Vidanja was thirteen when she was first given la torsion, the confessional drug prescribed to all condemned. It was so called because it twisted the body in knots of pain and then the mind in knots as its hallucinogenic effects took over. Eventually the condemned died by torsion poisoning, having reconciled or not with La Nacion. Vidanja would be given the same poison, in a less-than-lethal dose, to begin the process of building a tolerance and to prepare her for the effects that the condemned of Karagad would face during the process of reconciliation. She was frightened, because she had not once heard of a positive first experience, and very few positive second or third experiences. She knew it was not supposed to be a fun experience which scared her even more. The night before her induction to la torsion she sat in her room, reading again and again its effects on the body and wondering how she would manage.
A knock. “Vidanja?” Delfin poked his head in and saw the book. He came in, shutting the door behind him. “Tomorrow’s the big day eh?” He sat on her bed, a familiarity he permitted himself more often lately, and while she was at first annoyed she never said a thing about it and eventually it ceased to bother her. She nodded, not feeling terribly talkative.
“Well, do you want to go for a walk with me? It might help you calm down.”
“You’ve never been to my room.” Vidanja felt suddenly squeezed. She didn’t sense anything overtly disturbing in his offer but something about his tone niggled at her. Still, she had never seen his room and there was nothing that he said or did which indicated that a trip there would be dangerous. I could use a break.
Much to her surprise Delfin’s room looked a lot like hers, except with more personal items in it. His bed was appointed with lush linens and thick pillows. She was somewhat envious because while her bed was not cheaply dressed, she did not have such nice pillows. Delfin excused himself for a moment as one of their classmates saw him enter the room and engaged him in a short discussion. While he stepped out, Vidanja looked around. Idly she spun the globe on his desk while she eyed the posters on his walls depicting masked fighters, the beautifully bound books lined in the wall niches, and his bevy of writing implements. She didn’t hear him come back in.
“Don’t spin it too much or we’ll all get dizzy!” For a moment Vidanja was confused, then she burst into laughter. She turned, to find herself face to face with Delfin and behind him, she could see the door was shut. She was a tall girl but still he towered over her, and she had to tilt her head back to see his face. Nervously, she smiled, then took a step to the side.
“I’ve never taken la torsion before. I’m not allowed, you know. You’re special.” The look on his face was strange and disconcerting. She didn’t know how to react to the ball of trembling sensation building in her belly. She stepped to the other side and again he blocked her. This time he put his hand on her upper arm, holding her firmly. When she turned her head to look down at his arm he lifted her chin with his other hand. His smile seemed predatory, and Vidanja suddenly found it hard to breathe. His thumb caressed her lips and she resisted the urge to bite him.
“You have nice lips. That’s the first thing they tattoo.” She tried to turn her face away and he cradled it in both hands, preventing her from moving. His eyes flicked to hers and then back to her lips.
She could barely speak and what she intended to come out angrily came out as a weak whisper: “Delfin what are you doing?” She felt paralyzed.
“I thought it would be nice to kiss your lips while they’re still unmarked. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.” He leaned in, his nose brushing hers and his breath hot on her skin.
“D-Delfin…” She shook her head weakly and tried to push him with hands that were like a breeze trying to move a cliff. Her breathing got faster and faster and the world started to tilt around her and then just as she took in a breath it was stolen from her. Delfin’s lips sealed themselves to hers and the whimpering sound she made was muted by his tongue as it slipped into her mouth. She didn’t know what to do, and the feeling arising in her was making her acutely uncomfortable. Moments before she burst into tears, it was over, and everything was a blur as she extracted herself from Delfin’s loosened grip and from his room and ran back to her own. She didn’t know why he had done that and she skipped dinner, crying herself to sleep.
The next day she would regret not having eaten. Her stomach was extra-empty when she was led to the chair where she would endure the painful lip tattooing. The room she was in was lit by torches on the walls, and the flickering light gave the proceedings a spooky air. There’s a draft somewhere she thought absurdly, and shivered even though she couldn’t feel it. It seemed to take too long for the tattooist to show up, and while she waited, Ayudante Baron spoke to her in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I know you’re afraid. You would be foolish not to be. I won’t tell you this isn’t supremely painful. The tattoo will hurt but you will forget that pain once la torsion takes hold. You won’t even be able to press your lips together, so you haven’t that to worry about. You won’t be shamed for crying, but we of Karagad are strong and you must endure. This is only the first of many marks that will be made on your body in the name of reconciliation.” With that, Baron slipped from her robe and stood nakedly before Vidanja. The girl gasped, now seeing the extent of the tattoos she would also wear. Words seemed to fall from Baron’s lips and run down her chin, her neck, her chest. They swirled in elaborate patterns around and over her breasts and down to her belly. Across her arms they marched to the backs of her hands all the way to her fingers. Vidanja’s eyes traveled down to the woman’s navel and hips. The words stopped mid-thigh on one leg. When she turned, the whole of her back and shoulders were covered and she was marked down past her buttocks.
She’d seen these tattoos before, even seen testamientos fully covered to the tops of their feet. The palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet were sacred spaces, reserved not for testimonies but for the words of the testament’s station. Only now, facing the first touches of the permanent ink on her own skin, she appreciated the description of testamientos that their vocation was to shed tears for Karagad. The tattooist entered.
Ayudante Baron, still naked, nodded to the artist while reaching for her robe. The tattooist sat in the chair opposite Vidanja and began to prepare the ink. She looked at the nervous girl, saw her gripping the arms of the chair and noted her shallow breathing. A warm smile overtook her face as she took out various lengths of slender needles, which Vidanja knew to be made of a paste contaning la torsion. “This will feel like it takes longer than it does. When you’re done, you can lie down and make your self comfortable” with a tilt of her head she indicated the plush-looking lounge on the other side of the room. There were several large chamber pots in its proximity. “Have you composed your statement?”
Vidanja swallowed, unable to take her eyes from the hypnotic work of the artist’s hands as she mixed the ink and then dipped her fingers into a bowl containing yet another paste, which she spread onto blades of grass to wrap around the ends of the needles. She could not afford to get poisoned by la torsion herself while in the midst of working on Vidanja.
“Why are you doing all of that now?” Vidanja asked in a soft, dreamy voice, still focused on the work taking place in front of her.
“Just as you testamientos have your rituals, I have also mine.” She smiled again, “You are watching my hands, seeing me prepare this in a gentle rhythm. You see all of my tools and you see the sureness and quickness of my hands. With them I speak and right now they are telling you a soothing story.” With that she was finished, her fingers making fast work of the final, and longest, needle. The woman dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and wiped them on a cloth, then moved the table to the side and stood. “What is your statement?”
Vidanja looked up at her, lips parted, panting slightly as she realized the moment had come. She didn’t want to tell this woman her statement. She did not want to take the next step and feel the sting of those poisoned needles in her flesh. She wanted now, like she did years ago, to go home and return to the life she had known. But she wasn’t a Cari anymore. She was a citizen of Karagad and for Karagad she was bound to weep.
“With-” her voice cracked. She didn’t want to cry, at least not yet. Her eyes drifted to Ayudante Baron who nodded approvingly, encouraging her to go on. “With these words do I reconcile the prodigals of Karagad to their Nation.” She half-hoped that would be unacceptable and that she would have to come up with a better one.
“That’s amazing, Vidanja. That is a beautiful statement and true to the heart of your path.” Baron nodded in agreement with the artist. The woman tilted Vidanja’s head up and for a moment she flinched, a flush coming to her cheeks as she remembered the events of the previous evening. When asked if anything was wrong she answered with a “no” and that it was just her nerves. The tattooist picked up a needle and dipped it into the inkwell.
