Handy

The lawns of Blighty are lush and green today, replete with sunshine and showers: and beneath every pristine lawn there is always the possibility that sabotage burrows in subterranean chambers below.

Mole, that small gentleman in black velvet, that home-loving cause of adulation and vexation to an Englishman, is never far away.

The mole, says Encyclopaedia Britannica, is adapted for aggressive burrowing. This, we learn, is no Mr Nice Guy. He may be related to the timid shrew but he will show lawn no mercy, as Jasper Carrott illustrates with consummate ease. The little insectivore has a sleek little stout body with a long hairless snout and stout, burrowing limbs.

But Moles have another thing which sets them apart from the rest of creation: something not a lot of people know.

It seems they have four thumbs.

So while us towering Homo sapiens swagger about, bragging about how our thumbs raise us above the rest of creation, Moley there has 100 per cent more thumbs than us, and never says a word in self-congratulation. In his daily life he uses a total of 12 digits to dig tunnels and propel himself along.

It takes a trip down memory lane to understand why: a trip, in fact, all the way back to Mr Mole’s prehistoric ancestors who dragged themselves out of the water onto land.

Along with the backbones which gave them mobility it seems those first vertebrates also brought a wealth of digits.

It was not uncommon, if you were a newcomer to dry land, to have six, seven or even eight fingers to help meet the challenges which waited on the shore.

The mole kept his extra thumb, but the rest of us opted for five as a nice round number.

But scientists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, says a recent BBC report,have outed the second thumb using meticulous genetics. They noticed the genes which initiate finger development failed to switch on, when this uber-thumb was being formed in the hand of a little mole. And the tissue was not comparable toย digit tissue, but rather that which comes from the wrist.

And so Moley must join the rest of us five-fingered beings, to celebrate the wealth of forms a simple hand can take.

Look at the bat. His hands and arms have become elongated to carry that ethereal membrane which gives him flight. His hands are long lithe limbs, the fingers of which have less calcium than ours as they near their ends, so that they are less prone to splintering: they are flattened and flexible, super-sensitive receptive fingers which take the words the air whispers and use them to adapt silently to become the most fearsome of hunters.

To see how creation has diversified, look at the hand. And then turn to one side and observe how our folklore has recreated it.

Nosferatu’s horror hands, as FW Murnau would have them in his 1922 film of that name, are like the bat’s, long and manipulative, sensitive and animal. Their pointed nails are the stuff of nightmares.

In the days of service smooth clear hands were the mark of a lady. When Jane Eyre arrives, a stranger without a name, at a new household the housekeeper tells her: ” Ye’ve not been used to sarvant’s wark, I see by your hands.”

And who can forget the fabulously gothic tale of ‘The Beast With Five Fingers’: by English short story writer WF Harvey? Not I, for sure.

It is worth taking a little time to read, even if you have seen neither ย film version (‘The Beast With Five Fingers’, 1941, directed by Robert Florey; and Oliver Stone’s ‘The Hand, 1981) ย because Harvey’s prose is infinitely more chilling than anything a screen could provide.

It is written with such very English understatement.

Even the name of the hand’s owner is not so very remarkable: Adrian Borlsover, expert on the fertilisation of orchids, and a fine preacher who is, it is said, wonderful with his hands.

One day, about two years before he dies, kind old Mr Bolsover begins to write automatically: his hand appears to be totally independent of its owner. He has always been a handy type, with exquisite penmanship and a steady hand which can make fine woodcuts and delicate silhouettes.

Now the hand seems to developing an unsettling comprehension all its own: first it seems to observe relating names and commonly held information: but as time goes on the things the hand writes, while its owner is asleep, become sinister in the extreme: and eloquent beyond measure.

“Blundering Borslovers, unnecessarily unnatural, extraordinarily eccentric, culpably curious”, it writes one day as the man’s nephew watches. The observer begins to question the hand and oh, how it answers. You will see me soon, it writes in sing-song prose, when old Adrian’s dead.

I would call Harvey’s little gem a page turner: if it did not conjure such very disquieting images in one’s head.

On one hand, these five digits at the end of these two arms are workaday necessities: on the other, reflections of the random genius of evolution.

Whichever hand one chooses they make the most compelling story fodder.

31 thoughts on “Handy

  1. We have no moles here, just armadillos. When the ground is moist, they’ll dig up a lawn overnight. But since they don’t take up residence there, people don’t complain about them. In ’70s Austin, the armadillo became fashionable–Armadillo World Headquarters, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, ArmadilloCon (sci-fi conference), ‘Dillos (trolley-type buses offering free rides around town)–and now it’s the official small mammal of Texas.

    I just read the story. It’s a page-turner, all right.

  2. Definitely a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, eh?

    What about Mole in The Wind in the Willows? Quite a likeable chap ~ too busy meeting and greeting Badger to tear up lawns with its 12 digits.

  3. Last weekend we went to a garden which had a mole problem…. causing quite serious ankle twisting subsidence and like Jasper the owner had tried everything, including vibrating sticks stuck in the ground.

    Once I remember, while camping feeling the ground move under me… (can’t say that happens too often) and when we struck the tent there was a mole run under the ground sheet. Incredibly strong for one so small.

    1. Ankle twisting subsidence….reminds me of the origin on ‘a little man in black velvet’ – a molehill was the reason William III’s horse sutmbled and threw him with fatal results, and the Jacobites used to toast him accordingly…
      How wonderful to have felt and seen a mole!

  4. Ooh, deliciously horrifying, Kate – not so entertaining if you suffer from the real thing, though – I saw a doco recently on ‘Alien Hand Syndrome’ – definitely not handy at all, but at least there are drugs to control it

  5. I remember “Idle Hands” it’s an american movie and it’s like the story of “The Beast with Five fingers” and while I’m typing this I realized that I have five fingers too,lol! ๐Ÿ™‚ While reading your story I thought that having five fingers is extra ordinary, silly me!

  6. Wow, what an interesting post, Kate. Re Bb’s comment – very odd syndrome indeed! Must reallly feel weird… I read once that eventually man will only have a big toe – the rest will disappear over time. This I can believe – have you ever looked at people’s little toes – hunchbacks, for sure, haha.

    1. Ha! What a wonderful comment, Denise! It reminds me of the CS Lewis creatures in ‘Voyage Of The Dawn Treader’, Dufflepuds, who have one huge foot…The muscles in a monotoe would have to be so strong to maintain the balance required! Or maybe the rest of our bodies will change shape too…

  7. Disquieting images, indeed, Kate ๐Ÿ˜€ We don’t get many moles here, but those that we do don’t fare too well, with Jina on watch. I’m with you on the Armadillos!

  8. I didn’t know that about moles.

    Tell me, is it the mole or Jaspar Carrott you are writing of here:

    He may be related to the timid shrew but he will show lawn no mercy, as Jasper Carrott illustrates with consummate ease. He has a sleek little stout body with a long hairless snout and stout, burrowing limbs.

    It could be either ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. “receptive fingers which take the words the air whispers” — such a lovely phrase. This was a beautifully written and very interesting post. I will have to read the story about old Mr. Borslover, sounds very Poe-ish. We have voles here in Alberta which, I assume, are related to moles. They are extremely destructive and have caused many a broken cow’s or horse’s leg.

    1. I never realised voles could be just as bad: I had them down for some of life’s good guys!
      Poeish is a great way to describe The Beast. Grotesque but complelling.

  10. You have me, Kate. I’ve bookmarked The Beast With Five Fingers bookmarked to read a bit later, knowing full well that it will chill me to the core (which will actually be a relief from this horrendous heat wave we are experiencing).

    What an exciting and well written post. You did it again. We don’t have vole problems here, though other parts of the country do. Our little burrowing pests are chipmunks, and, while they are cute and comical, they wreak havoc on my potted plants. Oh well . . . must read The Wind and the Willows all over again.

  11. I so enjoy reading your posts, Kate. Interesting, informative, well written and, above all, surprising.

  12. Loved this! Being a massage therapist, I think about hands a lot: caring for them, working and stretching them, watching their incredible dexterity, and above all feeling with them. I once read that the hand emits the precise amount of bio-electrical energy needed to start or amp up the healing process; and of course we immediately put our hands over our boo-boos and they somehow feel better. The hand, like mole, is blind but strong and sensitive.

    1. A parallel I had so far missed, Elizabeth, and as always you put it so beautifully. Electricity and the hand…where to start? That’s a post all its own…

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