If you pull the skin too tight, it tears. That’s one of the first things they’ll teach you. After they snatch you from the safety of your quiet village. Maybe your parents will mourn you. Or maybe no one will even notice you’re gone. But away you’ll go, stolen and gagged and shoved into the back of a rickety covered wagon. Trinkets will hang from the wagon’s sides all jangling as you go rumbling off into the dark. The caravan will be long and swift, moving away into the blackness in single-file. And then everything will be gone, like they were never even there.
This is a traveling carnival and—sweet hell—they are indeed a-traveling.
The flesh, it gets crackly if it’s shaved too thin, so you must take care to skin it just right. Unless you happened to be a butcher’s kid before, this will take practice. If you mess it up, they’ll beat you. If you cry, they’ll sew your mouth closed—so try hard not to cry. Please, try hard not to cry.
After awhile the villages will all look the same. The caravan always manages to arrive at dawn and everything is methodically assembled before the villagers even finish breakfast. Then they will all flock to the bright, jingling circled wagons. From the covered cart where you work you can peek out of the gap in the wool curtains. Villagers will eat the treats and play the games. There is always carefree laughter and a jovial mood, but then you’ll blink. And the underbelly of it all will be right there. A writhing blackness low like fog—growing, swelling, and hungry. Right there… right there… shut your eyes, it’s right there.
You’ll stretch the skin over the circle of bone, centering the inked part, then lashing it tightly. Maybe the picture is of a snake or a dragon or even an ex-lover’s name. Some are in color and some are black and white. There are many items used as embellishments, each with their own purpose. Teeth are for wishes and hair is for curses and blood binds them all together. The dangling black feathers are for the soul’s voyage to hell, plucked from a raven while it’s tortured and screeching. People always think the feathers are pretty. You will know better.
“Wish-catchers, here!” you will be forced to call, your voice dry, your throat parched, and your stomach hungry. You’ll take money from each unknowing person, handing them a flesh and bone trinket, never mentioning that it will also cost them a swatch of their soul. “Make a wish, it comes true,” you will promise. And no one will ever not wish their darkest wish. It is human nature, and hell’s delight.
As night comes the villagers will slowly disperse and the caravan will begin packing—being so careful to leave nothing behind. Like they were never even there. Several wagons over you will see the beautiful Natalia flirting with one lingering tattooed man. She will whisper something close to his ear and smile her perfect smile and crook her long, painted finger at him. He’ll follow her swaying hips behind the circled wagons to the shadows. If you listen closely you might hear his brief, choked cries. But more often than not, you won’t—Natalia is good at what she does.
This man’s meat will be your dinner. His tattooed skin is your craft. And you will eat it up and skin it off and try not to cry.
Single file, the wagons will rumble off into the blackness of night. Remember, remember, to try hard not to cry.