Excoriation

Krista Madsen, found online at SleepyHollowInk.com, is the mother of two young girls and the author of two weird novels (Four Corners and Degas Must Have Loved a Dancer, both published by Livingston Press). Born and raised in Bristol, CT, she majored in English at Yale University and then received an MFA in creative writing from the New School in New York City. Her short fiction and essays have been printed in The Citizen, 11211, Lit, Small Spiral Notebook, Urban Folk, Driftwood, and the River Styx, anthologized in Hunger and Thirst and Little Red Book, and found online on All Things Girl, Reading Divas, Front Street Review, Emerging Writers Forum, Bite Magazine, Suitcase, and MiPOesias. After five years of owning and operating a Brooklyn arts/wine lounge called Stain, she moved with her art-making husband Jeff to Sleepy Hollow, NY, where she is happily returning to her fictional roots and launching her virtual “wordsmithery” shop for editing, teaching and writing.

 

 

 

Excoriation

The transformation required a mask.

The woman woke up to notice in the bright mirror lights: faint patches bridging her nose, her cheekbones, mustaching her upper lip, a subtle continental slide across her forehead.

At first she could blot it all with powder so she didn’t have to answer any questions. But in the privacy of her home she read into these new patterns — her new tribal face. Paint to prime her for battle.

She would have to master her stance.

She had started stepping more gingerly to avoid tripping, walking with arms somewhat outstretched to create a wider girth for herself. She was puffing up like a bird wanting to look more imposing, which in her case only came off as clumsy.

There was definitely something in her, but at this point it felt like a hollowing rather than a filling. She felt a space, an expanding of air, an inflating. So Baby Maybe — nothing more than a comma or hyphen, a placeholder they weren’t even supposed to tell anyone about yet, not even its grandmother — really was more emptiness than object. A preparation, a voiding to make room.

So much of her had already come out.

Through the years — all that seepage in underwear, the teen squeezing of whiteheads, throwing up from nervousness before exams, all those invented answers to odd adult questions (what do you want to be when you grow up), all that she had exposed and expressed and expelled in the effort to make a name for herself — and now it came down to this: she would need to divide her bureau drawers between herself and the Baby Maybe so she had better bag up some stuff and get it to Good Will, pronto.

Her husband would whisper to the unformed inner nub in the evenings. Their little secret; she liked it this way, when it was theirs alone. The little elbow macaroni, the jujube. He would trace the line — also darkening — from her pubic bone up to her belly button and back.

At first the fetus was pea-sized, then blueberry, then olive, then apricot, then peach, then apple,

She started showing the fact of her fruit. As the weather warmed and the woman spent more time in the sun, her mask shadowed from rosy to sooty, a few shades removed from her pale skin tone to wine stain.

They had made it past the point of no-return really, the end of the first trimester. And as her belly announced itself so too her new face could no longer be covered. Makeup wasn’t doing the trick any more, and the blotches started to grow in other unexpected places she didn’t appreciate as much — armpits dirtied, inner thighs as if friction-singed, nipples as stark as moles. Upper arms became unpresentable just when she wanted to wear tank tops, and worse of all, that messy constellation of old scars lighting up below her collarbone.

Her upper chest was the zone she used to pick at when she started breaking out in middle school. Braille for her fingers through the open top button of her shirt, hidden behind a wall of long brown hair at her school desk.

“Sensitive,” her mother said, “thin-skinned,” dotting her white with acne cream before bed.

She rubbed it off. Any attempts to fix this made it worse.

Little blood stains on her shirt.

My god, she said, repeating the words, shocked to realize that this baby (no longer iffy now but the Real Deal) would indeed be just that.

She ran her fingers along these old familiar parts rendered strange. All these little scars she had made years back from the viciousness of her healing, but they, like her memories from that time, had since faded, flattened. Enough that she had even worn a low plunging wedding dress, skin glitter-buffed. But now, again, just like old times, her skin winced, pockmarked.

A mask wouldn’t cut it. What she needed was a wetsuit, padding, armor.

She was a warrior. A wimp.

She had a dream, a nightmare, that this baby was in fact very lumpy, burnt in its oven, overcooked. Who knew what her belly could be capable of?

then orange, then grapefruit,

With peach flesh that would bruise with every impression, she could not believe how far and fast a belly could stretch to house a baby. Were there two in there? A full litter?

then melon,

As soon as strangers started assessing gender, reaching to touch the bulge uninvited, she had lost something. The cantaloupe has a hollow part on the inside when you cut it open.

