Follow Kirstyn Smith – @iiitskirstyn
First published in The Speculative Book.
The first crack blossomed at the crook of my elbow three weeks after my Dad died. It ran to my wrist in a near-straight line with branches splintering off track. Giving no consideration to the tattoo of my grandfather’s face, it trickled down the side, assigning a new vision of the man to history, one in which he suffered an unfortunate skin condition.
The crack didn’t hurt, to begin with. I studied it whenever I was alone, using the index and middle fingers of my left hand to gently prise it open, then squeezing the flesh tightly back together as though that would help it disappear. It remained stubbornly unsealed. Rust-coloured and rickety.
Bedtime changing became fraught. Max was concerned that I seemed less interested in nudity, as though I was normally to be found naked and reckless, extremities flailing in wild abandon.
‘Are you too cold?’
I slipped into bed and zipped his hoody to my chin, avoiding his curious eyes and hefting the sheets to cover my goosebumps.
‘You’re acting strange.’ I heard.
‘You’re acting strange.’ I said into the pillow.
The night offered me hazy dreams. Rolled onto my stomach in the wee hours, I was lifted from nothing to a breeze against my arm. The sleeve was carefully rolled up just far enough to expose the telltale cleft to the morning chill. Hours passed.
He woke with the neon sky and wrapped his arms around me as we listened to the cacophony by the window. The ornithologists next door were keen on fat balls and peanut butter.
‘You can talk to me about anything. You know.’
I let him jump to his conclusions because I didn’t have any other explanation. I searched for robins in the trees’ silhouettes.
At times my heart felt alien, as though a surgeon had crowbarred my chest open and chiseled it out, replacing it with a fistful of gravel before stitching me loosely up. At these times, the crack felt like a chasm. It reminded me of Dad, of wrinkles and creases in well-worn hands. Of chapped skin and cheerfulness.
I was running when the second crack appeared. As I sweated in the middle of Leith Links, a crickcrack peeling off-centre down my thigh stopped me in my tracks. I paused for breath before I looked. In the middle distance, dog walkers and Sunday football leagues. Stubborn beneath my shorts, a spindle trailing to my knee. An excuse to go home. Walking felt fractious, as though putting too much weight on the offensive limb would cause an avalanche of piled up cracks to tear my leg apart.
Every Sunday when I was young, my Dad drove the old ladies to church. That’s how they were known collectively, ‘The Old Ladies’. ‘I’m just off to get The Old Ladies,’ he’d shout and I’d rush to the car to accompany him. I was fascinated by the smell of the over seventy; blue rinse and moth balls. Their varicose veins, visible beneath see-through tights, risen snakes burrowing up their legs. I asked my Dad what was wrong with them and he said tape worms. He said a lot of things, my Dad.
I don’t know if you’ve ever told your partner you’re falling apart, but after a couple of weeks I had to have a conversation with Max.
He squinted, inquisitive, with hair in his eyes and cuts on thin lips.
‘As in, ‘up’?’
‘No, as in literally.’
I exposed my arm and my leg to studious silence and eyes that roamed.
‘We can sort this.’
Duct tape. He ripped it with his teeth then pressed the grey layer over the original crack in my right arm. We shrugged as it started to peel off almost immediately and he stuck the edges down with more tape. A big grey ‘I’. He drew a smiley face in black marker, as though it were a cast and he a schoolfriend. On his face was a cracked mirror image: a wobbly smile and big, wet eyes.
He whistled as, each day, he replaced the duct tape from a plastic box he kept by his side of the bed. Most days were grey, but whenever I developed a new crack he brought out the silver tape. That one smelled of plasticine and left shining sprinkles clinging to my limbs. He inspected the splinters underneath for signs of improvement or infection. Nothing changed.
What are your favourite birds, Dad asked when I was small. He knew. Look for me when I’m gone, he said. He swung me high.
A teardrop once froze on his face, he told me. Out for a morning walk, the wind made his eyes water. Halfway down a cheek, it froze. When I entered the ICU, Mum said ‘Mally’s here to see you,’ and another tear leaked from the corner of his right eye. It was relief, Mum said later. It was eye wash, the nurse insisted.
