Beneath the Skin

“No,” Brittany sighed. “You can’t.”

“I can’t? What does that mean, Britt?” We hadn’t been dating that long, so maybe it had been too early to tell her I loved her. But when we weren’t together I couldn’t get her out of my mind and when we were together I could never get enough of her. Isn’t that love?

I had dreamed she felt the same. But, no. I felt like an idiot, so of course I got angry. “I know how I feel.”

She shook her head. “Actually, Tony. You don’t.”

“I know my own heart, Brittany.” This is not how I had pictured this conversation going. I pushed the covers aside and scrambled out of bed. I was done making an ass of myself.

“Sweetheart, please. Don’t leave.” Her voice stopped me, like it always stopped me. She held out her hand to me and despite myself, I took it. “I know you think you love me and I wish it were true. I really do. But you can’t. Not like you mean.”

“How can you say that? I’ve never felt like this about anyone else. No one.” I stopped, a terrible fear cramping my guts. “Do you think I can’t love? Is that it? I’ve grown up since then.”

“No, sweetheart,” she said. “This isn’t about your past, it’s about mine. Please, lay back down.”

I hesitated. Snow fell outside, tossed by the wind to whisper against the windows. The world was cold and Brittany was gorgeous, her hair tousled from our afternoon of passion. Even though it was just past five, this late in December it was already full dark. I didn’t want to leave.

I looked at her eyes and wondered how I had gotten even this far from her arms. In a final show of independence, I piled a bunch of pillows against the headboard and sat there, the covers up to my waist, my arms crossed.

She kissed my cheek and then slid beneath my arms, resting her head on my chest, her body pressed against mine. I shivered and closed my eyes. The warmth of her skin against mine, the quick taste of her lips, the smell of her hair overwhelmed my senses, my will. Me.

What do I feel if not love?

“Can I tell you a story?” she asked.

My heart began to thud against my chest. Her stories daunted me. Some published, some not, but all of her stories were filled with magic, the world turned slightly sideways. Worlds greater, deeper, wider and more wonderful than the one in which I lived, a world where the gilt had long since flaked away.

Now, in this room, lit by candles quivering in the drafts, I feared that the connection to my tarnished world was about to get more frayed than ever. If it wasn’t for the vibrant red rose, standing proud and defiant in a bud vase next to the candles, I don’t think I’d have had the courage to listen to her tale.

“You won’t believe this story,” she said, her voice tinged with regret. “That doesn’t make the story any less true, I’m afraid.” She took a deep breath and I could feel her heartbeat against my chest, stronger, faster and for a moment I fell into that rhythm.

“What do you know of the Fae?” she asked. “I don’t mean fairies with wings, Tinkerbell or the like. I don’t mean Santa Claus or even Elrond.” I shook my head. She sighed, kissed my chest, and continued. “Then you only have my word for what I’m going to tell you. One of the things that many of the stories agree on is that the Fae are compelling. But whether one is compelled to seek or to avoid depends on the person. Some people adore the very idea of the fae, seeking out faerie mounds and standing stones. They get lost listening for fiddle songs beneath the stars, they lose track of time as they dance on the hills and awake again a year or a century later,” she said. “Others, are repelled. They loathe the mysteries of the earth, the dark places. They call themselves realists or cynics. Or Christians. In any case, this story isn’t about them.”

She adjusted the blankets around her waist, for the room felt warm despite the storm outside. And waited. I wondered at her hesitation and still more, I wondered what the story had to do with my love for her. When she began speaking, I didn’t know if she told the same story or not.

“Some time ago, I spent a year in England. I had just turned twenty and I’d won a full term at Oxford. Just before my visa ran out, I traveled with my girlfriend on holiday.” She smiled up at me as I started in surprise. “Yeah, girlfriend. Didn’t I tell you about my first female lover? How forgetful of me,” Brittany teased. “Her name was Tamara Lindholm. She’s an amazing graphic artist. We wanted to spend time together before I left, so we went on a hiking tour, walking along the paths, seeing the old places, staying in small inns before I had to leave for home. And leave her behind.” Brittany fell silent, staring at the rose gilded by the candle light. “But we didn’t talk about that.”

She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and stretched her arm across my chest. “Have you ever been to England?” she asked me, but didn’t pause in her telling for an answer. I’d become the canvas upon which she painted her words. “There are regions where you can walk in a day through a handful of towns, hardly changed in two hundred years. You can follow a ridge line for miles seeing nothing but sheep and then step off the path straight into the 21st century – a McDonald’s with WiFi or some other megacorp monstrosity.”

She chuckled. “The scenery was beautiful, but sometimes I forgot about that, lost in lovely Tamara. She’d been my friend since the first time we’d sat next to each other in lecture. I loved her Welsh accent and, soon enough, loved her. That surprised me, but not for long. We were so right together that the plumbing didn’t matter, you know?” She pushed herself up to sit cross legged on the bed, facing me. “I’ve always been … you’ve seen, haven’t you? I’m a very passionate person. I feel everything, but until Tamara I’d never felt love like that. I’d always held a portion of me back, held in reserve in case I had to patch up any breaks to my heart. With Tamara, nothing got held back.” She rubbed at her face, looked up, her eyes capturing mine. “It damn near killed me.”

She lay back down and turned onto her side. Brittany took my arm, pulling it around her so that I, too, lay on my side, our bodies pressed together, back to front, my arm over her, my hand between her breasts. I pushed the blankets down to our hips, for I had grown warm this close to Britt’s fire.

“Near one village,” she said, “standing stones crowned a hill and we wandered among them for a bit. But I was hungry and thirsty and I could see the village just there, not so far, so I coaxed Tamara away from the wonder. We walked into town, found a small inn, and took a room, spending just enough time to wash the dust from our faces before heading out to find something to eat. It was early evening by that time, but midsummer, so the sun would be up for hours yet. We entered the first pub we found.

“At that time, only a handful of people were in the pub with us and pretty much no one paid us any attention. We grabbed something to eat and chatted about the feel of the place. Across from us there was this old dart board with real steel tipped darts in it. It even had a chalk scoreboard next to it. The wall next to our table was all cut up, scarred. I thought vandals until Tamara pointed out a name and a date at least 200 years old.”

She lifted my hand to her lips, kissed it, and placed it back between her breasts. “The beer in that place was amazing. Dark doesn’t even describe it. Nearly black, but with this white foam head that coated the glass as I drank. Well, I didn’t stop at just one beer, I’m afraid, and I felt it. I’m not a big girl. . . .” I squeezed her slight form against me. “And two pints – or was it three? – got me pretty buzzed.”

I felt myself swept up in her tale. I could see the old pub, ancient and stolid, held up by stout oak and hearty laughter. I could taste the heady beer, rich with the complex flavors of a foreign land. My hand began to stroke her breast, the soft swell fitting my palm perfectly. Once I realized what I was doing, I stopped. This wasn’t the time and besides, I was still angry at her. Wasn’t I?

“Ah, don’t stop,” she said. “That feels good.”

“If you’re sure.”

I could feel her nod, her hair tickling my nose as her head moved. “You anchor me to here, tonight,” she said. “I find I need anchoring, come the solstices.” But that last was said softly, into the pillow and I don’t think I was meant to hear it.

She continued her tale. “Unfortunately, one person did pay attention to us. A man kept glancing over at us, trying to catch Tamara’s eye. When he did, he raised his glass to her. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. I laughed. Tamara was the absolutely last person in that pub he should have hit on.

“I had my back to him and wasn’t about to turn around and stare, so Tamara described him. Handsome enough, she said, wearing a deep red shirt, ‘the color of Bordeaux spilled across a counter top.’ He didn’t look English, she decided, but didn’t make any guesses about where he might be from.

