In a world where everyone is born with a tattoo that tells how they will die, follow the journey of a girl who tries to change her fate.
I always knew how I was going to die. It was written on my skin from the day I was born. It was not just me, though. Everyone on this island was born with one. It told the story of that fateful day. It’s ironic how something given at the start of life is used to determine how it will end. Despite the irony, they were a sacred part of our lives. We got two tattoo readings throughout our lives: one at birth and one at the age of fifteen. The task of tattoo reading was left for the tattoo readers who were the fortunate souls born with a starry night tattoo on their backs. It signified that they would die of old age. At birth, the tattoo readers would check for a circle tattoo. Its existence meant the newborn would die before the age of fifteen. The second reading is done on the fifteenth birthday and the tattoo reader would give the final interpretation.
Once the tattoo is read, we would then dedicate our lives to staying away from the very thing engraved on our skin. The reason why tattoo readers existed was to keep the islanders alive for as long as possible. In a way, it was an attempt to escape death. Well, no one escapes death so perhaps to delay it. The rules were simple. Those with tattoos that showed a demise in the ocean stayed on land and those that showed a demise on land sailed the seas until what Mother Nature sketched on their bodies would eventually come to pass.
Most tattoos were straightforward like my father’s was. He had a big, rotten fruit sleeping on his chest. He never ate fruits and avoided indulging on his favorite foods. One-day food poisoning would kill him but until then, he would be vigilant. My tattoo was also obvious. A shark that looked like it was jumping out of the water etched my lower arm. It was nothing out of the ordinary. We lived by the ocean and the sharks had become vicious over the years. When I was younger, I spent hours studying it, the way its face was contorted and its body twisted in the air as salty water splashed everywhere. The small shark grew up with me into a mighty, sea creature as my skin stretched over the years.
My older, twin sister hated how obsessed I was with it. One day, she had nearly killed me after I had told her that I named it ‘Grey’.
“Are you crazy?” she had screamed at me; as she cracked open a coconut with a butcher’s knife. I had slowly walked away whispering that I was only joking. In reality, I was as serious as one could be.
I had hoped naming it would render the beast friendly. I talked to it night after night asking if it could spare my life. It did not respond. I had drowned myself in self-pity. I did not know how to live while I knew the cruel destiny that awaited me. It was like a burden I couldn’t unload. I looked around to see how everyone coped and saw people living gingerly. I did just that by staying away from the water but there had to be more that I could do. Perhaps, I could change my fate or at the very least, get a better bargain. I was on a mission to figure it out but I didn’t have forever. I had to find the answers before I faced the tattoo reader once again.
I had decided this at the age of seven when I gained a loose understanding of death. I had eight years to find a loophole and it would be an understatement to say that I did not try everything under the sun. At first, I tried covering the tattoo. I took ink from my mother’s box and turned my arm black. In my mind, I could still see the savage turning and tossing behind the cover I made for it and the fact that the paint could not live on my skin past a few days did not help.
When my mother went to the market, I brought myself along and interrogated the fishermen on how to spear a shark. They found my inquisitiveness adorable and told me that I was too small and fragile to attempt such a task. I knew I couldn’t kill all the sharks in the deep blue but I could kill the one on my arm. When I got home, I cut a line from between its eyes all the way to the back. It looked as alive as ever. Several cuts passed through its body until my own blood dripped on the floor. I realized how foolish I was when I could not move my arm the next day.
I also went to the local shaman and saw how voodoo dolls were made. I already had the voodoo doll on my skin; I just needed the pin to kill it. The thought that the monster would perish into nothingness wherever it may be, made me euphoric. I had stolen the needle and pierced its head. I fell ill for weeks. I feared that on the journey to change my fate, I had brought my death sooner. While I was bed-ridden, I developed a crippling fear that I may never complete my quest. I was about to turn fifteen and there was only so much I could do.
On the day my twin and I turned fifteen, my mother had turned restless from the anticipation. The anticipation was not around my tattoo or me but rather on my twin sister. Her tattoo was one of the difficult ones to interpret. It looked like a dome of some sort being pulled into a whirlwind. It looked like a pile of powder as much as it looked like a heap of snow. People had tried guessing to no avail. My sister hated her tattoo and the mystery it had created around her.
