Fiction

The Crow Procedure

Illustration by Sam Weber

The surgery to give Mr. Dapple the wings of a crow was scheduled to take twelve minutes. Chief Resident Riel, the youngest surgeon at the Kweskatisowin Hospital, which was the largest rural hospital in Iiyiyuushii, had already upped the anesthesia. Dapple had ordered the most expensive unconsciousness available, a full and clean f-trip with a personalized fantasia. Professor Enoch Samaritan—arriving late from his Montreal commute—entered the operating theatre just as Riel was putting the dream in the man’s head through the earworm, and tried to smile. He couldn’t bring himself to apologize, though. Riel was his least favourite resident—good looking, always in full war paint and headdress, and early to every metamorphosis. His youth was tiring just to look at.

“Any guesses? ” Riel asked his elder, who he noticed was wearing the same jeans and feather-collared strut as the day before.

“Guesses about what? ”

“The fantasia.”

“You know you’re not supposed to look at the contents of a patient’s fantasia, Riel. It’s illegal.”

“He’s chosen a dream where he becomes a crow,” Riel said. “Can you believe it? A crow flying over a forest. Talk about a limited imagination.”

Before his senior colleague even had a chance to check the cleanliness of the sightlines, Riel began pushing the patient into the allscan, the rubbery grey tube that would sheathe the patient for the duration of the procedure. He resented a workday longer than half an hour. Nonetheless, he guided the body into the machine slowly and carefully. Dapple’s flesh was soft from multiple surgeries, and his back had been pre-broadened and pre-rippled, though the nervous system at his bio-age was no doubt robonecrotic anyway. Samaritan approved of Riel’s vigilance. It was the one remaining characteristic that distinguished a top surgeon.

Once the patient was inside, Riel set the tarp under the allscan. He reached for the g-drones on the side table, and handed a cup of them to Dr. Samaritan, who unceremoniously poured the container over the patient’s back. The robotic goo spread over every square micron of the exposed back, dripping in oily streams down and along Mr. Dapple’s thick sides.

Corvine transplant was a boring metamorphosis. The whole of the back needed to be droned, and it left the two surgeons with a few minutes of dead time, and nothing to do with their hands.

“Did I ever tell you about the day I made kiwew? ” Riel asked. “The day I crossed the border? ”

Enoch sighed. “You didn’t.”

“I left LA. You know that. This crazy party the night before. My friend Malinka bought all these slave boys, and we used their hair for napkins. The dragon festival was on that night, and the greens beat the reds. Every promise biomechanics ever made written in dragon letters all over the sky. My friends all wondered, and I wondered a bit, too, that night, why am I moving to Iiyiyuushii? ”

“They didn’t know you were Cree? ”

Riel laughed at the old-fashioned word. “Out there, the whole idea that you would be tied to a place—it’s absurd to them. It’s like saying that you’re going to marry a building, that you’re going to sign your will over to a rock. I was the only one who cared that I was nehiyawi.”

Riel leaned over to check on the g-drones. They were dripping glacially across the musculature, like streams of grey sand, tearing through the nerve lines and interstitial tissue, and then plopping like concrete jelly onto the tarp below. Everything as it should be.

“And then I arrived at the border. With all my papers. They had proof I’m nehiyawi. Know what they did? ”

“What did they do? ” Samaritan asked.

“They searched me. They took off all my clothes. They searched me with their fingers.”

“Well, they have to be careful,” Samaritan said. Two of his nephews worked at the border control. “They don’t want any synthetic material… ”

“I’m far from disapproving, Professor,” Riel interrupted. “Real fingers. No scanners. They searched my body with their actual hands.”

“So? ”

“So I knew I had returned home. I knew that I was a human being again, with hands and fingers. A person among other people.”

“I see.”

“I won’t even tell you about my first walk in the forest. Real trees. That was the real kiwew, the real return.”

“Is there a reason you’re telling me this, Riel? ”

Riel sighed. “Now I’m metamorphosing a man into a crow. Every morning, I wake up and wreck nature. Yesterday it was a peregrine. Tomorrow a dove.”

“Tomorrow’s a sea eagle.”

“I mean, why don’t we wake up tomorrow morning and go and cut down some trees? Why don’t we go massacre some aspens? Like we were living 200 years ago. Let’s go hack down some trees and make toilet paper and wipe our asses with it.”

The g-drones interrupted Riel with the soft and high bleating of their conclusion. The patient’s back was clear. Under the scanner, the tarp had collected all 285 million nanobots, leaving the patient prepped for the incisions and transplant.

Professor Samaritan leaned over and sliced the back in two exactly parallel lines each exactly fifty centimetres long. (The automatic surgeon ensured the precision of the measurements while giving the human moderator some illusion of control.)

Then it was time for the wings. The prefabricated black pair of crow’s wings lowered down automatically from the overcooler. They were huge, two metres long each. Samaritan placed them precisely into the incisions. Riel lifted the tarp and poured the leftover g-drones over the patient’s back again, and refixed the tarp under the scanner. Again, more waiting, the silence disturbed only by the microscopic rustling of the millipede healers busy attaching the biologies of crow and human.

Samaritan didn’t like to engage too closely with the residents at the hospital—some of the other surgeons went so far as to join bonds with their wards—because engagement was so much work and he already had enough work. But if he didn’t say anything to Riel now, he realized, he was going to have these conversations until his retirement four years from now.

“Can I ask you, Riel, how long you’ve been here? ” he asked.

“Six years nearly.”

Samaritan hated confrontation. “You know you’re my blood, one way or the other, but I don’t want to hear about you not liking the surgeries anymore.”

“Metamorphoses don’t fit our ways. They’re the opposite of our ways.”

“Riel, you know what Iiyiyuushii used to be called? ”

“Quebec.”

“And before then? ”

“Canada.”

“And you know how we got it back? ”

“Louis Riel Samson’s leadership and the bounty of nature.”

Samaritan laughed nastily, startling his colleague. The Senior Professor was usually so unflappably mild. He had five daughters at home. “Is that how they put it on your nehiyawi identity exam? ‘The bounty of nature? ’ We bought it back and we lawed it back. Louis Samson took French credits from the aft-zone and bought every scrap back, so let’s not pretend—”

“I’m not—”

“Listen. I’m not blaming you. I’m saying that you shouldn’t blame yourself for turning people into tigers, and don’t blame me for turning this outsider into a crow. We’re good at it and it’s how we pay for the overlamp fields and the woods.” The g-drones bleated again, the wings attached. “Go for a walk. Think about it. I’ll finish.”

“Professor Samaritan,” Riel began apologetically.

“Go for a walk. I can teach this stupid bastard how to fly.”

Samaritan turned back to check the readings on the allscan. Riel wasn’t in a position to refuse, even if he wanted to. He was only a resident, now a sheepishly relieved resident happy to be excused for the day. He hadn’t expected the rebuke, but he was ashamed and grateful for it in equal measure, like the time he had been expelled from introductory rhetoric in middle school.

The red exit button flashed in the shadowy half-zone of the antechamber, and the hot, acidic breath passed over his body, removing the skin-against-skin. Then the half-zone curved behind him and he was on the plains, barefoot, in buckskin. It was mid-August. The sky swirled thick and dark, rife with the possibility of rain. The long grass underfoot spread without interruption into the distance, except for a stand of aspens on the horizon. Riel waded toward them, never looking back, the hospital and its business instantly forgotten.

The allscan bleated again. The autosurgeon popped and gurgled out the sound of congratulations. The corvine graft had been successful. All that remained was waiting for the f-trip to wear off. Dr. Samaritan could break the patient’s fantasia without risk, but he found that interruption often delayed comfort with the new appendages. Better to let Mr. Dapple land in his mind first. It’s easier to wake up with wings after gliding to ground in a dream.

Samaritan half-curiously inspected the sleeping body as it emerged from the scanner. The man’s face was scarred in a pattern popular a decade earlier—“the tiger claw”—four rough stripes across each cheek. Dapple had chosen to maintain the oozing effect. Tight was now the style. To Samaritan’s surprise, Dapple’s torso presented only a single tattoo, a cross over his heart in the Coptic style. The full matching scarification ran down both legs, rough and ragged, nearly down to the bone. And he was a eunuch, his groin a smooth flap that buttoned behind him. He must have had that done in Rome. The Romans were the best at castration. They were the only surgeons whose eunuchs never smelled like urine. Nonetheless, the flesh of the abdomen had softened. No one had figured out a way to prevent that side effect.

The f-trip ended gently. Dapple’s blue-within-blue eyes opened abruptly. “Am I awake? ” he asked.

“You are a crow,” Samaritan replied.

“Has it taken? ”

“It’s taken.”

“Wondrous.”

Dapple tried to sit up, but unaccustomed to the weight of his enormous wings his legs shot in the air. He looked like an overturned beetle. “You’ll learn,” Samaritan said. “You’ll learn. It’s best to start on the edges. The force comes from the scapulars, but try moving those great primary coverts first.”

The huge tips of the crow wings fluttered minutely.

“Good. A bit more? ”

The spasms of the huge wings pressed Dapple back onto the operating table. Samaritan lifted him into a sitting position. With a sudden snap, like the shutting of an enormous fan, Dapple closed his wings behind his back. “Perfectly wondrous,” he said.

“I’ll bring you a mirror.”

The autosurgeon lowered a mirror from the ceiling. The half-man, half-crow paused before his reflection, black wings framing his elegant scars, his smooth torso, his glowing azure eyes. He snapped his wings open and snapped them shut. A smile cut his face horizontally, and his left eye flicked up and to the right. It meant the final transfer of payment.

“Perfection,” Dapple said. “It’s like your motto said. Just like. ‘Why should reality deny you the truth? ’ Spent the final dribidrabs of my aunt’s second pension on this knify, but how worth it.”

“Tear down your house and build a boat,” Samaritan added.

“Perfection. May I ask you something? ”

“Sure.”

“Why are your people so good at these surgeries? ”

Professor Samaritan told the standard and humiliating lie that kept the hospital running. “We here in Iiyiyuushii live naturally. We understand the crow. A few of us can speak with the crow.”

“And is it true that you don’t scar, don’t even tattoo? ”

“It’s against the law here.”

Curiosity drifted across the narcotic, transfixing bluewithin-blue of Dapple’s eyes. “Can I pay to see you naked? ” Dapple whispered.

“No, but I am going to teach you how to fly.”

Samaritan placed his hand gently on the oversized black wing and guided Dapple out the door of the operating theatre. The antechamber shadow zone brushed away the skin-against-skin with the familiar acidic scent that always relaxed the surgeon, the warm odour of a day’s work ending. The sky was grey and the wind was up. Dapple shaded his gaze, even though the sun was hidden. His eyes must have been expensive.

It was the perfect day for learning how to fly, if it didn’t rain. The key was hopping and flapping in rhythm for the takeoff, and then gliding into the landing. The takeoff usually required an hour to learn. The landing took three or four tumbles.

Riel was sitting on a mossy stone among the aspens, practising tranquility. An elder had taught him. By deepening his breath, he could lower his heartbeat, and by lowering his heartbeat he was able to blend into the forest. A beaver had once walked up to him and sat in his lap. A cardinal had once perched on his shoulder.

Today—a herd of wild horses. They began as a faint vibration, a growing rumble in the distance like a night terror from beyond the trees, and then, rushing past him, furious, gorgeous, as if the sky were driving them wild, as if their turgid muscle foam were a reflection of the sky. Then gone, gone, leaving peace in their wake. It could have been 50,000 years ago or 50,000 years from now.

Into their silence, behind him, the sound of giant wings, but Riel didn’t turn his face to look at the Dapple crow rising through the evening sky.

Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) published The Hunger of the Wolf, a novel, in February 2015, and will release The Unmade Bed his sixth book, in March 2017.

Sam Weber attended the Alberta College of Art + Design, and the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work has appeared in The Walrus, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Spin magazines.