Left Hand Left Behind

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Resulting Story: A Lost Limb

This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a  moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.

In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain. 

In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.

We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well. 

On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?

One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities. 

The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.

There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.

Each light represents a sleeping member of the family.

In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.

In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?

Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.

I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.

So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find. 

The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives. 

Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts. 

What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time.  We will have to see.

Bibliography:

Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html. 

The Dead Man’s Rites

This Week’s Prompt: 53. Hand of dead man writes.

The Research:Dead Man’s Hand

The groundskeepers walked quietly between the fading stones and fog. Willis gestured for the senior of the pair, Morris. They were wandering on a moonless night, shovels in hand, towards those graves that were freshly dug.

“Listen, listen, you can still hear it!” Willis said. Morris strained his ears to hear the distant sound of a small bell. Willis was hurrying a head, careful to not actually walk on any of the graves. When rescuing the living there was no need to disturb the dead. Tiptoeing across the beaten paths, they followed the sound.

Morris had been on station for almost three decades now. He was slower in his approach, his eyes perpetually searching for the source of the sound. If it was a grave bell, if a man had been buried alive, then this would be the first. Of course, when they traced it to the source, there was little surprise.

Graveyard.png

“Figuers a poet would resemble the dead.” Morris said, heaving his shovel over his shoulder. The fresh dirt was a funeral this morning. Arthur Dolander, a small poet from what Morris could tell. His grave had some tripe about going bravely, bravely into the night. That was the mark of an artist among the dead. A desperate insistence that there was something sublime to the last.

The two men began to dig. Willis moved faster, in a near panick. The notion of being buried alive had haunted him for a many years. Even know, as the dirt cleared around the coffin, he could hear the trapped man’s fingers scratching at the wood, a trapped animal buried beneath tons of dirt.

“Mr. Dolander? Can you hear us?” Willis shouted as the coffin came into sight. He tapped lightly with his shovel, and sure enough Mr. Dolander tapped back through the thin wooden coffin.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Guess the poor sod is in shock. Alright, lets get clearing this.” Morris said, setting the shovel aside to get the rest of the dirt out by hand.

“Probably best to take him out before taking out the coffin.” Willis said,bending down to help. Morris nodded, and grabbed the crowbar they had brought.

“Hope it’s actually him in there. Mum used to say the devil himself was in the graves.”Morris said as he passed the crowbar off.

“We got two shovels, and a strong arm. We could knock the devil back down,I’m sure.” Willis said with nervous chuckle. But then he set about his work, placing the crowbar to the coffin. Slowly, he pushed it open. The wood creaked and all was still as the nails were plucked out. Until, at last, Arthor Dolander’s body was staring back at them.

But it was not the lively form they had expected. No, it was still a pallid body, laying still as a stone. With one difference. The right hand was missing. In its place was a cut stump, and a trail of blood. As the two groundskeepers followed the flood up the wooden paneling, they saw what at the time they assumed to be a strange and persisitent rat, curled up and maybe with a finger in it’s mouth. Before they could make it out clearly, the thing scurried up the walls and vanished into the fog of the night.

“Well, best bury him up again.” Morris said, shrugging as he replaced the coffin lid.

“How they hell did a rat get in there?”

“Rats get wherever they want. Did you know their skeletons can collapse?” Morris said, as the two shoveled dirt back in the hole. “Probably fell asleep underneath his arm before they buried him, flattened out to hide.”

“And figured out the bell?”

“Rats are smart, Willis. Rats are damned smart.”

Willis had kept an eye out for the anthrophagus rat over the next few days. He was fairly certain the rat was still around, but its tastes had gotten odd. He’d started collecting things, things he’d notice while walking the fields.

“Are we out of paper again?” He asked Morris when he came back, pockets full.

“Again, yeah. Find out what’s going on with that?” Morris asked, barely glancing up from his book. Willis turned out his pockets, revealing around thirty pages of crumpled paper with strange scribbled equations and symbols.

ALchemicalNotes.png

“There’s more outside. And I saw this one the other day.” Willis said, kneeling down to pull a tightily folded piece of paper out of the floorboard. “Think our friend learned to write?”

“Hmph. Rat is as good a thing for this to be as any. Might as well all be Greek.” Morris said, taking the page Willis held out. “Though it explains the creaking.”

“Doesn’t explain the birds.” Willis said, thumbing at the tree outside. For the last three days, exactly eight birds had sat on the tree. If one left, it was only for another to replace it at the exact same moment. They were all blackbirds, but whether they were blackbirds, crows, or ravens was a distinction that always escaped Willis. They stared at the door, which had been terrifying at first, then startling, and now simply unsettling.

Raven.png

“Maybe they want our friend?” Morris said with a chuckle, tossing the paper aside.

“I imagine rat scholars are rare. But seriously, think we should start walking out at night to catch whoever doing this? Their stuffing papers into graves, pretty sure that’s a problem.”

“Hm…I mean, yeah. Probably better not having gibberish garbage everywhere.” Morris said stretching. “Flashlight and a spade, I think I’ve still got a taser nearby if the idiot causes trouble.”

“Think troubles likely?”

“Well, no, but you gotta wonder about a guy who breaks into a cemetery to stuff papers into graves for no real reason.” Morris said. “Who knows, maybe their spy codes, or messages to drug cartels, or maybe he’s trying to raise the dead. Crazy man it sounds like.”

“True…wonder if we could solve any of this. I mean, its just funny math, right?”

“You figure out what the triangles, crosses, and circles mean, and sure, go for it.” Morris said.

The two again headed into the foggy night. Morris had lent Willis a spare taser of his own. So, Willis with a hand at his side, survey the graves with his light. The columns of moonlight shot between graves and vast shadows of angels and tombs. They began their patrol near the fence of the graveyard.

And there already, stuck between some of the bars, wrapping around them in the wind.

“Well, there coming from outside, at least.” Willis said, shining his light on a few pages scattered in a frenzied paths into the yard. Turning to follow on strand, they found more shoved into the claws of gargoyles, or beneath the chins of votive angels.

Eventually, they heard the crinkling of paper folds nearby. It was from down in the earth, no doubt the sign of the trespasser pressing the messages into the ground. The lights of the two men where brighter then the moonlight and quickly fell on the source of the sound.

DeadHand Cover.png

There was something like a mangled hand, holding a pamphlet between its fingers and driving it into…something else in the dirt. It looked like roots that sprang out of the scroll…or, it seemed to Willis for a moment that had risen to meet it. There was silence, except the buzzing of a fly bursting from the severed limb, frozen in place by the light. The fly rose, in a swerving path as the hand curled towards them. It was so small, bits of bone showing through the peeling skin and ligaments bent spider like. It crawled towards the men. Morris let out a shout and shot it full with the taser. For a moment, it convulsed violently, and the smell of burning flesh was in the air.

And then silence. Willis watched as the roots recoiled down into the ground, taking the writings with them.

Willis made no effort to translate the writings of the dead. He gathered all he could, and tossed them in a great fire. Only one sheet he was aware of survived, buried beneath the earth. And elsewhere, maybe it would return. The final formula of a dead man.

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