She has two dragons, actually, and they’re nearly identical except for small details in the faces and variations in color. The dragons cover the better part of her upper arms with tails that tendril down to her elbows, the bulk of the bodies squat on her shoulders, and the leathery wings, half-raised in flight, wrap towards her back. The faces lick at her collarbones. Both dragons are more tribal than Chinese, and the left dragon, turquoise and black, breathes fire towards the center of her chest; the right dragon, red and black, breathes a swirl of ice towards her chest. The faces, in all their tribal abstraction, are ciphers.
The other girl with the dragon tattoos passes the parlor where her art was made just as the sun dips down below the Mission, and strumming Bolero badly, a man with a classical guitar disappears into the darkness of the eyeglass storefront. She hears the high-pitched whine of a tattoo gun while smokers cry uncle and pace during their break. Droplets of blood rise where needles are making a castle out of skin. It’s a cover-up, a fixer-up, really. Underneath was art from another life, something like a blackbird with mushy lines, dead and gone, layered over with something solid, like his life now. Like it will stand for generations. The stones are only half-wrought, though, and the parapets are just a glimmer in the eye of the artist. The man with the half-built tattoo thinks he’ll finally be the king of his own castle, which will drape with his family’s crest. Maybe the sky will wheel with sooty bats, and the artist will use a little white to catch a few with moonlight.
Across town, a koi fish is being wiped clean and wrapped in plastic. It looks as if it’s leaping out of the water and lifting off the man’s thigh. Some trick with shadows the artist learned as an apprentice in Kyoto. So now the man is the man with the koi tattoo, and the fish is as long as a fish story. The man with the koi tattoo greases up his fish every night until the last of the scabbing sloughs off. The scales are layered in twenty shades of gold, and when he catches his leg in the mirror, he leaps out of himself and for a moment gasps, breathless. Koi, he learned, represent luck and courage. When you consider sixty days and no other needles, he thought, they’re slippery symbols. That’s a lot of beauty in an unseen place, the woman who came home with him said. As they slept, her hand rested firmly on his cool flank as if she could keep him from slipping back under the murky water.
In the next week the castle was made complete, and it covered his whole chest. The artist raised the flag and dropped the tapestry with the family crest over the edge with what looked like an everlasting flutter. The man said render the drawbridge open, but give me the moat. Every castle needs a moat, so the artist carved a moat into his skin in shades of moss and deep blue. The man’s small right nipple shone like a rose-colored moon through the windows of the tower. The man’s left nipple wanted nothing to do with its role as queen of Scotland, waiting to be hanged, so it hovered above the castle, hung with a ring. The man with the castle tattoo is now the castle’s king.
The man with the castle tattoo leaves the parlor where his art was made just as the sun dips down below the Mission, and strumming Bolero badly, a man with a classical guitar disappears into the darkness of the eyeglass storefront. The king wanders down the sidewalk, a little sore, a little like his chest had been scratched open by a cat, past the cheap sushi joint where a man with a koi tattoo pays his check, thanks the waiter with the Kanji tattoo, and wanders out into a night just getting socked in with fog. And they’re just a block apart now, the men with their fresh tattoos, and they both head to the same apartment building just up by Dolores Park, and they can both hear the subway train’s long, keening stop. And they’re both just jingling their keys against the change in their pockets as they walk towards the same foyer.
Meanwhile, the girl with the dragon tattoos is making her last latte while the diners linger over half-eaten crullers. She wipes the wand and slips it into the milk, which must be cool to rise into froth. And the wand in the milk sends up a column of steam in front of her face as if the dragons finally blew and her heart exhaled its heat. The windows of the café would look out on the park, but condensation and the inside lamps dangling over each table make them wet, black mirrors.
When the last coffee lover leaves, the girl with the dragon tattoos wipes down the espresso machine, puts up the chairs, shuts off the lights. She locks the front door on the way out and walks off to her apartment building under street lights that make the fog green. Down the road she can hear the long keen of the J Church breaks; up the road she can see her foyer littered with yesterday’s circulars for Safeway.
Later that night, the man with the castle tattoo, the man with the koi tattoo, and the girl with the dragon tattoos all slept in the same position in their own unique beds: left sides, left hands slipped under cool pillows, left legs extended toward the ends of the beds, right hands curled under their chins, right knees pulled up at ninety degrees. Each of their unique ceiling fans turning in time. The night slipped over their sleep like a canary’s velvet cover. And in that moment of utter synch, the koi lifted off the man’s thigh, and the dragons churned in the foggy green sky until they found a castle to guard. Until they found a family crest to defend. The koi flopped across the worn wood floors until it found a moat to swim through, and the castle’s inhabitants looked into the murky water to find luck and courage churning the water in flashes of orange.
Sonia Greenfield was born and raised in Peekskill, New York, and earned an MFA from the University of Washington and an MPW from the University of Southern California. Author of poetry chapbook Circus Gravitas (2014) and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems, essays, and fiction have appeared widely, including in 2010 Best American Poetry, The Antioch Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Cream City Review, The Massachusetts Review, Meridian, and Rattle. Her book, Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market, recently won the 2014 Codhill Poetry Prize. She lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles, California, where she teaches writing at USC.