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The first time I ever saw Uncle Ford I was only ten. I didn't even know I had an uncle until he showed up one day at the edge of our fence with a suitcase. Most of his body was covered by a heavy brown coat, far too warm for the weather. He never approached the house. He simply spoke to my father at the edge of our property and then he left.
I asked my father later: "Who was that man?"
He didn't try to bullshit me. "That's your uncle. My half-brother. Ford Domini."
My dad said the reason he didn't tell me about Uncle Ford was that he didn't want me to think poorly of his father. My grandfather, David Domini, was an Italian immigrant who had come to America in the forties. Ford was born in 1956. Shortly after Ford's birth, Ford's mother died and his medical practice fell apart. My grandfather, penniless and destitute, was forced to give Ford up for adoption. My father wasn't born until ten years later, after grandfather had remarried. Dad said that his dad always wished he could have found Ford again after he was back on his feet.
After Ford visited our farm the first time, I didn't see him again until that summer, three months later. In June of 1993, Ford showed up again at the edge of our property, with the same suitcase and coat. Father wasn't there when he arrived, but I knew to greet the man.
"You're my dad's brother, aren't you?"
"H-h-half-brother. But y-yes, I am."
"How come you never showed up til now?"
"I'd been traveling. I n-n-never even knew I had a n-n-nephew til now."
"You okay, mister?"
"Y-yes I am. I have a bit of a speaking impediment. I... apologize."
"Ford! I wasn't expecting you this early!" My father was jogging up from the fields, where he had been hard at work slashing the weeds.
Ford was a very tall, broad shouldered man. His face was tanned and wrinkled, and showed many visible scars and scrapes. His face turned a bright scarlet when my father spoke.
"Y... yes. I apologize. The work dried up q-quicker than I had anti-... anti-..." Ford struggled with the word. "It dried up faster than I thought...""No need to apologize. We can always use the extra help on the farm." My father turned to me. "James, Uncle Ford is going to be staying with us for a while. He'll be sleeping in the barn."
I took Ford's suitcase and led him up the cracked clay path that led to our barn. Ford remained quiet for the duration of the walk. When we got there, I showed him where the hay would stay the driest if it rained, and pulled out the cot stashed behind the stalls. All the while, Ford hunched awkwardly in the low entrance to the barn.
"We aren't tending any cattle or goats this year, so you'll have the barn to yourself."
He nodded. He was still wearing the heavy brown coat.
"Aren't you hot, wearing that old thing?"
He nodded again, slowly. With a cautious, deliberate manner, he removed the coat from his shoulders. I realized that the coat was not meant to keep him warm, but rather was to cover up his body. Sprouting from his sides were not two, but four arms. The second set started just below the armpits. They were smaller and thinner than his other arms, but they all moved in conjunction as he folded up his coat. I gasped.
"I-I-I'm sorry if my app-appearance is disturbing to y-y-you."
I stood in shock for a moment. Ford unfolded his coat and began to put it back on.
"No no! It's fine! I was just surprised. I apologize for my manners." Ford smiled a half smile and set the coat down. As I left the barn, he unpacked his suitcase for a stay that I assumed would last a few months. It ended up lasting for several years.
Ford didn't talk much for his first few weeks on the farm. It was just as well – the three of us spent most of our days working in the fields, weeding and preparing the ground for planting, and most of our evenings were spent sleeping off the day's work. The first time I had a conversation with Ford was in late July; it was raining, which prevented us from working the fields. Around midday, my mother had me bring Ford supper out in the barn.
I hadn't been back to the barn since Ford had moved in, but he had spent a lot of time there. He had redecorated. Various diagrams and papers hung from the walls of the barn. Many depicted human and animal anatomy. There were homemade wooden carvings decorating the boxes and shelves in the barn. Ford quickly stood when I entered, slyly closing a book that he had been reading.
"Nah, don't worry. Mom just wanted me to bring you supper."
"Th-thank you James."
"What's with all the pictures?"
"They're... They're from medical books. Human a-a-anatomy, and the like."
"Huh. What're these carvings?" I held up one of the homemade carvings. It was of a normal adult man, except he had three arms, the third of which reached straight out from an extended stomach.
Ford snatched it from my hand. "J-j-just a hobby. Like the pictures. Human sh-shape fascinates me. I always wanted to be a doctor."
"Like your dad?"
"Like Grandpa. Dad said he was a doctor."
Ford laughed a gravely, strained laugh that devolved quickly into coughing. I nearly jumped. Ford's usually quiet and melancholy tone shifted.
