The world is ugly
He's a whittler. It's art. He props the teenagers he's finished against the wall in the hallway and they stay put this time. It makes him gasp. A dry, piercing eruption floats through his blood, a dusting of pleasure, powder of love. There's a green stripe all along the white clinic wall, faded now, stained with boot scuffs, drably industrial, and it seems to him an adhesive strip to which the leaning teenagers stick, their redesigned bones protruding from their spines into a kind of insect arolia to grip it. They are one with the wall. This is happiness, this dust in his blood, peace. He has achieved art. Marta marches past, out there beyond the little staff-room window, hardly a glance at these people he's remade and the doctor wants to knock on the glass, shout, grab her head and turn it to the beauty of the teenagers. Make her love. He'll say, This is why we exist. To break, reattach. The bony process. This is the art of love.
Marta stops in front of the teenagers and says, Who threw up in the bathroom? Whoever it is is gonna clean it up.
The one named Kyle detaches from the green strip. Kyle's bones have been slashed to a waif shape. He was too large when he arrived, too everywhere. He is articulated now, graceful, his bones spun by welding torches into lacy filaments from which function has been debrided, the ribs opened like irregular spokes to highlight the pounding heart, elongated limbs executing gentle antelope-horn twists. His forearms are fans, fingers stars. Yet when Kyle peels from the wall, shouting, the doctor's heartblooms and wilts instantly like a time-lapse tulip. This is not his art; it's incomplete. His art should stick. Kyle flails at Marta, then turns and arches into a painful rainbow. The tangled bones, when bent to scuttle away toward the dayroom, seem fiendish, coiling and uncoiling to run on what were once knees and knuckles.
Marta follows. The doctor can see it all, hear it, through the dayroom viewing glass. The two are having a war of You and No. Kyle, the teenager who is not art, turns and pounds on the reinforced outer window, as if the soapberry tree out there will talk to him. Its branches in the clinical winter are white with rime. They'll break through to him. When Marta doesn't stop haranguing, Kyle begins to throw books from the shelf that is the dayroom's poor excuse for a library. Cheap paperbacks fly, swept up and out by the fanned bones of his forearms. Each book is a soul with many pages. Each lands on a page, face -down. It hurts the books. "It hurts," Kyle screams at Marta.
More people are hurrying by to help, but the doctor has seen his mistake. This design of protrusions, allowing contact with the world at discrete points, must be replaced with something smoother. Another treatment. He imagines how to achieve this as they lead Kyle away. In his mind he is sorting the knives, the saws.
My bones don't feel right
We brought Heather together with these bone tricksters and my god we were sorry, but you do what you think's right. You think , and you think thinking makes it right. Her mother cried all night, I couldn't comfort her, not after we left our little girl behind the door they lock up , the sliding door wide as the hall. The upper half of the door is safety glass, so it looks like the kids leaning against the wall beyond are in a subway train about to take off at a right angle from you. On visiting day the hall behind the glass becomes a lava lamp tipped on its side, kids moving up to the glass and retreating in a kind of gray flow, keeping a watch-out until their parents arrive. I couldn't take my eyes off the reboned, deboned shapes that second day. Lumps and scarecrows. One boy who looked like art, the kind you don't understand, splayed and drizzled, like an arc weld gone bad. I've had a few of those, but Heather wasn't one. They wouldn't do that, we 'd told ourselves, she's too soft already.
The doctor spoke to us first, in his office that was a white cubbyhole, walls of some chalk substance I couldn't make out. We'd brought a bag of things Heather needed, or my wife said. Most of it seemed fur. The doctor glanced into the small carry-on and said, oddly: "No strings." He told us Heather had had a quiet night.
"Doesn't night usually mean quiet?" my wife murmured.
He placed a sheet of paper in my hands.
"Our subject questionnaire. The subjects are asked to check which statement applies to them. This is not a statistic. This is very important to our work."
The paper said:
1. The world is ugly.
2. My bones don't feel right.
"Your daughter checked both."
When Heather was six, she'd watched a kid's show about children born deaf and why they didn't learn to talk. In the terrifying way such shows get their point across to impressionable children, it flashed an image of a girl with her mouth taped shut. "That's me," Heather told us, with a sudden wake-up look. "No, honey," said my wife , the laugher and hugger. "You talked early. And a lot. You're talking right now." We changed the channel. "That was me," Heather whispered.
I guess we should have cried.
"Your daughter was brought to us with a resilient reverence." The doctor's use of the past tense gave me hope. One night in the bone ward (the refrain of a song!), and she was maybe cured of every reverence, but he was being additive, not reductive. Her resilient reverence had worsened, been added to. Before I had had time to understand what the words meant, it had grown into something else. "There's something I need to show you."
"Oh Heather." My wife had turned.
Our daughter stood in the doorway. She had doorways in her. They hadn't started in on her skeleton yet. It was her eyes, as though all the knifing had gone on there, laser excision, scraping off layers. She sat beside us. She gazed at the wall the same way I did, puzzling out its character.
The doctor removed the light from his desk drawer. The light looked like an enlarged rattlesnake tail made of gray aluminium, though it made no sound except for a hum when it was thumbed on. We'd seen the light only once before, when the first doctor had revealed to us Heather's resilient reverence. The hum brought it back to me like a kick in the gut. How the first doctor had switched off her overhead lights and run the rattlesnake tail up and down Heather's front, how Heather's skin where bare had glowed white beneath it, arms and face, a crinkling white that seemed dirty. The first doctor had turned the device on herself and then on us, to show how we stayed dark. You see, she'd said.
"Heather has a red rider now."
Lights off. Action. At his request Heather removed her furry sweater. Held to her back, the rattlesnake light revealed the white glow of the awful reverence and within it, in a smaller pattern that followed the outline of shoulder-blades and bra-strap, down to the thin waist and disappearing into the jeggings – a scarlet glow, a red human of light riding her, hourglass- shaped. It overpowered the white. The red rider seemed brighter across the line of Heather's shoulders, as though its bulk sat there. Heather held her head bent, silent. Our daughter hadn't spoken in two years.
"Maybe everyone has that," my wife murmured. It's her way to cope, grasping at straw possibilities, denying the water she's drowning in. The doctor pretended not to hear.
"We can't let her go home. Not unless Heather can manage to get rid of her red rider by herself." He threw Heather the kind of look a judge gives a delinquent. There was a paradox in there, something to do with the rattlesnake light, her bent neck. Heather had re-furred herself and sat between us. How do you get rid of something you can't look at, something a part of you? I thought of the boy I'd seen in the hall, the splayed deliberation, elongated in all the right places. He could probably see his own back.
"I advise treatment. I've developed certain methods myself that are promising. There are some exciting possibilities."
We sat there like walls to the left and right of Heather, the doctor in front of her a dead end, leaning in, so earnestly eager to sculpt. The only escape was behind her. I imagined her chair sliding backward, ever faster, an ejector seat. I wanted Heather to speak, to say what she wanted, because we her parents could never decide . I wanted to rip the tape off her mouth. She'd had one quiet night in the bone ward; she would have some inkling of what it meant if we consented now. Her mother was grasping her hand and I longed for that strength my wife always draws up from her marrow, but we were all three exhausted. Only the doctor seemed strong. There were exciting possibilities. How do you decide between a knife and a saw, a red hourglass, reverence, cold, hot, silence, words? Between sliding away backwards or nodding?
I checked both
The saw is a metaphor for the will to change. Back and forth, until the rigid bends, splitters away. The old is left behind, or it is renamed, called the new. Teenagers do not have much old. He must bend the arms in on the boy Kyle, undo his filigree work of the past, smooth the splayed. He forces an arm across the chest and the boy's shoulder cracks, ligaments not sawn through enough. The watching mother gasps. She shouldn't be here during treatment, parents are only ever presented with the finished product, but the doctor is slipping in his procedural rigor, ripened by love of his art into a soft pulp. The mom's a single mom, uneducated. She sees not the art. He saws and welds, loosens with the torch. Kyle is humming, a sole note that rises a half-tone whenever his bones are made to do something they can't. The higher note whines against the doctor's machine noises, discordant, a wolf tone. He bends the subject's arms tight across the chest, crooked at the elbow, and for a moment Kyle's hands are slapped across his face in a monkey-no-see pose. Horror, pity, sadness, awe. The knees are drawn up, fused into place. Protect the center. And yet the protrusions remain. The head for thinking. Dangling feet for running. When the doctor steps back he sees that the right elbow is left askew, poorly executed, and he wants to die. He'll quit this profession. There's no beauty to be made of the world. Art is impossible, love a lie. Look at the single mom, too young to have a son this age, a teen pregnancy most likely, her ability to love forever incapacitated by that incoming missile of early responsibility, blasting away her life. The doctor wants love so badly he shakes sometimes.
