One of my wrists is tattooed with a fat iamb, which my son calls a moon and a tear and wants to know what makes the waxing moon have such sadness, so I tell him it’s a heartbeat and put his tiny fingers to the pulse flutter there, and he wonders why I have a heart in my arm, so I show him the heart in our necks and the one I can find in my ankle, and sometimes my failures as a mother don’t bother me so much because our misunderstandings make wonder. His questions always make me look harder at myself, and when I examine my arm more closely, I can see that in the iamb’s stressed syllable, in the symbol my son mistakes for a tear, I have a keloid, two scars in the same part of my inked skin.
A company named Cellink invented a bioink that—when used with 3D printers—can craft noses and ears out of human skin cells. Watching the video, the cells glow blue in the synthetic light, the machine stitching the soft ink could maybe someday replace organs or make better grafts for burn victims, and I watch the inscrutable faces of the scientists practicing making body parts and think of the dermatologist who pulled down the paper over my back as I lay naked underneath and gasped when he saw what I’d done to my skin.
I’m a bad mother who shrugs off screen time so I can do dishes, and sometimes so I can read or crochet without anyone needing milk or a Lego unstuck or yes, so I can be left unhugged for a whole hour of counting stitches or gaze at paragraphs and long for them like sweet confections in a pastry shop window, but the primary colors of cartoons filter in and out of the periphery with their happy voiced lessons on the cardiac system from inside a school bus or the perennial favorite first science for a child—a chrysalis. What magic to become something wholly new, to make the space for your transformation and emerge riotously bright, unlike our own remake, shedding 8 pounds of epidermal cells every year, continually transforming back into this winglessness, this habitual miracle, this humdrum suit of skin.
Tina Gorjanc, a designer in London, created a fashion line called “Pure Human” with the intention of highlighting how corporations might one day exploit genetic information for luxury goods, and to showcase how little protection exists for a person’s DNA. To accomplish this she took Alexander McQueen’s DNA from his “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” show (in which he sewed his hair into some of the outfits), grew a replica of McQueen’s torso with the exact dimensions of his tattoos, freckles and moles, and created a jacket (that is at risk for sunburn) out of the late designer’s skin.
The body of a mummified Siberian Ice Maiden, one of the earliest known victims of breast cancer, is the subject of great curiosity because of the fantastical animals inked on her arms and legs—a fish along the shin, the haunches and ringed tail of small mammal on her back, a deer that seems to have flowers crowning its antlers on her shoulder—and the feverish demand to see them in person is contagious, this desire for intimate and ancient revelation. Although a Russian museum has promised to drape her torso in a mock fur to protect her modesty, the locals where she was found said they’ve experience earthquakes and hail, that the body must be returned to its resting place, that you can’t say that a torso deserves privacy and not the black bestiary roaming her 2500-year-old skin.
Up close the epidermis looks like a pangolin, a dessicated artichoke, a cold pinecone, oh why are we not impermeable? Let’s say its the sleeve for the red cloud over the bones, let’s call it where the secret encounters the sacred, let’s rename the organ velvet paper or give it the same poetry iris breeders offer at a floral naming, since it is the part of us that mediates so much wonder, one fifth of our senses, this wrinkling, freckled, patchy, ashy, constantly shedding skin.
Madame Dimanche, who lived in Paris in the 19th century and who was called Widow Sunday by her neighbors, was afflicted with cornu cutaneum, a keratinous tumor that grew from her forehead until it was nearly 10 inches long before she consented to let a surgeon remove it. Not a unicorn or lovely spiral ascension adorned her, nor was it a conical horn that made her appear like a myth come to life, some satyr with a taste for croissants and strolls along the Seine; its brown ridges drooped over her face like it was made from some dark magic, pointing towards whatever hell had mastered her, this unruly and unstoppable skin.
My ex-husband used to peel away the skin away from his thumbs, his pointer finger constantly itching away at every new growth over the raw peeling he’d made the day before, and for a long time I tried to get him to stop with Band-aids and gentle nudges and grabbing the offending hand with my own to make him stop before I realized I could not keep him from harming himself, though he asked me to keep him whole and together and, as if that wasn’t already enough, to keep him happy. Sometimes after I run, I remember to kiss my wrists and tell my body I love it, which is something I heard the poet Sharon Olds say she did, not the running part, just the reminder and reinforcement of bodily love and gratitude through a kiss and a whisper on the wrist’s sensitive skin.
Martha Graham said The body says what words cannot, but what does my flesh articulate when I dance alone in a dark kitchen as I often do, illuminated only by the headlights of passing cars, and why do I prefer that it speaks only to me? Willem de Kooning said Flesh was the reason why oil painting was developed, so maybe that’s why I’m Raphelite, holding paragraphs black as apples, a grace glancing sideways with muscled calves and a pillowed belly and only goddess dimples in my skin.
Beneath the linen wraps of a mummified Egyptian woman, scans revealed the name Michael in Greek inked into her inner thigh, believed to be an appeal for spiritual protection from the Christian Archangel Michael. The body has long been a place for God, for supplication, and it is supposed that just as women who wanted healthy babies once banded amulets with the names of divinities on their abdomens to secure safe deliveries, and women also put their faith in protection from sexual assaults in the form of tattoos on their thighs, a fervent prayer, an angel in their skin.
Bits of flesh have long made for great relics, transported across mountains and borders in the Middle Ages to be venerated in glass boxes, to test the knees of parishioners, to keep the pilgrim economy robust. One such relic was the prepuce of Jesus—rumored to continue to drip divine droplets of blood—believed to be the only part of Jesus’ body that remained on earth after the rest of his body ascended into heaven, though the theologian and keeper of the Vatican Library Leo Allatius claimed that if Jesus wholly ascended to heaven, all of him would have flown from the atmosphere in rapture, thereby concluding that the logical explanation for the rings around Saturn was Jesus’ foreskin.
Bruises fascinate me, that indigo omega of a fingerprint in my flesh, that tawdry evidence that made my friends finally get angry when my story alone did not move them. Funny how the body is a testimony more believable than language, though I understand the desire, how I love to crack open bones like a butcher to see the creamy moss of the marrow, to see the proof of life, how it leaves itself everywhere, the heat below a bruise soft as the brown on the apple’s unhealing skin.
Otzi the Iceman:
Alexander McQueen jacket:
Siberian Ice Maiden: