For today’s Throwback Thursday post, I’m sharing the second chapter of a book I started working on, back in the fall of 2015. My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I came up with the seed of a story that I was going to turn into a novel, but then didn’t. Here’s the second chapter.
Mute, n.: One who does not speak, whether from physical inability, unwillingness, or other cause.
Now that I can read and write—things that I never would have learned if it wasn’t for Max—I can record everything that happened. So many things—even now, my hand shakes with the memory, causing the words on the page to tremble as if in an earthquake. Max is smiling at me. “Go on,” he says. “Write. You can do it, Ash.”
So I’ll start where it started, when I thought I was going to die.
Pain tore through my leg. I convulsed, arching with the horrendous burning that was taking over my body. Scream after scream built up in my lungs, but weren’t released. I couldn’t scream. My mouth and vocal chords had never obeyed me, and they certainly weren’t going to now, not when I needed them so badly. I couldn’t breathe for the pain. I clutched at the air with bloody hands. Nothing to hold on to. I could only grasp at the far-off voices.
“If we operate quickly, she might live…might have a chance…”
“What kind of life…better than before, perhaps…but the gear from the metal sector…”
“No time…so much blood…”
Operate? Gear? Blood? Nothing made sense. I couldn’t remember anything. Wave after wave of pain flooded down my left leg into my torso and neck and head. Hands pressed a cloth against my skin. A giant scream grew and threatened to burst in my throat. Nothing. Only the smallest whimper.
Someone pressed a cloth over my nose and mouth. Out of instinct I held my breath, my head pounding. It could be anything. Dad had enemies. I never trusted anyone. I tried to hit out, but the pain paralyzed me. I opened my mouth in another silent scream.
A strangely sweet odor filled my nostrils. Sweet, not like the rotting sweetness of old fruit and decaying vegetables, not like the mustiness of death. This was a white smell, a clean one, not brown or green like the smells I was used to. I let myself inhale, dragging the sweetness in with me.
I knew I was losing consciousness, but I had to remember. What was going on? And my leg—why did it seem to be on fire? A machine. I saw a machine, working away like it always did, its sharp blades stripping old bark off the wood being fed into it. Except this time, something stopped it. I heard screams. Just before I blacked out, I saw the problem. Its jaws had trapped my own leg, and blood was already dripping into the gears.
The sky yelled timber! above me. No, not the sky. My father, standing on the very top of a tall pine, silhouetted against the blinding brightness. I dove aside. No crash, no shaking of tree branches on the ground. Something pale—there, at my feet. A leg. My own leg. I looked. My boot stood by itself, an empty stocking dangling into it. I screamed. A weight bowled into me. I landed on my back in the brush. My screams couldn’t stop. My father’s eyes bore into mine. He was wearing a white coat. He whispered my name: “Ash.” I kept screaming.
I opened my mouth and gagged on my own tongue. Spluttering, I lifted my eyelids. About as easy to do as lifting a boulder. I tried another yell, in vain.
“Ash. You are Ash, from the Woodsmen’s Sector, correct? Ash?”
I didn’t know that voice. He was right, though. I couldn’t help but nod. That sent a wave of dizziness crashing over me. The world turned into one of those mechanized merry-go-rounds the aristo-somethings had for their children. I was at the center, wrapped in my cocoon of semi-consciousness.
“We managed to save your life, but your leg…I’m sorry. Saving you came at the cost of it.”
Blah blah blah blah, sounded the voice in my ear. What did he mean? Cost? What cost? The only costs I knew were for live chickens to be slaughtered, baked bread, plain cloth from the Textile sector. Cost?
Straining against the whirling room and my boulderish eyelids, I managed to open my eyes. A giant blur of white and gray. Sterile-smelling. Warm, just right. I realized I was in a bed, not my own.
“You woke up.” A face loomed in mine, smiling. “Did you hear me? I said you’ll live, but we had to amputate your leg.”
I didn’t know the word. Am-pyoo-tayt. Maybe Dad had used it once, when he talked about someone’s hand being am-pyoo-tayted because he’d gotten it caught in a wood-chipper.
