Updated on May 24, 2015
Skin – Part Two
Skin – Part Two
Aletheia hit the alarm clock and sat up. She stretched as the remnants of another night’s dream faded from her skin. She looked at the winged, snake-like creature coiling around her left arm and recalled that in the dream it had chased her. Now its bristling hairs and dripping teeth were horribly clear on her flesh and she felt a sensation like cold fingers down her back. She threw off the sheet; the dimming pattern of rippling water on both legs reminded her that she had waded through a freezing river to escape. She paused for a moment before looking at her navel. It was surrounded by a ring of thorns, exactly like those that had pricked her as she huddled in the imaginary undergrowth. She realised that she had been holding her breath.
Silence ticked by in the empty room and gradually the night’s etchings faded from her body. She sat still, willing herself to remain blank, but her skin was already anticipating the day. Her hair had come loose in the night and hung down her back; she gathered it up into a ponytail and fanned her neck with her other hand. The she reached under the bed, pulled out a crocheted blanket and wrapped it around herself. The itchy wool scratched her skin and stifled her, but for a minute she sat still, breathing in the fabric and searching for the lingering scent of him. For the past week it had begun to smell of her own sweat. She took it off, folded it carefully and stored it back under the bed.
A clock appeared on the back of her left hand, stained gold by the daylight reflecting off her ring. Aletheia crossed the hall without looking back at the empty unmade bed, and ran the shower ice cold. As she stood under the running water more images scrawled themselves onto her wet skin: a circlet of coins around her neck; little black footprints all over the soles of her feet; a red heart punctured by thorns surfacing over the real beating organ.
She dried, dressed and stood for a minute in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, tracing the movement of sunlight across her body. She wore sandals, small shorts and a cropped sleeveless top fastened at the back with two thin strings. Her hair was tied back. Long, covering clothes were an indicator of a person who had something to hide. It did not matter anyway, since everybody was only going to see what they wanted to see. Daily she laid herself bare for misinterpretation. Aletheia ran her fingers across her bare stomach and sighed.
The pavement slabs radiated warmth and the little flowers that grew through the cracks stood still and upright, their faces open and turned up to the sun. She had left the house without looking into the living room. If she had turned her head she would have seen the mantelpiece and the black frame, facing the wall, scratched and without glass. She pulled the heavy door shut behind her and walked down the short garden path, out of the shadow cast by the house. At the noise of the door a flock of birds lifted into the air and wheeled in front of the sun, scattering quick shadows across the hot softened tarmac of the road. The sound of their wings filled the air like heartbeats.
Perhaps these same birds had been frightened into flight when Amin slammed the door on the morning that he left. She shuddered, despite the heat. She had not seen him that angry before; his skin had never shown weapons. He had looked just like her ex-husband. Fury made both of them ugly.
As she walked away the palpable weight of the house at her back lifted, finally allowing her lungs to expand and fill with warm morning air. The street was busy with commuters on foot, all sleepy-eyed and half-drawn. There were children on skateboards, sliding along railings and handrails, their limbs exploding with triumphant fireworks. She fell into step behind a man and woman walking hand in hand. His freckled back was almost entirely bare, except for a speckled egg between his shoulder blades. Aletheia stared at the egg, wondering what it could mean. Perhaps he was simply hungry, perhaps he was excited. Or maybe something in his life was in delicate balance, at risk of shattering.
A drop of water landed on Aletheia’s cheek and within a few seconds the dusty street was congealing under the light droplets of a spring shower. The water briefly stained the hot pavement with dark spots and evaporated almost as soon as it had reached the ground. Imitative raindrops pooled around her ankles. Aletheia ducked into the corner shop at the end of the street and looked back outside in time to see the man with the egg leading his pregnant companion under the awning of a nearby shop.
“You’re still worried about money?” Mrs Veart pointed at Aletheia’s neck.
Mrs Veart was the owner of the corner shop and one of the few people Aletheia knew with a permanent image on her skin, which she saw as the old woman turned to pick out a newspaper from the rack behind her. The other designs changed daily like everybody else’s, but this one lingered as if it had been mercilessly carved into her aging flesh. It was a rod with a single snake entwining it, running down the length of her spine.
“I’m paying this month’s bills on my own,” said Aletheia.
Mrs Veart held her hand; it was warm and slightly sticky.
“He’s still with his brother?” she asked.
“You’ll have to talk to him some time.”
The day after Amin left Aletheia had visited the shop. Previously she had only ever spoken to Mrs Veart in innocuous greetings and niceties, but the woman had seen the sadness all over Aletheia’s body and asked what the matter was. Aletheia had broken down and told her what had happened. She said that they argued about their future; she did not tell Mrs Veart what Amin had seen on her stomach.
“Just for an explanation if anything.” She was still talking and Aletheia wished she would stop. “I mean, to confront you with that one day out of the blue. And to threaten you! You need to tell that man what’s what, you do.”
“I’m sorry Mahlon’s still sick,” she said when Mrs Veart paused for breath.
The woman sighed, ran her hand across her wrinkled forehead and began to recount her most recent visit to the hospital where her son was a long-term patient. She seemed not to notice the abrupt change in conversation, and the cloud that slipped onto her features appeared so subtly that it seemed to have been there all along.
“He’s in pain all the time and there aren’t enough donors,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I mean, it’s so natural but it hurts him every time. He says,” – her voice fell to a whisper – “he says that every image feels like it’s being branded onto him. And of course he can’t stop it, because who can stop themselves thinking?”
“But there are so many Villages; there surely must be thousands of donors?” said Aletheia.
“And thousands who need treating. Only Nudes found within the city limits can be made to donate. And the procedures are painful. Blood, bone marrow. It’s no wonder Village volunteers are thin on the ground.” Teardrops drew themselves in a ring around Mrs Veart’s features. “It’s outrageous if you ask me. I say anyone born Naked has an inescapable duty to help people like Mahlon. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
The teardrops clustered all over the old woman’s face, on her lips and to the end of her nose. She would need to take a nap to clear them. Aletheia squeezed Mrs Veart’s damp hand, paid for the newspaper and stepped back into the street. The rain had stopped but the air was still hot and oppressing. She continued down the street, wishing she could sleep at night.
Read Part Three.