The Tattooed Man and the Human Snake

Freak show signage

There was the bearded lady and the strong man, but the travelling roadshow had one draw that guaranteed passage across the southern states and that was the tattooed man. Who had pictures across his skin, on his body and on his face and even on his eyelids. The crowds and especially the children gathered to look at the lion on his biceps, the soldier on his shoulder, the winking lady on his abdomen. The sword and the snake that began at his hipbone (that was the hilt) and travelled down to his ankle.

After the show they lined up to take pictures with him. Cradled in the nook of his biceps, they rested their head against the barrel of his chest. Pressed their fingers on the scales of the dragon crawling down his spine. Half the people getting their picture taken had tattoos themselves. After all, tattoos were hardly a rarity in this day and age. They were the provenance of every strip mall in America, and that was true from coast to coast. But the tattooed man retained the advantage in terms of quantity and sheer tastelessness, and that was his unique selling point.

He called himself old school. He considered that he had nothing to do with the yuppies and hipsters that lined up to have their picture taken with him. The roadshow catered to its audience's basic sense of irony and nostalgia, but most of the performers themselves were barely aware of this fact. As far as they were concerned people came and bought tickets and gorged themselves on popcorn and soda and at the end of the day they were each handed a wad of box office cash and tips. It was as simple as that.

Privately, the tattooed man figured people came to stare at them because they were a dying breed. Old school freaks who didn't know when to draw the line. When to stop growing your hair, when to stop pumping weight, when to stop tattooing yourself. They didn't have that gift or that instinct, which was why they were on the travelling side of a roadshow. Itinerant freaks, worth the price of admission because they were out of date. Relics of another time. A band of real outsiders.

Then the girl whose skin was falling off joined the roadshow and he realised how much in safety they really lived. The manager came to him with a proposition. A double-act - the Tattooed Man and the Human Snake (that was what they were going to call her, on account of her shedding her skin right before the ticket payer's very eyes). One has skin that's marked for life, the other loses her skin every passing day. The manager called it a no-brainer, genuine freakshow stuff.

The tattooed man hesitated. He asked the manager if the girl had parents, because it was no easy thing, being looked at. He asked if the girl understood that, if she was prepared for it. The manager assured him that she was only eight years old and came accompanied by two legal guardians. That blew the tattooed man's mind until the manager let slip that the family had no money to speak of. There were medical bills. There was credit card debt. The people needed to eat. He got it.

The debut of the Tattooed Man and the Human Snake exceeded expectation. Within moments every visitor to the show was crowded around the humble stage operation, cellphone cameras flashing. And while the tattooed man stuck to his old routine of clenching his muscles and rippling the flag on the pirate ship and making the winking girl wink, the girl amazed them all. She was stupendous. Astonishing. She did nothing but sit in a tiny chair designed for her specifications, her arms and legs bandaged, her eyes staring off into space.

On one arm or leg the bandages were peeled back and her limb was left exposed to audience's shameless gaze, as they watched the large flakes of skin pulling loose and then floating, tumbling to the ground.

The girl immediately became the star of the roadshow. The other performers treated her with distance and respect. They never talked with the girl, or initiated any kind of meaningful contact. She seemed content enough on her own. In a lot of ways she seemed like a normal little girl. She seemed lively enough and sometimes it even seemed like she enjoyed the attention, because there was no end to the flowers and stuffed animals and chocolates that the visitors brought to the girl.

Not to mention the cash donations, because that had been one of the stipulations of her contract - the small tin with the handwritten sign that was placed just beside the stage and was stuffed full with bills by the end of every show. Not that the girl ever saw any of the money. As far as they could tell, her guardians were counting over the bills backstage while the girl stood by herself, flipping through the pages of a book and lost in her own thoughts.

Then, one day, while they were standing together onstage, the Tattooed Man and the Human Snake, the girl whispered to the tattooed man.

"Does it hurt?"

She stared out into the crowd and her mouth barely moved when she asked the question.

"Does what?"

"Your skin."

He started, then shook his head.

"No. A little when I get the tattoos."

"I like to look at them," she said. "When we're standing up here. It helps me forget about being looked at."

"Does it bother you? Being looked at?"

"I hate it."

She didn't say anything else. She adjusted her position on the folding chair, arms and legs limp beneath her thin dress. The next day, he spoke to her on stage, again in a whisper.

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Does it hurt?"

She was silent and he thought about what a stupid question it was. Still, he was only repeating what she had asked him. He thought it was the only thing they had in common.

"Sometimes. It depends on the day. Some days it's fine. Other days it's so awful it hurts just to move."

"What do you do on those days?"

"I wait for it to get so bad that it's like I'm hardly in my body at all. Then I just float away."

Despite himself, the tattooed man began to look forward to their brief onstage chats. Offstage, the girl stared right through him. Onstage, they talked for a minute at a time, while around them people murmured and the cameras flashed. Sometimes he wondered if she was disconnecting, pulling out of her body and floating away. He began to feel protective of her and he hated the visitors, who looked uneasy and guilty and who stared and stared and could not stop staring.

But increasingly the girl seemed immune to the staring. He no longer believed that she hated the staring - she barely seemed aware of it. She sat on stage like she was sealed off from the world. She no longer spoke to him and the few times he tried to talk to her, she ignored him or did not seem to hear him. He felt her slipping away, though when he asked one of the guardians about it he said it was a low period, not to worry, that they came and went like everything else.

He worried though. Especially when he caught the girl peeling the bandages loose, revealing a collection of raw blisters, nothing good about the look of them. She ignored him and continued unwrapping the bandage. She replaced it with a fresh one, wrapping it tight and securing it with two clips. Then she carried on reading her book like there was nothing in what she had just done, nothing in what she had just seen of her own body.

It was not so simple for the tattooed man, who was overcome by guilt and helplessness at the thought of the girl. It threw him into a state of near despair, even though he did nothing - by his own admission - especially useful with it. He did ask the manager if he didn't think they should give the poor girl a couple days off. To which the manager replied that he would happily give the girl a break if she asked for it. Only she hadn't.

He thought a bit of forward thinking might have kept the girl in their midst. One week later she disappeared, with her two legal guardians. His first assumption was that she had fallen terribly ill. In fact he was told she had received a bigger contract, a better contract, with health insurance and an RV to boot, from a rival operation that was just starting up. The girl and her legal guardians had jumped at the offer, and all the other performers admitted in private that they would have done exactly the same, given the opportunity.

Katie Kitamura

Image credit: Bondidwhat/Flickr

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