How to come undone.

Words by & illustration by Portia Barnett-Herrin

They like it, that’s what they say anyway. They like the show, the singing. The softness in my whisper, the fizzle in my voice. They like – me.


But, they say, but. And they purse their lips and pinch their eyes closed, wave their hands in slow, abstract motions. There’s a little too much of this going on. Yes, it’s a little overdone. They slice at the air in front of them, their wrists clicking; fingers trembling like fronds, a hair’s breadth away. If you could just pare this back, tone it down.


My spine cracks like a whip and the hairs on my neck begin to prickle. My smile is saccharine. This? Oh, sure! Of course. Tone this down. Yes. Yes, I can do that.


In the taxi home, my reflection is a dark shadow in the window. I clasp my palms together, my skin rustling like paper, and let their words settle. This is a great opportunity for you, they said. You wouldn’t want to jeopardise that, would you? The driver’s eyes flash in the rearview mirror. I wonder if I’ve spoken aloud.


Later, I sit in the bathroom. I light a dozen candles, black to banish ill thoughts; let sweetgrass and sage smudge sticks burn with abandon. I listen to the rhythmic drip of the bath tap, the drizzle of the summer rain outside, watch the flickering firelight dance upon the sweat beads on my skin. And then, I start unpicking.


Every hair on my head must go. At first, I pull gingerly at single strands, finding a perverse satisfaction in the sensation as they tug, then slide away in my fingers. Soon, though, I tire of the ritual, my arms growing weak as I hold them above myself. I close fists around thick locks and pull, watch the spoils squirm like snakes on the tiles. After that, my eyebrows and lashes are child’s play – falling away almost willingly, feathers caught on a breeze.


Next: freckles. My face is covered in them, insolent blotches who’ve no business being there. I scratch, push at them from all angles, squeezing them out of my skin. They gather under my fingernails and in my naked lap. The ones on my shoulders come off easily enough; I brush at them like dust, let them scatter away into the corners of the room. They leave behind pockmarks, small as pinpricks; a constellation of absence on my cheeks.


The smoky smell of the sage has filled the small room. I conjure grass growing through the floor, dewy-damp between my toes. The peeling paint of the ceiling is a forest canopy, lush and green, living. The mirror, flecked with dirt, is a path I can’t yet look down. I catch the jagged outline of my hairless head in its black pane, and quickly cast my eyes away.


My nails prove harder to extract than expected. I bite down on their pointed tips, the pink polish chipping and flaking off on my tongue. They cling to their fleshy beds, reluctant to be unseated. Then the first one finally yields, and I spit it into the sink where it lands with a clatter. The others follow, obediently, behind. Blood drips onto my knees and runs in rivulets down to my feet.


Wax spills into the basin, encasing the discarded nails like cement. In the darkness, my fingers are my eyes; I work their raw tips over the potholed surface of my face, towards my scalp, where the dried blood turns to liquid again under the heat of my touch. My eyes roll like marbles; I catch their glistening whites in the mirror and, finally, scream.


I could stop here, I suppose; let this be as far back as I’m willing to go. But boundary lines sharpen and fade, glistening right under my nose one moment before receding like the tide the next. This is what they want, isn’t it? So I let the black candles burn down, and I pick, and unpick. Pare back and tone down. Scratch and scrape and pull and peel until I hit the roots.

Nadia is a London-based writer, happily living up to the coffee-sipping, cat-stroking stereotype. She can usually be found on the sofa, or brunching with her fabulous women writers' collective.