This collaboration came from an alter ego I had conjured and kept alive in my mind for a while now; a fantasy, an idea, a version of me with tattoos I had specifically mapped and designed, placed on alter me’s body with specific stories behind each tattoo. Then I thought of a blank slate, a blank body, a voodoo doll of sorts that could be passed around to would-be tattoo designers, and the narratives that would come from this patchwork. Could I resurrect a whole other person, a series of lives, from the marks on one’s skin? Below are my efforts. Many thanks to Dhi, Michelle and Muizz for contributing their awesome talents to this project.
Illustration by Dhiyanah Hassan (hands and wrist)
Everybody picks up shells.
Anyone who has ever sunk their toes in sand has picked up a flashy bit of ridged white, or coral, pearlescent purple, peach. She runs her finger against the puckered lip of the cowrie shell, its shine dulled by a hard crust of sand, and she thinks about how her ancestors did this, possible even back when they didn’t even know if the ocean that brought them these shells ever ended, ever led anywhere. And one day her children will do this, if she has any.
She walks to the line where the water last touches the shore, where the foam straggles like it doesn’t want to leave. She bends her body at the waist and sinks the cowrie into the sand, letting the cool, clumped grains envelope her fingers. When the water comes, she puts her palm flat on the shore as if she wants to hold the waves there, gather them like skirts, close around her body.
The next shell from her pocket looks like a miniature unicorn horn, and she spirals it into the sand like a screw, a distance away from the cowrie. A clam shell with a hole in the middle, follows after, further down the beach.
Some days she thinks she is planting seeds, that these shells sink back to the salt and sand and earth and sea they came from and spring up as something else, somewhere else. Everything goes back home.
On cloudy days where the air holds nothing but grey and chill, she thinks she is building a gate, a fence, a mark on the shore that tells her something she already knows.
Today the sun hides behind the far off mountains, shaded in the looming green. Today the sky blinks blue and white and grey and the palest tinge of a colour with no name. Today the water is cool but inviting, its depths reflecting a flat teal cobalt that makes her feel brave.
Today she is marking a trail. Step by step, shell by shell.
She’s excited to see where this will take her.
Illustration by Michelle Francis (inner forearm)
You tell him that you don’t eat fish. That your sensitive skin is allergic to sand, to sun. That the doctor warned you against salt, for fear of your heart, your blood pressure. There is no one way for the air to be in this new country that makes you calmer — still, or churning, or gentle breaths blowing through you — you fear what tidings they will bring. You like it when it snows. You like how metallic everything smells then. When it rains he must take your shoes off so you can dance on the wet grass.
You stop taking showers and you start collecting leaves. You like them better on the trees so you climb up the branches and stay there, it makes you feel closer to the sky. You choose in-bound routes when you fly, deeper and deeper into the heart, the belt, the crux of this new country, where pie chart fields spread out below you, their slices moving from yellow to green. You’ll tolerate flying over mountains, but never deserts. You keep track of how far you are from the coast.
You tell him you cannot swim.
This is the only thing he knows about you that is not a lie.
He gets you a Siamese fighting fish in a glass jar and you do not cry until he tells you he got it because “you are so brave.” You wish he were a fish your new fish could fight. You ask why not a puppy instead, a pony, a lizard, a parakeet?
The fish unfurls its billowing tail like the gentle unfolding of silk, its colours too calm for a fighter — soft greens and blues and a shining, shimmering coat of pale coral that makes your fingers itch. You watch it swim lazy laps around its small glass jar, bored and regal and edgy, king of its meaningless domain.
You know then that you must leave him, this boy with the dirt under his nails and green beans planted in his garden, you know then that for how safe he makes you feel, his roots have dug too deep into you, this is how he clings to things.
How do you take this fish with you, and how do you set it free?
You do not let it die in water, you bury it under the boy’s tomatoes, ripening on the vine. There is not a place on your body he hasn’t kissed, he hasn’t found, so when the needle asks where to point you think of how he would kiss your shoulders after a day outside in the dirt, in the sun, how his mouth would slide down to the insides of your elbows, to the bones of your wrists, your hands, ghosting over the markings his lips have never touched.
The first time you throw a punch you feel the force of that dead fish behind it, a fighter after all.
Illustration by Muizz Adam (back and bum)
My skin hasn’t settled since
I turned my back to you
It wants to rip open and
I let it,
I let it,
I let it.
You used to kiss the ground I walked on
used to start from the bottom up —
my ankles, my calves, the backs
of my knees, my thighs, the curves
of me, your lips, your teeth
soft and sharp
My spine is a wishbone
that we broke in two, and
the bigger half went to you
Luck has never much been on my side,
but that hurt.
What I hate is how my body’s
come back to me, different but
familiar, and all I can think is
Would you still want me now?
You used to read my skin
like the pages of a book, I thought
Looking for pressed flowers against
the yellowed leaves
but really you were a digger,
a miner with an eye for gold
you had a hungry mouth that
made me feel precious
I’ve moved through oceans you
have never even tasted, I
have shed more lives than
you have ever even lived,
I have written over the marks you
have left on me and you
will never touch me again
even if I still want you to.
You struck your damn gold,
and treated me like dirt
well you got your wish
I’m returning to the sand
Words like this never left my mouth
but now it thirsts for the salt of you
so all I can do is spit
as far as the horizon
I am going back to.
This time I am planting flowers
this time I will make things grow.
Syar, Dhiyanah, Michelle and Muizz use their imaginations to tickle the surfaces of things, often resulting in fancy revelations (and sometimes even fancier truths).
* Featured image by Abby Tai