Herewith a novella by my old friend Christopher Noel. Chris was teaching at Vermont College when I arrived (eons ago). He was something of a young legend with a dramatic and melancholy past who could move an audience to tears or laughter when he read. In my mind, he will always be part of that place, especially Noble Lounge, packed with students and faculty, the condensation dripping off the windows, winter outside, and Chris. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here and remind us all of old times.
This is my last word on the subject. I guess you could call it a kind of affidavit, if what I witnessed so long ago still falls under the category of crime.
Today is Maggie’s birthday−she’d have been sixty-five−and my daughters have stepped away briefly from their own lives and families to travel here; for the first time in years, it’s just the three of us. We’re having a quiet day, forced inside by rain, eating well, talking about the distant past, trying to conjure their mother, getting distracted by our pleasure in the now. We don’t even look at old photos, because that routine has felt played out long since. To celebrate their arrival last night, I made a vegetable beef stew, very ambitious cooking for me, and now we’re emptying that pot for lunch. Freya and I sip red wine, but Justine, pregnant with her third child, only water.
“So, Dad, you going to jump right on that report this afternoon?” Freya asks me, winking broadly and reaching for a slice of rye bread. “Or should we throw you in the Homework Slammer?” She wears her brown hair clipped short these days, and last spring she and her husband finally went for Lasik surgery, so she looks more different than ever from her twin, who keeps her signature blue-framed glasses and hair halfway down her back.
How constantly surprising they are to me, my girls, and I don’t mean because of their beauty and their gifts, though I confess I’ve never quite gotten used to all that, either, and must hand all credit to one Margaret Ellen Hutchins. I mean instead their immunity to self-pity; I also mean their perfect knowledge of me and the light touch with which they apply it. If I become, for instance, as I often do, maudlin and self-indulgent about my past and my solitary lot in life, one of them will laugh, “Grind it finer, Dad. Grind it finer,” while the other will beam a compassionate silence that lets me hear more clearly my own sorry tone. They’ll both look at me in a way, from a particular angle, that rules out pity at the same time as it takes my troubles more seriously, strikes nearer my center, than pity ever could. They are simply with me, these women, more than anyone else on Earth. More even than Maggie, my once and only wife, who has not merely faded over time, which I expected, but has continued to fade, gaining momentum.
“I know,” I tell Freya, “I did promise myself I’d write the thing today.” And I promised Professor Claude Estes, historian of science and medicine at the University of Oklahoma. How he dug up my name I’ll never know, but for the past seven years he’s been working on a book that argues for the existence of the White Center, a place that the years have elevated—or demoted—to the status of myth. The professor insists my perspective is indispensable, which I do not doubt. The book’s completion, apparently, awaits only my reluctant chronicle.
“And it’s not exactly procrastination weather,” Justine points out, clinking glasses with Freya and me. She double-palms her swelling belly and yawns, the theoretical notion of procrastination leading smoothly into the concrete tug of an afternoon nap.
In the matter of this project, the girls have surprised me once again. I frankly thought they’d recoil when I finally informed them, this morning, about Estes’s exposé. Instead, the news hit them like a kind of external ratification, as if up till now our experience in Honduras might have been a three-way figment. Freya even held up her wrist to show us the small, pearly scar from the spider monkey attack.
Before she waddles off down the hall to the same bedroom she slept in as a girl, Justine clears away the lunch plates and Freya sets my laptop before me, flips it open, turns it on, announces, “Yes, it’s into the Slammer for you now, Dad. Make it happen. Make us famous!” Then they both cruelly absent themselves, Freya borrowing my car keys with a sly smile and roaring off toward town.
Thirty-seven years ago, our first date began with a nervous Italian dinner at which I downed far too much Chianti and pasta pugliese. Maggie and I then made the lucky mistake of attending a film called Daughters of the Dust that featured people living on a South Carolina island who still speak Gullah, an African dialect. They speak it on the beach; they speak it on front porches; they emit lengthy monologues; they speak it on the hoods of old cars. Mostly, it is plaintive women. The movie, as I recall, has no particular plot except for the speaking of Gullah; they often speak it up in trees, at dusk.
After maybe forty minutes, I began to lose consciousness, but when I noticed Maggie’s head bobbing around, too, I got to giggling at her struggle. We hung in there for another ten or fifteen minutes, sort of enjoying the challenge and feeling like a team, but when yet another speech got underway—this time inside a gently swaying dinghy—we agreed to abandon ship. I was nearest the aisle so led the way. The theater was very dark, so I didn’t realize at first what my kneecap had connected with so hard, the head of a sleeping man, pitched backward over his seat. “Ow—Ow…OW!” The gentleman rose to confront me, hand pasted to the back of his skull. I apologized profusely, of course, and, still dazed, he allowed us to slink away.
It was during coffee afterward, as we reminisced already about our Bonnie and Clyde past and then Maggie began to talk about teaching, that I encountered, as though for the first time, the mind/body distinction. As in a parlor trick, her obvious physical qualities receded into an illusory shimmer while her mind took center stage and said, Ta Da! As she spoke, I watched her brown eyes shifting intricately and decided that they formed a dialect the very opposite of Gullah and that they were simply loaded with plot, with consequence. She told me, for example, why she liked to read Greek mythology aloud to her eighth-graders. “If kids hear a three-thousand-year-old story and can point to classmates whose personalities match those of the characters in the story, that’s a giant first step. Or say a girl can recognize her own power over guys in the stare of Medusa, she might be a little less likely to think she just invented it.”
“And get carried away?”
“Exactly right, Stephen. She can possibly get a glimmer of a humbling context, not become so…sort of…drunk on herself, so distracted.”
Speaking of humbling context, I soon lost any confidence I may have accrued during twenty-eight years on the planet. While Maggie picked at a slice of pecan pie, I expanded on some point having to do, I think, with the minimum wage and tried not to notice how the parlor trick now neatly reversed itself—her sweet, distracting contours rushing back into the spotlight. The more I mourned my chances of ever glimpsing, without a telescope, this woman without her clothes, the more I wished I were yammering in Gullah; at least then it wouldn’t be entirely the fault of my mind when, any second, she’d begin again to nod off.
As I described it later to my friend Nathan, I felt I had been struck in the head by a pillowcase filled with concrete and feathers. “Mixed?” he said. “No,” I said, “both simultaneously. Like it’s full of concrete, and then on the other hand it’s full of feathers, the softest down.” “Oh, that’s real logical.” Nathan didn’t feel this way about his girlfriend.
In Maggie’s car that same evening, however, she took mercy. I still have no idea how it could have happened. She leaned in to me and squinted as if assessing some lesser figure from myth. “Oh, I think this one likes to kiss.” “You don’t say,” I answered. “It’s true!” she said, and then she proved it.
Now, through the lens of the professor’s book about the White Center, what I have written suddenly humiliates me.
Grind it finer, Daddy.
The events in question are thirty years past. I will do my best to stick only to the facts as I experienced them. I will try not to get side-tracked by irrelevant material.
It was the stormy spring of 2001, plentiful with water spouts, and I had just received my degree in Business Administration from the University of South Florida. My wife Maggie was pregnant with twins and felt so cooped up by the weather that whenever we could, we took walks along the beach. Often we could observe, far out to sea, those slender cyclones cruising silently back and forth. Maggie once said, “Look, Zeus is stealing from Poseidon,” and so I had to tease her for sounding pretentious. But sometimes the sun would come in at just the right angle and turn a spout silver, and then even I could not help seeing metaphysical significance. We took it personally, accepting the grace of our days.
The day of the suspicious sonogram, however, the world held no such displays, only a low ceiling of gunmetal gray and a surging surf that kept dashing our ankles. We’d just come from the doctor, who informed us that now three objects competed for space inside Maggie’s abdomen, the two fetuses and a dark mass attached to the wall of her stomach. Since she was due to give birth in just five weeks, the decision was made that whatever the results of the biopsy, surgery must be postponed.
The mass turned out to be malignant, my wife was induced ten days early, Freya and Justine arrived flawless and pink, the mass was removed, and for more than four years, cancer became as mythical in our minds as Poseidon, Zeus, and Medusa.
I had taken a job as liaison officer at a large ecotourism concern in downtown Miami. We put together packages to Central and South America, and so I was always winging off to one pristine site or another to reinforce existing good will or to forge new company ties.
Three times already, I’d taken my family to Belize, just a seventy-minute flight southwest, where we’d begun to establish favorite family haunts in the island town of San Pedro, with its streets made of talc-fine dust; emerald water; bulky land crabs everywhere underfoot; iguanas hiding motionless on palm trunks; an open-air arcade that the girls called “The Catch-It Place,” where among other games children could win a prize by tossing a rubber ball to a spider monkey twenty feet away accurately enough for him to catch it, if he was in the mood; and, on our latest visit, a seven-year-old boy named Ernesto who kept a blue heron behind his family’s cinder-block house, the bird standing much taller than himself. Freya asked if she could touch it, Justine hanging back, but the boy shook his head, and pantomimed a broken arm.
When I got the phone call I was in Quito suffering from altitude sickness. Maggie’s voice was twice-muffled, by distance and by my clogged eustachian tubes, and she put the news across flatly. When I stumbled through the door nine hours later, it was her five girlfriends who greeted me, explaining that she’d taken several Ativan and conked out. They cried with me in the kitchen, and this brought my daughters downstairs, blinking and insulted by light. I carried them back to their beds and succeeded in placing the focus on my early homecoming and my pleasure in holding them. Freya asked why I’d been crying, and I said, “Because I’m just so happy to see my girls, that’s why.” Though they are “identical,” her hair is slightly darker than Justine’s—even today, at thirty-five—and she’s got more of her mother’s jaw line, too, sharper, bone nearer the surface, whereas Justine came away with my lower lip, how it curls down a bit, not the whole thing, like a pout, just at the rim between red and non-red skin. “But you never cried before,” Justine pointed out, taking up the baton, “sep when you go ‘way.” And so I had to admit she was absolutely right, that she and her sister had caught me and scored big points. They applauded themselves in the dark.
By the time I returned to the kitchen, Maggie had joined her friends at the table and was picking at a drumstick of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken, face hanging close to the plate. Looking up, she seemed for a moment almost embarrassed to see me, then snapped out of it when I rushed her. Now it was her friends’ turn to feel awkward, and they faded into the living room, Sandra taking the greasy white bucket.
“The doctors know a lot yet, Stephen,” she said when she could get her mouth clear of my chest. It was the same thing she’d told me over the phone, and that during her annual MRI, spots had shown up on her liver. She now specified, “They found six spots on my liver.” Her words were so slurred by the tranquilizers that at first I heard “sex pots.”
“I know, Maggie, I know. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Who even really believes they have a liver?” I tried to lead her toward the stairs, but she broke free and wove toward the living room, where Sandra thrust a chicken breast into my hand, a gesture that seemed crass for two seconds and then quite ingenious. The crunchy food tasted like round salvation.
