My enemy’s body is still warm when I take my knife to him. Stripped to his skin and lain upon his back, he looks much less frightening than he had when he was alive, armed, and desperate to kill me. But there is still power in the shape of his relaxing muscles and the size of his cooling frame, and, as he is a foot taller than I am, I feel a surge of pride in my accomplishment that is even greater than the hot pleasure of the kill.
I stand in the middle of the forest, nothing about me but trees and birds and the still body beneath my knife, nothing upon me but the skin in which I was born. I am one of the unclothed, and this is my first kill.
But I am not entirely alone in this, and, as I split my enemy’s skin neatly apart—slightly awed at how easily it separates under the perfect sharpness of my blade—I remember what my teacher taught me. I can hear her voice, as clearly as if she were leaning over me and whispering in my ear.
You must be careful not to let your knife slide in too deeply. If you puncture the intestines you will have to deal with the smell.
I do not want to be a sloppy student, so I am careful, and go very slowly, beginning just above the genitals and slicing upwards, through the skin and the thin membrane beneath, which separates it from muscle and fat.
If you rush, you will end up with holes in your coat. Power is not gained by sloppy haste. You must be patient.
I do not rush, and move my knife upwards steadily until the blade comes to rest at the bottom of the sternum. A second pass to cut through the fat that keeps the intestines inside the body, and when I push my enemy onto his side, his guts spill easily from the opening and onto the grass. But then his arm is in my way, and it takes me a few tries to find a position for the long, hairy limb that keeps it from flopping forward and hampering my work. Eventually, I pin it behind him, and prop him up with his own discarded pack and tools. When I walk around his body to the front of him, to the pile of guts on the grass that smell of moisture and heat and the tang of iron, his blood looks darker than I could have ever imagined.
Some cut through the bones of the ribs in order to access the organs of the upper thorax. But this is clumsy work, and unnecessary.
My enemy carried a saw, to cut through the ribcage of his kill, and I am glad that I was not burdened with such a heavy and awkward tool. Glad that my lighter pack and kit allowed me to be faster and more nimble than my opponent.
Once you have removed the lower intestines, cut the diaphragm away from the body and reach up inside the chest cavity, behind the ribs. Grasp high up on the esophagus with your free hand and use your knife to cut through, above your fist. It will then be easy to pull out the heart and lungs, along with the rest of the intestines.
I have been fortunate in the location of my very first battle; there are enough trees shading the area that the carrion birds haven’t found us yet. But the insects are beginning to gather, blood drinkers and flying, biting worms, and I know that I must drag my enemy’s body away from his guts on the ground, to a place where I can work more cleanly. The biting worms carry many diseases, and the blood drinkers keep buzzing in my ears.
I estimate that my enemy’s body weighs at least sixty pounds more than I do, and he is even heavier with the loose weight of the dead. I move him into a nearby clearing and retrieve a length of heavy rope from my pack.
It is preferable to hang your corpse upside down. But you are still young and it may be difficult to hang your first few kills in such a manner. Casting a noose about your corpse’s neck will be far easier in the beginning.
Hauling him up high enough that his feet don’t drag on the forest floor takes all my strength, and by the time I finish I am panting and sweating as much as I was when I killed him. I stop to rest and drink from my water-pouch as I watch his body slowly stop swaying. And then I start a fire.
When my fire is brightly burning I return to my enemy, and use my knife to cut through the ligaments of his elbow, separating the forearm from the upper arm. Slicing along the inside of one arm and across the chest to the inside of the other arm connects a horizontal slit with my previous vertical one. The skin already looks as though it could peel away all on its own.
Many young warriors are over-eager to take the cape of their early kills. But you must wait. A sloppy cape broadcasts a warrior’s inexperience, and more importantly, the more perfect your hide, the more powerful the strength it gives you. Take your first cape when you have perfected your skill, and take it from an opponent whose strength is unparalleled. Your first cape should be a step toward invincibility.
I cut around the neck and leave the skin above the shoulders untouched.
The smoke from my fire is keeping the insects away. As I curl my fingers into the thick skin and pull, it comes away as cleanly as I was told that it would.
There is a natural barrier between the skin and the muscle. Pay attention to how clean and encased both meat and skin are, and use it to your advantage. If the skin sticks in spots, use your knife to separate it. If you keep the blade pointed away from you, you can avoid accidentally tearing your skin.
