“What Erik Saw”: Excerpt from If Sylvie Had Nine Lives by Leona Theis

What Erik Saw (1999)

Standing in the shower with his eyes closed, a few days after his second surgery in as many weeks, Erik saw two bright kidney beans of light facing each other, a dark line between them. A bad sign, said his ophthalmologist. Erik and Syl made the six-hour drive to Edmonton for a second opinion, which echoed the first.

What Erik saw as he lay on the operating table for the third time, his head clamped motionless and his left eye still as stone because they’d stuck him with a needle to freeze it, was the business end of a medical instrument probing inside his eye. A small round tip of something pale and brown moving about.

“Ah,” said the surgeon when Erik told her about it afterward. “Hardly anyone sees it. One percent, at the outside.”

“I’ll consider myself lucky then.”

“I’m glad you see it that way.”

“Perceptive, too,” said Erik. “So to speak.”

The surgeon looked him directly in the eye, the one that wasn’t covered with a bandage, and set a hand on his shoulder, a light pressure, steadying. “That will depend entirely on how things heal up.”

Let this be over now, please. Three weeks ago, a Tuesday morning and he was on his way to the reno in Lawson Heights, the truck box weighed down by a thousand-dollar toilet he’d just discovered was cracked, his mind working on who he could hold responsible for the damage. Sun flashed bright on the river and spikey heads of purple thistle in the ditches stood tall above the grass, the punk of posies. Forget about the crappy toilet, this was the kind of drop-dead gorgeous day this place will hand you one after another in the summertime, making the blizzards in December and the week of minus forty in February worth it. Thank you, Saskatoon. The truck phone rang beside him and he reached for the receiver. Cynthia, who was doing electrical on the Lawson Heights job, and who happened to be Syl’s cousin, was calling to ask where he was. She was cooling her heels at the site without access to the house and she needed to pee and maybe this time she’d put her waiting-around time on her invoice.

“You should’ve gone to the other job first.”

“Well I didn’t.”

“Julia should be there. She’ll let you in.”

“Julia’s not.”

“She will be. Right away if not sooner.”

“Word is, she won’t be showing up at all today.”

“She what? I’ll be there in fifteen.”

“Make it ten, or I’ll have to squat right here in the driveway.”


Three times he slipped past other cars on streets where it’s all right so long as you don’t get caught, and ten minutes later he was within a block of the job. He rounded the final corner and was suddenly driving through a storm of black flecks. He stopped in the driveway and blinked and blinked again. You get one set of eyes. Blink. One set. Cynthia was knocking on the side window and Erik was reaching for the phone again. He lowered the window and handed her the receiver and the mini-Yellow Pages with the tiny print that he kept under the seat.

“Look up an eye doctor, any eye doctor.” He could see the steering wheel, the dash, the gearshift, the control for the wipers, the stick for the signal lights, but between himself and all those was a storm of black.

“What the hell, Erik?” Cynthia was flipping through the book; he was in good hands, but still one set of eyes.

“I’m inside a snow globe and all the flakes are black.” A pair. Two in total. He closed his left eye and all was clear again. He saw the steering wheel, the dash, the sticks, the gearshift plain as day. This calmed him. He closed his right and opened his left and the black was back. He cupped a palm over the bad eye.

She shoved the receiver back through the window. “Found one. Second Avenue. She says come right away.”

“Glorious fucking day. You drive.”

“I need a toilet.”

“Just hold it!”

“Okay, okay.”

He edged his ass to the right, lifted his legs one at a time past the bulk of the phone, slid carefully to the passenger side, took the mini–Yellow Pages from Cynthia and clutched it to his chest.

“Erik?” Cynthia shifted, shoulder-checked and backed out of the driveway. “I told Syl.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I called the house this morning looking for you and she didn’t know where you were either, and then I told her how last Friday I saw you and Julia coming out of your office, her hair messed into a haystack at the back and why did you have the venetians closed, I wondered. So I just told her. This morning on the phone. She said she was going to call Julia right pronto and have a conversation.”

“Glorious fucking, fucking day.”

But Syl had been with him at the hospital through operations one, two and three. A few days of rage and shock, and then she’d taken Erik’s hand as he lay in bed between surgeries one and two and told him they had too many years together to let it ruin them. “This sort of thing happens all the time. People get past it.” The drive to Edmonton and back had been a tonic, all those miles of music, all those hours of talk about anything but the affair. A truce, like living inside brackets.

When he told her that during the final operation he’d watched the instrument moving “inside my very eye,” she said, “Stop. Just stop.”

His friends were squeamish too. But where was their appreciation for mechanics? Where was their fascination for how things worked? The job of the tiny instrument, he told them, was to suck the vitreous jelly out from his eye because it was drying up and tugging at the retina.

“Must you use the word ‘suck’?” said Calum, the designer he was working with now.

After the surgeon had drawn out the jelly and injected the gas bubble in its place and sent him home, he was determined to follow orders, heal properly, resist the temptation to look up.

“Keeping my head down,” he told Syl. “Ha.”

“Good idea. Keep the other thing down too.”

“You said you didn’t want to talk about that.”

“I don’t.”

While he waited, neck bent, at the table that first evening, his view was of the placemat. He was allowed to raise his head for five minutes or so at a time, and only once in a while. He would save those minutes for swallowing. He tried to admire the placemat while he waited for Syl to slide a dinner plate onto it. It filled almost his entire field of vision, yellow flowers bright against lime green. Syl had bought it a couple of years ago during her everything-sixties phase, around about the time she sewed a mini dress in paisley print and walked around the house singing about buying the world a Coke and keeping it company. “No,” he’d said to her one day, “you’d like the world to buy you a Coke.”

“That would work too.”


These are the opening pages of Chapter 9 from If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, a novel forthcoming from Freehand Books, fall 2020.


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