The Sixth Finger by Paul Williams

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TheSixthFinger-Cover

THE SIXTH FINGER

Paul Williams

The villagers saw the soldiers approaching and formed a futile circle to protect their homes. There were six intruders, all armed and on horseback. The leader pulled back his hood and surveyed the scene, unperturbed by the fragments of snow drifting across his face.

“I’m looking for Yietan Kamborichi,” he announced.

Nobody moved. Slowly he repeated his request then grimaced and motioned to one of his colleagues who pointed a gun at the nearest person. “Last chance,” said the leader.

Yietan stepped forward. His wife grabbed his hand but he pushed her away. A dog barked in one of the houses and another joined the chorus. Nobody dared release them. They knew the fate of those who opposed the Chinese.

“You have a son,” said the leader.

Yietan nodded.

“Bring him to me.”Yietan’s wife gasped. Two women grabbed their own children and held them tight. With a regretful look at the gun, Yietan called his son. A boy came forward, not quite eight years of age. He held his father’s hand.

The leader looked at him disdainfully then motioned for him to step forward. Yietan released the hand. The leader jumped off his horse and examined the boy carefully. He shook his head. “You have another son,” he said. “A special one.”Some of the villagers laughed.

“You mock me,” said Yietan.

The leader’s gun pivoted and touched the boy’s lips. Keeping his finger on the trigger the leader said, “Bring me the other son.”

Yietan bowed politely and turned round. His wife and two soldiers followed. They passed through the village, ignoring the enraged dogs that hurled themselves against the fences, still barking. Yietan stopped outside a barn and pointed inside. The soldiers entered and emerged a few seconds later, dragging a boy of about six years, by his wrists with one on either side. He reacted to the sound of the dogs, twisting his head and trying to bite the arms of his captors. They pushed him up to the leader who retrieved his gun. He grabbed the boy’s right hand and held it up. Between the middle fingers was an extra digit, fully formed. Those villagers who had not seen the mutation before gasped. The others shook their heads and discretely ensured that they were not within touching distance of Yietan or his wife.

“They talk,” said the leader. “Someone has spoken of your shame and we are here to relieve you.”

“Why?” said Yietan. Nobody was looking at him. The laughter, and reprisals, would come later.

“Money,” said the leader. “Not for you. You can just think about the saving in food.” He snapped his fingers. The two soldiers picked up the boy’s arms again and lifted him onto a horse behind one of their colleagues with an instruction to hold tight. The boy looked down fearfully, not knowing how to ride. “Copy me,” said one of the soldiers,

The leader mounted his own horse. As an afterthought, he turned and asked, “Does the boy have a name?”

Yietan swallowed. “Briyen,” he said.

“Say goodbye Briyen,’ ordered the leader.

Briyen said nothing. The leader laughed and took his army out of the village. Nobody followed. Nobody asked questions. Nobody complained.

The soldiers stopped at the next village and pulled down big heavy rucksacks containing food.

A reluctant delegation came to meet them. The leader ordered fresh produce and a fire. Then he and his men sat down to eat. Briyen stayed by the horses, cautiously patting the one that had carried him. The leader called him, and beckoned. Slowly Briyen went close to the warmth of the fire. The leader gave him a piece of meat and a cup of milk. He ate quickly, scanning the unfamiliar surroundings, and aware that the villagers were watching him. Fragments of their conversation drifted across, “Should we save him?”, “Only a child.”

The leader listened to but did nothing to stop their dissent. He did not want to shoot people, Briyen realized. The books, and the stories told by his aunt, were wrong. He twisted so that his deformed hand was not visible to the villagers.

The soldiers camped there for the night. Two of them stayed awake to watch the fire. Another tossed Briyen a rough bag to sleep on. It itched but was more comfortable than the barn. He had never slept outside before. The cold air rushed over him, soothing the memories of the abduction, as his eyes closed.

In the morning, the leader obtained some more meat and milk. After eating, he ordered the soldiers to leave some of the dry food. They gave two packs of brown rice to the village leader, who nodded gratefully. Briyen smiled at him, still hiding the hand. This time he felt confident enough to climb on the horse and follow the soldiers on their journey to an unknown destination.

