A bell tinkled over the door of Cape Town Emporium.
"Indeed," the owner said gazing over the top of his glasses. "And you are?"
"Name's Bob Carson. I've got something you might be interested in." He handed him a leathery object.
"Interesting. Where'd you get it?" He put the artifact down and pulled a pipe from his pocket. His hands, bent with arthritis, shook with age. He clenched the pipe in his teeth.
"I won it in a poker game, at that bar across the street. There's this drunk sailor over there, a real chump. He's out of money, but he's got a lot of stuff. Said he got this in Kenya. Looked old, well made, so I took it. Folks at the bar said take it to you. Said you know about old stuff, that you appraise antiques and sometimes buy ancient artifacts. Think it's valuable?"
"Hard to say," he lit his pipe, shook out the match and put it in the ashtray. "It is old. But, everything in Africa is old, including me." He looked up at the man for a smile, but the customer was lost in awe of his shop. Doc turned back to the glove. "The craftsmanship is distinctive like you say, well made, hand sewn of course." He turned the thing over in his hands. "The stitching is familiar. It's typical of the kind of stitch work you see on shrunken heads."
"Yeah. That sailor said he bought it from a shop where they sold those things. I didn't take him seriously."
"You should'a. Heads are quite a novelty down here," he pointed with his pipe to a glass case where rows of miniature faces watched their every move. He was captured by the grisly head collection for a moment. Surely they were rubber.
Doc limped across the shop with the glove to a table.
Framed certificates and diplomas covered the wall, showing degrees in sociology, anthropology and a PhD in Paleontology.
The old man cringed in pain as he sat. How could someone in such wretched condition could live in a place as inhospitable as South Africa. Somehow he just couldn't see the old guy hopping around the continent digging up bones. It appeared to take all his strength just to walk across the room. Doc pulled down a magnifying glass encircled by a fluorescent bulb, flicked it on and glared at the object.
Bob stood on the other side of the table pretending to be fascinated with the doctor's credentials on the wall, but he watched the curator's face carefully through the corner of his eye. It seemed Doc had forgotten he was there. He squinted at the artifact through the glass, talking softly. "She's old all right," he kept muttering. He strained an ear to hear the doctor's mumbling, without showing too much interest.
Doc said, "This thread is similar to catgut, but somehow different, and the leather is different too. Might be . . ."
"Maybe it's jungle cat!" he interrupted.
"Beg pardon?" Doc looked up from the piece, his eyes as big as a jackal's in the magnifying glass.
"Sure! Catgut, from one of them tigers, or something."
"No tigers in Africa," the old man said.
Bob peered at the curator's face through the magnifying glass while he examined the stitched seams. The wrinkles in his skin were as dry riverbeds in the thick glass.
"This hide is strange too, like buckskin, but I don't think it is." Doc slid his glasses down his nose. "Well, Mr. uh . ."
"Carson, Bob Carson. That's my name, Doc. But you can call me Bob. Is it real? I mean is it valuable?"
"This is obviously authentic. It is, no doubt, quality African workmanship. Seems to be very old, hard to say the age exactly without closer examination. The material is some sort of skin. From what animal, again I'm not sure. I would venture to say orangutan, maybe chimpanzee . . ."
"How much will you give me for it?"
"I'm afraid it's not in my budget to purchase artifacts presently. I'm on a government grant, and they keep a pretty tight rein on spending." He handed it back.
"But, what do you think it's worth?" He said taking it.
"In Cape Town? Not much. You might peddle it to tourists up in Cairo, or it might be worth something in the states."
"A hundred bucks and it's yours."
"I'm sorry. I really can't . . ."
"Seventy-five then. Got to be worth seventy-five."
"Again, I apologize. I'm just not purchasing at this time."
"Come on Doc, at least give me the fifty I lost," he handed the glove back to Doc. He took it and slid it onto his hand.
