My Skin Luminous
Mario Bellatin
English Version, Cooper Renner

. . . in the neighborhood of the tomb of the holy Sufi Nizamudin

During the time that I lived with my mother, it never occurred to me that accommodating my genitals in her presence might have a significant repercussion. I was wrong. Later I learned that she even asked the other women for objects of value in exchange for a full look at them. Adjusted, stricken, on the verge of exploding. My mother taking advantage of my suffering. Tirelessly gathering up objects. In many cases things to eat or little articles of jewelry: plastic rings or a slender cord she hung on her wrist. Once she got a pencil she used to paint her lips. Delineating her mouth seemed to give her such excitement that she forgot about my presence for several moments. Then I managed to untie the strange garment which she thought up for our trips to the public baths. I was completely unclothed. A diffuse light illuminated my flesh. I decided to throw myself into the water. Into the deepest part. I moved aside several obese women whose bodies impeded my passage. I was at the point, even, of crossing into the men's section. If I had managed that, I am sure that my mother would never have dealt with me in the same manner again. I found myself on all four. The water was mixed with mud. If I had stood up, it would have come barely to my ankles. I would then be exposed all over again to the looks which make it possible for me to enter these baths today. The woman would poke into their belongings and arrange, by means of the exchange as particular as my body itself, to contemplate me as long as they considered necessary. Unexpectedly it occurred to me to turn. My mother was lingering next to the basins of thermal waters. She was still distracted by the rite of decorating her mouth. The others watched her attentively, except for the overweight women who seemed desperate to leave the area reserved for them. I am bold enough to say that that scene, of my mother painting her lips, was a display sufficiently foreign to the customs of the region. It seemed, to me, so far beyond our normal practices that I could not contain myself, and I shouted. My voice grew louder and louder. The rebounding of the water against the concrete channels made the words I was throwing at her reverberate. I could not stand for my mother's mouth to become more of a spectacle than that my testicles are able to offer. But at the moment it seemed to be so. Even the obese women seemed disposed to break the rules and were preparing to make their way into the section where the thermal waters were. Such a thing had never happened before. From a certain age and depending upon the qualities of each body, everyone has an assigned area. Only children and adolescents are permitted to go from one area to another without anyone's approval. In earlier times it was the custom to remain in the water for a number of hours. At that time I had not yet experienced how detrimental excess often is. I was still unaware of the ancient remains exposed in newer surfaces when liquid substances wash over them again and again. Discerning the marks which time produces in those textures is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned about these public baths. Only my testicles, always disposed for exhibition, seem to escape this type of constant decay. My mother would generally wait for me at the exit. She was obviously pleased when we met up again, and she almost always carried the things she had collected during the day. Most of the gifts offered her as an exchange pleased her, but she seemed to have begun to feel a special predilection for lipstick pencils. More than once she woke me at dawn in order to show off her mouth tinted purple or phosphorescent fuchsia. It was difficult for me to be sure if that excited figure was part of a dream or part of something that truly existed. Usually my mother would continue showing me her lips until I was completely awake. Dawns like those make it difficult to return to a restful sleep. I remain instead between sleep and waking. On those occasions I play an old game -- one which has entertained me since childhood -- which consists of removing my genitals, without the use of my hands, from the unusual underwear my mother makes for me. This garb, which I have to wear all of the time though I rarely pay any attention to it, is not truly her own invention. In designing it she has followed a series of patterns of ancient date. Besides that, I know that the role of a mother who has dedicated herself to the display of her sons' genitals is likewise not her invention. It is a millenary practice which not all mothers of sons are able to take part in. In actuality almost none can be found to carry out an exercise of this nature. Thus the miniscule number of mothers of this type which exist today. In the province in which we live the existence of another such woman had never been known. It must have been my own mother who told everyone that, about fifty years earlier, her grandmother's sister had become, by means of this office, the most powerful woman in her natal home. There was still some memory of her activities, but not even my mother knew what finally happened to her or, more to the point, to the son who had brought her such prestige. "What they say is true," my mother told me one of those early mornings when she woke