The itching sensation began the evening June had dropped a wreath of azaleas into the ocean from the very same barnacled dock her brother had jumped from exactly a year before.
Her mother, ever fussy, had suggested June drop lilies instead. Azaleas are more of a love flower, the heavyset woman had told her. They’re usually meant for women.
In the end, June stuck with azaleas, and after watching the pink wreath spin atop a green whirlpool before vanishing into its depths, she dropped herself into the seething sea.
Pushing off from the pillars of the pier, June swam desperately for shore, fighting against the invisible pull of the waves until her eyes bulged and her muscles burned from exhaustion. Once ashore, she stretched out on the beachhead and napped in the angry stare of the sun.
The next morning, June discovered the itch quietly gnawing beneath her right ear, her favorite of the two. All through the night, the strange itch woke her again and again and seemed to burrow into the pulpy sponge of her brain like some clicking beetle. Thinking it nothing more than an errant bit of sand and seawater, she did her best to dislodge it with her finger. But this only seemed to increase the muffled buzz and, accordingly, her irritation.
At breakfast, she complained to her mother of her predicament in the hopes she might offer some sort of sage remedy only a mother would have knowledge of. The itch was a constant presence in the background of her thoughts and tinted her mood a deep shade of blue. June was sure she’d go mad if she didn’t find a solution soon.
Have you tried shaking your head repeatedly, her mother suggested. Like when you really don’t want to eat something?
June gave it a shot, shaking her head until she became dizzy and nearly fell onto the floor. The remedy seemed to work at first, but the moment the room regained its equilibrium, the itch rebounded and continued on with its bothersome clawing.
Her mother then tried attacking the itch with a Q-tip. She dug with the confident thoroughness of a miner, and not two minutes later she stopped and said aloud, Now what do we have here?
June tried to glance around the side of her head as her mother inserted a pair of tweezers into her ear and removed a long gleaming string out of the girl’s head.
Tell me what it is, June said impatiently. Tell me what it is.
It’s just some sort of string.
Gross! Pull it out! Pull it out!
June’s mother did as she was told. But the more she pulled, the more string inexplicably came forth. Pretty soon, a spool of several feet lay wound in her mother’s hand.
She then tried cutting it with a pair of scissors and when that too failed, she tried burning it off with a lit match. Nothing she did, however, had any effect.
What am I supposed to do? June whined. I can’t go to school with a string hanging out of my head.
I have a plan, but you probably won’t like it, her mother said. The older woman wrapped the string several times about her daughter’s head and tucked it beneath the girl’s black hair. There you go, she said, satisfied. Good as new.
June’s mother had made an appointment with the girl’s doctor the following week to address the spiderweb-thin string coming out of her daughter’s ear. But after two days spent in the torture of her classmates, her mother managed to get the appointment pushed up to the following Thursday.
Once they had discovered the string, June’s classmates had been unable to resist pulling on it at every opportunity. They grabbed it during class, yanked on it while standing in line for lunch, and the sophomores even made a game of grabbing the string and running up and down the hallways with it. It took June so long to bundle up the string, she was late for class and received detention from the vice principal.
The girls, however, were the worst. A gang of the more popular ones caught June alone in the bathroom, forced her into a stall, and tied her to a toilet with a series of knots so tangled and intricate the janitor had to be paged to set the poor, sobbing girl free.
June’s doctor was a pipsqueak of a man who wore telescope glasses and a silver mustache so bushy it looked as if a ferret had curled up under his nose and fallen asleep. Indeed, the man was so short he had to stand atop a stool in order to peer into June’s ear with his otoscope.
Hmm…yes…I see, he mumbled. He set the otoscope down and proceeded to pull out great lengths of the sparkling string from June’s ear. Minutes later, a pile of the spooled string rose up from the floor right up to the doctor’s ankles.
See that you don’t fish out her brain, Doctor, June’s mother said cheekily.
Of course not, replied the doctor. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. He let go of the string and pretended to consult June’s chart. We’ll just need to run a few tests. He then backed out of the room in a rather obvious attempt of escape. Moments later, a nurse came into the room with a hospital gown and the announcement that June would be staying the night, so her condition could be, quote-unquote, monitored more closely.
June spent the following month in the hospital and was systematically moved from room to room, wing to wing, so she could be examined by every doctor, specialist, expert, and anyone else in the hospital who had a qualified opinion. One by one, she was paraded before audiologists, neurologists, oncologists, and once, even, a surly dentist who knew nothing of the string growing out of June’s ear, and could, quite frankly, give two damns, as he himself put it. But he recommended, anyway, that she have her wisdom teeth removed soon, or she ran the risk of them becoming impacted.
And so it went, for weeks on end. With each visit by a new doctor, the string was unraveled more and more. Some doctors only removed a few feet, while others would pull out long reams, stretching yards and yards of it out in an inexhaustible supply, each hell bent on being the doctor who reached the end of the seemingly infinite fiber.
One night, weeks into her stay, June muted the documentary she was watching about the Great Valley Mountains in the northern country and asked her mother if she was going to die.
