She begins tearing in the autumn, after they move into the new house with the deep woods out back. At first, she doesn’t pay too much attention to the stretch-marks — not to the painful fizz on her right heel, or the sudden dart across her indigo back, like running a needle through the buttery fat there. —Ow, she says, rubbing the rip each time, but the pain soon dissipates, and she’s too busy rising with her man before dawn to pay attention: pulling on heavy boots, crunching down woodland paths, watching the pale gold sun filtering through leaves, light patterning the backs of their hands, circling the lake. She is a tall, strong woman, with round thighs that rub and big breasts swaying under her coat. No more bras, she decides. Big hair, instead. Small creatures nest on her: lacy damselflies, butterflies with orange-tipped wings, tiny red ladybirds. —You’re like a tree, her man says, his smile and the rest of him as tall and wide and hard as her.
Some days they float three inches above the path, walking on breeze and giggling.
Each time they come back from their walk, she is jerked out of reverie by the old living room sofa. It annoys her, much more than the occasional, painful stretch-mark. It’s so ugly: melting from overuse, hunched like a huge, orange homeless man in the middle of the room. The cushions slide off muttering, slick with some unpleasant substance. —We should have never brought it with us, she complains.
It is the only imperfect thing, that sofa, until the day her cheek stings so badly that her eyes water, and her man says what’s that baby, and she’s forced to examine the tiny red rip that no amount of rubbing makes right.
A stretch-mark. On her face. She stares, horrified.
That was three months ago. Now her hide is striped with them. The stretch-marks hurt like electric shocks when they come up, then sink into a constant, dull pain that spreads. They’re on her hips and buttocks and thighs, across her stomach and cleavage, but they also appear in unexpected places: splitting her earlobe, scarring the end of her wedding ring finger, zig-zagging so deep inside her that she cries out, knowing that lovemaking is done, done, done. She imagines her flesh creaking, obedient to some massive, insular force.
“Excuse me,” whispers the sales assistant, when she goes in to look at their stock of seven sofas. “Excuse me, but you’re bleeding.” And she is, through her blue shirt, and everybody’s looking as she limps to the car, pressing her palms against the ripping. She’s too dark for these parts. People mutter at the time it takes her to gather strawberries in the market, or find change.
“You must get out of bed,” her man says, but it hurts to sit at her desk. If she just had a sensible sofa, she snaps, she could pull the coffee table close, pile her laptop, tea, painkillers, on it, arrange pillows just so. Bring in some money, it’s all been on him for a while. To pay for a new sofa. Most urgently, she could see the woods through the huge bay window, the very tip of the silver lake, but she doesn’t say that. She feels lumpish, as if rocks have weighted her joints. Sometimes she finds herself curled in the hallway, drowsy and surprised.
“Got to sort that sofa,” says her man, but he doesn’t. He needs help to move it, “but you know they’ll just gossip,” he says, accusatory, as if he’s only just noticed the way people are about mixed couples. It’s fine for him, he grew up here. Now he goes out in the mornings without her. She misses the mud, and frightening foxes that yelp and dance in streams of diamond sunshine.
“I’ve been asking you,” she says, “the sofa.”
She knows he misses being able to seize her, crush her, pick her up, fling her. The bed he bought and reinforced with his own hands is strong enough to do everything they need to, as hard as they need to do it. She used to pull him into it, wrestling and biting. All the words he said to her - sweetheart, clever-clogs, goddess-girl, were light and frothy in her throat, a lime sorbet of love she could taste all day.
One night she begins to cry and finds she can’t stop. The tears bloat the mattress and drip onto the floor and wake her man. He’s never seen her cry. He tries to touch her, but she’s frightened of his touch. He stands up, paces the room, more serious and kind than she’s seen him for a while. He is so sorry. He will do everything, he says. Soon as he wakes up tomorrow, he’ll take the old sofa away. And when he comes back with the perfect replacement, they’ll talk, he says. About new things, new ways to be. New ways to love. Plans and graphs. Bibles and support. She picks flesh out of one ear, paper-thin, stares down at it, oddly golden in the dark. He turns the sodden mattress, and when they climb back into bed, his hands hover over her, never touching, like a benediction.
She sleeps patchily, comforted.
But when she limps downstairs the next morning, the lugubrious sofa is still there. Puzzled, she smooths her hands across her body, checking for new tears, thinking.
He must have a different plan.
But there is no note on the fridge or message anywhere.
Throughout the day she makes and eats three simple meals; sends a carrier pigeon to him, a pink bow around its plump breast; writes an article about ceramics for beginner potters; sends a message to him via the second sugar in the tea he has on his first break; washes the dishes; sends rain to the window of his workplace; calls her best friend and says she’s just fine; sees, with a soft oh-sound that his toothbrush is gone, all his clothing, every last drop; sleeps for a while; sends him a kiss in a ball of the old, orange thread she unravels from the sofa. She notices that the once-red stretch-marks are yellowing, no, turning gold, like slow-baking pastry, winding themselves across her dark expanse, like gold flame around her waist, swirling between her toes. The gold spills across one nipple, the other raw and black and tender.
His silence is astonishing in its completeness.
She sinks down beside the ugly sofa. There is a rip in its upholstery and she worries at it with her finger. The hole widens, cheap material yawning. The golden stretch-mark on her wrist expands with the movement of her hand. She gasps, braces for agony as the rip widens, exposing yellow fat underneath the skin, but there is no pain at all. It’s oddly comforting, right in some way.
He has left with the condoms from their bedside, the cheese he likes and she doesn’t, the stick he keeps at the back door to scrape the mud off their boots. The stick! She struggles with this idea. Is this cruel? Is it practical? Rage suffuses her. Is it simply to leave her in no doubt at all, these things he has taken?
The sofa must be gone, she must kill it.
What she does next, takes the rest of the day and far into the evening.
First, she slides the cushions into large bin bags, huffing slightly. She sits on the floor and pulls away as much upholstery from the sofa as she can: pinch by pinch, beige fabric and sponge exposed by a pair of clipping, inching scissors. She pauses frequently to breathe and rest and understand the construct of the thing. After an hour in, the skin on her dominant arm simply unskeins, rolling into her lap, leaving her entire forearm gleaming pink and golden. Again, the same cessation of pain. The skin is like expensive brown paper, surprisingly delicate.
Her rejuvenated arm moves with more purpose now, flashing bone through gold. Where the scissors don’t work she uses a kitchen knife, pulling and pushing and twisting patiently. A screwdriver is enough to prise the 25 staples free, one-breath-two-breaths-counting. Once they’re gone, the sofa slumps, mortally wounded. She smiles; the task is possible.
A slip of scalp slithers down the back of her neck, taking hair and the pain of that stretch-mark with it.
She leans on the back of the sofa, panting; once tilted, its own weight is enough to crash it onto its side. She unscrews the legs. The last one is impossibly tight; won’t budge until the effort peels all the skin off her hands, and they’re stronger than before. She puts the screws in a bag, along with the flesh that covered her knee cap. Exposed, it reminds her of a large, yellow egg.
She peels the skin away from her chest bone, reminded of sunburnt holidays and people surprised that she needed sunblock, too. She’d told her man these things, how they made her feel alien, but he never really understood.
She stabs the sofa in the back, running the knife lengthways. While the wood underneath is a nice maple, most of the sofa is no more than heavy card, foam and thick fabric, stapled to the frame. The metal springs are attached by clips, and easily removed. The sofa arms dangle. She smiles. Her top lip splits, running up the cleft under her nose, flapping like a good shirt on a washing line. It tickles.
Through the big window, the darkening woods pulsate.
She goes to the back door for her heavy walking boots, wondering what kind of ragged beauty she must seem.
“A new way to be,” he said.
“Mmm-hmmm,” under her breath, and the sound of her voice is different.
She clambers on top of the sofa, and kicks the dangling left arm until it falls off with a dull thud and remarkably little dust. Her top lip flaps annoyingly, so she pulls it off and tosses it onto the growing heap in the corner, along with most of the skin on her hip, which concertinas away from her body, falling down her leg. Her kick to the second arm of the sofa is misjudged: the arm hits the living room wall rather harder than she intended, the roll of hip-skin flying with it, and everything suddenly seems fine. Almost ordinary.
She realises she’s naked, and wonders when that happened.
The tall and broad and large woman - who is three quarters golden now, but doesn't know it - sits down on the legless, armless sofa. One stripped finger, stroking it. The sofa shrinks away from her. She smiles and rests her golden neck against the cheap fabric for a moment, then, when she's ready, sits straighter and begins to hammer her fists against the back, pushing against it using her legs, rocking with her whole body. The spine of the thing calls out. A few missed nails dig into her rear - as she shifts, they catch and drag away all the remaining skin from her waist, down the front of her thighs. She giggles; as the rocking continues her laughter becomes louder, the skin inches down. The sofa squeaks and roars, capitulates finally, cracking in half, both pieces thumping to the floor as her carapace splits, flooding her across the remains: shimmering, hot, metallic, laughing, free, streaming towards the trees.