"Hands" by Sherwood Anderson|
Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a
ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and
down. Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a
dense crop of yellow mustard weeks, he cold see the public highway along which went a
wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and
maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in blue shirt leaped from the wagon
and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens, who screamed and protested shrilly.
The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of
the departing sun. Over the long field came a thin girlish voice. "Oh, you Wing
Bidlebaum, comb you hair, it's falling into your eyes," commanded the voice to the
man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as
though arranging a mass of tangled locks.
Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not
think of himself as in any way part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty
years. Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him. With George
Willard, son of Tom Willard, the proprietor of the New Willard house, he had formed
something like a friendship. George Willard was the reporter on the Winesburg Eagle and
sometimes in the evenings he walked out along the highway to Wing Biddlebaum's house. now
as the old man walked up and down on the veranda, his hands moving nervously about, he was
hoping that George Willard would come and spend the evening with him. After the wagon
containing the berry pickers had passed, he went across the field through the tall mustard
weeks and climbing a rail fence peered anxiously along the road to the town. For a moment
he stood thus, rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road, and then, fear
overcoming him, ran back to walk again upon the porch on his own house.
In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the
town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a
sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. With the young reporter at his side, he
ventured in the light of day into Main Street or strode up and down on the rickety front
porch of his own house, talking excitedly. The voice that had been low and trembling
became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish
returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to
put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of
Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever
active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came
forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.
The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto
the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name. Some obscure poet
of the town had thought of it. The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them
hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet expressive hands of other men who
worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads.
When he talked to George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum closed his fists and beat with them
upon a table or on the walls of his house. The action made him more comfortable. If the
desire to talk came to him when the two were walking in the fields, he sought out a stump
or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding busily talked with renewed ease.
The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set
forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a
poet. In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity.
With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as him and forty quarts of strawberries in a
day. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. Also they made more
grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality. Winesburg was proud of the hands
of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which it was proud of Banker White's new stone
house and Wesley Moyer's bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the
fall races in Cleveland.
As for George Willard, he had many times wanted to ask about the hands. At times an
almost overwhelming curiosity had taken hold of him. He felt that there must be a reason
for their strange activity and their inclination to keep hidden away and only a growing
respect for Wing Biddlebaum kept him from blurting out the questions that were often in
Once he had been on the point of asking. The two were walking in the fields on a summer
afternoon and had stopped to sit upon a grassy bank. All afternoon Wing Biddlebaum had
talked as one inspired. By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon
the top board had shouted at George Willard, condemning his tendency to be too much
influenced by the people about him. "You are destroying yourself," he cried. "You have the inclination to be alone and to dream you are afraid of dreams. You want
to be like others in town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them."
On the grassy bank Wing Biddlebaum had tried again to drive his point home. His voice
became soft and reminiscent, and with a sigh of contentment he launched into a long
rambling talk, speaking as one lost in a dream.
Out of the dream Wing Biddlebaum made a picture for George Willard. In the picture men
lived again in a kind of pastoral golden age. Across a green open country came
clean-limbed young men, some afoot, some mounted upon horses. In crowds the young men came together about the feet of an old man who sat beneath a tree in a tiny garden and who
talked to them.
Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole
forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice
that talked. "You must try to forget all you have learned," said the old man.
"You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of
Passing in his speach, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His
eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept
over his face.
With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust
his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. "I must be getting
along home. I can talk no more with you," he said nervously.
Without looking back, the old man had hurried down the hillside and across a meadow,
leaving George Willard perplexed and frightened upon the grassy slope. With a shiver of
dread the boy arose and went along the road toward town. "I'll not ask him about his
hands." he thought, touched by the memory of the terror he had seen in the man's
eyes. "There's something wrong, but I don't want to know what it is. His hands have
something to do with his fear of me and everyone."
And George Willard was right. Let us look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps
on talking of them will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the
influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise.
In his youth Wing Biddlebaum had been a school teacher in a town in Pennsylvania. He
was not then known as Wing Biddlebaum, but went by the less euphonic name of Adolph Myers.
As Adolph Myers he was much loved by the boys of his school.
Adolph Myers was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare,
little-under-stood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness.
In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of
women in their love of men.
And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there. With the boys of his
school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the
schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the
shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft
and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the
stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's
effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he
expressed himself. H was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused,
not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds
of the boys and they began also to dream.
And then the tragedy. A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young
master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth
to tell his dreams as facts. Strange, hideous accusations fell from his loose-hung lips.
Through the Pennsylvania town went a shiver. Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men's
minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.
The tragedy did not linger. Trembling lads were jerked out of bed and questioned.
"He put his arms about me," said one. "His fingers were always playing in
my hair," said another.
One afternoon a man of the town, Henry Bradford, who kept a saloon, came t the
schoolhouse door. Calling Adolph Myers into the school yard he began to beat him with his
fists. As his hard knuckles beat down into the frightened face of the schoolmaster, his
wrath became more and more terrible. Screaming with dismay, the children ran here and
there like disturbed insects. "I'll teach you to put your hands on my boy, you
beast," roared the saloon keeper, who tired of beating the master, had begun to kick
him about the yard.
Adolph Myers was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night. With lanterns in their
hands a dozen men came to the door of the house where he lived alone and commanded that he
dress and come forth. It was raining and one of the men had a rope in his hands. They had
intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white and
pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape. As he ran away into the darkness
they repented to their weakness and ran after him, swearing and throwing sticks and great
balls of soft mud at the figure that screamed and ran faster and faster into the darkness.
For Twenty years Adolph Myers had lived alone in Winesburg. He was but forty but looked
sixty-five. The name of Biddlebaum he got from a box of goods seen at a freight station as
he hurried through an eastern Ohio town. He had an aunt in Winesburg, a black-toothed old
woman who raised chickens, and with her he lived until she died. He had been ill for a
year after the experience in Pennsylvania, and after his recovery worked as a day laborer
i the fields, going timidly about and striving to conceal his hands. Although he did not
understand what had happened he felt that the hands must be to blame. Again and again the
fathers of the boys had talked of the hands. "Keep you hands to yourself," the
saloon keeper had roared, dancing with fury in the schoolhouse yard.
Upon the veranda of his house by the ravine, Wing Biddlebaum continued to walk up and
down until the sun had disappeared and the road beyond the field was lost in the gray
shadows. Going into his house he cut slices of bread and spread honey upon them. When the
rumble of the evening train that took away the express cars loaded with the day's harvest
of berries had passed and restored the silence of the summer night, he could not see the
hands and they became quiet. Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who
was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became again a part
of his loneliness and his waiting. Lighting a lamp, Wing Biddlebaum washed the few dishes
soiled by his simple meal and, setting up a folding cot by the screen door that led to the
porch, prepared to undress for the night. A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the
cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up
the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense
blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in
some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the
light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through
decade after decade of his rosary.