Winner, Fiction Contest
A foot had been uncovered from a sandbar the night after the solstice. Nobody was sure how long it had suffered there in anonymity as it had been found in the lonely sandbar a half-mile from the shore where insomniacs went to count waves. The first witnesses initially mistook the foot for the residue of a lost civilization while others believed it was a prehistoric pigeon claw. It was not until a small cohort of curiosity-seekers approached the slanted dune that they realized it was human.
The following morning a group of fishermen arrived with the details: the foot was half-trenched in the shoal, severed just above the ankle, enormous, and its skin white as ivory beneath a charred outer residue. For weeks the townspeople watched from the shoreline as the tide ebbed and the shadow of the foot loomed in the distance like some divine harbinger. Then came rumors it looked similar in shape to the foot of the drowned man Issa, but others disagreed saying this was the foot of a coward, and so the rumor became it was not a man’s foot but that of a woman.
A few mornings later a skiff of fisherman who had grown weary from the complaints of their wives and wanted to end the mystery harpooned the foot and, after some initial struggle, dragged it from the sandbar through the shallow waters until it was hauled ashore with ropes and pulleys. A crowd had perched on the beach like a flock of filthy birds, desperate for a closer view. We were momentarily distracted by a few enthusiasts who waded into a milky pool left by the footprint and nearly drowned. It was only then that we realized its incredible size. Once hauled ashore the townspeople retreated in sudden fear, unsure whether to ignore the foot entirely or wait to see if other limbs might gradually appear. Some observed the sky and others the waters, disappointed when a torso did not emerge. The rest held their throats in half-wonder.
The foot was enormous, measuring in height from heel to ankle that of three juniper trees, and its width was roughly equivalent to a road. A variety of experts were summoned but they offered no clues as to the foot’s potential origins, except that its girth appeared Slavic. A circular wound at the base of the metatarsus fouled with sea waste and discolored by sunlight prompted a spirited nodding of heads but no definitive conclusion. Several of the shattered phalanges attested to the tragic finale the madame of the foot must have suffered and those who gazed into the wound hung their heads with wishful regret. Our retired scientists were equally puzzled and debated whether the proprietor of such a foot would have mated successfully and conjectured on the regularity of her menstrual cycles. Using scaffolding, they examined where the foot had been severed just above the ankle and marveled at the unique pattern of epidermal folds and proposed carbon dating to the late ninth century and that perhaps this was no foot at all but rather an independent species devoid of a central nervous system and this opening was in fact a primitive mouth. We protested that if it looked like a foot it must be a foot. They suggested an illegitimate child or aged household pet be thrown inside the cavity to determine if there was a digestive tract and whether it still functioned. Confident in their analysis the scientists remarked it was a marvel that the thing had not yet attempted conversation.
A wave of speculation followed. One man said it was an Arabic genie lamp sent to convert the town into a harem of Epicureanism. A jealous woman whose husband had shipwrecked at sea suggested we grind the foot into powder and sprinkle it around the town limits to make all the men impotent. As the senseless chatter waned into the evening it was one of the children who disobeyed his mother and walked nervously beside the foot, brushing away wet sand and the occasional twist of seaweed. Other children quickly climbed the foot and converted the instep into a slide while the more adventurous threw themselves into the severed cavity just above the ankle and discovered that the fleshy tissue, though mildly rancid with decomposition, was soft as pillows and fit for jumping.
As the sun faded on the third day we were surprised by the lack of odor one might expect from decomposing flesh of such incredible girth. In fact, the presence of the foot had so jarred the senses of the onlookers that a dizzying scent filled beach.
The aroma was short-lived with the arrival of the gulls.
Fearing these scavengers might pervert the sanctity of the foot a rotating assembly of volunteers assumed the duty of washing the specimen with epsom salts and oils to preserve its whiteness. The more the washers performed their ritual the more like a fantastic mountain of glass the foot seemed, its twisted swirls of color both concealing and revealing the residue of once upon a time. Between washings the men lamented their poor luck at never knowing the woman whose foot had been discarded on their beach: I would turn myself into a pumpkin to know the taste of her lips, said one, and another claimed, I would blind myself as midnight to feel her breath on my neck, and the wives rolled their eyes and kept scrubbing the calloused heels and laughed at their old men whispering because they knew what enchanted the men was not the infinity of possibilities the foot inspired, but hearing the sound of their own lies. Many objected to these washings insistent that the foot succumb to the inevitabilities of time in an effort to relieve themselves from the anxiety of the imagination. Others of us enjoyed the washings for the sheer erotic pleasures they induced.
