The Children and the Leg Found in June
When the children noticed the leg, they were sure it belonged to an animal. Jessica G assumed the group of kids she thought of as “those jerks” had left it poking out beneath the bush to scare people. They were probably watching from the brush, waiting to laugh at their reactions, and tease them during recess. Jessica G could already see them impersonating her. Hear those jerks calling her a loser. No one would even call them gross for picking up part of a dead deer. Joseph P who was starting to need glasses didn’t even see it. Everything far away had the quality of a dandelion nearing the end of its life, larger as it prepared a shedding and scattering across the Earth. It was Margot, who was proud to be the only Margot in the entire school, who said, “It’s a person’s leg.”
“How do you know it’s not fake?” Pat F crossed his arms.
Jessica G pulled it out onto the grass. The children stared. Long calf. Thigh thin, but muscular. Narrow foot. Heel well maintained as if it had been very recently moisturized with expensive lotion—in fact, Margot thought she smelled flowers and peach like her dad’s girlfriend’s perfume.
Toes painted conch-inside pink; they reminded Joseph P so vividly of the seashell on his mothers’ desk that for the rest of his life he connected the two in a way that made him turn down beach vacations and feel anxious when he noticed pink-painted toenails in flip-flops. The ankle was tattooed: an L with vines growing around it.
Afraid that those jerks were watching, the children took turns gently poking it with sticks. Despite being attached to nothing, the skin whitened and reddened underneath their pokes.
“Gross,” Joseph P said. “Gross.”
They played a game to see who could touch it the longest. Joseph P, who was secretly in like with Margot and thus had the most to lose, was the one who kept going. He had convinced himself, despite the evidence, it was plastic or Halloween costume latex. There was nothing to fear. As Joseph P touched the toes with his left hand, he scrunched his face so hard the freckles on his cheeks distorted. Looked as if they could fall off his face. It felt like his own leg. Like accidentally on purpose touching Margot’s leg on the bus.
Joseph P darted to the blackberry brambles near the woods’ entrance. He vomited with a loud hacking noise, leaving a small puddle beneath the thorns. When he was finished, he wasn’t sure whether he felt worse from barfing or embarrassment.
Pat F thought Joseph P was being a little dramatic. That was what his mother liked to call any big reaction from her friends or his father. He liked how adult the phrase sounded. Pat F was still a little unconvinced it was a real leg. Yeah, it looked a lot like one of his sunburned legs poking out of his shorts. But how could a person lose a leg without any noticeable cut? It was like a Barbie leg pulled from a torso. No blood.
Jessica G and Margot exchanged a look, united in discomfort. Jessica G pulled a piece of gum out of her pants pocket and ripped it in two. She handed half to Margot to stop her from chewing on her fingernails. It was in the friendship agreement they had written over a year ago that decreed, among other things, they would stop each other from chewing fingernails and/or twirling the ends of their long ponytails. Not stopping each other was a violation of the agreement that bound them together until they were at least ninety-three.
“I thought dead things were supposed to smell bad.” Margot accepted the gum.
Joseph P returned, wiping his hands on his jeans. “The nail polish is new.”
He showed them his finger smeared with pink.
Whoever had done this wasn’t someone sitting at a small desk every Monday through Friday listening to Mrs. Franklin read Where the Red Fern Grows and learning about prime numbers. What kind of person would or could sever a woman’s leg? Or create one so real, then paint its toenails pink, and leave it in the woods for them to find? They knew enough now about living, about their neighborhood and town, to understand, suddenly, that anything was possible.
A bird sang: half the notes were beautiful, half-warbled as if something were caught in its beak. The children’s breaths added rhythm. A rustle. Another. Something large was coming toward them. Margot grabbed the leg and put it in her backpack. The foot poked out and touched the tip of her ponytail. They ran. Bright-colored sneakers thumping across the dry ground. Fled toward school. Everyone was gone, but a lone silver car in the parking lot. Past it to their homes, except for Joseph P who went over to Margot’s while waiting for his parents to pick him up.
