Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin
I don’t remember saying no. I don’t think I said anything at all. My voice, trapped in my throat, like a bird in the flue of a chimney; beating there, a staccato breeze. He hadn’t bothered to undress, so when he finished, he merely retreated back behind the zip and belt buckle and was on his way. His sudden absence was heavy upon me. A sprawling heat and pain began to creep outwards from his point of departure. My breath hacked coarsely, a panicked fluttering of wings.
I don’t know how long it took for me to get up, make my way to the door, lock it. I stood there, the job done, not sure what to do next. What would I normally be doing? The flat was dark and quiet, dirty dishes from the dinner not yet cleared from the table. Candles burnt out, likely recently, little grey ghosts of smoke still idling.
I turned my attention to cleaning up. Keeping my hands busy. I scraped the bones off the plates and into the bin, sluicing the flesh and whitening fat under a hot tap. As the steam rose and detergent bubbled, I admired the knives. How easily they could be cleaned, all the filth removed in one purposeful swipe.
Then, the phone vibrated. Hands dripping wet, stunned by the sudden disruption, I watched its screen illuminate, a penetrating blue light in the gloom. Dazed, I looked around for a cloth, eventually wiping my hands on my dress. All I needed to see was his name, and a bilious bitterness coated my tongue.
I felt myself fold in two, retching above the sink, gasping. Just a text, a thank you note, saying he had a good time. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I noticed the faint purpling on my wrists, echoes of his desperate force. We had taken to the sofa after dinner, chatting, glasses in hands. How did it happen? How did I allow it to happen?
The kitchen tiles’ coldness wove a creeping numbness into my bones as I sat. Beyond the hum of the lightbulb and the whirr of the extractor fan, I was distantly aware of fat, wet drops of rain pummeling the windows.
He told me I talked too much. Jokingly at first, I thought, in the dim light of a bar. I talked too much and thought too much and I needed to learn how to relax. Maybe because I agreed with the latter, I forgave the former. It had felt so much like a game, little barbing remarks back and forth, teasing little jabs. It was our intention to cut one another, wasn’t it? And yet I felt so surprised to find myself bleeding.
There were dishes to clean, yes, and my body too. The entire flat now seemed uncomfortably sullied, coated in some nebulous grime. I would stay up all night cleaning it. Outside, the storm continued apace, great gusts of wind whistling through the drafty doors of the old building.
By the time I was finished and brought myself to the bath I was utterly spent. My knuckles pained and reddened from hours of scrubbing; the floors, the table, anywhere. My sinuses stung with the bite of bleach. I didn’t wait for the bath to fill, sprawling out in the cold porcelain as though it were a fainting couch, letting the water rise around me. Exhaustion bore into my bones and the dried blood between my legs wormed lazily outwards, dirtying the clean tide.
Perhaps I had waited too long. Out of practice. How many years had it been? And suddenly a man is there. And he is difficult and he hurts, a pain that awakens the senses. Thorned words that coax open little wounds, seduction by a thousand cuts. Was I foolish enough to think that I could change him? Yet there was a passion to our conflict, and we were smiling all the while. Didn’t it feel so much like a game?
Reddened under the hot water. Hot to sear it off, to really cleanse it. The bathroom was thick with mist, nothing visible beyond the cool edge of the bath. I breathed it in, thick and warm, coating my throat and – I hoped – cleaning it, cleaning me, inside and out.
We had bonded over our mutual pain, had we not? Patchworks of scars in our flesh, roads to be tracked with a gentle hand, so full of promises of kindness and an end to suffering. Maybe I had simply traded one knife for another. No matter what happened between us, highs or maddening lows, I hadn’t felt that old familiar call to let blood. I didn’t catch the gleaming of blades in the corner of my eye, calling me to carve forgiveness in myself. He found me mostly newborn, scabs long healed and scar tissue white and pure as only new flesh can be.
Nothing pure about it now. All red and aching and soiled now, in the heat of the bath. It would lie there like a stain, I knew it. Never to be washed off. It couldn’t be undone. Could never be new again. Better to slough it off, shed the ruined skin in the hopes that something new might grow again. Something clean and new, flesh untouched by him or anyone.
There was a razor on the edge of the bath, the plastic around it easily broken. A sudden thrill – how long had it been? Out of practice. Pruned wet fingers, too long in the bath, fumbled with the delicate thing; gleaming bright, even in the mist. Outside, thunder, a thick black sound like the beating of a thousand wings. Taking flight.
It held fast, nestled between folds of newly opened flesh, and I luxuriated a moment; allowing a rivulet of blood to run a course down my arm, softly jutting off the porcelain banks and into the cooling water below. There it mingled with the old blood, indistinguishable. My breath slowed, eyelids heavy. My body throbbed with a dull fatigue. Gooseflesh shuddered along my exposed arms, the pink water chilling more with each passing minute.
