Photographs of “Bobbity”, a Perognathus pacificus (pocket mouse) by Vernon Orlando Bailey.
She always found photographs of hands arresting. Some photos draw attention to the sinews and blood vessels, making the hand look simultaneously engineered and fragile. Other photos flattened the hand into a collection of more or less soft planes, puffy almost-sausages attached to a child-sized balloon. My hands always look puffy in photos, she thought. Stieglitz understood hands, she thought, imagining the photographer posing the painter’s hands just so. Sometimes she tried to mimic those poses, shocked at how strange – and painful – some of them were.
Often her father would ask her to hold up a hand for scale in a photo. Her hands were documented from childhood on, held up in black and white (then color) next to giant leaves, roses whose thorns seemed to be inches long, baguettes impossibly long and thin. Or photos of her hands full of bunches of just-harvested green beans, fresh-dug new potatoes, giant tomatoes (how did the vine support them?), small dogs.
How different would it be if scientific journals were illustrated not by charts and graphs, but by images of the scientists’ hands dug into their materials, handling chemicals (gloves on, especially with mercury), poking and prodding new species, manipulating contraptions meant to test engineering principles? Certainly those sciences are tangible, but described in such a way to divorce them from human touch. Artists are better at that, she thought. Their works are tied inextricably to their hands.
Now when she thought of photographs of hands, she thought mostly of his. Large knobs of knuckles, skin wrinkled but surprisingly soft, calluses worn smooth by time, flat fingernails with the occasional black spot where a hammer or door left its mark. Hands that did not tremble, but did fidget, as if restless. Sometimes his hands simply flexed, gripping and releasing something unseen. Maybe for exercise? Or remembering some work done? And she remembered his exceptional gentleness; the same hands that built and dug – and, at some point, fought, she thought – could smooth her hair, clasp her hand in his, rhythmically but randomly pat one of those small dogs.
Hands show wear and tear, she thought, looking at a tiny, persistent scar on the back of her own hand and thinking of the strangely smooth skin of the thumb he hurt in that accident, and the ridges of growing-out scabs under his fingernails. Scars are sometimes quite beautiful, she thought, wishing at the same time that her hands had no such marks.