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He grew up in a family where every hand was needed to work. You washed them in the morning, you washed them at night, and in between there was ploughing and sowing, spraying crop and harvesting. The family’s farmhouse looked over flatland, frozen under snow three months of the year, cracked in July and August. Every day, his father’s big hands moved from before dawn to after dusk, with the calm intent of a man accustomed to keeping a steady pace.
When Gus was little, his parents’ farm was the earth, the sun and the moon, filled with the never-ending, unfailing growling of engines, the whiff of musty wallpaper and woolen blankets and the wind blowing dirt into his round face. There were slamming doors, the muffled sounds of his mother cooking and arguing from the kitchen, the deep smell of grain, soil and wood, and in the summer, the hunt for crickets. Gus gasped at their jumps, free as fire crackers, a carnival of random will.
His head, when he slept in grandma’s lap, rested between her hands. Her hands were even bigger than his father’s, bigger than his face when he was born. But just like his father’s they moved at a steady pace. When her swollen knuckles burned, she let hot water run over the pain while washing dishes. At night, he watched grandma knit in front of the fireplace. She sat in her wide-armed chair next to his older brother’s wheelchair. His brother held the skein of red yarn between his pale hands and let the thread slide through his long fingers over limp legs.
On Saturdays, Gus sat next to his brother in church for choir practice, one hand on his wheelchair. Grandma clapped for every song and slipped candy into their small palms on their way home. When Gus turned twelve, his father needed him at the farm and he could no longer join his brother at choir practice. You have a gift, the choir director said and handed him his old nylon string guitar. Accept it as your own. Six months later, Gus was playing Bach.
If it wasn’t too windy or cold, he played behind the old wooden shed filled with rusty tools. At first, his fingers didn’t listen. He allowed himself to not know what he was doing. He listened to songs on the radio and matched up the notes. He practiced seeing and hearing a piece without an image of the printed page. At night, he climbed up into the dust-filled attic over grandma’s room and played in the dark. A parade of laughing and weeping notes sprung from his fingertips. There his hands were in control over a carnival of his own. Perhaps grandma listened, perhaps her hands rested.
He stopped biting his nails. He needed them to grow over the end of his fingertips to assist in the attack of the note. He needed his right thumb nail to be longer than the others. When his nails broke while working in the fields or the garden, he felt like a bird without feathers. He tried to fix the breakage with glue but the glue stuck to his skin and made it worse. He became used to hiding his right thumb inside his fist. No one seemed to notice, as long as he kept working the land. One day, Grandma slipped him a nail file.
Gus and his dad started building a new wooden shed behind the house. He had to lift the wood planks onto the work bench and cut them in half with a hand saw. His brother watched from the dark window behind the outdoor peeling bench, where grandma sat and shelled fresh green peas, her hands flowing, the dog sleeping between her feet.
Sweat ran from his father’s forehead down his long face, as he tore apart the old shed. Then he stopped, eyes pinned on Gus. What’s the matter with you? he asked. Why are you holding the plank as if it could bite? Gus gripped the wood harder and felt the rough surface press against the soft of his palm. The air had filled with sawdust, salting his eyes. His knuckles turned white. When the work bench wobbled, his hands went limp. He dropped the saw and, with a loud clang, it hit the gravel.
His father let go of the jackhammer in one hand and the old wood in the other. He picked up the saw from the dirt and looked at it for a long time, his eyes narrowing in on the saw’s teeth. Gus’ brother wheeled himself out to the porch and craned his neck. The engines quieted. The dog made a low, whining sound. Grandma set the peas aside. His father turned toward the old shed, then half-way swiveled back and slapped Gus in the face hard.
He fell back, keeping his gaze on the gravel. When Gus looked back up, grandma stood before him and slapped his father just as hard. Perhaps even harder. His father’s face turned red, one cheek more than the other.
In two weeks, the shed was finished and in three months, grandma was dead. Gus didn’t dare to play at her funeral. He sat in church, his shoulders rounded and his hands wedged under his thighs. But he’d written a song, ‘Grandma’s Hands’. He had set down the score up in the unbroken seclusion of the attic before she died. He had already begun to climb higher into the shaking uncertainties of a world of his own.
Now he only had to add the lyrics and be brave enough to sing along.
Christine Breede Christine holds an MS from Columbia University, serves as a speech therapist for the International school of Geneva and organizes writers’ workshops. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020 and is currently at work on her first novel.