Paul and I were roommates, orderlies at the nearby hospital. It was a high marble structure that held 500 beds. We were walking in for our shift when we came upon medics, cop cars, police tape. There was a body. He wasn’t dead; they were working on him, wiping his blood, holding his brains together, giving him breaths. He’d somehow got on the roof and jumped. Paul stepped on something and stopped: it was a long tooth. He put it in his pocket. In a men’s room he washed and polished it. Paul knew the patient from the psych ward, Rich Barnes. Rich had tried suicide before and might possibly cherish a souvenir, maybe on a little chain.
Rich Barnes was taken to brain surgery right away, which lasted hours. Paul and I would check in the waiting room now and then, which was where we met Rich’s mother and sister. We supplied them with tissues and sympathetic ears. The sister, Myrna, even used my shoulder for her heavy head with its wealth of black twisted hair. Her black brows moved like caterpillars into my neck.
The mother sat perfectly straight to show only strength and dignity. She made a strange moaning sound in her throat, like a tic for the near dead.
* * *
We went back to our duties, stopping in every couple of hours. The third time we were told Rich was taken to the Neuro ICU in critical condition. He had a bolt in his head to monitor intracranial pressure. He was lucky to be alive, the nurse said. He had a tracheostomy and was on a ventilator. We looked at him in the bed, and Paul said he was a giant, seven feet tall. He used to bound around in Psych and terrify the other patients. They had to get a special bed in the ICU. Not only big, but it rotated this way and that to prevent blood clots and keep the long muscles working.
His mother, Elsa, tried to kiss the moving target of his suture line and was reprimanded. So she snatched his cold hand which was contracted strangely like a claw. Seeing that, she lost her composure, and her birdlike chest fluttered. Myrna added her long pink-painted nails for strength. I found Myrna fascinating, with her swirling eyes like little gray universes. There had to be a lot of sadness in them, given her brother’s long suffering. I pictured them closing down against his hallucinations. Her ears against his whispers to the unseen.
They came every day for the visiting hours, placing little mementos near his tightened hands: tiny model cars, dinosaurs, rubber spiders, all the things from his youth that he still hadn’t gotten over. A grown man who saw into the past but was terrified of what the future held—like entities that would hunt him down. Sometimes the tubing of the ventilator keened as he cried through it. At these times Myrna held my hand, dug her nails into my palm. She was taller and stronger than me. I was a virgin, but I didn’t know about her. It seemed unlikely, given her grip on things. She was knowledgeable about her brother’s condition, how hyperventilating him caused a decrease in the intracranial pressure. I was impressed.
After a week Myrna wanted to have lunch with me. We were picking up stuff for a picnic out on the hospital lawn. The spring sky was a cool blue, high up, oblivious to what went on down here. It should have known of suffering, that it was getting away with something, yet it still managed to soothe. We gathered sandwiches and wine: I was off duty. We were tipsy when we went back and I thought I saw Rich’s eyes, which had been randomly roving back and forth, stop and make contact with mine, if just for five seconds. “He looked into you,” Myrna said. “I mean really looked in. Did you feel anything?”
“I think I did. Like a little fuzzy spark in my spine.” It had given me the creeps. At that moment the strange keening came through the ventilator and the high-pressure limit went off, like he was trying to tell me something. I took a stab. “He says he’s sorry he did this. He didn’t mean to hurt others.” I had the weird thought: If I could just save him from this, I could win the love of his sister. But the only thing I could do was wash him like we did as our duty, to lay on hands, as it were. This was something Paul and I did each day, rolling his long body carefully, moving a washcloth gently over bruised skin. Sometimes Myrna would be there for that, her and her mother taking small breaths to not disrupt our flow. Sometimes he would make the crowing sound as if to complain of pain or of being trapped in his body.
His birthday came up. His mother brought in a cake and placed it on his chest, which thundered with the machine’s breaths and his strong heartbeat. The candles were unlit, of course, but sharp points from the overhead lights mixed with sunspots from the window and lit his green eyes, which flickered like flames. We sang and his eyes fell on mine once again, locking with a deep meaning. I hung the tooth around his neck like a talisman. His mother cut the cake and passed it around, nourishment for healing, sugar for his brain power, for the workings of cell rejuvenation. She rubbed some frosting on his torn lip for the possible, the probable, whatever it took. His eyes always stopped on me, which was why his mother asked me to their house. Myrna seemed pleased with the idea, biting down on her hair to give me a vision to come.
Their home was big, to accommodate all its tall people. I shrunk in there, fading in bars of sunlight, small next to portraits of her children, paintings with sad eyes and snakes, angels in the backgrounds to heal. She curled me next to Myrna on the wide soft sofa, bringing us wine in big glasses, watching carefully as Myrna’s arm moved near mine to become one. She fed me a heaping plate so that I could grow, so that I felt myself filling with her and Myrna’s intentions. Drunk, Myrna held me in her arms, on her lap, beneath her red lips, which made their way to mine. Her mother watched, hungrily. I felt a first flush of love, Myrna’s hair entwining me, fragrant like an angelic serpent. She carried me to her feather bed, lifted me, dropped me, lifted me, like a cat with a toy. “My mother is listening at the wall,” she said, said that love was a family thing, which freaked me. But she had me ever so gently then, so that I purred under her touch, she played at every point of my body, there was no turning back, it was certainly love or something like it, just this side of it, clamoring at the edge. Virgin no more, I floated above the feathers which were like comforting blades. On the other side of the wall her mother giggled, and in the mirror my head exploded to crimson as someone who has given orgasms to two.
* * *
“What are your intentions with my sister?” I was rolling Rich when he whispered these words, which were impossible. Perhaps she had hit my head on the headboard, or some other love injury; maybe my blood flow or body chemistry.
“I’m going to marry her.”
His hands relaxed for the first time, opened a bit, and I put my fingers in his huge ones. They were dry for the first time as well. He watched me, as usual. “Take me off the machine,” he said.
“You know I can’t do that. You’ll die.”
“I won’t. You’ll see. I can breathe, and I can fly.”
“Well, we know you can’t fly. That’s how you got here.” Why was I talking to him? Why was he talking to me? I hadn’t done LSD for a while now. I was clean, yet here it was, the situation I’d thought about with other comatose patients, entering their other worlds. I closed my eyes, and there was a rustling sound. When I opened them, he had enormous wings, copper-colored feathers, soft like his sister’s bed. He said, “Just get on my back and we’ll go.”
I had my doubts, yet I just wrapped my fingers around his gown ties like reins and we dove out the window—down, down, down to certain death—but then up, up, up … to cool twisting tunnel clouds and the diamond paths through the black holes, collecting the important cloud breath like cotton candy and the shards of the diamonds, in this way becoming rich.
Rich said to hang on and we dipped low and fast into a large cave. He said this was where he came when he was scared and hallucinating, all through the bad school years when he had gone catatonic and they couldn’t reach him, sometimes for hours. He would be here, making his terrifying sculptures so he could destroy them with his huge stone hands and bleed himself so the school nurse had to wrap him. No one saw how it happened: his hands would just bleed when holding completely still. Then he would act normal until the next episode. From somewhere in the cave, classical music played, the rise and fall of a life, the rise again, wings into the night.
We flew to look in on his mother sleeping, swishing along the huge window. Myrna was lying naked on the sofa, her great patch of pubic hair black against her paler skin that went on and on. We flew back to the hospital and hooked everything back up. There was no one around, which seemed strange. Rich stopped talking, and then Paul came on duty. He looked at me and said, “What the hell?” My hair was sticking up. My orderly snaps half undone, my eyes the size of big marbles after witnessing craziness. For some reason I kept our secret. I had visited the underworld and freed Rich. I was the one who knew, his savior.
That day they weaned him off the ventilator and he breathed on his own. Myrna and her mother were there, talking to him. He closed his eyes for the first time, giving them a needed rest. I thought about his peace. I listened to him speak the language of the underworld. Only I understood, he needed to be freed from this body, but I told him he had to be patient, I whispered that into his ear in his language, and Myrna held my hand like she understood the secret language we shared. I blew a feather I found.
Outside it stormed and Rich shed a tear the color of rain. His narrow chest heaved once like a cloud shifting in the heavens. The bolt was withdrawn from his head, and he moved through his language of thanks which sounded like a prayer. His scar healed like a straight road to a future hope, question marks along it in puckered groups of speed bumps. With no one else around I traced them, read like braille. We took our flight, this time as far as the sea, salt wind pressing my lungs, twisted face not used to it. I squinted and hardened like stone. I changed places with him. Becoming a different speaker, words from stone, talking underwater with creatures and mermaids, sinking, rising, playful with all. Rich spoke dolphin and they rode with me, nuzzling.
Back at the hospital I dried us with towels, shook his wings out, smoothed them, dissolved them. Rich again, but with a straight smile, almost happy. But he knew he still wasn’t free; these flights were only of fancy. And fantasy. I wasn’t sure what was real anymore.
What I felt was real was the lovemaking, the crazy hard and soft that was Myrna in her best form, rolling me in a ball, stretching me, and many different forms in between that fit in the parts of her. She was the sum of her parts and so much greater. I wanted her so badly, wanted to marry her and be with her all the time. I asked her at the hospital, her mother letting out a whimper, Rich with a mischievous smile that reformed his bruised nose. I had no money for a ring, just my mother’s worry ring, but no one was worried that this marriage wouldn’t last. I had seen the future: sculptures of us in the cave with an infant, nothing scary in it, his down feathers giving it a soft base, a loving creche. And we exchanged our beautifully sculpted vows there in the room with a soft shaft of sunlight breaking through inflamed clouds of our emotions, throwing our shadows on the wall, Rich standing tall with us, his new legs trembling. In my mind I hear the music from the cave, soft, distant but real somehow, a soundtrack to our new lives. Myrna picks me up and swings me, breeze from the open window kissing my face along with her.
* * *
Rich learns to walk again, across the wide expanse of the rehab floor in the autumn light. Myrna and I move slowly, listening to his broken words. She holds her pregnant belly, humming a strange song which, unknown to her, has come from the cave. How can that be? Maybe she flew with him, too. It guides us, our steps with it, back and forth, long shadows, ghosts. “I know … that,” he says, tilting his lopsided head, an ear cocked. He starts to hum, a low, coarse sound that matches the shuffle of his slippers.
Mary is born small, I hold her in two hands. Rich can hold her in one. But she is strong, twisting all that life has given her, a pretty thing crying with her big heart, all heart. Rich has a strong smile now, sculpted like his stone. Since his fall he no longer has psychosis. As a miracle, he walks and talks, gaunt but with knowledge of the other world.
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