THE TATTOO by Wendy MacIntyre

Wendy MacIntyre

Wita’s mother had a tattoo that colonized her left forearm. Six words, sinister and enigmatic: “Keep me safe and kill me.” The dyes that needled this sentence into her flesh were sea-green and Prussian blue. Wita was sure she had an infant memory of trying to clutch at the shimmering sea-green stuff beneath the bath water where her mother held her snug.

What had she thought the tattoo was? Pretty. Dazzling. A fish perhaps? But she was then not long out of the womb and did not know what a fish was, or even how to distinguish her mother’s body from her own. What she saw was all of a piece, amorphous and ever-shifting, with sometimes these patches of dazzle and gleam that made her want to reach out and grab them fast.

Ouch. No, Wita. That hurts. By two she had learned the tattoo was part of her mother. The lovely colors lived on her skin. To pluck at them was to cause Mother pain. Don’t!

When Wita mastered sounding out the letters of the alphabet, the words of her mother’s tattoo were among the first she ever read. Two beginning with a high-kicking K. Two me’s. (Was that selfish?) Two words she recognized as in some way opposites of each other: “safe” and “kill.” To kill was always bad, wasn’t it, except mosquitoes or poisonous snakes about to bite?

“What is your tattoo saying?” she asked. “What does ‘Keep me safe and kill me’ mean?”

“It’s only nonsense,” her mother said. “A silly thing; like, they sailed to sea in a sieve, they did; or there was an old woman who lived in a shoe.”

“It must mean something.”

“No, just silliness.”

For some time Wita accepted this explanation even though she found it deeply unsatisfying, like being read stories without a proper ending. Meanwhile, her mother covered up the tattoo with long-sleeved blouses and dresses for her work teaching piano at the university and at home on the Steinway Grand. The blue-green words were also hidden for parent-teacher meetings and visits to the doctor and dentist. When her mother went out with friends on summer evenings, she left her arms bare. Why was the tattoo hidden some times and not others? Why was it there?

There was no one else to ask. Wita had no father. He had died in a ferry accident in Indonesia before she was born. The boat was in bad condition, her mother told her, and over-crowded. There were not enough lifeboats for people to escape when the ferry began to sink in waters dark and deep. Her father had been on his way to visit his grandparents who lived on the island of Lombok. They were originally from the Netherlands, as he was: the country of wooden shoes, windmills, and tulips, like the Darwin Hybrids her mother grew. In springtime, when the garden was its own rainbow of white, scarlet, orange, and purple tulips, her mother would make twice-weekly cuttings, slicing the stalks near the base with her special curved gardening knife. She would arrange these proud flowers in blue and white vases throughout the house, although never on the Steinway Grand.

Wita found the cut tulips fierce and forbidding, particularly when her mother put the white ones together with the red. They were too much like scarlet lips and teeth withholding terrible secrets. We saw your father drown. We know what the tattoo means. They laughed down at her from the height of the marble mantelpiece, and she saw their true nature was cruel rather than lovely. The worst part was when they dropped one or two of their long, broad petals to reveal the naked stamens within. The stamens looked like little men. She imagined them growing full-sized overnight, haunting the house and whispering her father’s name.

It was Michael. Michael De Witte. Witte meant “white.”

She was not De Witte but Spens, her mother’s name. That was Spens with an “s” as she would have to clarify with good grace many hundreds of times throughout her life for people who believed they knew better than she how her name ought to be spelled.

Nor was she called Wita after De Witte. Wita was a Polish name. Her mother chose it for its music and because it had the English word “wit” inside it. Her name was a blessing and a reminder, her mother said. She must remember that wit meant a sharp, quick intelligence. She had to cultivate her mind the way you looked after a plant. “Study hard. Think before you speak. Watch closely what is happening both outside and inside your head.”


“Yes, by looking at your feelings and the questions they raise, like ‘Do I trust this person?’ or ‘Is this situation safe?

“Should I never trust someone without thinking first?”

“Never, Wita. Never.” The white exclamation mark appeared between her mother’s eyebrows.

“Did Michael have a sharp mind?”

“Yes, very.” Her mother frowned. She did not like to speak about Michael. Wita assumed this was because it hurt her too much to think of him dead at the bottom of the sea.

There was only one photograph of Michael in the house. It was not on display either in a stand-up frame or hung upon the wall, but stored in a brown envelope in the four-drawer, steel grey filing cabinet in the basement. Her mother, under duress of pointed questions, had shown Wita this picture once. Thereafter, Wita regularly sought out the photograph on her own when her mother was giving a piano lesson. As long as she could hear the rippling music and the thump of the pedals from the floor above, she was free to examine the face of the tall, lean man whose hands rested on her mother’s shoulders. Wita knew he was tall because the top of her mother’s head did not even come up to his chin. They stood together beneath a tree whose spreading branches cast leaf-shadow, like a school of tiny fish swimming across his face. Although this meant his features were in part obscured, she could still make out the marked hollows in his cheeks beneath clear ledges of bone. These hollows made him look hungry and fierce in a way that knotted her stomach. His eyes were dark, as was his hair, swept back from his forehead in a thick wedge.

He did not look at all like the image she had conjured up: a grown-up Hans Brinker with a floppy blond fringe, round blue eyes and ruddy cheeks. Michael was at first a shock, with his height and cavernous cheeks. She tried and failed utterly to imagine him hugging her. His boniness would hurt. Then she worried this was a wicked thought because Michael’s bones were all that were left of him.

She searched the photograph repeatedly for any way in which she resembled him. Her cheeks were softly rounded, like her mother’s, and she was not particularly tall for her age. Her hair was neither straight nor black, but a wiry, dark red-gold that hung about her face in unruly curls. There were some days—how she hated them—when she looked like a cocker spaniel.

The sole resemblance to Michael she could glean from the sparse pictorial evidence was long fingers. People often remarked on Wita’s and said: “You must be musical, just like your mother.”

In fact, she was not. The piano keys repelled her touch, chilly as ice cubes and as slick. Her fingers slipped off, and she was relieved to have the alien contact ended. Nor could she relate musical notation to sounds that she heard played or sung. When she looked at the books of piano music open on the Steinway Grand, she saw only little pot-bellied birds balancing on wires. They will fall off, she thought, just as her fingers fell off the cold, slippery keys.

One day she ventured the question: “Did Michael play the piano?”

First the frown; then: “No.”—Only that.

“Did he…?”

“Enough, Wita. I’m busy now.” Once again, her brave foray yielded next to nothing. She sometimes thought her ignorance of her father was as deep as the fathoms of seawater that washed over his bones.

She wanted to ask, “Did Michael also have a tattoo?” but could not gather up the courage. Her dead father and her mother’s tattoo were mysteries of equal weight.

For some days after her tetanus-diphtheria inoculation, Wita’s arm was stiff and sore. Nursing a dull remembrance of the alien prong in her flesh, it occurred to her that her mother must have suffered countless similar needle pricks for the sake of the six “silly” words that made the sea-green banner of her arm. From the Internet, she learned that some people passed out from the pain of the tattoo artist’s work, while others cried and could not continue. Given the various colors and expanse of the nineteen individual letters inked into her mother’s arm, Wita guessed the ordeal must have taken two or three sessions of six to eight hours each.

Her mother was fine-boned and literally thin-skinned. Wita was sure she sometimes saw light shining through her mother’s wrists as they flew over the piano keys. Wouldn’t the tattooing have hurt her more than someone whose skin was thick and coarse?

Try again, Wita. “Did it hurt much?” she asked one dinner time when her mother appeared particularly preoccupied. She was half-hoping the question would take her by surprise.

“What? Did what hurt, Wita?”

“Getting the tattoo.”

“Oh…a bit, yes, I suppose so. It’s long ago now.”


“Not now, Wita, please. I’m playing.”

This meant her mother was running over the notes in her mind. She had a concert coming up with the piano trio of which she was a member. Wita liked to have a seat at these events where she could see her mother centered just behind and between the violinist and cellist. As their bows flashed round her, she became a living jewel in her long-sleeved ruby or navy dress, framed by the string players’ lightning motion. Now her mother’s eyes were closed, the long lashes resting on her cheeks. Like a portcullis coming down against Wita’s questions. Wita liked the word “portcullis.”

At ten, she began an instinctive assault on her mother’s fortress. Her weapons were words, because the English language was for Wita what music was for her mother: sustenance and empowerment. The sensuous sound of fine prose, as much as its meaning, could make her feel she was flying. Or stir her with a thrilling fear.

She sat spellbound when she first came upon her own surname in the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. Poor Sir Patrick, whom the Scottish King sent on a fruitless mission to “Noroway oer the faem,” his grim fate foreshadowed by an image of the moon distorted and doubled.

I saw the new moon late yestreen

Wi the auld moon in her arm;

And if we go to sea master

I fear we’ll come to harm.


This verse, and the one etched with the sparse, sorrowful detail of her forebear’s (was he?) shipwreck, Wita took to droning in her mother’s hearing:

O forty miles off Aberdeen

‘Tis fifty fathoms deep

And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens

Wi the Scots lords at his feet.

She tried as best she could to assume a doleful tone, to become a kind of living bagpipe. In fact she was genuinely sad for the Scots lord and his attendants, who had perished in the same way her father had.

“Wita, would you please stop that tuneless droning. It is maddening.”

“It’s from the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. Perhaps he was our ancestor?”

“Perhaps. But it’s still painful, Wita, to hear the same lugubrious verses over and over. The words become meaningless.”

“I have to look at the words on your arm over and over, every day, all my life, and you’ve never explained their meaning in the first place.” She pointed rudely.

“Oh, Wita, Wita.” The sigh sounded twisted. Her mother sank into a chair. She sat with her slumped shoulders and her fists pressed against her eyelids, all hurtful for Wita to see. What had she done? Was this like Pandora’s box? Would letting loose the secret harm them all?

Her mother’s knuckles were turning white. This made Wita frightened.

“Mom, are you all right?”

