“Auricles and Oracles — Lessons in Character” by Douglas Berman


Lord only knows the reasoning behind the paths we take. Why this fork and that fork and this ravine and gorge? Letters diverge by one syllable, bifurcate once, twice, and then all at once a riot of unknowns.

The event in question occured around one year ago. I was wandering through South East Asia, floating in humidity, following a minor pathway not unknown to would-be seers, mystics, shakris, and other abusers of time. My pace had flagged as the trip wore on, until I found myself one steamy day in August in an ancient town that sits on the banks of the Sangkae River walking, looking for sustenance, eyeing warily a street flooded with cars, and people walking back and forth. Earlier in the day I had seen a young ragamuffin scampering up a tree with a rope around his torso, to fetch coconuts from the trees, which he lowered down as a group. I was hungry and looking for food — though something more of the poulty variety than of coconut.

I reached a shelter at an intersection between two streets and saw a number of stalls heaped with various tropical fruits. Unappealing. But then my eyes viewed a small jitney emblazoned with the sign “Tacos $2.” Tacos, $2. Clearly some raving loon had opened an expat-friendly taco stand in these parts. I rushed over and paid 4 US dollars — they accepted U.S. currency — for two tacos. After obtaining two beers, I rushed back to my dingy apartment I had paid $10 USD for and readied myself on the bed. I unwrapped the tacos, eyeing the dark beany interior, the soft taco shell, delicate underlining of the flour tortilla, a mosaic of cheese bits, bean stuffing, and what looked like chicken strips. I sat back on the dirty bed, bit in to a taco, drank my beer, and turned on TV. A spray of noise sprang forth from the machine.

I sat, drank, and became pleasantly inebriated. But I was not still. A hollow feeling enveloped my shoulders and innards; in a word, I was restless. I leaned back into the  abyss and began wrestling with the bedspread. I shook my leg, strained against the pillow case, and fidgeted with my feet. I fished out the last bit of taco, irrigated my throat with beer, and then sat up, uncured and unhappy. The body wells up inside us at times; it presents us with huge needs, desires, aches and beginnings and ends. I began chewing on a straw. I began hitting the bed with my palm. I took my eyeglass stems and began winding them into my ear. And that was the mistake. A piece of the stem, plastic in nature, a foreign object, fell off and lodged itself into the ear. Rumblings of  panick. But was it really in there? I felt with my finger around the roof of the ear, digging down into the interior space. Something was inside, and it was sitting, poised, right inside the interior cavity, the ear opened, awake, insurgent. Trying to jar it loose was nigh impossible; it was permanently fixed inside. What an idiot! What an impossible idiot! Lord knows how incredibly daft one must be to lodge things in ears. What unkind fate had destroyed my well-earned pleasure, my time in the sun, my taco time?

The next steps were moments that could have cascaded into folly, disastrous folly, like some Chaplinesque assembly line. I rushed downstairs, tried to speak, failed, spoke again, to the receptionist, whose English proficiency was not up to snuff; and when he did understand, he suggested helpfully that I pour water inside the ear cavity to try to flush it out.. A suggestion I did not follow. My sole unemptied ear strained against the darkness until hope arrived in the person of the SUV-driving owner who boarded me and took me straight through potholed, jutted streets to, yes, a small clinic open still even at that late hour. I entered — dare I confess — with trepidation; how many times do small acts of neglect lead to permanent disfigurement or worse. My ability to hear out of one ear was at stake; dare I make it worse by attempting remediation? There was much to risk. But I was committed to daring fate; I entered the clinic.

Inside, I was greeted by a young receptionist who signalled for someone to come forth from the austere interior of the room. And from the cavity emerged a tall, thin, heavily-bespectacled man with a Cheshire cat smile who stood blinking heavily in the dim glare as if he had just been eating dumplings. He saw me and inquired in the native tongue what had occurred. My patron thankfully explained and, after some hesitation, I was led into the bowels of the establishment, back past the foreceps,  utensils, and equipment. Such is the life of doctors, simply country doctors, who scrape to make a living, sit hunched over stethoscopes, and mirrors and long desks.

He sat me down and steadied me. I was nervous. The inner landscape of my ear was about to be poked by someone I barely knew, had only just met. I had heard about the abysmal state of health care in this country. The doctor seemed to have practiced medicine for at least a half century, but where had he been trained? Some academy in the hinterlands, during the Khmer Rouge. Was he skilled at the art of torture? Was he enraged at the Nixon bombings? Was I about to be permanently damaged? These were the thoughts crashing through my head as the nurse grasped both sides of my cranium in her large hands and the doctor began groping for large scallop-shaped utensils that could be inserted.

He chose one, a longish metallic instrument that was brought alongside my eyes and forehead. He steadied it and took on a determined look — most likely for purposes of calming nerves — and brought the tool into contact with the ear entrance, moving it downward, slowly, inching forward, downward, towards the foreign object. I was immobile but panicked. SO this was how I would tell my children I had gone dead in one ear. Before I could flinch, he removed the instrument. It was clearly too large or not shaped to grasp the object. He tried another. I waited, intensely alive, to be maimed. What a fool. What an idiot. Again, no go, and right as I began to feel a scraping, he removed it again.

This man is an idiot, I thought. An incompetent. A person untrained in the medical arts; he is toying with me before resolving the situation with a loud pop of the eardrum. Again the same spontaneous internal chatter arising unbidden, as I sat in the chair resigned to my fate, a Sunday evening, deep in the interior of the heart of Cambodia, the people outside riding their motorcycles to their homes made of bamboo for a night of fly-swatting and debates. I was a fool, a chuckle-head, a stupid foreigner educated in a Western land where we took advanced medicine for granted. I was doomed, doomed, doomed..

I had to stop, for he was attempting one more time. Here, the instrument he took in his steel fingers seemed adequate for the challenge, and he slowly lifted it and felt it into my ear and down towards the piece. I closed my eyes and thought of myself as a playtoy for the gods; what should ensue would ensue.

He pushed further into the recesses of the Congo, and I tried to flinch, but I couldn’t: the nurse was forcibly steadying my head. Disaster was at hand. But, no, it wasn’t. For after a treacherous few moments, he successfully grasped the piece, the small tile, and began to coax it out of the ear — until? Yes, my friends, he had removed it.

In retrospect, the task seems small. But it is hard to appreciate how elated I was; I would not go deaf in one ear; I would not lose my hearing or have to go begging for alms on a corner; I would emerge, unscathed, to eat more tacos and skate through life until the next, real disaster, befell me. I thanked the doctor, if such he were, profusely and moved on.

Life has moved on since then. But I can still recall that ear-hour, and my panicked world, and now, after some time for reflection, I see things in a more philosophical light. For, after all, we are all within our own ear cavities, our own worm-holed sit-rooms tucked inwared, the cavus extremus is our home, and at all times we wait, hoping, sitting, hoping, to escape.


Douglas BermanDouglas Berman recently joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School as the Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs. From 2007-2014, he was a senior legal associate at Baker & McKenzie LLP in Hong Kong and Beijing and, prior to that, served as an Assistant Professor of English Literature and Languages at National Taiwan Normal University in Taiwan. Aside from creative writing, Mr. Berman is interested in law & the humanities and English Romanticism. He is currently working on a book on Friendship in literature and philosophy. Douglas taught an MALCS course in the 2013-2014 programme.

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