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Fish Scales

Sometimes sorrow falls into such a deep place it cannot escape.

When Charlie saw the first evidence of vandalism at the summer house—gouges in the front steps, the screen door ripped away and in pieces, the inner door off its hinges and lying inside—he sank onto the porch and wept. It had been a terrible year. This house, which he had been unable to visit in almost five years, was to be a haven.

The vandalism was not typical. He wasn’t sure he could even call it vandalism, as nothing had been taken, and the destruction didn’t seem so much deliberate as incidental.

He studied the front door lying in the entrance. There were prints all over its surface as if it had been walked on many times, but it was hard to say by what. The impressions overlapped in a vague wallowing pattern strewn with sand.

The furniture was pushed into the corners, and plants had been dragged in from the beach dunes several hundred yards away, sea oats and beach grass for the most part, along with cane and broom sedge, mashed around until they’d knitted together into a sprawling nest filling the space. The walls were festooned with streamers of dead Spanish moss scavenged from the nearby magnolias. Water and mud had been tracked in. A few of the floorboards were still wet and rotting and would have to be replaced. Everything stank of the sea.

He cut a long stick and poked around for critters, rattlesnakes, copperheads, maybe a fox or a weasel or a sleeping alligator, or possibly one of the squatters still hiding in the debris. He was vaguely disappointed not to find anything, which meant all that remained were the weeks needed to clean out the house, assess the damage, and make repairs.

It could have been worse. A few chairs and some broken ceramics had to be thrown away. Wall and floor repairs, wood and plaster replaced. There were deep scratches everywhere: in the floor, the wooden furniture, even in one corner of the ceiling. He had no idea from what. He spent days puttying, filling, staining, and painting. He kept the windows open and the smell slowly dissipated, but he could still detect its presence in random locations, at the bottom of a drawer or the back of a closet, underneath the bed.

Charlie hadn’t done such work in years and it exhausted him. He took frequent breaks to sit on the porch and read from magazines he’d collected during his wife’s final illness. “Skin Hungerwas the title of this particular article. He’d never heard the expression before, but he certainly knew the feeling. He read with growing embarrassment how touch is the first sense we acquire, how in experiments baby monkeys chose emotional nourishment over food, how infants who weren’t held enough sometimes stopped growing and died, how that physical ache for another person’s touch—he threw the magazine on the trash pile. The sub-tropic climate in coastal South Carolina wasn’t a good place to collect magazines. After awhile they began to smell.

Charlie hadn’t much cared for the summer house when they first bought it. It was a ruin that would require years of work. He’d never found the ocean soothing, and the television reception was nonexistent. But Linda wanted this place badly, and Charlie would have done anything for her. Over twenty summers he designed rooms and built furniture exactly the way she’d wanted them. He got used to turning on the TV only so they could watch movies on the VCR. She always followed the stories better than he would have expected, but he had to describe the non-speaking parts for her. He enjoyed the task and became quite good at it. He also came to like the white noise of the ocean on their long afternoon walks.

“If you want to marry, you’ll have to find yourself a blind woman.” His father told him that when Charlie was just 15. The old man wasn’t trying to be cruel. He was a simple man trying to give his son practical advice.

When Charlie told his wife the story, waiting a year into their marriage because he wasn’t sure how she’d take it, Linda hugged him so fiercely he thought he might break. Then she laughed. “Well, I guess he was half right.” Linda wasn’t completely blind, but blind enough.

Charlie was born with Ichthyosis vulgaris, “fish scales.” He had a relatively mild case, mainly on his forehead and the left side of his face, the palms of his hands. More severe cases sometimes involved the whole body, so he considered himself lucky. He used ointments and a sponge to remove scales every few days.

Much of the past year Charlie woke up with blurred vision. Sometimes the blurriness lasted until lunch or after. He worried it might be a new progression of his disease, but not enough to see a doctor. He’d had his fill of doctors. They wouldn’t tell Linda how long she had, though he was sure they knew. None of their treatments worked and they promised her she wouldn’t suffer. They lied.

Some days there was ambiguous movement in his peripheral vision. Turning his head, he couldn’t find it. Maybe whatever it was had a talent for stealth.

He speculated whether this disturbing inexactitude was the way Linda saw things. She could see the individual leaves on trees, although her doctors said that should have been impossible. But she couldn’t make out facial expressions unless she was extremely close, so she usually touched or held onto him when they talked. He’d gotten so used to that it seemed the only reasonable way to have a conversation.

At least once an afternoon he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and splashed water over his face. Sometimes it helped. “Wake up!” he’d say to the mirror. “You need to wake up.” There were nights he fell asleep wondering if he’d be blind the next morning.

If he could see well enough, he’d recreate those long walks to the cove at the end of the trail. It had been Linda’s favorite thing. At one time it might have been a wonderful spot for sunbathing and swimming, a private hideaway tucked away behind the rocks. But it hadn’t been kept up. Thick underbrush grew almost to the shoreline and the water looked a nasty green. Some days you could see a film floating on top of the water, translucent and sac-like, a container with things moving around inside. He didn’t like to swim under the best of conditions. No chance he’d venture into this.

From the summer house the trail meandered among the pepperbush, oleanders, and cabbage palms to the cove and a bit beyond. Each time he walked it he searched for signs of disturbance. The environs looked pretty much as he recalled from five years before, but the path was a little wider than he remembered, and swept relatively clean, as if subject to a regular stream of traffic.

He was surprised by the scarcity of wildlife. In summers past he and Linda had seen fox along the path, the occasional wild pig, and closer to the water brown pelicans, herons, gulls, osprey, plover, and on the beach itself a few ghost crabs. He’d point them out and describe them the best he could, researching the animals to do a better job for her. But since he’d been back no animals of any kind had made an appearance, not even the smaller birds.

Maneuvering through the world with his blind wife had been a kind of dance. Linda could see well enough in the city the regular landmarks and her cane skills kept her from getting lost. But out in this semitropical landscape she needed his arm and his elbow to guide the way. Now he thought he might have taken the closeness, the grace of it, too much for granted. Some days he missed it desperately.

Sometimes on these walks by himself Charlie thought he could hear voices in the tall grass, or in the trees, or somewhere in the curtains of vine, and he pondered if they were from those missing animals, their voices distorted because of some barrier or illness. They sounded like people speaking an unfamiliar language. He reminded himself the human brain makes things up all the time.

One afternoon when he got back from his walk, he noticed how flattened the vegetation was around the sides of the house. Investigating further, he observed the flat areas were more pronounced beneath the windows, and there were scratches in the siding, broad trails of grit and something oily leading up to the sills. He couldn’t remember if he’d checked here before. Now he felt he’d been irresponsible.

Over the next few days Charlie experienced several flare-ups of his disease. This sometimes happened with a change in environment, or from added stress. The scales had not increased their spread on his face, but they felt thicker, and at times they cracked so badly he had to use heavier creams, and the areas burned as they hadn’t since childhood.

With the flareup of his symptoms he wasn’t surprised by the increased intensity of his dreams, swimming with fish and gazing eye-to-eye, fascinated by how their armored flesh kept the liquid within separate from the liquid without. Someday he knew they would lose that barrier completely, becoming all eyes and fleeting movements. Attuned to the most subtle indications of danger—a temperature change, a shift in the spectrum or angle of light, some vaguely perceived failure in the environment—they swam unbothered through their silent domain. He woke up with the sun blurring his vision, his scales ablaze from their first contact with early morning light.

In the months after Linda died, Charlie hid in their city home, avoiding people, even old friends. He never answered the door or the telephone. He didn’t want to be around those who’d known her, who’d want to talk about her, who wanted to ask how he was doing. Some days the doorbell ringing and the telephone ringing felt so abusively persistent he took to his bed and stuffed wax plugs into his ears.

Neighbors and friends came to the house, beat on the doors, tapped on the windows, walked around the outside calling his name. Finally, the police came to his address to do a welfare check and forced their way inside. Everyone wanted to talk to him about Linda, but that was the last thing Charlie wanted. That’s when he sold their city home and moved here.

Most nights at the summer house Charlie stayed up late, all the lights turned off as he sat on the porch in the dark, staring and listening. There was usually moonlight, so the open area in front of the house had a silver radiance. And there was always movement out in the brush, just beyond his ability to see. But he could hear it, the branches brushing together, the leaves murmuring, the occasional rustle of the grasses. All those missing animals, he supposed, or the fish having grown legs and come to visit. Or maybe just wind. When he was a little kid he imagined lizards were just a kind of fish with legs, but his mother told him that many of them were related to the birds, and their scales related to feathers, which both thrilled and disturbed him. Flying lizards could do a world of damage, he’d imagined, if they decided they weren’t your friends.

Deep in the night he was awakened by some sound, a temperature change, a shift in the spectrum or angle of light, some vaguely perceived failure in the environment. He kept his eyes tightly closed in case someone was in the house watching him, and strained to listen, seeking auditory clues as to whether he’d heard the usual house sounds, or if something else were at play.

It was difficult to tell. Anxiety made him breathe harder, and sometimes he could hear his own heartbeat as a throbbing pulse in his ears, and he knew from experience occasionally when he woke up he was still half-sleeping, still chasing the tattered ends of a dream.

He heard another sound, a kind of shifting, followed by a pause, and then another shifting. He thought about chancing a quick peek at his surroundings, raising his head ever so slightly from the pillow. He tried to open his eyes but could not. As sometimes happened, they were glued shut by sleep. He didn’t want to lift his hands to rub them. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself at all.

After some effort he was able to part his eyelids enough to see something, a glimmer of ambient light, of shape and shadow. Once or twice he detected a smooth glide of movement, something pulling itself out of view, but it still might be his eyes caught in sleepiness, still adjusting to the dark, and he was imagining he was seeing more than he was physically capable. Maybe he had become the blind one.

He remembered how Linda’s doctors said she was always able to see more than she should have. Her doctors said she saw the almost impossible.

Charlie remained perfectly still, measuring what he could see in slices, maybe for hours. He wasn’t sure what kind of impression he was trying to make on whoever might be watching. When he was a kid, he imagined the night creatures might think him dead if he lay still enough, and so they wouldn’t bother him. The logic of this now escaped him. A dead body was easy prey.

