My wife’s great aunt went into
an asylum at seventeen, pencil-thin, pious,
unconvinced the small knot of flesh
they’d cut from her stomach wall
wasn’t in fact immaculate.
She left two years later, fifteen pounds
heavier and an atheist, telling her parents
she’d drowned God in the
activities room toilet.
From there, her life was made of toast and
quince jam, coffee, afternoon card games, a sullen
cigarette on the back porch at sunset
with a brother who taught her how to
swear in French, insomnia.
The doctor who’d performed the operation
came every other week, injected her with a
neuroleptic, and stayed for dinner.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, before or
since,” he’d always say, as if
for the first time and as if to himself,
and raise a glass of Malbec in honor
of nature’s unpredictable plot, while
under the stone fountain in
the back yard, just out of earshot,
his name-making patient sewed together
featureless dolls out of strips of old pants,
dish cloths, thread and dried beans.
“One in every half a million live births,” he’d say. “They
want me to give a speech in Boston next month!”
The family was wealthy; otherwise, as my
mother-in-law reasons, who knows?
She could have been a martyr, a
dead, canceled saint, something besides
the zombified curiosity once or twice referenced
in out-of-date medical books.
There’s always a plan, she claims;
but to have a part of yourself lopped off—even
if it would eventually kill you—
there’s your crisis of faith.
And the night they found her under the
stone fountain, twenty-two,
alone in the house for the first time in
at least a year, the doctor was stumped, but
impressed: it wasn’t pills or the old pistol her
brother used to shoot pigeons in the summer,
but an incision, just to the left of the costal arch;
the scar doubling as guide for the
boning knife, her hand, to the wrist, missing,
stuffed inside the wound and wrapped
around her large intestine.
That night we tossed in and out of sleep. The second floor
seemed to hover off its bearing walls and a street lamp flickered
code through the window box. Dreams woke cranky in me;
shadows cut by caddy-corner apartments gave everything a staged
feeling. What time was it? Time enough for a low, uncouth
baseline from a hatchback on 16th to make the rubber night
shudder. Voices nailed to the thud of boot heels rose to and took
the corner. But mostly an indifferent silence held sway. At some point
my hand pulled your hip and found it turned to me like a globe on its
meridian. We’d spent three nights there already, boxes with untaped
flaps still pushed to a corner and took bad moods to bed where they
smothered our muffled good nights. Not easy to simply slot oneself
into a life’s opening: the oven failed to turn on and there were the
suspicions of bedbug season, but time had conspired with space to bring
us there and the credit check had sealed its prosecution. I don’t really
know what it was. Suddenly that thing that words fail took over. Or the
flickering light compelled proof of our intentions, noticing your
breathing seize and shallow. In any case, we made love half-sunk and
inseparable into another spotty night of sleep. Next day, bewitched, we
took a walk through a city begging for its spring.
We’ve been here since.
Tim Benjamin’s prose and translations have appeared in various magazines in the States and internationally. He splits his time between Philadelphia and Santiago, Chile.