“Peel This Skin”

A Poem by Eric Gansworth


The Human Skin is made up
of three layers: Epidermis, Dermis,
Hypodermis, and here, at the base,
legitimacy already comes into play.

You see, the Epidermis seals the body from
intrusive outside influences. The Dermis
houses scars from breaks in that seal (and
tattoo ink, if that’s your thing), and its
darkness is determined by the
accumulation of melanin, the body’s natural brown ink,
richer in response to environment.
The Hypodermis is said not to be
a true layer, a lying layer, as it were,
made of insulating fat and connective tissue.

The Apple Skin’s color is determined by
the accumulation of anthocyanin, its natural
red ink, also richer for environmental influences,
but it does not have the same luxury as human skin—
its covering, an easily bruised and battered thin layer.

Metaphorically speaking, this weakness is perhaps
why the Apple is the fruit so often depicted as Eve’s edible
error of assertiveness, her knife-keen desire for knowledge.

The Apple, tender and vulnerable, is the seat of Original
Skin. Some people grant inexplicable value or judgment
on saturation levels of either melanin or anthocyanin,
but once the skin is flayed, the insides are remarkably similar.

It’s good to know some things stay the same.



It is November, when I am twenty-four. Wendy
and I are in college. We met in a class
whose name I can’t remember, but it was
taught by a history professor who hated history
texts, a history professor with a secret life
as a literature professor, using classic novels
to teach us 20th century history, including,
naturally, Animal Farm. Predictable, but neither
of us has read it because we both went to boonie
schools low on college prep, lower in academic
opportunities (though both schools were athletically
supported well—resources neither of us desired or used).



Of the books I’d been assigned in high school, I remember
three: A Tale of Two Cities, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,
and The Metamorphosis, one for each year (my tenth grade
English teacher, on the brink of retirement and bitter exhaustion,
agreed to leave us alone if we extended him the same courtesy).

From the first of these three books, I learned
the rich exploit the poor (Okay, I already knew
that, so, really: nothing). From the second, I learned
Vader, Luke, and Leia were more interesting onscreen
than on the page (Okay, loving that far away, long ago
place, I’d read the novelization, so I already knew that,
too). And from the third, I learned that you might find
yourself transformed and exposed one day, inexplicably,
and that others will still find you undesirable, maybe even
more than you’d felt before (Okay, I’d already gone from
the small Rez elementary school to the giant white middle
school, so yeah, I already knew that last one too).

I wonder what the tenth grade book might have had
to offer, if we’d been assigned one: another lesson
already learned or another new way to understand
your place in the world you lived in? Sometimes, it’s
easier when you at least know people think you’re a
“monstrous vermin” that should be left unspeakable
and unspeaking, clicking and hissing away in your
bed, desperate for those in your life
to understand the ideas you’re trying to reach them with.



Wendy and I walk across quads, a couple
hours before our evening class starts. The only
light is a strip of burnt orange clouds, a median
dividing the darkened highway of land and sky.
Dusk often finds us here together, for this hour.
The air is cold enough to make our breath visible,
ectoplasm ghosts, but we know what awaits us
on the western edge of campus. Our destination
is an exhaust vent the approximate square footage
of the small precarious, drafty houses we were raised in.

We don’t know where the warm air is being
pushed from, perhaps every heater and every
furnace of every building and every class
room and every dorm room and every lab
and every meeting room and every office
and every space claimed by others, but for
the hour of Monday sunsets before the snow
falls, this particular warmth is ours, alone.

No one can see us, when we climb the half wall
into the obscured vent, and stretch out, lie
suspended across the grate, our belongings
secured in backpacks so we don’t lose
anything to muddy sooty shadows and air
shafts into the school’s physical plant.
We come here when we long for food we
can’t articulate. Mostly we are silent
because this roaring heat joyously blasting
on us drowns out our voices unless we shout.
We watch the horizon disappear and stars try
to penetrate Buffalo’s dense light pollution and
denser regular pollution until we can’t stand the cold
air dropping on us from November’s crystalline
sky beyond the limited powers of our HVAC deity.