Get up and get on, he would say. It wasn’t in his nature; I never saw him cry. Just that once, as he lay dying.
The third came as a jagged nip to the right of my clavicle. I knew what it was and my whispered ‘fuck sake’ caught my co-worker’s attention. Deflecting his raised eyebrow with a shake of my head, I left.
In the cramped stall I peeled my shirt from my skin and inspected the mark in the mirror. Next to my jutting collarbone, the chasm was dark and never-ending. I could slip a nail past the first millimeters, but nothing gave. For the first time, panic tickled my lower abdomen and sweat pricked my fingertips. A few deep breaths and I thought of red wine and a fireside evening. ‘Get up and get on.’
As I redressed, I saw my furrowed reflection set off with dark circles and emaciation. I looked shocking these days.
Back at my seat a cup of tea and ‘you okay?’ I turned to my screen and continued typing.
In primary school I learned about amputees and phantom limb syndrome, where the missing appendage still feels attached, with the requisite itches and aches. This is how I felt about my cracks. Detached, but dependent. Together, but imbalanced. I patted Soap and Glory foundation across any uncovered joins in a vain attempt at disguise. It looked like poorly applied fake tan, so I settled for giving up leaving the house.
4.10am. Pain booted me awake, pounding from my lower back and upwards. I clasped the covers at my chin, motionless. This must be the end. Until morning, I was sleepless and unmoving, tears wet on my cheeks. The birds clamored and I tried not to sob. Spring could fuck off.
Rubbing alcohol and Vaseline. Max held me down with my face pressed into the bed and ripped through my skin with a size five. Fabric softener lulled my senses and I tried to evoke meadows as clumsy stitches corseted my spine. Three. Four. Five. I bit the pillow and breathed through my screams. He stopped to thread up.
‘Is it working?’
He tugged on a stitch and I felt my back tighten indignantly. Afterwards, he snapped me with his phone to show off his crude handiwork. Mulberry bruises woven around the knobs of my spine.
‘Some people do that to themselves for fun.’ We Googled body mods and laughed.
I had to clear out the house. My teen bedroom was small and white with posters of the Beatles framed and scattered. Digging through history, I discovered photo albums from the days when waiting one hour was the height of technology’s advancement. On holiday during early university: 17, long-haired and serious, I eyed the camera in short shorts. My skin was peach radiant.
Because I could hardly phone in ‘broken’, work grew increasingly less tolerant of my absences. Final warning followed final warning, and then: ‘We know times have been tough for you, but…’ A P45 slammed onto the doormat. Max set his lighter to it, we watched the orange flare flicker high and fade, then I was fatherless and jobless.
The next morning I wandered the Meadows just before the sun woke up, breathing in frost and exhaling salted condensation. I fantasised about dropping to my knees, then lilting to the side and rolling flat out on my back. I imagined workers and, later, students traipsing past me as I, snow angel in the hardened dew, melted into the earth. The thought stuck in my throat and my heart drifted so that I had to steady myself against a naked cherry blossom. I pressed my brow to the cold bark. An ice cream headache. When I felt sane enough to open my eyes, there was a redbreast flash. I followed the tiny bird as it hip-hopped home.
Max was quite the handyman. Inspired by my predicament he took a first aid course and practiced slings and bandages, leaving me mummified. His efforts took the pressure off my dangling limbs. I walked Tin Man-like with my silver grey affectations and multicoloured thread count; it was difficult to support my failing body.
‘You should leave me.’ One empty night.
‘You kidding? I’ve got a bionic girlfriend. You’ll make me rich someday.’
I am drained throughout the day and insomniacal at night. On my creaky wanders, I notice, more and more, the other shadows that lurk. Sweeping from streetlight to tree, they all wear my look of glass-eyed jaundice. As the weeks pass I make up names and back stories: there’s Maud the retired teacher who eats oranges in the bathtub, slinging the peel overboard with glee. Nicolas the postie who fostered a dog to combat the loneliness of single life. Jennifer is just like me. Heart attack black and blue.
They wander, alone together, and I watch them breaking into pieces that will wash away with the next downpour. I wait for birdsong to shock me awake and stroke my strings and plaster as I keep moving.