New To It All
by Seán Padraic Birnie
My first girlfriend, Niamh, was a scratcher. Saoirse wasn’t like that. The first time Niamh asked me to stay the night, she was testing me out. I can see that now, in retrospect. Nothing too scratchy to begin with. “I didn’t want to scare you away,” she said to me once, with a laugh. “Oh, you couldn’t have,” I replied, laughing too. At this Niamh tilted her head. “I think we both know that that’s not the case,” she replied, lowering her voice, which was already an implausibly low and husky voice. “I had to ease you in.” I smiled. I didn’t argue; I never did argue with Niamh. In retrospect I can see that I was always afraid of losing her, but what good did retrospect ever do for anyone? In retrospect, there’s nothing left to do. Understanding always comes too late. In retrospect, I can hear Niamh repeating herself: “Yep, I had to ease you in. You were so… new to it all.” Perhaps she wasn’t wrong. The morning after that first night together, I noticed the scratches in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth with my index finger. I had forgotten my toothbrush. The scratches were livid. Once, she had made me yell out in pain, a long fingernail catching in the large mole in the middle of my back. I only remembered that then, standing in the bathroom with an index finger smeared with spit and toothpaste. One thing I hadn’t told her at that point was that I was, until that night at least, at the antique age of twenty-four, still a virgin. In retrospect, it’s obvious that she knew, but she was too kind to say anything about it.
Studying the scratches, I saw that they really were livid. Only one, though, beside the mole, had actually broken the skin, and a little scab had subsequently formed overnight. (I would notice the blood on the sheets when I went back to the bedroom.) The rest were a complex, delicate latticework. There was a kind of precision and an order to them that astounded me. They seemed to glow.
This excited me more than I could say. It still excites me now, in retrospect, after everything.
Things quickly progressed; I developed an aptitude for pain.
A year to the day of the night Niamh had taken my virginity, she ended things.
I was a mess for weeks that became months that became the best part of a year, but I shan’t go into that. This story isn’t about Niamh. What I will say is this: for years since, I have found myself on occasion in the middle of the night brushing my teeth with an index finger smeared with toothpaste, with no memory of getting out of bed and crossing the landing to the bathroom. Then, awake, but still under the sway of sleep, the objects of the waking world still edged with the clarity and glamour of dreams, I will begin to study the scars on my back, and grow so aroused that my cock hurts and my gut and heart begin to sicken with nostalgia. And some nights, I swear, the scars still seem to glow.
But this is not about Niamh. Saoirse, unlike Niamh, was not a scratcher. She was a biter.
We met three years to the day on which Niamh had broken up with me. There had been others in the interim, but nothing serious; nothing exciting.
In truth, in that time I had thought about Niamh a lot.
In the years since the end of our relationship, she had begun to get in the way. (As she is in the way now.) I think, in retrospect, that those others could see that, that they must have glimpsed Niamh there, getting in the way, even if they didn’t quite know what it was that they were seeing, what the thing was that was getting in the way.
I never asked Saoirse if she could see Niamh’s figure hanging around me, getting in the way of things, but I am certain that she could perceive it quite clearly. (She never mentioned it off her own bat; perhaps she was too kind to say.) But one thing I think Saoirse did do was this: she set about getting Niamh out of her way.
So Saoirse was a biter. We laughed about it later on, of course, but the first time Saoirse bit me—really bit me—it was quite a big shock. In those three years since Niamh had left, I suppose my aptitude for pain had declined.
So when Saoirse bit me, I tensed, pulled back, and gave a yelp in a pitch I previously would have considered outside of my vocal range, though I think perhaps it was the shock of it more than the pain itself.
I looked at her and saw the light of the bedside lamp catching in her eyes, little duplicate bulbs beneath worn duplicate shades, and those eyes were full of worry and concern.
“No?” said Saoirse. “Sorry. Oh God, sorry…”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You just startled me.”
“God, I didn’t mean to. I should have asked. I mean—”
I stroked her shoulder. “It’s okay,” I said. “Shh.”
“Sorry,” she said again, in a small voice, while craning her neck to nuzzle my hand.
“Don’t be,” I murmured. “I like it.”
She looked up.
“You do?” she said, and when I nodded and smiled, she too began to smile.
After that, things quickly progressed, and I rediscovered my aptitude for pain.
Saoirse, too, tried to ease me in. But I was a different person now—Niamh had changed me. So it fell to me to encourage Saoirse, to move things along. Soon, that first bite, which had left deep toothmarks in the flesh of my neck but had not broken the skin, began to seem little more than a nibble. We would laugh about it—about the yelp, about her worry.
