Armand ran into the workshop, making an engine noise with his mouth and stamping on the wood shavings on the floor so they crackled underfoot: the louder the better. He walked twice around the carpenter’s bench; looked at all the tools perfectly aligned on the wall, the saws, gouges, clamps and planes, each in their rightful place (marked by a suitable outline, roughly penciled in); and went up the passageway at the rear of which the house, properly speaking, began. Uncle Reguard had put his workshop in the back of his house, and although the grown-ups always entered through the front door, Armand preferred to go in via the workshop. He was fascinated by the fact that his uncle’s workplace was right at the back of his house. In contrast, he lived in an apartment, and his father’s carpentry workshop occupied a ground-floor space four blocks from where they lived. His cousins had a similar set up. Uncle Reguard was the only member of the family to have his workshop and home together; separated by a small bedroom, that now acted as a junk room. If you came from the workshop, you then reached the parlor with the big table, chandelier, armchairs, passages, and bedroom doors.
By the time Armand reached the parlor everyone was already there kissing, laughing, chatting, raising their voices to make themselves heard: his father, uncles and aunts, and more distant uncles, aunts, and cousins, who weren’t cousins at all and were only described as such because they belonged to branches of the family so remote they didn’t know what precise labels to give them.
They ate lunch, a meal that lasted hours, and then the post-lunch conversations started, when the smoke from the cigars began to curl around everything. Empty champagne bottles piled up in the room between the house and workshop, the aunts kept slicing cake, and the older cousins put records on the turntable. The atmosphere was heavy with the aroma of hot chocolate. The young cousins (Armand, Guinovarda, Gisela, Guitart, and Llopart . . .) asked permission to leave the table and ran to Eginard’s bedroom to play with wooden houses that had roofs, doors, and windows painted in a range of colors. When the bedroom door was half open, Armand could see the harp in the corner of the passage. It was a harp Uncle Reguard had built thirty years ago, and it was one of the family’s prized possessions, because (so Armand’s father would say) he had combined carpentry with the art of crafting string instruments. For as long as he could remember, Armand had seen the harp at Uncle Reguard’s and always in the same place: in the corner made by the bend in the passage. He thought it was more beautiful than all the harps in the photographs and drawings that he’d cut out from magazines (and kept in a blue folder at home): a harp in the hands of a mythological god, a Sumerian harp topped by the head of an animal he couldn’t identify, the Irish coat-of-arms, two Norwegian harps (one topped by a dragon’s head and the other by the head of a blind-folded woman), and a harp made from a tree branch that Harpo Marx was plucking.
Cousin Reguard came into the bedroom, crying and smiling, in the midst of cheering adults. His right hand was holding a chocolate and peppermint ice cream, and his left hand was bandaged. It was a scene Armand had often seen in these family get-togethers, whether they were held in their home, their cousins’, or the homes of other more distant cousins, some of who even lived in other cities. A boy would appear with a bandaged left hand. The bandage was always wrapped around his ring finger. Armand knew there was no longer a finger under the bandage, and that the bandage would eventually fall away, revealing a tiny, perfectly healed stump. Armand surveyed the hands of his family. As he’d registered some time ago, everyone over nine was missing the ring finger of their left hand.
Armand was seven when he first realized it was no accident that one of the boys would always leave the party with his ring finger cut off. He’d not really paid much attention till now. It was true he’d noticed the older kids were missing that finger, but it was a completely normal state of affairs for him. It had never been any different. He thought the absence must be synonymous with adult life. Every adult in the family lost that finger for a reason that eluded him and that didn’t concern him one little bit. So many things eluded him—he knew he wouldn’t understand them until he became an adult, and he didn’t worry about a trifle that was quite unimportant when compared to the other issues that preoccupied him at the time: the spirit of sacrifice displayed by St. Bernard dogs, the origins of existence, or the offside trap in football. As he saw it, in order to hit adolescence and abandon the world of little kids, he too would have to lose his ring finger. He thought it was understandable, normal, and desirable, like losing his milk teeth.
When he started to go to school, he was surprised to see how many adults had four fingers and a thumb on each hand, as if
Armand spent his nights ruminating about this mystery. Perhaps there was a guild rule that obliged them to chop off that finger? He reached a conclusion he wasn’t sure how to verify: they chopped that first finger off to get them used to the idea. Losing that first finger meant they lost their fear of the possible loss of others. They realized it wasn’t such a big deal; it gave them courage and helped them tackle their trade with true valor. One thing sent his head into a whirl: he’d met the father of a school friend, from another class, who also happened to be a carpenter, and none of his fingers were missing (he used to take a look whenever he picked up his son at the end of the school day).
As the adults didn’t consider it a tragedy, and seemed particularly happy at the exact moment when the finger disappeared (especially the parents of the boy whose finger was amputated), Armand didn’t find it tragic either. Until that afternoon two years ago, when he became conscious for the first time that, on whatever day of the year a member of the family celebrated a ninth birthday, they lost that finger, and it would be his fate too; he felt frightened that afternoon. He was with his cousins in the bedroom, playing with those wooden houses. Eginard, Gisela, and Gimfreu had all had that finger chopped off. Llopart and he still retained all four fingers, and that meant they were still kids. When Eginard got up from their game, Armand went over to him, swallowed, and asked him what the finger business was all about. Llopart, Gisela, and Gimfreu all looked around for a moment, then went back to the game they were playing, going in and out of the houses. Eginard asked him to repeat the question, perhaps to get more time to think up his reply. Armand expanded his question: What was the finger thing all about? They’d cut off little Reguard’s today; they cut a finger off from everyone, one day or another, when they reached the age of nine. Llopart looked at them all, clueless. Eginard got up, stroked Armand’s head, and dragged him gently out of the bedroom. Armand wouldn’t relent: Why was everyone in their family missing the same finger on their left hand, a finger people outside their family kept? Armand scrutinized Eginard’s finger; it had been chopped off at the metacarpus—a clean scar from a perfect strike.
And why the ring finger on the left hand and not the little finger on the right, or an index finger? Was it some hygienic measure, the reason for which had been forgotten with the passage of time? He just couldn’t understand. It was evident it was an ancestral custom, but how had it originated? Had they practiced it for centuries? Or simply decades? On his ninth birthday, his father found him crying in bed.
“I don’t want my finger chopped off.”
“What an odd thing to say!”
“I want to be normal, like the other kids at school.”
“Being normal has nothing to do with having one finger more or one less.”
His father wiped away his tears and told him that normal is a cultural value and consequently completely relative; some people like crew-cuts, others like long hair, som ...