Published by Paisley Chapbook Press 2012 Editors: Charlotte Bondy, Katie Connell, Pearl Chan, Mollie Winter.
Una ISBN 978-0-9917290-2-9
ÂŠCopyright Marie Solis 2012 All Rights Reserved
Art by Allie Bartlett ÂŠ Copyright Allie Bartlett 2012 All Rights Reserved
Published in a Limited Edition of 50 copies hand numbered and signed by the author and artist. /50
Una Finch slipped into the world purple and bloody, emerging from between her mother’s legs with all her ten fingers and ten toes, and a squashed ski-jump nose. For the first five minutes of her life she was handled by several pairs of latexcovered hands that severed her umbilical cord, measured her height and weight, and noted down the color of her skin and the rate of her pulse. She was a healthy baby weighing in at seven pounds, with a heartbeat that exceeded one-hundred and eleven beats per minute and, when wiped clean, skin that was as pink and, in some places such as her axilla, wrinkled as the petals of a new rose. She was judged a healthy baby and the nurses gave her mother to hold for a few moments before rushing her off to the nursery. It was the worst thing to do: when the new mother held her newborn in her bare arms she began to shake uncontrollably, turn blue and struggle for air. “It’s the baby,” she gasped. In three seconds the new mother was dead. Everyone in the room watched the baby flail and cry in her dead mother’s slack, pale-blue embrace before a brave nurse stepped forward to bear her away in a blanket while another scurried out of the door to give Una’s father his due condolences, and congratulations.
Joseph Finch was young. A philosopher by profession, faithful to Ockham’s razor. He firmly believed in reducing complex concepts into their essences. He believed in living life by the fewest assumptions and risks possible. He had never been a widower before and now he was the father to an untouchable child. Before the doctor gave Joseph his daughter—who had been swaddled within several layers of blue blankets—he warned that Joseph must not touch any part of the baby’s skin. “Cover it all up with non-porous clothing when you raise her,” the doctor advised him. “Except for her face—of course.” Of course, Joseph thought. He could see her stir within the blankets, her tiny face barely peeking from the crushed blue folds. She will still need her eyes, ears and nose, to see, hear and breathe with. In this respect, at least, his daughter was still human. Joseph wept as he held Una to his chest for the first time. Joseph kept Una at home as she grew up. She was never allowed outside to play with the other children her father’s philosophy books became her playthings. These were books that were virtually unreadable, books with long and sprawling titles such as Being And Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Una piled them on top of each other to build forts and castles. As she grew older, Una flipped through these same books struggled through the fortresses of words and paragraphs that attempted to explain things such as being, self and identity.
She was rarely allowed outdoors. When she did venture outside, it was always under the supervision of her father who kept her close with a firm grip on her gloved hand. Joseph was always driving her to this geneticist, or that neurologist— whatever it was that happened to take a keen interest in her at the time. His daughter’s condition confounded and fascinated men and women of the scientific persuasion. For several weeks after her birth they had kept her in a neonatal incubator in the ICU. Joseph visited every day to watch her through the glass as nurses, all with every inch of their skin covered, measured her and administered blood tests. Once, the doctor carefully scraped off some of her skin cells from inside her cheek with a cotton swab to see if they were any different from other people’s cells under a microscope. They weren’t. Toxicologists later took a great interest in Una, keeping the prepared slides of her dissected cells reverently stored away in their labs and offices as if they were relics that once belonged to a long-dead saint. On some of Una’s birthdays her father would take her out to a restaurant where he would have the remote corner booth reserved, with all the dishes pre-ordered, ready and waiting. Joseph made sure a pitcher of water had been prepared beforehand, to spare the possible scenario of a waiter actually serving them food and accidentally, somehow, coming into contact with his daughter’s skin. Father and daughter would across from each other as Una ate her birthday meal in silence. Joseph did nothing but watch her with his hands clasped together. Sometimes he would
imagine that it was his wife sitting across from him instead of Una, blowing him a kiss after the meal with a red, rosebud mouth. There was never any cake. There were no candles that would mark how many years Una would be turning. How many years it had been since Joseph’s wife died. When Una was thirteen, perhaps fourteen—no one knows, for certain—she stood in front of a full length mirror for an hour, looking at herself. Her narrow torso swaddled up in a snarled, wool sweater. Her bony hips and slim waist swallowed up by a great corduroy skirt that reached her knees. Her hands sheathed within a pair of green opera gloves that once belonged to her mother. Am I beautiful? Una stared with red-rimmed eyes at the girl in the mirror. She was tall, wisp-thin and pale. Her black, hip-length hair curtained her long face. Am I looking at something pretty? When her father found her, he stopped to watch his daughter look at herself. “You’re as beautiful as your mother would have been when she was your age,” he said. Una ran long fingers through her bedraggled hair with its spidery split-ends. “You don’t know that. You don’t really see me,” she said. “Nobody can.” “I see you, dear Una. Your doctors see you.” “Doctors aren’t people. And if they are, they still can’t see me. No one does.” Her father said nothing, but only looked at her with shadowed eyes. Una turned to face him, and thought him as ugly
as her own reflection: her father who was also tall, wisp-thin and pale with knobbly elbows and thinning black hair. I must look more like him than I do my mother, she thought. Joseph was the first to turn his head away. As he left the room Una thought she heard him mutter: “let’s hope that no one will ever have to.” That night in her bedroom Una pulled her right opera glove down to her wrist where she had wound a piece of chicken wire. She uncoiled it. The skin below the wire had puckered into bright crimson welts. If she titled her head at a particular angle, she could easily imagine that these welts were angry red roses blossoming over her flesh. She paused to grimace at them, to admire them, before winding the wire around her arm all over again, tighter than it had ever been before. It would give her something else to think about. Once Una coiled the chicken wire tight enough that the raw skin beneath it ruptured and bled. She panicked, rushed to the bathroom sink where she tried to wash the blood away. Her father caught her and saw with his own eyes what his daughter had been doing to her own skin. “My poor child,” Joseph said tenderly as he ran a small blue towel underneath a stream of cold water and wrapped it carefully around her bleeding wrist. He sat her at the edge of her bed and, with gloved hands, dipped her wrist in a basin of freezing water, before he dried it and covered it in gauze. Una, who had been very still as her father tended to her wound, held her wrist out. “Will you kiss it for me?”
Her father looked intently at her wrist before he bowed his head and kissed it lightly through the gauze. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Una said quietly. “It wasn’t, dear Una.” “You could have kissed me when I was a baby, all the time, through all my clothes. Whenever I hurt.” Joseph paused before answering. He paused to think of—of all things—Ockham’s razor. “It was always simpler not to kiss you at all.” The townhouse they lived in was cold throughout the year, even in the summer. The heaters never worked: Joseph never bothered to have them repaired, being too preoccupied in his study with his philosophy, desperate for answers to all of Life’s Unanswerable Questions. The perennial coldness of the house was, perhaps, the reason for the sickness that Joseph later succumbed to when Una was nineteen. The muscles of his limbs became flaccid, and lesions erupted all over his skin. Pus trickled out of them and gangrene settled in, turning his flesh into a shade of pea-green mottled with patches of urine-yellow. He stank and stewed in unwashed clothes and cried out the name of his dead wife in the night. When Una summoned the doctor to make a house call, he looked at the young woman and asked if she had any inkling of what had caused her father’s illness. “Not me,” Una said. “People don’t die a slow death when I touch them. I think it was the cold.”
Joseph was subsequently borne away to the same hospital where Una had been born and her mother had died. For weeks afterwards he lingered in the precipice between life and death as he was tested upon, measured, monitored by doctors who, finding absolutely nothing that they could cure and put right, threw their hands up and declared that there was no hope for him. Una walked to and from the hospital every day to visit her father. The world outside her house seemed so vast Una was afraid that her lungs wouldn’t be big enough to breathe it all in. It gave her a reason to leave the house. She sat by her father’s bedside, listened to his incoherent mumblings and watched the necrosis of the flesh slowly overwhelm his body. When he felt death rapping at the door of his room he turned to his daughter and said, “give me your wrist.” When Una didn’t move her father trembled and spoke again. “You must.” Una raised her right hand and carefully unrolled the glove she wore down to her wrist, to expose the chicken wire and the red skin beneath it. Her father watched her with sharp, blue eyes and nodded. Yes. Go on. Una picked at one end of the chicken wire and unwound it. She let it fall before she held out her wrist which her father caught with a quaking hand. “My lonely, pretty child,” he whispered before he pressed a tender kiss against Una’s blistered skin. Joseph turned blue. His jaw fell slack. That was the end of that.
In the morning that followed Joseph’s death Una washed and replaced her father’s sheets and pillowcases. She curled up on his bed, fetus-like. She stroked and planted kisses over his pillows and hoped that his ghost would be watching. Frost began to appear on the windows of the townhouse, upon the glasses in the dining room, and over the surface of the fulllength mirror. In the late afternoon, when the house was growing colder still, Una emptied her father’s bookshelves and used the books to build a fortress around herself. She lined the interior of the fortress with every stitch of clothing she owned: woolen sweaters, cotton stockings, plaid and corduroy skirts, tweed jackets and Pashmina scarves. Everything hung up, Una wrapped her naked body in her father’s blanket. But the frostbite still niped at her bare toes. It is time for me to leave, she thought as she watched the sky beyond the frosted window shade from burnished gold to black. With cold, pale hands Una unmade her fortress. Pulled it apart book-by-book. She rose to stand, gathering the blanket around her thin shoulders as she did so. The heavy fabric dragged against the floor, making soft susurrus with every step she took down the corridor. She did not take anything with her apart from the blanket she wore; there was nothing else for her to take. Una opened the front door, and paused to observe what lay before her. There wasn’t much to look at. Shadows ate up the street that ran past the house. Clouds obscured the nights sky above her. If there were stars shining, she could not
see them. Perhaps she would, one day. Not now. Una wrapped the blanket tight around her shoulders, murmured a goodbye to the empty hallway behind her, and stepped out into the dark.
Marie Solis hails from everywhere and nowhere and is in love with words, words, words.
Allie Bartlett, raised across North America, is a Canada-born artist who works largely from imagination and prefers to call her sketches doodles.
Cover printed at Dawson Print Shop in Heavy Calson.