The inside of the house was dim. Sickly yellow light emanated from two aging table lamps, their brightness serving not to illuminate the room, but heighten the shadows. A teenage girl, her skin the color of fish’s underbelly, sat in a beat-up leather chair. She was rocking back and forth, humming to herself in an off-key voice. On the couch, a stick-thin black woman lay rigid as a poker. On the far wall, somebody had scribbled ‘ALL HAIL THE KING OF SNAKE’ in black crayon.
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“Step into my parlour,” advised Leo’s host. They stepped through the door into the tattoo room. It was completely empty, save for a massive leather chair- like a dentist’s chair- screwed into the floor, a table full of vague and complicated instruments, and a man. The man was young, likely a relative to his host. He had a head full of dreadlocks, each of which was tipped with steel.
“Please sit down.”
Leo sat- with some hesitance- in the doctor’s chair. His host exchanged a few whispered words with the other man, then turned back to him.
“Well now,” he said. “Please describe as best you can the manner of tattoo you require.”
Leo tried. He talked desperately, running over the same ground again and again, trying to paint a clear picture of his dream, of the garden, and of the woman- especially the woman. Eventually, he wound down, and his host said nothing. For a long time, there was silence. The man looked at him, the same considering, weighing look he had given Leo at the door. Finally, he said: “I believe I know what you want. Where would you like this tattoo, and how large do you want it?”
Where DID he want it? He hadn’t given any thought to it at all, what with the all-consuming quest to find the tattoo parlour.
“Um,” he said. “How large do you think it would need to be?” Stupid question, he thought. The tattooist would want it as big as possible. The larger it was, the more expensive.
“Well,” said the smiling black man- and Leo noticed how utterly white his teeth were- I’d say, you’re not much keen on making a big commitment, can’t see a beautiful lady while she’s on your back…how’s about the shoulder, eh? Sound good to you?
Leo agreed that it did.
Getting the thing put on hurt. It hurt like hell, but…
“Well…it’s just that…”
“You liked it, didn’t you?”
“You’re looking at me funny, James.”
“Sorry. Not very nice of me. Please continue.”
…it was pleasant, in a way. He didn’t mind nearly so much as he’d expected. His only concern was that the tattoo would not look anything like the garden, or the woman. He did not attempt to watch the mustachioed tattooist work, but instead turned his face up to the ceiling (which, he noticed, was painted with a myriad of tattoo patterns), and thought of nothing much at all.
“There’s a gap there,” Leo said. “I must have dozed off or something, because…”
…all of the sudden, it was over.
“Alright, young master, take a gander at this,” said the tattooist. He held up a mirror to the abused shoulder, and Leo forced himself to look.
The drawing on his shoulder looked exactly like his dream. For a minute or two, he simply goggled, unbelieving, at the scene. It was beautiful. SHE was beautiful. He was willing to pay whatever the man asked. When he did ask, the man smiled that unnerving white smile and said that, oh, one hundred dollars would do fine. Perhaps the young master would care to throw in a lock of hair with the deal?
“Why do you want my hair?” he said.
“No reason, really, young sir. It’s an old custom of my family. Whenever we should seal a particularly important deal, a lock of hair is always involved. Means we’re serious about our work, and unless I’m mistaken, you take that ink there very seriously. Now, a lock of hair, if you please.” The tattooist was no longer smiling. Leo noted that the room seemed quite a bit darker than before. He was suddenly afraid.
“Alright, fine. Do you have a pair of scissors?”
By way of response, the man retrieved a straight razor from the nearby table and held it out to him. Why does a tattooist need a straight razor? He decided not to ask, and sliced away- carefully- at a bit of his shaggy schoolboy cut.
“And there’s another gap here,” said Leo. “Because the next thing I remember…”
He was sitting at home with the television on and the lights off, admiring his tattoo. He was also ravenously hungry, and ordered out for a pizza. He ate, watched the mindless gabble fed to him from the idiot box, and slept.
He was back in the garden. The house, the path, everything was there-only it was so vivid. He could not bring himself to believe he was dreaming. He pinched himself. It hurt. And there, in front of him, was the girl. Her back was still turned to him, but if anything, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. He tried to say something, tried to move toward her, but before he could…
He awoke. He was lying haphazardly on the couch, his arms and legs asprawl. The empty pizza box still lurked near the television. He checked the time –5am- and got up to use the bathroom. While standing before the porcelain throne, he looked at himself in the mirror. Not too bad. A little pale, maybe, but it was winter, after all. There was also a small red bruise on his upper arm. He touched it- a little bit tender, nothing serious- and remembered, with sudden clarity, pinching himself in his dream.
He went back to bed and slept soundly. He did not dream.
Life went on, as life often does. He no longer felt obsessed with the woman in the garden, though he remembered her as the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He could see her any time he wanted, too. She was right there, embossed upon his shoulder. As he began attending classes again, he noted that no one had missed him. His comings and goings, it seemed, went undetected by professor and student alike. He found this to be oddly comforting.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.