This is the first installment of Pocket Finger, a collection of seven illustrated stories created by Ryan Call and Christy Call. Each piece was composed in alternating turns: Christy drew an image, Ryan wrote a text, Christy drew an image, Ryan wrote a text, and so on.
A new story will be released for free every week, or you can purchase a print version at PublishingGenius.com.
One stark and devastating winter quite a long time ago, I encountered a trio of dying sisters—diminutive little creatures from a nearly terminated family line.
Their advent during that most perilous season of my childhood created in my life an odd and unsatisfying parenthetical, one with which I have not yet come to terms, for it does not seem to have closed. It is not that I fear to contemplate that winter, but rather that I believe no amount of self-reflection can fully reveal to me the nature of their influence, those three dying sisters.
And still I know their influence upon my life yet exists, for how could I have arrived at my current and hopeless station by any other means? How could I have learned to excavate all manner of plots had I not done so on behalf of these three sisters, each a kind of teacher even as their peculiar lights winked out one by one in the shadow of that distant spring? You see, within the confines of my hospital bed—my brother-me and my other brother-me at rest in their own bunks nearby—these hands that once grasped a shovel now grasp this pen, and I write nightly of various cursed existences—all in my imagination—once the nurses have completed their late-night rounds. Years have passed, yes, and my writing has increased, and as the stories pile beneath my bed, I know that first one brother-me, then the other brother-me will succumb to illness.
Soon only I will remain.
It was under such a wintry sky as that you now see beyond the dingy windows of the ward that I first met the three sisters.
As a young boy, I had always experienced the great snowstorms of the north from within the shelter of our earthen home, a home that my father had dug into the side of a gently risen hill out on the edge of town. Each year the snows came, and each year my parents restricted my access to the out-of-doors so as to limit the risks I might face as a vulnerable and sickly child: you see, too many children my age had succumbed out there in that harsh, wintry landscape, and my parents wished to extend my own insignificant life as long as they possibly could. That particular year, however, I had turned old enough to consider myself worthy, capable even, of facing winter and all its threats, so I begged my parents to finally allow me some chance to understand snow, its crystalline structure, how it managed to cling to the world so that I too might follow its unrelenting example. They reluctantly agreed—as parents so often do—only if I promised to stay within the small area of our fenced front yard. I promised to obey their strict command, and soon they had bundled me into layers of wool, canvas, burlap, and leather so that I might walk through the snow drifts without suffering.
Of course, I regret to this day my stepping out into the winter, for had I dutifully remained indoors that season, I might still have survived to experience whatever ideal childhood the elderly and infirm often fondly recall, as if childhood were a vague and unmapped wilderness from which we might emerge as travelers returning from an arduous journey. Instead, I can now only cough throughout the night, my old body shaking with chills and fever, my tired insides pained and aching, as I wait for the illness to exhaust me.
Excited as I was by my newfound freedom that winter, I had undertaken a rather ambitious project that cold day and night before: I meant to build a snow hut for myself, a place in which I might shelter alone beyond the reach of my parents so as to prove to them my advanced maturity. Having awoken early that next winter morning after an afternoon and evening of piling and excavating a mound of snow, I was again diligently at my task, finishing up the final details of the hut, when the three sisters arrived. As I scraped at the pile of ice and snow with my shovel, I heard laughter sing out across the field. To mark the source I climbed atop the packed snow I had shoveled all the day before and beheld the sisters—arms linked, three abreast—walking carefully down the icy road. Even in their bulky grey outfits, they moved gracefully, a subtle trio of shadows slowly gliding across the bleak landscape beyond the city.
Their presence puzzled me, for we children did not wander about in winter.
They approached me, turned as one, and gathered at the shoddy fence that lined my family’s front yard. They greeted me with a series of slight gestures and then one called out to me.
Boy, she said, what have you done here?
I’ve constructed a snow shelter, I said.
Can we see, said another.
I shrugged, and they one by one climbed over the fence and walked through the snow in my yard, the trailing two sisters calmly stepping in the footprints of the lead sister, to join me in the icy mud that encircled the dirty pile of snow I had gathered. Shovel in hand I awkwardly slid down to greet the sisters.
Their eyes glowed mysteriously from within the downy ovals of their hooded snowsuits.
They did not introduce themselves, nor did I.
Instead, I leaned down and pulled back the woolen blanket I had hung just within the dark hole of the makeshift shelter, and one after another we each stooped down to enter the little cave I had created.
As we sat there, huddled together in the relatively warm space of the shelter, the three sisters revealed themselves to me. They spoke of days long at their bed-rest, each of them stretched out upon a pallet in a sterile building somewhere in the nearby city, wires and tubes and sensors and bandages all attached to certain important but tender areas of their bodies, the equipment then leading away from their beds to the machines.
These machines, the doctors had said to them, maintained their most basic bodily functions.
Breathings, the doctors said.
Heart beatings, the doctors said.
All of the physical activities you cannot consciously control, the doctors said.
The sisters spent their days and nights in this hospital. They rested upon the thin mattresses, three tiny patients in an enormous ward devoted to helping children all around the countryside. To pass the time, they took turns speaking stories to one another. Each morning, one sister began a story, and by evening the third sister had finished the story. In this way the sisters occupied each other, helped each other through the tests and screenings and needles and intravenous drips and proddings and pokings of the numerous doctors and nurses who visited their sick beds.
Then one morning, the three sisters began a story about a boy on a farm, a boy walking through a snowy field, a boy shoveling snow, a boy watching the crows mount bleakly across the winter sky. As they told his story, they knew they could not restrain themselves any longer, for this boy could help them, they believed. And so, they had that morning left the hospital and found that boy.
That boy is you, they said.
You’ve known me, I said.
We’ve known you, they said.
We’ve come to you to finish our own story, they said.
How can I do that, I said.
One of the sisters, the older sister, the sister whom I had presumed to be the leader of the trio, leaned forward to offer me a necklace, and threaded upon this necklace hung a small brass key.
It is for you, she said.
What does it unlock, I said.
You built us this snow cave, so you surely must know what it unlocks, she said.
I took the key from her hand and stood as best I could in the low space of the snow cave. Crouching there in the candlelight, I worked my way around the icy walls as the sisters watched. I scraped at the snow with my bare hands until a small door revealed itself to me, a little brass handle and lock plate neatly centered on its stile.
I hesitated and looked over my shoulder at the sisters.
They each of them nodded to me, and so I kneeled down, inserted the key into the mechanism, and slowly pulled open the door.
In the gloom of the snow hovel, I found peering back at me from within the doorway a figure very much like my own, and as the candles guttered and flickered in the changed air, I saw in that figure’s sad eyes my own sad eyes. I saw in that figure’s crooked mouth my own crooked mouth. I saw in that figure’s ratty hair my own ratty hair.
The sisters watched as I confronted this figure, this brother-me, and in my silent confrontation, I realized that, suddenly, I could not fathom any longer what exactly it meant to be me, to be a young boy living by his own given name, and I felt as though I had suddenly become apart from myself: my self standing there before my self, before me, another self shivering, now, in the subtle twilight of that glistening pile of snow, my self staring into my other self’s dim face, and then suddenly my self being taken by the hand by my other self, and together both of us passing through the door and into a squalid world as bleak as my own, our own, one that impassively awaited my arrival.
The three sisters followed us through the door, and together I and my brother-me led them into the poorly lit interior of another warren, a small snowbound den, it seemed, a pairing of the one I had created in the front yard of my old home, and then, by the wrist, my brother-me pulled my self towards an oval block of light, and we all of us emerged from that other icy warren to discover a bleak and alien field, drifted with snow, a gray featureless sky, a loosely strung barbed wire fence and its crooked, rotten posts stretching beyond our sight, a dead oak tree blackened by the wind, and all about us countless gravestones, each of which marked the placement of a door, heavy wooden doors with tarnished knobs and knockers, and black keyholes, all waiting there like so many giant monuments founded in the crusty snow.
