FATHER RENOIR'S HANDSA short story by Brandon J. Shaw Father Renoir has the largest hands in the village. Admittedly, there are only three hundred or so souls nestled peacefully on the tiny spit of land that makes up Santa Rosaria, and many of them are women and children. Even so, it is likely that the burly priest's hands would be the object of discussion in the larger towns that inhabit the more fertile lands farther North and South. Father Renoir has spent time in these towns, but he does not talk about them, preferring instead to discuss the salvation of the little flock he has chosen as his own. He lives by his hands. He has used them to great effect in the three years he has been in Santa Rosaria: gripping building poles as youths take turns to hammer them into the ground; spreading them wide and splaying his artillery shell-shaped fingers to illustrate some high point of his weekly sermon; wrapping them around a boule and propelling it with deadly force toward a shy cochonnet. Right now, those meaty, massive, hands are clenched round the throat of Maria Trote, and the little slut is paying the price for leading his thoughts into peril. Maria's hands are tiny and soft. They scrabble against his fingers like little crabs gasping their last on some foreign and uncaring rock. Her lips spasm, forming screams of terror she has no breath to fuel. Father Renoir hunches his rock-like shoulders and tenses. There is a sharp crack. Maria stops fighting, and hangs still and broken in the air below his grip. Father Renoir stares at her for long moments, then shakes his head as if dispelling the last traces of some red inner fog. He lowers her to the ground, and spends several minutes gathering the shreds of her pretty Sunday dress from the surrounding grass. Once he has draped them over her still form he lifts her in his big, strong arms, gives her one last kiss filled with all the passion he has ever held for her, then drops her six-year-old body over the cliff and into the angrily protesting sea below. As the body strikes the water he is already turning away from the edge and striding back toward the town. He is washing his trousers in the big iron tub at the back of the church when a delegation of visitors rounds the corner of the building. He removes his hands from the soapy water and wipes them across the front of his shirt. The men are upon him before he can dry them completely. "Father, you must help." "What is it?" He rests his wet hands on the speaker's shoulders. Gabriel Trote is a small man, stooped and balding. He raises eyes dulled by years of subsistence survival toward the priest. It is a look that Father Renoir has yet to grow used to. "What's the matter?" "Little Maria..." "Yes?" He tightens his grip reflexively, wills himself to relax. "She did not return to the house for lunch. We've looked everywhere." Father Renoir frowns. "What about the beach?" "Everywhere." Trote shakes his head. "She is nowhere. Please, Father..." "Come inside. We will organise a proper search." He turns, and one arm around the shoulders of Maria's father, leads them into the warm embrace of the Church. It takes several hours to scour the spit. No rock remains unmoved, no floorboard unlifted. At the centre of it all stands Renoir, his big hands constantly moving: pointing villagers towards new areas to investigate, clapping men on the back in encouragement of their efforts, directing the people around him like a puppeteer giving a command performance. Maria Trote is a popular child, pretty, joyful, a friend to all. No effort is spared to find her. Dusk is falling when the exhausted Santa Rosarians gather at the open end of the town. Father Renoir spreads his arms and shrugs. "Nowhere?" The crowd murmurs unhappily. The priest hangs his head, hiding his reaction from their ages. "Then there is nothing to do but pray for her safe return." "Wait!" The balding head of Gabriel Trote pushes to the front of the crowd. He looks up at the bigger man, his thin farmer's hands spread wide in supplication. "What about the cliffs? The forest?" "It is getting dark," the priest replies. "It is too dangerous." "All the more reason! My daughter... out there alone..." He waves a wild arm at the darkening world beyond the clearing. The villagers rumble agreement. Father Renoir scans their determined faces, then tilts his head toward the forest. "Okay," he says at last, "But not the cliffs. I don't want anyone to fall, and in this light... I don't want anyone else..." He does not finish the thought. The villagers' faces tell him he does not need to. Gabriel closes his eyes in pain, and nods slowly. "The forest, then," he says, his voice thick with sorrow. "We may still be fortunate." "God allows fortune to those who love him," the priest replies, a relieved smile creasing the corners of his eyes. A party of a dozen men is quickly assembled and fitted out with lanterns and warm clothing. Father Renoir leads the way to the forest edge, a lamp held like a toy between thick fingers. Once there, he pairs the men off and sends them in different directions, until only he and the shivering Gabriel Trote are left. "Are you ready?" "Yes." The smaller man draws his jacket tighter around his wiry shoulders. "Are you cold?" "No, no, I..." Gabriel looks at the ground. "It is not the cold. I am afraid. Maria, she... she's dead, isn't she Father?" Renoir steps back, and hides his reaction from the light. "I don't know, Gabriel. You should hope God's will is not set on it." Trote looks as if he wishes to say something more, but he merely turns his head toward the forest and draws his arms in tight to his body. Renoir pulls back a low-hanging branch. The two men step through, into the surrounding arms of the trees. The forest is an old place, twisted and tangled upon itself like a worry carved in wood. Renoir and Trote struggle forward by inches, cut off within seconds from all thought of their fellow searchers. It takes them fifteen minutes to push through as many metres. The more they strain through the heavy, whipping branches, the more Gabriel Trote's breath turns to sobbing. Eventually he falls to his knees, and buries his face into his dirt-encrusted hands. "Maria," he moans, "Oh my little darling. Forgive me. Forgive me, Maria." Father Renoir stops and slumps against a tree, wiping his forehead with one heavy hand and pointing the lantern at his companion with the other. He frowns. "Gabriel?" "Oh, Father. Forgive me, Father. It was a moment, I swear, just a moment. And Maria, she... she...oh God..." "Gabriel, what is it? What are you saying?" "Maria." Trote raises his grief-ravaged face toward the priest. "She was dressed up, so prettily. So pretty, in her Sunday dress and her panties, her little panties..." he holds out his hands toward Renoir. "I just... it was only a moment, one moment. She ran, ran out the door and into the street..." Renoir stares in shock, barely feeling his knees buckle. He reaches out to the tree and steadies himself.