THE UNKNOWN ASSAILANT &
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
by Frank Huyler
is an emergency physician in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
His poetry has appeared in The
Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, and Poetry, among others. His
collection of stories, The Blood of Strangers: Stories from Emergency Medicine, was published in
1999 by the University of California Press, Berkeley. As
Paul Auster writes of the collection: "Dr.
Huyler's short, intense book treats of only the most important matters: life and death. His
prose is nearly invisible, and therefore it allows us to see what he is talking about. And once we see it, we are not likely to forget
is a young writer with a big mind - and an even bigger heart." The following two pieces are taken from the
THE UNKNOWN ASSAILANT
ONE WAS MIDDLE-AGED, BALDING, the other young, overweight, and both men screamed as they
rolled in on the gurneys. We had no warning on the radio at all. The paramedics were
urgent, moving quickly and breathing hard. Multiple gun-shot wounds, they said, with
unstable vital signs. They didn't have time to call it in; it was too close, they were too
I took the young one. He lay soaked
in sweat, with a blue-red hole in his neck. "I can't move my feet," he yelled,
over and over "I can't move my feet."
The volume of his shouts was like a
physical force in the small space. We hung blood immediately-deep red, the icy drops
tumbling into him as he grew quiet, and his face settled into the mottled blue mask I'd
seen so often in that room.
On the X ray clipped to the board, the
bullet appeared magnified, white against the grays of his chest, just under his heart. As
we ran to the operating room, the gurney humming like a shopping cart down the hall to the
elevator, I heard the nurse on the phone behind me. "They're coming up right
now," she said. "Get the room ready."
In the elevator the slow minute of quiet,
he looked up at me, and I felt his hand on mine. "Please," he said, like a small
child beginning to cry, "I don't want to die. Don't let me die."
"You're not going to die," I
replied, thinking he might very well. "We'll take care of you.
The bullet had clipped his aorta, torn
through one lung, through the diaphragm, and into his belly. He lay on his side, his chest
split open, while the surgeons struggled and cursed. With both hands I held his heating
heart out of the way so the surgeons could see. His chest was like a misshapen bowl, dark
and rich, filling again and again.
"Jesus Christ, this guy is making us
work," Rosa, the surgery resident, said, scooping out handfuls of clotting blood
which slid off the surgical drapes onto the floor. Sweat beaded up on her nose above the
mask, then fell, drop by drop, into the wound.
There was so much blood they couldn't see
what they were doing, putting in dozens of misplaced stitches until some began to stick,
and the bleeding slowed to an ooze. He was cold by then, despite the anesthesiologist's
best efforts and the heat turned all the way up in the room, his blood full of acid and
losing its ability to clot.
"OK," Dr. Blake, the attending
surgeon, said, "We've got to stop and just hope he doesn't break loose."
It was a long night in the ICU,
transfusing him with unit after unit of blood and plasma. Toward morning he was no
longer recognizable, swollen from the fluid, bruised, but miraculously alive. When I came
to see him, before sunrise, I found a police officer sitting in a chair reading a
magazine. The policeman yawned when he saw me, put down his magazine, and came out to
"He's a bad one," he said,
gesturing to the monstrously distorted figure. "We think he killed at least two
convenience store clerks last year.
The cop nodded. "Killed them both,
after he'd got the money." He made a shooting motion with thumb and forefinger.
"Right through the head. We've been after him for a year."
I vaguely remembered the crime -
front-page news, CONVENIENCE STORE CLERKS SHOT DEAD BY UNKNOWN ASSAILANT and I looked at
my patient as if for the first time. He didn't move at all, letting the machines do their
'I learned the full story from the other
wounded man. He was not my patient, but that morning I went to see him anyway. Ray Solano,
lying down the hall, had been extraordinarily lucky.
'He was wide awake, off the ventilator
and he looked up with a start when I came into the room. He'd been hit once in the chest,
but somehow the bullet had followed a rib around and out the back without hitting any
vital structures. He would be leaving the ICU shortly.
"Mr. Solano," I said. "I'm
sorry to bother you so early. How are you feeling?"
"Alive," he replied, shaking
his head, extending his hand. We shook, even though I'd done nothing for him.
"What happened?" The man looked
at me, and I realized that he was going to cry.
"I knew he was going to do something
as soon as he came into the store. He asked me for a job, and I told him I wasn't
hiring." Mr. Solano looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. "Then he
asked where my safe was, and I saw that he had a gun in his hand. I told him it was in the
back, and then he just shot me. Right away, without asking anything else. I knew that he
was going to shoot me again." He looked away, crying in earnest now, and I stopped
asking questions, apologized, left his room.
The nurse filled me in. "He knew he
was going to get shot again," she said, whispering. "That guy"-she gestured
down the hall- "dragged him to the back, where the safe was, and told him to open it,
and he went for the gun."
I imagined that struggle: middle-aged Ray
Solano, already wounded, wrestling a much younger man, somehow turning the gun on his
attacker and pulling the trigger, then staggering to the telephone. "There was blood
all over the place," the cop had said, "like someone dragged it down the hall
with a mop.
That night I saw my patient on TV. It was
the lead story on the local news. A clip of the crime scene with ambulances, and then the
smoky, black-and-white surveillance tapes of the previous murders: an overweight,
unrecognizable figure standing in front of a cash register his hand outstretched as if
pointing at the men, then, very deliberately, two faint flashes, puffs of smoke, into
their faces. They dropped like stones, the whole scene strange, distorted by the small
wide-angle lens of the camera, like looking into a jar of water
Over the next few days my patient began
to wake up and was taken off the ventilator. I went to see him each morning, and he began
to turn his head toward me, open his eyes. He started to look human again as the fluid
eased out of him, his thick black hair flowing to the curve of his brown shoulders. He
began to speak, to ask the nurse for ice, and within two days it was as if a light had
come on, he was alert, back in the world.
"Thank you, sir" he said,
intelligent, as I stood above him. "Thank you for saving my life."
"I didn't save your life," I
replied. "The surgeons saved your life."
"That was you in the elevator wasn't
"I remember you.
Then later, quietly: "Do you think
I'll be able to walk again?"
"I don't know. It's too early to
He was unfailingly polite. He thanked me
whenever I came into the room, speaking in a curiously childlike voice. I found myself
drawn there, doing things for him: adjusting his pillows, bringing him a glass of water
There was an aura about him that fascinated me, a presence that the nurses also commented
on. He seemed guiltless, unburdened by the act; his relief on learning that his victim
was alive and would leave the hospital was real. It meant one less murder charge to face.
The evidence of the others was not overwhelming, and he knew it. As did the police.
"That bastard might get off,"
one said, shaking his head. "It's a fucked-up world."
"Hello, Dr Huyler," he said
every morning, smiling at me, dark-eyed, his hair unkempt and thick against the pillows.
There was knowledge there, and I was glad, even as weak as he was, that he meant me no
harm, that I was not Mr. Solano, alone in the store and unready.
Each day I helped him get better.
WAS A SMALL BRITISH WOMAN WITH CLOSE-CROPPED blond hair and a tiny white triangular scar
that lifted the corner of her upper lip just enough to make her look secretly amused. She
was the new attending neurosurgeon, already in her early forties, though you wouldn't know
it to look at her with her smooth fair skin, her quick exact movements.
Usually she was calm and polite, but you
could never tell what would set her off. Her face would grow still, she would step up
close, white-lipped, and empty her flat gray eyes into yours. It didn't matter if her tone
was mild, or even if her anger was reasonable; you felt as if a door to a room you did not
want to enter had opened, and then closed again.
She was technically skilled, there was no
question. She was quick and accurate, and could pop a pressure monitor into the
brain in her sleep, her small hands deft on the instruments. But by the end of the year
the wards were full of rumors, and she was gone.
Once, in the middle of the night, I
brought her a CAT scan to read. She was alone with the scrub nurse in the OR, the
anesthetist invisible behind the drapes. Music was playing chants, a vaguely Cajun rhythm,
and I saw, looking in the hollow where her neck rose out of the gown, that she was
wearing a black, tie-dyed T-shirt under her scrubs.
A man lay on the table, his head wrapped
in sterile plastic. Through a little round hole in the center of his skull, I could see
the dura, the thin connective tissue that covers the brain. The dura was a vague blue,
bulging, under pressure, and hair shorn from the man's scalp, lay in brown clumps on the
floor by Ruth's feet.
"Thank you, Dr Huyler" she said,
as I came into the room and clipped the scan onto the luminous board. She craned her neck,
reading it. "Good. The ventricles are open."
I turned to go, but she stopped me.
"Dr. Huyler" she said. "Come here. I want to show you something." I
stepped up behind her careful not to violate the sterile field, and looked over her
shoulder at the wound.
"Have you ever seen the movie Alien?"
She was smiling a little.
"Are you familiar with the scene
where the alien bursts from the man's chest? On the spaceship?"
"Watch." And she touched the tip
of the scalpel to the dura, as delicate as a brushstroke.
At first nothing happened. Then, slowly, a
little blue-red worm of drying blood began twisting from the slit like toothpaste, and
suddenly the clot spurted out of the man's head like a plum, dripped down past his ear to
"That," Ruth said, "is how
you take out a subdural hematoma."
WHEN I WAS A BOY my family lived in Brazil, and during those months, as Ruth revealed
herself to us, it kept coming back to me - festival night, down by the lake. Ash Wednesday
and Africa combined, macumba, or santería, or voodoo, call it what you will. The
poor gathered there by the hundreds after dark. It was luck they were after, good fortune
for the coming year. They stood in the shallows at the waters edge with tiny boats
they had made. On the boats were candles, photographs of dead loved ones and saints,
offerings: bananas, small pieces of meat, feathers. They said prayers, then pushed the
boats into the darkness. If the boats continued out in the water it meant the offerings
were accepted. If they returned to shore it meant an indifferent future.
And so nothing was left to chance. The
boats were wired, with small electric motors and batteries -expensive in the slums - and
they continued, for hundreds of yards, until it was a lake of candles, a small
constellation of human need.
A thousand miles to the east, the scene
repeated itself on a massive scale, as enormous crowds gathered at the beaches of Rio and
Bahia, and the boats went into the open sea. But the people here were too poor to travel,
and so they made do with what they had: a small lake, with garbage on the shore, on the
outskirts of the inland city. That night,
in the dark, it seemed sufficient, beautiful, and the lake vast, without visible edges,
full of candles entering the distance until they burned out.
A few yards offshore, hip-deep in the lake
in a long line, stood the frogmen of the military police. They stood quietly, their black
scuba tanks and wetsuits glittering in the lights off the beach, careful to let the boats
pass untouched between them.
ONE NIGHT IN THE ER, as the faint siren of the ambulance grew nearer, I sat with Angela at
the doctors' station. She was a surgery resident who had just rotated off the neurosurgery
service, and we talked about Ruth. It wasn't my case, I didn't have to go into the
trauma room this time, and I felt calm, even content, as I watched. Ruth stood just
outside the trauma room, and she was angry again - I could see it in her stiffness as she
waited for the ambulance. Someone had called her too soon, before the patient had arrived.
The ER was full, as always, and a man was
yelling nearby, his voice heavy and incoherent, that they were hurting him. "It
wouldn't hurt if you didn't fight us," a nurse said, breathing hard, as they
struggled to hold the man down on the gurney, buckling the leather straps to his wrists
and ankles. He was wild, drunk, full of half-formed words, watched by the patients who sat
waiting around us.
"I don't know how you work down
here," Angela said. The man heaved and bucked on the gurney, and nurses converged, a
knot of dark blue scrubs bending over him, until he was quiet. I shrugged my shoulders,
and we turned back to Ruth.
Of all of us, Angela knew Ruth the best.
By coincidence they had come from the same hospital in Miami, Ruth as a new attending,
Angela to complete the last year of her surgery residency. But there was no loyalty
between them. "She got really friendly in Miami a couple of years ago," she
said, nodding to where Ruth stood down the hall, "when she found out I was from
Panama. She said they have some powerful magic down there. It was weird. She invited me
over for dinner once and then we went out drinking. Now she acts like she doesn't know who
"She is good, though," she
added. "She knows what she's doing." And she was. I remembered, that night
before the harvest, the liver transplant, how the pressure monitor had seemed to flow
into the young woman's head through Ruth's hands, deep into the ventricle of the brain.
And as the numbers climbed on the screen - 40, 50, 6O - Ruth had shaken her head.
"She'll die," she'd said.
"Her intercranial pressure is far too high this early." And then she'd gone off
to find the family.
THE FROGMEN WERE THERE for a reason; there had been drownings in the past. Earlier, as I
stood in the crowd with my father and mother watching the boats, I had noticed the women,
dressed in white, their black arms dipped in flour. A dozen or so, and even at first they
had seemed odd, a strange look in their eyes as they stood near the water. Slowly, one by
one, they began to rock, back and forth, murmuring at first, letting it build up in them.
Then it would start, the speaking in tongues, the jerking of their bodies as the crowd
gathered around them, the convulsing on the ground, and finally, the rush for the lake.
They would flip and heave into the shallows, driven out from the beach, soaked dresses
clinging to their backs, to their breasts and legs, trying for deeper water. And then the
frogmen would converge. It was the moment they had been waiting for grabbing the women in
their arms, picking them up, and dragging them back to the beach. Then the line of
divers would reform, and the women would lie back, spent, in the blankets of the crowd
until it came on again. It was the force of order of military rule, against the spirit
world: soldiers, with women in their arms, carrying them to the safety of dry ground.
"RUTH KEEPS A COMPLETE fetal skeleton in a jar in her bedroom," Angela said.
"She took it out and showed it to me. I couldn't believe it. She told me it reminds
her of why she's a surgeon." Angela looked uneasily away, but after a bit she
continued, as if talking to herself alone. "Do you know what she did every chance
she got when we were in Miami?" I said nothing.
"She'd go to raves. She talks like
someone in Masterpiece Theatre, and she was a regular rave-queen. She'd go when she was on
call. She'd carry her beeper and whenever there was a bad head she'd come in smelling of
incense. Everyone knew it.
"When we went out that time she got
pretty drunk. We were sitting there in this bar and this middle-aged woman walked by. Ruth
was staring at her, I mean, just staring. And then she turns to me. 'Angela,' she says,
'there's something I want to tell you.' 'What,' I say. And then she looks at me, and she
whispers, so quiet I can barely hear her 'I'll fuck anything.' That was what she
said. 'I'll fuck anything.' I'm telling you, I went home pretty quick."
THE WOMAN CALLED 911, and told the paramedics, very clearly, that she wished to be
transported to University Hospital, where her lover was a doctor
She was big and black, with silver studs
running up the arc of her left ear and she was crying. Her face was a mass of bruises, a
split lip, one eye swollen shut, with scratches on her neck.
"Ruth did this to me," the
woman said clearly, to anyone who would listen. "Ruth. Ruth did this. This is what
she does to me.
But despite all the talk Ruth was the
same. She continued, distant and controlled, just as she had been, nodding politely to me
in the hall when we passed, a small woman, with small quick steps. They drove her hard,
beyond herself. All of us were used to call, to being up thirty-six hours or longer but as
a junior attending Ruth was on call every night, at home with her beeper. On a bad string,
if events aligned, she could go for the better part of a week with only scraps of sleep,
so tired she could barely stand, until the heads lay shaved beneath her fingers, and she
had to do it again.
And then there was that curious phrase,
that I heard only once, under her breath, when things were going badly one night:
"Esmeralda's going to die tonight."
WHEN ANGELA FINALLY turned Ruth in, the chairman of surgery came into the clinic with a
nurse, and they took Ruth with them to the bathroom. As the chairman waited outside, Ruth
did what they asked, went into the stall, urinated into the plastic cup while the nurse
stood and watched. Of course she knew then that she was finished, but she went back to the
clinic anyway, the nurse said, and kept seeing patients as if nothing had happened.
'Her urine lit up. Fentanyl. Cocaine.
Valium. Marijuana. The drugs of the hospital and the street, and she was gone, the very
next day, the headlines - BRAIN SURGEON SHOOTING UP BETWEEN OPERATIONS - suppressed from
the city papers. They handled it well - rehabilitation, a special program in another
state, paid for by the hospital. No talk. The next plane out.
THREE MONTHS LATER, they rolled the man in, and this time it was mine, this time I
couldn't watch from a distance. He was in his fifties, in a suit, ejected from the car
intubated already by the paramedics, and his head, the bones of his skull, felt loose,
like gravel and warm bread.
"Call neurosurgery," I said to
the nurse, then continued, listening to his chest, feeling his belly, watching the
scissors go through the suit cloth as we stripped him.
And then Ruth walked in through the door
like a ghost. She was done with rehab, and they'd let her come back. "What do you
have for me, Dr. Huyler?" she asked, looking down at the dying man. I stared at her
unable to answer for a few seconds.
"Um, unstable skull fractures. And
he's posturing." As I spoke, the man's arms curled again up to his chest, his wrists
twisting outward in the darkest of involuntary reflexes. A bad head. His arms had their
own intention, their own power and the nurses struggled to keep the IVs in place.
"OK," Ruth said. "Paralyze
him." So I gave the order the drugs flowed, and he went slack like a dead man.
Ruth had changed, it was as if life had
gone from her. She looked tremulous, frail, her skin wrinkled and dry. She looked her true
age, she looked uncovered, with none of the strength I was used to, the well I had seen
her call on again and again. She was a husk, and as we waited for the CAT scan I tried to
make small talk. "Good to have you back," I said, watching her closely. Even
then I knew it was a taunt, a match held up to the birdcage, where the hawk sat on a
She looked back at me over the man's
still figure, her eyes glittering, and inclined her head. It was the last time I saw her.
A few days later they caught her again, and fired her for good.
"She'd been through rehab
before," Angela said, "back in Miami, only nobody out here knew about it. Why
would it work this time?" I wondered if Angela was afraid now. She showed no sign of
it, but she had reason. Ruth's career was over all those years of work, and she had Angela
to blame. "I felt bad about telling on her until her girlfriend called me up. She
thanked me for turning Ruth in."
"She thanked you?"
Angela nodded. "She told me a lot
about Ruth. How every morning before work she'd drink a cup of black coffee and do two
lines of coke. Every morning. How when she'd had a really bad day she'd go to the farmers'
market and buy a live chicken. She'd take it home and light candles and put on music and
cut the chicken's throat with a straight razor"
Esmeralda's going to die tonight.
BUT THE MONTHS PASSED, and Ruth was well and truly gone. No one knew where. Probably she
left the city, drifted to the raves of New Orleans or LA, where no one would know who she
was. But I'm not certain, and half of me expects to see her again, there in the doorway as
I stand by the gurney.
"What do you have for me, Dr
Huyler?" she'll ask, full of prayers and cocaine, smelling like candles. And I'll
"Gunshot wound," I'll say.
"To the head."