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The Illumination

It was Friday evening, half an hour before the light struck, and
she was attempting to open a package with a carving knife. The
package was from her ex-husband, who had covered it in a thick
layer of transparent tape, the kind fretted with hundreds of white
threads, the latest step in his long campaign of bringing needless
difficulty to her life. She was sawing along the lid when she came
to a particularly stubborn cross-piece of tape and turned the box
toward herself to improve her grip. Her hand slipped, and just that
quickly the knife severed the tip of her thumb. The hospital was
not busy, and when she walked in carrying a balled-up mass of wet
paper towels, her blood wicking through the pink flowers, the clerk
at the reception desk admitted her right away. The doctor who came
to examine her said, "Let’s take a look at what we’ve
got here," then gingerly, with his narrow fingers, unwound the
paper from around her thumb. "Okay, this is totally doable. I
don’t mind telling you you had me worried with all that blood
of yours, but this doesn’t look so bad. A few stitches, and
we should have you fixed right up." She had not quite broken
through the nail, though, and when he rotated her hand to take a
closer look, a quarter-inch of her thumb came tilting away like the
hinged cap of a lighter. The doctor gave an appreciative whistle,
then took the pieces of her thumb and coupled them back together.
She watched, horrified, as he fastened them in place with a white
tag of surgical tape. "Miss? Miss?" The room had begun to flutter.
He took her face in his hands. "What’s your name? Can you
tell me your name, Miss? I’m Dr. Alstadt. Can you tell me
your name?" His hands were warm and soft, like the hands of a
fourteen-year-old boy deciding whether or not to kiss her,
something she remembered feeling once, a long time ago, and she
gave him her name, which was Carol Ann, Carol Ann Page. "Okay,
Carol Ann, what we’re going to do is bring in the
replantation team. They see this kind of thing all the time, so I
don’t want you to worry. You hang in there, all right? Is
there anyone we can call for you?"


"A husband? A parent?"

"No. Not in town."

"All right then. It shouldn’t be longer than a few
minutes. In the meantime, I’m going to give you something to
ease the pain," but instead he jotted a few sentences onto a
clipboard and left the room. She lay back and closed her eyes, and
when she opened them again, the doctor had been replaced by a nurse
in dark green scrubs, who said, "You must be the thumb," wiped the
crook of her elbow with a cloth that smelled like chlorine bleach,
and gave her a shot. The shot didn’t extinguish the pain so
much as disguise it, make it beautiful, ease it, she supposed, just
as the doctor had said it would. The nurse hurried out, and Carol
Ann was alone again. A moment later, when she saw the light shining
out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating. It was
steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through
her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper
painting. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to her that the
light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from the
inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought
that she could live there and be happy.


After the surgery, when she woke, her hand was encased in an odd
little glove that immobilized her thumb but left her fingers free
to open and close. Her neck was stiff, and her lips were dry, and
in her mouth she detected the iron-and-butter taste of blood. At
first she thought she was making a sort of mental clerical error,
mistaking the aftereffects of thumb surgery for the aftereffects of
dental surgery, but when she swept her tongue over her teeth, she
brushed up against a pad of cotton batting. She pushed it out onto
her palm. A pale glow flickered from somewhere and then went out.
She remembered her dream of light and consolation, the sensation of
peace and abundance that had come over her, and a voice saying,
"This is really freaking me out. Isn’t this freaking anyone
else out?" and a second voice saying, "We have a job to do,
Clayton. Nothing here changes that fact," and then the feeling of
escape as she stared into the operating lamp and sleep pulled her
under. She was thirsty now, but when she to tried to sit up in bed,
a boy in mocha-colored scrubs appeared by her side and said, "Whoa,
there. You’re still zonked out from the operation. What do
you need? Let me get it for you." She asked for something to drink,
and he took a bottle of Evian from the tray beside her bed, twisted
the cap off, and brought it to her lips, his hand performing a slow
genuflection in the air as he tipped the water out. She drained
nearly the whole bottle without once pausing for breath. When she
was finished, he nodded, a short upward snap of the chin,
impressed. "Is there anything else I can help you with? The doctor
should be in to check on you soon."

"My mouth. I cut my thumb—just my thumb—but when I
woke up, I found all this . . . stuff in my mouth." She
was still holding the square of spit-soaked gauze she had
discovered. When she opened her fingers to show it to him, he made
a nest of his two good hands beneath her broken one so that she
could dump it out. An image of her father came suddenly to mind:
the sun was bright and the sky was clear and he was kneeling beside
a stream in a state park, making a nest of his own good hands to
give her a sip of water, and she paused and frowned, staring into
the tiny pool he had created, transfixed by the way the light sent
gray blooms of shadows gusting over his palms, and when she pointed
it out to him, he laughed and called her his little

The orderly had taken her chart from the foot of the bed. "Says
here you bit down on your cheek during the operation. Normally that
doesn’t happen. Just sometimes if there’s an anesthesia
problem you might wake up for a second and feel a little pain, and
you’ll have what they call a bite response. A B.R.—
that’s what this stands for."


"Are you cold? I can turn the heat up if you want."

