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Tattoo Tribal, by Margo Berdeshevsky


Our mother had a tattoo. Burned on the inside of her womb, where I’d seen it, my eyes wide open when I was inside, before I was birthed. The man who planted me inside her had left it there, his parting gift drawn with the tip of his hard driving flesh. Later, I understood. That was their kind of sex. He wasn’t always around us, and at first I didn’t know his name. But he visited. Brought me colors, crayons in the early days. His eyes like comic book dragons when he smiled my way, I touched him with just one fingertip, hello/goodbye/hey…afraid touching him might burn me. Our mother never told me, but I told her what I knew, soon as I could speak. Mama, it’s inside you, there! I pointed to her pale belly. She only nodded, petted my head as though I were just another animal in her living room; she had a dozen, cats, birds, mice, and me, all of us alive in our different sizes. I had sisters once, I recall, but they’d left when I was born, she said. And then I came, needing her love. And that man said, I am one of hers, girlie, petting my head, too. Did he mean he belonged to her? Did he mean he was a brother? A savior? A father? A seed? No one told me.

The man who planted and who drew inside her—was visiting again, sitting like a conductor in our torn armchair by the setting-sun west window. Hands waving in time to a music he hummed more softly than voices of the mice, he watched us all the while. I knew who he was. Mister “Y.” I knew things, how our mother had been collecting our lives like treasures. She whispered that to me just once when I had a fever and she petted me all through a night. Today was Sunday. All of us were present, even the sisters who’d left, and now returned, all gathered in the shadows. Today, our mother was sick with her fever. Stronger drugs than usual, but she always swallowed drugs. I knew that, too. I saw it, I insisted, curled against her thigh, trying for just a little love, even now. I saw it, mama, it’s big as this, I showed her with my hands spread open and apart, size of a small bird. And it looks like this…I climbed up on our deep red sofa back behind her, an indigo blue crayon in my hand, and I began to draw on the wall above her head so she had to twist around to see what I was doing. She didn’t stop me. She watched me. Her eyes all heavy from her drugs. Watched my hands, my drawn creature spilling from them. She understood and she hissed in the direction of the man in our armchair, and he nodded like a huge puppet with no strings. I finished my drawing on the wall and the whole room nodded. My wild indigo lines made a baby dragon with another tiny baby dragon in her teeth. That’s what’s inside you, mama. That’s your tattoo. And that’s our tribe. You better admit it. My voice was a dare. The man in the armchair was still conducting. I was only the child but I was the one to tell it, sisters in the shadows and all the animals gathered, all kneeling around her, very still.

Who the hell told you this? Mama drawled, reaching for her ivory carved head of a tiger pipe. The tattoo, mama, when I was inside you. She hissed again at the man in the armchair, who crossed his long legs, uncrossed them, and crossed them again. Now he began to sing, a deep-baritone lullaby, opening his shirt buttons one by one; and I saw what was hidden underneath, across his breast. Our mother was stripping her own clothes, stripping until she was fully-naked in front of us. Scratching at her skin, scratching from her breasts to her swelling belly. Scratching to rip it open. No one stopped her. None of the shadows and none of the animals, and the man left his shirt wide open, staring at our mother. Singing. She was our naked mother. A picture crawled up to the surface of her mama skin. Vein-blue lines darkening to just what I’d seen inside her when I was still there, and what I’d crayoned on our wall, what I told her I’d seen, just what I had seen. Her tattoo, bright on her nude skin, an exposed web of veins, a dark blue baby dragon with a baby dragon in its teeth.

Mother’s heavy-lidded eyes hardened now, more like the man’s. She stood all flesh and bare and she yanked the mirror off our wall, held it high, looked at herself for a long breath. Looked at herself and laughed. Crazy woman. I always knew she was, but she was my mother. Our mother. She spoke slowly. That’s us, my family. That’s us. Now who’s next? And so I raised my hand.

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