21. You Can’t Be First, But You Could Be Next

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.

For all of its high elven respectability, Liamelia is a port town, with the usual compliment of businesses catering to stevedores, marines and sailors. It’s easy enough to find an open tattoo parlor. A guy is sitting in front, smoking a cigar. He’s human, not elvish, and correspondingly burly and dark. “Hairy Tattoos,” the sign says.

Valentine introduces himself. “I’m Valentine. I need a tattoo. Are you free?”

“I’m Harry. Depends on what you need. I have a couple hours before my next appointment.”

“Plain text, from shoulder to shoulder.” Valentine shows him a slip of paper.

“Cool. What language is that?”

“Drow.”

“No shit? Come on in. Let’s look at it, sketch something up.”

The walls are papered with watercolor sketches of traditional Navy tattoos: mermaids, anchors, pin-ups. “That’s all Sailor Jerry stuff. Super old-school,” Harry says. “I apprenticed with him, still work in that style.”

Aramil inspects a naked, buxom lady astride a panther. “Wow — amazing. This is cool.”

While he browses, Harry and Valentine draft up the text, size it. Harry sketches the unfamiliar characters in a fluid freehand. “Perfect. That’s it,” says Valentine.

“You want it now?”

“Yeah, if you have time.”

“We can get it done.”

Aramil is still cheerfully preoccupied as Valentine disappears into the back. “I’ll go get a snack or something if I get bored.”

Valentine strips his shirt off. Harry washes his shoulders and neck, and wipes them down with rubbing alcohol. “You want this on the top of your shoulders, right across the nape of your neck?” Valentine nods. “This is a really painful placement — over the shoulder blades, across the spine. Is this your first tattoo?”

“No, I have one on the back of each hand, right over bone.”

“I didn’t see those.”

“They’re Drow — they use colorless ink.”

Harry stops swabbing Valentine’s back. “Wait — you mean that shit that’s cold, that shows up only to dark vision?”

“Yeah — you know about that?”

“Shit, I just bought some from a guy. It sounded cool, I thought, what the hell, why not? You want to use it?”

“Hell, yeah.”

“Okay. Stand straight.” Harry takes the stencil, a long strip of parchment with the tattoo traced in purple ink, smoothes it over Valentine’s back, then pulls it off in a single motion. He swabs away a bit of stray ink, then says, “Go look.”

There it is in the mirror, in bold, graceful strokes, like a tangle of barbed wire across his shoulders and neck. “Yeah, that’s it,” Valentine says.

Harry pulls out the vial of clear ink, hold it up lovingly. It feels cold in his hand. “Didn’t think I’d get to use this,” he says. “Do you want it to be invisible? I can try to add pigment. Just mix a little on the side and see if it will work. No guarantees. But we can try.”

“Sure. Just black.”

He fills a tiny well with colorless ink, adds black drop by drop. “Oh, yeah. That’s mixing nicely. See? I think it will work just fine.”

“Cool. Let’s do it.”

Harry sets up a cot next to his work station. Valentine lies down, clasps his hands, turns his head to one side. “You ready?” Valentine hears the little foot-powered motor start up. Harry dips the needle into the well of ink, pins Valentine down, grips his shoulder, brings the whirring, chattering needle down. A buzzing, rattling sting. “You good?” Valentine nods. “Okay. This is the easy part. The guy said with this ink you have to go deep.”

Getting a tattoo is an oddly intimate experience. Harry’s touch is firm, gentle, impersonal, like a masseuse or surgeon. The process is painful — exquisitely so at times — but the body provides endorphins, and Valentine is able to focus on his breath, sink into his flesh, allow the pain to rise up and fall away.

They pause halfway through to stretch. Valentine uses the bathroom, and is obscurely pleased to see that it’s wallpapered with startlingly obscene images. As he urinates, he’s eyed by a pen-and-ink sketch of a corseted man suspended from meathooks through his pectoral muscles. There’s a caption underneath: “You can’t be first, but you could be next.” A sign next to the sink reads, “Employees must carve a pentagon into their left palm before returning to work.” Over the sink, in an empty mirror frame, there’s a note written in lipstick: “No need to check. You’re fucking gorgeous.”

Valentine pokes his head out into the front room. “Hey Aramil, do you need to take a piss?”

“Um. Actually, yeah, I guess. Why? Check it out. I got this thing from a street vendor. Fruit with bacon. You want some?”

“No reason. God, are you really going to eat that? It smells like skunk.”

An expression of surprise crosses Aramil’s face. He peers into the grease-stained paper bag. “You know, it does! I thought it smelled familiar.” He rolls down the top of the bag tenderly for safekeeping, stashes it behind the counter. He disappears into the bathroom, reemerges a few moments later shaking his head, solemnly considers what he’s seen while eating another length of fruit and bacon.

When the tattoo is done, it is shockingly vivid on Valentine’s pale skin, and rimmed with red where blood has started to ooze out.

“It’s perfect. Thank you,” says Valentine.

“It does look good. What does it say?”

“It says, ‘The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne.’”

Harry pauses. “I’m sorry, man. What happened?”

“We were going to be married. The Drow poisoned her. She was buried a few weeks ago.”

“What are you going to do?”

Valentine eases his shirt over his sore and sticky shoulders. “Kill some fucking Drow, then get another tattoo.”

Harry nods. “That’s cool. We only used half the ink.”

As they walk home, Aramil can’t stop chattering about the tattoos he saw.

“Aramil, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life,” Valentine says, “but please don’t get a tattoo on my watch. “

“Oh, God,” says Aramil, much struck. “They’d totally blame you.”

“Absolutely! I’d never hear the end of it. I’d say, ‘But madam, I can’t watch him all the time. The pain of my tattoo distracted me — it was right over bone — a very tricky placement — you have no idea! And I was preoccupied with picking my own blood out of my hairline!’”

“And they would act like it was perfectly normal for you to do that. But if I got a mermaid — even a small one —“

“It would be like, ‘How could you?’”

“‘Young man, put down your Drow meal of cold roast baby and make sure your cousin doesn’t ruin himself with a Navy tattoo!’”

“Hey, thanks, man.”

Aramil shrugs, smiles sweetly. “Anytime. It was kind of cool.”

One thought on “21. You Can’t Be First, But You Could Be Next

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