Monday, February 4, 2013

Battle Scars

Continued from "Hiko's Apprentice"

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.

Hiko sits in the client’s chair and rolls up his khaki shorts above his knees.

“There boy. Put it just there. Outline first, shading last. Take your time.”

“What if I hurt you? What if I bugger it up and make a mistake.”

Hiko places a steady and confident hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“We all make mistakes. We all suffer our own wounds. As long as your mistakes are not made through carelessness or your wounds through vengefulness, both can be undone and healed.”

Colin does not disappoint. He reviews the sketch Hiko hands him, as the vibrating point of his tattoo gun forces a steady hand and his master becomes his client. Two intricate Kanji Japanese characters are etched into the old man’s thigh.

“What do they mean?”

Hiko wipes the newly finished wound and applies a Bettadine swab.

“That’s for me to know and you to discover.”

Silas Cherry received more than flak for his name when he first joined the Army. "Cherry" being the denomination of a new recruit. To tell the truth, he only joined to escape a domineering father and a mother who's soul purpose in life was to see him bound by an apron-donning wife and a white picket fence. He'd made the decision young, to never have children, not knowingly anyway. The world was quite fucked up enough thank you very much without adding to the population. He's seen children; too many children with sad eyes, thin bodies, emaciated, starving. He's seen children brandishing weapons, threatening and menacing. He's seen dead children used as IED's. He's seen children used, abused and growing old before their years. He's seen enough children in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq to make his mind up. He ain't having children. The Army is his family....or it was.

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.

Colin removes a needle from the autoclave and attaches it to the electrically powered instrument. He has  a palette of coloured inks but today, Cherry wants black. It lasts longer, doesn't bleed as much as the blues and greens. The artist sterilizes his client's arm with a swipe of alcohol as Cherry braces, barely an expression on his face just the slight flinch of a well hewn bicep. He's fit. About 6' 2" and even for a black man, his skin is pale and the patterns of the past still clear and beautiful. He's a coffee coloured soldier with a whiskey heart. All pretty and rock star on the outside, tough as old boots within. Little does the Tattooist know, his charge is at breaking point.

"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.

"It was 1330 and we finally rolled out of BSA-4 en route north toward Baghdad and our next destination, I was driving. We traveled through small villages where the villagers were coming out to the street to wave and give us thumbs up. It was kinda nice to know that our presence was appreciated. Hard to tell sometimes.  Fifteen clicks on the map and we set up BSA-5. Of all the desert in all the world, we pulled up in what was probably the only mud in the country. Bang slap in the middle of someone's farm. Cows all around us and the fucking stench of shit. A bucketload of barking mutts and chickens. All drowning the noise of fighting in the distance. 

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."

The girl's outline now taking shape, Col gently wipes the droplets of red, shining like rubies against his charge's smooth skin.

"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"  


  1. Haha! Nice try on the vet. Too many "Hollywood details," but nice try.

    I have trouble following your dialog. It's quite often hard to tell who is talking.

    Should that last bit be, "What was the Kanji I tattooed on your thigh?"

  2. I do like the meeting of cultures in a tats salon.