The old man's expression changed. He looked ill. Bob thought, This old geezer is about to have a heart attack. He'll never pay fifty. Maybe he'll give me twenty.
Doc rubbed his chest then quickly spoke. "What did you say?"
Bob stared at him hard. "I said I have to, at least, get the fifty I lost."
"No. I mean after that. Just now."
"Nothing. I didn't say anything, just now." Bob regarded him with suspicion. He pulled off the glove, staggered over to his desk and fell into the chair. Doc tossed the glove onto his desk and opened the drawer. He pulled out a twenty, creased it stiff and held it out between two fingers. Bob looked at the old man and the twenty. Then he reached out and took the bill.
Laughter came from the bar across the street. Now he could take that sailor for everything he had. He slammed Doc's door bell, on the way out.
* * *
Doc Morris sat glaring at the thing on his desk. There was a power here which both excited and frightened him. It was a fine piece of work. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could remember hearing, or reading about a legend that involved just such a talisman. He knew that with enough legwork he could run down information about the legend, probably had some of the data in his own library. Documented proof would put a high price on the find. But, he just didn't have the energy for that kind of research anymore. He limped to the door, flipped over the closed sign and turned off the lights. Doc reached in his pockets for his keys, then dropped them.
Lightning flicked out quick and silent like the tongue of a snake, illuminating his face in the door glass. For an instant he didn't believe his eyes. He hobbled quickly to the bathroom, flipped on the light and stared into the mirror. His mouth fell open just as thunder sounded outside, as if the thunder exploded from his gaping mouth. He walked up to the mirror and touched his reflection hesitantly. He turned his head to the right. He looked normal, but when he turned to the left he did not. Then he stroked his hand across his cheeks. The skin, smooth on the right side, was wrinkled on the left. He turned his head again to see his right profile. The face that stared back at him was twenty years younger than the one he had shaved this morning. As he stroked the smooth side of his face he noticed his hand. He held them both up. The left remained as it had always been, but the right had become someone else's hand. The liver spots were all gone and the skin appeared firm and young.
The glove. It had to be the glove. He quickly went back to his desk and switched on the lamp.
By now the storm had dressed his shop in shadows.
He poked the thing on his desk. His eyes glared beneath raised brows. Although he knew it before he didn't tell Bob. The fabric was not animal skin at all, but human. The thread that stitched the glove together certainly wasn't catgut, nor the gut of any other animal; it too, was loomed of human intestines. He wondered at its origin. He took the glove and slowly pulled it onto his hand.
Again he felt sick to his stomach, then came the sounds. This time the sick feeling passed quickly. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and basked in the beat of the jungle.
He had been in Africa nearly three years, most of that time spent in Cape Town. But, the sounds that filled his head were not of the bustling city outside his shop. They were the wild roars and screams of the Congo.
His right hand strengthened. He clinched his fist. It was becoming the rock hard fist of a young man, perhaps that of a tribal warrior. The strength worked its way up his arm. Afraid to look, he felt his right forearm. The muscles were ridged. The trembling arthritic fingers of his left hand worked upward to his biceps, then up to his right shoulder. They were the shoulder and arm of a lumberjack. His neck was firm and his waddle of chins now only existed on the left side. He was becoming young again. It was wonderful, an old man's dream. He heard people outside. Hell, he heard gambling at the bar across the street, not talking, but their thoughts.
Unfortunately, this Fountain of Youth only worked for half of him. His left side remained old. For an instant he didn't care. Half a young man's body was better than none. He would have one good leg to carry him and one good arm; one hand free of arthritis; one lung that had never smoked, or breathed the poison of the city.
But, what about his heart? He froze. Wasn't most of his heart on the left side? He opened his eyes in terror and yanked off the glove. With his strong arm he ripped open his shirt to stare at his new body. The right side of his chest was dark and strong, like a bodybuilder's chest, but the left side remained old and grey. He could visualize the weak old heart beating inside, only half young. What good was it to be half young?
The glove had to have a mate. Two gloves, there must be two, but where? He would never find it. There were thousands of curio shops in South Africa, hundreds in Cape Town alone. There had to be another way.
He considered the glove. An idea came. It just might work, but it's so simple, too simple. He quickly turned the thing inside out so that the right-handed glove became left-handed. "That's it," he said. "It's gotta work." He took a deep breath and slowly slipped his left hand into it, switched off his lamp, leaned back and closed his eyes.
* * *
He had cleaned the drunk out all right. Everything but the uniform on the sailor's back was now the property of Bob Carson, gambler extraordinaire. Now he sat counting his money at the poker table.
Along with a gold watch, diamond cufflinks, a shrunken head and other exotic booty, he had parlayed the twenty he got for the glove into a cool thousand bucks. On his fingers and hands, he now wore his winnings for luck. Even the blackened head dangled from his neck on a string.
He knew the old guy had offered him the exact amount he had been thinking of. Something had come over Doc after he put on the glove. The old man read his thoughts.
Mind reading, a handy thing playing poker. He had to get it back. Perhaps Doc would sell it back to him. He would gladly pay some sort of bonus for his trouble. Say thirty bucks. Surly he'd go for that. He took his winnings and walked back across the street.
By the time he reached the shop, rain pounded the dirty streets. The sign said closed and the lights were off, but he could see Doc at his desk asleep. He closed his umbrella and tried the door. The bell tinkled, as the old doorknob twisted off in his left hand. He went inside.
"Hey Doc," he shouted. "It's me, Bob Carson. Sorry bout your doorknob. Must of been rusty or something." He put the knob on Doc's desk. "I'd kinda like to get my glove back, if you don't mind. I'll give you thirty bucks. Whatdya say, Doc? Hey! You asleep?" He nudged the old man and quickly drew back his hand. Doc felt strange, slick to the touch. A slippery substance clung to his fingers where he had touched the old guy. He wiped them on his raincoat and switched on the desk lamp. Revulsion rose in his throat as he saw Doc laying there in his chair. His entire body had been reduced to a mass of bloody tissue.
He had heard drunken sailors talk of things like this happening in the Congo. Supposedly, there were still places deep in the African bush where primitive tribes existed, such as the Ikengas. He had heard stories -around the poker table- of tourists being skinned alive while on safari, but never here. Never in Cape Town.
Thunder crashed outside and he jumped, as if he had been shot. For a second he thought he heard something in the distance. It was louder this time. He held his breath and listened. Birds. Sounded like birds, exotic birds, animal sounds, like . . . Like the jungle. Much louder than before, they were clearly jungle sounds.
Then (like he thought he'd heard before at the poker table) there were drums. At first he considered it might be the thunderstorm that pressed in around the shop, but that thrum-thrum beat. Unmistakable! Drums all right, African drums. He glanced back down at the oozing corpse. The sounds came from Doc's glove. It frightened him, but he had to have it back.
Never had he known such a night at the tables. He couldn't lose. He'd never fall for another gambler's bluff if he could just get that glove, but the thought of pulling it off that bloody stump of an arm made him sick. And even if he did get it off, what might be the price, for mind reading?
He pushed the magnifying desk lamp over to get a better look at the thing on Doc's right hand. It looked different somehow. Then he knew what was wrong with him. He hadn't just been skinned. His heart and lungs protruded from his chest and his intestines were in his lap. Like the glove on his right hand, Doc was inside out.
He gagged, vomited, and pulled the ancient glove's mate from his own left hand, then tossed it on the desk. Doc could keep them both. What fun was it to play poker if you never lose?
Leaving, the annoying bell tinkled for the last time. He plucked the jingling bastard from the door and rolled it into a small brass ball in the palm of his monstrous left hand. He pitched it into the muddy streets and walked back to the bar.
Maybe he could arm wrestle the barkeep for drinks. He was left handed.
back to the Short Story Page.Gloved, 11 June 1997