The Tattooed Man and the Human Snake
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
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out of date.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.
He started, then shook his head.
"No. A little when I get the
"I like to look at them," she said.
"When we're standing up here. It helps me forget about being looked
"Does it bother you? Being looked
"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
"Sometimes. It depends on the day.
Some days it's fine. Other days it's so awful it hurts just to
"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
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
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.
Image credit: Bondidwhat/Flickr