“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Painless, by Yerkex Hurmanbek

Painless

Yerkex Hurmanbek is an award-winning Kazakh writer, from Xinjiang. In 2011 her story "Eternal Lamb” was adapted into China’s first Kazakh-language feature film. Most published "ethnic" fiction is written by Han Chinese, including those who write about Xinjiang: for example Li Juan's "The Road to the Weeping Spring", Shen Wei's "A Dictionary of Xinjiang". This is a controversial issue - see, for example, the comments after Li Juan's story and the blog Ethnic China Lit: Writing by and about non-Han Peoples of China. These are some of the issues likely to be addressed at The British Association for Chinese Studies (BACS) annual conference, which is taking place in Leeds, UK, this week, with the theme "Centre and Margins".

Painless is a bleak and sad little story. The first sentence delivers body horror and social anxiety, the first two paragraphs see hearts stop and bones splinter. We are kept at a distance: no-one of consequence gets a name; we are not told where or when we are; the narrator hovers outside the story rather than participating in it. The job here was to maintain both that distance and the points of contact - the universals the story deals with, all the clearer for the contrast. We all know revulsion. We all know shame. We all know guilt. Oh, and we all have fingers. Unless…

—Roddy Flagg

A version of this story was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Pathlight magazine

Nobody in the village noticed that my brother’s six-year-old daughter had chewed off all her fingers. Only her little palms were left, like two tiny shovels. But more mobile and fleshier, with a child’s warmth. She took bowls of food using her palms like pincers. The sight stopped her mother’s heart for an instant; the right ventricle blocked and wouldn’t let the blood through so the breath caught in her throat. It was a bit like when their pasta-maker choked on a lump of dough, or the neighbour’s tractor spluttered to a halt outside.

My sister-in-law’s heart had actually stopped a few times, years back. But my brother knew how to restart it: the philtrum, a pressure point in the depression just below the nose. Once he dug in so hard his nail left a crescent-shaped wound on her upper lip. The neighbours asked what had happened. I was breaking lamb bones for the marrow, she said, and a splinter of bone flew out. You should be more careful, they told her. That’s a pressure point. You could have killed yourself. It’s fine, she said. I’m still here.

Others teased her that her husband was too rough in bed. Was that any way to make love to a woman? And she would heave a deep sigh, then another, and those sighs would be laden with worries and hurts and all the powerlessness in the world. They didn’t know her daughter was eating her fingers. If they had known, maybe she could have told them of her own pain… of how helpless she felt… of how she was to blame.

Well, the boil’s always going to burst one day, as they say, and sure enough the secret came out. But they kept it quiet, right up until the little girl was on the fourth finger. It was an easy labour, compared to most. She almost gave birth in the cow pen.

It was early spring and one of the milk cows had calved. She let herself into the pen, enjoying the freshness a shower of rain had brought, and untied the calf so it could feed. Its mother mooed gently as it rushed over and suckled, the odour of warm milk filling the air. My sister-in-law felt a kick from her belly, then an almost ticklish slithering. That’s for the calf, she thought, not you. She patted her bump as if it was the baby’s bottom, then pulled the calf away, tethering it before sitting down to milk.

She gripped the wooden bucket between her knees, and the baby began to come.

It felt like someone had poured warm water down her legs, and she thought at first she’d somehow squeezed milk over herself. She laughed when she looked down: about to be a mother, and I didn’t even realise my waters broke. She let the bucket fall and went indoors. By the time the neighbour’s lad had fetched my brother back from the fields the baby was on the bed, mewling like a kitten.

For a time she loved to tell her friends this story. They said she was lucky. Such an easy labour, no pushing for hours only to have a Caesarean. Others joked that if she hadn’t made it out of the cattle pen her daughter might have been born there, like a calf.

Perhaps because of the easy birth, she recovered quickly and had plenty of milk: it leaked out and soaked her dress. She gave as much milk as the cows, my brother said. Within a month the baby was fattening up nicely, plump in cheeks and buttocks.

Three years later, just as she found she was pregnant with her second child, she realised something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with her first.

She was eating her own fingers.

These are painful memories for our family and it must be chilling to hear them. It’s like some ludicrous story, or a horror movie, or some stupid book for people with nothing better to read. But it happened to us.

Who could speak of such a thing, if it happened in their family? Someone – a child! – eating their own flesh. How would she face the neighbours? How would they face her? What kind of life would she have? But for my brother and his wife, for our mother, for all of us, this was just a beginning. The mere surface of the suffering. We couldn’t begin to explain. And so we hid our tears and acted as if all was as it should be.

Like any child, my niece sucked on her fingers, as if she were feeding. All children do. The first time my sister-in-law set eyes upon her daughter, she had her fists in her mouth.

I think someone once told me that for a baby, being in the womb is like being a boat in the harbour, moored by the umbilical cord. When the mother is moving they clutch on to that rope for fear of drifting away. When she is still, they let go and suck on their thumbs so they won’t feel hungry.

People have such lovely imaginations. They make it something beautiful.

But that daughter of theirs showed us how ugly it could be.

The child never went hungry, we know that. My sister-in-law fell pregnant in the autumn, and then it was winter. Before winter up in the mountains we slaughter the livestock – the cows, the horses, the sheep and goats – for food to take us through to spring. All winter she had plenty to eat, meat and milk and cheese pressed upon her wherever she went. She was always well fed And she gave birth at the ideal time: bright sunshine, fresh air, the cows and even the mares giving milk. She got milk to drink wherever she went. And so she gave plenty, so much it dripped down her dress. The baby lacked for nothing, not before she was born, not after. She was well-fed.

But still the child ate her fingers. She ate her own fingers.

My sister-in-law realised something was wrong one winter morning.

A friend had stayed over the night before and she had brought out last night’s lamb for breakfast. My niece was perched on my brother’s leg, watching the guest carve chunks of meat off the bone with a silver-handled knife he carried and then pop them into his mouth. Smoke from my brother’s cigarette drifted towards him and he waved it away, the early morning sun glinting on a red stone set in the handle of the knife. My niece reached out, hesitant, babbling.

The guest glanced at her, and then again. Do you want some too? He cut her off a piece, then another, and then carried on eating. Another cloud of smoke wafted over as he lifted his teacup. My brother said something and laughed. The guest put down his knife and cup and laughed with him. My niece slid off my brother’s lap and pulled herself up onto the table, her eyes fixed on the red stone set in the handle of the knife. She watched for a moment, a cat stalking its prey, then grabbed it and scurried off behind the guest, the smoke swept along in her wake.

My brother was telling a story about an old widower who had taken a young wife and bought a box of aphrodisiac pills to make sure he could perform in the bedroom. He took the whole box, but rather than the desired effect he suffered chills and shakes, and could muster no interest at all in his new bride. A few days later she left him.

It wasn’t a funny joke, or even a very dirty one. But both my brother and his friend laughed. My sister-in-law, knowing women shouldn’t laugh at such jokes, pursed her lips. And then she gasped as she noticed something awful at the corner of her eye. Her daughter’s hand was bleeding.

She gasped and rushed over, scooping her daughter off the floor. Her heart faltered for a moment, the blood eddying before finding its way onwards.

The knife had cut the little girl on her left palm. Blood was welling out, dripping down onto the rug where it blended in with the red flowers.

My sister-in-law sobbed as she fussed over her daughter. What have you done to yourself? How could you be so careless, don’t you know knives aren’t toys? Didn’t you notice you’d cut yourself? And then to my brother: Are you blind? Weren’t you watching her? Why did you let her take the knife? She must have cried if she cut herself, didn’t you hear anything?

Only later did she see it was the last of these that mattered most. The terrible thing was that her daughter hadn’t cried. She had no sense of pain.

Even while bleeding the girl was still, as if the blood was just water and she just a muddy hillside it was oozing from, quiet and unaffected. Any footprints would soon be washed away.

But this was a hand, not a hillside, and it needed a doctor. They took her to the village clinic, where one gave her stitches. She didn’t complain then either, quiet as that hillside. Nobody, not my brother or his wife, not the doctor, realised what this meant. My sister-in-law just remembers the doctor calling her daughter a hero. A real toughie. Bound to grow up to be a great kid.

And my sister-in-law told herself this was all true. Yes, a born hero. She’s never been scared of pain, got all her vaccinations without a single tear…

And you can understand why this made them feel a little better.

A child not yet three, a sharp knife, four stitches, right on the palm, close to the bone and where you can’t help but move it. Any other child would have screamed the roof off. All the sweeties in the world wouldn’t have been enough to restore a smile to that face. But my niece sat there, quiet as the hillside. As any mother would, my sister-in-law felt guilty that her child had been hurt. But even though she wondered a little why she hadn’t cried, she didn’t dwell on it. If her daughter hadn’t felt any pain – well, thank the heavens for that. Like any mother, she felt her child’s pain herself, tenfold. So she just kept a close eye on her daughter for the next few days, making sure the bandage didn’t come off or get wet. And she worried she might cry when the stitches came out, but again she didn’t even seem to notice.

Soon enough their daughter’s hand healed, the scar one more line among all the others.

But wasn’t it a bit odd?

Sometimes they’d talk about it in bed.

My sister-in-law said:

“She’s not scared of needles or knives. What if nothing worries her when she grows up? Wouldn’t it be terrible, a girl who doesn’t care about anything?”

My brother said:

“You women think too much.”

My sister-in-law said:

“What about when we’re old, and I have a stroke or something and can’t get out of bed. I’d need looking after. Do you think she’ll care?”

