They had gotten the tattoo at a charity street event to raise money to protect populations of bats. The money they paid for the tattoo went to a bat conservation group whose office was dark and slightly shady, its door set deeply in the building right behind the little tent where the tiny artist had given them the tattoo.
The woman has asked them what their pronouns were, an almost entirely unexpected question in the general community. But she asked, made no big deal of it, and shared her own. Then set to work. She had a strange air about her. Her hair was dark and short and spiky, the ends tipped with dark unnatural colors that still seemed to glow like neon under the sunny heat of the day.
The tattoos that ran down her arms and across her collar and the back of her shoulders were all of exotic and precious beasts, somehow seeming tamed and wild at the same time, giving the illusion every time the woman moved that they moved as well, swaying and watching their surroundings. She was short, her eyes made up with green and black, her lips dark, her ears adorned with many piercings. She moved with silent defiant confidence, and intentionality. When they had thanked her for the tattoo, she had smiled mysteriously and only said that it was a special one; she was proud of it.
In the early hours of the morning, the late hours of the night, and in the groggy moments drenched with sleep, they could almost swear they felt the tattoo warm and shimmer against their neck. A trick of the healing process, of course. An overactive imagination.
The bats that cascaded down their neck from the base of their jaw down across the side of their throat, and curving back toward their shoulders. The designed seemed playful to them, but others sometimes gave them a look that said it was ominous. It reminded them of the sunset when they saw it in the mirror. Or the early morning. They were returning to their roust, or just leaving to feast.
The tattoo made them feel happy. They loved bats. The day they’d gotten the tattoo had been a wonderful day. Every time they saw it in the mirror, they smiled.
When they walked down a busy street, thinking about the designed there on their neck, etched permanently onto their skin, gave them a power to their step, a comfort, and a determination.
It was fall when they saw one move. Just a flick of a moment, a brief second. They couldn’t have been sure it really happened, that the wing moved, that the head twitched.
Overactive imagination. A mind still dogged by sleep.
The symbolically first orange autumn leaf fell that day outside the window as they came through the apartment door and shut out the brisk, livening evening wind. As they unwound the dark red scarf from their neck and kicked off the short mud crusted boots haphazardly into a shoe cubby by the door. They dropped their messenger bag and headed to their bedroom. Stripped their flannel shirt, the light blue camisole underneath it, and the heavy light blue jeans off onto the bed. They went to the bathroom, pulling the hair tie out of their hair that was barely long enough to tie back at all. Annoyingly, everyone they worked with called it cute.
They were wearing tight white boy shorts that day. They pushed them down as they turned on the shower and turned to the mirror set on the door. That’s when they noticed the bat at the tip of the group wasn’t there.
They shook their head. It shouldn’t have faded that quickly. But it was gone. They turned their shoulder over in the mirror, and there was the bat on their shoulder blade. It wasn’t in the same position anymore, now it looked as if it was flying toward some unknown destination with a determination far beyond its original expression.
They stared at the tattoo, trying to understand. Trying to catch it’s movement, or blink and find it back where it was meant to be. The shower was left forgotten. They stared and twisted and tried to understand. The steam from the shower edged its way onto the mirror’s surface, creeping strangely across the glass in rivulets and vines and complicated patterns that dissolved into the droplets of mist when they tried to see the pattern.
When the entire mirror’s surface was covered in a living pattern of complexity and finely misted water, they absently turned the shower off and wandered out to their bed. They crawled under the blankets and curled up around themselves, nudging the abandoned clothes onto a pile on the floor in the process.
The next morning when they woke up, the migrating bat tattoo wasn’t the first thing that hit them. The first thing was a wave of nausea. A feeling of intense unease and ill belonging in their own skin. They gasped at the weight of the realization curled into themselves, struggling out from under the covers and trying to find something that would make the feeling creep away.
Instead of standing when their feet touched the floor, a tear escaped and skidded down their cheek. They swipe at it angrily and fold their arms hard across their stomach where the nausea roils.
Their back hunches over and they look unseeingly at the dark beige carpet below them. Something catches their eye, a dark spot on the inside of their hip, just above where the waistband of underwear would fall.
They look more closely and physically start when they see the tiny bat dangling by its feet from the mark on their skin, looking up them innocently. Almost happily. Its tiny eyes seem to be dancing with sparkling humor.
