Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.
It was Good Friday and the stars were just starting to dissolve into the dawn. As I drove, I stroked the scar on my chest, by habit. My eyes were heavy and my vision unfocused, not surprising given that I’d spent the night hunched over a mirror snorting away the bars of white powder that kept my face trapped in the glass. I believed I was keening my reflexes. I was wrong.
To one side of the curving road was a sharp drop down the mountain’s slope, and on the other was a dark wood. I tried to keep my eyes fixed ahead but I had the overwhelming feeling that something was waiting to ambush me from behind the trees, perhaps a troop of mercenaries. That’s how drug paranoia works, of course. My heart hammered as I gripped the steering wheel more tightly, sweat collecting at the base of my neck.
Between my legs I had wedged a bottle of bourbon, which I tried to pull out for another mouthful. I lost my grip on the bottle and it tumbled into my lap, spilling everywhere, before falling to the floorboard. I bent down to grab it before the remaining alcohol leaked out, and when my eyes were lifted I was greeted by the vision, the ridiculous vision, that set everything into motion. I saw a volley of burning arrows swarming out of the woods, directly at my car. Instinct took over and I jerked the steering wheel away from the forest that held my invisible attackers. This was not a good idea, because it threw my car up against the fencepost wires that separated me from the drop. There was the howl of metal on metal, the passenger door scraping against taut cables, and a dozen thuds as I bounced off the wood posts, each bang like electricity through a defibrillator.
I overcompensated and spun out into the oncoming lane, just missing a pickup truck. I pulled back too hard on the wheel, which sent me once again towards the guardrail. The cables snapped and flew everywhere at once, like the thrashing tentacles of a harpooned octopus. One cracked the windshield and I remember thinking how glad I was that it hadn’t hit me as the car fell through the arms of the convulsing brute.
There was a brief moment of weightlessness: a balancing point between air and earth, dirt and heaven. How strange, I thought, how like the moment between sleeping and falling when everything is beautifully surreal and nothing is corporeal. How like floating towards completion. But as often happens in that time between existing in the world and fading into dreams, this moment over the edge ended with the ruthless jerk back to awareness.
A car crash seems to take forever, and there is always a moment in which you believe that you can correct the error. Yes, you think, it’s true that I’m plummeting down the side of a mountain in a car that weighs about three thousand pounds. It’s true that it’s a hundred feet to the bottom of the gully. But I’m sure that if only I twist the steering wheel very hard to one side, everything will be okay.
Once you’ve spun that steering wheel around and found it doesn’t make any difference, you have this one clear, pure thought: Oh, shit. For a glorious moment, you achieve the empty bliss that Eastern philosophers spend their lives pursuing. But following this transcendence, your mind becomes a supercomputer capable of calculating the gyrations of your car, multiplying that by the speed of the fall over the angle of descent, factoring in Newton’s laws of motion and, in a split second, coming to the panicked conclusion that this is gonna hurt like hell.
Your car gathers speed down the embankment, bouncing. Your hypothesis is quickly proven correct: it is, indeed, quite painful. Your brain catalogues the different sensations. There is the flipping end over end, the swirling disorientation, and the shrieks of the car as it practices its unholy yoga. There’s the crush of metal, pressing against your ribs. There’s the smell of the devil’s mischievousness, a pitchfork in your ass and sulfur in your mouth. The Bastard’s there, all right, don’t doubt it.
I remember the hot silver flash as the floorboard severed all my toes from my left foot. I remember the steering column sailing over my shoulder. I remember the eruption of glass that seemed to be everywhere around me. When the car finally came to a stop, I hung upside down, seatbelted. I could hear the hiss of various gases escaping the engine and the tires still spinning outside, above, and there was the creak of metal settling as the car stopped rocking, a pathetic turtle on its back.
Just as I was beginning my drift into unconsciousness, there was the explosion. Not a movie explosion but a small real-life explosion, like the ignition of an unhappy gas oven that holds a grudge against its owner. A flash of blue flame skittered across the roof of the car, which was at a slanted angle underneath my dangling body. Out of my nose crawled a drop of blood, which jumped expectantly into the happy young flames springing to life beneath me. I could feel my hair catch fire; then I could smell it. My flesh began to singe as if I were a scrap of meat newly thrown onto the barbecue, and then I could hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it. I could not reach my head to extinguish my flaming hair. My arms would not respond to my commands.
