Dead Skin / New Skin
Encarni stands in the cold in the middle of the park and examines the photo she has just been sent. It’s from Kit, taken on his phone as she straddled him on the bed some time last Sunday before sunrise. The image is mainly of her torso, seen from below. One of her breasts hangs slightly lower than the other, the black and white filter making them look brilliant white beside her tanned chest and throat. She is wearing black knickers whose elastic digs into the skin where her buttocks meet her thighs, and they’ve shifted to the left a little so that between her legs the dark edge of a lip is just about visible. Her head is tipped back out of frame, making her neck appear longer than it is. The strange angle makes her look alien somehow, headless, almost armless, her shoulders disappearing behind her chest as she thrusts it forward. If she’d seen the photo anywhere else, she wouldn’t have recognised her own body.
The image is accompanied by a message:
‘Just reliving this moment. You around tonight?’
Kit is currently Encarni’s only semi-regular visitor, apart from her sister, who doesn’t count because the flat is technically hers too. So far she has managed to avoid having him over during daylight hours. They met a couple of months ago at an election-night party at her upstairs neighbours’ place. She liked his high cheekbones and carefully groomed beard, and the desolate look on his face when the exit polls came in, so she sat beside him for the rest of the night sharing a bottle of Sainsbury’s London Dry. Since then, they’ve gone home together a handful of times after nights out. Tonight would be an exception; she was planning to stay in. She writes back with a lie:
‘Yeah. I’ve got dinner but come over after?’ That way she could avoid having to make too much conversation. She pockets her phone, raw knuckles rasping against wool, and sets off again, boots slicing green furrows through beaded grass. Usually she walks the park’s paved perimeter with its black mulch of wet leaves piled up on either side, but this evening she has struck out into the eerie urban emptiness, towards tree canopies levitating in the half-light. She circumvents an area of lower ground where rainwater is reflecting a solid white sky, her lungs huge with cold air.
Her route is a regular one: along the canal to the park, round it and home. It’s a good hour and a half, at a brisk pace. She enjoys walking, even in winter: the way the heat expands around her torso beneath her layers, contrasting with her fingernails digging numbly into her palms. She likes the way her nose, raw and stinging, starts to run when she comes back in through the front door, as though cleaning out her brain. She likes the way it makes her empty body ache. She imagines her cells burning, consuming themselves. It started out as a morning ritual, but now she often goes twice a day: once when she gets up and then again when the sun’s going down. She has already taken her boots in to be reheeled twice this winter. In addition, three times a week, she rolls her mat out on the shiny wooden floor of a yoga studio. She endures the first fifteen minutes of breathing and meditation, trying to concentrate on the butter-soft fabric of her leggings, or a draught cooling the bare arch of her foot, or the exact sensation of her upper lip peeling stickily from the bottom one. ‘It’s only a leg,’ the instructor tells them as they begin their stretches in a seated position, cradling their right calf in their arms, swinging it from left to right to open up their hips. ‘There’s no need to be scared of it. Your body is capable of more than you think.’
Last week, she overheard Kit talking about her with some friends outside the King’s Head. She was waiting in a cold passageway to use the toilet before they left, having agreed to share a cab home with him after he ran his fingers along the inside of her waistband in the dark. As she leaned against the brick wall, she could hear Kit in the garden as he smoked a final cigarette.
‘You having another?’ someone asked him, on their way to the bar.
‘Nah I’m gonna take off.’
‘I might join you. You getting the N38?’
‘I think Encarni’s gonna let me share her cab, so.’
‘What’s the deal with you and her anyway?’
There was a pause while Kit sucked on the stub of his cigarette.
‘Yeah I guess it’s just, you know. I’m not, like, really into her or anything.’
‘No tits and no arse though. Is the sex even worth it?’
There was some general guffawing. Kit said nothing, but she could just imagine him exhaling slowly, throwing out a noncommittal head tilt, a half-smile. Encarni knows she should stop seeing him, but something about the overheard exchange made her feel powerful. Like maybe she could make herself disappear altogether after all.
The final stretch of her route contrasts sharply with the park’s crisp beauty. Pigeon shit under the railway bridge, gummed and greasy pavements. As she heads down the main road before turning into her street, she passes a parked van belonging to a local butcher. Images of raw meat are stuck onto the sides of the vehicle. A sprig of rosemary and a clove of garlic do little to mitigate the chicken thigh’s unhealthy shade of yellow or the steak’s lurid chemical sheen. Encarni makes the mistake of turning her head towards the shop window itself, teeming with pulpy red muscle and bone. Severed carcasses hang from metal hooks, grisly ribs twisting like strands of DNA. Inside, the butcher can be seen slapping hunks of pale meat across the countertop, blood flecks and threads of fat clinging to its surface. She watches as he pounds a plump breast flat before wiping his wet fingers on the grime of a tea towel in order to hand a customer their change. Encarni feels her organs folding over each other, moving upwards towards her throat.
The last time she ate meat was the night of her mother’s funeral. Once all the guests had gone home, she and Maria were persuaded to stay the night at their father’s place. He barbecued on the back patio, murmuring to his girlfriend as she handed him plates and tongs, while the sisters sat watching in silence through the window. Encarni’s limbs thrilled numbly as the adrenaline drained out of them. When a burger was placed in front of her, she took a single mouthful, felt something cartilaginous squeak between her teeth, peered at its sick pink insides, and put it back down on the plate. The sight of her father sliding a finger into his cheek to flick out a scrap of food, wiping his glistening skin on his jeans, then tearing off a piece of bread bun to sop up the greyish liquid leaking onto his plate forced Encarni to close her eyes for so long that Maria came over and put an arm around her shoulders, rubbing her forearm gently with an open palm. As her father cleared the plates, Encarni saw his girlfriend stop to wipe a slick of mayonnaise off his lower lip.
………‘Thanks for dinner’, she told him quietly, and kissed him on the corner of his mouth. Perhaps that’s the definition of love, Encarni thought: not being revolted by a scrap of fat caught between a person’s wonky bottom teeth.
For a while she tried eating vegetarian products made of Quorn or tofu or beans, but their plastic packaging often bears slogans such as ‘NOW EVEN MEATIER’, or ‘WITH EXTRA MARBLED JUICINESS’, so she prefers to stick to actual vegetables. Whenever she sees Maria grilling a chicken breast or ordering a pepperoni pizza she has to bite her tongue to stop herself from saying that over fifty per cent of raw chicken sold in the UK contains campylobacter bacteria, that supermarket meat is pumped full of water, and antibiotics, and antidepressants.
……..Her phone vibrates in her pocket again and she realises she has been staring at the window of the butcher’s shop in sick fascination. It’s Kit, replying to her invitation.
………‘As long as you do this again. I’m hard just looking at it.’ The photo of her is still there, sitting above their messages. She examines it again, zooming in on the fold where buttock becomes thigh, on the slice of labia between her legs, then looks back up at the butcher’s window. On an impulse, she snaps a picture of a rangy yellow bird hanging from a hook. It is plucked and footless, contorted into a forward fold. She sends it to Kit with a caption.
‘I want you to eat me.’
‘Haha ok ??’
She pushes her phone back into her pocket and walks off.
……..When she arrives home, Encarni catches her reflection, as she always does, in the mirror in the hallway: hair wisping around her temples, glasses spotted with dried raindrops. Her cheekbones and jaw newly covered in feather-fine down. For a moment she is looking at her mother’s face, the one she wore at the end, once the rot had got into her bones and she couldn’t shake the fever. Eaten from the inside out. Encarni turns away in disgust, half shrugging out of her coat, but then changes her mind and, with some effort, reaches up to take the mirror down off the wall. She slides it behind a chest of drawers out of sight.
Once she’s blown her nose and put the kettle on to boil, she sits very upright on the floor, pressing as much of her body as she can into the heat of the radiator. She pulls her laptop towards her and opens a document she’s been working on.
Encarni trades in words. Her words, other people’s words. Two languages whirl together in her mind. This is the upside of having a Mexican mother: a whole other language handed to her on a plate as a child. Some days words slip from one tongue to another as though of their own accord; other days, she has to knead, massage, pummel them into shape. Once in a while she gets the urge to pronounce English words the way her mother used to: ‘Montaigne’ for ‘mountain’, ‘ascuse me’ for ‘excuse me’, if only to hear her voice again, her real voice, not the ugly rasp that guttered from her throat in the weeks before she died.
