The Lover’s Tattoo

lovers-tattoo-free-short-story-james-golding
Photo by Lana Graves on Unsplash

For the second time, the stocky man glanced at the girl to his right, wondering if she was Molly. But when he saw the girl’s dark eyes, he realized she wasn’t his daughter. It had been over a decade since he had seen Molly, but he would never forget her eyes. They were the same as his: green, almond-shaped, slightly upturned at the inner corners. The girl sitting beside him was about Molly’s age, eighteen, give or take a year. A faint reflection of the girl’s porcelain face shuddered in the train window. She sat deep in thought, her eyes unblinking, her breath ever so subtle. Even the dazzling morning light that pierced the four-seat compartment and kissed her bare legs did not distract her.

Seated directly opposite the girl was a young guy who squinted as he eyed the girl’s tattoo. Inked in jet black on the top of her left arm was a hawk in flight chained to a birdcage. He took a sweeping glimpse down the girl’s milky white legs. The tops of her thigh bones were barely hidden under her black-and-white striped dress, and her long thighs wrapped around each other like two sleeping serpents. Ten red toenails gripped to the soles of her red high heels as they leaned to the side, sandwiched in between his brown suede boots. Heat radiated from the girl’s legs through his jeans. She really is to die for, the guy thought as he bit down on his bottom lip.

A woman was seated next to the young guy and opposite the stocky man. She followed the young guy’s gaze and squirmed. When he stopped eyeing the girl’s legs, the woman returned her attention to the oversized paperback she was holding. Every now and then, she looked out the window to check the train’s location. And whenever she did, the young guy was staring somewhere down the plunging cut-out of the girl’s halterneck dress. The fabric hugged the girl’s slim figure, and its vertical stripes detoured around her curves.

She’s dressed like an expensive prostitute, the woman thought, and I bet she’s underage. Bowing her head down into her novel again, the woman tried to focus. But the words were just a jumble of letters. All she could think about was her own flabby arms and the wild web of wrinkles that adorned her once youthful face.

The train lights dipped for an instant. Looking up, the woman smiled at the stocky man opposite her and then checked outside. The girl’s red lips were painted in perfect symmetry; the curves of her dark eyes were accentuated with black eyeliner and curtained by long eyelashes. They have to be false, the woman suspected, as mascara alone doesn’t do that. The girl’s shiny black hair was pulled into a smooth topknot. I bet she still lives at home, a spoiled rich kid. The woman imagined the girl skipping breakfast to spend time doing her hair and makeup instead. Years ago the woman did the same, long before she got married and had three boys. Now her mornings were a chaotic rush to wake the boys up in time for school and make sure they ate their breakfast without fighting. She only had time to wear minimal makeup, which she applied at the station while waiting for the train.

Even though the girl’s tattoo was directly in the woman’s line of sight, she never noticed it, whereas the young guy constantly tilted his head so he could see it. Maybe she likes its strength and power, he concluded, and that’s why it’s carrying a cage. He swallowed, twisted his tongue ring and swallowed again, then turned and faced the opposite window. The girl’s beauty magnetically enticed him, and when the pull became too strong – in a moment of weakness – his eyes returned to her, lowered and paused long enough to steal another mental snapshot. His face portrayed the same expression that he’d given his eighth grade English teacher when he first saw her shimmering cleavage. He forgot to breathe for a few seconds. Then, with the deftness of a thief, he turned away, not wanting to be caught in the act. His memory was now vivid with the stolen image. How could a girl be so beautiful?

He imagined holding her. A wild plethora of fantasies formed in silent, shadowy visions. Their lips merged like hands embraced in prayer. He considered the girl to be shy and innocent on the surface yet fiercely sensual and uninhibited at her depths. While his mind was convinced of the reality of these dreams, his heart was less so, for he lacked the courage to speak a single word to his would-be lover.

Although it was rush hour, the girl sat alone in her own world. As if she was a maiden searching the horizon for her dead lover’s vessel to return, her vacant eyes pleaded for the unseen, the unimaginable. When her leg brushed against the knee of the young guy, she didn’t feel the coarse twill of his denim jeans or see him twitch at the innocuous contact. The play of life went on around her, and she remained as still as a royal guard.

The girl’s right hand held a small box containing a wreath of myrtle. The fragrance of its white flowers danced among the passengers. It was as if the box was an enchanted chest – not one of the passengers saw it despite inhaling its sweet scent.

The stocky man seated beside the girl was lost in faded, scattered memories of his estranged daughter. As he repositioned his cramped legs, he absentmindedly nudged the left arm of the girl just below the tattoo. In a whisper, he apologized, but he could tell that she either didn’t hear him or wasn’t interested in responding. With his head leaning slightly away from the girl, he cast a longing glance at her. The resemblance was uncanny. He imagined holding Molly in his arms. Just once would be enough. He remembered her sweetness and innocence as a young child, the smell of shampoo in her wet hair, her unblemished skin before it was sun-kissed, and her adorable smile that made his heart melt. He straightened his spine, and a small tear formed in the corner of his eye. If only I hadn’t been such a selfish fool, he thought, years of my life wasted. He rued his decisions back then; his greed was uncontainable, and he was now left with little of what really mattered.

Looking up from her novel, the woman saw the stocky man with his crinkled brow and glistening eyes. She turned in the girl’s direction and blinked numerous times, pretending to wipe an eyelash from her eye. This time the girl’s snow-white thighs caught her attention. Flawless now but just wait until you have children, then your veins will be gnarled and enlarged like mine, the woman thought. It was nasty and unkind, but she couldn’t stop herself.

I’ll bump into her legs again, the young guy decided, but harder so she makes eye contact. Then I’ll say sorry. He waited for the right moment but was stopped in his tracks when the girl with the tattoo stood up as the train approached the next station. She passed through the intertwined legs of the three others without even lowering her steady gaze. Reminiscent of a swan swimming through a crowded duck pond in late spring, she glided along the aisle towards the open train doors, moving with the flow of passengers.

The young guy shook his head. How gutless am I? Cold air seeped inside the carriage and soothed his cheeks. The other two also saw the girl leave; the man thought of Molly, and the woman was pleased to be released from the constant reminder of her own aging body.

New commuters boarded, but the girl’s seat remained vacant.

After the girl exited the train, the three passengers continued to watch her. She stood waiting on the platform just outside their window.

The girl smiled and closed her eyes as she looked skyward. Sunlight cast shadows on the delicate contours of her face. She had finally arrived.

Approaching the girl from the right was a person in a green hooded robe tied with a white cord around the waist. The girl faced away from the train; the hooded figure moved closer and wrapped two cloaked arms around her body. All but a second passed, and then the figure let her go and disappeared into a sea of commuters. The girl turned, and like a drenched feather, she fell towards the ground. Blood flowed from a star-shaped incision on the bare skin in the middle of her chest. The box containing the wreath tumbled out of her hands as she clutched the wound. It was the first time the three passengers noticed the box; from it fell a golden coin, a red apple, and a small mirror that smashed when it struck the concrete platform. Her painted lips parted, her head swiveled to the side, and then blood trickled out of her mouth.

The doors closed and the train proceeded.

All three passengers sat with their eyes and mouths wide open. They continued to watch outside; a cyclone of thoughts thrashed about within them, pummeling their awareness. Impressions of the scene stained their vision long after the train had left the station.

The young guy was the first to regain awareness of the world around him. He looked over at the stocky man and then turned to the woman sitting next to him. Their faces were pale, drained of life.

‘Did you see that?’ the young guy asked. The words spluttered out of his mouth.

The woman and the man could barely make out the sound of his voice over the rapid hammering of their hearts. ‘Yes,’ the man whispered; followed by a shaken nod from the woman.

Leaping out of his seat, the young guy screamed, ‘Did anyone just see that girl collapse, bleeding everywhere?’ His voice was loud and unmistakable, pumped with adrenalin, easily cutting through the droning noise of chatter. The crowded carriage fell silent for a moment; the passengers either lowered their heads or focused more intently elsewhere, pretending they didn’t hear him.

After receiving no response, he pushed his way through commuters and headed for the emergency call button. He struck the button numerous times until the light around it turned red. Then a man’s voice asked, ‘What’s the emergency?’

‘A girl just collapsed back at the last station,’ the young guy shouted. ‘She was bleeding from the chest and mouth. You need to get help there immediately.’ The passengers seated nearby watched him as they heard his plea.

The man at the other end of the intercom replied, ‘Thank you very much, sir. Everything is under control.’ The red light disappeared; the man behind the button was gone. Hushed murmurs arose, then the noisy chatter resumed. The young guy’s cheeks turned a masculine shade of crimson; it was as if he had reported seeing someone drop an ice cream rather than a girl collapse. Not knowing what else to do, he returned to his seat and slumped down next to the woman.

He placed his elbows on his knees and covered his face in his palms. With eyes squeezed shut, his hands shook and the ghostlike image of the girl appeared in his mind. Her physical beauty haunted him; the death in her eyes beckoned him. Why her? Why not me? The young guy began to sob, a gentle heaving sob. The woman, feeling her motherly instincts overpower her own shock, placed her arm around him. She pulled him closer. The stocky man reached out and rested a trembling hand on the young guy’s knee.

While at first the young guy’s sobs were provoked by the collapse of the girl and his intense desire for her, as each breath expired, his anguish was heightened by something that was unknowable and indescribable. His heart held an unfathomable longing. He could not understand what was happening; his reaction seemed completely irrational. With bowed head and humbled heart, he pleaded within himself for help.

The train slowed down, then came to a halt. The young guy raised his head, the woman released her embrace and the man’s hand retreated. Over the loud speaker, a voice said, ‘We will have a short delay here passengers – just waiting for a green signal.’

Sitting up straight, the young guy wiped the tears from his eyes. He shied away from the woman and then, with flushed cheeks, turned to her and said, ‘Thank you.’

‘That’s okay,’ she said. ‘If it wasn’t for you being upset, I think I would have been the one in tears.’

With moist eyes, the stocky man said to them both, ‘It was such a strange thing to watch. One minute she was healthy and alive seated next to me, and the next thing she was…’ His voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. ‘At first I thought she was my estranged daughter. Well, she reminded me of her…’

The young guy nodded. ‘She was so beautiful, so incredible.’ Then he remembered the hawk. ‘Did you see that tattoo on her left arm?’

‘You couldn’t miss it,’ the man said.

The woman, who often had trouble telling her left from right, was struggling to answer and remained silent.

‘It was a hawk chained to a birdcage, in jet-black ink. About this big,’ the young guy said, making an oval with his fingers.

‘I can’t believe I didn’t see that,’ the woman said. ‘All I saw was how young and perfectly polished she looked.’

‘She definitely had a presence about her,’ the stocky man said, holding the woman’s gaze, ‘and she seemed to be in her own little world.’ He paused and then glanced at the young guy. ‘Do you think she will survive?’

‘I hope she does,’ he said. ‘There was quite a lot of blood, so I think it would be a miracle if she did survive. It’s not impossible though; miracles do happen.’

The train started moving.

‘I lost the belief in miracles when my wife and daughter left me,’ the man said.

The woman sighed. ‘I lost that belief too when my husband had an affair.’

‘I’m a lot younger and perhaps more naïve,’ the young guy said, ‘but I would like to think that where love is concerned, the impossible is possible.’

The man and the woman gave him sympathetic I-know-better smiles, but inwardly the man yearned for the young guy’s youthful hope and optimism, and the woman craved his blind trust.

Sniffling a few times, the young guy looked out at the terraced houses passing by.

The three of them fell silent, trying to gather their thoughts. Flashes of the girl’s beautiful face passed before their eyes. Her red lips. The red blood. The red apple falling from the box.

The train stopped at the next station. Some commuters alighted and a few more boarded.

‘Excuse me,’ an old lady said, navigating between the legs of the stocky man and the woman, interrupting their inner dialogue. She sat down in front of the young guy, in the same seat as the girl, and then gave a heavy sigh. The old lady’s brittle, gray hair was pulled into a bun, and she wore a black dress with a chocolate brown cardigan. Her body sagged in all the wrong places. Her gray eyes drooped at the corners. Her pale lips wore weathered cracks. Thick, dark makeup had been painted on her haggard cheeks. She tapped her feet to the rhythm of an unheard tune and fiddled with a silver ring on her right hand. 

The young guy glanced at the old lady, and their eyes met. He offered her a half-hearted smile. An eternal moment expired. She mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ His eyes widened, and his neck snapped towards the window as if he had been thrashed by a whip. He swallowed the awkward lump in his throat. The window reflected his image: a shaved head, pale skin, three-day-old stubble and darker than normal eyes. His pupils were dilated like two cosmic black holes. Behind his eyes, light projected an inner slideshow. He saw the girl again, her porcelain face, her white legs. Blood flowed; her body collapsed. His own mother, murdered by cancer. A boy of six years. A mother’s boy. Sunsets, stargazing, the moon, and a golden light. Bullied at school. Laughing faces. The girl. A life unlived, breath wasted. He kissed her. She wanted him. They loved one another. The image of her face in a mirror smashed into a thousand and one pieces. A worthless coin to bribe away death. The strength of boundless space. Creation and beauty, and destruction and torture; fire and snow; deserts and glorious valleys. The girl sat before him. The girl was gone. One great conductor, a galactic symphony. An apple core. The beginning of the end.

A wild shake of the train ended the slideshow. The young guy sat in a daze. His eyes turned glassy. He stared into an invisible void, detached from time and space. Thoughts of the girl evaporated, and his head became an empty, dry vessel. The water of the rough and choppy world no longer entered the boat of his mind, and he drifted afloat in a new existence. A silence echoed within him.

The woman sitting beside him did not see what he saw. Yet thoughts of the incident with the wounded girl continued to play over and over, inundating every corner of her consciousness. The woman’s body began to tremble, and the sides of the train carriage seemed to cave inward. A heavy chest and labored breathing heralded light-headedness, followed by a thick fog that cast a blanket over her awareness. Her body went stiff. The fragility of human life haunted her.

What is life about? the woman asked herself. Why am I so unhappy and afraid?

She tried to think happy thoughts of her children, thoughts of her loving mother. Although her mother lived hours away, she was always there if she needed her.

We’ll take the train to visit her this weekend, she decided.

The woman leaned back against her seat and watched the old lady remove her brown cardigan, fold it up, and place it on her lap. Then she took a closer look at the old lady, and her blood froze. On the old lady’s left arm was a faded black tattoo of a hawk in flight chained to a birdcage.

Copyright © James Golding 2019