Our young narrator has many skins. Shedding and taking on new ones help them to find their way back home after leaving to avoid more tragedies and assaults. But what price do they have to pay to acquire the one true skin that fits the best?
I shed the first-layer avatar like the skin of a snake, easily, as if I’d outgrown it. Actually, I was trying to revert. I had no connection to my original body anymore. I barely remembered its heavy headedness, its ticking and pounding, and the scents it pressed from its pores. It was so buried I didn’t even have a sense of having aged.
What I did remember was this: what it was like to ride a bicycle across a stubbled field away from an angry house toward blue sky as if—arms spread wide—I could fly off into that sky. There were half-built abandoned houses surrounding the field. My legs were pumping. My budding breasts bound by a too-tight undershirt. Over it, I wore one of my father’s old button-downs. It rippled against my arms. I’d filled one of my sister’s ankle-socks with sandy dirt and slipped it, penis-like, into the front of my underwear. Behold, a real boy was nearly flying, hard-packed dirt bumping under the tires, the bicycle seat pressing my handmade boyish parts against my girlish parts, which were never very real to me, folded up as they were between my thighs like small hands in prayer.
The shedding of this first-layer avatar—its tough, bulky shine—was slow but painless. And it made me think—what really ages?
The second-layer avatar needed to be scrubbed loose like a thick film of grit.
The third—yes, I was manly (I always chose to be manly) and robotic, tall and strong. I chose this avatar after falling in love and being betrayed. I had to unlock bolt after bolt, screw upon screw, shining plates popping loose. Then the chest opened on its own. A hinge squeaked, a door yawned open, exposing a cavity with nothing but a small lit fuse. I dismantled it like a bomb.
I haven’t seen my sister or my father since I ran away shortly after my mother died. Her mind went first, as if it had been nibbled away by the moths let loose in our woolens in the attic. And a sudden fever, headache, the bucket by the bed. Her neck seizing, her body wheeling and tipping. Finally, a seizure, her skull pounding against the headboard.
When the seizure was over, she looked up at me and said, “How can I be so young again? Girl, you are me. Why are you me?”
In one way, I felt a kinship. She was outside of her own body, which was how I lived. And, in another way, I was hurt. I couldn’t ever become my mother. I would never be a woman. And I would never live in an angry house.
I left while people were still coming over with sorrow-induced baked goods.
The fourth-layer avatar was a memory of a memory of a memory lost in ether and fog and the foam that washes up on sandy shores. I had to chase it in order to shed it. It came away like a loose nightgown dropping to the floor. But I wasn’t laid bare.
I’d forgotten my years of pacing, catlike, along cliff edges.
I’d forgotten my Buddhist time of simplicity, just wanting to be fruit bobbing on a limb. (But even as a piece of fruit, I was sure that I was male.)
And then the world that had gone Bankrupt. There was nothing there. Not even my own avatar. Bare shelves, the dream of buzzing fluorescence. Vacancy, dust. I was a brittle shadow and wrote my old initials into the shelf dust: A.S.
I shed the avatar where my skin held the roughness of bark.
I shed the avatar of Mouth Eating World; I’d once been so ambitious. I shed the avatar of Villain and Hero; it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. I shed the avatar of Eye of God; he’d never been a real comfort.
And then, still, another thickened layer. Enamel-coated.
Then, finally, a rind to pull back. Digging my thumbnail into my own skin, I remembered an actual orange. It had pores too and when peeled, it would sometimes release a fine misty sigh into the air.
I knew I was getting closer because I could remember the bike seat’s clitoral hum more keenly, how the line between where it ended and where my handmade penis began was a blur because the penis was as real to me as my own arm. It was the phantom made manifest. The clitoris told it to wake up, needling and needling and it woke up.
It was neurological embodiment, the kinetic equivalent of looking in the mirror and not finding holes.
And then I found the kind of avatar I could afford in the early years after I ran away. False toughness. Bagginess hiding weakness. Tightening my too-big eyes so I didn’t look so vulnerable. A plushness to my body like a stuffed toy, but not a recognizable creature. Off-brand.
A city of near-constant night. Caged streetlights. Barred pawn shops. Bare-boned strays. White-white hippies in fringe vests near the Moto-dome. Prostitutes angling on every corner. Hawkers shouting about currency exchange.
A sprinting lost gazelle.
It fell and hustlers were on it—sawing antlers and leg bones, a slaughter house on the street.
Some were only here to gut things—buildings of their copper wiring, streets of their manhole covers, bodies of their organs…
I kept trying to remember how to shed here. It would come to me. I knew it would. I kept walking, trying to get out of the city.
But I must have gone in a circle. I saw the gazelle again, and now it had been picked clean.
Or was it a different gazelle?
I knew then: I must pick myself clean.
My father had always seemed bearish, wolfish. And the moment he looked up from the kitchen table and saw me as a boy, I saw the flash of recognition. A stony moment. He shook his head woefully, and then tore after me, in a way he’d never done before. It was more the way an angry father would tear after a son. And then he stripped me down. Buttons popped off the shirt. He pulled the back of the undershirt up over my backbone, over my short hair. He grabbed my crotch. “What the hell is this?”
It was mine.
He slapped me. “All you need is a good fuck.”
And the dog barked. And the trees were tossing outside the window. And my mother was crouched and crying in the doorway, hugging my sister’s head to her chest.
Don’t think of it, my mother told me. I didn’t. But an eye patched for too long will rove then go blind. My parts numbed.
After the picking-clean—a delicate task—I landed in a world in which my avatar was pale and soft and bare. I was in a hospital bed in a row of beds. Other patients twisted in sheets and dreams. I looked out the small barred window and saw another window in another building. I held up my hands and wondered what they were made for. They seemed to want to work.
I wondered how to shed this avatar. Nothing came to me. My stomach looked pleated with pink scars. A blue vein ran over the knot of one of my ankles. My eyes felt pinched and tired.
I was sure that I contained a mass of dead tissue and living tissue. I wondered if I could slough the dead and be more alive. I rubbed my arm; the skin gave more than I expected. I rubbed it but it was of a piece. It didn’t show any stitching or binding or knots or seams or beaded welding marks or hooks or buttons. Nothing to undo. Nothing to separate living from dead.
Beside each hospital bed, was a propped frame with a photograph. A personal effect? I picked mine up. I’d been a bony child. My sister, too. Back to back sitting on our old porch steps, we’d braided our hair together.
Longing ages keenly and what sung inside of me was sharp.
I reached under the white sheet and hospital gown and found nothing and felt nothing. There was no avatar left to shed.
They allowed me to leave. A nurse handed me paperwork to sign. They gave me a small stack of clothes—my own. The clothes no longer fit, but as I ran my fingers over the small buttons, I remembered the papers I’d signed to get in.
I understood the pink puckered scars now. “Was I good at bearing babies?”
“Did you notice that your avatars improved over time? That your choices grew?”
“We grant more choices with each pregnancy. You were, in fact, very good. You have enriched the lives of many people. Did you enjoy your journeys elsewhere?”
I had to think about it. “Yes,” I said, but I realized I had nothing to compare it all to. To say no would have been an act of self-loathing. “My journeys have defined me.”
The nurse smiled. I’d said the right thing.
She gave me a final payout and I left.
I hitchhiked until I recognized the marshy air by taste. This was the way the bushes roll along the side of truck. This was the factory; it was abandoned and no longer chuffing. There were more buildings, more gas stations, malls…But still out of nowhere, a marshland surrounded itself with reeds. And I recognized the shape of the marsh.
The field was fallow. The house stood stark and small against the sky. The abandoned houses, half-built, were caving in on themselves.
When I was close enough, I saw a face in the window. My mother, older than I’d ever seen her.
But it wasn’t my mother. My mother was dead.
My sister’s hair was cropped to a bob, more gray than wheat.
She opened the door and folded her arms on her chest.
I said, “You cut your hair.”
“Is that how this is going to go?” she said.