me to show me her lips covered with an oily patina. "People remember a great deal about the women who display the genitals but nothing about the sons put on exhibition." Then I knew that the boys were killed mercilessly. I fell into a deep sleep, full of dreams which continued in the following nights. I imagined the bearing of the women who enriched themselves by offering these spectacles, and that of the sons themselves. They say that the genitals at last fall prey to the sickness which propitiates the envy of the others, that between one moment and the next they begin to dry up until the inflated sack that contained them is no more than a lean, dangling tripe that finally drops from the body before the victim notices what is happening. When the sons lose their testicles in that fashion, the mothers flee immediately. They carry as much of their accumulated possessions as they can and, most often, turn toward the mountainous regions. Long ago the law laid out the procedure by which those boys had to die. One of the most frequently employed methods was to withhold treatment from the wounded scrotum. I learned of that procedure only recently. The headmistress of the Special School I attended described it to me. "Why am I now enrolled in a Special School?" I ask myself constantly. I believe that no one, not even one of my likewise secluded fellows, has a definite answer. They accept, as I do, knowing that I sleep in one of the central wards. My mother might know since she had insisted so strongly that the headmistress accept me. My repeated exposures in the public baths did not seem to be enough. Enriching herself with the things she continued to acquire. Painting her lips to the point of satiety. The impression was that all of that was little enough. Anyone who had seen her at that time would think that she hated me with her whole heart. Indeed if they had witnessed the joy on her face when the headmistress finally gave her verdict, they would find that the only explanation. When the desire that I be a part of the Special School was born in my mother, we were already visiting the baths regularly. At that time such a school was perhaps the only avenue she could find in order to be considered a more or less normal mother in our community. It was perhaps a manner of overcoming my father's abandonment of his family. My father's lover had died, not long before, of a serious illness. She had been employed as a secretary in the public institution where he worked. I never knew if she was his secretary or simply another employee. What truly stood out to me was that my mother suffered that woman's illness as if it had been developing in her own body. It was some time after we had been abandoned -- my father left us one winter morning -- that my mother began to undertake a series of experiments with my body. I suppose the purpose was to make my admittance into the Special School more certain. In those days we were living once again in the storeroom of my grandfather's cookery. Among other actions, she gave me a pair of glasses which transformed the real world into an unrecognizable presence, good only for making me disagreeably nauseous. On other occasions she would not let me breathe, covering my face with a pillow until I thought I would die. Once she tried to place my head into a skull which she kept for who knows what purpose. Another morning, when she found me buying candies with money that had fallen from a boy's pocket into the street, she scorched my hands in a fire she lit with the sole proposition of teaching me my lesson. My mother at last secured my entry into the Special School after the first outing we made to the public baths. Someone had told her that such a visit was the only way to get the headmistress to give her consent. My mother was a truly poor woman then. She did not even have the purse which she now shows off enthusiastically. We were living alone in the storeroom of the cookery where my grandfather has always baked the community's swine. Our bodies began to give off a smell that became a stench. My mother had been saving up in order to pay for our admittance to the baths, because in those days an expense like that was an almost unattainable enterprise. Because we supposed that the visit was at hand, we decided to give up immediately the methods of cleanliness we normally practiced. We had to economize in every way. No buying water from the men who came door to door. No bags of the soap which some of the local businessmen sold on the main street, soap which had not been completely used up in the public baths. When we had finally collected the price of entrance, we got up before the sun rose. We quickly left the storeroom. We knew that the lines of those waiting to go inside formed early. Many were businesspeople who went to the baths before beginning their day's work. There were also women of the highest ancestry who apparently wanted to take advantage of the opaque light of dawn so that no one could get a close glimpse of their bodies before they introduced themselves into the water. On that first visit we stayed for a number of hours. The gifts began to appear as soon as my mother had removed my pants. From then on we were allowed into the baths without paying. We bustled in whenever we could. For that reason my body never again held that disagreeable smell. My skin changed in only a few weeks. Without anyone's notice it came to have a kind of patina, somewhat viscous, and a luminosity which is, for some, more astounding than my genitals themselves. I never asked my mother what she thought of that fact. I believe that doing so would have been an invitation for her to discover new possibilities for my body. I do not even want to think about the power that a luminous skin would have been able to grant her. She would have conceived of some manner of enclosing me in a hermitage which she would have ordered built in the vicinity of the saint's tomb where the baths were allegedly located. She would fill the space with flowers and candles and would also make sure there was a strolling musician to play some instrument capable of giving an ambience to the scene. She would not permit anyone to touch me, to put a finger to my skin. It would be -- exactly like the original nature of the exercise of displaying me tirelessly -- an activity of a strictly visual order. It occurs to me that it would be no different than dusting my flesh with a fistful of the diamantine we used in the Special School to carry out some of our tasks. Every week the teacher assigns us the obligation to carry out a manual task which we have to turn in, adorned with a coating of shining powder. Thus it was I began to design domestic lamps, paper ash-trays, bottles of various shapes, whose surfaces were always covered with the glaze formed by mixing diamantine with soap-foam which, according to the teachers, provides the true body of these objects. These are among the few memories I keep of my school years. Although it is, to a certain point, strange to consider as memories things which have just happened. Still, though there are few people who will believe it, I continue my attendance there. It can be said that I am one of the boarding students. I do not understand the reasoning: as if I am someone kept from going out to the street, supposing I have the time, or -- to phrase it better -- the requisite permission to spend entire days in the baths where my mother is tirelessly dedicated to displaying me to the other women of the area. The ward I sleep in can be considered the largest in the institution. When day has not yet completely declared itself, my mother often enters, trying to make the least possible noise. In order not to disturb the particular silence of those hours, she customarily presents herself in a rather curious manner. She arches her body in such a way as to transform it into an almost abnormal being. In the baths I have often seen bodies like that which my mother assumes in her attempt to move without sound. I have noticed that these anomalies result from different causes. I know, for example, that the contact of certain organisms with the environment produces physical alterations difficult to understand. I am continually exposed to exaggeratedly robust bodies and, on the other hand, to those whose skeletons seem barely to support them. Until very recently I did not really think of my mother as a physical being. She was distinguished from other women only by the color of her lips. The single important mark was her daubed mouth, not the contortions she sustains in search of silence. Now, after having experienced so much, I do not know what to think of my mother's body when I see her come in during the night with the key which the headmistress of the Special School seemed to have entrusted to her from the time of my admittance. The key is long and somewhat rusted. My mother's ability to come into the ward without attracting any attention is astonishing. At times, as strange as it might sound, the effort she puts forth to contort her body puts shallow cracks into the carmine of her lips. I never dared to tell her openly, but I prefer her mouth when it looks like that, with its brilliance somewhat lackluster. She almost always waits until she has totally aroused me before reapplying the lipstick. On those occasions it seems as though she is ashamed to do so. Undertaking the operation she abandons the irregular posture she so often adopts and leans over the side of my bed. But her entrance to the ward is not always realized in absolute silence. More than once, especially when she was just uncovering the potential of the pencils, my mother was imbued with a kind of frenzy as she imprinted her lips above me, making such intense noises in her throat that I irremediably ended up with an erection I attempted to contain within the rough cloth my own mother has designed for me. To this very day I appreciate the consideration she shows toward others when she daubs her lips without drawing the attention of anyone else. It would have been terrible if she wakened the other boarders. Apparently she senses that she can only get something from me by acting in silence. "How does she manage to get in here?" I ask myself every time I see her appear in the darkness. I mentioned that she comes in with the key the school's headmistress has turned over to her. And yet that proposition seems completely absurd to me. It is impossible that the headmistress would have given her a key. Perhaps she gives some of the things she collects in the baths to the monitors so that they will let her in. Or maybe she succeeds at coming in by shamelessly displaying her decorated lips. I imagine that she moves them in such a fashion that there is no choice but to stand aside. Once I am completely