I was jogging down the street just after dusk when I heard a shrieking; a cry of pain and torture. For a moment I hesitated to follow these sounds, slowly easing my way toward the cries as I considered them. Ahead I saw a man emerge from the side of one of the suburban homes dotting the lane. Finally, I took to a sprint.

"Does someone need help?" I shouted. "You tell me," was the extent of his casually delivered words, his eyes and gestures alone directing me to the scene.

At first I came upon a thirty-something man lying on the ground on a sheet of plastic. He was in a sort of collapsed position with his head set partially against a wall, either faint or asleep. He looked peaceful enough. I took him for drunk.

Blood had pooled in the alleys formed by the crumpled plastic beneath his shape, primarily at the ends of his arms; the right more grossly than the other. Several of his fingers were gone. They'd been chopped off, cleanly and in straight cuts. I knew immediately that he'd done it to himself; and not at all by accident.

I continued around the back of the building and found another man, older than the first; middle-aged; in the prime of middle age. He was sitting on a stool at a wooden table beneath the hot, yellow glow of a naked light-bulb. The ground around him was bloodied as well. All of his fingers were gone.

He sat with a solemn slouch and his face held a complex expression. He had the look of a man who regretted having had to do something, but who refused to regret the actual doing of it.

Seeing both men now, I felt the pressing need to either take action or at least make some sort of proclamation. After all, I'd rushed to these men to aid them, not just gawk at the horrors found. But I didn't know quite what to do, what to say. Neither was bleeding any longer, and the amount of blood loss did not seem, to me, to be life-threatening. I knew, without a doubt, that both of these men had done this thing themselves, had self-mutilated. These were acts of free will undertaken by men who had fully known and understood the permanence of the losses they would incur when first they began whatever strange enterprise it was that brought them before me now.

I couldn't quite bring myself to say aloud that they should go to the hospital. It seemed too ignorant to speak such an obvious conclusion, like telling a man stood stoically at roadside, watching his house burn down, that he should call the fire department. If he hasn't already, he wants the house to burn.

"Well, you're not going to bleed out," I said. "That's what they tell me," responded the newly fingerless, middle-aged man, in a slightly bothered tone. All I could do was stand gaping at the sights before me, which I did for some time. Then suddenly the man's attitude took a lift, as though my presence had drawn him from his inner contemplations. Now he came upon me with the look of boastful satisfaction; the sort of gleeful pride a child takes in displaying a rare new toy he's only just acquired.

He held out the stumps of each hand, turning them in the light for my inspection. Then his own eyes settled on them, widened in wonder. His gaze seemed to peer right through the hands, as though he was looking not at the skin and bone and flesh of them, but at the thought and story, the secret meaning deep within and far beyond the hand.

With this glint in his eye he let out a chortle of a laugh, and as we both looked down into his digitless palms he said to me, with a little smile at the corner of his aging mouth, "This is the first thing I've ever done with my life." And I knew exactly what he meant.


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