The monochromatic vision, to which you had lain a captive audience for some hours, was of the striped underside of a mattress in the bunk above yours, supported by black metal crossbars. It filled almost your whole field of sight. The stripes were navy on a white background – this you had from distant impressions of a time before the fever, and not from any present faculty of discernment; and the light was low and odd, such that it was hard to distinguish even between white and navy.
If you tilted your head back quite far, you were allowed to see a fragment of a window, which was just visible between the bed frame and the ominous curtain. There was bright light from outside shining in through the fragment of window, but in that harsh light nothing could be seen – no trees or clouds, only the bright sky. You remember thinking that if you died, you might just barely be able to squeeze between the bed frame and curtain and out that little part of the window and fly up to heaven. On second thought, you did not seem to possess the necessary energy to make it that far, or to go through such contortions. More likely you would float up to the ceiling and seep out of the room like a gas.
Once, you were healthy. Once, you liked to think that you were capable, and maybe even sort of good-looking in a way, a picture of sound living. And now, when you are not well, your thoughts of yourself are marked by small, succinct words like “gas” and “die.”
The light from the fragment of window made the backs of your eyeballs hurt in their sockets. However commonplace the monochromatic vision of the mattress underside might seem after one, or three, or twelve hours, at least it did not make your eyeballs hurt. It presented a never-ending pattern of regularity, and, on prolonged exposure, scenes of feverish creativity. The stripes began to vary in width, then to march by in full motion.
At some point you became impressed with the idea that the navy stripes hated you. They seemed to glare at you as they marched by, not with casual envy only, but with a perfect malice that was only restrained by the black metal crossbars between you and the mattress. The black metal crossbars did not seem to be restraining the stripes out of any consideration for you, however; only they seemed to be hissing, “Not yet! Not until the time is ripe!”
But time stands still in a fever, though you waited for hours upon hours. Besides, you had neither the energy to be alarmed by these incredulous vicissitudes, nor the mental clarity to consider what could be the implications of being hated by some stripes on the underside of a mattress. At last, somewhere in the universe, the sun went down. You drifted in and out of sleep and were unable to tell the difference. Some of the things you see now, in the heart of the fever, may prove to be true…
“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month,
& I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”
— Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)