In a series of vignettes, Hatcher’s protagonist in “Compound Fractures,” this week’s New Voices story, navigates her complex and traumatic relationship with her late father. The tension and unease is immediately apparent in the story’s opening lines: “At eight years old, she already has a mastery of the orthopedic lexicon.”
She wonders if conversations about psychic pain are counterproductive, insofar as they often elevate rather than alleviate suffering. She tells her therapist an old joke. Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I go like this.” Doctor: “Then don’t do that.” Her therapist suggests she is undermining their work together by avoiding prolonged conversations about her father. “Possibly,” she says, before lapsing into an uncomfortable silence.
At eight years old, she already has a mastery of the orthopedic lexicon. She can name all 206 bones in the adult human body, from the distal phalanges at the tips of toes to the parietal bone crowning the skull. She has studied the architecture of interphalangeal joints that enable the flexion of fingers. She understands the differences between the tiny cracks of hairline fractures and the multiple breaks that characterize comminuted fractures. Her father is responsible. He doesn’t trust babysitters and, on weekends, takes her to St. Anne’s Hospital when he conducts rounds or responds to emergency calls. She brings drawing paper and scented markers but spends most of her time studying the anatomical charts hanging from the ceiling of the conference room in the hospital’s orthopedic wing, or poring over photographs in the medical journals and textbooks she pulls from towering shelves. She plays with plastic models of hinge and spheroid joints, maps the jagged sutures separating the bones of cross-sectioned skulls, and explores the processes in a vertebral column mounted on a slab of polished oak. When she draws, she uses as her model the wired human skeleton hanging from a steel hook in the corner. She can identify each point of articulation between its bones, but she is most confident in her understanding of misalignments and fractures.
* * *
At first, she doesn’t see the dog’s exposed bone, a broken radius, because her father has draped moist antiseptic gauze over the dog’s leg to prevent infection while he readies the kitchen, or what he calls the operating theater. Still, she grasps the situation in its entirety the moment she walks through the door in her plaid school jumper and sees the dog—in this case, a black and white beagle—lying on a plastic drop cloth on the kitchen table. Arrayed on a steel tray beside the dog are the instruments needed to set a fractured bone: bone forceps and hemostatic clamps, a retractor, bone screws and a steel plate, a roll of plaster bandages, and elastic wrap. Her father has already anesthetized the dog. A hypodermic syringe with a bead of clear liquid clinging to its needle rests beside the tray. Even unconscious, the dog seems to be in pain. The dog is drooling, and its purple tongue, edged with white foam, curls from its mouth. When she tries to touch the dog’s face, her father stays her hand and peels away the gauze to reveal, between two flaps of skin, a slick bone obliquely fractured and flecked with blood. It is hard to believe the dog is alive, but its chest is rising and falling. The dog’s ribs are slender enough to appear fragile, and she fears they might break in her father’s hands when he positions the dog for surgery.