“I know this sounds weird,” says an amputee to his massage therapist in the title story of Ethel Rohan’s collection Cut Through the Bone, “but could you also massage where my leg used to be? It’s the phantom stuff, I can still feel it.” Matt, the amputee, might as well be speaking about the story itself, which is teeming with ghosts. Little does he know, for example, that the therapist, Joyce, is mourning her own loss: she sees her deceased son, Tom, in her patient. Matt and Joyce are both suffering, and each is able to mitigate the other’s pain. “As she worked,” Rohan writes, “everything in the small, dim space took on a haunted feel—the music and candles, and gardenia and sandalwood scents. The last time she had touched Tom, held him for any length, was at his high school graduation ceremony.”
The story lasts only two pages, but it is so driven by what has happened off the page, or before the reader arrived on the scene, that the plot moves forward and backward simultaneously. Joyce and Matt bang on the locked door of the past while being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present. “She stared at the empty space, her heart knocking against her ribcage, and reminded herself to breathe,” Rohan writes. “If you’d prefer not, that’s cool,” Matt says.
This story, like many in the collection, charts internal conflicts, tugs-of-war between dashed hopes and cold realities. “The war that matters,” explains Diane di Prima in her poem “Rant,” “is the war against the imagination.” If Cut Through the Bone can be said to be about anything, it is an account of battles in that war.
The conflicts appear in various guises, each with its own understated or silent backstory. In “Under the Scalpel,” a woman tries to move on with her life after a botched facial surgery; when the attendants in a nursing home refuse to give an elderly woman her dentures, in “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” she steals those of the recently deceased. The three-hundred-pound hero of “Cracking Open” literally leaps out of her own body.
Whether they win or lose their battles, many of Rohan’s characters share Matt and Joyce’s quiet, impossible hunger and the sadness that accompanies it. Rohan never looks past that sadness: she is mindful of her characters’ plights, her prose guided by a careful, focused empathy. And as to the question of how, finally, one prevails—lives with such space, or bridges that gap between the real and the imagined—she gives us an answer. Despite her misgivings, Joyce obliges Matt in his request for a massage of his missing leg. “She worked the air tentatively,” Rohan writes. “He sighed long and deep.” Which is to say: fake it till you make it.
The story continues: “Warmth radiated out of her hands and into the memory of his foot, his leg, and all that was lost.” The past is gone, but not forgotten. Nor is it to be ignored. The war against the imagination is won, it turns out, by the act of imagination itself.
Setting of story: a spa; Time of story: 11 a.m.; Set piece of note: a prosthetic leg leaning against the wall; Birthplace of author: Dublin, Ireland; Current residence of author: San Francisco; Year author quit watching television: 1998; Author’s feelings on short stories: “I want goosebumps on my mind. To hear and feel the rhythm, the beat. To have the experience build and pull back, build and pull back, build and pull back again and again and again until climax and delicious fade. I want to want to hold the book afterwards, to feel grateful, opened, sated.”