portion of the artwork for Karen Britten's fiction

The Miracle
Karen Britten

My brain didn’t start itching until I got hit by the yellow Volkswagen. I had stumbled into the middle of a four-lane road down the street from my house, my head hung so low that my chin grazed my chest. I hadn’t been aware of anything until the moment of impact, until it was too late to do anything about it.

I woke up in a hospital bed with its white walls and creased white sheets that felt more like cardboard than cotton. I was alone for hours after waking, except for a nurse who tended to the wires, cords, and tubes extending from my body. I tried to explain the situation in my head. I tried to read her face as she bent over my bed. I wanted to ask her why I was here because it wasn’t as if I remembered instantly being hit by the car or being placed in the ambulance or slipping into the coma. It wasn’t as if I had forgotten either; it was more like turning on a television and waiting for the picture to focus; memories came in one by one, after the fact.

When the nurse realized I was awake, she smiled and covered her mouth with her hands in excitement, and called for doctors and nurses to tend to me. I sat there, not able to fully make out what everyone was saying. They were talking rapidly to each other, some mumbling, others talking over one another. My nurse was quiet, surveying once again the medical equipment now a part of my body, her nearly translucent skin wrapped tightly around bony fingers adjusting things methodically. Every now and then her auburn-colored hair would fall in strands on her face and she would place it back behind her ear with those skeleton hands of hers.

The nurse sat on the side of my bed and spoke to me as the doctors talked.

“Mr. Vargas, my name is Naomi. Just ask and I’ll do anything,” she said, smiling.

I stared into her circular green eyes, lacking a response to her very innocent statement.

“Stories like this force me to reevaluate my life. It’s a miracle that you’re alive, really,” she said.

“It isn’t a miracle,” I replied.

“What is it?”

“Luck,” I said.

“I don’t think anyone’s that lucky.”

“Nurse, my face itches,” I said.

It was the first time I mentioned it and the first time I became fully conscious of the fact that my entire head and face itched like an insect bite. I felt like I wanted to take a knife and drive it through my skull to dig through the flesh and pick out whatever it was that caused such an intense, unending feeling. I lifted my hand to my face and began scratching my forehead.

“Don’t do that,” she said. “You’ll bleed.”

“I’m bleeding already.”

“That’s why you shouldn’t touch your wounds,” she continued. “It will make you bleed even more.”

She looked sympathetic enough, the kind of face one gets used to making in her profession, the one that forms instantly over patients who bleed and itch in beds like mine, the kind of face she is no longer conscious of making.

“What exactly is a miracle?” I asked.

“It’s divine intervention,” she answered, and then paused, hesitating, her forehead tense, as if in deep thought. “Is it rude to ask you what happened that night? Was it attempted suicide?”

“It wasn’t suicide. I needed a walk.”

“How could you not know you were walking directly into oncoming traffic like that?”

“I lost track of my thoughts, I guess. I don’t really remember. I didn’t leave my house to get hit by a car, though, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“I’m not implying anything. It’s just so illogical. I want to know what drives a man to do something like that.”

“Nurse, my face itches,” I repeated.

I lifted my right hand and began scratching a wound on my forehead, a wound still fresh, even with the white bandage and gauze over it to help it heal. My fingernail went right over the bandage and dug into the flesh. I was surprised that it didn’t hurt; no aching, stinging, or throbbing. It was a feeling not fully explainable with words, but it was enticing. I wanted to get deeper inside that wound. The harder I pressed my finger against it, the better it felt. I felt a sensation in my body like sinking down into warm water on a cold night. I didn’t cease until I heard Naomi scream, “Stop!” and I saw her face, which was still sympathetic, but this one was new, as if the sympathy occurred not through habit but from immediate reaction. I then became aware that the blood had escaped the confines of the white gauze and now trickled down my face.

“If you do things like that,” she said firmly, “I’ll have to put you in restraints. Do you understand, Mr. Vargas?”

I nodded and put my hands down at my side.

She left soon after that incident, leaving me alone in the dark room, nothing but moonlight through translucent curtains. As I lay there, I pieced together the events that brought me to this hospital, and I pondered the miracle that was my continuing existence.