“It’s just that we can’t braid our hair together anymore.”
She tilted her head, didn’t remember the picture or the braiding. “I know why you’re here.”
She turned and started up the stairs. I followed her.
It smelled like home—by which I mean fear. A place where we spun angrily around each other, strangers telling different stories.
My father had always seemed like an avatar of some furry growling version of a father.
My mother had installed a row of locks on the inside of the door to the bedroom I shared with my sister. I didn’t stay long enough to know if the lock would hold him back.
The wallpaper was fraying loose at its seams, as if the house itself wanted to shed.
As kids, my sister and I had run together through thick reeds—snapping them—and walked in rubber boots through the marshes. I missed that now, more keenly than anything else, more keenly than being a boy riding a bike across a field.
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“I just don’t think he should die peacefully in his sleep,” I said, “without knowing what he’s done.”
“You won’t recognize him,” she said, and she opened the door.
The room held a double bed. I recognized the headboard as the same one my mother’s skull knocked against while she seized.
But instead of an old man, there was a boy in pajamas. He was about seven years old, his cheeks fever-flushed. His eyes were glassy, but he was lying on his side playing idly with small plastic horses. He was making them gallop.
At first I thought my sister had a son. But then I turned and looked back at her leaning in the doorway. “Did you think it would be easy?” she said.
This was my father’s avatar of himself as a seven-year-old boy, fevered, in pajamas.
“I want the old man,” I said. “Bring him back!” I felt an old fury rise inside of me—I felt the moment he’d reached out and grabbed my crotch. It was a seizure of memory. I reached for my sister and she took my hand.
“Look again,” my sister said. “He’s there.”
My father before he was my father, before he was a husband, before he was much beaten, before he was scarred up.
“How long have you kept him like this?” I whispered.
“A long time. You abandoned us many years ago now.”
I wanted to defend myself, but I wasn’t sure I deserved it.
“I prefer him this way,” my sister said, “because…you know…”
He was harmless.
I held a wet washcloth to my father’s seven-year-old head, pressed it back into his fine slick dark hair. I held the water glass to his lips so he could sip. I told him stories about robots, giant cats pacing cliff edges, fruit bobbing on limbs, of Mouths that could Eat Worlds, of Villains and Heroes, and Eyes of God.
And a scared plush-toy trying to be tough.
And also of a kid named A.S. with an angry father who was part-bear and part-wolf and how the kid got away.
He loved the little kid. He stared out the window, the gauzy curtains billowing, the trees tossing, and said, “Is the kid a boy or a girl?”
I said, “The kid is a boy, deep down. And that’s where the real truth is always found, deep down.”
“I love that boy,” my boy-father said. “He’s like me except he got away from his bear-wolf.” My boy-father rolled to his back and I watched a tear fall from the corner of his eye to the whorl of his ear. He rubbed at the tear-streak, not because he was embarrassed, but only because it was itchy. “Tell me another one.”
I told him another.
And when I ran out of stories and he was too weak to make the plastic horses gallop, I did it for him.
A week later, my father died as a seven-year-old boy wearing pajamas. Hours later, as if the boy were a cocoon, my dead father swelled and the boy’s body broke. My father’s fat arms and larded shoulders opened wide.
My sister said, “I’d like to forgive you.”
My sister and I became seven-year-olds, our long hair braided. My sister dragged a kitchen chair out into the front yard and she cut my braid then buzzed my hair with my father’s old clippers. We watched my hair flit off in the wind.
And then, for a blur of days, we padded into the marsh silt, letting it swirl around our small, slick boots. The rubber was so thick it made my feet feel deadened.
But then I waded in so deep that the cold marsh water poured over the lip of one of my rubber boots. And the water was cold and good; my foot, I realized then, was bare. The bristling of nerve was so sudden and quick that I called out for my sister and her head whipped around.
“It’ll come back to us,” I said. “It belongs to us, after all.”
“Ecdysis” copyright © 2017 by Julianna Baggott
Art copyright © 2017 by Keith Negley