The Surgeon’s Secretary

Digital Drawing. A woman seen from waist up, facing forward, tilted to the right, holding an open book before herself. Her right hand is visible poised over the book loosely holding a fountain pen. She’s wearing a shirt, tie, aviator’s coat, and glasses with round lenses that each completely obscure her eyes and reflect the silhouette of a woman in profile with her face and arms thrown back, her hair and clothing streaming backwards. A rainbow overlay of that same silhouette lies over the image.

“Here, you see?” the surgeon said, as he pointed with his scalpel.  “At the nexus of the heart and the brain?  Between the eyes and the throat, right at the back of the mouth, where the voice is on the verge of emerging?”

The secretary peered past the gleaming scalpel and tilted her head.  There was nothing to see at the moment, other than the expected anatomy inside the mouth.  The corpse that lay on the dissection table had been long vacated.  But the surgeon claimed that he had cut through at just the right time, the fleeting moment right after certain death. 

He described a few other conditions that had been necessary for him to witness what none other perhaps had ever witnessed, certainly not under controlled and experimental conditions.

Where the voice was on the verge of emerging, he said. 

That was where the soul resided.

That was where the soul condensed just before vanishing, quick and cool like dry ice sublimating into vapor.

If he had blinked, he would have missed it, he said.

A thing rarely if ever seen, the human soul.

The surgeon had claimed to have seen it several times.

“I can’t be certain,” the surgeon continued, as he began his port-mortem examination of the body that remained after the person once known as Mister Wilibury vacated, wisping off into the unknown planes that existed beyond mortal life.

The secretary listened, nodded, observed, and made detailed notations in her clothbound notebook.  She had not been given a specific instruction when assigned to the surgeon.  She was only told to look for any indications that the surgeon had “crossed the line.”  Determining what that meant was up to the secretary.

For the moment, she observed.  And she noted.  This was also exactly what the surgeon needed for his secretary to do.

“Anyone can see it,” the surgeon said, continuing with his port-mortem investigation.  “It’s just that the moment is so brief and our attentions so focused on grief—or on last efforts to save—that we don’t notice it.”

The surgeon frowned.  He leaned over the former Mister Wilibury, peered at something for a moment, then shook his head slightly, and asked to be passed a pair of medical calipers.

“Surely someone at some time should have noticed before now,” the secretary said, finding and handing over the calipers.

“Oh, they have.  But they haven’t been able to prove it and therefore haven’t been believed.  It’s a matter of time.  Our bodies have limits to perception.  But we have built tools that extend those limits.  Telescopes.  Microscopes.  Projectors.  And detectors.  It was only a matter of time.”

“And you believe the time is now?  And the tool is that…‘glass scalpel’ you have built?” 

The surgeon was not currently using the tool he referred to as a “glass scalpel.”  He had built the tool himself, after making observations the first few times he witnessed a soul.

“With the aid of expert engineers and those who have a far better grasp on optics and particle behaviors than I do, then yes, I believe the time is now for humanity to learn that we can confirm the existence of our souls.  And better yet, we can see them, and draw upon their extraordinary powers.”

“Powers?”  The secretary scratched the word on a fresh page.  In accordance with her training, her expression remained unchanged, not indicating that the word had piqued her keenest interest.

At this point, the secretary was most concerned with ensuring that the surgeon was not willing to risk the life of a patient who may recover just to prove his observations.   The surgeon’s passion was evident.  But there was a danger that his passion might become obsession, an obsession to see with his mortal eyes the only immortal aspect of a human being. 

But as he explained it, he did not even need to cut into the physical body to envision the soul.  He called his tool a “glass scalpel” for simplicity’s sake, because its purpose was to align light particles in such a way that he could visualize the soul as it left the body.  But his ultimate purpose was not just to witness the soul. 

The surgeon stopped and looked up.  The secretary peered at his eyes, knowing he could not meet her gaze past the reflection of her mirrored spectacles. 

The surgeon drew in a deep breath.  “Imagine if I could bring about the proper conditions while a person was still alive, the soul still anchored to a mortal form.”

“To what end?”

The surgeon dropped his gaze and continued his examination.  “Intriguing that you should use that phrase.  I supposed there is an end.  And a simultaneous beginning.  Upon the death of the body, that is.”

He said no more for a few moments and the secretary too remained silent, observing him work.  She had questions upon questions already.  But she could be patient still.  And she need not ask her questions directly to receive the answers.  Indeed, if she asked directly, she might not receive the best kind of answers, the unexpected answers to questions she might never think to ask.

“There is someone I would like for you to meet,” the surgeon said at last.  “Of course, I do hope to have you witness a soul.  But for the time being, it seems it only becomes visible upon death.” 

The surgeon then announced that he had succeeded in performing what he called a “soul surgery” on someone.  The secretary felt a slight flinching of her brow.  It was the only outward sign of her astonishment.

The surgeon, even if he would have been inclined to notice, did not see this.  He was still bent over the remains of Mister Wilibury. 

“She came to me on the brink of death,” he said.  “And I believed she would be the next soul my eyes would see departing this mortal plane.”

His patient was a woman, only in middle age, who should have been looking forward to decades of living, lecturing about stellar life cycles, watching her three children grow up, traveling to the same four places she loved without her travel-weary husband, and spending winters sitting by warms fires with her husband.  She had developed a cancer in her stomach, persistent and elusive.  No effort was valiant enough to save her. 

At the end of all efforts, she decided to give herself over into the hands of one last surgeon.  If she were to die before she was ready, she wanted to die fighting the very thing that killed her.  She wanted to die providing what she hoped was a burst of knowledge that could only be gained by taking risks too terrible to take on someone who had a chance of surviving. 

The surgeon operated on her.

“She recovered fully,” he said.  “The cancer has not returned, so far as we can tell.”

The secretary’s pen looped and flicked across and down the page. “How did you know what to do?”

The surgeon finished his examination and began wiping down his tools.  “I didn’t.  My aim was to try and observe the soul as soon as I could and then…I would try to focus its energies and bend them back toward the patient by adjusting the glass scalpel.  Honestly, it was just a thought, not a true plan.  It was the very opposite of what I would typically do to prepare for and perform a surgery.”

The surgeon placed each tool in a tub filled with a clear liquid tinted a slight amber.  “I can’t be certain that I did anything at all,” he said.  He tossed his gown into a rubber tub to be laundered.  He discarded his gloves in a steel bin lined with red plastic marked with the symbols of a biological hazard.

He washed his hands, scrubbing them with a brush hung by a string beside the deep bowl of the sink.  “Maybe this was an instance of spontaneous remission.  Maybe this is how it happens.  Maybe sometimes, the soul does not depart.  Maybe it’s able to act against instinct and stay.  There was so much I missed when I was busy marveling.” 

The secretary capped her pen and closed her notebook. 

The surgeon dried his hands and turned to face the secretary.  “But if I had to say, I would say that the patient healed herself.  That her soul healed her body.”

“I believe I would like to meet this patient of yours.”


It was obvious the surgeon had never received any training in the art of hiding his expressions.  For it was obvious that he was anxious about how the secretary would respond to meeting his patient.

What the secretary could not discern was why the surgeon was anxious.  Her best guess was that he worried over his new secretary believing he was fraudulent or delusional.  Or if he were indeed fraudulent, then perhaps he was worried that his ruse would be found out upon introducing a second person, a potential wildcard.

But the secretary already knew the surgeon was no fraud, else she would not have been sent to him.

The surgeon and the secretary sat on a bench outside the doors of the hall in which his patient, the professor, was lecturing.  The doors opened and students spilled, staggered, and shuffled out.  Moments after the crowd dispersed, the doors opened again, and a student laughed as she walked alongside her professor.  The student bid the professor goodbye and the professor turned her attention to the bench.

The secretary noted then that there seemed to be a glow about the professor.  The glow of good health perhaps.

The surgeon and the secretary rose.  The surgeon made introductions.

The professor made a jest about the safety of waiting outside the lecture hall, for those who sat within seemed to struggle to remain conscious. 

“It did not seem so to me,” said the secretary.  “I heard several bursts of laughter.  I almost questioned if we were sitting before the wrong room.”

The professor threw back her head and laughed. 

The secretary felt a shift within her, a lightening of her mood.  She smiled.  She was not in observation.  There was no need to control her reactions and expressions.  And what she felt in that moment upon hearing the professor’s rich melodious laugh was delight.

The three began to walk.  It was lunch time and the professor led them to her favorite eatery.

The professor spoke in a captivating cadence, mostly to the secretary.  She did not speak of her illness, but of her three children and their past and current antics. 

The professor was charming, to be sure, but the secretary soon realized that the woman’s voice was atypically soothing and rich. 

The secretary deemed it the proper moment to take the risk of being direct.  She commented on the professor’s voice.

The professor threw back her head and laughed again.  “Some side effect of the surgery,” she said, turning briefly to the surgeon.  “I can sing like a canary now.  I wasn’t half bad before, but now, I can stop people in their tracks when I croon a tune.” 

The professor motioned for them to stop.  She sang a few couplets from a popular play.  A group of four people who happened to be passing by fell within earshot.  They all stopped for a moment and clutched their hearts. 

The professor had spoken the literal truth not a figurative embellishment.

The secretary too felt something break loose from her heart.  The professor tugged her companions’ elbows and had them resume walking.

“The treatments I had before made all my hair fall out,” the professor said.  “But my recovery from the last surgery…well, it also made my hair fall out, but only the white ones!”  She laughed and her shoulders shook and her hands moved to her belly.   

They stopped again just outside the eatery. 

The secretary, suspecting she was on the verge of some understanding, dared to gaze into the professor’s eyes.

The secretary saw dark brown and she peered beyond the brown. 

Faint perceptions came into focus and—

The secretary staggered back, gasping.  The breath had been knocked out of her.  The professor reached toward her, grasping her arm to steady her.    

Tears sprung to the secretary’s eyes.  Her breathing quickened and then slowed. 

She heard, as if from a distance, the professor’s voice, urging her to sit down.  The professor went inside the eatery, promising to return with a glass of water.

