A change of skin by Mari Ellis Dunning (Lucent Dreaming Issue 8)

Come through. Step over the stream, that’s right. I’ve got no tea to offer, I’m afraid, I don’t drink it anymore. But I can recommend the gooseberries from that bush over there. The juice is so sweet when they’re ripe. Go on, take a handful.

We don’t get your sort here often, not this deep into the woods. There was a hiker once, lost. He crouched on the log right next to where you are now, looked relieved to see someone, until he realised what I was. Or maybe what I wasn’t. A someone, that is.

You’re not a lost hiker though, are you — I thought you might be, when I saw you pushing the branches aside, clambering your way through the shrubbery, but you don’t have the right gear for it. No rucksack at your back like an overbearing shell, no hard-toed walking boots anchoring your legs to the mulch of the forest floor.

If you’re not lost, you must have come all this way on purpose? Have you been here before? Not many make it this far deliberately, but I can see you’re determined. I suppose you want to know my story? They always do. Why else would you have dragged yourself through nettles and underbrush, let the thorns snag at your skin like little hooks?

I can show you some photos of me as a child, or as a teenager, if you’d like. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but looking back now you can see in the photos how awkward I was, how my bones never fitted quite right.

I always knew I was different. Not in the clichéd way all kids know they’re different — I was actually right, I just didn’t know how or why. This is how it went.

The one who found me — my cree, that’s what we call them, those that find us, care for us from afar — she plucked me from the shrubs, my face red and bitter as a currant. I was furious, she said, scowling and thrusting my fists at her. She had to unpick the thorns from my slick of dark hair once she’d untangled my squelching body from the clot of branches, carried me beyond the shadowy canopy and into the sunlight.

Earlier in the day she’d been scaling the edge of the forest, where the houses meet the trees. You know the place, you must have come from there to get to me? She heard weeping pouring like music, melodic and sweet, from an open window. A couple whose baby was born blue and stiff. Bloodied bed sheets. Drooping tulips at the bedside.

Of course, she was an opportunist. We all have to be, in this world, don’t we? Besides, this is how we pollinate, it’s not unusual, just unheard of in your circles. She explained this all to me later, on the night she came back for me. Told me who I really was. Told me where I really belonged.

That first evening, she’d waited until dusk then crept through their window, lithe as a ballet dancer. The baby girl was still splayed in the cot, dressed in pink stripes. If not for its total stillness and the rigidity of its chest, it could have been sleeping. My cree was quick, working with nimble fingers.

Always make sure to carry a needle and thread if you’re going to come with us, she told me later.

She peeled the baby like an avocado, sliced her edges with a clean blade, carefully rolled the skin from the sides of its tiny body, fingers first. She took great care working the wrinkled knees, the sagging ankles. Pulled them loose like old carrier bags caught in a tree.

Then she swaddled me in the baby’s flesh as though it were a blanket, sculpted it around my bones like play dough until it clung, a second skin. A new skin. I was cloaked in the slink of tacky flesh, lapped like a bear cub. That’s when I became, for all intents and purposes, human.

She left me, bawling, in the baby’s crib, waited outside to hear my new mother rushing in to me, crying about a miracle. Calling for my new father. I wonder now, if on some level they knew what I really was. I wonder whether it matters either way.

No need to flinch, it was a long time ago. It’s getting cooler now. Why not sit down on that trunk, it’s shaded from the breeze here. I really am sorry about the tea — like I said, I don’t drink it now. My taste for human things has lessened since I came back to the forest. They told me that might happen. My memory of the human world is lessening, too. Faces have become like watercolor paintings, swimming in and out of focus. Places, too. I know the smell of our back garden – cherry blossom and cut grass – but I don’t remember what shape it was, or whether or not we had a shed.

Anyway, do you want to know what happened next?

I grew up in their home. It was an ordinary upbringing, as far as I’m aware, though I was coddled a little, I suppose. They named me Hope, their miracle child. They dressed me in rainbow colours and braided my hair every day. Sung to me. Watched me like they couldn’t believe I was real, like they were waiting for me to disappear. Maybe that’s what pushed me to leave, eventually. Ironic, isn’t it?

When I was little, I would spin cartwheels across the rugby pitch, somersault around the goalposts — and I would feel my skin shake loose each time. I ached; constant shin splints and popped hip bones.
I dislocated my elbow at twelve. Had to push it back in, buckle it in its socket. I had to give up gymnastics then — I was too prone to injury. I could see it disappointed my mother, she’d always wanted me to do well in gymnastics, always cheered for my cartwheels and forward rolls. She came to every practise. You remind me of her a little, actually. There’s something in the slope of your shoulders, the cardigan tied at your waist, the faint smell of coconut wafting from your hair.

When I showered my fingers would bubble, disintegrating like wet rice paper. At thirteen my back began to itch, puckering a rash between my shoulder blades, pushing out and blistering like the skin on overcooked milk.

I didn’t dislike school, but it held little interest for me. I would gaze through windows for hours, use a compass to scratch song lyrics on desks. Use a sharpened pencil to drag along the warm flesh of my thighs. Once, I carved a boys’ name there and watched the blood bloom in beads as they formed letters. Teachers said: Hope has so much potential, if only she would apply herself. Hope is very intelligent, but she needs to speak up in class. I rolled my eyes at school reports. I knew my parents were happy as long as I was.

My poor parents. My mother daren’t ask anything of me. When I came home one evening, knees grazed and grass stained, stinking of cigarette smoke, she only turned away and let me pass her in the hallway without comment. She waited until later to ask how my evening had been, whether I really was at a friend’s like I’d said. The fug of smoke clung to my hair even after I’d showered, but I think it was easier for her to keep quiet, to pretend everything was perfect, even when I became a teenager.

I was always tall for my age, always mistaken for being a few years older than I was. When we all reached fourteen I would be the one to buy the alcohol from the corner shop, volunteered by my friends to curl my hair, wet my mouth with lipstick, arch my cheeks with blusher. We shared bottles of vodka and swung dizzyingly upside down from the climbing frame in the park, the pitch behind us tilting like a seesaw. We penned our names on the bars in black marker: We were here.

We sloped behind the slide to let boys touch us in ways we pretended to like. By then my wings were spiking between my shoulder blades, pushing at the hollows so I couldn’t let anyone hold me close. I had to guide wandering hands away from my back to beneath my waist. I didn’t know at the time what it meant, only that something was changing in me. Hope has so much potential.

I was perched at the edge of the bed combing my hair, thinking about very little, when my cree came to me late one summer evening. I’d been staring at the blackening sky through the window, watching the stars sprouting one by one, watching the dull moon bobbing. I was feeling unsettled. Right here. Right in my stomach. I’m sure you know that feeling?

She materialised there in the window, framed by the night, tall and enchanting. I felt an instant pounding, here in my chest. I felt the furled wings scratching at my back.

She told me what had happened, how she’d plucked me from the brush, given me over to the grieving humans wrapped in a doughy parcel of their own flesh and blood. She’d been watching me, she promised, been keeping an eye on my growth all that time. She’d come back when she saw I was blooming to full height, saw that my wings were threatening to claw through.

As soon as she drew near, I felt something stir inside, something primal. She looked like me, I thought, tall and creamy and sharp at the cheekbones, thin at the elbows.

She told me I could stay, if I wanted to, safe in the human world. Or I could shed the borrowed skin and head back to the forest with her.

I felt sorry to leave my parents, I really did. They’d been good to me, especially my mother, but I had to learn the roots. The core of me. You’d have done the same, wouldn’t you? Of course you would have.

At first they came in search parties, my parents amongst them, trudging through the gorse with clumsy legs, pulling branches from their roots, tripping over stumps. Calling my name. Calling Hope, Hope like it was some desperate incantation. Swinging torches like miniature suns over the canopy. They thought that I was missing. Kidnapped. Dead. From where I hid I could see the pain in the wide set of mother’s eyes, in the way the light bounced from her pupils, small and black as hard currants. I saw it in the hard stance of my father’s shoulders, the tight movements he made as he wound his way further into the trees.

I wasn’t proud of it. I didn’t want to hide from them, to let them believe I was gone forever. But I had to. Humans can’t know about us. Yes, that includes you, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen a human face, and you feel familiar to me. Besides, who would ever believe you?

I know what they say about me. I’ve heard the rumours fluting in and out of the trees, from the mouths of backpackers and thrill-seekers passing by, looking for our clan. I’ve heard them speculate, share stories about the runaway girl, the feral girl, the daydreamer who took it too far. Away with the fairies, they always say. Mad, they say. But it wasn’t like that. You see that now, don’t you?

You do so remind me of my mother. But you’re right, you should leave, the sun is setting and it’s getting close to dinner time. I live mostly on juniper berries and wild hares, and cup my hands to the stream for water. But the others are not so gentle. They didn’t all grow up in your world, remember. Here they come now. You should really go. Can you hear the snap of branches? Can you hear the shuddering of leaves?

Mari Ellis Dunning’s first collection, Salacia (Parthian, 2018), was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award 2019. The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass, a poetry collection written in collaboration with Natalie Ann Holborrow, launched with Black Rabbit Press and Infinity Books earlier this month. Mari is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, researching the relationship between sixteenth century accusations of witchcraft, the female body and reproduction/fertility. She lives on the west coast of Wales, in Llan-non. ‘A Change of Skin’ was written as part of a collection for which the author was awarded a 2020 Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary, supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Wales.
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