PAINTED SKIN • by Wanying Zhang

My body is decomposing. It starts to peel away like an onion losing its skin, only to reveal a shriveled core beneath. I must not let him witness this transformation. Since I assumed the role of Madame Wang, I have applied a fresh layer of make-up on my face every day before he comes home. The sweet fragrance of the cherry blossoms in our garden stirs memories of our blissful youth. There was a time when we had danced beneath those trees, followed by nights of stolen kisses, escaping the sorrows of our past.

Today, my younger sister, Weirong, visits. She’s an innocent soul whose laughter sounds like the tinkle of chimes. She strolls with buoyancy in her step when she enters a room; her dark, silky hair cascades down behind her. I invite her to sit in our living room, where a folding screen depicting a drawing of a phoenix and a dragon stretches behind our burgundy sofa. On the opposite wall, beside the fireplace hangs a youthful scroll painting of me — a gift my husband, Mr. Wang, had commissioned for me in my twenties. On the adjacent wall, a circular mirror hangs next to a large pot of olive-green bamboo shoots that complements the low windowsill. Following Feng Shui principles, I keep the room meticulously arranged to ensure our family’s home is auspicious.

“You have a strand of gray hair,” she observes, as casually as if commenting that a fly landed on my shoulder.

My hand flies to my scalp in a frantic search for the anomaly. She places her hand over mine and she plucks it out for me. A slight prick tingles my scalp where the stray hair once grew.

I know she means well.

“I can’t entertain for long. I must start painting my face before my husband comes home,” I explain as I pass her a steaming cup of jasmine tea across the coffee table.

“You spend so much time on your skin. Your natural beauty glows like the morning dew.”

Weirong is kind, but she doesn’t understand the expectations of being Madame Wang. She giggles as I comment on her carelessness, returning the earring she had left behind during her last visit, and we exchange stories about our past. As she sips the tea, a pang of jealousy strikes me when I observe her hand’s smooth skin.

Over the years, I have painted not just my face, but also my neck, arms, and legs. It has become a ritual, as routine as preparing his meals, washing his clothes, sweeping the floor, and maintaining order in the house. I don’t want to tell her that although his eyes remain on me, his heart is elsewhere. He desires me, but his thoughts wander.

When Weirong leaves, I gaze at the portrait of my younger self, yearning to recreate her. Her heart-shaped face is smooth and white-powdered. Her slender eyebrows delicately arch, and her rosy, full lips complement the tinge of blush in her cheeks. She is like my sister, carefree and brimming with vigor. I am her, yet I am not. My footsteps fall heavily with the burden of years. He no longer greets me with a passionate kiss when he returns home from work. The sparkle in my eyes that was once a supernova dims to a faint glow in the dark. 

Months turn into years, and I devote more and more time to painting myself. The woman in the portrait watches my every brushstroke, her eyes follow me around the house. Sometimes when I’m alone, I talk to her. She whispers to me and tells me to keep painting and to strive to conceal every blemish, every imperfection I find. I experiment with blending light and dark colours and mixing various powders of lead, rice, cinnabar and animal fat. Racing against time, I paint until my fingers bleed and my eyes grow weary. I paint, and repaint, even when it consumes my entire day, and the brewed tea turns cold.

Then, as I fold my husband’s clothes on the sofa, an earring falls out of his pants pockets. My sister is not as innocent as I thought. Betrayal’s knife twists deep in my sickened heart, leaving me hollow and bitter. I throw his pants across the room in a fit of rage. Only now do I notice the sickly and gray air, laden with dust, saturating our home. Diseased fungal spots proliferate on the bamboo shoots that point at a thin crack in the ceiling. My eyes hurt from the weak sunshine that leaks through the window, where I see the naked branches of the cherry blossom trees and a mosaic of shrivelled petals in the courtyard that I neglected to sweep up. Did I fail him in my household duties? Did I not paint myself enough?

Tears sting my eyes as I glare at my youthful painting on the scroll, cursing at the illusions it gives me. I peel off the layers of make-up, revealing withered skin on my face. In my reflection, I see years of decay and patches of discoloured yellow-green skin. I have become a mere skeleton with flesh hanging on bones. Blood boiling, I drive my fist into the mirror, releasing years of pent-up anger and numbing the pain in my heart. Shards of glass and drops of blood stain the beige carpet.

I turn to see the woman in the painting blink and smile at me. I extend my hand toward the painting to touch her face. She whispers in my head that everything will be okay. I reach into the canvas, then my legs follow, and I walk into the scroll painting, never turning back.

Wanying Zhang is a Chinese-Canadian writer of speculative fiction based in Montreal. Since she was young, she has dabbled in mixing potions and writing stories fusing elements of Asian and European fairy tales, folklore, and science fantasy. This story was inspired by an old Chinese tale by Pu Song Li (1970) of the same name. She is a recent flash fiction winner for the 61st issue of Flame Tree Fiction Newsletter, titled “Feathers of Eternity.” She has also published short fiction with DeeBee Publishing. Currently a college professor with too many degrees, she sprinkles the magic of chemistry for future generations.

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