A PIECE OF HER SELF • by Liz Walker

The morning sun paved the hall’s hardwood floor in amber light as Adam shoved his lunch into a leather satchel. He tugged his coat off a hanger, and she gave him a kiss.

“Good night,” she said.

“Good night?” He smiled, sliding arms into coat sleeves. “Well, I am a civil servant.”

“I mean, have a good day. Tired. Didn’t sleep well.” She smiled back. Inside though, she was unsettled. Her tongue had readily sculpted the wrong words as if they weren’t completely her own.

That was the start. Then came the blood tests, brain scans, and waiting. In the kitchen, she and Adam were like magnets, sticking to each other in silent embrace. Frequent, deep headaches disrupted her concentration at work. Feeling increasingly nauseous, she relinquished plans and avoided making new ones. Finally the explanation and the tears — a tumour, a menacing mass plundering her right hemisphere.

At the pre-op appointment, she had studied the surgeon’s hands. Her survival depended upon them, and they were uninspiring — veined and bony, a collage of wrinkles, moles, and hair. Would his fingers explore her grey matter confidently like those of a self-assured mechanic, or would they probe with hesitation, uncertain where to slice? The surgeon jotted some notes and fumbled his pen. In an instant, it struck the floor, and she saw a dropped scalpel impale her cerebral cortex.

In the past weeks, she had read up on brain functions, wondering what the cancer or surgery might steal, even a skillful operation. Memory. Language. Movement. She felt let down … betrayed by her own cells. To stop the mutiny, part of her was to be expelled, to be banished from her body. She wanted the tumour out, but she didn’t want to lose herself.

She needed a good rest the night before surgery, but even with Adam’s calming presence beside her, she was unable to sleep. Instead she recalled a conversation between her and Adam a year ago, shortly before her symptoms had started.

“People don’t change,” said Adam.

“Sure they do,” she said. “Alcoholics get sober.”

“That’s just modified behaviour. They don’t change at their core.”

She couldn’t recall what she’d said next, perhaps that behaviour was an expression of an individual’s core. But she remembered maintaining that people’s core sense of themselves was more fluid than Adam had suggested. She believed people’s personalities could shift slightly, which could lead them to act differently.

Adjusting her head to look at Adam while he slept, she wondered how she would be altered after the next day’s surgery, whether she would still feel in love with him. Then she wondered something worse, whether he would still feel in love with her. A shiver climbed down her spine, and she got out of bed.

In the kitchen, she opened the spice cupboard and unscrewed the lids of cumin, fenugreek, and coriander. She breathed in each jar’s aroma and conjured up the evening long ago when Adam had prepared a curry for their first dinner together. How exquisite it had felt to be falling for each other, to sense they were at a beginning.

A sob caught in her throat. She clutched the counter, the edge cutting into her palms until she began a frantic search for pen and paper. She had already written him a letter, but she felt compelled to do something else.

At the kitchen table, she scribbled on the first page that she loved raspberries, that she dressed as a witch to give out Hallowe’en candy. She named her favourite songs and described the moods that led her to listen to each one. Glancing at a clock, she realized she had only three hours to record her ideas and memories, her habits and hopes.

She knew that if her sense of self was damaged by the surgery, it was unlikely she could reconstruct it by simply acting the way she used to. But she could think of no other way to lessen her fear. Her hand trembled as she wrote of walking under the marmalade colours of autumn trees. And suddenly she saw herself high in the forest canopy — a dangling leaf, trying desperately to cling to its branch.

An alarm chirped from the bedroom. Then, silence. Adam had slapped the button. He would rise soon. Her three hours had passed. She blinked, as if she herself were waking up. She punctuated her previous sentence and set down her pen. Spread around her on the table, the hand-written pages curled at their edges, as if weighted in the middle by their words.

