The itch started in her elbows and moved with confident swiftness. By midday Friday it was radiating down her forearms and up into her shoulder blades. She was a hypochondriac — she had inherited this from both her mother and her father, just like she had inherited her mother’s strange green eyes and her father’s sharp chin — so she was used to holding two thoughts in her head simultaneously: I am dying and I am overreacting. And so, as the day progressed, she thought: Skin cancer, fast-moving, at the same time she thought: Nothing but dry skin. She thought: Shingles, advanced, possibly a precursor to lymphoma, at the same time she thought: Coincidental mosquito bites. She thought: The initial symptoms of MS, and then she thought: Heat rash. Between meetings she read the internet for a while, but all of its diagnoses resolved in fatality. During meetings she calmed herself by remembering the few times she had gotten hives and how they had gone away. And so the day passed. That evening, having struck an uneasy agreement with herself not to panic, she undressed to shower, and that was when she discovered the scales.
She had read of various roughened skin patches that the internet described as “scales,” but these were not those. These were not, in fact, human. They were the hard, diamond-shaped scales of a snake or an armadillo. They covered the backs of her arms, from her elbow to just below her shoulder crest. The sides of her arms were tender and hot and odd to the touch, as if new scales were in the process of forming.
She would have expected herself to panic, but surprisingly, even shockingly, a coolness settled over her. She felt as if she were operating from beneath a heavy blanket. The air was quieter; her breathing slowed. From her blanket of calm she touched each scale; she tapped one with a fingernail and heard a slightly metallic tik, as if she’d tapped the top of her stove. Well, all right, she thought, and then she said it out loud: “Well, all right.”
Her voice, echoing in the bathroom, sounded unchanged.
When you find that something inexplicable and alarming is happening to your body, your options depend on your insurance plan, and hers was nonexistent. She was a freelance illustrator, which is like being unemployed but with a greater sense of purpose, and so a trip to the doctor was a financial extravagance for which she had not planned. After a great deal of consideration, she did the next best thing and called her ex-boyfriend.
She did not like her ex-boyfriend, but he was about to become a doctor, so she had worked to keep their relationship amicable. Adnan was the one who had broken up with her, and he had done so over text. The guilt of this kept him responsive whenever she needed his professional opinion. What made him feel guiltiest was that she had not done anything to merit abandonment; instead he had performed his first brain surgery, an experience that had been religious in its intensity, and walking out of the OR, he had realized that he wanted to transform his life completely. So he had left her.
She called him sitting in her empty bathtub, wrapped in a blanket. She made most of her important calls from the bathtub, so that her neighbors couldn’t listen through the thin apartment walls. There was a “work version” of the bathroom, in which she unrolled a rug and draped the walls with towels to dampen the echo, and then there was the “bathroom version” of the bathroom, in which she removed all of the fabrics. She had converted her bathroom into its work version before calling Adnan. When he picked up, he sounded groggy.
“Oh,” she said, “did I wake you?”
“No,” he said, “hang on.” This meant that she had woken him. She heard the bed shift under his weight, the click of his bedside lamp being turned on, a subtle distant noise that might have been him drinking water. When he returned, his voice was gravelly but clearer. “So, what’s up?” He knew her well enough to know that he was only summoned when there was a problem.
“I sort of have this skin thing,” she said.
“OK. . . .”
“On my arms.”
“Like a rash? Or blisters?”
“Uh . . . neither,” she said. “I would describe them as sort of . . . actual scales.”
“ ‘Actual’ in what context?”
“Like a lizard,” she said. “Or no, maybe more like a pangolin?”
He was quiet for a long beat. Then he said, “Hang on, I’m googling pangolins.”
What she liked best about Adnan was his patience and his sincerity. During calls like these, she had to keep reminding herself why she disliked him. Unfortunately the answer hinged on the fact that he had left her; otherwise he had no faults that she could think of.
“OK,” he said, after a long silence. “Huh.”
“And I think they’re spreading,” she said. “Or will be.”
“Are you running a fever? Aches, pains, nausea? Enlarged lymph nodes?”
She touched her forehead, shrugged her shoulders, rolled her neck, slipped her fingers under her jaw and into her armpits. “No.”
“How do you feel otherwise?”
She ran a silent check on the time bomb of her body. It felt good. That realization surprised her. She felt as if she’d gone for a run in the bracing air or had a hot coffee. “I feel OK,” she said cautiously. “What do you think it is?”
“Honestly I have no idea,” he said. “Derm was a while ago. Do they really look like pangolin scales, or are you exaggerating?”
