There is a legend in Northern New Mexico of the spirits of the desert the natives call skin-crawlers.
The emptiness of the canyon sands lends space for haunting spirits to stand and wait to create monsters of human skin; if you walk alone by the riverside at night, they say, you’ll hear the woman who screams in grief for having lost her children, in a drowning, the sound haunts the hallow mountains in harmony with coyotes crying out beneath the full moon and all you can do is pray to never be found by their hungering bodies.
Late one night, as we spoke tales of the supernatural by the waters of Lake Abiquiu, a seventeen year old boy named Matthew told me of the times his grandparents, his parents, and he himself heard the jarring screams of the skin-crawlings late in the season down by the stream. That night, I had a dream that the spirits hovered over the waters of the deep in our souls, lost spirits longing for a place to come home, like stories wanting words to be told. As the sun rose I prayed that the clouds would lift and everything would be okay.
My father loves to tell ghost stories. Ever since I was young, he told me of his parties in Gettysburg in his fraternity house, the times when the soldiers returned in their war uniforms to make the doors slam and the wooden steps creak. I can’t tell you how much he believes thanks to the gin and whiskey. But I do know that all I have to do is walk by SAE, my father’s alma mater, and I smell childhood memories of Budweiser; it doesn’t matter that he was a happy drunk. I avoided drowning by finding adventures with books in my room. I played emotional hide and seek, hiding from a couch reeking of beer, and seeking escape from a mongering fear that I would be abandoned. As a child, alcohol was a demon of falling out of my father’s arms and now, its ghosts are haunting me with Saturday night court parties, bed sheets twisting me awake in my sleep.
Last Friday night, I saw skin crawlers for the first time. They wore sheets of white, flooding down the crowded streets, the moonlight casting shadows upon brick buildings towering over the ghostly fleet. Craving midnight heat, they paraded through the court in hoards of young, fresh bate awaiting the spirits to take them away. Their eyes were glazed over in a hungry gaze for skin, a desire crawling up their legs as they became mindless and wasted – hastened for some connection to cure the infection looming in their minds of deadlines and the bell ringing at 8:30 on Monday morning. The sirens and the ambulance cast red shadows on the black streets until everything started to bleed together, the music blaring and the shots and the screams and the war scene that is men on a stage with paint guns. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be royally courted at this type of party, the drinking culture isn’t my scene not because I’m too pious; in fact, I’d give anything to be able to try it but I can’t. my body won’t frolick in the way others do; my liver is haunted by generations of alcoholics.
I can’t run from this any longer, the sea of togaed bodies hoping to escape. I feel ashamed to be witnessing the collective intelligence of the human race being drunk away, the eyes that I knew and trusted during the day now parading a mask of Dr. Jekyll over the pain that they face. I feel anguished, an anthropologist witnessing an ancient mating ritual of gyrating bodies on tables and floors, hallowed alcohol-bearing flesh making me crave something more. The soft animal of the human being is easily devoured by the power of addiction, the self-medication of seeking salvation through some intoxicating love, a thrust into another’s arms that never feels like enough. It’s painfully lonely to be sober, to sit with the trees and listen to the echoing screams, to taste heartache amidst hundreds of bodies trying to put their feelings to sleep, to leave feeling haunted by lost intimacy.
All I want is know the dignity of my own two lips, to share a hammock when we’re not tipsy, to rock gently to sleep to the sound of the crickets and our hearts beating and know that this is real, you’re not a skin crawler, you’re not my father, you are a heart of beating flesh and wounds longing to be held. you have found my heart, longing for its wandering spirit to come home, to have its story be told in poems written across the skin. and as the sun rises over the lake, we will know that everything is okay, we will wake sobered by that drink that strips us bare – we will remember the sweet moments of surrender, drinking that invisible love that we share.