The lion had a cavity, and the veterinarian was trying to pull his tooth. But something was wrong—the tooth was stuck, or maybe what Aunt May said was true, and the vet on the animal show wasn’t strong enough to wrestle it from his jaw.
I felt ashamed for her, a tiny blonde woman. Aunt May kept calling her the female vet, as in the female vet can’t pull the tooth.
That’s why I went running. I chose a quiet path and I ran fast, for a long time. The trees grew tall around me, casting longer and longer shadows as the sun dropped in the sky.
At dark I noticed footsteps behind me, matching my rhythm and pace. When I sped up the footsteps did too. When I turned north, their steady pulse followed. I stopped running and leaned against a tree trunk; all fell silent.
A nurse whispered “I’m Abby” and then she shouted, I need help in triage, after which a lot more people came running. They pushed my stretcher into a large room with shining equipment attached to the walls. Somebody with a rolling voice said “Her vitals are OK” and somebody with an accent I couldn’t place said “sexual a-ssault” and then Abby said “She has to go to room ten,” although I didn’t go anywhere just yet. There were wires and cables being shuffled and untangled and attached to me, a needle in my arm. I asked if I was dying and they all said “No!” There was an x-ray, the warm rush of morphine, the flash of a needle and thread at the edge of my vision, and more morphine. Finally someone helped me stand up and walk because we were going to room ten. Abby walked next to me.
I could open my eyes a little; I was wearing a hospital gown and some hospital socks. They were thin but the treads were good so I didn’t lose my footing on the gleaming floors.
We walked down a hallway lined with sliding doors. At its end was an old-fashioned wooden door, the sort you’d see on a Tudor, with a stained-glass window. Abby nodded towards the door, so I opened it, revealing a flight of stairs.
I began to climb.
It’s a good thing I’m a runner because there were a lot of stairs. After the first hundred or so, I started sweating, and I asked Abby how many more I had to climb. “All of them,” she said. There were no landings, only stairs. But I kept going.
I thought about the straight, flat timeline of my life. Before today, it contained only one event—my mother leaving me with Aunt May—and that was a long time ago. Since then I hadn’t done much except learn that I was good at mathematics and running. Today seemed to ruin the line, make its continuation impossible. I was glad to be climbing. When we reached the top, we pushed through a heavy metal door and emerged on the roof of the hospital.
Abby walked in front of me, stopped at the X of the helipad, and unfurled a thick blanket with a snap of her wrists. The free edge sailed up then collapsed obediently, its clear green a surprise against the grit of the roof. “This is your room,” she said. I stepped onto the soft blanket, a luxury. Then I lay down and took a few deep breaths.
Abby sat next to me. She reached to the side and picked up a white cardboard box a bit bigger than a shoe box, then pulled a scissor from her pocket and slit open the seal so the lid sprang open; when she did that a bunch of papers fluttered out and flew away on the wind.
Everywhere around me I could see lights. Not just the stars; there were glowing lamps or candles or fireflies in every window. The entire city shone with light.
Abby rummaged through the white box. Her hair was unreasonably long; it was piled around her in thick, bright waves of red and gold, and her neck and shoulders were lean cords poking out of her scrubs. Here was a truly strong woman, I thought, one who could pull the lion’s tooth like a weed from the earth.
She took my hand in hers and cleaned my nails. Soil came out from under them in heaps, landing with soft thuds and thumps on the blanket. She pulled envelopes from her box and began to fill them, then seal and label them: “Bay leaf. Celery. Turmeric. Thyme.” She combed my hair and picked the leaves out of it and washed my body, then she filled up envelopes that said Stephanie’s shining hair and From Stephanie’s running legs and From Stephanie’s wonderful pumping arms.
I lay quietly under the stars, wondering what else was out there besides space trash and asteroids.
Maybe room ten was not a room, but a world. Maybe it was a metaphor for this world. Or maybe room ten was my body, its inside and outside, filled with searchlights that blinked slowly on and off.
The sky was changing. Orange light filtered through the clouds to the east; now I could see all the way to the city’s outskirts. The buildings blurred and receded, yielding green mountains and a rushing riverbed that wound its way through.
Abby handed me my running shoes. “Lace up,” she said. I understood that I had to run again.
It was hard. First of all, my feet against the earth brought back the terror of my earlier run, and also my stomach hurt. My head ached and my neck was stiff. But I kept going.
I gained speed as I went. My legs moved and my arms pumped. My heart pumped and my lungs moved behind my ribcage. My ribs ached. I heard footsteps behind me.
I ran faster, turning down an intersecting path, but the footsteps followed me. I turned off the path and ran across a field, I ducked into a stand of trees and weaved through them with pine needles muffling my footsteps, but still I heard muffled steps behind me. I skidded down a muddy bank and plunged through icy water. I scrambled up the other side but the footsteps pursued me.
Finally I stood up tall, a firmly rooted tree in a stand of pines beneath a vast sky. The sky was orange gold. Its beauty wasn’t lost on me.
“What do you want?” I asked.
It was Abby. She was breathing hard, covered in mud, one hand steadying her against a tree. Panting, she held the other hand out to me, palm up. She had the lion’s tooth. I came close, to really see the thing. It was smooth and shiny with blood at the root and a black cavity at its center, foul with rot and decay.
We celebrated Aunt May’s seventy-second birthday last night, just the two of us and a lemon cake. After the cake she turned on the vet show again; this time it was about a dog who lost his leg in a raccoon trap. “What a pity,” she said. “Such a helpless creature.”
I went to bed early and woke at midnight to the lion standing beside my bed, his great pink nose an inch from my face, his eyes amber-green and remote.
I raised myself up on an elbow and held his gaze, which was quiet and not unfriendly. He was, I could see, a creature like me: subject to pain and pestilence, shot through with a bit of the divine.
He turned away and padded around the room, sniffing at my socks and shoes, the mess of papers on the floor where I scribble and scrawl my story. Words are reliable allies. They hold the story for me.
The lion. I was sure he had come for the tooth, but it was mine to carry. After Aunt May picked me up from the hospital, I’d cleaned and polished the thing, cut it down to size and scrubbed its center clean. Then I tucked it into my wrist, right next to the pulse, so the blood rushes by it with each beat. I feel it move when I run, I told him, silently. Like a splinter or a tiny engine, every time my feet touch the earth.
Rachel Kowalsky is a Guatemalan and Ashkenazi pediatric emergency physician. In her writing, she loves to explore the hospital as a place of storytelling, transformation and healing. She is the winner of the New England Journal of Medicine’s 2021 short fiction contest, and has published her stories and essays in Orca, Podium, HerStry, and the anthologies “Real Life of a Pediatrician” and “Perspectives.” She lives with her family and dogs in New York.