The Li’l Fingers
On the morning the little fingers sprouted from the orange blossom tree in the Mayor’s courtyard, Maria Sanclarita discovered that the outlet the toaster oven had been plugged into was burnt-out, black and dry, and that her fourth most beautiful daughter’s, Manila’s, right hand had been reduced to a series of five rather soft, rather smooth little nubs.
Maria ran her fingers over the tiny mounds where the slender bones should have been and wondered if the knuckles and the joints and the skin were with the silverware in the kitchen. Her baby was sleeping, soundly enough, despite her missing flautist’s tools, curled up in her sheets like a mummy on the bottom bunk. She snored and Jabez snored and Leonor snored and Caroleena snored rhythmically, beautifully to Maria Sanclarita’s diamond-pierced ears—O, what majesty! What symphony! What artistry! Even in their sleep! But deep down inside her, not so much a worry nor a panic (if there is but one thing I know of Maria Sanclarita, it is that she is no worrywart: never a person to waste her time upon such trivialities as concern), but an annoyance (that is the word) began to blossom in her chest as a moonflower—and she burst.
In a tizzy amidst the morning glow of the sun shining around the window curtains’ edge, she went from bunk to bunk checking for anymore of her child prodigies’ missing appendages. The sugarplums were still dancing in their heads as they were poked and prodded, tossed and turned, but Maria Sanclarita discovered only Manila and Manila alone with missing her fingers; the more useless ones were all intact¾the writer and the painter and Caroleena—and Maria Sanclarita thanked God, do not misunderstand, but walked out of the room with a testing heart that could hardly weigh against a feather.
She closed the door to her children’s bedroom gently and measured her steps down the hall into the kitchen. She stood on the threshold and said, “If I were a fistful of flautist fingers, where would I fix to be . . . ?” And thought for a long moment.
The sensible answer seemed, at first, the flute case. But when Maria Sanclarita fetched it from the hallway and opened the black velvet box sitting on the tile of the kitchen floor, the only thing glaring back at her was the green of her face mask shining in the polished silver, distorted and knotted and dry. She closed the lid tightly and decided not to investigate any further. I would never hide where I work, she thought to herself, What a foolish thing. And she set the case back on the kitchen counter gingerly.
Maria Sanclarita pulled the curlers out of her thick, black hair as she searched on in the kitchen. She poked through the silver drawer and every cabinet, the sugar jar and the saltshaker and even the blender as if by some rebellious act—or miracle, perhaps—Manila had stuck her precious little fingers in there, and there they remained: wriggling, wiggling (God help us), but there were none. She did not find a single one. They weren’t there. They weren’t here. They weren’t anywhere. They were gone.
Maria slammed the black, plastic top back onto the mixer and swiped the back of her wrist over her forehead. She threw a couple Orange Crush Pop-Tarts into the toaster oven to see if the next outlet over would work (which, so far, it appeared it was not, as the pathetic little white box wouldn’t heat up, and the light wouldn’t turn on), and she sighed. Every bit of herself breathed and crumpled in. She stood on the threshold and leaned her hip against the doorway, placing her hand on her neck. She felt a coarse hair where her throat met her chin, and (pulling it out with the tips of her clean, white nails) shouted down the hallway, “Honey! The baby’s fingahs are gone!”
She twirled the strand between her fingers, examining it and curled her lip, blowing it away with a wish, and adding, “And the toastah won’t work!”
“What?!” her husband replied, grumbling through sheet, comforter, and pillow, down the plain hallway.
Maria Sanclarita ran her hands up and down her chin looking for more hairs. “The baby’s fingahs! They’ve gone!”
“. . . which baby?”
“‘Which baby?’” She laughed, bitterly. “Manila, you utter buh-ffoon!”
Sweat beaded on Maria’s forehead as she stood there, but there were no more hairs on her chin. And far down the hallway, Honey unearthed himself from his cocoon of blankets and sheets on the mattress and rubbed his fingers over the crevasses of his face.
“Honey!” she yelled again from the kitchen.
“Manila’s fingahs are gone!”
“What am I s’posed to do about it?” he asked, slamming his arms down on to the mattress.
And Maria Sanclarita—who had no time for fear—suddenly burst through the bedroom doorway; Honey thought she would have cracked it down if her feet had not been bare.
“Did you pawn ’em?” she asked through gritted teeth and jaw, coming down upon him in the bed.
Honey thought, again, she would have killed him if her feet had not been bare.
Her husband’s eye sockets were weighted down by the black-blue-green bags encircling them, exposing the bleary pink and red around the white and the brown and the black. She shoved his shoulder, and he did not blink.
“Did you pawn ’em you insufferable, chicken-hearted, gollumpus, drunkard, milksop, sorry excuse for a man? Did you lose ’em on the mutts, you worthless philosophe? You wrinkler! You villain, you!”
