And what, Ananda, is contemplation of foulness? Herein, Ananda, a monk contemplates this body upwards from the soles of the feet, downwards from the top of the hair, enclosed in skin, as being full of many impurities. In this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, intestinal tract, stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucous, synovium (oil lubricating the joints), and urine. Thus he dwells contemplating foulness in this body. This, Ananda, is called contemplation of foulness.
— from Pirit Potha ("The Book of Protection"), a Pali Buddhist text
Disgust at what things are made of: liquid, dust, bones, filth. . . . Turn the body inside out, and see what kind of thing it is, and when it has grown old, what kind of thing it becomes, and when it is diseased. . . . Stop letting yourself be distracted. That is not allowed. Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries. . . . The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag. Look at it clearly. If you can.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Am now acutely ill with intestinal trouble following grippe. No strength—constant pain. Bloated with gas and have to sit and sleep constantly in chair with pillows. Doctor is going to call in a stomach specialist Tuesday. So I fear I shan’t be able to do much for a long time to come.
— H.P. Lovecraft, from a letter dated fifteen days before his death
As a foulness shall ye know Them.
— The Necronomicon
At first I thought it was just a perverse reaction to several decades’ worth of bombardment by conflicting pronouncements from the medical establishment about what constitutes a “healthy lifestyle.” That was my working hypothesis, held with tongue firmly in cheek, when my editor at the Terence Sun-Gazette assigned me to cover the grassroots phenomenon known as the Sick and Saved movement. The movement had garnered an insane amount of publicity in recent months because of its shocking—some would say appalling—claim. Its members worshiped sickness and disease. The media had dubbed them the “Sick Seekers” and given them enough coverage to lead some commentators to call them the story of the century. The Sick Seekers came from all walks of life and boasted all manner of physical and mental disorders, and their defining characteristic was that they viewed any kind of sickness as evidence of a special spiritual grace. At least, this was the best guess the commentators could come up with, since the Sick Seekers were notoriously close-mouthed to outsiders about the particulars of their beliefs and practices.
The only thing anybody knew for certain about them was that they prominently refused all medical treatments. This of course threw the official government bodies charged with safeguarding the public health into a collective panic. In the United States, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, and National Institutes of Mental Health all wrung their hands with great public display. “What if people start actively trying to become sick?” they asked with clockwork regularity on all of the nightly news programs. Obviously, the media themselves thought this was happening already, hence their popularization of the term “Sick Seekers.”
The insurance and pharmaceutical industries were none too happy about the situation, either. The pharmaceutical companies in particular were scrambling for a solution, since their business was dealt a near death blow by the sheer numbers of the new movement, which was composed largely of elderly people who would otherwise have been their biggest customers. By the most recent estimate, which had been performed by a sociologist at Harvard and publicized in Time magazine, the Sick Seekers numbered around the million mark in the United States alone. This meant there were more of them than there were Unitarians.
As I said, my immediate reaction was to view all of this with a rather cynical eye. To begin with, I decided to regard the term “Sick Seekers” with wry amusement, since it contained a semantic ambiguity, probably unnoticed by whoever had coined it, that didn’t specify whether “sick” referred to what the people were seeking to become or how they ought to be morally perceived. Next, I turned to speculating about the origins of the movement, and arrived at my above-mentioned theory about a collective disgust at the inability of the medical community to arrive at a consensus regarding how one ought to eat, exercise, and so on. (My theory didn’t explain why the same movement had cropped up in undeveloped nations where this information overload wasn’t a problem, but I put that item on a backburner.) I myself had grown annoyed at the way the morning news programs always seemed to present at least one new doctor per day, who advanced at least one new theory about which foods to avoid, which medicines to take, which tests to have run, and which exercises to do. I amused myself by speculating that the Sick Seekers were people who had just decided to throw in the towel and forget about trying to wade through the mass of conflicting information. This allowed me to applaud their audacity from the sidelines.
