while you are still breathing
where your skin is submerged
and there is nothing to be
holding highest joy
and utter despair
notice the flow of your life
pushing and pulling
perhaps in spite of it
to taste your exquisite life
Matthew Mumber MD is a practicing, board certified radiation oncologist with the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Georgia. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Virginia and completed his radiation oncology residency at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine. He graduated from the 2002 Associate Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and is a graduate of the inaugural class of the Living School for Action and Contemplation through the Rohr Institute. Matt founded Cancer Navigators Inc. in 2002, a 501c3 corporation which provides nurse, education and service navigation for those touched by cancer. He continues to facilitate residential retreats and groups for cancer patients and physicians. Matt took poetry writing classes under Debra Nystrom while at UVA and has continued to write, and just recently has begun to seek publication of his poems. He has published two health and wellness books.
The last night I slept soundly was the night before my wheezing father announced the succession. He named me – his daughter – as his heir. He hoped aloud that my brother would advise me faithfully. The pulsing vein in Damian’s forehead suggested otherwise. With one word my father had severed our fraternal connection more effectually than any witch’s curse.
I sit up in bed watching the candle-gleam on the door handle, making certain it doesn’t move. Four guards stand watch outside. The points and hilts of their too-long swords scrape the stone of the narrow corridor. My clock chimes three. Four. Five. I doze…and rise…and drift.
Father dies. My soul screams; my desiccated eyes are tearless.
I order a spinning wheel brought to my room; and the motion of my hands allows me to stay awake. I watch the gleam. A week goes by thus, or a year.
“You don’t deserve to be Queen,” says Damian.
Phantasmagoric creatures haunt my darkness – no beneficent elves, these. Sinister witches leap from the fireplace’s shadows; a dragon bars my escape.
At my coronation banquet, my taster grows purple – and still. Damian is strangely unruffled.
The replacement is the dead boy’s sister. Her lip trembles; she hugs me. The ladies-in-waiting hiss; I hush them, and stroke her mouse-colored hair. Her breath is warm against my chest.
Something boils within me.
I address my captain of the guard: “Teach me to fight.”
He laughs – then remembers his place. “Your highness –”
“That was not a request,” I intone. “Captain.”
My sword arm droops; I feint altogether faintly; I forget his corrections after mere moments. He peers into my face. “Forgive me, your highness…you look exhausted.”
“Again. Let’s try it again.”
My captain doubles the guard and arms them with knives: “You’ll be safe.” The blue has fled my eyes and they blaze like fire. The clock strikes twelve, still I thrust and parry…
One night, outside my door – shouts, shrieking steel, unholy screams of men – “Don’t open the d–” roars the captain, before his words are cut sickeningly short.
The gleam pauses, dances, vanishes: In its place stands Damian. He has a knife in his hand and a sword at his waist. He hurls his knife – I drop – I draw my own sword from beneath my mattress. His blade clangs against it before I can draw breath. There is murder in Damian’s heart, and there are no good fairies coming to my aid…
I stumble into the spinning wheel, steadying myself against it even as it collapses…I prick my finger on something but manage to hold on…
…his sword kisses my neck. “Any last words?”
The man who used to be my brother has bulging blue eyes –
“Go to hell!” I cry, plunging the broken spindle into his belly. He staggers, falls, curses me, even as his blood pools.
I keep silent watch while he dies.
I send my taster back home to her mama.
I feel I could sleep for a hundred years.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and Foreign Service Officer who has previously served at U.S. embassies in Africa and Asia. She calls Wisconsin home, and currently lives outside Washington, D.C.
Old Whitworth, a seventy-year-old dentist who should have retired a decade ago, endured in the practiced removal of ailing choppers. Yet his fees were a pittance in post-war years, offering irresistible rates – if you weren’t too particular about the origin of his dubious credentials.
Whitworth, white-haired, save for rounded bald spot, reddened by anger from a patient who didn’t pay! Since then, everyone paid before they graced his torturing chair?
“Two shillings for an extraction.” He would say, in a tone that defied his ethical teachings, “but only one shilling and sixpence … without anesthetic?” Some took the cheaper route, surviving to warn others of the ordeal, amongst sympathetic pub ears.
Whitworth, tamer of pain, with rusted pliers on calcium bite. He heaves upon uncared wisdom teeth, their term welcoming a sorry end. Grip rigid, clamp bending soft gums, as cursing yelps pierce the cold damp room. A single light bulb the only heat, except patient’s hot-bloodied anxiety. He yanks back and forth, the grip betraying his years, as another fractured precipice splinters from contaminated crags of white and brown. Decay is another battle.
A rinsed reprieve. Calming moments, before the onslaught continues. Whitworth composed, displaying his treasury of gold fillings to the bearer of pain. Vice-gripped, he scrapes a craggy wisdom tooth, and surreptitiously dabs medicinal swabs to spare agony. Not many taste the brandy – for one and six.
Whitworth lunges, pliers re-clamped. To and fro, up and down, aligning with victim’s high-pitch shrieks! Nerve tissues severed, gum walls oozing, blood spilling, victim coughing, and Whitworth must withdraw to permit another rinse. Pity, when he was close to seizing his volatile prey.
“It’s all in the wrist,” he explains to numb, self-invited guest, as they all are. Whitworth has no favorites, only deeds for payment.
The victim slouches deeper into the flattened leather chair, eying pliers that glisten from his own slime and spit. Crack …! Blood gushes, and Whitworth is quick to sense the moment, yanking to and fro, back and forth. Until finally, he holds the prize to relief-strewn eyes.
A wisdom tooth taken, no more to trouble, torment or chew, by old Whitworth.
Educated in England, John is an immigrant to Canada. John has non-fiction articles, travel articles, fiction and poetry published in several local newspapers and anthologies. His short fiction has appeared in the Poetry Institute of Canada, Polar Expressions and Sentinel.