BRAIN IN A BIRDCAGE
The little brain looked like a gray walnut, splotched
in places with pink iridescence. At the bottom of a rusty birdcage, it
reclined on a balsam sachet, one with a picture of a bull moose foraging,
and thought its wicked thoughts unencumbered by a body. If it had vocal
chords, it would have cackled heh-heh-heh under its breath. It
did have one good eye. The eye floated above the brain in a baby food
jar filled with oil, perched on the bird swing, optic nerve connected
to the brain by a coiled copper wire. Iris up, it swam back and forth,
flashing opal then emerald, pupil dilating and contracting, scanning the
dome of its prison for a way out. Its unused vessels, tied in a knot,
swished behind the eye, like a red squid chasing a beach ball.
All the eye could see was rows and rows
of white acoustic tiles. Then it spotted a pale, scalloped lichen, attached
to the ceiling by an X of masking tape. Like a tiny rock climber, it was
tethered by cables and tubes to the organs below. The eye sent a news
flash to the brain, who thought: Ah...it's just the ugly old ear, the
hair in its canal clinging like grappling hooks to the tiles. The stupid
thing, welcoming strange voices, inviting the outside world into the lab!
The brain and the eye wanted no such thing; they craved privacy, no
intrusions, now more than ever before.
In an isolation chamber of crimson flocked
velvet, the heart felt just the opposite. This solitary life was killing
it. The heart was encased in glass, echo-enfolded by the sound of its
own ticking longing. Its shrunken flesh clenched and released like two
pairs of red wax lips, kissing. (The brain's take on this: Ugh.)
This twitching was more of a tic than a necessity. The bell jar came equipped
with intricate machinery to assist the heart's feeble labor. Silver watch
gears whirred, pumping cherry Kool-Aid through a labyrinth of Pyrex tubing.
The heart felt the ebb and flow of cool liquid, but knew it was not real
blood, couldn't imagine where it came from or traveled to. The lonesome
heart felt no kinship to the calculating brain and cynical eye, but it
did think fondly of the ear, wished it could share its music.
Up on the ceiling, the ear listened for
the existence of other life forms. From time to time, it picked up voices
like a hiss in a stethoscope. There were definitely still humans outside
the laboratory, tossing useless words at one another, even laughing. One
fluorescent night, the ear heard staticky sobbing coming from far away,
from down the hall, way past the janitor's closet. The ear pressed itself
even tighter to the ceiling, straining, lobe flutteringhoping for clues,
for any additional fragment of this sad story. Its hammock of masking
tape shifted, loosening its sticky grip, and the ear plummeted onto the
top of the birdcage, flapping like an escaped canary. Hysterical and dizzy,
its incus jangled, it then tumbled through the bars, into the jar, landing
on the eye like a pirate's patch. (Brain: DRAT.) They both sank
to the bottom, now deaf and blind, leaving the brain only its fading hideous
memories and crippled evil plans.
Meanwhile, leaking dark sugar water through
its disconnected aorta, the heart felt its flesh deflate. Shuddering,
it puckered into a leathery maroon prune. The miniature gears stopped
turning. Kool-Aid slowly filled the lab, way past the former carefully-marked
flood line. A siren began its persistent bleating.
No one came to record the results of the
experiment. No one pressed the button on a stopwatch to capture the exact
moment the cloned organs died. No one marveled at how long they had managed
OH! But the tongue! Forgotten, like
a pink sliver of soap in its petri dish, balanced on the rim of the sink,
it was finally swept away by the swirling red tide. It scudded over the
surface until the plastic dish capsized, and the tongue went under, washing
away all of its dirty words (courtesy of the evil brain's phenomenal vocabulary).
It bobbed back up like a baby Loch Ness monster, high on sugar, its stippled
taste buds giddy with pleasure in its room-sized aquarium of Kool-Aid.
For several minutes, it leaped and dived, tingling.
An elderly technician reluctantly shuffled
down the hall. Shreds of nibbled cuticles studded his colorless knee-length
beard. He slid open the observation window. Then he sighed. Oops.
He pressed a black button labeled Lab 202, releasing a drain cover. The
contents of the room spiraled downward. As the flushing roared, he re-covered
the observation hole. The siren stopped. He wandered back down the hall
toward his beaker of bubbling canned stew, unaware of the shrieking of
his hearing aid. Whimpering, his bum ticker stuttering, he hid his shaking
fingers in the pockets of his glowing white coat. The halo encircling
his bald head was at least as big as a hula hoop.
"Brain in a Birdcage" originated with the image
of a tiny brainlike a gray walnut splotched with pink iridescenceand
gave me my first sentence. Somehow that vivid detail surfaced in my mind,
providing the hook that hauled the rest of the story up out of darkness.
It is no coincidence that this occurred at about the time I received a
postcard with the picture of a human ear growing on the back of a lab
mouse. (This is for realapparently scientists implant an ear-shaped,
biodegradable "scaffold" under the skin of a hairless mouse.
The framework is seeded with cartilage cells which proliferate, nourished
by the mouse. Supposedly, once the human ear is removed, the mouse will
remain "healthy," but I guess that's a matter of opinion, because
that poor mouse must inhabit a creepy place on the survivor spectrum.)
I had also encountered news stories about cloning and the possibility
of growing spare tissue and organs. I found it all horrifying, yet fascinating.
My surroundings do seem to work their way into my writing. (Look, there's
my balsam sachet from Maine, too, serving as the little brain's bed.)
Or is my fiction leaking into my reality? If so, I suppose I should be
worried, but I laughed the whole time I wrote the story. Sometimes I cackled.
Dark humor, the saving grace.
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