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Nothing but the Blood
“Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” the old song enclosed her memory like a revival tent arching over the bobbin heads of hand-clapping worshipers.
“We believe,” a tall, black-suited tent proselyte licked his syllables and spit them out like bad candy.
“We believe,” the group chimed, desperate bells in the steamy air.
“God is he-yeh,” he drawled, rolling his eyes.
“God is here,” a woman screamed before the crowd could repeat it.
“God is here,” the minister slapped his large hands against either side of the fainting woman’s head and held her in an embrace of passion that tickled the groins of those watching.
She remembered being uncomfortably moved, sliding back between her aunt whose hips were jiggling in rhythm, and her uncle who moaned and keened blank-eyed. Between them, she was an unnoticed child. She too believed that night. She too was released from the moist heat of the tent, saved, into the clear summer night.
Her memory moved on to a morning of berry picking, to a day as simple as a green hill carving a soft breast out of a blue sky. She remembered feeling buoyant, scrambling through the stickers to grab the blackberry. Untangling her hair from the bushes, she stood up and dropped the berry into her burlap bag.
“God protects all people,” her cousin Rauth had said, patting his own full sack. Its bottom was blue-stained and dripping.
“We don’t never have to worry ’bout nuthin’,” she replied. They stood on the side of a hill dotted with bramble bushes hiding blackberries, skinny legged and smug.
Her memory time-lapsed like a French photographer playing Renoir. Sensitive Impressionism fogged the edges of chronological events and drew her behind them, like the heroine trying not to stain the hem of her dress as she follows the camera dollie.
To believe is to be protected. To be protected is to live in grace. To live in grace is to be protected. Therefore, just believe. Rauth lasted thirty-seven days in Vietnam. His body, the face redone, was preceded by a telegram and two marines who seemed resigned to the ritual. She dreamed two dreams after the telegram came.
In the first dream she was standing on a densely green hill. The air was wet with the scent of bodies. Below her a river ran red. The red river flowed as crisp as the bright stream of blood that trickles from a superficial cut. In its waves, young men floundered. Rauth tumbled by and reached out an arm to her.
“Save me, save me,” he called, “I believed.”
She woke up, shaking the room into control. Falling asleep again, she dreamed Rauth stood before her. He had no face. Instead, clumps of flesh adhered loosely to his facial bones like a child’s first clay sculpture, pieces stuck randomly to the wire underneath. She recognized him by his hands, which were perfectly intact.
“Would you want to live?” she asked him.
“Not with my face like this,” he said.
“Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” she giggled, and woke up horrified.
Her vital connection between the good life and the belief that belief would hand it to her was only slightly shaken after Rauth’s mutilated body did not rise from the casket. Death after all, had violated his spirit. Her’s was still intact.
That Renoir photographer, knowing art is irony, cameras through a bizarre garden where someone has perversely planted skinny, tight-budded roses whose thorns lift like leaves inviting a touch. She still follows behind, heroically innocent, leaping the darts, believing she cannot get stuck. Unhooking her dress hem from the thorns, she believes God has granted special protection to her ankles.
Her mourning for Diane was as dark and as flat as the negative she kept in an envelope in her purse. In it, she and Diane were fuzzy-featured, dark figures posing on their stomachs on a white rug, chins cupped in palms, grinning blacked-out all-American smiles.
“Pretty girls,” a stranger had said, glancing at the photograph made from the negative.
Diane’s funeral was in September.
“It’s a Catholic church,” Bede whispered. “Why are all your friends Catholic?”
“I’m into rituals,” she hissed. “They comfort the living and placate the dead. There are,” she paused, “no Catholic ghosts, if you’ve noticed.”
“You’re sick,” Bede muttered.
“No,” she sighed, “I’m not.”
Crossing herself hesitantly, kneeling slightly and bouncing up, she entered the church behind Diane’s six sisters. They were a double trinity, this group of siblings. Two rows of three, all redheads, dressed in shades of black, dangling alternating gold and silver crosses between small and larger breasts. They wore impeccable white gloves. She imagined those suede-embraced fingers placating the dead, gently fingering rosaries, clutching each other in a row in the front pew facing the casket, lifting an arch of white protection against the rebuilt face of their sister lying in white ruffled sleep.
Diane looked as if she were seriously considering the shape of her hands folded across her chest. Her facial expression was a mortician’s masterpiece after the car accident.
They filed past the open casket, they who knew her, stunned or weeping. Death was the invisible photographer clicking their brief faces for future reference, clicking as quickly as their heels rattled across the tiled floor.
Suddenly, a woman for who Diane had once worked flipped her upper body across the casket, almost laying perpendicularly across the corpse. She began gasping rhythmically, breathing formaldehyde in careless gulps.
“What’s she doing?” whispered Diane’s oldest sister, to the next one.
“She’s praying?” trembled the youngest one, digging the gloved nails of one hand into the gloved palm of the other.
A priest ran over to the woman, losing the formality of his collar.
“You cannot do this,” he whispered. “You must not do this!”
“What is she doing?” repeated the oldest sister, staring like the Magdalene at the woman’s arched backsides curving over the casket.
“She’s praying?” begged the youngest one, looking around for relief or reason. Diane’s oldest sister suddenly made a convulsive movement which jerked the necks of flabbergasted mourners. She pressed her fingers into her eyes, and called to all their minds without exception, the Biblical phrase, “If thine right eye offends thee, pluck it out!”
The middle sisters half rose, arms linked and rigid, staring like earthquake victims at the woman’s wreaking back.
“She is praying!?” shrieked the youngest one, and pressed her fists into either side of her head, tufts of hair sprouting like thorns between her knuckles. The priest gently tugged at the woman. She did not budge, but continued breathing between the breasts of the corpse.
Small movements rippled through the seated mourners, breaking their smooth surface of civilized sorrow. Women exchanged startled glances. Men looked behind them, chins jerked to shoulder blades. Children swallowed air. In the very front, the priest was a stark rod beside the woman’s heaving back. He swung around wildly, saw the crowd’s face, and froze.
Lazarus must have smiled at faces like these as he stripped the death linen, stinking of oil, from his forearms. Peter, after the third cockcrow wore a face like these. Caught between panic and awe, the human face unmasks, is abandoned by spirit, and is terrible.
The scene was still life for several seconds. The tide was growing stronger, a tension which would snap, which would, which would. . . .
“What is she doing!!?” Diane’s oldest sister shrieked. The room collapsed. Women slumped, men shook their heads, children howled, expelling balls of air from the chests.
Diane’s oldest sister fell back into the front pew. The two staring sisters blinked like waking somnambulists. Snapped by that screaming question, the tension which tried to become a tide, which twisted muscles between shoulder blades, which pulled eyeballs, which clenched hands, and which kept them all suspended between panic and awe dropped back, licking their squirming toes.
The priest pulled the sobbing woman up, off the open casket. He stood then, hugging her to his chest, sighing with her sobs.
She fell on thorns. In front of her the camera dollie turns slowly, smashing skimpy roses under its wheels. The photographer too turns toward her, moving like a ballet dancer. He spins in a series of semicircles, raising his hands, palms flat and opened to her.
“This is it!” he mutters urgently. “This is it!”
Her fingertips are dripping blood. She lifts up on one elbow, holding up her fingers, staring at them as detached from her wounds as any accident victim. The photographer swings a leg over her prone and pristine martyrdom and frames her between his hands. She spits, “My fingertips are bleeding, you son-of-a-bitch!” He looks down at her and smiles. “I was wondering when you were going to say something.”
She shifts out of shock into rage. “This is a tragic flaw!” She beats the ground with a splattered fist.
“It’s part of the scene,” the photographer shrugs.
“How,” she sits up, “can my wounded hands be part of your damn scene?” He moves to her right, as casual as a snake. The camera focuses only on her. She sees herself reflected, chin narrowed, her face receding below protruding eyes.
“Because they are the result of your own decisions,” his voice is compassionate. She stares. He continues. “Your decision completed the scene. I was only waiting. . . .”
“. . . for it.”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” she screeches, then swallows her scream like a knife. He strokes the edge of a rose thorn with the toe of his boot, then says, as quiet as a diamond,
“Art becomes art only when the artist releases control of it. Art is art only after it finishes itself.”
“Then what is the artist?” she demands, terrified at the door of revelation.
“Someone who watches and loves.” He leans forward, almost human in his need to be understood. “Believe, believe in only this.”
“And all. . . .” She waves a crimson hand weakly across an invisible horizon of memory. He silently moves behind the dollie.
Slowly she turns to the camera. In its iris she is alone in a strange garden. Her choices, spread outward from the torn hem of her gown, are roses. Staining a verdant and dangerous field, they are nothing less than the blood.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.