Lily’s Hands by Michael Garcia Bertrand

Lily’s hands were curiously marked by the calamity of being Cuban.

This wasn’t such a far-fetched notion, she reasoned, for she believed in stories of magical realism, in ghosts and spirits, in self-healing, in the goodness of people, in love after death. That her hands were acting in perfect harmony with her Cuba’s current tragedies was an easy matter of faith and imagination, both of which she had in abundance.

Her first clue upon awakening was the pain of instant needles stabbing the palm of her right hand. At first, she thought it was the numbing of a hand asleep, until she saw her palm afire with stinging meteoric trails streaking across in every direction, clusters of angry suns ready to burst, corpora of white curlicues like letters from an alien alphabet floating in and around the crimson blemishes. There were razor-edged markings upon the undersides of her fingers as well.

She held up the hand closer to the light and traced and retraced the patterns with her eyes. A message was being written there, she intuited. If only she could decipher its meaning, some secret would be revealed. She, who loved to watch the night sky for signs of God, recognized that symbolism was everywhere.

She carefully unclenched her left hand. This one, too, hadn’t escaped the agonizing solar systems of lesions and nascent sores, was roughened by the alterations, hillocks clumped together in the embossed quality of braille. She considered the possibility of a latent leprosy suddenly plaguing her or a spell cast by an envious neighbor. She also thought about stories of people facing the singularity of the stigmata. This could be something similar.

She picked up and set down in succession her jars of facial cleansers, hairbrushes, bottles of perfumes, moisturizers, relieved to find her hands functioning normally, their prehensility and sense of touch undamaged. Because she didn’t know what else to do, she washed them under the faucet’s cool water, hoping a good cleansing with lavender soap might help, but her hands became more inflamed as if she were using hot stones instead. 

A foretelling change had occurred, and she returned to her first suspicion. Her hands had been vigorous and whole only the day before, and now, well, what else but for Cuba, which had been breaking the hearts of Cubans for over sixty years? There’d been another uprising on the island, perhaps the most promising one yet, and expatriates were lining the streets everywhere in support, especially in her beloved Miami, waving Cuban flags, banners, signs, pictures of Martí and Maceo. She’d participated herself during her days off. Even if she hadn’t lived in Cuba for many decades, she had friends and relatives who’d kept her informed until the tyrants suspended all lines of communication. She hadn’t heard from them now in over a week, and she feared her hands were presaging some worser evil.

Still, she knew redemption was real, and today was her birthday, her fortieth, which reminded her that rebirth was always within reach. So she replaced her nightgown with a pretty dress, specially picked for this day, and put colorful ornaments in her earlobes and around her neck and wrists. She selected sandals with orange flowers on the straps, matching the color of her painted toes. She wound a bright ribbon in her reddish-brown hair and marveled at her unlined reflection, realizing how lucky she was to have reached her fifth decade with her joie de vivre intact. 

Before leaving her townhouse to meet with friends for a modest brunch and a mimosa or two, she blew out the candle she lit every night to San Lázaro—her offerings of cafecito and rum slightly evaporated in their tiny vessels—and pondered briefly what the fortune teller she visited last month would say if she were able to study her hands now.


On the following day, Lily snuck in to see the old doctor from Camagüey, a kindly man whose office was adjacent to the hospital where she worked, and he was visibly startled when he saw the peculiar lines and shapes and figures on her palms. He said in Spanish, “I think I read about this once.” He didn’t elaborate but left the room instead, leaving her upon the examination table wearing only her underwear and a gown of thin cotton. 

When he came back half an hour later, he was followed into the room by four other doctors, who goggled her hands, inspected the back of her neck and the bottoms of her feet, pressed her abdomen with their own unmarked hands, and listened with their stethoscopes while giving each other quizzical looks. Afterward they huddled in a corner, whispering and shaking their heads before the old doctor from Camagüey dismissed them from the room. It was then that she began to feel afraid. 

“Is there anything the matter?” she asked.

He glanced at her with perplexity before turning away to scribble notes in her folder. She eyed him from atop her perch, her legs crossed as modestly as the light gown and her bare feet would allow, her hands resting in her lap. After minutes of writing, he cleared his throat.

“I think,” he said, and he removed his bifocals to wipe them. He was having trouble meeting her eyes. “I think that you may be dying.” He took a deep breath, unable to disguise his own distress and, with strained inflection, explained to her about cellular mutations and the rare quality of her hands, which most of the time meant an advanced malignancy occurring in the body, usually in the stomach, sometimes in the lungs. 

Lily stared at the doctor with confusion, puzzled more by the absurdity of his words than their import, then her eyes brightened, and she smiled.

“That is ridiculous, Doctor,” she said, blushing. “Nothing has gotten into me.”

He became visibly alarmed for a moment, and when he tried to press the point, she interrupted him. “You may be correct,” she said, “but I do not think so. At least, I hope not. I have much life left to be lived. I am sure of it.”

Lily was not, in her way of thinking, superstitious, yet she assumed the existence of things not easily illuminated by natural or scientific law. There was another world coexisting with our own, she knew, mostly friendly and hospitable, and she tried to do her best to honor and respect the stories and admonitions she inherited from her mother, her grandmothers, and her great-grandmothers concerning the participation of supernormal forces in the lives of the living. 

That is why she wore an azabache around her neck and performed despojos in every room, flicking drops of holy water on her furniture and in the air with branches of albahaca; why she lit long, white candles, exorcised stubborn demons with egg whites and water, and took baths with perfume and flower petals; why she never counted coins in bed or stepped on cracks or opened umbrellas indoors. She learned there was little space between wakefulness and sleep, even less between life and death, and she understood there were too many things that could only be clarified as a matter of faith and imagination.

Once outside, she changed her mind about calling for a ride and walked home instead, singing a song from a favorite musical because the day was lovely, her sundress shimmering in the sunlight. She fantasized about taking off her clothes and running through the streets—otra loca—feeling wafts from the Atlantic falling upon her sun-brown skin like lost kisses. She adored the sensation of her body against the push and pull of gravity’s influence. In these moments, the universe belonged to her, and she to it. She decided not to lose sleep over the kindly doctor’s words.

Lily was of the mind that whatever her hands were portending concerning her health would simply have to wait, and she was prepared to endure pain if she must, but she would live for a good deal yet. So she chose to see her hands as a daily notice of the fragility of life and what a privilege it was to be alive. She would continue to live each day without fear for as long, or as little, as it lasted. Time had simply marked her hands. That was all. She saw the poetry in that. For her, the hands of time were no longer metaphor.

As she neared her townhouse, she saw that her hands were suddenly trailing golden stardust, like polvo de hadas, which the soft breezes lifted and blew apart in the air, and she heard music springing from someplace above her or within, which amounted to the same thing, and her hips began to sway to invisible timbales, claves, guitarras, flautas. 

She danced the rest of her journey as if she were a character from a stage show, picturing an audience beyond the footlights of tropical plants. Upon reaching her street, petals of white mariposas began to rain from the sky to cover the walkway in front of her. It was a most ridiculous, most wondrous thing, reminiscent of stories by Reinaldo Arenas, one of her favorite writers, and this gave her the inspiration that night to have a dream where she was changed into a beautiful bird by a beautiful enchantress in white, who whispered carpe diem poems in her ear.


A week later, Lily was in her navy blue scrubs in the hospital’s cafeteria, eating sopa de pollo and reading a novel she’d read twice before. A man with a tray asked to sit at her table. She nodded absently, hardly taking notice, since cafeteria tables often had to be shared with strangers, until he made a knowing comment about her book, Cumbres Borrascosas. She smiled and said that she believed Heathcliff and Cathy were the greatest lovers in all of literature, greater even than Romeo and Juliet, because even death couldn’t keep them apart.

His name was Gabriel, and he was Cuban, too, and they spoke in their musical Spanish. Although he was not handsome, Lily found him pleasant just the same, for she could tell he possessed an intelligent mind and quick wit. He was a professor of literature at the college by the turnpike, currently on leave, so they discussed some of the classics and Cuban novels, which she admired most, Cecilia Valdés chief among them. When she noticed a patient’s ID band around his wrist, she placed one of her hands on one of his. He said he’d just undergone several tests that morning because his doctors feared his cancer had returned. He’d been in remission for two years, he added quickly, and was generally hopeful.

“I will burn a candle for you,” she said.

He flexed a bicep and said, “I am strong like a Cuban buey” and laughed. 

She laughed, too.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, suddenly. 

She was not sure what he meant until she remembered her hands.

“No, no, it is nothing,” she said.

He turned her hands over to examine the patterns of vermilion closely, tracking the eccentric marks with his thin fingers. He approached her hands with such tenderness that she was surprised to find herself consenting easily. She’d been in a terrible marriage once and, though she still believed in love, she didn’t always believe in men.

“I am sorry,” he said. And he gave a gentle kiss to each palm.


He came back the next day to sip café con leche and nibble on tostadas with her before the beginning of her shift. Quickly recognizing how much they enjoyed each other’s company, they continued to meet for breakfast whenever she worked, which sometimes made her late reporting to her station. It never mattered. Lily was always forgiven by her coworkers, for whom she was quick with a favor, and her patients, who all adored her.

She was amazed how comfortably they fell into each other’s cadences, how, with him, she could speak so easily about her life, her job, her hobbies, her brief time living in New Jersey, how she once saw a show on Broadway, her penchant for silly jokes, the recent passing of her father, whose Alzheimer’s had been cruel.

She told him about her collection of Spanish translations, most of which had belonged to her mother, and she adored stories of love, sacrifice, and redemption, like Lo Que El Viento Se Llevó, for example, or La Mujer del Teniente Francés. She loved old, black-and-white movies with Bogart, Hepburn, Grant, Lancaster, and, of course, lavish musicals. She went to the performing arts theaters in Broward and Miami-Dade at least twice every season.

She collected tea sets, which she kept inside an antique curio, and possessed a gorgeous statue of a flapper girl from the time of El Gran Gatsby that she had on a pedestal in her living room. She placed scented candles in every corner of her home, which she lit even during the daytime when she was home, and burned incense late at night. She cherished purses and shoes and enjoyed dressing up in stylish gowns.

Of course, they spoke of Cuba, and the misery there, many times. She said she sent money and goods whenever she could and that she was mostly optimistic, drawing an analogy with the legend of La Milagrosa because she thought about Cuba in the same way: one day it would be new and fresh again as on the first day. He said he liked the sound of that.

They went on their first real date to an outdoor bistro by the intracoastal in Hollywood. He drank a little whisky, she, vodka with lime. He presented her a copy of Don Quixote, a large two-volume set in the original Spanish, whose timing he did not think through because he had to carry the heavy package the rest of the night, making her prod him with gentle teasing. They strolled through the breezy ocean-side streets filled with mingling people, easily jumping from one topic to the other. They shared each other’s rhythm for banter as if they’d been friends all their lives. 

They discovered a cafe where a singer in sequins made her giggle with his dramatic renditions of Elvis songs, which she’d first heard as a child growing up in the town of Guane. She tried very hard not to be obvious or impolite and danced in her seat. After they finished a bottle of sparkling wine, they went to her townhouse. 

They slept in each other’s embrace, fitting together perfectly. The next morning, over pastelitos and croquetas, they acknowledged yet again how much they liked one another, which was even more special than falling in love or making love—though these things were nice, too, they agreed, giving each other sly, playful looks. Even after his doctors confirmed that his cancer had returned, Lily reminded him, “We found each other. That is all that matters.”


At nights, while they lay in each other’s arms inside her bedroom, which often resembled the festive aftermath of a noisy and colorful Caribbean bazaar—tossed clothing over tables and lamps, sparkling jewelry and trinkets plucked off in the moment, lavish curtains and rugs, elaborate candleholders, books tucked everywhere—she massaged his tired body with her perplexing palms in deep, concentric motions, and she felt the current of something electric pass through her and into him, which he sensed as well because he grinned and called her Mi Cielo. 

She moved on him with those hands whose patterns had turned into painful, itchy constellations of agony, and though he never complained, she knew he couldn’t help but feel the tetchy galaxies of her complex wounds, by now too many to count. She broached the topic once—were her hands so awful?—and he, shaking his head, said no, that when her hands touched his body, he knew the face of God was within sight. She continued her therapy every night, placing them over the spot where his cancer lived, and she became convinced she was removing his disease, one malignant cell after another.

But she was harboring a secret, and he was not always attentive because of his illness, and the secret was that her hands were deteriorating rapidly like the painting in El Retrato de Dorian Gray. She began to make them less apparent when they were together, concealing them in pockets or behind some task, making sure her palms faced the opposite direction when in the light, creating excuses for when he wanted to hold her hand or kiss her palms. She started to rub her belly, too, because of an ache that made her blanch sometimes. When he was with her and the sudden hurt occurred, she shrugged it away as only a mild discomfort. 

As her hands worsened, so did the news from the island: protests were ruthlessly crushed, people arrested, brutalized, or killed, and the leaders of the revolución gloated across the airwaves. 