Sometimes, we play a game, telling secrets no
one else knows, each assured the other can
not hear anything beyond hissed consonants
and mumbled vowels. (Though of course I know
I can hear hers and of course she knows she can
hear mine, and maybe even some other students
walking anonymously near us, hear these disembodied
confessions float by them, allowing us our privacy.)
We know the danger of this game, having both
made the mistake of playing a similar game with
our other friends, in which you tell three terrible
stories about yourself, but two of them are lies.
Your friends have to figure out the true one.

It’s like that Meat Loaf song, but when you think
of that title, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,”
what you really mean to say here, is:
“One of These Three Is Awful.”

You can only play this game with people
who really love you, or people you are
never, not ever, going to see again, people
who maybe don’t even know your name.



This activity is all fun and games until you tell them
* **** *** *** ** * ***** ** ********
and then they will never, not ever, see you
the same again, because after that they know
*** *** *** *** *** **** *** *** ** *
***** ** ********* and they know what
a crafty façade you’ve rendered, to be allowed
in their presence. You’re lucky Wendy has her own
sequence of asterisks. She recognizes that no one
who has ever heard them can unlearn them
and she knows more than most what it is like
to rise up and unflinchingly be exposed.



She is sometimes a model for Life Drawing
students, and I ask her how she can stand
before twenty strangers with all of her clothes
off, knowing they will not only be staring at her
for three hours straight, but also memorizing her
body’s contours, mapping different shaded parts,
the scarred parts, the perfect parts, on sheets
of smudgy paper they will take with them
forever, maybe later, in seclusion, doing
things she does not desire for her image.

When we have this conversation, I’ve been
painting for years, but all of my models
are invented from vapor as transient as
our ghost breath on these cold November
nights. She says she knows, noting that
the breasts I draw are like none that have ever
existed on any real woman in human history.



Before we graduate, she hands me a gift, a nude
photo of her taken by our friend Nate for his
photo studio class. He made only three copies
before destroying the negative. Her payment
for modeling was print number 3/3. By this time,
I’ve been writing a lot about reservation life,
and being in love and my partner Larry, who is not
the right age, or the right class or the right race or
the right gender. She says that, between the two
of us, I am by far engaging in the riskier act. She
says that when she takes off her clothes for artists
and viewers, it’s just skin she exposes, the body’s
first defense, as she makes her contribution to the art
world. At the end of the three hour session, she
can put her clothes back on and leave the scene.



A month later, I understand one part of her
observation. Our friend Nate, who took
the photograph, has a painting commission
but needs a nude male reference with a small waist
and broad shoulders and, desperate, asks me
to trade sessions. If I model for him now, he will
later reveal himself and pose for me when I need it.

I have never done this but our friendship has
endured for years and I’ve recently come to see
the usefulness of life drawing, the value of truth.

His studio is an illegal space he and three
other painters rent above a machine shop.
While his studio mates leave, and sparks fly
and acetylene torch trails fill the air below us,
I fully disrobe and stand frozen, as instructed:
arms outstretched, neck extended, looking
at the network of wires and pipes crossing
his ceiling. I take very few breaks as it is
tough to get back into position after relaxing,
and frankly, it never feels normal to make small
talk, even with a friend, while you are naked.

Maintaining the pose, I discover Wendy has told me
the truth. I forget after a while that I am standing
wholly naked in the sun, as someone stares at me for
long periods, sometimes stepping close enough for me
to feel exhaled breath, inches away, to capture a contour,
the play of light and shadow on muscle, bone, and hair.

I study an enormous pair of metal eagle wings hanging
in the corner, like one of Bruce Wayne’s or Leonardo
da Vinci’s experiments. Nate has welded and riveted
them together from cut sheets of brass, individual
feathers layered and fastened in place. He tells me
the commission is for a life-sized naked angel, half
painting/half sculpture. When he finishes capturing me
on this sheet of plywood, he will cut my body loose, reinforce
my backing, and mount my wings. He says I will hang
suspended in a cathedral ceiling entryway, featured in
my own spotlight at the mansion of some wealthy Buffalo
man, presumably, until he grows bored of my body,
exposed in all its major scars, and minor perfections.

