In Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, No 24740 stares at the light fading on the white walls of his ward. At intervals thin cracks run through the paint and plaster, which he counts them one by one. He often imagines he is trapped inside a great skull. Around him on the bed, he is surrounded by the corpses of fallen mosquitoes that, by routine, he scoops up and places in his otherwise empty drawer. Each day he checks the cloudy, red-veined marks that form on his arm like bull’s eyes, rolling back his sleeve carefully to cover them. No 24740 has taken to sleeping in the day and waking at night, when the air is cooler and the marks seem less apparent. Often he goes to the window and with trembling hand he pulls back the curtains. Staring out at the night sky, he looks for the brightest star: Aldebaran. Finding it, he snatches the curtains closed in dismay. With the gaze of the Bull no longer crossing him, he is free to explore the maze-like rooms and corridors of the old hospital.
No 24740 occupies the night by sitting at sleeping patients’ bedsides, reading the letters he finds in their bedside drawers. Devoid of his own experience, he loses himself in the lives of unknown families and friends. His monochromatic existence of white walls, pills, nurses and doctors becomes filled with the colour of the lives of others. Often he reads several letters a night, and searches sleeping faces for clues and hidden details in their wrinkles or their breathing. His experience in the half-lit wards transports him from place to place and from person to person. Reading one letter he becomes lost in the swarming crowds of a celebratory rally in Charlestown, comforted by the presence and closeness of other people. Another message throws him, splashing and kicking into distant waters, exhausted, choking on tropical heat and tar-like smoke. Despite the exhilaration of experiencing these other worlds, No 24740 sweats heavily and his skin is discoloured. He inevitably must return to himself, the bone-white walls and the needle-thin noise of awakening mosquitoes.
At the end of his second month in the hospital and after a series of operations, No 24740 awakes at dusk, peers out through the curtains and once again begins his investigation of the halls and their dormant inhabitants. Avoiding the checks of night nurses, he walks by rows of familiar faces that glimmer and hint at previously read lives.
No. 24740 enters the final ward and discovers a new bed separated from the others and surrounded by a curtain. Pushing the material back, he steps inside and, as his eyes grow accustomed, observes a dark contracted form in a nest of covers, bronzed like a statue. Staring at the ancient and foreign features of an old man, he is reminded of the insects preserved in amber he once owned. Despite being long dead, as he lifted them from their place on the windowsill, they seemed warm to the touch. In each globe was positioned an interned, interrupted, life. And like the insects, the man’s frailty was contained within a strange immortal stillness.
Intrigued, No 24740 looks through the man’s bedside drawer and finds a single letter. The handwriting is shaky and smudged; the post-mark is from the island of Failaka. He remembers the other name given to the island by Alexander the Great: Icaria, after the Greek island and the mythical hero Icarus. No 24740 opens the letter. As he reads he is embraced by the cool evening-breeze that blows off the Persian Gulf; he finds himself walking alone by yellow, deserted and decaying homes, riddled with bullet holes. After some time he comes to an open sandy plain near the sea, where the remains of a temple jut up like rotten teeth. He sits down in front of an ancient stone tablet with an inscription that he is unable to decipher aside from a single word: Aphidrysis, the ancient Greek rite of the transference of a divinities’ shrine from one distant place to another.
Distracted, No. 24740 looks down at his arm and rolls back his sleeve to see that the red marks have disappeared. Above him, the sun expands: its centre everywhere, its scope immeasurable. At the end of a silent ward, isolated by a curtain, the dark tanned man sighs heavily. Crumpled yet preserved in a clenched cave of No.24740’s hand, is a letter still imbued with the salty tang of the sea and several grains of sand caught up in the creases by some distant wind.