Fiction: The Sixth Toe
By Wolfgang Wright
He met her at a party, a costume party. He’d gone as Vincent van Gogh, because he was an art professor and he happened to own a blue winter cap and a green jacket, so all he needed was a bandage to cover his ear, while she’d come dressed as Cinderella, because she was a fan of fairy tales and because her name was Cindy, or so she’d told him after their initial encounter, which went something like this:
JOHN (nervous, holding a drink): Excuse me, miss, but I seem to have misplaced my ear. Is there any chance I might have mailed it to you?
CINDY (charmed, with a wry smile): No, sorry, it wasn’t me. I’m afraid the only dismembered body parts I’ve seen of late are toes.
And then they danced.
Later, as the party was wearing thin, he asked her for her number, promising to call, but she, in the spirit of her persona, proposed they leave it up to fate, and then slipped away before he could object. It was closer to one a.m., not midnight, but the effect on him was nearly identical to what it had been on the prince: where has she gone, and how will I ever find her?
But he didn’t try to find her; instead, he tried to forget about her. Because what were the odds that in a city of their size that they would ever meet again? And what would happen—really—if they did? He was a forty-year-old divorcé who’d dedicated his life to art, to the search for beauty, while she was a twenty-something bachelorette who worked as a nurse in a retirement home, caring for and cleaning up after the elderly—their worlds were not the same. And what about her notion of fate, which rubbed hard against his more practical sensibilities? Did she even believe in it, or was it merely a polite way of brushing him off, of telling him that though they’d shared a pleasant evening together, that was all that she’d been looking for? Still, there was her beauty—her eyes, her smile, her breasts—to say nothing of her quick comebacks, the way she danced, and the comfort he felt while holding her in his arms. And there was a darker side to her as well—not obvious, but he’d detected it around the edges—a side which all his favorite artists also happened to possess—Dali, Picasso, Pollock, Munch, and of course van Gogh. And this was why, even as he was trying to put her out of his mind, he was also falling in love.
So perhaps it was fate after all when a few weeks later he stopped at a local bookstore to check out a new biography on Bruegel, and happened to glance into the children’s section and see her sitting there, reading to a captivated crowd of preschoolers. At the very least, he couldn’t reject it out of hand, which was why he stuck around until the end, and applauded her performance, so as to draw her attention to him. He was wearing the same jacket, green with buttons down the front, and when she saw it she saw him as well—and smiled.
“Cinderella once again,” he quipped when she came over, still holding in her hand the book that she’d been reading from. “Though as I recall, a less violent version.”
“It’s the parents,” she explained, apparently pleased by how much he’d remembered of her. “They want their kids to grow up thinking that life is all sugarcakes and roses.”
“And what is their take on fate?” he asked, grateful for the chance to indulge her. “Not the parents, but the Brothers Grimm.”
“If I had to guess?” she said, touching her hair and grinning. “That there was no getting around it.”
They went for dinner that evening, and afterward wandered back to her place, where, in a reversal of the Cinderella story, he took her shoes off rather than putting them on. She fought him on this, warned him that he would not like what he was going to see, but he persisted anyway, and then began to massage her feet. Afterward, he played a game of “This Little Piggy” with her toes, until he came to the one that went wee wee wee all the way home—and discovered that on her left foot, there was one more toe to go.
“That’s the little piggy that goes boo,” she explained.
“Because she frightens everyone who sees her.”
“Ah, but what’s an extra toe,” he said, wanting to be supportive, “when the rest of you is so perfect, so beautiful?”
But in the morning it was a different story. He awoke to the feeling of this sixth toe rubbing against his leg, and leapt out of bed to get away from it, saying that he really had to pee. And at breakfast, when she crossed her legs and let the toe dangle in the air, wiggling it about along with the others, he had to keep his eyes averted in order not to gag. Then, at work, as if the gods were laughing at him, he had to give a lecture on Raphael, whose paintings occasionally depicted feet that appeared to be polydactyl—that is, having an extra toe. Indeed, it seemed that no matter what he did or how hard he tried, he could not get this extra toe out of his mind, and when next they had dinner and he felt her foot begin to nuzzle its way between his thighs, he shot up and said he needed to use the bathroom, where, as ludicrous as it sounds, he actually considered climbing out the window.
“It’s my foot,” she confronted him later, when instead of asking her up to his place for a nightcap, he instead offered to call her a cab.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just my place—it’s a mess!”
“Don’t lie. You’re not the first man to be disgusted by it. Oh, I should just get it removed and be done with it.”
“So you’ve thought about it?”
“All the time, especially whenever I buy new shoes. But it’s my toe. My toe. I’ve had it my whole life, and I just don’t think I could go through with it. Unless….”
“Yes?” “What if we made a deal? I’ll cut off my toe, if you cut off your ear.”
“Van Gogh did it—and for a woman.”
“Yes, and he was also mad at the time.”
“Madly in love.”
“Look, Cindy, I like you, and I think we could have something special together. But I’m not chopping off my ear.”
“All right, well then how about shaving a little off each side? You do have rather big ears, you know.”
He did know, his ears were rather larger, and when he was little other children would make fun of him, calling him the Big Bad Wolf. Eventually his head grew into them and they became less noticeable, though he still kept his hair long so that, whenever he wanted to, he could cover them up.
“I’m sorry, Cindy, but it’s not something I can do.”
She turned away from him, humphing and throwing her arms across her chest. “Well, now you know how I feel.”
“Yes, I guess I do.”
“So that’s it then—between us?”
He shrugged uncertainly. “Unless fate has something else up its sleeve.”
And apparently it did, because in the ensuing weeks, just as he had obsessed about her when he did not think he would ever see her again, and obsessed even more when he learned of her sixth toe, he once again found himself obsessing—this time about her offer. At first he merely laughed at the absurdity of it, and at the idea that he had actually wanted to be with a woman who would propose such a thing; but as time went on, his musings took a more serious tone, and began to manifest themselves in action: whenever he found himself in front of a mirror, he would draw his hair back and have a look at his ears, and wonder if perhaps a change weren’t in order after all. Of course, he wasn’t about to lop off just one ear, for that would be absurd. But shaving a hair or two off the edges of each ear? Well, that might actually make him more attractive. And afterward, he might even consider a different hairstyle, perhaps something shorter, more in keeping with his age. And wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be great to finally get rid of all that self-consciousness he’d been harboring over the years, simply by making his ears a little smaller?
“Are you sure about this?” Cindy asked him when he called. “Because once we do it, there’s no going back. It’s not like art, where you can just paint over your mistakes.”
“I understand. But people are making all sorts of alterations to their bodies these days, and what better reason to do so than for love?”
And so they each made an appointment to see a doctor.
Cindy’s appointment was first, and later when the bandage came off and John saw just how beautiful her new foot was, he brought it up to his lips and began to lick the scar, a sexy scar, the kind of scar he could relish for the rest of his days. And then he picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, where he made love to her like he had never made love before.
But a few weeks later, as the nurse was prepping him for his own procedure, his whole body began to fill with anxiety. What if it didn’t work out? he wondered. What if his doctor, though more renowned than hers, somehow botched the operation, and he came out looking like a freak? Or worse, what if everything went as planned and yet his new ears made him look less handsome? What if smaller ears simply didn’t fit his face? It was all too much to take, and before they had drugged him he got up, snuck out of the hospital, and ran over to a nearby park, where he spent the rest of the day staring at other people’s ears, and came to realize just how beautiful they were no matter how they looked.
“So, you see, it would be silly to change them,” he explained to her that evening, convinced that she would see it his way. But, of course, she did not.
“How dare you!” she screamed, and slapped him in the face. “I cut off a toe for you!”
“An extra toe. A toe you shouldn’t have had in the first place.”
“But it was my toe!”
“And you still have it. The bones anyway, in a jar.”
Again, she slapped him. “Out! Out of my sight! I never want to see you again!”
In the following weeks he continued to think about her, and about the cowardly way in which he’d backed out of their agreement—in fact, it got so that he could think of nothing else. Now, rather than stare at himself in any mirror he came across, he avoided them altogether, and anything else that might reflect his image back to him—a pool of water, a storefront window, his stainless steel toaster—for the very sight of his own face had come to disgust him; he saw himself as hideous.
Then one day, while teaching a class, he came to a slide of the famous painting by van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. He paused, and rather than continue with his usual lecture, began to ponder aloud whether the great painter had in fact been mad.
“After all, what if it had worked? What if the woman to whom he sent the ear had been delighted by the gesture, and had fallen in love with him because of it, or if she had asked him to do it in advance, as Cindy had with me? How many of us would still consider him insane? Or would we all think of him as a romantic instead, the sort of man who would do anything in order to win a woman’s heart? In other words, is there a limit to the lengths we are allowed to go for love? And if there is, then who’s really mad—he who does what his beloved has asked of him, or she who asks? And if it’s she whom we deem insane, and he should go through with it anyway, does that make them both out of their minds? Well, does it? I’m asking.”
But the class did not answer him, for they were confused, and did not know what his questions had to do with the painting, nor who this Cindy was, and whether they would need to know her name for the midterm.
One night he called her and left a message on her answering machine: he had changed his mind again and wanted to go through with it—in fact, he was certain that he had to go through with it, that the course of his life had taken a trajectory that could no longer be reversed. Call it fate, if you wish.
“But I can’t do it without you. I need you by my side. I, I love you, Cindy. I can’t imagine my life without you. So please, when you get this message, call me back.”
And then he waited. She did not return his call that evening, and nor the next day. A week went by, and then two, and still no answer. When a month had passed and he still hadn’t heard from her, he began to worry that he’d waited too long, and that because he hadn’t gone through with the surgery the first time around he’d already ruined any chance of their ever being together. But it wasn’t something that he could just resign himself to: he needed to hear it from her, he needed her to say it to his face—and so he pulled himself together and resolved to go over to her apartment. Only when he opened the door of his own apartment, there she was, her hand up, ready to knock.
Instantly they fell into each other’s arms: he shut the door behind her, she dropped the bag she was carrying, and they kissed. Soon they were tearing off each other’s clothes and making love right there on the floor. And it was only later, when he awoke from the first blissful sleep he’d had in weeks, that he happened to take a closer look at her bag and notice that it was not unlike the sort of bag that a doctor might carry. By then she had already handcuffed him, and extracted from the bag various medical equipment—gauze, antiseptic, a scalpel.
“What are you doing?” he asked as she climbed on top of him, straddling him in order to keep him pinned to the floor.
“I’m finishing what we started,” she said, examining the sharpness of the blade.
“But I said I would do it. I said I’ll go to the doctor.”
“And who’s to say you won’t chicken out again? No, I think it’s better that we do this together. Besides, after all you’ve put me through, it’s only fair that I get exactly what I want.”
“You don’t mean…?”
She nodded. “Just the one, as we first discussed.”
“Shhh,” she said, and placed a finger over his lips. “Trust me, it’s safer this way. One cut instead of two. Less risk of infection.”
He moved his head back and forth along the floor. “No, I won’t let you do it. I’ll scream, I swear I will.”
“Not to worry, my darling, I’ve come prepared for that,” and she reached back into the bag for a ball gag with a leash attached, so that not only would she be able to keep him quiet, but would also be able to yank on the chain in order to hold him in place. She had purchased it special for the occasion, she explained to him, but if he so wished, they could always use it in their lovemaking once he was feeling better. “Now, which ear would you like me to remove? Which one was it that van Gogh lopped off? The right, wasn’t it?”
Despite having seen the painting countless times, he could no longer remember. All he could think about was his own ear, about losing it, and about the manner in which he was going to lose it. How could he possibly love her after this, after she had taken a blade to his ear and chopped it off? And yet, as she made her incision, and the knife cut into his flesh, drawing blood, a drop of which leaked out and ran down his neck, another thought popped into his head: that in fact, after this, he would love her even more, and that the two of them would live happily ever after.
Wolfgang Wright is the author of the carnivalesque Me and Gepe and the forthcoming science fiction novel Being. Recently, he underwent an Eastern-style awakening, putting him on the path to full enlightenment. He lives in North Dakota.