Such a woman is the infected carrier of
the past—before her the structure of our
head and jaws ache—we feel that we could
eat her, she who is eaten death returning,
for only then do we put our face close to
the blood on the lips of our forefathers.
When I was a little girl, my mama drilled me with her own personal catechism for survival. She said, “These are some things you will learn. Love,” she said, “it’s a balled-up fist you hit yourself with, but you like it that way ’cause the beauty of contusions is that they disappear.” She said, “Money, the need of it, the want of its breathe-easiness, can kill a man sure as a loaded gun held to the head. And God? God’s a shrimp of a word with a big meaning, bigger than our brains can cipher. He keeps to himself. It ain’t his place to say. Some days he looks like your daddy. Some days he looks like dirt. No one can look him straight in the face without burning his eyes out his head. He’s got to let you bleed—he don’t like it, but he’s got to—lest you not learn how lovely it is having blood to let.” She said, “The sun’ll set you on fire any chance it gets. The moon grows full like a woman, but don’t be deceived. It won’t help you empty yourself.”
The moon was swollen the night my mama had me. She stared out the car window at it as my father drove her to Bethany Hospital. She said it was too full, looked like it needed to be lanced, drained of light.
When the nurse offered me to her, she wouldn’t hold me. She turned away from my seceded body, still glassy and slick with placenta. She said she saw sorrow, clear as illuminated thread, woven into the tight shawl of skin that wrapped me, Wednesday’s woeful child.
That night she hemorrhaged hard, blood rampaging out of her, fleeing the body it had buoyed. Mama told me one doctor said had she lost even another teaspoonful she’d have been “strumming a harp and waving to us from the beyond.” He said that. A doctor. A man who rubs elbows with death every day, sees it—in some form, if only lurking, a precipitous gas—more often than he sees his daughter, his son, misses recitals and spelling bees in order to forestall it, keep it from eddying around the ankles of the infirm. I imagine him, this doctor, rattled in the operating room, hissing, “Quiet! What is that racket, that pling, pling? Oh, Mr. Pendleton, liver didn’t take, a pity,” waving his starched white surgery cap at the ceiling like a bon voyage handkerchief.
Comfort should hurt, not numb you with foolish myths. Mama read me stories out of the magazines she brought home from the office buildings she used to clean, waiting room reading material, and once she read a story about a woman who had no pain receptors. She could feel no pain. Pleasure or bare sensation fizzed on her skin but never the hot welling that rides a sore spot. She never knew when she’d bitten her lip too hard or stubbed her toe to breaking unless someone else was witness to the raised or gaping signs of injury. Her body hoodwinked her, shielded her from feeling the chafe of rough life. She died, this woman. We all do, of course, that’s not the point, but most of us go out in violence, don’t we, even if it’s quiet, a private racking between our shedding skins and our selves? She didn’t even know she’d been stabbed in her sleep, by an angry lover who knew her body’s secret. She’d been dreaming, I bet, a dizzy reel throwing the same pictures over and over onto the screen of her mind: stars, burning and scalpel sharp, dropped from the sky and fell into her mouth, their glinting needle points lodging in her teeth and gums, hot stars falling and filling her up, entire constellations, choking her. Spitting stars onto her pillow, she woke up, turned on her lamp, and there it was, bright and everywhere, startling, trying to sneak away, free of the veins and flesh that had channeled and dammed its wandering. What good is blood to someone who can’t feel its escape? It was bound to betray her in the end, demand a reckoning. All her blood outside her, spreading out, as though it had gone for a walk and lost its trail, couldn’t find its way back inside, her very own blood soaking the sheets. Too late. She felt no pain. How disappointing! Dying was so like living, a pedestrian chore, but messier, sticky, something someone else would have to clean up in the morning. This woman, staring at the blood puddled on her bed, her heart slowing, draining of beats, she probably thought about the recent white sale she’d neglected to bargain hunt at, the costly linens she’d have to replace. It’s not such an extraordinary story.
It’s not that I don’t believe in things, God, harps. It’s just that genuine succor’s not cheap. You have to steel yourself for it. That’s the benefit. One hand cuts and the other daubs iodine. They both hurt.
I was nine years old when I left my home and walked without knowing where I was going. I walked and walked, out of my neighborhood, out of the county, into the next. It was storming in the distance, one world over, breaking open the dark-clouded sky next-door to the dry, bright blue that hung over me. I walked toward the lightning, toward the zagging silver that split the sky at the seams, those hidden stitches revealed only in the unraveling. I thought there would be something for me there, a small rip in the earth’s topcoat through which I might slip away and vanish. That’s what I wished for that night, to be hidden, unseeable, like the Invisible Man, detectable only when wearing clothes, his face all air beneath his bowler.
I walked, and people honked as they drove by; some slowed and asked me questions. A girl out walking alone, with a determined gait, on a stormy night—it makes people nervous. I cut across a field, a wide square that stretched beyond the reach of my eyes. It was yellowed and brittle like some forgotten keepsake, and burnt to exhaustion; the empty stalks sagged in the hot air. The too-late crows hopped along the stumpy rows, running with wings spread when I came clicking by. My ears closed themselves to their fractious blatter. Quick and shifting, fireflies blinked their fleeting beacons in the dusk light, like eyes of hidden creatures opening up in a cartoon night. At the end of the field, there were trees, tall oaks pinched together. I threaded my way through the thick trunks and kept looking up as I walked, watching for the crackling glow.
I saw shapes in the distance, moving beneath a light, dark forms pulsing. As I neared them, the shapes came clear. I saw the angels feeding, saw the light, heard it buzzing above them. They knelt beside an animal, something dead, a deer. I walked closer. Their mouths were ringed in red; there was blood in their hair, on their chests. Their bodies, children’s bodies, were crusted and muddy beneath the blood, in camouflage colors, browns and greens. The grass and leaves and bark of their bodies were betrayed by the tattered saucer of light that floated above them, showing them to be muscled and torsoed, mammal. They dipped their mouths and ate from the animal’s belly as though it were a split melon. They saw me and raised their hot white eyes, kept feeding. One angel sat back from the rest, pitching sticks, pulling weeds. When he saw me, he tossed a twig at me. He stood up, stared, started to walk toward me. I fell to my knees and curled into myself, turtled in my arms and legs, as I had read you were supposed to do upon startling a wild animal. He tapped me on the shoulder with a stick and sat beside me, and after a moment, I sat up. His eyes were like small flashlights, discs blown out with light from the inside. He shined them on my bruised legs, and I pushed at the luminous circles. He looked away, punching holes in the darkness beginning to droop through the trees. I pointed at the other angels. He said, “I’m not hungry.” He said, “Take me with you.”
When I got home, I could see through the windows there were policemen in the kitchen, drinking coffee, taking notes. As soon as the screen door snapped behind me, my father ran to the living room and grabbed my hands. His face slowly ballooned and turned red. He squeezed my hands hard, and I felt my fingers crumbling, felt the bones flattening. I imagined myself becoming a paper girl, thin with sharp edges, able to float to the floor and slide beneath doors, able to hold the secret, scribbled thoughts of others on my body. One of the officers stepped behind me and pulled my body into his legs. “Take it easy,” he said. “She’s all right.” The other officer pried the tight gloves of my father’s grip from my small hands. My father’s face deflated a little then opened up like an unfurling fist, and he laughed. The blood swelling his cheeks thinned. Sweat ran down his neck. The angel stayed outside, looking in. The light of his eyes pooled faintly at my feet.
My mama said, “Gentle men will never leave you, but violent men will love you more.”
1967. My father said something like this: “You have to watch, Rachel, this is history we’re witnessing, it’s playing out right before our eyes, thousands of miles away, right on television, goddamned television! You need to see what life looks like outside the narrow city limits of this backwater burg we live in. In places like Vietnam, the stakes are huge, boundaries, tyranny, deep historical wounds. Gorgeous. Watch.” Then my mother said something like this: “Jackson, are you sure we should let her watch this? She’s awful young to be thinking about war.” My father stared hard into my mother’s face. He kept his eyes locked on my mother’s, and then suddenly his arm came flying toward me, loose, as though he were trying to throw away his hand, a live grenade. His fingers exploded against my mouth. Mama stayed quiet and tried not to look stricken. She picked up a magazine. I sat perfectly still, sucking my lip. My father looked at me and rubbed the dribbled blood from my chin with his big thumbs, smiling warmly.
My father had tried to enlist. He hungered after the dutiful anger, the gunfire, legal and imperative, the injury, the possibility of not surviving. He failed his physical—heart arrhythmia, chemical-weakened lungs that rasped with each breath, impacted sinuses, various other bodily shortcomings. My father fled his home when he was thirteen years old and wandered around the country performing any unskilled task that would keep him afloat another day. These jobs often involved prolonged exposure to pesticides or high concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons, or the simple poison of men on the make taking advantage of his youth and desperation. I imagine him performing these jobs defiantly, daring dangerous molecules to trespass his flesh, inviting them to step outside and trade blows. His health was in chronic decline.
