A Meeting of Like-Minded Souls
I didn’t remember my dream upon waking, just that in it I was whole once more. I awakened in my actual body, with its new awkward arrangement and constant, hovering pain. I was slumped over on a hard wooden bench, and I was gently rocking back and forth. Train, I thought. Then panic leapt into my heart: I did not know where I was.
I pushed myself into a seated position and waved my arm at the young man across the aisle. He had been reading, and he looked up at me in alarm as I rasped, “What is the last village we passed?” When he did not respond immediately, I began to ask again in a different dialect, but he cut me off in Austro-Bavarian. “Manching. Perhaps five minutes ago.”
I had not missed my stop. I sank back in relief and offered him a polite nod. He returned to his book, and I began to gather my things. When the conductor called out the village’s name a moment later, I felt relief and a simple thrum of joy.
The train shuddered to a stop. I grabbed my crutch. Every time I stood, it felt as though I needed to learn to walk all over again, with the crutch taking the place of one of my feet. I could feel the young man’s eyes on me as I staggered down the aisle and out the door.
The wind hit me the moment I was on the platform. It was brutal. But I could not help smiling at the sight of the familiar buildings and the hills beyond. My route to the center of town was already planned out in my head, but between the wind and my inexpert use of the crutch, the going was slow. When the train pulled away, I was still struggling across the platform. I paused to catch my breath and watched the train’s white steam curl into the white sky.
A kilometer is not very far, I reminded myself. It will be worth it.
I started moving again. Nearly every other passenger was out of sight already, but I was aware of one man farther back, moving even more slowly than I. I did not look at him. I concentrated instead on my new rhythm of walking, and on avoiding icy patches on the ground, and on my destination.
I had been attending these meetings for weeks now, and I felt I knew this village nearly as well as my own. Even the chimney smoke smelled familiar. All the shutters on the houses I passed were closed. The low-angled roofs made the homes look even more sleepy.
After ten minutes or so I heard a shuffling sound. Footsteps? I thought. On a parallel street? My ears strained to hear the sound again, but all I could make out was a horse and cart off in the distance.
I did not see a single soul for that entire kilometer. Still, I felt a swell of affection for the villagers. I had no family of my own, but it was easy to picture the ones in the houses I passed: cooking, lighting pipes, perhaps doing schoolwork in front of the fire. I smelled someone cooking potatoes inside one of the houses; two men argued within another. In a third, someone was playing a violin. I continued hearing it long after I had passed, tenuous and sad and beautiful.
As I hobbled along, my breath came in puffs of vapor (sometimes accompanied by small grunts), only to be whipped away by the wind. Stronger than the cold was the ache where my left foot had been. I knew there were powders I could take for the pain — I am a chemist by trade — but it was important to me to keep my body clean. I can withstand pain, I assured myself. I can walk on one leg.
Through agonizing effort, and the careful placement of the tip of my crutch, I made my way. And then, finally, the timber frame houses fell away and the town square was revealed.
I leaned on my crutch and caught my breath. Directly across from me a dark, tall-windowed church stood stark against the pale sky, its spires stabbing upwards. More important to me was the building to the right: at the top of a long set of stone steps was the auditorium.
I could hear others now, and I saw them emerging from other streets. Using crutches and walking sticks — one man was on his knees — they dragged themselves towards the same building. Each was alone, except for a man who wore bandages across his eyes. He held the empty sleeve of an armless man. They did not speak, but together they lurched their way across the square.
I began moving again, as fast as my hopping gait would allow. I had a sudden urge to beat them all to the top. But my ambition only lasted as far as the bottom of the steps; at that point it turned into utter terror.
I forced myself to move my right foot to the first step, balancing precariously on the wooden crutch as I did so. Then I had to suddenly shift my weight to lift the crutch to catch up. This is an exercise in foolishness, I thought, panting. If I fell forward, there was no question of catching myself before my face smashed into the steps above me. If I fell backwards, I might break every bone in my body — and the risk would become greater with each step I successfully climbed. Mangling was likely; death was not out of the question. But a worse fate would be missing the meeting.
I moved my foot to the second step. I shifted my weight to my leg, which was trembling, and pulled the crutch up beside my foot. I vowed I would attend the meeting. Even if I have to crawl, I thought. Even if I have to beg one of these taciturn men to carry my shattered body.
