Something took a bite out of Mama’s hand.
Well, worse than that. Tried to eat it, and judging by the puddle of vomit on the floor, couldn’t keep it down.
“Oh, Mama,” I said, not even thinking about how she couldn’t hear me, “I’m so sorry.”
Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.
Not that I looked forward to trying it out.
Mama would have a lot to say about something trying to eat her hand.
And it would prove her point about I still needed her, even with her dead and all. What if the thing came back and decided to try something a little fresher?
She had Rufus tattoo the planchette once she went into hospice and knew she wouldn’t come back home. Rufus agreed to bring his tattoo equipment in and do the work right there, though he had some concerns.
“Seems like it won’t have much time to heal,” he’d said. “Not if you’re—and pardon me for saying this out loud, Mudge—not if you’re preparing to depart this world.”
“You mean ‘die,’ and yes, of course that’s happening on schedule, but I plan on sticking around for at least two weeks more.” Then she looked at me from where she lay in the bed. “And once I’m gone, Leann, you carry on the skin care. You can follow directions, can’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
While Rufus tattooed the planchette on the back of her hand, Mama barely showed any reaction, and me having six or eight tattoos of my own (all done by Rufus), I knew she had to be feeling some pain. She even refused the numbing gel that Rufus offered, explaining that a little hurt at the end of her life would help her go out on good terms. “Besides, take the pain out, and that might dilute some of its power. Don’t you think so, Rufus, you being the expert?”
“I don’t know, Mudge.” Rufus spoke without looking up. He didn’t like interruptions while he worked. “Maybe I’m not precisely sure what this is for.”
“You know what a Ouija board is for, don’t you?” Rufus affirmed that he did. “We got us one made by the Hasbro company. Leann here will use it in conjunction with my hand once I’m gone.” I’ll credit Rufus this much: he barely showed any reaction when Mama explained how she instructed me to cut off her hand once she was good and dead and how she left me with a detailed instruction sheet for keeping the hand preserved for as long as possible. That way, any time I needed advice or guidance or just wanted to talk, I could use the tattooed hand as a real planchette and create a direct link to Mama in the Afterlife. “Being my hand,” she said, “will ensure she reaches me and not some destructive demon. You see my logic, Rufus?”
He nodded and continued to ink the hand. “One thing I don’t quite get,” he said, “is the little window in the planchette. I’m drawing a little eye right now, but how on a Ouija board is Leann supposed to see the letters?”
“She’s gonna have to open that up with a knife. Later on.”
Rufus’ hand paused briefly. He looked over his shoulder at me, his mouth hard to detect beneath his big beard, and then he turned to Mama. “Am I to understand that I’m creating something to be defaced?”
“I’ll pay you all the same,” said Mama.
“I told you I will not accept the money of a dying woman.”
“Then just keep drawing, Rufus. It’s my hand. Soon it’ll be Leann’s. What I do with it is my business.”
“Just a sad thing to do with a man’s art,” said Rufus, but he finished the tattoo. The whole cutting off of the hand and making the hole, that came later, and I have a whole different story to tell about that.
Something trying to eat the hand though, I couldn’t just let that go. Bad enough to see Mama’s hand sitting in the cabinet all mangled. So, I went to the game shelf, where I expected to find the Ouija board underneath the boxes that held Monopoly and Pay Day, the only games that Mama liked to play, but instead of its usual place, it lay sideways on top the other two, the lid off kilter. I lifted the box and studied it, looking for signs of what might have moved it and replaced it in such a cock-eyed fashion. We had the special edition Ouija board, the one Hasbro made to tie in to that scary TV show, the one with the two brothers, and we bought it because Mama thought the boys were cute. “Leann, if only you could find you a man who looks like them,” she liked to say.
“Uh-huh,” I’d say, but only so I wouldn’t sound disagreeable. That would mean starting a fight. I imagined boys who looked pretty would get squeamish around a girl who could chop off her dead mama’s hand and bore a perfectly round hole through it. The kind of men I liked I kept to myself, and I didn’t keep them around long.
Once I had the pretty-boy Ouija board opened up on the table in front of me, I propped Mama’s hand on top of it and called for Mama.
No answer at first, and I thought, uh oh, it doesn’t work anymore.
