What would you do if you found a severed hand in the forest? Lagan 12NOW writer Paul Doran brings us an incredibly inventive and original new short story about trust, relationships and human frailty.
Jim and Izzy Find a Hand
Jim and Izzy are coming through the neck of the wood. Jim is ahead. He is thinking about Izzy, dressed as she is in this summer heat, and he is thinking about where they are going. That she is taking him with her is not yet fully real to him and he tries to unthink it all in case it suddenly disappears. But Izzy herself still seems unreal, along with all the things they have done these few days. And as he tries to think of nothing, that’s what he is thinking.
Izzy is not thinking about Jim. There are other thoughts to have. A world of thoughts and worlds more for each of them. She isn’t thinking of any of those thoughts either which is why she notices the hand.
It is palm up. If it has a gender, that’s down. There is nothing she can see to tell her where it came from but its fingers are rigid and its end is rag and pulp so she is sure its reason is not a good one.
Jim has not noticed. He has turned to face her and is a distant, open-eyed dream until his gaze trails to her toe and on to where it is pointing.
Now where they are suddenly means something to Jim. There should be nobody else at all here. Until now he hadn’t thought there could. Nobody else should see them going, no one should know their coming. Here they should be alone, and if someone else has been along before, Jim thinks to himself he might just turn back.
Then Izzy steps towards him over the hand and touches him lightly on the arm and he is reminded what is what.
Izzy shakes her head and turns away from him again.
‘None of our business,’ he mumbles. ‘Definitely none.’
She places her hands on her hips.
Somewhere, thinks Jim, there is an arm out there that doesn’t move right. There are things in a pocket and a trouser leg that will stay unhitched.
‘What should we do?’ he asks,
Izzy looks down at the hand and rolls her neck and shoulders.
‘I don’t know. Have you ever found one before?’
He shakes his head.
‘Have you?’ he asks.
It looks up at her, empty. It would be impossible to count all the things that it could once do, all the signs it could make, all the tricks it had hidden, all the jobs it could finish, that all now lie undone on the ground around it. She could poke them with her toe if she wanted to, but she stops just an inch short.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Neither have I.’
‘Should we bury it?’
Both of them look at the dirt.
‘Leave it up there,’ she says, nodding at the tree beside them, the cradle where its limbs meet before they tangle. ‘For the birds to eat.’
That hands are meat, and not much more, now occurs to Jim for the first time.
‘Will they eat it?’
Somewhere above, a bird of the most voracious colour caws back an answer.
Jim lifts the hand and places it in the cradle of the tree.
Izzy doesn’t ask him about how it feels. She doesn’t ask if it is heavy or stiff. She doesn’t ask him if it is cold but as soon as he lifts it she can feel the forest floor warm beneath her.
He smiles at her when he is done.
The moment she smiles back he turns to the path and walks on. She follows to where they are going and when they get there they get there wildly.
Jim and Izzy come through the neck of the wood a second time. Jim is thinking about Izzy and things she said to him in the morning and things she did without him in the week. He is thinking about things he told her months ago and about how she has spoken to him since. He is thinking about where they are going and about how it was last year and how he hopes the bits he remembers best are not the parts he also invented. He hopes when they get there it will be the same and that afterwards things will be better. He thinks about what she is wearing and about how he isn’t sure if it is different.
Izzy is not thinking about Jim. There is too much else to think about. She cannot think about where they are going until they get there because a whole world of thoughts need to be visited first and if they are not thought now they will be even harder to think about later. And even though she is thinking about everything else she is the one who sees the hand.
Again, Jim has not noticed. He has turned to face her and is lost in his anxious-eager dream and only when his gaze darts to her toe does he see where it is pointing.
The birds have eaten everything there was to eat from the hand. The worms too, probably, and the maggots. Everything that can eat flesh that exists on scales decreasing past the point of what is imaginable. Now it sits here where it sat before, white bones washed clean by rain and appetite. Its palm is still up, its gender now unknowable. Izzy never asked Jim if he noticed its nails when he lifted it before.
She doesn’t have to look at him for him to know he shouldn’t finish his question. He thinks again about how there might be someone out here with them, haunting the space that is now strictly his and hers. The thought doesn’t scare him like it nearly did before. It just adds boil to the sensation he has been ignoring in his stomach.
‘It hasn’t moved,’ he says.
She steps around it, further from him.
‘It has,’ she replies. ‘You put it in the tree.’
Izzy tries to imagine the year the hand has had. Its beginning, undoubtedly, grotesque and probably sickening, then long months of becoming a more and more brilliant white until it shone like it does now, all the while able to do nothing. There are worse ways, she thinks, to spend…
‘Do you want to take it?’ Jim asks.
She wrinkles her nose. She does this more now she knows Jim cannot do it.
‘Why would I want to take it?’
‘You could turn it into something,’ he says. ‘Like a necklace.’
‘A necklace,’ she scoffs.
This darkens his cheeks.
‘A necklace out of bones? Have you ever seen me wear something made out of bones? I’m not a cannibal.’
Jim is not sure that he has not seen her wear something made out of bones. He has never grasped the rules of her ever-shifting wardrobe. He knows she somehow pieces it together through badly packaged parcels she summons from her phone and very distant charity shops in very bad areas she somehow knows will stock a particular thing she needs, but if there is a pattern to all of it, a style, he has never worked it out.
He does know, though, that his ordinary dress sense was once, apparently briefly, an attraction to her but is now seen as quite embarrassing.
‘What should we do with it, then?’ he asks.
‘Leave it over there,’ she nods towards a rotted down broken bough. ‘For some animal to chew on.’
He wonders to himself if there are animals of that kind in this forest. Animals with the teeth and appetite for crunching on bones.
Somewhere nearby a bush rustles and claws scrabble at raw earth.
Jim scoops the bones in one hand and sets them on the rotted down bough.
Izzy doesn’t ask and doesn’t wonder if the bones feel loose to lift, or if they still sit joined together. She doesn’t ask or wonder if they are smooth to the touch or if they feel hard and jagged, but as soon as Jim lifts them the earth beneath her feels soft. She feels her feet sink a little.
He looks at her and tries a smile.
She does return it but not with the kind of feeling Jim would like. Even so, when he turns back to the path, she follows to where they are going and when they get there they get there roughly. And unfairly.
Jim and Izzy come through the neck of the wood a third time. Izzy is ahead now. Jim is behind. Jim is watching the path then checking for messages from his pocket. Every now and then he makes himself look at Izzy and how she moves and he feels angry about things he cannot count.
Izzy is thinking about Jim. She is thinking some of the thoughts she has avoided thinking. This place seems to help with perspective. She is thinking some of the thoughts she has avoided thinking about Jim but she is not thinking all of them. It is not a good idea to think them all now, all at once, all here. Once they get where they are going she can think more of them.
In the mess of all this thinking she remembers the hand before she sees it.
Jim does not notice it. It is possible he has forgotten. It would be like him. He pockets a screen and looks at Izzy and sees she has been watching him.
He should ignore her, he thinks.
It is something he has tried before.
He does not look at her face but his gaze moves, as it has to, to her toe, and where it is pointing.
Something has been chewing on the hand. Maybe a pack of things. The bones are broken and have been gnawed into oddly shaped stumps. Edges have been made round and lengths made impossible. To touch them, thinks Jim, would be to revisit that one satisfying place that lives behind the jaws of animals and infants. Nothing he can remember can match that pleasure.
‘They still look like a hand,’ says Izzy.
She is right. All of the pieces are in the place they were born in, and as shapeless as they are, they are unmistakably a human hand.
He does not bother to ask the question.
There could be someone out here with them now but the idea tires him too much to follow.
‘You can use bone meal as fertiliser,’ he says.
Izzy was about to nudge a piece with her foot but the mention of the word bone makes her draw back.
‘Are you planning to grow something?’ she asks. ‘Are you going to start a farm?’
‘You have plants,’ he spits back.
‘I have a cactus. Cactuses… cacti… don’t need fertilized.’
He wants to tell her you can say cactuses.
‘You need to grind it up for it to work…’ he trails off.
Izzy steps around the bones and looks more closely at what was the main part of the hand. The palm, she guesses. The longer she stares the more it seems as though those bones aren’t making up a shape at all, that there really isn’t a hand there. She cocks her head and tries another angle, and another. No matter how she looks at it now the grip on it is gone. Even the lines she saw as fingers just look like random lumps of strewn matter.
She steps back and is sure of it. There is nothing here. It was all just her eyes.
Jim is watching. He is waiting for her. This is what he does now. Waits for her, always.
‘Are you going to leave it there?’ she asks.
She steps over the pile.
Before she turns, Jim has dropped to his knees and taken hold of a nearby stone. He grips it in both hands and slams it down onto the bones, cracking the larger ones and pounding the smaller bits into the earth. He keeps at it until he is sure he cannot do any more.
Izzy has already gone ahead. Jim’s stomach jumps then it sinks and he lurches after her to where they are going. He catches up just before they get there. Then they get there.
Izzy comes ahead through the neck of the wood. She is allowing herself, short, quick thoughts about where they are going and what they will do when they get there but there is still some way to go so she clasps her hands behind her back and hums to cover her smiling.
She allows herself a glance back.
Charlie is a few steps behind. She catches how he looks, dressed as he is even in this summer heat, and it makes her wish they were already where they are going. She hums a little louder. She wasn’t sure if he would follow at first but now he certainly is. He is following, and as she sways with her step he is watching her the way she wants to be watching him.
A memory comes to her amongst the thoughts of what is up ahead. It has no meaning. She knows the hand, or whatever it was, is broken down and gone into the forest floor. Its pieces might still prick at her as she treads across the spot and she wonders if she will feel them. But as quickly as the thought comes to her it slips away and she listens for Charlie’s step behind her, crunching leaves under his boots, snapping twigs, getting closer all the time.
This is where she finds the body.
There are two things she knows about it straight away, and a third that occurs to her moments later.
Immediately she knows it is a corpse, not just a sleeping person, even though it lies exactly how it would in a bed at night.
Immediately she also knows it is Jim. That thin, lettered shape, even turned away from her, can be nobody else.
The thing she knows moments later is that Charlie is still too far back to see it. He is far enough back that he never has to, that he should never have to know about Jim at all, or about how he used to go along with her here to the same place they are now going and about how he always thought it was her idea alone that started the whole thing and her alone that finished it. If she is quick she can skip back to Charlie and give him a smile up so close he could not look anywhere else. There must be other ways around the neck of wood.
‘Charlie,’ she says, and her hand is on his chest already.
He nods down at her, as though his patience is part of a game.
‘We were meant to take a left back there,’ she tells him. ‘Just before that stream. You distracted me.’
‘Distracted you,’ he says, smiling back at her. ‘I was behind you.’
‘I kept hearing you and thinking there was some sort of bear chasing me. Come on,’ she takes him by the hand and begins to lead him back. ‘Just before that stream.’
‘I think it was just brambles before the stream.’
‘Not the brambles. Beside the brambles. Trust me. I’m a good navigator.’
Without thinking she throws her arms around his waist and spins completely around and back to face him.
He shrugs and they go back towards the stream. Towards the brambles.
They eventually get where they are going and when they get there they get there bloody with scratches.
Jim comes with Stef through the neck of the wood. He thinks about how he is only going with her to where they are going because she seems so excited about the idea. He is thinking about how, really, if he wanted to, he could still turn back. But he is happy too, to be going back there, and to be coming through this way again where the trees themselves could almost testify to how wonderful it was to come through before.
She holds his hand just as she has the entire way. Jim thinks about telling her it is slowing them down, making it harder to move through the gaps in the trees, how it could lead to one of them losing their balance.
‘You get other people out here sometimes,’ he tells her. She glances at him with darkening cheeks then looks to the ground. She doesn’t reply.
‘All sorts of people. Anyone can get out here, really.’
He is thinking about how he will tell her about the hand and just as they arrive at the spot he last saw it they both stop. In the same place he knelt down before and smashed the remaining bones into powder is the body of Izzy, pale but as striking as ever. Her dress is just as senseless and brilliant as it was in life.
‘Who is that?’ asks Stef.
Jim feels all the sense he has slowly regathered these past two years flip inside his stomach.
‘This is Izzy,’ he tells her, and he steps forward towards the body.
Now he tells Stef about how Izzy used to come through this neck of the wood with him every year and about how together they found a hand. He explains how the hand looked as though it had been freshly torn from someone that morning and how bloody it was around the wrist. He tells her about how Izzy, with her beautiful instinct, decided they should place it in the cradle of the tree just beside them for its owner to find and how when they came back through a year later the bones had been picked spotless. He tells her about how Izzy had thought about turning it into jewellery because she had this amazing creative talent for strange, compelling fashion but how they decided they had better leave it in case some animal should track them through the wood. He tells her about how when they found it again one year later Izzy had talked about using it for fertiliser for her garden but decided it was best to just bury it with respect.
As Stef’s face drops away from his story Jim’s language brightens and his expressions fill with a life he had never shown her until now. He kneels to show her Izzy’s hair, her ear, her wrists and her nails.
This is where they are going.