Into Holy Hands
by Gay Partington Terry
Let us begin with the hands, for they are what first engaged me. The skin was aging, wrinkled, loose. The veins protruded, like wire casing, some of them blue-green on yellowish-gray skin. The palms were delicate. The fingers long and thin. The nails, soft enough to have been peeled short, were almost imperceptible, the cuticle chewed off leaving amber rings. The wrist bone protruded dangerously from dry, flaking skin. On the inside of the wrists, scars, a last attempt at control over destiny. Perhaps I should have recognized the coarse athetosis suggested in their movements, a symptom of their consumptive heresiess, but I was spellbound. The otherworldliness of those hands fascinated and bewitched me.
The rest was irrelevant really, a dark shapeless mound of grimy rags like many others cluttering the streets. There was a cloth wrap or a hood that fell over the head which was always bent painfully low on the chest. There was no face, only shadow.
Only hands. Hands that called to me from the first day I saw them. Their elegant severity became an obsession. On cold days the mound expanded, padded against the frigid winds. On warmer days, less volume, but still covered completely, only the hands exposed themselves. Mornings, I pressed bread into them, or cracklings gleaned from my meager authorized rations.
Evenings, I pressed coins, ever fearful of touching skin to skin. The head would bob in gratitude; the hand would close and recede into its safehold. The mound would rock slowly, side to side in contained ecstasy.
I read in those hands the end of the barrio, the end of Time, though I was blind to the implications. That is, I allowed myself to be seduced by the poetry of the hands while dismissing the seditious nature their true disclosure. I read in those hands the futility of my preoccupations, the emptiness of my life, the uselessness of my coming and goingexcept for what I might offer Them.
It was official hands that took my wife. Call it a disease of the heart if you will, but I saw those sanctified hands come in the night to deprive her of pain. A vision? I saw them, even though I wasn't there, even though I was alone in a room dreaming, even though I was supposed to be at my work.
I had no need of that shrill disturbance, the official phone call. Later the Collector came for her and her things, but they left a slipper, a handkerchief, an old sweater, in their haste. These I pressed into the hands in gratitude for their devout mercy.
I was alone then. No companion to nurse. No simpatica with whom to share the thin broth. It had been many years since we'd had words for each other, her at her bed and I at my faithless figures, and yet...She was grateful for my attempts to plump her waning body, amenable to her fate.
Only the mystical hands drew together in prayer at her passing. Imagine extracting a prayer from the sprawl of the decrepit barrio. I was ashamed that it was not I who made the gesture. I placed a candle in the praying hands, and it disappeared into the dark mound.
After she was gone and the extra room boarded up and annexed by the neighbors, I was even more about my work despite the futility. The light of my screen was consoling, the figures dependable. I may have lost my voice from lack of contact, but I was never distracted. I did my work, swept my room and cleaned my bowl. I was careful and quiet and never needful. I moved delicately at the edge of life, passing the hands twice a day, morning and evening. What was it that kept me in the barrio after she'd gone? Only the hands, for I had no hunger, no wish to live.
The Guardians discontinued my junkets to the Core after that nightas always, reacting too late. How was it that I became so wayworn? I lost appetite, stamina. My eyesight became dim; if not for the light of my screen, I couldn't have worked. If not for the companionship of the hands...
Weeks went by, perhaps years. If it is true that time and space are related, then it may have been a matter of hoursbut I do not think they are so closely joined. The light became dimmer, the barrio more decrepit, cluttered with abandoned hopes, reeking with fetid desires. Only the hands were pure, virtuous, unsoiled, despite their wear. Their impeccable witchery intensified with each encounter. Long lean woman's hands they were, not square and blunt like mine. Innocent of the fetor that surrounded them.
One morning I hesitated before them and a voice escaped the ragged mound. Not so much a voice as an illusion. "Restes d'homme," it seemed to say.
"Save your life."
"I have no life," I whispered back, and wondered all day if the hands had really spoken.
That night they seemed fawning when I offered coins. They did not speak again, but offered me a feather, a rancid filthy thing that had no doubt come from a diseased bird, one of the blind pigeons perhaps. I took it home and pondered it. It was greasy and deformed, but in a certain light I could almost see its former iridescence, the ghost of the pungent bird it came from.
Even the Collector would not accept it, but with it I could almost see his former existence. Yes, the Collector himself had once been
flesh...smaller...hungry. The features were dim. I accepted the vessel he offered, the relitory of my dear wife, the decorative bones, and mumbled an ancient prayer in solitude as I partook of the ritual meal.
When he was gone, I looked at my own hands. They were swarthy and
square, thick and awkward. They were often cramped from working at the keys.