She insisted that the birth experience be different for her than her mother’s. No knives, no doctors even, you could have whatever kind you wanted these days. She stopped short of a plastic pool in the living room.

But the baby didn’t care for her plans. It really barnacled in there, suctioned deep to her uterine lining, refusing to unclench until moments away from forceps. It was unbelievable to her that her body could be such desirable real estate.

Finally, when it seemed like she might be pushing her entire innards out – all the organs, the heart, the intestines, the things you aren’t supposed to see – it came, a girl. Amazingly intact, tissue fully skin-covered. Not burned, not bumpy. How could a baby endure such passage and not be mangled or not require more protection?

And surprise — just when they thought it was over, a little blip followed, sneaking out in the girl-baby’s wake as if hiding under her skirt, a boy undetected until his arrival.

So two then.

Twins. A girl and a boy.

Even Steven, she thought. And there it was, their names. Her husband, after what she had just been through, let her play with her words this once.

But wait; there’s more, just when she swore she’d never let anyone in there again: the midwife had to go digging around her bombed ruins to yank out that placenta.

“It looks like a tree’s root system,” the midwife said, showing her the giant red flap of meat – so much bigger than she would have ever imagined, nearly baby-sized – and the way the veins made a pattern mimicking everything she knew of nature. The world recreating itself in her womb.

She wouldn’t consume it the way she heard some groups of women did at dinner parties in certain neighborhoods, but she could imagine planting it and watching it grow into the most amazing tree, eating the baby it was meant to feed.

The new mother — in the midst of all the diapers and kitchen sink baths and tandem stroller pushing — didn’t notice when exactly she started really tearing into her renewed chest scars. When the tearing started to lead to deeper abuses and further scarring and something that did not resemble nature or tree roots but was definitely manmade: potholes.

The mask by then had retreated, mostly, back to just two shades above usual where it lingered. As if the banner proclaiming imminent arrival was shelved with the coming of the thing itself.

Her chest however would not shut up.

The area of interest grew as did her reactivated habit. As she decimated her chest her efforts moved outward in concentric circles to anything she could reach that had any texture to it, dry elbows, clavicles, pointy shoulders.

As she sat there nursing one twin and then the other, or often both at once just propped up on pillows on her lap, circle mouths clamped right onto her like suction cups, she picked under her dress neck with one or the other free hand.

Pink gums turned into teeth and they would bite her. These bullseye-dark nipples were such a target.

She pushed them off and plugged them with plastic.

They spat up more than they consumed.

By the time the little minions were speaking their own sibling code to each other, a preternatural language she could not comprehend, she was pretzeling herself to get to the sub-shoulder bone recesses of her back.

Soon enough they had words to out a mother who clocked hours in front of the bathroom mirror.

“Mommy you’re bleeding!” Eve shouted.

“Mommy no, don’t pick,” Steven would plead, pulling her skirt, upset by the sight of someone purposely giving herself a boo-boo – unthinkable. A red wet line followed her jawline from ear to chin.

“Tissue?” The boy was so nurturing. Eve wound around her feet almost knocking her over.

“Yes,” she would answer, warming with shame.

No matter the square footage, they would still both be on top of her like this. A swarm.

At the same time to feel such overwhelming love for these creatures and such horror. Scat Gnats, she wanted to shout, crowded, but then Steven handed her that tissue and her heart swelled.

Sticking the tiny toilet paper corner on her bleeding wound the way her father once did for Sunday morning shaving nicks, she flicked off the too-telling light on the vanity.

The inanity of hurting in order to heal. Milling before repaving.

It was all backfiring horribly. Even the kids were getting bumpier. Acting evil to get her attention.

She found it had a name, a few names actually. There was some comfort in the naming of objects, and bad habits.

Dermotillomania, the “till” meaning “pull.” Tilling the earth. Excorium to tear or wear off the skin, abrade, flay. Everything sounded better in the Latinate.

Tantrums.

How could it be there was always so much more left to get out? Everything in the body seemed to regenerate endlessly: snot, hair, tears. She hadn’t shaved her legs in well over a year.

She once hoped to stop her own growth when she was a pre-teen stuffed into shoes a size too small and a training bra and now she was stunned by the twins’ inevitable developments, milestones that seemed to have to have nothing do with her. She consoled herself that whatever mistakes she made, however she failed them, they would still thrive, though there was the risk in any outcome that they would hate her.

