Our tails shocked us at first. They had grown without warning, without any telling pain or bulge at the base of our spines. We got out of our respective beds on Tuesday morning, each of us recognizing in our early morning haze that something wasn’t quite right. When Martin Dixon saw the pink, pointed tail snaking its way out from the back of his wife’s nightgown, he jumped out of bed, tripping backward against the wall. He would have fallen to the ground, but the tail protruding from his own body caught onto the bedpost and steadied him.
At the Sandberg home, Ann Sandberg saw the tail extending from the base of her spine as she undressed to shower, and gasped. She put on a roomy dress and went to gather up her three children. She found them awake already, the oldest one hanging from the top bunk by a tail of his own, the youngest one running in tight circles trying to get a better look at the new growth’s source, and the middle child sitting against the wall looking concerned. She told them to get dressed, that they were going to see the doctor.
The situation was similar in most of our homes. We assumed, naturally, that the phenomenon was limited to ourselves and our families. We wondered at first how the neighbors would react, if our children would survive the teasing, if we would keep our jobs. And then we ventured outside. By seven-thirty, a large group of us had gathered outside the office of Dr. Fredrickson, the town’s physician and a noted early bird. We were unsure of how to acknowledge the tails of our neighbors as we waited for the doctor to step outside his office and make a pronouncement. They were long, pink, and rodentine, coated with a thin layer of fine, pale hair. We could feel new muscles contracting and relaxing as they moved. Their presence forced us to readjust our sense of personal space, and as we moved our bodies to talk to one another, there were many mumbled apologies for tails bumping faces, hands bumping tails, tails bumping tails.
A little after eight, the door opened and out stepped Dr. Fredrickson, mug of licorice tea in his hand, tail held arched behind him. He took a sip of his tea and looked out at us from the top of the steps that led to his office door.
“Well,” said Charlie Harris, “what’s happened to us?”
Dr. Fredrickson grasped the mug with his tail and used his free hands to polish his glasses with the end of his tie. We waited. He put his glasses back on and transferred the mug from his tail back to his hand. He cleared his throat.
“We’ve grown tails,” he said.
With that, we erupted in angry chatter.
“I could have told you that,” someone yelled.
“We came here for help,” yelled someone else.
Dr. Fredrickson lifted his arm and we all fell silent.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m not sure why this has happened. I’ve taken a sample from my own tail and I’m running some tests. I’ll let you know what I find.”
He looked out over our faces.
“On the bright side,” he said, “they do seem to be prehensile.”
And with that he left us to ourselves, stepping back through the door of his office, his tail waving a flippant goodbye.
We began an impromptu town meeting. We debated declaring a town health emergency. But several people pointed out that we all felt fine, except for those of us who never felt fine, like Ray Billings (ulcers), Dorothy Hanks (arthritis), and Peter Scott (kidney stones). We were still fully functional after all. We could still drive our cars and talk on our phones and cook our meals and sit at our desks. Sitting, we would later find, was even more comfortable than before with our tails wrapped around a chair leg for added support.
“But we have tails,” someone yelled. “How did this happen?”
For that, we would have to wait for Dr. Fredrickson’s test results. But we could conduct some preliminary investigations of our own. We tried to pinpoint exactly when it had happened, conducting informal surveys to find out when we had each fallen asleep the night before and when they had woken up this morning. No one had been awake when it happened. Joe Cartwright, our town sheriff, was the last of us to fall asleep — sometime around three a.m., he said. Joe was a notable insomniac, so we didn’t ask what he was doing up so late and he didn’t offer any details. Of the early risers, the earliest was Henry Sparks, who grew up on a farm and had woken up this morning at a quarter to four to find the tip of his newly grown tail resting against his face like a stranger’s hand. We checked and double checked and found that nobody had been awake in that window of time between three a.m. and a quarter to four. Tony Silva, who had some medic training from his time in the military, said that forty-five minutes wasn’t nearly enough time for our bodies to produce an appendage so sophisticated. Wendy Heller said whatever these were, they weren’t natural. Coach Burke said that maybe they didn’t all grow at the same time. Molly Cartwright said she didn’t care how or when they got there, she wanted to know what we were going to do about them. Our meeting degenerated into loud speculations and incredulous asides to the people standing next to us. We talked louder to regain our sense of control. Whose fault were these tails and what were we going to do about it? Miranda King, who wrote commercials for local businesses yelled, Listen, and then waited for everyone to look at her.
“The way I see it,” she said, “everything is the same except we have tails. So we cut holes in our pants and we deal with it.”
