From “Origin Story”: An Excerpt From “The Ill-Fitting Skin”

"The Ill-Fitting Skin"

We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Shannon Robinson’s new collection The Ill-Fitting Skin, out this week from Press 53. Danielle Evans had this to say about the book: “Robinson shifts seamlessly between approaching the world with a visceral clarity and building fantasy worlds that illuminate the strangeness of our own.” This excerpt is taken from “Origin Story.”


Never bite back. That’s what all the parenting websites tell you. None of this tit-for-tat nonsense, however tempted you may be. Giving a mixed message is not the danger. The danger is that you will be making yourself all too clear.  

Genna had done enough scrolling and clicking to make her wrists burn and her contacts bake to her eyes in the blue light. But the next time her son bit her during one of his tantrums, she crouched, grabbed his flailing arm, and bit him halfway between wrist and elbow, just as he’d bitten her. “Wystan, if you bite Mommy, Mommy will bite you,” she said. “Do you understand?” 

He bit her again. 

She bit him back. 

They had about three more rounds of this, leaving marks on each other’s arms like parentheses rendered in little red stitches, before he gave up. 

Wystan had already been expelled from one preschool for biting, and he’d been stamping on thin ice at his current one, with several parents having already complained about teeth imprints left in their children. “If he ever pierces the skin,” the preschool director had said, “my hands are tied.” 

In the hours and days that followed Genna’s skirmish with Wystan, he did not bite her or anyone else, and she allowed herself, by degrees, to feel relieved. Roy, her husband, said they should wait and see. 

Wystan remained prone to screeching and crying, apt to smack, to throw toys, or to assume what Genna and Roy had come to call the “hell no I won’t go” weighted floppiness only to suddenly revive and pull hair and kick, but he did not bite. Once, after Genna wrested a Sharpie from Wystan that he’d been using to plow black furrows through the beige plush of the couch, he paused mid-scream to pull forward Genna’s dress and sink his teeth into the fabric. In that moment, she felt a surge of affection for her son: he was obviously trying to control himself. She placed her hand softly on the boy’s blonde head, and the folds of cloth dropped out of his mouth as he smiled at her. 


Genna awoke to a crashing sound, and her first thought was that someone had broken into the house and was ransacking it. Furniture thudding against walls, something smashing, a percussive cascade of objects hitting the floor … all coming not from downstairs, but from down the hall. She didn’t stop to wake Roy, still tethered to the depths of sleep by exhaustion. She ran to her son’s bedroom and flung open the door. 

Wystan’s bookshelf had been tipped over, and his lighthouse lamp lay shattered on the floor as if broken by some tremendous wave. His bed was empty. In the glow of the nightlight, in the midst of the fallen books and toys near the closet, Genna saw something move. “Wystan! What are you—” 

A dark figure on all fours was shredding books, tearing pages from the spines with its teeth and paws. To Genna, it looked to be a medium-sized dog. Pointed ears. Thick fur. At the sound of her fumbling for the light switch, the animal looked up, its eyes two flashes of phosphorescent green. It made a low growl, sniffed the air, and then returned to ripping. Genna barely moved as she scanned the room, under the bed, the closet, the jumbled chaos on the floor. In the loudest whisper she could manage, she said, “Wystan, sweetie, where are you? Mommy’s here.” 

The animal had drawn closer and was growling again. Its teeth, now fully bared, slowly parted, almost seeming to grow larger—Genna fled. She yanked the door shut with a backwards lunge that nearly knocked Roy over. Through the warmth of his chest, he radiated adrenaline and alarm. 

The door began to thump. “Don’t let it out!” Genna said. Roy held the doorknob while she ran through the house calling her son’s name, upstairs then down to the basement and back up again. She found Roy standing in the open doorway of their son’s bedroom. 

The animal was gone. Wystan lay curled up, naked, profoundly asleep in the corner on a heap of tangled sheets, a mangled page in his damp fist. 


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