The two pretended to watch television. An aardvark learned that it was good to study for tests. His rat teacher seemed tired of asking them what was five times three.
“What do you think it is?” Margot whispered. She didn’t watch Joseph P’s face but looked out into the hallway.
She had put the leg in her bedroom.
He tried to sound like an adult, but his voice cracked on the last words. “It’s just a weird toy.”
“Why did you take it with you?” Joseph P asked, his eyes on the aardvark.
“I thought it was just a weird toy.” Margot got up to get a glass of juice.
Pat F’s father had taught him the smartest thing a person could do was question everything. The world was filled with people and organizations who could manipulate reality. He often thought about a story his father had told him about a queen. A real one, not one of those cartoon women made to sell toys that his mother complained about. This queen wanted visiting kings to believe her country was rich and still very great. So, she built sets, cast the most beautiful people she could find as farmers and townspeople. The queen gathered the healthiest animals—not just farm, but skunks, squirrels, stags, and swans—from across the country and put them along the route the kings would take. And the dumb kings never even bothered to look past all the smiling people, the perfectly chosen fruit, the fat squirrels scurrying across the branches. They thought the queen’s land was great and thriving, so they left it alone. Pat F never wanted to be like those dumb kings.
He told his parents in flat words with no emotion, making it clear he was not relating something that happened on TV or something he’d seen while secretly watching his older brother’s horror movies. They had found a leg in the woods four hours ago. Pat F thought it was still there in the woods. He had been too scared to pay attention to Margot.
Pat F’s parents conferred in the other room.
They sat him down on the couch. His mom spoke in the slow voice Pat F knew she used whenever she especially wanted him to remember something. Your imagination is a fun and necessary tool. It fuels creativity. And depending on what you want to be, your brain will absolutely need to work that way. She took a sip of water. But you can’t let it make you feel bad regularly, or it could get in the habit of doing that.
“The world is filled with enough bad things.” His father was looking down as if counting something.
“I’m not lying.”
“Everything’s OK.” Pat F’s father clasped his shoulder, smiled.
Feeling how roughly his father grabbed his shoulder, Pat F knew there was no point in continuing.
The next morning, Margot pulled the leg out of the closet. She measured it twice: thirty-five inches long. Noted the fact in her diary. She squeezed and prodded. Compared it to her own skin. Same. She held her leg against the ruler. Against her beloved stuffed bear, Mr. Stuffington. Mr. Stuffington’s black eyes stared into hers. She thought she could hear him saying, “This is weird, man.” It smelled a little bit like the fridge when it hadn’t been cleaned in a while.
“Everything OK?” Margot’s mom asked outside the door.
“Yeah.” Margot shoved the leg beneath the bed, knew if she stayed in her room a minute more, her mom would bust in. Lately, it seemed as if her mother was afraid of quiet. That silence meant something terrible was leaking into their lives.
“Is it your father?” she would ask. “Does he have another new girlfriend? Is he trying to make you learn how to play tennis again? Do you want me to talk to him?”
“Is someone bullying you at school?” She might ask and hand her a cookie, fresh from the oven.
“Did someone do something or say something to you?” Her mother might wait to ask until they were in the car, driving fifty miles an hour, too fast for Margot to unhook her seatbelt and tumble out into the road, roll into a neighbor’s soft green lawn.
Margot knew her mother couldn’t handle the leg. And even more than the leg, her mother would not like that Margot couldn’t explain why she had taken it with her. All the possible reasons felt like a lie. She fished it from beneath the bed, shoved it among the sweaters in her closet and opened the door. Her mother was standing in the hallway. Her eyes were bloodshot. A white stain was on her black shirt.
A week later, Jessica G found three eyeballs in the tulips in her backyard. Hazel, brown, blue. They seemed huge compared to her own. Jessica G touched her face and realized she had no idea how big her eyes really were. They appeared to have bloomed from the Earth. Dirt was on the whites and irises. A bee hovered.
