Bryce Matheson moved his Bishop decisively on the large chess-board that sat between him and his nephew, Clive Mann. ‘’And that should be check and mate, my boy,’’ he suggested meaningfully, not attempting to veil his satisfaction. Of late, he’d often find himself at the losing end of their monthly chess contests and Bryce had never been one to take defeat – even innocuous ones such as these – too lightly. It felt good to be on top of his game again and to put one over the lad. A circumstance that was confirmed when Clive – after mulling over the state of the game for several minutes – finally toppled over his own King and ceded the game.
‘’You’re getting back in your groove, old man,’’ the twenty-eight year old said, with a wry smile and a silent clap of the hands. ‘’Refresh your drink?’’ he asked as he hopped up to re-fill his own mug of beer, appearing not in the least put off by the defeat.
Very little ever did put Clive off, thought Bryce as he held out his own glass for a re-fill of the vodka and tonic he was imbibing. That same unbound optimism and indefatigable spirit were perhaps what endeared Clive to him the most. In fact, as his only sister’s sole offspring, while growing up Clive had become more a son to him than a nephew. Perhaps even more so because he and his wife had themselves never been able to conceive; due to her ovarian cancer. And now, after having lost his wife to the cancer two years ago, retiring from his reasonably successful practice as a Surgeon and having retreated to the peace and quiet on the outskirts of town, Clive’s regular visits never failed to lift his spirits; they bonded on a level that often belied their thirty-something age difference.
During Clive’s academic years, Bryce had actively hoped that he would follow medicine – perhaps even surgery – and that he could serve as his mentor of sorts; Clive’s own parents were much in favor of this too. But it soon became clear that Clive had a mind of his own – a tenacious one at that – and his interests lay elsewhere – in the world of fiction, precisely. Always a voracious reader; fresh out of college, he had managed to get several short-stories published in popular ‘pulp’ magazines, and more recently, his first full-length paperback novel had hit the market to very encouraging response. He had since quit his copy-writing job with an advertising firm and was currently at work on his second book; a collection of novellas.
For the most part, his stories dealt with the darkness – both human and otherwise – that exists in the world and raised more questions than offered resolution. Yet, judging by the reception so far, he knew how to spin a yarn well. Bryce himself – in all his years of surgery – had encountered a fair share of the bizarre and macabre and quite enjoyed reading the stories, but it did amuse him at times how the rampant darkness in them was so much at odds with Bryce’s otherwise, ever-genial persona. But, he always figured; far better to let loose your demons on paper than to let them lurk within you, no matter how well concealed.
Clive eased him back from his musings by plonking the refurbished drinks on coasters placed on a large table beside them and asking, ‘’Care for another game? Or would you rather savor your much over-due win a while longer?’’ The last query came with a pert, lop-sided grin very typical of him.
Bryce was just constructing a fittingly scathing response when the point was rendered kind of moot by a rotund cat hopping on and off the chessboard, knocking most of the pieces on the floor. This was Tabitha, the one-eyed, self-deigned Empress of the house; who then proceeded to curl up under Bryce’s chair.
Having long ago realized the futility of remonstrating with the cat, the duo instead got busy retrieving the pieces off the floor.
If anything, Clive was a little surprised it had taken this long for one of the animals to make an appearance. Bryce’s house was a bit of a menagerie – home to dogs, cats, rabbits, a turtle and even a kite. They had all been either strays or abandoned; most injured or ailing, when Bryce had taken them in and nursed them back to health. Now, this was as much their home as it was his.
Given the unusually balmy nature of the afternoon, the ‘Motley Crew’ (as Clive liked to refer to them) had apparently been lounging in the grassy courtyard of the house. But with the evening getting a lot muggier, they had commenced heading indoors; sequentially it appeared. Tabitha was followed by Minx, a black-and-white kitten whose right ear had been gnawed off by possibly a dog or a tom-cat. Not accustomed to making as grand an entrance as the former, he just trudged across to his favorite spot under the book-shelf and reclined.
