The Girl with Two Skins *

by Catherynne M. Valente


On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt,
like a pearl
but not a pearl. You pulled it up
round as a beet from between the mint and the beans
where I had sunk it in the earth,
as though I fished
for loam-finned, moss-gilled coelacanth
at the bottom of the world.
I thought it safe.

I crawl to you on belly henna-bright,
teeth out,
scratching the basil sprouts:
eyes flash phosphor. In the late light,
slant gold light,
you must see
the old tail echo
beneath my muddy dress:
two, three, nine.

I howl against the barking churchbells:
Give it back, give it back,
I need it.


Once I skulked snoutwise through scrap-iron forests,
And to each man with his silver pail scowled:

You are not beautiful enough
to make me human.

I had a fox's education:
rich coffee grounds in every house-gutter,
mice whose bones were sweet to suck,
stolen bread and rainwater on whiskers:
slow theogonies of bottle-caps and housecats.
I crouched, the color of rusted stairs,
and to each boy who chased me
through rotted wheat laughed:

You are not beautiful enough
to turn my tail to feet!

But this is a story,
and in a story
there is always someone
beautiful enough.

In a wood I found you
in the classical way,
a girl in a dress with a high hem,
ribbons in her teeth,
honey on her thumbs.

(Damn all your red hair
just enough like fur,
Damn all your small mouth,
your damp smell,
Damn all your pianos and stitching hoops.
Had I but paws enough to stamp out
your every spoken word like snow!)

Make your waist like this,
indicating curve.
Make your eyes like this,
indicating blue.
Make your face
make your skin
make your clever, clever hands,
make them this way,

indicating civilized,
indicating soft, your own,
your freckled breast linen-bound.

The old vixens, with their scabby,
mushroom-strung claws,
only said to run from boys,
and you looked so thick and pure,
like the inside
of a bone.


I lashed my tail to my waist
in your gold-wood kitchen,
ridiculous in blue silk,
with cornflowers in my ears.
We bent over squash soup and sour cherries,
you put your hands over mine
to show me how to crease dough
over a silver pan.
I bit your cheek at tea-time;
you smelled all day of my musk.

No, you laughed like sugar stirring,
your feet are too black,
your teeth are so sharp!
Can you not stand up straight
in my old dresses
can you not make your flesh
like mine?
Shamed, fur flamed across my cheek,
but you patted it pale with flour and sweet,
and I wept to be savage and bristle-stiff
in such a tidy place,
in such silent, clean arms.

I slept curled
at the foot of your bed,
reeking of lavender and lilac
though I spied no purple field.
I growled at moths that plagued your hair
and woke with every stairwell-creak.
But you brushed back my pelt
with lullabies,
into a long braid that fell
across pillows like shoulder blades.
You showed me the word kitsune
in a book with a long ribbonmark
like blood spilled on the print --
I chewed the page and swallowed it,
and learned there only that
crawling into your arms,
embarrassed by my heat, my wet nose,
was like becoming
a girl with two skins.


This is a story,
and it is true of all stories
that the sound when they slam shut
is like a key turning.

I was sewing, hands two bloody half-paws --
it takes such a long time to
become a woman --
smears of needle-bitten skin,
and you scrutinizing the cross-stitching:
no, no, like this, my love, like mine --
when he came to call, when you
with hair sleek as linseed oil
and my eyes still so black,
still unable to imitate the blue you demanded,
danced with him in our kitchen,
fed him our yellow soups with sprigs of thyme.
He smiled at me, with pomade in that grin,
and walking canes, and silverware,
and spring gloves. I snapped at him,
for a simple fox may still understand her rival,
and know what is expected.

But the recoil! The shrieking of her
the shrinking into his great smooth arms,
the lifting of her blue skirts to keep them clear
of the stink of my fume!

A vixen chews out the throat of her enemies
like stripping bark from a birch;
it is the sophisticated thing.
How was I to know you meant to keep him?

Absurd in my torn dress,
tail bulging free, the muzzle
you tried so to train to lips,
curled back, knife-whiskered,
I stood with blood beating my flesh to drum-taut,
in our kitchen, in our hall,
mange-sodden and mud-bellied,
before the man who was
beautiful enough,
beautiful enough.


It is not possible, you said later,
when I scrabbled at the door he built,
when my skin was blue and bruised,
and there was no russet left in me,
when my nakedness in the snow
was goosepimpled and smelled so damp,
so much like soup
and cherries
and creased dough in a silver pan --
it is not possible to love for long
what is not a girl, sweet nor soft,
nor civilized,
nor trained to tile and mantle-shine,
stray beast in the house,
scolded when she spoils supper
with her hunger,
when her rough tongue spoils
every cultivated thing,
skin and sewing and lavender bed together.

See how tall he stands.
See how gentle his voice.
See how his hands on me never cut.

Then give it back,
I need it,
my pearl
which is not a pearl.
I do not want your shape.
Let me go back
I want to go back.

But you keep it by you,
pretty jeweled thing,
it adorns you as I did not.
The heat of you
warms it like an egg.

I am cold in the evening of blue warnings,
I haunt your garden,
your raspberry rows,
your squash blossoms,
a naked wastrel,
flat teeth chattering.
I hold one arm out to you,
clung with snail-tracked ruin,
keep one over my breasts,
which you taught to be modest.

As the moon comes up
like a pearl,
but not a pearl,
you gather up the mint and rosemary,
and do not see
how I claw with woman's nails
the waist you gave me,
just to make it red again.

* Appearing in A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects.

Listen to Catherynne reading the poem.
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