Published in Overland Issue 244 Spring 2021 · Fiction Skin Lena Fransham Out by the sandbar the cockles are thick under the feet, crowding out of the mud at low tide. Toe them up, rinse them off and into the bucket, keeping an eye on the boy. He sits in the mud, squeezing it through his fingers. His too-small tee shirt slides up his belly. Home past the river mouth. Boy runs ahead and back, ahead and back, brown feet slapping the sand. Something flicks a tail on the river surface. Seals come this way at the end of winter. Sometimes they drown in the trawler nets. A crumpled thing on the tideline: cloth, half-buried. Boy tugs at it, falls over as it comes free. Sailcloth. Torn and dirty. Good enough for the sewing basket. Brush off the sand, fold it for carrying. Past the old beach house, start up the cliff track. Watch for wild pigs down in the scrub. Boy stops, points. Not a pig—a bittern on the edge of the swamp. Half animal, half bird, frozen still as a tree, it vanishes slowly as the light fades. Leave bucket on the steps, scrape sand off feet. The old man looks up, nods, goes back to the TV. He looks pale, chest heaving. Boil the kettle, make the tea strong. He takes the cup in both hands. It shakes in his grip. His big chest strains for breath. Not as strong as he used to be. Open two tins, put the toast on. Stir spaghetti as it heats. Scrub the sailcloth in the sink, hang it by the fire. Boy standing in the doorway, watching something. A cat, moving between the trees. Close the door against the chill. —Stay still. Boy jerks away from the rag. Hold his head under one arm, wipe the spaghetti from his face. —Bedtime now. Clothes off. Pyjama pants on. Tuck blanket around him. —Book. Book. The book is in pieces, left in last week’s rain. —Shh. Sleep time. —Shh, says the boy. Shh, shh, shh. Sea sound, wind sound, blood-in-the-ears sound. Shh, shh, shh. Listen to the visitors in the lounge, come to play cards. Voices rise and fall. Bottles clinking. It’s quiet in the bedroom. Safe. Stay quiet, stroking boy’s head. Shh. Pull the sewing from under the bed. Tug thread between pressed fingers in the half-dark. The seams are lumpy. But it will keep him warm. After a while the people are gone. The old man comes in. Stay quiet. The boy doesn’t wake. The morning’s pink and cold. Old man still sleeping. Shh. Boy runs outside for cockle bucket. Quietly, quietly. Boy pulls the bucket up one step, clunk. Too heavy. Take it off him, tip sea water out on the dirt, carry bucket to the sink, pour the cockles in. Tap on, rinse cockles. Cook them in the pan, shells popping open like mouths. Boy stands on chair to watch. Too hot, slap small hands away. Sweet steam, plate clatter, bread for mopping. Smiling boy. Licking fingers boy. Scrub the clothes with soap, foam and raw hands. The mangle still works on the machine. Lean down on clothes to bring them through, heave basket to the line. Boy plays on the patchy grass. Makes car noises, builds a tower with driftwood sticks, knocks it down. Heading down the track with the firewood sack, knife in pocket, boy running ahead. Clouds moving over the sea. Brown birds hopping in the dust. Boy points, asking for the name. —Thrushes. Along the edge of the swamp. Past the old beach house. Busted windows, flowering thistles, high kikuyu grass, pōhutukawa ringing with tūī song. Boy jumps in the cushiony grass. —Kuyu, he says, remembering the syllables. Ku yu, goggog, warbles the tūī in reply. Warble. Some words sound like they mean. A cluster of oysters low on the rock, still wet where the water’s been. Crouch, slip knife under pearly lids and lift out the prize. Boy’s greedy mouth like a baby bird’s. Beach pebbles, big and smooth and cold, shift and chatter underfoot. Pōhutukawa leaning over the water. Maisie’s dinghy’s there, tied to its low branch. Boy splashes into the water in his clothes. —Mum, Mum. Lie in boat with boy, looking at sky, rocking. Wriggling, giggling boy. Water slaps on the hull, a lullaby. —Where will we sail today, —boy? —Ah, says the boy, hands up to the sky. Footsteps on the stones. Heart thumping scramble upright. Old Maisie staring down into the boat, hard face, narrow eyes, blood on her shirt. —Sorry Maisie. Just playing. She shakes her head sourly. Picks up her knife and bucket, walks on down the beach. —Goodbye, says the boy, wagging his hand in a wave. No reply. Remember being a kid on the bus, laughing at Maisie walking on the road. Miles and miles she walked. The skin stretched over her bones, whites showing all round her eyes. Mad Maisie. Bushpig Maisie, kids called her. Laughing even though her boy died and made her strange. Those other kids, laughing kids on the bus, they left home, got jobs. Gone now. Back across the stones. Lift boy on shoulders. Dried mounds of trodden seaweed, crunching. Over rocks, sharp under feet, to the next bay. —I the biggest, he says. A full sentence now. Driftwood pushed up in piles, white and dry. Let boy down to play. He drops some twigs in the sack. Runs off to whack the thistles with a stick. Shick. Shick. Shick. White fluff floats around him like clouds. Fill the sack till it’s too heavy to lift. Drag and stop, drag and stop back to the track, boy running ahead and darting back. The tūī follows: ku, ku, goggoggog. Boy mimics the sound. —Goggog. Goggoggog. Stack the wood in the shed, saving an armful for the fire. Boy on his belly, wriggling, reaching. Dust in his hair from the old couch. Pulls out a greybrown bundle. Dirt and fur and animal smell. Sealskin, rolling out on the floor. Remember the fur seal that died on the point, cut by propeller blades. All matted with blood on the tideline, staining the sand red. Flapping her flipper hopelessly, still trying to swim away. Old man must have flayed her, taken her skin. Can’t swim without a skin. Lay fireplace with sticks and spinifex, put a match to the pile. Fill the kettle for tea, go out to take the washing down as the wind picks up. Roaring in the trees. Scrawny grey cat crossing the grass with something in its mouth. Boy running towards it, pointing in alarm. Cat lets the bird fall, flees into the manuka. Feathered heap on the ground. Boy puts out a hand, afraid to touch. —Goggog. Goggog, he frets, pointing. Gather the tūī in both hands, look for wounds. Lost feathers, beads of blood on the breast. Small, fearful bird heart, thrumming, thrumming. Boy jumps off the laundry basket, flaps his arms, tūī feathers in each hand. —I a bird Mum. Goggog. Sky growing pink over the trees. —Come inside now. The food cools as he lines up feathers on the table. One, two, three. Yawns over his plate. Pull pyjamas up sleepy boy’s legs. Voices in the lounge. More visitors. Bottles clink. Tuck boy into the blanket. Close the door till there’s only a ribbon of light. —Book, says the boy. Book’s in the other room, where the visitors are. —Book, he says again. Try to remember stories in the book. Some about sisters growing feathers. Birds becoming boys. Seals turned into wives. —Goggog, says the boy. —It’s okay now. It flew away. —Goodbye goggog. His hand lifts as if to wave. Repeat the sounds of the day for him, a story in patches of memory. Kikuyu. Tūī. Thrushes, thistles. Lay the sounds on each other like blankets. Goggoggog. Shh. Shh. Shh. The sound of a stick on a thistle. Watch the awareness leaving him like a slow breath. Finish the hems in the half-dark. Time to pin the front. But the sailcloth is out by the fire. Stand in the gloom, deciding. Ease open the door, step into the light of the TV. Deal bags on the table, low murmuring. —Baby, says the old man from his armchair. Some words are collars. Two men on the couch. Staring, pretending not to. They’ve heard the talk. Don’t meet her eyes, they’re thinking. Don’t ask her any questions. —Baby, he says again. Get us another one while you’re up. Open a longneck from the fridge with the edge of a knife. Hiss, pale foam running on the table. Grab sailcloth off the stool, not looking at him. —That’s the apple of my eye there, boys. He picks up the beer. Sit down with us, angel. —Got room over here, says the skinny one. He smiles. —Sit down and be sociable, says the old man, still smiling. His breathing coming hard. The visitors wait, uncertain. —My girl’s hot, eh? he says. You’d do her, wouldn’t you, boys? Silence. Some words trap you. —Cheers to that, says the skinny one. He thinks he’s being nice. —You talk like that about my daughter again, I cut your balls off, says the old man. Laughing nastily. Skinny man looks scared. —Have a beer, girl. Don’t be rude to our guests. He’s not smiling now. Look him in the eye. Say nothing. Blood-in-the-ears sound, pounding. Take cloth into the dark bedroom, close the door. Pull all the seams apart. Undo all the stitches. It’s all wrong. Everything’s wrong. Don’t want to see people anymore. Remember the last time at the shop. The stares. Trying to talk like one of them. Making hopeless shapes in the air. Like trying to swim on land. Knowing what they said behind their hands. Running back home, away from them. Back to being nobody. Back to the sound of the heart and the shushing of blood in the ears. Back to no talk. Listen to boy breathing, sea thundering. The visitors are gone. The old man watches a video. Comes in after. —They were looking at you. I didn’t like the way they were looking at you, he says. Unzipping jeans. —They don’t understand us, he whispers. Some words choke. —Seal. I a seal, Mum. Boy, wrapped in the seal pelt, running. Turning circles. He stops, stares at Maisie walking on the tree line with her rifle. Grey cat dangling from her fist. Boy points. —Cat, he says. She turns. Looks at him in his seal fur, her eyes like stones. —You got a new skin, she says. Possum furs on branches round the clearing, tails hanging like bottle brushes. Maisie’s hut rusting under the puriri. Traps on the walls, oars leaning. Tarp slung between trees and Maisie squatting with the knife. Grey cat limp on the ground. Knife slides in, clean and easy. —Feral cats kill the birds, she says. She digs fingers into the slit skin. Peels the cat carcass like a wet, pink fruit. Boy stares, big eyes spilling tears. —Put it back, he says. Put it back. —The cat doesn’t need its skin anymore, she tells him. Wipes the knife. Drops the flayed cat in the bucket, drapes skin on the tree. —Goodbye cat, says boy. Maisie lifts the oars from the hut wall, holds them out, one in each hand. —You’ll be wanting these. Old man still sleeping. Shh. Pack bag with clothes, money from table. Light coming into the sky. Down the cliff track with the oars, keeping the boy close. He clings. His body vibrates in the cold. Mist in the gully. A faint sobbing in the raupō. Goodbye, bittern. Crunch across the bay, stand under pōhutukawa where the Selkie drifts on its tether. Goodbye tree. Dawn on the river. Birds hover and dive. Above, the tūī. The soft jostle of leaves, the voice slipping, shifting, gog gog gog, ku, ku, ku, ai ai. Loosen the rope of the dinghy. Lift boy into the stern, wrapped in his seal fur. Gasping-cold water knee-deep, push off and step in, steady, steady. Glide into the current, oars dipping, creak and pull, creak and pull. Boy looks up at the cliff house, the sunrise flashing off the windows. —Goodbye Dad, he says. His small hand rises in a wave. Read the rest of Overland 244 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Lena Fransham Lena Fransham is a writer living in Island Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand. She has previously published work in Takahē magazine. 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