Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

It's been so long since I worked on something other than The Book, so I was glad to read this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt. Though I couldn't fully pull myself out of that world I've come to know so well. Enjoy!

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

When the door blew open the fire guttered blue -- sea salt in the driftwood -- and all the candles bent their heads to the chimney as if in agreement.

“Close it! Hell and death, close the door!”

Someone, a latecomer who could find no seat by the warm fire, kicked the wooden planks and the door shut with a gust of snowy night air. Everyone in the Ragged Sailor that night heard the storm pounding the walls and mumbled a blessing into their cups that they were not at sea. Some discreetly touched talismans, secreted in deep pockets and warmed by their skin. Others traced patterns in ale puddles on the table, then rubbed them out with their elbows.

“As I was saying,” said Young John, a shriveled raisin of a man whose father, Old John, had been dead for forty years, “As I was saying, we all know the names of the seventy three stars to steer by, in winter and high summer. But in the Far Countries the stars are different.”

“Diable!” came the shouts, Morris’s loudest of all. He knew Young John loved this, loved the skepticism of the sailors and fishwives that crowded the dark little alehouse.

“Never!” cried Young John. He pounded his empty glass on the table and gestured for another with his other hand, fingers fluttering from ragged wool half-gloves. “Never! The fish walk on land, women have three, have three ... never mind. Men write books on their own skin. Aye, they do so, Arlen, so shut yer mouth.”

“You can’t live without skin. How do they get if off?” Morris called. This was one of Young John’s better performances. And three of what, anyway?

“They write on themselves. The ink stays.”

“What do they write, then?” someone called from the other side of the room.

Young John paused, his glass halfway to his lips. He beamed over the rim at them. It was so quiet Morris heard the rap as Young John set the glass down.

“They write,” he said softly. Everyone leaned forward. “They write of a strange land, far far away, where people gather in pubs at night, and warm themselves, and enjoy drink and story while the wind howls outside.”

People were groaning before he finished. Someone threw a roll, but Young John ducked happily.

Morris turned to go. It was late, and he was expected early at the smithy to start the fires of the great forge. As he passed the latecomer who had shut the door, the man’s arm shot out and gripped Morris’s wrist. The strength in his fingers was so great that Morris’s surprise turned immediately to pain.

“Wait,” came the voice, and the hand released its grip. Morris saw that the skin was dark with ink, so filled with lines of writing, arabesque script and ornate letters and half-seen sketches of strange beasts, that it was nearly black.

“Wait. He tells no lie.”

Morris swallowed. “Skin ... writing?”

The man nodded, though Morris couldn’t see his face. “Squid ink and a ray’s sting. I bleed for every word.”

The alehouse had returned to its normal hum of conversation, calls for drink, the crackle of the fire.

“What does it say?” asked Morris.

The man draw a long, curved object from a chest pocket. Morris recognized it immediately. The whip-thin tail of a stingray.

“I will tell you,” the man said, reaching into another pocket and placing a small vial of night-black ink on the table. “But for every word I read, I will write one on you.”

Morris stared at the vial, his heart thumping. “How ... how did you get yours?”

“I was curious.” The man slowly rolled up his sleeve to reveal a knotted forearm nearly as inked as his hand. “I was so very curious.”


Barbara said...

Whoa--awesome--more please. Perhaps 'tis the first tattoo?

Wendy said...

I enjoyed this very much.

missalister said...

Good lord. Such a natural spinning! And a spin down a couple of posts confirms it. You can attend meetings, and in them, can work on what you want to work on, yet appear to be attending a meeting! I was just curious...and ended up envious : )

Dee Martin said...

This was pure fun to read - drew me in and along and through. Will be wandering around this blog some more!

S R Wood said...

Thanks, everyone! This is the sort of thing I'd mercilessly prune and rewrite. It's great to have an excuse to just pour this onto the page.