My brother said:

“What?”

My sister-in-law said:

“What if she doesn’t care about me?!”

My brother said: “Let’s worry about that when it happens. I’ll look after you, if I don’t go first.”

My sister-in-law said:

“I’m trying to be serious here.”

My brother said:

“So am I. Don’t worry about it.”

And then she’d flop down onto her pillow, frustrated.

She found herself thinking about her daughter. She’d never been much trouble: an easy labour, an obedient child. Everyone else’s had cried through the night, but not hers. They said she was lucky, but it seemed a worrying kind of luck. It was too much, too easy. Her own mother had told her to think of tears yet to come when happy, and smiles yet to come when sad. She thought with all this luck, there must be tears yet to come.

They say women have a natural intuition. Maybe that’s why she was right about those tears.

When the girl was three they took her to the summer grazings. My sister-in-law was milking the cows one dusk when she heard her daughter cry. It was just an ordinary cry, for a stolen sweet or a lost toy. Her mother looked round the cow’s tail to see her daughter looking back at her, her right hand pointing at the sky.

Don’t be frightened, she said. It’s only a cow, it won’t hurt you. But the crying just got louder. Perhaps she’d been scared by the shadows? My sister-in-law put the milk bucket down and walked over. It was almost dark and all she could see was her daughter pointing to the sky and crying. What’s wrong, babe? Don’t cry, good girls don’t cry…

The child kept pointing at the sky. There was nothing there but a waning moon, a mere thumbnail clipping.

“It’s broken. The moon’s broken! Who broke it?”

She winced in sympathy with her daughter, then kissed her.

“It’s fine, darling, it’s not broken. It’ll be back tomorrow, safe and sound.”

But the child kept on pointing and crying. My sister-in-law put her hand over her daughter’s eyes, to keep out the evil airs that might be around at dusk. The old folk warned about gazing at the moon. And then instinctively, as if to cool a burn, she opened her mouth and placed her daughter’s hand inside.

And as she closed her mouth a lifetime of suffering began. Half of the forefinger on her daughter’s right hand was missing.

It sounds too much like a horror story to believe. But it really happened, and my brother and his wife carried the pain of it all their lives, all because their daughter couldn’t feel any.

My sister-in-law’s life became filled with sudden bouts of fainting. And although they both watched their strange child closer than any hospital could have done, they couldn’t save the second finger. She’d scamper off to hide and chew on it. Sometimes she’d hold up the open wounds to scare the other children. She had no idea how scared her family was for her. And my brother was trying to look after his wife, liable to collapse onto the stove or into the river at any moment, as well as his daughter. He aged over those three years. He started to cough in his sleep like an old man.

And they were coping with it all alone, too ashamed to go to the doctor. As soon as the dog barked to warn of a visitor they’d hide her away. But it all came out while she was eating her way through her third finger. They went to the doctor, who said children chewing their fingers was normal enough: that was just a zinc deficiency. But he’d never seen a child actually eat them. He gave her a zinc supplement anyway, but she kept on chewing. So they went to a bigger hospital for tests, where the doctors found she had no sense of pain.

My brother and his wife were devastated.

How can you not feel pain?

One doctor said it might be due to neglect or psychological problems. But not my niece. Her parents were by her side night and day, she had all the love in the world. Think of all the sayings and songs. No heart aches like a parent’s heart. Every baby is a mother’s treasure. A baby crow is a swan to its mother.

Another doctor said it might have been caused by some disease, or overuse of some medicine. Others blamed pollution – in the air, the food, the water. Yet others said it was a sign of humanity’s decline. And a newspaper printed a story about a child somewhere who was eating her own fingers…

My brother and his wife are ordinary folk, with ordinary educations. They struggled to take it all in. Asked what he thought might have caused it, my brother talked about Islam, the cowherd, and Hari, the carpenter in the village, how they bickered all day but wouldn’t know what to do without the other. But he couldn’t explain what this had to do with his daughter. My sister-in-law preferred to see it as punishment for her own sins.

She recalled a handsome poet she’d fallen for at a wedding shortly before she wed my brother. The poet, a married man, could see she was smitten. He wrote her a poem, sang her a song, then had her that night. In the morning he left without a word.

Anyone who heard the story would think it nothing special, but it troubled her. She cleaned herself compulsively: scrubbing her hands, showering, washing her hair, even while pregnant. My brother just thought it was odd, that she must be some kind of cleanliness freak. But later, once she’d given birth and was feeding, it all flowed away with the milk.

And now those worries were back, sharper than ever. Her own pain didn’t matter anymore. What did one cheating poet matter? She’d bear all the pain God heaped on her head, even if she fainted from the pain, if she could only pass on a little of it to her daughter.to feel. Just a mosquito bite’s worth of pain.

Our family’s pain was unspeakable, and all because that child felt none.

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