Imad Al-Bokhari of the desert city, Shangri-La, was born with ten fingers at the stroke of noon to a young woman with healthy teeth, breasts full of milk, three fingers on her left hand and two on her right. The right hand was wrapped in fine gauze—thin, soft, and stained crimson—because Asra had needed to pay for a doctor and was otherwise impoverished.
Asra, during the truncated time she knew Imad, said he was a strong baby—so strong she feared he would perforate her nipples with his baby teeth, so strong that his midnight cries roused the neighbors through the thin apartment wall, causing them to plead, “Allah! Destroy that child!” Asra smiled when she heard these solicitations, however, because she felt Imad would one day be a leader among men, and the strength he possessed as a baby would be necessary in the future. She kissed Imad’s forehead with her nose, rocking him in the crook of her left arm, and favoring her right hand which, in the month since his birth, had turned crocodile green due to a staph infection.
A month later, Asra felt feverish: her right hand throbbing, her palms sweaty, her forehead hot. The infection had led to pneumonia and, within two months, Asra lay dead in a hospital which had too few beds, two hundred patients, and only three doctors. As Asra’s family was unknown to her friends, Imad was raised by Asra’s neighbors, the Al-Bokhari’s.
By the time Imad turned twenty-two, he had become the preeminent thief of Shangri-La. He wore a long white robe, a ruby ring on his thumb, and he had no education at all. His beard was long; his face was ugly with warts, acne scars, and rotten yellow teeth. From long nights of drinking and cigarettes, from years of consecutive mornings without ever brushing his teeth, and from his abominable habit of sucking onions, Imad had acquired what seemed to be a permanent case of halitosis, and it was only because he tied a bandana around the lower half of his face—to confine the stench—that he could steal jewels at midnight from the bedsides of the somnolent.
It was during one of these nights that Imad the thief found himself treading stealthily across a soft, deep rug toward a boudoir, having filled himself with a touch too much to drink. Imad hardly worried about the drinks, however, because the rug was silent and the room was spacious and uncluttered. But the rag began to slip down his face, and Imad was so drunk that he did not notice the slipping rag or the misfortune that approached. With a small hiccough, the rag fell off, and the terrible stench of his halitosis was emitted; the tenants awoke, and all was undone.
In the months after Imad was released from his ten year incarceration, he found no work at all—no employer wanted to hire a convicted thief and a motherless bastard. So Imad was forced to sell his fingers as talismans. The butcher who bought Imad’s digits was a spectral man—much shorter than Imad—and thin like a slim iron rod. This butcher’s hair was long, and his face was sallow, with malicious eyes and a tongue that was said to be sable and like a trident. The cleaver that the butcher carried on his belt seemed half the size of his body, and this butcher, Hasim Hussein, was considered an evil man for all the amputations he had performed. Hasim’s amputees were paid an amount equal to three month’s wages of a working man, and the amputations were performed in a sunless alleyway which contained, at its far end, only a merchant’s stall that sold fava beans and rice. The wheels of the stall were broken, and the merchant hardly tended to his stall anymore, only sat behind the broken cart and read the daily paper, his cracked lips muttering as his eyes moved. The merchant was so accustomed to the violence of Hasim Hussein’s business that he rarely blinked when the echoing screams of men and women drowned the SCHNINK of the cleaver as it slammed into the stones of the street.
Once the fingers were dismembered, Hasim would place them in a vat of boiling acid, which ate the flesh away and left only the bones. The boiling acid would be dumped out, and Hasim would catch the finger bones with a filter, place them on a towel, and allow them to dry in the scorching Shangri-La sun. The finger bones would be strung onto a necklace by Hasim’s wife, Shahira, and the necklaces would be sold to the tourists who came to Shangri-La looking for sex and bones, or whatever else might be prostituted from the human body.
The stump, where Imad’s thumb used to be, burned. Imad’s hand was wrapped in gauze—fine, soft, and stained maroon—and he was afraid that he would either catch a staph infection and die, or that the stump would heal and he would live.
