And They Shall Tattoo History on Your Skin
by J.E. Reich
When Sycorax started to tattoo history on Calibanâ€™s skin, she whispered in his ear, â€œYou too have a story that needs to be told.â€ His nerves curdled with pain. His clenched teeth caught screams like fishing nets. â€œHold on a little longer,â€ she persevered, one hand splayed across his chest, restraining him, while the other hand etched, carved, persisted. His mother was a witch. She could have lessened the pain. Dulled it. â€œThis is what history feels like.â€ Searing into his canvas. His sense of self started to expand. Sycorax was stitching his birth on his left breast. He held onto the rocks and trees; they urged him to love. He seeped into the sand. â€œWe were once just stones,â€ it said, â€œbut now we are something grand.â€ Thou earth, thou! Speak! â€œYou will never forget this,â€ sang Calibanâ€™s mother, â€œAnd you will do this yourself, one day.â€
And though there were no others on the island, he believed her.
Forgive us, all. The curtains have parted. The prologue has been delivered. Those who read deeply, those who exist in ink pots and feathered quills, those who blind themselves within the curvatures and curlicues of letters, will tell us this is stasis. We call them learned. We call them sages. They tell us this is drama. This is introduction. This is beginning.
Caliban loved the island and the island loved him, but not enough to consummate it with his flesh, like Sycorax. Sycorax understood the importance of origin. She would never tell Caliban about his father, but would point to Calibanâ€™s lips and say, â€œThis; this is him.â€ To his ears: â€œThis is me.â€ To his eyes: â€œThis is me.â€ To his chest: â€œThis is everything.â€ To his fists: â€œThis is nothing.â€
Sycorax was from Africa and she expounded upon beauty. Dissertations. Lectures. Beauty was worn on the skin. â€œBones are cages. We are all walking stories.â€ Sycorax was a tapestry. Bright flowers bloomed from her fingertips. A high tide eroded her stomach. A dark canyon fell between her breasts. Moss hid her thighs. And her face! Her face hath launched a thousand ships. A ladder rose up the bridge of her nose, her eyes were heaven; her face was glory.
â€œMother,â€ said Caliban, â€œYou are the world.â€ She said nothing.
There were no other inhabitants on the island but Caliban and his mother, nothing that he could tangibly catch, like a fish. He vied for her stream of love, begged desperately for it. He cried for it, wailed, mourned. â€œI am a child,â€ the nuances of his sobs demanded, â€œyou owe it to me, you brought me here and you are the only one to love me.â€ However, Sycorax had other duties to perform and visions to parlay. â€œI am not merely a mother,â€ she would declare to her son, â€œI am more.â€ She would conjure a bonfire before her and stare into the distance through the smoke. Solar flares passed in her eyes. Sycorax would greet her dreams in silent, still dignity, tendons and muscles and joints hardened into place. The sun would pass over them, traipsing, observing mother and son intently. She would arouse herself after a time and murmur, â€œAh.â€ Whatâ€™s past is prologue. Tactful finality. Caliban never questioned it.
He pondered the places she saw without him, as he stared so deeply into her eyes. She was unresponsive. The fresh springs, brine pits, barren places and fertile. The wild waters in this roar, the manifestations of all spirits, of everything his mother was connected to. Of everything she felt. In these places, he could not reach her, and it frightened him to no end. He could not imagine life alone.
Alas. He feared it and it eventually came, as all fears eventually do. It was after a meditation; or rather, during. Sycorax did not move after the sun made an epic dive into the sea, nor after the bonfire was reduced to wisps. The sea, mounting to thâ€™ welkinâ€™s cheek, dashes the fire out. Caliban hugged his shoulders and whimpered. He moved towards her, and pushed her to stir her, yet she remained anchored. With horror, Caliban realized that his mother had rooted herself into the ground. In sick fascination, he stayed with her throughout the night, stroking her hair. â€œDo not be afraid,â€ he warbled, though he did not know to whom he said it to. Her skin became rough like ancient parchment, and then harder and gnarled and thicker. Her nose and eyes and ears became knots. Her limbs twisted unto themselves. It was only when dawn broke that he could not bear to touch her anymore; the strands of her hair grew leaves and the gray dusk of morning revealed that she had become a tree. And although she had become more, so much more (indeed, what she had wanted to become), Caliban threw himself to the ground and beat his fists upon it. â€œTake me with you,â€ he said.
We have now reached what Shakespearean scholars of the highest caliber call â€œthe rising actionâ€. The story will branch into complications and secondary complications. New characters will be introduced. In short, the plot doth thicken.
