“My Mother’s Skin”
by Brian O’Connell
Illustration by Dave Felton
I find the pools and the hidden places
I see her in the salt sea faces
I choose a smooth grey skimming stone
Watch it vanish into the foam
My eyes are made of water
– Emily Portman, “Grey Stone”
The waves never bothered me.
They didn’t bother my father, who grew up near them and made his life on them. He was a fisherman, knew the ocean better than most. He knew other things well, too, knew poitín and hate and pain. He educated my mother on these topics, beating her and bruising her and slandering her. After the lesson was over he would trudge out into the dark, get on his rickety fishing boat, and drift off into the waves. He would be back the next morning and they would eat in silence, not mentioning the events of the night before, pretending not to notice the swollen bruises and abrasions on her body. His sea-blue eyes darted away from her face. He could not bear to look at her.
When he had finished his meal he would again return to the boat. I followed him every day, watching him settle into the damp waterlogged boards as the small vessel sailed out into the foam. He never looked at me, and I cannot be sure that he knew of my presence, but I faithfully watched him every day, watched him as he drifted off into the darkness of the sea.
During the day I would scour the shore for items of interest or value. I rarely found anything, but when I did they were fascinating, at least to me, gifts from the deep. They, however, were never really of value – an old rotted piece of driftwood; a broken bottle; the occasional coin; and once a small white object that I thought was a tooth. My mother said it was only a bit of broken shell, and insisted that I dispose of it immediately.
Most fascinating, however, were the creatures – dead things that the water coughed up, many legged and many eyed, encrusted with barnacles and spines. I never recognized any of them. From a distance they could’ve been crabs, but a closer look proved them unidentifiable. I would stare at them and stroke them and whisper my secrets to them before the ocean swallowed them back up. My echoes sank back to the depths with them.
One night, when the cacophony of the waves roared in my ears, I heard them fighting downstairs. I was in my bed, swaddled in pale sheets sewn by my mother, when I heard a crash. My mother screamed, and my father spat profanities at her, calling her a weak-willed good-for-nothing whore who should have had her back broken the day she was born. She murmured inaudibly, and my father burst into a rage. I heard pictures fall and china break and the sounds of struggle. This went on for what seemed like ages.
After a while my mother ran sobbing up the stairs. I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. My door creaked open and shut quickly. The lock turned. And though the roaring of the waves didn’t bother me the crying of my mother did. It pounded in my brain and throbbed in my chest and wormed its way into my heart. I sat up in bed. My mother was hunched over, sobbing in the corner, swathed in sheets that obscured her face. There were traces of blood and tears.
I turned from her to the window. My father was standing on the shore, staring out at the thundering black water, silhouetted by the moon. His hands dripped black blood onto the white sand. The drops were washed away by the waves. His boat lay at his feet, a wrecked mass of wood and netting. He didn’t mind. He just stared at the water.
That was the last I saw of my father, for come morn he was gone. My mother remained in my room, so it was I who searched the nooks and crannies of our cottage to no avail. I found only his smashed boat and a broken, bloody bottle that might’ve once held poitín.
My mother eventually came downstairs. We didn’t talk. One of her eyes had swelled shut. She was covered in scars and was missing a tooth. Her throat was bruised and black. I’m sure there were worse injuries that weren’t visible. I didn’t ask.
I went about the chores all day while mother sat in the chair, staring at nothing.
Night fell. The stars grew like bloated tumors in the sky. Waves crashed and receded; ebbed and flowed. Mother didn’t move. She was quiet. I thought I saw her tremble, but I couldn’t be sure, for it was much too dark. I tapped her on the shoulder, hoping she would go to bed. Instead, she turned around, tears in her eyes, and hugged me like she never had before. She sobbed and I patiently waited for her to wear out. After a long interval, she was done, and I could hear her in the dark, weeping on the table.
I went to bed.
The bruises on her flesh did not fade. I don’t know why. The welts and the scars and the fractures in her bones from that last night weighed on her every day since that morning.
And every day was the same. I lost track of time. I don’t know how we stayed alive, for we didn’t eat or drink. I still went out to the shore and scoured the beach, though what I hoped to find I did not know. No dead thing washed up for me to confide in. And all the while she would just stare at nothing in that chair at the table; still embrace me every night, though the tears and whispers were now absent. Father had called her a good-for-nothing whore, but she hadn’t been until he made her one. She was living death. I don’t think she slept, for she never returned to her bed again. I don’t know if I slept. If I did, I was simply dreaming of being in my bed. Every day was yesterday.
Then one day while aimlessly searching the beach I saw something covered in foam wash up on the shore.
I ran over to it. As I neared I tried to guess what it was. It was tangled and slightly tattered, but it wasn’t pale enough to be a sail. When I got to it I brushed off the foam. A crab crawled out of a fold in it, so I picked it up and threw it in the ocean. The material of the thing was damp and rubbery. I gave it a good look.
It was my father’s skin.
