The Girl with glass hands.
Once upon a time, far, far away, in a kingdom across the sea, in a village where nothing ever, ever happened, a girl with glass hands walked down the dusty main street and arrived in the square at the heart of everything.
People stared, although they pretended that they did not.
The glass hands were beautiful, delicate, nails, lines, even the creases where skin should have been were etched on the glass, which was itself tinted with he lightest touch of pink, so that in some lights, the glass seemed to have some warmth, some life within it.
The villagers, unused to any new faces, watched her from behind curtains, watched as she sat in the only cafe in town, watched as she ordered a glass of milk and watched, in horrid fascination as the glass hands lifted the beaker to her mouth and watched as her slim white throat moved as she swallowed the milk.
Without speaking, many of them moved towards their front door, stood, arms folded, not looking at each other, still watching her, sitting, self possessed at the cafe table.
Children pointed, started to speak and were sushed, sometimes gently, sometimes less so.
Everybody waited to see what would happen next.
The girl stood up, stretched the glass hands over her head, stretched, the morning sun, catching on the glass, making her hands shine and sparkle.
Her dress, black, dusty, travel-stained, was at first glance ordinary, even a little shabby, but the women could see that there was something different, something undefinable, something, that even without the extraordinary hands, marked her as different, other.
More than one young man found himself wondering what it would feel like to have those hands, those glass hands, run through his hair, tease shapes on the small of his back and then recollecting themselves, would remind himself of the Hannah or Lise, or Elizabeth with her strong sunburnt, work marked hands and look down at the ground, face averted, in case any of his neighbours could read his thoughts.
The girl called to the cafe owner and all the villagers craned their necks forward, trying desperately to hear the conversation. It went on for a few moments, the cafe owner looked at first hesitant, but then the girl withdrew a full purse and his demeanour changed, suddenly he was smiling, bowing, gesturing for her to follow him as they both moved toward the back of the cafe, out of sight of all the onlookers and towards the stairs which led to the rooms he occasionally rented out to travellers, peddlers and the drifters who sometimes needed a nights’ shelter.
There was a pause, no-body in the village wanted to appear too nosy, too interested in what had just happened.
Women disappeared back indoors, reappeared with baskets, heading for the bakers, conveniently situated next door to the cafe.
Men straightened up, found themselves with a sudden thirst for the strong black coffee served in the cafe or a glass of the cheap, thin red wine he sold and calling something indistinct into the open doors, began to walk towards the cafe.
Within minutes, almost all the villagers had arrived there and then they stood, waiting for Albert, the cafe owner, to reappear from the back of the cafe.
He, red-faced from such unusual morning exertion and still toying with the gold coins nestled in his apron pocket, struggled with the two opposing thoughts battling inside him, his desire to be at the centre of village news, to actually have something worth saying and the new need to keep his profitable, if mysterious, guest.
Avarice or fame by association?
Fame, the desire for fame, even this vicarious fame, wins out.
He sat at his usual table, poured himself a glass of the wine he doesn’t offer the villagers and then he begins
” She comes from the city, is tired of the hustle & bustle, wants to be peaceful” There is a pause, while he tries to find other things to say
“She’s rich, you can tell quality”
There is another pause and everyone waits for more, finally, one of the women, sturdy, mother to a brood, wife to a man who spends more time here at this table than he does around his own scarred kitchen table, speaks
“But the hands, what about the hands?”
There is another pause and then, his head down, voice dropping, the cafe owner is forced to admit
” I didn’t like to ask her, I didn’t know what words to use”
And this response, it seems, becomes everyone’s’ experience.
The girl stays, a bag arrives from the city, containing more dusty black dresses.
If the village women hoped for displays of big city finery, they were sorely disappointed.
She walks in the hills, takes her meals in her room, the cafe owner says she has a bird like appetite and occasionally, sits at a table in the cafe as the summer light dims and sips the good wine out of a green glass goblet that she holds between slim, elegant glass fingers.
And no-body can find the words to ask what has happened to her hands.
The young and in some cases, not so young, men are entranced.They find themselves looking for her as they move the goats & sheep in the hills, as they start the harvest, pick the summer fruits and when they meet her, they are unaccountably shy, tongue-tied and become too aware of their own hands, try to hide them behind their backs while looking at hers and imagining the feel of that cool glass on their skin as the sun beats down on them.
She is always polite, asks after the crops, often remembers their names and smiles a cool, tight smile before walking away.
The women, the mothers, dig deep into memory, rediscover the symbol of the evil eye, make the shape as she passes them. When the girl reaches down and absently stokes a small childs’ head, the mother is quick to grab the child away, making a sign of the cross over their hair as they drag them, protesting, indoors.
But, it is the young women who are most discomfited by her, they see how their future husbands look at her, see the thoughts that chase across their open, uncomplicated faces. They know that she is changing something, unsettling their planned futures, their journeys from this to motherhood to their place at the well, in the bakery shop queue.
They know, when they lie in their young men’s arms, sticky in the summer heat, that their lovers are thinking,not of them, not of their sturdy health, their sunburnt limbs, but of her, her icy paleness, the cool touch of her glass hands and they feel their men slip away from their far more earthbound presence.
And then one day, she is gone.
Nobody sees her leave, not even Albert, despite his fawning attentions, the wine glass washed every time she uses it, the trays of food, carefully, almost lovingly carried to her room.
Even he misses her leaving.
It is as if she has simply vanished, slipped away and if it were not for the final pieces of gold left under the green goblet, the bag packed and taken away, the room left tidy, empty, village gossip might have decided that there was some mystery to her leaving,but there is no mystery.
She has, quite simply, decided to move on.
But in her place, when perhaps it would be hoped that everything now would return to normal, there is an absence, a depth of loss.
Even the village wives feel it, miss the ritual of crossing the road when they saw her coming, of spitting on the path,of the old ritual of warding off the evil eye.
Their lives feel, somehow, less magical now that she has gone.
The men, late at night, when their mouths are dry from drinking cheap rough wine,make cautious eye contact, start sentences they cannot,dare not finish and find that they drink more and feel somehow bereft although they have lost nothing.
The young women expect to celebrate, to rejoice in her leaving, but discover that she has taken something with her.
Their men, the lusty young village lovers have become shy, distracted, no longer able for uncomplicated coupling, the thrust of flesh on flesh.
The young women mourn their losses, wonder how they can refind what is lost.
And then, early, even by village standards, everyone is woken by the most terrible keening and screaming and sobbing.
The sounds bounce off the low cottages, fill the square with a cacophony of noise.
Half dressed, undressed, the villagers run towards whatever is making these terrible noises.
There standing, shaking, is the bakers daughter and her hands have been smashed beyond repair, pushed, although God alone know how, through the wash house mangle.
As the days and weeks go on, she is only the first of many.