Sherry Shenoda is a Coptic poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo, living in California. She is the author of The Lightkeeper, from Ancient Faith Publishing, and Mummy Eaters, forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.
"A Proper Fist"
"A Proper Fist"
“You said you’d tell me one day,” began Ronan, tucking the fingers of her right hand into her palm, and wrapping her thumb around her knuckles, “why you can’t make a proper fist.”
He pressed her loose fist between his palms and gazed across the table at his wife, the soup steaming between them. “You wouldn’t win any boxing matches with this,” he teased and straightened her fingers when her fist spasmed once between his palms.
Aine drew a deep breath while he unhurriedly began to knead her palm.
“It was a long time ago, and far Ahead,” she began.
Memphis, The New Independent Colonies, 2416
She Translated into a clear, high tower, the sound of a wailing siren filling the air, but somehow, the sound of a beating heart was louder. Her hands were tightly wrapped around the metal of a thin wheel which jutted from a pillar in the center of the circular room. The metal was still cold; she had only just arrived. She stirred, but before she could flex her hands, a dark hand appeared beside her and gently but firmly pressed her right hand to the wheel.
Beside her stood a tall, dark-skinned man. He didn’t look at her, but asked with strained courtesy “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” Or at least she thought she was. The scene outside the clear tower was cataclysmic. A large, mushroom-shaped cloud bloomed far in the distance; it burned, spreading up in a widening orange-tinged haze.
He had a deep, agitated voice. “Are you here for the Light? I was about to hibernate when you arrived just now.”
“I’m a Lightkeeper,” she said, and though it was unlike any lighthouse she’d ever seen, added “yes, I must be.”
His eyes were still trained on the horizon, and she read in them the bleakness of a man who had pulled the short straw. “How much time do you have?” he asked.
“As long as it takes,” she replied. “What kind of glass is this?” she asked, distracted by the horrible orange cloud in the distance.
He uttered a short, mirthless laugh. “It’s not quite a Light, as you call it, but you’ll do,” he said.
She turned to meet his eyes and felt the river of time slow, as it slowed many times in her life, this time with her and the man in its eddies, circling slowly for a single tragic moment. She watched the sweep of sorrow and regret across his face, and then the river sped back up, carrying them both along.
“For God’s sake don’t let go of the wheel,” he pleaded quietly, and his eyes involuntarily glanced at his left hand on her right, then over their shoulders at the dark city behind them. The Lightkeeper spared a quick glance over her own shoulder at the dark, shadowy place, full of small tightly stacked streets, people everywhere. The masses of people made her lightheaded.
The man tightened his hold. “Steady,” he commanded.
She looked at him and found her voice. “Does this not trouble you?” she asked, jutting her chin to the scene before them, heart in her throat.
“Trouble is… not the right word for this. This is what our ancestors would have called a sin.” His tongue stalled over the unfamiliar word.
She glanced at the looming cloud and shivered. It had spread in concentric circles and fires were erupting within and around it, coalescing. She didn’t know what it was, but she understood it.
“The shield is in place. It needs a human-” he broke off sharply, seeming to think better of it.
His voice was steady, and she looked directly into his human, normal face, the only normal thing in this hatefully strange world. “They call me a lighthouse keeper,” he told her in a deep, even rumble. “I keep this Beacon lit as a shield against nuclear attacks.” Her eyes darted around the small, clear tower. The tower was tall and slim, and though there was no lens apparatus, it glowed with a faint luminescence.
“Don’t worry,” he said, in a calm voice. Her eyes widened at the incredible suggestion, and he shrugged. “Habit,” he apologized. “I’m going to report our status. I need you to hold the wheel. Will you do that?” She nodded silently.
“This is Fern of Beacon One reporting. I have a shield over Memphis. Repeat: I have a shield over Memphis. Do you copy?”
She closed her eyes and tuned him out. Her hands were beginning to sweat and she could smell the tang of metal. Whatever was happening outside was too much to bear. I’ve never been to Memphis before, she thought. It’s so… she squinted one eye open. Orange, she thought.
Fern signed off, then replaced his hand and gently guided her hands to a more comfortable position on the wheel.
“Thank you,” he said politely. He looked like a man who had just set down a heavy load, but she was suddenly very tired, and felt that perhaps she wanted to let go of the wheel, and lie down for a bit, to erase this sight from her memory.
“I’m sorry,” he said next, more quietly. “I didn’t give you much of a chance to consider, but there wasn’t time, and it seemed you had come for this purpose.”
“What purpose?” she asked shortly, trying to remain civil. Her nose was itching, and he started, tightening his hand over hers when she turned her head to rub it against her shoulder. “My nose itches. Where am I? When am I? Who are you? What are we doing?”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “Memphis, in The New Independents, 2416, and my name is Fern. We are manually operating a rather ancient shield system. Apologies for that,” he added. “It requires a human pulse to operate. A rather poetic notion built into it by the creator.”
“Well. I’m certain I have no idea what you just said,” she replied irritably, knowing she was being rude. She was quite ready to go home. Away. She had no home. She just wanted to be away.
“I am very sorry,” he said, and sounded genuinely contrite. “The shield that surrounds the city depends on a human pulse to keep it in place. Think of it this way: your heartbeat is a small light that keeps this Beacon lit, and the shield emanates from the Beacon over the city. It keeps that out.” He tilted his head to the scene before them.
She had questions, but was feeling rather drowsy. “And if I don’t keep the shield up?”
He turned his body fully to make eye contact with her, then very deliberately lifted his warm palm from her right hand. He stepped back, his hand raised for a moment, his palm raised as though in supplication. “What do you think happens?”
She tightened her hands on the wheel, then glanced over her shoulder at the dark city teeming with life. Seventeen million. That was the number of souls in the dark city. She had no context for what that number really meant; it was unfathomable. She could suddenly smell the dank air from burning sewage. “Are they happy there? Are they even alive?” she asked, dubiously, but needing more than anything to know.
What would it be like if I let go? she thought. Let them have what I cannot? She imagined her hands slipping soundlessly from the wheel, turning to see Fern evaporate into nothing, then the dark city behind her snuffed out in an instant. What if I don’t survive it either? she wondered.
His warm hand came down heavily on her right again, and she turned to look at him. Something that looked like respect stole over Fern’s features while he considered her. “They’re as happy as people are able to be in any place,” he told her. “And as alive.”
Very well, she thought, and tightened her hands over the wheel. Her eyes were growing heavy. “What if I start to fall asleep?” she asked, around an embarrassingly large yawn.
“Don’t worry.” She suddenly noticed that her hands felt melded to the wheel. They weren’t metal, exactly, and she felt that if she thought about it, she could move her fingers, but found that she didn’t want to.
“I’m so sleepy,” she protested.
“Another poetic twist,” he explained. “You can sleep through this,” he told her, but she could no longer hear him.
“Sleep and dream the years away,” he finished quietly. He watched both the Keeper and the scene outside for a moment longer before bowing to her frozen form and descending the staircase in the center of the room.
She stood, head bowed, eyes closed in repose, arms bent, with her hands molded to the wheel. She steered gently, her tower rising like a standard at the fore of a vast ship riding the waves of the detonation, her heartbeat, a reminder, broadcast over the dark city. The cloud outside undulated, and surrounded the shield, which surrounded the city, while she stood at the helm of it, manning her strange Light.
She dreamt of a little girl happily planting rosebushes beside Claire of the hearth. The air was full of the heady scent of upturned earth, and when she looked down her own hands were sunk deep into the warm soil, which dulled her aches. Why do my hands hurt? She couldn’t remember, but she gratefully tunneled them deeper into the ground. The smell of newly turned, wet earth filled her nostrils, and she thought about approaching the two figures planting rosebushes, but settled on observing their joy from afar.
They came to relieve her seven years later, Fern taking the wheel as her body was caught in the arms of the woman beside her. Through her gasps of pain as sensation returned to her hands she saw the impression of a tiny palm tree inked on the woman’s cheek like a tear.
Her own arms were withered and she gasped as though rising from water, the pain overtaking all else so that she was one long scream, until through the fog of pain she remembered the soil in her dream. She mentally plunged her hands into the warm soil of Claire’s garden and the pain dulled enough that she could finally see those around her.
The woman who supported her spoke quietly, respectfully. “Keeper,” she said, “my name is Palm, President of the Colonies. We thank you for your donation, and have come to relieve you.”
The Keeper looked around at the five faces and landed on the only familiar one. Fern, she remembered. He was now standing at her post, his hands curled onto the wheel as hers had been for so long. He looked haggard, as though he hadn’t slept, but he offered her a small smile.
The Keeper stared back blankly. What’s happening?
Palm continued to hold her for several long minutes, until the Keeper’s pain abated enough for her to think. Her hands curled into claws in the shape they had held so long at the wheel. The rest of her, as a glance revealed, had grown gaunt. She cradled her hands awkwardly against her chest.
Palm was saying something to Fern, and the Keeper caught the tail end of it. “You’ve said farewell to your family?”
“Yes, Madam President.”
“Wait!” cried the Keeper, voice hoarse, tongue thick, her mind dulled by pain and struggling to understand. “You’re not putting him at the wheel?”
“Fern is taking up his post,” explained Palm. “Vera,” she indicated, and the keeper beside her with a small aloe plant beside her left eye stepped beside the Keeper and gently supported her.
“No” cried the Keeper, without thinking. “No, he can’t!” Her hands cramped and she cried aloud once more. She fought back madness and remembered the warm soil until the wave of pain passed.
The steady voice of Fern broke the silence. “If I may, Madam President?” Palm nodded.
“Keeper, you’ve been asleep for seven years,” he explained quietly. “The shield allows the person at the wheel to hibernate while standing watch. It makes it easier to…” He trailed off. “Complete the service,” he finished with dignity.
She understood then: she had filled in for him but now he was taking up his post. “Does the city sleep?” she asked. Heads shook all around. “So your family remains awake?” she asked, this time directly to Fern. His head jerked in a nod.
They aren’t suggesting Fern take the wheel? she thought, desperately. But why? While I what? Leave? White hair stood out starkly against Fern’s temples, and bruise colored circles darkened the skin beneath his eyes. He certainly didn’t look ageless. Maybe he’s just tired. Wait, is he falling asleep?!
“No,” she said, and her voice was unnaturally loud in breath-held silence of the small room. “No, that won’t do.” No one moved.
“But why?! I could do it!” Her voice was coarse from disuse. “I could do it!” she cried again, and her voice cracked.
The President eyed her. “Thank you, faithful Keeper,” she said quietly, “but your work is done. We take shifts here.” Her voice was measured, respectful, but slow, as if explaining something difficult to a child.
“Fern, as the Head Keeper of the Beacon, would have taken the first shift, but felt that given your…unique abilities, it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition to ask you to stand the first watch.” She paused to make sure the Keeper was following. “But now that the first watch is over, the second watch goes to the Head Keeper, and then his first assistant, and second assistant, and so on.” She explained this gently, but quickly, because Fern was falling asleep.
“But wait, no. No,” said the Keeper. Her voice was still cracking, still high and strangled, even to her own ears. “I don’t age, as far as I know,” she explained quickly. “But Fern,” she said loudly, to wake him up. “Fern! Fern!” she yelled, and he looked up, finally.
He nodded, cleared his throat. “It’s alright, faithful Keeper,” he said. “This is our task. I’ve been training for this my entire life.”
“But no,” she cried. “I-I-I could do it!” and her voice sounded gauche, and small, and childlike in the tower room. If she was capable of tears she swore she would have wept them by now. “I can stand watch,” she cried. “I have nowhere to be, no family. I just move through time, keeping Lights.”
Her heart raced, her skin clammy. She was desperate for them to understand. “There’s nobody waiting for me. Anywhere, in any time. I have nobody. I just do this.” She gestured to the wheel, encompassing the Light. Her body had sagged in Vera’s arms. “Please,” she begged. “Please give me the wheel. Don’t stand here.”
None of them made eye contact with her as the room filled with shame and pity. She looked around while they warred within themselves, and put the life of Fern, whom they knew, into an equation with her own, whom they did not know, but pitied. On one side was a mortal with a family. On the other she stood, ageless. And willing.
“I’ll sleep,” she heard herself say. She had felt the moments like a tedium, and though time moved much more quickly than it should, she had known the slow march of minutes, hours, days, years. She had felt the outline of her body, the clothes sitting lightly on her skin, her hair against the nape of her neck, and she had felt herself trying to stay still. Most importantly of all, right now she could feel her hands, which, if she was to survive, she could not consider at all. The only reason she could stand before them and offer herself was if she did not think of her hands.
She held the image of warm brown earth in her mind while she waited for them to consider. “Fern!” She cried again, as his head began to droop.
“Fern!” Her voice was firm, and she suddenly understood that they couldn’t do this, and that she would have to do it herself. She unbent her back and put her fisted hand lightly on Vera’s shoulder. She made her way with stiff steps back to the wheel and painfully put one hand against it between Fern’s, her right arm laying over his left, until her fist rested on the wheel.
There was a long moment when she couldn’t unbend her fingers, and she struggled vainly, trying to grasp the wheel, but her fingers curled and her palms clenched in a continuous spasm. Vera suddenly appeared beside her, and with infinite gentleness straightened out each her fingers and wrapped them carefully around the wheel as if directing the fingers of a child around a pencil. She didn’t look at her, but her touch was reverent and grateful. The Keeper held up her other hand to Vera, who silently did the same with the left.
Her fingers and palms began to meld to the wheel as the shield recognized her and the spark that she was. The pain faded but she could feel Fern beside her at the helm, his reluctance, his guilt.
Who is he thinking of right now? she wondered. She suddenly remembered something else. “Wait,” she said faintly, and they all stilled. “Don’t wake me until it’s cleared,” she said, her voice hoarse, but decisive. She jutted her chin out beyond the tower.
Her eyes closed, so she missed Vera and the President manually removing Fern’s frozen hands from the wheel beside her, his tear-streaked face, and the bows of the assembled team, but she did hear the President say “The Colonies thank you, faithful Keeper,” before she slept, and dreamt.
She recognized the beach, and the Woman instantly, and was filled with joy, though she knew it was a dream. Wisdom was waiting for her on a small dune, and the Keeper sank gratefully down beside her, thrusting her clawed hands out. Wisdom cupped them in her own, and they were warm, gentle, and absorbed her pain, like the soil in Claire’s dream garden.
“Why did you take the second shift?” asked Wisdom.
“What else was I to do?” Wisdom said nothing, and they sat together, angled toward one another, the ocean before them, the Keeper’s hands cradled in Wisdom’s.
When she looked back on those days later, she remembered a few conversations that came after that first awakening, though it was difficult for her to understand Fern. Once, he asked her, wistfully, if she had ever tasted an apple. They spoke the same language, in a manner of speaking, but he spoke it in a way that was obtuse and vague, as though he thought in generalities and gray-scales. He seemed to believe in all things, and in nothing. He was unsure about everything but untroubled by it. It filled her with despair for him.
“Why is my heartbeat so loud?” she asked him one day.
He frowned and leaned against the desk, as though bracing himself. “Well,” he began, “the shield only operates if your heartbeat is broadcast over the city. It was built that way, to create a sort of… moral urgency perhaps, in the people benefitting from the sacrifice of the person at the wheel.” She nodded. “But, no one anticipated the protests.”
“Protests?” she asked faintly.
“Turns out people don’t like to be reminded,” he replied, mouth twisting. “They want the shield but not the reminder. After protests proved futile, people tried mufflers, then last week someone invented ‘Beat Blockers’ to block out the sound of your heartbeat. They’ve already sold out. People call you 92 by the way, or at least the ones who believe you exist. We’re all very familiar with your heart rate.” He finished this explanation mildly, then glanced at her, took in her mouth, slightly agape, and her rounded eyes. “I’m sorry,” he grimaced again, “I don’t know why I told you all that.”
She knew why he’d told her, though it didn’t ease the knot in her gut. He could easily see himself having given the same sacrifice she was giving, and how he would have been thanked, or not thanked, for it.
He came in early another morning and stayed with her most of the day, while she remained in a half-wakeful state, her mercifully numb hands still melded to the wheel. She had been having a particularly fantastic dream about a really good bit of roasted fish, and could almost taste it. He’d brought a potted plant that resembled a stiff, curly bamboo and carefully placed it on a table within her line of sight.
“It’s the family plant,” he explained, somewhat self-consciously, and added his warm hands atop her own. “Forgive me, a precaution, while you’re awake,” he told her. “My daughter felt that it might bring you some solace.”
She later learned that a plant was a symbol of family wealth. Most families didn’t have one, and the plant was carefully guarded as the treasure it was. The casual way he had left it for her in her semi-prison belied its worth to his family. It had been a sign of their deep respect and gratitude.
“So.” He stood in her view so that she would have something to look at other than the destruction before her. “When are you from?” he asked conversationally. “We’re still working on the time-travel science, by the way. It’s a bit of pseudo-science, to be honest.” He looked embarrassed. “My-truth,” he added apologetically.
She frowned, not understanding him, and unwilling to do the mental gymnastics to try. His gaze darkened as he turned to look out of the massive clear window, which she’d come to realize couldn’t possibly be glass. “We’ve figured out better ways of killing each other though,” he added more soberly.
“I’m not from any time in particular,” she replied, her mind fuzzy from trying to talk to him. “I travel through time to tend different Lights.” He waited for her to continue.
“This is as far Ahead as I’ve come.” He nodded, as though that were obvious. “I’ve traveled far back before the advent of Christ, to the time of the ancient Egyptians.” That made his eyebrows rise.
“Fascinating.” He eyed her the way one might look at a precocious child saying something wise.
“There was a period of peace” he continued, offhandedly, “but it didn’t last long. Peace never does, my-truth.”
She glanced at him and managed to muster the annoyance she felt “Stop that,” she chided.
His eyes widened in surprise, then he smiled.
The Keeper felt very old, and suddenly cranky. “Don’t you know the definition of truth?” she asked mildly. “Future-man,” she muttered, a wry smile breaking across her mouth.
His eyes widened and he grinned, and though he looked as though he wanted to ask more, the Keeper had grown tired.
“Truth doesn’t change based on the person speaking it,” she murmured. Her eyes closed. He leaned in to hear her mutter “Truth is truth,” before she slept, her grip firmed to iron on the wheel.
He removed his hands from hers. She looked emptied, peaceful, her face placid and expression even. He didn’t know if he pitied or envied her the conviction of that last statement. Everyone knew that there were as many truths as there were people, right? And yet, as he closed the door in his wake he remembered the straightness of her spine and the pool of fire in her eyes.
It had never been more difficult to be still, to be a Light, rather than to light one. She stood there an age, until the poison had faded to clear skies. Her body hibernated and her mind rested and dreamed, except for her death-grip on the wheel.
Fern came back many times. She could sense his presence while she hibernated, kind and compassionate, but pitying. That puzzled her a bit, for wasn’t she doing what he himself could not do? But there was too much time to think of it, so she didn’t.
She woke an eternity later to her fingers being gently pried from the steering wheel. She mentally plunged her hands into warm soil to blunt the pain while her body was allowed a supported fall to the deck of the tower. She looked up to see that the sky was blue, and far in the distance the sun dazzle on the sea. Strange, she thought. I thought Memphis was land-locked.
She cradled her hands against her chest, breathing in and out with the pain as her mind grappled with it. Her image in the clear wall reflected a long shock of white hair from the roots at her right temple.
“My father left behind his best wishes,” said the keeper who had caught her, helping her to her feet. He reminded her of Fern, with his caramel eyes and curly dark hair, his skin gleaming in the bright light. “He checked on you often throughout the…” he paused, swallowing, “years. They’re able to clear the air much more quickly now,” he added.
Her hands cramped involuntarily at the thought of that torturous eternity of minutes she had stood watch, though what was time to her, that she should be miserly with it?
Next to Fern’s offered bamboo plant now sat a small round cactus, an aloe vera, and 3 other succulents. She glanced at the young man questioningly but the answer came to her in a flash. Six plants, one for each shift. Forty two years.
She shivered, then shook her head once. She glanced at the young man once more. Fitting, that it should be just the two of them, as his father had stood in the same place and accepted her help years before.
She carefully un-hunched her spine and stood to her full height. She made two loose fists with her hands, and as he bowed from the waist to her in respect, she Translated.
Aine gazed down silently at her hands, cradled in Ronan’s. He had kneaded them in his firm grip throughout her narrative, pausing to gape at her now and again.
She experimentally tightened both hands into fists, then felt the usual tremor begin, and a painful spasm cut across her right palm. Ronan tsked, and flattened her hands beneath his against the grain of the wooden table. It so mimicked the warmth of Fern’s hands holding hers to the wheel, that tears sprang up in her eyes, and she was able to weep then what she had not been able to weep before.
He sat with her in silence, his palms blanketing her own. “They’re good hands lass,” he told her finally. “Worthy still, for all they can’t win a boxing match,” her eyes flew up to his, grateful for his teasing and threaded her fingers with his. He brought their joined hands to his lips and they leaned together. I can’t make a proper fist, she thought, but I have these hands. Worthy still.