From the author: A cross between 'The Girl Without Hands' and 'Hansel and Gretel', from the witch's perspective.
One fine day behind the mill, my father chops off my hands. He does it with an axe, on a tree stump. He says the devil is coming. That he promised the devil my hands, in exchange for his life.
I do not believe in the devil. My father has been hearing voices for some time.
There is a lot of blood, but no pain. I have heard stories of soldiers, those with their arms sliced off who screamed, not because it hurt but because of the shock of seeing their shoulder and limb separated. The pain is so great that your body snuffs it out. For a little while.
I yell, too. I shriek. I clutch my bloody wrists to my dress and back away, sprinting, stumbling into the forest. My father does not pursue me; the devil can find me anywhere, if I am still wanted.
I curl up at the base of a tree, nesting in its roots. The pain arrives like a delayed traveller. I think I am going to die.
I do not die. I wake with my wrists attached to my dress, the brown of dried blood mixing with the brown of the fabric. They stick, knitting with the cotton, where I’d pressed them tightly to stem the blood flow.
I shift my torso and feel the dried blood cracking on my stomach.
My wrists are swollen, ballooning, fiery things, far more vicious than the worst burn I have experienced. I am loath to upset them further. With effort, I push myself up the tree trunk by my feet, and the bark scrapes sharp against my back.
I begin to walk.
It is a long walk. Several seasons change. My wrists heal, as much could be expected, turning into knots of scar like the knots on an old tree. I take pleasure in small, animalistic activities; biting into a sun-warmed peach and letting the juice run down my chin, diving to the muddy bottom of a river and propelling myself up with jack-knifed legs.
In spring, blood appears between my legs and again, I think I will die.
I do not die.
Later, it comes again, many times.
I don’t die then, either.
In the heart of the second autumn, I stumble through a pile of leaves into a clearing. Low, golden sunshine illuminates the charred ruins of a house. And within the ruins, beneath the powdery ash and grey, brittle wood and occasional brick, something glints, metallic and inviting.
I step gingerly over the rubble and peer at my treasure. Nestled safely and perfectly, impossibly intact: a pair of silver hands.
I drop to my knees.
With infinite care and precision, I wipe each hand along my tired, tattered brown dress until the dirt disappears.
The joints in the fingers swing back and forth, more or less like a real hand. There is no rust, no squeaking. When I slip the metal cuffs of the hands onto my wrists, they fit exactly, as if they have been made especially for me.
I have avoided people, for the most part, since my hands were stolen. Now I feel buoyed, lighter; I jog to the nearest town, contented simply by the burbles of conversation, the currents of humans flowing past each other in the shopping district.
So many man-made shapes and colours make my head spin. I wander past shops selling thick, salty-looking ink in glass flasks; stalls with glazed hams suspended from ceilings; doorways with silk jackets, the colour of morning dew and encrusted with dozens of precious stones.
“You!” A booming masculine voice hits me in the ear, not three paces away. I stop, glance around. He is looking directly at me. “Are you going to pay for that?”
My heart hammers in my chest. I look down and see a large bag of flour, and a slightly smaller bag of brown sugar clutched in a silver hand. Adrenaline pours into my veins. I am a criminal. I am mortified. I feel about to faint.
The other silver hand curls, reaches into my pocket and pulls out three gold coins. I stare. I have never had any money of my own, and this does not feel like mine, either.
The merchant huffs and holds out his own sweaty hand.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper in my rusty voice, dropping the coins down into his palm. He nods like he doesn’t believe me.
I take off along the cobblestones, down the streets into the forest. I make a nest in some tree roots, place down the flour and the sweet, caramel-smelling sugar and examine the silver hands.
They do not feel like my hands. I cannot move the fingers of my own free will, and yet they have moved. They have curled and grasped and extended without my consent.
I shake, pressing one hand between my knees, pulling back my arm to wrench the hand away like an unwanted glove. I grunt. But no matter how hard I press or pull, the hand stays a part of me. It slips out between my knees like it’s melded to my skin.
