Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear

By Nikki J. North

Cherry BlossomKatie Tegtmeyer

Lay upon this sheath of skin, map of bone and tendon, pulling muscle and equilateral contraction, a vacant mold. Color these remnants of steaming Vietnamese jungles, perilous trips, survived atrocities, collapsed Tokyo empires, and the love of two, with a brush dipped in water. Look at café skin, full upper lip, radiant lines emergent from eyes, volumetric cheeks, and…there is a word for the reaction. Even now it’s a true word, despite its own absurd, obsolete nature, and I know you find words precious, Daughter.

My gift to you: squinch. A squinch is neither an especially smelly portion of cheese nor a disease whose symptoms are squinting and itching. It is an involuntary kind of jerk, mixed with a spasming flinch, causing the body to both lean forward and jump back at the same time. Squinch is now one of the fifty-seven terms found on the Nguyen family Made Up Words that Can Be Used in Scrabble list, and it is the perfect word to describe the reaction of the woman who walked into my office that day. I have made you this word, an offering at the altar of your suffering so you will know that I understand, but these words will reach no further. They bind me. Let me show you. I can now. Here –

Leading a client with designer Vash Vidaaru circuitry sliding up her jaw to the clinic chair, I see her trying to catch a glimpse of my ankle, straining for a peek of skin beneath my high collar. She’s wasting her time, as have many before her. I don’t have any sub-q. I’ve never been inked.

There are those who choose to go without ink. Some people leave the face blank as a form of self-expression, some because they are part of a religious group that forbids it. Almost everybody knows a friend of a friend whose cousin is blank, but most people will never meet a resistant in a time when it’s more common to see a man with a giant squid tattooed across his forehead than a ten-year-old with a spot of untouched skin. These days seeing someone without sub-q is like opening a book and finding all the pages are empty, so I understand the stares. Usually, I ignore them, but not today. When I catch the woman scrutinizing my neck for the third time, I answer the unasked question. I even tell the truth: I’m resistant.

“Actually,” I say, keeping a detached smile on my face as I prep ink with gloved hands, “resistant is a bit of an understatement. My body violently rejects the ink.” I dip the needle into a bottle of standard sub-q. “In fact, just a drop of this landing on my skin would send my body’s immune system into a kind of protective overdrive that would create enough toxins to incapacitate me for hours. Hence the long sleeves and twitchy assistant.” I smile as my thumb pulls skin taut. “Mia is good. She’s been with me for years. I went through three assistants before her. Nothing like finding your boss unconscious, right?”

Needle hovering, I look the woman in the eyes. My self-deprecating smile fades. Words down a well, I think. Her top teeth clasp her lower lip. Her eyes dart away. It’s always like that with the ones who never learned to speak. I wonder what I must sound like to her. Are my words loud and sharp? Are they like the meaningless squawk of a bird? Or are they a writhing babble under the composed stream of sub-q communications running through her head? What exquisite data is she exchanging while I sit here like a rock, like a giraffe longing for opposable thumbs? Halfway through this habitual, bitter thought the realization hits me that today I don’t have to feel this way. The needle skitters as my hand convulses, and I almost penetrate too far into the derma.

I manage keep my thoughts focused for the rest of the appointment.

Finished enhancing her comm system with the latest upgrades, I show Mrs. Bardon out to the lobby where Mia will hand her a bill that is three times most people’s rent. Nothing but the best for Servanix Group board members and their husbands…and their children and their cousins and their associates at the Office of New Immortals and their friends in Sydney North Ring. And, and, and – the list is a long one composed of Sydney’s rich and richer. I don’t mind. Their grasping pursuit of the techpossible (Nguyen Scrabble Word #44, a contribution from Kaede) funds my research.

In my office a stack of messages covered in Mia’s careful handwriting waits. I ignore it, pushing up my left shirt sleeve instead. There I trace the reason for my joy: a black, three-inch line, stark and defiant amongst the ghosts of past attempts. Unlike its kin, gobbled up and spit out by my body’s own defenses, it remains. Ten days ago, surrounded by the quiet of a deserted building, I inked this line into my skin. With Emergency’s number queued on my ancient mobile, I waited for the crippling pain and shortness of breath to overtake me.

Only now, looking down at it still there, do I finally let myself believe that after two years of resuming my search I’ve found the enzyme that will make it work. There is one person in all the world I want to tell.

