Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Fiction: Show of Hands by David Prill
It was a fair, moonless August night, and in a farm field in southern Minnesota a bonfire blazed steadily. Apart from a handful of fireflies engaged in a courtship dance in the garden, all else was dark, you couldn’t make out County Road 249 or St. John’s steeple or even much of the corn and bean fields. All you could see were the bonfire lights, dotting the countryside, along the railroad tracks. There were bonfires, rustic pyres, spanning the entire township.
It was an event, a ritual, the coming of the circus train, an unforgettable show, only the show didn’t stop here. They usually didn’t stop at all, just slowed down long enough for the performers to wave and give something back to the farmers who left their white farm houses with their women inside, who had gathered by their bonfires to see something out of the ordinary.
The town of Goatfield was too small for the circus train to stop and give a performance. This circus was too high class.
Elton Hudnall remembered a circus of lesser renown that had visited Goatfield once, setting up tents in Misery Field on the edge of town. The ringmaster looked like a fella Elton had seen on the post office wall. The tiger wore a shabby coat, and the elephant paced anxiously, one giant foot chained to a post driven into the ground. The clowns were supposed to be funny, but nobody laughed because the way they dressed wasn’t so different from the audience. Elton wore hand-me-down overalls, and his shoes were a little oversized, too.
Vera didn’t care for that sort of entertainment generally; she preferred her Bible and soap operas, don’t get her started on Young Widder Brown, Ma Perkins and most of all Pepper Young’s Family. Even though it was secondhand, Elton knew Pepper, sister Peggy and the rest of the Young family like they was his own. Pepper was the boy everybody wanted as their son.
Anyway, the sad-sack circus returned to town the next year, but Elton stayed at home and read the new issue of Farm Journal magazine.
Crack and Divine’s Circus was different. It was big time, big city. It was like a circus you’d see in the movies. It spoke of places Elton had never visited, people he had never met. Peculiar countries. Forgotten languages. Creatures foreign to those which grazed his pastures. They were probably the biggest thing that ever hit Goatfield, apart from the time that troupe of actors performed “The Marriage of the Midgets or Tom Thumb’s Wedding” at the opera house. That was real humorous. People talked about it for a month afterward. County Commissioner Aesop also made an appearance in the Farmer’s Day parade the last time he was up for reelection, but that didn’t count because he worked for you and me.
One year, the day after the train came, Elton was walking near the tracks and found a folded sheet of red paper, a flyer that had been left behind when the train passed through. There were some fancy drawings in it, but it wasn’t like the real thing. It also listed their upcoming shows—Rochester, Des Moines, Davenport. Elton had been to Rochester once when they visited Vera’s sister. As the months wore on, and winter descended upon the fields, Elton took out the flyer often and gazed upon it it, fingering it until it grew worn and wrinkled. He kept it on a shelf in the granary, behind the flask of whiskey that he had hid from Vera for the last thirty years. When mice chewed on it, he moved the flyer to the feed bin in the barn. Tucked it under the lid, which fit securely onto the bin. Now it was safe.
Elton tossed another shovelful of cobs onto the pile, and it flared up nicely. He peered down the track, to the north, where the cold wind came from in the wintertime, but he didn’t see the light, the small steady light that they waited for every summer, the small light that came out of the north wind. Sometimes you could hear the whistle, of the train, of the wind, they seemed to arrive together, out of the north.
He did spot a faraway bonfire, must be at Jess Kopishcke’s place, made Elton feel a little less lonely but also jealous because he would get to see the circus train first.
Elton had stood by the bonfire waiting for the circus train ever since his daddy had brought him out here so many summers ago. Now Dad was gone, and Elton’s own children had left for the big city, where the circus train did stop, and Elton was alone along the tracks, just the old hound dog Blue nosing around in the alfalfa, waiting for the train. He felt nervous, and didn’t know why. If he thought about it he knew why, so he tamped those thoughts down. It was a ritual, building the bonfire and waiting for the circus train, a ritual handed down from father to son. That was all.
