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Fiction: A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands by Rachel Swirsky

Papa and Uncle Fomba told me if I didn’t join the army, they’d kill me. They didn’t. They cut off my hands.

This was after U.S. forces marched on Syria, but before we invaded Lebanon. On every city block, posters of Uncle Sam entreated every Tom, Duc, and Haroun to get blown up in the name of freedom. Papa and Fomba gave me two weeks to enlist. I ran for Canada instead. They caught me.

Fomba took me to Papa’s shed and handcuffed me to a two-by-four. “You can’t scare me,” I said.

“We’re not trying to scare you,” said Fomba. “Get the knife, Bayo.”

Papa went. Fomba was younger in years, but elder in authority.

“How far are you going to take this?”

Fomba put his hands over my wrists and grinned. “Cocky Momodu. Strutting Momodu. Don’t depend on a dead man’s shoes when you don’t know their size.”

That’s a proverb from Sierra Leone: don’t count your chickens when you may still get a shard of shrapnel eggshell in the gut.

Papa and I emigrated from Sierra Leone as refugees when I was a toddler. Fomba came eight years later. Fomba had been conscripted by the Revolutionary United Front at nine years old. They made him shoot his parents so he wouldn’t have a home to run away to. You’d think Papa would have hated him for that, but when Fomba started sending letters to the U.S., Papa was quick to get him here.

The RUF terrorized Sierra Leone for ten years, murdering hundreds of thousands, including my mother. Other than hating the government, they had no philosophy, so Fomba was used to militarism without ideals. He took to American nationalism faster than American beer. He liked to say, “When you go to a country where people dance on one foot, you should dance on one foot. If you dance on two feet, they’ll cut them out from under you.”

Every afternoon of my childhood, my father and I sat with Fomba while he drank beer and quoted proverbs like “Cooked beans don’t want cold water, only hot water,” which meant children needed punishing. Other Africans didn’t like that Fomba had been part of the RUF, so they wouldn’t be around us. Fomba joined a military history society and befriended whites. The Civil War fascinated him, especially the Confederates. Other society members gave him old rifles which he cannibalized to make new guns. They leaned against the wall in Papa’s shed, black and slender like shadows.

In summer, the three of us lay on the floor with our shirts off and Fomba doused himself with beer. Wet and sticky, he got nostalgic for the RUF. “During harvest, we went into the villages to find women growing crops. We had to stop them from finishing the harvest or the food would go straight to the government dogs. We chased them through the plantains and cassava until they went to ground, and then we waited.” I remember Fomba’s grin, viewed sideways as I lay next to him: the corners of his mouth sidling up his cheeks. “They always gave themselves away. They shouted or whimpered or came out after dusk, and we grabbed them. That’s when we cut off their hands.”

By the time Papa brought the butcher’s knife, I couldn’t remember how I’d ever thought they were joking. For Fomba, this was justice. He looked saner at that moment than he did downing beers over scavenged guns or maps of Gettysburg.

Before he did it, he quoted another proverb from Sierra Leone: “A monkey will never be rid of its black hands.” It meant there was nothing I could do to cleanse myself.

As the cut fell, I saw no blood. Instead, I had a vision of my dead hands rising like black ghosts from my wrists. I passed out before the knife hit bone.

#

Amputation has been a terrorist tactic in Africa since the Belgians required their officers to provide one human hand for every bullet they shot. After Fomba cut me, America added this tradition to its glorious melting pot and did what Americans do so well: made lots of copies.

The first copycat cut off his son’s hands on the family dining table three days after Papa and Fomba did me. He shouted the pledge of allegiance as police hauled him off. Isolated crimes scattered across the United States like drops of blood, seeping across the map as the rate of incidents increased. During July, mutilations reached a high of three per day. Student protesters attached red ribbons to their wrists and counter-protestors threatened to help them stop pretending. In Texas and North Carolina, juries commended perpetrators at the same time as they pronounced guilty verdicts. Then, in September, a gang of soldiers on leave chased a twenty-two year old off the road. He pleaded that he was exempt on account of fibromyalgia. They didn’t believe him. When his mother appeared on TV with his medical record, the fever broke.

There are almost four hundred of us. They call us the Handless. Demographically, we are small. But at a time when the fighting in the Middle East and Islamic Africa was a mundane fact of political life, we polarized America. Renewed patriotism inspired huge numbers of red-white-and-blue blooded jingoists to volunteer for the front, while newly-converted pacifists bled their hearts at any Handless too slow to escape.

