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Authors: Tim Davys

Lanceheim

BOOK: Lanceheim
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Lanceheim

A Novel

Tim Davys

R
euben Walrus was too restless to sit down at first. He wanted to get back to his waiting philharmonic, and he could not get the offending note out of his head. Starting rehearsals without having the symphony finished was madness, but there was no other alternative. Now he thought that possibly that note, the one he could sense but not place, was the key to completion. This increased his impatience.

He paced nervously back and forth until his legs got tired and he sat down. He refused to accept that age had made him tired and stiff, that the years had passed faster and faster after sixty. The chair was hard and ugly, and stood alone in the windowless corridor.

Along with the other institutions, the hospitals—including St. Andrews—bought artworks to keep the artists of Mollisan Town alive. On the walls in these gloomy culverts, abstract explosions of gaudy colors hung next to delicate sepia-toned twilight landscapes. Most were competent, but there were even one or two that showed talent. The solitary chair that was the sole extent of the waiting area for the hearing center was beneath such a find, a small watercolor
depicting a naked cow. Reuben did not recognize the cow, and she was probably no one special, simply one of the artist's models. Discovering talent in such an unexpected place gave Reuben hope. A good omen. Perhaps this might be a shorter visit than he had feared. At the next moment a nurse showed up in the corridor. Reuben smiled.

“Finally a little company,” he said. “Do you come here often?”

The nurse, a llama in the customary white nurse's uniform, looked up from her papers with surprise.

“Are you joking, Mr. Walrus?” she asked.

The llama was apparently not the easily approachable type.

“Absolutely not,” he replied. “I mean it. If you come here often, I intend to get sick more often. If you want me to be healthy, we'll have to see each other somewhere else.”

Taken aback, the llama observed the broadly smiling Reuben Walrus. She stood like that a long time, just staring. At last she said with disgust in her voice, “Shame on you, old animal.”

And he could not refrain from snorting out an amused little laugh as he tugged with pleasure on his mustache. She sniffed, turned around, and asked him in a formal tone of voice to follow her. In her ice-cold wake he followed through the winding halls of the hospital.

 

He remembered having been
one flight up when he left his samples at the hearing center the week before, in a corridor whose walls were pale turquoise. Now the nurse led him to a door that was light yellow. She knocked and opened without waiting for an answer. Behind the large desk, to Reuben's astonishment, sat an older female swan. It was not Reuben's doctor.

The consulting room was similar to the one he recalled
from last time. There were rows of cabinets on the walls, in the corner the sterile examination cot, and everywhere supplies of terrifying instruments gleaming in the harsh light from the ceiling lamps.

“Excuse me,” he said, from where he remained standing a few steps inside the door, “but I think there's been a mistake. I was supposed to meet Dr.…Dr.…another doctor?”

Reuben fell silent. He did not remember the name of the previous doctor. The swan on the other side of the desk got up. She was a few heads taller than him, and she extended her wing.

“Margot Swan,” she introduced herself, and he took her wing and shook it. “I am a great admirer, Mr. Walrus.”

“Call me Reuben,” said Reuben, sitting down on the chair in front of the desk. “Dr. Swan, I am here to see—”

“I have taken over your case, Mr. Walrus.”

My case? thought Reuben. What case? He had been worried that the earaches were a premonition of an unpleasant influenza. He was here to get pills, some antibiotics that might keep the bacteria away; he did not have time to be confined to bed. He was not a
case
.

 

Reuben loathed hospitals. This
was Father's fault, and it was not the only thing he had on his conscience. What might Reuben have become with a different upbringing, if the Deliverymen had transported him to a different home? The question ran like a theme through Reuben Walrus's life; it stood in the way of all relationships he initiated.

Reuben never called him anything other than Father. The Chauffeurs had fetched him seven years ago, as of April. They came in the evening one Sunday when Reuben by chance was having dinner at home with his parents. He had seen them through the window in the dining room, seen the
red pickup park at the sidewalk, and all he had felt was an exhausting happiness, as if he had reached the finish line after running his whole life.