She had a point. Although many of us could feel in our gut that she was missing something, we wanted to believe what she said. Several of us echoed her sentiments, pointing out that there wasn’t much we could do about these tails, at least not for now. The sun was fully above the horizon. We should have been at work by now, settling in at our desks, or out running errands, or cleaning the house. And would our tails keep us from doing any of those things? Certainly not. We were agreed. We dispersed to go about our daily business.
Although we all respected Dr. Fredrickson, he was a man we were also wary of. We knew next to nothing about his personal life, a fact which seemed unfair considering how well he knew each of our bodies from the countless examinations, checkups, and minor procedures he had performed. As he probed us with his otoscope or read our heartbeats with the chilly-rimmed drum of his stethoscope, we followed his instructions implicitly. Lift your arm, he said, and we lifted our arm. Breathe in for me, he said, and we breathed in for him. Then he would move stealthily from the medical to the social, tapping our knees with his tiny rubber hammer and asking about our children, our neighbors, our wives and our husbands. How are things at home, he asked, and we told him. We answered him in specifics, but when we countered with questions of our own, he responded with muttered generalities before distracting us with new diagnostic tasks — open your mouth, or follow my finger with your eyes. He held the secrets of our town in his delicately gloved hands, and offered us our good health in exchange.
Away from the isolation of his exam room, we felt bolder, and when we were together, we speculated wildly about the doctor’s private life. For one thing, he was a middle-aged man who lived alone, who, as far as we knew, had always lived alone. He was not unattractive and not without money. A few of us saw him once at dinner with a thin, elegant woman who laughed at the things he said and wasn’t afraid to ask him questions. We later learned she was his sister visiting from another state. When we heard this, the few of us who had seen her could recall a certain resemblance, a familiar way of leaning forward and nodding as she listened to the things he said.
We also wanted to know what he did with his money. He did brisk business, and we all knew what he charged for his services — fair, but certainly not cheap. He lived in a house that was on the modest size of average. He rode a bicycle to work every day. He owned an old car that he only took out of the garage for the weeklong trip he took every August. We didn’t know where he went, and of course he didn’t tell us.
So when we all sprouted tails overnight, it somehow didn’t surprise us that Dr. Fredrickson seemed so unfazed by the whole thing. The man had secrets and that gave him a kind of power that we all mistrusted.
Over the next several hours we began to learn to manage our tails. The younger children adapted the most quickly. During recess they climbed all over the playground equipment, swinging around like little acrobatic savants. They skipped rope on their own tails, or standing back to back, linked tails to form a longer rope that two could jump in at once. The boys found one more thing to hit each other with to be a terrific asset, and the girls who were always playing with each other’s hair found that with an additional prehensile appendage, they could now weave more intricate braids than they had ever made before.
The older children and teenagers were mortified by their tails. That first day, so many of them resisted going to school. We told them that all of their friends had tails too, that it would be okay, but they refused to believe us. When we finally forced them through the doors of the high school, they were tentative with each other, not sure whether to be on the offensive or defensive about their new tails. Classes began, and in that familiar structure, they began to relax. They talked to each other about it, saying all the fuss about tails was stupid, that everyone should just get over it, what was the big deal anyway? By lunchtime, the boys were joking in their anxious, masculine way — you know what they say about guys with long tails, they said to each other, laughing, the same joke soon cropping up within every stratum of the male population.
At work or around town, we politely ignored one another’s tails. We found ourselves clumsy again, self-conscious like adolescents at their first dance. Should we try to hold our tails still, or let them move as they would naturally? How much distance should we give one another in elevators? How do we keep from knocking everything off our desks every time we turn around? Was handing someone something with our tail taboo or just a good, common-sense practice?
As we chatted about the price of vegetables or the new chain restaurant that was rumored to be coming soon to our town, we maintained strict eye contact, not looking away from each other’s faces. But the tails were perversely mesmerizing in our periphery. They flicked back and forth behind us like fluid pink metronomes, and in public we refused to acknowledge them after that morning’s gathering. Behind closed doors, however, we fixated on them.
Lindsay and Eric Wood sat at dinner that evening, their tails tucked beneath the seats of their chairs. Lindsay dished up a serving of lasagna and said she didn’t think she could eat if there were a tail in her line of sight. Eric said he guessed they’d have to get used to them sooner or later. Lindsay said she hoped not. Eric took a bite of his lasagna. The tip of his tail tapped against the hardwood floor. Lindsay looked at his motionless fingers and then saw where the sound was coming from.
“Stop that,” she said, and Eric stopped.
