Gerd, the Girl with Too Many Arms
She grows up hearing all the rumors about her mother’s death, about how the girl with too many arms forced her way out of the womb with her many hands and split her mother in half. But they have been taking the measure of her since she was a tiny baby, wondering how so many limbs could pass easily out of the same woman, and they have drawn their own conclusions. The girl with too many arms doesn’t think much about it.
The girl with too many arms has every kind of arms. She has arms that are always knitting something. She has arms that hold a small diary and take copious notes. She has ghostly arms that can sense the presence of the dead. She has arms that clap, a capricious rhythm that follows her about her daily tasks. Her arms that sew. Her arms that paint. Her arms that have learned to play the violin. Her arms that are working on a Rubik's cube and her arms that have mastered the ball-and-cup game. Her arms to beat the devil with. She is nothing if not armed.
The girl with too many arms lives in her father’s house where everything is lovely and empty. Her father is a wealthy man and she has many rooms to live in and does very little living. She has a tiny fake kitchen with a stove and a sink and a chopping block, but the knives are dull and the stove won’t light and the sink has no running water. She has a fake drawing room for entertaining, but it stands empty, no one ever visits, and anyway instead of the usual springs and cushion, the furniture is all made of wood covered in fabric and stuffed with cotton—it’s all theater furniture, attractive but uncomfortable to use. The only real room is her bedroom, where she has a real bed and a real mirror and a real chair that she sits in to do her reading. She has a set of hands for reading. She has a fireplace with real fire.
The girl with too many arms is used to thinking of herself as a monster, because she can sometimes see the things about herself that others see about her.
She is not a naive bedtime story girl, she does not live innocently, she does not like to believe things about herself. The girl with too many arms is comfortably a monster. She has servants who look on her with horror, and a governess who avoids looking directly at her at all. She has snuck down to the kitchens and heard the tale about her mother, about how they found her mother split in half by her monster child.
Every Sunday, the girl with too many arms goes to church and then goes to visit her mother’s tomb. Her servants dress her in thick black robes and cover her face with a dark veil so that no one can see her or see the shape of her, the too many hands at the ends of too many arms constantly dancing with activity, her unnatural serenity at the center of it. The servants wrap her clapping hands in fabric to dull the noise. Her neighbors have been told that she has a skin disease, must be covered in thick fabric at all times to protect her from the sun, or the air, or the pollen from the trees.
When she goes to church with her father, the girl with too many arms does not listen to the service. It is a religion in which there are no girls with too many arms, although there are many men with too many arms. The men with too many arms use them to hold up the world. The men with too many arms are trapped, wrestling other men with too many arms, until one of them wins and ends the world. The men with too many arms punch so hard they leave mountains in ruin. The men with too many arms are demons, each arm carrying a sword, or angels, each hand forming a symbol to ward off evil. There are no men with too many arms in her religion who split their mothers in half with their birth. There are no men with too many arms that clap all day, every day. Really, the girl with too many arms is not religious, and does not believe there were ever really men who had too many arms.
Her mother is interred in a sarcophagus of gold and glass and ivory, her name written in a cartouche. The church is where all the mothers are kept, and all the fathers are buried tombs hidden in the hills that surround the village. After the service, the girl with too many arms, escorted by her governess, lest her too many arms cause too much trouble, descends into the catacombs, walking slowly by the sarcophagi of all the other mothers, some buried in splendid gold and platinum, others simple, wooden affairs, but all of them carved with the image of the mother buried within.
The girl with too many arms’ mother wears golden robes, has a face of beautiful clear glass, and ivory hands. She does not imagine this is how her mother looked, and assumes that the ivory hands, perfect two, were intended to absolve her of her daughter, the monster. As always, visiting her mother, the girl with too many arms stands quite still, or appears to, while her ghost hands, the hands that can perceive the dead, feel around in the darkness for her mother. On some days, good days, the hands that can perceive the dead feel something, the faint brush of fabric in the dark, the fleeting press of flesh. The girl with too many arms believes her mother’s spirit is here, always just out of reach.
Perhaps there are some things that even with too many arms, one cannot touch, the girl with too many arms, who has never felt like a daughter, thinks.
Still, she hopes one day her ghost hands will reach out into the dark of the caverns and find her mother’s hands, not just two, but many, uncountable hands. The girl with too many arms believes that every mother should have one hand for each of her daughter’s hands. Some days when she visits, she imagines using her strongest arms to pry the top off the sarcophagus, shattering her false mother’s false glass face, to find the woman beneath, whole, not split in half, with her many arms resting, still, not moving at all.
Zachary Doss is the editor of Black Warrior Review and fiction editor for Banango Street. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Fairy Tale Review, DIAGRAM, Caketrain, and other journals. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Illustrated by Meghan Murphy.