J. S. Kuiken
THE BLIND TATTOOIST
J. S. Kuiken
She named herself “Lucky”, because that’s what the men with the pipes had said.
“It’s your lucky night.”
The mints in her purse had fallen all over the asphalt, where they shone like pearls as the men beat her.
She wouldn’t remember much. Not being kicked, nor when the first pipe came down. She was suspended above herself somewhere, in a place where she could survive, counting pearls. One two three -- one -- one two three four. Four. One. One.
She couldn’t count anymore. She was tired.
When she’d woken up the nurses told her the doctors had put her skull back together and she was lucky to be alive.
She didn’t always remember how she recovered. Like her skull those memories were fragmentary. There was the day Lucky discovered she could lift a fork with her right hand again. The day she found out she could walk without falling. And still another day when she remembered what someone had told her in the morning.
She remembered those days, and not the follow up visits to the doctor, where the nurses called her “he” and by another name, and then rolled their eyes when she told them that wasn’t her name, and they should call her “she”.
“What did he expect, dressing like that,” she heard one of the nurses say, when they thought she couldn’t hear.
“Dressing like what?” Lucky had asked, loudly.
The nurses had muttered and dispersed. Lucky had made sure to swagger her way out, lime green skirt swishing around her calves. She’d wanted to punch someone in the throat at the time, but she forgot the moment by the end of the day.
One year after that night of pearls and pipes, Lucky had her name changed. By then she could recite the alphabet without stumbling. She could even count to one hundred. Sometimes, at night, she climbed onto the roof of her brick apartment building and counted stars, little pinpricks she could see through the greasy haze and lights of the city. She counted: one, two. Three four five. Six. Six. No. Seven. Eight? Eight. Nine . . .
# # #
The tattooist, being blind, worked by touch. She had to feel the contours of a person’s body, the particular lay of skin over muscle, to understand how exactly she would tattoo the person. It was said that one scar in the leg could change the skin in the bicep enough that she would have to alter her design accordingly. Her clients would have to lie on her tattoo table naked, except for their underwear, and allow her to feel all up and down their body. And her tattoos were exquisite. They seemed to live within the flesh: snakes which curled and uncurled, birds whose feathers ruffled in the wind, women with long hair, looking out at the world with longing. The colors never faded, the lines were always clean and precise. Yes, it was worth laying down on the blind tattooist’s table, and she was often booked months in advance.
So it was that when Lucky, drunk on tequila with her friends, decided to get a tattoo for her thirtieth birthday, of course she would go to no one else but the blind tattooist. She waited six months for her appointment, at which time she put on her coral and turquoise skirt, and yellow rain boots which thump thump thumped as she entered the tattoo shop.
It was a dark space, small and quiet. The table, set with a covered mattress, glowed faintly beneath a light.
The tattooist came out of the dark, wearing full sleeves of tattoos. She introduced herself as Kal, and offered Lucky tea. Lucky said no to the tea. Kal asked her what she wanted tattooed and Lucky found herself waving her arms wildly as she explained.
“We can do that,” Kal said. “Please, take your clothes off and leave them in the bin. Then lie on your side, on the table. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Lucky bounced out of her clothes and shivered as she laid on the table.
She waited. Her stomach began to churn. What if Kal, somehow, figured it out? Not that she would be touching anything intimate, but what if she just knew by touch? That Lucky was “not a real girl” as she so often joked. Of course she was real. She had her hands and fingers and feet and toes and body and she could count and remember things.
She counted pictures of tattoo art on the walls to calm herself. One, two. Three. Four, five --
“Behind you,” Kal said, so softly Lucky almost didn’t hear. But a warm, gentle pair of hands pressed against her shoulders.
Kal’s hands were tender on the shoulder blades, and followed Lucky’s spine down. Such small fingers she had, and stubby ones too. Lucky marveled that Kal could use them so sensuously and expressively.
Kal paused in the small of her back, running her knuckles against the dip there.
“You’re very strong,” she said. “I mean, personality wise.”
Lucky tensed. “How the fuck would you know? You have magic powers?”
Kal laughed. “No, not anymore than anyone else. But,” her hands glided back up, past the shoulders, and then over the neck, to Lucky’s scalp. A fingertip whispered over one of her scars.
“But I can feel this,” Kal said quietly.
Lucky wanted to scream. She wanted to laugh and she wanted to cry. She wanted to say: it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right. She wanted to say: I survived. But it didn’t feel like she’d won. It felt like borrowed time. And then it felt like a FUCK YOU: afraid, but defiant.
Kal buried her fingers in Lucky’s hair, feeling all those scars, all the ways the doctors had put Lucky back together again, but hadn’t, not really. She felt all the disjointed places, all those roughly fused edges.
Kal’s fingers left Lucky’s scalp and Lucky lay on the table, shaking.
“Hey, are you okay?” Kal asked.
“No,” Lucky sobbed. And then: “Yes.”
She felt Kal get up on the table behind her. Kal cradled Lucky in her lap, stroking her hair.
They didn’t say anything after that. There was no need. Lucky lay, belly down, so Kal could go to work on her shoulders.
Afterwards, Lucky stood outside. The taupe gray sky was clearing ofclouds, and the air coming off the pavement sizzled with warmth and recent rain. Lucky’s new tattoo burned between her shoulder blades.
It felt almost like a victory.
Lucky took a deep breath in, then out, one, two, before walking home.
J. S. Kuiken is an American writer who earned his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In 2013, he was a Lambda Literary Fellow. He has published in The Copperfield Review and Cactus Heart. He currently teaches composition at a community college.