All the man had was my name, Mathilda. It was all I would give him. He had tapped quietly on the door, but once inside his voice was too loud for our small house. It had been raining for days, and he trudged through the house wearing his big boots without minding his footprints. My mother sent him into the rear of the house, then trailed him, silently wiping the floor with a rag so that when he left he wouldn't see the stains he had made.
The doctor took one look at me sitting on my father's lap and pursed his lips. Open your mouth, Mathilda, he told me, so that we might have a look.
He said it as if we went back a ways. He said it friendly. He had no name, only a profession, and he was no friend, and I could see right away that he thought us all stupid: my mother, stupid. My father, stupid. For waiting so many days before calling him. For living at the lowest point of town where the water sat after it rained awhile. And as for me...well, this doctor was looking at me as if I were a circus animal. I was a wounded lion, and I sat motionless. My gaze followed him closely.
Did I have a sore throat? No, no, my mother was quick to tell the doctor. She says her throat isn't hurting. Is it? she asked, turning to me.
I knew what filled every corner of the house, unmentioned. Two boys from town had died already of diphtheria, and what the doctor didn't know was that one of them had been my uncle's youngest son. Young enough that I had sometimes called him piglet because when he got laughing, he would snort. And when he did, I would start laughing, too.
Open your mouth, Mathilda, the doctor repeated.
I didn't want to die. But I would never open my mouth to this man. I had already made my jaw sore from three days of opening my mouth in front of the mirror on my bedroom wall. While my mother and father were sleeping, I was straining my eyes under the candlelight to see into the filmy darkness of my own throat, feeling the heat of my own breath as I stood inches from the mirror. I didn't know what I was looking for precisely, but a disease that could kill, I had figured, wouldn't be hard to spot. My last year's schoolteacher had died of a tumor that had made her neck big and stretched. That was how death was supposed to come: plain and graceless. I had never looked down my own throat before, and wasn't sure what I saw differed much from my healthy throat. Despite the squeezing pain.
Was my throat hurting? I didn't need to lie if I refused to budge. My father had me perched on his lap like a wooden dummy. But I wasn't a wooden dummy, who doesn't have a mind and whose mouth opens when somebody else pulls a lever.
My parents, covering my silence, went on about my fever, and their having given me things to make it go away. Tablets and tonics. Herbs. My father looked up at the doctor, who stood tall beside us, tilted his head, and said, But nothing does no good.
Now, everybody in town respected my father because if their shoes ever needed repair, they came to him. Often on Sundays he led discussion of a bible chapter. Everybody knew he was a smart man. Yet he was letting this doctor think him stupid. If I had said what he'd said--Nothing does no good--my father would have put his thumb and forefinger around my chin, turned my face toward his own, and said, Mind your grammar, young lady. But my father had little money, and no knowledge of medicine. If this doctor had his heart set on treating a simple girl from a simple home, then my father was going to accommodate him.
So this doctor said he was going to pry open my mouth if I wouldn't open it, and from his eyes, wide and dark, I could see he meant it. I clamped shut my mouth, but the doctor was coming close anyway with a thin slab of wood, and I was up from my father's lap trying to scratch out the doctor's eyes. I had been ill for almost a week, but for a moment my strength was back.
You bad girl! my mother said, because she was easily charmed. She wanted to look responsible in the doctor's eyes, even though when she tried to calm me, saying This won't hurt, the doctor had glared at her as if he wanted to slap her. Still, she craved his praise. So did my father, who was not merely accommodating the doctor. There was more to it. My father, the shoe-repairman, who had lost a nephew only a month before, whose daughter had now been ill for five days while outside the rains reeked like sour mud, caught this doctor's anger like a disease. He took hold of my wrists, as the doctor demanded, gripped them so tightly that his fingernails dug into my flesh, and no matter how I struggled, I was no match for my father.
So I screamed: Stop it! Stop it! You're killing me.
These words, I'm sure, cut my mother's heart, the woman who had for days been laying damp towels on my forehead, who had been sitting at my bedside softly humming the songs of her own youth to sooth me. My mother asked the doctor if perhaps this business was too much for me, now, and the two men went crazy.
Hush! my father cried.
Get her out of here! the doctor yelled, and with a fervor of the possessed he went at me with the tongue depressor. My father continued to squeeze my wrists together, and the doctor shoved the tongue depressor into my mouth so hard that I had to open or else he would have snapped my teeth right out. But when he had the wood in my mouth I bit down as hard as I could. I could taste blood, and splinters stung my tongue, and tears were coming down my mother's cheeks as she stood in the doorway, one leg in, one leg out.
Get a spoon! the doctor commanded, and my mother broke her frozen stance and went away, and I was screaming. The doctor was breathing in deep huffs, his face had turned red, his eyes had narrowed, but the truth is that he meant nothing to me. I was screaming because of the wooden splinters in my tongue, and because my mother had been sent away, and because my father, who had never hurt me before, was hurting me now. My mother returned with a silver spoon too large for my mouth. The doctor grabbed it from her and muttered, This will do fine. The moment that spoon was up to my face, my mother realized her error, and she nearly exploded from fright. So I fought less. I let the doctor, down on one knee, lay his hand on my neck and pry the spoon so far back into my throat that I gagged.
Just afterward, what I remember most is how the doctor's face softened. He let go of me and stood, brushed off his pants, and held the spoon up as if he were a child with a lollypop.
When he smiled in victory, I tried to kill him. He had given me strength, but now that I had it, it was mine. And so I was off my father's lap and trying to claw into him. I was going to kill him, this doctor, for my baby cousin, and for my mother and father.
Mathilda! screamed my mother.
Mathilda! echoed the doctor, though he was clearly amazed. Even defending himself, he had the hint of a smile, as if impressed with his sick lion for showing so much life. Mathilda, he said. Mathilda.
I wanted to kill him. I wanted to know his name. He knew mine.
About the author:
Michael P. Kardos is a doctoral candidate and Creative Writing Fellow at University of Missouri. Last year he took Grand Prize in Prism International's short fiction contest. Other stories have appeared recently in Crazyhorse, River City, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. His MFA is from The Ohio State University. For more information, check out his website at www.michaelkardos.com
For those who are interested in such things, "Mathilda" is a retelling -- more specifically, a response -- to William Carlos Williams's classic 1938 short story "The Use of Force."