As I was saying before your naked exit: blood is such a simple word. But it’s slippery, if you’ll pardon me for saying so.
I know you won’t, but still: it’s slippery. And not just on doorknobs and knife handles, but in meaning. Hey blood! I will happily take a blood oath that I love you. I am bloody well not blooding your good senses. Did you catch a whiff of blood?
It won’t settle down, this one-syllable ancient. It shifts meaning before you can grab it.
Never mind. I was an English professor before all of this. You know that better than anyone. English professors — even former ones, even disgraced ones, ex-ones — can’t help ourselves. We play with language until it liquefies in our hands, then look down at those hands in shame.
But still: blood. It’s slippery.
My mother looms over the broken figurine and grins in anger.
If I were writing a story about this, that is where I would begin. Then:
I am seven and have just seen her knock the little lion off with her hip as she raged past the hallway shelf, have seen her step into the pile of shards before she could arrest her gait. I have seen the blood start.
“So this is what it looks like.”
I whisper this. And then, a kind of thought, but more a sensation:What does it taste like? Is that something people get to know?
My mother stands grinning over the ceramic shards, lifts her foot and lets it drizzle, painting the pieces because she wants to have Her Say. She wants the final goddamned word, she doesn’t mind telling you. She tells me this every day like reminding me to brush my teeth:
I Will Have My Say.
She lives those capital letters. She will drain the blood from her own body, if that is what it takes. She will “bring the whole goddamned place down on all of us like Sampson, if that is what it takes.” That is how she will put it to my father late that very night, after they fight about her cut foot and he leaves without telling us where he’s going.
“Like goddamned Samson, you sorry excuse. Scorched earth, Paul,” she will purr into the phone through gritted teeth.
But first, she coats the lion’s remains with scarlet drizzle and grins with hate.
My seven-year-old self had heard her speak this way to my father – to all living things, really, but mostly to my father – since before I could distinguish one memory from another, but she had yet to speak to mein such a way, and this made me feel special. I had overheard her speak aboutme in that same manner, but never to me.
I was supposed to be asleep when he called that night five hours after the ceramic lion episode. I lay still and tucked the phrase away until I could locate its meaning.
Scorched earth. It sounded so serious.
Scorched. Earth. Scorched Earth. Earth That is Scorched?
I turned all the combinations over in my head and memorized them, felt the import of the words on my tongue as I breathed them in the dark. I loved (but felt squirmy about) the way they didn’t really flow very well together, how one almost had to pause between them so it didn’t sound like “Scorch Dearth.”
I did not know what it meant toscorch. I would never ask, but I knew I would find out, and I savored the inevitable learning, and dreaded it.
Will mother stomp the poor lion’s jagged remains now scattered beneath her foot? Or has the blood taught him his lesson? Blood is important. It is not shed casually. Surely this must mean something.
I hold my breath and pretend to watch TV, but I have positioned myself so I can see. I must see.
She pistons her foot down, not just stepping on the ceramic ruins, but stomping them and grinding them, her mouth thin and bloodless. My father yells at her to stop being an embarrassment.
She will be in the bathroom most of the night after he leaves, her foot propped on tub and sink alternately, tweezers digging and probing and drawing out gore-streaked shards, some tiny, some long and horrifying. I keep coming to check on her until she threatens to send me to bed without supper if I don’t go watch TV or read.
“I’m fine, now go on. I mean it.”
She carefully collects shards and drops each into a white bowl.
I am indeed eventually sent to bed early, but not entirely without supper, thanks to the leftovers my father had planned to take to work the next day (except the meat; I left that for him).
“Five minutes,” she says, wiping hair out of her face with the back of her hand. One blade of the tweezers rubs across her forehead and traces a thin pink line that almost immediately fades to white and then disappears altogether.
“Cram in as much as you can in five, and then off to bed with you. Love you, kid. Now get the fuck out and let me bleed in peace for Christ’s sake.”
I lie perfectly still in my bed, stomach acids overworking Dad’s carrots and potatoes, nauseous from worry. For once I agree with him: she should have gone to the hospital. I do not know how much a person can bleed before dying.
She rests from her foot work only long enough to come out into the hallway and yell at my father on the phone when he finally calls to try to patch things up.
“You know what, don’t even bother to come home again if you’re the type of man to just leave in a crisis like that. Fuck that.”
“A crisis YOU created,” I hear my father yell through the phone before she can slam it down.
I shift in my bed to see into the hallway. I watch her limp to the little shelf and grab another ceramic animal, a giraffe dressed like a clown, and hurl it against the wall. She does not stomp the pieces this time. She spits at them and returns to her tweezers and towels.
At some point I drift off to the sound of tiny clinks as she excavates and collects the pieces. In the morning when I get up to pee, the bathroom is nearly spotless. I open the hamper and count the bloody towels and washcloths. I do not find the dish of shards, but I think of the red contrasted against the white of the bowl.
“Scorched earth. This is what it means. I see that now.”
I pay attention. To scorch: I think of it as something special and silky smooth and dark. I lean over and sniff the hamper. “To scorch,” I breathe out. I feel like I am made of glass.
I want to scorch. I want to be scorched. I want to be like the earth.
I hadn’t intended to write any of this. What value can there be?
I open the door again and there you still are.
“Write it,” you say. You look down at the boards. You are naked still.
“Come in.” (I whisper it, unsure.)
I cross the room to the laptop before you can answer. I intend to highlight all of these words and delete them, but instead I sit and type: Blood is such a simple word.
“Terrible,” you say, looking over my shoulder. I feel your nakedness behind me, a nipple grazing my shoulder. I recognize this as intentional. “Terrible. Never write the first line first. I like what you had before.”
“That is not fair,” I say. “I taught youthat. ‘One can’t write a proper introduction for something that does not yet exist. Start where you are confident. Work outward from there.’Words are as slippery as—”
But you are gone. I do not know where you are off to in your nudity, but you are gone, and I am ashamed.
(“Call me professor.”– I am ashamed that I ever demanded this of you.)
The day the blood comes, I am confident that both of us are ready:
I hold you and a little sound escapes me. I have never heard this sound. It is not sexual. I do not know what it is.
The blood on your chest sticks to the blood on mine, or mine sticks to you. We pull apart and I think about Silly Putty on Sunday comics. My grandmother always had Silly Putty at her apartment. She would read the Sunday comics to us and profess bafflement at the puns and punchlines. Then I would get in the floor and grind Silly Putty into the smudgy newsprint with the heel of my hand and peel it off, careful not to rip the page. The putty took the shape of my palm, only concave, tiny life lines in bas-relief. I would flip the flattened wad over, and there would be Beetle Bailey, only backward. His words backward too.
The day the blood comes, I imagine you backward. You are saying words, but in the darkness they are backward too. They are like eyebrows: inevitable but unimportant and unnoticed until shaved or burned off, or decorated for sport or enticement. In the darkness, words slip by like a river. The hiss of their passing reveals their poverty in all that blackness, renders them vulnerable and stripped of the special-class status that words enjoy in the daylight, despite their whisper-thin substance and pedigree. Humans have uttered far longer than we have scribbled. We have bled longer than either.
The day the blood comes, our bodies are like Silly Putty and newsprint in the darkness. I will not delete that.
“I am sorry we have not bled together. I am grieved.” – I wish I had not said this to you. I knew better than to rush it, to speak it and make it real before we were ready.
You disappear for the day. I have never asked where you went. Is that worth nothing?
That’s what they call them on that site you wanted me to join. A member will list on his/her profile something like:
Scat (water sports okay)
I was explaining these categories of limitation to a friend who was curious about the site and my new connection to it, when I noticed she had turned white and was grimacing.
She barely shook her head. “I can’t. I don’t want to know such a world exists.”
“But no, see, those are their LIMITS, what they won’tdo or aren’t into or whatever.”
“I can’t.” She went inside, wobbly-legged and bloodless.
I was just thinking that I finally understand what bothered her: What Ifound fascinating and an entirely new way to look at humanity, shefound too horrific to contemplate.She could not consciously exist in a world where people feel the need to specify that they will not combine sex and children, sex and shit, sex and blood.
In a world that made sense, the church elders of my youth should have absolutely adoreda setup like that site where people clarify their profane limitations in bullet lists. Was this not the way of the church itself? The religious are careful to delineate precisely which lines they will NOT cross. Which of course implies that there are lines they WILL cross, and the very human quest for loopholes begins. In fact, the Bible is like every syllabus I ever gave out: a binding but porous declaration of loopholes and limitations.
The difference? Loopholes are not really welcomed or tolerated on the website of filth.
You do not know how much it hurt me when you said “No more lectures.” Even though you were naked.
The precision of the insult stung far more than the bruise it raised.
“Call me professor,” I told you that same night, and you laughed. A sweet laugh, full of erotic mockery and at the exact pitch to let me know you understood it for the invitation it was.
Now my blood wells up around that night, around my own words.
I cannot help but deliver sermons, we both know this, and I suppose I’m sorry for it. It is why I chose teaching when bloodless religion left me cold: I lecture, I proselytize, I sermonize, I convert. The exact subject matter is secondary.
Perhaps the church elders of my youth were right after all: maybe I amcalled.
Called by a God I cannot believe exists. That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?
But yes, you’re right: of course I still preach. How could I deny it? But not for Him. He had His chance. My sermons are now made in kitchens and movie theater lobbies and at picnics, and they are about life and its red essence and its unavoidably parasitic nature, its unlikely beauty and value as a thing unto itself – at once both a parody of and fulfillment of religion. These are my sermons now, blasphemous and allegedly nihilistic, but no less evangelical.
“The Blood is the Life”
“All In Vein”
“Behold, the Lamb of God, Slain From the Foundation of the World!”
–A Sermon For When She Returns–
Only to modern humans is blood something extreme, something rare and dazzling.
Audiences of Shakespeare and the King James scriptures were acquainted with blood in ways we can scarcely envision. Seeing vast quantities of blood was no anomaly. To that crowd, a God thirsty for blood made perfect sense.
The modern attempt to reconcile such a God with what we know of empathy and human worth and dignity results in exactly the kind of trash theology and low view of humanity you would predict.
After all, as much of a sandal-wearing hippie as God-made-flesh was in most of the New Testament, the Blood Sacrifice element of the gospel is inescapable and defining. This is the very nugget of the Gospel, in fact, its great swirling Eye at the middle: humans have screwed everything up, and somebody’s gotta pay, and pay with blood. The blood that stained the altar and pooled at its base was not a side product of the ritual, but the essence of it. Not a bug, but a feature, as someone might say in a TED Talk.
When I see the blood, I will pass over you.
The blood must not be implied, it must not be staunched or turned away from in horror. It must be seen, acknowledged, experienced. It must be brazenly spread over doorframes with mops or rags or hyssop for everyone to see. The blood is the life, the blood is a sign. What else but the very thing common to us all – the one thing no one can do without – to satisfy the debt for the sin that we also cannot do without? Pound for pound, flesh for flesh.
This is a grizzly arrangement – high theology and The Golden Rule be damned – despite its place of inexplicable privilege among those who claim to champion life. Blood must be shed in this religion, and no amount of “turn the other cheek” can solve that problem. Turning the other cheek is great when you’re not God; but deities have to play by different rules, as the Greek gods found out the hard way. Yahweh knows the game, though; He knows that something must die. It must be snuffed, it must have its potential stripped and its value mirrored and rendered dispensable.
It is the nature of existence, this sucking and devouring and emptying. We cannot be too hard on Yahweh for playing along.
But the Great I Am – anxious for a work-around and endlessly creative – allegedly solved this problem by offing Himself as a one-time blood propitiation. It’s pretty masterful if you think about it. No wonder modern believers consider Christianity an exceptional cult: no self-respecting Greek or Roman god would dream of such an arrangement. Too human; too dirty.
Perhaps the God of Abraham assumed that such an ultimate ransom, such a satisfying fulfillment of the most basic irony, would end all this bloody sacrifice nonsense once and for all.
But He didn’t understand how much we adoreblood, how much it is, well, in our blood – especially when spilled needlessly and collected in receptacles and concentrated in deep puddles and pools, or poured over consecrated alters or swabbed atop doorways to appease the Angel of Death.
Let us pray.
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains!
–There is power, POWER – wonderworking power! – in the precious blood of the Lamb—
When I see the blood, I will pass over you.
When I was first learning to love language – well, who am I kidding? – to obsessover language. When I first began to obsess over language, I thought I remembered learning that the intensifier “bloody” refers to the shed blood of Christ. Much as “zounds” comes from “His wounds.” Humans are drawn to blasphemy like vampires to virgins.
But for once, it seems a casual swear may have come from somewhere otherthan taking The Lord’s name in vain.
Rich brats: That’s where “bloody” most likely came from.
Tragically (but brutally efficaciously), nearly every advance since antiquity seems to have been the result of obscenely rich psychopaths saying FUCK IT and doing whatever they wanted.
Youngbloods, they used to be called. Young, rich aristocrats who carried with them the assurance that their very blood was richer than most, thick with importance.
To be young and rich and drunk was to be “as drunk as a blood.”
Drunk as a young blood. Drunk as someone rich and lucky enough to be truly reckless, and for it to usually work out for them instead of coming back to bite them in the ass.
Young, dumb, and full of blood.
Young as a blood.
Drunk as a blood.
Drunk as a youngblood.
That is one kitchen sermon I want to deliver when you come back. Ifyou come back.
I will not regret this one. Because I believe in it. Because it is the story of me being wrong and being blessed enough to see my wrong and correct it; it is the story of life, the universe, and everything; it is the story of me bleeding from the soul, the only known bloodletting that truly brings life, that saves and restores.