by Alice Laciny

Sally was born to an unremarkable family under unremarkable circumstances. There was no magical prophecy tied to her birth, her father was rarely away on travels, and there was no wicked stepmother to be found.

She lived with her parents, her little brother, and a cat in a modest house and knew neither riches nor hunger. Perhaps the most exciting thing about her was the half-joking rumor that her mother had once fallen in love with a swamp man. Her brother loved to tease her with that story, claiming that her name was actually short for Salamander. When Sally was of age, she became a seamstress like her mother, and would mend and hem the clothes for her father to sell at the market. And though it never felt like a passionate endeavor, she found joy in the soft shine and crinkle of the satin, in the calluses on her fingers as they adapted to needles and pins, and in the scent of the cedar wood that kept the moths away.

But the years passed, and she caught herself looking up from her sewing more and more often, out the window, at the mountains and the trees far beyond. She wondered what the world must be like outside the confines of her childhood village, and every day it was harder to pull her gaze from the horizon.

One night, she lay awake in the dark, restless, as a peculiar itching overcame her. It started on her head and spread across her back until it covered her body in unbearable prickling tightness. As her fingers reached for the back of her scalp, she felt something strangely familiar to her crafty hands—a seam, its threads coming undone. Wanting nothing more than to end the horrible sensation, she hooked her fingertips into the fraying edges and tugged, until finally she was free.

The itching stopped; she felt lighter, taller, and next to her on the bedroom floor lay her own empty skin. Anxiously she waited for dawn to break just enough to examine her new self in the mirror. Her eyes had gone from blue to green, her hair from light to dark brown, she had grown about an inch. As she stepped outside her room, the cat bristled and hissed at her sight. Her brother and parents passed her, their gazes sliding off her like drops of oil. Panicked, she ran back to her room and tried to put on the skin she had shed only hours before. But she could no more slip into her old self than crawl back into her mother’s womb. This was not her life anymore.

A traveling circus had made camp on the town square and gladly accepted Sally’s offer to work in exchange for a warm meal and a relatively clean bed. She quickly warmed up to the circus folk—the dazzlingly androgynous bearded lady, the fair-haired conjoined twins, even the ringmaster, the most talkative man she had ever met.

She took a particular liking to the stable boy, born with a gash in his upper lip. They worked in comfortable silence as they fed and brushed the two-headed calf, the seven red-eyed albino rabbits, and the hairless little dog that could dance. In time, their silence turned to conversation, then laughter, then barely concealed affection. Finally, one night, the straw prickly on their bare backs and the starlight reflected in the calf’s four eyes, the stable floor became their wedding bed.

Only five months later, on that very same bed of straw, Sally gave birth to a daughter. She had come much too early, her limbs and face misshapen like a doll torn apart and haphazardly sewn back together. She lived just long enough for Sally to see the stars glinting in her single dark eye, before the nameless infant was buried in the earth of a nameless town.

After that, she felt a cold distance growing toward her lover and the rest of the circus gang. She had finally become weary of the traveling life, she wanted a place to call her own. There she felt it again, just bubbling under the surface, that unmistakable itch. This time she was prepared. She found the gaping seam across her heart, shed her old skin and left it on the straw for the naked little dog to make its bed on.

In the next town, the teacher had suddenly been taken by illness and the school was happy to employ Sally, who could teach the children to read, write, and sew. The kids were mesmerized by her, tall and lean now, with hair and eyes black as tar and a mottled pattern on her skin that was visible under just the right light. She wondered if this was truly her life now, the one she could settle and grow old in. She had almost convinced herself that it was, when one day the touch of a child’s sticky hand did not fill her with love but with a raging hunger shooting from her stomach to her teeth. She could barely pull away in time to leave the child unharmed.

She ran home, away from temptation, but the craving remained. Then the infernal itching started again. She knew what she would find on her stomach before she even touched the threads. Again she undid herself, peeled off her shell, emerged as new. The pattern on her skin was more distinct now, glistening wet in the moonlight, her teeth long and sharp as needles. Across each side of her neck were three open gashes.

The air was too dry, her body too long and heavy now. On webbed hands and feet she dragged herself to the pond. As she slid below its moonlit surface, gills greedily gulping, the icy water made her skin prickle. For an instant, she could feel all the layers beneath it, all the skins yet to be inhabited and shed, and all her lives still waiting to be lived.

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