People assume I didn’t join the war because I didn’t want to kill innocents. They remember I owned a T-shirt that read “Give Peace a Chance.” They forget I belonged to no peace organizations, expressed no opinions on the war, watched as many violent movies as anyone else. I wasn’t afraid of killing people, but there was no way I was willing to die.

After Fomba cut me, the physicians tried to fit me with prosthetics. But plastic and metal ignited pain in my missing hands, reminding my brain to grieve for severed nerves. Most amputees suffer phantom pain, but mine was exceptional: no test could explain it, no analgesic douse it. The pain amplified until finally I told the doctors to stuff their damn prosthetics where fists went best, and marched out of the hospital. I’ve bared my naked wounds since. I am what Fomba made me.

Papa and Fomba would have gotten ten years in the normal rote of the legal system, but the judge increased the sentence to twenty-five for deliberate cruelty. I haven’t seen them since I testified at the trial, but I get the news like everyone else. Papa got caught in another man’s brawl and took a knife in the ribs. They buried him in state ground behind the prison. Fomba’s still behind bars, but he believes the food is made from dead inmates, so he won’t eat. Media photos show him growing skinnier and skinnier, becoming lean and vicious as his scavenged guns.

#

I can’t do much for myself anymore. I learned how at first, but everything’s so much harder when you don’t have hands. So when I got Minna, I let her do it.

A lot of girls want to find out what it would like to screw a hero with no hands. They approach me at the bar and talk about something banal and then start dropping kisses on my neck and shoulders. I’m supposed to act the grateful cripple. They have no idea that there’ll be another girl like them along in fifteen minutes. That’s one thing I’ve learned, having no hands: women want to cut men into pieces.

Minna approached me late in the evening after I was drunk on things you don’t look stupid sucking through a straw. She was heavy and colorless and her reflection smeared in the mirror behind the bar, giving her a fleshy white halo. The beads on her shirt fractured my shadow into jagged lines like black fingers over her breasts.

I was considering whether or not I wanted to fuck her—even dirty water can put out a fire—when she said, “Your stumps are a mess.” Her hands were chubby with runt-like fingers. Translucent white skin shot through with blue veins like expensive cheese. When I didn’t answer, she said, “What’s it like, having no hands?” Her tone held no quaver, just blunt curiosity. That’s when I decided to take her to my apartment.

She was fatter than I’d had, but a vehicle is never too big for its driver. A man can always have a big woman.

After a few weeks, her things started to appear in my apartment. It was as though a tide had come in and deposited afghans, German novels, balls of yarn and knitting needles. There were also things I didn’t let on bothered me: angora gloves, clippers, nail polish.

I fired my expensive nurse and Minna took over. We fit together. She accepted my tongue because I had no fingers to give her, then sat astride me and pulled my penis in since I couldn’t adjust myself. She claimed that she felt touched all over when we slept together. “You have a thousand ghost fingers,” she said. At night, she tucked the quilt under my chin and opened the window enough so I wouldn’t be hot, but not too much, so I wouldn’t be cold.

I didn’t like her holding me when I pissed or cleaning the toilet if I missed on my own. I didn’t mind being fed, but I didn’t like her to wipe up my drool and I hated her reaching inside my mouth. After she fed me corn on the cob, I stayed silent about the strings sawing at my gums. She’d try to peek into my closed mouth and ask, “You still have a tongue, right?”

Nights we spent by the fire, cocooned in her afghans. We rolled next to each other in a full tactile press that almost made hands irrelevant.

She asked stupid questions like, “Are you angry, Momodu?”

Of course I’m angry.

“It’s all right for you to be angry,” she allowed. And then she called me “courageous for refusing to participate in the slaughter” and lauded me for “sacrificing my hands.”

I never responded to that, just tried to make out her chubby fingers under the afghan, whether they were tugging at loose threads, or stroking the fabric, or touching her concealed flesh. As I thought about her hands, bright knives of phantom pain daggered to my elbows.

“How do you feel about the copycats?”

It’s tragic.

“It must be hard to be the first. The talk shows treat you like an exhibit in a freak show.”

You get used to it.

“Do you regret not seeing your father before he died?”

My father was a puppet, not a man. You don’t go to a puppet’s deathbed.

“What about your uncle? Do you want to see him?”

The sooner Fomba manages to starve himself, the sooner I can spit on his grave.

And then she ducked her head, bangs falling over her eyes. “Have there been other women who wanted to—? Because you’re famous?”

Yes, baby, but you’re the best.

#

I met Barry working a talk show four months ago. I get most of my money from that and sitting in the background while politicians make speeches.

Talk shows want short-sleeved T-shirts in navy or purple or goldenrod, and they want you to sit with your “hands” folded in your lap so they can pan from your face to your stumps. Democrats want white button-up shirts with the cuffs pulled over the wrist for “subtle” emphasis. There’s a Democrat face, too, which involves sucking in my cheeks and widening my eyes until I looked like a hooked fish. Republicans want a dark suit jacket and a somber expression.

A patriotism columnist took the first five minutes of the show. His hands ranged constantly across his lap, lightly freckled with strawberry blond hairs sprouting at the knuckles. He squinted into the spotlights as he spoke. “Without the Handless to act as a catalyst, our nation might have been too demoralized to continue the fight for Freedom. Women wouldn’t be able to drive in Saudi Arabia; Iran would still be a theocracy; the new Palestinian territory would never have been carved out of Jordan and Syria. From that perspective, the Handless may be the most patriotic Americans of the decade.”

“That’s not why they’re heroes!” someone in the audience shouted, rushing toward the stage. While security went to calm her down, the show cut straight to commercial, skipping the question/answer session and sparing us all the same tired whining about how Saudi Arabian women are free not only to drive but to die in car bombs too.

My section of the program was the same old questions about Fomba and Sierra Leone—except that the camera stayed focused on me long after the hostess should have gone on to some weeping mother who’d done her son with the family chainsaw.

The phantom pain in my hands flared up. I caught myself scowling at the cameras. Bad for business. I shifted the expression to wounded hound.

Gesturing for the camera to follow her into a close-up, the hostess mounted the stage, clutching her microphone with burnished tan fingers. She knelt beside me, and it occurred to me that if I’d had a left hand, it would have been on her tit.

“The producers and I have been looking into your life, Momodu,” she said. “You don’t have many friends or relatives. We’re worried about you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be with others of your kind—people who understand your pain?”

She smiled Mary Sunshine at me and flung her arm toward the wings. Ten men edged onstage. Cheap plastic prosthetics, mostly, except for one top-of-the-line pair with realistic joints, the kind I should have had.

The hostess gestured for me to stand. So the circuit had found a new way to extract the sap: they wanted us to hug.

The audience cheered as I pulled myself slowly to my feet. When I came to the first man, I feinted to the side, as if too overcome for a hug.

“Are we going to let Momodu go back to being alone?” the hostess asked the audience. Choruses of “Go on, do it!” and “Just give him a hug!” urged me forward. I pretended to consider their reactions, as if torn. When I finally stumbled into the other guy’s arms, relieved applause showered the studio.

The man and I started weeping. I bit my cheek. I don’t know what he did to get the faucet started. We reached around each other’s backs, but bent our elbows like chicken wings so our stumps wouldn’t touch. That would have been too personal.

Oh yeah, the audience bought it. Tissues rose in the crowd like paper ghosts.

What they don’t understand is, Handless don’t need community. If we’re water, it’s oil. Or vice versa. Having no hands, you realize how potent the sense of touch is in the rest of your body. You feel socks scraping your feet, dirty hair pricking your scalp. When you want to remember what a flower feels like, you rub one against your cheek and it’s soft. It is soft. But there’s something about the language of touching hands that knocks down the walls of separate flesh. A pop psychiatrist who analyzed me on one of these shows claims the Handless have problems with intimacy because of the sudden shock of brutality in a trusting relationship. But it’s more than that. I know. Hands are the pen that inscribes trust on the soul.

I boo-hooed my way through the line until I got to the end, a white guy in a wheelchair. Barry. He had no prostheses either, which made us the only ones. I leaned over to do the chicken wing thing and he threw his arms around me, pushing his stumps against my spine. As he touched me, my pain blazed. Involuntary tears scalded my cheeks.

“You’re my hero,” he whispered. “You gave me the courage to do what I did.”

I was trapped because the cameras were on, so I bit my cheek harder to squeeze out a few more tears, then pressed my forehead into the crook of my elbow. “I need to sit down…” I said, stumbling back. The hostess rushed to help me to my chair.

Next, she wheeled Barry’s chair next to mine. Barry was big. Not really fat, just the kind of big tall guys get. Despite some blond stubble prickling his chin, he looked young and fresh like TV pictures of high school athletes. He wore a maroon baseball cap and a green plaid blanket over his arms and legs so his stumps didn’t show. When it got to be his turn to speak, he peeked over at me.

