Cate West – The Thumb

His uncle was famous for shooting his thumb off while climbing a stile. He’d show you the result, given half a chance, thin hard hands cupped and shaking, the left side whittled, a seam of scarring. 

Anyone would tell you.

Thomas? Ey up. You mean Tom the Thumb?

Noah always thought of this when he reached up to grip the crossbar, its green wood already staining his palms. He was just tall enough to heave himself up and over. If you had a shotgun, would you lift it by jamming your thumb down the barrel? You would not. 

Typical of Thomas, his mother would say, indulgently. He was lucky, really!

Noah imagined the thumb sometimes, bouncing along in the shelter of the brambles like a pink rodent, eyeless, perky. Thumbs up? It would pause, sniffing the air, pleased to be busy on thumb-like business, while the birds chirped hungrily overhead. It was clear his uncle could manage. It was the thumb Jake felt sorry for. Where would it sleep? All the other creatures in the fields had families, creatures who looked liked them. The thumb, bravely as it scampered, was an anomaly. Homeless. Lonely. And when his mother read to him, he couldn’t listen to the fairytale about the little man, Tom Thumb, without feeling a bit sick.

Digit jeopardy ran in the family. When Noah was ten, his father lost the tip of his index finger in the thresher. By now Noah understood that flesh exploded this way did not survive. There would be no ghost finger, just a broth of flesh and bone. He’d known all the time, really. 

When Noah was thirteen he sliced his own thumb, just to see what it would feel like. The piece that came off was curved, like a shell, not much more than skin, though the cut bled all the way through a tea-towel which he sneaked into the bin, and the cut remained sore for ages. He still dreamed of Uncle Tom’s thumb, sometimes, a missing part of his ancestral flesh, scampering free. Meanwhile, his own wound healed. He was still perfect.

Noah grew up tall and handsome, fingers intact. Next to his wiry father he looked like a different species. That height, the skull that belonged to the back of a coin, rounded as Caesar’s. The girls thought so. He always had a partner at Hunt Balls, a beautiful girl with immaculate brows and shiny teeth, clutching his arm and staring up at him in the photos. He made sure to swap them regularly. He didn’t want them getting Ideas.

Noah’s passion had always been the land his family had farmed as long as anyone could remember. Everyone said so. He knew where the mushrooms grew, where frost lay until afternoon, where the buzzards nested. You own land to the centre of the earth, to the sky, and he knew what these things held, the rich soil that gave up tin cans and Edwardian pennies to the metal detector, the portents of the weather. He was calm at the back of the flock on the quad bike, and steady on the combine-harvester at the end of summer. He’d sit in the barn with a thermos of coffee, watching the ewes pant and release their bloody babies into the world. He knew what it was to startle a pheasant, auburn and teal in the headlights, skid whooping into a ditch, and sprint five miles home to sober up, before winching your car out on a rope. He knew the crack and boom of the rifle, the horn and the hounds in cry, that blur of music and mission. He finished school and no one asked him what he wanted to do. 

He’d done it for years. 

Noah developed another passion, and this he kept secret.

Some nights he’d dream of cities and nightclubs where fingers, finger and thumbs, pink and agile, rubbed themselves in places he’d rather they didn’t touch. A thumb would darken, press in, reddening out of focus, and finally tug his eyelids apart to daylight. 

HIs family had farmed as long as anyone could remember. It is what they did. It wasn’t something you could choose, or not choose. There wasn’t room for that. 

EE- I- AD-I-O, we all pat the bone.

Some nights he’d dream of his uncle’s thumb beckoning him outside, into the dell by the stream where the ground sucked wetly and no birds sang. 

EE- I- AD-I-O.

It would hop onto his wrist, nudge his own hand, inert and white, until it curled around the trigger.

EE- I- AD-I-O.

He’d dream of a thunderclap. 

He’d dream of silence. 

And then he didn’t even know if he was dreaming at all.

Cate is a content designer, editor and teacher, living and working in the Midlands.

Her short fiction has been published by Nightjar Press, Lunate, Janus Literary and The Amphibian, among others. She was shortlisted for the Dinesh Allirajah prize, and her story ‘Underworld’ was included in 2022’s ‘Best Small Fictions’. Cate was the National Centre for Writing’s 2022 Laura Kinsella Fellow.

Her debut novel is on submission to publishers, and she’s working on her second.

Agent: Charlotte Atyeo, Greyhound Literary

Twitter: @c8west

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