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The Epider Miss
With or without Michelle, the bottles continued to hit the floor drained empty, and now, his night ended with the bed pounding the wall, (sweet Belinda).
Perhaps it was an improvement. Michelle was smiling now, sealed under varnish.
When he met her, her light was addicting. He was still under its influence when he knew he wanted to keep her.
Like any traditional marriage it was set in ink, and then consummated with blood. Only for his, the blood came at the altar, and the ink was embedded under the skin.
“What would it take to remove?” Asked Belinda when he showed her the needle.
A tattoo virgin.
“Having second thoughts? I don’t recommend undoing what’s done—it would be a nasty scar. They burn the skin right off.”
“Go on, just do it.” She said.
“Just to warn you, you’ll bleed.” He said, as the gun buzzed, and the ink began.
She was the sort of girl who saw a raven within herself. It was breaking out of her chest, and she wanted the world to know it every time she exposed her décolletage. She was cute, with plumpness about the cheeks, and she wore her hair dyed black and in a low knot. When she asked for the raven, in her own words she found death romantic, meaningful, and a crucial obsession for survival. She went as far as to say she believed death proved one’s personality, finalized their meaning of existence. She said people of longevity were cowards, accident victims were careless, and murder victims were just that, victims failing to have ever taken control. She would have control. In their consultation over tattoo art she had already told him she meant to die someday by her own hand.
Belinda looked at him with trust when she pulled down the blouse and exposed her breast---a milky white, malleable canvas.
A raven was forming. He would see that it would have mad, yellow eyes. He wiped the blood and ink away with a tissue.
She was looking at his arms, at the green and blue, sharp lines. The pointless dragons, the covered spaces.
“How did you get to ever do this? How do you practice?”
“Well some of us practice on corpses.”
Her eyes were wide, fascinated.
“But I never did---I practiced on myself. I had the forethought to begin my sketches where the sun rarely shines, if you know.”
“Have you ever had one removed?” She asked.
“Only one in my life.”
“May I ask why?”
He held up his left hand, and on the third finger there was an oddly white, shiny band of skin going all around. “My wedding band is now just a scar.”
She was intrigued.
“I had a normal wedding with a preacher, only right there at the alter the best man came with a tattoo gun.”
She was fascinated.
Michelle never did like jewelry. So he had bought her flowers, the potted kind because he knew her well enough to know cut roses would depress her. Within six months of their marriage violets had died in the sill. It was unreasonable, but he imagined she choked the life out of them herself by starving them of sunlight. There were few ways to satisfy a woman who did not want to be happy, he realized.
He had felt as though she was always watching him work, standing over his shoulder and blocking his light. He had pulled away every shade and curtain in the place, but there was always a shadow somewhere.
When she screwed lightbulbs back into service, the apartment was filled with a sick yellow that clashed with the dim cast of daylight. He refused within himself to cover his slanted wall of windows, to shut out the world and be alone together under their artificial lighting.
She was catching onto him. Belinda entered the tattoo shop after just two weeks. She was wearing less clothing, more black, and leather platform boots. He saw that her thighs were soft and full, swinging, and a gentle roll of her tummy peeked between the waistband and the cropped top.
He came to the counter and embraced her wrists with both hands. “You said next week. Not going to think it over?”
“I was passing by, and I thought well, a little more red,” she pulled the shirt from her shoulder, and the men in the parlor looked suddenly. He pulled down his eyeglasses and examined where she traced her finger over the raven’s claw.
“Where? Here?” he touched the art with his finger and felt a warmth almost the raven’s own.
“I want more blood to trail down,” She took his finger and drew it down the skin, but he pulled away.
He took his glasses off his head, and the buzzing continued behind him.
“It won’t fit with the art. It will be cheesy,” he said.
She pulled her shirt back over her shoulder.
“But I’ll do it, whatever you want darling, whatever makes you happy. Come, I’m not busy.”
