Fiction / March 2013 (Issue 20)

The Cripple

by Bina Shah

A man with only one leg was hobbling on his crutches down the road behind the railway station one day when he realised he had to urinate. He threw down his crutches on the side of the road behind him, undid his trousers, squatted carefully and, balancing on his leg while leaning with one hand against the wall, began to relieve himself. He looked up at the wall while his stream flowed, and read the graffiti above his head: Our president is a dog and our country is his bitch.

Nobody knew why the man had only one leg. His story changed often. One day, he claimed it had been blown off when he stepped on a landmine in no-man's-land whilst walking to his father's sister's cousin's son's house. The next, he had lost it to a snakebite which had turned the leg black before it had to be amputated by army doctors in the middle of the desert. The third, he said that he was born without it, an affliction that had been visited upon all the youngest male children in his family for seven generations. "But I have never begged," he would say proudly, whichever story he offered. "I don't believe in making money out of my misfortune. And I am an optimist. My trousers are not half-empty, they are half-full."

Some said the man actually had no legs, and the one leg he had was a prosthesis that he wore sometimes on the left stump and sometimes on the right in order to confuse people about his identity. But this was a lie made up by his enemies, the man said, to discredit his reputation. "One leg is better than none," he said. "They are jealous of my good fortune."

The double amputees who gathered around the gates of the military hospital perched on handmade carts, milk crates and fruit crates rigged up with wheels stolen from children's bicycles, jeered when they heard him say this. "Yah, yah!" they shouted as he hobbled by. "You think you're better than us. We'll show you who's boss one day!"

"In the kingdom of the blind," replied the one-legged man cheerfully, "the one-eyed man is king."

As the man took pleasure in easing the strain on his bladder, a train shuddered into the station, wheels screeching angrily against the train tracks. The walls separating the iron rails from the shacks of the slum-dwellers all around breathed in and out like a buffalo catching its breath; the man, still leaning on the wall for support, had to put both hands against the wall to shore himself up against the vibrations.

A rush of people went by, some coming and some leaving: labourers, peasants, servants, mountain-people, tribesmen, plainsmen, women, children. Bags in hands, bundles on heads, battered suitcases passed down from father to son, son to grandson. Some made their way to the train by the overhead bridge; the more adventurous scrambled over the walls to cross the tracks. The one-legged man had to duck and yell at them not to climb on his head or use his shoulders as a stepladder to get across to the other side.

"Quiet, cripple!" shouted one particularly wild youth, a boy from the mountains with sapphire blue eyes and unruly blond hair. "Make yourself useful, at least, and don't complain."

The man pivoted on his single leg to grab his crutches and haul himself upright to go after the boy, but when he did, he saw that a group of beggar children had picked up one of his crutches and were giggling at him like baby hyenas. "Hey, you! Give that back!" In his haste to lunge at the children, he forgot that he was still in mid-stream and ended up peeing on his own clothes. The children saw this and their mirth grew even louder. They shrieked and whistled, pointed and hopped on one leg, tossing the crutch to each other above the one-legged man's head.

The man groaned to see his prized possession, its strong slim steel frame and cushion of brilliant blue, waved aloft in the air as if it were a trophy they had won in a school race. He had received it from a prime minister—no, a minister—no, a governor—no, well, some kind of visiting dignitary at least—in a drive to supply crutches, wheelchairs and artificial limbs to those who had been injured in the war. He'd stood in line with the other wounded, those with broken backs and twisted limbs and waited for three hours, for the dignitary to show up and deliver a speech that lasted another hour.

While they waited, the cripples and the lame and the maimed all compared notes about their injuries; it turned out that none of them had been in the war. One man had fallen in the street, legs crushed by a truck; another lost his legs to polio; a third had gotten into a fight with his cousin over a woman and had his arm permanently dislocated. Eventually, the line began to move and the ragtag non-army received their booty; the dignitary handed the crutches to the one-legged man, smiled for a photograph and then vanished back into his helicopter, never to be seen by the people again.

Now, the children were bearing away the crutch, running down the street to disappear in a hole in the wall, like bees going back into their hive. The man screamed and shouted, but to no avail. The crutch was vanishing into the hole, its bright arms glinting in the sun, the bright blue cushion a flag waving surrender and farewell.

The one-legged man quickly retied his shalwar and twisted to the other side to retrieve the other crutch. He was as fast on one stick as he was on two; he'd go after the children, crack a few heads open with the crutch, which doubled as a useful weapon, and win back its mate.