Seven months later, we left our oncologist’s office with nothing at all, nothing but one word, “riddled,” which struck us both, sitting petrified in the car, as appropriate—yes, we’d been handed a riddle, and it boiled down to another single word: “What?”
The previous week, our girls had turned five. “Mommy’s gun be jus’ fine,” Freya had announced, balancing on her head a newly unwrapped model dolphin she’d picked out down in Belize. The group of neighborhood children nodded blankly at her.
Maggie rolled open her window and asked me to drive to the beach. She removed her wig so the breeze could blow dry her fuzzy, sweaty scalp. When we passed by a Dumpster, she asked me to slow down and then tossed the wig into it. Freya had hated the thing because it was lighter than Maggie’s real hair, making Justine instead look more like Mommy.
At the beach, our thinking came back to life by shifting to a more manageable riddle: “How are we going to tell them?” Maggie listed against me, knee-deep in ocean foam, she paler than the foam, and so thin. Advances in chemotherapy had minimized nausea, but still the poisons didn’t exactly spur appetite. She’d lost thirty-eight pounds since starting the megadose treatments the day after Kentucy Fried Chicken. The body I had come to love even more after it produced our daughters, the same one Maggie had blamed for “going south,” for remaining soft in the middle and depriving her of her youth, had winnowed itself down now to that of an anorexic twelve-year-old.
“They’ll never understand it, of course,” I said. “No one would be able to absorb this, not even the wisest old person.”
She squatted into a sheet of incoming water and turned her bone-built face up to me; this meant she had to look almost directly into the sun, but she lacked the energy or heart to squint much; this made her seem to be flinching while trying not to flinch—a sort of default bravery frightening to behold. “Stephen, I can’t believe you said old person.”
“I know, Mag, I know.” I knelt to her level and she sat lower, but the water pulled away abruptly, excavating her sand and sending her lower still. “I knew it as soon as it came out.” I pulled her to her feet and we kept walking in the direction of our usual turn-around spot, a stone jetty about a mile down the beach. But after twenty-five yards she swung us back toward the parking lot. We had no words to fill the journey anyway, even if she’d had physical means. The sky was aggressively blue. Seagulls slid sideways on the air in order to confuse us about the nature of progress, crying out in their hollow burlesque of misery.
When the pilot of the little twin-engine plane unlatched and popped its door at the airstrip in San Pedro, Belize, we let the girls go ahead of us, watching them climb carefully backward down the aluminum steps, then turn to run, arms lifted into the plush afternoon air, through a shortcut they’d learned last time, a brief span of pebbles and sawgrass leading to a sunny side-street. Freya beat Justine by inches to the yellow hibiscus tree. They wore identical cornflower blue sun dresses that they called “our Pedro dress,” the only articles of clothing they permitted to match; Maggie’s new head scarf was the same color, which the girls found hilarious.
I helped my wife down the steps, then went back for her wheelchair, another new development. Unfolded, it held both rider and, in saddlebags, our light provisions. We’d had to get away from the draining sympathies of home, but planned to remain here on the island this time no longer than necessary, maybe a day or two, only until inspiration visited us with right language.
Ernesto’s blue heron was not in the yard anymore. Crushed, Freya and Justine held out hope that the bird was simply indoors, sleeping. The boy, having grown taller in just a few months, emerged from his home with a half-eaten russet mango in his hand and mimicked flight, then told me, “A veces regresa,” which I conveyed to my girls: “Sometimes, he comes back.”
The wheels of Maggie’s chair did poorly in the dust of Asuncion Street. As I pushed and yanked her toward our rented cabaña, land crabs clacked into view, still wary and militant after one hundred million years of survival, eyestalks tensile. In the past, Freya had often enjoyed taunting these creatures, to make them assume battle posture, to make herself feel mighty, to make her sister scream, but in the wake of Ernesto’s news both girls were now shaky and downcast. They’d been talking about the injured heron constantly for months, all through their mother’s diminishment.
There are land crabs in Peru as well, though these are sleeker and prowl the sidewalks in quick, tight battalions. I’d curtailed my travel schedule but could not suspend it. While in Lima recently, I’d learned from a magazine that scientists had unearthed a dinosaur skull high in the Andes that showed unmistakable signs of a brain tumor. An older man sitting nearby in the bar, with coarse gray hair and remarkably gentle eyes, apparently noticed the condition of my own face as I stared at the fossil’s photograph. He came over to join me, introduced himself as Elias San Jimel, a medical doctor, and then listened patiently to my description of Maggie’s illness, drawing information out with highly specific questions. After maybe fifteen minutes, I paused for breath and to finish my beer; he placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke quietly into my ear: “Occasionally, Señor Mills, we must look to nature with fresh eyes, without blinders. Believe me, the truth can go unrecognized for long centuries.” I nodded gravely, envisioning only the poor dinosaur. Then, San Jimel leaned back and invited me to attend a traditional midnight Mass with him in a little wooden church outside of town. I did so gratefully, laying aside for ninety minutes both my misery and my unbelief. I found the Latin liturgy, chanted in the middle of the night, strangely soothing.
A crab rushed Justine, its business claw extended, so I swept her up and she sobbed against me, at which point Maggie, frustrated, stood from her wheelchair and pulled it herself the rest of the way to our cabana, not far but leaving her spent and flat in bed for the rest of the day, in a haze of pills.
First thing in the morning, we reported to our traditional breakfast spot, a little pavilion at the end of a dock with palm-thatched roof and no walls. Everything seemed normal, except for the chair, bumping along the boards. Maria behind the counter was thrilled as ever to see the twins, and she lifted them one by one, plucked them each a banana from a bunch hanging on a hook. The tourists hadn’t discovered “Maria’s” yet, or didn’t like its limited accommodations; one had to perch on a bar stool or else sit at the edge of the dock itself. Occasionally, warm waves would cover our dangling feet and send miniature geysers up through knotholes in the wood around us. Today, though, the Caribbean was tranquil and we took our usual places, Maggie and I book-ending the two girls, all of us holding our paper bowls of egg-ham-and-pineapple jumble.
The water was so calm, in fact, that we could see right down through it to the bottom, maybe twelve feet deep, where scarlet fingerlings pecked at a pale dome of brain coral; a school of neon blue tetras shifted this way and that in unison, their silver bellies glinting at moments; among rocks dressed in swaying green vegetation, pygmy lobsters zipped backward and stopped to spar with each other; and a solitary clownfish—much larger and more poised than the rest, bright yellow with blue polka dots and an elongated, downsloping face that ended in a comically tiny mouth—described a square course, again and again, around an upright frond. Whenever a cloud passed over the sun, all this activity would disappear, and then the puffs of breeze were enough to chill us in our light jackets.
“Freya, Justine,” I said, and they looked up. “We have to tell you something about Mommy.” We’d finally worked out the words in the middle of the night, but Maggie said she couldn’t be the one. “She won’t,” I pronounced, “be able to stay with us much longer.”
They blinked. Freya nodded. Justine checked back with the fish at the bottom and then asked, “She’s gun go home without us?”
“No, see, you have to understand. When a person…” I strangled.
“I’m just too sick now, girls,” Maggie said, in strong voice, draping an arm over their shoulders. “I wish I could tell you something different. The doctors tried everything in the whole world, I promise you, I just didn’t get better, that’s all.”
Justine shrugged free of the arm and dumped her food into the ocean. Fingerlings rose to the surface and gulped grains of rice.
Freya had not stopped nodding. “You have to die,” she said matter-of-factly.
“That’s…yes, everybody has to—”
“Can we still go to The Catch-It Place today?”
That night, after seeing my family finally crumble into sleep, I slipped out and found a quiet nightclub, stationed myself at its dimmest corner table with a glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels. This had been the worst day of my life, worse even than the day last week when Maggie and I had heard “riddled,” because today we’d had to watch this same truth vanish harmlessly and then reappear a thousand times on the faces of our daughters. We’d kept them busy and fielded their questions so deftly and with such equilibrium that I half expected we’d be presented with an award from some anonymous and caring witness. For the first time in Freya’s life, the spider monkey in the arcade caught her throw but then flung the rubber ball back at her, and then the twins melted down, shrieking, sprinting out onto the white-bleached street and into the midst of a band of inebriated tourists laughing in Hawaiian shirts, reflector sunglasses, straw hats with plastic fruit dangling from the brims. When one of them, a girl in her twenties with a noise-maker in her hand, had patted Justine on the head and told her, “Hey, Kiddo, get back to me when you’ve got some real problems,” I understood that we were all alone.
After my third drink I began to feel…what? Not resignation exactly, but something like a sensation of being more firmly seated inside helplessness, as though I could learn eventually to be at home here.
A broody, middle-aged woman had been eyeing me since my arrival, and when she stood, approached, and asked to join me, I thought at first she was up to something slinky, something that, once she knew my circumstances, she’d cancel with mortified contrition. She introduced herself as Sylvina Urbana and I slid a chair out for her, preparing my bombshell with a certain relish. She lit a slim brown cigarette and dropped a bomb of her own, though I didn’t initially recall the name Elias San Jimel, not until she mentioned the midnight Mass in Lima. She herself was not a doctor but “una químico vascular,” a vascular chemist, and a colleague of Doctor San Jimel’s in Honduras. As soon as she stated this, I remembered that indeed the man had told me he was not Peruvian; he’d been in country for some conference.
“Sí, pues” she said, smiling, tweaking the flap of her ear with one hand and adjusting her rimless, oval spectacles with the other, “una clase de conferencia, muy coverta, para compartir información entre personas similares.”
An under-cover conference? I poured myself another drink and asked the woman how she’d found me, “y porqué?”
“Mira,”she said, taking a deep breath and starting to go again for that ear flap, but interrupting the gesture. “The doctor was much moved by your situation,” she continued, still in Spanish, “and we have been following your wife’s progress through our connections. You see, Señor Mills, we never intercede unless a patient is terminal. Our facility is located just three hundred and ten kilometers from here, in Honduras, and we exist for cases precisely like your…like Maggie’s.”
I was more than half drunk now, and her words had begun to take on a dreamlike cast, so I allowed myself to pretend I was in a movie. This was quite a relief. By her leave, I took and lit a cigarette, then, exhaling smoke, delivered a line with a straight face that the real Stephen Mills could never have pulled off—the Spanish equivalent of…“Okay, I’m listening.”
Sylvina didn’t crack a smile either. Our smoke mingled. I sensed that her life consisted of such cloak-and-dagger encounters, when, of course, she was not in pursuit of those pesky enigmas of vascular chemistry.
“You see, Señor Mills, we can cure her.”
The movie projector burned a hole through the celluloid and the film snapped. I pounded both fists on the table, knocking over my glass of whiskey and drawing hooded looks from throughout the club. But without alarm, my stranger-tormenter drew from her bag a cell phone, flipped it open, hit a single button, and handed me the unit, which I accepted because even an angry dog will sniff a sudden treat. The voice on the other end was that of Doctor Elias San Jimel.
Twenty-five minutes later, I snapped the phone shut and returned it to its owner across the table. I did not cry during the ensuing silence between me and Sylvina Urbana; I had already done so three times shamelessly on the line with the doctor, making him wait me out.
