It was in a basement somewhere on the blurry side of Berlin when I first saw her work. Perhaps it had been the pulse of the light show, the writhing bodies, the liquid beat, or my space eyes but the ink upon a stranger's upper arm opened up to the universe beyond. It shifted, twisted, turned clockwise and then not. It floated suspended in the space between everyone else and me.
The lights dimmed, the bass surged, and the ink’s owner flowed from my sight. I followed him, pushing through the syrup air, outside to the smoking area. I asked him where he'd got it done so he told me about Lumi.
"Lumi?" I repeated dumbly.
While he licked his roll-up tight, he told me to go somewhere not so far from the fever dream of Las Vegas, USA.
I asked him if I could take a closer look —I must have been gawking. On his bicep, painted with stars, was a snake consuming its own tail.
I'd never been inked before. I had a few piercings; It had never occurred to me to get anything else. But after that night at the Berlin club, I became obsessed. What an amazing idea, I thought, to treat my own body as an artist’s canvas. Imagine forever carrying a piece of Lumi's brushwork. Whenever and wherever I wanted, I could lose myself in the infinite.
I found her studio in the dust and neon of the Nevada desert. It was a small shack of a place turned sepia in the arid daylight. Chimes announced me as I went inside.
Lumi was petite. Her face was so fair it reflected the light that fell upon it which, in that moment, was amber. The clothes that clung right up to her fingers and her chin hid the ink of her skin; Other than her face, she was covered in her paint of stars. Tied up out of her eyes was hair so black and brilliant I could hardly believe it was real. Nor did it move like hair either but flowed like ink.
She asked me what I wanted done.
I admitted I didn’t know. Funny how I hadn’t even thought about that the entire journey here.
“That’s okay,” Lumi smiled. I made out lines of concentration on her face but, ethereal as her features were, it was impossible to place her age, “Where would you like me to start?”
“I thought a sleeve maybe.”
She nodded, loaded her brush and got to work.
She painted with stars. At least that's how I saw it. It's how it felt on my skin, too. It didn't burn like how I imagined it might; Not even a tingle. It was electric, shuddering, sweet.
When I had studied the ink before she imprinted my skin, there was a depth so immense, so paradoxical it appeared as though the ink pots held within them the infinite. It didn't move like normal pigment either. This slipped across the skin, paying little attention to friction. It moved in any way she dreamed.
As I opened the chiming door to leave, she blew me a kiss.
"I have to seal it with a kiss," She said, "Or it might fly away."
That first time I got a spiralling whisker going from my elbow to my wrist. I twisted my arm in the glow of the laundromat that evening as I studied the elegance and depth of the strokes. All the while I wondered if I looked away, would it peel itself off and glide back out into the night?
“That’s Lumi’s work, isn’t it?”
I looked up from my waking dream to see another foreigner. He was tall, handsome in that dishevelled way, rumpled hair and skin unused to holding its fresh tan.
“Are you thinking of getting more done?” He asked.
I hadn’t considered that blissed-out as I was with what I got. But it wouldn’t hurt to be greedy.
“I’d get my whole body done if I could,” My eyes had drifted back to my arm.
“Why don’t you?”
“I don't have the money for it.”
A shrug, “I’ve heard Lumi’s looking for a canvas to experiment on.”
I hadn't paid earlier, had I? Lumi had said not to bother since she’d done her own thing.
So I went back to her studio in sepia the next day and asked her to paint on me whatever she wanted, that I could be her canvas. So she finished my sleeve. I returned every day even when my skin was healing. I would hang around her studio, watching her work on her actual clients, watching the grace of her strokes.
Lumi loaded brushes instead of using one of those gun-like machines. How it held the pigment, I could never work out. But it did and it applied its stain with more depth and tangibility than I'd ever seen on skin inked by anyone else. The ink appeared as both part of the body and separate —as though it belonged to the rest of the universe, as though it could slip off and soar away. When she marked someone with it, it never faded even after the skin had healed. It appeared as fresh as the day the mark had been made. It must have had something to do with the pigment she used.
It was just as likely it had something to do with her.
