Marks on Skin
A cat sits on the table before us, the rank smell of formaldehyde filling the air with each second, pale liquid of some kind leaking onto the old baking tray the body is resting on. The two people beside me don’t move either. We just stare at it intently, trying to take in what we had to do. The tools sit before us, probes and scissors and blades. Our hands are gloved, lab coats protecting our clothes from the liquid but not the smell.
“Let’s get started!” Our teacher is calling out to us, clapping his hands and grinning. My boyfriend, Jacob, takes the first action, holding his breath and bringing the blade along the torso of the cat, cutting through the orange fur and tight skin.
The blade that I hold is small, a tiny rectangle half the size of the top joint of the thumb it rests on. I don’t know what I’m doing. I sit on top of my desk, late at night, the remains of a pencil sharpener, the plastic, the screws, and a screwdriver, lined up neatly next to me, no longer needed. I stare at the metal taken from the remains for a long time, tears continuing to fall onto my knees, the bare skin becoming wet and salty. I turn the little silver thing, feeling the edge, staring at it intently.
“Just start,” I whisper to myself, teeth gritted and mind made up. I lower the blade to my skin, dragging it lightly at first, then making a quick, decisive action, cutting through the pale, tear-stained skin.
There is very little I know about skinning a cat. In fact, I know nothing at all about it. We have a diagram and an hour, hoping that things will work out somehow. I’m standing on the right, Jacob in the middle, our other partner on the left. The process is slow, the old, dull knife struggling to cut through the fur. I begin to hack at it with scissors, wet orange tufts falling into my hand. The blade can get through now, one long line down the middle of the creature’s body.
“Come on, Sully.” Jacob is talking to it now, the name he chose based on Boo’s beloved “Kitty” in the Monster’s Inc. I roll my eyes and try and laugh, but nothing about this is fun. People are ahead of us, already exposing the muscle. He’s looking to me for help, but I can’t do it. I know it’s already dead, but I can’t stand the thought of hurting something in this way.
The more times I do it, the easier it becomes. I’m confident now, my eyes dry and head clearing with each appearing drop of blood. I never thought I’d be one of the people doing this, but I can see why others choose it, the results are instantaneous. I can breathe deeply now, the stinging sensation above my knee allowing oxygen to return to my lungs. The pain is not painful at all, nothing like I expected it to be. I always imagined this would hurt more, but it doesn’t. I’m not hurting myself at all.
It’s almost as though my actions are scratching an itch I never knew was there. One that, as soon as I noticed it, wouldn’t seem to go away. I set the metal down, looking at the criss cross pattern I’d drawn. It was beautiful to my broken eyes, bringing my soul back to life, awakening it from the silence and emptiness it had fallen into for so long.
It takes all hour just to expose the muscles on the abdomen and torso, the process slow due to the gentleness required. The whole body is stiff but fragile. One slip would cause damage to structures needed later in the year. The carcass itself is stuck in the position in which it died, arms crumpled up against the chest, legs sprawled and stiff. I hold the arms down so Jacob can work around them.
We’d already slashed through muscle once, a crack spreading across both the pectoralis minor and the xiphilhumeralis, the upper portion of the chest. Jacob frowns at the mistake he made, convinced he ruined the whole cat for all of us.
“Don’t be silly,” I tell him. “It’s one mistake. One mistake won’t make a difference.”
I sit for a long time without moving, looking without emotion at the marks I created. They had done their job, taking away all the pain from within me. I tilt my head to both sides, looking at the lines and blank space, my brain automatically beginning to count the thin red cuts. One, two, three. I take the paper towel next to me and lay it over my leg. Ten, eleven, twelve. The blood leaks through the towel, being absorbed, cleaned up.
The paper sticks to my skin as I peel it away, the shapes of what I completed etched not only on my skin but now on the floral design as well. I wipe over the cuts with the wet paper towel, the skin colored red turning pale again, the lines I made sticking out like the margin on notebook paper. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one. Thirty-one. As I run my fingers over the drying blood, I begin to realize exactly what it is I’ve done. It’s just one mistake though, and it won’t happen again, so it doesn’t matter.
Day two of cat dissections begins with the same hesitation as the day before. Bodies come out of the plastic bags. someone shrieks as the preservation juices splash onto her arm. Trays scrape against the tables as the class prepares to continue. A few kids are working extra carefully, trying to take the skin off in one piece to preserve it for reasons no one is sure of. I stand in my usual spot of the right, still only holding, not cutting. Jacob and our partner doing that.
The mouth of the cat, Sully, is wide open, sharp teeth gripping the dark sponge serving as protection for us. I’m holding the cat’s arms away from its chest, allowing Jacob to cut up the right arm. The sponge falls onto the tray, Sully being particularly feisty about having it in his mouth, refusing to let it stay for more than a few minutes. My arm slips, sliding past the pointed teeth, the canine grazing and etching through my skin. I don’t even look at it, don’t even notice.
I take the band aids from next to me, printed with Avengers, the kind of purchase that happens when my dad and I grocery shop together. I peel open one, the paper wrapping fluttering to the floor like a butterfly. I drop the adhesive covering down as well, lining up Captain America’s shield over the cut leaking the most. Another butterfly flies to the floor, Iron Man covers the longest one. A third butterfly, it’s Hulk’s turn to cover up what I did.
I sit on my desk, feet swinging several inches above the carpet for a long time, focusing on the burning sensation coming from my thigh, breathing in a sigh of relief with each sting radiating across the skin. I close my eyes and lean back against the blue wall, my head bumping into the bulletin board. I can feel everything now, see everything, notice everything.
“Can you do this part? I can’t reach right.” Jacob is holding out the scalpel for me to take, nodding towards the cat’s left arm. The chest and abdomen has been exposed, the muscles of the left arm bare. Our partner is still working carefully on the legs, a tricky business because the skin is very thin in some places. I swallow hard and take the blade from him, pressing it into the orange fur at the inside of the shoulder and tracing a line up to the elbow before going back down and making the actual incision. I work slowly, my chest tightening the more the flesh is pulled back.
Jacob is holding the cat now, pulling the skin away from the muscle, the spider web-like connective tissue stretching across the gap. My hands are starting to shake, my eyes seeing the cat’s arm, but my mind seeing my own leg, the white tissue appearing with each mark I made. I feel my throat tighten, my eyes are stinging. “I’ll be back,” I mutter, dumping my gloves in the trash, my coat draped over my stool.
I slump onto the floor of the hallway, my knees against my chest, the smell of the lab lingering on my clothes. My eyes stare blankly at the sun-stained wall across from me, not able to get the image of my own hand guiding a blade across my thigh out of my mind. I can see the outline of the bandages beneath my jeans, my fingers able to feel the raised marks from each cut, my mind racing back to middle school. Words from so long come to my mind just as they had the night before. “Whatever you do, promise me you won’t start cutting yourself.” The words of that text appear clear in my mind, the words of a close friend of mine just before admitting to self-harming the entire year I’d known her. I’d failed.
I lay down in bed, unable to sleep. What had I done? The action seemed reasonable at the time, logical even. But, as I shift on the mattress, trying to find a position in which my leg wasn’t touching anything, it seems ridiculous and stupid. How was I supposed to hide this? Sure, I was fine for now, but spring would come, they would show then. What would people say about it? What would Jacob say about it? Tears begin to well up as I picture my wonderful boyfriend, his kind eyes and warm embraces. There is no way I can hide this from him, he knows me too well, always lays his hand right there when I sit next to him.
The tears build up more and more. I’ll have to tell him; he’ll find out either way. What is he going to say? He’ll be disappointed, mad even, mad enough to break up with me? I curl my body tightly and slam my eyes shut, forcing myself to think only of the radio playing next to me, to allow myself to sleep. After all, I have a cat to finish skinning in less than eight hours.
Rachel Corley is a Freshman at Cornerstone University pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. She hopes to become a young adult author someday, focusing particularly on topics on mental health. She has been published once before in the “Write Michigan Anthology” as the result of a short story contest.