Laurette Folk is this week’s featured author for our prestigious series THE DAILY FLASH; the stories we’ll be featuring by Ms. Folk are from her new flash fiction anthology TOTEM BEASTS which will be published by Big Table this year.
It had stopped raining when we arrived, and we went into the hospital with its concrete façade weeping. We checked in at the front desk where a dowdy, corpulent woman had issued me a badge. She said we were free to go to any room we wanted. My dog panted heavily, anxious. She was a three-year-old black Lab and I had not run her that day due to the rain. So she had all her nervous energy.
We walked the halls, passing orderlies in blue, mostly men, who acknowledged our presence with a nod of the head. My dog had her nose to the ground, seeking some scent that could give her a clue as to why we were there. Suddenly a woman burst out of one of the rooms toward us. She was taller than I, wore faded jeans and a gray zipper down sweatshirt. She appeared to be fairly normal, save the outgrowth of a small hand over her left eye. Josie immediately went for her, greeting her with a sashay of glee. The woman petted her kindly, then grabbed my hand, and started tugging me down the hall, whispering in my right ear wildly.
She said most of the time she could control the actions of that small hand, but there were days when it danced so exuberantly, she had to follow suit, as if she were in a trance.
Let it be known that I was utterly transfixed by this appendage, that, at this point it was giving me a small high five. The woman—her name was Connie—said most of the people here had these outgrowths. Most had hands, but some had feet, some hands and feet, and some nearly a whole figure. “Oh no,” she said, “We aren’t allowed out in public. It’s true, you know: it’s too much for people to bear. We understand that. Besides they’re good to us here. They really are.” The small hand seemed to affirm what she was saying by making the “OK” sign with its fingers. I tried not to look at the hand—I was trained not to look, but any training I had left me entirely unprepared for this. Connie asked about Josie. “Is she a therapy dog? We’ve seen a few around here. We all look forward to seeing them, you know,” she said, still grasping my arm.
We arrived at the cafeteria and there were mutants everywhere. The acrid smell was overwhelming. Several of the inmates came up to Josie to stroke her fur with their real hands, while the other ones, the protrusions, waved in the air, trying to get my attention. Josie succumbed to their petting, wagged her tail, but sometimes she caught a glimpse of one of the appendages and she’d prop up her ears, almost in alarm. But their cooing and petting had seduced her into thinking everything was normal.
I must tell you that these people were of all different races—some White, others Black, or Asian. Some were even wearing turbans, which concealed whatever outgrowth they had. The orderlies prompted them to go and eat lunch, not to forget to eat. “We always forget to eat,” Connie said. A young man dressed all in white came up to Josie and stood in front of her but did not pet her. Josie lunged at him, wagging her tail, imploring he lay his hands on her, but he kept to himself. His lips were large and purple, like two inflated inner tubes, and quite suddenly, he opened his mouth and a sound droned out, something like a foghorn, and with it, a growing bubble. The bubble grew larger as the sound grew louder. I recognized the sound; it was a deep om—the same sound Tibetan monks chant in their temples. The cafeteria became quiet, even my dog became calm. As the bubble filled the air in front of us, the deep om settled inside me, easing every nerve. I felt a welling up, like I wanted to sing. Then the man was silent. Connie let go of my arm. One of the orderlies pulled out a whistle and blew it to round up the inmates. Josie got spooked and started to bark. I pulled her leash closer, but she sideswiped me, and I was caught off balance, tumbling to the floor, while she bolted.
I ran through the halls calling her name with the inmates mimicking me until a myriad of Josies were echoing off the walls. I ducked into a room with the door open. An old woman sat in a chair with a rose petal quilt over her lap. She was not fazed by my intrusion and stared blankly ahead at the barred windows, as a small appendage, a head, was pushing through her white scalp, trying to be born. I saw the pink insides of its small mouth as it let out its first cry.
When I returned to the front door, the corpulent woman was gone, and something dark was huddling under her desk. I grabbed its leash, but just as we passed through the doors, I saw that what was on the end of it was not Josie, but a priest, his black suit darkening now in the falling rain. The doors flung open. Out came Josie and the orderlies; I grabbed her by the collar, and we stood there watching as they tackled the escapee, wrestling him back into the hospital as eyes flickered behind the barred windows, a hundred eyes, a thousand eyes, and the rain bore down.
Laurette Folk’s fiction, essays, and poems have been published in upstreet, Literary Mama, Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, Narrative Northeast, So to Speak among others. Her novel, A Portal to Vibrancy, was published by Big Table; Totem Beasts, her collection of poetry and flash fiction, is forthcoming from Big Table in 2017 . Ms. Folk is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program and editor of The Compassion Anthology.