I came back from the war without hands. First thing I did was call up my boy. To do so I had to use the fancy voice phone, hands free, the army gave me as a parting gift. Guess they felt bad cause I couldn’t use my old one no more. I asked my buddy Kyle if he wanted to have coffee. Two years was all I’d been away, only twenty when they shipped me off. Kyle and I were going to be married. At least that’s what I told myself, it might’ve been pretend. He gave me his photo before I left, a high school picture with a blue ocean-looking backdrop, his graduation gown draped over his narrow shoulders. I couldn’t see no part of his body but his feet, at the bottom of the picture, showed from the legs of his tight blue jeans. And his hands I could see, folded into fists at his sides like he was angry at being photographed. Two green beads for eyes and his mouth pursed sour-like. In fact Kyle did hate having his picture taken. I took pride in knowing that little fact, like all the tidbits of his I picked up along the way. Part of why he always liked me was I no longer felt the high schooler’s need to capture everything on camera like all his track friends did. I’d been out of school a little while.
He agreed to meet me, and so I had Ma help me put on a flower-print dress, blue roses. In the mirror, if I hid my arms behind my back, I nearly looked innocent, but the fact of my hair, which had to be clipped down to the scalp and still hadn’t grown back, and the scar across my shoulder, one huge chunk of charred red skin like dry black lava, all of that kind of ruined the effect of the dress. My scars were still healing, so they couldn’t fit me with the temporary prosthetic, and all that was left of my arms were two stumps at my sides. Looking into that mirror, I realized I couldn’t have coffee with Kyle. Not only would he not know me anymore, I also couldn’t hold a teacup. Asking him to feed me through a straw would be too much for him. This was one of those facts I knew.
I had Ma cancel. I heaved my wilting body onto my childhood bed and didn’t cry. The army doesn’t cry. My hands were a gift to my country. No take backs.
If you want to know did I ever meet up with Kyle, I’ll tell you. I did. Not too long after the dress and the mirror either. Ma told me to wait, that once I got the operation he would see me different, that it would be a fool idea to meet up before. The list I was on for that op was a long one, and if there was still the spark that used to buzz electric between us on the futon in his bedroom at his parents’ two-story, then my hands didn’t much matter.
Neither me nor Ma was really wrong. Kyle was freaked by the stumps but not enough to bolt. That wasn’t really why it didn’t work, why he said we should just be friends, like high school all over.
“Josie, I’m just, you know, going to school now. Got into the U on rodeo scholarship,” he said between gulps of white coffee in Ma’s parlor. “We’re of different worlds now. I don’t even believe in the war anymore.”
He sure was different, more talkative, his speech rich-sounding, high and mighty-like. I sucked coffee through my straw, looking down into the oily stuff. The steam burned my face.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. We probably wouldn’t work that way. I don’t want to argue, but you sound full of shit.”
Kyle smiled. It was the same tightlipped grin, showing his crooked front tooth. We talked safe stuff for a while, then I led him to the door. He let himself out. I wanted to wave, but it wouldn’t have been a fitting finale. A wave meant something different for me now.
Everything else was normal at home until I saw a flicker of something at my bedroom window one night. I’d been eating Ma’s food, all the goods she used to deliver: chicken and dumplings, pecan pie, balsamic walnut salad, and mashed potatoes with sausage gravy. Dad would come home each night, just like when I was younger, and try and force us into table small talk, which I now had an excuse to avoid. After all, I was readjusting to the home life. I didn’t have to talk at dinner if I didn’t want, thank you very much. All day long I would sit in front of the TV, but I wouldn’t really watch it. Just look at the screen, change the channel when they showed the news, try not to think. I’d done too much of that the last two years. It was time to give my brain a quiet. Every now and again Ma would coerce me into doing a puzzle with her – part of healing is working different mind muscles, she would say, despite my protests. You can just tell me where the pieces go, and I will be your hands. Puzzling is a hobby she must have started when I went away, cause it used to just be TV and entertainment magazines when she was home alone.
