Congratulations to Carol Fischbach for winning second place for creative nonfiction in the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read the winning entry, “Butterflies, Berries, and Beef,” below.
Butterflies, Berries, and Beef
While other kids worried about answering the question on the blackboard, I squinted, strained, tried to read the words. If I stretched the corners of my eyelids tight, I could kind of see them. But I was nine and didn’t want to look stupid.
Sister Mary Thomasina stood in front of the room, her face squeezed tight between veil and coif, hands tucked, swallowed into long black sleeves, the insides probably dusted white from chalk. Her thick dark eyebrows almost met in the middle. The glare on her round wire-framed glasses hid her eyes, but they were aimed at me. “Carol.” My belly twisted. “Can you answer the question?”
I stood up next to my desk. The one in the back of the room behind the tall kid where I went unnoticed. Until now. I squinted harder. Usually there were enough blurry cursive loops and lines to make out a word, or if Sister called on someone else first who gave a wrong answer, I collected clues, made a guess. Figured things out like I did at home, so my mother’s dentures didn’t click at me.
I had no clues.
I curled my fingers into my palm, nails dug in.
Finally, Sister said, “Can you read the board?”
I shook my head.
Her arms came out of her sleeves, particles of white sprayed in the air, and she pointed at someone in the front row. Someone with glasses. “Switch seats with Carol.”
Within a few weeks, I wore glasses too. The eye doctor said I was nearsighted.
I thought I was just different from everyone else.
Nearsightedness. Myopia. The inability to see things clearly unless they are up close. Also. Lack of imagination. Lack of insight. Lack of forward-looking vision. Inability to see the bigger picture. Also. Denying what is right in front of you; no matter how clear it is.
Waves smacked against the boards outside the restaurant, Aqua, on the Seattle waterfront where Marsha and I had lunch. She had texted me the day before to confirm our plans and added, “I have news.” While we walked, I watched her face, listened to the tone of her voice, tried to guess what her news was. Her prosthetic eye, with its green iris and brown flecks, perfectly matched the real one. I am fascinated by artificial body parts.
Marsha got quiet after raving about the grilled snapper she’d had. Gray stratus clouds smeared dark across the blue sky, ready to drip heavy strands of rain. I waited for her to share the news. Looked out on the water. Watched a ferry slice through choppy waves across the Sound. Maybe she was finally going to leave Colorado. It had been a couple of years since she asked me to check into houseboat rentals.
I waited some more. Didn’t want to ask. Turned to look at her. Was the left eye artificial . . . or the right?
“I have cancer.” Her words felt like a cold draft. “In my liver.” She looked up but not at me. “Melanoma.”
The iris gives eyes their color. Named after Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow. The iris is also a muscle that controls pupil size, adjusts the amount of light allowed into the eye.
Pupil, originally from the Latin pupilla, means little girl doll. Based on the tiny image a person sees of themselves in the eyes of someone else.
Marsha’s words like an earworm.
A seagull landed on the sidewalk in front of us. A large wave splashed hard against the concrete wall and icy drops landed on my hand. I pulled my coat closer around me. The coat I’d bought at Pike’s Market the last time Marsha visited. She got one that was deep green. Mine was brownish gray. The woman who made the coats claimed the felt-like fabric would block the wind and resist the rain. Drops would roll off and not penetrate.
“I’ll beat this.” Marsha clenched her jaw. “I know I can.” She’d been avoiding gluten and carbs and eating organic berries and kale and grass-fed beef and taking supplements and doing Bikram hot yoga for years. She believed in a positive attitude. One that creates your best reality.
I offered meager words of encouragement that tripped on my tongue.
The seagull squawked and flew away.
When we left, I said goodbye in the dim light of the underground parking garage. Walked towards my car with heavy limbs that didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to stay. I needed one last look at her. Just one last look. I turned around. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes on mine felt like a goodbye kiss. Maybe if I looked hard enough, close enough, I could see my reflection in them. An image. A placeholder for that moment. Before she slipped away.
The chowder I had for lunch churned in my stomach.
The pupil of the eye doesn’t just react to the light that is present. It adjusts to the light that’s expected when you turn your head or shift your vision. Pupils dilate when you are aroused — sexually or by a threat or an opportunity. They shrink when you reject someone or if you use opiates or other drugs.
The pupil size of Marsha’s prosthetic eye never changed. It’s one way you can tell if an eye is real or not. New technology has created an artificial eye that reacts to light. That can trick you into believing it’s real.
“Can’t you have surgery?” I asked when I called Marsha a few weeks after she told me about the liver cancer. I needed to ask the question.
“I don’t want surgery.” Her voice was confident. “I can beat this. I just need to stay positive.”
Fuck. She could be such a purist. I’d read up on it — they could remove part of her liver. Give her a chance. But she refused.
When I was nine years old, after I got my glasses, I was able to read the word fuck that Sister Mary Thomasina wrote on the board. She told us to never say that word out loud because it was a mortal sin, and if we died before confessing, we would go straight to hell.
I met Marsha on the parched brown earth of Colorado. On the plains that sprout into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where the air is thin in crisp blue skies, and ghosts of herds of buffalo rumble over dried grasses, and cougars chase deer into new housing developments because their feeding grounds in the pines have been destroyed by fire.
When Marsha offered an Artists’ Way workshop in Fort Collins, where I lived for a while, I was one of the first to sign up. Lonely, in a new town, unable to break into cliques at my new job, I reached out to meet spiritually like-minded women. Women not bound by traditional religious practices. Free spirits. Marsha was one of them.
Every Wednesday evening for eight weeks, we discussed a different chapter in the Artist’s Way book, shared our experiences with artist dates and morning pages, supported each other to find our inner artist not yet chiseled out of stone.
On the last night of the workshop, we sat cross-legged on the floor, knees touching, lit candle in the center, a circle of seekers. Marsha’s voice soft, high-pitched, without inflection, eased into our silence, “I have news.” Her eyes connected with each one of us. “I have cancer in my left eye.” My breath caught. “I’m having surgery to remove it first thing tomorrow morning.”
I stared at her. Maybe expecting some gaping ugliness somewhere on her face, but she looked like she always had.
“I waited for the surgery, so we could finish our group.” During weeks of our meetings, she’d been undergoing tests and biopsies and doctor visits. She never once let on that anything was wrong. Not once.
Melanoma eye cancer can develop from a mutation in the BAP1 chromosome and develops in the middle layer of the eye, affecting the iris, ciliary body, and choroid. When the tumor is big, like Marsha’s, the entire eye is removed. Years later, there is a higher risk of developing liver cancer.
In the rubber-hand illusion experiment, researchers hide a person’s hand under a towel and place an uncovered rubber hand next to it, making sure that it aligns with the shoulder. The brain knows that the rubber hand is fake. But if a brush strokes the artificial hand and the real one repeatedly at the same time and same speed for over a minute, the brain gets tricked. Visual and touch sensations combine, and the brain believes that the fake hand is real. Measurements of electrical impulses to the real hand are reduced. The temperature of the real hand decreases. People consistently say that their hand just disappears and the fake one becomes real.
Every time I spoke with Marsha she repeated, “I can beat this.” I didn’t doubt her beliefs or her determination that positive thinking could cure her, but after she told me about her liver cancer, there was a hopeless pit in my belly and a nurse’s brain in my head that calculated the odds of survival. They were not in her favor. Not without surgical intervention.
A small leaded glass box sits on my dresser. Clear, uncolored glass, with a hinged top, and a photo on the cover that came with it. A sepia photo with vintage brick houses on Mountain Avenue in Fort Collins. A photo I could slip out and change. Maybe replace with a picture of friends. I fill the box with jewelry I no longer wear. Marsha gave it to me when I moved away from Fort Collins. She had called me the day of our meditation group to make sure I was going to be there to say goodbye. “I’ll try. I still have a lot of packing to do.” I’d said too many goodbyes. I was sad to leave. I stayed home.