The downside of biculturalism is having an unpronounceable name. Why couldn’t they have called her something normal, like her sister? Maria doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Nobody has an opinion about Maria, even with the accent, María. But no, she had to be called Encarnación. Incarnation, embodiment, made flesh. Made meat.
………Once she’s warmed up a bit, she gets up to make herself a cup of tea. As she trickles milk into a steaming mug, she is reminded that every bottle of milk comes from a female cow. And that a female cow, in order to be milked, first has to be impregnated. Encarni thinks about milking, about being milked.
1. draw milk from (a cow or other animal), either by hand or mechanically
2. get all possible advantage from (a situation): the newspapers were milking the story for all it was worth.
Since her sister got pregnant and began talking about breast pumps and nipple pads, Encarni has been thinking about giving up eggs and dairy too. Increasingly the thought of ingesting any animal product makes the roof of her mouth feel greasy, her guts heavy and delicate. Now, as she watches her tea pale and thicken, she thinks, involuntarily, of the time she discovered a nest of tiny white worms in a block of cheese. The way their blunt heads flailed as they were disturbed. She thinks, too, of the time she and Maria both got food poisoning when they were teenagers. After passing each other several times in the corridor, Encarni eventually slid into her sister’s bed, preferring not to be alone. They faced away from each other, bums occasionally grazing through their cotton pyjama trousers. Snatching at sleep as she sweated and shivered, Encarni had the most vivid dreams that she was Maria, and Maria was her; that they were the same person. Carnala, her sister has called her jokingly ever since they were children: flesh of my flesh.
After staring at it for a few moments, Encarni abruptly dumps the untouched cup of tea into the sink.
By the time Kit arrives later that night she has downed three gin and slimline tonics on an empty stomach. When he texts to say he’s outside her building, she finishes smoking her cigarette out of the living room window, looks at the photo of herself one more time, then goes downstairs to let him in.
His face is pale, pointed, perfectly symmetrical. He is a little stoned.
‘Hey. I brought some drinks.’
She helps him wheel his bike into the hallway and then they climb the stairs to her flat. In her kitchen, Kit casts around for a bottle opener, muttering something about crisps, while Encarni watches him from the doorway. She is a little drunk, and impatient. She goes up behind him as he unstoppers a bottle of wine and pushes the length of her body into his back. He turns around, surprised but pleased, starts saying something, but she wants him to be quiet so she presses a palm against the front of his trousers. Kit gives a nervous half-laugh, puts down the bottle, and lets her lead him towards the bedroom.
‘That photo’s so hot,’ he breathes. He lets her peel his jacket off, push-pulling him into the bedroom. ‘I couldn’t stop looking at it all week.’
Half of their clothes are on the floor by the time they make it to the bed. Encarni feels his lips on her neck, his teeth grazing her earlobe. She feels a blaze of arousal and lets out an ugly groan of encouragement. When Kit tugs on her bottom lip with his teeth, she bites him back, harder, and he yelps slightly before lowering her onto her back. She directs his mouth to her neck and then her breast.
‘Harder.’ He hesitates but she stares at him until he bites her nipple properly. This time the pain is a hot jolt for her body. She grabs him by the back of his neck, trying to get him to do it again. ‘Eat me’, she tells him.
‘You want me to eat you out?’ He is already compliant, sliding himself down the bed and tugging off her trousers.
‘No. I want you to eat me.’
Kit seems not to understand her; he is kissing her breast now, as if to apologise for having bitten it. His fingers whisper down towards her groin, where his tongue and lips push gently at the folds between her legs.
But this is not what Encarni wants. She wants to be consumed, to burn up into nothing, to disappear. Her arousal dissipates as quickly as it arrived. She is suddenly repulsed by his rounded, too-long fingernails, his narrow chest and willowy waist, his pubic hair cut close to the skin. She pushes his head away, but he misinterprets her. Eager, he sits up and manoeuvres himself to push inside her. The sight of him wiping his lower face with the back of his hand makes Encarni want to vomit. She can smell her own thick, savoury smell on his mouth. She closes her eyes and lies there as he moves in and out of her, waiting for his pathetically laboured breathing to accelerate, for the involuntary high-pitched moan that means he has finished. But she is so unresponsive that it isn’t long before he pulls out of her in exasperation and takes himself in his hand instead. Encarni opens her eyes now and watches as he sits, knees splayed, staring at the ceiling, and milks himself in front of her.
