These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 6. At this time, Muse 6 is out of print, but please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page to order other issues of the Muse.
Heather Hallberg Yanda, So Many Masks
This room inherits its severity
from the rest of the hospital—or maybe
it’s the other way ’round. Even the ghosts
have been cleaned away with antiseptics
that linger in the nose for days, though
you wish for one now, to stand by
with a protective hand in yours or
a caress to the brow. Surrounding you,
a constellation of metal
instruments and fluorescent lights. Machinery
taps your heart’s syllables and lisps
your deepest secrets. After the hand washing,
the gowns, and so many masks, surgeons
arrive, part the careful air
in this operating room, so their anonymity
can join your own. They speak amongst themselves in tongues
you cannot understand, and you notice
the separateness that echoes through the spaces around you—the division
between you and them, and though you don’t like
to think of it this way, between
business and living. Days ago, driving down McHenry
Valley, you startled a deer as she darted into the road. The shriek
of your brakes, the blur of her coat caught
in your headlights—you were as frightened as she was. Safe
on the other side, she watched you
recover and continue.
You wish for her resilience
just now, as you are given
your own mask, the air thick inside, accompanied
by the dizzying fall into anesthesia’s small death.
Bruce Bennett, Cycle
Love grapples with the darkness. Darkness wins.
There’s nothing left to hope for. Hope begins.
Veneta Masson, Gold Standard
Ensure that the drug information you rely on is as good as gold
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Strange alchemy indeed—
money to medicine
banking to science—
the gold standard transmuted.
Its appeal is irresistible.
What athlete or patient sets his sights
on the silver or bronze?
And as for clinicians,
we have to stake our claim
somewhere. Precious few will reveal
the only thing they know for sure—
that there is no Fort Knox,
only an Oz where wizards
come and go.
When I think of all the pyrite
I’ve proffered through the years—
the abandoned theories,
discredited pills and procedures,
all of it gold standard,
I make my confession
and offer this prayer
to the God of Unknowing,
Lord, make me your placebo,
a humble purveyor
of sensible care,
a healer who never fails,
at least, to give a damn.
Benjamin H. Han, Thai-Burma Border, Circa 2005
On the roofs of the clinics are the dock te lizards
all through the night I hear the enormity of their song,
and all my students laugh at my fear.
And it still takes me a while to understand where I am,
where imaginary borders meet. And no longer do I
feel uncomfortable with my own inbetweeness.
I feel ashamed.
Today, we are in search of iodine, in almost every literal sense of the word. A patient came in from Burma this morning with an enormous goiter. All fifteen medics felt it from behind the woman. I have never felt a goiter, and I did not want to. There was no iodine in the clinic so Dr. Eric and I had another opportunity for an afternoon adventure. We had mapped out the entire town by motorbikes, and went searching for bottles of iodine. The Thai pharmacies, none. The private hospital near the mosque wouldn’t give it to us. 7-11, why did we even bother?
We parked outside the public hospital at the motorbike parking lot. A patient just arrived from the back of a truck from a bicycle accident. The nurses did not understand us. But the office workers took us up empty hallways with glossy photographs. The King and his shadows were everywhere. We waited. Then social medicine came and gave us a box of one hundred bottles of iodine. Free. Take it. Social medicine. Take to them.
“Shouldn’t each container be black? Why are they all clear?” Eric asked me outside.
“I don’t know. But what I remember is, shouldn’t they be black.”
“Yeah, I think, oh well.”
After work every afternoon I ran the 5km to the border. Street dogs constantly chased after me. Behind the large white gate that served as an entrance over the river into Burma, I would sit on large concrete blocks and stare into the river where people swam across, and wave to the families living under the bridge. The Thai military jeeps with large guns never bothered me nor did they seem to bother anyone.
Dripping of brown river water, making no attempt to hide trade routes,
these people swam, as if borders are just nonsense, fantasy,
there are no straight lines, Burmese pop music travels across the river.
And all my students, my dear students, can it seems, never go home.
Never cross the imaginary lines that separate them infinitely.
And although they never show emotion of their past or present, I can sense their pain,
of forced migration, burnt land, death, torture, and of 8.8.1998.
And I will never be able to comprehend.
