art by Melissa Mead
The Gifts: Part Three
by Mari Ness
I told many lies.
The angel feeding me after I lost my hands, for instance. I'd never seen one. Still haven't, for that matter, unless the carvings and paintings in churches and chapels count. But people assumed that the only way I could have survived was with the help of an angel, and since that made me seem pious--and thus, more worthy of help in their eyes--I let it go. It was a small lie. I figured real angels might forgive.
The reason I'd lost my hands. I made up the Devil, to go along with the angel. It seemed the sort of thing a Devil might do--whisper in his ear, your daughter, your daughter--and it made for a much better story, one where I was trapped by the forces of Hell until Heaven itself took pity on me, or something. It also meant spending less time talking about how I'd taught myself to eat with my feet. That wasn't the sort of story anyone wanted to hear.
And even in the story they did want to hear, I couldn't help noticing that men, not angels, had made my silver hands.
Oh, yes, that was a lie too. No one ever made hands of solid silver for me to wear--too heavy, for one thing, too easily tarnished, for a second, too difficult to clean, for a third, and silver makes my skin break out into a bright red rash if I wear it too long, although no one mentioned that part. At the court, they did make me simple hands of wood, beautifully polished, that could be strapped to my arms and covered with gloves. The prince liked to put silver rings on them; eventually, he had a second set of wooden hands made, painted silver. I think sometimes he even thought they were silver; I certainly developed enough of a rash from the paint. I took them off whenever I could and replaced them with my wooden hooks.
I did talk to someone once about making a steel hand for me, one with a sort of claw, like a crab's, which I could use, but in the end we were never quite able to work the logistics of that out, and I just used my hooks.
And everyone lied about why I left the prince and his shining shining castle. The prince, I guess, wanted everyone to believe that he had been tricked by the devil. (I told you, it was a very convenient story.) His mother wanted to assure everyone that she'd had nothing to do with it. The least believable part of that lie was the bit where his mother didn't want to have me killed. Oh, she most certainly did, though to give her credit I don't know that she would actually have gone through with it. She was the one, though, who told everyone that my hands had grown back, thanks to those so convenient angels. I had a tiny regret that I'd made them up at all, though that didn't keep me from lying.
Sometimes I changed my lies. I told some people that I'd been born this way, without hands, because it was easier, carefully angling my wrists so that they could not see the scars, or at least not clearly, although perhaps they thought that I was born that way, with scars. I told others that they had been removed by the Devil (this version always garnered thoughtful nods) and still others that they had been removed by the angel, who had wept over my burned hands, then removed them, to spare my pain. (The burn scars on my arms lent credence to this tale, but even the most pious people hesitated over this one.) When I tried to tell the truth, I found my voice stumbling, catching; it sounded, in my ears, more of a lie than the story about the angel.
I lied, too, about never wanting to see my father again.
I followed the prince--not my prince, not anymore, if he ever had been--to the house. My father's house; it had never been mine, not for all the years I had lived there. I watched my father emerge from the house, older, more pained, than I remembered. I watched the soldiers seize his hands, watched the prince cut them off, watched my father's blood drip into the gold that should have been--had been--mine to spend.
I crouched behind the apple trees that lined the nearby road, saying nothing as my father emerged from the house, as the soldiers seized his hands so that the prince could cut them off. I said nothing as gold coins dripping with my father's blood spilled out on the ground, covering the tarnished silver hands. Nothing as a soldier--who, perhaps, had children of his own--tied cloths tightly about my father's arms to stem the rush of blood, knelt to quickly build a fire to cauterize the wounds.
Nothing until that soldier left.
I do not know if my father even recognized me. He was moaning, not loudly, and his eyes had a glazed look. He whispered something that might have been "water," or might have been something else as I knelt by him, examining the stumps. I was not enough of a healer to know what might happen next, but the bleeding had stopped, at least.
I do not know if my father even recognized me. He was moaning, not loudly; his eyes looked glazed. I knelt down and examined his stumps, no longer bleeding, but badly burnt. I thought of silver, wondering if he, too, would itch at its touch. I thought of weeping, of letting my salt tears clean and heal his burns.
I thought of the truth.
I shrugged out of the bag I carried on my back; opened it with teeth and stumps, reaching to the bottom of the bag to pull out a small gift.
"These might hurt a little less," I said, leaving him a pair of wooden hooks. "You'll find you can tie them with your teeth
This story was first published on Thursday, September 26th, 2013