“Her Hand: The Contortionist”

Fiction by Felicia Spahr

    Lilliana’s arms and fingers worked at a frightening speed. Each note she struck with the bow, each sound that echoed in the concert hall, reverberated with a force. She moved her head as if it were a gavel, pounding, to accentuate the rhythm, her passion.
    Every time I watched her prepare for a performance, she would read from her music and hum to herself with the same energy, the same electricity, that she had on the stage. Her head like a gavel, her foot tapping on the floor, her eyes closed, and her eyebrows moving all over her face — depending on if the notes were high or low, adagio or presto.
    I’ve watched her for years now, attending each recital she has, each concert, each event where she has been a distinguished guest. She has a clean tone, every note unique and crisp, each standing out on its own. Perfect technique, holding the bow in the right way, at the right angle. Knowing where everything goes.
    What has always struck me, though, is her hand. It is in the most unnatural of positions, twisted in a way that looks painful, yet allows for the acrobatic work required to pull off a Mendelssohn concerto or a Beethoven symphony. Her hand slides, skips, jumps, and pounds the fingerboard with a rapacity, a compulsion, an obsession. I can never take my eyes off that hand.
    Being married to Lilliana is strange. We live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, use the same toilet, the same toothpaste. Sometimes we are even together in a room, doing the same thing — reading, watching television, eating a piece of cheese. We both like cheese. Brie especially.
    But Lilliana is having an affair, which I’m quite accustomed to by now. I know who it is, and I’ve seen him many times. Very polished, very together. Is at her beck and call. She’ll tell him to scream, and he does. She’ll tell him to whisper, and he does that, too. In fact, there’s nothing he won’t do, unless Lilliana’s not telling him to do it.
    Like I’ve said, I’m used to it. Perhaps I’m too much of an independent spirit, a bit of a rogue, I would say. I’ve surmised that Lilliana’s infidelity is based purely on the notion that I am not dependent enough on her. I don’t need her, like he does. If she’s not around, he’s as good as dead.
    I’d say I’ve got a lot going on in my life right now. My hair’s only thinning, not balding. My pants are snug, not too tight. My face is decent, not too wrinkled. And I edit things, lots of things. Books, magazines. A chief, they call me. So, I am important after all.
    It was an evening. Lilliana was in the living room, with him. Her hand, that hand, all over him like a rash. Jumping, skipping, leaping, with electricity, excitement. She’s different when she’s with him. Her hair looks softer, her body looks taller. Something in her eyes, you know, that something? Where you think, hey, now, I want to feel like that.
    She turned herself around so she could see me, as she knew I was watching her, as I usually do when she’s with him. It’s a self-preservation thing, you see. It helps stop the madness.
    She kept playing the notes, letting them ring through the air. She even took a step closer to me, locking me into a stare, showing me just how good they were together. I had thought, for a brief moment, how dare she! Standing there, in front of me, with him! So exposed. Shameless. It was like — what was it? Like I wasn’t actually there.
    My eyes lingered on her hand, that one hand. Her fingers bouncing up and down, not coming up for air. Then I thought, that was it! This was why he loved her. It was her hand that kept him alive, her hand that allowed him to have a voice! It was an understandable love, a dependent one. It was all so simple now.
    “Lilliana,” I said, interrupting her. Her eyes acknowledged that she had heard me, that she was listening to what I had to say next.
    “Lilliana,” I said, louder now. Just put him away, goddamn it.
    She stopped, though her hand was still in that same twisted position. Consoling him.
    “Would you like a cup of tea?” I asked.
    She nodded her head, not wanting to break her concentration by speaking. She immediately went back to him as soon as she gave her answer, resuming the exact moment in the piece where she had left off. I suppose it was just the nature of their relationship. Completely in tune with each other.
    I went into the kitchen and began to boil water, turning the flame the highest it could go. Now, peppermint or lemon? I didn’t want to interrupt her again and ask. It would be cruel, you see, to interrupt such lovemaking. Perhaps what flavor I chose didn’t matter.
    The water only took a few minutes to boil, and by that time Lilliana had come into the kitchen and had gotten out a mug for herself.
    “You know, I’ve practiced for eight hours today. Eight hours! I am exhausted.”
    “That’s why I offered you tea, dear. You just looked like you needed to relax.”
    Lilliana smiled. See now, there was a moment. Where you saw me, a husband, a good husband, doing something that a husband would do for his wife. But as I said before, being married to Lilliana is strange. We lived in the same house, slept in the same bed, used and touched and heard all of the same things. But she was having an affair.
    I went to pick up the kettle of water to pour into her mug, my hand protected in a cooking mitt. She clasped the mug with both of her hands, like a child waiting for a treat before dinner. She looked up at me, or rather, at the kettle, and I looked down at her hand, that hand. The contortionist.
    I bent down, the kettle bending with me, steam exiting from its opening. I then took one more step before I started to pour.
    She had screamed. A piercing, violent scream. She clutched the hand the boiling water had turned into a bubbling, purple stew. She wouldn’t stop screaming, even when I called 911, even when she was in the ambulance, even when she was on the hospital bed. She screamed at the nurses, she screamed at the doctor, she screamed to a God, who I didn’t even know she talked to. But she didn’t scream at me.
    Her hand was charred, and the burns had rendered her fingers useless. After the amputation, she had to wear a white bandage for six months. She needed help to shower. She had to cancel all of her current performances, and all of her future ones. She and he stared at each other for hours, not saying anything. A rift had formed between them, an obstacle they couldn’t get past. I suppose it was the nature of their relationship; that eventually the passion would wither away like a garden starved of water.
    It had been a day, a few months later. I had walked in the door of our home, the one we lived in together, and I had stopped short. I heard music, slow, soft music, coming from our living room. I knew it was impossible, that I must have been just hearing things. You know, when you just hear things? You feel like you’re going mad.
    But Lilliana was there, with him. He was resting on her shoulder, her other hand around him, in the same twisted, contorted position. She had wedged her bow into her bandage and taped it there. Her hand couldn’t quite jump or leap, but it was moving, and moving fast. All the notes were the same, all the sounds. That energy,  that electricity. You could even see her head moving a little, not like a gavel, but like a baby’s rattle. Slowly, softly.
    She looked at me when I came in, and smiled. But she was taunting me, mocking me! You fool, she was saying, it is him that I love! So it was, I thought.
    And I left. Just walked right back out the door, the sounds piercing and haunting, following me like a ghost. You understand, don’t you? It’s her hand, that hand. I had to stop the madness.

    Felicia Spahr is a Long Island native who is working on her second novel. She has written screenplays, short plays, poems, and essays, and been published on Splashlife.com, FilmCatcher.com, and NorthbyNorthwestern.com. This story is an excerpt from an unpublished story collection, “All the Things I Would Have Done.”