These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 14. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
Janée J. Baugher, Widow's Weeds
Things growing around her on the days she wishes to wilt,
to sink into soil blazoned with green spring.
She had never worked in their yard
but now it’s hers. The weeding she’s come to like:
the certainty of finding things out of place,
the precision of separating disparate things out.
One by one she snatches them up in her gloved hands,
bends into the hole to prod out the broken roots.
With a tuft of green in her hands, she jiggles dirt
off roots white like tendons, tosses it into a heap.
Certain things allowed to bloom,
others dug up and hauled away.
But one day she searches—
she’s gotten them all.
Damn the weeds she has found and disciplined,
the weeds she cannot see, a task she cannot undo.
In the suburbs of a city in America
a woman kneels in her pristine garden like paradise,
Michael Salcman, The Little Hippocrates Knew
Dear patient, writer, sailor
though in your eyes I live
my former life, as a tree gone bare
in winter seems itself if still alive
or a woman round with child prepares
to expel her possibilities,
we are more alike than before
and no white coat of mine
can attach humility or wear
the badge of the perplexed
enough: we two captain and crew
on the same voyage.
Abby Caplin, County Hospital Residents
training again in a residency program
far from home,
tripping over English on
Tell me how you became a doctor.
I grew up in Egypt, Vietnam, India,
Japan, Mexico, Argentina,
China, Peru, Indonesia, Kenya.
My father died.
My sister died.
My mother died.
My brother died.
I couldn’t help.
Tell me how you became.
I was ten when I got
my first pair of shoes.
We washed our clothes in the river.
I left my mother’s village
deep in the mountains.
Tell me how.
I was a medical student,
stationed in the jungle, when
a mother banged on my door
with her seizing baby.
We drove four hours,
but he died thirty minutes
before we got to the hospital.
I was a cardiologist,
but my husband hit me.
I got away.
And now she bends over her patient,
looks for bruises. Now he
writes orders in the chart, prays
they’ll be carried out.
Now she touches, gently,
Mr. Taylor’s cold hand,
who lived alone upstairs,
in his wheelchair,
in the scariest part of town.
Leah Givens, Chasing April's Rivers
Winter whimpers; spring insists. The wind outside, a wash of whistles, calling no one home. Birds settle in like sleepy children as the sun tells its nightly, mesmerizing story of dying, then coming to life again. It's a comfort, the covers pulled up over closing eyes.
I haven't been outside today. For some people that's heresy. No work, no walk, no class, no coffee shop. Unthinkable, to jail oneself within these walls. My muscles don't appreciate it either, giving in to laxity as the hours pass. My skin shivers and begs to bask. But my eyes, my eyes say: stay away from that abusive light. The source of all life is the source of pain.
It sprouts in a spot above my right eye, a slight swelling of tissue that might not be visible to anyone but me. My fingers search and press instinctively as though I were bleeding. Most often the ache guides me to the notch in bone hiding beneath my eyebrow. A nerve courses through there, I've learned, a narrow yet forceful river. One feeds each eye; my left may stand relatively protected, but it isn't immune to destructive flooding. By what, that's the question.
Here the hardest-earned knowledge dissolves. Pure pain pulls you back, long past your college days. To the years when true words were just feelings and a syllable had to do. You massage that spot, turgid and hot, and dream of a razor blade for a quick incision. Goo. Goo is what would be extruded. A blighted cousin of the ancient Greek humors. Not pus, nothing infectious, but some similarly dense substance, black like motor oil. Ah, that’s what’s been ailing you, the surgeon would say. Too much melancholy living in your head. Some bodies are sensitive.
You'd nod, feigning understanding. Those aren't modern scientific words of chemicals and nerves. But modern medicine barely knows better, not for sure.
The next night inches through the blinds. The nauseating pinesap is back, pooling in that same hollow. Mental messages stick and fail to transmit. Another night of no writing, that mind clearing hike, learning as I go and leaving a marker behind.
This time I refuse. To give in, to deepen my human-shaped crater in bed. Almost impossible now, without a pill or two. As I swallow, I'm grateful to medication for padding this brain-made stabbing. The drug calms the throbbing, but take it too often—I've been warned—and headaches will boomerang, slapping back harder than before. Besides, I'd never have the doses I'd need to tame each of the many migraines.
