by Nisi Shawl
A founder of the Carl Brandon Society, a nonprofit supporting the representation of minorities in imaginative fiction, Nisi Shawl won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2009 for her story collection Filter House. She is coauthor of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and co-editor of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. She also co-edited Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. Shawl regularly reviews SF for The Seattle Times. Her Belgian Congo steampunk novel Everfair is available on all platforms.
I’m going first. I’m the last girl to be born, and what’s left to pick by then? My oldest sister already gets to be the smart one and the middle girl everybody decides must be the most imaginative. So I’m the brave one. Usually — except for being born — that means that I go first.
And this is why, if there has to be a reason. I go first. I don’t have to know what I’m doing. Don’t have to know how, why, where. I’m the first. I’m the brave one. This is an adventure. Like life. I’m going.
It all begins with a short stay in the hospital, barely overnight. Stress test in the morning, but all I can think about during that is where’s my gold tennis charm necklace. My mom and my sister look everywhere, but it probably got stolen.
My tests don’t prove nothin. The health care providers decide I’ve been experiencing anxiety attacks. Counseling is prescribed.
Couple years pass by. Turns out there’s a growth on my left adrenal gland. The doctors plan on taking it out. My oldest sister talks about the friends she’ll stay with in the town where they say they’ll do the operation. Then something more urgent comes up: breast cancer.
It’s early. Stage 0. Still, the providers decide they have to deal with that before anything else. They schedule my mastectomy.
Anesthesia. I tip into the dark. Like falling out of a canoe. The me I’m used to has been dry, always, crackers or toast; now everything I am is soaking wet. To the core. Melting apart.
I bob to the surface of the darkness. There’s my sister. Nearby a woman sobs and cries about how she can’t breathe. For an hour.
Finally I’m wheeled back to my room. There’s dirt in the corners.
Blood keeps draining from my incision, fast and steady. We have to empty the plastic bag where it gathers every twenty minutes. The nurse lies to me and says my surgeon’s not around. I get up to pee and drop through the surface again. Down under the light and air and feeling. Down. Then back up again to my mother, and back down, put there on purpose this time, to sew up the uncauterized capillary that has been pouring out blood to soak me and sink me.
Up. Light. Food. I’m home in time for Thanksgiving. I will even eat lima beans. Even beets. Coconut. Anything. Never going to turn away any blessings I’m given ever, ever again.
But I no longer trust the light the air the feeling. They went away before; I got no reason now to believe they’re here to stay.
Another year passes. Time’s trying to lull me. It does. I wear halter tops, tell lopsided jokes. But one day playing on the courts with my son I pull a muscle, I think. I lie down on the living room couch. Low to the water. Ripples of pain spread out from my back, lapping up against me. One hand hangs over the boat’s side, trailing through the darkness, dipping in. I could sleep so long. I could sleep for always and still feel this tired.
I fight my way back to dry land. I go to the store. I talk on the phone with my oldest sister far away, ask her what remedy to take. Confess I’m out of strength. For the first time in my life. For the last.
Tell her I love her.
Don’t wanna be in the hospital again, but my mother takes me anyways. The dirt in the corners is piling higher, thicker, crowding out the light. They send me home from the emergency room; they say there’s nothing wrong. But there is.
A few hours later I return and the new shift realizes I have several different kinds of cancer now. One extremely rare. No good chance of a cure. They explain that, and then they carefully lay me out on the operating table, gently lowering me down.
Down. My heart has hardly been beating for weeks, they say. They want to make it beat even slower so they can work their way inside to fix things.
They can only fix them for a while. They’re honest about that.
They put the sensing ends of machines on me to watch while I think. They put in drugs.
The water surges up to carry me away. To hold me under. Hold me tight. Hold me.
I’m usually the first among us three girls. Us sisters. I understand I’m the one going on ahead this time, too. Into what? Into what we don’t know.
Slowly I sink down. Like before, it’s way too cold. Numbing me. I don’t feel. No longer. No light. Don’t see. No direction. No up no down no in out forward back nothing but nothing but nothing. But.
But I remember being small and closing shut my eyes and shutting them so tight, squeezing them so hard, to make the colors come and here they are and are they real and is this real is anything and am I real and am I real—
And yes. I am. And I am going.
Under. Down. Deep.
Originally published in An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables, July 2016.