My wife left me last year.
I’ve spent my life floundering between chronic skepticism and cautious optimism, the latter complements of my Cathy these last 22 years. My unyielding light. The missing element that guided me through a lifetime of fearful irrationalities which would’ve otherwise caved me in, time and again. It was her gift. Her God-given specialty. The substrate of our existential condition, always forward focused.
She viewed life through a different lens, leaning into the belief that everything happens for a reason, questioning nothing, even at the time of the accident when the paramedics sheared the side from our ’66 Ford Mustang and removed her body from the tangled scrap, leaving her right arm behind, at one with dash and door and seat. Even at that very moment, her light burned bright. Pacing the roadside with my cuts and bruises, the impish stuff of mom-spit and back-pats, I’d been more devastated than she at her own condition, winking, smiling at me between spells of fleeting consciousness as they loaded her into the ambulance.
Those preceding hours had been our last taste of normalcy, having taken to the Appalachians with nothing more than our cameras and a canteen full of cheap Folgers coffee, riding asphalt ribbons through the fiery palette of oaks and maples and embers of yellow and red that jumped and spun in our wake. It was our annual practice, escaping each fall to the soul-cleansing breath of organic decay that marked the hills, a tradition once shared with and helmed by her sister, the original nature-lover, since relegated to our care in her memory after death. Though cold, abrasive, we’d lower the top and coast the mountain pass, my Cathy with hands thrust high, eyes closed, celebrating life, embracing her sister on the wind. My wife was every bit her lost sibling’s equal; tree-hugger, hippie, flower child, free spirit. We’d always joked that she’d been born into the wrong era; one of smart phones, computers, social networks, though the political unrest of our time suited her inner activist well, so at least she had that going for her.
They first entered her hospital room at 3:47 AM that following morning. I remember because I’d been laying half-awake with a full bladder, watching the numeric glow of the alarm clock, not wanting to get up for fear I’d not be able to return to sleep, yet knowing I’d also not be able to hold out long enough to roll the dice at a more reasonable hour. The knock came softly and, had I not already been awake, would’ve surely been too soft to wake me. It’s something I think of often now. Had I not answered, maybe they’d have moved on. Maybe they wouldn’t have returned with their offer. Maybe my Cathy would still be here with me today and I’d be without a story to tell at all.
It comforts me to think that this may have actually come to fruition somewhere out there on another plane of existence, another path chosen, another reality in play at this very moment. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality in which we found ourselves. Not the one in which I find myself now.
They came to us with hollow apologies for the late hour, expressing the limited window of opportunity, urgency of decisions and absurdity of doubt. Their proposal was persuasive, to say the least. The procedure had been successfully executed on non-human test subjects, and my Cathy would be the first human to undergo the breakthrough procedure.
My wife didn’t stand a chance. I sat alongside her, holding her left hand, feeling the slight squeeze of hope, catching the spark in her eye as they detailed the science behind their regenerative research and her perfect candidacy for the experimental procedure. I sat there, her husband, the career skeptic, unable to bring myself to dilute her hopes and so I held tight, shared her spark, adopted her optimism and abandoned any doubts.
It was an excruciating feat, let me tell you. Though we found ourselves decades from the Black wards and the medical apartheid of the mid-twentieth century, the country hadn’t rolled completely over on its ugly past, sporting new-age equal rights like a cheaply tailored costume, full of holes and shoddy stitch and crafted to deceive, the thing that writhed beneath its skin alive and well and living in the shadows of our social institutions. No, their approach was gentler, more subtle these days. We were special, indeed, not sporting sufficient health insurance, signaling our financial inability to buck the system should things turn south. We met the basic criteria. Our skin was black, bank accounts empty.
Perfect candidates, indeed.
For over an hour, they discussed the seemingly impossible, detailing the biological characteristics of the West African lungfish, from their ability to breathe air on land to their possession of regenerative qualities, not merely being able to regrow lost tissue, but complex structures such as vertebrae, spinal cord, muscles. These creatures, as it was explained, are our closest fish cousins. Research had led doctors to believe lungfish DNA could be used to unlock the same regenerative capabilities in humans, though the window of opportunity was closing for Cathy. The procedure was only viable while the body was still in its most active state of response to the loss. If successful, as they believed they’d be, she’d literally be able to regrow a new arm in a short period of time. Worst case scenario, her immune system would simply reject the procedure and she’d be no better and no worse than she found herself at that very moment.
Worst case scenario. I can now reflect on these words with a degree of morbid humor.
I’ll tell you, the first weeks following the procedure went as expected. Fevers, chills, nausea, headaches as her body adjusted to the changes. I’d begun to work from home to ensure her care and, despite the conditions which had led us there, enjoyed the additional time with my wife. We relished the togetherness, appreciating quiet mornings of coffee and conversation by the lake that backed itself against our rental unit, discussing times past, probing future possibilities.
At first signs of regeneration, we were overjoyed. It began with nothing more than a nub of soft tissue at the site, extending by more than a foot over the week after. We were ecstatic. What skepticism I’d been able to squeeze in between her infectious bouts of optimism had vanished, and I secretly damned my own closed-mindedness and paranoia. My grandfather’s tales of the Tuskegee experiments had all but ruled my recent mind, with thoughts circulating in the form of the old man’s voice, roiling against the gray and sinking deep like icy probes, cold reminders of our unjust heritage, misplaced trust.
The week following, five thin digits protruded from the end of the appendage, supple, boneless, purely vestigial. However, the process gradually took on an unsettling edge; the appendage’s dead tone, chalk-gray, embroidered with the blue-green spidering of veins that ran from shoulder’s edge to the tips of those rubbery, child-like fingers, forever splayed.
Another month passed, the arm having achieved full size at this point, the bones, once sponge-soft, now solidified, granting rigidity and structure to the fleshy tube, the development and affixation of muscles, tendons, ligaments offering form and strength to the renewed appendage. For all intents and purposes, the procedure had been a success, save the lingering sheath of gray, vein-addled flesh that encased the limb, along with the fact that the fingers bore no nails, the entirety of the digits slick, creaseless, resembling a latex glove pulled taut against its host.
My sweet Cathy would reach for me at times, the hand cold, slippery, inhuman. I remained alert to my surroundings for fear of accidental recoil at her touch, as had occurred on several occasions. The hurt in her eyes had been unmistakable. We did make love, and though I avoided contact with the arm, my hands roamed her remaining anatomy freely, savoring the familiar warmth of her body.
Her real body.
In the passing of weeks-to-come, other changes arose. My wife became depressed, reclusive, her outlook damp, negative. She’d spend entire evenings locked in the bathroom, soaking in a tub of water hours past departed warmth, myself on the opposite side of the door, pleading for her begrudging companionship.
Intimacy became a strange thing, her flesh now loose over muscle and bone, skating beneath my hands like the skin of boiled tomatoes as I navigated her form in search of old familiarity. There was a softness to her now. No, not the traditional fatty softness of age and physical decline. A rotten quality. The feel of an overripened peach in the sun, almost juicy, resilience diminished.
The weeks passed on from there, ushering in a host of new irregularities. We visited the doctors, ran the labs, asked the appropriate questions. Despite the abnormalities, her health checked out. Even when her teeth began to avail themselves of her gums, their focus was on the arm. By that qualifying element alone, the procedure had been rendered a success.
And at that moment, the pieces all began to hit the table, and the picture began to take shape, all that original paranoia having suddenly become not so foolish after all. Simply intuition relabeled.
It was a fascinating thing to behold, such an impressively nimble display of evasion; their overt lack of concern, eager dismissal, award-worthy performances of false optimism and encouragement, though their eyes deceived their lies. Bottom line was that we had no legal recourse. My Cathy was a sacrifice to medical advancement, bound beneath a liability waiver bearing the unlearned scribble of her left hand.
Their perfect candidate.
Our home had become a prison. My wife had abandoned all desire to leave it during daylight hours, blinding windows, huddled in the lampless shadows, the only light perhaps a flicker of the television when the odd mood struck to taste the outside world from afar. Out of guilt, a sense of duty, I suppose, I’d even begun neglecting unnecessary departure, keeping close to ensure constant companionship, though this is a term I’d hesitate to accurately describe our new existence. Communication was a one-way thing those days, the sound of her voice having become a distant ghost in my mind, an unreliable echo which varied in pitch and tone and inflection and toyed with my sense of what was or never was, the once sweet words that crossed her lips now replaced with the constant buzz of wet breath on waterlogged lungs.
On occasion, I’d steal away to some distant corner of the house or yard beyond all earshot and pierce my soul, let the pain bleed out. I wept, a violent act, and in that moment purge all rage and grief and utter hopelessness that lived inside, buying another day each time, maybe two before the tanks would fill again.
At night, I’d feel her leave our bed, hear her pace the house, not so much wondering what she was up to than appreciating the relief of her departure. Relieved by the fact that she was moving about, appreciating some degree of mobility amid the bottomless lethargy that had come to dominate her existence by day. Relieved she was no longer lodged next to me in tangled linens, the radiant stink of mold at my back as I angled myself opposite her presence.
It’s a strange, unnerving thing when fear is cultivated from love. It doesn’t come as the external threat, fast and foreign. It’s a cunning entity which grows from within, planted and nourished amid the gardens of devotion and adoration, the invasive weed which befriends the flowers, choking them out in patient domination. It’s the slow dissolution of things held most dear, replaced with a primal dread that burrows deep and mocks your losses as you cling to those brittle remnants of what once was.
It’s quite reasonable to say I’d come to fear my wife. That’s not to say I was afraid of my wife. No, my fear was rooted in love, helplessness, and misunderstanding. I didn’t understand what was happening to her, I couldn’t help her, and so I feared her and damned the love I harbored for binding me to her regardless.
I often reflected on the woman I once knew, the recent months masquerading as years, those days long, draining, a veritable lifetime ago when we’d swam in the warm surf, the scream of gulls on the wind, hush of ocean in our ears as we drifted weightless and happy amid the salted froth. I thought of her likes and dislikes, the words we’d once shared, mutual secrets, the mindful nature in which she’d conducted all affairs, content beyond reason through monumental challenges, always more the rock than myself.
I’d awakened to the gentle hiss of rain on glass. Cathy was missing from her position next to me, though that foul dampness still filled the room, my head. The outer door was ajar, a diluted ribbon of natural light spilled out across the hardwood.
I don’t know exactly what I expected to see. Maybe nothing at all. But from the threshold, I saw her, out in the yard. My wife’s nude body writhed in the black morning, her face marked with a pleasure I’d not seen in months. Water coursed from the curvature of her breasts, her arms as they reached and pushed and swam against the darkness.
The minutes passed, I watched.
Thrusting, kicking, she moved between the tall and slapping wands of grass, a dance of the dead, disjointed and chaotic, yet morbidly beautiful in ways which fall short of comprehension. I watched my wife, celebrating at the threshold of life and death, oblivious to and unconcerned with the surrounding world and its trivial pursuits because she’d touched something greater. Something deeper.
And when her music eventually died and she stumbled to a halt on rigid legs, her chest heaving in a breathless moment, she turned slightly, peering over her shoulder, knowing I was there, that I’d been there watching all the while. I stepped from the doorway, went to my wife, momentarily the free spirit I’d always known, always loved. We stood there in the darkness, illuminated underneath the moon and stars, the whisper of the rain the only language between us.
Cathy watched me through her smoke-gray eyes, pupils lost beneath those mucal shutters, thick, inhuman. She smiled, lips parting over a scalloped ridge of vacant gumline. The wet drag of lungs sang to me, whistling as they fought for breath. Then she turned away, moved down the embankment toward the lake on unstable limbs.
I’d like to think I said something, anything, but this is where my memory fails me most. I followed close behind, reached for her left arm, watched the flesh collapse beneath my fingers, slip from her appendage to the wet grass at my feet.
At water’s edge she turned to me, a parting glance as her legs buckled and broke free at the hips. Her emancipated torso struck the muddy bank with the sound of rotted pumpkin, the marriage of hot and cold a rising phantom in the winter air.
I was on my knees now, the pile of arm flesh at my side, some kind of sound rising through my open mouth as she completed her metamorphosis. Those gray arms reached forward, raked the mud, pulled her new body free of its old shell. It slid from the discarded casing down into the water, tail thrashing wildly as my wife escaped into the cattails. In the darkness, the rasp of stalks betrayed her route as she thrust her way to freedom somewhere in the open water beyond.
It’s fall again. I find myself in the grip of these hills once more, alone now, the memory of my Cathy on the wind and cold that presses me through the open roof. She’d appreciate my devotion to the ritual, her seeds of optimism having taken root, self-sufficient, weaned from her nurture, granted purpose.
I’m hopeful now.
The trees are exceptionally vivid today, illuminated with stunning clarity against the charcoal billows that tuck and turn high overhead. Their leaves, supernaturally bright, wave to me, wish me safe passage.
Nature somehow brought her home, embraced her through the very innovations of man that only served to further remove us from our natural design. I’m not angry anymore. I have no fear now, for I’ve come to understand that not all in life is meant to be understood. It’s the pervasive mystery of the whole business that drives us onward. I can only hope she’s still out there somewhere, thriving in her new world, happy again.
My lovely wife. That beautiful spirit, nature’s child.
I close my eyes and hold my arms up to the clouds overhead, the ceaseless gust at my face, the sting of first raindrops sampling nerves. The wheel is free. I feel the tires hit grass, hope surge. I press my foot to the accelerator, optimistically calm in the expectation that nature will choose to deliver me too.
Want to read more from Adam Godfrey? Narcissus, Godfrey's debut novella, was released earlier this month and is “Terrifying…You’ll never again trust what’s looking back at you.” -Clay McLeod Chapman, author of Ghost Eaters and Quiet Part Loud
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Adam Godfrey hails from Chesapeake, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He holds over twenty years of experience working for the United States Department of Defense in information technology and cybersecurity risk management. He holds a master’s degree in cybersecurity, and his professional contributions to the field have been internationally featured across a variety of media platforms.
In fiction, Adam is a novelist and author of short stories. His genre-crossing work ranges from the suspenseful to the horrific, frequently characterized by central threads of plausible science and technology gone awry.
Copyright ©2022 by Adam Godfrey.
“Season of Change” was originally published by Flame Tree Press in Compelling Science Fiction, Vol. 1. Reprint rights acquired.
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