by Shikkoku no Suzu (漆黒のスズ)
“Please try to stay still, Private Klein,” said the magister as his assistant held the tin appendage to the stump of Simeon’s left arm.
Simeon forced himself not to shift and look down as the metal warmed against his skin. Instead, he looked up at the ceiling of the No 1 Procedure Room of Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, and considered the weight of the tin fingers resting on his belly.
That is going to be my arm, he thought.
Simeon saw movement at the edge of his field of vision, and then a prick of pain as the nurse pressed the needle into the hollow of his right arm. The Ka washed through him like a gathering wave. In its wake it left a strange, swollen feeling, as if Simeon now inhabited a space slightly larger than his body: he realised this was that the artillerymen meant when they said Ka drew the spirit out to manifest beyond the physical form. Simeon had never had the stuff before; it was highly addictive, and unlike the artillery corps, an infantry private didn’t need it to do his job.
Of course, that had been before the German guns had blown off his arm. Now, he’d crave Ka for the rest of his life.
The magister leaned over him and nodded. “I am beginning the procedure,” he said.
A Tommy like him was lucky to be getting a spirited arm at all. Even a few months ago, it’d have been a pension and a quiet retirement in the country. But the war was dragging on, and each year the draft got thinner. Nowadays, if a spirited arm was all that stood between an experienced infantryman and Belgium, they gave him the arm and packed him back to the Continent.
The magister put his hand on the juncture of the flesh and tin, and ran his other hand over Simeon’s shoulder, down towards where his left elbow had once been. Simeon felt his spirit stretch, following the magister’s hand. As the magister’s hand swept from flesh to tin, Simeon’s spirit slowed, as if it had encountered an opposing current. Then it edged forward. Simeon began to feel a cold tingle past the point where for the last two months there had just been an aching numbness.
Starting from the shoulder, the magister drew more of Simeon’s spirit into the tin arm. Gesture by gesture, Simeon began to feel the arm as if it were his own: he had an elbow again, and then some time later, he had a wrist. The fingers took the longest: down in the hand, Simeon’s spirit felt weak like plasticine spread too thin, and the magister had to coax more of it into his wrist so he could draw it down to the fingertips.
Simeon half-listened as the nurse said something to the magister, about how the British blockade of the North Sea had all but dried up Germany’s supply of Ka.
“It’s true,” said the magister. “My brother says half the Boche army are out with Ka withdrawal, and they’ve had to switch the spirited ordnance for plain old shells. Won’t be long now until we’ve kicked them all back to Berlin.”
“From your lips to His ears,” said the nurse.
Eventually, the magister straightened and considered the arm. “Wiggle your fingers,” he said. Simeon tried. He felt something that might have been a spasm in his tin hand. The magister nodded.
“Now roll your wrist. And bend your elbow.” At each instruction, Simeon attempted to comply. The magister nodded again. “I’ll see you again tomorrow,” he said.
Simeon sat up. “Is that it?”
The magister gave him a thin smile. “Easy, isn’t it?”
“Yes, very. Thank you, sir,” said Simeon. He looked down at the tin arm. The metal seemed to have fused with the flesh, as if his spirit was holding the two distinct substances together.
“Now we just have to teach you to use it,” said the magister. He turned away, straightening his tunic. “So listen to your instructor and do your exercises, lad. That way we can get you back to your pals over there quick smart.”
“Yes, sir,” said Simeon, straightening up.
When Simeon had tried to pick up a bit of French from the estaminet girls, every word had required conscious thought. The putting of sounds together to form words, and words together to form sentences had been laborious and uncomfortable.
Likewise, he knew the gestures his hand should be making, but while his right hand made them, his left had to be told joint by joint what to do. He instructed his spirited elbow to bend and lifted his arm. He instructed his wrist to turn, and each joint in each finger to bend and straighten in turn. Then he held up his other hand, his fleshly hand, and wiggled his fingers. The contrast between that and the jerky, demarcated movements of the tin hand was demoralising.
The sunlight through the window at the end of the long hospital dormitory glinted off the polished grey of the metal. Each joint was articulated, with a fine delineation where bones would have been. The crest of his regiment was engraved on the back of his hand.