Sometimes I would bump into the other foreigner at the laundromat, just outside the motel or, as was the case this time, at the diner.
I sipped on a black filter coffee while the neon glow of the sign outside splintered the ink spread across my palm, blooming it with an extra dimension.
“Is that a new one?” The other foreigner’s voice woke me from my daze.
Forcing my gaze from my palm, I offered him the bench opposite and said “Nope, this is a couple weeks old now.”
“It's healed nicely.”
“They always do.”
I pulled up my shirt sleeve and twisted my arm. A smile played on my face as his eyes lit up.
“That’s gorgeous,” He said.
In a flash of mischief, I downed my coffee and led him outside to the car park. The light from the diner's sign would show it off best.
In the sky were pinpricks. On the horizon was the hyperrealism of Las Vegas. But neither of those held to the masterpiece on my skin. I turned and pulled up my top enough to show him my lower back.
"Wow," He breathed.
I glanced behind at him and grinned.
"Do you know what it'll be when it's finished?"
"Lumi said it'll be a dragon," I turned and showed him the beginnings of streaks across my stomach and hip, "See, it's holding some sort of orb."
"Could be a planet."
I stepped fully into the sign’s glow and closer to him. An image formed in my mind of his hand going to my waist. Hot skin; The cold of his wedding band. His hand slid and found the brushstrokes. His fingers played with them and, intertwined with the threads, he plucked celestial music.
A blush burned me. I stepped back.
"I wonder how she does it," He hadn't noticed my invasive thoughts or my hot cheeks. He was still staring down at my stomach and so was I.
"I don't know but she's amazing," I managed.
"I've heard she puts herself into every piece."
"She's planning on covering my entire body."
"Then she'll have to put her whole self in you. That's what they say an artist does with a masterpiece."
The next day, I asked Lumi to ink my hair. She took it from a dusty yellow (like the sands outside) to deep and black and made of stars.
I looked into the mirror after and studied the way my hair flowed as it moved, and how it drew the light to its singularity. So transfixed was I that I hardly noticed how Lumi's hair fell on her shoulders, lifeless and drab.
That night I dreamed of Lumi painting me with spirals. She sighed and told me she would need to fetch more ink.
It was afternoon some days later when I bumped into the other foreigner on my way back to the motel. I had been turning over how, as I was watching Lumi ink another client, I noticed the ink on her neck and arms had retreated showing dull and sallow skin.
But when I met the other foreigner in the motel car park, I remembered all the ways I had been thinking about him in the evenings, how I had wanted to show off my latest ink and examine his reaction. So I invited him up to my room with the promise of mid-shelf bourbon.
Once upstairs, I shrugged the shoulder of my shirt off to reveal the beginnings of the dragon's head.
"Did it hurt?" He asked.
I pursed my lips in thought as I turned and admired the ink in the mirror, "Not really."
"It's stunning on you."
My eyes didn't leave my shoulder.
"Breathtaking," He said.
I pulled my gaze to him.
"You're a far better canvas than I am," He said.
"Oh, come on."
"It's true," His chuckle was light and soft as he held out his inner wrist, "Here, look. I got one, too." Upon it was a koi carp made of stars.
"It's beautiful," I said and I meant it. There was a grace to its simplicity, the way there is with constellations in the sky. I asked mindlessly, "Did it hurt getting it there?"
Another laugh —I found myself savouring the timbre of his laugh later that night. "I hardly remember. It was a while ago now. I was in such a state. I'd spent god knows how long on the strip, stumbling from casino to casino— I was on my stag do by the way. I lost a bet to the lads and, well, I woke up with this," He rotated his wrist just enough for the carp to catch the light that streamed in through the window, and I could swear its tail oscillated as dust motes rained down on it.
"I came back. I had to. Even after the ceremony, I left everything and came back," He said, "I don't want to say I became obsessed but— There're nights where all I do is stare at it. Sometimes it looks as though it‘s wriggling around my arm. Like, properly swimming. And it could just swim right off and back into the night sky."
What else could I say other than, "It's beautiful."
