As a special online supplement to the Winter 2022/2023 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2022 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition, as judged by Ling Ma.
She lay motionless on a tray in the tube of the machine, stripped of the clothes she had arrived in, stripped of her jewelry (the ring that was her mother’s), a cage over her face, a cloth folded over her eyes, listening to the banging of the magnets.
I’m not here, she thought. There’s a body in this tube and a head with a soft brain inside—full of rivulets, full of folds. But I’m not there, in that head.
She pressed her lips together and willed the head still. The action consisted not of any adjustment, but of feeling intensely the weight of the head on the pillow that cushioned it. She retreated from this weight. She pictured herself wriggling out of the tube, leaving the head in its cage, walking out of the room.
A voice came through the machine: “Next sequence. Doing great.”
The magnets began vibrating in a new percussive pattern.
An MRI machine could be programmed to play Bach. She had seen the video on the internet—Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major.
She focused on her slow breath. In through the nose, filling the rib cage, holding the air.
The machine playing Bach to an empty room. In the video, a ring of yellow light shone, circling the tube.
She flowed back into the open gully of her skull. Her eyes, she kept closed, and her lips, but she released the muscles of her jaw. Curiously, when her jaw was slack, her tongue protruded slightly between her teeth. She wondered if it was normal for a tongue to push forward out of a mouth like that. She drew it back. Saliva pooled against her palate. She swallowed her spit and relaxed again. The technician can see all this, she realized. The technician could see inside her head.
“Second-to-last sequence,” the voice said.
Before the magnets started again, she closed her teeth and retracted her tongue. It felt wrong. She tried to keep her jaw in place without clenching it. How strange it was—the supreme difficulty of lying still. The body wanted to move. One understood motion as the simple manifestation of volition: the wave of a hand, the expression on a face—muscular contractions, consciously enacted. But motion wasn’t always, or even usually, willed. Stillness wasn’t volitionless. (Her mother’s hands on the stiff sheet. The sounds in the throat.)
Rhyming, she thought: Motion as volition. Volition as cognition. Can’t stay in position.
There, she stopped.
“Last one, Nina,” said the voice.
Driving home from the imaging facility, a film came into her mind: The Vanishing, Dutch, made in the eighties.
Nina had watched it some five years before, with the man she’d been dating then. In fact, he’d shown it to her. Sort of weird to insist on a movie like that. She no longer had any intimacy with the man, and his motivations and attachments had come to seem arrogant, even a touch sinister. But at the time she’d wanted some kind of commitment from him, and she recalled the woman in the film wanted that, too—a commitment.
Two lovers embark on a road trip. The woman tells the story of a recurring dream in which she floats through a void inside a golden egg. This image—a woman in a glowing egg, surrounded by darkness—haunts the film. Early on, there is a scene in a tunnel: the woman silhouetted against a dazzling half-circle of sunlight. Later, after the woman disappears, the man dreams her dream. And in each case, the dream foreshadows the events to come. It is a premonition passed, mysteriously, via the secret routes of grief: the two lovers will meet the same awful fate.
Nina’s boyfriend had gone on about the film’s violation of plot conventions, its flat realism, its visual clarity and brightness, its refusal to heighten tension in the typical moments, et cetera. He’d wanted her to see it, evidently, because he was itching to talk—or declaim—about it. Nina had listened quietly. Privately, she’d thought the dream was the thing that made the film memorable. The dream was a portent—but a portent shimmering and warm, and therefore emptied of danger. The strangeness of it lent the film an eerie, lasting resonance.
As she drove, Nina asked herself why the film was returning to her, after all these years. Of course, it tapped that primal nightmare: waking up inside a coffin, buried alive in the womb of the earth, utterly alone. Yet the experience of the MRI had not been frightening. What had happened in the middle of the story? She could remember only the dream and its echo, the end. Or was the dream the echo, and the end the origin?