Kaede, when you don’t have ink you’re a ghost. You glide in a world of silence. Public spaces are full of eyes that never focus and mouths that never move. Walking through the open food court at the bottom of the clinic is never really a comfortable experience, but lunch is the worst: the shouts of forks on plates, the screams of chairs being pushed back, the roar of breath that bellows in and out of hundreds of lungs through lips unused. Here –

I escape the cool interior of the Sydney General Dermacomm and Neurocohesives Clinic building into a day capped by a sky milky with cumulus clouds. The buildings around me are thorns piercing this dome with their spiraling exteriors. Songs of thrushes and robins overlay the distant calls of seabirds. People rush around me. Most are headed toward Central, still caught in the morning commute. Letting myself be taken up in the stream of their travel, I walk past the older Short District and halfway through New Zenith District before I see the man with the complex of Keorgi tats. At first glance I am taken by their beauty. Someone knows their business. I’m trying to figure out where I know the style from when I realize the man’s eyes are not staring into the distance past me, taking in ads and signs and addresses only he can see, but are focused on something. He is looking at me, seeing me. It feels like a thousand feathers landing on my skin. I stop and turn back to get a better look, but he’s gone. I stand to the side as a transport whispers past. Water from the building’s weather system murmurs down the shining black synthskin exterior. The feeling of eyes touching me has disappeared with the man.

The elevator in the Servanix Tech building smells like leather and pomegranate. It takes me to the twenty-fourth floor where, after traveling a maze of curving hallways, I find Kaede’s office.

She’s not there.

I leave a note with her assistant, who holds it pinched between two fingers like a dead possum. Exiting the building, my eyes dart up both sides of the greenway jostling and shimmering with people. The rising and falling voices of the leaves covering the spiral behind me crash and echo. I wish for a dog to bark. I wish for one out of the thousands of people rushing by to laugh. I wish for a giant bell, the kind of bell that must be rung by two men hurtling a whole tree’s worth of wood at it, the kind of bell that would call with its deep voice across mist-shrouded mountains and cratered valleys, eating this quiescent scene with its annihilating voice. There is no bell, only a world immersed in sub-q. My skin curls tight to my body waiting for the touch of eyes as I make my way back to the clinic.

My mother’s generation was the last to live in a spoken world. She named me Izumi and died when I was nineteen. I loved my mother’s quiet presence, and the way she smelled like almonds. I loved the way her black hair made an almost audible twang as the curls sprang back up under the hand she used to constantly smooth them down. I loved the swirls of tattoo that washed and echoed across her face. I remember tracing them with a finger as she leaned over me, pulling blankets tight around shoulders. I still try, sometimes, to trace my own face while lying in bed and see myself in the topographic mirror there, but all I see is the ink of her face superimposed over the unmapped territory of my own. Kaede, do you lie somewhere now? Do you try to imagine yourself otherwise? Give me the gift of believing you do not. Here –

“I came by your office today,” I say, pouring the rest of the wine into Kaede’s glass.

“Oh?”

I nod, holding her glass hostage in one hand until she yields.

“I was in the lab.”

When Kaede lies she does this thing with her voice. It becomes rougher, like the lies are smoke rising in her throat.

“New research? Or still working on –”

“Oh, I don’t want to bore you, Mom.” She dismisses my question with a wave of her fork.

I want to bark a “Ha!” at her over my own glass of wine. I know you think I’m a fifty-four-year-old has-been, a dinosaur flashmonkey who’s never had a drop on her skin, but who gave you the beautiful tiger main tat that crosses your back, dear? And why are you avoiding my questions? And why was a man with your ink following me around the city today?

I don’t say these things, though. I drink my wine and let Margie, my younger daughter, change the subject. She begins gossiping about something one of the famous clients at the net entertainment agency where she works has done. On her back is the crane I gave her when she was twelve. She’s continued the motif. Water scrolls up her collarbones, washing up her neck and jaw to her ears, where it carries the signals that make her constantly tip her head in silent communion with a client. She’s been at it the whole meal. Her voice trails off as she’s taken away again.

“Hey!” Kaede’s palm comes down hard on the table. “Get out of the sub-q and have a real conversation.”

They share a long look. What kind of sibling squabble are they having? What expressions and kindled emotion is being passed in the ether of sub-q? I want to know and to tell them both that soon I will know. They’ve both heard it before, but this time is different. This time it’s real. Margie leaves the table.

“So, Mom,” Kaede says, sounding far too bright and chipper.

“So, Kaede.” I grin at her. It’s a joyful grin, but she doesn’t see it; her focus is on dismantling the fudge cake in front of her into smaller and smaller piles of crumbs. The secret of my joy is swallowed by the image of the tats on the stranger.

“Sorry, that was Kyle,” Margie says, taking her seat again.

We talk about cake and work and Margie’s boyfriend, whom Kaede and I both dislike, for the rest of the night. Margie leaves with a kiss pressed affectionately to my left cheek; Kaede follows with a kiss to the right. They never have been much for sharing.

Kaede pauses at the door. I’m going to tell her. I find myself clutching the door instead. Kaede’s eyes flicker downward, and I realize I’m rubbing my forearm. She leaves without saying anything.

Standing at the window moments later, my mind worries at shadows. I have a feeling I’ve missed something, that I’ve failed to understand a critical component in the schematic of the night. I clear the table, sit at the computer, but ultimately find myself back at the wine. After two more glasses to stop my brain from moving and flickering, sleep comes like a whispered incantation.

I wake to the sharp trills of the HUD in my bedroom. Eyes shuttered against the light from the wall to my left, I try to make out the characters scrolling there. It’s a message from the intrusion detection monitor at work. Someone has hacked their way into the clinic systems. I run a log audit; there’s no indication of remote access. Security guy trip something? Mia doing some late-night work? Neither scenario seems very plausible. The sense of failed understanding returns as I run a full scan of the system.

The data has been wiped. My schematics, the latest ink formulations, everything: it’s all gone.

The clock reads 5:42 AM when I duck inside the darkened clinic. Lights blink on at my presence. A figure sits in the swiveling stool I usually occupy.

“You need better security, Mom.”

“Kaede?”

“I’m out of time. They think I’m just here to clean up, but I wanted to do this one last thing and I didn’t know how to …” She shrugs the way someone who just tipped a little too much salt into the soup might. “This worked. You’re here.” My mind is screaming her name. My heart is turned upside down. “They won’t understand it. They will revile me for it, but maybe, if you stay out of it, they’ll let it go.” Her voice changes, grows brusque and commanding. It’s her lab voice. “Doesn’t matter. We’re here.”

I’m breathing hard through my nose. The world is dancing around me, scrambling to reconcile…everything.

“I have a gift for you,” she says, gesturing to the chair that has been host to so many others. “The hack you have is wrong, Mom.” My hand rises to cover the black line she’s looking at. “In a small dose it’s fine, but if you try for a CPF…”

“They? The guy that followed me today?” I feel for the chair behind me and fall into it, all ability to keep my legs straight draining from me.

“Once upon a time I was working on my thesis about ink that could be used to tat resistants –”

“But your thesis was on regenerative algorithms,” I interrupt.

“No, that’s what I ended up publishing, but in the beginning it was on developing ink for you.”

She begins sorting through the equipment in the drawers, pulling out needles and arranging them on a metal tray.

“While I was working on the first thesis I was approached by Servanix Tech. They provided access to state-of-the-art facilities and all the equipment I needed. Eventually it became apparent through certain…channels that they weren’t interested in helping resistants at all. They had that ink already.” She lets out a laugh. “Can you believe it? They had it all along. ‘No market value,’ they said. No reason to sell it, but no reason to give away trade secrets either, so they sat on it.”

“They had…you’ve had it for seven years?”

She pulls the screen attached to a long, flexible arm over. She fiddles with it for a moment.

“Do you remember how I begged you to do my main? How I whined and whinged, and you resisted for two whole years? I thought I would die waiting. I was fifteen – ancient – and still without sub-q. My life was being ruined minute by minute.” Her fingers twist a loose screw on the metal arm, tightening it until it will turn no further. “I thought…for a long time I thought you were jealous, because I could have it and you couldn’t. I thought you resented me.”

Part of me is listening, but part of me is in the past clinging to my daughter as I knew her: a trip to the park, spreading out the blanket, eating popsicles that turn lips red, Kaede lying on her back competing with Margie to see who could name the most leaves.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you would stop. I kept thinking, after every trip to Emergency, ‘Okay, now she’ll stop. Now, we, her kids, her family, her life will be enough.’”

She pulls several bottles of ink from her pocket and sets them on the tray.

“But you’re not going to stop, are you?” I don’t answer, because I want to say yes – yes, I will stop for you – but it would be a lie. Kaede pulls on a pair of gloves.

“After you get ink things are loud. There’s too much and not enough, and there are whole days, whole weeks, where you don’t speak a word. And when you don’t speak them, those words, Mom, they sink down and lodge themselves in you and make you like concrete. Everything is dry and sterile; the precision of the exchange without interpretation is so sharp, so even when you’re alone, you’re not alone. This is the world, now. It’s a world full of heads without voices, and expression without symbol. I talk to you and then I try to talk to them and it’s like talking to corpses. I don’t want this to be the world: a world where there’s always something knocking on the door, something, something, something. I can’t…you can’t know –”

An unspoken war is waged behind her eyes until some unheard, final shot is fired, and she comes to a decision.

“But I’ll show you. Before I bring it down, I’ll show you. Then you’ll understand.”

I should walk away. I should tell her no for her own good, for mine, but I want it. I’ve always wanted it. I sit on the chair I have helped so many people into. The low hum of the embedding needle fills the theater.

It takes her all night and well into the next morning to finish. It’s a testament to just how tired I am that I manage to doze occasionally, even as a tiny needle drives over and over into my back. The tat is a thing of beauty – the most intricate I’ve ever seen. It’s in the shape of a tree. The branches are a repeating fractal of leaves spread out over my shoulders from a trunk tracing its way up my spine. At the base she’s made it look as if the skin of my back has unzipped just above the bend of my waist, exposing my spine against a background of stars. From the bare branches of the tree, sparrows lift and fly over the curve of my shoulder, ascending my neck. The circuit work is immaculate.

She steps back. I turn my head to catch her admiring her work. I stroke one of the sparrows that flies up my neck toward the base of my ear with the tip of a finger, as if it is a living thing.

Kaede watches. “You used to get this look on your face sometimes. It was like you were a sparrow trying to fly to the moon.” She sounds so tired.

I’m about to reply when the system begins to boot. I’m looking at Kaede, but in her place I now see a wordless dreaming construct. Tangled webs of identity shift and converge, a restless, tectonic dance of memory projecting branches and trees of data, nodes of relationships pointing toward sister, mother, father, lovers, boss, favorite authors, ice cream last eaten, a night at the pub. Each strand is a path I want to follow. Woven through it all are bells: shop bells and gongs, bells for summoning hotel clerks and bells for dismissing churches, chimes played by the wind, and secret bells made to be rung by only one person. They call out to the whole world. The system is up.

Kaede is smiling a hard shark of a smile that hurts my heart to see. I know the expression on my face must be one of unfocused eyes and slackened face. I try to block out the bells and resist the call of paths unfurling all around me. Kaede pulls me to her in a hug. I can feel her hand, palm open, rising toward the middle of my back.

“Be careful…” her voice chokes, “the people I am going with will not understand this. They will be busy. They will be distracted, yes, but they will find out, and they will fear. Some may stay behind just for you. And I can’t…maybe they’re right, but I couldn’t…Mom, don’t make me regret doing this for you. Be content with this gift and don’t try to stop us.

I try to whisper in her ear, but then realize I can finally do something better. I can show her the singing bells. I can see her –

I don’t feel the coded pulse that sends me slumping to the floor.

When I wake she is gone.

Kaede, inside the envelope from you is a wood tile with the letter “e” on it. I will place it on the board by the window with the others. I have decided this word you are sending me is the shape of a piece of driftwood found on the beach one morning by a girl in a red dress. It is a hollow, spare, twisted shape, but still so full.

So far Sydney remains untouched by the exquisite virus you created, but I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time. Too many are already infected. The mutations are happening too fast. Your monster is fierce and clever. As I watch the sub-q continue to go dark – a city in Colorado, France, half of China – I call out to you again with this cry of bells and other futures. The phonemic sounds of the past are gone, but I am still speaking. The voice is new, but the message is as old as fire and blood.

We will only build it again.

Are you listening, Kaede? Let this be enough. Come home. We will sit at the board by the window. The sun will anoint us, and we will name the leaves.

About Nikki J. North
Nikki J. North lives on the island of Guam with her wonderful spousal unit. When she isn’t programming, she’s writing. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading. When she isn’t reading, she’s raising a ninja monkey army bent on world construction.
1 Comment
  1. Priest
    Priest04-23-2013

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