Crystal spit flew from her mouth, and he did not blink his sleepy eyes. He stared at her blankly, plainly, so unashamedly and rolled on to his side, away from her, facing the window and the morning sun shining. The birds twittered in the bare branches of the tree at his window, clouds rolled off far in the distant sky—mountains on wheels, he thought, shutting those sleepy eyes. His pillow seemed softer this morning than it had the night before, he noted. His breathing softened, and Maria Sanclarita gasped at his act of defiance as he pulled the comforter back up over his shoulder.
He did not even smile at her.
And to Maria Sanclarita, of course, this was a confession of guilt: an admission of his chicken-hearted, milksop, gollumpus villainy. But the flush faded from her cheeks, her fists uncurled, Honey snored, and then, suddenly, the toaster oven dinged.
It was 6 a.m. when Senhor Alfonso Hannover, the Mayor’s gardener and the town’s resident music teacher, discovered the fingers on the orange tree whilst pruning the raspberry bush elephant a few feet away. At first, from afar, he had thought, What ugly oranges. What disfigured fruit. What straaange seeeeds. But as he came closer upon them, glittering nails and mountain-range knuckles presented themselves from slim and chubby fingers alike, hanging from the dark brown branches, and he realized: the children have all been robbed!
He examined the little fingers hanging on the green-and-white blossom tree, as a gardener might with his care¾without touching them, a safe distance away from them¾and they were that of many children, he could tell. But one must ask oneself in such an instance, how had they gotten there? And he did.
“I don’t see how I can go about pruning that,” he said, and if he had still been pals with Maria Sanclarita—that being, if she had still lived in the Valley, he would have told her. First and foremost, he would have knocked on her door and informed her. But, instead, she had seen fit to move to Hilltop, (the rich part of town that “claimed” their independence from the Valley), and had thought to bring her children elsewhere for musical lessons (somewhere up on that high hill). He scurried back to the main square in the Valley to let all the other townsfolk know, the tree had grown babies’ fingers—their baby’s fingers where the Mayor’s prized oranges should have been.
By 7 a.m. that strange Saturday, a crowd had grown, and the Mayor had locked himself away in his manor. The herd of people around the tree had become so large that the entire green lawn was covered, and the Mayor could not see into his garden over the towering wall of human heads, jet black and blonde hair. Everyone began to ponder, how shall we fetch our little fingers? But none of them were even bold enough to reach out their hand.
It was only Hermosa, often mistaking her foolishness for bravery, that stepped forward out of the group of parents and reached out her thin, honey arm toward the tree’s branches as though she were an ambassador greeting a foreign president who had plagued her homeland with war. Her sleek black hair blew gently in the breeze. For a moment, the scent of summer floated through the air. But the parents (oblivious to this scent) all gave a collective gasp as she pulled—hard—on her baby son Miguel’s finger, their eyes followed her every movement, her every breath. She kept her fingers wrapped tightly around his finger and held it. It was not cold, it did not move or wiggle or wriggle (God help us), but had come off with a pop.
And then, unraveling her fingers haltingly as an evening primrose, there it lay: little Miguel’s little finger in the palm of his mother’s little hand—unripe as the oranges that should have been.
She held it gently—carefully cupped in her palm, and all the parents gathered around to look over her shoulder, staring with large, glossy, soap bubble eyes. They all breathed as one—sighed relief for the little fingers. And then they all watched as Hermosa’s child’s finger slowly and so gently disintegrated into black, gray, dry dust and was blown away by a spring Saturday gust.
It went curling away into the air; the breeze blew through the tree’s branches, through the parents’ jet black and blonde hair: all the little fingers shook.
It was so quiet as that dust went circling away that Senhor Alfonso Hannover could have sworn he heard the seven-year-old cellist, Miguel, screaming six blocks away, tucked in his bed on Sunnyup Lane. The sound stung his ears, and Senhor Hannover pushed his way out of the crowd as Hermosa began to sob, crumbling to the lawn. He suddenly had the most overwhelming and strange craving begin to fill his stomach as he looked back over his shoulder at the crowd: he wanted pomegranate seeds.
The toaster oven cord caught on fire, and Maria Sanclarita took that stupid box and threw it in the sink. She had half a mind to put it in her husband’s bed—maybe that would rouse him from his calm—but she turned the faucet on, ate the burnt Pop-Tart, and left.
Her untamed curls bounced around her head as she marched on toward the plaza. The neighborhood streets were completely empty, deserted: grand houses shut up, expensive cars locked, letters, packages, and newspapers carefully placed on porch steps. Her sheer, pink nightgown and robe billowed around her thin figure, and as she walked—though she knew she still looked as good as she had when she was twenty-two—she thanked God no one was around to see her. No civilized soul, of course, would be up at 6:30 a.m. anyway—at least, not on the hill—so she marched on, with her head held high and proud, thinking that maybe if someone did see her, a peek through their blinds at her, they would think she were only an apparition; a beauty seen in sleep, so dazzling a body one could not believe her to exist out of dreams.