“Hang on,” she said. “I’m googling pangolins, too.” She did. “Yeah,” she said. “No, it does really look like that.”
“You should see a dermatologist,” he said. “When did it start?”
“This morning,” she said. “Here, I’m sending you a picture.”
She took a photo of the back of her right arm and noticed for the first time, under the unforgiving bathroom fluorescents, that the scales had taken on a gentle jade hue. Pleasing, somehow. Firm and flexible to the touch. She sent the photo, and she knew the exact moment he received it because he broke off in midsentence — he had been telling her about various presentations of ringworm — and was silent for quite some time. When he spoke, his tone demonstrated remarkable restraint: “You should go to urgent care.”
“Does this look like something you know?” she asked.
“No,” he said, “this doesn’t look like anything I know. Um — let’s see — go to the urgent care you went to when you had the thing with your neck, and ask for Tim. I’m gonna text you names of a few derm guys I trust, and—”
“OK,” she said, interrupting, “but it might not be anything bad, you know? Like, it might be . . . fine.”
His voice took on a new note: cautious, a little wary at this uncharacteristic response from her. “I mean, it’s definitely not great.”
“Right . . . ,” she said thoughtfully. Then, as if from a distance, she heard herself start again: “But actually if we don’t know what it is, we don’t know it’s not . . . you know, fine. Right?”
“Look,” Adnan said, “I don’t think you should panic exactly, but I think having pangolin scales on your arm is probably not ‘fine.’ ”
“Both arms,” she said without thinking.
“Urgent care,” he said. “Go. I’ll text Tim and tell him to keep an eye out for you.”
But in the end, to her own surprise, she did not go.
She slept most of the weekend. She woke up sometime on Saturday afternoon because her neighbor to the left was having a threesome, and her walls were echoing with the sounds of three burly men telling each other to “take it.” She fell asleep to a high, keening whimper that seemed to go on and on, and when she woke again, it was night and her apartment was dark. She got out of bed and padded into the kitchen. She was suddenly ravenous. She located the refrigerator by touch and pulled the door open. Bathed in cold white light, she found leftover lo mein and ate it from the container with her fingers. After she had finished, a great weight of exhaustion descended, and she made it as far as the couch before she collapsed onto its surface and went under again.
When she opened her eyes next, the sun was printing bright, long shapes onto the floorboards and walls. She was hushed, listening, as if she were inside a church. Without unwrapping herself from the blanket or looking at her body, she walked to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. It was broken; long after you flushed with the narrow handle, water ran and ran.
She had lived in this apartment with a friend from college, and then with a boyfriend named Steve, and then with Adnan, and now alone. Over the years things broke and were not fixed, and in her twenties she had supposed this was just what adult life was: an accretion of irrevocable damage. Now, in her thirties, she had begun to understand that the amount of money you made determined whether or not damage was irrevocable. She had not been very interested in money — her parents were not good at it, so neither was she — but lately, when scrolling through job listings, she had begun looking at the salary before she looked at the job title. She had contemplated any number of professions this way, from assistant veterinarian to high-class escort. But every time she had imagined applying for the job, receiving it, and then being required to perform it, she had felt much more at peace with her broken toilet and erratic hot water and the places where water dripping through her ceiling made the paint balloon into tumors.
Now she contemplated brushing her teeth or washing her face, but neither seemed useful. She realized she had no desire to approach the mirror. She didn’t feel afraid, but something in her acted as a cautioning force, like a hand on her chest saying, Wait.
She wasn’t sure what time it was, or what day. She reluctantly located her phone and found that it had died. This seemed like an elegant solution to the problem of the outside world; she left it dead. She made a single cup of coffee with the white ceramic pour-over but forgot to drink it. She walked through her apartment and looked carefully at small details: the prewar moldings, the peeling paint above the cabinets, the long scar in the wood floor where she had once dragged a heavy bed frame. Her eyes were her eyes and yet they felt separate from her, like bright, sharp jewels. Her vision was her vision and yet she was mesmerized by small discoveries, like the shimmering net of dust hanging in one of the sunlit rectangles. She did not feel sick, and yet she felt in no way normal. Her skin under the blanket was tender when the fabric brushed it, but tender in a way that felt more like healing than injury. She still did not look.