The nails were yellow, hard. I clipped them straight across with one haphazard snip for each. They were marred by spots, lacerations, and coarse hairs. Several of the knuckles were swollen; some of the fingers crooked. Surely they were unworthy. Who would honor me with magical nibbling?
I returned the feather to the sanctuary of holy hands.
"You've passed the test," they signed. (No voice this time.) "Humans are doomed by their sanctimoniousness, but there is a race of angels. You are eligible for the transformation."
In the unpretentious hands, I placed a section of soft blood sausage from my ritual meal of the previous evening, and they disappeared.
That evening when I offered my small coin (it was the end of a lean
season), the hands closed upon mine. They were soft and cool, a disquietingly unharmonious combination of qualities. I wanted to pull away, but I chose not to offend. I did not entertain thoughts of malady.
I looked about furtively, but there was no help in the barrio...Then the coolness turned warm and released me.
"Again tomorrow," they signed.
I hurried off.
In my room I suffered a cold draft as I tried to sleep. It kept close to the floor and reminded me of the hands. Surely purity by nature must be cold, like the stone statues on the platform of the subtram, the marble floor of the courthouse in the Core. (I suffered the coldness of that floor once in my frivolous youth when I was thrown there.) Only decaying things are warmed by the process of putrefaction. But where did the softness come from?
An attribute of sympathy, mercy, compassion perhaps?
I could smell the neighbor's cooking, hear their baby cry in the room they'd annexed from me. I am no good at philosophy, but I know there is no excuse for stench and noise. It was rare that they had anything more than the common ration of thin broth to eat. I could overlook one night of foulness. The child would quiet when its belly was empty again. Surely the Collector would get wind of their infraction.
A race of angels, the hands had said. Transformation.
Perhaps I should report them; there was the smell of onion. Then the mother sang a seditious lullaby to the child.
Well, I had bread to pour my broth over, and work papers to slip between my blankets...and a commitment to purity.
I hurried out the next morning, having slept late, and was nearly run down by the neighbor.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "We are thankful for the room, but sorry to hear of your bereavement. We wished to offer our condolences earlier, but did not wish to disturb you."
The man had only one hand!
"You seem such a solitary fellow," he said.
His coat sleeve hung flat, tucked into the pocket, perhaps even stitched down. "We would be most honored if you were to pay us a call."
I looked at the empty sleeve, the single insurgent hand that hung limply from his other too-short sleeve. I looked back up into his stupid face, devoid of lines, watery of eye. There is no dignity in these youngsters.
I hurried on my way.
When I offered the dark crust of bread (the soft innards having been consumed with my broth), I whispered to the hands: "If we were any less faithful, we might have an onion."
That evening, the hands did not attempt to speak, nor did they touch mine. Perhaps the mention of impurity had saddened them. I chastised myself for speaking of impropriety. Though surrounded by the barrio's inadequacies, we had disdained speaking of them out loud. For that lapse on my part, I offered ten copper coinsenough for a bowl of broth.
That evening a melodrama erupted next door. Just after dark, there was motion in the corridor, figures coming and going, the whisper of women, strange odors, burning, the sound of choking, gagging. The metal door squeaked and thumped with each passing, there were murmurs in the corridor where someone had smashed the light. I was afraid and pushed the table in front of the door. Someone knocked, but I was silent and they went away. I dozed fitfully, expecting a row.
Towards daybreak, the woman began to screamlouder than the child had ever screamed. There was a panicked scuffle as if intruders were fleeing.
Then the muffling of the scream; perhaps the husband had finally asserted himself. And sobbing. Then silence at last.
I tried to sleep. Authorities have no access to the barrio at night time, but morning was imminent. I watched the grimy pane grow light behind its grill, waited to hear the sound of sirens, steel-toed boots in the corridor. There was nothing.
I heard the one-handed man leave, and hurried to dress myself. When I went out into the corridor, their door opened. The woman's face, streaked with dirt, lined with worry, peeked out at me. Her red eyes pleaded and I hesitated.
"My baby," she said. "My baby is sick. Can you help?"
She held the ragged bundle out to me. I could feel the heat, smell decay. The woman's hands were tiny, childlike; she smoothed the damp fur on the child's head. What could a woman with such small hands hope to accomplish? She looked so helpless. Her dark hair hung in strings down her back, making her look like a lost child herself. How had a woman like this chosen a one-handed man? Some dark collusion of fate had no doubt thrown them together...but to have a child!
I shook my head and went on my way.
The hands were waiting for me in the usual place, but I had nothing to offer them.
"Would the race of angels accept a child?" I asked them.
The hands folded as if in prayer; the head bent lower to the chest.
"Yes," they seemed to say. "It is what we seek."
"Can you come?" I asked them.
The hands spread themselves out, fingers appealing to the heavens. The head never lifted.
I grasped one of the cold hands, the other gripped mine. It was a tawdry display and I hurried away.
That evening their door was ajar. I peeked in at the neighbors. The one-handed man paced the floor holding the warm bundle. The woman lay sobbing quietly on a cot. The man looked up and saw me, so I crept away quietly into my own room.
That night was quieter. There was some furtive movement in the corridor, some strange odors, but the stench of desperation had dissipated.
When the one-armed man left in the morning, I tapped on the metal door.
The woman looked out, then opened the door.
"There is no hope," she said. "She's fit for neither life nor
I stepped into the tiny room. The child was lying in a wooden box lined with rags. Its hands (once chubby, perhaps, but now deflated hams) clutched at the fabric of its gown, unable to bend fully, lacking strength to hold on.
The eyes stared, unfocused; a sour venal drool leaked from its mouth and nose.
"My husband has gone to summon the Collector," she mumbled sadly.
"There is one prospect."
She shook her head.
"What will the Collector do with it?"
She began to sob quietly.
"It's so small..."
"No." She begged.
"There is a race of angels..." I took her hands, forcing her to look into my eyes, to read my sincerity.
"I know how to find them," I told her.
"No." I said sadly. "They are too late for her."
She looked at the child and at me. "My mother told me of the angels when I was a child. She said they are beautiful creatures, close to God."
"Pure and innocent," I said.
"Can they save her?"
"I don't know. But I know they can transform."
She took a clean cloth, dipped it in water, and went over to the baby. She wiped it carefully while I waited. She changed its soiled diaper and put on a clean gownwhite with little hand-stitched animals. Then she wrapped it and handed it to me.
"Her name is Hagalaz," she said.
I took the child, tucking her little useless hands into the swaddling.
The mother had stopped crying. She patted my arm with her tiny hand and closed the door after us.
I tucked the bundle under my coat as best I could. It was turning cooler already, acquiring purity. The child didn't move...or breathe.
On the street, people hurried about as if it were any ordinary day. The subtram contributed its rumble, the black damp claimed its tenure, the wind carried its usual warning, and I carried the cold and rigid Hagalaz next to my half-empty stomach.
The holy hands were wound about each other and neatly folded into the mound of rags; only the bony wrists stuck out. I knelt before them, touching them covertly to provoke them from their reverie. The head may have lifted slightly, but I could not detect any beam of the eye, only a hand moved tentatively to touch the bulk under my greatcoat. The hands clasped together, fingers entwined, and moved to the hood in an attitude of prayer.
People passed by hurriedly, establishing a wide arc about us on the pavement. The hands waited.
"Please," I said. "May I see your face before I give you the child?"
The fingers unentwined, the hands still together in an attitude of prayer.
"You must have faith, my son," they seemed to say.
I did not hesitate, but passed the child into the cold hands and took my leave.
It was impossible to work. There was a time when I knew what the figures on my screen stood for, but that is long forgotten. There was a time when I was happy to have work that took me away from the killing floor, lacking a natural endowment for physical labor. There was a time when the light of my screen encouraged me...
I feigned illness and was easily released. Strangely, there were people about the streets. Were their work hours so skewed? Did they work at all?
How did they acquire bread and broth?
I hastened to the holy station, but the hands were absent. How I ached now to participate in the triumph, to join in the sacred transformation. I wondered that the mother had not given in to similar urges. Perhaps exhaustion and grief had overset her concern.
A few steps behind the greasy spot that marked the holy stand, was a dark conduit, damp with tears of the faithful, reeking with abominations cast off.
Through this stink of corruption, I determined to pass. I gasped my last lung full of electromechanically purified air, and stepped, head down, into the glory.
Before I could breathe in the miasma of transformation, I was accosted by eerie laughter, a rasping chant, the crackle of cleansing fire. Ahead my dimmed eyes could discern the faithful, gathered about the cleansing flames.
An acolyte turned the spit slowly, evenly, as if in a trance. My lungs spewed the pent-up air with loud relief. Shadowed eyes turned toward me and a call went up. There was an illuminating smell...heavenly, earthy, all realms combined.
I was grabbed, but in ecstasy of the smell I barely felt the pressure. Then a hand went upa white and holy handand all was silenced. The spit turned in its contained orbit. I was released to follow the beckoning of the hand, to approach the sacred smell, to be redeemed. But there had been no transformation, it was the diseased child that turned blackened on the spit.
I looked about me. Mortals...only mortals attended the death feast. Low and debased mortals, whose immodest hands hung at their sides smeared with fat and blood.
"No!" I shouted. "The meat is impure, unsanctioned. You mustn't eat it. You risk Kuru."
The spit never stopped turning. There was laughter behind me. I turned quickly, but the ghouls paid no attention.
Then the holy hands, my pure saintly hands rose to their full height and came down upon my wrists. They pulled me to a corner and the specter to whom they belonged stood looking down at me. A woman's soft eyes peered out from the shadows of rags in pity and challenged my resolve.
"The meat will be well-cooked and seasoned. There is nothing to fear."
So that was the gambit, ritualized gluttony, self-indulgence. With a motion as quick as I could muster, I pulled the hood down. The features were far from angelic, they were not even the orderly features of a human face, but a chaotic distribution of fleshy organs, metallic parts, carbuncles, and circuit-printed substance. Her teeth were filed into points as were those of the acolytes who stood about us. It was an ancient custom, long abandoned, one that now meant to signify a new order, an end of the asceticism that set us apart from the barbarian scavengers of contaminated flora.
I looked from her turbulent face to her insidious hands, to the blackened child of disease.
"Blasphemy!" I said. "You violate the very economy of sacrifice."
"How doth your broth?"
"The broth is pasteurized, sanitized, nutritionally balanced."
"Where is passion, love? What virtue hath devouring without emotion?
What honor is bestowed by consumption without being consumed?"
"You are consumed by contamination then, no better than the scavengers..."
"What are you consumed by, pasteurized man? Inhale the heavenly
emanation; come, taste the chaste sincerity, untampered with."
I could only shake my head. The arrogance of rebellion, the
recklessness...And I, deceived by the very organs of touch...
I found my way back through the prewar conduit, and walked the streets of the barrio for hours, studying the austere display of lovingly bleached jaws and teeth, bones and gaping heads that sanctified the Gothic edifice of the quarter. The streets were nearly deserted now. Good citizens were at their shifts, meeting quotas, working toward soundness, united in an ideology of nutrition, hallowed by a sacred domestic economic; a community of ultimate intimacy. My head pounded. My hands shook. Was it heresy? Or enlightenment? Debauchery or candor? If this be our culture, how could I fault the convictions of those so participatory?
I came to the edge of the barrio, where the filthy river separated us from the Core, the vegetarian Zeitgeist. Here in these last ruined buildings where the shadows and insects had all but taken over, there was always plenty to eatcorpulent, oily spiders and grebenes; fat larvae of bees, wasps, ants, moths and flies. Cooking fires offered up the sweet perfume of roasting beetles, water bugs and roaches. I purchased one of these treats from a vendor and sat munching, concentrating on the nutty crunch of insect and trying to ignore the stench of the fetid river that swamped its path like malevolent treacle. Across its murky countenance, three of the original sixteen bridges persevered. These, destined to be eroded away by the acid waters and caustic winds that had squandered the others, were chained and barb-wired, heavily guarded on both sides. Perhaps they think us torturing Iroquois. Obsessed Aztecs. Pekin Man cracking open shin bones and skulls, strewing the remains around a cave. Perhaps they think we walk about with knife and fork anxious to sample their unwholesome flesh. They do not see the tender loved ones who fatten themselves for us, and brave souls fighting perpetual street wars to be consumed in glory. They have never experienced the savoriness and exhilaration of ingesting sentient beings. They do not appreciate the Eucharist.
On the other side of the river a sepia haze hung over grizzled buildings and jaundiced earth, swathed in toxic bracken. Emaciated figures, depleted of animal protein, scavenged the vile gunk for provision. Imagine digesting the contaminated fungi! Imagine forsaking nutritional balance from large and plentiful assets for the impractical confines of inadequate cancerous herbage. Heaps of corpses wasted on the battlefield; where is justice and mercy in that? Of course, the greatest outrage of all was planting the dead (after allowing them to rot appreciably) into the foul earth, thereby perpetuating the mortification of life. I could foresee only population pressures, environmental depletion, drudgery, exploitation and disease in that venue. Those who do not honor flesh by ingesting, will never understand humanity.
I looked down to the turbid river for inspiration. Encumbered by
history, burdened with contaminants, it persisted in its arduous slough. Surely it concealed atonement. I asked myself, what souls lie thick beneath the murk of water? I sat for hours until darkness provided closure and the lustrous water offered illumination. Perhaps it is late for an old man to acquire faith in the spiritual, but I am imbued with the soul of my dear wife who was a pious and plump woman. I vowed to play out my part in perpetuity. After all, I've acquired the courage of a myriad of souls in the consumption of a lifetime (if only by way of the sanitized broth of the bureaucratic zealots). I am re-formed. I shall drink in the passion of the determined river, together with wife and accumulated intimates, and surely gain immunity from the contagion of politic. I shall file my teeth, raise my worthless hands to heaven, and achieve Grace.
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