“Why, they’re beautiful!” I said.
How can I explain about his Illustrations? If El Greco had painted miniatures in his prime, no bigger than your hand, infinitely detailed, with all his sulphurous color, elongation, and anatomy, perhaps he might have used this man’s body for his art. The colors burned in three dimensions. They were windows looking in upon fiery reality. Here, gathered on one wall, were all the finest scenes in the universe; the man was a walking treasure gallery. This wasn’t the work of a cheap carnival tattoo man with three colors and whisky on his breath. This was the accomplishment of a living genius, vibrant, clear, and beautiful.
“Oh yes,” said the Illustrated Man. “I’m so proud of my Illustrations that I’d like to burn them off. I’ve tried sandpaper, acid, a knife . . .”
The sun was setting. The moon was already up in the East.
“For, you see,” said the Illustrated Man, “these Illustrations predict the future.”
I said nothing.
“It’s all right in sunlight” he went on. “I could keep a carnival day job. But at night—the pictures move. The pictures change.”
I must have smiled. “How long have you been Illustrated?”
“In 1900, when I was twenty years old and working a carnival, I broke my leg. It laid me up; I had to do something to keep my hand in, so I decided to get tattooed.”
“But who tattooed you? What happened to the artist?”
“She went back to the future,” he said. “I mean it. She was an old woman in a little house in the middle of Wisconsin here somewhere not far from this place. A little old witch who looked a thousand years old one moment and twenty years old the next, but she said she could travel in time. I laughed. Now, I know better.”
“How did you happen to meet her?”
He told me. He had seen her painted sign by the road: SKIN ILLUSTRATION! Illustration instead of tattoo! Artistic! So he had sat all night while her magic needles stung him wasp stings and delicate bee stings. By morning he looked like a man who had fallen into a twenty-color print press and been squeezed out, all bright and picturesque.
“I’ve hunted every summer for fifty years,” he said, putting his hands out on the air. “When I find that witch I’m going to kill her.”
The sun was gone. Now the first stars were shining and the moon had brightened the fields of grass and wheat. Still the Illustrated Man’s pictures glowed like charcoals in the half light, like scattered rubies and emeralds, with Rouault colors and Picasso colors and the long, pressed-out El Greco bodies.
“So people fire me when my pictures move. They don’t like it when violent things happen in my Illustrations. Each Illustration is a little story. If you watch them, in a few minutes they tell you a tale. In three hours of looking you could see eighteen or twenty stories acted right on my body, you could hear voices and think thoughts. It’s all here, just waiting for you to look. But most of all, there’s a special spot on my body.” He bared his back. “See? There’s no special design on my right shoulder blade, just a jumble.”
“When I’ve been around a person long enough, that spot clouds over and fills in. If I’m with a woman, her picture comes there on my back, in an hour, and shows her whole life—how she’ll live, how she’ll die, what she’ll look like when she’s sixty. And if it’s a man, an hour later his picture’s here on my back. It shows him falling off a cliff, or dying under a train. So I’m fired again.”
All the time he had been talking his hands had wandered over the Illustrations, as if to adjust their frames, to brush away dust—the motions of a connoisseur, an art patron. Now he lay back, long and full in the moonlight. It was a warm night. There was no breeze and the air was stifling. We both had our shirts off.
“And you’ve never found the old woman?”
“And you think she came from the future?”