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  • Writer's pictureMichael Fowler

The Two-Fingered Juggler, or Gratitude

When the deity visited our city, the Cleanliness Corps swept the streets clean of wretched has-beens like me lest the sojourning god be offended by our unsavory presence. No one knew exactly what became of most of us, but there were rumors of tent enclaves erected in the frigid mountains. The Cleanliness Corps was both efficient and secretive. 


All of us rounded up underwent brief questioning, and when I volunteered that I was a retired circus juggler, down on my luck for the last decade or two, I learned I had a chance to redeem myself. In three days’ time, I was pulled from a holding pen that contained a specimen of every human misfortune, made to don a clown’s suit, and given three apples to juggle before his eminence, who, in silken robes, regarded me as a spider might his next meal. 

The rules were simple. I had to juggle my three apples for three minutes, or until the luminary became bored, and for each drop, one of my fingers would be amputated. Though I hadn’t juggled in months, I began well enough, and did both simple cascade and crisscross tricks without mishap, the patterns being stored in my arms and hands from long use. But I quickly grew tired and irritable, and at the end of three minutes had made eleven drops, becoming a regular fumble-fingers.

I was fortunate, his highness pointed out, in that he was merciful. I would lose all ten of my fingers as agreed, yes, but the eleventh, which might ordinarily be my head, he would spare. Gratitude gushed from me like a stream, leaving me breathless and tearful, and after the Executioner laid my digits upon a butcher’s block and hacked them all away, then wrapped my bloodied hands in two rags soaked in acid, I was released back onto the street, not without my three bruised apples and a chunk of stale bread stuffed in the pockets of my clown suit. I gathered that I was one of the more successful acts that day, since many others perished.

On the now spotless street, where I had been living like a mangy dog prior to being kenneled for the majestic one’s pleasure, I at once made my way to the Health and Restoration shop. Old Bremer, a prosperous physician and apothecary for many years, was in, and told me as he unwrapped my hands that the acid in the bloody rags had likely saved me from contagion, but that he needed to act quickly to reverse such digital devastation. As it was, he could only restore one finger on each hand, and unless I was partial to wearing rings or flipping people off, he recommended the thumb or index. I went with the index, on vaguely utilitarian grounds.  

As Bremer tsk-tsked and bathed my truncated mitts in a special herbal broth, we discussed price. 

“I’m afraid I can pay you only in gratitude,” I said morosely, my thankfulness already depleted by the amount I gave the potentate for sparing my life. A man’s gratitude cannot be infinite, after all. I waited for Bremer to throw me out with the cure incomplete.

“Ah,” said Bremer, undismayed. “With gratitude comes obligation.” He massaged the edges of my palms, where, not without pain, I already felt the buds of two strange new digits beginning to sprout. Bremer then described an old theft that had occurred against his family. 

        “Do you know jade?” he inquired of me, manipulating my longish, just-developed knuckles. “It is an enchanted stone, in whose lucid depths those who live fortunate lives may discern the past and future. Two years ago a small jade elephant of the most splendid opalescent green was stolen from my brother’s house by the man who owns Tor’s Jewelry store on the waterfront, Arnad Tor. Perhaps you are acquainted with this scoundrel?”

I looked bewildered to show I did not, and Bremer continued.  

“No matter. I can show you the ownership papers for the jade piece, if you doubt my veracity. This thief Tor is even now trying to unload the article, but few can afford his exorbitant price. Naturally, when my family members or even the police call on him, the elephant is nowhere to be found. With your practiced palms and supple new appendages, which I will make extra quick and long, almost twice as long as ordinary digits, you will be able to procure the jade elephant and return it to me.”

“Of course,” I said, not about to argue with my benefactor. I held before my eyes my now restored hands, eight wounds smoothly healed and two new index fingers lengthy and flexible beyond compare, and was well pleased. After a brief stopover at an old friend’s on the same side of town, where I exchanged my clown suit for more respectable attire, I made my way to the seafront. There I was greeted by the ceaseless cawing of terns and gulls as I walked along narrow streets wet with mist, one damp pedestrian among many. From the entryway to Tor’s I could count the boats in the harbor, or could if I had nothing else to do.

A bell tinkled as I entered the shop, and I found I was not the only customer within. A young couple was haggling with a man, undoubtedly the owner by his air of superiority, over the price of a ring. 

“It’s only a ring, so why shop around?” he demanded of the couple. “Wherever you go, it’s only going to be rings you find. There’s nothing uncanny about them.” 

The young man then turned to his fiance, as she must have been, and told her, “This fellow is hard-hearted and pushy. Let’s go someplace where romance is appreciated.” Arm-in-arm, the two strolled defiantly out the door.

Tor, with a disgusted look on his froglike face, then turned to me. “Foolish lovers,” he sneered. “They expect me to dote on them as if life is a fairytale and I’m a genie who grants their wishes. I don’t have time for that nonsense. What can I do for you?”

“Jade, if you have the time,” I replied in a neutral tone. “I’m a collector of small jade animals, the more precious, the better.”

“Are you now,” he replied, looking me up and down. He noticed my maimed hands, which I made no attempt to conceal. “Where do you work? I don’t recall seeing you before.”

“If you don’t mind,” I said, and nothing more. I glared at him to convey my impatience. 


With a grunt, Tor disappeared for a moment into the dark rear of his shop, returning with three jade figurines that he laid on the counter between us: a dolphin, a horse, and an elephant. 

“These are your finest?” I said, knowing nothing of jade. I encircled the elephant with my elongated forefinger and lifted it to my eyes, noting that for some reason–perhaps to disguise it–the carving had been painted white a while ago.

“There are no finer pieces to be had,” he said, adding, “They are quite expensive.”

“This elephant,” I said, “is it truly jade, and not ivory? It’s quite white.”

“It is jade, the finest quality, and came to me in that condition. I haven’t had the time to remove the disfiguring coat of paint yet.”

“Perhaps I should return when that is accomplished. I’d like to see all its pristine qualities.” As I studied the elephant up close, I noticed a small chip in the paint. Before Tor could object, I pressed the animal into my palm and widened the tiny window with my sharp fingernail. Next I held the figure up to the ceiling lamp to illuminate its interior, while at the same time I asked the price.

As Tor barked out an astronomical figure, I saw enacted in the green depths of the stone a stirring scene: this very shopkeeper pilfering the elephant from another man’s house as the homeowner slept. The homeowner bore a striking resemblance to old Bremer the apothecary, and was certainly his brother.

I tossed the jade to the shopkeeper, who caught it on the fly in surprise. I turned to go but hung in the doorway, the tinkle of the bell fading and the owner watching me with eyes wide. “I’ll return in a day or two for a closer look,” I said. “Have it ready.”

Just then a seagull flew through the open door, snatched up in its beak the jade elephant from Tor’s fingers, and flew with it out the door before the speechless man could find his voice. I ambled after the gull and vanished into the damp throng of people outside, chuckling to myself. 

After that incident I refused to revert to the vermin-like life I’d lived when I stood before the man-god as a performer. Regenerated in body and soul by my digital transformation, I taught myself to juggle anew, employing small hoop-like wooden rings instead of balls and clubs. I could insert my two long fingers into the rings with ease, catching and tossing them, and perfected a routine where I ended up with four hoops stacked on each index finger. I also spun plates and basketballs atop my fingertips and perfected a profitable shell game.

 

At the end of a few weeks I joined a small carnival, a commune of dispossessed talents really, that performed in towns close to my country’s border with our westernmost neighbor, Primo Garden Lots, a sovereign democracy. My renewed vigor, together with a sense that freedom lay within reach, all but eradicated my old age and natural fatigue.

I soon encountered Taggert, the haggard but enterprising conductor of our flea circus attraction, a dismal affair of shrunken bugs that, under a glass, resembled a miniature uniformed army blasted into submission. Taggert informed me that a trustworthy farmhand, who lived on the outskirts of the town where the carnival was encamped, would lead a group of twelve adults, no children, through a nearby forest into Primo Garden Lots, for a fee. Along with a parcel of gratitude, I paid my portion, which represented all my savings to date, and learned that the clandestine trek was to take place in a week.   

