Change is Too Benign a Word by Philip John

 As Sheila awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, she found her right hand transformed into a giant pair of scissors. What has happened, she thought as she tried to move her ‘fingers’. The long blades snipped the air obediently.


After she had learnt to brush her teeth, work the health faucet and wash her face with the glinting appendix that her body had grown overnight, she called her doctor.


‘A pair of scissors, did you say?’


‘Yes, a largish pair. The strange thing is, I can’t say I’m unfamiliar with how to use them.’


‘Ah, it’s coded into your brain. I’d wait and watch. Careful when you eat,’ the doctor said. She thought she heard stifled laughter at the other end of the line. She wanted to tell him she wasn’t joking but instead she said, ‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ and hung up.


Her hand lolled by her side, the blades going flaccid, gently curving inward.


She flagged down an auto and got in, her right hand hidden under her stole. No sooner had the vehicle started, when two men slipped into it from either side, flanking her. ‘Excuse me?’ Sheila blurted. The men smiled calmly. In the rear view mirror, the auto-driver’s expression was neutral. The man on her left placed his palm on her breast.


Before she could respond, her hand involuntarily pressed forward.


A second later, the yellow upholstery of the auto darkened with a furious crisscrossing of red. There was chaos. The driver stepped on the brakes. The man on Sheila’s left clambered out of the auto and limped across the road. Pedestrians halted abruptly to avoid colliding into him. He was gripping his forearm, which culminated in a red stump. Blood shot out of it like water from a garden hose.


The second assailant pressed his back against the side of the auto. He gaped at Sheila. ‘What the hell?’ he blurted, and stumbled out of the vehicle.


Dazed, Sheila turned to face the driver, her body aflame with strange emotions, the blades on her hand looking oddly phallic. He quickly raised his hands in self-defence. ‘I hate this kind of thing, I swear. They don’t listen,’ he said. When she continued to stare at him, he got out and started to run.


She watched the last of the blood swirl around the drain as she released water from the tap onto the blades and both of her arms. She wiped the blades gingerly.


The metal was already relaxing; she saw her reflection in its now benign sheen. She looked at herself in the mirror above the sink. Blood had turned her blouse crimson. It wasn’t her blood. She’d never had someone else’s blood on her before. It felt dishonest. But that wasn’t the only thing she felt. There was another: ironic triumph. It cloaked her in a strange hybrid of elation and regret.


Sheila looked through her wardrobe and found the cast she’d worn last summer when she’d broken her arm after her biking accident. She sheathed her scissors-hand in the cast, packed her handbag and left the house.


He couldn’t have gone far. 


When the last stitch had been sewn on, Franz stepped back and looked at the victim’s face. Or what was left of it.


The auto, in which she’d been heading to work, had been ‘hijacked’ by unknown assailants. She’d been driven to a garage where she was chained to a pole and repeatedly raped before being beaten senseless in a fit of psychosexual rage.


‘Bandage the eye. I’ll be back,’ he told the nurse and walked to the sink to scrub himself. As he dried his hands, he looked into the mirror. I don’t want this anymore. Something’s got to give.He placed the towel back on the rack and left the emergency ward. The towel slid off the rack and fell to the floor.


Sheila stood at the intersection and looked down at the road.


Blood, turned black, cut a line along the tar before it vanished at the edge of a field. She followed the trail. Her right hand sat snugly in the cast; was it an outcome of last year’s accident? She imagined a piece of shrapnel lodged in her bone, metastasizing, transforming, ultimately emerging this morning.


The blood trail stopped. She looked around, shielding her eyes from the heat. Then she spotted the hospital sign and proceeded towards it. He would have had to come here.


Inside the cast, the blades stirred. She passed her hand over it as though to alleviate residual tension from the morning episode. It’s ok, she told them in her mind.


She wondered how this was going to alter her life. Would her employer ask her to leave? Would her parents disown her? And which man was going to get under a sheet with a woman who had knives sticking out of her hand?


‘So you want out of here? You want a change?’ Pai asked, smiling.


Franz looked exhausted. Pai was head of the department of surgery. He was a man without hope and without despair. He used what he called his ‘inner antiseptic’ to stay focussed. But Franz, an exchange student from The Czech Republic increasingly wanted to alter his original ambitions. All his training hadn’t prepared him for the carousel of grotesqueries that passed through the emergency ward.


‘Yes, I need a change. Actually, no. Change is too benign a word. I need a metamorphosis,’ Franz said, surprising himself as he spoke.


He hadn’t heard that word in a long time. Metamorphosis. It came from a faraway place. Not entirely human. But no less vital.


Pai smiled again. ‘Look around you, Franz’ he said. ‘Do you honestly think life was designed for metamorphoses, for overnight transformations?’ He shook his head. ‘Those are the fantasies of youth. Adults, like us, understand that the rock must be rolled up the hill, only to have it roll back down. The next morning, we start again.’


He paused to light a cigarette. ‘You should know this better than me. You’re from Prague. When the Russian tanks invaded your city in 1968, what happened? Were they violently overthrown by your people? No. There was no transformation. You endured it.’


Franz stared at the wall behind Pai. We didn’t endure it. We fought it every day. And when we couldn’t endure it, we left. We don’t sweep things under the carpet like our cousins in the Asian subcontinent. A woman gets gang raped on a bus. Everyone bristles for a fortnight. Then the collective wound closes up. But Franz kept silent. The last thing he wanted was to draw the ire of the immigration authorities for ‘disparaging remarks.’


‘Excuse the presumption, sir,’ he said, ‘but the Prague example strikes me as a hopeless way to live. I cannot reconcile myself to a life without hope in a world beset by force. I like to believe that change – even metamorphosis – is possible.’


Pai’s face seemed to indicate that Franz had missed the point but he didn’t belabour it. ‘And how do you propose to bring about your metamorphosis, Franz? Are you hoping to wake up tomorrow morning, transformed into a super human being?’ he asked.


‘Have you ever been violated, sir?’ Franz asked.


‘Excuse me?’


‘Have you ever been violated? Anyone ever hit you and shove you into a gutter? Or maybe just grab your crotch in a public place?’


Pai regarded him watchfully. ‘No, I can’t say I have been,’ he said.


‘So then,’ Franz said, ‘you don’t know what it means to have a part of you permanently trapped in the past. I’ve been violated once. Part of me is still a hostage of the past. I call to it. But it cannot see me. Cannot step outside the quagmire of fear and loathing it is steeped in. So I wait. I wait for time’s slow therapy. I hope for evolution.’ He paused. ‘But every day in this hospital I am brought face to face with carnage. Then it all comes back to me. My past. The unfathomable cruelty of man. And I think to myself: who needs evolution? We need transformation. Metamorphosis. And we need it now.’


Sheila sat facing the unconscious patient, her auto assailant, in the hospital room.


An IV tube fed his bandaged arm. With her unaltered hand, she stroked the blood-stained bandage. It was shorter than his other arm. The hand had definitely not been sewn back on. Despite what he’d attempted to do, she found herself engulfed by contrition. No one deserved this.


Franz entered the room. His bespectacled face was cast in an expression that was both world-weary and forbiddingly intense. ‘This is a no-visitors zone, lady. How did you get in here?’ he said. She backed away from the bed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she stuttered. Franz regarded her knowingly.  ‘Do you know who did this to him?’


‘I did.’


‘Excuse me?’


I did. It wasn’t entirely in my control.’


‘It wasn’t entirely in your control? Lady, he has no hand!’


‘I was attacked.’


‘What? How?’


‘I was in an auto when he and his friend flanked me from either side. They were going to assault me, I had no choice. I was terrified, and my body just snapped.’ Franz stared at Sheila.


‘What do you mean your body just snapped?’


That was when the news anchor on the TV in the room caught their attention. ‘We have reports that a series of mutilations are being perpetrated, allegedly by women upon men.’ The anchor paused to let the words sink in. ‘Body parts have been damaged and in some cases, even severed. At least one bystander said that one of the women appears to have had a set of knives affixed to her hand. “It was like Wolverine,” he said. More incidents are coming in as we speak. Nature appears to have gone berserk.’


Sheila let her cast drop to the ground. Franz turned from the TV and looked at her.

The blades at the end of her right hand moved, at once both muscular and metallic. Her left hand had also begun altering. The change was embryonic but certain, her fingers a silvery-grey.


When she looked up at him momentarily, Franz thought he detected a yellow glint in her eyes. Something ran up his spine.


‘I’m tired,’ she said and sat down. ‘Please don’t report me. I think it turns on people only if it senses that I’m in danger. I’ll leave soon.’


Franz stared at the blades for a full minute before speaking. ‘Does it hurt?’ he asked. She shook her head. He reminded Sheila of a professor from high school whom she’d been attracted to because he always appeared to be seeking a subterranean world of new knowledge. She didn’t know who she was or wanted to be in life back then, and she had thought he would give her some sort of key to unlock herself. She liked Franz immediately.


‘Do you want to get a cup of coffee?’ he asked. She looked at the screen with red-rimmed eyes. Then she looked back at him. ‘I’m a freak,’ she said. Franz considered this. ‘I don’t know what you are yet. But you’re no freak. Come with me.’


It was night. Sheila’s second assailant in the auto, the one who got away, slinked past a field faintly illumined by the moon.


From afar he heard a cry. He turned to look in its direction. A man staggered off a low compound wall and ran across the field. Behind him a small horde of people leapt off the wall and chased after him. The second assailant narrowed his eyes. The horde was all women. As they ran across the field, they were silhouetted briefly by the lights of an office building behind them. He saw their hair trailing behind them and the long, dark spokes in their hands.


He turned and ran in the opposite direction. It was getting darker by the minute but he kept running, his brain awash with fear and his body taut as a tightrope. The orifices in his body suddenly felt vulnerable and wanted to seal themselves shut. Except his eyes, which had to remain open in this nightmare of nature’s unexpected reprisal. 



Philip is a creative director with an advertising start-up in Bangalore. He is also a freelance writer and creative consultant. His unpublished book, A Trick With Words I Am Learning To Do, addresses the themes of identity and family. His short stories have been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Helter Skelter and Spark. Philip teaches a creative writing program at Bangalore Writers Workshop. Besides reading and writing, he likes movies, jazz, psychology, cats, history and a good conversation. He will read almost anything by Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, J M Coetzee and Lydia Davis.


Edited by Leela Levitt.