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Art by Melissa Mead

Written Out

Terra was born on top of a volcano (in Hawaii) and since then has crammed a lot of unusual experiences into a relatively short number of years. She tamed a wild mustang before she turned sixteen. Before twenty-five, she traveled throughout the U.S. and to parts of Europe and Mexico. She has also held some unusual jobs, like training llamas and modeling high-heeled shoes (though not at the same time!) At her current day job she pokes holes in people, in a tattoo studio north of Atlanta. Terra's work has also appeared in Apex Magazine, Nanoism, and Share Art & Literary Magazine. Find her online at www.terralemay.com
He twitches when she sets the tip of her pen against his naked flesh, almost as if he knows what she's about to do to him. But of course that's impossible. She has never told anyone about this. About how she looks at a person, looks at him, and all she can see are words. Right there. Right under the skin. His skin, which she scratches with a long, slow line until her pen hooks the end of the word she's after. She writes it, one looping letter at a time, pulling it right out of him and onto his shoulder. Just the one word. It has been stuck in him for a long time, in a place where he had probably thought he could hide it.
She doesn't mean to go on. From the very start, when she first suggested she would like to write on him, it had always been about finding that one single word and showing it to him, proving she knew it had been there all along, like a secret self. One word that defined him completely, encompassing every aspect of his being. But the first word pulls a second behind it, a partner, no less meaningful than its companion, no less pertinent to who he is, so she writes it as well. Then the two bear a third. She can't ignore it. She adds it. She doesn't even have to lift the pen.
She traces each letter as they emerge and now that she's started she can't bear to stop. He lies quietly on his stomach while she moves her pen across his shoulder blades, down his spine, over his ribs, his buttocks, his thighs. One word leads to the next, each delicately connected to the one before it, like a chain of daisies.
She isn't sure what might happen if she tries to stop because this has never happened before. She has never pulled a man inside out by all the words inside him. She had not thought it could be like this, like he's bleeding out. A hemorrhage of ink.
She hasn't told him a single thing about what she's writing, but if he wonders about why that is, he keeps it to himself. He hasn't spoken since she started. Has hardly moved, for that matter. Just that twitch when she first touched him, then later a ticklish wriggle when she filled in the backs of his knees.
To be honest, she couldn't tell him what she was writing even if he asked. She stopped reading the words after a few lines, and now she's sure she couldn't read them if she tried. They aren't all in English, nor even all in the Latin alphabet. Some are alphabets she recognizes, but most are not. In any case, the words spill from him almost faster than she can mark them onto his skin. She doesn't have time to read.
When she has covered all the back of him, from the nape of his neck to tip of each toe (she must have fit a thousand words each on the soles of his feet, and was surprised at how well he tolerated it) she then encourages him to turn over. She needs more space. There's no question now; every last word will come, until she has emptied him entirely. She's not writing a synopsis here, or an abstract. This is his whole entire being, his soul, his self. And now that she's more than half-finished, she has begun to feel possessive, as if by writing the words, she has somehow become their creator. His author.
But what will he be when she has written all the words and he has none left to call his own? Will he be empty inside? Tabula rasa, for her to fill with marks of her own choosing? She doesn't know. She only writes. Up his shins, across his pelvis, his abdomen. Around his belly-button in a circle, and then a single character inside it. She thought he might twitch again for that one, but he doesn't. Perhaps he is in a trance from all the scratching across his skin. Or from the loss of his words. She can't imagine what it must feel like, to be pulled apart, one letter at a time. But she can't stop now. She must know what will happen, how his story will end.
Before long, she's running out of space and wondering if she was wrong, wondering if the words will ever stop or if she has tapped an endless well. She writes them everywhere, anywhere she can fit them. On his genitals. In his ears. Across his cheeks, his nose, his brow. Carefully, gently, upon his closed eyelids.
And then, abruptly, almost too soon, there is only one word left to write. She inks it quickly across the tip of his tongue--the only place left for a word--and sits back, feeling slightly shocked. A little stunned, the way the end came upon her all at once.
He clenches his hands, trembling, like he wants desperately to say something or to do something. She caps her pen and stands.
"Would you like to see?"
Of course he does.
Her mirror is across the room, and she helps him to it, urging him forward when he hesitates. He must see. Whether he likes it or not. This is important. This is who he is.
At the mirror, he's silent, but his eyes move slowly over her creation. There is emotion reflected in them when his gaze touches upon certain words. Perhaps he can read the languages she cannot.
His lips part, as if he would speak, but even though there are words on his lips, on the tip of his tongue, they are just out of his reach. They belong to her, because she is the one who wrote them. She wrote all of him, has made him into a book for anyone to read, and now that the words are out, they are beyond his control. Beyond hers, too, since she has finished, for a book belongs to its reader. Readers will fill in all the details and extrapolate between the lines on the page. His readers will write half of his story, forevermore, for good or ill.
They will misread him. Willfully or accidentally. They will find gaps between the words where they will squeeze in their own. They will write microscopic subtexts between the lines. He cannot stop it, cannot prevent it. Neither can she. But then again, is the life of a book so different than the faltering efforts of a man to communicate with others? Not so much, she thinks.
She steps back, crosses her arms, surveys the endless lines of text that expose him to anyone who cares to read, and thinks it again. A man is not so different from a book. He will grow accustomed to his new life, in time.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 29th, 2011


Some time ago, my good friend and long-time writing partner Allison Starkweather sent me a lovely story called "Words on a Page" to read and critique. I fell in love with it, and she was kind enough to grant me permission to write another version, from the point-of-view of the other character. This other version eventually became the story "Written Out." It appears here thanks to her. Doubly thanks to her, in fact. Her story came first, and I had no plans to independently seek publication for mine. Lucky for me, she inadvertently included my story when she sent her story in for consideration. It was quite a surprise when she contacted me to tell me what had happened. ("Oh dear," I thought. "That's got to feel awkward to explain.") Thankfully, it all worked out nicely in the end.

- Terra LeMay

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