The Inksmith

by Katherine Briggs

In the seaside town of Goodeword, gossips whispered that Mrs. Helena Walker was an incarnate angel. She must keep her wings in a chest and Heaven’s shine in a box, and other foolish prattle. Helena earned this hearsay by hemming her gown sleeves above her elbows and forgoing a bonnet even in sunny weather. Every other woman and man covered themselves and their children in gloves, low-brimmed hats, and high collars to hide the stains marring their skin, while Helena displayed her pale, unflawed arms, neck, and face in public. Only angels boasted such freckles.

Helena considered her virtuous reputation and laughed. She, like everyone else, earned stains.

The fire in the hearth crackled, and Helena remained near its warmth to powder her face and draw pale blue paint against the veins near her temples. Today warranted extravagance. Sails had been spotted against the sea. This would be the last ship to dock before winter’s freeze, and it would bring her husband Oziah home after these long weeks. She would meet him when he landed, and she must look perfect. Appear joyful. Embody a charade.

Outside their home, autumn leaves crisped and curled. Helena grasped the silver looking glass passed down by Oziah’s grandmother from the old land, an heirloom so valuable and condemning she still feared touching it, and inspected her dress. Three-quarter sleeves of imported linen, no shawl. Her reflection shivered.

The fire popped.

One more glance at their home, tidied the way he liked it, and Helena left to hitch horses to the carriage.

Most of the town lined the generous bay as the ship docked. Helena slipped through the thicket of greatcoats, mittens, and scarves until the crowd recognized her and parted.

Oziah Walker, young master shipwright, disembarked onto the creaking, windswept dock planks. Her husband was not a handsome man, but carried himself with nobleness, like his beloved sea. He saw her.

Her heart no longer jumped like before.

Helena accepted his strong, outstretched hands. Oziah smiled, and delicate arsenic-green markings, suggesting clusters of water hemlock, crinkled in the flesh near his glad eyes. A lesser man would strive to obscure those stains with a hat.

Did he appreciate her appearance? No. Oziah frowned at her gooseflesh, wrapped his wool coat around her shoulders, and helped her into the carriage.

Dense forest meandered past. Oziah sat tall holding the reins, asked after her health and their home.

“Everything is fine.” She lied.

Oziah described the delivery of his last ship, one outfitted with several guns. He was known as a skillful shipwright who sailed his own vessels to their new owners as a guarantee of seaworthiness before catching a cargo boat home. His meticulousness in preparations and cost measurements garnered good pay, too.

Upon arrival home, Oziah put the horses away and inspected their property, one built with the same attentiveness he gave his ships. Helena hastened to prepare his favorite supper and hoped he did not notice her weak appetite.

After dinner, she peeked into the bedroom to find the warming pans slipped between their sheets and a candle lit. Oziah poured water from a pitcher into the small tabletop basin and pushed up his sleeves to wash.

Flickering light danced across vines and three-leafed stems, orange like copper, crawling across his sun-roughened forearms. A smudged, storm blue coil circled one wrist, like a deadly sea snake. These stains had appeared before their marriage, and Oziah had confessed their sins to her. The coil materialized after he copied another shipwright apprentice’s designs. The leaves around his eyes came from demanding overzealous punishment of a careless sawyer during a ship’s construction. That story frightened her now. Beyond these, any new stains would likely be beyond notice.

Helena gritted her teeth. Seeing him again after months away would break her. How could she fear and love him this much?

Oziah dried his face. Above his wrist, the sharp details of a tattoo always caught her attention. Inksmiths were usually paid to disguise stains, but Oziah had insisted that this depiction of a god ascending into the sky be inked onto yet unblemished skin.

Helena hurried to remove the basin and spilled dirty water. Her stomach jumped, but he stooped to sop up the mess. Did not chastise. Then Oziah had her sit on the corner of their bed and kneaded her shoulders.

She flinched, even after his fingers softened.

“Helena, are you well?”


After another moment, he rummaged for a nightshirt and paused. “May I keep the candle lit?” It was more assumption than question. When they married, they pledged to never hide their stains from one another, a practice that Oziah felt increased in importance when he traveled.

Helena folded her trembling hands. “I forgot to visit the candlemaker. There are one or two left, none to waste.” Her affected dismay surprised her. She was a poor actress, yet tears stung her eyes.

Oziah frowned again. “I will visit the man when I return to town.” He blew out the candle.

She allowed him to enfold her into his arms.