To say that it hurt would be a tremendous understatement. The first puncture of the needle brought a pain so intense that Vidanja’s eyes immediately watered and a choked noise issued from her throat. She dug her fingers into the soft padding on the chair arms, appreciating that they were there. Her feet hooked themselves around the legs and she tensed the whole of her body to endure the pain. Ayudante Baron sat calmly in the chair previously occupied by the tattoist, leaning in periodically to watch the progress of the words being written onto Vidanja’s mouth. The girl tried closing her eyes, but realized she had to keep them open because she did not like not knowing when the needle would strike next, even though the woman kept a steady rhythm, pausing only to dip into the ink or to switch needles. After some time of the needle piercing a small area the pain would seem to dull, only to renew itself when the needle moved to another area. See couldn’t tell what parts the woman was inscribing, but tears streamed down her face and she did not even find relief when a soft, cool damp cloth was pressed gently to her lips to wipe away the blood. At some point she became aware that the draft in the room was coming from somewhere near the lounge.
By the time the woman began on her bottom lip, the top was throbbing and she began to feel a numbness setting in. The lower lip seemed to hurt less and she couldn’t tell if that was because she was getting used to it or because la torsion in the needles was taking effect. Her grip on the chair had lessened and things seemed to become much clearer. The artist was near the end, she thought, and at the same time she realized this she realized she was no longer crying. She could not see it but the tattooist and Ayudante Baron exchanged meaningful glances. The artist was very good and had timed everything perfectly: la torsion was just beginning to take hold of the girl as the tattoo was finished. With a final dab of blood from the girl’s lips, the artist smiled.
“And that is it, carina. You’re finished, and your lovely lips have been written upon with your own words.” She turned to the table and moments later turned back, handing Vidanja a sponge. “Hold this to your lips for a few moments.” With that she turned again and Vidanja could hear the gentle clink of vessel on vessel, and the sound of something being poured. Whatever the sponge was soaked in burned for a moment, then tingled, soothing its way to a cool feeling on her lips. She almost forgot about the pain.
Moments later with her lips covered by protective strips of leaf coated in something thick and balmy to keep them on her mouth, and with the same cooling ingredient she encountered in the sponge. Baron took her hand and led the unsteady girl to the lounge.
She came to appreciate, very quickly, the breeze coming into the room through what she now knew to be a nearly invisible series of notches between the stones of the walls. The artist finished packing her supplies and then came to sit next to Vidanja, stroking her head and talking with her.
“It’s okay, just breathe. Just take deep breaths.” Vidanja tried. She turned her head to face the tiny breeze and sipped the air, feeling it cool her now-sweating face. Just as she was beginning to get used to that, a new sensation arose. A tightness in her belly made itself apparent before blooming outward, warmth and then tightness spreading to her chest and limbs. “I’m here. I will stay here with you until the end.”
The end took a long time to come. Before that, Vidanja cried more than she ever had before. The tension in her body turned to knots and she found herself on her belly, hanging off the edge of the lounge vomiting into a chamberpot. When she wasn’t vomiting she was curled into a ball, gasping for air and making choked noises as she struggled to breathe. “You can breathe, Vidanja. It just feels like you can’t. Face the air, take it in slowly. You can do it.” And she did, despite the wracking pain. The room began to change and the tattooist’s voice sounded far away.
It seemed to get dark and Vidanja looked down, saw that her hands held great handfuls of the linens on the lounge. Her hands seemed different to her now, strange. She felt the soft caress of the woman’s hand on her head and tried to focus on the distant voice in her ear “Can you talk to me, Vidanja?” An answer came out, in words, and Vidanja was amazed because she had intended to nod her head for fear that she could not speak.
“You have been told many times that la torsion is a deadly poison that we use in this nation to execute the condemned. You must also taste the pain of la torsion if you are to bring about reconciliation with those whom you have called the prodigals. Shh, shh, it’s alright.” Vidanja had begun to sob again, the world pulsing and changing around her and the ache in her body fading and intensifying by turn. “It may seem frightening. You are going to see your truest self, Vidanja Rajiramon. The truest self is what every prodigal must see before they may have their names inscribed on our city’s walls, do you understand?” Vidanja nodded, having studied the process again and again. The tattooist smiled and stroked her back, “Not yet, carina, but you will understand soon.”