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Hand

Skin

That Christmas 
God treated himself to a new coat.
Till then he’d not been dressed for visiting—
he’d nothing dull enough to wear.

Early on he'd come to recognise 
his appearance didn't put people at ease.
Even the very first ones were nervous—
when he took an afternoon stroll round the garden 
they'd run and hide.

And when he showed someone around,
he found their reactions hardly reassuring. 
He understood it must be difficult 
to be wholly relaxed in the presence of a host
with dazzling white hair, emerald eyes
and a tongue like a sword, sat on a blazing throne 
guarded by four six-winged living creatures
and two dozen elders chanting constantly.
Polite, yes, but probably not relaxed.
Likely to slop tea onto the custard creams.  

So he took to meeting just a trusted few
in places carefully arranged—
a mountain or a desert, far from crowds.
He made them build a tent, for conferences,
with heavily restricted access. When he spoke, 
he found the quiet voices worked out best.  

Eventually it was easier just to send a messenger.
Of course people were still startled
when a shining creature several metres high
materialised in their living rooms
like something from the Starship Enterprise,
but they did their job,
and angels don’t have feelings you can hurt.

He learned that people were more comfortable 
with their own kind. Pleased when you showed 
an interest, of course, but when the boss 
drops by the conversation’s always stilted,
and both sides are relieved after he’s gone.

So when the time came
for the business that had to be done,
he travelled incognito: dressing down 
for the occasion, he chose skin.
Not suede or leather, only skin.
Close-fitting, durable, anonymous,
adaptable. No special style or colour.

Skin was his lifetime companion.
He nursed the scabs of childhood games 
on knees and elbows, felt the ligaments 
grow taut, the muscles stretch when he 
extended himself. He fingered callouses 
made by a workman’s tools upon his palms.

He came to know skin from the inside.
He knew the pleasant shock of cold water
splashed across his face in the midday heat.
He knew the touch of cool parchment
unrolling underneath his fingertips,
the dryness in his mouth as he prepared
to read what was written there about him.

He felt skin harden under feet that walk 
long distances, and after sleepless nights 
he felt it hang in folds beneath his eyes.
At his most tired it felt almost detached,
a loose sack just to keep him warm.

Once, when he thought he had their confidence , 
he let three of them glimpse his real appearance. 
They were terrified, and he never risked it again. 

He saw skin made repulsive by disease, 
and healed it. He saw Lazarus walking,
and felt the gooseflesh ripple down his spine.

He knew the feel of an animal’s rough back 
beneath his thighs, and breezes from waved branches.
When anger sluiced blood to the surface of 
the skin he felt his face flush vivid red.
He watched how liquids trickled over it.
He could tell the different tensions of tears 
and ointment running down his cheeks and beard. 

He washed skin carefully, not just 
his own but others’. He observed how it 
protected them, the tiny beads of water 
dripping from their feet into his bowl.

He knelt on dew-drenched grass and felt 
his cloak cling round his legs. His burning 
forehead prickled with cold drops of fear.

He felt how, when whipped repeatedly,
skin disintegrates and the soft flesh 
beneath is ploughed up like a bright red field.
He knew then how necessary it had been. 
Skin had dulled the pain of being man
and kept the parts together long enough.
Now it was time to shed it. It was torn 
in strips from his back, and hammered out
in slices from his wrists, then pierced
so that the fluids would spill out more easily.
An the end he saw it was no more
than a ripped bag bursting with offal,
cut down and wrapped like meat 
to put into cold storage.

It was finished. What would happen next
even he did not exactly know,
but he had watched creatures discard their coats
in preparation for another life.
He was ready for a new and different skin.


Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1995. Revised in 2013 and again in October 2017. 

Typical performance time: 4 minutes 30 seconds.

Godfrey Rust, godfrey@wordsout.co.uk. See here for details of permissions for use.