Back before I gave up leather stitching for flesh or knew the nature of regret—fragile like the curve of skin between the thumb and pointer finger, a web so thin, it can rip open under the weight of paper—I was a scarecrow.
I still carry my old skin in a knapsack. It's the only thing the men who travel with me aren't allowed to touch. I pull the leather out sometimes when no one is around. I never liked it when it was me, but now that the pelt is ancient and rotting, I can't help but look at the stitches around my mouth, the old curves, the soft edges of hide that, in another life, used to make up my body.
I'm not so different from that bag of rags. I'm still getting used to solid legs, the way the land shifts under me as I walk—even the tissue and muscle under my breasts, and the nerves that connect me to this body.
But I'm not telling you anything you don't know.
We became human. Back before then, you were a crow. Your wingspan was godlike, intimidating even to someone like me. You pretended not to be afraid, even though that was my purpose in life, to trap birds like you. I sensed your fear in the delicate way you handled the stitching along my side, the way you traced your talons down the lines. You feared I'd fall apart.
Before you left, I watched you in the prairie grass. As Daughter kicked and rolled over inside me, you flapped your arms in the air, desperate for the old rhythm of wings. You were naked, tall and thin as a human, red from the sun. Skin never did feel right to you after you lost your feathers, but I always loved tracing my fingers through the divots and pocks of my plucked bird.
It was easy for you to forget about the little things—ticks that burrowed under flesh, the weight of legs, gravity. I watched you catch your breath every time your body fell from the sky.
Since you left, I can't stand still. I walk miles on unsteady limbs. Daughter follows behind me—an ugly, prehistoric thing like the carcass of an ancient harpy. You left before she took her first suckle, biting into the flesh of my breasts.
Crows circle Daughter and me as we walk along stretches of abandoned routes and open fields, small strips of pines along ditches and wooden fences. Sometimes men tag along. There's one right now. I like him enough, and the clumsy, self-satisfying way he thrusts himself inside me at night reminds me of you.
He says someone like me shouldn't be traveling alone. A girl needs protection.
You and I both know, he shouldn't be alone with me.
The man doesn't see Daughter—most people refuse to see anything that isn't made in their own image, and Daughter is completely made in ours—part rags and stuffing with a bird head and a beak of a nose with the pimpled, scabbed skin of a molted bird. She only comes up to my knee. Feathers sprout from her shoulders. The crows aren't fooled. They want what belongs to them.
People don't see Daughter, but they sense her lingering like an uncomfortable truth.
I may not understand my own flesh but I can read the human body. It's all in the movements. Like the man's twitchy spasms our first time together, the uneasy way he touched me or the way he avoided my eyes—all those emotions itching under the surface. He sensed Daughter, too. Her cold stare at his back.
Daughter doesn't speak in words and sentences. She caws into the sky—she clucks and clicks her tongue.
When the man goes to set up camp, Daughter and I stay close to a ditch. The smell of sewage wafts up from the edges of the muddy water, and the crows still hover, a thick cloud covering a gray sky. If you and I looked at them together, you'd show me the subtle differences in linage—how one bird has an oily, purple hue at the bottom edges of her feathers, another a slightly angled beak. But Daughter has no patience for the roots of family trees. She hunts for seeds off the ground, finding a beetle, which I crunch to mush between my teeth. The fibers on its leg bristle against the lining of my throat.
It's not the slow release of the ground beetle's stink, it's the texture that makes me gag. Still, I manage to let the mush slip gently down Daughter's throat.
A crow swoops down. Daughter howls, cowers between my legs and sinks her talons into my thigh.
"Get off of me!" I scream, peeling her away by the plumage of her scalp.
I'm always amazed how regret and shame pierce through the layers of my human skin—quicker than the beetle's stink releases in my mouth.
I look around for the man, and when I don't see him anywhere, I strip off my clothes, pulling my shirt over my head. I take out my old skin, unwrap it carefully, as a priestess turns the worn pages of a sacred book. The leather hide folds over me, and I sink into the comfortable familiar edges.
I was always turned on by the dryness that cracks the barren husk of a corn stalk—the way the skin is stripped and discarded after the core's been plucked.
I guess you'd say it was all my fault, mistaking dead things for love.
My fingers find the soft flesh beyond the labia, wet and engorged. I start grinding against my old skin and the friction travels down my thighs. Electricity. It smells like me, the way I used to be. My tongue finds all the cracks and crevices, all those old spaces you used to love. I roll like tumbleweeds on the road, over and over, moaning. There's a snap, one suspended moment, and the tension in my body falls away.
Daughter comes to me, brave enough to nudge against my knee with her beak—softly clicking her tongue like she does when she cries. She wants me to wrap her in the old hide, carry her around like when she was a baby. She stops crying as the worn-out leather molds into her shape, cradling close to her ribcage. I wasn't made to be a mother, and the pain is sharper than the cuts pulsing down my leg.
The sweet decay of crabapples floats through the air. If I'm still, I can hear the plop of fruit falling to the ground. Daughter's eyes are mirrors looking back at me. I can't see you in them. I see my sagging breast, the stretch marks on my hips and thighs.
As I carry Daughter, the skins of apples crunch under my heels and the fleshy guts burst out and squish between my toes. I stop and think about ending it once and for all, imagining the weight of a tragedy in my arms.
I can't stand still for long—the death buried in the ground jolts up my veins, pulsing just below the surface of my skin. I picture Daughter's limp body, cold to the touch, but the grief would be familiar, warm. My hand hesitates and Daughter relaxes in my arms. I unwrap her, fold myself back up.
I place the old hide into the bag, sling it around my shoulders. There's a new season coming, and it hangs above me in the sky as thick as the crows.
Daughter and I walk silently along the dirt road which curves around the ditch. We stop to pray at a cross on the roadside—two white sticks with RIP painted in neon green. This is my favorite human tradition: the refusal to let go.
Tell me, did you keep any of your feathers?
At night, the crows roost in the trees that surround us. I see flashes of their outlines in the campfire, but their feathers bleed into the bark and trunks of dying pines.
I let the man touch me. He's useless, really, for much else. He runs his fingers through the fissures and cracks of the stretch marks on my hips. I hate that I've let him touch these parts of me.
Daughter hovers over me and looks at the man with those bulging, deep-set eyes.
When the man is on top of my body, the sweat on his neck mixes with the rot of crab apples in the air, and the smell takes me back to you. I'm peeling away from my body, shedding my skin like an empty corn husk.
Daughter caws as the man moans and thrusts inside me. He doesn't hear it, doesn't see Daughter's frenzied pecking at the ground, or the way she drags her talons along the dirt. I crave the gnashing of beetles in my teeth, mealworms sliding off my tongue—no matter how much I try to separate myself from Daughter, her hunger is mine.
"Caw! Caw!" Daughter's call bursts through the trees and the crows rush out into the night and circle us. It makes me feel small. I dig my fingernails into the man's forearms until he cries out. There's something about the danger of losing control—the way it tightens my lungs and the ecstasy of that first breath upon release. In this moment, I find the breath balled up in my throat, clenching like a fist.
The frantic calls of birds reverberate through our camp, a choir singing a fractured chorus. The man's body convulses above me. I imagine he doesn't really know what to do about it. He doesn't want to stop either.
Daughter runs around, shrieks up at her ancestors. "Caw! Caw!" I start to cover my face—I don't want to see the man, or the crows, or Daughter. I have to think of my past life to make the sex worth it. But release never comes. It wells up and rolls over in my stomach, the way Daughter used to kick and roll over inside me.
The man pulls my wrists above my head. He still can't see Daughter, but he's grown used her watchful eyes, and it's a feeling that turns him on. I look up to the sky and see the crows still circling. Daughter rocks back and forth now, sinking her teeth into her knee. The man on top of me pushes harder, and everyone is hungry.
I feel the man's heat and the pulse of a climax flatlining.
Do you even remember that you were a bird?
I am restless. Daughter is agitated. She won't find comfort from a shucked corn husk, but that doesn't stop her from begging and gnawing her beak into my side.
I haven't been able to sneak away to pull out my skin in days. The man is always there. My mouth is dry, thirsty for the taste of leather. I get sick thinking of the stink of this new place, how it might soak into the hide.
The gravel crunches along the backroads as we travel. Back in the corn field, I feared the openness and the wide expanse that threatened to fold over on me in a storm. On the road, there are other things to consider—people, rabid animals, anything that looks directly into another something's eye. My reflection, for example. She haunts unexpected spaces—in the rearview mirror of a Ford choked by overgrowth or the curves of utensils forgotten in abandoned houses. She stares back at me and I don't have to worry about rain or wind; I'm already swallowed whole.