The night I was hit by the car, I felt a strong compulsion to get out of my studio apartment because I hated looking at the white walls and the white couch that my friend the professor donated to me after graduating from the Ph.D. program. I was employed at the local community college to teach intro courses in philosophy, and while I received a paycheck every two weeks, I didn’t spend it on paint, couches, or artwork. I spent it on books and Chinese food and student-loan debt. I didn’t do anything to those walls, and I hated them because of it. Staring at them felt like peering into the cavernous soul of a madman.

They weren’t like my books; there was sense in philosophy, science, and essays. It was in the descriptions, the explanations, the arrogant assumptions about the world, the bravado of those who had systematized thought, existence, and morality. Sense was in teaching, in explaining to others the rules. I wanted to grab hold of this sense, but every time I tried to open the books and jot down notes for lecture, I got caught up in the walls again. I had spent so many years studying sense that I had forgotten what nonsense was, and I couldn’t help but get lost in it when I was exposed to it.

In fact, it took only minutes to get lost completely; twenty minutes of sitting on my couch, looking up at the ceiling, and I was no longer conscious of anything at all. I was empty-headed until three in the morning, pulled back to reality only by the grace of a God not wanting me to stay in the world of the absurd and the meaningless. That’s what came from the white: insensibility.

I needed a walk because while it seemed harmless enough, I was really quite terrified of it. What if I never woke up? What if my neighbors found me on my couch, drooling and brain-dead, staring at the wall with bloodshot eyes? I rubbed my hands over the smooth skin of my face, just to feel the friction, and walked outside into the windless night.

In that hospital bed of mine, alone in the dark, I still felt an itch, an incessant itch, and intolerable loneliness exemplified by its lack of color, by the repetition of beeps and sucking noises from tubes and containers. The itch grew to an unbearable level. It was like an implosion was about to occur, a nuclear blast from directly inside my brain; it seemed as if I would be the cause of a holocaust on earth. I became fixated on calming the device inside, on releasing myself from the confines of that feeling, on saving me and the rest of mankind from the blast about to occur.

I raised both my hands above my head and stared at them for a minute, realizing what I was about to do, readying myself for such an action, afraid of what might occur, afraid of pain, afraid of not being fulfilled, afraid of the uncertainty of an undefined future too anomalous to predict or even try to. I lowered my hands to my face and I dug into my flesh like a bulldozer, clawing at that unending itch, reaching for the center of neural existence.

Performing this action, which felt neither painful nor pleasurable but merely right, I let out a war-cry, a battle scream, like a warrior facing an army alone, armed only with a spear and his own bare hands, ready to run right into the battalion of enemies. I dug into my flesh with uncut nails, writhing back and forth in my bed, each movement getting deeper, driving it harder into the internal core of my mind.

Blood and flesh started to peel from my face, melting off of my skull like hot wax down the side of a candle. I was screaming because of the triumph of it all, because of the fact that I was no longer what I had previously been. I had now fashioned myself into something entirely new. I grabbed the warm tissue from my face and placed it between my fingers, holding it up before my eyes. I rubbed it in my fingers; it felt like clay, like warm wet putty. It was pink, the color of skin and blood blended together.

And dare I say that at that moment, after scratching off most of my face, leaving only remnants of lips and the tip of my nose and round of my eyelids, after lying back into my bed with the wet putty on my chest and on the bed sheets, I finally relaxed, knowing the itch was gone.

But after only a few minutes of relaxation, the nurse popped into my room, presumably because she had heard my screaming, the same nurse who was in my room when I first woke up, the one I watched with the tubes and wires. She ran toward me and immediately grabbed my hands with hers and tried to hold them away from my face. She freed one of her hands to call the doctors on a giant button next to me.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, placing her freed hand back on mine.

“I’m playing,” I said, forming my lips into a sneer.

“You’re opening up your wounds. You’re doing extensive damage to your face!”

She looked as if staring into the face of the devil.

“I don’t care,” I replied. “I had to relieve myself of what I felt inside.”

“What did you feel inside?” she asked.

“It was an itch, a terrible itch that needed to be scratched.”

She looked over my face, assessing the damage.

“Am I still a miracle?” I asked, but she didn’t respond.

As soon as I finished, four doctors in their starched white coats flailing behind them ran toward me and surrounded me, first grabbing my hands and placing them in restraints pulled out of a drawer by my bedside. I didn’t resist, though, not even when they were fastened so tightly that I began to lose feeling in my fingers, not even when they attached them so close to the bed that I couldn’t move my hands even an inch.

A doctor injected me with something that almost immediately made me drowsy. I felt them drag my bed toward the door, except that they looked like demons pushing me unwillingly into the fires of hell, their eyes aglow with flames, and their hands scaly over the bed rails. Even the doorframe appeared to be on fire as they pushed me through it. As I passed through the door, I lost consciousness.

I don’t know what they did to me while I was unconscious, but I do remember what it felt like when I woke up from that sleep, once again alone and in my hospital bed. My face was swollen and it felt like they had found all my skin and reattached it to my face, fastening it together with stitches that I could feel making patterns up and down my head and face. Gauze covered those stitches. Lying there isolated, restrained, stitched together, I felt like dying for the first time since the accident.

Naomi entered the room. Her face returned to one of habitual sympathy, her mouth slightly parted. She walked in almost on tiptoes, like she didn’t want to wake me even though I was no longer asleep.

“Are you awake?” she whispered.

“I’m not asleep.”

“I’m sorry about all that, but I didn’t want you to ruin your face or even risk infection. If you scratch at your face like that you could do permanent damage. These scars should heal, they aren’t as bad as they could be, another small miracle I guess, but you do need to know that any further damage would be irreparable.”

“I don’t care about my face.”

“But it’s such a lovely face,” she said, fashioning her lips into a smile.

“It was a lovely face, but it’s something completely different now.”

“We’ll get you back to how you looked before, I promise. Didn’t it hurt, doing that to your face?”

“It felt wonderful, liberating even.”

“I can’t help but feel sorry for you right now; you look miserable.”

“Naomi, it isn’t my face or the stitches that you should be sorry for. These restraints on my wrists bother me more than anything.”

She leaned down and grabbed my right hand with hers, inspecting it as it protruded from the white restraints. My hand was almost yellow from the lack of circulation.

“They did fasten these rather tightly, didn’t they?” she said.

“I can’t even feel my hands right now.”

“You’ve already disappointed me twice, Mr. Vargas. I asked you before not to touch your face, yet you’ve done so each time.”

“I don’t like these things,” I said, nodding my head to gesture toward the restraints.

“I know you don’t, but they’re for your own good,” she replied.

“I just want to be without them for a few minutes. Give me ten. You can stand here and watch me the entire time.”

She looked once more at my yellow hands.

“OK, but only when I’m in this room.”

“I don’t even want to scratch them anymore, the itch is gone.”

She unfastened the wraps around my wrists, one by one, and let me move my arms toward my body. I grabbed my wrist and rubbed it until I felt the blood return to my hand and then I alternated. My hands tingled. It felt like moving them for the first time.

Naomi rose from my bed and walked around the room, walking from one side of the room to the next, her hands clasped behind her back.

“You seem nervous,” I said.

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I told you there’s no reason for me to do any harm to myself.”

“I don’t believe you,” she replied, laughing a little.

We waited in silence for about five minutes, Naomi watching me from the other side of the room, studying my face, walking back and forth with her hands behind her back. After those five minutes of pacing had passed, the door opened suddenly and another nurse appeared on the other side, placing her head through the doorframe just enough so that I could make out her face from where I was lying. She told Naomi that a doctor needed her for a patient down the hall, that it was an emergency, and that she was needed right away. Naomi told the nurse that she couldn’t leave, but the woman insisted. Naomi turned to me, her sympathetic expression progressing into nervousness.

“Please don’t do anything to your face,” she said.

“I told you, there’s no reason for me to do any harm to myself.”