Every night we watched the news on television. Sometimes we ate Swanson TV dinners on TV trays in the living room. We chewed and swallowed quietly as we watched and listened to the war coverage. Newsmen walking alongside soldiers dressed like the jungle, thatched huts blazing, people running and screaming, soldiers ushering crowds into green thickets, young men smiling and blowing kisses to people at home, stretchers sagging beneath bodies, helicopters slicing the air, everyone mad at Charlie. Sometimes my father would turn the sound down and just watch the pictures. The men on the screen were so small, flat and untouchable, their guns GI Joe-sized. I didn’t understand what those tiny men and their tiny actions meant to my large father, his enormous hands and thick arms. But I loved Walter Cronkite’s head as it filled the screen and wagged its mustache. Even when he too shrank, standing next to a map, I was comforted by his deep and even voice, his steady pointer.
At the TG&Y store, I spotted a pyramid of silver bracelets on a table. Etched in the metal were the names of men officially listed as Missing in Action or Prisoners of War. Mama bought me a bracelet and an authentic Mexican jumping bean, which came in its own red plastic box with a clear lid that clasped shut. The jumping bean snapped and plinked against the plastic. The name of my soldier was: Lt. Col. James Patrick Halloran, Missing in Action 04-26-66. Each night at the end of the news, a series of names would appear, identifying soldiers as released or confirmed dead. Each night I sat with the jumping bean I named Patrick, clutching the bracelet in my hand, waiting for my own tiny soldier’s name to appear so I could break the stainless steel bracelet and free his soul from the war. After the first week, Patrick’s popping had started to slow and eventually ceased altogether. And I had to hide my bracelet as the sight of it angered my father. I knew he too longed to be missing, bravely absent.
Sometimes my father held me on his lap and clamped his hands on my arms, shaking my body and emitting staccatoed machine gun noises, aiming me at the end table, the television, the front door, my pregnant mother.
One night the television showed a small dark man in a plaid shirt standing still, stony. His hands disappeared behind his back. Another man with his back to the camera held his arm out, pointing a gun at the little man’s head. And then the man’s head burst open and blood flew. He crumpled to the ground. It happened silently, the volume down. My mother screamed and grabbed me off the floor, squeezed me to her chest. My father rubbed his hand across his mouth. He looked up at my mother, eyes wide and slow moving, clear. My mother shook her head and said, “Leave her be, Jackson, please. It ain’t right. She’s just a baby.” My father stood and held out his arms. My mother shook her head and pressed my head harder against the small bulge in her stomach, as though she were trying to squeeze me through a tight opening, reverse my life. My father took me from her, pulled me out of her arms, and held me in his lap. He kissed my cheeks and ears and rocked me back and forth. He wrapped his body around me, as though he were shielding me from cold weather. He whispered, “Life is war, a constant skirmish. And you’re a foot soldier, a grunt, born to sacrifice if you’re not careful. You have to steel yourself against it. The world’s radioactive, child, a bomb that would like nothing better than to scatter your cells. But inside you, in here,” he thumped my chest, “inside the veins and tissues that shield you, it’s Eden!” He kissed me again and again.
That night he came to my room after I’d gone to bed. He stood in the doorway and said, “My father landed at Normandy.” He walked to my bed, squeezed my blanketed feet, said, “Brought me back souvenirs, a couple of thumbs, bayonets.” He held out to me a small gold gift box. I lifted the lid. Inside there was a brownish finger surrounded by bloody cotton. I backed up, pressing into my pillows. The finger wiggled and my father laughed. He turned the box over, revealing the hole in the bottom, the rest of the finger attached to his hand. He pulled his finger out of the box and licked it clean. He said, “Whatever doesn’t kill you . . .” He threw my lamp against the wall.
One night on television, a reporter asked a young man, “What do you like best about piloting the Cobra?” and the pilot replied, “It’s kind of like a hard woman: it’s something you can’t like very well, but you can love it.”
My mama said, “God made women weak so men would have something to spend their surplus strength on. We often ignite the battles men love to wage. But don’t worry, Jesus loves you just the same. He turns a blind eye to anatomy, he won’t hold your deficiencies against you. Anyway, looks to me like Jesus, what with his delicate hands and feet and building and carrying his own cross and all, is just this side of being a girl himself.”
