The Man Who Could Tickle Himself

By R. Gatwood

There once was a man who worked hard not to let his left hand know what his right hand was doing, and vice versa. To pour milk over his cereal, he pivoted on his right leg, his left foot dragging across the floor. If his hanging left arm twitched forward wanting to help, he forced it to relax. If his left eye tried to judge the position of the carton relative to the bowl, he closed it or let it drift outward or in-. He soon gave up on the milk and ate his cereal dry, chewing patiently with the molars on one side.

For hours each day, he lay in a box of his own design, one side of his body buried in gravel while the other was surrounded by mirrors. With one eye he watched his perfectly symmetrical body perform perfectly symmetrical gestures; meanwhile his gravel-buried side shifted occasionally in the dark, wanting to join in but learning, slowly, to lie still. At intervals he switched sides.

When he walked, his two sides stumbled along at different gaits, then fell into a rough sync like the partners in a three-legged race. Still, the man preferred not to walk. He had a terror of finding himself ambling along smoothly and evenly someday, perhaps even breaking into a spontaneous run, and realizing his two sides had merged together, all his painstaking practice undone.

The man’s secret goal in all this was something he never allowed himself to mention even to himself. But then, there were many things he never mentioned to himself. He knew that knowledge could exist on one side of the brain or on the other, and so he disciplined his thoughts with the same rigor as his body. He used his left eye and hand to trace left-hand thoughts in the air; he painted right-hand thoughts upon the screen of his right inner eyelid.

To have the corpus callosum physically severed was not possible. He had asked—begged. The surgeons had avoided his unfocused eyes. No one would perform such an operation without a sensible rationale, something he could not give.

So the man survived by this amicable cooperation with himself. Strangers crossed the street to avoid him, gaped as though he were grotesque; perhaps he was, he thought on one side of his mind, grotesque. Every day he maintained his discipline, his sides working separately to feed himself, to pull on his clothes. Every day he stayed inside the separate hollow spaces behind his eyes, waiting for he knew not what.

And one morning, it came. His halves were lying still in bed, eyes shut, when he felt a hand press against his. Tentatively at first, stroking lightly and pulling away. Then a shy fumbling—trying to draw the other hand into its grip, entice it to play. He reached out, touched and was touched. He held hands. He gave and felt a squeeze of delighted comradeship. His closed eye brimmed with happy tears, and so did his other closed eye.

It was not a first meeting. It was a reunion, a joyous remembering of something once lost. With the two sides of his mouth the man whispered across the divide. The secret twin language of his early childhood was back on his lips as though it had never gone. And so, gradually, the two of him came to know each other again.

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R. Gatwood ( is the emergent consciousness of a spectacularly inefficient library shelving system.

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