“Clamp his two hands in strong chains” (speculative flash fiction)

I took this photo from Andree at Scribe's Cave, for a prompt she had in early March (that I missed). Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the photo, which I felt nefarious (especially in the "surgeon's" smug smirk), that I was compelled to write about it.

I used this photo from Andreé at Scribe’s Cave, who used it for a prompt she had in early March (that I initially missed). More info at end of story.

They caught me unawares, the young one and the two old enough to have hairy faces.

My body, their pelt, their possession. They sneered. I supposed they’d never heard tell of the Tamboti tree.

I could tell the wide blue-eyed one was scared, but he readied the trembling handkerchief anyway. Coerced, no doubt.

“We’ll make a lesson of yew, boy,” was the last sentence my ordinary limited senses lapped.

They were lucky the straps and the medication rivoted me temporarily in place as the haughty side man prepared the bone-saw and hot iron cross for my leg.

Photograph of the leopard from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts, if you can.

Photograph of a leopard, from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts.

The man under a dark drape held the box aloft, and I saw it flash through my eyelids even as I was transforming, screen of skin sliding in on itself.

I felt the color rising as my hide erupted in a riot of bristly hairs.

Soon my only instinct would be shunted toward a decision: do I play with these muslin bags of flesh before I shred them asunder?


First, more on the original photograph. Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the depiction, which I felt nefarious, that I felt compelled to write (or right, as the case may be) about it. After looking at the man on the table, my indignation sprang from what I interpreted as the “surgeon’s” smug look; admittedly, it’s difficult to see for certain, and I don’t have the “patient’s” backstory, although I seriously doubt informed consent was something practiced in those days, plus given the horrors of slavery, I’m doubtful the black man was either asked or told what they thought might happen during the operation. All that said, I could be incorrect, so please feel free to give me the backstory if you can provide data sources.

Now, as far as the discussion of the writing proper . . .

Please do check out One Starving Activist, where Andreé Robinson-Neal hosts Scribe’s Cave, especially if you’re a fan of speculative fiction (i.e., sci-fi, fantasy, or horror).

If you’re curious as to the partial inspiration/origin of this shape-shifter fantasy story, other than the awful legacy of slavery, particularly in American history, you have to look back to Greco-Roman myth and the character of Proteus.

“Aristaeus [the demi-god who invented beekeeping] wept, when he saw all his bees killed and honeycombs abandoned incomplete. His sea-blue mother [the Naiad Kyrene (Cyrene)] could scarcely console his pain, and attached these final words to her speech: ‘Stop your tears, my boy. Proteus will lighten your loss, and tell you how to regain what is gone. But so he does not baffle you by altering appearance, clamp his two hands in strong chains.’
The youth approaches the seer and binds the limp arms of the sleeping old man of the ocean. Proteus uses his art to shift and feign his looks, but soon resumes shape, mastered by chains.” — from Ovid, Fasti I, translated by Boyle (Fasti is the “Book of Days,” or, specifically, a partial poem in six books that detail the first six months of the Roman calendar)

In a different translation of Ovid from Latin (by James G. Frazer), Proteus is likened to a wizard rather than a seer.

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15 thoughts on ““Clamp his two hands in strong chains” (speculative flash fiction)

  1. I am reminded of a film called Cat People I saw when I was young.. most famous probably because of the Bowie song.. “putting out fire with gasoline “… and being younger I probably was a little bit in love with Nastassia Kinski

  2. Awesome writing, Leigh. I felt as if I was right there with him. Love also the back story of the photo. I actually went off and did some research about it on my own. So, to that end, I became hooked with the image and wondered about the true story. Thanks for sharing. This was wonderful, Leigh!

  3. You have made a very powerful interpretation of the photo. I was certainly taken by surprise by the transformation ending. For me this has a different resonance as I am familiar with the jungle amputations by surgeons in Far East POW camps in WW2. This was the only way to attempt to save men with bone-deep leg ulcers. So in the photo I see the young anaesthetist holding the pulse of the patient’s right hand. I see the bandage on his calf and imagine gangrene underneath…

    • Thank you for stopping by, Hilary. I agree with you; there’s probably a much more benign explanation and interpretation than the fanciful one I made (rooted in some negative realities, I suppose). Have you perchance read Rebecca Skloot’s book on Henrietta Lacks? I suppose having read that, as well as the goings-on at Tuskegee (syphilis study) and other places, has soured me a bit to power structures (okay, I was already soured) in terms of one group taking advantage of the “less powerful” group, whether that was Africans or women or children in industrial (and earlier) times or low-wage workers or what-have-you. In the end, I hope that the patient was saved from, as you said, in all likelihood a gangrenous limb and was able to have some kind of fruitful life afterward. I suppose my modern mindset also clouded it in terms of . . . why take a photograph of this patient’s vulnerable moment, why not get to work on saving him rather than dithering while a photograph was posed for (if memory serves me correctly, in the 1850s, that could have taken hours of posing)? I get that it was a historical moment, but still. In any case, thanks again; this has been a wonderful discussion and gave me a lot to think about for the future stories, too. Hope your writing and gardening are going well this week.

  4. Those “posed” pictures were so typical of the time and the people usually looked smug. I expect you’ve seen some of those photos that were taken of Englishmen on safari, posing at the end of a day of hunting “wild beasts”, They’d be standing there, with a rifle tucked under one arm and their boot on their kill, which would be some fearsome lion or tiger (their pelts much favoured by the aristocracy as ornamentation for their homes by way of rugs, complete with heads that had a permanent snarl about the mouth).
    I enjoyed your most imaginative speculative interpretation of the surgery photo. Of course, speaking of “speculative”, I suppose those surgeons were being speculative, which leads me to wonder if they purposely chose to use a black man as a guinea pig for testing ether. But then you could say “lucky black man”, as it probably saved his life, unlike the lives of the whites who weren’t used as guinea pigs.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Sarah. As Hilary said and you have related, there’s probably a more benign, if you will, real-world explanation for this photograph than my partially realistic interpretation. As you said, perhaps it’s best to hope for the best and that the patient was a lucky man . . . I guess I’ve just read too much (a la The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it), such that I’m skeptical of power structures in the treatment of anyone not in power at that moment in time (women, children, the poor, Africans/African-Americans, the disabled, and so on). In the end, I’m glad you enjoyed my fanciful shape-shifter interpretation.

      • Must look up that book by Rebecca Skloot. Like you, I’m skeptical of power structures in the treatment of anyone not in power. Just now, I’m trying to decide which of the political parties I should vote for in the UK’s forthcoming General Election. My decision will be based on who is the best of the worst, rather than the best of the best D: potential evils.

  5. My word, that is a disturbing photo. Very much enjoyed your take on it; wonderful moments of original phrasing throughout as ever – I particularly enjoyed the alliterative spike of ‘screen of skin sliding in on itself.’ also great touches of florid/interesting diction dotted about – muslin bags of flesh before I shred them asunder / rivoted me temporarily. always enjoy your freedom with and application of interesting diction. 🙂

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