When I first came to understand that they were engendering real concern not only among government authorities but the populace at large, I realized I should take them a bit more seriously. Their arrival on the world scene had created a truly apocalyptic mood in countries around the globe, one that harmonized beautifully with the mass premonition of approaching doom that had already begun to grip the globe during the early 21st century. But even so, after reading and reflecting on the matter I still found it easy just to write the whole thing off as a mass hysteria, admittedly a repugnant one, but in essence no different from the millennial madness that had gripped the Western nations at the end of the twentieth century, or the rise of the charismatic Christian movement and its bastard child, the “signs and wonders” movement or “Third Wave” of Pentecostalism that was still providing so much research fodder for sociologists and scholars of religion who were caught up in the perennial quest for tenure.
I had once thought that I would number myself among those professional academicians. My interest in the Sick and Saved movement was more than just an idle amusement. Early in life, I had found that I was possessed of a seemingly inborn fascination with religion and spirituality. I was raised in no formal religious tradition, but when I discovered the literature of Zen Buddhism at the age of thirteen, it was as if a door were suddenly unlocked inside me, one that I hadn’t even known existed. Suddenly, I was gripped by a veritably daimonic passion for spiritual knowledge, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was already planning to major in religious studies at the university and then go on to earn my doctorate. The thought of spending all my days walled up inside the comfortable ivory tower of academia, surrounded by books that fed my thirst for spiritual ideas, filled me with delicious feelings of security and comfort.
All had gone well for the first few years of my enrollment in the religious studies program at Terence University. But then, for reasons that still eluded me ten years later, everything had grown stale just two months before I was scheduled to earn my master’s degree. I had been shocked as I experienced the pent-up excitement of my imminent academic career leaking like air from a punctured tire. Somehow, without my knowing it, a sense of hollowness and staleness had crept into everything I held dear, everything I thought my life was about, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t know where to go or what to do. My sense of being on track with a life mission was gone, and had been replaced by a feeling of bleak hopelessness and confusion. Briefly, I fell into a personal and professional tailspin.
Then one of my professors, Dr. Daniel Baumann, advised me to consider another career. Since my awakening at the age of thirteen, I had never even thought of doing anything else, but when I turned my mind to it everything happened quickly. Within a matter of days, practically on a whim, I somehow fell into the journalism master’s degree program. All thoughts of a career in academia fled down the same invisible drain that had siphoned away my passion for religion. I set my sights on becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and for years I didn’t look back.
Eight years after obtaining the master’s degree, I was still seeking the Pulitzer. More than anything else, those years had taught me that the confusion I had felt upon the death of my former sense of identity with a life mission was merely the front end of a long initiation into the arbitrary caprices of the inner life. I tried not to dwell too much on it, since I could tell that to do so would send me into a paralyzing depression, but eight years into my post-college career the foreground of my steady, normal outer life was paralleled precisely by an inner life of virulent nihilism, punctuated by periods of manic emotional abandon. The term “bipolar” played on my mind often, but I never sought a medical diagnosis. My spiritual and philosophical side wasn’t totally gone. It had merely undergone a mutation. My love of ideas had somehow evolved into a kind of philosophical schizophrenia that expressed itself in terms of a kaleidoscopic shifting of worldviews, many of them mutually exclusive or even actively antagonistic toward each other. In this condition, I thought it would be useless to receive an official diagnosis of a chemical imbalance, since I would probably find myself arguing the very next day against the logical axioms upon which the diagnosis was founded. To add insult to injury, my cognizance of my condition only exacerbated its severity. By the time the Sick Seekers arrived on the scene, I had reached a point of near-burnout where all my emotional reserves were depleted and I had trouble believing anything, even my own thoughts. At times I diverted myself with a kind of gallows humor by speculating that my philosophical schizophrenia might qualify me for membership in the new movement.
But when I was assigned to cover them for the newspaper, I saw no humor in it, for I recognized an immediate problem: so many things had already been said about the Sick Seekers that there was surely nothing left for me to write.
