A man shoveled dirt in his backyard one day. He and his wife planned to put a chicken coop there, but this project was years in the making. This was the fifth year in a row he’d shoveled this dirt, the summer rains always settle it back to the earth, forcing him to return again next year. That summer, though, had been dry. A rare occurrence this far north. He shoveled the dirt and raked the leaves and pine needles and moose shit. While he shoveled and raked and whistled a tune under the high, bright sun someone across the street watched him. They watched him not to get off or to find pleasure in his sweaty work, but to observe. No more, no less. They’d watched his toiling year after year, felt his back-breaking shame after the first rain fall and first snow fall. They both knew what that meant—more soil to dig up, more ground to break. These eyes, peering with intent from across the street witnessed the man, who worked the whole day through, just drop his shovel and return inside. The eyes went to the sky, a clear day. They went to the dirt and to the shovel, and thought maybe the man’s wife called him in for sandwiches and tea, or an afternoon snack. Those eyes shut the blinds, shut the day away, for the entertainment vanished without a warning, without a sign.
The man, and his wife, got in their car and left the house, left the digging, not long after he went inside. Then, the eyes returned to the little bugs with their stiff little legs and glassy little eyes, and they forgot all about the man and his failed chicken coop.
“It started small, like most things do,” Ellen Brun said. She sat in front of us all, talking with an ease and a calmness I hadn’t believed to exist in a case like hers. She spoke with her hands, but kept them close to her chest. Her breasts were small—like two swollen bug bites, spider bites, maybe—from what I can remember, but the dress she wore made them disappear, as if they no longer existed. I did a lot of thinking about those breasts since I saw her walk into that place. I did a lot of thinking about what life would be like if I were another man; what life would be like if I were another human. A human like Ellen Brun.
“We didn’t think much of it. Then, that next day, the whole nail on his ring finger was swollen with yellow pus. I’m just glad we took his ring off before that happened, or else we would have had to cut it off, and I don’t think we could have brought ourselves to do that. To ruin such a thing. I’m not materialistic, but I am sentimental.
“We went to the doctor, because at first, we thought our insurance was good, didn’t see any reason not to. It could have been infected for all we knew.”
“What did they tell you, at the doctor’s office?” the man asked her. He wore a cheap suit, but wore a Rolex. It was the kind of suit he had before losing drastic weight—from sickness—but couldn’t afford to resize—from the medical bills. He stood in front of us, too, smiling with his coffee stained teeth. His hollow eyes told a different story than Ellen’s sunken eyes, whose bags wore more brown than his did black.
“They turned us away. Said our insurance wasn’t good anymore. Devin’s job provided the health and life insurance for both of us, well into his retirement. And they refused to even look at us. Our doctor of fifteen years didn’t even look us in the eye, didn’t even show himself. Coward.” That doctor sat in the back of the room, and when Ellen said that he scoffed and some of our heads turned to the sound, but he just stared down at a book with a cheeky, cunt smile stretched across his fat face. “So we went to a free clinic. Free it wasn’t.”
“Describe your husband’s finger,” he said.
“Like I said, it started small. Devin used to pick at his nails, cause he was always very anxious, and he did it without even thinking about it. Sometimes he’d pick too much and pull the nail down further than he should’ve, it’d get infected, he’d put some triple antibiotic on it, and voila, all better. But this was different, worse. Like cellulitis, fasciitis, or leprosy for God’s sake.” She laughed then took a sip of water, set the glass down, but brought it up again to her lips and finished the glass off.
“Would you like some more?” Rolex asked.
Another man approached her and filled her glass to the brim, she nodded and gave him a pathetic rise of her lips. She showed her teeth, they were yellow, caked with plaque. She closed her mouth just as quick as she opened it. She bent her top lip over those teeth, then drank. Strange way to drink water, Ellen. Strange way to keep your teeth, Ellen.
She gulped, wiped her top lip with her knuckle then spoke, “The first day he noticed it, it looked swollen and infected, nothing out of the ordinary. Then it just got worse and worse. The fingernail and whole top of his finger went black and stiff, like it’d been drained, sucked dry by some parasite.”
“When did it become worse?”
“That day after we went to the clinic. The doctor identified it right away as a type of necrosis found after the bite of a Brown Recluse. Devin worked in an office. The only time he ever went outside to work was in our rose garden, or trimming the hedges in our front yard. Devin didn’t care for labor, didn’t care to sweat. But, here’s the thing, Brown Recluses don’t live here. They can’t. It’s damn near impossible for them to make it this far north. Black Widows, maybe. Even then, they don’t inflict that kind of bite. They can’t. You fall into shock, you don’t degrade. You don’t disintegrate.
