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Art by Melissa Mead

Words on a Page

Allison Starkweather sealed her fate in middle school when she decided on a whim that she was going to write a book. She hasn't been able to stop since. When not writing, she likes to make pretty things out of yarn and wool.
He flinches at the touch of sharp, cool metal against his shoulder. Only once and then he stills, holding himself motionless for her. She begins slowly, dragging the nib over his skin, leaving tracks that chill him as the ink dries. He shuts his eyes and focuses on the movement of the pen upon his flesh, but he can't be sure of the letters she's writing.
A shudder runs down his spine as she finishes the first word with a flourish, a strange sensation of relief like the purging of a wound as she pulls it from him and lays it out on his skin.
He wants to know what she wrote, and why. What she saw. She only said she wanted to write one word on him, that it would be like performance art. But her pen moves on, writes another, and a third. It's a strange feeling, having these words drawn out of him, but each one intensifies the sensation of being cleansed and purged, so he wrestles down his impatience and keeps himself a still canvas for her art.
She fills his back, inscribing it from the stretch of his broad shoulders to his narrow waist. He thinks maybe she'll stop there, but the pen continues, drawing its cool, itching lines over his buttocks, down his thighs. She writes something small and intricate at the backs of his knees, and it's all he can do not to writhe at the torment. Her pen stills until he has regained control of himself.
She continues, down his leg, around his ankle twice, across the top of his foot to his toes. Even those don't remain uninked. The sensation is beginning to feel less like purging and more like emptying. Wait, he tries to say, but she snatches the word away before he can speak it. Alarm spikes, as sharp as the nib of her pen, but as his protests rise within him, she catches them and pulls them out, warps them to her own purposes. She reverses her journey, writing up the front of his leg as she wrote down the back, covering him in ebon swirls and lines and dots. He cannot move. She pays special attention to his hip, then continues up his side. He flinches as the nib scrawls across his waist, but she stills him with a touch, then rewards him with a ring of text around his navel and paragraphs of it up his abdomen. More words circle his areolae. Columns of them decorate his chest. Her writing wraps dark fingers around his throat, then cascades down his arms. They are covered as the rest of him is covered, endless spiraling lines of words that he doesn't dare read. More are written across the palms of his hands, ten along each of his fingers. A tiny Chinese character sits poised on the web of flesh between his thumb and index finger.
She leaves no skin blank, not even the soles of his feet. Even his penis is inscribed upon, gently manipulated with the touch of her fingers until he's hard and then etched around its circumference like an ancient scroll. The scratch of metal and itch of ink is almost intolerable, as painful as though she wrote with the tip of a knife, not a pen. His hands fist, muscles straining, but he forces himself to remain still.
The last word she writes on the tip of his tongue. As she slides the cap onto the pen and climbs to her feet, the bitterness of the ink fills his mouth. Her eyes shine with the euphoria of a finished masterpiece.
"Would you like to see?"
The thought terrifies him, but he cannot speak. He wants to say no, but he nods instead. She guides him to the long mirror on the other side of the room and he feels himself hesitating. He's afraid to see what she has transformed him into. But her touch is insistent and unwavering; it urges him forward on numb feet, forcing him to see what he has become.
He stands before the mirror and stares. Thousands of words cover him, written in loose, flowing scripts and tight, formal print. Many are English, but more are not. He knows the romance languages, understands some of the Italian and most of the French. Others he recognizes, vaguely. He thinks he spots Russian, written in a long trail down the valley of his spine, but it could be some other Cyrillic language. He sees Vietnamese and Korean and Thai, German and Greek and Hindi. One hand is covered in Sanskrit, the other in a dozen varieties of Gaelic.
He is covered in dozens of alphabets, hundreds of languages, and each of them is a line written upon his soul. Patience is written at his waist, Passion across one bony knee. Love forms a circle above his heart, and holds within it Hurt and Trust and Hope. Light follows the slope of one clavicle, Shadow the other. Penance and Absolution and Sin form manacles around his wrists.
No, he would say. No, there is nothing of Treachery in me. You are wrong. What have you done? But he cannot speak for himself anymore. She has taken the words from him, laid them bare upon his skin for anyone to see. He is more exposed now than when he stood naked before her. The column of his throat is inked with Secrets and Lies and long lines of text that he can feel rising up from within him, things he'd swallowed down long ago and swore never to voice.
He would scream, rail at her for doing this to him, but there isn't a single word left. He would weep, but Pain is no longer his. He would rage, but Hate is gone as well. He is an empty husk, and she has made him so. His skin is fragile parchment, stained with the ink of his blood. His heartbeat is the quiet rustle of pages, turned by a careful hand. The untidy amalgam of what once defined him, thought and experience and life, has been distilled to sweeping lines of pigment and ink, defining him, confining him. He is nothing but words on a page.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 28th, 2011


This story is one of those that reached up, grabbed me by the throat, and refused to let me breathe until it had had its way with me. It was inspired in part by my love of writing, languages, and an experiment in voice prompted by a lovely collection of shorts my writing buddy, Terra LeMay, sent me.

- Allison Starkweather

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