I try again with the other hand to no avail.
When my tears fall, I let them fall on the silver, and I wish fervently that it will rust.
I take the flour and sugar to the clearing, to the ruins of the house. I remember a formation of low bricks, sticking out amongst the wreckage, which gave me the impression of an oven.
I search through the rubble for any other bricks, stacking them together, interlocking them with the remnants of the old oven. The silver hands grab everything easily, nimbly, more skilled at construction than I was ever with my own flesh. They are clever, these hands. They fit the oven together like an expert puzzle.
At the end, the finished oven sits there, red and swollen, and reminds me of my bleeding wrists.
I am ashamed to say I go back to the town. More than anything – food, love, justice – I feel I am starved of opportunity.
The hands have made me ravenous.
From the stalls they pick jars of cinnamon, towers of sea salt, butter wrapped in golden cloth, cloves and ginger in wooden boxes, eggs in woven baskets... And each time, a silver hand dips into my pocket and fishes out gold coins. I never see the coins fall in, but I learn to recognise the slight weight in my pocket, the almost imperceptible clink as the silver hands pilfer someone else’s pockets or bags.
I return to the clearing laden with parcels.
I sit in the rubble and press the cinnamon and ginger to my nose, inhaling deeply. I rub the exquisite, perfectly smooth egg against my arms, face and neck. I tip a little of the salt onto my tongue and revel in it, my eyes sliding shut.
And then the hands really get to work.
Deep in the woods, though not that deep, stands a house made entirely of gingerbread. The walls and roof and floors are gingerbread, as are the chimney and single iced door. If you licked the windows you would know them to be sugar, and if you bit into the windowsills you would know them to be thick, fresh marzipan.
The house does not age, or rot, or melt. Encrusted in the gingerbread are hard candies of every flavour and colour, liquorices which seem to sparkle, candy-covered chocolates in the shapes of hearts and stars and clovers.
Inside the house there lives a woman, though she was only recently a girl. They say idle hands are the devil’s work, but how fervently I wish that mine would stop.
The silver hands are always moving, like mechanical spiders desperate to get out of the rain. Sometimes they clean and scrub and tidy. Sometimes they play over my body, prying open my mouth and feeling my tongue, the ridges of my teeth. Sometimes they crawl between my legs and play me like an instrument, running their intelligent fingers inside me and warming with my body heat.
Sometimes I don’t mind.
Mostly, they like to cook. They like sugar. They like ever more elaborate desserts, which never seem to go off and pile in towers, gathering on most surfaces of the house and in ever-expanding nooks and crannies. They cook shelves and cupboards for more cooked treats.
They cook another room for the house.
Often, at night, I suffocate the hands beneath my mattress and feel them struggle, twisting, beneath my body weight. After a little while they give up. Alone, unmoving, quiet washes over me. Bliss.
There are usually scars from this ritual when the hands break free; long scratch marks across my torso, legs or back, one or two or five in a row, but they’re always worth it.
And then, one day, a gap in my wall appears, and on the other side a chewing child.
They freeze when I open the door; a boy with his mouth stuffed with gingerbread, and a girl with her lips wrapped around my windowsill. They are short, sickly pale and bony, their wide blue eyes protruding too far out of their skulls. I suspect they’re not much younger than I am.
The boy swallows hastily, the girl detaches her lips.
“You must be very hungry,” I say.
The girl smiles and digs her fingernails into her other arm. “We’ve walked for three days,” she says, “with very little food, and are lost in these woods, and our parents can’t feed us anymore.”
A dozen competing emotions swim inside me like a school of fish.
Eventually, I say, “If you believe you shall starve if you don’t come in... You may.”
The children’s faces relax with joy. A silver hand pushes the door fully open, and with barely restrained hunger, they dart inside.
I feed the children like they’ve never eaten in their lives.
I bring them sticky date puddings drenched in hot fudge; towering chocolate cakes with sparkling shards of sugary caramel, raspberry and mint strewn in three layers; macaroons in twelve different flavours; cupcakes containing huge chunks of cookie dough; scones with jams and the fluffiest creams and melted chocolates.
When they’ve eaten their fill, groaning with pleasure on my wooden benches, I make them a bed of marshmallows in the corner of my living room. They curl up on the soft, rubbery pillows and are asleep within minutes.
I clean for some time to delay my own sleep. The hands have been delighted all evening, practically dancing off my wrists, and the guilt eats at me like acid. I should send the children on their way after breakfast tomorrow.
Later, under my blankets, the hands do not want me to rest. They want to play.
I decide I won’t put them under the mattress tonight, won’t make them angry with the children in the house.
I will send the children away tomorrow.
I am still half asleep when a third hand appears on my shoulder. I pay it no more attention than my own breathing.
“Are you alright?” asks a female voice.
My eyes snap open. The girl’s blonde hair, inches away, is almost iridescent white in such early dawn. Unaccustomed to either company or shame, I throw my arms to either side of me.
“You were making noises.”
I try to control my breathing, try to restrict the bile rising up my throat. “Noises?” I whisper.
“Murmurs, mutterings in your sleep... You were having a nightmare?”
I consider the girl’s open face. A small glob of melted marshmallow is stuck to the side of her forehead.
“Always,” I say.
We pad through the front door and around to my back garden, little more than two fruit trees and a small hill of seeded soil. The girl stares at every fruit and every leaf, cataloguing and greedy.
I hold out my arms. “You’re very welcome.”
She falls to her knees before a dozen strawberries, shovelling them into her mouth with dazzling efficiency. I sit nearby, my hands drawing meaningless patterns in the damp dirt. In the end she leaves three on their stems, wiping the crimson juice from her lips. Her hunger seems to still.
I suspect it’s rude to ask, but the children will be gone in a matter of mouthfuls. I ask, “Do you despise your parents, for letting you down?”
The girl’s eyes widen. “Why would I despise them? They did their best.”
“They almost killed you.”
“They sent us away because they couldn’t bear to see us starve before their eyes. I can’t hate them for that.” She picks a fat lemon from the tree and peels the skin with a combination of fingernails and teeth. “We aren’t starving anymore, thanks to you.”
She comes and sits next to me, too close; my hands may damage her. I scoot back. In the dull light I’m uncertain, but I think her face falls.
“It’s not personal,” I say. “I lost my hands a long time ago.”
She studies the patterns on the ground. “They seem to work well enough.”
“They’re not...” I’m afraid, suddenly, that the hands can hear me. “They’re not really mine.” The last word morphs into a gasp as a sharp silver finger digs into the flesh of my side. A tiny darker patch appears on my brown dress.
Perhaps the hands can hear; perhaps they simply sense intention.
The girl is up on her feet. She hesitates for a moment, rocking back on her heels, and then kicks the offending hand away from my side. With her right knee, she pushes my shoulder to the ground and pins the hand with her left boot. It convulses like a dying spider.
My other hand is blessedly still.
The wind has been knocked out of me. I lie with my head in the dewy grass, staring up at the frightened girl.
Her shin is warm along the side of my torso. I can’t remember the last time I touched someone.
“Do you need bandages?” she asks. “Something else?”
I shake my head against the grass. “I don’t think it’s deep. It will heal like the others.”
The hand stops its convulsions after one last spasm, but the girl doesn’t move away.
“There’s a town to the east of here,” I say. “A bit less than half a day’s walk away. You should head there. Take as much food as you want, I insist.”
She doesn’t respond. Instead, she looks over her shoulder at an empty wire cage. “Is that for meat?”
“Chickens,” I confirm. “But years ago.” I’m struck by old memories of the hands snapping their necks.
She nods. “Are we safe to go to breakfast?”
I take several moments considering the frozen hands. They are playacting, surely, but I suspect they’ll behave until their next calculated moment of rebellion. “If we behave,” I say. “Though they shan’t like you leaving.”
“I’m not planning to leave,” says the girl.
Breakfast passes in relative silence. At one point the boy reaches over and scratches the marshmallow off the girl’s forehead. She smiles at him and crinkles her nose, and I feel a stab of jealousy for that kind of easy companionship. This morning, the hands have refused me any liquid but melted chocolate in a mug. I take tiny sips; sickly sweet.
With a couple of short, insistent gestures the girl directs the boy to my back garden. She follows, announcing she’ll be back in a minute, and either I believe her or the silver hands do, because they make no move to cease scratching patterns into the wooden sides of my mug.
The girl does return shortly, without her brother but with a strange sort of smile. She tosses a second lemon in the air between alternating palms. “We should do it,” she says. “What you were talking about in your sleep.”
I feel instantly naked.
“We should eat the boy,” she says. “Cook him.”
The only sound is the lemon thumping in her hands.
She presses on: “I mean, not even chicken for years. You must be starved for meat. I’ve locked him in the cage.”
She points needlessly to the garden. “Go and see.”
I hear the blood beating in my ears. I step outside; the cage has not moved. The boy is curled against its far corner, one blue eye open and fixed warily on me.
I take another step and he cries out. I am speechless.
“Not any closer!” he yells. “I know what those hands can do!”
I hold them up, clear in front of me. The silver fingers wriggle.
“You put them away!”
The venom in his voice makes my throat constrict. I tuck my hands tight behind my back, which is the best I can do. I venture another step.
Like a well-practised magic trick, he reveals a rusty key – the key to the cage – and winks. It disappears again.
I take out the silver hands.
“Are you going to eat me?”
I realise with relief that the hands can’t reach him while he’s caged.
“Not now,” I say, to buy some time. “I have to fatten you up first. You’re so thin; it would hardly be worth cooking you now.”
His tears come right on cue, and when I return inside to his sister, she’s sitting cross-legged on my dining table and squeezing lemon juice onto her tongue.
“Do you have an axe?”
My hands pause in the middle of kneading lemon-scented cookie dough. “No,” I tell her, and the hands start up again.
“How do you chop firewood, then?”
“No firewood.” I push a lock of hair out of my face with my shoulder. “I use oil.”
The girl’s mouth cracks open.
“It never seems to run out,” I confess, and find I can’t meet her eyes any longer.
Her footsteps retreat towards the front door. “It’s just – I’ve been looking at your knives. We’ll need something hardier to chop up a boy. A cleaver? I’ll go to the town you talked about. Be back just after nightfall if I leave now.”
I nod, not entirely sure what I’m agreeing to. “There’s some money in the cupboard to your left, the one with...”
The silver hands have raced across the table and are climbing up my torso, digging painfully into my flesh as they crawl. I try and wrench them away, but my arm muscles are weak from this angle and the fingers sink into my stomach and breasts too deep.
Within two seconds the cold metal is wrapped around my neck, still covered in traces of cookie dough.
The thumbs are pressed tight into my oesophagus. My lips open in a continuous gasp. I struggle, bashing the hands against the edge of the table, but they hold fast. My vision blurs.
The last thing I see is the girl, her arms prying at my wrists. She calls my name like she means it.
When I wake, it is surreal. Under any other circumstances I would freeze completely. At this very moment I am too wrung out to care.
I am lying on top of the bed, the woollen blanket scratching against my naked back. My arms are wrenched to either side of the mattress. The silver hands are out of sight, and tugging confirms that they are both tied securely under the bed.
The girl has removed my dress and is straddling my hips, wiping my cuts with a rag soaked in green liquid. The rag stings like being sliced up all over again.
There are perhaps two dozen cuts staggered over my torso. The girl attends to one just next to my nipple and my chest shudders. She glances up, registers I’m awake and immediately averts her gaze.
“Apologies. There was...”
“You don’t have to apologise.” My voice comes out hoarse and scratchy, followed by a minor coughing fit.
The girl leaves to fetch a glass of water. As she goes, her thigh brushes over my hip. My mind feels ill and unanchored, like I’ve come down with a fever, but I don’t think I have. Thoughts arrive as if through a fog.
Sipping is awkward, with her hand behind my head and the cup at my lips. I take tiny, restricted swallows and trails of water run down the sides of my mouth. She wipes them aside with her thumb.
“What did you tie them up with?”
“I found rope in a kitchen cupboard,” she says.
“It won’t hold them for much longer. An hour or two, maybe. They’ll slice through it. They’ve hollowed out chunks of my mattress.”
Her face falls, her hand holding the cup shakes. A couple of drops escape, falling onto my skin and running down the cleft between my breasts. She turns away to gather her composure.
Three long, fresh scabs run down her forearm.
Eventually, she says, “Well, what else will hold them? Anything here?”
“Chains would,” I say. “I have none. The mattress might for another hour, longer if they thought that wasn’t going to be permanent.”
She plays with her fingernails while she considers this. Glances under the bed, then climbs on and reclaims her position over my hips. “I was going to...” She leans forward, biting her lip and touches my elbows, making a sawing motion with her fingers. “But there’s no time.”
I nod. The axe. The cleaver. “How did you tie them up at all?”
“Oh. I wasn’t planning to. But once you passed out, they went limp for a while. I don’t think they want you dead.” Her blue eyes bore into mine. “Really dead.”
When she doesn’t get a response, the girl picks up the rag and the absinthe again. “I know it seems a bit redundant. But may I?”
My mouth feels too dry. “Alright.”
Her wipes with the rag are gentle and precise. She rests her other hand on my arm, my shoulder, my ribs for balance. Her skin feels twice as soft and warm as my own. Sometimes, she traces my many scars with an absent fingertip.
Despite myself, my tears start to fall.
She kisses them from the sides of my face, her lips like velvet. The light fabric of her dress grazes my stomach, my breasts, my nipples. My skin breaks out in goosebumps. My breath comes out in tiny sighs and shudders.
She kisses my forehead, my cheeks, my lips. I feel like I’m floating up out of my body, and the stinging fades to background noise. There is no mattress, no rope, no silver hands.
Then her own tears fall onto my collarbone.
“Is there anything we can do for you?” she whispers. “Anything at all?”
When the words finally come, my voice is cold and composed. Not quite my own.
“We have to cook the boy,” I say.
Inside the oven, the fire blazes. Flames of a million different yellows and oranges lick at the bricks. The boy has been fed and watered. The girl has prepared the lemon-scented cookie dough for baking.
The hands are largely behaving themselves, almost humming in anticipation.
I will my pulse to slow and turn to the girl. “It’s time.”
She looks me straight in the eyes, so blatantly that I’m worried a silver finger will impale me. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Check that the oven is hot enough, will you?”
She tugs open the oven door. The heat is noticeable even from here. The girl peers inside, the flames playing over her lovely face. “I don’t know how to,” she lies.
I blurt out the first curse I can think of. “Let me, then.” I shuffle over and take her place, my heart inside my mouth.
I stick my head clear inside the oven. Farther than necessary. So close that the fire sparks in my hair and I can feel my face beginning to burn.
“It’s ready,” I call.
And she shoves me inside, where the world is white hot.
My last thoughts are a series of cluttered imaginings: that the girl and her brother run home, their arms full of candies and treasures and coins.
That they leave the remains of the gingerbread house behind them, a smoking pile of powdery ash.
That they arrive, safe, to loving parents.
And that somewhere, the devil appears to a father who bargains a daughter he forgets could be, behind his mill.
It’s a small comfort. To know I’m not the only one.
And the silver hands don’t burn at all.
This story originally appeared in Black Apples.
An otherworldly banquet of contemporary fantasy, dark fairy tales and soft science fiction, Next Curious Thing collects some of Gale's best short fiction from 2013 to 2018, including 'In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold' (Syntax & Salt Editor's Award winner) and 'Wrecked' (Tangent Online Recommended Reading List). In addition to its previously published stories, Next Curious Thing features six brand new tales original to this collection.
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