I used to be a mariner. Worked on boats since I was a lad and stopped at nearly every port in the world. Compared to all of you, I’m not the handsomest guy or the smartest, which might’ve caused me all sorts of grief if I was a landlubber. But I spent my life at sea, so I got by.
Seeing as I’m not the squandering type, I was able to save a good bit of money. The labor I put into smuggling on the side didn’t hurt neither. No doubt this line of work has a bad rep with you decent folk. I was trusted with all sorts of things, from narcotics to jewels. Took in enough loot to live it up if I wanted.
But a guy like me can blow as much cash as you please; he’ll never be as popular with them girls as all o’ you. So I chose to go on pinching my pennies, which I enjoyed, even without nothing in particular to use ‘em for. The day came round, though, when I had to give it up.
The whole thing started when I got a tattoo at this little port on the Mediterranean. Most of my mates had tattoos of women and boats and that, and seeing as I was the only guy who didn’t have a tattoo of his own, I figured I was due. That was big mistake number one. Big mistake number two was thinking that if I was gonna follow the crowd and get tattooed, I ought to go with a real odd one instead of something run of the mill like the rest of ‘em.
‘What sort of design would you like?’ this aging fortune teller asked me. We were in the back of her dark hut. She was turning the pages of one of them tattoo picture books.
Right then I surprised myself by coming up with a top-notch idea. ‘Make it a cabbage,’ I said.
I could not remember ever seeing a tattoo of a cabbage. I was proud of myself. Same time, I was worried the fortune teller would laugh at me for the strange request. But for some reason the lady’s face went white, and she tried to stop me.
‘Of all the tattoos you could choose, please forget about that one.’
I may not be brightest fish in the school, but I’m still like all of you, in that if someone tells me to quit, it just makes me want to do that thing more. So I told her a lie.
‘No way,’ I said. ‘I’ve been planning forever that if I ever get a tattoo, it has to be a cabbage. I only waited till now ‘cause no other artist could pull it off.’
‘They refused because it is something we must not do.’
‘I bet you’re just saying that ‘cause you don’t have what it takes.’
‘It is not beyond my skill. But you will meet with a terrible fate. You will regret it all your life.’
‘I don’t care. I want something to impress my shipmates. I’ll pay whatever you ask. Just do it.’
I talked the fortune teller lady into it, thinking I’d never find nothing better to spend my money on. In the end I had her tattoo the cabbage onto my left bicep.
Boy did she do a first-class job. It was so well done that if you took one peek, it looked like the cabbage was popping out at you. I went back to the ship and showed it off with pride to my mates. Their eyes went wide to a man, but not a single one looked impressed the way I’d hoped. I left off feeling kind of bummed.
Then the bad things just kept coming. That night the tattoo got itchy, and while I was scratching away it got infected, maybe ‘cause of the saltwater that went in the cut. After two, three days, I tried taking off the bandage, figuring it ought to be better by then, but turned out something funky was happening beneath. The cabbage had disappeared, and in its spot was the face of a girl.
She sort of popped out at you the same as with the cabbage, looking almost alive. When I tried giving the face a poke, she changed her expression like it hurt. This got me excited, and I hurried round showing my mates, but it was no good this time either. Every one of ‘em looked away without a word. I couldn’t understand how come no one had anything nice to say about it. To me a tattoo that could make faces was a real find. They just didn’t get it, and I figured it was ‘cause the girl was not exactly what you’d call a looker.
The next bad thing that happened was I got fired in a snap.
‘When we return to the port, you have to resign,’ the captain told me. ‘The men say they’re having trouble working with you around.’
No matter how much I begged it made no difference. This had to be what that fortune teller lady had warned me about. I’d gotten the boot without making no mistakes. What can you call that except bad luck?
I bought a small house and set to landlubbering for a while. Was around this time that the girl’s face began to bulge all gradual-like from my arm, turning into a lump, sort of swollen, though I didn’t feel pain or nothing. As the face got bigger, it started to blink now and then, which I did not find cute at all, ‘cause of the lady’s not-so stunning appearance. It made me angry thinking how I might’ve kept my job if only she’d been easier on the eyes.
Soon enough, I just plain flew off the handle. I grabbed a knife, and sawed away till I got her off – a real relief. Then I took that little nub, dug a hole in the corner of my yard, and buried it.
