When I woke up I was in sand
dunes. Sand was in my mouth. Grass scratched at my eyes.
The sun was white and burning. My body felt heavy, moulded
into the sand like a body sunk into its coffin. I couldn’t
open my eyes and I concentrated on sound, but all I could
hear was wind on the sea and water lapping on the shore and
grass rustling beside my head. I focused on that grass through
slitted eyes, on its browned stem where it was anchored in
sand, at the roughness of its texture, sharpness of its edges.
It shook it seemed to me dismissively. My throat was raw,
tongue dry and thick. The sun was too hot. I felt sure I
would be sick.
When my eyes adjusted to
the sunlight, and gravity loosened its grip enough to allow
me to move, I got onto my hands and knees like a dog. I
looked up and sniffed the air the sea was that way, behind
the largest dune. I crawled up it and lay flat, head above
the horizon like a suicidal soldier, and looked at the
sea, blue and creeping towards land as though seeking sanctuary.
I could hear it and it sounded like a song, a windsong.
I had water but no food.
At first, I hated the hunger because it reminded me of
my body when I was trying to live in my head, but I grew
to like the sensation of my body eating itself, molecule
by molecule. I deserved that. The first night was hard,
so cold, so long but never truly dark. There were too many
stars wasting their light. I didn’t think to make a fire.
The second night I thought it, but didn’t know how. The
third night I had fire, but I didn’t know where it came
from. I sat and watched it till light. After a while it
is possible to read fire. First impressions are of individual
flames, jagged, unconnected, but then, in the darkest of
the dark, your thoughts begin to slide together and so
does the fire and it becomes a single, flowing entity,
a life drawn from death, born in destruction. You can read
it, every action, but you don’t know what it is saying,
not about you, anyway, not about why you’re here, alone,
in sand dunes, waiting for an angel or for death or for
some damned thing. That was when I was at my lowest. I
thought then that I needed to eat.
When I woke up the next
morning there was a fish beside the fire with me next
to it. It was dead but it was looking at me, as though
I’d done this. Its eye was black and it looked like it
wanted to blink, like it was uncomfortable with all this.
It had skin like a suit of armour, shining in the light.
Its mouth was closed. Its tail was brown. I held it in
my hands and it was cold, not quite slimy, as though
if I held it in the water it could come back to life
and its spine would twist and its tail would twist and
it would turn and swim away and leave me behind, leave
me with the cold, dark, pleading eye and skin like shining
armour, roasting in the fire.
I didn’t want to eat it,
not at first. I had grown accustomed to hunger: more
than that, it felt comfortable, as though I was cleansing
my body. Such thoughts are like cancer. As the cold of
night descended and darkness spread beyond the fire,
I fought that cancer. I ate the fish. I wrapped it in
grass and slid it onto the embers of the edge of the
fire and watched their white and red force transform
that fish. Its eye popped and bubbled. The silver of
its skin tarnished brown to black. Its flesh turned to
carbon, protein, flesh of my flesh. I ate. It was beautiful.
Flames danced, I danced, I felt drunk with the power
of living. I stared into the fire and saw life, saw myself,
laughing, saw my world, growing, saw happiness. That
night, delirious, for the first time I slept until dawn.
after that, when I awoke next to the remains of the fire,
there was a fish beside me. Sometimes it was flat, sometimes
round, sometimes silver, sometimes brown. I learned that
wrapping them in different types of leaves changed the taste:
those of the squat tree by the edge of the wood made the
fish taste of aniseed, while the plentiful red-flowered shrubs
with the bright, fat berries, tasted of honey and smoke.
I learned not to cook them too long, that stuffing them with
figs and berries and seaweed made them more succulent. My
body filled out, I felt full of energy, took to swimming
every morning in the coolness of the sea as a way of escaping
the sun. I found I could stay afloat for an hour at a time,
then two, then three. I explored the depths. I learned to
hold my breath and kick and push downwards, into a mysterious,
bubbling world of texture and silence where I felt welcome
like a guest at a feast.
In the evenings I danced.
I stripped naked and the touch of sand on my skin felt
precious, the squeeze of it between my toes, its wind-whipped
strafe across my calves, thighs. I planted my feet wide
apart, bending low, arms spread for balance, and I felt
a pulse of life run through me, one-fish-two-figs-three-leaves-four-flames,
over, over, slower than a heartbeat, solid like a memory.
It was deep and sultry, like a smooth voice romancing.
