There is a tattoo on my foot. I didn’t get it the proper way one gets a tattoo. You know, with all the ink, and sterile needles and that guy with the long hair and a ring in his lip. One day I just slipped and my foot fell into it, and it never went away. So I suppose it’s not really a tattoo, because it moves around, but it’s inky black and under my skin and no matter how long I scrub it will stay with me until I die. Which may not be long now, because it’s spreading.
I caught it from the docks, or what was under the dock. There are lots of docks near my house because we live in a town called Westport on the very tip of the world before it falls into the ocean. It’s cloudy almost always, and the sun never shines quite right. The light is diluted and spread about, so real solid proper shadows don’t exist except for those that lurk under the docks. That’s where all the would-be shadows gather and squish together until they’re thick and blacker than any shadows you’ll ever see. They always seem menacing, the shadows under the docks. They suck in sound and light, like they’re hungry for their true place, attached to your foot in the bright summer sun. A hungry thing isn’t exactly evil, but it is dangerous. Dangerous can be so much worse.
It’s always misty, because of the clouds, and the wooden docks are slippery and all it takes is one false step and you’re in the drink. Usually I’m careful but everyone makes mistakes. My foot slipped off the dock and I fell, one foot in and the rest of me crumpled on the planks. Only my one shoe got soaked and when I pulled it out of the water a jellyfish was stuck to it. If you’ve ever seen a jellyfish out of water you know they look like a big glob of purply snot with a goober in the center: not much like something you want to spread on a sandwich. They sting too, so I yelped and kicked and my shoe flung off into the ocean and there wasn’t much I could do to get it back. If the ocean takes your shoe you just cut your losses and walk home with a naked foot. So I pulled off my sock and my foot was covered in inky black shadows. Even my little toes had so much black stuck to them that the nails I polished a bright key lime green shone like shards of obsidian. I clapped my hands over the shadows; a sudden and thoughtless motion. They ran through my fingers like cool syrup, and pooled together like mercury on the dock. I watched the pool of shadows slip through the planks, still clutching my foot. I shuddered as the last drop disappeared. I felt like someone had drawn a thread right through my heart and sewn it to my stomach, and I dropped my foot to keep from falling over. There, under the skin, was a bit of the black left over, in a stark unmistakable pattern of a rose flower. It was stupid, the thing I thought next. Sometimes all that’s left after crazy is stupid. I thought My mom is going to kill me for getting a tattoo, and I ran back home to get a new pair of shoes.
I showed my brother. He’s five years older than me, and in the Marines. He’s got a tattoo. It spells U.S.M.C. on his forearm. My mom nearly disowned him for it, but he’s always calm and cool and she’ll listen to him. So I showed him the flower on my foot. He said:
“Roses are stupid. Why’d you get that?”
“I didn’t!” I said. “It just got there. What do I do?”
He just waved me off of his car. “Beats me, sport. I don’t even know how you found an artist who would do it without the adult consent form. Now scram I’ve only got a week here before I’m due back and I’m not going to waste it on your stupid mistakes.”
He’s usually nicer. But only a week home and anyone would be rushed. I decided to hide the tattoo. It’s only four years until I can move out. And it’s almost always cold living this close to the ocean. I can wear socks for four years.
The next morning the flower tattoo put down roots in my foot. They were thick like worms, and so dense that my toes and the complete underside of my foot were black. I scrubbed my foot so hard it bled, but nothing took away the dense black roots under my skin. I wiped away the blood that bloomed above the black flower, then wrapped my foot in bandages, sobbing silently all the while. I could think of only one thing worse than an infectious tattoo made of shadows: to be scolded for having one. I left the bathroom shaking, with red eyes, but my family suspected nothing. I probably should have told them, but I thought I could handle it.
I visited the docks again, to see if I could find the black ink that covered my foot the day before. Nothing was there. I couldn’t even find a jellyfish. The docks were dead like they were in winter, even though it was the middle of spring. As I bent over the planks to inspect the barnacle encrusted pilings, a strange pinprick traveled up my leg, like someone shoved baking soda under my skin and it was fizzing from the contact with my blood. I pulled up the leg of my pants to see the ink shift and grow in a twisted thorny vine. I jilted in the vain attempt to run from my foot, and nearly fell in the water for my stupidity. The roots under my skin pressed against the sole of my shoe. The laces strained and tightened on my leg: the tattoo was trying to rejoin the shadows under the dock. I screamed. I couldn’t help it. And when I finally stopped screaming, I was up on the hill where most of Westport’s little gray buildings sit; the docks small in the distance. My arms were covered in tattooed vines with little black rose buds starting to bloom on my knuckles. I held them close to my chest, afraid to look further. But I didn’t need to see it. The tattoo was a warm pinprick, stretching all over my limbs and growing in a thick trunk around my torso. It reached up in twin vines along my neck, daring to intrude upon my ears. I was afraid of what would happen if it got into my brain.
I couldn’t go home like that. Not covered in tattoos. I could tell my parents that I drew it on in sharpie, but I’d be forced to wash it off, and when I scrubbed and scrubbed and nothing happened, my mother would die of shame. So I’d stay out all day, far from the docks, and any dark places, and go home only at night to gather a few necessities, and leave a ransom note. I’d let them think me a tragic hero, instead of just a tragedy. I could join a circus, and years later make my triumphant return: put through torment, tattooed by the Yakuza who captured me, but through perseverance and luck I’d one day escape my unhappy lot and make my way back to the loving arms of my family. Anything can make sense when you’re desperate. So I stayed out all day, with my sleeves rolled down over my hands, and my hair pulled over my ears. So long as I stayed away from the shadows under the docks, the tattoo wouldn’t grow. I was safe. Then my brother found me at the playground outside the school.
“Hey, sport. What’s that mark on your cheek?”
I didn’t know the vines had intruded so far. The tattoo burned as I moved to pull my hair further over my face. “Nothing. Dirt, maybe.”
He bent down to look, but I turned it away from him. “And here you were supposed to be the clean one. Hey, I’m sorry about yesterday. I had someone to meet. Did you really get a tattoo? Can I see it?”
“No!” I moved too quickly, and the hair fell away, revealing the vine snaking up from under my ear.
“Woah. Is that pen?” He licked his thumb and ran it across my cheek, hard and fast, before I could dodge away. “Holy crap, kid, what did you do?”
“Nothing. I told you, it just got there on its own. It’s growing.”
He looked at me like he wasn’t sure who I was. Like someone had replaced his sister with a tattooed freak.
“Don’t tell mom.” I said. Pleaded.
“Don’t tell her? God, what am I supposed to say? It’s not like you can hide this!”
“Just don’t tell her yet, okay? Let me. You can say you never saw me. She’ll believe you.”
“I guess. Wow. I don’t know why you did it. Usually you’re smarter than this.”
“Yeah.” I spat the word at him. It wasn’t my fault, but he’d never believe it. I barely believed it. He lingered there for a moment. I could feel him staring at my marred face, then he left. I stayed there on the swings to contemplate my future as an illustrated woman.
I don’t know why I never thought of it until it was too late. Perhaps it was too late for me the second I fell in. Somehow I thought the tattoo wouldn’t grow once I left the thick black shadows under the docks. In a bright sunless day it’s easy to forget the shadow of night. Then the sun went away and the ground grew dark, the windswept trees collected the black in their boughs, and the tattoo etched further up on my face to wrap around my eyes. I ran. Have you ever tried to outrun the night? I ran with all the fury I had collected from all my fourteen years, and a bit borrowed from places unknown. I ran to my house. I flew to my bedroom before I knew where I was, and there in the room sat my brother, waiting for me. Waiting to make sure I was okay. I saw the contortions of horror wreck his face until he was no longer my brother, but a cartoon of himself, his eyes bugged out and his jaw distended. Then I felt the black wrap around the back of my eyeballs, enveloping the whites, and pulling me by its thorny tendrils into the night. I fought, but I had nothing left to fight with. The last part of me left unmarked was my mouth, and I screamed until the black found its way inside and silenced me.
I’m under the docks now. And hungry.
originally published in the thirteenth issue of CrowToes Quarterly, 2009