That morning as everyone got ready; I had my last opportunity to tamper with my future. The tattoo reader couldn’t interpret what he couldn’t see and so, I spilled a boiling water on my arm. My skin shriveled away and I cried out in pain.
“You have to accept your fate. That’s the only way you’ll be free”, my sister washed and dressed my wound. She was the only one willing to talk to me. The villagers had heard and felt pride in their obedient off springs who would not try something as evil as changing their fate.
We still went to the tattoo reader and my mother stayed outside too ashamed to face the tattoo reader with a daughter like me. The tattoo reader was an old man. He had shrunk into his own body and looked around with squinted eyes. My sister showed her tattoo.
“It’s salt”, the old man had stared into me with eyes almost blue from cataract.
I nodded too scared to say that the hand belonged to my sister who was sitting next to me.
She was told that the salt signified the seawater and that she needed to stay away from the ocean. She was also told to stop eating salt. How the salt would kill her remained a mystery.
“The man is as good as blind! That’s not salt”, I had whispered to my sister holding in the laughter that threatened to escape me. She drilled her elbow into me and I went quite immediately.
When it was my turn, I had to stare into those coated eyes once again.
“It’s going to be a shark attack”, the reader dabbed my arm with a white cloth as I winced in pain. There it was! My death sentence!
As seawater had sought our lives, my sister and I were made to work on land. A red stamp had brushed over our tattoos declaring to everyone that we were to stay on land at all times. The land was gracious and filled with luscious, green trees that waved the ocean goodbye just the way I did. I fell into depression but my sister became as vibrant as ever.
In the coming weeks, I saw my sister put salt on everything she ate. She took boat rides into the sunset. In the evening, she snuck out and swam in the ocean until her hands went limp. I watched in horror, waiting for death to whisk her away. She had warned me not to tell anyone with that same butcher’s knife. She had even went to the salt harvest on the other side of the island. I never understood my sister or what she wanted to prove.
“Does she want death?” I had questioned myself. If so, I had never seen anyone more joyous to face the grim reaper. Her smile always peaked through the blurry water as she thrashed like a toddler. I had never seen her as happy as when she rows a boat with a face of a warrior or when she grimaces from an ungodly amount of salt in her chicken soup. She was my crazy sister and I was the watch, bound to the warm sand gatekeeping her secrets. At times, my sunburnt skin craved the coolness of the ocean and my eyes searched for the dancing plants but I made myself resist the temptation. I could never be that foolish or was it courageous?
Regardless, our secret was not kept for long. My sister was caught rowing a boat by local anglers. My father was livid.
“I have raised rebels. Is this what I taught you?” he had asked rhetorically. For the first time in a long while, I got to really see my father’s face. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes sunken. Over time, he had stopped eating and he was vanishing right before our eyes.
The next day, my sister was sent to the center of the island where it would be nearly impossible to get to the water. She was staying with my aunt who made coconut rum for the villages. I had cried and begged my father to give her a second chance. He was willing to and asked her to promise him that she would stay away from the water. She told him she wouldn’t make a promise she couldn’t keep.
Two weeks after she left, I heard that my sister passed away. My flesh slowly turned to stone. I could not believe it. My father told me that she had sunk into a quick sand.
“It was sand! It was sand!” I had cried out, her tattoo filling up my vision.
I grieved her in every sense of the word. I found peace in knowing that she did everything that made her happy. She ate her salty food and swam like a fish. I was glad that she rowed her boat into the night and did it all while she had the time. If my sister knew her tattoo was sand, she still would have made sand castles and dug out scorpions.
The truth is death is our ultimate fate, the farewell to life. It’s the end of the line, but luckily that’s all it’ll ever be, a destination. It’s liberating, isn’t it? If the end is decided for me, the middle is all up to me. I will admit it’s sad to say goodbye but I argue it’s even sadder to ruin life thinking about death. I will do whatever makes me happy and what puts a smile on my face. This tattoo will only be a reminder to do it as soon as possible without ever procrastinating.
I am leaving my place on the sand for my sister. It’s her turn to be the watch as I step into the water. Perhaps I will be reacquainted with my old friend, Grey.