The Yellow World, fiction by Wesley Browne


When my fin­gers came off, I didn’t so much feel pain as the sen­sa­tion of some­thing touch­ing my hand, which then became much lighter. I didn’t know they were gone at first; I threw my arm behind my back before I raised it. When I did, I found my hand abbre­vi­at­ed and darkened.

The chip­per rat­tled and roared as its maw chewed and swal­lowed oak and my depart­ed dig­its. Those won’t go back on, I thought.

The deep red that enrobed the ragged remains of my cal­lused hand had a yel­low cast. So did the green chip­per. So did the oaks, the poplar and the ash—the moss on the ground and the rocks peek­ing up from the dirt. The tint of my safe­ty glass­es made the hill­side a yel­low, sun­ny place, even at a moment so dark.

I don’t know how it smells when most peo­ple lose fin­gers, but when I did, it smelled like hot, cut wood—burning with­out smoke. It was a smell I always enjoyed. I enjoy it less now.

The din and my earplugs drowned out the sound of my broth­er hit­ting the ground. I imag­ine a thud or a thump, but who knows; it could have been a whack. You don’t find out who is most sus­cep­ti­ble to shock until some­thing tran­spires wor­thy of it.

I thought of the emer­gency shut-off, but it was moot. Let­ting the gaso­line burn was as good as any oth­er way. I also thought of try­ing to rouse the crum­pled lump of caramel Carhartt that was Dustin, but he was of no use to me. We had worked the hill­side togeth­er, but now I was on my own. And the pain was on its way. I knew this. And I had to stem the bleed­ing. I knew this too. It ran down my right arm and col­lect­ed at the elbow of my flan­nel shirt sleeve, mak­ing it droop. I knew to keep the dam­aged hand high, keep my arm bent, but the blood surged up and out any­way, like the water in the foun­tain at the cour­t­house square in town.

I scanned the hill­side for some­thing I could use, then knelt beside my broth­er and took the red and black pais­ley ban­dana from his damp brow. When I stood, my head emp­tied, and I near­ly went down. I straight­ened my fal­ter­ing knees and remained upright. I knew, if I faint­ed, I most like­ly would go alto­geth­er. I can’t say whether I did it to try to raise him, or out of mean­ness, or both, but I kicked Dustin in the shoul­der hard as I could, a kick that would leave evi­dence of the toe of my boot for weeks. His body shud­dered, then was static.

I knew what I need­ed was a tourni­quet, but I also knew I couldn’t tie it with one hand, espe­cial­ly my left. It was the first of the many times I’ve rued stick­ing the too-short push stick down the feed chute with my right arm.

Before my hand went into the cut­ting knives, I was singing John Prine in a voice I could scarce­ly hear, wish­ing for an extra sea­son to fig­ure out the oth­er four. The chip­per caught and ate the stick and shred­ded the end of my hand in a sin­gle instant. I can’t remem­ber if I cried out, but my singing stopped.

The gris­ly yel­low world was about to grow a shade worse. Since I couldn’t tourni­quet the arm, I would have to squeeze the wound. The throb was begin­ning to set in, and behind it was a whole chaos of pain. The squeeze, I knew, would has­ten the chaos’ arrival. There was noth­ing for it. I start­ed toward the house before I did it, think­ing the act of walk­ing would dis­tract me.

I drew a deep breath and tucked my chin before I grasped the pul­sat­ing wound. When I touched it, the dev­il unleashed his hell on the ragged place where once there were fin­gers. The poi­so­nous pain ran all through my body and buck­led me again. White light flashed inside the yel­low lens­es. My legs did their job. They held, then car­ried me off the yel­low hill, down the end of the yel­low holler, and out its mouth to the yel­low path toward the old house.

I’ve nev­er been so glad to see my mama in all my life as when I spot­ted her on the back porch. She had her straw hat on and held her green water­ing can. She was giv­ing a drink to the mid­dle one of the five hang­ing bas­kets burst­ing with hot pink impa­tiens. The porch, the hat, the bas­kets, the flow­ers spilling out, my mama—they were all a lit­tle on the yel­low side.

She didn’t see me at first, con­sumed as she was by her flow­ers. I got with­in fifty yards before I called, “Mama! I made a mistake!”

She turned to me with the han­dle of the plas­tic can in one hand and her oth­er under it. Her expres­sion was placid, uncom­pre­hend­ing. I raised my man­gled hand with the oth­er pressed to it, my lone­ly right thumb pok­ing up as if it were giv­ing its approval. Her jaun­diced face became a plate of noo­dles, all lines and squig­gles. The can hit the con­crete at her feet, and the water first jumped, then poured out. Her mouth moved and there were words, but with my plugs in I hadn’t any notion what they might be. I drew ever clos­er, but for some rea­son she made no move toward me. Her mouth moved again, and the sound was loud­er, but still I didn’t get it.

Once I was up on her I was shak­ing like a scared rab­bit, but I couldn’t do any­thing about it. I said, “I need an ambu­lance, Mama. I need an ambu­lance bad.”

The first move­ment she made since drop­ping the can was to pluck the ear plug from my right ear. The air and the nois­es it car­ried rushed in. She put her ter­ri­fied face inch­es from it and said, “Where’s Dustin?”

I drew my head back and gnashed my teeth. “Sleepin’. Now you gonna call me an ambu­lance or not?”  I stuck my ruined hand in the sat­u­rat­ed lit­tle rag under her nose. “I can’t dial!”

She shook her head, like she was com­ing up out of a dream, took my upper arms and helped me to my back­side on the con­crete porch and leaned me against one of the gray six by six posts that sup­port­ed the roof. While she did she said, “I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go,” all breathy and fast. I’ve got to give her cred­it I can’t give Dustin: at least she didn’t pass out.

I sat look­ing at the yel­low rock face where Granpaw’s crew blast­ed the hill­side to make a flat place for Mama and Daddy’s house. It was some years after that they got in the mood to make me. I looked at the yel­lowed saplings grow­ing in the cracks and wondered—like I always did—what they were think­ing sprout­ing there. There was no future in it.

Then I was tired of it. Tired of the yel­low world. Tired of sit­ting in the expand­ing shad­ow of my leak­ing flu­id. I was as hap­py not being in the world at all as to be in that awful yel­low one where I had only half a right hand and a thou­sand rations of pain. I closed my eyes and the yel­low world was gone. Wasn’t long before I was too.

* * *

I didn’t see the world again for anoth­er day, but when I did it wasn’t yel­low any­more. It was most­ly beige and bor­ing, like a hos­pi­tal should be. For that, I was glad.

Dustin felt awful, like it was his fault. I told him it wasn’t—and that was true—though it would have been nice if he’d stayed upright and helped.

They brought a doc­tor to my room who want­ed to cut off my toe and make me a new index fin­ger, said it would “increase the func­tion” of my hand. I got the feel­ing he was excit­ed to try it out. I just let him talk. I knew right away I didn’t want a toe cob­bled on my hand. It was hard enough to see the way peo­ple react­ed to it. I sure didn’t want to make it look like some kind of patch­work sci­ence project.

I left the hos­pi­tal with my lit­tle hand sewed up and an orange bot­tle of white pills, pills a man could make a nice prof­it on if he was the sort. I took a few, but the rest went down the commode.

There are times when my bud­dies gig me, the way bud­dies can, about my mas­tur­ba­tion prac­tices and how I can only count to six. I always laugh along. Dustin nev­er does. He nev­er even smiles. He just sits like there’s a tack on his chair until the jokes pass.

I soon found out, some girls can’t deal with the fact I’m maimed. Oth­ers can get used to it. My dad­dy says it’s an advan­tage. “Sorts the good from the bad real quick. The bad ones aren’t worth foolin’ with.” That may be so, but I might have liked to spend a lit­tle time fool­ing with some of the bad ones anyway.

Some­times I get down. My dad­dy always tells me the same thing, “It does no good to dwell on the past.” My mama’s the worst for that, and he can’t abide it.

I try hard, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss my fin­gers. There are times when I stare at the mean­der­ing scar where they once lived, at the places where the knit skin sits up like a rouged mole trail. Think­ing about the loss knots my stom­ach, but those knots get incre­men­tal­ly small­er each day.

The morn­ing I made Dustin go back up the holler with me, he did so under protest. I prod­ded him. “You afraid you’re gonna have anoth­er faint­ing spell?”

I stood at the foothill’s crease while Dustin fired up the chip­per. It roared awake, then trem­bled in hunger. “Hush,” I said, work­ing my earplugs in with my left hand. “You already bit me once. You won’t get me again.”

The foliage on the brush and limbs we cleared had died and turned crispy brown while I con­va­lesced. The leaves on the trees had begun their change, but weren’t too far along just yet.

Dustin put his clear safe­ty glass­es on and looked it over. “So, how you wan­na work this?” he said, over the chipper’s fury.

I con­tem­plat­ed a moment before I reached in my front pock­et for my yel­low-lensed safe­ty glass­es. I took a step near­er the eager chip­per. I looked down the chute at the cut­ting knives. Their motion was so fast that they were noth­ing more than a sil­ver blur. With my left hand, I tossed the glass­es inside. The rat­tle was brief, and they were gone.

I shrugged. “I bet­ter haul and let you load. I don’t got any glasses.”

Dustin nod­ded. He moved to the chipper’s mouth while I made my way to one of the brush piles. We set about fin­ish­ing our work.

Wes_ Wes­ley Browne owns a small piz­za shop, prac­tices law, and lives with his wife and two sons in Rich­mond, Ken­tucky. His prose has appeared in Appalachi­an Jour­nal and Chaf­fin Jour­nal. The Yel­low World was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in the Anthol­o­gy of Appalachi­an Writ­ers, Ron Rash Vol­ume IV. He is a mem­ber of the Hell of Our Own Writ­ers Group and has twice attend­ed the Appalachi­an Writ­ers Work­shop at Hind­man Set­tle­ment School in Hind­man, Kentucky

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