The next day she dropped off this beautiful keepsake box. “We missed you last night. We had a cake for you.”
I felt stupid. I never once thought anyone would miss me. Have a party for me.
On one of Marsha’s visits to Seattle a couple of years before her diagnosis, we ferried through the San Juan Islands, spent a night in Friday Harbor, then went to Vancouver Island, BC. We went to a park about an hour west of Victoria. On a beach. It was low tide with sunny blue skies and perfect fall temperatures and a light salt-water breeze. We saw the Olympic Peninsula across the water while we stumbled on the rocky beach, held on to the peeling bark of Madrona trees, followed the narrow trails with roots of fir trees that tripped us but never stopped us. We hiked for hours. Stopped to drink water that we carried in our backpacks. Ate trail mix from the health food store. Talked about how important it was to stay positive. Thoughts create reality. What we think inside is reflected on the outside. We repeated positive affirmations. I have wealth. I can live anywhere. I have perfect health.
Color is determined by each individual’s interpretation of wavelengths of light either absorbed or reflected. Sometimes color is neither of these and, instead, is created by light bouncing off nanostructures like the way sunlight scatters off molecules in the earth’s atmosphere and makes the sky blue. This is called structural coloration, and it is the same thing that gives color to butterflies, berries, and beef.
Cancer spreads through metastasis. Migration through body systems. Cancer firmly embeds itself and defies whatever positive affirmations you thought could change it.
Marsha passed in February in Colorado. Just months after telling me her news. Her family told me about her alternative therapies. Their failure. Her anger. Her pain. Her disappointment. Her family took care of her at the end. I never saw her again after our lunch.
I went back for her life celebration in Chautauqua Park in Boulder. It was April, and the snows were melting. The air was crisp and dry and the skies cloudless. In town, daffodils peeked their heads through a crust of early morning frost.
There was a slide show of her life. Her hair chestnut brown, long, and curly morphed to chestnut brown with streaks of gray, short, and curly. In some photos she had red-eye in both eyes. In some just one. Mostly the photos were to remember her like she was when she was healthy. I wanted to see her like she was at the end. No one ever shows those photos. When cancer cells fed on her body like maggots on a dead cow. When her trim physique became emaciated. When she lost hope and became angry. When she knew she lost the battle and slipped away.
Her family gave each of us a small, engraved stone. Black quartz with two printed lines. Marsha Sage. 1956-2017. They wanted each of us to leave that stone, a placeholder, somewhere that had meaning for her. For us. Somewhere outdoors that she would love.
I took two stones.
I’ve been back to Victoria, BC several times since Marsha passed. Looked for that beach where we hiked. Once, I thought I found it. Parked the car, grabbed my raincoat and the engraved stone. I put up the hood, squinted and squeezed my eyes against the sheets of rain that blurred my view. I walked the trails. Went down to the beach. Choppy waves crashed on the rocks. I tried to feel her presence. Was I in the right place? I wasn’t sure. Memory can be so tricky.
I put the stone back in my pocket.
One of the stones sits in the leaded glass jewelry box on my dresser. I always carry the other one in my purse. Just in case, someday, I find the right place. Or some other special place. Maybe I’ll be able to let her go.
Carol Fischbach is a writer, a nurse, and a student archetype with too many degrees and an ocean of student debt. She was the oldest person in her nursing school class, became an RN at sixty-four, afterwards earned an MFA, and now at seventy-two, is limited to lifting words instead of people. Writing is the portal through which she enters her life and reframes it for her own consumption. She has been published in Propeller, Nailed Magazine, Oregon East, Tide Pools, the Port Townsend Leader, and has done performances at ROAR, a platform for fierce feminine storytelling. She has done dozens of writing workshops over the years, many with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. She is a member of the Pinewood Table writing group. Most recently, she has done monologue performances in company with other writers and performers. She is always seeking new ways to appear on the page.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.