But now I knew what Saoirse wanted. I knew what I wanted, too.
Only I had to reassure her. Apparently, her last boyfriend had broken up with her over the issue. It had freaked him out. She had hurt him, by accident. She didn’t want to hurt me.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I have… an aptitude for pain.”
She had tried, since that last relationship, to suppress her desire. In the year between that relationship’s end and our first encounter, she had seen other people, and had suppressed that desire, and perhaps as a consequence nothing of enduring value had developed with any of these others; nothing had excited her. And she had felt on edge all of the time, panicked, trying to keep the lid on something, on something that would become an unbearable build-up of pressure.
Her specific technique was remarkable. It made Niamh’s scratching seem clumsy and unrefined. Because Saoirse never once broke the skin. She has explained it to me, how she does it, but the explanation only begs other questions. Soon enough, I gave up on understanding.
Whether it comes too late, whether it comes at all. Sometimes understanding only gets in the way.
When Saoirse bit me, really bit me, for the second time, it was on my chest, deep into the pectoral muscle. The shock of it this time was something different to the first, a sudden and unexpected flash of pain that made me yelp. It was a cold, numb kind of shock. It was almost an out-of-body thing: I stared, interested but somehow uninvested, as if the body bitten into was not my own. In that moment I had thought Somehow she has sedated me, and my thoughts too had acquired a peculiarly distant quality. An iciness seemed to radiate out from the point on my chest. It was not unpleasant.
Teeth clamped on my chest, she looked up at me, and when I smiled she closed her eyes again.
When she let go, I saw how she had left what looked at first like a kind of cavity in my chest, and I felt an overwhelming surge of what might have been elation and what might have been horror. It was a feeling unlike anything I had felt before: a heady, new sensation, as yet unnamed, likely unnameable.
A cavity, but her teeth had not broken the skin. I stared, dumbfounded and panting, as Saoirse smiled up at me. A cavity, a declivity, as if the body was so much putty that might be moulded, not a surface that might be broken but a pliable substance, to be reshaped at will. Then she kissed my chest again, then the taut flesh inside my pelvis, beneath my abdomen, where a scar from surgery I had had as a young teenager remained visible, and then the inside of my left thigh.
Then she said: “Close your eyes.”
“It has to be clean,” said Saoirse, thinking carefully, the following day. I had exhausted myself trying to make sense of what she had done to me. “You have to make the cut just so.”
I nodded as if I understood, as if I could understand.
“If you get it right, there’s no blood. It’s like nothing tears. It’s smooth. If you make the cut just so, the flesh just gives, parting as if it wants to part.”
She pursed her lips in thought, then added: “Most people, I don’t think they realise how—plastic… how pliable they really are…”
“When did you first discover you could do this?” I asked.
She glanced at me, then looked quickly away. “I was twelve or thirteen,” she said, frowning. “I don’t know.”
“How did you find out?”
She blushed suddenly, and I had laughed before I could contain the laughter.
“How?” I said, trying to rein in my desire to tease her. I wanted to know.
I ran my hand through her hair. I held her cheek, her neck.
“Mafubaying,” she said, smothering the answer with her shoulder as she pulled back from me. Then finally she laughed, too.
She gave me a stare.
“Masturbating,” she said again, and the stare was an accusation of deliberate obtusity.
“What’s so embarrassing about that?”
“Well. Not the masturbating. But afterwards…”
“Afterwards?” It was becoming harder to contain that laughter. I felt a wave of giddiness beginning to build.
Suddenly Saoirse held her right hand up in front of me.
“Can you see this?” she asked, tilting her head, her gaze, which a moment before had flitted around, bouncing off anything that wasn’t me, suddenly fixing on mine.
“What?” My laughter had taken on a puzzled, worried note I wished I could take back.
“Can you see the scars? By the knuckles.”
I held her wrist and peered closely. Yes, at the base of her index and middle fingers, there were the faintest of scars, encircling the fingers as if they had been severed like clay cut with wire. Scars so faint I wouldn’t have seen them had she not told me. Scars so faint I would doubt they were there at all later on. Which you had to want to see to see at all.
“Afterwards,” said Saoirse, looking down, taking a breath, “I decided I wanted to taste myself. So I did. My fingers. And something… I don’t know…”
“Something?” I said.
“I guess I just started to chew.”
She was blushing again.
“And that was when I discovered it.”
I turned back to take a sip from the glass of water at the bedside. Putting the glass back down, I pulled myself up into a sitting position and sat back against the headboard of the bed. As I did so, the quilt fell down my upper torso, and I noticed the wound—which was not the word for it, whatever it was—at my chest. Already it had healed. What remained was a weird paleness in the flesh there. Give it a day, I thought, and it might not even look like it had been there at all. Like Saoirse’s scars.