"He was a plastic surgeon. Hardly a doctor. Couldn't even k-keep his business afloat."
I placed Ford's dinner in front of him. He ate, all four arms working into the rotation of shoveling food into his face. I stood and watched him for a few moments.
"Do you remember him?"
Ford stopped with a spoonful of grits half way up to his mouth. "Y-y-yes. Of course. I l-lived with that asshole until I w-was eight y-years old."
"Oh. Dad made it sound like he gave you up for adoption when you were just a baby."
"G-gave me up for.. for adoption?"
"Yeah, that's what dad told me."
Ford's face paled. His lips dropped into a frown. "No. he didn't p—p-put me up for ad-d-doption. He fucking sold me!" he was yelling.
I backed away toward the door, frightened. Ford's face relaxed and he stepped towards me, the arms on his right side outstretched.
"No, wait! I'm s-sorrry. But my brother was mistaken when he told you that. My f-father sold me to a f-f-freakshow when I was ten." Ford was calm. "I guess my f-fa-ther never told him that."
We stood in silence for a moment. I stared at the ground, not knowing what to say. Ford stared at his nearly empty plate. He dropped his fork onto the plate, the dull clang breaking the silence.
"James, do you th-th-think your father would want to know who your grandf-f-father really was?"
"What do you mean?"
"Would my brother want to kn-know the t-tr—truth?"
I hesitated, wondering what exactly Ford meant. "Yes, I think he would."
Ford gave the same knowing nod he always gave.
That evening, Ford confronted my parents and me in our kitchen, and he told us the story of his life. He told us the truth about my grandfather, he told us about his birth - he told us about his life in the freak show.
The story started the same way my father told it. David Domini (my grandfather) moved to America from Italy in 1944. Belle, his wife and Ford's mother, came with him. He spent the first five years studying at Stanford Medical School, and when he got his doctorate, he went into the field of reconstructive plastic surgery. Contrary to what Ford had said, it sounds like my grandfather was quite the doctor – he specialized in constructing and attaching prosthetic limbs for those injured in near-fatal accidents. However, by the 1950s, his practice had expanded to include cosmetic plastic surgery – nose jobs, tummy tucks, you name it.
They lived in Los Angeles, where, thanks to David's skilled hands, they were heralded as minor celebrities. In 1955, Belle learned that she was pregnant with Ford. The way Ford told it, this was just another link the chain of good fortune that had fallen in the laps of the Domini's since they came to America.
Ford was born on February 29th, 1956. The delivery was particularly difficult. It lasted twelve hours, bringing Belle intense physical and mental stress. When the delivering surgeon placed the baby in her arms, she screamed at the four armed child squirming in her arms. Ford told us that she died shortly after of blood loss resulting from the birth. He claimed that his first memory is of her screams–
"It's all wrong! This can't be my baby!"
Ford told us that my grandfather blamed him for Belle's death. He became drunk and distraught and his practice fell apart over the next ten years. Ford spent those ten years alone. Having been deemed too freakish for normal society, Ford was kept chained up in the attic, with the only window boarded shut by my grandfather. He was home-schooled and brought all of his meals by a maid who had been paid off for her silence. As far as the LA elites knew, David Domini's child was born dead.
Despite his contempt for Ford, Ford told us that grandfather was never violent, but always very clear about his disdain for Ford. He regularly told Ford he was a mutant, a monster – that he should never have been born. Ford told us that he grew used to the verbal abuse after a while, but that he was crushed by the crippling loneliness. Apart from his father and the maid he saw for a few hours a day, Ford was separated from the living world for the first ten years of his life. His one solace was a hole in the boards that covered his only window. Through it, he watched neighborhood children playing in the street.
Ford told us that he remembered looking at the kids and feeling alone. Not just because he couldn't play with them, but also because they looked so different than him. They all had two arms – there wasn't a soul in the world who could understand Ford. It was his idea to join the freak show; because he needed to find a sense of belonging. When his father mentioned the existence of such a group during one of Ford's lessons, he was adamant he wanted to join one. Eager to rid himself of his son's burden, my grandfather contacted a man who ran one of the most unscrupulous traveling freak shows in the country. The man, Alabaster Consten, purchased Ford from my grandfather just a few days later.
My grandfather moved to a small town in Giliman County, Colorado, where he remarried and had my father. He reopened a small medical practice in town, and lived in the very house I grew up in until his death in the late eighties. My father and grandmother never heard anything about his past life, other than the occasional mention of Ford's existence.
