During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY GARGOYLE MAGAZINE #62
TRIGGER WARNING: implied human trafficking, enslavement, abuse, mention of rape, and suicide.
"Skin-Deep" is incredibly gripping and deeply mesmerizing from start to finish. Shelly's somber narrative voice leads the reader through the unfolding of her tragic life, sucking the reader deep into the unimaginable. This dark tale engrossed me completely, showing the truly spellbinding power of Figliotti's writing. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
Her name had been Shelly for as long as she could remember. But then again, she had been his for as long as she could remember. Her previous life was not important, nor was the name she used to go by.
She was Shelly, and she was his. That was all she needed to know. That was all she had ever known.
When he first came to own her, he took her to a tattoo parlor and told her to agree to whatever it was that he said. She only nodded; following orders was not new to her. Pain was not new to her. He spoke with the tattoo artist—a friend of his, she guessed, judging by the lack of questions that the man seemed to have concerning the art and its canvas—and beckoned her over. The man asked her if she knew what the tattoo process was and if she was ready to begin. Again, Shelly only nodded. Pain was not new to her.
The man who owned her watched as she calmly removed her shirt and bra and laid herself face down on the artist’s table. Her russet hair swirled around her face, resting on the pillow that her head now claimed. The whir of the needle started, loud and low and constant, and she took a deep breath and closed her mind to it. But for the first time, she was brought sharply back to reality by a piercing, dragging pain, so acute yet so overwhelming, on the right side of her lower spine. She was shocked at the pain she felt. This pain was new to her.
For the next few hours—or was it only minutes? or was it days?—Shelly gritted her teeth against the ache that traveled slowly, methodically, up her back with the artist’s needle. Long, straight lines were being etched into the skin that covered her spine, making her want to cry out in pain, though she knew that would not end well for her. She did not yet know the man who owned her, but from what she had seen of him so far, she knew that he was not a man to cross, and he was not a man to forgive.
When the needle reached the back of her neck, Shelly had to bite her tongue to keep herself quiet. She tasted the preface to blood in her mouth and her saliva turned hot and sour. Pain blossomed from the trails that the artist’s tool left in her skin and she took the time to wonder how long it would take for her back to heal. She didn’t even want to know what it looked like, and as long as she never turned her back to a mirror, she wouldn’t have to. She tried not to concentrate on the curves and lines being torn into her unblemished skin. Instead, she concentrated on her new name. Shelly.
It appeared in writing in her mind, and she hated it. It looked stupid to her, and sounded childish. What kind of man was this, anyway, to own her and mark her and call her by a name that belongs to a young girl? Shelly. Her mind was brought sharply back to the pain in her body, the whir in her ear, the taste in her mouth. Shelly.
Finally, blessedly, the whirring stopped. The artist put down his tools and rubbed a joltingly cold gel on the newly stained skin of her back. She winced with a passionate mix of joy and pain—joy from the reprieve of the artist’s needle, which had dug so mercilessly into her skin, and from the healing qualities that she could feel as the aloe seeped into her pores; pain from the harsh mixture of her open wounds and shock of the cold ointment against her feverish skin.
Gently, the artist asked her to stand up slowly, telling her that he would show her to the mirror so she could admire the work of art that her blank canvas had become. She barely heard the pride in his voice that came from creating a masterpiece. With pleading eyes, she looked at the man who had brought her here. He stared blankly back at her, and she truly saw him for the first time.
He was tall, taller than her own five-foot-ten by at least four inches. His dark moustache was trimmed hastily around the top of his small mouth and down the sides, meeting up in a goatee with a strip of facial hair that began below the center of his lower lip and connected in a beard at the chin. His hair was raven black and down to his chest, thin but beautiful, with a streak of blonde that highlighted either side of his pale face. His eyes were a deep brown, chilling and exciting all at once, lower lids lined with a dark smudge. His nose was straight, a complement to his pronounced cheekbones and thick eyebrows.
He wore a fitted black suit jacket that covered a tight black shirt. A thick silver chain graced his collarbone and the base of his neck, shown off by a slight dip in his shirt. His leather fingerless gloves were worn with use, the fingers protruding from them long and clean. The man’s long legs were clad in tight leather pants which boasted silver chains from pocket to pocket. His boots were as black as the rest of him, military style and untied. Shelly swallowed hard as he blinked once, seeming to come out of whatever trance he had been in.
“Get dressed,” he told her, his low voice reeking of an unfamiliar accent that sent chills down her newly inked spine. “We don’t have time for this.” He turned to the artist, handed him some money—quite a lot of it, from what she could see—and turned back to Shelly, who had forsaken her bra and tight blouse in favor of a loose T-shirt the artist had given her. “We’re leaving.”
She followed him out of the small tattoo parlor, reading the instructions the artist had handed her on her way out. Do not pick at the tattoo. Do not scratch or rub the tattoo. Pat the tattoo dry after bathing. Apply ointment daily for seven days. Her bewildered mind struggled to process all of this while simultaneously wondering how on earth she would be able to reach the middle of her back in order to apply the ointment. This was all so new to her.
For the next week, he hardly spoke to her. She had assumed that he would use her in ways that she had been used before: cleaning, cooking, grooming, a quick fuck every now and then. But he asked nothing of her, except to come to his bedroom every morning when she woke so he could apply the ointment to her back. He did it with care, his long fingers sweeping wetly up and down her spine, caressing the raised, blackened skin that scarred her back. She got chills every time he touched her, but she knew she could not show it. A man was a dangerous thing, especially when she didn’t know what it was that he wanted from her. When she left him every morning, his eyes were alive, shining with a hidden pleasure. When she saw him under any other circumstances, they were far off and empty. She got chills then, too.
For those first seven days, it took all of her willpower not to drag her nails across whatever skin on her back her long arms would let her reach, not to slam her back against the nearest wall corner and drag her body back and forth. But she had been warned about what could happen to her new art if she did that, and she didn’t know what kind of reaction that would elicit from the man. And that was something she didn’t want to find out.
The man had given her a room of her own in his house. It was not a dingy chamber in any way, but an actual bedroom. She had a spacious four-poster bed with canopy drapes and a firm mattress, a closet for her few clothes and belongings, an armchair and a loveseat, and a picture window that framed a beautiful little lake and a weeping willow tree. Across from the window was a floor-length mirror that beckoned to her daily, calling at her, begging her to see how the man had marked her as his own. Instead, she would look at her face, her hair, her body, noting that her brunette hair was still full of color, her hazel eyes were still bright with life, her cheeks were still pink, her lips full, her figure a small hourglass. These were the things that kept her sane. These were the things that kept her alive.
She went to him on the eighth morning, expecting to feel the chill of the ointment and the burning of his eyes on her back. But when she walked into the room, he didn’t motion for her to turn around. He didn’t tell her to remove her shirt. He only stared at her with his dull brown eyes, almost unseeingly. Shelly looked back at him, growing increasingly nervous at his lack of participation, debating whether or not to retreat from his darkened bedroom. She had just decided that her presence was not welcome when he spoke to her.
“Does it still itch at all?” He hadn’t spoken so many words in her presence since the tattoo parlor. Shelly shook her head. “Does it hurt?” She shook her head again. “Good.” His eyes began to heat up, though her tattoo was shrouded entirely. She never thought she would see that fire begin to kindle; she had only ever seen it at full strength. His dull, dead look turned slowly into a tight interest, though his facial expression remained the same. Shelly had a moment to marvel at the power that the man’s eyes held before he stood up abruptly, almost tricking her into a startled jump backwards. He began to walk towards her, slowly, staring at every part of her that he could see.