Having allowed him a reasonable amount of time to recover, and endured a certain amount of apologetic pawing, Encarni tells Kit he ought to leave. He is regretful, then embarrassed, then annoyed, but she doesn’t care. Once he is gone, she showers and changes the sheets before getting back into bed. She cannot bear to look at the hair and grit and viscid fluid ground into their wrinkled fabric. It takes only seven years, she once read, for all of a person’s cells to be shed and replaced. We are not our bodies but neither are we separate from them. As she hefts a corner of her mattress to slip on a clean fitted sheet, she thinks of all the dead skin cells that have contributed to its weight.
Maria is lying naked from the waist up on the sofa, a cushion in the arch of her back, trying to express colostrum into a sterilised jar. She massages one engorged, translucent breast with its silvery stretchmarks and stippled areola, wincing every time her fingers press into its tender tissue. The nipple oozes reluctantly; in half an hour she has barely scraped together a thimbleful of the viscid yellow liquid. She reaches over the mound of her belly and sets the jar down on the coffee table.
It’s been seven months since the day John told her he was moving back to the States. She was in the middle of marking a book report when he rang. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Her fingers were stained green from the Sharpie she was using. He said he’d thought it over and didn’t want to be saddled with a child. Saddled, he said, as though he would be the one to do the carrying. Whatever she decided, she should count him out.
………It wasn’t a great surprise, thinking back on it. When they first started seeing each other he would do this thing where if she revealed some detail about herself he would nod or raise his eyebrows as though in interest, but conspicuously avoid asking any follow up questions. For the few months they were together, Maria would lie in bed after she had finished, or he had, and imagine him letting her stroke the appendix scar in the crook of his hip. She’d imagine staying perfectly still, exactly as they were, until the slate air outside swirled into pearlish-grey, hoping that this time he would not get up, pull on his trousers, and leave in the middle of the night.
At first, she convinced herself she could do it alone. She was thirty-four and felt ready: she read all the books and followed all the Instagram accounts. She got used to the lurid yellow of her urine from the riboflavin in her maternity supplements. She knew how big the foetus would be at eight weeks and at twelve, when to worry about spotting and precisely what kinds of cheese she should not eat. She even knew, somehow, that it would be a girl, and that she would call her Rose, after her mother, Rosa. Whenever she thought of the child, she felt a kind of immense softness pushing its way into all her tissues, all her bones. That softness gave her confidence, at least for a while. But now that she has reached full term, she’s not so sure anymore.
Once she’s labelled the jar of supposed miracle liquid with the date and found a precarious spot for it in the freezer, Maria showers at length, sitting legs splayed on a plastic stool with her head resting on her belly so the hot water falls directly onto her lower back. Eventually she emerges and stands dripping on the bathmat, staring at her reflection. She is six days past her due date and moving like an articulated lorry, forced to advance in stages rather than in single coordinated movements. Rolling over in bed, getting up off the sofa – each activity is announced with a series of involuntary huffs and grunts. She has half-heartedly tried a couple of the old tricks to induce labour – long walks, a takeaway curry. Sex is out of the question, unfortunately. Nothing so far has made the slightest bit of difference.
………It is Saturday and Encarni is coming over to prepare yet more healthy individual meals for when the baby eventually arrives. Maria is still drying herself when she hears her sister let herself into the flat.
‘Out in a minute!’
She pulls on her leggings and an enormous tank top before emerging into the kitchen, pulling a comb through her wet hair. Encarni has come bearing six cloth bags full of vegetables.
‘I don’t know where it’s all going to fit. The freezer’s already packed.’
‘You’ll be glad of it next week.’