Then, from the far-off distances, well beyond the fields of his own farm, maybe even well beyond Goatfield, Elton heard it.
The wind picked up.
The whistle of the wind. Of the train.
Elton stepped onto the tracks and peered into the darkness, the darkness that seemed so complete. He thought he saw things, wished for the same things, and then realized he didn’t see anything at all.
When he retreated to the weeds, Elton noticed that his bonfire was growing weak. If the fire wasn’t visible from a long way off, the train wouldn’t have time to slow down before it reached him. Elton grabbed his shovel and hurriedly added cobs, the embers reaching for the sky before joining the darkness.
After he sunk the shovel blade back into the ground, he spotted it.
It was coming.
He could see the white light levitating on the tracks, already on the edge of the northwest field, where he had planted beans in the spring, and he heard the faint thunder of rails, felt the small vibrations beneath his feet.
He had kept true to the train, kept the bonfire alive.
Blue began barking.
Here came the train now, the forms and colors and cars and cages rapidly taking shape, a kaleidoscope of wonder swirling out of the darkness, like a bottle-rocket arcing across a Fourth of July sky.
It was slowing. Elton breathed easily. He always worried that it wouldn’t slow, that they were late for a show, that they would charge along the border of his farm without even a nod or a wave.
But no, it was losing speed, and Elton stepped up in front of the bonfire to greet the circus train for another year. It was a ritual, a childhood tradition, and that was all.
The smells hit him first. Exotic, pungent, otherworldly smells, animals and sawdust and perfume and the unknown.
The sounds—calliope music that carried his heart to astonishing places, laughing and singing, brass instruments blaring their anthems. Life, life unlike any he had ever known.
And the sights. The ringmaster and acrobats and trapeze artists, clowns and tigers and elephants and monkeys and zebras, the bonfire playing off their faces, and it was like his own personal circus show, as if he was the only invited guest. And they were performing, at least now and then, from platforms interspersed between the passenger cars. Juggling, pratfalling, human pyramiding.
Those inside the cars were waving, joy on their faces.
Elton’s heart went thump, thump, thump.
He didn’t know why, but of all the wonder and beauty of the circus train, it was the hands that touched him the most.
The train was slow now, walking speed.
Beautiful hands. White and smooth and graceful and soft-looking. They shone in the bonfire light. Beautiful hands, waving to him. He didn’t wave back, kept his hands in his pockets, just smiled and nodded happily.
Then he saw her.
He didn’t know her name, yet there she was, every year, smiling, and waving at him with the most beautiful hands in creation.
He took another stride toward the train, until he felt like he was almost part of it.
She was a trapeze artist, dark-haired and dressed in red sequins and silk, and she spun on a rope attached to a bar that went the length of the platform, spun ‘round and ‘round, one leg wrapped around the rope, the other crooked at an angle, the foot poised on the opposite knee. One arm was locked around the rope, the other was free, was waving, her beautiful hand waving. It was the most beautiful hand on the whole train. It was like a white bird seen high against a summer blue sky.
She was smiling at him, and while her face and eyes were glorious, it was her wave, her beautiful hand, that reached out for his heart.
Elton smiled back at her, put everything he had into that smile, but kept his hands in his overall pockets.
She appeared to speak. Her mouth was making words.
Every year she smiled and waved at him, in what he thought was a special way, but this was the first time she seemed to want to talk to him.
The train was moving.
Elton walked with it.
“What are you saying?” he asked. “What are you telling me?”
But she just kept smiling, and waving, and then the train gained speed, and Elton began to run, run along tracks, through the fields, the train faster now, faster, and her words were lost.
After a time Elton pulled up, huffing hard, heart straining, and watched the train keep rolling and creaking down the tracks, down to the curve at Engel’s Creek, around the corner, and off into the night again, leaving Elton alone in the darkness, the bonfire burning out quickly, the night taking command once more, another year gone, another year to wait for the train’s return.
