“Skin Parchment,” a short fiction/prose poetry hybrid by Phoebe Rusch


Skin Parchment


Two rutted roads cross in a heat-hazed field. An old man with broken legs leans on his crutches there. He looks familiar, like a recurring dream, a flash in your peripheral vision. He shows you all your lives and the choices made, stringing them in the air before you like beads on an abacus. You contain oceans of time. You contain missing ships and the skeletons of airplanes, wars and ballot boxes, the bodies of so many dead. You are both singular and multiple. You are a vinyl doll nestled in your packaging. You have already always played your part; your role has not yet been cast.
“All the time inside you sinks beneath the waters,” the old man tells you in the voice of a thousand extinct insects, of beasts that float in worlds without gravity, of people long gone and unborn. “What you think is yours burns and burns again. A stranger comes like a door, and you must follow.”
He shows you a city on fire. He shows you an attic where you hide, cradling a gun to guard an empty house. He shows you another version in which you are the stranger who appears, in which you are the door.




In 1803 Napoleon kidnapped Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture. The forces Napoleon sent to reinstate slavery included legions of Polish soldiers, who agreed to fight based on France’s promise to liberate Poland from the other European powers which had partitioned it. In 1804, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti an independent republic. For ordering the historically necessary elimination of the island’s remaining whites, Dessalines has been misrepresented as a monster. However, Dessalines granted full Haitian citizenship to the Polish legionnaires who defected to fight on the side of the revolution. Upon liberating Columbus’s first site of settlement, Dessalines said, “I have avenged America.”




Nikodem: Poland, 1783

First real memory: fires and flight. Synagogue windows shattered. Your neighbor’s house a pyre. Mother’s hurried admonition in the parlor, telling you to watch over your sister, who understands even less than you do about why you are hated. You wish you weren’t the older one and you wish you were a girl so that you too could have a soft goodbye from your mother, feel the coolness of her arms once more. Instead her stern glare, her command to be strong: all you will have left of her. Then: hiding amongst the kosher carcasses strung in the back of father’s shop, unable to recall how you got there. Your sister, who is four, won’t stop asking questions about where your parents are. You understand enough, at six, to shush her, to tell her you can’t go back to look. Heavy footfalls at the front of the shop. Men’s voices laughing and calling everyone you’ve ever loved a Christ-killer. A fly lands on your arm and you wonder if it thinks you are meat. You know if the men find you they won’t be like your father with the cattle: tender in his art, delivering the beasts in a single knife-stroke.


Mathilde: St. Domingue, 1791

Origin story: cane fields ablaze. Your family’s fortune burning around you. In the pasture, the legs of poisoned cattle akimbo like those of overturned tables. You are lucky your father spotted the omen, threw away all the stores of meat and grain the traitors left behind. You never imagined yourself as someone who could be hurt. You feel the universe has tricked you, upending its previous rules. In back of the estate, your father loads your mother and brothers into the carriage. Your mother weeps into her handkerchief. Your brothers smirk, as if their smug disbelief will save them. The old nag on whom your life depends casts a wild eye toward the orange night sky. Embers crackle in the air overhead. You wonder where your companion is, if she will come for you with the same machete she retired when you chose her. She is your age, sixteen, your height and size; she has pretty dimples and widely spaced, luminous eyes, a quick wit and a laugh that constricts your chest with a crushing, bewildering joy. You want to protect her. You want to destroy her. You enjoy dressing her in your old frocks and sometimes she seems to enjoy it too; at others she is maddeningly distant, infuriatingly opaque, her obeisance mocking. When she works her tongue between your legs at night and sometimes, more daringly, in the afternoon, she whimpers and sighs as though you are as strong and powerful as you dream yourself to be. Her hands describe a new cartography; you shimmer with possibility beneath her touch. You wonder for the first time what she truly feels towards you. You always assumed gratitude laced with envy. Never a blade braced against your neck. You thought you would grow old with her by your side. Her betrayal opens up a space between your ribs, a vast, unbreachable chasm. You wish you were a boy so you could fight, so you could bring her back within your grasp, so that the universe would bend to your will once more.




Are you willing to become nobody so that everybody can be somebody? —Airea D. Matthews




Nikodem: Warsaw, 1797

Your uniform includes a tricorne hat like Napoleon’s. You like to emulate your commander, setting it at a jaunty angle. You know you are a handsome man. This fact both pains and pleases you; you enjoy praise but often it feels as though the praise is for another person, a double you created to carry out your life while you hibernate elsewhere, curled in some remote corner of your mind. With your hazel eyes and dark blonde hair, the others in your legion cannot discern that which made you hunted, and sometimes you forget the terrified child hiding amidst slaughter, forget that you have not always been this square-shouldered edifice gleaming in his officer’s jacket. You are without history; you are clean.
“You are ours, you come from us,” your parents, the Gentile farmer and his wife who took you in, told you every time the fires surfaced and you woke up thrashing.
You know you had a sister once but you don’t know if she is dead or alive; you remember a fly landing on your arm, its iridescent eyes, and then wandering, covered in blood, into a barn, collapsing into the hay. There is nothing in between. There is church and the sacraments. There is the loss of your lovely soprano voice that once sent the kyrie through the rafters, the arrival of hairs stippling your jaw, cleaving you from yourself. Tomorrow you will ride with the other recruits to Paris, and then travel onward to Lombardy. The commander has promised to free Poland from Prussian incursion if the nation’s men fight under his banner. Fighting for Poland, you feel truly Polish; invincible, like someone who cannot be hurt. Like your parents’ son, not the changeling they found in the barn and then again, years later, lying beneath another boy in the hay, your pleasure vicarious through him, your body become holy vessel. Sundays afterward, kneeling for God’s forgiveness under your father’s watchful eye, you communed with the Madonna in shadows behind the pulpit. You were unsure who her stone tears mourned: the woman you’d secretly become or her abrupt departure.


Mathilde: Cap Francois, 1802

You stride past the porticos and balconies of the city’s wealthy whites, fugitives like you escaped from the countryside to an uncertain fate. Past the wharves where the poor whites stumble drunk from their taverns. You have a lover in the quarter where the free people of color stay, a light-skinned courtesan who keeps the secrets of many women like you. You’ve heard arrangements like yours referred to by business associates of your husband’s, who patronize the same prostitutes, as special friends. The phrase is said with a sneer that reminds you of your brothers’ leering those months you were unable to rise from bed, weeping for your former companion who’d abandoned you. You know you are a better man, a better lover, than them. You own this city at night: you are tough as gristle, unabashed and unafraid. You are emboldened by the nihilistic, debauched merriment in the streets as the brute Dessalines burns through the canebrakes once more, taking white hostages. Two wayward men grope each other in an alley. They see you watching and grin. The world may end tomorrow. Who cares what you do? If your husband knows he regards it as inconsequential; you are an ornament to him, a pretty afterthought, signifying no more than the womb you wish you could cut out. His sons are two grubs that fed from your body, more concerned with commerce and their own fumbling trysts than with you. The world sees you as an innocent, not a rake. Your mother, dead of drink and fever, emblem of all that the empire deplores in its distant scions, is the only one who ever really questioned you and your proclivities. Unnatural, she called you, as if you were cloven-hooved. You reach the threshold of your lover’s house, which is painted pink like the blossoms that ornament her hair. You set your father’s tricorne at a jaunty angle, whistling.




All that which has been formulated is not in accordance with our true feelings; to draw up the Act of Independence, we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen. —Louis Boisrond Tonnerre on drafting the Haitian Act of Independence




Nikodem: Bay of Jacmel, 1803

The mastiffs snarl and snap at the sea air, smelling the maimed rabbits struggling in your sack. Your task: to rile them for blood. You hate the hounds for revealing their appetite, hate your colonel for turning them to this purpose when, on the voyage over, they laid their heads in your lap and slopped saliva upon your lips. Since docking in Jacmel, you have heard that General Dessalines is a beast, a demon; stories of his appetite for sadism intoned like liturgy. You have had to sever yourself from yourself yet again to live inside this new reality and what is expected of you within its logic. The roaring spectacle by which you pretend you can make yourself more than a man, more than a people displaced by pogrom, more than a country parceled off to the rest of its continent, a bastard army selling itself into foreign ranks. Your colonel screams at you to start baiting the dogs. Would he kill you if you refused? He’s joked about killing you before, passed by your bunk and whispered in your ear that he wishes you were dead. From the green mountains rolling out beyond the harbor you hear a salvo of drums, a sounding call between your supposed enemy and their captured comrades. You do not look back at the shackled hostages waiting on the shore, but you can feel them there. You can feel the whites gathering at the docks too: their excitement. They are a pair of metal jaws closing, and you are that also. You are their demand for spectacle and the mercenary instrument of its deliverance. They fan out along the waterfront, forming a wall of torches, a fiery gate. You cannot bring yourself to throw the rabbits to the cages. The colonel hits you in the back with the butt of his bayonet. Yes, he would kill you and enjoy it; you realize with a dull certainty that you’ve always known these men would enjoy killing you. A flash of light descends from on high. Grabbing your throat in his fist, the colonel asks if you’ve lost your mind. Rivers of flame stream down the mountainsides: there are screams from the crowd as they turn to witness the kingdom of the beaten and persecuted advancing upon them. Startled, the man who would kill you lets you go.


Mathilde: Cap Francois, 1803

You are sympathetic to the blacks, but you do not want them to rule. You understand why they fled the plantations, but you miss your family home, the limitlessness you felt in your youth looking out on all that earth. Flat-chested, the breeches your father stopped letting you wear spackled with the soil you still believed you’d inherit, you were above any law. Your sense of ownership a swaddling blanket. You no longer feel favored by God. You do not believe that you deserve this suffering. You know now that anything you’ve known of love you’ve taken by force.
“You kept a human being like a pet. There was nothing resembling love between the two of you,” the whore you’ve grown accustomed to visiting has explained between puffs of her cigar.
She regards you from the velvet chaise purchased by another of her lovers, a wealthy merchant, who she has reminded you you do not have the power to keep her from seeing. She has stopped adorning her hair with pink roses, stopped wearing the scent that pleases you; instead she stares at the ceiling as you fuck her, giggling at her own private thoughts. You begin to pick post-coital fights, enraged by the tone she takes lately, as if you were her pupil and particularly daft.
“Why couldn’t they be grateful for the bargain,” you blurt, apropos of nothing. “Toussaint as governor and them back at the plantations, paid for their labor. Wasn’t that what they were fighting for? Toussaint wanted to make peace, restore order. These upstarts are fighting for what? Chaos? Anarchy? To destroy the economy? They have no discernable strategy beside black magic. They cannot win.”
She listens, sipping wine and blowing smoke, and when you are finished, she rises, asking, “Coffee or tea?”
You stiffen, seeing again the dead cows, the grim sigil drawing your childhood to its close.
“Relax,” she says. “I’m not plotting against you. We don’t all share the same interests.”
But her pointed silence, an argument unspoken, has wormed its way inside you, as surely as poison. You argue with yourself now. Your own internal voice enrages you, somehow, even more than hers. You stop visiting prostitutes. Revealed as a transaction, the experience no longer satisfies. You think she should be more polite. You would have more sympathy for her if she would only treat you with kindness. If they gave you your family’s land back, you would pay them. You would pay them well. Your father, for all his bluster, only ever produced half the crop of neighboring plantations; you never had much; you were generous and Christian; never did anyone on your land lack clothes or a roof. You do not feel it is unreasonable to want to live under laws. You have suffered too, probably more greatly than the courtesan who owns her apartment, who lives according to her whims, who does not need to hide. You think she hates you. You think she would destroy you if she could.




We are afraid because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve. We know that white folks have reaped some ill-gotten gains. And so privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed. —Eula Biss, No Man’s Land




Nikodem: Massif du Nord, 1803

“You have a choice,” the woman in lieutenant’s uniform tells you. “You can join us and become citizens of our republic, where the rights of man will be truly realized, where no human being will live in chains. Or you can hold fast to your illusions in death. We’ve a fearsome reputation well-earned, but we are not unmerciful and our vengeance is not unjust. We are not savages like the French.”
You have marched for days on end, a flour sack over your head, pulled roughly about, parched and begging for water. Sometimes your captors grant your request. At others they mimic your pleas, decry your weakness. The soldier lined up beside you, a fellow Pole you were stationed with in Lombardy, attempts to stand and one of the lieutenant’s men, a skinny youth in tattered clothes, pushes him back onto his knees. He spits at the lieutenant’s feet. You are impressed by her equanimity, her level gaze, the luster of her epaulettes, even as your heartbeat rattles your skull and you think you might piss. Birds shrill overhead. You stare into the patch of bleak gray sky where the tree cover breaks, afraid to meet the lieutenant’s eyes.
“You have a choice,” she repeats. “We have many Poles already in our ranks. Your people fight honorably, bravely; you are not as cruel and cowardly as the French. You can be owned by Napoleon or live free amongst free men.”
You, along with the rest of your troop, elect to live by tacit compact. The lieutenant’s soldiers drag the man beside you, who has not stopped cursing, further into the woods. A gunshot cuts short his scream.
“Stand, fellow citizens,” the lieutenant commands.
You look around you to see your hesitation shared. Is this a ruse? A pretext to shoot you all? The lieutenant laughs at the trepidation.
“Your friend loved whiteness more than life itself. He has been liberated from a terrible lie. Now he can return to his true destiny as a part of all things.”
Your commander smiles at you. You finally meet her eyes. You see the compassion there, and the exhaustion, and the sadness, and the brilliance, and the rage. This time you do not flinch. You do not look away.


Nikodem: Maitresse Erzuli, eternity

Erzuli is a family of spirits embodying the divine feminine, often inhabiting trans women and femmes.

You leave your body. You leave your body only to inhabit it more deeply. There are others like you, your sisters, who she also graces: warriors charging into battle in muddied finery. Whatever scraps of muslin or silk they find transmuted into armor. She takes your body and uses it to feed herself, to dance, to feel the warmth inside a human skin, and you go away. At first this frightens you but you are told to welcome her, that she has gifts to give, and with time you come to cohabitate, to heed the spirit inside your head. She is the Madonna who wept for you. She is both of your mothers and she is also you. She lives in the heavens; she lives below the mirror of the sea. Some of her faces patient, some quick to anger; some motherly, some petulant; some sacred, some obscene. She cannot take shape without a human mind to saddle, yet she has never not existed. You have existed in many shapes and she’s known you in each one. You are not this flesh and yet this flesh is loved. This flesh is holy and protected. You cannot die because she is deathless. You cannot be hurt in any way that lasts. You avenge the ground calling out for Abel’s blood, avenge the lie that cast his descendants as Cain. You return the Cain inside you to the earth, the ether. You have no beginning and no end and neither does the army in which you now serve as foot soldier, which has fought in many times, in many worlds: which is always fighting, everywhere. 




They are holding elections up in heaven and under the sea … Wars are not fought on battlegrounds but in a space smaller than the head of a needle. —Ben Okri, The Famished Road




Mathilde: Cap Ayisyen, 1804 / Papa Legba, the interstices

Crouched in the attic of a stranger’s abandoned house, you cradle your dead father’s ancient musket, the filigree on its handle oxidized the color of moss. Two shots left. One for the people who burnt down your mansion in the city center, and one for you. You brace yourself as footfalls ascend the stair. The white face before you comes as a surprise. You see a person not unlike yourself, long-haired, wild, a bearded figure in a torn petticoat carrying a rusted blade. You think she has come to guard what’s yours. She does not look like someone who you think would hurt you. You ask her if the fires have stopped burning. If it is safe to go outside yet.
“That’s up to you,” she says, her French accented: perhaps Polish. “Whatever you decide, I am here to set you free.”
You split into two. The first self refuses her, and she slits your throat in a single stroke, tender in her art; the second takes her hand and follows. A door opens, revealing a mirage: two rutted roads crossing in a heat-hazed field. An old man with broken legs leans on his crutches there. You recognize him like a recurring dream, a flash in your peripheral vision. You contain oceans of time. You contain missing ships and the skeletons of airplanes, wars and ballot boxes, the bodies of so many dead. You are both singular and multiple: your destiny cannot be separated from the fate of all things.
“America,” the spirit tells you in the voice of a thousand extinct insects, of beasts that float in worlds without gravity, of people long gone and unborn, “must already always be avenged.”

Phoebe Rusch is a writer from the Midwest. Their work has previously appeared in Entropy, Lambda Literary’s poetry spotlight, and The Rumpus, among other publications. They are currently a master’s student in special education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. More of their writing can be found at phoeberusch.com.

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