Skin (Richard Selzer)

I sing of skin, layered fine as baklava, whose colors shame the dawn,
at once the scabbard upon which is writ our only signature, and the
instrument by which we are thrilled, protected, and kept constant in
our natural place. Here is each man bagged and trussed in perfect
amiability. See how it upholsters the bone and muscle underneath,
now accenting the point of an elbow, now rolling over the pectorals
to hollow the grotto of an armpit. Nippled and umbilicated, and
perforated by the most diverse and marvelous openings, each with
its singular rim and curtain. Thus the carven helix of the ear, the
rigid nostrils, the puckered continence of the anus, the moist and
sensitive lips of mouth and vagina.

What is it, then, this seamless body-stocking, some two yards
square, this our casing, our facade, that flushes, pales, perspires, glistens,
glows, furrows, tingles, crawls, itches, pleasures, and pains us
all our days, at once keeper of the organs within and sensitive probe,
adventurer into the world outside?

Come, let us explore: there exists the rosy coast, these estuaries
of pearl.

Gaze upon the skin as I have, through a microscope brightly, and
tremble at the wisdom of God, for here is a magic tissue to suit all
seasons. Two layers compose the skin-the superficial epidermis
and, deeper, the dermis. Between is a plane of pure energy where
the life force is in full gallop. Identical cells spring full-grown here,
each as tall and columnar as its brother, to form an unbroken line
over the body. No sooner are these cells formed than they move
toward the surface, whether drawn to the open air by some protoplasmic
hunger or pushed outward by the birth of still newer cells
behind. In migration the skin cells flatten, first to cubes, then plates.
Twenty-six days later the plates are no more than attenuated wisps
of keratin meshed together to guard against forces that would damage
the skin by shearing or compression. Here they lie, having lost all
semblance of living cellularity, until they are shed from the body in
a continuous dismal rain. Thus into the valley of death this number
marches in well-stepped soldiery, gallant, summoned to a sacrifice
beyond its ken. But … let the skin be cut or burned, and the brigade
breaks into a charge, fanning out laterally across the wound, racing
to seal off the defect. The margins are shored up; healing earthworks
are raised, and guerrilla squads of invading bacteria are isolated and
mopped up. The reserves too are called to the colors and the rate of
mitosis increases throughout the injured area. Hurrah for stratified
squamous epithelium!

Beneath the epidermis lies the dermis, a resilient pad of elastic tissue
in which glands, hair follicles, nerves, and blood vessels are arranged
in infinitely variable mosaic. Within this rich bed three million sweat
glands lie; these, in full sluice, can extract from the blood up to three
kilograms of fluid in a single hour. Such a warm fall cools the body
even as it evaporates from its surface and, incidentally, flushes from
us the excess of salt that threatens to make of the body juices a
pickling brine. In this, the sweat glands are helpmates to the kidney.
Ah, but the skin harbors water and heat as well, containing our fluid
and blood lest, one sunny day, we leak our way to dusty desiccation
on some pavement or, bitten, bleed an hour or two, and die.
These sweat glands are most numerous on the palms and soles,
and have their highest density at birth, decreasing steadily thereafter.
Only the glans penis, clitoris, labia minora, and inner surface of the
prepuce have no sweat glands, a curiously sexual deficiency that
ought to tell us something, but for God’s sake what?

Never mind. Exclusiveness, in no matter what context, is not
without its charms.

Still other glands of the dermis yield odoriferous oils. In that they
attract mates and repel enemies, these musky syrups, called pheromones,
engage in a kind of cutaneous communication. One may well
deplore the perverse vanity which insists that we spray, roll on, and
dab our flesh so as to deny these darling chemicals their true role.
To banish our natural stink is to play havoc with no less than the
procreative process itself, depriving it of its olfactory joys, at the very
least. Such misguided fastidiousness will do us no good in the end.
Keep in mind, a single sniff of pheromone can raise expectations to
which a whole Pacific of perfume cannot pretend, nor an Atlantic of
attar attain.

Besides, some of us need all the help we can get.

Ranking with the earlobes as our most adorable gewgaws are the
nails that decorate the fingers and toes. One parts with the nails only
under political duress and in great pain. Long since having retired
their acquisitive and protective functions, they are more like the
sweet hooflets of a yearling than the talons of a hawk. Still, among
guitar players, certain Japanese weavers, and women with time on
their hands, length is prized. For such specialists as for all who find
it impossible to go on without knowing, it must be put abroad that
nails grow faster in the dominant hand, grow 20 percent faster in the
summer than in the winter, and grow twice as fast during the day as
at night. Pregnancy, trauma, and nail-biting (mother’s bane) are said
to increase the rate of nail growth.

Four living paints, called biochromes, combine to give the skin its
color at any given moment. There are brown, yellow, bright red, and
purplish red. The bright red is called oxyhemoglobin and is carried
by the blood to the skin. In the state of anemia or hemorrhage, there
is less blood, thus less bright red, and the skin whitens, turns pale,
until the line between pillowcase and patient is as indistinct as any
horizon where sea and sky blend. Among those so afflicted were
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Annabel Lee, and the Lady of the Camellias.
It is all very nineteenth-century.

Melanin is the brown pigment, which, under the influence of
glands afar, gives to the skin what darkness it has. Without it we are
albinos-pink, wretched creatures whose oxyhemoglobin is not
masked by melanin, and for whom the sun’s rays are no solace but
ten thousand cruel fires that anger and abrade the tissues to malignancy.
It is differences in the number and size of pigment granules
called melanosomes that account for whether your skin is naturally
black or white. If your skin is black, you own more and larger of ‘
these organelles. But it happens that, for as yet unexplained reasons,
a man may tum piebald.

Think, if you will, upon one Henry Moss. In Goochland County,
Virginia, sprang he, black as an eggplant, from the loins of his mother
and father in the otherwise unremembered year of 1754. Farmers his
begetters were, and so did young Henry remain until the Revolutionary
War broke out. He was twenty-two, and with many other
free blacks, he enlisted in the Colonial Army, where he served for
six years. Upon his discharge, Henry moved to Maryland, married,
and took up once again his hoe and his plowshare. For ten years he
farmed in peaceful anonymity, and would have done so until he died,
had not Fate, in the year 1792, given him her most enigmatic smile for
in 1792 Henry Moss began to turn white.

First from his fingertips did the rich blackness fade-to no mere
cocoa or tan, but to such a white as matched the fairness of a Dane.
Soon the snowy tide had flooded his wrists, his arms, his neck. Next,
his chest and abdomen and back undarkened in great irregular
patches. He was Holstein. He was Dalmatian. The blanching spread, .
coalesced, until four years later Henry Moss was almost totally white.
Imagine the dismay of poor Henry Moss as he gazed into his mirror
and saw vanishing therefrom the last bits of his dermal heritage.
What face was this, what head, where the once kinky wool crisped
thick and full, and where now limp white hair hung lank and silky?
Was it some dread leprosy? Some awful spot presaging dissolution?
Not for long was Henry Moss to wander his little farm alone and
palely loitering, for even as he gazed into that mirror, he felt the first
fierce fetch of fame … and Philadelphia! To Philadelphia, Athens of
America, city of culture and sophistication, came Henry Moss with
his new whiteness upon him, and in his bosom the glory that transfigures,
for Henry Moss had gazed deep into that mirror and seen
reflected there his fortune and his destiny.

It was the practice of the innkeepers and hostelers of that time
to maintain upon their premises for the enjoyment of their clients
any of a number of oddities of natural history. There was a dead
whale which had been caught in the Delaware River; a pygarg, which
was a strange Russian beast, part camel, part bear; a learned pig that
could tell the time of day and who transmitted this data in cunning
little grunts; and Miss Sarah Rogers, who, born without arms or legs,
still managed to paint elegant flowers and to thread needles with her
lips and tongue and teeth. To these was added Henry Moss, the black
man who was turning white! Scrub him hard, and see for yourself.
Overnight Henry Moss became a star. For his appearance at Mr.
Leech’s tavern on Market Street, the Sign of the Black Horse, handbills
were passed out upon the streets. A GREAT CURIOSITY, the handbills
proclaimed, a sight to open “a wide field of amusement for the
philosophical genius.”

But Henry Moss was no mere odd outscouring of the human
race, suitable only for gawking. Henry Moss wore a message that
rocked the very roofbeams of racial chauvinism so muscularly buttressed
by our forefathers. Henry Moss was proof that the races were
interchangeable, the skin reversible. As naught now, the vaunted
difference. Black was white. Why not white … black? Why not, indeed!
In time Henry Moss was brought before a convocation of the
leading physicians of Philadelphia, where the matter was discussed.
Questions were raised, debates joined. Was the source of blackness
to be found in the peculiar climate of Africa? If uprooted for a generation
or two, would the black essence recede, to be replaced by
the white? Would Henry Moss reblacken if transported to Africa?
Would the progeny of a white turn black over there? Or was it indeed
some perverse chemistry of the skin?

No answers were given. And the celebrated case of Henry Moss
faded as swiftly as had the color of his skin. Still, one is left to wonder.
… Had the good doctors of Philadelphia been led to believe in
the interchangeability of the races, might not the blot of slavery, the
Civil War itself, have been overleaped? Do you think Henry’s vitiligo
(a disease in which the pigment cells mysteriously fail to produce
melanin) might have changed the course of history? Well, it didn’t.
And what of Henry Moss? He surfaced last in rural Georgia,
where he earned a modest keep showing himself in the saloons of
that back country. Like many a fading star, Henry ended playing the

The skin is the screen upon which the state of the other organs is
cast. One can read their health in its condition and hue.
Ails the liver? Then the skin yellows into jaundice as the dislocated
bile floods across it.

In the anemic state, the skin turns paper white as the enfeebled
blood fails, until it would seem that a mere blush would divert blood
enough to send the body into shock.

The first sign of certain cancers hidden deep within the body is
itching of the skin or a painful rash.

Trouble in the brain is often heralded by the disappearance of
feeling in a part of the skin.

In the poverty of oxygen lack, the skin leadens, is prinked with

So it goes, as the skin reflects the occult mishaps of the marshy
interior. It is upon the skin that the calamities of the flesh are made
most brutally apparent. Here is all decay realized, all blight and blister

Awed and hurting, the diabetic watches his feet advance from
beveled grace through sore and ulcer to the blunt black scab of gangrene,
extrapolating, as he must, from the part to the sum of his
parts, to the whole, and feeling for his sad sweet blood only the most
anguished rue.

The youth whose face blazes with rubies and carbuncles would
sell his birthright, mortgage his future, to peel his soiled mask from
him and don another. But there is no other. Nor any acnesarium
where he might hide his pimentoes, eschewing both the pleasures
and the risks of new manhood. He is badly touched indeed.
And what heartbroken psoriatic, surveying his embattled skin,
would not volunteer for an unanesthetized flaying could it but rid
him of his pink sequins, his silver spangles?

I hold no grief for rosy, turgid youth. It does but stir envy and
leave compassion unaroused. My sympathies lie with the aging – those,
motley with spots, gypsy with plaques and knobs, in whom
each misfeatured stain announces with grim certainty the relentless
slouching toward … the end. Those in whom the elastica has so
“given” that one is hung with dewlaps and is with wrinkled crepe
empanoplied, in whom neither surgery, nor paints, nor other borrowed
trumpery can anymore dissemble, they are the creatures that
my heart and my feelings are tied to-those whose state of grace is
marginal, the ragtag and bobtail, those in whom the difference from
homely to comely is but a single freckle, one wart, a crease.

Yes, my sympathies lie with us.

Imagine God as tailor. His shelves are lined with rolls of skin,
each with its subtleties of texture and hue. Six days a week He cuts
lengths with which to wrap those small piles of flesh and bone into
the clever parcels we call babies. Now engage the irreverence to consider
that, either out of the tedium born of infinity or out of mere
sly parsimony, He uses for the occasional handicraft a remnant of
yard goods, the last of an otherwise perfect bolt, dusty, soiled, perhaps
a bit too small or large, one whose woof is warped or that is
cut on the bias. I have received many such people in my examination
rooms. Like imperfect postage stamps, they are the collector’s items
of the human race.

Such were the sorrows of wife Margaret vergh Gryffith, who, in
the year 1588, in the month of May, in the town of Llangadfan, in
Montgomeryshire, in the country of Wales, awoke one morning,
stretched, rubbed her eyes to clear them of sleep, and felt (qual orrore!)
a growth upon her forehead. At first a scaly eminence, a small
rising at the very center of her brow; soon a horrid excrescence that
no amount of dedicated picking, scraping, or nailed excavation could
dislodge, so firm were its rootings. Daily it grew longer and larger in
its girth, as though all of the young matron’s energies were concentrated
and refined to this one wicked purpose. Through salve and
unguent she passed. Through poultice and plaster, through the cook
of cautery and the sizzle of scarification to the endless agitation of
concealment. But there was no way to do it, no cap or snood, net or
kerchief, hood or cowl to hide this … horn. Yes, at last it must be
said. Margaret vergh Gryffith had grown a horn which stood priapically
from her brow for a height of three inches, then curved downward
toward her nose to crook just above her right eye-there, where
there is nothing for it but to see it or shut forever her eyes and sit
blind beneath her antler.

Imagine poor Margaret’s shame, her altered sense of herself. See
her devising more and more desperate articles and habits of concealment.
It was of no use. As well hang a smoking brazier on the
thing and walk abroad. The horn could not be hid! Wheresoever she
faced, in whatever stance, however deep her crouch, it was the horn
stood high and hard before her, rejecting all drapery, a lewd probe
that announced to her Puritan contemporaries as the very cornified
concretion of adultery, an adultery she did not commit.

Then were fiery sermons delivered in all the cathedrals of Wales,
to which the people came, and listened, and trembled in their pews.
As far away as London was Margaret vergh Gryffith “made readie to
be seene” and led out upon platforms whilst men thundered and
pointed; and alone in their boudoirs, women raised cold fearful fingertips
to their foreheads, and shuddered.

Shame on you, London. Where was your bold surgeon in 1588
who would dare thrust to the fore of the lickerish crowd, to lead the
homed woman away to his surgery, to amputate the hideous prong
of packed and layered keratin from her head?

Ah, he jests at scars who never felt a wound.

How proud and easy we slide in our skin. Extensible, it stretches
to fit our farthest reach, contracts to our least flicker, and all in silky
silence. How our skin becomes us! Lucky is Man to have his hide.
Moreover, it is not the brain nor the heart that is the organ of
recollection. It is the skin! For to gaze upon the skin is to bring to
life the past.

Here, in the crook of this arm, where the loose skin lies in transverse
folds, in this very place, she rested the back of her head, her
hair so black and glossy I could see myself in the mass of it.
And from this lower lip she drew two drops of my blood, that I
was glad to give her.

And look, this scar upon my cheek that marked the end of love
between two brothers.

It is all here engraved, that which I was, that which I did, all the
old stories, but now purified somehow, the commonplace washed
away, rinsed of all that is ordinary, and glowing as they never did,
even when they happened.


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