For several minutes, Nina inched along in traffic, a fine rain clouding her windshield, preoccupied with the sudden, troubling nearness of the film. Eventually, the rain turned to droplets. She became irritated—with herself, the rain, the traffic—and turned on the radio to drown out her thoughts. On a news program, reporters were discussing a married politician whose private communications with a constituent had appeared on Facebook. First, the politician claimed that someone had faked the messages. Then, as it became clear that narrative would not hold, he gave a press conference. He admitted the messages were his but called them “a lapse in judgment,” for which he blamed “a lack of self-control and maturity.” He repeated, in several permutations, the phrase This is not who I am.
Nina pictured a wife standing behind and slightly to the side of the politician, her head inclined as though listening, her eyes directed to a place at the edge of the stage. One always assumed these wives understood the performance. What if it wasn’t a performance, though? According to the politician, the incident didn’t reveal anything about him, because it wasn’t him; rather, it was a rupture, like a crack in a dam, through which something not-him had leaked out. But how could that be? Whatever oozes out of us, no matter how abject or alien, is us. Still, the politician’s plight wasn’t unlike the problem of remaining motionless—the difficulty, as Nina had registered in the tube, of doing nothing. Once his constituent opened a door, didn’t the politician have to approach it to close it? Maybe he’d intended to thank her for her selfies and affirm himself a married man, uninterested. Instead, he’d gotten caught up, carried away. He hadn’t closed the door; he’d flung it open and hurtled through.
What did the wife think about it all? Perhaps she wasn’t even there; perhaps she’d refused. Nina had only imagined her: a trim jacket and a brunette bob, on the verge of some Delphic utterance.
She turned the radio off, and the film reentered her mind. Now it seemed to her a meditation on compulsion and its consequences. The man couldn’t accept the woman’s disappearance. He had to know what had happened to her. The trap was curiosity—an inability to let the unknown remain unknown. Was that why the politician had done what he’d done? Or why she, Nina, sat in her car, conjuring excuses for him?
In the end, the man in The Vanishing got what he wanted. His curiosity was satisfied; he understood his beloved’s ordeal. Could he have understood without experiencing it himself? No, Nina thought, he could not. Only the film could make him feel what she’d felt. We are each alone in our misery, as we are in our dreams.
The driver behind her leaned on his horn. The light had evidently turned green.
Two weeks passed without any word on her results. Nina decided the delay must mean there was nothing serious. By the time the neurologist called, she had more or less resolved that her brain was fine.
He apologized, first, for not calling sooner. As he said this, his tone was inscrutable, perhaps a bit downcast, in the professional manner of a clinician delivering bad news. Her face flushed. She sat down at the kitchen table. She picked up a pen and a crumpled receipt, which she smoothed flat.
The neurologist began to explain. Nina did have a—growth—in her brain, but he hated to use the t-word—tumor—because growths of this kind were exceedingly common incidental findings on MRIs, and (this was the crucial point) it was most likely not causing the episodes of migraine/nausea/vomiting, because 1) it was very small and 2) it was not in a location where it would be likely to “create trouble.” To be safe, to ensure it wasn’t metastasizing, they would take another look in six months.
Having finished this speech, he asked: “Do you have any questions for me?”
“I don’t—think so,” she said. But then: “What happens in six months if it’s bigger?”
“If it’s growing quickly, then we’ll need to discuss options. Radiation is a possibility. Or surgery, though it looks like—hold on.” He paused. “I’m just looking through the images here. Next time, we’ll order contrast. Contrast will make it easier to see exactly what’s going on.”
He began to talk about the position of the growth in relation to a drainage something-or-other, and whether that did or did not suggest the practicality of surgery. Nina was reasonably confident he’d said either “drainage vein” or “drainage artery,” and struggled to recall from high school biology which one—vein or artery—carried oxygen-depleted blood back to the lungs. As he spoke, she half-listened, tamping down an urgent desire to pull the phone away from her face to Google it. At some point, her attention returned to the conversation—
“—office a call right away if you’re having new symptoms or your symptoms are worsening, because then we’ll need to order an MRI sooner than six months. OK, Nina?”
She had meant to ask about the migraines, the reason he’d ordered an MRI in the first place, but she knew what he would advise: sumatriptan, magnesium supplements, the avoidance of triggers (sugar, alcohol, stress, hormones, birth control pills). He’d said all these words to her already—as had a half-dozen doctors before him. A feeling of resignation descended. She said OK.
