In the opening of “Jessica’s Body” by Catherine Mitchell, today’s New Voices story, we meet Jessica, a young girl on the verge of puberty, whose recurring dream features skin pulled back like a candy wrapper. In this story, Mitchell invites us into the weird, and asks us to consider how much of ourselves is public, how much we share with those we trust the most.
At home, her mum ran her a bath and stroked her hair. Jessica climbed into the warm water. Currents of red kept swirling up between her legs. Blood clots floated up to the surface and Jessica squeezed them between her finger and thumb. The dark red oozed. Her breasts were getting bigger. Jessica didn’t recognise her body any more. It had changed whilst her back was turned.
Jessica used to have a recurring dream when she was a teenager that she picked at a hangnail and the strip of skin, instead of breaking off, kept peeling back, down her finger, across the back of her hand and up her arm until—as if her body was a box of chocolates wrapped in cellophane that was removed by one smooth strip—all her skin had fallen off her body in a wet, wrinkled pile. She would feel raw, and cold, and new; and when she woke up, she knew that she would be bleeding again.
As an adult Jessica would sometimes remember that year of her life and wonder if it really happened. She would tell herself it hadn’t been real, merely a delusion, or hysteria, or the vivid imagination of a young girl. But more often than not Jessica wouldn’t think of it at all—it was lost, as so many things are, to time.
* * *
It began on her thirteenth birthday. Jessica had felt weird all day, teary and angry for no reason. Her mum brought out a big ice cream cake with thirteen pink candles on the top. Pink wax dripped down onto the surface of the cake as Jessica’s mum and dad sang. Jessica had looked into the middle of each flame to see the dark heart before blowing them out. Three days later her period started. It came during the night; Jessica woke up and knew that something was wrong. She thought, for one horrible moment, that she had wet herself. The top of her thighs were stuck together. There was a smell—both animal and metallic at once—in her room. She groped for her lamp and switched it on, throwing back her sheets. She screamed when she saw the blood. It took her aback completely: She had somehow believed it would never happen to her. Her mother stumbled through to Jessica’s room and rolled her eyes. She pushed Jessica into the bathroom where she showed her how to use pads, what to do with the dirty ones, what temperature to soak her knickers in so that the blood came out. Then she striped the bed, remade it and tucked Jessica in. Jessica felt sore, tired, and dazed. Her fingers tingled, her stomach hurt. She cried a little and slept.