Issue Thirty-Six - Summer 2020

On Hands: A Meditation

By Jill McCabe Johnson

A gorilla’s hand looks almost identical to a human’s. Palm smooth while the back can be hairy. With meaty fingers and strong, opposable thumbs. A gorilla’s hand holds branches and trunks as they scale trees in search of food. Wide enough to cradle a coconut or jack fruit or a baby’s head. Gentle enough to peel and proffer bananas to a sibling, to groom and pick lice from a lover’s fur.

When a male gorilla mates, he beats his fists against his chest, holds rocks and limbs high above his head. His strength and might, the fierce, crushing, unrelenting muscularity of his grip and command. Caught in the throes of biological need, a destiny mapped by hormones and pituitary glands and the inescapable facts of the body. When a warring gorilla traps his foe in his grasp, his steely strength clamps down on muscle and bone, wrenches hard like the claws of a lobster cracking mollusk shells, the jaws of a bulldog clamped down on a bull’s jowls, never releasing until the bull is bowed at the knees, paralyzed by pitiless pain.

Unlike gorillas and other primates, raccoons have no opposable fingers or thumbs. Yet their five fingers can detect the difference between rocks and clams. And despite their impossibly tiny, impossibly delicate digits, when fishing underwater their hands can withstand cold for hours feeling their way along the bottom of a riverbed, reaching and digging in blackness of night. Those same paw-hands sport claws instead of fingernails that can rip right through human or other flesh. Like gorillas and humans, their large eye sockets hold eyes that hold intelligence, pathos, compassion. Who among all three mammal groups doesn’t rock their children, share fruit on a sweltering July afternoon, then snuggle into downy padded warrens to sleep?

All creatures with hands or claws or even grasping feet know what it’s like to reach out in yearning. The squirrel on the flimsy end of a hazelnut branch. The eagle swooping and swiping salmon from a stream.

What won’t our hands carry, cocoon, caress? Mornings, the tray with coffee, bacon, cantaloupe slices, an egg to our bedridden parents. Afternoons, Barbies and legos, teddy bears and transformers from living room floor to toybox. Nights, the water glass, bedtime-story book, coverlet tucked and nightlight lit.

What won’t our wants, wishes, pathos, and passions carry as fiercely and unrelentingly as our hands?

Copyright Johnson 2020