I parked my Jeep outside Mystic Tattoo and Piercing about five minutes before my scheduled appointment. Mystic wasn’t the cliche hole-in-the-wall tattoo parlor with questionable hygiene and a seedy bar next door. It was a very modern-chic professional shop with a clean carpeted floor, plenty of light, and big glass display windows.
I stepped through the front door and looked around. The front area was a lobby/lounge area, with a big leather couch and a couple plush armchairs circled around a glass coffee table at one end. A handful of padded leather benches were scattered among glass display cases showcasing a wide selection of jewelry. Two massive TV displays cycled through photos of inked and pierced people having fun and showing off their ornamentation.
In the middle of the room was a pedestal with a touch-screen display that let you learn more about getting tattooed or pierced in various locations on the body. I was reading about collar-bone piercings when a door in the back opened.
“… won’t completely cure you of migraines, but most people see a significant reduction in both frequency and severity.” A suave feminine voice was saying.
A teenage girl emerged through the door fingering her right ear. She was followed by a woman who looked like her mother. After them came the woman who was speaking. It wasn’t hard to guess she worked here.
She looked about twenty-one, with lean stringy muscles I associated with distance runners. She wore her auburn hair in a pixie cut with long bangs dyed black. She wore a dark red corset and a pleated red and black mini-skirt with black knee-high mesh stockings and lolita shoes.
With the exception of her her alabaster face and hands, every exposed inch of her skin was covered in colorful ink. She had to be wearing a couple pounds worth of metal jewelry in piercings, rings, and chains. Most people with her degree of ornamentation managed to look like human pincushions or just plain awkward. She didn’t. She pulled off a sort of neo-gothic art project vibe. Extreme, but aesthetically pleasing.
“How much do we owe you?” The mother asked.
“The piercing is forty-five, and the jewelry was sixty. So that’s one-oh-five.” The piercer provided a tablet to the mom before turning to the girl. “Remember, rotate the barbell and clean it and the hole with an alcohol swab two or three times a day. It usually takes around four months to heal completely.”
The girl nodded enthusiastically.
After swiping and signing, the mom returned the tablet. “Thanks so much. We better get going, Ruth. Ammon’s soccer practice will be done by the time we get back there.”
As they left, the piercer turned her attention on me.
“I’m Scarlett,” She purred, cocking a hip and puffing out her chest. “What can I do for you?”
I concealed my amusement at her change in body language. She was obviously playing to her audience.
“I’m James.” I answered her. “I’ve got an appointment with Carolina.”
“Of course you do.” Scarlett seemed to deflate a bit, but kept the sensuous air. “You’re the firefighter, right?”
“She’s with a client, but she should be done soon. Can I offer you some tea, or a bottle of water?”
“Water would be nice.” I answered with a smile.
Scarlett pulled open a mini-fridge concealed in the back of one of the display cases and tossed a chilled bottle of water towards me. “So you have any tattoos yet, or is this your first?”
I slid my shirt sleeve up to show her the blue lines on my arm. “I’m getting an upgrade.”
“Gotcha.” She cocked her head to the side. “Any piercings?”
I shook my head. “They’re not really practical in my profession.”
“Not even under your shirt?” Her eyes were focused a little below my shirt. “I don’t see how it’d be a problem if it’s under a half-dozen layers of clothes.”
“I haven’t really thought about that.” I answered honestly. “I’m not really sure how that would go down, practically or policy-wise.”
Another door in the back wall opened. Scarlett took a step back and adopted a less provocative posture. A short, muscular man with a shaved head emerged rubbing a bandage on his right forearm.
“Give it a couple weeks to recover and we can do some final touch-ups.” I recognized Carolina’s melodious voice from speaking with her on the phone. She had the slightest hint of an accent that I couldn’t place.
I found myself enchanted by her as she appeared in the doorway. Where Scarlett’s sensuality was a forced act, Carolina seemed to come by it effortlessly. She was exactly the type of woman my mother had cautioned me to stay away from.
Long jet-black hair streaked with purple, red, and blue crowned her head, a trio of braids along the left side of her scalp fell behind her ear while the rest cascaded freely down to her butt. Her skin was like rich honey-colored silk, elegantly wrapping the contours of her amazonian musculature. She had to be close to six feet tall without the inch or two of lift from the heels of her black biker boots. She was wearing torn black skin-tight jeans and a low-cut white cami crop-top.
Tattoos and jewelry elegantly graced her contours, almost seeming conservative beside Scarlett’s excess. My eyes were drawn to the green ink rosevine that coiled sinuously up her left arm. Sprigs of leaves or red rosebuds forked off the vine here and there, with small golden pixies hiding among them. A cluster of three full red blossoms graced her shoulder cap, while the vine continued up to her neck to end in a small red rosebud peeking out behind her ear. I counted thirteen piercings in her ear.
As her previous client left, Carolina turned to me with a smile. “Hello, James. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
She approached gracefully, and I found myself looking into dark chocolate eyes that drew me into their depth as I shook her hand. She held me in her gaze for what felt like forever, a silent interrogation into the nature of my soul. Whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her.
I looked down as she released my gaze and found my eyes drawn to a blood-red wolf tattoo just below her left collar bone. The wolf was sitting on her haunches, her snout lifted in a lonesome howl. There was something about it that felt alive.
Carolina’s presence was making my head fuzzy and stirring up my hormones in a way I hadn’t felt since being a teenager. Instead of letting myself get lost in the ink and curves of her bosom, I forced myself to take a deep breath. I drew my eyes up to meet hers again. She was still smiling at me.
“It’s good to meet you too.” I managed to respond.
“Saul and Victor have told me quite a bit about you. They hold you in very high esteem.”
I blushed. “Yeah, well…” I really didn’t know what to say.
“Why don’t you come back into my studio. We can get to know one another while I mop up.” Carolina suggested.
“Uh, sure.” I said, following her towards the door she’d emerged from moments ago.
Scarlett watched us go with an inscrutable expression on her face. Carolina guided me through the door and pulled it closed gently.
Her studio was very different from the lobby. The room was dominated by a complex tattooing couch which could be adjusted in a thousand different ways to make the client as comfortable as possible. A rolling chair with a swing-away steel tray hovered beside the couch. The tray was covered with bottles of ink, towels, and a couple different tattoo guns. A counter along one wall was piled with a variety of tattooing paraphernalia, including a couple of primitive looking tattoo guns. The walls were plastered with photo prints and sketches. Against the far wall was a mustard-yellow loveseat with pea-green floral patterns embroidered on it.
She steered me to the loveseat, indicating it with a flourish. “I’m convinced this thing is the pinnacle of couch-making. I’ve never sat in anything nearly so comfortable.” She sat down near the center of it and patted the cushion beside her. “Please, sit.”
I spent the next several minutes providing her with an abbreviated version of my life history, answering her questions about where I grew up and why I’d become a firefighter and paramedic. After she got me talking, she stood up and began tidying up the silver tray, occasionally pausing to ask for more detail about something I said. The conversation felt like a mix between a job interview and a first date.
After several minutes, Carolina slid down onto the seat again, her thigh touching mine. “So your girlfriend gave you your tattoo?” She asked.
“My ex-girlfriend, yeah. She bought a tattoo gun on the internet and decided to make me her guinea pig.”
Carolina slid her fingers up my arm, sliding my sleeve up so she could look at the tattoo. Her fingers brushed softly along the ink, leaving a pleasant burning sensation in their wake. “Decent lines. Really good for an amateur. Deeper than necessary, but straight and solid. I’m impressed. Why did you two break up?”
“I think she got tired of the long absences and emotional roller-coaster.” I answered. “She never really said why. I was working on a fire crew the summer after I graduated, and there was an incident on one of the fires I was working and a couple guys got killed. She kind of closed off after we talked about that, and then a few weeks later she just texted me and said she wouldn’t be there when I got home at the end of the summer.”
“Not everyone’s cut out for that kind of relationship.” Carolina sighed. “My first lover — he also gave me my first tattoo, by the way — he was the hero-type as well. He died trying to save people’s lives. It took me a long time to get over that.”
Carolina was quiet for a minute, her fingers still pressing against my arm as she stared past me. “Mostly, I hated that he left me behind. I’d have walked through the gates of hell hand-in-hand with him, if he’d have let me. He wouldn’t have that, though. Thought he needed to protect me too.”
I felt as if I’d been let into a very private part of Carolina’s world. It didn’t seem like this was the sort of thing she’d share with just anyone, and it had me a bit flustered again. I looked at her, letting my eyes slide from the steely expression on her face to the powerful muscles of her arms and legs. She didn’t look like the kind of woman who needed protecting.
“Seems to me you’re a warrior.” I said thoughtfully. “If I had to face the gates of hell, I’d love someone like you by my side.”
Carolina’s fingers squeezed my arm gently. “Thanks.” She whispered.
After a short silence, she spoke again. “James, do you believe in magic?”
I looked at her, considering the question. I’d already noticed the pentagram tattooed in her cleavage, and the intricate grey-and-silver full moon that dominated her right shoulder-cap was framed by a pair of slender silver crescents to form another familiar magical symbol.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s magic, exactly.” I answered slowly. “I think there’s… energy, I guess. Out there in the world, everywhere. When I studied taiji, I learned to feel it, even control it a bit. Chi, chakra, spirit, aether; it seems like most cultures, most religions, have a name for it, and a notion about how it can be mastered and controlled.”
Now that I thought about it, I could feel that sense of energy radiating from her. There was something of it about that wolf tattoo on her chest, about the touch of her fingers on my skin. Far more subtle than anything I’d experienced in my taiji training.
“You have a lot of that energy inside of yourself.” Carolina replied. “And it seems like you have an instinctive ability to use it.”
“Well, like I said, I did some taiji…”
“No.” Carolina interrupted. “I’m talking about what you did last night. What you’ve done dozens of times, according to Victor.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Victor and Saul both told me what happened last night. That woman should have been dead. Apparently your partner, Matt, insisted she was dead before you touched her.”
I looked at Carolina incredulously. “So, you think I… magicked her back to life?”
Carolina smiled. “Something like that. Spirit, chi, or mana — whatever you call it — it’s part of everything. It penetrates everything. Like you said, some people can learn to sense it and control it. Some people dedicate decades of their lives to it.”
“Like jedi knights?” I joked cynically.
Carolina smiled, then closed her eyes. She breathed deeply, and then touched her fingertips between my eyebrows. Hindus call that location the third eye, and when she touched me there, I felt as if that eye was opened.
I was standing in a meadow surrounded by trees. I could hear a river flowing nearby. A soft breeze took the edge off the sweltering summer heat. I could feel the world around me. The trees glowed with magical power, the grass glistened with it. The birds and squirrels that leapt from tree to tree left trails of it in the wake of their passage.
Carolina was standing facing me, her naked body glowing with energy. It pulsed through her, fine glowing lines of it tracing along the tattoos on her skin. She stepped close to me, her body brushing mine, energy flowing between us. I looked down and saw I was also naked, and lines of energy traced complex patterns on my skin as well. Where we touched, tendrils of energy began to flow between us.
“You see it now?” She asked, the heat of her body radiating against my bare skin.
“Yes.” I answered.
I felt her fingertips pull away, and instantly we were back on the couch in her studio. I couldn’t see the magic energy flowing any more, but I felt more aware of it around me.
“Was that Joe’s Valley?” Carolina asked curiously.
“Yeah.” I said, surprised. “I guess it was. It looked so different flowing with magical energy. It’s a campsite on Lowry Water where I go when I’m up there. But…”
“I initiated the vision, but you chose the location. You’re also the one who decided to make us both naked.” Carolina ended with a playful tease in her voice.
I could feel a burning blush working its way up my neck.
“Truthfully, though, I doubt it had anything to do with the sexual desires we have for one another. Visions are like dreams; most of what you see is symbolic. You chose Joe’s valley because you feel a connection with magic there. I’m not surprised; most natural witches connect with nature because it’s rich with mana, and that particular location is particularly powerful. Being naked was most likely an expression of how natural magic is to you, that it’s a part of you.”
I tried not to get distracted by the fact that she’d just told me she felt sexual desires for me. Or wondering whether the magical tattoos I’d seen on her naked body in the vision were really there under her clothes.
“Ok.” I said. “So I have a natural affinity for magic?”
Carolina smiled and put her hand on my knee. “James, you’ve got an exceptional gift for magic. Most people can’t even sense mana without years of training. Some never can, no matter how hard they try. You use mana without even trying, without realizing you’re doing it. Imagine what you could do with training!”
“So, what, I’m a wizard? Is there an American Hogwart’s where I go to learn how to use my magic wand?”
Carolina laughed. “No, nothing so dramatic or organized. Could you imagine how much effort it would take to hide thousands of robe-wearing freaks? The magic community, such as it is, mostly just lives among the mundane, working normal jobs, living mostly normal lives. Scarlett and I are both witches, as are Saul and Victor.”
“Victor’s a witch?” I asked incredulously.
“Of course he is.” Carolina retorted. “Real magic isn’t magic wands and colorful streaks of light. It’s an extension of self and nature, and it’s usually fairly subtle. It’s in the moment the woman’s heart starts beating again, or the way a guy notices a girl. Mundanes don’t see the world of magic because they don’t understand what magic is.”
As she spoke, I thought of a million little moments in my life when things had gone differently from how they might have. My hyper-religious mom always credited those moments to God’s miracles. I’d struggled with that in part because sometimes the miracles had benefited someone who certainly didn’t qualify as a good Christian; at least not according to my Mom’s standards.
“Who is going to teach me?” I asked.
“I’d like to, if you’re willing.” She answered with a smile.