Letters to My Leg

by Karen Aschenbrenner

The large bonfires blazed in the harvested cornfield, fueled by dried leaves, mulch, and the novelty of celebrating Samhain in northern Wisconsin. Around them, my friends and neighbors stumbled through strathspreys. The filtered warmth from the bonfires overheated me, and I retreated to my wool blanket spread out under a willow to take my prosthetic off for a bit. Leaning the sculpted leg up against the tree’s trunk, I pulled my satchel close to me, opening it. My hand brushed against the envelopes-twenty purple enveloped letters in all. I pulled my prosthetic down from its perch, eying the fiery lighted circles off to the east and west, smiling in anticipation.

In my haste to stand, I forgot to make a final adjustment to my prosthetic. When I stood, I staggered. I grabbed onto the edge of the nearby picnic table, steadying myself. Sometimes I can’t believe I was ever six years old, proudly writing my first purple-enveloped letter with a thick triangular crayon. Dear Leg, How are you? You are not here. I am different. I like being different. Love, Mary MacNab

“Do you want a plate, Mary?” Tim Miller poked at the tray he held. Chestnuts, oats, apples, and non-traditional Samhain fare like candy corn spilled off it. Before I could make up my mind, a soaked Steven, Tim’s younger brother, asked for a towel.

“I guess I’m unlucky,” he told me, grinning. He’d been bobbing for apples for awhile but had come back fruitless. “If apples really are of the Other World, I’m not going there.”

“Without knowing exactly what that world is,” Tim replied, lobbing a towel at Steven’s chest, “I’d say that’s a smart move. Speaking of food, though, can you tell me why we’ve got so many hazelnuts here?”

“Well, Samhain was a harvest festival celebrating the year’s yield, and it was a sacrifice, too, to ensure the next year would be just as good, if not better. Just like the apples and oats and all, you can divine what will happen in the new year if you believe in that sort of thing,” I told him, taking the opportunity to lose myself in his amber eyes. Tim’s a year older than me, twenty-two. He set up the festival, spur-of-the-moment, when I told him I wanted to have one on the phone the night before. “Carve your initials onto a nut, toss it in the fire, and leave it there. If it’s missing in the morning, you won’t survive the year.”

“Who wants to know that?” Tim scoffed. His curiosity only went so far.

“I’m not hungry right now. Not for this,” I told Tim, waving expansively over the entire table. On the other end, an extra plate of mutton sat collecting ash from the fires. It was set in remembrance of those who’d passed and might be coming back for a visit the night the two worlds converged. On Samhain, people can walk between.

“Why are you doing this?” Tim inquired, biting a hazelnut.

“Tonight’s all about what you’ll be bringing into the new year,” I replied, “and what you’ll be leaving behind.”

“What will you be leaving behind?” he persisted, stepping closer. His hot breath wafted over my nose, a mix of sweat, cigar smoke, and whiskey. It reminded me of my pappy. A safe smell. Tim broke my reminiscing with a nervous laugh. “Not me, I hope.”

“I was kind of hoping I’d be seeing more of you,” I confessed, shaking. I’d suddenly gone cold. Tim walked away. My heart dropped like a stone down a well, but it was easily retrieved when Tim came back with my woolen in his arms, offering to wrap it around my shoulders.

“You look like one of those crazy old story-tellers,” Steven said, spitting apple. His friends, who had been occupying themselves with fistfuls of left-over Trick-or-Treat candy, nodded in agreement.

“No,” Tim disagreed, tracing the silver pin I wore on the scarf around my neck. “I think she looks like a Taibhsear.”

I smiled encouragingly, flattered he’d remembered about Second Sight. I’d mentioned it casually when we’d gone for pizza with a big group of local college students who all commuted to Green Bay with me.

“What’s that?” Steven’s friend Allie asked as she flipped her long hair into a ponytail and coiled that into a bun. I wasn’t the only one who’d had enough of the bonfires for a while. “Does it have anything to do with the bone-fires? Steven told me people used to slaughter animals and read their bones. Is that-”

“This is creepier than Halloween,” Steven cut in, grinning approval.