He said it could be worse, and Lindsay said that was true. He said some towns get bombed, or leveled by earthquakes, or flattened by waves from the ocean. He said tails weren’t so bad, really. Lindsay said that was a fair point, but still. She took a bite of her lasagna. She picked up her napkin and wiped the corners of her mouth. When she saw that she held the napkin with the tip of her tail, she started to cry.
Downtown, James V. Monroe, one of two lawyers in town, spent the day concocting theories about how or why the tails had appeared. Exposure to radioactive materials. Inbreeding. Chemicals in the water supply. Divine punishment. He bounced each new theory off Ray Billings, the accountant who shared his office space, who pointed out the gaping holes in the logic of each one. James asked what it could be if it was none of those things. His tail ticked back and forth. Ray said he didn’t know. He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of antacids. He shook a few into his palm and popped them into his mouth. He offered the bottle to James, who shook his head. Ray put the bottle back in his drawer.
“You have to have a theory,” said James.
Ray used his tail to push himself back from his desk. He chewed the antacid tablets and swallowed. He said what he wanted to know was how he was supposed to sleep at night. He hated sleeping on his side and absolutely couldn’t sleep on his stomach.
“I’ve always slept on my back,” he said, “but now — ”
He gestured at his tail and sighed. James said he lacked imagination and walked back to his own office to try and figure things out.
After picking her kids up from school, Mrs. Parker, whose husband had left her the week before, called her sister who lived on the other side of town. They were close to begin with and had been talking twice a day since Mr. Parker left. Mrs. Parker dialed her sister’s number. She sat down on the couch, receiver to her ear. From the other room came the sound of her son racing matchbox cars across the kitchen linoleum, and her daughter singing a song about ducks in a pond. Her sister answered and asked her how she was doing. She said fine. Her sister asked if she had heard from Mr. Parker. She shook her head and said no. She had seen her mother-in-law at the post office earlier in the afternoon, but neither of them had spoken to each other. Her sister asked if it was so awkward. Mrs. Parker switched the phone to her other ear. She said that what with people being so preoccupied with their tails, any social awkwardness just blended in. Her sister said she was so sorry about everything. Mrs. Parker heard a squeal from the other room followed by the sound of her son’s laughter.
“Hang on a second,” she said to her sister.
She found her son dragging her daughter by the tail around and around the kitchen floor.
“Stop that,” she said.
She told him to set his sister down. He did. She told him to apologize. He did. She told him to stand facing the wall and think about why what he did was wrong. Mrs. Parker picked up her sniffling daughter and went back to the living room, her son facing the kitchen wall. She picked up the receiver from where she had left it and leaned against the arm of the couch.
“Sorry,” she said into the phone. Her daughter wrapped her tail around Mrs. Parker’s torso, hugging her with all of her limbs.
We all slept uneasily that night, unsure of what the next morning might bring. If it was tails today, what would it be tomorrow? We found ourselves waking in the darkness and examining our bodies in bathroom mirrors, looking for unexpected changes before returning to bed and fitful sleep. By the next morning nothing had changed. The tails remained and the only new growth was the sleep in our eyes and the stubble on the faces of the men. We showered, dressed, ate breakfast and went about our daily routines. By late morning, Dr. Fredrickson’s tests were complete and word began to circulate. The tails were benign growths, he said, although simply calling them growths was an understatement. X-rays and other tests suggested a complex physiology — bones, muscles, veins, and nerves. They appeared to offer no threat to the rest of our bodies, so unless we began experiencing adverse symptoms, we should leave them alone. We were relieved but unsatisfied, and our dissatisfaction turned on Dr. Fredrickson.
He was smug and distant and mysterious. There was talk of checking his credentials, but we all knew that his credentials were perfectly sound. The man was a competent doctor — better than competent, in fact. Many of us could remember instances of minor medical brilliance he had performed on our various wounds and maladies. He was a sharp diagnostician, good with his hands, and had an easy, joking bedside manner. Now, all of those things made us distrust him all the more. As a doctor, we could respect him. As a man, a member of our community, we weren’t sure what to do with him.
Over the following weeks, we began to talk about our tails in public. Dr. Fredrickson’s forthrightness, or lack thereof, remained a pressing subject. Coach Burke, who had led our high school-aged children through rope climbs, pushups, and lap running before retiring amidst rumors of improper behavior with students, said there was something not right about Dr. Fredrickson. He said that up to this point he had been willing to overlook it because the man was a fine physician — had worked wonders on many an athletic injury. But now — he pointed to his tail, to all of our tails — he’d failed us. Many of us agreed. If he couldn’t do something about what had happened to us, let alone explain it, maybe he wasn’t such a great doctor after all.