That day with the flicker at the window, I hadn’t felt much like the evening bowl of ice cream my Dad insisted we share, as a family, so that we would associate spending family time with the sugar high of dessert. I’d copped out to my room. I’d just gone to close the curtain when the flicker passed by the window so fast I almost thought I was hallucinating.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Fucking post-traumatic.” I stumbled back onto my bed, suddenly dizzy. But it passed like the snap of my old fingers. It happened again, a brown flicker like an animal or a person running fast.
Now let me tell you, my parents’ house was a little run-down. No more than the other houses in the area, but the yellow paint outside was chipped and had curled at the edges in the sun. We had a full two acres of land and a bent-up fence around the house that shielded us from the coyotes, who had grown so bold they’d hunt for cats right up at the side of the house if we hadn’t fenced them out. My Dad’s old lemon rusted in the driveway, but also his new blue car shone there in the sun.
Anyway, there would have been no real reason for a thief to pick our house over any of the others in the general vicinity. It might, I thought, be one of my old boys from the neighborhood come to welcome me home. My window was close enough to the ground that I could climb out as a teenager, and there had always been a group of neighborhood boys to climb out for. In high school I used to sneak off for illicit cigs and warm Firedog Ale and quick fucks under the trees. When I got older, I never grew out of them, boys: naïve, scrawny, adventurous, too young yet to complain about sore thighs and weak knees, too impressionable to pretend they knew better than me what’s right in this world.
I opened the window, unlatched the latch with my teeth and pressed the sides of my arms into glass to lift, and just yelled out. Called some old names I knew. No one answered, but in the far off crickets whined. Coyote stopped midhowl. The hairs on my arm stood attention. I never heard one do that before.
The neighbor boys I’d known would all be out and about in the world anyhow. Like Kyle, colleging and jobbing and marrying. Still over there in their wars. Not all of them sent home because they let a bomb take them the way they wished a boy would: totally, without mercy. It wasn’t one of them. I shut the window the same way I’d opened it and climbed into bed, scared I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But the chill subsided. There were few fears that could get me now. That was one thing the army gave me. Steel balls.
After that night, though, I didn’t stop thinking about the boys. I called their old houses up, but their mothers all said like I thought, that the boys were now men. They talked to me different, too. Like I was a woman. I didn’t feel much like a woman. Guess I’d never stopped thinking of myself as a girl, a girl playing with boys on fields of fireworks and noise. I’m going to get a little perceptive and say maybe it was the way I dealt with it all. Nothing new, War. I’d done this all before in my own backyard. The smells of smoke and warm blood, just like in my head back then. How could something scare me that I’d practiced time and time again?
One day I called every old boy I could think of. The ones I liked, the ones I hated, even the ones I maybe loved. Most of them from the neighborhood went the same place I did. It’s one of the only things someone like us can do, after high school. After two years of living at home and slacking, really just putting off the future that was written for me since I got my diploma. I never saw any of those boys on the field. As I sat before the bedroom window, I thought of their scrawny bodies twisted like pretzels. I got up and went to the TV, where I perched myself in front of it and didn’t get up till Dad came home.
At dinner that night, Dad asked how my day was. I didn’t say nothing, just nodded my head, made a squeaking noise I hoped he’d take for what he wanted.
“Josie, why don’t you talk to us?” Ma asked. “You know we’re here for you, should you need us.”
To eat I used my nubs pressed together to hold silverware. With my fork I moved corn around, didn’t look up at them.
“You think you’re above us, do you now?” My Dad’s voice rose like hot air. “Cause you went away to a war, you can’t relate to the people that raised you, that it?”
Because I didn’t have an answer, I stood from the table. “Of course not,” I said, but I said it soft. The imprint of my old boys’ naked bodies had been at the back of my eyes all day. I’d been home for one month already. I had yet to get out into the yard like I used to. My whole body ached from disuse.
“Now I know you had a rough time over there. You won’t admit it, you might claim everything’s fine, but I know it. If you need time, fine. We’ll give you time. But if you keep on like you’re all okay, like you’re still the same one hundred percent, then we’re gonna ask that you do some stuff around here. Pick up after yourself. Cook a meal or something. Take the damn trash to the burn pile.”
