Rosalee didn’t know what to say when Sergei gave her the hand. She stared into the open gift box where crisp blue tissue paper fanned out around it.
“But—” she said, clicking her teeth shut over the word, because what do you say when someone gives you a hand.
“I love you,” said Sergei.
“But—” she began again, and stopped without finishing, because what do you say to someone who tells you that when you barely know him.
With its wrinkled blue the color of static electricity, the tissue paper perfectly complemented the grayish-blue tint of the hand and the delicate etching of lines on the knuckles. But noticing the holiday-themed snowmen on the gift wrap, which had dropped to the worn hallway carpet, she wondered if Sergei had bothered to buy the wrapping paper, or whether it was just left over from months earlier.
She wished that she’d kept her copy of Miss Manner’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. She was about to be appalled at this thought when she realized inappropriate responses were probably okay given that a boy she hardly knew had just presented her with a human hand as a token of his affection. Only later, sitting at the kitchen table with the box in front of her, would the proper questions occur to her. Whose hand was it? How had Sergei gotten it? Should she see it as a threat? Exactly how frightened should she be?
But she hadn’t been frightened. She had looked at the boy who, having professed his feelings for her, stood nervously twisting his fingers and waiting, and she’d felt no threat. She’d felt only bewilderment and compassion.
She thought, hand or no hand, I am going to have to break his heart. Her throat tightened, then, remembering the days when love had come so completely and so relentlessly.
Sergei searched her face, shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His restless fingers drew aside the dark hair that hung in his eyes. His eyes were blue, Rosalee noticed. Not the blue of the tissue paper, or of the hand, but a periwinkle blue. Or maybe the blue of a Pre-Raphaelite shepherd’s tunic. Her musing on the proper color was interrupted by the boy himself.
“From me. To you,” he told her, and waited politely for her to notice that he had used his prepositions correctly as she was always telling him to in class.
But then he ruined it by saying, “For to show how I love, Miss Monahan.” Maybe what he meant was, To show how I love Miss Monahan, or How I love to show Miss Monahan, or possibly even, I show how to love, Miss Monahan. You never could be sure what the proper translation was with these non-native speakers.
Rosalee replaced the box cover without folding the tissue paper back in place. It rustled as she pushed the top down.
“Sergei,” she began firmly, but seeing his hopeful expression, softened her tone. “Sergei,” she said more kindly. “You should not have come here.”
He looked unconvinced, and to be truthful, she thought to herself, since the topic was no longer the proper spelling of a homonym, and was instead the expression of the heart, his boxed and brazen gesture surely indicated that he needed no tutor in the extremities of expression. She tried a different tack.
“You are very young. You are very lonely, far from home. I understand. But this cannot be.” She deliberately refused to use the contraction so that there would be no possibility of being misunderstood.
It was her turn to wait politely. She watched the blood drain from his highly colored cheeks as the comprehension, which lagged seconds behind in second languages, finally came. Gradually, his fingers stopped their twisting, crept to the pockets of his blue jeans and buried themselves there.
“Because I am not American,” he said. A statement, and not a question. Had they been in class, she would have corrected him: rising intonation at the end of the sentence signals a question.
“Because I do not love you back,” she told him.
Humiliation washed across his features and his eyes turned gun-metal gray in disappointment. She thought him a handsome boy and true of heart, a Russian Shelly full of dramatic gesture and theatrical impulse. She felt a flutter of pity again.
She offered him the box. She held it out with both hands like a supplicant, a reversal she hoped would soften the blow. But he shook his head, his hair swinging back over his eyes. His fingers, having come out of hiding in his pocket, barely touched the side of the box as he pushed it back at her.
“Is for you,” he told her. She heard the bravado in his voice, the last refuge of the belittled, and then he was gone. She knew with certainty he would never appear in her class again. He would transfer to some other class so he would not have to face his defeat hour after hour, staring at lips that, instead of kissing him, rounded provocatively only to show him the proper way to sound a long u.
That is, if he wasn’t in jail for the hand business.
She had closed the door and carried the box into the small, unlikely kitchen. Placing it carefully on the plain table made in some snow-whitened Scandinavian country, she stood over it, hugging herself and thinking. She didn’t open the box again for some time. Twice, as she silently considered the package, she turned to look at the cell phone on the begrimed and freckled counter, the glowing white plastic of the phone like some vague accusation.
She turned her shoulder to the phone to regard the gift box again. After another few moments, she realized that her mind was effectively blank, and had been for several minutes, and that she was standing not because she was conflicted about what to do, but because there was no thought to impel her toward doing anything at all.
Rosalee pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. With both hands, she drew the box closer. She drummed her fingers lightly on the sides of the box and listened to the sound they made. After a moment, she realized she was waiting for the hand inside to drum back. She lifted the lid off the box and peered inside.
Nope. Still there. Still not moving.
My god, she thought. Where on earth could he have gotten it?
This thought finally propelled her to take the phone from the counter. She stared at the neat squares of the dial pad. Should she call 911? Glancing down at the hand again, she thought not. This was definitely not an emergency.
Though, of course, it could be an emergency for the person whose hand it was.
She pulled down the edge of the tissue paper and tilted her head slightly to try to get a better look at the stump. It was cleanly severed at the wrist. The bone didn’t appear to be snapped unevenly; it appeared to be neatly sawed through. There wasn’t even any blood. Maybe Sergei had wiped it away, worried that such sloppiness would ruin his chances. Rosalee felt the weariness of her years and experience, yearning briefly for the time when she thought that love could be neatly and cleanly boxed.
She rose from the table with the phone still in her hand and went to get the telephone directory from under the sink. She brought it back to the table and began to flip through the blue pages in the middle. She scanned the pages, wondering who one reported a disembodied hand to.
“Yes, hello?” she muttered as she turned the pages. “I want to report a hand. Here on my kitchen table. In a white gift box. With blue paper. No, this isn’t a joke. No, the paper is in the box with the hand. Because I opened the paper and saw it – see it – inside. Well, of course, it’s not my hand. If it were my hand how do you think I opened the box in the first place? Really? How many people do you know who are adept at opening boxes with their teeth?”
Rosalee flipped the phone book shut. She stared through the doorway into her tiny bedroom where she’d covered the walls with replica posters of famous paintings. The phone, like a silent judge, waited for her to punch a number in. “Van Gogh cut off an ear for love,” she informed it.
Okay. She’d call the local police station. She seated herself at the table again and found the number for the closest police station. She dialed the number and stared into the box again, becoming aware as she waited of how the spectacle of the hand seemed to turn the efficiency apartment into something colorless and dull.
A busy signal buzzed in her ear. She hung up and pressed redial. Busy.
What had happened to Van Gogh’s ear after he sent it, she wondered. Had the woman of his ambitions thrown it away with a shriek upon realizing what it was? Had she crept back to look at it more closely, a tincture of horrified fascination washing through her mind? Had she come to regard it as an illicit trophy, a thing become unmentionable above a whisper? And had it, finally, become a story she told with just a hint of pride in her voice to assure herself and her listeners of her former power to move men to unthinkable acts?
Curious, she ended the call and swiped to the internet function on her phone. She searched for Van Gogh’s ear on Google. She read that he’d cut off an ear lobe, not an ear. That the girl was a prostitute named Rachel. Even that the whole story might have been a lie, that it might have been his friend, Gauguin, who had flicked off the lobe with his rapier. But nowhere could she find what had happened to the ear after he’d supposedly presented it, wrapped in newspaper, to the girl in the brothel, telling her to keep it safe.
Rosalee lifted her eyes from the screen of her phone to the gift box.
“But where was the proof?” she whispered, considering the waxy hand. Of course, any of those brothel girls could have claimed the story for themselves. But only Rachel could bring out that sliver of age-darkened flesh, drawing it from the secret place it was carefully stored. Only she would be able to pull open the drawstring of the velvet jewelry pouch she had pilfered from a rich artist patron of the brothel for this purpose, and turn it upside down so the wrinkled nub tumbled into her creased palm for her visitor to see for herself.
Because, of course, it would be women who would want to see it, their longing for romantic gestures overcoming their repulsion for the object itself. These women would draw close to peer into Rachel’s cupped hand, motes of envy dancing in their eyes. They would find themselves suddenly feeling flushed as they unconsciously reached out to touch the thing. They would withdraw their curious fingers as if from a great object d’art.
Occasionally, perhaps, a man would appear at the door, tongue-tied and stammering, and Rachel would see in his veiled expression the desire, deep and raw, for courage. She would draw him inside, then. She would open the pouch and school him in the art of grand gestures.
Largely, though, it would be the women who would come, wanting and needing to be convinced. And later that day, Rachel would gently replace the relic in its protective bag and hide it again until the next time some pilgrim appeared. Did she shut the wooden slot of the secret place with a small click and have a moment of gratitude that she had thought to keep it sacred and safe all these years?
Rosalee shook off the daydream and realized that she had been staring without actually seeing the box and token inside. She reached out and gently folded the crinkled pastel tissue paper back over the hand before firmly sliding the lid back into place. She rose and took up the box.
Of course, she would scan the news. Of course, she would keep one ear open for anything relevant.
The rubber seal of the freezer gave way with a soft pop when she pulled it open. Pushing aside the frozen food to make room, she placed the box inside. The frozen pizzas and microwave dinners made a sort of frame around it, she noticed before she reverently shut the door.