Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

The Anatomist’s Mnemonic

Samuel Wilson’s life wasn’t a search for love at every turn. There’d been girls he’d liked, with whom he’d managed fragile love affairs, but something was always lacking no matter how hard he tried. Something that failed to ignite.

Sam knew what it was. He knew that love and objectification weren’t the same but he had a passion for hands. His arousal in every organ, the mind, the skin, the parts he’d once been told were made for sin, depended on the wrists, the palms, the fingertips.

Why don’t we ask Sam to the party? I’ve invited Judith. We should introduce them.

Women were keen to intervene on his behalf.

Your Mother wants you to bring your friend Sam to Sunday lunch. She says he looks like he needs feeding up. Yes, your sister’s also coming.

Colleagues, friends, friends’ girlfriends, wives, and mothers were all eager to help him along on a romantic quest.

What’s Sam like? No, I don’t fancy him. I only have eyes for you. I’m just curious. He’s such a nice, unassuming guy. I don’t get why he’s single.

They were taken with his unconscious charm. He was a millpond of a man. They wanted to see what sort of woman would make him ripple. None guessed the secret so incongruous with the rest of him. The thing he’d denied himself.

Sam couldn’t tell them for fear they’d make a tawdry fetish of the fundamentals of his happiness.

He couldn’t tell them about the hands.

• • • •

Sam, aged nineteen, had seen a fortune teller. There was a painted caravan on the outskirts of a funfair. He was close enough to childhood to find the fair childish, not old enough to enjoy its novelty with a pang of nostalgia. He wasn’t having fun. His friends were raucous. Boorish. The whirling neon and cheap hotdogs made him feel sick. The quiet caravan seemed like a retreat. He was at the age and stage where he had queries about his life. Later, the classmates he’d arrived with questioned his disappearance, but he deflected them with vagaries and shrugs.

It was a formulative experience. The palm reader, twenty years his senior, took him in with a glance that measured his vitality. His every possibility. His diffidence hid his differences from his peers. The ardour and sensitivity overlooked by girls his own age.

Imogen (the palmist’s real name) didn’t go in for hoop earrings or headscarves. Her uniform was black and flattering, fit for funerals and seductions. Although her youth was behind her, Imogen was still young enough to want to feel it.

They sat on opposite sides of the table. Imogen was fleshy where expected of an older woman, but with slender limbs. She used her hands and wrists to express everything.

Sam felt an unexpected thrill, the exact location of which was uncertain, when she leant across the table and seized his waiting hands in hers. He liked how she took charge despite her diminutive size. The way she examined him for clues. She dropped his left hand, having exhausted its information. It lay between them on the table, aching to be held again. Sam watched her pink tongue dart out between plum-painted lips to wet the tip for her forefinger. She traced a damp circle around his palm, her face close so that she could peer into his future. Close enough to feel her breath on his skin. Close enough to see a single silver strand in the darkness of her parting.

She announced his hands were the instruments of fate and their message was explicit.

“Your heart line’s unusual. It springs from Saturn. It’s a chain pattern. Unforked. You’re a sensual man. You’ll have unique needs. Your line of affection shows a strong attachment, the sort that only happens once in a lifetime. You’ll find true love because of her hands.”

Most initiations involve fumbling and misunderstandings, but this wasn’t Imogen’s first time with a first timer. As they lay together in the half light of her caravan, Imogen explained her trade to Sam using their own hands as primers.

“Life,” she explained, “is laid out in lines: life, heart, and head. The lines of destiny, affection, and the sun.” She traced each one out, stimulated every nerve.

“The whole universe is right here.” She kissed his palms, his mounts of Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the moon.

The next lesson was in the significance of fingers, after which she sucked each one in turn. She praised the nails that pinned down his nature, well formed, crescents rising at the base.

Sam didn’t care about his own hands. They were whole and functional, fit for purpose. He was more concerned with hers. Imogen had the hands of Aphrodite. Her wrists were fine. Refined. He could encircle them with ease. Her hands touched him everywhere. They moved him. Not love but distilled desire. Eroticism crystallised.

Nineteen. A late age for imprinting, but it was testament to Imogen’s hands. The image of them roaming over him. She couldn’t foresee the Pavlovian associations that would occur.

Whoever Sam loved would need hands as beautiful as hers.

• • • •

Samuel had met with other hand worshippers. They were the reason for his reticence. He was puzzled by their games. The act of washing up became burlesque as hands were engulfed in suds. A game of Rock, Paper, Scissors was frank porn. They didn’t care about hands the way he did. Hands were mystical, magical, not to be leered at as they went about their daily chores. Hands were delicate and complex. The ultimate Darwinian organ. The sign of a higher being. Opposable thumb above paw and claw. Why shouldn’t they be the localisation of desire?

Sam decided, at thirty-two, he couldn’t ignore his needs anymore. He copied the number he’d found onto a pad. It sat by the phone for weeks before he called.

“Hello.”

“I’m sorry.” He winced at this inauspicious beginning, unsure why he’d apologised. “Are you Beth Hurt? I found your website.”

“I am.”

She sounded younger than he’d expected. He tried to imagine her face. Her hands.

“My name’s Sam Wilson. I wonder if you can help me.” He stalled. In the silence that followed, he was afraid she’d hang up.

“Let me tell you a bit about what I do. I’m a medical illustrator. I have an anatomy degree as well as fine arts training. I do medical textbooks, teaching aids, exhibition posters, and company brochures.”

He was thankful that Beth Hurt was gracious, trying to put him at ease.

“I need a drawing.”

“What of?”

“A pair of hands. I work in advertising.” This part was true. “I’m applying for a job with a rival agency so I can’t go to my art department.”

The last part was a lie. It was for a very different advert. A more personal one.

M, 32, single, solvent, sincere, seeks F to share music, books, food, film, and the other fine things in life. Beautiful hands essential.

All he needed was an illustration.

“Tell me a bit more about what you want.”

Sam discussed hand anthropometry. He specified dimensions. Palm to wrist ratio. Finger length. Shape of the nails. The glorious proportions of the flawless hand. “Most of all, they must be beautiful.”

“All hands are beautiful,” she mused. “They all tell a story.”

Sam didn’t know how to disabuse Beth Hurt of this. The subtleties of the mind, the sense of humour, the face and body were subjective. He had a non-judgemental approach to those and found their variations spectacular. Hands were different. Hands were absolutes.

“Beautiful to me then.”

• • • •

Sam normally coped with the monotony of motorways by seizing on their differences. The ballet of the cars. The flowers that flourished on the verges. The flash of the central barrier. Graffiti that decorated the bridges overhead. Who blew, who sucked, and other such stuff.

He didn’t need to scrutinise the minutiae of the journey now. He had other things on his mind.

He turned off at Beth’s junction onto a series of dual carriageways and roundabouts. Then a town. Trees. A school. A row of shops. People queued at a bus stop. Life went on around him unencumbered while he was overcome with hope.

Sam couldn’t tell if Beth’s street was on its way up or down. A handsome Georgian terrace past its prime. It exhibited signs of aspiration and neglect. Some of the basement flats paraded rows of geranium in pots while others had old sheets hung at the windows and peeling door paint.

He found the right house and examined the bells by the door. Beside Beth’s was a brass plaque that bore her name and nothing else.

The voice that answered via the intercom wasn’t hers. It was more melodic, lower in its range.

“Come up. Second floor. I’ll leave the door open. Beth’s on the phone.”

The communal hall’s flower prints and beige carpet gave no clue as to what waited upstairs. He took the stairs two at a time.

The door was ajar. Beth Hurt’s hall was painted matt charcoal. A set of daguerreotypes hung upon one wall, formal portraits that were trapped beneath a silver skin. He liked these antique pictures from the past. Their eyes were alive in a way that eluded modern printing techniques. There were shelves loaded with curios. A set of opera glasses and a peacock fan. Metal syringes shining in their case. A porcelain phrenology head. A nautilus shell.

A navy surgeon’s brass bound chest lay open against one wall. Sam read the label by each viscous instrument, designed for hasty amputations. The line drawing in the lid was a pictorial guide to removing a limb. There were clamp-like contraptions, a pair of petit tourniquets, to stem blood loss. An amputation knife, its curved blade designed to sweep around the limb’s flesh and cut right down to bone. The zigzag teeth of the tendon and D-shaped saws looked like something from a joiner’s bag.

A door at the end of the corridor opened. It was Beth Hurt.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, come through. Did Kate offer you a drink?”

“No, but don’t worry. I’m Sam.”

He held out a hand. She took it. Firm grip. Warm, soft skin. Her hair was short enough to allow its rightful curl around her face. It was a shade between brown and red.

“It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Sam felt a tug of something akin to recognition. He suppressed the urge to giggle. He knew from the wide spread of her smile that she did too. There was a softening around her eyes that drew him in.

“You’ve come a long way. Let me get you a drink. What would you like?”

“Go on then. A coffee would be great.”

Beth opened the door and called out.

“Kate, kettle’s on. Do you want one?”

“Love one,” came the distant reply.

Kate. Friend, lover, or just flatmate? It occurred to Sam that Beth had grown suspicious. Did she regret inviting him here instead of somewhere neutral? Had she rung around until she found a chaperone?

Sam waited in Beth’s professional space, free to look around. It was a patchwork of diagrams and charts. Line drawings and sketches. Plastic models. Some of the words and pictures made him blush. A painting of a dissected heart hung over her desk. Bloodied meat and gaping valves. A fist of an organ, much misunderstood and mythologized. It was just a pump after all.

Sam was examining a set of photos of a dissected brain when Beth retuned carrying a tray. He caught the top note of her scent as she handed him a mug. A citrus smell that energised him. His eyes dropped to her hands.

They were too square, too fleshy to reveal a pleasing amount of the sinews beneath. Bitten nails. Ink stained flesh. Palms seamed and furrowed. Creases like bracelets at her wrists.

“Would you be more comfortable in another room?”

He took a final look at the brain photographs and grinned.

“No, it’s only the sight of my own blood that makes me faint, but if I feel funny I’ll let you know.”

“Do you think it’s ghoulish?”

Sam sipped his coffee as he looked at a watercolour of a dissected leg.

“No. Your work’s stunning.”

“Would you believe that I wanted to be a children’s illustrator? I used to make up stories and draw pictures to go with them for my sister after our mum died.”

It was such a personal disclosure that made him embarrassed that he’d lied to her about his reasons for the commission. Her unguardedness disarmed him. She’d let him into her home. He felt he could tell her anything now that he was here.

“So what happened?”

“I took a job with a medical publisher because I was strapped for cash. The editor had loved my work on a book he read to his daughter at bedtime. He said it was just the right look.”

“What sort of kid’s book was that?”

They both laughed.

“Once I finished the job I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Isn’t it strange how you know that you like something, right away?” She laid out the final drawing before him. “Is this what you had in mind?”

“It’s brilliant.” He meant it. One hand was partially folded against the other. They were elegant and tapered. Beth had made technical perfection seem informal. “You have real talent.”

“Oh no, it’s just about knowing the anatomy. It changes the structure of the work. May I?”

The way she took his hands made him dizzy.

“The finger bones are called the phalanges. Three to each finger. Two in the thumb.”

She touched each one in his little finger and his thumb by way of demonstration. Sam felt the start of gnawing elation.

“Fascinating.” He’d been preoccupied with aesthetics, not construction or mechanics, but her words thrilled him.

“And these are the metacarpal bones.” Sam swallowed when she ran her finger across his palm. “At one end they form the knuckles and at the other they articulate with the wrist bones, which are my favourites.”

“Why?” He relished her pleasure.

“They’re interesting. Each one has a different shape and name, but they fit together like a jigsaw.”

She made him arch his thumb to reveal two taut lines along his wrist.

“This gap is called the anatomical snuffbox.” She pointed to the space between the pair of tendons. “The bone which forms the floor is the scaphoid.”

“Scaphoid,” he repeated.

“The rest of the wrist bones are the lunate, triquetral, pisiform, trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, and hamate.” She worked her way over the wrist to show him where each bone was. “I like the hamate. It has a hook.”

He felt like he was party to the arcane.

“How do you remember all that?” Sam wanted her to know he was impressed.

“Hard work. And mnemonics. Lots of mnemonics.”

“The only mnemonic I know is Richard of York gave battle in vain, for the rainbow.”

A spot of colour had appeared high on Beth’s cheeks. It conjured up Beth Hurt in bed, post-coital, flushed and loose limbed. Intuition told him the reason for her flush.

“What’s the mnemonic?”

“What?”

“For the wrist.”

“Scared lovers try positions that they can’t handle.” Beth tried to sound unabashed.

The physiology of their attraction couldn’t be faked. The symptoms of their chemistry. They were close. Sam’s pupils dilated. It was hard to breathe. His heart no longer functioned as just a pump. His blood was hot. His throat was dry. Beth was a lodestone and he’d been magnetised. Their heads were tilted in sympathy. Lips parted in empathy.

He couldn’t. Beth’s hands were lacking.

“The picture . . .” He moved away. “It’s perfect.”

“I hope you find what you want.”

“Pardon?”

“Get what you want. The job.” She sounded magnanimous in rejection. Courageous. “I wish you the best of luck.”

“I’ll treasure this, no matter what. Not because of its anatomy, but because you’ve pictured exactly what I described.”

“I’ve a confession. It was easier than you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“I had a model.”

“A model?”

He’d imagined such hands could only be imagined.

“Yes, Kate, my sister. Do you want to meet her?”

• • • •

Sam could see the shades of sisterhood on their faces. Kate was at ease amid the depictions of flayed flesh and dismembered limbs. She was an elongated, elegant version of her sibling. Undeniably the better looking of the two, but with paler hair and skin. A less vivid version of Beth.

“I thought introductions were in order. Sam, Kate. Kate, Sam.”

“Hi.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Sam searched her smile, this Madonna of the Hands, but all that it revealed was her teeth.

“Sam loves the picture. I thought you two should meet.”

Kate’s hands were partially covered by the cuffs of her jumper. The fine rib clung to her wrists. Her tapered fingers ended in short nails, painted with a dark polish. It should have tantalised him.

Sam thrust out a hand, desperate to connect. As she took it, Sam waited for the jolt of hormones. Instead of a spark, there was just a seeping disappointment as her perfect hand lay in his.

“It’s a good job you liked it.” Kate thrust her hands back into her pockets. “Beth’s promised me a modelling fee.”

The trio laughed in unison.

“I’m going to get another drink.” Beth glanced at him. “Coffee all round?”

She went, closing the door behind her with a careful click.

“Beth says the drawing’s for a job interview. What’s it for?”

“A hand cream campaign. I’m in advertising. What do you do?”

“I’ve just finished my degree. I’m a dietitian.”

“Your place is great.”

“I wish it were mine. I’m just staying here until I can get somewhere.”

Sam nodded. Of course it was Beth’s.

“Beth’s a diamond. She’s always looked out for me.”

It was Beth that Sam was thinking of. There wasn’t enough of Kate, pleasant as she was, to fill the room. Her hands, though fabulous, couldn’t compensate for Beth’s absence.

Hands though, they were absolutes.

• • • •

Sam and Beth were bare beneath the sheets. It was her turn to be taught.

“Life,” Sam explained, “is laid out in lines: life, heart, and head. The lines of destiny, affection, and the sun.” Each one was traced out. Then there was the significance of fingers. The predictions of nails.

Imogen had been exorcised.

Scaphoid, lunate, triquetral, pisiform, trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, hamate.

The words Beth had taught him lingered in his mouth. He tried to pass them back to her, tongue to tongue. She was too weak to twist away.

Desire drove Sam. He didn’t stop to consider the outrageousness of his demands. The flat was upended by his passions. The kitchen had become an impromptu theatre. The surgical instruments lay on the floor. Kate had been easily overcome. She lay where she’d fallen, in Beth’s studio. Beth, though he’d surprised her, put up a greater fight. Sam kissed the bruise on her face, from the blow that had finally subdued her.

It was dirty work. Sam was glad that he’d been right that it was only his own blood that made him feel faint. The cuts he’d made with the amputation knife were ragged. The petit tourniquets were sound and stemmed Beth’s bleeding. He’d not used them on Kate, not from unkindness but because there wasn’t time.

Cautery was a more tricky matter. He’d improvised with a knife, heated on the hob until the blade glowed. He touched it to the places on Beth’s bloody stumps that leaked.

Sam covered his clumsy suture work with wrappings of scarves. Kate’s hands cooled quickly, despite their new attachment to Beth. It was a fleeting few hours that Sam couldn’t hold onto for long enough. It left him hungry.

He put his lips to the perfect palms, to Beth’s mouth. Her lips were pale. She shivered as he covered her body with his.

Beth whimpered, limp in the hands of fate.

Priya Sharma

Priya Sharma’s short stories have appeared in venues like Interzone, Black Static and on Tor.com. She’s been reprinted in many “Best of” anthologies, such as Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series. She’s also been included on several Locus’ Recommended Reading Lists. Her story, “Fabulous Beasts” was Shirley Jackson Award finalist and won a British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 2016. All the Fabulous Beasts, her debut collection from Undertow Publications, is now available.

More about her work can be found at www.priyasharmafiction.wordpress.com and www.facebook.com/AllTheFabulousBeasts/