The country that gave the world Bach, Mozart and Beethoven used poison gas, barbed wire and machine guns in order to kill as many men as possible. The countries that gave the world Shakespeare, Milton, Bizet, Victor Hugo, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy responded in kind. Uncle Sam’s patriots cheered and sang “Over There” as they watched their sons and husbands sail off to share in the absolute virtual Hell that was the Great War.
After the war ended, and the world entered the Roaring Twenties, people sought relief and escape from the nightmare they’d witnessed by turning to drink, to raucous dancing, to promiscuity, to Jazz. Some did. Some, disgusted and sick at heart, soul, and gut with the culmination of the evolution of Western civilization, tried to turn their backs on the world, to escape the encompassing nausea that Europe and the United States had become in the past five years.
One of those who sought to remove himself from the festering insanity that was the United States and its European forebears was PFC (ret.) Coleman Parker, formerly of the 69th New York Regiment and empty shell of the nineteen year old who had boarded the troopship determined to personally kick the Kaiser in the ass so hard his mustache would fall off. Months of living in mud and shit, slogging through blood and brains and pus, sleeping between the scream of shells and the screams of the wounded, watching things that had once been human beings still walking around and eating and peeing and shooting had made Parker swear a million times that should he survive this satanic horror, he would flee the “civilization” that spawned and supported it.
To his surprise, but not delight, he found himself one drizzly day in 1920 disembarking a ship at the same Hudson River pier from which he’d left. Without changing his clothes or telling anyone he was back, he got on the first of several trains and made his way to San Francisco. Still in the same clothes he had worn across country, without bothering to check into a hotel or rent a room, he went down to the docks and got himself a job on the first ship that would have him. It wasn’t so much a ship as a giant piece of rust held together by the sarcastic good humor of a prankster God. Parker didn’t care. The ship was carrying some kind of cargo—Parker didn’t care—out across the Pacific to some unknown destination—Parker didn’t care—and the pay was pennies a day—Parker didn’t care—and none of the crew were white and only a few of them had a rudimentary grasp of English—Parker didn’t care. All he cared about was that he was going away.
A month, five weeks? later the ship didn’t so much dock as pull up as close to a beach as it could near one of the islands of the Philippines. Bucas Island, not too far from Mindanao, can be found on any good map; the island Parker’s vessel stopped at was near Bucas but was not found on most maps, save for that of the provisional government. It was named Mabuting Araw, which he later found out was Tagalog for “Heavenly Desires.” Not only did the God who oversaw rustbucket ships have a sense of humor, whoever had named this place apparently did, too. As he helped row the ship’s longboat onto the beach, Parker saw that the island apparently consisted of the beach itself—a long, wide, deep, dark-brown sand—which rose into some small, thickly-wooded (jungle?) hills behind it. There were Quonset huts and wooden buildings scattered all over the beach and as far into the green hills as far as the eye could see—so this was apparently no unknown backwater. Several other vessels—close family relations to his own, apparently—had also laid anchor offshore, and the beach seemed busy with people coming and going. As his longboat got closer, Parker was able to see where they were coming and going in and out of—every other building was apparently a bar or a saloon or a wholesale liquor warehouse. The ones in between, judging by the activity, were either whorehouses or joss joints. Apparently this place was the magnet for every purveyor and participant of sordid activity in the South Pacific. And that was fine with Parker, fine.
He helped pull the boat onto the sand, and his indeterminately Asian first mate gave him a toothless grin and said, “You go have fun time. Be ship noon. Chop chop!” And with that, the gentleman turned and hied himself toward the nearest shack.
Parker decided to saunter around, going nowhere in particular. There weren’t streets, as such, nothing paved, but the buildings were sort of lined up more or less in rows, so that if one squinted and made allowances, one could pretend one was in the waterfront neighborhood of any big city.
“You likee suckee-suckee?” was apparently the official Mabuting Araw version of “Hello.” Parker heard it from men as well as women, but he wasn’t up for anything like that…not yet. He wanted to walk in the sun and sweat a little first, to see something that was neither a trench nor a bucket full of shit and piss in a closet with the word “HED” written on the door.
He rounded what may as well be called a corner and saw a structure that for the first time in his life caused him to think of the word “ramshackle.” He’d never used or heard of the word except in books, but the hovel in front of him had to be the ramshackleiest building on earth. The door didn’t meet the floor, and there were sections of the walls that didn’t either. The roof was evidently making its furtive escape to the right, an inch at a time. There were a few pieces of bamboo hanging in the lopsided window, pretending to be a curtain. But it was the sign over the door that intrigued Parker, that gave him the first interest in a year in anything outside his own lassitude.