This night is quiet, as far as I can tell, given the muted whooshing in my head. Again I open the window, hoping for a cool blanket of air. The cat races to the sill to listen for any tucked or fluttering feathers. Minutes pass before a siren flies by, an ambulance in the distance.
Today I did go outside. Once, in a break from the pain. Along the street, neighbors played gardener and farmer in the comfortable sun. With the natural light my body remembered that the day does not begin and end with the flick of a switch.
That body flies to the toilet before I know it. Not you. Oh, yes, you. Sudden unexpected vomit, the detested guest of migraine-brain. Lentils, not pretty. Ah, well. I'm better than I would be in the nineteenth century. Survival of the fittest; I shudder at the thought. Modern medicine, I admit, has changed the game. It's hard to remain convinced while my stomach threatens to expel the rest of dinner.
The night is black, closer to day, and no sleep of which to speak. As I lie down, the cat bounds in beside me, licking my skin rapid-fire like this is some great adventure. I pull the sheet over my head. Not now. Plop, she flops near the edge of the bed, as if instantly exhausted. I peek out and laugh despite the ache. She may not speak, but she teaches. When you feel like dying, something—or someone—brings you back to life.
Julienne Grace Abad, Valerie's Secret
Valerie's father told her, once she was old enough to understand the difference between secrets and lies, that between the two, secrets are the greater evil. The way he explained it at the time didn't make sense, but he was her father so she took his word for it. And when he slid her off his knee, bent down, and offered her his crooked little finger, she reached up and gave him her own without a second thought.
"No secrets," she said.
Her father laughed deep in his throat. "Promise?" he said.
* * *
"Promise," Valerie murmured, and clenched the steering wheel to still her hands.
"What was that?" said her father. He squinted at the temperature controls, his glasses halfway down his nose.
Valerie batted his hand away and turned the heat up. “Nothing," she said.
A hazy green light bled through the fog. Valerie lurched forward, veered right, and swung onto the interstate, while her father smiled at the lights of the medical school and the hospital, watching them fade into the frigid sky.
Valerie coughed, harder than she had the night before, but not from the dust that floated through the air and settled, snow-like, on the leatherette seats.
"Lots of work. Not enough sleep."
"We're done with Gross Anatomy, thank goodness. Couldn't wait for that to be over."
"That bad, huh?" said her father. "Why, was it too 'gross' for you?"
As he chuckled at his terrible joke, Valerie found herself smiling. She could never get tired of her father's laugh. Quick, easy. Earthy. Like he meant it every time. When he laughed, Valerie could almost pretend that everything was all
He looked even smarter than last time. Crisp shirt tucked neatly into well-ironed slacks. Smooth leather shoes, polished and gleaming like mirrors. He wasn't dressing up for her, was he? Of course I am, he always said, I'm going to be the father of a doctor so I should look the part. But Valerie knew he was just getting old and a bit insecure. He didn't have to worry, though. His hair hadn't changed color yet—just a few specks of gray around the ears, like salt scattered on asphalt.
Well. Valerie had a story for her father this Thanksgiving, one that was sure to turn his hair the wrong shade of white. She'd kept this story to herself for three months already. Gotten a second, third opinion. Had more scans and tests than she wanted to remember. And every day, as she kept on waiting and working and waiting some more, she got just a little bit weaker and just a little bit closer to the end of her story. Five years wasn't a long time if you thought about it.
She'd have to tell her father before the end of day. Valerie knew that. Even if she wanted to keep her secret, he'd notice the darkness under her eyes, the weight she'd lost, the cough that wouldn't go away. He'd ask. She'd tell him. And when she was finished, he wouldn't be laughing.
* * *
The first oncologist is a clean-shaven man, not young enough to have a baby but not old enough to have a teenager. His hair, the color of muddy leaves, is parted an inch and three eighths left of center. His left, not Valerie's. He has a habit of making too much eye contact, so Valerie stares at his chair, a high-backed monstrosity with blackened nail heads pounded into its edges. The leather of it sounds so papery, it's a wonder it doesn't crack under the man's weight.
The second is a woman, a mother, because Valerie thinks a mother will be kinder. She'll speak in that tranquil self-assured voice, the one she reserves for patients and families and her own hysterical daughters, and she'll tell Valerie it's just asthma, or maybe a bad reaction to the smog. But the woman's hair is thin and brittle and doesn't move even when she tilts her head in what resembles a gesture of sympathy. She says something disappointing, too. She says it in a voice like liquid silver, but it's disappointing all the same.
The third doctor is the last so far, and probably will be the last. Valerie is tired, and all she wants now is for someone to sit by her side and say nothing. So the doctor—an old man, older than her father—sits with her on a bench outside his office under a bald tree because she's his last appointment and she reminds him a little of his granddaughter, and he says nothing because she's asked him not to speak and anyway he has nothing to say that she doesn't already know. When the sun is dead, Valerie turns to look at the old man, and he's watching her with eyes like blue glass and a mouth that looks sadder than her own, and his frosty hair is blowing in the wind.
* * *
When they tell Valerie what she has, she has to look it up in a textbook to get the name of it right. It irritates her, the name. What difference does it make if it's Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin? B cell or T cell? In her lungs or her spleen? Who on earth is Hodgkin anyway, and what right does he, of all dead people, have to interrupt her life like this?
At first Valerie calls the thing by its full name, the way you call a child by its full name when it’s exasperating you and you desperately want it to stop. That doesn't work, of course, so she drops a word here and there and eventually starts calling the thing a something-something lymphoma, because of course a smaller name means a smaller problem. Lymphoma sounds better than cancer, at any rate. But even that is difficult to say. Valerie knows just enough about medicine to realize that the suffix -oma always carries an expiration date. Hers happens to fall somewhere in her second year of residency.
Residency. She hasn't gotten there yet. She hasn't even finished her first year of medical school and here comes this illness, this disease, this thing that was never part of her plan. Her blueprint, the one she's been drafting for longer than she can remember, turns out to be the design not for a house but for an impossibly large sand castle. She's taken her time building it, made it beautiful and elaborate and ambitious, thinking the sun was still high and she had all day to finish. Now the tide is coming in, and there's nothing she can do to stop it.
* * *
They were forty miles along when the rain arrived. It came down out of nowhere like an avalanche, with a sound like approaching gunfire. As Valerie watched it, she began to imagine a picture of a woman hedged in by a frenzied crowd of fists and stones, and Valerie started thinking that if the woman hadn't been saved, if the people had put her to death for her crime after all, then the noise of this storm was nothing compared to the thunder those stones would have made as they fell—meteor-like, cataclysmic—upon yielding flesh.
"Did you know it was going to rain this hard?"
"'’m fine," said Valerie. She pushed on the gas, but the asphalt and the tires were both too slick. She swerved back
"Careful," her father muttered.
"So Uncle Tim is coming over?" said Valerie.
"Yeah, him and your Aunt Judith."
"That should be a treat. Haven't seen them since college."
"Time flies, doesn't it?" said her father. "Pretty soon you'll have your own practice and I'll just be an old man waiting for you to visit me."
"Huh. They'll stay married forever, won't they?"
"You know," said Valerie after a pause, "I don't understand why you and Mom can't be like that."
Her father stiffened. "Like what?"
"Like . . . two mature adults."
"I'm not mature?"
"Look, every couple's got problems. I'll bet Uncle Tim and—"
"So I'm every married man?"
"No," said Valerie. "What I’m saying is, you can’t split up just because you’re not used to being alone together
Her father shot her a warning look. "Don’t do that, Val."
"Pretend it’s so easy." His voice was too loud now, even with the storm bellowing overhead.
"I never said it was easy," said Valerie.
"You know what your problem is?" said her father. '"You think you can fix everything. Life isn’t medicine, all right? You can’t look up your problem in a book and solve it with a pill or an operation."
"Medicine doesn’t work like that, either," said Valerie quietly.
"Not everything has a cure. You know that."
Her father said nothing.
"Listen, Dad. There’s something I have to tell you."
Valerie glanced at the fuel gauge. Forty-five miles to empty. Funny how she hadn’t noticed earlier.
"Let’s stop for gas first," she said. "I’ll tell you after."
* * *
The night before her father comes to pick her up, Valerie doesn’t sleep. The sight of the old man’s limp white hair and his flat blue eyes keeps coming back to her in the dark. She crawls out of bed, coughing, and curls up on the windowsill to watch the cars in their somnambulistic dance around the hospital. The rain clings to her window like sweat, fracturing the taillights and stoplights into a fine red spray.
When the sky turns gray, Valerie wanders out of her apartment and somehow finds herself standing in front of the hospital. On her way, a picture has begun to form in her mind. She’s sitting in the chemotherapy clinic, wearing a gown and fuzzy socks. Her father is pushing his glasses up his nose every minute, every thirty seconds, every fifteen. Valerie’s mother is there, too, with her arms folded tight and her eyes riveted to Valerie’s head. They must think she’s asleep because they’re not yelling anymore, they’re whispering. Valerie cracks her eyes open and watches them hover, drawn together at last by the loss they’re about to share. There’s something deeply painful about the sight, and something strangely comforting.
"Are you okay?" says somebody.
The vision shatters. Valerie looks up at the security guard, then turns her eyes away. She watches the people and the wheelchairs as they shuffle through the revolving doors, like driftwood circling a maelstrom, like planets sucked into a never-ending orbit, and she realizes that she can’t do this, not as long as she’s alone.
"Miss," says the guard. "Do you need help?"
"No," says Valerie. "Not today."
* * *
Valerie pulled into the first station she found, a seedy place with floodlights that shone the wrong color. Her father ducked inside the store for coffee while she fumbled for her gas card. As she searched her wallet, she rehearsed in her mind the speech she’d thought up that morning on her way back from the hospital. She’d arranged her words carefully, like a line of seashells on the strand. Maybe if she told her story just right, in the right order, first to her father, then to her mother, something could still be saved.
Her fingers must have been shaking because the minute she slid the card out, it slipped from her grasp and fell. She squeezed her arm between the console and the passenger seat and groped for the card. Nothing.
Valerie pushed the seat forward and spotted a flash of holographic blue. She reached down to grab it, then felt something else.
It was a pair of glasses, rimed with six months’ dust. Tortoiseshell with gold rims.
Ferragamo. Maybe Valerie’s mother had finally become fashionable and forgotten to tell her.
Valerie slipped the glasses on and flinched. The prescription was so high that she had to shut her eyes to block out the pain. This was not her mother’s prescription.
These were not her mother’s glasses.
Valerie had fixed her eyes on the shoreline, watching the waves gnaw at her castle. She already knew how fast the water was moving, how many laps it would take to wash everything away. But in that instant, with the other woman’s glasses pressed up against her nose, she realized that she’d been watching the wrong tide all along. It was as if she’d lifted her eyes from the shoreline for a second, bored perhaps by the rhythm of the waves, and turned back just in time to see a wave higher than a mountain crash upon her little half-built castle, and she was watching the sea surge in endless slow motion, wondering when the devastation would be over, waiting for the ocean to fall back, sated, so that she could finally see the wreckage and know if it had all been real.
"Val!" said her father. "What are you doing?"
Valerie snatched the glasses off, stuffed them inside her jacket, and climbed out. "Dropped my
gas card between the seats," she said. She kept her eyes on the ground.
Her father leaned against the trunk, savoring his coffee. Valerie ignored hers and watched the meter instead.
One gallon. Two. Three.
"So what did you want to tell me?" said her father.
Secrets and lies. Lies and secrets.
Four. Five. Six.
Valerie took a sip of coffee. It tasted like nothing. Seven. Eight. Nine.
Choose the lesser evil. You know which one it is.
Ten. Eleven. "Val?"
Eleven point four six one and a line of numbers stretching into an unseen infinity.
Time’s up. Make your choice.
Valerie gave the pump one last squeeze, twisted the gas cap, folded the tank cover. She sank into the passenger seat.
"You don’t want to drive?" said her father as he opened the door on the other side.
"I’m tired," said Valerie.
"You know, you still haven’t answered my question."
"I’m tired," she said again. "I want to sleep."
While her father squinted at the road, saying nothing about her cough, Valerie looked out into the blackness, imagining the smell of salt and gritty sand, remembering the old man whose mouth looked so sad, and thinking about how it felt to break a promise.