They blink at the tiny tattoo. Their arms fall down at their sides, their nausea subsides at the curiosity and amazement they feel at seeing the little bat staring up at them upside from its perch. Its perch on their skin.
A scar given to them by a boy they’d gone to high school with, on prom night, when they had gone to prom in a dress, a beautiful white dress. The girl the boy had gone to the dance with had asked them to be her date. And when she saw them at the dance wearing a dress, her fear and anger had hardened to hatred and she and the boy and his knife had attacked them in the parking lot.
Before that night, the people of their high school had tolerated their strange style habits, their strange effeminacy, their lack of social interaction. But that night, that dress, had been too much for their minds to comprehend.
They remembered seeing the gray green hospital fluorescent lights flashing over their head dimly as they had been rushed through the hallway surrounded anonymous strangers shouting strange words in what seemed like a different language. They remembered looking down and seeing the delicate silky white dress slashed and stained bloodred. Bloodred with their blood. It had been another rush of pain altogether, but quickly lost to blackness. That had hit harder later, when they spotted a picture of themselves being rushed to the hospital in the paper a few days later, the dress ruined and soaked, their face streaming with tears and contorted with pain.
Their parents had been there every moment after they woke up. Those days were coated with pain and a floating sensation of loosing control and purpose. Their parents loved them. But a moment of stress and fear and pain and their mother had asked them whether was it was really worth risking their life to wear a stupid dress? They had turned away and the tears had stained their pillow even as their mother cried and their father comforted her.
It broke something.
They’re still staring down at the little bat when they come out of their reverie. Its eyes are comforting to them. They absently stroke the bat’s tiny body, but it catches their eye when it gives a little happy shimmer at the touch. They smile, some of the stress edging the muscles of their body easing.
They went to work later that day. Their coworkers commented that they seemed less stressed than the day before, but they didn’t tell anyone about the tiny bat that had flown over their body to rest on one of their most painful memories.
That night when they got home the bat was in flight again. And another had taken off. All of them seemed to be dancing and watching them as they gazed at them in the mirror.
As the next days went by, the bats of their tattoo visited the scars all over their body. The places where the girl had kicked them with her heels. Where they’d been slapped. Where they had fallen when they had been tripped at a bus stop for wearing lipstick and a men’s suit jacket.
The place they had cut their wrist to see if it would hurt. To see if it would change anything about their life. Two of the tiny bats had landed there. They had stroked them while they remembered, and somehow their shimmers and understanding eyes made it easier to remember the first couple years after high school.
When they had been in the hospital, something had changed in their minds. They lost a bit of their will. It didn’t seem like it was possible to be the person they wanted to be. The people tolerated it to a certain point. And beyond that they didn’t want them to exist anymore. The world wasn’t much bigger than that town, at least it never was on those bad days. There wasn’t a point in applying to colleges. It would just be another place where people wouldn’t accept them.
Their parents wanted them to be safe. Told them they could stay as long as they wanted. Didn’t encourage them much to get a job. It would be too much involved with the community that had broken their child.
So they stayed home. They didn’t put any effort into their personality or their style or their appearance. They just stayed in and did nothing and fell deeper in their slump. Lost touch with others, lost touch with themselves.
They had gone in for a yearly checkup a little while after that and the doctor saw the almost healed cut and gave them a referral to a counselor in the town one over. The first time they went was out of boredom. The second was out of a strange obligation. The next few because it was something to do, and it got them out of their town. Then they started really wanting to make changes, to fight and to thrive and become themselves.
They had gotten a job at a little internet blogging sight and moved to another town. A bigger, more open minded town. And their life had began again. And it was hard and it was painful and it was worth it.
Those two bats stayed there on that scar for several days while the others kept flying, kept watching her and smiling at her. At the end of the fourth day the two bats were there, there was a third. It was tiny, a baby, and it looked up at them with happiness and joy at being there.
They couldn’t explain what was happening to their tattoo. They didn’t try. It was a secret that they kept for themselves, a living moving entity that gave them strength and companionship and understanding when they needed it most.
The bats shimmered and felt and sometimes an extra baby would pop up and join the rest of them. They would return to their places on their neck sometimes, and as they kept watching and stroking the little figures, the braver the bats got, flying under their gaze, moving and shimmering.
It didn’t matter that it shouldn’t have been possible. They didn’t want an explanation. They loved each individual face that looked back up at them.
And they agreed with the tiny woman who’d given them the tattoo, it was very special.