Do you know about skin?
I don’t think you do.
I think you think you do. I think you think you know about skin when it’s on your body. When it’s the sack keeping your water and meat together. When you can reach down and pinch it off your knuckle. When you can scratch its bumps with your nails. When you can put lotion on it and try to get other people to make it wet. But what about when it leaves?
What about when you see its true form?
Undulating through the air above you, raw and nearly weightless, like a sea creature or kite or scarf or your own spirit (all that time you were searching for your soul? It was right there, it was your skin), now drifting out of reach.
And you can only watch, from behind the bars of your home.
It never needed you. It stayed as if by grace. The benevolence free things have for the confined.
And now it seeks itself. Streaming through golden light, taking shape and losing shape, free and terribly free. The buildings below cease their logic. Stairs climb to doorways. Doorways lead to nothing. The walls have holes. The sky seems to start again below the ground.
As if in reaction, Skin finds itself in familiar forms: hollowed-out arms held up in offering, legs dangled limply to earth. Its void-of-faces seeking east and west, wondering if in finding there is also loss.
Skin draws inward. It contracts, remembering the muscles that once pulsed beneath it, the living engine of which it was once part. It takes the shape of something it has never seen, only felt, beating deep within.
And then, after minutes or hours or days, through the void comes remembered light. Following the sound Skin once made—with bone beneath—knocking against a wooden door.
Skin passes through.
Inside, the flayed man sits in front of the fire. Hunched over the wooden table. Tears stain the dark, whorled grain. The skinning knife lies beside his right hand. The man is the color of the embers, glowing, unbound, the energy Skin once held in pouring free. The flames flicker in his eyes.
He radiates: a wound but also a portal, helpless but surging with power.
(Do you know about skin?)
Skin sees itself through the window. It sees itself in the air. Eternally leaving, eternally coming back. To this fire, this room, this figure before the flames.
Skin sees itself imprisoned, as only a formless thing can be. Caught on barbwire above a high fence, each breeze entangling it around itself. Each flail of its empty, winged arms trapping it more tightly. Trying to call out but unable to speak. Howling through its twisted shape. An ending both ignominious and vain.
To break free only to be caught.
Skin hovers over the man. The man does not look up. He feels a presence but is too frightened to turn, too afraid to hope, lest this new flicker, this new warmth in the room, be an illusion like the dust he saw shimmering in the window-light at dawn and mistook for his own face.
Only when skin touches his fingertips does he stir. Raising his head gently, lifting his eyes to watch as Skin molds itself to the pads of his fingers, replacing the prints which once marked them as his own. He holds his breath, beginning to hope, as Skin slides over the muscle and sinew between the joints, tightening over each knuckle, loosening into wrinkles at the base of each digit, and spreading out into the palm, where their shared history is written in lines, some so delicate they are almost impossible to see.
Skin conforms to his biceps, his shoulders, picking up speed across the wide plateau of his back. Terrain which shaped its limits and purpose, both tyrant and muse. Slowly, Skin surrenders to the love of tissue, of pulsing muscle, of weight and mass, the gravity which holds it to the earth.
The man raises himself from his seat as Skin rushes down his buttocks and over his legs. He lifts each foot for Skin to find itself there, in the sturdy toughness of soles, pressed against the earth, feeling the planet’s own molten heart deep within.
The room comes alive with color and power. The man stands and his shadow dances against the wall in the firelight. He grins. He raises his arms. Skin slows as it covers each delicate contour of his face, remembering the frown of every grief, the joy of every laugh, the way he looked—blank and stunned and utterly lost—when love died, and how the lines fell away and his whole being stretched upward toward the light when it re-awoke.
I am trapped again, Skin thinks.
The man sweeps the skinning knife from the table. It clatters into the corner. He turns to the door. He runs his finger down the center of his chest, feeling the fine smoothness there. “Now we will run through the night and feel the stars upon us. We will jump in every lake and rub mud across ourselves. I will keep you shining and clean and you will protect me from myself.”
But already—as the man hunts around for his clothing and remembers watching a lover do the same—Skin feels itself being forgotten. An old friend always too close to see. And the knife blade glimmers in the corner.
Christine Rasmussen is a professional artist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Art Practice (with Honors) and Peace & Conflict Studies. She has exhibited in California, Texas, and Vietnam, and her work features in private collections across the world as well as in the Hilbert Museum of California Art. Christine lives and works in Los Angeles.
Maxim Loskutoff is the author of COME WEST AND SEE (Norton, 2018). A graduate of NYU’s creative writing MFA program, he was the recipient of a Global Writing Fellowship in Abu Dhabi and the M Literary Fellowship in Bangalore. Other honors include the Nelson Algren Award, a James Merrill Fellowship, and an arts grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation. He lives in western Montana, where he was raised.