Maidens Without Hands
April 5, 2022
I’m writing this blog post using voice typing.
Over the last few months, I’ve started to slowly get the hang of it, but writing, composing, like this is such a different experience than just typing things out with my fingers. I’ve written thousands and thousands of pages using my hands. Papers, lessons, short stories, poems, several terrible novels that will never see the light of day. An entire dissertation and a scary bibliography to match. When I’m typing, I have muscle memory, flow, a whole process that I’ve spent decades honing. Writing with my hands, I’m fast and precise and dynamic. I can feel when I’m getting it right, and I can make little changes and adaptations without even consciously thinking about it. I can just do it.
Writing like this, with my voice, is like using a muscle I’ve barely used before. It’s slow and clunky, and I’m constantly wondering if I’m repeating myself, if I’m making myself clear. In a way, I’m kind of surprised that voice composition is so hard for me – I spend almost as much time talking aloud about my work as I do writing about it.
But the words that make up my speech patterns look different on the page. They have a different flow and rely on a different kind of muscle memory. It feels like I’m trying to sing high notes without warming up or put on liquid eyeliner with my left hand or type with a single toe – possible but, for me, messy and slow and necessitating about a gallon of makeup remover.
There’s an old story in the Grimm Brothers fairy-tale collection. The title is often translated as “The Maiden Without Hands” or “The Handless Maiden” or sometimes “The Armless Maiden.” The story is a lot older than the Grimms, by the way. And versions of it can be found all over the world. Mostly, people don’t know it unless they happen to be fairy-tale nerds.
There are a couple good reasons for that.
In “The Maiden Without Hands,” a man makes a deal with the devil. Always a promising beginning right? In exchange for all of the gold he could ever want, he promises the devil that he can have whatever is standing out behind his house when he returns home. The man assumes it’s going to be a tree, but instead it’s his daughter.
The girl is pretty scrappy. She draws a circle of protection around herself, and the devil can’t reach her. But then her father, who is the actual worst, chops off his daughter’s hands to save himself from being carried off instead.
You can see why this story doesn’t have a Disney adaptation or a bunch of picture book versions.
The girl cries until the stumps of her hands are clean, and the devil loses his claim on her. Her horrible father says he’ll take good care of her from now on, but she says “NO THANK YOU” and makes her way out into the world.
A lot more happens after that, including what’s honestly a pretty great fairy-tale marriage to a king and continuing manipulation and interference from the devil, but what always sticks with me is the image of the girl eating a pear from a tree in an orchard. She can’t pluck the fruit with her hands, so she just stretches up her neck and bites the *&$% out of the pear.
There’s a lot more I could say about this story – and a lot more that I will say in an upcoming course. Is this a patronizing story or a validating one? How much does the very 19th-century religious imagery undercut the heroine’s agency? How should we read the re-growth of her hands at the end?
There’s no one right answer to these questions, but the story offers so much space to talk about sudden loss of ability and about what it can look like to own your story, even when life throws epic curveballs.
I’m finishing this blog post, weeks after I began, by typing with my hands. I have tape on my wrists, but, today, my body can do this.
I might not be able to pluck a pear every day. But with tape or braces or Brittany’s help or a long rest, I can find a way to bite the *&$% out of the pear.