“They began slowly, then picked up speed.”—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Armand ran into the workshop, making an engine noise with his mouth and stamping on the wood shavings on the floor so they crackled underfoot: the louder the better. He walked twice around the carpenter’s bench; looked at all the tools perfectly aligned on the wall, the saws, gouges, clamps and planes, each in their rightful place (marked by a suitable outline, roughly penciled in); and went up the passageway at the rear of which the house, properly speaking, began. Uncle Reguard had put his workshop in the back of his house, and although the grown-ups always entered through the front door, Armand preferred to go in via the workshop. He was fascinated by the fact that his uncle’s workplace was right at the back of his house. In contrast, he lived in an apartment, and his father’s carpentry workshop occupied a ground-floor space four blocks from where they lived. His cousins had a similar set up. Uncle Reguard was the only member of the family to have his workshop and home together; separated by a small bedroom, that now acted as a junk room. If you came from the workshop, you then reached the parlor with the big table, chandelier, armchairs, passages, and bedroom doors.
By the time Armand reached the parlor everyone was already there kissing, laughing, chatting, raising their voices to make themselves heard: his father, uncles and aunts, and more distant uncles, aunts, and cousins, who weren’t cousins at all and were only described as such because they belonged to branches of the family so remote they didn’t know what precise labels to give them.
They ate lunch, a meal that lasted hours, and then the post-lunch conversations started, when the smoke from the cigars began to curl around everything. Empty champagne bottles piled up in the room between the house and workshop, the aunts kept slicing cake, and the older cousins put records on the turntable. The atmosphere was heavy with the aroma of hot chocolate. The young cousins (Armand, Guinovarda, Gisela, Guitart, and Llopart . . .) asked permission to leave the table and ran to Eginard’s bedroom to play with wooden houses that had roofs, doors, and windows painted in a range of colors. When the bedroom door was half open, Armand could see the harp in the corner of the passage. It was a harp Uncle Reguard had built thirty years ago, and it was one of the family’s prized possessions, because (so Armand’s father would say) he had combined carpentry with the art of crafting string instruments. For as long as he could remember, Armand had seen the harp at Uncle Reguard’s and always in the same place: in the corner made by the bend in the passage. He thought it was more beautiful than all the harps in the photographs and drawings that he’d cut out from magazines (and kept in a blue folder at home): a harp in the hands of a mythological god, a Sumerian harp topped by the head of an animal he couldn’t identify, the Irish coat-of-arms, two Norwegian harps (one topped by a dragon’s head and the other by the head of a blind-folded woman), and a harp made from a tree branch that Harpo Marx was plucking.
Cousin Reguard came into the bedroom, crying and smiling, in the midst of cheering adults. His right hand was holding a chocolate and peppermint ice cream, and his left hand was bandaged. It was a scene Armand had often seen in these family get-togethers, whether they were held in their home, their cousins’, or the homes of other more distant cousins, some of who even lived in other cities. A boy would appear with a bandaged left hand. The bandage was always wrapped around his ring finger. Armand knew there was no longer a finger under the bandage, and that the bandage would eventually fall away, revealing a tiny, perfectly healed stump. Armand surveyed the hands of his family. As he’d registered some time ago, everyone over nine was missing the ring finger of their left hand.
Armand was seven when he first realized it was no accident that one of the boys would always leave the party with his ring finger cut off. He’d not really paid much attention till now. It was true he’d noticed the older kids were missing that finger, but it was a completely normal state of affairs for him. It had never been any different. He thought the absence must be synonymous with adult life. Every adult in the family lost that finger for a reason that eluded him and that didn’t concern him one little bit. So many things eluded him—he knew he wouldn’t understand them until he became an adult, and he didn’t worry about a trifle that was quite unimportant when compared to the other issues that preoccupied him at the time: the spirit of sacrifice displayed by St. Bernard dogs, the origins of existence, or the offside trap in football. As he saw it, in order to hit adolescence and abandon the world of little kids, he too would have to lose his ring finger. He thought it was understandable, normal, and desirable, like losing his milk teeth.
When he started to go to school, he was surprised to see how many adults had four fingers and a thumb on each hand, as if that were completely normal. He thought theirs was a surprising, eccentric, and rather unpleasant circumstance, and he was proud to belong to such a consistent family. As the months passed, and he spent more time in the company of other kids, he started to think that perhaps the members of his family experienced random accidents and that these accidents always led to the loss of the ring finger. The boy he shared a desk with at school told him it was quite common for carpenters to lose fingers. The carpenter near his house (he went on) was missing three. His mother had told him it happened to lots of carpenters, because one day or another the blade of the circular saw would slice a finger off. Armand knew that wasn’t the case in his family. They were carpenters, but it wasn’t the circular saw that sliced off their fingers, or any other accident. At the age of nine, the kids weren’t yet carpenters and didn’t even know that’s what they wanted to be when they grew up; even though from time immemorial all the members of his family had showed an undeniable inclination towards that trade, and apart from a few exceptional cases, they invariably ended up as carpenters.
Armand spent his nights ruminating about this mystery. Perhaps there was a guild rule that obliged them to chop off that finger? He reached a conclusion he wasn’t sure how to verify: they chopped that first finger off to get them used to the idea. Losing that first finger meant they lost their fear of the possible loss of others. They realized it wasn’t such a big deal; it gave them courage and helped them tackle their trade with true valor. One thing sent his head into a whirl: he’d met the father of a school friend, from another class, who also happened to be a carpenter, and none of his fingers were missing (he used to take a look whenever he picked up his son at the end of the school day).
As the adults didn’t consider it a tragedy, and seemed particularly happy at the exact moment when the finger disappeared (especially the parents of the boy whose finger was amputated), Armand didn’t find it tragic either. Until that afternoon two years ago, when he became conscious for the first time that, on whatever day of the year a member of the family celebrated a ninth birthday, they lost that finger, and it would be his fate too; he felt frightened that afternoon. He was with his cousins in the bedroom, playing with those wooden houses. Eginard, Gisela, and Gimfreu had all had that finger chopped off. Llopart and he still retained all four fingers, and that meant they were still kids. When Eginard got up from their game, Armand went over to him, swallowed, and asked him what the finger business was all about. Llopart, Gisela, and Gimfreu all looked around for a moment, then went back to the game they were playing, going in and out of the houses. Eginard asked him to repeat the question, perhaps to get more time to think up his reply. Armand expanded his question: What was the finger thing all about? They’d cut off little Reguard’s today; they cut a finger off from everyone, one day or another, when they reached the age of nine. Llopart looked at them all, clueless. Eginard got up, stroked Armand’s head, and dragged him gently out of the bedroom. Armand wouldn’t relent: Why was everyone in their family missing the same finger on their left hand, a finger people outside their family kept? Armand scrutinized Eginard’s finger; it had been chopped off at the metacarpus—a clean scar from a perfect strike.
And why the ring finger on the left hand and not the little finger on the right, or an index finger? Was it some hygienic measure, the reason for which had been forgotten with the passage of time? He just couldn’t understand. It was evident it was an ancestral custom, but how had it originated? Had they practiced it for centuries? Or simply decades? On his ninth birthday, his father found him crying in bed.
“I don’t want my finger chopped off.”
“What an odd thing to say!”
“I want to be normal, like the other kids at school.”
“Being normal has nothing to do with having one finger more or one less.”
His father wiped away his tears and told him that normal is a cultural value and consequently completely relative; some people like crew-cuts, others like long hair, some prefer a beard and mustache, some only a mustache and others only a beard, and some even shave the whole lot off; there are nations where both men and women depilate themselves and others where only the women do. We cut our toenails, and that’s precisely what makes us different from animals and primitive peoples who prefer to keep them very long. Armand disagreed with these comparisons. Hair and nails grow again, fingers don’t. The sun was shining through the window; father and son looked at the warm lines the beams were tracing on the ground.
“You don’t have to make your mind up immediately.”
“I’ve already made it up, and I don’t want to do it.”
“You can’t play the harp if you’re a finger short.”
He surprised even himself. He’d said that quite spontaneously. Nevertheless, although he’d not realized that or thought about it before, it was out in the open, his father was in the know, and it could very well be true that he wanted to be a harpist, so he kept to his story. Months ago he’d seen a television report about Nicanor Zabaleta playing the harp, and it was quite obvious he needed all his fingers. A harpist needed every single one. His father was looking at him solemnly. He’d never seen him so solemn.
“If you like music, there are lots of different instruments. It doesn’t have to be a harp.”
“But I like the harp.”
“You’re just obsessed with the harp at your uncle’s. But the world of musical instruments doesn’t stop at the harp. Just think how many others there are: the kettledrum, the bass drum, the tambourine, the bongo, the triangle . . .” Armand stared at him, betraying no sign of excitement at these possibilities. “Perhaps you think the maracas are small potatoes, but what about the drums? Drums give lots of scope: the bass drum, the ordinary drum, the tom-tom, the cymbals and the snare. And never forget the xylophone!”
Armand spent the next few months in a very jumpy state. The belief had always circulated in the family (always mentioned jokingly) that they’d cut a kid’s finger off one day, but it would grow back with time. Some said it would be a sign that something was about to happen, but they never got around to saying exactly what. Others said that, in effect, the finger would grow back but that this would mean nothing in particular. That story sowed fresh doubts in Armand’s mind: What if he refused to let them chop his finger off and he was the chosen one whose finger would grow back after it had been removed? What an absurd situation! His refusal would prevent that miracle from ever happening.
He was obsessed by fingers. He noticed how some people wore a ring on the ring finger of their left hand. In his family, nobody had a ring finger, so they always wore it on the little finger, and when it came to the marriage ceremony, the priest always looked on impassively when the time came for the bride and bridegroom to put their rings on. Armand once saw a complete stranger in the street who was missing the ring finger of his left hand, and he spent days investigating whether he was a distant relative, so distant he didn’t even know him. Perhaps other families shared the same tradition. Or similar ones? Perhaps they amputated other fingers, or other parts of the body . . . but why? What sense did it make? And what did they do with the fingers they’d chopped off? Did they bury them? Armand imagined them buried vertically, like asparagus shoots, in small graveyards for fingers. Perhaps they cremated them.
He gradually started to see his parents and the rest of his relatives through different eyes. What kind of macabre tradition were they cherishing; how could they go along with it so pitilessly? As he didn’t trust them, he slept with his left hand under the pillow where he rested his head. He’d calculated that it would be quite impossible for them to lift up his head, remove the pillow, take his hand out, and slice his finger off without waking him up. He would sometimes dream that, despite all these precautions, his parents (their faces glowing sanctimoniously) managed to lift up his head and pillow, extract his hand, and chop off his finger with a single deft slice of the carving knife.
He had a panic attack when he discovered there would be a family reunion the following Sunday. For the first time he was a candidate to lose a finger. He and Guitard were the two most likely cousins. Both were now nine years old. He had been nine for three months, Guitard for seven. If seniority was an issue, it was Guitard’s turn. But amputations weren’t always carried out according to the principle of seniority, and that meant it could very well be his turn this time.
Sunday came, and they didn’t chop off his finger, or Guitard’s, but Teodard’s, a cousin who had a month to go before his ninth birthday; theoretically, they should have left him intact. Guitard was furious. He was up for the chop and not that cousin. They told him why they’d moved Teodard forward: his mother was pregnant, so they’d wanted to get the whole business over and done with—when the new baby arrived, there’d be no need to worry about the big brother’s finger. Armand was intrigued by Guitard’s attitude. He asked him if he wasn’t shocked by the idea of having his finger chopped off. Why should he be? On the contrary, he couldn’t see what the problem was and was shocked Armand even asked the question.