Heather was the twelfth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Wed 24th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.

Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
 

 

Heather Parry is a writer and editor who skittered around the world for a few years before settling in Edinburgh.

Her work has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines, and she is currently writing a novel. She writes about dystopias, utopias and real life, which is somewhere in between.

You can find out more on her website and follow her on Twitter @heatherparryuk.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

The Skin Therein
a short story by Heather Parry

Phinn was only four when his sister grew new ears. It was a blue-sky seaside afternoon. She crouched by a rockpool, looking for starfish, and he saw them: two coarse little nubs of dark brown that protruded from the top of her head.

“Jenny. Jenny. Jenny you’ve got horns.”

He reached out to touch one.

“Don’t poke me, Phinneas,” she scolded, using her mother’s full-name technique for maximum effect.

“You’ve got horns, Jenny.”

She wafted him away. Their mother called and they ran to their scuffed Volkswagen.

“Mummy. Mummy. Jenny’s got horns.”

“She’s not got horns, she’s got head lice,” said their father, dusting sand off the boy’s corduroy trousers and lifting him into the car. But their mother had seen them, and grasped the girl’s head, and sifted through the strands of hair trying to see, desperately, where they started, where they’d grown from, and how they might be removed.

 

They massaged her head and bought hats by the handful. They kept her at home after the Easter break. They tried to hold the ears back with headbands and hairclips, but still the new protrusions grew bigger. They grew greyer. They grew proud. Her human ears shriveled and shrank away to nothing. On the last evening of the holidays, Jenny took her father’s straight razor and shaved the sides of her head, leaving the hair on top to cascade down from her new ears and show them off in all their glory. In the morning her mother rang the school and said that the girl would not be back.

That summer, Jenny’s face became longer. Her eyes migrated. Her teeth stuck out and she grew fur on every available inch of skin. On the morning she dropped to all fours to walk on her new hooves, no amount of beatings would make her stand back up. When they finally dragged her out of the house, five large men pulling on her bridle, she screeched and brayed and hee-hawwed as she went.

 

Soon enough, new photos filled the living room frames. The second bedroom was plucked apart piece by piece, and put together again as an office for no one. Phinn received hundreds of hand-me-downs and there was no more talk of Jenny.

 

Phinn was eleven when he began to shed his skin. With familiar rocks beneath his feet, he searched for absent starfish in algae-covered puddles, and as he reached for a baby crab he saw it: Half his arm as raw as meat, a translucent crust falling sideways. A few days later, he coughed a ball of sodden matter onto his dinner and when they unfolded it with tweezers they found it was the shape of his tongue. That night, he scratched at his hairline and his face came away in his hands, a ghostly facsimile of his features fluttering to the floor.

“Oh god,” said the mother.

“Get him out,” said the father.

Phinn was silent as they raged against each other, one pleading, the other panicking. The father said he couldn’t go through it all again, couldn’t watch another child turn into a feral creature. The mother said it was a phase, a turn of the tides, something seasonal, perhaps, like heat rash or hay fever. And so instead of turning the boy out of their lives, they agreed to send him out to a sheltered cove on the beach with a blanket and a bag of sandwiches to see what panned out.

He didn’t argue. For 40 days he caught fish and dug holes and watched as flakes of dead flesh fell to the floor. And then, finally, it stopped.

 

Soon enough, new photos filled the living room frames. The second bedroom was plucked apart piece by piece, and put together again as an office for no one. Phinn received hundreds of hand-me-downs and there was no more talk of Jenny.

 

Phinn was eleven when he began to shed his skin. With familiar rocks beneath his feet, he

 

For six weeks every year, the cave became his haven. He took books and biscuits and bedded down inside the curved rock, a basalt womb with an entrance always covered by the lapping waters. There, he didn’t need to cover himself in Vaseline or bandage his hands to keep his condition hidden. There, he rolled in the sand to exfoliate himself, hurrying up the process. He couldn’t go back home until he was rid of every inch of crust. His father wanted to see nothing less than fresh epidermis from head to toe. Phinn picked and pulled and peeled and rubbed himself on the sharp rocks, hoping that every drop of blood would buy him one less night out on the sands.

