Discover more from Unleash Lit
by Jay Mackenzie
from the archives
She always seems to be picking at something: a scab, the ribbon of a torn nail. Cute, you call it at first. Quirky. But those are the days when you’re still in love with the way the afternoon sun makes her hair glint auburn. Later, when the scabs cling like barnacles to her knees, or the jagged teeth of her nails tear strips from your back, you decide to address it. Holding her hand gently in yours, you try to avoid putting pressure on the bulging red skin that shines around the nail beds on her fingers.
I’m fine, she tells you, swatting your unblemished hand away with hers.
But the cycles get shorter. Green oozes from the sores, and barely have time to crust over before they’re once again stripped back to the raw, pink flesh beneath.
Trauma response, says the first therapist. PTSD says the second, the one who stares at you with flinty unblinking eyes.
You wonder if he can see that you’re thinking is she really worth all this?
In the shower you hold her as rivulets of red run down her legs, and when you've dried her with yet another towel that will need to be thrown away, you dress her sores with iodine.
You can tell me, you say. But she just smiles sadly and kisses the tip of your nose.
You cut her nails as short as you dare before the keratin shields become enfolded in the skin. She lets you, obedient as a child, trust in her gaze. You hide the sewing kit because you can't unsee the time you saw her gouging a crusted sore with a crewel needle.
I don't know how to help, you tell your mother while she helps you scrub the russet stains from your sheets. Your mother sighs, but her eyes and pencil-line lips implore you to run.
The twin stripes peeping from the window of the test surprise you both. There's been little intimacy, only digging and scratching and peeling and rubbing of late, just the occasional fumble where she winces and you avoid touching the hardened mounds peppering her flesh.
We can't ignore this, you tell her. Think of our baby.
And for a while, there are no new sores. The lumps fall off when they're ready, the pink puddles start to dry. There are scars, of course: white pools and roads snaking between the freckles, only visible in certain lights, like something branded with invisible ink.
She ripens like a plum, lush and full, and she seems almost…healed. There's humming as she paints up a vintage cot and at night, she rubs the taut skin of her belly, lips upturned at the corners.
But with the baby comes lethargy, and with the lethargy returns the pick, pick, pick.
You haven't the energy to hold your child, you hiss, but you've the energy to tear the skin off your neck!
Postnatal depression, says the health visitor. Mummy needs lots of love and support right now.
But you're furious, and so is your red-faced son, fists balled, screaming for his mother.
Look at him, you implore. She turns away, tearing a thick shard of epidermis from the palm of her hand.
Your mother says nothing, but quietly mixes the formula while the baby sobs in your arms, seeking a comfort that you cannot provide.
You've been tending to the scar where they pulled her apart, broke her waters with a fsshhh like a shaving foam canister and pulled out your son. You pull back the dressing, wipe the gently weeping sore with a warm, wet cloth. You dry it with a soft towel. It's almost beautiful, and it feels right: that finally one of her scars means something. You run the buttery ointment along the worm-like seal.
Then, you catch sight of the brown crust of sores on her shins, at the corners of her lips, her hands, and wonder why you're bothering to tend this one at all.
It's an honest mistake, the first time. Well, almost.
You've picked up the bottle of nail polish remover by accident. It's a similar size, and it sits near the lotion on the shelf.
True, it carries a different weight, but you're sleep deprived. Anyone might have made the same mistake under the circumstances.
And yes, it's a liquid rather than a lotion. And yes, the chemical scent of the acetone is a long way from the gentle soapy smell of the MooGoo. But still, an honest mistake.
The sad thing is, she doesn't even shriek when you massage the solvent into her raw, healing skin. Is that what I wanted? you wonder. A reaction?
Instead, she stares at you blankly through slow-blinking, heavy eyelids.
You can't hide the sneer.
Why isn't this healing? wonders the health visitor. You mouth the word picking and indicate her scabbed legs. After, when she's leaving, the nurse places a hand on your arm, and says, you're doing great, Daddy. Hang in there.
You photograph the wounds, all of them, being careful to mute the sounds on your phone so you don't wake her.
Your tears are real when the mental health outreach triage team decides to admit her. She cries too, and grasps your arm. It's the first response you've seen in weeks, but you press down the gnawing guilt feasting on your guts.
It's for the best, you say to your mother as you bathe your son, and you feel the brief respite of the house without her dark hollow presence.
You take your son to visit: only for an hour in the afternoons, when his soft lashes lay on his cheek in sleep, a fleecy bunny blanket cocooning him in his pram.
She starts to look a bit more like the old her, and your breath catches as you recall the first time you brought her tea in bed, heart thudding. The scabs are healing, she's got a pale blush in her cheeks and she's sitting up, asking questions about his formula intake.
I'm getting better, she says. She smiles tightly, warily. I'm looking forward to coming home, being a mum.
You pat her hand. We can't wait, you tell her. We. Can't. Wait. You ask the nurses for printouts of their reports.
She's lucky to have you both, says one handing over a thick wad of paper.
On your way home from the unit, just one week before her proposed release, you buy new locks, push the photographs and reports across the desk in a sterile solicitor's office, file for sole custody of your son.
Jay has lived in the UK, Greece, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore. Her short stories have been published online at Cafe Lit, Reedsy, Globe Soup and Off Topic, and in print in Mr Rosewood, Fabula Nivalis, Leicester Writes and Sweetycat Press. She is a two time winner of The Australian Writers Centre’s Furious Fiction, and is currently longlisted for two short story prizes. Two of her stories have featured on the Blue Marble Storytellers’ podcast and she was a guest on Read Lots Write Lots podcast in October 2022.