awake we, likewise in silence, leave the ward. I am certain the headmistress has no idea about our flights. It seems obvious to me that such a strict woman believes I am sleeping all night in the bed assigned to me. I see the other boarders again only at bedtime, when I return after the daily visits to the baths. I also see them on Sunday because then my mother, surely in order to sleep longer than usual, gives me free rein. Her Sunday torpor never ceased to surprise me. It is an effort for me to believe that she prefers to remain in bed, on those days precisely when she could be collecting objects in a greater number than usual. Sundays are truly fruitful work days, especially at nightfall when some characters like to undertake, almost as though in secret, a fortuitous stroll. The majority of these will be women who have not married or men of varying degrees of femininity, those who choose Sunday's waning hours to visit the facilities. From time to time lovers who have been suddenly abandoned, who tend to take refuge along a certain aqueduct, or those afflicted with contagious diseases also come out. There is such desperation in many of those who appear on those days that without fail they arrive carrying gifts of the most diverse provenance. They hurry along with bags full of things which I imagine will have taken them days to gather up. I know all of this because of a memorable Sunday when my mother decided not to sleep the day away. Now, though, it is apparent that her rest is essential. Before leaving for the baths I usually look at my companions in the ward, all of them sleeping as though nothing out of the ordinary were occurring. "Are they dreaming?" I ask myself. I had just learned -- I believe it was the headmistress herself who told me -- that I would still have to remain a resident at the school for some time. There is nothing I lack. I believe that, between my boarding at the school and the visits to the baths, I have more than enough. It seems to me that neither memory of my father nor any nostalgia over my grandfather's cookery matters. I believe that my residence in the school will last as long as an eternity. For this reason I will know every corner of its facilities, the least details of the character of the boarders, even the profound nature of the minds of the teachers and of the headmistress herself. Only now do I realize that, in the Special School, my testicles have no reason to exist. In these wards no one has the inclination to hand over anything, neither to my mother nor to me, for the spectacle which they are able to offer. Will there be others boarded in the Special School? Although I do not know, I suspect so. And yet I feel that this is something I am not ignorant of, because I have even affirmed it more than once. I have always said that I rely on my companions in reclusion. I have no assurance, however, that many other things, apparently more important, are certain, not simply among my companions at this time but also especially in my private life. I do not know, for example, the number of siblings I have had. I have forgotten as well what my father looks like. Perhaps asking my mother would dispel the doubts. But at this point it is absurd to put it to her directly. It is most likely that she would use one of her pencils to hide herself and show me her face painted with the strangest colors imaginable. After my father's departure, I never heard my mother say anything sensible. Before, I had to follow her all the time. We went together through the streets, the parks; we walked in front of the houses of those accustomed, particularly during the holidays, to bringing their pigs to be prepared in my grandfather's cookery. We rode the public buses and, more than once, stopped to have a drink on one of the corners. I accompanied her as well in going through the procedures of the Special School and, as the reader knows, on the first excursion to the public baths. Only the glow of my skin and, of course, the firmness of the pouch which contains my testicles create the appearance that my body maintains its youth. Once, quite early in the morning, I looked, from the window of the ward in which I sleep, at the playground. The little slide, the empty swings. The sun had yet to rise. Almost immediately I felt my mother's hand on my shoulder. It was getting late. I noticed at once that, on this occasion, she appeared without the purse which she is never separated from. There was no make-up on her face, as in earlier times, when the whole family lived together in the vicinity. We resided there for many years; it was before my mother and I moved into the storeroom at my grandfather's cookery, where she had spent her childhood and youth. I remember the narrow hallways of the place, the parking lots for the neighbors' vehicles, the business district. It is not my habit to relay this information. I do not like to speak of the years in which my father, my mother, my siblings and I formed part of an actual family. At first the house was rented to us for a couple of years; I remember it as a marvelous moment. With my father, my mother and my siblings making plans for a better future. Still without the least consciousness of my testicles which, at that time, were so miniscule that I prefer not to mention them. Once the rental term was completed, the owner began to visit us every night. He asked us to vacate the