They’ve always been like this, my hands — coarse and heavily-lined — or at least for as long as I remember. 'Old man’s hands', people called them in school, pointing in mock disgust as I tried to stretch my sleeves to hide them. Back then, I suppose, they did look out of place, the wrinkled skin not mine but that of someone else, someone older.
Now, a quarter century later, they no longer seem incongruous. They are more certainly my own.
With my fists clenched, the skin tightens along the back of each finger, leaving pink lines like scars or tiny rings. Relaxed, those lines become folds and furrows, the creases deeply carved and puckered wide around the knuckles. Towards my wrist, the corrugation is less pronounced, but the space between each wrinkle shrinks. I know it like the back of my own hand, the saying goes. Well I’ve been looking at these hands for nearly forty years, and still they hold surprises.
It is my palms though that are the most distinctive part of all. Laid flat, they have a cartographic quality, like a map of motorways converging, of slip roads and cul-de-sacs, of shortcuts and scenic routes. My skin is an elaborate chart, a mesh of intersecting pathways. But where might all these lines lead?
The practice of palmistry — of divining the future from the hands — is ancient enough that its origins are uncertain. It may have developed first in India, but has been known across Asia and Europe for thousands of years.
The basic principle is simple: our hands reveal our character, and something of our fate. This map has meaning, the theory goes; it can be deciphered.
There are three key lines to which a palm reader pays most attention: heart, head and life. The first two run crossways, side-to-side, and in shape and length are said to indicate a person’s emotional and intellectual traits respectively. The life line begins between the thumb and index finger, and curves down towards the wrist. The form of that curve denotes one’s health and vitality — as well, some say, as how long you might live. In addition to these three, there are numerous other lines, marks and ‘mounts’, from which a reader might learn, for instance, whether or not you will get married, the number of children you will have, your likely career path and financial success. A whole lot of information about one’s future can be gleaned from the hands.
It is possible to disbelieve something and yet be drawn to it regardless, to hunt for the ghost that you’re sure is not there. I don’t think that my life is mapped out on my skin, or that my future is already decided. But still I can’t help but wonder what exactly it might say.
There are a number of difficulties with trying to read my own palms. The first is that I’m not exactly sure which hand qualifies as ‘dominant’ — the one in which my fate is held. I write with my left hand, but for most tasks would choose the other. The right has more strength, the left more precision. The palms of each look quite different.
The second problem is the sheer quantity of lines that are there. Compared to the diagrams I have consulted, my own palms are a mess, a tangled thicket, from which it seems impossible to pick out what I’m looking for. Is that long, sweeping curve my life line? Or should I be looking at the broken crease beside it? Does this muddle itself say something about my future? Is it going to get complicated?
As it turns out, I don’t have the right sort of curiosity to find the answers to these questions, nor any faith that what I learned might turn out to be true. What I want, in fact, is not to read my palms at all, but for someone else to read them for me. I want the strange, awkward intimacy of that act: to have them be examined, and to be told what they reveal.
It is an odd contradiction of language that one’s hands can be said to hold both a destiny that is already decided — that is imprinted and waiting to be read — and one that is entirely your own to choose. The future is in your hands say those who think that strength of will is all it takes to achieve what you desire. Such a belief, in the supremacy of individual resolve, is founded no less on faith than palmistry itself.
The distance between these two outlooks on the future — between divination and free-will fundamentalism— is enormous. And yet both come back to the same place: to the hands, and what they say about who we are.
In those years when I sought to hide my hands away, when I tried to cover the wrinkles with my sleeves, I felt as though they were not mine at all. They were unsightly, mysterious, an anomaly. I did not imagine that I might grow into them, and that this skin would one day be my own.
Perhaps I should have looked a little closer.