I imagine, dear reader, that you’ve had some experience with heat. Perhaps you’ve tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve; or, in a youthful dare, you held a match between your fingers for as long as you could. Hasn’t everyone, at least once, filled the bathtub with overly hot water and forgot to dip in a toe before committing the whole foot? If you’ve only had these kinds of minor incidents, I want you to imagine something new. Imagine turning on one of the elements of your stove--let’s say it’s the electric kind with black coils on top. Don’t put a pot of water on the element, because the water only absorbs the heat and uses it to boil. Maybe some tiny tendrils of smoke curl up from a previous spill on the burner. A slight violet tinge will appear, nestled there in the black rings, and then the element assumes some reddish-purple tones, like unripe blackberries. It moves towards orange and finally--finally!--an intense glowing red. Kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Now, lower your head so that your eyes are even with the top of the stove and you can peer through the shimmering waves rising up. Think of those old movies where the hero finds himself looking across the desert at an unexpected oasis. I want you to trace the fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers even the lightest touch. If someone else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now, slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.
And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.
I want you to keep that hand pressed down, for a slow count of sixty. No cheating. One Mis-sis-sip-pi, two Mis-sis-sip-pi, three Mis-sis-sip-pii.i.i.i At sixty Mis-sis-sip-pi, your hand will have melted so that it now surrounds the element, becoming fused with it. Now rip your flesh free.
I have another task for you: lean down, turn your head to one side, and slap your cheek on the same element. I’ll let you choose which side of your face. Again sixty Mississippis; no cheating. The convenient thing is that your ear is right there to capture the snap, crackle, and pop of your flesh.
Now you might have some idea of what it was like for me to be pinned inside that car, unable to escape the flames, conscious enough to catalogue the experience until I went into shock. There were a few short and merciful moments in which I could hear and smell and think, still documenting everything but feeling nothing. Why does this no longer hurt? I remember closing my eyes and wishing for complete, beautiful blackness. I remember thinking that I should have lived my life as a vegetarian.
Then the car shifted once more, tipping over into the creek upon whose edge it had been teetering. Like the turtle had regained its feet and scurried into the nearest water source.
This occurrence--the car falling into the creek--saved my life by extinguishing the flames and cooling my newly broiled flesh.
Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.
I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story. You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked.
The most difficult thing about writing, I’m discovering, is not the act of constructing the sentences themselves. It’s deciding what to put in, and where, and what to leave out. I’m constantly second-guessing myself. I chose the accident, but I could just as easily have started with any point during my thirty-five years of life before that. Why not start with: “I was born in the year 19----, in the city of----”?
Then again, why should I even confine the beginning to the time frame of my life? Perhaps I should start in Nurnberg in the early thirteenth century, where a woman with the most unfortunate name of Adelheit Rotter retreated from a life that she thought was sinful to become a Beguine--women who, though not officially associated with the Church, were inspired to live an impoverished life in imitation of Christ. Over time Rotter attracted a legion of followers and, in 1240, they moved to a dairy farm at Engelschalksdorf near Swinach, where a benefactor named Ulrich II von Konigstein allowed them to live provided they did chores. They erected a building in 1243 and, the following year, established it as a monastery with the election of their first prioress.
When Ulrich died without a male heir, he bequeathed his entire estate to the Beguines. In return he requested that the monastery provide burial places for his relations and that they pray, in perpetuity, for the Konigstein family. In a show of good sense he directed that the place be named Engelthal, or “Valley of the Angels,” rather than Swinach--“Place of the Pigs.” But it was Ulrich’s final provision that would have the greatest impact on my life: he mandated that the monastery establish a scriptorium.
Eyes open on a red and blue spin of lightning. A blitzkrieg of voices, noises. A metal rod pierces the side of the car, jaws it apart. Uniforms. Christ, I’m in Hell and they wear uniforms. One man shouts. Another says in a soothing voice: “We’ll get you out. Don’t worry.” He wears a badge. “You’re gonna be all right,” he promises through his mustache. “What’s your name?” Can’t remember. Another paramedic yells to someone I can’t see. He recoils at the sight of me. Are they supposed to do that? Blackness.
Eyes open. I’m strapped to a spine board. A voice, “Three, two, one, lift.” The sky rushes towards me and then away from me. “In,” says the voice. A metallic clack as the stretcher snaps into place. Coffin, why no lid? Too antiseptic for Hell, and could the roof of Heaven really be made of gray metal? Blackness.
Eyes open. Weightless again. Charon wears a blue polyester-cotton blend. An ambulance siren bounces off a concrete Acheron. An IV has been inserted into my body--everywhere? I’m covered with a gel blanket. Wet, wet. Blackness.
Eyes open. The thud of wheels like a shopping cart on concrete. The damn voice says “Go!” The sky mocks me, passes me by, then a plaster-white ceiling. Double doors slither open. “OR Four!” Blackness.
Eyes open. Gaping maw of a snake, lunging at me, laughing, speaking: I AM COMING...The serpent tries to engulf my head. No, not a snake, an oxygen mask...AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. I’m falling backwards gas mask blackness.
Eyes unveil. Burning hands, burning feet, fire everywhere, but I am in the middle of a blizzard. A German forest, and a river is near. A woman on a ridge with a crossbow. My chest feels as if it’s been hit. I hear the hiss as my heart gives out. I try to speak but croak instead, and a nurse tells me to rest, that everything will be okay, everything will be okay. Blackness.
A voice floats above me. “Sleep. Just sleep.”
Following my accident, I plumped up like a freshly roasted wiener, my skin cracking to accommodate the expanding meat. The doctors, with their hungry scalpels, hastened the process with a few quick slices. The procedure is called an escharotomy, and it gives the swelling tissue the freedom to expand. It’s rather like the uprising of your secret inner being, finally given license to claw through the surface. The doctors thought they had sliced me open to commence my healing but, in fact, they only released the monster--a thing of engorged flesh, suffused with juice.
While a small burn results in a blister filled with plasma, burns such as mine result in the loss of enormous quantities of liquid. In my first twenty-four hospital hours, the doctors pumped six gallons of isotonic liquid into me to counteract the loss of body fluids. I bathed in the liquid as it flowed out of my scorched body as fast as it was pumped in, and I was something akin to the desert during a flash flood.
This too-quick exchange of fluid resulted in an imbalance in my blood chemistry, and my immune system staggered under the strain, a problem that would become ever more dangerous in the following weeks when the primary threat of death was from sepsis. Even for a burn victim who seems to be doing well long after his accident, infection can pull him out of the game at a moment’s notice. The body’s defenses are just barely functioning, exactly when they are needed most.
My razed outer layers were glazed with a bloody residue of charred tissue called eschar, the Hiroshima of the body. Just as you cannot call a pile of cracked concrete blocks a “building” after the bomb has detonated, neither could you have called my outer layer "skin" after the accident. I was an emergency state unto myself, silver ion and sulfadiazine creams spread over the remains of me. Over that, bandages were laid to rest upon the devastation.
I was aware of none of this, and only learned it later from the doctors. At the time, I lay comatose, with a machine clicking off the sluggish metronome of my heart. Fluids and electrolytes and antibiotics and morphine were administered through a series of tubes (IV tube, jejunostomy tube, endotracheal tube, nasogastric tube, urinary tube, truly a tube for every occasion!). A heat shield kept my body warm enough to survive, a ventilator did my breathing, and I collected enough blood transfusions to shame Keith Richards.
The doctors removed my wasteland exterior by debriding me, scraping away the charred flesh. They brought in tanks of liquid nitrogen containing skin recently harvested from corpses. The sheets were thawed in pans of water, then neatly arranged on my back and stapled into place. Just like that, as if they were laying strips of sod over the problem areas behind their summer cabins, they wrapped me in the skin of the dead. My body was cleaned constantly but I rejected these sheets of necro-flesh anyway; I’ve never played well with others. So over and over again, I was sheeted with cadaver skin.
There I lay, wearing dead people as armor against death.