“So, they prescribed him some intense antibiotics, ones we could barely afford. They weren’t expensive, but they put a dent into what we had left. But they had to have them sent from Florida for some awful reason, and they made us wait two days for that.
“When we received the antibiotics they seemed to work. His finger had cleared up, he regained a little bit of motion and the pain simmered. Then, the very next morning, small blisters, hundreds of them, covered his whole left hand. They itched, he said, itched terribly. He scratched in his sleep and they bled with an awfully strong smelling odor. I will die with that smell in my nose. It smelled of sweet death. Something pungent, yet so sweet, you didn’t know whether to gag or take a big deep breath.” As she said it, something nostalgic, like catching a whiff of my great aunt’s house at Christmas time, filled my thoughts with sweet memories. All sweet memories, after some time, turn sour.
“So we went to back to the clinic. They didn’t have the means to diagnose it, so they sent us to a low-income dermatologist named Dr. Evan Missulena—” He sat in the back of the room, too. Arms folded, head resting on his chest. I couldn’t tell if he slept, or listened. “—and he, almost immediately diagnosed it as Dyshidrotic Eczema. An extreme case, but dyshidrotic nonetheless. He prescribed more antibiotics and a string of prescription creams, soaps, and corticosteroids. He said that it was probably caused by the stress of the other hand. No cure for such an ailment existed, just a better diet and a whole lot of prescription creams.”
“The antibiotics for the right hand, did they work?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, taking another long swig of water, savoring every molecule. “The infection, the blackness, just went away. All our focus went from the right hand to the left. We were home free.
“Devin worked from home as best he could, his insurance came back and we were able to provide for ourselves, and refill his prescriptions. I sold a lot of my art during those six months, put all that money into our savings account. Some of it went into cash that I kept hidden for the rainier days that were certain to come.”
“Why did your insurance drop you in the first place?”
“Devin’s employer had made a mistake, told the insurance company false information. He didn’t know if Devin and I were married, thought we weren’t so he put Devin down as a single dependent and they chucked him to the curb like poor, sick garbage. We certainly felt like it.
“We complained, filed for a suit, but after the mistake cleared up they threw in a few more benefits for us—one that included an extra three days stay at the hospital in case of my giving birth.”
“Were you and Devin trying to conceive?”
“Yes, for quite a long time. Since before we were married. We liked the idea of settling down here, making a life for ourselves. We both made money, I made money irregularly, but I always held my own. It was just nice, simpler, with Devin around. I loved the stability, and hoped our child would, too. Life is too sweet sometimes, and no matter how hard we tried, no matter how many beautiful nights we had together, no baby ever knocked on the walls of my uterus. We were tested and both us of were healthy enough and genetically able to have a child, but God looked down on us—maybe for our previous sins, maybe for the hand we were dealt. We never had a child, never even had an inkling to such a miracle.”
Ellen grew quiet. She hung her head and let out a small chuckle that no else, but me, heard. She lifted her thinning blond hair, brushed the bangs from her eyes behind her ears.
“Just because we couldn’t have a child didn’t mean we didn’t love to try. We looked forward to trying. Sometimes we would go days without touching each other just so those nights would taste sweeter to our brains. After Devin’s hands were healed, after that grueling six months, we decided to celebrate. No more bumps or blisters, dead skin, or pus showed itself on Devin’s hands. They were clear and beautiful, and with all that moisturizer he’d been using, soft as ever. Softer than I’d ever felt his hands. I worked in my studio, finishing a project I’d spent six years on, and he knocked and pried the door open just an inch or two. I stood and opened it and I saw his bare butt walking to our bedroom. My stomach lifted and my brain turned on a different kind of switch. I followed him to the bedroom and he sat there, in his lewd glory, shining, glowing. I’d never felt more in love than in that moment. I’d forgotten about the years without a child, realized it was better this way, thought that maybe God wasn’t looking down on us, but looking out for us. I’d forgotten about those awful diseases that Devin fought with. I forgot all about our financial crisis and slipped off my overalls and into bed with him.
“We kissed and talked sweet to each other. We laid there and held one another and then, he sent his right hand down and did what Devin did best: love me with every ounce of blood, every thought in his head and prayer in his mind. But Devin and I didn’t believe in God, we believed in each other. What he did made me feel better than I had in six months, but what he said made me feel worse.
“‘Are you on your period,’ he asked me. Threw me for a whirlwind, that one did. He pulled his hand from me and it was covered, thick, in blood. Not my blood. Devin didn’t have any cuts on his hand. I watched the man get out of bed, wash his hands and return, and when I laced my fingers through his—“ Ellen covered her eyes with her hand then ran her thumb and forefinger along her eyes and down the bridge of her nose. She sniffled once and wiped her nose, “When I laced my fingers through his, I felt no blood, no cuts, no scabs peeled, nothing. They were soft and back to their slender loveliness, the veins poking out, beating to the rhythm of his heart. When I held his hand, I could feel his heart beating faster and slower with his thoughts. Then they just bled from whichever pore they could find to escape. Blood with no other place to be than out just seeped out like some exotic fruit, oozed out like the blood of Milkweed. ‘It’s mine,’ he said. He said and I’ll never forget.
“We ran his hand under cold water, I held a towel around it. But it just bled and bled. We drove to the ER and they’d never seen anything like it. Turns out it was a reaction to the antibiotics. An unknown side effect that makes you bleed from the palms of your hand, whodathunkit?
“First they called the Pharmacist, then blood specialist, then the pore guy and the pore woman, brought in bags of blood because Devin was losing it faster than they could put it into him. Then that damn ring finger of his swelled up to the size of a ginger root. It exploded with that yellow, putrid—“ she held her hand to her mouth and gagged. The man who brought her water brought a trash can and set it next to her seat. She closed her eyes, hard, but seemed to swallow it down. Then doubled over the trash and let loose a transparent yellow liquid not too far from the color dehydrated urine.
“It exploded in the ER, all over us. Every specialist in their sweatpants, lab coat, or scrubs got the money shot and soon enough everyone was gagging. Even Devin.
“They say that explosion helped him. It stopped the bleeding and the swelling went down shortly after. The stench eventually dissipated and became less harsh on the nose. But it stayed on the fibers of your nose like skunk, or death, but also of blueberry muffins, or orange peels. Past the vile stench and gag inducing aroma, it was sweet. Real sweet. Something you don’t forget, like I said.
“They kicked us to the curb, shortly after. They kicked us to the curb again, with an uninsured medical bill. A number so large I felt the blood vanish from my brain. A feeling I don’t care for. Sure, they patched my Devin up and made sure he stopped bleeding, but that didn’t last long. As soon as we got home he just started bleeding again and that damn black sickness just started eating away at his flesh like Devin’s arm were its last meal.”
“What did you do then?” Rolex asked her. He took a sip of coffee. He scrunched his face and shivered. Cold coffee—when you expect it to be hot—will do that to a person’s face.
“Did what any desperate people would do: I cut Devin’s arm off.”
The people who sat around me reacted in various ways. Some sighed, gasped, coughed or choked, but some stayed quiet. Some already knew of what Ellen Brun did. It’s a small place, news like this doesn’t go under the wire, news like this doesn’t go unnoticed. I just folded my legs and set my hand in my lap. This is where things start to get interesting. For everyone. Especially, Ms. Ellen Brun.
“How did you amputate your husband’s arm?”
“I had to sacrifice some of the kitchen knives, some of my art tools, five cans of whipped cream and a whole lot of bandages that I purchased from the CVS down the road.”
“If you take a can of whipped cream and don’t shake it, you essentially have compressed nitrous oxide. Inhale enough and it’ll put you to sleep—sleep enough to endure an amputation.”
“What about the potential cause for brain damage?”
“Brain damage, what does it matter? Devin’s dead. And at the time I think that brain damage was the least of our goddamn concerns.”
After a dreadful pause in the echo of the room, another man spoke, “Ms. Brun, language, please.”
“Pardon,” she said, but with crossed fingers, no doubt. “So I knocked him out best I could and went to work. Took me a damn long time, but I did it.”
“How did you do it? I think that is the question we all want answered.”
“I did it like anybody else would, sure it was a little medieval, but you can sure learn a lot on the internet. There’s a wealth of knowledge there that’s just begging to be tapped into, like some gold mine and an oil well living together in the same hole of the Earth. I studied up while he bled, I took notes and even watched a few videos. I think that for the most part, I was successful.
“He woke up, sore as could be, and just smiled at me. No more bleeding, no more blisters, no more spreading infection. That day, I like to think, was a good day. One of the best days we’d had in months.”
She shifted in her chair, “I’m sorry, but I have to use the restroom.”
The large man, sitting in his large chair spoke up again, “That’s quite all right, I think we all deserve a little bit of a break. How about we take an hour and come back, finish this up?”
Rolex said, “Fine with me.”
Ellen said, “Thank you.”
She stood from her chair and the quietest man of all, a short, stout little man with gold rimmed glasses and a four-piece suit said, “Let’s make it quick. I haven’t got all day, and neither does she.”
We all stood, stretched and chatted. I took my leave to the bathroom, right on Ellen’s heels. I followed her and she broke off left to the women’s restroom, and I strayed right to the men’s. Inside, I took out my cell phone and made a call. A call that will come up again, I imagine.
The man returned some two weeks later, looking emaciated and raw. His skin pale and his eyes hollow, almost non-existent—just holes with two blue dots to fill the black void of a sickness so angry and vile it sucked the blood from him. He sat on the back step of his house and looked out at the mounds of brown dirt, the shovel hadn’t moved, but rusted. The eyes met his weary, hopeless gaze. The eyes met the mounds of dirt and the pile of lumber and chicken wire that sat in a pile rusting. How many years had they remained in one place? The boards, no doubt, warped, and the chicken wire, no doubt, rusted and sharp. The emaciated man stood and walked to the center of his yard, picked his shovel up with his left hand. His right arm moved toward the handle because his will beckoned him to dig again, but no right hand found its mark on the wooden handle of that shovel. No right hand would help create that chicken coop he’d promised for his wife, no right would ever hold her hand again, or touch her anywhere, again. The man threw the shovel across the yard. It landed in the rose bushes and skid along the dirt, hitting the wooden fence behind the house. The eyes watched from their second story window, moving back from the stiff little bugs to the eyeless man. His wife came out and held him close. The eyes couldn’t hear his weeping, but the rise and fall of his shoulders said more than enough.
Then, the eyes cared about the man and his failed chicken coop. The eyes thought they could help in some way, but in reality, they were the reason that chicken coop would never be built. Better to burn all that lumber in a big pit and be done with it, move on.
Ellen sat and adjusted her dress, running both hands along the curve of her butt along the bottoms of her thighs. Oh how I longed to feel those thighs again. I caught myself mouth agape and eyes fixed on the crook of her hip. The crook of her hip I used to kiss, I used to touch and run my fingers along the length of her body and focus all my attention on that crook. For ages at a time, it seemed.
The cavern of her chest rose and fell with a steady beat, a rhythm of butterflies flapping their wings or spiders dancing upon their cobwebs.
Then, once everyone was settle back in their seats, she spoke. “Things looked good for a couple of weeks. Devin was let go from his job. Turns out his employer hadn’t made a mistake in filing the wrong insurance form. Turns out his employer hadn’t made a mistake when he fired him on grounds of theft, terminating his severance package that would have set us up for years. We could have done nothing but live off that severance pay, but for the love of all that is holy and pure in this cruel world, we had to scrape by with whatever art I could sell. But sellers were getting sick of me, so I had to send my offers to other states. I got a high price from a seller in Seattle, a few niche artists in New York City took a liking to my work. One seller, here, surprisingly took quite a liking to what I did. He thought it unique, morbidly beautiful, and how did he put it—skin crawling.
“Devin fell into a depression I’d never thought existed in his soul. He watched television and would stare at the stump of his right arm for hours at a time. Not touching it or playing with, just looking. Sometimes it was like he was high on something and found fascination in trying to put the pieces of his arm back together again. We made love but for the life of us, nothing good ever came from it. He would try to grab me and what do you know, he’d fall face first into the bed, get frustrated and eventually just go into the bathroom and shower for the rest of the night. Then, of course, two months ago it all started again. Like a Robin in the spring, the blisters came back, but this time by the millions. Maybe even billions. Looking at his left arm was like looking into a bubble bath. Millions upon millions of little bulbs and blisters with no business being on the skin. But they were there, and they weren’t leaving.
“We returned to Dr. Missulena. He injected Devin more, even went to work on his arm with a scalpel, popping as many blisters as he could, but there were simply too many. He prescribed the most intense steroids he could, but it seemed to only make them worse.
“So you know what we decided to do?”
“What’s that Ms. Brun?” Rolex asked.
“I opened up my eyes for the last time on that morning, went once more to the drug store, bought more cans of whipped cream and more bandages and cut Devin’s left arm off to the shoulder.”
She just sat there, unblinking, looking at nothing. A thousand-yard stare if I’ve ever seen one.
“Ms. Brun,” the little, quiet man said, “where did you dispose of Devin’s limbs?”
“I double-bagged them in black trash bags and buried them in my back yard. I knew that, at least if I put them somewhere close, I would know the truth. If someone found two limbs in the dump, figured out who they belonged to, it wouldn’t fare well for me. I may be crazy, but I’m not an idiot.”
“The tools you used, did you dispose of those as well?”
“Well, of course not. I simply washed them in bleach, washed them in the dishwasher and put them all back where they belonged. I’m not going to throw out perfectly good knives and tools. Besides, I didn’t kill Devin with those.
“Shortly thereafter the second amputation we went to bed just as usual, but I woke up to a blackened, smelling corpse in the bed next to me. You’ve seen the pictures, you heard the coroner’s testimony. Yet, you sit me up here in front of all these faces, in front of all my friends, my peers, and my neighbors and you question whether or not I killed my own husband. How dare you all. Put yourselves in my place, for a second. Take away your ability to have children, if you have them forget about them. Take away your life insurance, and health insurance, car insurance; take away every last penny you own. Take away the love of your life, but make sure that you infect them with a disease that NO ONE can figure out. How dare you accuse me of killing my husband and burning him alive. His flesh wasn’t burned it was consumed by some microscopic culprit that might just be lurking in each and every one of you.”
“I think that’s enough, Ms. Brun,” the large man—the judge—said. “I think we’ve all heard enough. Any further questions from either side?”
Both men shook their heads.
But the little man put his finger up, “Actually, your honor. I do.”
“Then ask away.”
He stood, fixed his suit and wiped a piece of white lint from his lapel, “Ms. Brun, have you ever been married before?”
“Your honor that isn’t relevant,” Rolex said.
“Sure it is. Ms. Brun, answer the question, please.”
She took a deep breath, “No. I’ve never been married before Devin, but had a lasting relationship with man I haven’t seen in twenty-five years. Last I heard he died in a car accident just south of here, but who knows what’s true anymore in the case of people you haven’t seen in that long. Who knows what’s real and what’s just a rumor. There’s lots of people on this planet.”
“I’m done, your honor, no more questions.” The little man sat back down and closed his ledger. Rolex shot him a look that coulda—shoulda—killed him.
Everyone in the gallery looked up. Everyone now had intent to listen, too see if we were going to convict poor Ellen, to see if we believed her. To be honest with you, I’m not sure how many of us would bet our lives on believing her story. All of us felt for her. Not one of us grip our minds around what she had done and gone through, and no one, not one single person, could imagine what Devin went through.
But there was, you see. There was one person who knew just went Devin Brun went through.
In the jury, there was a man with one arm. He never said how he lost it when asked, and didn’t dare reveal his true self.
The twelve of us went into the room where we deliberated for less than two hours. Ten of us, myself included, believed her—needed more evidence—but were satisfied with what we saw so far. Two of us needed that evidence. But we swayed their opinion. I said something along the lines of letting old dogs lie, and letting little spiders alone in their webs, because at the end of the day the spider knows how big you are and knows how annoying a fly or mosquito can be—it knows what kinds of diseases those little creatures can carry, and its job is to eat them, because to a spider, those diseased little creatures are the most delicious.
Spiders know how big you are, and they’d be ballsy to try and bag you. You’d need quite a big spider to catch a diseased little human in its web.
That’s one big web.
So we let the poor woman off. No reason to let her live in a prison cell when she’s already entombed in her own mind. No human deserves such a punishment.
We returned and the foreman gave our verdict.
Ellen let out a sigh of beautiful relief, and so did I.
Remember, now, I made a phone call during our break. The man I called arrived when I intended him to. He came bearing a briefcase. He met me at my car, and set his briefcase on the trunk. He opened it and inside lay fifty or so glass cases with fifty or so different species of spiders encased within each one. I’d seen this before, but with butterflies—big, blue beautiful butterflies hanging on the wall of my physical therapist’s office.
I remember asking the secretary who made such morbid and hypnotic art. She told me a local studio called Loxosceles donated them when the office opened.
Strange thing to remember, strange thing to be reminded of.
“What’s this?” I asked him.
“This is her legacy. This is her art. Bug under glass art. I bought all of them to help her pay her husband’s medical bills.”
I grabbed one of them, inside lay a Brown Recluse.
I met Ellen at her car. I tossed her the Brown Recluse and she looked up at me with wide eyes. When I reached out to shake her hand she was met with a flashback, no doubt. The cold metal touch of where my hand used to be sent her into violent shivers and she, after these long, dreadful years, blinked her big red eyes and showed her big toxic fangs to me.
Oh, how I longed to feel that warmth again.