Skin and Hide
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Skin and Hide
Translator: Austin Wagner
Excerpt from my novel Irha és bőr (Skin and Hide), 2019.
Story of a Firstborn Rabbit
The dwarf rabbit’s name was Strawberry. He was a birthday gift, and the little girl’s parents allowed him to sleep with her in bed. He would sit in her lap nibbling on kohlrabi while she did her homework, and when she hopped on her bike, the bunny would snuffle about in the plastic basket fixed to the handlebars, rubbery nose twitching.
He was taken by the first creation wave. He’d been behaving strangely that morning, scrabbling at the carpet like he wanted to burrow into it, then sprinting round in circles, nails clattering over the wood floor, until he slammed head-first into the dresser. The little girl tried to quiet him down, but Strawberry fled from her, searching for a hiding place behind the dirty laundry basket.
The vet said it could be some type of infection. His stomach is distended, like an inflated balloon, he explained. We gave him a shot to reduce the swelling, so just monitor his feces and bring him back in for a thorough examination if his condition gets worse.
The first signs of physical change were what appeared to be tumors. Bumps beneath his skin which proliferated into clusters under his neck. Then his torso began to progressively deform, as if he were melting, stretching, like asphalt in a heat wave.
“You’re okay,” the little girl kept saying. “You’re okay, you’ll get better soon.”
But she was scared he wouldn’t get better. The veterinarian’s words came to mind: thorough examination. That couldn’t mean anything good. Maybe this time he would take a scalpel and slice the clusters out from under Strawberry’s neck. She didn’t say anything to her parents. Instead, she made Strawberry a nest of sweatshirts and hid him deep inside the closet. By then he was no longer moving. Just breathing, wheezing, mouth agape. A brown goo seeped from under his skin, oozed into his fur, cemented onto him, hardening into an accordion of banded stripes. Like the caterpillar cocoon on the pear tree the girl had followed last spring.
“Where’s Strawberry?” her mother kept asking. “He didn’t escape through the fence, did he?”
Eventually her father heard the whimpering from the closet. The rabbit had grown, was now as big as the little girl. The last remnants of his fur were peeling off in clumps the size of softballs. The thing inside the caramelized cocoon was a monster: spine deformed, limbs elongated, and where there should have been a little bunny face, human features were taking shape beneath the casing. A line that hinted at a mouth, ready to pull into a grin. Shell-like shapes ending in lobes instead of long floppy ears.
“We can still make him better, right?” the little girl sobbed. “We can still take him to the vet, right Daddy?”
She wanted to give Strawberry a hug, but her father roared at her to stay back. That it might be contagious, she should go wash her hands. He tied a scarf over his mouth and pulled on the rubber gloves they used for cleaning the toilet. He ordered her to stay in the house, then dragged the rabbit across the floor to the garden.
The little girl was an obedient child; she didn’t follow them. From the upstairs window she spied her father going into the tool shed, rummaging about beside the lawnmower, then returning to where Strawberry lay on the grass. All she could think about was that pink arc in the rabbit’s fur, so resembling a mouth that he might have been able to speak with it.
She leaned forward, palms pressed against the glass. Watched as the head of the spade flashed up, plunged down, again and again and again.
It had been two-hundred-twenty-eight days since the creation, and Kirill was still unable to silence the herd in his head.
He was hunkered down under the table, antlers lowered in the tight space, the laptop warming his legs as he followed the news. He sometimes snuck a glance at the does from beneath the tablecloth; human-digited feet and linoleum-tapping hooves flitted past him. We go, we go, they murmured, picking out the artificial skins, detergent-scented skirts and pineapple-print shirts that would leave their stomachs covered in rashes by the evening. Gamboling about, clinging to one another, they got dressed. One of them – Réka? – was trying to pull a sweatshirt on over her legs. Another – Virág? – had her shoes on the wrong feet.
…come with us…
…we go to the tourists…
It was Jolán’s idea, like always, and within minutes it had infected the others. It was also trying to take root in Kirill’s mind. Eyes closed, he concentrated on blocking out Jolán’s thoughts, on stopping the proliferation of weeds before it started.
…we can only go together…
…it’s time, Kirill, don’t hide…
All at once they were surrounding the table. They peeked in at him under the tablecloth, some of them crouching like sapiens, others on all fours like deer. Their eyes shone brown, rich as chestnut. Despite the smell of detergent on their clothes, Kirill could still breathe the greenscent of the herd.
…caressing that machine of yours again?
…why don’t you nestle with us?
“I’m reading the news,” he explained. “There’s a creation. They’re finding cocoons everywhere: Japan, Australia, Canada, India. The Russians have declared a state of terror.”
The does cocked their heads, stared at him as if they didn’t understand a word he was saying. It was the same glassy-eyed stare they got whenever he talked to them about his blog, or when he read them his fables.
“Should I explain?” he asked. “I’ll show you a photo, just…”
He tapped the artificial finger wedged into his hoof at the keyboard and brought up a news site. The first domestic cocoon had appeared at a family house in Gödöllő; it was a parrot who no longer squawked for the proffered biscuit in its owner’s hand. Animals, tens of thousands of them, lifted their heads like they’d been called, a divine summons, it drove them mad in an instant, they threw themselves to the ground, writhing as they tried to shed themselves of the skins that itched them. And shed they did. Within hours they’d cocooned up, only to emerge the next day as part-human, part-animal freaks. Cows, dogs, crows. Mostly vertebrates, but there were always one or two clams or June bugs, even if the creation proved lethal for them.
The does stretched their necks, leaned in closer. Kirill turned the screen to them.
“You see? We’re not dying out. There might even be more deer. This is more important than the tourists, all around the world we’ll be celebrating, the new cocoons and the – ”
Virág lunged forward. She stooped underneath the table – her deer ears catching on the stained tablecloth – and snapped the laptop shut as if she were slamming a door. She tried to wrench it from Kirill’s lap, but he gripped it tight.
“Hey, what the fuck?!”
…do you not love us anymore?
…you pet your clicking-machine instead of us…
…you’ve caught sapien frenzy, Kirill…
He was trapped under the table. The herd all pounced at once: Tamara prised his arms apart, Réka snatched at him from the left, Sára gripped his ankle. Silken deer fur swirled around him.
…sapien frenzy, sapien frenzy, we’ll cure you…
He wanted to shake them off, but the space was narrow, his antlers clattered against the table. At other times the does would nestle against his neck, imploring, snuffling and nuzzling under his arms. But this time Virág used her fully metamorphosed, yellowing human teeth to bite into his ear.
Kirill cried out. He knew they would win. He stood no chance against all eight.
He closed his eyes and envisioned. A deer rushing through the thickets, froth speckled down its back. Veins swelled on its neck, its pupils stretched wide. A wolf is close on its trail, thundering ever closer in the brush. Its jaws open wide with meat stench, it sinks its teeth into its prey’s thigh…
The does relinquish their hold on him. They kick out in fear, as if the wolf were really here chasing them, they bounded here and there looking for escape. Like Morse code, their heels tapped out the alarm signal.
“Stop it!” Jolán shouted. She wasn’t so easily duped by such a trick. “There is no predator, you do not need to sound the alarm. What is wrong with you, Kirill?”
Clutching his laptop to his chest, he escaped from under the table.
“I was trying to explain! After a six-month dry spell, there’s finally another creation – ”
“Quiet!” Jolán roared, then cleared her throat as if she were coughing up phlegm. It had been days since she’d used human speech. “We do not care why you caress that stupid machine so.”
“It’s a day of creation! We can go see the tourists tomorrow, but today… Maybe some deer metamorphosed! Don’t you want to grow the herd? Don’t you want fawns?”
Jolán snorted, scratching her elbows where the human skin and the deer hide ran together. Kirill was sure she would understand. He’d tried so many times to explain, but this time she’ll get it, his joy would seep into Jolán’s mind and she would realize how important today is. After half a year!
The doe considered. Her ears twitched, as if whisking away a fly. Finally she spoke.
“You have sapien frenzy, this is the problem. They have infected you.”
“What?! I was talking about the creation! And I don’t have sapien frenzy, let’s not start with that, ‘kay?”
“’kay?” You even talk like them.” Jolán pulled back her lips, flashed her gums. “You think you are the only one who hates the tourists? You think we like wearing false skins, like them pawing at us? They reek, yes. They are fat, they stuff themselves with meat, they have forgotten the greenscent. But we need money, we need their sapienpaper, otherwise we will never get to go home. The herd survives…
“…the lone deer dies.”
Kirill shook his head in dismay. If eight wanted the same thing, the ninth cannot deny them.
“You have not forgotten the greenscent, have you? You do remember it?”
He could feel Jolán’s intention, and he wanted to run but the doe was quicker. She was on him, neck nuzzling against neck. Body on body, skin on skin. The others gathered around them, caressed them, delicate as petals. Three-fingered palms intertwined with hooves, fingers without nails wove into cinnamon-brown fur, a human-deer mosaic.
Jolán was thinking of the forest. Kirill saw the hollow oak before him, the bark ripe for scraping his antlers into, the molten gold light filtering through the lace of canopy. As Jolán swallowed, the taste of elderberry coated their tongues. The dandelion-scented breeze on their fur, the smell of the clearing, sharpened blades of grass and dewdripped alfalfa tickling at their breasts.
Nine minds melted into one. Nine hearts beat in sync, nine stomachs churned in rhythm, intestines wound into singular helix. They could feel each other’s trembling muscles, the itching patch on one of their shoulders, all of their shoulders, the split nail on one of their fingers, all of their fingers, the communal warmth of the communal herd, the perfect togetherness.
Leave. Jolán thought it, and they stepped in rhythm out into the stairwell.