A cactus needle embeds itself in my baby brother's thumb pad. He doesn't tell any of us about it. Because he is diabetic, the pinprick flowers into pus-filled, black-green deadly splotches, swells his thumb to the size of a mottled, larded sausage.
Owen loses his thumb and comes home with a bandaged hand. Of the two, this is his favored thumb, this thumb on his right hand; it's the one he uses to push up his glasses on the bridge of his nose, the one he sucked when little until Mom smeared his dummy with masala sauce, the one he licks to flip over pages of the encyclopaedia or his favorite books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Owen doesn't talk to Molly and I about it. Both of us stare at our thumbs. Molly rubs hers against her knee and whispers, "Charlie, why didn't he say anything?"
I press mine together and remember that I used to let him suck my thumb in place of the dummy Mom confiscated.
Owen doesn't cry but he walks around holding his bandaged hand against his chest as if he's cradling a birdie with a broken wing. My thumb throbs in the absence of his.
Molly and I form a plan. In our backyard amidst the tall unmown grass is an ailanthus providing umbrella shade, leafy with spreading branches. Owen had told us, from his precocious use of the encyclopaedia, that in northern China, an ailanthus is called the tree of heaven.
We dig a trench, eight inches by six inches. As Owen solemnly watches, Molly places one of Buster's kibbles in a box that once held screws and bolts in the garage. I heap soil over the buried box, and we mark the spot with a metal crucifix Grandma had given Molly for her birthday.
Molly has a poem prepared. She'd found Pablo Neruda's "Your Hands" and appropriated it, and now she intones, with proper funereal glum, about thumbs and flying and wood and an almond's secret softness. "And there like two wings, your thumb and mind, ended their journey. Thank you, thank you." She bows to imaginary applause.
With my thumb, index and middle finger, I touch my forehead, sternum, left and right shoulders. Buster bays a dirge with some vehement coaxing from Molly and I.
Owen does not cry throughout the ceremony, his lips do not even quiver. Afterwards, I see Owen touch his bandaged hand to his lips and hold it there, still and silent. Molly and I exchange looks.
The next morning, Owen's shrieks bring us back to the ailanthus. The grave has been desecrated by rabid scrabbling. Morsels of the paper box scatter among the upturned soil. All three of us turn in unison to see Buster's tail wagging.
Owen rushes up to his room. For days, he refuses to eat. Molly has to tell Mom and Dad that Buster's consumed Owen's thumb.
Cast a stone, watch the ripples permute.
Owen throws an encyclopaedic tome at Buster and it lands on his front paws. Dad has to take Buster to the vet. Buster comes home with bandages and a dreadful limp.
But Owen still refuses to eat. His bandages are striated with blood. Owen runs a fever and Mom has to take him back to the hospital.
Molly's eyes melt into mine across the dinner table. "We've made things worse," she whispers. My hands huddle beneath my knees.
When Owen comes home, he is thinner, more concaved. In a small voice, he says to me, "Charlie, can we give my thumb a name?"
We name Owen's ghost-thumb Huckleberry. Early one morning, just after the pink-hued break of dawn, Molly and I rouse Owen out of bed. His nose is running, and he snuffles all the way.
Molly and I are dressed as pirates. I brandish a plastic cutlass from our childhood toy box and Molly caresses her eye patch. "Ahoy," I shout. We kidnap Owen. In our scooped hands, Huckleberry nestles. Together, we head out towards the field of tall grass with dancing dandelions behind our backyard.
There, with the wind streaking through our words, I blast the imaginary cannons, Molly waves a flag, and Owen raises his bandaged hand to his forehead in salute. Five cupped palms, pinkies interlinked, lift skyward in a circle, and we set Huckleberry free.
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