| The old man sat at the table, with the silver plate in front of him. I had found him the night before at the harbor while I was buying fish for dinner. He was dressed like a Venetian Gondolier, but he wore no cap, revealing his balding head. His skin was tanned, like an Italian, but when I asked him who he was, he didn’t answer. It took me a long while to find out that he cannot speak at all, but I did notice that his sleeves were tied up where his hands should be. I reached down towards his hands, but he quickly jerked them away. I apologized for my rudeness; this man certainly lost his hands during either the First World War or the second one. I can’t bring myself to say ‘World War Two,’ for my husband had recently died after fighting his war wound for ten years, leaving me and my daughter, Claudette, to run the bakery ourselves. For all I knew, this old man could have known my husband, and he’s a veteran, too. That is why, for once, I let a stranger into my house.
The old man sat there, not moving, but staring at me as I prepared breakfast. His eyes were wide, like an attentive child. Suddenly I smelt fire, the smell of bread burning.
“Claudette!!” I shouted. My daughter came running from the bakery store downstairs. I opened the oven and took out the tray. Yes, the bread had burned, but it was from dough Claudette played with and put in the oven. The two loaves had four thick branches sticking out of each, like a tree. They were now useless not only because of them being burned, but also because they would look ungainly in a bakery window. I placed the bread onto the table, and told the old man I was going to have a talk with Claudette.
“Claudette, why are you doing this?” I asked her, “You’re seven years old, not a baby anymore!” She looked up at me with big honest eyes.
“I know, but…” She paused for a moment, lowering her head. “I saw the old man without hands, and I wanted to cheer him up a little.” I sighed and squatted down to her level.
“I understand that you had good intentions, but this man would react to your kindness in a way you wouldn’t expect,”
“What do you mean?” I had a feeling that I was going into situations a seven year old girl wouldn’t understand.
“Some veterans see normal people with hands and they envy them, the sight of hands may anger them.” I was expecting her to ask why, but her response surprised me.
“They all wish they were normal again, don’t they?” That response was so unusually wise for a seven year old girl who barely knew her father. I took a deep breath,
“Some do, my dear. Some really do.” I replied as I wrapped my arms around her body. “But that doesn’t mean you should waste our dough. Ever since papa got his war wound, our bakery has hit hard times. We need all the dough we have.” It was then I realized that Claudette wasn’t looking at me anymore. She was looking at the old man.
He lifted his arms a bit, and tapped into the bread, as if trying to reach it. He then, however, placed his arm on top of the bread, trying to force his other arm into it. He just didn’t have enough strength to break the bread, and he wasn’t intending to destroy the bread. Suddenly the loaf slipped his grasp and fell onto the floor. It didn’t take long for Claudette to come running towards the old man; she picked up the bread, poking a hole in the back.
“Give me your arm.” She said nicely, her hand extended to the old man. He slowly reached his stub towards her. She took a hold of it and slowly stuck his arm into the bread. He then set it down on the table, staring at if for several minutes. Then… he smiled. The way the bread rested on the table looked exactly like thumb-less hands, resting palm first onto the table. I couldn’t help but smile with him. That motivated Claudette to place the other bread onto the other stub. The man grinned from ear to ear. Now both loaves looked like big thumb less hands. It took him a while to actually lift them, and he didn’t care that they didn’t have thumbs, he had hands now.
I didn’t take him outside until a few days after I found him. As I expected, he got a lot of attention from the town; but to my surprise, more people started to come to our bakery. Claudette saw this opportunity to bake bread in identical style as she did with the old man, who still lived in our household. People immediately fell in love with the ‘Hand Bread.’
The old man’s fate is bittersweet. Only two weeks after I took him from the street, I went over to wake him up, only to find that he had died peacefully in his sleep. Now, sitting here in an apartment in Paris, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, I can’t help but think of the old man. Throughout the two weeks he lived with us, he never spoke a word, but during that time, the joy of my daughter’s gifts for him had no need for words. Neither is the long success for our bakery that this man inspired. This old man with hands of bread.