I worry about my old skin. Those parts of me are already slipping away. She needs air to breathe. I was never good at being alone.
But I'm not telling you anything you don't know.
Daughter's cry turns into a shriek, a sign that the man is asleep, that this is my chance, our chance. I slip away, Daughter at my heels, pecking at my calves. As the blood runs down my feet, I wonder: does anything follow you?
When Daughter and I move into the thicket, she passes me, thrashing her arms as she runs. I think of you in the tall grass. I think maybe Daughter will fly away. I reach out to grab her, to place all my weight on her to keep her grounded. I've behaved rotten to the only thing that I have left of you.
But Daughter doesn't get enough air. She skids into a clearing of sparse pines.
I fall to my knees beside her. I just need enough time to brush against the old stitching and to let Daughter sink into the leather to keep her calm for a few days.
The needles on the ground jab into my knees, but it's worth it. I've started to forget the mold of my curves around my hips.
My hands are shaking as I open the knapsack and unfold myself. My thighs burn and the lining of my stomach contracts and throbs.
Daughter claws at me, tries to nudge the leather over her beak. I don't care about hurting her; I push her back—hard.
I study the heavy brow and the way the eyes are set into the leather face. There's a deep loneliness that presses into my bones when I think about the confined space of the knapsack. I wrap myself up into the hide and it molds around me, hugging me in all the familiar ways.
You lost more than me by becoming human—the language of your kind, the ability to fly. You let me know, wouldn't stop telling me, how much more the gravity affected your body.
Daughter clucks and coos, circles me, keeping her distance, waiting for her turn.
I don't have to be told by the hardness of nipples or the wetness between my legs that I'm ready. I don't bother taking my clothes off, I just start rubbing against the past. I bend into the smell of fresh cut corn, an open field—you—and I laugh in relief. It's all still here. I promise I will never let it go.
The trees are thick with crows, so dense the light from above the canopy is swallowed up by the feathers of their backs. I start out soft, quiet, but it doesn't last. Now I am the ravenous one. I want to touch and move against every part of my old leather; I'm sure that the hide will fuse to my skin. We aren't so different, she and I, and the harder I push, the more I'm able to convince myself that this is the truth. I grind, even though I'm afraid the stitching will give way.
I'm rubbing my skin raw, but the friction between the flesh of my thighs and the leather releases a warm rush, and it moves through my veins and nerve endings causing me to holler towards the sky, "Caw! Caw!"
Daughter's shriek pierces like her crowning head all those years ago, warning me of another presence. No matter how much I try to grasp on to the crevices of worn-out hide, I start peeling away from the leather.
The man stands there, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, looking at me getting off on my own skin. I know the look. Something so shameful, I bury it like shit in the woods. It doesn't matter how deep I've hidden it, though. Everything buried raises up in a flood, and here it is.
I can't think, but I know I have to act fast. I drop my skin to the ground and run over to him. There's a look on his face which I've seen in the eyes of road kill—the fear of being stuck for eternity in that space between those last seconds before impact and death.
For a second, this makes me feel tender. I think I'll embrace him, beg for a fresh start. A new beginning, one without Daughter, or my old skin, or you. But I don't wrap my arms around his waist.
The men are never as strong as I am, but this one surprises me. He doesn't give up as easily as some of the others. He struggles under me. Daughter drags my old skin over to me and during the struggle, I stuff a leather sleeve down the man's throat. I wrap it around his neck and pull tight. Daughter circles around us. The crows watch from the trees. My heart beats, a pulse throbs down the side of my neck. My fingers pull tighter.
You were right. That first time, I fell apart under you.
When the man gives up, Daughter becomes silent. She sways back and forth with the clouded look of a junkie sinking into a fix.
When I finally have the courage to take the worn-out leather out of the man's opened mouth, I don't avoid looking at his face. In his eyes there is an explosion of color as bright as the corn field where I used to stand; there are skies that stretch for miles within those eyes. The marks on his neck are amethyst and deep. Over the next few hours, the bruises will continue to rise up to the surface as his blood settles below the spine.
I learned quickly that humans die. That's what they're for.
But when I look around at Daughter, at the man, and the crows, I realize there's something else down in the dirt, too. Worms and seeds that birds and animals—even me—consume and shit out.
That there's life outside of me, beyond us, surprises me. Every time.