The White Lies of Ivan the 24-Handed

A man had twenty four hands, and each of his hands held a secret or an answer. He lived in Russia in 1913, under the reign of the last Tsar. There were many such itinerant people then, and many made their living from fortune telling or as oracles of astrological research. Let’s call him Ivan, since it’s the most common man’s name in Russia. It’s like John in the US, and it’s pronounced “ee-VON” not “EYE-vun”. That’s important.

Ivan was different than the others in his trade. His extra appendages weren’t fake, and neither was what he showed you. But just because something’s not fake, that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you or deceive you – it just wasn’t Ivan’s fault if it did. He told you the risk up front. He warned you. He even pleaded with you. But if you closed one of his hands around a coin, it was a bargain he couldn’t refuse. You put something in, you get something out.

One babushka gave him a coin and asked about her son. He was caught up in the rebellious trouble of the time – something to do with what everyone felt was coming, and she wanted to know if he was in danger. Ivan closed the hand into which she had put the coin. He squeezed hard, until blood came out, and then he opened his hand, and he held a tooth.

The woman began to weep and begged Ivan to try again. Ivan already knew the answer to her question. The gift was never wrong the first time. It didn’t lie. But because of her tears, and out of respect for her age, he did decide to try again. He needed another coin, though. And he asked her for it, but she didn’t have any more money.

Things were tough all over, and the stoppages and strikes and sabotages in the factories weren’t making things better, at least in the short term. She wouldn’t have any more money for a week, but she begged and pleased with Ivan until he decided to go out into the street and beg for her coin, himself.

The woman waited, and Ivan begged, and very people were interested in coming near him. Twenty four hands, and everyone knew he was a soothsayer, real or fake – some were afraid, some disgusted, but no one gave him money. And then he had an idea. It happened when a button fell from a man’s coat. It was a soldier’s button, an officer’s polished button.

Buttons weren’t cheap in those days. A polished brass button was something you could pawn for a couple of pierogi or quite a lot of soup – enough to get you by for a week if you were careful, and rationed it. Ivan didn’t steal, but with the way the revolution was shaping up, he didn’t think the soldier would need that uniform for very much longer.

So he dug in the bed of snow where the button had landed, fished it out, and carried it back to the babushka. He was careful not to close his hand around it, though – not until he had made it hers. He explained what he had in mind, and asked her if he could buy a bit of her hair with the brass button, because that’s all he could think of to purchase. She readily agreed, and they made the exchange.

The button was hers to spend, and she immediately closed it in the palm of one of Ivan’s hands, which he squeezed as he had before. This time he squeezed and water flowed from his hand. He opened it and there was an eye. The woman started weeping again, more furiously than before, but Ivan calmed and comforted her saying it wasn’t her son’s eye, and she needn’t worry. He had only just had a tooth pulled, but he wasn’t in danger.

The woman asked repeatedly about the eye, but Ivan assured her it was a good sign. It mean that he could see his way home. Ivan didn’t like. He did know the boy was safe. That was part of the gift. You could see what was asked of you, and sometimes a bit more.

What Ivan saw, as he waited for the babushka to leave, was that his theft had been witnessed – witnessed and reported. Now the soldier and other soldiers were coming for him, were even right outside, and he would be taken away.

Ivan didn’t need the gift to know what would happen to him. If a magician or a sorcerer, as they called it, were caught in any crime, the penalty was to cut off the source of his magic. If he had spoken incantations, they would take his tongue. If he had seen into a glass ball, they would take his eyes. The penalty for Ivan was obvious.

Ivan could have fought the soldiers off. Not even three or four of them might have succeeded against twenty four hands, though there was a chance he’d get shot. But Ivan didn’t resist authority. Instead, he held up two of his hands, as they came to his tent to take him. The other hands he balled into fists.

This was taken as a sign that he practiced magic with all but two of his hands, but that there was some good in him longing to be set free. And that’s exactly what happened after the trial, which was brief and summary. All of Ivan’s hands but two were cut off. And he was set free of his magic for good.

Except, that’s not the end of it. Ivan’s hands, each of them that he lost, were payment for his crime. During the punishment, he had picked up each amputated hand, in agony as he was, and squeezed it in the palm of yet another hand, until there were only two hands left to do the squeezing.

Payment was received, and Ivan couldn’t help that he could see beyond normal sight whenever that was the case. What he saw, he only confided in one person, and it’s from that person we get the information. Ivan went and found the son of the old woman, where he was involved in plotting revolution against the Tsar, and told him that his mother was weeping for him, and that he should go home.

That’s what the son did. And he insisted on Ivan walking with him. What Ivan told him was that he had seen the son and his mother’s future, indeed the future of all of Russia, and the young man believed him. He said the country would be taken from the two hands of the Tsar and given into the many hands of the people, just as the revolutionaries wanted. But they would be broken hands, and they would be cut off. They would wither, and decay, and they would never again hold the things that once had been dear to them.

The young man escaped with his mother from Petrograd to Prague, and went on to Paris, where there was a growing emigre community. He went on to become one of the foremost writers against the Russian revolution, and a poet who lamented the tragedy of the wars that followed.

Ivan, on the other hand, is lost to history, except for this one account, and we trust that there is some truth in it, whether real or symbolic, because October *24th* in the year 1917, is what historians like to call the first day of the Revolution, when they took over the government buildings, essentially severing the hands of the Tsar. Whether there’s any significance to this, or it’s merely one of the many coincidences that happen in traumatic times is a question for someone like Ivan.

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