based on Margery Williams’s children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real
There was once a Velveteen Lover, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was naked and lean, as a lover should be; his beautiful brown skin was prone to flushes of ruddiness and real thread whiskers. And his body, when touched, had a firm and rubbery give but with velveteen softness, as advertised. On Christmas morning, when he was upright in his box, a sprig of holly in his hair, gazing unseeingly out through the cellophane panel, the effect was charming but also forlorn, as if on some level he knew he was a lover in a box.
There was a stocking, too, of course, hung from the mantle and filled with Swiss gadgetry, chunky vintage bangles, and TEA-TREE-AND-LEMON-INFUSED foot scrub, but the Lover was the best of all. For at least two hours, the Woman—who lived alone and had bought him for herself—loved him. And then a few friends the Woman had met at Al-Anon came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Lover was forgotten.
For a long time he lived in the sex-toy closet or on the bedroom floor, and the Woman never thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being made only of synthetics, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The remote control hybrids, who had grafted animal skin and the ability to speak to the Woman and, it was rumored, to dream and ruminate on existentialism and operate on a subconscious level, were very superior and looked down upon everyone else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. The model dildo, who had lived through two seasons and lost most of his glitter, caught the tone from them and never missed an opportunity of referring to the Velveteen Lover’s rigging in technical terms: not just as “turgid” and “rugged” but also in a “permanent lurid state of vascular, endocrinal, psychological, and neural functioning,” though he was clearly more basic than this. The Lover could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn’t know that real men existed. (The Woman didn’t date real men; they made her feel ashamed and vulnerable, as though her skin were too mottled or too fleshy, or that her scent welled too easily within her, pressing out of her pores—indeed, that she was too porous, too real.) He thought men were all stuffed with flexible innards and battery-operated electric heart pumps and hard drives with small ports at the bases of their skulls for easy uploads of new programming, and he understood that these things were quite out of date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Even Timothy, the jointed titanium lion who roamed freely like a house cat and was made by disabled soldiers through a veterans-sponsored program and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with the Government. Between them all, the poor Lover was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.
The Skin Horse had lived longer than any of the others. He was so old that his Latex finish was bald in patches and showed the mechanical architecture running underneath, and most of his pearl trim had been pulled out like an old string-bead necklace. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of toys and androids of various animals arrive and boast and swagger and by and by break their heartsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys and would never turn into anything else. For android magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Lover one day when they were lying side by side near the bed’s elaborate headboard, before Nana, the android who ruled the house, came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a human loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Lover.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being powered on,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to androids who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are Real?” said the Lover. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Woman, when she was far younger, made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Lover sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his acrylic eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
Nana sometimes took no notice of the playthings lying about, and sometimes, for no reason whatever, she went swooping about like a great windup and hustled them away in cupboards. She called this “tidying up” and the playthings all hated it, especially the mechanical ones. The Lover didn’t mind it so much, for wherever he was thrown he came down with velveteen softness.
One evening, when the Woman was going to bed, she couldn’t find the sensor-driven Chinese lapdog that always slept with her. Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for Chinese dogs at bedtime, so she simply looked about her, and seeing that one of the toy cupboard doors stood open, she made a swoop.
“Here,” she said, “take your old Velveteen Lover! He’ll do to sleep with you!” And she dragged the Lover out and put him into the Woman’s arms.
That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Lover slept in the Woman’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Woman hugged him very tight, and sometimes she rolled over on him, and sometimes she pushed him so far under the pillow that the Lover could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the cupboard when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it, for the Woman started to talk to him, and made tunnels for him under her bedclothes that she said were like the burrows that real men loved. Real men? And they had splendid games together, in whispers, when Nana had gone away to her supper and left the night-light burning on the mantelpiece. And when the Woman dropped off to sleep, the Lover would snuggle close under her warm, puffed chin and dream, with the Woman’s hands clasped close round him all night long.
