I carry my brother’s body

White apartment door with a golden letter A door plate. On the left, there is a window and a framed picture (photo taken too far back to make out detail). The lighting is dark, and there is a black ring around the edges of the image.
Photo by the Cedar Rapids Police, taken at the scene of my brother’s death. His front door.

For awhile, I carried my brother’s crime scene photos everywhere. I couldn’t bear to leave them–him–behind. What if our building burned down? What if the earthquake hit? Then I couldn’t bear to carry the physical photos because it could damage them. The police aren’t holding onto those negatives forever. I scanned all 24, saved them to a memory card that I tucked into my purse, and texted them to myself, one by one, over the course of a few weeks.

Scroll through my iPhone camera roll, and there they are: my brother’s apartment door, mixed in with photos of the temple doors in Salt Lake City; my brother’s body in fetal position, jumbled up with downtown graffiti, like I stumbled onto his corpse on the sidewalk.

Ever since the pictures arrived in the mail, I have these panic attacks: What if the police find them? What if they think I killed him? Who the hell stores pictures of a corpse in their filing cabinet besides a serial killer or a cop?

Now that I have them in my phone, the panics are worse. It happened today, on a walk: What if I lose my phone and get arrested for murder? The scenario always ends the same way: my arrest. I am the one on the lam, not my brother. I am the one wanted for a crime, not my brother.

I know it’s not rational: The police released those photos to me. I was 1,915 miles away when my brother died. And he wasn’t even murdered.

Except he was.

On the day I got the photos in the mail, I stripped nude and crouched in front of my couch in an identical position to the one in which he was found, the fetal position, the cops called it. I curled the fingers of my left hand—all except the middle one, which I extended almost straight, as he did in his last moment, one final fuck you on his way into eternity.

I felt that fuck you. I felt it hard.

“Looking at those photos fucked up everything,” I tell my husband. He knows what I mean: the writing, everything. Nothing is the same. I haven’t been the same.

“I’m glad I saw them,” I say, and I mean it. “But I think, finally, I can say I took my research too far.”

I carry my brother’s body around. I carry this secret around. The photos fucked up everything. 

I am trying to get as honest as I can

When I started my tattoo magical resurrection spell, I set out to write my own Mutus Liber on my body, with 15 “plates” (as in the original book) depicting the alchemical operation taking place. Mutus Liber is an alchemical text. The name means silent book.

I am not ready to get into too many specifics, but I had read a Mormon theological text by Adam S. Miller that led me to believe I needed certain symbols of Zion (aka Salt Lake City) on my body for the spell to work, along with specific ink chemicals, chosen for their alchemical properties but also for the specific damage they inflict inside the body and their relationship to pollutants in SLC. I needed to resurrect this place, most especially the graffiti that saved my life when I was in the depths of despair after first moving here.

Gate to a parking lot with a sign that reads, faintly, "The Other Place." It is spray painted with the word OXEN. Sidewalk grate with the word OXEN written in white. Crosswalk pole with a postal service sticker that reads Will you be my Valentine? Oxen Fence to a government property. OXEN is spray painted on the sign and underlined twice. Crosswalk button with OXEN painted on it.

OXEN carved into a sidewalk when the cement was wet. I call this one "permanent oxen" since it cannot be washed off. There are autumn leaves atop it.

I call this graffiti artist Mr. OXEN, and until recently, he was mostly an abstraction. The day I walked into the tattoo shop with the top photo (above), however, he transformed into a real person.

“Do you know him?” said the guy at the counter.

“No,” I said. “I’m just obsessed with his work. I’ve been photographing it for years.”

“Come here and look at this,” the guy said, turning to the artists.

“No way,” they said when they gathered around and saw the image I had brought in.

One of them took me to a corner where the shop displayed some calligraphy by Oxen.

I couldn’t tell what they thought of my project, and I didn’t explain it, but I knew I had found the right place.

Over time, I came to suspect that my artist himself might be OXEN, but there is no way to know for sure, and I will not ask him. I wanted to believe it was him. If I was trying to resurrect this place, how perfect to have the graffiti artist write on me in his own hand, as if I were a crosswalk pole.

I also wanted GURRL and HEMA:

Graffiti tag that reads GURRL with a broken heart above it. All in lipstick red. A pair of cateye glasses atop a pole that reads GURRL

A crosswalk button sign with a sticker that says HEMA. A little halo floats over it.

Eventually, I wanted the Walker Center weather tower, transmitter and receiver of all that is magic:

Iron tower atop a building. It reads WALKER going down and CENTER repeats around the base.

But then, everything changed. It became clear, through some tacit agreement, that the graffiti was never happening. I don’t know if it offended Oxen, or if he saw it as copying. Maybe if he knew the whole story, he would change his mind, but I have a sense–and I am very intuitive about these things–that he would not. He conveniently forgot the OXEN images I had already given him whenever we discussed the next tattoo.

And all of a sudden, no more new OXEN tags appeared downtown. I wondered if he had given up the tag because I had taken it too far.

So I let it go.

I just let it go.

And as I did so, something magical happened: I started to let go of this city, too.

I took a walk downtown to watch falcons one day, and a man approached to ask the time, pointing to my Doomsday Clock tattoo.

My wrist tattoo: the Doomsday clock at 3 minutes to midnight. The time is written in Deseret Alphabet.

“End of the world o’clock,” I said. And this intense peace fell over me. I felt I could walk right out of the city and never look back, like I didn’t need it anymore.

I completed several other tattoos, mostly alchemical symbols, and I never again asked for graffiti or architecture from this place.

The final alchemical symbol was the peacock. Here is where things get interesting. That tattoo got infected. I don’t know how, because my shop is extremely clean, and I was taking good care of it. It’s just one of those things. I started antibiotics, and it has healed significantly. For awhile, it looked like it might not turn out as beautiful as the others, but as the tattoo emerges from scabs and layers of skin, it looks good. I think it will be fine. The body has amazing capacity for healing.

How interesting that this tattoo got infected, though: symbol of turning inward on the alchemical journey, but also of alchemical mistakes. Perhaps I had looked inward to the wrong things. Perhaps I had lost my way on this journey.

Life is in chaos right now, with job losses and other things, so I cannot afford my entire tattoo spell. However, I have one last tattoo with a hefty pre-paid deposit already down on it. I was going to get a grasshopper next, but with the upheaval, I changed it to what would have been the final tattoo in the 15, anyway:

I am trying to get as honest as I can -- written in Deseret Alphabet.

It says, “I am trying to get as honest as I can,” in Deseret Alphabet, a quote from my brother’s taped phone call with his final victim:

I am trying to get as honest as I can.

I feel at peace with it. I believe the peacock was right.

In my Deseret Alphabet translation, I made the choice to use a more ‘archaic’ form for the first sound of honest. That letter that looks like a lightning bolt? Technically, it represents a sound I have never pronounced, ever. Only someone from Britain or the Northeast would even begin to comprehend how to pronounce it properly. For my Midwestern mouth, it’s impossible. However, it is another way to write “honest,” and I have always loved how the little lightning bolt looks.

And that it is a sound neither my brother nor I could pronounce? For honest, of all words? Perfect.

people explain my tattoos to me

People explain my tattoos to me.

You are taking back your body, they say. But they are wrong. I am donating my body. I am casting a tattoo magical resurrection spell to save my brother’s soul. I am not ready to go into the specifics of the alchemy, chemistry, epigenetics, theology, theodicy, and psychogeography that led me to body modification, but I will share a little glimpse of the process here.

My first tattoo was a replica of the Salt Lake City temple doorknobs, minus the words “Holiness to the Lord” because the artist felt they would crowd the image–and I agreed. It was also truer that way: I am a Gentile, a non-believer, forever on the outside here in Utah. To mark myself in this way, with a holy Mormon symbol, to claim it for my condemned body, is somewhat radical, especially since the LDS Church officially prohibits tattoos. I felt the exclusion of “Holiness to the Lord” reflected the complexities of me needing this image on my body.

I also love my mole that interrupts the ink. When my tattoo artist finished, he apologized that he couldn’t ink the mole. I said, “No. I love it.”

“Yeah, that’s you,” he said.

I think it looks like a little bee buzzing around the hive.

But know what I love the most? The reminder that my skin is living vellum. If you have ever studied Medieval manuscripts, you know that flaws in the vellum could result in some interesting issues for the scribes — writing around holes being my most favorite. Here, the artist has written around a flaw in my vellum.

Selfie with my t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal a tattoo replicating the Salt Lake Temple doorknobs. It has a beehive in the center with a seashell below it.

Salt Lake Temple doorknob. It says Holiness to the Lord over a beehive. The beehive has a seashell below it.

A selfie standing in front of the temple with my temple doorknob tattoo revealed.

My second tattoo reproduced my brother’s rose on his left delt. I could not obtain a picture of his rose (and the process of trying to track one down is a story in and of itself), so I found a rose I liked instead. A Tudor rose. In Masonry, this rose is a symbol of resurrection. It also comes with alchemical symbolism.

Selfie with t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal a rose tattoo. The rose is Tudor in style and bright red with some orange in the center. It covers my whole shoulder. My lips are slightly parted as I turn my head toward the camera.

Some people remarked when they saw this photograph that something had changed in me. It was a side they had never seen–sensual, even perhaps trying to be sexy. I thought that was interesting, given the reasons for this tattoo. It sparked some soul-searching for me. I realized it was true. I do feel more sensual after getting this tattoo. The reasons are complex, and I will share them some other time, perhaps in an essay.

Selfie in front of the temple with t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal my rose tattoo.

This tattoo specifically seems to incite a lot of commentary among those who know why I got it. Why would you mark yourself with your brother’s tattoo? Are you trying to say you are not afraid of him anymore?

But I was never “afraid” of him. And no, I am not sending a message or making a statement of independence or freedom. Like I said, I am doing something far more radical: trying to save his soul–and not only that, but doing it without membership in a faith. (More on that in future writings)

Here is how the tattoos look from the front. Notice the symmetry? I love that!

Selfie in a camisole top with my hands on my hips to show where the tattoos on my shoulders are placed.

Directly below the temple, I got a falcon. As you know, I have been involved with rescuing fledging falcons on Temple Square in recent years. That experience has been healing for me, because it is the one time I feel welcome on Temple Square, like I really have a home here. And you know, I feel an affinity with falcons because they symbolize unconverted Gentiles.

Selfie leaning over with one hand on the back of my head to reveal a falcon tattoo on the inner portion of my arm. There is a bright red sun behind the falcon, who is seated on a branch that doubles as a scroll.

I also love how the falcon is seated: in alchemy, a seated bird indicates that an alchemical operation is underway.

Directly below the rose, I got a salamander, which carries so much symbolism, too: in alchemy, resurrection, because the salamander can survive fire. To St. Augustine, the salamander proved that souls could burn for eternity and not be consumed–again because ancients believed that salamanders survived fire. There is also the symbolism associated with Mark Hofmann, who is a huge part of my book-in-progress.

Selfie with my left hand behind my head to reveal a salamander tattoo on my left inner bicep. The salamander is aqua green and is surrounded by stars and space matter.

And on my wrist: the Doomsday Clock. It says 3 to midnight in Deseret Alphabet, because the Doomsday Clock is at 3 minutes to midnight right now and also in 1984, a crucial year in my book-in-progress. My tattoo artist called it “permanent party time,” and I love that. Notice how if I bend my arm, I can bring the “end of the world” to “resurrection”: death and resurrection meet, like live electrical contacts.

Selfie leaning on my left hand to reveal a doomsday clock tattoo on my left wrist. It is bright red and says "3 minutes to midnight" underneath in Deseret Alphabet.

I got the Doomsday Clock tattoo on the anniversary of my husband going into the hospital due to extreme stress, an event that set our personal Doomsday Clocks in motion, the end of our time here in Utah. It happened totally at random because I got sick and had to postpone the tattoo. The artist said, “Will a few weeks from now work?” And it landed on that date. I didn’t even realize it until later. Perfect.

More on my tattoos in an upcoming essay, but maybe this post answers some questions. Maybe not. I know I am being a bit cagey, but it’s because I feel a strong need to protect myself as I continue on this journey. I will say this: the magic spell is working.

Photo of me seated in front of the reflecting pool at Temple Square, leaning over with my t-shirt over my shoulder to show my rose tattoo and looking bedraggled.

People explain my tattoos to me. Soon, I will explain them to you.