But as he stretched his hand out for the remaining crutch, he met the hole-black eyes of a wild man: a drug addict with filthy matted hair and ripped clothes. The drug addict had grasped the one-legged man's other crutch in his claws and was about to make away with it, no doubt to sell the steel for drug money. A rage like heartburn rose up in the one-legged man's chest at the unfairness of the junkie's greed; steal manhole covers, steal electricity transformers, steal train tracks, by all means, but not a crippled man's only means of ambulation!

He pulled hard on the crutch. The other man, squatting on the ground only inches away from him, pulled back. They enacted this furious tug of war for several moments, grunting and groaning. A low growl escaped from the drug addict's lips; he bared his teeth at the one-legged man and pulled so hard that the one-legged man lost his balance and fell onto the concrete, hitting his head hard on the ground. He fainted. The drug addict rose to his feet unsteadily, looked around to see who might be watching and then slunk away, the crutch tucked under his arm. But not before reaching into the one-legged man's pockets and scooping out the loose bits of change and paper notes that were stuffed inside.

When he awoke, the one-legged man felt something warm and wet snuffling at his face. At first, he thought it was a wild dog, but when he opened his eyes and reached out his hand, he saw it was not a dog but a goat; and not just any goat, but Khushboo, the oversized animal that belonged to a milk-stall owner around the corner from the railway station. This legendary creature suffered from a genetic mutation that had made it albino—it had pure white fur and pink eyes—and caused it to grow to the size of a small donkey, with a misshapen head and a ridge jutting out several inches from its forehead.

"Go away," moaned the one-legged man, hands flapping at Khushboo weakly. The goat arched her long neck and backed away, then bent down again and continued to mash her lips noisily against the man's face, adding the sharp edges of her yellow teeth—the only part of her that wasn't white—to nibble at his skin. The man suppressed his desire to put his hands up and wring Khushboo's neck, only out of fear of retribution from the milk-stall owner, whose love for his goat was the stuff of legend. If he were to find his beloved Khushboo dead, there was no telling how many generations the feud against the murderer and his family would last.

The man was beset by yet another problem. Giving chase to the beggar children and the drug addict was out of the question when he was splayed out on the dusty ground like a sack of potatoes. But even if he could get himself standing again—which he probably could, although he had never tried, as his crutches were never far from his side—how would he walk? His pride was too great to allow him to crawl on his side all the way home. As long as he still had one leg, he could not bear to debase himself in the mud and filth and the stares and ridicule of his surroundings. He began to panic, wild wings of fear and anxiety beating at his heart.

He batted away Khushboo's curious snout and craned his neck to see if any passersby would be willing to give him a hand, offer him a lift. He was, after all, a cripple, and people were generous to those who had tumours growing out of their faces and twisted backs and scarred skin. But from his upside-down view, he could see the street was now deserted; the train had left the station and all would be quiet until the next train's arrival, sometime in the evening. The man was all alone, except for the monstrous goat now paying attention to the sole of his one foot.

This gave the man an idea. He pushed himself into a sitting position, his leg bent underneath his body. As he rocked forward onto his knee, he reached out and put his arms around Khushboo's neck. The goat, surprised by the sudden display of affection, pressed close for the embrace, blowing her meaty breath into his face. The one-legged man leaned into Khushboo and hauled himself up to a standing position. The goat staggered under his weight and bucked away, but the man had achieved his goal. Buoyed by this triumph, he began to envision himself sitting on the goat and riding it side-saddle all the way to his house on the other side of the military hospital.

But when he tried to place his hips onto Khushboo's bony spine, the goat took a step back, pawed the ground like a bull and nipped hard at the man's thigh. The man screamed out; Khushboo tossed her head and marched away like a queen.

Now the one-legged man was left bleeding from the wound in his leg. Tears of pain and rage needled at his eyelids. That the goat had refused to obey him—had, in fact, bested him in the exchange—was a defeat greater than the man could bring himself to admit. He'd tried to outsmart the goat, but the four-legged creature had proved cannier than him. His only relief was that there had been nobody there to witness his humiliation.

There was only one thing left for him to do: the one-legged man began to hop, slowly, determinedly, down the street. Every hop brought a searing pain into the bite on his leg that travelled up and down the entire length of his thigh, deep into his hip. But still he hopped, biting his lips and frowning hard with the effort of bearing the entire weight of his body on his one remaining leg.

He hopped past Khushboo with her face stuffed into a garbage heap, eating the slops that someone had thrown out the night before. He hopped past the alleyway where the beggar children were being beaten by their mother with a rubber sandal, their screams and her shouts piercing his ears like arrows. He hopped past the body of the drug addict who lay face down on the ground, arms outstretched as if desperately reaching for something in his last moments of life, his pants pulled down to reveal his desiccated buttocks, a final insult to the crowds of people who had cared nothing for his miserable existence, short as it had been, the furthest thing from grace.

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