Man of War

Written

by

A Portuguese Man O’ War Floating in the Water

Here’s a short story I wrote some time ago inspired by a time in medical school about the impermanence of life.

Warning: Graphic Images


Hassan kept his hands steady on the wheel, while the man took a long drag, stretched his neck, and exhaled.

“I wish I’d smoked more when I got out of ‘Nam,” the man said, looking lovingly at his cigarette and letting the ash fall on the road. “I gave it up for the Mrs. Wouldn’t have made much of a difference.”

“Why do you say that?” Hassan asked.

“Still suffered in the end. Slowly.”

“What about that time with your family?”

“Have people act like they’re sorry for you while they wish you would go? Nah. The quicker, the better. Dying of natural causes isn’t exactly a picnic.”

“Smoking wouldn’t have helped.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I know. I got the spiel. Bronchitis. Emphysema. All that. I listened then. I’m enjoying myself now.”

Hassan wanted to retort further but realized he couldn’t win this argument. Nothing could hurt the man anymore. He was already gone. He held his face on the road in such a way that Hassan couldn’t look at him directly without crashing. Nonetheless, Hassan could notice the man’s wrinkles layering on his cheek, the rise and fall of his chest as he took another pull from his cigarette, and the handle of his gun in the holster under the crest of the man’s gut.

Hassan fought to suppress his fear that the man would quickly lose his good nature and ask to pull over. He wondered if those ‘last moments on Earth’ ended in a game of Russian roulette like in the movies. News outlets might then concoct elaborate death stories so that the deceased party wouldn’t be forgotten—a death both poetic and absurd.

“Do you know what the word Aequanimitas means?” The man asked.

“No,” Hassan said. “Sorry.”

“It’s the ability to keep a cool, measured head in the midst of chaos.”

Hassan knew he should’ve known that. It was a word his medical school dean often used in his welcome address, channeling Osler. Yet, Hassan hesitated in fear, unsure how to respond.

“Hassan,” the man continued. “You’re responsible clearing the water the best you can, so those who come to you can see a little clearer. The past is always with us, never to be escaped but to endure.”

Who could this man be?

The endless country road began to draw to a close. A thick salt cloud wafted through the window to counteract the cigarette smoke. A small town came into sight.

“Take the road coming up,” the man said. “The beach will be at the end. I’ll tell you everything you need to know when we get there.”

***

“Do we have to do this?” Matt asked, cleaning his glasses and placing them under his thick furrowed brows.

“Yep,” Sarah replied, frowning. “Only two more weeks of this.”

“What if stuff sprays in our faces?”

“I guess we’ll have to take it”

“This is so barbaric.”

The dissector read:

Introduce a straight blunt probe into the urethra and push it as far as it will go. 

Using the probe as a guide, transect the penis midsagittally. 

Transect, using a scalpel, the pelvic organs to the posterior pelvic skeletal wall. 

Using a hand saw, transect the sacrum and L5 vertebra and cut off the left leg. 

It was the day the upper-level medical students referred to during orientation as the worst day of the anatomy lab. Hassan and his tank mates were going to completely appreciate the structures of the male genitalia and lower extremities. They had covered the cadaver’s face with a towel out of respect for their impending task.

Sarah tied her long blonde hair into a bow. She placed a probe through the hole of the urethra and jammed it through. Mike turned away, and his face reddened. She kept pushing the probe until two-thirds of it was inside. She took a scalpel in her hand like a pencil and ran it through the middle of the penis, exposing the inner layers like tiramisu. Once the scalpel hit the probe, she reflected the penis out as she finished the lower half of the bisection, including the pubic symphysis and pelvic muscles.

“I did my part,” Sarah said, dropping the scalpel. “Who wants to cut off the leg?”

“Nose goes?” Mike asked.

Hassan and Sarah followed suit. Mike came out the loser.

“Hassan, you’ve barely touched the body this whole time,” Mike chided. “Why don’t you lead the way?”

Hassan had been navigating the anatomy course as the tank quizmaster. Although he limited his interaction with the body, the course applied steady pressure on him. On his first day of dissection, the nerves running over the parotid gland had found themselves in the ridges of his half-eaten carton of Twix ice cream. Prior to Mike’s call-out, he felt the need to exert himself to show that he was for real. To show he was present. To show he was going to be a doctor. He needed to do something for everyone—a sacrifice. Hassan walked up to the drawer behind the tank and grabbed a hand saw.

“Hold the leg out.”

Mike nodded, pulling the target leg with the most resistance he could muster. Sarah held down the other leg and kept the upper trunk in place. Hassan placed the saw on the lower edge of the spine as a visual reference and pressed the power button. He slowly ran the saw along the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae as his tank mates watched, gaining speed with each rotation. The saw growled through the bone. The structural lattice gave way as the leg’s resistance decreased.

Craaack   

The room fell silent. Hassan realized then he was the first person in the whole lab to make it through the leg. The subtle aroma of feces filled the tank and dispersed throughout. Beads of sweat fell from his eyebrows onto his scrubs, where tiny shards of bone sprinkled his chest like trace parmesan.

“Sarah,” Hassan said. “Let me get that scalpel so I can finish the cut.”   

***

The car sat parked on the asphalt’s edge, just shy of the beach. The man had told Hassan to get out of the vehicle with the wave of his gun and walk onto the boardwalk with him. The wooden path was slightly elevated over the sand with large boulders lining the sides. Once they reached the end, the waves crashed at their feet.

“You know,” the man said, taking out his last cigarette from the carton. “I’m going to be laid to rest out here.”

“What do you mean?”

“When y’all are done with my body, they will cremate us and put our ashes into ten-gallon drums. Then, they’ll take us out on large ships to be dumped into the ocean depths.”

Hassan didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to console him. Maybe that wasn’t the point.

“I’ve spent most of my life being a romantic who became a realist who became a cynic. I’ve made it far through life, but I’m still unsure of anything. And so will you.”

The two men sat together but alone, taking in the rhythmic crash of the water. The man flicked his finished butt into the waves and turned toward Hassan for the first time. His face retained the taut, yet rounded jawline. The wrinkles oscillated across his face. His gray eyes reflected the color of the dark sky above them.

“Even a Man o’ War isn’t a jellyfish,” the man said. “Four conjoined polyps working together. Fitting, I guess. Humans. We’re all just chemical swamps—with feelings.”

A flock of seagulls covered the sky, simulating a rain cloud. Their flight pattern allowed the sun to peer through the center of their migration.

“I’m okay with that,” the man continued. “It makes life more interesting.”

Hassan was beginning his trip into the unknown as the man was finishing his.

“Good luck.”

The man threw his gun into the distance and walked into the ocean. He descended, allowing the water to cover his legs, waist, and stomach, then stopped. In the emerging mist, his head became malleable—floppy like discarded garbage bags. He flattened as the body disappeared into the ocean. His spine was erect from afar, with long tails whipping along. The sun returned over the translucent water. The fumes of formaldehyde penetrated Hassan’s momentary oasis bending the edges of the water like a burning portrait, straightening out the waves. The aqua ink burned until it became ash, disappearing into the formed fantasy it was. He was a man of war, floating away. It was one last act of sacrifice.

It’s a privilege.


The information contained in More Chaotic is for informational and entertainment purposes only. This newsletter is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something discussed on this platform.

Tags

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *