Swiss Army Skin

I remember being very small and sitting on my mother’s lap, playing with the blue veins that bulged beneath the fine skin on the backs of her hands.

“Your hands will look like this one day,” she said, stretching her fingers out next to mine. I saw that their shape was the same and that she was right. 

I looked up at her in horror and she laughed and said, “I love my hands. They’re like this from years of firefighting and massaging and washing dishes.”

“Then I’ll never do any of those things,” I insisted, thinking how glad I was to have soft, young skin. 

In the first week, we learned to use an assault rifle. They hung around our necks like a yoke, strapping us together like oxen as we marched two by two, pulling no load and ploughing no field and carrying empty weapons we were incapable of using. Simply pulling back the chamber left my hands red and bruised, resisting the purpose I had given them. Day after day, I pulled the gun apart and put it back together, over and over as quickly as possible and that was never quick enough, so pain be damned, hands be damned. The white tips of my nails snapped back one by one until I was left with nothing but pink stubs that cracked and bled and hardened. 

Lifting a generator into the trailer, I pinched my ring finger so hard I could feel the pain stabbing in a line up my arm straight to my heart where it pulsed red in my throat and I had to hide it with a scrunched-up smile and bat away concern, “I’m fine. It’s fine. Yep. It’s all fine. Let’s just hurry.” I didn’t take my work gloves off until seven hours later, and discovered the nail bed had filled with dark purple blood. 

The hands were no longer mine. They were tools at the disposal of the Swiss military. All of me was.

In the pavement field they call the Calling Place, we’d march. In the beginning, we were only pretending. We marched too loudly, getting carried away as we stomped our feet and it all felt like some silly game of soldier. There was an “I,” back then, who had to focus on the heels of the person in front of her so as not to stumble or fall out of step. An “I” whose helmet was fastened so tight she couldn’t open her mouth, whose icy gun cannon dug into her cheek, but in time and in practice, she faded. In the early morning rain that made a glittering halo around the floodlights, we went from pretending-to-be-soldiers to a unit that marched as one, stopped as one, following the orders of he-the-brain. He, who decided how we must botton our coats and what we must carry in our pockets.

The cold, calloused fingers of the boy standing behind me corrected my collar, while I reached over to zip closed a pocket across someone else’s chest. When Topay was observing Ramadan, we all saved a portion of our meal so he would have something to eat once the sun went down as though his hunger were our own. When Santillan, the small boy from Peru who just couldn’t seem to do anything right, forgot his hat yet again, we all did push ups while he ran 3 kilometres to fetch it. We all shared in one body, because we all shared in one punishment. 

But it was Topay’s body that grew thin from his devotion, his skin that turned grey and stretched over his hollowing cheeks. It was he that sat with his head in his hands after walking for 10 hours with no food or water, but who swore his starvation was helping him appreciate all the gifts he had been given. It was Santillan’s hands that were clasped in silent prayer while the rest of us thoughtlessly devoured our cheese-soaked pasta. In these moments when these men became isolated by their religion, God would occur to me. Ashamed, I would send up a half-hearted prayer thanking God that I didn’t need God because I was already a part of a body. I didn’t have time to be a part of a second. And after this brief remembrance of my own existence I would allow myself to fade back into the thoughtless mass.

We learned to fold our bedspreads the same way, to clean and grease our boots in under 5 minutes, to lift a body out of a hole using an HB 500 pulley system and to keep exposed guts moist. Like a well-oiled machine, we learned to put out fires, to wind and unwind a million miles of hose, to follow orders unquestioningly.

When one of us fell and broke three vertebrae, we discovered that our lieutenant, our brain, was not a brain at all, and we were not the body. 

He’d fallen from a trailer that was parked too close to the edge of a rubble site, which dropped down three metres. 

We watched him arguing with those responsible for the injury as they carefully hid the evidence of their negligence by ordering the trailer be moved so that it was within the distance decreed by protocol. He-the-brain, we found out, was in fact just a hand, controlled by an arm by a shoulder by a head by a government by a system. And us, the fingers, when we were told to become a fist, we would curl, and told to swing, we would swing and whatever was in our path we would hurt or be hurt by. We shot guns that no longer bruised our hands at targets shaped like batteries. One of our sergeants pointed out where the liver would be and I realised that they weren’t batteries at all, they were people. They were other fingers doing as they were told. 

We read about the war going on next door. We gnawed on frozen apples and pretended we weren’t afraid.

When I came home for the first time in weeks, I didn’t know what to wear. I had a style, once, and knew how I liked my makeup, but decisions such as these seemed as ridiculous as they were exhausting. 

I try to pray but I can’t find the words. I’ve been immersed in a different language for four months and it doesn’t accommodate God other than to blaspheme or insult Christ’s mother. I try to pray in feelings instead of in language and am relieved to discover that these, at least, I can claim as my own even if I can’t articulate them.

Plunging my hands into scalding dishwater, I see that they are more like my mother’s than they used to be. The remains of a black nail on my ring finger. The pale blue veins are beginning to show beneath the skin that is calloused and cracked from work and wear. They are very much my own, and I am surprised to find that I kind of like them.

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