He pinched his tin index finger. It felt as if someone were compressing the extremity of his spirit. Pressure, but no pain. He told his elbow to straighten and leaned back against the pillows, closing his eyes. It was like trying to sleep with an artillery shell lying beside him.
“Well, well, well, Sim Klein,” said a voice. Simeon cracked open one eye. A man with sandy brown hair in hospital pyjamas was standing next to the bed, leaning his weight against a cane. “I heard you were in here somewhere. Was it your arm, leg or prick?”
“Hey Bobby,” said Simeon. He went to lever himself upright, but forgot to instruct his left arm, and pitched sideways. Robert dived forward and caught him. “Arm,” said Simeon ruefully, resting his cheek against Robert’s chest and Robert righted him in the bed. “You?”
“Left foot, from the ankle down. About four months ago.”
“How long ’til you’re out of here?”
“I have a medical board in two weeks,” said Robert. “I’m hoping they’ll pass me fit then. ‘Course I have to get rid of this damned cane first. You?”
“As soon as possible,” said Simeon grimly.
Robert leaned against the bed and sighed. “It seems wrong to be safe back here when they’re all still fighting,” he said.
Simeon nodded. “Did you see the papers? Thirty thousand casualties in fifteen days.”
“But they took the village. Were your lot in it?”
Simeon shook his head. “They’re further south, I think. I heard the magister say that half the German army is out with Ka withdrawal.”
“I’ve heard that too,” said Robert. “Serves them right: all those buzzed Jerries gave us hell on the Somme. Hard to mount an attack when the bullets seem to be able to follow you into shell-holes.”
Simeon nodded, thinking of the weeks of blood and mud he had spent at Albert. He had faced down trenches of stony-faced Germans with their uncanny accuracy with a pistol and their spirits hardened into a shield that bullets just bounced off.
Robert was sitting to his left, so Simeon lifted his arm, unbent his elbow, tilted his wrist and rested his spirited hand in Robert’s palm. There was a feeling of warmth, of his spirit meeting Robert’s, both of them buzzing with Ka.
Robert closed his fingers over the cold tin, and Simeon felt the pressure. It activated an answering pressure deep in Simeon’s gut. It’d been a year since his battalion and Robert’s had been in the line side by side, and they’d fallen into bed together on a three-day leave to Amiens. The furtive attentions of his own hand in a dugout shared by ten other stinking bodies had been unsatisfying by comparison, and then there had been the loss of an arm, the shattering of his hip and all the attendant aches and pains, and the dormitory with its regular patrols of nurses and orderlies.
Casting a quick look around the dormitory, Robert leaned close. “We’re not alone here,” he said, breath against Simeon’s ear. “There’s a storeroom at the end of the hallway. Meet me there tonight half an hour after lights out.” He gave Simeon’s hand a squeeze and stood.
When Simeon limped into the storeroom, Robert was already there, taking a long drag from a little brown cigarette. He was sitting on a cot, legs out in front of him. Simeon could see the dull gleam of metal between the hem of his pyjamas and his slippers.
“Did you know this was in here?” he said.
Robert nodded. “The orderlies make it up for the nurses to snatch a few hours’ sleep on.” He watched as Simeon made his way across the room. “Did you hurt your leg as well?”
Simeon winced. “Same shell that took my arm smashed my hip and thigh and took half the skin on my left side. Eight weeks in traction at Camberwell before they shipped me off here to get my tin arm.” He sat down on the cot next to Robert. “You?”
“Dove away from a Moaning Minnie,” said Robert, toeing out his cigarette on the linoleum floor. “Just didn’t dive far enough.”
Simeon grimaced. “That’s rough luck.”
“Not as rough as the poor bastard whose guts they had to scrape off my tunic,” said Robert.
Simeon twisted his trunk so he could reach for Robert. His spirited arm sat between them like a lead pipe. “Damn it,” Simeon said. He closed his eyes and told his tin arm to move the fuck out of the way.
