NONFICTION December 4, 2020

Soul to Keep

Goodman—You have opened skulls and dissected the human fœtus. Have you ever, in these dissections, discovered any appearance of a soul? (Voltaire, “The Study of Nature”)

Argument for Keeping the Souli in the Forearm:

Soul as tender fish bellyii, soul as knife-teaseiii, soul as scannable tracking deviceiv.

i I never actually said this prayer before bed, but I knew it, and it came to me the first time I was put under anesthesia, along with a question—not if, but where. Hopefully not the part of me the surgeon was about to remove.

ii Me—that is: twenty-two, F; diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer; history of untreated depression and self-harm.

iii Scars evident on left forearm; presents with no clinical symptoms at time of diagnosis; denies pain, as one doctor wrote in my medical chart.

iv My journal, day of diagnosis: Irony—the depressive begs to live. Then a bunch of poems about God’s indifference. In the pages after that, God and Death both vanish.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Nostrilv:

Soul as proximal pocket, snot locket, breath filter. Never the left one, though—right hand of and all that.

v I had a perpetually infected nose ring, so I came to my college art classes with a Band-Aid on my face to hide the pus and blood. To cover the cuts on my arm, I wore long-sleeved shirts. Learning of the nose ring beneath the Band-Aid, a professor said: Ah, vanity.I don’t know whether she was referring to the decorative metal that was eating my tissue away, or my refusal to remove it.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Appendixvi:

The question of whether the soul has a purpose remains unanswered for me. While some might point out that there has been no evidence to date that the soul has a physiological function in the same way that, for example, the lung’s function is to respirate, the heart’s is to circulate blood, and the bowel’s is to digest food, others might contend that the true purpose of the soul, vestigial or otherwise, has simply yet to be (re)discovered.

vi I’d never been to the hospital before age twenty-two. No appendicitis, no allergic reactions, no stitches or broken bones.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Genitals:

Insofar as we hide, fear, flaunt, loathe, prune, shield, desire, identify with, and revere them, maybe we already do. Sex as spiritual: open my little windowvii.

vii Three phone calls in a row: To the doctor, who repeated the word from his voicemail—suspicious—and said surgery would be scheduled for next month; to a crush, who said Yeah! when I asked him out; and to my mother, who said nothing for a long time after I told her what the doctor had said. In the weeks leading up to surgery, I would have the best sex of my then-life, which seemed suddenly shorter than before.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Earviii:

Long ago, people knew of a sound made by the soul that mimics the sound of its original source (think conch shell, or Pikachu, the squirrelly yellow Pokémon that says only variations of its own name). This soul-sound was an aural peephole into the divine that, unlike full, obliterative exposure to the divine, offered itself in a form bearable to the human body and mind. It was audible only when a bodily orifice was held very close to the ear, but it was considered rude to listen to one’s soul without offering your own, so at religious ceremonies (and, I imagine, in bedrooms) people sat very quietly ear to ear. Eventually the sounds of industry and church organs drowned out the sound of souls, and people forgot the sound existed—until an ancient text was found that appeared to translate the soul through musical measures. After this discovery, metaphysical scholars spent centuries trying to create a device through which this sound might once again be heard, a sort of spiritual phonograph. Designs ranged from the extravagant (contraptions involving speculums, pulleys, ball weights, funnels, and waxed string) to the absurd (think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) to the obscene (essentially a speaker hooked up to a colostomy bag). But what better contraption to access the soul’s register than the human ear itself? The last known scholar of soul audiology was found on the floor of his laboratory missing both his ears. An autopsy showed one ear partially digested in his stomach and one caught in his esophagus. The cause of death, however, was a massive heart attack with ventricular rupture—completely obliterated was how the medical examiner described it.

viii When they put me under, sound was the last sense to go. Suspended without light or gravity, I could hear my gurney being rolled into a new space. Beeping and clanging and chatter. The doctor’s voice close to my ear when he said, “You don’t do this anymore, right?” When I woke, I realized he was referring to the scars on my arm.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Mouthix:

Texture would be a nice touch: are you crunchy or smooth, grainy or lumpy, a tongueful of pulp, cotton, or ash?

ix While accidental swallowing might be a concern, there is no reason to believe the soul could actually be digested. Many things pass right through. When I swallowed a Barbie shoe, my mother swears, the pink plastic reappeared in my diaper the same day, nearly pristine. Twenty years later, when I was given morphine after my first surgery, the chicken broth I vomited up was the same color and consistency it had been going in. Three minutes inside me and these traces of another animal remained unchanged.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Throatx:

God’s little gagxi.