I peel his coat from him, stopping to cut through the knees as I had the elbows, clumsily catching one of my feet under the resulting fall of blood and cursing to myself. And then I am running my blade along the insides of both thighs and across the underside of the body, avoiding the penis; genitalia are another mark of skill and strength that I will attempt when I am more experienced. For now I am eager only to make a clean suit that gives me as much strength as my enemy’s broad back and thick arms once carried.
The skin comes away from the stumps of his legs, and that is the last of it. He is naked now, no longer a man. And soon I will wear his strength over my own.
Somewhere ahead of me, a wounded woman is hiding. Soon to be my second kill, she is middle-aged and wearing two skins of her own. She is petite, only just over five feet, brunette, and wire-thin.
She also has a deep gash in her leg that is leaving spots of blood on the forest floor. My teacher told us that we might one day have to track a fleeing kill.
Sometimes they will run. I don’t know why. But you should know how to read their trails, and the blood that they leave behind.
I touch a broken twig, a splash of white against the darkness of the tree’s bark. I am not an animal hunter, but I know that the twig will point in her direction.
There were animal hunters in my village when I was a naked child. Farmers too, and parents with babies in their arms. They all wore three or four skins, taken in their younger years when they were unbound warriors like my teacher. But they never had my teacher’s skill, and they did not have her knowledge, which is why she was brought back to her home to teach the children of her village.
My teacher was the woman I wanted to one day become. I remember how long and dark her hair was, and the way she once sneered contempt at my father when he tried to speak with her. I remember the lust in her voice as she described a hunt.
It is important to push hard. If your enemy is too wounded to fight, he will not be able to outrun you. The hotter you are at his heels, the hotter the blood will be under his skin when you kill him.
Four red splashes on the ground, shaped like teardrops.
Running raises blood pressure, which will increase the blood flowing from a wound. But it will also spread that blood over a larger area. Knowing how much the wound should bleed will help you judge your enemy’s speed. I am careful to run beside the trail, and not on it, so that I do not accidentally obscure any sign of my enemy’s passing. As I follow the direction indicated by the spatters, I can see that she has slowed her pace. She is tiring.
It is not long until I find her, cowering behind a bush. I charge her, knife held high.
You have never felt true power until you have worn your first skin.
She shrieks and brings up her own in defense.
The energy that thrums between your first skin and the new one you have claimed for yourself is like the pulse of blood from a too-quick heart.
My blow is parried; I strike out with my other arm and knock hers sideways, swinging my blade with all the fury in my veins.
When you wear a skin, you can hardly believe the increased strength in your arms, your legs and back.
She ducks and claws at me, nails dragging across my thigh. I grunt, and she howls in my face, stabbing clumsily forward with the knife in her other hand. It is the power of another human being’s life. His drive, his dreams, his love and hate. Everything that makes him a man.
I dodge, swing my arm in a long arc, and fix my knife between two of her ribs.
And as my second kill thrashes on the ground at my feet, I imagine her skin covering my own and feel my belly fill with warmth. I remember my teacher’s voice as she explained the way it felt to take a skin, and for the first time I understand the fierce light of desire that I’d seen in my teacher’s eyes.
Even my first sexual experience, not long behind me, cannot compare to this. I am enthralled by the severity of the anger and fear in my kill’s eyes as she struggles to breathe against my knife, and in a moment’s glorious brutality I take her own weapon from her useless hand and slit her throat. Blood pours from the gash, making her neck slick and red, pooling in the hollow below her throat and dripping down across her right shoulder. She gurgles, lurching forward as if to grab me, and then finally collapses.
My teacher would be proud.
The second time skinning is easier than the first, as I run my knife from pelvis to sternum with what I already fancy to be practiced skill. My hands are steady, confident and sure as I work, but I’m alarmed to find small spots of blood following the trail of my fingers up and down her body. I wipe my hands carefully on the grass, but when I go back to cut away the fat around her lower abdominal muscles I find that the spots are still there. What’s worse, there is a small trickle of blood sliding down between her breasts.
Blood will stop flowing very quickly after the heart is no longer beating.
I reach up in surprise, fumbling under my kill’s left breast until my hand lies flat against her chest, and after a moment I feel a single, unsteady quiver beneath my palm. I am shocked by her will to live.
Clumsily, and after some hesitation, I decide to roll her onto her side and let the worst of the blood fall away until she finally dies. As I watch it grow congealed and sticky on the grass, I regret my haste in slitting her throat, and fear that I have ruined my skin; that it will end up stained brown in spots and marked with the imprints of my fingers. I take handfuls of clean grass from down by our feet and rub them across the skin wherever it is wet and red. Next time, I will be patient, and let her die on her own.
I tell myself that this will still be a good skin.
The greater a kill’s struggle for life, the more power and life will be in the skin you take from him.
I learn my teacher’s lesson well. Next time I will not make a mistake.
Two men. Two men at once, a younger one and an elder mentor of some kind. I scoff to myself as I strip the boy first, waiting for his useless companion to stop twitching. Even when following his charge into the field, this man was never the instructor my teacher was. I soothe my hand down the boy’s smooth flank, while, as I have done every time I have skinned a kill, I imagine my teacher’s deep voice against my ear.
It is known that, before the fire, men dressed themselves in the skins of animals, and so they were like animals, dumb and weak. They killed each other for possessions, for land, for mates, in anger and from fear, and when they battled, they clothed themselves in metals to protect their vulnerable flesh. No one knows who was the first to wear the skin of another man, but it is certain that, when the yellow flame swept across the surface of the world, it was only these few who survived. And it is for this strength alone that we kill.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to die skinless, like the child on the grass before me. To never know strength—or fierceness, or the bright searing pain of ecstasy as you clothe yourself anew—would indeed be like being an animal, and I find in my throat a bitter distaste for the creature I have killed. His own throat makes a squelching sound as I pull it from his neck, his heart and one lung coming away cleanly. The other sticks for some reason: I make a scoop of my hand and sweep up behind the left side of his ribcage to slide it free.
There are many things I cannot fully explain to you, children. I cannot tell you what it feels like to see your veins beat beneath a newly-fashioned skin, or to watch another die and think only of the rush you will feel when you dress yourself in his hide. It is something you must experience yourself. If you can.
If you can.
I toss my rope over a thick tree branch and haul the body up by the ankles, tie it off and reach out to stop it from swaying. My first kill was as unclothed as I was, each of us were seeking our first skin. Now I am the experienced, the master, and heaven help any naked young who cross my path. I glance over to his companion, who is finally lying still, and amend the thought.
Heaven help anyone who crosses my path.
I know the feeling of a power that is too great to ever be put to words, and each kill takes imagination to yet another unforeseeable height. When I am done teaching you, children, I will return to that life, and I will kill again. It is everything that I crave.
His skin makes a wet sound as it comes free of his body, and I grin, letting it drape over my hands. I savor the sensation of it, another person’s warmth heating my palms and the insides of my forearms. I have learned what my teacher meant when she spoke of her cravings: I understand the blaze in her eyes. Because to wear the skin of other men is to know a hunger that will never, ever be satiated.
If I am ever a teacher, I know what I will tell my students. I will tell them how the need for greater strength gnaws like an empty belly, but unlike a hunger for food, each morsel consumed only increases the pain, deepens the hollow pit demanding to be filled. You will begin to hate yourself for your lust for skins, I will say to them. But even if you could stop, which you know you cannot, to abandon the hunt is to become only hunted. And then you will quickly die.
There are some who do abandon the hunt. They return to the villages in which they were born and become farmers or animal hunters, or mothers, or fathers. But I could never live a life like that, weak and unfulfilled.
You are not a man, my teacher had sneered at my father. She had thought him beneath her, and so do I.
I flay the other man and leave the carcasses for the insects, my new skins carefully rolled and stored in my pack to be tanned later. I cannot wait to wear them. There is little left in me but the need to live and the lust to hunt, skin, and tan. The veins beneath my skins are thick as earthworms and a deep, sickly blue, but I am as strong as mountains and as tireless as the wind. I have begun to think that I may be invincible, perhaps immortal. I dream always of skin splitting under my knife, and when I look at myself in a stream or lake, there is a bright fierceness in my eyes that I have seen once before.
The woman’s eyes are wide and slightly dulled by a faint white film, and it takes me a moment to realize that, instead of the stocky giant I took her for at first glance, beneath her skins she is in fact a tall and slender woman. She is wearing more of them than I have ever seen on a single person; her arms bulge with the strength of what must be dozens of limbs, and her posture is strange because her shoulders are slouched under the weight of dozens of backs.
I call out to her, questioning, trying to delay the fight, but the grunting noise that issues from her throat is less a response and more a labored panting, as though the battle has already begun. Her chest heaves under the wiry hair of men and the breasts of other women, and just above a thick layer of collars I can see her neck and the wild, driving pulse below her jaw.
