The Strangeness Of Skin

October 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A short story in daily instalments. A variation of a northern European folk tale.


Phoebe, a private woman who didn’t like words, had been slicing the insides out of herring when the fourth child decided to be born. Hepzibah ejected herself feet first with a fierce wail that should have woken the dead. She came out wide-eyed and wilful onto a sleeping ledge – lined with heather that itched and lice that sucked – deep inside a cave large enough to echo the indignity of it for a long time afterwards. The woman with the herbs and strong hands was shooed away after she cut the cord, and Phoebe curled up with the child and hid away like an animal.

The cave lay inside a bay that wasn’t sheltered from the north wind. Shaped like the inside of a horse’s foot, its sand was pale and silky as the skin on Phoebe’s cheek, its shoreline stained with glittering mica like the speckles on the egg of an Arctic tern. The cliff grew out of rock that had started its life a long time ago. Bleak and brooding to the eye, the women said it whispered stories to the few who knew how to listen. Sea eagles lodged themselves above the cave on ledges overflowing with fish bones, and whales snorted fountains and frightened off the fish.

Phoebe knew she was different from the others. She could read the weather, the tides, and the songs of the whales – but the language of her body was foreign. She complained bitterly of backache for months before Hepzibah was born, and for three months after that. She complained about the others in her belly too, not understanding that what had been planted there was the result of unexpected and agreeable moments of passion.

What Phoebe recalled about the men, and this was of far more significance to her than the length of their noses or the colour of their skin, was that all of the fathers had arrived in her bed from the sea. They neither knew nor cared that she had been seduced by the salty taste of their skin. All had made a career of travelling the oceans, but none had stayed long enough to put down roots or learn how to properly love a woman.

Hepzibah’s father arrived on a boat out for the herring. He had sought shelter from a storm and impregnated the child seed without preamble or finesse – then sailed away when the sun came out without so much as a thank you for his night’s brief lodging.

The other women knew that her children had different fathers; but Phoebe felt neither guilt nor indifference, even though they pointed their fingers and whispered behind her back. In a family with only a reluctant matriarch for its backbone, the distribution of love was thin on the ground, and none of Hepzibah’s siblings took much notice of their new half blood sister. Phoebe let her offspring take care of themselves. Families like these made silent children with secrets.

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