The Vermin and Me
By Joy Wang
January 24, 2024
“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” - Franz Kafka
And when I wake, I know it’s here again. Staring. Waiting. Craving.
Its eyes curve as I unravel my heaving body. I rub the blister at my feet, and I can feel its breath swiping across my cheek. It crawls with me to the bathroom, the pitter-patter of its antenna reverberating through my skull.
In the mirror, I inspect everything wrong with me — a ritual I’ve developed over the years to ward it off. OCD is a tedious, needy, starving thing; even in my periphery now, the vermin vies pathetically for me to glance its way, hunting to break its fast. I keep my gaze away, still hoping in vain that it will tire of me. But as usual, the metallic stench of its rot never fades.
When I reach the last round, it clutches me suddenly. Its impatient heat weighs into my skin, and I know I’ve ignored it for too long. You’re forgetting something, it insists as I peel the ghost of its sickly green slime off my shoulders. I grit my teeth and search my thighs for blemishes once more.
As I start my exit checks, it stops me, tugging and twisting at my ear: Behind you. Layers upon layers of vermin slush flood my apartment, leaving my walls and floors dripping in translucent fluids. An ocean of horror rushes through me: if I do not fight it, it will destroy me. I wipe the windows until my fingertips bruise, and I scrub the cabinets until my knees tremble. Nothing quenches its hunger. Again, it shrieks.
When I finally tear myself away, I try locking it this time behind my gunk-glazed door. My attempt is, of course, futile: the vermin simply strides forth, its footsteps falling back in time with mine. Where I run, it runs; where I go, it goes. I whirl in an all-consuming anger — this illness will never offer me any reprieve. We stay in a tense mutual silence the entire walk to campus.
I can hear it huffing loudly as I make my way up to my classroom; the professor’s already midway through the lecture. I pull out my laptop, and the vermin slithers into the chair beside me. Your hair, it whispers. I startle — there’s a few strands of its leftover phlegm oozing from my scalp like an open wound. I attempt to scratch myself raw, the lecture all but forgotten. When people start shifting out of their seats, I pause to peek down at my hands. My nails beds are engulfed in blood, and vermin dregs cling onto my cuticles. And still I can feel it leaking out of me.
At lunch, I can hardly comprehend what my friends are saying. The slime coats the fine lining of my ears, and each word sinks in like a gelatinous rainstorm. Speak, it roars into me. I shudder, swallow, and cover my mouth again and again until my voice is no longer mine alone. A thick, syrupy green trickles down my throat. My friends watch me worriedly, and I throw the rest of my meal away.
It swells within me all day, creeping into my tendons and swarming my lungs. In my next class, it pools from the corners of my eyes, its tendrils dribbling down my face like plasmic tears. I’m right here, it thunders every minute, eternally insatiable. Taking tests or participating in meetings have become impossible; I’ve begun hitting myself systematically to ward it off, to cope. Despair overcomes me when my hands return swathed in the sinewy strands of its sprawl.
By sunset, its liquids have become one with mine. The walk home is treacherous. I trudge back bleary-eyed through a ghastly quicksand, hardened muck encasing my legs. The vermin sits proudly as deadweight on my back, and its repetitive warnings reach a boiling volume in my veins. I’ve grown weary of fending it off, all my strength and energy finally licked clean.
We act in tandem. When it breathes, I breathe; when it moves, I move. I open the door to my apartment, only half of me left, and I fall into a fetal position, my face against the ground. The slime follows suit, wrapping and sucking around the length of my body. I hold the loose fabric of my abdomen, and I can feel it surging within my bones.
“What more can I do so that you will no longer want for me?” I cry out, my organs sloshing between my forearms.
A terrible, throaty laugh emerges from the vermin, and its resonance strums at the strings of my stomach. Look at yourself. Again and again.
I crawl to my bedroom, grabbing fistfuls of the floor to thrust myself forward. A waterfall of gooey, foul-smelling slop pours rapidly from the ceiling. Each cabinet and window reeks of that awful, glowing green. I’ve given up swatting it away, accepting at last the pellets of slime-slurry hailing onto me. A fierce anxiety pricks at me as I drag myself up to the bathroom. The vermin’s nonstop stream of commands right at my ear finally reaches a horrible halt.
In the mirror, a vermin looks back at me. I stare at my spindled hands, my domed belly, my armored back, and a great, monstrous, inescapable panic erupts out of me. I let out a pathetic, hopeless wail and claw at myself viciously. Tears slip down my tentacled mouth. I rip off the plates of my flesh, dig through slime coatings and vermin-filling until my chest cavity — now a messy, filthy swarm of guts and colons — breaks open.
In the utter wasteland of my body, I can see it at last: my heart. Its atriums and ventricular chambers emit a faint green glare, but ribbons of stubborn human red peek through. This heart is mine, mine, mine.
I gasp, a boundless pain shaking down to even my marrow. Here, the vermin cannot penetrate. Here, deep in the hollows of my metamorphosed body, I exist once more.
Gently, delicately, tenderly: I pluck out my quivering, fearing heart and set it against the religiously-bleached white of my sink. I cup my hands into the stream of tap water and knead away the bulbous vestiges of the slime. The sludge, muck, slop, and gunk peel off the walls in slow, visceral agony until all that remains in this world is me and my red, red heart. I cradle it to me now, sprinkling water over its valves like myrrh over a catachumen’s head. How good it feels to live once more.
When my heart is clean and pure and whole again, I lay onto my bed carefully and I plop it right back into my chest. In the unwavering darkness of my room, I take my first breath, and I know at once that I am no longer vermin.
I close my eyes. Tomorrow will wash over me soon, and I will greet it anew. An anticipatory calm like no other settles firmly within me. Sleep falls at last.
And when I wake, I know it’s here again. ■
Layout: Nicholas Peasley
Photographer: Isabelle Milford
Stylists: Sonia Siddiqui & Keena Medina
HMUA: Azucena Mosqueda
Models: Josemanuel Vazquez & Tasmuna Omar