If anyone had asked, she would not have been able to explain her equanimity, her calm acceptance, which was neither numbness nor lack of curiosity. But if she could have, she might have said that so much of living in a female body is the experience of something hurting or being about to hurt: the heavy pinch of ovaries in the second week of the month, the bruised tenderness of breasts in the third, the ungodly inside-out pulling of that bloody fourth week, the years and decades sprinkled with an entire array of twinges and throbs. In this moment, the utter absence of pain was like the hush right after an orchestra stops playing, or like the wind sweeping in an open door. The absence was language, and it communicated itself to her clearly: Just let me in.
And so she did. She opened herself as wide as a question, and she let it all in.
Thirty minutes after making the cup of coffee that she did not drink, she fell asleep again, and when she awoke, it was because someone was pounding at her door, pounding and pounding, and when she opened it, Adnan was there.
“I thought you’d died,” he said. They were sitting on her fire escape, in the pale sun of late fall. The air smelled like rust and wet leaves.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, though it hadn’t seemed to help when she had said it earlier.
“Especially after the tenth time I called you and your phone was just going to voicemail.”
“Did you really think I was dead?” She had wrapped herself in a bathrobe before she answered the door, and she felt his curious sideways glances thwarted by the enveloping terry cloth. The feeling made her slightly smug, as if she had something he wanted that she was hoarding for herself.
“I did think you could have been having a bizarre allergic reaction or something.” And then: “Did it all clear up?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Is it still there?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I haven’t been looking.”
She felt his frustration and his surprise converge. She was not a person who didn’t look. She was an obsessive checker; someone who, when she uncovered an odd bump or pink patch, returned to the spot again and again, twisting in front of mirrors, lifting her shirt or her pant leg, mesmerized by what might have occurred in the sixty seconds since she had last checked.
“Well,” he said after a stymied silence, “maybe you should have a look?”
She gazed out over the street, to the apartment building across from hers. There had been a fire in one of the units that summer, and its three street-facing windows were boarded up. The rest of the building had continued on with its life — plants on fire escapes, kids screaming in the street. But whenever she looked out her window, the boards drew her eye: a blank, splintered surface behind which any secret transformation could have been occurring.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“You don’t think so?”
She turned to look at him. His eyes were large and searching, but she sensed his exasperation beneath the surface. When they had been together, his patience had seemed like a vast plain: both the product of his training and a way of keeping her at arm’s length. She had wanted, often, to irritate him and therefore reduce the distance between them. Now she had, but it didn’t feel like a victory.
“Adnan,” she began gently. “I know I called you. But—”
“Yes,” he said, “you called me, and then you fell off the face of the earth for five days.”
She was startled. “Five?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s Wednesday.”
“Oh.” She thought of all the meetings she had missed. “Five,” she said again with wonder. Then she recaptured her train of thought. “But I’m good.” She had never spoken this sentence before, under any circumstance. “I’m actually really good, so you don’t need to worry about me.”
“I don’t know if you are good,” Adnan said slowly, his eyes never leaving her face. “And what worries me is that you don’t know if you’re good, because you’re avoiding it.” She opened her mouth, but he kept going, his voice gentler now, as if he had figured out what was wrong with her mental state and felt some relief in solving it. He told her a long story about a patient with an ulcer who had been so frightened it was stomach cancer that he hadn’t gone to a doctor until the ulcer had become excruciatingly painful, and how so much of his suffering would have been avoidable if he had faced his problem much earlier.
While Adnan was telling her this, she watched the boarded-up windows across the street, and she listened inside her body to the church hush that she remembered from one of the interstices between sleep and waking. It was still there. It was a depth of quiet just at the center of her chest. It had a knowledge to it, and a weight. It said: Sit still. It said: Shhh. It said: Hello.
Hello, she said to it. What are you?
We, it said.
What are we?
Changing, it said.
Changing into what? she asked.
Shhhh, it said.
It said: We know what we’re supposed to be.
She went upstate after Adnan had left, when it became apparent that her body would permit her to remain awake. She had not planned to go, but the compulsion swept in with another gust of wet, leaf-scented wind; it seized her, and all she could think was Go. She was not an outdoors person. She did not like nature. She was not a hiker or a camper. But her mind held an image of trees clustered tightly, offering impenetrable shelter, and the image would not recede — it strengthened itself with each passing minute, like a commandment — so she packed a bag and went.
