I'm posting all of my short stories on my blog for a limited time. When I have finished the ones I have planned, I will be releasing them in 3 different collections, something like "The Good", "The Bad, and "The Others". "The Good" will include stories such as The Mountain and The Silver Sea, both included in this blog, stories that explore the meaning of life. "The Others" will include stories such as Eternity Inc. and The Love of Knowledge, stories that are neither dark nor light. This story is one that will be in "The Bad". It's sort of sick, and I would feel bad for writing it except for the fact that people are way more receptive to this story than anything I have written for "The Good". It was hard for me to write, even more difficult to proof. Why I wrote it I am not quite sure, but the idea occurred to me and I went with it.
“Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us…The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde
Have you ever been driving over a bridge and wondered what would happen if you were to turn the wheel sharply? A single thoughtless action which would take only a fraction of a moment can change a life forever. I do not think I am so unique in having had this experience. I have always had a fear of heights and it is because I distrust what I will do when I am standing on a ledge looking down. A single misplaced footstep could send me over the edge.
I have never plunged my car over the side of a bridge, but I am certain that there is a part of my psyche that would be quite willing to do it. Fortunately, there is that part of my mind that overrides such hasty notions. Am I too far away from any of your personal experiences for you to relate? Consider then being ten years old and standing atop the high dive for the first time. Your courage has made you climb up the ladder and you know there is no turning back. That voice inside begins the count of three, at the end of which you will take the plunge. During the counts of one and two, there is but one voice, the voice of courage and triumph. This voice is still strong as it shouts “three”, yet there you stand quivering, unable to make the movement necessary. Perhaps you made a partial start, only to end up lying on the diving board, holding on desperately to its sides.
For all the power that the cautious side of our mind has to override whimsy and even will, it too has its lapses. Countless comedies and tragedies have been based around what can result from a single rah word or action. Though I could blame it on many things, it was merely a sudden unchecked impulse which was my undoing. I would like to blame it on my girlfriend’s parents for the present they bought me for Christmas, for, without the saw, the thought never would have occurred to me. I could also blame it on the media that found it necessary to air repeatedly one of those “dangers of the wild” programs. While both played a part, it was a sudden and intense compulsion that changed my life forever. And although the event I am about to relate to you took a full twenty-seven minutes, I swear to you it all hinged upon a momentary lack of good judgment.
I was enjoying a few hours of solitude in my apartment after a couple days of constant visits to various friends and relatives over the Christmas weekend. I sat on my couch, my attention divided between the newspaper on my lap and the television across from me. My living room was cluttered by the gifts I had recently received as well as wrapping paper I had not yet put away. On my recliner sat the gifts my girlfriend’s parents had given me. Being that I came from a small town up north and that I once took their daughter camping, they somehow assumed that I must be some great outdoorsman. The gifts they bought me—a lantern, a little hatchet, and a camping saw—reflected their perception of me. To be honest, their presumptions about my proclivity for being in nature were not that far off, but it was not the image I had hoped to convey.
Seeing my camping equipment reminded me of the real-life story that I had recently heard, something which had troubled me ever since. A hiker far from civilization somehow got his leg trapped under a rock and could not free himself. After being trapped for a considerable amount of time, it began to dawn on him that he might die of cold or dehydration before anyone would come to his aid. Facing this possibility, he decided his best option was to free himself in the only way possible to him. Having only a pocket knife at hand, he cut off his foot in order to get out from under the rock.
This story disturbed me more each time I thought of it. A pocket knife! What a tremendous amount of will and discipline must be necessary in order to overcome the pain and doubt. What if he had been two-thirds of the way through and all of the sudden heard his rescuers arriving? As for myself, I could never even leave the house without a pack of cigarettes and some spending money. I just could not fathom leaving a part of my body behind.
The idea of hacking through flesh and bone with a tool so unmade for the task seemed equally unfathomable. It must have seemed at times that the only thing being accomplished was the reaching of new thresholds of pain. I looked at the saw lying on the chair and cringed at the thought of desecrating my flesh with it. What must it feel like? When would the pain become more than my weak mind could bear?
Looking at the saw, I noted that this at least would be more like an instrument a surgeon would use for such a job. Its sharp, jagged teeth were designed for sawing through tree limbs and would be adequate for ripping through bone. I am sure many Civil War soldiers had a good deal less worthy a tool separate their gangrenous limbs from their bodies. I picked up the saw to inspect it more closely, rubbing my thumb against its rough cutting edge. I next placed it across my leg at about the spot where my sock would ordinarily reach if it were fully pulled up. I pulled the saw blade across my leg through its full cutting motion. It produced a tickling sensation along the line where it had passed: something a little more than an itch, but far short of any real pain. It occurred to me at that moment what an act of will it would be even to draw blood, let alone sever a leg. I tested my will, determined not to give up until some blood appeared in order to prove my strength of character.
The next few strokes, however, resulted in little more than the initial itchy feeling. Some part of my mind withheld my arm from putting any force into its actions. I looked at the spot where I drew the blade across my leg and saw that there was only a small white streak of dead epidermis. I gritted my teeth and took a few more passes at it and at length I glimpsed the first sign of blood. Although it hurt, the pain felt somehow different than I had expected, making it somewhat more tolerable.
