"How I Wrote 'Tattoo'" by Melissa Ragsly

[This story originally appeared in Epiphany Spring/Summer 2016]

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I’ve heard other writers say that a story starts for them with an image, one that develops in their minds without any provocation. They can spring up like Vine videos, short six-second bursts of an image in motion. That’s how this story began for me. I saw a tattoo, or rather a fuzzy, blurry image of a tattoo, deep red in color. I didn’t know what it was of—some kind of animal, maybe. I thought it had legs, but I wasn’t sure. It was being washed off by a man’s hand. I didn’t see the man’s face, just hairy knuckles and a strong grip. The specifics of the tattoo and the man were unimportant at that moment. I wanted to know why I had pictured that image. What were the answers to the questions it posed?

The tattoo in my image was something supposedly permanent that had become temporary. Or something real that no longer was real. I started writing a scene where that faceless man, now with features filled in, spoke with a young woman. I saw her boots and her discomfort. I let them talk. For quite a few pages. Too many pages. In drafts, I overwrote this scene, letting the two characters have a stage so they could show me what I wanted to say. They wouldn’t shut up. Though most of the dialogue I would eventually cut, this exercise showed me the dynamic between them, that this was a man with some power over her, but she wasn’t completely naïve. There was something about his power that gave her some power as well.

After editing down that first scene (which is the first scene in the story), I saw that I wanted to continue opening up that dynamic, to show how we accept lies, sometimes without realizing it, but sometimes not. We don’t have to be accomplices or a whistle-blowers to a falsehood. We can accept a fabrication if it has nothing to do with us or if we gain something from it. That doesn’t make us greedy. We are selectively blind creatures.

In the story, most of the girls living in San’s house just believe, at face value, that he’s their leader. One character knows he’s a fake and leaves. But the protagonist, Nora-Lynn, doesn’t fit into either of those camps. She stays with San, even if she knows he’s been lying to them, because the outcome is more favorable than returning home. That doesn’t cause her bitterness. She feels like a part of something bigger. Not everyone in a cult or a polygamous religion would escape if they had the chance. There is a safety that Nora feels in the home with San and the other women, an acceptance that she had never felt in her life before. I wanted to show that that acceptance was the only important thing to her. That was all that needed to be real.

In many things I write, including this story, is that old nugget, never meet your idols. The flaws of someone we hold in high regard can devastate the wholesome, optimistic part of us. At some point in our lives, we can’t imagine that people we respect could beat their wives, steal money from clients, ridicule their children to their faces, ignore known abuse by those they manage. I think Nora-Lynn has already been disappointed—she’s already seen something like that. Seeing someone in power without that veneer of spin doesn’t shake her.