I raised this point to Bobby, my managing editor, but he countered by letting me know his reasons for wanting the story.
“There’s a local group of them,” he told me on a Tuesday afternoon, after having given me the assignment the day before via an email. He was drinking coffee to perk himself up for the final few hours of his workday, and he stared at me over the steaming cup as he took a sip. I was seated across the desk from him with notepad in hand, prepared to take what I had expected to be meaningless notes.
“Are you sure?” I said after a long pause. I habitually measured my words and actions carefully around other people, but it was difficult to conceal the fact that this unexpected information had ignited a spark of interest in me. I carefully distanced myself from the feeling and kept my eyes steadily upon Bobby.
“Not entirely,” he said. “That’s part of what I want you to find out. Believe me, I know how hard it will be to think of anything new to say. But if there really is a local group, then we’ve got the chance to do something special. You know how private these people are supposed to be.”
And indeed, I did know of their notorious reticence. Even their closest family members didn’t know what they really believed. Everything in the news was just second-hand testimony from friends, family, neighbors, and supposed “experts” whose theories were pure conjecture.
As I considered this, a strange feeling began to creep over me. It was as if a wheel had started to turn in the back of my head. I introspected for a moment and gained the impression of an old waterwheel, slick and wooden, revolving slowly on an unseen axle. The feeling it produced in me was strangely soothing. I was taken aback by this unexpected psychic event, and when I returned my attention to the outside world, I found that my skepticism about the proposed project had completely vanished, leaving me eager to jump on the story.
“So, how do you know about this?” I asked.
“Peg told me,” he said. Peg was his wife. She was a registered nurse who worked in the emergency room at the university hospital. The three of us had gone out to dinner a couple of times. “She’s been saying for months now that she suspects something, but she wasn’t sure until just a few days ago. Saturday night some lady brought an old man into the emergency room and said she had nearly run over him when she found him just lying in the middle of the road. He was still unconscious, so Peg checked his I.D. and looked to see if they had any records on him. Turns out he’s been there before. He has cancer of the larynx. Thirteen months ago he started refusing treatment. Nobody ever saw him there again until the other night. When he woke up, he looked around and flew into a rage. He refused to let anybody see about him. His file says he lives alone at a private residence and isn’t under anybody’s supervised care, so they just had to let him go. Peg said he stormed outside and hailed a cab.
“The reason she thinks this means something,” he continued, setting his styrofoam cup down on the desk, “is because more and more people have started refusing medical treatment at the hospital over the past year. Especially in the past two months. It’s only a very small number, just a dozen or so, but these are people with some very serious medical conditions.” He caught me with his eye as he paused. “Plus, the old guy said something as he was leaving.”
“Wait, let me guess,” I said. “He told them, ‘As a foulness shall ye know them.’ Am I right?”
Bobby seemed to stumble. After a moment he said, “Yeah, exactly.” He was looking at me strangely.
I was as surprised as he was. A number of news stories had linked this cryptic saying to the cult, and I had just been spouting off when I said it. I told him this and he relaxed.
“Well, I guess you’re the right guy for the job. You’re almost psychic about it.” He resumed his former easy manner of speaking. “Yeah, he said that weird Sick Seekers thing. Peg said his voice was awful to hear. She didn’t even want to think about how far along his cancer must have advanced by now. From the way she was so spooked, I’m guessing it must be pretty bad.” He glanced at his watch and then back up at me. “Well, I can put two and two together as well as she can, and when she told me what she was thinking, I knew she was right. There’s got to be a cult group right here in Terence.” He rose from his chair and started shuffling things around on his desk in the afternoon ritual I had come to know so well, the one that indicated he was about to be done with work for the day, regardless of how much time might be left on the clock. “What I want you to do,” he said, “is find this group and get a story. With your background in religion, you should be able to talk to these people in a way that other people can’t. Maybe you can make them feel comfortable, express some sort of understanding, get their sympathy. I don’t care how you do it. Just find out something that nobody else has written about them yet.”
