Once, a Moon

by Karin Killian | The writing on the wall.

Once, a Moon

Smack in the middle of the tenderest flesh of my abdomen sits a faded blue crescent moon, embracing my navel—my first tattoo. I got it the winter I turned twenty, desperate to stake a claim on my own body. My friend Liz came with me. We were back home in Duluth, spending our holiday on the steep, frozen shore of that biggest lake. When I’d mentioned my idea she’d gushed enthusiasm, her passion leaking, as it often did, inundating everything.

We huddled for hours on the floor of her old room—a small, sheltered space decorated in her meticulous font, twisting and racing up all four walls, a multitude of philosophies etched in Sharpie and draped in twirling vines. I swayed to the Indigo Girls while she sketched, at my direction—one moon after another—until, finally, she achieved what I sought: a very female face exuding wisdom and knowing grace while also appearing—eyes wide, brows arched—to appraise all she saw.

This was back when I still thought Liz would be the one among us to fly to utmost heights. She dripped art and poems and plays, and her voice resonated, strong and deep. I’d spent my adolescence sitting in the wings, wrapping myself in velvet curtains when she sang—always center stage—while I waited to find the confidence to merely speak. The simple fact that she would hold my hand made me feel the closest I’d known to complete.

We took the pencil sketch and sped south in her dead mother’s car, at seventy miles an hour, in the dark, over ice, to Carlton, where we followed an unlit road to a trailer with a blinking neon sign. We parked in the snow and climbed the portable steps and pushed through the weightless door to find a bearded man and a silent brunette.

It was the man who took Liz’s drawing and made a thermal copy and laid it on my belly, pressing, leaving a trace which he filled with sharp needles, stripped from plastic sheaths, and layers of blue, green, and gray ink. I closed my eyes that night, pinching myself to distract from the pain.

In the years since, I’ve watched that moon wax and wane through two bellyfuls of baby girl, without my friend at my side.

Nine months after the night that sprouted my eternal moon, Liz met a boy at a coffee shop in St. Paul. He had a Bible and a persuasive speech and she followed him to Texas, believing, it seemed, he knew a special path to God.

It was a narrow way, requiring her to slam every door she’d passed through before, shutting us out. Still, I pounded, for years, sending phone messages that echoed and then letters, whose scripture-laced replies goaded me, indicted me, but also gave me a return address on the prairie, which I followed, once, in a rented car, to an empty trailer, locked and dark. I hoisted myself up, with my own strong arms, just high enough to peek through the lace curtains, where I once again saw walls papered in her particular scrawl, but now all quoting Luke and Paul, Matthew and Mark.


Earlier today, I did that thing we do now, when we yearn and grieve. I Googled Liz’s name and found a new video of my old friend—her face now swollen, her braids long, but her voice unmistakable as she sings “Amazing Grace” in that tenor that still, even today, makes my entire being vibrate.

Karin Killian earned her MFA in fiction through the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in 2022. Her prose has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Sweet, Hippocampus Magazine, the South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Karin works as a researcher and consultant dedicated to understanding how narrative power dynamics affect the growth and development of individuals, families, organizations, and even nation-states. For more information, visit tellturn.com

This essay originally appeared in Sweet 9.1 (2016).

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