Fiction by Dustin M. Hoffman
Father huffs gnarled German-English into the boy’s ear. “I will teach you der Knoten,” he says. His hands curl and kink like vulture talons. He loops lengths of rope with corpse grip. The boy gazes above Father’s brutal knuckles, where airplanes lace smoke across the red dusk. Crisp white airplanes so much better than his bobbing, mildewed boat hull.
“Watch now,” Father says. “The test will follow.” Father lashes cord in a fury, despite his Dupuytren’s contracture. Some bull scheisse disease, his father always says, will never slow him. His pinkie is latched to palm, middle and ring twisted, doubled-over defeated thumb. These fingers will never straighten from the claw, but that is fine for knot tying. A utilitarian crippling.
“This we call the Sheepshank,” Father says. “Now the Turk’s Kopf.” And the boy ponders names to give Father’s fingers: fallen towers, cat-o-five tail. “The Angler’s Loop,” Father says, “appears complicated.” He lifts the pale hemp fibers against the red sky, and the airplane disappears behind a cloud. “Not complicated—beautiful.” Father says, “Der Angler is easy.”
He ties it again and again, yanking cords from his pockets, then plucking loose rigging from the deck. “A cinch,” Father says. “Ein kleiner joke for you.” He circles the boy, loops his feet, his thighs, his wrists, his neck. The brined fibers rake his skin.
Father leaves the boy two fingers free on each hand. He slaps his cheeks, says, “If you watched closely, then you will escape der Knoten. But you will never escape these.” Father rubs his mangled middle finger against the boy’s nose. “Yours will be the same one day.”
The boy squirms, makes no progress. Father’s knots are perfect. How long will he leave him? Until he’s mastered the Angler or starves, or all the planes crash from the sky, splash into the sea and capsize Father’s boat. The boy longs to stretch his palms, uncrease his lifeline that stretches just like Father’s. But this will not happen. He couldn’t follow the grotesque ballet of Father’s crippled fingers. And now Father saunters away, toward the cabin, whistling dead Mother’s lullaby. His lullaby. Stolen. Her long, straight fingers he used to suck. Gone. Now he has all the time to wait for the clouds to part, for the airplane to reappear, the Angler cord to wither. Inside the ropes, he practices the future, clenches his young fingers into a gnarl like Father’s.
Dustin M. Hoffman spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University. His stories have recently appeared in Fourteen Hills, Puerto del Sol, The Masters Review, Quarterly West, Midwestern Gothic, Sou’wester, Fifth Wednesday, The Journal, and Threepenny Review. You can visit his site here.
Jordan Gaza is a freelance illustrator and art student living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. More of her work can be found here.