“Do you know why I chose you?” Shelly’s eyes widened; no one had ever asked her that question before. No one had ever spoken to her so softly, yet so dangerously. But then, she reminded herself, she had never belonged to anyone else. She stood rooted to the ground in dumb silence. “Do you know why I had to have you?” She blinked and shook her head. She didn’t trust herself to speak at a time like this. Even the air around them seemed fragile, as though one wrong word would shatter it and send shards of ambiance into their skulls.
“It’s your shape,” the man said, taking another fluid step in Shelly’s confused direction. “Your shape…and your hair. Your hair is like mahogany.” His voice was shaking slightly with anticipation, making his thick accent almost unreadable. He held out a quivering hand towards her as he came within reach of her body. She had prepared for this. Pain was not new to her.
But he did not hurt her. He seemed afraid to even touch her. When he finally closed the distance between them, he lowered his hand to his front pocket and extracted a thin brown ribbon that reminded Shelly of her own hair color. His eyes were on hers now, and she did not look away.
“Turn around, please,” the man said, his now-even voice carefully controlled. She did as she was told, her instincts screaming at her not to turn her back on a man like this, her practiced mind ignoring the warning. She felt expert hands run through her hair, twisting it into a low bun and securing it with the ribbon. The man turned her around so she was facing him and began to remove her shirt. She did nothing to dissuade him, nor did she assist him; this was the kind of man who did things his own way, the kind of man who would tell her when he wanted her to act. Deft fingers blindly unclasped her bra, the leather of his gloves scratching against her scarred back as her mind wandered just far enough that she could still hear his orders and read his eyes.
As Shelly was being undressed, her wandering mind focused on a tall wooden chair in the center of the man’s bedroom. It was ancient and scuffed, a deep oaken color, carved with precision and care. The chair had no arms, no comfortable qualities that the eye could see. Its back was tall and straight and menacing. He led her to it slowly, his eyes still glowing with their secret flame. Along the way he removed his own shirt, revealing tattoos that covered his arms and shoulders and much of his slim chest. His fingerless gloves remained on his hands. He sat in the chair with his back rigid, his right arm worming behind the seat as though it were searching for something. When he brought it back to the front of his body, the man’s hand grasped a long, thin strip of wood that boasted what seemed to be taut, fine white fibers. Horse hair, Shelly realized. She pushed the thought easily away. The man’s legs were spread now and he stared at her intensely, the fire in his eyes hotter now than she’d ever seen it.
She slid easily onto practiced knees, the transition natural, the position comfortable. She knew what would come next—what else could it be? This man had just taken a little bit longer to get there than the others.
The man extracted another long, mahogany ribbon from his pocket and took both of her wrists gently in his left hand. With his right, he wove the ribbon around her slim wrists, tight enough that she couldn’t free herself, not so tight that it cut into her skin. He tied the ends of the ribbon in a careful knot that hung gracefully from her bound wrists. When he looked at her again, she saw raw passion in his wide eyes. The liner that smudged his lower lids seemed to sweat and glow as he slowly raised her arms above her head with his left hand and picked up the strip of wood with his right. And when the music started, a lone sweet string melody, Shelly knew what it was that she had become.
The man drew his bow across her back, sliding perfect symphonies against the silent strings tattooed into her skin. His eyes were closed and his head was tilted back, and she could feel the power that lived inside of him. She could feel it in the grip of his left hand on her wrists and forearms, his swift fingers moving across her skin, pressing down on imaginary strings, moving in perfect time with the music that came from outside of them. She could feel it in the movement of his body as he swayed with the music, swayed with his music, around her body. She could feel it in his legs, firm with years of practice and performance, cradling her curved figure the way a musician held his favorite instrument. For the second time in her life, Shelly was unable to remove herself from her situation. His bow whipped back and forth, frenzied across the instrument that her body had become. She was enthralled by him, enraptured by his fervor, intoxicated by his music. Their music.
She didn’t know how long she knelt there, a tool of passion between his knees. But when the music finally came to an end, the man simultaneously dropped his bow and her wrists and his head sagged onto his chest, his breathing heavy and harsh. For several minutes, Shelly couldn’t even move. She had never been used like this before, never felt so objectified in her entire life. But then again, wasn’t her life with this man all she had ever known?
When he raised his head from his chest, the man’s eyes were dull and empty once more. Drying streaks of wetness traced the skin from his eyes to his chin and he stared at her blankly, registering her presence with a blink. “Please go now.” His voice had lost its tremor and its obvious restraint; he once again spoke softly through his heavy accent. “You will come to me again tomorrow.”
Shelly stood up in one fluid motion, rocking back onto her toes and taking the weight off of her numb, forgiving knees. Head bowed with vulnerability and submission, she grabbed her pile of clothes from the floor and backed slowly out of the room, arms still tied at the wrists with the long brown ribbon. As soon as she heard his door click shut behind her, Shelly let the suppressed tears come forward. She was afraid of this man, a man who could lose himself so entirely to passion, a man who would use her in such an objectifying, terrifying, erotic way, a man who would vandalize her body for his own disturbing obsession.
She walked as quickly as she could without breaking into a run. She didn’t know how good the man’s hearing was, and she didn’t want him to know how panicked she was. He seemed like the kind of man who played with power, and she didn’t want to give him any more than he already had.
When she reached her room, which suddenly seemed suffocatingly large, she threw her clothes onto the loveseat and walked methodically towards her mirror. The mirror that he had planted in her room to taunt her, to tempt her, to distract her from her strong will. Unable to resist the compulsion any longer, Shelly turned her back to the mirror and stared at the terrible beauty that her spine had become.
What was once smooth skin had been transformed into a canvas for an artist’s musical masterpiece. On the left side of her lower back, an S-shaped ribbon had been etched darkly into her skin. It was mirrored perfectly across the spine, creating a symmetrical design that she was sure represented artistic holes in the wooden instrument. From the base of her spine all the way up to her neck were four thin, parallel lines: C, G, D, and A, according to memories of music classes from a previous life. The skin of her back was raw from being scraped with the man’s bow, his musical symphony etched out repulsively in jagged swipes across the new strings that she boasted. A sudden wave of revulsion leapt up the back of her throat, overwhelming her fortitude, her numbness. She barely made it to the small garbage can beside her bed before her stomach evicted everything that it had been holding. After only a few seconds of vomiting food and bile, Shelly could only hold herself over the wastebasket and dry heave violently. She was vaguely aware of a gratitude for the ribbon that held her hair back in a tight bun.
Unable to breathe in the rancid odor of her own vomit any longer, Shelly made her shaky way over to her bed. When she fell onto the comforter it seemed to consume her, too soft and too spongy to support her weight. She sank into the mattress, dreading the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. This was her existence now. She belonged to the man for the rest of this life. And all of it—the skin-deep pain, the overwhelming bitterness, the obsessive symphony—all of it was so new to her.
The following days with the man were much like the first of his physical musical infatuation. Little by little, from the few words that he spoke, she learned pieces of the man’s life. He had been a musician once, a famous cellist. Through him, she learned the specifics and technicalities of bowing a cello. It was rosin, he said, that actually made the sound when the bow scraped the strings. Without rosin on the bow, the strings would be unresponsive to its light touch. It was the rosin that really gripped, the rosin that created that friction, that sound. Not to worry, though. He wouldn’t use rosin when he played her. Not unless she made him.
Though he was becoming more and more talkative as days passed, he became a single-minded machine as soon as the music began. Shelly was transformed into a mere instrument as soon as the first chord was strung. For hours he would scrape his bow across her strings, his fingers finding their places in perfect time with the melody. Her back began to show lasting evidence of his musical escapades across her skin. Raised ridges crisscrossed the back of her rib cage, welting in a way that would take weeks of rest to heal. But he would never rest. He would never stop. For as long as he owned her, he would play her like the beautiful instrument that she was. “It’s your shape…and your hair.” She was his tool, his instrument, his cello. She belonged to him.
Shelly had always been good at numbing the pain. She had always been able to block out her surroundings, her situations, and the men who owned her. She had stayed disconnected from her world for so long that she had forgotten what it was like to be a part of it. But with this man, she found that she couldn’t shut herself off from what he did to her. She was present at every moment of every symphony, every drag of the inked needle, every swipe of the unrosined bow. She had never been so present in her own body, in her own trauma. She had never been so unable to deal with her life. She had never been so desperate to escape.
Finally, when over a month had passed after her first interaction with the man and the artist and the whirring tattoo needle, Shelly knew she’d had enough. She needed to get out of this prison. She needed to escape from the man’s insane obsession with her shape and her hair, his infatuation with the instrument into which she had been transformed. She waited until he was out—where, she didn’t know, nor did she care—and slipped into his dark bedroom. The chill that always accompanied her entrance into his domain slipped in a familiar minor scale down her marked spine. Without wasting any time, she reached behind his straight-backed chair, his cellist’s chair, and grabbed hold of the bow that had played her so fiercely. A token, she thought grimly, and focused her search onto that which she had never seen, but which had been described to her in such meticulous detail that she would recognize it as soon as it came before her eyes. And after only a few minutes of frantic rummaging, she found it: an amber bar, dusty from years of disuse. The rosin. The rosin that really gripped, the rosin that created that friction. The rosin that would save her from this orchestral hell that she had been living.
Carefully, meticulously, Shelly rosined the bow from tip to tip, scraping the brittle cake against the fine horsehairs that had so often caressed and abused her stained back. After thirty swipes with the bow—she had to be sure that the bow would really grip —she put the rosin back where she had found it and looked around the room with dull eyes, eyes that felt like the man’s. She sat in his chair and immediately felt power wash through her. This was where the magic happened. This was where he tore down the strongest defenses any woman could ever have. This is where he made her feel pain and intoxication, all at once, in one destructive symphony. And this was where it would end.
Shelly positioned herself on the edge of the seat, legs spread to accommodate the imaginary cello that she intended to play. With a poise that she had seen in the man countless times, she lifted her left hand to grip the neck of her instrument and positioned her bow hand at the bridge. Her foot tapped the floor remote that controlled the stereo system, and a beautiful, sad symphony began.
It was slow and deep in the cello’s heart, bringing tears to her eyes as she wove the bow back and forth over strings that she could not see and had never played. As her hands moved with the melody, she felt the ghost of the bow weeping across her back, engaging her entire body in this orchestral dance. The music built in intensity and fell, the tone ever deepening, the volume rising and falling with perfected crescendos and decrescendos. As the piece neared its climax, Shelly lost herself to the music. The rosined bow flew higher and higher up the neck of the imaginary cello, the chords becoming more forceful as her hands worked faster and faster. Finally, with a resonating crest of sound, the bow whipped across her neck in its final draw. The man had been right about the rosin—it really did grip.
In her final moments, as her breath came to her in ragged, bubbling gasps, she felt for the first time in all of her lives a moment of peace. It was finally over. This numbness was a gift, something that she couldn’t control and didn’t want to. She would never belong to anyone again. She would never be beaten, she would never be raped, she would never be tattooed and vandalized and used. She was no longer owned. She was no longer an object. She was no longer an instrument. All she would be from now on, Shelly thought, as she sat dying in his favorite chair, was a symbol.
Julia Figliotti is a published writer with a wide range of publications. She has authored several books and articles on creativity, as well as fictional short stories and poetry. She is the co-creator of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Ignite Your Everyday Creativity.
Julia has a Bachelors degree in Writing from SUNY Buffalo State and a Masters degree in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity. She spent several years working with facilitators of scientific workshops to encourage creative approaches and output. Now a full-time writer, Julia works to bring visions to life on paper. She is currently working on publishing her first children's story (which is absolutely nothing like this one).