“But Bobby,” I said, “I don’t understand them. Yes, I’ve studied up on them, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why anybody would choose to live with terminal intestinal cancer, let alone celebrate it.” I was thinking of a story I had watched just the night before on a weekly television news magazine. A man in Montana had refused to submit to having a large part of his colon removed, and had said things that indicated a link to the Sick and Saved movement. His wife had gone crying to the newspapers. “What am I supposed to do? How do I even find any of these people?”
“I told you,” he said, “they have a file on this old man down at the hospital. Peg got his name: Mitchell Billings.” He spelled it while I wrote it down.
“What else did she get?” I asked with pen poised to write.
“Nothing,” he said. I blinked in surprise. “She’s not going to risk her job over this, Lawrence. She already had her mind made up when she came to me, and I agree with her. It’s not only against the rules, but it’s a crime for her to divulge what’s in those records. You’re going to have to dig for yourself. I’m sure you can think of some way to use your pretty face to get access.” He smiled wickedly, but at the moment I didn’t think it was funny, especially since he was asking me to risk my neck. “By the way,” he continued, “if you’re thinking of going the easy way and looking in the phone book, don’t bother. I checked already. Then I called information and checked the Internet. It’s not that he’s unlisted, he just doesn’t have a phone number.”
“What about the lady who brought him in? What did she have to say? Where did she find him?”
“Odd thing,” Bobby said. “She must have stepped out during the ruckus. Peg couldn’t find her anywhere.”
I was still absorbing this when he reached for his tie, which he always hung on the coat rack in the corner after lunch. “Gonna call it an early day, compadre. Peg and I are going out to dinner and a concert tonight at the performing arts hall.”
“Who’s playing?” I asked without really caring. That wheel was still turning slowly in the back of my head, like an old waterwheel bearing buckets of fresh, cool water out of a silent spring. For the first time in many years, I felt the desire to sit in meditation for an extended period.
“The university symphony orchestra,” he was saying. “Some Mozart piece. Or Bach or Beethoven. I really don’t care. It’s Peg’s idea.” He waved goodbye and walked out still carrying his tie, leaving me sitting there alone in his office, evidence of the trust he had built up for me after eight years of my devoted service.
I sat there for quite awhile watching the cool water being carried up from a spring in the back of my mind. When I got up to leave, I was feeling more alive than I had felt in years. But I was all too experienced at this sort of mood-revolution, and was far too jaded to allow myself to relax into any sort of good feeling, no matter how sweet and refreshing it seemed on the surface. Painful experience had taught me there was always a bottomless chasm of despair waiting on the other side.
I decided to go ahead and visit the hospital that very night. No time like the present for breaking the law, I thought. But first I stopped by my apartment to change clothes and freshen up. Bobby hadn’t been kidding about my “pretty face.” I was a strikingly handsome man. I had always been that way, even as a child. For years my mother had harbored fantasies about my being a professional model. She had taught me all about color coding, how to dress for best effect and fix my hair to look just right for my eyes, skin tone, facial shape, and all that. She was a failed model herself. Sometimes, I think she would have been happier with a daughter.
When I was in college, I found my looks to be a useful tool for getting into bed with just about any girl I liked, but that was as far as I took it. After I started working for the newspaper, I occasionally found that I could exploit my appearance by endearing myself to people who might not otherwise be inclined to talk to me. It even worked with men, for some reason. It wasn’t that I ever engaged in any really tough investigative journalism. Far from it; my assignments were all cushy and soft. As the paper’s religion reporter I got to sit through services at dozens of churches, interview rabbis and priests and preachers, go to funerals and bar mitzvahs, and so on. I even got to talk occasionally with my old professors in the religious studies department at the university, whenever I needed one of their sagacious comments to pad out some minor piece of journalistic fluff with an air of intellectual respectability. But even in those non-threatening situations, I sometimes liked to go for the throat, so to speak. Whenever I found people who were reticent or distracted, all I had to do was turn on the old charm and let my looks draw them to me like a magnet.
