Jack's Hands

Jack was born with large hands. If you considered them independently to his body, they somehow seemed disproportionately large, but when he stood in his casual pose with his hands loose by his side, or slung in his pockets, they fitted him perfectly. They balanced him. Jack’s hands had neat cuticles, and well rounded nail beds. His were working hands, solid and friendly. When he was younger his mother had held his large palms in her own tiny hands, and told him they meant that people would trust him.

“You can tell a lot by looking at a man’s hands,” she had said as she rubbed her fingers over his knuckles.

Jack liked holding earthy elements – soil and rock, or running his palms over wooden banisters. He imagined that he could read things through his hands, and the sheer weight of a well-worn hammer handle could make him close his eyes and internally sigh. He imagined the surface to sing.

There was a dry rasp to his hands when he rubbed them together, something which was not all together displeasing. His hands settled into firm and sturdy wrists, there was nothing fragile here. The hairs that curled around from the top of his arm swelled in a gentle arc, framing and leading the eye down to his well-shaped fingers.

Jack’s hands were his trade. His hands had seen him through. They would see him through right now. Because right now he was standing in a knot of people, all of whom pressed forward to get a look, not at him, but at his hands.

The crowd would look at Jack’s hands, then into Jack’s face quizzically, and then back at his hands. A morbid fascination. The scent heavy with damp clothes and unwashed hair, the fleshiness of their cheeks and flaccid necks. An expectation hanging in their eyes, and running through their hairlines.

They were looking at his hands because in his hands he held hot coals. Hot, orange and white. Yet his face was impassive, quiet and at rest.

The assistant was gently pouring more of the white-hot blocks into Jack’s great paws. There was the sound of the sideshow barker shouting about this freak of nature, this monster of a man, who could temper the heat of Mother Nature and hold it in the palm of his hands. Jack knew the raw sound of the barker’s endless spruiking, the catch in his throat that later he’d quell with whiskey and a handful of roll-up cigarettes. He listened to the repetitious patter, the same he’d heard for a thousand nights, his eyes closed and his head tilted towards the sound of the crowd breathing.

He held hot coals. He felt nothing.

That wasn’t strictly true, he did feel something. He felt their weight, but that was all. Jack knew that the coals should burn him, leaving his skin puckered and blistered and begging for mercy. He knew that the surface of his hands should be retreating in on itself, trying as hard as it could to pick up and flee. His hands should be burning. But they did not.

The same was not true for his wrists, his arms, in fact any other part of his body aside from his hands. His wrists were scarred from clumsy assistants over the years missing his outstretched hands and hitting the tender skin inside his arm with a handful of molten rocks. Those were the times he swore, forcibly and angry, flinging out his great arm and knocking the assistant off his feet. It wasn’t a good look, the barker and sideshow alley guys knew that, to have the freak attacking the assistants and it scared off the punters. It also made people think that Jack the freak was less a freak, and more Jack the fraud. Not good for business.

Jack’s arms were also scarred from his own testing, his own attempts to work out the limits of this unpredictably stupid gift he’d been given. What use, really, was it to have hands that you could stick into flames and not feel a thing?

When he was younger he had tested his hands on everything from kettles to open flames. He’d placed them inside his mother’s oven, and he’d heated pins to the point where they’d glow before sticking them under his nail. Nothing. No pain, nothing but the blood that would course from his fingers when he had pierced the skin.

Jack had first discovered that heat would not hurt his hands when he was only five or six years old. His actual age at the time escaped him, but not the discovery. He remembered it was a colder afternoon, as the autumn days were drawing in. After school Jack had followed his older brother Frank and his friends over the back paddock fence and into the State Forest, loitering behind so he wouldn’t get shouted at. Jack’s brother’s friends had a nasty habit of throwing stones at him to send him home, and he knew enough to keep his distance.

The older boys loped together like an organism. Once out of sight of the houses they stretched and shouted, merging and falling back, leaping ahead, separating and rejoining, punching one another as they walked. Their legs were developing into a coltish lankiness, their necks were growing. The further behind they left the houses the more loud they became, scuffing at their shoes and pulling branches off the younger trees as they passed, spinning wildly and wielding them like lances.

Jack milled along at a distance, but grew bolder as the distance increased. He dragged a stick and kept his brother in sight. His brother, to his credit, kept looking over his shoulder to check Jack was there but didn’t draw attention to him.

The group passed over the dry creek bed and began scouting for something. Jack watched, crouched on the ground and idly drawing his finger through the dusty soil on the edge of the bed. It was chalky-fine and dry, he watched it fill the crevices of his knuckles and discolour his boots. The team of boys settled on a group of stones, with Jack’s brother taking instruction from Mal. Mal was one of the several doltish boys who lived in a fibro cottage a couple of streets away, on the edge of the railway line. Mal and his brothers were simultaneously feared as well as admired, as they were known to steal out at night to take bikes from front yards and to leave firecrackers on the railway tracks. Their house had an eerie look to it, and their father went about without a belt, wearing a stained singlet. Frank had told Jack once that Mal’s father kept his belt on a hook on the back of the door so he could whip the boys as they came into the house. That information made Jack stare at Mal’s father a little longer than necessary whenever he saw him.

