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Winter '24

ZEKE JARVIS

 

Even in his short time, the good man had done much for the town. He had settled some longstanding disputes, he had helped to provide them with good, sustainable approaches to feeding the hungry, and he had given them a sense of pride in their community. The people had grown to love him, but they understood he had to move on. There were other towns to help. So, the townspeople cheered him, hugged him, and wished him well. The good man hugged them back, thanked them, and ended with a final gesture. The gesture was to pull out from his bag a machete. He held out one arm and raised it with the other. Then, he brought the machete down fast and hard. His hand fell from his arm and into the dirt. The people screamed. The good man smiled. He pointed to the hand with the weapon. “To remember me by.”  

The good man cleaned the machete, put it back in his duffel, and walked on, blood dripping from his stump. Children cried. The adults covered their eyes. One of them threw up. Nobody would touch the hand. It seemed cursed, an object of terror. Even the animals wouldn’t eat it. It just sat there, the blood eventually slowing to a trickle.

At some point the townspeople had to go back to their lives. They needed to keep up the sustainable approach to feeding people, to care for their children, to go on with the business of living. They didn’t really speak of the hand. When they had to go by it in the town square, they’d avert their eyes and hurry past. The hand rotted, but not in a typical way—rather than withering away, it turned various shades of grey and dark purple. It gnarled and became misshapen, drawing in in some places and swelling in others. It gradually drained the cheer from the town.

This cheerlessness took a variety of forms. The obvious one was people avoiding eye contact, particularly as they passed each other in the town square. But it was more pervasive than that. The townspeople could taste it in their food. It was like the despair from the gnarled hand had seeped into the ground and water, tainting anything they might try to harvest. Bread always smelled of mold. Carrots and potatoes felt like melting gelatin in their mouths. There even seemed to be a kind of haze.

All of this had a cumulative effect. The people lost the kindness and empathy that they had developed while the good man was there. The hand began to overpower his impact on the town. People wouldn’t help each other as they would when he was there—hording food rather than sharing it with those who needed it most. They told children that they were too busy to play. They began to whisper rumors. 

Perhaps there was a way out of it all, but the townspeople didn’t find it. Instead, they let their alienation fester. Snide comments in the square, fighting over food, an unwillingness to help those in need. Eventually, the massacre escalated.

 

One day, two families encountered each other in one of the fields, both looking for game. Both had spoken ill of the other and saw the other as a threat. Both saw themselves as aggrieved. It didn’t take long for shovels to be turned from tools to tools of violence. The fathers swung, largely missing until one thought to feint towards his opponent’s head, then swing back to hit his knee. His enemy dropped to the ground, and the father was able to get in a terrible blow.

The father’s wife yelled in approval and threw her hands in the air. When she did, the mother of the other family struck her from behind with a hoe. The battle went on. By the end, most of both family members were dead, their blood draining into the field. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Families fought regularly. Some even set the others’ houses on fire, trying to destroy their rivals before they could destroy them.

During all of this, the hand continued to sit in the town square, untouched by everything. Beatings, arson, murder. All of it happened, and the hand just sat. None of the townspeople could believe that this is what the good man would have wanted, but with the morbid, unsettling presence of the hand, all they could do was to continue on their paths. All they could do was to tear their community apart.

 

If they hadn’t been, they may have wondered if they would have been better off if the good man had never visited them at all. If, by making everyone remember his suffering, the seemingly good man had steered them towards inevitable doom. 

Zeke Jarvis (he/him/his) is a Professor of English at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Moon City Review, Posit, and KNOCK, among other places. His books include, So Anyway..., In A Family Way, The Three of Them, and Antisocial Normszekedotjarvis.wordpress.com.

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