Body Parts

by Ha Ryn Ahn

We were horrified when Henry fell over the canyon edge. He had
been hugging Brenda at the lookout point—was taking pictures and
trying to get us out of the shot when he leaned back too far. No one
should survive a 160-foot drop, but he landed on a fresh snowdrift,
and it must have eased his fall. When we found him his femurs were
broken, the bones in his hands and feet had shattered, and his eyes
had imploded, leaving smears underneath his eyebrows and over his
cheeks. His arteries leaked onto the fresh powder until the entire
landscape became a shimmering, pink blanket that smelled of rusted
pennies and uncooked salmon.

The doctors did all they could to help, called him a miracle—he
should have died, should have lost everything, at least he didn’t lose
Brenda. They set his legs, covered them in hard plaster and amputated
his hands and feet, sewing the serrated edges of his flesh into
blunted stumps. They bandaged his eyes and gave him a therapist.
He was prescribed hydrocodone, Paxil, and large doses of ibuprofen
to reduce the swelling. Snow devils were swirling over our fields and
onto our driveways. The canyon walls now had a permanent rose hue,
but Henry had no interest in any of it. We tried to help him pass the
time by reading him his favorite books as he lay in his hospital bed,
but if he was listening, we couldn’t tell.

Brenda did have her eyes, hands, and feet. She would walk out her
front door to visit Henry’s hospital room every morning and begin to
sob as she watched the snow descend on her porch steps in soft, pink
flakes. We knew she was remembering that time Henry tripped carrying
her up the walkway. She hadn’t broken anything, didn’t even
sprain her wrist. He’d felt so bad, promised that he’d never carry her
up the steps again. She had long, dark bruises for the next several
days. He’d take one look at her naked body covered in purple marbling
and blame himself. She hated making him feel so bad for an
accident, a simple mistake. She wore pants and long shirts till the
bruising faded, even though it was the middle of June. She baked his
favorite bread to make sure he knew she still loved him.

We tried to help her maintain a routine—accompanied her grocery
shopping and to weekly nail appointments, but we could not distract
her from the way the tap water had developed a metallic taste. On the
days the snow melted it would get worse, and soon our baths were
running tinted water and our nails beds became discolored as if we’d
eaten too many radishes. We began boiling all our water on the stove
before we drank it, and the steam filled our houses with the smell of
copper sheet metal.

Everyone sent their well wishes. We explained each of the deliveries
to Henry as they arrived at his hospital room—how Georgia
Nelson had sent a card with swallows on the front that said she’d
pray for his speedy recovery, how she’d never forget the time that
he’d played Tom Wingfield with such fervor and audacity. Thomas
Rollins delivered a balloon in the shape of a sunflower that said Follow
the Light! and a note expressing that Henry was the best theater
teacher he’d ever had. Over several days the gifts continued to pile
higher, and soon the room was covered in stuffed animals and flowers.
We helped Brenda switch out the water for the vases, but the
water began to turn the flowers into hues that made the walls look
like a constant sunset.

Despite all these expressions, Henry laid still in mountains of
gauze. We wondered if he was a mannequin, in a coma, or dead, but
every now and then he’d turn his face toward the window. We wondered
how he knew it was there. One day we caught his lips moving
as a doctor held a cup up to his lips with pills. His mouth opened wide
and down went the medicine, washed down by a cup of tainted water.
These movements bothered Brenda, how she caught him speaking to
his therapist but ignoring her. We’d listen to her postulating reasons
on the car ride home—perhaps he was mad she hadn’t caught him
before he fell, maybe he was ashamed for her to see him that way,
what if he had amnesia?

On Sunday afternoons visiting hours were limited, and we’d each
invite Brenda to our homes for dinner. Our grandmothers opened
their china cabinets, set out their Depression glass on dining tables.
We poured her water, the hue of the tumblers making it seem as if
the liquid was clear, unaffected. We thought it had worked; she was
eating our casserole, drinking the water, talking to us. Then we noticed
that she’d started wringing her hands underneath the table as
she spoke, ruining her manicure.

When she visited Henry each day, Brenda never bothered to dry
her tears. She knew Henry couldn’t see them. She’d circle his hospital
bed—checking bandages, monitors, and medication charts. She
consulted his doctors, and they became her doctors, too—giving advice,
consulting with her about options and timelines. Henry never
stopped her from these activities, but he didn’t respond when she
asked if he was okay or if there was any way he could forgive her.
The doctors called it shock, that it would wear off eventually—with
time and effort, recovery and healing were possible. She would beg
his nurses to let her stay past visiting hours, and often they acquiesced—
they remembered how she would sing for him every year on
his birthday, how he loved the way she pranced around the living
room, never hitting a dull note. The snow kept falling and Henry was
taken off the ibuprofen and hydrocodone. Brenda, after consulting
with his therapist, insisted on his maintaining the Paxil.

As the weeks progressed we worried that Brenda was spending too
much time at the hospital. Henry remained quiet and unresponsive,
and she started blaming herself more and more. If she hadn’t hugged
him, Henry would have never lost his balance. If she’d forgotten the
camera, he wouldn’t have tried to get so close to the ledge. If she had
not let go, she would have toppled with him and softened the blow
of his fall—he would still have his body, and the water would have
never changed. Now he would never look through their photo albums
again, or watch her as she slept. He would never carry her into the
bedroom to make snow flurries on her skin, or trace his fingers along
her back afterwards. The flowers he’d leave for her on the kitchen
counter would stay in their fields; his failed attempts at poetry would
never be folded into notes for her again. We told her that it wasn’t
her fault; with time they’d both adjust. She nodded, she knew we
were right, knew she sounded crazy, but we could tell she harbored
what-ifs in her mind when we weren’t looking.

We started weeding her garden, tending the tulip rows and watering
her rosebushes. We tried to take some of her shifts at the hospital
so she could get things done, get some sleep, but she raised her voice
at us, and the next day the tulips were uprooted from their plots, the
dirt-covered bulbs thrown onto the street. We had to remind her to
shower and eat, and we tried to convince him to talk to her, but he
wasn’t speaking to anyone but his doctors, and that made us suspicious.
We noticed that her hands had several band-aids on them, the
edges of the adhesive sticky and black. We gave her tubs of Vaseline
as the nurses fed him medicine and drew his blood. With each additional
snowstorm the water got darker, and it was a red shade that
let us pretend it was fruit juice. We had water coolers placed in our
homes and we washed less. Blondes began dying their hair red to
mask the discoloration.

Once, when Brenda thought we weren’t looking, we watched her
beg Henry to speak to her. She leaned over his hospital bed and
kissed his mouth, biting his lower lip. He didn’t budge, and as she
pulled away we noticed her lips were blooming into red tulips. She
plucked them from her mouth and set them in a vase next to Henry’s
bed—three red blossoms on long, straight stems that he couldn’t
see. The next morning the blossoms were gone, but the stems remained,
and when we looked out the hospital window, we found the
petals crushed into the snow, shredded into thin, solid ribbons on
the lawn. When Brenda saw it, she froze in place, staying outside so
long that the cold turned her tears into glassy shards. She started
wringing her hands again, giving us the impression of peeled grapes.
That night she agreed to let us come in the morning to watch Henry.
She wanted to sleep in, and we were so relieved; this was progress.
Henry’s therapist made a note in his folder, and we went to bed early
so we could get a fresh start.

When we arrived the next morning the nurses were running out
of Henry’s room, shouting for the doctor. We rushed in and found
him. His bandages were in a pile on the visitor’s chair; the plaster
lay in pieces on the linoleum floor. His wrists and ankles were the
angry red of pressed wax, the scars pulpy to the touch. His legs lay
on the bed in parallel lines, sallow and emaciated. His eyelids were
wide open—two hollow canyons, with walls of skin stained in layers
of red and pink abscess. We peered over the edges of his swollen tear
ducts to find rock formations, lopsided cairns, and trails of dirt made
by a river running red—all covered in plumes of snow that glistened
like polished rubies. At the bottom of the ridge, a small woman was
moving along the canyon floor. Her limbs were unfurled in full bloom
as she sang, her hands stripped down to shattered bone.