All I could do was shake my head. Naturally it encouraged the room to keep spinning.
His blurry face seemed to turn sympathetic but disbelieving. “You don’t believe it, I understand. Or perhaps you don’t know the word?”’
I didn’t make any sound or movement. Both were true, but I decided it was safer to pretend I was too tired to speak.
“If you don’t know the word, Ash, it means that your lower leg needed to be cut off.”
Cut off?! They cut off my leg? Why would they do that? Was it too ugly after the shaver had chomped on it? I already knew my looks were nothing to gossip about. I didn’t need that proved to me. I opened my eyes further and tried to see what they’d done. Metal, that’s what I saw. Why metal?
“You’ll see that we replaced it with an artificial leg. All metal and steel, joints workable with gears, tendons replaced by steel strings. It should let you get back to work. In a few weeks, that is,” the man added dubiously. He was probably looking at my face. I’d seen enough drunkards around to know I probably looked like one.
I sank back into the bed. The boulders that were my eyelids were rolling shut already.
“Anyway…we’ll talk about that after you sleep again.” The doctor—it had to be the doctor, one of the most respected people in the Medical sector, I knew—faded into the blur. A door opened and shut.
I was alone now, I could feel it. Alone with this thing attached to my thigh, a thing I could only move a tiny bit, when I tried. Utterly helpless, I was. Not a new feeling. And now, nothing to do but sleep.
I gave into the darkness that I had just surfaced from, and when I next woke, I could see properly and my eyelids obeyed at once when I told them to rise. A single gas lamp burned on the wall next to the door, giving out enough light for me to see where I was. Who I was. My new leg gleamed, shiny and strange and completely beyond my understanding. Where it attached just above the knee, the skin looked purple and red and inhuman. I touched it gently. Painful.
I was clearly in a hospital room. Other than that…I had no idea where the room was, how long I’d be here, whether my spot in the factory would be saved or not…if I didn’t get back soon, someone would take it. Working or not, I’d still be a walking advertisement for the Metalworking sector. See that leg of hers! That’s our work, that is!
My stomach churned, and I realized I couldn’t face the doctor again. I didn’t want to face anyone who didn’t understand my sounds, who didn’t know I couldn’t speak.
Fear of the unknown won out. My own clothes hung on a peg near the door. Clambering of those white, white sheets, I tripped and staggered my way to the clothes. My boot wouldn’t tie around my new leg, so I left the top flapping. I nearly fell while clawing my way out of my shift—I hadn’t been wearing a shift! They’d forced it on me!—into my dress.
Already I was tired. But I had to leave. A clock tower announced the time—one, two three, four gongs—and I opened the door a crack. Only a few lamps with their quiet glows. Step, clump, step, clump, out into the corridor. I could no longer walk quietly. That was a loss.
I step-clumped a confused but obstinate path through the empty corridors. Crows help me, some of those strange white-clad people. Step-clump-step-clump as silently as I could, holding my breath with fear. No one saw.
There, there, at last, an exit! Saved, I hoped, inching open the door. Not the street; an alley. Good enough. Step-clump onto the cobbles. The door swung shut. I groped for the wall in the dark and leaned against it, getting my bearings.
Before I could move, a figure was bearing down on me. No, two of them. Hide! I pulled my coat up around my face and shrank. Not in time. They were running. A shoulder hit me and I lost my balance. The stones of the alley bruised my palms and side.
“…don’t know if these are worth keeping…have to give them a good look…”
As they dashed past, I glimpsed a drawstring bag, bulging at odd angles, bouncing in one of their hands. Boys’ voices. Thieves. Smugglers, perhaps? Pant pant pant came their breaths in the cold air.
“…not worth it, good for burning then. At least, we could sell it…” The dark swallowed them and I was left completely alone in the alley.
The sky was beginning to lighten. I had to get home before I really was seen. Picking myself up, I stumbled my way through the city toward the Metalworking sector, wishing I could turn invisible.
Thanks for reading!