By Mary Rohrer-Dann
Tuesday, Sophie woke up to discover that her plump, middle-aged body had metamorphosed to a huge ear—pink, pretty, whorled.
She wasn’t too surprised. She’d felt something coming on, felt her bones bending, softening under the weight of all those words. Family, friends, coworkers, even the weak-chinned priest who ran the soup kitchen: everyone unburdened their souls to Sophie. She was a no-restrictions dumpsite for emotional toxic waste.
Carefully, she rolled out of bed and perched before the full-length mirror she usually avoided. Gazing at her daintily fuzzed lobe, the tympanic membrane at the end of her finely haired canal, she felt a keen empathy for Gregor Samsa.
But unlike poor Gregor, people accepted Sophie’s transformation. They sought her out even more. Form had simply followed function.
She had always been a good listener. When her kids attended Our Lady of Accountability, Sister Dymphna, the principal, assigned her triple-shifts on Phone Friend. Father Kai volunteered her for the community suicide hotline. Louise, her boss, routinely added to her counseling caseload (without adding to her pay). And when it became clear that her husband, Hal, was on the fast-track to nowhere and racking up online gambling debts to console himself, Sophie took a second job at Wal-Mart. Customer Complaints.
Listening was her one undeniable skill. Even her college yearbook entry read: Always a Sympathetic Ear.
When confessing their crimes, frustrations, or cherished resentments, people only want confirmation that they are justified in feeling so put-upon, so miserable, so full of themselves. They want a Big Ear.
Of course, no one listened to Sophie. Whenever she spoke about her needs and desires, her voice was in the wrong register, like those whistles only dogs can hear.
That remarkable Tuesday, Sophie wrapped herself in a long silk scarf and pondered the signs that heralded her change. At night, Hal snoring beside her, she’d find herself sitting bolt upright, body tingling, nerves thrumming. She’d grown acutely sensitive to cold, tolerating only feather-light fabrics against her skin.
Most distressingly, a mean-spirited voice flared inside her, whispering things that were very unlike her.
She imagined snarky retorts to her customers’ complaints (do you really think a $40 beach chair can support that ass?). She fantasized telling her book club members, who whined about wrinkles and weight gain and the section eight housing proposed for their street (they didn’t even read the books!), to talk to Syrian women about the horrors of aging.
One evening, while Eeyore fixed himself a pitcher of martinis he had no plans to share—he’d been screwed out of the promotion because of his age, he sulked—Sophie said aloud (but sweetly), “No, darling, it’s because you’re an idiot.”
Hal gaped as if she had spoken in Klingon. “What?”
Sophie blushed. “Oh, nothing.”
The voice grew bolder. Sophie’s daughter dropped by to bellyache. The boys were driving her bonkers and Jerry wanted to try for another twinset. He couldn’t even tell Zack from Jack! Sophie was about to say she’d take the kids for the weekend when the voice hissed, “Angie, get your tubes tied, ship the brats off to military boarding school, and give it a rest.”
“Damn it!” Angie cried. Aghast, Sophie covered her mouth. Angie reached past her. “Zack! Don’t you dare put that Skittles up your nose!” She slapped his hand away.
Zack and Jack began screaming.
Angie turned to Sophie. “What did you say?”
Sophie shook her head.
One afternoon, her sister Judy blubbered into her kale and quinoa salad about her husband’s philandering. Again. Sophie patted Judy’s arm, then stopped. “If you want to keep the creep home, pull a Lorena Bobbit and be done with it.”
Judy blew her nose. “I hate my chins!” she wailed, and swigged her kombucha.
Sophie realized that speaking the truth was useless, if not dangerous. Just look at any whistleblower. Besides, it wasn’t her nature to be unkind. The naughty voice inside her flickered, then had gone out for good.
And now this Change. It required some adjustment. Clothes were harder to find, her morning power-walk posed a challenge, and she relied increasingly on Wegman’s prepared meals. But she no longer worried about diminished skin elasticity, vaginal dryness, or osteoporosis, which her surly gynecologist had threatened if she refused hormone replacement therapy. She switched to an ear-nose-and-throat man.
He gave her The Marvelous Ear poster. She gazed at the snailed cochlea, the delicate auditory ossicles, and felt the same astonishment she had scrutinizing Our Bodies, Ourselves in college. Her mirror, finally a friend, revealed the loveliness of her rosy, Rubenesque body. (So long as she kept that waxy build-up under control.)
She recalled the childhood joke that used to launch her into hysterical laughter. A delivery nurse places a blanketed bundle into a new father’s arms. “I have bad news,” she says.
“Oh my God!” the father shrieks.
The baby is a perfectly formed ear.
The nurse shakes her head. “Sir, the baby’s deaf.”
Perhaps young Sophie recognized her future self in that joke.
Her hearing, however, became intricately acute and attuned. She heard the clamor of human voices, their mortal misery and complaint, and also the pouting of hummingbirds and beef cattle, the peevishness of woodchucks and feral cats, the kvetching of mosquitoes and spotted lantern flies, of crab grass and ragweed and ringworm.
The warming sea murmured in lamentation.
El Niño ranted about its bad rap.
Anthrax and meningococcus sniveled spitefully.
Stars whimpered about burn-out.
Electrons whined their relentless negativity.
The music of the spheres, Sophie discovered, was simply a bitch-fest on a universal scale, an endless cacophony of petty grievances and self-absorbed stewings.
One morning, Sophie heard the voice of God. In the beginning was the Word. But it’s been gripe gripe gripe since Day One of this experiment. I need a rest.
It was a thankless job, she thought, her cilia quivering.
But someone had to do it.