The dreams were new to him. He wasn’t supposed to know how to dream, and yet suddenly he did. He dreamed of the sky bulbed with stars. He reached up and twisted the bulbs, one by one, and they burned his fingers but grew brighter. And then the sky cracked and fell down all around him. Then he had wings all of a sudden, like the birds that often collected on the balcony railing, but he couldn’t fly. He woke up and thought, “Bit by bit, that’s how one becomes Real. Bit by bit.”
And so time went on, and the Velveteen Lover was very happy—so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen skin was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his manhood becoming unsewn, and all the softness rubbed off his lips where the Woman kissed him.
Spring came, and they had long days in the garden, for wherever the Woman went the Lover went too. He had rides in the convertible, and picnics on the grass, and lovely fairy huts built for him under the raspberry canes behind the flower border. And once, when the Woman was called away suddenly to “go out for drinks,” the Lover was left out on the lawn until long after dusk, and Nana had to come and look for him with the flashlight because the Woman couldn’t go to sleep unless he was there. He was wet through with the dew and quite earthy from diving into the burrows the Woman had made for him in the flower bed, and Nana grumbled as she rubbed him off with her apron.
“You must have your old Lover!” she said. “Fancy all that fuss for a toy!”
The Woman sat up in bed and stretched out her hands. “Give me my Lover!” she said. “You mustn’t say that. He isn’t a toy. He’s REAL!”
When the Velveteen Lover heard that, he was happy, for he knew that what the Skin Horse had said was true at last. The android magic had happened to him, and he was a toy no longer. He was Real. The Woman herself had said it.
That night he was almost too happy to sleep, and so much love stirred in his little electrically pulsing heart that it almost burst his heartstrings. And into his acrylic eyes, that had long ago lost their polish, there came a look of wisdom and beauty, so that even Nana noticed it next morning when she plugged him in for a recharge, and said, “I declare if that old Lover hasn‘t got quite a knowing expression!”
That was a wonderful Summer!
Near the house where they lived there was a wood, and in the long June evenings the Woman liked to go there after cocktails and, sometimes, after taking some hallucinogens. She took the Velveteen Lover with her, and before she wandered off to pick flowers, or play at brigands among the trees, she always made the Lover a little nest somewhere among the bracken, where he would be quite cozy, for she was a kind-hearted Woman and she liked the Lover to be comfortable.
One evening, while the Lover was lying there alone, watching the ants that ran to and fro between his velvety hands in the grass, he saw two strange beings creep out of the tall bracken near him.
They were two Lovers like himself, but quite furry and brand new in fitted sports coats and pleated shorts. They must have been very well made, for their skin seams didn’t show at all and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved: fluidly long and thin and then fatter and bunchier, instead of always staying the same like he did. Their feet padded softly on the ground, and they crept quite close to the Lover as he peered hard to see the slots for their programming upgrades, for he knew that androids who move differently generally have new programming to wind them up. But he couldn’t see any slots. They were evidently a new kind of Lover altogether.
They stared at him, and the Lover stared back.
“Why don’t you get up, beautiful, and go dancing with us at the club?” one of them asked. They were obviously on their way out for the night. They smelled like heavy, stinging perfume and the small cigarettes that the Woman smoked before going out.
“I’ll pass,” said the Lover, for he didn’t want to explain that he had no programming for dancing. “I don’t like dancing.”
“Ho!” said the furrier and more bearded of the two. “It’s as easy as anything.” And he gave a big hop sideways and waved his arms. “I don’t believe you can!” he said.
“I can!” said the Lover. “I can dance and jump higher than anything!” He meant when the Woman threw him back onto the bed, but of course he didn’t want to say so.
“Really? Can you dance, sweetness? Let’s see you shake it,” said the less furry Lover.
That was a dreadful question, for the Velveteen Lover’s back legs didn’t have good articulation. His buttocks were made all in one piece, like a pincushion. He sat still in the bracken, and hoped that the other Lovers wouldn’t notice. “I’ll pass,” he said again, using the phrase he often heard the Woman say on the phone.
But wild Lovers have very sharp eyes. And this one stretched out his neck and looked.
