by Oonah V. Joslin
For my sister Esmé and Oliver Kilbourn (the pitman painter) whose work inspired this, and for all those who make light and beautiful, the dark and ugly parts of this world.
His mother screamed and wept when he was handed to her and immediately gave him back to the midwife. “I don’t want it,” she said. “Take it away. I won’t look at it again.”
And so Jim Henderson was placed in an institution to be raised and educated.
“Let’s pretty that up for you.” Smikkers was a plain boy who had nothing remarkable about him except that he was lanky and manipulative.
His side-kick, Garrety Grey had taken paints from the art room and given the gang a tube each. Petri and Bill Bidder held Henderson and muffled his screams for help while the others pulled off his mitt and smeared paint on the appendage that passed for a hand.
Smikkers stood back, paring his nails with a vicious-looking knife. Henderson was twisting like a python, but by the time he got free, they’d claried his hand in oil paints.
A teacher rang the bell for class and they ran like hell.
“Who did this, Henderson? Where’s your mitt?” demanded the Master in a tone that conveyed such displeasure that Jim wasn’t sure whether the teacher’s concern was for the assault, the paint theft or merely the sensibilities of other pupils with regard to his deformity, so he refused to tell. Anyway, it would only make things worse next time. There was always a next time.
But Henderson knew his left hand couldn’t help being ugly, and he bore the disfigurement as a badge of individuality. He kept the three claws of fused finger bone and purplish-brown flesh hidden so that others wouldn’t have to see its ugliness and so that it would not have to witness theirs.
Jim had seen ugliness in the faces of bullies and friends alike. Ugliness and more: hatred, loathing, fear epitomised in all its sharp focus, any time the hand was exposed to view. In his heart he knew with a certainty others could never perceive that all ugliness comes from within, as does all appreciation of perfection.
At every opportunity, when he was alone, he allowed his hand to experience beauty. Out in the meadow, Henderson would remove his glove, bathe his hand in Bethesda-like springs, allow it to touch the soft petals of celandines and buttercups, poppies, gentians, purple clover and meadowsweet, feathery grasses and ripening berries.
Always he would take out his paints and pad and place a brush between the thumb and first pronged hook, and his hand would paint the delicate blooms in shades of pastels. It painted glittering streams and brooks that seemed almost to burble up from the page; trees and field margins, hedges and thrushes’ eggs.
Jim had nothing to do with it. The hand simply and expressively painted what beauty felt like in a style all its own.
The curator was clearly impressed by the folio on offer but was just as evidently sceptical that the painfully shy and deformed creature he saw before him could have done such work.
“Each canvas is signed ‘by the Hand of Henderson.’ Pray, why is that?”
Jim explained that the hand did all the work itself with little or no direction from him other than provisioning paint and tactile inspiration.
“They are very... textural, and the light is... interesting but not quite right. Where is the light source? For instance, in this one?”
Jim could give only one answer. “Each thing carries its own light. Any light there is, in fact all light comes from within.”
“And you painted these yourself?”
“As I explained...”
“I am sorry I’ve wasted your time,” spat Jim. He took his paintings and left.
A few canvases sold to private owners but not enough to ever make a living. Henderson became more and more isolated and reclusive. He locked himself away in a poorest market area of the town and there he forgot and was forgotten.
Decades passed. The buildings were condemned and were due to be demolished.
“What’s behind this door, Felix?” asked the site boss.
“Cellar, I think. Does it matter? It’ll all be gone tomorrow.”
“Break it down. Better make sure there’s nobody in there beforehand.”
With one blow the door shattered in a sudden burst of light.
“Cor blimey, Boss!” Felix reeled backward. “Would you look at this!”
Henderson was discovered. There in the basement, surrounded by works of astounding beauty. He had long since run out of food, water and materials but his hand still painted frenetically, covering the walls in portraitures of light, so that the dank space was ablaze in a triumph of luminosity.
Slumped in the corner, a bundle of corrupt flesh and rag was all that was left of the corporeal remains of Jim Henderson. But the Hand would permit no one to remove the lifeless corpse of him who had shown the only kindness it had ever known. It grew, stretched out and barred the way of all who approached: a ghastly clawed guardian.
And so they sealed the door to that glorious cellar and only when the site was razed and the natural light of the sun blazed in were the dust of his last vestiges and the works of Henderson’s hand released together, to become part of the light of the universe at large.
Copyright © 2015 by Oonah V. Joslin