They repeated the process at ten more villages. The journey time varied. Twice they arrived after the sun had set and three times in the middle of the afternoon. None of the villagers resisted them. Some spoke to Briyen. Aware that his voice sounded different, due to a lack of use, he replied with short pleasantries about the weather. Each day he felt more and more like a real person.

On the twelfth day, they came over a ridge and looked down onto a town. It reminded Briyen of the picture books. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, lived there. They had vehicles instead of horses and a black substance instead of grass below the snow. In places, the white carpet showed gaps where it had been cleared. Excited he rode forward, stopping by the first building in response to a command from the leader. He dismounted and bent down to touch the surface. The leader laughed, “You are not the first,” he said.

He remembered his mother saying that. She sought to justify his existence by remembering others like him. Others abandoned to the wolves or the snow leopards. Sacrificed to nature with a prayer that the next birth would be normal. Exposure was the traditional fate, but the villagers no longer controlled their traditions. The soldiers sought any excuse to imprison or execute them, and the soldiers viewed exposure as murder. They were the destroyers of Tibet. Nobody would give them a reason to destroy another village.

As Briyen stepped through the ornate gates into a courtyard with fresh flowers and a sunroof, he contrasted it to the barn. A door led inside the huge building. His bare feet felt the floor of the house in wonder. He followed the soldiers, feeling that it was like a castle in one of the books that his aunt gave him to look at. The bedroom they showed him was larger than the barn. It had a side room where they demonstrated the flushing mechanism of a device they called a toilet and how the taps turned on water in a rectangular device. Still in a state of shock, he used both. The water hurt at first, then revitalized him. He watched it seep over his sixth finger, cleansing it, and touched the offending digit with his other hand. “Not the first,” he whispered.

Then he lay on the raised incline, correctly guessing its function and fell asleep.

In the morning light streamed through the windows. He forced himself upright and went to the door. It opened when he knocked. A soldier stood outside, smiling. He shouted to an unseen colleague and Briyen heard a strange dragging sound. Another soldier approached, pushing a device on wheels that made the sound as it scraped along the floor. He stopped by the room. Briyen smelt food. The tray contained several plates and bowls, each holding things to eat or drink. It was more than he would normally consume in a week. The first soldier helped his colleague to wheel the device into the room. Then they left Briyen alone to eat.

He vomited after the second plate, managing to contain the liquid in the toilet and pressing the flusher more times than was necessary. He tried the door again. The first soldier still stood there. Again, he shouted to his colleague. This time the second soldier brought clothes, fine clothes like those worn by rich people in the books. Briyen put them on, struggling with the buttons, then ran to the second room and looked at himself in the long glass that showed him. “Not the first,” he said.

One of the soldiers was removing the remains of the meal. The other motioned for Briyen to accompany him. They went along the corridor, in the opposite direction to the exit and crossed an open space where the rectangular path cut through the snow. Rabbits stood around, twitching their ears. Sometimes rabbits had wandered into the barn. Their presence here made it seem less like a dream.

On the other side of the courtyard was a room, accessible through a dark door. When the door opened, he saw that there were no windows in the room beyond. The soldier pressed a button on the wall. A light came on in the ceiling. Briyen wailed in fear then looked away from the light into the corner where a man was watching him.

The man wore three layers of clothing. A coat hung over his shirt and another device hung from the shirt, forming a bow then dropping to his trousers. It was blue. The coat and trousers were matching grey and the shirt white. He also wore gloves, despite being indoors.

The soldier bowed and shut the door, leaving them alone.

“Forgive me,” said the man. “I am sensitive to light as I am sure you are.”“Do you live in a barn too?” asked Briyen.

“A dark place away from the rest of humanity,” He limped forward, looking more carefully at Briyen. “To some this is dark too but, for most, it is the start of their rebirth. Did you not wonder why you were different?” He took Briyen’s hand, touching the sixth finger reverently. It hurt. Briyen pulled away.

“Every night,” he confessed. Every day when he listened to the other children playing and helping their families but nights were the worst. He heard them eating the communal meals, talking, joking and laughing. Sometimes he detected the fresh wailing of a newborn and hated himself for wanting it to be like him. To join him in his cell so that he had at least had someone, other than insects, to talk to during the cold nights.

“They see it as a curse,” said the man. “A difference caused by sin in this or a previous life. Other cultures accept it as a genetic error but still shun the parents. Still encourage those with the affliction to hide away. Some pay for an operation to correct it, usually when the child is still young. Shame is a terrible thing. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“My parents do,” said Briyen. It was the order of life. One of them, probably Yietan, committed a serious offence in this existence or a previous one. Briyen’s disfigurement was his punishment.

“Suppose they are wrong,” said the man grimly. “Suppose that normal humans are the aberration and we are normality.” He pulled off the glove on his right hand to reveal a sixth finger. Briyen stared, unable to speak. “Evolution is an ongoing process. It did not suddenly stop and say humanity was perfect. It had a reason to give us another finger and, in time, other attributes necessary for the long-term survival of the race. We have delayed that with our insistence on perfection. Our deviance form the plan that nature or, some would say, God, had designed for us.” Briyen still stared at the finger. He compared it with his own, just as the first tears started flowing. He was not the first. He was not alone.

“I was like you,” said the man. “Shut away. Locked in rooms where nobody could find me. But I had books, television and films. Things I now provide here. I was able to learn. The breakthrough came when they gave me a computer. There were no cameras with them in those days but I could look on the internet. Do you know what that is?” Briyen shrugged. Many of the man’s words were strange to him. “Don’t worry, I have arranged an education.” Even that word was unfamiliar. “You will return when you know more. And when you have had a haircut.”

Briyen touched his hair, not understanding or liking the word. Laughing, the old man called for the soldiers who escorted Briyen back to his room. A few minutes later another man appeared, wearing a grey uniform. He had the face of a solider but was old, perhaps the oldest man that Briyen had met. He carried a bag containing scissors, knives and some strange devices. “Sit,” he ordered. Obediently Briyen sat in a chair. The man put an apron around his shoulders. It felt comfortable. Without speaking, the man began to remove his hair. He started at the back, with the scissors. Briyen felt the skin itching and peered at the mass of black greasy hair falling onto the floor. The insects went with it, tiny white and black specks lost in the ruins of their homes. “The circle of life,” he murmured.

“Once this hospital was part of a mountain,” said the man. “Lots of animals, insects and birds lived here. Now people live here. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for a better life.”

When the man had finished, a woman in a blue uniform entered to clean up the hair. Briyen ran into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. For the first time, he looked at himself properly, comparing it to the few others that he knew. His hair resembled that of the man who had cut it, making him seem older than his brother. He saw his mother’s eyes looking back at him but an unfamiliar nose, paler than most. He looked thin, his muscles not toned by work in the fields or, until the last thirteen days, strengthened by nutritious food. His teeth curved inward as they smiled; the reflection radiated a happiness he was starting to appreciate.

He left the mirror. The man and the cleaner were gone. He tried the external door. Locked. He opened one of the drawers and saw some picture books. He flicked through them, not noticing the men who delivered two more meals before nightfall. On the second visit, one of them activated the light. He looked up but continued studying the pictures. Later he ate both meals, not caring that they had gone cold, and drank the accompanying water. It was a superior prison to the barn but as he looked out through the window, and listened to the distant calls of nocturnal animals, Briyen wished for a greater freedom. If he wore gloves, he could walk into villages, without anyone knowing he was different. He would not need to hide away.

The soldiers called for Briyen, after breakfast, and escorted him to a large room with wooden desks arranged in neat rows. Each had a chair behind it. There were eight other children, six boys and two girls. His desk would have only just fitted in the barn. Like the sleeping room, this room had cool air, thanks to machinery in the ceiling controlled from the walls.

A woman stood at the front of the room. A stern hostile-looking woman. She began speaking quickly in a strange accent, harsher even than that of the soldiers. He struggled to listen then gave up, drifting into dreams where his family accepted him and let him work on the farm. People were laughing. He awoke. They were still laughing. The teacher stood over his desk, her face dark with anger. “You have been given this privilege, Briyen,” she said. “If you don’t want it we can send you back. Is that what you want?” He felt that she expected a denial or some other response. He could not think of anything suitable.

