Adam Moritz


The Pilgrim

Periodically, people would visit him on the house atop the hill, that curiously shaped house so out of place. Like one of the Pyramids plucked right out of Giza. At this point, even he did not know how most people heard about him and his services. Nevertheless he received at least two visitors a month, at most six or seven. They just showed up at his door alone and with minimal baggage. He charged no fee for his services, but his patients, clients, devotees always felt lighter upon leaving and many sent him gifts long after their operation had been completed.

    Emilia showed up at the door like all the others: alone—and briefly inspected its golden engravings. After a few moments of staring at the door, she reached toward the doorbell, which was so large she had to press it with the palm of her hand. The door opened to a man, relatively short and in gardener’s clothes: a wide brimmed hat, a white tee shirt stained with sweat, and long grey cargo pants. A low-grade stench reached Emilia’s nose—nothing too offensive, but indicative of someone who has been hard at work, the stench of labor.

    “You must be Emilia. I’m Dr. Koenig, please come in.”

    He swung the door open slowly to reveal a surprisingly modern foyer. High ceilings, marble floors, and matte black aluminum walls. It reminded her of corporate lobbies—not the most comforting connotation.

    “Please take off your shoes. I have a collection of slippers for patients if you would prefer that over walking about in your socks,” Dr. Koenig stood a few feet away from her with his hands clasped behind his back.

    “I’m alright, socks are just fine with me.”

    The idea of wearing “patient’s slippers” just didn’t sit right with her.

    “I can bring your bag up to the patient’s quarters if you would like.”

    “Oh sure—here you go.”

    Emilia handed her worn leather duffel over to the man, who sheepishly exited through a frosted door only to poke his head back through to say:

    “Feel free to make your way to the library. It’s just down the hall, first door on the left.”

    Emilia waited for a second before following through the doorway. She could hear the doctor bound up the stairs at a speed that seemed remarkable for a man his age. The hallway didn’t match the foyer at all. It was as if it had been pulled out of a museum’s grand gallery; ornate, but not in a way that would distract from the contents of the walls, which were arranged with rows of paintings and mirrors.

    Moving down the hall, she came upon an open door—the first one on the left—which she figured must be the library. The smell gave it away. That stale air produced by mass volumes of old and decaying books. She walked through the doorway and panned her gaze upward, revealing three stories of bookcases all connected by a spiral staircase. She hadn’t seen a personal library quite like this in all her years of being in Academia. To the right of the entrance was a long L-shaped wooden desk that had a typewriter in quite good condition on one end, and on the other side a Mac Desktop computer littered with Post-It notes.

    Emilia made her way over to the large leather couches adjacent to the desk and took a seat just as the doctor entered the room in a fresh pair of clothes. She tried to appear as if she wasn’t waiting for him to enter, letting her eyes drift along the shelves.

    “By the expression on your face, I take it you enjoy the library,” Dr. Koenig said as he sat in the leather chair across from her’s.

    “It’s wonderful, seriously wonderful. Do you know how many volumes you have here?”

    “Oh I lost count decades ago, but it’s all relatively organized; top floor is medical books and journals, middle is nonfiction—history, creative, and poetry; and the first floor is all fiction, If you’re looking for anything in particular, I’d probably be able to help you find it…probably.” He let out a little chuckle while looking up at his collection. Emilia could tell he liked it to be doted upon. The two sat looking around for a few moments before the doctor spoke again.

    “So the reason you’re here is not to look at my books. I presume you are interested in the procedure—correct?”

    “Yes that’s correct. I was referred to you by my brother, Peter. Peter Cellini.”

    “Ah yes, I remember Peter. And I can see the resemblance. I hope he’s doing well.”

    “He most certainly is, much better now after the procedure.”

    “Oh I am glad, I am glad. So I assume you know the broad strokes of what the procedure entails and what it provides, but I’d like to go over it to ensure you are completely aware of its steps and implications.”

    “Yes absolutely, go ahead.”

    Emilia steadied herself against the leather arm-rest, trying to find a position that would support her lower back without slouching deep into the couch.

    “Very well. I am Doctor Harris Koenig. I received my MD at Stanford, and then went on to get my PhD in Neuroscience at MIT. There, as my Doctoral thesis, I developed the theoretical foundations of the procedure, although it took some years before it was performed on a patient. After graduating, I attempted to find a
major hospital system that would fund further research and allow me to put my theories into practice, but as a result of the…difficult to demonstrate results, and the fact that it is not a “treatment” per-say for any diagnosable condition, I failed to receive funding. This was not indicative of the level of safety of the procedure, nor of its very tangible results; it simply is how the American medical system treats specialists, in my experience. So I moved my practice up here and operate largely on word of mouth referrals. Is this all good so far?”

    “Yep, all good.”

    Emilia wagered a smile.

    “So—onto the actual procedure. I find it easiest to explain with the following analogy: You are aware of the lament that one can only read a book, or watch a movie, for the first time once?”

    She nodded slowly.

    “What the procedure offers is for the patient to experience that feeling again. All memories, all past experiences will still be retained, but will feel as if they happened to someone else. Effectively, you will come out of the operation feeling as if you are a new person, but retaining all skills and life experiences of your pre-op self. It is difficult to imagine, but my patients have exhibited results ranging from renewed life in their relationships, to new-found passions for their professions. And speaking of which, what is it that you do?”

    Emilia gulped before answering.

    “I’m a professor, a scholar of Turn of the Century European poetry.”

    “Poetry? Wonderful, wonderful. I hope you get a chance to look through my poetry collection. I’ve got some delightful editions up there. Who is that you study primarily?”

    “My most recent work has been on Mallarme and the Symbolists, but I’ve also worked with Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Valery.”

    “Well I’ve certainly got a number of fantastic editions of all those upstairs, including a wonderful new bilingual edition of some selected works of Rimbaud. If you’d believe it, the translator was a patient of mine. I do hope you check them out.”

    Emilia appreciated the foray into the familiar, but her anxiety had still not faded. Thoughts raced through her head: what if’s, doubts, fears. They circled her mind like bits of debris caught in a tornado.

    “So at a base level, the procedure shuffles your neurological pathways, reconfigures them so that all previous paths still exist, but utilizing different routes. The operation is marginally invasive and utilizes only one incision right above the spinal column. I am able to trigger a chain reaction of this “path-scrambling” by starting at the base of the brain stem, which allows me to avoid traveling through the thickest parts of the skull. Are we good so far?”

    Emilia nodded again, he continued.

    “I have found that the reaction occurs best when the patient’s brain is active, so you will be fully conscious during the course of the procedure.”

    She had heard about this from her brother. That did not make hearing it out loud any easier. Sweat began pooling at strange points along her body—behind her knees, on the sides of her face along her cheekbones, and oddly, at the base of her neck, where she presumed the surgical incision would be made.

    “I understand that this might be upsetting, but I will be administering a topical anesthetic, so I assure you that you won’t feel a thing. In order to facilitate brain activity, I ask patients to pick a book to read aloud from during the procedure. I’ve been told that this book somewhat impresses itself on the patient, and can take on a significant meaning in their post-op life. I urge you to think long and hard on what this book will be. Some patients have picked books that have meant a lot to them in their pre-op lives, acting as some sort of bridge, while others have picked books they wished they had read before the operation. This is an immensely personal choice, so take your time and think it over. You are welcome to use my library as inspiration, but for obvious reasons you won’t be reading from a physical book during the operation. Is this all clear?”

    “Yes,” Emilia said as she nodded once again. She rubbed her neck still unsupported by the couch, feeling slightly sore at this point.

    “Great, please do let me know if you have any questions at all. I’ll be just down the hall preparing the operating room. You are welcome to stay around here, or head up to the patient’s quarters. Let me know once you’ve picked your book and are ready for the procedure.”

    “Alright, okay, thank you.”

    Doctor Koenig promptly got up and made his way to the door.

    “Oh wait!” Emilia called just as he approached the doorway. “What’s the Wifi Password?”

    “Of course, it’s ‘TheMemorious,’ capital T capital M.”

    “Borges? As in Funes the Memorious?”

    He smiled.

    “One of my favorites. Just holler if you need anything else.”

    Emilia scooched back into the deep leather couch and let her head fall back onto its vast cushions, part of her hoping that she might just be consumed by them. Then fear gave way to tiredness. She had to call Peter. How could she do this? With much effort she wiggled her phone out of her too small pockets, unlocked it, put in the password to the Wifi named “Koenig-1-5G,” and clicked on Peter’s contact—FaceTime Audio. He picked up almost immediately.

    “Em? What’s up?”

    “Peter! I’m at Dr. Koenig’s, at the fucking pyramid. I need some help. I’m losing steam. How did you do this?”

    “Oh shit, yeah, totally Em. I get it, but to be honest, I’m not sure how I did it; you have more access to my inner thoughts pre-op more than I do. Everything he said before the operation is absolutely true. All the things that happened in my pre-op life feel like they happened to an entirely different person, like I’ve read a history book on my former life but haven’t lived it. It’s scary, but I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. The meds didn’t work, therapy did jack shit—I was at the end of my rope. And I know you understand how that feels.”

    “Did you ever tell Mom and Dad about it?”

    “The procedure or the depression? Dad wouldn’t give a shit either way, but I couldn’t do that to Mom; she’d freak out or blame herself. Are you planning on telling her?”

    “See that’s the thing. I have no idea what I’ll do, like the person that is going to come out of that operating room could do anything, and I won’t be able to stop it. But it will still be me to everyone else. Will they resent me, now, for going through with the operation in the first place? I know I’m miserable, but at least I know I’m me!”

    “Totally, I get it. I really do. But I promise it will be better post-op. Everything is better.”

    “I know, I know. You have been amazing since your operation.”

    Emilia heard him laugh on the other side of the line. Peter really was a different—better—person since his operation. She had to do it. Her work was suffering, those poems that used to light fires in her soul did nothing for her anymore. She had to. She had to.


    The operating room wasn’t as intimidating as she imagined. It had the assortment of instruments on a little metal tray like in a dentist’s office, but the chair looked more like something out of a massage parlor, made out of that plastic-y leather material with a hole in the headrest she assumed her face would go through. An arm connected to the backside of the chair that held in place an iPad and a water bottle with a long straw. She had changed into a surgical gown that slipped on over her head, and had tied her hair up in a very tight bun, providing unobstructed access to the point Dr. Koenig has specified at the base of her neck. The nerves from earlier had subsided and been replaced with an underlying calm. Dr. Koening entered, donned in a long white jacket with scrubs underneath, a cap that kept his salt and pepper curls contained, and a new pair of glasses, slightly larger than the ones he was wearing earlier.

    “So what’s the pick? The first book of your new life,” he asked as he grabbed the iPad from its arm.

    “I settled on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.”

    The doctor let off a beaming grin.

    “Wonderful, wonderful, a lovely choice. One of the better ones I might add. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

    “Oh god, no—never.”

    He opened an app on the iPad and searched for the book. It opened to the first page.

    “During the procedure, you won’t need to manually flip through the pages. It will listen to you as you read aloud and turn automatically when you get to the end of the page.”

    He placed the iPad back on its stand, checked that there was water in the bottle, clasped his hands and said:

    “Let me grab your vitals and then we will begin.”

    Her position in the chair wasn’t uncomfortable. The hole for her face was padded and squished satisfyingly against her cheekbones. At first it was slightly disconcerting being facedown with Dr. Koenig buzzing about the room behind her, but she settled in quickly. The various clacks and clangs as he set up his instruments reminded her strangely of birdsong. Metal on metal, how was it she heard birds? But it was unmistakeable, that methodical, repetitive, and shrill ring. Annie Dillard’s writing reminded her of birdsong, and also of a sermon. Reading one of her books was akin to reciting a prayer: perfect only in its completion. That trinity—poetry, nature, and God—were all parts of a singular whole, and Dillard knew that better than anyone.

    “Alright, I’ll be administering the topical anesthetic now.”

    Emilia let out a soft grunt of affirmation. She felt cold gel being rubbed on the back of her neck and instantly could feel it starting to go numb.

    “You are welcome to start reading if you’d like. I’m about to begin the procedure.”

    “Alright, will do.” With her one free arm she tapped on the iPad.

    “Password?” She asked Dr. Koenig.

    “Oh yes—it’s 1331.”

    She tapped in the digits quickly. The book was up and set to the first page. She began to read:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of then night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covering with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

    She continued, stopping for breath every few sentences. The doctor placed his gloved hand on the side of her neck; the touch felt quite tender, even as with his other hand he was cutting her open.

These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you’re lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing.

        Nothing, remembering nothing, she thought. The opposite of my problems. I will remember everything and be nothing. She rode the words as if they were that final wave, leading her to bright light and drying air.


    She finished the first chapter feeling more or less the same. Her voice had become hoarse, now tumbling up from the base of her throat and scratching as it bounced off the fleshy walls. The water in the bottle strapped to the chair already seemed meager considering how much of the book was left. But she took a sip then, feeling a little like a hamster drinking from a bottle latched on to the edge of its cage. 

    About halfway through reading the second chapter, a glint of something began to appear at the edge of her periphery.

    “Hey Dr. Koenig, just wanted to let you know I think I’m getting some visual hallucinations.”

    “Flashes of light along the edges of your vision?”


    “Completely normal, let me know if anything more…drastic appears.”

    “Will do,” and she began reading again. 

    When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

    She could feel herself cheering silently. She saw this imaginary baseball game so clear in her mind’s eye. And then she saw herself. The only person in this imaginary baseball field. Standing, whooping, yelling with her arms in the air. Her voice became hoarse, even though she herself, the silent observer, was not the one cheering. It was the other woman, who too looked like her, was her. 

    And then she started to read. Still standing in the stadium, I watched her. I was barely a few feet away and could hear sounds coming out of her mouth, but they didn’t form words. She chimed and chirped, nothing even close to comprehensible, but I enjoyed hearing it nonetheless. So I took a seat in the stands and watched her read. Light glimmered around her. She seemed unaware, both of the surrounding lights, but also of me, or maybe she just didn’t care. My eyes went to those loose-fitting jeans I used to like so much. Her hair was long, nearly halfway down her back. I remembered how much of a hassle it was to take care of. But she did look beautiful as she spoke, as she read aloud to the crowd of one—me. She spoke with such authority, even if it was nonsense that came out of her mouth. It seemed so natural.

    Then it stopped being nonsense, and I could understand her again.

The next thing I remember, it was recess. The school was in Shadyside, a busy residential part of Pittsburgh.

    I remember once visiting Annie Dillard’s house. I was in Pittsburgh for a conference, some symposium on Symbolists at Carnegie Mellon, and had walked alone to the house in the Point Breeze neighborhood that she described in An American Childhood. I think I was disappointed looking at her childhood home, because after all it was just a house that could have featured in anyone else’s American childhood. Though at the same time, I could see this neighborhood, that street, as she did—full of wonder.

    And I looked up and saw her—me—I should say, standing on the sidewalk in Point Breeze reading once again. We had left the stadium, but we were still the same distance and orientation from each other. She was still reading aloud, but I couldn’t see a book in her hands. Her hair was shorter, just to her shoulders, and she was no longer in those ill-fitting jeans, instead wearing a blue sundress. It was just us, me watching her. Listening.

    She read again.

    The color-patches of vision part, shift, reform as I move through space in time. The present is the object of vision, and what I see before me at any given second is a full field of color-patches scattered just so. The configuration will never be repeated. Living is moving; time is a live creek bearing changing lights. As I move, or as the world moves around me, the fullness of what I see shatters.

    Is that what I’m seeing? A shattering? A point in a creek that no longer exists, but has moved on ever downstream, into time and into water, which are not so different in the end? She looks beautiful. I look beautiful. Is that shattered? Is this all a joke? I’m not laughing, but she is. I can see her roll her head back, waving that short hair in a body-shaking guffaw. Staring at the front of that house in Pittsburgh, reading. What could be so funny? Rage, that’s what I feel. Not joy, not laughter. I can’t fathom her, what she finds so funny in all this. Doesn’t she realize this is a murder? She is being sentenced to die, and I will walk forward in her place. But she’s still laughing.


    Before long, that rage subsided and I was back in the operating chair. In front of me was still that iPad and my cheekbones were still squished against the headrest.

    “Doc..tor?” I croaked, my voice hoarse, so hoarse. Before I could tell him what happened I needed a sip of water, which looked as if it hadn’t depleted since my first sips. So I drank and it felt like fire, the first new flow of water down my gullet—divine fire. The utter relief I felt, to drink water for the first time again, was miraculous.

    “Yes, Emilia?”

    Dr. Koenig responded after waiting for me to follow up from my croak.

    Emilia! Yes, that name, my name. It’s quite a pretty name.

    “Ah it’s just… I experienced some intense hallucinations. Well beyond the flashing lights.”

    “Yes, yes. That must have been the chain reaction. I apologize if they were intense, the reaction manifests differently for every patient. Are you feeling alright?”

    “I guess so. I’m fine, just fine. Different, but good? I think.”

    “I’m glad. That’s the intent of the operation. If you feel able, I encourage you to continue reading.”

    I looked back down at the iPad, now nearly at the end of the book, although I had no recollection of reading that far. I began at the top of the page:

Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass? Must everything whole be nibbled? Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world, the actual plot of the present moment in time after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling—not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.

    Dillard’s words shone like butterfly wings as I read them with this new consciousness of mine. They were breathtaking. I knew it before, and now I knew it anew. Simply gorgeous. I felt an immense calm.

    I read through the rest of the book, although I could tell Dr. Koenig was done with the operation well before the last chapter. In exaltation I read aloud that passage I knew so well. I read it again for the first time. What novelty!

    I think that the dying pray at the last not “please” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

    Tears streamed down my face, but not the tears of exaltation. I was sobbing. Guilt waved its ugly flag across my chest. Who was I to deprive my former self of that? I have taken her coal and stolen it as my own. I have done the opposite of see, but have blinded myself. Terror, murder, malice. That is what I have made.

    “Emilia? Are you alright?”

    Dr. Koenig called carefully from across the room.

    I composed myself and took a few deep breaths.

    “Yes, I guess so. Is the procedure over?”

    “Yes, yes. As I’m sure you had guessed, it’s been over for a few minutes. I just wanted to hear the book to its end.”

    “Of course, I understand.” I said.

    Dr. Koenig got up and walked over to my side. He pressed the button on the chair to raise it back to near vertical.

    “Here, you can grab my arm if you feel unsteady.”

    I peeled myself off the chair, the blood rushing back into my face. Dr. Koenig held his arm out for me to take; I looked up and his face frightened me. His bulbous nose, those oversized glasses. I thought, this must be the face of God, and then I knew it with unsettling certainty. But fear gave way, as Dr. Koenig was not like Dillard’s creator, who is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. This fallible, awkward, old man was my God, my creator.

    And then my feet touched the ground. I took my first steps again.