by Megan Kurashige
(originally published in Sybil's Garage #7)
On the day that Martin’s leg turned to glass, they took out another seat from the theater. It left behind a space in the scalloped row of blue velveteen: a gap just large enough for the special chair with its box of cotton batting, its rubber disks for eating shock, its custom snaps and buckles and slings. Four wells in the floor held the chair’s wheels, and in the middle of this square were flat gold letters and numbers. They reminded Martin that he was at the back of the theater, right out on the farthest edge, where the distance from the stage was greatest and the length of the ramp, softly sloped and carpeted from the elegant lobby, was short.
He was wheeled in at the end, after everyone else had tramped down the aisles and found their seats. Only once the audience settled itself to rustle programs and whisper could the parade of glass people begin. It was safer then, when there was less danger from a careless foot or from the awkward lifting and climbing of legs that happens between theater rows.
Attendants in pale green suits pushed the glass people in their chairs. They checked the ground for treacherous wrinkles in the carpet, for stray ticket stubs and abandoned balls of tissue, always ready to dart ahead to avert a sudden, tragic crack. The glass people sat still. Some of them covered their glass parts with scarves or cleverly sewn jackets, but even the most accomplished tailor failed to make a chair invisible, and the other people, those unafflicted and whole, stared.
They couldn’t help it, Martin supposed. Their eyes caught the smallest reflection and chased down every odd shine of light. They looked with desperation, because no one knew where the glass came from, but at least they did it quietly and only from the edges of their faces.
Martin pinched the tips of his fingers, feeling for imaginary flaws in the nails, while the attendant secured his chair. The boy, much too new at the job, made conversation.
“You are in for a treat,” he said. His hands fluttered at the wheel brakes. “A treat. Everyone tells me how you can’t miss this one. They say it’s the best show of the year.”
The boy would not stop talking. Martin could see the proscenium arch above his bent back. It was the wrong shape from this angle, smaller and flatter than he remembered. He looked down and spoke to the attendant again.
“Haven’t you seen it then?”
The boy crouched beside the wheels. He kept a cautious space between his body and the box that held Martin’s leg. The box was filled with yards and yards of downy fiber that cushioned the fragile expanse of shin, ankle, and foot.
“Not yet. Haven’t had the chance. We always arrange the transportation while the show’s going on. I’m sure I’ll make it one day.” The boy stood up and took a small brass telescope from the zippered pack at his side. “Every seat comes equipped with a telescope now. You might as well be on stage yourself, no matter where you’re sitting. There isn’t a bad seat in the house.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”
All along the row, all throughout the theater, attendants in their green suits asked the same question. They checked straps and brakes for the last time, then slipped sideways between the rows and escaped up the aisles, leaving a piebald theater behind them. The chairs with wheels interrupted the waves of blue velveteen, and the people in them sat so still that the reflections on their limbs did not change.
They did not dare shift their weight to look up at the translucent, fractured ceiling lit like a giant chandelier. It had been built by an artist, a famous one, and people had used to buy tickets just to tilt their heads back and look at it before a show.
Martin wished that he had walked down the aisle, at least once, with his head tipped backward to admire the ceiling’s entire length. It was the kind of thing that was easy to forget when you worked in the theater, like going to the tourist spots in the city where you lived. He sent someone a postcard of it once. They still sold them in the lobby. He had seen them on the way in and thought, for a second, that he should buy one.
“It’s such a gamble.” A man in the row in front of Martin spoke to the woman who sat beside him. He waved a hand at the stage. “How can they go out there, with everything we don’t know, and risk something like that? What if it happened in the middle of a show?”
The woman shook her head. She had pear-shaped diamonds pulling on her ears. “I think they’re mad. Crazy on endorphins or hormones or something. They’d have to be.”
Several seats to the left, a man with a glass neck spoke to his neighbor without turning his head. “It’s the only way I can remember sometimes. That’s why my doctor says I should come as much as I can. If you think something enough, it translates into your nerves somehow and keeps the muscles from forgetting. I don’t know why that matters though.”
Martin didn’t hear what the neighbor said in response because, on every side of him, the theater began to disappear. The lights went out; the ceiling faded. In the dark, the audience held its breath and tried to make itself invisible while the curtain rose, a wall of brocade vanishing into the hush, and far, far away, the dancers began their dance.