I made my shaky way. People with two legs passed me on either side. One had clean white bandages wound around his head — Surely that wound has healed by now, I thought, unkindly. The man crawling across the bricks could probably walk; others, I was certain, were exaggerating their infirmities. And some of them, I felt, were only temporarily inconvenienced; undoubtedly many of these men had children or wives at home to assist them. As I struggled up the icy steps, red-faced and sweating beneath my coat, I thought, I am surrounded by pretenders.
But I reached the top. Panting and trembling, I made my way into the auditorium. Just one more step, I told myself a dozen times. Just one more. At the very moment I felt my body would give out, I reached an empty seat and slumped into it.
The auditorium was cold — necessarily so — but we were sheltered from the wind. Around me, people were struggling out of their outer clothes. While I breathed, my body quivering, I watched a man two rows in front of me remove his scarf, revealing a scar on his neck. Finally I gathered the strength to unwind my own scarf, as well as the one I had wrapped around the stump where my right hand once was.
There were perhaps three dozen of us. Looking around the room, I felt a warmth for the others. Even the ones with clean bandages. They are like veterans, I thought, years after a war had ended.
There were two women among us. One was missing a nose, and I did not know what affliction, if any, the other carried with her. They sat in the same row, with two empty seats between them. No one sat beside anyone else — the blind man had been deposited in a different row than the one in which the armless man now sat — but we were somehow all together. We did not speak, but I witnessed a few shared nods, a few appreciative glances. For the most part we looked at the stage.
The lanterns that served as footlights had been lit. Beyond them on the stage was a long table, covered by a crisp white sheet. The bed stood perhaps two meters away. Another sheet covered the shape atop it. I could hear my pulse in my ears as I studied its lumps and curves.
Soon, I told myself.
We waited. Finally, when I thought I could stand it no more, the doctor walked onstage. At his appearance a warm breath of affection floated through the auditorium. His stride was confident, but humble; in the set of his shoulders you could sense that he carried, at all times, a great weight.
He stepped to the very edge of the stage and cast his gaze over us. It was both an inspection and a greeting. I sat as straight as I could in my seat. When he looked in my direction I could see the intelligence in his stern face, the nobility. But also, I believed, a certain fondness.
“I welcome you, men of science.” We murmured in response. He went on, his voice deep and rich. “We have gathered here to stand on the shoulders of those who came before. This is how we learn, this is how we shall reach our goal. It is how progress is made.
“And progress is vital to men like us. It is our life-blood! It is our moral duty. People shut in their little houses have the comfort of their day to day lives. They shall never know the sense of obligation that scientists feel, the sacrifices we make. They do not understand the gift that we give to them.
“But they shall.”
Oh yes, I thought.
“On the day that they gaze upon our creation with awe and incomprehension, how they shall weep. And how they shall thank us. When we have met our goal, my friends, when we have uncovered the secrets of life itself, they will be grateful, all of them, and the generations to follow. And they will know that the brave men — and women! — who have given this gift to humanity are sitting in this very room tonight.
“Are we ashamed of our failures?” he demanded.
“NO!” we shouted.
“No,” he said. “For they were vital steps in our progress. With the first attempt I learned the unsuitability of cadavers. Since then, in this room, we have explored the parameters of life itself. Together. And by moving forward we honor those who have offered, and will offer, assistance during the journey. Are you among them?”
“YES!” we shouted.
“Do you share our ambition?”
“YES!” I screamed with an aching throat.
“WILL YOU BE PART OF THIS GIFT WE GIVE TO THE WORLD?”
We were shouting, we were roaring, we were thudding feet and canes against the floor. And as I knew he would do, as I needed him to do, he walked over to the bed and pulled off the sheet.
My shouting broke off in a sob. Others silenced more slowly. But soon we were all quiet, gazing together at the figure reclined on the bed. We all leaned forward in our seats, breathlessly looking at him lying there, almost complete: our collaboration. Our son.
“Tonight,” said the doctor, “we need a digestive tract.”
“I VOLUNTEER!!” I shouted.
I was immediately drowned out by the other voices, garbled and agonized. The doctor came to the edge of the stage again and looked us over. Together we wept and pleaded, desperately waving for his attention, raising whatever hands remained.