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Shedding Skin In Summer

Reeba Parray

Now.
I was born in fall twenty years ago.
I lay on the grass. I felt something fall over my eyes. No. No. I can't be Atlas. I frowned and at this moment, I felt it adjust its loud presence to a subtle one. I panicked a little less. But I was still paranoid. Was this an intruder trying to be subtle and cautious? But this touch felt so innocent. I did not feel the tiniest of hurt so I relaxed a little. It spread slowly and gently on me. I felt it lay its fingers over my chest, my waist, my legs, my toes. Still a little cynical. But I did not move a millimetre to escape, having accepted the fact that I could not, even if I wanted to.
Is this a traveller who has lost his way? I listened carefully for any signs of an invasion. It had been three long months since death decided to be my constant companion and I hadn't had a visitor in so long. I couldn't open my eyes still. I did not dare anymore. The frost had crept into my bones so deep and decided to stay for good. The life in me had given up, I was a carcass, waiting to break down, to turn into nothing, to wither away. I did not care much for legacies anyway. Lost in my own thoughts, I suddenly sensed a change.
My toes. My toes tingled. This sensation felt vaguely familiar. Warmth? I could feel it seeping inch by inch. Something in me shifted, it felt a little lighter. My heart. It had been heavy for so long, I had completely forgotten of its existence. I was convinced that it had died the day I healed a dervish. My heart. It felt...lighter.I undertook the art of brainstorming (as if it ever did me any good, I thought to myself). If this was someone seeking help, I had none left to give. And if it was an intruder trying to steal from me, they would only be disappointed. Blood no longer flowed through my veins, only apathy and coldness did. My smile was seized a long time ago, inch by inch, day by day. What more can you rob from a human? I did not carry any treasure with me, I did not wear any jewels. I only carried with me a worn-out copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk. A delicate reminder of how life could change in a season.
Then, I heard something in the distant. Birds chirping. Strange. My head hurt a little less. They had been away for so long. So much had passed when they left the Valley for the warmth they rightfully deserved. Was this an omen? Did this mean I needed to find myself another place? My feet got warmer and warmer. Is this a trap? My cynicism seemed to have grown more over the course of time.
Crack. I spread out my arms. Another crack. My head hurt from these cacophonies. When did I allow myself to become...what I had become? Everything's okay, everything's okay. Maybe if I chant it like a spell, it'll work.
I pushed myself up. Crack.
I breathed in and I surprised my lungs, this air did not hurt. I had been holding my breath for so long. I felt a little life was breathed into me. This pushed me to be brave. I stole a peek and the hope in my chest returned. I knew this was going to hurt. I mentally prepared myself for it. Crack. My eyes hurt from being sewn shut from fall to winter but then I was hooked when I saw. No, no, I really saw this time. So beautiful. I wanted to weep. I was afraid at first. But I breathed easy. I liked the way the grass smelled of safety. I was drawn to the way it swayed almost as if rejoicing my rebirth.
I was born in fall and I died in fall last year.
He showed up in fall, this broken man.
If you looked at him, you could never tell. And he would never speak to you of the tempest that had been raging on in his life. It just wasn't like him. So how do you figure it out? You look, you really, really look, the way the light in his eyes die a little, the way his face becomes a stone for a microsecond, how his chest doesn't rise and fall the same way as yours (his breathing pattern is more mechanical, more of a task), how his crooked teeth mask God-knows-what-he-is going-through. You understand his idiosyncrasies and I don't know what you would do but I, I decided to reach out my small hand knowing that I cannot escape this unscathed and took more than a fall in October.
I decoded him and rearranged him in my head and soon after, I spoke to him softly, caressed that insane head of his in November.
Nourished him till December and tried teaching this stubborn man how to breathe a little easy for himself.
Put his token of thanks (a book by Orhan Pamuk) for offering help on a shelf.

And then in January, this broken man was broken still I think, but not fragile anymore.

We had spent the harsher winter months together. We had our fair share of pulling, tugging and laughter. We belonged to different times. He, a traveller who had lived through a decade of stories before I was even born, an embodiment of liveliness and wisdom. I, I was and still am just plain old Vincent.

I had sung my song that kept us warm. He had whispered stories.
January passed us by and we realized we were living in two corners of the same hotel room. It dawned upon us that this was not home. That we could never build one. We had to move.
But I soon found out that I was not done saying goodbye to our songs. To the books he had brought for me. The drives or the fights.
In a single motion, he picked up his guitar.

"We need to leave, you'll freeze."

I stared at the sun outside. So dull. This room was so cold. But my eyes widened a little when I realised that the embers in his heart could keep him warm for the journey ahead. He radiated warmth but it felt unsettling. I looked at my hollow chest. I wanted to be angry but I wasn't. Like Hera, I thought I had managed to keep his fire alive. It wasn't his fault anyway. I had held out my hand. Once an impulsive bastard, always an impulsive bastard.

"Hey?"
He spoke again. The impatience in his voice grew a little loud.
"Hmn. I heard you. Pack your bags. I am staying."
My words did not surprise him. He knew that I wasn't ready to pack my things yet.
I would have moved, I would have moved into a different dimension had his tone not been so light. So ready. Maybe I was being neurotic but he took me for a fragile thing while I was not.

I helped him get dressed in January before the day melted into the night. It started to snow. He hated the snow. It made the drive so difficult. But I knew that this wasn't a reason good enough for him to stay so I pretended not to feel the wind cut against my skin. I had started to hate this weather.

His face, not for a second reflected that he thought I would hold him back. He knew me pretty damn well. He had stepped into my life seeking calmness during the storm that had hit his life. And calm I remained to this cold day. I had mourned already. His broken boat was fixed.

I grew a little cold as I put a cape woven out of laughter on him. He sensed something was off. And Superman decided to ask me a simple question.
"Do you want me to carry you somewhere?", he asked.
"No, I think I'll stay awhile," I said as I looked outside the small window. The sun did not shine. I could barely see through this snowstorm.
Awhile.
I did not realize awhile was this long.
Now.
I stared at the sun. The same entity I had stared at as his footsteps had faded away. But the sun shone so brightly that I could feel it bring out the hazel in my eyes. Maybe, just maybe that was my hyperactive imagination. I laughed at that thought. I just laughed. I JUST LAUGHED. It felt so alien but meaningful. I bit my lower lip immediately as if I had committed a sin that I needed to be punished for. At this exact moment, a butterfly landed on my little finger. I looked at it, it was really beautiful. Velvet and elegant pale pink wings with violet specks. It lay there calmly. I have no nectar, love, nothing to provide you with. So many flowers and you chose me. I named it Summer. It reminded me of my sister. She is a June baby, a summer child. I could feel my legs, my lower body had gained strength and stability. I did not move though because this moment was so delicate, so rejuvenating. I wanted to be careful, I did not want to scare Summer away. As soon as this thought entered my head, Summer shifted almost as if she read my mind.
Summer chose another flower some ten steps away from me. I observed her closely. Putting my chin on the palm of my hands, I leaned forward to get a better view of her.
Her wings were so beautiful and movements so graceful that they would put a dervish's dance to shame.
I squinted and got up on my feet so swiftly. Muscle memory. No more cracking. This felt like a life-altering moment. I glanced at myself. My skin was still pale but my bones ached a lot less than they did before.
I inhaled the summer air as a breeze blew. It did not cut at my skin and my arms did not shake. I felt it cool down my beating heart. I hadn't even taken a single step yet. I felt anxious but I decided that it was about time.
I held my breath and put down my right foot ahead of me. The earth felt so full, so warm, so easy, so adjusting, so nurturing.
The sunlight shifted onto my hair. It brought out the gold in my hair and I combed my fingers through it. A little tangled but not lifeless. Just like our stories. I smiled at that thought. I took another step and then another, like my movements were so practised. My skin was shedding. My thickened blood surged through my veins more effortlessly. I tilted my neck to stare at the magnificent tree that I was approaching. I was awestruck. My eyes had forgotten that the vastness of the brightest of skies can encompass all of our tragedies. This was a fleeting moment that I wanted to hold onto. I felt like a child and I cried out of happiness. I shrieked. I ran. I hummed No Surprises by Radiohead.

"Such a pretty house and such a pretty garden."
I giggled and ran up to touch the tree.

The bees danced and I sang with a madness that I had forgotten I possessed.

I paused. I saw a figure, a creature hiding in the shadows but strangely I did not feel afraid of it. Its movements felt like a distant memory. I was so far away from home. Who could this be? I tried focussing on it. I could tell that it was swift. I heard a whimper. And then I remembered.
I whistled. My husky. Simba! He came out and tilted his head. So handsome. He had become so frail. I smiled and in my squeaky overjoyed voice gestured for him to come to me.
He was hesitant and I understood why. I had not been the same but I felt myself transitioning.
"Come on boy, it's me."
Simba bolted towards me. Jumped at me. I hugged him for as long as I could and he kept barking. Very unlike a husky since the breed has a tendency to only howl but happiness has no language. He had forgotten his and I had forgotten mine. He was my companion, he had missed me and my heart felt a pang of guilt. He licked at my face. I missed this. I had started to sweat.
I patted his head and rolled over in the grass with him for a lifetime I think. He sneezed as I tickled his nose with a flower I picked up. After playing tackle to my heart's fulfilment, I knew what had to be done.
I needed to run in this summer heat.
I needed to shed my skin.
Simba read my mind. True companionship.
I looked at Simba. He looked back at me with his glorious blue-brown eyes and as if we were both in sync, we sprinted. His sadness. My sadness. It was time for their burial.

We ran as fast as we could. We heard a stream running nearby, we ran past it and felt the splashes from the rocks but we hadn't had enough.
Every now and then I could feel something tiny move up ahead of us but I did not fixate on it.
We ran and our bones grew stronger, the sunlight warming up our backs as if telling us to go on. I looked at my feet as I ran and they were full of colour. As we gained momentum, I looked at my hands and could hear the life in them.
I glanced sideways and saw Simba. He wasn't close to tired. True to his personality. The lilac laden mountains looked so captivating. We were getting nearer.
As we hiked onto the slope, it left me a little breathless and the feeling brought me back to the winter months for a brief moment and surprisingly, I did not feel a single pang of sadness. I was moving too. Finally. Separately but united on the same journey as the dervish. My skin had shed, my body felt the lightest it had felt. This was like being born again and I enjoyed every bit of it. I hummed as my calves hurt a little but my feet wouldn't stop.
Not yet.
I was there, almost there. I felt myself starting to collapse. But I did not allow myself to do it.
And only a single realization kept me going-
I got better. I did not plummet to my death in winter.
My fall was cushioned. I am Vincent and I land on my feet like a cat. I felt brave and happy in a long, long time. I will stare at the night sky like all the times before I was held hostage, and yes, my bones will hurt and they will be tired undeniably from all the running. But never again from breaking free from all the icicles. Never from being chained. Never from tending to a fire so fragile that it can be stomped upon and put out in a second. My skin will grow thicker and has grown thicker. The proof lies in me. The frost died at the first touch of the sunlight. I have my home within me to let me stay the night for the rest of my life.
I will always be kind to strangers still. But I have sworn that I will not share hotel rooms anymore. I will never forget that my roots are as adaptable as my mind. I refuse to ever fully submit to the cold. This was a near-death experience. But we were here.

We were here. The lilac laden mountains welcomed us. Simba walked ahead of me and chased after something.

I dug out some soil with my bare hands. A raw ritual. I put in the book the traveller had given me. Snow was the name, ironically. The burial was complete. I did not feel the need to mourn anymore.
The sun was setting, we had to build a fire still during the night. I looked around and found Simba still chasing after something...I could not see well and I calmed Simba down and took him to the stream nearby. He was lapping up water and I stayed put. A moment later, I felt something flutter.
My smile reached my ears. I breathed a thank you to it.
Summer guided us. And I showed my gratitude by reaching out my hand to it because this time I knew better, that this would leave me unscathed. Summer proceeded to settle onto my skin even when she did not need any help. This is why I hold her the closest to my heart still.


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