– Nonfiction by Michael Charpentier – Feature Story in Dreamers Magazine Issue 9 –
There is a day I often think of in its surreality, annulment and modifications of posture. You have found the beatification of shame; that shattering the skylight with a torrential descent leaves the body cut, that the broken glass shimmers like stars as it falls. Finding, like the ancients knew, that mixing blood with the wide and beautiful world gives spirits a voice.
Breath hung like frost in the air in the cool Austrian steppes as we led a pig from a makeshift wooden enclosure made for the females up to a breeding pen on top of a hill. We led it in the traditional way, with a stick and a rope, jabbing the stick down on whichever side the sow decided to push off, leading her along in a straight line. Christophe told us about a beautiful variety of pigs in Bulgaria, and a funny old man he met once that raised them. He shepherded them, as was their way. Leading the swine in small herds through misty mountain valleys, lambasting them with a staff – a practice as ancient as the Bulgarian people, likely dating back to the Homeric days, ended only recently by the meddling regulations of the EU and the global fear of African Swine Flu. “I cannot think of anything more beautiful,” Christophe remarked.
At the breeding pen, Christophe skipped through the fence in order to retrieve a pregnant sow and to offer a new mate to his boar. The boar was a large, temperamental animal with a Razorback mane and a maniacal grin. It frothed and squealed, and seemed to me like a demon from a prehistoric cave etching. The boar was three hundred kilos, and Christophe warned that it had a terrible sex drive. He regaled having to rescue a young sow from the pen earlier in the year, as the boar had left her half dead and traumatized by constant, aggressive mating. Once Christophe stood in the forest enclosure, he placed a rope around the front foot of the pregnant sow. Sensing something, the boar reared up and charged him. Christophe, a man that stood like an ancient hero, an Austrian giant with a flat squished face, wrestled the boar, flailing about the ground, his arm over its head, pulling it to his left arm pit to avoid its bite. He yelled to Sasha for another rope, and instructed her that he would move the boar to another enclosure and once in, she would need to close the door and rope it closed. Christophe would jump the fence to safety, while we lead the new sow into the enclosure, swapping it out for the pregnant one.
The exchange happened with terrifying speeding and a good deal of screaming, and before long, having each played our prescribed part, the battle went according to plan. Christophe pushed the boar in the headlock like a wheelbarrow. The boar in a small enclosure, the new sow in the breeding enclosure, and the pregnant sow out, being led by a rope. Christophe leaped to safety, and untying the rope around the gate united the new lovers.
Swine mate in a loveless raping. Their penis is retractable, pink as an earthworm with the body and head of a garlic scape. It protrudes, when aroused, and floats like a sci-fi tentacle. The boar had been out of its enclosure for 30 seconds before it descended on its new mate, raspy squealing, it’s penis having missed the vagina now thrust about in the air like a Tang Dynasty spear dance before shooting a several foot stream of semen across the pen that steamed in the November cold.
“He will have many more attempts,” Christophe said as we lead the pregnant sow back down the hill. The ritual had left me with a brooding distaste for the things nature had to offer. The sky was a smokey grey, reminding me of the old Western tin plate photographs.
At the farm we discovered some new ducklings had moved into the horse pen. In shooing them out we discovered a chick that had been stepped on by a horse, still clinging to life in mechanical spasms. The Bavarian intern stepped on the duckling’s head, smashing it. He picked it up and tossed it into the manure pile where it sat atop the dung with a yellow pretension, like a single glowing daffodil.
The plan, if the weather held up, was to go about the countryside in the evening once the chores were done. Christophe told us that we would see pinklestein, a stone that was famously once a lavatory for Mozart, and some cute wine cellars that dotted the Steppe in a traditional manner.
Now, in the late morning, I was to cut wood for the furnace. The old farm thirsted for wood, drinking it to heat water for the house and the shop. It was economical to gather scrap wood from a nearby construction site. Breaking apart pallets, and then sectioning them up into two foot lengths on the industrial table saw that sat in the front and middle of the yard. Hans, the Bavarian, showed me a curious way that he cut the wood when I first arrived. “This machine scares me. There is no guard, and it’s set at much too high a speed for a simple farm.” He grabbed the boards, and instead of leading it through the teeth with both his hands, one on either side of the blade, he stood to the left of the blade and fed the board to it, keeping his hands a foot back from its teeth.