I held my arms out. “How you expect me to do that?”
My Dad’s face reddened. “There’s ways. Maybe not trash, maybe not that, but something, anything, Josie. We just wanna know you’re here. That you’re alive.”
I padded down my body. “Alive,” I said.
Ma smiled, but her eyes were sad. “We love you, Josie dear.”
In my room I watched the window again, but for some reason it didn’t make me feel good. Made my stomach turn, in fact. I could feel my palms where they used to be all sweaty and I had to keep rubbing my arms on the bits of leg exposed by my jean shorts. I rubbed at my head until my skull was numb. I had to move my body. It was screaming like old boys in heat. Or that other death.
That my first venture in the woods since I came back happened at night was appropriate, but no less spooky. In the years since I’d been gone, some of the trees had died. I walked in the skeleton grove till I came out to the stock pond the boys and I used to wade into bare-assed. Different groups of boys but always the same me. I never change. It’s what’s safe about me, what high school boys consider my best quality. I’m forever relatable. I’m that piece of them that they know will become past.
Used to we told ghost stories. Kyle and I, our buddies, we’d get together with flashlights, that old cliché. The boys were sick, telling stories all about blood and guts and vomit. My stories, they told me, were boring. The same old shit. Something in the woods. Boys in the woods turned monsters. Walking through those woods again, I knew my stories weren’t stories at all. There was something in those woods with me, breath heavy as a lover. I could smell the stink of garbage, the old boys’ story vomit. Like rotting vegetables.
I turned around but saw nothing. Didn’t expect to. Boys know their hiding places. Boys can find a place to hide in the desert even, in a desert of sand and shells. I wrapped my arms around the nearest trunk and rubbed my cheek on the bark. It scratched an itch I didn’t know was there. I kept on rubbing. My heart hummed all fast. The phantom sweat palms that made me leave my room came back. I could feel them slippery on the wood the way I never thought they could be, like they was touching the trunk of someone. From the past. Someones in a field somewhere, in a desert. On the desert floor where I couldn’t lift them because my hands are across the sand, walking across the sand with their fingers. I wanted to press my cheek so hard into the tree it would take me alive and whole again.
Something sharp grazed my shoulder. I didn’t jerk back, just let its touch scratch into me. Maybe it could find me in my skin. I wanted to cry. No crying. The army.
“I won’t cry,” I said. It was all I could think. All I could care about.
The thing grabbed a weak hold of me, made a noise, this moan. Nothing like a sex or death moan, more like there was meaning in it, a word all garbled. Right up next to me like that, it stunk like garbage left in the sun. It moaned again, desperate-like.
“Leave me alone,” I said. “I didn’t do nothing to you.”
The hand on my shoulder didn’t feel like a boy’s hand. There was nothing soft about it. The hardness of it felt like more than calluses. Felt like the skin had hardened. I never felt anything like it. You could say I was scared. My heart sure was beating fast. But I might tell you I don’t get scared like that. I gave up scared a long while ago. I closed my eyes and didn’t pray.
It let go. I kept my eyes closed a while longer. Didn’t hear no crunch of leaves meaning it left, but I turned round anyhow. It just stood there, looking at me, its bald head tilted to the left. It had a long ridge down its back that looked kind of like the fin on the carp in the stock pond. Its lips were thick and straight, if that makes sense, fish-like too. Its eyes big, buggy, popping out of its head almost. Comical, in a way, but they were the brightest green I ever saw, even in the bare moonlight. It hunched over a little like an old man. Its skin was slick and army green, it shone in the dark, but the hands were shriveled claws, like oranges that had been left too long and had dried up inside. They hung from its arms like limp dicks.
I had seen these things on television. They were called Finfolk, and no one really knew what they were. Some scientist people said they were fish evolved out of the water, but I was skeptical. Even in a small town like Riddle, we learned something about evolution. Our middle school science teacher brought a book in one day and told us we was allowed to believe whatever we wanted, but that he was required to tell us about it. That he thought it was bunk, but maybe we didn’t, so he would give it to us straight and we could make up our own minds. He said it took a long, long time, longer than the world been around, for something to come up out of water. These Finmen came overnight. I didn’t think they were aliens, like some fool people in this town, like some of my old boys, but they weren’t fish. I knew fish. Fish didn’t look at you like you were the most curious thing in the world.
The Finman’s eyes wouldn’t leave me. He motioned without looking at them to my missing hands. His claw hand flapped as he did. I think I blushed a little, despite myself and that aching tremor in my chest. I wanted to run, but I also didn’t want to run, cause what was there at home better than this? The Finman reached out to me. I flinched, then immediately felt boiling shame in my belly. It was his hands. His hands made me cringe. I looked down at my own. The tremor in my chest sunk to my belly, and it made me feel like puking.
“What do you want?” I asked. “I’m not touching you.”
It shook its head.
“Do you understand me?” I asked.
It didn’t say nothing, just gaped.
“Are you alone?” I asked. “It’s no good to be alone.”
It looked down at the ground. At first I figured it was sad about it, but then its gaze traveled into the woods a little, like it was looking at something. I looked down too. A line of tracks led into the trees, back toward where the creek used to run before the neighbors dammed it. Further on past the dry creek was the stock pond. I wondered if this was where he’d been living. After all, if I was some crazy creature in the woods, it’s where I would go. Water to drink. Fish to eat.
Then, like a bomb flash, I remembered. Finfolk didn’t eat fish, and not because they were one. They smelled like they did cause of the trash they ate. It was some strange and scientific process I didn’t really get, hadn’t had time since being back to really figure out, but it dawned on me that Ma and Dad hadn’t burned their trash before. The smoke that rose into the sky every night from the houses round the neighborhood wasn’t something from my youth. The rubbery smell of burning junk. Back as a kid, the smell was unbearable sun and dry dirt. Only thing filled the skies was faint starlight and a glow from town on the horizon. People must have got scared of the Finfolk. There were rumors, after all, of their abducting people, rumors I didn’t believe. There were also stories of Finfolk helping people. Government bulletins claimed they weren’t nothing to be scared of.
“There’s more of you?” I said. “Where they at?”
It loped like a man almost, the only difference the length of its legs, which came up to its belly. Its torso was squat, and the arms swung from side to side as it led me wherever the hell we were headed. I’d seen boys with legs near that long, so I was able to squint my eyes and pretend I was following an old friend. Maybe we’d go running through the marshes and pick up discarded paint balls, squish them on one another till we were dripping pink and blue.
He didn’t lead me to the stock pond, but it was mighty close: a rundown barn that once belonged to the neighbors but had been forgot when they up and sold their house. Now no one claimed to own it cause no one wanted to take care of it. Back when the neighborhood was nice, it was a point of contention. Now it was just a joke no one remembered to laugh at.
The door to the shed was off on both hinges. To open the door the Finman placed his wrists on either side and lifted the door, set it aside. Despite his deformed hands, he moved it fine. The garbage reek rushed out. I tried to be polite and pretend like I didn’t notice.
I kicked up dirt as I walked across the floor. The Finman waved his arms in front of him. I didn’t know if he was telling me something or trying to clear the air or even gesturing some secret code to someone, but I didn’t see a soul in there. It was dark despite the holes in the ceiling. The rotten wood creaked. Over in the corner I thought I saw a people-shaped outline, but when my eyes adjusted it was a scarecrow.
Then there really was movement, from both sides of the barn. Shadows meandered into my line of sight. I counted eight then two then three. Three Finfolk stood before me, and the one to my side blubbered like he had bubbles in his mouth and was trying to blow them. With what I assumed was his tongue he groaned a little, motioned with that limp claw. The others tittered and nodded like bobble heads. Two of them were shorter than the first, and the other looked about the same size, maybe the same as Kyle. About six foot or so.
They all looked similar, except the other tall one had some spiky things coming out of his head, like those punks downtown who gelled their hair back. Only the Finman’s wasn’t hair, but hard, as if from his skin. The shades to them were varied, too. They was darker and lighter. And the one that found me was the only one whose claws had dried up like that. The rest’s still seemed to work okay, cause they were gesturing with them as well as with their arms.
“Nice to meet you boys,” I said. They stopped their clicking and blubbering and turned their heads all toward me at once. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
They nodded their heads again, a chorus.
“Well alright then. Guess I’ll be headed out.”
The screeches they then emitted were like pigs dying.
“Well okay, maybe not.”
The Finfolk quieted and stepped to either side so there was a clear line of sight down the middle of the barn. One of them with working claws made his way to the end and grabbed something off the floor that rustled in his grip. He came back and handed it to me. I held my arms together out in front of me to accept it. They placed it on my arm like a shelf. It was an old Styrofoam container, the lid ripped off. The bottom was greased over with what must have once been food.
“Why, thank you,” I said. “I will cherish it forever.”
They tittered some more, made more gestures. I could tell this level of communication was going to get old real fast. Their excitement was rising, and I figured I should get out of there before they did something stupid. I knew how old boys could be when they got too worked up. They start fights, get all handsy. I nodded to them, a gesture they seemed to comprehend, and backed out of the barn. I let the Styrofoam fall to the ground and ran home without a rest.
Dad didn’t say nothing more about chores. Instead, that night, as I lay in my bed, the mosquito netting hanging around me, Ma came and sat on the bedside.
“Your dad’s stressed is all. Don’t pay him no mind. He was so sad when you were away.”
“I’m back now,” I said. “There’s nothing to be sad about.”
In the dark I felt her gaze slip down. I had my arms underneath the blankets.
“It’s okay, you know, to be angry. To be upset a little. These would be logical emotions. You can talk to me, like I said at dinner.” She brushed her hand across my forehead as if she meant to move a strand of hair. But when her hand hit skin and only skin, she drew it back, held it to her chest.
“There’s nothing I need to talk about, Ma. Everything is fine.”
The next night I went to the Finfolk again. They were all there except one, one of the smaller ones. When I opened the barn door, they emerged from shadow and crowded round me, purring almost.
“Whoa, fellas. What a way to greet a lady.”
One of them reached out and touched my arm, turned it over, walked around me looking up and down. When he faced me again, he held out his open claw.
“What, was I supposed to get y’all a welcome gift or something?”
They nodded. Drew invisible lines in the shape of a square. Thrust their pressed-together arms out at me as if they was handing me invisible presents.
I left there quick as I could and followed the Finfolk’s grassworn paths back to my house, through the gaping woods. Snuck back into the house, though I was loud as all hell without hands, and filled an empty trash bag with knickknacks. A plastic soldier figurine from my childhood, a glass jar from the kitchen cabinet, an old cell phone and charger, some lotions I’d been given as Christmas presents from people who didn’t much know me. I even threw in a Styrofoam container of leftover Chinese food, in case the reason they was so crazy-acting was cause they were hungry.
When I handed them the bag, they upturned it into the dirt. They rummaged through it. They tossed everything into one little pile behind them. When they got to the Styrofoam, they opened it up, sniffed the noodles and chicken, dumped it too. Then they sniffed the Styrofoam, one by one, and the tallest held it to his mouth. His lips opened wide enough to fit all the way around it, and he sucked. It made a whistling noise as the white disappeared into his mouth. When he stopped, he spit ash onto the ground. The others jumped around him and smacked him with their claws, then dove for the rest of the stuff. One by one all the items I had brought disappeared into the mouths of beasts. The one with the dried up hands bent down into the dirt and picked my soldier up with his teeth. There was little ash when he was done with it.
After that they were hyper, boys on too much sugar. They ran out the barn door, and the tall one pushed me after them. They ran around the stock pond, dove into the water. In the reflection they looked like they belonged there. The wet on their scales made them glint with moonlight. With some hesitation I dove in after them, but I stuck mostly to the sides. I wasn’t ready to swim without hands, afraid I’d drown. That they had led me there to drown. There were those rumors, after all.
I dug my toes into the dirt. It squished between them. I felt for plastic down there. My old boys and I lost more than one water gun at the bottom of that pond. I wondered if anyone ever made a water gun for cripples. Smiled despite myself.
The Finfolk emerged from the pond, water dripping from their shiny skin. As they passed, they each reached out and touched my arm. I watched them go back to their barn unaware if they wanted me to follow. Or if it was what I even wanted.
There are some things you can’t do without hands. Things they haven’t fixed yet. Water guns is one. Another is cooking. Not like I ever wanted to cook, but I might’ve appreciated the choice. I cannot pet kittens. I cannot pick my zits. That one’s a plus side. But there’s still a lot I can do.
My parents used the army stipend to put in a voice-activated television, for one thing. They updated our movie database so it too would work by voice. I can open the doors using the foot levers they installed, and the window in my room opens smooth if I press my arms against it and push upward. It never was secure. I can’t do my own laundry. Painting is a hobby I won’t ever get to perfect. I won’t be no Picasso. I can eat but not corn on the cob. Has to be something I can wrap my stumps around. I can wrap them around a utensil, so most everything edible is still up for grabs. I can’t tie my shoes or button a shirt. I can’t wipe my ass. Ma has to do it. I can’t give a hand job anymore. I can still blow someone. I can still feel my hands beside me as I sleep, in the shower as I wash my hair half-assed. When I get my hands, I wonder if I’ll remember how to do these things for myself. Right now I feel like I’m a child again. I hate it.
That’s the honest truth. Fuck all if I ever tell it to someone who cares for me. That would be too much.
Instead of family, I spilt everything to the Finfolk, telling them all about feeling useless like they could understand it. Each night I snuck out of the house – hiding from a mother who probably wouldn’t have given a shit if I walked at night, would probably have told me midnight walks were good for the soul. I always brought the Finfolk our trash. I told Dad I was taking it to the burn pile. If he knew where I really took it, he’d have gave me a talking-to. Told me not to feed stray animals. That it would only make them stick around, like the deer that ate his maters or the coyotes who ate our cats.
For the Finfolk I built a fire. I had them stack the logs, and that night I asked Ma if she could light me a candle. When I snuck out, I took that candle with me. The old boys and I used to hoot and holler around a good old bonfire back in the day. The Finfolk didn’t seem to like the heat, though it clearly fascinated them. They stepped away from it, then back toward it, as if sampling the new sensation. But never took their eyes off it. The old boys were pyros too.
I taught them to play paintball, but we couldn’t play it right cause we didn’t have any guns and I didn’t have any way to throw the balls. So mostly I just ordered them around, told them who to toss the neon green ball at, where to squash the pink one. The floor of the barn looked like a rainbow died in there.
Still there was something inherently maddening about friends with no voices. I never could tell if they understood me or not. Their gestures and noises – who the hell knew if they could even be translated?
From what I could see, they did the things my old boys did but did them with a distance. When they touched my shoulder, their claws were cold and slimy. They didn’t look at me like the way that first one did. He was the only one who I felt anywhere close to.
When we went to the stock pond, he followed at the last, always close to me but never close enough that his reek overwhelmed. He walked with a limp. He splashed less than the rest of them. Always I felt his eyes on me. As though I was protected by something out-of-this-world.
Ma asked about the mud on my feet. Because she was the one who scrubbed it off, she felt she had a right to know.
“Pond,” I said.
“Who you been going to the pond with?” She sudsed my back and legs. Took the razor and began shaving my calves. “Is Kyle back home?”
“No,” I said. “Kyle and I aren’t right for each other, Ma. He made the war out to have stolen something from me. Made me feel a fool for believing in it.”
“Maybe you should listen to him.”
I jerked my leg back. The razor slipped and nicked my leg. A thin line of bright red bloody water streamed down my leg, down the drain.
“War didn’t take nothing from me I wasn’t willing to give,” I said.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, hon. Your Dad and me, we just want to see you move on past this. Get your life started independent of us. We want you to live on your own, no regrets.”
“I don’t have none of those,” I said. “No regrets.”
Maybe the conversation with Ma sparked something, or maybe I just got to noticing things that night, but when I visited the Finfolk I realized that the others treated mine different. It wasn’t just that he stood off to the side, watching me. It was that they let him stand to the side. I didn’t much like it. He could do everything they could, had learned to do it all.
They were splashing in the pond that night when one of the shorter ones snuck off to the side, just like my one did every night. It stood over by the bank of the pond looking out into the woods, its claw resting on its belly. The other two would have none of it. They rushed through the water, sending ripples in their wake and wary waves out in front of them to where the sullen one stood, which wasn’t too far from where the cripple was, maybe four feet to his left or so. They grabbed hold of him by the waist and the legs, dunking themselves under the water to grab hold of the upper thighs, and dragged him back into the splashing middle. He splashed right along with them again, like all he needed was validation. The cripple one watched, and when they were playing together again looked down into the water.
I considered going to him but thought better. I never even knew how to comfort old boys. Kyle, for instance, was the most sensitive of boys I ever met. I never did figure how to make his frown upside down or what have you. His moods would take over, and it was all I could do to keep him from crying something awful. I never did know what he wanted to cry about, but he was smart, and sometimes I think he thought too much about the world. What was I supposed to do with that?
A tall order for a girl like me who finds it awkward to put her arm around a frowning man and tell him all’s gonna be good in the end. I don’t feel comfortable doing that for no one. Especially not a someone with skin the color of fatigues.
The dynamic among the Finfolk didn’t end there. Sometimes he was alone when I arrived, and sometimes he wasn’t there but the others were. I wondered why he had been the one I met in the woods. Wondered what he’d been looking for. Was it peace of mind, like me? Tried to ask him, but he just stared at me. I guess if he had asked me the same I couldn’t have articulated any kind of answer even if we did both speak a language.
So instead of comforting him, I brought him a figurine. I thought he would likely just suck it dry, but it was an old favorite of mine. A warrior woman from a childhood cartoon. Princess Yeanna. A rugged-like woman with bear skin around her shoulders, forest smeared on her cheeks. Her left hand had been chewed off by our dearly departed dog when I was just a little girl. Before I brought it to him, I chewed off the other hand.
I handed it to him when we was alone, separate from the food. He lifted it to his mouth. I cringed but didn’t stop him. I wasn’t one to give gifts then tell people what to do with them. But he sniffed it is all. Lifted her stumps up and down, rotated her leg in its socket. Held it to his belly. What came over his face was not unlike a smile, though it sure wasn’t one neither. Then he nodded toward a rock right outside the barn. We walked over to it, and he kneeled and placed Yeanna underneath. Then we made our way back into the forest, to find the others, like a habit we would never have thought to break.
Spring Break, Kyle came home. Called me up the second night he was in town, wanted to come over to catch up. He talked at me like I was a skillet that needed buttering. Laughed loud when I told him I’d met some Finfolk that were my new friends now.
“I’m not joking,” I said.
“I can’t wait to see you. Honestly, Josie, you’re such a funny woman.”
Ma wanted to make us tea, but I didn’t think the conversation we were going to have should take place in a family kind of room, so I asked him to my room instead. He opened the door for me, opened the window. Insisted though I said I could do it myself. We sat on my bed with the netting parted how I knew he wanted my legs. I was planning on letting him too, hadn’t had any since the war. One thing you cannot do without hands is touch your own body. Kyle could be my fingers for a night, no problem. Even if I knew he was going to pretend it could be more but not mean it.
“You poor thing,” he said, touching my stump end. It seemed as though he had passed through invisible skin to get there; it made my stomach lurch. “I feel so bad for you.”
“Cause I can’t masturbate?” I said. “They’ll figure something. Don’t you worry.”
“You’re so strong. I never realized it before I went off to college, but you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. You should be so much more fucked up than you are, what with the lot life handed you. Coming from where you did and all.”
“Excuse me?” I pulled my arm from him.