“But he kept staring at us. Finally, Tam slid from amused to uncomfortable to angry. ‘Come on, Britt,’ she said. ‘Let’s go to our room.’ Who was I to argue? A whole day of walking the hills followed by too-many pints, and I was ready for bed. I only hoped I’d have a chance to play with Tam before falling asleep. I did glance at the guy on the way out. Damn. He was handsome. Devilishly so. Sharp, chiseled features; strong, barrel chest; long black hair that fell across his shoulders. He dressed like a pretty boy, looked like an athlete, but possessed his corner of the bar like a lord. An aura of self-satisfaction, of privilege, emanated from him in waves. I didn’t want any man just then, but there was something so compelling about him that I felt my face flush, felt my body get hot. Then he caught my eye and frowned. God, it chilled me to the core. I scurried out of that pub, running to catch up with Tam.”

My fingers on Brittany’s breast found the scar that marred her smooth skin. I’d noticed it the first time we fooled around. A jagged white line, edged in red where the angry flesh cut across her sun-darkened skin, starting just above her heart and sloping down with the curve of her breast.

“How did you get this scar?” I asked.

“Shh,” she whispered. “Patience.”

My sweating skin grew chill and I pulled the blankets up to cover us. Perhaps it was just the sweat drying cool in the night air, or a breath of draft that had made me shiver with cold. What did her story have to do with love? With torn flesh? I gripped her more tightly, proof against the air leaching the heat from the room.

She grasped my hand with hers, pressing it hard against her breast. Only my thumb still rested on her scar. “We’re safe,” she assured me.

“We are,” I agreed. But am I? I wondered.

Britt continued her story. “Well, I did have enough energy left – fueled, no doubt, by the beer – to make love before we fell asleep. If I’d know it was the last time we’d do it, maybe I wouldn’t have found sleep so important. But then, she might not. . . . Oh, well. There’s no end to that loop. Anyway, Tam and I fell asleep, lying together much like we are now.”

That doesn’t help, I wanted to tell her. But I kept my thoughts pinned inside, afraid of turning the story aside.

“It was dark when I woke up, so it must have been hours later. The weird thing was, I was alone. I got out of bed, wondering where Tamara was. I didn’t worry. Not then. The loo was down the hall or perhaps she had decided to read in the common room. I opened the window, letting in some cool air. To the west of town, on those hills with the standing stones, someone had set up a bonfire. Probably for the solstice. Maybe Tam would know.

“I turned on the light. I’d get dressed and go find her. As I did, I saw her glasses on the bedside table.” Brittany stopped and pulled in a deep breath, her ribs expanding beneath my arm. “It’s the little things, you know? Tam can’t see the clock beside the bed without her glasses, but she was wandering around a strange inn without them? That terrified me. Not her absence, not the bonfire, not the mysterious music that seemed to fill the air I breathed. No. Knowing Tam wandered without her glasses scared the hell out of me.”

My eyes had closed against the pain in her voice. Even so, I could see the room she described: the four poster bed washed vermillion in the light from the window, the air saturated with an unearthly music carried into the room as if borne by the light itself. The innocent eye-glasses proclaiming danger by their bereft state. Brittany, her long, dirty-blonde hair tousled from sex and sleep, flipping on lights against the darkness.

“Her clothes were gone,” Brittany said. “She wasn’t in the loo, she wasn’t in the common room. I put her glasses in my pocket and rushed from the inn.”

“You went to the standing stones.” It wasn’t a question. She nodded and pulled her knees up as if she would curl into a ball.

“Yeah. The standing stones, the bonfire. The music, too, came from the ring of stones. Powerful music, insistent music. Compelling music.”

“What did it sound like?” I asked, even though I felt it in my heart, heard it in my soul.

“Pipes and drums. Fiddle and whistles. Celtic reels urging me to dance and. . . .” She stopped suddenly and turned onto her back. “No, Tony. That’s a lie that I tell myself now. It felt like something you’d hear in an Irish pub on open mic night. A bunch of folks with fiddles and young guys with guitars singing songs, playing tunes. Feet tapping. But that wasn’t it. I never saw any musicians so I can’t say what instruments were played. I heard singing, I heard music, but I can’t swear that what I remember is what I heard. I know it was the most amazing music, because sometimes I still hear it.” She opened her eyes, shook her head, the dirty blonde hair shimmering on the pillow.

When she continued, her voice was softer, more controlled, as if by keeping her emotions in check she might get through her tale. “There were people dancing. People like I’d never seen before. In the center danced Tamara, a blood-red rose pushed into her black hair. She smiled like she’d been given the greatest gift in the world. Like she’d just had the greatest sex ever.”

Brittany rubbed her hands across her face. I kissed her cheek and she smiled and kissed me back, the salt taste of tears mingled on our lips. “Why is that bad?” I asked softly. “I mean, you found her, right?”

“She danced with him, Tony. With the man from the pub.” Britt scowled. “Well, he’s male at any rate,” she muttered.

At least, I think that’s what she said.

“That stopped me,” she continued. “He held Tam in his arms, moved with her. They had their bodies pressed hard together, their arms tight around each other. Tam pressed herself against him, gazed up at him, writhed on him. I stood outside the circle, watching, unable to move. That beautiful music had become the soundtrack of Tam’s seduction. But I had to reach her, to talk to her, before that happened.”

“Because you were jealous?” I asked.

That startled a laugh out of her. “Oh, no. That wasn’t it at all. Our sex together was damn hot, but we’d never been exclusive. In fact, I loved to hear about her having fun, whomever she was with. But never like this, never out of the blue, without checking in first.” Brittany shook her head. “But that’s not the point. I may like both outies and innies, but not Tamara. She’s gold star, as phallophobic a gal as I’d ever met. For her to be grinding her crotch against that guy – and not be all ironic about it – was just not her. Some one must have slipped something into her drink or blown smoke in her face. Maybe placed a patch on her skin: somehow this guy had made her forget who she was. I couldn’t let him get away with that.”

She fell silent, her eyes distant, but I felt her finger against mine, tracing the slight ridge of scar tissue. I leaned down and kissed her fingers. She smiled for me, an insincere quirk of the lips.

“I focused. Hard. Pushed my legs forward and got through the circle. The people just moved around me like I was no more than a pebble dropped into a stream. I came up behind the man, facing Tamara. Her eyes never left his face, her arms never left his body.” Brittany closed her eyes. “‘Tam? You okay?’ I asked. No reaction. I reached out, touched her arm. ‘Tam? What’s going on?’ Tamara didn’t respond, didn’t acknowledge me. We’d been like one person for months, but now she was somebody else.”

Brittany’s words slipped into the dark room as if unwilling to draw attention to themselves. “I moved around so that I faced this guy.” She laughed. Or cried, I couldn’t quite tell which. “I froze. I have no idea how long I stood there, with the dancers circling around us. It’s like I got drunk all over again, just by staring at him. While his focus, his intention was on Tam, I lapped at his aura like a city girl sucks down cosmos. I might have stood there for a minute, for an hour. I’d probably be standing there still, if it had been up to me.”

Brittany’s gaze sharpened, focused on me, and her hands grabbed hold of my own. “But he took his eyes from Tamara. Looked. At me. ‘You’re not wanted,’ he said, his voice like summer, like the smell of apples. ‘Go away,’ he said, and I fell to my knees.” Her hands clenched mine tightly, even as her voice stayed steady.

Stop! I wanted to say. I take it back. I don’t need to know how you got that scar.

“I just dropped to my knees. No strength in my legs. I fell against Tamara, pushing her off balance. But when she reached out, she reached to me.

“‘Britt? What are you doing here?’ she asked me.

“‘I came to find you, Tam,’ I replied. ‘Are you okay?’

“Tamara knelt down next to me. ‘Why are you on the ground, sweetie? Did you fall?’”

“That was so like her. ‘Yeah, kind of. Can you help me up?’ Tamara reached to me, her fingers slipping between mine. Before she could pull me up, that bastard knocked her to the ground.

“‘How dare you?’ He shouted at me. I couldn’t help but look up at him from where I lay sprawled. ‘Who are you to come between me and what I’ve claimed?’

“I struggled to rise but couldn’t. It’s as if my legs had merged with the ground, becoming just another stone in the circle.”

Brittany’s pain oozed from her like sweat. I squirmed next to her, not knowing what to do, how to heal the hurt I saw plainly in her eyes. I squeezed her hand and kissed her lips. At first, Brittany didn’t respond and then she blinked, coming back to the now with a jolt, her lips moving against mine. We moved apart and the ache receded enough for her to give me a true smile.

One deep, steadying breath later she said: “It’s funny, but at that moment I tried to place his accent. Not local: I’d heard plenty of that regional English in the pubs. No, he sounded kind of Gaelic, but with a rhythm that was kind of French. But not. I’ve heard the like once before.” Brittany shook her head. “But that’s another story.”

Britt fell silent, following some internal path that I couldn’t share. “Perhaps, it happened then, when I connected with that other story.” She spoke as if she tried out a new idea. “But suddenly my legs could move. I stood, fragile as a flower growing between cobbles, but I stood. My heart pounded in my chest and sweat ran down my spine. He rose above me, a foot taller, twice my weight, fists clenched. Any minute, he’d swing and I’d be dead. No way I could stop him. No way I would run. So, I stood there, between him and Tamara.”

The image drew itself in my mind, this wisp of a woman standing between her lover and the enemy who threatened them both. I ran my hand up her slim arm, wondering at the strength hidden within her. “Why?” I asked even as I felt proud of her fortitude. Wishing that she might some day stand between me and adversity.

“Because I had to,” was her simple response. “Tamara needed me. I felt her behind me, her hand on my shoulder. But he’d asked me a question and with her touching me, I found the answer. ‘I’m her lover,’ I said. ‘Who are you to come between me and she who claims me?’”

I whistled and Brittany started, then grinned. “Yeah. Leave it to me to poke a beastie with a stick.” Her hand moved up to rub at her throat. She didn’t look at me, her gaze far distant.

“His hand shot out,” she said, her voice quiet in its intensity. “He gripped my neck. Squeezed. I felt the pressure of each finger forcing inward. I can still feel. . . .” Brittany shook her head. “He jerked me from my feet. Pulled my face beside his. ‘Don’t dare question me,’ he whispered, his hot breath blowing across my ear. Tamara screamed and reached for his arm. She couldn’t force his hand from my neck.”

Brittany turned to me again, her hand slipping down from her neck to clutch mine, entwining our fingers. “He glanced at Tamara when she screamed. Just glanced. She fell silent, stopped struggling. Stepped back, leaving me alone. I fought, my breath burning in my lungs. He held me with no more effort than I would use on a wine glass. I punched at him, kicked. But could only watch as he pulled a knife from his belt. He looked at the black blade, his glance drawing mine with it. He turned the knife this way and that so that it reflected the fire light. And then he stabbed me. Right here.” She moved my hand so that my fingers pressed hard against the scar. “Feel how jagged the line is? Obsidian, black glass that sliced through my skin to chip against my breast bone.”

I gasped. “He didn’t want you dead!”

She shook her head. “He didn’t care enough. He wanted me scared and scarred and so he cut me and dropped me. It felt like fire flowed from my chest.”

Her skin felt hot beneath my fingers as if the fire pulsed there still.

“Perhaps his violence broke whatever spell Tam was under. She dodged around him to reach me. ‘Britt! Oh my god, what did he do?’ Tam pressed her small hand tight against my wound, trying to stop the blood.”