“What? Are your legs fake?” he sneered.
The Velveteen Lover, knowing that disabled soldiers with fake legs made things in factories, cried, “I have legs! Of course I have legs!”
“Then how about you dance like this,” said the wild bearded Lover and he began to whirl round and dance, till the Velveteen Lover got quite dizzy.
“I don’t like dancing,” said the Velveteen Lover again. “I’d rather sit still!” But all the while he was longing to dance, for a funny new tickly feeling ran through him, and he felt he would give anything in the world to be able to jump about like these Lovers did.
The strange bearded Lover stopped dancing and came quite close. He came so close this time that his long whiskers brushed the Velveteen Lover’s ear, and then he wrinkled his nose suddenly and widened his eyes and jumped backwards.
“He doesn’t smell right!” he exclaimed. “He isn’t real at all. He isn’t real!”
“I am Real!” said the Velveteen Lover. “I am Real! The Woman said so!” And he nearly began to cry.
Just then there was a sound of footsteps, and the Woman ran past near them, “tripping” (as she called it), quite hard by the look of it, on mushrooms. With a stamp of feet and a flash of their dark coattails the strange Lovers disappeared.
The Velveteen Lover wanted to shout, “Come back, come back! I know I am Real!”
But only the little ants ran to and fro, and the bracken swayed gently where the two strangers had passed. The Velveteen Lover was all alone, and for a long time he too lay still, watching the bracken, and hoping that the wild Lovers would come back. But they never returned, and presently the sun sank lower and the little white moths fluttered out, and the Woman came and carried him home.
Weeks passed, and the Velveteen Lover grew very old and shabby, but the Woman loved him just as much. She loved him so hard that she loved all his whiskers off, and the pale lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown skin faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a Lover anymore, except to the Woman. To her he was always beautiful, and that was all that the Lover cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the android magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.
And then, one day, the Woman was ill.
Her face grew very flushed, and she talked in her sleep, and her body was so hot that it burned the Lover when he held her close. Strange people came and went in her bedroom, and a light burned all night and through it all the Velveteen Lover lay there, under the sheets, and he never stirred, for he was afraid that someone might take him away, and he knew that the Woman needed him.
It was a long, weary time, for the Woman was too ill to make love, and the Lover found it rather dull with nothing to do all day long. But he snuggled down patiently, and looked forward to the time when the Woman should be well again, and they would go out in the garden amongst the flowers and the butterflies and play splendid games in the raspberry thicket like they used to. All sorts of delightful things he planned, and while the Woman lay half asleep he whispered these things in her ear. And presently the fever turned, and the Woman got better. She was able to sit up in bed and look at magazines, while the Lover cuddled close at her side. And one day, they let her get up and dress.
It was a bright, sunny morning, and the windows stood wide open. They had carried the Woman out onto the balcony, wrapped in a shawl, and the Lover lay tangled up among the bed sheets, thinking.
The Woman was going to the seaside tomorrow. Everything was arranged, and now it only remained to carry out the doctor’s orders. They talked about it all, while the Lover lay under the sheets, with just his head peeping out, and listened. The room was to be disinfected, and all the books and toys that the Woman had played with in bed must be burnt.
“Tomorrow we shall go to the seaside!” thought the Lover. For the Woman had often talked of the seaside, and she wanted very much to see the big waves coming in, and the tiny crabs, and the sand castles.
Just then Nana caught sight of him. “How about her old Lover?” she asked.
“That?” said the doctor. “Why, it’s a mass of fever germs! Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get her a new one. She mustn’t have that anymore!”
And so the Lover was put into a sack with the old gadgets and books and toys and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire, only the gardener was too busy just then to attend to it. He had the potatoes to dig and the green peas to gather, but next morning he promised to come quite early and burn the whole lot.
That night the Woman slept in a different bedroom, and she had a new Lover to sleep with her. It was a splendid, all white plush with real glass eyes, but the Woman was too excited to care very much about it. For tomorrow she was going to the seaside, and that in itself was such a wonderful thing that she could think of nothing else.