I cannot think of anything more comforting than being with you, high up in the Asia Hotel, looking down upon the second most ridiculous city (Seoul will always be our first). Before you arrived at Don Muang Airport I waited in the morning in Lumphini Park before the sun rose. I walked back and forth between the park and the HSBC bank, walking over 3 elevated cross walks and 2 narrow alleys. I took a red city bus without air conditioning for 5 baht, hoping it would land me near Don Muang. The route ended at Hua Lamphong, and I walked around it, through Chinatown, through narrow street markets, mapping out what you would think of the north. Wondering if you would understand the space I had created and be at peace with what I have to do with my life.
And on the back of my motorbike up north,
driving through endless fields and farmlands,
waving at the cows and goats,
your teeth clanging on my shoulder at every bump in the road,
We stared down at the gold pagodas into Burma,
And you would never understand these postcolonial realities,
But this is so much more comforting.
Back in Bangkok, on your last night, we drive in a blue and red taxi on the 12 lane elevated highways. You tell me the skytrain in Bangkok is the blue line in Seoul between Ich’on all the way down to Isu, only ten years ago. And everything is neon lights and I wish the taxi driver would stop talking to me about Korean cars.
I don’t want you to leave.
there is something about coming back into Mae Sot at 5am from Bangkok alone,
riding a motorcycle taxi past rows of monks walking barefoot in the rain.
M. told me my last night on the border to remember each distinct smell upon entering a new country. Burma smelled the same I told her, and tried to convince her that these borders are all arbitrary. But when I finally left in the morning, curving through the roads on the bus on uphill mountains and near waterfalls, outside of Tak, I noticed there was a scent to the clinic and its malaria, and of the exact location of the border, and now it was gone. And then the bus slowed at a checkpoint. Three Thai soldiers got on the bus, and everyone had to show identification. Next to me were a Karen couple, refugees without any papers, and they were removed from the bus. I knew already what jail they were headed to back in Mae Sot.
Then a Chinese woman was asked to remove her durian from her chair. I had not noticed the pungent smell of the fruit. The police argued with her in English and she argued back in English.
“This is mine! If I put it under the bus someone will take it!!!” she screamed.
“It is illegal in Thailand to have a durian on the bus or in a hotel room. Please let us take it and store it down below.”
After a fifteen-minute argument and struggle, they removed her durian from the bus, and the smell was gone indefinitely.
Evan Morgan Williams, Sanibel's Journal
I need to emphasize that to an outsider such as me this so-called wave writing was totally illegible, and when I inquired, no one would teach me how to read it. The people gladly pointed out intricacies in the streaks left by a receding tide, precision in the spacing of grains of sand after a windstorm, order where I saw chaos in the turbulent waves—all subtleties that an outsider would miss—but about the meaning of these texts they said nothing. They stalled. They smiled blandly. Of course I respected their privacy—perhaps they took me for a tourist who had strayed through the maze of dunes—but I suspected they were withholding something written in the sand, and I grew impatient for a reading. Merely to gaze at these beautiful patterns was as unsatisfying as to look no further than the cover of a novel. As a scientist, I relied on verifiable dataphotographs, theodolite readings, satellite images—anything less rigorous I treated with skepticism. When I set down my pen and clipboard and traced the sand with my fingers as the residents were doing, for all I knew I was reading the sand in the wrong direction.
In this settlement, there was a young woman named Sanibel. Like everyone else here, Sanibel studied the beach twice per day. I had seen her walking along the edge of the tide as though searching for something she had lost. Her long brown hair fell loosely around her face and neck, and I had never gotten a good look at her face. People told me she was dyslexic and she stammered, the results of a hearing difficulty as a child. As she searched for a word, people warned, she would grab your arm as though she were afraid you might wander off. Sometimes, when the words did not come to her, she would let go, inconsolable and silent, and the release of her grip from your arm, that sudden loss of warmth and hope and language, gave the impression that Sanibel had resigned herself to a nameless despair. Her grip left red marks on your skin, which faded in a few minutes. Most people had expected Sanibel to run away as a teenager. What kept Sanibel here, they suggested, was that she liked more than anything to read the sand. And she kept a record. With her pencil and journal, she would transcribe patterns from the beach into her wobbly script so that she could read them later, at her own pace, after they had washed away. She was the only person who wrote anything down, and she was regarded as a sort of archivist. She smiled often, although with her hair hiding her face you wondered whether she was being sly. There was a rumor that her eyes changed color from blue to gray to green.
I first met Sanibel during a dinner at one of the cottages. She was about my age. Maybe the residents were hoping to fix us up, I don’t know. On this particular evening, I was alarmed at my day’s findings: a strand of data that suggested the beach was disappearing. In a year, I calculated, the settlement would wash into the sea. Of course, I did not feel light-hearted or social. Perhaps Sanibel felt similarly burdened; soon after the evening’s small-talk began, she and I found ourselves alone by the wood stove, an eddy of silence in a noisy room. I asked her about her journal. She formed a word on her lips, and she tugged at my arm and frowned with concentration. This effort seemed to distract her, and the desired word slipped away. She continued to grip my arm, and I took this to be her point. I did not try to pry my arm from her grip. During the meal, Sanibel did not speak a single word. She was in contrast with everyone else at the table, who spoke voluminously about the sand, the wind, the waves, the beautiful script, but in whose ramblings the very point of the writing—surely these people understood that their settlement was eroding—this essential message was ignored as if it were not even there or avoided as if it was. As people spoke, I watched Sanibel across the table for a sign. What mattered to her: the writing that had washed away, or the messages she put in her journal and kept forever? Her long hair masked her face.
The next time I saw Sanibel, she was standing knee-deep in the warm ocean, her back to the waves. She had been reading the erosion in the escarpment that undercut her cottage, and she had stepped back to study the work as a whole. I sloshed out to where she stood. I had seen similar undercutting along other sections of the escarpment. From this perspective, the swirls in the sand resembled an angry wave in a Japanese print. I asked Sanibel what it said, but she did not answer. I was wading back to shore when she caught up with me and tugged my wrist. “Um, listen to me. There is a right way to ask.”
Several nights later, a storm washed a fisherman’s ragged net on the beach. I found it in the morning among sea-foam and broken mussel shells where the high tide had left its imprint the night before. Knotted into the net were a dozen glass floats—handblown, irregular globes of wet, sparkling glass. Some of them were broken. One or two still bobbed in the surf. They glinted a color between green and blue.
The net drew everyone’s interest that morning. From up and down the beach people left their section of sand to gather and read the story as eagerly as you might read the lead story of a newspaper. They examined the glass floats, argued over their exact color, and studied the different knots that held the net together. Exactly how these fragments of discussion came together to weave a coherent narrative I did not hear.
I stepped into a circle of people passing a fragment of net around. “Tell me what it says.” I went from face to face. “Tell me.” As people turned away from me, I grabbed them by the arms. “Hey.” They brushed me off. I may as well have been invisible. The people drifted up and down the beach, and by midmorning the remains of the fisherman’s net had washed back to sea.
A few hours later, I found Sanibel sitting on a warm slab of driftwood in the sun. Her journal lay open in her lap, and she was wrestling a line of text from her pencil, fingers tense, face bent to her task, her hair spilling onto the page. When she looked up, I saw that she was smiling. Her eyes were the color of those glass floats. She had scribbled some wavy patterns on the page; I could not make sense of them.
“It’s just a joke,” she said. She crossed it out.
I sat beside her on the driftwood.
For the entire afternoon, as our shadows lengthened across the sand, I waited for Sanibel to tell me about her journal. I looked directly into her eyes. This was not easy. I was distracted by their indeterminate color and the wind tossing her hair. She took my wrist and held tighter than I would have liked.
“This is how you ask.”
She spoke slowly, deliberately, but without a stammer, shaping each word as carefully as a jeweler would cut a gem. She told me that the glass floats on the beach were from a particular village in Japan. They had come across the sea, borne by a storm. In recent years, there had been a lot of storms. In fact, the storms were gnawing the shore away. Some day soon, all the cottages would be gone. Perhaps I already knew this?
Before I could respond with my scientific data, Sanibel continued, this time with a burst of words. She let go of my wrist and waved her hand towards the beach. It was all for show, she said, this fascination with the writing in the sand. It was style, not substance. It was surface, not depth. Without irony the residents read in the sand a forecast of their beach’s destruction, yet they gushed over the delicate black striations of manganese and iron embellishing the sandy script. Those hard ridges that formed in the dense, wet sand? Threats, relentlessly pounded by an angry sea. The sinewy trails that remained after the tidewater drained from the beach? Unmistakable warnings. But you would not know it, the way people talked. What washed on the beach was, for them, the emptiest of blandishment. Goodspeak. With her bare foot, Sanibel stroked the smooth sand at our feet, on which old text was still visible, and suggested that this superficial motion was as insightful as reading, and as worthless, if you didn’t care what it said.
Sanibel told me that reading was hard for her. Some of the sand etchings were too complex to sort out, some too large to grasp, others too miniscule to notice. Some of them were nothing but the random action of wave and wind, and she could not read any order in them at all. Sanibel was ten years old before she understood that the patterns in the sand were a character set, a sort of alphabet; after learning to read the sand, Sanibel began her journal. Over the years, as the waves rinsed the sand away, more pages of text were exposed. Sanibel recorded what she could. She captured a story about a blue whale, stories about lovers, stories about surfing. She uncovered an oil spill that the industry did not publicize. One day, she found a story about a grassfire, during which the elk and the bear came down to the sea. And she discovered that the beach was eroding away. All this she wrote in her journal, thin, whispery expressions of joy but mostly sorrow.
She drew four wobbly figures for me. “This means Sanibel. I have a story about a girl named Sanibel. A long time ago…” At this moment her voiced faltered, and I saw she had begun to cry. “There were no stories, no etchings in the sand. The beach, like people’s imaginations, was as smooth and unblemished as your skin when you were a child. Well, the man who owned the largest cottage hired a young artist to write some things in the sand. He was going to host a feast, and he wanted a record of everything the people had accomplished here, great letters in fancy curly-cue script which the people could follow like a path through a maze. No one had ever written down a story, mind you, but the job paid well, and the artist took it. He hired two apprentices, teenage boys who argued with each other but who worked hard if he kept them apart. The artist sectioned the beach in thirds and assigned a different part of the story to each of them, keeping the middle section for himself. The work was going well. I need to say that the rich man had a daughter named Sanibel. She was the same age as the two apprentices. She was pretty, with long brown hair and eyes of an unusual blue which people could not place. And she was deaf. During the etching of the sand, Sanibel would walk down to the beach to watch the young artist and his assistants work. The two boys vied for her attention, but Sanibel spent more time with the artist. ‘Blue, Sanibel. Your eyes are blue today.’ He would rest his hand on her shoulder and whisper into her long brown hair. Sanibel remained still and smiled at this information. Blue. She sensed the pressure of his lips against her ear and the soft exhalation of air as he whispered. Blue. She turned her face towards his, and their cheeks brushed. Every day, they drifted within each other’s touch, and every day the artist pronounced the color of her eyes, and every day Sanibel mouthed the words back to herself silently. Lupine. Cerulean. Aquamarine. He made her a little journal in which to keep the words. Well, the story in the sand was nearly done, and the feast was only a few days off, when Sanibel’s father approached the artist with a new commission: He wanted the artist to tattoo the story onto his daughter’s skin. She would walk around the feast and serve roast boar to the guests while they admired the beautiful, sinewy letters on her arms, her back, her belly, her legs. The father brought Sanibel down to the beach and made her disrobe. The artist was supposed to ink the words into her unblemished skin, and she was to be completely covered with the story by morning. The father departed. The artist and the terrified girl sat together on the sand. They were both ashamed, and he handed her her clothes to put on. After a long silence, the artist held Sanibel. He whispered words of blue to her, touching her cheek, her forehead, her hair. Your eyes are the color of a river stone . . . pastel blue, like a Mary Cassatt painting . . . like the glass dish on my parent’s table, when I was a child . . . robin’s egg . . . slate . . . zinc . . . azure . . . pop bottle. The artist and Sanibel fell asleep on the beach, the girl nestled in his protective arms, his face buried in her long hair. That is how the two assistants found them the next morning. The father was furious. He sent the artist away, and the assistants were able to complete the task on Sanibel’s body. They wrote meaningless, random blocks of letters, undressing her, fighting over parts of her, completing the text while Sanibel stood naked, confused, humiliated, and hurting. Then, the night before the feast, a freak high tide erased all of the writing on the sand. The beach has been shrinking ever since. This is not made up. You can still put the pieces of the story together. It’s not the kind of thing that just rinses off. When the artist whispered those words to that poor girl, that was the last time anyone meant anything they were saying.”
Sanibel looked away. She gulped and began to stammer. She gripped my wrist again. “Um, maybe the sand-writing upsets people too much, but I think people are so taken with the designs, they don’t even remember in which direction to read anymore. But I’ve also seen people absorbed in the receding tide as though captivated by a good novel. You want to find out what is right and wrong in the world . . . but you don’t always want to talk about it. Now leave me alone, please.”
The sun was low over the shimmering water by the time Sanibel finished. With my free hand, I ran my fingers through her hair; it was like running them through soft sand.
“Please.” Sanibel looked at me, her eyes full of tears. I decided her eyes were the color and depth of the sky.
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