Those Almost Perfect Hands

by Kristine Ong Muslim

The last time Martin Strand checked his hands, they were twitching like giggling children on his lap. His mother was boiling macaroni in the kitchen, and every time she banged something in there, Martin jumped up with the noise. Then immediately, as if by impulse, he would look down at his hands to see if they were acting up again.

Two days ago, Martin’s Grampa Des was buried wearing his best suit and a blue silk tie with the paisley pattern.

Good old Desmond Strand, who died of a heart attack in the middle of lighting a cigarette in front of his television, had the sense enough to plant the seed of doubt in Martin’s nine-year old brain: “…but the moment you finally discover a way to part from your hands, they will crack their knuckles, pick up the scent of your trail, and find you!”

It had upset Martin ever since. One night, he woke up screaming when he found his right hand curled tightly around the neck of Captain, his favorite toy. It looked as if his hands tried to choke Captain, and he would never ever do that in a million years.

“You must have put your fingers there by mistake, Marty,” his father said. He had risen from bed quickly, grabbed his .38, and expected a burglar. “And why in God’s name should your hands have a life of their own?!”

He tucked Martin back to bed and told him that Grampa Des was only joking. His father’s face was grim; Martin cursed himself for not keeping his mouth shut and getting Gramps into trouble.

His guilt was overwhelmed with fear, then anger, the kind of boyish anger that sometimes surfaced in the later years. He could never forget how Gramps smiled as if to taunt him forever: Once you recognize what your hands can do, boy, you will never be left alone. Your hands will know what you know, and they will try to outsmart you. Until you can’t take it anymore…

After hiding Captain under his pillow, Martin drifted to sleep and dreamed of running down a well-lit corridor. The floor was lined with clear plastic to keep it from getting wet. From what, he did not know then. Only he was sure that the plastic outer surface that crackled while he stepped on it was supposed to protect the floor from getting soaked. At the end of the corridor was the majestic sight of the mountain turned upside down, its cross-section exposed. It looked like a page from a geology book that Grampa Des showed to him three weeks ago. He could see the stratigraphic layers: a section for conglomerate rocks, a dull metamorphic layer, a layer of greenish mass that was supposed to be mashed trees to be turned into peat, and impossibly, a layer of solid gold. Not in its ore form; the gold shone. He did not know what to make of the dream when he woke up, and he did not try hard to make up meanings for it. But then like clockwork, a dream always became its own interpretation.

The next morning, he overhead his mother talking to Grampa Des downstairs at the breakfast table. Although he could not hear the words, Martin knew that his mother was angry. She talked slowly and emphasized every word when she was upset.

They all stopped talking when he entered the kitchen.

Martin’s left hand trembled slightly. He did not notice it in his haste to conceal how much he understood what they were arguing about.

Sitting on the high chair, even his two-year old sister, Lauren, stared at him before she playfully stuck out her tongue and hollered “Maaaty, maaaty, maaaty.” Morsels of food flew out of her tiny mouth, and his father, now ten minutes late for work, did his best to clean up the pieces of food and kissed her goodbye.

Fascinated by the shiny cloth, Lauren grabbed her father’s tie and managed to soil it with her yolk-stained hand.

#

When school started and the homework began to pour in, Martin Strand thankfully forgot about Grampa Des and the issue about his hands.

Sophie Farris, a new classmate who had recently moved from New Hampshire, occupied his recess-time daydreaming hours. He imagined her asking for a bite from his greasy ham sandwich. He imagined showing her his game card collection. He imagined sharing his world to her.

Martin waved at her from the school bus; Sophie saw him but she averted her gaze, looked away, and pursed her pink lips.

He imagined SWAT snipers looking down at him from the windows of the apartment buildings beyond. Martin knew that they would know exactly where his heart throbbed, and he smiled his nine-year old smile.

His hands tingled. The finger pads itched. He could not make his right hand stop from curling the pointer and thumb into an O. Trying his best not to scream, Martin forgot about the imaginary snipers and Sophie Farris.

He dashed straight to the bathroom when he arrived home. Running cold water over his hands, he prayed under his breath for God to make Gramps’ story about his hands nothing but a lie for kids who stayed up late and would not eat the vegetables on their plate.

“Not alive, not alive, not alive,” he whispered as if in a chant, willing the fear to go away. “Please, Lord, don’t make them BE ALIVE.”

Cut them off. He thought for a moment, then he closed his eyes and the vision went away.

He rubbed the soap bar to make the strange itch go away. His hands, as if by revolt, maliciously flung the bar of soap many times on the floor. Martin was not aware that he was already crying while he picked up the soap bar again and again.

He was looking at the face of his mother when he opened the bathroom door.

“Are you all right?” she asked, a worried expression on her face.

“I’m okay, mom.”

“Are you sure?” she looked him over, tried to read whatever secrets he could keep chained on those young, all-knowing eyes.

“Got cramps, and I hit the toothbrush stand when I turned on the tap.” He was not looking at her. He would never, in a million years, say or do anything to make his mother think that he was going crazy. Lazy or dumb, yes, but not crazy.

“Dinner’s ready, hon, come on.”

He heard Lauren squealing happily while dancing with Winnie the Pooh. He did not have to look, but he knew that she was bopping at her self-appointed place in front of the television. Martin would give up everything so Lauren would remain like that, would never have to undergo all the crazy things that had been going on with him.

He would find a way to solve this. He would, no matter what it took.

I love you, mom. I love you, Laurie. Daddy, please be home now. Hands not alive, not alive, not alive. It was becoming a mantra now.

When his mother took his hand, he tried his best to pretend that he still had the cramps and shook her hand away.

He smelled simmering beef and vegetable soup, his mother’s specialty. He did not know it yet, but years less, he would still associate that smell with home.

#

Weeping, Martin gawked at his fingers as they tap-danced across his desk. His half-finished homework sat in a messy pile. His tears now blotted the ink.

His evil hands, they simply would not stop. Gliding and wriggling and twirling like stick marionettes to an imaginary tune, his fingers paraded across the surface of the soaked notebook paper. Helpless, he watched until his hands stopped and he had control of them again.

How did you do it, Gramps? I don’t know if this is your fault, but I hate you. I hate you so much. I’ll beat you this time. You can’t make me cut off my hands! Dad says I’m gonna grow up to be a doctor. I’m not going to end up dead and drunk like you. You can’t make me cut off my hands.

Turning in his sheets that night, he thought of his cousin Jimmy who was born with an enucleated left eye. It made his left eye socket look like a fleshy hollow and deformed the left side of his face. Last summer, Martin had made fun of him. Now, he would have gladly traded places with Jimmy.

How did it start? Think, think, think. Maybe, Martin thought, if I can figure it out, I can make everything go back to normal again.

The hands started doing what they’re not supposed to do after Gramps said his crazy little farewell statement, right?

Gramps just said it, and that was it.

Words.

Just words.

Like a curse, right?

How do you break a curse?

Martin cried, angry at the unfairness of it all. He was only nine years old. Captain was now safe in the bottom drawer, but what about him?

He finally fell asleep an hour past midnight.

Everything in the room took on the ever-familiar mottled color of darkness.

In his dreams, he was in the kitchen, about to cut off his left hand when it tried to grab Lauren. He wondered how he could get rid of the other when the left one was already severed. The dream “Martin” finally decided to shove both hands inside the business end of the garbage disposal. In the living room, Lauren sang and hopped with Winnie the Pooh.

#

How do you break a curse?

The next day in class, as Mr. Goodman droned on about the parts of a flower, Martin went over his thoughts a hundred times.

Perhaps, he was looking at it the wrong way.

“Petal, sepal, pistil, stamen–”

Perhaps, he was not supposed to break it.

“This, here, is called the ovary–”

Maybe, he only needed to pass it on somehow.

Martin smiled his nine-year old smile. Maybe that was it, but how?

“No, Billy, that’s just your tummy. You don’t have an ovary.”

Laughter. The big guys at the back snickered. They would forever remember Billy Herman as the boy with the ovary.

Martin joined in, but his laughter sounded forced.

#

He felt the dreaded, ever familiar tingling in his hands when he reached the end of the block where his two-storey home stood. At his sides, his fingers began to move in a dainty motion as if they were trying on piano keys and could not decide what particular note to strike.

He did not know when was it that he stopped being afraid, because he only felt angry now. Hopelessly angry.

“I hope you won’t ever have to rot, Gramps,” he said under his breath. He had never felt this angry before. His chest hitched, and he felt out of breath. He looked at the glistening dragon kite tangled in the branches of the tree on the neighbor’s front yard and concentrated on the image so that his tears would not come out.

“I never did anything to you,” he whispered with a furious intensity.

“You will lie there forever and your eyes will never close and you will see everything, all the black, Gramps, and you will feel everything that touches your skin and you’ll never be able to brush away whatever touches you.”

Martin blinked his tears away. His hands stopped moving, and they suddenly felt like they were his again. He would never understand how he did it, but he knew he had won.

#

Somewhere, an old man named Desmond Strand opened his eyes inside the coffin where he lay and saw nothing but darkness. He was unable to move, but for the many years to come, he felt and saw every thing that reached out for him inside the cramped cold space six feet under the grass.

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