They were so gorgeous, she couldn’t believe she and her husband had made them, some alchemy between sperm and egg times two, without a hitch. Consider yourself blessed, everyone told her. Precious, precious.

They were other the minute they landed, so strange she could not stop staring. She would have never been ready for one, let alone two at once, but there they were. Of her but not hers.

She never stopped marveling at the weirdness, the beauty, of these children, who didn’t come to resemble either parent, or each other really.

They startled her with their distinctness. Their sweetness and worse, their sweet cruelty.

Psychopaths, she would call them under her breath at times when they giggled, blissfully torturing each other. Repeating the word “poopypie” and pulling down each other’s pants.

She retreated.

Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis. The outermost layer of the of outer layer, the epi, was actually dead skin, the part that comes off and off, supposedly 40,000 cells per minute, to make way for new skin growth.

The horny layer, they say, maybe she could find that again. Soon enough: dust.

But it’s the middle layer that housed the pain and touch receptors, the blood, the hair follicles. The desire.

She no longer remembered her dreams, either the interrupted ones in the night or the conscious ones by day. She could not remember what she used to do with her time before all this.

She would pick to go somewhere else, she would pick because some spot of skin was rough, but then she would search on purpose for these spots, and she would pick when she was just sitting there on the couch doing nothing. She would pick because she couldn’t stop picking.

So how far could this go? How much could the skin withstand? She could pick out imperfections forever, ruin her children, ruin herself, never again want to be seen naked by her husband, but still there would be more to excise.

Deeper than this – had she been this far too? was this the white stuff she was trying to urge out? – was just the fatty layer. Shock absorbers. Organ protectors.

The skin would not last forever. She was beginning to notice the signs that her busy work was taking its toll.

She looked old.

At breakfast, her husband would tap her hand as it strayed away from her coffee and up to her face. She had migrated lately to her face, a no-no.

She flinched. “You’re mean,” she said, and so did he.

She didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror anymore; bad things happened there. She didn’t want to see old friends or make new ones.

She was not herself.

Whoever that was.

Wasn’t she always in the process of unbecoming somehow? Removing something that she didn’t like, peeling, molting?

What was it she was really trying to get out?

Burrow through all the peach pulp and there’s the pit. Was she hoping to rummage around in the skin layers to get all the way here? What is it, this pit? And is there not a better approach?

Corium, skin. Core.

The pit is a seed. A seed is good.

“There is nothing wrong in you,” her mother consoled when she confided in her, which particularly stung against the memory of her father often telling her she was bound for greatness. She cried to witness this demotion, knowing she couldn’t stop doing this, try as she might. Despite taping over the mirror light switch, swaddling her chest in gauze, wearing mittens.

No sooner could she stop breathing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if she could just start over, get a whole new skin, surely they can do that nowadays. Just lay it on her like a blanket and it would take on the necessary shape. She’d order the thickest grade.

Our human skin would cover the opening of an average doorway, 21 square feet. So she could stretch the new skin she bought over the doorway, staple its edges down, and she could run into it and cover her flesh mess before she drips anymore on the floorboards.

She felt a sort of envy admiring her children’s skin, so very new and smooth. She could count the freckles just below their eyes and the kissed little scrapes. But there wouldn’t be enough salves to protect them forever.

She saw Steven scratching at a scab rather than leave it be and it broke her heart. “I did that to him,” she thought, rubbing the raw spot where her own intact skin used to be, now pretty much a cavity under her collar bone.

Maybe she picked to remove the spent skin from herself and retrieve that little girl she used to be. There’s a girl in there still. Special. Still-born. Suspended like a bug in amber in that brief ray of life before the world’s sadism becomes clear, or worse, its insouciance. There’s a girl in there laughing.

Picking is a nicer word than what it is. Excavation. Clawing. Ripping. Exhuming.

Let’s be honest.

In time, she brings out bigger tools from the utility drawer because her fingertips aren’t pointed enough to urge the inner matter out of hiding. She takes two flat-topped screwdrivers and puts them end to end to pinch the skin.
Her face and chest, stomach and thighs look like chicken scratch, even the letters of the phrase she put on herself in college are indecipherable now. She attacks the scratches. If she could open the scratches up wider, expose the thing behind this, maybe she could be closer to starting over. Why be blunt? She requires sharper tools, clips, wedges.

