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The Arm Ouroboros

I take the hammer in my right hand and raise it up over my head to bring down, screaming, against the left hand I have placed flat on the tabletop. My knuckles do not break. My skin does not tear. I do not scream in agony. Instead, my left hand flattens like soft rubber, the imprint of the hammer’s head clearly visible in what is supposed to be human flesh.

The sight is worse than any pain could possibly be.

I hammer my hand again, and again after that, developing a rhythm, watching as the skin deforms, the boneless flesh spreads out, and the appendage I have always known becomes a flat sack, wider by many measures than it’s always been, a squashed sack of a thing that conforms to both the surface of the table and to the shape the hammer has demanded of it. I lift my arm and let the limp thing at the end of my wrist dangle, and still it does not hurt, still it does not bleed. I put the hammer down and examine the rubbery mat that I have made of my hand, and I shake it, wincing at the smacking sound it makes as it flaps.

It is not my hand, not really. But I have had this feeling for some days now, the revulsion for this thing that looked like my hand and felt like my hand but yet was not my hand, was instead a stranger at the end of my wrist, a thing that had no business being there and which I want gone. I do not know how it happened or when it happened. I am pretty sure that my right hand, the one that wielded the hammer, is still real, but after the results I have just experienced I need to be sure, and so I cross the kitchen to my knife rack, where I have multiple blades that I’ve kept sharp enough for the efficient carving of meat. I use my right hand to pull out the most serrated and I regard it with distinct unhappiness, realizing for the first time how difficult this next part of the experiment will be, when I no longer have a left hand to manipulate it with. But I still have options. And so I tuck the handle of that blade under my left armpit, closing my right fist around the serrated edge. My palm protests at the sharpness. I suspect that my right hand will respond properly to being cut. Under normal circumstances, this would be a stupid experiment. But parts of me are no longer flesh but are rather something else, and so I have to know for sure.

I tighten my fist and then rip my hand as fast as I can.

What I feel is what I should feel, agony; what I see pour from my right hand is what should pour from it, blood; and when I open that hand to assess the damage, I find what I should find: a deep slash with whitening edges and a pulsing stream of scarlet that already paints the entire surface and shows no sign of relenting. I know what I have done is stupid, but it is also comforting. My right hand is a hand, if a mangled one; my left is something else, and it is infinitely more disturbing to me that it does not hurt, than that my right hand does.

I feel faint. I know that I should not have done what I just did. I do not understand the madness that made me. I should get on the phone, somehow, call an ambulance, somehow, get these problems dealt with, somehow, but I live in fear of what I will find out if I do manage to stagger into an emergency room and somebody is able to tell me exactly what has become of my left hand. So I stagger to my living room couch and lower myself into its cushions and for a minute or so I sit there and bleed, content to do that, unbothered by the blood that is now dribbling down my arm and staining my chest and the very place where I sit. My right hand is hurting less now, and I suppose that I am going into shock, and I find that I approve of this development, because it deletes much unneeded distraction from the real problem. I look down at my left hand. It is still largely flat, though it has plumped some, taking on a grey coloring that I suppose I should see as ominous. I lift it and the silly putty fingers flop like bungee cords. The palm also has developed a horizontal wound to match the one on the right, except that it possesses none of the character of a wound, not any pain and not any blood.

It is all distressingly smooth. For all my life, that palm has had what palms should have; a pattern of skin-creases in the shape of the letter M, but I have succeeded in smoothing those out, what I am seeing looks like plastic, as cold to the eye as it has been to the touch. I wonder if it’s even alive and I also wonder just how far up my arm the false flesh goes, if the same flattening would occur if I used the hammer on my wrist, or my elbow, or my shoulder. Maybe the one hand that’s bleeding so profusely is the only part of my body that has not been quietly transformed into whatever the left hand has become, and maybe later, if I’m up to it, I will have to perform similar experiments on other parts of my body, like my feet or my face, but somehow I think not; somehow I think I’ve been lucky enough to catch this early, while only my left hand is affected. If I hadn’t been on top of things I might have ended up in real trouble.