“I don’t know,” he stammered eventually.

Hissing with anger, she returned to the front of the room.

After two hours, in which Briyen stayed awake under the teacher’s watchful glare, the class went into the courtyard. One of the girls approached him timidly. “Just keep trying,” she said. She looked older than his sister, but in better condition. She smelt clean, without the odors of dust, insects and animal hairs.

“Why?” he said.

She held out her hand. He looked at the extra digit, growing between the two middle fingers. She twitched it twice, then touched him and walked away. He watched her, unsure if she wanted him to respond then realized that he was expected to do so in the class.

When the lessons resumed he paid close attention to his colleagues, watching as the teacher handed them pencils like the ones his aunt had given him in the barn. He knew how to hold it. They did not. He looked more closely. All apart from the girl had five fingers on each hand but moved slowly. He recalled them standing in the rest area, all alone. None of them had spoken to each other, although they answered the teacher when asked. The girl, the only one whose movement seemed normal, smiled at him, unseen by the teacher. He grinned back.

Later Briyen learnt that the girl’s name was Mai. She came from Hubei province, showing him its location on a map. He calculated that it would take thirty days to walk there. “There’s a plane,’ she said. “But I can’t go back there. My parents didn’t want me. They sold me to Mr. Henti.”

Briyen recalled the original soldiers talking about money, but his father had not received any. He contemplated this for several days, trying to concentrate on the other issues imparted by the teacher who was now nicer to him. School ran through to the evening and then it was bedtime after dinner. Under the pretext of using the bathroom, he left dinner early and ran back to the room where he had met the strange man. He knocked on the door. No answer. No light inside. He was going to give up when he saw that another door was open on the opposite site of the courtyard. It was not giving out any light either. He ran to it and went in.

Inside he was aware of shapes along the wall, boxes held up on shelves. There were objects in them but he could not see any more clearly. A beam of light came on. It spun across the floor, making a rattling sound and stopped by his foot. The beam emanated from a yellow circular device. He picked it up and pressed the black button at the top. The light went out. He pressed it again. The light came back on. He pressed again and again.

“Enough,” said a voice. He spun the light round. Mr. Henti, the man with the sixth finger, was on the far side of the room surrounded by the boxes that were really glass containers. Some were bigger than others. They all contained human parts. Fingers floating about alone. Whole hands. A head. An arm. A fully formed baby. He shuddered with fear, nearly dropping the light. Mr. Henti stumbled across and took the light from him. He turned it off and put his arm on Briyen’s shoulder. Briyen felt himself being steered across the corridor and into the opposite room. Mr. Henti pushed him into a chair. There was a scraping sound. He looked around. Mr. Henti dragged another chair across the floor and sat next to him, within touching distance.

“You should not have seen that,” he said.

“Why not?” spat Briyen angrily. “Do you want to remove my hand?”

Mr. Henti laughed. “All the parts that you saw are from people already dead. The embryos were aborted, the younger children killed or victims of disease. I assembled a team of scientists to examine them. To prove me right.” He looked up at the ceiling, perhaps seeing a God to challenge. “I told you that I was once like you. The difference is that my parents had money. I was their only child, they dared not risk another. When they died, I inherited. Some tried to stop me but my father’s lawyers, and his soldiers were supportive. The money built this place, the finest research Centre for disabilities in Asia and home, a hospital and a school to several children such as yourself.”

“Why?”“To give you the childhood I never had.”

Briyen knew there was something more. Mr. Henti refused to elaborate.

As Briyen learnt to read the words that accompanied the pictures in books, he spent most of his time in the prison library, a vast atrium on the eastern side of the complex. It contained numerous books, many without pictures, as well as computers with full internet access. Mai showed him how to use them. He found pictures of embryos similar to the one seen floating in the glass box and read about abortion. The morality did not concern him, merely the cost. His mother would not have been able to afford the procedure. He also read about the harsh conditions in the mountain villages, the dietary deficiencies, the poor quality of education and healthcare, and compared it with his new life in Mr. Henti’s prison.

Time passed. Briyen read that some cultures had a day of rest. Not here. The lessons ran from eight to five, with an hours break every day. There were always six other children but the individuals changed. One went. Another took their place. None of the arrivals or departures were announced. Briyen asked the teacher why nobody said goodbye. She refused to answer. Few of the other children spoke to him. All looked normal but they had learning or other disorders. Some would throw violent tantrums for no apparent reason then, within minutes, be smiling at those they had just abused. Others knew a wealth of details about erudite topics but could not tie their shoelaces or find their way to the classroom that they attended every day. Culturally they did not want to bring more shame on their families by discussing these ailments. He understood.

Mai remained. Briyen saw her every day. He wanted to see her more. They discussed their learning together, at mealtimes and in the dim light of the courtyard. Once he tried to run out of the courtyard but a solider, one of those who had removed him from the village, pointed a gun at him.

“It is still a prison,” he said one day in Mai’s room.

She nodded. “But better than the ones we left. Mr. Henti is trying his best.”

“What is the point of the learning if we don’t get to leave?”

Mai looked out. The soldier in the corridor was not looking their way. She pushed the door in a little then lowered her voice. “Some have left. Taken away by their parents or relatives. I don’t know if they were cured or if the sponsors ran out of money.”

“Nobody is funding me,” he said.

She checked the corridor again and moved in closer. “Most children have sponsors who pay for the research. We are different. She hasn’t told you off since the first day has she?” She was the teacher, as nobody knew her name. He shook his head. “Because Mr. Henti told her that you were special. That you were staying.”

“I’m not special,” he protested.

Mai twisted her spare finger around his. “We are the only patients with these,” she breathed. “The others are disabled, somewhere on the autism spectrum. They do not look different to their peers. Society does not judge them until they speak or undertake a physical task.”

“Mr. Henti is like us too.”

“He will ask you to sign a contract soon,” she said. “I did mine yesterday.”

The next day soldiers took Briyen out of class to a room behind the library. A doctor asked him to strip naked and lie on a bed, before proceeding to examine him with a variety of instruments. They felt cold on his body. Then the doctor gave him a drink. It looked like water but tasted of sugar. He felt drowsy and tried to sit up. The doctor pushed him back. Unable to move to call out, Briyen lay in a trance listening to voices all around him but not seeing or hearing anything. Not understanding the clinical language or recognizing the voices. Eventually his eyes cleared. Someone was helping him put his clothes back on. Another drink appeared in front of him. He sniffed it, not sensing anything amiss then thirst overcame doubt and he quaffed it. He started to feel better.

Mr. Henti stood at the side of the bed, holding several sheets of paper. “You have passed the medical,” he said. “The doctors tell me you are capable of reproducing. Congratulations.” Briyen said nothing. Mr. Henti passed him the paper and pen. He remembered Mai’s warning and tried to read but many of the words meant nothing to him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A contract covering your time here. It says that I will fund your education, and boarding, until you go to university. There I will pay your fees and provide a modest allowance for expenses.”

“Why? The others are not funded by you.” He did not mention Mai.

“Every good school has a scholarship program,” said Mr. Henti.

“And how did I qualify? I’m behind most of the others.”“Because you spent six years cooped up in a shed, without access to your peers or any development opportunities. Like me.”

Briyen took up the pen and looked at the space reserved for his signature. He had never signed anything before and assumed that printing his name would do. In the village, he would not have learnt to read or write. “Why a contract?” he said. “Why not just give me the money and the education. What do you want in return?”

Mr. Henti considered. “I suppose you should know that,” he said. “Don’t want the contract to be challenged down the line when you can afford lawyers. In return for my generosity, you agree to marry Mai Xinoke before she attains the age of twenty-five and to give me your first-born male and female children. They will be cared for in this hospital just as their parents are.”

Briyen just stared at him, his mind in turmoil. “I may want to marry someone else,” he said.

“You would not have been able to choose in the village,” snapped Mr. Henti. “The parents decide. I am here in place of your parents and I have decided. You and Mai were both born with the extra finger, which I believe is the key to the further evolution of the human race. I am infertile. I have tried many times but have reluctantly accepted that I cannot reproduce. When the two of you have children, they will be at the next level of evolution. The world is not ready for them yet, it will laugh and mock and try to cure just as it has with you. You must realise that they will be better off here. Or perhaps you believe that all children should remain with their parents. If so, I can send you back to your village now and Mia back to her family. Your decision.”

Briyen stared for a few more minutes then, reluctantly, he wrote his name in block capitals on the designated line.

Mai was waiting for him in his room. He looked at the closed door. “I came in through the window,” she confessed. “When they took you for the medical I realized that today was the day they told you.”

“I can’t do it,” he said. She put a finger on her lips and he realized that the room might have surveillance devices like in the spy movies that the television sometimes played.

“Can’t do what?” she whispered. “The marriage or the children?”

“The children,” he admitted.

“We will be different people then. Stronger people. Richer people. Able to resist. And, if not, there are ways around it. There may not be children. We cannot predict the future but we can manage the present. For now, we are better off here. What we learn here allows us to build that future. If we are returned, we have nothing.”

He started to protest again, the words incoherent. She shushed him with a casual flick of her fingers. “Sometimes there are sacrifices that you make for a better life,” she said. He remembered the barber saying the same thing. The barber who now routinely cut his hair every six weeks, but did not need to keep it so short because he no longer came into contact with lice. Their loss was his discovery. He had left the world of infestation behind and could never return.

His extra finger touched Mai’s and bent around it, as if nature intended the two to loop together.

On the day that the University of Shanghai accepted Briyen Kamborichi as a medical student, he kept a pre-arranged appointment. Four years had passed since he last met Mr. Henti. The office was dark, as always. Mr. Henti wore the same suit as he had on their first meeting but his movements were slower, more spasmodic. He now only wore a glove on one hand. The other feebly waved five fingers at him.

“I would like you to attend my funeral when the time comes,” said Mr. Henti slowly. “Once I believed that there would be further changes to my metabolism. Now I know that I am mortal like everyone else.” He touched the walls. “You have never spoken here about your past. About your

parents.”

“I have nothing to say.” That was not entirely true. When he qualified, Briyen intended to send a one-off donation to the village, without revealing his location. He wanted them to know that he had attained a higher standard in life, despite his disability. Wanted them to appreciate the next child born with that same, or other disability, and not imprison it.

“I can arrange to kill them,” said Mr. Henti. “The soldiers obey my every command.”

“No.”

“But they treated you worse than an animal. Deprived you of your childhood. Is that not a crime worthy of death?”“I have moved on,” repeated Briyen sternly.

The old man grinned. “The final evolution,” he murmured. “We are no longer creatures of revenge.”

Six soldiers on horseback approached the village. Accompanying them was a Tibetan man, dressed in a fine Chinese coat. He dismounted first and bowed to the village leader. Two soldiers pulled down sacks of brown rice, depositing them at the leader’s feet. “A gift,” said the man.

“I know you,” said the leader. “Travelers have spoken of your visitations. I know why you are here.”

“It is the travelers who told me of your special son. I am here to adopt him.” He motioned to the soldiers who brought forward a bag of coins. “My wife and I decided not to have children. Instead we look after those who, like us, were born different.” He held up his right hand, allowing everyone to see the sixth finger. “There is no shame in this. Send me the boy.”

“No,” said the leader. The man blinked. One of the soldiers raised his weapon. “The boy is out hunting with his brother. He returns to a normal life with us. Take your money back to the city. Give it to the parents who do not love their children and let them pay for freedom.”

The man nodded to the solider, who lowered the gun. Then the man stood there, with a tear in his eye. Recovering, he nodded and said, “I respect your choice. Good luck.”

The village leader watched him ride away, followed by the soldiers. He smiled and went across to the rice. His sixth finger looped around the string at the top and lifted it. “It’s not a curse,” he murmured. “It’s a blessing. Why can’t these people see that?”

Food for Thought

Is evolution ongoing and what is the perfect human form?

About the Author

Paul Williams is the author of two non-fiction books and is currently marketing a third. His short fiction includes contributions to anthologies such as Ominous Realities, The Blackness Within and Doctor Who: Short Trips Past Tense. This is his 52nd published story.

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