During the surgery they peeled the ear off his head, severing the nerves so they could get at the tumor that had spread its fingers across his jaw and up one side of his neck. And then the ear was forced back down, sewn into place. The nerve had to be sacrificed, the doctor told him when, disoriented and nauseous, he awoke. What was there, if anything, to do about it now?
Sacrificing the nerve apparently meant that the link between ear and body was mostly gone. There was still something there—he could tell by the way the dead ear pressed against his skull when he tried to sleep on his side—but whatever was there no longer made sense. He could feel around it, piece it together with his fingers, but in a very real way the ear was no longer a part of him.
* * *
The severed nerve throbbed, pulsed. At times, inside his skull, he almost could feel the ear there again, but it was no longer an ear. He could feel it trying to tap into the nerve. And then it did momentarily tap in and he felt it unfurl like a fan and then, suddenly, clench like a fist. It was no longer his ear, no longer an ear, but its own creature, a separate animal—sewn firmly to one side of his head but not part of him, not at all.
There had been premonitions. Back before he had had the surgery they had herded him into a room that contained a large medical hoop, plastic and metal, and had inserted him into it—not all of him, just his head and neck. A male nurse, a Croat or a Serb—unless it was an Albanian—had bluntly informed him that they would have to inject him with contrast and that there was a chance, albeit minuscule, that this would kill him. Please sign here.
He signed. He waited patiently while the nurse attempted to insert an intravenous needle into one arm, failed, tried again, failed, and then called another nurse in to inflict the needle painfully but successfully into the other arm. He lay there as the bench he was on slid jerkily into the hoop, an apparatus within the ring spinning around, whirring. Then the whirring stopped. That’s all? he thought, relieved.
* * *
But that was not all. As it turned out, that was only the test run.
When he was slid again deep into the hoop and the so-called contrast was injected, he felt a surge of intense, unbearable panic. It didn’t last long, only a few seconds, but by the time it was done he was, he felt, no longer the same person. Or, for that matter, even a person at all.
Months later, just as he was beginning to get over it, just as he had reached the point where the panic was all but forgotten and his ear, though still numb, had begun again to feel as though it belonged to him again, something else went wrong.
It took him some time to notice it, but after that things moved very rapidly. In a matter of minutes he found himself lying on a table. He was wearing a paper gown with a hole cut for his penis, a mercilessly attractive nurse having pushed a hypodermic’s worth of Novocain through his urethral opening, after which she clamped his penis off mid-head.
And then, with a polite smile, she left him alone.
* * *
For five minutes, maybe ten, it was just him alone in the room, trying not to look down at his clamped-off and bloodless penis, which was numb in some parts and stinging in others. Five or ten minutes, or maybe twenty. But however long it was, it felt like longer.
* * *
It went on so long that he was relived when the doctor finally arrived. But only briefly. When he saw the telescoping apparatus the doctor was armed with and learned that he intended to force this up his urethra and squirrel his way around until he had forced it up into his bladder, he was filled with something akin to panic.
“This is going to hurt a little,” the doctor said. The attractive nurse was somehow beside him again. She smiled and took hold of his wrist. It was only once she also took hold of the other wrist that he realized she was not trying to comfort him but was holding him down.
“Maybe even a lot,” the doctor admitted, unclamping his penis and grasping it firmly.
The doctor was not, as it turned out, lying. A lot was exactly how much it hurt, or maybe it was more than a lot. When it was done, the question he had to ask himself as he lay there shivering was what, if anything, was there left of him worth saving?
As far as that question goes, he, or whatever now stands in for him, still doesn’t know the answer.
Editor: David McLendon
Mission: to publish uncompromising writing that is both new and lasting
Brian Evenson is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg, published by New York Tyrant Press in 2009. In 2009 he also published the novel Last Days (which won the American Library Association's award for Best Horror Novel of 2009) and the story collection Fugue State, both of which were on Time Out New York's top books of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Slovenian. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University's Literary Arts Program. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann's Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.