When my fingers came off, I didn’t so much feel pain as the sensation of something touching my hand, which then became much lighter. I didn’t know they were gone at first; I threw my arm behind my back before I raised it. When I did, I found my hand abbreviated and darkened.
The chipper rattled and roared as its maw chewed and swallowed oak and my departed digits. Those won’t go back on, I thought.
The deep red that enrobed the ragged remains of my callused hand had a yellow cast. So did the green chipper. So did the oaks, the poplar and the ash—the moss on the ground and the rocks peeking up from the dirt. The tint of my safety glasses made the hillside a yellow, sunny place, even at a moment so dark.
I don’t know how it smells when most people lose fingers, but when I did, it smelled like hot, cut wood—burning without smoke. It was a smell I always enjoyed. I enjoy it less now.
The din and my earplugs drowned out the sound of my brother hitting the ground. I imagine a thud or a thump, but who knows; it could have been a whack. You don’t find out who is most susceptible to shock until something transpires worthy of it.
I thought of the emergency shut-off, but it was moot. Letting the gasoline burn was as good as any other way. I also thought of trying to rouse the crumpled lump of caramel Carhartt that was Dustin, but he was of no use to me. We had worked the hillside together, but now I was on my own. And the pain was on its way. I knew this. And I had to stem the bleeding. I knew this too. It ran down my right arm and collected at the elbow of my flannel shirt sleeve, making it droop. I knew to keep the damaged hand high, keep my arm bent, but the blood surged up and out anyway, like the water in the fountain at the courthouse square in town.
I scanned the hillside for something I could use, then knelt beside my brother and took the red and black paisley bandana from his damp brow. When I stood, my head emptied, and I nearly went down. I straightened my faltering knees and remained upright. I knew, if I fainted, I most likely would go altogether. I can’t say whether I did it to try to raise him, or out of meanness, or both, but I kicked Dustin in the shoulder hard as I could, a kick that would leave evidence of the toe of my boot for weeks. His body shuddered, then was static.
I knew what I needed was a tourniquet, but I also knew I couldn’t tie it with one hand, especially my left. It was the first of the many times I’ve rued sticking the too-short push stick down the feed chute with my right arm.
Before my hand went into the cutting knives, I was singing John Prine in a voice I could scarcely hear, wishing for an extra season to figure out the other four. The chipper caught and ate the stick and shredded the end of my hand in a single instant. I can’t remember if I cried out, but my singing stopped.
The grisly yellow world was about to grow a shade worse. Since I couldn’t tourniquet the arm, I would have to squeeze the wound. The throb was beginning to set in, and behind it was a whole chaos of pain. The squeeze, I knew, would hasten the chaos’ arrival. There was nothing for it. I started toward the house before I did it, thinking the act of walking would distract me.
I drew a deep breath and tucked my chin before I grasped the pulsating wound. When I touched it, the devil unleashed his hell on the ragged place where once there were fingers. The poisonous pain ran all through my body and buckled me again. White light flashed inside the yellow lenses. My legs did their job. They held, then carried me off the yellow hill, down the end of the yellow holler, and out its mouth to the yellow path toward the old house.
I’ve never been so glad to see my mama in all my life as when I spotted her on the back porch. She had her straw hat on and held her green watering can. She was giving a drink to the middle one of the five hanging baskets bursting with hot pink impatiens. The porch, the hat, the baskets, the flowers spilling out, my mama—they were all a little on the yellow side.
She didn’t see me at first, consumed as she was by her flowers. I got within fifty yards before I called, “Mama! I made a mistake!”
She turned to me with the handle of the plastic can in one hand and her other under it. Her expression was placid, uncomprehending. I raised my mangled hand with the other pressed to it, my lonely right thumb poking up as if it were giving its approval. Her jaundiced face became a plate of noodles, all lines and squiggles. The can hit the concrete at her feet, and the water first jumped, then poured out. Her mouth moved and there were words, but with my plugs in I hadn’t any notion what they might be. I drew ever closer, but for some reason she made no move toward me. Her mouth moved again, and the sound was louder, but still I didn’t get it.
Once I was up on her I was shaking like a scared rabbit, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I said, “I need an ambulance, Mama. I need an ambulance bad.”