She left the room and once again left me alone, except that my hands were free again. For a while, I thought about doing as I was instructed so that Naomi wouldn’t get in trouble. I had this image of the doctors finding out that I had disobeyed and firing her immediately, on the spot. Besides, the itch was really gone and I had no need to dig into my face again. The problem was that while I no longer itched, there was something else driving me. I lifted my hands once again and peered at them, full of blood and returned to their prior capacities. I peeled the gauze off and touched the skin on my face with my hands, only to find that it was still the consistency of wet clay as I had felt before.

This time, however, I wasn’t interested in peeling away at anything. I was interested in forming. I realized that I could take my skin and move it around, shaping it and molding it into something new. It wasn’t as if I didn’t like my face before, but it was the face I had lived with for my entire life. It was the face of logic and numbers; a square jaw, eyes that lined up with my nose and my lips, ears that lined up with my cheeks. I wanted to try the face of the illogical.

I first moved my skin over the stitches because they weren’t my own, they were foreign. I covered those stitches with skin from other parts of my face, mostly from my cheeks. Because of that, I was left with a sallow, hollowed out appearance that I was fine with. I took the remaining skin and fashioned myself a Roman nose, bulky at the bridge, sloping at the end. I decreased the size of my chin and applied the leftover skin to my brow, which I wanted to be thick and protruding. I wanted to reach for a mirror, to get a good look at my new creation, but I decided not to because it didn’t matter to me what it looked like, it only mattered what it felt like, and it felt good.

I then tore off the sheets on my body and placed my feet on the cold linoleum floor. With my new face and my now-frail body, I stood on my feet and walked toward the door, limping because, although I had done a little walking, my legs were still weak. I opened the door and looked down the hallway. To my right, I saw a receptionist in the center of the hospital wing, on the phone, not looking my way. The hallway ended on my left, a staircase at the very end that would take me back to the rest of the world but with a new face and a new life. I took the left and ran down the stairs.

Outside, the wind was calm and the stars were out, but it was so cold that my muscles tensed instantly. The only thing concealing my body was a paper-like gown that didn’t even cover my arms or legs. I let my body react, I let the pain overtake me, and I celebrated it. I celebrated the feeling of my cheeks going numb in the frozen air.

I walked down the street by the hospital. Only a few cars passed me this time of night. By a bus stop I saw a woman my age hovering close to the light post in a coat trailing her knees and brown boots with fur by the ankles. She tried to bury her face in the hood. She smoked a cigarette. I asked her what time it was, and she told me it was midnight. She looked at my exposed arms and legs.

“Where are you going? You’ll freeze to death out here.”

“I don’t know where I’m going,” I replied.

“Do you have a place to stay?”

“I’d rather not go home. I think freezing to death would be better.”

She studied my face.

“Do you have any money?” she asked.

“Not on me.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of jewelry, receipts, and cash. She handed me a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill.

“For food,” she said. “There are shelters that will take you in. I don’t know what’s keeping you from going home, but they won’t ask questions.”

“You’re very kind,” I replied.

I held the bill in my hand. Oddly, it felt deserved, more genuine than any paycheck I had ever received. I thanked her and walked away, toward a restaurant by the hospital open twenty-four hours. I could stay there all night. I wasn’t tired; I didn’t feel sick. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed. It was liberating to think that I would never teach again, that I would never stare at those walls. It was freeing to think of living in restaurants and alleys, outside in the real, unfiltered air. I could die, I could starve to death. I could freeze outside. It was better than falling into the incessant whiteness of my previous life.

It was my beginning.

Karen Britten’s Comments

I wanted to write a story about an overly logical, black-and-white thinker who plays by the rules and yet still feels unsatisfied. He can’t really articulate why he feels unsatisfied; he is simply haunted by the whiteness or void in his life and begins to feel an “itch,” something internal that nags him yet can’t really be understood, at least not logically. He used to play by the rules before the accident, but once he goes through the ordeal, he begins to disobey, especially with the nurse. Once he gets lost in meaninglessness, and is physically confronted non-existence, he finds that he can start over. He finally takes control of his life, embraces the absurd, escapes the bondage of logic and rules, and creates his own unknown future.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 34 | Fall 2011