Rastaman gone astray, the devout artist had adopted flesh for his canvas.
Everything about him was dark, including the curl of his brows. Including his countenance when he eased back and stood, studying his handiwork.
The silent woman in the claw-toed tub at the center of the room, sat leaning forward. The thick braid of her jet-black hair was twisted into a knot. Like the artist’s hand, the bathwater was murky with her blood and neat little slivers of her skin.
The pattern one-quarter way carved into her back was Yggdrasil. Gnarly roots coiling deep down into the core of the earth. Knotty canopy cradling nine heavenly blossoms.
“What you crave,” the artist hummed along to the song on the radio absently. “What makes a body move…”
He twirled the scalpel between his sticky fingers.
The floorboards creaked as he walked. He went to the counter at the far end of the studio. Metal clattered around inside the stainless-steel sink. The tap spluttered and began to flow. He spent nearly a full minute there, carefully washing his hands.
From the counter by the sink, he selected a shiny, sharper new blade.
“… electric marionette.”
He turned the volume all the way down. He went back to his subject. He sank down onto his haunches before her.
“Miss Ingrid,” he studied her odd posture intently for a while before asking, “feel any closer to your ancestors yet?”
The woman’s face turned upward. She frowned over at him, irises darkening to a sugary shade of brown. Cocoa, he thought. Hot and rich. No milk.
Her voice was thick and scratchy from the effort of not crying. Her eyes were saltwater-rimmed, sclerae bloodshot from failing and the sting of ganja smoke clouding the air.
“Didn’t your mama teach you not to mock your elders, Tobias?”
He shrugged, made a non-committal sound in the back of his throat. The spliff hanging from his lips tilted.
“Like a mother–” She stopped mid-reply.
Tobias smiled, revealing a pearly row of teeth. “This is the part where I’m supposed to ask if you’re sure you want me to continue.”
She fidgeted restlessly. Her fingers snaked upward to fuss with the silver widow’s peak stemming from the whites of her roots. A nervous habit. Now a refuge for limbs that didn’t quite know what to do about the intricate wounds weeping in tricky spots they couldn’t reach. She could feel it on her back. The slowly clotting warmth trickling out of her flesh and sliding down into the water.
“Yeah.” The bold glitter in her eyes wavered just a little, but she nodded. “Absolutely. Finish it.”
Tobias went back to work. Just as the blade was about to connect with her flesh again, she twisted, craning her neck uselessly, trying to see.
“Wait. Can I see how it looks first?”
“Miss Ingrid!” Tobias barely managed to yank the blade away in time to avoid sinking into her flesh at an odd angle. He let out a sharp breath. “This is turning into my best work yet. If you make me spoil it, I’ll stab you. Seriously.”
Unintimidated by the not-so-subtle threat, Miss Ingrid shrugged then faced forward. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” she sighed. “Getting a little antsy, you know?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled then grudgingly amended, “no, you can’t see it until I’m done. You’ll freak out. Probably never let me finish.”
“How long will it take to heal?” She asked.
Tobias looked up sharply. “Isn’t that something you should have asked before I started cutting into you?”
Miss Ingrid shrugged. “Then you’d have asked why I didn’t read the pamphlet.”
“Yeah,” he agreed darkly. “Why didn’t you?”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t really need to.
Miss Ingrid stretched one arm backward, twitchy fingers silently demanding. He leaned forward obediently. He didn’t say anything when she filched the spliff from between his lips. Hell, who was he to quibble? So be it if this were what it’d take to make her settle down.
She took a long drag. He dipped his gaze and went back to cutting.
She broke the silence again a while later.
“You know, Tobias. I never imagined that the introverted kid I remember from my sixth grade English Literature class would turn out like this,” spliff in hand she gestured aimlessly at the air. “Growing dreads and… all this.”
The blade wobbled, slid in quite a bit deeper than he intended. She sucked in a sharp, pained breath.
“Sorry,” he muttered. Then he smirked. “You can scream if you want to.”
His cheeky grin fell at her sharp look. It was that look. The disapproving glare that still struck terror in the hearts of even the most stalwart of students.
“Sorry,” he mumbled again.
She flicked the ash away from the tip of the joint before putting it out in the water. She let the soggy butt fall to the ground.
“It will be beautiful, won’t it?”
“Yes ma’am.” Tobias assured meekly. He bit back his smile this time.
“Very good,” she sighed. “Carry on then.”
She tilted forward and waited for him to begin cutting again.