She followed him down the hall of tattoos in silver and green painted directly onto the black walls. His parlor was at the very end, and smelled of ink and smoke. Knives lined a counter that looked like it could be a gothic doctor’s office. He slipped on a pair of rubber gloves, as she slid out of her blouse and watched with dark eyes as he wheeled a chair in front of her.
“Drops of blood? Should I freehand it?” He asked.
“I trust you. It should splash out of the wound. Maybe even traces on the claw, I want it to drip.” She gestured the path of her chest.
“You’re not going to like the blood,” he said.
“Yes I will, I want the raven, I mean I like it, but it’s not there yet. I want something more gruesome, darker.”
He watched as she tilted her shoulder, revealing the raven’s wingspan, the glossy feathers. It appeared to be in a mad struggle, with one small, panicked yellow eye. One claw pushed against her heart, clawed the delicate flesh, the other foot was obscured, breaking out of her chest. He examined it, almost having forgotten its perfection on her-- the way the black feathers melded with her dark hair.
She leaned in the chair, stretching her legs.
“Ever think about how underneath everyone’s skin, there’s a gaping death’s head? We’re just skeletons, pieced together by cartilage and flesh that is decaying.”
“So are you telling me you want some skull and crossbones?” he said, wheeling the chair to the counter.
“Let me finish. I want something more uncomfortable. People know skeletons are walking inside without being really afraid of them. Clean skulls come to the surface months after the decaying process, purified and dehumanized. Ever see that old Argonauts movie where they come up out of the ground and fight Jason with swords and shields? Was that frightening?’”
“Why do you want to be so frightening and ugly? Do you think men find that attractive?” He asked.
“Because I want to. I don’t care, I don’t think it’s ugly, it’s just provocative.”
“You’re going to wake up and realize this thing you have for death is comfortable to dream about, but it’s horrifying to wake up and find you’re sharing a bed with it.”
Belinda tipped her chin playfully. “What do you imagine, on me?”
“You’ve already become a walking art show.”
“Whatever you want, wherever,” she persisted.
“That’s dangerous to ask any artist. You could end up with something ugly.”
“I would like that. Make me ugly. You’re a real artist. I mean you paint too, don’t you?”
“Not professionally. But yes, my studio is upstairs.”
“Have you ever shown your stuff?”
“Sometimes customers request that I create the sketch, but my canvases don’t make it into the light.” He said.
“What if I made a request? I would like a sort of portrait, and I want it tattooed.”
“Original artwork would cost you.”
“So you would do it?” She asked.
He knew it was cruel, but it was the only way he knew to shake her from her stupor. When he yanked his coat from the rack and pulled open the front door, she cried, she held herself, and begged. He never lied to Michelle about never coming back, some days he believed he really was leaving her.
Three days later, longer than usual, he went back to the apartment. He had felt hurried, up the echoing stairwell, two steps at a time. He ground his heels and leaned into the door, shoving the key into the lock---he fumbled, it rang, bouncing against the door, a thud hitting the carpet.
Half bent to pick it up, he knew---she was dead. He smelled it somewhere, faintly in the dust of the hall carpets, in the stained wallpaper and peeling plaster. It made his core vibrate with a sick pain, and cold illness. He stood slowly, and listened at the door, turning the key nervously in his hands. It was as though he expected to hear call to him from inside, to welcome with a raspy voice, that yes, she was dead, beloved, she’d been waiting for him, but she’d kept his dinner warm.
The hall creaked, light footsteps at the stairwell.
He shot for the key and the door clicked, and closed behind him with a heavy seal of pressure, like a tomb.
He felt himself alone with her. She was hiding. His hand slipped over his pocket, where his razor knife for cutting canvases was kept. He looked around the hall corner.
“Michelle…” he called, surprised by the calm in his voice.
The apartment was cold, but the white light of the afternoon came through the tall wall of windows. He went into the studio, the room where they had once made love on the carpets, where they had sat in each other’s silences and had their last argument. He was shocked at his own premonition because she was there, collapsed in a chair.
The light of the window was on one side, and her head hung straight back, and her mouth was frozen open. A hand had fallen at her sides, the wrist clotted and the floorboards dark with coppery smelling shadow.
He stood there, staring, not recognizing her. This was his studio, his easel with a blank canvas propped, facing him. Michelle was sitting there, behind it in the distance, calm, still, like she was posing for a death portrait.
His steps creaked the floorboards as he approached her. He observed the gray cast in the skin, her pale lips, the dead saliva sticking on the mouth. The eyes are what fascinated him, still almost alive, pupils still black with a dull shine—far away.
His hand, as though by a will of its own, picked up the brush from the stand. He looked at it. He remembered at the alter, less than a year past, feeling dread for the day she’d leave him. Now, somehow he did not want the moment to slip away. He dipped the brush in paint.
She browsed the canvases in his apartment, and as if by intuition gravitated to it like he thought she would. Belinda found the small painting of Michelle, with her bright, blue eyes, flushed cheeks and full, soft smile. “Your wife?” She looked at it with wonder. “Your work isn’t like I would of guessed, it’s so bright. Not my thing,” she said simply, setting Michelle down. “Would you ever try to get her back?”
He looked at her in the light of his apartment, standing silhouetted against the windows. As she filed through the canvases stacked along the walls in the light of the afternoon she was blinding.
Belinda had choked on the first drink. She was so pliable, so different from himself. She did not even need a kiss. He dropped the empty bottle and it shattered on floor. He pressed his hand over the raven. It was warm with a heavy heartbeat. She smiled for him, relaxed her arms over his shoulders like she wanted to be carried---like a corpse.
So he frightened her, gripped her tightly, made the pink rush into her cheeks, and she resisted just enough for him to force her wrists, and hold her close around his thighs. She breathed roughly, but she didn’t make the sounds. Her face tensed, contorted into an ugly restraint ---she was so alive.
Now, when he saw her eyes, they were wide, bright, as though she were watching him from deep within, letting him inside. What was soft and pliable was now resistant, but he was forcing it to move beneath him. He took his time, pressed into her, let her throw her head back, almost cry, from the pounding against his chest he knew she was in a full panic before he finally exhaled, loosening his grip.
Just that same day, downstairs in the parlor he’d taken the tattoo knife and held it over the skin, still raw and fresh. She had laid her head back in the cushioned chair, so willingly, and a red flush bloomed. “So, you want it grotesque,” he’d said as he scratched her with the sharp pen tip until blood and ink flowed.
The face of death was what she wanted. He etched it into her, the flat, hollow death’s head coming through the ink, melding with Belinda’s own pink skin. He carved it with tenderness while she watched him. When he had finished she was pleased, and touched the swelling around the ink. She was especially impressed with the eyes, the way they were somewhat alive---but strangely distant.
She pulled away from under his body to lightly kiss his lips, and by her smile, he could not help but feel she had been strangely satisfied. When she’d gathered her clothes and left the room, he found the sheet, twisted beneath him, and it was traced with dark blood.
He painted the room on his canvas the way it should have been. The light would have been warm and golden, no more white haze on gray floorboards. He would be there, painting her in the light of the window. Light on her face, her eyes laughing, with him. As though he could ever work without the creases set in his forehead, without the irritability, as though she could ever relax and without seeing the canvas.
He rubbed his left hand and looked at the pale, translucent skin. The veins looked green as though tattoo ink ran through his very blood. He held the left hand in front of his face, and stared absently at the white, banded scar on the third finger.
Michelle would be his best work. He had used his imagination for when he had painted the light into her eyes. Something in their marriage had brought a shadow. Now, she was in his hands, and he held her up to the window, and in the light he could see her, perfectly bright and clear.
One day he’d paint Belinda’s portrait, outside, somewhere with trees behind her. Then he would leave her. Before she would realize she was a victim, and finally take control.