Click. Catherine stands pale and emaciated, her chest pressed flat against the X-ray machine. Her condition has worsened over the last few weeks. The doctor has advised she visit a hospital in Paris for a scan of her lungs. Stone-faced, she braces herself as though expecting a blow.
The radiologist calls her into his office later to confront her with the spectacle of her own insides. “The good news is, it’s not galloping,” he says.
He slides the X-rays one by one against a luminous screen. She regards the images, this glimpse of the invisible, with an eerie calm. There is her body exposed in all its materiality. Revealed is a secret scaffold of white bones. Blackness fills the vacuum between the ribs, except for these transparent sacs that look like jellyfish, and which she guesses are her heart and lungs. She’s disturbed, though, by the dark, vacant spaces that seem devoid of any soul.
“As you can see, however, the tuberculosis has taken a slow hold.”
The doctor points out the white swirls that cloud her lungs. Numbed, she hardly manages to take in anything he says. Horror mixes uneasily with an impression of magic at what she sees. A chill runs through her, making her shiver.
Moving closer to inspect, she cannot resist touching the X-rays on the screen. What fascinates and shocks her most, though, are not the white shadows on her lungs. Seeing her own slow dissolution frozen in an image is too disembodied a notion really to spook her. No, what strikes her most keenly is the appearance of her left hand, which has also crept into one of the exposures. She places her hand tentatively against its skinless image, finger to sinister finger. And around the thin third digit she registers her wedding ring floating in tender negative—like a halo around the white bone.
The ring hovers, ghostly. It is as if she has penetrated layers of mystery suddenly to discover a truth. But if this is a revelation, then it is without grace. There is no accompanying lift of the spirit, no attendant radiance or bliss. Quite the opposite, she feels tugged down. She becomes conscious of her own mortality as never before. And it fills her with dread.
She tries to think of God inhabiting the calcium of those bones. But the two things—the X-ray in front of her and the existence of God above—seem at this moment wholly incompatible. Instead of God, all that comes into her head is a huge nothing, an appalling sense of cancellation, a final blank that wants to swallow her up.
She has always clung to the belief that there is something out there—something powerful and stubbornly opaque, yet something splendid and ultimately good. It is a crumb to hold on to, a comfort, a reassurance, like the small studded crucifix that hangs around her neck. Until now it has given her hope that the sorry forlorn deplorable business of this life is not all there is. But what, after all, if it is? Thinking about this frightens her. The prospect of oblivion she finds horrific. She feels again the weight of her gold ring like a zero into which everything is pulled.
Even though Igor accompanies her, she has never felt so alone.
“Thank you,” he says, shaking hands with the radiologist.
Fine, she thinks, he doesn’t want to panic her, but must he thank the man quite so heartily? He has just been informed that his wife has consumption. Doesn’t he realize that she has just received her death warrant? Doesn’t he grasp that she might die? Her own handshake, when she offers it, is more grudging, guarded.
Afterward Igor says all the right things, and reassures her in appropriate ways, but as with the X-ray there seems to her to be something missing. She finds it hard to say what it is: a deeper sense of conviction behind the words, perhaps, or a greater sense of consolation in his tone. All she knows is, there’s a gap, a barrier between them, some kind of wall. Maybe, she considers, it’s that he is alive and well and that she is sick. Can it be that simple?
Next morning she wakes up, terrified and sweating, with a feeling of depletion, of lives sloughed off. Turning to see the empty pillow beside her, she experiences a vivid sense of diminishment.
Igor is already at work downstairs, hammering away at the piano. She hears, too, the voices of her children rise from a remote corner of the house. And, leaking also into her consciousness like a detectable stain, she hears distinctly the voice of Coco. She is singing to them.