My hospital bed felt like a leather canoe that cradled my body like a mummy. No, not a mummy. Not a coffin. I wasn’t that sick. For a week, though, surgeons and gastroenterologists, the gut docs, had argued behind my back and more modestly, in front of my face, about how to cure the riveting pain in my bowels. The surgeons, I joked to friends who came to see me, were sharpening their knives.
The night before my surgery, I lay alone in the semi-dark with the TV off. I’d crossed my arms across my breasts as if I were protecting my eyes from the rest of my body. It stretched below me under the red and blue plaid blanket my brother had brought me. I’d never had surgery before. No tonsilitis as a child, no C-sections, no cancer. For more than seventy years, no scalpel had violated my ruddy skin. I’d had no practice as a surgery patient and tonight I was terrified. I’ll die tomorrow, I thought, even though there was no sane reason to fear that. It didn’t matter. I saw myself flat on my back on a gurney, its metal sides restraining me as I was wheeled down a bright hallway toward the operating room. I’d slide into a tunnel of anesthesia which dead-ended in a blank brick wall of final unconsciousness.
Under the blanket, I lay rigid, eyes closed. I was deeply frightened and I was fascinated by my fright. But I didn’t want to linger over it, not now, not here. Among the disorderly sheets, a call button butted my thigh. If I pressed it, one of the nurses would come. She’d do her best to reassure me. She’d say any hours-long surgery on a major bodily organ had risks; however, I was in good hands and she’d see me tomorrow night when she came on duty.
I couldn’t rise to the surface for that kind of predictable conversation. Instead, I tuned up Dylan songs on my phone. Surely his voice, which I’d loved for years, would match my fears and by matching, calm them. I moved my phone in its red case to the edge of the plastic bedside table, as close to me as possible. Then I turned toward the narrow window and told myself stories.
Inside my mind, I’d be safe. Some were funny tales about talking animals but they soon thinned out. Gradually, a long story took hold of me. It started during World War II in The Hague, the Dutch royal city, where an older man, a violinist, slowly raised himself from wet cobblestones in front of an elegant house on a chilly evening. I’d only been to The Hague once, but I could see the narrow brick building and the beads of dirty water on his tailored lapel. Somehow, I knew he was part of the resistance, a man whose cover had been blown. It was 1941, during the Nazi occupation. One of his former pupils lived in that house. They’d played duets under the chandeliers. The man took his right hand out of his pocket, knocked.
His pupil came to the door, blocking it for a moment with her tense, slender hips. Then she recognized him, brought him in, gave him brandy, hid him in a cupboard in her kitchen, smuggled him out before dawn the next morning to a sturdy fishing boat, covered him with a tarpaulin in a corner near the helm, and paid the captain to take him across the rough waters of the North Sea to England. I spent a long time with him under the tarpaulin, both of us holding very still.
About midnight in Philly, someone came to take my vital signs and I growled at him, wanting to get back into the fishing boat. When the young technician and his blinking, bleeping machine had gone and he’d mercifully shut the heavy door behind him, I once again felt the wooden ribs of the boat’s hull press my back. For a while, neither the violinist nor I moved or made a sound.
Not far from the Dutch coast, a German patrol boat pounded through the water. It came closer until its massive lights shone above us. The violinist and I could hear the German commander talking to our captain. The violinist probably understood what was said. I didn’t, though I recognized the differences between the guttural German and the softer Dutch. My blood drummed in my ears. I forgot the pain in my bowels. The captain, reasoning with the German guy, sounded matter-of-fact and a little peeved as if he were telling the commander that dawn was coming; the fish wouldn’t wait around for them to finish their conversation; he had to hurry. The violinist took heart. His legs wanted to kick, but he ordered them to stay absolutely still.
When the German boat moved off, the violinist stretched his legs a little, but didn’t sleep. He fingered a piece of sheet music in his inner pocket. I didn’t know why I’d put it there. Some filament of his former life? Something to start with if he got to England? Something of his own so he wouldn’t forget who he was—an accomplished string player who’d performed in the great Protestant churches of his city?
Now and then, the motor coughed and sputtered. Surely, I thought, listening, the North Sea was mined. The closer the fisherman got to the Suffolk shore, the more thickly mines would cluster on the sea floor. Would a Dutch fisherman know these waters? Maybe he’d made this trip before. Maybe that’s why the violinist’s former pupil had hired him.
Finally, as the sea-grey dawn broke, the violinist fell asleep. But I didn’t. I saw the boat get closer to the pebbled beach. Would English watchers accost it? Surely Suffolk fishermen would know a foreign trawler when they saw it. Would they fire at it? Did the captain have some secret flag he could raise? Why on earth was I telling myself this story anyway? There was so much I didn’t know about the Suffolk coast in the fall of 1941. About the mines. About who, if anyone, watched from pillboxes near the beach. If pillboxes even squatted on that particular shore.
But I did know that the Dutch boat had scraped its keel on the pebbles; that the Dutch captain spoke in English to the fishermen who came down to investigate; that the violinist awoke, adrenaline storming his brain; that the Dutch captain pulled back the tarpaulin and helped him up and out of the boat and that one of the British fishermen put an arm around the violinist and he knew he was safe.
As I stroked my right shoulder in the narrow bed, I even arranged a concert in the nearest town for the violinist. A week after his rescue, he stood near a market cross on a sunny afternoon and entertained the locals with Tchaikovsky and Hungarian dances while the music ran in currents along his arms and through his slender fingers and he knew mastery again.
Kaier’s essay “Maple Lane” was mentioned as a Notable in Best American Essays. Her work appears in About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times, 1966journal, Alaska Quarterly Review and The Kenyon Review. Excerpts from her memoir-in-progress appeared in DeWitt Henry’s The Woven Tale (February 2022) and Persimmon Tree (Spring 2023).