Self-Portrait In Corpses
I kill them holy. Like God. I have lowered them into water and waited; baptized them in rivers that become coffins. Slit their throats, as my father once did to swine. Fashioned my hands into a necklace for them. That deep amethyst I push into them, I wear for myself after I slip the new skin on. All this, just to wear them. The bodies must be hollowed out before I take them as my own. A body emptied for me to fold into.
This one is hardly more than a boy. Just barely a man. His name was Ethan. Pretty, even now, with his neck open. Everything I drained from him covers the sheets. Fingerprints that won’t be mine much longer on the blade. The blade I’ll use to carve a door in his skin that I can step into. He begged me to enter him, to fill him, not knowing I would settle there.
I made him love me first. Oma always said you attract more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. It helped that the body I wear now is handsome. Blond, blue-eyed, and sturdy. All the things I wanted to be before Oma taught me how to take them. All the things I needed to be in order to trade this rot for something tighter.
My father always said Oma was a witch, but I didn’t know he meant it until I was about seven. Until she came home with a new pair of black eyes. The eyes of a doe. “Glaucoma was clouding me up, Charlie,” Oma said to me. “But this beastie had a fresh set.” She tapped her temple. Frightening as she looked, I got used to it. My father didn’t. He wouldn’t look at her.
My father was a God-fearing man. Heavy with God. He lived by scripture and by the words of Minister Gunder. Found what he considered salvation by stepping away from the first ways. He was only two generations separated from Oma — his mother’s mother — but his fear of the first ways only pushed him farther toward the Baptists.
“Lots of the Indians down here swayed that way. Not many like me left.” Oma said. I figured that already, since there were about three Baptists churches within a five mile radius of the house. There wasn’t ever a tribal center for the Wassamasaw in South Carolina, but seemed like the churches around here served that purpose for most. “They call my ways the old ways, but it’s just the first way.”
“Can you teach me?” I said.
“Ain’t old enough yet, chicken. You need a little more gristle.”
Every time I go through the ritual, I hear Oma’s voice instead of my own. She makes it sound so easy. Take the cypress bark, burn one side, and press it to the skin over your heart. Burn the other side of the bark, and press it into the door you cut in the new body’s back. Hold it there until the rain-smell comes. Wait till you feel the wound pull at your own. Rub witch hazel into any open wounds, so they close when you slip on the new skin. Nothing can be done about the bruises, the burn marks — all those doors are locked—but you have to fix one that are busted open. I pull the plant from my backpack, hold it to Ethan’s throat. His neck so narrow my hand almost curls all the way around it.
Ethan was easy to love and difficult to kill, like a prince in a movie. Light brown hair, now crusted with blood. Deep brown eyes, unblinking, staring down at once-white of the sheets. I loved his eyes, the sad softness in them. I’m happy I’ll be seeing them in the mirror for a while, though the light behind them will be different. Though I’ll soon take his mouth, his jaw, I know my smile will never be so inviting, so honest.
“You may not be my first love, Charlie, but you are my quickest.” Ethan said to me, smiling, just a few nights ago. Our first night in the hotel.
“I’m not usually one to fall in love at all.” Right then. That was the first time I tried to mirror that smile. I knew it would never really be mine.
“Come on, when was the first time you fell in love?” he asked.
“Probably back when I was your age,” I said.
“You act like that was so long ago.” Over twenty years ago, I want to say. My tree has more rings, even if the bark I wear looks more like his. I almost want to tell him the truth, to spare him. “What was his name?” Ethan asked.
I pulled Ethan in, and he laid his head on my chest. He held his ear to my heart as I sighed. My fingers ran through the ringlets of his hair. “Hugh,” I answered.
My mother died pushing me out. I was born in November of 1967, but Oma knew my nature since before I was born. She knew it would cause the rift between my father and me. Between me and the church. She counted on it. I was to be her wolf, not their sheep. She knew my nature before I knew it myself. As I grew, she watched as I wrestled the older boys, as I watched them, envied them. What I thought was envy, she knew was longing. But it would take years for me to know myself as she did.
