Deep Skin Anatomy - Uncharted

Deep Skin Anatomy

By Lora Gray

Even before her niece arrives, Imogen can feel her sparrows stirring.

It’s been twenty years since she’s allowed herself to feel them.

It’s been twenty years since she’s allowed herself to feel anything at all.


When Ginny arrives at Aunt Imogen’s house, the raven is still on the back of her hand. CPS couldn’t scrub it away, (she’d used permanent marker), and her foster family didn’t bother trying, (she was never meant to be permanent). She’s been darkening her raven, in secret, every chance she gets, pressing layer on layer of ink deep into her skin. Smudging is inevitable; the feathers on her raven’s left wing have lost all definition since the night she first drew them. Still, she cradles her hand as she follows her case worker, Evelyn, up the long walkway, past the wrought iron fence to her aunt’s towering Victorian house.

When Evelyn knocks, a sparrow flies from the ragged balcony. Ginny can still hear its startled chittering when the door opens.

Ginny isn’t certain what she is expecting. A woman like her mother, slouched and blonde, with a cigarette dangling from her lip? Or maybe a godmother like the ones she’s seen in cartoons, plump and smiling, arms open for a hug Ginny isn’t ready to give? Aunt Imogen is neither. She is slender and severe, everything but her pale face and hair covered in black. Black turtle neck. Black pencil skirt. Black slippers. Black gloves. As Evelyn introduces Ginny and discloses the details of her “particular situation,” Aunt Imogen doesn’t even say hello; she just ticks her gaze over Ginny and steps to one side.

When she does speak, her voice is quick and clipped. “Yes, yes. I’ll sign the paperwork. I’m aware of my obligations. My sister? I know all about Beatrice. Of course, I have the rehab center’s telephone number…”

Ginny sets her bag beside the door and wanders past them into the foyer. It yawns above her like an oaky gullet, lined with portraits of relatives that share Ginny’s broad nose and her mother’s tired eyes. She steps closer to the one nearest the window: a woman gazing solemnly down at her, a parakeet perched on her sloping shoulder.

Ginny folds her fingers over the raven on her hand and wonders what it would be like to be trapped in a painting with her bird, forever never smiling.

When Evelyn finally leaves with a syrupy ‘goodbye!’ Aunt Imogen steps between Ginny and the painting, her expression as immobile as the portraits above them. “What is that on the back of your hand, child?” she asks.

Ginny hesitates, and then, setting her jaw, she mimics Aunt Imogen’s ramrod posture.

Fact: ravens can and do imitate humans. They often enjoy the chaos that results.

Ginny lifts her hand. “It’s my bird.”

 “Your bird?”

“It’s a tattoo.”

Aunt Imogen snorts. “How old are you now? Eleven? Twelve? A tattoo. Really. Pick up your bag. You’re late.”

Aunt Imogen glances over her shoulder as Ginny follows her up the winding staircase. “Remember, you’re a guest here,” she says, ushering Ginny to a narrow room with a narrow window and a narrow, lumpy bed. “Dinner is at six. Not six fifteen. Six. And be sure to wash your hands.” She looks pointedly at Ginny’s raven and closes the bedroom door behind her with a sharp clack.

For a long moment, Ginny stands there, listening to the cold, measured beat of her aunt descending the stairs. When she sits on the edge of the bed, the wool blanket makes the backs of her knees itch. Wind clatters a naked maple branch against the window. The wallpaper beside the bed is a faded blue and white landscape, full of miniature children playing with hoops and balls. Ginny presses her fingernail against one of their small, pupil-less faces. How hard would she have to push to tear that tiny face in two? It would be so easy to split it down the center, to create a ruined, sideways slash nobody would ever mistake for a smile.

Her hand trembles.

Fact: ravens frequently express feelings of anxiety and unease by trembling. 

Swallowing around a sudden tightness in her throat, Ginny rummages through her bag to find her markers. This time, instead of darkening her existing raven, she draws another bird on the inside of her wrist where her pulse pounds hardest.

