It starts like a low, slow rip of paper, just audible over the hiss of shower water on the slate tiles. A slow exhalation of sharp-edged things that tears her throat on the way up, making a larger hole for the louder sound that follows. Until she’s crouched in the corner of the glass stall, ragged curtains of wet dark hair covering her face, keening knives into the steam.
It’s not grief or fear or even pain in the way most people understand it.
No one ever says it, but I know they think it. They look at Nathalie and wonder why she’s with a man like me. She’s beautiful and clever. She dresses well and has a laugh like golden syrup. She’s got a good job. They see her, and then me, and can’t fathom it.
But they don’t see her like I do. They don’t see her like this.
Sometimes – rarely – it passes on its own. But not this time. I can tell, because the misshapen cries are now punctuated by the rhythmic thud of her head as she slams it back against the thick wet glass. Thud. Keen. Thud. Keen. As if she needs to soften up her skull enough to turn herself liquid, and slip out of whatever it is that’s holding her insides in.
When I come for her, towel in hand, she screeches like a wild thing caught in a trap. Don’t be fooled by her size. When she’s like this she’s strong. I have the scars down my arms, across my chest and back as proof. The towel isn’t there to wrap her warm or comfort her. It’s to pin her arms flat to her chest, so she doesn’t claw her own breasts to a bloody mess.
They’re very beautiful breasts, shaped like lazy tears just ready to drop. White as parchment, with a faint lace of blue veins when you see them in a certain light. And scarred. A tracery of pale pink ley lines of despair. Done in a moment of madness. Done in the presence, I suspect, of better men, richer men, more handsome men who watched her change and panicked. Grasped their expensive clothes and fled.
Nathalie is trapped in her skin in the world.
In lucid moments – of which there are many – she says that the world grows too thick. That she gets stuck in its suck. That it will pull her back into its smothering, bloody womb and digest her in stages. The world is a starving mother who will devour her children rather than give birth to them. It reeks of perfume staled with time, of dead birds and the awful things that are caught between its teeth. If Nathalie could just slip her skin, she’d be free of its dreadful gravity.
With all the handsome, rich, clever men gone, I’m the only one left to make the space, to ease the seams of her skin. Once I’ve carried her to the bed and tied her arms and legs with the cords she owned before I met her, she’s calmer. She still weeps, still arches her back and pushes rich sobs out her lungs, still whimpers beneath the tangle of wet hair.
“Not long now,” I tell her.
I take out the lovely, tooled scalpel I bought at an antique shop off the Bayswater road. Its red Morocco leather case is scuffed and torn in places. Made before my grandfather was born. Inside, nestled in cream velvet pressed flat with time, the knife glints, as if new. Lovingly sharpened on the small oval whetstone the texture of silk that sits above it.
It’s like drawing on her skin. I do it where it won’t show. On her thigh, or her upper arm, on her hip, on the convex sides of her belly. I cut and she watches the blood well up through the carefully parted skin.
“Breathe, love,” I say.
And she does. As if she’s snatching it away from someone who has more of it than they deserve. Greedy and quick. The crying quiets into stuttered whimpers.
I cut the little eases into her knowledgeable skin. Each rivulet of blood takes its own eccentric path over the nearest curve, sometimes interrupted in its course by a previous seam of scar. But they’re neat little scars, the ones I’ve made.
I’m a tailor, not a butcher. I take pleasure in my work.
I make my careful cuts, and when I’m done, I cover her with my body, slide my cock into her moist, fluttering cunt, and fuck her free of the world’s pernicious grasp.