Why does everyone say, “Gratitude begets indebtedness,” or similarly depressing slogans, and never the more hopeful, “Gratitude breeds opportunity?” I, whose gratitude one might suppose to be exhausted, can tell you. Before I allowed myself to cross the border to freedom, I had a further debt to repay. This was to old Magello, the dying magician and constant friend of mine back on the bay, whose trained seagull had purloined the jade elephant that I needed to repay Bremer the apothecary for healing my hands. That splendid bird, almost as lousy as decrepit Magello himself, had dropped the elephant straight into the magician’s hands, whence it came into my altered ones to pass along to Bremer. 

I therefore undertook the two days’ journey back to the waterfront where, in a dank cellar below a tavern, Magello coughed out his last hours, to give up to him my spot in the freedom parade, if I may call it that. I did this out of the most profound gratitude, so that Magello might spend the remaining minutes of his life breathing democratic air, in case an arduous trip to the border appealed to him, or he survived the expedition if it did. 

If I sound sarcastic here, it is not to disparage Magello, for whom I devoutly wished to put on hold or even sacrifice my own freedom, so that he might enjoy his well-deserved own, for however short a time, in all his present misery. It was only that, seen in a certain light, my obligation to him had cropped up as a barrier between me and Primo Garden Lots. 

Moreover, Magello sensed that I was reluctant to make this offer, because he at once chided me, “Of course I accept! You owe me that! It’s the right thing to do! You’re not so healthy yourself, you know! I’m surprised you made it this far!” Here he coughed explosively into a filthy rag, and I might have joined him in a cough if another rag had been on offer. Though I felt as fragile as dust, I believed a few chest-cracking convulsions might bolster me. 

“But this is my native country, and I will not forsake her,” the magician declared feebly, his lungs drained of phlegm and air for a moment. He glared at me with shining, wet eyes. “Hear me? So enjoy your freedom, traitor.”

Afterward Magello and I shared a few laughs over the grog he served us in tarnished tin cups–I never knew for certain when he was joking, about patriotism or anything else, but he guffawed endlessly over my description of the jeweler’s expression when the gull carried off his elephant, though I’d told him the story before–and then I departed. I went away alone, but absolved of debt, leaving Magello to finish emptying out his lungs in private.  

I wish I could say I felt like a new man, but I didn’t get far before I started shaking like a prisoner in a freezing cell. I thought I was juggling again, but it was the world swirling around me. I realized I was as ill as Magello, perhaps with the same malady. I would never make it back to the border, not even to reclaim my crossing deposit. Rejoining the circus as a juggler was out of the question now too, even if I made it that far, since on the trip to see Magello my new index fingers had begun to wither and turn an alarming shade of grayish purple. They had become like the flaccid fingers of an empty glove, with only a sliver of brittle gristle inside them, and I knew they would soon fall off like chameleons’ tails. I would then have my two palms to clap with, if I wished to applaud anything.  

Fortunately for me, our resplendent leader had departed some while ago, and I was no longer in danger of being swept up so as not to offend him. I was free to line the street like litter once more, and that is what I did: begging to survive, also breeding carp in a fetid pond by a canal, and making wine from weeds in an old bathtub, as I had in the past. At one time I had typed correspondence too, on an antique Olivetti machine that still lay in a pawn shop, but clearly my days as a typist were over. Oh, I might have gone back to the apothecary, I guess, and asked for a few new fingers, but Bremer would only want another favor, saying “one good turn deserves another,” or some such burdensome claptrap. In fact I heard Bremer had passed on, and I had no idea what the new man would demand of me. I didn’t care to find out, either.

But what could I do but keep on going, until all my puny strengths wore out? I was so charged with gratitude for this life, even run-down and fingerless, that my hand was forced. A fortunate life, beyond doubt.


 


Michael Fowler writes humor and horror in Ohio.

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