The Love Tattoo
by Eve West Bessier
Time listens. An old crow in the young corn.
Geraldine Maia Jones sits on the front porch steps,
her bare feet planted on the boards of the sagging stair,
like they might never again stray from this place
of her birth. Her red dress sulks between brown knees
ankles swollen from years of travel and heels.
The molecules of wood under her soles resonate
with the vibration of the instrument at her chin.
The amber violin’s sensuous form holds steady
as rapids of Rachmaninov flow under fluid fingering.
She bows the white water tones into the windless sky.
She moans and pauses. The weather speaks Gershwin.
She turns her face upward into the full flare of sun,
her forehead glistening. She adjusts the violin and begins to pull
the long, languid notes from the wood. "Summertime."
Silver Brown’s hound dog howls
from its yard down the deserted Sunday street.
His chewed up ears hear overtones higher
than silent stars hiding under cover of heat.
The angels arrive, the old ones who have been here for centuries.
They settle on top of the blossom-sown grass, glowing
like fireflies in the moist shade. They rest their large, heavy wings
with perhaps nothing better to do when good folks are at church
and bad folks are sleeping on their couches, wearing yesterday’s
clothes and last night’s liquor on their slow breath.
The angels have come to welcome her home. "We hear you, sister!"
They say. Even as a baby, her mother declared, there was no denying it,
"That child done talk to the Lord. See them eyes?"
Gera Maia has eyes the color of holy water,
opals set in the gentle mahogany of her face.
You can't just glance, you have to linger there;
even if it is rude, even if you do get uncomfortable with yourself.
Those eyes can see straight to your secrets. You feel them
make you flush with the homemade wine of shame,
and grow lightheaded when she’s laying down a melody
because the notes are all the oxygen in the room,
and you have to breathe them deep
or swoon from the silences between.
It owns her, this music born in the belly
of her unanswered soul. She feeds it like a mother cat
takes her litter to her teats, until she is emptied, sore and red.
She is a virtuoso. That’s what the fat man said,
the second cousin of the Reverend White visiting from Atlanta,
wearing a suit the color of elephant tusk and sweating
in the humid air from his own excitement.
He tells her daddy that Gera Maia is too good to waste
on some poor Baptist church off a dirt road in the dead
center of nowhere. "That child is a virtuoso," he says,
his mouth damp at the corners from the weight of the word.
And her daddy lets her go to New York on a scholarship.
Every Friday, a postcard. Miss Liberty, the Empire State Building,
carriages in Central Park. Her mama carries those dog-eared cards
to all the neighbors’ back doors in the lazy hours of the afternoon.
Gera Maia doesn’t come home except for summers.
She is full of talk then, hard to turn off. So much water pressure
she is fixing to burst, so they let her refresh their minds with that fine,
cool spray about city life and music growing into its own knowledge.
Like summer squash so big you wonder how
you’re going to eat it all and who you're gonna give some to
before it spoils. Everyone is like a child then, happy
and full of believing in something.
Gera Maia’s mama cuts a magnolia blossom and floats it
on water in her best glass bowl. She lays the food out
on a faded, blue cloth in the grass,
shooing flies off the sweet potato pies.
Then it's Chicago. Gera Maia doesn’t come home
but once a year for Christmas. "Too busy now."
Her daddy frowns, remembering about nowhere.
Voices raise one Christmas Eve to a place too tight
for resolution. Lights stay on late, all night.
Five years of concert tours. Gera Maia doesn’t come home
at all. Every so often, a post card; a quick, expensive call.
A lot of space between. Los Angeles, Boston, Stockholm,
New York, London, Paris, Rome, Sydney, Moscow.
Eventually, just a distance without words.
But, Gera Maia is home today.
Her fingers are buzzing with it,
with the being back at her roots.
She turns her spirit-water eyes
to the old magnolia of her childhood.
It is past blooming. Tattered,
cream-colored flowers sulk
between oily green and yellowed leaves.
She gets to her feet. Slowly and with effort
she moves through the thick silence she has suspended.
Digs her toes into the dirt. Stands heavy, completely
in the tree’s cooling embrace, branches overhead, roots below.
She touches the aged bark, her palm
on the marks she made when she was five,
her brother holding her hand over the knife.
That day, a fresh petal caressed her cheek.
Now, a wilted petal falls, glides down
in the still air, landing on her graying hair.
She feels its gentle weight, takes it in her fingers.
Touches its velvet to her lips. She leans back
against the trunk and eases into memory.
The polished maple of the stage at Carnegie Hall.
The first time. Her knees unsure.
The orchestra a tense net of security and expectation.
She feels the slick, cool silk of her gown begin to cling
to the small of her back. Alabaster to ebony.
The music is swollen with anticipation. She feels the taut
pull of her imminent entrance. She fills her lungs.
The orchestra falls silent. She drops her full emotional weight down
into the bow. Down, into the strident chord.
Down, into the electric tension of the strings. High. Suspended.
She streaks the silent aural abyss with the call of an eagle,
the claim of a warrior. A thunderclap of timpani and horns lifts
her solo onto the arc of a rising canopy of sound, tossing her free
into the giddy atmosphere of Beethoven’s ethereal mind.
Her diamond notes cut the glassy space. She finds her grace
over a rugged terrain of musical theory stretched to its extreme
edge. She glides with profound focus over the glacial ice
of each delicate passage. She is so young. She is so new.
She could easily fall. She does not fall.
The remnants of her final notes are covered by an avalanche
of applause. A crescendo of approval envelops her,
the daunting embrace of three-thousand strange hearts.
She stands in triumph. She stands in tears.
She stands, listening to the roar of her achievement.
"Is he here tonight?" She wonders,
She feels the abstract loneliness of fame
siphon away the nectar of her elation.
In her dressing room, she finds a small, white box
with a pale, yellow bow. It contains a single flower.
A magnolia. Her mother’s balm.
An old crow calls
from the corn field behind the house.
Time is liquid, fitting any mold.
Gera Maia rests her head against the fortitude
of her old, patient friend, her eyes full of inner rain.
She holds the withered, perfumed postcard petal
between thumb and middle finger, and returns
her forefinger to the tree’s weathered skin.
She finds the letters there,
runs her finger in the worn groove
of wood, the old wound,
the love tattoo.
* * * * *
"The Love Tattoo" received the Kathryn Hohlwein Literary Award in 2000. It was published in: Kalliope, A Journal of Women’s Literature and Art, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2002, and is part of Eve West Bessier's poetry collection Roots Music: Listening to Jazz (Falcon West Books, 2019).
Eve West Bessier writes poetry, fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and has received a few awards. Eve is a jazz vocalist and pianist. She’s also an avid hiker and nature photographer. Eve is the current poet laureate of Silver City, New Mexico; and a poet laureate emerita of Davis, California. More at: www.jazzpoeteve.com