You used to care.
She couldn’t get his words out of her head. It wasn’t always that way though. When she first met Bertram he was what she had always imagined an artist to be. He saw in every notion the potential for life, and he became pregnant with those notions he loved most. She knew when he was pregnant; she could see it in his face. It would be flushed from the heat given off in the germinating process, transforming notion to idea. At the end of an unpredictable incubation period the day would come. He would sit at his writing desk and, after considerable labor, give birth to a fully formed idea, albeit one still completely dependent on him for care and feeding.
She would share in the moment. He would hand her the precious pages, and through the words and sentences and paragraphs she would come to know the new arrival. She would bring him a cup of green tea, and her eyes would well up with tears as she thought of the commitment he would make to nurture his new offspring until it could survive on its own in the world. She still cared. She still cared plenty, only it was different now.
She did not know precisely when it happened because it didn’t happen precisely. It happened gradually, over the course of years.
His face lost its ruddy complexion, and he ceased getting pregnant with notions. She was beginning to believe he might be incapable of conceiving. She shuddered at the thought of his being barren and the impact it would have on their lives. As if the Pause were not enough, he began to exhibit symptoms of another kind.
“I must get these words out of my head,” he started muttering to himself with increasing frequency and intensity. His fingers would clutch his scalp.
He no longer nurtured ideas in his heart. Worse than the drought of ideas, was the torrent of words. He would sit at his writing desk and frantically pour words onto his pad, temporarily relieving the pressure building up in his head. His hand trembled as he sipped strong Javanese coffee. She would glance over his shoulder hoping to feel the shiver of joy at seeing a new arrival. Instead, she saw only words and sentences and paragraphs, stillborn.
She went from being muse to caretaker. She took Bertram to the doctor.
“It is a congenital condition afflicting some artists, I’m afraid,” the doctor told her upon his examination.
“There’s no cure except time. There are many words in the English Language, but fortunately for him the number is finite. In time he’ll be rid of them,” the doctor said reassuringly.
So, day after day she attended to Bertram as he emptied his head of words. At regular intervals she would send copies of Bertram’s output to the doctor for analysis. On one occasion, months after their first visit, the doctor called to tell her the end was in sight.
“You see, there are fewer words in his recent entries.” She saw this was true.
“And they are becoming much more obscure. Many cannot be found in most abridged dictionaries. The appearance of “xanthochroi” and “xanthoma” are good signs.”
She thanked the doctor and looked up xanthochroi and xanthoma. Good signs indeed. The edges of her lips curled up slightly, for the first time in years. But just at the Mona Lisa instant a horrid thought gripped the muscles in her face.
What if Bertram spoke other languages?
Unlikely, she thought. She would have known after all the time she had spent with him. Her facial muscles loosened their grasp on her smile.
During the following months she cared for Bertram. He stopped muttering incessantly to himself. More disconcerting though, he began to accuse her, his devoted caretaker, of not caring for him.
“You used to care,” he would to say. At first he said it to her, then to nobody in particular; although she knew the ‘you’ referred to her.
“Bertram,” she told him one day, “I care for you every day. I have been caring for you these many years.”
He looked at her from a distant place. “You used to care,” he said.
A few days later, she served Bertram his coffee and saw that he was no longer scribbling words on his pad. Instead, he was scribbling numbers. She called the doctor.
“This is rare indeed, but I have seen it in the great ones”, he said. I’m afraid there’s no cure, not even time.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Numbers are infinite, he explained. No amount of time is long enough for him to be rid of them. Out of curiosity, what numbers did he write?”
“The symbol for pi and the square root of two, and…Why do you ask?”
“He’s farther gone than I thought. My dear, pi and the square root of two are real numbers,” he said. “While the set of natural numbers most people are conversant with is infinite, the set of real numbers is even more infinite.”
“How can something be larger than infinite?” She asked, not knowing why it mattered.
“I never really understood it myself, but it’s the truth. Bertram is a goner.”
Bertram’s heart no longer nurtured ideas. His head no longer filled with words. Somewhere deep inside him a fountain would forever spew sometimes rational but mostly irrational numbers. She knew she could no longer care for him. She needed to get on with her life.
* * *
Now she lay in bed with a younger artist, one who was in his fertile years. But she couldn’t get Bertram’s words out of her head. You used to care. They taunted her. She got out of bed, put on her robe and steeped some green tea. She flipped open Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) and looked up the word ‘care’:
1: regard coming from desire or esteem
2: provide for or attend to needs
3: suffering of mind; GRIEF, SORROW
It was as if Noah Webster himself were defining her evolving feelings for Bertram. She knew she cared; yet she knew Bertram had been right, too. He was one of the great ones, and the great ones know the destiny of the Muse.
Murray Brozinsky is a writer and entrepreneur living in San Francisco. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Danse Macabre, decomP magazinE, Defenestration, The Science Creative Quarterly, The Big Jewel, WIRED, and Yankee Pot Roast, among others. His play, Heavenly Bodies, won the 2017 Short Play Festival at The Players Theatre in NYC. Follow him on Twitter: @mbrozinsky.