This is how you live forever.
You cup your fingers under your chin, dig your nails into the soft meat and peel your skin away. First up and over your head, letting it fall on your back like a hood, and then sliding your fingers beneath the skin on your clavicle and slipping the lifted layers of tissue over the curve of your shoulders.
You squirm and shimmy and writhe, curling your skin away from the sticky braids of muscle on your arms, your ribs, your stomach, your hips, your thighs. You let the wet membrane fall in a heap, stepping out of it like clothes. You hide it somewhere dark, somewhere difficult to find.
Your prey can’t see you without your skin, can’t hear you shuffle into their resting places. They sleep quietly as you unlatch your tongue and stab its tapered edge into the throbbing vein of their necks. They won’t make a sound as you gorge yourself on their blood. You float from house to house, drinking your fill, until your tongue is fat in your mouth and your puckered lips cannot close around it.
When you go home you slide into your expectant skin, careful to check for salt. You always check for salt. Others don’t want to see you live forever. Eternity is a coveted thing, even if it’s lonely.
• • • •
This is what they know of you.
“She does suck blood,” they say. “We have stories from the old land.”
The slaves will see the bruised flesh on their necks and know what you are. Sukunyoa. Sukunyante. Old heg. They use many names.
“Nonsense,” the pale men say.
The pale men will not listen. They believe the cold continent invented monsters. You don’t mind their arrogance. You take your fill of them, too.
As they sleep, you hide your sting among mosquito bites. They scratch at the little purple wound when you finish. You watch them through lidless eyes. You smile a lipless smile.
Sometimes you go into their nurseries and kiss the sleeping babies. You stab through their doughy flesh, find their spindly veins. You take just enough. No more.
It’s so sweet. Like sugarcane and tamarind stew. Like mango pulp. Rich enough to last you for days. When you fold your skin back over your tangle of muscle and fat you will see the glow. They are wrong about you, you think to yourself. You are beautiful. You will always be beautiful.
• • • •
This is how you quell your hunger.
You keep lovers.
You enter their wattle and daub slave huts in the dark of night, and they are alarmed at first. But then they see you. They see how you glow. They see your full lips and roll their eyes along your curves as you stand naked before them, and they cannot help themselves. They are under your spell. They touch you, marvel at your smoothness, at how your body gives under their touch.
The men are easy. They are weak in this way. You see the blood move from their eyes straight to their groins. They allow you to have them right away. You straddle them until they cannot bear it. It is over too quickly.
The women are more difficult. But once you have them they remember you. They wait for you to come to them and they unfold themselves at your pleasure. You kiss them, run your hands along their bodies, leave tongue trails on their flesh.
But you remain unfulfilled. The loneliness swells with each encounter.
“Where you from?” your lovers ask when they are lying peacefully in your arms.
“Same place as you,” you say. “I came ’cross the salt sea, smuggled away on a ship.”
“But you’re free,” they say. “How?”
You stroke their hair. “I escaped,” you say.
“How?” they ask again.
You don’t answer that question. You don’t tell them that you can remove your skin. “You can be free too,” you say instead. “The pale men so few. Ah-you so many.”
Later, when the slaves are freed, you find your lovers in downtown Charlotte Amalie, drinking rum until they cannot stand, and it will be even easier. The men will finish far too quickly and the single women will take you home with them. The married women will follow you down to the beach and they will make love to you on the rocks in the moonlight, the waves applauding like a million small hands.
As you leave one of your lovers on Emerald Beach, her body naked and trembling in ecstasy, you finally see it. Your glow is fading. Panic presses in quickly, making you gasp for breath. Has this always been happening, this quiet loss of light?
Time answers you.
One day you look at your hands and you see a blotch of aged skin. Over several years it spreads up your arm and crawls its way across you like a stain. When you undress your skin, you find that the defined ridges of your muscles are growing smooth, blending together. Strands of gray hair start falling out. Your skin becomes an ashen husk, stretched and sagging, its elasticity lost. The blacks of your eyes spread, swallowing everything.
No amount of baby’s blood helps.
The women abandon you first. They don’t like the feel of you, how you grate against them like sand. And then the men, their weakness gone. Not even the drunkards will touch you. Everyone looks upon you like a stranger.
“Old higue,” they say. “Succouyant.” “Wangla lady.” They have so many names.
You don’t need lovers, you tell yourself. Only the blood. You can still live forever. You retreat back to your shanty deep in the bush. You only come out for the blood. You gorge yourself on it, more than you ever did before. Because you are thirsty, so thirsty. And worse, the loneliness has taken you and won’t let go.
