I had three arms. At night, I used one of them to expand the crack in the wall. Its fingernails were remarkably resistant to the old plaster. Naïve I was, I hoped the hole would burst and collapse the house in the end, but it never did.
Father didn’t know about the gap or perhaps he was in denial that it was there at all. Mother didn’t care.
We had lived in the old house ever since the day I got up and walked. Mother thought it was a sign that when she put me down onto the wooden floor, I stood up and took my first steps.
“Look, Henry!” she called on father. “Selma is walking. This is it! This must be our home forever.” Then I took another step and threw up.
Mother liked to hide that detail when she told the story to strangers. Strangers loved the vintage atmosphere of the house. They were the people she had met, whilst running errands – shop assistants, post office clerks, hairdressers, policemen and women. A shy, but kind, sociable woman, she’d invite some of them over for tea or dinner. She loved to host. And even though she only had one arm, she was proficient in the kitchen. These people told interesting stories of their busy days, their boredom at work, their loves and their hates. Mother joined the conversations, always disguising father’s muteness with her naïve, cherishable, but incessant cheeriness. She sought out company, perhaps because she was a single child. Or maybe she did not want to feel inadequate with her one arm.
Mother’s dinner invites began to dwindle after the lady from the post office came round for dinner one night. She asked the question they had asked so often:
“How did you lose the arm?”
Mother topped off the water in our glasses and father left to take his cognac in the living room. He had heard the story many times. The post office lady waited for an answer.
“One day, when I was five, I woke up and it was gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I opened my eyes, I found that someone had taken it off during the night.”
The lady’s eyes opened wide.
“I asked myself the same questions. I posted signs across town to find the arm thief, but I never got an answer.”
“How tragic!” the lady exclaimed.
And though mother could have worn a prosthetic arm, she did not like to wear it.
“I used to have a prosthetic one. I never got used to it. It wasn’t my arm. And I’d rather have no arm than one that is not mine.”
The day she threw it out, I wasted no time to fish it from the bin.
All of a sudden, father stood in the door.
“I think it’s time for you to leave,” he said to the lady, who had begun to chew on mother’s carrot cake. She stopped and swallowed hard, looking up at father, then down towards mother, who avoided eye contact.
“Just this piece of cake Henry,” mother murmured.
“She can take it home,” he said and skulked out of the dining room.
Mother rose, excusing her husband, for he had a hard day at the office. She excused herself for being such a bad host.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” the woman said at the door. “Take care.” With that, she left. Mother never saw her again much afterward.
I carried in the dishes to the kitchen for mother to clean. When I was done, I ran upstairs to my attic room. A doll lay on the floor. Her porcelain stare was sad and I felt bad that I had left her there, alone in the dark. She would feel safer between the bear and mother’s prosthetic arm on the shelf. After I had changed for bed and brushed my teeth, I crawled under my cotton cover and closed my eyes.
Right on time, at 3 a.m., I heard the doorknob turn. The floorboards creaked under his weight. Five steps and he would be beside the bed – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He lifted the duvet and slipped under next to me, pushing me against the wall, because the bed was too small for the both of us. I pretended to be asleep. He slid his fingers underneath my nightgown, wandering up and down my skin. His breath was sticky tonight from the cognac and excitement, but his routine was the same. He put a pillow in between our heads so our eyes could not meet in the moonlight. With a mechanical motion he pulled aside my underpants. Then he came in and out of me, growing faster, panting heavier. I could always tell when he was done, twitching rapid. He rolled himself out of bed.
“Forgive me,” he whispered standing by the door, ready to turn the knob and flee from the clinging air that had filled the room. When he was gone, I got up and strode over to my shelf. I took mother’s arm and sat down before the crack. I could feel the places where the paint had chipped on the limb, uncovering the steel structure. Beneath the full moon, the hand looked graceful still, its long fingers formed into a delicate V. I held it tight to scratch out little pieces of plaster. I dug until I was too exhausted to continue, picked up what debris had come undone and put it in the empty cookie jar that I had hidden underneath my bed. I would empty it tomorrow; bury the pieces in our garden. Then I returned to bed and fell asleep with an empty mind.
When I turned 16, my breasts sprang into place like mother’s muffins in the oven. Boys began to notice me.
His name was Gilligan. Mother did not like him. Father hated him. I loved him.
“He is far too old for you,” mother said one night at dinner, after Gilligan escorted me home. I shook my head.
“He is 34. You are only 16. Why don’t you find a nice boy your age?” she insisted.
“Because I like him,” I answered as I fiddled with my fork.