"Work like this doesn't belong on someone like me but— As I said, you're a better fit for her genius."
So intently did I stare at the star-made koi that his other hand on my waist startled me with its heat. Looking up at his lips, I found them parted. A rush of stars, it was dizzying; Our lips nearly met.
It occurred to me that the dragon wasn’t finished yet.
I pulled away. It was difficult, pulling away, when there was such a gravitational force.
"I'm sorry," My voice was small. I let out a breath to steady myself and looked from his mouth to his eyes. They were deep. Yes, deep. But there wasn't that same infinite depth as was held within Lumi's ink of stars.
"You can't do this," He said for me.
I nodded, "I'm sorry."
He smiled and I found myself asking how he understood.
"You love her," He said.
How did he know something I didn’t?
"I don’t know," I said.
"It's not that—”
I wanted to tell him that the dragon wasn’t finished yet but he stopped me with a thumb to my lips and his smile full and gentle, "It's okay. Look. I understand; I am but a mere mortal."
When I went to Lumi's studio the next morning, the sign on the door read closed. My breath stopped; She'd told me she could finally finish the dragon this session. I peered in through dust-caked windows and saw her form sunk in the chair.
She lifted her head and hailed me inside.
"Are you alright?" I asked as I stepped through the chiming door.
She was so small, as though she would scatter like sand in the desert breeze. "A little worn out. That's all."
"We can finish the dragon today, right?"
Lumi eyed me dully, "It will take a lot."
"We're almost done though."
"You sure you're okay?"
"It'll take a long time. A lot of work. A lot of ink. More than I have."
"But you can do it?"
A half smile, "If you're ready."
"I'm ready," I nodded, willing her to nod with me. I didn't care if I had to convince her, I was that hungry to taste her ink upon my skin.
"I mean it's— It'll take a lot."
I set myself face down on the chair and drifted off into dreams of ink and stars. I dreamed of Lumi, too. She painted me in her studio with primordial brushwork.
"You're a masterpiece," She said as her cold fingers traced where the dragon's body spiralled across my spine. My skin tingled with impatience.
I realised then that it wasn't she who I loved. It wasn't love that I felt either, but something else.
Lumi leaned over —her quiet breath on the nape of my neck— and whispered, "Seal it with a kiss."
And before her lips touched my skin, she was sand in the breeze.
It was dark when I next awoke. Lumi wasn't there so I got up from the ground and walked into the night. The laundromat across the street wasn't there either. Nor was the dream of Las Vegas on the horizon. The pinpricks in the sky had gone, too.
I stripped off and turned to behold my inked body under the studio sign's light but, when I turned, it was no longer there.
I ran down the sand-flooded street to where the diner should have been. I stopped, distracted by the brilliance of my completed self. I contorted my limbs and beheld the way, in the lack of artificial and celestial light, my skin breathed stars.
The dragon upon me writhed exquisitely sending electricity through my body. I danced in the deep, black desert night to the soundtrack of shifting sands.
The dragon's whiskers slid off my arm.
A shudder ran through me and the hair on my neck stood as I realised what the dragon hoped to do. It was going to leave.
"Seal it with a kiss," I gasped.
I stumbled through black sands, passing cars that were no longer there. I had to find him before the dragon tore itself from my shaking body; I had to seal it with a kiss. The motel— Perhaps he was there even if the building stood there no longer.
As the wind picked up and sand buffeted me, the dragon lifted its head. I shivered in agony as I turned and met its eyes. Oh, how exquisite this dragon was; I could not let it leave me.
I pushed myself through the storm, going nowhere. Bit by bit, the dragon peeled itself from me. It slithered around my scrabbling form. I collapsed and clawed at my skin, hopelessly clinging to brushstrokes only for them to slip through my fingers.
I screamed for it to stay.
With a flourish of its tail, the dragon ascended. I knelt there in the sand watching as it painted the blank sky with its ink made of stars, filling the universe.
My voice had left me so I sobbed mutely until my tears left me, too.
I shivered alone in my world of infinite sands while the night sky mocked me with its majesty. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters