist paintings by a local artist who called himself, or herself, Barbican.

“Stop me when I get to three,” said Inez.

“Be sure to drink some water in between,” Alexis cautioned. “Otherwise you’ll get a headache.”

“I already have a headache,” Inez noted. “A glioblastoma lollapalooza of a headache.”

The sisters were on their second round when the dwarf appeared, marching officiously into the room as if they’d been expecting him, his stubby hand wrapped around a martini glass. With his derby hat and three-piece, pin-striped suit, one lapel sporting a brilliant red poppy, he struck Inez as a clown employed by a particularly seedy traveling circus.

“Good afternoon, Inez,” said the dwarf. “Hello, Alexis. I’m Sandor.”

“My sister and I would like to be alone,” said Alexis.

“No, you would like to hear what I have to say,” said the little man, pulling up a stool.

Sandor sipped his martini and fixed Inez with an impish eye. She found him at once cuddly and repulsive, like a teddy bear with leprosy.

“My employer, Dr. Vincent Philoghast, does not have a waiting list but rather a wish list—a catalogue of those patients he desires the privilege of treating,” the dwarf continued. “You fit the profile perfectly, Inez. Terminal nonleukemic cancer, money in the bank, sufficient intelligence to understand the procedure. I followed you here from Sloan-Kettering. Don’t feel bad that you failed to spot me. I’m good at my job.” Again Sandor sipped his martini. “Dr. Philoghast hopes you will permit him to save your life. He’s perhaps the only physician in the world who understands the phenomenological essence of malignancies.”

Although Inez did not normally attend to unhinged visionaries of Sandor’s ilk—this Dr. Philoghast probably didn’t even exist—she shared with her fellow cancer patients a willingness to countenance, within limits, any narrative that included the promise of a cure. “And what sort of phenomenological essence might that be?”

“According to conventional thinking, a malignancy occurs when mutated genes give rise to rogue cells that start dividing randomly,” Sandor replied. “Dr. Philoghast, by contrast, believes that tumors are born from entire chromosomes—monstrous chromosomes, to be sure, severely deformed by asbestos, benzene, radon, cigarette smoke, hepatitis B virus, and other carcinogens—but still chromosomes. In other words, Inez, your glioblastoma is a species unto itself, an autonomous creature living inside your head, dependent on your brain for nourishment but otherwise free to do as it wishes.”

Inez realized that, having written The Blood of the Rose, a biographical novel about Gregor Mendel, her sister was better equipped than she to appreciate Sandor’s argument. And so when Alexis said, “Tell us more,” in a voice free of skepticism, Inez experienced a surge of optimism for the first time since boarding the Sarcoma Coaster.

“I don’t know much more,” said Sandor. “I’m not a research biologist. My background’s in chemical engineering.”

Alexis said, “Evidently your Dr. Philoghast believes that, jeopardized though they may be, the chromosomes in a cancerous tumor are sufficiently flexible to achieve a stable karyotype.”

Thatta girl, thought Inez. Be fucking impressed. Let Philoghast’s theory knock your socks off.

“That sounds like something he would say,” Sandor replied. “The point is this. Because Inez’s glioblastoma is a new and aspiring species, it boasts considerably more sentience than one normally ascribes to neoplasms. So formidable are my employer’s powers of empathy, and so great his telepathic gifts, that he can appeal directly to a malignant parasite’s intelligence. His presentation to the tumor is supremely cogent and irresistibly logical. ‘Relinquish the tissues on which you feed, or you will die along with your host.’ ”

“I assume Dr. Philoghast then promises the neoplasm a source of ex vivo nourishment,” Alexis said.

Again, that blessed acceptance in her voice, that sacred lack of doubt.

Sandor nodded and said, “Faced with the prospect of virtual immortality and unlimited sustenance, the tumor invariably decides to gamble on the wider world.” He grasped Inez’s hand and, turning her palm upward, gently probed her lifeline. “The procedure is simplicity itself. Dr. Philoghast will remove a portion of your cranium, establish a psychic bond with the parasite, and persuade it to exit through the aperture.”

Releasing Inez’s hand, the dwarf slid off his stool and stood at his full height, nearly four feet. He unbuttoned his coat and vest, then lifted his white silk shirt, revealing a livid scar running across his stomach.

“Behold this testimonial,” said Sandor. “Were it not for the Philoghast cure, I would have succumbed to gastric cancer eight years ago.” He tucked his shirt back in his trousers. “A limousine will pick you up tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. Be waiting on the sidewalk. You will hand the driver a three-by-five card containing whatever digits and passwords should enable someone to transfer half a million dollars from your various bank accounts to Dr. Philoghast’s.”

“Inez, sweetie, I think we’d better stop drinking for now,” said Alexis. “We need to have a long and sober discussion.”

“Long and sober,” Inez echoed. “I want to do this,” she added abruptly, dropping all pretense of prudence.

“But first we’ll talk,” said her sister.

“Six months, Alexis. I can’t write another novel in six months.”

“We’ll talk till dawn.”

“I want to stage Waiting for Godot in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I want to learn Russian and read War and Peace in the original.”

The dwarf buttoned his vest and coat. “I must mention one detail. Your glioblastoma will insist on exerting a certain postoperative authority over your life.”

Alexis scowled and said, “What sort of ‘postoperative authority’?”

“Each malignancy acquires its own tastes. Ever since my parasite became partial to lizard meat, I’ve been required to maintain a small herpetorium on its behalf.”

“A small price, I’d say,” Inez declared.

“And now I must return to my apartment,” said Sandor. “The iguanas need feeding. Here is my final word to you, Inez Montaugh. For all the attendant inconveniences, I have never regretted my decision. Such is the ineffable beauty of life.”

And with that remark, in which neither Inez nor Alexis could detect an iota of irony, the dwarf smiled tenderly, pivoted on his heel, and strode out of Franju’s, leaving the sisters to stare silently at their drinks.

 

*

 

In one of Inez’s most celebrated essays of cultural criticism, “Fuck Me Again, Dr. Frankenstein,” she’d discoursed on the “epistemological schizophrenia” with which Hollywood horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s addressed the ideal of scientific progress. On the one hand, the sorts of deranged geniuses played by Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Lionel Atwill, and George Zucco were engaged in ostensibly benevolent experiments aimed at resurrecting loved ones, prolonging life, curing diseases, contacting the spirit world, and expanding the periodic table of the elements. And yet the doctor’s quest always came at a price, inexorably turning baleful and then destroying him in the final reel (though the denouement normally found his colleagues paying lip service to the desirability of expanding the frontiers of knowledge). The last sentence of Inez’s essay ran, “Such films pose the question, ‘Is science a hubristic, perverse, and ultimately sacrilegious activity?,’ only to answer it by paraphrasing Robert E. Lee’s remarks on war following Fredericksburg: ‘It is well that science is so blasphemous, or we should grow too fond of it.’”

When Inez first beheld Dr. Vincent Philoghast, she noted his resemblance to Boris Karloff’s Dr. Janos Rukh in The Invisible Ray: the burning eyes, the dark mustache, the wild hair surmounting his head like a toupee of steel wool—in short, a man obsessed, the sort of scientist who would travel to Africa in search of a preternaturally therapeutic element, innocent of the possibility that exposure to Radium X might turn him into a death-dealing fiend. Dr. Philoghast, however, did not speak with a Karloffian lisp. Instead his voice exuded Zuccovian suavity, which had a calming effect on his apprehensive patient.

“Sandor has already informed you why the procedure is so effective,” said Philoghast to Inez.

She lay prone on an operating table beneath a brilliant constellation of surgical lamps. “My tumor is a creature unto itself,” she replied, heaving a sigh.

“A creature, yes, and in many ways a pathetic creature, afflicted with aneuploidy—duplicate chromosomes, missing chromosomes, fractured gene strings—and yet obviously heartier than the millions of extinct cells whose nuclei were similarly damaged throughout your forty years on Earth.”

“Sandor told me the parasite will exert some sort of postoperative authority over me.”

“In negotiating with these beasts, I need every possible bargaining chip,” Philoghast explained. “I’m a great partisan of your pen, Inez. The Beauty of the Morbid is a masterpiece. Lie still.”

The trip to the clinic had been facilitated by a taciturn Korean driver and supervised by a smiling Afghan who, after introducing himself as Ahmed, placed a bandana over Inez’s eyes. After twenty minutes of traveling blind, she gave up trying to picture the route in her head. There was no possibility of retracing the path from Flatbush Avenue to the place of her presumed salvation. In time Ahmed pressed a lozenge into her palm, insisting that she swallow it as “a necessary relaxant prior to the procedure.” The pill put her to sleep. When at last she awoke, bandana gone, street clothes replaced by a green paper smock, she found herself in Philoghast’s surgical theater, a distressing installation having less in common with the average such facility than with the locker room adjacent to her high school swimming pool: the walls were covered with shiny white porcelain tiles—a chess board, she mused, though for people who preferred playing without rules.

“Chaos,” she muttered, “the favorite game of tumors.”

“Chaos, Inez?” said Philoghast in a mildly chiding tone. “True, I would never call cancer a rational phenomenon, and yet according to my theory all neoplasms result from lucid Darwinian mechanisms. While the vast majority of aneuploid chromosomes perish, structurally unable to replicate themselves, a select few manage to become full-blown independent animals. Your neoplasm has achieved a level of stability whereby its cells will keep dividing indefinitely. My goal is not to halt that process, an impossible task, but to arrange for it to continue outside your skull.”

Outside her skull: an infinitely congenial notion on which Philoghast seemed about to elaborate—but then four surgical assistants in face masks and white scrub suits entered, claiming his attention. Before Inez knew it, one team member had activated an electric razor and begun shaving her scalp. Another aide strapped a metal cone over her nose, its hollow filled with a wad of gauze. Someone unstoppered a bottle of ether, releasing cold, barbed, puissant fumes throughout the theater.

“Ether?” Inez muttered. “Isn’t that rather primitive?”

“You’re here for the cure, not the amenities,” said the man who’d appropriated her hair.

“Are you frightened?” asked Philoghast.

“Terrified.”

“An honest answer. I appreciate that. Close your eyes, Inez. Concentrate on the future. You’re going to write a magnificent novel.”

“Good afternoon, Professor Montaugh,” said a husky female voice. “I’m the sleep doctor. Please start counting. One, two, three . . .”

“One . . . two . . . three . . .”

As the ether permeated the gauze, drop by drop, stars shone throughout the theater.

“Four . . . five . . . six . . . a thousand white tiles, so easy to scrub clean of blood.”

“Keep counting, Professor.”

An infinitude of crystalline specks.

“Seven . . . eight . . . nine . . .”

Billions of suns, filling the room, evocative of the cosmic vistas Karloff beheld through his telescope during the first reel of . . .

 

*

 

Although Inez had assumed that Dr. Philoghast’s clinic occupied an urban locale, she awoke in a curiously rustic setting, sprawled across an army cot, her cranium cradled by a pillow covered in ticking. Log walls, thatched roof, wooden floor: this space was no more a recovery room than her apartment was a monastery. Groping toward her shaved scalp, she spider-walked her fingers across the exposed skin—evidently Philoghast had decided she’d heal more quickly without a bandage—and gently probed the ring of stitches: she was wearing a yarmulke of flesh, covering the bony hatch through which her tumor had presumably fled. For a full minute she savored the pain in her skull, which was almost certainly not the cruel pressure of glioblastoma multiforme but merely a congenial postoperative throb.

Oddly, there were no nurses in attendance, and so she resolved to evaluate Philoghast’s intervention on her own. Cautiously she swung her legs over the side of the cot. Gingerly she stood erect. She took a step, a second step, a third. Sucking in a deep breath, she marched across the cottage. No dizziness. Not a twinge of disequilibrium. She was poise personified, an ambulatory poem. Clearing her throat, she sang the first stanza of “Here Comes the Sun,” then danced with herself, twirling about the room in joyful circles, heedless of the green paper smock, as enraptured as Natasha Rostov waltzing with Prince Andrei.

A vigorous breeze wafted through the open window, cooling her bald head. Glancing toward the far corner, she noticed a pleated skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and various undergarments folded neatly across the back of a cane chair. A pair of leather boots rested beneath the seat. She lost no time shedding the smock, that hideous uniform of the unwell, and arraying herself as a citizen of health’s holy empire.

At last two medical professionals, or so she surmised, entered the cottage, a chubby man in black-rimmed emo glasses, and a saucer-eyed, thirty-something woman reminiscent of Frances Drake playing Dr. Rukh’s love-starved wife in The Invisible Ray. Both wore woolen watch caps and printed sweatshirts: the man had attended City College, the woman had visited the Esalen Institute—odd attire for nurses, but nothing about Philoghast’s enterprise could be called orthodox.

“I’m cured!” Inez cried.

“Of course you’re cured, Professor Montaugh—that’s why you’re here.” Shrugging off his canvas knapsack, the male visitor ran a splayed hand across his abdomen. “That’s why we’re all here. In my case, bladder cancer. Philoghast removed my tumor in toto.”

“Breast cancer,” said the woman, touching herself as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. “I’m your next-door neighbor: Meredith Frye, Fordham mathematics instructor, cottage eight.”

The man said, “And I’m Meredith’s next-door neighbor: Barry Curtis, computer geek, cottage seven.”

Inez shook her visitors’ hands, feeling in both cases a pang of humiliation. The hair loss was necessary, and yet just then her baldness seemed but one degree removed from stark nakedness. She wished someone had thought to include a wig in her ensemble.

“We’re a small community at present,” said Meredith. “Including you, we number only seven—seven lucky beneficiaries of aneuploid theory.”

Barry said, “There are still five vacant cottages, so obviously Philoghast intends to keep on curing people.” Realizing that his spectacles had taken a toboggan ride down his nose, he extended his index finger and pressed the frames back into place. “Hey, Professor Montaugh, I’ll bet you’re hungry, am I right?”

“Famished. Please call me Inez.”

“Every Friday, a crate of food glides down from the sky on a parachute.” Barry reached into the knapsack, drawing forth a plastic-wrapped block of muenster cheese, a can of mixed nuts with a pull-top lid, and a bottle of Glacéau Smartwater. “Atoll K is no paradise, but we’ve found it doesn’t pay to complain.”

“Atoll K?”

“From the available climatic and geological evidence, our best guess is that we’re somewhere in Long Island Sound,” said Meredith. “It’s hard to tell, because the fog bank never lifts.”

“Of course, this place isn’t really an atoll,” said Barry. “Coral reefs rarely grow above—how’s this for a laugh?—the Tropic of Cancer. Apparently it’s just a name Philoghast likes. Atoll K. Rather musical, wouldn’t you say?”

“I must have been unconscious a long time,” Inez mused, opening the can of nuts.

“About two days,” said Meredith. “The nurses kept replenishing your ether cone. It’s all part of the procedure.”

Inez spent the next five minutes consuming the feast her fellow survivors had brought her. “So when do I get to go home?” she asked, taking a swig of Smartwater.

“That’s the thing, Inez,” said Barry. “You won’t be going home. None of us are going home.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Once your sister was told of the arrangement, she agreed to propagate the necessary cover story,” said Meredith. “To put it bluntly: yesterday Inez Montaugh committed suicide. Better that fate, she reasoned, than ceding her intellect to glioblastoma, bit by bit by bit.”

“You mean—everyone thinks I’m dead?” croaked Inez, dumbfounded.

“Everyone except Philoghast, his team, and your sister—and none of them will breathe a word,” said Barry.

“This is appalling.”

“More appalling than death?” asked Meredith.

“I’m supposed to be writing a novel.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to write it in your head,” said Barry.

“Sandor was allowed to go home,” Inez protested. “He has an apartment with a herpetorium.”

“As Philoghast’s first great success, Sandor enjoys many privileges,” Meredith explained. “The rest of us are castaways. Whether you accept the situation or not, you are now and forever bound to these shores, performing such duties as our overlords require.”

“Overlords? You mean Philoghast and his team?”

“Come with us, Inez,” said Barry. “It’s time you met your tumor—or, in the parlance of Atoll K, your squid.”

 

*

 

A highly regarded Partisan Review essay by Inez, “The Aesthetic Reversal of Estrangement,” found her arguing that the malaise of modernity traced largely to “the displacement of genuine rotation by mere escape.” Many and various were the modes of flight—vodka, video games, sedatives, barbiturates, sex, Hollywood movies, Jesus, the Internet—available to the average consumer, a category in which she felt obliged to include herself, each such egress promising deliverance from everydayness and alienation but in fact providing only a gaudier sort of despair. No longer could Huck and Jim climb aboard their raft and drift into a timeless, stateless, mythic zone. No longer might Prince Andrei lie wounded in the dressing station at Borodino and know himself for the first time. Call me Ishmael, but when next the Pequod sails, I’ll be staying behind, sitting in the television lounge of the Spouter Inn, watching the NBA playoffs.

When Inez stepped out of the rational domain of her cottage and entered the zone called Atoll K, she wondered if her newly healed brain, in processing so radical a rotation, might sicken once again. Though surrounded by soaring levees of fog, the island offered an unobstructed view of the heavens, the midday sun burning savagely in a cobalt sky. Barry and Meredith guided her across a tract of brown grass and down to the beach. Seagulls wheeled above the surf, filling the air with ornery squawks. The incoming tide exploded against ragged gunmetal rocks. Clinging to a series of long, fat jetties, the seven tumors varied considerably in magnitude, the largest boasting the proportions of a Quonset hut—presumably it was the first to scuttle free of its host—the smallest equivalent in size to a kayak. Eyeless, lipless, sheathed in pulp, the malignancies all exhibited the same morbid complexion, the gray-green of dead Mitteleuropan flesh. There was no question why the human inhabitants of Atoll K called these creatures squids, for each displayed a wriggling array of long, tapering, serpentine arms extending from the primary body mass. Beyond these spectacular tentacles, Inez noted countless anomalous protuberances: nodes, knobs, lumps, teats, studs, stalks. She did not doubt that the smallest squid was her own glioblastoma multiforme, for its acerbic thoughts now flowed into the brain it had once called home.