 

It went on like this until he was sixteen. His parents explained away his absence with vague mentions of summer camp and sick grandmas and exchange trips to Germany. Still, his mother clung to the hope that he would go back to how he was before.

“It’s just a phase. You’re all hormones,” she sung. “Come 18 you’ll be right as rain again.”

But Phinn had begun to see new things. A hint of blue beneath the first layers of fresh skin. The growing stain of turquoise and gold, the colors of the sea, at the crook of his elbow. The emerging lattice in pale grey that couldn’t be explained away as a patchwork of veins. His mother couldn’t feel the tightening of his limbs, the changing shape of his tongue, the overwhelming urge to stop bothering with legs altogether. His mother was right. It wouldn’t last. But Phinn knew that he would never again be the boy he once was.

One morning just after his seventeenth birthday, he packed his blanket, now threadbare and made of must, wrapped his sandwiches in brown paper and set off for the beach. The days of his parents waving goodbye were long gone. For an hour he walked with the flaking soles of his feet in the water, the blanket leaving a trail behind him in the wet sand. He peeled his clothes off as soon as he was out of sight of the house. He’d taken to wearing long sleeves and trouser legs to cover up the undeniable hue of his flesh, and he was glad to be rid of the clinging material. When he reached his sandy refuge, he placed his face into the sea and washed off the foundation that he’d begun stealing from his mother, then took shelter in the shade, for each year the sun hurt his eyes just a little more.

“Phinn.”

The sounds were so inhuman that at first he barely heard her.

“Phinn.”

There she was. Four legs, thick white fur at the end of her snout, and a coarse mane running between those magnificent ears. It was unmistakably Jenny. He knew that she was smiling. He threw himself around her neck and wept into her fur until all the frustration of his existence was almost gone. He stroked her ears and she snorted. He laughed. Together in the sand they sat watching the seagulls circle and circle and circle and circle and bomb, beaks first, kamikaze, caution thrown to the wind. Jenny quietly nibbled at his shedding skin, peeling off layer after layer and braying with wonder at the shine of his new skin underneath. The seagulls still dove, and emerged, and he envied them.

It was hard for Jenny to speak, so he told her stories. He told her about the speech therapist he was secretly seeing, to hide his growing lisp. He told her about taking the hems of his trousers up so that his parents wouldn’t notice his legs getting shorter. He showed her the ease with which he could dislocate his whole jaw, placing both fists inside his mouth before willing it back to the way it was without so much as an ache.

For five weeks they ate fish and crab and wrapped up in each other at night beneath their one blanket. With Jenny’s help he was freshly skinned and ready to go a full week before his usual time, but as he started to apply his mother’s make up to his face, Jenny pulled her lips back from her teeth and slowly, painfully, spoke.

“There’s a place for us,” she said. “There are people like us. It’s okay. Come with me. You don’t have to – “

She choked on the words and he held her. He put up a pretence of decision, but he already knew he would go. The pain of hiding in his own home was becoming too much. He no longer fit in the place they’d carved for him. He knew that his legs, eventually, would wither away to nothing, and he would slide on his belly, and writhe with freedom, and his parents would hate to see it.

For a while he just stroked Jenny’s matted hair, letting his palm lay heavy all the way down to her nostrils as she closed her eyes and sighed. As the temperature dropped, he folded the blanket, put the make up on top, and placed it inside the curved rock, hoping that when they came to find him, they’d understand.

He placed his hand on Jenny’s back and together they walked not towards their childhood home, but away from it. And as his legs grew heavy and useless, and his feet became entangled and confused, he dropped to his belly and crawled.
 

(c) Heather Parry, 2016