"The boy" we are introduced to at the beginning of the story seems to undergo immense changes throughout this one experience. I would even argue that he seems to age. We meet the boy in a beautiful morning setting: "above all the greenness and the many sounds of the morning world, the sun sailed--a copper emblem stitched on to a flag of crystal blue" (7). The boy is playing, "moulding a fortress" out of mud. Wendt presents the picture of innocent youth. We are soon provided with a sharp contrast to the mud fortress, in the form of an actual prison, "fenced in by a high barbed-wire fence." I found myself wondering what this young boy was doing wandering around and hanging out in a prison, but later realized that he had formed great relationships with some of the inmates. I think it is significant that the characters are mostly identified as boy, youth, and old man at first. It emphasizes their differences in age, and also represents the journey and coming of age that the boy will eventually complete. The men in the prison clearly come from an entirely different set of experiences than the young boy. They are, after all, in prison for one reason or another. The boy demonstrates his innocence while talking to the old man, "not knowing what rape meant but pretending that he knew" (11).
When the stranger, Tagi, is introduced to the story, we see the boy's innocence demonstrated again. He does not seem to realize, at least not right away, that Tagi has been sentenced to death. As readers, we pick up on the clues. Samasoni "was trying his best not to look at the stranger" and the policeman gave Tagi a gift of food and asks him if he needs anything. He comes into the yard clutching a Bible. Earlier in the story, when the youth enters, he says, "You know the case of the Falefa murderer? Well he's been sentenced to..." and the old man cuts him off, perhaps because he does not want the boy to know that a man has been sentenced to death, because he is too young.
When he decides to get a tattoo, the boy begins to see more clearly: "...he noticed something funny. Tagi's reflection seemed to be disappearing. He reached over and touched Tagi's shoulder in an attempt to re-establish the fact that Tagi was still there next to him" (19). The man seems to be disappearing, he is on his way out of the world. Presumably, one of his final acts ends up being the boy's (unfinished) tattoo. As Tagi walks away from the boy and his "black cross," the boy knows that the man will not return (19). It is as if through the painful act of getting a tattoo, he has gained some sort of knowledge or wisdom. This fits quite well with what Wendt discussed in his afterword. The tatau or tattoo is a thing of pride. The pain is tolerated because of what it represents. In the case of the boy in "The Cross of Soot," it represents his journey into adulthood and loss of innocence. The boy "clutch[es] his hand as though he was holding something precious" because he recognizes the importance of what Tagi has done for him. Wendt also writes that the boy looks back at the prison, "as if he had crossed from one word to another, from one age to the next" (20). It is no secret that the tattooing has been a learning and growing experience for the boy.
The boy's encounter with his mother reinforces this thought. The mother immediately recognizes a change in her son: "for the first time her son was no longer afraid to stare straight at her when she was angry with him. He had changed, grown" (20). It is also notable that after realizing the change, she is no longer angry anymore. Here, in "The Cross of Soot," a tattoo, though unfinished, ends up bringing pride to its bearer, because it represents a coming of age.