Suzanne Cottrell : Fiction : July 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I attended East Carolina U., Virginia Tech., and NC State U. I married a southern gentleman and have lived in North Carolina for over forty-three years. Once I could pronounce “y’all” as a one syllable word and eat grits, I considered myself a true southern.


“Sharp sting. Don’t move,” said the tattoo artist. Within the folds of his rolled up shirt sleeve, Carmen glimpsed a pack of cigarettes. She smelled his smoky clothes. Colorful spatters covered his jeans. Carmen hoped none of the spatters were blood. He had a full sleeve tattoo of tropical birds on his left arm. I hope my tattoo will be as beautiful as his. As he bent over, his hands were steady unlike Carmen’s nerves.

“Ouch.” Carmen fought to keep her left arm still. A burning sensation radiated down her arm as the needle vibrated and coursed colored ink across her bicep. Deep breaths. Relax. Take deep breaths. She told herself. The tattoo artist filled in two interlocking crowns of lilacs with lavender, deep amethyst, and then added heart-shaped, chartreuse leaves.

Carmen chose a tattoo of lilac crowns to represent her love and respect for her grandmother Estevan with whom she had lived since she was four years old. Lilacs were one of her grandmother’s favorite bushes that towered well above her five foot two stature. Two large lilac bushes grew in a corner of the yard near a cement, rock wall. Each May her grandmother cut clusters of lilacs and placed them in an engraved crystal vase on the dining room table. The blooms’ sweet aroma permeated the room like her grandmother’s kindness. Even in the winter, her grandmother brought in small, bare, lilac branches and sprayed them with fake snow. Her grandmother told her that lilacs symbolized love and wisdom. 

Carmen recalled her grandmother sitting in a wicker chair on the cement porch peeling apples for a pie. Occasionally, Carmen dashed up to the porch and snatched an apple slice from the wooden bowl in her grandmother’s lap. Her grandmother smiled and shooed her away with one weathered, arthritic hand. Carmen hid within the lilac bushes pretending she was a princess living within a walled castle.  

Carmen tried to recall the sweet, intoxicating fragrance of recently, bloomed lilacs and freshly, sliced apples as the tattoo gun hummed. Instead, she smelled burnt flesh and disinfectant.

 “Done. What do you think?” asked the tattoo artist.

The shiny, floral design was vibrant against her raw, reddened skin. “It’s beautiful.” Tears welled in her eyes.

He dabbed some ointment on her tattoo and then wrapped a sterile bandage around her arm. “Be sure to keep it clean and moisturized. Whatever you do, don’t scratch it. You don’t want it to get infected ,nor do you want to scratch any of the color off. It’s going to itch when your skin starts to peel.”

The itching was like an awful bout with poison ivy. She kept telling herself it was worth it. That was 67 years ago. Now Carmen stood in front of her bedroom mirror getting dressed for Sunday mass. She pinched her left arm’s sagging, wrinkled skin. Then she stroked her floral tattoo. Its detailed lines had blurred. The colors had faded to muted mauve, grayish-purple, and pukey green. She pulled the skin taut hoping to restore the beauty of the lilac crowns, as well as her youthful energy. She sighed, and then rested on the edge of the bed with her head drooping like a wilted lilac.