Fiction: I Must Use My Hands by Emily Dorffer

by Emily Dorffer

Mother says I must use my hands.

My fingers tremble as I lift the spoon to my lips. By the time it reaches its destination, all the milk and Cheerios have tumbled back into the bowl. 

“Again,” Mother says. 

Whether it’s because my muscles are weak or because Mother is watching me, my fingers shake even harder. The spoon falls to the table with a clatter. 

Mother’s lips purse into a thin line like a flatlining heart monitor. “You don’t want to end up like your father, do you?” 

I shake my head and curl my fingers around the spoon. If I’m careful, she won’t notice me using my head to help me lift it.


Mother says I must use my hands, but Mother isn’t here.

The other students caress their canvases with each brushstroke. Smooth, unbroken lines intertwine to form beautiful images: a sunset, a mountain, a forest. 

My brush attacks the canvas as if it has a mind of its own. Each jagged line adds to the chaotic tangle of colors. 

I peek out from behind my easel. Mr. Walton is too busy grumbling over our still life projects to watch us paint. With his eyes busy elsewhere, I’m free to use my head. I drop my canvas into the trash and prop a new one against my easel.  

My head waves my brush in midair as if it’s a magic wand. I must at least pretend to rely on it to fool the others as I lift globs of paint with my mind. 

The sound of my classmates’ brushes stroking their canvases fades away until it sounds like little more that a cat licking knots from its fur, and I lose myself in the colors that obey me in ways my body cannot.

Red, orange, and yellow mingle in harmony as I blend them into a wildfire. I haven’t seen colors this fierce since I saw the fire that devoured the forest Dad used to take me to. He used to use his head to fly the two of us above the trees. We could see everything up there from the squirrels scurrying from one tree to the next to the eagles flying through the clouds. 

Ever since Dad left, my feet have stayed chained to the ground by Mother and everyone else’s expectations.  

A hand grabs my shoulder as I smear blackness across my painting’s smoldering sky. Drops dribble down the canvas as my mind drifts elsewhere. 

Mother says I must use my hands. Hers fidget in her lap as we sit in Principal Newman’s office. 

“I just need you to sign your name for me,” Principal Newman says. 

Trying to guide the pencil is like trying to control a snake. The graphite squirms across the paper as my fingers slip again and again. My hands shake even harder as tears drip down my face.

“That’s enough,” Principal Newman says as he hands me a tissue.

“She’s not usually this bad,” Mother says. Her hands tighten into fists until her veins stand out. “She’s just nervous. That’s all.” 

“Amelia is far too old to have difficulty with such a simple task. That’s not the only thing she has difficulty with either.” Principal Newman opens a file and gestures to two paintings from Mr. Walton’s still life assignment. Mom wilts when she sees the rose I painted displayed next to Kevin’s daisy. My flower looks like an abstract red blob aside from its stem and thorns while his looks like the real thing. “While Amelia clearly tries hard, her strokes are far more sloppy than the other students’.” 

“That’s not fair,” I say. Mother’s frustrated sigh makes me pause, but I can’t let Principal Newman twist things like that. “You just don’t like that I’m better at using my head than my hands. See those thorns?” I point to the thin spikes jutting out from the rose’s crooked stem. “I didn’t need to use my hands to make those.”

“They are nicely done, dear,” Principal Newman says as if I’d proudly shown him a scribbled stick figure. “But you’re falling behind your peers.”

“I wouldn’t be if you just let me use my head,” I grumble. “Kevin’s painting isn’t even that good. I can barely tell one petal from another!” 

“Enough,” Mother says. 

That word falls on my anger like water on fire, leaving behind only ashy embarrassment.

“I’m afraid she needs to see a specialist,” Principal Newman says. “The world isn’t built for people like Amelia. If she keeps using her head, the other children might take notice and bully her. As such, I can’t in good conscience allow her back until she improves.”

As if they would say anything worse than what adults say to me every day. 

Mother says I must use my hands. Hers are shaking worse than mine by the time we get home.

“You must use your hands for everything from now on,” she says. “No matter how hard it is, I can’t let you end up like your father.” 

“Why is it so horrible for us to use our heads instead of our hands?” I say. “Just because our version of what’s normal doesn’t match yours doesn’t mean we should change it.” 

“If you used your brain to do more than move things around, maybe you’d know why,” Mother snaps.

Her eyes widen as she realizes what she said. “Amelia, I didn’t mean—”

“I’ll make us lunch,” I say, squeezing the words out as my throat tightens. I don’t bother keeping the unshed tears out of my voice. “Hopefully it’ll be ready by dinnertime.”

Mother watches me start making sandwiches. I can’t help whimpering in pain as I strain to squeeze some mustard onto the bread. 

“You can do it. You just need practice.” She plants a kiss on my forehead. “I’ll prep the other ingredients. You aren’t ready to use a knife quite yet.” 

Mother chops up a small heap of lettuce, tomatoes, and olives. As much as I hate to admit it, her hand looks elegant as it expertly guides the blade. 

Soon, she leaves me to finish assembling the sandwiches while she sets the table. By the time she returns, I’ve already used my head to pack as many sandwiches and water bottles as I can into a backpack.

Mother sprints in front of me and plants herself in the doorway. “Amelia, stop right this instant! You and I both know you’re better than this.”

With a sad smile, I use my head to pick her up and put her in a chair. “Don’t worry, I’ll call you once I get to Dad’s.”

Mother’s muscles strain against my head’s control, but she can’t do anything except cry and beg me to stay as I leave the same way Dad did. 

Mother says that I must use my hands, but I will not, nor will I use my feet. I will use my head to go where I can be free.

Emily Dorffer is a technical editor who has cerebral palsy. She loves spoiling her cat and baking with her mom. Her works have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Breath & Shadow, and various other markets.
You can read a free disability-themed short story anthology she compiled here: