People lose things in all sorts of ways. Carl and I were in the garden when I lost my arm. I was harvesting tomatoes from the plants we had grown and diligently watered, and he was pruning the stems from the basil. He asked for the shears that were beside me–the large gardening shears used for trimming the bushes and branches that surrounded the yard. He wanted to cut down a diseased plant so it would not infect the others beside it. I gave him the shears. In doing so, I handed them to him in the way you’re meant to hand something sharp to someone–handle first, the scissored blades tight in my palm. My glove was caked in dirt, and his hands were just a little slick with oils from the plants, or sweat, or water or maybe he just lost his grip for a moment or maybe I didn’t let go fast enough. The shears fell, blades open and Carl and I both reached for them mid-air. I figured I’d catch them first–Carl wasn’t much for hand-eye coordination; he wasn’t good at baseball or hammering a nail or that sort of thing. We were always short on wine glasses and plates from when Carl washed the dishes.
When I realized the shears were not yet in my hand, I thought maybe he’d done it–hand and eye aligning–and caught the falling object, and I said, “Nice one, hon.” But I looked down and saw that the shears weren’t in his hand. They had fallen open across my forearm, were just balancing there for a moment in the crook of my elbow. Then I quivered a little and the shears snapped shut and there was a feeling of extreme heat. The shears were falling to the ground and so was the bottom half of my arm, severed clean from its socket: a clean cut through skin, tissue and bone and all.
It didn’t make any sense that it could happen like that. It was impossible–that my arm could be sliced at the joint so easily. A butcher knife through a chicken wing. First, Carl swore and chided me; he hadn’t seen it yet. He figured I’d dropped the tomatoes. That was how it sounded. My piece of arm fell with the thud of fleshy fruit spilled from waist-height, dull and soft, the ring and clank of the shears like a metal bowl falling. It didn’t sound terrible, and I didn’t shriek. I said only, “Oh.” Carl said, “Damn.” He must have imagined that the tomatoes would all be bruised and unusable. My pain wasn’t as great as it should have been. The bowl of tomatoes was still cradled in my other arm. There was the sound of liquid hitting the ground. I was remembering the feeling of swimming in the just-thawed lake water in spring, something I had not done since I met him.
When Carl saw that it wasn’t what he thought, that it was much worse, that I was in dire circumstances and bleeding heavily, he gasped. And his gasp led to my gasp, because shock is contagious.
“Good God,” Carl said. “Jesus Christ, holy shit. Lord help us. What the fuck has happened?”
We weren’t religious, but he must’ve felt this was bigger than we could handle.
“What do I do?” he asked.
I shook my head. “How should I know?” I said.
Carl reached for the fallen arm with his hand. He wanted me to hold it up, to see if it would fit back in place.
“Leave it,” I said. “Don’t touch it. It’s mine.”
He suggested glue. He would go try to find glue, he decided. That would help.
“How?” I said. “How will that help?”
“Maybe it’ll clot the blood,” he said. “When it dries and hardens.”
I thought about that. It did seem like I was bleeding an awful lot. It would be better than nothing but it sounded messy. If it was a matter of clotting, I figured tape might hold up better. “Let’s try tape,” I said. Glue would take too long to dry, especially with all the blood. “You know, the heavy-duty stuff,” I said. “Duck tape.”
“Duct,” he said. “With a ‘t.’”
“There’s a duck on the label,” I said. “Isn’t there? Duck. Because it resists water, like the feathers on a duck.”
“Duct,” he said. “It’s really duct. I’m sure about this.”
I gave him a look. I said, “I don’t feel so great.” I didn’t.
Carl dropped the arm and ran to the tool shed across the yard, out of sight just behind the fence. For what felt like the first time, I looked at the limb beside me, my own body part, the way the exposed nerves at the top of the forearm twitched in confusion at the open air, near my elbow. It was lying in the grass by my feet, the arm. The arm. It sounded so odd. An arm. My arm, lying in the grass. The yellow gardening glove still covered the hand part, the dirt and the material of the glove, the nubby rubber and canvas, wet and reddened with blood.
There was a spider near the wrist, moving in circles. I figured it was looking for a way back to the grass. I wanted to save it, keep it close–an ally, something on my side. The skin under the spider was puffy and tinged with green and purple, like it had been left underwater too long, like it belonged to someone else or was not an arm at all.
Maybe it wasn’t Carl’s fault. Maybe this was about getting older. I turned thirty-four in the spring. It didn’t feel so different from thirty-three or even twenty-eight, but my brother, who was thirty-eight, was married with children and dogs and a fridge that was never empty. Maybe there was something else going on between us–some silent fury, hidden behind pleasantries and tiffs over who repeatedly did what errands or didn’t, who remembered the little important things or didn’t. Maybe it was bigger than either of us could name. We certainly didn’t talk about it. Did I ask the right questions? Were his answers too short? Whose name appeared first on the lease, on the bank statements? Didn’t we sleep with our backs facing? When I cried out for his body, was it exaggerated? Had I grown callous? Had I remembered to return those books to the library, the ones checked out with his card? Carl had said once he wanted us to be like we used to be. There was some truth there, perhaps: there were times when we probably made half-attempts to please and placate one another. It was easier that way. I didn’t think it was such a problem–didn’t everyone do that to some degree? But something had surely gone wrong, that a simple tug on the arm could break me like that. Had I had my coffee that morning? Had I forgotten to eat breakfast or to take my vitamins? Maybe I bled more than usual that month–hadn’t I? –or maybe it was a cold coming on. Had I become weak?
I pictured Carl in the shed, locating the tape, finding a blanket to soak up the blood. We would wrap the disconnected limb and bring it to the hospital, where someone, a doctor or nurse, would try to remake the connection. There, they would repair me. It seemed a matter of urgency. It could all work out. I could be just like new; stitches and bonding, and in some time the scars would barely be visible.
I was standing in the grass in the middle of our small yard, between the tomato plants and the shed, where I assumed Carl had gone. But I couldn’t hear him rustling around in there. Maybe he’d gone to the basement. I felt faint. I wanted him to appear, to bring orange juice or crackers. Low blood sugar; low blood. The world felt to be spinning. I wanted him to save me. I really needed some saving. Why wasn’t he back yet? What was he waiting for?
The arm still lay in the garden dirt, a few feet from where I stood. It was a new color, and the wound seeped liquid from the open end. The veins and tendons at the elbow-side appeared to be leaking out. Things that shouldn’t leak were leaking. The part of my arm that was still attached felt weightless and achy.
When Carl came back, he had no orange juice, no crackers, no tape. No warm blanket for the arm. No, he’d brought a clamp. A single metal clamp, meant to be used when building things, for pressing two boards together while the glue dried, making them one.
We will never be one, I realized. I said, “What is this? What the fuck were you thinking? What are we supposed to do now?”
Time was different. Slower, faster–I wasn’t sure. My arm was on the ground and the spider was still there. It crawled back and forth as if lost, unsure of how to get back to the earth. With my foot, I stepped forward and kicked the fallen arm away from me, sending it to the far end of the garden. It had a much better arc, a more satisfying trajectory than I’d imagined it would. It landed near the squash plants, or maybe those were the cucumbers, and the gloved fingers grazed the top of a basil plant. I thought I could smell the scent of the herb from across the lawn. At that distance, the spider was barely visible, but I could still see it moving a little–a dark, wiry speck on the skin of the arm.
“Why did you do that?” Carl asked. He motioned to where I had kicked the arm. “Really, hon,” he said and began to walk toward it.
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t touch it.”
Carl said he really thought the clamp would work. He said, “I’m desperate here, I’m trying. Tell me what to do. The clamp worked when I fixed that chair–you know, the one from my mother’s house, the one the cat liked to scratch up against? I used some glue and a clamp and it worked like a charm.”
“But where’s the glue?” I asked. “If that’s going to work we need the glue.”
“I forgot,” he said.
“How could you forget?”
“Well,” he said. “I didn’t forget exactly. What happened is, we’re out. I used it up fixing the chair. There was no time to go to the store. I figured maybe the clamp alone would work.”
“It won’t,” I said. “Of course it won’t. You know it won’t.”
“This isn’t good,” he said. “You’re in bad shape. We need more help. I can’t believe you kicked it like that. It’s still your arm. Do you even care? Let me go call someone. I’m going to get the neighbors. Someone will know what to do. Listen, what you should do now is not move. Do you hear me? Jeeze, you look pale. Here, take this,” he said. Carl handed me a rake in my good hand, my one hand, my only hand, and told me to steady myself with it.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “Hold tight.” He stood beside me, not moving. “I’m going to miss you,” he said. “I really wish I knew what to do.” He ran out of sight, down the driveway and toward the street.
I waited and waited. I felt fire everywhere. Was this it? The end? I remembered telling him, I am yours. I remembered our hands intertwined. Those fingers, my fingers, now dead and lying in the tomatoes, laced between his fingers, his hand about the same size as mine. His alive fingers, my dead ones. I pictured Carl’s hands, the two of them perfectly attached, and felt hatred. He could still open doors, type with two hands, push a stroller, lift a giant heavy box, open a mailbox with one hand and mail the letter with the other. Drive with hands at ten and two. Lift a child or do a push-up or ease into an armchair. Eat a sandwich and hold a soda or dig into the earth with a shovel.
I felt the fire at my open, seeping joint. I felt my teeth against my tongue. Maybe Carl had not run for help at all, but run away. How could he–when I was here like this, bleeding and broken? When he got back, if he got back, I would yank off both his arms, I would tear into his flesh and take whatever I needed. I would take everything. It would be satisfying. It would be necessary, now, for balance. In order for us to continue on. I would take what he had taken and more. I would be greedy. Surely he owed me that.
The rake dropped from my good hand. I remembered hazy things: Carl had held the shears; I had given them to him–the shears, the power, the keys, my name. What had I been thinking? Or maybe it was possible he hadn’t done it after all. Perhaps he had just been standing there. Perhaps he hadn’t pulled too hard. Perhaps I had given too much. And maybe he was racing and struggling to save me. Maybe he was still right there in front of me, trying to mop up my blood with his cupped hands, to pour it back inside of me to keep me alive, to retrieve my arm from its spot near the tomato plants and preserve it, so we would be able to fix me, fix us.
I found the spider in my palm.
“You again,” I said. “You know it’s pointless, right?” I pressed the spider into the gored flesh, crushing it into the space where my arm had been, just to feel something there, because when I looked down there was nothing.
“I have failed,” I said. “We have failed.”
In my mouth, I found the taste of salt. Birds called out to each other in the air. There was the sense of traveling, of distance and time, the smell of sand, a drip of falling water in a methodical, easy rhythm; sun cutting through cool air. Surely I was somewhere else, on a warm wooden dock, stretching up to the sky, ready to jump into fresh lake water, peaceful and whole. I leapt and felt the water consume my undamaged body, felt the tickle of air bubbles leaving my lips.
Alyssa Barrett’s writing has appeared in The New Guard Review, The Adirondack Review and Opium Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in Washington state, where she writes, farms and teaches.