I wake up in a cabin off the Blue Ridge Parkway. My left knee has pinned itself to my abdomen for the third consecutive night. It is separated from the right knee by two pillows, and will not extend. No way. No how. As it turns out, stifled screams and cold sweats are not the testaments to the nobility of my suffering I once believed them to be. The right leg is asleep. Surely words enough exist to describe the position I find myself in: agonizing, cramped, bleakly humorous. My issues are twofold. Maybe the bitterest irony of being the girl in the wheelchair is being without it in the wee hours of my menstruation. The wet I feel on my inner thighs is a bloodstained reminder that, though it is in my keeping, I have no place in this body. The knee now crushed into my vital organs might as well be a phantom for all the use I get out of it. Rigor mortis is the punchline to a joke I’ve stopped telling. No one much cares that my sanity hinges on comic vexation; that otherwise I ramble around inflamed limbs like a war-time nurse with no comfort to give.
There is light dawning in this room, beyond the layers of merlot sheets gathered around my face. White-knuckled, I plead with the darkening cloth to unravel; it will not. I haggle with the azure mountains over space; they will not budge. Their worn peaks, emanating pastels through gossamer clouds, stand watch outside this shabby pine dwelling. I try to summon back the stars, but time has moved away from them. The bed holds me close, and it cannot give me up.
Finding a way out is more easily done once I find my left arm. Unlike my right arm, which becomes lodged between my ribcage and the mattress whenever I lie on this side, the left is free to test the waters. From its resting place at my throat, the arm moves to the collarbones, pausing for the fingers to trickle down the faint crests before descending on the breasts. There’s nothing prominent to speak of here. The left one is probably the bigger of the two. My open hand seeks out the cleavage. I recall that woman from last night’s dream, the big Appalachian, who said things like, “Cleavage is still water in hill country.” We ambled together through green pastures. I laugh at her ruddy face and seven teeth, but as I press into my chest, I know she is altogether good and true. She is a mother, just not mine. I expect she is a herald of the woman I will grow into, if I’m lucky, or lazy, or a touch of both.
My nipples hurt, so I’m careful to steer clear while navigating to the stomach. The skin here is soft enough, healthy. As far as bellybuttons go, mine works just fine, thank you. Everything to the right of the bellybutton is damaged goods. At age five, the doctors cut into me for the first time. They were on a righteous mission to prove how a metallic pump would unclench my fists and loosen my legs. Boy did it ever. My posture lost all sense of direction. The muscles in my back grew weak, and I listed to the left more each day. I was spent from the inside out. There was talk of keeping me back a grade if I continued to sleep through class. The doctors cut the pump out of my stomach five years later, once its tainted medicine ran dry. As memento, I am left with a raised scar about the width and length of my pointer finger. A fused spine is a mild remedy for my scoliotic back.
I have only a vague interest in the pain now crawling up my pelvis, but the arm is forever in a panic over the body’s afflictions. Landing with a thud on my left hip, the hand goes about the business of diagnosing a customary throb. The muscles are taut. I feel for the scar running down the side of the leg to ensure that it has not diminished in the night. I’m rather fond of my scars, their proud flesh less sensitive than the untouched areas. There it is. Operated on the same year as the stomach, my hips are a failed experiment in relocation. The ball will not stay in the socket. But this is not what is ailing me.
The left hamstring tightens as I close in on the knee. It hurts like hell. I imagine a rusty nail has been hammered into the cartilage. Maybe I’ll bleed out and die. Not to be scorned, my hand releases the swollen flesh around the kneecap and emerges from the sheets. The arm rises too, smacking me square in the jaw on its way up. Today is Saturday, the last day of October. I force the covers down my torso, anticipating half a dozen more hours of confinement to this bed, an ideal arrangement for fuming over my crippled body and my lousy ex-boyfriend.
Leave it to a guy who is more in love with his church than he ever was with me to get married on Halloween. I told him my womb is not a lively one, and he told me about a man’s divine right to spread his seed. And that was that, no nonsense. It was all on me, that gnarled heart of mine, bum reproductive organs, and a perpetually aching back. We were in the parking lot of the Goodwill when I cried to my mother for advice. She spat on the pavement, looking like a haggard frontierswoman. She said, “A farmer will do it to you every time.” This is the closest we’ve come to talking about sex
Morning light is coming on faster now. Sherbet mingles with blood orange in the swath of sky visible from the sprawling windows set deep into the walls. And all at once, with no regard for my body’s stiffness, I feel lifted. I am sitting on the edge of the bed, naked, looking out on the grandfather mountains. My bare feet tingle with joyful expectation as I press them to the floor. I close my eyes and move. And I do not fall. And I do not faint. The legs are good and true. Blood is coursing through me, circulating in me. I revel in the urgency of my gait, the slight breeze caressing my skin.
Shuddering, I open my eyes. A familiar woman, though not nearly as slack-jawed as the one I dreamed up, is standing over me. This mother, my mother, is buoyant and Southern. My left knee is cradled against my chest. She stretches it out. I can barely feel the forestalled relief for the pinpricks washing over my leg. The merlot sheets, so crumpled and damp, are wrenched away. She tells me a new day is rising, and, being a woman, my period’s come with it. I ask about the mountains; what makes them blue; why folks call them strong; how they’ve endured year in and year out. These are the curiosities of a child, and I don’t know why I feel I need an answer or I’ll burst. I know I won’t care for the hackneyed and pseudo-poetic response my mother is hardwired to give. It’s not in my nature.
“They will not budge,” she says in between yawns, and still matter-of-factly. “They cannot give in.”
Once on my back, my arms and legs flail involuntarily as they’ve done my entire life, over any little thing: the groan of an opening door, the thinly-veiled fierceness in her voice, the blood beneath my fingernails. A litany of grievances kept close to my person, nudging me out of bed.
Flash forward ninety minutes, and I’m sitting up in my chair, tapping at an imperfection in the windowpane that makes a dormant (or dying) growth of Carolina lupine appear kaleidoscopic in its mingling of lackluster green and rust-brown spires. I imagine what it would take to carve an arm-sized hole in the uneven glass, just so that I might reach out and snatch a single, shriveled flower. I wonder if any newfound respect for life would rattle through me, whether I’d feel more in tune with the earth. The possibility of future scarring alone would make it worth my while, the promise of continued and burgeoning toughness plain for everyone to see. It’s an embarrassment, though, my violent and rudimentary meditation.
These words were important when I thought them up, full of gumption and something damn near insight. Now I have to pee. And the only woman in the world capable of helping is gone for a walk down an unmarked mountain path. Oh, she’ll be back in an hour or two. It’s just that I’m strapped to this wheelchair, and I can’t remember what I was getting at. I have to pee. But I need to hold it, need to concentrate on holding it in.