Rastaman gone astray, the devout artist had adopted flesh for his canvas. Everything about him was dark, the curl of his brows, and even his countenance when he eased back and stood, studying his handiwork.
The silent woman in the claw-toed tub sat leaning forward. The thick braid of her hair was twisted into a samurai’s knot. Like his hand, the bathwater was muddy with her blood and neat little slivers of her skin. The pattern three quarter ways carved into her back was Yggdrasil with gnarly roots coiling deep down into the core of the earth, knotty canopy cradling nine heavenly blossoms.
“What you crave,” he hummed along with the radio absently. “What makes a body move…?”
He twirled the scalpel between his sticky fingers. The floor boards creaked as he slowly left the center of the studio. He went to the far end. Something thin and metal clattered around inside a 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 shinier, sharper new blade.
“… electric marionette.”
He turned the volume all the way down. He went back to his subject, 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 salty-rimmed, whites bloodshot from failing as well as the sting of incense and 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. “Hurts, yeah?”
“Like a mother–”
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, reached up 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 with themselves, when every inch of her was smarting from the wounds weeping in those tricky spots they couldn’t reach. She could feel it on her back, the slowly clotting warmth that trickled out of her and slid down into the water.
“Yeah.” The bold glitter in her eyes wavered just a little but she nodded. “Absolutely. Finish it.”
He 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!” He barely managed to draw the blade away in time to avoid sinking in 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.”
Though unintimidated by the not-so-subtle threat, Ingrid faced forward. “Oh, so sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” she sighed. “Getting a little antsy now, you know?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled grudgingly then amended, “no, you can’t see it until I’m done. You’ll freak out. Probably never let me finish.”
“How long is it going to take to heal?”
Tobias looked up sharply. “Isn’t that something you should have asked before I started cutting into you?”
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.
Ingrid stretched one arm backward, twitchy fingers silently demanding. The dark one leaned forward obediently let her filch the spliff from between his lips. Hell, who was he to quibble if this was what it would 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 Literature class would turn out like this. Growing dreads and… all this.”
The blade wobbled, slid in quite a bit deeper than he intended. “Sorry,” he muttered when she sucked in a pained breath. “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 thirteen year-olds.
“Sorry,” he mumbled again.
She casually flicked ash away from the tip of the joint before putting it out in the water. She let the soggy butt fall to the ground beside them.
“It will be beautiful, won’t it?”
“Yes ma’am.” Tobias assured meekly, hiding his tiny grin.
“Very good,” she sighed. “Carry on, then.”
She tilted forward and waited for him to begin cutting again.