Death, Ink, and the End of the World

Two things happened the day I turned 29. My grandfather died, and the world ended. I’ll get to the apocalypse. Not that it’s not important, but the death of a loved one can feel the same. The sudden cessation of life that’s marked a significant portion of your time on earth is similar to snuffing a candle. A little breath, a wisp of smoke, and the light goes out.

We’d gathered from across the country, flying in from snow, swamp, and sand, from stands of brackish water and white beaches, from homes bracketed by tall pines. We huddled in a small room smelling of antiseptic and blood and that vague sick smell that the old and infirm carry around with them like satchels of incense. The shine from white tile and fluorescents irritated the iris. The type of glare that digs into your brain, makes it impossible to get comfortable. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the person in the bed.

That person, my grandfather, lay beneath a thin white cotton blanket. Blue stripes ran horizontal in groups of three at the head and foot. Tubes and wires snaked from him, as if they’d built a human still, the medicines distilling his essence, his reality down to this tiny moment in time. A life of sixty-some years and here he lay, condensed into a single final drop of story.

Tattoos swirled up from his elbows, down to his wrists. They appeared as black whorls and lines in smudged relief through the thin hospital gown, half-seen representations of a life lived. They crawled down from his covered hips to his exposed ankles, black ink turned green with age and time; the lines raised scars beside varicose veins.

I looked to my grandmother, thin and frail, skin competing with the light for pale brittleness. My mother, hair just turning white in small threads of the black tapestry of her hair. My sister, young and strong, though sad around the eyes. Each held an object. Grandmother, a rag marked black by the years of wiping fresh tattoos, and a small pair of scissors. The blades glinted under the fluorescents. My mother, a pot of ink and a razor. The bottle of pigment sat dark and quiescent in her palm. My sister, Rea, a small needle gun like a kingfisher in her fist. They looked to me and smiled, each sad, each intense.

My grandfather, small in the bed. I remembered him a big man. Lean, with hard slabs of muscle beneath his thin work shirts. He kept a package of spearmint in the breast pocket, and he’d lean in when we came to him, pull it out, hand us a piece. We’d sit at his knee, the sun reaching jealous fingers through slits in the blinds, trying to anesthetize us with its warmth on a lazy Sunday.

We’d unwrap the gum, powder between the foil and the stick dusting fingertips, and pop it between our lips. That first bite, sweet and cool, waking us, filling our mouths with saliva. Then he’d speak. Stories of his tattoos, where they’d come from, what they meant. Different every time.

This one, a port in Malaysia. A beautiful woman from Kuala Lumpur had hammered it into him with a needle and a stick. Or was it in Maui, a man named Keno with a pin? That one, South Africa. He’d gotten drunk with a footballer. Two weeks later, a woman in Nebraska had talked him into it. Grandmother coughed politely at that story, and he switched tacks. This one, Boston. A Navy man by the name of Franklin gave it to him in the engine room of the U.S.S Anzio. No, wait. It was a child by the name of Dario in Italy.

Each a lie. Each superbly told.

I pulled a chair across the floor, the legs scraping the tile. I flopped into it, feet tired from the flight, from the long stand of vigil. My grandfather snorted in his sleep, opened bleary eyes. He looked around from bloodshot sclera, gaze flitting to each of us like a bee searching for pollen. They landed on me, and his lips, pale quivering things, lifted in recognition. He reached out a hand, so like a bird’s, the bones thin and frail, the skin parchment. He squeezed, and I returned it gently.

“How was the trip?” he asked.

“Fine,” I lied.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

I looked again to my family. They arrayed themselves around me, knelt on the floor, sister first, then mother. Grandmother to the left of Rea. They rolled the leg of my jeans up, and I heard the buzz of the needle begin, the coolness of a blade passed along the hair, the sharp ice of evaporating alcohol.

“It will hurt,” he said.

Would it hurt worse than this? Pulling a thread you’d thought woven so deeply into your life to undo one meant undoing all the tapestry.

I pushed the thoughts back and nodded.

Rea set needle to flesh, and I felt the burn begin.

*

Images poured into my head, a flash flood of names and horror sliding through my mind like a scalpel through tendon.

Mi-go, the Formless. First upon the void. Theirs was the name first spoken in the thick jungles that covered the earth. Once, they slithered and burbled across the face of the water, then through thick undergrowth that seethed with life. Where they touched, they devoured, and what they devoured, they left barren.

Blood and sweat trickled down my thigh as the ink rose close to my groin. My grandmother cut the fabric away as the needle climbed to speed the process, mother following with the razor. I watched the keen edge scrape hair away as easily a scythe harvests grain. Grandmother’s rag wiped my leg, fresh black making the fabric glisten, fresh oil making my skin shine.

The monitoring equipment jittered out a series of beeps, and for a moment, my grandfather’s grip slackened. Anxiety rose in my chest, flittered across the inside of my fingers. Outside, the clouds darkened, and far away, a crack sounded like a thousand trees snapping under their own weight. Then Rea lifted the needle, and it steadied, the alarms quieting. I glanced over at the old man, who had resumed his grip on my hand. His left leg lay clear, the skin unblemished. He breathed hard, pigeon chest rising like a small bellows. A small groan escaped his lips. My heart sent up a bright ache, like the lights above, a silver note of pain. I thought of him surrounded by sawdust and gnarled wood, the thing in his hands once rough, like the skin of his knuckles. He’d turn it over, and work another piece, and bit by bit it took shape. The patience of a stone, a gentle smile on his lips. Small moments of serenity, limned in sunlight.

Rea dipped the needle into the ink, a slight tremble between her hand and my mother’s. Then the gun buzzed again.

*

Yoth, the Cold. When the glaciers slid across the face of the world, she stalked as a wolf. Taller than even the redwoods that mark the west coast, where she walked, she left lakes. The men in those days, small and mean with the depredations of survival, gave up to her the lives of their weak. They took in her ways, and tasted the flesh of fellow men.

The gun buzzed across a kneecap, and I jumped. Beyond the horizon, a howl that sent needles of fear into my guts rippled across the sky. Cold sleet hammered into the panes, leaving an afterbirth of slush in the steel frame. My grandfather pursed his lips and squeezed my hand with a strength borne of pure will, eyes wide. He shook his head ever so slightly. The veins in his temples stood in stark contrast. I wondered if that’s how all life ended, in pain and fear. Feeling small as a child, spending a life building yourself into someone you knew the way water knows the earth, and watching the foundation wash away.

His lips turned up. A flicker of a smile, a reassurance, and I wondered at the strength in that gesture. I remembered hands weathered by decades of work, tough callouses from tilling field and splitting wood, and my wonder passed. The quiet patience as his family split, as time brought troubles. Scars on his hand, plain in the light. Here, a jagged line where a tractor had nearly taken his finger. There, a small nick on his palm where he’d caught himself with a kitchen knife. Scars on the heart, hidden in the dark. Those he never spoke of. Never once a complaint. I forced myself to relax as Rea’s work continued. If he could do this, under the black cloud of agony, wracked by time, so could I. Over the knee, into the tender places of the thigh. Bleed and wipe and sweat. And then that too ended. I saw the other ankle on the old man free of ink.

They cut the shirt from me, my pale skinny chest exposed. We had no fear of nurses or doctors entering. In the small hours between dark and dawn, even the hospital must sleep. The old man smiled again, reached out and patted my cheek. He took my hand.

“Almost,” he said.

Another dip of the gun into the ink. The buzzing, and my chest burned. Another flood of images.

*

Azatoth, the Liar. He’d been in the first men, lurking behind thoughts of food and lust and murder. Behind the walls of the mind, entrenched like a seedling taking root. He guided the hands of Cain and Pilate. The men who poisoned Alexander. The death of Caesar. He’d engineered the Fall, and in the dark, promised young mothers and brutal men the things they most desired. Lies are the black lattice of life–small and insidious. I’m fine. This will be fine. Nothing to worry about. Of course you’re beautiful. I love you. If only they did one thing, they could climb that lattice toward the light. A small untruth, a little unkindness.

More sweat. I felt light-headed, and wondered how much water a man could lose. I squeezed my grandfather’s hand, but he’d fallen asleep. No, not asleep. An alarm sounded from somewhere. I forced myself to concentrate, to look. My family with their heads down, lips moving. I wondered at what litany must pass their lips in the cold hours of the morning, what things they prayed for, who they made promises to. The buzz buzz buzz of the gun. Or had a fly entered the room? An alarm, shrill and insistent.

“Almost, almost,” Rea said.

“Almost, almost,” my family repeated.

“Almost, almost,” a voice in my head echoed.

A deep ache in my chest as the needle passed over, and the muscle twitched, traitor to my will. Rea’s hand slipped. The alarm continued to wail, soon joined by something outside. Sirens?

“Almost,” Rea said.

The buzzing rose to a wail, and I thought my mind would split with it. Across my chest, over shoulder and trapezius, down bicep and forearm. I felt the bones in my wrists grind as I tensed, the ache in my jaw. My teeth felt loose, jangling coins someone had pressed into the bone with no intention of affixing them there. Then it finished.

Done, and the silence nearly deafened me.

“How do you feel?”

Beside me, my grandfather cooled in his bed. A bundle of sticks and bones, the skin of his skull too close to his cheeks, his eyes like clouded marbles. His flesh paled at the end, lips that had spun stories and smelled of spearmint tinted blue. I looked to his throat, where the butterfly pulse of his heart fluttered no more. Where once I’d pressed my face as a child and felt warm stubble scratch my cheek.  His arms lay bare, marked with blue veins, but clear of ink. His fingers splayed open, clutching at nothing, that thin skein of life the fates allow us slipped from his grasp. Beneath the sheet, a smudge of ink. A single line beside a puckered nipple. His memory a nervous bird, perched on the branches of my mind, trembling with anticipation of fright. I held it as tightly as I could, cajoled it to stay.

“How do you feel?” they asked again.

Their voices choked on tears half-swallowed. This was important. More important than antiseptic and empty husks, more important than cold white sheets and the insistent alarm. More important than the legion of men and women who would soon enter the room in white coats and blue scrubs with cold latex on their hands. More important than machines still trying to feed him medicine, pumping cold saline and warm narcotics into a body that had no more use for them than another’s touch. The cold logic of science ignorant of the passing of spirit.

Mourning could come later. This was important. Important as the wail of siren. Important as fire that lit the horizon. Important as the bend of trees in a hot wind. This was the end of the world, or not.

“Fine,” I lied.

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