By Anthony Johnson
The itch behind June’s ear was a persistent beetle burrowing into the pulpy sponge of her brain. The irritating sensation began the evening after she had dropped a wreath of azaleas into theocean from the very same barnacled dock her brother had jumped off of exactly a year to the day.
Her mother, ever-fussy, suggested she use lilies, chrysanthemums or even a handful of cherry blossoms instead. Azaleas are more of a love flower, she had said. And they’re usually given to women. In the end, June stuck with the azaleas, and after watching the pink wreath spin atop the frothy green seawater and vanish into its depths, she dropped herself into the seething sea. Pushing off from the pillars of the pier, she swam desperately for shore, fighting against the invisible pull of the waves until her eyes bulged and her muscles burned from the exhaustion. When June awoke the next morning, the itch was quietly gnawing beneath her right ear, her favorite of the two. Thinking it nothing more than a misplaced bit of sand and seawater, she tried to dislodge the wet interloper with her finger. She probed the hidden whorl of her ear and jiggled it rapidly. This seemed to have the opposite effect, however, as the muffled buzz only increased in intensity and, consequently, increased her irritation.
She complained of the itch at breakfast to her mother, hoping the husky woman might offer a sagely remedy only a mother would have secret knowledge of. For not only was the itch a persistent nuisance, it cast a gloomy pall over her mood and shaded her thoughts a deep blue.
Have you tried shaking your head repeatedly, her mother suggested. Like how you used to when I potty trained you? June shook her head until she became dizzy and nearly fell to the floor. For a second, she thought herself cured, but the moment the room went still, the itch continued on, clawing…clawing.
Her mother’s next plan of attack was to sate the itch with a Q-tip. Not two minutes digging into her ear with the thoroughness of a miner stripping a pocket of iron ore, she stopped her efforts and said aloud, What’s this.
June tried to glance around the side of her head as her mother inserted a pair of tweezers into her ear and removed a long gleaming string, remarkably similar to dental floss, from the girl’s head.What is it? What is it? June asked.
It’s some sort of string.
Pull it out! Pull it out! June’s mother did as she was told. But the more she pulled, the more string inexplicably came out. Soon several feet of the strange string was spooled in her mother’s hand.
It doesn’t seem to have an end, her mother said. Let me try to cut it. The older woman retrieved a pair of scissors from a drawer of utensils. The string proved a stubborn adversary, though, with nothing her mother tried having any effect whatsoever.
What am I supposed to do? June whined. I can’t go to school with a string hanging out of my head like this. Her mother had a plan though. They wrapped the string several times around her head and hid it under her hair. The only portion which was noticeable was the inch or so immediately coming out of her ear.
The next morning June boarded the school bus with her mother’s promise to make an appointment with the doctor still echoing in her ears. She took a seat on the right side of the bus so no one could see the sparkling strand running from her ear into her black mop of hair. She managed to hide her ear during her first three classes. Halfway through Geography class, though, the girl sitting behind her, Miranda, caught a glint of the string in the florescent lights. She tapped June on her shoulder and whispered, What’s that in your ear? June did her best to ignore the girl and keep her attention on the instructor’s intonation of the countries in the Middle East. However, Miranda was not one to be ignored. The youngest of six girls, any intended slight set her teeth on edge and with one swift movement she reached to June’s ear, pinched the string, and pulled it violently. Several inches came spooling out. Miranda quickly let go of the string, jumped out of her desk and yelled aloud, Oh my god! June has worms in her ear!
Even though June’s appointment at the doctor’s office wasn’t scheduled until late in the afternoon, her mother let her skip school anyway. After the students in her class discovered the peculiar string in June’s ear, they were unable to resist pulling at it any chance they could get. A couple of the juniors grabbed one end of the string and ran up and down the hallway with it. Yet it was the girls who were the worst. A gang of the more popular girls cornered her in the bathroom and managed to tie her to a toilet with a series of knots so complicated it took the janitor over an hour to undo them all and set the poor sobbing girl free.
