A short story by Fred Elder
An Amputee in Paradise
It was the sound of thunder that woke me.
I opened my eyes slowly against the daggers of sunlight that threatened to burn into my retinas. I had the strangest sensation of floating. When I was finally able to focus my eyes, it was to a rather peculiar situation.
I was floating! I was on my back, arms at my side, in a stream of some sort. There were trees on both sides of me, crowding the banks and overhanging the water. I could feel the rocky bottom scraping against my shoulders and buttocks, so I knew the water was shallow.
I brought one hand up and touched my face. When I drew it back, I could see it was bloody. What happened to me? One moment, I was on my way to …
Suddenly, I remembered. The plane! I was in a plane. I was on my way into the wilds of the Northern Territories for a story. I was on a plane and … the pilot shouted something! What? What did he shout? Birds? Something about … birds?
I was on a plane and now I was in a river surrounded by the verdant green of jungle. Did … did it … crash? No! That’s impossible! This must be a nightmare, I thought, though I had to admit never having one so vivid before or me being so … contemplative during it.
It would be best to just close my eyes, I thought, and let the nasty dream run its course. But then, I realized the thunder was getting louder! What was that? I only put two and two together when the current suddenly surged and my speed increased, and water began to splash over my face. The trees on both sides drew closer and the bottom below my disappeared. I was approaching some rapids!
I tried to roll over, hoping to gain both insight and leverage, but my damn left leg wouldn’t comply. I lifted my head and looked back at my feet – I mean, foot! I stared at my damn artificial left leg willing it to follow my brain’s directions but failing miserably.
A diabetic who never followed the advice of friends and doctors – sage advice, as it turns out – I battled infections for several years before a particularly voracious one invaded the bones of my lower leg and foot. By then, I was ready to live with just one leg and agreed with the surgeon on the decision to amputate. I felt sick as they wheeled me into the operating theatre, not knowing how much of my leg would be taken until they got inside and had a look around.
I had woken up many hours later, fighting through a thick fog, to find they had been able to save my knee and about six inches of the lower leg. Weeks in the hospital while my scars healed, then weeks more at home as my soul recuperated, were followed by a month of rehab and learning to walk on my new leg.
Though much more complex than the one made famous in Treasure Island, my prosthesis was – for all intents and purposes – nothing more than a peg leg. I wore a sleeve over the stump with a pin that fit into a socket on the prosthesis, anchoring it to the stump. There was a push button release on the device that made removal easy.
Now, that peg leg was sinking! I didn’t have enough leverage in the remaining calf muscle to hold it on the surface and the deeper water was drawing it downwards. It was a case of my muscles capitulating to the irresistible force of gravity. This meant I was unable to swivel onto my front. I could only lay there as the thunder grew louder.
The stream curved to my right and the current intensified! The waves were now washing over me and, much to my horror, there were large boulders rearing up from the stream bed, threatening to batter me. I cursed and tried once again to flop over onto my belly, but the fake leg prevented it.
Now, the stream curved back to my left and as I was swept past a gravelly beach, the thunder became a roar! The very water was vibrating and the percussion of a thousand drums hammered into my ears. The stream dropped over a ledge, a fall of only a few feet, but my stomach lurched in the unexpected fall.
I had a sudden memory of the drives my father took us kids on. He would drive us into the rolling highlands, searching for that perfect road – it wasn’t the size of the hills but rather their suddenness that was critical. As if we were riding a roller coaster, we would sit in the back seat whooping it up as the car laboured up the steep inclines. Just before reaching the top, we kids would all turn around and face the back window. That sickening lurch in the pits of our stomachs as the car rose over the crest of the hill and suddenly dove downwards was a thrill every time.
Now, the same feeling wasn’t engendering fond memories. Another drop, again just a few feet, and a marked increase in speed told me the worst was yet to come! Now, the thundering sounded different. There was a resonance to it, a feeling of space around it, as if …
The world dropped away! One moment, I’m considering the intricacies of sound distortion; the next, I’m in freefall! Down I dropped, the great spray of water blinding me to what lay below. I clamped my eyes tightly, wishing desperately that ignorance might be bliss this one time.
