Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
The Boy and the Hand
[p.23]Once upon a time lightning sawed the sky and cracks appeared in the roof of the day. About the same time, a family of four sat at the dinner table, huddled over their bread, corn, salad, and fish. The mother and father were arguing over minor points, as people who argue usually do.
“Why don’t you turn the lights off at night?” she said. “Let things be.”
“Why is it you come home so late from work?” she said.
“Let things be, I said.”
“Why can’t you think of others, just once?”
“Why can’t you stop saying why? I’m sick, sick, sick of why, why, why.”
At this exact same time, the smallest child was looking a long trout in its dead eye. A trout browned in flour and salt lay lifeless and numb on his plate.
The young boy ate his corn and his salad of a few sliced tomatoes and pickled diced potatoes, but for some reason he couldn’t touch the fish with his fork or his fingers or his knife. Too big. Too real, even with a coating of browned flour and crusted salt. The boy remembered other fish darting after minnows, leaping after blue bottle flies, racing [p.24]in the shadows of the stream, and he sat glumly with a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, both balanced like small staves on the round oak table.
“Eat your supper,” his mother said.
“I’m not hungry,” the boy said, clenching his fork more tightly and wrinkling his lips, nose, and cheeks together in a toad-like face.
“Eat your supper,” his father said in a solid, large voice.
The boy knew better than to say he wasn’t hungry two times to two parents.
Without notice, the father’s large hands reached over to the boy’s plate and opened the fish as if it were a box with a hinged lid. He laid the trout flat and tore the skeleton right out of its belly. “Be glad your bones are stronger than this,” he said as he piled the skeleton on top of the other skeletons on a plate in the middle of the table. “Eat your supper to keep them that way. Now.”
“And why do you park the car in the driveway when it’s safer in the garage?” the mother said.
“Are you going to keep this up?” the father said, two elbows on the table and two hands on his forehead.
“Why don’t you answer me when I ask why?”
“I don’t have to answer to anybody.” Then, so quietly that the room suddenly turned still and the only noise was the storm outside, he said, ‘‘I’m not a slave.”
“But … “ Most everyone’s ears perked up—the husband’s, the son’s, the daughter’s—when they heard a small “but” drop out of the mother’s mouth.
“Yes?” the father said, his arms folded across his stomach and his fists tight as new buds.
Just at that moment the son stabbed his knife and fork into the fish and took a bite much bigger than his mouth. He stuffed the fish into one side, then the other side, and chewed quickly and fervently and obediently. With so much fish in his mouth and no chance to chew it sufficiently, he had no other choice but to gulp. And suddenly there was a bone lodged in his throat and he couldn’t catch a breath and his father was flat-handedly hitting his back and his mother was telling him to put his arms up in the air to clear the windpipe and his sister was staring at him with wide eyes underneath electrified hair.
The boy felt as though he was being turned inside out, almost like [p.25]the fingers on a glove when the glove is pulled off too quickly. The fish bone stopped all other motion around it. The boy didn’t feel like a boy or a fish but something in between. He gasped for air until he turned red and the redness crossed his face and swelled his ears and burst. Everything softened to a numbing blue. He was a fish swimming under ice in a winter stream as the ice thickened and distorted and darkened.
As he felt himself sinking farther to the bottom of the cold stream, he saw a large hand-bigger than his father’s hand, but not so large as to belong to a giant. It had no elbow or bicep or shoulder and floated across the dining room and over the table. It hovered over him—straight fingers like arrows, a thumb cocked like a rudder. It was a strong hand, not doubtful of its presence in the room. At first it was pale in color, like a distant star obscured by city light, but then it changed to green to pink to gray-black to pale again. The hand had geography in its palm-a map of the world, it seemed. It had sociology, the way it reached out and touched the boy, the way it vibrated ever so slightly and hummed.
All of a sudden, the boy felt the fingers of this hand open his lips and reach inside his mouth and grasp the tip of the fishbone and coax it from him. He felt his body rise slowly out of the stream, up over the water-smoothed pebbles and boulders, toward the sunlight and the reflection of green leaves on the surface.
“My baby,” he heard his mother saying as she knelt over him, shaking him.
“Did you see that hand?” the sister asked. “The one that floated out the door just now with a fishbone between its fingers?”
“I saw it,” the mother said as she held her son in her arms, rocking him as if she were a cradle herself. “And after it took the fishbone, it paused by my mouth, reached between my teeth and pulled all of the whys out of me. I don’t have one left, not one.” She tried to say “W …” Her husband and children could read the shape of “W …” on her lips, but they couldn’t hear a sound.
“I saw the hand, too,” the father said, his eyes like round coins. “And it shook one of its fingers at me as it sailed by.
The family returned to the dinner table. They ate their bread, corn, salad, and fish, they smiled, and they watched the rainbow arching across the evening sky through the glass of their dining room window.
[p.26]That night the son and the daughter fingerpainted pictures of the hand to hang over their fireplace. That night the mother crossstitched a sampler with a hand at the center of its design. The next day the father brought home a rubber hand from a costume shop and hung it in the kitchen with the pots and pans. At dinner the next night, they laughed about how foolish they had been and how lucky they were to have the hand come into their lives.
Peace reigned for a while, and they almost lived happily after. But before too long, it became apparent that mothers can ask questions without the word why; that fathers still don’t like to be quizzed (even if they can laugh at themselves and hang a rubber hand in the kitchen); AND, even though eating might be easier otherwise, fish still have bones.