June’s doctor was a pipsqueak of a man with telescope glasses, a great pair of floppy ears and a silver mustache so bushy it seemed a ferret had fallen asleep atop his lip. Indeed, the man was so short of stature he stood atop a stool in order to peer deep into June’s ear with his otoscope.
Hmm…yes…I see…he mumbled, peering insider of her skull. He then set the otoscope down and began to pull great lengths of the string out of June’s ear. Soon, a tall pile of spooled string rose up from the floor to the doctor’s ankles.
I do hope you aren’t unraveling her brain, Doctor, June’s mother said cheekily.
Of course not, replied the doctor. Nothing at all to worry about. We’ll just need to run a few tests is all. He backed out of the room in an obvious escape attempt and less than a minute later, a nurse burst into the room with a hospital gown and the announcement for June to stay the night, so her condition could be more closely monitored.
June spent the following month in the hospital and was systematically moved from room to room, wing to wing, so she could be examined by every doctor, every specialist, and practically anyone else in the hospital in possession of a qualified opinion. One by one, she was paraded before audiologists, neurologists, dermatologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, epidemiologists, oncologists and once, even, a surly dentist who knew nothing of the mysterious string growing out of her ear, and could, frankly, give a two damns, as he put it, but recommended anyway, that she have her wisdom teeth out soon, or run the risk they become impacted.
So it went. With each visit by a new doctor, the string was unraveled more and more. Some doctors would only unravel a few feet before holding it up to the overhead light as they restrained their awe. Others would pull out entire reams, stretching yards and yards of it out in a seemingly inexhaustible supply, each determined to be the one who reached the end of the mysterious fiber.
One night, weeks into her stay, June turned the television off and asked her mother if she was going to die. Her mother put down the sweater she was crocheting with the excess string to plainly tell her, Of course not. Now get some sleep. We have another 16 appointments tomorrow.
On and on, the doctors came from all over the country, each picking, poking, prodding her with questions, fingers, and needles until she felt more like a porcupine than a human being.
Flanked by a battalion of doctors, she made the cover of Medical Monthly, and a million dollar prize was even offered by the notorious billionaire and space travel magnate, Milton Malone Morrison, an eccentric man known widely in the medical community for his interest in outlandish maladies, ailments and illnesses. The weirder the condition, the more he invested.
No one found a solution, though, and string continued to be unspooled all throughout the winter and deep into the following spring. She was close to giving up hope of ever leaving the hospital and had resigned herself to the notoriety of a sideshow freak when suddenly, out of the thick fog of doctors forever crowding her, a mysterious elderly woman stepped forward and began poking June in the stomach with a stick so smooth and black it was easy to mistake it for a taxidermic snake. And to any eye keen enough to notice, the stick did, indeed, prove to be a cottonmouth, long charmed into its rigid position, reduced to a most unusual walking stick.
None of the doctors knew who the elderly woman was, where she had come from or how exactly she had gotten past security in the first place, but once her presence in the room was noticed, angry murmurs spread like a wave through the doctors. Who are you? they demanded. How dare you touch our patient!
June, on the other hand, accepted the elderly woman’s hand with the docility of a dusty moth pinned to corkwood. Her quiet eyes gently took in the elderly woman’s hairy face with its crooked nose, glossy black eyes, two opals, really, each darting about the room, seemingly, with a will of their own, and the lustrous coat of giraffe draped over her shoulders like heroic cape. June even glanced down and was surprised to see the heads of two baby alligators gawping up from the strange woman’s feet.
When the elderly woman finally spoke the room fell into a quick silence. I am a witch doctor from deep in the swamp and I have a solution, if you brave enough to hear it, my dear. The sound of her voice was so pointed and brittle, several of the doctors responded with a chilly shiver.