Then, I plunged into a swirling cauldron of water, the powerful eddies pulling me under the surface. I fought and struggled to drive back up to the surface but with only one leg, there was little I could do.
Suddenly, I was driven into the rocky bottom. I was barely able to bring my arms up in time to shield my head. To my great consternation, the current now seemed eager to drag me along the bottom, seemingly aiming for every large rock that littered it.
If I wanted to live, I would need to jettison the prosthesis. The thought of trying to survive this crisis with only one leg was horrifying and I realized how much I had come to depend on the new one. And it wasn’t just a case of depending on it – damn it, I had taken it for granted! While I spent the time since the amputation crying about what I lost and deriding the peg leg I was forced to lurch around on, it had become part of me.
Here I was, finally realizing the new leg was as real to me as the flesh and blood one it replaced, and I was reaching down for the release button! The irony wasn’t lost on me. Before I could focus on removing the leg, however, something else occurred to me.
I needed air! The last gasping breaths I took during the freefall had been haphazard and shallow, driven more by fear than the need to oxygenate. Now, as my lungs began to burn and my peripheral vision started to diminish, my life hinged on reaching the surface within just seconds.
I tried to bend forward, fighting the current, reaching desperately for the release button. My hand reached only as far as my knee. The turbulent current was holding me back, preventing me from reaching further. As blackness threatened my mind, I pushed myself and stretched … my hand inched further down, past the stump and onto the prosthesis. Slowly, inch by inch, my fingers snaked closer to the release button.
Now, finally, my fingertips brushed the button. Blackness was settling deep inside my mind, my lips were threatening to open in a crazy attempt to draw breath, and my fingers were so close. A final attempt, one last push, and my finger found the button. Then …
My back slammed into a huge boulder, snapping my head backward. My body, already bent over in the desperate attempt to jettison the leg, was savagely twisted and the last of my air was forced out of my blistering lungs. I’d like to claim that my final thoughts were introspective but … not so much!
I wondered what would become of my body. It wasn’t my friends and family that I thought about, or my job and my lost prospects. I didn’t even wonder if the world could go on without me. No, I wondered what would happen to my body in this bloody stream! And a curious thought crossed my mind – what would the person who eventually found my body think when they came across a skeleton with a peg leg attached?
But, then, Fate intervened as it often did. The boulder had broken the spell cast by the vicious current and the upswell it created launched me to the surface. Up. Up I went. The surface was just above me, a million sparkling facets waiting for my arrival.
I broke the surface and gasped as my chest was refilled. The burn in my lungs would take some time to lessen, but the fresh air tasted delicious. Even as my body was being rejuvenated, it was also being caught by an eddy and driven onto a sandy shoal. Though I was beyond exhaustion, I still managed to drag most of my body out of the water to safety. Only then did I do what my body had been requesting ever since I regained consciousness – I blacked out!
I woke once again to the sound of thunder.
With a strangled grunt, I managed to sit up, though my head was swimming. I closed my eyes and focused on my body. Gradually, the spinning stopped, and it was safe to open my eyes.
I was on a small, sandy beach. To my left was the plume of water shooting out into space and into a large pool before me. The waterfall was easily thirty feet high and the water was shooting down into it with the force of a firehose. I could feel the concussive violence as the water struck the surface of the pool.
To my back was a thirty-foot wall of rock. On the far side of the pool was another wall of similar height. I was in a bowl, I realized. The only way out was to my right, where the stream continued its way to wherever. All around the bowl was a thick jumble of trees.
At the base of the falls, the pool contained a veritable maelstrom, a monstrous roiling and boiling of currents. How I managed to live through that, I couldn’t imagine. Fate had indeed been kind. Now that I could afford to be introspective, the thought occurred to me that I must have been saved for a reason.
As the pool continued to my right and narrowed back into the stream, the towering walls lowered. At that end of the pool, the water was calm, lapping gently against green banks and a large, moss covered log that floated there.
Now, while I thanked Fate for intervening, I was still in somewhat of a quandary! My plane had crashed, I was carried God know how far in the arms of the stream, washed over a waterfall and lived to tell about it. But, now what? I could sit there and try to find a deeper meaning in why I was saved, but where would that get me?
My parents never enrolled me in the Boy Scouts, but even I knew the best strategy was to follow the stream. It would lead somewhere! Maybe somewhere with a Holiday Inn!
I struggled to me feet. Foot? I was never sure of the correct way to say it. It seemed more whimsical to say I was walking on only one foot. Whimsical or pretentious? Oh, well, they say a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step and you only need one foot for that! I laughed quietly at my silliness.
As I was brushing the wet sand off my face and clothing, and congratulating myself on finding humor in my situation, the moss-covered log moved! I stood there in stunned silence – no more laughter here, ladies and gentlemen! – as the damned log began to move toward me. Even as my feverish mind was contemplating how it could be moving against the current, it occurred to me that it wasn’t a log at all. When two eyes suddenly appeared near the front of it, my doubts were answered.
Once again, the irony wasn’t lost on me. The crashed plane was taking me to a little outpost in the far reaches of the Territories so I could talk to a man who survived an attack by a Saltwater crocodile. The poor sod had gone fishing and wandered into its nesting site. Now, unless I was mistaken, one of the brutes was heading straight for me!
I backed up but the wall stopped any thought of escape. Nevertheless, I pushed back until my back was flat against the cool surface. The crocodile just kept coming towards me, aware perhaps there was no hurry – its dinner wasn’t going anywhere!
Too quickly, it reached the sandy shoal and dragged its massive body onto the sand. It lay there, sizing me up. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the massive beast. It had a wide snout and a pair of ridges running back to its eyes. It was a dull, green color, and armored like the dinosaur it was, its greyish tail still submerged in the pool. Even without the tail, it was twice as long as my six-foot frame.
It was the head, though, that really caught my attention. The way some of the long, sharp teeth could be seen even when its mouth was closed, like an overbite from Hell, made me contemplate what it would be like when those terrible jaws closed on me. Behind the mouth, the hide bulged out over its massive jaw muscles.
Being a good journalist, I had done some research before catching the flight. I knew that Saltwater crocodiles have the strongest bite of any animal living in the world today. If you could touch those jaw muscles, they would feel as hard as bone; they are, in effect, steel traps ready to crush anything it bites down on. And this beast was planning to bite down on me!
When it heaved itself up off the sand, I knew my time had run out. I couldn’t climb out of the bowl and a relic from the age of dinosaurs was blocking my way forward! What could I do? How could I possibly get a leg up on this …?
There was only one way to escape this thing, I realized. It would take more nerve than I had ever displayed in my life. I needed to be quick, but the timing had to be perfect. And I needed luck! I needed a whole lot of luck! I don’t know what went through that damn thing’s mind as it started towards me, but I sure hope there was just a smidge of surprise because as it moved, so did I.
I charged forward and threw myself to the ground, rolling as gracefully as I could – what’s the opposite of graceful? – and reached down with both hands for my prosthesis. Even as the crocodile’s humongous jaws sprang open and it moved to scoop me off the ground, I hit the release button, pulled my leg off its pin, and jammed it upright into the open mouth!
The jaws slammed down but shuddered to a stop on the heavy-duty device. Its eyes bulged outwards as the force of its bite drove the top edge upwards through the roof of its mouth, between those eyes and into the brain. It took a few moments for the rest of the body to comprehend its death.
All the while, I knelt there watching it shudder and jerk violently. Only when it stopped moving entirely did I take a deep breath. I sagged to the ground in utter disbelief that I had bested this primordial beast. The prosthesis had given me the ‘leg up’ that I needed but now it was lost, broken in the maw of the crocodile.
My feeling of pride and sense of relief was interrupted by a flicker of movement in the corner of my eye. My eyes were drawn to the lower end of the pool, where another crocodile had surfaced. Ah, yes, it was the mating season! This would be the female.