Briar Rose

by Kim Antieau

She opened her eyes to white and realized she knew nothing. The nurse was white, too.

"Good morning, sugar," the nurse said. "Do you know who you are?"

She shook her head and wondered where the window was. Maybe if she saw the sunlight, maybe if she saw the world really existed, she would know. Silly thought. The world existed. It was she, she was certain, who was not supposed to be.

"Turn over," the nurse said. Her voice was as pretty as anything she could remember. Though that wasn’t much. She turned over. The nurse threw off the covers and pulled up her hospital gown. "Lookie here, girl," the nurse said. "Maybe that will jar your memory."

She looked down at her own bare ass, twisting her head and arching her back. A small rose bloomed on her white butt, its red petals surrounded by a crown of thorns.

She touched it.

"Maybe my name is Rose," she said.

"All right, Rose, honey," the nurse said, putting the hospital gown and covers back over her bare skin. "We don’t know who you are either. You came in with glass all over your arms, cut deep."

Rose held up her bandaged arms.

"You said you’d fallen through a plate glass window." The nurse smiled. "We decided to take your word on that and not put you in the psych ward. All you have to do now is eat that shit they call food, rest,and get better. Just whistle if you need anything."

The nurse in white smiled; for a moment, Rose thought she was dressed in shining armor. Rose shook her head and the nurse was gone. She closed her eyes and reached into her memory. Nothing. Except a man with a needle that looked like those wood burners they used in shop class when she was in high school."Have you come to be transformed?" the man asked. "I don’t think so," she answered. "I just want a rose tattoo." He hummed some tune, Beethoven’s Fifth, while he rat–ta–tat–tatted on her backside.

When he was finished, he smoothed a bandage over the patch of skin and handed her a card with care instructions, as if she had just bought a sweater. She pulled up her pants and went home. Home? She couldn’t really see it, only her reflection in the mirror, somehow, as she pulled off the bandage and looked at the scab forming where he had drawn the rose with his needle and ink.

"There now," she said. "I am whole again. I am myself. My body is mine."

Rose opened her eyes and started to call to Nurse White, to tell her she did know something. Instead, she closed her eyes again and went to sleep.

In the morning, after she ate the shit they called food, Rose got out of bed, found her bloodstained clothes, and got dressed. She was frightened until she thought of the rose blooming on her butt, and then she was no longer afraid. She walked into the hallway, got on the elevator, and went down to the lobby. Outside through the revolving doors, Rose saw a world she had never seen before,bright, noisy. White with color. No, bright with color. She reached into her pockets as she went down the street, away from the hospital. She pulled out forty dollars, crumpled up in her front pockets. That was it.

She hummed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as she walked. Pigeons shadowed her as she went down the street, toward the tall buildings and bridges arching the river or expressway. The pigeons dogged her steps, looking for handouts. As she walked she remembered nothing except the rose, knew nothing except the feel of her own skin under her hand. She smiled. Ignorance was bliss.

When she got downtown, the pigeons swore at her and flew away to the Burger King parking lot. Rose went onto a street called Burnside and walked until she came to a door which said: TATTOOS, CLEAN SURROUNDINGS, NO ONE UNDER 18 ADMITTED. Rose gently pulled off the gauze from her arms. Scabs traced the places the glass had cut. She dropped the gauze and scabs into a garbage can and then pushed the door open and went inside.

The man with the wood burner looked up when she came in. He smiled. He was the man from her memory.

"Sorry, honey, I can’t take it off."

"I don’t want it off," she said. "I want another one." She stepped past the swinging door and into his domain of stencils and needles, inks and memories. She looked at the drawings on his walls.

"You going to pick from my flash this time? Last visit you wanted something no one else had." He stood next to her and pointed. "There, how about another flower?"

She shook her head. "I want a child. Here on my arm. Do you have a child? I need to remember."

"No, but I can draw one," he said. He had curly black hair and tattoos everywhere she could see. A dragon belched smoke up his right arm. Jupiter surrounded by stars rotated on his left arm. A butterfly flew beneath that.

She followed him to the tattoo place behind his drawing table. He wanted her to lie down, she wanted to sit. He hummed as he cleaned her arm with alcohol, let the air dry it, and then drew a little girl. Rose watched his fingers and arm move and knew that she could do it, too. Draw. Sketch her life. After a time, when no one else came into the shop, he stopped and asked her if she liked the little girl he had drawn.

She looked down at her arm. "That little girl is me," she said.

"Yes," he said, "I know."

"I don’t remember if I liked her." The girl was smaller than Rose had imagined, two years old perhaps. The man began spreading the inks onto her arm. Then he sewed the girl into her skin with the color. When he finished, it was dark outside and the little girl was blowing out two candles on a blue-frosted cake.

"Someday, Charlie, my brother, some little prick’s going to get her," her Uncle Bobbie said, "and it’ll all be over. That’s the way with girls. Dad always said so." He laughed and spilled beer on himself while her mother sliced pieces of cake. Rose looked over at her father and saw the fear in his eyes; she was only two but she saw it, and Bobbie was too young to drink beer, maybe thirteen.

"Are you all right?" The tattooist touched her arm with his fingers. She moved her arm away from him. "Sorry," he said. "You only want to be touched if it hurts."

She looked at the little girl on her arm. Her lips were pursed, forever trying to blow out the candles.

"Can you teach me how to do this?" she asked.

"Transform yourself? Or tattoo?"

"Draw with a needle."

"Do you have any money?"

"Forty dollars and two memories," she said. "I could stay here. Clean up. Do anything else you want."

"Don’t scratch your tattoo," he said. He started to hand her the card with care instructions written on it. She stared at him.

"All right," he said. He nodded as if he had known it all along.

"I want another," she said. "The other arm. A snake."

He got up and went to the door and locked it. He pulled the shade down. Then he took a stencil from his flash and returned to her. "Turn around," he said, "so I can work on your other side." He pressed the drawing onto her arm. When he pulled it away, Rose could see the outline of a snake. She stared at the bandage on her other arm and imagined the girl beneath it while the tattooist drew the snake.

When he was finished, he dropped his instruments. "I can’t do any more," he said and walked up the steps that led to his loft. She listened to his heavy breathing for several minutes before she got up. She threw out the needle and put away the inks. Then she went into a small office in the back and curled up on a battered couch.

When she awakened, it was still dark. She felt hurried, as if something had to be finished soon. Something she had started and somehow had messed up. She turned on a light over the desk and looked at her arms. Where the glass had pierced her skin were now black lines, jagged shapes tattooed into her arms.