(I’m feeling energetic and adventurous for both the weekend and for the newly minted summer, so here, say I, is a most short tale of the fantastical persuasion. Tattoos, rejuvenation and dogs follow. Put it up on your phone or tablet, wander outside, and have yourself a picnic of words!)
Kalesh was somewhat out of his element here. The cool tiles beneath his feet were the closest he had come to home in months, a relief from the pungent, sticky weather waiting to clobber the first stride out the door. Still, it seemed a welcome oppression compared to the utter silence of this room. Stillness was an art he had never perfected and never wished to learn.
Back home, in the well-preserved confines of his native lands, there was never a chance for silence. Everything was about the people—they flooded the air with smells, packed broad streets, filled waves with cobbled ships, ate the trees which hemmed them in, and spat out the ringing tunes of war. Silence, for them, was the demesne of death, and Kalesh’s people spent their whole lives wielding or fleeing from that. They had no interest in rooming with it.
He breathed in the air of Ha Tram Kas. Every now and then, he thought he could still hear it: the steady trickle of droplets that were his life, dribbling out onto the cobbles. Months ago, it had almost brought his steady descent into death’s realm. Morning after morning, he still woke with the phantom pains sorry men said would haunt him until that final day.
Kalesh was missing an arm. It was the final memento of a warlord’s life—a mockery of the path he had always taken to be the only truth. After he had refused to die, his lord had thanked him for his service, and kindly let him go. There was no need for a one-armed warrior in his world.
The tap, tap, tap of a bamboo stick roused him.
A dozen other heads did not so much as lift. They were quiet, complacent—trained in a different path. At their fore, the room’s focus swished her stick around, but remained otherwise jovial, focused, but serene. Everyone here awaited her attentions. Though Kalesh had but limited practice with the language, he had picked up enough to know: not all had come for spiritual reasons; for some, this was nothing more than an expression of art, but all gave the act a spiritual reverence. Their focus was a monk, though as far from one as Kalesh had ever known.
She was young, and fit, and had she been born over the mountains, her parents would have been working ever so hard to see she kept the bloodline going. Here, that did not even seem to enter into consideration.
The bamboo stick rose and fell in fluid motions, dotting skin wherever it dipped. Word on the street was that it was an act of unity between man and earth—that each drop was distilled from some piece of nature, and that by its embrace and a bit of magical aid from the crafter, man was brought closer to nature. Depending on whom he asked, that took the form of protection from violence or spirits, good luck, or healing. It was the latter which caught his interest.
It had also been something Kalesh dismissed as rank superstition, not so long before. A chance meeting with a traveler in the mountains between worlds had changed all that. At the time, months spent wandering wherever his feet carried him meant Kalesh had been down to his last coins and looking for a proper place to drink even those away. Followed by a rock from which to throw himself.
The traveler had stopped him. Literally held him down and forced him to see reason.
“Life takes many forms,” that man had said. “This is not one.”
The man had been covered head to toe in tattoos, all black and white, lending him a balanced, if terrifying complexion that seemed suitably inhuman. He wore no armor, though an axe dangled from his hip.
“I, too, am a soldier. Battles bled me. I have wept with fear at the darkest of thoughts.” His back, Kalesh was shown, was little more than a rictus of scars. By all accounts, he should hardly have been able to walk, let alone clobber him. “Since I took this ink upon my flesh, I have not bled. I have not known a blade’s weight. I am safe as a man can be, led to a path devoid of death.”
It took some time to make a pattern of the scars, but as he had sobered up, Kalesh became aware of the colors linking them, ink mingling with pink flesh to form a bizarre geometric pattern that shifted with each crease of the traveler’s skin. It was like a series of round circles each within the other, all tipped by eight distinct spokes. It dazzled.
“Not all paths are ended by blood. Ha Tram Kas reveals this.”
The man’s words had led him to this temple, which, as it turned out, was a place of pilgrimage in Tajalik—the land which he now walked. Unlike the array of needles and brands which accompanied the art in his own land, Kalesh felt scandalized by the wooden stick the monk waved around here. It seemed so…primitive. Yet if it would bring him bring him back to his calling, if something in the inks or the process could make him the man he had used to be, Kalesh would put up with anything these backward savages could muster.
His head jerked at the bumbling of his name. The person who had knelt beside the monk a moment ago was shuffling out a back way, eyes forward, not meandering. Many had made the point clear to Kalesh: ritual was strong here. One did not look back when the art was done, for in the art was transcendence. A path forward. To look back was to insult the art, the artist, and cling to the past at a time when they were supposed to be reveling in change.
Somewhat nervously, but not unsteadily—he had months of practice at moving now without the extra limb—Kalesh inched forward across the floor. As he looked across the sea of souls between him and the monk, he felt a moment’s hesitation. Sweat actually tickled the back of his neck. He cursed himself for a fool, to come so far only to doubt now. No one looked up. No one examined the foreigner in a strange land. By all reason, he should feel honored this temple was giving him the opportunity to participate in something so far beyond his ken.
The monk was steady at his approach. She smiled absently and extended a hand, though not to shake.
“Kalesha ka?” She repeated. “Khun ca nang kab pohm wela hurushimi?”
As he had seen countless others do before him, day after day, Kalesh took this opportunity to touch his head to the floor two times, grunting only softly at the effort involved. It was supposed to be a moment of prayer and final contemplation. The woman watched it all.
When he was on steady feet again, he met that gaze and inclined his head.
He started, thought better of it, and bulled forward in the woman’s native tongue. The smile widened slightly as he did, until it touched her whole face. Kalesh blushed at that, for he could feel the laughter behind it. This was a fool’s idea.
The woman’s voice switched tack with seeming ease. “Would sit with me, friend?” She asked in his tongue. Startled, Kalesh was certain he gawked, but if the woman noticed, she had the grace to say nothing. The monk gestured to the pillowed step settled beside her bare knees and he, swallowing the last of his doubts, obliged. Kalesh leaned over, back facing the monk, and waited for the bamboo stick to puncture his skin.
Carefully, she pulled the tunic from his back. Then she unhooked his belt and shimmied it down his waist just so. He started to stir with offense at the latter, but either sensing this, or having no need of further descent, the woman ceased the effort. Then her hands floated above him by mere inches—enough to warm, but not close enough to make any appreciable impact on his skin. Kalesh shuffled, restless, uncertain of the purpose of this.
“Bare,” the monk observed. “Tell, what bring you Ha Tram Kas?”
For a moment, he weighed the virtues of lying. His eyes flicked down and settled on his missing forearm, and he reckoned there wasn’t much point.
“I have spent…months with this wound,” he said haltingly, raising his useless limb for emphasis. “I have been told Ha Tram Kas holds the means for revival. Without my hand, I am nothing. A warrior with no weapon to wield. I would have you work your magic, to make me whole.”
The hands moving up his back stilled, hovering. “We are no doctors,” the monk observed.
“I met a man.” He swallowed. “On the road. He told me—he said that he had been wounded, before. That he too had thought that he would die, but Ha Tram Kas helped him overcome. He showed me a marvelous tattoo—”
The woman nodded and her hands fell away.
“Turn so shoulder toward me,” she said. He started to turn his good arm that way, but she shook her head and tapped the other. “Turn.” So he turned, letting his arm hang pointlessly at his side. Tiles dug into him. It made him shiver.
Unlike in his own nation, Kalesh had no control here. There, a man pointed and the artist obeyed. Here, the pilgrims had no means to choose their tattoo’s design or location. It was implied, well before they had ever been allowed to step into the temple, that as this act had no cost, the sole burden upon them was to release the notion that they had control.
When the bamboo stick hissed, Kalesh flinched despite himself. He followed its arc, like a scholar’s quill, as it flicked across his arm. Blood welled at its passing and a strange warmth flushed beneath the thin wound. After each passing, it dipped into a darkening bowl of translucent liquid, then intova separate bowl filled with the actual ink. It had a slightly green tint to it, that ink, putting him in mind of grass waving beneath the spring sun.
In one of the local bars, he had heard that each monk made their own blend of ink. What exactly they used was thus a matter of some conjecture. Some spoke of nuts or berries. Others referenced oils and even venom. All had spoken of it like a stream, though, gently pressed into selected ridges of the flesh. Some surprise came, then, when he saw the monk’s bamboo stick sprouted a grooved metal spike at its end, more accustomed to a stiletto than a workshop.
When he had first arrived, Kalesh had been instructed to bring an offering of incense and local flowers—purple, and rather fragrant themselves. He smelled the former, cinnamon sweet, as the blade whisked lines down his shoulder. He was dizzy by this point, but still had the sense of mind to wonder when the monk had time to retrieve his offering.
The stick punctured him, but never delved too deep. It was exact in its measurements, and though it was difficult to make out through the initial press of blood, Kalesh watched as a dual swirl of infinities began to take on a blade-like shape. At the end of every flourish, the stick tapped the right side of his back, as if to claim his attention.
The monk worked quickly, without pause. She had been doing this for hours, but she showed no sign of fatigue. Even concealed as her lips were behind a cloth façade, Kalesh realized she was lovely, though not in any traditional sense. It was something in the ease she exuded.
She whispered something as the clack of the stick on the cobbles announced its journey’s completion. Kalesh tried to catch a proper look at the end result, but she had leaned over him, and with a gentle effort, blew on the settling ink. Already it dyed the skin. As it healed, he knew, it would overtake the body’s natural knitting.
Out of habit, he flexed his nonexistent hand, but felt nothing answer him. It was impossible to keep the disappointment at bay. In truth, he hadn’t known what to expect.
Desperation made strange dens in the mind’s eye.
“I have settled spirit in this,” the monk said, after. She settled back on her haunches and stretched—the most human gesture he had seen her make over hours of labor. “In time you forget.”
He should have risen and made himself scarce, but in this moment, Kalesh could not work up the effort for ritual. He swallowed hard, staring.
“Does something confuse, friend?”
There was no bile in the asking.
Kalesh replied, “I expected the ghost might leave me. Or my hand might…” He breathed hard with exhaustion. “I do not know what I expected.”
Gentle fingers settled against his elbow, stirring a different sort of warmth. This, too, was something he had not felt in many long moons.
“It is a making thing. All life is making. Is possibility. You must see.”
“And the healing?”
“Like ink,” she said. “It stirs within.”
There was no religious ecstasy, no all-consuming trance. He rolled to his feet, tugging up the bundle his shirt had made while craning to study his tattoo. It was something he had seen etched into a road outside a burned village, not far from this place. When he had inquired, a merchant had told him it was meant to be a talisman against “the black magic of the soul.”
It was not a soldier’s purview to understand. Just now, though, he thought he grasped the meaning. Overhead, the temple’s polished stones yawned into the heat beyond. Nothing echoed. He looked skyward, closed his eyes, and put the stone firmly beneath his sole again.
(P.S. Happy Bring Your Dog To Work Day!)