In the Hospital

By Jamie Parsley


"A fever!" the nurse chatters. "A fever!"

"You sound like a sparrow," I say.

"Do I?" she asks, laughing.


"Chirp, chirp," she says, smiling, as she floats over me, white and chubby as an angel. She expertly ties off my arm with a rubber hose. "OK now. Just relax."

I stiffen as her cold gloved fingers knead the tender white skin on the inside of my arm, caressing a purple vein to the surface.

"Hold still," the nurse.

And I do. I hold so still the muscles in my arms and legs begin to quiver. Even when she comes back with the needle, I don’t make a move. I don’t flinch even a little when the thin steel slips beneath the skin and finds the skinny blue vein.

See, I think to myself. I am tough. I’m raw meat. I’m a scar. My arm turns purple as a heart or an onion. I try to move my fingers, but they’re so numb they burn.

"Relax," she repeats, but I only stiffen more. "Look over there at that poster," she says. "Watching the needle only makes people more nervous."

In the chair next to the poster of instructions on how to use an overhead lamp, I see a nun.

"Who’s that?" I ask the nurse, nodding to the woman in the corner.

"That? That’s Sister Mary Ignatius," the nurse says.

"What’s she doing here?"

"She’s here to pray for you," the nurse says as releases the plunger on the hypodermic and fills the tube with my blood.

I look over at the nun, who sits in the corner of the room dressed in a white habit. She is quietly chanting the rosary to herself. I watch her as the white beads fall from her fingers like milk drops.

"I’ll be right back," the nurse says after she unties the hose from around my arm and eases the needle from my arm. She then places gauze over the pin-prick it left in the crook of my elbow. When she leaves the room with my blood, the nun hovers close to the table on which I’m sitting.

"Why did you do this to yourself?" she asks. Her habit is clean and white like ice. "The fever’s out of control, now. Why did you wait?"

My mouth moves but no words come out.

"What is it you’re trying to say?" she asks.

I want to tell her that the reason I’m here is because I’m dust. Dust. My mouth forms the words but she can’t understand. Surely you can understand, I want to say. Surely, woman, you can see the perpetual Lent that lives in my eyes. Just look! Your answers smeared all over my forehead like unction.

The nun leans even closer. Her chin is glowing in the light overhead. She breathes and my nose fills with the smell of cinnamon.

"What are you thinking?" she asks. She touches my forehead with her smooth, warm hand. "What’s going on in that sad, sad head of yours?"

I try to moving my mouth again. I try to form the word "Blackness" with my lips, but I only make a "bah, bah," word.

"Come on," she goads. "Just one word. Just one. And then I’ll be glad."

I could. I could just tell her what I think. But I don’t want to. Let her think I can’t. Let her struggle to read my lips. I don’t feel like telling her a thing. What would she know of this pain that eats me from the inside out like a tapeworm? If I said "cancer" to her, we know what she’d think. But blackness—maybe that’s a more appropriate word. Blackness. It’s a blackness that eats at the sponge of my mind.

No, I’m not going to say a thing to her. No way. The words just aren’t going to happen. My tongue has dried in my mouth. It’s curling back into itself. It’s blackening like dying fruit behind the white enamel of my teeth.

The nun shakes her head in defeat and leaves without another word.

I lie back, quietly, on the table and steam like breakfast.

It’s white, that overhead light shimmering into my oscillating eye. It smells like burnt plastic.

My nose tightens. A thin, hot trickle of blood escapes the left nostril and eases down my face like a tear.

I look around me. "Where are you?" I ask the empty room, but there’s no one to hear me.


Something’s hissing. I look around the room for the sound.

"What is that?" I ask.

"What’s what?" the nurse asks in return.

"That hissing. Don’t you hear it?"

"No," she says as she writes in her chart.

I shake my head and blink my eyes. Yes! It’s still there, like static.

"Do you still hear it?" she asks.

"No," I lie as I look down at the small white tennis shoes on her feet.