Some decomposition was inevitable. Gulls swooped and plucked drippings and crusts from the severed cavity while maggots were inevitable nightly visitors. There were even thieves who tore jigsaw patches of flesh with meat hooks under the cover of night and bottled them in mason jars with formaldehyde for the black market. In the nature of things the foot flesh became a queer local coinage, and the authorities informed us bottled specimens were most common as currency in local prostitution. Observing the slow decomposition a strange sensation gripped us that the foot could have belonged to any of us, and the greater horror followed that with a sudden slip in genetic mutation or evolutionary imperative the foot was our fate.
Within a few days the weight of the foot had sunk the heel into the sand in such an awkward fashion that the tilt played tricks on the eyes and it seemed as though the foot were slowly attempting to walk without the benefit of a leg. This terrified some of the older women who had come to picnic in the gazebos, although those of us with our wits found it amusing if not hopeful. This tilting allowed us our first glance at the bottom of the foot which had been subject to much debate. Several women skilled in the arts of podomancy were summoned, and later an ichnomancist labored furiously to examine the footprint before the tide washed in and filled the grotto. She had nearly finished her task when the sand relaxed and the foot suddenly collapsed.
She was trapped for hours. When the woman was finally wrenched from the enclosure she was half-naked and rambling, and it was clear she would have preferred to remain in her predicament. She was led away from the beach in a fit of hysteria.
Her name was Ada, a close friend of ours, and her family had taken only a minor interest in the foot. They were fishermen and had seen feet and guts and other flotsam at sea, having spent their lives wrestling sharks into skiffs and losing fingers to lobsters and seen men chewed to pieces by sea beasts during shipwreck.
If it was a hand, yes, I’d have a few questions, said her father. Hands make the man. But a foot? Washing out of the sea? Hmph. Don’t these people know the devil goes barefoot?
He was a strange man who clung to the old beliefs that god had equipped man with everything needed for a safe return to the afterlife and the body was the map of the cosmos. He reasoned that it was one cubit from his heart to his mind which must have been the length of a soul, which meant that if it was true, as Anselm of Canterbury had declared, that god’s love stretched from sea to sky then the sea cusp to atmospheric rim was the length of god’s soul which he reckoned as the dimensions of the celestial realm which meant paradise was nine hundred forty-four thousand eight hundred and sixty-two paces away from sea level, which meant that in the tapestry of the body feet are the prognosticators of the soul.
You’re the only fool in town to think with his feet and never look with his eyes, his wife told him.
I’m the only man in town who will walk right back into paradise without having to die first, he said.
Thus it was that instead of baptism he brought his newborn daughters to an old gypsy and had her divine their fortunes from their feet. The first six were simple. No chocolate for this one after midnight, or, make sure she doesn’t sneeze on Tuesdays, the gypsy would say. The ambitious father wrote down each of the prophecies and as they grew had the children commit them to memory. Ada was the youngest. She was such a vision at birth that her father checked her back to see if she had the wings of a cherub, and once that relief had passed he knew nothing would be the same in town. Girls would want to take afternoon tea with his child to avoid remembering how their own lives were as useless as a dream. And boys would have such fantasies of kissing her that they would run to the docks and board ships to strange lands in hopes of a quest worthy of Ada, and make plans to wander the battlefields and be blown into a thousand and one pieces for Ada so a lily would bloom from their unmarked graves and a farmer tilling his land would not dare tear it from the soil because in his heart he too would know this belongs to Ada.
The old gypsy seemed less certain.
This one will have trouble with the ground beneath her feet, she said.
What does that mean? the father asked.
The old gypsy traced the grooves of young child’s foot and studied the veins. I don’t know, she said, but there’s no mistaking it.
That was why her father abandoned her schooling and why he forbade her from leaving the house and how he committed the child to the arts of podomancy and ichnomancy to decipher the meaning of her own misery.
