The Tattooist’s Daughter

By Taylor Brown


Annie looked at the dime-sized spot of crimson fluid left at the bottom of her mother’s glass.  Her opportunity.

"That Benson boy has been accepted to medical school," her mother said. "You two used to be so cute together." She paused here as if to await confirmation.

Instead Annie raised her glass and polished off her last inch of wine. She had to catch up.

Her mother rubbed one finger along the rim, thin-edged as a curved knife beneath her fingerprint. Her face blank. "So cute together," she said again. "Of course, who knows what he would think of you"—her eyes drifted to Annie's sleeveless top and exposed arms—"what he would think of you now."

Annie scooped her palm underneath the crystal sphere-shape of her mother's glass, taking the stem between the webbing of her middle fingers. She did the same to her own glass and stood. "More wine?" she asked, smiling. A plot, inchoate, hummed darkly in her temples.

"There's a merlot in the top right corner of the wine rack."

"You don't want to finish the Cardinal Zin?"

"I think we've had about enough of that, don't you?"

"There's half a bottle left."

"Be a sweetie and open the merlot, please."

"Yes, mother."

On the way into town, Annie had swung by the grocery store to buy a homecoming gift, a bottle of wine. If she drank wine in the city, she drank red or white, though she stuck mainly to a marquee concoction of her own design: Jack Rabbit Slim. Jack Daniel's, diet cola, and a dash of white powder. Sometimes the real thing, sometimes not. She had an image to uphold, after all. A business.

But she was coming home and that meant wine. At the grocery store, she'd perused the long shelf of bottles, judging labels one against another. Annie loved the labels, how much art and artifice could be condensed into a 5x7 rectangle of paper. How much identity. The Cardinal Zin bottle offered a manic-sketched debauchee in sacerdotal vestments. His mustaches were straight-inked like Salvador Dali with no playful upturn. Annie had known her mother would hate the bottle. Sacrilege. She'd bought it.

Now she saw it sitting on the kitchen counter alongside the cutting board and the hardening hunk of uncut cheese. She placed the glasses on the counter and thumbed the cork deeper into the zinfandel bottle. When she did, the topless mermaid on the underbelly of her forearm writhed suggestively. The Cardinal stared back at this half naked specimen lusty-eyed, a kindred djinn of some kind trapped in one dimension just like the tattoo he watched.

"You know," said her mother over the back of the couch, "when you first got here I thought you were wearing long sleeves."

Annie moved Cardinal Zin into the shadows against the wall and slid the bottle of merlot her mother had requested from the rack. "That's what it's called , Mom. A sleeve."

"In this town we call it trash."

Annie looked over her shoulder and saw her mother sitting primly cross-legged on the couch, her back to her, her face turned in profile to speak better behind her. Her Gucci slipper, gold-buckled, hung expertly from the end of one perfect red-painted big toe. She was not watching Annie. Her head couldn't turn that far around, Annie told herself. Though she didn't put much past the woman.

Annie had her own vices, devices. She reached into her clutch on the counter and removed a caramel-colored pill bottle. The script read: XANAX. Careful not to rattle the pills, Annie removed a benign-looking white tablet. Mother's little helper, she thought. That's what the Rolling Stones had called it, their tribute to suburban anti-anxiety prescriptions. She placed the tablet underneath the heavy glass base and worked the bottle like you would a mortar and pestle, grinding the pill to a white dust on the countertop. She was practiced in this art.

She uncorked the merlot and sloshed their glasses full, took a big pinch of the white powder between her dark-painted fingers and watched the stuff dissolve into the purple elixir of her mother's glass. The sight swelled inside her, thrilling, like a Shakespearian lady poisoning the Queen's chalice, and yet Annie did this for both their goods. Hoping her mother's armor of intolerance, hard-clutched around her as firmly as her bangles and jewelry of gold and chrome, would melt to something liquid, workable. Open to coaxing, persuasion. Shapes formed between them heretofore unknown.

Annie held the glasses underneath her palms again, split-fingered, and walked carefully into the sitting room, eschewing her normal slink for a carriage supremely lady-like, book-balanced, so as not to spill on the rich white silk of the couch or sitting chair. She maneuvered around the piano, sleek and black, on which she could still play Pachelbel's Canon in D Major without the slightest slip of key. No one at the tattoo parlor knew that.

She handed her mother her glass and watched her eye the mermaid tattoo. Her mother drank a sip of the spiked merlot. "Why a mermaid?" she asked, nodding toward Annie's arm.

Annie shrugged. "No reason," she said. The words gargled through a mouthful of wine.

"No reason? I should think a person getting an indelible image imprinted underneath their skin should do so with some smidgen of reason, however specious."

In fact, Annie had reserved that white section of uninked skin for months, deciding what image suited it best. She'd wanted something that spoke to her origins, her arrived state. Then one Saturday, swaddled in a blanket too hungover to move, she'd stumbled onto the Disney channel and watched The Little Mermaid. A favorite girlhood movie of hers, Ariel so white-fleshed and innocent, darting through Neptune's depths, and yet woman-bodied even then, perky-breasted and red-haired.

"I wanted something that represented me."

Her mother set the circular base of her glass on the point of her knee, balancing the thin stem between manicured fingers. "You feel represented by a beast of nautical mythology with pointy breasts and a fish-scaled vagina?"

Annie looked at her mother with her tight-tucked jawline, her Yurman necklace in silver and gold inlay perched on her tendoned neck. The crow's feet smoothed from her eyes. Years and experience undone. Her cheeks only slightly reddened from so much wine. This woman adorned in trappings that belied her origins, bare foot in a one-room shack on the Louisiana bayou, her father a shrimper. No gentleman, no ladies in that place of dirt and roaches and sweat.

Annie took a deep breath. Her power was slipping. She grasped for a hold. "I'm pregnant," she blurted.

Her mother's eyes snapped wide. Tiny red branches of capillaries fractured the whites. For an instant Annie saw in those black pupils the fear that such a grand-babe would be birthed ink-skinned, marked somehow by the prenatal sins of her mother.

Annie looked down at the mermaid's eyes. So bright. Her body had always been to her a thing bold and strong, fearless, the depths of her given rise in script and symbol. Her arms, her chest, the mythology of her soul inked in red and green and black: mermaids and cherry blossoms, jack rabbits and blood-red lotuses. A treasure map inked through sea-monstrous waters and troll bridges. X marks the spot. Her heart. This cartographic skin art had graced the pages of Prick Magazine, had put her tattoo studio on the industry map. Always these graphics had adorned her like something ironclad, strong and individualistic and without regret. Leave it to her mother to slip poison into the dye, to make them burn on her skin like the blush of humiliation. Like she'd brought something to light better left hidden, shadowed, denied.

Her mother cleared her throat. "You do know who the father is, I hope?"

"Yes, ma'am. One of my employees."

"Which one?"

"His name is Boy Sunday. He's my best artist."

Her mother nodded, her range of motion perhaps deeper than normal, the medicine going to work. "I should hope so," she said. Then, beyond all Annie's expectations, her mother smiled. Lines creased her face, her eyes, and lipstick clung to the whites of her teeth like a sated vampire.

Annie raised her wine, triumphant. Her mother lunged toward her and blocked the mouth of the glass with a flat, jeweled hand. "You can't be drinking that, Annie Christianson. Not with my grandchild in you."

Annie lowered the glass. "Oh," she said. "Right."

Her mother shook her head back and forth, her eyes closed. "The first trimester," she said. "It's the most important."

Annie placed her glass back on the marble coffee table.

"Good girl," said her mother. Then she gave her knee a slap. "But listen," she said, "we do need to celebrate. You are keeping the baby, aren't you?"

Annie nodded.

Her mother wiggled her tongue against the inside of her lip and nodded. "Let's go get us a couple of ice cream sundaes."

Her eyes were sparkling.

Annie felt something strange in her chest. Something forgotten. She felt it well up inside her like a song.

"Seriously?" she said.

Her mother nodded some more.

"But it's storming outside."

"Damn the weather." Her mother bolted upright and tottered, surveying the room squint-eyed. "My keys," she said.

"We'll go in my car," said Annie. "If I got to be sober I might as well drive."

They dashed to Annie's car through driving rain that silvered in the garage lights. One inside, she hit the red button that said START.

"Where's the key?" asked her mother.

"You don't need one. It'll start as long as you've got this fob within a few feet of the car."

"Shit that's fancy," said her mother. Annie could not remember having ever heard her mother swear.

There was an old-school ice cream parlor several blocks away. Annie drove toward it on the slick black streets, dodging fallen branches that reared out of the darkness beyond the long racy hood of the sports car. The windows of the place were white with light, chrome trim sparkling behind them. Pimply boys sulked behind the counter in paper hats and aprons. Annie felt their eyes crawl her skin when she walked inside, reading the signs and wonders and contours that defined her. They straightened. Annie felt the old empowerment returning, the wonder, and when their eyes climbed all the way to her own they looked away, awestruck, wiping the sparkling countertop with their rags. It didn't hurt that she was pretty.

Her mother sat her purse on the counter. "I would like an ice cream cone, French vanilla."

"Single scoop?" asked the boy.

She lowered her head to him, a sly grin on her face.

"Double," she said.

"I thought you were getting a sundae, mother."

"Nope. French vanilla is all I need."

Annie looked at the glass window that divided her from the many-colored buckets of swirled ice cream, the toppings. She looked at the nearest server. "Didn't you use to be able to do your own toppings here?"

He nodded hurriedly. "I heard it used to be like that. Apparently people was going overboard, cutting into profit margins and all."

"Is your manager here?"

"No ma'am. But I'd be happy to get you whatever you'd like."

"Would you let me make my own sundae?"

The boy looked at his compatriot, then the mean weather outside. "I guess it couldn't hurt," he said. Annie hopped onto the counter and spun around on her butt until her long legs reached the employee side.

"Why Annie…" said her mother. Then she tapped her finger on the nearest boys shoulder and leaned toward his ear, conspiratorial. "She always was wild," she told him.

Annie started with two snow-white scoops of regular vanilla, perfectly round. Then she moved expertly down the line of toppings and syrups, her hands working the ladles and serving spoons with practiced deftness, cross-lacing creamy hills with caramel and chocolate ribbons, rocking the surface with black crags of broken cookie, confetting hilltops with party-colored sprinkles. Once she looked up and saw her mother watching wide-eyed, slack-jawed, a dim light of understanding in her look. "She used to do this as a child," she told the boy at the register. "She'd spend ten minutes decorating her sundae and twenty minutes eating it. She wouldn't eat it plain."

When Annie finished she sat cross-legged on the stainless countertop and ate her sundae with an extra long spoon. Her mother sat on a stool. The boys tried to busy themselves with cleanup, but not a single crumb marred the glance of light off the steel lip of the toppings line. Annie took little snippets from the hillsides, deconstructing her design by slight degrees. Outside their little parlor, the night was dark, but moments of lightning matched the brilliance of the sky to that of their well-lighted place.

By the time they got back in the car, Annie saw her mother's head lolling slightly with the wine, the medicine, the French vanilla ice cream. A queer feeling turned over in her stomach. Guilt. Her mother reached over and pressed the tab of her finger into the underbelly of Annie's arm, the mermaid.

"You used to love the mermaid in that little Disney movie, remember that?"

"I do. I do remember that."

Her mother kept her finger pressed there into her arm, her weight shifting toward Annie, her posture wilting with exhaustion. When she parted her lips to speak, Annie could hear the dry smack of her tongue and gums, cottonmouth they called it, and her words came in a low, intimate slur: "Do you want a boy or a girl, Annie?"

Annie felt her eyes welling, her vision matching the blurred world beyond the windshield. She took a long moment to decide what to say.

"I want a daughter," she said.

When she looked at her mother, her eyes had closed, her mouth mashed slackly against the bolster of the leather seat. She seemed to nod so slowly Annie did not know whether she nodded at all.

That night Annie lay awake a long time in the dark blueness of her old room, feeling welcome here, even home. But the tiny white seed inside her, the one she'd sewn herself, threatened to spoil everything, to grow fierce and blinding, tentacled, an alien thing that might blot out this place, these quilts, a mother's hand on her arm. There was a thing inside her she could not affirm in ink. She did not want to own it, this thing she'd done.

