Another long post, sorry.
The Universe brought me the bones of this fable in a daily writing exercise a few years ago. I fleshed it out to read at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Southeast Portland at the ceremony that culminated our summer’s work with the church’s writer-in-residence, Lynn Otto. All of the other readings were excellent; mine might also have been, but how would I know?
Suzanne knew all about pills. All the years she had been sick, she had taken many kinds: round ones, oval ones, big ones, tiny ones, ones that could choke a unicorn; pills that were chalky, smooth, crumbly, gel-like, sometimes even chewy, but mostly bitter. She’d swallowed red ones, green ones, yellow ones, pills that were white, tan, rust, maroon, cream-colored—but not purple. She had no idea why there were no purple pills. She never thought of it and if she had, she wouldn’t care.
Even though she was sick—that is, she had symptoms, signs that her body wasn’t working the way it was supposed to—she had little use for pills. Maybe they made things better. She didn’t really trust that they did. She didn’t trust that they didn’t. She took a lot of pills because the doctors told her to and because she was sick, tired, and in pain. Maybe without them she would be sicker, or more tired, or in more pain. But how would she know? The doctors said to take them, so she took them.
One day, a large and very special pill came into her life. The doctor who prescribed it told her it was the one pill that would cure her. After taking this pill, the doctor said, her symptoms would disappear. She would never have to take another pill, ever.
The effect would be immediate and permanent. After Suzanne took the pill, she would be whole and strong once again. Since there was no doubt of that outcome, and because she was certain Suzanne would take the pill immediately, the doctor handed her the miraculous pill and then never saw her again. She knew the pill would cure Suzanne, so she went back to treating people who were not cured and forgot about Suzanne, who had, in the doctor’s mind, once been sick but now was whole and well.
Yet Suzanne didn’t take this pill, not at first. She wasn’t ready. She was used to being sick; for most of her years, being sick had defined her. She had no idea how not to be sick. She had no idea how she would live her life if the pill really worked, if it cured her.
So, for the time being, she laid the pill on a large plate in the center of her small dining table. She ate every meal at the small dining table. And meal after meal, the pill sitting on the plate in the center of the table reminded her of what the doctor had told her. “Take me,” it whispered. But she did not.
Every once in a while she dusted the pill; then she covered it with a doily to keep the dust away.
It was just a pill, a very large and very special pill. All she had to do was take it. But she knew that, when she did swallow that pill, everything would be different. And she was used to the way things were.
Suzanne never doubted that the pill would cure her, and she was ready for a cure. She had put up with the pain, the inconvenience, the stares of strangers long enough. She was sure she was ready.
Yet the miraculous pill sat there, on its regal plate, covered by the pretty doily, waiting. She wondered if its effect would diminish with time, but she did not want to call the doctor and ask. The doctor had seemed so pleased to offer her this miracle that Suzanne didn’t want to disappoint the woman. And, more to the point, she didn’t want to have to explain what she couldn’t explain to herself, why the pill sat on her dining room table and she did not take it.
She told no one about the pill. Her friends, concerned about her as always, brought over food and ate it with her at the small table. Suzanne put the plate with the pill in the cupboard on those days, so people wouldn’t ask questions she didn’t know how to answer. Then she put the plate with the pill, covered with the doily, back on the small table, to share all her solitary meals.
Why couldn’t she take it? It wasn’t because she was afraid. She was fearless. She knew this because she went everywhere by herself, all over town, even to places where people stared at her. To where children asked questions of their mothers and were immediately shushed. To where healthy young men with little imagination jeered her, gently or overtly. No, she wasn’t afraid.
When Suzanne rode the bus, she saw other people who she thought were suffering, perhaps suffering as she did. She wanted to tell them about her miraculous pill—but she couldn’t because she didn’t yet know that it worked. She hadn’t experienced the miracle herself. The miracle sat on its plate under its doily, solitary and powerful, whispering, “Take me.”
She wasn’t ready. That was it. She hadn’t spun out the thread of the illness. The symptoms weren’t done with her. But how could that matter? And how would she know when the time was right? She trusted that the Universe would tell her. But in her experience, the Universe was a trickster, promising wondrous things but delivering them in unexpected or even unwelcome ways.
She thought if she took the pill, the Universe might simply forget to let her symptoms know it was time for them to disappear. But even so, wouldn’t they go away on their own? By this time, her head spinning, so she sat and meditated until the Universe, trickster as it was, took away her concerns and she forgot about the pill.
Forgot about it, that is, until she set a plate of eggs and bacon down a little too hard on her little table and the doily blew off the large plate and there was the pill.
Now. Now was the time she would take it.
Suzanne reached for the pill.
But there was nothing with which to swallow it. She went into the kitchen for a glass of orange juice, and when she came back, she had forgotten why she had brought the orange juice.
Later, she absentmindedly replaced the doily. Then, the next time she cleaned house, she took the doily off and saw the pill, but she couldn’t remember why it was sitting on a large plate on her small table.
That pill must be important, she thought, so she decided to store it more carefully. She found a little jar that had once held some very nice mustard. She put the pill inside the jar and screwed on the lid, and put it in the china cabinet.
Over time, as she got into the cabinet to fetch plates and bowls, she found the jar in the way. What was that pill in there, anyway? She didn’t know what it was for, although something told her it was important. She pushed the jar farther back into the cupboard so that she could reach the espresso cups.
She had her espresso and her cake, eating at her small table, and then left to ride the bus where young men sure of their bodies jeered covertly at her uncooperative one. She was used to that now. She was unafraid. This was her life, and the Universe went along with it
She forgot about the pill entirely. Then one day, as she was once again reaching for the espresso cups, she came upon the mustard jar, shoved way to the back of the cupboard. She picked it up with an exasperated “Thcha!” Why was she always keeping things like little empty bottles? She was never going to use them all.
Suzanne was tired of clutter, and this bottle was just one more thing she didn’t need to keep on hand. She unscrewed the metal top and put it in the recycling. There was some white powder in the bottom of the jar. Who knew what that had been? Suzanne was careful about her recycling, so she washed the junk out of the bottle before setting it aside with the glass recycling.
Then she poured some coffee into the espresso cup and had her coffee and cake at her little table and left to ride the bus to the library. She sat at the front, where the old folks and the disabled, blind, and misshapen people sat amid mothers’ strollers and the occasional service animal in its tidy coat. Maybe the hearty, healthy young men jeered silently at her. Maybe the young people on the bus were glad they didn’t have to move stooped over as she did. Maybe they could sense her pain. Or maybe they were just kids on the bus.
Suzanne didn’t think about that anymore. She rode the bus, silently enduring her pain, and shuffled off the bus when the driver lowered the ramp for her. She went inside the library and after looking at many books, checked out one about dragons. She loved dragons. They were powerful and unafraid and they could move sinuously even when crippled by the pain of fire inside them. Even without miraculous pills to keep them alive, dragons could live forever.