First Scream

First Scream

by Joel Peckham

I am in the hospital in Jordan, one week past the accident.  They (the doctors, my parents, the American consulate) haven’t decided what to do with me yet—whether to have the operation in Jordon or somehow transport me to the United States.   A bolt has been placed just below the knee and it is hooked to wires that stretch and tug.  I am in traction, the fragments of my ruined hip float within me.  But I bear it with the morphine drip and the constant visitors.  Their conversation—about the war in Iraq, Palestine, American Football—is one of the few things tying me to this world.  They do not realize how close I am to falling down the Rabbit hole.  So this is what its like, I think, to lose one’s mind.  A year from this moment my mother in law will tell me that my pain is a kind of blessing—“at least you have that to take your mind away from Susie and Cyrus.  You can fight it, do your physio-therapy, keep busy.  We have nothing” and I will nod, bite down anger.  But like everything that angers me, it has more than a vein of truth—.  Between the ache and the drugs, the deaths of Susie and Cyrus seem distant, unreal things.  My pain keeps me conscious.  I can focus on it, think about it, regulate my breathing.  My family is in another world (I am working hard to believe in heaven as much as hell), but pain, pain is a near thing.  Real. Mine.  I am half in love with it, I think.  It frames me, gives me purpose.  This is why, when my father tells the doctor to decrease the morphine, I don’t argue.  I want more pain.  It is my penance for living.  I’ve earned this pain.  The neglectful father who let his son ride in the front seat of a van without a seatbelt.  The neglectful husband, who on the day of her death, was thinking about leaving his wife.   I was asleep when it happened.  Then knocked unconscious.  I slept while they died.  Later I will remember searing moments, but not yet.  I woke to a dream of pills and cotton.  And I want to feel it.  Some people just need their asses kicked.   Some people are just asking for it. And for me, the boot cannot be hard enough. This is the cleansing fire.  And I must burn in it.

Rhian, a Fulbright transfer student we met at a holiday gathering in Amman, stays whole nights with me.  Sleeping uncomfortably in a chair in the corner.  In the military hospital only days after the accident she washed my face with a warm sponge, her porcelain bowl slowly tinting red as the clots gave way.  I didn’t speak.  I didn’t ask to look in a mirror.  I remember seeing myself as a warped, broken image on the aluminum bedrail, a strange black scar snaking across my forehead.

This night she practices Reiki, a healing art that directs energy through the body.  I have been suffering strange nerve pain in my leg and it keeps getting worse.  The numbness in toes has spread and there is a burning in my right foot so intense it sometimes feels as if it has been doused in kerosene and set aflame.  The doctors call it neuropathy or neuropathagia.  Spontaneous Firing.  I have crushed and am crushing my sciatic nerve and the brain is getting false signals—warning signs, stop signs, do not enter on the penalty of  . . .   But nothing is happening down there.  A dark blue toenail the nerve-death’s only telltale sign.  But the doctor worries over me like an expectant father, checking charts, studying x-rays.  If I don’t have an operation soon the damage could be permanent.  But the operation is risky.  I could die if I have it in Jordon.  And if I fly to the US I could die on the plane.  And if I make it to the US, I could still die.

“Can you do it here?”  my father asks?

“You mean me?  I can try sir.  I’m the best there is in Jordan, but . . .”

But I am not thinking about the future.  Pain has a way of eliminating the future.  My pain is intense and comes in rolling waves but without a rhythm.  I can’t predict it.  I can’t prepare.  It comes without warning and with no pattern.  Like an abused child huddled in the corner of the closet, knowing the monster on the other side will come but not when or how, I live in anticipation, breathing in gasps, saving my strength, praying.  Please don’t hurt me again.  Please don’t—

but it does, it comes–tightening and burning up my leg as if a hot, steel, wire has been inserted in my heel then pulled through my calf along the hamstring.  I grip the metal rails. Inhale. My back arches against the mattress..

“Oh my God. No.  No.  Please”

I remember watching a documentary on the making of horror films.  In it, they showed that the screams were rarely those of the actors.  That a genuine scream of horror and pain—an authentic scream—was hard to find.  And when that pure sound is captured, it is often re-used in film after film.  So what we hear from the mouths of each new victim is a repetition of the same scream.  Even if this is not literally true.  I believe now that it is true in the large sense.  That scream is everyone’s–is always—as eternal and universal as any cum-cry in the darkened room.

The cry that escaped the cage of my body that day was beyond me—a living thing in and of itself.  It wanted out of me.  Sometimes I imagine it taking flight from me, still trailing its birth-matter, crashing through the windows of the hospital and flying over the rooftops forever on gigantic wings.

refers from hospital in Clare L Martin’s non-fiction piece White Crane

  1. An amazing piece, Joel. It is gripping throughout. I’m so honored that you referred from mine.

  2. So powerful and sharp…

  3. Thanks Clare. Just read yours. Stunning. Love this journal and this concept.

  4. I love it when we can develop a mutual admiration society 🙂

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