Sunday afternoons, she rolled off her stockings to cross beams girding my grandfather’s barn. She was fifteen and longed for something in the dark leafy boughs she couldn’t quite reach. Balancing on a hand-hewn rafter was nothing more than stepping out on a limb and the humid hour held its breath, the twittering sparrows fell silent. Dust shivered suspended as she passed through shafts of light austere as a coronation. This was before she coiled her braids under a covering and took her place in a kitchen with its slick checkered floor and the tick of a clock she had to rewind. For one immortal summer, girders hung taut as strings her steady feet could strum.
Are these Christian tattooists in the paper any stranger—Simon Stylites spent a life standing on a stone pillar, sixty feet up— did not come down for cramps or winter rain.
Could I survive the Sacred Heart with “Hail, Mary, Full of Grace” across my arm, or the crucifixion in three colors against my sternum between my breasts. Needles to skin over soft tissue is less painful, but flesh is grass and sags— art lasts best close to bone.
No stranger than hair shirts, hundreds of needles for hours, for days, even years, to get the complete St. Michael on my shoulder to the writhing, twisting dragon down my leg. Or my whole life to get the Last Supper with Stations of the Cross, and the proper text— Jesus’ words in red— covering every inch of skin, eyelids, lips, nose, between fingers and toes, while invisible capillaries under the skin carry the images molecule by molecule into the living catacombs of bone.
A friend of theirs had been festering like an old sandwich, rotting a little before disposal. They had to come, but it got to where they held their breath before they stepped inside the room. The wife remembered how anything with mayonnaise had to be refrigerated.
Even a sack lunch in an office was suspect if stored under the desk for a morning: egg salad was the worst. The husband recalled a tiny door in the stone wall of an English church, stage right from the modest altar—a place for lepers to take communion. Only part
of a soul could pass, and precious little of the smell. The wife and husband talked with their old friend like this, backing off from his suppurations, unwilling to think, This is our body, unwilling to think, Dust to dust, slipping their elements of decay into the outer cold and darkness.