That morning I cut boards and filled a wheelbarrow with furnace fuel, thinking about the oddity of the whole day. The terrible realities of agricultural life, and of the complicit way we unwittingly live our lives. Call me a modern liberal, but when, over the previous two weeks, we shoved a 9 inch blade over the collar bone and into the heart of many sows, pumping on its leg like a fountain to get the blood out of the body, I felt less than I did with the violent rape of the breeding sow. The smashed head of the duckling… These are what I wanted to know, in order to claw back to an older order. A time before the sanitized West could neatly hide it’s genocide and slavery of the animal kingdom behind tall walls, and armies of underpaid immigrant workers. Killing didn’t bother me at all; to taste the sadness of a life somehow gone from a warm body kept me together, somehow tighter in my spirit than all the nebulousness of product appearing on styrofoam plates. The ledgers and maps of stock in the breeding binder, and what that meant, then shocked me. It’s true: that’s what animals do. They breed. They breed violently, without the gentle strum of lutes and a half bottle of good wine.
“…as one large stray raindrop tumbled from the cobalt sky, I felt a wave of dizziness sway my head. I rocked, weaving on my feet, and only for a second jutted my hand out to stabilize myself…”
And, as one large stray raindrop tumbled from the cobalt sky, I felt a wave of dizziness sway my head. I rocked, weaving on my feet, and only for a second jutted my hand out to stabilize myself so I wouldn’t fall. Then, in the next second, I heard a sound, so different from the buzz of wood grain – so much quieter – and believed something flew past my arm like the puff of air from a compressed air gun. My hand jumped back. I looked down to see what had happened, and saw my own hand, poking out from my tartan plaid sleeve, beneath the blue ink sunrise that my friend, Tomas, had lovingly adorned to my wrist, blown apart.
Hot viscous blood ran over my hand, and in the seconds I allowed myself to look, I saw a finger – which one I couldn’t tell – dangling off a joint by a single tight thread of skin. My chewed up bones in the open air.
I knew that I should probably yell for help. For a second I thought about what the right response was: I was surprised, as I didn’t feel a string of out of tune terror. Shock lifted my consciousness, and the matter of factness of sinews made me think with the methodical brevity of a tax auditor. I should yell, but not scream: I shouldn’t betray the authenticity of my pain with drama; I don’t want people to think I’m dying. I let out a curt little “Ahhhh!” but I don’t think anyone heard me.
Hans was passing through the courtyard and I went over to him, holding my wounded right hand in my left. I prefaced my imposition with a caveat: “I hate to be that guy, but can you tell me if I’m missing any fingers?” He looked at my hand, and all the colour drained from his face. He quickly glanced at all my dangling digits and then looked away.
“They are awl dere. Hanging, yes, but dere.”
I wasn’t convinced but didn’t feel like I could argue. I went into the butcher shop where Christophe and Sasha had commenced work on a swine we killed two days earlier.
“I have cut myself.”
“How bad?” Christophe asked.
“Bad, I think.”
I noticed anxiety settle onto Sasha’s face as Christophe examined my wounds. “Well,” he said “we head to the hospital.”
Now people were scurrying about, the Bavarian heading into the house to grab Christophe’s wife, Isabelle, in order to drive me into the nearest large town, Hollabrun. I climbed into the back seat of the van, and Sasha climbed in the other door next to me. I became aware that the blood was sticky. Sasha looked like her own hand had been mauled by the blade.
Isabelle sat in the front seat and pulled the seatbelt down over her. “We will go to Hollabrun. There is a hospital there.” She turned the key, and pushed on the gas, and the car started down the driveway towards the narrow road. Suddenly, a loud knock on the window beside my head caused Isabelle to apply the breaks. It was Christophe, and he was holding something in his hand.
“I have, uh, a finger.”
We decided to put the finger in a bag with ice. All the while everyone was running around to get things ready, aware that we were working on a strict time limit. Sasha sat beside me, sad and scared. “You’re a fucking idiot.”
We accelerated down the old European farm roads – down, around and over hills, accompanied by Isabelle’s curses at traffic, and Sasha’s litany of curses at me. As for my own mental state, I felt calm – a little embarrassed and self-conscious for the amount of attention I’d diverted to myself, but at peace with the bare facts of the situation.
The Hollabrun hospital was a brown brick building that reminded me of a Waterloo, Ontario high school. I jogged toward the emergency room doors from the car. The doors drew back automatically. There was a desk on the right and a desk on the left. I ran to the right.
“Guten Morgan. Was ist dein Notfall?”
“Uh, I, um, cut my hand.”
I was suddenly presented with a wall of frustration, unable to communicate through both trauma and a language barrier. I stood there, and couldn’t hear the crowd of voices yelling my name behind me. Sasha grabbed my sleeve.