Labor diligently, Inez Montaugh, do my bidding, and you will find your banishment bearable.

“Dr. Philoghast said nothing about banishment,” ran Inez’s silent reply.

Nor did he speak of Atoll K, where you and your fellow castaways will spend your lives toiling on our behalf.

“What cause do you have to abuse us?”

Tumors don’t traffic in reasons. We exist to rule over you, just as you exist to serve us.

Defiantly Inez informed her squid, “That remains to be seen.”

Inevitably she recalled the last movie she’d discussed in “Fuck Me Again, Dr. Frankenstein.” In its own tawdry way, Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters was an iteration of the Frankenstein motif, only in this case the “mad doctor” was whatever coterie of scientists had poisoned the monsters’ Pacific island habitat with radioactive fallout. It now occurred to Inez that the film boasted an allegorical dimension. Corman’s ludicrous mutants were not so much atomic as carcinomatoid, for the disease took its name from the Latin word for crab, cancer—to an ancient Greek, karkínos—in acknowledgment of a malignant tumor’s tendency to spread outward like the multiple legs of a crustacean.

When Inez told Barry and Meredith that her squid had engaged her in psychic conversation, neither survivor seemed surprised.

“No doubt it tried to intimidate you,” said Barry.

“It told me we’ll be spending our lives toiling on behalf of itself and its brethren,” said Inez.

“Slaves of tofu,” said Meredith in a corroborating tone. “In fact, you’re about to see a demonstration.”

As if on cue, the rest of Atoll K’s human population came marching across the beach, pushing a hay wagon jammed with a half-dozen 55-gallon drums. Parking the vehicle on the largest jetty, the four exiles unloaded the drums and pried off the lids. One by one the prisoners upended the unwieldy receptacles, setting free a white, homogeneous, curdish substance, so that before long a vast mound of pale nourishment rose from the slick wet rocks like a hill constructed by ants the size of Corman’s crabs.

Now the feasting began, the seven tumors wriggling toward the mound and seizing great lumps of tofu with their tentacles. At first Inez wondered how the neoplasms would ingest their meals, for they appeared to have no mouths, but it soon developed that something like the opposite was the case. Under the influence of hunger, these creatures became nothing but mouths—rows and rows of alimentary orifices: maws, jaws, muzzles, beaks, food vacuoles. For the next twenty minutes the tumors gorged themselves, filling the air with a cacophony of gurgles and belches. Occasionally one of the larger neoplasms would produce a gaseous emission, accompanied by a deep tympanic vibration.

“What happens if they aren’t fed promptly?” Inez asked Barry.

“You can guess the answer,” he replied. “The squids turn violent. Those tentacles can be cruel.”

“I see.”

“Look on the bright side, Inez. You’re a survivor. Your tumor was ablated. You’ve got thirty or forty years ahead of you.”

 

*

 

Like many people who live inside their heads, Inez Montaugh was essentially a shy person, and she took no pleasure in the prospect of meeting the exiles who’d delivered tofu to the squids. Along with Barry and Meredith, however, these four citizens of Atoll K proved the saving grace of her imprisonment. Arnold Garber the Random House fiction editor, Patricia Klein the Columbia comparative literature professor, Tobias Sleight the Village Voice art critic, and Rachel Ginsburg the SoHo fashion designer were excellent conversationalists, prepared to discourse on those topics Inez particularly favored, from epistemology to gender politics, eighteenth-century novels to post-impressionism.

For all this, she soon came to regard Atoll K as indubitably the worst place on Earth. The principal source of her misery was the local tofu industry. Throughout the first two months of her incarceration, Inez passed many hours in the soybean fields, plucking pods from the stumpy plants, and many more hours in the sprawling open-air pavilion, extracting the seeds and turning them into milk—a tedious method that entailed soaking, grinding, boiling, and straining the harvest. When sufficient fluid was in hand, Inez and her colleagues would pour it into cauldrons filled with calcium sulfite. The mixture quickly solidified, whereupon the workers upended the cauldrons, spilling the coagulated contents onto picnic tables. With the help of canoe paddles, everyone then sculpted the curds into the sort of low-grade tofu that tumors found delectable.

At no point in the process were the prisoners exempt from the prying perceptions and remorseless appendages of their overlords. Within the first month of Inez’s incarceration, all seven squids reached maturity, each growing as large as the Goodyear blimp, and with their gargantuan proportions came a corresponding increase in viciousness. Even the shortest hiatus in tofu production, whether real or imagined, was met with the sting of a tentacle. Barely an hour went by in which a worker was not flogged for presumably shirking his duties. One particularly malicious neoplasm, Arnold Garber’s pancreatic tumor, whipped its former host so fiercely that the poor man had to spend three days recovering from his lacerations in the community’s makeshift infirmary.

“I’m missing the larger picture here,” said Inez to Barry. “What’s Philoghast’s game?”

“I wish I knew,” said Barry. “Perhaps it’s a sociological experiment.”

“The frontiers of knowledge,” muttered Inez. “Dr. Rukh, come back, all is forgiven.”

“More like the frontiers of sadism,” said Patricia Klein.

“Our imprisonment seems utterly without purpose,” noted Tobias Sleight. “I’m happy to be my tumor’s keeper—but must I also be its minion?”

“Perhaps there’s a hidden harmony on Atoll K, but we’re too self-involved to notice it,” said Rachel Ginsburg.

“ ‘To hope till hope from its own wreck creates the thing it contemplates,’ ” said Inez.

“What?’ said Rachel.

“Shelley.”

Beyond the promiscuous application of its tentacles, Inez’s glioblastoma found other ways to make her life awful. For some reason, the neoplasm had developed a penchant for seafood, and so it required her to get up before dawn each morning, launch a fishing dory, and trawl the waters off the western shore for cod. It was all unspeakably Hemingwayesque, The Middle-Aged Woman and the Sea. On the average day she caught nothing, and her unforgiving squid flogged her accordingly.

Boat, oars, open water: under other circumstances, those three facts would have prompted Inez to entertain fantasies of escape. Invariably she was deterred by what befell Tobias Sleight, who one drizzly November day boarded a smack and rowed into the fog bank when he should have been checking his overlord’s lobster pots. Instantly the tumor gave chase, straightaway snagging the fugitive. Tobias ended up bound to a rock like Prometheus, held fast by a tentacle, a posture the malignancy required him to maintain for two days. Only through sheer luck and a hearty constitution did the young man elude death from thirst and exposure.

Before the year was out, two more tumors came to live on the island, an ovarian neoplasm and another glioblastoma, followed shortly thereafter by the corresponding cancer survivors. The newcomers, former NYU students from wealthy families, moved into adjacent cottages. In her precancerous life, Justine Norton had studied anthropology. Before going under Philoghast’s knife, George Traymore had imagined becoming a lawyer.

Although they both worked assiduously in the soybean fields and the processing pavilion, Justine and George were inevitably assaulted by their squids. When Inez saw these two thrashed and blameless young people lying on their cots in the infirmary, moaning and bleeding, something snapped within her. From that moment onward, she knew herself to be at war with the overlords of Atoll K. Somehow, some way, come hell, high water, or an alliance of the two, she would engineer the extinction of these fiends without faces.

 

*

 

Not until the following spring did a promising epiphany bloom in Inez’s imagination. She was laboring in the soybean fields, sowing seeds with an eye to an abundant autumn harvest, occasionally thinking about Attack of the Crab Monsters, when suddenly her ruminations bore fruit.

Among the most impressive traits of the giant mutant crabs was their ability to draw intellectual nourishment from those they devoured. In consuming a human brain, a Corman crustacean acquired the person’s minden passant, so that in time the monster’s nervous system became the locus of a psychic community. Inez now speculated that, just as the movie’s voracious beasts were keen to incorporate their victims’ neuronal matter, so might the Atoll K squids be enticed into absorbing somatic substances from their former hosts. Unlike the benevolently expanded consciousness of a mutant crab, however, the side effects of such assimilation would be biologically disruptive—so disruptive, in fact, as to seal the tumor’s doom.

“To put it crudely,” she told Barry, Meredith, and Arnold later than night, speaking in a low whisper as the three huddled conspiratorially in her cottage, “we must give ourselves to our neoplasms, mind and body and soul—but mostly body. Their DNA is pledged to a deviant evolution, with karyotypes as twisted as Dr. Caligari’s cane. Our cells, by contrast, are paragons of order and balance—and therefore intrinsically hostile to aneuploid nuclei.”

“By that reasoning, Inez, the tofu should be making the squids sick, but instead they’re thriving on the stuff,” Arnold protested.

“Unlike the soybeans, each of us is the natural chromosomal enemy of his tumor. We threaten to bring symmetry to creatures that thrive on cellular incoherence.”

“In other words, I could try giving my breast tumor a bad case of myself,” said Meredith.

“Exactly.”

The computer geek said, “And I could arrange for my bladder tumor to develop a cancer called Barry Curtis.”

“The males among us will have no trouble making the necessary infusions,” said Inez. “When it comes to the women, each attack must be keyed to the proper time of month.”

Ten nights later, Inez’s menstrual cycle having peaked, she stood naked before her glioblastoma, its protoplasm shimmering in the light of a gibbous moon.

“Even a god must assuage its libido.”

My what?

“Call your sexual appetites what you will—they cannot be denied.”

What exactly are you proposing?

“You are a creature of many nodes and innumerable extrusions. Some of them are surely erogenous.”

Perhaps.

“Be honest.”

I said, “Perhaps.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

All right. True enough. Some of my nodes are erogenous.

“Allow me to fulfill your deepest desires.”

The glioblastoma forthwith waved one of its stalks, a fluted protrusion no larger than a carrot.

S’il vous plaît.

Inez pressed her bare flesh against the tumor’s gelatinous membrane and, using its spines and crevices as rungs, climbed toward the ardent stalk. The journey had nothing to recommend it. The creature stank of rotting seaweed, decaying fish, and rampant carcinoma. At last she reached her destination. Having ascended the squid without mishap, she hummed a hymn of triumph, then spread-eagled herself across the neoplasm’s central hump. Inevitably she thought of Ahab preparing to thrust a lance into his bête blanche—from hell’s heart I stab at thee, and all that.

“I shall fuck you till you become delirious with delight,” said Inez, impaling herself. “I shall fuck you till hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”

You have my permission.

“Now and forever, your gratification is my gladness.”

Ahhhh . . .

 

*

 

Upon hearing that Inez had mounted and seduced her squid, the other prisoners resolved to enact their own such assignations. Throughout the month of June, Atoll K became the scene of an epic and unprecedented orgy. Owing to the universal workings of a ubiquitous Eros, each tumor received from its former host prolific doses of humanigens. It occurred to Inez that menstrual blood and seminal fluid had probably not been put to such a purpose before, but that was no reason to doubt the efficacy of her scheme.

Day and night, through sun and rain, the couplings continued. The tumors took palpable satisfaction in the new ethos of Atoll K, even to the point of declining to punish perceived sloth in the soybean fields and alleged inefficiency in the processing pavilion. By kissing their squids, or so it seemed, the prisoners had given karkínos a new understanding of itself, awakening the better angels of its nature. For the moment, at least, concupiscence had domesticated the crab monsters.

Predictably, the truce did not endure. By the summer solstice, the tumors had become tyrants again. Whips were applied, rations withheld, water supplies appropriated.

“Let us have no illusions,” Inez told her fellow citizens. “Whether we slake their lust or not, they remain the gods of Atoll K, and we the mere mortals.”

“A pox upon them all,” said Meredith.

“Amen,” said Barry.

 

*

 

Amen. So be it. And so it was. On the first day of September, having been repeatedly suffused with intelligible cells, Inez’s glioblastoma fell ill. Seventy-two hours later, the wretched thing died. Suspecting foul play, its fellow squids vowed vengeance, but these threats came to nothing, for by now all the other tumors were sick, too weak to lift a tentacle. By the end of the month, each malignancy had devolved into a putrescence suggestive of the title character’s fate in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

The cancer survivors lost no time drawing up their plans for escape. They agreed to construct a raft from the wooden food crates, using four of the 55-gallon drums as pontoons, mobility to be supplied by human muscles working tofu paddles. If Atoll K was indeed in Long Island Sound, then by following a steady northern course, using sun, moon, and stars as navigation instruments, they were certain to hit southern Connecticut within a day.

An excellent plan, Inez thought, foolproof in fact, and yet it bore only bitter fruit. Wrapped in eternal murk, the raft remained waterborne for a week, two weeks—a whole month—without making landfall. In time the weather turned as deadly as a crab monster, contriving a chronic hurricane that one by one took hold of the Atoll K refugees and dragged them into the turbulent bay. When at last the storm abated and the raft ran aground on a shrouded shore, Inez was the only passenger still on board.

 

*

 

Salt-stained, sun-blistered, she staggered across the white sands that hemmed the fogbound coast. She reached a hedge of kelp marking the tide line, and there she collapsed, weary and dehydrated. For several minutes she lay prone on the beach, gasping and grieving, and then, as inevitably as if inhaling Philoghast’s ether, she descended into sleep.

Awakening, Inez found herself attended by a dozen muzzy figures bearing Smartwater and mozzarella sticks. She drank eagerly, feasted greedily. In a matter of minutes her mind cleared, and she surveyed her benefactors.

“Welcome to Atoll X,” said the man who’d pressed the water bottle to her lips.

Carpe diem,” said the woman who’d fed her cheese.

Briefly Inez imagined that she’d died and gone to heaven, though the afterlife hypothesis had never seemed credible to her. The twelve members of the rescue party all wore white, hooded robes, the sort of attire an angel might favor, though she saw neither wings nor halos. If not of seraphic descent, she reasoned, then perhaps these people constituted a religious order—for they specifically evoked the gentle and ascetic Essenes, proprietors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as depicted in various TV miniseries about the formative years of Christianity.

“When I left Atoll K, there were nine of us,” said Inez. “All the others died.”

“How sad,” said the water man.

“ ‘And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,’ ” the cheese woman quoted.

Bizarre and surprising as her life on Atoll K had been, none of those experiences had prepared her for what occurred next. A majestic female inhabitant of Atoll X approached, threw back her hood, and allowed the setting sun to cast her handsome features in bronze. The two sisters embraced for a protracted interval, their kisses moistened by tears of joy.

“Atoll X,” said Inez, pulling away. “I don’t understand,” she added, but in fact she did. “Let me guess. We’re talking about the second half of the equation.”

“The second half, exactly,” said Alexis. “For weeks on end, months on end, the fact of your cure made me ecstatic. But then one day those sentiments turned against me. My beloved sister’s brain tumor was gone, but her vulnerability remained—and so did mine. I don’t remember coming to this island, but here I am.”

The water man said, “Unless one can shake off that awful sense of impending oblivion . . .”

The cheese woman said, “Unless one can find refuge in some illusion or other . . .”

“Then sooner or later one ends up on Atoll X,” said the water man.

“Even illusions are less effective than commonly supposed,” Alexis noted. “Simone de Beauvoir said it well. Immortality is no consolation for death.”

“Then I belong here,” said Inez. “I never shook it off. I knew I was cured of cancer, but not of the other thing. Briefly I confused the two, but—”

“We all confuse the two,” said the water woman.

“Otherwise we would go mad,” said the cheese man.

“There must be a lot of you,” Inez said.

“We’ve never counted,” said Alexis. “Eventually, I suspect, Philoghast himself will come to live among us.”

Inez asked, “Room for me, too?”

“Of course, sweetie. You’ll receive your robe tomorrow.”

Alexis clasped Inez’s hand and guided her along the tide line. The trek took the sisters past numerous creatures, all oblivious to their tragic transience: a colony of barnacles clinging to a rock, a starfish recently cast into a tide pool, a maundering snail, a soaring heron, an iridescent dragonfly. Even the sun, Inez had read, would one day die.

Exploiting her distracted state, a seagull swooped down, opened its beak, and snatched the remaining mozzarella stick from Inez. Both sisters laughed hysterically, and they continued laughing long after the incident had ceased to be amusing. When Alexis reported that such exuberance was common on Atoll X—though not so common as rage—Inez took comfort in the news, though she could not decide why. Instead of further pondering the problem, she fixed on the thieving gull, imagining what it might be like to have wings, but then the bird vanished, a creature without consolation and needing none, reveling in its brittle freedom, savoring the unmerited morsel, swallowed by the mist.

 

“Thanatos Beach” copyright © 2011 by James Morrow

Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar

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6 comments
Dr. Thanatos
1. Dr. Thanatos
Speaking as a cancer survivor, I found this a most interesting read. I would refer those interested to another short story from long ago called Carcinoma Angels.

Besides, how could I turn down reading something with this title?
Janis Ian
4. janisian
Thanks for that, Chris - haven't read it in decades, no idea where my hard copy is. Great that you provided the link.
Janis
Dr. Thanatos
7. Ryan Hodge
@TorChris: Does Norman Spinrad know that "Carcinoma Angels" is free to read there? I'm thinking maybe not.
Alyx Dellamonica
8. AMDellamonica
Oh my! Nothing like a little tentacle porn for a Friday afternoon. What a thoroughly weird, completely terrific story.
Chris Lough
9. TorChris
@7. On deeper inspection of that site, we'd have to agree. Thanks for the heads up, Ryan.

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