At six o’clock, Ginny descends the stairs, making a point of holding her hand in front of her so her aunt can see the new bird she’s drawn, her fingers spread wide, feathers and wings defiant.

Still, Aunt Imogen asks, “Have you washed your hands?”

Ginny lifts her chin and answers, “Yes.” What would her mother have done if Ginny had lied to her like that? Dragged her to the sink? Force her hands under scalding water? Try to scrub her birds away from her with lava soap and a Brillo pad?

Ignored her completely?

Aunt Imogen simply glances at Ginny’s hand and lays a pair of yellowed, lace-trimmed gloves on the table.

“Put them on.”

“Why?” Ginny asks, confused.

“If you want to be a guest in this house, you’ll need to cover them up.”

Ginny’s palms feel sweaty and the backs of her knees prickle as if the fibers from that horrible bed have latched onto her skin. Outside, a sparrow lands on the window sill, taps its beak experimentally on the glass, and then hops away to find its own dinner.

Fact: all birds need to eat.

Ginny glowers. She trembles.

She puts the gloves on.


Imogen understands.

Of course, she does.

She remembers being Ginny’s age and those first, frightened nights away from home, wondering if her family hated her. She remembers the way her sparrows nestled against her in the darkness, their delicate heartbeats a reminder of their understanding and protection.

They were a comfort, then.

It’s why, after dinner, after Ginny stormed to her room and turned out the lights, Imogen stood outside her niece’s door.

Is she still wearing those gloves?

They had been Imogen’s once.

Imogen carefully touches the bedroom door, a once-familiar fluttering deep in her skin, a flock of memories stirring to life a childhood she’s spent two decades trying to forget. Inside the bedroom, Imogen hears the child stirring fitfully on the bed. She wonders is Ginny is asleep, if she has begun disappearing into dangerous dreams with only those ravens on her skin to keep her company.

Imogen pulls her hand away from the door and tugs her long sleeves more firmly over her wrists, flexing her gloved fingers to quell the avian stirring. She isn’t brave enough to open that bedroom door, to wake Ginny. How on earth could she possibly comfort the child when the nightmare of her own girlhood is threatening to call her own sparrows to life?


The first bird Ginny learned to draw was not a raven.

It was a seagull.      

In her dream, she can still feel the crayon between her fingers, her mother guiding her hand, kitchen light flickering over chipped linoleum as, together, they draw a curved V.

Ginny smiles and lifts the red construction paper. “Look!” she says. “Just like real birds.”

Her mother nods, but she isn’t really looking at Ginny anymore. She doesn’t see her as she lets go of Ginny’s hand.

The waxy crayon smell sours, and Ginny is in the living room, and there is her mother slumped in the broken recliner, an empty needle jutting from her arm, her head wobbling as Ginny dials 911. And then Ginny is drawing a bird on the back of her hand with a permanent marker to keep herself from panicking, a black bird, a raven, with crooked wings and an oversized, exaggerated beak. The drag of the felt tip against her skin is easier to focus on than the fear sticking in her chest, or the wailing sirens, or the paramedics flooding the apartment, a blur of white scrubs, rattling stretchers and endless questions.

“What’s your name, honey? Is this your mother? Are there any other grownups we can talk to?”

Before Ginny can answer, the back of her hand bows, bones and skin straining upward like a pitched tent. She can see the raven’s body silhouetted in the milky pink of her own flesh, the beak prodding. Then a sound like Velcro, and the raven bursts from the back of her hand, ink dangling between its feathers and her hand like an elongated umbilical cords. Fixing its gaze on Ginny, the raven launches into the air. It grows larger as it rises, and when it’s all but smothered the sun, it swoops downward, an unstoppable black bullet aimed directly at Ginny’s mother where she lies on that stretcher. Its massive beak unhinges, and it swallows her mother whole, gulping down her frail body, her needles, and the “secret” pills she keeps in her pockets. Then it swallows the paramedics and the neglected apartment, then the tattered furniture with its beer stains and cigarette burns, then all the neighbors gawking from their balconies and front stoops, then the apartment building and the streetlight with its horrible, jaundiced bulb.