“Over here! Come on!”
I followed Sasha and Isabelle across the hall to an emergency receiving room that was filled with three women nurses and a male doctor. They laid me across a bed and asked Sasha and Isabelle to wait outside.
A nurse spoke to me German words I didn’t understand. I looked hopeless. “I am sorry. Englische, not… Good. Do you have…? I am sorry, I do not know in Englische… Vaccine tetanus?”
“Yes! Tetanus! Do you have vaccine?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. Can I get too much tetanus vaccine?”
“Then give it to me.”
The doctor crouched and looked at my hand. He was incredibly Austrian. “Hmmm. Das ist not good. What were you doing?”
“Cutting wood with a circular saw.”
“Where are you from?”
“Hmmm. What is a Canadian doing using a circular saw in Austria? Were you working?”
I realized that a workplace incident could spell trouble for Christophe and Isabelle, who had been exceptional hosts and become good friends over the weeks. Not wanting to bring any official attention their way, I stated: “No, they are friends. I was just helping out while I visited them.”
He peered at me and lifted an eyebrow. “Ok. We must get you to the x-ray now.”
Two nurses wheeled the bed down a hallway. I was still wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and my leather boots, that I now noticed were covered in blood. I was wheeled through a small waiting room and noticed the faces of the other patients twist as I rolled through. I have been a real inconvenience for everyone.
The x-ray nurse had me stand up, out of the bed and sit by the x-ray machine. She placed a lead blanket down and covered it with medical tissue to soak up the blood. “Can you make an ok sign?”
I looked at her. I looked at my hand – index completely severed, middle finger dangling by a thread, my index cut entirely through the bone. She looked at me.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Um. Do what you can. It’s important that your fingers are spread apart for the photograph.”
“I don’t think anything is happening.”
“No… It’s ok. You’re doing great!”
“Thank you. And thank you for helping me.”
After I was wheeled back to the emergency room I was received at. The nurses and doctor peered at my hand. There was a young nurse that looked as though she weren’t seasoned to this. I imagined she was a student. She locked eyes with me. They were large, and blue: they betrayed bedside manner, and in them I saw a quivering fear – something different than sympathy, but similar like identification. It was through her that I knew, without a medical prognosis, that things would be different from here.
My Austrian doctor said: “As I mentioned, das ist not good. We have,” in Latin “amputatis, amputatis partialis, and a severe compound fracture.” He sighed. “We will be unable to do anything here. We will need transfer of you to Wein.”
He walked over to a phone and picked it up. He appeared to wait an impossibly long time without talking to anyone. I had begun to have different sets of feelings settle inside me. Gratefulness. All of these people, these strangers, from their own stories and various strivings, had come together, each over their own obstacles, to be here for me, and for anyone like me, in a time of need. I was being looked after. If everything was bad, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The doctor began to speak quickly to someone. The young nurse with blue eyes still looked beside herself. The older nurse that gave me the tetanus shot waited with a stoic’s demeanor. I wanted to thank them all.
“Thank you,” I said to the tetanus nurse.
She gave me a half smile.
“I have good news,” the doctor announced. “We have a surgeon in Wein dat will receive you. Herr Mindler is the best hand surgeon in all of Europe. He will be able to do much more for you than we could do here.”
And with that proclamation I was being pushed on my bed through the hospital, out to a pair of loading doors. The nurses that pushed the bed asked me to stand up, and switch to another bed. I stood up, and being careful not to in any way stress my right hand, lay back down. A fit paramedic in his 40s wheeled me from there out to a parking lot. The bed was lifted with a hydraulic press and pushed into the back of the ambulance, where it was then strapped into place with some leather straps. An IV was placed in my arm. “This is for pain, yeah? You must tell me when it starts to hurt.” I noticed the lights of the ambulance were on. The vehicle took off, tearing down the tarmac. The paramedic in the back looked over a clipboard and exchanged frantic phrases with the driver.
Something wasn’t quite right. The ambulance stopped abruptly, and began to tear down the tarmac in reverse, stopping at the receiving doors of the Hollabrun hospital. The paramedic jumped out and ran inside. A moment passed. The doors opened again, and the paramedic briskly walked up and then jumped inside the ambulance. He was holding a small package, wrapped in blue medical paper with a little piece of bacterial resistant tape. The paramedic blushed, looked at me and laughed: “your finger!”
We winded down the highway toward Vienna. I didn’t know if I was feeling any pain, but I didn’t want it to begin and cloud my experience. The heightened sense of gratitude, and the outpouring of love. I said to the paramedic: “I don’t know if I’m feeling pain or not. Should I be?” He simply pressed the button on my IV.