Around dawn there was a clear change in the tenor of things. The shadowy movements increased, and there was a nebulous smell, not entirely unpleasant, which Charlie associated with hurry, or maybe the fear of being caught.

His own body, however, was working against him, as he desperately needed to pee. At his age the urge could only be put off for so long without an embarrassing accident. When he couldn’t put it off any longer, he sprang out of bed, arms waving, shouting “Ah!” at the top of his lungs. He staggered into the bathroom, still not seeing all that well, but aware of fuzzy movement around him, perhaps trying to get out of his way. Of course, he was highly agitated, and kicking clothing and bed sheets around, so any sense of other occupants in the house might be pure delusion.

As he sat there, he rubbed his eyes with both hands and felt bits of something coming off, tissue or dried material or flakes. He held them in his palms and blinked. When he was able to see clearly, he studied them. It was bits of his skin, his scales, his fish scales. But larger, flatter, more delicate than usual. He took one and held it between thumb and forefinger up to the bathroom window. It was iridescent, like a butterfly wing or a fish’s scales. Something dark floated across the other side of the window, a bird taking flight or something falling off the roof.

Later he walked through the house, examining everything. He wasn’t sure, but some furniture appeared to have been moved, some things lying on the floor he’d last seen on tables, and the front door was open a few inches. Charlie couldn’t remember a time he’d failed to lock the front door. In the kitchen he found those nasty wallow prints again, on the counter by the sink.

He got dressed and left the house, heading for the cove. Along the way he saw random gouges in the sandy path, broken branches, and smashed plants near the edges. He didn’t know if these disturbances were recent, or if things had been like this for a while.

When he got to the narrow beach he stopped and stared at the spread of open water. The water itself was still a variegated green, but the film had been disrupted. Sections had been torn, allowing tangles of dark marine vegetation to well up from below and spread across the surface. As he looked along the shore, some of this dreary vegetation appeared to have been dragged out of the water. From the curled pieces of film, it was obvious how substantial the membrane over the water had been—inches thick and rubbery looking. At the edge of the beach directly opposite him, something thin and bony with flappy bits, resembling an old piece of filthy insulating foam with sticks attached, appeared to be trying again and again to pull itself out of the water, finally disappearing beneath the surface in defeat.

Charlie waited. He could hear the breeze moving through the grass and brush around him. He could smell the growing stench of the sea. He couldn’t hear any birds, or any other kind of creature. The skin on his face burned, as did a few random spots on the palms of his hands. When he held them up those spots glistened like jewels buried in his flesh. But here and there blood welled, and the ache he felt could no longer be denied.

During those last few weeks of Linda’s life, he was helping her in and out of the shower, washing her, brushing her hair, even brushing her teeth—such a delicate operation to brush someone else’s teeth. This was before she became too weak to get out of bed. Sometimes she’d ask for lotion or for him to massage a sore muscle, and that was practically the only time she spoke, until that afternoon shortly before the end, when she’d asked him, “Who is going to take care of you after I’m gone?”

The remainder of that day she became so quiet and passive, unlike her usual self, as if part of her had already passed on. He remembered the way the light fell on her, the shadows and the highlights making of her face an expressionless mask.

What was left of her was pale, with shadows under her eyes, under her chin, reinforcing the subtle impression of her ribs. At a certain point light appeared not to stick to her. And then a few days later, those men in their dark formal suits were carrying her out of the home they had shared for nearly forty years.

He made his way back to the summer house, climbed onto the porch and gently eased himself down. He stretched out and stared at the roof supports overhead. They were badly warped. He thought maybe he had forgotten to paint them. Clearly, he shouldn’t stay at the house anymore. He should call someone, maybe at the natural history museum. He didn’t know if South Carolina had a natural history museum, but didn’t every state have some such institution devoted to the mysteries of the natural world?

He could check himself into the hospital for rest and recovery. Stress only exacerbated his condition. He hadn’t seen one of those specialists in years. Maybe progress had been made. Maybe he could get these scales removed entirely.

He moved his head around on the rough boards trying to get comfortable. He kept glancing over there by the chair where he’d kept the magazines. He felt like reading something helpful, but maybe he’d already thrown everything helpful away.

Some of his skin burned, and some was cold to the touch. It didn’t feel like his own skin. He used the hand with the fewest blemishes to vigorously rub the other arm, massage warmth and life back into it, but it didn’t seem to help.

Charlie was having trouble seeing again. Ambiguity encroached from every side. A membranous veil dropped over his eyes.

He could hear them moving around, going inside the summer house, surrounding him. They smelled of ocean and sun and dead things, but when they finally touched him, he did not shy away, not even when they began touching his face, or his scales.

The way they caressed his face, he considered they might be blind. They read him like he was braille.

Originally published in Black Static, Issue 80/81.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. He has published over five hundred short stories in his forty-plus year career. Some of his best are collected in Thanatrauma and Figures Unseen from Valancourt Books, and in The Night Doctor & Other Tales from Macabre Ink.