In the meantime, that left hand is still plumping. Maybe it possesses the ability to re-inflate itself, if not with the blood it doesn’t have, then with air, the way a squeak toy does when released by a dog’s jaw. Maybe it’s actually an improvement on the hand I lost when it decided to take over, and maybe this will be convenient if the hand I’ve sliced is in some way irreparably damaged, by the slicing of tendons or whatnot. It might not be a bad thing to have a left had that can re-inflate itself after being hammered flat. But I rebel at that premise, because it is still not my hand. I am still disturbed by its presence at the end of that wrist. I still want it gone, and so I need to explore this problem further, before I do something idiotic like pass out.

I extend my right index finger. It is sticky with blood and as I peer at it closely, a discrete drop of that blood dangles from the tip, gathering enough substance to drop. The dangling droplet is bright red and it shines with a little window-pattern from the kitchen lights. It fascinates me, and for a moment I wait for the droplet to fall, but it appears unwilling to, and so I touch it to my tongue, tasting its sharp tang. I suck the blood off just to dry that finger a little bit. I pull it from between my pursed lips and close the rest of my fingers into as tight a fist as I can, leaving the index to probe with.

And then I press it to the swelling flesh of my left hand. My right finger feels the touch. The flesh of my suspect left hand does not. It feels numbed, as if by novocaine; alien, the same way the side of my face felt, when I had to have a wisdom tooth removed and the dentist made that whole side of my face as rubbery as a floor mat. My cheek had not felt like part of me. Whatever I’m touching now does not feel like part of me either. The skin depresses when I press harder, but I can only tell this because I am looking at it directly and not because I have any sense of it except from what I get from the probing finger. I shift to another spot, leaving a little blood mark, and try again, moving to the unnaturally smooth palm. One of the long, flattened digits flops against the uninjured index and it is exactly like being touched by a foreign object.

I probe the wound that is not a wound.

It closes on my finger.

Its grip is tight. I cannot pull the finger free.

My right finger is now embedded in my numb and rubbery left palm. I yank harder, and this time feel resistance, a responding tug that represents my index finger being pulled further in. By the time I am even aware of it, the entire finger has been swallowed and the substance of the left hand is now flush with the ravaged disaster that is my right.

I yell and I get to my feet, and I at this point discover what all people who have lost the use of limbs must discover, that I rely on them more than I ever would have guessed, just to steady myself. Already dizzy, I find myself overcorrecting and about to fall over. To avoid a potentially disastrous plunge, I respond to instinct and let my knees go limp to take some of the impact. I kneel, then I topple face first. I feel something break in my nose. I taste blood in the back of my throat. I roll over and face the ceiling, white and dusty, a previously unspotted strand of cobweb joining one rafter and one wall. I manage to raise my joined arms and see that the flattened left hand has proceeded further in its ambition to take in the bleeding right, that it has swallowed that limb past the wrist and is halfway to the elbow. The rubbery skin flexes, like a python swallowing a cat, and my right arm sinks further into my suddenly carnivorous left. There is no possibility of getting to a hospital now, because both my arms are useless now, except for those roles that their new paradigm has cast them in, as something that eats and something that is eaten.

The flattened fingers of my left hand twitch and start to writhe, like subsidiary snakes. They grope like blind things, grab hold higher up my right arm, and start to constrict. The pressure is unbelievable. I understand that for my left hand to swallow more, the right must be reduced in size, something that can only be done by breaking the bones and making of them parts that can go down. I feel a violent lurch and feel the sting of blood in my eyes before I blink away the sting and see the white spear of bone protruding from the meat of my forearm. I try to scream, and I suppose that what comes from my mouth qualifies as a scream, but it is not very loud. It is more a bubbling retch than anything else and there is no possibility of anyone hearing it in the next apartment, or the one above me, or the one below. And meanwhile the gray flesh of my left hand closes over the protruding bone and compresses, grinding the splinters together, while moving on to the elbow and beyond.

My arms now resemble a letter O, one that becomes more and more flattened as the left one continues to elongate and the right one continues to disappear. I can only wonder what will happen when the left swallows its opposing limb all the way up to my shoulder. Will it be satisfied with that? Or will it go full Ouroboros, that one part of my body becoming the mouth that will continue to eat until it finally catches up from behind? I know only that some of the things breaking inside me are not at all close to the site of the battle. The blood trying to flow into the besieged arm is now backing up, and I can feel my blood pounding in my ears, bursting like a balloon in my chest, becoming a red curtain over my vision. Already, my heart labors to pump.

I know that I will be dead soon.

I do not know whether my left hand will be, or if it can survive this better than I can, whether it still be hungry, or what it will elect to eat.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, His The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.