Sometime in the ride his cell phone rang. He answered, and spoke tenderly to someone. He was pleased with what they had to say.
“My daughter,” he said and smiled, obviously a little embarrassed that he had good news in the midst of my crisis.
“What did she say?”
“She is not fond of studying English but it is required for school. She had an important test, and she thinks that she did very well.”
“That’s great. I understand, I didn’t enjoy learning French when I was in school. I didn’t enjoy many subjects – I think I was difficult to teach.”
“Not everyone takes well to studying.”
“I needed to be tricked into learning. My mother realized that I needed to access the things they were teaching through my imagination. She let me play video games that had lots of reading and she made me read the words to her. I think that’s what taught me to read and engage with the world. Maybe your daughter should try playing video games in English to improve her language.”
“That might be a good idea. Do you feel any pain?”
“I don’t know. I am not really sure what pain is right now. I think I may be in a lot of pain, but something is blocking me from feeling it.”
In the waiting room in Vienna it struck me that it had been several hours since I’d severed my fingers, and I really had to pee. The body suffers its own internal logic, born from its own sense of time. No crisis absolves the bladder of its duty. Creeping through the hills in a war of inches, soldiers that returned told of defecating inside their own helmets and dumping it out instead of risk being caught prone by a sniper. No amount of theatre resolves the frank realities of shit and piss. They are, in many ways, a new beginning; unfortunately timed renewal.
I motioned to a nurse. “I have to pee.”
With my left hand I pointed toward the crotch of my jeans. “I have to pee.”
“Oh! You has to pee!” she said in a bubbly way, like I was an infant. She disappeared for a second and then returned with a large plastic carafe with a narrow neck, and graduated measurements along its side. She went to hand it to me.
“I’m sorry. I’ll need help.” I nodded toward the mangled appendage, still leaking blood everywhere.
“Of course!” She said, still light with jubilant energy. She unbuttoned my Levi’s, and then stopped. “I will hold this, but you should do the rest.” I entered the plastic jug, and forcefully released into it for what seemed like an eternity. A certain anxiety came over me that either the nurse would drop the jug, or that I would not stop urinating. The carafe filled quickly to within a few milliliters of the neck. I slowed to drips and felt relief. “Hohoho! You really had to go!” She ferried the glowing orange vase off somewhere behind the scenes.
When she returned, she observed that I lay back, semi reclined with my flannel shirt untucked from my jeans, and my fly still unbuttoned. “We should get you changed now.” She picked up a backless blue gown.
Now, coming into the room, Sasha and Isabelle glanced at me with nervous concern.
“How are you doing?” Isabelle asked. Sasha said nothing.
“I’m good,” I said. Then I tacked on, “All things considered.”
The nurse was unbuttoning my shirt. She slipped it off over my left shoulder and down over the rest of my arm. She continued, peeling it away from my back and as carefully as she could over my hand. Little pellets of shirt lint scraped the inside of my skin and rolled over my exposed bones, and whether taken by pain or just the thought of it I groaned.
“Bitte!” The nurse chirped in response.
For a second, I lay exposed. I had shed my vestigial garment for a new one; I was the embodiment of a normal, healthy Canadian male and would become an Austrian surgery patient, but in between I would exist in liminal nakedness. Strangely, a twitch of shame. I looked at my repulsive flab and felt disgusted at myself. I didn’t want anyone to see my waistline. And then, after only a slight struggle, I was wearing a blue gown and my transition was complete.
A separate pair of nurses, a man and a woman, came and began to wheel the bed away from the room. I waved a little finger wave at Sasha and Isabelle, and then I was off. About ten meters from the room, in the hallway, frantic concerned German speak erupted. The female nurse walked around the bed, checking the edges, looking concerned. She lifted the sheet near my feet and peered under. The male nurse did a sudden about-face and ran back to the room, only to return a moment later with a little package wrapped in blue surgical paper. “Dein Finger,” he said and smiled coyly.
I lay back on the hospital bed and ceased more or less with being an active participant in my own crisis. I had shed skins, spilled blood, and was resigned to being a leaf in the stream. What would be would be, and it may be horrible, but maybe it would be alright, Inshallah.
I felt relaxed and felt rushed about, the overhead fluorescent lights clicking by at predictable intervals. I recited the Ave Maria in Latin in my head, as I like the sound of it, but found it brought me no more or less spiritual assurances than I had been experiencing otherwise. How plainly, dumbly Canadian, cutting one’s own hand into an unrecognizable mess cutting wood abroad. Ancestral resonance filled me with thoughts of my eight fingered father I didn’t know, and how it must have felt being crushed almost to death in a paper mill. Did he feel embarrassed? Was he nearly as elated as me?
Thoughts drifted in and left, turning to the recently deceased Gord Downie (PBUH). Music and poems made sense to me in a way then like they seldom ever had. Gord – sweet Gord – touring the country in ridiculous hats with an alien cellphone in his brain. Sonic frenzy, and the epistolary dedication, leaving droplets of his own life like a dew on every surface – so afraid to leave the world unsure of where he positioned himself in regards to his love. And he was tired, and screaming, and how he kissed the world and those around him.
A hook in the flesh, the barb of colonial prejudice, a rendering pot melted away his beloved Canada and lay bare the bones of the people that lived before it, were still living as bones and whispers and testaments of memory to the hoary cold economic reduction of the land to a pandering fiction, an inert property comprised of fixings and invasive extraction. For Gord to leave, to understand the incommunicable pain of residential school survivors, and the bones and spirits of those tossed aside into unmarked graves, to leave unstated the oppressive boldness of pushing a train into the West and saying you own it; to love, and to be oppressed by the thing you love and to understand it’s order in colonial evil, to exist in that space of contradiction, if only for a while, and still cry when you leave…
To exist in that space of contradiction. I looked around at the nurses with their infinite good nature. They lived in a permanent state of horror, plying a spool of string and a needle to those that show up with their guts on the floor. This, I thought, this is making the circle whole.
Sasha with her cursing and quietude had discovered my mortality that day. So had I, and in much greater contrast: it was beatific, somehow overwhelming and jubilant, for now and for the first time I knew what must be done. In my hospital bed I melded minds, and felt the sweat of Gord’s dance pour through my own shirt. I felt Nikos Kazantzakis love of each word of the peasant Greek and the stewardship he felt, loading each strange phrase into a book like an Ark. I grabbed each face before me and held it in both hands, streaming blood down their face and adorned their foreheads with a big, wet kiss. A poem! I’d write a poem for all of my great loves before I’d die. I’d name each rock a new name like a newly discovered star. I’d dwell deep into the pain and knowledge of my land and learn its history, and I’d kiss it too like a passionate mad lover. In discovery of my mortality I discovered religion.
I had more x-rays, and was wheeled into a theatre where a large assembly of masked patrons had assembled. A woman introduced herself to me as an anesthesiologist. She asked how heavy I was, and then stuck a short needle with a tube into my right shoulder. She asked where I was from, placed a mask over my face, and told me to breathe in deep and then answer her. Before I could finish my response I was out.
I woke up many hours later, still paralyzed by anaesthesia. I heard beeps and smelled the smells of surgical cleaning agents. “Doktor Er ist wach.” Suddenly a pair of fuzzy headphones slipped over my ears, playing somewhere in the middle of a Mozart symphony. I tried to feel what they were doing to me. Pawing tepidly through the blue-orange nerve language, I felt a tiny mechanical movement skipping along my fingers, that felt like when a daddy long legs walks across your skin, and it reminded me of those symbiotic little cleaner shrimp picking mites out of the scales of fish.
When I woke up it was 11pm. The attendant told me that the surgery had been six hours long. A doctor came and talked to me. “Is there anything you want to know?”
“How many fingers do I have?”
“We saved two of three,” and then he paused and added “for now.”
This isn’t my first walk through this memory. There is more, as it has been a long several years. I often retell this as my whoopsie daisy. In truth, this is the first detailed retelling, complete with the presaging elements, and the Gord Downie prayer wheel. It’s a story of a day, and it is in many ways the story of every day. If we are to work, I think we must work like this: bloody and sincere.
About the Author – Michael Charpentier
Nine fingered son of an eight fingered man. He lives in Vancouver.
Follow him @ instagram.com/royaljoe.carpenter/
Did you like this story by Michael Charpentier? Then you might also like:
The Identified Patient
What I want the surgeon to know
Sanctuary, and other poems
The Body as Poem
Metaplasia and other poems
This is What Death Does
Where Courage Lives
The Psychiatric Patient Profiled in My Application
Modern Medical Miracles
What the Mirror Says
Writing Myself Alive: An Episodic Poem
Breathing; Love These Lively Things
Oh Emma; Slow Dancing
In the Mirror, For My Mother
Zenstronomy: Zen of Instruction, Godma, Astrophysical Reality
Like reading print publications? Consider subscribing to the Dreamers Magazine!