"I’ll be right back, then" she says. "I’m going to see what’s keeping the doctor." And then, she leaves, the soles of her white tennis shoes sighing against the linoleum floor. I am alone in that glaring whiteness.

I look around the room.

I wait and listen.

Silence for a moment, and then, the hissing continues.

It’s then I realize: my blood! It’s my blood in the vial she left on the counter. It’s so hot, it’s cracking the glass. That has to be it. What else can it be?

The doctor and nurse come in together. The doctor—tall and thin and smelling of cigarette smoke—holds the stethoscope to my chest.

"You can hear it, can’t you?" I ask him.

"Hear what?" he asks.

"He says he hears a hissing or something?" the nurse says.

"What kind of hissing?" he asks me.

But I can’t say. I can’t tell him it’s not so much a hissing anymore as it is a humming. And it’s not coming from the counter. No. It’s coming from inside me. It’s not my heartbeat—my precious purple drum, rolling around in my chest. Oh no, I want to say. No. It’s a psalm, Doctor. That’s what I want to say. It’s a psalm of sadness and loss. Just between you and me and the overhead light, Doctor, I think—and I know you’ll think it’s just the fever talking and not me—but I really do think it’s none other than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I do! I think the King of Babylon has locked them up inside me. I’m sure he’s toasting them like Jersey dogs in the retort of my fever while his own men scald at my ear. Move the horn closer, Doctor. Listen! Do you hear that? It’s them, muttering in my veins. They’re chanting my blood like a mantra.

The doctor thumbs my wrist.

Is it a pulse, Doctor? I want to ask. Tell me. Maybe it isn’t, Maybe I’m cancerous. Maybe it’s a polyp. Oh, Doctor, don’t lie. Tell me the truth!

The fever rises within me suddenly, like a crescendo. The attendants—those three little Hebrew men—are fanning it. Doctor, can’t you hear them? They’re coughing in my lungs, singing Glorious! Their hymn is, Brilliance!

"Lie back," the doctor says quietly. "And just relax."

And I do. I lie back all the way, flat to the table. Look me. I’m priceless after all. I’m gleaming here—pale and hot, like a window. I’m steaming. I’m your breakfast, Doctor. I’m your bacon.

I can’t even hear myself think. There’s a chorus in me—do you hear it, Doctor?—singing to the knot in my throat like a teapot.

That’s when my body begins to shudder. Deep down in the vault of flames within me it starts. And slowly—slowly—it works outward until the tremor takes over the flesh.

My eyes loll back into the sockets.

I sit up, my hair flaming, every muscle in my body flexing, and wait for the fire to finish the job.

"Sit back!" the nurse chants as she tries to push me back onto the table. "Sit back! Sit back!"



You should be here. Yes, you! You, whom I just can’t stop thinking about. You should be right here beside this gurney on which I am being scalded. You should be telling these nice young orderlies—these white-shirted men with their red faces and their cold hands—to stop it! You should be saying to them, ""Be gentle! Be kind!"

But you’re not. You’re not here, or anywhere I can imagine. You’re gone for good. Maybe—just maybe—you never existed. Wouldn’t that be the biggest laugh of them all? Whatever the case, you’re not here. And because you’re not, they hold me down flat when I struggle and kick my legs at them. When the singing in my head goes up an octave, I start to convulse and so they entwine their thick red arms over me. But you know something? They think they’re something, but they’re not. No. Their brute strength is unable to stop the violence of my fever’s need. I say, let them. Let them bring out their ice-water sheets. I say, Go on! Wrap me—head to foot—in this winding. And so they do. The cold takes hold quickly. Watch me, how I stiffen with the shock of it.

"Where are you?" I murmur, as my head falls back on table. "Now! When I need you most!"

"Shush," the nurse says, caressing my lukewarm ear.

I call out your name.

One of the young orderlies leans over and looks into my face, smiling. "Wrong name," he says, patting my heaving chest. "My name’s Tim."