Where have you taken me, I said.
My brother-me stood quietly by my side.
Do not exhaust yourself, the leader of the three sisters said.
What has become of me, I said.
You risk your own destruction if you do not remain silent, she said.
Please stop, I said.
You must find the third, the third sister said.
You cannot survive without the third, the third sister said.
A trio of crows silently swooped towards us and alighted upon the wires of the fence. They sat there, three knots against the horizon, and watched as we stood in the windswept cemetery. Twists of snow dust came and went as the wind passed through our hair, stinging our noses and cheeks. The crows rocked in the wind, their feathers ruffling. It began to flurry, and snowflakes filled the air all about us.
The key, I said.
Caw, they said.
The crows called loudly, dryly into the winter air.
Caw, one of the crows said again, and lifted itself from the fence to fly towards us. It circled overhead, and then flew through the cemetery, leading us among the snow-topped gravestones. The crow seemed to select one grave among the many, for it circled there above the weathered stone until we all of us had a chance to find our proper place around the plot. The other crows followed behind us, and they too settled nearby as if to monitor these wintry rites.
The door that stood at this grave seemed like all of the others, a false tombstone paired to the granite tombstone situated immediately before it. We, my brother-me and I, could walk around to its back and find the rear side of the door. Its markings gave no indication as to what lay behind it, waiting to greet us. I began to feel unwell, chilled, a bit shaky in the cold air, perhaps even feverish, but I sensed that I could not go back until I had completed whatever task the sisters required of me.
The three sisters stood silently and watched as we—my brother-me and I—unlocked this other door with the key.
A third me stood behind this door.
I greeted it, as did the second me, and as we made to step forward through the door to join it, this third me stopped myself and my other self, and it handed first me a shovel, and then handed through the door a second shovel to my second self. Then this other brother-me—third shovel in its hand—came through the door and joined us all in that cemetery.
We stood there together with our shovels and blinked at one another in the crisp, cold air.
What are these for, I said. My hands shook in the cold now, and a great nausea gripped my body as I sweated through my clothes despite the bitter wind. I feared the answer, but my other brother-me did not answer, perhaps refused to answer, and instead, it began to dig at the frozen earth before the tombstone, and my second self, the first brother-me, it too joined, and I watched as my two selves dug there in that horrible, frozen earth.
Please, for my sister, the leader of the three sisters said.
You must help us, the second said.
Dig, please, the first said.
I bent down to dig, though the shovel hardly bit into the icy ground. My shoulders ached now, and the chills and sweats seemed to alternate with each stroke of the blade. At times, spots appeared before my eyes, and I often leaned over upon the shovel handle to catch my breath, to spit blood brightly upon the dirty snow at our feet. My other brother-me and the first brother-me seemed unperturbed by my illness, and they carried on dutifully, carving out of the hinterland a suitable hole.
As we all three of us worked the icy mantle of soil, the crows watched moodily, occasionally pecking and scratching and cawing at one another, an impatient audience. The third sister too performed her part, began to undo the buttons of her snowsuit, and soon she stood shivering, naked in the flurrying snow. Her body grew pale and her lips cracked, turned blue, and the terrible clods of hardened mud piled around her appalling, young nakedness, mixing with the dirty snow, and after a time, the pristine landscape in which we all of us worked became an ugly error upon the earth.
After some time, my brother-me and the other brother-me finally climbed up and out of the hole, and then they both leaned down to clasp my wrists and hoist me too out of the frozen earth. The third sister had turned nearly bloodless, and she almost seemed faint, ghostlike there in the winter landscape, and her shiverings had ceased.
She carefully climbed into the hole as her sisters peered anxiously at her.
Wait, I said.
We can get you help, I said.
I kneeled down to grasp her, but she had already died.
There’s no help, the two sisters said. My brother-me and my other brother-me began to fill in the hole, but I could not move from the ground, for I had become quite ill of a sudden, so they worked around me, filling and filling and filling, and the clods of frozen earth struck her body mercilessly, dully, until we could no longer see her pale face, her unblinking eyes.
Come, please, there is more to do, the remaining sisters said, and they raised me from the ground.
Before we passed through the next door, one of the crows that had followed us all this time fell into the hands of the second sister.
It had died somewhere up in the cold grey sky as it circled us, and the sister caught it as it plummeted sadly into her arms. We stood anxiously around her and regarded its death form. The crow rested there in her hands, its disordered feathers oddly iridescent in the dull winter light, and its black eyes shiny, unblinking, blood seeping from its broken beak. Its falling became a sort of preview of what awaited me later in my life, though I could not know my fate at the time. If I had known, I am still not sure I could have prevented my suffering, for the illness moved swiftly through my body, seemed to arrest me in my childhood with its fantastic properties.
The second sister carried the dead crow along with us through the door, and in that third world we again experienced the digging and the dying of another one of the sisters. The leader of the sisters watched impassively as we dug the grave. The other sister, the second sister, the doomed sister, stood quietly nearby. And in that grave she too dropped, the dead crow falling down into the cold earth alongside her, and the two crows settled on the shoulders of the remaining sister until one too expired into her arms, and we all of us again passed through yet another door.
Carrying the dead crow, the remaining sister walked all of us through another door and again we were greeted by that constant, dismal landscape we had become so accustomed to, and yet I knew too that it had shifted in some slightly different way with each of our various arrivals, for as we passed through each door to enter these new worlds our task became easier, more routine. I do not mean to say the frozen earth through each new door yielded more easily to our repeated strikes, nor do I mean to say the search for the pappropriate grave became simpler with each passage, nor do I mean to say the deaths became any less horrific, for each sister’s death—despite its similarity—impressed upon me a specific kind of imagery: the first sister’s shivering and hoary nakedness, the second sister’s quiet suffering in the snow, the third sister’s gentle touch upon my arm before she died. I can still recall the rhythmic knocking of the shovel blade against the earth, the thuds as the clods of dirt scattered about us, the stink of sweat rising from my damp clothes, the exhausted weeping of the girls as they approached their fates, the shifting and settling of the earth as their bodies fell.
Rather, I mean to say that my participation in each death became for me rote, dull, tedious, and these images, sounds, sensations, and smells functioned merely as a series of markers to indicate death’s constant presence. You see, I had learned by this—the end of my childhood—that to wield a shovel in such a manner is to take into one’s hands the final implement.
And so, the last sister.
Yes, she too stepped us through the door a few paces and then we found her gravestone there in the hard ground, and we dug her hole until she put a hand on our shoulders and stopped our work. She seemed pleased with the depth of the grave, and she smiled oddly at us as she fell sideways and died there before us, after pointing into the distance.
The final crow alit upon my shoulders, and as it did so, I felt age’s gentle tug upon my weary, delicate body. I seemed to age, then, in that moment, years beyond my experience, and an icy terror gripped me so that I could not stand steady without leaning upon the cold handle of the shovel.
We knew not what else to do except that we ought to pursue the distance of her point, and in our pursuit we came upon an enormous building on the horizon, a building that—as we drew closer—persuaded us that it had become a hospital. Its occupants persuaded us too that they had become patients, doctors, and nurses, and so we were admitted, all three of us, into this hospital, where we have—since our arrival—lived out of our cold childhoods to grow up into the bedridden, to become the pained and suffering, to suffer the drafty and unnatural touch of age, to tiredly await that which unrelenting time finally brings.
Nights I write when my callused palms and swollen knuckles do not ache.
My brother-me and my other brother-me weep nearby.
At odd intervals, I miss my parents, my old home.
I am visited often by the third and final crow.
She arrives at dusk, perches upon my windowsill, pecks incessantly at the pane.
I cough blood into a cloth and spit into the washbasin on the bedside table.
Nurses come in the mornings and change the sheets from beneath my weakened body, and the doctors gently address me with their instruments, as if by their proddings and pokings the mystery of my predicament might yet reveal itself.
I confront the shovel and the plots I have upturned with my hands.
Still I wonder about the three sisters.
Still, the crow.