“Great. Now make sure you get in touch with my office to schedule the six-month follow-up, and get the insurance pre-authorization for the MRI. Thanks, Nina, take care!”
The line clicked.
She stared at the pen marks dotting the receipt in front of her. She hadn’t taken notes. She flipped it over. Three dollars for a coffee.
She looked at her phone, thinking to call her mother and explain the results. The home screen lit up: 3:42 p.m. The picture behind showed Nina and her mother and brother at the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Pu’u Loa means “long hill” or “hill of long life.”
Long hill. Hill of long life. Each time she looked at the picture, she thought of the translation printed on a plaque. Each time she thought of the plaque, she wondered if the translation was accurate.
Her mother was dead. Had died the year before.
For weeks, Nina felt the strange invitation of the images at odd moments in the day.
Occasionally—instead of opening Instagram and flipping, without intent or curiosity, through other people’s photographs—she looked at pictures of her brain. At such times, she felt mindless yet grasping, empty but not peaceful. In that sense, it was not unlike browsing her social media feeds, though it was hardly a frictionless experience, as Instagram or Twitter was. As each image sluggishly loaded, through an old, recalcitrant web portal, she had a moment to see herself, there, waiting for it to appear. Then she would feel annoyed, not only with the portal’s slowness but also with her determination to look. To look not for the first time, even—to look, again, at a picture she had already seen, of an organ inside her own skull. A picture that she didn’t personally understand how to parse. That she should go through all this trouble seemed humiliating, somehow. The irony of the act struck her regularly: There she was, gaping thoughtlessly at the physical engine of thought. Prodding her brain, stimulating it, with its own likeness, a doppelgänger, as if goading it to concede something. —It! Herself.
Each image was a sliver, as if she had pressed her head to one of those wheels for slicing deli meat and shaved it into perfect, paper-thin slides. They were organized in series, according to perspective: frontal, horizontal, sagittal. In profile, she could see her tongue pushing forward on her top teeth, protruding slightly, just as she’d worried it would. She saw the passages of her sinuses and the bones of her face and her eyeballs, very round in their sockets. Her brain in the pictures was a vaguely symmetrical object of manifold folds and crevices.
Only a dozen of the images showed the thing she had started to call, to herself, “the anomaly,” as if it were a tear in the space-time continuum. It was a small, egg-shaped, gray blob with clear edges. Nina studied these slides more closely than the others. Since each captured only a cross section, successive images showed the tumor first as a small spot; then larger, and ultimately in its full diameter; then smaller again. If they could be turned like a flip-book, the resulting animation would depict the arc of the anomaly (if an anomaly could have an arc, a story), from first appearance, through apotheosis, to diminution and disappearance.
It made her think of hard-boiled eggs emerging from a boiling pot in her mother’s kitchen.
It made her think of an embryonic woman, floating in an egg of light. Being born and living and dying inside the same fragile skull.
She stopped drinking wine. She stopped eating chocolate or salty foods or sugary foods. She couldn’t bear to go out. There were smells that might bring it upon her. Stress, of course, of any kind, could do it. Some stress was not negotiable. She needed her job but broke up with her boyfriend—the one who’d remarked that migraine-sufferers are at slightly higher risk for stroke. The one who’d told her, as they discussed her triggers, that the root of hysteria is the Greek word for “womb.”
“People used to think ‘female problems’ were caused by uteruses wandering around the body,” he’d said, “hungry for cum.”
It was a Sunday morning, and they were lying in bed in their underwear, drinking coffee, sections of the newspaper spread out on the duvet. He nuzzled her, his hand under her camisole.
She pushed the hand away. “That’s really neither here nor there,” she said.
“What, your womb?” When she didn’t laugh, he said: “ ‘Neither here nor there.’ Get it?”
Suddenly, the sensation of his naked leg touching hers under the blanket repulsed her.
No one had established a causal relationship between the tumor and the migraines, but she had let the two coincide, suggestively, in their conversation; it was a way to make her suffering real to him and to the world. Of course, the tumor didn’t eliminate the possibility of mental illness. She was certainly depressed to the point of catatonia at times. Who wouldn’t be, bearing this weight of pain—this degree of disruption? And wasn’t that, in itself, inherently stressful? And didn’t stress cause migraines? Yet she bristled at his insinuation and bristled at her own mind, taking seriously his predicates.
She threw off the covers and got out of bed.
“I was just joking,” he said.
She knew that—and knew, too, that her refusal to take the joke would, for him, affirm its truth. She pulled on her jeans and zipped them. He was reaching toward her, trying to pull her back.
“Babe, come on,” he said. “Meningiomas are never malignant.”
After he left, for the final time, she thought to herself: One less source of stress. Or was it “fewer”? Her mother had always corrected that one. She crawled back into the bed and cried in it, wrapped in the duvet like a cocoon, thinking:
It was from her mother that Nina had inherited her nose, and her gait, and her small breasts, and a quietly skeptical manner disliked by certain people—especially men. And it was from her mother that Nina had inherited her migraines.
She remembered childhood afternoons when her mother lay in a dark bedroom, a pillow over her face as if to smother herself. Her mother had not liked being touched in those times. Once, Nina had crept into the room and put her hand on her mother’s forearm, where it rested above the covers. Her mother had flinched away. She lifted the pillow from her face, and her hair was disheveled, and her eyes were both sleepy and intense. She said, “Go downstairs, Nina. Please.” Her voice was not Nina’s mother’s voice.
Nina remembered the eerie darkness, dense and warm, the curtains drawn tightly against the sun. She remembered the fan turning, its white noise, and the sound of the television coming from downstairs. She remembered backing into the hall, and her mother reaching to close the door—to shut Nina out, and the television, and the light.
She understood, now—as if she’d become her mother in that bed—the sensation of the oppressive light pouring into the pupils, the world a knot of agony. She could be her mother and herself in the memory—a woman in pain, in a bed; a child in pain, in the hall—and she could close the door upon the little girl she had been.
Lying in bed, afflicted once again, she put her hand to her forehead and stroked the hair back. Willed her mind to forget the hand was hers. An impossible task.
Over her face, ceremoniously, she placed the pillow.
Her father called from time to time, urging her to urge the doctor to scan her brain again before the six months had elapsed.
“Didn’t he say call his office if your symptoms get worse?”
“Yeah, but—they haven’t gotten worse,” she said. “They just haven’t gotten better. And I’ve gotten worse at dealing with them.”
A pause. “I’m just worried about you, honey,” he said.
She recognized that he was grasping for an unaccustomed way of relating to her. It was her mother’s script, not his. But, like an understudy called to the stage in the middle of a performance, he was trying to play it out.
One afternoon, she woke from annihilating migraine-sleep, not knowing, precisely, how long she’d been lost to the world.
In the kitchen, she poured a glass of fridge-cold water, drank it standing up, poured another, put a piece of bread in the toaster, drank the second water, and spread the toast with butter and jam. She sat at the table eating with the voraciousness of the newly revived. There was a formality to it, as if she’d climbed a mountain, or out of a volcano, and was consuming the ritual foods that marked her return, her rebirth. Her mother had eaten similar meals after migraines: the toast set on the counter, crumbs falling onto her naked feet. At such times, she was not herself; she did out-of-character things. Drank juice from the carton, an orange stream running down her chin. Wore one of Nina’s father’s T-shirts, her legs bare. Laughed at nothing. Sang out loud, for anyone to hear, her voice thin and sweet and crooked.
Finishing the last bit of toast, Nina opened her phone to a dozen text messages. She read her brother’s first: Weird pics on yr socials Ni. Puzzled, she checked her profiles.
Licking jam from her forefinger, she scanned through the images as she had a hundred times before, noting the round eyeballs, the egg-shaped anomaly, the shadowy furrows and bright-white tissues in the structures of the face. Then the realization dawned. Someone had posted pictures of her brain. On Instagram. A half hour later, on Twitter. To her accounts.
Her heart clenched. She clicked, deleting posts, but there were so many, and people had already commented. Her brother’s read, Your braaaaiiiiins, and she hated him, just then, and almost stopped to call and tell him, but when she returned to her home screen, she saw, again, the dozen messages. Her friends had texted her in two waves: first, the initial Hey, saw your tweets, just checking in queries, then, a few hours later, the anxious entreaties to call. Five voicemails, too.
A few images included a caption: the anomaly (a meningioma).
Nina stared at its image, moved her face closer. Did you do this? Its borders were clear and stark, its body a homogeneous gray. What would it look like, excavated from its nest? Was it shell-like on the outside? If a surgeon were to open her skull and part the soft jelly folds of the brain, could it be taken out neatly, or would there be blood?
the anomaly, the caption read, (a meningioma).
Beneath: lol weird, with a hypnotized emoji.
A friend: So sorry Nina. We [heart emoji] you!!
Another friend: Omg Nina, ugh, just ugh.
A girl from high school: fyi some vaccines can cause brain tumors
A stranger: Pls pls pls seek a second opinion! This is NOT a miningoma!
Someone had retweeted it, and that tweet (this girl just said fuck it heres my actual brain [skull emoji, brain emoji]) had been liked almost six hundred times.
Oh, God, Nina thought, oh God, oh God. She was breathing fast, clicking, deleting, new comments coming in, new likes.
The boyfriend who’d implied she was hysterical had written a long comment on Instagram that she couldn’t bring herself to read.
The boyfriend who’d showed her The Vanishing wrote, ???. She saw it appear in real time.
Maybe she shouldn’t delete the pictures. Maybe deleting them would make it seem stranger. Should she play it off? Ignore it? She could say she was hacked. She could say it was an art piece—a performance piece. It would be forgotten in an hour if she did nothing. Would it be forgotten in an hour if she did nothing? She was very conscious of her breathing.
Beneath the surface of the present panic roiled some other emotion, some other fear, she did not want to view straight on. Unwelcome, not-her thing inside her head. She dropped the phone. In a frenzy, she ripped at her hair, her scalp, scratched at her ears, her face, raking the skin. Out, out, out! Tears rolled down her cheeks.
In a few moments, the worst had passed. She knelt on the floor, heaving. She felt exhausted and cold. She would call the doctor and tell him, now, it had go. It had to come out. Cut it out or radiate it away; she did not care which.
With a shaking hand, she gathered her phone. It lit up. Her mother’s picture. Long hill, she thought. Hill of long life. Was the translation right? Maybe not, and then she’d wasted her time ruminating on a wrong translation.
The time was 1:32 p.m. A Saturday in July. She couldn’t call her doctor on a Saturday. In any case, it was an understandable mistake. She looked at the pictures all the time; she posted to her accounts all the time. In the migraine haze, the two acts converged.
Weary, she went to the bedroom. There, the blinds were still closed against the outside glare. The fan whirred. The bedcovers were folded back, rumpled, where she had emerged as if from a chrysalis only an hour before.
In the dark, sitting on the bed, the phone in her hand, squinting against its terrible blue light, Nina opened one account, then another, deleting each in turn.
When the pain was with her, she sank. Sank into herself, like a stone into the deepest chasm of the sea. A diver in the pressured caves of being.
First came the aura: a brightness twinkling at the edges of things. As the minutes passed, it crept inward, toward the center. The pain followed, like a companion, each visitation containing within it the previous visitations. She knew the pain, and recognized it, and when it took up residence inside her, she greeted it and went away. Some part of her went away.
Like the woman in the egg. Floating out of time.
She slept. Sleep was the only way to survive it, to end it. Even so, she would half-wake in its presence, writhe on the bed, stumble to the bathroom to drink from the faucet, vomit. Glance at the contorted face in the mirror. Undress to her underwear. Cover the gap in the blinds that let in the beam of agony. Crawl about the floor like a dog. Moan, weep. Collapse in the darkest closet. Sleep.
When the pain at last receded—when, after long katabasis, she opened her eyes—she felt euphoric, expansive, alive.
An egg, she reflected, is not a grave.