Skip to main content

by Heather Thomson

Evelyn considers objects with her slim infant fingers, moving her digits slowly, independent of each other—absentmindedly, automatically: she has not yet learned to control her movements. In her sleep, she moves her fingers in long elegant waves, like the legs of a spider on water, and shoots her hands up above her head when she hears a bang, bringing them down slowly—eyes still closed—with fingers spread, as though in worship. My daughter’s hands are like a spider’s web: softer and finer than you might expect, and as lightweight and translucent. They are cooler than you would expect, too, and do not possess the supposed death grip—the kind that Annie Dillard’s weasel had on the eagle’s throat—and the kind that Evelyn’s mouth has on my breast when suckling, with a tongue-tie limiting her motion, restricting her jaw. Two innate abilities: to suck and to grip. Her fingers are loose where her mouth is tight.

I suppose it is commonplace to contemplate tiny hands. Each of her fingers is its own delicate strand in an intricate web of bone and flesh and purple veins, forming hands that are, at two months old, two inches by one-and-a-half. I study her palms, between the creases where the black fluff from her little gloves has gathered.

But I study her hands as metaphor, too.

Of course, there is the time-old, clichéd question, which I’m sure every new mom has asked: what will these hands one day do? Curiously, I don’t think about this much. We read hands like the wrinkled map of one’s past, or the bright pages of one’s future. More generally, we use the hand as synecdoche: a part to stand for the whole (person). Give a hand, lend a hand, ask for a hand in marriage. (If she to me is “hand,” then I to her am “breast.”) Instead of reading her future in her hands, I try to read her present.

I have seen her carefully wrap her fingers around the cold steel arms of a pair of scissors her father was using to cut off her hospital bracelet (he stopped just in time). I have seen her reach for other objects, warmer, friendlier ones: the healing fingers of her chiropractor making miniature circles on her jaw—gently massaging the bone. I have felt her knuckle-white nails in a colic rage sink into my flesh. I have felt her fists pound on my breast in hunger. And, I have seen her stretch those same hands just barely above her head after a good snooze, shake them with anger before a cry, and wave them in delight when she offers us a smile. People say that crying is an infant’s only form of communication. Evelyn’s hands seem to suggest otherwise.

As I’ve been writing this essay, Evelyn has learned how to bring her fist to her mouth to soothe herself, similar to what she did with her fingers in the womb. She’s combining her two instincts of sucking and gripping. Eventually she will learn how to more fully use her hands. How to pick things up, for instance, developing her fine motor skills. Her communication will later more fully switch from her hands to her mouth: she will begin to speak in words, her sounds now being only cries, grunts, babbles, and gurgles, many of them still unintelligible to me. Some may say that even at her present stage, the mouth is still the predominant communicator. It may be the more obvious one. But the fingers were in motion first, before the sputtering cry in which she gasped for her first breath.

She never wanted to be swaddled, having all her limbs restrained, tucked close to the body, a position that is supposed to mimic being in the womb. Even then, she wanted her hands free: during ultrasounds, I watched the black and white images as if they were old silent films, of her sucking her fingers, clasping them together, and, once—as though with a dramatic flair—putting her hand to her forehead, palm up. She is her mother’s daughter, I thought, as I watched her on the screen. My husband and I don’t put the socks on her hands that are used to prevent scratching, nor do we cover them when she sleeps. In fact, the only time we cover her hands is to bring her outside into the Canadian winter, and even then, we leave her arms free to move, putting only her gloves on, and popping them off as soon as possible.

When referring to the procedure to alleviate tongue-tie, they use the euphemistic term “clipping”instead of “cutting,”as though it were only an ancillary fingernail, instead of a membrane of flesh (called the frenulum) holding down the tongue. A baby is clipped if the membrane prevents her from breastfeeding properly; tongue-tie can also later restrict a child when she begins to speak. When they clipped Evelyn, they had to restrain her hands so she would not grasp at the instruments.

Restraining hands is meant for suspects in metal handcuffs. Not Evelyn, who—unsuspecting—had her own hands restrained beside her body in the folds of a sterile white hospital blanket moments before the procedure. Suspects are told they have the “right”to remain silent. The right to not speak, which also implies the right to speak. Her way of speaking—with her hands—was taken from her, as it would be from a person who was handcuffed and only spoke sign-language. It was seeing the restraint of Evelyn’s hands that made me look away in pain, not the blood gurgling cry that would follow, which was like a second birth. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,”the heroine exchanges her voice for a pair of legs by having her tongue cut out. In Evelyn’s case, there was also an exchange, but we made that decision for her. Her tongue would be freed at the price of her hands, though they were restrained only temporarily. Thirty seconds to be exact (at least, that is what we were told), though it seemed much longer. When the clipping was finally over, she breastfed with blood streaming down us both, and she pumped her upper fist at me, as if to make sure I knew she never wanted to be silenced again.

As for my own hands, one holds her now as she feeds and subsequently sleeps; the other types, one-handed, fingers like spider-feet stretching for the keys. It’s like playing a difficult piece on the piano: let not your left hand know what your right hand doeth. People keep telling me that Evelyn has piano player hands. I smile at them, politely. I realize that most of them are merely commenting on her anatomy of long, slim fingers. But I don’t want others’ ideas imposed on her of what she should do: I want her to choose for herself. She is now only beginning to learn what her hands may do, what they can reach for, what they may grasp. In this moment, it is my own hand in hers. Sometimes, though, I catch myself wondering if—and guiltily hoping that—like me, she will eventually turn her hand to writing, that her hands may once again be the medium through which her voice is heard.




Heather Thomson is a recent graduate of the MFA creative writing program at BYU. She currently lives in Montreal with her husband and newborn daughter.