“Tattoos of the Sky, Tattoos of the Days” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Tattoos of the Sky, Tattoos of the Days

by Alex Dally MacFarlane
to the sound of “The Stars” by Patrick Wolf…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5

She talks to mePalm to the door — glass cold underskin, flakes of paint sloughed from the frame, and the sensations are sweetly familiar — push it open and hear the bell’s high chime of Welcome.

The night is a blackbird and it lives on Gemma’s arm. When it is still, its tail feathers brush her elbow and its beak sits below the curve of her shoulder, pointing behind her. When it moves, which is most of the time, it can be anywhere within the confines of her left arm.

Stars string its wings, shining brightly amid the black. They wink when the sun turns its back and whisper rude taunts. Gemma sits in the park, surrounded by the branch-walls and leaf-ceiling of her house, and listens to them. Sometimes she giggles — stars are no different to men, she thinks, with their obsession about size — but sometimes she wants to block them out, their bickering that reminds her too much of other arguments, and she sits in the dirt with her fingers in her ears.

The floor lumpy underfoot, the receptionist’s smile, the buzz from around back — she smiles, breathes in and sighs out, and walks to the desk.

“I was thinking, maybe I could have New Year’s Day on my right ankle.”

Leah, who wields ink and needles with the same ease as the stars wield insults, smiles and says, “Sure you can. And what kind of bird is New Year’s Day?”

“Once a year it burns so bright,” says Gemma, “and all the people can’t do a thing but stop and stare at it. And then the days pass and the people look elsewhere and it fades and fades, until in the quick turning of seasons it’s turned to nothing but ash in the wind. But the seasons keep turning in their circles and it returns, reformed, burning so bright again.”

Still smiling in her guarded, unsure way, Leah readies the ink and needles for the tattoo of the day.

Gemma watches the artist’s long sleeves, waiting to find out if she imagined it last time. But no, there it is when she reaches for the pot of gold ink: a stray feather of day on the soft underside of Leah’s arm, yellow and blue, hiding an old scar.

I have an appointment and What time is it? and Five o’clock and Okay, Gemma, just take a seat, Leah will be with you soon.

In the morning Gemma wipes sleep and twigs from her eyes, carefully packs her clothes and blanket into her tattered bag, and leaves the park.

She wanders into the town, whistling bird-songs to the big toe that pokes through her left shoe. Standing in the centre of the shopping square is the fountain — a pair of nymphs tangled narrow-limbed around each other, spilling water from their upturned mouths — and Gemma goes there to wash her birds. The blackbird has a streak of dirt along its neck; it holds very still while Gemma wipes it away. When she is done, it ruffles its feathers and begins cawing to the pigeons sitting on the nearby stone. They coo back, comparing lifestyles and trading secrets. The stars are quiet.

Later in the morning, when Gemma has finished washing her birds and the town centre is full of people, Leah and her husband sit at a café on the other side of the square. They are too far away for Gemma to hear their words, but she sees the gist of it written on their bodies and faces.

Back and forth, bicker bicker, stars against the sun, husband and wife.

Gemma whispers, “You need a bird with two heads that change with the winds.”

The blackbird is still cawing to the pigeons, boasting that I am night whereas you are just a lump of flesh. The robin on her right wrist joins the conversation a few times, but mostly it stays quiet. It wears a calendar around its neck and as the hands turn their circles the robin flickers, changing. The differences are slight — its beak becomes fractionally shorter, its feet change their shade of yellowy-orange to orangey-yellow — but Gemma catalogues them, storing the memories carefully.

Ink — stillborn birds — on her fingertips, fair hair wispy around her face, shirt long-sleeved despite the warmth: Leah.

“Christmas changes, you see,” says Gemma while the needles work at her wrist. “No one really watches it when it’s not winter. It’s not like New Year’s Day, fading into ash. It stays in people’s minds but because they’re not really looking, it changes. And over a long, long time, it becomes something completely different.”

“Like how it changed from a pagan festival to the anniversary of a god?”

“Exactly!” Gemma grins. “I’m going to watch it change.”

When Leah pauses in her work to bat a curl of fair hair from her face, her sleeve slides back far enough to reveal the feather of day again — with two more, clustered like three-for-a-wedding on Leah’s forearm, bright yellow and blue, a scrap of day quickly covered once more by sleeve.

“Where do you live?” asks Leah.

Only a moment of hesitation hovers over Gemma’s tongue. “With leaves and branches and soil.”

“Is it very cold?”

“The stars argue too loudly for me to notice the cold.”


One day: black outline, framing the bird in neat lines and careful swirls.

Another day, or maybe the same day — Gemma finds it difficult to keep track of the days that aren’t on her skin — Leah’s husband comes to the tattoo parlour. At first they talk quietly in the store-room, laughing once or twice, but then the wind changes or the sun goes behind a cloud or something equally insignificant occurs and they are arguing again.

Angry voices shout accusations and Gemma sits on the table, silent, remembering too clearly the last time she overheard those words hurled between husband and wife.

He leaves after a while, promising that We will discuss this when I return from Moscow. Leah returns to the table, shaking only a little. A feather of the day covers her cheek like an elegant fan, hand-sized. “So, Gemma,” she says, shaking out her stress in a forced smile and false enthusiasm, “what would you like today?”

“Draw whatever you want.” In a touch more timid voice, she adds, “Whatever will make you smile.”

A nod and, faintly, a hint of a real smile, and Leah spends several minutes in thought. “A bird of paradise,” she decides. “A bird like the plant named after it: bright orange and purple feathers, long and thin.”

Gemma lifts her jumper and t-shirt over her head, revealing the near-flat canvas of her chest.

Buzzing fills the room — birdsong to Gemma’s ears. She lies still, un-flinching as the needles etch their pattern into her pale skin.

When she is finished, Leah puts away her tools and, running her fingers over the black outline unfurled across Gemma’s chest, says, “Will you come home with me tonight, after I’ve finished work?”

One day: colour, filling the spaces like in a child’s colouring book.

The day is a canary and it lives on Leah’s back.

Leah unbuttons her shirt and lets it slide down, revealing the day’s avian dance upon her skin. Its playground is a vast backscape of shed feathers from neck to coccyx, dazzling at first glance — yellow like the sun, bleeding white into blue-tinged ends. Gemma caresses it, feeling feather and skin and bruise under her hands.

Turning, Leah takes Gemma’s hands in hers and brushes her lips feather-soft over Gemma’s knuckles. The stars are struck into silence at the sun’s proximity, prompting a small smile from Gemma at their childish behaviour.

Then the blackbird chirps, reminding, and Gemma grudgingly says, “Night and day are opposites. One rises when the other passes below.”

“Then we shall meet at sunrise and sunset, and we shall be orange and pink.” Leah’s raised eyebrow invites further doubts. Gemma does not give them.

Wings stretching, feathers splayed, beak open and the bird of paradise sings its fallen song — a song of reaching a place not perfect, but better.


© Copyright 2008 Alex Dally MacFarlane & Senses Five Press