Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
She was lighter – she was definitely lighter! She was sure she had lost half a stone at least. Twisting and swivelling her body, she watched herself in the full length mirror. Surely her collar bones were more sharply defined; her waist more surely delineated? The weak evening sunlight filtering through the long white muslin curtains of the balcony window played and dappled her naked body in strange designs. ‘There was something almost primitive about them’ she thought ‘like a caveman’s first splash with colour on rock.’ She moved closer to the mirror and peered at the features of her face, running a finger along the smooth high brow, then along the side of the slender nose – too long’ she had always thought. She moved even closer still. There seemed to be a minute white flakiness on the edge of her skin – where it joined the scalp and was lost in the density of her golden hair. She rubbed at it fiercely, crinkling her slanted green eyes to see better. ‘No?’ there seemed to be no sign of it now. Perhaps she had imagined it.
She turned away from the mirror and picked up her silk dressing gown from the small cane chair beside her bed. Wrapping herself in it she revelled in the soft flowing of its caress, the folds of material slipping and sliding with her movements, in and out of the sections of her body. She enjoyed the cool sensuousness of its touch. She flung wide the windows and stepped out onto the balcony that formed part of a wide veranda, running the entire length of the house. She stood for a moment basking, the dressing gown curving and fluttering in the warm breeze as if it were part of her body. She sighed a huge, gentle sigh of contentment and, opening her eyes, feasted them on the scene below her.
The garden at the back of the house wore infinite shades of green, spreading itself in front of her; tropical plants and native shrubs marching like sentries around the edge of the small, circular lawn. They had been allowed to run rampant and their growth was so dense it appeared to her that the lawn was enclosed by a tiny, but almost impenetrable jungle, glimpses of a grey stone wall some six foot in height, enclosing the garden even further, muffling any and all sounds of the outside world. In the centre of the lawn, a large round fountain, narrow at the base broadening out into a wide shallow bowl, dominated the area. A steady stream of water in the centre of the fountain climbed and re-climbed, dashing and falling with the tinny echo of its unceasing play, its sound and texture lulling the watcher hypnotically. She adored the garden. Had fallen in love with it at first sight. Had rented the house instantly because of the garden. The comfort of its languorous peace had drawn her into an insatiable desire for the respite it offered; comfort for her bruised soul in its flight from the cruelty and anguish of the divorce she had endured, the shattering of all she had believed to be normal in her life.
She had fled the matrimonial home, placing it on the market and selling it with a rapidity that had surprised both her and the agent. She had thought that the rooms, blasting the would-be purchasers with all that had occurred in them, or screaming out their silent pain would be off putting. But that had not happened. They saw and heard nothing. Why should they? It was just a house to them; a beautiful house for them to live in. Of course she had been glad of that, glad to sell it, glad to see the back of it. She could put the last ten years of her disastrous life behind her. Hugo had been generous in his settlement which was just a paltry part of his immense wealth. Happy to stuff her with more money and property than she had ever wanted in his desire to be rid of her and move on to the next nubile goddess he so wished to put in her place.
She had tried to buy the house after she had seen the garden. Even the rooms pleased her with their high ceilings and well proportioned spaces hinting at a starkness – a Spartan-like existence that had appealed to her as a convent might a newly vocational novice. Everything was light and airy whilst at the same time seeming to be always just slightly shaded and sheltered. The whole place had given her a sense of the tropics or perhaps even the Middle East, the rooms seeming sometimes to be filled with a kind of humidity that slowed the pulse of blood in her veins, making her want to lie down naked and bathe in the sunlight, feeling the warmth penetrate and possess the very marrow of her being. The agent had told her the house was not for sale, the owner being a collector of many fine and beautiful items he purchased whilst abroad and often returning to store them for sometime in the house. But the house could be had on a two year lease. The owner was presently in some far away place like Brazil or Peru and anxious to install a tenant who would care for the house and some of the precious items that made their home in it. She had jumped at the chance, even more because the rental seemed so minimal for such a jewel. She hoped one day to persuade the owner to sell but in the meantime, it was hers. Her sanctuary, her little Eden.
The days passed, one folding into another with a colour she had never known before; some pale and pastel, others vivid and hot. She moved happily through them all, her fingers trailing gently over the still, seated form of some strange carved god on a sturdy wooden table, her breath misting the almost mirror like surface of various objects she could not decipher but that appeared to be some form of plated armour that adorned one wall. On one austere wooden bookcase in the living room, tiny ceramic figures sat and stood, some barely discernable as humanoid, pregnant females and she gained much comfort from stroking the fat, fecund bellies. On the table beside her bed lay an obsidian like coiled sculpture on a gold chain that resembled nothing she could imagine but after some two or three nights she picked it up and, placing it around her neck, fell almost instantly asleep, the cold but soothing amulet clutched in her hand. The main wall of the room she slept in was adorned with masks, some made from wood, others woven of bamboo or similar materials. Yet more were made of clay or the like and whilst some were muted in colouring, others were painted in wild garish colours that hurt the eyes. Some smiled, some screamed and some seemed asleep either pictured with no eyes or closed ones. She knew that most people would have found such things disturbing to sleep with but she did not. On the contrary, she found it comforting, almost as if she were amongst friends or family and she found herself whispering goodnight to them all as she clutched the amulet to her breast.
She was not contained by the house. On the contrary. She had never been more social and certainly she was no longer the shy, quiet mouse that life with Hugo had turned her into. She lunched with friends, she saw her Mother, she shopped, she wandered and once even she had brazenly sat in a somewhat seedy bar ordering dry martinis and allowing a strange man with dark eyes and breath that smelt of something she could not discern but that was not offensive to pick her up. He took her to some badly lit house to an even more badly lit room that smelled of bedding that should long ago have been laundered. He hardly spoke but had rough, violent sex with her some three or four times. In the early hours of the morning as dawn approached she had found herself in a taxi heading back to her house. She could not remember how she got there. She seemed to hurt everywhere but, fiercely, she enjoyed the pain of it and knew finally she had broken the last hold Hugo had had on her. She felt peaceful and desired only to be in her garden, the memory of its swaying plants, the deep cool green of its small jungle calling to her. Often she would cut short outings or visits in the days that followed in order to hurry back to it.
When it rained she would stand on the balcony, her head back drinking it in, letting it pound her body until she laughed with a strange excitement, watching the plants move and crash with wet slaps and cracks. Sometimes the rain was soft and warm with an enticing smell of newness. She would go out and lean against the fountain, watching it patter gently onto the plants, exhilarating in the way their fronds and leaves caught the water and seemed even before her eyes to grow. She never cut the grass and it grew until it outgrew its strength and then stopped. It reached midway to her calves. She walked barefoot in it, feeling a slow, almost sexual pleasure at its velvet caress on her ankles and toes. She never tried to go into the jungle area. The fast pace of growth was already encroaching onto the circular lawn but this only made her feel even more content. From time to time she would hear tiny skittering noises and her ears would quiver, her senses attuned to the divination of life. She would laugh aloud with delight that her small world had such an abundance of life. She felt she was queen of a most delightful country. Small eyes would peer at her and she wondered what creatures they belonged to, but she was not bothered about their forms or shapes, only responding happily to their presence.
She bathed a lot. Water and warmth seemed to her to be the most precious of commodities. She would lay for hours at a time in the bath, her eyes closed, the steam rising, humming in an endless, tuneless manner. It rocked her brain into a stupor of peace and infinite pleasure. Afterwards, she would gaze at herself in the mirror. The weight had dropped away like butter. Her friends – whom she saw less and less – had commented on it. ‘She was a new woman’ they said ‘a completely new woman. No-one would ever recognise her.’ She plunged herself into this fact. She wanted to be a new woman, leave the old one with its old body and old mind behind. She knew the garden and the house were healing her, helping her to become this new woman – perhaps even the person she had been all the time. Sometimes she was disturbed, though only a little, at what she saw in the mirror. Her skin was definitely flaking. All around the hairline, in the crevices of her body, the dips and hollows and between her fingers and breasts the skin was peeling and flaking. She had tried many different creams, rubbing and massaging and even occasionally masturbating until she came with a high, keening noise she had never previously heard herself make. She did not do this often. The pleasure she derived from it was short and she felt depleted afterwards. The only real delight of it was that it made her feel better than Hugo ever had. Sometimes she had trouble now remembering his name without an effort.
One day a small parcel came for her. There was no note, no return address although the post mark told her it had come from Peru. It was definitely addressed to her and, upon opening it, she found inside a medium sized brown clay ceramic pot with a lid covered in sweeping black markings like a writing she could not understand but that seemed familiar to her. Upon lifting the lid a strange aroma assailed her nostrils. This was at once pungent enough to cause her to draw back and yet seemed to fill her head until she must lean forward to smell its odour once more. It came from the thick, almost colourless cream it contained and, immediately she was seized with the desire to rub it on herself . Casting off her clothing she anointed herself with it and was soothed and, feeling celebration now within her body, she began to dance. She danced in a writhing, abandoned manner that made her feel sensual but complete as if she had been waiting for this all her life. She wondered fleetingly who had sent this magical balm to her but it seemed unimportant and she ceased to think of it.
Her mother visited once and was appalled at the state of the undergrowth, offering to ‘send round a good man she knew’ to get it into shape. She hastily persuaded her there was no need as she was merely finalising plans of her own before she restructured the garden with she assured her mother, ‘the finest landscape artist in town.’ Her mother was only half content with this, but was distracted by the large airy rooms that she made plans to decorate and constantly revised, telling her daughter that ‘most of these ugly artefacts will have to be packed away. Most of them should never see the light of day again.’ She allowed her mother to believe that this would be done eventually but of course she had no intention of changing anything and mentally made a note to keep her mother as far away from the house as often as she could. Her mother was deeply concerned at the state of her skin and insisted she see a skin specialist which she agreed to do.
One evening when she was lying on the grass by the fountain, feeling the tiny movements of insects beneath her body she was seized by an urge to collect some leaves from the shrubs and plants on the perimeter of the jungle. She filled the bath with warm water and threw the leaves in. Fragrance filled her nostrils and she felt she could drown happily in this green, green pool. She immersed herself deeper and deeper and green swathes covered her body clinging and clasping like a second skin. She stayed in the bath for a long time. When she emerged, the leaves hung on her body, draping themselves around her limbs. When she looked in the mirror she could see only small patches of her own white skin. She thought she had never looked more beautiful. As the vegetation cooled and she removed it piece by piece, patches of her skin came with it. It did not hurt and she could see the raw new growth beneath. Dark red, slightly angry and pulsing with blood just beneath the surface. She rubbed the wondrous cream all over her body, sighing with pleasure as it soothed her and its aroma danced in her head like a far off melody. She wrapped herself in her gown and lay on her bed, humming and dreaming, her mind filled with visions of sun and earth and jungle.
When she went out, her clothes covered most of the new areas, makeup covered her face but, peering closely at the hairline, one could have seen small lines defining like a jigsaw, the places around her face and neck where the skin had gone. She was thinner then ever now and she moved with a lithe suppleness and grace that entranced people who paused to watch her as if she was a prima ballerina. She exalted in the lightness of her body. She wanted to throw off her clothes – show the world how beautiful she was. Her skin continued to flake and peel. She was intrigued by its progression and wondered if all of her body would finally peel away. This thought did not frighten her. On the contrary she felt exhilarated at such a prospect. ‘I really will be a new woman then’ she thought. Her mind moved sluggishly to deal with ordinary, routine matters. She was aware that she could not longer continue to show herself as she was to the normal world until this state was resolved so she telephoned her friends and her mother, telling them she was going around the world on a cruise for three months. They were all happy and excited telling her ‘ it would be the best thing for her – maybe she would meet a new man – find a new partner.’ She agreed with all they said and her mother too was pleased. She told her mother the decorators and gardeners would be in to renovate and regenerate the house whilst she was away so there would be no need for her to call. This suited her mother as she too would be away for a skiing holiday – to revive the interest, hopefully, of her third husband.
She spent her days lazily lying on the lawn, dabbling her fingers in the fountain watching small bits of her skin fall off to float like tiny white boats on the water. The house was warm and humid and seemed to hum with a silent happy life. It was August. The heat in the garden thrown back from the vast green vegetation of the jungle area was tremendous. She could no longer see the grey wall at all and her garden seemed to have no boundaries. She could hear no other sounds save those made by the inhabitants. She ate less and less, sometimes chewing on leaves and grass which seemed quite sufficient for her needs. Once, when a fly buzzed annoyingly close, disturbing her, she caught it snap! in her hand. Instantly placing it in her mouth, her jaws clamped down on it, chewed and swallowed. For a moment she was horrified and briefly a curtain lifted and shock began to fill her brain but then the grey curtain disappeared once more in the backdrop of vivid and vibrant green and she merely thought ‘I must have needed some meat.’
When she looked in the mirror, mindlessly rubbing cream on herself, she saw that her skin was no longer flaking. She looked like a marble statue, striated with a thousand myriad cracks. She tried to pry her fingernail, these too hard like blanched agate, underneath one of the cracks but it did not move. She hummed as she looked at herself. She was content.
One morning she opened her eyes and felt a change in her body. She sensed that the liquids inside her fused and pulsed like a great tidal wave. She opened her mouth and a great gout of green water gushed out, covering her and the bed where she lay. When she got up she moved with a slow, sinuous gait, running her hands up and down her body. Her head felt light, light and smooth. The mirror threw back her reflection as she raised her hands to her face. Her hair had receded to such a degree that the white round dome of her skull shone in the sunlight streaming through the window. The ripple of the muslin curtain shadowed her face and head with dappling, dazzling dark stripes. She found the effect greatly pleasing and swayed from side to side, humming deep in her throat on one long, low note. She removed her wet nightdress and gazed at her body. The new patches of skin covered almost the entire area of her body. They throbbed with life, moving and pulsating in a manner she thought sexually irresistible. She noted with approval that her skull was lightly covered with thin, pencil like cracks. She was annoyed that any of her hair remained at all, what there was now seeming as like a monk’s tonsure falling below her ears. She seized a large pair of scissors and hacked at it until none was left, letting it lie where it fell like some small, curled offerings.
She knew that her body needed the sun and peace of the garden. She could hear the music of the fountain calling to her and she wanted to be there. She went immediately. She cooed happily to herself as she moved through the grass sinking on impulse to her knees and hauling herself through it towards the fountain. She could feel the play of every blade along the entire length of her body, caressing and stimulating her to a fever pitch of desire for something she could not yet imagine. She sat cross-legged at the base of the fountain, rocking and swaying and humming to herself, the beat of the sun on her head boring into her brain until she could feel only white, white heat. This was very pleasurable to her. She remained there for the rest of the day.
When the evening shadows gathered around the edge of the lawn fading the jungle into dark obscurity she opened her eyes. She felt cold, a deep intense cold that seemed weighted like a stone in the centre of her body. Liquids moved sluggishly through the systems of her body. She felt heavy with expectation. Slowly, she drew herself upright reluctant to leave the sanctuary of the fountain and, with stiff, awkward, shambling movements, dragged herself indoors. The rooms felt cool in the darkening haze as she moved through them. She would have a bath to ease her cold limbs. As she turned the taps on she glanced at her hands and observed indifferently that great chunks of skin had vanished; that beneath was dark with a hint of green she noted. She thought the colour of her new skin was very pretty. Her hands could barely turn the taps, her fingernails hard as rock. Her joints could barely move. She had to sit on the rim of the bath and ease her legs over and in, clinging to the sides with her hands as she lowered herself into the water. The heat rose through her body, slaking her intense need for warmth, the cold centre of her being slowly melting. She hummed contentedly through her teeth. Her sleep was full of dreams of dark warm tunnels, twisting and turning; strange creatures barely seen moving on the edges, some of which she knew she had tried to catch. She could see very well in this grey enclosed world and welcomed the warmth that flowed from the packed earth of the tunnels. Green upon green of peacefully towering vegetation soothed and marked her progress. She felt welcome in this world and knew she was queen.
In the morning she lay supine beneath the sheet, only the round half of her naked skull showing. The pillows of the bed lay on the floor. When she awoke she moved slowly under the sheet sideways across the bed and lowered herself to the floor. She lay curled for some moments, the early morning rays of the sun playing across her body like a mother’s caress. Gradually, her senses and body revived to a luscious, powerful awareness and she stood upright and stretched, a loud, cracked laugh issuing from her throat as she moved triumphantly to the mirror. Today she knew for sure she was lighter, as light as she would ever be. The ‘new woman’ was breaking through.
In the harsh sunlight that streamed through the window she assumed her position before the mirror. A great gurgle of pleasure rose from inside her. Her ears were gone, flattened into the delightful roundness of her skull. Her green eyes slanted further backwards until their points disappeared. As she surveyed her body she could see the cracks widening and gaping in their thousands. They began to move. Some met up with other cracks and, with loud noises like the snapping and popping of rivets, fell to land at her feet. She pressed her arms to her sides to make herself even thinner, digging into the contours of her upper body and saw with delight that her breasts had disappeared under a most pleasing yellow and green diamond pattern on her new skin. She raised her right hand and observed that the fingers had gone, the hand now one large, rippling muscle. She pressed it instantly hard against her body and watched as it was absorbed into the flesh of her thigh. As she gazed, she saw the great crack down her torso begin to race upward to meet the harsh defined line running from the top of her skull between her temples. She felt the flesh of her inner thighs melt into each other, saw the two halves of her face fall off on either side; her arms become ingested by the flanks of her body. She hummed and hissed with joy as she watched the emergence of the huge, rippling, sensuous, green and gold body. Her forked tongue darted from her mouth, back and forth in a hissing of pleasure. She slid along the floor to the balcony. Heaving her way with tremendous energy along the veranda, she delicately slithered and writhed down the outer framework until she felt the grass of the lawn beneath her belly. She moved in great waves like a vast, coiled ship through the grass her head raised, her green eyes encompassing all through her mirrored vision. She entered the jungle.
All day she stayed in the jungle, hunting, eating, cracking bones, delighting in the killing of strange, yet familiar creatures. Everything gave way before her – she possessed her kingdom. Her pleasure was manifold and she knew that nothing in her life had ever surpassed it or ever would again. She knew that she was beautiful and she never wanted to leave her paradise. Towards the evening, with the descent of the sun, the cold began to penetrate her glorious wonderful body; her movements slowed and she was saddened by her loss of power. She made her way from the jungle to the circular lawn. She approached the fountain and, reaching the base, raised her head, her green eyes fixed on the water endlessly renewing itself. She dipped her head into the cool, tinkling water, her wide flat mouth opening and taking in great mouthfuls. Satisfied, she sank back upon the grass, her huge tail whipping backwards and forwards in ecstasy. Two single tears ease themselves out of the vast eyes. Her tongue flickered and hissed in dismay. She did not want to lose this world, her place in it, ever. She did not want to go back to what she had been. This was what she was, what she had longed to be. This was her domain.
She could feel the onset of another change coming and tried to prepare herself. A strange mewing noise issued from her wide mouth, her brain cells felt as if they were beginning to break down and she was losing coherence of thought. Her remaining desire was for the protection of her beloved fountain. She coiled herself twice around the base, the tremendous muscles rippling and extending to accommodate themselves around this small area of space. Finally she was settled and she rested her mountainous head on the shelf of her tail. Her eyes moved restlessly, open then shut, open then shut. A great lethargy penetrated every part of her. The green and gold pattern of her skin began to fade in the dying light of the sun. Weight began to press down upon her claiming her senses as it came, coursing through fluids and systems until it reached her head. She felt a momentary sadness but it was soon put out as the heaviness closed off the channels of her brain. In a little while the last warmth of the sun left and the water of the fountain echoed tinnily in the dim remnants of the mind of the stone snake coiled at its base.
Long, slender, dark fingers reached down and touched the tiny flat surface that denoted the ears of the snake. ‘Sleep, sleep’ a soft, mesmerising voice murmured. ‘You are the most beautiful of all my collection. Perhaps I will wake you tomorrow or next year and watch you gleam and play and always, always, you will be mine and much loved.’
In the haze of twilight it seemed for a moment that the great snake shimmered; shimmered and shook and green and gold flashed momentarily and perhaps the breath of a small sigh was heard if one listened hard enough. The earth shuddered and then all was quiet and nothing and no-one disturbed the beauty and peace of the garden or the sleep of the stone snake.
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2010