(This is original fiction. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote it or cite it, give me credit. Marion)
Science fiction and fantasy writer Chuck Wendig hosts the occasional flash fiction festival on his blog Terrible Minds. Wendig gave us a week to throw out titles. The limit was one title per commenter. I contributed one. He chose the ones he liked best and gave us another week to provide links to our story. Here’s mine. It’s just under 1,000 words.
The Blind Tattoist
The needles do not release their secrets easily.
When Bianca first saw the art of ink in flesh it astonished her. Images appeared on skin like new continents on a horizon. Drawing on the letter of credit meant for her stay at the Ecole de Beaux Art in Paris, she journeyed instead to Japan.
The tattoo masters of that nation did not welcome her, an outsider and a woman. It took her two years to find someone who would teach her. “The needles do not release their secrets easily,” he told her. “Are you prepared to sacrifice?”
Bianca looked at the paired koi that swept up his arms, each scale glinting as if sunlit. “I am,” she said.
She soon realized that her teacher was no true horishi –he had agreed to teach her, after all — but he showed her the magic of the needles, the narrow chisel, the ink. “You are not prepared,” he would say, drunk and taunting her. Soon all she had left of him was a battered case of worn instruments he swore he had never used, and a bottle of Nara black ink, whose color turned blue under the skin. She returned to Seattle. While she was gone, Black Tuesday had eaten half her family’s fortune in one gulp. The neighbors no longer collected art; they watched the stock market and trembled.
When Bianca’s mother saw the herons that ringed her rebellious daughter’s wrists, she collapsed onto a nearby loveseat and wept. Bianca refused to cover the tattoos. She declined card parties and tea invitations, and soon she left the big house on Millionaire Row.
She found a storefront on the docks, between a speakeasy and an herb shop, the smell of thyme leaking through the walls. The art of the needle nourished her; fixing paint into flesh; giving herself over to the moment when the ink-laden needle-point punctured skin, a moment of communion with the artist, the art, and the art’s vehicle. Bianca was no horishi but she could close her eyes while she worked and still know where the ink would go. The worn needles quivered, guiding her hand, as if they and not she created the art.
She made enough money to pay the rent, buy one good meal a day and visit the speakeasy now and then. She gave the bartender there a leopard-spot tattoo. Her old friends from Millionaire Row stopped by, mostly out of curiosity, but soon several of them sported birds, lions-heads and flowers on their backs or shoulder blades.
When the men first came to tell her that the docks were dangerous and she needed protection, she thanked them for their concern and sent them away. Two nights later, at the speak, she saw the same men. The bartender gave them money from the till. As the men left, one winked at her.
“Why are you giving them money?” she said.
“Aren’t you?” the bartender said. The spots showed like shadows on his coffee-dark cheeks.
“Why would I?”
“Might want to think about it,” he said.
She thought about it. When the men came back, she said she couldn’t afford to pay them. The man who had winked at her looked around at the studio. “It’s your choice, sister,” he said. He touched his hat brim as they left.
That night she dreamed that her Japanese teacher smashed bottles of ink with a staff. “You aren’t prepared,” he said. She tried to speak, but she could not draw a breath. She woke to a studio in flames, bottles of ink exploding in the heat. Her way to the door was barricaded by mocking, dancing flames. Coughing, she searched for the case that held her instruments. It sat at the edge of the table. She grabbed it as a white sheet of fire leapt up in front of her, a finger’s-width from her face, searing her eyes. She smelled burning hair, but closed her fingers around the case.
She ran to the back. The window that overlooked an alley was painted shut. She pounded on the glass until it broke, scoring her arm, and climbed out. She lay on the ground coughing, her eyes aching, her instruments clutched to her chest. In the street, people shouted, and cars pulled up. Smoke wreathed her, covering her. She squeezed her eyes shut. In their case, the needle quivered, and she saw on her eyelids a scene painted in greenish strokes. Colors faded in, bold and rich; women’s faces, all different, all with eyes golden and blank.
Rescuers found her an hour later, unconscious.
She returned to her family’s home at first. In the darkened room with the curtains drawn, the doctor told her that her sight would not return. She would do no more art. In her mother’s sigh Bianca heard both relief and triumph. That night Bianca called for a taxi to take her to the waterfront. She sat on the ground in the doorway of her ruined shop, opened the scorched case that held her instruments, and waited. I am prepared, she thought.
A cool hand touched her shoulder. She looked up and deciphered the shadow of the bartender against the white glare of the flickering streetlamp. He placed a pair of smoked glass spectacles on her nose. She touched his hand. They both smiled.
Word spread. Rum-runners, sailors, carnies and adventurers came to see the blind tattooist. Although she could not see faces or colors in daylight, her needles could paint any picture on skin. If a customer handed her a photograph, she would stroke it with her fingertips, then limn it onto their skin, perfectly.
Bianca was my great-great aunt. My grandmother grew blind as she worked, but never lost her touch with the ink, nor did my Aunt Cecile. Nor me. Yes, I am blind, too. The needles don’t release their secrets easily. They demand sacrifice. Did you say you wanted a rose?