FEBRUARY 17, 2008
The Red Hand and the Magic Slate
By David S. Warren
An excerpt from – Dog's Plot The Book of William
On a windy April day six years ago, I was paddling along the flow between Lake Bonaparte and Mud Lake when I saw two crows flying erratically over the swamp and fighting over (or maybe struggling together to carry) what I recognized as a human hand.
The weird thing - as if that’s not weird enough - is that the hand itself was trying to get away; and succeeded at one point: fell into the cattails; and then the crows snatched it up again and flew on, rising and dipping over the outlet.
I might have concluded that I was only mistaking a fisti-clump of fish entrails for a flailing hand, but I knew better. I knew exactly what hand it was,......though I hadn’t even thought of the Red Hand for many years; had rather put it out of my mind.
Taken way aback, I stopped paddling and let the canoe drift, until the wind had pushed it into the alders of the far shore.
It was the Red Hand: the hand that, years and years ago, when I was more or less a boy and still new in the Warren household, had taken over my Magic Slate.
In my first years with the Warrens, I didn’t speak at all, but I was an intent listener to all talk. When there was conversation, I would sit on the floor near by, drawing blocky shapes on newsprint as if I were transcribing something. Sometimes though, I would give it up and start to bang my head on the floor. As a result of the head-banging, my forehead often had a couple of red swellings like incipient horns. So I am told. I don’t remember that, but I know the feeling, and my forehead does seem to me to have distinct corners now.
I was brought to the table for meals, but usually finished quickly and slipped to the floor. I always preferred to be out of or below the general line of sight. I stayed under the table with the dog Binker (unless she had not already been banished to the kitchen for farting) and I was tolerated there as long as I stayed off the family feet and until, as often happened, my head-banging became interruptive and threatened to do me harm.
Then Daddy Warren would take me up to the bathroom, strip off my clothes and put me in the tub. He usually added a few rubber toys and, on the stool beside the tub, my more-or-less waterproof, Magic Slate - the waxed cardboard with a pressure sensitive coating which took an impression when I marked on it with a wooden stylus. When the sheet was full of my markings and I wanted to continue, or when I was done and wanted the record erased, I pulled up the plastic sheet, which left a clean slate. I loved that part of it. The tool suited my natural reticence. Or un-natural reticence.
In my first years with the Warrens I spent half my nights in the tub, and the other half in the bed Grandfather Failing made for me, which trundled under Davey’s in the day time.
When I was not marking on it, I kept the Magic Slate under my little bed, and I never, ever, left any of my private marking for anyone else to see; but one morning I pulled the Magic Slate from under the bed and saw writing on it. Not mine: it was in longhand. Although I was starting to puzzle-out comic book script, I could not even begin to read longhand. But Davey could. I gave it to him and he read it to me.
“The Autobiography of the Red Hand.” I remember that was the first time I ever heard that word, “Autobiography.” But even now I can hear Davey saying it: “Audobography” he said, as if he had never seen or heard the word himself.
The hand, according to itself, had once been that of an Irish chieftain.
The Irishman had been captain of a boat in a race from one island to another, and as they came near the finish, his boat was about to lose the race.
So he chopped off his left hand and threw it to the shore.
The hand arrived ahead of all other boats and all hands aboard, so it won the race for its boat, then fell into the sea.
That was it.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it in my slate. I pulled the cover sheet.
But the next morning I brought the Magic Slate out from under my bed, and it was again covered in script. This time the script was smaller.
I was not happy about this, but again, I gave the slate to Davey for him to read aloud.
On that page, the Hand began an independent life, scuttling across the ocean floor like a human crab.
Davey wanted to show this to Mama Dot, but I reached over and pulled the sheet to restore the blank slate. Then I took it back and tried to tear the thing into pieces, but couldn’t, so I rolled it
up as much as possible and did my best to flush it down the toilet. That didn’t work either, but Davey mopped up the spill with our bath towel and put the tortured slate into the waste basket.
After that disturbing experience, I didn’t write another thing for thirty years.
Mostly, I only composed sentences and paragraphs in my head, and repeated them to myself alone.
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