June’s options were long ago exhausted, so she would, of course, consent to whatever treatment the Witch Doctor was offering. The gang of doctors, whether out of simple curiosity or guilt from their endless stream of inadequate remedies, agreed to help the Witch Doctor in whatever way they could and promptly set out to fill her unorthodox, yet meticulous orders.
With the help of June’s mother, half of the doctors track downed each of June’s relatives and had the extended family assemble in the hospital lobby the very next morning. The other half of the doctors dashed about town with the instructions to rent every tow truck they could find in working order, and once this task was complete, they dropped by the local zoo and after much begging, cajoling and begrudged bribery, they managed to borrow the zoo’s resident elephant, Kingsford, for the day.
The next morning, with all of June’s relatives gathered and briefed, the elephant properly fed and in position, and the fleet of tow trucks idling in the street below, the Witch Doctor kissed June’s forehead, smoothed back her bangs and gave her an encouraging wink. June noted how the Witch Doctor’s breath smelled like that of a dog.
The Witch Doctor then climbed atop a chair to address June’s relatives, a boisterous group of just under seventy aunts, uncles, cousins and even a longtime neighbor or two thrown in for good measure. The Witch-Doctor asked each of them to link arms in a daisy chain and when they were each secure say aloud, Ready. They methodically attached to one another down the corridor beyond June’s room. Once the last of them was connected, nearly a hundred yards elbow toelbow, a final Ready echoed down the hallway.
Great, the Witch-Doctor said before rushing to the window to call down to the crowd gathered in the street: the rowdy battalion of doctors mixed with much of the hospital staff, Kingsford along with a few of his caretakers, the fleet of tow trucks and the dozens upon dozens of curious neighbors who lived nearby and had wandered outside after hearing the Kingsford’s excited bellows. Ready? asked the Witch Doctor. Ready! they called back.
With everything set, the Witch Doctor finally instructed June’s mother to hold onto her daughter tightly. She then unwound the string and feed it out the window. Once it reached street level, Milton Malone Morrison, himself, plucked it out of the air and strung it through each idling tow truck. He then circled the string eleven times around Kingsford’s neck to finish off his gigantic bracelet. Kingsford didn’t even notice, so enthralled was he in scratching his great gray flank against a parked school bus.
The Witch Doctor finally turned her attention to June, herself, to ask if the girl was ready. June nodded reluctantly, so the Witch Doctor asked the chain of June’s relatives to hold tightly to June’s mother, who had her arms around June’s shoulders. The Witch Doctor then signaled to the crowd in the street to begin pulling on the great length of string anchored to June’s head. The tow trucks lurched forward and Milton Malone Morrison, riding atop Kingsford, spurred the enormous elephant onward down the street. Behind them, the gang of doctors and the now swollen crowd pulled on the string as if they were playing a great game of tug-o-war.
Inch by inch, they progressed down the street. One mile, then two, then four, until they had reached the roaring green mouth of the ocean. How could so much string come from such a small head? the sweaty volunteers wondered as they labored against the taut crystal string.
Keep going! the Witch-doctor called down through a bullhorn a policeman had provided her. We’re nearly there! Sure enough, a few feet later, as Kingsford’s titanic feet dug into the yellow beachhead, the string tightened with a twang. If it weren’t for the dozens of straining, red-faced relatives anchoring June, the poor girl might very well have been yanked from her bed and sent sailing out the open window.
Don’t stop! bellowed the Witch-doctor out the window. The train of people strained to pull the string backwards just a few more feet. June grimaced from the pressure and her relatives, their feet scuffing the floor, did their best to hold desperately unto her. The taut string vibrated in a blur and for a tense moment, the very air hummed from the tension. Then, suddenly, a great pop exploded throughout the hospital room. The string fell slack sending Kingsford, the entire fleet of tow trucks, the gang of doctors and everyone else straight into the gurgling green waves of the ocean. And likewise, back at the hospital, June’s relatives were flung in the opposite direction and sent sprawling across the linoleum floors. Patients from every wing of the hospital heard the pop reverberate through the hospital corridors like a cannon shot, leaving some of them with ringing ears.
