Major Aranda’s Hand
Major Aranda suffered the loss of a hand in battle, and, unfortunately for him, it was his right hand. Other people make collections of hands of bronze, of ivory, of glass and of wood; at times they come from religious statues or images; at times they are antique door knockers. And surgeons keep worse things in jars of alcohol. Why not preserve this severed hand, testimony to a glorious deed? Are we sure that the hand is of less value than the brain or the heart?
Let us meditate about it. Aranda did not meditate, but was impelled by a secret instinct. Theological man has been shaped in clay, like a doll, by the hand of God. Biological man evolves thanks to the service of his hand, and his hand has endowed the world with a new natural kingdom, the kingdom of the industries and the arts. If the strong walls of Thebes rose to the music of Amphion’s lyre, it was his brother Zethus, the mason, who raised the stones with his hand. Manual laborers appear therefore in archaic mythologies, enveloped in magic vapor: they are the wonder-workers. They are “The Hands Delivering the Fire” that Orozco has painted. In Diego Rivera’s mural the hand grasps the cosmic globe that contains the powers of creation and destruction; and in Chapingo the proletarian hands are ready to reclaim the patrimony of the earth.
The other senses remain passive, but the manual sense experiments and adds and, from the spoils of the earth, constructs a human order, the son of man. It models both the jar and the planet; it moves the potter’s wheel and opens the Suez Canal.
A delicate and powerful instrument, it possesses the most fortunate physical resources: hinges, pincers, tongs, hooks, bony little chains, nerves, ligaments, canals, cushions, valleys and hillocks. It is soft and hard, aggressive and loving.
A marvelous flower with five petals that open and close like the sensitive plant, at the slightest provocation! Is five an essential number in the universal harmonies? Does the hand belong to the order of the dog rose, the forget-me-not, the scarlet pimpernel? Palmists perhaps are right in substance although not in their interpretations. And if the physiognomists of long ago had gone on from the face to the hand, completing their vague observations, undoubtedly they would have figured out correctly that the face mirrors and expresses but that the hand acts.
There is no doubt about it, the hand deserves unusual respect, and it could indeed occupy the favorite position among the household gods of Major Aranda.
The hand was carefully deposited in a quilted jewel case. The folds of white satin seemed a diminutive Alpine landscape. From time to time intimate friends were granted the privilege of looking at it for a few minutes. It was a pleasing, robust, intelligent hand, still in a rather tense position from grasping the hilt of the sword. It was perfectly preserved.
Gradually this mysterious object, this hidden talisman, became familiar. And then it emigrated from the treasure chest to the showcase in the living room, and a place was made for it among the campaign and high military decorations.
Its nails began to grow, revealing a slow, silent, surreptitious life. At one moment this growth seemed something brought on by inertia, at another it was evident that it was a natural vir- tue. With some repugnance at first, the manicurist of the family consented to take care of those nails each week. The hand was always polished and well cared for.
Without the family knowing how it happened—that’s how man is, he converts the statue of the god into a small art object—the hand descended in rank; it suffered a manus diminutio; it ceased to be a relic and entered into domestic circulation. After six months it acted as a paperweight or served to hold the leaves of the manuscripts—the major was writing his memoirs now with his left hand; for the severed hand was flexible and plastic and the docile fingers maintained the position imposed upon them.
In spite of its repulsive coldness, the children of the house ended up by losing respect for it. At the end of a year, they were already scratching themselves with it or amused themselves by folding its fingers in the form of various obscene gestures of international folklore.
The hand thus recalled many things that it had completely forgotten. Its personality was becoming noticeable. It acquired its own consciousness and character. It began to put out feelers. Then it moved like a tarantula. Everything seemed an occasion for play. And one day, when it was evident that it had put on a glove all by itself and had adjusted a bracelet on the severed wrist, it did not attract the attention of anyone.
It went freely from one place to another, a monstrous little lap dog, rather crablike. Later it learned to run, with a hop very similar to that of hares, and, sitting back on the fingers, it began to jump in a prodigious manner. One day it was seen spread out on a current of air: it had acquired the ability to fly.
