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By Way of Introduction:
The Tale of God’s Hands

by Rainer Maria Rilke

as translated by Gunilla Zedigh –

Rilkekind“What a fall we’re having!” she exclaimed after a moment’s pause, and looked up into the sky.Recently, one morning, I ran into one of my neighbors. We greeted each other.

I did the same, and it was true—for October, the morning was indeed extremely clear, and quite delightful.

Suddenly, I was reminded of something, and, waving about a little with my hands, I cried out: “What a fall we’re having!”

My neighbor nodded in accord.

I watched her for a moment—her head bobbed up and down. Her kind and healthy face looked most gentle and quite bright—only around her lips and on her temples could some small shadowy wrinkles be seen.

How did she come to have such a face?

I asked her then quite suddenly: “And how are your little girls?”

The wrinkles in her face vanished ever so briefly, but they quickly returned—in an even darker shade than before.

“They’re well, thank God, but…” My dear neighbor began moving forward, and I now walked alongside her to her left, as a gentleman should.

“You know—my children—they are both at that age now, where they ask questions all day long. They ask ‘What?’ all day long, and late into the night.”

“Yes,” I murmured, “there comes a time, when…”

Impervious to the interruption, she continued:

“And nothing along the lines of ‘Where is that horse trolley headed to?’ or ‘How many stars are there?’ or ‘Is ten thousand more than a lot?’ My girls ask other kinds of questions, such as: ‘Can the good Lord speak Chinese, too?’ and ‘What does the good Lord look like?’ Everything is always about the good Lord! But this is not something that you or I happen to know anything about!”

“No—you are right about that,” I said, in agreement. “We can assume this or that, but…”

“Or they ask about God’s hands. What is one supposed to…”

I looked into my neighbor’s eyes.

“If I may…?” I inquired most politely. “You just mentioned our good Lord’s hands, did you not?”

My neighbor nodded. My impression was that she was a little bit surprised.

“Yes, well,” I hastened to add, “it just so happens that I know one or two things about these hands. Quite by coincidence…” I spoke quickly, noticing that my neighbor’s eyes were growing large and round. “I…by sheer coincidence…well…” I then continued decisively: “I would like to tell you what I know. If you have a moment’s time, I’ll accompany you home. That will give me just the time I need.”

“Of course, gladly,” she replied, once I had given her the opportunity to speak. She still sounded rather astonished, and added: “But would you not rather like to tell the children…?”

“Tell the children myself? No, good woman, that is not something I can do. I cannot do that at all. You see, in front of children, I immediately find myself becoming embarrassed. This is, in and of itself, of course, not a bad thing, but the children might misinterpret my disconcertment—and that would make me feel like they thought I was lying to them. And since nothing means more to me than the truthfulness of my tale…What if you retell it to the children in my stead? Besides, you will most certainly be able to tell it to them much better than I ever could—you will know how to piece it all together, and also to embellish it where you see fit—whereas I will now merely give you the simple facts in their briefest form. Alright?”

“Very well, very well,” my neighbor replied, distractedly.

I thought things over, and then I began:

“In the beginning…”

But I cut myself off immediately.

“I am assuming that you are aware of certain things, my dear neighbor, which I would first have had to explain to the children… Creation, for one…”

There was a considerable pause.

The good woman then retorted: “Yes. And on the seventh day…” —her voice was high-pitched and sharp.

“Stop!” I interrupted her. “We mustn’t forget about all of the days that came before it. Because it is exactly these days that our tale is about. And as we all know, it was then that our good Lord set about doing His work—creating the earth, separating it from the water, and commanding light to shine. And then, with admirable speed, He formed things—I am referring here to the great and substantial things on earth—such as cliffs, and mountains, as well as a single tree, which then served as a model for the many trees to follow.”

I had, for quite some time, at that point been hearing footsteps behind us—they had not overtaken us, nor had they fallen behind us. Disturbed by them, I became entirely tangled up in my story of Creation, and I continued in the following manner:

“We can only truly come to understand how this speedy and most successful activity was performed, if we assume that after long and deep thought everything was simply complete and finished in His mind, before He…”

By this time, the steps had finally caught up to us, and a not exactly pleasant voice came to affix itself to us.

“Oh, you must be talking about Mr. Schmidt. Pardon me…”

I looked over at the newcomer with annoyance, but my neighbor felt a great sense of embarrassment:

“Hmm,” she coughed. “No. I mean. Yes. We were indeed… in a manner of speaking… just now… talking about…”

“What a fall we’re having,” the other woman suddenly exclaimed, as if nothing had happened. Her little red face was all aglow.

“Yes,” I heard my neighbor reply. “You are right, Mrs. Hüpfer. An extraordinarily beautiful fall we’re having.”

The two ladies then parted.

Mrs. Hüpfer was still tittering softly:

“And give my love to your little girls!”

But my good neighbor was no longer paying any attention to her. She was curious to hear the rest of my tale.

I, however, claimed with inexplicable severity: “Well, now. I haven’t the faintest clue where we left off.”

“You were just starting to tell me about His head. That is…” My neighbor’s face turned a deep shade of crimson. This made me feel truly sorry for her, and I hastened to resume my tale.

“Yes, so you see, as long as only things existed on earth, our good Lord had no reason to look down upon it constantly. Nothing much could really happen there, after all. Only the wind had, at this point, already begun to blow across the mountains—which very much resembled the clouds that it was familiar with from before—but it continued to avoid the tops of the trees, as it was rather suspicious of them.

“This suited God perfectly fine, however. God had fashioned things in his sleep, so to speak, and His work had not actually started to interest Him, until He had come to make the animals. He bent over His creatures, and only in a few rare instances did He raise His massive eyebrows to cast a glance down at earth. In fact, as He started creating human beings, He forgot all about the earth.

“I am not quite sure exactly what complicated part of the body He was working on when He heard a rush of wings all around Him—an angel was hastening by, singing: ‘You who sees all…’ Our good Lord was alarmed. He had caused the angel to sin—because, what the angel had just sung was a lie.

“So God the Father looked quickly down at the earth, and, sure enough, something had just occurred that would—more or less—be impossible to rectify. A small bird was darting back and forth over the earth—as if in fear—and our good Lord was unable to help it to find its way back home. He had not seen out of which forest the poor creature had come.

“God became infuriated, and said: ‘Birds are to sit still where I put them.’ Just then, however, He recalled that—at the request of the angels—He had endowed the birds with wings, so that on earth, too, there would be beings similar to angels. This fact only served to make Him more surly.

“Now, it just so happens that nothing is able to cure such a state of mind better than labor. And God soon felt His spirits rise as He began busying Himself with the creation of humankind. He slowly and carefully toiled in His lap—the eyes of the angels serving as mirrors for Him, wherein He also measured His own traits—and He created the very first human face out of a round ball. The forehead turned out quite nicely, but trying to make both nostrils symmetrical was a more trying task. He bent even further over his work, until, once again, He felt a flapping of wings overhead. God looked up. The same angel as before was circling above Him. This time, however, no hymn was to be heard. On account of his lie, the youth’s voice had been snuffed out, but God could see that his lips were still moving in song: ‘You who sees all…’

“At that very moment, Saint Nicholas—whom God held in very high regard—approached Him, and, speaking out from beneath his great beard, he said: ‘Your lions are sitting quietly, though they are quite arrogant creatures, if I don’t say so myself! However, there is a little dog running around on the edge of the earth. A terrier. Can you see him? He’s about to fall off the edge!’ And, indeed, it was true. In the general vicinity of Scandinavia—there where our planet is so awfully round—our good Lord was able to detect something lively and white, dancing to and fro like a small light. It made Him quite angry, and He reproachfully told Saint Nicolas that if he did not approve of His lions, then he should try his own hand at making some. Whereupon Saint Nicolas departed from Heaven, slamming the door so hard behind him that a star fell down, striking the terrier on the head.

“Now, this occurrence made the entire catastrophe complete, and our good Lord was forced to admit that He alone was to blame for the entire situation at hand. And, hence, He decided from thenceforth not to let earth out of His sight. And so it was.

“He left His hands—which are, after all, wise in their own right—to finish up His work, and although He was quite curious to see just how the human being would turn out, He stared unremittingly down at earth, upon which—as if out of defiance—not a single leaf was stirring.

“In order to have at least one small pleasure after all of His trouble, God had commanded His hands to show Him the human being before they delivered him into life. Repeatedly, He had asked—in the way that children do when they are playing hide-and-seek—‘Ready?’ But all He had heard in reply was the sound of His hands kneading—and so He waited. It seemed to Him that it was an extremely long wait.

“Then, all of a sudden, He saw something dark fall through space—and in a direction that seemed to have come from a place very near to Him. He became filled with a dark premonition, and He called for His hands. Hot and trembling, they appeared before Him. They were no longer immaculate—they were entirely stained with clay. ‘Where is the human?’ God thundered at them. Whereupon, the right hand lashed out at the left hand: ‘You let go of him!’ ‘Oh please,’ the left hand replied in a vexed tone of voice. ‘You insisted on doing everything yourself. You hardly let me have any say in the matter.’ ‘You were the one who was supposed to hold onto him in the first place.’ The right hand raised itself up as if to strike, but thought the better of it, and then both hands rushed to speak first: ‘He was so impatient, this human being. He was in such a hurry to live! It’s not our fault. Neither one of us is to blame.’

“Our good Lord was gravely angry. And as His hands were obstructing His view of the earth, He thrust them both away from Him, and said: ‘I’m through with you two. Go and do whatever you want!’ And that is what the hands have tried to do ever since. However, they are only able to ever make a start at things—this is because, without God, there is no completion. Over time, His hands grew weary of this, and now they kneel down and repent the whole day through—that is the story people tell, at least. And to us, it appears as if God is resting, because He is furious with His hands—it is forever the seventh day.”

I was silent for a spell.

My dear neighbor used this moment very prudently. Then she asked me:

“And you believe that God and His hands will never be reconciled?”

“Oh, no, I do,” I replied. “At least, I hope so.”

“And when will this be?”

“Well, not until God knows what the human being—whom His hands released against His wishes— looks like.”

My dear neighbor gave this some thought. She then let out a laugh.

“But He could have seen him had He simply looked down…”

“Forgive me,” I said politely. “Your remark certainly is evidence of your acuteness of mind, but my tale is not finished yet. Just as His hands had stepped aside, giving God full view of the earth, yet another minute—or let us rather call it a thousand years, which we all know is the same thing—had already gone by. And instead of catching sight of one human being, there were already a million of them. And they were fully dressed, as well. All of them. And since the fashion of the time was downright ugly, and also, in fact, served to terribly disfigure their faces, God got quite the wrong—and it must be said, an extremely bad—impression of humankind.”

“Hmm,” my neighbor replied, about to make a remark.

I paid her no heed, however, and instead, I concluded my tale, with great emphasis.

“And therefore it is extremely important that God find out what humankind is really like. So let us rejoice in the fact that there are people who tell Him…”

My dear neighbor was not yet rejoicing.

“And who do you have in mind, if I may ask?”

“The children,” I said. “And also, every once in a while, all of the people who paint, write poetry, and build things…”

“Build what? Churches?”

“Yes, churches. Or just build, in general.”

My neighbor shook her head slowly. There were certain aspects of my tale that seemed to astonish her somewhat.

We had already walked past her house at this point, and now we were slowly turning back.

Suddenly, my neighbor became elated, and she let out a laugh:

“But, really, all of this is sheer nonsense. God is also all-knowing, after all. For instance, He would have known exactly where that little bird had come from,” she said, giving me a triumphant look.

I will admit that I became somewhat flustered, but once I had regained my composure, I succeeded in making quite an earnest face.

“Good woman,” I said, and began instructing her. “That which you speak of now is actually an entirely different story. However, I do not want you to think that I am simply trying to find an excuse” —a notion against which she vehemently protested, of course— “and so I would like to offer you a brief explanation. God possesses every capacity, of course. But before He was able—as it were—to use all of them on the world, they appeared to Him as one single great power. I don’t know if I am expressing myself clearly, but it was so that His faculties became specialized as He created the things on earth—and, to a certain extent, they even became duties. He went to great pains to try to remember all of the faculties that He possessed. There tend to be conflicts in life, however. (By the way: All of this should stay between you and me. Please refrain from telling any of this to the children.)”

“I wouldn’t think of it!” my listener protested.

“You see, if an angel had flown by, singing: ‘You who knows all,’ then all would have been well…”

“Making this tale unnecessary?”

“Exactly!” I attested in confirmation, and wished to take leave of her.

“But are you entirely certain that everything you have told me is true?”

“I am entirely certain,” I answered, almost solemnly.

“Well then, it looks like I will have quite a story to tell the children today!”

“If only I could be there to hear you. Goodbye!”

“Goodbye!” she said.

Before leaving, however, she turned back again, and asked:

“But why exactly this one angel in particular…”

“My dear neighbor,” I said, interrupting her. “I see now that the reason that your sweet girls ask so many questions is not on account of the fact that they are children…”

“But rather?” my neighbor inquired with great curiosity.

“Well, doctors do say that there are certain traits that children can inherit…”

My neighbor raised a finger at me, but all the same, we parted as friends.

The next time I met my dear neighbor—which, I might add, was a considerable amount of time later—she was not alone, and so I was unable to ask her if she had told my tale to her girls, and with what results, if so.

A letter—which I received shortly thereafter—served to dispel the doubts that I had had.

As I have not obtained the sender’s permission to make the contents of the letter public, I must resort to merely telling you how it ended—from which it will become clear to you who the author is.

The letter closed with the words: “Me and five other children—well, because I’m there, too.”

I immediately sent a reply.

Dearest children,

I gladly believe that you enjoyed hearing the tale of our good Lord’s hands—I am truly fond of it myself. Nevertheless, I cannot come to pay you a visit. Please do not be angry. Who knows if you would have even taken a liking to me. I do not have a beautiful nose, and if I were to have a small red pimple on its tip—which does occur from time to time—it would catch your attention, and you would all find yourselves staring at it incessantly, unable to hear what I was telling you below my nose. You would also, most likely, have dreams of this pimple, and this idea does not suit me at all.

Therefore, I suggest that we opt for a different solution.

We have—aside from the girls’ mother—a great number of mutual friends and acquaintances who happen not to be children. You will soon discover whom I mean. I will tell these individuals a tale from time to time, and they will then recount these tales to you—telling them far more eloquently than I ever possibly could. This is because we have many great poets among the friends that I am alluding to.

I will not reveal to you what my tales will be about, but since I know that nothing engages you more—or lies closer to your hearts—than God, I will make it a point to always include something I know about Him, when the opportunity arises.

If anything I should say proves to be incorrect, then please write me another lovely letter, or have the girls’ mother relate your corrections to me. It is possible, after all, that I will err here and there, as it has been quite some time since I have heard the nicest of the tales—in fact, I have, since then, been required to remember the tales that are not so nice in their stead. But alas, such is life. All the same, life is something quite glorious indeed—and that, too, is what my tales will be about.

Yours truly,

Me—which still adds up to just one—well, because I’m there, too.