'Something Dark and Meaningful' by Jo Key
At twenty, I fell for a tattoo artist. I wanted to brand myself with love, paint it on in a way that could never be scrubbed off. Go on, he said. Young skin is always brave enough. I hesitated and found I was right to hesitate because all too soon he was eyeing up another skin and I was left alone with the swallows that never stayed and the swifts that fly away with stray ribbons of names. Afterwards, I toyed with the points of the compass. I set it aside and flew east to alter time. Looking for something dark and meaningful, I buried my head deep inside the mouth of a tiger and searched beneath the feathers of birds of prey. A man measured me up. For a coffin? I asked, but he assured me it was for animal pattern, wingspan and claws. It was then I found the difference between courage and camouflage was only a matter of time zone. I went home and squared up to shattered hearts, their ragged edges as sharp as shark teeth. They say, once bitten, twice shy, but bites heal and in time I got down and gothic with a man who designed exotic names. Turns out he was working his way through the alphabet, creating chains of barbed letters and bloodied initials entwined with nightshade – all too toxic to wear. For five years or more, I travelled. I spent my time staring into oceans and skies trying to find an affinity with living things only for the search to be interrupted by death which sent my head spinning through endings and beginnings. It was only then I was really able to consider tribal bands and sleeves of Celtic knots – things that can’t be undone. But endlessness is a bore and so I wiled away the long hours mulling over skull and crossbones as the way to cover my own white flag of skin. I let it all slide until I found a guy who called me a mystical bird. The one that goes up in flames and rises from its own ashes? I asked, excited by his words. He narrowed his eyes, shook his head and told me to get the drinks in. That burned away without trace sooner than expected. Three years on, I got married. I wanted to brand myself with love, to paint it on in a way that could never be scrubbed off until one day, out of the blue, he came home said I wasn’t the same. After he went, all that was left was a strange half-woman distorted by change. I clicked my fingers – mermaid.
Will this hurt? I asked, laid out on the table. He narrowed his beautiful black eyes. Burns like Hell, he said, grinning and revving the gun. But the pain doesn’t last forever. I got up and walked out.