Skin Deep (Flash Fiction)
This story was written in response to Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge. The random phrase generator gave me 'pencilled collarbone' and 'Skin Deep' was the result.
The first time I saw Lydia, I thought she had tattoos. A dragon snaked down her left arm, its tail disappearing under the sleeve of her surprisingly ladylike summer blouse. On her right forearm, a sailing ship danced over the waves, and a fairy forest grew up her calves.
“That'll be four ninety-five.” Her voice was as delicate as her wrists.
I handed over a fiver, then smiled my thanks as she returned my change. I took my tray to the nearest table and listened as the next five customers complimented the designs. She smiled at each one as if it was the first time she'd heard the comment.
The Copper Cauldron wasn't the kind of place people went back to. On the road from somewhere to nowhere in particular, it scraped by on passing trade, while the occupants of the few local offices ate their brown bag lunches on the bench outside in summer, and at their desks in winter.
I'd been enticed in one morning when I was running too late to make sandwiches on my way to the office. A week later, I was enticed back by the memory of Lydia's gentle smile.
This time, her left arm was encircled by a complex band of Celtic knotwork. A snake swallowed its tail around her neck, and a butterfly perched on the rose which grew on her right forearm.
For a moment, I let myself entertain the notion that I'd misremembered the pictures, but I knew that wasn't the case.
I took my tray to the counter, handed over the right money, and walked to what had already become 'my table.'
During the time it took me to finish eating my plate of lasagne, six people went through the till. Four of them commented on the tattoos. She smiled at each of them, and never corrected them. Maybe it didn't matter. They were just passing through.
When I finished eating, I checked my watch. I had seventeen minutes before I was due back at the office. I pulled out my pen and sketchpad, and sketched the rough forms of a dragon, a sailing ship and a fairy curled in the branches of a tree. I took my pad to the counter and showed it to Lydia. She knew exactly what I was asking.
“They're drawn with pen,” she explained. “I give art a chance to live, to be seen. It takes about a week to wash off.”
I thought about this, and she looked at me as if she, too, was thinking.
I smiled. I liked the idea of giving art a home and I was fascinated by the pictures' impermanence. Each drawing was fresh and new, like sand sculptures which you knew would be washed away by the tide.
“Would you like to draw for me?” she asked.
I wanted to say, “You're beautiful,” but my tongue locked up. I nodded. Perhaps I could draw it instead.
I nodded again. She pushed a piece of paper into my hand.
“Come to this address. Bring a sketch of what you want to draw.”
I looked the address up on the street plan when I got home that night. It was a few streets away from the café. I left early for work the next day and detoured by Lydia's address to make sure I wouldn't get lost on Saturday. Even if I hadn't had the house number, I'd have known which was Lydia's house. Coloured butterflies fluttered up the windowpane and metal flowers crammed the terracotta pots on the balcony.
I thought about her butterflies and flowers all day at work, and that evening I began sketching Lydia's slender figure, the way I imagined it looked without the prim blouse and skirt. I filled her body with mountains and rivers and trees. Foliage twined down her arms, with bees and butterflies feeding from their nectar. Quicksilver fish flitted through the silken waves of her seas, and a hummingbird hovered in the delicate hollow of her neck.
When I arrived on Saturday and showed her the picture, she smiled.
“It's beautiful,” she said. “But you can't do that.”
I lifted her hand and traced the blue vein from her wrist up her slim, translucent arm. Once again, she knew what I was saying, without words. And she answered me without words. She closed the curtains, and in the glimmer of a dozen tea-lights, she unbuttoned her blouse and dropped it to the floor, revealing her small, perfect breasts. Then she unfastened her skirt and pulled it away to display the angry patchwork of scars criss-crossing her stomach.
“You can't make this beautiful,” she said.
I reached for the pen and showed her that I didn't need to. When I finished, each silvery scar was a branch or a vine, and the forest of her ravaged body became home to a multitude of living things. My pictures told her that, while they lasted, she was the whole world.
When I finished, she stood in front of the mirror and looked at them for a long time. Then she turned to me and drew my hand to her, and I traced the lines of the breeze along her pencilled collarbone and kissed the rose that nestled in the curve of her hip.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “For making me beautiful.”
I shook my head, denying her praise.
That was the moment I always remembered, after the tide turned, when the butterflies and the metal flowers appeared in the window of the charity shop and a plump brunette took her place at The Copper Cauldron: my sudden fierce anger at the world for letting her believe that because of her pain, she wasn't beautiful.