I watched as my hand continued to saw, awaiting the point where the pain gave my mind the signal to stop. I awaited the automatic response the body has when a hand is placed on a hot stove, but none was forthcoming. Although the pain was becoming quite intense, it seemed to have no effect either on my hand or my mind. My mind watched as though detached as my arm continued its back and forth motion. The blood was beginning to flow freely now, and I put the newspaper on the floor with my left hand to prevent it from staining the carpet.
It was when I finally reached bone and started to rip into it that the pain became almost unbearable. The slickness of the blood made it difficult for the saw’s teeth to catch hold of bone. It slid smoothly over the bone, the pressure alone causing me to let out my one scream of pain. I changed the angle of the saw, working closer to the front of my shin where there was less flesh to get in my way. The saw’s teeth began to catch, making a sound that I will never forget and cannot attempt to explain to you. Imagine the screeching of nails on a chalkboard and amplify it a dozen times. It is at this point that my mind went blank, lost in a haze of screaming pain. The next time my mind made anything of the messages my eyes were sending it, I could see that I was fully half-way through the bone. The paper on the floor was pooled in blood, spilling over in several places. The loss of so much blood left me weak. My arm was nearly numb with pain from the effort. But I felt that my only escape from my predicament was to finish what I had started. Only when I had finished would this spell I was under be broken. I removed my sock and applied it above the cut as a tourniquet. To do this, I was forced to let go of the saw, which hung loosely in the cut. When my makeshift tourniquet was finished, I looked in horror at the results of my work. But I could not quit now. My only thought was of finishing the act, and so end my torture. I resumed the work with a single-mindedness. I was over half-way through, now; the end was in sight.
My arm was becoming sore beyond endurance, but the tourniquet brought a certain numbness to my leg. I felt I could no longer continue, yet there was only one way out of my ordeal. Had I felt this way at the start, I would surely have quit. But I was nearing the end now. I considered breaking what was left of the bone, but the thought of shattered bits and pieces dissuaded me. With as much of a mess as I had made, it was still a clean cut. It seemed that there was still a part of my mind that was working normally, the part that demanded order.
As the sawing approached the last section of bone, I was forced to change the position of my leg. I knew that it would soon reach the point where the existing bone would not be able to support the weight at the end of my leg. I put my bloodied foot on the edge of the coffee table as gently as I could. Although I braced for the pain I knew this would cause, the act of doing it sent me into a moment of semi-consciousness where all my body felt the agony.
This new position forced me to use the saw at a more awkward angle. Ordinarily, this would have caused me great discomfort, but my aching shoulder welcomed any change of position from the one it had maintained for the last twenty minutes.
When the bone had finally been cut through, my foot slumped outwards at an unusual angle. Afraid that the foot would slip off the table, dangle uselessly from the rest of my leg, I was forced to make yet another adjustment. Even in my madness, there were some situations that I would not have been able to deal with. Had my foot slipped from the table and I was forced to pick the dangling thing back up, I would not have been able to endure it. I would have lost consciousness in the attempt. Carefully, I moved my leg outwards while lifting the limp foot with my hands. Although still connected to me, my foot no longer seemed a part of my body. I had apparently already cut through all the nerves. My knee was now sitting at the edge of the coffee table, my foot lying atop my still-whole leg.
Approaching the end of this ordeal, I worked with a frenzy, slowing down only to be sure that the deed was done properly. The pain in my shoulder from my hard work no longer bothered me, so intent was I at my task. When the final sinew was separated, my severed foot teetered for a short time on the thigh it had been resting on until it finally fell heavily to the floor, sole first. Finally freed from my compulsion, I tightened my tourniquet to the best of my ability, then arose from the couch in search of help. I hopped cautiously to the front door, seizing any opportunity I could to find something to lean on. I did not care about the trail of blood I made on the carpet, my only thought was to get some aid before I lost consciousness. The distance from my front door to my neighbor’s was about three feet. I covered the distance with a lunge. He arrived shortly after hearing the heavy thud at his door. The usually friendly smile that was on his face quickly turned to confusion and then to horror. This change of attitude on his part came simply from looking into my eyes. When his gaze slid down to where I held my footless leg awkwardly, he recoiled in shock.
I don’t recall anything more than that; knowing that there was someone to help allowed my tired mind to finally release its hold on the situation. I did not awake until nearly two days afterward. The first person I saw as I awoke was a nurse who seemed quite uncomfortable to be in my presence. None of my family were present, nor was my girlfriend. Apparently, the story of what had happened had been pieced together by those who rescued me, as well as the police. My neighbor had been alert enough to search for my foot in my apartment. The cut being a clean one, they were able to reattach it. They really have done a remarkable job—it works almost as well as it ever did. But though the physical damage has been incredibly minor, the stigma which I bear has changed my life forever. People cannot understand that I could be capable of such a thing. They do not want to believe that I—and by extension, perhaps themselves—can have such a lapse in sanity. As for myself, I am certain that I have exorcised this impulse, confident that it shall never return. But how can I convey that to others? My wound has healed, but the scar is forever a reminder of a mind that momentarily wavered.