12:4: “Skin”, by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman

12:4: “Skin”, by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman
  They rip out your heart when you’re fighting a war.
  It’s a necessary process, surgical,
  but painful.
  No one talks about it afterward.

More than ever, you are all body-

a pulse, twitching fingers, unquiet nerves.

Your scars, criss-crossing your skin,

are all that contain you.

So when you meet a man with a cleft foot, with an offer,
you think, ‘what the hell –
wearing the skin of a bear for seven years is nothing.’
You think, ‘I don’t want to look at my own skin anyway.’

Your hair grows, weed-quick, concealing your face

as briars once obscured a castle, another enchanted sleeper,

and your scars disappear beneath a map of sweat and dirt.

Your nails lengthen, crack, sharpen into thorns.

You wander from town to quiet town

– or maybe everything is quiet after a war.

No one can look at you, your grotesque form,
and at first you like it.

There’s a certain freedom granted
to the monstrous (as they call you.)
A precise allotment of space and deference
that does not exist on a battlefield.

You forget what water feels like
running over your skin.

Instead, insects run over your scalp,
wake you from your still restless dreams.

When you try to pray,
the psalms choke you,
the begats burn, the catechism scalds,
and your mouth fills with ashes.

Forsaken, your pockets remain full

and money really can buy most things –
soft blankets, the best and worst drinks,
a girl who closes her eyes when you kiss her.

It’s an old merchant who finally does look at you,
and he reeks of whiskey and despair.
You feel the faintest, atrophied stirring of pity,
and toss him a spare purse of dead gold.

You’d forgotten what wealth can do to a soul
and his gratitude feels like a weight in your hands.
When he says “you must marry one of my daughters,”

you feel sorry for them.

You let him take you home despite your better judgment.
It has been years since someone welcomed you into a house
and you had forgotten how it smells–
like clean hair, laundry, flowers, bread.

Only one of the sisters can stand to look you in the eye,
far more than you expected.
She is not beautiful, there is dirt under her nails,
but she smiles and asks your name.

You tell her stories about your travels,
the people you have seen, the foods you have tasted.
She tells you about her garden and the forests beyond –
the way they draw her, call to her. 

And so you break the rusted ring on your finger in two

and tell her to keep a piece close to her heart.
Her fingers brush yours as she takes it –
she slips it under her black dress.

The skin hangs heavier than ever
as you leave the house and the girl,
but three more bear-years stretch before you,
and you’re not ready for her to see you skinless anyway.

You think about how you’ve spent four years –
first gambling, laughing, now feeling sorry for yourself.
You have become the lawless bear: selfish, undisciplined, angry.
this is just what he wanted, what he always wants.

There is nothing left for you but to endure
which is the one thing you know how to do.
You learned that lesson anew with each wound,
dispensed and received, and then again with each scar.

You can outlast him. Three years is not so long.
Perhaps you can give your money away –
help other soldiers to endure, to stay human, 

to turn away from the man with the cleft foot.

The coins pour from your pockets,
filling the hands of your broken comrades,
but it’s your eyes meeting theirs, seeing them,
that makes tears carve new maps on their cheeks.

You ask a blind boy to share your meal,
and you eat together on the side of the road.
A cobbler with one leg mends the holes in your boots
when you pay to thatch his leaking roof.

Their tears fall on your hands,
wash away a thin layer of the packed dirt.
You hope it’s not cheating, this small purification,
but your heart knows it’s not.

Three years pass, and you are washed clean,
though you have to cut your hair yourself.
You buy new clothes but you keep the skin –
it taught you how to be a bear but also a man.

As a man you lumber up her garden path,

reluctant, still ashamed of who you were.
In the window the curtain flutters,
a white hand disappears.

You want to tell her who you are
but showing her your face is hard enough.
Instead, you drop your ring-half
into her cup, watch her drink.

The piece of gold hits her teeth and she glances down.
A strange expression comes into her eyes –
wonder, hope, fear, hope. Hope.
She bites her lip and raises her careful gaze to you.

“Where is your skin?” she whispers.
You press her hand to your cheek,
let her trace your scars. “Here,” you say,
“and here,” gesturing towards your army bag.

She leans forward, smiling,
her scent so clean and new.
“Here,” she agrees,
“but with me you need no skin at all.”

Sara Cleto is PhD student in English at the Ohio State University, where she reads, writes, and sneakily teaches her students about fairy tales and folklore. Her creative work can be found or is forthcoming in Cabinet des Fees: Scheherazade’s Bequest, Niteblade, Metastasis, and others.

Brittany Warman is a PhD student in English with a concentration in Folklore at the Ohio State University, where she concentrates on the intersection of folklore and literature, particularly fairy tale retellings. Her creative work has been published or is forthcoming from Mythic Delirium, Cabinet des Fees: Scheherezade’s Bequest, Jabberwocky, inkscrawl, and others. Her website is www.brittanywarman.com and she journals at briarspell.livejournal.com.

They say:

We wrote this poem after attending the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts and participating in conversations there. We were thinking about how fairy tales rarely engage directly with the theme of war and we wanted to retell a narrative, “Bearskin,” that explores that concept. Our intention was to create a vivid piece that would explicitly show the ways in which the echoes of war could be felt throughout the story.  

Der Findling von Christian Griepenkerl by an unknown artist for a palace in Vienna’s Ringstrasse, circa 1870, is in the public domain.

3 Responses to “12:4: “Skin”, by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman”

  1. This was incredible! But with such a pair of collaborators, how could it not be? 🙂

  2. Sara Cleto says:

    Thanks, Megan!! 😀

  3. Brittany says:

    What a kind thing to say, thank you Megan!! I’m so glad you liked it! :).

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