“I’m not like most Handless,” he said. “I volunteered for the army. I was in Iran for a few months, in Hamadan. What got to me were women at windows. You wondered who they were. Was the man you were shooting at her husband? Her brother? How could you kill this woman’s brother while she watched?”

Color mounted his cheeks. “I came back home on leave and tried to talk to my Dad about it. He was an Air Force man. He was furious when I said I wasn’t going back. He said he’d cut me. I told him that didn’t matter, I still wouldn’t go. So he went after me.

“We were in the kitchen. He knocked me back and I hit my head on the stove. He said if I didn’t change my mind, he’d cut off my feet too.”

Barry dragged his blanket up. Two metal bars jutted out of his pants, disappearing into his sneakers.

“I had to do what I could to keep things from getting worse over there,” Barry concluded. “I knew I could live through whatever Dad did to me, because Momodu did.”

The audience erupted into applause. Barry looked like he wanted to hug me again, but the hostess commandeered the camera. “Our producers have prepared a phone list for the ten of you. We’ll hand it out at the end of the show. We hope you’ll be able to support each other through these tough times.”

Barry turned a goofy grin toward me, and I knew I was fucked.

#

There’s a proverb from Sierra Leone about guys who won’t leave you alone—you can drive me away from your house, but you can’t drive me away from your grave. That was Barry.

It started with phone calls. I told Minna not to pick up the phone, but she got sick of it ringing, so I told her if she had to answer to do it in German. The first time she picked up, she spoke English.

“Uh huh, Momodu lives here,” she said while I flailed for her to stop. “I know, our phone goes on and off. Why don’t I tell you our address?”

I stood by the refrigerator, pretending to bash my head against the door. “Why did you do that?”

She frowned at me. “All these things they said at the talk show, did you ever stop to think maybe they were right? You could use someone to talk to besides me.”

“So you give our address to The Sentimental Wonder?”

“The things you’ve been through, you don’t talk about them with me. Maybe I’m not the right person. Maybe someone else who’s been through it… Maybe a man…”

I didn’t like the look she had then. Her eyebrows tilted in concern, her chubby hands laid out to me in supplication, as if she were offering them to me.

“So it’s because he’s a man,” I said, smirking. “So I’m not enough for you? I should have known. It takes more than one man to fill a box.”

She hates it when I speak in proverbs. She turned away, her face and hands falling into the shadow of her body. “Überheblicher Arshloch,” she said quietly.

Every morning after that, Barry came to our apartment. His Swiss nurse, Arline (slender fingers with abnormally large knuckles, like knots on string) pushed him to our door and knocked. Barry suggested coffee or lunch and I said no, no, no, until the day Minna invited Arline in so they could share lunch—“It’s nothing to do with you, Momodu, I just want to talk to someone else who speaks German. Is that all right?”—and oh, what a coincidence, Barry had to come along too.

After that, I couldn’t keep them out of the house. Arline and Minna chattered about German novels while I scowled. Barry stared at me. Constantly. As if I were a statue of a saint.

A few weeks later, over dinner, I told Minna I wanted them to stop coming. “I like Arline,” she replied. “Maybe you could go out walking in the mornings while she’s here. Our visits don’t last long.”

I nodded toward the cup of wine and she lifted it so I could sip. I endured the swipe of her napkin.

“I could,” I admitted. “But it’s my damn house.”

She met my eye. “I live here too.” She sighed and pushed away her plate. “You know, Arline says Barry takes care of himself, almost totally alone. They’ve set up a toilet he can use on his own. He can open and close the door to their house. He even feeds himself. Don’t you want to be able to do that?”

Pain surged down my forearms. I twisted in my seat. “The phantom pain is getting bad again.”

“I know Barry is hard for you to take, but I think if you sat down with him—”

“I’m in pain, damn it! Can’t you see that?”

“Sorry. Do you want me to get some ice?”

“No! Just shut up until it goes away.”

We sat in silence until the pain subsided. When I could breathe regularly again, I scooted forward in my chair, pushing my chest forward and my elbows back to make my ribs look prominent so I’d favor all those photos of pathetic, starving Africans.

“It’s not that I don’t like Barry,” I said. “It’s just—I don’t like to be reminded of what I’ve lost.”

Minna harrumphed, but I saw a subtle shift in her expression. I accepted another sip of wine, and reclined into victory.

I realized something was wrong the next night when Minna began cooking Tafelspitz, Rosti, and strawberry pudding. “You invited them to dinner,” I accused.

