Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

The Old Women Who Were Skinned

There once were two sisters, close in age, who had been birthed and loved and became stooped and wise and were now old women together. They lived in a house in a courtyard surrounded by a tall stone wall, meant to keep out most children and all men, though starlings made their nests in the boughs of the elms.

One day, the king—an old man himself—was walking by the wall when he heard the lilting voices of the sisters, who had become accomplished singers over their long years. He listened for a while, his eyes narrowed with contentment, and then ambled his way to a small gap in the mortar.

“What sweet creatures sing behind these walls?” he asked. Both sisters scrambled for the gap, but the first sister—a little taller, with slightly longer legs—got there first.

“We have always been here, your highness,” she said, her voice gravelly at its edge.

“Show me,” the king said.

So the first sister slipped her finger into the gap. She felt the king’s breath puff on her skin, and then his lips enveloped it.

The thrill she felt! Out of sight, the king’s mouth was wet and tight—like probing her own sex—and she felt a kick of desire as he suckled her fingertip as if it were a nipple. At the edge of the pull and draw was a nip of teeth, and she moaned. Excited by this, the king bit down and drew blood, which excited him further. It was all he could do to not loose himself from his clothes.

“My young maiden,” he said. “My blushing, tender girl. Come to my bedchamber tonight. I wish to be your first, to barricade past your maidenhead.”

The sisters laughed silently behind their hands, for they had rid themselves of their maidenheads long ago. But then the first sister said, sweetly, “My king, you may have any part of me you wish. I will be there tonight.”

And then the king was gone. The first sister withdrew her finger and examined the bite marks at their tip. Before she departed, she had the second sister gather up her extra skin and pin it tightly behind her back, so that she might appear young as the king believed her to be.

• • • •

That night, the first sister arrived at the castle beneath a cloak, and was whisked upstairs by staff as silent as dolls. From outside his bedchamber door, she said, “My love, I am afraid of fire. Please put out your candles before I enter.”

From within, she heard the hiss of a snuffed flame. The door opened.

In the silt of the shadows they made love. Afterwards, as she glowed with sensation, the first sister wished him to see her as she really was. She wanted his pleasure to come from her stomach and thighs and breasts, not those of some imaginary creature. And so in the darkness, she stood, and unpinned her skin. She struck a match and laid it to the candle’s wick.

The king, horrified by her shape, leapt from the bed. He shoved her toward the window, and then out of it. “Please, please,” she begged as he pried her fingertips from the ledge. He did not even stay to watch her fall.

The first sister plummeted down, and down, but just before she struck the ground, she became tangled in the branches of a tree. Its thorns hooked into the soft folds of her body. She screamed and cried and hung there like a tanning hide.

It was then that a group of fairies passed by. They laughed at the old woman in the tree, bare and slick and weeping. Her humiliation was intoxicating to them as wine.

Fairies are very indulgent, self-satisfied creatures, and their meddling knows no ends. And so one of them waved his finger and the first sister dropped to the earth. She lay on the cool soil, afraid to move. The fairies walked off, and she heard their voices long after they’d disappeared into the night. Her tears dried and left streaks of salt behind.

When the first sister finally stood up, she felt strange—no longer sore, and supple as a reed. She ran her hands over her body, apple-firm and smooth. Her flesh was young again.

• • • •

The second sister waited for the first sister to return. They had shared lovers throughout their long lives, and as soon as they were together again, the second sister knew that she would learn the secrets of the king’s pleasure, and take her own in turn.

But when the night thinned into dawn, and then day, and the first sister did not return, the second sister left their home to find her. She walked along the wall and through the door and out into the bright world. All she found near the castle was a beautiful young maiden, sitting naked beneath a tree.

“Excuse me,” said the second sister, “I don’t mean to trouble you, but have you seen—” It was then that she recognized her sister’s eyes, hazel as her own.

The first sister looked at the second sister with horror. Had her own skin hung in such a way? Had she been so shriveled, so loose, so ancient? She could barely remember.

“What’s happened to you?” the second sister asked.

“This is the skin that was beneath,” the first sister said. She closed her eyes and shook her head, as if disagreeing with herself. She tried to explain again. “This is my true skin.”

The second sister reached out and touched the first sister’s jaw. It was downy and soft as a newborn fawn. They had not had skin like that since they were young women together. “You’re gone,” she said. “Sister, you’ve left me behind.”

The first sister pulled her face away. “I’m sorry,” she said. She stood and walked back toward the castle, to find the king.

The second sister walked to town and located a barber. “Take my skin,” she said. She handed him a coin.

“Take it off?” he said.

She handed him a second coin.

He shrugged. He dragged his razor up and down a leather strap, and then held it up for inspection. The blade-edge caught the morning light.

It was like the sweet, briny bite of sugar against an open nerve; then, like being dropped into the sun.

• • • •

The second sister continued to live even after the barber hung her skin from his window, and then sold it to a bookbinder. But with no flesh to contain her body, the wet meat of her muscle and the roping of her tendons were on full display. Bits of dust and soil clung to her damp organs.

She often woke to the sensation of mice scrabbling beneath her breastbone, of skittering cockroaches rounding her eye. On the rare occasion when she ventured beyond the wall, mothers would bend down to their children and point at her. “See?” they would say. “This is what happens when you worry about your looks. Such is the price of vanity.” She spent the remainder of her life wiping crumbs from her joints and crevices, tears draining through her body like raindrops sliding down a windowpane.

As for the first sister, there are many stories about how she ended up trawling the earth for her old skin. In the first, the king died, and when she went to find her sister, she discovered a dead, shucked corpse in a chair by their old fireplace, and she clutched the body and wept and wept. In another, the king tired of her, and their old home was vacant and lined with dust, and soon she found herself wandering the land alone.

No matter the story, one thing is the same: She missed her old skin. She felt vulnerable without its age and warmth, like a fox pelt silver with time, and its power of concealment. This taut, ageless woman, her skin gleaming like dew clinging to stem and petal, with a mouth like a pitted cherry, was never left alone. Wherever she went, men followed with their hands and cocks and voices, their hungers and wants and desires. They trampled and pursued.

She hunted down the fairies. She demanded they return her skin to her, and when they laughed and refused, she pulled their heads from their bodies like dandelions. In this way, she walked and searched until the end of her days. Her grief never abated, and when she died and should have become part of the soil, she remained unchanged and immutable as wax.

She is there still, if you know where to look.

Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and elsewhere. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.