Her boyfriend before Adnan, Steve, owned a hunting cabin in Columbia County, where he was from. She could conjure in her mind his spare keys, stored in the bole of a tree to the left of the side door, gleaming dully when the sun hit them just right. Steve was an actor, and his relocation to LA had prompted their breakup, although both of them had been relieved and ready. It was not that she felt he wouldn’t mind her breaking into his house as much as the fact that he had receded to a corner of her mind where he had stopped being fully real. The cabin, however, remained real, and now it exerted an unrelenting pull. And when she got off the Amtrak at Hudson, and then later when she stepped out of the muddy cab at the bottom of his long dirt driveway and began the steady upward hike, she did not question what she was doing there. She put one foot in front of the other, feeling the wet soil give; it had rained for many days, and the ground shivered and sucked and retained the shape of her footprints, one after the other, a distinct march into the obscurity of the trees.
Upon letting herself in, she pulled dustcovers off the furniture; she dragged logs from the small pile beside the door and stacked them in the fireplace, inhaling cobwebs and dust; she turned the taps on so the water could splutter and run brown until it ran clear; she ransacked the pantry for a can of tuna fish and a packet of crackers; she sat on the small screened porch and scooped tuna into her mouth with the crackers — and the whole time, she was waiting for the signal. She had come to know that a moment would arrive, though she did not know what kind of moment it would be. She sensed it like a shift in air pressure or an infinitesimally subtle vibration in the ground: fate swimming toward her. Her job was only to wait.
After all the sleeping, she was vividly, urgently awake. Nothing in her inclined itself to rest. She paced around the cabin. She found an axe on the screened porch and attempted to chop larger pieces of cordwood into smaller ones, but she didn’t know enough about axes, so she put it back. The day peaked and dropped; evening came slow, and the birds grew quiet in increments until the woods slipped from song to silence. She sat on the front steps, batting at mosquitoes, and noticed a green tinge to her unpainted fingernails. She shoved her hands into the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie and left them there. When it was finally dark, about 8:30 or 9:00, she went inside and lit a fire. As it smoked and sputtered into action, she lit the white storm candles that Steve had placed around the cabin, making up for the lack of electricity. She and Steve had had sex on this floor once, surrounded by an oval of candles. He had thought it was romantic, but to her the ambiance had made it feel like a menacing ritual, the precursor to human sacrifice. Now the rough wood walls flickered with amber light, and it was good to be alone.
She sat still, staring out at the night.
She did not think, or if she did, it was in a series of pictures that vanished as fast as they appeared. The boarded-up windows of the gutted apartment came back to her a few times. The olive flash of her bare nails as she brushed at a mosquito. The side of Adnan’s face explaining ulcers to her.
She ate another can of tuna fish with another packet of crackers. She drank from a plastic jug of water she’d found in the back of the pantry. Her senses were heightened: her tongue could decipher where the flat slap of plastic diverged from the water’s mineral tang; where staleness and age crept in; where sunlight, slanting through the high, cracked pantry window, had baked the plastic jug for months at a time; how the jug had warmed and cooled, expanded and contracted, until finally it bled its chemicals into the water.
Outside, a barred owl called, and then called again. A flutter and thump as a heavy-bodied moth encountered the windowpane, distracted by the candle that flickered nearest to it. The rustle of something small in the walls of the cabin, moving quickly. It was the heart of night now, the deepest core where time pooled. White candle wax dripped down and over, decorating windowsills and floorboards. The trees pressed inward, their leaves pressed inward, she felt the tight closeness of their bodies, and — Oh. There it was.
The moment that she had been waiting for arrived quite suddenly and caught her up in its arms, and it was dark after that, all the dark of the forest pressing in and in, and nothing to do but fall forward into the boundless surge that took her, flung her high, and split her open.
“Up at the cabin,” the mailman said. He was breathless, and his wife, Linda, wished to herself that he would do this less often — this thing where he burst into her little office where she was trying to concentrate on her emails, all the endless emails that piled up and ruined your entire afternoon. She’d been rounding the bend of one to her sister, reporting on the kids and the grandkids and the weather, and then there was Vince, flinging her door open with excitement. What was it this time? A possum in the woodshed? An encounter with the new couple who’d bought the place out on Roundtop Road?
“Honey,” she said, “your shoes, please.”
Vince glanced down at his muddy sneakers, as if this weren’t a conversation they had all the time. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry. But honey—”
“Shoes, now,” she said, and he retreated, sheepish. Out in the entryway, Vince kept talking, and Linda stared at her computer screen and wondered if she should tell her sister about her ongoing battle with rosacea. She wondered when Vince would stop interrupting her train of thought, and then she realized that he was still talking about a cabin, the one that belonged to that sweet Steve Parson. Stevie was a local boy who’d made good — or at least he’d left town. And although an actor wasn’t the sort of thing you raised a child to be, if Stevie had ended up murdered in his hunting cabin, she would have been sad. So she got up and joined Vince in the entryway and broke into his monologue to say, “Start again — what exactly happened at Stevie’s camp?”
Vince was pleased; his wife hardly ever let him finish, let alone asked him to start again. And so he launched back in.
He went up to the cabin every month or so to have a look around for Stevie, he said, just make sure no trees fell through the roof, that kind of thing—
Linda, suspicious: “He paying you for this?”
“Well,” Vince said, abashed now that the subject of money had come up, “I’m only having a look around, Lin.”
“It takes gas to get up there, gas to get back.”
“Well — it’s basically on my route.”
“There’s caretakers do exactly that kinda thing for summer people,” Linda said, sharp. “And they get paid.” She liked Stevie, don’t get her wrong, but he had often taken advantage of Vince’s good nature in the past.
“It’s not like that,” Vince objected. “Anyway, that’s not the point.”
Linda realized that if Stevie Parsons was dead in his cabin, she would have felt bad about mentioning the money, so she let herself be rerouted. “Go on then,” she said.
“So I was up by the cabin,” Vince said, and he took her step-by-step through his routine: the mud of the driveway; how his wheels had churned without moving; how he had worried about being stuck and had left the mail truck parked halfway up that long, snaking drive; how, on walking up the drive and into the clearing in front of the cabin, he had perceived immediately a disturbance. He had smelled recent woodsmoke brightening the air; his eye had taken in the blue tarp half peeled off the woodpile; and even as his eyes had lifted to the few rickety steps of the porch, he had seen it: the front door standing open.
He had approached, calling Steve’s name, although there was no car, no tire tracks in the wet dirt of the drive. No one had answered. Cautious now, he had approached the porch, but the silence was thick. He had had the feeling, he said, of being watched, but when he’d looked over his shoulder, he had seen no one. And so at last he had climbed those three rickety steps and stood in the open doorway, gazing into the cabin.
A few times Linda tried to urge him toward the end of his story, but Vince held fast, he took his time, he would not be rushed in his telling when he had been so painstaking in his approach to the unexpected. It had taken his eyes a while to focus, he said, because of the sweeping gloom inside and the brightness outside. But at last, reluctant to step inside, hovering on the threshold of the door, his gaze had adjusted. At last, he had seen what there was to see.
“And what was it?” Linda demanded, on edge.
Well, Vince said slowly. Here is what it looked like. It’s hard to know, it’s hard to be sure, but here is what it seemed like — right in front of him, not three feet away. Lying on the floor, in the center of the floor — at first he thought it was a rug. Or a coat, he said, like someone had been there, dropped their coat. But then he realized no, it wasn’t a coat or a rug or any kind of thing like that. It was a skin.
“But like the skin of a deer?” Linda asked, confused. “Muskrat? Bear? What kind of a skin are we talking about, Vince?”
Like a person skin, Vince said. Like if you could just unzip your skin and step right out of it, like that, except it was torn in places. Like it had all happened in a hurry. He had gone in then, had touched it with the toe of his boot and then used a piece of kindling from the bucket, moving it around, trying to make sense of it. Eventually he’d used his hands, he said, his own hands, to make sure it was real, not some kind of fake or something.
What it had made him think of, actually, if you wanted to know, was this pet he’d had as a child: an iguana that grew larger than it should have been and meaner than you’d expect it to be, and it had had the run of his childhood home for several years until it got out one day — he always thought his mother left the window open on purpose — and off it went. And that skin, the green pebbling of it, the roughness and shine, the interlocking of what could only be, could only seem to be . . . But then it didn’t make sense because the sheer scale of it was human-size, there were arms and legs, there was the broadness of shoulders and the length of torso, there was the feeling you got, touching that skin, like someone had just been in the room. Just been there. Only minutes earlier. And the door standing open, like a blessing.
When Linda wrote to her sister about this later, she deleted the sentence about human scale, and then the sentence about green pebbling, and then several sentences about Vince’s childhood iguana, and then she looked at what was left — the cabin disturbed, a strange watchfulness in the air — and she deleted those as well. She wrote: Vince has been groundskeeping for a local boy, Stevie, do you remember him, he’s an actor now, and then she added: Everything is much stranger than it used to be, and she sent the email before she could delete that, too, because it was, in the end, exactly what she meant to say, and she was tired of holding back.
After she sent the email, she walked to the window and looked out at the wet trees and the wet yard. It had just stopped raining, and everything glistened under a haze, and she thought about a zipper right in the center of her chest, the simplicity of escape, and the door standing open like a blessing.