Pruning for Gold

by Larry Hodges

That bastard Austin and the wizard dwarf did everything they could to burn me. But I beat them both. I have a huge house, great car, nice clothes, and the best medical staff one could dream of. They have nothing left but envy. Sure, I lost a lot of body parts, but I have no regrets. Except maybe the kidney. I wouldn't have had it cut out if I'd known the other would go bad. 

I wasn't always so lucky. I didn't inherit my parents' powers, and I grew up poor. 

My luck changed one day while I looked up at Austin's house through the living room window. There was a knock on the door that would make me the luckiest guy in the world. 

"Mr. Mann?" the white-haired dwarf at the door asked. 

"That's me," I said, buttoning up the worn-out shirt that Austin had given me. "What can I do for you?"

"Quite a bit," he said, deftly stepping around me without an invitation. "Okay if I call you Lester?" I caught up to him in the living room, where he'd made himself comfortable on the sofa, his fancy Florsheim shoes resting on the coffee table. 

He had a pinched look on his face, as if he'd swallowed a bad spell. He introduced himself as the Wizard Sadim. He wore a standard business suit, like any other wizard from the U.S. Department of Magic. 

"Do you always barge into people's houses without asking?" I asked. It was a brave thing to say, considering he carried a thaumaturgic staff. 

He ignored my question. "Sorry to hear about your parents, Lester. I knew them at Wizard U."

"I got over it," I said icily, sitting in my easy chair opposite him. My parents had been simple country wizards and never should have gotten involved with Wizards Without Borders. After that earthquake in Africa, you'd think that the locals would welcome any help, but some of them just didn't like outsiders. And so I inherited my childhood home, underlooking Austin's. 

"Ever wonder why you didn't inherit your parents' powers?" Sadim asked. 

About twenty times per day. "Rarely."

"You've got wizard DNA," he said. "Only there's a mess-up--something in the DNA sequence kept your powers from forming."

"Thanks for the breaking news." I got up. "Now if you don't have any more bombshells--"

"Your DNA is worth a lot of money." 

I sat down. 

"While most wizards are good, there are exceptions," he continued. "You can't let a violent wizard free with all his powers. But with gene therapy, using a sequence of wizard DNA like yours that doesn't work, we can take their powers away without harming them." 

He stood in front of me. "Your DNA is worth its weight in gold. But we need your permission to use it." He punctuated his request with several thrusts of his staff. 

"Didn't you need a sample first, for testing?" I asked, gently pushing the tip of his staff to the side. 

"We already have that. You'd be amazed at how much DNA can be found in a person's trash."

My eyebrows shot up. "You raided my trash?"

"We can't use your DNA without your permission." He reached into his pocket. "We can offer you $100,000 in gold if you'll sign this."

Woh! This was unexpected. I took a deep breath, and put on my lawyerly poker face. 

"Is it worth that much to you?"

"It's worth that much to humanity. Mr. Mann, you're in a unique situation to do great good."

I was just a poor kid out of law school with a low-paying job, and was one second away from signing it when I noticed Austin's house through the window. I wanted a lot more. After getting cheated out of my parent's powers, I deserved a lot more. I leaned back in my chair, all the weight I'd gained in law school weighing me down. How much was my DNA worth? He'd said it was worth its weight in gold. Inspiration struck. 

"I want my weight in gold," I said. 

Sadim sputtered. "Are you out of your mind? You have a chance to help your fellow man, and all you think of is yourself?" 

I think he was on the verge of using his staff on me, but I ignored his protests and threats and held firm until he gave in. We drew up a new contract, and my life as a wealthy man began.

Sadim returned the next day. It took only a few minutes for him to go through the words and rituals of the gold spell that would bring me exactly 223 pounds of gold. Gold sold at $715 an ounce. That came to over $2,500,000--Austin had never seen that much money in his life! 

When Sadim finished, nothing happened. "Where's the gold?" I asked. 

Sadim laughed. "You want your weight in gold, you'll get it!" He handed me a pair of fingernail clippers. "Cut a sliver of fingernail onto the table."

What did this have to do with my gold? But he insisted. I had let the nails grow long, and so cut a thick crescent off my thumbnail onto the coffee table. 

"There's your gold, you greedy fool!" He picked up the nail clipping and handed it to me. It was bright yellow but greatly shrunk in size.

"You've given me magic fingernails?" I asked.

"No, Mr. Mann, your entire body will now do this. Any part you cut off turns to gold. You now have your weight in gold--it's yours for the taking!"

"But that's not what you promised!"

"I promised your weight in gold, and that's exactly what you get. I suggest keeping a few vital organs." 

"But if you can just conjure up gold like this--"

"Then the supply would go up, and by the laws of supply and demand, lower the price of gold, thereby negating the value of the increased supply. But only in large quantities. I'm sure the economy can absorb your weight in gold." 

"But I can't turn all of me into gold, there wouldn't be any me left!"

"That's your problem, Mr. Mann. And I care as much about your problem as you did about helping others." He leaped to his feet, and before I could ask any more questions, he was out the door. 

The little man probably thought he'd gotten the best of me, but think about it. I gave up nothing, and while I wouldn't get my actual weight in gold, I'd get plenty. 

I decided to run some tests. I yanked out a strand of hair, which became an extremely thin thread of gold. 
Next I scraped off some callused skin from a toe, which also turned to tiny bits of gold. With a sterile knife, I pricked my finger, and watched the blood drops turn to tiny droplets of gold. Since gold weighs more than hair, skin or blood, when my body parts converted to gold, they became smaller, but kept the same mass. 
I spit onto a sink, but it didn't convert to gold. When I went to the bathroom, it didn't consider anything that came out there to be part of me either. I was learning the rules of this spell. The key was to use good judgment, pruning only unnecessary body parts.

Sadim thought he'd pulled a fast one on me, but I'd turned the tables. There was plenty of me to go around. 
The sliver of thumbnail probably weighed a gram. I got out my calculator. That tiny, teensy weensy bit of gold was worth $25!

Okay, time to make some real money. Standing over the coffee table with a pair of scissors and a razor, I cut off every bit of my thick, bushy hair, and watched the thin golden strands fall and hit the table with soft metallic clinks. I cut my fingernails and toenails to the nub and beyond--like my hair, they'd grow back, and then I could cut them again. I gathered it all into a bowl. 

I weighed the bowl of gold on my postal scale, and a similar empty bowl, and subtracted. It came to about five ounces. At $715 an ounce, that was over $3500!

Yet that wasn't anything close to the roughly $2,500,000 I had expected. After cutting off my hair and nails, what else could I do? A pint of blood weighed about a pound, or a little over $11,000. I'd be doing that for sure.   
I estimated that each of my legs weighed thirty pounds or so. That's almost $350,000 each! I whistled, wondering how much an artificial limb cost. Nah, I'd go with a wheelchair if it came to that. But it wouldn't. I wasn't about to cut my legs off! The idea was sick, and left me cringing No one in their right mind would do it. I felt a twitch in my right eye. 

On the other hand, did I really need all those toes? I smiled. No way. 

Then I looked down at my rather large belly. No diet had ever worked on me. I knew just what to do! I'd overeat and gain weight, and have liposuction done every few months. I'd be rich. 

And then I'd have everything Austin ever had.

My eye twitched. 

I first met Austin Smith during our senior year in high school. He'd just moved into the big house on the hill. It was painted bright green, the color of money, with gold-trimmed windows. A huge oak tree overlooked the house and their driveway, with Austin's black Porsche, his dad's blue Rolls, and his mom's red Mercedes. 

All us lower class types lived in the little white houses surrounding it, which seemed appropriate since Austin always acted like he was a king or something. He had this aura, as if he deserved anything he wanted, whether it be his Porsche or his Rolex, while the rest of us had Fords and Timex. 

His parents were rich lawyers, the types you see on TV defending star athletes and movie stars. Mine were run-of-the-mill wizard do-gooders, with a few basic spells that paid the bills. Austin had inherited his parents' gift of gab; I hadn't inherited any of my parents' powers. 
Austin was the captain of the football team with the blond-haired body of a god, but he wouldn't have gotten through Trig without my help. 

"Hey, Lester, what do you think of that Trig homework?" he'd asked one day. I was surprised he knew my name. I was just a dweeb. 

"It's pretty basic, right from the chapter," I told him, my stomach going queasy. His football friends watched, and I wasn't used to being the center of attention. Austin's socks cost more than everything I wore. 

"I hear you're pretty smart," he said. "Why don't you meet me after school at my house so we can go over it? Four O'clock would be great!"

Why did I feel he was doing me a favor?

Austin wasn't a bad guy. He took me for rides in his Porsche, had his butler serve us drinks while I tutored him, and on my birthday bought me some real button shirts that I could wear for school, not silk like his, but pretty nice. Sometimes he let me tag along with him and Suzy, his trophy girlfriend and captain of the cheerleading squad. She loved ice cream and movies, and Austin would treat us both. 

God, how I hated him. 

When we got through law school years later, things were pretty much the same. He never would have passed the bar without my help, and yet somehow he managed to make me feel like I owed him. 

The best local law firm grabbed him up. While he became richer defending the rich, I remained poor defending the poor. It was the natural order of things. Yeah, right. It was so unfair, and yet there was nothing I could do. 
Until that day the Wizard Sadim knocked on my door.