property as soon as possible. The agreed term had ended, he told us repeatedly. I am not sure, besides, if my father paid the rent promptly or not. I do not know if that was an additional reason cited by the owner in his demand. In that period my father was employed at a government agency. He left the house every day, heading off to work. He went in a publicly owned car, which crossed the city from one extreme to the other. The beauty of his white shirts especially caught my attention. In some fashion my mother succeeded, years later, in bringing that brilliance over into the clothing she designed to hold my testicles. But unlike the underwear I use today, which get dirty so quickly because of the constant activity, my father's shirts resisted soiling the whole day. Once in his office he must have put on plastic sleeve-protectors to prevent the fabric from wearing out in the daily routine. There was a time during which, here in the baths, my mother refused to accept any sort of gift. I believe it happened when she ceased utilizing her purse regularly. During those days she did not want to receive either clothing or cords to tie around her wrist. She began offering the spectacle of my testicles in a gratuitous manner. It seemed rather strange to me that there was no remuneration at all. I did not like that situation. I was convinced that my genitals had to provide some sort of satisfaction to my mother at all times. This sudden necessity not to charge a fee appeared early one morning when I questioned her about her pregnancies during the years we all lived together as a family, when I asked her about the time before we moved to the storeroom of my grandfather's cookery. I wanted, like any child, to know if I had siblings. But I do not want to speak, neither of the years we lived as a family nor of the time we took refuge in the storeroom of the cookery. Nor of the reasons why the question about the pregnancies made my mother decide not to accept gifts in exchange for the observation of my testicles. The house, as I have said, had been rented to us for two years. I insist in believing, however, that asking my mother might have resolved many of my doubts. At times I need to know if the contract for the house was really for that length of time. Although if I stop and think, I consider it progressively more absurd to turn to her. Will she really be able to listen attentively to someone? More than once I have seen her take foolish pride in the youth of the pouch in which my testicles abide. She often examines it with great care. Terrified, I imagine, before the possibility of the slightest marker of withering. When my mother ausculates me, I take notice in her face of certain features like my grandfather's, he who cooked the swine. They say he died cut up into little pieces. It all began with the diabetes that required them to deprive him one leg first. My mother always tended to him. It was an insuperable occasion in which to denounce destiny the livelong day. At that time she was still a single woman. Shortly thereafter it was necessary to remove the other leg. Both arms followed. My grandfather never stopped looking at the image, hanging on the wall, of the venerated Duce, Benito Mussolini, which was kept during this whole time as a witness to the experience. More than once I heard my mother say that my grandfather, during his youth, had been part of the Urban Brigades. When this happens, when I begin to imagine familial resemblances in my mother's face, I prefer to turn my back and look out the window of the ward. Then I see once again the playground. I remain contemplating the little slide, the stopped swings. I maintain my stasis until I again feel my mother, intent on returning me quickly from my state of contemplation, putting her hand on my shoulder. It is then, with the vision of the abandoned playground as a background, that I remember the first moments of my testicles, when they began to be a part of my reality. It was during the time that my father's secretary becam gravely ill. Every evening our father sat us at the table in the kitchen and, while we had our supper, he gave us a detailed recounting of the condition of the dying woman. "I am not going to leave this house until they produce a court order," my father said in a convincing way at sunset on the day he had decided not to continue talking about his secretary. It seems that the matter of the eviction from the house was threatening. The property owner's visits provoked in me a series of feverish states which lasted the remainder of the night. Was it then I began to be aware of my genitals? The fever created images in my head which would transform themselves into uncommon shapes. I believe it was then that I imagined that we found ourselves in the baths located next to the tomb of a saint. Furthermore, of an unknown faith. Nizamudin, Nizamudin, I heard more than once in the midst of the darkness. At such moments I called from my bed for my mother who almost never paid any attention to me, busy as she was in attending to her husband. I wanted to tell her that I could not go on under the oppression that such presences caused me, nor that of the voices sounding out of nothing. On nights like those I had a sort of premonition. I saw myself submerged in wet surfaces, dragging those enormous genitals and asking naked men about the health of my father's secretary.

That woman was kept in the hospital for months. I am sure that those days, during which an eviction order was hanging over our house, are marked by the illness which carried her into death. There were constant references to complicated treatments of dialysis, to indestructible viruses, to the youth and the fortitude of the sick woman. My mother seemed to be the most affected by the situation. She was so disturbed that, during our breakfasts, she would speak of nothing but the unfortunate woman. From dawn on she would repeat, again and again, that her husband's lover was condemned to death. In that time the word lover irritated me. Now I believe it would not do so. I have even forgotten, here in the baths, its true significance. Every day, after returning from work, my father gave us a rapid update on the situation. My mother listened attentively. Then she put her hands on her husband's shoulders. She remained there, just behind the man who was master of the table. Remembering them in that pose, my uncertainty about the actual number of members of my family returns. Above all I cannot remember my siblings; they are not present in any family scene. It would be easy to ask. But I prefer to remain quiet. It no longer matters to me to know any other detail of those years. Although indeed I want to preserve the picture of that couple at the table, worried about the reports from the hospital. When my father left the house -- he left one morning for the funeral of his secretary and did not return -- my mother remained closed up in our home for several months. Do not think that she was following the normal routine of a housewife. She remained motionless in one of the kitchen chairs. Without thought, I am sure. The promised eviction order, which came suddenly, seemed to arouse her. Not many hours later, several men carried our things to the street. It was strange to look at the beds, the wardrobes and the chairs placed in the middle of the sidewalk. Neighbors approached. More than one of them said it was the first time such a thing had happened in the domestic accommodations. Several charitable persons, who aimed to keep her a prudent distance from the work of those taking everything from the house, took my mother to a park. My siblings -- now I understand that indeed I had siblings -- began to cry desperately. Other people, surely kinder than the first group, took them into their houses. Before his secretary's illness, my father sang and played the guitar. When that happened, we all gathered in the living room. The celebrations stopped suddenly. My father had sung and played the guitar even when the owner threatened to throw us out of the house from one minute to the next. As will be supposed from what I have related, the atmosphere had become somber. Some afternoons I saw my mother weeping and complaining of how unjust life can be for the needy. I never knew whom she was referring to: whether to her own father, or to herself, or to the dying woman. Now I know that she was speaking of me. That the omens about me which she had surely already begun to glimpse tormented her. On the other hand, when I think seriously about it I believe that she was exaggerating in her understandings. That I was not -- nor am I now -- the person indicated to represent her sorrows. As we already know, the secretary died. My father disappeared forever. I do not believe that my mother could be happy, in spite of the leather purse she always takes with her, the make-up pencils, and the ribbons which, from time to time, she ties around her wrists. For the past several days a thought, more precisely an uneasiness, pursues me. I do not know how to tell my mother that soon she will cease to receive the amount of gifts she has become accustomed to. I have a presentiment that this situation, of showing my body in exchange for receiving objects, will end at any moment. That it will terminate, in spite of the delight that the spectacle I am able to offer continues to produce. Until now everyone seems to think it impossible that my luminous skin might dull at some point. That my testicles will fail to appear powerful. They do not know that I have already begun to experience sensations which, soon or late, will render my genitals heavy and fetid. Precisely because no one suspects it, I am certain that the transformation will be obvious before long. As surely as that ancestor of mine experienced it, the one whose own mother killed him before she fled to the mountains, I begin to feel the subtle lengthening of my scrotum. It seems to follow an invisible path toward the earth. Although it happens with the requisite watchfulness to insure that its decay takes place as a great secret. When I expect it least, it will become nothing more than a useless scrap. When that point arrives, I know that my mother will not hesitate even an instant. She will cut it off with a single slash. Then she will place upon the wound a series of substances capable of creating a rapid infection in me. I have no doubt that she will act with the decisiveness characteristic of her. After, she will surely experience a state of temporal dementia similar to that in which my father's abandonment submerged her, which left her seated in a chair for entire days. She will remember, I am sure, the splendid times at my grandfather's swine cookery. When she was a single woman and, along with her father, operated a prosperous business. Those two were the only members of the family to survive the war. My mother was in charge of adorning the cuts people left for cooking. Perhaps foreseeing that ability, she was baptized with the same name as Mussolini's daughter. She placed on the cuts small ear-rings, diadems or metal hoops, so that one pig would not be confused with another as they were cooked. She will act, I am sure, wielding the firmness of character with which she attempted to convert me into the principal attraction of the tomb of the saint, Nizamudin, in whose neighborhood we now seem to find ourselves. Two nights ago my mother brought me some photos which, at first, seemed to me newly taken. Their subject was someone dedicated, like my grandfather, to the position of baker of swine. In the photo I was able to recognize the walls, the tables of cement, the long shovel my grandfather habitually used to complete his work. I could also see, over the bodies, adornments similar to those my mother placed in the animals' flesh so that they could be recognized afterward by their owners. They were trinkets of little value, not like the things I make with diamantine at the Special School. My mother and the headmistress always say that my talent is nothing special. I have learned nothing more of my father, although surely he would have appreciated like no one else my lamps covered with soap suds.

"My Skin Luminous", along with the novellas Chinese Checkers and Hero Dogs, is available in Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin from Ravenna Press, translated by elimae editor Cooper Renner. [If the title is not yet posted at Ravenna, it will be soon, as well as at]