It was everywhere, in my head, the sand, the sea, the
trees. It echoed in the air, shaping and re-shaping itself
in the wake of my dance, sliding around and against and
inside me and holding me in its embrace like the kiss
of a lover for the very first time. That’s how I fell
in love. This was how it was meant to be. I danced to
the spark of the fire, to the setting of the sun, to
the lingering taste of fish in my mouth, to the carefree
knowledge of fish in the morning, and when it was dark,
and when my legs were weary I lay down in the twilight
and reminisced on the fullness of my day.
“Thank you, fish,” I was
accustomed to saying when I had eaten. “Thank you for
giving me your flesh, for nourishing mine.” It was a
small gesture but it took nothing from me and gave me
satisfaction. And then I would swim among the fish in
the sea and they seemed to accept me.
The matter of who I was and
how I came to be there bothered me little. In the early
days I wondered. There was some vestigial memory in the
shadows of my head which, if examined, might have become
clearer, but I saw no need to probe. I had food and I had
fire. I had swimming and dancing. This was life. When I
danced, the ground and the air pulsed with something like
music, but richer, more real, as though it was a part of
me. It was the rapture of the dance, that was when I was
living. And when I was resting, when I was eating, that
was when I knew happiness.
I was aware from early
on of the other. His fires glowed further down the beach
and when the wind was from the east I could smell his
cooking. His shouts filled the air at regularintervals
through the day, harsh and staccato, and I could tell
from this that he had not found how to ride the pulse
as I could. I felt sorry for that, because it was a source
of joy. He must have known I was there, too, but made
no effort to contact me and we lived together, apart,
for a long time. That was a good way to be.
When rains came my fire
would move under the cover of trees. Although it was
cold, I found that the bark of the tall tree with no
branches could be stripped and woven into a pliable fabric.
It became my coat, my trousers, my shoes, it brought
me comfort. A fresh fish awaited me every morning. My
dives went ever deeper and I came to love the variety
of life which existed beneath the waters. Back on land,
beneath a drying sun, the pulse of my dance rippled ever
stronger through my body, as though pulling me into the
fabric of the earth itself. I belonged.
“Thank you, fish,” I said
one day after eating a flounder with figs.
“Why do you thank the fish?” said
I turned. Behind me was
a man and behind him footsteps, mazy, forming a giant
half crescent all the way down the beach to where the
other fire was.
“Because I’ve just eaten
it,” I replied. “It has fed me.”
The man said nothing but
watched me. He looked much as I must myself, I imagined,
though I had only seen my watery reflection in all the
time I had been there and was happy to forget what I
looked like. He had a beard, long hair. His eyes were
black and staring, as though they didn’t approve.
“Did it choose to feed
you?” he said. I replied I didn’t know. “Did it give
itself willingly?” I replied the same and the man turned
away in disgust. I thought he was going to leave, but
he stopped and came back. “Have you never asked,” he
said, “have you never asked how you come to have those
“No,” I replied. As long
as I had them, the thought had never seemed important.
“Do you thank the fire,
the way you thank the fish?”
He called me a fool. He
talked of many things I didn’t understand. He told me
the fish and the fire were gifts and only a fool would
thank the gift but ignore the giver. There was no giver,
I replied. I saw no-one. The fish and the fire were mine.
They could not be mine,
he said, because I had nothing. “You must understand
that fish is a gift. What would you do if that gift was
His face was strained,
unhappy. He reminded me of the morning I first awoke
on the beach. “You think too deeply,” I said. I wanted
to show him my dance. I felt sure he would enjoy it but,
as I thought about it, I couldn’t remember how it started.
I tried to adopt my stance, wide-legged and low, waiting
for the pulse, one-fish-two-figs-three-leaves-four-flames,
but the man looked at me with contempt.
“My name is Mark,” he said.
He took my arm and I felt his hand like ice on my skin.
It was as though I had been burned. I held it limply
as he walked away, and I turned and looked at my fire,
which seemed smaller in the dusk. I shivered, coldness
infesting my whole body.
That night I sat by the
fire as Mark’s voice drifted loud and dull through the
darkness. His fire seemed to glow fiercely in the night
sky and I prodded more driftwood on to mine. I wanted
to dance but I couldn’t hear the pulse and the ground
seemed flat, unresponsive. Flames flickered like a line
of the dead and the fire crackled and groaned to accommodate
the fresh driftwood. I longed to hear the sea foaming
into land but it seemed out of reach, beyond the dunes.
I felt a knot in my stomach, like a hunger, although
I had eaten well, and my body was still cold. The memory
of his ice touch still burned on my skin. As I lay down
to sleep I patted the sand next to me, where the fish
would be in the morning, or so I hoped.
# # #
Skin Like Shining Armour by
published March 24, 2008
Tom Conoboy has been published in a variety of
journals, including The Harrow, Mad Hatter's Review, WordRiot,
Big Pulp credits:
Skin Like Shining Armour