The Eleventh Arm

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“It will change nothing.  I know this.  I didn’t do it out of defiance, or for justice, or even fame.  No one knows it is me.  And no one will know.  If they did, they would say it was unholy, what I’ve wrought.  They would say it was unnatural.  They would say it must be destroyed.  As it is, they are charmed at least, mildly amused, at least.  At best, they are cheered, enchanted, even inspired.  So perhaps in some way, I’ve done it for vengeance? No, that’s not right either.  No one should paint out of vengeance.  No, if you paint, you should paint out of love.”

I watched my friend sit back and take a sip.  Elna set down her cup and presented her hands to me, all eleven of them. 

I still didn’t quite believe her.  She was not one to boast about accomplishments that were not her own.  And I had seen her skill in painting advance as we both grew through childhood and into our grown years.

But to claim that she was behind the transfigurations!

“How?” I asked.

“No one saw me.  Did you know I am multi-dexterous?  I can use all my hands, and all at once.  So I was able to finish it in one night.  Just like the others.”

***

The first time I saw one of the transfigurations, I was walking to work, lost in my own thoughts.  It was several months past.  I had just learned that I was to have a child.  Every few steps my heart beat with dread.  And every step in between, it beat with longing and joy.  And my thoughts were filled with all that I must do and prepare.

I heard someone exclaim just as I took a step of dread, and I remember that I froze and looked around.  All faces were turned in one direction.  Half of everyone’s hands were pointing in that same direction.  My gaze followed, and I saw it, just as it was changing, transfiguring.

On the wall of a poorly kept apartment building was painted a vast mural of a forest in the midst of winter, the trees laden with snow, the ground, likewise.  The sky a crisp and sharp blue.  The mural had appeared overnight at the start of winter.  And it had greeted me every morning since then.  The first time I’d walked past it, I had stopped to gaze at it, and appreciate it.  It was one of the few lovely sights I saw on my far-too-early mornings before I arrived at work.

But on that day, something new happened.

As we all stood and gazed at the mural, it…changed.

At first it was subtle.  One might mistake the glints and glimmers of what appeared to be the light on melting snow as the glints and glimmers of the sunlight on the moist bricks of the apartment.  But as we watched, the white began to fade, as if the snow on the ground were melting.  And in its place there appeared rich dark brown earth.  The bare branches of the trees were revealed.  Then, another change.  Green seemed to sprout in the dark earth.  Grass and shrub growing back.  The sky turned from that sharp cold blue to a softer blue, and puffs of cloud emerged.  Branches grew and divided, and leaves sprouted from them, blue leaves and green and purple.  I even caught the flicker of some insect’s wing in flight.

By the time the transfiguration was complete, the winter-white forest had become a vibrant spring forest, lush with new life, beaming with colors bright and soft.

Even after the changes stopped, I stood there, as did dozens of others, watching and waiting.  By the time I decided that I should be on my way, the gathered crowd had multiplied three-fold.

I was late to work that morning.

***

Of course there was news coverage of the event, just as there was of three similar transfigurations—all murals that had appeared over the past year—in different parts of the city.  It did not escape notice that the murals were located in the more modest parts of the city.

Strangely, no one had seen who had done the paintings.  Or if they had, they were not coming forward with their knowledge.

Of course speculation began at once as to who this painter might be.  For the paintings had been lauded as lovely before.  Indeed, some had said they belonged in a fine museum, not on the side of a building exposed to the weather and to all the muck and bustle of the city.  But now…with these enchanting transfigurations, the search for their creator was a prime mystery.

And of course, it was assumed that the painter, the creator of such wonders, must be a person born with balance of mind, constancy of heart, and symmetry of form.

In other words, it must be a ten-armed.

There was backlash to such an assumption from both the ten-armed and eleven-armed communities.  In this day and age, did we not know any better?  Did we not have proof that an extra arm did not constitute a disability?

I had no hesitation believing that an eleven-armed could have painted the transfigurating murals.

And yet, at the same time, I remember fearing for my child if she should be born with eleven arms.  There would be no way of telling until she arrived.  No way of telling if she would fall within the twenty percent of our society that bears an extra arm.

I told myself it was better that than the alternative, that she had less than ten.  If that were so, she would never survive to term.

***

“So you believe me?” my friend asked.  She wiggled the fingers of her eleventh hand.  “That I’m the ‘Transfigurator’ or whatever they are calling it today?”

I snapped out of my reminiscence and sighed, not knowing how to answer.

Her smile suddenly faded and she leaned forward.  “Oh, I’m sorry, my friend.  Here I am carrying on about my art when you are about to become a parent any moment.”

I shook my head.  “I need a distraction actually.  I am ready.  When I am called, I am ready to fly out of here.  I will witness the birth of my first child, be the whole world thrown out of balance.”

She nodded.  “All right, maybe we should talk about how the handball season is going so far.  I’ve actually been following it this year.  That one western division—“

“I must confess something to you.  Something horrible.”  I paused as I felt a sudden chill on the skin of my neck and face.  “I hope you will not hate me after.  But I will understand if you do.”

Elna’s eyes widened, her mouth still half open from the word she was about to utter.  She closed her mouth, relaxed her shoulders and leaned back.  She nodded to me.

“I…I’ve always wondered.  Why did you not get the surgery?”  This was not the confession, and my friend knew it, but I had not yet gathered enough courage.

Elna shrugged.  “My family could not afford it.  That is, they could have afforded the removal of the arm, but not the rest.  The adjustment surgeries to…fill the gap, we did not have the money.”

“But…a gap is still considered preferable to having the extra arm, isn’t it?  I mean, considered so by the ignorant.”

Elna narrowed her eyes and smirked at me.  “Are you calling my parent ignorant?”

I felt a sudden calm as we fell into a familiar routine.  “No,” I said.  “Just old-fashioned.”

“Or did you mean to say ‘antiquated’?”

“Not really.  That’s too gentle of a word.”

My friend’s brows rose.  “All right, yes.  A gap where an extra arm once was is preferable—some say—to still having that arm.  But my parent had ambitions.  Adjustment surgeries have the best chance of success if performed right after the removal.  So she believed it was best to educate me to the fullest of my potential.  She expected that I would do well, and obtain the best position possible, and amass enough money to afford both the removal and adjustment procedures.”  She threw out all her hands and shrugged again.  “However, she never told me of these grand plans.  So I grew up believing that she had refused to have my arm removed out of…defiance.  And out of love, for me.”

Elna inhaled deeply and sighed heavily.  “Then one day, she told me of her plan and asked me if I had, at last, enough money to accomplish it.”  She looked down and blinked rapidly.  “I resisted, and she misunderstood why.  She thought I was afraid of the surgery.  She did not realize what had just happened.”  My friend shifted her gaze away from her cup and toward me, peering into my eyes.  “I had just learned that my parent never accepted my eleventh arm, but was just waiting until such a time as we could be rid of it.”

“I’m afraid mine will be born with eleven,” I said, holding my friend’s gaze.

“What will you do if she is?”

I felt my whole face tighten.  “If any part of her was harming her, killing her, I would have no hesitation in having it cut away.  But an extra arm has never brought anyone harm.  Not the arm itself.  I couldn’t…”

Elna glanced down.  My head snapped back slightly, as if she had just released some tension between our gazes.

“I would still love her,” I said.  “But I would fear for her.  That’s how your parent feels about you.”

“Yes, I do believe she loves me.  But she does not love what I am.  I do believe she cherishes me, and that the reason she dreams of my being different from my natural self is because she believes that it would make life easier for me.”

I nodded.  “Yes, that’s so.”

Elna glanced up at me again.  “Was life meant to be easy?  Was it meant to be perfect?  Did she have such dreams for my life because she wished for me to be happy?  Or because she wished to have some reason to feel…superior?  To have high standing among our society?  And because I could not do this for her, though she cherishes me, though she loves me, I am nothing.  Now, and forever.”

I shook my head, but said nothing.  She went on.

“Like you, my parent chose to bring life into this world.  But that life did not do what she wanted it to do, and that life was not what she wanted it to be.  And so, that life is wrong.”

I shook my head.  “Not wrong.  Just…without symmetry.”

My friend tipped her head and peered at me.  “Without symmetry?”  She straightened her head.  “Say what you mean.”

I said nothing.

“Say it.”  She crossed her arms.  All but one.  “Deformed.”

I frowned.  “You know I don’t believe that.”

She uncrossed her arms, and something in her gaze softened.  She smiled.  “I do.”

I sat back and tilted back my head a bit.  “I think you should announce yourself.”

She frowned in confusion.

“As the Transfigurator.”

The furrows in her brow deepened.  “That path leads to trouble.”

“Things are different these days.”

“Not different enough.”

“What about all those people who would be inspired by you?”

“Because they are as deformed as I am?  How inspired will they feel when it’s all destroyed, publicly destroyed?”

“They wouldn’t do that in this day and age.”

“I love you, my friend.  But you are naïve if you think they wouldn’t.”  Her smile faded again.  “I am not the greatest artist that ever was, but even if I were, it would not matter.  It would not matter which arm I used, which hand, because it would always be the wrong arm, the wrong hand.  And my art would be destroyed.  The laws may not be enforced, but many are still on the record.  The world is changing, it is true.  But that change is slow.  Art created by the ‘deformed’ is no longer destroyed outright.  No, but it is still placed in separate museums.  Separate and lesser.  ‘Their kind need art too,’ the thought goes.  ‘Let them have it.  But we need not gaze upon it.’  And yet, if there is even a whisper to suggest a piece of art by an eleven-armed is superior to that by a ten-armed, you can count on someone dusting off one of those old laws, and finding a way to destroy what must not be.”

I sighed.  “I just don’t want my child to suffer.  And your parent didn’t want you to suffer.”

My friend said nothing in response.  Then her brow tightened just a bit.

“I told her,” she said.

“What?”

“My parent.  I told her it was me.  That I painted them.  That I painted the last one too.”

“What did she say?”

My friend paused, looking down and to the side, as if remembering the moment.  “Nothing.”  Again, she paused.  “She said nothing.”

“Maybe she didn’t hear—“

“She heard, my friend.  She heard me and she believed me.”

I gathered my thoughts, and in the silence, Elna opened her mouth to speak again but I spoke first.  “She said nothing.  And does that mean that what the rest of us say also means nothing?  Because she said nothing?  Is that why you won’t announce it?  So you won’t shame her?”

“I won’t announce myself because right now, all anyone knows is that one of our people painted that mural, and the others.  Ten arms.  Eleven arms.  That is unknown.  So it exists in the place between.  A better place than this, I hope.  The place we will know only in the future.”

“Come on, everyone is already guessing that it was an eleven-armed who painted that last one.  Why would it be otherwise?”

She turned to me.  “Because of people like you.  A ten-armed who most definitely would paint such a piece.”

I laughed.  “If I had your talent…”

“But then you would have them all, and I would resent you, and we wouldn’t be friends.”

“I’m not as symmetrical as people think.”

“Holding your arms a little lop-sided doesn’t make you asymmetrical.  You could always straighten them up when you’re in the proper company.  I don’t have that choice.”

I frowned.  “I…I’d never.  Hold my arms lop-sided?  Who does that?”

“People do that.”

“That’s—”

“Weird?”

“I was going to say ‘wrong.’”

Elna shrugged.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

My friend grinned at me.  “Well, I’d rather we lived in a world where ten-armed were pretending to be eleven-armed just to be a bit rebellious than a world where ten-armed locked up eleven-armed just for existing.”

“No you wouldn’t.  You’d rather live in a world where it didn’t matter who painted that painting.  It would only matter whether or not the painting touched people in some way, moved them.  You just said as much.”

We were speaking of the Transfigurator’s latest mural, painted on the side of a long-abandoned building.  It was not like all the others.  The others depicted the natural world.  A waterfall pouring into a crystal clear lake, transfigured with the appearance of an antlered shadow through the thick forest.  A hillside filled with flower buds that transfigured into blooms.  A nebula whose gaseous plumes made the shape of a rose, transfigured to appear as if those plumes were spinning.

This newest mural was a figure, standing and looking straight ahead.  The figure’s ten arms stretched outward, each hand holding the symbol of the aspect it was meant to bear.  A drop of blood extended from the finger of one hand, representing family.  Another hand held a golden sphere, representing nation.  The many-colored flame that represented love sat atop still another hand.  And so it went.  Family, Friends, Community, Nation, Livelihood, Love, Honor, Compassion, Courage, and Humility.  The internal aspects balanced against the external aspects.  A being in perfect symmetry.

We all knew the teachings.  All the noble aspects of life were balanced in our ten arms.  So what was left for an eleventh?  Nothing.  The arm was idle.  Idleness meant malleability, impressionability, and that led to the arm bearing all manner of unsavory things, things that arose from evil.  Evil could always find purchase on an idle arm and an empty hand.

The figure in the mural had an eleventh arm.  It was not outstretched.  It was held against the body and bent so that the hand, its palm open and facing upward, rested at the center of the figure.  The hand was indeed empty.  But floating just above it was a feather.

Why a feather?

Many had speculated.  At any minute, the feather might fall into the hand, or it may be swept away in a breeze.  The hand was neither reaching for the feather, nor encircled around it, as the hands of the other arms were around their symbols.  The palm was flat, so even if the feather were to land on it, its perch would be precarious.  So some said that the feather was a symbol of the fleeting things in life, such as youth, wealth, time, or perhaps life itself.

But I preferred the other guess.  There was a legend, little-known until now, about a bird that had an extra feather that fell to the earth and became the first quill.  Inspiration is what the feather symbolized.  It could be fleeting.  Or it could be captured.  The fingers of that hand could be poised to curl and catch the feather.

I had asked my friend about it when we first sat down to our meal.  But she did not tell me.  Whatever answer I preferred was the answer that was true, she had said.

***

People watched the mural, day and night, waiting for it to transfigure.  Would the eleventh arm vanish?  Would other arms vanish?  Would the eleventh symbol, the feather, change into something else?

I think that is why there has been no unrest arising from the tensions that the mural has wrought.  At least, there has been no unrest so far.

I asked my friend if she worried that there might be.

“Of course I worry,” she said.  “Some eleven-armed are angry that one of their kind might be causing trouble.” She leaned toward me.  “Do you think it would my fault?  If people were hurt?”

“No, not your fault, but…you do bear some responsibility for what you…present to the world.”

She nodded.  “That’s why you want me to claim it.  Don’t you think that would make things worse?”

I wondered.  “Maybe.”

“Well, either way, this marks the end of the Transfigurator.  There can be no return to forests in fall and comets streaking through the sky.”

“I’m sorry.”  I felt saddened to hear of it, but my friend, she did not appear to be moved.  “Are you not sad, or have you other passions to pursue?”

My friend set her share of the bill on the table.  “Yes, I do feel sad for me.  But I feel sadder for my parent and for people like her.  She has something within her that longs to break free, to be free.  It is held in by fear, so much fear.  She is over-filled with it.  Against the true terrors of the world, she is courageous.  But against these false terrors, these laws and rules that exist in the minds of the petty and the cruel, she is helpless and trembling. It is these laws and rules that tell her that I am a sorrowful creature.”

My friend rose.  “My mother still doesn’t quite accept me, not all of me.  She loves me.  But love is not enough. Remember that as you raise your child.”

“Maybe she’ll be an artist, like her auntie.”  I flourished a hand toward her.

My friend smiled slightly.  “Then you must prepare yourself.  For she will most certainly have eleven arms.”

I felt my eyes widen.  “How do you mean?”

“All artists are born with an eleventh arm.  An eleventh hand.  That hand that creates what does not yet exist or perhaps what cannot ever exist.”  She closed her eyes, inhaled, and opened her eyes.  “In some cases that arm, that hand, is visible.  In some cases, it is not.  I hope in hers, it is not.”

I held my friend’s gaze.  “I will give her more than love.”

Now, my friend grinned.  She beamed.  “So will I.”

***

A few days after we parted from our meal, I woke to news about the mural.  The authorities had announced that if the painter of the mural did not come forward, the mural would be destroyed.  If a ten-armed was the painter, the mural could remain.  But if an eleven-armed was the painter, the mural was illegal, and therefore must either be removed to an appropriate eleven-armed museum or gallery, or it must be destroyed.  As it could not be removed without undue expense, it would be destroyed.  There were immediate protests, from those protesting the destruction outright to those who asked simply for the authorities to wait until the transfiguration was witnessed (arguing it might reveal the artist’s identity).

The mural was still watched day and night.  No one would be able to approach it without falling within the gaze of a thousand eyes at any given moment.

And so, a few days after the announcement by the authorities, some of those eyes witnessed the transfiguration.

Amidst the tension and the fear of unrest, all enchantment had faded.  But for some, it returned, for just a few moments, in the middle of the night.  They held their breaths.  Some began to weep.  And many began to fear what this painting might become when it changed.

All were surprised by what they saw.

For the mural did not transfigure.  Instead, the whole thing just faded away.

And for some time, all were quiet, wondering if something else would appear.

We are still wondering.  The authorities still discussed destroying the wall.  But they could not after someone bought the building, and announced that it would stand as it was.

After a few days, discussions flourished anew.  What did the mural mean?  What did any of them mean?  What was the Transfigurator’s ultimate aim?  Was the Transfigurator just one person, or many?  And how was it done?  The paint that was used must be some new invention.  Why had no one discovered its origin?  Did it matter how many arms the painter had?  And would anything else appear on that wall?  Were any of the other murals that had recently appeared in parts of the city the Transfigurator’s work?  Perhaps the murals should be watched, just to be sure.

I asked my friend, the next time I saw her, some of the questions that I shared with others.  As I expected, she did not answer them.  And part of me still thought she might not be the Transfigurator after all.  She gave me a gift that day.  A painting, of course.  She showed me the smallest canvas I had ever seen.  It fit in the palm of my hand.  It was blank, but she sat at my kitchen table and pulled out a little set of paints and painted something right then.  She would not let me see until she was done.

It was a painting of a feather.  I laughed when she gave it to me.  And I embraced her.  It was a beautiful painting, and it delighted me.  For all my fears for my child, I did dream of her future.  And though she would be free to pursue what livelihood she chose, I fantasized about having an artist in the family.

Would she be born with a feather in her hand? 

I gazed at the painting my friend had given me as I wondered.  On the night before my daughter was born, my friend called me and she told me to watch the painting she had given me.

I felt my gut drop as I walked to my desk above which I kept the painting.

I watched the painting.  I watched the feather change.  I watched it transfigure.  Colors flickered onto the canvas, infused with a warm glow, until the feather was entirely consumed by a single flame of many colors.  The symbol of Love.

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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