When he opened them, Robert’s gaze was searching his. “It gets easier,” he said.
“But it’ll never be natural, will it? It’s just a hunk of metal and my arm’s lying in pieces somewhere in France.” As he said it, Simeon focused his attention on the shelf in front of him, whitewashed wood stacked with sheets and towels, bedpans and kidney bowls.
“Cheer up, kid,” said Robert, his blunt, handsome features twisting into a sad smile. “You might well have been lying there with it.”
“I’ll still have the chance, won’t I?” said Simeon, sticking out his chin. “If I ever convince a board to clear me for active service.”
“They’re too desperate not to.” Robert leaned over and turned Simeon’s head with his hand. He pressed his lips against Simeon’s. Simeon sighed and wrapped his good hand around Robert’s hips, drawing their bodies closer together. They scrambled up onto the cot, Robert on top. Simeon set his tin arm behind him, holding him up like one leg of a tripod to hold up a camera. He put his other arm around Robert’s waist.
Robert’s mouth was still on Simeon’s, all soft lips, seeking tongue and the brush of stubble. Simeon pressed his prick against Robert’s thigh, and heard Robert’s answering grunt. “Put your arms around me,” he whispered against Simeon’s mouth.
Simeon tightened his right hand’s grip on Robert’s waist. “I am.”
“The other arm as well,” said Robert, throwing his head back and grinding his hip against Simeon’s. Simeon watched the mottled blush spreading up Robert’s neck.
“Better just to keep it out of the way,” said Simeon.
Brown eyes opened and met his. “Here,” said Robert. He rolled Simeon, so Simeon was lying almost in his lap, Robert’s legs splayed out around Simeon’s body.
Simeon realised his tin arm was at a ridiculous angle behind him because he’d forgotten to tell it to move. A puffed breath of annoyance was arrested when Robert slipped his prick out of his pyjamas. It curled against his hip, and the warm light of the incandescent light bulb above their heads showed it as long and pink. Simeon’s fingertips tingled.
Robert leaned down and took Simeon’s left hand. The tin didn’t give the way relaxed muscles would. Simeon had to tell the elbow and wrist to unbend as Robert drew the hand up and placed it on his thigh, the metal reflecting the flesh around them and seeming for a moment almost human.
“Touch it,” Robert said. When Simeon didn’t move, he exhaled. “You’re buzzed up on Ka and so am I. The tin acts as a conduit between our spirits. Trust me, it’s an experience. I’d perform the same service for you with my foot but…” He shrugged and gave Simeon a crooked smile.
Simeon looked at him and blinked. “You’re hoaxing me. How many other lads have you tried this with?”
All he got in response was the widening of Robert’s smile. Simeon realised could feel the brush of their spirits, a sparking sensation against his hand and forearm.
Simeon slid his other hand under Robert’s prick, lifting it away from his body. Bend, Simeon told his elbow and wrist. Straighten, he told his fingers. He put his palm against Robert’s shaft and told his fingers to curl around it. He felt pressure, and a sense of warmth that wasn’t physical.
Robert wriggled, pushing up against the metal head of the cot. He grabbed Simeon’s wrist with one hand and drew it up the length of the shaft. Simeon remembered just in time to relax his fingers as they brushed over the head. “Jesus Christ, Sim,” said Robert. He thrust up into the circle of Simeon’s hand, gasping. He scrabbled at his hem, lifting his hips to push his waistband down and give Simeon better access.
Simeon felt Robert’s spirit push against him in the same way Robert’s prick was swelling against his palm. As Simeon slid his hand back down towards Robert’s hips, Robert’s arm dropped to the cot and he clawed at the mattress.
The pressure built, and Simeon could feel his erection straining against his pyjama bottoms. His hips had canted of their own accord to press into the hollow made by the meeting of Robert’s calf and the mattress. Robert’s spirited foot was pressed against Simeon’s thigh, another conduit for the current flowing between them.
In the moment he was distracted by his thoughts, his hand had gone still, curled around Robert like a mannequin. Robert made a whining noise and tilted his hips.
Simeon looked up at him, then he released Robert’s prick. “Come here,” he said. “I want to try something.”
