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.

Every morning 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 a voice.

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 fish?”

“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 taken away?”

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 Tom Conoboy
originally published March 24, 2008



Tom Conoboy
has been published in a variety of journals, including The Harrow, Mad Hatter's Review, WordRiot, and others.

Big Pulp credits:
Skin Like Shining Armour


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