Why had he done it? We had known each other already. I was never coy or teasing, I gave myself freely. Always. Too freely? Was I too easily won? Did it rob him of something? It had been so long. Out of practice. Surely we were old enough to dispense with such games. It was what we had both wanted, I thought. Perhaps he didn’t want me wanting.
Perhaps my head was fuzzy from the mist and the heat and the exhaustion. I needed to sleep. Already the blood on my arm had browned, begun to crack. I pulled to remove the blade and found it stuck. I tried again. Probably my wet fingers, unable to grasp well enough. I rose, dirty water running off and down, and stumbled my way to the towels. Once my hand was dry, I reasoned, I could remove the blade. No cause for panic.
When he was younger his own cuts had become infected. He told me of the shame, going to the doctor and explaining the source of the wounds. Panic fluttered in my core. Just needed to dry my hands.
But even with my hands dry, the blade held firm. Worse still, beneath the torn skin I could see nothing but the shining of metal in both directions, usurping that which should have been red and delicate. I traced its course with trembling fingers, suppressing a trill of terror. Was it spreading? I attempted to calm myself, shivering against the cold and fright, gulping the air.
When I was younger I felt so much stronger; in my convictions and in myself. I felt I saw the world with a clarity lost to so many. I was righteous in my anger, in my beliefs. Where was that girl? When did I kill her?
It was spreading, beyond any doubt. My finger pressed against the inside of my wrist, as though I was checking my own pulse, I could feel the metal coursing outwards from where the razor stood; still jutting outwards, glinting cruelly in the cool light of the bathroom. In my panic, I scratched at the skin around it, hoping I could catch the burrowing thing at its edges, wrench it out of me. I thought of the knives in the kitchen, freshly cleaned and drying by the sink. Perhaps I could cut the thing out? My stomach lurched at a sudden thought – what if the knives joined it? Could I trust them not to dig into me too?
Would a younger me have found herself here? Surely she never would have deigned to speak to him, to entertain his ironic blows. They would have lived in different worlds entirely. He would never have been able to touch her. What a tragedy that she had to become me.
Still nude, moisture drying unevenly across my nobbled flesh, I wandered to the living room, eyes never leaving the blade. Lightning flashed outside, its brightness reflected in the razor, winking at me. I eased onto the sofa, the fabric around me darkening as it absorbed my wetness. This is where it happened. Would anyone have known, just looking at it? The cushions were askew, but suggested nothing untoward. To call it a crime scene seemed ludicrous.
I pulled the cushions around me, seeking warmth, a lazy nest. How long had I been awake? The storm still roared, but beyond it a blue dawn teased the edge of the horizon. In the slowly breaking light I could see how far the metal had spread, grey beneath my skin. The skin itself was deathly pale and sagging, wrinkling at the wound like a worn fabric. I pulled at it and it came away cleanly.
That strong girl, she was born from pain too, was she not? Her anger wasn’t innate. It was a fire lit by some tumultuous thing long ago, some primordial storm that struck her dying scrub. Her claws were sharpened on that old hurt, and slowly they grew inward. Her steel resolve didn’t take flight, did it? There was something of her here yet.
In the white light of dawn I watched in wonder as my old skin was sloughed away, wrapping paper revealing a gift of knife-feathered wings. As they dried in the growing warmth, viscera cooling and hardening against the blades, the old skin sank around my waist. It was almost at the end of its spreading, a suit of armor forged beneath the ruined flesh. No need for it now.
I stretched my new legs, talons cutting splintering scratches in the floorboards. Bladed wings tore at wallpaper, reflecting light in bright refractions across the room. My old skin sat in the nest of cushions, its work done. I wandered to the bathroom, where the bath lay still with cold pink water. I squatted in it, not feeling the cold – not feeling anything – and wiped clean my metal body from the viscera that still clung to it. The whitening fat, the webbing membrane.
He would come later, the message said. I could not reply, but I knew that no reply would stop him. He would come, and I would be here. The storm had run its course, outside the sun shone proudly, the day already full of birdsong. I left the door unlocked.
When the bell rang, I beckoned him to come, my voice lighter than it had ever been. He could not have turned away. As soon as the door was shut behind him, we fell together in a great clashing of wings, blades and blood glinting in the day’s new light.
Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin is an Irish writer living in Berlin, Germany. Her work has previously appeared in Novel Noctule, Not Deer Magazine, and The Piker Press. Her co-written feature film, Consentuality, is currently in development with Screen Ireland. You can read more of her published work, and get information on upcoming publications, on her website at saoirsenichiaragain.com