The Lies of My Left Arm by Efemia Chela
Published in Issue 2 | Illustration by Diana Branzan
On my left arm lies visible remains of my last severe depressive episode. There are about 50 long thin scars there, as if I were a blade whetter in 2014, sharpening knives on my forearm, the whole year long and then some. They go across horizontally, proceeding at fairly even intervals. I made them from left to right and back again, sawing away a sad quiet song of pain whenever I could.
They look like tiny islands, staves, stairs or a cliché.
Now, these cutting scars are a light bronze. Raised stripes shiny against my black skin. When I first opened cut myself up they were thin red exclamations. Rushed, exciting and addictive. Small brown skin ribbons sliding away as the pain, pleasure and bright red blood rose. Sometimes they were blind white slits showing the fat. They crusted over. I sliced my arm open again. Crumbly muddy clots tried to cover them. I kept peeling myself back like orange rind. My bitter pith re-exposed. Eventually in hospital they healed with some finality. Hard black rods. Scabs that finally left alone, flaked away.
Just a woman, my their our body is public property. Strangers ask me about my scars as casually as if wanting directions. But to where? To what end? And fuck you.
So I lie and lie…
1. I took in a stray cat, he was sickly. Sweet thing, always desperate for attention. Used to scratch my arm as it hung out of the bed while I was sleeping. I was knocked out on tranquilisers because our neighbours were so noisy. Poor little thing. It turned out he had cancer. I spent a fortune on cat chemo. He died anyway.
(I used to cut myself because I have never not lived without pain.
I am unable to parse new experiences, good or bad, without it.)
2. While I was climbing Table Mountain with some friends. I lost my footing. Flat feet aren’t good for hiking. I fell, tumbled 50 metres down the side. My sleeve ripped off and there are scars all down the left side of my body. I don’t climb any more. It’s not worth the views.
(It was a reward at the end of the day for making it out of bed.
To work. To have smiled and convinced everyone I was okay.
It was a punishment for not being the person I wanted to be.)
3. I’m half Fante, half Bemba. These are tribal marks. No those are not countries in Africa. I am half-Zambian, half-Ghanaian. No they are not next to each other. Zambia has the Victoria Falls and plays football and Ghana plays football and makes cocoa. They were done when I was a child. I can’t remember the pain anyway. But don’t worry we don’t do FGM. I’m fine down there. Yes, culture is so important.
(I was swallowed whole by sadness.
I still don’t entirely understand why I did it.
Maybe I will never have the energy or wisdom to understand that part of myself.)
4. Oh, I didn’t really notice those. It’s getting quite bad though. Must be some sort of rash or fungus. I should get it checked out. Do you know a good dermatologist?
(It brought me back to life each time I rapidly disassociated. I kept fading into nothing and no one - like a lit cigarette dissipating into smoke in the dark.)
5. They’re from blood play. I was very into S&M in my old neighbourhood but I’m new in town and having trouble finding a dungeon that really lights my fire.
(I wasn’t ready to kill myself yet but I felt condemned to life.
It was a devoted protest against myself and others and life for holding me alive against my will.)
6. Ah, it’s a long story…
(It was just continual disappointment, structural racism, an abusive childhood, severe depression, borderline personality disorder, agoraphobia, disordered eating, frequent panic attacks and alcohol and tranquiliser dependency et al.
So barely three lines; not long at all.
Funny what we boil down to.)
7. I don’t want to talk about it
(I do want to talk about it so you understand these things better. But now you have looked at the scars and into my eyes, in that crazed way, I can tell it is already too late. You are already opening your mouth to tell me about how exorcising gluten from my diet and doing yoga will cure the problem of me.)
All these lies are in heavy rotation in the heat, summer, the sleeveless season. But they make their way into other scantily clad situations – the gym, nurses taking my blood pressure, Thai massages, getting measured for bras, sex. I slept with a woman who seemed afraid of them at first then kissed every scar. A man I fucked made me wrap my arm up in a black hoodie so he couldn’t see them at all.
And what do I think of them? I don’t regret my scars and their prominent place on my body. I was who I was and as sad as I was. Cutting was what I did and that is a fact. I will not attach any kind of morality to that. Often I forget they’re there.
Once at The National Gallery I stood in front of a Rousseau and thought I might get a tattoo of a tiger on my arm. The scars would be the high jungle grass, and I the strong tiger stalking through it, wild and surprised.