The next day after breakfast, Helena said she had received a letter from her family asking that she come and assist with the birth of her sister’s second child. It wasn’t true. There was no correspondence, and Helena had no idea how many children her sister had.

Oziah offered to accompany her.

No, she said, she knew her way. Winter preparations needed him here.

Oziah insisted she take the carriage.

The gelding was fine.

Helena dressed in an older gown, the worn bonnet instead of her trimmed hat, and cloak. She wrapped the hand mirror in cloth before packing it along with food. At the last moment, Oziah pressed a bag of coins into her hands, a portion of his recent earnings. The foreign currency would draw attention, but Helena breathed again—this money was why she had endured facing his return. And she hadn’t been forced to steal it.

Oziah embraced her, kissed her goodbye. “Be safe.”

She could not promise that.

Her hometown of Haerpp lay far enough away for comfort, but close enough for a speedy exchange of slander and scandal. Helena urged her horse on until wattle and daub housing and unruly fields emerged between the thinning, late season forest. The center of the village would hardly look better. There should be an abandoned lean-to nearby, complete with rotting beams, moth-bitten blankets and thick brush to hide her mount from thieves. None of her family or old friends could learn that she was here.

After settling into the shanty, Helena explored on foot.

Through woods melting into the fading afternoon sun, on the east side of Haerpp along the river that fed Goodeword’s bay, the carpenter’s shop stood, one that hadn’t been there during her growing up. It already looked old, but maintained. Strange light enveloped the place and gave her pause. It reminded her of children’s spook stories.

A swinging, wooden sign read in carving, “Enoch’s Woodwork.” Afternoon sunbeams glowed against paper windows.

This Enoch had to be the carpenter her husband spoke so highly of, the first craftsman he used to hire when building a new ship. Ship construction was a deeply religious trade. Some cried out to an all-powerful god and his legion of angels for providence, and others made prayers to the sky for good ocean winds and returns on their ventures. Not Enoch. He led Oziah to faith in the Stainless One, a being both man and god, who never sinned in life. This ancient faith demanded strict standards and offered glorious yet empty promises for its followers, and still Oziah believed. Despite retaining his stains after faith.

Why? Because of Enoch’s influence, whom Oziah called his brother and a man liberated from a harrowing past and, shockingly, freed from sins. How was the latter possible? But years ago, Enoch had grasped her husband’s hand in farewell and disappeared from Goodeword. Now she had found him, but not for his woodworking. Enoch called himself a carpenter, but Oziah said he was an inksmith first. Her husband had paid the man to tattoo the resurrection image onto his flesh.

Could Enoch possibly be an unstained inksmith? Above all else, he could not learn that she was his disciple’s wife.

Helena slipped within the shop and inhaled earthy, nutty scents. It was surprisingly cozy and bright inside. Enoch’s work lined shelves and boasted artistry and creativity. Everything was swept of shavings, dusted, and quiet until sonorous song wafted from the back. A hymn.

Helena pulled her shoulders down. “Sir?”

The singing stopped. A towering, grey-bearded man in workman’s clothes filled the rear doorway. Though he favored one leg and leaned on a cane, she guessed he could easily best a younger man.

Helena avoided staring at the scar stretching from his chin to his ear or the color of his face. Not only a man supposedly freed from his sins. A freedman.

Yet he bore no visible stains, unless his were easy to hide, like hers.

Enoch inclined his head. “Good evening. Do you want woodworking done?”

“No.” She swallowed. “I seek an inksmith.”

His mouth turned down. “It’s sundown, ma’am.”

Meaning that goodwives stayed home past work hours.

Helena flushed.

“Come back tomorrow during lunch, if you like.” Enoch tipped his brim and pressed through the doorway into the backroom.

Helena gathered her flustered emotions and fled the workshop. She checked on the gelding and returned to face the chilly night alone in the lean-to. Musty straw, piled, would be her bed. By light from the candle stub she had brought, Helena tucked the looking glass against the wall and undressed to see her stains.

Leaf by branch by bud, sins from childhood and maturity, common and uncommon guilt, colorful and dull, pride, gluttony, sloth, greed: all twined and swirled together, growing until one died of old age as Beelzebub’s canvas. The form and extent of a stain was not dictated by the cost of its sin, and so humanity, with its conniving beliefs, became judges of which evils were deadly and which could be pardoned.

She located her recent falsehoods under her left collarbone and clothed herself.

Late the following morning, she stole to the carpentry shop. Let him treat her like refuse again. She must know if he was unstained, and if he could help her.

Inside, sunlight poured over the cleared worktable holding a basket overflowing with bread and hard cheese. Singing swelled from the backroom until straw-hatted, gray-bearded Enoch appeared, cane tapping. He nodded without missing a verse, gestured that she sit, and broke bread.

She blinked.

“It’s a gift. My preferred way of undertaking new business,” Enoch said and ate. “You seek an inksmith and found one. Most ask me to embellish preexisting markings.”

If they discussed the weather, would he speak so frankly?

“Not hungry, ma’am?”

Her tongue refused to work.

Enoch folded powerful arms across his chest. “I can clarify sin stains. Tighten the lines. Reshape unpleasing images. But I cannot conceal a stain. Customers who insist I do this are never satisfied, and now I refuse to degrade myself with such work. Sin always shows.”

She knew that more than anyone. Helena failed to repress a tremor.

Enoch’s gaze narrowed. “I suggest you visit a seamstress, ma’am.”

The most imaginative garment could not help her.

“I assume our business is concluded.”

“No.” Helena tightened her shawl around her shoulders. “I was told you can wash stains gone. That is what I want. I am prepared to pay upfront.” Her fingers trembled as she untied the money pouch and spilled Oziah’s pay across the table.

Enoch studied the coins before pinching one between his fingers. His brow knitted. “What is your name?”

She raised her chin. “Are you able to help me?”

Enoch placed the coin atop its brethren and brushed his palms down his shirt. “Few travel far enough to earn these coins.” His gaze filled with sorrow. “You’re Oziah Walker’s wife.”

Helena froze. How could he—

“Oziah told me he was pledged to wed a woman whose face, neck, and arms carried no stains. He likened her to an angel.”

Her heart beat too fast. She gripped the edge of the table and forced words past clenched teeth. “I know you are a skilled craftsman, and I believe you that stains cannot be masked. My husband said you were freed from your sins. Because of this, he adopted your faith.” How could she cling to this hope when her husband’s stains still stood? “Oziah calls you brother. If you care about him a fraction of how much I love him, you will help me. Dear God.” She couldn’t stop shaking.

“Oziah is a good man. I never heard him lie.”

She cringed.

“He is right that I am freed from sin. And it cost me everything.”

Her stomach tightened. Were Enoch’s stains really removed? Did she have enough coin?

“But I can’t help you, Mrs. Walker.” Enoch heaved a sigh. “Some stains won’t be cleansed.”

Like hers? She stiffened. Did he guess what she had done? Her voice came harsh, and she pushed the coins toward him. “How much for your silence?”

Enoch hesitated. “Gossip is sin. So is lying. I do my best to avoid both.”

She sucked in a breath, pursed her lips, and left.

In the lean-to atop her bed of straw, Helena lit the last of her candle and undressed to her shift. Chills shivered across her skin.

The mirror glimmered against the wall.

Helena bit her lip until she tasted blood and lifted her hem.

Elderberry purple stains reminiscent of foxglove twisted up her ankles and calves. Across her thighs and hips, still life beetles crept among bell-shaped flowers. These were not new. But a delicate, vermillion vine now climbed from her navel up her stomach, and circled her left breast before reaching toward her sternum. It was exotic, with leaves like arrows, heavy with clustered berries. The evocation of nightshade.

The fruit had multiplied.

Helena sank to her knees and covered her face.

Like every stain, this sin had progressed in an unhurried and sure manner. The one she once trusted as a childhood friend grown from the same weeds and poverty as she, whose wretched stains she’d seen and now loathed, turned traitor and held the power to demand bribes she could not pay. How could she, a married woman, have given herself to him? His hiss that she’d married up and could afford his price—twisting a blade into the gaping cavern already gnawing inside of her—still slithered in her ears. Had she not sworn that she had given him all her earthly treasure? Begged him to keep their secret? Wishing she could kill him, unwilling to earn that mark, waiting for Oziah’s return and money to solicit the inksmith instead of paying for the betrayer’s silence? How long until the extortionist exposed her in his greed and envy?

Before she could ask or steal, Oziah had given her the coins needed to erase her sins. But Enoch would not help her.

She could not return to Oziah. Her stain would turn him inside out. Did this sin not wound him equally, being her husband? Would he stumble in his faith that promised to wash stains?

