Thursday, July 1, 2010


This shall be a story about hands.

As a child, his mother read him a story, a fantasy novel not unlike Harry Potter but less well known, and quite possibly better. In it the main character, a woman who shares a special relationship with dragons [I forget her name], meets another central character, a princess by birth who lives on a dragon farm. The two women shake hands, and the author goes through great lengths to describe the hands of the princess as being not the hands of pampered royalty, but rather the hands of someone who had worked hard, rough callused  capable hands. Hands that know what to do when gripping a tool, or a sword, or the reigns of a dragon harness. Part of him fell in love with that princess at that handshake, and it is the only part of that story he still remembers clearly.

As an adolescent, he read The Girl With the Pearl Earring at his grandmother's suggestion. He was struck by the description of the main character, a sixteen year old housemaid, and her hands: swollen, rough, cracked, "ruined" hands from years of laundry, dishes, and housework. He looked at his own sixteen year old hands and felt inferior, starkly aware that he had never labored like the character in his book. His hands weren't unusually soft, but his fingers were delicate, and the only callus he had was just below his pinkie on his left hand from gripping a hockey stick. His fingers all bled periodically, as the boy had a terrible habit of biting his nails, and chewing the tips of his fingers when he was nervous. He was nervous rather frequently, and thus, had terribly manicured finger nails nearly all the time.

As a seventeen year old, he traveled around central Italy in search of god knows what -- most likely nothing more than a few good stories to tell, and perhaps a few calluses for his hands. He worked on organic fruit and vegetable farms in exchange for food and lodging, mostly simple farm labor, such as clearing overgrown thorn bushes from a neglected piece of land with a machete, but sometimes less agrarian tasks like refinishing old furniture or jackhammering out the foundation of a deteriorating, three-hundred year old farmhouse. He avoided working with gloves in an attempt to build his calluses faster, but instead only succeeded in giving himself terrible blisters, chronic blisters due to his inability to restrain himself from picking the loose skin away from his hand instead of letting it heal. At one farm in Tuscany he worked alongside a man named Dan, a 34 year old illegal immigrant from Romania, a former policeman who was clubbed in the head on his birthday two years before, who spent three months in a coma, and who, upon waking, decided to leave Romania forever. Dan had calluses a quarter-inch thick. The boy envied those calluses, and Dan's immense physical strength. However, they were very evenly matched chess players. Each day, they would work side by side, the boy trying his best to keep up with Dan's pace, machete swipe for machete swipe, shovel-full for shovel-full, and each night, after they cooked dinner, they would play chess for hours and listen to music from the boy's laptop computer. Despite the routine presence of dirt from the farm-work lodged under the boy's nails, his nail-biting habit persisted.

As a college student, the boy, rapidly growing into a man now, found himself pedaling a bicycle more than nearly every other activity he performed. He loved the wind in his hair, the burning in his lungs, and the sweat on his brow, but his hands, almost always protected with thin padded gloves, grew soft again. His hands acquired several more interesting scars, a burn sustained while camping when a blob of molten plastic fell from a freshly cut and cauterized climbing rope, a gouge given by the plastic cover of a car door the boy was trying to wedge his hand inside to retrieve the keys locked within, a slice in his finger from cutting corn off it's cob, and numerous scrapes from unplanned encounters with the road while bicycling. The nail biting continued, though by now, the boy was no longer surprised by this. As a youth, the boy was convinced he would grow out of his nail biting phase, probably because his uncle claimed to be a reformed nail-biter, thus proving the habit was possible to kick; however, by this time, the boy merely accepted his nail-biting as he did many of the other surprises that accompany growing older: the beginnings of crows feet near his eyes, the occasional gray hair hiding among his black curls, or unusual (and unexplainable) stiffness in his joints.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For some reason this post really touched me, growing up, my mom always had rough hands, and we would listen to a song called "beautiful hands" on a album songs from the golden west. She would always look at her hands and frown and I would tell her that she had beautiful hands and it would always make her smile.. we are not on the best of terms now, but that is a fond memory that I hold close.. Thank you..