BY LAUREN SPINABELLI
Joan begins her ritual with wintergreen rubbing alcohol and a long, silver needle. She runs a lighter over the sharp tip, the tiny flame reflected in the shine. She twists dark purple thread around the needle, pours a puddle of black ink into an upturned bottle cap. She wipes more alcohol over a patch of my skin. She dips the needle in the cap of ink, letting the purple thread soak up the black. I watch this by the light of the fire, the flames reflecting in Joan’s eyes, narrow with concentration. She smells like dish soap, she’s washed her hands twice. I prop my foot up onto her lap. I’m sitting on a plastic milk crate, the crosshatches digging into the backs of my legs. She lightly draws the symbol onto the side of my left foot, a map of where to start stabbing. A simple pine tree—a vertical line with three angled branches— the same image decorating Chloe and Sage’s ankles, the side of Sydney’s finger. Joan presses the button to turn on her headlamp; the white, battery-powered light overpowers the warm orange of the fire.
She asks me if I want a countdown. I don’t. I don’t like that sort of measured suspense. I close my eyes. I feel her stab through the layers of my flesh—the first layer is easy, a pinprick of pain. The second layer hurts more, deeper, like she’s reaching for my bones. It makes me grit my teeth and dig the dirt-mooned fingernails of one hand into my thigh. My other hand is sweaty and tightly squeezing Sage’s. She squeezes back. I stare into the fire, try to separate myself from the jabbing in my foot. Each tiny dot of pain adds to the homemade tattoo, growing slowly across my skin.
Three years prior, my first summer as a camp counselor, I saw the tattoos in the pool changing room. The thin outline of a fawn stamped above two female counselors’ ribs—I later learned two more girls had them, too. Four girls, four identical fawns. They had gotten them professionally done, in a shop—not by the light of a campfire, as I eventually would. They chose the fawn because it was the mascot of one of the villages at camp— the cluster of cabins that house the ten and eleven year old girls. They had all met in that village, way back when. That’s what I managed to piece together, anyway. But why commemorate it? Why get matching camp tattoos? Camp is so temporary. Summer is so temporary. Tattoos, by definition, are not.
My ex-boyfriend and I carved our initials into a tree once. I was visiting him in college, and we walked to a garden on campus. I can’t remember if we went with the intent to carve into the tree, but he had his pocketknife handy. The tree was already smothered in carvings—of initials connected with plus signs and trapped in hearts. Tree tattoos. We couldn’t find a blank space at our eye levels, so I climbed up onto his shoulders. I balanced up there, wobbling with a knife in my hand, and cut through the bark of the tree. Our initials separated by a fat, crooked heart. It wasn’t easy, for either of us. My hand hurt from gripping the knife so tightly, his shoulders hurt from holding me up. Both of us were tense with fear of dropping what we held. We took a lot of breaks—I’d climb off his shoulders and we’d sit in the crotch of the tree and decided how many letters I would try to get through until the next break. And then I’d climb up again, teetering, knife in hand. We broke up a few months later. The carving, I imagine, is still there. As long as the tree is there, it’s there—in the same spot, at the same level of our combined height. Even though we did it over five years ago. I don’t love him, or miss him, or think about him much, but I think about the tree—the way the carving is outliving our relationship. How it began as a declaration of our love, but now it’s a memorial of it.
I stopped working at camp this year, but, unlike my feelings for my ex-boyfriend, I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving camp. I love the way my younger campers would shake me awake when they had a nightmare, or they felt homesick. I’d sit with them on the floor of the cabin and tell them stories—nonsensical, probably, my brain so blurry with sleep— until they felt safe enough to crawl back into their sleeping bags. It didn’t matter what I said, they just needed the comfort of human noise— evidence that they weren’t alone in the dark.
Or I love the summers I worked with the teenage campers— especially the canoe trips we took down the Allegheny River. We would camp out on islands each night, in a crisscross village of hammocks slung between trees. After a day of paddling we’d make a fire and cook ramen noodles with the camp stove. Evenings were full of card games, hair braiding, and watercolor painting. Sometimes, the campers would caterpillar wrestle: two of them would stand up inside their sleeping bags, their heads and bodies covered, and jump blindly at one another. Other nights, we played rambunctious games of charades—coming up with absurd scenarios for the campers to act out, like ‘an octopus eating a popsicle,’ or ‘your hands are made of paper clips.’ The chaos always faded into meaningful conversations around the campfire. Secrets were divulged, and heartbreaking stories were told. A lot of nights ended in tears, in small huddles of campers crying and reassuring one another—it’s okay, you’re okay. We love you, we’re here for you, we believe in you. You’re safe here. Eventually the fire would die down, and the crying would stop, and one by one everyone floated off to the hammocks to sleep.
Like my ex and I carving into the tree, Joan and I take breaks as she tattoos my foot. She stops to dip the needle in ink, or to adjust her grip on the needle, or to pour fresh ink into the cap. I’ll ask her to stop for a minute when the pain veers towards unbearable, my hand still gripping Sage. Eventually, it’s all there: a tree with three branches, the same as Sydney, Sage, and Chloe.
I know memorial tattoos are nothing new. People get them to remember deceased relatives or pets, or to remember events and eras in their lives. Maybe my little tree is to remember the era of my life when I called myself a camp counselor: When I read fairytales to my cabin over the whir of fans, bathed in the lake with Dr. Bronner’s soap in a one-piece swimsuit, let a 15-year-old dye my hair purple with her bare hands in the bathhouse sink. Maybe it’s a memorial to that. All those strange and beautiful things I’ll never do again.
Or maybe it’s more of a memorial to a feeling:
One night, we build a fire on the grassy peninsula that juts out into the lake. We take turns wrapping foil around half-peeled bananas, filling them with marshmallows and chocolate chips, and letting them melt in the embers. We eat them with our hands and wipe our sticky fingers in the foot-flattened grass. We drink water from our Nalgenes. We notice an eerie orange light filtering through the trees across the lake. The light reflects in the water, rippling, liquid orange. The light continues to rise and reveals itself as the supermoon, a giant crawling from the earth towards the stars. We watch it in awe, this miracle growing beyond the trees. Someone starts to howl, and we all join in. Sixty of us—teenage campers, twenty-something counselors. Grinning with marshmallow teeth and howling at the moon.
It’s fleeting, the howling. It lasts 10 seconds, maybe 20—as much as our lungs can handle. It dwindles to laughter, and then silence. The peninsula is washed in orange light. Later that night, I’ll crawl into my sleeping bag in the cabin I share with the other counselors—Sydney, Sage, Chloe, and Joan. We’ll talk quietly, our voices heavy with sleep. Our human noise will dwindle to silence, and I’ll reach down and trace the raised lines of my new tattoo in the dark.
Lauren Spinabelli is a writer from Pittsburgh, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. My work has been published in Elite Daily, Luna Luna, Strangelet Journal, and Bop Dead City.