Father shook his head. “Disgusting,” he muttered before he left the dining room. His pace had slowed over the years. His walk was firmer thus, but otherwise he had not changed. Mother began to wash the dishes. She looked beyond her years; paler, sicker now. A sudden fatigue had fallen over her in the last few years. Now more than when I was a child, I admired her tenacity to do the housework, despite the missing limb. I offered my help, but she rejected with a flick of a kitchen towel. I ran up to the attic and wrote a few nice words into my diary. I drew little hearts for ‘i’s in ‘Gilligan’.
The first time we met, was at the library. I was reading a book on herbaceous plants, standing in the aisle. I liked to grow herbs in the garden. Gilligan suggested an alternate book for the herb enthusiast. I followed his advice. When I returned the book, I thanked him with a few fresh leaves of basil I stole from the neighbor’s yard, because mine had not grown yet.
“You have beautiful eyes,” he said. I blushed and looked away. He brushed aside a strain of hair that came undone from my ponytail. He lifted my head by the chin and pressed his lips against mine. Never before had I been kissed and never again would I let anybody else kiss me, but Gilligan.
From that day, we met in the aisles of the library and kissed in secret, between romance novels and cookbooks. He held my hands tight. After two months, we went from kissing in the library to his flat. I came to see him after class and he cooked lunches and then touched me on the sofa. His hands were softer than father’s.
He drove me home at night. As soon as he had left, I stood in front of the mirror inspecting my adolescent shell. I did not understand what Gilligan saw in me. My nose was mediocre. My hair was too short and I was a little chubby around the hips. Other girls were far prettier. I vowed to eat less of mother’s carrot cakes.
At night I continued to scratch the gap. Mother’s hand now fit right inside of it. I began to see the brick that lay beneath the plaster and before the insulation.
One day, mother fell ill. She developed an unrelenting cough. It would not go away. She brought up mucus speckled with blood and found it hard to breathe. Over her wheezing, we feared that she would die.
“I can’t go. I’m sorry,” I said to Gilligan, who had made plans for us to move to a nearby town where he was appointed head of sales for the local printer service. He promised he would come visit me every weekend, whilst I took care of mother. She welcomed my decision and tried to help around the household, attempting the chores she had committed to for many years, but she was too weak. After mugs and plates shattered by the dozen, I confined her to her bed and played maid.
I was waiting for Gilligan by the train station the night she died. He said he’d come that weekend. Father sat by mother’s side. And Gilligan never arrived.
When I found mother dead, her crumpled body on the sofa in the living room where father had moved her to, I dropped down on my knees. I felt the burden of mother’s battle lifted from the house, but it did not console me. Instead, I prayed for Gilligan to return to me soon now that I was free to move away with him. I stumbled into the kitchen. Mother had wanted carrot soup that night.
The broth was thin. Father and I sipped it in silence. I could only hear the silver spoons scrape along the ceramic bowls. When we were done, I left the table uncleared, suffocating at the thought of never hearing mother call for me again.
Father disappeared into the living room and I rushed upstairs, crying full-bodied tears that dropped all over my diary. The little hearts in ‘Gilligan’ smudged and faded. I took the arm and sobbed into its hand, breathing in fine cement dust.
I lay awake for hours, waiting to hear the doorknob turn, but it never did. Drowsy from the tears, I drifted off to sleep. At 3 a.m., I woke to find myself lying in the center of the bed. I expected to be up against the wall by now. My rejected heart pumped fast. I got up and crossed the hall into father’s room, where he lay snoring. I took off my nightgown and climbed into his bed. He did not move and I stared at the ceiling and the glass chandelier that jingled in the breeze coming through the open window. The room still smelled of mother. I turned to face his back and reached out to touch the warmth between his legs.
“Go,” he said without turning around. I touched him then. He kicked his legs hard, reached down between his legs, grabbed hold of my hand, and threw it towards me. I held my breath and put back on my nightgown. I returned across the hall and sat on the edge of my bed, exhaling. My eyes wandered, searching for a spot of familiarity. I jumped up, determined now to finish what I had begun. Mother’s arm dug deeper, ripping through the yellow insulation. When I reached the outer layer of the wall, I was drenched in sweat. My arms were heavy, but I dared not stop. So I scratched and pulled and pushed the porous brick and kicked it with my foot. It cracked and snapped and larger junks of it came undone. When I was finished, sunlight broke through. The gap had expanded to the size of a small window and I could see the morning birds fly by. I closed my eyes for a minute, drained from the labor. I stroked mother’s arm, before I shoved it through the hole and pushed it out. I heard it tumble down the roof and plummet to the ground. When I searched the garden and all around the house in the afternoon, it had gone.