The arms lowered. The eyes opened. Her mother stood and returned to the kitchen counter and the cutting board. With her back turned to Wita and her head only slightly inclined, she said, “Tonight, when you have finished your homework, I will tell you about the tattoo.”

At 9:10, she entered the living room where Emma sat on the couch reading, the book in her left hand, and her right drawing the fluid shapes of her finger-flexing exercises upon the air. Wita assumed her best listening pose in the chair opposite, back dancer-erect, and her hands cradled one within the other, thumbs precisely crossed. There should be some ceremonial symbol for the occasion, Wita thought, like a glass of wine, or, in her case, something that looked like wine, or music with a trumpet fanfare.

Her mother put down her book and drew out from between its pages a photograph, which she passed to Wita. She saw a fair-haired teenage boy with a heart-shaped face dominated by a spatula-shaped nose and large blue eyes. The way his arms were wrapped around the cello he held told her, as much as his wide smile, how much he loved this instrument.

“That is Alastair Kos,” her mother said. “He was my best friend through high school and then in our first two years in music school together.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“No, Alastair was gay. But we were very close. We played so well together, for one thing. It was as if we shared the same body and breath so that our response to each other was seamless. Music rippled through him, just as his laughter did. He had a zany sense of humor. I adored him.”

How heavy a thing the past tense could be, thought Wita. She knew before she asked the question that death had come into the room along with Alastair’s picture.

“What happened to Alastair?”

“He died—in an accident. He was just twenty-two. It was a terrible thing because he was such a rare person, so kind and generous-spirited, and truly gifted. Alastair could have played with one of the great orchestras of the world, the Hallé or the Concertgebouw.

“And it is because of Alastair I have the tattoo. One very hot day, in our first year of university, we were cycling to class along the river and I stopped at a drinking fountain. Very close to the fountain there was newly painted graffiti on the pavement. Whoever did it had used a stencil. The letters were all very neat and uniform, two-inch capitals in glistening white.

“I think we were both intrigued because it was one of the strangest graffiti we had ever seen. The words made no sense but they stayed with you.”

“Keep me safe and kill me.”

“Yes. That’s how it first came to us, in those white stenciled letters on the bike path. And Alastair found the words so funny. ‘How bizarre,’ he kept saying. ‘How absolutely bizarre.’ He was laughing the way he did, so that his whole body shook with its rippling through him. Even after we rode away, the words lodged with us.

“When we met for lunch that day, Alastair had already come up with the idea that we should both get the words tattooed on our forearms. It was a crazy suggestion, of course, and a late teenage act of rebellion, I see now. But he had a strong belief the tattoo would create a lifelong bond between us, like a blood pact.

“‘No matter where we go, no matter what happens, we’ll always be joined in this way,’ he said. We both knew he would be going away soon. He was just too brilliant not to get a scholarship to a school like Juilliard. I was never of his caliber, so I knew it was inevitable we would be parted.

“Getting the tattoos was like a marriage ceremony for us, foolish as that may sound. And that is the story, Wita, behind my tattoo. So you see, the words themselves are meaningless, as I told you. The sentence is only a sort of strange found object that Alastair and I fixed on that morning and then used to make a visible bond between us.

“That is why I keep it. In memory of him. I still miss him. Every day.”

Every day. She had never said that about Michael.

“Thank you for telling me,” Wita said, handing back the picture of the young man with his cello. “I am sorry about Alastair.”

Her mother started, as if surprised to hear the name on Wita’s lips.

Wita lay in bed unable to sleep, picturing her mother and Alastair at their discovery of the peculiar painted message on the pathway. Downstairs her mother was playing The Moonlight Sonata on the Steinway Grand. It was a piece Wita liked and knew well. So her nerves tightened in surprise when her mother jumped from the end of the first movement to the beginning of the third. Why had she omitted the second movement? Her mother had told her Franz Liszt described the middle section as “a fragile flower between two abysses.” Emma was playing only the abysses. Why would she leave out the flower?

It struck Wita with a sickening clarity that her mother was deliberately tormenting herself. She was making the Sonata discordant because she had not told Wita the whole truth. It was still a dark glass her mother held up for her, and she was playing that darkness now.

A desolate weather beset Wita’s mind, like the curdled skies of the Old Ballads. What if Emma never gave her the full truth of the tattoo, if it eluded her always? Like a sleek fish darting off into those dark waters where her father’s bones stirred. What if your sole living parent remained as much a mystery as the dead one you had never known?

Would you still find yourself in the end and know who you were?  Or would you be clutching always at that blue-green flash and dazzle, wondering and longing?

Downstairs Emma continued to play only the two abysses. “O forty miles off Aberdeen, ‘tis fifty fathoms deep,” Wita recited. Her drone tonight was strong enough to drown out her mother’s music altogether.

Wendy MacIntyre is a Scots-born Canadian who lives in the small town of Carleton Place, Ontario. She is drawn to myth and archetype, the visual arts and perplexing moral issues as inspiration for her work. Her PhD in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh focused on the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. She has published short fiction and essays in literary journals in Canada, the US, and the UK. Of her five novels published with Canadian independent literary presses, the most recent is Hunting Piero (Thistledown Press, 2017). Details of her books are available on her website.

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