One by one, all of it disappears into that black, feathered belly, until only Ginny remains. The raven doesn’t swallow her. Instead, it rises, tugging Ginny onto her tiptoes by those inky tethers. Ginny leaps, desperately wanting to ascend…

She can still feel the urge to fly when she wakes.

Taking a deep breath, Ginny looks at her hand and wrist. The ink is smudged, but her birds survived the night. They’re still there, deep in her skin, poised and ready. Pressing their ink to her lips, Ginny begins to sit up when something beneath the wallpaper above her shifts.

Ginny startles, certain it’s a trick of the dim morning light. But no. There, beside the bedpost, is a bulge, an unnatural roundness shoving those paper children outward like a blister. Squinting, Ginny leans closer. There is a muffled rustle and the bulge knuckles itself into something more angular. Ginny can almost imagine a shoulder. A wing. A mouth. No. A beak.

A tiny talon pierces the wallpaper.

Ginny scrambles to the edge of the bed as a leg, thin as a matchstick, kicks the hole larger. Dappled feathers bloom from the tear, a wing frantically beats its way free, and a bird the size of a plum tumbles onto Ginny’s pillow with a damp thump.

It isn’t a raven.

It’s a sparrow.

It totters to its feet, head lolling side to side and wobbles, wings splayed. It looks up at her, mincing, before tottering toward her, until it is almost touching the back of Ginny’s hand, beak hovering near her smudged raven. Ginny’s pulse thunders through her hand, pounding against the underside of her wrist like a knock against a yielding door. And there, beside her own heartbeat, she feels another rhythm, delicate and alien, radiating from deep within her own skin, as if another heart has bloomed beside her own.

The sparrow bird ticks its head to one side. It opens its beak, a pink sliver of tongue extending.

It shrieks.

Over and over again, the small bird shrieks, and Ginny panics, lunging, balling up the blankets with the sparrow inside, scampering to the window, the sparrow battering itself against the fabric, tiny claws needling through, snagging Ginny’s thigh. It takes two tries to heave that narrow window open, but when Ginny finally shakes the sheets into the open air, the sparrow clings, terrified and disoriented. Finally, it fluttered up and away into the chill morning sky.

Ginny is panting, still white knuckling the windowsill, when she hears Aunt Imogen shout, “The draft, Ginny!”

She bursts into Ginny’s room, her eyes darting immediately to the open window. “The draft! I will not abide a draft. What are you doing there? Where are your gloves?”

“There was a bird,” Ginny says, but when she turns to point toward the bed, there is no evidence, no gash in the wallpaper, no feathers, just a mess of balled-up sheets, an open window, and a lingering chill. Tears needle Ginny’s eyes. “I swear-“

“Don’t swear.” Aunt Imogen leans out the window and peers over the rooftops before closing the window firmly and latching it. “Your mother is expecting your phone call at nine o’clock.”


 “You should get dressed.” Aunt Imogen’s voice is clenched as she turns her back and leaves the room. “Don’t forget your gloves.”

Ginny scrubs her eyes dry, hoping for once her ravens will smudge, so the ink can stain her cheeks where Aunt Imogen can’t deny them. Leaving the door ajar, Ginny draws another bird on her wrist, a furious scratch of feathers frantically shed, up her forearm, following the still thundering line of her pulse.          


Imogen had first felt the twinge of detachment as the sun began to rise, all of her heartbeats hopping out of sync, like a needle skipping on a record. By the time Imogen fought past the panic of arrhythmia and gathered the courage to roll up her sleeve, it was too late. One of the sparrows that had lived on her arm for twenty years was gone. Only pale skin and a smatter of freckles remained.

Imogen had thrown on her housecoat and gloves and followed the weakening echo of her bird through the house. She could feel its thrumming in the walls, leading her to Ginny’s room and out the open window.

Through her panic, she might have seen the tears in her niece’s eyes, but what could Imogen have possibly said to Ginny when such a vital piece of her own body was missing? She’d hurried through the garden, her remaining sparrows frightened and restless, and ran down to the street for the first time in years, clutching her housecoat with one hand, her hair undone, and stood there, alone, one hand raised as if she could somehow coax that long gone sparrow back into her body.

Now Imogen gazes out of her bedroom window, hoping to see some sign of her sparrow, but there is only a gray morning sky. She closes the curtains, the afterimage of her bird quivering in the deep layers of her skin. The loss is a gouge, a gaping hole she knows she’ll never really be able to fill.

She should have been more careful. She should never have let her emotions back in.

She should never have agreed to watch over this child with her dark dreams and her dark birds. How can she be expected to care for anybody like this?

How can she be expected not to lose Ginny, too?      


Fact: Raven bones are pneumatized, filled with spaces for air.

Every time she calls her mother at the rehab center, Ginny imagines her bones hollow and thin, her deep skin anatomy altered by ink, and the new heartbeats she feels throbbing in her veins.

In the downstairs coat closet, the only private space Aunt Imogen’s telephone cord will reach, the naked lightbulb shoves shadows over everything. There, Ginny takes off her gloves and rolls up her sleeves, exposing the blank spaces on her skin her birds have not yet begun to occupy, and pulls the marker from her pocket.

Over the telephone, Ginny’s mother’s voice is tinny. “Hello, baby girl,” she says with that same, high-pitched sadness Ginny has heard a dozen times before. “How are you liking your time with Aunt Imogen?”

Ginny can’t bring herself to tell her mother that birds are crawling out of the walls, or that she can hear other hearts beating beside her own, or that, every day, she feels a little less attached to this world.

Ginny just says, “It’s fine.”

When her mother asks how she feels about staying another month with Aunt Imogen because the doctors say she needs “more time,” Ginny says, “It’s fine.”

Head down, teeth pressed into her lower lip, Ginny draws, inhaling the marker’s fumes until she is lightheaded. She imagines her bone marrow melting until she is floating, weightless as her birds, drifting between musty jackets and hatboxes, away from her mother and her mealy, teary voice.

Fact: ravens are opportunistic feeders.

Ginny closes her eyes and pictures her birds scratching their way clear of her skin. They crouch in miniature on her knee, waiting for the secret thermals of the closet to lift them so they can circle her like the vultures she once saw in that alphabet book at the library. She remembers the illustrations, the tarry bodies, the little, fleshy heads, eyes pinned to unseen nuggets of rabbits or deer on the side of the road.

A is for Apple.

B is for Boy.       

C is for Carrion.

D is for Dead.

E is for Empty.

When Ginny finally hangs up the phone, her flock congregates around her. She feels heavy in comparison, uncomfortable and hideous in her own body, and she holds her own hand for comfort, her raven’s wings folding over her fingers.

She imagines it feels like love.


            Imogen has spent two decades perfecting the art of invisible skin. There are no mirrors in this house. She keeps the curtains drawn, the silver unpolished and dull. And her skin, always, covered.

            But that afternoon, as Ginny calls her mother, Imogen almost wants to peel back her sleeves again. Is it possible more of her sparrows have abandoned her than she realized?

What if she is more alone than even she suspected?

Tucking herself into the first-floor powder room, where the child’s voice is muffled and distant behind the avocado-green tiles, Imogen leans against the door and closes her eyes.

She’d hidden there the first night she arrived in this house when she was what? Eleven? Twelve? Imogen can still remember the angry purple fingerprints, the red welts her father had given her, the faded green washes that began looking, to her, like feathers. She’d imagined ancient raptors bundled into song birds, evolution distilling their fury into something delicate and unsuspecting.