If he squinted, Martin could see vague shapes wandering across the dark space. They looked like men. They looked like women. They were so far away that they might have been anything, jellyfish or swans, a constellation of dim stars on a clouded night.
He lifted the telescope, moving slowly and drawing the extra weight close by increments. It had three simple dials on one side, and when he looked through the eyepiece, it crushed the dancers up beneath the glass, so close that they looked like nothing at all, just smears of color and light.
He twisted the dials. They worked slowly: too far, not far enough, twist right, twist left. He almost dropped it.
On the stage, the dancers folded their limbs in, then exploded them out, stamping and pounding and sinking into the floor. Martin’s fingers marked the rhythm on the side of the telescope. He kept perfect time; and his fingers remembered how it felt to land, how feet were light, then heavy, how he had melted across the ankles, pushing down through his toes and falling off his heels.
Under the telescope, the dancers lifted their hands and sliced the air. They carved invisible palaces, tore them down and crushed the ruins to dust, then blew the dust out into the dark. They sweated with the work. It shined their backs and flicked off their hair, dotting the stage with little spots of slippery wet.
Martin’s arms hurt. Once, he would have bent up his knees and rested his elbows across them; but now he set the telescope back in his lap. The doctor always said not to take risks. The telescope pressed into his thighs and he curled his wrist around the heavy brass to keep it safe. He closed his eyes and wondered what the other people had seen, and what they were watching now.
“Caution is always best,” is what the doctor said. His office was white and clean. It made Martin think of a bed covered only with sheets.
He had come in because his leg felt cold on the way to work. He took morning class, warmed up his muscles, jumping and turning, until his body felt hot all over. He was ready to leap a building, to run forever, or, at the very least, to dance; but when he sat down on the edge of the stage, his leg was cold again. It crept up a little at a time, as if he were falling in slow motion into a pool that had almost turned to ice.
He pulled off his sock and saw his skin going pale. For a little while, it looked thicker than normal, harder and smoother than it should. Then the color left, and then everything else, and in less than an hour, his leg was as clear as a window pane. When he moved, it slid along the floor.
The hospital never kept new cases waiting. A nurse in grey scrubs brought him a wheelchair, a special model fitted with a box of cotton batting to protect the afflicted limb. She brought him straight into the doctor’s office, even though the doctor wasn’t there. She helped him onto an examination table by the window and asked him questions while she filled out a clipboard of forms.
“Can I have your name?”
“And, Martin, may I ask what your occupation is?”
“I’m a dancer.” It felt like a silly thing to say.
The nurse bit the corner of her bottom lip. She arranged her pen and the papers on the table, then put her hand flat against the ridge of his shin. “Can you feel this?” Her hand was cupped a little and the edges of it were slightly paler from the pressure.
“Can you feel this?” She used two fingers to press the top of his toes, then the bottom of them. She ran her knuckles under the hollow of his arch, traced the ankle bone with her thumb. She slid her hand across his calf, pinched his Achilles’ tendon, and tapped his knee with her palm. Martin watched her hand, leaning close to follow its route on his unresponsive limb. He felt nothing and if he didn’t watch, if he closed his eyes, he might have thought he was alone. His heart beat very fast even though he was sitting still.
“Can you feel this?” she asked, over and over.
“No,” he had to say. “No.” and “No.” and “Nothing.”
The nurse didn’t smile at him, but she put her hand on his back and rubbed circles between his shoulders as if he were a small child who couldn’t stop crying. Then she left and the doctor came in.
He read the nurse’s notes. He opened a drawer and pulled out instruments with lenses that he put against Martin’s leg and looked through. The room was quiet, except for the little clicks of glass against glass.
“There isn’t much to be done,” the doctor said at last. “The glass is quite thick and such good quality, really, but the nature of glass is its fragility. Even the strongest pieces can fracture from the unexpected. It can take certain stresses. You might even be able to walk on it if you were very lucky. But if it comes at just the wrong angle, something as small as a soup spoon is enough to cause an irreparable break.”
The doctor was missing a finger, and Martin stared at the stump of knuckle. It had a perfectly flat, smooth edge, and Martin wondered if the doctor had broken it off on purpose.
“I’m afraid that amputation is not an option,” the doctor said. He rubbed the smooth place at the end of his knuckle while he spoke. “We have had some success with smaller extremities, but entire limbs are still impossible for us. It can be done, but the glass will come back eventually, and then it tends to spread. It’s unfortunate, because a prosthetic leg would be much more practical.”