She smiled but didn’t answer, just buzzed around the kitchen in her bare feet. Her trailing sleeves fell down to her elbows as she dragged the dishes down. When the food was ready, she took the pot of Tafelspitz off the stove and put it on the table. She dished out food for Barry and me, pre-cutting our portions.

“I don’t like the look of my beef,” I complained.

Minna pushed my chair closer to the table and tucked a napkin into my collar for a bib. She looked down at me, one corner of her mouth pinched down. “I can’t help you on my own anymore.”

Her standing there, looking down, made me think of the hostess kneeling next to me at the talk show, looking up. Why is it I’m always sitting down when women want to make decisions about my life?

The bell rang and Minna went to answer the door. She returned rolling Barry’s wheelchair to the table. He smiled at me, raising his elbow in salutation.

“Where’s Arline?” I asked.

“Arline and I agreed that you and Barry need some time together,” said Minna. “I’m going to stay and feed you, but I’m not going to talk.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t.

“Help me with my strap, please,” Barry said. “Arline put it in the front pocket of my backpack. I wear it on my wrist.”

Minna reached into the bag on Barry’s wheelchair and pulled out a small loop of Velcro with a spork attached. “This helps you eat?”

“I can feed myself with it. Sometimes it’s messy. I’ve been practicing with prosthetics that hook onto my elbows too. The doctors say they could work as well as hands. I’m not good with them yet, so I only wear them at home.”

“Wouldn’t you like something like that, Momodu?” Minna asked.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to be talking tonight.” I opened my mouth for Minna to feed me. She rolled her eyes, but she did.

It was early for dinner. Light still poured through the window over the stove, and Minna didn’t need to turn on the lamp.

Barry chewed with his mouth open, like a cow. “My skin’s too sensitive to wear prosthetics. My wrists break into hives. What about you?”

“Acute phantom pain.”

“Really?”

“The doctors can’t explain it.”

“Maybe it’s psychosomatic.”

Barry leaned forward. A chunk of brown cud lodged between his teeth. “Minna says you’re unhappy, Momodu.”

“I’m not unhappy.”

“Oh.” He leaned back. “Well, I wanted to tell you. You helped me to find the secret to happiness. I mean, I already told you about the one time you saved my life. But you really did it twice.”

“More fool me.”

If Barry heard me, he ignored it. “The first time you gave me courage to stand up for what I believed in, but the second time you taught me that I couldn’t just stop there. I had to keep doing it, and not just for people overseas. For people close to me too.

“When I woke in the hospital after Dad cut me, I was depressed for weeks. Nothing could shake me out of it. Then I saw you on Letterman, and something you said broke my world open.”

He paused for a moment, his arms raised, the spork dangling off his wrist like a ridiculous charm bracelet.

“What did I say?”

“An empty bag cannot stand.”

“Oh, a proverb. I’ve got a better one. Put the money in her hand and get her back on the ground.” I sneered at Minna, but she stayed true to the silent treatment.

“If he wants to stand, a man must be full. He can’t cut himself off from his fellow men. That’s why I went to visit my Dad when I left the hospital.”

“An empty bag refers to food. A hungry man cannot stand.”

“But hungry for what?” Barry bobbed his head up and down, trying to look sage. “When Dad got into prison and looked around at himself and what he’d become, he realized what he’d done was wrong. He says when he gets out that he’s going to make signs with my picture on them and march outside Washington every day until the war stops. He says that he knows now making it okay to kill anyone makes people think that it’s okay to hurt everyone. Otherwise, how could he have done this to me?”

“I have no idea,” I said, contemplating the logistics of cutting out Barry’s tongue.

“Exactly.”

Barry reached to put his stump on my arm and missed. It rested where my hand should have been.

“What are you doing?”

He looked down. “Sorry,” he said, moving his stump to my shoulder. “Have you forgiven your uncle?”

“Excuse me?”

“He’s a deeply troubled man.”

“The prison doctors pump nutrition into Fomba through an IV when he gets close to starving. That’s his deep trouble.” I glared at Minna. This whole conversation was her fault. “Don’t you have anything to say?”

She looked to Barry. “Did you really let your father cut you so you wouldn’t have to go back?”

Barry nodded. I slammed my stumps on the table.

“You want proverbs? How about this one: a dick is a dick even if it has no hands or feet.”

Barry’s jaw worked as he tried to masticate the idea. “I’m not sure what you mean…”

“Shit doesn’t have bones, but if you step on it, you’ll tiptoe.”

“…forgiving your uncle… is like shit?”

“Something is, that’s for sure. Try this one: What’s your interest in hog money when your father’s not a butcher?”

