Every woman carries at her core a ball of fire.
Most stories remain solid, a manageable system of change, barely perceptible in time, their experiences like erosion, slowly cutting through stone. But an ill woman’s landscape is full of tsunamis. Her stories, like violent waves so sudden and constant that there is nothing but the meta-memory of their aftershocks.
This is the myth of my own disease.
There was a mass of unknown origin wrapped around my right kidney. It looked like a jellyfish and its tentacles reached as far as my thigh until they squeezed my muscles and I had trouble walking.
Because this mass was gelatinous, no one could find it even with technology, which is expensive, but ordinarily reliable.
The mass gestated in my right side until it became so large that it shoved my kidney into my spine.
And then I couldn’t bend in the middle.
To save my body, my kidney sacrificed itself and grew a stone from the crystallization of calcium that in the beginning was tinier than a single grain of sand. This crystal grew in size,
sharp and jagged-edged, like a knife that cut me open as it reached out, attempting to assassinate the alien mass that had invaded my body.
In my dreams, this stone looked like a bone arrowhead. I saw a white buffalo shot with this arrowhead. The buffalo was bleeding, and then I was bleeding, and then I woke up drenched in sweat, unsure if I was in pain or just imagining that I was in pain. I couldn’t remember which one of us had been shot. Sometimes I thought I was the buffalo and the hunter had pierced me with an arrowhead, and out of fear I had ran away.
The white buffalo lived alone in flatlands that reached out to the North and to the South. Behind her, to the West, was red earth and mountain ranges. She was lonely, but I could never reach her. Sometimes I imagined she dreamed of me and wondered why we both lived in such different kinds of solitude. Sometimes I wondered if the hunter’s arrow was his love, which I had rejected, and that he was the one who ran away.
Sometimes I missed the hunter, but then I remembered how difficult it was to kill with a bow and arrow. If the hunter was anything less than precise, it took a long time to die from such wounds.
I was a wounded animal, dying slowly.
The stone grew from an arrowhead into a scorpion that perched on my kidney. Sometimes I could feel that scorpion reach up and pinch my heart just to make sure I was still alive. He was my child, my son, guarding my life along with his own. My body was a stone jungle— filled with stone beasts— like gargoyles holding back the gates of death.
The scorpion sprouted a leaf. The leaf grew into a stone vine that grew around my spinal cord like bone on bone. The vine grew microscopic buds that hung like poisonous flowers, symbolizing a birth—lily of valley—and I couldn’t tell if I was in the process of dying or being born.
When the surgeons retracted my ribs and removed the mass, my kidney had been shoved so far into my spinal cord that they had merged, like Siamese twins in the stone cage of the vine. Nothing that was embedded in my spinal cord could be removed, without paralyzing me. My side was sewn-up. The cortex of kidney and fragments of stone vine were left inside. The vine became calcified to the bones of my vertebrae, so that sometimes, even now, when I bend it grates, bone against bone, stone against stone, like the plates of the Earth converging and subducting as they buckle and collide. Forever my movements will be slower, my body a force against its own inertia.
In the grind the jagged edges of broken parts slowly turn to dust.
The dust created by movement is re-absorbed.
But the body is still at risk.
Stone remnants can break away in chunks—like tiny new arrowheads that pierce through the sterile cavity of the human body, causing infection. I am prone to abscesses— a defense of the body— where healthy cells will harden like tiny soldiers, keeping the infection localized where it will grow in a self-contained bubble until it can be drained.
The constant work of erosion has presented itself as scars. My stories burrowed into its valleys. The stone pillar became my spine that grinded in place as movement forced through. It is the work of moving sculptures, of moving stones, of moving walls.
This volatile body,
is my body.
What does this say about me now that my insides have been removed and replaced, invaded and displaced? Where does one seek refuge from her own body when it has been taken over by such mysteries? A menagerie of beasts, vital organs too decayed to function, and the alien mass, which began it all removed by skill of the surgeon’s hand.
As the retractors split my ribs, I dreamt of the hunter and wondered if he was trying to kill the white buffalo or if he meant to save her. Was I that buffalo?
A vascular surgeon was called.
A central line was inserted into my neck. It was threaded through the jugular vein that ran directly to my heart. Two pints of O-positive were pumped to my right atrium, but I kept bleeding. The surgery took eight hours, but in my mind it lasted much longer.
After months of watching the bleeding white buffalo standing alone, I saw her collapse while drinking water from a stream. She was too hot. The water was not cool enough. Would I ever wake up? Centuries passed while I sat next to the buffalo, stroking her skin with cool rags desperate for her to wake, knowing my totem might die. The retractors were removed along with two of my ribs.
Confused, I believed I had almost drowned, and washed up on a riverbed where I woke up in the blazing sun.
I remembered the scorpion. How long had he been my guardian? And how was it that the leaf and the vine had invaded my body? What would life be like without them? And how long before this delicate balance would again be disturbed?
It is the strength, beauty, and frailty of the sick body that Frida Kahlo once called, a ribbon around a bomb.
I am none and all of these beasts at once.
Candice Carnes earned her BFA in creative writing from Goddard College. This essay is an excerpt from her book, An Incomplete Case Study of the Petrified Woman, a memoir of a traumatic, nearly fatal illness that cost her (among other things) a kidney at the age of 32. Most of her stories are informed by over a decade of providing hands-on patient care. She is the winner of the 2009 Leo-Love Merit Scholarship in fiction. Her work has appeared in Adobe Walls, Raphael’s Village, Apeiron Review, and in Mused (June 2013).