Next came padding into the room Thor, a mutt of mixed descent but very likely with traces of Labrador in his ancestry. He wore – as always – a supremely unheroic expression; Bryce had always liked irony for irony’s sake. He padded in, but on three legs. His right foreleg had recently been amputated because of a severely malignant tumor on the bone. Although only a month away from the loss of the leg, he’d adjusted well and there was nothing ungainly about his stride as he made his way to a large, communal water-bowl, lapped luxuriantly from it and then plopped himself on the rug, close to where Clive was sitting. He then, of course, proceeded to look up at Clive and demanded petting with the silent insistence that only a dog can quite manage. Having placed the last of the scattered chess-pieces in their box, Clive was performing due diligence to the dog’s demand when he noticed something that struck him as odd.
Between reveling in the belly-rub being administered by Clive and using the rug as a back-scratcher, Thor kept licking his non-existent leg – in exactly the same way he used to before its excision – almost like, in his head, it was still very much a part of him. At first, Clive thought he was just licking his recently healed stump, but pretty soon it was apparent that the dog was industriously applying his flicking tongue over the entirety (or lack thereof) of the limb that wasn’t – and occasionally, even attempting to scratch it with a hind-leg.
Clive couldn’t help but stare in morbid fascination for awhile before turning to Bryce – who had now settled back down on his much-weathered, much-loved rocking-chair, with drink in hand and Tabby, temporarily, in his lap – to see if he too had noticed this apparent aberration. It turned out he had – and unlike Clive, not for the first time either. In response to the former’s questioning gaze, he shrugged and said, ‘’He’s been doing it pretty often since the bandages came off. It’s probably some form of a ghost itch, should fade away soon enough.’’ Seeing that Clive’s brow was still furrowed in puzzlement, he elaborated, ‘’Ghost itches, phantom itches – the same thing. Surely you’ve heard of Phantom Limb Syndrome; you, the well-researched author and all that.’’
‘’Of course, I have,’’ countered Clive, a tad defensively. ‘’Phantom Limb Syndrome – the perception that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body and experiencing pain, itching, tingling, hot and cold sensations and other sensory stimuli. If I’m not mistaken, it’s often attributed to a neurological disorder –sort of like your wires getting cross-connected and misfiring.’’
‘’Well, in medical terms it’s a little more complicated than that, but, yes, you seem to have the gist of it,’’ responded Bryce. ‘’And while the sensations may well actually originate in the neurons and possibly the cortex; to the person experiencing them, it feels exactly like they’re occurring along his missing limb – or where it once was. Some even experience twitching or motion in the non-existent limb. Quite improbable, that last bit, of course, but there it is. Medical science can be quite fascinating.’’ He concluded, with more than a hint of pride in his not-so-long-ago profession.
‘’But, isn’t Phantom Limb Syndrome usually prevalent in humans?’’ asked Clive. ‘’I don’t think I’ve ever heard of animals exhibiting it.’’
‘’Well, it’s certainly not as common as in human amputees, but it’s not completely unheard of either,’’ replied Bryce. ‘’Fortunately, from whatever I’ve read or heard, the sensations are neither as intense nor as prolonged as they often appear to be in humans. As you could see, Thor didn’t seem to be in any discomfort over whatever he was experiencing in his phantom limb, in fact, his reaction to it has always seemed a matter-of- fact one – unlike humans, for whom it can get quite…traumatizing. And not just the unreachable itches, pains and other sensations; annoying enough as they are, what’s worst is the very real feeling of life, where there shouldn’t be any. As if, a part of their body that they abandoned is still holding on stubbornly, refusing to be rid off; unseen but active, and perhaps a little angry.’’ He punctuated this rush of words with a large swallow of his drink, as if to down their nasty after-taste.
‘’Yes, in humans, the phantom limb thing can sometimes get quite traumatizing, and…complicated.’’ He reiterated, looking up from his drink, his face now clouded by some distant, re-awakened memory; evidently not a very pleasant one. One hand stroked Tabby’s back rather briskly, unmindful of her yowls of growing annoyance; maybe hoping to erase the imprint of the renegade memory by doing so.
