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The Hand (3rd Prize, Category 4)

April, 2014
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“How much further do we have to go?” Noah asked as they reached the top of the mountain.

“We’re almost there,” his brother coaxed.

It was a foggy day in October. There was a whiff of gunpowder in the suffocating air, and the brothers gave a small shiver under the sun, that nearly invisible blob of feeble rays of warmth that was hiding behind the dense chunks of gray smog in the bland colored sky.

“Emmett -” Noah whined, “how long have we been climbing?”

“Let’s just go a little further, alright? We’ll eat when we get to the factory.”

Emmett pointed at an abandoned factory below. Although its surroundings seemed harmless and still, there seemed to be a sinister feel to it, as though it held the darkest secrets from the past centuries. The rusty train tracks nearby emitted foul odors into air. The tracks were just as old – and just as forbidding.

*

Mommy and daddy will come find us soon, Emmett would tell his seven-year-old brother. They are getting better jobs in another town. Everyone is nice and friendly there. Maybe we’ll get to meet that uncle of ours that mommy always talks about.

They both hoped that the day would come soon.

Their parents had been sneaking out at night now and then, starting a few months ago, although there was a strict curfew against it. Emmett’s heard them leave quietly, making the door go “click” behind them once every other week, while his brother remained in his fantasy world. He had tried asking his mother where they went, but she wouldn’t tell.

Two days ago, Emmett’s mother had a talk with him after Noah fell asleep.

“If your dad and I aren’t home by tomorrow,” she said, “take Noah and go to the other side of that mountain,” she pointed towards the distance, “and stay inside the factory that we’ve been to – the your uncle used to work in, remember?” 

“Where are you two going?” Emmett asked.

“We are going to a better place. Don’t worry, we’ll come find you - just be patient.”

His mother’s tender blue eyes were full of stories, stories that Emmett had always wanted to know.

At night, Emmett lied in bed and listened quietly as his mom and dad tiptoed towards the door, and clicked it shut as gently as they could.

His parents were nowhere to be found the next day.

*

19-year-old Ryder sat silently in the corner of the crowded train on a blazing day in July. His companions, like him, were young, male recruits from his village to work in the new lumber factory near the mountains on the border. 

In a year, I will get enough money to find a doctor who can cure my poor sister, Ryder thought as he stared out the window.

His sister blacked out while they were collecting crops for harvest in the summer two years ago. Her life had changed since then. Sometimes her muscles would twitch uncontrollably, and she would start to sob loudly in the middle of the night. 

Ryder knew there was a doctor who lived 5 miles away, but visits from any doctor were unaffordable for anyone who lived in his neighborhood.

His sister was the only one who was there to help him support the family his father’s sudden death three years ago had left his mother too traumatized to work. In a way, she was the reason both of them survived the hard times.

Ryder looked out the window at the canyon, in hope that no one would see his tears.

There was a tree near the edge of the canyon (which made a very effective natural border between the two countries). Its trunks were wider than the shoulders of three strong men put side by side. The branches - five significantly thick branches - were spread out around the trunk but pointed towards the same direction.

The tree resembled a hand.

It’s the hand of God, Ryder thought. 

He remembered going to church with his sister after his father’s death. They prayed to God together. They wished for things to get better in the family, to be free from oppression one day.

God had yet to answer their prayers. 

A year later, the church was torn down. A cold black stone was placed on the site. Engraved on it were the words: The Nation is God, and we are all at his service.

*

The dormitory’s stench resembles that of a sock that had been on a farmer’s foot for a month without wash, but it was the least of Ryder’s concerns. He was grateful to have made it back to his bed after a hard 14 hours of chopping trees from the hills and carrying them over to the factory. His only motivation was his wage. He would be much closer to finding hope for his sister then.

*

“Emmett, why is it so cold in here?” Noah yawned as he leaned his head on his brother’s shoulder.

“How about we walk around a bit,” suggested Emmett, “make sure there’s no one else in here.”

There was no light inside the abandoned factory. Emmett turned on his flashlight, and dragged a shivering Noah forwards.  

The dusty floor creaked as they slowly stepped forwards. A door of some sort of office to their right flung open when their foot was in midair, and the boys hopped back and screamed while blood drained from their small faces — but never mind — it was just the wind.

They slowly tread towards the office as they recovered their heartbeat. 

There was nothing.

Nothing except a shower of old, dried blood on the faded walls.

 

*

“For the hundredth time, I can’t pay you this year. Now get out!”

The warden’s bold iron face was still as his lips chopped up and down like the cleavers on a guillotine, creating vibrations which formed these pitiless words.

“But sir - my sister, she -” Ryder started.

“Get out! Or I will shoot you!” The warden held out his gun and roared.

Ryder walked back to his dormitory, swearing and cursing under his breath. His body shook against the harsh August night winds as he held back his tears in fury. 

Although Ryder had calmly explained his sister’s situation to the warden several times, the warden responded with indifference - but he couldn’t wait another year.

*

Ryder stared at the ceilings while loud, nonchalant snores formed a chorus around him. 

Scenes from his life flashed before him: his sister’s innocent blue eyes; white flowers in his father’s graves; his devastated mother weeping as if the world had ended; the black, forbidding stone that replaced the statue of god; and finally, his pale, detached sister deprived of her once warm and genuine smile.

The midnight air was bitterly cold when Ryder stepped outside. Night birds hooted in the mountains behind him, urging him to go on.

The warden was lost in his fantasy at his seat, head tilted back, snoring as loud as a plump pig ready for slaughter. The gun he had used to threaten Ryder out of his office earlier lie invitingly across his desk. Slowly, Ryder curled his fingers around the handle and jerked his arm back.

All he heard was a “click”.

*

The brothers proceeded back to their dark corner, where they hoped that they would not meet the same fate as whoever had been in that office.

“What do you think happened there?” Noah asked when he had calmed down.

“Must have been a fight of some sort,” Emmett told him, “a conflict that went out of hand.”

Noah nodded.

“Ever heard of the magical canyon?”  Emmett tried to distract his brother.

“What is it?” 

“Mom told me that there was a magical canyon beyond the mountain - this mountain, in fact,” Emmett started, “that could grant wishes.”

“So how exactly can someone make a wish here?” Noah asked.

“There is an old tree before the canyon that looks like a hand - the hand of a really powerful and kind man - and all you have to do is close your eyes and pray under that tree.”

“How will you know if your wish came true?” 

“Mom said that if there was a white bird flying by the canyon the second you open your eyes, then it means that your wish had came true.”

“Can we go pray for mommy and daddy to come sooner?”

“Okay,” Emmett sighed, “we’ll go there at dawn.”

*

It was only when the alarm screeched and flashed at the sound of the gunshot that Ryder realized what he had done. His impulse had driven him into doing what may have been the last thing that he would ever do.

The gun dropped on the ground beside Ryder as he turned and dashed out of the building. He had no idea where he was heading, but his feet refused to pause. He sprinted down the slope towards the canyon and almost ran into the old tree. The Hand of God stood in front of him like a pope looking down at the sinner. 

Ryder could hear boots trampling behind him.

Kneeling down, with his hands and eyes closed, Ryder whispered a prayer.

I beg your mercy for committing such an immoral act, he muttered, but please - my innocent sister had done no wrong. Let her find hope for cure one day.

His voice faded as the searing bullet pierced through his skin.

There was a faint sound of wings fluttering before he blacked out.

None of the factory workers knew where the boy named Ryder went. All they knew was that the trees on the mountain wilted, and never made it past that autumn.

*

The boys stared in awe at the magnificent and mighty hand-like figure before them.

“Let’s pray, Noah.”

The children knelt down and closed their eyes.

Please let mommy and daddy come soon, they prayed, and one day, let us live in a place where we will never be hungry or scared again.

A white figure with wings zoomed across the gray sky the second they open their eyes, followed by another, then another… Something dropped down from them when they had flown off into the distance. Black smoke was rising as the boom sound echoed within the mountains.

Thump, thump, thump, uttered the helicopter as a ladder extended from the sky.

A smiling face appeared at the helicopter’s window.

“Mommy?”

 

By Congrong Ma,

17 years, Beijing City International School

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