The first movement she made since dropping the can was to pluck the ear plug from my right ear. The air and the noises it carried rushed in. She put her terrified face inches from it and said, “Where’s Dustin?”
I drew my head back and gnashed my teeth. “Sleepin’. Now you gonna call me an ambulance or not?” I stuck my ruined hand in the saturated little rag under her nose. “I can’t dial!”
She shook her head, like she was coming up out of a dream, took my upper arms and helped me to my backside on the concrete porch and leaned me against one of the gray six by six posts that supported the roof. While she did she said, “I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go,” all breathy and fast. I’ve got to give her credit I can’t give Dustin: at least she didn’t pass out.
I sat looking at the yellow rock face where Granpaw’s crew blasted the hillside to make a flat place for Mama and Daddy’s house. It was some years after that they got in the mood to make me. I looked at the yellowed saplings growing in the cracks and wondered—like I always did—what they were thinking sprouting there. There was no future in it.
Then I was tired of it. Tired of the yellow world. Tired of sitting in the expanding shadow of my leaking fluid. I was as happy not being in the world at all as to be in that awful yellow one where I had only half a right hand and a thousand rations of pain. I closed my eyes and the yellow world was gone. Wasn’t long before I was too.
* * *
I didn’t see the world again for another day, but when I did it wasn’t yellow anymore. It was mostly beige and boring, like a hospital should be. For that, I was glad.
Dustin felt awful, like it was his fault. I told him it wasn’t—and that was true—though it would have been nice if he’d stayed upright and helped.
They brought a doctor to my room who wanted to cut off my toe and make me a new index finger, said it would “increase the function” of my hand. I got the feeling he was excited to try it out. I just let him talk. I knew right away I didn’t want a toe cobbled on my hand. It was hard enough to see the way people reacted to it. I sure didn’t want to make it look like some kind of patchwork science project.
I left the hospital with my little hand sewed up and an orange bottle of white pills, pills a man could make a nice profit on if he was the sort. I took a few, but the rest went down the commode.
There are times when my buddies gig me, the way buddies can, about my masturbation practices and how I can only count to six. I always laugh along. Dustin never does. He never even smiles. He just sits like there’s a tack on his chair until the jokes pass.
I soon found out, some girls can’t deal with the fact I’m maimed. Others can get used to it. My daddy says it’s an advantage. “Sorts the good from the bad real quick. The bad ones aren’t worth foolin’ with.” That may be so, but I might have liked to spend a little time fooling with some of the bad ones anyway.
Sometimes I get down. My daddy always tells me the same thing, “It does no good to dwell on the past.” My mama’s the worst for that, and he can’t abide it.
I try hard, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss my fingers. There are times when I stare at the meandering scar where they once lived, at the places where the knit skin sits up like a rouged mole trail. Thinking about the loss knots my stomach, but those knots get incrementally smaller each day.
The morning I made Dustin go back up the holler with me, he did so under protest. I prodded him. “You afraid you’re gonna have another fainting spell?”
I stood at the foothill’s crease while Dustin fired up the chipper. It roared awake, then trembled in hunger. “Hush,” I said, working my earplugs in with my left hand. “You already bit me once. You won’t get me again.”
The foliage on the brush and limbs we cleared had died and turned crispy brown while I convalesced. The leaves on the trees had begun their change, but weren’t too far along just yet.
Dustin put his clear safety glasses on and looked it over. “So, how you wanna work this?” he said, over the chipper’s fury.
I contemplated a moment before I reached in my front pocket for my yellow-lensed safety glasses. I took a step nearer the eager chipper. I looked down the chute at the cutting knives. Their motion was so fast that they were nothing more than a silver blur. With my left hand, I tossed the glasses inside. The rattle was brief, and they were gone.
I shrugged. “I better haul and let you load. I don’t got any glasses.”
Dustin nodded. He moved to the chipper’s mouth while I made my way to one of the brush piles. We set about finishing our work.
Wesley Browne owns a small pizza shop, practices law, and lives with his wife and two sons in Richmond, Kentucky. His prose has appeared in Appalachian Journal and Chaffin Journal. The Yellow World was previously published in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Ron Rash Volume IV. He is a member of the Hell of Our Own Writers Group and has twice attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky