Then I thought of the tribe whose dances never fail / For they keep dancing till they sight the deer
I handed over three one-Euro coins to the lady, her long brown hair trailing over her army-green jacket.
"Cheers, enjoy." She took the money, and I picked up a sleeve of Italian peaches, stuffing them in my backpack. I tightened the cinch and snapped the clasp. The taste of sweet, donut-shaped Italian peaches lingered on my tongue, my mouth salivating as I remembered the taste of the ones I had eaten on the farm the week before. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I continued down the street, north and out of downtown Drogheda.
"Excuse me," a young woman stopped me, "Would you be interested in a food trial? You would be compensated for your time." She looked at me with that sort of desperate look that street workers (not prostitutes mind you, just people who work on the street) give you.
"Oh, I would. But I can't. Too many food allergies."
"Of course. Better that you don't." She smiled. I walked on.
I kept moving north, but I couldn't shake the tattoo store-front I had seen earlier that day. It was nearby, just up the street. I'd wanted a tattoo to commemorate my holiday since before I had arrived in Ireland. Alan, a waiter back in Howth, suggested an outline of the country. His traveling buddy does it every time he goes somewhere new. I liked that, turning my arm into a map of the world I have walked. This was my dream trip, and I wanted something more than grey matter memory.
I looked at my phone, pretended to be surprised by something, and turned around, heading back up to the shop. As I passed the food trial lady, I glanced across the street at the Pennys. I detoured, and headed across the cobblestones to the store, filled with that overwhelming indecisive nervousness that proceeds every tattoo. I wandered in and out of the racks of cute but cheaply made clothing, looking for a way to be distracted from the decision at hand; every tattoo, a permanent reminder of some era of your existence. I put back every piece of clothing I touched. The fluttering in my stomach, the skip in my heart, the sweat all over my body. I knew I should stop ignoring myself and walk into the tattoo shop. (After saying no to gallivanting with a Scottish stag group at the beginning of my trip, I had told myself that "no" was no longer an option [within reason].) I put back a pair of grey sweatpants, snickered at myself, and headed back up the block to the tattoo shop.
I walked up the steps, heartbeat in my throat, and opened the door. I have nine other tattoos, some of which are quite large, but I found myself sweating like a teenaged boy asking some pretty bird to some stupid dance. Do teenaged boys feel nervous about shit like that? Do teenaged boys feel? Whatever. I was sweaty; my body's natural reaction to decision making. I opened the door. Paper signs with large arrows pointed to the left, "BARBER SHOP". I shifted to my right, a staircase leading down. Deep breath, I walked down the steps.
A man with a reddish goatee was looking through something in a magazine; a woman with a half-shaved head, large plugs, and glasses was scrolling through pictures on Pinterest.
"Hey there," I timidly proclaimed my presence, the worst court announcer of all time. Talking to people has never been my jam.
"Hey," he replied looking up at me from under his ball cap.
"You have any walk-in's available?"
"What do you want?"
"I was just hoping to get a very small outline of Ireland, just on my wrist. Super small. How much would that be?"
"Let me see your wrist." He took my right arm, turned it over to the spot I had pointed at, "You got a wound there it looks like."
I ran my hands over the area, a fucking midge bite, "We can move it down if you need. I just want it somewhere near this area, real small."
He looked over my arm, "So you want it this big?”, he gestured, his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart.
"Yeah that sounds good." I mirrored the size with my own fingers.
"You want just the outline?"
"Yeah, something simple. Just to commemorate my trip here."
"Alright. How about some Newgrange spirals inside? Might as well make it a bit interesting."
* * *
After a friend back home had suggested it, I visited the Newgrange tomb the day before I wandered into the tattoo shop. It’s an ancient passage tomb older than Stonehenge, older than the Pyramids of Giza. Newgrange is a behemoth mound that rises out of the earth, grassy on top, wrapped in white stones, a small doorway leading inside. Knowth, another passage tomb just down the road, is smaller than Newgrange, but is surrounded by a series of smaller ceremonial mounds, all circumvented by hundreds of 80-ton kerb stones carved with mysterious ancient artwork: spirals, circles, dashes, interlocking patterns. The curves of the kerb stones poked at the lazy skeptic within me. I ran my hands along the outer stones, tears welling in my eyes. My usual stone-faced self eroded. My lungs swelled with six-thousand years of history. At Knowth I revered the kerb stones, running my hands along them as though I was touching something off limits, something that should be behind a rope at a museum, but this I was allowed to feel.
For each intentionally carved bump I ran my fingers over I was transported in time, imagining a leather- and fur-clad early human chipping away at the stone, translating meaning into symbol. I was there. I struggled with them from one end of Ireland to the other, moving these massive stones without horses or roads, with pure human determination and force. I arranged the passages with them and built the walls around, balancing small smooth stones. I carried the timber, I dug the foundation, I labored under millennia of human ingenuity and purpose. Time was no longer linear; the past had come charging into my present. The tour guide called us back, and I returned, pulled through time, a fish on a line, to the communal present.