I tell Nate I’m not sure how I feel about that future,
and he says it’s a little too late for modesty, and I can
tell by the region of plywood he’s working, that he is
capturing my equipment in oil paint, linseed medium,
and brush strokes, and he promises to make me look good,
to put me in a flattering light, even as I express my reluctance.



Two weeks later, Nate is gone, having used
his commission to support a move to the west
coast, and I have never seen him again, clothed
or naked, and I have never seen the finished work.

Somewhere, in some fancy foyer in Buffalo,
floats a young wooden Indian man, made of pressed
ply, layer upon layer, thinner than I am now, harboring
considerably fewer scars. He wears the wrong arrangement
of eagle feathers, for a young Indian man. I try not to think
often about this person I used to resemble. Sometimes
years pass before I’m again reminded of the way Nate talked
me into being exposed and captured and the way he then skipped
town, ducking on his promise to take the same risk for me.



Wendy’s words rise more and more often, the secrets
we told each other buried in the roar of heat we could
never get enough of. She hangs on my wall to this day
in that photo Nate had titled “Lot’s Wife.” My family notices
the nude woman, in stark black and white exposure on emulsion,
in the middle of an abandoned factory, only they don’t perceive her
as nude. To them, she is naaaay-kid and it is against the way we live
to ask about such a thing, and instead, they silently honor my choices.

Wendy is right about the risks of writing, and as I have
this thought, I recall that at the end of The Metamorphosis,
the transformed “monstrous vermin” dies because his family
can no longer repress their repulsion. His father lodges
a piece of fruit deep into his back, where he can not reach,
and he gives up, owning the infection and starvation together
until he withers away and is quietly swept out of the house.

The rotting betrayal wedged into his back is an apple.



The skin’s outer layer is supposed to protect the body from
outside violations, but every guard has limits. Has my likeness,
suspended somewhere in a Buffalo neighborhood I could never
afford to live in, fared any better? Does he like his role, as frozen
heavenly figure from some other culture’s beliefs, Gabriel or Icarus?
I hope at least, that this younger me faces westward so he can see
the occasional sunset and, through Buffalo’s light pollution and
pollution pollution, some constellations, a few stories made of stars,
floating in sequence against the universe’s unknown blackness.
His skin has maybe faded and chipped, and become weathered
and scarred like my own, from a botched surgery and the indignities
I’ve accrued as my years on this Earth slide and stretch into decades.

Or maybe he has protected himself better than I have.
Maybe, his arms outstretched, he has never done what
I am doing here, he has never revealed * **** *** ***
** * ***** ** ******** and he keeps his secrets,
knowing that one thing I never learned, despite being
told by multiple people over and over again.

You can only play this game with people who really
love you, or people you are never, not ever, going
to see again, people who maybe don’t even know your name.

Even then, these people must not ever know you
really can’t fly, they can’t be told the wings are weights,
when you leap off the cliff, and they can’t know that
after the fall, you’ll be left with everything irretrievably
exposed. Even if you are careful, someone may raise
a knife-sharp curiosity, break the tender membrane,
tinted with melanin or anthocyanin. Despite your best
efforts to be tough, impermeable and impenetrable,
in the end, they will successfully peel this skin.

It is good to know some things stay the same.


Eric Gansworth, Apple: Skin to the Core

From Apple: (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth. Used with the permission of Levine Querido. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Gansworth.

Eric Gansworth
Eric Gansworth
Eric Gansworth, Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ, (Eel Clan) is an enrolled Onondaga writer and visual artist, raised at the Tuscarora Nation. Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College, his books include Extra Indians (American Book Award), Mending Skins(PEN Oakland Award), and Apple (Skin to the Core), Longlisted for the National Book Award, and included in Time Magazine’s 10 Best YA and Children’s Books for 2020, and NPR’s Book Concierge. Portrait by Dellas.

More Story
Andrew Denning on the Nazi Cult of Mobility Time to Eat the Dogs is a podcast about science, history, and exploration. Each week, Michael Robinson interviews scientists,...