The sign was hand-painted on an irregular piece of what was apparently driftwood, in red paint with a brush that was missing a good many bristles. The sign read: BOD YART.
Bod Yart? Was that the guy’s name? Parker strolled over and poked his head in the half-open door.
There was an old man in the single room, and old, old, man, obviously Filipino. If he had any teeth he was giving them the day off. He wore shorts that were white when Captain Cook was killed, and nothing else. He sat in front of something that looked like an old foot-pedal-driven sewing machine, while on a shelf behind him sat crusted jars of what looked like paints or inks. He grinned happily as Parker stuck his head into the dimly-lit room.
“Hi hi, Capititan,” he chirped. “Mebbe you likee tattoo, hey?”
Parker allowed himself his first grin since…well, he couldn’t remember. At least the old man hadn’t offered him “suckee suckee.” Then he opened his mouth in a pleasant revelation. BOD YART. Body Art. This poor old bastard on this godforsaken island in the middle of shit-nowhere was trying to keep body and soul alive by tattooing the rare scum of the earth sailor who happened to stumble in…
For eighteen months Parker had thought there was no one on earth in more miserable straits than he; now he saw he was wrong. This poor old piece of shit probably only ate every other day. And, well, he certainly hadn’t planned on getting a tattoo, but, like most young men, he’d considered the idea on and off at various times…hell, there was certainly no maiden Aunt Fanny who’d faint at the sight of it, so why not?
“Let’s do it,” Parker said, entering the room and taking the only other chair.
The old man was delighted. “What you likee? Big sale today, Uncle Sam flag!” He cackled and wheezed at his own wit.
Parker thought for a moment, remembering the tattoo design he’d wanted—in a former life, a thousand years ago—when he had semi-seriously considered getting inked.
“I want a snake,” he said. “You savvy? A snake. Hissssss.” He moved his hand in a serpentine manner. “I want it wrapped around my arm, from here—“ he indicated his wrist—“to here”—shoulder—“around and around with the head right here”—on the trapezium—“looking at me. Savvy?”
The old man cackled and nodded. “Yes, Capititan. Ulupong, you call him ‘cober’.”
“Cobra,” Parker corrected with a smile.
“Yes, yes, yes, you sit, no movee!” the old man said, and began his work.
He sat at the—was it indeed an old sewing machine?—and began to pump the big flat pedal. He picked up a block of wood, rounded to fit his hand, from which a long needle extruded. Through a series of threads? sinews? cords? the pedal made the needle spin. Parker was reminded of a dentist’s drill. Moreso when the old man dipped the spinning needle into a jar of green ink, grasped Parker by the triceps and applied the needle.
The pain was extraordinary. Parker gasped and the old man cried, “No movee!” The work went on, fraction of an inch by excruciating fraction of an inch, relieved only when the old man stopped to dip the needle into the green ink, into black ink, into red ink, into brown ink. Parker had taken shrapnel in his foot, had had his share of trenchmouth and dysentery, but he’d never believed that an arm could be the cause of so much unbelievable pain. The old man bent to his task, looking only at his inks and his fleshy canvas, spinning, digging, scratching, drawing.
The first functional microscope was invented around 1590. But as late as 1920, no microscope had ever set foot on the island of Mabuting Araw. Had there been one, it would have revealed some very interesting things.
The ants, for instance. They did not have a scientific name, for no one had ever discovered them. They were microscopic in size. They were not bacteria, they were not amoebas. Like the Lorryia formosa, a mite too small be seen except with powerful magnification, they were animals, insects. But being ants, they lived in social colonies measuring in the billions. They functioned as did their larger cousins, almost as a single biological entity with a million separate parts. They were everywhere on Mabuting Araw, as common as the air one breathed, and as unnoticed. They were in the food people ate and the clothes they wore. They were on the old man’s needle and in his inks. They were not individual bacteria, merely existing. They were ants, functioning in concert in the hundreds of millions with the sole purpose of preserving the colony.
Perhaps our prankster God knows how many billions or tens of billions found themselves living in a sea of ink on the arm of one Coleman Parker. No one else can know.
Parker sat under the needle for hours. When the old man finally sat back and said, “Hey!” Parker could not believe that the eternity of pain was over. He looked down at his arm and gasped.
The artwork was unbelievable. A scaled green and brown cobra coiled around his arm with every scale perfect and shining, with its open mouth and forked tongue and curved fangs threatening his jugular vein and the fires of hell burning in its eyes. Parker stared at it for moments that turned into minutes.
“You likee?” the old man finally asked.
“I—I likee,” Parker manager to stutter. “How—how much?”
The old man shrugged. “Mebbe I don’ savvy. Some.”
Parker reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of assorted coins from a dozen countries, the result of his haphazard pay. He handed the old man several coins of gold, of silver, of copper. “Good?”
A toothless smile was his reward. “Okay, Capititan, you go likee sea now.” Or maybe he said, “You go likee see now.” Parker never knew nor cared.
Parker left the hut and walked out into the darkness, for night had fallen since he had entered Bod Yart. While the sharp, excruciating pain in his arm was gone, there was still a dull, steady ache. Nothing a little booze couldn’t cure.
Finding what passed for a bar on Mabuting Araw was about as difficult as finding air to breathe. Parker entered one that looked less repulsive than its neighbors and was soon imbibing tuba and lambanog, potent spirits distilled from coconuts. Soon his entire body was on fire, to match his arm.
“You likee makee bam-bam?” someone asked him. He turned two blurried eyes to the sound of the voice. A small brown-skinned woman was smiling at him from behind a little too much makeup.
This particular woman had been whoring since before Coleman Parker was a gleam in his father’s eye. She had been attractive, once; but thirty-five years of rough living had robbed her of her sparkle and vivacity. On the other hand, ounce after ounce of tuba and lambanog had robbed Parker of his sense of esthetics and sensibilities. And he’d been at sea for a long time.
“Sure, my dear, why not?” he asked. He threw some coins at the bartender and took the lady’s arm. They walked toward the jungled hills up one unpaved lane and down another—probably for only five minutes, but Parker had no sense of time anyway—until they came to a shack made of thatch and bamboo and mis-sorted woods. “Love palace,” the whore said, and led him inside.
Because of the alcohol, he lasted longer the first time than he had thought he would. And despite the alcohol, he surprised them both by almost immediately demanding an encore. At its conclusion, he said to her, “I stay here, sleepee tonight, OK? Sunup, we do one more time, I go, savvy?”
She had been in much, much, much worse situations in her career, so she agreed. “Gol’ coin, sun comes,” she admonished him, and he agreed. He fell asleep in the rickety cot they shared, probably left over from 1902, from the Philippine-American war, and she, sensing no danger from this young man, drifted off into slumber too.
The colony of microscopic ants on Coleman Parker’s arm caught a familiar scent. Their new universe—a sea of inks through which they moved freely—was comfortable and safe, but unfamiliar. But the smell that wafted over to them—a wet, warm smell, mixed with the tang of other microscopic but insentient, and utterly edible cells—was one they knew and recognized. The colony moved toward the scent.
A tattooed cobra seemed to undulate across the chest of Parker, uncoiling itself from around his arm. The two-dimensional snake—the ants, in their millions or billions taking the binding inks with them—crawled across Parker and located the source of the warm, wet, smell. The head of the snake entered the cavernous opening, and moved upwards, the entire flat, green and brown and red cobra entering the woman’s body. Once inside, the colony fed. Six, seven hundred million, a billion, two billion of them…they fed. They stored food in the larva chambers, they surrounded the queen with food.
Then, by an instinct unknown and unnamed, the colony made its way back to its original home, settling itself in on the body of Coleman Parker.
The sun in his eyes woke him, and Parker instantly if dimly remembered where he was. He turned to look at the whore. In the light, bereft of a bellyful of coconut liquor, he was almost but not quite appalled at the painted thing that resembled a ventriloquist’s dummy that he had—in the vernacular—“made love” to last night. He rolled out off the cot. There was a bucket in the corner, and he used it to pee into. Then he looked at his arm.
The cobra tattoo had moved. What? No, couldn’t’ve. The tail now started about an inch up from his wrist, and by lowering his chin and bugging out his eyes he could see that the mouth was closer to his Adam’s apple than his jugular. I must’ve been drunker than I thought last night he thought. This is where it is, this is where it was. S’matter with you?
He owed the whore money, he remembered that. She was apparently in a deep sleep. He touched her on the hip and shook her. “Wake up, princess,” he said in a low voice. She didn’t move. He shook her a little harder. “Hey, grandma, wake up,” he said a little louder. Still no response. He shrugged: who knew what kind of opiates or other kinds of drugs Filipina whores were in the habit of taking? He left a handful of coins on the cot and, yawning, stumbled out into the brilliant, humid day. He didn’t hear the slight goosh sound as a red and white mass flowed out from between the whore’s legs and further stained the filthy sheets.
He breakfasted on something he didn’t bother hoping to God were bird’s eggs, and not the eggs of some reptile or other at a wooden table under a canopy on which the word LUNSHNETT had been written. The cook/owner, who was five feet tall and probably Thai or Laotian, nodded at his tattoo and said, “You gettee from Bacunawa?”
