Mike Sharlow

The River of Lost Limbs

I was the only one working through the afternoon break on this Friday afternoon. I found a rhythm, throwing one 2×4 after another onto the saw bed then dragging the blade precisely through it. Vreet! Vreet! Vreet! The blade resounded every few seconds as it chewed through the wood voraciously. Sawdust spit out behind the saw onto a mounting pile that looked like a snowdrift.

When I stopped to double check my measurements, I let the saw run. The blade hummed hypnotically, musically. I pulled my tape measure across the board to check my accuracy, and I felt the slight breeze from the whirring blade glide over my hand like a ghostly caress. This gentle breeze didn’t fool me. Even a kiss from this sawblade could leave a painful and lasting impression.

I continued to cut with the same rhythm, the same way, but then the saw hiccupped temperamentally. The blade bit into the 2×4 and sucked it in with so much power and aggression, there was no way I could hold it back, even if there was a warning, even if I saw it coming, but I didn’t. I did hear the resounding KACHING! It was an angry sound the saw made when a small chunk of wood got launched against the metal guard and ricocheted off like a bullet. This time the blade not only bit into the 2×4, but it also bit my hand. I felt the force of the saw grab me, and I pulled back and jumped away, but it was too late. It took a moment to focus and realize what I was looking at, given the damage. My hand was brutally disfigured. For what I had grown accustomed to seeing all my life had changed dramatically, grotesquely. It was a mutilated mess of red and white, bone and blood. Despite the indecipherable sight, the blur trauma, I knew for sure that I had lost my index finger, possibly more. The flayed flesh and exposed bone had never felt the outside world. I was surprised that the pain was minimal. It stung, but it felt more numb and cold than painful. Eventually, it would have to hurt. 

I placed my left hand over my mutilated right hand to stop the bleeding. I wondered if I could bleed to death from my injury. Still, as I walked away to get help, I was conflicted about whether I should look for my finger or any other part of my hand that was somewhere in the sawdust

“What are you doing, Mick?” 

“Just looking for a finger, maybe two.”

Dizzy and nauseous, I walked through the empty shop to look for the foreman. He would know what to do. He would know how to help me. I thought I might pass out, so I took a deep breath to try to control my anxiety. Can’t lose it. Can’t lose it.

I stopped outside the breakroom, and I listened to the indiscernible chatter and laughter of my coworkers. I cracked open the door and peaked inside to see if the foreman was in there. He wasn’t. A couple of the guys looked at me, but even in my desperation to find help, I couldn’t go in there. I thought if I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die in there in front of them. To me, there was something extremely sad about dying in front of coworkers. No one wanted to work here, not really. No one, as a young boy or girl, wanted to grow up to work in a manufacturing plant for wood components. It was a back breaking, bust your ass job. The plant was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It dusty, dirty, and obviously dangerous. The pay wasn’t great either.

Maybe the foreman was in his office, so that was my next destination. On my way up the wood stairs leading to his office, blood began to seep through my fingers. Drops fell with a soft pop and spread into crimson spiders that I thought I saw scurry away. 

The foreman’s office was empty.

Now the drip of blood was constant like a leaky faucet. The stress put me on the verge of panic. I walked gingerly back down the stairs and went into the shop bathroom. I wheeled off a two-foot sheet of the brown towel and wrapped it around my hand.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, the shop was still empty. I couldn’t believe that break wasn’t over yet. It felt like an hour had passed since the saw attacked me. Do trauma and tragedy slow time?

I pressed my good hand to my bad and felt blood seep into the paper towel.

I’ve got to get to the hospital.

I looked around the empty shop. I left the saw running, and the whirring blade screamed an excruciating dirge. I shivered and felt cold. The walls closed in, and the saw moved towards me.

Got to get out of here!

Bay door #2 was open. Sunlight gushed through, and I could see the crisp clear blue sky of the beautiful autumn day. The turning leaves blazed with shades of red and orange. That was where I had to go, out there. I walked through the door and left behind the cold concrete and harsh machinery and went to my car. Opening the door on the old red Valiant wasn’t a problem but getting the key into the ignition with my left hand, now my good hand, was slightly awkward. Is this what I would have to do for the rest of my life?

In less than a minute I was on Highway 35 and headed for the hospital, but as I drove, I felt myself physically and psychologically breaking down. Pins of white crept in from the corners of my eyes blurred my vision and pushed me towards unconsciousness. Shit, I’ve got to stay awake! I used my right foreman to steer and rolled down the window with my left hand. The cool autumn air whipped through the window and slapped me in the face. 

Up ahead there was a large orange and black DETOUR sign with an arrow pointing to County Road K. “Goddamnit! How far is this going to take me out of my way?” I considered going back the other way and take I-90 but it might take so much more time to get to the hospital, so I took the detour. County K wasn’t a familiar road to me, and I tried to remember if I had ever taken it.

How far will this take me out of my way?

The road wound through hills. Rich colors of fall cascaded around me, as the late afternoon sun flickered through the trees. This would have been a beautiful drive on any other day, but the reds of the turning leaves ran cold and matched the color of the blood-soaked wrap on my hand.

