Ben Marcus is a contemporary writer everyone should be reading. ‘The Dark Arts’, first published in the New Yorker in 2013, forms part of his latest book, the superb collection Leaving the Sea (published by Granta Books in the UK).
On a dark winter morning at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel, Julian Bledstein reached for his Dopp kit. At home, he could medicate himself blindfolded, but here, across the ocean, it wasn’t so easy. The room stank, and more than one young man was snoring. The beds in the old gymnasium were singles, which didn’t keep certain of the guests from coupling when the lights went out. Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on. He studied the sounds when he couldn’t sleep, picturing the worst: animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets. In the morning he could never tell just who had been making love. The men dressed and left for the day, avoiding eye contact, mesmerized in the glow of their cell phones.
Julian held his breath and squeezed the syringe, draining untold dollars’ worth of questionable medicine into the flesh of his thigh. He clipped a bag holding the last of his money to the metal underside of his bed. His father’s hard-earned money. Not enough euros left. Not nearly enough. He’d have to make a call, poor-mouth into the phone until his father’s wallet spit out more bills.
He left the hostel and took the stone path down to nothing good. This morning he was on his way, yet again, to meet Hayley’s train. Sweet, sweet Hayley. She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the past two weeks. It seemed more and more likely that his lovely, explosively angry girlfriend wouldn’t be joining him in Germany—even though they’d spent months planning the trip, Julian Googling deep into his unemployed afternoons back home, Hayley pinging him sexy links from work whenever she could. A food-truck map, day treks along the Königsallee. First they’d destroy England and France, lay waste to the Old World, then drop into freaking Düsseldorf for the last, broken leg of the journey.
It was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway, a young invalid and his lady friend sampling the experimental medicine of the Rhine. But they’d fought in France, and he’d come to Düsseldorf ahead of her. Now he waited not so hopefully, not so patiently—dragging himself between the hostel, the train station, and the Internet café, checking vainly for messages from Hayley—while seeking treatment at the clinic up on the hill.
Treatment—well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing. These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.
Back home, he’d tried it all—the steroids, the nerve blocks, the premium plasma—and felt no different. He’d eaten only green food until it ran down his legs. Then for a long time he’d tried nothing. He’d tried school, then tried dropping out, living, in his mid-twenties, in his old room in his father’s house. Through it all, though, he had mostly tried Hayley, as in really, really tried her, and he could see how very tried she’d become.
It was Hayley who’d pushed for this trip, so that Julian could finally have a shot at the new medical approach they’d read so much about, a possible breakthrough with rare autoimmune disorders. In Germany, a shining outpost on the medical frontier, doctors tried what was forbidden or unconscionable elsewhere. And for a fee they’d try it on you. Massive doses of it. You could bathe in its miracle waters. You could practically get stem-cell Jell-O shooters at the bar on Thursday nights. So long as, you know, you waived—yes, waived—goodbye to your rights, your family, your life. It was not such a terrible trade.
On Julian’s first day, the clinic staff had brandished a very fine needle. It had gleamed in the cold fluorescent light of the guinea-pig room. From Julian’s wheezing torso, the doctors had drawn blood and marrow, his deep, private syrup—which they then boiled and spoon-fed back to him until he sizzled, until he just about glowed. Of course, the whole thing was more complicated than that, particularly the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they’d smuggled it out of him. They spun it, purified it, damn near weaponized it, then sold it back to him for cash. Zero-sum medicine, since he’d grown it himself, in what Hayley, digging into his ribs, had called “the Julian Farm.” Except that the sum was a good deal larger than zero.
And after a few weeks, or so the idea was, you’d be better. In his wellness fantasies, Julian always pictured himself scrubbed clean, nicely dressed, suddenly funny and charming. Better in every goddam way. But, of course, throughout these treatments, as he’d discovered, the frowning doctors hedged and balked and shat caveats, until the promise of recovery was off the table, out of the room, nowhere near the building.