When Mom didn’t answer her phone or respond to texts for two days, I went to her house and, getting no response to the doorbell, I let myself in and found a neat, quiet, totally empty house and garage, so I immediately called my brother, Chester, and Mom’s favorite sister, who hadn’t seen or heard from her either, so we canvassed the neighbors—to no avail—which left going to the police to report her as a missing person—the first time either of us had done such a thing—and right away we learned that her car was in impound, having been towed for parking all day in a three-hour zone day before yesterday, which raised our anxiety so much that when asked to list distinguishing marks, we laughed uncontrollably because, although she had none until age sixty-nine, after surgery for breast cancer she decided that rather than having the scarred area surgically repaired, she would redecorate it—Mom always marched to a different drummer that way—and her oncologist recommended Carma Jane, a local tattoo artist who worked with plastic surgeons and lots of women who’d had breast surgery, a recommendation which resulted in Mom’s first tattoo, a blue fantasy fish, the divot left in her breast after surgery being the mouth—open when her arm was up and shut when her arm was down—and because a mouth that size required a big fish, the tattoo ran from armpit to waist, and then she added three little fish, an octopus, and a seahorse, along with seagrass, coral, water, and several seashells, all of which, Mom said, left her other breast looking pretty plain, so with water on the right, on the left she added earth, air, and fire in the form of a crow, an Eastern box turtle, a skull, hellebore blooms, and a phoenix, and ultimately she decided to join them in a wraparound, and across her back she got stylized sun, moon, and stars, plus the planets of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, another skull, a crow inside a psychedelic cat, a realistic chipmunk, plus a ram’s head for being an Aries and a psychedelic rooster for being born during the Chinese year of the cock, plus mermaids, a snake, and six Cherokee Indian symbols (in honor of her paternal great-grandmother), and having listed all the elements we could remember, we decided there was no need to go into colors, but when a woman’s naked, headless body was found in Deep Run Park, in spite of checking off all the torso tattoos, because we hadn’t mentioned the seven birds and dogwood branches on her left thigh (so recently inked we hadn’t yet seen them), the Medical Examiner turned to fingerprints for identity confirmation—which, frankly, I found ridiculous, but not my call—and Chester and I did all we could to get Mom’s body released (which took some doing because although cause of death was determined to be poisoning, it was still an open case), and by then all of it was plucking on my last nerve, so Chester took care of the arrangements, and of course that was before meeting with the attorney about the will, and it turned out that Chester had had a copy already (which he said Mom gave him years ago—after her first tattoo—because he was the older sibling, and I was a little hurt that neither of them had even mentioned it), but I wasn’t really surprised when the attorney said that Chester got all the houses, stock and bond portfolios, art, yachts, and personal property while I was willed my mother’s skin, and three months later Chester presented me with Mom’s tattoo tapestry as well as her thigh birds, preserved and beautifully framed, and suggested I hang them over my mantel, and when I pointed out that the skin of Dad’s right bicep was already over my mantel and there wasn’t room for both of them, he offered to pay a contractor to enlarge my fireplace and mantel and I accepted the offer, and I never suspected him of anything nefarious even though the police really zeroed in on him because he got all the money and on me because I didn’t—not understanding we each had what was most important to us—and in the weeks following, I looked often at Mom’s tattoos, weeping to see all the images and symbols so meaningful to her, until eventually I noticed the inking of the older wraparound was more vivid than the newer thigh birds, some of which were clearly fading, and I took both works to the police, who reanalyzed everything and determined that the ink on her thigh was laced with the poison that killed her, and Carma Jane being the only person inking my mother’s body, police searches recovered poison-laced ink in my mother’s colors at Carma Jane’s studio and my mother’s preserved head mounted on her living room wall (along with an albino squirrel and a brown thrasher), and under intensive questioning Carma Jane finally admitted everything and said it was Mom’s fault for talking about her will—not unusual for something so personal to come up during hours with someone’s hands on one’s bare body—implying a bequest for her charitable fund to support women who couldn’t afford post-mastectomy tattooing so that getting nothing enraged Carma Jane, and at the trial she shouted, “After all I did for her! She was all take and no give!” I still marvel that my mother’s tattoos not only led to her identification but also to her killer.
Vivian Lawry is Appalachian by birth, a social psychologist by training. She holds B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio University. Her career includes college professor, association executive, and vice president for academic affairs. She has ties to Ohio and Kentucky.