STORY: ‘Unseen by Hands’ by Michael Penkas

I was not attracted to Abigail Crichton because of her appearance; though she was beautiful. . . by the standards of the moment. But I have photographed so many...

I was not attracted to Abigail Crichton because of her appearance; though she was beautiful. . . by the standards of the moment. But I have photographed so many beautiful women and feel no more amorous longing for them than for the architecture and animals and landscapes which have proven equally stunning subjects. Her beauty was but another thing to capture, frame, and file away.

Nor was I attracted by the vulnerability implied by her blindness. In my younger days, I’d played hero to too many feigning damsels. I no longer found vulnerability attractive, having been betrayed too often by women too weak to be loyal.

It was not even her sculptures that drew me to her that night at the gallery. The work was excellent, well-received and quite highly valued. But talent, respect and money were things already in my possession and I did not seek them out in others.

No. What first attracted me to Abigail Crichton was that she did not like to be touched. She would not shake hands, would shrug off an arm placed across her shoulder, would recoil from a chaste peck on the cheek. Though blind, I did not see her ever caress the face of a stranger to learn its contours, nor take someone’s arm to guide her.

And in this one respect, we were the same. Since I was a boy, I have also loathed to be touched. I avoid shaking hands, preferring to offer my greeting with a respectful nod. I have never been moved to kiss or embrace or even hold hands with those few women who’ve held my interest, much less partake in more carnal relations. There is no subconscious trauma or rare psychiatric malady at work, so far as I can tell such things. I have merely never enjoyed being touched and have built a life for myself where I am all but free from the experience.

So you will understand why, when this beautiful woman walked near me and stumbled over a chair, falling to the floor, I made no move to take hold of her. I merely asked, “Are you all right?”

And you will understand why she was not in the least bit upset that I did not reach to help her. She steadied herself, with help from no one, then paused for a moment before saying, “Fine, thank you,” then, “Are you enjoying the show?”

I answered, “Yes.”

I had, in fact, been considering one of the abstract figures for which she’d grown famous. As with all her work, the hands and face were beautiful, if a little too smooth to be life-like. But the rest of the body was vaguely defined, more like an afterthought meant to hold head and hands together. At first glance, it might appear that the bodies were wrapped in shrouds, but the proportions were off. They looked more like smoke turned to stone, with only the faces and hands to indicate otherwise.

Besides their smoothness, the faces in Ms. Crichton’s sculptures were also well-known for one other characteristic. They always had the same expression, although no two people could ever agree on what the expression meant. To me, it had always appeared as a mix between despair and transcendence, like a man who gained a glimpse of Heaven, only to be disappointed by its mundanity.

She smiled on hearing my voice and I couldn’t help but smile back, knowing the expression was lost on her. She turned her attention in the direction of the sculpture and went still for a few moments before asking, “Is this Howard the Salesman?”

The folded cardboard marker beside the sculpture confirmed that it was the name.

She nodded. And then she stood there, still as one of her sculptures, for an uncomfortably long time. She did not wear shaded glasses and her pale milk-white eyes stared at nothing. After ten seconds, I had begun to suspect she had forgotten me, when she said, “My name is Abigail Crichton.”

I told her my name and, if she recognized it, she gave no indication. But we soon relaxed and began to talk. Abigail, of course, could not see the sideways looks we were getting from others at the gallery. She had made something of a reputation for her indifference to praise. I knew, as my eyes met each of the gallery crowd, that they were all wondering the same thing. Why had the beautiful artist chosen me instead of them? If her enhanced senses informed her of their attention, she gave no indication, speaking with me as if we were the only two people present.

Finally, she asked, “Would you like to see my studio?”

 

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During our cab ride to the studio, she spoke little, only saying that she rarely let anyone other than her models enter the space; but that she sensed in me someone also dissatisfied by the pale comforts offered by this world of mundane senses. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed about Abigail Crichton’s studio was the huge black curtain that bisected it. The studio appeared to be a large loft, although how large was impossible to say while the curtain remained drawn.

My questions multiplied, but were left unspoken. I knew that she had been blind all her life, so she did not sculpt from memory. She must have sculpted from models and she must have learned their features through touch. So the question was: Who would Abigail Crichton deign to touch for her art? No doubt, the gawkers back at the gallery had assumed that I was to be her latest model when we stole away quite conspicuously.

But now that I was in her studio, I was suddenly uncomfortable. . . and not just for the black curtain that promised further mysteries. I had barely thought on her words as we rode through the darkness, which was all the same as day to her. What if she did intend for me to be a model? Again, it might be romantic to presume that our intellectual compatibility would somehow translate into my foregoing my normal distaste for tactile familiarity; but this was not the case and I began staring at the door leading out of her studio.

There were four half-finished sculptures scattered around and I was surprised to see that not all of them began with the hands or faces. Two of the four were simply abstract bodies, layered like mounds of old curtains wadded together. The clay had not yet been fired and still smelled wet. If you’ve never experienced a wet smell, there’s no point in my trying to explain. . . like the old adage of describing color to a blind woman.

Yet living in a world without color had not impaired Abigail Crichton’s artistic ability in the slightest. Besides the clay, there was nothing in the room on our side of the curtain besides several stools and a large refrigerator. I asked her if she wanted a drink and she nodded.

Inside the refrigerator, I found a dozen bottles of diet soda and five times as many cubes of moist clay wrapped in wax paper. I heard her chuckle as I pulled out two sodas, then handed one to her. “All I need to continue my work is in that refrigerator: something to mold and something to keep me awake. That. . . and one other thing.” Her head tilted in the direction of the curtain.

She must have known I had followed her line of sight by my silence because she said, “That’s where I study the models. There are no windows on that side of the loft, no one to look in and. . . I would like for you to see it.”

I shook my head without realizing it. “No. . . I. . . I’m sorry, Ms. Crichton. While I greatly admire your work, I couldn’t. . . please understand that it has nothing to do with you. I simply feel. . . uncomfortable being touched and the thought of –”

She raised a hand to silence me. “You misunderstand. I didn’t ask you here to model. It’s true that I would like you to model for me. . . someday; but not just yet. I asked you here because, frankly, I could sense that our temperaments are very similar and I thought you would understand what I. . . I sensed a kinship with you. Does that seem ridiculous?”

It did, but I lied and said, “No. I’ve enjoyed speaking with you and would like very much to meet with you again; but. . .”

She nodded. “Join me behind the curtain and the next time we meet, we’ll have something to talk about.”

She didn’t wait for my answer, instead turning and slipping through a part in the curtain that she found with no difficulty. The curtain rippled for several seconds, caught in the breeze of her passing, before going still again. She said nothing further and the curtain was completely opaque so that I caught no hint of her presence; yet I knew she stood there, waiting for me.

My curiosity triumphed and I walked towards it, a little more quickly than I normally would have done, perhaps eager to get through before I changed my mind. Beyond the curtain, Abigail was standing there, staring at nothing, sipping her diet soda; but there was so much more for me to see.

There was another half-finished face and hands creation, similar to her usual work; but I barely noticed it. Carved into the wooden floor beside Abigail were a crooked circle and triangle, stained black all around. They did not touch; but they were obviously together, like Abigail and myself. Carved all around the two shapes were symbols like broken letters and, covering the whole thing were a dozen large blank sheets of paper. Looking closer, I could see that the papers were actually covered in raised Braille dots. I didn’t know Braille, so I couldn’t have read the papers even if I had chosen to touch them.

But more than usual, I did not want to touch or be touched in this place. Because it wasn’t the marks on the floor or the paper or the half-finished sculpture or Abigail Crichton that held my attention. There were five other sculptures in the room, each of them twice as large as her normal work, each of them twice as large as a man. There were no hands or faces on these figures, but there was a definite precision to their rendering so that I knew they were taken from models. They were similar in shape to the vague bodies of her other sculptures; but more detailed. They seemed to hunch over, suggesting an even greater size and some of them had the suggestion of wings. I found myself instantly afraid of them.

I was also aware that the lights were flickering, giving these hideous shapes the illusion of movement. I took a step back at one point, letting out a little gasp when a trick of light made one of those hideous lumps seem to turn in my direction. They had no features that would be considered human; but they did nevertheless seem to bear themselves with a certain regal dignity.

“My parents died when I was a girl. A car crash.”

I turned back to consider Abigail, wondering what this sliver of biography had to do with the monsters before me.

She didn’t wait for my prompting to continue. “They never left me though. It was strange. They said that children naturally believe in things they can’t see anyway and being blind. . . just made it all the easier for them to stay with me, speak with me. . . touch me.”

I shook my head, still not understanding.

“It took me years to learn how to reach others. . . besides my parents.” She waved towards the circle, triangle, and papers. “There are ways, methods. . . if you know where to look. It’s funny. . . I’ve never particularly enjoyed the touch of the dead, even of my parents; but I can’t stop reaching out to them. But after so many years of making my skin sensitive enough to the feel the subtleties of spectral contact, I find the touch of living flesh to be. . . overwhelming.”

I looked again towards the shambling unknowns she had sculpted. It is hard to describe what was so horrifying about them. It was just a. . . wrongness. The shapes shouldn’t have existed. “What?”

Abigail said my name and I turned back to face her. “They’re my models,” she offered simply.” I only sculpt ghosts. Howard the Salesman. . . that’s my father.”

I shook my head, trying to figure out why this bit of information should seem so threatening to me personally. “You sculpt. . . what are they?” I pointed to one of the mounds, knowing the gesture was lost on her.

But she seemed to understand what I was saying enough to concede, “Not all ghosts are of people. There are others that are. . . that have never lived or died. They watch over the dead and, on occasion, have let me touch them as well.”

“Like guardian angels?” I laughed at the thought of it.

But Abigail quickly dispelled the idea. “No, they’re not. . . that’s not it. They make sure that the dead don’t. . . come back.”

I looked away from her and saw the familiar sculpture again, the one like her others with its face and hands. And I suddenly understood that strange expression that had made Abigail Crichton famous. That look of understanding and horror. The dead found themselves in the company of these creatures. Abigail couldn’t have understood that the expressions on the faces of the dead were nothing like the expressions seen on any living face. Those faces and the horrid things they saw were just so many planes and angles to her sensitive fingers, able only to take them in a piece at a time. The sculptures were only monstrous when seen all at once through eyes.

The lights began to flicker even more and those monstrous shapes glimpsed in snapshot moments of shadow were simply too horrible. I left the sculptor alone with her secret work.

 

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I still think about what she said to me, not about her parents or the monster-angels; but about modeling. She’d said that she would like me to model for her, but not just yet. I understand now that she meant I would not be ready to model for her until I had joined the dead. It had not been a threat; but it didn’t matter. Whether or not she killed me, whether or not some supernatural force would kill me; it didn’t matter. Because eventually, I would die. And on that day, I would join her parents and all of her other subjects in an afterlife which her blindness prevented her from truly understanding. If she had been sighted, her mind would never have allowed her to perceive what lies beyond.

Sometimes, I think about the terrible fate that awaits us, the ghost world that surrounds us and could be seen by us if we could stand the horror of it all. And when I think about the future, sometimes, I want to be held.

 

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