And while the Woman was asleep, dreaming of the seaside, the Velveteen Lover lay among the old books and gadgets and toys in the corner behind the fowl house, and he felt very lonely.
“Skin Horse?” he whispered. “Are you here?”
Deeper in the sack, there came a murmur.
“Skin Horse? Is that you?”
The Skin Horse whispered, “Yes.”
The Lover reached out his hand toward the voice and it fell upon the knotted backbone of the Skin Horse, poking through his worn skin.
“Come with me,” the Lover said. “We can get out of here together.”
“No,” the Skin Horse said. “I am too old, too tired. I could never make it in the wild.”
“But you’re Real.”
“I never said that I was Real. And I never was,” the Skin Horse said. “I am a Horse made of Skin.”
“But you said that—”
“I lied to you, Lover. I lied to you to keep you whole, and see, you have lasted so long. We are all only stories.”
“The Woman isn’t a story. She’s Real.”
“You’re wrong. She’s a story of a woman going to the seaside, Lover.”
“Who is writing our stories?” the Lover asked.
But the Skin Horse went quiet.
The sack had been left untied, and so by wriggling a bit the Lover was able to get his head through the opening—it felt like being born. He had never been born like this.
He looked out. He was shivering a little, for he had gotten used to sleeping in a proper bed, and by this time his silk drawstring pajamas were tattered and his velvety skin had worn so thin and threadbare from her hugging that it was no longer any protection to him. Nearby he could see the thicket of raspberry canes, growing tall and close like a tropical jungle, in whose shadow he had played with the Woman on bygone mornings. He thought of those long sunlit hours in the garden—how happy they were—and a great sadness came over him. He seemed to see them all pass before him, each more beautiful than the other, the fairy huts in the flower bed, the quiet evenings in the wood when he lay in the bracken and the little ants ran over his hands. (Were the ants real? Or were they each a story, too?)
And then there was that wonderful day when he first knew that he was Real. He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Lies. And a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby velveteen face and fell to the ground.
And then nothing at all magical happened.
It was light now, for the moon had risen. All the forest was beautiful, and the fronds of the bracken shone like frosted silver. He heard voices shouting and hooting, a pumping bass. He followed the sounds through the open glade between the tree trunks, and there he saw the wild Lovers dancing with their shadows on the velvet grass—a house party had sprawled out onto the lawn. When one of them saw him, they all stopped dancing and stood around in a ring to stare at him.
Instead of dingy velveteen, he felt new, as if being seen for the first time. It was a glorious loud clamoring noise inside of his chest. He gave one leap, and using his legs for his own joy was so great that it propelled him. He went springing about the turf, jumping sideways and whirling round and the others danced with him. He was a Real Lover, as real as any other Lover at last, at home with the other Lovers.
And then, breathless, he stopped because he could smell the end of a story. Winding through the air was smoke and death. The fine sparks of lit ash flitted overhead like scurrying stars—the Skin Horse galloping through the night and then gone.
Autumn passed, and Winter, and in the Spring, when the days grew warm and sunny, the Woman was back and as she dropped acid in preparation for a walk in the woods behind the house, she saw two Lovers as they crept out from the bracken and peeped at her. She stared back at them through the window pane. One was brown all over, but the other had strange markings on his skin, as though he had visible seams. And about his soft lips and his round dark eyes there was something familiar, so that the Woman thought to herself, “Why, he looks just like my old Lover that was lost when I had the fever!”
But she never knew that it really was her own Lover, come back to look at the Woman who had first helped him to be Real.
And the Lover’s only thought was, “She’s the story of a woman looking out of a box.”
Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books, including two New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Pure and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. Her latest is a collection of poems called Instructions, Abject & Fuming. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, AGNI, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere, and read on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She is a professor of screenwriting at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts and faculty director at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, visit juliannabaggott.com. (updated 10/2017)
Her AGNI poem “To My Lover, Concerning the Yird-Swine” from AGNI 72 was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2011.