“I don’t understand…”

“It means mind your own business!”

Minna stood. She pulled the napkin out of my shirt and tossed it on the table. “I’ll call Arline.”

Twenty minutes later, I was still sitting at the kitchen table, but Barry was gone. Minna said goodbye to Arline, and I heard her count very calmly to one hundred.

Then she stormed into the kitchen.

“What the hell were you doing?”

“Even a worm can get angry.”

She heaved the pot of beef into the sink, tossing the potholder onto the counter. “You’re a worm, all right!”

“Don’t try to make this my fault. It was your bright idea to force the two of us together. Don’t blame me when the obvious happens.”

Turning on the sink, she blasted water into the pot. “If you throw ashes,” she recited, “ashes will follow you.”

“I’m not making trouble for anyone. I just want to be left alone.”

Du armes Kind.” She paused a moment before translating. “Poor baby.”

She leaned over the stove to collect the potholder. As her sleeve trailed over the burner, a flame flashed onto her arm. She’d forgotten to switch the burner completely off, and bright daylight had swallowed the flicker of flame. Even after I knew it was there, the fire remained invisible.

Red and yellow raced toward Minna’s shoulder. She raised her arm at an awkward angle, like a cut marionette. Her body drew taut around the fire, as if it had become her center of gravity. Slowly, her eyes widened. And then she shrieked, flapping at the flame with her free hand.

I sat rigid. My knuckles throbbed, as if I was clutching my chair.

Minna’s shriek metamorphosed into a hideous, sustained wail. Finally, she pitched herself on the floor, writhing on the tile until the fire vanished in a veil of smoke.

She lay still, tears streaking her mascara into jagged raccoon stripes. The smoke alarm blared. I coughed.

Finally, I realized I should talk. “Shit, what was that?” I asked. “Are you okay?”

Minna didn’t answer. She reached up to switch off the stove, and grabbed for my stump. “Come on,” she growled. Her hand closed on the place Barry had tried to touch me earlier, the space where my hand should have been. I felt her pull me up by nothing.

She dragged me into the hallway and slid down the wall into a crouch. Burns sketched red swirls like henna down her arm.

“Were you going to sit there and watch me burn?”

“What could I do?”

“You could have tackled me, or turned on the water faucet with your elbow, or screamed for help.”

“I don’t have any hands!”

“You could have gotten out of your goddamn chair.”

#

Twenty-four hours later, my house was scoured clean of hand lotions and thimbles and nail files.

“I don’t know why I ever thought you were a hero,” Minna said.

Of course I’m not a hero. That’s all my life has been since Fomba cut me. Save my war, be my martyr, raise my flag, inspire my son, take my pity, be what I tell you to be. Why the hell should I? I’m not Barry. He sat down. He anted up. I never asked to get dealt in. Papa shoved me into the chair, fate dealt me suicide kings, and Fomba ensured I couldn’t even pick up the hand. I never gave a rat’s shit hole whether we blew up a city or snipered civilians or covered the whole Middle East in marzipan, as long as I didn’t have to do it. Roll on the floor your own damn self, America, you can put out the fire without Momodu. He looks out for his own damn self.

When Minna finished packing, I followed her to the threshold. She was laden with suitcases, her arms bulging with muscles I hadn’t noticed before.

“What am I going to do without you?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.” She walked out without looking back.

I kept thinking about the man she’d end up with. Someone she wouldn’t have to feed, someone who could shave his own beard, someone who could lift her chin and guide her into a kiss.

#

I spent the day after Minna left raging. No Barry, no dinner. No dinner, no fire. No fire, no suitcases. No questions about heroism. No empty apartment. And then the most unexpected thing happened.

The war ended.

The landlady came up to tell me. She helped me to her apartment to watch the incoming reports on TV.

After seventy-five thousand American deaths and fighting that sprawled into twelve countries, America finally declared a draw and pulled out. The stated reason was that we had “accomplished our objectives” by “securing freedom for the native populations” and “protecting America from its enemies.”

As far as the unstated reason, there was a lot of conjecture. Maybe it was Israel finally withdrawing its troops. Or the outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever in Kenya and Uganda, which were too close for comfort. Or maybe Senator Minter, whose eldest son’s death in combat six months before had persuaded the patriotic partisan to throw his full weight into departure, finally managed to call in the last of his favors. But whatever the reason, we had suddenly gone to peace.

A few hours into the coverage, a female news anchor with large, masculine hands read a statement Fomba had sent to the TV stations. “Fomba Koromah, the man who cut off his nephew’s hands triggering the craze that produced nearly four hundred Handless, writes from his cell: ‘Politicians can end the war, but they end nothing. The struggle rages in the heart of this country, bringing glory to the brave and damning the cowards.’” The camera angle zoomed in close to her face; she took a moment for a reaction shot, and continued, “Koromah also writes that he will continue his hunger strike even though the war is over. Sources at the prison say that due to long-term lack of nutrition, Koromah’s health remains in decline.”

So. I’d gotten everything wrong, hadn’t I? Minna leaving wasn’t Barry’s fault. Fomba lay at the root of all my problems.

And if he was ill, this could be my last chance to hurt him.

#

After five years of starving himself but not being violent to anyone else, Fomba was in medium-security prison. The security guard, a tall Lebanese, chattered as he searched me for drugs and weapons. His hands were sweaty and red, his fingernails chewed to the cuticle with a precise, even bite. He placed his right hand on my back and rubbed thoughtfully.

“Waited long enough, didn’t you? We had a pool on when you’d come see the Thin Man. After a couple years, everyone’s time was gone, so we paid off the guy who said you’d never make it. Now the war’s over, and here you are. Think I can get my money back?”

He led me through the prison cafeteria. “There’ll be guards watching. Regulations. But we cleared it out like you asked. You and the Thin Man will be the only ones in there.”

We entered a tiny adjacent room. Plastic chairs ringed round tables. Faded vending machines lined the back wall.

No matter how big a child is, he’s never bigger than the man who raised him. Actually, the proverb says he’s never bigger than his father. But Papa’s dead. Now Fomba’s all I have.

Fomba sat at the middle table, presiding over an empty tray. Malnutrition lent his skin a grey cast, and the whites of his eyes had dimmed to the color of ash. His hands steepled over the tray, fingers woven through each other like shark’s teeth. Above, his eyes smoldered: alert, violent embers.

I sat in the opposite chair and folded my arms, putting my stumps between us.

Fomba laughed. His teeth seemed gigantic in his sunken face, the ribs of an immense creature emerging from a dark sea. “Trying to get rid of your black hands?”

“I don’t have hands anymore.”

“They’re shadows, but they’re still there. They follow you like ghosts.”

He inspected my stumps, pursing his lips in distaste.

“People here want to shit, but they don’t want to eat. They’re spoiled Americans. Even the black ones. What I wouldn’t give for one of my guns…”

For an instant, I saw him through his eyes: a martyr remaking himself as he’d once pieced together the remnants of dead weapons, transforming flesh to will through starvation.

He was never going to forgive me or whimper regrets. He knew exactly what he was doing when he cut me. It was nothing he hadn’t done before.

I wanted to hurt him. Like a revelation, I realized I could. Laying my stumps on the table, I moved my head close to his. “Put your hands over my wrists. Lean in.”

He looked wary.

“Trust me. I can’t hurt you. The guards are watching.”

Up close, his eyes were ill and wavery, bright lights in shivering night water. I put my mouth next to his ear and began to shake and breathe rapidly so, from behind, it would look like I was crying. The guards shuffled behind us.

“You want to die, don’t you?” I asked. “Why go on fasting? I brought you some pills. Take them tonight and they won’t be able to stop you.”

Fomba’s eyes were hungry, but his tone remained skeptical. His tongue ranged over his teeth, leaving a sheen of saliva. “How did you get them in?”

“They don’t suspect me. Why would I help you?”

“Why would you?”

“A peacetime present.” I smiled and breathed into his ear. “I want you to die.”

Fomba’s hands inched up my arm. His breaths became short and shallow with desire.

“Give them to me.”

I took the moment to drink in his strained muscles, his trembling want, then let the grin spread outward.

“I don’t have any drugs.”

A beat.

Vitriolic with victory, I added, “Really, Fomba, what did you think I could carry them in here with?”

His expression should have deadened with disappointment. Instead, his features seized into a grimace. He tightened his grip on my arm, fingers digging between layers of muscle as he pulled my stumps off the table. I struggled.

He laughed. “Cocky Momodu. Strutting Momodu. Look now.”

My eyes seized on our arms. There were hands in Fomba’s grasp, huge and black and ugly. My hands. Textured like smoke, fingers gnarled into branches. As I watched, they twisted into new malformations like nimbus clouds whipped by a furious wind.

The guards pulled Fomba off me and pinned his arms. “That’s a ticket back to high security,” one of them said.

