The tattoo gun murmurs its Morse code on my Manubrium, the hard bones perched just above soft curves of cleavage. From the first tip of costal cartilage, down to the fourth Line of Union on my sternum, I feel the tattoo engraved upon my chest and the fusion is finally complete.
When I discovered the tattoo design, I knew it would be mine. I knew where it would float above my bones and swim inside my skin. I wondered, only briefly, about the implications of tattooing a corporate logo on my outrageously anti-establishment design. But the Nippon Gaikku logo was born in the 1800s, and was crafted with integrity, a brand of honor that now chokes on the smog of modern-day mechanization.
The tattoo design on my chest is the progenitor of the Yamaha logo, the very first to establish its presence for proud craftsmanship of elegant musical instruments. The tattoo-logo is a Hoo (pronounced haw-oh). It’s a Chinese Phoenix with a tuning fork clamped solidly in her beak. The Hoo and I may have been married through ink and blood only two years ago, but our journey began many years prior to her debut on my chest.
History between this Yamaha Phoenix and I started in elementary school. Crippled by grade-school awkwardness, I recall gimping into a tiny music room. My ungainliness swelled at the site of Mrs. Roan. She was my 3rd grade music teacher and the object of my youthful and bungling adoration. Her dark beauty, her zeal, her penchant for tailored white suits and black paten leather shoes with killer heels and pointy tips – so exotic, and all so uncharacteristic of the school-marm stereotype. I remember the silk of her pant suit elegantly shifting as she walked around the stuffy music room, rounding all her students up in a circle. She passed out a series of musical instruments to each of us, the first of which was a Yamaha French Horn, an instrument Mrs. Roan professed being quite adept at playing.
The horn was passed from one pair of grubby hands to another round the circle. Each child attempted, unsuccessfully, to birth sound from the bowels of the nickel-plated beast.
Lastly, the bright, silvery horn was passed to me. Its metallic skin was bruised from peanut butter and jelly smears left by chubby kid fingers, still unwashed from consuming cafeteria lunches. I cradled the horn lovingly and I remember whispering to it: “I know you’re magic. You’ll play for me.”
My tiny lips pressed against the cold metal mouthpiece. With the corners of my mouth downturned, brows furrowed, mind honed on the bull’s-eye of sound, I willed my lips to putter quickly through marble-like mouthpiece. My efforts were rewarded by a crystalline bellow, a clear herald of the horn’s brilliance, a solid ‘middle c’ note emanated from the horn. Mrs. Roan stood akimbo in response, her cinnamon eyes glowing in approval at my victory; I won her favor, a cold rose plucked in a moment of sun-kissed glory. I coaxed sound from this mass of twisted tubing and unlikely metal. Magic was mine.
Standing in the center of that circle, horn in trembling hands, my peers beamed at me with tooth-missing grins. In that moment I recall feeling gift-wrapped in attunement; a Yamaha French horn trumpeted the surprise arrival of homeostasis, and magic.
Years passed and I continued to cut my embouchure on dented King’s and tinny Conn’s – all rented French horns of dubious quality. But I persistently played these metal beasts – chromatic scales groaning through the walls of school practice rooms and childhood hallways.
The Summer transitioning between junior and senior high school was one of prolonged anxiety; try-outs for high school concert band were held the first of August, and I was struggling to spin melodic gold from a deflated, barren Elkhart horn.
A fluke of nature intervened. A serious eye infection threatened to take my vision that July, which would make my right eye a vacuous hole of non-sight. Laying in the hospital, agony scraping at my optic nerves, my dad fidgeted by my bedside. My awareness flickered between pain and pain-killers, but I remember my dad’s words uttered from the anxiety of his daughter facing a life of half-blindness. “Make it through this,” he said, “and I’ll buy you the best damn French horn you’ll ever lay hands on.”
I made it out of the procedures with eyesight intact, and dad made good on his promise. He bought me a Yamaha 668, the elite of the fleet for its day. A professional horn with seamless nickel streaming like smooth ripples of water in my hands. It resonated in my arms. Within this bright horn, there was music tingling, aching, itching to be released. I was reborn after playing the new horn for the first time. The sound I could produce was tangible lusciousness, like being robed in musical satin. That horn took me to 1st chair all through high school, prestige in college years, and even serving as a free-lance musician for both symphonic bands and chamber orchestras.
Now, decades later, sitting in a battered dentists chair doubling as a recliner for tattoo initiates, I think on these memories mixed with melodic overtones. As my friend and tattoo artist coaxes life from ink, etching the Yamaha Chinese Phoenix on my breastbone, I reflect on the appropriateness of the symbolism. Reborn indeed.
Was it happenstance that my eyesight was saved? I don’t think so. Rather, I believe it was the restorative power of my heartfelt devotion for creating good music, and my love of the French horn rescued me from living a half-blind life (physically and metaphorically).
Thankfully, it’s not the first time artistic expression has lifted me out of a pile of life’s potentially suffocating ashes. Good music, played rightly, is nothing short of pure enlightenment and I’m lucky (despite my uber-awkward youth) I found illumination that day long ago while rendering clear tones from that sticky silver horn in the third grade.
The tattoo gun finally ceases hammering at my breast plate, and I walk to the mirror to behold the new scenery on my skin. Looking in the mirror, I could swear the phoenix winks back at me – a knowing wink, a shared acknowledgement of restored vision, a confirmation how the drive for creative expression can give way to ascension, leading a willing heart out of the dark.