Back inside our cabaña, after floating there from the nightclub beneath searing constellations I could swear were fresh experiments, I sat and watched my three loved ones sleeping, trapped still inside the previous world, suffering under its old laws. If everything I’d heard tonight was true—which only meant, after all, that each of the medical procedures must be as feasible as advertised, as straightforward and, frankly, even modest—and if, then, the procedures could be performed in sequence within a world-class operating theater by surgeons who had apparently achieved the desired result so often it had come to seem routine, then as much as I resisted this conclusion out of fear of seduction, there was simply no room for doubt. Maggie could be saved.
As though she were beginning to suspect by osmosis her immanent reversal of fortune, my wife’s breathing sounded robust, heroic, yet against the pillow her head seemed connected to her body by a slender stalk, and her face, after the day we’d seen, after the year she’d been through, resembled that of a seventy-five-year-old, after a life. The skeletal contours of her body, under the sheet, reminded me absurdly of the morning three years earlier when Maggie had noticed in the mirror her first gray hair. “Oh, so it’s me, too,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the other bed, under their sheet, Freya and Justine clung to each other, arms and legs urgently entwined, just as they had for months now, ever since their mother began losing weight and losing hair—since long before they knew that they knew.
I decided not to wake anyone right away, much as I trembled, radiating information, information such as the fact that as soon as the first rogue cell traveled to Maggie’s brain, the treatment would be impossible. In four hours, at dawn, I’d need to rouse them all anyway, so that we could get to the beach in time to meet the helicopter.
I’d had no inkling how extreme were the mountains of northern Honduras, just forty minutes south of flat coastal Belize. Of course, I was always glad to see, anywhere in my travels, that logging and agribusiness, and the North American ecotourism industry (the meal ticket for me and mine), had not yet gotten around to spoiling all vast tracts of land south of the border. Sylvina sat beside me this time, but given the thundering rotor just above our heads, lacked the power of speech. She tapped my knee and jotted “2700 metros” on her clipboard−roughly nine thousand feet—then raised her eyebrows to encourage admiration.
Directly across from me, Maggie’s eyes sparkled at me like a double-dare, her mood revolutionized since our morning talk, her energy so thoroughly restored, that I wanted to call off this whole hideous stunt and schedule another MRI, suspecting spontaneous remission.
The girls were giddy, too—though we’d mentioned nothing of our destination or its purpose—and looked particularly striking today in their Pedro dress, bathed in early sunlight, belted in like the rest of us but bobbing inside their straps, each tugging at one of their mother’s arms and chattering words up at her that were so far from audible she could only laugh and touch their lips like someone discovering life all again.
When we’d hurried to the oceanside at five-thirty, these two were happy enough with the novelty of an early adventure, and to be able to witness a sunrise spread wide with every hue. But when a drab, camouflage-mottled machine dropped without warning through a salmony cloud and proceeded to actually land thirty feet away on the beach, when Sylvina smiled out the side door and beckoned us to climb aboard, they entirely forgot to be afraid, trotting merrily toward the unknown.
Now it seemed too late, somehow, to reconsider, though something in Maggie’s transport failed to take me in. Still queasy from hangover, I ran my fingers through my unwashed hair and returned my eyes to the concave window as we skimmed low over a range of icy peaks, bordered on either side by dense jade jungle.
The alarm clock had murdered me at five. Not only was the world I woke into not the fabulous new and weightless realm I’d entered the night before, it seemed to have lost value even by comparison to our family scene at the dock. At least there, we were all thrown together inside a shared emergency, cloaked in a kind of fateful nobility, whereas here, I was intending to introduce a concept that would strike chaos into our unity, probably hurling us in four different directions of response. Furthermore, the concept itself now sickened me, appearing every bit as repulsive as it had once seemed elegantly divine. In the bathroom, I vomited thickened whiskey.
By the time Maggie joined me, using the doorknob and counter tops for support, mumbling something about catching the first plane back home, I had recovered somewhat. I locked the door, dispensed for her the various powerful medications, which she swallowed, and then helped her to sit down on the toilet. Kneeling before her much as I had, in a supermarket, to propose marriage, I closed my eyes, steadied my breathing, and just plunged ahead, delivering the scientific pitch as convincingly as I was able.
I don’t know what I expected—maybe that she would be insulted?—but I never expected what I got. Maggie let out a gasp at the point when, as they had also with me, the details suddenly gathered to a critical mass and she recognized the startling conceivability of the thing. But it was not the gasp that astounded me, or not this as literal respiratory event; it was that her entire being partook, she gasped forward, lunging for me, bowling me over backward onto the cement floor, because I represented the idea, and the idea represented, well, no less than a chance at…everything again. Embracing her there on the floor, rolling from wall to wall within the bathroom, I felt in her bones only a breathtaking absence of ambivalence. Her decline had been so precipitous, our ordeal such an ungodly whirlwind, who’d had time for any “stages of grief,” for any leisurely arrival at the calm pool of “acceptance”? In retrospect, how could I have doubted that my wife would inhale the rhapsody whole?
As we flew further over the rugged Honduran interior, the girls still flounced in place, Maggie still permitting them, adoring their futures, I suffered disturbing flashbacks. On the Internet, seven years earlier, I’d happened across an underground documentary unearthed from 1971. It chronicled a short-lived experiment in “isolated-brain research.” American scientist Richard White had surgically decapitated a capuchin chimp and kept the head “alive” for fourteen hours atop a rather primitive-looking pump. Appearing before the camera in nerdy black horn-rimmed glasses and red-splattered scrubs, the young doctor explained—in the hurky-jerky manner of on-line video—that for months he’d been syphoning off and storing the monkey’s own blood, and now this is what the apparatus used to “feed” the brain. He then took the viewer through the physiology of the operation by using an anatomical wall chart and wooden pointer. “After all, only two major vessels service the organ,” he’d said, smiling stiffly. “The carotid artery carries oxygen-rich blood to the brain, and the jugular vein conducts the depleted blood back down toward the heart. It is quite a simple matter, actually, to sever the spine of the animal and to connect these vessels to our synthetic tubing, and in fact some day the very same procedure ought to be possible with human beings. The surgery will even be simpler with people,” he concluded, gesturing with an open hand, “because the structures involved are much larger than those of our tiny friend here.”
Mounted on a gray metal box, the head appears both alert and ancient, alert because the eyes keep darting around intelligently, curious about laboratory surroundings, blinking, following Doctor White’s index finger, and ancient because the swollen tongue continually thrusts out through the lips like that of an old man who is off his rocker. Otherwise, the facial muscles are slack beneath dark, leathery skin, forming no expressions, but those round eyes are filled with animation, and blinking. At several moments, Doctor White takes pity on the creature and very gingerly dabs with a tissue at the nostrils and upper lip, to clean away a bit of discharge there, as though generously extending this kindness in case his patient may be experiencing the slightest discomfort or embarrassment.
Shortly after this footage was shot, as the web site text informed me, governmental medical ethics authorities had shut his laboratory down and barred the scientist from further animal research. For years, as well, they had successfully suppressed the film.
The next day, I made my friends watch. Joe cracked, “Hey, yeah, that’s his brain child, get it? His brain child.” Nathan pushed his tongue out again and again, a joke he then reprised, because it spooked me, for weeks. But his girlfriend, Melinda, who had a black mole on her cheek, became very quiet at lunch. “You know, though,” she finally said, “when you really think about it, what’s the huge deal? I mean, we can transplant hearts and livers and lungs and kidneys, etcetera. If you were going to die—like if you had multiple-organ failure?—and they said, ‘Well, come on in and we’ll just replace all those bad parts with healthy ones,’ you’d totally do it, right? So why not—I mean if ya had to?—like transplant your whole body?”
Nathan stopped chewing and stared at her. “Who said anything about transplants, weirdo? That chimp’s just a head.”
She and I fell out of touch after Nathan broke up with her, and I’d forgotten this little speech of hers until my cell phone conversation with Doctor San Jimel at the nightclub; and then, at many low points during our subsequent odyssey in Honduras, thoughts of poor Melinda came to my aid again, she and her mole, thoughtful Melinda, who had died in a fiery car accident. After Nathan called her a weirdo, she’d made an oh-don’t-mind-me gesture with her hands and laughed. “No, I’m just saying.”
Our chopper set down in a narrow clearing. Into the peculiar lull after the pilot killed the motor, Sylvina called out, in English, “Welcome to our home! You will, I promise, like it here!” She took Maggie’s hand and the women exchanged a mutually infatuated gaze. Then, beaming at me and my daughters, she tweaked her ear flap again, this time to signify how fuzzy our hearing would be for a while.
We all unbuckled and helped each other out and down onto firm ground. Maggie, who hadn’t even bothered to ask her wheelchair along for the ride, stood without wobble for the first time in weeks, gripping the twins’ hands, sniffing the cool, high-altitude atmosphere and surveying the terrain of her chosen sanctuary. Not far off, looming just inside the jungle shadows, a pyramid commanded our immediate attention. It rose only maybe fifty feet, wrapped in a hatchwork of vines, and looking much the worse for wear, with no clean lines remaining, more like a mound of rocks, its top badly blunted, its descending tiers hardly discernable anymore—a decrepit version of the famous Guatemalan ruins at Tekal, to which my company sent vacationers with a taste for ancient mystery. This monument was flanked by two massive stone heads whose faces peered at us from the gloom with weathered, coarse features; one wore a sort of wistful expression, the other a vengeful sneer.
“Cabezas de los Mayas,” Sylvina said. “Tienen mil quinientos anos.” She leaned toward me confidentially. “Creíamos que señalaron un sitio apropiado, no?” An appropriate site? Well, at least they had a sense of humor, these scientists.
Justine broke down crying and even today’s Maggie couldn’t lift her. “Is it those heads?” I asked her in my arms. She nodded, whispering, “That mean one,” then hid her eyes against my neck. Freya, however, wanted to go check them out, as well as a troupe of spider monkeys that had just appeared among the leaves and branches above the pyramid. She’d pulled her mother several feet already when our pilot, Emanuel, announced that he was going to restart “el pájero,” the bird. Sylvina thanked him warmly, as did Maggie and I, and then she ushered us off through knee-high ferns in a different direction from the ruins. As we marched, and still with Justine draped over me, I assured Freya baselessly that we’d come back to visit the heads very soon. “And the monkeys,” she demanded.
“Ay, no!” Sylvina laughed, nearing the mouth of a pathway that, I could see, twisted downhill through broad-leafed vegetation. “Los monos te encontrarán, y pronto, chiquita!” I translated and Freya skipped ahead, grasping the forefinger of this new best friend and leading the woman into the bush.
And then, we were all enclosed by the shade, the steamy heat, and by the rapturous aromas of loam and nectar. Behind us, the helicopter churned into action again, its stutter quickly swallowed by the sky. Before us, the pathway curved and began its descent. The more our hearing returned, the more the jungle came alive around us, like the soundtrack of stock tropical birdcalls that we played as background music in our Miami office. High above, in the sun-favored canopy, pastels flitted everywhere, and Freya added her own shrill chirp to the chorus when a howler monkey, an infant clinging to her back, leapt across a yawning span between two branches. Blood-seeking insects, though, also appeared and grew thick in our faces, a feature we tended not to promote to clients.
