BRAYDON BEAULIEU

Ghost Skin

I strip off my clothes. They lie wrinkled on the cement floor. Does my father’s skin have so many folds and creases, valleys, walls? His voice outside my door says, Malek?
I climb into my bed and cover my nakedness. Yeah, I say. Come in.
In the dark, I can’t see Baba’s mouth, but I hear him ask, Where were you, Malek?
What do you mean?
I heard you come back inside, he says. You’re lucky your mother didn’t.
Sorry.
Well? Where were you, ya azar?
I’m sorry, I say. I didn’t think you’d hear. I was up in Kassim’s big tree, stargazing.
I can climb the maple tree in Kassim’s backyard in fourteen seconds. I can jump and roll from halfway back down if I need to, if he comes running out the patio door with a cricket bat in hand, shouting, Get the hell out of my lawn, yamshahar ya haiwan.
Baba shifts, a faint outline in the shadows, and says, Spying on someone. What do you want, Malek? You want to lose your eyes?
I’m not going to lose my eyes. That’s an old wives’ tale. In that tree, the leaves fold into my body, shards of copper and brass that latch into my skin and protect me from shrapnel and hot sand, cover me like the scales of a snake and hide my naked eyes from the ends of glowing orange brands used to burn out the sockets of spies. I’m safe out there, I say. And I’m not spying on anyone.
He rubs his toes into the carpet and says, You’re spying on Kassim.
Why would I want to spy on Kassim?
Why are you in his tree?
I don’t answer because my eyes are closing on their own. He shakes his head and leaves, closing the door behind him.

My father has high blood pressure. The doctor says too much stress. So when we sit down to eat in the mornings we have plain oatmeal and orange juice and sliced bananas. But his blood pressure isn’t coming down. This is because his job demands so much of him and he watches too much TV. And he buys greasy fries and pizza at work. I know this because of the stains on his pants where he wipes his fingers.
My mother doesn’t talk about it much, but she scrubs the dishes too hard and last Tuesday she cried for no reason. One night, while sitting up in the tree, I saw her come out and meet Kassim at the fence. They spoke for almost an hour. I could hear her saying my father’s name, and I heard her crying. Kassim hugged her. I picked at the bark of the maple.
My father’s shadow plays on the walls and counters but his body never appears. He is a ghost, rustling through the walls of our home.
I try to convince Baba to play soccer with me. But the one time he came out and ran around, he fell, and my mother came running out the patio door screaming, Bashir, Bashir, and she asked me if I was insane and asked him if he was insane, and since then I’ve only kicked the ball around the yard alone or with Emery or Jameson on the weekend.
But sometimes we watch soccer on TV.
Today, he comes down to breakfast and tells me he wants to talk to me before we eat. We head into the backyard. Kassim is sweeping red and gold leaves off his balcony. They spiral to the grass and nest there, intact. My father puts a hand on my shoulder.
Malek, he says. Malek, I raised you much better than this. You can’t be putting your spoon in other people’s soup all the time. You are no longer to climb that tree, do you understand? You are not to go onto that man’s property.
But.
He holds up his hand. He says, If I catch you sneaking out again you’ll be grounded. I don’t care how old you are. No, I don’t care. And I’ll tell your mother. She’ll put you to work like you can’t even imagine. Okay.
He turns and walks back inside. I cross our yard and reach over the fence, rub my fingers against the bark of the maple. Its leaves are brittle under my feet and crunch like old snakeskins. There’s a crash and a scream, and Kassim looks up at my house. I run back inside.
My father lies on the kitchen floor in a puddle of orange juice and banana slices. My mother kneels beside him in the mess, shaking him, yelling his name. I want to shake him as well, wake him up, slap him if I have to, promise I’ll never climb a tree again in my life, call 911, anything. But I can only twitch my fingers and blink. I smell burning oatmeal.

We bury my father today, the twentieth of October, and the mosque smells of lemon and sweat. My mother is on the other side of the barrier. She cries but doesn’t wail. Everyone keeps telling me that everything belongs to Allah, that we must all return at His will. I clasp their hands and repeat, Yislamou.
All day I think, Where is Kassim?
My father is shrouded in three white sheets. Three extra layers of ghost skin to cover his own. My voice joins in Salaat-ul Janaazah, and then the men take the coffin to the cemetery. The director’s staff lowers Baba into the dirt with the centipedes, and we pray as a field of crickets. All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the forest of the mind.
My uncle nudges me. Feast, Malek.
Hmm?
Feast of the mind.
We get home and friends and family funnel themselves into our house, opening platters of baqlawa and fruits and hummus. My friend Emery opens a meat and cheese platter and my mother whispers into his ear. He smacks his forehead, covers the platter up again, takes it out to his mother’s car. I go out into the backyard and around the house to see him. He’s crying against the passenger-side window. In the backyard, Kassim is at the fence, smoking.
I’m sorry about your father, he says.
Were you at the funeral?
He taps his cigarette and the ashes drift down to the base of the maple tree. No, I wasn’t. I didn’t think. I wanted to stay here.
Oh. I thought I missed you.
Kassim takes a long pull, closing his eyes, and breathes out the smoke, slow. You going into the tree tonight?
You know?
Of course I damn well know, it’s my tree.
He picks a piece of bark from the trunk and rolls it between his thumb and his finger. I want to reach out and do the same. Instead I ask, You don’t care?
Malek, son, you’re what? Twelve? Thirteen? I’m not going to come chasing after you with a bat anymore. My tree, your tree, far’s I’m concerned. How’s your mom holding up?
I shrug, rub my toes into the grass like my father does. Did. An image of him in my room the night before he died, toeing the carpet. I say, I can’t climb it anymore.
Kassim flicks his cigarette into the mulch on his side of the fence. Smoke leaks from between his lips. Why not?
I just, I can’t.
Your father was kind. He didn’t deserve the bad things that happened to him. The way he was treated, sometimes. He loves you. Remember that.
My mother calls for me from the house. Over my head, her eyes meet Kassim. She blushes. I return to the people in my home, and to platters of pineapple and grapes.

Can’t sleep. I rub my cheeks and kneel up on my bed to look out the window at the dancing shadows of the maple tree. I wish I could crawl out the window and climb.
A slithering sound: the patio door opening above my bedroom. My mother’s shadow extends from the house and slides across the grass. It stops at the fence, and Kassim is there. He wraps his arms around her.
I jump from my bed and yank open my dresser drawers, tearing out every shirt and mismatched sock and pair of jeans and tossing it across the carpet. As if his voice is carried in from the backyard on a strong wind, I hear Kassim quote, For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. I wade through the pool of shed skins to my closet, pulling sweaters and trousers and neckties from hangers and throwing them down on the floor with the rest. And I lie down in the folds of it all and slowly, so slowly, sleep comes. But not before I hear my mother come back into the house.

The next day, she doesn’t come out of her bedroom until nightfall. It’s already dark outside when she walks into the kitchen. She’s been crying. There are wet spots on her collar and at the bottom of her shirt, where she’s wiped her eyes. I am reading The Prophet at the table, eating a red apple.
Morning, she mumbles.
I take another bite of my apple.
She descends to the basement to do the laundry. After some time she comes back up the stairs and asks, What happened to your room? Why are your clothes all over the place?
I don’t know.
She sees the book I’m reading, says, Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. Clean your room when you’re done with your apple. You’re not an animal.
When I get downstairs I see that she’s changed my sheets. The blue ones must be in the wash because the white ones are on my bed. I spend the next forty-five minutes folding and hanging. When I’m done, I sit down on the floor and pick at the frayed hem of my jeans.
My mother’s voice comes down the stairs. Malek, I’m going back to bed.
Night.
When I hear her door close upstairs, I pull the white sheets from the mattress and carry them outside. I cross the lawn barefoot and wrap the sheets around my shoulders, lie down at the fence beside the tree, just on the other side. I stare up through its branches at the black sky and wish for the blades of grass to hook into my shroud and my flesh and pull me under, while the squirrels and the crows pray Salaat-ul Janaazah.
Baba and I will kick the soccer ball around and not worry about him falling.
Through my new skin, I see the kitchen light turn on, then off again. There won’t be any fence-meetings tonight.

[BIO]: Braydon is a candidate for the PhD in English & Creative Writing at the University of Calgary.

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