The tour bus took us to Newgrange. It sat looming on the hill, the environment rarified and sacred. I walked into the tomb (Knowth is inaccessible to lay people), and my necessary bodily vitals seemed suspended. The air was still and heavy with history. The musty smell of the stones flushed and filled my nose, their coolness releasing mystery into the air and into my lungs. This structure had survived thousands of years of mistreatment: being forgotten, being rediscovered, being vandalized by teenagers in the 1800’s. I was overcome by the sacrilege brought on by the mass of tourists, speaking over the guide in any language other than the one the rocks, the tomb, were trying to convey. I strained to hear the voices of those buried here, the ceremonial drums pounding lowly through time, the priest blessing the ashes of the king, that early human tribal frenzy.
As the other tourists exited the tomb, I lingered behind to view the basin stones (large bowl-shaped stones where ashes and bones had been deposited), to take in the 19th century graffiti, to absorb the unsolvable mystery of the place. Tomb? Ritual site? Was it sacred? Was it holy? What was holy and sacred to our Neolithic ancestors? What did they mean by this place? Who were they? What did their existence mean? What does mine mean? Why were we there looking at these, their geometrically sound structures? What could I ever hope to leave behind? No one knows why Newgrange was built. That feels right.
"Um, yes please. Spirals sound awesome." As eloquent as ever.
"Alright. You've eaten today?"
"Yep. Just ate."
"Great. You want some tea or coffee?"
"Huh?," Some Irish accents still caught me off-guard, even after six weeks.
"Tea or coffee?"
"Yeah sure." I had just spent the past two hours reading over a Sholokov book and drinking lattes at a coffee shop, but you can never have too much tea or coffee. Or I suppose you could, but never mind that.
"Great. There's a spot just at the corner. I'll work on this. See you in a bit."
After multiple sizing confirmations (all highly accurate thumb and forefinger-based measurements), I walked back up the stairs, and out into the warm, un-Irish afternoon. I strolled across the street. I found the coffee shop he mentioned just before the off-license (or what us Americans would call a liquor store), and two doors before the street corner. I climbed the steps, and emerged in the tightly open, small shop. A newborn wailed, red in the face, at its mother. Three middle-aged men (also red in the face) paid their bill at the till. I took in the salad bar, the variations of tea. I stood at the register. A lady, probably no older than me walked past me to the salad bar, "You alright?"
"Can I get a hot tea for take away, please?"
"Anything else you wanting today?"
"Do you want anything else?'
"Oh no. That's it. Thank you." I had taken to being over polite in hopes that people didn't label me as a stupid American.
"You just wanna tea? Any kinda?"
"Huh?," I had eaten that day, but not all that much, and the caffeine from the espresso was having its way with me. My heart beating a little too fast, the world in hyper-focus, my mind easily distractible.
"Any kind of tea?"
"Oh yeah. Uh, Earl Grey please." So, more caffeine.
"Room for cream?"
"Huh? Oh no. Thanks."
She handed me the to-go cup of tea, and I handed her some Euro coins.
I turned back up the street toward the shop. I stood outside the storefront, pretending to look at something interesting on my phone, killing time before I went back in (I didn’t spring for the international phone plan so there really was nothing to look at).
After I finally went in, I sat in a chair across from the counter, and examined all the usual tattoo shop fare: skulls, flash art, shop t-shirts, tattoo aftercare products, body jewelry, awards.
“Shit. These fucking spirals are giving me a hell of a time. I usually do realistic portraits. Give me a portrait to tattoo, and it’s no issue. But these damn spirals. I have to get them just right.” He drew, erased, and redrew over and over, “Sorry it’s taking a bit.”
“I’m totally okay with you taking your time. No rush.” I sipped my tea, and let my eyes continue to wander around the room. The other artist was working on a regular customer. She drew flowers on the client’s arm with a sharpie, looking back and forth from the reference photos to the in-progress work on the upper arm. The Talking Heads played on the radio.
“Alright, I think I’ve got it now.”
I approached the counter. It was certainly more than two inches big, but it was beautiful. The shading on the spirals creating an embossed, carved effect. Just Ireland and this swirling ancient mystery.
I sat on the large, black, padded chair. He set up a tray with ink, needles in packages, ointment.
“I’m Dualta by the way.”
“Dualta? That’s pretty rad. I don’t think I’ve heard it before.”
“Ah, yeah. It’s Irish as shit.”
I held out my arm, he cleaned the area on my forearm with rubbing alcohol and positioned the stencil. He peeled it back, transferring the stencil to my arm in thin blue lines.
“Ready?” The tattoo machine buzzed as he tested the foot pedal.
“Definitely.” Ready to dedicate a little patch of flesh to something sacred, something ancient. Ready to not forget. Ready to be reminded of the beauty in not knowing, not understanding, and admitting to it. I laid back, meditating on this new ancient kinship, and the scratching needles became rhythmic, the endorphins flooded my system. And I let slip the past into my present once more.