“No es muy lejos,” Sylvina specified over her shoulder, but I noticed that the journey had already been too far for Maggie, who stumbled beside me, tripping over a root. I put my daughter down and took hold of my wife, helping her along as though carrying a rib cage through space.
“I’m sure they can bring a stretcher for you, Mag.”
She brushed the notion aside, huffing rapidly, and even refused my arm. “Not if…not if this is the last for me, this walk.” Justine halted in her tracks and glared up at her mother; after all, yesterday’s disclosure was old news, dubious now, the girl having slept since then. “I mean, Stephen, let’s be honest, right?” This made tears not come to my eyes but instantly be there. Maggie reached and palmed Justine’s back, where it was left bare by the sun dress, then with one good slap killed a trio of mosquitoes on the girl’s too-red shoulder (we’d completely forgotten sun screen), making her yelp. After this, my wife had to stand bent for a while, hands on thighs, finding her breath. Up ahead, Freya and Sylvina waited patiently for us. “Smell this air,” said Maggie, walking on her own again, sweeping her arms before her. “Feel this. I hope it’s miles.”
But it wasn’t miles. The facility’s entrance snuck up on us within five minutes—an anonymous green door partially obscured by foliage and recessed into the side of a hill rising boldly above us. “Señora Mills, Señor Mills, beautiful niñas!” said Doctor Elias San Jimel, opening the door and graciously speaking English, as in Lima. “Please accept my welcome, on behalf of the entire staff, to the White Center!” Dressed in an incongruous dark suit and tie, he embraced my wife and then me, shook my daughters’ hands, charming them almost painfully. Once inside the facility, we felt air conditioning hit us like a glad tiding, and the doctor’s attire made a bit more sense. Maggie relinquished her earlier campaign without a struggle, lowering her light self heavily into a wheelchair presented by a nurse. I took the handles and San Jimel conducted us at a casual pace down a sterile-blank corridor, trading pleasantries with Sylvina, Freya and Justine, assuring the latter that yes, plenty of peanut butter and jelly and chocolate milk was available here, in the cafeteria, and that no, she would not be forced to share her food with monkeys. When Freya asked him point-blank, “What are we doing here?” he glanced back at me, nodding when I shook my head.
The man was still just as likeable as I’d remembered, damn him—warm-eyed, buoyant, with smooth brown skin and an immediate smile; aside from his steel-gray hair, the only mark of advancing years was that one shoulder, when he walked, was hiked slightly higher than the other. I didn’t recall this from Lima; if anything, though, he seemed even more expansively humane than when we sat side by side in that hard chapel pew. Yet I found myself, now and for the next several hours, seeking in him an untrustworthy glint, hitch or inflection, some ready means of alienation that could allow us to quit the place on moral grounds, to escape this “cure” and perhaps somehow, by retroactive extension, the whole grisly cycle of events born of a routine sonogram. Nor could the facility complex itself, built here so impressively into the earthen heart of this remote hillside, quite be described as any mere, and dismissible, chamber of horrors.
On the other hand, the post-operative patients to whom we were introduced certainly did, at first, make our skin crawl. After Sylvina led Freya and Justine away to a playroom with juice and cereal, after a private breakfast with our medical team, an orientation affair at which the doctors became, by dint of professional enthusiasm, enormously specific as to impending procedures, such that Maggie was unable to keep down her mushroom and tomato omelette, and after we were coached not to expect the recovering patients to stir, their mouths to speak, their faces even to twitch, we were conducted to the convalescent ward to meet one Harold Fasulo, from Green Bay, a retired jeweler, and his sullen, tight-lipped daughter Ruth, a woman who would state only, several times and in monotone, “pancreatic cancer, inoperable,” and, “Mom says she won’t stay married to no melon.”
When San Jimel pulled up the blanket, we learned that this pasty-faced Midwesterner was now firmly affixed—by means of fading Frankenstein sutures—to a tawny, well-hewn male body, that of a twenty-four-year-old Mexico City construction worker who’d been beaned by a falling girder. It was strange to see so much of this sad form—clad only in underpants—and to wonder what, in the new order, must become of modesty. The recipient of the body conveyed to his attending nurse via blinks that he did not at the moment wish, with whatever advanced equipment, to communicate with us. Then, he just lay in his bed gazing up at us abstractly, if rather companionably, every now and then rolling his eyes toward and away from his daughter, as if to mean, “Hey, don’t listen to her, she’s never been happy.”
“What’s that?” Maggie indicated a black plastic device, like a drain catch, embedded just above the sternum.
“Permanent esophageal shunt,” said San Jimel, grinning as though this were a joke, though it didn’t sound like one. “It’s where the feeding tube is attached twice a day, for only ten minutes. Believe me, nobody’s getting fat and lazy on this diet.” There it was; his group of colleagues laughed dutifully.
We noted that the man’s chestnut hair had come back in, wispy though it was.
“Oh, yes, yes,” said the anaesthesiologist, Burt Larkin, one of the few Anglos we’d met on staff. “You can expect significant regrowth within five weeks.”
“We call it a fringe benefit,” San Jimel tossed in, colleagues this time merely frowning. “And you’ve got a luxurious full head there, Maggie. I’ve seen pictures.”
“Well, thank you, Doctor,” she said.
Herald Fasulo began to drool, and his daughter Ruth tended to him with a washcloth.
Of course, I couldn’t help flashing again onto Doctor White’s simian victim, its quick eyes, that endlessly thrusting tongue, the delicate wiping of its nose, although I did find myself placated by the fact that supposedly, at least, this patient here could anticipate many years of thoughtful living.
Rosa Villanueva, the staff psychologist and a dead-ringer for a Latina Sally Field, outlined for us the “re-integration scenario”: when a patient has shown steady metabolic functioning, and then has mastered two challenging skill sets, both governed by the eyeballs— “facilitated speech” and wheelchair manipulation—then she or he is discharged and may simply return to previous life, able to pass in public quite easily, if properly dressed (with tasteful neck scarf), for a standard quadriplegic.
I asked why patients couldn’t speak or move their faces, like Christopher Reeve. “That’s because Chris’s spinal cord was ruptured beneath the seventh vertebra,” Villanueva replied, checking with her boss, who gestured for her to go ahead and field this simple medical query, “whereas we have to make the cut higher, beneath the fifth vertebra, before inserting the titanium rod. This interrupts more of the neuromuscular signals.”
“Esperamos—excuse me…We hope someday to cut lower,” said San Jimel, “but this presents many difficulties from the standpoint of re-attachment.”
Maggie nodded, as though to remind herself she still could. Then, I saw her preventing herself from reaching for her own neck, probably suspecting that this would seem a lowly reaction.
“You will notice,” the Director continued, “that Stephen Hawking cannot use his natural voice, either, or control his facial muscles. His disease has progressed too high. Si levanta más, él nos debe llamar!” Everyone chuckled at what must have been a very old joke around here, the famous astrophysicist as prospective client—everyone except Ruth Fasulo and, of course, her father. We thanked them both and waved awkwardly goodbye. The daughter held my eyes with hers for a beat too long, lifting her lids too high at me; I’d seen plenty of her.
I pushed my wife back out into the hallway, noticing for the twentieth time the lack of natural light in here, and I asked why the facility had to be built underground.
“Absolutely no choice in the matter,” San Jimel said, and then explained that although construction was underwritten by major off-book funding from benefactors in countries where such research was deemed unconscionable, “What we’re doing would cause a world-wide outrage. Militants would find us and demolish the place in a heartbeat, if they could. Even the Honduran government has no idea we’re in here. Stories leak out, of course, but nobody puts much stock in them because we have gotten good at putting out disinformation, making the whole thing sound like science fiction. Not difficult to do on the Internet. For example, last month we stirred up a rumor that a facility has been discovered in Uruguay in which the heads of former Nazis have been sustained for decades on the bodies of Jews.”
Since basic information was up for grabs, I asked why no one had raised the issue of organ rejection.
“Oh, this is a fascinating thing,” Armando Cuello chimed in, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Really fascinating!” He was a journalist from San Diego, a short young man in casual khakis who’d been till now keeping to his strict role as observer, standing off to one side, hands in pockets. At breakfast, San Jimel had introduced him as the man given sole outside access to the facility and now busy writing the definitive book, to be released when the time was right. The suddenness of the outburst, and then its velocity, made the staff stand aside and give him his daily moment on stage. “The brain, you see, is the only organ that is not susceptible to rejection, as Richard White himself discovered back in the 70s. I recently interviewed him in Philadelphia. He’s seventy-two years old now and not too healthy. But he didn’t seem bitter about having his work suppressed, which I found surprising. He’s visited down here twice, when the place was first getting underway, but that was before I came on board.”
“He was very flattered, believe me,” San Jimel added, “to learn that it would be named after him. I told him that his only mistake was being thirty years ahead of his time.”
“In Philadelphia,” Cuello resumed, “Richard told me that the lightbulb first went on when he was a third-year resident and learned what changes the body goes through during starvation. Do you know about this, Mr. and Mrs. Mills? Would you like to hear?” He asked us, and indeed, by now we were well hooked. “It’s genuinely amazing. The body literally eats itself—first its fat, then its muscle, and then it moves on to the organs, its own vital organs, gradually devouring them for fuel. Every single organ, that is, except for the brain. All of the body’s resources and functions in extremis converge onto one overriding goal, to protect the brain, to keep the blood flowing up there.” He tapped his temple. “Doctor White told me, ‘I suddenly realized that the very design of nature already isolates and privileges the brain above all else. I simply decided to take this truth one step further.’ Isn’t that, um…”—he laughed self-consciously, making eye contact with San Jimel for the first time in a minute—“I mean, isn’t that something pretty terrific?” Cuello raised his palms, dipped his head.
San Jimel said, “Remember what I told you in Lima, Señor Mills. We must look to nature without wearing blinders.”
Down the hall in the next recovery room, we met Jacob Stein, a Massachusetts university administrator who, we heard, had nearly succumbed to prostate cancer before a professor in the medical school slipped him a phone number. When I say “met,” I don’t mean that we actually shook his hand, or rather the hand he had been dealt, that of a woman, a Columbian rancher who’d been kicked in the head by a horse. We waved and spoke our names, conveyed our honor.
Mr. Stein’s eyes rolled toward us in a delayed and approximate manner. After less than two minutes, our attention seemed to weary him and he fell asleep. “Jacob here has been experiencing some depression,” Villanueva informed us, off in the corner and sotto voce, “but only because his family refuses to participate in his recovery, or to take him home.”
“They’re not even down here with him?” I asked her.
“Is it because he got a woman’s body?”
She paused. “It was the only donor available at the time.”