            She remembers, before she was sent here, waiting for her father to drink himself sleepy and creeping into his upstairs study. Her sister, little Beatrice, was still just a baby, still small enough to be loved without question, and so Imogen knew she’d be the one to take the brunt of her father’s anger if he found out she was in there without his permission. Still, defiant, she took a fountain pen from his desk and, crouching on the rough carpet, she drew birds on her arms, a dozen miniature sparrows constructed around the bruises he’d already given her. She transformed them into something beautiful, songbirds with freckles for eyes and talons in the tender creases of her elbows. She remembers the satisfaction of smudging ink, making those feathered bodies seem round and real, making those bruises hers.

            An hour later, when the door to her father’s study opened, and he appeared, backlit, red-faced, demanding, “What the hell is going on here?!” a dozen unfamiliar heartbeats fluttered to life inside Imogen’s chest.

When her father stomped closer, Imogen scrambled back, and wings that remembered their ancient manifestations battered the inside of her. When he drew back his hand to hit her, when Imogen shrieked, her birds rocketed out of her skin, an explosion of razor-sharp beaks and claws, every bruise made beautiful tearing flesh aside in a jumble of inky feathers and crudely rendered wings. She felt their trajectory in her veins, the elation of flight and violence as they scratched her father’s thick forearms to ribbons, slashed his unshaven face, and the soft bulges of his eyes. They smashed his nose sideways, cartilage snapping. They pummeled his Adam’s apple until it lodged in his throat like a stone so he could never, ever yell at anybody ever again. Imogen’s screams climbed, higher and higher, until she could no longer hear the pitch as her birds drove her father back.

He collided with the window ledge.

Glass shattered.             

Imogen remembers the sudden silence. She remembers walking to the window and peering over the jagged edge to see, three stories below, her father groaning, leg snapped into an unnatural angle, glass and feathers everywhere.

One by one, her birds returned to her and sank, gently, back into her skin.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Imogen clutched her flock close as Mother hurried out the kitchen door to help her father. She watched as he pointed silently up toward that broken window, toward Imogen.

Imogen ran to her room. She put on a turtleneck, her longest skirt, and a pair of winter gloves. She covered every inch of herself until the tiny hearts hammering inside finally slowed.

Fact: captive birds are often comforted by covering their cage with a cloth or blanket.

Imogen did not look at her skin after that if she could help it. Even when they sent her away from her father, to live with her grandmother, here in this towering Victorian, Imogen refused to wear short sleeves or uncover her hands. She closed her eyes when she dressed. She fixed her gaze on the tile in front of her when she bathed. Part of her was afraid to see the scars her father had left. Part of her was afraid that if she acknowledged her flock, they decide to leave her and never come back.

They were the only ones who ever, really bothered helping her after all.

They have been part of her for twenty years.

What is she without them?

Ginny has gone silent, the distant phone call over. Taking a deep breath, Imogen steels herself and touches her gloved hand to her wrist. She feels the emptiness where her escaped sparrow had been beneath the cloth, one less heartbeat in the flock she’s secretly loved and feared and harbored for so long.

Is this what having a child of her own would have been like? Losing a vital piece of herself daily? Worrying? Grieving? Wondering if this other, younger person might somehow miraculously understand, through blood or familial experience, the deepest, most awful parts of her and love her unconditionally in ways nobody else had ever managed to, only to leave her in the end?

Imogen touches her gloved palm with her gloved fingers.   

How long has it been since anyone held her hand?   


Ginny’s birds follow her as she wanders from the closet through the first floor of Aunt Imogen’s house. She can feel all of them now, more real and immediate than her mother’s tinny voice could ever be. Her body is mottled with beaks and feathers, birds that pull away from her like taffy as she walks.

One of her ravens descends, a clawed foot curling around her shoulder, talons digging in dangerously. She can feel her birds’ restlessness winding through her; the urge to soar away from here is like a distant hunger she doesn’t know how to quell. The raven cocks a glassy eye at her and then oozes itself back into her skin with a keening caw.

