It started with a spot on his chest. A patch of dry skin, the scratch of grating sandpaper against fresh-cut cedar in the garage on Saturday mornings.
“It strips away the flaws,” his father used to say. Aromatic, and naturally rot-resistant, it was his favorite wood to work with. Known for its beauty and durability, he was drawn to white cedar. Paler in color, and weathered to a silvery gray.
He picked at the little patch of skin on his chest constantly—tightness in his eyes—as he highlighted a passage in his textbook. The jangle of ice cubes against glass clanged from the desk beside him. The smell was slightly crisp and earthy, akin to frozen water when they used to go ice fishing in Hamlin Lake, where he would scrape his snow boots against the glacial surface while the clink and clank of tools smashed the truck.
His father gripped his wrist as he leaped over the exposed roots of elden oak trees, then pointed at the raised columns in the distance. “That’s where Charles Mears built a wooden dam and sawmill. Your old man used to go fishing with grandpa here.” Almost haunting, like the vestiges of an icy prison.
Eventually, those same callused fingers would scrape deeper.
It was either a sunset or sunrise—he could not remember anymore. The sun filled the clouds with magenta and purple, and its orange-gold rays blended with his skin to form a shimmering, flaky matrix. Not quite like the half-eaten croissant on his desk, dusted with powdered sugar, but close. Intricate and unique.
He pressed against the spot and felt new, pink skin. Smooth as wood after 60-grit sandpaper, rubbed with the grain until the pencil line was gone.
Another blemish appeared on his neck as winter settled in. Of course, the day he decided not to wear a scarf to the grocery store. It started the same—an almost invisible, rough patch. It reminded him of those childhood days when he would peer into the thick layer of ice and barely glimpse a rainbow trout. His dad’s favorite, with tasty, pink flesh.
He tried not to pick at it, but when the automatic doors opened, the air conditioner struck him at just the right angle. A phantom pain that traveled down his spine. Subtle enough to go about his day as if everything was fine, but strong enough to remind him of its presence when he tried to ignore it.
The flake fell to the ground beside him. He touched it—curiously and cautiously—and then felt his neck, where the skin was raw and new, as if he had smoothed the surface with 80-grit sandpaper.
Each day, more marks appeared. There was one on his cheek on Thursday. By Saturday, a cascade of flakes fell from his face. Not snow, but more like sawdust. He worried his classmates would say something. Whether it would be a distraction during finals week, where any small noise competed with the ticking and tocking of the wall clock above the chalkboard. But none of them mentioned the spots all over his body. It was as if they could not see them.
“Everything alright?” Brenda asked. She was his lab partner, and the only reason he was passing chemistry. He would sweep over her notes, using a green highlighter for concepts he understood, yellow for things he was still figuring out, and red for whatever made little sense.
He jerked, mesmerized by the streaks on his page, lines like the giant sequoia in Manistee, and blinked. “Yeah. Why?”
“I’ve just noticed you’re always scratching.”
During his morning jog on Sunday, the snow fell and fell in his path, dancing and curling like sparkling spindrifts, white and fresh against the brown and gray of the world. He stopped by a lake and sat on a bench to rest, struck with awe as the unmistakable smell of frozen water filled his nose, transporting him back to those days with his father. Ice fishing. The bitterness returned to his mouth, yellowish and green, reminding him of golden trout.
“How come we don’t fish in regular water?”
His father’s gaze would flick upward, eyes fixated in a pinched expression. “Lots of reasons.”
“Certain kinds of fish don’t come up to the surface until the water’s frozen.”
He would simply nod. It was usually best to agree. Avoid attention.
His father pulled out a giant drill bit. He was hypnotized by the spiral-shaped blades as they penetrated the ice, slowly at first, and then increasing in intensity until the surface moaned when the hole was open. It was a sound he loved, once, until he didn’t anymore.
“There’s beauty underneath.” His father’s gaze turned firm. Intense, as he leaned forward with lips slightly parted. “Come here, let me show you.”
He gasped, escaping from the memory as the taste of bluegill, firm and flaky, lingered on his tongue. As his heart rate slowed, the realization struck him. It was the anniversary of his escape. He had almost forgotten. No, not forgotten, but almost let it pass unmarked by an appointment with his therapist. Or refilling his prescription at the pharmacy too early.
He leaned back and gazed at the lake. Dazzling ice reflected the morning light, like shimmering sawdust after a third pass, softening the jagged edges with 120-grit sandpaper. Every day, the water sparkled like this. Pristine, and untouched.
He looked at his arms and examined the raw, red spots where there had once been flakes, now swept away into the surrounding air. It reminded him of spiral grain on wooden planks, their fibers like fingertips that bruised his skin.
He ran his hands over his legs and felt the new skin tingle, smooth like wood after a final finish with 180-grit sandpaper. Every kiss, every caress, they all left scars. The bruises had left marks, faded to red. The apologies and empty promises cut deeper, but they were invisible, beneath the surface.
He pressed his thumb in the space between his neck and shoulder, where the winter wind kissed him on mornings when he ran. His father had marked him there, too. On nights when his mother had to work late, and the smell of frozen pizza mixed with a hint of bourbon on dry lips that lingered for too long.
Sitting alone by the lake, he felt the sharp twist of the giant drill bit again, penetrating the frozen layer of ice, exposing what hid underneath. The nagging belief this was all his fault. How each pass over his skin was a loving gesture, meant to iron out the rough patches. Rubbed and rubbed, until he was raw.
He touched the rim of his lower lip, his father’s favorite spot. A flake fell away, leaving the blotch cold and exposed. He licked it, expecting to taste blood, like he did on those days he didn’t behave. Because big boys weren’t supposed to cry. But there was no metallic tang. No beard bristles clawing at him like a belt sander against an unwanted finish. No, the sharp sensation tickled his tongue. The sweet, refreshing scent of pine kissed with winter’s snow.
The sun warmed his exposed arms and legs. Little patches of new skin glinted in the daybreak. Flake after flake, they swept away to reveal something fresh underneath. The sawdust fell in big, fat clumps, gathering along every nook and bump of the surrounding trees.
He reached under his shirt and pulled a fistful of flakes away from the space above his heart. He held it close to his chest like something precious, then relaxed his grip. The sawdust swirled like snow, flitting around him in one last embrace, then soared toward the sky, dancing lightly above the water and floating out of sight.
With the arrival of spring, he allowed himself a moment to take in the colors, gleaming with dew under the sun. The sky shifted to periwinkle, and the clouds filled with pink light. New warmth lined everything with gold, as if the world had been reborn.
He stepped away from the wooden bench and looked at his reflection in the water’s surface. To his surprise, there was not a single mark on his skin. He moved his hands along his legs, then patted his shorts like he was looking for keys. But nothing was missing. No scars. No rough patches. He had been entirely made new.
His body was a body untouched.
With a lightness to his step, he walked back home. He’d learn new skills, on his own terms. It was still too early for him to try woodworking or ice fishing again. Maybe he would eventually, after the dust settled. Regardless, his father was right about one thing, even now.
There’s beauty underneath.