As a child, he spent his life wondering why no one wanted to touch him. Because he couldn’t see the spikes, because they were all around him but nowhere he could see.
He would play in the schoolyard, and the kids would run away from him.
And he’d cry. All alone he felt. All alone he was.
One time a girl at school felt bad for him, and she decided she’d get over her fear, and she sat down with him and played. They ran around the schoolyard, jumping and leapfrogging and skipping. The boy had never had more fun in his life, and the girl felt so happy to see her friend smiling, a smile he never wore in school before.
They were so happy at the end of it, that when they were done, the boy ran up to her before she could react and gave her a big hug.
The spikes went into her body. Just for a moment, they dug in. His hands touched her back, and dug holes into her skin, and his torso’s spikes made poked her stomach full of holes, and his knees touched hers, which were the most sensitive. She screamed and screamed, and the boy jumped back, wondering what he had done. He looked down at the girl who had now had holes all over her body, and he screamed too.
The girl ran ran ran back to her old friends, and the boy cried as he wondered how the girl suddenly had holes in her body after they played, and he knew that it was probably his fault and he wondered if this was why none of the kids wanted to play with him.
He looked at his hands, down at his torso, at his feet, for what seemed like the first time. He saw the spikes sticking out, and he saw he was a beast who could never get too close to anyone, and he suddenly understood why all the kids avoided him.
And as he cried and cried, his spikes grew larger. For you see, it was the loneliness and the pain that made him grow spikes in the first place.
The boy grew older, and as time passed, he learned to adapt. He made sure not to get too close to the kids in his schoolyard, and he’d play from a distance, making sure he never hugged them or clapped them on the back. It had happened once or twice, and those kids had holes in their bodies for weeks, and seeing the holes was enough to never do it again.
And so the more he kept his distance, the more he could pretend he was normal. The more he could imagine that there was nothing on him that could hurt anyone else. As he reached young adulthood, it became automatic, as if he was just a person who didn’t hug, who didn’t come close to others, who whispered secrets in ears. It even seemed like the more he did it, the less people noticed or even realized he had his spikes.
He was just like everyone else, just like everyone else. Just like everyone else.
But soon he was an adult, and he had a job, and he had to make a life. The book in the sky had decreed it to all, that when they leave school and they have a job, that they must marry, must make their own children.
The man was scared, though. He looked down at his hands, and saw each of the spikes digging out of his clay skin like sharks’ teeth. A drop of wetness fell on one, and he realized he was crying. Who could love him, who could come close to him with these spikes? But the book decreed it, the book decreed it, and the book was made up of the words of all the people’s hearts. And so his heart had the calling of the book, to find his love, to find his love.
And so more tear drops fell on his spikes. He felt weak, sat down in the chair in his room whose cushion was full of holes, and he weeped into his hands. And even though the spikes dug inwards, he wept and wept some more. And as he wept, the spikes dug deeper in, because his painful loneliness was making them grow.
When his tears dried, and he wiped them away, and he took a deep breath to calm himself, he rose to look at himself in the mirror.
His face, his eyes, his nose, and his ears were pockmarked full of deep holes. If he had tears left, he would have cried again. Instead, he took a wet cloth and wiped his face until the clay became wet and soft and malleable. He pushed it all back into place, hiding the holes.
But even as he covered them, he knew that underneath, the holes still existed. They were covered by the spread out clay he had moved around. But inside, they were still empty.
The man went back to work the next day. And the day after. And inside, he knew somehow he’d meet his love, for the book decreed it so, and if the desire was deep in him, the desire was deep in others.
And while his eyes felt emptier with their hidden holes, he forced himself onwards, looking for his love all as he walked to work, as he sat at work, as he left work, as he walked home, until he was alone in his chair in the room, and finally asleep.
One day, he was at lunch at the local cafe, and he heard a voice. Full of grace and pain all at once, it reached him like a beautiful song played at the wrong key.
“Do you have a wet cloth?”
He looked up and saw her. First, all he could see was her mouth, which was covered in holes. He had never seen a person with holes in public. Then he saw she was crying, and he understood it all at once.
She had spikes. Narrower but sharper than his, like the needles on a porcupine. But spikes. And she had dug them in herself, the poor woman.
He gave her his wet cloth and asked her to sit with him.
As she wiped herself clean, they spoke. At first, he pretended that he didn’t see the tears or the holes, and he told her about his work, and sitting in his chair, and walking. But soon, he couldn’t help it, and he asked her about her condition.