But perhaps now—as I realize I have not yet told you much about Maria Sanclarita—I should elaborate on her particular personage. For, you see, Maria Benedita Rosa Gotobed Sanclarita was a certain kind of person: the type of person who wore Senhora as a badge of honor, draped across her bosom like a beauty pageant contestant. And¾like all women who felt thusly¾as a child, Maria had dreamt every night of rather particular things: sending and receiving her own letters, making her own telephone calls and appointments, worrying about money and her husband’s fidelity, and, most importantly, about having her own children to rear and groom. Maria herself had grown up in the Valley—convinced she was very much the most beautiful girl to ever breathe the Valley’s air—but always felt she belonged on the hill in a big house with a big yard and a rich husband, many children running around their emerald green lawn. Therefore, Maria had felt, her plan of growing up had to be a strict one—a successful one. She had no time for tomfoolery: she did not kiss a boy until she was a senior in college (where she had perfect attendance and was a straight A student as in high school), and married that boy straight out of college, leaving with a sparkling vintage wedding ring and a degree in Portuguese literature and cultural studies. She was lucky to have fallen completely in love with him (which hadn’t originally been part of the plan as somewhat love seemed good enough in the long run), and took him home with the greatest pride. He was half American, or something like that, Scottish or something—“American . . . feh! What is an American even but a mutt?” her father had said, “He’s hardly a well-bred man. Thank God he is not a poet!”—and marrying him, that Honey Sanclarita, was the only act of defiance Maria Benedita Rosa Gotobed Sanclarita ever succeeded in. There had been a moment, a split instance, an utter spell when Maria was seventeen where, in fact, it had seemed her calling was the black-and-white keys of her grandmother’s grand piano instead of a life on the hill. O, how she could move her fingers, how she could make the keys sing! But Maria felt it was far too much of a rebellious act to bear, and the title of mama, the calling of ‘O, Senhora!’ seemed a better match than, say, pianist in the stead of her name.
“Someone has taken mah baby’s fingahs,” she was mumbling, “Jealous bastards. Jealous whores,” and narrowed her eyes at nothing in particular. “Damn you. Damn you. Where are mah fingahs?”
She reached the plaza, and as everywhere else she had walked, it was empty: each shop, each building closed tight and locked. She stood in the middle of the place, a rather rectangular section of town, surrounded by ancient buildings brightly colored and a fountain of little artist angels spitting water in the center of the cobbled path. Maria Sanclarita noticed that every plant, every tree was budding green around her, on the sheer verge of blooming; such keenness, such promptness surrounded her. And though spring’s beauty of rebirth distracted her, she suddenly saw out of the corner of her eye Senhorita Infanta Costa (the Hilltop’s music teacher whom Maria had entrusted with Manila’s training after she outgrew silly Senhor Alfonso and the rest of the Valley) lugging a suitcase out of her rented storefront.
With no time for politeness, Maria Sanclarita screamed across the plaza, “You mongrel!” and charged toward poor Senhorita Infanta Costa. The young teacher was shocked at this green-faced beast running toward her, curly locks bouncing around her head into her eyes, and quickly tried to get to safety, back inside of her building. But with her suitcase in the way, the door would not shut, and Maria came down upon her.
“What have you done with Manila’s fingahs?!”
“I haven’t—I haven’t done anything, Senhora Sanclarita,” the teacher said haltingly, shaking her head, her blonde hair dancing around her ears. Maria narrowed her eyes, and the teacher shrank away. “I swear to you! Nothing! I haven’t seen Senhorita Manila since last Sunday.”
“Then where are you running away to? Why have you got a suitcase?”
The young teacher swallowed, “These are my girlfriend’s belongings,” she said on the verge of tears. “. . . Ex-girlfriend . . . I mean.”
Maria narrowed her eyes further and tore open the suitcase, looking inside; Senhorita Infanta Costa did nothing to stop her. “I haven’t anything to hide,” she sniffled, holding her head high. “I do not have your baby’s fingers.”
Maria looked through all the trinkets and bric-a-brac—her green face mask began to crack, and it is here that the story becomes shrouded in a fog of mist, and no one is certain as to what had happened next.
On the Mayor’s lawn, the crowd slowly began to dissipate as the parents shuffled home with heavy hearts and heavy feet to their fingerless children. The clocktower struck eight and Senhor Alfonso Hannover felt a grumbling in his stomach. He had been looking out the window on the second story of the Mayor’s manor out into the gardens as the Mayor himself paced back and forth across his office, bare feet padding against lime green carpet, arms swinging like an angry child or chimp.
“What are we going to do about this, Alfonso?” he mumbled, staring off wildly into nothing. “Do I fetch a doctor? A botanist? A pediatrician?” He stroked his chin with his fingers, rubbed his hands over his face. But Alfonso only kept staring out the window. In the garden, the little fingers were gently swaying in the breeze. The lawn was now completely empty except for flowers and plants, topiaries and bushes and trees, and Hermosa, realizing she often mistook her foolishness for bravery, crying on her knees into the dust on her fingertips.
“I don’t know,” Alfonso said. He could hear the Mayor fidgeting, moving back and forth across the room, but he did not look back.
“Perhaps we should burn the thing,” the Mayor said, suddenly banging his fist against his desk.
“I don’t think so, Senhor.”
“Perhaps, then we should bring the children—and we can . . . we can give them little ladders to fetch their little fingers?”
“O, I don’t think so, Senhor.”
The Mayor was next to Alfonso now.
“Well, what would you have me do then?” he asked. “What can one do in this impossible situation? I will be down in the polls for sure. Surely—surely my house will be ransacked, my offices destroyed; they will think I have had some doing in this! Some part in the dismemberment of their children! But you know I am no wizard, I am no gardener, that is why I have you after all, Alfonso . . . O, please help me, my gentle man, tell me what to do! Tell me what to do! Should we pick off every one of them and pretend they were blown away? Turned to dust? Should we cut down the tree? Shall we shave off its branches? O! Look at that hysterical woman out there! She’s going to ruin my lawn! She’s going to salt up the earth with her tears! What will we do! What will we do! Will my oranges ever grow again?!”
Here, my friends, you may judge for yourselves where the Mayor’s true concerns did lay, and how he felt waking up one morning to find his prized oranges replaced by little children’s little fingers. But have no doubt, my steady compatriots, that Senhor Alfonso Hannover felt no good will toward his employer in this moment upon hearing this most distasteful and terribly obscene of lamentations and lunatic ramblings.
“The whole thing’s too ridiculous for words—” the Mayor cried, “Truly!”
But Alfonso said nothing, only stared out the window at Hermosa and the orange blossom tree with its stolen little fingers dangling in the wind. He was so transfixed (by her or perhaps by his own reflection: dry and gray and aged like that swirling dust there on the glass) that he hardly even noticed when the Mayor paraded out of his office, waving his arms and stomping with bow-chicken legs, shouting something about a meeting: “An emergency meeting! An emergency meeting! Tonight!” Senhor Hannover hardly even blinked, hardly turned, just kept still at the window where, beyond the white paned glass, the wind blew more violently, and the sun began to sink so slowly, burning blue into inky pinks and purples and blacks, tears salting the earth and the sky: a sea.
He stood and thought for dinner he would need—simply—more than pomegranate seeds. But it is here, again, that the tale begins to fade into a cloud of mist, and not even I know what meal Senhor Alfonso Hannover had for dinner.
It was one sweet spring morning, precisely a month after a quite so very terrible collective Valley and Hilltop Town Hall and a most violent storming of the Mayor’s manor, that the little fingers did finally bloom upon the former Mayor’s former orange blossom tree in his former courtyard, and Maria Sanclarita left her home early in the morning, holding firmly to little Manila’s fingerless little hand, an empty wicker basket in the other.
She was not the first to arrive in the shade of the orange blossom tree that cool Sunday. On the contrary, parents and their fingerless children were already there climbing the branches of the tree and crawling up its great brown trunk, plucking fingers and throwing them down to their wives or husbands on the emerald green grass below. Alfonso, now both the town’s resident music teacher and acting mayor of the Valley and Hilltop, was there popping mandarin orange slices into his mouth, looking smart in a red and blue suit and striped yellow and white tie. He smiled at Maria and she smiled back, Manila waving to him with her fingerless hand. Maria Sanclarita then let her daughter run off to go play with the other disfigured children, and she stared up at the tree, the fingers ripe with beautiful white flowers surrounding each of them. She felt she knew instantly which fingers were Manila’s, and with the gentlest hand, she plucked the first one from the branch: a crack, a snap, a pop, and then there it was, Manila’s finger in the palm of her hand, cupped like a golden treasure. She looked at the finger and glanced at the parents hanging like monkeys from the branches and found herself wondering if oranges would ever grow upon the tree again.
Katie Lynn Johnston is a creative writing undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago. She has been a junior and senior editor for the Columbia Poetry Review, a production editor for Hair Trigger magazine, and her essay “The Barriers Faced by Female Writers” was published on the Fountainhead Press website and won the Excellence Award at the Student Writers’ Showcase. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Hair Trigger magazine and Lavender Review.