My wife relaxed into her role as today’s star student in San Jimel’s traveling teach-in; he even relieved me of wheelchair duties, filling Maggie’s ears from behind, as our group advanced from room to room, with a steady stream of success stories, including follow-ups on patients’ current productive lives six, seven, eight years “out.” I began to take the journalist aside and pump him on other matters. I found out, for instance, that the White Center was linked to an extensive network of hospitals throughout Latin America, and that in fact the reason our pilot Emanuel had lifted off so hastily from the field by the pyramid and stone heads was that a potential donor body had become available this morning in the city of San Salvador—a young man who had run afoul of a drug cartel and been shot through the eye.
It had begun to dawn on me—even on me, not the most politically astute of observers—that all of the benefitting customers seemed to be well-to-do North Americans, while the bodies—employed as portable, organic life-support systems—came from poor countries to the south. I started to recognize, in fact, a certain disconcerting parallel between this plundering of Latin American bodies and my own ongoing qualms regarding ecotourism and mentioned this to Maggie on the sly, but she only rolled her eyes at me—practicing for the rest of our life?—and said she’d be glad to consider this difficulty afterward.
“Families of the brain-dead person,” Cuello explained while we peed in neighboring urinals, “are paid the equivalent of five thousand U.S. dollars in exchange for the body.”
“Ah,” I said, “to help assuage any guilt over the fact that they could save several people in their own country instead of one rich foreigner.”
“Correcto,” he said, zipping up and crossing to the sink. “And any Catholic guilt about desecrating the body. We have a joke that this place isn’t called the White Center for only one reason. Hey, maybe after my book comes out, we’ll be swimming in cash and can get into pro bono work, rescue a brown head for once.”
I joined him at the mirror, recognizing there the self-referential quality of this last comment; his dark eyes were antic, though.
“And think of it this way, the family might be making possible the next Hawking, who incidentally I really want to write the foreword. His people haven’t returned my calls.”
Outside the bathroom, we found an empty corridor, so we had to follow Maggie’s distant laughter, a sound that did not, I noted, thrill me automatically. The hallway looked no different from all the others until we passed a sole exception to bland sterility, one I’d just as soon not have seen; a small table against the white wall held a glass bowl of water, and floating on that water, a great big red bloom, some ripe and sticky jungle flower.
“It’s called a God’s eye,” said Cuello.
The last convalescent on-site, a Susie Stafford, was here with her long-term partner Jessica. Together, they ran a public relations firm in Atlanta. Susie had developed a rare wasting bone disease that had turned her long bones to mush, yet sitting before us now in a flower-decorated wheelchair and Florida Marlins baseball cap, she seemed nothing but reborn, effortlessly and gratefully, thanks to the reliable metabolism of her new host body, that of a chunky Brazilian waitress, dressed smartly in its own former favorite outfit, yellow blouse and clean white skirt, whose own brain had been destroyed by stroke.
Through diligent labor, Susie had learned to control her eye movements precisely, in order to maneuver her chair, scooting around the room, and to produce staccato sentences through voice-synthesizing software, emitted with five- and ten-second delays between the syllables while she located the wanted letters on a keyboard visible only to her through a pair of remarkable spectacles resembling sleek welder’s goggles lit purple from within and cabled to a computer. Jessica, a petite red-head, sat squeezing her hand for moral support. “Good to meet you,” clicked a pleasant female voice; “Care to dance?”; “May I recommend Elias for all your head-transplant needs?”
Though I joined in with the delighted laughter at the bedside, the financial angle struck me. Naturally, the issue hadn’t even occurred to me before now, but needless to say, no insurance policy will cover what does not officially exist, and the costs of the venture started to spiral in my mind. Wheelchair and communications equipment alone must run well into the six figures, and that’s on top of the surgery and medical care here underground. Back in Miami, there would be decades of home nursing care to afford. I wondered aloud whether, if my income weren’t so high, Doctor San Jimel would have pursued our “case” so fervently.
“Oh, probably not,”said Cuello. Within another long, featureless hallway, we lagged again behind the group, noticing, at last, the aromas of lunch. “But then again, as soon as he got back from Peru, I remember him telling us about you and your wife, and I doubt he’d had the chance to check out your finances by then. The man’s no mercenary, he’s committed to his calling. He’s a practicing Catholic, too, extremely serious, which may seem hard to square with this line of work. I’m devoting an entire chapter to the soul.”
And when I raised some of the same concerns to San Jimel himself, he disappointed me yet again by failing to disappoint me. “Claro que si, Señor Mills,” he immediately conceded. We had just entered the bustling cafeteria, I resuming charge of Maggie’s locomotion; her blue-scarfed head, weighted now with so much saving knowledge, swayed back against the soft rest, reminding me fondly of Daughters of the Dust. I spotted Freya and Justine over at the salad bar, where Sylvina was helping them to construct perhaps the world’s first peanut butter and jelly tortillas. Standing on either side of her, they hadn’t seen us yet, and their small matching profiles, upturned, concentrating, tinged with sunburn, made me so frantic with love that I lost all interest in politics and barely heard the doctor’s response, though he said I was right. “Tienes razón. La situación social es intolerable. Encontramos el mundo como encontramos el mundo.” Of course, they find the world as they find the world, how else? “Perfeccionando nuestros métodos en la única forma posible.” No, only this: be perfect with us, preserve this family, this unique form. “Esperamos la igualdad en el futuro. Hola, Sylvina y niñas!”
Spilling dollops of grape jelly onto their mother’s lap, our children stood at the wheels of her chair and leaned against her, chewing, listening politely to our latest news.
“And so Mommy is going to be all right,” Maggie told them. I sat across the narrow table from my family, savoring a cheeseburger with extra slices of pickle. “She’s going to have an operation that will save her life. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“Good,” Justine said, nodding.
“Yeah.” Freya sucked chocolate milk through a straw. “Good.”
I caught myself questioning the sufficiency of their relief until I remembered that by the age of five they could recognize a fairytale when they heard one, like the doozie they’d heard yesterday at the dock.
“But I’ll be a little bit different,” Maggie said, not eating. “I’ll still be me, I just won’t be able to do all the things I used to do. It’s going to be a lot for you girls to get used to. For us all. We’ll have to be very patient.”
Freya said, “We will, Mom. Like I’ve been waiting to go out ‘n’ see the monkeys?”
“Patience, my young friend,” said Sylvina, tweaking Freya’s ear.
After lunch, we were shown to our accommodations; it was about time! They resembled a plain hotel room, with two double beds; better the funding should go into neurology, I supposed, than decor. Maggie took a hard nap while the twins and I watched her and quietly celebrated her survival by flipping through color photos of past survivors, stacked on the bedside table next to a gilt Bible. We sat together on the other bed. I tried to censor on the go, quickly shuffling to the bottom of the pile any shots that revealed too much skin, too much contrast between flesh and flesh, displaying a person sitting in his garden amid flowering bushes, Pekinese on lap, one working at her computer, and another rosy-cheeked old man surrounded by beaming loved ones. All client faces were, of course, stiff masks, which lent even sanguine scenes a similar, desolate cast.
“Oh,” said Justine, despite my editing, “Mommy’s getting a bran-new head?”
“No, no,” I said, scratching hers, “that’s not quite it. See, she’ll keep her same head.”
“So she can talk to us,” said Freya. They nodded at each other, proud of themselves and their mother.
“Well, actually, her voice will be kind of different. A machine will have to talk for her. And like you saw in those pictures, she won’t really be able to smile. But you’ll know she’s smiling and laughing underneath. I’m only telling you this because you need to know and because I know you’re big enough girls to hear it. And look how brave you’re being.” I stroked the sides of their faces with my thumbs. “Just Mommy’s eyes will be able to move, and her eyes will still love you both so much.”
They nodded doubtfully, rearranged their legs on the bed, pulled pillows into their arms. Freya said, “But she can still kiss us, right?”
“Well, you can kiss her.”
In unison, they pooched out their lips, frowning. Justine started to sniffle, which made Freya burst into furious tears; and yes, I swiped their noses with Kleenex.
At four-thirty in the afternoon, Maggie was awakened and wheeled away from us, taken down to the nerve center of the facility, where she was to be put through a lengthy round of diagnostics to confirm terminal status; here was in effect that second opinion we’d somehow failed to seek, too convinced and undone by the first, by those riddled X-ray negatives. Also, her brain had to be found clear of involvement, or at least provisionally clear, even the most sophisticated scans being unable to rule out the presence of a single malignant cell, or a hundred, that would rapidly grow into lethal tumors. This is the reason—as we’d learned only toward the end of today’s crash course—that people with metastasizing cancers were not eligible for full-body transplant without first undergoing a probationary period on mechanical life-support, that is, attachment to a much-advanced edition of Doctor White’s 1971 blood pump, a system capable of re-oxygenating and cycling blood to sustain healthy brain-vessel “perfusion” indefinitely, not just for hours. So, after all, we wouldn’t be getting the young man from San Salvador, killed by drug lords.
Although this new element meant I could defer for a while learning how to cozy up in bed to a strapping male body, I was furious at the deception. The interim bypass pump was a little wrinkle the doctor had skipped over during yesterday’s cell phone talk, and one that had certainly made no appearance during our visit to the convalescent ward.
“Oh, but listen, you’re in excellent company, believe me,” San Jimel had told us. He said that in fact, the majority of the sixty-three patients treated during the ten years of full-capacity work here at the Center had fallen under this same safeguard requirement, all except the occasional severe burn victim and those suffering from degenerative nerve or muscle conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy.
When the twins and I returned from the cafeteria—spaghetti dinner and strawberry ice cream, during which Sylvina promised to take Freya on a monkey trek first thing tomorrow morning, we found that Maggie had been duly installed, groggy, back in bed. Justine ran over to her but seemed disappointed to discover beneath the blanket nothing but the very same body, pale has-been, that had birthed her. Luckily, this struck her mother quite funny, and Freya giggled, too. “Mommy won’t be able to chase us and catch us!” “Mommy won’t be able to yell at us anymore! Mommy won’t be able to feel if we tickle her.” “Hey yeah, or even if we poke her…like this!” The high-pitched game soon devolved into a venomous spat between the sisters, slapping each other and falling into tears, so I took them through their bedtime routine separately. They dropped off in the same bed without demanding stories. I guess they’d heard enough, thank you.
When my wife and I were finally alone again, we tried to confront monumental reality. We agreed that if everybody turned out like that Susie from Atlanta, this procedure would soon sweep the world of the terminally ill. I scored a gratifying groan for suggesting that Maggie might become even more expressive than Susie if we could program the voice-synthesizer to translate her eye movements into the Gullah language. Her laugh, this time, made me want to rejoice, as though it meant we had already passed clean through the ordeal.
I reminded her what a relief it would be not to have to react to everything facially anymore.
“Well, yeah,” she said, “they say it takes four times as many muscles to frown as it does to smile.”
“And really, smiling’s pretty hard, too.”
“Plus, even better yet,” she said, “I could request the body of a horse. I knew there was a reason I’ve always been drawn to shape-shifters in Greek mythology, it was a premonition. I’ll be the world’s first genuine Centaur.”