“Even though you didn’t break the cycle, didn’t end up pursuing an education, you went on and did what you could with your life. It’s a shame the army preys on the poor, but you’re by far the least victimized victim I ever met. You could still get a degree, you know. Even with your grades, you could –”
I stood. I paced, wanting more than anything to spit on his high-and-mighty face. I was learning plenty more than him with his big time education. I was learning how to live without hands.
“You,” I said. “This is how you try and fuck me? Let me tell you something, the army didn’t take nothing from me. The bastards took my arms ain’t the army, and they’re the only ones I’m any angry at. All of you can go fuck yourselves, cause for damn sure you won’t be fucking me. I’m fine. Not victimized, not nothing.” I crossed my arms. “Go back to your parents’ cushy house or your cushy little school, cause you still sound like shit.”
Kyle trudged down the hall and out the front door. The door slam sent a chill up my spine. I heard Ma calling after him, asking him what the matter was. Then I heard her own footsteps down the hall.
“I heard yelling,” she said to my closed door. I bent down and twisted the lock with my teeth so she couldn’t come in. The knob rattled like snakes. “You okay in there, Josie? What in God’s name did you say to him?”
“I’m fine,” I said, already at the window. “I keep on telling you, I’m just fine.”
I climbed out into the night air, warm on my cheeks. Without shoes the grass was dry and brittle beneath me. I remembered when spring was cool air and wet grass. Now the heat stayed on through March and only left come November, winter gone and disappeared on us. I would be okay out there alone. Except I wouldn’t be alone. I would have old boys to watch over me.
I had memorized my way through the dark. I could have closed my eyes if I wanted. I didn’t. I kept them open so I wouldn’t trip, too hard to get up once I was down. I held my stump out and let it hit on the tree trunks. Each wince was a shock through my chest that kept me from crying.
The last time I cried was the day they shipped me off, when I said goodbye to Kyle. I cried so hard I thought the pain would break my ribs in two. Best not to let it in. Best to keep it swallowed.
When I reached the barn, though, it was empty. I plopped down into the dirt. From under me I pulled the figurine I’d given the crippled Finman the day before. Held it to my chest the way he’d held it to his. If only I could open my skin and replace the beating organ there with this, I thought. I was tired of living at home.
“I’m too old to take out someone else’s trash,” I said to no one. “Too old to sneak from the damn windows and have my legs shaved. I’ll let the damn hair grow.” In the empty barn, my voice echoed back to me. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I had been to war. I had given my hands to my country.
I choked on the words. Spit into the dirt cause I couldn’t take the taste of my mouth. “The war took my damn hands.”
Here is what I wanted, then. What I realized I wanted: I wanted those fancy hands the army said they’d give me. Wanted to have had a chance to make my own dinner before I lost that chance. I wanted a different kind of past, one where Kyle was right and I was strong enough to take care of myself. I wanted to know how to be on my own.
From the back of the barn something rustled. The shape of two green eyes and a body barely distinguishable from the dark emerged on hands and knees. My Finman crawled to my side and sat across from me. He looked down into the dirt below me. There were tiny drops of new mud there. I wiped my arm across my face. Sure enough, wet.
“The army don’t cry,” I said.
He shook his head and whimpered. He touched his small nub of a nose to mine and pushed my face up, the gesture reminiscent of both lover and dog.
It seemed to me like there was a voice somewhere, in my head, from his head, from the bottom of my belly, you ain’t the army anymore.
There are places in the forest you can’t find even if you look. Barns that have been forgot so that they are now invisible. Trees creatures climb to blend into the branches. We don’t climb trees, of course. We can’t. But we are mindful of those who can.
As we walked along the dried up creek bed, following the sound of an invisible stream, the Finman touched his broken claw to my arm. We weren’t walking the way I would have as a young girl with an old boy. We were walking the way of creatures looking to find their way in a forest of hidden places. We were looking for a language we could share.
We were looking for a way to be happy without hands. Maybe as we walked we would find the grass green and wet again. We would find a cool place and let it keep us. We would find a stream with water so cold it kept us warm. We would find our hands washed up on the banks.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, and Daily Science Fiction. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and reviews short fiction at her blog, Short Story Review. You can visit her through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com or on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle.