The Man Who Became Poems by Edward O’Dwyer, Short Story Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
It was time to get up. The noise the alarm clock was making said so. Like he did every other morning, the man reached out to quench the commotion it was making, but this time nothing happened. The clock carried on with its wailing. It got more and more insistent. I will not be ignored, the clock seemed to be screaming at the man.
The man opened up his drowsy eyes fully to scrutinise his hand. He realised the problem straight away. It wasn’t a hand at all anymore. Nor was his arm was not an arm anymore. The whole limb of his left arm had changed into a poem while he was sleeping.
He looked at the poem. The man stretched it out in front of him. It was a poem he’d never heard of, he was sure, but then he didn’t know very many poems.
He finally silenced the alarm with his right hand and proceeded into the kitchen, from where he could hear bacon sizzling and smell a fresh pot of coffee brewing. His wife was there, a spatula in her hand, her arms and legs bare. None of her limbs had become poems.
“I thought I’d make you a nice breakfast,” the man’s wife announced. “You know, since your arm has turned into a poem, I figured a nice breakfast might help to cheer you up.”
The man thanked her with a kiss and sat at the table. It surely wouldn’t return his limb to him but he was nonetheless hungry and due soon at work.
When he got to work the man was conscious of his colleagues giving him funny looks. They were trying their utmost not to gawk but the constant quick glances down at the poem were every bit as bad, if not worse.
“I sure hope you don’t think you’ll be getting any special treatment now that one of your arms has turned into a poem,” his boss roared across the room, and then he slammed shut the door of his office.
A week went by and the man had begun to adjust successfully to his new anatomical circumstances. He’d read the poem as well. He was confident it might even be a wonderful piece of literature, although he wouldn’t claim to know a great deal about such things. He just knew that he thought the words very beautiful, their music, their arrangement.
The man got out of bed precisely a week later and collapsed onto the floor in a heavy heap. For some reason he hadn’t managed to support himself. He yelped loudly with the pain. He looked down to identify what the problem was. It was very clear so it didn’t take more than a second. His right leg wasn’t a leg anymore. It had become another poem.
His wife came into the room to help him up. She had with her an old crutch she’d retrieved out of storage.
“What the hell is going on?” the man asked her.
“You’re limbs are turning into poems,” his wife explained, as sympathetically as she possibly could. What else could she say in such a moment, other than the blatantly obvious?
Some more weeks went by, and each Monday morning another part of the man’s body was transformed into a poem. One of his ears turned into a haiku. Where his penis used to be, there was only an elegy.
“It’s probably only a matter of time before there’s nothing left of me but a bunch of poems,” the man said to his wife. She held him, drying her eyes intermittently with a tissue so that the ink of the poems wouldn’t run or smudge. They were all wonderful poems, after all. She didn’t want to ruin them. An English literature professor from a prestigious university had returned very high praise when the man had emailed her a photograph of the poem which had replaced his right leg.
The man decided his next move must be to get the insurance company on the phone. He needed to know that his wife would be taken care of. Though their kids were grown up, it was still crucial that she have enough to live well. He should have called them up a long time ago, he knew, before he’d even started turning into poems.
“I am very sorry, sir, but we cannot insure you,” the agent told him. “Our company policy is very clear on this. We cannot provide insurance to persons whose body parts are turning into poems. This is all in black and white in our terms and conditions, which you can read on our website. It’s just too much of a risk, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”
“I see your point,” the man sighed, shaking his head in disappointment. “Well, thank you for your time.” He hung up the phone and focused the last of his energy on fighting back the tears on the brink of breaking out.
There wasn’t a lot else he could do, he realised. He’d just have to face the facts and reassess his options.
He made an appearance to be interviewed on national television, meaning to make a go at telling the world of his affliction. He felt it his duty at this point to just raise awareness. The studio audience cheered raucously when he was brought out, when the pages of his body were laid across a desk set up on the stage.
The man’s condition was suddenly all that people could talk about. Billions of people across the world were discussing the poems that had replaced so much of his anatomy, sharing their thoughts about his predicament over social media.
There was great demand, and so he went on another popular show, this time of international renown, and recited what used to be his left arm. He recited it beautifully. Uncountable numbers from around the globe tuned in as he did.
Then, one Monday morning, the man’s face became a sonnet, and it was over. He had stopped breathing. You can’t breathe anymore, not when your face has become a sonnet. It’s as simple as that. The man was pronounced dead.
His wife had known all along that it was coming but it hadn’t made it any easier. She wasn’t ready at all. When all that was left of her husband was his face, even then she wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Nonetheless, he was completely gone. In their bed on that Monday morning was just a collection of poems, admittedly the most beautiful poems she’d ever read.
Publishers started calling her up to pay their condolences soon after the funeral. They had plans to print a collection, to sell it, to translate it into all the major languages of the world. Her husband would become the most successful poetry collection of all time, they said. She would become an exceedingly wealthy woman, they said.
“I have no desire to be wealthy,” the woman told each and every one of the publishers. “I just want my husband back, and publishing his body of work will never bring him back to me, no matter how many copies you sell.”
Instead, she learned all the poems off by heart, and then set fire to them, and then she scattered the ashes in the place they had first declared their love to one another. The wind took the ashes. She took the words.
She recites the poems to herself at night in the bed they shared for so many years. In the dark the words, like an incantation, bring him back to her. The words, as she speaks them, assemble at his side of the bed. From there, next to where she lays, she hears the soft coo of his breath rising and falling, rising and falling.