“Oh, Honey, we’d never be able to afford that wheelchair.”
“No, they’ll put those titanium rods in my legs and castors on my hoofs, you’ll pull me around by a rope.”
“Then you’ll dare your eighth-graders to lose concentration when you read to them. And our girls can ride you!”
“You can ride me, too, sir.”
After checking on their breathing—steady, though still vaguely pissed off from the fight—we tried to make love, but Maggie was too dry, her hands too weak, and then her own breathing betrayed her. She asked me to touch her and touch myself, which I managed to sustain for a couple minutes before she began to cry. She said it was because I was being too cautious, treating her body like it was already gone, so I tried to do better but the way she flinched I could tell the pain was back; it would radiate out from her belly and through her limbs like shock waves, or, she’d said, like the sensation of giant fingernails on a giant blackboard. I jumped up for her pills and a glass of water, then she cried for a while longer, and I held her.
“Don’t go to sleep, Stephen.” She sounded panicky. “Let’s not go to sleep, okay? I want to talk. And touch.”
I had to break the silence that followed. “Maybe we can use the body of that horse that kicked the Columbian woman.”
“No, I’m being serious now. What are you thinking?”
“I have about eighty-five conflicting thoughts.”
On the issue of the interim bypass pump, I told her I felt cheated by this late notice, and that I resented even just the term “probationary period”—as though a head mounted on a cold chrome apparatus ought to feel it’s in trouble with the law. She struggled onto her side and took hold of my face. “Listen, probably they don’t make a big deal of that part because if they did, people would bolt, and they’ve got to ease us through. Let’s calm down and think, Stephen. I’ll be doing a lot of that soon, huh?”
She released me in order to execute a grand stretch, arms and legs poling out, suffused with electricity again, but this time benign, her back briefly arching as in sex. I tried to resume that mood until she collapsed onto her back and started kneading circles into her forehead with the knuckles of her first and second fingers. “Okay, let’s go over this again. What’s the difference, really, machine or body? It’s not like I’d feel the new body, either, or be able to move it. The only advantage is what Elias told me. I think you were talking to that newspaper guy when he said it. After the transplant, people sometimes report looking at their reflections and feeling almost whole again.”
Hyperventilating, I felt suddenly claustrophobic inside my own rattletrap system, mobile and still self-connected though it was. I reminded myself that after all in the beginning it was the mind of thisMargaret Ellen Hutchins, very distinct from the body, that I’d fallen for. “I mean, everything about this is so far beyond my imagination, anyway,” I said. “How can we possibly get a grip on it? Just when I think I’ve got it…”
“Remember those water spouts, on the ocean?”
“When you were first pregnant.”
“I mean, just…weren’t they beautiful?”
“I keep thinking of those, when the sun would hit them and light them up. I dream about them all the time now.”
I decided what a good idea that was, to dream about them, and I stood on the beach by myself and spotted one way out to sea, a slim tornado standing tall and electric in the sky, flicking its tail like a bright whip on the waves, but Maggie poked me in the ribs. “I said don’t. Stay awake.”
I rubbed her legs and squeezed her feet, each toe.
“You know when you’re sitting in a theater seat and it’s a good movie?” she said. “You get so wrapped up you forget to move for a while? Then you realize your butt and thigh on one side are totally numb, I mean totally.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you feel with your hand and there’s really nothing.”
“It’s like you’re feeling dead flesh, all null and void, and you didn’t even notice it fading away. But the weird thing is it’s okay, not scary, you know?”
“Kind of peaceful.”
“Mostly, when that happens, I just feel interested that my flesh can just check out like that. I don’t panic or really mind the numbness, or even the idea of…what if it were to spread? It’s like I’ve always understood very clearly that my body’s just a thing, anyway, and now here it is proving the point all casually, with no fanfare.”
I rolled her over and scratched Maggie’s back, making sure to cover all the nerve endings. “But still.”
“I know,” she said, stretching again, a minor encore. She was quiet for a minute. “It’s just a tiny bit less impossible to imagine than leaving you three forever.”
The idea of numbness took us down another path, to The Simulation. Here was another step that San Jimel had neglected to cover until the end of the teach-in. Apparently, in the early trials, too many heads had gone insane due to the shock of so much change all at once, and with no opportunity for second thoughts. The day before surgery, the patient is given an injection that paralyzes and anaesthetizes the entire body except for the eyes. The wheelchair is then concealed behind a partition shaped so that the head appears to float by itself, stationed before a mirror and made to confront this picture for a full hour. If the heartbeat remains steady, the eyes calm and responsive, a “conversation” then takes place with Villanueva, consisting mostly of “yes”/ “no” blinks but also including already Lesson One of facilitated communication, the patient fitted with those glasses that can translate the minutest pupil shifts into letters on a keyboard, a virtual image of which the wearer perceives as suspended in space at a comfortable distance.
Maggie’s Simulation was to take place in the morning; only when she’d weathered it would she be allowed to make her final decision. “I’m not sure, Stephen,” she whispered into my ear, her pronunciation wandering with sudden exhaustion. “I really almost wish I couldn’t back out. I keep reminding myself of water spouts and theater seats. For some reason, those two in combination work wonders.”
“I’ll be right there with you,” I said, but Maggie was asleep, one leg bent and hoisted over me. I glanced to the other bed, expecting to see my daughters still combining forces in that fierce embrace of theirs. Instead, Justine slept alone under the blanket while Freya…Freya I located tucked into the far corner of the room, lying in a fetal position on the cool carpeting. I went and transferred her back where she belonged, beside her sister, then rejoined my wife, carefully reinstating her leg on top of me.
I was dreaming of my old friend Melinda—her mole had turned into cancer and spread across her face, yet she was being quite philosophical about the whole thing—when the knock came on the door, timid but persistent. I stumbled out of bed, threw on sweat pants and t-shirt, and opened to a green-bathrobed woman I couldn’t immediately identify. “Ruth,” she whispered, “Ruth Fasulo, from earlier.” Oh yes, daughter of Harold, the jeweler from Green Bay; her pinched face had relaxed some, and she now wore her brown hair loose, kind of a rat’s nest. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mills.” She drew me out into the hall, and I eased the door shut behind me. “I knew if I stopped to get dressed, I’d never make it here. I just ran out of my room. I really do apologize for this, but I have to tell you something.” She’d already uttered far more words more fluently than during twenty minutes in her father’s recovery room, and so in my fog this is what I focused on. I rubbed my eyes and leaned against the wall, trying hard to be polite to a fellow-traveler. “Okay,” she said, “it’s just this. Yeah, right, ‘just.’ My father, who you met?” I nodded. “Well, okay, he’s…blind.”
“He never recovered his sight after the operation. And not only that—most of them come out blind. Did you meet Jacob Stein?”
“They said he was depressed.”
“And guess why.”
“His family won’t come down, because he got a woman’s body?”
“Oh, they were here all right. Finally went home last week. They stayed as long as they could stand it, and it didn’t have anything to do with the donor’s gender. They had absolutely no way to communicate with Jacob. Like my dad, he can hear, and sort of points his eyes toward the voice. And yeah, he can blink ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no,’ but let me tell you, that gets old real quick. His pancreatic cancer is cured, I guess you could say, but when I ask him if he wants to live, he always blinks twice without hesitation.”
“But why? Why blind?”
“That I don’t know for sure. San Jimel assures us it’s merely psychological, ‘hysterical blindness,’ and will go away. He says that so much is riding on vision for these patients that the circuits get temporarily overloaded, though of course he can’t provide any case studies of people recovering their…” Ruth started to cry and I gave her a hug, putting aside for a moment my own limitless outrage. “I mean,” she said, “I’m not sure how big a problem this is, how widespread, you know, but I have a different theory. I think it’s what happens when you go against Nature, when you cut the spinal cord and take off the head, y’know, the goddamn head—it’s just a wild card, or like Pandora’s Box.”
“Shit, I can’t believe this.” I slid to the floor. “Shit, shit.”
She sat beside me, tucking her robe around her. “I know. I hate to be the one to—”
“Wait, though.” I lifted my head again. “That Susie woman, she was—”
“Oh, Susie, sure. She’s like their poster child. Not blind, great attitude, and I bet they took you to her last of all, didn’t they?” I nodded. “Yeah, it’s so you’ll remember her best. Same reason they don’t let you rest till you’ve taken the tour, so your resistence will be low and you’ll be more blown away. Dad and I were. Susie’s been inside here like two years, I’ve found out. She and Jessica make quite a tidy living for themselves. They’re in the public relations business, you know. Must think they’ve died and gone to heaven. When new folks aren’t around, she speaks through the machine like an auctioneer. You know, none of those phony pauses for hunt-and-peck.”
I couldn’t draw a full breath. “So why did you play along before?”
“Dad and me? What choice do we have? It’s not like they’re holding a gun to our heads, but we are under their care and kind of stranded out here in the middle of nowhere and hoping against hope it’s true about ‘hysterical blindness,’ so I mean we just pitch in when they bring a prospective family by the room. Though I guess you noticed I didn’t do such a bang-up job on the promotional front!”
I laughed, and it felt good.
“Mom never said that thing about not staying married to a melon. I tend to ham it up just to annoy the staff, because they have to keep a straight face, except when San Jimel’s got the stage. The last people, I told that Dad was paying me eight dollars an hour to dab his drool. Since he’s been in recovery, going on seven weeks, you’re the third family through here. Oh, I saw your twins in the cafeteria, so beautiful. Mr. and Mrs. Stein and their son were the second, and the first, well, the first was a man who later embolized and died on the bypass pump, waiting to qualify for a donor body. Peter something, I think. But you’re the only person I’ve come to like this. Figured it was high time.”
“But aren’t you kind of, I mean…” I glanced toward the ceiling.
“Oh, like they’re bugging the hallways? I don’t think it’s quite that bad. Strange as it may sound, I think San Jimel’s heart is in the right place. His reach just exceeds his grasp, that’s all. Probably in twenty years he’ll get the Nobel Prize. ‘Course, I might change my tune when I wake up tomorrow morning with a new head. Like your wife’s!”
I toppled onto the floor in grim hysterics, even though Maggie and my twins slept just behind that door. And although I had no way to absorb such an encounter, and zero notion what use I would think to make of these revelations, I thanked Ruth for them nonetheless, and sincerely, gave her a hug, then send her back along the hallway, bathrobe flopping at her ankles, to sleep the sleep of the just.
And then, I went wandering. I had to. I wanted to take concrete measure of the place, this time under no imposed orchestration. Reaching the widest corridor, I quickly determined that this was not some grand labyrinth too intricate for a person to navigate alone. I made tiny scratches with my fingernail in the plaster corners at this corridor’s oblique turns and, when soon I lapped myself, estimated the route to be a simple hexagon maybe a quarter mile in full, with narrower tangents running outward at regular intervals. Not until, however, I’d selected one of these nondescript offshoots, proud of my orienteering prowess and judging, in some jag of exhausted logic, that I’d relocated my own “home” street, did I understand I’d mastered nothing. At the end of the passage, rather than door #21, guarding my family from the rest of the truth, I encountered a staircase proceeding to the left and upward. Like a two-dimensional creature abruptly entering a third, I shuddered in setting foot on the first step, then the second, having somehow assumed that the entire White Center must be laid out on a single plane only. The sound of Latin prayer drew me upward.