“Bod Yart,” the little Asian man said, nodding in the general direction of the shack.
“Yeah, yeah,” Parker nodded.
“Him good work,” the cook approved.
“Him good work slips, I thinkee,” Parker joked to himself.
“De nada, de nada,” Parker waved him off.
There was to be another catch-as-catch-can payday before their next scheduled port of call, Yokohama, so Parker decided to empty his pockets of his few remaining coins at another of the local saloons. He was buzzy but by no means drunk when he got back to the longboat a little before noon. All the crew were there, with the exception of Sing Chow, the third mate, an unusually large fellow who, for some reason, had taken an immediate dislike to Parker back in San Francisco. While it was impossible to avoid someone on a ship like theirs, Parker had nonetheless tried to stay out of Sing’s way as much as possible—not from fear, but because he just didn’t need any more grief and aggravation in his life.
Noon came and went, and Sing hadn’t shown up. The wizened little first mate, himself barely able to stand (and cultivating a phenomenal dose of the clap, by the way) determined that the most sober one of his compatriots was Parker, whom he sent off to explore the island to find the wayward Sing. Parker’s two choices were to follow his officer’s orders; or build a shack on Mabuting Araw and offer suckee-suckee to visiting sailors for the foreseeable future.
It took him over an hour to visit every bar, whorehouse, and drug den on the beach until he found Sing, dead to the world with an opium pipe still clenched in his fist. He proved as hard to wake as the whore, but Parker finally accomplished the task by pouring a bucket of water on him. Sing awoke, furious, and as the gathered crowd laughed and mocked one of “theirs” being delivered such a loss of face by one of “them,” he lunged at Parker. Outranked or not, Parker quickly defended himself. He had learned a few things in basic training and a few more, worse, things in the trenches: outranked and outsized, he nevertheless knocked Sing Chow flat on his ass and ordered him to get back to the longboat, chop chop. Sing got to his feet, his usually yellowish-white face crimson with rage and embarrassment, and followed Parker at a distance.
The crowd agreed among themselves that they would all regret not seeing the big Chinaman gut the white guy and use him for shark bait.
For three days at sea, when Parker and Sing Chow crossed paths, they looked aside and went about their business. Parker anticipated nothing; Sing bided his time. The fourth night out, Sing had the bridge all to himself. It was four in the morning in that part of the Pacific Ocean known as the middle of absolutely godforsaken nowhere. Parker had galley duty from midnight to eight, and galley duty included bringing food to whoever was on the bridge halfway through the shift. Parker came onto the bridge—a room about the size of a Boy Scout pup tent—and Sing ignored him as he went over to the one table and set the tray of rice, vegetables, and tea down. As Parker turned to leave he saw the giant Sing standing in front of the doorway, brandishing a large knife. He didn’t say anything, just grinned.
Parker had the fear of death that most people have of stubbing their toes. He had died back in Belgium in 1919, as far as he was concerned, but he certainly did not intend to go out with a whimper or a surrender. He eased the knife he always carried as a handy tool from the small scabbard on his belt and took a defensive position. There was not a lot of room to move in here: this was going to be quick, whichever way it ended.
Parker had seen enough duels in the flicks to know that when the bad guy pulled his sword, Douglas Fairbanks would always wait for the onslaught and they would cross swords for five minutes. The good guy always waited for the bad guy to make the first move. The contrarian in Parker took over and he threw himself forward while Sing was still weaving as much as possible in the confined space.
Parker did not know how many men he’d killed, anonymously, in Europe; but Sing clearly remembered the eight he had knifed to death during his oceanic career. He knew what he was doing, and was able to dodge Parker’s swipe with relative ease—all he got was a slash across the abdomen. It bled, but it wasn’t deep. It stung, but it wasn’t debilitating.
Parker’s eyes, of course, were on Sing’s knife; not his left hand. It was Sing’s left hand that grasped the heavy stone-carved foot-tall Buddha statue that was kept on the countertop for luck. There was hardly room to throw it, but just enough room not to be able hit Parker in the head with it, so it was a sort of hybrid smash-throw that nonetheless caught Parker in the forehead. The ex-soldier hit the deck, stunned. Sing grimaced and took the two steps necessary to bring him over to his inert foe.