Her sister is a good cook, a patient one, though she hardly ever eats what she’s made these days. Maria observes her as she moves about the kitchen. Her jeans are baggy around her thighs despite the thick pair of tights she is wearing underneath, and she is still shrouded in a large square scarf that disguises her prominent shoulder blades. Although Maria knows Encarni is not well, there is part of her that envies her sister’s body, the way it seems to fold itself up so effortlessly. There was a time when Maria used to admire her own waist and flat stomach in the mirror. She was the sort of person who would stride naked from the shower to the lockers at the gym then take her time to moisturise her thighs in full view of the other women. Now, though, her stomach is so hard it doesn’t even feel like flesh anymore, more like sunwarmed marble. In recent weeks, long pinkish seams have started rippling open across her skin, tender to the touch. Most disturbing is when she sees the baby writhe beneath her dark, distended belly, as though planning to tear right out of her. If she stands in profile, her bump looks artificially taped on, defying logic, pointing inexplicably upwards. Its exit seems to her by now a physical impossibility.
Maria leans on the kitchen counter watching as a series of soups and curries and stews begin to take shape. She is irritable, uncomfortable no matter how she sits or stands, and she’s had a headache all morning that she can’t shift. Encarni gives her instructions: chop this, no, not like that, smaller, no, not the serrated knife. Eventually Maria gives up trying to help and sits flicking through the recipe book her sister is using. It belonged to their mother: a handwritten A4 notebook stained with a lifetime’s variety of ingredients, its spine long since collapsed, the stitches unravelling. As she flicks through the wafery pages whose words jump back and forth between English and Spanish, she notes the similarity between her mother’s early handwriting and her own. Maria has never managed to cultivate a primary school teacher’s readable hand; hers is slanted and looping. Towards the back of the book her mother’s letters become spikier, more cramped. Maria wonders if her own will do the same, over time.
It’s been two years since their mother died, raw boned and shivering in an English hospice. She hadn’t wanted them to see her, that last day, but the two of them went anyway. The nurses had her on fentanyl by then, so she was in and out of consciousness, and the last couple of times they’d been to visit she’d been too out of it to speak much. According to the nurses, she had been quite insistent that she didn’t want any further visitors. She had said her goodbyes, apparently. Maria was convinced that visiting one last time was the right thing to do, up until the moment they walked into the room. They had seen her mother go through chemo twice by then, watching how it robbed her relentlessly of control of her body. The shaking, the vomiting, the numbness in the hands and legs. It couldn’t be worse than that, could it? But by now her urine was the colour of coffee and she could barely swallow, only suck weakly on a metal straw until she began to choke. And this time, unlike on previous visits, her breathing was shallow and urgent, catching every few seconds as something seemed to stab across her face. Disease had wiped it clean of every scrap of joy. All lines pulled downwards, like they were trying to drag the flesh off her body, and there was a hardness in her eyes that might have been anger, or perhaps regret, which Maria wishes she had not seen. She wishes Encarni had not seen it either.
‘Can you not do that.’
Maria has been flicking faster and faster through the pages, not even looking at the names of the recipes.
‘Maria, can you not.’
‘I’m not doing anything.’
‘It’s delicate, can you just– .’ Encarni tries to reach for the book but Maria slaps it shut before pushing herself back from the counter in exasperation. She wanders aimlessly around the flat for a while, trying to alleviate the ache in her back. Eventually she slumps down at the kitchen table and starts making her way through a packet of custard creams. When a biscuit falls apart before it makes it to her mouth she looks down to brush the crumbs off her chest and notices a dark stain on her t-shirt. She swears quietly through her mouthful.
‘Why is it that I go around leaking half the time but whenever I try and express there’s never any fucking milk?’
‘I read the other day that infant feeding bottles release up to a million microplastics a day,’ Encarni rejoins. ‘Apparently you’re supposed to use glass instead.’
Maria makes a frustrated noise. ‘OK. Great, so what am I supposed to do with the six plastic ones I’ve already bought?’
‘What did you buy six for? You’re only having one baby.’
Maria scrapes her chair loudly back from the table so she has space to stand up. She collects the syringe and a clean jar from the draining board, pulls her t-shirt over her head, sits back down and pulls one veiny breast out of her maternity bra. Encarni stares openly, apparently making no attempt to hide her curiosity. After a few minutes of watching Maria fruitlessly knead the flesh around her nipple, Encarni pipes up again.
‘Did you know that they’ve found trace amounts of DDT in breast milk? And paint thinner? And dry-cleaning fluid, and flame retardants, and rocket fuel?’
Maria slams the empty syringe down on the table.
‘Do you have to?’