Her parents were on a couples retreat and her older sister, Anna, had her boyfriend secretly living with them in their absence. Anna and Ray were making out all over the house. Like their mouths would explode if they were apart for more than five minutes. The slurping and the way they were always yelling at her to leave the room made her wish they would miss the kissing deadline by ten seconds. Teeth, tongue, lip piñatas.
She put on gardening gloves. Even through the cloth, the eyes felt like holding watermelon that had been shaped into balls. They were firm, but with a watery feel. Jessica G carried them gently into the kitchen. She took out an old goldfish bowl from beneath the sink.
After filling it with water, Jessica G plopped the eyes in. The blue eye looked gray in this light. The hazel was so beautiful it reminded her of how she used to always want to put marbles in her mouth. How firm they felt on her tongue. The clank of moving them against her teeth. She remembered how scared she used to be of swallowing them. Then she also thought about wanting to swallow them to see what would actually happen.
Jessica G decided that tomorrow at school, she would ask Margot what to do with the eyes. In the meantime, she took the fishbowl and put it on her desk. She pulled out By the Shores of Silver Lake and held the bowl close.
When he had spent two weeks dreaming and thinking about the leg, Joseph P told his moms about it. Then the eyes underneath Jessica G’s bed. Jessica Tyler? No, G like grape soda. No, Margot’s mom didn’t know about the leg. It was in the basement. Or maybe her closet still. He tried not to listen while the other kids talked about it.
Joseph P asked them if this was a new thing or an old thing he had just never noticed before. Did the skies rain down toes, ears, stomachs, and kidneys? Did those parts just disintegrate into the Earth? Was he being a baby because the thought made him so uncomfortable? And why didn’t they tell him about this?
“It’s your responsibility to make sure I’m not the weird kid in class.” Joseph P punched the indigo and silver couch cushions. His moms were wearing the exact same lipstick. Pink mom mouths.
Joseph P was taken to therapy the next day. His therapist, one of those uncomfortable adults who insisted he call him Marvin-I’m-your-friend-you-can-say-anything asked him a lot of questions. Marvin’s eyes were black and shiny and Joseph P could see his face reflecting in them as he spoke. They talked about his moms and what they were like. And soccer. And what did he like to eat? And what were his dreams like?
“Black and white,” Joseph P said. “Last night, I walked across a bridge, and I realized halfway across it was made of chocolate cake. I stopped and ate the whole thing and fell into a lake. It was awesome.”
Marvin talked to him about ways to feel calm. Find a fact you like and tell it to yourself when the world makes you feel very small. Sometimes when we see strange things, it’s our brain’s way of saying I have thought too much today. Sometimes, getting older is overwhelming. Even when you’re an adult, the things you thought you knew become different and then it kind of just. You know? Take long deep breaths. Talk to your moms or a good friend like me. I’ll make sure you get a card with my phone number. And keep playing all that soccer. It’ll help you relax. Every week, you can tell me how many goals you’ve scored since our last talk. Joseph P realized he might be seeing Marvin a lot over the next few months. He pulled at his shoelace. Untied it. Tied it again.
After he left Marvin’s office, Joseph P felt completely aware of his legs. As he sat in the backseat of the car, he stretched and wondered how many muscles, how many bones had to work together to do something that seemed so simple. His moms weren’t speaking. They were listening to a woman with a very boring voice talking about global warming and mosquitoes. He tensed his legs from thighs to toes. Held them tightly until they almost ached. Relaxed. He no longer felt that hovering feeling over his cheeks and chest. Patella, tibia, fibula. One day, Joseph P thought, he would have a daughter and name her Fibula. Fibula Ann.
Margot and Joseph P were stuck at the barbeque all their parents were throwing, putting out paper plates and silverware. Jessica G and Pat F walked their neighborhood together, looking through the leaves and grass for any body parts they could find. They found several sparrows tweeting and flitting over a thumb. A small pink organ sitting in a puddle.
“A liver?” Jessica G poked it. It felt like a water balloon.
“A kidney.” Pat F pointed at the bean shape.
“What do you think came first? Our insides or the plant?” she asked.
