It was night. I hesitated before going to visit my youngest brother at the hospital. They had amputated the second toe on his right foot a couple days ago.
Each morning I thought they’re going to call to tell me his foot has healed, and then I would have to go there to take him back home. What happened instead is my oldest sister told me they were going to cut off his leg about ten centimeters from the knee, just like they did to the patient in the bed next to him in the ward.
My sister told me this time I had to be there. I’m the oldest member of the family now, and I had to sign the forms with him. I’d already played that role many times, even though the circumstances didn’t require me to be there in person. But this time felt different, since they were asking me to consent to the amputation of my youngest brother’s leg. And I was the only one who could do it.
When I got to the Special Ward for Diabetes Patients with Leg Injuries on the fourth floor, I found my brother’s wife and his two daughters who were about ten and eight years old. My oldest sister got there before I did, along with my middle brother. They were all standing around him. He was sleeping in his rumpled bed. His foot, minus the one toe, was wrapped in thick gauze.
“How’s he doing?” I asked.
My brother shot me a look and I realized I shouldn’t say anything right then. I noticed the patient in the bed next to us. And I noticed his leg. There wasn’t much left of it.
I went out into the waiting room to smoke and my middle brother followed behind me. He told me that there was an infection. The gangrene in the toe had spread to the foot. They were controlling his sugar levels and getting him ready for tomorrow’s operation. His daughters didn’t know anything about the amputation, so he didn’t want me to speak about it in front of them. Since visiting hours were just about over, I asked my brother to take our nieces and go.
I sat outside the ward and ordered a cup of coffee, waiting for the doctor so I could sign the forms. Patients wandered around. Some in wheelchairs. One of them leaning on crutches. All of them had had toes or parts of their legs amputated. On the other side of the room, one of them appeared through an open door to the bathroom. I saw him sitting on a wheelchair with rolled-up sleeves, beginning to perform ablutions. He lifted up the one leg he still had and washed it under the faucet in the sink. When he was done, he wheeled his chair backwards a bit, his good leg trailing on the ground. He placed it in the footrest, then gripped the two wheels, turned around toward the door, and went on his way. He passed by me on his way to the ward, his amputated leg sticking out in front of him.
The nurse went into my brother’s room and I walked in behind her. I saw her take a urinalysis strip out of a box. It was just like the one we used at home. She handed it to him and said she would come back. Then she left. I stepped out so my brother could urinate on the strip. When I came back in, he was holding it. His glucose was at the first level. A light green color. I stood next to him, waiting for the nurse to come back. As the minutes went by, the color of the strip began to change. Soon the reading would be wrong. I took the strip and went looking for the nurse. She was sitting in a small room behind an old wooden table. The color on the strip was now dark blue, meaning his glucose had fallen to the lowest level. I pointed out that the color wasn’t right. I told her that the percentage of sugar had been at the first level. Then I gave it to her.
“You needed to see it earlier,” I said.
She barely glanced at it before tossing it into the pile of used needles and bloody cotton bandages in the garbage bin.
“Where’d the doctor go?” I asked her.
She said he was in the operating room.
“Is he going to be a while?”
“You know, sometimes he’s there all night.”
“Well now what?”
“Do you want to talk to him, mister?”
“He’s the one who wanted to see me.”
“For this whole forms thing.”
I explained to her they had asked me to come sign the forms for the operation, because I was the patient’s oldest brother. She told me it wasn’t necessary. Usually they used the forms the patient signed himself. The important thing, she said, was “Be here tomorrow.”
“I’m coming, of course.”
“At the time of the operation, to collect the leg,” she confirmed.
“The patient’s leg.”
“What about it?”
“Aren’t you his oldest brother?”
“So you’re the one who’ll collect it.”
“And exactly how am I supposed to collect it?”
“Like anyone would.”
There was nothing I could say. She added, explaining: “Whenever a leg is amputated, the patient’s kin come to collect it.”
“And do what with it?”
She flipped through the papers in the folder in front of her. Her brown skin had a bright lustre against the whiteness of her apron and the starched cap pinned to her hair. A lock of hair had fallen across the side of her forehead.
“After it’s washed and wrapped in a shroud, of course,” she clarified.
I returned to my brother lying in bed. He told me that his health insurance would pay for a prosthetic leg. They would fit it after six months. In the meantime, he would need wooden crutches. I told him his new leg would be exquisite, and told him about one man with two prosthetic legs who walked completely normally, in shoes and pants and everything. I asked him if he wanted anything. He asked me to leave two cigarettes, so he could smoke that night. I took out one cigarette for myself then left the pack with him when I went out.
I returned home and sat down to think. I’d carried corpses before, but they were whole. The idea of walking down the street with a human leg in my hand was a different matter. I thought about the two young girls. I imagined them seeing him for the first time with his one leg and wooden crutches. Just then my middle brother called to check whether I had met with the doctor and signed the forms. I told him they didn’t need the forms. They would perform the operation without them.
“You’ll be there, of course,” he said.
“Good lord, so who’s going to collect the leg?”
“I’ve got no idea, to be honest.”
I told him the situation with the leg had nothing to do with me and that I wouldn’t accept it under any condition. Then I told him good night.
I hung up the phone.
I went to work the next morning and stayed there until they called at the end of the day. They told me the operation had taken place, and that my late sister’s husband, Hagg Ahmed, had collected the leg and did what needed to be done. I headed to the hospital and entered the ward. I found him sleeping on his back. His amputated leg was hidden under his robe, and his arm was draped across his forehead. He beckoned me over with his eyes. “My leg is really hurting me,” he whispered. “I want some painkillers.”
I went to the nurse, who told me that he could have one injection per day. She said it was better if he didn’t take it until his leg was really hurting him. The painkiller would last longer that way. I told him what she said, and asked him to bear the pain for another hour or two. He nodded his head and stopped being so anxious. I went back to the waiting room, and sat down by my late sister’s husband. As soon as he looked up at me, he started laughing. I knew that he knew that I refused to go get the leg. It was annoying but I didn’t really care. He told me that the whole thing was really very simple. The first thing he did when they called him was to buy a meter and a half of fabric for the shroud. Then he came here. Then he took the report from the doctor and went over to the sanitation office where they issued him a burial permit.
“Really?” asked my middle brother.
“Hey, why not? You just have to figure out whether it’s the right leg or the left leg.”
Then he went to collect the leg. Then he washed it.
“Where did you go to wash it?” I asked.
He said that they washed it properly in the morgue, just like you would wash an entire person. There’s only one difference between a person who’s passed away and a leg that’s been cut off. When you’ve got a whole corpse, you say the funeral prayer. But for a leg, any old prayer will do. After that, he wrapped the leg in the shroud. He took a taxi from the hospital, went to the cemetery, and buried it. He wanted to bury it with my sister, but the gravedigger refused. The ground had just been covered over a couple days before, and it wasn’t right to open it now. But it turns out the owner of the leg was lucky because he had found a grave where children were buried. He smiled, saying: “Would you believe it, when I buried it with the children, it was exactly like little ones.”
“And whose is it?”
“Who knows? We just found one.”
“You mean you don’t know where it is?” asked my brother.
“Why should I? There was a grave, and there you go.”
“Good lord! Can a person be buried in one place, and his leg be buried in another?” My brother asked.
“Why not? You think the leg is going to complain about it?”
He added that honestly the gravedigger had thought about putting it in any out-of-the-way place and covering it over with dirt. But then the man got afraid that a dog might come and dig it up and eat it, or run away with it.
“And I would be responsible,” he added.
“How did you carry it?” I asked him when he stood up.
“In a plastic bag.”
He lifted his hand and shook it, like someone carrying a plastic bag by its handles, and he said it was so simple that the taxi driver himself didn’t even notice.
“It was just like I was carrying a bottle of oil, or a piece of chicken,” he said, and went back into the ward.
- Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette