Everyone in the village is born without hands; the children get along just fine with elbows and teeth and toes.
Sally likes holding her paintbrush in her mouth, because it lets her get right up close to the canvas and add in tiny details like fingernails and leaf-veins and dress-threads. When her friends are particularly pleased to see each other, they bite each other on their shoulders. All of the doors in the village have levers. Sally can always dress herself alone unless she picks something with an awkward zipper or shoes with laces. At school she drinks her lunch, or throws her bite-sized food into the air with her teeth and catches it on her tongue. Her friends lie in a circle, and Sally stretches out on their feet and pretends she’s flying.
They’re too young for plenty of things, but there are also lots of things the adults are too old for. There’s a children-only climbing frame down the street with polyethylene foam wrapped around the bars; Sally can reach the top with just her elbows and legs, and if you fall off the dome you drop into a huge foam pit at the bottom, which is even better than swimming. They get wooden swords strapped to their arms to duel with, and they can tumble down hills, and stick their wrists into the fittings of caster wheels like the wheelers in The Wizard of Oz. Sally’s never seen an adult roll down a hill unless it was by accident. Sometimes Sally’s father will try to play videogames with her, but he’s used to operating things with his fingers and not the facial twitches needed for kids’ games and their expression analysis software, so there’s never any contest.
She’s only been into The Forest of Hands twice: first when her grandfather died of heart failure and then a year or so later when her grandmother joined him. When the eulogies had finished and Sally had laid an armful of daffodils on their chests, her mother had done the honours of cutting off the corpse’s hands just above the wrists. The funeral director had cleaned the wrists and tied the severed hands together with ribbons—emerald for her grandmother and fox pelt–orange for her grandfather—and their little immediate family had walked through the crowd to enter the forest by themselves.
Now that she is old enough, Sally and her four other eleven-year-old friends get to enter the forest again. No adults will come with them. Sally’s mother has curled her hair, and her older sister Leonie has sewn periwinkle-blue pearls along the neck and hem of Sally’s new dress. Sally’s father buckles her shoes, and looks so proud when Sally says she’ll keep them on until she can unbuckle them herself.
The five friends enter the forest when the sun is still high, but the light is dim and beautifully speckled under the canopy. Sally watches Michael’s broad grin and Fiona’s bulging backpack, how Harriet darts back and forth over the path to gaze at cinnamon-coloured mushrooms and preening ravens and beetles half the size of her foot. She can smell Nicholas chewing a piece of liquorice gum, which isn’t very proper, but Sally won’t tell.
The path is overgrown, but over the years the village has driven thousands of sharp pebbles into the dirt with their boots, and the children never get lost. It takes them about an hour to reach the grove. Sally has been here before, but she still feels mesmerised. Hundreds of pairs of severed hands, tied with every colour of ribbon around the branches of the trees. Hands of every size and shape, hanging down from their wooden bones. Sally looks for the hands of her grandparents, but none of the hands look withered or sickly. All of the hands are in their prime.
For a minute Sally feels overwhelmed with choice, but then she remembers her parents’ advice: that she’ll know the right hands when she finds them. On her second loop around the grove she picks a lonely, pale pair on a lower branch. She has to kneel in the thick leaf litter to get to them, and brushes her cheek tentatively against the cold flesh. She unties the periwinkle ribbon with her teeth and catches the hands in her skirt. They’re one of the smallest pairs she’s seen, built for delicate precision: for minute brush strokes and tiny stitches and all the subtle twitches she’s used to making with her face and can learn to transfer to her fingers. There are traces of oil paints under the nails. When she sticks her wrists inside and cradles the hands to her chest, they’re cold and feel like triumph.
The hands Fiona chooses are some of the largest, and they’re at head height, so Sally stands on her tiptoes and bites Fiona’s hands free so Fiona can catch them. Sally’s new hands only look a little too big for her, but Fiona’s are comically oversized, like you could fit three of her wrists inside one of the openings. Fiona’s one of the shortest in their class and has been struggling with her backpack all day, but Sally doesn’t think the owner of these gigantic hands would struggle with anything. When they get home, their parents will wrap their hands and wrists in gauze until they warm up and start to mould to their arms. In the meantime, Fiona holds her hands vertically so they don’t fall off.
Harriet—who acquired the nickname “Magpie” for her love of the shiny, the beautiful and curious—selects a long-fingered pair with a dozen shining rings around their fingers. They’re on the end of a branch, where she can simply bite a palm and pull the hands off without untying the yellow ribbon. Sally spots a silver wolf’s head ring, sapphires and topazes, and a simple golden wedding band. She wonders if Harriet has noticed.
Michael wants some hands too high to reach, so the rest of them bend over and let him climb over their backs. Michael tugs down a medium-sized pair tied with red and blue, and they fall next to his feet, in the valley where four children’s bottoms are pressed together. He jumps off, surrounded by laughter, retrieves the hands, and shows off the large compass tattoo under the left forefinger. Sally’s reminded of whenever she’s met up with him over school holidays: he’s always had a pair of binoculars slung around his neck and smelled of sea salt.
Nicholas chooses last, and Sally’s starting to shiver by the time he’s done. He chooses a calloused, scarred pair that is low enough for him to get all alone. I-don’t-need-anyone hands, thinks Sally, and wonders what’s happened that he’d settle on those above all others.
