That Time I Had to Be Stabbed to Learn a Lesson

by McKenzie Caldwell (Univ. of Mount Union)

Third Place

A few days ago, I found myself in True Blue Tattoo in Washington Court House, Ohio, asking the woman at the deskErinto do a rook piercing.  After minimal paperwork, I laid with my right ear pressed against the chair as Erin sterilized the left.

“Have you ever had your cartilage pierced?” she asked.

I hadn’t.

“Good,” she said.  “Sometimes people go to Claire’s to get it done, which means that they get it done with a gun.  That’s a dull post being shoved through the hard cartilage of their ear.”

I mumbled something about hearing that the best way to go was through a professional shop.

She lightly marked where the needle would pierce my own hard cartilage.

My chest tightened.  My arms were outstretched for balance’s sake, and my brain began to lose communication with them.  Everything felt simultaneously very heavy and very light, as though I was both a balloon and a sand bag.  I forced my lungs to draw in air.

I’ve always been absolutely spastic when it comes to needles.  Once I had to get a tooth removed when I was younger, and I told my mother I would run before I got in the dentist’s chair and let them stab me with a needle.  When I had to have tests done in high school, I had to have music thrumming in my ears, or I would panic.

The tattoo taught me that sometimes things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem.

The rook was actually more painful than my tattoo.

“The needle I’m using actually has a serrated edge, so it’s much less painful,” Erin said.  “It’ll slice through the cartilage like butter.  Breathe in.”

I did.  And man, I couldn’t imagine what kind of pain the people who go to Claire’s for cartilage piercings must endure.  My lungs froze; the air spasmed within them.  My ear was that stereotypical fire that people reference when they describe their different pains.  I wondered how it would feel to actually have an ear cut off, to become a present-day Van Gogh or Malcolm Reynolds.

“And out.”

The air trembled out of my nostrils.  I could feel her fingers moving somewhere in the fire for a second, but then they were gone, and the fire subsided.  Erin held a mirror over the left side of my face.

“I can’t—I’m blind,” I laughed.  I sat up on the edge of the chair and felt myself sway a little.  I laughed again.

The friend I dragged along handed me my classes, and I took the mirror from Erin.

And still couldn’t really see the piercing.

“It looks so great!  Thank you so much!”


Later that day, I went out to shut our chickens up in their coop only to find that my mom’s retired sulky horse was waiting at the gate.  He’s about seven feet tall.  I almost turned around, went inside, and begged my brother to put the chickens up.

Instead, I marched toward the pasture.  My limbs felt wooden, and the muscles in my chest constricted my lungs.  I opened the gate, slipped inside, and turned to latch it back.  The horse sniffed my hair, and I froze.

He wandered away, sloshing through the mud, and I carefully made my way toward the coop.  

He came back and nibbled at the jacket I’d borrowed from my mom.  I stopped.

He moved away.  I moved foward.  He came back.  I stopped.  This happened a few more times, but by the third time he reappeared behind me and placed his nose between my shoulders, I was at the chicken coop and attempting to shut the door.

“Go away, Bold Guy,” I hissed.

He apparently doesn’t understand English.  Or perhaps he just ignores it when it comes from 5’5” girls with quivering voices.

I was leaning and trying to close the coop door, but I didn’t have the leverage.  Bold Guy’s nose was still on my back.  I growled and pushed him away and climbed over the waist-high fence we placed around the coop to help protect the chickens.  It was much easier to push the door shut at that point.

I looked back at Bold Guy.  He sniffed a post.  His right eye spun away from me.  I scratched his forehead.


When I was eleven, I invited my childhood best friend to go to Long’s Retreat with the youth group of the church I attended.  Long’s Retreat is a sort of small lake—more than likely man-made—that has a few waterslides and fish that swim up against your legs before flitting back into the murky water.

Late in the afternoon, the youth group leaders told us that we were going to be leaving soon but admitted that we’d probably have time to go down a waterslide if we did it quickly.

I’d never been down a waterslide.

I convinced my friend to go with me, but when I got to the top of the stairs and saw the water going down the slide, my lungs turned into clouds; my arms and legs became cement.  My lips could just barely form the words to ask my friend to go first.

When she hit the water at the bottom of the slide, I ran down to meet her.  She yelled at me—I had been the one who wanted to go down the slide, and I hadn’t even gone.

I asked her if it was fun.

Frustrated: “Yes.”

The youth group leaders called, “Time to go,” to us, and I froze.

My mom told me after I got my tattoo that she’d heard that once you get one, you can’t stop.

For me, it’s ended up being more than that.  Sure, my first tattoo led to a piercing—which somehow led to a sort of braveness when my mom’s giant horse bumped me with his giant horse nose—but I think the lesson’s closer to “face your fears.”  I may look like a delinquent through these facing of fears, but maybe when the question of fight or flight emerges, we need to stop running away—especially if that’s our norm.  Maybe sometimes we really need to fight in order to learn lessons.  What exactly can we learn about ourselves if we constantly fly from our fears?