Hands of Mercedes
Edward C. Lynskey
Late that afternoon and still no closer to my objective, I tramped out of a ramshackle barn at my second estate auction in one day. Pickup trucks and cars began leaving. A cold rain spattered my cheeks mixing with warm tears. I felt faint, perhaps from hunger or a malingering fever, and swayed a bit. The auctioneer, a grizzled and generous-spirited local man named Ivanhoe, hovered near to offer his patched forearm on which to steady myself.
"Thank you" was my fierce whisper.
"Maíam you look pale." He frowned from beneath a dirt brown fedora. "Donít I remember you? Sure, you were bidding on that brace of rosewood music boxes. What a shame Old Man Mahoney topped you. Iím sorry."
Grateful, I smiled. "Thanks, but no matter, sir. A mortician such as he cannot own enough containers."
Ivanhoe chuckled at the observation I had not intended as humor. "That scrawny polecat has damn near filled a cemetery planting his pine-knot coffins."
"The contents of the music boxes interested me," I revealed.
"Shucks, it never occurred to me to peek inside. Usually you find knickknacks, trinkets, polished brass buttons, and tin thimbles -- those sort of trifles."
"I usually inspect their wares beforehand. I arrived late and Mr. Mahoney wouldnít let me look inside these."
Popping a red umbrella, Ivanhoe escorted me to my blue Plymouth parked under an Osage orange tree. "What treasures were you so eager to latch onto?" he wanted to know.
An innocent enough question, but caught off-guard, I sputtered to form what should have been a pat response. "Huh? Oh, nothing actually. I enjoy hunting for . . . er . . . family heirlooms, I suppose you could say."
Shutting the car door, Ivanhoe seemed satisfied. "You are a collector. Why donít you swing by Buchanan Hall on Friday, six oíclock sharp? Iím selling off antiques and curios gleaned from my buying expeditions to the Tidewater. Choice stuff."
"How kind of you to ask, Mr. Ivanhoe. I may do just that." Cranking the ignition, I rolled up my window before nosing down the rutty lane. Ivanhoe raised a hand to wave farewell. Snatching a breath, I recoiled in a horror that he didnít understand. Confusion clouded his leathery expression. Rather than stop to explain how he or his hand wasnít what frightened me, I grabbed second gear and jounced along to speed up.
That image of a hand vexed me. Okay, I asked myself motoring home, what was the exact nature of my fear? Even if I traveled a thousand miles, Iíd lack time enough to comb through it all. Suffice it to say my odd feeling revolved around one name -- Mercedes Sarah Ferguson -- my maternal grandmother. Mercedes and a fervid vow she swore on her deathbed in the presence of my mother and several shadow-cousins whom no longer counted as immediate family.
I never knew Mercedes. That rainy night she passed away, I was but eight months evolved in my motherís womb. My mother, however, evoked Mercedesí memory with vivid stories haunting my girlhood, painting her in strokes too bold for me to ignore or, in my later years, to outgrow. Ironic enough, twenty years to the night Mercedes had wheezed her last breath, a drunken CPO scurrying back to Norfolk Naval Station struck and killed my mother in this same Plymouth I presently drove.
My older sister Nancy had absorbed all the tales about Mercedes. Always the smart one and to her credit, Nancy fled Mingo County for New York City. She worked in publishing. Editing historical romances, I believe. Cheap, gaudy, lurid potboilers that Mercedes would have disapproved of ladies reading, much less buying. Like Erskine Caldwellís filthy novels in her day. Still, from afar, Nancy between her whirlwind of endless staff meetings and dinner dates was willing to fill in my missing gaps regarding our family lore.
Subsiding into a feather bed after a hot, long bath and fortified by dandelion wine, I dialed Nancyís apartment telephone number.
"Hello kiddo," she answered the first ring. "Pray tell me the gothic horrors this week savaging Mingo County?"
"Nothing that melodramatic," I assured her. "Listen, I was wondering whatever happened to that lush, the one who rammed Mother? Itís been bugging me to know."
Nancy groaned. "Must we venture down that road? A road too much traveled."
"Please. Humor me on this. Iím dying to know."
"Fine. Give me a second to dredge my memory. As I recall it, years later, an obit in Stars and Stripes I happened to see mentioned he choked to death."
Sitting bolt upright, I pressed her for details. "Think, Nancy. Was it like he had swallowed a splintered chicken bone or was he strangled?" I swallowed hard. "Did he hang himself?"
"Christ! Guido is banging my door in. Listen kiddo. Thatís the extent of my knowledge. Criminal or accidental, who cares? I pray it was pure hell for him. I should go now. Love you."
Her telephone line cut to a dial tone and I likewise hung up. Hoisting my hand up to brassy light, I tried to imagine that appendage detached as a separate entity yet still willed by my whims and under my command. I concentrated until a comic relief -- the image of "Thing" on The Addams Family TV show -- scuttled through my mind. I laughed but it was a hollow, discordant outburst, more akin to a witchís cackle. I cringed. All I needed was a twig broom, copper cauldron, and pointy black hat.
Crawling on hands and knees, I rooted around under my narrow bed amid dust mice and desiccated silverfish until I extracted my silk-bound Baby Book. The page I wished to consult was dog-eared. There my mother in her spidery script chronicled events the night Grandmother Mercedes died. It was not a rosy, touching picture. After a parade of two-timing, hard-drinking, fist-welding men through her long and unhappy life, Mercedes had stirred one last time. My dutiful mother recorded what ensued:
Her piercing black eyes strayed to the foot of the bed where I stood, flashed for my undivided attention for I could read her lips semaphoring a private message. Cousins Roscoe, Elmer, Leroy receded into dim lemon yellow wallpaper as I no longer sensed them near us. "Daughter," she signaled me, "Angel Gabriel willing, I shall return to avenge every S.O.B. who mistreats my descendents." I inscribe this for you to know, how you kicked inside me once her statement was delivered, as if you were of the same mind as your grandmother.
I re-read the passage, lingering over Mercedesí quote, what my mother had forever interpreted as, for the lack of a better word, a curse. More sympathetic, I preferred to view it as a solemn oath, since my grandmother was never reputed to be a profane or irreligious lady.
Even now Grandmother Mercedes, it seemed, did foster a special fondness for me. I had recently come to learn about this.
The previous week a midnight storm had slammed into Mingo County, raining as if sorrowful skies imploded and any tear ever shed sloshed through at once. Jittery, I awoke to jags of lightning flashing in my bedroom. I couldnít return to sleep, lay in stiff silence, my nerves frayed. Something outside tapped leaden windowpanes as pebbles lobbed by an impatient lover. Rousing, I crossed a plank floor, beamed my flashlight down through clay-streaked glass to the ledge.
In unison, ringed fingers on two severed hands wiggled up as if to salute me. I shrieked my way back to bed, yanked the counterpane over my head. The rapping ceased.
Throughout that next morning, I did my utmost to shake it off as an ill-bred dream. Behind the front desk to greet and help customers wandering into our real estate office, I smiled but my mind was ablaze pondering about those self-mobile hands. Sleepwalking through my days since, I had calmed down enough to focus, to recall certain details like their dovelike daintiness suggested a young ladyís hands. One gold ring Iíd noticed was set with diamonds -- an old-fashioned wedding band, a bit garish but nonetheless still stylish. Her fingers appeared alert and capable, not passive and fey. Her nails were bold and red, a regal manicure I would kill to attain.
It soon dawned on me they were the hands of Mercedes. Smitten by their visit, I wanted to track them down. How to do so emerged in the clue provided by her dying pledge. Within a week, two widowers -- both notorious wife-beaters -- expired of mysterious strangulation. Had Mercedes returned to make good on her promise? That is why I felt compelled to attend each of the widowerís estate auctions, reasoning how a pair of clever hands could hide out in a jewelry box. Who would think to look there? Despite my best sleuthing efforts, I never found any hands.
Feeling silly if not obsessed after todayís two auctions, I resolved before falling asleep to give up my search.
An hour later, I was turning over in bed, then leaning to lunge for a ringing telephone. Sharp, distressing yelps erupted from the other end.
"Hello? Hi. Hello?" I mumbled while swimming up from a deep sleep.
"Trish? Thank goodness, youíre there. I need your help." It was Nancy in New York City. "Itís Guido. He flew into a rage, walloped me to a pulp. God, Iím mess," she quivered.
Full awake now, I screamed: "Nancy? Scram out of that apartment!"
Nancy began to cry. Between squeaky sobs, she explained, "Heís gone for now. I threw on the deadbolt. I suppose Iím safe for the moment. Aw God, I hurt bad, though."
"Steer clear of him," I insisted. "Swear out a peace bond. Ask for police protection. Change your locks. Donít cower in bed and take his abuse."
Nancyís scornful laugh prickled goose bumps along my spine. "Kiddo," she replied, "I wish it was that simple. I do. Our relationship -- how to characterize it? -- is very complicated. Bottom line -- I owe the bastard money. A boatload of money."
"So Guido beats it out of you?" I asked. "Nobody deserves that treatment for any reason."
"Please, donít think ill or any less of me. Yes, Iíve been foolish and reckless. Thanks for indulging my latest crisis. Go back to sleep, kiddo. Iíll be okay. Love you."
Nancy returned her receiver to its cradle and left me hanging. Until the alarm squawked six hours later, I tossed and turned, worried sick about Nancy playing Guidoís human piŮata. I half-expected to field an urgent call from the NYPD to request the next of kin (me) to fly up and identify a Nancy stomped into applesauce.
Skipping breakfast, I sped over to Clark Brothers, a firearm dealership serving local hunters who ate, slept, and talked guns. I marched straight in and was surprised to greet Ivanhoe manning the front counter. He was cleaning a double-barrel shotgun.
"If it isnít Trish the Knickknack Collector," he announced. I saw a glitter of gold fillings as he laughed and I returned a feeble smile.
"I need a revolver to mail to my sister, Nancy" I confided in him. "You know, for protection against thugs and creeps. Well, actually against one."
"Nancy. Sheís the one who resides in The Big Apple, right?" Ivanhoe said. "I canít ship pistols across state lines, Trish. Weíd both be nailed for violating federal gun laws that would land us stamping license plates in the big house."
Off the bat, I wilted in dejection. "Okay thanks, Mr. Ivanhoe. It was worth a try. Iíll have to do something else for her before its too late."
"A boy-pal knocking her around, huh?" Ivanhoe conjectured.
"Within an inch of her life just last night," I said. "Her frantic phone calls are making me crazy."
Jaws knotted, Ivanhoe lifted up the hinged partition of the counter and signaled me through. "Slip on back here. I might have a solution."
He steered me to a narrow workbench under a bright fluorescent lamp. Two rosewood music boxes Mahoney had purchased at yesterdayís auction gleamed on a green blotter.
"I called in at least two huge favors Mahoney owed me," Ivanhoe explained to my questioning look. "Theyíre yours now, should you still crave them."
Curious, I cracked a lid. A ringed finger flipped into view. Opening the first box, then the second, I exposed that elusive pair of hands severed at the wrists. Fingers fluttered as if coming alive. When I flinched to scoot out the door, Ivanhoe rested a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
"They mean you no harm or terror, Trish," he explained. "Indeed, they are your grandmotherís hands." Tucking in fingers, he closed the music boxes. "She was quite the lady, your Grandmother Mercedes was."
"What am I to do with them?" I wondered. My initial fears had dissolved into an awesome sense of responsibility and curiosity.
"Nancy you claim is in a world of hurt right now. I sure canít picture of two grander CARE packages arriving at her apartment."
Emboldened, I gathered up those rosewood music boxes and hurried to our post office. They went out as Priority Mail, in care of Trish McCoy, 219 Riverside Drive, New York City. Checking a chart, the postal clerk said, "Two days at the most to reach there."
Late that night, once in bed, I fell fast asleep but not before I had committed my worry about Trishís plight into the hands of Mercedes.
Ed Lynskey's science fiction/fantasy short stories have appeared in Demensions, Would That It Were, Planet Magazine, and Quantum Muse.
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Published by permission of the author.