Some people are open books, easy to read with their pages displayed for everyone to see; others are closed books, hiding behind thick, heavy covers, protecting them from scrutiny.
She was neither. She was a canvas, a cloth filled with a myriad of images and colours, like a Picasso or a Dali. Only the most perceptive could see that every image on her was telling a story and that, linked together, they would form a whole, a narrative – her narrative. But only a few had had the privilege of glimpsing at it and luckily, I was one of them.
It was a Wednesday evening. We were sitting on the sofa in her living room; she was reading, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. I came across a photo my friend Dan had posted recently, which prompted me to turn towards her and ask, ‘What’s the meaning behind that?’ pointing at her right wrist. Holding the book, her pyjama sleeve had rolled up just slightly, yet enough to reveal a small outline of a butterfly. You see, Dan’s picture showed his latest tattoo, a lyric from his favourite song running down his ribs; under the photo a long description of why, when and how he had that made. Not bothering to read the whole, probably half-true, story, I double-tapped on the post. That made me realise, though, that I never asked her about her tattoos. So now I finally did: ‘What’s the meaning behind that?’
Startled by my voice, she lifted her eyes from the page and glanced at me in confusion.
‘Oh, the butterfly?’ she eventually replied scrutinising her wrist almost as if surprised to find something there. ‘That was actually my first tattoo. I got it when I was seventeen.’
And with that she resumed reading her book. I am quite a stubborn man so I wasn’t going to give up just like that. ‘What pushed you to have it done?’
A heavy, deep sigh. ‘I don’t like to talk about them and you’ve never asked before. What’s this sudden interest?’
‘I don’t know, just curious, I guess.’ I shrugged. ‘It seems strange that we’ve been together for over two months and you’ve never told me about your tattoos. Just this one, I promise,’ I insisted.
Another sigh. A quick peek in my direction, then she looked down again. ‘Like I said, I got that tattoo at seventeen. I’d wanted one for a while, but hadn’t yet decided what or where at that point. Then one day, from nowhere, it just dawned on me: I wanted a butterfly.’
She was immersed in her memories, her gaze lost in space, fixed on an image from a time long ago. I didn’t expect her to continue then, but after a few more seconds she resumed her story: ‘I had just moved to my own place, away from my parents and everyone I knew. I guess I felt like I had to grow up quite quickly and for the first time I experienced freedom – from everything… That’s how the butterfly came about.’
Her eyes finally found mine and a smile softened the features of her face, her fingers absent-mindedly touching her wrist. ‘But I don’t think I realised that until later. Sometimes you give meaning to a tattoo after it’s already there.’
And just like that, in a few words, the first piece of the puzzle fell into place. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
‘Thank you for sharing this with me,’ I said leaning over and planting a swift kiss on the tip of her nose. ‘What about this one?’ I asked pointing at a different part of her body.
‘No, you promised, only one.’
Our friends Margaret and David were getting married. It was a beautiful summer’s day, warm and without a cloud on the horizon. They’d been lucky, it had been pouring for three weeks straight.
She was talking to Mrs Grey, Margaret’s mother, her back to me. They were standing on the other side of the garden, but I had a perfect view of the two of them. She was hugging Mrs Grey, who’s been crying, then smiling, then crying again all day. I couldn’t turn away from her. Her hair was pulled up in a bun with flowers woven into it, she was wearing a green dress that left one of her shoulders exposed.
Right there, on her bare shoulder, the howling wolf was clearly visible. That tattoo had always intrigued me: the wolf was sitting on its hind legs, head raised, but something was missing from the picture – there was no moon; instead, behind the animal, which was painted in black and white, lay a ‘vast’ blue sea. The pairing was so unusual it was quite unsettling.
At that moment she noticed me watching her and smiled. She had one of those smiles that lit up her whole face, capturing her eyes and making them sparkle – she never did things halfway.
Slowly walking towards her, I outstretched my arm in a silent request for a dance. She took it and gently placed her left hand on my shoulder. I pulled her close and we started swaying.
We had been dating ten months by then and, after the evening of the butterfly, I’d kept my promise of never asking about her other tattoos. While I was holding her, though, the wolf was hard to ignore; howling directly up at me, I could almost hear its cry.
My hand, almost involuntarily, grazed the animal and her eyes shot up to meet mine. I could see that she could understand what I was thinking. To my surprise, without being prompted, she started:
‘This one is one of my favourite tattoos; it actually has a nice story linked to it. When I was twenty-two, I felt the need for a change and after some time pondering what to do, I simply decided to take the plunge, pick a country and then figure it out as I go. A few months later I was sitting on a plane bound for the south of Portugal. I’m still not completely sure what attracted me to that location, it just felt right. I was scared and excited and happy and worried all at the same time. It was my first time abroad, my first time flying, actually, going to a country where I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t speak the language, but I was looking forward to this adventure… I was ready for it!
‘As soon as I exited the airport,’ she continued, ‘and took a taxi straight to the nearest beach, I fell in love with the place. Everything seemed more vivid, brighter, the people warmer and more welcoming. For the following months I worked at a local bar, while living with three other people in a small house overlooking the sea. It was the happiest I had ever felt and nothing has come close since either. The tattoo commemorates that – the vast sea I could observe from my bedroom window every morning, and the wolf – the national animal of Portugal.’
She paused, her mind probably conjuring up that landscape from a long time ago. ‘But obviously nothing good ever lasts, right?’ Her features hardened and the bitterness shocked me. ‘After seven months I had to return and I haven’t visited Portugal since.’
I pulled back a little and saw a small tear pooling in the corner of her eye, but she seemed determined not to let it escape. The recollection was obviously more painful that she wanted me to know. The song ended and with an ‘Excuse me,’ uttered in a feeble voice, she left, headed towards the bar.
One more layer peeled off, but at what cost?
Our one-year anniversary was quite a special day for me; it was the first time I ever reached that mark in a relationship. To celebrate, I booked a table at her favourite restaurant in town.
A mild autumn breeze was sweeping between the tables, the evening still warm enough to dine in the open. My glass of white wine was already almost fully drunk by the time she finally arrived. She had messaged me half an hour earlier saying that she was running late. ‘Traffic,’ was all she gave as an explanation. I assumed she’d been delayed at work, but as she was walking towards me I started to suspect something else had detained her. The reason for this being a very noticeable patch of cling film going round her ankle; protecting what was obviously a new tattoo.
She hadn’t mentioned she was getting a new tat, which bothered me quite a lot, even though I didn’t want it to. By now I knew what kind of person she was; she didn’t feel she needed to justify, or even explain, her actions to anyone. I still wished she would’ve told me…
There was something ominous about her gait; no, ominous is not the right word – quite the contrary, actually. Her step was light, solemn even, like she was walking on a cloud, gliding weightlessly over the pavement. She seemed at ease, peaceful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was going to fall at any moment.
‘I’m so sorry I’m late,’ she said as she came up to me. I stood, kissed her on her lips and then we both sat down. I poured her some wine, we toasted, read the menu, ordered some food, enjoyed the evening. She never once mentioned the new addition to her body art and I knew better than ask.
Only later that night as she was already lying in bed, asleep, I slowly pulled the sheet back and closely examined her ankle. It was quite a simple design, not at all what I expected, even though I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. Following the curve of her lower leg, just above her ankle bone, lay a small bridge, a wooden bridge, the kind you might see over a river, simple but sturdy, one that has been traversed millions of times. There was no water flowing underneath it though, no land on either side of it. The bridge started and ended on two clouds.
I didn’t know exactly what to make of it; it was pretty but nothing compared to some other images she had imprinted on her. There was something eerie about it that I couldn’t quite identify. And that feeling of unease I experienced at dinner grabbed hold of me again. Resolving on asking her about the bridge the next chance I had, I lay down beside her and closed my eyes.
In hindsight, maybe I should have asked her about it that night, maybe I should have pushed her to tell me more about all of her tattoos. Maybe then we wouldn’t be standing here today and my story could have been longer, her story could have been longer. But then again maybe her canvas was never meant to be unravelled, her images left uninterpreted and her story a mystery. Some narratives are better left untold.
Urška Vidoni was born in Trieste, Italy, and now lives in Oxford where she works as an Assistant Editor. She graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in Publishing media and English Literature. Apart from some writing published in school magazines, this is her first published short story. Although this is not her first language, she always finds it easier to write in English. In her free time, she can be found reading or playing volleyball.
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