Not everyone shared this sentiment. Some of us were still of the Miranda King school of thought, that our tails hadn’t significantly changed our identities. We were still the same people with the same jobs and the same friends and the same tired opinions — our children needed to be better prepared by the public schools, our streets had too many potholes, the town was making too many laws, our fire department was poorly equipped, our lawns weren’t neat enough, we didn’t have enough vacation time.
Many of us disagreed. Something about our lives felt different, aside from the tails. It was something we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but it was there. We hadn’t had tails before, so why should we now? They were ungainly and vaguely repulsive. Some couples now found physical intimacy unappealing, their partners’ naked bodies too grotesque with the addition of a tail. Furthermore, some of us claimed to have seen things happening at night in the dark pockets of town — people with tails doing things that people without tails just wouldn’t do. Naysayers claimed the alleged incidents were greatly exaggerated, if not invented outright, the product of hysterical minds. But those of us who saw it knew what we had seen.
We continued to hold Dr. Fredrickson responsible for the lack of action being taken in relation to these new growths. Whenever we saw him at his office or around town, we told him he needed to do something about them, or find somebody who would. He said many people in the community were fine with their tails. We told him he could change that.
“You’re an influential citizen,” we said. “You could get things done.”
He told us that in his years as a doctor, he’d come to respect the natural processes of the body, and that if our tails weren’t harming us, there was probably some use to them, something we could gain. We told him that was just the problem. Our tails were harming us, and he was being deliberately myopic about the whole situation. He asked us to please explain how our tails were harming us. We told him that people just don’t have tails, to which he shrugged his shoulders and said that his original point still stood. We had this same conversation with him, or some variation of it, multiple times a week, but he refused to budge.
No matter what our general position on the tail issue, we were observant as always of one another’s behavior. Any break in form or breach of protocol was noted, circulated, and informally debated.
One day Mrs. Parker showed up downtown with thick purple bruises wrapped around her neck. We wondered what happened, although we had our suspicions. We were informed of the details by Megan Allred, who lived across the street from the Parkers. She said Mrs. Parker had tried to hang herself the Tuesday before. She had fixed dinner for the kids and told them not to go out into the garage no matter what, and when they were done eating, they needed to call their grandma. She went out into the garage. We heard she tried to do it with her tail, climbing a stepladder, arching her tail up over one of the ceiling beams and wrapping it around her neck. Then she kicked the ladder out from under herself. When she lost consciousness, her tail relaxed its grip and she fell to the ground where her children found her a few minutes later, badly injured and too weak to move. Dr. Fredrickson had arrived in minutes and treated the injuries.
When we saw her downtown we asked her how she was doing and she said fine. She didn’t even try to cover the bruises — no scarf, no makeup. There was talk of intervention by the city on behalf of the children. We understood that she had been through a lot, but what kind of mother would do that to her children? Some of us cautioned against hasty judgments, but the rest of us said we weren’t being judgmental, that we were looking out for the best interest of those kids. She was unfit as a mother, at least for the time being. We debated it for weeks.
The Mrs. Parker issue was pushed to the side one Monday morning when Charlie Harris was found unconscious in the loading area back behind the grocery store. He was wearing someone else’s clothes and couldn’t account for how he had spent the previous two days. It was clear to us that he had fallen off the wagon again, and we couldn’t say we were surprised. Rick Kozlov, his boss at the bank, told him to take the week off to pull himself together. We saw his wife Karen around town looking tired, her tail tensed behind her.
Some of us wondered why she put up with it. She was a saint, we said. Some of us said that the one to really feel sorry for was Charlie. The man couldn’t help himself and on his better days, which was most days — nearly all days, in fact — it was hard to find a more decent guy than Charlie Harris. It was tough for both of them, we concluded, and what could we do?
We knew Dr. Fredrickson would be involved in both cases, helping Charlie Harris to recover and keeping an eye on Mrs. Parker. We knew he would learn things from them that we would never know. When we thought of it, some of us came to admire the distance he kept from the social circles of the town. To be a receptacle for the intimate mysteries of so many people, that kind of priestly detachment seemed fitting, necessary even. Those of us who already distrusted Dr. Fredrickson saw it as one more reason to resent the man. If he knew so much about the inner workings of our town, he should act like he was more invested in what went on.
For most of us, time passed unremarkably. Veronica Abel, who owned the stationary and copy shop on Vine Street, took up painting. Every weekend she gathered her pad of art-grade paper, brushes, tray, and watercolors and headed off to the woods outside of town. She painted underwater rocks and the bark of trees and the shapes of clouds. Every Monday there would be a new addition to the collection of unframed paintings that hung above the massive copy machine in her store. We told her we liked the paintings, that she had real talent.
