The Shape of Grief

Alyssa Quinn

In the doctor’s office, a woman describes the shape of her pain. 

“There is a hard pillar inside of me,” she says. “Cylindrical. Metallic. It stretches from the pit of my stomach up to my throat.”

The doctor says this is an usual symptom and asks if she has any others.

“Lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, lump in throat, fatigue. On account of the pillar,” says the woman.

The doctor inquires if she’s seen a therapist. The woman sighs. She has seen half a dozen therapists and as many doctors. They all assume the pillar is metaphorical, or perhaps psychosomatic. But the woman knows her insides. 

“Doctor,” she says. “Please. Just X-ray me.”

The doctor shrugs and orders the X-rays. The woman changes into a hospital gown that looks and feels like a disposable tablecloth. In the imaging room, a lab technician positions the woman in front of a box-like apparatus mounted on the wall. The woman likes to feel her body manipulated by the technician’s cool, soft hands; it feels like being cared for. Her hands are placed on grab bars on either side of the machine. Her chest presses up against the plate. A lead skirt is looped around her hips, protection from the fine, carcinogenic waves that will wash invisibly over her. As the technician adjusts the X-ray tube, four quadrants of light fall onto the woman’s back, shaped just like a window. 

The technician leaves the room and the procedure begins. Inside the X-ray tube, electrons pour from cathode to anode and radiation ripples outward. The waves vibrate into the woman’s skin, piercing clean through blood and soft tissue to bury into bone, soaking the loam like a sponge. She thinks about how the beams filtering through her are only a few trillion hertz away from visible light and decides to picture that instead—her body glowing with color, washed by rainbow, brilliant as a prism.

Afterwards, the woman waits on an exam bed that is cold and crinkly with paper. Finally, the doctor returns, X-rays in hand. 

“Well, I’ll be damned if I can explain it,” he says. “But here it is.”

He mounts the X-rays on the illuminator. The pillar glows, electric white and undeniable. It is bright and opaque against her shadowy bones.

“You shouldn’t be alive,” says the doctor. “Did you swallow something?”

The woman shakes her head. She feels sad and unsurprised. 

“I want it out of me,” she says. “It hurts so terribly.”

Teams of specialists are brought in. CT scans are performed. The doctors are baffled, incredulous, intrigued. But the woman knows what this is and she knows it is nothing that can be examined away. It is just there, hurting, and must be removed. 

The surgeon decides to go in through the stomach. He anticipates all sorts of complications, but there are none. Except for the pillar, this woman is healthy. They open her, extract it, sew her back up. Afterwards, they want to keep the pillar to study it, discover an origin, name a pathology. But it is unremarkable. Once wiped of blood, it reveals itself to be a simple steel beam, 3.9 inches in diameter, 20.3 inches tall, weighing 68.6 pounds. 

“What a weight to carry,” a nurse says to the woman. The woman nearly weeps.

In post-op, doctors with clipboards ask her how she feels.

“Emptier,” she says. 

“The pain is gone?” ask the doctors.

She hesitates. Is the pain gone? She can still feel something inside her—or rather, a lack of something. She can feel the shape of absence, a pillar-sized gap, an emptiness at her core refusing to fill. It is less painful than disorienting, as if a familiar landmark has vanished, the sun scooped from the midday sky, the tip of her nose erased from its permanent place in her field of vision. There is a sense of gone-ness, of missing-ness, a hollowness refusing to be named. The woman says, “The pain is gone.”

She is discharged the next day. A doctor holds the pillar out to her. “Want to keep this?” she asks. “We’ve done all we can with it.” 

The woman stares at the pillar. She is afraid of it. She remembers how its edges cut into her, a sharp circumference at either end that left her insides stinging. She remembers the weight, how hard it was to pull herself from bed, drag her body from A to B. How hard even to just sit still, holding such heaviness. But somehow she finds herself reaching out, accepting it. She holds it with both arms, rests its cold mass against her body. She breathes its metallic odor—industrial and sweaty—and feels a chilly kind of comfort.

At home, the dishes in the sink look sad. Each one holds a different shade of tap water: tannic brown, bleached Malbec, the oxidized greyish of week-old smoothie. A pot murky with pasta starch stares at her like a cataract. The woman tells herself Now I will wash the dishes. Without the pillar inside her, she moves easily—too easily. Her body functions like an equation in a high school physics textbook, the kind that ignores the reality of friction, posits a world smooth enough for the laws of motion to work perfectly. She feels loose, automatic, unanchored. Her organs shift around the empty space inside her, skirting its perimeter without crossing over. The lack of pain persists.