When news of the foot arrived Ada had waited until her father was asleep before leaping from the balcony, and after the unfortunate turn of events her brothers brought her home in her half-naked frenzy with crippled legs and she promised to crawl if necessary back to the sandbar just for one more look at the foot and her father had no choice but to lock her in the room where she resigned herself to listening to the hissing of fireplace ashes.
The crowds thronged the specimen on the seashore like gnats and within weeks had divided into two principal castes: those who believed the foot was an unfortunate permutation of nature, and those who adopted it as a deity. The widow Kovic inquired of the foot as to whether its crushed toenail signified she should end the fifty-three years of mourning for her deceased husband and entertain suitors. Our dear friend Jacoby wondered if the unusual smallness of the pinky toe was indicative of the need to overcome his guilt of failing to provide a male child to perpetuate his father’s surname. And the Ballam child found solace in the pattern of varicose veins near the foot’s heel which assured him his mother’s spectre did not hold him responsible for her death in childbirth. To these requests the foot loomed in a silence both majestic and surprising.
To satisfy the public longings the mayor declared a moveable feast held in honor of the foot. Luckily, the carnival troupe had recently arrived with its snake charmers and house of mirrors. Chefs of fine cuisine labored furiously for nine days to perfect their culinary creations. The impatient crowds flocked to street vendors who butchered such an endless number of cattle and goats and geese in the roads that when the retired priest opened the shutters of the château and saw the river of blood in the fishbone alleys he believed it was the apocalypse and proceeded to ring the cathedral bell for eleven straight hours which caused such a drowsiness to fill the town the crowds had no other choice but to smother the poor old man to death with his own robes. Freed from their delirium, the townspeople spitted the animal carcasses and roasted them over enormous fires with the fat drippings collected, then cooled, and later drizzled over the crowds like an unholy baptism, the gnawed bones left in gutters for alley cats and beggars. Artisans arrived and crafted sculptures of the magnificent foot, as well as oil canvas depictions in the likeness of the madame of the lost foot, and when word spread that graven images were being crafted those responsible were taken into the market square and made to wash the blood-stained roads amid the celebration.
The feast dazzled like the eye of a hurricane. Enormous barrels of barley ales were tapped. The canopies and imported French gazebos were full of sweaty, laughing faces. Libations were poured on the foot and someone even attempted to lick the toes which incited the ire of the crowd which promptly chased the man from the town and stole the furniture from his home. There were fistfights and half-naked bodies, kissing fools and bloody eye sockets. An infant washed out to sea only to be discovered in its bassinet the following morning, and a woman on a balcony who failed to heed the orders of the salutatory firing squad was accidentally littered with bullets but instead of dying became pregnant. As is the nature of things, the foot was credited with these miracles.
The town became a mess of cigarettes, fruit rinds, and confetti. Puddles of liquor and piss blotched the roads and trash heaps smelled sweet with rot. It reminded us of a distant hour before there were names and men were still dreaming animals into existence. Sometime past midnight a flock of inebriated men in a fit of romantic ecstasy severed their own feet as a chivalric gesture to the bachelorettes of the town. Women then sorted through the mélange of discarded limbs to select an agreeable suitor and by sunrise more than one hundred marriages had been presided over by the mayor who promised all the men new feet made of glass.
Ada had convinced her father her one chance of finding a proper husband was to attend the feast. Reluctant, but more embarrassed at the possibility of a crippled spinster roaming his halls, the old man relented and placed her under the careful watch of her brothers. She arrived just as the glassblowers had been summoned to fire their ovens and mold the first feet from cristallo a la façon de Venise. Unlike the other women who stood at a distance from the chopping block or were more interested in sorting through the troughs of limbs in a desperate attempt to locate a kindred spirit, Ada enjoyed a healthy dose of blood and watched eagerly as each man voluntarily stepped forward, gazed longingly at his final steps, and without the benefit of analgesics forfeited his gait forever. Once the feet had been taken the men were hauled into a tent where they were sedated and left to the women who prowled the aisles of cots looking for the man they wanted to awaken with a kiss.
When Ada saw the scrawny, dark-skinned man with a pockmarked face waiting for his moment with the other fools she spoke discreetly to the magistrate who was coordinating procedures with the doctors.
Sedate that one and leave him for me in the sand.
And his feet?
If someone is going to ruin him it’s going to be me, she said.
She didn’t kiss him. It was almost sunrise when he awoke and found her sitting beside him on the dune not far from the toe webbing of the enormous foot. The first thing she said was that he was handsome but only with the ground beneath his feet.
It’s high tide, he said, standing and brushing the sand from his hair. Why don’t we walk in the crest? I never thought I would feel the saltwater between my toes again. There’s a tide pool not too far where you can watch the crabs feed on mollusks. She smiled. When he spoke one of his chipped teeth made a slight whistling and his voice bore an uncommon wave of sincerity.
You must be as dumb as you are sentimental, she said. Or can’t you see I’m a cripple?
You don’t feel anything in your legs? he said, crouching beside her and stroking her knee.
No, she half-whispered, half-smiled.
What about here? he said, nudging her hipbone.
What about here? he said, pressing two fingers against her bellybutton.
I’m a feather in the breeze, she said. It’s intolerable, this lightness.
His name was Lenz and he was the newest member of the carnival troupe. His gift was illusions though his only success was in persuading people to believe that he conversed in the language of birds. What he wanted most in the world were to see his children and he was ashamed to admit all attempts had been thwarted by his former lover who beat him severely. He had joined the carnival hoping to become a muscleman but the ringmaster had assigned him to clean the birdcages and practice illusions because the previous illusionist had choked to death during the moveable feast.
Ada asked to see his artifices. He knew only one. Reaching into his pocket he shuffled a deck of cards before proceeding to delicately fold a King of Hearts and swallow it. He allowed her to inspect his mouth to assure no trickery. Then from his coat pocket he presented a pepperbox pistol, loaded it, handed it to Ada and then counted nine paces to the east. He glanced over his shoulder at the sea and then requested she aim carefully and discharge the weapon.
Shoot me anywhere, he said.
She hesitated. But the stranger had such a curious look in his eyes that out of respect for his profession she shot him. He fell religiously and lay in the sand for at least an hour. When another hour had passed and he still hadn’t so much as twitched Ada questioned us if we could identify a corpse and in the nature of things we inspected the body, particularly the feet, laughing that if rigor mortis set we could butcher him for chum and make a modest profit. At that moment Lenz groaned his way to his feet and retched like an alley cat, and after some effort hiccoughed the bullet which he held between his fingers for her to admire.
And the card? she asked slyly.
He told her it was in the left side of her brassiere. She held the card rather unamazed and alternated glances at him and the foot which loomed behind her.
It won’t sell, she said.
Because nobody believes in reality.
Because it takes too goddamn long.
He had her undressed before she ruined the night with more talking. It was a house he rented at the end of a dirt road with trees full of birds that seemed to be whispering her thoughts before she even conjured them. He undressed her slowly but she insisted it be done without the benefit of light so as not to allow him to see her mangled legs. Just when she was lying there naked, panting in anticipation for him to fill her with gravity and make her remember the ecstasy of weight, she lost sight of his shadow in the room. She could hear him mumbling but was too embarrassed to call his name.
We could do away with the cards, he said. His voice was across the room. He was pacing, as if mocking her motionless. Only gnostics and asthmatics play cards these days, he said. I could shoot you. And we could make you walk. If only a few steps.
I’m nobody’s illusion, she said.
Ada came to understand that it would have been better if her lover had butchered his feet like the rest of the fanatics in the town. When he wasn’t planning his new illusion Lenz’s only fascination was feet. At night he demanded that Ada wash his with her hair. She did not complain, and when he insisted they visit the beached foot so he could study its contours and circuitry of veins they discovered that much of the crowd had, in the nature of things, grown disinterested in the foot’s novelty and abandoned the beach, leaving the foot to an unseemly decay. Its yellowed skin, however, had not completely surrendered to reality and a simple brush with her hair sopped in salt water once again made it seem like a pearl. Lenz paced in circles—pausing to observe where sand critters had devoured the tendons at the heel and admire the foot the way a chef falls in love with his burn scars. Creeping thoughts told Ada this was strange but she ignored these doubts as the foolery of women. Her sisters had given fertile soil to their doubts and been left to prune the prickly pears of self-loathing. She hid from him how she wanted a man to rub her feet and promise her glass slippers, and kiss her thighs with lips that would wake the dead, not one who preferred sleeping with her inside the enormous foot’s severed cavity. It was a forgettable affair. Lying naked on her back while he panted salty breath into her neck it felt like being at the bottom of a wishing well, only when she opened her mouth it wasn’t the sighs she had hoped for but a suffocating burn as if her throat were full of coins. When it was finished they sat naked on the rim of the foot’s cavernous opening and he taught her how to purse her lips to summon birds.
And then he was gone. The newspaper told us how he had shot his former lover as part of the routine for the new illusion and in a panic fled to a life on the seas. Ada wanted a scream to tear her insides but when she opened her mouth it was only a whisper. Was he really gone? And where would she go, a cripple? In the nature of things, all the screams she kept swallowed swelled with misery into a belly she cradled each night and sang nursery rhymes.
She did not leave the house for months. Her family had disowned her. The child came on a night of fresh snow. It had grey eyes and fat feet. The passing days all felt the same. Child, no child. Ice and sun. Dead leaves and long grasses. Her only company was the cohort of rare carnival birds perched in the trees. They were vile things, neither gulls nor grackles. They rarely moved, even when she doused them with buckets of water or fireplace ashes. They never cawed, their unblinking eyes always watching: her scoots along the floors, the way she gazed at herself in the mirror, sometimes watching her comb the child’s hair and other times watching her coddle a pair of severed feet.
This was her only passion. Once each week Ada went to the alley behind market square to sort through the mangled pile of severed feet which had been left to rot following the night of the feast.
Only one pair, she told her daughter, who sifted through the fleshy mess of heels and toes.
Once home they washed the feet with oils and imagined what kind of man had once had such feet, and whether he missed them. They wondered about the places the feet had traveled, the weight they had known. Before bed, Ada played a tune for the feet on the harpsichord.
Dance! Dance! Dance! clapped the child. But the feet never danced.
They could be salvaged for a few days, perhaps a week, before preservation became hopeless. And then the bones were shooed out the window to be gnawed by the gulls, and then another trip to town, and more nights in the woods waiting for the advent of an incorruptible foot and the man who would one day return to claim his nostalgia.
It was while getting lost during one of those weekly outings for old feet that Ada happened upon a prairie overlooking the coast. She had no memory of that part of town. It was in that rotted field of trash and weeds that she found the skeletal remains of the enormous foot. Its whiteness had all eroded and left behind a gruesome yellow the color of headaches.
Since Lenz’s disappearance she had forgotten all about the foot. After the feast it had been elected mayor of the town. Nine months after its election people had grown disinterested with the foot and its silence. They complained it had done little to institute the promised social reforms and usher in a paradisiacal age unparalleled in human history. A true messenger would have purified us by now, some of the more religious townspeople complained. The foot was imprisoned on various accusations of indecency, corruption, violation of public trust, and heresy. Following the trial it was paraded through the streets covered in bird shit, spit upon, and cursed. Fearful of the repercussions for its outright destruction the mob had stripped the foot of what little skin remained, hollowed the insides and heaped these remains into a fire which they caused the foot to witness before hauling it to rot on the outskirts of town.
When they had run out of discarded feet in the alley, Ada brought her daughter to the prairie to feed the gulls. They followed her from the tree limbs beside the little house at the end of the nobody road and made senseless chatter perched on the bones of what had once been the enormous foot. Passersby never recognized the bones and thought it was an unusual tree and forbade their children from climbing its branches. Ada and her daughter ignored their dirty glances. Near the waters strangers wandered the sandbar while others stood knee-deep in the tide gripped with the weary gaze of nostalgia. Hobblers moved delicately down the roads with an infernal clinking of glass feet. After a few loaves of bread Ada watched as the birds circled the town and smirched the rooftops with an impressive spackle of shit.
Ryan Habermeyer was born and raised in Los Angeles and received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, Columbia where he lives with his wife and three children. His fiction has recently appeared in Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, Madison Review, Blue Mesa Review, and others.