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Hand

Skin

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

Quite early he had come to realise 
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 would run and hide.

And when he showed someone around,
he had to admit their reactions were hardly reassuring. 
He saw it was a little difficult 
to be wholly relaxed in the presence of a host
with dazzling white hair, emerald eyes
and a tongue like a sword,
seated on a blazing throne
guarded by four six-winged living creatures
and two dozen elders chanting incessantly.
Polite, yes, but probably not relaxed.
Likely to slop tea onto the chocolate digestives.  

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

Eventually it became 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 from the top floor 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 went 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 his knees and elbows.
He felt the ligaments inside it,
the muscles stretch when he extended himself.
He fingered the callouses made by a workman’s tools on 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 beneath his fingertips,
the dryness in his mouth as he prepared
to read what was written there about him.

He noticed skin harden 
under feet that walk long distances.
After sleepless nights 
he felt it hang in folds beneath his eyes.
When he was most tired 
it felt almost detached from him,
a loose sack keeping him warm.

Once,
when he thought he had their confidence enough, 
he gave three of them a glimpse of 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 a ripple of gooseflesh on his spine.

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

He washed skin carefully,
not just his own but others’.
He saw 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 underneath
is ploughed up like a bright red field.
He knew then how necessary it had been. 
Skin had dulled the pain of being a man,
and kept the parts together long enough.
Now it was time to shed it.
It was torn in strips from his back,
gouged out of the palms of his hands,
and pierced so that fluids would spill out more easily.
At 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 something.
He was ready
for a new and different skin.

 


Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1995.

Typical performance time: 4 minutes 30 seconds.