As she washes dishes, she glances at the pillar, which she has placed on the sofa. It is smaller than she pictured. She had imagined Grecian columns—the Pantheon, the Parthenon. Hardly rational, but what about the situation was? Now, submerged to her wrists in greasy dishwater, she cannot quite believe her house can hold this strange object, the same way it holds coffee tables and vases of flowers and rows of clothing on hangers. It is strange that the pillar has dimensions, texture, temperature. As much as she believed in its reality, half of her also believed it existed in some alternate dimension, otherworldly and inaccessible. To see it lying on her lumpy couch, looking dull, mundane, in need of polishing, feels…irreverent. To wash dishes in its proximity feels perverted. So she carries it to a spare room, stands it vertically on top of a bookshelf, like a statue or an idol. Better. She returns to the kitchen, washes the rest of the dishes, eats some canned soup. Then she stands in the middle of the room and wonders what to do. The evening light is coming through the blinds in cool blue bars. A dog is barking. People elsewhere in the world are feeling happy, their organs packed tightly inside their bodies, liver, kidney, stomach, lungs, all nestled together like a finished jigsaw. The earth is rotating on its axis at a painfully constant speed. The woman pictures the globe split in two, half day and half night. She pictures the hemisphere of sun sliding slowly away from her. 

She goes to bed and lies on her back. The ceiling above her, shifting with the light of dusk, contains all the absurdities of space and time. How am I here? she asks herself. How is time still moving? How is my body still a body? She cries. Tears catch in the hollow of her ear. From her throat come animal noises. 

She gets up from bed and crosses the house to the spare room. The pillar on the bookshelf is undeniably solid. Its shadow slants darkly across the wall. She wraps her arms around it—what familiar heft—and carries it back to bed. She draws it close, lets its edges dig into her. The pain feels real and good. Absence becomes presence. With her face to the cold steel, she closes her eyes and falls asleep.


After that, she takes the pillar everywhere. On her first day back at work, she straps it into the front seat of her car and takes it into the office. Carrying it in the elevator, she struggles to push the buttons, but a kind coworker offers to help. All her coworkers are very kind. They smile at her in that half-smile, half-grimace way, their lips tucking back toward their teeth, their eyes crinkling with sympathy. They do not ask about the pillar. They try hard not to stare at it. The woman wishes they would say something. Anything. Nice pillar, maybe. Or even, What the hell is that? But, unsure what to do with evidence of such pain, they refuse to acknowledge its presence, and so the woman too avoids mentioning it in conversation. She places it upright next to her office chair so she can periodically reach down and rest a hand on its surface. She carries it with her when she goes on lunch break, and when she attends staff meeting. She begins to memorize the subtle deviations in its surface—slight warps, minute rough patches. It is heavy and cold and sharp-edged, but it is a comfort. A thing to touch. A thing to carry. A thing that exists in the world.

After several weeks, some of her kind coworkers ask her out for a drink. She knows they have decided it is time for such things. When she shows up with the pillar in her arms, they exchange uncomfortable glances, but quickly resume their cheerful smiles. The woman rests the pillar horizontally across her lap. The coworkers on either side of her scoot slightly away.

She orders a New York Sour. She has not been eating or drinking much lately—the sensation is too strange. Her esophagus curves like a playground slide down to her stomach, which scrunches like a folded sack, almost touching her pelvis. As she sips her sour, she feels the icy alcohol slosh circuitously through her, further demarcating the boundary between what is there and what is not. She wishes she could describe the absence, attach words to it, even such empty words as dull, dead, numb. But none of these comes close. There is simply nothing there. Even this sentence feels like a lie. To speak of a there, to employ the to-be verb is, are inaccurate ways to talk about a void. An illusion out of grammar. Fiction in syntax.

An order of parmesan truffle fries arrives for the table and suddenly the woman is crying. She brims with such longing. Such need. The sense of missing spills out of her. Her alarmed coworkers pat her arm, speak in soothing voices, offer her hot, oily fries. All she can do is grip the pillar to her and let its weight strain against her sternum. Her coworkers are saying things like Oh honey. Oh sweetie. Don’t cry. But they misunderstand; the tears are a relief. They exist. Slick, salty, warm. Proof of loss, which is otherwise, by nature, invisible.

On the cab ride home, the woman slumps against the seat and closes her eyes, holding her pillar close. She feels tired. As she drives through the city, she thinks about all its negative space—all the emptiness between things, between buildings and trees and cars. She thinks about the empty wedges between bicycle spokes, the holes in a chain-link fence, the hollow tunnels carved out of the earth to accommodate pipes and wires. The gaps between people, who spend most of their time not touching. How much of the earth is made of emptiness?

She goes home, lies in bed with the pillar. The empty space inside her gets emptier. The last of the blood cells evacuate, lymph and plasma draining like bathwater. A tiny vacuum blooms from the matter-less space. She feels its force begin to tug at her; soon she will crumple in on herself and swirl away.

There is only one thing to do. She goes to the bathroom and takes a razor blade from the drawer. She has learned this: agony is preferable to absence. So she will make an incision in her gut, slot the pillar back inside. She will live with it, that terrible heaviness, for the rest of her life. She will bear it. She will relish it. It will be there, always—as memorial, as tribute, as such sweet and solid pain.

Alyssa Quinn

is the author of the chapbook Dante’s Cartography (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019). She is currently earning a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah, where she is a prose editor for Quarterly West. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Pinch, Indiana Review, Hobart, Juked, and elsewhere. You can find her at

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