Now Saoirse was pulling herself around to face me again. I felt her scrabbling about under the quilt, until her hand clasped my wrist. She pulled my arm out from beneath the quilt and extended my hand from the half-fist it had contracted into. She splayed out my fingers one by one and three of my knuckles clicked in succession as she did so. Then she pulled herself up so she was leaning on her elbow, holding my right hand up by the wrist, looking at me.
“Let me show you,” she said, and began to nuzzle my hand.
“Close your eyes.”
It has to be clean, she had said. You have to make the cut just so.
The motion was so quick, so sudden, so precise. I didn’t have the time to be afraid.
I felt a surge of that elation that was not elation. It was a kind of joyous nausea. A kind of voluptuous terror. I felt myself unlatching from myself.
I stared at her in shock and when the shock passed a wave of discombobulation washed through me with a force that made me think I was about to faint. I did not faint.
Curled up at my side, her body shaped against my own, Saoirse looked up at me. She wasn’t smiling—her lips were sealed taut—but I could see a deep satisfaction in her expression. She looked flushed. She was glowing.
I held my hand up and gazed at the stump where my index finger had been. I felt its phantom there, twitching, itching, jerking around. There was no blood.
It has to be clean.
There was no pain. The flesh was smooth, sealed. It wasn’t ragged. It didn’t even look as though the wound of some years-old amputation had healed. It looked for all the world as if there had never been a finger there at all. And yet I felt it there, twitching.
You have to make the cut just so.
Saoirse laughed through pursed lips. Then she opened her mouth, and I saw the index finger formerly of my right hand bobbing lightly on her tongue. It twitched, as if an electrical current had passed through it. I thought of the legs of dead frogs. I thought of the foot kicking up under the tap of a hammer on a knee. I felt the phantom finger twitch and saw the actual finger twitch in her mouth, after the briefest delay. Perhaps I did faint.
The next thing I knew, she was gripping the tip of the rogue finger between her own thumb and index finger and was carefully withdrawing it from her mouth. She held it up to me and I watched with horrified fascination as it twitched and flopped about in the cup of her palm.
Saoirse closed her hand over it, and I closed my eyes. I couldn’t speak.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I swallowed. My throat was dry.
She stroked my arm. She stroked my hand. I opened my eyes and watched as she clasped my wrist and lifted up my arm. She extended my hand from the half-fist it had contracted into. She splayed out my thumb and three remaining fingers one by one. Then she pulled herself up so that she was leaning on her elbow, holding my right hand up by the wrist, looking at me.
“Close your eyes,” said Saoirse.
I felt that iciness again. I felt the flicker of a tongue against a hand that was not my own. I felt her lapping at the wound, and knew that wound was not the word for it, whatever it was, though it was all I had.
When I opened my eyes, the wound was gone. My finger, reinstated, shivered and twitched. Above the knuckle at its base, a faint white scar. I knew it would fade.
“Thank you,” said Saoirse. “I love you.”
Things quickly progressed. Small and temporary amputations were merely the beginning of our experiments.
Another finger, a thumb. An ear. Other things.
Saoirse could open her mouth very wide. She had a lot of small, sharp teeth. I had not really noticed them before, but now they captivated me. They were very clean. They seemed to shine. Sometimes they seemed to glow.
I felt the phantom twitching of that finger and that thumb and that ear.
Sometimes the things we did were a part of sex, other times they were not. It was always pleasurable, but it was not necessarily a sexual pleasure, at least not for me.
At first, in the beginning, I was worried that other people might find out about us. In spite of my excitement, in spite of my commitment, I felt a kind of hypothetical shame: the shame that I would feel, if others discovered what we were doing. But at some point that feeling ebbed away. Nothing else mattered. The shame did not return.
“Watch this,” said Saoirse, in bed one morning. I couldn’t have told you what day it was.
She opened her mouth and began to move her lower jaw laterally, out one way and then back the other, out again and then back in a repeating circle. Then she let it fall right open. She resumed the sideways movements, and then after a moment she lifted a hand up and began to increase the force and speed of the movements manually. I heard a click. It was like the sound of a well-made lid unlatched, of something working just so. With the four fingers of her right hand clamped behind the front row teeth of her lower jaw, Saoirse pulled her jaw down. It came easily. She let go, and it flopped open, sprung like a trap door.
Fucking hell, I said, or maybe only thought.
Smiling, eyes bright, slack-jawed, Saoirse nodded at me, then nodded at my hand.
