The Story on Her Skin

He lies in the dark, a spill of faint, pale light coming through the window to splash the top of the opposite wall. The room about him is a world of shadows. She lies unseen in the dark beside him, and he gazes at the imagined shape of her, a disturbance of bedclothes and, so faint as to be illusory, her soft breath. He watches her, though he cannot see her in the darkness of the room, for long minutes before she speaks.

– Tell me the story again.
– Now?
– Now.
– We should be sleeping.
– Please…
– I’ve told you already tonight
– I like to hear it.
– You only like to hear it because you know I like to tell it.
– Well, isn’t that the same thing?
– Ka-
– Please?

He sighs in the dark, but he knows she can hear the smile in it.

– Okay…

And so he begins the story.

– There once was a woman with a story on her skin, intricate beautiful images that told the tale of her life, her loves and her losses.
– Was the woman beautiful?
– The woman was very beautiful, and her story was beautiful. She had drawn it herself, you see, on parchment and paper, in pencil and in ink, and then a wise old apothecary-
– Tattoo artist.
– -apothecary… He traced the images she gave him onto her skin, writing her story…

The night is still, the world beyond the window silent but for the wind, within only his slow breathing. He considers for a moment longer, and then continues.

– Her story began at the small of her back, a single lily for her father, lost when she was only six. Then a swirling pattern of white feathers rising up, for the freedom of leaving home and seeking out her own path. On the left one of the feathers is a quill, tracing out the letter ‘P’, a sign of her first love. But from the letter falls a drop of scarlet blood, for her first broken heart. Between her shoulder blades a large blue orchid, for the passion in her heart as she ventured out into the world. At her right shoulder the feathers darken to black and coalesce into two ravens, for the thoughts she cannot stop and the memories she never wants to lose. Her story grows and changes with every passing moment, and she captures it all in pencil and ink on paper, and picks out those that matter most to paint on the parchment of her skin.
– What about her left shoulder?
– I’m getting to that, be patient.

She sighs beside him, and he hears her shifting slightly as he continues.

– At her left shoulder is the newest part of her story. On that pale, smooth field of skin a tree grows, a cherry tree for the love that she has found. It is a young tree but strong, its delicate branches topped with pink blossoms. The branches and blossoms stretch out onto her shoulder and the top of her arm. The tree is the only part of her story that she did not draw herself. It was drawn by the man whose love it represents.
– Why didn’t she draw it?
– It was her gift to him. The greatest gift she could have given.
– Why?
– It was the chance to help tell her story, to write it permanently on the parchment of her skin. Permission to be a part of her, forever. It meant more to him than she could ever know.
– A cherry tree…
– With blossoms of pale pink. The tree looked as though it were swaying in the wind, and at the tip of the branch that touch the top of her arm, a blossom was blown free, caught in ink as it drifted over her skin.
– A single blossom?
– To begin with. But as the years passed their love grew and strengthened, and each year she added a new blossom, tracing down her left arm.
– A blossom for every year? How many were there?

In the darkness he reached out a hand toward the mound of covers, his fingers seeking out her pale skin. But as before, as it had been for years, they found nothing beneath the cloth; he was alone in the dark. He sighed as he lay down, in the bed that had been too big for too long now. From the shadows of the room, he thought he heard once more her last imagined question.

– How many were there?

He closed his eyes against the darkness and memories, and whispered his response to the night.

– Not enough.

© Matt Beames 2019


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