With every buzzing, burning line Rae traces on my back—the needle feels like a red-hot knifepoint drawn across the skin—it’s working.
I was terrified when we began, not of the pain but of the uncertainty: would this do anything at all, would there be any difference whatsoever in the dream I’ve been trapped in every single night since I first saw that painting? That first night when I fell asleep with fresh ink on my back and found myself in the awful black-and-scarlet burning city again, I truly did think I’d go mad, until I noticed there was a difference, subtle but present. The light-pole in the middle distance was gone, and the black square from the top of the frame simply was not there.
The creature hadn’t changed, though. That’s going to be the last to go, if this does work all the way. I’ll take anything to be rid of this—anything at all—but Rae and I both knew the process couldn’t start with the creature. Scribing that thing on my back wouldn’t take it from the dream. It might simply draw its attention, and possibly the only thing that’s kept me sane this long is that in the dream the creature does not seem to have noticed me; that its awful eyeless bandaged head turns to and fro as it creeps along without peering in my direction.
I don’t know what it is, or why it’s there, or why it’s on all fours, only that it is terrible, and will be more terrible if I see it any closer up.
In the beginning, once it was clear I was not going to stop having the dream, I thought with increasing hysteria of ways to kill myself, and it is only blind luck that I’m too much of a coward to have actually done the deed before realizing something unspeakable: at least at the moment I have my days, my waking life, free of the thing. If I walked into traffic or washed down a handful of Vicodin with vodka, there is every fucking chance I’d find myself back in the burning city—with no way to wake up from it. The thought of being trapped permanently in that place was enough to make me do two things: one, be scrupulously careful with myself, and two, start looking in earnest for someone who could take on a project like this one and understand what it meant.
I’d spent two weeks going from tattoo shop to tattoo shop, increasingly desperate, and in the end I only found Rae through the purple neon in the window rather than the phone book. Purple neon means psychic shit, and the violet moon and stars in the corner of this particular tattoo-shop window hit me like a physical smack, jarring me out of my glaze of misery as I trudged along. I’d tried two places already that afternoon and realized I’d forgotten my fucking umbrella at the first one too late to go back and fetch it, and I was soaked to the skin and utterly convinced the thing was hopeless, and bam, purple neon, out of the corner of my eye, and I stopped.
Inside, Rae looked at me for a long moment without saying anything, their eyes bright clear grey, the purple neon in the corner of their window seeming to throw a weird edgeless tint over everything in the studio. I don’t think everyone sees Rae’s place. I think for a lot—maybe most—of the people passing by, this shopfront is vacant, or just doesn’t exist at all. That it chooses the people it wants to be able to see it. I try not to think about that too much because I can’t actually imagine what the hell made it show itself to me, what could have motivated such desperately needed kindness, if kindness is the right word; I can only think it found me interesting, the way a doctor might be interested in a particularly esoteric disease. Whatever the reason, I will be paying off this fucking backpiece for at least two years, and I don’t care in the slightest: I would pay anything to be free of this, anything, anything at all.
(I know that payment isn’t going to start and end with money, I know that very well, and it still absolutely doesn’t matter what currency I’ll have to use.)
I still can’t believe how it started. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the artist’s name, had seen maybe one or two of his paintings as internet memes, oh, that guy who does the cobwebs and knuckles, freaky shit, nothing more than that. It was my friends’ idea to go to the exhibit, and I have tried so damn hard not to blame them for this, and failed. It was supposed to be a weird-fun afternoon followed by drinks and dinner at our favorite place in Soho, and right up until I turned the corner and came face-to-face with that fucking painting, I was having a ball.
You know how sometimes seeing an image of something you’re phobic about can hit you with an instant, awful flare of fight-or-flight panic and nausea? I have that with holes. Seeing pictures of those horrible lotus pod things people put in potpourri is like a physical shock. This was not like that. This was like—eye contact. Like the painting looked back at me, one face in a crowd, and saw me; saw me very well, just for a second.
It was a weird aberrant moment, and by the time we got out of the exhibit and started arguing over whether Rise or Collie’s served the best dirty martini in Soho, I’d totally forgotten it. I forgot it, in fact, all the way right up to when I woke up in a sick shaking sweat at four in the morning, convinced that the bed was the dream, that I was really back there in that godawful burning city with that thing creeping its way over the uneven bone-strewn ground.
Okay, I’d thought, all the way back at the beginning, sure, that painting was creepy as fuck and maybe it got under your skin more than you thought, it’s not unusual to have that kind of thing show up in your dreams, and I sounded reasonable and convincing inside my own head.
And then it happened again the next night. Exactly the same. And the next, and the next, and the next, and I tried melatonin and I tried Nytol and I tried whiskey and I tried reading about the goddamn artist and why he did the things he did, and I still found myself in the city every time I dipped into REM sleep no matter what.
I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began, and I still don’t want to know what the FBI would make of this many variants on how to exorcise a painting and haunted by a painting and going insane because of dreams. There are other things, too: remember how that tower block in London burned down back in 2017, and the video of flames billowing from every single goddamn window was everywhere on the news? The first time I saw that video after the art exhibition I nearly threw up from the shock of recognition: it was the burning city in the painting, in the dream. Exactly the same: red-orange on black, windows no longer windows but holes into hell. The hunger of the fire. Its endless greed.
(I went back and watched that video over and over, like you might poke at a tooth-socket with your tongue, setting off the pain-fireworks deliberately, testing how much it hurt, if anything had changed. I read a lot of eyewitness accounts of the fire, late at night, trying to stay awake. I tried to stay awake, in the beginning, and that didn’t work either.)
I don’t remember exactly when I started to think about tattoos. I think to begin with I had some confused idea of exorcising the painting by reproducing it myself, drawing each line onto paper, and then burning the whole fucking thing, sending it up the chimney in a billow of sparks —and then realizing that would just free it again as the paper disintegrated. The problem wasn’t just that I couldn’t draw; the problem was that I couldn’t get rid of it, that it had sunk into me, that it would be inside me for the rest of my life, inside my blood and bone. I think that was when I started to wonder about putting it on the outside of me. Putting it behind me, on my back.
Transference, Rae said, that first afternoon, their pupils slitted like a cat’s in the rainlight. It’s deep in your mind now; you can’t get rid of it, not now, but you can put it somewhere else. It was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear ever since I’d begun searching for an artist who could do the job, and been met with blank expression after blank expression. A couple of them had said they could do the painting for me, but it was obvious they didn’t understand why I needed it done —and I couldn’t very well explain that it was inside my mind and needed to be exorcised. Rae was different. From the moment I walked into their shop they knew exactly why I wanted it done, even before I mentioned the dreams. I’m pretty sure they would have understood without me saying a single goddamn word out loud, that they could have plucked it directly out of my mind without bothering to listen. Purple neon in the corner of the window, in the rain.
Will it work? I asked.
It’ll cost you.
I don’t care, I said. Anything. I’ll—fuck, I’ll sell my car, I’ll take out loans, I’ll do anything, pay anything, just make it go away.
It’ll cost more than money.
I wasn’t surprised, to be honest, but at that point I would have agreed to pretty much any terms they offered: I’ll pay.
They nodded, and it wasn’t until they were actually stenciling the thing on my back that I thought to ask wait, is doing this going to be safe for you? Is looking at it going to make it jump into your mind now?
Rae laughed, and told me to hold still, and not to sweat the small stuff, and soon afterwards that buzzing bright pain began.
By that time I’d lost all my friends and was on pretty shaky ground at my job; sleep deprivation fucks with your productivity, even when it’s not combined with existential horror, and I couldn’t look at my goddamn best friends without a vicious stab of memory: the lighthearted oh hey let’s check out this exhibition, freaky paintings, c’mon, it’ll be fun that had started this entire nightmare in the first place, months ago. I didn’t have anything better to do with my spare time than lie on Rae’s table and try not to mind how much it hurt—and how long I had to wait between sessions for my skin to heal. How much I wanted to do it all in one night, get it over with, put an end to this bullshit, and how much I knew that even if I could have dealt with that much pain for that many hours it wouldn’t work. It has to be gradual, or the thing will notice.
We’re five sessions in now, and Rae says it’ll be another four before it’s done. They’re not doing the linework and then the color afterward; they’re drawing it from the outside in, gradually irising closer and closer to the center of the painting. The creature will be the last thing to go, and that will have to be done completely in one session, lines and color and shading all at once, multiple tattoo machines loaded and ready to go, because if we pause even for a few minutes the element of surprise will be lost: the thing would find a way to escape from Rae’s needles and take up residence somewhere else in my mind, and we’d lose the only way to capture it.