When he's finished with Kyle he steps back and the mother wails, You've made him a triangle. As the straps are opened by the assistants, Kyle howls and leaps down, skitters on the extant appendages, bangs into walls. Everything is wrong.
Help arrives. Marta, with her hair severe and beautiful, with hands that smooth the ugly world. The doctor watches Marta. If art is artificial, what is she? Why does he shake? Kyle is calmed, but it's the mother who is loud now. The doctor retreats to the staff-room to reconsider his designs.
Tear it up
"He used to climb trees."
My wife and I tried to listen to the mother sitting beside us in the outer hall, a young woman, iron-straight with weepy eyes, who wouldn't stop talking, but it was hard to concentrate on others' hardships. We had nodded, given our terrifying consent to the terrifying doctor. Treatment was scheduled for the next day. You stop thinking when thinking runs up against caring. We were asked to wait in the outer hall while they sorted through the carry-on. They would return to us what Heather couldn't keep. It sounded ominous, I imagined being handed a molted husk of our daughter's skin or her still-beating heart and told to go home.
"He had such strong little arms. He loved to go as high as he could."
"Why don't you just take him home?" I hadn't wanted to interact with the mother, but it was misdirection for my feelings. A magic trick. Look here, while your daughter vanishes over there.
"They said they'd get a court order. A danger to himself."
I could see Heather at the glass, watching us. The lava lamp seemed broken, more bone-marred teenagers than was possible churning within the hallway. Something was happening there.
"You think it was a danger I used to let him climb so high?"
Noise. A hum, audible through the glass, a note that would remake our own bones if it grew any louder. I saw she recognized it.
Attendants poured from the staff-room into the melee behind the glass. Someone screamed.
"Life's always a danger, isn't it? They made him something else, took away the arms, but it doesn't get rid of the danger."
I joined my wife who had moved to the glass. The fight had been started by the elongated boy, altered now into a fused lump, but still capable of making trouble. As we watched, others joined in the fun, coming off the walls where they had been leaned, propped like yard-sale signs after everything's been sold. Within seconds it was no longer about the boy. He slipped out of the center of it, slumped near the glass door. Standing beside us now the mother cried quietly. "Kyle," she whispered.
Heather still gazed out from behind the glass, so close to me our foreheads might have touched. It's the eyes that do you in. You want someone to explain how your child has had time to accrue all that blankness. I put my hand where her cheek would be, and she turned away into the negligently deserted staff-room, lizard-quick, and came back with a key.
When she opened the door, Kyle hesitated.
"Go," Heather told him. (Her cracking voice was fireworks on my skin, a distant light come and gone.)
His mother's cries had become hisses or a prayer. He took off, barreled into her hug. Mother and son scurried down the hall and out the main door. They wouldn't get far. Or they would. There were already shouts behind them. She would lift him to swing from a tree, the weight unfusing his arms. He would climb so high they'd never bring him down.
"Heather –" my wife said.
Heather closed the door and locked it again. This was the glass that had always been there, made real. She had decided for us, her eyes said, parent to our child, because we couldn't, not ever really, because it was her last chance for peace, and we were nodding, nodding.
Were my bones all fluid
He's designed a new shape, with all the elation of his blood winding through right brain. One by one, ever since the fiasco – the escape – he's brought them in and whittled and rebuilt. Gluer of a saner world. Plier of smoothness and silence. Exhausted by the work. Marta returns from vacation, darkened and lightened by a sky they never see here. The doctor calls her in. He has the teenagers there to show her.
"You've made boxes out of them," she says.
He teases open a velum lid, strands of nerve over bone that twinge and tick away from his gloved fingers. Inside are the head and heart. The beating heart clings to the wall by the roots of its great vessels, like a cartoon character backed into a corner and gasping. Beside it the head twists an inch. Blue eyes look up at him, peaceful. This is the perfect shape to move through the world, eight rounded corners, the cubist dream. His art will reach no pinnacle more sublime. Perhaps he can be loved now, wants to be loved for his beautiful soul. He wants a light shone on him. The light will be a different light, penetrating, and she will see the glow within. He feels her at his shoulder, knows that she is wide -eyed. She smells of pine cleaner and the rice pilaf lunch.
"They can be stacked," he says to Marta. He shows her.