June’s relatives quickly crowded back into the hospital room to see what had become of June and the string. What they found, though, was far from what they expected. June was sitting upright in her bed with two great streams of tears spilling off of her face. On the floor lay the limp string, and attached to its end was nothing more than a common piece of cork. June’s relatives immediately burst into cheers. Her uncles hugged her mother. Her aunts heartily shook hands and slapped each other on the back. The day had been won.
Soon though, a clamor of murmurs spread across the room, dampening the merriment in its wake. The Witch Doctor was doing her best to shush the crowd. The group turned their attention to June and to the streams of tears still gushing forth from her eyes. Little by little, water soon began to spray out her ears, dribbling from the corners of her mouth and even began to spray from her nose. It poured from the bed unto the floor and gathered into deep pools. One of June’s distant cousins, well known for furtive nose-pickings, dipped her finger in the pool and touched the sparkling liquid to her tongue. Saltwater, she said with a scowl.
Saltwater? the Witch Doctor repeated quietly. You mean like seawater? She didn’t wait for an answer to her question. Instead pushed her way out of the room, calling out over her shoulder, Run while you can! The last anyone heard of her were her crocodile shoes clopping as she vanished around the corner.
None of June’s relatives heeded the old woman’s advice, however and remained watching as more and more seawater gushed from her body in greater and greater sheets. They all watched as June’s arms began to quake and jitter as if she were being electrocuted and then, suddenly, a huge surge of thick glittering water burst forth from the girl’s mouth and swept her relatives out of the room in a great winding river.
By the time the gang of doctors, zookeepers, tow truck drivers and crowd of neighbors made their way back to the hospital, each one of them expecting to be greeted as heroes, they found great torrents of seawater pouring out of every window of the hospital into the street below. My god! said the venerable Milton Malone Morrison. She must have had a tsunami inside of her!
The cascade continued for eleven straight days, flooding the town until the strange waters trickled over the beachhead and joined with the foamy, sloshing waves of the ocean. The streets transformed into salty channels of rushing water. Fish, crab and curious porpoises casually infiltrated the townspeople’s homes. Sharks picked off house pets. And the screeching of gulls could be heard at all hours of the day. The townspeople were so overwhelmed by the damage done to their town, fending off jellyfish and snarky eels, that they completely forgotten where the offending waters had come from in the first place.
Thankfully, on the eleventh day, fate relented and the tide swept the waters out to sea and the town soon found itself miraculously dry again. If it weren’t for the ruin all around them, the townspeople might have marveled at how lovely the shimmering sheen of salt made everything, like a town cast of diamonds.
The townspeople’s anger proved persistent, though, and a mob eventually formed and found its way back to June’s hospital room. None other than Milton Malone Morrison led the grousing group, composed mostly of the original gang of doctors, each now armed with diver spears they had used to fend off intruding sharks, octopi and far too brave gulls.
Once they reached the hospital room, they found the unexpected. Instead of June, they found the poor girl’s mother, and in her arms wasn’t her daughter, but an unconscious young boy, naked to the very bottom of his feet. June’s mother looked up at the mob of people and in her eyes they saw she was crying. Normal tears, thankfully.
It’s my son, said June’s mother. I thought he was gone forever, but he’s come back to me. My precious, beautiful son. The mob watched in silence as the mother cradled her previously lost child as if he were still a baby, until one by one, they broke away and returned to their homes to sweep up the piles of clams, jellyfish and stinking mounds of dead fish.
No one ever did see the likes of June again. Granted, rumors were passed around that her ghost wandered about the end of the pier or that she could be seen swimming in the bay late at night. But the majority of these rumors were exactly that, rumors and they were eventually swallowed up more interesting gossip and lost to time.
Occasionally, though, whenever a noteworthy storm swept over the town and flooded the streets, anyone who listened close enough could hear young June’s voice singing gently within the howls of wind or ringing inside the rippling puddles dancing with the seemingly endless rain.