The Angel Finger by K.C. Mead-Brewer
Childhood. Sisterhood. Rural pastoral. An eleventh finger. Horror. Right from the opening line of K.C. Mead-Brewer’s short story “The Angel Finger,” a finalist for the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize judged by Alexander Chee, we are hooked. Main character Morgan comes alive in generous and effective interiority, with a child voice written with love (see Mead-Brewer’s author’s note for Morgan’s wonderful origin story). She may have an evil streak and she’s very misunderstood by her family, each one collectively and specifically well-characterized, right down to Jasper the beleaguered dog. As the story progresses, we know we are in capable hands when another perspective takes shape and an omniscient narrator graces the piece with a storytelling voice just perfect in tone: “It could be said that, after all the screaming, there was nothing left to be said.”
Then again… —CRAFT
Most nights, Morgan lies awake thinking about cutting off her sister’s finger. The extra one on Angela’s left hand, the one she calls her angel finger. It could be said these thoughts make Morgan a bad person. Sinning in thought is still sinning, her Sunday school teacher would say—but she can’t be sure. It’s true, sometimes she has trouble not thinking about the devil. Sometimes she has trouble not thinking about all kinds of things she isn’t supposed to think about, things like cutting off her sister’s angel finger. As if Angela even makes good use of it. As if Angela spends her days wandering about touching peasants with it to heal their leprosy or plague. Morgan isn’t especially well-read with her Bible but she knows most of the key stories, including the one where the mother begs Christ to heal her demon-possessed daughter, and Christ agrees with her that yes, even dogs deserve scraps from the table. It isn’t hard to imagine Angela stretching out her angel finger to a dying child, deigning her thin nail to be nibbled free of a miracle.
Their father is a rural pastor, though not a particularly good one. He requires a full script of his sermons be tucked somewhere on the altar or he forgets them entirely, lifting his arms up before the small congregation and devolving impromptu into random hymns, hoping to pass the moment off as divine inspiration rather than poor mortal planning.
Morgan’s fairly certain her soul is headed for eternal damnation. She can’t do anything right. Mrs. Bunting, the church lady with the gummy eyes and graying teeth, says so all the time. Shakes her head and mutters about PKs, what a shame it is that such a fine preacher, a man born to Show The Way, should have a daughter with such a devil’s streak. A daughter who once dared the Johnson boy to climb onto the church roof, abandoning him there when he started weeping. A daughter who’s been known to slip notes, tell lies, and lay traps. A daughter without any angel in her at all.
If their parish house were a finger on a hand, it would be one of only three: the house, the church, and the graveyard. The church is white and plain as a sheet cake, the steeple stuck on top like a birthday candle. The house is equally plain, politely porched and chimneyed. The graveyard ripples out bluely between the two, crooked headstones lurching here and there. And beyond these three: A wild empty space that isn’t empty at all, full of trees and blinking animals, birds that make noises at each other and squirrels that mock their dog, an old brown thing called Jasper.
Jasper sleeps on the sofa in the den, sinking deeper into the worn floral cushions each night. Morgan’s dreamed of those cushions more than once, the vining patterns wrapping thornily about the hound’s creaking body, dragging him under and away. Mother and Father have their own rooms; sometimes they share them but most times they don’t. If Morgan had her own room, she’d never ever share it. As things are, at least the room she shares with her sister is an interesting shape. Morgan likes to think of it as a diamond, though it never seems to catch any light.
At night, their little room gets so dark Morgan can hardly breathe; a diamond dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
Each day Angela’s angel finger spends still attached to her human hand, Morgan’s astonished she isn’t given even an ounce of credit for resisting the call of her devil’s streak. The call of Father’s wire cutters and gardening shears. That flat, paper guillotine from Mother’s scrapbooking table. Those big silver scissors in her sewing drawer.
Their mother is something of a crafter. Knitting, sewing, drawing, stained glass, rug-hooking, basket weaving. There isn’t anything their mother can’t make, with one notable exception: a garden.
Years from now, Morgan will wonder if this is because gardens require nurturing.
Their mother says it’s the mess, she can’t abide the dirt. When the girls found a butterfly cocoon last spring, fallen off a tombstone’s craggy edge, their mother’s face balled up like a tissue; she didn’t want them bringing it inside for fear of mites of all things. No, their mother isn’t a gardener, but the graveyard takes up the slack, its crumbling headstones framed by wildflowers, its long graves blushing with fresh strawberries each summer.
On nice days, their mother’s known to pick the strawberries for what she calls Dead Men’s Jam—something that stains the girls’ mouths red for hours, prompting games of Vampire Queen about the house, both of them jumping out at each other from shadows, sucking menacingly at their pinkened teeth.
It’s during one of these jumping-out moments that it happens: Morgan pops from a hall closet, snarling and hissing, red-mouthed, and crashes into a startled Jasper, one of her feet landing hard on one of his paws, a scream, a yelp, tangling together as half the closet avalanches out atop them—a hammer, a baseball bat, even a bowling ball—but somehow it’s the claw of a wire hanger that gouges deep into the dog’s right eye.
Emergency vet isn’t a thing Morgan knew existed until this moment. “It’s too far,” Father says to Mother, sweetly naïve in his belief that the girls can’t hear them through the bedroom door.
Together they move a snapping, frightened Jasper into the bathtub, and the unfairness of it tears at Morgan’s heart. The bath is Jasper’s absolute least favorite place, but now he has to be there while he’s hurt and afraid?
“I didn’t mean to,” Morgan keeps saying. “I didn’t mean to,” and “I’m sorry,” and “it was an accident,” but her parents ignore her, arguing about the vet, while Angela just stands there in the corner, all eleven of her fingers clasped tight together in front of herself, as if in prayer.
Finally, Mother concedes, yes, all right, the emergency vet is too far, too expensive, too everything. (How do you know? Morgan wants to shout. We’ve never taken him to the vet before. How do you know?) They cut one of Mother’s old Saved-After-A-Dentist-Appointment pills in half and crush it into a bit of chicken broth to pour down Jasper’s throat. Jasper struggled at first, trying to get the hanger out himself, thrashing and pawing and biting, but it only made things worse. Mother removes the hanger behind the closed bathroom door; Father can’t bear to be there when it happens, standing all the way out in the graveyard, sucking down one, two, and then a third cigarette. Angela sits crying on Jasper’s sofa. Morgan waits in the hall by the bathroom, holding herself as she listens to Jasper’s pleading little sounds.
“Morgan,” her mother calls from behind the door. “Get some cloth from the craft room. A long strip.”
Morgan runs, hands trembling as she scissors through the closest bolt of fabric, a red paisley pattern. She pounds on the bathroom door, harder than she means to, and when Mother opens it, she can see the blood everywhere, the brown dog shuddering in the tub.
Oh, Morgan thinks. It’s because of the blood. They moved him there to catch the blood.
Mother doesn’t thank her for the cloth, only takes it and gently ties it around Jasper’s head like he’s a pirate or part of a biker gang. Father’s suddenly there in the doorway, just as the worst is over.
The bathroom smells wrong now. Mother’s favorite cotton day-dress is ruined. She looks down at her bloodstained hands and whispers to Father, “I look like a butcher,” but Morgan knows the truth: she looks like a Vampire Queen.
The girls lie awake in their beds, not knowing what to do. Morgan looks for faces in the ceiling’s various water stains, trying not to think of Jasper swaddled up like a baby in Mother’s room, whimpering softly even in his sleep.
“You blinded him,” Angela whispers. “You blinded our dog.”
“He can still see through his other eye,” Morgan says, adding silently, “why should you get to have an extra finger when Jasper doesn’t even get to have the usual number of eyes?”
Don’t think it hasn’t already crossed Morgan’s mind. The idea of cutting off Angela’s finger and feeding it to the dog to fix him. She’s already in so much trouble, though. She can only imagine what their parents would say if she got Angela’s blood everywhere, too.
Then again—that’s Morgan’s favorite phrase. She can’t remember the first time she heard it or read it, but she’s been obsessed with it ever since. Then again, then again. Like the magic words to unlock a hidden door: Then again, she’s already in trouble, so what’s a little more? “I’m already destined for hell,” she whispers to her pillow, her eyes hot and leaking.
The least she can do is use her hellishness to help an innocent dog.
She decides to try reasoning with Angela first. If it’s no use, then she knows where Mother keeps the rest of her Dentist Pills.
“Your angel finger’s magic, isn’t it?” Morgan says. She doesn’t need to look to know Angela’s quickly tucking her hands deep under the covers.
“You know it isn’t,” Angela says. “It’s just a finger.”
“What about the time that tulip bud opened right as you touched it?”
“That was just a coincidence. Don’t be a baby.” Don’t be a baby. But it’s Angela pulling her covers tighter. Angela squirming on her little twin mattress. “Besides, I already petted Jasper tonight and nothing happened. He didn’t magically get better.”
“What about the butterfly cocoon?” Morgan says, mind made up. “Everyone said it was dead, but I snuck it inside and you touched it, and by the end of the week, bam! There’s a butterfly flopping around the room.”
“You’re an idiot, Morgan,” Angela decides, turning to face the wall. “I can’t believe you blinded our dog.”
Morgan lies there, thinking about the sad wet sounds Jasper kept making, his breathing so quick and shallow, the way he looked with that hanger dangling out of his eye, the rusty scent of his blood and pee running together. Mostly, though, thinking about his favorite window in Mother’s bedroom, the place he likes best to sit and watch the birds busy themselves in the feeders outside—pine cones the girls smeared with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed, hanging them like ornaments from the pine’s low branches. He isn’t blind, Morgan reminds herself. Just the one eye. He’ll still be able to watch the birds outside. (So why is she crying?)
Morgan doesn’t hate her sister. It’s not that she wants her in pain. If people were paint colors, Angela would be the exact yellow of the stripes down the center of a highway. Neat. Inoffensive. Both bright and thoroughly ignorable. Except for this finger—it adds something more, doesn’t it? Her one true beauty.
There’s really not another chance at this. Morgan knows there isn’t. If she doesn’t go through with it tonight, she never will. Save the Dentist Pills for later. Angela will probably need them.
There are several ways the night’s events might be described.
It could be said that Morgan snuck out of bed, grabbed the poultry shears from the kitchen, snuck back upstairs, and—with a single, firm clip—snapped off her sister’s sixth finger.
It could be said that she snapped off the wrong sixth finger.
It could be said that their diamond room was even darker than usual, as if it, too, had sunk to new depths.
It could be said that Morgan’s young heart pounded like hooves, that she didn’t breathe a moment until she felt the shears click between her hands.
It could be said that, after all the screaming, there was nothing left to be said. What’s done is done, what’s snipped is snipped.
It could be said that the finger is lost, rolled somewhere unseen thanks to all the slick blood and violent flailing, but that would be a lie. Despite everything, Morgan managed to snatch the finger out from the tangled, wet bedsheets. She pressed it down the back of her panties in a moment of panic; no one would think to look for it there.
The parents strip Angela’s bed bare in search of the digit—they aren’t taking her to the hospital without the finger to stitch back on.
It’s not like she’s a piano player, Morgan thinks. Who really needs all their fingers?
They do, her parents say. They need Angela to have all her fingers. Not that Angela’s any help looking for it. No, she’s already fallen crying back asleep right where they bundled her up on the floor, next to the dog in Mother’s room.
Finally, Father turns to Morgan and says, “We’re taking your sister to the hospital. You will stay here. You will take a shower. You will not have a cellphone.” He holds out his hand and Morgan dutifully places the device on his palm. “You will not watch TV or listen to music or have any hopeful thoughts. You will sit here on this bed and think on what you’ve done. Your mother and I will have our decision made by the time we get back.”
She almost doesn’t ask, “Your decision on what?”
“On how exactly we’re going to punish you.”
