Edition 3: Ring Finger by John Claude Smith
Cammie sucked hard on the rolled cigarette, the smoke threatening to warm her frigid innards, but failing.
The sky was bright and white and vast—infinite—though charcoal curled the distant edges.
Winter came and owned their souls. Took root in the marrow. Froze their dreams like arctic lakes that never thawed.
Ragged threads scratched spider-like at her fingertips, the home-made fingerless gloves meant to deter calluses on the palms, but the grip of flesh, of strong fingers, was deemed necessary to swing the axe.
White smoke plumed past chapped lips. Blood filled the creases, polished her cheeks, threatening to warm her again but, as always, failing.
Warmth was an illusion. An empty belly grown walnut-tight made that clear. Life here was all about survival, nothing more. Happiness, hope…all part of another’s existence. Not those who existed here. Claiming they were alive was an insult to the word.
Cammie sucked until the bead grew brilliant red, then dead black. She flicked the corpse to the snow.
She had work to do.
Setting her hand on the axe handle, it vibrated at the intrusion as the man in the colorful skins made of strange material—Cammie could not imagine the animal that had once worn them—made a noise akin to a punctured tire or, more so, a tire trying to re-inflate itself.
She remembered all those strange sounds at the car repair shop Pop used to work at. Remembered whirrs and squeals like creatures made of metal and vinegar. She remembered liking the smells of oil and exhaust and the animal musk of sweat.
But that was before the trees had called to them.
His struggle would not be long.
She took her hand off the handle and he moved, twitched in the throes of death.
She got down on her haunches and said, “Don’t know why you folks ever want to come out here, mister. Don’t know what you be thinkin’. Got your fancy clothes and all. But why here?”
She waited for an answer, knowing there would be none. The man couldn’t even turn his head to face her, though he tried. She noted his effort as the muscles in his neck grew taut and quivered, to no avail.
“This land is hell on earth. I can’t imagine why you folks would come here if’n you didn’t have to. Guess you be dumb or somethin’. Which is all fine for us. We gotta eat. We gotta survive.”
She clenched her long fingers, the cracking of joints sounding like distant gun shots, opened her hands and paused.
“Thank you kindly, mister,” she said, as she procured his purple and maroon ski cap, pulled it over her head, over splintered-oak brown hair that hadn’t been washed in months, not surprised that there was no real warmth in the cover; the threat, as always, a broken promise.
“Thank you for this, too, mister,” she said, both hands firm to grip his greasy black hair, pushing his face into the snow. Still plush enough to sink into, but solid as it clung to tree trunks and large stones. She put all her lean yet wiry strong weight into the killing. After a couple minutes she released her grip, her arms aching for the sake of making sure he was dead. His final impression, a death mask in dirty white, looked up at her from the snow. Didn’t matter to her. She smudged the image with already icy fingers.
His struggle had been inconsequential, the axe having already done the major damage.
Before she signaled the others, she slipped a glove off his left hand. There, she was happy to spot her treat. She reached around to her back pocket and pulled out the wire clippers she’d confiscated many years ago from a former boyfriend as he had a whole box full of instruments for what-not and who knows.
This was before they moved up.
Her strength belied her appearance. She squeezed with the steadfast precision of a vice as she clipped off his finger, just below the metal.
She put it in her mouth, sucking on the blood and silver, gnawing on the meat, which always tasted different beneath the silver band.
She liked it most when the bands were silver. Sometimes they were gold and that did not tenderize the meat as the silver did. Rather, it tainted it, causing the meat to be bitter. She had no understanding, could not remember the first time she’d ever done this. An oral fixation, that’s what Pop had told her she had, way back when. Not that he had minded.
She pocketed the silver as she always did, adding to her collection, and sucked and gnawed on the finger some more, enjoying this rare indulgence. But only for a minute as she understood what this silver band implied. Haste was important if their bounty was to be made more plentiful.
Those with the silver or gold bands rarely came out here alone.
When she’d had enough, she stood up, wiped the greasiness from his hair on her jeans, and stuck two fingers in her mouth. The whistle that followed sounded like wind through cracks in thin walls, but louder.
Brett and Cooler cawed in response. The crows that watched from the tips of the odd trees out here that never lost their leaves cawed in response; the odd trees were their homes. She turned toward the north and saw them in the distance, their loping stride smooth as a deer’s.
When they made it to her, she said, “Drag him up. We’ll clean him out in the trees, with the others. We got good eatin’ for a few days, long as you don’t gorge yourselves.”
Brett grunted something that might have been, “Yes, sis,” but might also have been simply a grunt.
Cooler planted his foot on the man’s spine and pulled the axe out of the man’s back with a dull, sucking sound.
Cammie was swift to take the axe from him. Cooler tilted his head and stared fish-eyed at her.
“Get on, boys. Take him up. And make it fast.” She put the finger in her mouth and sniffed the air, the scent foreign yet familiar in a way she did not understand. Something sweet, tangy.
“This one didn’t come alone. Might as well stock up.”
And they were off, ropes wrapped around the man’s arms and torso, dragging him off to the trees, where more ropes dropped out of the branches, ready for the task at hand. It was all like a well-oiled machine, the strange nature of their existence.
Cammie knelt down and wiped the blood off the axe head. Always good to keep your weapons clean. Pop had taught her that, too, before the others had taken off with him. She remembered watching them do this when she was ten-years old, confused yet strong even then. She’d been in charge ever since.
He’d taught her lots of things about survival.
As she rubbed fistfuls of snow on the metal, she kept her eyes out to the barren stretch between the trees; kept her nostrils flared, eager. Her primal soul took over.
Others might not understand, but out here you don’t think beyond what’s necessary. A walnut-tight belly and instinct made sure of that.
She crouched behind a fallen tree and watched a woman and young boy dressed like the man picking their way awkwardly through the landscape. Not swift like the man before she’d taken him down.
“Darren,” yelled the woman, a soft echo eaten by the sky.
Cammie was patient as she watched them, concentration honed, wondering again what these folks found so fascinating about out here, where life was lived meal to meal and survival was the only guideline one followed.
In her patience, she thought, Yes, today is a good day.
One of the few.
And moved closer…
John Claude Smith has written over sixty short stories, eight poems, and over 1,100 music journalism pieces. Late in 2011 he published his first short story collection, The Dark Is Light Enough For Me, with another one soon coming. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and frequently visits Rome, Italy.