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In the incense-filled piercing studio, Robert lathers Colby's arm with a surgical scrub then wipes it clean. If Colby were a hairy man, Robert would shave the area as well. Rubbing on the stencil, which sticks like an adhesive one-day tattoo, Robert cautiously avoids placing the character near Colby's elbow bones since "air" has a swift descending stroke. The last thing he wants to do is trigger the funny bone with a scalpel in his hand.
As the autoclave hums softly, Otto Hayden walks in with a drawing of a scar pattern he'd like on his back, a large, complicated Eskimo design of an eagle he has been researching all morning. A scarification virgin, he's staying to witness Colby's cutting.
"Can you do that in one sitting?"
Robert considers the pencil sketch. "Yeah, I could." Then he disappears to the Exxon station next door for a cup of ice.
When he returns, Colby is lying on his left side in the chair, breathing slowly with eyes closed. Robert places a lined, cool-blue paper towel, the kind dentists use as bibs, beneath Colby's arm to catch the blood. He soaks another towel in the already melting ice and lets Colby in on his plan: first the three horizontal strokes, then the connecting vertical line and last the descending hook.
As Robert makes the first incision in the subcutis layer just beneath the dermis, Colby grips his leg with his right hand and exhales deeply as if he were doing Lamaze. Blood wells up instantly in the fresh grooves.
After the initial cuts, Robert goes over each incision again with the scalpel to ensure they are even, so the character doesn't turn out blotchy or fragmented. He stops often to wipe the steady bleeding, changing into a new pair of gloves at least eight times. Meanwhile, Colby has turned his head to press his closed eyes to the inner side of his left forearm.
"You're dripping everywhere, Colby," Robert says with amusement. "How are you doing?"
"Fine. How are you doing?"
Robert chuckles. The dentist bib is soaked.
When the incisions are even and connected to Robert's satisfaction, he presses a paper towel against the wound to make a keepsake pressing for Colby, just as he has done with Colby's earlier cuttings. Then he pours concentrated ink generously over the design. Robert has been performing scarification for about a year, and Colby is his experiment in progress. The first three of Colby's cuttings were highlighted by either ink or a mixture of ink and ashes, but none of them is as dark as he would like. Colby's hoping concentrated ink will do the trick.
After Robert wipes him down with the icy towel and patches gauze over the wound, Colby's arm is still a bloody mess. Colby keeps the bib as well, ink- and blood-soaked like a warped Rorschach test.
It has been half an hour, 40 minutes maybe, or an hour. Time has been hopelessly thrown out of loop. Outside on the staircase, Colby and Otto savor a post-cutting smoke.
The scarification surpassed Otto's expectation, which initially was that of a clean, quick-snip affair in the manner of TV surgery. Forget about the one-sitting back design; he's going to start a little smaller. Colby, though, is already planning more: characters on his other arm, on his thighs and "love," which consists of 13 strokes, on his back.
He's feeling "fuzzy" right now. The cutting induced a floating sensation, he says, a rush that fades to something similar to an alcohol buzz. "I'll probably be in la-la land for the rest of the day," he says with a smile.
By the next day the carved lines already will have begun to scab over. To ensure that scar tissue forms, Colby can pick at the scabs to irritate the skin. In a month the cuts will be completely healed, provided that Colby keeps his arm clean to avoid infection. By then Colby will probably be back for more. He's not just an experiment in progress, but an ongoing canvas of art, a remaking of himself in a way that nature never intended, or at least never dared.
E-mail Melissa Hung at firstname.lastname@example.org.