I remembered Victor Kutler from high school, where he'd been voted most likely to go to jail. He'd become a surgeon instead. That was just what I needed, so I looked him up. He'd let his hair grow long in all directions, like an Einstein/Santa Clause mix gone amok. His breath reeked. He looked at me like I was a large bug to squash. 

I had him remove some blood and skin to demonstrate my new abilities. While examining the gold, his eyes turned bright and I knew I had him. He agreed to do the operations for 10% of the gross. 

The first liposuction netted 27 pounds of fat, which instantly turned into gold. After taking out Kutler's share, I had $280,000 in gold. 

After years of failed diets, I now went on a glorious orgy. I was the junk food type, and was now free from any restraints. Burgers, double burgers, triple burgers! Layers and layers of tangy mozzarella, topped with special sauce and lots of creamy mayonnaise! Hot, crispy fries! Pizza! Fried Chicken! Milk shakes! 

I almost forgot about Austin. Almost. I gritted my teeth, my right eye twitching like it had a life of its own. 

On the far side of the hill where Austin's house stands there is an even higher hill. The house for sale on it was even larger than Austin's. I saw a realtor, and after showing her a copy of my bank statement, she was my best friend. We negotiated, and I bought the new house for $900,000. I'd pay half now, with $250,000 in cash plus my house--worth $200,000--and the other $450,000 in two months. That's how long I figured it would take me to gain 40 pounds. 

I had my new house painted yellow, much brighter than that dull green of Austin's house. From the living room window I could look down on Austin's house, which was worth only $800,000. He'd married Suzy, but the joke was on him; remember how much she liked ice cream? Ha! 

I invited them up for cocktails, and he declined, claiming he had a previous engagement. Sure he did. 

I was content for a time. 

The two months of gorging went by quickly. I used up the remainder of my money from the first liposuction. I knew there was plenty where that came from, so I shouldn't have been worried. 

Except I didn't gain an ounce those two months. My hair and nails didn't grow back either. I'd learned another rule of Sadim's spell: nothing cut off grew back. 

I'd stopped shaving those two months as well. When I did shave at the end, I got a few hundred dollars in pocket change, and I never could grow facial hair again. I should have let it grow longer. 

When the second house payment was due, I had no fat to cut off. I needed $450,000, about forty pounds of gold. Otherwise I'd have to move out of my beautiful home overlooking Austin's house.

I visited Dr. Kutler. There really was no choice. We estimated an arm and a leg weighed the needed 40 pounds. And yet, I'd have to be crazy to go through with this! My eye began twitching, and I don't blame it. Even my left hand shook. So would I if my owner had such thoughts. This was crazy; I changed my mind and decided to get the hell out of there, to go back home and pack up and leave Austin and his superior looks behind. . . . God I hated him. I gritted my teeth so hard a tooth popped out and turned to gold before it hit the floor. More pocket change.

He put me under local anesthesia and cut them off. They turned into a miniature arm and leg of gold. I pulled off the tiny snub that had been my left big toe for a souvenir. I still had my good right arm and leg. 

Turned out there were a few extra pounds, and even without the big toe and after taking off his 10%, I had about $20,000 to spare. I stared at where my left hand had been twitching, but I'd cut that arm off; the hand would twitch no more. 

The house was mine. 

Unfortunately, $20,000 doesn't last long. I paced about my house on a crutch and my one leg for hours, but there really was only one solution. Besides, what good is one leg? You can do things with one arm, but I didn't want to spend my life hopping around on one leg or hobbling on a prosthetic. So I had the other leg taken off. Even after taking off Kutler's 10% and the cost of the nicest wheelchair made, I had over $300,000 left. 

I could now buy the finest silk shirts and other clothing, just like Austin. I hired a butler and a cook. I had the house made wheelchair-compatible. I even had a necklace made of the golden big toe I'd kept, which I wore around my neck. I had everything Austin ever had, and more. 

Except for that damn black Porsche. I could see it in his driveway where he left it just to spite me. Sometimes he'd take Suzy for rides in it. Sometimes they'd go right past my house. 

I did some research. A Lamborghini Roadster cost $320,000. I had to have it. Could you imagine poor Austin seeing that in my driveway?

I had about $250,000 left, so I was $70,000 short. Six pounds. My twitching eye was driving me nuts.  

I wanted to keep my remaining arm. I mean, let's be real! What good is someone with no arms? I visited Dr. Kutler again, and we did an inventory. Nose, ears, eyebrows, little & ring fingers, appendix, extra kidney, and about two pints of blood, and we were there, six pounds on the dot! You haven't seen real jewelry until you've seen a miniature golden appendix. 

I had the black Lamborghini delivered to my house. I couldn't wait for Austin to see it! I doubted if he'd be taking Suzy for any more rides in his pathetic Porsche. 

Then I realized he couldn't see the Lamborghini from his house. I had to drive it to where he could. Except, without legs, I couldn't drive. I shopped around and found a car shop that converted the controls to one of those disabled dashboards where I could control everything with my one arm, for $2800. Four ounces.

