by Ai Jiang
I lay sunburnt on the ground. The night air cooled my searing skin. I did not need to look down to see the red blotches scattered across my body. My limbs tingled as though a thousand fine hairs were plucked from their roots. But the green of my skin would not leave, only darkened by the rays of light now gone. How I wished I were not the colour of unripe leaves before the peak of spring.
“Don’t scratch, child,” Mother said. “Don’t scratch.” My hands hovered above my elbows before I dropped them back down beside me, nails digging into loose soil, imagining it as flesh flaking off my body, leaving only the raw muscles beneath.
“Why?” I asked, though it was directed more at myself than to my mother who looked onwards, not at me, with a forlorn expression, brows drawn low. Unconsciously, she caressed her own arms, trailing a finger along the skin.
The patches of green of my body first became brown, then faded once more to green, like moss crawling up my body—wicked vines with thorns digging into my pores. My fingers crept towards my face, the skin emerald in the reflection of the lake, more jaded than the swaying leaves of trees hovering above the head of my mirror. It was not like Their pale, Their dark; Their tanned bodies so unlike my own.
But even as I so desired to be like one of them, They hated one another. Though They were in agreement that They despised each other, They shared a common hatred for us. We had fingers and toes webbed in between with gills along our necks. Our eyes were larger than Theirs, protruding from my heads like wide analyzing lens.
“Why are you not like us?” They asked, standing in a ring around my crouching figure when They spotted me a week ago. The scales on my back glistened with murky water and perspiration.
“Why are we not like them?” I asked Mother. I clawed at my neck, wanting nothing more than to rip off the moss to reveal what was within: blood and organs—something human.
Mother took hold of my wrists with a gentle firmness. “Don’t scratch, child. Don’t scratch.” What difference did it make? Her repeated words were like a broken record that did not help others accept our presence.
My skin changed in vibrancy—olive, pea, lime, forest. Nobody told me that this was no disease but just the colour of my skin. The moss and vines continued to grow until they covered my entirety, until no one could see what was underneath except my mother. Was that enough? Would that be enough?
They pushed me into the lake, but instead of floundering like many of them do, I rested at the bottom with others of my kind, who always believed the human world was not for them—home was safer. My mother’s body joined me, sinking into the lake’s depths. We watched Them from below, Their blurred figures looking down with the sky as the backdrop, almost as though that was where They had come from. But we knew better—now.
I stopped scratching and looked at those above water with pity as They began to claw at one another.
“Don’t scratch, children. Don’t scratch,” I whispered.
AUTHOR BIO: Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, an immigrant from Fujian, and an active member of HWA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Dark Matter, PseudoPod, Jellyfish Review, Hobart Pulp, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (http://aijiang.ca).