And when the girl who had six fingers saw the grizzled fisherman, she knew he was the right one for her. The way his eyes set on the water like pins. How his bent frame showed little strain against the constant pull of the catch. How his hands gripped the pole with defiant might.
He was strong in spite of his age and she loved him for it. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the round stone and grasped it between the two fingers of her right hand. Though her grasp was tenuous, she did not perspire. She knew what she must do.
“Good morning Old Fisherman. How is Blue Fish biting today?”
“He’s reluctant, I say. Reluctant as a frost to melt in the dead of winter.”
The girl, whom many simply called Hardly Handed, smiled at his pleasantries.
“I’m sure he’ll latch on soon enough.” Her voice lilted, but her face dropped all expression. The stone in her hand turned fiery in an instant. The deep sting singed her skin but she made no noise. And as smoke rose from her charring flesh, she did not scream.
“I reckon it will,” Old Fisherman said, keeping his eyes on the still water. “And what have you—” he started, but when he looked up to where the girl they’d named Hardly Handed at the ceremony almost sixteen years ago had stood just a moment before, only an empty space remained. A small clearing in the brush and spindly trees.
Then the stone slapped onto his arm. The soft linen of his shirt frazzled immediately, connecting the red-hot stone with his flesh. His skin sizzled, imitating a roasting pig or snapping, popping eggs.
But when she looked into his eyes, he knew the round spot on his forearm—which would always leave a circular scar like a brand—was the least of his worries. Her eyes relayed a clear message. He had something only he could give her.
And when the girl who had seven fingers passed the potter’s shop, she knew she was the right one for her. Her hands sat poised on either side of the pot, molding the clay into something functional, something usable. The girl peered through the open window at row after row of completed pieces, each with the sharp geometric shapes so signifying of her heritage.
As Potter worked, her fingers shaped the rim, being careful to smooth out any bumpy indentations an individual finger left. Hardly Handed had learned when she was a child that it was important to leave no mark of the human hand on the pot, the vessel from which water was to be delivered to the village. The pot that stored healing salves and potions. The pot was of the earth, merely shaped by the potter then given back again. She knew this and respected this.
“Well are you just going to stare at me all day or are you coming in?” Potter asked.
“I’m sorry, Good Potter.” She walked over the threshold, her hands buried beneath the fabric at her waist. “How are you this morning?”
“Fine, fine. Working it away,” she said, smiling but never looking up from the emerging shape in front of her. “What is it you’ve come to see me about?”
Hardly Handed seized the opportunity to pull the round stone from her pocket. It was blazing hot, but its radiant surface did not burn her. Not this time. “I’ve come to speak with you about a new basin, Good Potter. My mother requires it.”
But there was no new basin to be made. Good Potter gasped more in surprise than in pain at the prickly heat of the Melding Stone—the stone of all Keepers. It would be done quickly, at least.
And when the girl who had eight fingers saw the carpenter poised with his hammer in the air, she knew he was the right one for her. His back bent with the work. He reached far with each arc of the hammer. His body shook as the blunted metal tool hit the wooden surface. The young girl, whom some had called Hardly Handed, smiled. “Good afternoon, Strong Carpenter. How has the world treated you on this fine day?”
Strong Carpenter paused mid-stroke and turned to the sound of her voice. His eyes widened. “W-why hello, young maiden. The world has treated me fair. How has it been received by you?”
“It’s been received with graciousness,” she said, providing the customary reply.
“Good,” he said, eyes downcast at his hands. He flexed the right one around the hammer, shook his head then set the tool aside. “Are you to lay the Melding Stone on me now?” he asked, eyes finally meeting hers.
She didn’t reply. Instead, she pulled the smooth rock from her pocket and rubbed its surface with her left forefinger. She was so close her steamy breath made contact with his neck. He shivered. Then came the pressure of her partly-handed grip on his forearm, the heat and the sizzle. The smile never left her face.
And when the girl who had nine fingers saw the blacksmith hunkered over the anvil, sweat dripping from his brow, she knew he was the right one for her. Dirt smudged his muscular arms. Constant work heat had permanently darkened his face. He didn’t so much as look up when she spoke.
“Good day Young Blacksmith. How are you?” Her expression strained in the heat. She wanted to bypass the formalities. But that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be carried out.
“I’m fine, m’lady. I’m awfully busy though. Mind stating your business so I can maintain my living wage?” he said, in between the harsh strikes of his hammer against the molten metal.
As she pulled the rock from her pocket, it warmed up immediately. The Melding Stone had a memory for its task. It got to work.
“I know you’ve come to take the last one,” Young Blacksmith said. “But I’m here to tell you one thing, young lady. Some of us are born more fortunate in life than others. And if you ask me, the way you come out of your Mother Dear is how you ought to stay. How you’re meant to stay.”
The girl who had nine fingers was only missing her right thumb now. The Melding Stone rested in her palm, clenched tightly by four fingers. One was strong and another gnarled and old, but this only made the hand more beautiful. A patchwork quilt of flesh and bone. And on her left hand, one was good and the rest her own. And though she felt more complete than she ever had, it still wasn’t enough. There was no question she was to be Fully Handed by day’s end.
“I’ve a right to it,” she said.
“More than me, who was born with all ten?” Young Blacksmith asked.
“Even more than you. Because I am the Keeper in the darkness. I need the steadiest of hands. The Keeper must lay her hands on the flesh of the wicked. Don’t you see? Without your thumb, I cannot be whole. I will still be Hardly Handed, and that is not enough.”
“But I think it is, child. It is enough.”
“It’s not.” And she slapped the stone against his arm, and he recoiled in pain. “My mother was Keeper so I will be Keeper. My mother wielded the stone, so I will wield the stone. My mother became Fully Handed so I will be Fully Handed. This is the only way to fulfill the burden as laid before me at my birth.”
“I refuse to be a part of this. I require my thumb to work and create the metal-works you use each day and night. I require it!”
But his yells were futile, for once the girl who had nine fingers set on something, she was not to be distracted or turned away.
“I require it more,” she shouted, covering his pleas with her own.
The girl who had ten fingers saw the milkmaid and knew she was the right one for her. Her hair was long and golden, catching the sun’s rays and reflecting them in shiny tendrils. Her hands moved along the cow’s udders with care and elegance. She made a mundane task beautiful, and that was enough to set Once Hardly Handed in motion. She had enough now to keep the town for another generation, yes. But more would be better. More was always better.