Christe, audi nos, Christe, audi nos
Spiritus sancte, Deus, miserere nobis
Hear us, Christ? A striking stained-glass door greeted me at the landing, its panels glowing dark red and in the exact shape of the floating flower I’d seen this morning in the hallway. At the center was a small circle of clear glass, which I leaned to peek through. I found that indeed the room was a modest chapel, ablaze with scores of candles and packed with wheelchairs, twelve of them, different sizes and heights but organized in three rows. The heads were facing front, away from me. Because the words were being sung out in that Roman Catholic style, and echoing richly off the chamber walls, I hadn’t recognized the voice.
Sanguis Christi, in agonia decurrens, in terram, salva nos
Sanguis Christi, sine quo non fit remissio, salva nos
Blood of Christ, in agony something, in the earth, save us? Elias San Jimel stood at a simple pulpit in a pleated maroon robe, arms raised, eyes closed, face bathed in rapturous candlelight.
Sanguis Christi, levamen laborantium, salva nos
Sanguis Christi, pax et dulcedo cordium, salva nos
Blood of Chris, relieve our labors, save us. Peace and sweet heart? The man was conducting midnight Mass for his patients—my watch read 12:17—but the congregation did not exactly participate actively, and perhaps they understood the invocations as sketchily as I did. I heard footsteps approaching along the hallway below but couldn’t stop watching San Jimel’s impassioned delivery. Beside his left hand, when its beseeching palm would open low, stood another glass bowl whose contents I couldn’t identify, unless they were poached eggs.
Spiritus sancte, satura vacuum nobis
Audi noster voce, acceda noster caput
Caput Dei, caput Dei!
Fill our vacuum? I was yanked firmly from the door and hustled downstairs, and then Armando Cuello and I were making tracks back along the hall.
“So will you be putting that in your book, too?” I asked him.
“Between us, you should have been the investigative journalist, Mr. Mills.” He smiled, releasing me to walk on my own. “Okay, so I’ll grant you, our doc’s a bit eccentric. But tell me, what enthusiast would refuse a captive audience? Seriously, though, these folks are stuck here—their families have all cut and run, abandoning them. They live upstairs, away from the other patients and prospectives, and the doctor ministers to them spiritually, too, as best he knows how. Without him, these poor souls would either be dead by now or in great physical agony.”
“They are blind?”
He tossed me an admiring glance.
“I have my sources.”
“Well, in that case, yes, they do all suffer from this one complication, which many loved ones cannot bear. But the patients can hear, they can blink ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ San Jimel is trying to, you know, make a virtue of necessity. Whenever I’ve pressed him, he swears the worship services are voluntary, that faced with the choice whether to attend, they all blink ‘yes.’ Wouldn’t you?”
“Not if I could choose books on tape instead.” We hit the main corridor and hung a left. “Will Jacob Stein, who I assume is Jewish, be taken upstairs too?”
“Not if he blinks ‘no,’ he won’t. Well, strike that—he probably will have to go up if his family stays away. But he won’t be forced to attend Mass. He’ll have nowhere else to go and he’s got to live somewhere. And keep in mind, too, science requires a research pool, a viable opportunity to study any side effects associated with the treatment.”
I noticed one of the scratches I’d made in the wall, but couldn’t remember what it was supposed to signify.
“You’re quite the company man, Mr. Cuello. And do you concur with the diagnosis of ‘hysterical blindness’?”
“Oh, not for a minute. It’s organ rejection, plain and simple.”
“What I said earlier today was that the brain is not susceptible to rejection, and this is true. What I left out of my presentation was that the eyes often are.”
“Aren’t they considered part of the brain?”
“Semantics, Mr. Mills.”
“Doctor White’s chimp was looking around the lab.”
“Yes, and that’s why Jeronimo was chosen for the documentary. One sighted subject out of seventeen, not bad for back then. Today, we’re batting somewhat higher.”
Too boggled for fresh anger, I just ached for the bed containing my wife and tried pathetically to recognize familiar landmarks in this setting blank of landmarks. “So what was the Latin? I couldn’t catch it all in that inflated voice.”
“Oh, you know, it’s usually about the precious blood of Christ…may it bring relief to our suffering, ease our burden, and may He hear even those trapped in profound silence…the ‘still small voice’ and all that. In the last part just now, he’s asking the holy spirit to fill the void within, and may the head of God come near to these afflicted heads. And as for my book, no, I am being extremely selective with what to include.”
“Well, that’s your forte.”
For the first time, I’d apparently made Cuello angry, which gave me pleasure. He shut his eyes and dipped his head for several paces. “How do you think I got this job? We have to pitch the thing at just the right angle, or else we explode.” This image let him breathe easier. “It’s kind of like a rocket trying to enter Earth’s atmosphere.” He glanced at me with some of the old playfulness in his eyes. “I’ll confess, I sure wish I didn’t have any restrictions, there’s so much more to tell. Off the record, San Jimel once told me that next to his medical work, nothing brings him more joy than being priest to all these needful souls, perhaps saving them, yes, but at least imagining that they are gravitating toward God, holding intimate, unknowable conversations with Him, head to Head, you might say.”
“So I’ll bet he actually prefers unbelievers, doesn’t he?”
“Well, he does feel that being radically reduced to a brain and a pair of ears tends to address the problem of pride, yes.” Cuello chuckled at himself. “It reveals to the person a finitude, an absolute dependency, that’s been the case all along but was obscured by what he calls ‘our distracting embodiment.’”
I had nothing to say to this, although it brought up my first date with Maggie, my vivid recognition of the mind/body split. In an unwelcome juxtaposition, I also saw an image of Doctor White as blood-stained deity.
Finally, Cuello delivered me to door #21, where he lowered his voice. “My advice to you, friend, is not to read too much into what you saw up there, not to let your mind become melodramatic, though I agree it’s sort of a turn-off. This is not some dungeon—you’re free to take your family and go home, but then you know what the outcome will be. If you stay here and go through with the surgery Maggie will escape an excruciating death. And she’ll definitely not end up in San Jimel’s flock, either, because you and your daughters would never abandon her.”
“Mr. Cuello,” I whispered, “what was in that bowl up on the pulpit?”
The man had clearly hoped for this question; he licked his lips. “Remember when I told you that Richard White was not too healthy? Well, technically that wasn’t a lie. In fact, he passed away five months ago. Heart trouble. He refused to consider full-body transplant, though of course we offered. But we did receive an interesting package in the mail not long ago—his eyes, which he donated to us as a sort of good luck charm. A morale booster.”
He gave me a brisk handshake, then turned and left me alone.
Inside the room, I couldn’t even begin to piece together the implications of what I’d just learned. I resolved to tell Maggie everything when we woke up. For now, she slept as if compassionately entombed, as if above us lay only dirt, only bugs, rocks, and as if tomorrow meant only resurrection. Freya, though, had returned herself to the corner, curled, thumb in mouth. Never had a grudge between these two lasted so long. When I lifted her from the floor, I realized that no, it was Justine this time.
I slept straight through the morning’s hubbub, and when I returned to consciousness I was alone. Maggie had been rolled off already to her Simulation; she’d left a note on the back of one of the promotional glossies: “Couldn’t wake you, I’m being brave, twins went to jungle with Silveena, join me when you can honey.” Both girls? I learned later that Justine had protested at the idea of being, as always, left behind by her bolder sister, at being called—there was more slapping and scratching in the hallway—a “stupid ‘fraidy,” and so she, too, coached by her mother, had chosen to be brave and venture forth.
After peeing but without brushing my teeth, I stumbled from the room and buttonholed an orderly, who was able to guide me to the correct sector of the complex. In the Simulation Room, my wife’s wheelchair had been fitted around with a beige plastic half-cone, her chin and jaw resting comfortably on its cushioned horseshoe summit. Nurses bustled. Maggie had evidently, by now, received her injection; when we saw each other in the large wall mirror, her features remained frozen and dull, which frightened me terribly despite my expectation that it would frighten me terribly, and in this vacuum I tried to make my own face two-fold livelier. Interposing myself between her and the glass, leaning with hands on knees to meet her level and staring into eyes still filled with vision, where mind and body converged and conversed, I said, “I think this one likes to kiss.” She blinked rapidly, her face blanching of color. “You don’t say,” I said. The old courtship dialogue blared with artificiality, and not the humorous kind, but did I stop? No, I hammed it up. “It’s true!” I recalled an instant too late that she’d be lacking all sensation, and by the time I removed my lips from hers and pulled back, I saw that tears spilled from both eyes, later drops overtaking earlier down her skin, burning flesh-tone trails across sunken tallow.
A nurse handed me a box of tissues and I used them on Maggie, then on myself.
I was grateful when the door swung open, even though it was San Jimel striding in with his wide, healing smile, red flowing robe replaced by white smock. “Well, well, Señor Mills, glad you could make it. ¿Una noche difícil?” I didn’t think Cuello had mentioned anything to him, so instead of acting on my impulse to shatter those bright teeth, I took the hand he offered. “Your wife has tolerated the procedure quite well, though I can see you’ve had an emotional reunion. In fifteen minutes, Rosa will be around to introduce the communications equipment. Then we can find out how Maggie is really getting along inside there.”
“Sounds good, Doctor,” I said, though my voice sounded hollow in my skull. Again, the door popped open, and there stood Sylvina, her hiking clothes torn and muddy, her face scored with scratches, oval glasses kicked to a slant. “Se me perdieron,” she husked. “Se me perdieron.”
“¿Quiénes?” said San Jimel.
“Las gemelas. Ellas se cordierron.”
Maggie didn’t need to understand Spanish; her eyes were wild in the mirror, her dead lips luffing with hard breath.
San Jimel grabbed a syringe off a counter top then turned to me, seeming genuinely shaken. “La Simulación esta terminada.” He filled the syringe with clear fluid. “I will slowly bring her out of paralysis now.”
“Now, Maggie,” I said, going back to her, “you heard the doctor. By the time this next injection takes effect, I’ll be back already with the girls.” My eyes were just inches from hers again, but this time I was in full possession of my words. (Behind my wife’s head, San Jimel had pulled Sylvina into a corner and was giving her a stern lecture: ‘Necesitas encontrarlas inmediatemente. Ellas nos pueden revelar!’) “I love you so much, Mag, and we’ll talk about everything then. You just concentrate on getting your body back. Yes?” Her eyes did calm slightly and she blinked once for ‘yes,’ but flitty, unconvincing. “Good,” I said. I held my index finger up and she followed its motion as I pointed first to my left eye, then to my right. “I’m going to go out and find our daughters now, you understand?” She agreed, with more composure this time. On my way out, though, I made the mistake of glancing back; in the mirror, her tears had returned, the doctor’s needle entering the wasted, hanging flesh of her upper arm.
“¿Sylvina, que pasó? How could they have ‘lost you’?”
Though she sped me along toward the outside door, the woman was too upset to answer me at first. “I looked for them for an hour.”
“What? Why the hell didn’t you come get me?”
“They were fighting like wild peccaries. I kept having to separate them. I didn’t understand what was the problem. They wouldn’t tell me. Y entonces…” Turning a corner, she tugged at her ear flap and tried to straighten her glasses. “Then, they ran off in two completely different directions. I didn’t know which one to chase first. Before I knew it, they had both disappeared.”
I just couldn’t absorb the story she was telling me—Justine choosing to be out there by herself? Past conflicts between the two had always come from some particular flash-point, an object of dispute, like a toy, attention from Mom, a piece of food. I asked Sylvina what they said to each other.
“Nada, nada. Only yelling and hitting,” she said. “Y mordiento. Ninguna palabra.”
No words? Biting each other? Again, I tried to picture the scene but, when we reached the front door and passed through, my picture became immediately obsolete. The jungle itself was so much taller and hotter than I’d remembered, hopelessly intricate, opaque. Being inside for even these twenty-five hours must have atrophied my senses, or my imagination. Now the odors and shrieks of crazed life engulfed me and I couldn’t think how to search, where to turn first. Now I pictured jaguars, lethal snakes.
“And bugs, too. Don’t forget about the bugs, Dad. It’s less dramatic but they totally swarmed us on top on that pyramid, ‘specially those tiny iridescent purple ones. I remember those. That was before the monkeys arrived, of course.” Justine has brought me a tomato and cucumber sandwich, sets the saucer down, then a cup of coffee. She peers over my shoulder at the computer screen, her huge belly brushing and pressing at the slats of my chair.
I twist to look up at her, rubbing my neck. “Thank you, dear. I didn’t even hear you in the kitchen.”
“Looks like you’re almost finished here.”
“Getting to the end. Where’s your sister?”
“Don’t know. She’s not back yet. Wouldn’t even tell me what she was going into town for. Some kind of secret.” Since I haven’t objected, she keeps reading the screen, even reaches and flicks to previous pages. “Why, Dad, you’re being so thorough. This should definitely put the whole business behind us forever—again.”
“Very funny, Jus. I’m at the part I’ve never been able to explain quite right.”
“I know, me neither, but of course I was five when it happened.”
“That always boggles my mind. I think of you guys as filled with wisdom. Except for the hellacious fighting.”
She stands up straight, sighing. “I do remember that. I suddenly couldn’t stand the sight of that girl, wanted to hurt her, and ditto from her side. I have no idea what we’d done to each other to deserve it. Then we found each other in the jungle and huddled together on the pyramid.” Justine lays her hands on my shoulders. “We were starting to believe you’d never find us up there. Those long-armed maniacs had no trouble at all.”
Spider monkeys scampered up the jumbled stones and harassed my daughters mercilessly till even Freya hated them, and lashed out. Besides heavy antibiotics, the bite on her wrist required only five stitches, though the scar has never faded entirely.
“But who’d believe you two would wind up back at the landing site?”
“This is where the bird comes in, Dad.” Justine massages my shoulders. “You weren’t going to forget about him, were you?”
“No, but I’m not going to include that piece, either.” I bite into my crunchy sandwich, take a swallow of coffee.
“What?” She punishes me by abandoning the massage. “Ernesto’s blue heron’s the only reason you’ve got two daughters alive today. Otherwise, we’d have kept wandering farther and farther apart.”
While we searched, shouting the names, getting pricked, stung, rope-burned by vines,
Sylvina tried to win me back with further information. We’d decided not to split up because already a dozen others or more had filed out of the facility right behind us, and it was best to stay in pairs. “We treat the monkeys like royalty around here, always have. Never harmed or used a single specimen.” To me, though, the creatures soon became malicious shape-shifters; everywhere I looked, howler monkeys and spider monkeys, rather than my children, authored the only small-body movement. I couldn’t even remain convinced, moment to moment, that Freya and Justine might not indeed have taken to the trees, and my eye kept tricking me, dressing the animals in blue. “It’s in honor, you know, of all those that were sacrificed in Doctor White’s laboratory.”
Even though I know the answer, it’s been years since we’ve played this game, so I ask Justine, “Now, let me get this straight, you mean to tell me that that heron flew all the way, nearly two hundred miles from the coast of Belize to act as your personal animal guide?”
“If it wasn’t him it was a perfect copy,” she says, taking a seat opposite me at the table, helping herself to the rest of my sandwich in six successive bites. I guard my coffee cup. “Even seemed to have a bad wing, but he led us to the helicopter clearing. If we invented him, it was only because we needed him so much. Either way, there he was. He had to spiral back a few times till we both made it through the woods and found those ruins, then saw each other. We totally forgot what we’d been fighting about. We only knew one thing.”
“I knew it, too, the moment I spotted you,” I say, “perched up there, clinging to each other in your dirty Pedro dress.”
“Oh, yeah, that.” They’ve never worn matching clothes since, except on a lark.
“I didn’t dare admit it to myself, but it was the looks on your faces, like you were going to throw up.”
“We felt so horrible, Dad.” Justine blinks into space. “Not scared by the monkeys anymore. They took off as soon as you showed up. We were sick about what we’d just confessed to each other.
“Yeah,” says Freya, “we think it was the heads that put us over the edge, made us realize. ‘Specially that one, the miserable expression on his face. Before we climbed the pyramid, we stood there in front of it, just staring up.” I’d honestly forgotten this part. “It looked to us like pure torture.”
Back in our underground bunker, Maggie pulled the girls into bed with her and they all rolled and cried and laughed a lot. I felt like the odd man out until they wearied and Maggie resurfaced, gazing up at me from a sudden still place.
“When I was in that Simulation,” she said, “it was like all the worst nightmares of my life all wrapped into one. And that was before Sylvina came in the way she did. Seeing you was terrible, Stephen, terrible, terrible, even though I’d been so hoping you’d come. It was the way you tried to bridge the gap. And then to find out the girls were lost.”
I nodded, letting distance stay strange between us.
Lost, too, was the entire facility, though I didn’t know it until Professor Estes eventually found my phone number many years later. This disappearance is why he wants to chronicle the existence of the White Center; he says he can’t allow the conservatives to write the history of the controversy and shut the claims down as hollow legend. Armando Cuello’s book certainly never hit the shelves; I kept track. Is he still working on it within a relocated facility, still pondering what to include? Apparently, less than two years after our departure, someone blew the whistle—was it Ruth Fasulo?—but the various agencies and bounty hunters that descended on the Honduran jungles came up empty. The region is just too vast, us helicopter-riders lacking specific points of orientation. You might think the pyramid and the heads would make the mission simple, but it turns out the territory is dotted with hundreds of similar structures. And say you could locate the right clearing, what then? I’ve often thought about that front door, green, recessed into the hillside, and I’ve pictured Rosa Villanueva—for some reason it’s always her, the Sally Field of Maggie’s would-be rehabilitation—pulling shut this door onto an echoing, evacuated clinic cave, then concealing it behind simple palm boughs before running to join San Jimel and Sylvina at the clearing, for the last flight out.
We hear my car pull up in the driveway, then nothing. I see Freya’s sitting inside, staring through the windshield. We go out to her. The rain has stopped and the air down here is calm, though a high-altitude gale is tearing the clouds to pieces, revealing blue. We knock on her window, startling her, and she lowers it. Her eyes are bloodshot and sort of ashamed to see us. She closes them and pushes them deep with thumb and forefinger. The scar must be on the other wrist; funny I can forget which.
“See, I had this whole plan for Mom’s birthday. I’d get her a beautiful cake, and we’d put sixty-five candles on it, and light them, and blow them out for her. When I got there, I wanted to say something, you know, to have them write something in icing, something personal, an inside joke, like a little wink at her. But I couldn’t think of what to say. I drew a blank. I can’t even wink at my mother? If we’d convinced her to live, she could wink at me. I kept thinking of you instead, Daddy, if it was your birthday, and like a hundred ideas came to mind. I tried to burrow down deep and really give it my all. I guess I haven’t even tried that in years, haven’t had a reason. I just stood there in the bakery and broke up. People must have thought I was crazy, I’m sure you’ll hear about it. I leaned against the wall and sobbed. How could I bring back a cake with nothing written on it, or with some kind of cliche best wishes? Then, I drove around for hours, past all the old landmarks from our childhood, Jus. And I couldn’t put Mom in any. She wasn’t there now, and she wasn’t there back then.”
“I was off in a different world altogether,” Maggie said from the bed, still holding the twins. “You can’t imagine it. I wasn’t with you, I wasn’t with them.”
I kept reminding myself loudly, mind and body, mind and body, mind and body, as different as two things can be. I kept checking Maggie’s eyes, where I’d first discovered this, and they still confirmed, with their hopping light, Yes it’s true. I said, “But people can learn to get used to any—”
“They learn something, I guess.” She glanced left and right, from one shouldered girl-face to the other: smudged, stung, jungle-marred. “I realized that being…being post-mortem must be better, I hate to tell you. Then at least I might, we don’t know, I might be able to be with you in another way. I might surprise you. Anyway…” She made up more code. “I’m saying that if not for these…living beings, Stephen, I’d never undergo what I’m supposed to.”
There was a long period of silence in the room. Freya stared at her wrist, wrapped in a white gauze bandage, one spot of blood showing through.
“We knew exactly what she was saying, when she told you her feelings.” Justine opens the car door for her sister. “Didn’t we, Freya? It was the same thing we’d told each other in the jungle.” She helps Freya up and out, and we shuffle toward the house empty-handed. I have the ingredients for an Italian feast, all set. And another bottle of wine.
“Actually, Dad,” says Freya, “we’ve always been so grateful she said it, but we didn’t have the right words till she asked us, so we just lay there in her arms.”
“For the longest time,” Justine breathes, opening the front door.
“Till she somehow felt we had something to say and pulled us together on top of her.”
It’s always been like a faithful tape loop in my head, much as I wish it would fade—Maggie asking them straight out, “You want Mommy to get a new body, right?”
They said, “No.” They said, “No.” At the same time, they looked at her and then carefully, as if for a test, they pronounced the word.
“She just held us then,” says Freya, shutting the door behind us. “And you know what, though? She didn’t stay with us after she died. We were ready. She didn’t find any way to come surprise us.”
“Or else,” Justine suggests, “she only surprised us by how well she stayed away, how absolutely away.” She eases herself down onto the couch, catches her breath. “Besides that last trip, I can barely remember her.”
We arrived home in Miami by sunset of that same day.
Thirty-nine days later, at four o’clock in the morning, Maggie’s best friend Sandra called us from sleep, and we reported to the room, to help a woman hurry slowly out of life.
I agree, Doug…about Noble, about the windows, about Chris. Thanks for posting this wonderful piece.
I concur. What a fantastic piece, and a fantastic person. He actually trusted me to film his stand-up routine for him two summers ago, although he never told me how it turned out.
And Chris, if you’re reading this, I still have a movie you let me borrow.