Flinching

Angela Woodward

My friend Ethan told me a story circa 1985 that used the word “degloving.” It involved wire, flinching, and a terrified child trying to keep still. I don’t know if his story was true. It was presented as true at the time. Maybe Ethan suffered from this story as much as I did.

So many children, he told me, had been captured and tortured in the way he described that the city’s social workers had had to convene a special workshop to learn how to deal with the trauma. Ethan was not a social worker but had a friend who was. This friend was the one who had heard the child speak of the ordeal of degloving.

In the intervening thirty years, I’ve often brought up to myself that word “degloving,” and then recoiled from the dread it unleashes. That’s as far as I get. The word itself is so frightening that it paralyzes me. It stands at the threshold of the rest of the story, bidding me enter but knowing I won’t. I wonder why I can’t go further. I turn away before I’ve even considered what the word might be hiding. Then I bring to mind an extensive catalog of horrors that I turn away from. They master me. But maybe today is different. I sit in a chair on another friend’s ocean-front balcony and watch the fog roll in. I could stop here and not set down a word more.

Or I can say that once I was on board a ship with my husband and new baby. Shortly after noon, a languor crept over the crew and guests. All along the deck, women slept in chairs, their legs in the sun, faces covered with open fashion magazines. The spines of these magazines formed a peak, like the apex of a roof, and the two sides, adorned with angelic faces in close up, kept hidden the closed eyes and open mouths of the real women beneath. An old man rested under a pork pie hat. Nylon ribbons fluttered off the guard rails and then drooped as the breeze fell. My husband had excused himself after lunch and lain down in our cabin, while I stayed on deck to nurse the baby. The baby’s lips had let go of my nipple, and I held his still little skull in my elbow. The shadow of a gull flicked over us. The waves died down. The ship lagged and listed, no white wake curling away from the bow. Far out on the horizon, a black spot formed and grew bigger.

It might be possible to deflect horror before it happens, to exclude the possibility of some kinds of situations by not looking and not venturing. I don’t consider that brave or worthy. I would like to be a person who could look the worst calamity in the face, to acknowledge it. I don’t know what to do with it, but I’d like to be able to greet it.

However, I’ve prevented myself from looking at certain situations, deliberately walled them off. Even as I deride those two women in the park below, walking their purebred dog as the fog billows inland, even as I think I’m somehow more worthy than they because I know about the slaughtered cattle and injured ranch hands this park was founded on, and I assume, out of my arrogance, that they don’t, I still won’t look at certain things. I hide behind my hands, and tremble in my chair with my eyes closed.

So many of these children had told similar stories, Ethan’s friend told him, that the social workers had called a city-wide, cross-agency meeting. Some traumas—burns, slaps, shaking, or the ongoing neglect of no food in the house or the parents’ attention sucked toward drugs or sex or the battle to find yet another place to say—needed to be addressed, but none of the social workers considered these problems solvable. The incidents, though, that had recently come to light, seemed aberrant. They were due not to systemic inequality and racism but to the evil plans of a few demented people. There couldn’t be very many of them in this new cult of satanists. They could be found and stopped. Apprehending the satanists was a problem for the police, while the social workers needed to learn to handle the trauma of the children, who had been used in sacrifices. They convened their interagency meeting to learn about this new crime, while the old crimes such as hot water poured on kids who cried in the night, were let to recline in the background. The best social workers had as much empathy for the mother who shook her baby as for the hapless infant, at least until the arc of their careers took them into an unbreakable callousness. They were used to a kind of facelessness of circumstance, where any individual misfortune could be traced back to multiple overlapping causes: lead in the water, poor prenatal diet, the stress of murder and suicide in the vicinity of kids at play unattended. The social workers could rail or not rail at these enormous problems, which they no longer expected themselves to be able to address. The satanists, on the other hand, seemed to have a particularity to them. There had to be specific bad people at work in this instance. They were somehow communicating with each other, cells spreading and replicating their violent rituals, so that more and more children were turning up alive in emergency rooms or dead on the curb with all the skin stripped from their fingers.

