Ten Thousand Feet by Michael Spring
Of course the sculpture was built from real toes.
Everyone who was involved in the commissioning of the work had known that. There would hardly have been anything special about it if it was just a pile of replicas. They would all be the same and the idea was to celebrate the diversity of mankind, not to show how much one toe could be like another.
Up to that point, they had all been telling him how clever he was. How his monument had a point. How it would be a tribute to his genius. How he was reinventing public art.
And so he was taken aback when the questions started.
Where had the toes come from? Had they been taken by force? Had the people who had given their toes actually given their permission for them to be used in this way? Had he been promoting murder, inciting genocide, profiting from disaster?
To be quite honest, he told them, he didn’t know and he didn’t much care. He just wanted those toes.
Where there’s an offer to buy, he said, someone will usually come along with an offer to sell, generally. It wasn’t like he was buying plutonium or something that would actually be dangerous. That was all he knew. He had them and he was going to use them.
What he did with them was this. Using tongs, he gently dipped each of them in a vat of something that steamed gently in a corner of his workshop, surrounded by safety notices. That made them hard as marble in a second or two. Then they went into formaldehyde, and after that straight through a lacquer spray which had a very fine sand mixed in. They ended up looking like a cross between sandstone and marble. They were hard as rocks and very cold for a while too.
Then (the great moment!) he started to assemble them onto the wire grid, using a resin-based adhesive to hold them. There was no reinforcement for them at this point. When the thing was finished, then they were going to think about reinforcing the structure. Right now, he was concentrating on getting the tower up to about seven feet, which he thought he could do without the ladder.
How many were there?
He didn’t know. He had never counted. He had bought them by weight. More than hundreds certainly. Many thousands probably. What he didn’t tell anyone was that he used to cook one or two over the blowtorch for the dog, so even if you could count them all in the sculpture it wouldn’t give you an accurate figure.
Where had they all come from? Goodness knows. All over the world probably. They were certainly all kinds of colours – from dark chocolate through to pig pink.
They had a devil of a job trying to get the reinforcement to work. Finally, they did it by putting layers of chicken wire on the inside and lowering down a nozzle that squirted a light cement.That seemed to hold everything together. The finished thing was going to be ten feet tall, but called Ten Thousand Feet, because of all the toes that had gone into its making.
That was part of the fun of it. It had wit, it had presence. It made a point.
He supposed that the toes came from corpses, or surgical procedures. He didn’t know whether that number of operations really could have been performed, but he couldn’t see people killing for a few toes. It wasn’t as though his team were paying a fortune for them. The project couldn’t justify it. You would have had to have a foot farm to make it worthwhile on any commercial basis. He wondered vaguely what a foot farm might look like and found himself thinking about Auschwitz and the concentration camps of the Second World War.
But the statue, when it was unveiled in position, looked impressive, substantial. There on the top of the hill, where people had stood for centuries, taking a break, gazing at the view over the river. It was the right place for it, for a statement, for art after a long walk and a climb. All those feet! All those people trekking to see it. It could only be reached on foot. That added another layer of irony to the work, and reflected the wit of its creator. He was pleased with that.
It was a few weeks after the statue had successfully been unveiled that his dreams started. He would wake up in the middle of the night gasping, after imagining something, something far away, a regular clump, clump, clump, like the noise of distant drums.
These dreams were infrequent at first, and he’d just go back to sleep afterwards. He thought no more about them.
But gradually, the dreams happened more often, they became more detailed and they became more descriptive too.
He would be a farmer, somewhere in Africa perhaps, looking out over fields, when suddenly the animals around him fled as though from a thunderstorm. Then he would be himself, alone, walking across a grassy plain towards distant hills, when he would be startled by something. When he looked back, he would see clouds of dust on the horizon. On another night, he was at the top of a hill in a crowd, looking at a view, when he heard the noise, which grew and grew until it became deafening, coming in at him from every side, but it seemed that he alone could hear it. Birds sat in the trees undisturbed. Timid animals went on with their grazing.
These dreams were vivid and they left him sweating, gasping, as though he had narrowly escaped death. After each one, he knew he would not sleep again that night.
The noise too, gradually resolved itself.
It was not the sound of drums at all, but the tramp, tramp, tramp of thousands of people, an army perhaps, marching with a single purpose, marching with a desperate will, as though the individuals who comprised its mass had long ago foregone any wish for survival.
Meanwhile, letters started arriving from towns and cities all over the world wondering if the technique (which they found fascinating) couldn’t be repeated for them. Instead of toes, they suggested the use of fingers, ears, noses, feet, complete hands, complete arms, legs. One suggested genitalia.
The dreams went on. The individuals who made up the body of men might be doomed but the object, their goal, which he knew was the reclaiming of something, this was what they would attempt, at any price. They would surmount any obstacle, defy any hardship, keep marching in the face of all privations, just so that – at the end of it - one of them at least might say, we have once more become ourselves. We have what was taken from us. We have what is ours.
He fled of course. He fled his home at first, and then the country. He sought out mountains and snowy wastes, and sometimes, for short periods at least, he found some kind of release. But gradually the dreams returned, and the noise, the inexorable sound, reached him once more. Even when awake, he seemed to hear its echo, far off somewhere, quietly reverberating, as though he had his ear to a seashell.
At that period, he thought a lot about himself and his art.
At best, he had been derivative, a fair average. What fame he had gained seemed to have come as a result of his being able to talk with great confidence. He had said that his work was important and so it became, at least in the minds of those around him and the more gullible of the teachers and critics. Even the idea for ‘Feet’ as it became known, had not really been his own. His agent had suggested something like it as a kind of joke over lunch one day. He knew he lacked an original approach. He knew he lacked an idea. He had thought that ‘Feet’ would be the inspiration that would save him, and it had done just the reverse. It had subjected him to this torture. It wasn’t fair, he told himself. It just wasn’t fair.
And so, gradually, his confidence drained from him. And still the dreams continued.
Eventually, he slipped back into the country without notice or fanfare, and when they found him, alone, not long after dawn, at the base of his own statue, he was sitting there talking nonsense to himself and gesturing vaguely to the countryside around him. His discoverer found that he had cut off his toes with a small axe and was unable to stand.
Many people visited that sculpture over the forthcoming years. The story of the sculptor had generated interest, and though he himself was confined to an institution untill his death, it became quite a landmark.
Some years later, it was voted the third most popular piece of art in the country. Thousands of people made the walk to visit it, and to look at the view.
© Michael Spring, 2012
Michael Spring was educated at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but lives and works in London now, where he helps to run a small design and marketing company. Like every other writer, he has a novel waiting for a publisher (and a half-finished sequel).
Ten Thousand Feet was read by Daniel Lugo on 11th July 2012