The Devil Reversed – David Peak
May 9, 2021
Marianne believed herself to be a symbol in a lineage of symbols. She believed that the body contained all of the world, its horrors and its triumphs, that strength was sourced in the flesh—the outer layer of the living vesicle, floating in an outer world—and that this flesh was shared with those who came before her and those who would follow after her.
This belief led her past where cabs would go, out where people got cut up in broad daylight. She approached Tattoo Man on the stoop of his bombed-out building, tried not to stare at the crowns of skulls that formed a necklace at his collar, the sacred designs on his hands and fingers.
She asked him to tattoo her, knowing he might reject her for no other reason other than he despised her. He said it would cost $30.
He led her up six flights of stairs and told her to sit in a medical chair, something that looked like it had been salvaged from one of the abandoned smallpox hospitals.
The apartment had the atmosphere of a church. An eerie solemnity filled Marianne with something suspiciously like guilt. The walls were covered with careful arrangements of hand-painted tattoo imagery. Some pieces were painted on wood boards, framed sheets of paper, or fruit cartons, others were painted directly on the floor, the doorframes, even the ceiling.
“Have you been tattooed before?” Tattoo Man slid a low work stool near Marianne. He faced a rolling tool box and began attaching a long metal tube to one of his strange machines.
“No.” And then, “I don’t even know what I want.”
He gestured to the walls. “I don’t do cartoons.”
Marianne got up and walked the space of the room. Much of the imagery on the walls was timeless: roses, daggers, panthers, skulls, all things she’d seen men wear on their forearms and shoulders, their chests and stomachs. But there were also religious images: weeping Jesus heads, the rock of ages, and any number of hearts: sacred hearts, hearts pierced by a single dagger, the Three of Swords.
A massive painting of Christ crucified was centered on the wall opposite the front window. It was done in a strange, folky style, all bold lines and clumsy agony. And next to it, the figure with the goat’s head, so close to the devil card in the Rider-Waite deck.
The devil sat cross legged, black wings spread behind it, one hand raised, two fingers pointing skyward. Near its lap, two snakes twined around the blade of a dagger. It was half human, half animal. Half man, half woman. Half good, half evil. In wearing this image, Marianne thought, she might finally learn to live outside the shadow of her fear.
“Baphomet,” Tattoo Man said. He looked over the lines of Marianne’s body. “An image like that needs to be big. It should fill your back. We can do the linework today. That part will hurt the worst. When you come back, we’ll finish the rest.”
“But it must be upside down—the image must be reversed.”
Tattoo Man shrugged. “It’s your body.”
She sat in the chair, pressing the top of her chest into the backrest. Tattoo Man helped her unzip her dress, letting it fall from her shoulders. He spread petroleum jelly over her scapula with a tongue depressor. Then he placed a series of acetate stencils, snapping each one against her skin. He pushed hard with the tips of his fingers, betraying a wiry strength. A few moments later she heard the machine turn on, its buzzing sound so much louder than expected.
“It’s going to hurt. Focus on your breathing.”
At first, the pain was excruciating, liquid heat—so much like punishment. It called to mind the horror of being flayed alive, a primeval memory, all those ancient tortures predictable people did their best to avoid. Still, she would endure anything to wear the image, to become the way she saw herself. Sacrifice must always be paid for in human blood. She thought of old stories of creditors cutting from the bodies of their debtors an amount of flesh commensurate with the debt.
Soon she learned to appreciate the breaks between the lines, the feeling of cool air on her wet, stinging skin. Time passed. It was difficult to say how much. The morning light shifted across the wall of the apartment, extending shadows.
She focused on the painting of Christ crucified. The physical pain of the tattoo morphed into a psychic pain. She tried to transcend her body, separate herself from her physical form. The pain was not the pain of the animal in nature, eaten alive by its predator. The pain was merely a taste of the outer world, transformation in its purest form—immediate, conscious, manageable.
So much of her life had been spent turning away from her anguish, terrified of too much feeling, her softness, never fully embracing her humanness. As far back as she could remember, she had been surrounded by animated corpses.
When Marianne was still a child, her mother tasked her with taking her younger brother to the store. It was nothing out of the ordinary. She’d taken her brother with her to the store dozens of times. He always listened to her, always held her hand. Everything was always predictable. She was always responsible. He was only three. Together they skipped down the steps of their apartment building, pushed through the heavy doors and out into the busy street. The smell of exhaust was thick in the air, white sun gleaming off passing chrome, a jackhammer in the distance, people everywhere. Together they walked hand in hand. As they reached the corner, Marianne’s brother suddenly broke free from her grip and dashed into the street, God knew why. God knew what he saw. It was a moment that never left her, something that remained suspended within her, always and forever. Why did he let go? One moment he was there, his hand pressed into hers, warm, and the next he was gone, swept away by a passing car, a shimmering cloud of dust. She could still feel the heat of his hand in hers, how it rewired her nerves like a burn, could still feel the rush of blood, the humming of her heart.
She recalled a film about a medieval village that was tormented by the ghost of a dead girl, not so different from her. In the film, a woman inserted coins into the hearts of those who died, talismans to ward off evil spirits summoned by the dead girl’s vengeful mother.
Imagine, she thought, being loved so deeply to be avenged.
She stared into the eyes of Christ painted on the wall, how they were angled toward the heavens, as if in eternal resignation. It struck her that he was the eternally humiliated, the son of God, eternally betrayed. She saw clearly how she had been lured out of her kindness by the goal of destroying the Christian spirit and its equivalences, those things that had lived inside her since before she was born, the ashes of the dead, nothing but sharp memories.
Tattoo Man, perhaps sensing her mood, told Marianne stories of sailors with the image of Christ tattooed on their backs. When they committed offenses, he said, the ship’s officers could not flog them. An officer could not inflict punishment on the face of Christ.
And then the linework was done. Tattoo Man cleaned her back with soap and water, taped medical bandages over her wound, and sent her on her way.
She came back as soon as she could. As soon as her body allowed. She could not stand to live without finishing the tattoo. She could no longer stand not being the complete version of herself.
Finally, after two more sessions, Tattoo Man pressed the foot pedal and turned off his machine, wiped the blood from Marianne’s skin once more. She felt that she still owed him a debt, that she must repay him for the gift he had given her. And so she asked him if she could read his cards.
“It is my way of saying thank you,” she said. “Trust me, as I have trusted you.”
They sat on opposite sides of a low table in Tattoo Man’s front room. He lit a candle. The air smelled of cigarettes and soap. The noise from the street below was eerily silent.
He drew the Tower, Strength, and the Magician, all upright. In that moment, she saw a vision of the years to come, how Tattoo Man would grow old, how his hands would begin to shake, stricken by disease, how the world would move on, how the city would change, forcing him out of his comfortable anonymity, the romance of his poverty. But these things she kept to herself, instead choosing to focus her reading on the elements of chaos and destruction, the turn of the unexpected, those pockets of calm in new situations, and the fulfillment of one’s potential.
She told the Tattoo Man the story of himself, fed him his own myth, and so allowed him to live forever as he saw himself.
They were two snakes twined around the same dagger, now sharing a mutual strength. The dead weep alone in darkness. The living claw beneath their skin and open their veins to release pain and suffering, rivers of blood fanning outward in a sacred geometry.
She looked at this man before her, saw the flame of the candle reflected in his eyes. And in that moment she knew that he saw her too, perhaps for the first time.
She was the woman who wore the devil reversed. And in doing so she felt all the love she carried inside herself, her unceasing desire for life and for beauty, toward and against everyone, wash away and return to its blackened source, a single tear swept up in a sea of blood.