Elton kept watching the curve, until the bonfire was cold and the wind died off, and then he turned, whistled at Blue, and trudged slowly back to the white farm house, and the woman who lived inside.
“See the train, did you?” asked Vera, when he came back into the house, into the light. She had waited up for him, knitting by the radio. Bing Crosby crooned softly, “At Your Command.” Vera loved Der Bingle. His whistling especially. Elton leaned toward Al Jolson—”Swanee,” “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” “Back in Your Own Backyard.”
Back along the tracks.
“I saw the train.”
“The years go by so fast, Elton. Seems like just yesterday that you going out to meet that train.”
“It did at that.”
“I don’t even know why you go out there anymore. Kids are long gone. It’s dark out there. I’m afraid you’ll fall and hurt yourself.”
“Dunno, it’s something I’ve always done. Maybe it’s a way to stay close to my dad. Wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t go out there. The circus people, too, they appreciate it, they appreciate the support. It’s a long trip, not many towns around here. To see those bonfires in the dark must be pretty nice.”
“Circus people, what would you know about the circus people, then? A train comes by once a year and you know all about the circus people…”
Elton looked at her hands as she talked and knitted. Her fingers were stubby, with calluses and scars from years toiling in the kitchen and garden. Worn from the sun and soil. Tired-looking. He couldn’t remember if they had ever been beautiful. They had to have been beautiful when they were young, didn’t they? He tried to picture them in his mind on the day he slipped the ring on her finger, but all he could see were the hands of the circus people, of Her.
“What you standing there for? Why don’t you come in and make yourself at home? I’ll fix you some jam and bread, and a nice cup of warm milk.”
“Sure ma, jam and bread would be good.” Elton hung up his jacket on the hook by the door with hands that were no better, meaty, rough things, and gazed out through the porch into the night.
Jam and bread.
Summer departed, fall stepping in to fill the gap, the fields plowed under, the grove changing from green to gold and then just a gathering of stark grey skeletons, waiting for the snow to bury them.
Elton had more empty hours once the flakes started flying. A little fence mending, some tool repair in the workshop, catching up on his Midwestern Agriculturist reading, now he was in the middle of an article on how there was more profit and less waste from mow-cured hay.
It was a long, character-building winter. A major blizzard roared through the area the second week of December, took three days for the plows to clear the county road. The gout in his leg flared up again. Vera complained about arthritis in her fingers.
All winter, with time on his hands, Elton thought about the last visit of the circus train. It was like a different world, a world far removed from the sunburned field weekdays and starched-collar Sundays in church. It was a world that made his heart pump faster. He puzzled over what the circus girl had said to him. It was more than hello, more than any plainspoken greeting. It was something which required a specific response, that was his conclusion. A question. But what? What could she have asked him?
Why don’t you join us?
Elton started. Where did that come from? It was in his head; he heard it over and over like a popular song.
Why don’t you join us.
What could she have meant?
No, she didn’t say that, she couldn’t have said that.
She didn’t say that, thought Elton. I just imagined it. But his idle mind took up the challenge. What would I be in the circus? How could I help them? I am big, and I used to be strong, I still am strong. I’m stronger than men ten years younger than me. I can still lift the harrow plow onto the tractor hitch without any help.
Wearing one of those leopard-skin leotards. Barbells with big black cannonballs on the ends.
Winter was too long, there was too much time for thinking.
Finally, spring came, flooding the creek, although nothing like it did in ‘35, when the rushing waters crept almost all the way up to the back porch.
The winds from the north.
Bonfires to be lit.
The train came, just like last year, just like every year.
When the train passed him, Elton, without thinking, bent down and hefted a watermelon-sized boulder that was on the edge of the field. He brought it up to his shoulders, lifted it over his head, held it there, then let it fall back to the ground with a thud.
The trapeze girl smiled and waved. Her hands were like soaring doves.
