By the way, if you’re wondering why I hadn’t brought up the possibility of a Prosthetic arm yet, well, you must remember that this was back when these devices were neither as commonly manufactured nor as relatively affordable as they are now. And Insurance certainly didn’t cover them. So, yes, it wasn’t as effortless a process as it is now and hence, not always as easy or obvious a suggestion to put forth. I had decided to let him get more used to his condition and then bring it up, so he’d be better equipped to decide. As it happened though, by the time I did bring it up, the financial aspect was no longer an issue.
Anyway, he was released into his own care the following day, and I presume, went home. The next few weeks were rather unremarkable as far as his medical case went. I did hear, however, that upon his release advocates and officials from the Public Transport Authority had visited him at home and bestowed quite a large sum upon him as compensation for the incident. To me this seemed rather fortuitous, since all along Horatio had seemed to blame no one other than himself for the actions leading to the loss of his arm. But it had been talked about a lot in the local media and especially since he was a war veteran, perhaps the Transport Authority acted more out of goodwill than a sense of guilt. Be that as it may, it left Horatio quite comfortably off.
Meanwhile, he remained regular in his physical therapy sessions and was apparently showing commendable improvement in both managing his disability and learning to use his left as the primary and only hand.
He also visited me regularly during this period, for routine check-ups on his condition – in which I found no cause for worry. Incidentally, it was during these visits that I managed to elicit from him some of the details of his past – in the Army and outside it – that I gave you the gist of earlier (although he ignored most of my questions regarding their final, infamous foray – claiming it was all a blur in his head). We even spent some time on his current prospects. And while he remained for the most part his usual taciturn and sparingly-responsive self, he did confide in me that since he was getting better at using his left arm he was contemplating employing his newly received windfall to re-start the butcher shop, perhaps even expand it.
He knew he could afford more full-time employees and better machinery now, although he still wanted to be at the helm of affairs, chopping the occasional side of meat himself. When I asked tactfully whether his disability might get in the way of him doing that, he appeared bemused for a moment and then, with an uncharacteristic smile, replied, ‘’I have a feeling it won’t be as difficult – or as different from before – as you seem to think,’’ before clamming up on the subject. Not entirely sure of what he meant by that, I just presumed it was another reference to his growing ease in using his single arm.
I was about to reply, possibly approving of his thought, when I noticed his left hand had crept into the void inside his dangling right sleeve and was making furiously scratching motions there. It seemed like an instinctive gesture, one he didn’t even consciously register. It was only when I asked him if the ghost itch was still a problem that he realized what he was doing, stopped, and replied, a bit defensively it seemed to me.
‘’Yes, it does itch sometimes, and tingles, and…but it’s nothing really, I don’t think. All part of the healing process like you say, I’m sure.’’
He spoke dismissively, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter any further. As he spoke, he kept his left palm firmly on some parts of his vacant right sleeve that lay flat on my table – patting it every few seconds, almost like he was petting it into compliance.
I shrugged, making a mental note to tell his Physical Therapist to pay greater attention to his nerve-ends; soothe them further. I also wondered if another session with the mental health professional was in order. As it was, I figured that this seemed like a good time to broach the possibility of a prosthetic arm; hopeful that even beyond the partially restored mobility it would allow him, its sheer physical presence might overcome this other – phantom sensation – issue as well.
He heard me out, considered the suggestion (although not jumping at it as I’d hoped he would) and said he’d like a little more time to think about it. I agreed and bade him well until our next scheduled meeting. As he prepared to leave, his left hand moved to retrieve his hat from my table. I couldn’t help stealing a glance at his right sleeve, lying flaccid and inert on the table.
As I looked, it slithered forward.
To-date I can’t tell if it was the wind from the ceiling fan making it move that way, but move it did. And to me, it seemed, with intent. It only lasted for a few seconds though and by the time I glanced back up, Horatio was on his feet and muttering his goodbyes. I nodded weakly, still a tad discomposed, and he left, clutching his vacant sleeve firmly again as he did.
By the time I met him next, things had gotten, quite bizarre.
Over the next few weeks, no one at the hospital saw or heard from him, not me nor the physical or mental therapist (I had organized an appointment with the latter after our last meeting); he missed all his scheduled visits. Phone calls to his place of residence also went unanswered. Despite his talks of re-opening his Butcher Shop, its shutters still lay downed (I was informed by one of the nurses who lived in the vicinity). After about three weeks of absence, I even asked the same nurse to check in on him at his house, but apparently the door-bell too went unanswered, although there were clear sounds of someone moving about inside. After trying to call him myself several times, even having a note slipped under his door requesting a response, at work or home – both in vain – I had nearly decided to go check on him in person, when he finally called me at home, late one night.
His speech was slurred and not very lucid, as if he’d been drinking heavily. He ignored all my questions about his abrupt disappearance and the state of his health – grunting occasionally as I spoke – and proceeded to launch into a long, barely coherent ramble of his own, bulldozing over all my interjections. A frightened ramble, I might add. Of course, I don’t remember it exactly – and I couldn’t understand some of his mumbling – but I’ll try and recount the conversation verbatim as far as I can:
‘’Get rid of it for me, Doc, cut if off me again somehow if you have to, but get rid of it,’’ He implored; the first coherent sentence he managed. ‘’I could feel it coming back, growing back, even when I was back in your hospital. The itching, the heaviness, feeling hot or cold; that was just the beginning, but then it started re-forming, a little bit every day. I didn’t want to tell you because I knew it would just mean more psych sessions, and I hate those. Besides, there was no way I could get you guys to believe me; it was just a feeling, a knowing, not something anyone could see, or touch. So I shut up and just felt it grow back slowly.
And then, a few days after I was discharged, it was back all the way…right down to the hand and fingers. Look, Doc, I don’t know how or why this happened, but the truth is I didn’t care. After Saigon, I almost felt like I didn’t deserve anything good…to catch a break of any kind, but when this happened, I didn’t look to find answers. Because at first, it seemed like a good thing; not the kind of thing I could understand or explain, but still, a good thing. I mean, getting your lost arm back, even like this had to be a good thing, right?’’
He paused for a second, as if to catch a breath – or throw back a drink – and then carried on without waiting for my reply.
‘’After all, at first, it felt like it was helping me, like any good arm would. Like one time I slipped on the bathroom floor, was going to fall flat and heavy on my right side when I just stopped, about a foot away from the ground, like something was holding me up. Except there was nothing, nothing I could see anyway, it was like part of me was floating above the ground. But I could feel the weight of my whole upper-body on my arm that wasn’t there. It kept me there just for a few seconds – long enough for me to get down on my ass – but it broke my fall, all right. And one time, when I was fixing a drink, I managed to knock the glass off the table…but then it was right back on it. I actually saw it fall, you understand? It started tumbling and my left hand, my real hand shot after it but too late, it had already rolled off the edge. And then, I felt movement on my right for just a second, and just like that, it was back, sitting upright on the table again, it never even reached the ground. And there’s more stuff like that; like keeping swivel doors open just long enough for them not whack me while I’m halfway through, and holding a slice of bread in place when I’m buttering it with my other hand, or scratching itches in places my other hand can’t reach. A little naughty sometimes – like one time I passed close to an apple-cart, and suddenly, I find an apple in my right trouser pocket. It’s not always there, mind you. It comes and goes as it pleases, but, earlier, when it was around, it was helping me out even though I couldn’t control it, doing good things, mostly. But not any longer though, not since we last met. Since then every time it comes back, it acts…weird, destructive, like it’s angry or something, like it wants to hurt me, or other people. That’s why I’ve been holed up at home since then, to try and…limit it, somehow.’’
Here I finally managed to interject a word edgeways into his fantastical – also, seemingly nonsensical – narrative:
‘’But, Mr. Goodbody, Horatio, I understand that all this must seem very real to you, but I assure you, it is not. Your amputated arm is not back, nor is its invisible ghost, or whatever you think it is. Perhaps this is your brain’s way of dealing with the trauma of losing the arm. Or your nerves playing tricks with your perceptions. It’s either an aberrant neurological response or some sort of a psychological delusion or something else we can find out and fix. But, what it isn’t, Mr. Goodbody, is your right arm back–‘’
He cut me off. ‘’Yes, it is, Doc. It is really back. You can’t see it – hell, I can’t even see it – but it is back, all right. Except, now I’m not even sure it’s really my arm that’s back. It just doesn’t feel the same any longer. Sometimes it feels longer, sometimes shorter, slimmer, or bent at weird angles, or just foreign, somehow. Every time it goes away now, it comes back feeling different, and stronger. It keeps knocking things off tables, dragging furniture along when I walk and trying to mess with whatever my real hand is doing. Just a day after we last met, I was trying to shave and it jigged my left hand hard enough for the razor to cut my chin. Then a few days later, I was cleaning out my shelf of butcher-knives, and suddenly, one flies off the shelf and buries itself in the floor right next to my toe! If I hadn’t jerked my foot away in time, it would have gone right through it; shoe and all – it had to be it, there’s no other explanation. And then today morning, I woke up feeling a hand inside my shorts, umm, fondling me down there, y’know, like trying to get me off. I thought maybe it was my own real hand until I realized that was lying on my belly. I nearly fell out of bed, Doc. It just felt so obscene. And it wasn’t like your own hand jerking you off, it felt like a stranger’s, a strange man’s.’’
The last bit was expostulated in utter disgust, even revulsion. But as he continued, his tone became hushed, tinged with fear. ‘’Sometimes it feels like it’s one of those arms that got cut off that day back in the war, Doc. Maybe Bernie’s or Art’s, or maybe even one of the Gooks’ fighting us. When we ran out of bullets we just started hacking away with our machetes – arms, legs, heads. There was a lot of cutting and a lot of killing that day, Doc, and I can’t remember who was cutting who towards the end, can’t even remember how many I killed and who; if it was just them. I think I cut some of our own guys, Doc. It was all so grey out there that day, in my head…so messed up. I can’t remember anything right. Neither could the other two who made it back alive. I don’t know…’’ his voice trailed off for a bit. When he resumed, he seemed to have gotten a hold of himself because he sounded surer of what he said next. ’’But I do know this thing, this arm-thing, is wrong, Doc. I know it now. It doesn’t belong. And I need you to help me get rid of it. Please.’’
I don’t remember exactly what I said in response but I do remember putting on my best bedside manner and trying to calm him down. I convinced him to come in the next day so the Prosthetist – Jim, his name was – could take impressions, exact measurements and other details that he needed to proceed. I assured him that the prosthesis would help him immensely, that a genuine, tangible substitute for his arm would help erase this perception of an imaginary one, that it would replace not only his amputated arm itself but also this illusion of one that his mind had undoubtedly created. Of course, I also very urgently wanted to get him away from the alcohol and back in a psychotherapist’s chair – it seemed obvious to me that his mind was still not over whatever horror he’d faced that fateful day in combat, or the effects of whatever substance he’d been exposed to, and that, in collusion with the trauma of losing an arm, was responsible for these delusions – but I don’t think I mentioned that. I just assured him of our help in every way, and I must have gotten through the fog of alcohol surrounding him, because he agreed to come meet me in the hospital the following day.
When he arrived at the hospital the next afternoon, he appeared to have sobered up fully and both looked and sounded a lot more composed. Although, he did whisper to me, ‘’It’s been gone since morning’’ as soon as he arrived in my chamber – thereby confirming to me that his outburst hadn’t all been drunk talk, at least not in his own head. Be that as it may, his non-existent arm seemed to be behaving itself and appearing perfectly, umm…non-existent. His shirt-sleeve dangled empty and innocuously from his right shoulder and when he took it off – for Jim to survey the area – all that was revealed was his upper-arm ending abruptly in a satisfactorily healed stump just below the shoulder.
Everything progressed routinely as Jim went about his prep work. Having done so, he declared that he would be able to produce and fit a ‘test socket’ within a week, and barring any complications, the finished prosthesis in another two. This made for good news both for me and for Horatio; apparently we shared the opinion that the artificial replacement might go a long way towards making his ‘ghost arm’ problem go away, although we both probably had different reasons for thinking so.
What happened next was after Jim had just left and it was only me and Horatio in the room. And it’s something that I’ve never been able to wipe out of my memory; it’s imprinted there like a livid, contemptuous stain on my rationality.
As Horatio rose to put his shirt back on, he stretched his shoulders languidly, taking his time, soaking in the afternoon sun. He was standing right in front of an open window and the daylight streaming in cast a shadow of his upper body perfectly on the opposite wall. I could clearly see reflected on the wall the generous width of his torso, the wide shoulders, his squat neck and shaggy head above it, the impressive contours of his left arm as its muscles stretched, and…in his shadow, I could see his right arm out-stretched too.
It looked quite different from the left one, in fact, appeared quite out of sync with the rest of his body too; it was equally hefty, but longer, disproportionate…and somehow, disjointed. Like a hasty sketch made by a middling artist with inaccurate medical knowledge, it just seemed to abruptly begin even before the shoulder ended.
I must have stood there with my mouth open, unable to tear my eyes away from the sight. The entire episode was probably over in seconds, but for me, time had come to an abrupt halt. I kept switching from the sight of the emptiness below his right shoulder in his actual body to the fully formed arm that took its place in his shadow avatar. They were both there before my eyes, and they were both real. I’ve spent so many years since trying to convince myself it was all just a trick of the light, but the irrevocable truth remains that what I saw that day – and what it did – was too real and elaborate for it to be either an optical illusion or a figment of my imagination.
As I watched fixated, the shadow-arm bent at its elbows, bringing its hand up to shoulder height, palm facing outwards. It outstretched its palm, fingers pointing upwards, and then bent the fingers slightly, waving the hand slowly. The impression it was trying to create wasn’t a very good one as far as shadow-art goes, but it was clear enough- it was mimicking a serpent; hood raised, swaying, poised to strike.
