The stories that write themselves onto our body parts

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"You can tell a lot about a person – their profession, their habits – from their hands..."

"You can tell a lot about a person – their profession, their habits – from their hands..." Photo: Stocksy

Writers Kirsten Krauth, Michelle Law and Angela Savage tell of the parts of their bodies that consume their attention.

Michelle Law: Hands

I've always thought my hands look like they belong to an older person. That is to say, they're rather small, lined and bony, with pale skin stretched transparent enough for you to make out the network of veins sprawled beneath my skin. To clarify: they don't look like an old person's hands, but they've always been years ahead of me, the types of hands you're supposed to grow into.

Author Michelle Law.

Author Michelle Law.

As a child, I noticed my hands weren't like the plump, robust hands of my classmates – the kinds with palms that sweated when you held them lining up outside the classroom; the ones with bright, painted nails adorned with rings (first, the novelty rings won from coin-operated machines by the Woolies checkouts, then the fashion rings, and eventually, the wedding bands). My hands weren't like those hands; they didn't look youthful and were always in a state of disrepair, from hangnails or paper cuts, or perpetually dry skin.

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You can tell a lot about a person – their profession, their habits – from their hands, and mine are the hands of a worrier. When I was younger, I bit my nails until I learnt that germs hid beneath fingernails. Soon, I was washing my hands religiously, obsessively, to the point where I developed dermatitis.

I remember sitting in assembly at school, hands in my lap, but palms up, because I was so self-conscious about how the skin on the backs of my fingers had split open with pink, stinging wounds from over-washing. But I've never disliked my hands; mostly I'm fond of how delicate they look while possessing great strength. (I'm killer at the grip test.)

I've never had a manicure and I don't own a nail file; my mother always points out how boyish my nails look, how I should trim them to look round and elegant, like hers. When she was pregnant with me, her fifth and final child, she wished for me to be born with her finger deformity, that I'd possess some marker that I belonged to her. (Her right pinky is bent at the knuckle, so her finger resembles a fishing hook.)

I was born with straight fingers, all 10 of them, but my hands still resemble hers: they have the same shape and slightness. But hers are tanned, wrinkled, scarred with oil burns from when she worked in our family restaurants.

Her hands are a window into the future and a reminder when I'm feeling world-weary that I'm very young, and that there's a lifetime of wonderful, heartbreaking and exciting things I've yet to experience. They represent the life I haven't lived yet, and a time when I'll have finally grown into my own hands.

Kirsten Krauth: Ears

I've never forgotten the scene in Blue Velvet where Kyle MacLachlan finds an ear. It's lying in the grass, invaded by ants. Detached, dull and lifeless. He picks it up and places it carefully in a discarded paper bag. I've always wondered who lost it.

My own ears are delicate and shapely and, unlike the rest of my body, quite neat and decorous. I don't look at them often but I think about them a lot.

I tilt my head when I enjoy a sound or a speaker, like a dog when it hears a high-pitched whistle. I tuck my hair behind my left one when there's silence and I have nothing left to say. I pull at them when I'm flirting.

Ears have always been the speed-dial to the ignition of my desire, too: the initial seduction in a club; the mouth close and whispering hot through smoky noise; the gentle trace with a finger; the swirling tongue as a precursor; the testing of limits. A lover on a first date stood behind me and kissed my ears – before my mouth – while I played Frogger on the IBM. We've been together for 23 years now.

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's heroines have ears so alluring you want to taste them. In my novel just_a_girl, 14-year-old Layla is attracted to a man on the train, Tadashi, because of his ears. He also happens to be reading a book by Murakami. In Miranda July's The First Bad Man, Cheryl enters a room sideways, leading with her ear, because she imagines it's her best feature. In Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo whispers into "the coral shell ... an organ of women he found unspeakably moving in its soft, whorling vortex, and which always seemed to him to be an invitation to adventure".

I noticed a freckle on the bottom of my left earlobe the other day. It changes the shape of my ear, signifying too many years in the sun, fragile Irish paleness and future days when my body will sprout unexpected things.

But it might be lucky, that spot. If you're ever wandering around a park on an idyllic afternoon and find an ear hidden in the undergrowth, check to see if it's got a freckle. It could be mine. Then, perhaps you could post it in a ribboned box to David Lynch. He'd know what to do with it.

Angela Savage: Mouth

Ever since I started talking at the age of six months, my mouth has been my defining feature. I draw attention to it by wearing loud red lipstick and smiling a lot.

I've never considered myself a beauty, but I look all right when I smile – a teeth-flashing, eye-crinkling grin. I've tried toning it down, but end up looking either devious or half asleep. So I've never affected the cool, serious author photo beloved by crime writers. My grinning mugshot sits at odds with what one reviewer called the "hard-boiled quality of menace" that underpins my prose.

My mouth mostly stood me in good stead when I was growing up. Public speaking gave me confidence. Singing got me into school musicals – which, coming from a girls' school, was essential for meeting boys. This enabled me to indulge in another favourite oral pastime, kissing, a skill honed role-playing with the girl next door.

Of course, I often put my foot in my mouth. I still cringe at the memory of having asked the neighbourhood bad boy to "just say no" to drugs. No wonder my love for him went unrequited. Looking back, I reckon most of the smiling I did in my teens was to mask my embarrassment or hide my heartbreak.

I taught my mouth new tricks by learning languages: in French, I became pouty; in Thai, I'd jut out my chin and part my lips to make new vowel sounds.

Living in Buddhist countries required me to get my mouth around a whole new lexicon of smiles – part of maintaining the social harmony so valued in the local culture. In Thailand, where I set my novels, I learnt to smile appreciatively (yim cheuun chohm), to smile while masking sadness (yim sao) and to smile apologetically (yim yaae yaae). At times I felt my mouth strain with the effort of forcing a smile (yim mai aawk).

I held on to my laugh, though. Despite living in countries where women stifle giggles politely behind their hands, my laughter remains loud and bright. I like to think it matches my lipstick.