My father was a large man, so it took a while to lay it out so I could see it fully. No organs or viscera were inside, no large incision where they could have been removed. It was as if he had been deflated like a balloon, turned into a costume too big for me to wear. There were holes in place of his sea-blue eyes and poitín-swigging mouth. Tiny little black hairs, like fibers, covered the whole of him, though he now appeared to be bald. There were a few tiny tears here and there, but overall it was in very good condition.
I thought about leaving it out to dry a bit but decided against it. I squeezed some water out a bit, like a washcloth, but only a bit, and then ran off to the house, carrying the skin. It was surprisingly heavy.
My mother was sitting, as per usual, at the kitchen table, back to me. I gently tapped her shoulder. She wearily turned and looked up at me. Then she saw the skin.
She stood up, picked up one of its hands, squinted at it with her one good eye.
She looked at me, then back at the skin. Once more at me, then back at the skin.
And then she snatched it with such force that I was afraid it might tear. She sighed and she wept and she laughed as she rubbed the cool skin all over her ruined, broken, bruised, blackened body.
She did this all day. I just stood and watched.
As darkness fell on the house, there was no teary hugging or gentle whispers. I waited for a long time, wondering if she would turn and embrace me, but she did not. I went up to bed.
I do not remember what dreams encroached on my slumbering mind, but I woke up gasping. Outside, the waves had calmed from their former energy to a gentle lull. My bedsheets were covered in sweat, and there was an acrid taste at the back of my mouth. Standing up unsteadily, I walked downstairs.
She was still caressing the skin, perhaps with even more fervor than she had before. She was sighing loudly. I did not tap her, but went around the table to face her. When she saw me, she paused in her ecstasy, and motioned to a pair of scissors lying on the counter.
I gave them to her, and then she shooed me out, still pressing her beloved skin to her cheek. It must have been painful, for her face was still bruised and her eye was still swollen, but she did not seem to mind.
When I asked her what she wanted to do, she slapped me across the face.
It was the first time she had ever hurt me.
I walked up the stairs and went into my bedroom, closed the door, settled under the sheets, and quietly cried for some time.
I don’t know if I fell asleep.
But I must have – or at least blacked out – for when I awoke the candle by my bedside had burnt down to a stump of dripping wax.
I heard my mother moving around downstairs, loudly and awkwardly, though my mother had always been curt in her former movements. I lit the candle, and it gently flickered to life.
Past my mother’s empty bedroom, which had not been occupied since the night my father vanished from our house. Down the stairs, the stairs that had borne my mother’s retreats a thousand times. I stood in the corridor, listening carefully. The door at the end of the hall was open, showing the shining water. Noise in the sitting room. Down the corridor. Up to the door of the sitting room. I pushed it open, quiet as a mouse.
Something was sitting in the high-backed armchair, stitching something up with hands too coarse for sewing.
I crept up to the chair. The occupant took no notice of me. Stitching and sewing, stitching and sewing. I looked around the back of the chair.
My mother was wearing my father’s skin. It was much too big for her. She continually had to pause in her sewing and roll up the arms so her hands could fit awkwardly into her husband’s. She wasn’t looking through his eyes, for the somehow clammy face – which I could see – was pulled back above her head, and I have no idea how she knew what she was doing. All of the tears had been stitched up neatly with the thread that made my bedsheets, and now she was sealing up a long opening down the center that she had doubtless made with the scissors. I could see through the gap that she was completely naked. She was almost done with the sewing.
When she was finished, she rose. My father was a big man, but he was certainly not that big. The skin, which still fit poorly on her, seemed to have somehow been stretched, and its grotesque form had somehow become gigantic. The eye-holes were distorted, while the arms and legs were as long as oars.
My mother pulled the face down onto hers and peered furtively through the elongated holes. Her black eye was more swollen than ever. She turned her face from me and I saw that the skin seemed to have a spine of its own, bumpy vertebrae showing in the vast back.
She was so large that the motion created a rush of air that blew the candle out. I could still see. The door to the corridor was open, and, beyond that, the door to the waters.
She went first, lumbering through the door and out onto the shore. I followed after, faithfully watching, never knowing if she saw. The waves were placid. The water glittered with moonlight.
I stayed by the door while she continued out to the ocean.
She stopped at the shore, did not turn back to look at my face even one last time. She had a new family now.
I did not say anything. I did not do anything. I just watched.
She stood on the shore, watching the water, her abused eyes staring out of another’s face.
And then she walked into the sea. She did not come back.
I am alone now. The house is dead and motionless. Nothing happens.
I have grown now, too, though how old I don’t know, for the passage of time slips through my hands.
Every day is the same, anyhow.
The only thing I do any more is walk along the shore and pay mind to the sea.
The sea, in whose depths my mother and my father and my secrets whisper and mutter and congregate in some dripping grotto.
I feel that the abyss has something for me, as it did my mother and my father, and when it is vomited out of the fathoms, I will be there, waiting to squeeze all of my love into it and then to return it to the waters.
I know I will be able to join them. The sea is my sole companion.
The waves don’t bother me.
Originally appeared in Ravenwood Quarterly #1.
Upon careful consideration I have decided not to edit the story from its original appearance, despite my misgivings with some of the writing. The one minor edit I permitted myself was changing “This went on for who knows long” to “This went on for what seemed like ages.”