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These are the palms the infant keeps closed after bi

Hands of the Infant

Jeff Burt


I step outside into the quiet of Saturday morning, ready to work for the third day on my knees with river stones. I caress them, assess fit, place, and tamp them down to give illusory permanence to a new landscape, a footing interspersed with temporary vegetation.

I fill a white basin with water and wash my hands before tossing in a few stones. The water brings a vision of the river that proffered the stones, rushing current white-foamed and urgently running downhill as if anxious to find the level where calm exists. The water holds the tiding of oceans and the slow eternal grinding that is the river’s work. My palms feel smooth when rubbed against each other, the stones having knocked any nubs and spare skin away. The river eroded the stubble and shorn the nicks from the stones; now, the stones are transferring the river’s labor to my palms.

My hands are soft like a child’s palms—the palms that once colored with crayons and had trouble staying within lines; that sculpted clay, made long worms of yellow and green; that pressed paint to the edges of paper with red and blue; and that wrapped large purple chalk in a fist to draw outlines of people, flowers, and dogs.

These are the hands a mother knows, the hands of the infant, the hands that explored her womb. These are the palms the infant keeps closed after birth, as if clutching seeds containing important code. Slowly, they open as mother and father nourish and hold and woo the fingers from the soft pillows at the heel of the hand to stretch like pale green shoots from the fertile soil into sunlight and air.

My lifelines shoot up at an angle from the heel of my palm, bisected and interrupted in their climb, jaggedly shifted as though a life starts over, then begin to ascend again. I smile at my palm reading.

The lines look like twine or stitches—at first like Frankenstein’s stitches. Then they soften, like gossamer stitches of thread used to repair linen, or cords made of silk, or a young girl’s braided hair. X-designs from experience mat the tissue below the thumb; exclamation points of injury and joy dot the landscape by the first joints of the fingers.

What do these palms bring to work? Or, what have I let work bring to these palms? I have made fists of anger, I have made fists of rejection, I have made fists of despair. When did I last open my hands like a musician plucking harp, strumming guitar, picking mandolin, and plunking honky-tonk on piano, splashing cymbals, and thundering toms?

Hands shake in greeting to show we carry peace in our palms even though our hearts may carry a battle. Palms conceal notes of love, then pass them with pressed passion through schoolrooms filled with juveniles. Palms purvey the cake from bride and groom to the other’s lips in frivolity, and, for some, in the tender symbol of giving communion to each other. Palms press together in bedrooms before a kiss.

What does it mean when we give another person a hand, grip palm to palm? Is it mere assistance, a coincidental meeting of need and casual assistance? Is it intended, the boost up the ladder or jungle gym in the schoolyard, the help carrying clothes from the dryer or groceries from the car into the house?

Lending a hand is not the back of the hand. The back is useful for cuffing another or wiping a nose or bearing a tattoo of personal significance. The helping hand means the palm—the intimate palm, the holding palm, the caressing palm, the food-feeding palm, the embracing palm, the palm of experience, the palm of our mothers and fathers, the palm holding crayons, pencils, and things that bounce, the palm of intimate kisses that hold the erotic, the tender, the swoon.

Stones smoothed by a river. Hands smoothed by stones—like the hands of an infant. Hands of the child held by older hands can calm and transform the adult’s experienced palm into one of wonder, of grace-filled leading.

Stones have done their work on me. What ruffled person, what wrinkled brow, what calloused sore may my palms now smooth?

Hands of the Infant, Essay by Jeff Burt

Jeff Burt lives in California with his wife amid the redwoods and two-lane roads wide enough for one car. He works in mental health. He has published in The Nervous Breakdown, Clare Literary Magazine, Per Contra, Amarillo Bay, Bird’s Thumb, and won the 2016 Consequence Magazine Fiction Prize.

Image Credit: Copyright © Anna Kraynova

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