This Ethan’s friend told him, and Ethan relayed it to me. I wished he hadn’t. In all the intervening years, I’ve never heard again this word he first used with me. Within my mind, though, “degloving” has been able to speak itself. It lies on a cot mumbling its own name, and every now and then I come to the door and listen.

Though everyone else on the deck of the ship had fallen into a stupor, I was still alert. I strolled to the railing, my baby asleep in my arms, and watched the black spot in the distance draw closer. What had been a dot became a smudge, then a bar. It elongated into a rectangle, cutting through the water in a straight, rapid line. I couldn’t determine what propelled it. It could have been a whale or a shark, but it didn’t seem to swim. It drew nearer like a toy on a string, pulled toward the ship by a superior influence. Its black was not marine or mammalian, not laid down in fur or scales or hide. The dark structure sucked the sun’s light into it. The sky darkened despite the absence of clouds. The temperature dropped, raising goose bumps up and down my arms. Still no wind blew, and the slap of water against the ship had quieted to almost nothing.

The dark shape became a little trough-shaped boat in which an old woman stood, wielding a single oar. Her paltry motions could not have propelled the boat but must have connected a current of sustenance between her hands, the boat, and the water. The boat was made of stone, a volcanic black, rough and cumbersome, yet it flew through the waves and drew alongside our ship with no audible bump.

The woman leaped up onto the deck and took my baby. “Undress,” she said. Without my volition, my clothes pooled at my feet. All around us, the forms on the deck chairs slept on, shielded by hats, magazines, sunglasses, and beach towels. The baby’s eyes opened, but he didn’t cry out. The witch shifted him in her arms as she stripped off her ratty housedress and handed it to me. I put it on and snapped the snaps, while she fitted herself into my shorts and halter top. “Go then,” she said. “You’ll meet my brother in the underworld and marry him.” I dropped into the boat, which came up to meet me so that I landed with no impact. It didn’t even rock side to side. It drew back from the ship, reversing easily. Its back was its front, no difference. It cut through the water, transforming the ship within a few minutes into a pale tick on the horizon. Then the water closed over me, and I went down.

 

All these years I have tried to forget the word “degloving.” If I hadn’t heard it when Ethan told his story, I might never have come across it. It would have remained an exotic outlier in my vocabulary, a potential word I could encounter someday but attached only to other unfamiliar words not tied to a particular usage. I learned a word recently, “lithophonic,”meaning music made from striking rocks. This word may not bob up into my reading or writing a single other time. It seems to me completely benign, not particularly necessary but not wasted either. Someone else will use it at the perfect opportunity, the word rising to meet the need to describe a concert or accident or single stroke of sound. But the word “degloving” I can scarcely even bear to type. It brings up from its trim syllables only this story of the tied child trying not to flinch when a hooded adult menaces her with a knife. If she keeps perfectly still, nothing will happen to her. If she moves, the loops of wire will bite in and draw back her skin.

It might be important to add that I was in my early twenties when Ethan told me this story, and he was six or eight years older. He told me this story as an interesting bit of conversation he’d had, a part of his day or week. He didn’t tell it to terrify me, though he might have known better, if he’d thought about it. Maybe he considered me fearless, the way I plied the city day and night through its heat and grime, past the men huddled in doorways, needles not yet withdrawn from their arms. It’s possible Ethan thought I liked this kind of savage story, cults and murder, blood and fingers. Or he was so disturbed by it himself that he passed it on to me, as a way of asking my protection. But I was almost a little sister to him, the one to be shielded, not the other way around.

Sitting on this chair, wrapped in a blanket against the chilly tines of fog, I can’t see the ocean at all. The park’s far border has dissolved, and the women with their dog have blurred. Their voices carry, but not the words themselves. Across the traffic throb, their rising and falling pitches cut, along with laughs and hesitations, the chatter of unseen birds, and the occasional scolding cry of the dog’s name. Many atrocities lie full out in our view. There’s a sense that my word “degloving” has been buried, is in hiding from me, deep inside a container. It has lain locked in its cabinet for half my life in suspended animation, silent, its power in no way diminished. So many other things I know without the cabinet, closet, basement, the secret door to hold them back. “Degloving” refers to the torture of a child, a girl picked for a sacrifice because of her vulnerability. The torture of hundreds, of thousands, of men and women anyone can read about, see pictures of, hear discussed on television. One click on Wikipedia and there’s a naked man hung upside down by his knees. The text describes electric shocks, dog attacks, and faces smeared with shit. It links to original documents, court files, extensive articles in all the major news organs, government reports, and provides the background context of the long-running war. Bringing the truth to light seems an utterly foolish metaphor for these transgressions, which are not concealed. I know these acts have gone on and still do. I hardly protested. I have kept very still.

 

The tale of the witch in the stone boat shifts perspective once the mother has vanished. The baby wouldn’t nurse, and her husband and friends all remarked how snippy the mother had become after her trip, how sarcastic and even cruel. The baby almost died of dehydration, and the father took him to the hospital. There an aide, tending to him late at night, saw an apparition rise from the floor. A woman, a chain around her waist, approached the cot. The chain sank down behind her, as if attached to a pit far beneath the hospital. This tethered creature was the real mother, the other one a deception. She held out her arms to the baby, but the chain wouldn’t quite reach. She stroked the bars of the crib, until a yank hurled her back into the depths. The floor closed up, and all was as it had been.

I searched the New York Times database for this story Ethan’s friend told him. Surely if this new crime was so widespread and so horrendous that all the social workers in New York had rallied, something must have been published about these degloved children. The interagency meeting would have been documented. The doctors and nurses would have confessed themselves stricken by the sight of the narrow fingers stripped of skin. This injury, Ethan had told me, had become a commonplace, not just one child but many. Ethan’s friend had heard one of the victims describe her ordeal. She had fallen asleep and woke up bound to a chair, her arms held out from her sides by tight loops of wire wrapped around the base of her finger joints. A light shone on her face. A creature robed in black, face covered with a hood, flashed a knife in front of her eyes. “Don’t move,” the figure said. “Don’t flinch. Hold still.”

Of course she began to shake, and then as the blade came toward her chest, screamed and drew her arms in. It was an instinctual motion of protection. She couldn’t help it. The wires held her back, taking with them a curl of skin. Her dermis began to peel backward, inside out, toward her fingernails.

“Stop, Ethan. Don’t tell me anymore,” I said. But he’d already uttered the word “degloving”. Now I knew what it meant, even if I didn’t know what happened then, how the girl got away.

She didn’t get away but lived on in my dark crypt. Every now and then I thought of that word and shuddered. Hold still. Don’t move. Don’t flinch. An unbearable pain in my own fingers, if I even pronounced the word silently, read it on an inner screen.

I can’t find any evidence of this plague of satanic rituals in the newspaper archives. And now that I write this out, I see the outlines of the urban legend, the story told first hand by the survivor, to another who told it to Ethan, who told it to me. The whole thing looks doubtful now, and I’m both relieved and ashamed. The fog has blotted out the park and stretches up to the balcony, where I might find myself whited out. How thankful I would be to dissolve into it, instead of gazing through it with my keen eye. Just a click away are all those photos that we all know about: Abu Ghraib, no myth, and the black sites of enhanced interrogation. The Congressional committees fought over only how much could be revealed or published. The physical facts are not denied, this one hung by his arms, this one raped with a cane, this one bludgeoned and drowned, these acts summed up as “far more brutal and less effective than previously thought.” We can’t not know what’s been done and is still being done with wires and prods, hoods and knives.

The little dog barks. “Toby, Toby!” one of the women cries. I pull the blanket tighter. The plastic arms of my chair are beaded with dew. My wet hair prickles the back of my neck. A gull slices through the dense gray and then is swallowed up again. The sound of the ocean might just be distinguishable from the churning traffic. Hold still. Don’t flinch. It will hurt you to witness this. It will hurt you to tell the tale. Don’t look. Don’t move. Don’t flinch. Hold still.

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