Already I could feel a tingling in my arm, a developing deadness, as of pins and needles.
She took my hand. One by one, my fingers disappeared into her mouth. She had to force my hand against one side of her mouth to fit the lower knuckle of my thumb through, but soon that was gone, too. She held my gaze as she worked on me. Slowly, centimetre by centimetre, my whole hand disappeared. Her mouth, I realised, was very cold. I could feel a numbness beginning to permeate my hand. I could feel my own thoughts becoming distant. I could feel myself beginning to unlatch. It was not unpleasurable.
Soon her lips had closed over the top of my ulna bone, over the small ganglion on the topside of my wrist. At last I realised I couldn’t feel my hand or forearm at all.
The centimetres became millimetres, until she fell still and closed her eyes.
Close your eyes, said Saoirse, and I don’t know how she said it.
Then I felt her make the cut just so.
Soon the amputations were only a part of it. “I want to show you something else,” said Saoirse.
“What?” I asked. I felt groggy but not unpleasantly so. More and more our experiments left me feeling stoned. It was a gentle kind of high. Idly I had wondered if something in her saliva, in the way she restored me to myself, healing the wounds that were not really wounds, bore a certain potency, but it was a wondering without urgency. It didn’t matter what explained it.
By this point, I think I must have been indoors all week. I had not gone to work, and if my manager had telephoned then my phone had not rung. If my housemates had telephoned, then my phone had not rung. If my mother had telephoned—an unlikely occurrence—then my phone had certainly not rung. Not that I knew where it was; perhaps it had fallen under the bed. It could stay there.
“Do you remember the first time?” she asked.
Somehow the first time now seemed a long time ago.
I waited. She kissed my cheek, my chin, my chest. She stroked my head and played with my hand, pressuring the muscles beneath my elbow so that my fingers danced, a puppeteer manipulating the strings of my body. Then she closed my hand into a fist and kissed the knuckles.
“It’s kind of like that,” she said.
She sat up beside me.
“Close your eyes.”
With the dexterity of a surgeon, she opened me up.
“Thank you,” said Saoirse, sometime later that day.
The striated pattern of scars on my chest, above my heart, reminded me of fat marbling beef.
“I love you. I love you so much.”
It was some time after this that we had the closest thing that we ever had to an argument. Later, I would worry that I had made too much of it. I had over-reacted. Had I not led her to believe that such things were okay? Later, afterwards, I would ruminate on this, and on other things, on everything, until the frenetic questions whirling in my head made me incapable of sleep. Still later on, I would wonder if that first bite, that nibble, had really been an accident after all. Perhaps it had been deliberate. Perhaps she had been testing me out.
One night, I couldn’t tell you when, what time, what night of the week it was, what week of the month or month of the year, I awoke to the sense of that radiating coldness spreading through my lower leg.
I lay very still, motionless in that soothing stoner repose, until I realised what was happening, and with what survival instinct I retained undulled, pulled myself violently back.
Saoirse gave a groan in shock.
I pulled myself up into a sitting position, falling back against the headboard of the bed, dragging Saoirse up the mattress with me, grunting and then retching.
Shhh, she said, and I don’t know how she said it, for her lips were clamped around the middle of my right calf, and I could not feel the foot.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I said. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Millimetre by millimetre, centimetre by centimetre, Saoirse withdrew.
She lay recovering at the foot of the bed, panting, scowling down at the sheets.
“You could have really hurt me,” she said, and her voice was peculiarly flat and affectless.
I laughed suddenly. It was a jarring sound. “Excuse me?”
She looked up. For a moment her eyes seemed unfocused, before her gaze fixed on me. I saw a coldness there, in that gaze, before it changed again, in what looked to me like a calculating way, suddenly filling with what looked like worry and concern, but somehow over-egged, an affectation of each.
Saoirse sighed; her head nodded forward and her shoulders slumped.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought—No. It doesn’t matter what I thought.” She looked up at me again. She tilted her head slightly and started to frown.
“I thought you liked it. I thought it was okay.”
“I did like it. Do like it. But not like that.”
She nodded, pursing her lips in thought. Then she grimaced. “Can you forgive me?” she asked, and if I had not glimpsed that coldness in her gaze a moment before I would have bought the worry and concern in her eyes hook, line, and sinker, and would have said anything to make things okay.
Saoirse pulled herself up the bed and then lay down at my side.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I love you. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m such an idiot.”
A moment later I realised she had started to cry.
Maybe the shock of that violation had brought me to my senses, because I began to worry about other things again. Reasonable things. My job, for one, though actually I didn’t need to worry about that, because it wasn’t my job anymore. The side effects of what we were doing. The scars did not bother me, but were there long-term effects? I had no idea. Saoirse didn’t seem to understand the question.
“It’s probably good for you,” she said with a laugh. “Think of it as extreme osteopathy. I should charge by the hour.”
Since our argument, I had tried very hard to make things okay. I think Saoirse was trying, too. But her laughter seemed somehow forced and inappropriate. It jarred.
There was something in the way.
Over the following weeks, we danced around it, but we both knew that something had changed. Once, drunk, Saoirse asked me if I trusted her. I said that I did. But I knew that she no longer trusted me in quite the same way.
“There’s something else we haven’t tried,” said Saoirse, later that night, slurring a little.
We were drinking in bed, which is where we often wound up.
“Something else I haven’t removed yet.” She grinned. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I promise I’ll give it back. Do you trust me?”
Two years to the day of the first night she had bitten me, Saoirse ended things.
I was a mess for weeks that became months that became the best part of a year. It was only really after two years had passed that I began to gain any kind of perspective on what had gone on between us. By that time, I was seeing Kristen, who I had met a year into my new job at the county council, and who had spent more or less most of that year waiting for me to be ready for her.
“I could see there was something in the way,” said Kristen, a few months in. Then she smiled. She has a beautiful smile, which reminds me of Niamh’s a little. Most of the time I try not to think about it. “I guess I just had to move it out of the way.”
We were drinking in bed. Kristen lay in the crook of my arm, her glass of wine on the bedside table, and she was trailing a fingertip over my chest.
She stopped at my heart.
“Is that a scar?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I lied. “I’ve always had it. And here too.” I raised my hand, to show the pale ring around my index finger.
“Weird!” she said, and laughed.
I realised I had been holding my breath. Kristen hadn’t noticed.
Suddenly she moved, thinking of something.
“My little brother was such a terror, you know.”
“I don’t know.”
“You wouldn’t think it now, but he was. This just made me think of that. One time when he was off school sick, he went into my room. I was into Barbie dolls then, Sindy dolls, all that shite. I had quite a few of them.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I know, right. But I did. When I got home from school I found them out all over my room. He’d ripped the arms and legs and heads all off, anything that came off, and had put them back together again all mixed-up and the wrong way round.”
I thought of something Saoirse had said to me once, and shivered.
Most people, I don’t think they realise how—pliable… how plastic they really are…
I realised I was holding my breath again. Kristen sat up and turned to lift her glass of wine from the bedside table.
“Did you put them back the right way round?” I asked, just to say something.
“I did, but it didn’t work. They wouldn’t stick. They kept falling out. And that’s how I grew out of Barbie dolls.”
Last night I found myself standing in the bathroom under the flickering glow of faulty halogen bulbs, and I had no memory of getting out of bed and crossing the landing to the bathroom. It was the middle of the night. Awake, but still under the sway of sleep, the objects of the waking world still edged with the clarity and glamour of dreams, I began to study the scars on my back, and the scars that striated my joints and which showed, very faintly, over several of my organs, marbling my body like fat in beef, and not for the first time I felt as though Saoirse had never quite put everything back. Not for the first time I felt like something was missing, and I wondered about the time I had awoken to find her doing what she did to me, and whether there were other times, occasions on which I had not woken. By day most of the time the scars are too pale to see, but at night they acquire that clarity of dreams and seem to glow. I think of that coldness I saw in Saoirse’s gaze and feel it radiating inside of me, its icy locus in my chest, its radial edges playing at my scalp and in my fingertips and my toes.
I have yet to see either Saoirse or Niamh again. The past is a dream. Sometimes I think I never knew them at all.
When I went back to bed, I found Kristen crying in her sleep, though when I woke her she could not tell me what the dream had been about.
Sometimes understanding doesn’t come at all.
About the Author
Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer and photographer from Brighton, England. His debut collection of short stories, I WOULD HAUNT YOU IF I COULD, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His fiction has appeared in venues such as Black Static, Litro, BFS Horizons, and Shadows & Tall Trees, and his scholarly articles on photography, writing and ghosts have featured in journals such as Photographies and Critical Studies. His research concerns writing, photographic communications technology and its offshoots, and horror. For more info, see seanbirnie.com and @seanbirnie on Twitter.
About the Narrator
J.S. Arquin is an author of Science Fiction and Fantasy as well as a very busy audiobook narrator. He has had the pleasure of narrating over 75 titles and has been a finalist for several awards, including a 2021 Independent Audiobook Award. You can find out more about his writing at arquinworlds.com, or learn more about his narrations at arquinaudiobooks.com.