portion of the artwork for S.A. Hartwich's short story

Personhood
S.A. Hartwich

A month after our daughter left for college I woke up with an ache in my side and a three-inch by two-inch bandage taped over an abdominal incision and it turned out someone harvested my left kidney while Spouse and I were sleeping. Once the ER doc confirmed this the cops came in Exam Room 3 and took my statement and accused me of lying about the whole shebang: either I’d had the kidney removed in the past, or I’d sold it on the black market to pay off debt or finance a trip to New Zealand, a practice becoming more common as the demand for organs skyrockets. I showed the cops the fresh incision with its angry red borders and sloppy stitching but they weren’t impressed and left warning me not to leave the country, that I was on the no-fly list and I’m yelling at their backs that if I’d sold the kidney of my own volition why would I come to the hospital but they were already discussing lunch options.

I’m not a harbinger guy but the week before this a bird flew down our chimney and beat its wings against the glass fireplace doors and Spouse called me home to investigate “strange noises.” I thought home invasion and armed myself with a broken broom handle before I went inside, but it turned out to be a crow. Soon as I opened the glass doors it flew back up the flue and got stuck. I lit some Indica in a small mortar and let the smoke rise up the chimney, and a few minutes later one stoned crow fell on the pillow I’d placed on the andiron grate so I took it outside to recover which it must have, because 10 minutes later it was gone.

I like crows. They gather at my place of business and I throw them peanuts in shells every morning. The local murder visits daily but word got out so now I get murders from all over expecting handouts, which I give them despite the warnings of my friend with a degree in bioethics who claims I’m turning these birds into dependent creatures like pond koi or pigeons that gather in European town squares eating bits of stale bread scattered by old people wearing head scarves or driving caps.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, that crow flying down my chimney and then my kidney being stolen. When I bring up the subject with Spouse she covers her ears and hums but I get it. Once you accept that someone broke into your house and performed surgery on your husband while you slept next to him you begin to question what is live what is Memorex, red pill vs. green pill, is your entire existence based on the imaginings of an autistic savant who derives her inspiration from invented consciousnesses that allow for the psychic space needed to plan stadium-sized mandalas she would construct—if she wasn’t agoraphobic—with millions of legumes that in a perfect world would be appreciated as art one day then consumed by homeless people the next.

Spouse moved into Daughter’s bedroom but didn’t touch a thing. When a child departs for college either the room transforms into a craft space and storage for boxed books, horrid dishes, and seventies end tables with rounded corners passed down from in-laws or it becomes a museum kept dust-free according to the degree of empty-nest syndrome afflicting the parents. Spouse had not adjusted well but we won’t dwell on the hot yoga or the nightly attempts at flambé because it is OK to be sad when a child leaves. It is OK to be fiery free one moment and withdrawn like an unloved clam the next. Baby has gone, extracted from our lives like my kidney.

Two weeks later six golden-crowned sparrows flew down the chimney and beat themselves to death against the glass fireplace doors. I was not summoned but instead discovered this slaughter one evening after 17 days of clouds, mist, and rain inspired me to light a fire in response to everyone on Facebook saying, “It’s the damp that gets you, not the cold,” knowing once the sun came out these same people would say, “What is that bright orb in the sky?” Spouse missed this foreshadowing because she was reading children’s books in Daughter’s bedroom wearing sound-dampening ear muffs which she kept on from dusk to dawn, ostensibly to block out the train noise we’d been ignoring for 17 years but which had magnified in that way anything banally familiar magnifies when one’s senses are suddenly attuned to the nth degree in response to a life-altering event—or in our case, a series of life-altering events. A typical exchange:

“Morning.”

“Please stop yelling.”

“I’m not yelling.”

“Oh my God.” Covers ears.

“Is this better?”

“Don’t raise your voice with me.”

“Maybe I should just stop talking until you wake up.”

“Dandy.”

I knew the real reason she wore earmuffs and switched bedrooms was so she’d have a built-in excuse for not noticing in case I had another organ stolen, which was inevitable given the Prophecy of the Sparrows and the fact that bad things always happen in sets of three, like celebrity deaths or years between playoff berths.

I lost my right lung on February 15 and stayed in the hospital for two weeks because removing a lung involves cracking the sternum and the thieves wired my sternum together instead of using screws despite the fundamental principle that underscores all bone healing, which is rigid fixation.

“How much you get this time?” asked one of the cops who’d interviewed me before. “A lung’s gotta be worth what, 60, 70 grand?”

His partner tapped my chest with his coffee cup. “Probably shopping for Teslas right now.”

“That right?” said the first cop. “You shopping for Teslas?”

I took a deep breath with my single lung, deep being a relative term in this case, which is not to imply I couldn’t live a normal life with one lung as long as I accepted that workouts would be of shorter duration and did not move to Denver or La Paz. “Ya got me,” I said. “Next I’m gonna sell my heart for a million and retire to Cancun.”

The cops shared a glance.

“You think you’re pretty smart,” said the first cop, who was destined to die a few months later when a train crushed his patrol car during a hot pursuit, also killing a rookie cop named Harry whose real name was the Angel Harahel, “Overseer of Libraries,” demoted to guardian duty because no one used libraries anymore. Harahel made sure the second cop stayed home that day with a heaven-sent norovirus, a fact not lost on Raguel, Archangel of “Justice and Fairness and Overseer of All Other Angels” who so appreciated Harahel’s great attitude that he was considering Him for the new angelic position “Overseer of the Cloud,” developed in response to the Internet’s explosive growth amid humanity.

That the first cop dying in the accident proved inconsequential to the angelic community given its collective belief in the essentiality of random fate—apart from the handful of humans assigned guardians and the fickle omnipotence of you-know-who—caused another batch of angels to throw their hands up in disgust and Fall, stirring the foments of rebellion in heaven for the umpteenth time.

Four months went by and I began to wonder if the nightmare was over. Then a large northern shrike flew down the chimney, out the open glass doors, and impaled its beak in Spouse’s abdomen, causing no lasting damage but leaving a nasty scar. After her initial scream—and listen carefully, because this is why I married her—Spouse calmly removed the struggling songbird, wrung its neck, cleaned it, defeathered it, and roasted it like a tiny chicken and I knew she was back, baby, she was back big time and no number of organs harvested from her husband would dim this new light, not even the portion of liver taken from me three nights later as we slept side by side again after a three-minute sexual encounter.

The second cop—still partnerless by choice and consumed with guilt—gamely tried to trip me up in the hospital. “So was it the left part or the right part of the liver?”

“You’ll have to ask the doctor.”

“That’s not an answer, pal. Left or right?”

This went on for 20 minutes but I was patient like a saint because I’d read about the first cop’s demise and the suspicious coincidence that was the second cop’s illness so I let him do his job as a nod to his grief. Eventually he burst into tears and joined me in the hospital bed and as we spooned I stroked his brow and wondered if anyone had received a kidney, lung, and part of a liver in sequence during the last six months but before I could suggest this the Angel Harahel planted my idea in the second cop’s mind and two weeks later the CEO of a large corporation was arrested and charged with three counts of organ theft but he posted bail and fled to Venezuela where he ran the company in absentia which backfired spectacularly when a Ninth Circuit Court judge had all 12,341 corporate employees (including the entire board of directors and a passel of interns) arrested based upon the Supreme Court’s decision that corporate entities were persons which led to an avalanche of corporation-as-person convictions which led to the entire state of Texas being transformed into a penal colony like early Australia without the jumbucks or billabongs or swagmen.

My liver grew back but I’m still missing a kidney and lung and wonder what organ would have been next, how long the CEO could have kept this up before my body collapsed upon itself like a deflated gasbag. Spouse hooked up with the second cop (now a detective) and the Angel Harahel polyamorously which estranged her from our daughter who had moved back in because no amount of education would alter her belief in existential nihilism despite the evidence of the crow, the golden-crowned sparrows, the northern shrike, and the Angel Harahel which appearances she said were meaningless because they didn’t actually stop the organ thefts, to which I had no snappy comeback. But consequences, I said. Causality. Justice. Look at Texas! To which she rolled her eyes and explained how these things were not proof of meaning in life. Hey, I said, at least we know there’s a Heaven. Hey, she said, sorry to burst your bubble but Harry told me only angels and you-know-who live in Heaven now do you want a veggie omelette or not and I said yes daughter an omelette would really hit the spot.



S.A. Hartwich’s Comments

“Personhood” was a knee-jerk reaction to the Carveresque stories I’d been writing for years. Although I’d placed a few of these minimalist “gems,” I was tiring of the confines within which I was forcing myself to work. One morning I had a multitude of ideas knocking around my skull and let them loose on the page. No planning, no excessive mulling over this story … just a serious bout of stream-of-consciousness that happened to include organ theft, angels, empty-nest syndrome, and birds. A few of these items I’ve had experience with, a few not so much.

Once I revved up, the story unfolded with a kind of breathlessness that I’d rarely experienced outside of prose poetry, with different subjects and tropes and characters intruding themselves in a way that reflected how my mind works, yet something that intellectually I’ve always battled against. While I generally agree with the saying “In Revision We Trust,” I also know how easy it is to revise out the best parts of a unique story. I had to slap myself a few times as the drafts progressed, but managed to keep the sense of breathlessness and weird connective tissue that (hopefully) pulls the reader through to the end. Oh, and northern shrike is DELICIOUS.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019