BURNT SKIN

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CHAPTER ONE

Miray La, Saraan, The Caribbean

When I emerged from my mother’s ebony womb with brown skin, white eyes, and a red spot on my forehead, the midwives knew what I was. They cut the cord from my mother and bathed me in white-water, the nectar of the Saraani cactus. God’s kiss was a gleaming red circle between my brows so they smeared my face with white-butter before finally handing me to her. While I cried, cooed, and suckled at her chest, my mother grew silent. The day I was born was celebrated by all devout Devan Jeain and it was the last day my mother ever spoke.

In that first year of my life, we were gifted with fig cakes and stuffed dates. Our house was filled with dried rose petals. They were sprinkled across my blankets and rose oil was rubbed onto my wrists. Even now, the musky scent of dried flowers or the sweetness of figs reminds me of my childhood. It was a fine time for me, being ignorantly pampered and sheltered. Protective amulets were hung around my crib, in our windows, and above our doorways. The tinkling sound of beach glass in the breeze was a song that sang only for my birth.

Back then, I reveled in the awe towards me, a living deity. I even encouraged it at times. I grew proud and arrogant thinking I was beautiful even though I’d never seen my face. At night, I still touched it. I traced the birth of my wide mouth and nose. I brushed my fingertips through my thick lashes and ran a hand across my bare scalp. Mostly though, I felt my scar tissue. The burn marks left delicate ripples and courses across my skin like water. Turbulent. Emotional. Passionate. People said these things about me too.

It's funny what people said when they thought no one was listening.

But I was always listening.

Sound, smell, taste, touch. That was how I understood the world.

Lately, a certain wind had been prickling at my neck. Even in the Saraanish summer, hot and clammy with humidity, I had sensed a chill that wasn’t natural. Didn’t seem of our world and I knew they were stirring. They were calling to me, so I asked for a white-water bath.

In the center of our tiny kitchen, I stripped for Auntie Zamfra. The floor was warm and sticky with food. I could hear the birds cooing outside, their evening songs bringing on the night. Setting my white cane down and brushing crumbs off my feet, I stepped into the metal basin. I clutched at my bare ribs and tucked my knees up to my chest. The metal was cool on my flesh and I resisted the urge to urinate.

The rattling of pitches and ladles told me Auntie Zamfra wasn’t prepared. Naked and vulnerable, I waited while she talked to my mute mother. I listened as Auntie Zamfra pulled out the juicer and skinned the thick watery stocks of cacti with a dull knife. Her favorite YouTube news channel was drowned out by the juicer’s dying engine, which sputtered on and off. Her voice cut through the noise.

“I told them, I did, that I needed extra white-water for today. Of course, they all wanted to know why. Well, I told them, it was a family matter of greatest importance, asking them if they remembered who my niece was. If they remembered my sister was the Manman Bondye.”

God’s Mother, a title forced upon her ever since she had birthed me. It was Auntie’s connection to this status, the family legacy that she cared about more than anything.

“And do you know what they had me do? They had me fill out a form. I mean, I understand the rangers are under a lot of stress from the government, protecting all that free-growing marijuana, but still. They should at least acknowledge that if it wasn’t for our Galena here, they wouldn’t have any Saraani cacti, or weed, or jungle to protect. The manjè po would eat it all up like that!” She snapped her calloused fingers.

A wry smile tugged at my lips as the first splash of white-water hit my bald head. The manjè po had no interest in eating cacti. The rough bark-like layers and prickly points made it difficult to grip. No. It was soft, human flesh they fed on. It was where their name came from, Skin Eaters.

Intrusive thoughts of tissue between my teeth, of cartilage breaking between my molars, made me shudder. My fate was one I often contemplated with dread. The progress of my sickness, my divinity, inevitably made me question what skin would taste like and I wanted more than anything for my skin, my future, to be my own…

“I’m asking you a question, Galena. Can you not hear me? Kèt, I thought you were blind, not deaf?”

Her rudeness pulled me from my reverie. “What?”

“I’m asking you, what is this?” Her rough fingertip jabbed the base of my neck, pushing against my spine.

Another chill passed over me then. I hated the wind, especially on wet skin. “What does it look like?”

Jaytana used to describe my skin spots to me. I had learned what the different descriptions meant. The consequences of a birthmark compared to god’s kiss were substantial.

Auntie Zamfra was slathering my back in cool jelly. I had always relished the feeling of white-butter, a product made from the stock of the cacti and pectin.

“It’s a dark spot,” she said in a huff.

“Is there a ring around it?”

Her breath was hot on my back. It came in small nervous bursts as she moved in closer. “I don’t think so. Not yet anyway.”

“Let’s burn it now.”

“No. We wait. That’s the way.”

I sighed and she hit me across the head. “I want to get it over with, Auntie.”

She sucked her teeth disapprovingly. “You know we need to wait. Wait and see how the ring develops. I just hope it’s not as big as your other ones.”

Her seamstress's hands drifted across to the scar on my right shoulder, the size of a durian. Auntie Zamfra was a devout Devan Jeain, whether that was for family devotion or devotion to the faith was hard to tell. She enjoyed the status the calling brought to the family, the free meals, the housing stipend, the bragging rights, and yet, she still seemed to hate the scars. If she could have the attention of the ritual without having to burn my skin, she’d be pleased. But that wasn’t the way in Saraan and it certainly wasn’t the way for a goddess, a Cave Walker.


In the coming days, god’s kiss formed a perfect circle, a target between my shoulder blades. This one would hurt.

The night before my ceremony, I lounged in bed, listening. Through the walls, I could hear Auntie prattling on to my mother, silent as always. If I strained my ears, I could hear beyond the house. I heard the night birds puffing out their wings for insulation, the cicadas singing for their mates, and the flutter of a moth as it attacked the flickering streetlights.

If I strained my ears even harder, I thought I could hear the cave. Hear them breathing, moving, even thinking. The Skin Eaters were like a hive mind, pulling at my subconscious brain like a night terror. I sensed them moving deep in the earth, my muscles aching to follow them in some perverted way. I desired to protect the Buried One as they did.

Because they were stirring. They were hungry. They wanted a sacrifice.

