The Curmudgeon


Sunday, April 16, 2006

His Charitable Soul

A Moral Tale

There can be few occupations so tedious, and at the same time so troublesome, as the dissection of fully-conscious patients. I recall one in particular who made the most disgraceful fuss, which was all the more inconvenient as he was fairly strong; the straps which held him to the dissecting-table finished up quite badly stretched. He thrashed about so much that, more than once, just when I thought I had at last found what I was looking for (somewhere between the stomach and the genitals, according to all the latest theories), he would make some sudden and unexpected movement, and I would be forced to start all over again. After several hours without progress this became truly galling; especially as, thanks to the perpetual shortage of scalpels around the place (I am personally convinced that people filch them to use in the staff canteen, where of course they then get hopelessly mixed in with all the other cutlery), I had been put to the trouble of growing my fingernails for some weeks on end.

"Pardon me, my man," I said to him at last, in as conciliatory a tone as my annoyance would permit; "but might I ask you to keep still for a minute or two? It's hard enough in there as it is, with all that muscle getting in the way, without you shifting it about all the time and making matters worse. I'm only doing my job, you know."

He did not reply to this until he had succeeded in expelling, with a loud and irreverent plop, my right hand from the lukewarm spaghetti of his smaller intestine. I inferred from this that my arguments had not made a great impression upon him.

"I sympathise of course," he said; "but you must understand that this kind of thing doesn't happen to me very often, and that consequently I'm a little worried about any possible side effects. I'm not even absolutely certain this operation is going to be of much benefit to me. Are you listening when I talk to you?"

"Quiet! I'm looking for something very important." I spoke quite snappishly, for with all his bellyaching he had managed to break the nail on my right index finger; the point was lost forever among his writhing entrails, and all that was left on the finger itself was an uneven, jagged edge which would not only be somewhat imprecise as an instrument, but would also present problems when I eventually got round to cleaning it.

"But look," he persisted. "You've opened me up from the bottom of my ribs to the top of my pelvis, you've peeled back the skin on both sides and pinned it neatly out of the way beneath the table, and you've been rummaging round in my guts for half the morning. And not very respectfully, at that, to judge by the front of your coat. What have I got that's so important you can't search for it in a civilised fashion, with X-rays and things?"

"X-rays wouldn't show it," I said with irritation; I was beginning to lose all patience, not only with him but with the whole enterprise.
"Wouldn't show what?"
"Your soul, of course," I said. "Don't you understand anything? People have been searching for the location of the soul ever since they began to imagine they had one, but so far all efforts in that direction have failed. This is what started everyone thinking there might not be such things as souls at all, and it's made a lot of people very unhappy. So now I'm trying to solve the question once and for all. Excuse me, please."

And rather to his consternation, as he was still doing his best to digest all I had said, I shoved my hand into his entrails again. I probed and poked about a bit, and thought for a moment I had found it - a soft, flabby, rounded thing which, even with my remaining long nails, was damnably difficult to get hold of. The moment I wrenched it out I suspected something was wrong, for it burst and sprayed a foul liquid over me; later inspection of the remnants revealed that it had been his bladder.

"That hurt," he said, with resentment; my fingers, already digging assiduously for richer prizes, skidded off target once more.

"Please have the kindness not to talk," I told him. "It interferes with the whole rhythm of your breathing and throws everything off balance. It would all be far less complicated if you were dead."
"Well, why aren't I?" he whined, completely ignoring my polite request for silence. "Isn't it customary for examinations of this degree of intimacy to be conducted on corpses rather than living people?"
"It used to be," I said, "before modern technology enabled us to take the same liberties with the living as used to be taken with the dead. The permissive age, I suppose. And in any case, you must admit that looking for a soul in a dead body is rather a pointless exercise, since the very nature of a dead body is that the soul, if it ever had one, has already fled it."

Using my talk to distract him, I had been prodding and probing away all this time, my hands making a sound not unlike the jaws of a child with bad table manners. Still I could find nothing, and I was feeling most discouraged.
"Are you really that sure there's one in there?" he inquired at last.
"There certainly doesn't seem to be, does there?" I grumbled.
"There doesn't?"

He sounded quite scandalised. My complaint appeared to shock him even more than the considerable discomfort he had already endured through my morning's research. He filled his lungs with a gigantic gasp; his diaphragm twanged like a guitar string and my hands popped out of him yet again. He began thrashing about on the table, his colon jiggling dangerously, and then on top of it all he started yelling: "I want a soul! I want a soul! You're supposed to be a doctor, for Christ's sake find me a soul!"

I tried to calm him, saying that of course I would find him a soul, that even if they didn't exist naturally they could surely be manufactured artificially, if only someone were willing to try, and that there must be hundreds of respectable business establishments which would simply leap at the chance. I even told him I would go and fetch a needle and thread, and sew him up then and there if he could just pull himself together; but none of it did any good, and I was wondering whether to leave him alone and let him shake himself to pieces, which I could then check over later without these constant interruptions, when quite suddenly, and for no reason that I could see, he became still and totally silent, staring down at himself so intently that I thought his antics had killed him, and I turned my eyes to his exposed depths, half expecting to see the soul rising out of them.

And then, rather to my surprise, I really did see something. It ascended, a tiny, glinting sliver, out of the steaming stew of his abdomen, to float delicately on the slimy surface like a strangely-shaped globule of fat. Both of us gazed at this tiny, blood-soaked shard, with its sharp point at one end and its jagged, uneven edge at the bottom; and with a sudden leap of joy I recognized my lost fingernail. I was about to reclaim it when the fool began to scream again.

"Don't you touch it! Don't you dare touch it! It's mine, do you hear me, it's my soul and mine alone! You've seen it now, haven't you? You know it's there now, don't you? Well, bloody well leave it where it is then!"

I did my best to reason with him, to convince him that what he was pleased to call his soul was neither a soul nor his, since it was in fact a fingernail and belonged in actuality to me; but he chose not to listen, and furthermore he threatened me with a lawsuit for breach of promise unless I kept my somewhat indiscreet promise about the needle and thread. So I had to pack all his insides back where they belonged, neatly and tidily - a task beside which the search for the human soul pales into insignificance. When one has twenty feet or so of intestine to replace, there is little profit to be made from merely dumping it all down at random and hoping it will somehow settle in. It was the middle of the afternoon by the time I got the last of those slippery loops and folds back exactly the way they had been before; nevertheless, I am proud to be able to say that this same patient of mine is alive and walking the earth to this very day.

I received a letter from him quite recently. He has gained two hundred and fifty pounds in weight, and is making a comfortable living by murdering young children to be tinned as quality dog food. He has never, he writes, felt better in his life, either in body or in spirit, now he knows for an absolute truth that he really does have an immortal soul inside him. (And immortal it may very well be, for all I know; fingernails are durable little things.) He can now, he asserts, live out his life happily, in the certain knowledge that, were he to swerve in the smallest degree from the path of righteousness, the angry soul would burn inside him with a dreadful and all-consuming pain; while in fact the sensation it gives him at present is as far from such agonising torment as can possibly be imagined - namely a mild, occasionally rather scratchy, but always friendly tickling, located just below the region of his belly-button.


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