“Either way,” he mumbled to himself, “I’ll want to be out of the sun.”
The Shangri-La sun, which was hot even in winter, seemed to boil the city now that it was summer, and the air above the cobblestone, sandy streets was shimmering with heat waves. The white apartments of the quarter where Imad lived reflected the sun, and the mosque, which was the whitest, cleanest building of all, seemed blinding, so that as Imad walked past it on his way to a bar which lay in a basement below some crumbling tenements, he was forced to shield his eyes with the rough cotton of his sleeve.
Inside the bar, Imad ordered a drink and lifted it with the two stubs of his hands. The gauze stained the glass, and the glass became viscous and red wherever the gauze touched. But Imad cared very little if the bartender made him purchase the glass, for Imad had the equivalent of six months of a worker’s wages in his shoe—because Hasim Hussein had taken Imad’s final finger that afternoon, and Hasim had doubled Imad’s payment in a rare display of empathy.
“You’ll need the money, Imad. You’ve got nothing left to sell,” Hasim had said, then he brought the cleaver down. At the end of the street, the vendor licked his dry lips, his eyes feasting on the news.
After six weeks of drinks had whittled six months of wages into spare change, Imad spent the last of his money on an onion. He set the onion on the ground, which was yellow and sandy, and kicked off his sandals. He lifted the onion between his fingerless hands, and, through a nearly unbelievable act of contortion, he peeled away the onion’s skin with his toes.
Imad’s toes were blistered. He had yellow toenails, and calluses had formed on his feet’s soles. He could feel the customers in the market watching his contortions and, through the corner of his eye, he saw a woman in a black shawl turn her head. The onion skin felt light and flaky between his toes, and the hot wind whipped the thin peel away. Below his ass, the ground was sandy and burning, and the shimmering yellow sun—always hot, potentially lethal—made the back of his neck sweat, because Imad was leaning forward and was stretched like an ostrich. When Imad’s muscles began to cramp, he ignored the feeling; similarly, he ignored the cool, uncomfortable trickle of sweat beginning to creep down his neck and into his shirt. People passed very near him, edging around him to speak to a vendor in the market or to pay for their fruits, their vegetables, their poultry. The marketplace was quite loud, but Imad was unconcerned with the noise, because his focus was on the white onion whose skin was now gone. With his head between his hands, Imad could smell the eye-watering scent of onion, his own body odor, and, from nearby, the tantalizing smell of falafel. Using the very tips of his toes, Imad tore off an onion peel and let it fall to the ground. Chickens were clucking in the hands of a butcher as Imad trapped the peel between his two fingerless hands, put the peel into his mouth, and began to suck.
It was dusk—nearly dark—very late for business. But though the day was cooling, and though the butcher’s arm was sore, it was plain from Imad’s frantic actions that he had lava in his veins.
“What do you want, Imad?” Hasim Hussein asked, looking over his shoulder. But when Hasim looked, he saw in Imad’s eyes the drought and the sobriety that had weathered Imad, and Hasim answered before Imad could speak. “I will not subtract your toes, Imad. There’s no market for it.”
But Imad, whose thirst had charged his resourcefulness, had expected that reply. “There is a woman,” Imad said, “With a fetish for feet. She has a sexual hunger, and she’s so rich she wears a necklace whose band is made of blue diamonds. It’s not my toes she wants, Hasim; it’s my feet.”
Hasim Hussein eyed Imad uncertainly, “Come back tomorrow.”
“It’s true—every word of it, butcher.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
When Imad returned the next day with a splitting headache, shaky hands, and pupils dilated nearly to the size of marbles, Hasim Hussein knew that Imad had been telling the truth, and that he could exploit Imad’s condition for his own economic gain. Hasim waited for Imad to speak.
“Have you made up your mind? Do you realize I’m telling the truth?”
“I have made up my mind that you are lying,” replied Hasim. “Come back tomorrow.”