Her mother put down the sweater she was crocheting out of the excess string and told her plainly, Of course not, dear. I’d like to think I’m not unlucky enough a mother to lose both of my children. Now get some sleep, we have another dozen appointments tomorrow.
On and on the doctors came in a parade of starched lab coats, each picking, poking, and prodding her with questions, fingers, and needles until she felt like a human porcupine.
Flanked by a battalion of doctors, she made the cover of Medical Maladies Monthly, and a million dollar prize was even offered by Milton Moses Morrison, the notorious billionaire and space travel magnate who was known widely in the medical community for his interest in outlandish illnesses. The more bizarre the condition, the more he invested in its scrutiny.
In the end, no solution was found, and the string continued to be unspooled all throughout the winter and deep into the following spring. June had lost considerable weight during this period and lay in her hospital bed like a pale and brittle seashell.
Days before the start of summer, a possible solution arrived from the most unlikely of places. June was close to giving up hope of ever leaving the hospital when a peculiar elderly woman emerged from the thick fog of doctors and began prodding her in the stomach with a stick so smooth and black June mistook it for a taxidermic snake. Upon closer examination, June realized the stick was, in fact, a stupefied cottonmouth, long charmed into its rigid position. She was amazed to see its beady copper eyes were still alive and flicking about the hospital room.
The woman, herself, was of an even stranger appearance. She wore a spotted giraffe coat, had a hairy face and a crooked nose, and her glossy opal eyes were so steady and focused, June came to trust the woman after just one look. And she continued trusting the strange woman even after glancing down and seeing the heads of two baby alligators gawping up at her from the woman’s feet.
The elderly woman proceeded to examine June in the most curious manner. She peered up her nostrils, smelled her hair, and even touched a drop of the girl’s spit to her tongue. When she did finally speak, the room fell into a quick silence.
I am a witch doctor from deep in the swamp, she declared in a voice so pointed several of the doctors shivered from an imagined cold. I have a potential cure for your illness, but it comes with great risk, more risk than you can possibly imagine. If we are to continue forward, I must have your word that my instructions will be followed to the letter and most importantly, with complete trust. What say you? Do you still have courage in this husk you call a body? She poked June again in the stomach with her walking stick of a snake.
June looked into the Witch Doctor’s eyes and nodded gently.
Very well, the Witch Doctor said. The first thing we will need then is an elephant.
With her options long exhausted, June had little choice but to consent to the Witch Doctor’s unorthodox treatment. The gang of doctors, however, were acting mostly out of curiosity and, possibly, from the guilt they felt about their own endlessly ineffective remedies. They agreed to assist the Witch Doctor in whatever way possible and promptly set out to fill her meticulous orders.
With the help of June’s mother, half of the doctors tracked down as many of June’s relatives as they could. The other half of the doctors made their way to the local zoo where they begged, cajoled and finally bribed the zoo’s staff to lend them their largest elephant, Kingsford, for the day.
The next morning, the Witch Doctor addressed the crowd of relatives, doctors and any other curious staff members who had gathered in the sunny courtyard nestled on the hospital’s rooftop.
The string is of the sea, the Witch Doctor said aloud, and as such it must be returned to the sea. In order for us to accomplish this, we must stretch the string out to its absolute limit. Now, this will require an enormous feat of strength and dedication. Make no mistake, this is no easy task, and its end result is far from certain. Anyone fearful of risk and danger should leave now. The only person to turn and leave upon hearing the Witch Doctor’s warning was a janitor who had worked at the hospital for years and was mere weeks away from retirement; he felt he had seen enough uncertainty to last him a lifetime.
The Witch Doctor then went on to explain her plan in full, and once she was finished the crowd leapt to follow her instructions. The doctors secured June to her hospital bed and secured the bed with locks and chains to the cold concrete of the hospital itself. Then the Witch Doctor fed the string off of the roof to the crowd of June’s relatives, doctors and various onlookers who had gathered in the street below. Milton Moses Morrison, himself, was there to pick the string’s end out of the air and tie it around the great neck of Kingsford who was happily rubbing his great gray flank against a sedan which had unluckily parked in the street that day.
Led by Milton Moses Morrison riding atop Kingsford, the crowd marched south through the black streets for miles and miles as they slowly made their way to the white beaches and green waters of the nearby sea. Strung aloft behind them all the while was the slack crystal string streaming out of June’s ear. As the crowd continued on, more and more people left their houses to join their ranks, each attracted, no doubt, by Kingsford’s bellows, and soon dozens of chattering faces had been added to the merry parade.
Once they came within sight of the ocean’s roaring green mouth, the string suddenly went taut and tightened with a sharp twang. The doctors and June’s relatives then grabbed onto the string and began to pull it toward the gurgling green waves crashing behind them. Each member of the crowd joined in, and now hundreds of hands were pulling on the string with the gusto of a great game of Tug-of-War. Inch by inch, they labored behind the elephant against the taut crystal string until they could feel the salty breath of the ocean on the backs of their necks.