“Oh, I suppose I’m like you. Lonely. And so the spikes grew out of me, and now I’m lonelier. But I learned, I learned that it’s easier to make mistakes stabbing yourself than stabbing others.”
It was like she had said what was always in his soul, but which he had never had the words for. Yes, he had stopped getting close to others because he didn’t want them to get hurt. But that had left him with a void, a need to at least love himself. And so he would cut himself just so he could feel. Maybe it was an accident. But maybe it wasn’t.
He sat and spoke with her more and more and soon they were as close as they could come to each other without touching spikes.
He walked her home, and told her about how lonely is his chair was at night, and how he was simply trying to follow the book, and she nodded and smiled knowingly, telling him she got a bean bag chair which she called her “pin cushion” and they laughed at the joke.
Two months later, they were married.
At first, it was a calm, beautiful marriage. They understood the other, the pain and the turmoil of being surrounded by spikes. Although they died for love and affection, by being together they were able to keep the distance they needed in order not to hurt the other. A kiss was what they could afford, but even that was dangerous if they didn’t do it just right. And so as the days passed, and they lived their lives, they grew closer together even as they remained apart.
Their renewed confidence and skill at distance helped them grow in their careers and their lives. They both found success, moving up their corporate ladders, a world where distance could be an advantage. People around them saw that there was something wrong, but they didn’t inquire. They let them go about their businesses as long as they did their jobs.
And so it was with great concern that after a few years, they began to notice that their spikes were growing longer.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the same to be able to tolerate and understand a person as to love them. And it wasn’t the same to succeed at work as it was to feel valued, cherished, and appreciated. And so while managing the spikes sticking out of them had made them better able to prevent the tragedies and pains of the past, they realized that they were living ever-lonelier lives. What was a kiss every now and then from the person you loved? Especially when half the time a needly spike stuck into your face, leaving a deep hole in it? What was success at work if it felt like it existed only for itself, with no connections built, with no friendships made?
They were lonely. And so their spikes grew. Although they did not cry, for they had long ago learned to mask the pain, they could not ignore what was literally happening all around them.
And when they tried, that was worse.
They could hardly kiss anymore because the spikes would gash deep. And soon they started blaming the other for being the cause, yelling and screaming as if the other’s spikes were the cause, and the holes in their faces purposefully put there by their spouse.
And although they did the same thing to each other, it became impossible to hear anything but the blame coming from the other, and feel the blind hatred and anger that came with being so painfully judged.
Soon, they were pock-marked with holes all over their faces. And as they fought, they’d come closer and sometimes, by accident, their spikes would go deep into the other. They’d fight and cry (they could only seem to cry in front of each other, and because of each other), and they’d get close to each other to yell, and a spike would dig into a torso, a leg, sometimes even into the chest where it would puncture the heart.
It became a daily ritual in the morning to cover themselves with mud, to paint over their holes, and although they felt emptier and emptier, they refused to let this all come crashing down. They knew deep down that without each other, they’d be lonelier than ever.
So, one day, they decided it was time to recommit. It was time to find a way to create meaning and truth in their lives. It was time to not let the spikes rule their lives.
And so they had a baby.
It was in the great book in the sky, of course, this idea of having a baby. The great book said that it was the deepest need and desire of all clay things to create more clay. Clay, after all, was literally made to be shaped, made to be built into something beyond itself. And so what else could make a clay-person’s life more meaningful than to build another clay-person?
Like generations of clay people before them, they pulled out a piece of themselves and mixed their clay together. But they had told themselves that this child would grow differently than they had. This child would not be full of holes or spikes. This child would be smooth and pure.
So as they built the child, they made sure to put on thick gloves and work ever so carefully. They put all their love, hopes, and dreams into this child, for they understood that this was their first chance, maybe their only chance, to contribute to the world something that wasn’t damaged by their spikes, that wasn’t about their imperfections, but was simply from the pure clay within.
And as their baby looked up at them in its first moment of life after they packed the last bit of clay onto her, they beamed with pride. It was just as they imagined: a pure, utterly beautiful, perfect clay child.
They cried again, but this time out of joy. The water on their faces rolled down, making their clay softer than it had ever been. It soon started to flow all over their bodies, and they got softer and softer, as if they were newborns themselves, as if they shared not just their child’s clay but her skin too.
As they looked at each other in warmth and affection, they noticed something they had never seen before: their spikes had actually shrunk.
And they kissed, a kiss that they had never had before and never would again, one that was so utterly perfect because for once in their lives, they didn’t have to worry about the stabbing pain of getting close to each other.