(originally published in 'The Interpreter's House')
I know it’s over when the previous version of myself asks to be strung from the lowest branch of the big, old oak at the bottom of the park instead of remaining with me. I have trouble unzipping her of course. The years of being stuck in one place have made her hinges rust. The one behind my left knee is so corroded I think we’ll never be able to be separated, but she urges me on.
“Just yank it. Seriously, put the edge between your teeth and pull. If that doesn’t work, maul it off. I don’t mind if I’m left here a little holed.”
I feel sorry for her, this previous version of myself. Already she’s so tattered there’s more air than sentience holding her together. Her brain is a sponge left in the freezer among the forgotten spilled peas and carrots that have rolled behind the miniature mountains of frost I hoard for when the little Robber Girl comes to visit, which isn’t often these days. And her heart, well it’s become a cobweb. A dusty thing hanging limply in the cavity of her chest that occasionally flutters if the north wind blows hard enough and she allows it a passage through. Although she isn’t a ghost, aspects of her have already become a haunted thing.
“Remember when you thought we’d go to the moon, to live? What happened to that version of us, do you remember?”
She says this to distract us both from the pain. I can see it on her face, how the creases by her eyes deepen as I pull at the pieces of us that don’t want to let go. The way she billows inwards again, trying to cling to me even though she is the one that has asked to be left behind. I have to stop before I can answer. The segment of skin I have in my teeth falls away, floats for a moment like a jellyfish rising to the surface of the ocean, then pings back onto her. Onto us.
“She turned to glass, I think. We left her in that wheat field where those clumps of dog daisies were still growing, even though it was November.”
“Ah, yes. In the frost, wasn’t it? She said she wanted to glisten like that forever as well, even though she’d always hated the cold. How easy was she to peel off?”
Not easy at all. Parts of her are still snagged in my stomach like spelks. I feel her sometimes when I’m in the bath, or waiting for a bus. When my thoughts disconnect and float off into the sky, I can sometimes still hear her. The way she had of dreaming big, dreaming hard. I miss her, the girl we lost to the daisies and frost.
The lie hurts me. Hurts us both, but she pretends she doesn’t know what I’m doing. She just goes on trying to shake herself off me, even though that piece behind my left knee is bleeding now. I can feel the warmth of it, the stickiness. I can taste it too, on my tongue. The sharp, metallic twang of it, filling my mouth with an urgency. Filling my head with memories.
“Did you love her more than me? Did she fit us better?”
I can’t answer. The questions she asks, they’re briars, we both know that. If I allow my thoughts the voice she expects, the words once uttered, they will tangle us. Keep us in place as they creep and creep over the surface of us, over our flaws. And the berries those briars would grow, they would be bitter. More metallic than blood, more poisonous than departures. We’d both end up stuck here, dying. But she knows though, she can feel it. And because she’s leaving, she doesn’t hold back.
“Do you know what they do to her, in the dark? Do you know the monsters that torment her. Throw clods of mud at her, trying to shatter her? Do you know how often she cries for us? Cries for you? Do you even care?”
I bite her then, hard. I think I even snarl as I rip at that segment of skin behind our knees, shaking it the way next door’s dog shook the hare it caught last summer in the woods. Shook it until it broke its wild neck. And even though it squealed, it never stopped. Not until the blood filled its mouth and sent it mad. The previous version of myself winces, but doesn’t stop.
“You are heartless. You don’t know it because you try ever so hard not to look inwards, but I see it. That space in your chest where the organ is supposed to sit, it’s full of darkness in there, full of shadows. All the doors are locked of course, from the inside. Because you’ve always been so afraid to open them. Not for what would come in, but what would slither out. You are a stain, a watermark that can’t be washed out. And if the sunlight got in, if life got in, you’d die. I’m being serious, you’d die.”
It’s free, the skin of her. The ache of her, it’s free. She falls away from me; a bundle of leaves, a lungful of dandelion seeds, a bitten apple gowk already turning brown as the rot sets in. And before I know it, an army of tears march from my eyes, attack my cheeks until they sting with them, until they ache under the conquering spread of them.
I bend down, put my fingers under her armpits, lift her up onto her feet. She’s so wispy now, this previous version of myself. So see-through. She’s like a sheet that’s been washed and washed so often it’s all but forgotten how to be a sheet any more. Halfway towards being a rag, halfway towards being a ghost. Still though, she manages a smile.
“You look different, from this side of the separation. You look more solid somehow, more yourself. Although I am surprised at the size of you. I always imagined us to be a little thing, a cowering creature. From this side now that I’m away from you, you look big. You look like you could fight a wolf, and win if you wanted to.”
The tears ease. I wind a few stray sobs back inside before they’re able to escape. This anchors me, keeps me from wafting away on the breeze. I don’t feel big. I don’t feel fierce. I feel diminished. Lost. As though by allowing this previous version of myself the ending it so very much wants, I have given away a piece of myself that I need. An essential part of my psyche, discarded as if it’s a pasty packet carrying little more than useless crumbs for the birds, for the wind.
“I’ll miss you.”
When I say the words, they fall out of my mouth as though they’re marbles, roll towards her. Three scolded puppies in need of a stroke. She takes a few steps backwards, towards the oak. Once the tree was struck by lightning. A winter that no-one wants to remember, where many things burned and were turned into remnants of themselves, into ghosts with teeth. The trunk is charred. It’s a soft blackness that smudges at the edges of the park, at the beginning of the woods. Blurring the boundaries of what is cultivated, what is wild.
She gasps as the first antler bursts from her head. Screams once as the twigs twist from the tips of her fingers before covering themselves with a fur of moss. I want to help her, take some of the pain back into myself, but I know it’s not allowed, not now we’re properly at the border and it’s opening for her. I watch as she begins to stroke the lowest branch of the oak, the one that hangs in an arch down to the floor. A few stray foxgloves sit at the base of it, wrapping their green leaves over the burned bark. The purple flowers look like tongues of fire turned eerie as they sway in the breeze.
“Will you haunt me?”
Already she’s sitting on the branch, adjusting her limbs so they curl around the wood, become one with it.
“Unlikely. You’ll forget me, you see. Like you did with the girl we lost to the daisies and frost. Like you did with the woman we abandoned to the whales the time before last. Like you will again and again before the hour arrives when you will lie your bones back down with the clarts. With the furrows of memories that helped build you, helped root you. And then, you will remember us all. Every abandoned wish, every decision that raked one of us from you, all the pathways that brought you more into this skin you walk in now. You will remember, and you will be glad.”
I’m crying again. This time the tears don’t sting, don’t hurt. They wash me clean, revealing this hidden layer of skin. One that feels the air again; how the breeze kisses it as it passes, how the spaces it inhabits have inflated, become fresh. I feel light, like sunbeams through gaps in clouds. Like fingers of air, pulling strings on the puppets of birds.
“Remember, don’t look back. Like that time in the wheat field when you heard glass shatter as if it was a scream and you were afraid for a moment that it was her. When you hear a bellow and you wonder if it is the shadow of a reindeer on your pillow with an arrow stuck in its chest, don’t look back. We endure, always. Every previous version of you does. We’re the knots that collect in your hair as you dance. We are the ache in your muscles after you have been thoroughly loved. We are you, always. But your present self needs to move on.”
I raise the cuff of my jumper to my face, rub the tears away. And when I look back at the oak, the previous version of myself has already gone. Untethered herself back to the woods, back to the wildness. Where she’ll wait until I’m ready for her again. When I’m brave enough to return. Brave enough and ready enough to put on the vixen skin that’s been calling from the forest for me since the day I was born.