Missing Piece

Missing Piece

Missing Piece 1920 1173 Molly Gabriel

The flakes of blue polish still sparkled on the nail. The fingertip peeked between the reeds, flesh-colored and flimsy as a band aid. The knife and fishing line still thrown by the ditch.

“Over here,” I called.

No answer.

I held my breath, snatched up the finger, and stood. I made for the house. It bounced between my cupped hands with each step, rubbery and small as a pencil eraser.

Daddy still held Sissy’s hand with a towel. Blood dripped down her forearm like an ice cream cone.

“Here,” I panted. “I have it.” I outstretched my hand in offering.

He looked at the piece of my sister. With his free hand, he plucked it gently between his fingers. Then he released her packed, bleeding hand from his and smacked me—hard—across the face.

*

The doctor told us the finger would be better off without reattaching the tip. He called her a lucky girl.

“It was a clean break. No damage to the bone,” he said. “Only a matter of aesthetics.”

Daddy kept his face straight. His voice low. He said, “Whatever you think is best.”

My sister smiled with morphine. Bandages snaked around a metal strip that kept what remained of her finger straight. I studied Daddy’s face and gripped the barrier of her bed.

“It feels like it’s still there,” she whispered. “Jemmie, I can still wiggle it.”

Daddy rushed to the hallway, he said to find Sissy a drink. We could have buzzed the nurses. Sissy sunk into the white pillow and sheet with the drip plugged into her. Blood still stained her hair and front, browning the white blankets someone had tucked her between. She looked like one of those angel figurines whose eyes drip serenely down their faces. Suddenly I saw Mama.

Then, Mama lived in a hospital bed just like this one, but in our house, and with more machines crowding her bed. Her head outgrew her shriveling body. Its heaviness pulled her into a curl. Her thinned skin reduced her to a baby bird, slipped from her nest into the middle of our lives.

I can’t remember the exact words she used or the sound of her voice. I can’t remember if she touched my face. I like to think she did, and that her papery hands left a warmth I could rekindle with my own palm.

She said she named me Jemima after Daddy and Job. She said God gave Jemima to Job as a reward for all he endured. She said Daddy was the same way. He came through his sufferings and wanderings and sins with his beautiful little girl, just like Job. I wish that I’d known then. That I’d reminded her Job never wandered or sinned. He remained faithful.

Daddy never liked my name. He told Mama it was a name for dark girls. After she died, he changed. He said Jemima fit me fine since I was slippery and tasty and fake-sweet.

*

We all went home that night. No one said what happened to the rest of Sissy’s finger.

She healed. Beautiful as anything. Sissy came to embrace her missing piece. Even now she says, “My fiancé doesn’t mind. He slid the ring right down my nub.” She holds up her hand; the diamond catches and scatters light across our faces. “It’s just a part of being me,” she chirps, “Or not,” and laughs.

I’m happy for her. I am. Happy to be her bridesmaid, fix her hair, and smooth her dress. Happy to squeeze her hand and kiss her cheek. Happy, even, to be back at Daddy’s for the wedding. I am. I want to see it again—to walk the length of our land.

I slip through the screen door. I walk until I stand before the ditch. It’s larger than I remember. It’s actually a pond. (Mama was the one who declared it a ditch, claiming they were dirty and accidental—just like this.)

I step into the water. My shoes fill. I step again.

I hear him hollering, “Jemima!” I know. When he finds me, he’ll grab me. Drag me, even, back to the house. He’ll pull me under the tents squatting over finely set tables and flowers. He’ll push me to my seat. Throw me down into it, sure. I have no fiancé to look on in disgust. And Sissy, she will be too busy smiling with her incomplete hand at her fiancé’s chest. Pretty as a picture.

I step. The water is a relief. It’s warmer than the evening air, its breeze.

A shimmer across the water catches my eye. Flakes of blue polish. I step deeper into the water. Then I swim across the ditch. My dress hangs limp and browned as I stand and pluck it from the reeds.

I hold it for study in the dusk sunlight. Immaculate. The finger, skin and nail, has not aged in thirteen years. It remains the size and texture of an eraser. It seems somehow smaller, though.

I pinch it, trace its tip along the lifeline of my palm. The contact creates gooseflesh.

“Goddamn it, Jemima!” Whiskey rolls on Daddy’s voice. I roll the piece of Sissy’s finger in my palm. It’s been waiting here, I know. I hear birds lift into flight.

I swallow it, polish and all, and plunge into the ditch.

The water goes deeper than I remember, and warmer than the night.

Header photograph © Vicki Miko.

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