‘’You must have come across a fair few in your surgery days, huh, Uncle Bryce? Any particularly interesting ones?’’ probed Clive, his interest piqued. He sensed a story here, and as is the case with most good story-tellers, he enjoyed being told a good story as much as he enjoyed telling one. And when it came to his Uncle Bryce’s surgeon-days stories, they were usually better than just good; they were disturbingly good.
‘’Oh, it was nothing really,’’ remarked Bryce evasively, seemingly back from whatever unsavory reverie had visited him fleetingly. ‘’Just a strange case that this conversation reminded me of; quite a bizarre one actually, and awhile back. I’m not sure I remember all of the details; some of it was quite inexplicable, unnatural even, and all rather…grim. Certainly not worth blemishing this wonderful day with,’’ he tried waving the topic away, quite literally, with an expansive movement of the hands – in the process, inducing Tabitha to seek a more sedate resting place elsewhere in the room.
Of course, knowing the nature of Clive’s usual fictional fare and his interests, he realized a little belatedly that the words he’d used to try and dismiss the incident – bizarre, inexplicable, grim – would probably have the exact opposite effect: of reeling him even further.
And such was indeed the case. ‘’Oh come on, Uncle Bryce, you know that’s exactly the kind of story I love hearing,’’ entreated Clive, ‘’especially when it’s a story that you’ve lived, those at least I know actually happened. Come on and spill.’’ He was all but rubbing his hands in anticipation.
Bryce looked up at Clive’s eager face, he knew the expression well; not only had he seen it often on Clive’s own face growing up, he had seen much the same look on many a canine companion when they came hunting affection; an unwavering, unabashedly naked expectation, one there was really no kind way of rebuffing. And since part of him actually enjoyed engaging his adored nephew while re-living his own interesting past (even some of its morbid bits), he decided to relent.
‘Oh, it happened, all right. Although there are parts of it I dearly wish hadn’t.’’ He pronounced. ‘’Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you really want to hear this story, batten down the hatches and keep the drinks close at hand. It’s a little long, decidedly unusual and my memory may be a tad sketchy, but I’ll do the best I can. Also, I should warn you, some parts of it will severely test your rationality and your credulity, but you may choose to believe, or not. Mine is just to tell.’’ A theatrical tone had now found its way into his voice (as it often did when he verbally reminisced). ‘’ So let me tell you about the rather extraordinary case of Mr. Horatio Goodbody. ‘’
He paused to light a cigar, puffing strenuously to make the amber-glow blossom, before continuing:
‘’The first time I met Horatio, he was dead…’’
The first time I met Horatio, he was dead. But I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about his life before that moment, the little I know, that is.
Despite having been born to parents who were apparently fans of Shakespeare, Horatio himself never really took to academics, barely scraping through classes in his school years. He’d been blessed with a rather intimidating and burly physique, however, and as a result, not only excelled in many a sport, but was also known to be a bit of a bully in the school yard. He relied more on the eloquence of his hands and fists than words to make a point. Whatever dreams of academic and professional excellence his parents may have had for him (although the father himself owned a butcher’s shop), it’d probably be safe to say, died swiftly as he grew – and as far as I know, he grew to be a rather sullen individual; with few friends and a pretty strained relationship with the parents as well.
Be that as it may, after barely passing high school, he eschewed further education in favor of joining the military, likely a wise enough choice for a lad of his disposition and physical strength. His natural aggression and fitness must have served him well because he grew to the rank of Sergeant in a few years’ time. But that’s where his ascent came to a dead end. While I can’t know for sure but it seems his fractious nature, unwillingness to take responsibility, bouts of recklessness and general unpopularity prevented him from rising up the ranks any further. He himself seemed quite content though, and continued to both enjoy and excel in combat; up until his stint with the army came to an abrupt end in rather hush-hush and – if rumors around it were true – unsavory circumstances in Saigon.
The details are quite foggy and probably deliberately kept under wraps, but there was talk of psychotropic testing on some of the troops – including Horatio’s platoon – before a mission. I’m not sure what exactly happened next – and from my conversations with him, he wasn’t either – but apparently there were incidences of friendly-fire; it seems some of the platoon turned on their own in the middle of engaging the enemy. Only Horatio and two others survived the mission, with relatively minor injuries. As to whether the entire remaining platoon actually perished at the hands of the enemy – or their own – remains a fact buried deep within the military’s folds. Anyhow, the outcome of it all was that, Horatio, along with the other two survivors, received a swift and honorable discharge, citing mental trauma.
And very suddenly, he found himself back in a world he had abandoned a long time ago, this time with repressed memories slowly gnawing at him from the inside and perhaps, lingering traces of unknown chemicals still affecting his head. Be that as it may, he chose to be in denial of both and as far as I know, never consulted a therapist, although it had been strongly recommended on his discharge. By this time his parents had passed away so he had their home all to himself. From what I could gather from his neighbors and the few others who had known him before he enlisted, he returned even more surly and unsociable than before. And although he did seem less overtly aggressive and belligerent, he was often unresponsive and brooding, as if a cloud of regret hovered above him most of the time – all attributes that make for a rather lonely life. But he embraced his loneliness, in fact, seemed to find comfort within it. He seemed happiest in his own company.
His own company did need one crutch however – somewhere along his return from the army, he’d picked up a nasty drinking habit. The term ‘Alcoholic’ was not exactly in common usage back then, but he certainly qualified. Although, functioning-alcoholic might be more accurate because he did manage to hold down a series of jobs for awhile – needed to, I suppose, his pension was hardly enough to finance his nightly binges. And he never actually drank on any of the jobs, as far as I could learn, but he still had trouble holding on to one for long, largely due to his crabby disposition and erratic moods. He went from Construction Worker to Security Guard to Cab Driver all very rapidly. Nothing stuck but eventually he did seem to find what his true calling was – he put his savings into re-opening his dad’s Butcher shop at the back of his house. He employed a couple of daily-wagers to help but his own burly arms did the bulk of the work, all the cutting, cleaving and chopping. Remember, this was back in the day when we didn’t have neatly-packaged, different cuts of meat on offer at a plethora of branded super-markets, so a butcher that kept things fresh and clean, knew his meat and was well-located was bound to do well. As did Horatio. Business was flourishing and those mighty arms chopped away tirelessly all day, serving out the choicest of cuts. The alcohol still had its teeth in him but he reserved his drinking to only nights and the occasional holiday, staying sober during business hours – surly still, but sober. And things were going reasonably well.
Until that one Sunday when he decided to go watch a local football game, beer in tow.
Bryce paused to re-light his now dormant cigar, and gestured to Clive to refresh his drink. The latter got up to do so – after gently unseating Flash, a small, albino half terrier – half mystery breed, who had planted himself on his feet in the interim. As he refreshed both Bryce’s and his own drinks, he asked a question of the latter, ‘‘By the way, out of sheer curiosity, do you know what happened to the other two survivors from his platoon?’’
‘’From what I heard, one committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping-pills within two months of his discharge. Of the other, I have absolutely no knowledge,’’ Bryce replied.
‘’Hmm.’’ Clive handed him his glass and posed another query, ‘’So how did you learn so much of this man’s back-story anyway? So far none of this seems to come under your domain as a surgeon, so to speak.’’
Bryce reflected for an instant before answering, chugging heavily on his revived cigar. ‘’ Some of it I learnt from him while he was in my care, both at the hospital and during subsequent visits. Some from attending physicians and policemen when he was first brought in, some from speculative newspaper reports on his platoon’s last mission that I looked up and a bit from my own enquiries to locals who had known him, made after the case had concluded.’’
‘’Oh, but hang on a second, what do you mean – ‘learnt from him’?’’ asked Clive, suspiciously. ‘’Didn’t you say he was dead when you first met him?’’
‘’Ah, indeed I did,’’ replied Bryce, a tad smugly, ‘’and so he was, briefly. I was just getting to that part.’’
So, on this one Sunday, he decided to go see a football match while rather drunk, and apparently, getting drunker. Nothing particularly untoward happened at the match itself, aside from a few verbal arguments with opposing fans. I presume, drunk or not, his sheer built was enough to deter most from initiating a physical altercation. On the way back however, he picked up another six-pack, demolished five of the cans, and attempted to board a bus back home while still holding onto one.
Upon noticing the can he held (and probably also how drunk he was), the conductor insisted he get rid of it before boarding. Horatio refused and tried to barge his way in. A heated argument ensued, with some of the other passengers getting involved as well. It ended with some passengers shoving him off the steps and the conductor sliding the door shut. Apparently, as he landed, the can slipped out his hand and rolled under the bus. He immediately dropped to his knees and stuck his right hand out to retrieve it…and that was precisely the time that the driver (unaware of what was happening outside) chose to set the idling bus in motion.
The entire rear tire passed effortlessly over his arm – its expanse covering everything from his upper-forearm to his wrist – completely demolishing skin and bones in the process. He passed out immediately, mid-scream. It happened so quickly that had it not been for some onlookers who noticed, the bus might have just continued on its way. As it was, it stopped at their outcry. A crowd gathered and both the authorities and an ambulance were summoned.
By the time they got him to the Hospital, his heart and pulse had slowed down considerably from shock and loss of blood; cardiac arrest seemed imminent. I was just about ready to call it a day when I was paged; I scrubbed in and rushed to the OT where he’d already been prepped by my surgical team. I walked in to the dreaded monotone of a flatline on the ECG machine; his heart had finally given up. So clinically, in that moment, he wasn’t alive.
However, we were able to resuscitate him immediately, with epinephrine and compressions, and pump in enough blood and fluids to get his vitals steady so we could deal with the other compelling issue; his arm. It was mangled completely out of shape; multiple fractures with jagged edges of the wrecked bones sticking out from the flesh at awkward angles. The Humerus alone was smashed in 3 different places, and the Ulna and Radius were splintered, almost fused together. Amputation was the obvious and only course of action, and given the wide-spread extent of the damage, I had to remove the entire arm, just below the shoulder. As far as surgeries go, it was a fairly routine one and I had staunched the bleeding and closed up the stump within the hour, leaving him stable and sedated.
When I visited him the next day in the recovery unit, he’d been conscious for a while and therefore had had time to let it all sink in, but nonetheless I was rather surprised at his quiet composure. In cases like this, one expects hysteria, panic, anguish or even outrage from the patient upon discovering he’s now missing a limb; the sight of the suddenly-empty space often leaves them over-whelmed. Horatio, however, seemed to have processed the information quite stoically, he was almost matter of fact about it, a tad contrite even; muttering that he’d been stupid to stick his hand under the bus in the first place. Of course, most alcoholics do wake up from their binges dreading what lies in the black holes in their memory, fearing the worst and inwardly assuming culpability for it, even before actual facts come to light.
But in his case, he seemed so detached from the reality of his missing limb that I was a bit worried he might be in denial. I scheduled a session with the hospital’s psych consultant for him later, just in case. Physically, however, he seemed to be healing satisfactorily; his bull-like constitution was serving him well. He did complain often about a maddening itch and some pain beneath the bandages, but that’s to be expected. I upped his pain meds and left him contemplating the vacant space below his right shoulder in silence.
Over the next few days, he continued to recover rapidly; the amputation site was healing well and physically, there were no adverse reactions to the trauma. Even his psych-session apparently didn’t throw up anything particularly alarming. He was disinterested and taciturn throughout it but he showed more signs of a measured resignation and a desire to adapt to his new circumstance than any palpable depression or sense of loss. In fact, the only thing he bemoaned with any degree of vehemence was how this handicap was going to get in the way of his work, at the butcher shop. And while such a subdued reaction was not exactly typical, it also wasn’t enough to suggest any great mental duress. Perhaps Psychiatrists today might have subjected him to greater scrutiny, but, back then, he was deemed fit to be released upon physical recovery.