The others cry out, distressed and famished.

Fact: if starving, carrion birds will feed on their own kind.                      

Ginny wonders distantly if they would consume her completely if they had the chance.

“I’d understand,” she murmurs as she enters the foyer. Her birds light on the gilded, scrolling frames there, the portraits of her ancestors. They pull at her skin, urging her upward, closer to those rows of solemn faces and sightless eyes, and she imagines herself rising, surrounded by wings, gravity falling away from her.

The window in her bedroom is latched, but it isn’t locked. If she’s lucky, maybe her birds really will teach her how to fly.


Aunt Imogen’s voice slices through the sun-muted air, and Ginny turns, wild eyed. She won’t wear those gloves. She won’t be shoved aside, forgotten, unloved, and hidden away. All around her, her birds are screeching, ready to shred and devour, to do anything, anything, to feel real, to fly.

But Aunt Imogen, standing there beside the window, doesn’t move. She looks, for a moment, impossibly small, like a little girl, dwarfed by the foyer and all those portraits, sunlight pulling blues and purples from her dress like she’s draped herself in grackle feathers. Her gaze flits upward, toward the winged chaos, before following the lines of ink connecting girl to bird and back again.

Ginny shifts uncertainly.

How could her aunt possibly see the miracle bubbling up and out of Ginny’s skin? How could this woman ever understand?

“What do you want?” Ginny asks, and a dozen birds, a hundred, a thousand, boil her blood.

Aunt Imogen doesn’t answer.

Instead, she lifts one hand and, very carefully, removes her glove.


Imogen sees her niece’s birds.

Of course, she does. She has worn this family’s fury and abuse in feathers and beaks, in sharp, barbed claws since she, too, was a child.

But she isn’t certain Ginny will want to see the truth of her sparrows.

Maybe now the gesture is too little, too late. Maybe Ginny will hate her the way Imogen hated her own family. Maybe the rage of those avian hearts is too deafening for Ginny to want hear anything else.

Still, Imogen raises her bare hand. There is a swell of heat, a bubble of skin, and one of her sparrows rises, breaking free from her flesh in a shower of speckled feathers. The bird flitters upward, toward Ginny’s darker flock, but there is no safe place to land. The larger birds, furious at the intrusion, surround Imogen’s sparrow like roiling oil.

Imogen opens her mouth, to call frantically for her sparrow to return, but Ginny is quicker. She rushes forward through the terrible cacophony as the tiny, panicked bird descends and snatches it from the air, her fingers closing like a cage.

Imogen watches as Ginny begins to squeeze.

“Ginny.” Imogen’s voice trembles.

Her niece looks up at her, dark birds trembling above her, gaze lost in generation upon generation of girls and women poured into flightless bodies, abandoned and misunderstood, taught to endure instead of feel, tiptoe instead of rage, to hide anything that might make them unique or dangerous or powerful.

Imogen closes the space between them. She takes a deep breath, and touches Ginny’s hand. There is nothing between them, no fabric, no glove.

Imogen can feel her other sparrows stirring.

It’s been twenty years since she’s allowed herself to feel them.

It’s been twenty years since she’s allowed herself to feel anything at all.

But there is sadness and relief, desperation and hope, quivering through her when she says to Ginny, “Please. Let it go.”

Ginny’s eyes refocus, and there is a beat of understanding, a familiarity. The birds above begin to settle cautiously. Slowly, Ginny softens her grip, and the sparrow shifts to light on her outstretched finger.

When Imogen takes Ginny’s hand in hers, the touch is gentle.

When her sparrow returns of its own volition, it is unafraid and whole.

About the Author

Lora Gray, (they/them), is a non-binary speculative fiction writer and poet from Northeast Ohio and has been published in F&SF, Uncanny, Strange Horizons and Asimov's among other places.

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