Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Slice

by K. Bruce Justice


Timothy did not easily startle even when his father fired and banged the iron metal into the curve of a horseshoe for Charles Upshaw's prize stallion or dragged a rasping file across a crescent blade to create the razor sharp scythe for Sam Garland's farm hand. The seven year old boy with midnight black hair and milky white skin was like the hidden art around him that had not yet been burnished -- a deposit of ore waiting to be turned into a useful instrument -- unflappable despite a bombardment of unnecessary intrusions. He was crude sculpture waiting for the polish, waiting for the Hand of God that would transform him into a brilliant flash of light rising from the otherwise baked red clay of Georgia that early August of 1891.

The Bishop's blacksmith and livery, passed from generation to generation, would one day be his inheritance even though he expected the automobile would make him and his father's, and his father's father's profession obsolete.

His gentle and slight framed mother from south of Macon did not fret. She was afraid of nothing but the wrath of God, and regardless of the discomfort and the desire to rebel against His will she was compliant and constantly prayed for her son.

Besides, the local doctor had examined the young boy and found no hearing impairment or other physical malady that would account for Timothy's apparent, almost cavalier disregard for the multitude of life experiences surrounding and attempting to engulf him. In old Doc Matthews's words the boy "was as normal as any other child" and would at the right time become the mischievous boy with all the rambunctious behavior of adolescence they could handle. He assured her with soothing words and a gentle pat on her hand that "one day he'll just light up your life with a never ending rush of questions and quizzical looks that will humor and please you. I've seen this before."

"But Timothy seems so distant." She shook her head. "It's as if he doesn't realize he is a child like any other child. He doesn't cry. He only speaks when spoken to and then barely more than a yes or no. He shies away from adults -- pushes people away -- as if he fears their touch will cause harm that can never be healed."

"I wouldn't worry about that." Dr. Matthews would hold her hand and pat her benevolently on her shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about that at all."

####

Timothy was fascinated by the glint of the sun as it reflected off the odd shaped metal shapes scattered throughout the livery. The lightning flashes never escaped his keen eye and he followed them as they careened about the small shop and wondered why and where they disappeared so abruptly. It was not like the lingering smell of leather or the echoes of the hammer against the anvil. It was not like the warmth of the blazing sun or the coolness of a snowflake and the wetness on the warm tongue. It was magic, and best not explained. That was the nature of magic -- a phenomenon with a life of its own. This magic was a pleasant interruption to the otherwise tedious boredom and he pointed his finger at each darting light and tried to "will" it to curve or pivot as he directed. Could he make it change abruptly perpendicular to itself he wondered?

He had been content enough as a small baby with this fruitless exercise but when he began walking he became a nuisance who was constantly underfoot. His father's nerves became frayed as he feared for his fearless son who, if he couldn't touch the lightning, would touch the shining metals that caused it. If he could only caress the mirror-like finishes, Timothy thought he could invoke the living spirit he knew must be in each of these flashes and for a brief instant understand their unbounded freedom. He instinctively knew they could not to be captured but they could be borrowed and consumed by an undiscovered ability not unlike the sense of touching, smelling, eating, or seeing. He knew the flashes were powerful. Maybe he reasoned they were a Heaven-sent multitude of tiny angels like those his mother had told him stories about.

Amid all the surrounding metal shapes, despite his father's best efforts to keep him safe, it was bound to happen. One late autumn afternoon Timothy cut himself on an ax blade. It was not a large cut but it didn't bleed although it should have gushed as anatomy dictated since it was across the top of his hand clearly striking a blood vessel beneath the youthful skin. Timothy decided the metal had reacted with the light so perfectly that the blade had simply passed cleanly through and his skin then just closed around the contusion without scar or blemish. His skin was as fluid as the small stream that rippled through the stand of willow trees behind his home. He was air and sky and if he willed it, the warm sunlight and cooling rain passed unimpeded through him. His father was quick to grasp his arm and John Holder his apprentice was just as quick to dash away for help screaming at the top of his lungs as he raced through the small town to find Doc Matthews.

Old Doc Matthews rubbed his chin again and again. He'd brought his black leather bag, removed a large magnifying glass, and scrutinized the boy's flesh with unblinking precision. He turned the boy's hand over and over and bent it back and forth at the wrist. He solemnly announced he could find no flaw or indication that the accident had occurred. It was a puzzle not to be solved. It was magic. A considerable audience had come to behold the miracle, if indeed that was what it was, and he announced that Timothy was unharmed.

"Let's see the boy! Let us examine him for a scar!" Mildred Whiner shouted from the rear of the crowd and soon the whispering flowed like a wave from one side of the throng to the other.

"Yes, let us see!" The whispering became a murmur then a chant. Pastor Brewster appeared with a large Bible clasped against his chest and appealed to the crowd to maintain order and wait for the boy to come forward. Timothy's father carried Timothy in his arms to them and each onlooker had the chance to see the boy's hand was unmarked. A few dared to touch him and Timothy looked at them unmoved by the onslaught of unwanted attention, confounded by their unblinking, wide-eyed fixation on him.

"It is a trick."

One woman cried "It is witchcraft!"

"But it is not!" Timothy's father shouted. "I watched him slide the top of his hand over the blade. I saw the skin open and the muscle and bone beneath and just as I've said Timothy didn't cry or bleed. I swear to you that is what happened. I swear on Pastor Brewster's Holy Bible!"

Twilight surrounded the crowd and the first stars twinkled as they dispersed to their homes whispering to each other and shaking their heads. Some were convinced. Some were not. The moon ascended and cast long shadows through the rows of sycamore and pine trees onto the dusty roads to guide them through the evening chill.

"We shall have to do something about this," he remarked to his son as he lifted him up and carried him to the house. "In the morning we will walk. In the morning we will have clear heads."

####

Timothy's father bolted straight up in bed awakened by the nightmare and fumbled with the candle finally lighting it. He quietly opened the door to his son's room thankful that his wife had not been disturbed. She surely would have forbidden him to carry out the instructions that had been written into his mind.

"Get up, Timothy." He shook the sleeping boy. "Get up now."

Timothy rubbed his eyes and stared at his father. He'd never known him to be afraid but he was sure his father meant for him to be silent. He knew there must be some urgency from the strength of his voice and the strain on his aging face.

"Put on your clothes. Put on your coat. You must hurry." His father pulled the socks up around Timothy's ankles and forced his shoes on, lacing them with the same dexterity as he used when he worked, pulling them an extra bit and double-knotting them.

The frost covered leaves crackled as they walked into the woods behind the house and Timothy stumbled a few times before his father hoisted him up on his shoulders. He could hear his father's labored breathing and the air was clouded by their breath. Timothy heard the owl and the unmistakable scamper of a deer startled by their unannounced intrusion into the darkness. They came to the campfire by the river where the covered wagon labeled "Mother Gayle" in red script across the canvass was parked with two darken brown horses in reins who pulled nervously at the leather restraints. The metal rings on the harnesses tinkled and cast quick flashes of light.

The old woman bent over the fire stirring a pot not bothering to look up as they approached. She ignored them as Timothy was placed in the rear of the wagon.

"You must go with this woman, Timothy," his father began. "I know you don't understand, but one day you will. The people of the town mean you harm because of your gift and they will never leave you alone. She will take you far away to a place no one will ever hurt you."

Timothy understood the sadness in his father's eyes and knew he would never see him again.

Timothy's father smoothed his boy's hair for one last time before disappearing back into the night, crying as he stumbled back to the small town. He knew what had to be done. Timothy would be safe many miles away when the ordained cleansing flood of water from the Alapaha River would sweep the town into oblivion.

####

Timothy loved the circus clowns most of all. They teased and played tricks on each other when they weren't performing for the small town crowds they visited on the route from Ohio meandering to all points north and west and the whim of rumors. He watched the antics of Bendarie and his pet dogs Fifi and Dejon as they ran through the seated customers chasing imaginary foxes. They always finished with Bendarie finally discovering the fox hidden in the rear flap of his trousers, drawing laughter from the audience as the fox's tail flopped about. Timothy thought one day he would like to be a clown such as this. He would bring laughter to the children too.

Mother Gayle was not so enthusiastic about Timothy's mundane ambitions. She was sure that it would pass as he realized his talent. She'd protected him from the day he had been placed in her charge and kept the gawking crowds from pillaging Timothy's emotions and depriving him of his gift. She did not think he would ever be capable of fending for himself but she would do the best she could to educate him. She feared her death and what it might mean to "Slice," as he'd been labeled by the owner of the circus and regretted that she would one day have to leave him in God's hands.

"Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!" The hawker shouted every afternoon and evening and the curious stared in wide-eye amazement at the posters that showed Timothy with his straight razor and knives cutting away the skin from his arms, legs, and chest.

"Yes it's true! The boy can slice away his skin and never feel the pain or bleed! Only four bits to see 'Slice' perform. Hurry, Hurry, Hurry! The next show begins in three minutes."

Inside the darkened tent the young and old would be seated while Timothy waited behind a curtain until given his cue. The oil lamps would be turned higher and he would enter wearing only a cut off pair of trousers. His skin had tanned from helping to set up camp and he'd grown to tower nearly six feet tall without an inch of fat. He would sit on the stool in the middle of the stage and wait for Mother Gayle to begin playing her violin. As the music snaked through the air, he would lift his razor and twist it so the light flickered and flashed around the tent walls and off the crowd like lightning. Then he would begin.

He would lift his leg and slice the calf and open the skin for all to see the muscle that stretched beneath from his knee to his ankle and smile at the crowd as they put their hands to their mouths. There would be a collective gasp and on more than one occasion a young lady might faint. Timothy would then put the skin back in its place and wait a moment as it reunited with the rest of the leg. He cut the back of one of his arms showing not only the muscle but part of the stark white bone. If the crowd wasn't on the edge of its seat by then he would be surprised. He would then allow a volunteer from the crowd -- someone who had a steady stomach -- to come forward and slice the skin from the other arm to show there was no trick to his magic. He could detach his nose or ears completely then reattach them, leading up to a grand finale when he would split his chest open far enough for everyone to see the beating heart beneath -- a sight that was worth every bit of the fifty cent ticket. Gasping and fainting was expected and some went running throwing the contents of their stomachs just outside the tent. It was a successful show. It was too successful as the righteous anger of the God-fearing folks closed the circus and ran them out of town the next day. Yes, Mother Gayle nodded. His father had done God's bidding placing the boy in her charge. He was safe.

####

Was he safe? Yes Mother Gayle had taken Timothy away from danger but maybe not as far away as possible. No, that would be the woods of the great Northwest where mist drifted in and out and rainbows were a daily occurrence. It was a shadowy land still unblemished by anything other than the legends and folklore passed on by the Native Americans.

That is where the Langdons had come to live among the untainted forested hills and rushing water. It was there in the twilight, Lydia brushed her long blond hair. She didn't know why her mother insisted she do it every night but she wanted to please her; no one else would ever care. No one wanted a girl who was nearly blind and she only had blurred memories of how she'd looked before the accident.

She thought at times she could still see flashes of light. She thought she saw the yellow of the sun or the red and green of a flower. The blues of the evening sky flickered as the moon ascended and the wind rustled the oranges and browns of the trees. The doctor said her sight would get progressively worse and each moment of her life made her more anxious. Each moment made her afraid of the promised dark.

"Lydia!" her mother called. "When you finish, be sure to say your prayers."

"I will, mother." She put the brush on the vanity and felt along its sharp wooden edge until she reached the end. Turn and take two steps to the right, she reminded herself. That is where the foot of the bed is.

The Oregon woods were awake at night with an owl that perched just beyond the fence at the end of the dirt road that led to their cabin. Lydia heard the hoofbeats and brushing of the deer as it ventured close enough to examine the small garden behind the house. She could hear the corn crackle. She could hear the stream rushing over the rocks and knew the raccoons and other night creatures would be about. She struggled to remember what each looked like, sure her recollections were in error until she finally dozed off to sleep.

####

It wasn't often Lydia got to go into the small town so when she did it was an event. Her mother and she made do with what meager food they could raise, but there were things like salt, sugar, and the delicious coffee that made a morning memorable that had to be purchased or obtained by barter. Her mother and she, arm and arm, would stop at Parsons where they spent the money her mother had made as a seamstress and purchase their needs for the month.

"Will you be going to the circus this Saturday, Miss Lydia?" Issac Parsons asked as he packaged their goods. "This year's supposed to be special."

"She'll not be spending time on such foolishness." Lydia's mother interrupted. "Such heathens have no business bothering us."

"But mother, I can remember such a wonderful time when you and I and ..." Lydia stopped short of mentioning her father who had died last winter. "We used to have such a grand day of it. Please ... Couldn't we go?"

"We haven't money enough as it is," her mother said, but Lydia heard the curiosity in her voice. She heard the yearning to return to younger years when they had a complete family. Lydia knew she should forget the conversation for now -- Saturday was still a few days away. She would broach the subject later.

####

Mother Gayle was dying. Timothy didn't know how he knew but he did. She moved a little slower and her hesitant steps were interrupted by a stop and conversation with herself about everything; about nothing. She was lucid at times, recalling memories of her childhood and explaining in great detail to Timothy what he must do upon her death.

"First," she began, "You must find a place on a hill where there are trees and green grass. I wish only to have the sun on me in the late afternoon when the sun begins to set and the moon at night to see my way home. Do not place a marker on me. No one but you will know I have gone to be with God. I have gone to be embraced by his love."

"Love?" Timothy didn't understand.

"Yes, love." She took his hand. "That is what this life has been all about. That is what you will discover when you are touched by another human so deeply that you ache for that caress again and again. That is when another becomes more important to you than yourself and as she breathes, so do you. With each breath you become one and that is what makes us humans. That is what conquers the aloneness you feel."

"But how will I know, Mother?" Timothy took her aged hand in his.

"You will know, my child. You will know." She closed her eyes and he felt the warmth seep from her body and as he carried the frail body up the hill in the full moon.

####

No one seemed to notice Mother Gayle had disappeared or questioned Timothy about his avoidance of their eyes and his mumbled answers to their questions. Perhaps they thought she'd wandered off into the dark woods surrounding the clearing as she'd been known to do. It was the circus, after all, and full of odd people. But she had been a means of their livelihood and that had to continue. The show must go on and it did that evening when Lydia and her reluctant mother came to the tent and purchased tickets to see "Slice."

"Hurry! Hurry!" The hawker screamed as the crowd filed past the stand and began to settle in for the show. The stage was dim except for the one beam focused in the center and there was no music as Timothy walked onto the stage and began his routine. He held the razor above his head then swiftly sliced across his left arm cutting nearly to the bone and gently pulled the skin away showing those sitting on the front row. A young woman jerked up and ran to the tent's open flap followed by her young suitor. He waited while the crowd gasped and then fell into a whispering murmur. He replaced the skin on his arm and moved the razor to his left hand as the lightning flashes flew about the tent and onto the faces of the crowd stopping when it reached Lydia's face.

Timothy saw her as he'd never seen anyone before and paused as he examined her eyes, her nose, and chin. The corners of her mouth ended with brief dimpled cheeks above a thin neck and her golden hair fell like a gentle ripple down and across her bare shoulders nearly to the top of her breasts. She blinked and then saw him as clearly as if seeing again for the first time. The blurring and shadows had gone. She began to cry.

####

Timothy was not ready. He was not ready for the crowds that began to form outside on the circus grounds each day after he cured Lydia Langdon. Mother Gayle was not there to protect him from the newspaper reporters who came from as far as Seattle to get the story on the healer and recount how he'd escaped certain death years before only to become a sideshow freak.

The circus owner, Simon Lesper, was no help. Instead of trying to ward off the crowds of the curious and the desperate, he encouraged them to come, charging an extra dollar for anyone who wanted an audience with Slice. With each day Timothy grew more and more cynical and uncaring. Each day became a burden to shoulder as he was constantly plied with questions and overwhelmed by the mothers and fathers who brought ill children to receive his touch. How he hated Simon's constant badgering to schedule more shows! How he hated his new role as the lead attraction! But he felt that he owed it to the owner and the other circus workers to make them prosperous. They had been his family for most of his life, accepting his strangeness where others would have shunned him.

He missed Mother Gayle who never asked anything for herself and made him realize that his gift was from God. She had sneaked the seriously ill and injured into their wagon for him to help with the touch of his hand, but had sworn each person to secrecy to avoid the very madness that now overwhelmed him.

And he ached for the joy on Lydia's face that night.

####

"You must do another show this evening." Simon had come to his wagon presenting a meager payment for Timothy's work. "The crowd will be back at nine and this will be our last chance before we move south."

Timothy could feel his hands burn as he clenched them into fists. He could hear Mother Gayle saying "no" and shaking her head. He could feel the anger rise like bile in his throat.

"I will double your share." Simon was confident. Simon was sure this would make Timothy concede. "Then you can rest ..."

"Until the next show!" Timothy shouted. "Until the next crowd of hopeless and injured arrive begging you to be cured; until you have money enough!"

Timothy towered above Simon and grabbed the owner by the throat.

"You want this so much?" Timothy felt the pulse of Simon's blood in his neck. "You want this power so much? Then take it from me!"

Timothy released Simon and watched as Lesper began to shake. He watched as the skin began to scar showing every cut Timothy had ever made on himself. He watched as Simon turned into a canvass of crisscross lines from his head to his neck and traveled down his arms. Simon tore at his shirt and saw the lines descending from his shoulders down his chest and back and put his hands over his ears. Screaming he ran into the woods.

Timothy staggered away, weakened by the drain on his soulů He ran to the woods and to the tree that stood guard over the unmarked grave, and under the pale moon light he fell on his knees and touched the dirt where he'd buried Mother Gayle, and wept until sleep overtook him.

####

"Are you all right?" The young girl's voice awakened Timothy to the early morning light.

"Yes." He rubbed his eyes and dusted the dirt from his knees as he got up to see Lydia Wilson silhouetted against the morning sun. The light seemed to flash through her hair and into the shadows of the tree as it gently swayed. She handed him one of the bright red roses she'd picked that morning and he felt the thorn prick his finger. He saw the fleck of blood oozing from the wound and the pain increased until it raced through his whole body and he shuttered. He realized at that instant he had never lived and that his life had been spent trying to unveil his soul with his razors when all that had ever been needed was her touch. It was in that moment he was born.

"I'm so sorry." She took his hand in hers. "Does it hurt?"

"Yes -- it does." Timothy smiled. "Yes, it does. Isn't it wonderful?"

THE END


© 2010 K. Bruce Justice

Bio: Mr. Justice's work has appeared in Wildchild, Bewildering Tales, The Wild Rose Press, and First Cut.

E-mail: K. Bruce Justice

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.