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It started with her daughter’s name
on her left collarbone
in a light, curving script
whose gracefulness was
the total opposite
of the soul-searing “why?”
and the terror of helplessness
and the quarts of loss blood
of the day she lost her.
She was a mother and not
a mother, and it altered her,
and she wanted a way to phrase it,
to go on but not forget it,
to bear that “why?” forever
and so she branded her own flesh
with the name she had wanted
to call her.

It was the perfect, exquisitely
incomplete tribute to her angel,
and she loved carrying the memory
on her skin. As soon as it healed,
she decided to give her wings.
The feathers with their soft,
delicate details wrapped around
her shoulder like an ink embrace.
She’d bare her arms more
after that. Everywhere she walked,
she wore her “why?” and let
the world wonder, and get entangled
with its own assumptions.

The hurt would visit her every day.
A screaming, ripping emptiness
she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.
She’d rest her hand right there,
on that place where her anguish
belongs to her the clearest.

More tattoos followed. She’d go
for the needle for every time
she needed another chapter
told in her own way.
A phrase in her native tongue
reminding her to live, rendered
in permanence on her right wrist.
A warrior constellation on her ankle.
A mandala under her right rib cage.
A hummingbird in mid-flight
on the small of her back.

I imagine her standing naked
in front of the mirror some nights,
turning slowly and tracing
the paths of her storms
on her body, places where
she had chosen to receive
concentrated doses of pain,
her own way of responding to
how fate sometimes deals
a hard blow on the part of you
where you are least prepared
to bear it. Running her fingers
over conversations she’d had
with contradiction, fits of rage,
open endings and brand new days
crafted into symbols with
deep lines and bursts of color
she could actually see.

I imagine her parting crowds
in any room she’d walk into,
clothes and movement mere
accents to those indelible
statements of strength.
Bold and brave in the way
she has claimed authorship
of her own evolution.
How she has mastered
a casual relationship
with the irreversible, sifting
through the chaos of this life
to handpick which flames
and moths might define her
and shedding off the things
that don’t deserve a place.
.

tattooed-back-by-o-helbig
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“Tattooed Back” by photographer O. Helbig

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