But in doing all these things, how did it orient itself, how did it see? Ah! Certain sages say that there is a faint light, imperceptible to the retina, perhaps perceptible to other organs, particularly if they are trained by education and exercise. Should not the hand see also? Of course it complements its vision with its sense of touch; it almost has eyes in its fingers, and the palm is able to find its bearings through the gust of air like the membranes of a bat. Nanook, the Eskimo, on his cloudy polar steppes, raises and waves the weather vanes to orient himself in an apparently uniform environment. The hand captures a thousand fleeting things and penetrates the translucent currents that escape the eye and the muscles, those currents that are not visible and that barely offer any resistance.
The fact is that the hand, as soon as it got around by itself, became ungovernable, became temperamental. We can say that it was then that it really “got out of hand.” It came and went as it pleased. It disappeared when it felt like it; returned when it took a fancy to do so. It constructed castles of improbable balance out of bottles and wineglasses. It is said that it even became intoxicated; in any case, it stayed up all night.
It did not obey anyone. It was prankish and mischievous. It pinched the noses of callers, it slapped collectors at the door. It remained motionless, playing dead, allowing itself to be contemplated by those who were not acquainted with it, and then suddenly it would make an obscene gesture. It took singular pleasure in chucking its former owner under the chin, and it got into the habit of scaring the flies away from him. He would regard it with tenderness, his eyes brimming with tears, as he would regard a son who had proved to be a black sheep.
It upset everything. Sometimes it took a notion to sweep and tidy the house; other times it would mix up the shoes of the family with a true arithmetical genius for permutations, combinations and changes; it would break the window panes by throwing rocks, or it would hide the balls of the boys who were playing in the street.
The major observed it and suffered in silence. His wife hated it, and of course was its preferred victim. The hand, while it was going on to other exercises, humiliated her by giving her lessons in needlework or cooking.
The truth is that the family became demoralized. The one-handed man was depressed and melancholy, in great contrast to his former happiness. His wife became distrustful and easily frightened, almost paranoid. The children became negligent, abandoned their studies, and forgot their good manners. Everything was sudden frights, useless drudgery, voices, doors slamming, as if an evil spirit had entered the house. The meals were served late, sometimes in the parlor, sometimes in a bedroom because, to the consternation of the major, to the frantic protest of his wife, and to the furtive delight of the children, the hand had taken possession of the dining room for its gymnastic exercises, locking itself inside, and receiving those who tried to expel it by throwing plates at their heads. One just had to yield, to surrender with weapons and baggage, as Aranda said.
The old servants, even the nurse who had reared the lady of the house, were put to flight. The new servants could not endure the bewitched house for a single day. Friends and relatives deserted the family. The police began to be disturbed by the constant complaints of the neighbors. The last silver grate that remained in the National Palace disappeared as if by magic. An epidemic of robberies took place, for which the mysterious hand was blamed, though it was often innocent.
The most cruel aspect of the case was that people did not blame the hand, did not believe that there was such a hand animated by its own life, but attributed everything to the wicked devices of the poor one-handed man, whose severed member was now threatening to cost us what Santa Anna’s leg cost us. Undoubtedly Aranda was a wizard who had made a pact with Satan. People made the sign of the cross.
In the meantime the hand, indifferent to the harm done to others, acquired an athletic musculature, became robust, steadily got into better shape, and learned how to do more and more things. Did it not try to continue the major’s memoirs for him? The night when it decided to get some fresh air in the auto- mobile, the Aranda family, incapable of restraining it, believed that the world was collapsing; but there was not a single accident, nor fines nor bribes to pay the police. The major said that at least the car, which had been getting rusty after the flight of the chauffeur, would be kept in good condition that way.
Left to its own nature, the hand gradually came to embody the Platonic idea that gave it being, the idea of seizing, the eagerness to acquire control. When it was seen how hens perished with their necks twisted or how art objects belonging to other people arrived at the house—which Aranda went to all kinds of trouble to return to their owners, with stammerings and incomprehensible excuses—it was evident that the hand was an animal of prey and a thief.
People now began to doubt Aranda’s sanity. They spoke of hallucinations, of “raps” or noises of spirits, and of other things of a like nature. The twenty or thirty persons who really had seen the hand did not appear trustworthy when they were of the servant class, easily swayed by superstitions; and when they were people of moderate culture, they remained silent and answered with evasive remarks for fear of compromising themselves or being subject to ridicule. A round table of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature devoted itself to discussing a certain anthropological thesis concerning the origin of myths.
Excerpted from Bordering Fires by Cristina García. Copyright © 2006 by Cristina Garcia. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.