But it wasn’t over yet. After a while, when the cut healed up and I took a look, there was a girl’s face there again. A different face this time, but no less plain than the first. I decided to pinch her nose with a laundry clip, see if it improved her looks any. It seemed worth a shot. A week or so later, the face began to stick out, and I figured her nose had got longer. But when I took off the clip, it was back as stubby as before.
I could’ve tried plastic surgery, but I was scared of rumors spreading after the doctor got a peek at her. The last thing I wanted was a repeat of what’d happened on ship. So I bought a bunch of make-up, and tried putting lipstick on her, face powder and that. It was good fun for a while, ‘cause I’d never done nothing like that before, but somehow it never turned out right. Goes to show you that the face of an unbeautiful girl can’t be helped. In the end, I lost control and cut her out again. I was tired of it all, and afraid it was gonna go on for the rest of my life.
I chucked the nub into a wastepaper basket, and it dried up crispy, crumbling all over the place. That’s when a stroke of good fortune came my way. The face of the girl that appeared on my arm next time round wasn’t half bad. I told myself I was gonna take good care of this one.
I can guess what all of you’d have done in my shoes: just kept removing the face to make her looks get better and better. But I had to be realistic about who I was. My safest bet was to settle for what I could get.
A few nights went by with me sleeping carefully, so as not to rest on my left side. To give her nutrition for quick growing, I started eating lots. This looked to be helping, ‘cause she got bigger lickety-split, and bulged out a good way. Same time, she was becoming more and more beautiful, though that could have been all in my head from taking a liking to her. Her hair got darker and darker, and her long narrow eyes turned attractable.
‘Well, how’s that, eh?’ I said to her one day, for the heck of it.
‘Huh . . .’ she replied, all quiet-like, moving those cute lips. Now here was a discovery. I hadn’t felt like talking with none of the girls before her, so I never figured they’d talk back.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Whatever you want to call me.’
This was the most easy-going girl I had ever met. The ones I’d dated in my mariner days did nothing but make fun of me. I was happy as a clam.
‘Then I guess I’ll call you Polly,’ I mumbled softly to her. ‘That’s it, Polly.’ My heart was beating fast.
‘Huh . . .’
‘I know I’m not handsome, but don’t you run off on me.’
‘No need to worry,’ she said with a smile, and then it hit me: being stuck to my arm, she could never leave. I smiled back. At last I’d got a girl of my very own. A dumb ugly guy like me.
I gave her a kiss. Polly wasn’t so pleased. I couldn’t tell if that was ‘cause it was her first time and she was shy, or if she didn’t like it on account of my looks. But I didn’t care. She was bound to get used to it by and by. Still I felt kind of guilty, so I said, ‘Polly – is there anything you want me to do for you?’
‘I need sweets.’
‘You got it. I’ll go get some for you.’
I put a candy in that little mouth of hers.
From then on, I spent my days talking with Polly, smooching her, and feeding her sugary treats. She was a quiet, well-behaved girl. I gave her loads of sweets, and enjoyed seeing the satisfaction on her face. Little by little, she grew and grew. Started to eat a lot, and talk a lot, like she was getting used to it. She was asking for all sorts of foods, and I’d call shops to have them bring over whatever she wanted. I was glad that I’d built up some savings back in my mariner days, instead of wasting my money. There’s no better way to use loot than to spend it on your girl.
‘Don’t you be modest,’ I said. ‘I’ve got all the money we’ll ever need.’
When Polly heard this, she looked as happy as I was. I realized that the fortune teller lady hadn’t known what she was talking about. What more could a guy possibly hope for? My Polly kept getting more beautiful, and more bigger by the day . . .
I went into town after a long time away. I’d done nothing but tend to Polly for a good while, so it felt like forever since I’d been there.
Suddenly I heard someone whistle. When I turned my eyes in their direction, I saw one of my old shipmates walking towards us, drunk. I was pleased to see him after so long, and was about to call out to him, but he called out to me first.
‘Hey there missy. What’s your name?’
‘Polly,’ she replied, before I could get a word in.
‘Wanna have a drink?’ my old shipmate asked as he came over.
I shouted to Polly that we should go home right away, but my voice was too small, and she didn’t seem to hear. Then she took a band-aid from her handbag and stuck it over my face.
Image © The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.