Brittany sighed. “But he wasn’t done. ‘Get away from her and come with me,’ he told Tamara, his quiet voice more menacing than a shout. ‘You’re mine.’”

The candles flickered, the scene reflected in their flames. I could see what happened next: “Tamara left me!” Britt whispered.

“We were alone, the three of us in the middle of a stone circle. I reached for Tamara, my bloody fingers grabbing her shirt, and with all my strength I pulled her against me. Before she could struggle, I wrapped my arms around her and held tight. The effort to spread my arms so wide pulled at the gash in my chest, the torn muscles screaming. But I held on.

“Tamara turned to me, frightened. I’ve never seen such terror. She pleaded with me to let go. But I held on. He spoke, and she swore at me. He spoke again and Tamara fought me, her fingers clawing at my face. He spoke a third time and Tamara told me she hated me and all we’d done together, that she wanted him, she needed him. A man.

“I held to her, all night. I held her until the first rays of the sun crowned the stones in gold. Tamara slumped against me and we sat there, on the cold ground wet with dew and blood. We sat there, just the two of us.”

Brittany fell silent as the candles shuddered, flickered, pushed nearly flat, blown aside as if from a slammed door. I started but Brittany didn’t flinch, her gaze remained fixed on mine, her hand holding mine against the scar on her chest.

“Tamara helped me, shaking, to my feet. I’d lost a lot of blood, but already the wound was sealed, the scar seared onto my skin, as if it had happened five years, not five hours before. Tamara put her arm around me and pulled me close, holding me up until I felt steady. Once standing, she took the blood-red rose from her hair and slipped it behind my ear. ‘My champion,’ she called me.

“I felt something press between us.‘Sweetheart, I brought your glasses!’ I pulled them from my pocket, but they were broken. One temple bent sideways, one lens shattered. She took them and with a puzzled expression, put them on. She squinted and her forehead creased, and then she pulled them off again. ‘You know, Britt?’ she said. ‘I don’t need them anymore.’ She dropped them to the ground and we staggered back to our inn.”

“Did you report him to the police?” I tried to find a way to bring this story back into the world I knew. “Did you go to a doctor?”

“Tamara called the cops while I slept at the inn. I knew all I needed was sleep, that there was nothing any doctor could do. Of course, all the cops found was my blood and her glasses. No sign of a bonfire, no evidence of dancers. No one remembered the bloke from the pub.”

“You mean they wouldn’t admit to it.”

“No, sweetheart, they didn’t remember. He didn’t want them to.” She shook her head. “But I remember. So does Tam. He marked us, both of us. Have you seen any of Tamara’s work? It’s amazing stuff. The longing he left her with bleeds from her canvases, her statues.” Brittany stopped, frowned. “From her. I love her, you know. Probably always will. But I’m not what she needs anymore. What she seeks. I’ll get an email, every five or six months, that says ‘Wish me luck.’ Then she disappears again.”

It was too much. “No! No way. I don’t believe it.” I pulled away from Britt, made space between us on the bed. “I’m only compelled to love you? How?”

Brittany pulled me back to face her, but I wouldn’t meet her eyes. She reached for my hands and folded hers over them, as if in prayer. “I didn’t credit it at first, how some people had begun to notice me. I’m not beautiful, but suddenly – men and women alike – seemed to think so. Some people who used to dislike me suddenly wanted me. Some who used to like me suddenly avoided me. It wasn’t powerful, it wasn’t constant. But it happened, too often to be a mistake.”

“People like me?” I asked. I was afraid to be caught in her gaze. Instead, my glance fell on the blood-red rose, seeming to glow in the light of the candles.

Brittany didn’t respond to my question. Instead, she placed my fingers again just beside her left breast, where some years before a knife had torn her flesh, leaving behind a small piece of obsidian, just beneath the skin.

© David O. Engelstad, all rights reserved.

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