The boat swayed on the border of the horizon â€“ the border of the world â€“ but Caliban did not realize it was a boat. The form of a boat did not exist within his sphere of context. A hazy, shift-shaping fog descended over it. Caliban squinted and squirmed, yet nothing was clearer in his mind. Nothing had been clear for quite some time. He sought shelter in a cave near his mother, the corpse of a tree. She was handsome in the way she bended and forked. Her trunk took on the shape of a journey. He watched her monument forlornly. â€œYou have left me,â€ a voice murmured in his head, â€œand it is hard to learn how to fend for myself.â€
A new force was arriving in another wooden form, to a brave new world, that hath such people in it. He traced the tattoos on his skin as the vessel drew closer. The patterns formed mandalas on his arms. He looked as if he had been stitched together from scratch, as if he had once been a pile of tattered rags and been sewn to life.
The ship barraged ashore, and two figures emerged. Both were decidedly human; Caliban remembered his motherâ€™s recollections of the anatomy of man. She had told him stories of the Moors in Algeria, and that though they hid their forms underneath layers of â€“ what was it called, clothing? â€“ they were cast from the same ethereal mold. One was a man. A thrum struck in Calibanâ€™s chest. The other was smaller, but at the same time far surpasseth Sycorax, as greatâ€™st does least. She was borne of femininity, though small and far more precious. The sand shifted beneath their feet. Caliban hid behind his motherâ€™s tree. He had never been taught what to say to other beings. He had forgotten they had existed; that they, too, orbited clockwise in the universe. It had only been Caliban and his mother. Sycorax and Caliban.
The small one had precocious eyes and a frenetic manner. She zig-zagged across the beach. The older one, the male, looked on cautiously. She was the world to him. Sorrow swelled in Calibanâ€™s throat. â€œMother.â€
Either as an act of fate, or manifest destiny, or perhaps a preconceived plot point, the little one came to the tree and touched Sycoraxâ€™s bark. A tinkling sound escaped from her mouth, like a flying tropical bird. A laugh. She touched his motherâ€™s skin.
It was here that Caliban revealed himself from behind his motherâ€™s shadow. Has thou not dropped from heaven?
In some ways, we have failed the laureled Bard, because we are about to reveal a back story so late in this tale. This is exposition. The seed should have been planted in our minds from the beginning. Herein lies our fault. We do not know everything.
Enter, Prospero and Miranda.
Prospero had once been the Duke of Milan, and Miranda his daughter. The excuse of her birth was not revealed to her until years later, and even then, he lied. She was told that her mother had been perfect. Miranda had her eyes, filled with her countenance. Her mother had died during childbirth. Her mother had been a saint. In truth, her mother had been a scullery maid. Prospero had never wed. He was discreetly of the homosexual persuasion. He found solace for his loneliness in ancient texts. They elaborated on spirits in perfect male form. They danced across the screen of his closed eyes. They were magic.
Prospero feared his responsibilities. He needed to produce an heir. Cast his seed. And so forth. He was the Duke of Milan. He selected a maiden from the scrounges of his estate and pillaged her. He prayed for forgiveness and imagined a brawny angel beneath him.
Miranda was born soon after, and the scullery maid was sent away with a hefty sum for her compensation. Prospero cherished his daughter. She was a wonder to behold. No one questioned where she had come from. He was the Duke of Milan.
As is common in such kingdoms and such stories, tumult erupted during Prosperoâ€™s reign. Something with complications, bi-partisan politics, fires, and pitchforks. For shame. Prospero was usurped. He prepared a ship filled with velvety pillows, his books, and linens for his daughter. They set sail as the citizens of Milan cried out injustices, I am subject to a tyrant! Prospero had been kicked by the boot of Italy. He tried to console himself. This was all for the best. To Prospero, this was a tropical vacation.
Now, we have reached a juxtaposition of two worlds. And what do we call this? A conflict? An introduction? Or maybe (though, dramatically, it is incorrect; for lives are a compilation of scenes and acts, and the curtains of our visions close without applause), this can be called a beginning.
Thus began the second half of Calibanâ€™s education. Sycorax had taught him the broader scheme of things, and now it was up to Prospero to elaborate. Prospero lectured Caliban in his own language. The first breakthrough was when Caliban first said his own name. The process was terse and tedious. He misplaced his â€œrâ€s and â€œlâ€s, and first proclaimed to the world, â€œCariban, Cariban!â€ Miranda and Prospero wrestled with Calibanâ€™s rebellious tongue. Repeateth slowly, they pleaded. Prospero consulted his books, vying for translations.
On the day that Caliban declared his name duly, something swelled within Prospero. It was an amalgamation of clichÃ©s. His heart grew, he cried eureka, his cup runneth over. Cal-ee-baaan.
They had found the light in the cave. This was the first of many words. Caliban became Prosperoâ€™s fascination. He boasted, I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or another when thou didst not, Savage, know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish! I endowed thy purposes with words that made them known. Caliban nodded, and wondered why it took so long to say the most simple of things. He, however, was quick to serve and adapt. The islandâ€™s mine by Sycorax my mother. Iâ€™ll show thee every fertile oâ€™ thâ€™ island. Iâ€™ll show thee the best springs, Iâ€™ll pluck thee berries. Iâ€™ll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough! He promised the world to them. I will kiss thy foot. Prospero was quick to accept a new worshiper. I prithee, be my god.
Miranda was an untapped brightness. Her eyes were gimlets. Her downfall, however, was her inability to remain still. This frustrated Prospero to no end. She would not harken to his calls. She thought she was the wind. She ran to and fro, the hot sand burning the bottom of her tender soles. She whispered and yelped and howled in tandem to the migrating tropical breezes. She reminded Caliban of sprites and imps. Spirits and angels. The conjurings of his mother.
When Miranda grew tired of her attempts to catch the wind in her cupped palms, she would climb his motherâ€™s tree and perch herself on a thick branch. Her eyes would skim the shore and then further, searching for a shape beyond the grim, finite line of the horizon. Striving for origin. Caliban would join her. She would offer her hand to hoist him up. Both knew he could climb on his own. He took it, despite. Cradled in Sycoraxâ€™s arms, time passed before their eyes like a bedlam in the distance. Though she could not understand his mother tongue, Caliban whispered sweetly, honestly, â€œYou are like me. All we want to find is a beginning.â€
Miranda always questioned Caliban about his tattoos. She traced their outlines with her forefinger. She confided in him that before he had been able to speak to her in her language, she had thought that his tattoos were scales. She had thought that he was half man, half fish. What a preposterous thought! They were the same. How silly to think otherwise.
Why were the tattoos there? Miranda persisted with her questions. She was incurably curious. She was relentless. â€œMy mother loved me,â€ answered Caliban. This clarified nothing for her. She asked him if it hurt. â€œOf course. But it is necessary.â€ And again, why?
Caliban put his hand to his chest. For a moment, his mind was elsewhere. He envisioned his mother. Sycorax sank slowly into the terrifying mystery of the sea. Into the next tempest.
â€œBecause now, I cannot hide who I am, or what I am. My story unfolds before you. They tattooed history on my skin. And I,â€ he paused, â€œI am truth.â€
She turned to him and placed her hand over his. Over his heart.
Caliban knew that they were ready to begin.
We have reached the eye of the storm. If Shakespeare were here to write this drama and declare it as his own, he would raise his quill and christen this the climax. From here, the only way to fall is down.
Caliban gathered his materials. He crushed beetle wings, removed ink sacs and vertebrae from squids. He fashioned these bones into needles. He crushed powders and whisked liquids. Caliban conjured colors and thought of how pleased Prospero would be, for in his own right, Caliban was becoming a sorcerer. He was going to tattoo a sweeping landscape onto Mirandaâ€™s white skin. He was going to place her on a pedestal. She would be divine. She would be beautiful, the most beautiful.
They met under his motherâ€™s tree. Caliban laid the inks and pens before her. â€œLay down,â€ he commanded solemnly. She whispered and asked if it would hurt, if she would cry. The first ere I sighâ€™d for.
He pressed his hand upon the hollow below her collarbone.
â€œThis is what history feels like. You too have a story that needs to be told.â€
As Caliban moved to begin â€“ as history was about to begin again â€“ it was dashâ€™d all to pieces. Here appeared the roar of the true sirocco, a most dreadful tempest. The fury of Prospero was untamable. Caliban was monsooned with blows from the end of Prosperoâ€™s staff. Savages and men of Ind! he thundered, freckled whelp, hagborn! Prospero struck and struck again. He thought of the irreversible searing of his daughterâ€™s flesh. She did not want to lie spread-eagled, hearkening, waiting for the world to come inside. She did not know any better. He thought of the faint whisperings of knowledge in his books, bound together, stitched into silence. His daughter would never be this creature, so open and prone to hurt. He thought of kept secrets, he thought of his own shame, and his pacing grew faster yet.
Iâ€™ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace! sobbed Caliban, though he did not know what crimes had condemned him. â€œI only wanted her to know truth! I only wanted to love her!â€, but they did not understand a word he said.
The notable scholars of our time cannot prove the existence of this incident. The ebbing tide has eroded these words. The parchment has decomposed. Academics call this the rape of Miranda. They name Caliban the noble savage. They cite text as proof. Text, however, does not always read the same as truth. They have not been on this island. Even I, Miranda herself, who begs and beckons from the pages, who pleads for a revision of history â€“ or perhaps not a revision, but a reinstitution, a righting of things wrong â€“ they cannot hear me. They will never know of the first world I inhabited, a world far more courageous than the second. And if they could, here is how they would see that this is so: they would squint their eyes and find the words that lay a little further beyond the lines, like staring into the deep wondrous sea. It is the faint outline of a distant shore, so clear when seen with the heart. Focused through a cutlass. And then the faint voice of Sycorax, rooted in the ground deeper and further than history, would beckon with brambled branches, strong enough to lift them up to the heavens. â€œCome home, come home.â€