The performers in the warmly lit burgundy passenger cars appeared to be looking on with approval: they were smiling and waving, too.
She mouthed something again.
Yes, that’s what she’s saying, he was sure of it this time.
Elton didn’t have a response. He didn’t run after the train. He just stood there, boulder at his feet, speechless, chest heaving, his arms aching from the effort.
Quieter next winter, to the point that Vera wrung her coarse aged hands and asked him what was wrong.
“Just some rheumatism,” he said. “It’ll go away once the weather gets nice. Farmer’s Almanac says were supposed to have an early spring.”
“They’re usually right.”
An early spring meant a longer wait to summer.
Elton didn’t feel as strong as last year, but he was still plenty powerful. Once spring comes, he thought, I will get stronger.
When the snow melted and the puddles and mud dried up, Elton did work hard, harder than he had worked in years. He even skipped his afternoon nap. He hauled hay and chopped wood and walked the beans.
“Now you slow down,” said Vera. “Do you want to get a heart attack and leave me alone? Is that what you want?”
“I don’t want to end up like Marvin Soflow.” This was their former neighbor to the east. He had moved to the Goatfield Lutheran Nursing Home five or six years ago, and he was only a couple of years older than Elton.
“If Marlys was still alive, she wouldn’t have to worry about him.”
“We visited Marvin before Christmas, remember?”
“They served a very nice lunch.”
“He was a ghost.”
“The dessert was so tasty. Rhubarb cake. I should have asked them for the recipe.”
“Do you want me to live there, like that?” Elton asked, his voice rising, which didn’t happen often.
Vera quickly looked at him, then turned her head and said quietly, clasping her stubby, worn, calloused hands on her lap. “No, of course not. I…I just want you to be careful. I don’t want to lose you. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already lost part of you. You’re so distant sometimes.”
“It was the rheumatism,” he said again. “I have to work hard and break a sweat, sweat it out, then I’ll feel more like myself again.”
Elton studied his hands. All the labor was making them look rougher and more gnarled than ever. This worried him. Had the circus people ever truly seen his hands? What would they say? Would they laugh at him? Would they not slow down anymore? Elton knew it was the one sure sign that he was an old farmer and not a performer. Being in the public eye required attention to these things.
The calendar pages flipped quickly, and soon it was time for the train again.
It had been hot and humid the day the circus train was to arrive, and storm clouds boiled up in the early evening sky. Lightning made fantastic patterns across the dark canvas on the horizon. The air was damp, humid. The chickens had returned to their hen house roosts without being coaxed.
The rain and wind began after the sun fell, and got stronger over the next hour, before easing off some. Elton tugged on his slicker, and searched around for his rain hat.
“What are you doing?” Vera asked, coming into the kitchen. “You can’t go out on a night like this.”
“Never missed the train.”
“Be sensible. How are you going to build a bonfire in the rain?”
“Looks like it’s clearing up.”
“It’s a downpour.”
“By the time I get out there it will have stopped.”
“You’re going to get a death of a cold. You’ll catch pneumonia.”
“It’s a warm night. A little rain never hurt anybody.”
Elton left before the next round of arguments began.
He hurried across the farmyard to the barn. Blue wagged his tail happily when he swung open the big red door. Elton went to the feed bin and pulled out the knapsack, which he had packed and hid during the week. He tucked it beneath his slicker, behind his belt.
“Stay boy,” Elton told the hound dog, shutting and latching the door behind him as he headed back out into the weather.
By the time he got out to the fields that bordered the tracks, the rain and wind had picked up again. Lightning flashed at steady intervals, so it wasn’t hard to pick one’s way across the rutted pasture.
When he reached the tracks, Elton wasn’t sure what to do. It was too wet for any hope of a fire. A lantern in this weather wouldn’t have made much headway into the darkness.
He stood there in the rain, the water pooling around his boots, lightning and thunder fierce enough to make him flinch.
The train was upon him almost before he realized it.
It wasn’t slowing.
