Is That A… Foot? is Episode 3 (Season One) of the Death in the Afternoon Podcast.
Generally speaking, we like our limbs in context. “The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone.” But what about when we encounter limbs that aren’t connected to anybody? Just out there, free and unattached? This week we talk about rogue and extra limbs that have been found by the sea, in the smoker, and in the grave as we answer the question: is that a…foot?
Just in time for Halloween, here’s Louise with a spooky good story!:
In this week’s episode Caitlin mentioned that I was a little too excited to talk about disembodied floating limbs. Maybe I was, but hear me out, there’s more behind my fascination than just liking mysterious ocean-going feet.
OK, aside from the fact that I do find this occurrence fascinating—that the Pacific Northwest authorities have just come to accept it as a part of their eco-system—part of the reason I gravitated toward this news story in the first place has to do with a story my grandmother, my Mar Mar, told me as a child.
As some of you may know, Chinese folktales and “fairy stories” don’t usually veer away from death or even what a few might call “gore”. I remember my aunties telling me about a character named Ah-Woo Dook who would come and get naughty children who wouldn’t go to sleep at night. Ah-Woo would poke you with a long, razor-sharp finger, basically tenderizing you for consumption. Then Ah-Woo would eat you and spit out your bones as a warning to the other naughty children.
Point is, disembodied limbs were long ago woven into my imagination and interests.
So this is the story Mar Mar told me. A good story for the spooky fall time season and a good folk story about missing limbs:
There was a man who worked on a small farm in a small village far away from his family.
Every month, on his one day off, he would gather up the money he earned and run all night to bring it to his wife and children in a distant village. Then he would run all day to get back to the farm where he worked. It was a hard life, but it meant food in his children’s bellies, clothes to keep them warm, and a roof over their head. Such was the life of many men in China a long time ago (as Mar Mar said).
One day, while the man was at work, he was in a horrible accident. While chopping down a tree another man swung his blade and cut the man’s legs off at the knees. The poor man fell in the field and bled to death, calling for his family.
The smell of blood filled the air and a giant wild dog raced into the field and stole one leg. A great bird with pointy talons swooped down and flew off with the other leg.
Not knowing what to do and afraid their boss would punish them, the man’s friends buried him in the field that night and divvied up his money amongst them.
When the night was at its darkest, and the clouds hid the stars, the sleeping men were awoken by a scratching sound.
It sounded like nails on the walls of their hut, nails at their door, nails under their floor.
Then a garbled voice, as if uttered from a mouth full of dirt demanded:
“Give me my money…Give me my legs…I must run…I must run…”
The men were convinced they were dreaming, that somehow the horror of the day’s events had bestowed upon them one collective nightmare.
But the next night, again when the night was at its darkest and the clouds hid the stars, the scratching sound returned. Louder, stronger.
The garbled voice was louder too, more insistent, angry.
“Give me my money! Give me my legs! I must run…I must run!”
The men were scared now, but didn’t know what to do so they just closed their eyes tighter and prayed for dawn.
The scratching and the voice came back every night for five days. Every night it was louder, every night it was angrier, every night the men feared that it would finally get into their hut and take their legs.
Finally one night the scratching was so loud it shook the hut and the voice was so angry it made the men quake in fear.
“Give me my money!! Give me my legs!! I MUST RUN! I MUST RUN!”
Afraid more of the dead man than they were of any bird or dog, the men ran into the night in search of the creatures who had stolen the man’s legs. They found a dark cave in the forest where a pack of wild dogs lived. Charging in with torches they found the man’s leg, stripped of flesh with teeth marks all over it. The dogs bit and tore at the men, but they were able to flee with the leg.
The men also found a tree with an enormous nest in it. Climbing the tree they found the nest filled with bones—both human and animal. Finding the man’s leg—all bone, no flesh—they were climbing down the tree with it when the gigantic bird attacked them. One man was carried off by the bird, another man was pecked bloody, but they were able to escape with the dead man’s leg.
Just before dawn they buried the man’s legs with the rest of his corpse, along with a bag full of the money they had taken from him.
Hoping to get a little bit of rest the men dragged themselves back to their hut and fell into their beds. Their eyes were barely closed when they heard the sound of footsteps, running footsteps, approaching their hut. Louder and louder they got, thundering straight for them. But just as they braced themselves for someone to run through their wall, the running footsteps turned and faded away. Off they ran into the night.
From then on, the men were granted peaceful nights. No more scratching at their wall, no more voice asking for money or legs. For good measure and to make sure they would never be bothered again, the men collected money for the dead man’s family every month and made sure it was sent to them.
And just as a reminder to keep up their charity, once a month when the night was at its darkest and the clouds hid the stars, the men would hear the sound of the dead man running from his grave to his family, checking to make sure they were taken care of.
Hi Deathlings, Sarah here. When Louise, Caitlin and I were in the writer’s room working on this story, and by “writer’s room” I mean a pizza joint off the 99 highway near an outlet mall, I intended on writing about something entirely different, but then I remembered seeing this documentary, Finder’s Keepers a couple years ago and here we are. If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing and watch the trailer posted above.
In this episode I also talk about Kristi Loyall who lost her foot to cancer. She asked to keep it, which by the way, is completely legal, although doctors and medical staff will often claim it’s a biohazard or illegal, but neither of these is true. Order member and human remains law expert Tanya Marsh states “When they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell people it’s illegal. That doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”
And finally, because I’m sure you’re wondering what Leo’s leg lamp looked like, here you go:
Finally, here’s a deep dive for true death nerds; an episode of podcast Death, et seq. on what happens to human remains in the U.S. “Death transforms a living human being, a person with rights and autonomy, into … something else. Tissue and bone, once animated by life, converted into an object of fear, a focus for grief, and a medical and scientific resource.”