Excerpt from Torch by Cheryl Strayed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 336 pages
    Jan 2007, 336 pages

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She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor —the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she'd stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.

Teresa held her earrings in the palm of one hand—dried violets pressed between tiny panes of glass—and put them on, still getting dressed after hours of going from one room to the next in a hospital gown. She examined her shirt for lint and cat hair, errant pieces of thread, and primly picked them off. She looked at Bruce, who looked out the window at a ship in the harbor, which cut elegantly, tranquilly along the surface of the lake, as if it weren't January, as if it weren't Minnesota, as if it weren't ice.

At the moment she wasn't in pain and she told the doctor this while he wrote. "There are long stretches of time that I feel perfectly fine," she said, and laughed the way she did with strangers. She confessed that she wouldn't be surprised if she were going mad or perhaps this was the beginning of menopause or maybe she had walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia had been her latest theory, the one she liked best. The one that explained the cough, the ache. The one that could have made her spine into a zipper.

"I'd like to have one more glance," the doctor said, looking up at her as if he had risen from a trance. He was young. Younger. Was he thirty? she wondered. He instructed her to take her clothes off again and gave her a fresh gown to wear and then left the room.

She undressed slowly, tentatively at first, and then quickly, crouching, as if Bruce had never seen her naked. The sun shone into the room and made everything lilac.

"The light—it's so pretty," she said, and stepped up to sit on the examining table. A rosy slice of her abdomen peeped out from a gap in the gown, and she mended it shut with her hands. She was thirsty but not allowed a drop of water. Hungry, from having not eaten since the night before. "I'm starving."

"That's good," said Bruce. "Appetite means that you're healthy." His face was red and dry and cracked-looking, as if he'd just come in from plowing the driveway, though he'd been with her all day, going from one section of the hospital to the next, reading what he could find in the waiting rooms. Reading Reader's Digest and Newsweek and Self against his will but reading hungrily, avidly, from cover to cover. Throughout the day, in the small spaces of time in which she too had had to wait, he'd told her the stories. About an old woman who'd been bludgeoned to death by a boy she'd hired to build a doghouse. About a movie star who'd been forced by divorce to sell his boat. About a man in Kentucky who'd run a marathon in spite of the fact that he had only one foot, the other made of metal, a complicated, sturdy coil fitted into a shoe.

The doctor knocked, then burst in without waiting for an answer. He washed his hands and brought his little black instrument out, the one with the tiny light, and peered into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She could smell the cinnamon gum he chewed and also the soap he'd used before he touched her. She kept herself from blinking while staring directly into the bullet of light, and then, when he asked, followed his pen expertly around the room using only her eyes.

Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Strayed. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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