Hannah is trying to read but her eyes are listing across the page. For weeks now it’s been a case of listing eyes and a brain grown brawny but listless in her head, both eyes and brain idling but untetherable. She imagines her optic nerve and her brain stem trailing off mid-sentence. The margins of the page in front of her act like pinball buffers for her attention and sightline. She tries to focus and it works for a second but then she realises that she has mistaken the printed phrase
It came to her in a flash
It came to her in a flesh
which means that just for a little lifetime she must consider flesh as onomatopoeic, the scrub and the flick and the sluice of the word, its yielding plashiness. Hannah shifts against her pillow as another lapse of thought folds on to this first lapse.The marrow of her thoughts fills and swills within her skin. My body is a temple, she thinks, and my temples indicate the site of headaches, the sides of my head behind the eyes, between the forehead and the ears. The lapsed thought as skin formed on a cooling drink, the bowed meniscus of an idea. ‘Oh,’ she says aloud, putting down her book, ‘c’mon. Concentrate,’ but the thought begins to thrash and flail. Hannah wonders whether – lying here beneath the skylight and all this time spent watching fleshless things like shadows and light and shadow-light cobwebs – she is fleshing in this bed.
flesh (v.) 1520s, ‘to render (a hunting animal) eager for prey by rewarding it with flesh from a kill’, with figurative extensions, from flesh (n.). Meaning ‘to clothe or embody with flesh’, with figurative extensions, is from 1660s.
The skin as interrogative, the skin as permissive, the skin as heft, the skin as loft, the skin as inscription and site of rupture. She picks up her book but immediately regrets it, so instead watches her thumbs keeping the pages in place and thinks about the quality of their grain and surface. She smooths a jagged piece of loosed thumb-skin (a spill? A spell? Hangnail? Cuticle or eponychium, the last from the Greek ἐπί, meaning ‘on top of ’, and ὀνῠ́χιον, meaning ‘little claw’?). Then this line of thinking ricochets from nowhere across her memory, disembodied but brawling: ‘Parchment is affected by its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause buckling.’ Material as active participant; skin as shifting, altered, adaptive tissue.
Hannah has been in bed for a week. She knows the different textures and pressures and eccentric lumps of her bed like the back of her hand. Better. She does not know the back of her hand very well at all. One speaks of toughening up, of being callous, or calloused. She has been reading about bookbinding. Her friend texts her a picture of a tree that is so old it has subsumed the wrought iron of a nearby fence into the flesh of its living trunk. Hannah turns again against her pillows so that her skin does not get any funny ideas and become one with her bed through proximity and hotching inaction. Hannah knows that you can tell the age of a tree by counting its exposed rings. Listlessly, this fact reminds her of something else she read once that will never be of any use to her: the zero-G environment of space causes the human spine to stretch, making a person slightly taller when unclaimed by gravity.
Every podcast she listens to seems to be sponsored by a mattress company: when did that start? Parchment is the processed material made of skin and traditionally used for the commitment of writing. To process: to be limed, scraped, put under tension. In the British Library, the oldest parchment in the country may be touched only with gloves. Hannah used to be in the British Library all the time before this bedriddenness. In the British Library, one might bring kid gloves, skin on skin, the pages turning and the touch engaged.
Hannah’s friend texts her another image. They do this occasionally, using the bed-stuck Hannah as a kind of embodied scrapbook. The picture shows a man who drove his truck for twenty years and sat with his head at an angle out of his vehicle’s window. When he came to retire, the side of his face that had always been in the sun was entirely different from the sunless side: the ruches of it, the bad-brittle parchment of its texture. The face as an open book, verso page, recto page, the skin as the story.
Hannah hates how useless she feels in her bed despite dedicating her time to the act of flesh. She wonders how she might be useful. In order to learn about the processes of the human body and its anatomy, for hundreds of years doctors relied on cadavers and inert flesh in order to explicate what lies within. For Hannah, this is linked with the reports of so-called ‘bodysnatching’, the illegal trade in dead bodies that had been disinterred and provided medical schools with their for-the-slab learning tools. The most famous of these bodysnatchers might be Williams Burke and Hare. Skim-read, skin-red, the word morbidity meaning ‘diseased state’. A book said to be made from Burke’s actual tanned skin can be seen at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh; a calling-card case made from skin taken from the back of his left hand fetched £1,050 at auction in 1988. Hannah wonders what she and her bed would make on eBay. Skin and its contents as kitsch, as memorabilia, as distasteful, as a simile run away with itself, bodies as something unspooling and laid bare, flushed through and flushing hot with every thought and every digression. Skin as my trivia, Hannah doesn’t think. My thought-bubbles and speech-bubbles made manifest or stark in the attempt of expression.
Hannah picks up her phone and takes a picture of herself looking bored. Before she sends it to her friend, she zooms in on her face. Not on her expression, but on an inch of skin until it fills the screen. It doesn’t look soft or hard or in focus or blurry. She wishes, not for the first time, that there was an X-ray app on her phone that she could use to filter her self-portraits, and instead of her outside appearance she could send a little portrait of her organs’ arrangement or enviable bone density. She knows that an écorché is the name given in art and anatomy to a figure that is drawn, painted or sculpted in a way that reveals the muscles of a body entirely devoid of skin. You can see them in medical textbooks or accompanying articles, or in the title sequence of Grey’s Anatomy reruns: a depiction of the human body where the skin has been peeled back or is quite absent in order that the inner truths of tissue and bone and other segueing finickinesses of anatomy are on full display. Architect, linguist and cryptographer Leon Battista Alberti wrote that if painters intended to depict a nude figure they must first arrange the muscles and bones according to correct anatomical arrangement. Once this creation of porches and dumb-waiters and girders is completed, only then can the artist add flesh to the form.The term écorché literally means flayed – these skinless figures communicate, and reveal, their outermost protection denied to them. Hannah takes another photo where she points at her chin for no good reason. There is a gentle revulsion. In some depictions, the figure of the écorché is shown pointing to itself, to clarify what is to be explored. The word écorché has two acute accents: their angle enacts the lifting of the dermis. Hannah clicks send on the text, stares at the cover of her book and considers sleeping.