Under Hiko’s tutelage, our student progressed. Already with an eye for detail and the creative, Col sketched madly in his little Moleskin, practiced long on pig skins, before Hiko allowed him to tattoo a small area on his own thigh.
It's his second tour in Iraq as an E5 with A-Company, after a stint in Afghanistan and being here among the heathens during the first Gulf War. That one was worth the fight. This one? Just treading water. He knows when they leave nothing will have changed but now, he's a career soldier, it's what he does; what he's only ever known to do. Today's mission, not much different to any other as they roll out of BSA-4 en rout towards Baghdad through small villages filled with waving locals, thumbs up and smiling. It felt good although he is always suspicious of an over exuberant welcome.
"So what's it to be today Sarn?"
The question uttered more as a colloquial exchange between friends than a mark of respect. Cherry's been in as long as Col's been tattooing his proverbial ass. Hiko's Ink Shop is the first place he visits after each deployment. This is his 13th tattoo at the hands of Weckwerth and it doesn't hurt half as much as the bullet scar Colin is about to surround with ink.
"A zombie man. Right around that scar. Remind me that I'm still alive and kickin'. I ain't ready for the walkin' dead. Wisdom of the wounded right?"
Col nods. He loves this guy's stories although they make him feel a little guilty that he's never had the urge to defend home and country. He inks a lot of vets, they're good business but usually the tats are boring, unit insignias or 'Semper Fidelis". They come back patriotic and want eagles and flags. A dollar for every time he's drawn one of those and he'd retire a wealthy man.
"Zombie? You sure? A zombie?"
The soldier nods. Not usually one for talking other than distracting himself while the tattoist works his magic.
"You'd better take a look at some of these. Kinda have an interest in that particular genre. Tell me if there's anything you like."
Cherry flips through the Moleskin drawings. They're fantastic, this guy has a unique style.
"Ok Inkman, this one..."
He points to a woman, awesomely sketched like a Barbie Doll on the page, brains oozing from her ears but her breasts intact, voluptuous and inviting.
"Only bigger tits and a tighter waist. She's the kind of babe I'd crawl out of the grave for. And stick a rooster on there somewhere. Maybe she can be holding a rooster."
Col laughs, "You're kidding? You want Barbie holding a chicken?"
The men share a smile and the buzz of the needle reminds Cherry to steele himself as he tells Col why he chose a Zombie for his latest mark.
After about three hours, I was woken by the sound of a rooster crowing. Could have been the explosions in the distance that woke him up at night, or just us setting up. Something had screwed up his clock.
Got to the stage where I couldn't sleep and was about to put a bullet down his 'cockadoodle' throat until he was drowned out by the dawn chorus of dogs, and sheep, and donkeys. Fuckin' worst night's sleep ever. That and the air seeping out of my pillow, I decided to go sleep in the truck."
"Keep going....." he urges. For as long as his client is retelling the tale, he can focus on the outline.
"We rolled out burning out headlights. It was dark but hot as hell. I questioned the Staff Sgt and apparently this was supposed to lead the insurgents in Al Kut into thinking we were leaving. I'm leaning out of the window, elbow resting on the door and shots rang out. Tracers were whizzing past us in both directions like laser beams. Then I felt the sting. Burned like mad and I could see smoke wafting off my shirt. I'm still driving mind.
I turned to Wilson next to me who's trying to work out where the shots are coming from.
“Hey! I just got shot. Muthafucka!” Someone behind me said, “Are you dead?”
I said, “No” and they said, “Well, wrap that shit up.”
So, still driving, Wilson grabbed a bandage out of the First Aid kit at my feet and wrapped it around my arm."
The tattooist takes a break.
"Shit man? You drove after you got shot?"
"Yeh, I had my left arm on the wheel and Wilson's leaning over me like he's gonna give me a blow job but binds that sucker tight. Tourniquet like."
Col wipes the tip of the needle and the blood from Cherry's arm. "You wanna keep going?"
"Sure...ain't like it's a full sleeve."
"Anyway," unfazed he continues, oblivious to the pain. The memory is pain in itself, the prick of a tattoo needle merely a reminder.
" I was a bit dizzy then half-mile up the road all hell broke loose. We hit an IED and our vehicle rolled over. I hit the roof on the inside. Don't remember much after that. Apparently my heart stopped and they brought me back with the paddles. Just like in the movies. I remember I was completely numb and they paddled me and it was like going from being asleep to falling off the bed into a tub of ice water. Man I woke up in a hurry. Blood everywhere and all I could think about was a fuckin' chicken and getting laid. Thought my number was up for sure."
Cherry stops talking.
"Enough?" Asks the artist.
"I was in the hospital for months after that. Not just the wound but an infection, that's why the scar's so big. That's why I want the zombie girl and a friggin chicken. I was dead, and I came back. I was dead and that's why I ain't goin' back."
It's been over an hour and Col's work is almost done.
"Well you're a lucky man Cherry, lucky man indeed. Don't want to be tattooing around any more bullet holes OK?"
Silas stands and checks out the ink.
"No fear of that man. I'm out. Hot ain't she?" He smiles into the mirror.
"Did a good job Col. Love your work. You know? I think I'm done with the Army. It was a close shave and ..."
The soldier's voice trails as he holds back reluctant tears.
"I was lucky man....three tours...shot twice...and for what? Nothin's gonna change. We'll leave and shit'll hit the fan as sure as hell. War is hell. I should have gotten married, had kids, settled down. Instead, I wasted time on a battlefield that can't be beat. Against an enemy that won't give up. With friends who are long gone. Good men and women who come home in flag covered boxes. I was lucky. Way lucky. And what I got to show for it? Barbie and a rooster. Then, I wanna know that I made it. I died and came back."
He reaches into the back pocket of his too baggy jeans, "How much man?"
"Nah. This one's for free."
As his client leaves and closes the archaic door behind him, Hiko emerges from the back room.
"What was the Kanji you tattooed on my thigh?"
Colin has no idea until the old man retreats, whispering: Wounds and wisdom."
Posted for the River of Mnemosyne Challenge -"An Aggressive Return"