Skinning Dipping with Walt Whitman

by Abbey Schlanz (Univ. of Mount Union)

Second Place

It is a cool morning in June. Pearl dewdrops ornament the grass, and the clouds sink so low that I breathe them in with every step as I walk through the woods behind my white vinyl house. As I follow the once-mossy path worn brown by the daily tread of my mud- stained boot soles, I can’t help but feel like an intruder whose loud footsteps uproot flora and scare off fauna. I feel this way most mornings; on better ones I feel more like an observer, almost like a forester, making mental notes of the various plants and creatures that appear near my path. Either way—whether intruder or observer—I do not belong here. My hands are soft, the nails painted and trimmed square; my hair is short and blunt, its wild ends replaced with even layers. I sheathe my body—too clean, too hairless, too human—in clothes whose threads both hide my unnaturalness and expose it through bright, factory-produced colors.

I repress this feeling as I wind between alder and sycamore, careful to step over roots and tree trunks stricken horizontal by either lightning or rot. Locusts chirp all around, hidden beneath the dirt and between leaves, while the occasional bird makes mating calls from high in the air. I breathe in the sweet smell of forest that grows stronger as the sun rises higher, its pale beams thinning the morning mist. Soon my path aligns with a narrow creek that trickles quietly, bubbling between ferns. A frog squats beside it, jumping closer, pausing, and then jumping closer again. Its throat pulses as it waits, contemplating its next move. Suddenly, from the other bank, another frog leaps out from behind a rock and splashes into the water. The first frog then does the same, and the two swim down the current together in a single green-brown blob that blends in with the water and disappears.

As I continue down the forest path, the trees grow thinner and the creek grows wider before spilling into a large pond surrounded by a ring of grass. A wide, flat rock juts over the edge of the pond on the opposite bank, almost like a diving board. By this time the sun has begun to approach its peak, turning the now cloudless sky a brilliant cerulean that is reflected in the pond’s softly rippling surface. I sit cross-legged on the shore, as is my routine, and close my eyes, letting the warm summer breeze skate over my skin and through my hair.

I hear a scuffling in the distance and open my eyes. Standing upon the flat rock is a man whose figure stands pale and naked against the dark of the surrounding trees. He sees me, waves, and leaps into the pond, making a great foaming splash that causes the water in front of me to undulate and rock against the bank. Alarmed, I scamper back from the shore. I’ve never seen anyone here before and surely not an undressed man.

He erupts from the surface again, laughing and shaking water from his long, gray beard, which hangs only inches above the pond’s surface. “Oh you must try this!” he exclaims, floating on his back with his white chest and belly toward the sun, the curled hairs along his torso glinting golden.

I freeze in place with my hands clutching clumps of dirt and my shoes firmly planted in the ground, my butt grazing the earth. I am speechless for a moment, but when I find my voice, I stammer out, “Wh-who are you?”

The man laughs again, standing upright in the water that rose just above his hips. He tips his head back and holds his arms straight out from his body with his palms upturned, yelling, “’I am the poet of the body/ And I am the poet of the soul!’”

More like a crazy man, I think, wondering what sort of person this man could possibly be. Maybe he had accidentally wandered out of a nearby nursing home and gotten lost, or perhaps he was homeless. Or maybe he’s just eccentric.

As I ponder this, the man turns away from the sun and begins to swim toward me, his arms wheeling forward in strong front strokes and legs paddling behind. I hold up a hand and scuffle backward a few more inches. “Stay back! Please! Don’t come any closer!”

He stops, only a few feet away from the shoreline. His body is lean and muscular, except for his belly, which is swelled from either alcohol or age—or perhaps a combination of both. I can see the tanned lines of his face above his beard and the clear blue of his eyes, deep and transparent like the blue of the pond. His face is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. He smiles at me and says, “There is nothing to fear, my dear. Come, swim with me!”

I swallow, my eyes darting toward the line of water that conceals his more private parts. “But you’re, um—”

“Naked?” The man finishes, roaring with laughter. “Of course I am! How can you feel the warm touch of the sun or the cool caress of water if you are wrapped in clothes? How can you fully embrace Nature if you put up a barrier against her?” He spreads his arms wide, palms tilted upward, and gestures to the air around him. “The answer to both of these questions, of course,” he pauses, looking directly at me. “…is that you cannot.”

I consider his words, looking at my shoes with their thick rubber soles and tough canvas wrapping to protect against the discomfort of thorns, rocks, and mud—or, as this man is suggesting, to block out the tickle of grass, loose dirt, and water. I hold a shoelace between two fingers and begin to tug. I slowly take off the first boot and feel the cool air breathe through my sock. Refreshed by the feeling, I tug off the sock and hold my foot up, letting a breeze caress my skin. I close my eyes and revel in the sensation—it’s almost as if I had never been barefoot before. Excitedly I peel off the other boot and sock before stuffing tossing them to the side. I wiggle my newly freed toes in the grass and dig them into the cool, moist dirt beneath, feeling how it crumbles against my skin. I sigh, wondering how I could have ever preferred wearing shoes.