• • • •
This is how you learn how you were born.
It happens over a century later. The houses are different, larger, harder to get into. People stay up all night staring at blinking screens, their faces aglow with shimmering light.
You wait for them to sleep and you slip through a window, your muscles smooth like glass. You find them, a man and a woman, lying in bed. They are beautiful and young. Their skin soft, so soft. You touch them and your envy is bitter in your mouth. You want them. You love them. When you kiss the man, he moans. When you stroke the woman’s hair, she eases into you. You unlatch your tongue and stab the man’s neck, and the blood is so sweet you have to steady yourself on your feet. Sweeter than cane juice. Than coconut tart. Than first love.
You start out slow, but then you lose yourself in the blood, in your loneliness. You’ve been alone for so long that your heart is a shriveled thing, and the only thing that will make it right is to fill it up with something fresh and powerful and alive.
When you realize what you’ve done, you are too blood drunk to care. You straddle the woman and plunge your swollen tongue into her and you pull her into you, all of her, as ravenously as you once satisfied your lovers. When you are done, they are empty and you are full, your belly pregnant with their blood. They lie together like mummified remains, their skin clinging to their bones.
You leave through the front door, drunkenly fumbling with new-fangled locks and then you are out into the night air. You speed through the streets and through the bush, almost flying; the blood has made you terribly fast. When you reach your shanty, you drape your stretched skin over yourself, the gray husk hanging off you like rags.
In the morning, you find that your belly is still full—
• • • •
This is how you become shed skin.
She is a normal girl as far as you can tell. Your ruined breasts produce milk for her, and she drinks from them. When she is old enough to eat real food, you hang your skin up and slip from house to house, gathering food and clothes. You don’t drink of the blood. Fear stays your tongue.
While you sleep, she slips through the bush, down winding roads and small alleyways. She returns with scarred steel forks, worn copper keys, and glossy photographs of smiling people frozen in time. She tells you stories about big houses with windows—oh how she loves windows, and how they gleam in the sun and how she can see her glowing face in them.
“People call me bush girl,” she tells you. “They try to catch me.”
You’ve heard worse names. “Don’t go out on your own,” you tell her. “Stay here with me.”
She folds her arms and glares at you. “This place ugly,” she tells you. “You ugly.”
Your shanty is made of wattle and daub, like those old slave huts from the days when you were most beautiful. It is falling apart in places and the roof leaks.
You spend days repairing it because this is all you can do, because you cannot repair yourself.
“It still ugly,” she says.
“What can I do, love?” You try to stroke her hair and she recoils.
“Live like other people.”
“I’m not like other people,” you tell her. She screams at you, hits you with her fists. Your skin crinkles like old paper, pieces of you flaking away.
“I am lonely,” she tells you, and you understand. That you are not human enough to be a companion. That loneliness is in your blood, and now in hers.
You remember a memory you’d chosen to forget: a woman from a long time ago, from across the wide ocean, who wore her skin like a withered cape, and you realize who she was and what you are and what eternity truly means.
One day the girl asks for the blood. She opens her mouth and her tongue uncoils like a snake, its edge needle-sharp.
“So this is where I eat myself,” you whisper to no one.
You teach her how to peel her skin away. You show her where to place her fingers, how to hide the soft pink shell that she leaves behind. You advise her to check for salt on her return, to always check for salt.
“You’ll burn up,” you warn.
You take her for her first blood. You show her where to place her bite, right into the pulsing vein of a little boy’s neck. The boy is not much younger than she is.
She drinks much too fast and she staggers back. You tell her that she doesn’t have to take all of it. She doesn’t require another’s life, only the blood. She nods, but you know that eternity is long and she will someday forget, when her loneliness is too much to bear.
Watching her ecstasy, you feel that old unbearable hunger, the loneliness biting at you, and you give into it, plunging your sharp tongue into the boy’s neck. You take in a gulp of blood and you reel back, gasping in pain, the blood bitter and burning in your mouth.
“What’s wrong?” the girl says absently, still swimming in the blood.
“Nothing,” you say. “I am nothing at all.”
• • • •
This is how you remind yourself you’re still alive.
One night, when the girl is out gorging herself on blood, you hurl off your husk, letting it fall wherever it may.
You go down to the beach, breathing in the salt, feeling it burn in your mouth and sizzle in the slits of your nose. You walk to where the sand is wet and write out your entire life along the shore with your fingers. You confess to everything, holding nothing back, watching the salty tide come in as you do.
When you are finished, you walk to the water’s edge and wade in. You swim until there’s nothing left.