When the door closed behind Father, Mother collapsed onto the kitchen table, weeping bitter tears. Reuben knew that deep inside she felt just as great a relief as he did. Their consciences were their audience as they played out this scene. He took her in his arms, and they promised to support one another in the difficult loss. They promised to pray as often as Father would have wished, and they promised to always honor his memory. The Chauffeurs—the ones who drive up in their red pickups and fetch the old and worn-out stuffed animals from this earthly life—would take Father to Paradise, and only our faith set limits on how marvelous it would be.

Reuben felt strangely empty when he went home later that evening. The panic did not seize him until the middle of the night. It was as if someone had vacuumed the oxygen out of the bedroom. He woke up with a jerk; it felt as if he were suffocating.

It was too late.

The words echoed in his head. It was too late. All the things he should have asked, all the things he needed to say: Now it was too late. He dragged himself out of bed and into the bathroom, where he filled the sink with hot water and breathed in the vapors with a towel over his head. The water rose so high that his mustache got wet, and all he could think was this: It was too late to pay back.

 

“To start with,” said
Margot Swan, “we must take a few more samples. We found out a great deal from the tests last week, but we didn't really know what we were looking for. Now we know better. Now it will be easier, when we know better.”

Reuben heard what she said, but he was still not certain. More samples? Above Dr. Swan's desk was a window, and outside was a cramped courtyard squeezed between two gloomy St. Andrews buildings. In the windows opposite the blinds were half pulled, and the impression was irregular and disharmonious.

“And before I've got all the results, I suggest that we be very, very cautious about making any definite diagnosis.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said Reuben.

My father, he thought, did not believe in hospitals or doctors. If you didn't show respect to Magnus, illnesses were a punishment that you were forced to endure. All the punishments of Magnus were just and necessary. If your faith was sufficiently pure and strong, you went through life healthy and proud.

Early one morning the summer Reuben turned seven, he and Father got into the family's old Volga and drove to St. Andrews Hospital under a light blue sky broken up by thousands of fluffy clouds. The aches in his right ear had kept Reuben up the whole night, and Mother had consoled him as best she could. She was the one who forced Father to take the cub to the hospital; the night watch had given her courage to make an ultimatum. But Father did it against his will, against his better judgment. In the car, whose compartment smelled of vinyl and strawberries, he explained to his son that now Mother would see. The doctors could not perform miracles, it served no purpose to seek help; it was not a matter of diagnoses or medicines but rather of trust in Magnus and the willingness to meet the fate staked out long ago for each and every one of us.

Father's words cut like knives in Reuben's aching ears. His voice was hard and evil, dry and strangely breathless. Reuben remembered how the clearing summer sky seemed to roll past high above the car, like a colorful cloth someone was pulling along. In the corner of his eye he saw Father's
wrinkled nose and transverse eyebrows. Again and again he came back to the same thing, saying that now Mother would see.

They parked outside the main entrance to the hospital. At that time the entrance was on the north side, and it was considerably more magnificent than the automatic glass doors that are there today. Reuben had no distinct memory of how they registered or how they found the waiting room, but he recalled that there was already a llama sitting there with a duckling whose head was bleeding. And Reuben had this heretical thought: that Magnus must have been extremely angry at that duck to want to wallop him on the head.

Reuben believed in Magnus. With a father who constantly forced the family toward prayers and meditation, reverence and reading of the Proclamations, the thought of not believing in Magnus was impossible. The first time Reuben encountered an atheist was in high school. It was a shock. It was as if someone were to maintain that, somewhere beyond the forests, there was life equally important to that of stuffed animals.

Then, at the age of seven in the hospital waiting room with an ear infection, Reuben's faith was unconditional. But he believed in a different way than Father, and there was nothing more terrifying than the thought that Father would expose him. Reuben's Magnus was nice. Reuben's Magnus did not involve himself in the lives of stuffed animals, but instead watched over them at a distance. What Reuben's Magnus thought and wanted could not be read in the Proclamations; Reuben knew that, at any rate. And Magnus understood that Reuben was good and nice, even if there were mistakes sometimes.

