Saturday, October 17, 2020

In The Face of Our Mortality

by 2020 Fiction contributor Alison Clare

When I’ve been asked about the inspiration for “Appointment. Psychic Surgeon. Manila. 1972." I say, “Well, you should really speak to my mother-in-law. What she’ll tell you is bananas.” A couple of years ago, she had asked me to transcribe her journal from a journey she took to the Philippines in the summer of 1972. About halfway through the project, sitting on the couch of her home in Northern California, I put down the tiny spiral bound journal and said, “Did this really happen?”  

Essentially, the short story I penned is inspired by the ordeal she suffered at the hands of famed Filipino psychic surgeon Tony Agpaoa. Her mother, dying of stomach cancer and terrified of modern medicine, turned to him in the hopes of a miracle cure. He had pretended to excise the tumor from her mother’s stomach in an elaborate show of blood and extracted flesh. It was such a confusing and upsetting experience that she had rarely talked about the trip she had undertaken, only months before her mother’s death. Upon reading the story in Bacopa Literary Review, my husband looked up and said, “This is what happened to my mom?”

Later that night, I received a message from my brother-in-law after having read the story exclaiming, “Mind blown,” followed by the appropriate head exploding emoji. A few days later I spoke to my mother-in-law (who had given me her blessing to publish the story) and she said, “I like what you did with the chickens and the blood . . . because that’s what they did, and at the time we just didn’t know.” 

I suppose this is the power of stories: to lift the lid, expose a version of our histories and share them in a light in which they have never been seen. My story is fictional, and not at all a perfect recreation of what my mother-in-law experienced, but I think it honestly reflects the emotion of the truth: the hope, faith, fear, and crushing disappointment we experience in the face of our mortality.

. . . Yana moved from the idea of one quick cure to another, from day to day. On that particular hazy San Francisco morning, Yana's faith had been in the square firmly upon the promises of the Peoples Temple. By lunch time, she was enamored with the legend of the Great Surgeon . . .
Yana lay now on a bare metal table, draped in red cotton blankets. A deep blue clay bowl had been positioned by her head, partially covered by a thin sheet of muslin, ready to catch the cancer when it was extracted . . .

The Great Surgeon yanked one hand into the air, holding it high with a cry of victory. Held tight in his fist, a bloody mass of muscle and sinew bled furiously, the red running down his wrist and forearm . . .
Nadia . . . stumbled, knocking against the wall, searching for the waiting room . . . pulled at the first door handle she saw and fell through the opening into a dark grey room. The walls were badly water damaged and the smell of mold was heavy in the air. A fluorescent tube buzzed above Nadia's head. Blinking into the bright light, she stared in horror at the sight of a man standing at a steel table, hands deep inside the entrails of a dead chicken . . .

*   *   *

Alison Clare is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she completed her masters in English. She lives in Los Angeles with her bearded husband, baby daughter, and two neurotic rescue dogs. She is a voracious reader and, when her time comes, she will most likely meet her end crushed under the tower of books on her bedside table. Links to other work Alison has published can be found at her Instagram page @aliclarewrites.

Read Alison Clare's "Appointment. Psychic Surgeon. Manila. 1972."
2020 Bacopa Literary Review,
pp. 95-97

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