Oziah’s discipline and honesty, everything she respected about him, would be turned against her, dangerous as a storm. Oziah was a hard man to himself and others. He would demand the full extent of the law, even for her. She must leave him, but where could she go far enough for the world to forget? Before this mortal sin climbed her neck and claimed her face?

Oziah bore stains around his eyes. But the law didn’t insist that his sins deserved hanging, like hers.

How did one weigh sin? Why must she fall by hers when her lover wouldn’t? While Enoch’s old master likely enjoyed a meal and restful night’s sleep? If Oziah did not forgive her, and punishment was meted, wouldn’t he return to sea with hands considered clean?

If only Oziah had not returned. If only the ocean had swallowed him. He could have kept his peace.

Helena sobbed.

The candle sputtered and expired.

Tomorrow dawned cold and clear. The gelding nickered as Helena gathered her things, wrapped her shawl around herself, and searched for the coin bag. Gone.

Thieves, who did not touch her? She hissed before remembering.

Enoch had the money.

She reached the carpentry shop and burst through the door.

Humming, Enoch dipped his head and tore fresh bread over his worktable. The full coin bag lay beside a second filled plate.

Why? Helena grasped the purse and did not sit.

Enoch squinted toward the paper windows. “Storm’s coming.”

Why did he say that? The sky was cloudless, and sunlight blinded this place.

“You look like you need to eat something, Mrs.—”

“No, thank you.” She couldn’t bear to hear her married name.

“Is there something I can do for you today?”

How could he ask that after refusing her yesterday? “No. Yes.” She closed her eyes and ground her teeth. “You said you’ve been freed from stains. You led Oziah to your faith and called him a good man.” Her mouth trembled. “Why didn’t it work for him?”

Enoch ceased humming and bowed his head. “Do you believe that I am better or less than others?” He doffed his straw hat. Above the scar, tainting the born color of his skin, lead white stains seeped across his clean-shaven scalp. Mushrooms, roots, seeds, and sharp bolls mingled with thorns like a crown.

Helena palmed her mouth. “Liar.”

Enoch shook his head. “It’s said to hate is to murder. And there’re plenty of reasons to hate. If stains are marks of the world below, no one can arrive at the good place dressed in them. I sweated blood to breathe freedom in my present life. I’d be a simpleton to neglect what comes next, but I’m not there yet.” His glittering eyes chilled her soul. “The question isn’t when someone’s stains are cleansed, but can they be? I cannot help anyone who is unable to believe what they cannot yet see.”

She retreated a step. Enoch and Oziah were to be pitied. She was, too, to come here.

“Hasn’t your husband earned stains, Mrs. Walker?”

She did not answer but fled the front door. Darkness dripped from the heavens, and cold and wind stirred the forest. He had been right about the storm.

Rain fell when she reached the lean-to. The horse was gone. Spooked or stolen.

The lean-to groaned as if bearing the weight of a giant’s hand.

She escaped before it collapsed, screamed, and pushed through the tangled woods to the main thoroughfare.

The rain thickened. She slipped and muddied her hem. Gray slush gathered around her boots.

Hasn’t your husband earned stains? No one can arrive at the good place dressed in them.

She and Oziah were fools. Soon he would know it, too.

Wind wailed. Sleet pattered like distant, overwhelming gunfire, pelting her and swallowing sight of every path. She could hardly see, needed shelter, and slipped into the woods to grope toward the carpentry shop. There, a hulking shape. But it was a decrepit cottage that she’d never seen before, shadowed by flailing trees. Enoch’s shop couldn’t have disappeared. Was she going mad?

She fought for breath and returned to the road. Away from the refuge of town where so many knew her. Drenched skirts twisted around her legs. Hair clung to her face. Her fingers and toes burned.

Someone shouted—coming toward her. Two horses. Her runaway gelding.

It was Oziah calling her name.

Helena stumbled into the forest and watched.

Through the curtain of shadow and snow, Oziah passed like a ghost. Sounding angry and frightened.

She could hide from him. Flee. Let him think her dead and maintain the fantasy of who he trusted her to be. Permit Oziah to believe because he hadn’t seen.

Or she could answer his call, and find out how far he was willing to trust a faith that promised to wash stains.

Katherine Briggs crafted her first monster story at age three. Since graduating from crayons to laptop, she continues to devour and weave speculative tales while drinking oolong or chai tea. She, her coadventurer husband, and rescue dog live in Central Illinois where she teaches classically educated fourth graders. Visit her story library at

“The Inksmith” by Katherine Briggs. Copyright © 2021 by Katherine Briggs.

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