“Consider, butcher,” begged Imad, “Who would lie to you in order to have their feet cut off? Surely you must know I am telling the truth? You are twice a wicked man if you know.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
Imad shook his head gravely. “I’ll find someone else,” he said. “Any fool can wield a cleaver.”
“You’ll find others,” replied Hasim. “but my amputations are like surgery.”
“Then do it.”
“Alright, but I want your hands as well.”
That night, Hasim was forced to boil the flesh off all the bones himself, because Shahira had said the feet and fingerless hands were too grotesque to handle, and that any person who touched them would catch a pox, and their body would erupt in sores.
Imad Al-Bokhari’s foster parents had told him the story of his mother’s death, so when, two days later, Imad’s foot began to turn the shade of a crocodile, Imad knew immediately that he had contracted the disease that had murdered his mother.
Imad had a coin between his teeth when he first noticed the discoloration on his calf. Throughout the entire day, Imad sat on his legs in the market, and when people came by, they sometimes tossed Imad a few coins. He had started the habit of pulling open his long, tattered coat with his handless wrists, whenever people tipped him, and showing the philanthropists that he had no feet. Occasionally, he would receive another coin and a morsel of conversation. But when Imad discovered that his calf was becoming the hue of healthy vines, he struggled to his feet and, walking like a penguin, he began picking his way through the maze of unmarked roads and burning cobblestone streets that constituted Shangri-La.
Imad arrived in the sunless alleyway of Hasim Hussein and the fava bean merchant who read his newspaper unceasingly; the merchant who allowed his foods to wait and grow cold. In the middle of the alleyway, resting crookedly against a cracked three story tenement, was Hasim Hussein. As Imad walked into the alley, he noticed that the air was redolent with the scent of fresh blood, and flies incessantly buzzed around the body of Hasim Hussein. Hasim’s eyes were shut tight, and his chin lay slack on his chest.
“Hasim!” Imad called. “Butcher! Are you dead?”
Hasim lifted his eyes, “No—it has only been a busy day.”
“My leg, Hasim—look at it!” Imad lifted the hem of his robe.
Hasim observed the leg without discernable emotion.
“I need you to cut my leg off,” continued Imad. “The infection will give me pneumonia.”
“I can not do anything with a leg,” replied Hasim. “And you can do even less without it.”
“I’ll take my leg with me.”
“You’ll die if I cut it off.”
“I’ll die if you don’t.”
“Then it is all the same to you,” said Hasim reasonably. “And I am a businessman, not a charity.”
“I have nothing, Hasim. You can sell my leg.”
“I can’t sell your leg. No one wants a leg. I could continue to chop you into tiny parts, Imad, and no one would want any of you. Even your heart is worthless.”
Imad, impoverished, miserable, and with abominable breath, shifted from one stump to the other, and scratched his beard with the stub of his wrist. “Please,” he said.
“You’ve been a worthless wretch your whole life,” laughed Hasim fondly. “Allah should never have let you live. But I will relieve you of your staph infection. Lay down on the alley, and put your leg out in front of you.”
Imad let himself down slowly. Setting the stumps of his wrists against the stones of the street caused a trickle of blood to stain the gauze further, for the wounds were still fresh. Imad grimaced, but Hasim, who observed Imad’s face, displayed no emotion. Imad lowered himself to the ground, then lay on his back gingerly, stretching his legs out before him. Above him, a clothesline stretched from the rooftop of one tenement to the next, and orange and red linens fluttered against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky. The alley’s stones were cool against Imad’s skin, and he watched as the linens flapped. Hasim stood over him, standing near his waist. Then Hasim kneeled on the ground, holding the cleaver high above his head. It wasn’t until Hasim grinned wickedly that Imad understood what was to occur, but Hasim brought the cleaver down, and the SCHNINK was notable only because it echoed throughout sunless alleyway, with no cry to muffle it, and even the merchant looked up in fear.
David Murphy has an MA in English from Kansas State University where he was the fiction editor and, later, editor in chief of their literary journal, Touchstone. David is now working abroad, in northern Afghanistan, as consultant and Administrative Director of an educational development project funded by The World Bank.