Claws

[fiction]

Crusted half moons smeared down my thigh, bled through my tights in long, whispery scratches. Thigh skin bulged through tears in the fabric. When I ripped the tights off, blood pulled with them and the wounds were scab-less, fresh again. I wrestled on old jeans, jerked up one side, then the other, inched them up with one claw of a hand. Then I paced from my living room to my bedroom, tried to calm myself. The ghost wrenched. I slowed my steps, slowed my breathing, hoped he’d calm.

Fingernail clippers sparkled from my dresser. I palmed them casually, careful not to tip him off. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and breathed. The invisible arm floated, like a feather, to land on the living one, open across my knees, as relaxed as I could make it. The ghost of my left arm slithered against my palm. I closed my fingers, gently, around the invisible wrist. He bucked, jolted, squirmed. “Hey there. Settle down.” I whispered as if lulling a baby. “It’s okay.”

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

His fingers tapered softly, then splintered into rough edges. I wrapped my hand around one ghost finger, held it with middle, ring, and pinky. My hand twisted to work the clippers with just index finger and thumb. My palm clamped against the ghost.

It was like watching a spider—half-squished and legs still squirming—how my fingers were squirming, squirming. It was like the scars that crackled on my shoulder—

—Calm! A deep breath. I could let my heart race, but not for long. This was my life. I had to handle it.

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

The clippers rattled to the floor. When I scooped them up, the hand escaped. It swatted for my face—I ducked.

Again, I lulled him to my lap. I found the wrist, gripped tighter, used my scraped, stinging thigh as a piece of the clamp this time. And again the clippers slipped away, edged by a flick from the ghost. Again he thrashed from my shoulder, frantic.

“You have to let me do this!” It was like strangling an animal to keep my voice soft. There was fear in it, panic. It pulsed from the ghost. It wasn’t mine.

“How about a file, buddy?” I stroked the inside of his elbow. “Can we file down those claws?” I dug out an emery board. The ghost wriggled fiercely and, again, got loose.

We needed a break, so I sat. The emery board dropped to my lap. My right nails were jagged, too. I pressed a point into my palm, studied the pinprick indentation. Then I ran my hand over the file—the jeans gave it traction—ground the nails smooth to the ends of my fingers.

But what would make the ghost arm still?

While I was thinking, he was investigating. He must have been. There was a frizzle in that left thumb. He pressed too hard—emery board hopped—but with the next swipe, he figured it out. My right hand held the board to give him leverage and, one finger at time, the ghost filed. When he finished, he ran the nails along the soft inside of my right elbow. The edges were like silk.

I hadn’t mastered the ghost, just tricked him.

Before the accident, I never noticed how it took two hands to squash a spider. One to lean against the table, the other to strike. I never noticed that it took two hands to zip, two hands to button. It took two hands, somehow, to put on lipstick. This ghost, he could help me—if he felt like it—or he could make it harder.

I knew about phantom limbs, then. I could have handled that. I knew about the clenching, the aching, invisible muscles, and physical pain that wouldn’t stop. I knew about hands that jutted from shoulders and itches that couldn’t be scratched. The doctors, the therapists, the pamphlets all told me. But the ghost was something else. Drugs and shrinks and mirrored boxes—they couldn’t cure me.

It wasn’t natural, this thing that clawed into me. He should have clung to the dead arm. He should have shriveled like the muscle and bone and stringy nerves. He should have died with the snarl of raw meat that they cut from me.

 

Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Booth, Juked, Jellyfish ReviewPANK, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes. And she tweets—mostly about toddlers, writing, and resistance—as @AllisonWyss.