[Media prompt] Tim Steiner has an elaborate tattoo on his back that was designed by a famous artist and sold to a German art collector … when Steiner dies his back is to be skinned, and the skin framed permanently
The Girl From Red Mud Village
Lotus was leaving Red Mud Village and the only one who knew was her Uncle Two Fingers. He had agreed to take her to River Bend Township fifty li away, and he waited in the early morning dark for her, squatting by his tractor, its engine pockmarked by rust, its tyres rubbed raw from alkaline mud. He scratched at the ground with a rock. Dull silver light on the horizon started to dissolve the starlit blackness.
“Have you eaten yet?” said Lotus, startling her uncle as she slung her sack onto his cart.
Two Fingers didn’t respond. He was a person who shunned company, so he kept his head down, gouging at the ground, while his niece wound a scarf around her hair. She climbed awkwardly onto a bale of corn cobs, sitting with her feet resting on the front gate.
“Let’s go,” she said. “They’ll be up soon.”
Two Fingers spat into one of the holes he had chiselled near his foot, then stood abruptly, as though activated by some silent signal, and leaned into the tractor to wind the crank handle. The engine clattered to life. Lotus hooked her fingers under the tie down securing the bales. Two Fingers idled his rig past Chen’s store, a repository of fakes and expired food, its western wall covered in faded metre-high white characters, “Long Live Chairman Mao”.
Speeding up as the village receded behind them, Two Finger’s tractor kicked up swirls of dust that settled back down onto the road, nobody the wiser for their passing after a moment or two. Lotus tucked her chin into the folds of her quilted jacket. The chill was less severe than it might have been a month ago, when thin ice whitened the grey furrows, but it still had stung her ears.
The generations of her family who farmed the dry winter fields weighed down on her, but lightened with each passing li until by the time they reached the hill where five red birches stood in a line she felt nearly weightless.
In River Bend, a town hugging a long bow in the river, the traffic was so thick that Lotus suggested they leave the tractor and walk. Two Fingers refused, reasoning that townsfolk would steal your shoes if you weren’t looking.
Later, on the boat, Lotus watched the hills slide by and heard the hiss of the water and the calls of river birds that didn’t sound like birds at all. She dug into the pocket of her quilted jacket, her fingers numb with cold, and withdrew her smartphone. She opened up Mr. Wang’s message. For the hundredth time, she breathed deeply, not yet accustomed to the feelings associated with her good fortune.
“Dear Lotus,” the message said. “Thank you for the photos. Your skin colouring and the lack of blemishes makes you a perfect candidate. As I have already said, we will paint beautiful pictures on your back and take professional photographs to sell. Foreigners buy this new kind of art, and we look forward to working with you.”