She was out of time. But she was also calm. As she rubbed her aching wrist, she reflected on what she had done. She could not build a trail that led exactly to her current self, but she had laid out some landmarks. Her writing would be waiting for her when she returned to the house. If after the surgery she could not remember who she had been, her new self could at least be informed by her past. She could read about her former life, her choices. Her old self would not be completely lost. She gathered up the pages and carefully ordered them. An archive. But also perhaps, a map.

Liz Walker’s flash fiction has appeared in various print and online publications and has been honoured in several contests. Her poetry and prose have also been included in two chapbooks. She lives in Victoria, BC.

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 average 4 stars • 49 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Jill Spencer

    This is absolutely beautiful. Very real and very eloquent with masterful transitions. Thank you, Liz.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    It’s so often the little things. “He smiled, sliding arms into coat sleeves. “Well, I am a civil servant.”” completely derailed my sober attention.

    The surgeon’s revolting hands didn’t help get me back into the intended mood of this story.

    An atmosphere of chill remoteness must be handled carefully; it’s certainly appropriate for characters facing terrifying reality, but those apparently unintended Grand Guignol images left the rest of this just too flat in contrast. The characters never came alive as individuals; her tastes were pretty ordinary. Three stars.

  • Dawn Michelle

    Wonderful premise. At the end, as she tried to capture her “self” on paper, I was caught up in both her need, and the urgency of the situation. The “marmalade colours of autumn trees” and then the following metaphor of the dangling leaf was exquisite.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I would have enjoyed this more without the “It was a dark, stormy night” type beginning.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I admit to my shame to actually loving that line…

  • JAZZ

    It’s doesn’t warrant stopping the presses but, be advised, this is the 3rd day in a row that I have agreed with Sarah. Her comments are spot on.

  • Christina Nyers Pengelly

    So poignant these days. Loved it.

  • S Conroy

    The fluidity of ones identity struck a chord and the paragraph on the surgeons hand was a hightlight for me. The desparate need to cling on came through so clearly. I felt the relationship with the husband could have been a bit less generic.

  • Disregarding the first three paras this was some really fine writing.

    I couldn’t connect with civil servant husband leaving for work as if without a care in the world for what his wife was to face the next day. As good as the rest of it was I think it deserved a better, more relevant opening.

    The comparison of a surgeon’s hands with a mechanic’s didn’t work for me.

    I saw her as a rather ordinary person with ordinary things of importance, facing an extraordinary tomorrow. I thought it quite touching without being sappy. The ending superb.

    • S Conroy

      I like that interpretation. Ordinary person facing extraordinary tomorrow.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      The opening is before a serious illness is suspected; he’s still sleeping while she’s up early the day before her surgery. His concern and attachment are indicated in the fifth paragraph.

      • That’s way too long to get to the point. Thanks for the clarificaton.

  • Cyndi Ventry

    Beautiful and raw. Thank you!

  • Jule

    I loved it, thank you!

  • Chris Antenen

    I was wondering how she would know to look for her notes if she were completely changed, so happy that you mentioned a map and now realize that’s not the kind of map she meant.
    As a user of ‘she’ or ‘he’ instead of a name for a main character, I have no business asking, but I’d like to know her name. Also, don’t think my husband would sleep that soundly if I were anticipating brain surgery the next morning. He’d be ‘bothering’ me, and I’d never get that list written.
    I found this quite flat, and myself trying to like it. Sorry. Very well written, but not enough story.

  • Taking in what I think to be a disconnect from the beginning, bothered me until I got to her edge cutting counter in the kitchen. Makes little sense. The story, however, is clear and well written. A fine act of survival; loading her guns before battle.

  • Ritika

    I loved this piece. It is simply beautiful.

  • Sam Rapine

    Nice piece. I tend to agree with some points made–a few small bits of imagery detracted from what was otherwise a sterling piece. The surgeon’s hands in particular knocked the narrative a bit. It feels like a very carefully-crafted piece one edit away from realization. That said, a compelling scenario and some beautiful imagery made this a good read.