[Image: “The Hand” by Frida Kahlo]
I used to worry a lot about losing my hands. An axe might fall on them and cut them off, or they might get slammed in a car door and crushed, or maybe one day on my way home from school, the neighbors might have left their gate open and their dogs, who chased after me, snapping and growling and throwing themselves against the cyclone fence, would get out. Or they might leap over the fence and finally satisfy themselves, sinking their shining teeth into my small hands. They would mangle them so badly that the doctors would have to amputate.
I used to ask my mom to drive me to school just so I wouldn’t have to walk past that fence. Every day on my way to school and every day on my way back, as I approached that stretch of cyclone fence, I could see the end of my hands. The image would jump into my head, unwanted, and take my breath away. I’d fold my arms across my chest and tuck my hands under my armpits and shudder as I scurried by fast enough to make a dash, but smoothly and noiselessly so I wouldn’t excite the dogs. All the while I shook my head from the image of their teeth in me—the snarling and the helpless rolling on the ground—the gush and ooze of my blood, the crackling of my bones. I’d try to push the picture out of my head, but that just made it worse.
That is how I learned, at age nine, that you can’t concentrate on not thinking about something. The more you try, the worse it gets. So I’d try playing games with my mind to chase the thoughts out of it, but the moment I realized I’d been successful, of course, the thoughts came rushing in again. And that is how I found out that the mind is not something you can control. If it can play tricks on you, it surely will. It cannot be a possession.
I’d sit in class at my desk, pushing the clock toward the weekend, except for that minute of fire walking past the dogs. And when I got home safely, I’d huddle in the middle of my room, carefully remove my white hands from under my arms, and try to reclaim both my hands and my mind.
My mother said she was afraid of those dogs too. She even went over to Mr. and Mrs. Czernik’s house to talk to them, to get familiar with them and their dogs. She told me that the whole time, those dogs sat at their owners’ feet, wound up like rattlesnakes, making her nervous the way they grinned at her neck while their masters weren’t looking.
She didn’t trust dogs in general. But her father liked dogs, and she talked all about the dog he had when she was little. Sam was some kind of mix of German shepherd and boxer. He was so black, he was almost green. Sam used to lie at her father’s feet, his head stretched out and his jowls on the floor, his radar ears rotating. And if he heard anything he didn’t like, he’d open one eye, growl, and bare his teeth in a sleepy snarl. If her father didn’t swat him right then and say, “Lie down, Sam!” he’d jump up and run to the window, barking, even biting at the glass, ready to sink his teeth into his own reflection. I pictured Sam with red eyes.
If my mother ever got close to Sam and Sam growled, her father would shake his finger at my mother and warn her, “Annie, don’t vex the dog.”
As Sam got older, he got meaner. He started to cower and snarl at everyone except my grandfather. A neighbor and his two young children rang the bell one evening holding their family cat wrapped up in a blood-spattered towel. He accused Sam. Sam was lolling in front of the fireplace, one eye open, one ear up in the air, the fur around his black lips sticky with blood. Soon afterward, Sam took a chunk out of the milkman. The county ordered Grandpa to have Sam put to sleep or have him removed to another county, but after Grandpa sicced his lawyer on them, they agreed to allow him to build a separate section of the garage to house Sam, and keep him out of harm’s way.
My mother’s job was to feed Sam twice a day. Twice a day while Grandpa was at work, she had to weigh a portion of raw beef spleen into Sam’s dish, take it out the back door, down the walkway to the back of the garage, call, “Here, Sam!” open the door quietly so as not to excite him, and slide the dish in. When Sam had had his fill, she was to remove the dish and bring it back into the house. One day, Sam lunged at my mother while she still had the dish in her hands. If it hadn’t been winter, she wouldn’t have had a coat on to protect her, and Sam would have torn her arm off. She has a circular, jagged scar across the ridge of her palm, at the base of her fingers all the way around her thumb. I used to look at it and think that all mothers had to have some sort of scar like that to really qualify for the job.
Some people are strange about their dogs. According to Grandpa, it was Annie’s fault for vexing Sam. And the issue became twisted into whether he should forgive my mother, which he didn’t. That story bothered me, because Grandpa was so sweet to me. I didn’t like thinking of him with a heartless side. What I learned is to watch out for what is at both ends of the leash.
Still, people can color stories to suit their judgments or to serve a purpose, and my mother had her eyes always set away from Grandpa, even before he entered a room. That is how she announced him, silently, by looking the other way.
Everyone knew that I worried about my hands. My big brother, Rueben, had a girlfriend, Alice. She told me her sewing teacher in high school was missing a finger from her right hand, and she had six fingers on her left. They both tried to make me believe that she’d sewed over her finger, and the doctors put her finger back onto the wrong hand by mistake.
I didn’t believe it. I’d heard about that teacher. She was a legend because of her hands. I knew that it was true about the missing finger and the extra finger, because I’d seen her at an open house at my brother’s school. Alice dragged me into the Home Ec room and pointed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of those hands. But the extra finger was not a full-sized finger. It was almost like a little bud grown in at an angle, like a tiny sapling on a hillside.
I don’t know what it was about my hands—why I was so protective of them, so scared. They just seemed so vulnerable and so necessary. The world is a dangerous place to be. And hands—my hands—are so dangerously beautiful. It’s as if they are an invitation to wild animals, trapped in their yards, or unhappy, shiftless people with their vendettas against anything possessed of grace, innocence, and loveliness—like my hands—that could carry me away. Take flight and carry me away.
Tobie Shapiro is a composer and cellist who has also worked as a visual artist, cartoonist, graphologist, and professional chef. She was a columnist for the East Bay Phoenix and has been published in American Writer’s Review, Bluestem, Songwriter Magazine, The Monthly, The Penmen Review, The Coachella Review, and in the anthology Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance (1992). She has attended numerous writing conferences with The Opening and studied with Andy Couturier. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.