Martin looked through his leg and studied the tissue paper that covered the examination table. The crisp, white surface was distorted, cut up by the reflections on his transparent skin and all the thin, breakable ghosts of bones, ligaments, and veins underneath. He put his hand on his shin and slid his fingers up and down the cool glass. He refused to think.
“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said. His voice sounded like it had been worn flat. “You’re lucky, in some ways. We’re such accommodating creatures. We adapt, we change, the shock of it fades, and everything feels the same again. There are organizations to help you. They do marvelous work. You’ll find your new life so quickly that you’ll almost forget the old one. Ask for the brochures at the front desk.”
Martin nodded. He could not stop looking at his leg. If he spoke, he would fall apart, split into too many pieces to remember how to put them back together.
“Don’t you have any questions?” The doctor took a pen from his pocket and wrote on Martin’s forms.
Martin shook his head. The doctor waited, and when Martin said nothing, he shook his own head and called for the nurse to relieve him.
The nurse put Martin back in his chair. She spread a blanket across his lap, so that he might have been a man with a broken leg or a patient working off the chill of anesthesia. She wheeled him out to the lobby and on to the parking lot where she called him a car. He didn’t stop her when they passed the racks of glossy brochures at the front desk.
When the car arrived, the driver helped the nurse strap Martin’s chair into the waiting space.
“He’ll take you right home,” she told him. “Just try to rest, and if you need anything, even just someone to talk to, please call us. We can send someone anywhere in the city within thirty minutes.”
“Will he take me anywhere I like?”
The nurse bit her lip again. “Of course he will. And he’ll make sure you get up any stairs or curbs safely. But you must take care of yourself. It’s very easy to forget that you have a new kind of limb, and that you can’t use it the same way you used the old one.”
“It is?” Martin said. The nurse closed the door so softly that he didn’t feel the car shake.
The driver already knew the way. He had a black earpiece that murmured directions in a discreet whisper. Martin stared at the little piece of equipment and tried not to think about the cool, scraped out feeling that began at the bottom of his right knee.
“I could turn on the music,” the driver said.
Martin shook his head. The driver watched him in the rearview mirror for a moment. He had a wide forehead that bunched up when he studied Martin’s reflection.
“There’s not much you can do about it,” he said. “But things turn out.” He returned his attention to the road and started humming a short snatch of tune. Martin was glad it was nothing he could recognize.
The driver took Martin home and left him on the sofa with his glass leg elevated on a flattened cushion. Martin could see out the window, could see the people on the other side of it walking past, oblivious to their good fortune. They stood on street corners and ran to catch up with children. They let their feet hit the pavement without looking and jostled together, knocking shoulders, bumping each other with bags, and barely noticed enough to apologize.
Martin watched them for hours. The streetlights went on and he kept watching while his eyes dried out and he sank into the sofa. All of his muscles forgot the precise weight of their limbs, but the glass leg rested on the cushions like a sculpture, or like something in a museum. He could see the streetlights reflected in it, dots of white making a line from his knee to his ankle.
Martin shouted at the world. He had nothing to say because his voice was lost, distributed by years of careful training throughout a body that no longer seemed to exist. The only thing that came out of his mouth was noise; and he swung his arms to beat away the yelping, moaning, unrecognizable sound, but when he punched the air, a tremor rode down through his glass leg and Martin froze.
He never saw a glass person in the crowd. He supposed they were all inside, like he was, carried to and fro by competent drivers in cars with straps and fixtures and miniature elevators.
Martin’s new job was answering telephones in an office above a park. He sat in his chair, brought up by elevator, and waited for someone to call. He kept meticulous notes. His window overlooked a stand of trees and he couldn’t see the people walking on the street below because they were hidden by a thick umbrella of glossy leaves.
At the end of the day, a driver rang the doorbell and Martin took the elevator down to the car. His body was quite soft now, and he often thought that it wouldn’t remember how to dance, even if he asked it to. It was almost unintelligible if he was careful not to remind it. He didn’t think about how his finger pressed the plastic cover of the elevator button, or how his arms flung the wheels of his chair into a spinning roll. If there had been music, he was almost sure that his body wouldn’t be able to hear it.
One day, Martin forgot to ask the driver to please not turn on the radio. The car pulled away from under the trees and music flooded its insides. It was something Baroque and it was played excellently, and it made Martin want to roll down the window and scream out into the evening. His body tried to wake up. It muttered, dragged its ignored edges together, urged Martin to get out of his chair.
“I’d like to go to the theater, please,” he said instead.
They drove through the city. Martin watched the lights blur past. He drew circles on the window with his finger.
When they got to the theater, Martin told the driver how to go around to the stage door. He looked at the bored security guard sitting at the top of the stairs and at the familiar ramp where trolleys carried the flats, the cycloramas and scrims, the heavy lights, and all the dancers’ trunks crammed full of shoes and warm clothing, up to the theater. The driver let the music play on while the car idled. The muscles in Martin’s chest tightened around the sounds and tried to press his heart flat between them.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “Could we go through the front?”
The driver nodded and drove to the front of the theater, pulling in at a white curb behind a line of taxis and black sedans.
Stairs went up from the pavement to the theater’s three double doors. The doors were glass, solid and plain with nothing inside. Light spilled from them in long rectangles over the stairs; and when people got out of their cars to walk up through the light, their shadows grew thin behind them.
The driver wheeled Martin up the ramp that ran alongside the stairs, and found an attendant in a pale green suit.
There are three dials on the side of the telescope. The first brings things closer. The third takes them further away. The one in the middle is a cheat, a shortcut to that place where nothing exists outside the rectangular world of the stage and where people have forgotten to be afraid of ordinary things, like glass and breaking.
Under the telescope, the dancers dance. They peel off their skins and step out of the wrappings, so heavy and damp with salt that they crumple in small piles at the edge of the stage. They dance--red, vermilion, and scarlet--thick rivers shot through and tied by lashings of white. They are hot and wet, and when their hearts beat, they feel so hollow that it shakes their whole bodies and makes their eyelashes shiver.
They race across the stage; and when they have run past everything so that even the tick of minutes slows down, they stop. There in the quiet, in the dark, they crack themselves apart and dance on in the silence of bone.
In the dance, a heart catches on an edge. A tiny piece tears away, leaving a hole that is shaped like a drop of cold water. The heart is full of holes. It is a thousand leaves pressed against each other, each of them punched and carved into a lace so full of space that it is a wonder it even holds together.
Martin pressed the eyepiece of the telescope so hard against his face that the lens fogged. He couldn’t see anything, so he put it down and closed his eyes. All around him, people leaned forward with their telescopes, forgetting the caution that steadied their glass necks, glass ears, glass wrists and hips and noses. They pressed their hands against their chests and shut their eyes as if they were trying to look backwards through their skulls and see something going on inside. A whole theater of brass telescopes fell to the floor and rolled away.
The chair had no straps to hold a patient in place. There were straps for fastening the chair to floors, for holding it in cars, for securing the special box filled with mounds of soft cotton. There were no straps to stop Martin when he dropped his telescope. It rolled away under the seats until it wedged itself beneath a purse tucked away for safe keeping.
Martin sunk his hands into the soft flesh of his thighs and leaned forward, hunching over until his butt slid to the end of his padded and contoured seat. His muscles shook, but they remembered now what they were supposed to do, and they lifted him free from the chair. He stood, panting as if he had somehow transported himself from the stage that he could barely see.
His leg shattered, a sharp and glittering burst, and scattered across the floor. Glass dusted the seats of blue velveteen; it got caught on a man’s neck and inside a woman’s ear. It filled Martin’s shoes and spilled over their edges.
For one moment, Martin stood on his only leg. He stood as straight as if, on the other side, he were standing on air. He could have fallen, or he could have launched himself by one leg and flown through the theater, brushing the ceiling, eluding the attendants in their green suits and the people who rushed towards him with either worry or awe, and bursting out the doors to chase his shadow over the stairs.
Then his leg slipped and he fell. He crashed to the ground and had to catch his breath before he could half-crawl and half-drag himself along the floor. His leg didn’t hurt, but shards of glass stuck into the stump of his knee. It was bleeding a little. He wiped it off on his shirt and began to gather the pieces of glass. He picked them up, but they kept spilling out again and again between his fingers and he realized it was a hopeless activity because, even if he found them all, there would be no way of putting them back together. He brushed the sharp dust from his hands, feeling strangely unencumbered without the weight of his glass leg. When his hands were clean, he lay on the floor with his face turned up to the light of the ceiling, and waited for the performance to end.