Julie C. Day
It wasn’t Alicia’s catechism teacher, her mother, or even her sister who taught Alicia the truth about God’s grace and the redemptive power of skin robes. It was her stepfather, Larry McBride.
Alicia and her sister, Stephanie, sat side by side on the edge of Alicia’s bed in their matching flannel nightgowns. The clock on the wall read 1:36 am. Like most nights, Mom was working the late shift at the hospital.
Their stepfather stood less than a foot away. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin was flushed. But that wasn’t their biggest problem. It was the constellation of freckles across his nose and cheeks. “Impurities,” Larry termed those freckles when he tried to explain God’s holy mission and the need to reclothe the world.
"I’m tired.” Alicia squinted her eyes against the overhead light.
“Alicia, how many stitches do human lips require to hold the soul inside?” Larry repeated, ignoring her complaint.
“Maybe?” Larry’s whiskey breath swept across her face, full of curdled sweetness. “God wants us to be sure,” he admonished. “Try again.”
Alicia nodded her head and silently started to count. One. No, not quite right. Two. Still nothing. Three. The number gave off the same feeling as all the rest. Four. God would make his holy number clear; she was going to get this right.
“Twenty. It’s twenty,” Stephanie cut in.
Alicia hadn’t even made it to ten.
The flash of pain Alicia felt as Larry cuffed her was nothing. It was the way Stephanie sat there. It was the way she held Alicia’s hand. It was the way Stephanie didn’t even for one second believe in Larry’s holy mission.
Alicia was a quick learner. By the time she was ten, she knew that flesh needed to be sewn by hand and that the stitches needed to be made by an unpolluted mind. But it wasn’t just Larry’s freckles that weren’t pure enough. Despite all those lessons, Stephanie and Alicia had never once been trusted to sew an actual skin.
And so, at the age of twenty-four, Alicia made a rank beginner’s mistake. She spent three weeks attempting to sew her first skin robe using steel needles bought from Jo-ann’s Fabrics before she recognized her error. A skin robe was a sacred object. It was an offering made to those, like her mother, who had sacrificed for impure humanity. It required bone needles, organic and handmade.
Alicia was a dedicated seamstress. Each day, she wandered near the tightly packed houses and worn apartment buildings of Farsdale, collecting her materials. She boiled the remains in her mother’s old stockpot. When the animal bones were completely free of even the smallest bit of sinew or fur, she dried them in a sunbeam on the kitchen’s lime-green linoleum floor. Pure, holy sunlight.
Only then were the bones ready for their final transformation. Each night, in the basement of the asphalt-shingled house, Alicia chipped, chipped, chipped, working diligently until the needle’s sharp point finally emerged.
Larry’s lessons hadn’t gone unheeded. Alicia knew the world was broken and tainted, and not even the tiniest bit blessed. But like one of those skin cloaks tailored by the Aztec priests that Larry used to talk about, Alicia’s robe would take the flawed every day and re-stitch it into something holy. Alicia was going to fix the world one family at a time, starting with her own mother. Mother’s soul waited, skinless, on heaven’s floor, broken and unable to find her peace. She deserved better than that.
Alicia had done her research. Bones, even after the scalding water, were full of bacteria. At first, she tried cleaning the needles with a bottle of store-bought bleach, but bleach had nothing to do with blessings and gods, and eternity.
And so Alicia devised a different way.
After she dried the bones, she disinfected them for half an hour in freshly squeezed lemon juice while she cleared her head of all those biting, angry thoughts. Memories of her mother’s screams behind that locked bedroom door. Memories of her big sister Stephanie sitting on the back step, hands over her ears, doing absolutely nothing. And Larry, the stepfather who wouldn’t do what Mother asked and “just leave,” until he did. Memories were hard, resistant to redirection. Eventually, though, Alicia felt her mind bend to the holy task. And then she sewed.
For long, lamp-lit hours, Alicia moved the bone needle in and out of the material: the fur-lined, the freshly skinned, the suede, and the hand-tooled. Each stitch of the new robe felt like a nighttime suffocation beneath a soft embroidered pillow. Each stitch felt like a fall down hard wooden stairs with no daughter to catch you before you hit the ground. Each stitch felt like an offering to the elderly mother Alicia and Stephanie had left behind in Farsdale to live and to die alone.
Moving back to Farsdale was supposed to be the first step in Alicia and Stephanie’s redemption. Stephanie was the one who tracked down Alicia after their mother’s death and drove the two of them up from Texas to witness the cremation. Despite the half dozen years since Stephanie had walked away, she was the one who convinced Alicia they could start again. She even found a job at one of the medical supply companies on the east end of town.
“We were just kids, Lish. Larry and his Aztec vision quests. Those scars on Mom’s legs. None of it was our fault. Mom left the house to both of us because she loved us. Not to make us suffer. Please, Lish, stop shaking your head.”
Alicia wanted so badly to believe. She’d spent years hiding from a house made out of sheetrock and lengths of dead wood. She spent years letting Larry and his Xipe Totec priests rampage through her dreams at night.
“Okay,” she’d said. “Okay, let’s try it.”
But months later nothing had changed. Whenever she walked through the house’s front hall—Mother’s old cat trailing at her feet—Alicia saw Mother’s old lady body wavering unsteadily at the top of the stairs. The cat saw it, as well. The two of them staring up at the staircase landing.
In fact, Alicia saw her mother all over their childhood home. Her mother sat in the parlor her head tilted back, that pattern of blue-green bruises across her neck. Her mother swabbed her left leg in the upstairs bathroom, the narrow scar that ran down the length of her thigh still fresh and dripping blood. And Stephanie did absolutely nothing. Instead, she had early meetings at the medical supplies office and doctors’ conferences and reasons to be anywhere but at home on Acushnet Avenue.
Stephanie, Alicia knew, wanted to be good. But sometimes that was hard. And Stephanie had always been skilled at avoiding hard. Instead of spending actual time with Alicia, Stephanie called from the road to check on Alicia’s headaches and doctor’s appointments. Stephanie, as she liked to put it, “checked in.”
Alicia tried her best as well. She made sure to report on her sessions with Dr. Edwin whether she went or not. And to answer Stephanie’s questions like, no, she still didn’t need to refill her prescription. But Stephanie still made soft impatient sounds when Alicia tried to describe the flavor of sunlight in the empty parlor or the movement of the dust motes along the stretch of stairs where their mother had fallen.
“I’ve got a meeting. I really have got to go.”
“Did you know she wrote me a letter? Mom, I mean.”
“Yes, you’ve told me.”
“I never wrote her back.”
“Lish, stop. She wanted to be alone. Alone with that cat anyway. After everything I’m sure she liked the silence.”
“After everything? Why don’t you use his name? Larry. Did you know that when the neighbors found her body she was just some skinless, decomposed puddle on the floor? The skin always disintegrates first—if it’s not taken off fresh.”
“I bet it hurt when she fell down those stairs. Remember how she screamed that night when Larry pulled out his knife? All that blood.” Alicia paused for a moment and then rallied. “Stephanie, she deserves an intact body. Even dead, Mom’s soul deserves a robe of skin.”
“Larry was...” Stephanie paused. "Mom’s hip broke and she fell. Larry was long gone by then. He had nothing to do with it. No one took her skin.”
“He might as well have. We burned up her skinless body. We turned her into ash. We didn’t even try to contain her soul.”
“Lish, I’m hanging up now.”
“Screams, Stephanie. We didn’t listen to her screams.”
Stephanie’s hope plan was a total failure. Honor thy father and thy mother, the fifth commandment said. After all their mother’s bruises and cuts. After all those screams, Stephanie and Alicia needed to offer their mother something in return.
“Lish? Lish? Are you okay? Damn it, Lish. I’ll be home for the weekend. My plane gets in at six.”
Sitting at her workbench in the basement, Alicia listened to the sound of Stephanie’s voice on Mother’s old answering machine as she chipped the bones and moved the needle in and out, creating seam after seam of sanctified flesh. Nothing in this world was pure or capable of lasting. To fix anything the robe had to be absolutely holy.
And so Alicia cleaned Mother’s bedroom and the door with its scratched-up lock. She fed and brushed Mabuz, the cat. She listened to the ravings of Larry and the childish tears of little Alicia and Stephanie. And, with extra-special care, she listened to Mother’s screams. Finally, Alicia understood what the robe required.
“Mabuz has transformed,” Alicia explained that Friday night when Stephanie finally walked through the front door. Alicia had scoured the kitchen knife and scrubbed the back step. She’d dug a trench in the far corner of the yard. And now it was time to tell Stephanie. “Steph, there was fur on the back porch. Calico fur.”
“Oh, no. Poor kitty.” Despite Stephanie’s careful tone and the hand that reached out to pat Alicia’s arm, Stephanie was frowning her worried frown. “I hope wherever she is, she’s okay. Mom loved that cat.”
“Mabuz was so old already,” Alicia chose her words carefully. “She probably didn’t even notice what was happening.” And like some magic trick with a hat and a twitchy-nosed rabbit, like finally-gone Mabuz himself, Stephanie’s frown disappeared.
“That makes sense. How was your visit with Dr. Edwin? Would you like me to call him?”
“No, I’m fine. He says I’m making real progress.” And in a way it was true. Skipping her appointments with Dr. Edwin was yet another sacrifice, and each sacrifice brought the robe closer to completion. A few more days and it would be ready. Soon Mother’s soul would no longer be flayed, skinless—a puddle of flesh on God’s holy floor. And Stephanie and Alicia would finally be forgiven.
Today was the day. Mother’s cat, Larry’s old leather jacket, the animals Alicia found in the park off of Center Street: the robe had taken so much work, but now it lay almost complete, spread across Stephanie’s double bed.
Alicia stood in the doorway, watching Stephanie. For some reason her sister’s shoulders were scrunched up while her left hand kept rubbing across her right forearm. Back and forth. Back and forth.
The robe was a patchwork of irregularly shaped pieces of brown and black, long-haired ginger and barely fuzzy white. A small island of gray fur rested next to a sea of cracked brown leather cut in the shape of a solid and fleshy woman. Finally, Larry’s long forgotten jacket was sanctified.
“Say something,” Alicia demanded. But Stephanie remained stubbornly silent as she bent to inspect the robe. After a too long pause, she finally looked up.
“Is that fur? Calico fur?”
“Mother needs us to be better, Stephanie. She needs us to sacrifice. You should put on the coat. Mother would like that.”
Stephanie seemed confused rather than enlightened by Alicia’s explanation.
“Mother is dead, Lish. Remember?” she said.
“Why don’t I call Dr. Edwin?” she said.
“Together we’ll figure out what to do,” she said, acting as though Alicia were still some nightmare-plagued seven-year-old who needed the curtains pinned tight each night, the scaredy-cat sister who turned up the radio and locked all the doors whenever the wind howled against the corners of the house.
Why couldn’t Stephanie understand? Mother deserved so much better than everyday Larry, everyday Alicia and Stephanie. Mother deserved so much better than this stinking world where your skin disappeared before anyone noticed you were even gone.
“Lish, why don’t we get dressed up and go to the Northside Grill? You can even borrow those Jimmy Choo sandals that you like.”
“Put on the coat first.”
“Lish. Please. I’ll even let you tell me one of your jokes. You used to love to tell jokes. Please. Things will get better.”
“Of course they will. It’s going to be okay, Steph. I promise. I’ll even tell you a joke.”
“All set.” Stephanie fastened the last button on the front of Alicia’s blue floral dress. “I think those sandals are perfect. Bonus points cause they’re your favorites.” Stephanie attempted a smile.
“Knock knock,” Alicia replied.
“Huh?” Stephanie took a few steps back, her eyes on the narrow lines of Alicia’s body underneath the capped sleeves and pleated skirt.
“Looks like the dress has gotten a little big.”
“It’s my joke.”
“Right. Start again.”
“Knock knock,” Alicia repeated, looking straight into Stephanie’s eyes. She tried not to blink.
“Orange,” Alicia said, still staring. Up close she could see a few strands of gray mixed with Stephanie’s chestnut-colored hair. These days, the lines on Stephanie’s forehead stood out even when she didn’t frown. Stephanie’s own skin was starting to unravel, while Mother waited, skinless and alone, somewhere on the floor of heaven.
“Orange who?” Stephanie responded, the frown lines deepening.
“Orange.” Alicia stepped closer, still not smiling, her teeth bared. Teeth helped make words, but teeth could work in other ways: tearing and breaking open.
“Orange who? Why are you grinning?”
“Orange,” Alicia repeated.
“Just a few more months, ” Stephanie said, “and then things should slow down for the summer. I’ll actually be able to spend some time with you.”
Alicia didn’t answer. “Orange,” she said instead. Stephanie would never understand. If she were home, she’d want to clean up Alicia’s special workbench. She wouldn’t like the mildew-and-blood scent that rose up the basement stairs on Alicia’s collection days. She wouldn’t like the bones in the stockpot and the collection of skin piled on the floor. With Stephanie around there would be no way for Alicia to reclothe the world.
Which didn’t mean Stephanie couldn’t help. Alicia had finally figured out the perfect plan. Stephanie would help sanctify Mother’s holy robe. She’d left a final section that she and Stephanie could complete together.
When Alicia tried to figure out how to explain this to Stephanie, “orange” was as close as she got.
“Will you fucking stop it,” Stephanie snapped, with that old Stephanie look of rage. “You didn’t even like spending time with Mom. You ended up in fucking Texas, living in some trailer in the back end of nowhere.”
“Mom wouldn’t see—” Alicia started before Stephanie cut in.
“Crazy Alicia, Larry called you. That’s what you really can’t stand. That maybe that asshole had you figured right.”
Alicia took two rapid steps forward, until her teeth were mere inches from Stephanie’s judgment face. “You’re just like Larry, you unstitched bitch. You don’t even care what’s happened to Mother.”
“Will you stop with the weird smile already? I think it’s a bit crazy.” Stephanie said. “Even for you,” she added, as though that closed the discussion.
Which, of course, it did.
Alicia started down the basement stairs. A length of copper-brown hair trailed from her right hand while a jagged length of something else left a moist trail in its wake. The staircase was an old and familiar friend, but on the third step, Alicia stumbled and almost fell. Stephanie’s four-inch Jimmy Choo heels were yet another stupid Stephanie idea.
Alicia took a slow breath, fighting for purity of thought. Despite Stephanie’s sacrifice, Alicia’s work still wasn’t done. She tried to remember how it felt when she and Stephanie were sisters with a living mother and Sunday school and no Larry barricaded inside the back bedroom. But the screaming noises from upstairs just wouldn’t stop.
“Lish. Alicia, God damn it! Alicia, you bitch! Are you listening to me?” Angry Stephanie. Ruined Stephanie, though still held together with bits of her tainted skin.
Back when they were little, their mother had shown both Stephanie and Alicia how to sew. They had spent hours picking apart a bad seam, redoing a line of unacceptable embroidery. Stephanie should have understood the importance of rework. She should have helped make things right. Instead, she wanted to leave their mother waiting, skinless, for eternity.
Alicia paused halfway down the stairs and, with a swift tug, pulled off both sandals and tossed them onto the basement floor. Jimmy Choo shoes were made for girls who walked out their front doorway and straight into their perfect life, never looking back. But after months of re-stitching Mother’s new heavenly skin, Alicia finally understood: no matter what Stephanie said, the problem was never Alicia’s guilt or her fear. The problem was unstitched Stephanie and her unstitched world. The problem was a world full of Stephanies and their dreams of moving on and forgetting, leaving all those skinless souls scattered across the entryway of heaven.
Alicia stepped onto the basement’s packed-dirt floor and tilted her head. Stephanie’s howls had been replaced by new sounds: a whimpering noise accompanied by the thump-scrape, thump-scrape of something moving down the front staircase. A partly unstitched and shorn Stephanie was dragging herself along their mother’s final path. Finally, the helpful big sister.
Alicia took a slow breath, then she reached down and undid the buttons of her blue dress. There was still so much work to do. Painful work.
She dropped the dress next to the tangle of sandal leather. The re-stitched robe was almost done, but it needed more than random bits of skin. Mother’s robe needed skin that was both pure and alive. It needed to be animated by love.
Thump. Scrape. And then silence. Stephanie must have made it to the bottom of the front stairs.
Alicia let her eyes close as she lifted the shank of copper-brown hair to her face and inhaled. Alicia would complete the cloak’s re-stitching one piece of skin at a time. She would surround their mother in living warmth until she was ready to rise again on Judgment Day, whole and complete.
Alicia opened her eyes. So many sacrifices.
She picked up a knife from her workbench, and tested the blade’s edge against the pad of her right thumb, watching as a teardrop of blood welled up. Perfect. In the dim basement light, she inspected the top edge of her pale left thigh. Swiftly, before her thoughts could fragment, Alicia chose her spot and pressed, feeling her skin’s final resistance give way to the purity of pain. Lightning flashes seemed to rise from the center of her womb. Sweat trickled down her spine while a droning sound rose, unbidden, from deep within her throat. Keeping the line straight, that was the thing. Breaking through. Mother’s robe needed to be perfect. Holy. She deserved nothing less.
Stephanie might have been the older sister, but Alicia was the child Mother could count on. Helpful Alicia, redeeming this dead and ugly world. Helpful Alicia, covering over their mother’s pain and finally making her whole.
Julie C. Day has published over two dozen stories in magazines such as the Cream City Review, New Haven Review, and A cappella Zoo. Her first collection Uncommon Miracles is forthcoming from PS Publishing.