"Stories connect us to the universe of
medicine — of paranormal or sacred power"
— Paula Gunn Allen
"The essence of the human soul cannot
be separated from the wildness of nature."
— Bill Plotkin
I think in stories. I may even feel in stories. I have done so as long as I can remember. When I became chronically ill, I looked for answers in stories. I wrote them, and I read them. The story I came back to again and again was the fairy tale "Silver Hands." For a long time I didn't understand why. Now, at least for me, "Silver Hands" seems like a primer on how to heal. A fairy tale is a gem, whole in and of itself; it can shatter if we pick at it too much, so I will try to handle this tale with care to keep it from flying to pieces as I talk about it in relation to healing.
"Silver Hands" (a European fairy tale related to "The Armless Maiden," "The Girl With No Hands," and similar stories found in cultures all around the world) is a story of dismembering and re–membering, of calamity, loss, and healing. When we are chronically ill, we feel as though pieces of us have suddenly (or gradually) gone missing. We want our family, friends, doctors, healers to see us as we were and as we hope to be again: whole and healthy. Yet secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) we acknowledge that we have lost ourselves — we have lost our home, our habitat, our bodies. One night several years ago I fell into a kind of fugue state after a particularly bad few days, and I began to sing, "My body lies over the ocean. My body lies over the sea. My body lies over the ocean. So bring back my body to me, to me." It became a kind of chant to the Universe or the Invisibles to help me return to true myself. This is the journey of Silver Hands.
Before we continue, let us hear the story of "Silver Hands" one more time. It goes something like this: Once upon a time a few days from now, a poor miller strides into what was once a vast forest and sees only tree stumps. He and his fellow villagers have cut down all the trees! An old man suddenly appears to the miller and tells him he doesn't need to work so hard. If the miller will give the old man what is in his back yard, the old man will bestow upon him great wealth. The miller leans on his silver ax envisioning what's in his back yard. It's just an old tree. Who cares about that? He agrees to the old man's bargain.
"I will return in three years to claim what is mine," the old man says, and then he disappears. The miller goes home and is heartened to find that he is now a wealthy man living in luxury. When he tells his wife about his bargain with the old man, she is horrified. "You made a deal with the devil!" she cries as she points to the window looking out over the backyard. Their daughter stands under the ancient tree, raking leaves.
Three years later the day arrives when the devil is coming to collect his due. The daughter bathes, dresses in white, and draws a circle of chalk around her. The devil comes near and reaches for her, but he is thrown across the yard. He says she must not bathe again until he returns. Several weeks later, he returns and the daughter looks more like a wild beast than a woman. She is sobbing, however, and the tears have washed her arms clean. The devil screams, "Chop off her hands so that I can take her with me! And if you won't, I will kill you all." The miller gets his ax, his daughter holds out her arms, and the father reluctantly mutilates his child by cutting off her hands. The girl cries and the devil cannot get to her. He is defeated and leaves her forever.
The father offers the daughter all his riches, but she asks her parents to tie her arms behind her back, and she leaves home. She walks and walks, going deeper and deeper into the woods. At dusk she comes to a moat surrounding an orchard of fruit trees. A spirit in white empties the moat so that the daughter is able to walk to the trees and eat a pear with her mouth. A gardener witnesses this and tells the king about the miracle he has seen. The next night the king and gardener hide out to watch the disheveled girl float to the king's orchard and eat a pear. The king confronts the daughter and tells her he will never desert her. They fall in love, the king has someone create silver hands for her, and they marry. Soon after the king has to go to war far from home.
The queen gives birth to a daughter. Her mother–in–law sends the king a message about the birth of his child. The messenger falls to sleep on the road, however, and the devil digs around in his bag, finds the message, and changes it to say that the queen has been unfaithful and has given birth to a dog. The king gets the message, but sends back a note instructing his mother to care for his wife and the strange baby. Again the messenger falls to sleep and the devil changes the message to read, "Kill the queen and the child." The mother–in–law can't bring herself to kill her new daughter, so she sends her away into the woods.
The queen wanders until she comes to an incredibly dense forest. Near dark, the spirit in white again helps her, leading her and her baby to an inn run by the people of the forest. The queen stays for seven years, caring for her child and learning the ways of the forest people. During this time, her hands grow back.
Meanwhile, the king returns from war and is distraught to learn that his wife and child have been killed. The mother reassures him that she spared their lives. He promises to go without food or drink until he finds them. He wanders the countryside for seven years searching for his family. By the time he finds the inn and the forest people, he looks like a wild man. He falls to sleep under a veil the spirit in white drapes over him. When he awakens, he sees a woman and child watching him. The queen tells him that she is his wife and this child beside her is his daughter. They celebrate with the forest people, then return home and are married again. They have many more children and live happily ever after.
That is the skeleton of the story.