Afterwards, he’s calmer than he was. As they all grow into their hands, Nicholas grows apart from the rest of the group. At sixteen, he leaves the village to be a soldier, and Sally never sees him again.
But that’s years away. Right now, Sally adores her new hands. For a few months, she only wears lace-up shoes, and she ties them in seven different knots, one for every day of the week. She learns how to use chopsticks. She could put on lipstick before, with her toes, but it hurt her back and the muscles inside her leg, and now she wears it easily. She practices signing her name, again and again and again. She pilfers small, insignificant items like hair clips and coin-sized photos and wrapped candies, and pats them inside her pockets. She learns how to floss her teeth.
She paints every day, sometimes with her mouth and sometimes with her fingers. A few of her canvases hang in hotels and pubs and hairdressers around the village. At eighteen, she eventually accepts she can’t support herself solely with her painting, and reluctantly sets her sights on becoming a surgeon.
Fiona grows into the body that goes with her hands, which is the body of a handsome, six-foot young man. As a child, all she wanted was to be able to lift up her younger siblings, and now she can lift almost anyone. Fiona mostly goes by Finn these days. Sally and Finn dated for a while, but Finn wanted five kids, so a while wasn’t that long. Finn builds Sally’s first house and marries a nice girl with magenta nail polish. They go dancing every week, so he gets to lift her all the time, and you should see the way she looks at him.
Following the acquisition of her hands, Harriet falls in love with astronomy and spends her nights fiddling with telescopes and measurements, pens and mathematics. During the day, she designs avant-garde clothes, and opens a boutique in the attic of a delicatessen when she’s twenty-three. She marries the village mayor at thirty, and when he’s diagnosed with cancer a few years later, Sally operates on him to remove two tumours. He still dies. Harriet wears a gown of black feathers to his funeral, and because she has no immediate family, Sally accompanies her into the forest to hang up her husband’s hands with a ribbon of deep purple. Harriet is elected mayor after her husband, a position she retains for the next thirty-nine years.
Michael’s family leaves the village soon after Michael gets his hands, and Sally doesn’t see or hear of him for more than a decade. He’s always been obsessed with boats, with the ocean and fishing and anything nautical, so it’s no surprise when he docks at the village as an adult in a sailor’s uniform. The surprise is that his boyish grin now belongs to a female face. “Who knew?” he says, about the woman’s hands he accidentally chose. He has his hair back in a long braid, and Sally thinks he looks beautiful.
Sally and Finn broke up a year ago, and when Sally asks Michael his preferred name and pronouns, Michael says he doesn’t care, so long as she’ll go out with him. Michael sneaks her onto the creaking deck of the ship he’s working on, and Sally paints him stretched out on the couch in her overstuffed living room. They make a lot of jokes about the Titanic.
Michael becomes a ship’s captain, and Sally stays on land, cutting bodies and sewing them back up again, but they know they belong to each other. Later, when they’ve both had their fill of work, they take a boat, just the two of them, and go exploring. They discover a pack of thylacines, and write six books between them, and once Sally has to extract a piece of shrapnel from Michael’s leg. They sleep in treetops and behind waterfalls and below the deck of three different boats. Sally collects a necklace of bones, and Michael collects a body of tattoos: pictures of animals out of scientific journals, and nautical pin-ups and a set of Sally’s fingerprints, just above his hip. Many years pass, and many sunsets, and they’re still holding hands.
They’re still holding hands when Michael wakes one day and Sally doesn’t. They’re not too far from the village they were born in, so Michael steers the boat back there where Harriet and Finn wait on the dock.
After the funeral, and after Michael severs Sally’s hands and they’re tied with a periwinkle ribbon, four aging adults cross the threshold to the forest. It’s not quite proper, having more than their immediate family, but all of Michael’s surviving family is far away down the coast. He’s brought Leonie, who sewed delicate pearls to the last ribbon Sally will ever wear, and who needs a walking cane to come but still assures them she can make it. He’s brought Finn, who carries a much larger backpack than the one Michael remembers, and who can carry Leonie home if needed. He’s brought Harriet in her gown of black feathers, she who guides them to the grove by the position of the stars. Michael has that skill, too, but right now he doesn’t want to do anything except walk and hold their hands.
When they reach the grove, Finn pulls a stepladder out of his backpack, and Michael ties Sally’s cold hands to the tallest branch he can reach. He kisses each of Sally’s fingers, with their prints he still wears above his hipbone. There are still traces of oil paint under their nails. He looks down at each of the faces below him, at their grey hair and wrinkles, and can almost remember how it felt to be young and handless and choosing the rest of his life. He remembers Fiona with her plaited pigtails. Harriet’s fingers are still covered in rings. Leonie offers him her hand, which is sweet and impractical, and Michael thanks her and takes it and steps down.
They stay in the forest longer than any of them have stayed before. They stay for hours, with blankets and yoga mats and thermoses of liquorice tea, until they see Sally’s hands puff out slightly, turning young and subtle and life-coloured, the way they were when Michael first fell in love with her.
Michael bites his friends gently on their shoulders and, having declared everything to be good, walks out of the grove.
Ephiny’s fiction has appeared in GigaNotoSaurus, Aurealis, D