She had 63 tattoos on her flesh, a cobweb of memories carved over her skin by needles and blades. The first one had been made the day she placed a change of clothes inside her backpack and left her home. It had been done in a tiny parlor painted bright red, close to the bus station and aptly called “The Runaway”. She had always wanted to get a tattoo done, but whenever she mentioned it to her relatives and friends she found nothing but their disapproval. Why would she want to ruin her skin? , they always asked. It was so pretty the way it was.
They didn´t get that what she wanted had nothing to do with how pretty or not her skin was but with the need to have a visible proof of her feeling of misplacement. She was not there, nor was theirs.
So her first tattoo was both a commemoration and a farewell. This was her, the one that was an alien to them.
She hadn’t planned for a second one, regardless of what myths on luck and lack of could be said about it. But on the next large city she arrived to, she found herself guided by powers beyond her comprehension into a shitty shop with a neon sign that was malfunctioning, the buzzing of the bulbs mixed with the sound of the machine calling her out like a spell. Bzzzzzz.
Bees and honey.
She felt loved.
From then on, it became Tradition, and the tattoos grew with her travelling, a reflection of her Great Path of Getting Away.
It was a pleasurable Path, as there was something about the whole procedure that she found both poetic and utterly sensual. The girl in her had been shocked at first by the way her body reacted, and had tried to deny it, hurting herself with shame. The woman knew better and soon she allowed herself to enjoy each new ritual to its fullest, taking into her surroundings, the scents, the burning of the needle.
Just the buzz already was enough to fill her with a sense of anticipation that was utterly delightful.
A long path away from home, but not far enough. Not yet.
Somewhere on the way she had stumbled with the Freakshow, where an autistic man named Istvan led her by the hand to his wagon and made the 13th tattoo on her chest. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen, with shades of ink all over his self. He had kissed the heart-shaped mark when he finished, then left the place for good, breaking the spell of poetry by unceremoniously turning his back to her and leaving through the narrow door, never to be seen again.
Some said they saw him whistling on his way. Others that he was crying and laughing, both at the same time. She, on the other hand, could only remember the figure on his back as he walked away, the smiling goddess with slanted eyes, filled with a million secrets and everlasting warmth.
It was her name that she took for her first show, and she cemented it by tracing the same figure over her own back. The girl that had left home had disappeared and lovely Amaterasu, the Illustrated Woman, had been born in her flesh.
It was her, that new being made of past memories, the one that caught the eye of the Ringleader as none had done before.
He didn’t know when or where she had got her first tattoo, nor the reasons behind it. He didn’t know about her Great Path, nor remembered how many she had had when she first joined the troupe. The Ringleader was a man of good memory, but who seldom paid attention to others, especially to those who wouldn’t make a dent on his daily life. New members were not a rarity in the Freakshow, but most of them left in a couple of days, running back to their sad sad lives devoid of meaning.
The ones that stayed were few, but those were the ones that mattered to him. Shiny little things, with new names and new lives to embrace.
Amaterasu, despite her name, was far from shining. Her wagon reminded him of the cages they kept the beasts in, a large dark room almost empty but for a futon and a large chest. Sounds of something crawling under the wheels and cats meowing their heat into the night were the things he associated with her. That and something sticky and uncomfortable that he couldn’t quite wash away.
They weren’t pleasant memories, as she wasn’t a pleasant woman. But somehow along the way, as the months went by and the cities were left behind, he had noticed the new tattoos over her skin, and had found himself marveling at them.
It didn’t take him long to notice a new one always appeared when they visited a large city. She would disappear for some days, while they were busy preparing the tent and getting set for the show, and return later on, with her skin sore and a scabbed artwork hidden under a piece of bloodied film.
He grew fascinated by her, by the way the days of the Freakshow turned to life over her body. He could trace the path they had walked through on her, all the capitals and applauses. The gasps caught in the throats of the visitors, the tense excitement, ready to be unleashed. He could re-live it all through the little figures and colours that made her.
He wanted to touch it, that path which was rightfully his. Scratch her skin to make the tattooed parts swell under his fingertips so he could feel them in the dark and make his own body remember them, too. Remember the cities, remember himself.
He felt time swallowing him the first time he tried. The Freakshow became a city at night, one with its inner codes and secret rules, and also one he was not fond of walking through. It was the tent which he loved and the tent where he spent most of his time, as a priest caring for his church. Whatever the faithful did at night, in their little rooms, was not something he wanted to waste time thinking about.
But he had caught her in the corner of his eyes, arriving after one of her escapades, film wrapped tightly around her thigh.
A new one, a new place, more. What did this one say of them? Of him?
So he left his church in reticence and walked through the small paths that took shape between the caravans, guided by the flickering light of the hanging gas lamps. Hers was far away, in the borders. He found it oddly proper, that she would stand in the frontier between their world and the one of those that saw them, like a messenger. It was the same place Istvan had chosen, last in the caravan and far from the crowd. But that was because Istvan spent his time in his mystical land, tattooing himself when the voices told him to and singing bullshit into the night.
The woman was different, her eyes were alive and cunning, her steps certain, the traces on her body done ritualistically, not as much guided by powers outside herself but from an inner drive that puzzled him.
What would they say of him, those marks that grew at his pace on her call?
In all honesty, part of him didn’t want to find out, nor wanted to have anything to do with it. He still remembered that reticence, even when it was years from that first walk, remembered the feeling of disgust at having to touch the door to her place. He remembered not wanting to enter the damn wagon, so lonely and foreboding it felt. He didn´t. But he wanted to see it.
What was it this time? A fish? Some strange nightmarish creature? Or was it a symbol, something she had somehow felt related to the place they were in, to the situations they were living through?
He didn´t want to enter but the damn thing had been covered and what could be under it was eating him alive. He wanted to enter, and wanted to take that bandage off and scratch that skin and remember.
He wanted to see it, see it all like none had done before. He really wanted to see it.
So in the end he did.
And she was waiting for him, laying on her futon, a human map of his own life, breathing beyond his control. Dark eyes fixed on his and he was certain she knew; knew what he was there for and knew what he was thinking, feeling, and was dying to sense. There was that damn film.
She knew, and moved her thighs apart to let him take it away.
63 were the ones she had so far, and he had no idea how many more there would be, nor what would happen when her skin would be thoroughly covered. It was a mystery that would remain unsolved, till the time came. Meanwhile, he was able to go through the memory of each one of them, the shape embedded on his fingertips like fire.
He would have to find another large city to go to, soon, somewhere they hadn’t been to before. Somewhere that would give him a new reason of why he took that long path every night, between wagons owned by sad people, towards that lonely corner between worlds that stood far, far away from the Tent. A justification of why he sunk, every night, in that warm bundle of flesh covered in colorful figures of gods and monsters; deeply touched by the goddess on her back who, while wearing a perennial smile, cried salty tears whenever he fucked her.