In his last days, Gregor was loved, cherished, and cared for. You may have read The Metamorphosis, but may not have heard of my book, which is the book I spent the better part of my forties writing to remember him. What Kafka didn’t put in his story was that I was there, in the last moments of Gregor’s life, making sure he had some water to drink, even if he couldn’t hold any down, and ensured that he heard a voice, even if just one, that will remember him.
The book I wrote is my attempt, through words, to host a real burial, a big elaborate wake, for the man whose illness made him grotesque and unlovable to most. I am Gregor’s loved one, who couldn’t hold his hand (having none to hold) but held, and am still holding, his breath in its last efforts of life.
Dear reader, you might be burning with curiosity. You are wondering why Kafka didn’t mention this part. If it really was fiction, why would I be coming back now? Shouldn’t I be dead and buried, long forgotten, too?
But it may not have occurred to you to ask some other questions: Who saw and documented Gregor’s last days? Which characters do these allegedly third-person perspectives elide? Why are we only able to hear my voice now, after so many years?
In this story, everything else is the same. But where his family abandoned him, I sneaked past them and put a barricade up between myself and everything that hurt Gregor. I couldn’t, on my own, move him to the doctor, so I brought my own medicines—flowers from my garden, music from my collections, poems from grandfather’s heirloom shelf. And I was there because I loved him.
Being a travelling salesman, Gregor had little time to see me. But we exchanged long letters and postcards, so many of them. The last one I received from him smelled like Florentine cigars, musty like an old leather-bound book. It was as if Gregor had slipped the card inside one while in an old bureaucrat’s library, sneakily opened it—feigning interest in the contents of the book, and took the card out again when the man wasn’t looking. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how the postcard smelled this way, but knew that Gregor always had a sense of mischief when he was out and about, working those long hours.
Our letters, to avoid suspicion, were never too passionate. In the book, I transcribed each one of them, but kept the originals for myself. I kept the little drawings Gregor did of what he sold, what he saw, and the characters he encountered. These drawings were funny and affectionate. They were ways to be intimate from afar.
I spent the last of my savings printing several thousand copies. I wanted to leave them in the most quotidian places for strangers to find them, so that he could be as ordinary as newspapers. I wanted to avoid suspicion, too, even after his death. My penname was as far away from my real name as possible. The letterpress hugged the pages with his name, kissed it with the sighing efforts of ink. That’s how I held his hand for the last time.
Next time you visit Prague, look for my book. Take my book back to your home. Put it in your drawer, or a sidewalk library. The coffee you spill on it won’t be a hindrance, it will be like lives moving on, if clumsily, after the shock of loss. Donate it to a local classroom. Slip my book inside a copy of The Metamorphosis, so that the two can quietly embrace. One book shall become pregnant with the spine of another. All so someone will remember that Gregor was not alone in those last moments, but cherished, but cared for, but loved.
Author’s note: This story idea came to me in a dream. In my dream, Gregor died belly-up with a man by his side. I was that man, a mysterious literary figure who left behind a eulogy printed in a book. After the Pittsburg Synagogue shooting, Michael Kerr shared a post on Facebook remembering one of victims—his doctor Jerry Rabinowitz, who took care of him in Pittsburg before there was effective treatment for HIV. Recalling this post amidst tragedy (and tragedies (and tragedies)), mingled with the daily doldrums of working retail and constant illness, I write this piece as an attempt to learn the language of grieving.
Jane Shi is a queer Chinese settler currently living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish peoples. Her work has been published in Room magazine, Poetry Is Dead, LooseLeaf Magazine, GUTS, and others. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook @Pipagaopoetry.
She wants to live in a world where love is not a limited resource, land is not mined, hearts are not filched, and bodies are not violated.