It was time for a burning day.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Frankie leaned out the window so her menthol cigarette wouldn’t waft into Sam and Darla’s perfect apartment. She didn’t mind smoking like that, her hips resting against the window sill while the night air dried the sweat from her face. Taking a long drag, she watched the cars slurry beneath her, a stream of lights, people, rushing and going without reason or purpose; people like her.
Sam touched the small of her back and Frankie turned to him. Standing in his boxers and grey t-shirt, his salt and pepper hair was tousled in a way only sex with Frankie could do, or so she liked to think. She always ran her fingers through his hair when he was down on her, directing him gently if needed, which he enjoyed.
“Can I have a drag?”
Frankie eyed the ceiling, the sounds of the shower running were proof that Darla was still occupied, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t smell it on his breath later.
“It’s alright, he said, with a smile that charmed Frankie every time. She handed him the cigarette and he leaned out the window with her. Their bodies touching.
“Did you see Saraan was in the news again?” Frankie asked, taking the cigarette back. The filter was wetter than before.
Sam stayed silent, smoke streaming through the nostrils of his hooked nose, a product of one too many rugby games. Frankie knew he wouldn’t want to talk about Saraan, again, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Ever since her mother’s passing six years ago, Frankie had been consumed with guilt at not knowing more. Not asking more questions. Not learning how to make Saraanish stuffed dates for birthdays or the spicey fig cake that she and her mother made at Christmas when everyone else she knew ate stale fruit cake. Frankie regretted not learning the language, other than the prayers she still had memorized but didn’t understand their true translations. It was why she had become obsessed with genealogy and started putting together a heritage case with the vague aspiration of moving back to the island her mother had emigrated from. Partway between Key West and Havana, Saraan was notorious for its spelunking tours, chili-infused rum, and export of cannabis. The fact that the long-held secret skin-burning rituals of the Devan Jeain religion had finally been livestreamed yesterday only fueled Frankie’s obsession.
She had watched, on repeat, the YouTube video of a woman painted white, her back being burned. It was no surprise that the video had gone viral, driving up the price and quantity of cruise ships. The port was being flooded with liners, allowing tourists just enough time to brave its cave systems and take eye-watering shots of rum. Add the fact that cannabis was legal, and Twou Wòch was quickly becoming the Amsterdam of the Caribbean.
“Anything new?” Sam’s voice was empty, bored, filling the space between them and the night.
Frankie paused. She had come over planning to tell him and Darla that she had finally received her dual citizenship, but instead, she had allowed herself to be seduced by the moment. In the aftermath of their intimacy, alone with Sam, this would be her chance, but instead, she heard herself saying, “Oh, nothing new. Just covering the ceremony again. Human rights activists are trying to get the UN involved.”
“Will they?”
She shrugged. “I doubt it. Saraan is the richest island in the Caribbean. It’s not likely that they’ll change their religion just because some foreigners are telling them to.”
“They should be left alone then.” Sam pushed off the window sill, retreating into his apartment. Frankie flicked the cigarette butt, watching it fade into the night, falling several stories before the red ember disappeared altogether.
She followed him to the kitchen, sitting at the marble-topped island. He handed her a glass of whisky, neat. Frankie took a sip and breathed in through her teeth as alcohol burned the back of her throat. It wasn’t her favorite drink, but it was the one they always shared while Darla showered. Darla had severe OCD and couldn’t handle the after-sex smell of sweat and semen. It was one of many reasons Frankie didn’t understand why Darla wanted to be pregnant. Babies were messy and unpredictable creatures, but then again, so was their relationship. And to Frankie, that’s what made it beautiful.
As an only child, losing her mother had left her feeling like the found family with Sam and Darla was all she had left. The prospect of it growing filled her with conviction that no matter the obstacles, the idiosyncrasies of the three of them, they would make it work. It also had the added benefit that while Sam and Darla tried, Frankie had been coming over more and more. She liked that. Liked the distraction. She liked dipping into their lives, their problems. Focusing on how to fix them rather than dealing with her own life. She was like a leech on Sam and Darla’s marriage. They built the emotional intimacy, the commitment, Frankie just sipped the honey from the top of the barrel.
Her sense of comfort was the main reason she had put off telling them about Saraan. Once she did, the inevitable conversation that would follow was one she wasn’t ready for. She wasn’t quite ready to leave them yet. Not with the hope of a baby or family on the horizon.
The shower turned off above them. The white noise of running water evaporated, leaving them in silence. Frankie waited for some sign, some way to know if she should tell him or abandon her plans of leaving Seattle altogether.
“Darla’s pregnant,” Sam said, looking at his drink. He swirled the caramel liquid, dispersing the oil, its translucent legs dripping back down the glass.
“My God! That’s…” Frankie trailed off. She was equal parts surprised and proud. Proud as if she had somehow impregnated Darla herself. And in a way, she had. She was the one that always got Sam started before he finished with Darla. She was the one that had been coming over every month during ovulation, lately every night. She had been part of this. “That’s incredible!”
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, sounding as if he was discussing world hunger rather than his pregnant wife.
“Don’t be too excited though.”
He laughed and set his drink down, both hands on the counter. Frankie reached across the space and stroked his bicep.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
“Sorry,” she said, recoiling. They had rules to this relationship. The first was that Sam could only finish with Darla. The second was that Frankie was never supposed to have one-on-one time with either of them. But that was the rule no one followed, so she asked, “What’s wrong? This is good news. It—”
“—It means we’re breaking up with you.”
Frankie could hear the ocean in her ears. Her face flushed. Her stomach dropped. “What?”
“Frankie, we’ve loved having you with us. You’ve really… helped us. But Darla feels, well Darla and I feel, that if we’re going to have a baby, it would be best to do it with just the two of us.”
“Oh, right.” Frankie heard her voice, dull like a corroded speaker.
“I mean, she has a point. What would we tell the kid? That you’re their auntie or something? You don’t even look related to us.”
“Oh, so this is a racial thing?”
“What? No. Sorry, no, that’ sounded… bad. I just meant.”
“You meant now that you have a kid, you can’t have a threesome with some woman anymore. Can’t have me coming over and interrupting your perfect little picture. You have a spicy past, but that’s what I am? A fun story to tell your friends?”
“Frankie, you’ve been my fantasy come true. I don’t want this to end.” He was next to her now, the table no longer between them. His breath smelled like whisky. Too much whisky. Frankie could hear her heartbeat in her ears, his hand was on her shoulder. His breath was hot on her cheeks as he said, “Look we still could, you and I. The two of us can still be together.”
“Really?”
Frankie and Sam both turned to the doorway. Darla stood in the hallway, her wet hair dripping onto her white t-shirt.
“Darla, I…”
“I thought you said we could focus on the family?”
Darla clutched her flat stomach. Frankie grabbed her bag. “Congratulations, Darla. You’ll make a beautiful mother.”
It wasn’t a lie. Darla had smooth chestnut hair and a body she maintained as meticulously as her house. She was a classic kind of beauty. Why Sam needed another woman was a mystery to Frankie and it drove Darla crazy. Drove her into hyperdrive perfection.
It was better if Frankie left now before things got messy. She kissed Darla on the cheek and closed the door behind her. Their voices followed her down the hall, muffled through the walls as she waited for the elevator. The argument grew louder, and she listened to them scream at one another until the elevator doors closed.
Frankie had broken her own rule, her secret third rule, which was, never become attached.