Content Warnings: verbal and implied abuse, needles, mild body horror
"The Tattoo" by James A. C. Clark | Short Fiction; 3,900 words
Content Warnings: verbal and implied abuse, needles, mild body horror
“You’re gonna regret that,” Laurent said. Then, turning to the artist, he said, “They’re gonna regret that.”
Pool lay stiff as a board on the artist’s chair. The artist was bent over concentrating on their arm so that she didn’t have to look between Pool and the scowling figure in the corner. Pool kept their eyes locked on the ceiling fan, turning lazily, around and around and making no difference.
Laurent huffed. The artist, Pool noticed, seemed distracted. She was following the outline but every so often her fingers would twitch, and a frown would pass across her brow. The needle buzzed rapidly as it dug into their skin, leaving long, dark strokes that seeped blood. Laurent craned his head to see if he could see around the artist, so he could observe The Tattoo as it was being inked into his companion’s skin. Pool stayed flat and still and kept their eyes on the lazy blades of the ceiling fan, knowing they’d have to speak eventually, but not here, not now.
“Are you sure this doesn’t hurt?” The artist said finally, chipping away at the tension that made every second drag on. “You’re really swollen.” Usually she would’ve forced Pool to stop by now. She was a professional and she didn’t want the swelling to mess with the art, or for Pool to push themself too far on their first piece, but she was alone in the shop today and she wanted these two out as soon as possible. The door chimes every so often would ring out, blown by a breeze - where was that breeze coming from? The air in here was felt like the dead - and she’d look up, expecting someone to come and rescue her, but it was always just a ghost. Her hand shook way more than normal and she needed to stop, needed it desperately, but they were all so close. So close. The longer this went on the harder it was to concentrate, and every so often her eyes would wander to the open book of sketches on her desk. Flowers. Stars, maybe. No. Robin eggs and bird feet. No. Flowers. No. Concentrate on this design, on this skin, on this relationship.
“They’re fine,” Laurent said dismissively before Pool could open their mouth. “They’ve had worse marks before.” His teeth flashed with the s on marks, his lips pulling back in a snarl. The artist pressed on, doing her best to ignore the blood and push through the swelling. It didn’t look too bad, though - in fact, it was probably one of her best pieces, the lines twisting to meet almost of their own shimmering accord. She wished Pool had agreed to a photo, but respected her client’s privacy.
When it was finally over Pool swung their legs over the edge of the table, looking up slowly to meet Laurent’s thin-lipped stare. He’d removed his jacket and was playing with a lighter from his pocket, looking, aggravated, towards the door every half-second or so.
“You pay,” he said the minute he could, tossing his wallet at Pool like throwing jerky to a starving dog. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
Laurent left the shop with a huff; the door opened and closed soundlessly behind him. Pool stayed very still while the artist wrapped up their arm, covering the fresh, inky wound with plastic wrap and carefully repeating care instructions. Pool didn’t say a word the entire time, and the artist wondered if she should be repeating herself. The same nagging unease that had driven her to finish the piece kept her silent. When she finally fell quiet, Pool turned to her. They had grey-brown eyes, cold as steel.
“How much?” Pool asked finally. The artist named the price. Pool opened their wallet and peeled out the cash, all in hundreds, and placed them gently in the artist’s palm, which had become outstretched. Then they stood and gingerly touched two fingers to the inner flesh of their forearm, right over the bandage.
“Do you need me to repeat the care instructions?” The artist asked, unable to stop herself. Pool lifted their wrist to the light and gazed at the tattoo through the plastic.
“I think I understand,” Pool said. “Or if I don’t, it’ll heal the way it’s meant to.”
What the artist wanted to say was - I don’t think that’s how it works. That, and it should’ve been followed by something about how she wasn’t liable if it healed poorly.
“It will turn out beautiful,” the artist promised, which is something an artist never, never should do.
Once Pool and their tall, irritable partner passed out of the shop, the artist had already largely forgotten them. Realistically she should’ve been concentrating on her next client, but it was just a touch-up, and didn't require as much mental energy as her final client for the day would. She spent the half hour between Pool’s appointment and the next doodling, blooming flowers and soft lines that would never see the light on a person’s skin.
The doorbells chimed proudly at the next client’s entrance. He had shorter hair now. He adjusted his chest when he hoped she wasn’t looking, and appreciated her pretending not to notice his changed name. The truth was she didn’t notice, instead paying attention to the details of the tattoo forming at the back of her brain, thinking about what the last client might want, once she finally got there. It made it a bit hard to be in the now.
“Just a touch up,” he clarified, pulling up his shirt to reveal the tattoo that snaked along his hip bone. Did I do that? The artist thought, eyeing the serpent warily, almost as if waiting for it to hiss. Maybe she’d been drawing flowers for so long she’d forgotten all the other, cooler stuff she could do. Shit. She wished she wasn’t still so heartbroken.
“All right. Come and lie down, we’ll get you set up.”
Jasen shuffled over to the bench, relieved. He lay down and pulled his shirt up, his hand ghosting the fuzz below his belly button as he warily avoided the snake. It had been angry recently, stretched out as his new skin warped to fit him, and he hoped the extra ink would help to calm the beast.
Somewhere vaguely in the back of the artist’s mind she felt half-certain she had previously done the tattoo of a mouse, or maybe a rat, on the boy’s skin. But the head of the snake, triangular and deadly, could not have been anything else. Tattoos faded but fur did not so easily melt into scales.
The artist washed her hands and snapped her gloves into place, the ink and tattoo gun lined neatly on her table, obviously fresh, though she hadn’t remembered setting up again between appointments. When she glanced at the client out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw the snake shift, fatten up and fluff out, and for a second she stopped and wondered if it wasn’t a rat. When she looked at it head on it was sure enough a snake.
Jasen hung his arm low around his rib cage, trying to flatten down the flesh of his chest and bulk out the hoodie he was wearing at the same time. It was an awkward way to lie for a tattoo only for this reason. One day he wouldn't have to do this, be so preoccupied with how his body sat in him. Oh well. At least he was getting the tattoo taken care of. She liked to turn back into a rat sometimes.
“Remind me again what kind of snake this is?” The artist asked. Jasen blinked up at the ceiling.
“It’s a brown water snake.”
“Oh,” the artist said. “Is it venomous?”
“No. People just think they are. They look a lot like cottonmouths, but they’re harmless,” Jasen replied over the buzz of the needle. “It’s the head. Lots of people think the best way to tell a venomous snake is because of the triangle head. But that isn’t always true. Sometimes nonvenomous snakes flatten their heads down to look venomous to protect themselves from like, birds and stuff. But then people get scared and kill them.”
“Lotsa snakes that are venomous have not-triangle heads, anyway. It’s best just to leave wild snakes alone.”
“I’m a big fan of leaving wild animals alone,” the artist said, flattening out the skin of Jasen’s tattoo with her hand, then taking it off, then flattening it again. She couldn’t seem to get a good pull on the thing. It was like every time she went near with the black glove it shied away, hissing and spitting, and she kept having to wipe stray drops of ink off of Jasen’s hips. She hadn’t even started yet.
“What’s wrong?” Jasen asked, noticing her sudden concentrated silence. She took two seconds to respond, still trying to wrangle the tattoo into staying still, but it wiggled free and settled itself just below his waistband, and for a minute in her vision it looked as scared as a mouse.
“Give me a minute,” the artist replied.
This tattoo was starting to take too long. She got a couple strokes in - finally, victory! - but this only seemed to scare the snake more, and its flat head grew angular and nervous, hisses turning into whines. Jasen kept his grip on his chest firm, watching the artist with anxious eyes.
It didn’t help that the back of her mind, instead of trying to gently edge this rat into a snake, or keep it a snake, or whatever, was still swirling with colours. Her final client hated flowers, she knew this, but still for some damn reason when she tried to picture it all she could see was tulips, orchids, yellow roses.
She was lost in concentration, ignoring detail completely as she attempted to spear down the thing, to make it work. For the first time he felt like a piece of meat on a block, poked at, examined, and his side hissed painfully with every inky puncture.
“Actually,” he said, once he realized he was shifting under his clothes, coming undone, and there were red marks on his hips driving the snake into a frenzy. It twisted along his pelvic bone, flipping back and forth in a mad dance. “I think I’m not feeling well today. Can I reschedule?” He felt bad immediately though, and not knowing the proper procedure for these sort of things, added quickly - “I’ll pay you, I mean, I feel bad - “
“No, no, it’s fine.” She said, pulling the needle away abruptly. “I’m distracted. I’m sorry.”
“It happens,” Jasen replied, rubbing at his hip. “I think I might wait a while for this, actually. I’m not sure I’m ready.”
It seemed a little odd to the artist that he’d made the touch up appointment in the first place, then, but she tried not to think too hard about what other people wanted for their bodies. She just nodded and removed her gloves, going to wash her hands again while Jasen idled around the front desk.
“No, don’t bother with payment,” she said again, forcefully. “Go on. I barely inked you.”
“But I took up your time.”
“And I couldn’t make it work. That’s my fault,” she said, turning and crossing her arms at the boy. He seemed embarrassed, his face red and round, his cheeks turning the same colour as his acne.
“Go on,” she said again, waiving him away like one would a pest. He turned on his heel and skittered out, only pausing to look back once the door had swung shut behind him.
It might still be a rat, she thinks, going to clean up. I doubt it’s ready to be a snake.
When Lullaby walked in it was like the whole room hushed and drew up around her as a cloak. She stood two steps into the doorway in cheap sneakers, acid wash jeans, and a black tank top. A gallery of tattoos in clashing styles ran over her exposed arm, and for a moment the only thought in the artist’s head was does she even have room for another one? When she’d first seen the booking her initial thought was god I don’t want my art on that body, half of her tattoos are hideous. But twenty minutes later she was sketching ideas out, anxiety clawing at her throat thinking will my tattoo look good on her? Can I make it worthy?
Lully looked up from her phone, tapping her blunt fingernails on the case with one hand and pushing her hair behind her ear with another. She had three new earrings since the artist had last seen her, and they shone like silver diamonds against the bright red dye of her hair.
“Hi,” said Lully. “What’s up?”
The artist’s head was swimming as she pulled out her drawing pad, trying to figure out how exactly to answer that. To Lully’s credit she was as calm and professional as the artist should have been, sitting down next to her as if it wasn’t weird their bodies couldn’t stand to be close anymore. The artist had a rule, personally, about tattooing the people she loved, but she’d never had to think about putting ink on someone she used to love but had been trying really hard not to love anymore.
Lully considered the artist, bouncing the balls of her feet silently under her chair, letting the energy leak out that way so it didn’t jitter her hands or force her to run her mouth. The artist had the same short black hair and undercut she’d always had, a look about her like she’d been day drinking or would rather be day drinking. She scratched at the flesh under her eyes and sometimes ghosted her fingernails over the tattoos on her neck and chest, but she would never touch, not even if it was killing her. She respected the ink too much. It had been a problem when they’d been dating. Sometimes Lully wanted nothing more than to force the artist to bite down hard on her skin, but she would just ghost her lips over Lully’s tattoos, making her repeat over and over again the stories about the ink there, about the artists who’d made them.
“I’m sorry,” the artist mumbled, running the tips of her fingers over her neck and down to her collarbone. “I know you hate flowers but it’s all I could come up with.”
Lully sighed, and this is what the artist hated about knowing your clients well. You could tell when they’re disappointed, tell when something’s wrong. With new people you could pretend that you just didn’t understand, didn’t know their bodies enough, but she knew Lully’s intimately. She knew Lully was frustrated. Then why did you come here she thought. If you just knew I’d disappoint you a second time.
“This is why I don’t tattoo on people I know,”was what she really said, flipping through her sketchbook, past the flowers for Lullaby and onto her work from earlier that week, that month.
“Wait,” Lully said, putting her hand out to stop the page-turning. The artist stopped. “That one is amazing.”
“It was for someone else.”
Pool’s tattoo from earlier that afternoon bloomed black on the page, a condensed whirlwind made to fit on the skinny, pale arm. Lully turned the book to look at it, ignoring the artist’s protests, and ran her fingers over the deep, black lines.
“It’s visceral,” she said, and oh, for a second there Lully felt something clutch her heart. She wanted this tattoo. “See. Why can’t you give me something like this?”
The artist slumped in her chair, looking at the sketch. Lully was right. It was probably some of her best work.
“It’s not that I don’t want to give you that,” she mumbled. “It’s just hard to find that kind of feeling when you won’t even tell me what you want.”
“I told you what I want,” Lully replied simply. “I wanted a tattoo from you.”
The artist had to bite her tongue hard to stop an angry retort. To distract herself she concentrated on Lully’s skin. On her hands were two skulls. Lully liked dead things. They used to watch horror movies together and eat almonds in the living room, all year round, until about two or three months before they broke up. Her left forearm had a knife wrapped in ribbon. Her right had a tiger with a long tongue and big, ugly green eyes. The artist always found the tiger grotesque, but fascinating. She thought her dislike made Lully just love it more.
“Because we were together for four years,” Lully said, and for the first time, her face looked open, like she was peering through the curtains of her own expression. She pulled her feet onto the chair and sat cross-legged with them underneath her. “And I used to want to get close enough to you that you’d let me get a tattoo from you, even though you have a rule not to do that. Now that it isn’t… since we broke up, I kinda want one anyway.”
“I don’t know,” she paused. “I don’t know who I’m doing this for.”
The artist had to look away from Lully’s arms, cause she stopped seeing the ink and was looking at the skin underneath, the tendons and veins in her wrists, the tiny little hairs. She looked back at her book and flipped back to the flowers, which looked sad and pale in comparison to the blackness on the rest of the pages.
“Do you have,” she said, and wondered why I am still doing this? I could just say no. I’m usually very good at saying no when something isn’t working. Like Jasen earlier. She was professional about that. But she was determined, now, determined to see this through to the end, even though it felt wrong, even though it felt like she was tattooing for herself. That should be a rule, she thinks. You can get a tattoo for anyone, anyone in your life, but you shouldn’t get one the artist did for themself. “Do you have anywhere for us to start? An image in mind?”
“Sure,” Lully said, leaning forward quickly. For a moment the artist’s breath caught, as they hadn’t been this close in months, and it never used to affect her being this close to someone but then she’d been missing Lully. Lully laid her palm flat on the page. She made a grabbing motion and off the paper came the ink, fragile, sketchy flowers coming off into her hands. They floated delicately when she held them open in her palm, leaving the paper blank and fresh.
“Like this,” Lully murmured, and crushed them. They crumbled into dust, some seeping through her fingers and back onto the book. She blew the stray bits away and then spread the ink with her hand, making a large, sweeping motion across the page. With clumsy fingers she sketched out the crude image of a leafless tree.
“Plants are nice but give me something dead, maybe,” she replied. “Or being reborn.”
The artist was still staring at the ink on Lully’s palm, bleeding blue and green and yellow over her fingers. She didn’t think Lully had room for something so big, so overwhelming and strong - she barely had room for anything on that crowded skin.
“Ink is so malleable already,” Lully said, staring at the dust on her hand and the smears on the page. She ran her fingers through it again, drawing small, childish leaves that looked out of place. “So impermanent. Always determined to change. That’s what I always admired about your art. It was always on its way to becoming something.”
Before she could say anything more about Lully’s idea the door burst open and shook the walls of the whole shop. The artist’s eyes were immediately drawn to the swinging chimes, clanging soundlessly as they were shaken off their hook and fell onto the floor.
Laurent stormed inside, his hair a wet, dripping mess, but the sun shone clearly outside. The door had barely closed before it was opened again, and this time laughter rang loud and clear as Pool stumbled back into the shop, also wet and dripping.
“What the hell did you do to us?” Laurent yelled, and the artist didn’t have time to respond before Lully had stood up, closing the sketchbook and holding it in front of the two of them like a shield.
“I’m sorry, who are you?” She asked, and from where the artist was sitting, her thin frame could’ve been an oak tree, or something bigger. Laurent leaned in, dripping dark, wet rain all over her, and she bent a little. Just a little.
“It’s leaking all over the damn place,” Laurent said. He was trying to glare past Lully to the artist, but Lully moved with him, bobbing head hear to block his view. It might of been funny if the artist wasn’t horrified and a little unsure how to react. “All over. In the car, in my clothes, in my hair,” and the artist remembered idly Laurent having blond hair before, but now his locks were heavy and black, dripping dark droplets down onto the floor.
“I told him,” Pool said from behind the tall man. They had a quiet voice, but spoke with every drip, careful and precise syllables. They held their arm up. It was wrapped in a towel, maybe white once but now mostly black, also dripping. “Told him it would all come out eventually.”
The artist stood, pushing past Lully and Laurent, who had started yelling. Lully had started, anyway. The artist seemed to remember she was always good at winning a fight once she decided it was worth winning. She didn’t bother trying to hear what was being said. All she could hear was the quiet drip of the tattoo, and Pool’s smile, which reached all the way to their eyes, cracking their face wide open. The artist took the towel and pulled it away, and there was her design, red and raw - and leaking, spilling, a slow river of ink, falling onto their shoes and onto the floor.
“I never got to tell you it was perfect,” Pool said, holding their arm upping, letting the ink streak down to their elbow. “I never got to thank you, for that.” The artist took Pool’s elbow and turned it over, and - well, Lully had been right, it was a beautiful piece. Very angry. She looked back at Pool and wondered what exactly it was she’d tapped into to make it speak so loudly, to make it so full it burst from the client’s skin.
She looked back at Lully. A tree, maybe, but not a dead one; a sapling. She knew the place. Lully had a strip of bare skin on the back of her calf, not enough for an oak tree, but a sapling, maybe, maybe. And it had to be young so it could grow - grow and rearrange her other ink, mixed them together or pull them apart, because once it got going you couldn’t make it stop. Tattoos never wanted to stay the same, not forever.
James A. C. Clark is a transgender writer and Bachelor of Fine Arts student in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He enjoys writing horror and horror-adjacent things, especially about the body. He studies, works and lives on the traditional unceded territory of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and the QayQayt First Nations.