She gets the scissors, the ones with the longest blades the kids can’t go near, and she slides one blade under the skin, and turns it sideways, blade up, and starts to cut. The scratch opens into a widening red track with white dots in it.

At this rate, there will nothing left of her by dinnertime. (The kids at camp.)

She is poking around now to get more of the white out with a saw blade and there’s just so much gross stuff, she’s feeling squeamish. She has to fix this and the only way to be intact is to get this all off and be done with it for good. Go skinny-dipping. It shouldn’t be hard to fully peel her.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough, the pit is buried somewhere.

She throws up.

She has come full circle, she thinks, hugging the bowl, edged red with her body smear and full of partially chewed fruits.

When you’re picking you’re always one away from the payoff, the purge, the aha moment to emerge in a spurt. She has felt no pain from her efforts, just a tingling. She notices in the midst of her near skinlessness, a whiteness as deep as bone. Could it be bone? She feels itchy on the inside.

The white spots enlarge into bigger white spots and begin to push through, it’s easy to push through now that she is mostly gelatin. She’s helping them emerge and grow by kneading the wet flesh surrounding. Progress at last. It’s such a relief to touch near them. It feels so good. There’s about five of them now, bean sprouts almost. Delicate shoots. They keep coming. Of what do they come?

But the limbs, new limbs? — could she be growing more arms? — are longer still. One near the belly button that once connected her to her own mother. Another under her still-darker armpit. One above her breast. They are five inches long, ten inches, a foot, floppy at first and then stiffer. Still pushing.

Till till, she pulls pulls.

She is yanking at these limbs now, these hardening tusks. Are they generating themselves or have they been coiled in her all along, waiting to spring? There are more of them now poking through, catching up with the others.

She feels her face. There are white shoots crawling out of her nose. One has taken over her eye socket. She is monstrous, she is excited. She wants to scratch but there are less places. It’s getting claustrophobic.

The limbs are longer than her original arms and legs, they begin to press against the walls. She tries to get out of the bathroom to give them more space but she can’t fit through the door any more.

All of her in-ness is pushing out, the growth is taking over her, converting her, using her as fuel, it consumes as it expands. She is excoriated in full, her skin is no more. Barely no flesh left even. She is all long limbs, skeletal extension, stabbing the brick exterior and drilling the floor, slowed only by the rugs. What started out smooth seems to age upon exposure, gristly like chicken too long in the microwave, gnarled despite the newness.

These boney things crack the foundation, crumble the stoop, push up the sidewalk. Whatever materializes from her jawbone lets out a yawp. The surfaces of the limbs crackle into patterns, like bark.

She thinks of her beautiful children and what they will find when they get home – wait, she’s supposed to be picking them up by now. She panics. But then her very mind telescopes out so she loses her train of thought. It’s all very complicated now, very dense, impossible to navigate the tangle without a map.

There’s no pain or touch, that layer is gone, no itchiness. She’s completely outverted and it seems she is a tree, a very strong tree indeed, that will take over the neighborhood, burrow down to the molten center of the earth, entwine the constellations. Surely she can reach across town and just grab her kids from camp.

The good mother does just that: she grabs her kids and they are perched there now in her sturdy branches, one girl, one boy, a rhyming couplet with their own odd coloring, not knowing it’s their mother in all the repeating whiteness, in all her glory, holding onto them for dear life.

The tittering twins, pair of pears, are just enjoying this adventure, this story – it must be a story right?

Something she has written.

 

 

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6 Responses to “Excoriation”

  1. Defenestrationism » Blog Archive » 2014 !Short Story Contest! Finalists Says:

    […] Excoriation by Krista Madsen […]

  2. Lynn White Says:

    A master of debate with those fictional inner demons. Never more glad to be fiction, K.M.
    wonders if the reader will believe her. Fiction? Those that know her see a thing of beauty,
    scar-less on the outside but wondering of internal injury. No doubt those wheels of the written word, are always turning. Truth be known, she is Salvador Dali with pen in hand.

  3. eatstuf Says:

    Thank you for your descriptive post. Please consider returning to defenestrationism.net as we post daily.

  4. Tanya Monier Says:

    Delves the black and glittering well of motherhood. This story is a fetish in itself, agonizing and irresistible. I may not sleep….

  5. eatstuf Says:

    Thank you for your comment, and for registering with our site.
    Tune in on Labor Day for the announcement of our winners.

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