She viewed them as the harshest strokes devised by the Romans: numerals designed to be gashed into stone with a minimal number of blows, a system created with all of the elegance offered by a mallet pounding on a chisel. The three mighty strikes that formed the number cast before her commanded it to exist without subtlety, Stage IV. On none of her medical charts, records or other documents had she seen it represented by the numeral 4.
Stationed in the white-walled room, she wondered about the experts who had concluded that the crude markings of archaic tally sticks were the most fitting symbols to denote the fourth level of such a brutal, ruining beast. They must have decided that the slender Hindu-Arabic lines and curves gracing so much of western civilization weren't up to the task.
Poisons dripped into her body while she sat in a padded chair. Latin and Greek origin words roiled through her mind and tattooed themselves onto her cells. Metastatic. Metastasis. What root should she use to define each term, to make sense of their demands for submission? To stand across? To move over? She decided upon, beyond rest.
Supplementing the linguistic puzzle was the fact that so much of her treatment required an infusion from another representation of the Roman four, this one embracing the initial letters directly from the bloodthirsty Latin phrase intra venous. She recalled the tetraphobia of the Chinese. Wasn't four their most unlucky number, the very sound of its name a homophone for death? She saw Roman fours everywhere, and she was all too aware of the fact that she would be offered no future access to a Stage V. She knew where that downward pointing caret led, and the solitude of the I missing before it remained as distinct as Martin Buber's.
Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy... therapeia by its definition promised curing and healing, but for her there was to be none. It added to her frustration that entire vocabularies, beyond their individual words, now failed her.
Trained to analyze idioms from multiple perspectives, she was experiencing the unforeseen result of a lifetime spent studying ancient languages and ethnologies. Assessing the symbols on the equipment in the treatment room, she reweighed the values of Aegean and Attic numerals and tossed them aside for their lost isopsephy. Her reckoning was now forced to focus on numbers that moved beyond counting. She totaled her teachers and her students, and factored her husband and daughter into an equation that kept its unknown variable so well-protected that no Golden ratio could admit to a solution.