Morgan would be lying if she said this didn’t frighten her, but there’s something about having your sister’s severed finger down your panties that’s pretty sobering.
She waits until they’re gone, her sister packed into the back of the car with Mother’s arms around her, an old beach towel balled against her hand. She waits until the red coals of their taillights flicker out in the rural dark. She keeps waiting because movement is suddenly very hard, as if she’s nothing but a pile of severed things, her body a tall heap in the center of the bedroom. Something her family left behind.
She can feel Angela’s finger-blood leaking down her butt-crack. Part of her wonders if this is anything like having a period. She hates thinking of her sister touching her this way and, as if startled, whips suddenly around to fling the finger out from her underwear, tossing it across the room.
The finger thuds against a wall, rolls; an oddly dull sound.
The room would be nothing but darkness if not for the yellow slice of hall light under the door, clawing the finger’s shadow long and black across the hardwood.
Morgan’s changed her mind. She doesn’t want to touch it anymore. She doesn’t want anything to do with it. She can still feel it round and wet against her butt and she hates it, she hates everything, she hates herself. She can’t breathe. She can’t. Her flat chest works up and down, but no breath’s getting in.
Don’t start what you can’t finish. One of Mother’s favorite sayings. Morgan hears it out of nowhere, out of the finger, Don’t start what you can’t finish.
It’s the kind of advice a person can give if they’ve never started anything too difficult, or too risky. Or risky at all. What’s Mother ever chanced, Morgan wonders, aside from some papercuts? She wasn’t willing to chance a few mites for a butterfly. Wasn’t willing to chance the vet for her own dog. And all at once, Morgan knows: her mother will not save her.
Her mother will not save her, and her father’s too busy saving everyone else. Angela doesn’t even know what saving is, she’s never needed it before tonight.
Morgan must bear the weight of this finger on her own.
She won’t remember crossing the room, picking it up. Not the way she’ll remember opening the door to Mother’s room, the deceptive warmth of that scent—seashell soaps and old nightgowns, curled paperbacks and shapely bottles of golden perfume. Sitting down carefully, not wanting to startle Jasper in his nest of blankets, she wrinkles her nose against the stink of his wet fur, the closet dust clinging to the old blankets. And hanging over it all: The acrid red memory of blood.
Jasper doesn’t complain when she strokes his back and this feels like a sort of permission.
Looking down at the finger curled in her palm, blood crusted over it, it almost looks like the butterfly cocoon. The one everyone but Morgan decided was dead. Maybe Angela’s the one who healed it, but it was Morgan who saw its potential.
“It might not be the right finger,” she confesses to Jasper. The moon in the window. The owl hooting unseen. “I’m sorry. I just grabbed a finger and squeezed. But it might still work anyway.”
It’s not a thumb; she knows that much. It looks like the angel finger, and maybe it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, Angela’s down to ten now.
Morgan holds up the finger to the dog’s brown nose, but he shifts his snout away, deeper into the nest. She scoots closer, wondering if she should roll it in peanut butter for him. “It’s all right,” she promises. “You didn’t take it. I did.”
This time Jasper offers the finger a few chaste licks, as if apologizing to Angela; a brief sniff. But still he doesn’t take it. His good eye glances away to the moon window. A dark shadow of blood stiffening his bandage. Morgan sniffs the finger but senses nothing amiss. “It isn’t cursed,” she says, in case miracles smell too much like curses. In case he might be frightened. “It’s good magic.”
Then again. What would she know about good magic? Morgan, the one destined for hell. The Vampire Princess who took an innocent beast’s eye. Who stole her own sister’s finger to feed upon.
“Don’t worry,” she tells him, tears pressing into her voice as he finally accepts the finger, his warm-soft snout snuffling against her palm. “Even if it’s cursed, I know how to live with those.” She kisses his nearest paw, hating the part of her that’s hopeful for a curse, for the possibility of no longer being so alone. “I’ll show you the way.”
K.C. MEAD-BREWER lives in Ithaca, NY. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Joyland Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Tin House’s 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.