It didn’t see him.
Behind the yellow and inviting passenger car windows, the performers were laughing and singing and smiling, their lovely hands hoisting drink and food, beautiful hands emphasizing a point of conversation, fantastic hands touching a shoulder or cheek.
I’m invisible to them, Elton thought.
The girl from the trapeze was behind one of the windows, by herself, staring sadly out into the night.
She’s looking right at me, Elton thought.
She can’t see me.
He snapped out of his reverie.
He began running.
He began trying to catch the train.
He saw a railing, on the last car.
If he could just grab hold of the railing, he could pull himself onto the platform of the caboose.
Elton ran faster.
He got one hand on the railing and when he tried to bring his other hand up, his fingers slipped off the wet metal, and Elton lost his footing and took a long, stumbling plunge back into the muddy fields.
The train headed toward the curve.
The rain kept falling.
Elton picked himself up and watched helplessly as another year was taken away from him.
The failure didn’t dampen Elton’s dreams, it only made him more resolved.
Next year the skies will be clear.
Next year the railing will be dry.
Next year I will be strong, and my hands…my hands…my hands…
First snow came early, a solid inch the day after Halloween, even though it didn’t last long. The day before Thanksgiving Elton strung up green, blue, red and orange lights, glass bulbs the size of chicken eggs, along the tall evergreens lining the driveway, and sure enough, by the first week of December there was enough of the white stuff to plow.
Elton began work on his hands just after Christmas. Vera had given him a pair of gloves as a gift; leather, with a fleece lining, ruddy brown, good gloves, not work gloves. They fit nice and snug. He got into the habit of wearing them everywhere, even inside the house.
“I can’t help it,” he told Vera when she asked. “My hands are cold. I don’t want to catch pneumonia, you know.”
She had more questions when he began using her hand lotions.
“The skin on my hands is cracking,” he explained. “I’ll get an infection if I don’t take care of them.”
When the questions persisted, he began using udder balm. The cows were gone, and didn’t need it where they were now.
Gradually, Elton thought, his hands showed signs of improvement. They seemed smoother, more supple, the wrinkles not cutting so deep into his skin. He waved experimentally. The real test would come in the spring, when the snow was replaced by soil and there was work to be done.
But the true test for Elton came in a way he wasn’t expecting. Even after the warmer springtime weather had settled in, Elton had taken to wearing his Christmas gloves pretty much all the time—around the house, out in the barn, in the field, when slopping the hogs, and when driving into town.
His typical trip to town involved stops at the First National Bank of Goatfield, the Farmer’s Co-op, Gruis Family Grocery, and Wilton’s Tavern.
It was at Wilton’s that his gloves came under some scrutiny.
The bar wasn’t packed, Thursday afternoon after all. A couple of patrons in overalls at the bar. A sunburned pair in work shirts and jeans playing pool over in the corner. The balls and beer glasses clinked in time.
“Hamm’s,” Elton said to Wilton, sliding onto a stool.
“The Brew that Grew with the Great Northwest it is.” He leaned into the spigot.
When Elton reached for the foam-topped glass, one of the other men at the bar, Pete Ester, an old-timer, used to farm a place a couple miles south of Elton, spoke up.
“What’s with the gloves, Elton? You expecting a cold wave? Mighty fancy gloves for farming, you’re a gentleman farmer now, did you hear that, fellas, old Elton here is a gentleman farmer.”
There was a laugh or two.
“I…it’s a skin condition.”
“Skin condition. Hey Elton, how about a game of pool? Or do you not wish to hurt your precious hands?”
Precious hands. Precious, beautiful hands.
And their hands. Look at their hands. The wrinkles, the scars, the liver spots. It was laughable, it was sad.
“No time,” said Elton. “I’ve got groceries in the truck, don’t want the ice cream sandwiches to melt.”
“Don’t want get any dirt under your lovely fingernails.”
“Poison ivy. I picked it up when I was clearing away a tree that fell in the grove.”
