I’m telling you this so you know: I don’t remember when I started eating myself.
You should remember something like that. It should be a moment, one of those that you carry around forever, a line that you cut across your life to mark before, when everything was one way, and after, when everything was different. I don’t remember discovering it like a secret formula or an equation that explained the universe. I don’t remember discovering it at all. I’m not sure it was discovery. I think maybe it was something that grew, that asserted itself, learning without meaning to learn, like walking or speech. You’re made of things you can take to pieces, and those pieces can be eaten. The truth is that you’re made of meat.
I do remember what I did with it. When I realized there was something to be done. I remember that very well. There’s a world with someone in it, and a world without them. If it happens right in front of you, that’s sort of hard to miss.
I carry these things around with me. I’ve been trying to say them for years, so if you don’t mind.
There are all kinds of things you don’t hear.
• • • •
What you need to understand is that this kind of magic persists because it works. It doesn’t work in large ways, in obvious ways; it’s not showy and it’s not out to impress anyone. This kind of magic is like a path through the night or tunnels beneath an occupied city, supply lines for resistance and the movement of agents. This kind of magic is the slender, fragile reclamation of power. When it’s done right no one notices it’s there. I’ve gotten very good at hiding it. But I was very clumsy, then, and even if it worked people saw too much of it, and that blunted its power.
It takes years of practice to know just how to destroy yourself. Just how much to pick away. Just how much to gnaw off. Just how much to cut.
What you need to understand is that I can’t change anything. I couldn’t protect myself then and I can’t now. What you need to understand is that this has never been about anything but the sheer pleasure of survival.
• • • •
Here’s what might have been the moment. It could have been any way, any time, somewhere between the number five and the number nine; it could have happened like this.
There’s a healing scratch; the unevenness of it is pleasant, and the realization that fingernails slide so very neatly under its surface. It takes almost nothing to pull it away, and the blood wells up like liquid garnets, and it’s so pretty, and there’s something that washes over you then like slipping into a warm bath, and your breath comes easier, and you sag against everything.
And it comes to you that there’s power in this, because just as you slip down, you slip sideways, and you see things you didn’t see before. There are bones under the world, and now they’re in front of you, and they rattle and dance. Grasses are deep jungles, streams are mighty rivers, here is the broken ground by a creek, and it’s a massive gorge through which that river flows. Everything small is abruptly enormous and dramatic, and you can lose yourself in it. The sky flips sideways. Gods lurk in the branches and concrete and in all the machines, and polished stones whisper stories from when their melted hearts cooled, and they tell you everything they learned from their shaping rivers. You see everything that might be. You see the filthy, churning story factories. You see the eyes in the storm drains. Fuck your city-beneath-the-city bullshit, your vampire private detectives and your werewolves tending bar, because I’ve seen it.
You dig and dig, and suddenly there’s a hole in you through which your spirit pours. You eat of your own flesh and drink of your own blood, and it’s the deepest kind of communion.
And if they see you, they wait after school until you’re ten minutes from home, and they pelt you with stones. What you’ve found can’t protect you. But it seems like it just might be worth it.
• • • •
So there was that day when he followed me home from school, backed me into a corner of the afternoon, using his chest like a battering ram pulled back and ready to break through.
Put yourself here. See. It’s amazing how everyone just disappears at moments like that. Crowded neighborhood full of kids headed toward home, but then the part of space you occupy is sealed off and it’s just you and him, and you’re bargaining, begging, dragging down the sleeves of your shirt, remembering that he came after you on the playground and feigned a kick to make you flinch, that he laughed and leered in your face, that you looked up at him and thought about the scabs on you like dinosaur scales. You thought about peeling it all away and revealing claws and pebbled lizard skin, and you thought about tearing his belly open with your toes and spilling his guts on the blacktop and screaming at the overcast sky while everyone else took their turn to run and the useless lunch monitors vomited against the wall of the gym.
Just a note: That was a spell that never worked. I did try. Don’t think for a second that I didn’t try. Even magic spun from torn flesh has its limits.
You make bargains in moments like that. I think we’ve all been there. For weeks, trying a variety of ways home, creeping along like a deer heading for water, ears and tail pricked. Never the same way two days in a row, but he found me, and I didn’t understand exactly why it was so terrifying, being alone and small in that blocked-off space with him, but I offered him secrets.
Never mind what they were. Secrets are powerful. That’s one thing I’m sure as hell not telling you.
He wasn’t the only one, the first or the last, and when I talk about him I’m talking about them all, some of whom I remember and many of whom I’ve forgotten, but I’ve never forgotten what he said.
That’s not enough.
• • • •
Let’s leave him for a moment. Let’s take some inventory.
Match-heads work well. Just blow them out, press them against the inside of your arm—it’s exquisite, though you don’t get the satisfaction of feeding on the burns until after they’ve scabbed over. There’s a pulse in the world, and you can watch it spread outward from those red, glowing spots, encasing you in a translucent shell. It never lasts, but it’s better than nothing.
Unfolded paperclips work wonderfully, more slowly; the face of a wound parts like a smile and drools blood and clear plasma, and in that world that only you can see it steams like incense offered to a god. Gods respond to that kind of offering, and they gather silks and beautifully dyed wool around your heart. Clippers for nails, cuticles—these are delicate tools, a little too delicate and also a little too easy, because no magic ever comes without effort. They can make openings, beginnings, but then other things have to take over.
No needles or knives. They are too sharp, too clean. The best tools for this kind of work have edges that are ever-so-slightly blunted, that require commitment to use. Of course, fingernails are the best. They’re always the best, ever-present and reliable, the claws I was born with even if they aren’t the claws I wanted.
I’m telling you this so you know, but I’m not expecting you to be able to use this information. I can reach through this membrane and touch you, but I don’t think you can really touch me. These are only scars to you, and all you ever saw was a strange little child who walked like a ghost through the world, looking for something without having the slightest idea what it was. More and less real both at once by virtue of spilled blood.
Ghosts don’t bleed. I do.
• • • •
They used to burn witches, didn’t they?
• • • •
There’s something about skin, something supernatural. Not to say that it’s magical or ghostly—though it is both of those things—or that it contains a power in and of itself, and that power magnifies when removed from a body—though it does. Skin is supernatural in that it connects, like a thin tendon, to everything part of but also above the natural. Skin is cells, hair, sweat, the potential of blood. Skin is sensation, an experience of what is. Skin is a lightning-spark network of a sensory organ, explicable and yet not at all.
Remove skin and see what’s beneath. See how it all fits together. Understand the structure of something when that structure breaks down, and follow its slashing power lines to their source. I spun my first magic from the stuff of what I was, torn away because I could spare it. But I began because, like all of us, I had something I was trying to get away from.
Then I found other reasons.
• • • •
Let me tell you what I wish I could have said, when they saw the blood and the pits in my flesh and tried to get me to stop, because everyone knows little kids shouldn’t do this shit to themselves. Let me tell you that when you discover a direct line into the fabric of the universe, it’s very difficult to just leave that alone. Let me tell you what it’s like to wear every mark like a secret ornament that only you find lovely, and to hate them at the same time because of what they’ll mean to everyone else, so you hide them as best you can with long sleeves and shadows, but they always see in the end. Let me tell you what it’s like to make blood magic, real magic, because packed under your fingernails the world loses its power to hurt you anymore. Let me tell you what it’s like to run pain through a complex refinement process that makes it chocolate and warm sheets and dappled summer sunlight. Let me tell you what it’s like to select your instruments of sorcery according to their sharpness and keen edges. Let me tell you what it’s like to be a witch in junior high school. Let me tell you. Shut up and let me talk.
• • • •
I wish I could get this into words. None of them are coming out quite right. I want to tell you what it’s like to have magic in your skin. Sit down beside me and let me illuminate all my scars, let me tell you all my many early names. No, they weren’t bestowed like honorable titles, and they hurt worse than the actual wounds, but they dug into me just like everything else, and I have them still. Not all scars are the kinds you can see. Not all scars are beautiful. A changing body is a dangerous thing; a body that can be changed is more dangerous still. All these little bodies, all this potential, and imagine if they all found out how to take hold of it all at once. Every single beaten-down body, rising in angry flames.
God, we would have been terrifying. Can you imagine? Can you just imagine that? There’s a reason why we send children off to war.
• • • •
Here’s one for the spell books: the potential of blood is sometimes more powerful than its presence. It’s a fine line, drawn between intention and desire, but it’s there if you know how to look. If you know how to walk along it, careful not to tip one way or the other. That moment before the capillaries rupture, before the pale flush of the fighter cells and the stacking of the platelets. Then there is a cycle of rebuilding, destruction, and rebuilding again.
Bodies are very persistent. They don’t take no for an answer. If you can grab hold of that, it’s like getting a tiger by the tail and teaching it to bring you the hearts of tender lambs.
• • • •
That’s not enough.
Okay, motherfucker, I’m enough. You know what? I’m enough. I’m the baddest bitch around, there’s razorwire in my blood, I can clap my hands and summon an army of ravenous corpses from the cracks in the pavement, I can throw my tennis shoes over the telephone wires and turn them into a murder of hungry crows. I can spread my hands and break the world open, release one hundred thousand-eyed seraphs to see your soul to ruins. I have a wolf’s bite; I have a pack at my heels. My mothers were harpies and furies, my sisters were the Morrigan, my daughter will be fucking Kali. My grandmothers burned but saw me to birth in centuries of ash, and it doesn’t matter that I always run away, and it doesn’t matter that I’m trying to drive a devil’s bargain with a grunting, sweating fifth grader, and it doesn’t matter that you made me cry all those times before, because you think I’m not enough? You piece of shit? I can roll up my sleeves and tear off my skin and make you fucking cease to exist.
That could have happened. It could have.
I’m telling you this so you know.
• • • •
What I won’t tell you is whether or not they ever found him. I won’t tell you if it happened all at once or little by little, slowly enough for him to scream as he lost his limbs, his heart, his tongue. I won’t tell you whether I cried at what was happening or just watched, impassive, or whether I laughed and clapped my hands. I certainly won’t tell you whether or not I ran away. I certainly won’t tell you if I bargained in the end. I won’t tell you if it all failed, if I can only look back and rage, if I’m just lying to myself even now and all I have left is stories and those lies and where my feet could take me.
We’re always making bargains, is the thing. We forget them, but they happen. Secrets for life. Flesh for power. Blood for knowing. No one had to teach me these things. I learned them from being in the world. But even if you don’t ask for something like that, it has a price.
• • • •
I don’t curse crops. I don’t cause children to be born sickly or deformed. I don’t bring plagues of rats. I’ve never stolen the breath of a baby while it slept. I can’t travel in chill night winds. I can’t give you a potion to catch the heart of your true love. I can’t read the stars, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. There are all kinds of things I can’t do. I count my marks and take stock of my little magic, my flesh-and-blood magic, and I think I only have so much of both to give.
And I’ve given a lot to get this far. But I’m still here.
And I’m telling you this so you know.