For my trip to the hospital, I chose a solid forest green shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. My hair was exceedingly dark, not quite black but just barely shy of it, and my eyes were a piercing green. I had learned years ago that when I wanted to look my most striking, I should wear dark, solid colors. When I looked in the mirror for a final inspection, my hair was still wet from a quick shower. The curls were soft and gleamed like sable. The shirt drew out the color of my eyes and gave me an appearance of intensity and wisdom. I knew I looked damned good.
Down at the hospital, I searched out the first female employee I could find. Fortunately, she was the one behind the receptionist’s counter. Her name was Lindy, and she was blond and slightly overweight. We talked for a few minutes about nothing in particular before I explained to her that I was a reporter and needed to see a patient’s file. Of course she told me this would be impossible, but then I turned on the charm and let her know that she was somebody I could really learn to like spending more time with. I had never been so blatantly manipulative with my looks, and I was mildly sickened at myself. But that was easily overcome by an exercise of mental transcendence (a leftover from my spiritual days) wherein I stood back and suspended judgment on everything I was feeling or doing. This never failed to put me in a comfortable place where nothing could touch me, either from the inside or the outside, and I could just watch things happen like a spectator. I padded my lie by telling her that I knew the patient personally, and that I was looking up his information as a favor to him. It was a muddled story, one that didn’t hold together (which wasn’t surprising, considering that I made it up right there on the spot), but she bought it. She glanced around to make sure nobody was watching, and then she let me behind the counter and took me back to the office where the files were kept.
It was a long room, tall and narrow, filled with rows of gray metal shelves like a library. I thanked her profusely as she searched out Mitchell Billings’ medical file. I thanked her again when she allowed me to stay there alone while she minded the front desk. As she was walking away, I watched the backs of her thighs. The cotton legs of her pants (standard nurse-issue) were stretched tight against her skin, and I found myself thinking that maybe I hadn’t been kidding when I said I would like to get to know her better.
I flipped through the file quickly, standing there in the cramped aisleway between the shelves. The evidence of Mr. Billings’ laryngeal cancer was there, along with his refusal on July 13th of the previous year to be treated. The doctors had wanted to perform a tracheostomy or laryngectomy over a year ago, but he had declined. The record then skipped ahead to just four nights past, when someone had recorded in blue ink the tale of Billings’ unexpected return to, and belligerent departure from, the university hospital. There was also a scribbled note about the unnamed Good Samaritan who had brought him in.
Before closing the file, I turned back to the cover page and copied down Billings’ address: Route 3, Box 147, Terence, Missouri. I was vaguely familiar with Route 3, more commonly known as Highway M. It ran east out of Terence toward Mountain Glen and was populated mostly by farmer types. As Bobby had already previewed for me, there was no phone number listed, so I knew that my day was planned out for me tomorrow. Apparently, I would have to drive out Highway M and physically track the man down.
Having achieved my goal, I closed the manila-colored file and slid it back into its place on the shelf. Then I slipped out to the reception area (checking first to make sure nobody was around; I truly didn’t want to get Lindy into trouble) and scooted out from behind the counter. On the way past I paused to thank Lindy yet again. She looked a little troubled, as if she were conflicted over her violation of the rules, so I reiterated that I wouldn’t tell a single soul. I also assured her that she had helped Mr. Billings immensely. Her complexion was pale and milky, a nice match for her blond hair, and her cheeks were now colored with a slight flush from the heat of her troubled feelings. She was positively lovely. I found myself wondering as I exited through the automatic doors and emerged back into the humid August night whether I might not find myself back at the hospital soon, this time not under a ruse, but with the honest intention of getting closer to her. I supposed it might not be totally impossible.
The wheel was still turning.