Mal had organised the team of boys to collect sticks and logs, and as they charged into the undergrowth Jack could see Mal pull a box of matches from his pocket. So that was it. They were going to build a fire. Jack was interested now. All of a sudden the stick he was carrying had great value, and he longed to be a part of the action. Frank returned carrying a handful of kindling and seeing Jack notice the box of matches, he glared a command. Jack stayed put, but he leant on his stick pointedly as if to highlight that he too had a contribution to make.

The boys gathered around Mal and the box of matches. With a reverential air, Mal lit the pile of leaves and twigs and it set to immediately. A whoosh and a whomp sound, and the pile was alight. Jack felt the frisson of fear that ran like a ribbon through the group, as they stepped back to admire their handiwork. Only Mal stayed where he was, close in with his hands on his hips. Lit from underneath his chin, Jack could see that Mal looked a lot like his dad. There was a grin on his face, and a meanness in the rise of his eyebrows. He turned to the group and gestured for them to pile the fire higher.

Jack waited for the group to disperse once more into the undergrowth before creeping a little closer. He stayed where the smoke rolled over and away, using it to mask his presence. He kept his head ducked down as he inched further with his stick, determined to add it to the flames. No one noticed him. The boys kept up a steady procession from the bush, gathering handfuls of sheoak needles or branches. A couple of them dragged back a semi-dried limb of eucalypt back to the fire where they cheered as they dumped it heavily onto the fire. The flames popped and sucked hungrily at the arched and delicately shaking branches with headfuls of leaves. It was like watching the bones of a girl burn.

Jack stood boldly now, within the smoke gauze that stung his eyes. His eyes watered and he rubbed them with hands smelling sweetly of green smoke. He knew his hair would carry the scent of char like a memory.

He pointed his stick into the fire, squatting down to allow the billowing cloud to roll over the top of him like fog and ducking his head the air underneath was as clean as water. No one noticed. He’d become a semi-accepted part of the group, glued to them by their conspiracy.

Jack sat with his stick pointed into the flames, his arms crossed and chin resting. He watched the curious licking of the fire, like a tentative dog. It graced the edges of his stick, weighing up the offering. Jack was almost offended when it seemed the fire didn’t want to consume his stick right off. He felt an urge to shove the stick deeper into the throat of the flames, knock the tender, red hot coals and dare them. But then fire caught , his offer accepted, and he watched the end of his satisfyingly straight eucalypt burn. The swaying, sucking movement of the fire-tipped stick held his eyes as he traced the outline of the red and wondered why it disappeared to nothing on the surface of the wood. He peered closer at it, the dancing gentle movement pulling him in, waving at him gently like the fan of a sea grass. He wanted to stroke it, pet it.

The world had dropped away. There was nothing but Jack and the licking, flickering flame, balanced on a rock pointed into a roughhouse campfire.

Jack grabbed at the flame. He thought nothing of it. He closed his hand around the end of the burning embers, overcome with a desire to suffocate it, strangle it. A confusing rush of lust and amazement to squeeze the energy out of this flame, to push the fingers of his hand around its throat as if it were a kitten. He squeezed the end tight, tighter, suffused with a powerful sensation of bringing about the end of a life. His eyes half closed and the sound of blood pulsing. He would hold it till it died.

But the world crashed in on him.

Jack was assaulted by shouting and was pushed to the ground as his brother landed upon him, wrenching the stick from his hands. There followed a massive noise as boys shouted at him, tore at his clothes, and Frank frantically trying to open Jack’s hand to see the damage. Jack saw only a mass of confusion, lights and swelling of voices. The faces of the boys that gathered and jostled, were distended. Their mouths formed harsh shapes and the sounds meant nothing.

Frank was shouting at him.

“What the blasted hell did you do?” Frank was scrabbling at Jack’s hands, frantic now and angry. Jack held the end of the burning ember in his tightly closed fist, voiceless and big eyed. Frank kept swearing as he kept bumping against the still-hot ember in Jack’s fist.

“Just let it go! Let it go!” he shouted at Jack, resorting now to shaking him. Jack let the end of the ember go. He watched it fall and bounce away, spent. He was shaking in his knees, but it felt sweet. He’d killed the ember. He’d taken away it’s life.

Frank was sweating as he prised open his little brother’s hand. The others formed a clump around them. There was the sound of the fire cracking it’s self-satisfaction and the heavy breathing of a tribe of curious boy-men. They leant in with an eager terror to see the pain, the scalded flesh and the pieces of charcoal embedded in fragile skin.

But there was nothing to see.

Jack's Hands


Joined August 2008

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Handling the coals.

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