Because of the angel, I could see my father’s dreams. He was a lens that magnified the urgent stories lurking in my father’s head, in his heart. I walked into my parents’ bedroom. My father lay on his back, snoring quietly. My mother was turned toward the wall; moonlight spilled across her lavender snood, her gently heaving shoulders. The angel stretched across my father’s body, stomach to stomach, chin to chin, sucking in his exhalations. I saw my father’s dream as though it were a film. It spooled through the angel and came shining out his eyes, projected against the headboard. My father walked through a hot and swampy tangle of foliage, cutting green stalks with a wide blade. His face and arms were black and oily. He heard a noise he didn’t make, branches shivering a few feet away. He stopped. His eyes shone barely, small gaps in the black air. Quietly, he reached for his gun. He emptied his rounds into the blank night in front of him. Something dropped into the water. He waded across. When he got to the body, the face came clear in the shallow murk, the features slowly filling themselves in, as though he were watching a photograph develop, the black and oily skin, the cleft in the chin, dark hair floating around his head like flames. It was his own face, his own body. He felt for the wounds in his chest and abdomen, tasted the blood on his fingers. He picked the soldier up out of the water. As he drew the body closer to him, he saw that the man was naked and so fair, almost see-through, fragile as glass. The man’s hair seemed to weave itself around his head in a barbed wreath. He was frail, this man, like a woman, thin and hungry looking. There were holes in his wrists. My father cradled him, pricking his forehead on the thorns. A shot rang behind him and something hot bored into his back. He slumped into the beautiful, dead man.
I went back to bed and took the soldier bracelet out from under my pillow. I ran my fingers across the words, the numbers. I wanted to store the information in my fingertips, a tactile memory safe from my thoughts. I imagined myself taken prisoner by short, flat men with small eyes and guns draped across their backs. They’d torture me, demanding the name of my soldier. They’d drip water on my head, slide bamboo beneath my nails, spin the barrel of a partially loaded gun in front of my eyes, hold it cocked against my head, just as my father had described, but the secret was hidden, inscribed in the tips of my fingers, readable only in their prints, where the enemy would never think to look. I broke the bracelet in half, wishing, pretending I could free sad men from capture and fear, free them from blind nights of walking through perilous swamps.
My mother sent me to church so I’d be assured of one gentle day a week, but she did not know about the stories we heard in Sunday school, stories of an angry, flood-heaving God, and an evil giant, conniving, hair-cutting women, and sacrifices, plagues, bad luck, and sore skin, testing the love, fidelity, patience, and faith of scared people. It all seemed so hazardous, so tricky. How could you ever be sure you were doing the good thing? And how much was enough, when would it be clear that you meant well? It was in Sunday school that I decided the safest way to live in the face of daily hazard was to remain silent, inoffensive, and to go limp at the first sign of assault, offering the body up to the caprice of the creator, the attacker.
In my own dreams, I saw Jesus, his brightly lit head filling the television screen, smiling. He stood up and pulled from the ceiling a map of the world, then he floated unsteadily above it, as though he were being dangled by a thread, and pointed down at the map, saying, “Cease fire. The offensive is finally over.” And then he began to bleed, his eyes and his nose, his hands. He said, “It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t hurt.” He chewed on his long, soft hair and held up two fingers. “Peace be with you,” he said, his face suddenly dark and sad, menacing in its disappointment.
I asked my mama about the communion we took twice a year at our church. She said, “Yep, the body of Christ is there for the eating. It cleans out your invisible insides, like a soul colonic. He takes all your sins upon his own shoulders. That’s the kind of stand-up fellow he was.”
“What are my sins?” I asked.
She said, “Well, your tally as yet don’t amount to much, but just being born, being human, makes you fallen, because of what some other folks did before you came. You know about how Eve sullied the garden for everyone else. That’s why women have to bleed, why we have to die. That there’s the wellspring of suffering. It’s a fall into skin, into the flesh.”
I said, “Jesus had skin.” I wasn’t actually sure if this was true, but, as I couldn’t see how it could be otherwise, I risked it. Mama sighed at this observation so I added, “Did he fall into it? Who died for his sins? Whose body did he eat? What about all those people between Miss Eve and Jesus?”
She said, “Well, Jesus, he had the big sponsors, God, the Holy Ghost, and so on. Seems the crucifixion, you know, evened up the score for him. Must’ve covered all those other folks in the balance too, retroactively. It gets fairly complicated. Best not to worry yourself with the logic of it.”
“But if no sparrow falls from the limb of a tree unless it’s God’s plan . . . that’s what they told us.”
“That’ll get you nowhere quick, girlie-girl. Nothing but a tail-chase.” Then she dipped a napkin in water and rubbed from my cheeks dirt only she could see.
I longed to tell my Sunday school teacher, Miss Aurora, that I knew where God lived and what he ate and that if you were quiet and thought about something else, the sting of his blows quickly passed. God the Father lived at 4820 Key Lane, I didn’t tell her, used Tres Flores hair oil to slick back his downy, dark hair, and carried a picture in his wallet of himself as a boy standing next to a wire-haired dog balanced on two feet. He ate fried mush for breakfast and had a tattoo on his right arm of a shapely woman in a grass skirt who hulaed stiffly when he flexed his biceps. H. Jackson Loomis is my father’s name, H equals Howard. Our Father who art in heaven, we prayed, Howard be thy name. The only other Howard I knew was a boy in my class, Howard Gaither, who was much too small and quiet and nearsighted to be a compelling God. Clearly, it was my father we prayed to. I’d met more than once with the wrath of God and survived. This is what I believed.
1976. My mother took my brother and me to see the Bicentennial Freedom Train. Zero was excited. He’d say, “Betsy Ross was thrown out of the Quakers after marrying an Episcopal upholsterer.” He’d say, “Robert Peary left a trail of torn-up flag after reaching the North Pole.” “Mrs. Mellunbruch made me the class vex . . . vex . . . ” he’d look at his hand, “ . . . illologist,” he’d say. He’d been marching around the house, whistling “The Star-Spangled Banner” for weeks. To Zero the bicentennial meant extra field trips, commemorative quarters, and strange celebratory pastimes. His class at school had volunteered to be part of the Catalpa County Bicentennial Beautification Project. They traveled around the community painting fire hydrants, turning them into important men of history and melting pot representatives: Patrick Henry, a black dentist, a white lumberjack, Sitting Bull. In honor of his visit to the Freedom Train, Zero rubbed a temporary tattoo on his cheek that said Spirit of ’76.
When we got to the train, we had to wait in a long line to board it. It seemed like the whole world was awash in red, white, and blue. People wore flag-mimicking hats and shirts and pants and shoes; they painted red and white stripes on exposed body parts. One woman had stuck a dozen miniature flags in her tall, ratted, blue-black hair, as though she were staking a claim to herself for her country, christening the colony of her head. On display in the field beyond the train, an old red fire engine framed against the blue and white sky made this patriotic fervor seem like a conspiracy of cosmic proportions, bigger than now, bigger than Kansas, the sky itself colluding. Men dressed up as Revolutionary War soldiers were swathed in blood-soaked bandages and slings, and limped as they smiled and shook the hands of the waiting people. They stopped in front of Zero, who smiled up at them, happy to see historical figures passing out souvenirs. “Here you go, little nipper,” one of the soldiers said, handing Zero a balloon. My mother smiled to see her child chosen, and Zero pointed to the man’s arm swaddled in gauze and said, “Does it hurt?”
“War maims and kills,” the soldier said, drawing out his words thoughtfully, “but tyranny’s wound runs deeper than the musket’s.” Zero applauded and offered the man one of his treasured bicentennial quarters. The flustered soldier limped on.
The drill team of a local high school danced alongside the crowd and began performing, as a marching band played a medley of songs. I recognized “Saturday Night,” “The Hustle,” “Jive Talkin’,” “Fame,” “Louie, Louie,” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” For their finale, they played “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The girls seemed to me so strange looking with their constant smiles and thick makeup. All their eyelids were bright blue, their cheeks the color of ham. They wore glossy hose beneath their short, jauntily pleated skirts, and bobby socks, and they shook their pom-poms with such natural frenzy these bursts of shredded plastic seemed an extension of the girls’ arms, as though their very hands had exploded and frayed, become decorative, an appendage naturally selected for girls suited to drill teams. Their cheerful, synchronized movements scared me a little and I looked away.
We slowly moved along the Preamble Express to the back of the train, where a splintered sign read Enter Here for Freedom. Just as we were about to step onto the ramp leading into the train, an elderly man in a dusty, black suit with a worn top hat and bow tie walked up to me and took my hand, and I wondered which consequential American man of history he was meant to be. His face was pinched and wizened and he wore delicate, gold wire-rimmed spectacles. He said, “Have you found Jesus, little sister?”
A man behind us said, “Why, pal, ’d’you lose him?” People in line snickered.
The old man ignored this and stared at me. He said, “Have you given yourself to God?”
My mother pulled my hand away from the man and held me by the shoulders. “Excuse us,” she said, pushing me and pulling Zero onto the ramp.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” Zero incanted, hopping from foot to foot.
I turned around and looked at the man’s small eyes. “God?” I said. I wanted to hit his clean face, make the glasses fly from his nose. “God’s insatiable,” I said. The man stepped back and narrowed his stare.
Once on the train, the man behind us leaned forward and said, “Events like this bring ’em out of the woodwork, hunh?” He rolled his eyes. My mother smiled at him and pushed us onto the moving walkway. My mother understood men who had missions born of difficult histories.
Slowly, we were carried past the exhibits in each of the cars, the floor inside moving while the train itself remained stationary. There was too much to see and hear, things in glass cases, animated displays, memorabilia stacked and ordered, voices and music, two hundred years of history crammed into twenty-three minutes and ten train cars, dizzying. George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution with his own notes in the margins; Amelia Earhart’s scarf and goggles; talking mannequins representing far-flung immigrants; an old dental drill; trophies and medals; Dorothy’s dress from the Wizard of Oz; paintings and sculptures, machines; Abraham Lincoln’s rocking chair sitting in a theater box, ominous and empty behind the velvet rope; everything, the world, nothing, just things, artifacts, time collapsed, debris, achievement’s flotsam, the collectible jetsam of progress. I had never liked museums much, the way objects are displayed in cold suspension, unable to reach you, torn from time and place and purpose, sitting there smug and dusty and inviolable from another world, expecting you to understand. I felt the same traveling through this crammed and jumbled history of my country. “Happy birthday, America!” people shouted randomly. Who am I, I wondered, that I come from this? How have Marilyn Monroe’s cement footprints shaped me, carved me into an American girl?
Zero was spellbound, taking it all in, swallowing the chaos, hungrily, silently, moving his eyes over every inch of display, a sensual lingering, as though his eyes communicated more than simply visual details, as though they did the work of roaming fingers as well. He held my hand and squeezed it as we rolled into each new car. My mother crossed her arms and clicked her tongue and said things like, “Well, will you look at that! An Arapaho headdress, who knew, lovely, my word,” and “Fred Astaire’s actual hat and cane, seeing it in the flesh, never thought it could happen, I’ll be.”
The one item both Zero and I started at was an enormous sneaker, size twenty, Converse high-top, former shoe of a basketball player, B. Lanier. That is a shoe I want to be descended from, we both thought. With feet that large, mythically big, you’d be guaranteed a spot in history, and you’d certainly be safe, never fall, anchored by Paul Bunyan-sized feet, you’d be worthy of God’s love, no question. With feet like that, the jeopardy that surrounds us would surely drop away, like shed skin, a phase overcome, broken through and stepped out of. Zero lined his foot up next to mine. “You’re winning,” he said.
I left the Bicentennial Freedom Train feeling less certain of who I’d been than when I entered it, but I knew now what to pray for: huge, historical feet.
When we got home, my father was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. “Jackson,” my mother said, “what happened, what on earth’s wrong?” Panic shrilled her voice. My father grabbed me by the waist and buried his wet face in my stomach. “I need to talk to Rachel,” he said.
“Why, Jackson? What’s the matter? What has she done?”
“I’ll talk to you, Dad,” Zero said. “Look, Dad. I pulled out one of my baby teeth. It wasn’t ready to come, but I made it. It kept bleeding for a long time, but I didn’t care. Look at the hole, Dad. I didn’t even put it under my pillow or anything. I just did it for the hole.” Zero opened his mouth and bent down next to my father’s face. “Look.”
My father pushed Zero into the wall and raised his head. “Leave us,” he said.
My mother took Zero’s face in her hands and pulled him out of the kitchen as though she were leading a pony. I looked at Zero’s eyes and saw that they crawled across my father’s face and arms and hands as they had across the exhibits of the Freedom Train, starvingly, wide.
My father sat me down in the kitchen chair across from him. He said, “What’d you learn?”
I said, “I don’t know. There was a lot of different stuff. Things from movies, sports.” I shrugged. “Stuff from war.”
He seemed to brighten. “Tell me one thing you learned.”
I hesitated. I didn’t know what my father wanted, didn’t know what response would prove I was loyal and loved only him, had given myself wholly to God. I imagined myself looking at two wires, trying to decide which would disengage the ticking box, the blue one, the red, then clipping the red and seeing everything fly apart, slow and dreamy so I could see the patterns of dissolution, atoms dispersing like blown bubbles, the blast blooming through the kitchen ceiling. I said, “Tyranny’s wound runs deep.”
There was silence, then the weather around my father seemed to change; a kind of darkness passed across his face and his cheeks went slack. He said quietly, “I love you. Rachel.” When he said my name it was a sentence in itself, a full-stop statement. I felt cowed by the heavy syllables that were me. “Has any father ever loved a daughter more? Has any father . . . Sometimes . . . I want to make you strong, is all. So they can’t . . . can’t get at you. So . . .”
He looked at his lap, slapped his hands against his thighs, rocked forward. “Did they teach you that this country . . .” He paused, looked up, smiled. “This free and equal opportunity republic of ours,” smile flattening, eyes lowered, “feeds off men like me?” He spoke dispassionately, as though he were discussing an approaching cold front, his voice soft and polite. He stared at the stretch of linoleum between his shoes. “Did they include that part of the story? What special mementos did they use to document that?” He looked up, just to the side of me, at my exposed ghost trying to skulk away. I could feel his eyes outlining an electric fence around me so that nothing, not even my thoughts or breath, could escape. “Tell me.”
Suddenly a picture slipped into my mind, an image of God, my father, as a tapeworm, coiled endlessly inside my body that wasn’t mine to claim at all but just a host for Him, sustenance to keep Him from becoming small and extinct, this body a never-ending meal. I saw the worm unwinding inside me, sending strands of himself into every bend and crevice, the pink putty of his ravenous body coursing in every limb, stretching inside my throat and legs, filling my abdomen, my pubis, my limited, tottering feet. There was nothing left, no claim unstaked, no cell or organ in which I could closet the last kernel of self. I had become so strong I was beyond body, elbowed out into the thin ether, where I was finally, beautifully invisible, a slip of atmosphere, untouchable, beyond knowledge, beyond falling.
Over the years, Mama had been worn slick. She grew weary of my survival. When her own wisdom finally gave out, she relied on that of women’s magazines and pithy plaques displayed in kitchens. She said, “Once across the lips, forever on the hips.” She said, “Why should a man marry the cow when she gives out her milk for free?” She said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who, girls . . . I forget.” “Oh, Rachel honey,” she said, “wait till you have a strong man and a sweet little baby doll of your own. Then it’ll all come clear. Life is war. Make hay between air raids. That’s the best I can tell you.”
My angel has dimmed his eyes and shifted shape and before me lies my father, Jesus, soldier, my God, all for one, the final shored-up fragments. His body is lifeless and stiff. He does not look like he will rise again. Gray and slightly shriveled, old fruit. He does not look like someone who can hurt me. I can feel now that I have been hungry. I will feed myself with his sins, with his transforming flesh and blood, his transubstantial body. I will take his iniquities inside me and swallow up his voracious appetite with my own, wrap my mouth around it quick before it gnaws at my lips and takes hold, swallows what’s left of my dimming face.
And the body speaks. It says: Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
So I pluck off his ears and his hands. They resist at first then give, like the leaves of an artichoke. I press them into my mouth and chew. They taste like nothing and lodge in my gullet; the things they have heard and held, the surfaces they have struck, stick like small bones in my throat. I swallow and swallow until the last of the recalcitrant flesh passes down. I tap his forehead and out pop his eyes. I roll them in my cheeks like jawbreakers. Their fishy slickness helps them to slip down my throat. My mouth fills with a bitter brine, the unseen washing to the surface, sights the eyes have blinkered themselves to. My mouth floods and I spit pictures onto the floor.
We all make an appearance in the hidden diorama of the eyes: my mother, Zero and me, and a blurry scene, a large, limping man in overalls, my grandfather? Me at seven in my lavender Easter dress with white crocheted gloves and black patent leather shoes, hiding my left eye beneath my lacy, white hand, smiling so pleadingly my mouth looks like a foreign object floating beneath my cheeks, incongruous, as though it had been donated to my face, a second-hand mouth worn only for special occasions; Zero, a thin boy, with cowboy hat and chaps, wielding a cap gun, a look of befuddlement buckling his brow; my mother, pregnant with me, her hands clasped in prayer atop the wobbly altar of her stomach; the big man shooting a BB gun at a small dog again and again, laughing, the dog twisting and bouncing; my mother and me beneath the pin oak, matching dresses, matching faces, arms outstretched, empty and stiff.