One time, Henry Sparks came into the store and asked her if the paintings were for sale. He said he would like to buy the one of trees reflected in the water. The tip of his tail wrote S’s in the air behind him as he talked. Veronica told him she was flattered, but they weren’t for sale. The truth was, she would have given away any of her paintings to just about anyone in town except Henry Sparks. She told us that he made her uncomfortable, and the thought of something she had created hanging in his house made her even more uncomfortable. He said he liked the painting a lot and was willing to be persistent if he needed to. She said they really weren’t for sale, that they meant too much to her, and she stood there at the counter with her strained smile until he left.
Ray Billings found his tail kept him up at night, even more so than his ulcers. He slept four, maybe five hours a night. He told James V. Monroe that he worried he was entering old manhood several years too early. He said his grandfather on his mother’s side barely slept at all when Ray knew him. A couple of hours a night, if that. Ray said he remembered him sitting in his favorite chair with a glass of club soda, watching the wall like it was a TV as everyone else went to bed. He always told them he didn’t have much time left and didn’t want to waste any of it sleeping. He had lived fifteen years after that.
Ray said he worried he would be able to sleep less and less, until he transformed completely into his grandfather, possibly lucid but with a glazed expression of exhaustion on his face at all times.
Dorothy Hanks, who worked in Dr. Fredrickson’s office and had once given us our juiciest bit of gossip about the man (an overheard phone conversation with a woman named Peggy or Debbie that had ended in shouting) found a stray kitten on her back porch. She said it had been lying on its side nearly dead, its breathing shallow and its body almost chilly. She told us that she had brought it inside and fashioned an incubator from an old lamp and a shoebox, warmed up some milk, and revived the poor thing. Dorothy was a well-preserved woman in her sixties who sent Christmas cards to nearly everybody and kept her hair dyed a vibrant red that most of us found endearing.
She said she hadn’t decided what to name the kitten, but she was keeping it for sure, regardless of her husband’s supposed cat allergies. Dorothy’s husband was significantly older than she was, mostly blind, functionally deaf, and depending on whom you believed, nearly a hundred years old. He had once said of Dorothy at a town function that he knew she wasn’t much to look at, but she sure kept the house clean.
When she told us about the cat, we were glad she had found something nice to keep her company at home, and told her we looked forward to hearing what she would name it.
As the months went by, even those of us who were dedicated to doing something about our tails began to relax, to forget a little. Thoughts of our tails receded to the back of our minds. There was still the occasional rally or neighborhood watch meeting or strongly-worded letter to Dr. Fredrickson, but all in all we didn’t think about our tails much more than we thought about our legs or our noses. We bought groceries and complained about our bosses and said things at parties that we later regretted. We planted flowers and cooked from recipes we found in magazines. We went to little league games. We remodeled our houses. We argued with family members. We immersed ourselves in the mundane.
We were soon jarred from our complacency.
Brenda Keyser insisted on giving birth to her baby at home. It was the first to be born since our tails appeared. Dr. Fredrickson attended with Dorothy Hanks in tow to help out. After the baby was delivered, Dorothy cleaned her up, wrapped her in a blanket, and brought her to her parents. Brenda held her in her arms. The baby squirmed, its tail wriggling free of the blanket.
“She has a tail,” said Frank, Brenda’s husband.
“So do you,” said Dr. Fredrickson, replacing his medical instruments in their small, black bag.
It shouldn’t have been as novel as it was — we had been living with them for months by that point — but we were all fascinated by this newborn with its soft, delicate tail. We flocked to see the baby, even those of us who weren’t particularly close to the Keysers. The sight of the baby was shocking; the long, pink tail seemed like such a natural extension of her tiny, pink body. She looked like a new kind of creature, inhuman almost. Some of us said that all new babies look a bit inhuman, a bit alien. All things considered, though, the Keyser baby was unnerving.
Around the same time, we had our first post-tail funeral. Gordon Taylor, who was in his late eighties and had heart problems, was found dead in his bedroom rocking chair by his daughter-in-law, Rachel. Dr. Fredrickson was called, and based on his examination it was concluded that Gordon had died in his sleep of a heart attack. Bill McDonald, the town mortician and deputy mayor, came by with his van to pick the body up. With the help of Jack Taylor, Gordon’s only son and Rachel’s husband, Bill loaded the body onto a collapsible metal cart. They wheeled the cart outside to the curb. They stopped at the back of the van and Bill opened it up.
“What do you want me to do with the tail?” Bill asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Rachel.
Jack and Bill hoisted the cart with the body on it into the back of the van.