The colony smelled the blood. It hadn’t fed in three days. The colony smelled the blood. It began to move toward the source of the smell. Sing stopped, the knife drawn back, and gaped in disbelief as the white bastard’s tattoo began to crawl across his body, unwind itself from his arm, and slither flat and inexorable across the floor. Parker, his vision coming in and out of blackness, decided he had gone mad as he watched the snake—watched his tattoo—crawl the several inches across the floor and begin swirling up Sing’s leg. Sing came out of his paralysis and stabbed at the snake—driving the knife deep into his own flesh and muscle, collapsing himself to the floor. Maybe he’d killed a hundred thousand ants—they didn’t care—as the snake flowed around the knife blade and the head found its way to the gash in the abdomen. It entered the opening and the colony began to feed.
While Parker watched, he thought, not of the insane scene he was witnessing, but remembered the German laying across the roll of barbed wire, his intestines and organs hanging down to the ground, swaying in the wind; he remembered that Private Smith, or Smitt, from Oklahoma, who had been in the middle of telling a dirty joke and whose head had just VANISHED in a jet of blood as the shell that had decapitated him exploded a hundred yards behind them; he remembered that sergeant whose name he didn’t know pulling apart his toes to examine his trenchfoot and having three of them come off in his hands. This…this…this…was nothing.
The ants fed in due course and Parker sat as calmly as if he were waiting for his turn in the barber chair as the snake extruded itself from the slice in Sing’s belly and made its way the short distance across the floor and back to Parker’s arm. He sat still as the ink—as the picture—as the tattoo—as the—as the—settled itself more or less in the same position around his arm and across his throat.
He got up and threw Sing’s body overboard. He ate the rice and the vegetables and drank the tea. He left the tray there and went back to the galley. The next day, all he knew was that he had delivered the tray and gotten the hell out of there—you all know Sing didn’t like him. Ha ha, no, I didn’t poison him. Maybe he’d eaten, and then gone to relieve himself over the side and fell overboard.
“More tird mate Okinawa you balls gottee crab,” the captain had dismissed the disappearance with a shrug.
Parker wore long-sleeved shirts for the next few days because the tail of his snake tattoo now rested over the triquetral bone, not the lunate where old Bod Yart had drawn it, and he wasn’t sure that any of his shipmates would or wouldn’t notice the difference. But that morning he’d awoken in the whore’s hut…and now the thing with Sing Chow…He caught one of the ship’s rats—the shadow crew, he called them—and sat alone in his tiny cabin one evening and cut the rodent’s throat. He watched with great interest and virtually no wonder as the…the picture on his arm, maintaining its artistic integrity, moved toward the dead rat. Again it seemed to enter the wound, but this time it didn’t leave until the rat had collapsed into nothing but an empty husk of fur. Parker sat very still as his tattoo crawled back across the table and found its way home. This time it went back almost exactly where it was when he had left the old man’s hut.
Parker had little to do but think while the ship made an unscheduled stop at Okinawa, then made its way to Yokohama. He had witnessed too many of the horrors of Man to question the reasons and physics of the wonders of God or the Devil. He had accepted too much poison gas and suicidal bayonet charges into machine guns and generals ordering young men to their bloody explosive deaths and too many young men blithely and blindly taking those orders to wonder about how or why he had a snake tattoo that liked to move around and…apparently…sustain itself.
The only question Parker asked himself was: what do I do with this…gift? Get off the ship at Yokohama and go into show business? The Japanese surely did love their bizarre stage acts…Or should he just have the arm surgically removed and burned? Was this truly a gift…or a curse? Or did it make a difference, one more practitioner of death in a world that gleefully killed its people by the tens, by the hundreds of thousands all in the name of some Empire or other?
A pilot boat came to meet them as they approached Yokohama, bearing all kinds of assorted goods and flotsam and jetsam that the considerate harbormaster thought an incoming vessel would like to see. One item was an English-language newspaper, published in Tokyo, that of course ended up in Parker’s hands. Dated a week ago, it told him that as of tomorrow, a delegation of American Congressmen were making an official fact-finding visit to the Nipponese homelands. Parker scanned the names of those making the trip. He recognized four of them. All four had been at the dock making patriotic speeches and urging young men to go to Europe and kill as many Germans as possible the day he had trod up the gangplank onto the troopship. All four of them had eagerly sent their constituents’ sons to the hell of the trenches and the gas and the disease and the suicide and the slaughter, all in the name of Patriotism.
Parker got his Army uniform out of his footlocker and asked the ship’s putative tailor to freshen it up, sew up the holes, and clean it. Surely, each of the Congressmen would be delighted to find an American doughboy, a war hero, bumping into them here on foreign shores! Surely they would thrill at granting this extension of their own sadistic megalomania a private chat, to have him thank them for the grand opportunity they had afforded him!
Parker grinned and patted his arm as the ship slowly cruised into Yokohama harbor. And surely, he thought, no one in the New York Fighting 69th had ever had such an undetectable weapon…