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.