The red-pink against the water looked so beautiful to her.
“Never mind.” Jessica scooped it up and plopped it into a shopping bag.
Margot and Joseph P arranged the eyes, the leg, the kidney, the toe on the picnic table. They pushed away the floral-patterned cups and blue plates.
“I think the eyes should stay as the center.” Margot thought about all the things her mother had told her about arranging flowers. The best ones should be the sun of the arrangement. Everything orbits around them to enhance all their beauty.
“Sure.” Joseph P was happy to not have to pick anything else up.
“Dinner’s ready.” Jessica G’s mom tossed her head of braids. She paused and looked at the table. Margot’s mom, Jessica G’s dad, all the parents, but Pat F’s dad, came out into the backyard.
Margot’s mom traced the tattoo on the leg. It looked like a tattoo her own grandmother had, a woman who everyone in the family still talked about—Lorraine: a woman out of time because she did things like get tattoos, travel, own a bar. Problems with lovers—always wanting the fire, never the embers. Her grandmother would show up with a toy for her, cook a dinner, and ask her parents for money. But still a pioneer for women. Margot’s mom had last seen that tattoo when she was a girl called into the hospital room to say goodbye. She traced the vines. The L. Her mother had slapped her fingers and said, you’re being inappropriate.
Jessica G’s father couldn’t help himself, he picked up the kidney. Felt its mix of soft and hard. When he was a teenager, he and his two older brothers had been in a car accident. His brother, Lee, had died. His seatbelt hadn’t been buckled. They tried to save him. But there was glass in his abdomen. A man had caused the accident and driven away. Lee went into renal failure. He and his older brother, Devin, had sat in the waiting room. They had held hands. He hadn’t learned how to drive until he was thirty. Jessica G’s father was shocked at how something small, something he could easily fit in his hand, could be so important. The only things Jessica G knew about her Uncle Lee was he had died young and he was the reason why her dad cried at certain songs, during family gatherings.
Pat F’s mom saw her old boyfriend’s brown eyes suspended in the glass. By the end, she could barely make eye contact with them. He was always trying to find out what she was thinking. Why did she laugh at that man’s joke? Why did she smile at his friends like that? Didn’t she know how much it hurt him when she acted like this? Couldn’t she just respect him? She had left him when the pregnancy test had confirmed her suspicions. She tapped at the glass. Winced when the eyes undulated.
Joseph P’s moms were staring down at the thumb together. They looked as if they were viewing ancient ceramics in an art museum. All those years and still intact.
They thought of when the taller mom had come out to her parents. Holding the shorter mom’s hand and talking about love—having it, sharing it, true, how things were changing so much for the better. The short mom’s parents had embraced them when they gave the same speech. Sent them a blender and card reminding them that above all else, family was the most important. Joseph P’s grandmother’s mouth had opened. Shut. Then she had gazed at them and performed a slow, strange thumbs-down. The grandfather had nodded. No one spoke. Not even when the mothers got up and tried to say goodbye. Joseph P still had never met them. Once they had sent him a Christmas card with a ten-dollar bill and a note about praying for his soul.
“I think you should get rid of these.”
“But they’re ours.”
Every bird in the neighborhood woke up. They chattered among themselves. Gossiped about the scene below. Everyone could faintly hear an announcer yelling with happiness, “goal.” Pat F’s father clapped in the living room.
“Why is this happening?” Margot asked.
“They,” her mother started. None of the parents could think of what to say. They pointed instead to the clouds, and wasn’t that one just like a triceratops? They said dinner was ready. And if the kids were good, maybe they could all walk to get ice cream after. Please, the children could hear their parents saying, even though the word was never spoken aloud. And wasn’t the sunset beautiful? All the clouds looked like fingers, the sugar cones looked like dried skin. There were hearts and toes in the grass where the bugs flashed green. Please.
MEGAN GIDDINGS is a fiction editor at The Offing and a features editor at The Rumpus. Her first novel, Lakewood, will be published by Amistad in March 2020. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com.