Inspired by “Hans-My-Hedgehog,” a Brothers Grimm tale
Nobody realized that Zhao Li was different until near the end of elementary school, when he started to look seriously weird. We were all the same cans of soup—and then he grew a layer of spines over almost his entire body. He still looked better than a lot of us, but his growths were more unusual than our own, so we were too harsh on him, like bleach on dark jeans.
He wasn’t as cute as a hedgehog, the closest thing he could be compared to. You wouldn’t have wanted him as a pet. He looked like he had fingernail clippings sticking out everywhere, with one of each of their ends embedded in his skin. I’d rather be a pangolin, with artichoke armor instead of spikes. But who gets to choose?
We threw wet paper towels at Zhao, which stuck to his spines even more satisfyingly than when we pitched them at the bathroom ceiling. Federico painted some of the spines with nail polish when he was sitting behind Zhao during a pep rally and Joan screamed frantically when Zhao bumped into her in the hall and snagged her sweater, leaving scraggly loops hanging from one sleeve. The polish looked like sparkling blood, as if he had scratched a mystical creature. The P.E. teacher insisted on sweat-producing levels of participation no matter what strange thing your body was doing on a particular day, so Zhao’s spines were smashed into by Frisbees, softballs, and occasionally hockey pucks, and sometimes he lost a few in the process and we would shrink away from where they had fallen as if it they might burrow into our skin as well.
I wanted to help Zhao. Our families lived in apartment buildings right next to each other and I could see into one corner of his bedroom from my own. I watched him getting ready for bed one night, pulling at the spines near one ear and slowly peeling them back. He kept going, the bristles that had framed his face falling backwards into a loose hood as he pulled apart the edges covering his chest with the smooth motion of a zipper. The skin underneath looked as raw as the new cells under a severe sunburn.
I couldn’t understand. If he could take it off at any moment, why didn’t he? How could he bear himself? Did his parents make him wear his coat of spines like my mom forced me to wear tights with my school uniform skirt—for shadowy adult reasons? It seemed impossible that Zhao would choose to be a monster when he had the option of the mere shine and bumps and fuzz of the rest of us.
I waited a few hours to make sure he was asleep and then quietly climbed down my fire escape and up his. I pried open his window by jamming the tip of a screwdriver under the sill and slowly moving it upwards until I could reach inside. I felt around in the dark until my fingers found his skin, thrown over the back of his desk chair—the spines felt like a stubby hairbrush, except softer and more flexible. Also, slightly damp and lightly sticky. I yanked it off the back of the chair and pulled it through the window.
I took out a book of matches stolen from my older brother’s coat pocket, at first just wanting to see better, but then I had an idea—I struck and held a flame against the hide, burning my own fingers as I waited for it to catch. It took suddenly, lighting up like an autumn leaf. I stared until the flickering reflection in the window caught my eye, and I then watched myself holding the unburnt edge of the thing as the flames bit closer. Something strange happened to my reflection—it was Zhao on the other side staring at me, his palms on the window glass. He looked like the photocopies we made of ourselves on the school’s machine by pressing our bodies against the machine’s plate.
The hide began to disintegrate, turning into ashy feathers that floated to the ground. Zhao opened the window all the way and grabbed my flannel pajama shirt, dragging me over the sill into his room. He was stronger than he looked. Yanking the last unburned piece of his skin out of my hand, he clasped it gently against his chest, as if it were an aging pet hamster or threadbare stuffed animal from childhood.
“You killed it,” he said. I stared up at him from his bedroom floor.
“I saved you,” I said, “now you can be normal.”
“You don’t understand.” He turned his back on me and never looked me in the face at school again. I was a ghost, or piece of furniture, and so was he. Before I burned up his spines, he used to raise his hand all the time to answer questions about variables, pentameter, or some capital no one has ever heard of, and always volunteered to be first to point out the pituitary gland or demonstrate hula hoops in P.E. We, the kids, thought there was something wrong with him, but everyone else considered him pretty decent or even above average. Now teachers complain about Zhao when they think we can’t hear them, and he never participates in class, even when it’s 25% of his grade.
I’ve been making him a present, and, though it won’t be the same as the one I burned, it’s the best I can do with my thin skin and collection of pilfered thumbtacks and wire nails. I use the sewing machine in the Home Economics classroom during lunch. I hope I can finish and give it to Zhao before winter break, when it starts to get seriously cold outside, but then I think, maybe I’ll wear it—maybe it’s my turn.
Rachel Linn received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and won the Eugene Van Buren Prize for her thesis project. Her short stories and illustrations have appeared in Sun Star Review, The Future Fire, Pacifica Literary Review, and Vine Leaves. She recently served as a book expo coordinator for the Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature festival in Seattle.
Lead image: “Nail polish – close up” (via Flickr user Andy Price)