I look at the yellowing soles of my father’s feet, shiny and smooth like tallow. The toenails are thick and slightly vaulted, the toes tumored with corns. The skin on the top of the feet is soft and pale, virginal, the thick blue streams of veins ornamental. His feet are not large, not the kind of feet that would never let the body fall. And then I see these feet shrink, hinged to the ankles of a boy. The boy wears special boxy, brown shoes with braces lining the legs. He sits next to a man in uniform. The man takes a drink from a bottle then kisses the boy on the lips, filling his mouth with stinging liquid. The boy sputters and coughs, the man laughs, slaps the boy’s knee. The man holds a bayonet, begins clicking it against a metal brace. The boy’s lips move, but his mouth is soundless.
And then these feet enlarge, outgrow the shoes, the guiding stays. They’re attached to adult legs that walk back and forth in front of a crib. An infant sleeps on its stomach. The man stops and touches the baby, pokes at its plump arms and legs. He runs his finger across the soles of the baby’s feet, no bigger than quails’ eggs. He looks outside at the blurry world, through the rain beaded on the window. Rain has been falling steadily for days. The river is rising, flood conditions. He remembers the last one, years ago, remembers debris floating down the streets, people sitting on roofs. He didn’t own anything then. There are large blocks of wood stacked in the corner should the crib need to be raised. This man won’t be bullied out of his home by a little water.
The man rubs his face, can’t decide where in the house he should be, wonders if his presence might be more keenly felt if he were gone, piling sandbags on the banks of the river, protecting, slowing the water’s advance. The man stands with his hands in his pockets, stares at the silent baby. He looks at the baby’s legs, imagines them kicking, churning the water. He will teach this baby to swim. The younger it learns to navigate the fickle tides, the better off it will be. Or perhaps it could teach him to breathe underwater. Surely it hasn’t forgotten this stunt yet. He would like to learn how not to drown, how to inhale and stay alive, longs to learn the secret of the baby’s primitive instincts, its leathery fragility. He lays his hand gently on the baby’s head. His hand all but covers it, the tender grapefruit. It would be so easy to pluck it from the soft stem of its neck, save it the trouble. The man stands still, blinks and breathes. His pupils slowly dilate in the dimming light.
I snap off my father’s arms and his legs, push them into my mouth whole, like a sword swallower. They flail as they go down, beating against the inside of my chest. The internal organs I fill myself with one by one, pancreas, kidneys, spleen and intestines. I choke on the liver. It takes small belts of blood from the cup of blessing to ease it down.
The worm inside me stirs.
The heart is tough, doesn’t care to be swallowed. The arteries, hardened and full, stick in my teeth, tire my jaws. I chew and chew on this gummy organ, chew it to paste, chew its troubled history of beats.
The dismantled body begins to tick inside me.
The brain I tear into pieces, small bites, shredding the rubbery diary of his experience of the world into single moments. I pop them in my mouth, tablets of bygone life. I chew on his sexual experiences, his violence, his sickness, his boredom. I grind up his beliefs, belated fears, disappointments, his famished love.
I am thick with my father, my own cells displaced, floating to the side.
I stand before my dresser mirror, offer it my body, bloated with sin and origin. It accepts and I see thin, hot skin blistered with the green pocks of a fretting leprosy, the scall of a swallowed father. This offering of marked skin burns with the afterthought of my father’s hands, feels the murmur of air as the hands whisk quickly through it, always in motion, imperiled fish fleeing, feels the warm sting of them against small parts. I watch my father’s face stretch the skin of my stomach, lips and nose, closed eyes, pressing. I pass my hand across the bloat of my belly, feel his lips parting beneath my skin. I open my mouth to the mirror, offer the food of me to the coiled fluke inside me, entice and dupe it with the nourishment of its own shell.
I take a deep breath, inhale my scattered self, and the godworm inside me slips out of my mouth. It spirals out and out like an unraveling sweater, pale ribbon, loop after loop, twisting and slopping onto the floor. I see the wet, pink flesh in the mirror, watch it spill endlessly from my mouth. The end of it snaps my face as it scurries from my body. I feel dizzy and sick, strong.
I press my sore lips together. The mirror shows a woman, shrinking to form, intact, pale skin, thin. I miss my father. My soldier never came home. God doesn’t scare me. I’m tired.