I was only a little afraid of the pain to begin with—desperation will do that to you—and I’ve actually kind of grown to like it, by now: every single line means we’re closer to my freedom. I’m pretty sure that even if the nightmare is gone I’ll hear that buzzing in my dreams, in my bones, for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that. In the mirrors, the painting on my back looks as if it’s rising out of the skin, as if Rae’s tattoo machines are not so much applying ink as removing blank skin that’s been hiding the image all along, bit by bit: a hellish red sky behind a burning cityscape, awful and desolate, every window lit up with orange flame. I don’t know why the city is burning, what cataclysm set it on fire to begin with; it doesn’t matter. In the dream the air is baking-hot, thick with smoke, vicious to breathe and stinking; the flames roar like thunder, like an oncoming freight train, and from my vantage point in a slightly sheltered portico the creature comes creeping along the bone-scattered ground on its horribly thin hands and feet, skin stretched tight over scrabbly knuckles, its bandaged head turning to and fro as if seeking something it particularly wants. I don’t know if the red stain on the front of that non-face is blood, or whose it might be, and I don’t want to know.
Rae has left that foreground blank, and our last appointment will fill it in. With each successive session the dream has faded: not vanished altogether, but gone out of focus, the roaring sound of the flames muted bit by bit, the red sky less intense, the city disappearing gradually as the ink draws it out of the dream and anchors it into my skin.
Rae says it most likely won’t hurt other people, when it’s done. That I can let someone see it without being afraid that it will jump the gap to someone else’s mind, an awful charge seeking ground. I want to believe that, I really do, but in the bottom of my mind I don’t want to take the chance. Wearing a shirt to the pool or the beach or to bed for the rest of my life is—well, I can deal with that. The thought that I might actually find myself in a situation where someone else might want to look at me without a shirt on is still so strange, after the months of viciously enforced solitude. That I might have friends again, after this is over. That this could be over.
(There’s a line in Tale of Two Cities that’s always stuck with me: you know you are recalled to life? I think I might be. I hope I might.)
Rae hasn’t told me what the non-monetary part of payment will be, and won’t tell me until after the thing is done; that’s part of this, like all the tales, you make the desperate deal with the cat-eyed creature, and only once the bargain is sealed do you find out what you really owe. Be careful what you wish for—but for me, it really doesn’t matter; anything would be preferable to the burning city. If it means a decade off my life, fine. If it means my firstborn child, ever assuming I have such a thing—fine. If it means I’m Rae’s property, that after some specific stretch of time I will have to return to that there-and-not-there little shop with the purple neon in the window and surrender myself to their custody, then I’ll do it. Something I’ve learned over the past months is that you can pretty much always do what you must do, even if it seems impossible.
(The rest of that line from Dickens: you can bear a little more light? I must bear it, if you let it in.)
The thing I will wonder for the rest of my life, no matter what the price I pay, is: why did this happen? Did the artist paint it back in 1973 to rip a nightmare out of his own mind and prison it in oil-paints on canvas—did he know what it would do, did he create it deliberately to transfer the nightmare to someone else’s eyes and mind, or was something working through him, using him as its medium as he used the paint?
Because it’s very definitely not the only painting the artist completed. There are whole books, catalogues full of them, fever-dreams in cobwebs and dry desiccated finger-joints, dim distant cathedrals made of bone, things with empty eye-sockets that follow the viewer around the room. Do they all do what the painting of the burning city does, crawl into someone’s mind and stay there like bone-seeking radionuclides, sending out their silent poison influence? Is the city real, somewhere, and is the painting—are all his paintings—nothing but windows into that other, worser universe? Because if so, there have to be other people who’ve been trapped in them. I don’t know why it got me, but I cannot possibly be the only person whose eyes it slid inside, out of all the eyes that must have passed over it in the years since it was painted.
Rae had known what to do about it. Rae had known precisely what to do about it, so I can’t be the only one who’s needed transference. So how many others have there been?
If I’d followed my first instinct and stepped off a building, would I have woken up trapped in the burning city alone, or with other people who had tried the same thing, and would they still be identifiable as people at all, or terrible creeping things with red stains on their faceless bandaged heads? Would there really be any difference?
But the worst thing—the worst thing because it’s a thought that cannot be unthought, a stone dropped into the deep water of my lowest and most miserable imagination, setting up ripples that just spread and spread and spread, whether or not I want them to—the worst thing is that I don’t know if this is the only one of the artist’s paintings that does this. And because I don’t know the answer, I will never be able to stop thinking of the question, and that means inevitably, eventually, helplessly, I will have to look at the others, in order to find out. All of them. Whether or not I want to. Whatever made me vulnerable to this in the first place will find a way to put me face to face with the others, with or without my active consent. It’s—beyond my control.
I don’t know how many of them I have room for, on my body.
I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to have to find out.
(Editors’ Note: Vivian Shaw is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2022 Vivian Shaw