The Scarred Woman

Motion & Rest

She was never completely still until she slept. Not with him.

Watching her, he thought of a clockwork toy winding down. Even now, with her last soft sounds still hanging in the hushed and languid air around his bed, and their bodies curved tenderly into one another, she was in motion; one slim foot slid rhythmically up and down his shin as she drifted out of wakefulness.

A callous on the outside of her heel rasped against his skin and hair with every pass. He imagined the track left by the persistent, but ever slowing, path of her foot. He traced it in his mind, an invisible scar. A brand from their brief time together.

He understood her constant motion. It mirrored his own. He cradled her head in the crook of one arm, the heel of his outstretched hand tracing a wrinkle in the cotton pillow case. With the fingers of his free hand, he combed through the tips of her hair, soothing her toward rest and dreaming. Soothing his frenetic thoughts, which moved so quickly they needed a physical outlet.

Her abrupt shift into sleep took him by surprise. No matter how many times they lay like this, he was never prepared. Her whole body seemed, for a moment, to resist the dropping away of consciousness. She tensed, turned, pulled her arms up under the pillow, pulled her right knee up. One long, wavering inhalation of air, and the motion, the tightly strung tension that, awake, defined her, was gone.

In its absence, he watched the gradual rise and fall of her back. She breathed silently. He traced the constellation of small silvery scars on her back. She never would explain them to him, but as his fingers made their nightly pilgrimage from her left shoulder-blade to the base of her neck and down her spine, her lips curved in an unconscious smile.

She was easy in sleep in a way she never could be awake. Not with him.

Foggy Glass

He dropped a kiss on the smallest silvery scar which punctuated the top of her spine. She stood at the bathroom mirror, scrutinizing her face through a porthole wiped into the foggy glass. He couldn’t see more than a suggestion of himself at her back.

The sight struck him as ominous.

“What are they from?” he asked, inhaling the lavender and rosemary scent of her shampoo in the wet twirl of his towel around her head.

“If I tell you, you’ll know every last one of my stories, and you won’t need me anymore,” she said tartly.

He ran his palms around her ribcage, under her breasts, over the slope of her belly. He paused, fingers swimming gently in her still damp curls, and kissed the scar lower down her spine.

“Do you really believe that?” he asked, moving to kiss the one on her left shoulder-blade. “Really?”

She only peered at her reflection, pressed fingertips to the blue-white skin under her eyes, and sighed.

His fingers strayed lower. He felt her shiver.

“Tell me the story,” he whispered into her ear, closing his teeth gently on her earlobe.

She turned, laced her fingers through his, pressed herself against him from knees to chest. She leaned in close, close enough to taste the mint on his breath.

“Another time,” she said firmly, touching her lips to his.

He held her there, deepening the kiss, breathing in the humidity, the perfume of her clean skin, the earthier note of desire in the air between them.

When she pulled away from him, he saw that the fog had entirely obscured their reflections, and he had to refrain from wiping a new circle in the moisture.

In the Infinite Spaces

“Imagine it,” he said, “for every choice, for every cellular division, a new variation spooling out into infinity.”

His fingers tapped the division, traced the spooling paths along her hip, crossing the once-stretched, now runneled skin of her belly. She was quiet, her breath even, but her skin sang with wakefulness.

“And all these possibilities careening along convergent trajectories towards this fixed point. You and I, here, together.”

The air from his spoken thoughts traveling hot along her cheek.

“All these lifelines pressed up together like onionskin pages in an ancient book.”

His fingers converging, pressing. He nipped her ear as she arched back against him.

“Always you in the infinite spaces between.”

Behind the Bales

The field above the old water wheel was mowed every summer, the long grass bundled into great round bales which sat, smelling of baking wheat under the July and August sun.

In the space behind the great bales, she often lay that summer, measuring the passing of time by the dampness of her shirt from the quietly mildewing soil on the north side of the bales. There the sun never dried the dew. There she was shadowed.

When she could feel the cool press against the knobs of her spine, she would gather herself up like a basket of fallen fruit and carry herself home, down towards the water, towards his cottage by the lake.

The Sharpness Startles

A flicker, a busy twitch in the corner of her eye. Her hand, slim and freckled, brushes out against a winged assailant. The fruit, sliced and bleeding sugar onto his china, defended, she returns to the folded pages in her lap.

When she is stung, the sharpness startles. Papers slip, float, coyly evade her one ineffectual hand, even as the pain begins to radiate in deeper, more meaningful waves from her wrist, to her shoulder, to her heart.

The slight breeze teases the pages farther afield. She draws her stung flesh close, cradling it to her breast like a child. The pain sinks from her heart like a stone, lodging in the lost space where her child was.

He gave her the letters, in a teak-inlaid box. He said, I have to leave for a while, read these. Read how I loved you before you were mine. There are plums in the icebox.

Like William Carlos Williams, she thinks, as the pain in her wrist begins to throb. The other dulls far more slowly, receding as she stands. A white sheet, an unread passionate missive in his longhand, drops onto the water. She is captivated as the paper defies the wetness for a moment, settling on the surface tension. The lake is thirsty for his words, as she once was, and swallows them greedily.

The summer is almost over. Her life will call her home soon.

The Price of Defection

He stood at the window, the heat from his morning coffee scalding the palms he wrapped around the mug. The roman numerals on the clock face blurred from the steam from his cup, from the sting of tears still unshed. Out the window, the twisted, desiccated tomato vines at the far end of the tiny lot behind his house huddled in the shadows.

As he watched, the sun touched the tops of the vines, the brown turning green. Life, verdant, unrelenting, flowed down into the ground, resurrecting the late summer before his eyes. He knew this waking dream. He closed his eyes and let it come.

And she was crossing the yard, the hem of her shirt  turned inside out, made into a basket to carry tomatoes from the garden. The pale skin of her stomach was revealed, bluish in the shadow of the sunrise at her back.

He marveled at her as she crossed the sparse lawn, she of lush hips, soft thighs, a dimple behind each knee, strong calves, slim, bony ankles, legs he could sculpt from memory, though now she walked through his memories in the loose cotton pajamas she preferred.

She stepped gingerly through the crab grass, her soles soft from a previous life lived largely in shoes. Without warning, she paused, eyes closed, while she soaked in the sunlight. Her arms curved beneath the fullness of her shirt, stretched tight around her early morning harvest.

The sadness floated down over her face like a veil. Her hand caressed the fleshy roundness of a tomato through her cotton top, and he saw, just for a moment, the full price she had paid for her defection.

A cloud passed over the dawning sun, darkening his closed eyelids. The resurrected summer faded, the vision of her faded. As he turned back towards the kitchen, a trick of the light, a shimmer of sunshine off the lake, caught his eye, and she was there in the doorway, her eyes swimming with farewell, her restless fingers clenched tight together against the pale, flat skin of her stomach.

He blinked. Again the vision of her faded, as she had from his life, silently, irrevocably.

The full price he paid for her defection.

Small Silvery Scars

The pregnancy hormones were not kind to her. Her face bloated, her fingers swelled. Her bony ankles disappeared into pouches of malleable flesh. She was nearly unrecognizable to herself.

These symptoms enticed other mothers to touch her gently, to commiserate with her. They were the tattoos of a biological gang. Her sisters in childbirth had her back because she was a novitiate, a prospect. Her initiation was coming, fast and hard and unavoidable, and they stood by her, cooing over the burgeoning life in her belly.

Men became chivalrous, opening doors and offering chairs. Her puffiness drew out of them something besides the instinct to seduce. She thought it would bother her, their avuncular solicitousness, but it made her feel feminine, magical.

There was a secret unkindness, though. She understood that it was trivial. The six or so small sores, like pimples, but not, that rippled up from under the skin of her shoulders and back. A normal woman would have born them with no more chagrin than the water retention and the dulling of her hair.

She was so far from normal, though. Such a mess of self loathing, that she often needed to worry at small injuries until they grew painful, raw and weeping, before eventually healing and scarring. Before her pregnancy, she limited her bizarre compulsion to open her wounds to the flesh of her arms and legs.

But while the baby grew, she would catch herself, held captive by the dividing cells within her, running her fingernails under the edges of the scabs, freshly formed from the previous day’s damage.

There was a thrill in lifting the repairing tissue away, exposing the raw flesh to air, gauging by the color of the dampness on her fingertips how healed the wound was underneath. The pain, worst and most welcome when the scab was ripped away, but stinging and lingering for a few minutes after, like a drag from a postcoital cigarette, was wonderful. The tearing up of progress, and the resulting new beginning soothed her frenetic energy, her manic need to be moving, shifting, doing, even while her pregnancy seemed to urge her to slow down, to stop, to feel.

Her husband did not often linger at her shoulders, did not pay homage to her back in any real way, and so missed the sores that lingered, fading and reappearing throughout the thirty weeks she carried their child. She took a guilty pleasure from her little acts of self-mutilation, and when she was focused on the acts themselves, her self loathing was both silenced and justified.

Even more justified when the small life inside her extinguished itself, destroying it’s only home as it died.

It was the self loathing as well as the pity and fear in her husband’s eyes that allowed her, when the other man came into her life, to step out the door and away from pain and misery for a time.

With this other man, this new man, she became what he saw, burying much of herself so deeply inside her that it stretched her tight.

She went to his house by the lake, she played her violin in the sunshine of a stolen summer. She picked his tomatoes, remembering in their ripe skins what it felt to cradle life. She slept in his arms.

It was that summer, making breakfast with him in his sun-drenched kitchen, that he noticed the half-dozen small, silvery scars she’d left gouged into her own skin. She’d been looking out over the lake, when the echo of a contraction squeezed her phantom womb. She’d cried out, and he had come to her, laying his hands on her shoulders, pressing his lips to the tender skin at the base of her neck.

Are you okay?
Just a cramp.

Gently, he touched the tip of a finger to each scar, forming a constellation on her skin.

How did you get these?
It’s a long story.
Tell me.
The eggs are scorching, get me a plate.