Horatio meanwhile, unaware of the aberration in his shadow, had commenced wearing his Shrinker, followed by his shirt. But as he was doing that, the shadow-hand suddenly shot out. Next to Horatio’s right shoulder on the wall hung a beautifully framed photograph of me and your Aunt, from our honeymoon. It’d been there from the very first day I moved into those chambers. Moving with uncanny rapidity, the shadow-hand smashed into it; shattering the glass and toppling the frame to the floor, where it broke in two. And then that shadowy incarnation of something that didn’t exist disappeared. Just like that. And all that was left was Horatio and his real shadow, both now sporting a dangling sleeve to their right. And of course me, who stood rooted to the spot on unsteady legs and with a heart banging on its cage like it wanted to escape.
The sound of the photo-frame crashing alerted Horatio and he turned around to look at it, and then at me. What he saw in my stricken face – possibly a combination of dread, disbelief and perhaps even, revulsion – probably gave him a fair idea of what I had seen, and what was responsible for the destruction. Because immediately, a look of mingled helplessness, regret and fear masked his face and he muttered tight-lipped, ‘’It came back, didn’t it? I don’t think it’s very happy about being replaced, Doc. I should go back home now. And stay there for a while; I don’t want it causing anymore damage. I’ll be back next week for the fitting.’’ He clutched his shirt tightly around himself with his one living arm and strode out of my chambers, and the hospital.
I should have stopped him, I wish I had stopped him, but I couldn’t. My mind was still too caught up in trying to make sense of what I had just seen, or to reject it. My limbs weren’t ready to move yet either, or my mouth to close. I should have stopped him – I had fixed an appointment for him with the Psychotherapist next and intended to keep him at the hospital, under observation, for the whole week – but, God help me, I couldn’t. Right then, I couldn’t stand to be near him or that…thing. So I didn’t stop him; all I did was to force my shaky legs towards the wreckage on the floor and bent to clear the pieces of shattered glass and retrieve the thankfully unscathed photograph. Then I cancelled all my other appointments for the day, went home, popped some sedatives and slept. Perhaps If I had been a stronger man on that day, things might have ended differently.
Bryce stopped – a tad abruptly for Clive – and rose to replenish his drained glass. He poured himself a stiff one with hands that shook a little. As he sat back down he picked up Minx and placed him on his lap, idly stroking him with his free hand while he stared into his drink somewhat contemplatively.
‘’So, what happened next?’’ burst out Clive impatiently.
Bryce sighed deeply, took a generous sip and resumed. ‘’There isn’t much left to tell. His cleaning-lady found him at his house the next morning and alerted the police. He was sprawled in bed, in just his trousers. There were two open bottles of liquor on his bedside table; one completely empty and the other about a quarte
r so. There was also a blood-stained cleaver – from his own collection of butcher knives, as it turned out – on the floor next to his bed.
Also on the floor was his dismembered left arm.
It had been hacked off just below the shoulder with the cleaver – almost exactly at the same point where the right one had been amputated. It happened during the night and he died from blood loss much before he was found. None of the neighbors had heard him scream – and given the amount of alcohol in him, he was likely passed out right through the incident and bled out while still unconscious.
There were no clear signs of struggle in the apartment and the cleaver had no fingerprints on it, his or anybody else’s. Also they could only find his own and the cleaning-lady’s prints in the apartment. There were no signs of anyone else having been there any time recently, leave alone that night.
There was an open window however; he probably left it open because it was a warm night indoors. The only theory the Police had was that someone with a grudge against him – recent or from his Army days – had snuck in, found him insensate, picked a weapon from his unlocked shelf of butcher-knives, assaulted him and then bolted. Or that a thief had gotten in the same way, done the deed but then was startled by something and took off without burgling the house. They never did find anyone who fit either bill though. As far as I know, it has been gathering dust as one of their closed but unsolved case-files for a long time now.’’
Despite his fascination with the morbid, Clive was looking a trifle ashen. He asked in a low voice, ‘’You think it did it, don’t you? His ghost arm? It got the cleaver somehow without him realizing, probably while he was still semi-drunk, hid it in the bed or close to it, and then chopped off his arm when he passed out drinking. That’s what you think happened, isn’t it?’’
Bryce shrugged and replied, ‘’Whether or not it happened exactly like that, but, yes, I do believe it was that…undead arm of his that did it. Given everything that I knew and had seen – and I’ve never told anyone but you about those things – it certainly seems more reasonable, if you can possibly call it that, than the Police’s theories.’’
Clive pondered this silently for awhile before asking, ‘’ But even if it did, why?’’
Bryce offered him a humorless smile, before replying. ‘’Surely you’re not asking me to ascribe rational motives to a ghost arm? Maybe it did it because it didn’t want to be replaced by an artificial arm. Maybe it was angry at him for wanting to be rid of it. Or maybe it was just lonely and wanted some company, of its own kind, wanted to be free. We’ll never know. After all, real life seldom ties up its stories in neat little bows of closure.’’
Clive looked like he had more to ask, but wasn’t exactly sure what. Instead he took a long sip of his beer and stared at Thor, who now appeared to be gnawing on his missing foreleg.