Atop the hospital, June’s tilted head grimaced from the extreme pressure. Her mother held onto her hand, and the cousins who had remained behind offered her whatever words of encouragement they could think of. Hang in there, they said. You’re doing great. Stay strong. The Witch Doctor, meanwhile, said nothing and merely peered through a telescope towards the sea.
When she finally saw Kingsford reach the water’s edge, she turned to June’s mother and cousins and told them to begin pulling on the string, too. They did as they were told and minutes later, the string began to tremble and vibrate. The Witch Doctor watched on tensely as the very air itself seemed to hum.
Keep pulling, the old woman urged.
A great pop echoed over the town like a loud cannon shot as the string finally broke free from June’s head. Her mother and cousins were very nearly thrown off the top of the hospital. Down by the beach, the string fell slack, sending Kingsford and the entire crowd hurtling into the breaking waves of the ocean.
When June’s mother got back onto her feet, she held up the loose string and attached to its end a common red rubber stopper, like one would use to plug up the drain of a sink. We did it! she said triumphantly. We did it! She rushed to embrace June, who was staring forward in an empty daze. June’s mother hugged her close and when she let go to thank the Witch Doctor, she felt a wetness spreading across the front of her blouse. She looked up at June and saw a gush of tears pouring forth from the girl’s green eyes.
June, her mother said, why are you crying?
I don’t know, June said, frightened.
She didn’t know because, in reality, she wasn’t crying at all, but was instead leaking. Little by little, water soon began to trickle out of her ears, dribble from the corners of her mouth, and even spray forth from her nose in two great torrents. It leaked off of the bed and began to gather into deep crystal pools on the concrete floor. One of June’s cousins dipped her finger in one of the puddles and touched the sparkling liquid to her tongue.
Saltwater, the girl said with a confused scowl.
Saltwater? the Witch Doctor repeated. You mean like seawater?
Instead of waiting for an answer, though, the Witch Doctor rushed for a nearby fire escape.
Save yourselves while you can! she called over her shoulder. The last anyone heard of her was the sound of her crocodile shoes clopping as she vanished down the metal stairs.
Unfortunately for June’s mother and her cousins, they did not heed the old woman’s advice and remained watching as more and more seawater gushed from June’s body in greater and greater streams. They all watched, enthralled, as June’s arms began to quake and jitter as if she were being electrocuted, and then, suddenly, a huge surge of glittering water burst forth from the girl’s mouth and swept her relatives from the courtyard in a great winding river.
By the time the parade of relatives, doctors and onlookers made their way back to the hospital, each expecting to be greeted as heroes, they found great waterfalls of shimmering seawater pouring out of every window of the hospital into the street below.
My Lord! said Milton Moses Morrison, still perched atop Kingsford. The girl had a goddamn tsunami inside of her!
The cascade continued for eleven straight days, flooding the town and transforming the streets into salty channels of sparkling water. Fish, crab and curious porpoises swam casually in and out of homes. Sharks picked off house pets. And the screeching chorus of gulls could be heard at all hours of the day.
The townspeople were so overwhelmed by the damage done to their town, fending off jellyfish and electric eels, they had forgotten entirely where the offending waters had originated from in the first place.
Thankfully, on the eleventh day, fate relented and the tide swept the waters out to sea, leaving the town miraculously dry again. Despite the ruin all around them, the townspeople marveled at how lovely the sparkle of salt made their streets and buildings. They now lived in what felt like a town cast of diamonds.
This did little, however, to sate their anger, and with the hospital now accessible, Milton Moses Morrison, himself, assembled a mob of doctors and angry homeowners, each armed with fishing gaffes and spear guns they had used to fend off sharks, lobsters and flocks of cunning gulls, and the group made their way back to the rooftop of the hospital.
Expecting to find June in the courtyard, they were surprised to find the poor girl’s mother instead, and in her arms wasn’t her daughter, but an unconscious young boy, naked to the bottoms of his feet. June’s mother looked up at the mob of people and in her eyes they saw she was crying. Regular tears, though, thankfully.
It’s my son, said June’s mother. I thought I had lost him forever, but he’s come back to me. My precious, beautiful son.
The mob stood and watched in silence as the mother cradled her previously lost child as if he were still a baby, until one by one, the crowd broke off, and each returned home to sweep away the piles of clams, jellyfish and dried mounds of dead fish left over from the flood.
No one ever did see June again. Rumors passed about the town that her ghost wandered the pier late at night whenever there was a full moon. Some sleepy-eyed fishermen even claimed to have spotted the girl swimming in the bay during the early morning hours. Most of these rumors, though, were little more than idle talk, and eventually, they too were swallowed up by more interesting gossip washing through the town.
Occasionally, though, whenever a violent storm swept over the town and flooded the streets, anyone who listened closely could indeed hear young June’s voice singing softly behind the howls of wind, or ringing up from the rippling puddles dancing along with the endless rush of rain.
Anthony Johnson earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and is currently writing a cycle of science fiction stories. "The Blind Oasis" is a story based on his experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans. He can also be reached on Twitter at @adjohnexpers.