Fomba turned to respond, but the beginning of a proverb turned into a strangled yelp. He fell, legs clattering against the chair. The Lebanese shouted, “He’s having a fit!” and ran back for help.

As his footsteps fell in the hallway, another guard came in, assessed the situation, and came up to me. “I think we should go, sir,” he said, placing his hand on my elbow.

Gently, he guided me into chaos. I heard guard’s footsteps halt as we passed. Convicts shouted catcalls of praise and condemnation. One rose above the din: “About time someone got the Thin Man!” As we reached the end of a long corridor, an EMT team rushed past us in a squeak of wheels and rubber soles. I didn’t see any of it.

I couldn’t draw my eyes away from my black hands. The fingers twisted into claws. Jagged digits curled toward me, accusing.

Peace had come. Fomba was dead. I knew my crime.

#

African sorcery is not like Western magic. African witches drill tiny holes in their victim’s hands and arms. They possess people’s bodies the way a puppeteer manipulates a marionette. When you slit open a witch’s chest, you find a heart as soft and yellow as a banana.

The prison called to tell me the Thin Man was dead. Even without my mythical drugs, Fomba got what he wanted.

His doctor called it a stroke. I believe it was something else. Perhaps Fomba’s witchcraft finally dissolved his withering body.

Fomba cursed me when he cut me. He called the ghosts of my dead hands to haunt me with the sin of cowardice he supposed I’d been guilty of. But instead, he froze me in that moment of apathy when I would have been happy to see the whole world burn, as long as I was fireproof.

So: my phantom pain is caused by phantoms. The black hands Fomba cursed me with are jealous of trespassers. When I think back, I realize I’ve been seeing them all these years: in my shadow, in misplaced grasps, in the ghost fingers Minna claims to feel when we make love.

There are a lot more amputees now in Africa than there used to be. Our army left them behind, victims of land mines and jumpy triggers. And here, in this country, there will be many soldiers returning from the front with missing limbs. How will Americans be able to tell us from them? Who will these men be and what will the nation make of them?

I can not say who these men will become, but this is the best I can do to make sense of my own experience:

If you do not make the effort to do good, you do evil. I should have learned that in my childhood, watching Fomba. But I was too busy listening to his proverbs.

#

Do not suppose redemption comes all at once. Revelation does, but not redemption.

By the time I returned from the prison, my black hands had vanished from sight again, but I knew they were still there.

The following day, I relearned helplessness. I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten while I let Minna take care of me. I couldn’t cook, remove my clothing, fluff my pillow. Minna found me the second day, lying on the bathroom floor. I’d wet myself.

“I’m not here forever,” she said, helping me out of my soiled clothing. “Just until you settle with a nurse.”

Her hand rested like a spider on the tile, tensing and relaxing with her pulse.

“Are you still angry?” I asked.

Of course she’s angry.

“It’s all right for you to be angry,” I allowed.

She looked away. Her other hand came to rest in the hollow spot behind my knee.

“Thank you for coming back.”

“Today, there’s peace. I figured…”

“If they could make peace, we could?”

“If our government could pull out of a war, then anything can change.”

The bite in her voice stung. I looked up, startled, and she chuckled. Her fist did not unclench.

#

The next morning, Minna stood in the doorway of our apartment building as she watched me go. She shivered in a heavy sweater, hands tucked into her armpits. “You’re sure you want to go alone?” she asked.

I nodded.

As I headed down the sidewalk, I felt the pain in my hands lessen a fraction. I imagined tiny curls of diaphanous vapor drifting away, leaving the ghosts a little thinner.

Traveling without Minna was difficult, but I managed. Strangers helped. An old man in a yellow tie called me a taxi. I gave the driver the address Minna had found in the phone book for me the night before. As we drove through suburban neighborhoods, I saw celebrations of the new peace: olive branches on parked cars, banners emblazoned with doves hung in windows. Only a few houses showed flags with black stripes instead of red to mourn the war. When we reached our destination, I asked the driver to help me count out the change from my wallet. He surprised me by being honest.

I waited until the taxi rounded the corner before turning to climb Barry’s front steps. Instead of a knob, his door had long handles. I knocked with my foot.

Barry opened the door. He wore prosthetics on his elbows.

“Momodu?”

“Hi, Barry.”

I watched his eye trail down my mismatched clothes and un-tucked shirt.

“I helped dress myself this morning,” I explained.

He nodded.

I shifted my weight. My breath crystallized.

“Barry, I need your help. Teach me how to get rid of my black hands?”

He didn’t ask for any explanation. He just wheeled aside to make room for me to enter.

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