As Gabriel underwent aggressive treatments, he noticed that his bouts of debilitation and illness were miraculously fewer and less severe, against all expectations and experience. Lily, who had a keen sense about these things, insisted that Gabriel be reevaluated. The doctors acquiesced and were surprised at Gabriel’s results: not those of a man in remission but one who’d never been sick. They were overjoyed, nonetheless, and so were the lovers, who rushed out of the building dancing like two characters in a musical. Waiting for a car to arrive, she caught him staring at her hands with curiosity. Her palms were streaked with blood.


Everything was connected to everything else, she knew, so she wasn’t alarmed when she felt her stomach catch fire later that night, and she calmly asked Gabriel to take her to the hospital. The first thing the old doctor from Camagüey did when he met them in the emergency room was to try to read her hands, but after a little, he removed his glasses in frustration. The mysterious language of curlicues had metastasized into large swaths of imponderable texts. Naturally, he had her admitted for observation. She smiled through it all even after they attached her to tubes and machines, overhearing Gabriel telling the nurses he was staying the night, that there was no imaginable way he was leaving her alone.

In general, Lily was not afraid of death. Death was too much of an ordinary thing to worry over, so she went to sleep without dread. It was true that she was feeling weaker than usual, but the medication they were giving her was relieving the pain in her stomach and her hands, and what did it matter, in any case, when she could dream that she and Gabriel were dancing inside a just-shaken globe of glittery, golden flakes, like falling stars, with a lit Havana in the background as in an old photo from the forties or fifties, except that it was in brilliant color.

When she opened her eyes, the room was dark, and it took her a moment to remember where she was until she saw Gabriel sleeping in a chair by her bed. She couldn’t help but smile when she remembered he was no longer ill. She reached for his hand with one of hers, and he awoke with a start. He stroked her cheek, and they fell asleep in each other’s arms one more time. 

The next morning, he tried to wake her by whispering “Lily, Lily, Lily” in her ear, by reciting lines from Villaverde, Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Valdés, Martí and, of course, Arenas, by reminding her of their promise to each other about one day dancing under the stars upon their paradise-island, when it was new and fresh again like in the story of La Milagrosa. 

Lily found her hands moving of their own accord, giving life to golden sprites who dazzled the air in showers of glimmering lights and, when one lit upon her to spread its fragile wings wide and pretty before spiriting away to join the others, she laughed because she realized they weren’t living things at all but more of that gilded, starry dust she’d witnessed before rising from her hands.

She couldn’t help but laugh again when she saw Gabriel’s amazement and knew he was the handsomest man in the world, so she touched his face with her hands to reassure him, because she had faith in what they could do together. He took them in his and gently turned them over, first one, then the other, to find they were no longer marked, and he spoke the question, “How?” and she said, “Because love is all that matters,” and they kissed again. 

And then they discovered a sense of lightness that was not unbearable, and they surrendered gravity, floating for a time amid the airy, shimmering things that were like pieces from the stars. They knew, suddenly, that nothing was impossible, and they burst quietly through the roof of the hospital, and the delicate constellations above were suddenly writ like living verses, and it was all so beautiful, and they drifted out toward the Atlantic, and the blackness of the night and the sea became transparent.

And she knew this was the most ridiculous ending to any story having to do with real life, except she knew that real life was better when the imagination was thriving, and she waved one of her hands high in the air above her, for she knew their ascension was not surprising or frightening, and the moon was dazzling, and the glittery dust her hands were freeing was climbing above, above, and above, creating a path for them to follow. 

And the mild ocean breezes turned them tenderly as if they were atop a music box, and they could hear each other’s beating hearts, and they recognized the very moment when they were moving over their paradise-island, and they lingered there for a while, listening to the sounds of timbales, claves, guitarras, and flautas floating up from the hearts and minds and souls of every Cuban living there who, after all, only longed to be free and clean and fed, and she knew, then, without a doubt, that it would happen one day soon even though more would have to die before such a thing could come to pass, and what could anyone do but continue to dream and hope and believe, and Lily and Gabriel danced under the stars, moving their hips, dipping their shoulders, shaking their bodies in perfect harmony with the beats and rhythms of Cuba, and they began to meld with the numinous tapestry just as Lily’s hands trailed a healing blanket of stardust beneath them.

Michael Garcia Bertrand is a Cuban-American educator, living and working in South Florida. His short fiction has appeared or will appear in Epiphany, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Wisconsin Review, Jelly Bucket, The MacGuffin, Kestrel, Santa Fe Literary Review, Concho River Review, and Your Impossible Voice.