‘Did it not occur to you, maybe, that I don’t need to hear that right now? For fuck’s sake.’
‘I don’t know how you can just sit there and shovel junk into your mouth. The baby’s not even born yet and you’re feeding it transfats and dead animals and–’
‘Well at least I actually eat three meals a day. At least I’m not trying to survive on green tea and spinach and air.’
There is a small silence. Encarni’s face has closed and she is jolting about the kitchen, wiping her bony hands, turning off the hob, muttering something about ingratitude, about trying to do a nice thing.
‘Encarni,’ Maria says as her sister pulls on her enormous coat. She tries to scrape her chair back again, but it’s stuck on something on the floor, and her belly bashes into the underside of the table. ‘Encarni,’ she repeats, but she’s too slow getting up, one pale, pendulous breast still hanging obscenely from her bra, and before she knows it her sister has shut the front door firmly behind her.
Maria knows she should go after her but she’s too tense, too uncomfortable to deal with her right now. They should both cool off a bit, then she’ll give Encarni a ring. Besides, she is suddenly ravenous. She stands in her kitchen surveying the array of vegetable peelings and half-cooked lentils. Uninspired, she opens the fridge and stares at its contents instead. There is nothing there she is remotely interested in eating. Her cravings over the past few months have been less exotic than some of the stories you hear – she hasn’t been chewing on sticks of chalk or fishing pickled eggs out of a jar in the middle of the night. Hers have been more like excuses to gorge on a tub of ice cream or a burger, things she would have thought twice about before she got pregnant. Perhaps Encarni has a point. But either way, right now she is driven by something stronger than hunger. She shuffles into her Birkenstocks despite the cold – they’re the only shoes her swollen feet will fit into now – and lumbers out into the street, heading towards the main commercial thoroughfare. People smile encouragingly at her as they hurry past, giving her a wide berth, as though worried she might eject the child there and then onto the pavement.
When she arrives outside the butcher there is a queue, so she spends a few minutes taking in the window display in all its red and white glory. Inside, the strong ferrous smell makes her salivate. There is a certain gothic beauty to the tray of sliced lamb’s liver, uniformly slick and dark. She imagines sinking her hand into a bowl of premium sausage meat and squeezing slowly until the cold meat spurts deliciously between her fingers; she’d like to operate the machine, feel the lengths of glistening, gelatinous sausage slide along her palm. In the end she settles on a large sirloin steak with a layer of white fat as thick as her thumb.
Back in her kitchen, she opens the bag on the countertop and flips the steak out of its butcher’s paper. Suddenly impatient, she picks it up, feeling the damp, cool weight of it in her palm. She brings it to her face, runs the layer of silky fat over her bottom lip and pushes her tongue into the dark centre of the meat. It tastes clean, metallic, vital.
Eventually she blinks, puts the steak down, places a griddle pan on the hob. That’s it, I’m finally losing it, she thinks, Encarni would lose her shit if she could see me. She gives the steak four minutes each side, then tips it onto a large white plate and seasons.
She has taken only three bites of the perfect soft pink steak with its salty seared exterior, when she feels the first movement in her abdomen.
Like a bowling ball weighing down on her bowels, tightening the bones of her pelvis. She drops her knife and fork and leans against the edge of the table, breathing through her mouth, her heart suddenly high and fast in her chest.
It is eight hours before Encarni finally picks up the phone, by which point Maria has arrived at the hospital alone, in a taxi. She is wearing a scratchy gown, there are pads and wires attached to her stomach, and three different people have already inserted their fingers into her cervix. She has cried at least twice and has even, just wanting to hear someone who wasn’t a stranger, called John, who did not answer the phone.
When she finally hears her sister’s voice enter the room, she lolls her head to one side, eyes heavy, searching. ‘I’m so sorry, I put my phone on silent because I didn’t want to talk to you, I should never have left, I don’t know why, I–’
Encarni babbles on but Maria barely registers her words. She is too busy looking at her sister’s face. She looks frightened, Maria thinks. Too thin. She looks like their mother did before she died. And despite everything that happens over the next twelve hours – all the surgical instruments and evacuations, the regurgitated steak – that realisation remains the most terrifying thing of all. Because she cannot do this without her, Maria knows. She cannot, after all, do this alone.