“That’s it! Now come to the water,” the man beckons, scooping up a handful and throwing it into the air. The droplets catch in the sunlight, diamonds that arc over his body and cling to his skin like morning dewdrops.

I crawl down to the shore, sitting at the edge of the bank and dipping my now-bare feet into the water, letting it engulf my ankles and calves with its smooth caress. Lake weeds wrap around my feet, and a fish flits against my skin, almost as if the pond is welcoming me. I giggle delightedly.

“Now will you swim with me?” the man asks, his smile still brilliant, even beneath the coarse hairs of his beard.

As I think of undressing and exposing myself to this man, I hesitate and back away from the bank again. Color floods my cheeks. While the thrill of being so intimate with nature entices me, nudity is not something I have ever been proud to share. “I…I don’t think so. My body is better left unseen.”

“Nonsense! The human body is something to be adored and admired by all! It is a miracle, as magnificent as God Himself! ‘Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.’”

I hesitate, my finger hooked in the waistband of my shorts. Part of me longs to join him in the water and revel in nature, but another part of me refrains, a part that stems from learned shame and chastity, from lack of confidence and the danger of exposure to a stranger. I feel the wind pick up again and tickle the hairs of my arms, flapping the cloth of my T-shirt against my skin, as if an invisible hand tugs on it, begging that I take it off.

The skin beneath his eyes crinkles warmly as he says softly, “Nature calls to you, dear. She is desperate to see your beauty. She wants you to join us and celebrate with me in this pond. You have nothing to fear but living with the regret of denying yourself this pleasure.” Louder now, he says, “Come in! Celebrate the beauty of your body and nature entwined!” With sparkling eyes, the man wades closer and reaches his hand out to me. Some force within me, one that I have never before known, wells up from my core and moves my hands to the hem of my shirt. I twist it over my head and toss it aside before unhooking my bra and doing the same. I roll my bottoms to my ankles and step out of them, kicking them away. I stand, shaking, fully naked. The sunlight prickles sensitive skin that before had rarely felt its rays. My hands travel to cover my chest and the place where my thighs meet. The man in the pond claps his hands together in praise, his smile rounding the apples of his cheeks.

“Beautiful! Absolutely radiant! Oh, look at the way the sun dances off your skin. But you have no need to hide your sex! No inch of you is vile, remember—not a single inch! Let the world see all of you.”

Slowly, I drop my hands to my sides, and a sort of rush comes over me. I hold my head high, feeling a thousand invisible eyes and one blue pair examine my body from the top of my scalp to the pink soles of my feet, but for the first time in my life, I feel no shame or self-consciousness. I step toward the pond, where the old man still holds out his hand. I sit on the bank and slide into the water, letting it envelop my body in a cool embrace. I take the man’s hand, and together we float out to the center of the pond where the sun shines directly above us, reflecting off the water in a dazzling silver that illuminates our skin.

“I almost feel like I belong here,” I breathe with a laugh, running my fingers along the rippling water, letting the light’s reflection dance white across my skin.

“But you do!” the man exclaims, pulling me close so that we stand side by side, hip to hip. He wraps one arm around my back, his calloused hand like sun-warmed tree bark against my shoulder. He smells of earth and sweat and moss, like he had been grown from a gardener’s carefully tended soil. “You are as natural as the trees lining this clearing, the creek that flows into this pond, the fish that swim around our legs, the sun that shines on our very faces.”

I shake my head, disbelieving. The man gently takes my wrist and holds it up to the sky, palm facing the sun and fingers fanned out. “Look at your hand,” he says. “What do you I look at my hand, the seashell-pink skin dark against the bright blue of the sunlit sky. At the edges of my fingertips, my skin glows transparent and blends with the blue so that there is no discernible line between hand and sky; one seamlessly fades into the other. “My hand melts into the sky,” I marvel. “It’s like it’s a part of it! Look, do you see—“

I glance over at the man—or rather where he had been standing. The surface of the pond slowly ripples, rings undulating out from a now imaginary body. I can still feel the heat from where his arm had been across my shoulder blades only seconds before. Bewildered, I look around , calling for him and splashing through the water, too shallow and clear for him to be hiding underneath. He is gone—vanished like the morning mist.

A sudden breeze blows across the pond, whipping my hair around my face, and in it, I hear the old man’s laugh, musical and distant, so quiet that a passerby might have mistaken it for the wind whistling between the trees. I smile and raise my hand high in the air again, palm outstretched to the laughing breeze.

My hand still melts into the sky.