Inspired, I took a lantern from the table. I imagined I had just come off a muddy drove road into a cottar village and was holding an audience for food and a night’s lodging. I stooped and loudly whispered, “The Calleach roams the earth…”

I gave myself up to the performance, doling my spirit out in four parts to sail on the winds. I became more than me. Free of me. It’s in my blood. I’m not the only one who’s always been about performance.

My mom was a history major in college, like I am now. She did post-graduate work and wanted an edge, so she boarded a plane. A year later, she brought my father home with her. In this small town, that was a spectacle.

Sometimes I feel like a spectacle. I’m an optimistic cynic, when it comes down to it, with some days being harder than others. In that way, I’m no different than anyone else. I know that. Sometimes they don’t, though, and when I was younger, ‘sometimes’ was ‘often.’

I was born with congenital limb deficiency right above the knee. There are a lot of theories and counter-theories about that, but I’m not one to focus on causes; I’m interested in effects.

When I was little, I burned through prosthetics quickly. Each new leg was like a new body. Because of that, I’ve always known life is innovation, improvising, and that raw vulnerability marking us all from the start.

I didn’t like kids’ questions. Kids are hands-on and they wanted to touch my leg. It was made of metal, but it was still my leg, wasn’t it? I was eight when I wrote, Dear Leg, I did not forget you, but I need to tell you something. You have a fill-in, like the stage actors. I hope you are not jealous. This one I’ve named Laura. I wish I could paint her toes.

I needed that prosthetic and usually loved it like it was mine. It helped me stand and run and see the world from a height I desired, but I couldn’t feel it. Where it locked onto my thigh, it was a cold reminder what was alive and what was not. Once in a while this would bother me and I’d hit it, angry because it wasn’t mine. But I wouldn’t show this anger and confusion. I’d perform.

At school when kids would ask me about it, I’d play the joker. It was the only card in the deck no one else would use. I told them of aliens and experiments and all. The strategy worked well, for awhile. By the time I turned thirteen, kids didn’t ask any more questions. They asked the teachers. I was sent home with a note asking for a parent-teacher conference.

My parents never did tell me what my teacher had to say. Shortly after, my dad told me he’d be taking me to visit his family when school let out. Pappy and Gran MacNab had flown into Chicago and stayed with us for a stretch when I was seven. They also came to the States with Uncle Rab and his family, meeting us in Florida to vacation together, but their world was as far away to me as the one my leg was living in. I’m still not sure the two events are connected, but even back then, the surprise trip struck me as odd.

“Take those sneakers out. And those jeans. Pack your wool sweater, Mary. The blank pants, too,” my dad instructed, surveying my luggage. I gaped at him, unmoving. The man I had always identified with soccer shirts and cargo pants stood in my room in a sweater vest.

“How do I look?” Dad asked me, raising his arms up, grinning wide.

“Like an actor,” I accused. From me, that wasn’t a compliment. Television-an electronic portal into a society I couldn’t find myself in where everything ended with satisfaction and no one ever woke up tired in the morning, an old person in a child’s body-didn’t impress me. Dear Leg, I’d written at eleven, If I live in Hollywood, I need you to come too.

“We’re always acting, Mary,” he told me, “until we make a mistake. When you fall flat on your face and get up again, those moments are the good parts.”

I seemed to do a lot of falling. I was awkward and uncoordinated. Besides physical falling, I did a lot of falling for. Falling for others’ opinions of me, or falling for what I thought they thought of me. I nearly convinced myself I was imagining everyone’s perceptions of me. Then I started seventh grade.

Gym locker rooms. Dear Leg, I wrote in the back of my science notebook, I believe there’s another world. I believe you’re there and I just can’t find you. I’ll meet you there someday. You must be there. Otherwise, why would I miss you? I can’t imagine what it feels like to stretch two feet or bend two knees, but I feel like I’ve lost something, anyhow. It’s not natural. Not here. You have to be over there.

We flew into Aberdeen. Uncle Rab and my cousin Aulay met us there. We drove through the northeastern Highlands down to Pappy and Gran’s home in Aberfeldy. My dad sat up front with his brother, talking. I spent the whole rain-soaked ride glued to a corner of the backseat, avoiding eye contact with my cousin. He waited patiently for me to speak with my accent.

The land itself, which was unknown to me, looked eerily majestic. The wilderness we passed through offered up a challenge I didn’t think I could meet. Sitting there, I felt like I needed to stand up straight and suck back into myself any complaint I’d ever voiced. I was alive and that, that was more than I should be asking of the world. What could I give back?

Stories. I inherited that love from Pappy. When I think of Pappy, I’ll always remember him as I saw him that day when I was thirteen making my way up the driveway, taking his proffered hand to steady myself as my boots stuck in the mud. His callused hands, lined from years of sweat and tears and all that fell between, were the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. They would shake sporadically, but in the evening when he’d read his novels they’d steady every time he turned a page.

He was a quiet man, shorter than my father but muscular, sturdy. Strong. Pappy had been a union miner in Kirkaldy. Gran seemed frail when she stood beside him, though she was a hardy woman with gold-flecked eyes that would catch the sun and share it with you. She had been a school teacher; she would always be a mother.

My dad went with Uncle Rab and Aulay to tour the house they’d moved into the year before. The three of us were content to stay, groping around the kitchen table, trying to fill in the empty spaces where connection should have been.

“Mary,” Gran smiled, plying me with another sweet I wasn’t reluctant to take, “there is a beautiful stone circle called Croft Moraig, ‘The Field of Mary.'”

Our longing for love soon turned into something more tangible. Finding comfort in each other’s company, we started talking in earnest. I told them what life was really like for me. They were curious; there’s only so much one can glean from the margins of a letter or an e-mail. As the words flowed between us, we were able to see the minds behind them, looking into the faces and reading the eyes. That’s when I voiced my biggest fear-that I would tire of performance, that I wouldn’t be strong enough.

“Everyone is missing something,” Gran told me. “When we die, we do not leave this earth whole. If nothing was wrong with our bodies, we would not be dying. We are all vulnerable. Why do you think medicine keeps fighting these battles? They will lose the war. But they hope.”

“There are so many stories,” Pappy added, nodding to his wife, “that are told to bring magic and wonder and hope to people who could not see or grasp or hear. People who struggle more than others do, and know more than others do. I love stories. I love to wonder.”

With Pappy’s stories in my head, I began to hope again. I guess I didn’t do it right. It was St. Fillian who caused the trouble. He was a legendary healer; I imagined him as this old holy man gripping healing stones above his head as he stood in the glen like a Gaelic-tongued Moses. A long line of people waited their turn to be cured by his stones and blessing. I found out we would be seeing these stones the next day. Warmed by Pappy’s stories, I sat by the stove and wrote, Dear Leg, I believe impossible things can happen. I think we can heal.

I don’t really know what I was expecting. The next day, I stood in the midst of a three-tiered stone circle and let Pappy convince me the blowing winds whispered lost voices into our ears. With Pappy, the sparse forest around Loch Tay that trickled down to the water became a forest cathedral. The loch waves lapped like music, singing the Selkie’s song. The moss-covered rock formations were forest-kings thrones, and when you weren’t looking, the leaves would tilt up and bow to them.

If you grow up like I did, sometimes you find yourself on the outside of things, looking in. You see people interacting and infer their fears, their problems. You know everyone’s struggling to get by. You see the world is layered in hurt, and it’s best not to compare the depths. That day, though, I realized what I wanted more than anything. My own leg. I looked at Fillian’s stupid stones, wished upon everything I’d ever believed in, and set myself up for a long fall.

I hadn’t really thought things would change, but when they didn’t, it hit me hard. Deep down, I’d thought that I was the way I was for a reason. Something really good would come out of what wasn’t great. The world hadn’t changed in ten minutes, but I had.

“It’s still gone.” I sobbed into my father’s shirt as I stood outside on a cobbled stone bridge crossing over the Dochart. Dad held me tight against his chest as the coaches trickled past, wrapping his right arm around my head. He twirled a strand of my hair in his hand as if he thought catching a small piece of me would fill in the whole picture.

“She doesn’t need your stories,” Dad told Pappy. “Look what they do.”

Pappy, who stood turning his face up towards his towering son, wrung his hat in his hands. As I continued to weep, an argument ensued over my head. I found myself swaying back and forth with my father’s chest, lulled by the sharp inhale and exhale like a buoy on the water. Reality or something better? American freedom or heather-stuffed honesty? It might prick like a thistle, but there is no freedom. Not in this body or life. Standing on a bridge in Killin, I learned that.

Later that night, I composed another letter. Dear Leg, Congratulations. You escaped this place. It constantly disappoints. You will never be disappointed. Sometimes I want to feel what you do, where you are. Today, I wished you were a wound, red and raw and painful. Then you’d be real. I’d heal you.

Pappy came up to the room Dad and I slept in. He brought a small box with him stamped with a store logo. A recent purchase. It was a small pin with two rings and what looked like an old Pictish z-rod jutting between the two.

“The circles are the two worlds, and the line is the in-between. You walk between,” he explained as he took the scarf I’d folded on the dresser and pinned it onto the fabric. “Be proud to have the Taibhsear, aye?”

“Sure,” I agreed. I didn’t know which worlds he was talking about. There were so many. But he was right. I had somehow gotten myself stuck between.

“What a production,” Dad sighed after Pappy had gone, stretching out on his bed to read.

Production. Dad’s sweater-vest came to mind. Time makes every one of us a hypocrite. I was still smiling when I fell asleep.

I kept that smile, most days. The obstacles kept getting taller. Job rejections. Prejudice. Assumptions. Some people just thought I couldn’t physically do things I truly could do. Others made a leap from something ‘being wrong’ with my leg to my mind. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but as the world continued to reveal to me how wrong it was, I did get something right.

Maybe those stones did heal that day in Killin. I didn’t magically grow a leg, but I did fall and get back up and taste the living in between. Dear Leg, I wrote the night after a professor in college told me I shouldn’t bother interviewing for a certain job because I didn’t look the part, Some people have nothing to blame but themselves-like that communications professor, with his half-brained notions. He’s making a living. That’s fine. Sometimes I worry I will not be able to make one, but since you’ve been gone, I’ve seen how so many other things are missing. I don’t want to make a living. I want to live as I make this place a little nicer for everyone to live in.

I realized two things. First, the future is a scary thing. It is for everyone, but some…well, it’s no good comparing. Second, it’s like anything else-a whole heck of a lot easier to handle, frightening or no, if you face it head-on, going straight for center stage.

Last night, I heard there’d be a frost. I thought of Samhain and what it meant. I called Tim, and then I sat at my desk and peered out my window down the narrow residential street. I thought of the places I have been and the ones I’m still heading towards. It will be a journey for me. Me. I unclipped a new ballpoint and confidentially composed the last purple-enveloped letter I’ll ever write. Dear Leg, Thank you for the idea of you.

Tim asked me to dance when I finished my story. We moved between the fires, spinning together. The stereo boomed recorded reels. The bodhráns, bagpipes, and tin whistles confidently carried our legs from one note to the next. It’s been a while. My face and neck glisten from physical excursion.

It’s nearing midnight. I thank Tim for a good time and step outside the circle, slowly relinquishing my fingers from his grasp. I hope he knows I want to stay, but there will be music, dancing, and the opportunity to love in my twenty-second year. I eye my wristwatch compulsively and let the heart-wrenching melancholy of the bagpipe cords wash over me like the lapping heat from the strong fires.

It’s time. In one sweep, I pour the letters into the flames. Tim gazes at me curiously, standing still between the fires. There’s just the one move left to make. I turn toward Tim, walking between the bonfires and a multitude of worlds. With my dad’s words in my ears, I take off the prosthetic and jump, propelling myself forward. For a moment, I fly.

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