In the morning she awoke to light coming slantwise through her window. She stood, pulled on her jeans, tied her sneakers. She pulled her hair into a tight ponytail and brushed her teeth with an old toothbrush from high school. She could hear her mother in the kitchen as she descended the stairs, dishes clanking and the sizzle of fat on a burner. Her mother was standing before the stove in workout clothes, one bare foot rested on the other, one elbow cupped in her palm. A spatula held limp-wristed in her hand. She did not turn around when Annie's sneakers creaked along the white tiles.

"I'm making turkey sausage and egg whites," she said.

"That's okay," said Annie. "I don't eat breakfast."

Instead she poured a cup of coffee from the pot and sat on a stool to drink it, watching her mother in profile. The bottle of Cardinal Zin sat on the counter between them. The label had been turned toward the wall. Annie let the coffee scald her throat. "I had a good time last night," she said.

"That's good," said her mother. "I've got a yoga class at ten. You really should eat breakfast." She jabbed the sausages around the pan with quick, dart-like movements.

"Aren't you going to eat breakfast?" asked Annie.

Her mother shook her head. "No, I've got to burn off the calories."

"The calories from what?"

"From the, the—"

"From the what, mom?"

Her mother shook her head. Silent. Annie felt her hand tighten on the coffee mug. It felt fragile, crushable.

"From the ice cream?"

Her mother nodded, not saying "the ice cream." For some reason Annie had wanted her to say it. Needed her to. And when she didn't, Annie felt the thing going mean inside her, hurt. Denied. She gripped the mug harder.

"Going to get ice cream was just so much fun last night, wasn't it?"

Her mother turned her head but didn't see her, looking instead at the tides of ink risen along her exposed neck.

"What in God's name is that?" she asked, pointing with the greased fin of the spatula. Annie ran her finger along the dotted trace of the treasure map where it rose from her shoulder traversing the blue pool of a sea monster tattooed on the low side of her neck.

"It's a treasure map," she said. She pulled down the collar of her shirt and turned her head to display this region of the map in further detail. "After this it tracks southward, toward my heart."

"Oh my God," said her mother. "You mean you've tattooed…your chest?"

"Some of it."

"Why would you do that to yourself, Annie? For God's sake, what if, what if the dye infects your milk?"

Many women had asked Annie the same question before getting their tattoos, and yet coming from this quarter it infuriated her, the inferior question to a thousand others that she wanted her mother to ask: names and fathers, schools, who might have unburied that treasure in her chest.

"Why would you ask me that, mother? Of course it won't infect the milk. Of course I know that. I'm a tattoo artist, for God's sake. I'm the tattoo artist in the city."

Her mother waved the spatula at her. "They didn't call them artists in my day. Just tattooists, plain and simple. No art about it."

"Well maybe your day is over then, mother."

"Maybe you should watch your mouth, little girl. I can't believe someone of your maturity level is going to have a little girl. God help her."

Annie felt the thing inside her kick for the surface and she clamped one hand over her mouth. In the other hand she gathered up her keys, her purse, and in a whelm of spite she grabbed the Cardinal Zin bottle from against the wall.

Her mother put one hand on her hip. "So that's it? You're just running away now?"

The thing burst out of Annie's throat.

"I'm not, mother."

"Not running?"

"I'm not having a little girl, or a little boy, or any baby at all. It was a lie. All of it was a lie."

Annie watched her mother's spirit dwindle, saw it in her face. The dead nerves, the dry constriction of her throat.

"How could you, Annie?"

Annie spat the words: "So you'd love me."

Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes burned. She turned to run back to her car, her city, her studio. Her mother reached for her as she turned and her clawed hand snagged the bottle instead, ripping it from the crook of Annie's arm. It wheeled into the air between them, heavy and leering. Both of them dropped to their knees to catch it, but the bottle fell right between their outstretched hands and burst on the white linoleum at their feet, a deep red hemorrhage of glass and fluid that covered them both. Their feet, their knees, their hands.


Taylor Brown's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank, Thuglit, Plots with Guns, storySouth, Porchlight, The Bacon Review, Pindeldyboz, The Dead Mule, The Liars' League, and The Press 53 Open Awards and Press 53 Spotlight anthologies. The story "Rider" received the 2009 Montana Prize in Fiction. Taylor lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and my website is www.taylorbrownfiction.com.

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