Dr. Flesh (Elizabeth Kirschner)

Edited by Alise Blayney & Michele Seminara 

People are harder than birds. They squawk more and it is an unlovely sound, like a sawed-in-half snore. The light in the asylum where I have been put away is institutional. In here, the mad lament better than paid mourners.

I know their cries. One poor soul’s sounds like a snake covered in scabs. Others are Kyries coming from ordinary men and women whose brains, like mine, are broken. Their Kyrie is also mine.

In the lock-up, I stand, empty as a shoe box before my window. The white curtains are stiff cardboard; the sill, glued shut with frost. I press my fingers to the glass. It’s so cold it shocks me.

I watch the night grow black as a pirate’s eye patch, see stars gloat in three-quarter eclipse. I look at them, am made madder by my hankering to hold a great blue heron in my arms. The greater, the bluer, the better. Neck long as a flute made out water. The head bob that pushes yes to an edge. The ebony vase of the slender beak. That stately strut.

To hold a heron in my arms and not break its neck is the challenge. I know more than any other mere mortal not to break anything given to me that is alive, throbbing and flighted — even when every straining, unpleasant cell in my unpleasant body is avid, passionate and dangerously driven to do so. Oh dear God, how can I be stopped?

Suicide-proof windows do the trick. Glass thicker than bifocals helps. The screamers, pacers, cutters — among them, I become them. Knowing that the body can sustain its own sick burning, its own hell for hours. It’s the mind, the mind that cannot.

In the distance, nun-like hills, ghostly rain, Giacometti-thin trees. Even my hands cry. The air is heavy as oil paint as I jump up on the bed, feel my silence break in jars. The floor, isn’t it boiling with rats and won’t their bites chew my boobs until they are thumbtack hard?

The rats gain altitude as I jump up and down on the bed. The mattress, is it my flying carpet? Will I lift off, a space woman untethered to the mother ship while horror leans in, telling me that the future is dark, which is the best thing a future can be?

I eat my screams. It’s akin to swallowing scarves pulled raw from a worn box. No music inside. No music. None.

As I jump up and down and eat my screams, the rats play me, are acrobatic, their venom leaving me paralyzed. My eyes blink, rooted in a language all their own. The rats are yo-yo’s zinging off the walls, like ping pong balls. Their hollow bounces bounce in my hollow head.

The male nurse, Fred, comes in. His sneakers squeak. I stop jumping, smooth my nightgown, try to think of small talk. Will he baby proof my brains by nailing them to my lungs? One congested with smoke, the other, shut like a gun.

‘Hi’ I say. I fold my hands, here is the church, here is the steeple.

‘Take this,’ he says. His hair is orange-poppy red, rough, burred, and in his outstretched hand is a tiny blue pill. My father, didn’t he take me like aspirin?

‘No thank you,’ I say.

I’m still worried about the rats. Are they under the bed?

I drink a glass of water, then some more.

‘You know,’ says Fred, ‘you can die from drinking too much water.’

I lift my glass, ‘Cheers!’ My smile, like the one once wired across Essie’s belly, is an anus pearled with shit.

Fred shakes his head, leaves. The door stays open. A pie slice of uterine light comes in.

I’m in the psych ward, in a room clammy as wet bread. The air I breath is shrapnel and I am a mess of flesh. God wants this, my brain besieged, my heart broken. Let it break, he says, dropping my world like a raindrop in a storm of thousands. With pleasure, he adds.

While the rats recede, my roommate, blind, confused, starts to scream. I pad to her bed, place the foam slippers with smiley faces on her feet. Her thin ankles are mottled with veins. I adjust paper-thin blankets, calm her by placing my cold hand upon the elusive foam of her forehead. Her smile is faint as the one on her foam slippers. Her eyes shut.

Back to bed. Outside my window, the night erases God’s words like an old lesson on a chalkboard and in my brain, green glorious dreams arise, impregnated by storms. All night long, my dreams are punctuated by my roommate’s screams.

In the morning, I enter a room where Dr. Flesh puts me on display for a game of Show and Tell. Aren’t I supposed to tell my story to a group of students who want to be just like Dr. Flesh, who is special, very, very special, unlike me?

I’m still in my nightgown, the one I refuse to take off. The room is cool, ballroom big. Grey floor tiles match the grey sky hung above a low-slung red horizon. Ceiling lights are pillbox hats.

Medical students sit at cafe tables. One twirls a cocktail umbrella in his black coffee. Another folds his hands — here is the church, here is the steeple. Another picks beard bristles from his unshaven face.

Dr. Flesh takes my elbow in his, escorts me across the room. Is this a date? His mustache is mouse-grey. It looks like ash has been painted on his upper lip. Did a pre-schooler do it?

Perched on a stool, one eye weeps as words start to fall out of my mouth in a knot of muddy milk.

‘My heart,’ I say.

Mother, I couldn’t escape her. Drunk, eternal as a weed, she chased me down the hallway while I screamed.

No one heard me, nor alas do you, Dr. Flesh. I see you yawn as I go on — a dying fly flinging itself against the pane that holds her in.


Author’s Note: Dr. Flesh is set in a psych ward in the same hospital the author’s son was born, 11 years before this story was written.

Elizabeth Kirschner has been writing across decades and has published six volumes of poetry and an award-winning memoir, Waking the bones. Also a Master Gardener, she lives on the water in Kittery Point, Maine, with her little dog, Albert. You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website and on Facebook