Animal Skin by Dana Diehl
Annie Bilancini on today's bonus short": Dana Diehl’s writing is symphonic. It’s a movement. On the page, the low hum of strings is matched with the lilt of a lone woodwind, that gorgeous narrative voice, that music. What drew me to “Animal Skin” first was this musicality, the orchestral swelling that, line by line, builds toward a final paragraph that nearly took my breath away the first time I read it. Like a carefully wrought symphony, this small story is more than the sum of its parts; it will take you somewhere new. In the plainest terms: I love Dana Diehl’s writing, and I think you will love it, too.
My daughter comes out of the bathtub crying.
She says she’s found a spot, a dark shiny spot on the skin below her bellybutton. She lifts her shirt to show me, and I recognize the curved back of a tick, soft as an eggshell, shaped like a teardrop. I run my thumb over its hard-shell back, and my daughter squirms.
It’s the first time I’ve seen my daughter’s bare stomach in six months. She’s seven, and since around Christmas she hasn’t let me see her naked. A year ago, I was still bathing her every night. A year ago, she’d tie a towel around her waist like a loin cloth in the morning and leap from couch to couch in her bare, pink, new-animal skin. Now, she changes with her bedroom door clicked shut. Now, she pulls the shower curtain around her body like a cape when I enter the bathroom to retrieve toilet paper rolls. The other moms at her school tell me this is normal, that girls become self-conscious about their bodies earlier than boys, but still its unsettling to have a body that was once part of my body hidden from me.
My daughter crawls up onto the counter, lies on her back, and lets me roll her shirt up below her ribcage. I find a flashlight in the junk drawer and tell her to hold it steady so that the light is on the spot. I don’t say the word tick yet.
I retrieve tweezers from my bathroom. I place a hand on her belly to steady my wrist, and she sucks in. She says, Cold hands. I pull back, warm my fingers in my armpits, try again. The tick barely looks like a tick. It’s the size of a pencil tip, buried deep enough into her skin to look like it’s part of her. A mole, or a birthmark. I pinch it close to its head, avoiding the tick’s engorged belly. I pull. My daughter’s skin is soft under my palm. She smells like rising bread.
The moment I lift the tweezers, she eels out from under me onto the kitchen floor, sprints into the living room to turn on the TV. I drop the tick onto the white back of a receipt, and tape it in place with Scotch. It doesn’t move. I hold it to the light. I can see all eight of its legs. I can see its belly swollen with my daughter’s blood. In this moment, it is more her than I am.
My daughter goes to bed at nine, and I take my laptop to the front porch. I can see the shapes of deer moving through the neighbor’s front lawn. Probably the same deer that brought the tick to my yard, to my daughter’s stomach. I light a cigarette, and the deer raise their heads in unison. Half-chewed grass hangs from their fleshy lower lips.
I log in to my OkCupid account. I have three new messages, from men who write that I have a nice face, that they love a woman with kids, that I look like someone they’d like to take out for coffee. All three men are at least ten years older than me. They have haircuts that remind me of my daughter’s father. I erase their messages.
A year ago, I couldn’t date. A year ago, I’d go to work with jam-stains on my blouses, come home to my daughter screaming, laughing, reaching always wanting. Now, my days contain unexpected pockets of free time. The photos on my OkCupid account are ones that I took myself. Alone in the afternoon, I carry my camera in my purse. I set the self-timer and balance the camera on a ledge, on a root, on the roof of my car. I have ten seconds to arrange myself. I know exactly how long it takes to walk from one end of the frame to the other. I know how to cock my hips so that my shirt rises just an inch above my pants, so it looks like an accident. I know how to move so that my cesarean scar is hidden under the flap of my T-shirt.
A tick will reach you where you are most vulnerable. Armpits, soft paunches of belly, the crook of your neck. It’s attracted to your warmth, to the small vibrations your body makes without knowing it. A tick will stick itself to your skin with its own saliva, bury itself in its blood feast. If left alone, a tick will swell to a light-gray blue.
My daughter snores in her bedroom. The sound travels through the open windows, and I wonder what she was dreaming about. Once, my daughter was a fist of cells, connected to me by a thread. Once, my blood was her blood. I felt her knuckle against my skin and knew where to find her. I think of the tick, only half full, still alive under clear tape, and in that moment I want to let it go. I want to follow it through my house. I want to let it be my guide. My guide back to the soft, hidden places that I’ve forgotten how to reach.
Dana Diehl currently serves as editor-in-chief of Hayden's Ferry Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Hobart, Swarm, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere.