Bad Hand

The yellow mouth of the school bus opened 
to eat him, and he slumped into the fractured plastic 
of his seat, knowing at the next stop the boy 
with the fingers chopped off at the knuckles 

would climb into the bus like a panther among squirrels, 
take the seat behind him, and grind the whitened stumps 
into the back of his head, while he flinched. 
What combination of starry omens and planetary dread, 

of boxcars and snake eyes, could have spun the world 
inside this child’s heart to such daily vicious thrill 
at the despair of other children, the ones with perfect hands?
At lunch, huddled with friends by the mahogany-stained 

folded-up bleachers in the gym, he tried to ask them, 
but they studied dented apples and plastic-wrapped sandwiches
in wincing silence. In their minds the awful hand was reaching 
over the ruptured and taped upholstery again 

and scraping like a bone bow across their resisting bodies,
grating out the thin music of their screams, these beautiful little 
boys and girls who flinched away from the stumps of his loss.
They also had suffered the knuckle torture, also had avoided 

the bus home, preferring to stumble through the cut black
stubble of the cornfields and be late for dinner, 
but they could say nothing. He was a fact of life, 
like brain-eating bacteria. So the boy came up 

with his own scenarios for what violence 
had severed that hand. A bad cut on a table saw 
that spritzed the sawdust red. Freak guillotining 
by falling glass. Psycho stepfather with a hatchet. 

And often he wondered, what did they do with the severed
digits? Did they keep them strangely preserved 
in formaldehyde, floating and pointing everywhere 
and nowhere in the green liquid of a screw-top jar? 

Or did they bury them in a small box, out in a field 
somewhere, or in the backyard by the oak tree 
like a time capsule floating in earth through decades 
in which that sad and terrible boy was fated to be 

the asshole of every story?—a tiny coffin in a makeshift 
graveyard where those fingers wait for the rest of him 
to join them, those pallid fetuses, those curling orchids, 
those question marks, the pale nails growing into hooks.

Copyright © 2022 by Tony Barnstone. This poem was first printed in MQR: Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Winter 2022). Used with the permission of the author.