I kept waiting for another road sign to appear and lead me back to Highway 35 and into the city. Instead, the road led me down through a deep cut with sheer bluffs on either side. The sun was obscured. The trees became dark and bare, as an ominous charcoal gray sky shrouded the valley.

The road leveled out and suddenly ended “What the hell is going on?” I drove into an opening where there was a weathered gray wooden booth. A battered rusty “Information” sign painted in red hung crookedly on the booth.

I stumbled down a dirt path to the booth, and I was greeted by a scrawny old man with albino wrinkled skin and disheveled white hair. His was missing his right hand and flipping through the pages of an S&M porno mag on the counter. He looked over his black rimmed glasses at me and asked, “What can I do for you, son?”

“How do I get out of here. I have to get to the hospital. I hurt my hand bad,” I said urgently. 

“Let’s have a look. Unwrap it,” he chirped.

“Why? Are you a doctor or something?”

“Come on, boy, time’s wastin’,” he snapped.

I reacted like a scolded child and gave up my damaged hand. “You do it, please.”

He peeled back the paper towel and took a long look. “Lost your pointer and middle finger-fucker. Ripped ‘em clean off,” he said heartily.

Nausea gurgled in my stomach, and dizziness shook my head. “I’ve got to get to town. I need to get to the hospital.” My words came out in a heave, and I was on the verge of tears.

“Do you want your fingers back?”

“I just want to get to the hospital! Please help me get out of here!”

“Get a grip, boy. Everything will be okay.” He patted me on the shoulder. The stump of his other arm flapped slightly. “You’re not going to die.”

I had no idea who this man was, but I chose believe him, and relief washed over me.

“So, do you want your fingers back? Time’s a wastin’.”

“I don’t know,” I said. When I left them back at the shop, I figured I had already made the decision. And in the smallest way, I began to accept my loss and live life without them in the most immediate sense.

“You don’t know?” My indecision annoyed him. “You want to go through life with people gawking at you like you’re some kind of freak? They will, you know. They will think you’re a dumb ass for cutting your fingers off. They will wonder why you let that happen.” The cranky old man paused for a second. “When you shake someone’s, your stump will make them quiver with revulsion.”

“I’ll shake with my left hand.” I’ll keep my right hand in my pocket forever.

“Women? You like them?” he asked.


“Do you think they’ll like you rubbing your stump over their tits?”

“I don’t need this shit!” Wishing the was all a nightmare I could wake from, I closed my eyes tight to make the old man disappear.

His voice broke through. “Do you want your fingers back or not?”

“They’re gone. What are talking about?” I felt lightheaded. Pins of white were creeping into my vision again, so I leaned against the booth to steady myself.

“They’re not gone. They’re out there.” The old man pointed with his stump. “They’re in the River of Lost Limbs.”

I turned around and looked to where he pointed. In the distance a wide soupy red river flowed slowly with drifting debris.  “What’s in that river?” I asked.

“Your fingers. And the amputated body parts from a thousand battles and a million accidents like yours.”

The sight of the River of Lost Limbs made my mouth salivate, the lubricant and precursor to vomiting. I turned away and bent over to throw up.

“You’re not the first to puke on your shoes at the banks of the ROLL.”


“River of Lost Limbs, boy. Like YOLO. You wanna ROLLO?” He laughed.

“Yeah, real funny,” I said. 

“Jump in that canoe down. Your fingers out there waiting for you. You can’t get out of here, until you go down there.” 

Where is here? Hell? 

“How am I supposed to find them?”

“Body parts are like children. You can pick them out of a crowd.”

“You obviously didn’t find your arm.” I knew how absurd the conversation I was having with him, but within the parameters of what happened to me and where I presently was, the absurd was the only thing that made sense right now.

“I gave my arm for love,” the old man said soberly.

“For love?”

“You’ll see.” The old man gazed out at the bobbing slurry of the River of Lost Limbs. 

I looked at my blood stump, and I wondered how I was supposed to do this.

“Take that canoe down there. Better hurry before someone else fishes your fingers out.”

“Why would anyone else want my fingers?”

“Someone will find a purpose for them. Get them before someone else does. Godspeed, boy!”

I walked down to the river and climbed into a dented and battered old aluminum canoe. The river carried every combination of amputated arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes downstream. I wondered what sea of death awaited at the end of this river. 

Body parts clanked and banged against the canoe with varying emphasis depending on their size. I scanned the melee of carnage, the pogrom of human potential snatched ruthlessly away from so many people, from so many different places. Long highways, dirt roads, and narrow paths led here, to the River of Lost Limbs.

I wondered when this nightmare would end. When could I go to the hospital and lie in a bed with clean white sheets and breathe sterile air, as morphine dripped into my veins and killed the pain. That was all I wanted? Why couldn’t I have that?

Then my eyes fixed upon two fingers barely attached to each other by a flay of skin and meat. I saw how nasty and violent the amputation was. My fingers stood out, like the old man said.  As I rowed frantically, awkwardly with my left hand and right foreman, towards them I wondered how reattachment could occur. I was clueless, but hope gave me strength to pursue my fingers bobbing in the murky bloody water.

I closed the distance, and when I was within arm’s length of my fingers, a net pulled them away from me in a wash towards the riverbank. A woman with long sooty hair in a yellow sundress-stained pink from the river hauled the net onto the shore.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled.

The woman squatted over her catch and examined the contents like any good fisherman, then gathered her catch into a wicker basket and ran off.

“No! Come back!”

She looked back but kept going and scampered up a path that disappeared into a forest of charred trees. 

“Come back!” I rowed as hard as I could to the shore. The weight of my damaged hand was taking its toll. Where did you go, bitch? I stumbled out of the canoe. My legs were stiff and shaky. Using my good hand for leverage, I pulled myself up the steep riverbank and followed the path. I stumbled through the old dead forest. There wasn’t the chirp of birds or the chirring insects, only the sounds of my shuffling-tired feet and labored breathing. The silence and the vacuum of death was thick in the air. 

The path led to a rickety old wood shack with a rusty roof. I crept up to a window and smeared away a layer of dirt to peek inside. The woman in the yellow dress was standing next to a table where she had dumped her catch of limbs. I noticed my fingers immediately. Then she walked to the sink and in one sweeping motion she pulled off her dress and dropped it into the sink. Her sleek, naked, athletic body glistened with a sheen of perspiration and diluted blood. At that moment I realized how hot and humid it was here. 

We were less than two feet apart, only the pane of glass the window separated us. I stared at her without notice. She was beautiful, but her gaunt face, blue lips, and pallid skin made her look of the grave. I wondered where the blood was coming from to get me hard. It felt like I had been bleeding for hours. Blood rushes to vital organs when one’s body sustains a traumatic injury. I guess my cock is a vital organ.

She looked up and saw me. Our eyes met and the ineffable love at first sight moment flooded over me. I didn’t believe this could be real, but I couldn’t deny how my body was reacting. Despite my debilitated condition, I was still lusting her. 

She smiled and said, “Come inside.”

I walked around to the door. 

“My name is Mary. What’s your name?”

Her nakedness was distracting, but she appeared completely comfortable with it like girls in a strip club. “I’m Mick.” I had many questions, but the most pressing was, “Why did you take my fingers?”

“For him.” She pointed to a male cadaver on a bed in the corner. He was missing his left arm at the elbow, two fingers on his right hand, and his head. His left and right leg were complete because two different legs that didn’t belong to this body were attached just above the knee. As a matter of fact, the attached legs came from two different bodies. Mary had done a good job finding matching legs in size, but it was easy to see that they didn’t come from the same body. The foreign limbs were sewn on and looked like the sutures of Frankenstein’s monster. 

“I want my fingers back, so they can be reattached on me.”

“I’m creating my soulmate. Don’t you want to be my soulmate?” We were standing about ten feet apart, and she took my amputated fingers, slid them between her legs, and inserted.  She released my fingers but left them inside her, and from across the room I was now controlling my amputated fingers. I felt her warmth and slippery wetness. I slid my fingers deeper inside her, and she responded with moans and rolling eyes. Mary crossed the room and kissed me, her tongue softly exploring my mouth. With my good hand I roamed her body and pressed mine against hers, as my amputated fingers continued to pleasure her. She rubbed my erection, and I could feel myself getting close. Noticing my building excitement, she went to her knees, pulled my pants down and took me in her mouth.  

When we finished, Mary said, “You have to go. You have to take care of your hand.” Then she took my bloody stump and held it to her breast. I thought I could now accept the impending gawks, the looks of revulsion, and the whispers of the ignorant at my aberration.

With newfound energy and less desperation, I paddled back to the old man. 

“Did you find your fingers?”

“Yeah, I left them with her.”

“You fell for her, didn’t ya? So what body part are you gonna lose next to come back?”

“I’m not going to lose my head.” I tapped my forehead to indicate what head I was talking about.

A confused look came over the old man’s face.

“Her soulmate needs a head.”

The old man shrugged. “Well, get outta my way, boy. I got a date.” He hobbled out from behind the counter with a craggy crutch under each arm. His right foot had been recently amputated and was wrapped with soiled rags. “Well, I’m looking for a man who needs a foot, and a girl who’ll give me love for it.”

“How do I get out of here?” I asked.

“That way.” He pointed towards woods.

“There’s no road there, just the woods.”

“Drive that way, the road will appear. See ya.” And he made his way down to a canoe on the banks of the River of Lost Limbs and paddled away.

I slowly drove towards the direction he indicated, and the trees opened up to reveal a road.

I woke up in a hospital bed. My hand was neatly bandaged, and my girlfriend was standing by my side. “How did I get here?”

“You’re okay.” She softly cried. “Does it hurt?”

“Not as much as I thought it would.” I slid my hand towards her, and she recoiled subtly and winced. 

“Here take this.” She forced a smiled. “It’s a morphine pump. For the pain.”

I hit the button, and a bell dinged acknowledging the dose before I drifted off to sleep to search for my soulmate in the River of Lost Limbs.

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