When she left, the surgeon sat down next to the secretary.

“I wondered if I should have braced you to what might happen,” he said.  “But I also needed to know if the effect was real, or just something that only I experienced.”

The secretary squeezed her eyes shut tight.  She felt waves of sensation pulsing off her.

“I too am similarly affected whenever I look directly into her eyes,” the surgeon said.  “But she says that others look into her eyes all the time, and no one else has reacted that way.  I believe you have to…”

“Look deeper,” the secretary said, opening her eyes.

“Yes, I think it’s a residual effect of the surgery.  After she was healed, I used the glass scalpel to…I suppose I could say to suture the opening from where the soul was emerging.  But the seal must be imperfect.  Maybe it will close in time.  Or maybe it’s permanent.  There’s a…protrusion.  I was worried at first, but I now believe it’s beneficial that some portion, some miniscule portion, perhaps only a particle, of her soul has been left exposed.”

The secretary gaped.  “Her soul is bared…in a literal sense.”

“Yes.”  The surgeon turned to her.  “What did it look like to you?”

A calm had swept over her first, then a joy so profound that she lost her grasp on it even as she recognized what it was.  She felt tiny but not insignificant.  A strange burden approached her.  And a warm comfort wrapped around her.  All at once, it gripped her.  She was on the verge of cosmic comprehension. 

All at once, it released her.

And she saw the figure of a woman with her head and arms thrown back, hair and clothes flowing and fluttering, as if she were being struck by winds and waves of vast unseen forces. 

“A rainbow,” the secretary said as her mind deciphered what her eyes had seen.

“The conditions are delicate.  But not as rare as you might expect.  Just as they are for a rainbow…yes.  An apt comparison.  And a sweet one.”

“I just saw her soul?” 

“As best you could with your mortal bodily senses.”

The secretary clamped shut her mouth and pulled out her notebook.

“I know that those who sent you have the power and the means to stop me from ever holding a scalpel in my hand again,” the surgeon said.  “I know why you are truly here.  Not to assist in my work, but to serve as the eyes and ears of those who doubt, who maybe even call me ‘mad.’ Who await your report that there is nothing to report.”

The secretary glanced at him, but said nothing as she continued to regain her composure.

The surgeon continued.  “If I can’t convince you and them to let me continue—or let someone continue this work—then I would rather stop and be an ordinary surgeon.  I am a good one.  And there are many in need of my skills.  I would not risk harm.  And for that reason, I would not risk embarking on this path alone.”

“But you already have.”

“Yes, I admit that is so.”  He exhaled as he nodded.  “I admit that is so.”

The secretary inhaled deeply, once and then twice.  The wonder she felt was fading quickly, as quickly as the details of dreams faded upon waking.  She found she did not want to let it go.  She inhaled again and breathed out.  She would ask her questions now.

“The powers of the soul,” she said.  “I feel I’m beginning to understand.  Do you not have any hesitations about what those powers might be used for?  You’re a healer.  You may only be focused on healing.  And that is noble, sir.  But what if those powers were used for destruction or oppression?  What if they could be stolen by another?   Bodies have been subjugated by those who seek to rule.  Could souls not suffer to the same insidious fate?”

The surgeon pretended to laugh.  “You insult me even as you compliment me, my dear secretary.  You consider me naïve.”

“I consider you eager…and honest.  But you are only one person at the beginning of your discovery.  The vastness of what you do not know could expand to the margins of our universe and beyond.  I put to you a challenge.  I ask you, what balances that eagerness?”

The surgeon leaned over, propping his elbows on his knees, folding his fingers together.  “I understand.  The cost of discovery must not be greater than the benefits.”

“And a discovery like this, about something so personal to us, one that promises so much, a discovery like this warrants much more caution than your average revelation.  It might be too easy to forget one of the cardinal truths of discovery.”

“And what is that?”

“There is no such thing as one answer to all questions.”

The surgeon nodded.  “As far we know,” he added.  “And I make no such claims.  Proof and observation and access to the human soul is a discovery so fundamental that it will surely lead to a whole new multitude of questions.  But it may help to answer a few of the most important questions.  It may provide answers that comfort and anchor those who have been anxious and aimless.”

“My dear surgeon, I thought your aim was just to heal the body.”

“And if I could heal without first having to harm?  I aim to champion such a cause.”

The secretary fell silent as she scrawled in her notebook.  She finished, closed the book, and turned her face to the surgeon.

“Having me meet the professor was a clever strategy.  And a desperate one perhaps.”  The secretary turned away and sighed.  “And most effective.”

“Then…you will give your recommendation that the work continue?”

The professor emerged from the eatery.  She was returning to them.

The secretary turned again to the surgeon.  “Those who sent me don’t aim to stop or oppose or even slow the march of progress, only to temper it.”

“Many have said so and not meant it.  Do you believe the people you work for?”

“I do, although…”  The secretary smiled.  “I do not know their souls.  Of course, I don’t know yours either.”

“Maybe you will, if you allow for the work to continue.”

The secretary nodded.  “Yes, maybe I will.”

Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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