Skins by Alison Thumel
After the surgery, your grandmother could no longer eat the skins of anything. Doctor’s orders. No potato peels fried with bacon and cheese. No whole apples with tart peels. Not a stray eggshell in her morning frittata. Only artichoke hearts and shelled almonds, white and smooth like teeth.
You assumed it had to do with digestion: skins were roughage her healing insides couldn’t handle. You had seen cows chew the cud for hours on end, breaking down the indigestible with four stomachs and endless amounts of time. Your grandmother had endless amounts of time and endless amounts of anxiety. “No,” she said. “It’s solidarity.” She would spend hours on the porch skinning cherries, removing their pits. “How will I heal if my skin believes I’m consuming its kin?”
You knew that this wasn’t a perfect analogy—after all, this was the woman who had fed your mother her pet rabbit in a stew (“Eat up! You’re all skin and bones!”)—but you couldn’t argue with this logic. Later, you replayed the conversation in your head, noting the neatness of the word kin contained within its own red-lettered peel.
Skin is hereditary but sometimes skips a generation. Hers was tan and smooth, showing no trace of her eighty years. Yours was like your mother’s: pale and tissue-like, eternally covered in an array of scabs, speckles, and bruises. Your grandmother rubbed olive oil into her bronzed legs until they gleamed and smeared scar ointment around her midsection surreptitiously in the bathroom each morning and evening, making sure that no one caught sight of the seam that held her together.
You continued to skin her meals, one food group at a time, like the most meticulous of sous chefs. You bought a new set of knives from the neighborhood kid who sold his wares door-to-door for his summer job (“See this penny? A regular penny. Now watch me cut it in two!”) You peeled tiny red beans like hamster kidneys and removed the film from her mugs of steamed milk. When the skin-shedding psychosis extended outside of the realm of foodstuffs, you sold all of her leather furniture on Craigslist, and the two of you ate plates of mush cross-legged on the carpet. You found that most things lost their shape without the outer layer to hold it all in.
The word “skin” also contains the word “sin,” infringed upon only by a rogue k like a burr or a small cough. You noted that this was also probably appropriate, given that in Eden, the first people were self-conscious of their expanses of bare skin immediately after they committed that first sin in the garden. You wondered whether they ate the apple whole, piercing the peel with their teeth. You imagined Satan slithering out of his snake-form’s husk, leaving his cast-off skin like festival trash as he cackled at the mortals’ first mistake.
In Catholic school you learned all of the Bible stories. You learned how in the dark ages, monks transcribed Bible versus upon vellum. You learned that vellum is made from an animal’s skin, stretched smooth enough to run a quill over. You remember running your pen over the flat of your forearm, spelling out the words to prayers you could never remember, head dipped to read them in a show of focus during the Hail Mary. Years later, you learned that uterine vellum was the most prized variety—soft, white, and unblemished—made from the skins of stillborn animals.
In high school, you learned that writing upon skin became outmoded after the printing press—individual letters locked into plates to reproduce Genesis over and over again. Those same letters were reorganized to print the first fairy tales—like the letters s-k-i-n shifted into i-n-k-s. Ink was the blood that bound the words in every story ever told. You have never gotten a tattoo, but you appreciate the poetics of this.
Skin is vulnerable and naked. It’s the body in birth, in love, in death. You thought about this often. After all, you spent a not insignificant amount of time skinning carrots for meals.
You piled all of the skins you accumulated in the compost pile in the garden, turning the steaming heap as it broke down into something earthy, fragrant, alive. You imagined vines full of skinless grapes bursting forth from the soil. You looked up ways to dissolve the shell right off an egg (vinegar, patience).
You’ve heard that your body will replace its whole skin every seven years. You can’t believe this is true: your scars, tattoos, and spots accumulate over time—no longer pure uterine vellum but a broken-in pair of leather boots.
After your grandmother died, you buried her in the garden surrounded by lilacs and sweet corn. You weren’t sad. You knew it was her time.
The garden thrived. You knew it would. You tended it day and night until your back grew sore and your hands toughened.
What you didn’t expect was what grew from the garden. Little bulbous ends poked up from the soil. You scuffed your foot at what looked like a rubber kitchen glove blooming from the earth. Within days, a loose form spilled from the patch of dirt to the back door, spread thin and low like yellow moss. You consulted the Internet, the farmer’s almanac, the Bible. You couldn’t believe your eyes.
The body goes to great lengths to regenerate. Humans aren’t quite as resilient as starfish, but we can take a swath of skin trimmed from a cadaver and stretch it over our wounds. The dead can bring the near-dead back to life.
You propped up your grandmother’s sagging shape at the kitchen table. A bike pump and a garden hose had nominal success at filling up her empty skin. You stared at her hands and yours as she curled lower into her seat, then passed her some potato skins, sizzling atop her good china.
You were kin, after all.
Alison Thumel lives and writes in Chicago. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago where she was awarded the Elsie F. Filippi Memorial Prize in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Hobart, Banshee Lit, and DIAGRAM, among others. Her first chapbook was the winner of Salt Hill’s Dead Lake Chapbook Contest and will be published in 2017.
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