Short story inspired by Elinor Stanley, Constellation Head, 2020 part of the exhibition Onlooking at Kupfer Project Space in London. The exhibition is now closed due to lockdown but the works can be viewed online.
When he finished writing the story he disappeared and made me promise I would never read it. Not that reading a story tattooed on the back of one’s own head would be a feat easy to accomplish. But I am sure I could do it with the right dose of motivation. I never tried it though. I mean, I never tried reading it with my eyes. I did try feeling the words with my hands, guessing them. That was allowed. I think. He’d said nothing about not touching the words. Besides, I’d felt some of the words as he wrote them, as he imprinted them on my head. Some letters tickled me. Letters with tails like a and y. Their tails tickled me. I remember a really long word he hid behind my ear. There were a couple of y’s in it. I asked him what the word was. He told me. I had to check the meaning in the dictionary. Something about the study of imaginary animals. I shrugged. Who wastes their time studying things that don’t exist?
Others had imprinted on my head before. Some had coloured it, others had scratched it. I’d even had the inside of it washed. Some of these imprints had had a lasting impact on me. Some made me do things I was only too happy to do at the time but now I regret them deeply. Nothing like what he did though. Whatever he put on my head seemed to have seeped through my hair follicles to the inside of my head.
I was glad he’d left something of his behind. With me. On me. In me. I decided to let my hair grow. Protect his gift. Cover his words. Hide them from me. Hide them from the temptation of breaking a promise.
When the tattooist came back I was waiting tables. It’d been years. My hair was really long. Halfway down my back. I had to tie it in a pony tail. Customers who saw me from behind thought I was a woman.
“I need your head,” he said.
He helped me shave it and I lent it to him.
“Are you finally going to tell me the story?” I said.
“The story on my head.”
“It’s not a story,” he said, “it’s a map.”
“But there are words in it,” I said.
“Yes, but it’s a map.”
“A map for what?”
“That I can’t tell you.”
I would know soon enough. I couldn’t lend him my head without the rest of my body, so I went with him where the map led. It wasn’t far. Right in the middle of town. An abandoned tube station. He knew how to get in. Once we were a good kilometre into the tunnel we stopped.
“It’s here,” he said.
I knew better than to ask what was here. So I let him search my head with his torch and find whatever it was he was looking for. He crouched down over one of the tracks. It was loose. And under it there was a hole about the size of a saucer. He squeezed his hand through it and pulled out a dirty cloth bag tied with a red string.
“What is it?” I said.
“The remains,” he said.
I was starting to fear for my life. He laughed. A sorcerer’s laughter.
“Don’t worry,” he said.
I didn’t know where my bravery was coming from. He shook his head.
“It’s time I let them free,” he said.
He opened the bag and poured on his hand a fine gold powder that illuminated the tunnel. I watched his handsomeness in the golden light. He blew the powder over me and as he did I felt the traces on my head come alive. I wanted to touch it but I couldn’t dare. Tiny things sprouted out of my head and carrying my thoughts and my tattoo with them they crawled down my back onto the floor. The map disappeared from my head.
“Disabled ants?” I said.
“Disabled? It depends on the point of view,” he said, “they might only have three legs but they have a tail, a horn and one another.”
“Do they? I think that’s just the way they walk.”
“Anyway, what can ants do?” I said.
There was a cute smirk on his face.
“A single one can’t do much,” he said.
I looked at the thousands of creatures and their little horns the size of chia seeds glowing blue in the dark like fireflies, constantly proliferating. There was a harmony to their limping. They seemed synchronised.
“Together they can change things.”