Things were not so easy for Ford. "Consten's Marvelous and Terrifying Creatures" was a traveling freak show – and it was brutal and disgusting. Ford was one of many under Alabaster Consten's thumb. There was a bearded polish woman, two dwarves from Germany, a psychologically and physically scarred man known only as "The Lizard Man", as well as a few who came and went. Alabaster was a cruel man quick to beat and maim the freaks. Ford told me that Consten didn't think of him or the others as humans – he thought of them like cattle.
Although they were like him in many ways, Ford still felt quite lonely around the other freaks. Of all of the freaks, Ford was treated the best. He was the main attraction. His act was complex and dangerous.
After the German Dwarves left the stage, he entered by climbing upside-down on a series of trapeze and ropes. When he touched the ground, Alabaster threw him a series of increasingly dangerous objects to juggle – flaming rings, knives, etcetera. But his greatest trick, the climax of his performance, was the water tank. The other freaks would emerge from backstage and tie him up with thick, rough rope. Then they would throw him into a deep tank of water that the cheering crowd could see into. The knots binding him were numerous and tough. It took all of Ford's arms working at once to free him before the air drained from his lungs. He worked with the wet rope, underwater and unable to see, as the crowd cheered at his every mistake. His biological advantages were not always enough to save him. He occasionally failed, leaving the other freaks to pull him out of the water before he drowned. The crowd met this failure with boos and thrown drinks and popcorn containers. Alabaster met this failure with a swift and painful beating.
For fear that he would receive a beating, Ford usually did his act perfectly. As a result, Alabaster usually left him alone. Most of the freaks had to do the maintenance jobs that came along with the show – cleaning, setting up tents, and tending to the animals. But Alabaster didn't make Ford do any of that, because he was the main act. This star treatment led the other freaks to resent and distance themselves from Ford.
Ford told my parents and I that he felt hated by the people who watched the show, because he was different, but he felt hated by the other freaks because he wasn't different enough.
He stayed with the freak show until he was 25. He spent the subsequent thirteen years traveling the country. The whole time, he was looking for another person that he could connect with. Another person like him.
"Well?" My father was dozing in his chair, and my mother had long since gone to bed. At the end of Ford's story, it was almost 2 in the morning.
"W-w-well what James?"
"Did you ever find anybody? Like you?"
Ford crossed all four of his arms, forming a bundled mess in front of him. His head drooped and he slowly moved it side to side.
"Not yet. Not yet."
Uncle Ford stayed with my family through the winter. By springtime, Ford had started the surgeries. He would find injured animals – wild ones, or various animals from our neighbors or the local townies, and perform lifesaving surgeries on them with medical supplies he had my father order. He stitched together open cuts, mended broken bones, etcetera. He didn't charge any of the townspeople for what he did, saying it was his pleasure to help the animals.
The people from the town were charmed by Ford, despite his deformity. Ford was always gentle and kind to them, and most of them appreciated the free veterinary services. There was even a girl from town who took a liking to Ford - a brunette woman who worked for the post office. They went out a few times, but I don't think that Ford was much of a ladies man.
Although they found his hobbies unusual, Ford grew closer with my parents all the time. He and my father spent hours in the fields, planting and fumigating the corn. They took up playing cards in the afternoons. In the evenings, Ford and my mother would dance to old records. They'd move slowly together, Ford's right hands on her left hip, a left hand on her right, and a hand holding hers out in the air. Dad never looked jealous when they danced, only happy that the family was all together.
It seemed like Ford had finally found a place where he could be at home, with my family and I.
But then... it was like a switch flipped. As the summer and fall of 1994 went on, Ford grew distant. All at once he stopped offering surgeries to the townsfolk. He still helped us out in the fields, but he never came into the main house in the evenings anymore. When my father offered to clear out our basement so he could live with us, Ford turned him down.
He started locking the barn door. Ford stopped talking to any of us. The most he would say was "hello" or "e-excuse me". My family and I tried our best to get him to open up, but he resisted all attempts. He spent all his time up in the barn, by himself. He still treated the wild animals that got hurt on our property. But he had gotten worse at it. More often than not, I would see animals crawling around with messy stitches, many still bleeding or more mangled than when they came into the barn.
One day I heard a rabbit crying in the fields. I found it dragging a mutilated body through the dirt. It had undergone some form of operation from Ford - I could see the characteristic blue thread he used underneath all the dried blood. An extra, non-functional hind leg had been stitched to its back. It whimpered when it moved.
I brought the distorted rabbit to my father, who promised he'd bring it up to Ford. My dad put the rabbit out of its misery. I remember that it was struggling when he first picked it up. But then all at once it stopped. It didn't even whimper when he raised the gun to it. I think it wanted to die.