It's hard to believe I gave up my manhood, all four ounces of it, for $2800. But I regained that manhood and more when I whipped passed Austin's house that night in my Lamborghini over and over until the police came and ordered me away. 

The Wizard Sadim paid me a visit. I had the butler escort him in. When he saw me, the look on his face was worth every ounce of gold I'd cut off. He knew I'd beaten him. 

He finally spoke. "You've changed quite a bit."

I smiled. Should I rub it in? No, I'd be magnanimous in my victory. "I have you to thank."

"I never thought--"

"Don't worry about it, I forgive you for tricking me. As you can see, it's ended well."

"But don't you want the spell removed?" Sadim asked. "I think you've learned your lesson. I mean, look at you! I outweigh you!"

I now knew the real reason for his visit. Jealousy. I should have expected it from this little man. It made my eye twitch. 

"I'm the only one who can remove the spell," Sadim continued. "I can do it right now--"

"Not a chance!" I said. "I earned this gold fair and square, and we have a contract! Don't even think about taking it back." That pretty much settled it.

"You might be interested in some new gene research," he said. "It might solve your DNA problem and give you the wizard powers you should have had." 

He was trying to trick me, to take back my gift! I shook my head so hard it made me dizzy. 

"No thanks," I said, "look what that did for my parents. I've got something much better. There's no way I'm going to let you or Austin take that away." He looked confused, so I guess he's not as smart as me. Besides, I'd take gold over magic any day. 

He did have some other news for me. "The wizard DNA gene therapy program didn't work. Seems that once wizard powers emerge, they don't go away. There was one side effect, though." He hesitated for a moment as he stared at me. "Everyone who took it went insane."

We had some more small talk, and then he left. I think he was impressed with my house and car. 

When my remaining kidney failed, my medical expenses shot up with the dialysis treatments. I wish I hadn't had the other kidney cut out earlier; it was hardly worth it, weighing only six ounces or $3800, after Dr. Kutler's share. But Kutler had assured me that I didn't need both. 
How were we to know the other would fail? 

Anemia is also a problem. I miss those two pints of blood. But I mostly lie or sit quietly these days, and the low blood count and pressure doesn't bother me too much. 

I needed money for medical fees, to pay my staff, and for general living expenses. So the other arm went for another $100,000, after Dr. Kutler's cut. The nurse and butler take good care of me, so it's not like I really miss it. I'm starting to see the bigger picture. Why should I worry about what I personally can do when I have others who can do everything for me?

I saw that Austin had a new Armani suit, and I needed to get one too, and maybe some nice shoes that he doesn't have. Shoes? I'd forgotten I didn't have feet anymore! 

But I still bought new shoes. 

Since I can't drive the Lamborghini any more, I gave it to the butler in lieu of salary. He said I had a heart of gold. He has no idea! But he takes me for a drive every few nights past Austin's house, and we're both happy with the arrangement. I think I see Austin peeking out the window sometimes.

I have a new stereo and sound system. I like to play it very loud through an open window so it drifts down and bugs the hell out of Austin, at least until the police make me turn it down. They have it in for me. Of course, soon I won't need to do that. Austin's house is for sale--poor guy just couldn't handle being number two! He's moving. 
I spoke with my realtor about buying Austin's house, but she's all confused, told me the house has been vacant and on the market for years. Of course, I know Austin's been living there all along, watching my bigger house from his window. 

"Why are you lying to me?" I yelled in her face, but she just looked at me strangely, realizing I'd caught her in a lie. She couldn't trick me. Nobody can. If I could get a good price, then I'm sure Dr. Kutler and I can find something to scrape off, and I'll own Austin's house. My twitching eye is driving me crazy; maybe we can scrape that muscle off. 

I got a note from the government. Turns out they expect me to pay taxes on all income, no matter where it comes from. How am I supposed to explain where I get my gold? They've audited me, and based on my expenditures and property values, claim I owe them $200,000 in back taxes. That's another 18 pounds, plus whatever's needed to buy Austin's house. I don't think twitching eye muscles will cover that. 

The butler's taking me to Dr. Kutler's to see what we can dig up. I really see no use for hip bones. I've always been proud of my teeth, but with a blender for my food, are they really necessary? In fact, the entire jaw structure doesn't really serve much purpose as long as you've got a hole to pour food down. 

The butler has an extra spring to his step as he carries me into Dr. Kutler's operating room. They seem enthused to get started. Kutler's got the extra large scalpel out--I'm not sure why he needs the big one, there's nothing really large left to cut out. They're grinning like the cat that caught the canary. I'm glad I have such trusted friends who would never backstab me, like Austin and Sadim tried to do. Even my eye stopped twitching. I'm the luckiest guy in the world.