Father stood up as if shot from a cannon when Reuben's name was called out and it was their turn. He took Reuben by the fin and dragged him through the waiting room. He was in a hurry.

“Now you'll see,” whispered Father as they stepped into the examining room.

 

Margot Swan spoke for
a long time about how a diagnosis might change, how complicated it was to be absolutely certain. She spoke about the difficulties of evaluating test results that were influenced by outside circumstances, circumstances that often delayed the correct conclusions. Swan spoke with a steady voice, she used few technical terms, and she was careful to get Walrus's hummed assent before she began the next sentence. She sat stiffly on her chair at the desk, back straight, and her long, white neck extended from the collar of the well-ironed coat. It appeared to be made of porcelain. In contrast to all the whiteness, her beak shone bright red.

“Have you ever heard of Drexler's syndrome?” asked Margot Swan.

Reuben Walrus shook his head. It was strange, he thought, how hard it was for him to concentrate on what she was saying, how easy it was to glide back in thought to the day when he had sat with Father in a room not much different than this one. The memory was strong enough to shut out the present.

“Haven't you ever heard of Drexler's syndrome?”

He had neither heard nor wanted to hear about any syndrome. He wanted antibiotics to keep the infection in check a few more days. He shook his head and the bright red beak began, after a considered pause, to move again. Reuben tried to listen, but all he heard was Father's voice.

“There's nothing wrong with the cub.”

The doctor raised his gaze from his papers with surprise and observed Father.

“But you came here anyway?” he asked.

“I have an earache,” said Reuben.

He was ashamed. For the first time in his life he was ashamed of his father. This would happen to him more and more often, the older he got.

“He says that he has an earache?” the doctor said to Father.

It was a question, and Father shrugged his shoulders.

The doctor asked Reuben to come over and sit on a little stool. Reuben did as he was told, and the doctor looked in his ear and in his throat and wrote a few brief notes on a piece of paper on the desk. After a few minutes the examination was over.

“The cub has an ear infection,” the doctor observed. “I am prescribing penicillin and eardrops.”

He turned to Reuben and smiled.

“For external and internal use, so we're attacking on two fronts,” he said in a conspiratorial tone.

Reuben smiled back and studiously continued to avoid Father's gaze. And if it could have ended there, if Father and Reuben had got up and left then, the memory of this first visit to the doctor would probably have faded.

“In the ear,” explained Margot Swan, “are auditory hair cells. Simply stated, you might say that it is thanks to the hair cells that we can hear. Sometimes these cells are subject to attack. With repeated ear infections, or if the ear is subjected to extreme strain over a long period, high volumes for example, the hair cells can die.”

Father had waited for this moment. He explained to the doctor that there would not be a need for any tablets, because the pains would go away when Magnus willed it. Father spoke in a loud, unctuous voice, as much to Reuben as to the doctor. He stood up and raised his paw toward the doctor's desk and said that Magnus was good.

“Shouldn't we let Magnus devote himself to more important matters?” the doctor answered. “So the medicines can help Reuben get healthy?”

This was a mistake. Reuben swallowed a large clump of anxiety and looked down at the floor. The doctor was making a big mistake. You didn't joke about Magnus like that. The gray linoleum floor under the stool began to spin.

“Hair cells that die cannot be reproduced,” Margot Swan continued. “What happens is that the fewer cells you have left, the smaller the decibel range you can perceive. It's a matter of range, the highest and lowest tones. But you already know that, of course.”

Reuben nodded. He nodded to confirm to Margot Swan that he had understood and to remind Father that forbearance was also a virtue.

“Do you think,” roared Father, “that you can decide what the Lord Magnus should devote himself to?”

BOOK: Lanceheim
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