My parents grew worried about Ford. By winter of 1994 he never left the barn. My parents considered calling the police and having him removed, but my mother worried what might happen to him if he was taken to jail. Ford had already had a hard life – he clearly needed help.
On Christmas that year, Ford finally left the barn. We were eating breakfast in the house, and we all saw him exit at once. He was wearing his big heavy coat and carrying his suitcase, which was overflowing with papers. Snow whistled around him, and he shook despite the heavy coat. We watched as he walked down the clay path to our back door, where he knocked. My mother let him in.
We stared in silence. Then Ford spoke.
"I'm s-s-sorry, everyone." Tears formed at my mother's eyes.
"What's happened to you?" My father asked him, grabbing him by the shoulder.
"You have all been very g-g-g-good to me. B-b-but I th-think I have to go."
"Why?" tears were streaming down my mother's face.
"You all aren't like m-m-me."
"What are you talking about?"
Ford was crying now too. "You are... aren't like me. You're n-normal, and I'm n-n-not. Nobody could ch-change that."
"Ford, that's not fair. You can't just leave us because we look different than you!" My father was yelling.
The room was tense. Everyone was deeply sobbing. All the Dominis stood there and cried for a while. Finally, it was Ford who broke the silence.
"I've done something b-b-b-bad." My father asked him what he meant.
"I've d-d-done something bad. I'm so sorry everyone."
"What did you do Ford?"
"I didn't want to be the only one."
"What did you do?"
"It's... The b-b-barn." Ford was red in the face. All of his arms hung at his side and tears poured down his cheeks. He looked at me.
"I didn't want to b-b-be al-l-lone anymore."
My father opened the back door and walked towards the barn. We stood in silence and watched through the window. We watched him climb the clay path through howling snow. We watched as my father opened the door and stepped inside the barn.
Moments later, he came tumbling out onto his knees, and vomited. He sprinted towards the house. I'll never forget my father's face. It was white as the snow around him. He burst through the back door.
"I'm s-s-sorry brother. I'm so sorry."
My father turned to my mother. "Call the police. Don't let him leave."
Ford didn't even try to leave. He just stood in our kitchen and sobbed. My dad went into our den and grabbed his rifle- the same rifle he had used to shoot the rabbit I found. He loaded it then stepped back into the blizzard. My mother called the police from the other room.
I stood alone with Ford in our kitchen. We watched through the window in silence as my father stepped back into the barn. We heard a single shot from the gun, and then only the sound of the snow and wind outside.
When the police arrived, they searched the barn. The walls were covered in the carcasses of animals that Ford had captured – Rabbits, birds, frogs, a few stray dogs and cats. They were all wrong. They had parts sewn onto to them – arms, legs, ears, tails – that didn't belong. Most had an extra set of limbs sewn on either side of them in a sick imitation of Ford's extra limbs. The animals were dead from either blood loss or infection.
The floor was covered in dried blood and filth. The police found, in one corner of the barn, a pair of dirty boots and a soil covered shovel. They later matched this soil to a local cemetery in town, where several graves had been found manually exhumed in the middle of the night. Ford had been digging.
But I saw with my own eyes the horror that caused my father to wretch outside the barn. While the police were on their way, Ford led me up to the mouth of the barn and opened its jaws to show me what he had done.
"I d-d-didn't want t-t-to be alone anymore. You understand r-r-right?"
There was a young woman – early twenties. Brunnette. It was the woman from the post office. The one who had always liked Ford so much. She was naked, save for metal restraints on her ankles and neck that led to chains on the wall. Dried blood caked most of her body. On her sides were two rotting pieces of flesh – arms that Ford has undoubtedly ripped from other corpses in hopes of creating a second copy of himself. They had been sewn on with blue thread. They were black and green with decay, which was quickly spreading to the rest of her body. She was dead. There was a bucket near her that had clearly been used as a bathroom, and refuse from food that suggested she had been imprisoned there for several weeks. The police arrested Ford. He pled guilty to grave robbing, animal abuse, kidnapping, and murder. He received life in prison.
My father never talked about what he saw, except once in 1999, after we had received word from the prison that Ford had killed himself. Dad told me that when he entered the barn the first time, the woman was still alive.
My father rushed to her side moving to unlock her metal restraints.
She asked him to stop. He told her that he was there to help. She said that it was too late. She said she didn't want to suffer anymore.
That's why my father got the gun from the house.
I don't think Ford actually wanted to hurt anyone. He was deeply sick and disturbed. But mostly, he was just alone.
There was no one in the world like Ford Domini. Hopefully there never will be again.