x When removing a thyroid gland from the throat, the surgeon must be careful to peel away the tiny parathyroid glands, to gingerly reposition them if disturbed. Often they bruise during surgery but heal after a few weeks in their newly empty thyroid bed.

xi Two weeks after my thyroidectomy, I found a lump in my neck. Metastasis to the lymph nodes—fairly common. How did we miss it? a receptionist asked while scheduling my next surgery.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Spleen:

Ease of removal.xii

xii Out in a jiff,the surgeon had said—thyroidectomies are easy.The second time, they went in through the same incision and pulled out a string of lymph nodes like pearls. My great-grandmother’s superstition: always arrive and leave through the same door.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Blood:

Bodily duendexiii. The sacred as rhythm. A kind of coursing. Course as in path. As in a series of lessons. A getting toward better. And if not? Then a little soul-letting. Or souls treated with leeches. Soul transfusionsxiv. Vampiric theology. Soul gore and soul slasher movies. Is that such a bad thing? The soul stained with corporeality.

xiii I once had a poetry professor who, on the first day of class, handed out a list of words never to use in a poem. Soul, he said, was the worst offense.

xiv Donations and transfusions might be a concern, sure, but perhaps a little soul-sharing would be helpful in cultivating empathy. In my split hospital room, I shared the air with a faceless girl. We breathed in tandem over the curtain as our blood ferried oxygen to our organs and filtered each other’s carbon dioxide out through our mouths. Her lips on my breath, her breath touched by my blood. Our matching neck scars. The room a body we lived in.

Argument for Keeping the Soul in the Frontal Lobe of the Brain:

Paradoxically, this argument presupposes a metaphysical schema that separates spirit from intellect but strives to reunite themxv. Something beyond Cartesian dualism of body and spirit—the true human form trisected but waiting for the sacred glue that would offer unity at last.

xv In Catholic school, the concept of the Holy Trinity, wherein the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were not equal to one another but were all equal to God, seemed like an algebra equation, which explains either my aversion to religion or my aversion to math. However, the notion that body, mind, and spirit were all different and yet all me was easy—though after my thyroid gland and lymph nodes were removed, this seemed less accurate. Where was I now—inside myself or sitting in a heap of medical waste? Maybe both, until they incinerated the smaller bits of me.

Addendum—Options for Keeping the Soul Outside the Body:

I. In the Refrigeratorxvi xvii xviii.

xvi My mother keeps condiments well past their expiration dates in her fridge—even mayo. The mustard, at least, seems to keep for years beyond its stamp.

xvii In preparation for radioactive iodine treatment after both surgeries, I adhered to a low-iodine diet—no iodized salt, no dairy, no fish, no salted or processed food. Everything from scratch. My mother made forty individually packaged servings of approved meals for me. Sentimental, I kept the labels on the Tupperware for months after they were emptied and reused. Keepsakes.

xviii Or the freezer—surely many await the marriage of theology and cryogenics.

II. Cupboards, Closetsxix, Drawersxx, or Shelvesxxi.

xix My teen bedroom is now a guest room in my mother’s house, the evidence of my adolescence stored in the closet: patchwork purse, chunky heels, school uniform skirt, sketchpads, dried out Lip Smackers, highlighted bible.

xx I always kept my cutting razors in a drawer, organized by size, which helped in a lot of ways. But the biggest scar came from surgery, and after that cutting seemed somewhat pointless. Without it, I felt no better or worse.

xxi Upon death, the memorial shrine a mother might make is pre-set.

III. In an HVAC Systemxxii xxiii xxiv.

xxii Air return: soul into spirit into suspire into breath.

xxiii Visiting my mom after some time recovering, I was kept up all night by the vent in my room—some piece of debris rattling incessantly against the grate. I never heard it before or after.

xxiv So that your house breathes you in and out, so that you may become a fine dust settling silently over everything.

IV. In a Glove Compartmentxxv xxvi xxvii.

xxv Soul as a valid form of ID.

xxvi Soul as contraband. I found my razors in my old art supplies at my mother’s house and snuck them out, intending to throw them away discreetly. Forgotten, they remained in my car for over a year.

xxvii Soul-flare in case of emergency. After blood tests showed residual disease despite two surgeries and radiation therapy, I spent a lot of time in my car, screaming.

V. In the Gardenxxviii xxix xxx.

xxviii Potential for growth, given rain and sunlight.

xxix Potential for reincarnation, given a hungry enough bird, rabbit, or squirrel.

xxx Potential for rest, though not necessarily eternal. I once saw a gravestone that said: Just Waiting.

Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her poetry and nonfiction appear in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.