My cousin Christopher snapped our family's centuries-old tattoo drought with a little black engraving on his right shoulder.
The Christmas he showed it off was a pretty typical Christmas. We had gathered at my grandmother's in Westminister and had just passed three or fours or so of casual confabs about everything generic - school, work, winter vacation were discussed amongst the forty plus visitors, until the clock rounded to about 7 PM, when a finely ornamented array of Christmas delectations was arranged on the living room's grand table. Then, we feasted. Then, we were zapped. A familiar post-feast lethargy set in after second and third helpings. I swooned onto the plush, pillowed sofa near the hearth. Three or four others joined me. Among them was Christopher.
Christopher had just returned from his first semester at college, and was eager to show us college's returns. He prattled endlessly until he could see more eyelids than eyes, then with one, drastic motion flung up the sleeve of his Christmas sweater and revealed his tattoo. Everyone was immediately wide awake again and huddled over this new ink, our family's first ink.
I was young and short, so I never got a good look at it. It was really something, though. Everyone buzzed about it. We forgot about candy canes and mistletoes and dessert. The tattoo was not something that related directly to Christmas, but it was something that related directly to our family, and that essential familial underlining is what bound us all together on Christmas. The tattoo was a monument, a milestone of our family's travels - from Europe to Ellis to the tattoo parlor. Our family was caught up in an experience entirely novel and seminal. Christopher's tattoo rattled our generic Christmas tradition, spruced it up with a landmark personal decision that affected the entire community. In all, Christopher's tattoo was Christopher's experience, my experience, our family's experience, our ancestor's experience.
Considering my tattoo story is centered around food and family, I find it fitting, almost natural, that Wendt's story is grounded in those two essential elements as well.
Wendt's "The Cross of Soot," begins with a young boy's return to a prison, which serves as a surrogate home for the child. The prison is fraught with familiar objects that are transfigured in a native vocabulary and tradition: "fale," "umu," "valusaga," "matai" (Wendt 8-9). These native terms lend a homey feel to the prison; moreover, an expected interchange between the terms forms traditions. These traditions are captured in glorified images: "an old man sat before a valusaga scraping breadfruit and singing, the fat of his arms wobbling in time to the scraping, his grey hair shimmering in the light" (8).
The "valusaga," the "breadfruit,' the "arms wobbling in time," and the "great hair shimmering" are evocative of a quaint family tradition. The old man's preparation of a meager meal is more than just culinary, it is traditional and folk-esque. There is a certain musicality and aesthetic ethos behind preparing breadfruit and fish for his fellow prisoners. His community depends on his confectionery and so do especial familial and traditional structures. The old man's scraping of the breadfruit is a component in the prison's communal structure, a component just as essential as the boy's antics, Samasoni's brotherly role (encouraging the boy, Samasoni says, "You'll have muscles like some day"), and Tagi's tattoo gifting. In all, the components harmonize to create a edifying structured to an otherwise untenable environment, wherein Tagi is set to be executed, the anonymous young man is in constant revolt, and the old man harbors a private grief that overwhelms and sidelines him at times. However, no component is more essential than the cross of soot, which Tagi gifts the boy.
The tattoo has special import in being lasting, concrete. Whereas dinner must be prepared again and again each night, the tattoo is permanent, unchanging. It stays on the boy's hand and goes where he goes, becoming a transportable and transferable tradition. Just as my cousin flashed his right shoulder and, in that instant, conveyed a sense of transcendental tradition - a tradition that reshaped our generally bromidic get-together- the boy's tattoo reconfigures his community and his traditions. The boy surmises the seminal value of the tattoo in the story's closing. "Jesus," gave him the tattoo, the boy informs his mother, "And he's never coming back. Never. He left me only this." (20).
The boy's individual tattoo in this story epitomizes, albeit on a smaller scale, what Wendt asserts in his article, "Afterword: Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body." Within, Wendt writes, "The act of tatauing a tatau ( a full male body tattoo) or a malu (a full female body tattoo) on the post-colonial body gives it shape, form, identity, symmetry, puts it through the pain to be endured to prepare for life, and recognizes its growing maturity and ability to serve the community" (Wendt 400-401). The cross tattoo, by virtue of being both a past remnant of Tagi's life and a imminent emblem of the boy's life, synthesizes the boy's movement from prison to home, from childhood to adulthood, from one man's past life to one boy's current life. It is not a full body tattoo but, nonetheless, the cross tattoo supplies the same seismic and motivating force, giving shape to a changing boy and a changing community. In short, the cross tattoo is transcendental for the boy and his community. And this transcendence marks a personal and communal growth that buoys the community onward and upward, even as far as to the realm of "Jesus." (20).