I met Hugh in Charleston in summer of 1987. I was at a bar called Dudley’s and he asked me to dance. We drank whiskey and tequila and he called me beautiful. He called the body I was born in beautiful. Despite all my dark, willowy limbs, my pock-marked face, my crooked teeth, he saw beauty. He took me to his house and pulled off my clothes, pulled me close, and I pulled him in. I’d never done it before, but I didn’t tell him. I had practiced — the broom handle, the bottle of shampoo — but this was different. There was warmth in this.
After two months, I told Hugh I loved him. Three months in, we were talking about moving in together. But then Hugh started to get sick. We were together for five months when we took the test. When we found out we had it in our blood. That we carried death.
Hugh got bad fast. He started shitting rivers for months at a time. Then came the sores. Soon enough, I had to walk through hallways full of the damned to see him, knowing that I, too, was damned. His eyes got sunken. He got rail-thin. I couldn’t recognize him all emptied out like that. We spent our one-year anniversary in a sterile room, eating jello off a plastic tray. I didn’t know how long I had left with him, but he seemed to have an answer.
“Will you kill me, Charlie?” His voice was so weak. But it didn’t sound like a question. “I don’t want to do it myself. And I don’t want to fight. Or wait,” he said.
I said nothing. I couldn’t watch, and I knew I wouldn’t let this happen to me, so I left him.
Ethan’s drivers license says he is eighteen, born in 1989. I haven’t been in skin this young in a long time. This new body feels so light. The neck wound is gone, but the scar is there. A thin smile below my chin. I need to learn to make a single puncture, to hit right on the carotid. No more slicing all the way across the neck. Drowning is always clean, but takes too long, and is more likely to attract attention. Would’ve been a cruel way for Ethan to go. This was more merciful. Likely that he hardly saw red before he saw the light.
I’m wearing white again, but I’m still Wassamasaw. Oma always said our name means connecting water in some language that none of us know anymore. If no one knows it, I don’t know where she got that from. But she knows it, and I got it from her. We are Wassamasaw. We are Crossroads Indian too, depending on who gets asked. I was told my mother always went by Crossroads. My father never cared much what people called him. It’s the state of South Carolina that calls us Wassamasaw. There are other tribes around here that are like us. Tribes with different names and similar blood. The Chaloklowa Chickasaw, the Santees, the Edisto Natchez-Kusso. They all got tribal centers and such, but we don’t, even now. All we got is family. The blood we share.
It’s the blood that’s killing me. The blood that makes me do all the killings. I don’t want to rot alive the way Hugh did. Soon as my body starts showing signs of the sickness, I need a new one. Every time I pull a new skin on, the blood beneath it is still my own. It freshens up a bit, gives me some more time, but it’s still my own. Oma used the medicine for age. Those new eyes when hers began to cloud up. As she got older, she got more vicious.
Found herself a set of human eyes. Green ones, like she alway wanted. Like all the whores your great-granddaddy used to stick it to. Pulled a new face over her own once hers started to sag too much. I see now that the cruelties just get easier each time.
Time was her enemy, and Oma fought valiantly. As tight as she kept her skin, as clear as she kept her eyes, it was her mind that undid her. No matter how many skins you go through, you can’t change the mind. That stays with you just the same. She must’ve been pushing a hundred, at least, when she started to forget more. I wondered if her name was easier to forget since she gave herself a new face. That’s why I keep a polaroid of myself, of my oldest self, though in the picture I am just nineteen. I’m in my father’s fishing boat on the Edisto River, looking back at Oma. Though she’s behind the camera here, I know she still had her first face that day.
My father drank when my mother died, meaning he’d drank my whole life. He’d get home from the town butchery, sit in front of the television, and drink until he slept. That was just most days. And that was why Oma stayed around. At first, just to care for me. When I got old enough to mostly care for myself, she stayed around to be there for me. To make sure I had someone who was awake in the world. Soon as I could walk, she had me going out fishing with her. I still remember the warmth of the light coming off of the water. The songs she used to hum.
By the time I was seven, she had me holding the pole while she read next to me. She still filleted the ones I pulled up though, but she walked me through it, telling me I’d be doing it one day soon.
“First, you got to bleed it out,” Oma said. “Otherwise it’ll taste nasty.”
I watched Oma’s knife slip under the gill, heard the snap of the fish’s spine. Oma threaded a line through its mouth, and I watched the blood spill into the river. It was frightening, watching her slice open the belly and pull the innards out. As she removed the scales, and cut away everything she didn’t want and pulled bone from flesh, the fish’s body looked less like a body and more like something to consume.
When we got home, Oma and I cooked up the fish together. A lot of butter, some sage, a little cayenne. The smell woke my father from his whiskey sleep. He walked in the kitchen. Well, it was more a shuffle, as if he wasn’t used to how heavy his bones were. He was still twice my height then, towering over Oma and me. His body cast over us like an evening shadow.
“In the kitchen with the women, huh Charlie?” He gave a sleepy smirk. “Women’s work. Least you’ve been taught how to fish.”
“You want some?” I asked him. “Caught enough.”
“Liquid dinner, boy. Had my fill.” At that, he paused for a while, as if he forgot what he’d said. “You think the boy is gon’ be queer, Eyota?” He said it like I left the room, like I had disappeared.
I’d never heard my father call Oma by her name before. Wasn’t sure what my father meant by queer either. I looked to Oma. The fish sizzled in the skillet.
“He’ll be what he’ll be, Caleb.” Oma’s voice cut. Her eyes flashed. “Just leave him be.”
“Think you mean he’ll be what you make him.”
“Better watch your tone, ’fore I tear your soul out through your ass.”
“Least I have a soul. Mine won’t be burning up.”
Oma picked up the skillet, slammed it onto the back burner like a hammer. I was frozen, but her body moved like water. She spat on her hand at pressed it down onto the red-hot stove. My father screamed. Clutched his hand. I watched it redden, blister.
“Tell me who’s burning up now?” Oma said, smiling at his animal fear.
That fear of the first ways followed him to the grave. To him, those ways could only ever be harmful, selfish. When I found out his heart was going, I offered him a new one. Didn’t even need a human one. The gift lets the flesh that’s taken shape to the body. I could change the body in pieces. I could help him step into something new. As he was, only better. I could’ve healed him. In a way that I can’t even heal myself. But he wanted nothing from me.
I take what is mine. The picture of me at nineteen, the cash from my wallet, my new name. I take the picture of Hugh, from before he got sick. The one where he is sitting by the library window, looking out at the cobblestone streets. I take him with me the same way I take myself with me, so as to not forget. I must not forget who I am, who he was, and who he made me. I shower. Wash the blood from my hair. I dry myself. Wipe the mist from the mirror. Clothe myself. I step out of the hotel room, leaving the carnage behind.
Outside, it is warm and the sun is setting. Rain comes slowly. When the first drop hits my face, I imagine it is blood. Blood, but cleaner. It makes me thirsty for a new body. I will have to find one soon enough. Seems like every time I slip on a new one it doesn’t last me as long as my last. But it will be easy with this new body, to find another. With its innocence, its beauty.
Once I had enough gristle, Oma taught me how with a fawn. She stepped into a doe, I stepped into the little one. With their corpses in front of us, she taught me to open the doors, to close the bullet wounds.
“You can step out whenever you want. Just push against the door.” She said. “Your first body will always be your own, just as it would be if you never stepped in.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Yes. Never kill and expect there won’t be a price.”
God killed his favorite boy. Called it a gift. Sacrifice is simply framing death as a gift. Simply hoping that, just maybe, this will be the last time suffering. Take and eat, this is my body. Now drink, this is my blood. This is. This is. I am. Of course, I know there will be a price for this. For all the bodies I take, for all the blood that I spill. But I will never have killed more people than God, so my debt will be less than his. I can feel it already. The hunger, the itch. Better start finding me a new man before my blood catches up with this skin. It’ll be easy, I’m sure. After all, their bodies are hungry for mine.
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