He did however continue to complain about itching and tingling sensations along his arm, well, his erstwhile arm. He even complained about a feeling of increasing heaviness in the non-existent arm. Apparently these sensations were no longer localized to the amputation site but had progressed to areas where there was no flesh or matter any longer. These sensations were probably the only adverse reaction that bothered him, quite a bit, during his recovery. In fact, on one occasion, when I was present, he demanded an extra blanket be placed over the limbless space below the right half-sleeve of his hospital gown; insisting that it was deathly cold. At another time, while getting out of bed, he suddenly clutched at the air around his missing right elbow and grimaced with pain; exclaiming he had cracked it on the metal bed-stead. And then sometimes, we would catch him scratching furiously at the emptiness where his arm had been, with his left fingernails or a pen or pencil he’d borrowed from the nurses.
However, these sensations seemed to cede as abruptly as they began and because, according to our tests, neurologically nothing seemed significantly out of kilter, we put them down as an innocuous manifestation of Phantom Limb Syndrome and presumed they would fade away completely, in time.
Perhaps we should have spent more time investigating it, or getting in to his head, but that’s how it was – we were modestly staffed and all immensely over-worked, and on every other front, Horatio had had a rapid and uncomplicated recovery. So we let it go. The truth is that even now, in retrospect, I think I would have done the same – not knowing what was to come later, of course.
Normally, it was our practice to release post-operative patients to friends or family, but in Horatio’s case, the only people who had come to visit were his two part-time employees at the Butcher-shop – and frankly, they seemed more worried about their employment prospects than his condition. He didn’t seem to have anyone even remotely close. So, after marking his continued physical improvement, we decided to release him to his own care – prescribing regular physiotherapy sessions and routine check-ups back at the hospital, of course.
There is something…unusual that occurred on the day before his discharge which is worth mentioning though.
The nurse was unraveling his bandages, we hoped for the last time. I was on hand, of course, to take stock. As the roll of gauze unwound, I caught him staring intently at it; almost with the expectant air of someone watching an unexpected package being unwrapped, with curious eyes awaiting the revelation, although unsure of what it might be. I found this strange because it certainly wasn’t the first time he would see the naked amputation site; the bandages had been changed often enough. Anyway, I’m not sure what he expected to see but what the bandages did reveal was a near-perfectly healed stump; dry, with very little discoloration and swelling.
Of course, there would continue to be muscle atrophy (and I intended to fit him with a ‘Shrinker’ – a compression sock – to help with that and also to keep the area unexposed) but beyond that, there didn’t seem any cause for worry. As the nurse stepped aside to unpack the Shrinker, I glanced at him again, to share my satisfaction with his recovery. I saw he was no longer staring at the stunted, tapering remains of his forearm; he was instead looking keenly at the vacant region below it, somehow fascinated with the nothingness there. Except there wasn’t complete nothingness there – there was a fly, in the space where his forearm would have been. Now, we did try maintaining the highest standards of sanitation at the Hospital, but it was impossible to keep out an occasional fly or few.
Anyway, what immediately caught my attention with this fly was: it wasn’t flying around there; it appeared to have alighted on something – except there was nothing for it to land on, just emptiness. I think I must have convinced myself in that moment that it was just hovering still in the air – as they sometimes do – but the truth is it seemed to be just perched there, on a surface that didn’t exist, and actually seemed to be feeding off it. Before I could react or get a closer look however, Horatio’s left hand moved and swatted it cleanly. Again, swatted may seem like an anomaly since it implies crushing it against another surface – where there was none – but that’s exactly how it looked; his flat palm smashing it against some invisible mass. There was no accompanying sound though, and as he flicked its crushed carcass into a waste-basket, I think I convinced myself again that he had just closed his fist around it in mid-air and killed it. Of course, later incidents made me remember this episode in a very different light but for the moment, I chose to fabricate a rational explanation in my head.
In any case, by this time, the nurse was at my side with the Shrinker and I got busy demonstrating its wear to Horatio. He, too, looked unaffected by the incident and afterwards, when I began discussing his post-discharge routines, medication and return visits, he seemed attentive enough; nodding his assent, albeit without adding much to the conversation himself other than the most basic of questions. That done and having wished him luck, as I and the nurse walked away, he appeared lost in thought again, his left hand absently clenching and unclenching the air, seemingly, just below his right shoulder. Unusual, yes, but it didn’t seem enough to warrant delaying his discharge, so, once again, I let it go.
Select Page below to Continue Reading…