“Sure, Elton. Whatever you say. You keep your gloves on, none of my business.”
They let him be after that, and he drained his glass in peace. As he was leaving, someone piped up, “Hey Elton, you forgot your purse!”
Elton didn’t look back. He didn’t care. They couldn’t be expected to understand. They lived in a lesser world. Their hopes and dreams didn’t extend any farther than the end of the bar.
On the way home, Elton pulled over to the side of the road by the co-op and carefully removed his gloves, one finger at a time. He studied his hands, and was greatly pleased.
Not beautiful, not yet, but so much better. The progress was evident. Smoother, softer, maybe even tender, almost a shine to them. No dirt under the nails. He wondered if he should make an appointment with a manicurist.
“Elton, you seem like you’ve been in such a good mood lately,” said Vera that evening over supper. “I was beginning to get worried.”
“See, I told you it was the croup.”
“You said rheumatism.”
“One leads to another, then you get pneumonia.”
“I feel fine.”
They ate their mashed potatoes and peas.
“Elton, do you think we could take a trip sometime?”
“You know, a vacation.”
“Well…” Already he felt regret, already he knew he would look back, when the train came for him, and watch the farm, his old life, fade into the distance, then disappear entirely as they rounded the corner at Engel’s Creek. The last long look at the farm where he was born and raised, where his dad was born, where his grandfather homesteaded after taking the boat from Germany to the new lands.
“Maybe we could visit my sister in Rochester. When do you think we could visit her?”
Elton set down his fork.
He glanced over at the Goatfield Electric Co-op calendar on the wall by the door.
Soon, he thought.
The John Deere 1937 Model 40 Hay Press was a step up from the horse-drawn balers of days gone by. Back then, when hay was cut in the field it was initially stacked in piles called shocks. A long pipe was inserted beneath the shock, a rope was tied across from front to back, and the shock was then hauled to the barnyard to be added to the haystack. The haystack itself was formed by setting a long cedar pole into the ground, then stacking the hay around it in the shape of a cone.
The Model 40 Hay Press made things easier. In many cases it was used in conjunction with a Model T Ford, by attaching a flat-belt sheave to the spokes of a rear wheel with three J bolts. The baler was moved to the hay field, where farmhands pitched hay onto the baler table.
These machines made chores easier for the modern farmer, but they also required looking after, sometimes as much as the livestock.
Elton, still wearing his Christmas gloves, had pulled the baler out into the yard by the corn crib to do routine maintenance. After he hooked it up to the car and got everything going, it sounded like the baler was running a little rough. Probably just needed lubrication after sitting in storage all winter.
As the baler ran, he lifted the guard to gain access to the transmission chains and sprockets. He then proceeded to oil the stuffer knotter drive chain, using a small bottle with a short nipple. The sides of the bottle were slippery from the oil, and he accidentally dropped it down behind the stuffer knotter drive chain.
Without thinking he reached in to retrieve the bottle.
The cog grabbed the gloved thumb of his right hand.
Elton couldn’t wriggle free of his nice snug Christmas glove.
The cog then took his wrist, and continued pulling him into the machine.
What’s going on?
Blood sprayed the machinery.
Elton was unable to reach the button that would turn off the baler. He screamed in pain, for help.
His mind numbed quickly, in shock, the pain more distant now.
Elton shook his head, dizzy. To avoid being fully dragged into the machine, he kept pulling and pulling until he finally released himself from the machine, leaving his hand and glove behind.
He staggered backward, then stumbled across the yard toward the house, barely able to stay on his feet, blood spurting from his stump, to the driveway and Vera, who began screaming, too.
Elton was haunted by them in the fever of the netherworld he inhabited.
He had dreams, the strangest dreams.
Dreams where the glove was pulled off and consumed by the baler, but his hand was spared.
Dreams where his hand was severed but then grew back, slender and white and lovely.
Dreams where the combine was harvesting fields of hands, planted in neat rows, fingers waving like corn tassels in the summer winds. Chopping, chopping, chopping.
Dreams of hands, beautiful hands.
Of hands, of hands, of hands.
Even when he woke, the dreams of hands seemed to have no end.
Elton sat propped up in bed. He was at Mankato Municipal Hospital. His bandaged right hand was held in place by a pulley system. He couldn’t move it.
“When the wound heals,” the doctor had told him in a friendly voice, “we’ll attach your hook.”
Was there beauty in a curved piece of steel?
Not the kind Elton was looking for.
Not the kind that would get him anywhere.
Vera was supportive as always, but Elton could see she was shaken. He put on a good face for her, hid his feelings.
Elton began to see the world differently. When someone came into his room, he didn’t look them in the eye, he eyed their hands. Even the stubby, coarse, weathered hands. There were very few beautiful hands in the hospital, the type of beauty he had in mind. Not even the nurses seemed to measure up.
He began to see and understand the world through hands. How emotions were expressed in hands, how they betrayed a person’s next move, how they were used to communicate thoughts and ideas. He wondered if someone with ugly hands could truly have beautiful thoughts.
Then it changed. He wasn’t sure why it happened, but one afternoon the doctor came in and shook hands with Vera.
Elton began vomiting.
“Land sakes!” exclaimed Vera. “What’s wrong? Why are you so sick?”
At first he thought is was perhaps a coincidence, but then, when he saw two visitors shake hands in hallway, and felt the bile rise, Elton realized that he had an aversion to the handshake in all its forms. Fortunately, the custom was easy to avoid in his present condition.
Soon hands themselves began to disturb him. He asked Vera to wear gloves when she came into the room. The doctor liked to gesture with his hands as he talked, and Elton had to shut his eyes until he left.
On the wall of his room there was a painting of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane, kneeling, his hands folded in a position of prayer. Elton asked the picture be turned toward the wall. The nurse gave him an odd look but compiled.
The doctor came in a short time later and asked him about it.
“I’m paying for this room, aren’t I?” Elton said.
“It’s perfectly natural to have these feelings,” said the doctor. “You’ve experienced a major loss, a physical loss, and it will take some time to get over it, but you will, believe me you will. In time you may even imagine that the hand is still there, we call it a phantom hand.”
On the contrary, he wanted to find a piece of farm equipment that would take his other hand away.
Soon enough Elton was fitted with his hook and sent home to continue his recovery.
He didn’t want visitors, made Vera answer the door when the egg man or Watkins man came calling.
“My sister from Rochester wants to come visit,” said Vera. “What day would be best?”
“Tell her no.”
“I’m not well enough. I’m not ready. Give me time.”
There was time, and it went slowly at first, then the days seemed to fall away as they always did.
Elton looked at the calendar.
He had forgotten about the calendar, the passing of summer, and what it meant.
The circus train was coming through this weekend.
Elton began to weep.
The tears turned to panic, to fear, as the week moved along, and the day of the train approached, unstoppable. When he could sleep, his dreams were filled with hands, beautiful hands, slipping away, slipping into the belly of the baler. He was glad! It made him happy! Anything it took.
Hours before the train was to arrive Elton was already hiding in an upstairs closet, crouching among old flannel hunting jackets and duck decoys and cane fishing poles.
When Vera found him, she said, “My word! Elton, what are you doing in there? What are you hiding from?”
He was shaking, he couldn’t stop himself. “Please,” he said. “Make them stop. Don’t let them come here. Their hands, so close, so beautiful, no, they’re not beautiful, they are to be damned, damned, damned!”
“I’ll call the doctor,” she said softly.
“You don’t understand,” said Elton. “He can’t stop it, nobody can stop it! They come every year, don’t you know! Every year!” His voice dropped. “They’ll be here soon. Can you hear the train? Listen…is that the whistle now?”
“I’m making tea,” she said. “Why don’t you come down and have a cup? We’ll talk.”
