The Graft

Listen: I kissed you with a dead man’s mouth sewn into my mouth. I had just had the gums grafted onto mine, pink marbled gums so recently dead, sewn with jagged red thread. I could clip coupons with my sharp child’s teeth. I knew I had to do it and I would do it to you, Dr. Slavic, I would seal my dead man’s mouth with yours.


In 2011 I was the only viola in the orchestra. I played as loud as twenty-nine violins. I played viola because you played viola, too, Dr. Slavic, and no one else understood that the viola was more than the fat understudy of the violin, the overlooked drone sunk between bass and treble. The viola was the tonal lubricant milked from the teat of all viols, Dr. Slavic. It was the motor of the upper clefs. It was the contradiction in every chord.


You were fired from Mexico City. You were fired from Cleveland. And then you flew down to us, rural mission children aged 13-21, in a town no one chose to live in. We met on school nights in a sweaty practice room of the midrange university where you lectured. We played adagios only.


That night it was Albinoni and your wife, a wife I had seen before and who reminded me of a barge, called you during the tenth measure. You continued waving your wand, your face smashed into your shoulder.


All surfaces in the practice room were reflective and sporing with sweat, causing my corpse stitches to swell, and my jaw bloated over the chin piece of my instrument. To combat this swelling I held the viola further and further away from my face while I played. I wanted to shrink into the second violins but it was impossible to escape Dr. Slavic. That was how much you cared for me.


“Viola! Bad form. Very bad. You cower!”


You made the violins stop playing so that you could hear me, alone. “Tone! Tone! Tone!” you shrieked, banging your baton on your music stand. The twenty-nine violins watched my swollen jaw grow steadily larger. The stiches securing the dead man’s mouth strained, exposing the delicate roots of my infected gums to the deodorized swamp bacteria of the practice room. I had always been a mouth breather.


I watched the bulge of your pleated trousers as you hopped first on one foot, then the other, with Slavic impatience. I knew that you had survived a genocide in a distant country and this increased my guilt as I raked through the notes, C, D, E flat, C.


“Then leave then!” you yelled.


I stopped playing.


“Not you!” you said to me, covering your phone with your hand. You began clapping out the measure for me. You were so patient, Dr. Slavic. The violins, losing interest, began to whisper among themselves.


But I knew nothing infuriated you more than conversation during rehearsal, unless you were the one conversing, Dr. Slavic. We were children driven out of backcountry holes to siphon your classical wisdom and the only language permitted was the suffering of Tomaso Albinoni. Our boredom was an insult to your pain, which was ambiguously European, and vast.


So you launched your baton, tip first, into the left eye of the first violin, the homeschooler Tyler Zhang.


Twenty-eight violins stood up and crowded around the boy. You pushed them away and held Tyler’s face in your hands. I held my breath, longing to be Tyler Zhang, to have my face cradled by your learned fingers. All was quiet except for the voice of your wife on the phone speaker, still letting you have it.

Rehearsal ended early and I had to wait thirty minutes for my mother to pick me up. I sat in the hallway, repeating the same bar of Albinoni’s Adagio first fast, then slow, then jazz, then backwards.


My jaw drooped with the weight of an eggplant. I couldn’t feel my tongue. Then you exited your office. I heard the plastic scuff of your Sketchers.


I waited for you, Dr. Slavic. I had a dead man’s mouth sewn into my mouth and I was afraid that the dead man was spreading. The dentist had promised me that the corpse gums would dissolve as my natural tissue recovered, but I knew that the corpse gums were latching onto the roof of my mouth, grabbing onto my uvula and sliding down my throat. My skin was jaundiced and papery. The veins throbbed in my swollen neck, and my mouth had gone slack.


You were approaching the alcove where I sat waiting for the Sketchers to reach my destination. I tripped you with my foot and down you went, onto the concrete floor of the corridor. I hovered above you, Dr. Slavic, my glossy infection dripping. Your cheeks were scrubbed a deep red, your heavy brow was flecked with skin. I kissed you and reared back to watch you scream, my tongue still in your mouth.


Sara Kachelman has studied fiction at the University of the South and the University of Amsterdam. Her work has appeared in the print anthology of Portland Review, and online issues of Fanzine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Maudlin House, and Hobart. Her most recent work is forthcoming in DIAGRAM. In 2017, she received a scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work is available to read on her website.


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