The Flesh Made Word was released yesterday. We're almost at the end of our mini-excerpts. Today's is from "Paper Skin" by Sasha Payne.
It was a bitter morning, dark and biting, and I cursed the moon for her disloyalty as she hid her face behind the dirty clouds. Perhaps the stars were out, I couldn’t tell. A miasma hung over the city in those times like the flies gathered thick above a corpse. Smoke choked from the factories each hour of each day. Black, grey, and sulfurous yellow smoke alike twisted into the air and hung there, contaminating the sky. Grime clung to our clothes, soot clotted in our hair, and stink saturated our lungs.Yet in the crispness before the dawn there was a kind of peaceful tranquility as I limped from shadow to shadow. It was my saving grace, my limp.The army wouldn’t have me, not then, but I was healthy enough to live.
I was heading to Leon’s bakery that morning. Bakers live in the twilight hours and the police, even the dreaded security police, thought little of a baker being at his business in the early hours of the morning. I had no such excuse for being on the street and if stopped, if questioned, I could hardly avoid being forced to tell them the truth. Not something anyone in my position would relish. The thought of it quickened my step until I was fairly hopping down the street—hardly something to lessen the suspicions of any onlookers.
It was crowded in the bakery, not with men but with the smell of fresh baking bread; food was still plentiful then, and I helped myself to a small rye-wheat loaf for my breakfast. I slipped it into my trouser pocket as Leon reached into the cupboard and took out the small box. It was warm in the bakery, which was why I never minded undressing there. I always shivered at first, as the air kissed my bare skin, but then the warmth penetrated and I relaxed. Leon was an old man to me then, more than fifty, with round blue eyes and a thick head of silver hair. Some men grow soft and doughy as they age but Leon was rugged, like teak.
He had huge hands, calloused but not callous, like Leon himself. I watched him take the dip pen from the box and test the nib against his leathery fingertip.Too sharp or too fine and it might pierce my skin. Oh, there would be no tears shed for any injuries, we were at war after all, but it’s impossible to write a letter when you have torn and blotted the paper.
My stomach tightened when I saw there was only Leon there. “Where’s Josef?” I asked.
“Ach, don’t ask questions.” Leon put down the pen and carefully opened the cipher paper.
We changed codes regularly, though I never knew them. The resistance didn’t need me to know them; the scrolls know nothing of the scriptures they bear. Josef said I couldn’t be forced to tell what I don’t know.That was Josef, taking the first step and calling the race won. As our group dwindled, as members vanished in the night, he became frantic about keeping the ciphers secret. As if that was the reason we were being cut down. I couldn’t tell them the cipher but I could tell them the names and addresses of those that could. He never thought of that though.The only true protection was anonymity and we all knew each other. We knew too much about each other, but not the things we most needed to know.
I leant against the countertop as Leon wandered over to me with the pen and the cipher. He was a meandering sort of man who always moved deceptively fast. I felt his left hand rest on my hip and the warmth of his breath against my neck. Leon pressed the nib against my skin firmly, drew it down, withdrew it, and then pressed it against my skin again. In this way, Leon worked across my shoulders and down my back, not stopping until the message was finished and his need fulfilled. Then we dressed me in a shirt of patchwork silks that we had salvaged, the better not to irritate or disturb the message already swelling on my skin.
“To the place in the park?” I asked.
“No, a bookshop by the university. Do you know it?”