Yes, Elton went downstairs with her, and sat in a rocker and acted like the spell had past.
Vera said things he didn’t hear.
When she went into the kitchen to get his tea, Elton escaped into the night…
Some things may have changed, but Elton was still strong.
The rails were strong, too. But they were constructed by men, men without his sense of mission, of belief.
Elton worked in the dark for some time, frantically, joyously, expertly, the hook doing its part, until the job was done.
The rails were old, Elton would say. Never inspected in all the years that he lived here. Bound to happen sooner or later.
And then he returned to the white farm house with the woman inside.
When the roar of metal and earth and human suffering, the terrible glow of the fire, came in a marvelous wave across the fields, Elton turned over in bed and told his panic-stricken wife: “I can sleep now. I can finally sleep.”
Afterwards, Elton got to know his hook. His mind seemed to return to a more or less normal state. His obsession had been slaked. There was work to be done, farm work, healthy honest farm work. He even let Vera invite her sister from Rochester for a visit.
“I’m so happy you’re back with me,” said Vera one morning at the breakfast table. “I thought I had lost you forever.”
“I feel like my old self again,” said Elton. “I never thought it would happen.”
Summer slipped out the door, and fall filled the breach. It was a gorgeous autumn, the trees in the grove painted brilliant red and yellow. Elton carved a pumpkin and set it in the window. Vera made pie out of the innards.
Winter then, never really welcome, but the change in seasons was always life-affirming. It had been a tough year, they had been through a lot, and it would be good to rest and wait for the arrival of spring, and, inevitably, summer…
It was a fair, moonless August night, and Elton and Vera were asleep in their bed. The nights had been getting cool, so Vera had brought out the down comforter. The window was open several inches, a fresh breeze wafting in.
He lay there silently, wondering why he had left his dreams.
A dog barking, fields away.
What is it?
Elton suddenly sat up.
A train whistle.
His heart began palpitating.
A train whistle.
He had to be imagining it. Just ringing in his ears, that’s right, that’s all.
Vera slept on.
Elton thought he heard an engine, thought he felt a faint vibration rising up from the floorboards.
He stayed in bed. He didn’t move.
The engine grew louder, the whistle more insistent.
But the whistle seemed different. Reedy. Hollow.
Then the sound of the engine receded, quickly, too quickly. It should have been gradual, as the train rounded the curve at Engel’s Creek.
It could be any train, Elton thought. Any train.
Silent again, outside.
The window was dark. A moonless night.
You couldn’t make out County Road 249 or St. John’s church steeple or even much of the corn and bean fields.
Blue began barking, howling. He was in the barn.
Vera stirred, and hung there between the waking and sleeping worlds.
Elton looked to the window.
It was black. Like someone had hung a dark curtain in front of the panes.
The black window.
Elton listened. He thought he heard something, something in the yard, moving through the grass.
And then, the window wasn’t so black anymore.
The curtain had been raised.
There were hands on the window, a score of hands.
No longer beautiful hands.
Charred and bloody and flayed and trembling hands.
On the window.
Moving, reaching, searching.
He couldn’t see faces, just hands, just hands.
Elton rushed from his bed to the living room.
The terrible hands covered the porch windows.
To the kitchen.
To the hands.
Glass broke, all over the house.
Elton saw more than hands now.
Moving, reaching, searching.
Elton was in the pantry.
Hands on him. Hands on him everywhere.
He heard tearing sounds, ripping sounds, screaming sounds.
Where were these sounds coming from? He wasn’t sure. It seemed very close.
And the fear went away.
Because the hands that were rending him, he realized with wonder, weren’t ugly, scarred, train-wrecked hands.
They were beautiful hands.
He could see them now, see them all.
White and smooth and graceful and soft-looking.
Like doves against a summer blue sky.
Elton had learned how emotions were expressed in hands, how they betrayed a person’s next move, how they were used to communicate thoughts and ideas.
And the hands, Her beautiful hands, said to him: