Invisible Sunflowers

24 April 2016

Often as I lay awake, I will raise my left hand above my face and stare. To lose a hand is a hell that is so difficult to simulate. A hand is, foremost, the port of call upon action. A hand is potential. Maybe this is why I stare at the remaining one every night, wondering of the designs it will mold and manipulate.

The night turns grey and becomes a cold and familiar morning. I draw myself up and move to the edge of the metal bedframe, a cough crawling up my dry throat. My mind flickers through moments as if they are pages of a book to a time where I could build, craft, create. They say the disease has spread to my remaining hand and that it too will be removed. The curtain that conceals my bed is pulled back and a nurse steps into the space. Avoiding eye contact, she walks to the end of my bed, her leather plimsolls squeaking on the linoleum floors. She analyses the beeping monitors. I am not the only patient here with this so-called disease; there will be several procedures before mine today. There is no one cause, I’ve heard, from TV screens that play nothing but the news. There is, however, a cure. They reassured us of that, flashing graphs and charts that document their success. The nurse looks at me. “Here for the removal number two then?” I grunt in response. The irony of an artist without a means to create. She checks my blood pressure. I unlearn the value of life more and more each day.

I think back to the last time I was here; the anesthetic wearing off, waking up to the hellish realisation that my dominant hand was missing. Not hacked off, but carefully removed. Horrifying all the same. I would scrutinise the IV in my right arm with a numb appreciation, glowering at the empty space where my hand used to be. After a few days they moved me to the rehabilitation ward. In the cafeteria men and women with empty eyes and missing hands stabbed clumsily at cubes of grey steak. In the group sessions nurses showed us how to cut vegetables and wash our hair now that our extremities were gone. They did not teach us how to write or draw. At night, while my roommate slept, I taught myself tracing invisible sunflower petals into my pillowcase.

It is 11:09. A new nurse is perusing the room, studying all the different tubes connected to my body. A bowl of beige porridge sits in front of me, cold. I drag my spoon through the congealed paste, recreating her face. Averted eyes, snub nose, long neck. I can’t draw a straight line anymore, but that’s okay, her hair is naturally curly. I am a pickpocket lining my coat with stolen sketches like this, hidden in broken egg yolks and cold mashed potatoes. She asks if I am done with my meal. I run the spoon through the oaty portrait, erasing it.

I drift into a restless midday nap. I dream that I am five years old again in my kindergarten art class. Sunlight drips through finger-paint coloured windows. I learn the primaries – red, blue, yellow. I can make the whole rainbow out of three colours. I am six, and the painters have left cans in our living room. I mix all the colours until I get the muddy brown of our dog’s floppy ears. My mother yells at me as paint drips down the walls. At twelve, I colour the new sky cobalt, paint cornflower sails and schoolgirl skirt navy seas. My art teacher tells me that the creation of Prussian blue led to the isolation of cyanide.

The surgeon is sitting in the hard armchair in the corner of my room. He is telling me something about the surgery, something about how unfortunate it is that they did not manage to cure my illness during the last visit. I am not listening. I look around the room. White sheets, white curtains, grey linoleum. They would prefer it if we were colourblind. I want ruby sunsets and scarlet rose petals. I would give blood to my brush to paint these dreary walls, to cover the speckled grey in an unabashed vermillion. The doctor clears his throat. “I hope you understand how rare it is for us to have a patient back for a second surgery. We really thought we fixed you up. We are truly sorry that you have to be here again.” I do not say anything; just stare at the green-blue veins in my wrist. He says something under his breath that I don’t quite understand. I think I make out “learn your lesson.”

I am lying on an operating table under a white light. Four masked faces, each holding a different metallic instrument, circle above me. The light projects patterns onto the backs of my eyes when I blink. They put me under and I fall into a distant memory. It is three years ago and I am in a dark room, dusty light filtering in through black shutters. I still have both of my hands. I am painting, in quick strokes; thin lines of paint creep through the canvas like spidery legs. It is an ocean but it is depicted in a watery red – there was no blue left. The concentrated ache in my forearm grows, as I anxiously paint, rushing to finish. I am worried; it is busy today. I hear cars and bikes whizz by in a panicked rush. I draw silvery lines through my bloody seas, watch them glisten in the early morning light like gossamer threads. I try not to think about the patrol cars. I think to myself that I am writing a book and that every brush stroke and every drop of colour is a word written on the canvas. I step back to look at my scene, the crimson perfectly out of place.

There is a sharp knock on my door. The room around me spins and my palms start to sweat. I grab the painting, still wet. I am a fugitive. Convict. Outlaw. There is another knock. It is louder this time, and I frantically throw paint tubes behind the brown armchair. A knock and I stride towards the kitchen, tip dirty red water down the sink, hide brushes next to my butter knives. A knock. My heart beats inside its cage and I try to catch my breath. I run my thumb across the canvas, still in my hand. There is a loud bang as they kick my front door in.


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