We were sitting by a stream that runs through a gulley beside my father’s apartment, when he began picking at his thumb. I let it go on for a bit, distracted and listening for my son playing off in the trees, but soon my father was gnawing at it, making small angry noises. He tore it open and a small rivulet of blood leaked down his hand painting his wrist and the scrub of hair on his forearm.
Do you need some help? I asked.
My bones, he said, they’re splintering and floating up to my skin. I’m trying to get the splinter out.
He held out a bloody thumb toward me, but I couldn’t see a splinter. I tried to pass him a handkerchief, but he shook me off, leaned forward, and dipped his hand in the stream.
You know I was baptized in a river a bit like this, he said, but wider and deeper, stronger pull. I didn’t know the pastor who dunked me, things were different back then. Some men just floated around, unattached. That pastor didn’t look at me when he pulled me back up out of the water, he only looked toward the shore and the people gathered there, and then he left me in the water and walked toward them. I was alone and wet, and when I looked at the sky I didn’t see anything. He bit again at his thumb and then spit into the tall grass around us. The way you don’t look at me reminds me of him.
He inspected his thumb, then his hand, then both his hands.
They’re all over, the splinters are all over, he said.
He began to scratch at his forearms, a spot on his neck. He pulled off his shirt and dug his nails into his chest. I still couldn’t see any splinters, but when he flicked open his pocketknife, I grabbed his wrist.
The best way to get rid of splinters is to soak them first, I said.
He looked surprised I had touched him. He yanked his wrist back and my palm came away bloody.
Off in the trees, I could hear my son whacking away with a stick. I guessed he was fighting goblins or demons or zombie bears. I guessed he was on the side of good, the righteous bereaved, the unwilling but thrust upon. I guessed he never wondered if he was in the right.
He played alone, and I thought then to go be his villain, his dragon in the ruined high castle, his shiny teeth in the dark, and I wondered why my first instinct wasn’t to be on his side, why I had to play the antagonist.
My father took off his boots and his socks, and stuck a toe in the stream. Nope. Not going to do it. And he stepped away from the water. His thin, pale skin shone red in streaks where he’d scratched himself, droplets of blood already beading. He pulled his shirt back on and it stuck to those bloody spots. I tried to discern a pattern, tried to understand him through his damage. I could almost see it, or sense it, the same way I could sense that he truly believed his bones were splintering, the same way I knew it would only be a matter of time before I believed the same about my own bones. And I wondered at the inheritance of belief, and how long it would be before my son sat in my spot now while I bled before him.
Off in the trees, I heard the snap of a dead branch, much louder than those previous, then silence that could have been the intake of breath, and the outpouring of a wail, the sound of vocalized pain; a sound we learned, and were taught, to suppress. My father, barefoot and bleeding, looked at me and when I didn’t move, left to go find my son, all the while calling, it’s okay, you’re okay, it’s okay, you’re okay.
I didn’t take off any of my clothes or shoes before I stepped in the stream. Cold enough to hurt for the moment, but also cold enough that soon I wouldn’t feel anything, the water wasn’t sufficient for floating, only to submerge. I dipped my hand in, as my father had, and let his blood carry downstream.
As I laid down, rocks—some worn smooth, some still jagged—pressed into my back, shifting against my still-solid bones. I opened my eyes and let the water run over me, saying, it’s okay, you’re okay, and watched the words bubble up and away from me. They burst through the surface and into the sky, and I couldn’t see them anymore.
“Beneath The Skin” first appeared in The Maine Review, 2020