You are so beautiful, they say. Please. Don’t move. Not a muscle. Those lashes. Those eyes. I bet all the boys…
This is why they say the Order took Louise in. Her beauty. They usually only took in the boys.
Louise doesn’t listen to their words. It is unclear to the men of the Order if she even can.
She hasn’t spoken since they took her in. But her hands, her hands are perfection, they whisper to each other. They don’t want anyone else to claim her apricot palm, her delicate fingers.
Please. Put your hand here. They direct her to a large pan of dark paint. She places her hand down gently. They put their rough hands atop hers and push, push down. Her wrist bends slightly, aches, arches up. But they bear down again. When they release, she lifts her hand and studies the black dye. The lines and ridges of her skin. Love line. Life line, all darkened, yet somehow more visible. Her mother had told her about these roads in the skin, before.
Before her mother died—her own life line abridged, before Louise was taken in by these men. Before, when she thought she understood what her life line meant. Now, Louise tries to follow her life line but the men grab her hand again and press it against the wall. And again and again. They are making wallpaper with her handprints. Louise was here, it will say. She tries to high five herself but they will not permit this exaltation.
When Louise is long gone from the room, from the building, from the Order that would define and defy her, her life line is still a fractured branch. Her knuckles grow twisted and fat, earlier than they should have; she is still young. Nubs of ginger, her husband lovingly calls them. They hurt all the time.
Her branching love line will be the truest indicator of her life. She has children. She has a husband. Her husband dies. Her children grow up, have children of their own. She finds love again. She pats their heads, holds their cheeks for kisses. She sews Halloween costumes for them, frosts many cakes, and kneads dough for bread. Grasps their own tiny hands in hers to help cut with scissors. They love the rose scent of her hands and allow them to rest on their own skin a beat longer than many would.
When Louise is old, the Order is outed on television. Abuse, they say, of the little boys under the care of such rough and secretive men. The Order disbands. Some of the men are imprisoned. Some become school teachers. The boys in their care are sent elsewhere. The building they occupied is abandoned.
Louise starts talking about a place where she crawled the walls. Climbing, climbing, looking for an escape, a hatch, a ladder, the top of the well. Her grandchildren listen rapt at these tales of adventure. Her grown children think it is dementia. They talk to Louise in hushed tones primarily reserved for libraries and chapels and funeral homes.
Take these arthritic hands, she begs. They are folded like origami, hiding something.
A family buys the Order’s abandoned property and turns it into a single family home. We can just paint over it, says the six months pregnant woman, of the handprint wallpaper. No, no, her husband says. He picks at a corner and pulls. The wallpaper comes off easily. Tear rip tear.
So much work to do, he says. Strips of handprints come down and are tossed into the trash. Many miles away, Louise pulls at the skin on her hands, the eczema in the webs between her fingers on fire. A flare up. The garbage truck will collect Louise’s wallpaper hands.
Later, her ghost prints will climb mountains of junk, trash, non-biodegradables. Louise will die clasping her hands. She is so beautiful, the nurse thinks as he closes the old woman’s eyes, something he’s not supposed to do, but has seen done in the movies as a sign of respect. Louise’s hands will roam the earth, a thumbprint on the bottom of someone’s shoe, a piece of her pinkie on the snout of a stray dog, on the wind. Some handprints face down as if clutching the earth. Full palms lay open towards the heavens, her life line still intact. Her love line still living.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Hobart, PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, jenniferflisscreative.com.