“Please,” I say again. “Wait.”
There is nothing in her save hunger as she shifts her stance, poised to attack. I have never begged before, never even hesitated, and the only battle that has ever frightened me was my very first. Yet now, as my belly aches with the need to wear a new skin, I wonder how much deeper and more maddening the ache within her must be.
I am wearing four skins. It will not be enough.
She charges me suddenly, with a high, alien cry and arms that pinwheel wildly. She swings her long blade more like a tool for cutting grain than one for killing a man, and I hastily dodge away.
But my enemy slices for me again, and again I dodge and scramble back.
Retreating will only take you back to death. You must go forward to victory.
My enemy shrieks again, in fury and lust, and I go nearly to my knees to avoid a swing that would have taken off my head. There is little technique in her attack, but her movements are so fast that it is a wonder that I am not dead already. I try a quick stab forward with my knife, aiming for her bowels, and her fist comes down just below my elbow. I can hear my bones shatter even as her long blade slices across both my thighs. As I fall to the ground, I cannot tell if I am still holding my knife.
I look up and see my enemy looming over me, panting with her need as her weapon shakes in wordless rage. She will slice through my wrists, I think, or perhaps pierce me neatly between two ribs. And then she will strip me and skin me and leave my naked body hanging in the air, a dripping carcass.
I have gone forward only to my death. My teacher was wrong. I cannot hear her voice, now. She has abandoned me.
“Please, my teacher,” I say, hardly aware that I am calling aloud. “I do not want to die.”
When she hears my voice, my enemy cocks her head in what seems to be confusion. I look up at her, and see that a few long, dark locks of hair, thick and glossy at the roots, frayed and dry at the ends, have come out from under the capes she is wearing. Her eyes are dark as well, behind their white coating, and I lose my breath in sudden astonishment. Somehow, I know her face.
My teacher was a beautiful woman, pale and graceful. My enemy is heavy and ruddy and covered in sweat that is not all her own. My teacher was skill and wisdom and grace. This monster is strength and hunger and gasping death.
But she blinks at me through those eyes, and I have no choice but to know her. There is foam at the corner of her mouth, and she is already wearing my skin in her mind, and I feel a sudden rage swell up through me, cutting through the pain in my arm and my legs. And it is not the fear of death that galvanizes me so suddenly; I am furious that I will be taken by her, horrified at the idea that she will wear my skin, my skin, and leave my body naked and empty behind her. Death does not frighten me anymore. Only the idea of being the skin around the shoulders of someone else.
“Do you not know me, my teacher?” I ask her. My good hand fumbles at the pouch in my belt as she stands still, listening to me speak. “You taught me how to kill. You taught me how to take a skin and make it my own, back when I was a naked child in our village. Do you remember? You taught me so many useful things.”
You taught me to always carry two knives.
“I remember when you tried to describe what it was like to wear a skin. You told me I would know such power, and oh, my teacher, you were right. But you didn’t tell me about this.”
My grasping fingers finally gain hold of the hilt of my spare blade and I pull it free, immediately putting a long, deep slice into my opposite shoulder. I cut myself diagonally across the chest, through my right breast and all the way down to my left hip. I cut myself on the right hip, up one side of my ribcage, then the other. I slice deep down the side of my face, in case she planned to take my cape. My blood splashes across my eyes. She does not stop me, and I move with the speed of a woman wearing four skins.
“These are my skins,” I tell her as I cut. But I don’t care about them anymore, and it isn’t what I meant to say. “This is my skin, and you cannot have it.”
And as I cut, I feel strength leaving my arms, my hand weakening as each skin is ruined, its power lost. Piercing through them hurts, but opening my original gives me a sensation that is almost pleasure. I haven’t touched the skin I was born with in so long.
The knife threatens to spill from my fingers. With the last of my strength, I stab myself in the stomach, deep into the intestines.
And on the third attempt I drop the knife, the heat of my blood coating my abdomen and chest. Though I am too close to death to hear her, my teacher howls in anger as she realizes what I have done. I close my eyes and imagine that she is smiling, caressing my face and wiping the blood away. I imagine that she is free of what she has become, and I forgive her.
Goodbye my teacher. I am free now, too.
Goodbye, my enemy. You will never wear my skin.
© 2012 Kelsey Ann Barrett