In a field full of garbage, when you stoop to retrieve an aluminum can with your lips, you taste a little of what once was in there.
What you taste is not what you buy, though.
For EEEE, the field is behind him, but he remembers. He remembers makeshift boots made of tape, and animals darting away from him. He remembers plastic bags full of alum, the lightest metal, and tracking out of the waste, onto the road, to the bus stop.
In a trading station, EEEE made deals. The last one, Om-LLLL gave him an extra five bits. “What for?” EEEE had asked.
Om-LLLL was fat in the face. His massive lips had pursed, “For a good job, son. For a good job.”
The five bits had been spent in the pub. Beer has its own taste, EEEE had realized, his nose in the foam, his head in space.
The next morning, he had ached everywhere: on the long road, on the decaying bridges, and through the thick streams.
The Big City had been something. EEEE had walked to the address and been given instructions on how to use the elevator. “Floor 12”, the elevator had announced with a ‘bing’. “Bing,” EEEE had repeated. At the end of the hallway, glass doors had slid open. A secretary had taken his name. “EEEE,” he’d said, and as though that had not been enough, added, “Bing.”
“EEEE Bing?” she’d asked. “Don’t bother having a seat. Doctor Ash-Ash has been waiting for you.”
“EEEE!” the Doctor had cried, when he’d arrived. “Welcome to my office. Don’t sit down. We are going to start fitting you right away.”
Doctor Ash-Ash had beamed. “One does not always have the opportunity to do the world a service. Come to the next room.”
“I have little money, Doctor,” admitted EEEE. “Only what two years of collecting cans can give.”
But Ash-Ash had waved his hand and beckoned EEEE to a chair. He’d slipped on new glasses. “Well look at that,” the Doctor had hummed, prodding EEEE just below the shoulders. “What do you feel? The same in both? Regular feeling, correct? That is good. You know, your right arm was cut a little bit above the left one. I’m afraid you are not quite symmetrical.”
EEEE had nodded, not knowing what to say.
Two nurses had come in, with cardboard boxes. Out of them had sprung metal arms, ending in claws. EEEE had stared at the shining objects, their glimmering. Their perfection. Doctor Ash-Ash had walked about the room, commanding the nurses to change the measurements, for apparently there was no joy in asymmetry.
“Will take three days, my boy,” Ash-Ash had said. “One simply to do the fitting, one to remake the things to fit better, and then a final day to train you. Okay?”
“I have little money, Doctor.” But Ash-Ash had waved away the comment and told EEEE that he would stay in his own house to save costs.
The fitting had started. The gleaming claw-hands had beckoned. “What are they?” EEEE had whispered.
“Prosthetics. The finest on the continent. Made from aluminum.”
“And none other,” Ash-Ash had said, leaning in. “Now prepare yourself, EEEE. There is no profit in moving too much. No grace in being impatient.” He had hummed as he’d worked, taking measurements the nurses had written down. “We are born without dexterity, you know? Without coordination or the ability to move in an organized fashion. Too weak in the muscles. Too dulled in the head. This is your birthplace, EEEE. This room. I am your father. These ladies, your wet nurses. Suckle upon that which is offered to you, my boy. For tomorrow,” he had said, in hushed tones, as though protecting a secret, “you will emerge quite something else.”
A sweater protects the metal, gloves hide the claws. One the bus, EEEE practices crossing his arms. Now and then, one of his metal fingers taps him on the knee, the sensation as of someone else sitting next to him (when no one is), the kiss like of a lover. He flicks the metal of the window frame. Strokes the fabric over his penis. When the bus stops, he buys a canape and chews it carefully, as others cram them down their throats.
Village is far away. Village has no signs. There are towns along the road. Two great cities. But Village has no fanfare. No announcement. The road shirks it, and leaves EEEE in the dust and fume. A road leads to Village. But no bus treads this path.
Home, he thinks. In the distance, around a bend, beside a hill, home. Village.
On the way, he throws a rock into a glade. Plucks a leaf from a tree. It is so easy, he never knew.
Around a bend, a well. He turns the crank. Ash-Ash would tell him that it is inadvisable to exert oneself so soon in such strenuous acts, but EEEE does not understand these words in the way that he understands thirst. It is so hot, and he can drink so easily. He never knew. He just never knew.
Over the hill, Village appears. Maimed, baked huts suffering in smoke, dusty laneways and animals as thin as grass. EEEE appears, and people see him, this long, lanky man in the sweater and gloves despite the heat, walking towards them as though he is a savior.
They rush at him, in a great cry. Saved! he believes. Here are the old men, lumbering towards him, many falling in their haste. The young boys, running too fast, screaming. The girls in their dresses, mouths open. Wives and mothers, sons. Kisses as though from a lover, on his cheek, then his lips, and a woman. She has no name he can repeat through her tears, as her man arrives.
“Is it magic?” asks IIII, crying.
“No,” he says, so that everyone can hear, “this is no magic. This is aluminum cans. And our money. And that is all.”
“Show us,” they say, almost as one.
And he lifts off his sweater to reveal his metal. But he does not wish them to be scared, so he keeps his gloves, then reaches down and picks up a youngling – IIII’s nephew, he of one cut beneath the elbow, another at the hand. “This is what it feels like to be picked up so easily,” says EEEE, holding the child above his head, and placing him on his shoulders.
“A miracle,” says Po-CCCC, she of two cuts at the elbows – quite symmetrical, in EEEE’s opinion.
“Yes,” agrees IIII, she who was cut above the elbows, both on an angle.
They are all nodding, but EEEE finds it difficult to see them through his fog. I am saved, he thinks. I am also savior. In Village, there are less than fifty people, all cut at the arms back in the day when Warlord came with his wrath. They are all cut in different places, but they are all most definitely cut. Beyond them, in a burial ground next to the cemetery, a pile of dirt lies, and in it, arms. Dozens of arms, all different lengths, heaped together as though in death they are holding hands, and he for a moment forgets where he is – EEEE of the two aluminum arms – and imagines that he is awake at night, digging into that mound, there to retrieve the bony pieces that remain underground.
Later, he lies next to IIII and shows her what hands can do. “Gently,” she says, as though she is Ash-Ash, and afraid of what he might do with his new powers. “There is nothing gentle about it,” says EEEE, desperate to show her what he has been thinking of, the way he can hold her and strum the finer parts of her slender form. “Like this, music,” he says, playing her. “No, gently,” she says, as the people of Village make noises through the huts, celebrating their great victory as EEEE, in turn, celebrates his.
The next day, EEEE fixes a plough. He patches a roof.
EEEE gives a medicine. He picks up an old man. He feeds a mother.
In the late afternoon, the armless people of Village follow him to the base of the hill. They have ropes around their waists, which he tied for them, and they are dragging thick bricks made of red clay. When they reach the base of the hill, EEEE unties them. Each brick is stacked in a line along the path to Village, until two short walls along the sides of the dusty path have been created. It is an entrance, a type of welcoming that anyone who may come upon Village could easily see, and understand that this is a normal place, where people are whole and perhaps even happy. This is a place of hearts and heads, come together to welcome any visitor who may come.
But that night, as EEEE lies next to IIII, there is a dream that catches him. It is of those arms and hands buried under that mound come to life, clawing their way through the earth and marching through the sleepy lanes of Village. They are looking for anyone who might be about, to drag them to the mound, where these unfortunate souls will be buried. EEEE finds himself on the hill, surrounded by arms that close upon him, remove his metal, take his form to the mound. Earth closes over him as he struggles for breath, and in the darkness under the ground, a second dream. This one of Warlord and his trucks, the day three years ago when they had come, drunk, sure that someone from Village had stolen a drum of water.
“No, not possible,” EEEE had said to Warlord. “How could we have moved the drum? Where could we have put it?”
But Warlord had been drunk, and EEEE had been the first one on the stump. The knife had been clumsy, errant. It had taken three hacks to remove his right arm. Two to take his left. IIII had run to him, a burning brand in hand, searing the wounds. And thus she had been next at the stump. One-by-one, the Warlord’s soldiers had drawn people of Village to the stump, and there the knives had been wielded, more and more expert. Old people, young people, pregnant mothers. Children. Babies. All taken to the stump, all to feed the pile of arms – and those still with limbs, rushing with burning brands to sear the wounds of the newly-cut, until none remained with arm at all. EEEE had gone to the fire with a brand in his mouth, using it to sear the wounds of the last to be struck.
Two days later, after those who would die had died, those who had lived had gone to the stump and lifted arms with their mouths. Here, teeth had clamped loose flesh, or pinched fingers curled and drying in the heat. It was a kindness, they had told each other, to not have to remove their own limbs; rather, it had been easier to hoist the limbs of neighbors or friends, and to bring them to the mound on the far side where they would be encased by dirt, buried forever.
Pails of dirt, filled using spades fitted between teeth. Teeth that chipped and fell out, until only gums remained, gums hardened to the task because nothing else remained to be done. Pails of dirt to bury the arms of Village.
Weeks later, after infections had come and taken more of the people away, news from afar that yes, Warlord had lost a drum of water. He had lost many, but not to Village. Some other people had taken that drum. Some other scourge had settled that debt.
EEEE wakes, but he is under the dirt of the mound, surrounded by sleeping arms. He chokes, until he awakes again and is beside IIII. His arms are in the air, glimmering in starlight from the window, hissing at him as they wave aimlessly.
Three years after Warlord came, EEEE proposes marriage to IIII.
And in the hut, under an electric light, EEEE writes a letter. His hand is imprecise. It is as though there is a mind contained in those metal fingers. The words are difficult; they are filled with dreams. The letter is folded. It is put in an envelope and then EEEE walks past the hill, the well, and to the end of the road that no one bothers using anymore. Cars pass on the main road. A bus stops. EEEE hands up the letter, and like that it is gone.
Ash-Ash arrives on a Monday. “Like hell finding this place!” he cries, as EEEE meets him. “Nurses couldn’t come. Sorry.”
EEEE embraces him. It is a simple act. He exerts pressure, just enough. Gently. This is an act the world has forgotten, EEEE thinks. They do not understand its power, or from where it came – it came from here, he barks in his head! From Village. From places like Village. From the depths, and to the sky.
“Take me in then, son,” says Ash-Ash. EEEE takes him from the bus stop to the hill, where they find a path bordered by short walls. When they come up on Village, Ash-Ash distributes medicines and food, anything he could stuff in his two big bags. EEEE tells him the names of the people, and Ash-Ash is so brave that he sits with them all for many hours, until the time is ready for him to retire and he goes to the hut that has been cleaned for him, there to cry as though the blood is coming out of him. EEEE embraces him. It is an act the world has forgotten.
Om-LLLL arrives the day before the wedding. He too brings gifts. Many in Village know him already, but they have not seen him in a long time. He sits with the people, recalling who they are. During the night, he drinks with EEEE and IIII and Ash-Ash and many of the others. They drink and they sing, as a fire livens the small valley next to the hill, just past the bend.
The wedding day is bright. When EEEE is called from the hut, people gasp, for EEEE is not wearing his arms. This, he tells them, is a day for marriage.
He is led to the centre of Village and given blessings. He is presented a ring of flowers, gathered from afar, strung together on a paper string. His feet are cleaned. His back is scratched. A wet rag is placed upon his head, and when it is removed, children hoist him upon their shoulders and carry him to the top of the hill.
There are chairs set in rows upon the summit, leading to a rock. On that rock stands IIII, in a red dress that takes part in the wind, absconds with it, makes it hers until there is no such thing – just silence, and the desolation of life and the many things that we do with it. EEEE goes to her, past Om-LLLL who stands and barks an old cry of Village, one that EEEE has not heard since he was a boy; and he walks past Ash-Ash, who bows to touch the withered grass of the hill with his hand.
EEEE stands next to IIII on the rock. The ceremony requires him to touch her; and she to touch him, but the wait must come first, that wait before the touch. There on a swept, hot hill, they wait, and there they stand before they may touch.
To the side of the rock, another man, in a chair separated from people of Village. This man is in a military uniform, and a cap he refuses to remove. He has medals on his tunic, glimmering in flecks of bronze and silver. He is bearded, uncaring of the heat, and at his waist, a holster with a gun. He stares at EEEE and IIII upon the rock, no expression upon his face, no movement in his eyes. This is Warlord, whom EEEE invited by letter. He came to the hill in the morning, and has not left since.
EEEE stares at Warlord. Three years ago, he came to Village, drunk, angry. Today, he sits still, as though he cannot remember a moment of peace in his life, and is not likely to ere he leaves it. EEEE turns back to IIII. The wind picks up and is trapped by her, in that red dress, and a moment comes glimmering upon the hill, a tremendous freedom and joy that he cannot possibly express. She leans her head forward, and so does he, and in the moment that their heads touch, they are wed.
That night, the fire burns high. The party rages. There is singing and celebration, and lovemaking in the dark shadows. Ash-Ash is dancing with every woman he can find. Om-LLLL is sitting on a bench, telling stories. EEEE and IIII are in the middle; as is the custom, they are not permitted to cease touching each other until the dawn light comes upon them.
Warlord is in Village, too. He sits at the edge of the light from the fire, in the same chair from the hill. Children gather, bringing him food and wine and trinkets. He stares at them, says nothing. He hardly moves. Elders come to him, and tell him of their families and their histories, how long ago they moved to this land, the things they have done. The old men smoke as they speak; the women marvel at his medals. But Warlord doesn’t move, or react. He doesn’t speak. As the light from the fire dies in the early morning, a few of the younger, more dedicated partakers of the party see the old man rise from his chair and turn his back on the diminished flames. His military uniform is wrinkled, his boots coated in dust. He has not eaten any of the food given to him. Has not heard a word offered in his direction. He marches through the lanes of a place he visited only a little more than three years ago, until he comes to a path and the short walls that mark it. He pauses there, or so the young people say, as though he does not know this place. Then he walks beyond the hill, around the bend. There is a well where he takes water, or so they say; and beyond that, a road sparsely travelled, that takes this old man to the great road from whence he came.
On a winter morning, marvels are awoken. We can put our arms around the cool air, and take count of our blessings.
In Village, a baby cries. It is a new sound from a new child. Village awakens to find the air cool. Village awakens to take stock of its blessings.
EEEE holds his child on his chest, as IIII lies next to him. The child has no name yet, but that will come. Only EEEE, IIII and the midwife have seen the little boy thus far. Village awaits his appearance. His name. But there is no hurry, thinks EEEE, and he whispers this to IIII, who agrees.
Dark eyes open to look at his father. “Yes, it is me,” says EEEE.
“Ah,” replies the child, but he is anxious for food and looks to IIII for nourishment.
“Give him over,” says IIII.
The child attaches itself to his wife, as EEEE opens the window to let the cool air in. Yes, he thinks, remembering words that had been said to him once. This part here is the miracle. This moment, then, the true magic.