In the middle of the desert, alongside The Thousand-Mile highway, ran a ditch. In this ditch, lay a man in black. His face was covered by a carpetbag, lumpy with blocks of pressed charcoal, a skin with filtered water, a straight razor, a leather strop, and sterilized gauze. Most importantly, it also held Phobetor, a tattoo machine whose spirit—like it’s namesake—resided in dreams, where it took the form of animals in order to vex mortals. Or, so the man liked to say. Or, so the man may have mentioned last night to the Sheriff of Nowhere.
As it happened, this sheriff fancied himself a wizard. Not that he told anyone. Not that there were many to tell. Not that it stopped him from gazing at the stars, willing them to drift from one place to another. Or lucid dream, as he squeezed his soul into inhuman shapes and crawl across imagined landscapes. Then morning inevitably came tasting of bitterness, for these feats were not real. Not like the man in black’s story. And when the sheriff came upon that same man sleeping in a ditch, the sheriff threw the man in black into an empty cell in an empty jail and presented him with the following deal: water and freedom in exchange for Phobetor’s secrets.
The man in black sat on the hard, metal bench, stunned and desiccated. His bag, his water, just out of reach. The sheriff just beyond that. Just beyond him, a full pitcher, mocking him with sweat. “No need to suffer,” said the sheriff, raising a single eyebrow, leaning back to trace a spiral amongst the offending droplets. “You just gotta… spill.”
“There are no secrets,” bemoaned the man in black. Never had he imagined his tall-tales would be taken seriously. “There ain’t nothing special about my tattoos. Skin and ink, man. It’s just skin and ink.”
The sheriff shot a plug of tobacco into the corner, wiped his mouth, and drawled, “Too bad I don’t believe you.”
“Please, how can I prove it? Lemme show you.” The man in black’s tongue scraped across his palate. “You’ll see. It’s just a picture.” Seeing no choice but to start talking, he blurted out how he drafted designs, crushed charcoal to mix it with water, sharpened the straight edge of the blade to prepare pre-inked skin. The sheriff fondled Phobetor and lowered the needle as if to penetrate his arm. Then, he changed his mind.
“No,” the sheriff declared, lowering the gun, handing it through the bars to the man in black. “You first.”
A gust of wind brought a whisper to the man in black’s ear.
Just in time, else mummified, a peregrine is justified.
The man in black’s hand moved, possessed. He could only watch as a sharp, curved bill appeared on the back of his opposite hand. Then, a dark mask, covering the eyes and head of a raptor. After that, the chest, the wing. Then, legs and claws.
The man in black panicked, throwing himself against a wall, a bed, some bars. He would bruise later. He smacked up against something solid. A door, perhaps. He was caught in an updraft. He fell, feet clacking against the floor. Where was he? He didn’t know. He couldn’t see. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t see his hand in front of him. He knocked against something else and it knocked him out.
Morning light was accompanied by the sweat-stricken sheriff twirling a barred feather between his thumb and forefinger. “Just ink and skin. That right?”
“That’s not mine.” The man in black doubted the truth of his words. To consider otherwise was incomprehensible. Stripes of pain etched through his legs, his chest, his arms. Would he still be alive when these turned back and blue?
“Well, hell,” said the sheriff. “You think we got falcons in these parts? I don’t think so.”
“No. So, you know what I think?”
“I think you’ve got another shot. I’m not taking my eyes off you.”
With those words, the man in black had Phobetor in his hands for the second time in so many days. As before, the voice came. This time, it was stronger.
That didn’t work but here’s a hint, a marmoset shall you imprint.
The gun whirled a design into the inside of his forearm: a tuft of hair, then another. The dome of a head, the curve of a back, thick fur, and a long, fat tail. The room spun and the sheriff laughed with glee as he jumped up and wrapped his hands around the bars from the other side, “I knew it. Look at you go.” The jail cell door clanked open. “C’mere little monkey. That’s it.”
The door leading to the highway? A straight shot. Skirting through the sheriff’s legs, he heard the words, “Get back here you little…” Freedom was within ten feet. But the water was closer. A beeline was made to the pitcher, which was soon emptied. Half was spilt on the floor when the sheriff yanked, throwing him back in the cell with a single sweep of an arm. The metal clanged and the room fell away as the man lost consciousness.
In total darkness, he came to. Phobetor was at his foot. The voice was in his head.
The third is fast, the third is free, the third is now, a fox you’ll be.
This time, a paw print appeared on the heel of his right foot. Then another on his left. Ink became flesh and fur; limbs grew sinuous. The curtain of darkness parted, revealing the sheriff, now sitting. Now sleeping. Now his feet tied together. Now his arms. Now his keys laid by the prison door floor across from the prisoner sprawled on the tile. Now the breeze carried his voice...