I tried again. “Hello, Mama, you there?”
Finally, the hand began to shake, almost like a vibration that reached a fever pitch. I breathed easier as it began moving around the board, spelling out a reply.
“Mama, I’m so sorry. Something tried to eat your hand, and I’m thinking you might know what did it. Is it a rat?”
The hand made a little circle, as if it didn’t know which way to go at first. Then it slid decisively over to the word “No.” It sat there, still vibrating, like it was shivering, like it was scared. A normal planchette needed a living person to place their fingers on it, but Mama’s needed no such thing. It did all the work by itself.
“Was it an animal?” I said. “Of any kind?”
The hand slid to the edge of the board, approached “Yes,” but swiftly swung back to “No.” It continued to vibrate on top of the word.
“Well then, was it a person?”
The vibration grew stronger, and I swear it managed to elevate itself off the board as it swung hard over to “Yes.” I bit my lip. I never saw Mama’s hand do that before.
The hand moved slower as it spelled out the name, the one name I didn’t want to see, not the name of some pretty boy on the TV who hunted ghosts, but the name of the one person I cared anything for, the name of a tattoo artist with a big belly and a face covered mostly by beard. A man Mama would never approve of for me, at least not as a boyfriend, on account of the fact that he already had one ex-wife and nearly fifteen years more of life than I had.
But it made sense because no one else knew about Mama’s hand, and Rufus knew where I kept the emergency key in the flower bed, and on the few occasions that I let him sleep over he’d asked me to take the hand out of the cabinet so he could see how it worked.
“Nope, not going to do it,” I said to him more than once. I’d only taken the hand out on two occasions, and both of them when I couldn’t find something. Both times I could tell Mama wanted to keep talking, but once she spelled out the hiding place of my Bowie knife or the handcuffs that used to belong to my grandpa when he served as sheriff, I put her back.
I felt bad about those times now. Mama probably got lonely. But I didn’t need to hear any lectures about how Rufus wasn’t right for me or how I’d get a man if only I would fix up the house in a more acceptable way. Besides, Rufus spoke of the hand in a way that might offend Mama. It reminded him of a Hand of Glory, he said.
“A Hand of Glory,” I said. “That sounds like something Mama would approve of.”
He shook his head. “That’s what they call the hand chopped off a thief. After he’s been hanged, of course.”
“For whatever purpose would they do that, Rufus?”
“It’s helpful in opening locked doors, I hear.”
“I wish I could get one of them,” I said. “It would look good in the cabinet.”
“You kinda got one already.”
“Mama’s Hand of Glory.” I considered that. “She’s not a thief, though. Not unless stealing a person’s life makes you a thief.”
“You still got your life, Leann.”
“And I mean to keep what’s left,” I said.
Now I felt bad about saying that. Maybe for that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to put Mama’s hand back in the cabinet. Instead, I threw it into my shoulder bag as I grabbed my keys. I had to get to the tattoo shop.
The whole way I wondered what could’ve happened, and I thought back to the time we bought the Ouija board with the pretty boys on it, when Mama gave me the warning. “Leann, whatever you do, never, ever use a Ouija board by yourself. That’s how you invite a demon in.”
“I don’t believe in demons,” I said. “The same’s I don’t believe in God.”
“Well, just take my word on it: both are true.”
Of course, I asked her how I could use her tattooed hand as a planchette by myself and not bring in one of her demons. She scoffed at that. “Because it’ll be my hand, that’s why. You won’t be by yourself. Not really.”
Rather than accuse her of making up rules as they suited her, I let that one go. But as I drove, I wondered if maybe Mama had it at least partially right—that someone other than her daughter using the planchette alone could invite something unpleasant into the world.
I got my confirmation at the tattoo shop.
Inside, I found Huey, the high school drop out that Rufus took on as an apprentice, huddled in a corner, holding his bleeding wrist.
“Oh, Jesus, Leann, he just went crazy and bit me. Said he couldn’t help it. But if I call the police, I just know I won’t have a job anymore.”
I looked at the wound. It looked bad, but not as bad as the bite mark on Mama’s hand, and if it caused some long-term damage, that would save some future customer from a bad tattoo. But fortunately for Huey, it looked like Rufus could still practice some restraint. Maybe I could save him.
“Where is he?” I said.
“In the john.” He pointed toward the back of the shop, where a chair sat propped under the bathroom door handle.
“You put that there?” I said.
He nodded. “He ran in there after biting me. I saw that trick in a movie. Thought it would keep him trapped while I waited.”
“Waited for what?” I said.
He seemed at a loss for a second. “Well, for you, I guess. You think I still got a job?”
I had no answer to that. I needed to see about Rufus, so I left Huey to whimper over his wound and went closer to the door. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that I could feel Mama’s hand vibrate in my handbag. I used my own hand to tap on the door.
The voice that answered sounded guttural, not at all like Rufus’ soft voice. It sounded like two people trying to talk at once out of the same mouth-hole, and one of the people didn’t know how human speech worked.
I thought again of Mama’s warning not to use the Ouija board by yourself.
After some false starts to our conversation, I could finally make out a sentence from the other side of the door. “Leann, I can’t control this…this hunger. All I wanna do is eat.” When he said “eat,” something impacted the door from the other side, probably Rufus’ shoulder, and the legs of the chair seemed to give a little. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew I would not hand myself over to Rufus to devour. Or whatever had possessed Rufus.
“Why’d you do that to Mama’s hand?” I said.
Again, he struck the door. The chair still held, but it would not for much longer.
“I wanted to talk to her,” Rufus managed to say. “I wanted to ask her if she’d give me her blessing.”
“Oh, Rufus, don’t say it.”
“I was gonna ask you to marry me. She said yes, by the way. Now I just wanna eat you.”
“That wasn’t Mama, Rufus,” I said, though I had to wonder if I had Mama’s estimation of Rufus all wrong. I put my head against the door and instantly regretted it when Rufus hit it again. The chair wouldn’t sustain another blow like that one.
“I don’t want to. But I got to eat you. You need to open this door now.”
“How about we make a deal, Rufus?” Then I proposed that Rufus stop trying to bash the door down. In exchange, I would open the door, but only if he swore he’d back all the way up from the door and sit on the toilet and wait.
No reply. Still, I reached into my handbag where I felt Mama’s hand. I was right earlier. It was vibrating. I held it as it continued to shake, trying to escape the fate I had already assigned to it. “I’m gonna open the door.” I started a count-down, beginning with three, and once I got down to one, I pulled the chair aside, threw open the door, and tossed Mama’s hand inside the bathroom. The door stayed open long enough for me to see Rufus sitting on the toilet, like a good man who follows a bargain no matter what the demons inside him might say. His eyes widened when he saw me, his beard, his beautiful beard, crusted with Huey’s blood.
As he scrambled for his meal, I slammed the door shut and replaced the chair.
Later, I learned that Rufus ate the whole thing, bones and all.
It didn’t make him better though. I hoped it would, but it didn’t. Maybe Mama would’ve known that before I did, but without Mama’s word, you’ve got to take your own chances.
Rufus lives in the Vissaria County Psychiatric Hospital now. Whatever entered his body that day took him over completely, eventually.
They don’t allow visitors. No one expects Rufus’ condition to improve.
And that makes me sad. But whatever gave him the idea that he needed Mama’s blessing or that he needed anyone’s permission other than my own? As if I belonged to anyone other than myself?
The cabinet looked empty without Mama’s hand, and my days got quieter without Rufus coming around. For the cabinet, I found the bones of a two-headed snake in the woods behind the house. I grew fond of it and stopped thinking much of Mama’s hand. Or of Mama herself.
I decided to name the snake skeleton after Rufus. Unlike his namesake, he—I mean, they—would never bite me.
But if they ever tried to talk to me—or for me—they would need to go.
© 2020 by Douglas Ford
Douglas Ford lives and works on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. His weird and dark fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, Weird City, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, will appear later this year courtesy of Madness Heart Press. In the harsh light of day, he sprinkles a little darkness into the lives of his students at the State College of Florida, and he lives with a Hovawart (that’s a kind of dog) who fiercely protects him from the unseen creatures living in the wooded area next to his house. His five cats merely tolerate him, but his wife is decidedly fond of him, as he is of her.