After many hours, the tenor of pain changes; there is a stretching and burning as skin starts to rend, red blood unfurls out of nowhere, then finally her screams engender new screams, the screams of something pushing its way out into the room. An amphibian, prehistoric creature pressed to her chest, so small its legs fold right up underneath it. Grey, unseeing eyes, delicate folds of new skin yet to fill out with fat. Like someone’s tender, wrinkled insides.
She will remember little of those first hours except that her body hurt in ways that were generalised and unspecific, dissociating her from her own organs and limbs. When the child screams, the nurses help her tiny gums clamp onto a swollen breast, and then take her away until she screams again. Maria barely has the strength to hold her to her chest. When she finally sleeps, she finds herself stumbling through a labyrinth, hands slippery with blood and dark mucus, pulling along an endless rope of flesh. Her eyes are the mouth of a starfish, breathing water.
Two days later when Maria comes home from the hospital, Encarni runs her a bath and promises she and Rose will be fine without her for an hour. Behind the closed door of the bathroom, Maria pulls open her maternity leggings, releasing the folds of her belly with their ragged red stripes. She peels the fabric slowly down her thighs and tugs them off each heel, one hand pressed into the tiles of the wall. She turns her back to the mirror, not wanting to see her flesh bulge unnaturally where her clothes have sliced into her skin like cords. She prefers not to look, either, as she removes her disposable knickers, which she rolls up into a ball and stuffs in the bin.
She dips one foot and then the other into the soapless water and crouches to rest her buttocks on the cold edge of enamel. She stares at the wall for three minutes, four, until her ankles stop tingling, then carefully eases herself in. There is no strength even in her upper arms, so she is clumsy, knocking one hip against the side of the bath as she tries to slow her descent. When the water reaches her vulva, there is an acid, slicing pain that provokes a wave of nausea. But gradually, gradually, everything eases. Eventually she looks down. Already the water has turned an alarming reddish pink, the colour swirling outwards from between her legs. A dark clot clings to her inner thigh. Gingerly, she touches her lips, blotchy and engorged, then inches her fingers back towards her perineum. She experiences it as a whole other organ, not her, not hers. It is tender, prickly – she counts one, two, three stitches, perhaps more, across its swollen length, then pulls her fingers away. It throbs. She manoeuvres herself, infinitely slowly, until she manages to lie back, the skin of her stomach lifting unevenly in the warm water, like the flesh of some dead invertebrate.
When the water begins to cool, she tugs the plug out with her big toe and watches as the tide pulls away from the shore of her body. Puddles remain. Fine hairs raise their heads. She lies there, naked in the empty tub, and cries, thankful that Rose’s own screams in the next room are drowning out her ugly sobs. Only when her shivering becomes uncontrollable does she finally haul herself to her feet.
Wrapped in a dressing gown, she stands in the open doorway of the bathroom. Encarni is bouncing the child in her thin arms as she wanders around the room, Rose’s head thrown back in blind, ineffectual fury. Even at this distance, the sound of her daughter’s screams is colossal, solid, all-consuming. For a moment she cannot bring herself to approach it.
Eventually she goes over and takes Rose into her lap, letting the dressing gown fall open to see if she is hungry again.
‘You OK?’ Encarni asks, seeing Maria’s puffy face. She arranges a cloth over Maria’s shoulder.
‘Yeah.’ Maria tries vainly to insert a nipple into the baby’s mouth. ‘I wish Mum–.’
A short pause.
‘Yeah. Me too.’
Maria watches as her sister tentatively cups a hand around the back of the child’s head, then strokes a rough cheek with a finger.
‘Hi, Rosie, hi, hi,’ Encarni murmurs.
Silence suddenly flows into Maria’s brain like cold water, and she realises the child has finally latched onto her breast. Encarni smiles, rearranges the muslin for her. Holds her hand. Sits and watches as she nurses this brand-new person with Maria’s own skin.
Ellen Jones is a writer, editor and literary translator from Spanish. Her recent and forthcoming translations include The Remains by Margo Glantz (Charco Press, 2023), Cubanthropy by Iván de la Nuez (Seven Stories Press, 2023) and Nancy by Bruno Lloret (Two Lines Press, 2021). Her monograph, Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas is published by Columbia University Press (2022).
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