The Devil’s Thumb
by Michèle Forbes
Shortlisted for The Powers Short Story 2012
On his forty-seventh climb he had conquered the southern face of The Devil’s Thumb. He had recorded his exultation in his beloved frost-frayed notebook. The day after he arrived home he had fallen over the dog. The wallop of his skull against the dolcelatte marble tiles of his kitchen floor bore nothing for forty eight hours, despite his vigilant anticipation. Then during an episode of CSI: Miami he had softly rolled off the sofa into a croissant shaped coma. Freshly delivered on a hospital trolley he was welcomed by a cluster of sceptical but interested consultants – since he too was a doctor – and the diagnosis had been grim. The blood cloud, which had by now saturated the galleries of his neo-cortex for forty nine hours, had apparently haemorrhaged away fifty years of his life, more or less. Now upon waking, fifty one days later, his memories have separated ito tiny cellular prisms, some operative, some not. Occasionally the fat of his brain pops and something surfaces but he does not understand its significance nor feel the ring of familiarity. What he does know is that now he lives in a terrifying white present. A nurse jostles his drip like a curtain cord. A woman who claims to be his wife hands him a frost-frayed notebook. ‘Read this Eamon,’ she says gently, her gaze like pressed orchids, ‘and come out from under the devil’s thumb.’ She kisses him on the mouth. He stares at her saying to himself I hope I love you. As he reads he learns that his now bruised soul had something amazing to compare itself with. Fifteen years ago it was Elbrus – the jewel of the Caucasus – and after that Chogori, then Mount Khuiten. On airless Annapurna he had pitched tent before the moon switched on. The weather catapulting at an alarming pace against the glacial streaked peaks. The night a hell’s shudder. Though frightened he had trusted his resilience and his fear and had slept like a baby through the storm and in the morning had found an avalanche one metre away from his tent. So, it had happened before the book tells him, every landmark in his life had once before been wiped out in one blissful spread of snow. He looks at the woman who claims to be his wife. I can remember that I burnt my tongue on the hospital soup, he says to her, but I can’t remember the names of my children or what they look like. She lifts her head to the doorway. As he turns three beautiful young men come in to see him. He feels a lost domain expanding his veins.