Bill said, “Well, we could tuck it under him in the casket so nobody could see it. Or remove it completely. Or display it, I suppose.”
Bill secured the cart and jumped down from the back of the van, closing the doors behind him.
Do we have to decide now?” said Jack.
Bill shook his head. He said, “Let me know by the end of the day.”
Jack and Rachel started cleaning up the house and going through Gordon’s things immediately, sorting out what to save and what to donate to charity. Rachel dumped an armload of sweaters into the charity pile and said she thought they should just cut it off. Jack shook his head. He held a washrag in his tail and a bottle of window cleaner in his hand. He said he didn’t want Bill McDonald messing with dad more than was absolutely necessary.
“We could have him hide it under the body,” said Rachel.
Jack said his father was never ashamed of that tail while he was alive, so he couldn’t see any reason why they should hide it. He got on the phone with Bill McDonald and told him not to cut off the tail, not to hide it, to let everyone see it and make it look nice.
At the viewing, we found it hard to look at Gordon Taylor’s body. Inside the casket, his tail ran around the bottom half of his body like a fleshy wreath. It seemed so much more monstrous than our own tails — living, moving things that didn’t have that permanent weight of death. We all said that Bill had done a good job, that Gordon looked so natural. We wouldn’t discuss what we really thought until afterward, when the body was no longer in the room. Even Jack looked disconcerted every time he glanced into the casket at the body of his father. We heard that after the viewing, Jack came up to Bill and told him to do something about that tail before the funeral the next day.
Many of us, without realizing it, had been thinking of our tails as something that would disappear one day just as suddenly as they had appeared. The birth of the Keyser baby and the death of Gordon Taylor made a compelling argument to all of us that our tails weren’t going anywhere, that they would follow us to our graves and into our coming generations of children. Soon, nobody championed the sentiment that our tails were a benign presence not to be worried about. We all recognized that something needed to be done.
Dr. Fredrickson, however, remained immobile on the issue. He said removing the tails would be too complicated — they were too closely connected to the spine, too unfamiliar. We told him he had a perfect opportunity in the form of Gordon Taylor. We were sure his family would grant Dr. Fredrickson permission to study his tail for the sake of the rest of us. Dr. Fredrickson said we were missing the point. He said it wasn’t an operation he could perform in good conscience — the risks far outweighed any possible benefits. We said that we would be stuck with these tails for the rest of our lives if he didn’t do something about them. He said he had come to accept the presence of his tail and suggested that we all learn to do the same. He said he still believed that we had these tails for a reason. We said he was a doctor — he had taken an oath to help people. He said that was exactly what he was doing.
We decided to do something about it. We got Miranda King, formerly so adamant about the unimportance of our tails, but now just as staunchly opposed to them, to write up a document stating that we believed these tails to be detrimental to our quality of life, that Dr. Fredrickson was capable of doing more about the tails than he currently was; we demanded that he be more forthcoming with us about what he knew, and that he be more proactive in finding a solution. We attached a petition and got everyone — everyone — in town to sign it.
We caught him on his way home from work, wheeling his bicycle from around the back of his office building. There was a good-sized crowd of us.
“What’s the occasion?” he asked.
Miranda King handed him the document with the pages of attached signatures. We watched his eyes as they scanned over the words we had written. He finished reading. He flipped through the signatures. He looked up at us. The corners of his eyes were wrinkled in either a grimace or a smirk.
He said, “I appreciate the effort, but I’m not an elected official. I’m a doctor and I’ll do what I think is best.”
He handed the document with its pages and pages of signatures back to Miranda. He got onto his bike and pedaled off in the direction of his house.
That winter was the coldest and driest on town record. Without the mitigating charm of snow, we discovered that the season grew stale in a matter of weeks. The temperature dropped and dropped. We stayed inside and kept to ourselves. On the rare occasions that we did venture out of the house, we found our tails impossible to keep warm. We wrapped them in scarves or tucked them into our coats, but they invariably came loose, stinging as they touched the freezing outside air. It was one more cause for disgruntlement, for the festering bitterness that became the mark of the season. By Christmastime, none of us could muster the adequate merriment to brave the brutal cold and gather as a town. We celebrated isolated, halfhearted Christmases and then braced ourselves for January.
We went to bed angry every night and woke up angrier every morning. We snapped at cashiers and glowered at our neighbors. It got colder and colder until one week in February it was deemed too cold to hold school, too cold for people to go into work. Everything would be shut down until further notice. Not even our children were excited by the prospect of cancelled school. We all recognized it as the forced confinement it was.
Walter and Alex Larson spent their shut-in time drinking. They lived out on the edge of town, practically in the woods. Walter did odd jobs for people and Alex, his son, was a senior in high school. We knew them best for their prodigious drinking and their skill as hunters, in that order. During deer season, wealthy members of the community paid Walter and Alex to be their hunting guides, knowing this practically guaranteed that they would bring home an impressive deer they could be proud of. When it wasn’t hunting season, and even when it was, Walter and Alex spent their evenings drinking together. By the time he was a senior, Alex could just about drink his father under the table. We knew that Walter was a drunk and Alex was a drunk-in-training, but they were both reliable when they needed to be, Walter always finishing his odd jobs on time and with fine craftsmanship, and Alex pulling passing grades in school, so we saw no need to intervene.
With school and work cancelled, the two of them had no excuse to sober up, so they drank all day, slept, and then drank some more. Things had been rough for them lately — the odd jobs fewer and farther between. They had dug into what little reserve fund they had and were now just about flat broke. Even hunting had yielded nothing for them lately. They had been drinking for three days straight when they decided that the source of all their problems were these tails. They sat at the scarred wooden table in their small, two-room house, a collection of bottles lined up in front of them. Walter said if it weren’t for these tails, everyone would be happier, more eager to go hunting, or more willing to look for work Walter could do on their houses or yards. He took a drink.
Alex said if that doctor in town wasn’t willing to do anything about their tails, he was. He said, how hard could they be to get rid of? He said people had been amputating things for hundreds of years. He took a swig from the bottle and handed it to Walter. The fire in their old metal stove crackled and popped, and the wind came in through the lining of the window. He said, here’s what we do. They would get their sharpest hunting knife, the one they used for field dressing deer, the one that could practically cut through bone. They’d apply a tourniquet to the base of the tail, cut it off real quick, and then cauterize the wound with a hot iron from the fire.
Alex opened a new bottle and held it in his hand. He stared at the wall. Walter said if he wasn’t going to take a drink to give it here. Alex handed him the bottle. He took a long drink. He handed the bottle back to Alex and said that it would work. Alex said, what, and Walter said he’d go get the knife. Alex said he didn’t mean now, and Walter asked why not.
They agreed that Alex would go first. Walter was the more skilled with the knife, and after performing the amputation, he could walk Alex through the process when it was his turn to cut. Walter unsheathed the knife and told Alex to drop his pants. He said he’d go as quickly as possible — it should just sting a little. His hands were steady, even when he was drunk. Alex lay face-down on the table, his pants around his knees. He took a drink from the bottle and handed it to Walter. Wind whistled in through the cracks in the house. Walter sterilized the knife and stepped up to the table. He gripped the tail with his left hand, and cut.
By the time Dr. Fredrickson got there, Alex was dead — covered in blood, tail half cut off, burn marks all over his lower back. They had forgotten a tourniquet, and once Walter had hit the artery it was a lost cause. Dr. Fredrickson perfunctorily checked the boy for a pulse. Walter sat next to the table in one of the wooden chairs. His shirt and arms were covered in blood. He had burn marks on his hands.
Dr. Fredrickson said, “How long did you let him bleed before you decided to call me?”
Walter said nothing. His hands shook and his lips moved slightly, open and then closed. Dr. Fredrickson stood there looking at him. The fire in the stove had just about gone out and the room had the chilly feel of a meat locker.
Dr. Fredrickson said, “You stupid, drunk idiot,” and hit Walter hard across the face with the back of his hand. Walter didn’t move and he hit him again. He said, “You stupid, stupid idiot,” and then wiped up the blood that trickled from Walter’s mouth. He found the phone and called Sheriff Cartwright and told him to get over here and bring Bill McDonald’s van. Then he walked out the door, leaving the boy dead on the table and Walter motionless in the chair.
Joe Cartwright kept Walter in the jail cell of the sheriff’s office for a few days while he decided what to do. A funeral was held for the boy, which was sparsely attended. It was still so cold out, and a sticky situation, so we stayed in our homes and wondered what would happen. Joe talked the matter over with Martin Dixon, his deputy sheriff, and they came to the agreement that Walter had suffered enough. They opened the door to the cell one morning and told Walter to get out. We were glad they did. Although we all knew that Walter was in the wrong, we also knew that the only person he was a danger to at this point was himself. A trial would be messy and unnecessary, and we weren’t sure what it would accomplish. We heard that Dr. Fredrickson took issue with their decision, haranguing Joe on the phone, saying that if people could have seen that boy. We also heard about how he had hit Walter, repeatedly, and while we couldn’t say that Walter hadn’t deserved it, we still resented the doctor for being the one to do it.
About a week later, the temperature rose enough for it to be safe to go out again. We sent our kids back to school and we went back into work. The time off hadn’t improved our state of mind. When Dr. Fredrickson didn’t show up to his office that day, none of us was surprised. Even if he had, we doubted if anyone would have gone in to see him. We no longer trusted him with our health or our bodies. We couldn’t comprehend what his priorities might be, what drove him to act the way that he acted. We just knew he didn’t have our best interests in mind.
He didn’t show up the next day or the day after that. Dorothy Hanks said that maybe we ought to send somebody by the house and make sure he was doing okay. We said it was more than he would do for any of us. She said it would be the neighborly thing to do, so we sent Sheriff Cartwright over to take a look.
He rang the doorbell at the doctor’s house and nobody answered. It was still cold out and the sheriff adjusted one of the long scarves wrapped around his tail, trying to cover the bare skin against the winter air. He rang the doorbell again, and knocked, and nobody came to the door. He went around to the garage where he found an empty crate to stand on, and looked in the window. The doctor’s car was gone. The sheriff went around back and found the patio door open. He let himself in.
He called, “Hey, Dr. Fredrickson.”
There was no response. He took off his gloves and unwrapped his tail. He went from room to room, inspecting. Later, we asked him what the house was like. He said it had the same floor plan as several houses in the neighborhood. It was sparsely decorated and tidy. The furniture was old but in good condition. He said that in one room there were shelves and shelves of books, medical and otherwise. There were still dishes in the kitchen cupboards, some food in the pantry. The doctor’s bedroom closet and chest of drawers were both mostly empty. He said it looked like Fredrickson had left in a hurry. He said he had a feeling that the doctor wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.
For a few weeks there was some halfhearted talk of finding where he had gone to and giving him one final piece of our mind, but the talk came to nothing. We accepted his departure and moved on. We were as uncurious about what happened to Dr. Fredrickson as he had been about our tails.
We nominated Tony Silva as the most medically competent member of our town and installed him in Dr. Fredrickson’s office. He insisted that he wasn’t qualified to practice medicine, that the training he had received in the military was minimal, that he had no field experience. We told him he had our confidence. We gave him all of Dr. Fredrickson’s books. We exhumed the bodies of Alex Larson and Gordon Taylor and obtained signed releases from their respective families giving Tony permission to study the tails of the deceased. We told him to let us know if he needed anything else, and we let him get to work. We imagined a time in the not-too-distant future when our tails might be gone.
Spring was near. We placed great hope in the upcoming warm weather. We were certain that a little sunshine would go a long way in boosting town morale. We resolved to plant gardens and form neighborhood baseball leagues. We would go on picnics and re-shingle our roofs; mow our lawns and go for walks in the forests outside of town.
Spring came and our spirits remained unlifted. If anything, they sunk further. We couldn’t remember ever being this miserable in the time before our tails. We stayed indoors. We sat on our couches and yelled at our children and sniped about the incompetence of our neighbors. Wendy Heller’s dog attacked Ann Sandberg’s young son one morning when he was out playing, and when confronted, Wendy said it wasn’t her problem. Ann said it would be, and Wendy told her to grow up. Dave and Isaac Lewis, normally inseparable, revived a long-buried argument about which of them was more responsible for the car accident that killed their sister when they were all in high school. One night as they were cleaning up after dinner, Peter and Mary Scott got into a heated argument over how to discipline their son who was failing all his classes. It escalated from disagreement, to name calling, to Mary shoving Peter hard in the chest. He shoved her back and she fell against the wall. When she came at him again, he hit her in the face and then hit her again and shoved her and hit her until she stayed down, bleeding, her tail trembling.
We find it hard to look in the mirror. Our tails bother us even more now than they did before. We think about them and talk about them and dream about them. We try to remember what it was like before, how unencumbered we used to be. We find ourselves unable to ignore this unnatural weight at the base of our spines.
Tony Silva tells us that the structure of the tails is incredibly complex. We tell him that if the tools Doctor Fredrickson left behind aren’t adequate, we’ll make better ones for him. He says it’s not a question of tools — the tails are complicated, and the doctor’s books are difficult to understand. We say we’ll be patient. He says he doesn’t want us to get our hopes up. We tell him to keep at it. We see the lights kept on at the doctor’s office into the small hours of the morning, and think of Tony working away inside. When we see him during the day, his eyes bloodshot and baggy, we tell him that we have every confidence in him. We tell each other that Tony is a bright young man, that if anyone can do something about our tails, it’s him. We watch the lights in the doctor’s office and we wait.