The Skin Collector

This story was originally published in a tattoo magazine called Taboo, and subsequently reprinted on Fantastic Metropolis:

The Skin Collector

“Yes; come in,” Professor Black said. “I had forgotten that today was the day.”

Lum followed his host down into the sunken living room, which was decorated sumptuously and with refined taste. It was apparent that the man who dwelt in this house was, if not out and out rich, certainly well to do. The art that hung from the walls was a blend of the romantic and contemporary; the furniture comfortably European; the rugs stylishly Asiatic. The plants, lined up against the large windows, were lush and tropical. The whole place had an air of uninviting comfort, as a stage set might.

“So, you are interested in tattoos?” the Professor asked, after the two men had sat down.

“Yes,” Lum replied, self consciously, as he looked into the small, hard eyes directed at him. “I explained it all over the phone… I wanted to interview you; for the book I am writing. I have wanted to meet you ever since I first heard about your collection. I brought a camera so I could take photos.”

Professor Black let his eyes descend to the body of the apparatus that hung from Lum’s neck, but his features showed no inclination towards approval. They were a grim blank that did little to sooth or welcome.

“I understand about the book,” the Professor continued. “But the photos we will have to see about. I am willing to show you my collection, but you will have to keep the camera tame-Art does not always benefit the masses.”

Lum thought that Professor Black did not look like the kind of man who cared very much for the masses, but let the comment slide. If the collection were really what it was made out to be, then it would certainly be a shame to leave without a few pictures. But of course it was the Professor’s call, and he did not appear to be a man to cross.

The room into which Lum was led was very large, windowless, but well ventilated, with a humidifier set in one corner. A smell, like that of old leather, permeated the atmosphere, and the track lights, which lined the ceiling, gave the room the feeling of a studio or gallery.

“These are some pretty good examples,” Black said, gesturing vaguely toward the glass frames which lined the walls, like so many paintings.

Lum stepped up to the first and examined it, initially finding it hard to believe that this strip of parchment was human skin. It looked more like a page torn from some ancient illuminated manuscript-The colors were so brilliant! The details so fine! The depiction was sublime, of two naked and winged little boys dragging a soul from a man’s morbid carcass. The background was a pure azure, with minarets and bold domes rising up out of the clouds. On the ground kneeled the clergy, with heads turned upward and palms pressed together.

“It is four-hundred years old. Taken off the chest of an Italian priest,” Black sneered. “I suppose the fellow had a streak of pagan in him, as the rules strictly forbade any such practice amongst Christians-The picture is what it is-Though not entirely to my taste. What interests me about it, what makes the tattoo so unique, is the shade of blue. It is very rare, and was apparently derived from a blend of indigo, comfrey flowers, and a small amount of human urine.”

The next frame over contained what was obviously the scalp of a human head. The picture thereon was morbid: a scene from the pits of hell. Countless demoniac monstrosities gathered around a small fire, kindled from heaped up bones. The flames, which were of a vivid yellowish-orange, shed light on the creatures. Some were like giant flopping toads; others had the heads of rams mounted on lascivious male bodies. Women huddled off to one side, their breasts split each in two and resembling the tongues of serpents. Ghouls, plump and with wagging tails, licked their chops. The creatures were countless and varied, disappearing back into the darker shading, made up of caves and cliffs, and then more reappearing in the background, at other fires that burned off in the distance of that joyless waste.
“And this?” Lum asked.

“This is also from a priest,” Professor Black replied, with the coldest of smiles. “A German. The design is taken from a painting by Breugel the younger. The man who executed the work certainly knew his craft. The chiaroscuro is really quite remarkable, not to mention the detail-But of course you can see for yourself.”

Ranged around the room were a complete and varied assortment of skins: Those from all periods of human evolution, as well as geographical location. The most ancient was very small-little bigger than a postage stamp-and taken from the corpse of a hunter-gatherer found in an ice pack on the Swiss Alps. It was of a little bird… There were also tattered shreds taken from Chinese and Incan mummies; others, strange Christian logos, disinterred from the catacombs of Italy.

There were those that were simple, showing the straight-forward, pagan roots of the art; and others, elaborately complex, tapestries of color, supreme skill and imagination, embossed on the epidermis of man and woman. Truly, this was the architecture of the flesh, where dragons and gorgons guard the gate of the human frame, and emblems of mortification and salvation tile its hallways. The skin, after all, does not hide, but reveals.

“You’re collection is even more incredible than I imagined,” Lum commented, in a low and bewildered voice. “I knew that it was supposed to be more complete than any museum’s, but this…”

“This is just a showing-A few prime examples,” Professor Black said. “The complete collection is back here-Over ten-thousand two-hundred specimens.”

A door was opened and another room revealed; print drawers lined in isles, each one labeled alphabetically and categorically.

The Professor took a few out and set them down. Inside lay delicate stacks of skin, like dried leaves, each a unique and precious item: the representation of a life, a mode, a belief, or sometimes simply a fashion. Some were from long ago and others modern. Some depicted language-the hieroglyphics of Egypt or the Sanskrit of India,-others birds, fish, horses, or other varieties of animal. There were insects by the hundreds-the beetle, the wasp, the child-of-the-earth,-and an equal portion of flowers, blooming in flames of crimson and spikes of forest green.

Religious and occult symbols were many-The cross, the pentagram, dice, the thunderbolt, and other signs of secret societies,-as well as Madonnas; Christs, thorn decked, with blood secreting palms-Then deities of the far east: A certain wrathful goddess, thrilling red, holding her skull cup and sacrificial dagger; Ganesh with the head of an elephant, one tusk broken, a serpent curled up, rising at his side-Or the many others, obscure and strange to western eyes: Some having the heads of jackals, eagles or bulls-or multiple heads, of even multiple creatures,-four arms, up to one thousand, often detailed to the very fingers thereon. Or another, coal black, winged, the head of a goat and body the blade of a knife.

Lum feasted his eyes, became excited, and broke out in a sweat.

“Yes,” Professor Black said, noticing the other’s discomposure, “I believe I have at least one prime example of every subject ever taken up for the tattoo. I consider the collection to be complete.”

“Maybe not,” Lum replied with an uneasy smile. “I can hardly believe it myself, but I have never seen the tattoo I have on anybody else, and I don’t see it here in your collection. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I have a tattoo that you haven’t.”

With foolish pride the younger man set down his camera, unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. The chest and arms revealed a modest proportion of décor-An arrow pierced heart, a toad with tongue extended, the head of Jimmy Cagney,-but the major item of attraction was on the back, which was offered to view without the slightest pretence at modesty.

“What do we have here,” the Professor said, his normally impassive voice modulating toward interest. “A plant of some kind?”

“Yes,” Lum replied proudly. “But it is a special plant-A Venus fly trap.”

In truth the object decorating the skin of his back was especially strange. A sheaf of lime green stalks ascended and spread out from the base of his spine, each one terminating in a claw-like cup. Several of the cups, or traps, were closed-The legs of a daddy longlegs stretched out of one… Others were open, the centers of those spring-like traps a vivid, almost bloody, pinkish red. A fly sat nonchalantly on one of Lum’s shoulders, poised just above its gaping, outstretched doom.

“Most unusual; the fly looks real enough to swat,” Professor Black said, with a strange twist of his mouth. And then, after an awkward stall: “I suppose we might as well get on with the interview portion now.”

“Yes… But… What do you think about the photos?” Lum asked nervously, replacing his shirt and picking up his camera. “It would really be nice if I could just fill up a roll or two.”

“Of course, after the interview.”

Without leaving opportunity for further debate, the Professor led the way back to the sunken living room. Lum had many questions on his mind as to the collection, and the modes his host might have used in making acquisition. At the right opportunity he would ask; just then he sat himself down on the couch, with a rabbit fur pillow tucked behind his back, and listened, while Professor Black prepared drinks and told his tale.

“As a child,” he said, uncorking a bottle of old brandy, “I always had a fascination with animal stuffs: feathers, bones, leather, shark teeth, fur-It is not uncommon in boys, to pick up a little something while out on a walk; a bird’s nest, with a few robins eggs and some strands of down.

“I had a collection of such things,” he continued, handing Lum a glass of the amber liquid. “I kept them in a small tin chest-It was rusty and painted with an old fashioned map of the world. Yes, inside there was the inevitable skin of a snake, a few skulls of small rodents, and a dried up claw-I suppose it was a badger’s.”

Lum sipped his brandy and listened, jotting down notes in his pad.

“To be honest,” Black said, “I believe my initial interest was more in touch than sight. Things are curious that way. I remember clearly: During a certain period of my child hood, when I was quite young, I shared the same bed as my mother. I believe that I was afraid to sleep alone. One night I awoke from a nightmare-I was being devoured by wild beasts,-and the first thing I came into contact with was a sort of soft, hairy mass. Of course it was only my dear mother’s arm, but it frightened me-As well as intrigued.”

The voice echoed in the high ceilinged room, and seemed to linger in space before entering Lum’s ears, and subsequently becoming part of his thought process.

“At the circus I saw the Zebra man, and later the tattooed woman. She was beautiful, or at least I thought so, and I might as well admit that she piqued more than just my young curiosity… Amazing, isn’t it, that decades later, she could still stand foremost in my mind?”

Lum tried to make sense of this question, but could not quite bring it all together. The pen stuck from between his fingers, immobile, and the glass sat empty near him. It must have been shortly thereafter that Professor Black’s dialogue terminated. He looked at his guest’s sagging form with eyes devoid of sympathy. The rays of the setting sun slashed in through the window, and glinted off the scalpel held in his hand.


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