"No. I’m fine."

"Okey." That was how he pronounced it. "I’ll be back in to
check on you in a little while."

She had spoken to him for only a few minutes, and she felt so
weak, and he was no one who loved her, and when she propped herself
up on her elbows to watch him go, her head swam with a thousand
colors. She spent a while studying her room: the television pinned
by a metal arm to the ceiling, the window looking out on a stand of
pine trees, the empty bed, with its sheets in a dead calm. In the
hallway, a man walked by wheeling an IV tower with a sack of clear
fluid on one of its hooks, his stomach glimmering through his
hospital gown. Then a woman stumbled past carrying a flashlight in
her left hand. By the time Carol Ann thought to wonder why she was
pointing her light down a corridor that was already so clearly
illuminated, the woman had slipped out of view. Her arms were
trembling from supporting herself, so she lay back down again. The
bed’s side rails rattled as the mattress took her weight. The
pillow rose up around her ears like bread. More and more she had
the feeling that she was missing something.

It must have been another hour before the doctor who had first
inspected her thumb, Dr. All-That-Blood-of-Yours, Dr. Alstadt,
arrived and pulled a stool up to her bed. He sat down and asked her
how she was feeling, then leaned in with his stethoscope. He was so
close that her gaze was drawn to the smooth spot on his neck, a
shape like Kentucky just above his Adam’s apple, where the
stubble had failed to grow. He smelled like mouthwash, and he used
her whole name when he spoke to her. "Well then, Carol Ann Page,
let’s take a look at that hand of yours, shall we?" He undid
the Velcro on her glove so that the material fell away like the
peel of a banana, then unwrapped the bandage from around her thumb.
Later she would find herself unable to remember which she noticed
first: the quarter-inch of her nail that was missing, a straight
line exposing the featureless topside of her thumb, or the way the
light she thought she had hallucinated was still leaking out from
around the wound.

"Your color is good," Dr. Alstadt said. "Can you go like this
for me?"

She flexed her thumb in imitation of his. A thrill of pain
passed through her hand, and the light sharpened, flaring through
the black x’s of her stitching.

"Range of motion good, too. It looks like we got to you before
any major tissue damage set in. Let me wrap you back up, and you
can get a little shut-eye."

"Doctor, wait. What’s happening to me? Don’t you see

He didn’t need to ask, See what? She noted it
right away.

"I forget you’ve been sleeping all this time. Well, I
don’t know much more than you do, I’m afraid. It
started at eight-seventeen last night. That’s locally
speaking, but this isn’t exactly local news. In fact, I bet
if we . . . here." He picked up the remote control and turned on
the television. An episode of an old courtroom sitcom filled the
screen, the one with the lecherous prosecutor and the hulking
bailiff, but when he changed the station, Carol Ann saw footage of
what looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Silver
sparks appeared to swirl through the bodies of the traders like the
static on a broken television. The doctor changed the station
again, and she saw a child soldier with his arm in a sling and his
shoulder ablaze with light. Then the president of the United States
stepping into a helicopter, raising a hand glowing with arthritis
at its joints. Then a pair of boxers opening up radiant cuts on
each other’s faces. The images came one after another, so
quickly that she barely had time to identify them. A woman in a
blue burka, long pencils of light shining through the net of her
veil. A team of cyclists with their knees and feet drawing
iridescent circles in the air. A girl with a luminous scrape on her
arm, her face caught in an expression of inquisitive fear. When the
news anchor addressed the camera, saying how from all around
the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange
occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and the
Carol Ann noticed his eyes narrowing and saw
something like the flat pulse of heat lightning flashing from his
temples. A phenomenon so new and unforeseen— the
anchor winced almost imperceptibly as his forehead grew momentarily
brighter—that scientists have not yet devised a name for

Dr. Alstadt had finished dressing her thumb. Gently, as though
cradling a bird’s egg, he fit the glove back onto her hand.
His voice came out tired and ragged. "Funny how quickly a person
can get used to a miracle. Or how quickly a miracle can come to
seem commonplace. If that’s what this is, a miracle." He
stopped, gave himself a derisory sniff, and for the first time
since he had entered the room looked her directly in the eye. "See
what I mean? ‘If that’s what this is.’ The
problem is we’re in a hospital. Not exactly an environment
conducive to quiet reflection. Well, Carol Ann Page," he said, and
he smacked his knees as he stood up. He told her he would be
willing to discharge her that afternoon, but that the hospital
would be more comfortable if she would consent to stay until Sunday
morning so they could watch the area of the injury for any signs of
tissue rejection.

Those were his exact words.

The hospital would be more comfortable.

The area of the injury.

Tissue rejection.

When she agreed to remain overnight, he returned her hand to her
stomach and said, "That’s my girl." He muttered so softly
that she wondered if he realized he had spoken. As he left the room
she caught the briefest glimpse of the nape of his neck, where a
hundred threads of light were twisting like algae in an underwater

Excerpted from THE ILLUMINATION © Copyright 2011 by Kevin
Brockmeier. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon. All rights

The Illumination
by by Kevin Brockmeier

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375425314
  • ISBN-13: 9780375425318