What happens next to Barbara? Will she get the tattoo and will it be more than she planned? Read on...
Becoming Alive (part 2)
At last, Barbara found a small shop, tucked between two apartment buildings on a narrow street. A dim light shone through the plate window, where a painted sign read, ‘Tattoos’. She moved closer to the pale shaft of light. Photos of exquisite tattoos stared back at her--multi-colored exotic birds; stylized flaming skulls and all manner of wildlife. Several of the animal tattoos looked nearly alive. The eyes glowered, followed her movements. One photo caught her attention, and she instantly decided. It was a griffin; half lion, half eagle. The guardians of kings and castles. The photograph showed the griffin in traditional posture, one taloned foot raised, its beak opened in defiance. The art was superb; Barbara could see each feather, see a glint of life in the amber eye.
An old, frail man greeted her inside the door. “Welcome!” he said quietly. “I have been expecting you!”
His phrasing made her smile. He made her feel as though she was arriving for a scheduled appointment. She told him what she wanted; complimented his exceptional work. He nodded graciously, and asked her to sit in an old, heavily cushioned chair in the tidy little shop.
“This is your first tattoo?” he asked, as he prepared the needles. Barbara had decided not to watch the process. She was nervous around needles, and wasn’t terribly fond of blood--especially her own.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve always wanted one.”
He cocked his head, a bird-like gesture, and asked, “Why wait until now? Why begin life at this time?”
She pondered the question. He made it seem important, not at all casual. “I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I guess it’s time for a new beginning. I don’t really feel alive anymore.”
The old man nodded his head, as though she had said something very wise. He smiled secretively, and began his work. Barbara winced as the needle first punctured her skin, injecting the dye, but soon the muted buzzing lulled her. Her already drugged mind edged toward sleep, and she dozed in the chair. Dreams slid through her mind, filled with buzzing insects and thick jungle scents. In the corner of her mind, she heard the old man telling her stories of the Mayan culture. About great kings, and conquests, and treasure.
She woke to the old man shaking her shoulder lightly. Her arm ached under the thick cotton dressing. She started to remove the bandage, to see the beautiful art, but the old man stopped her.
“Wait,” he said. “One more day, and you will see it as it was meant to be seen. It would only disappoint you now. Tomorrow you will understand.” She believed him, not knowing why. Barbara opened her purse to pay, only now realizing that she had never asked the price. Nor had he offered one. She removed a hundred dollar bill, but he pushed it away.
“Art is meant to be shared,” he said with that secret smile. “It cannot be sold. This is my gift to you. For your new beginning.”
Barbara insisted, but the old man stood firm. He would not take money for his art. Then he tilted his head again, looking for all the world like a curious jungle bird, and raised one trembling finger. “But wait,” he said, moving further back into his shop. “If you insist on payment, perhaps you would be interested in this.”
When he returned, he placed an object into her hand and closed her fingers around it. The item was smooth and cool, and she opened her hand to see a large jade stone. It was exquisitely carved with lines and spirals in an oval, slightly elongated shape.
“It’s beautiful!” she breathed softly, but then shook her head and offered it back. “But it’s too much. I could never afford it.”
The old man smiled again. “It was passed down to me by my father, and by his father before him. It would please me to see you use it. It is very lucky. You must keep it with you always. I would take for it the money you offered for my art.”
Barbara was stunned. A carved jade stone like this was worth far more than one hundred dollars, but the man would not be swayed. No, she must have it, and that was the price. No more, no less. She finally relented and left the tiny shop with her lucky charm and her new tattoo.
The next morning she woke and again boarded the bus. She was actually excited, for today the guide told them that they would visit a Mayan temple. Her head was still filled with the dream-like remembrances from the old man. Soon she saw the temple soaring out of the verdant jungle, a masterpiece of stone. As they approached it, the skin under the dressing began to tingle. No matter, she thought, that’s probably normal. As they edged closer on the winding path, the tattoo started to itch. Soon it was as though a thousand ants were crawling on her skin; biting and clawing.
She could stand it no more by the time they reached the parking lot. She raised her sleeve and gingerly untaped the dressing. One glowering green eye greeted her gaze. Her jaw dropped. For there, on her arm, was not the anticipated griffin, boldly screaming to the sky. In its place was a great spotted cat, its tail lashing each time her skin moved. It was beautiful, incredibly detailed. She could see individual hairs rising from its tail. A tiny slitted pupil stared out of the gold-flecked emerald eye, and white teeth gleamed from the open jaw.
No matter how beautiful it was, she was furious! He had done this deliberately. He could never have mistaken a cat for her beloved griffin! She climbed the stone stairs with rising outrage, the “lucky” stone digging into her hip with each step. It probably wasn’t even jade, she thought angrily.
The inside of the temple was cool and dimly lit. She walked around with the others, forcibly turning her mind to the walls carved with glyphs, bright paint still evident here and there. As she approached the altar, one carved figure made her stop and stare. In front of her was a great cat, its spots permanently carved in stone. It was a mirror of the creature on her arm, except that the cat on the wall was missing its eye. A round dent in the wall showed where the eye should be. She lifted her foot to the top step, and the stone in her pocket again pressed on a nerve. She removed the stone and looked at it. A thought struck her and she held it up before her, lined it up with the carving on the wall. It might just fit! Her mind remembered the artist’s words, “his father and his father before him.” How many generations had the stone passed down?
Barbara wedged herself between the altar and the wall, stretching on her tiptoes to place the stone in the hole.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” called the guide. “You can’t touch . . .”
His words came too late, for the stone slid into place with an audible click. Barbara gasped as stones began grinding open. She shared the others’ wide-eyed stares as the heavy slab altar top slid aside, revealing gold objects, jade carvings, and multi-colored stones of every description.
Barbara tried to answer the questions posed by the police and the man from the ministry of antiquities. It was clear they didn’t believe her story. She explained where she got the rock, and showed them the tattoo. Finally, she agreed to lead them to the shop, and let them talk to the artist. When they arrived, she stared in shock. It was vacant! The glass was old and the paint faded. There were no photos in the window. Dust coated everything. A young man approached the police and asked what their business was with his property. Barbara explained why they were there, and about meeting the old tattoo artist.
The man’s eyes grew wide. This had been his grandfather’s shop, he said. It was left to him after the old man died. Poppy had been a master artist; his work was unmatched. But he had been dead for many years. How could she have met him? Barbara didn’t know. She only knew what had happened. She told the young man about the griffin, and how angry she had been that the artist had tattooed a great cat instead.
The young man’s face paled, and he raised his sleeve. There was the griffin! Barbara gasped, but then reached out and touched it gently; reverently. The man asked to see the jaguar, his Grandfather’s favorite subject, and Barbara raised her sleeve. He studied the tattoo, turning her arm to catch the light. Yes, he said, his voice filled with wonder, this was created by my grandfather. You can tell his art, because he used powdered Mayan gold in his ink.
“Gold?” asked Barbara, alarmed. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
The young man raised his brows. “For anyone but Poppy, yes! It makes the process risky, but no work of Poppy’s ever was rejected,” he claimed. “He never told his secret.”
After a moment’s thought, she voiced the question that resonated through her mind. “But why!?!”
The grandson understood the meaning the question, and smiled. “Poppy said gold and life were both created in the fires of the earth, two halves of a whole. He couldn’t replicate one without the other. It’s why El Gato seems so real. Only living skin can make Poppy’s art exist.”
A sudden realization staggered Barbara She didn’t just animate the cat, it had changed her, too. She was becoming more aware; more truly alive.
The officials were frustrated. No one could explain how Barbara got her tattoo or jade eye. Still, in gratitude, they offered to let Barbara take home one item from the altar. She chose the jaguar’s eye over all of the treasures.
The next morning, bags packed, jade tucked in a small leather bag around her neck, she boared the bus to the airport. Raising her sleeve, she spoke to the great cat on her arm. “Well, Gato, shall we go . . . live?”
The cat’s emerald eye sparkled in return.