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The Woman with Four Arms – a short story by Michael Fine

By Michael Fine, contributing writer

© Michael Fine 2022

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

It became clear one night when there was haze under a waning moon that there was no need for legs.

            It was late spring.  The mist rolled up from the swampland behind the strip mall that was mostly empty now, the swampland that had not yet been drained but was slated to become garden apartments.  The mist or fog was fetid and sulfurous but rich and organic, like topsoil, not sewage.

            The world had changed.  There was no need to walk.  Or run.

            Everything comes to you now, the woman thought.  Things are delivered, sometimes within minutes of ordering them.  Soon we will all have drone ports which will drop our stuff right into our houses.  There is no need to cook.  The food is manufactured, not grown.  McDonalds!  Hardee’s! Pizza Hut!  There is now just one gigantic kitchen in every city that makes it all, slaps different labels on, depending on the brand you ordered and sends it out — so we do not need to trouble ourselves to cook anymore.  People are on-line.  Games are on-line.  Sex is on-line. Legs just get in the way.  When you stand, you may fall.  Gravity is inevitable.  The likelihood of injury is a function of the distance from the floor.

            She awoke from a dream with a sudden realization.  Awareness of her true self.  That self had been lurking just beyond her consciousness, a kind of dread, a sense of not fitting in her body or being in the wrong body, a sort of displacement. Of having the wrong body for her life. This is not who I am.  The world has changed.  My legs are outmoded, not a reflection of my self, my inner being.  In my heart I am a person with four arms, with four hands, with four opposable thumbs.  Imagine that!  Four hands!  The being able to feel with four hands at once, to touch, to hold, to twirl things about.  Imagine spinning a ball in the air with four hands.  Imagine juggling with four hands, juggling three dimensionally, four or five objects rising and falling and tossed side to side.  Imagine the touch of a lover, the feel of another’s body across every part at once, and the pleasure that could be imparted, so much touch at once.  We have lived empty lives.  There is a character and dimension to being that we, that I, have missed.

            This standing on two legs alienates all of us from our true selves.  We evolved from four-legged creatures who lived close to the earth.  Bodies weren’t made to stand on two legs, the weight of the trunk taxing the vertebrae with work against gravity.  We were meant to be on all fours, our weight distributed and low to the ground, the vertebrae flexing and bending, there to help us twist and turn, not to carry a vertical burden or combat the force of nature itself.

            It came to her in a dream.  There is a surgeon somewhere, the dream told her.  A male person in a white coat for whom the body was clay, an ambitious man who wanted to show the world what was possible, what he can do.  She dreamed of a number of surgeries, over time, sawing off her legs then shortening and molding her legs and feet until they became arms.  Rearranging the bones of the feet.  Transplanting tendons and moving nerves.  Grafting skin.  A white man with an attitude can still do whatever he wants.  Or thinks he can do those things.  The smart money being what it is.  The bets placed and the money taken.  The only true gambler on the outcome is the person whose legs-cum-arms are first on the table, and then move to the cutting room floor.

            Was there such a surgeon? she wondered.  Now Grace had to find out.

 The surgeons in the U.S. looked her over thoughtfully.  She could see they were tempted.  She could see them weighing the risks to themselves, their ambition, that they were champing at the bit to do this, to be the first.  But she could also see their caution and their fear.  They didn’t think about her for one second, about whether this was a sane or reasonable request.  They thought about the fame that would come from doing it, about being on CNN and Fox News, but also about getting into trouble with their colleagues and so forth, and eventually decided that fame, that bitch-goddess, wasn’t worth the grief.  Cowards every one.

            But they sent her to those surgeons in other countries, many of whom they trained, the people they saw at world conferences and congresses, where rich surgeons go to read papers, soak up sun, unwind and drink.

There was one in Chile, one in Argentina, one in Italy, one in South Africa, and one in Slovenia.

            The guy in South Africa was best.  No questions asked.  No psychological profile. No government oversight – this was the country with a President who thought AIDS was a myth.  The surgeon had a private clinic.  Off the radar.  Very hush hush.  No sign.  Just an office building in a suburb of Cape Town.  Where the rich and famous came for their procedures, their implants, and their body recontouring, their nose jobs and their ear flattening and reduction, their tummy tucks and their buttock augmentations.  The body was like clay in the hands of a potter.  He was a god, that surgeon.  Tanned and relaxed.  He wore open necked shirts and sunglasses inside, and he acted like he was ready to drive the golden horses of the sun.

            It took eighteen months and a hundred thousand dollars.  Grace had to live in a condo on the grounds of the clinic.  Twelve surgeries.  First of its kind in the world.  It is difficult to change a leg into an arm because of the knee, which opens backwards, from the perspective of an arm, and because of the feet and hands, which have such different mechanics from one another.  The opposable thumb.  That required brilliant invention and architecture.  Going places no orthopedist and no plastic surgeon had ever gone before.  One small step for man.  But now, four ways for this woman to wave.  One small new hand up.  Or two.  Four in all.  Like sails.

            The first thing Grace taught herself was to locomote, how to move from place to place.  It was freeing to walk on all fours, to grip the earth with four hands and spring from place to place.  Animals have hooves, which are good for the hard ground or rough pavement, and better on asphalt on a hot day.  But Grace had two new hands and infinite new flexibility.  It took time to learn to coordinate her movements.  It was a little hard on her neck, which pointed her head at the ground when she was on all fours, so she didn’t go out much.  But the whole world was available at her fingertips through the internet, and she now had four hands and twenty fingers, and so many more fingertips.  She had her house strung with rope.  At night, to relax, Grace lay on her back and used her four hands to locomote by climbing the ropes.  Suddenly she was a sloth, and free in a new way, looking at the sky instead of the earth, free as a bird, free at last.  She started to dream of floating higher and higher, or floating above the trees, following the telephone wires as she floated from place to place.

            There was a man.

            Grace had always been more interested in women than she was in men.  Men smelled and had short attention spans.  They sometimes had grease on their hands and had no more emotional intelligence, no more depth than the depth it takes to watch football on TV.  American football. Most men don’t like just being together.  Slam bam thank-you mam.  They always think they are right.  And want to be right.  And can’t recognize that two contradictory thoughts can be true at the same time.  They won’t let anyone else be right.  Don’t recognize rightness in others.  Even when the rightness isn’t literally true.  They see only their own point of view.

            This one appeared first by email.  Archaic perhaps, but one never knows from whence good things will flow.  Grace had a Facebook page which showed only her face, but she never looked at Facebook.   Or Twitter.  Or Instagram, to tell the truth.  She only wanted her own thoughts.  She didn’t want to be pushed or prodded, twisted and turned by what other people thought, or said they thought in virtual space. She didn’t want to make a scene, to be a freakshow.  She didn’t want onlookers or gawkers and she sure as hell didn’t want to be viral.  She was who she was, living her best life, true to herself, in the body she imagined, not a prisoner in a body someone else had designed.

            Still, word got around.

            The man’s name was Shawn.  He worked designing ships in a distant city.  He worked at a computer, mostly, but sometimes he went to the shipyard where the ironworkers weld plates of steel together and then grind down the welds so the surface became smooth.  So, the bright points of light from the welding torches, the racket and grind of machinery too loud to think, the showers of sparks from the grinders, the smoke, the stink of sulfur, iron, and carbon mixed together in air that was too thick to breathe.  All the workers wear thick leather gloves and respirators, so they heard their own heavy breathing as they worked, and their plastic goggles fogged with their breath.

            Shawn heard a rumor about what Grace had done and he tracked her down.  The email didn’t say one word about arms or legs.  It was about ships and how they are built.  How Shawn dreamt about their hulls, and how he took those dreams and reconstructed them on the computer and then about how they moved from the computer into steel and then morphed into real boats that floated and held people and cars and oil and containers of goods, boats with engines and propellors, advanced communications equipment and sonar and even lifeboats, some of which Shawn designed as well.

 So it was inevitable that Grace would fall in love with Shawn.

Inevitable, but shocking at the same time, because Grace had designed her life to be a life she lived by herself, with lovers from time to time, perhaps, but Grace never imagined having a partner.

Emails.  Then phone calls.  His voice was warm and full of life, quiet and wise.  Then Facetime.  Confidences.  Histories.  Memories.  Failures.  Hopes.  Disappointments.  And dreams.  Love is blind.  But also all seeing.  All hearing.  And sweet.

Then worries and intense self-doubt.  Grace could not stand on two feet anymore because she didn’t have feet.  She could not stand next to Shawm and lean into him, fitting into the cleft in his shoulder, where women stand with men.  When Grace walked, she never got higher than a poodle, and she was not a woman who thought or could ever think of herself as subservient in any way or manner of speaking.  Grace was everyone’s equal, or perhaps more than that, because she had courage few other humans have, the courage to be what she wanted to be, to live as she really was.  They could spoon perhaps.  But how would they go for a walk on a bright spring day when the air was warm for the first time.  How would they dance?  What would Shawn think?  How would he feel standing next to her, how would he feel about being with Grace? The hell with his kind words and beautiful dreams.

I will not ever have legs again, Grace knew.  I don’t want legs.  I am not legs.  I am so much better than that.

She withdrew.  Shawn heard Grace disappear into herself.  He felt the whoosh as she left, the puff of air as that door was closing.

I want to come to Rhode Island, Shawn said.  I want to come now.

Come by boat, Grace said.  I need time.

The story does not end here, of course.  It wasn’t perfect.  It never is.

Shawn came to Rhode Island.  He rented a yellow convertible at the airport, picked up Grace at her house in Conimicut, and drove with her to the beach.  The air was clean off the ocean.  A warm breeze was blowing.  As they got close to the water, the setting sun sparkled in the telephone wires on a beach front road, one that ran among the summerhouses that were packed together in those summer villages where houses, cottages and trailers are jumbled together, packed in, as if there was strength in numbers, as if no wave would ever come out of the ocean big or strong enough to wash them all away.

Shawn and Grace swam together.  Grace hadn’t been to the beach after her surgeries, so she didn’t know how it would be.  But she was fine.  Having four arms and hands that moved water together more than compensated for the loss of legs, which can’t be directed when they kick, which do nothing more than go up and down.  Grace spun about in the water, diving, twisting, and turning, riding the waves, as comfortable as if she had been born there, a water spider or a tern, a creature of the air but able to skim on and under the water, bending the waves to her will.  Shawn stood amazed as Grace moved about him, until the temptation of that pure movement overwhelmed his curiosity, and he dove into an oncoming wave, surfaced, stood for an instant, and then rode the next wave into shore.  He thought he’d have to hold Grace up.  Instead, she swam circles around him, and challenged him so that he took more risks than he usually did, and swam stronger, and he found he was more at home in the water than he knew he could be and got more pleasure from the waves and the sun than he thought possible.

He didn’t stay, though.  They spent a week together, swimming, driving to the mountains and the sea.  Then he went home to California and went back to drawing the boats he dreamed of.  They talked often by phone, and Face-timed, and both wondered if there could have been another life, if.  But both also knew it was Grace’s choice that drew them together.

Grace lives today in her little house in Conimicut.  She spends most of her days on-line.  From time to time she finds a friend to swim with.  She is exactly who she wants to be.  And is mostly alone.  Like most of us.  Legged or legless.  Armed or armless.  And like some of us, who stay true to the inner being we are, and are at peace. 

_____

All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.  Join us!

Read other short stories by Michael for RINewsToday, here: https://rinewstoday.com/dr-michael-fine/

RINewsToday

Michael Fine, MD has served as Health Policy Advisor in Central Falls, RI and Senior Population Health and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population of a place.

He has also recently served as Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket. Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.

Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.

He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.

He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.

Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.


Michael Fine – www.michaelfinemd.com

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