Eyeing Simeon curiously, Robert allowed himself to be shuffled down the cot until he was lying supine with Simeon above him. Simeon shuffled out of his pyjama bottoms and lined his hips up with Robert’s so that their pricks were brushing. He tilted his hips to the right and slid his spirited arm between them, opening the circle of his fingers wide enough to encompass both their shafts.
Stay, he told his tin arm satirically. Without instruction from Simeon, it fixed in that position, the perfect width for their pricks, pressed together, to thrust up into.
“Oh,” said Robert, his eyes widening. “You clever devil.”
“Ready?” said Simeon. He withdrew his hips a little, then thrust forward, the underside of his prick sliding against Robert’s. Sparks lit up against his nerve endings as the smooth articulations of the tin thumb scraped against his sensitive flesh. Robert caught his rhythm quickly, digging one hand into Simeon’s buttocks and pulling their bodies together.
At the same time, he could feel Robert’s spirit burning against his, a pocket of sparking, eddying warmth just above Robert’s skin that seemed to brush against some deeper part of Simeon. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, as if Robert were reflecting some of his arousal into Simeon, and drawing in some of Simeon’s heat in return.
Robert threw his head back, and Simeon ducked down and pressed his lips to the pulse in Robert’s neck, tonguing the skin showing above his collar. Looking between them, Simeon could see both of them leaking fluid onto Robert’s belly below his rucked up pyjama shirt.
As the tug of Robert’s hand on his buttock became more frequent, Simeon’s need became insistent, and his spirit drew in on itself, following his blood and the pulsing waves of sensation towards the base of his pelvis. He bucked his hips in the steady hold of his hand, then his spine curled of his own accord, and he gasped out his release.
“Bloody hell,” said Robert, hoarsely, a moment later. Simeon managed to gather enough of his scattered thoughts to uncurl his hand and roll away from Robert, flopping half-on and half-off the narrow cot. After a long silence, Robert said, “I’m… almost jealous of you, Sim.”
“Yes, I think I’ve found a use for the tin hand after all,” said Simeon. He held up the arm and flexed the fingers, gleaming with sweat and semen.
Roehampton had a long green that spread out from the courtyard between the wings of the building. Simeon sat in his hospital blues in a lawn chair. The nurses had just been by with sandwiches and a booster shot of Ka, and Simeon was humming with contentment.
On the green, a lively game of rugby was unfolding. Every now and then the sun glinted off a tin arm or leg as the players rushed and dove after the ball. Occasionally, players forgot to compensate for their spirited appendage and pitched or stumbled, and this was exploited shamelessly by the opposing team to gain an advantage.
“Mind if I join you?” said Robert, dragging a chair behind him.
“Not at all,” said Simeon.
“I’ve just been in the gymnasium trying to get up to scratch before my physical tomorrow.” Robert set up his lounger to Simeon’s left and stretched out his legs in front of him. His spirited ankle came to rest against Simeon’s foot, and Simeon felt the zip of energy between them. He knew by Robert’s swiftly drawn in breath that he’d felt it too.
“Are you ready to go back?”
“It isn’t a question of ready, so much as fit,” said Robert.
A silence settled between them as Simeon thought of Robert’s medical board in four days, his own sometime in the future, and then the train-boat-train travel to find his battalion somewhere in the mud and barbed wire. He flexed his tin hand, curling it around the barrel of an imaginary bayonet, and pushed his spirit out to see whether it would harden into a shield. Next time he saw an artilleryman he’d ask for tips on that.
“Want to see whether anyone is in the workshop?” said Robert, breaking the silence.
“Fancy becoming a carpenter after this is all over?” said Simeon lightly.
“Not really,” said Robert. His smile dawned, and Simeon felt the corners of his mouth press up in response.
A/N: Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, really was the largest convalescent hospital in the UK for amputees, and was pioneering in its approach to rehabilitation of soldiers who had lost a limb in WWI. There’s a little more information and some pictures here.
As an aside, I have managed to write a story about WWI really close to ANZAC Day again, so…lest we forget.