In a field of garbage, when you stoop to retrieve an aluminum can with your lips, you taste a little of what once was in there. EEEE remembers makeshift boots made of tape, and animals darting away. He remembers plastic bags full of alum, the lightest metal, and tracking out of the waste to the bus stop.
In a trading station, EEEE had made deals. Om-LLLL had given him extra bits. “What for?” EEEE had asked.
Om-LLLL was fat in the face. His massive lips had pursed, “For a good job, son.”
One bit 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 a tall building. “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? Doctor Ash-Ash has been waiting for you.”
“EEEE!” the Doctor had cried, later. “Welcome! Don’t sit down. We are going to start fitting you now.”
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. “Well look at that,” the Doctor had hummed, prodding EEEE below the shoulders. “What do you feel? The same in both? That is good. Your right arm was cut a little bit above the left. I’m afraid you are not quite symmetrical.”
EEEE had nodded, not knowing what to say.
Two nurses had come in, with boxes. Out of them had sprung metal arms, ending in claws. EEEE had stared at the shining objects, their perfection. Doctor Ash-Ash had walked about the room, commanding the nurses to change the measurements, for there was simply no joy in asymmetry.
“Will take three days, my boy,” Ash-Ash had said. “One simply to do the fitting, one to fix the fitting, and then a final day to train you. Okay?”
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. “Now prepare yourself, EEEE. There is no profit in moving too much. No grace in being impatient.” He had hummed as he’d worked. “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 whispered, 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). He flicks the metal of the window frame. Strokes the fabric over his penis.
Village is far away. Village has no signs. There are towns along the road. Two great cities. But Village has no fanfare. The road shirks it, and leaves EEEE in the dust.
On the way home, he throws a rock into a glade. Plucks a leaf from a tree. It is so easy.
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 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.
Over the hill, Village. Brown, baked huts suffering in smoke, dusty laneways and animals as thin as grass.
As EEEE appears, people rush at him. Here are old, lumbering men, many falling in their haste. The young boys, running too fast. 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 aluminum cans. And our money. And that is all.”
“Show us,” they say.
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.
“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. In Village, there are less than fifty people, all cut at the arms the day Warlord came with his wrath. In a burial ground next to the cemetery lies a pile of dirt, and in it, arms. Dozens of arms, all different lengths, heaped together as though in death they are holding hands, and EEEE for a moment forgets where he is – he of the two aluminum arms – and imagines that he is awake at night, digging in that mound to retrieve the bony pieces.
Later, he lies next to IIII and shows her what hands can do. “Gently,” she says. “There is nothing gentle about it,” says EEEE, desperate to show her what he has been thinking of, the way he can hold her. “Like this,” 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 medicine. He picks up an old man. He feeds a mother.
But that night, as EEEE lies next to IIII, there is a dream that catches him. It is of those buried arms and hands come to life, clawing their way through the earth and marching through the sleepy lanes. EEEE finds himself on the hill, surrounded by arms that remove his metal, take him to the mound. Earth closes over him as he struggles for breath, and in the darkness under the ground, a second dream begins, 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. 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. Teeth had clamped loose flesh or 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, to bring them to the mound on the far side where they would be encased by dirt, buried forever.
Pails of dirt came after, 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. Pails of dirt to bury the arms of Village.
Weeks later, after infections had come and taken more people, news came 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.
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. 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 thinks. From Village. From places like Village. From the depths, and to the sky.
“Take me in then, son,” says Ash-Ash. When they come upon Village, Ash-Ash distributes medicines and food, anything he could stuff in his two bags. EEEE tells him the names of the people, and Ash-Ash is so good that he sits with them 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, but they have not seen him in a long time. During the night, he drinks with EEEE and IIII and Ash-Ash and the others. They drink and they sing, as a fire lights 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 – but this, he tells them, is not a day for work.
He is led to the centre of Village and given blessings. He is presented a ring of flowers. His feet are cleaned. His back is scratched. A wet rag is placed on his head, and when it is removed, children hoist him on their shoulders and carry him to the top of the hill.
There are chairs set in rows there, leading to a rock. On that rock stands IIII, in a red dress that makes the wind hers. 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.
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 has medals on his tunic. He is bearded, and at his waist, a holster. 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.
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. EEEE turns back to IIII. The wind picks up and is trapped by her, in that red dress. She leans her head forward, and so does he, and in the moment that their heads touch, they are married.
That night, the fire burns high. The party rages. There is singing and celebration. 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.
Warlord is in Village, too. He sits at the edge of the light. Children bring him food and wine and trinkets. He says nothing. He hardly moves. Elders tell him of their families and histories, how long ago they moved to Village. But Warlord 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 to them. His uniform is wrinkled, boots coated in dust. He marches through the lanes of a place he visited a little more than three years ago, until he comes to a path. 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 land from whence he came.
On a winter morning, marvels awake. 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. Only EEEE, IIII and the midwife have seen the little boy. Village awaits his appearance, and the name of this child with two arms. 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.
“Give him over,” she says.
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.
This is the story that was long listed for this year’s CBC Short Story Contest. Alas, it didn’t make it to the short list. I’m very fond of it, however. I think it means something. Some of you may have seen a much earlier version of this story on this blog long ago, but it’s been modified a fair bit since then. This is a final product now. Curious as to your thoughts. If you want to have a look at Brenda Damen’s winning entry, Gibson, you can find it here: https://www.cbc.ca/books/literaryprizes/calgary-writer-brenda-damen-wins-2020-cbc-short-story-prize-1.5538766
I also want to send a sincere thanks to two bloggers and fundamentally excellent people: Mark at https://markpaxson.com and Johnny at https://aprayerlikegravity.wordpress.com. They’ve both been reading my book ‘Girl Island’ and have provided amazingly-detailed suggestions and edits. I’m incredibly grateful. I don’t know how you found the time to do that, but I will never forget your generosity and interest. It’s really lifted me up, so thank you!