Fiction by Jennifer Leeper
Everything on the Tahitian’s body was 123 years old, thought the tattooist. He tapped along the man’s inner and outer arm flesh to determine its resiliency and thickness. His own 75-year-old Polynesian genetics had lightly browned his limbs to the same shade as the ancient man before him, but they had also thinned his aging skin so that it was much less reliable in its composition than the other man’s. The tattooist was like an impressive boulder, shaped by time and place, powerful in motion or in its lack thereof, but he was nothing then, sitting beside a mountain, that no longer moved, but everything else moved around it, even time itself.
This was the old man called Keko, in a southeastern slice of Tahiti where he had outlived two wives and all three of his children. Keko was the oldest living being, according to several reputed Western sources. Beyond the prowess of his age, his blood that would soon mix with ink was of a royal vigor, donated from kings and queens of the water dynasties of Oceania where men once dove as elegantly as dolphins for pearls, and darkly exotic women lured European adventurers and artists alike to their island nations.
Keko knew he was dying, and with no vices to speak of other than a small corncob tobacco pipe that he had smoked for 10 of his 11 decades, he only requested a tatau, old Samoan for tattoo, before his death. He asked for Aikani, the oldest tattooist in Polynesia, to memorialize the scenes of his life on his body.
“My mother was a Tahitian princess who ran away with a pearl diver who was part Samoan and part merman. No, he was Hawaiian, too. So, I claim my line from the northern waters, as well.” Keko’s eyes squinted, tiny smiling wrinkles creasing his wide cheek-boned face. His long, white hair was braided down his back, but it was censored from view as he lay on a homemade surfboard that had plunged often into the raging cold cauldron of surf that he happily confronted as one of a thousand muscular primitives dotting a Tahitian coastline a century before. He spoke Tuamotu first, but to Aikani, a Hawaiian, he offered a choppy English.
“Your blood must be high-born to feed your skin so well at your age. Even I’m too old anymore for the ink.” Aikani’s own face rippled throughout with smiling wrinkles.
He began tracing the life of Keko across his chest and arms, in nimble strokes, following this painless rehearsal with pain-filled, metallic pricks. Aikani sweated out images of Keko’s life of diving for black-lipped oyster pearls and finally meeting his grandfather, the last true king of Tahiti. His eyes never left his own unraveling of the man until, at last, he felt as if the Pacific itself had pulled him under. It was the eyes of Keko, these two oceans of death, swimming with a final peace.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this piece as a finalist for the 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blind and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
JENNIFER LEEPER is the author of Padre, a novella published by J. Burrage Publications. She has also had short works of fiction published in Independent Ink Magazine, Notes Magazine, and The Stone Hobo. Her short work of fiction noir, “Murder Brokers,” was published in a compilation entitled, Fiction Noir: Thirteen Stories, published by Hen House Press. A republication of, along with a sequel to, Padre, titled, Padre: The Narrowing Path, was published by Barking Rain Press in the summer of 2014.
Originally published on 9/16/15.