Victims of Exposure
My holiness was an accident. It happened because I had nothing else to eat. I had stopped eating eggs after the salmonella outbreak on the news in February, salad greens after the third report of E. coli, dairy after listeria killed a pregnant woman from Georgia. Anneke, my wife, said I needed therapy, but extreme caution seemed reasonable to me. Dirt full of feces, ungloved fingers, shed hair and dead skin, utensils not rinsed in hot water, air oozing into sealed containers. Eventually I survived on fruit and overbrewed black coffee. Anneke gave up cooking for herself, ate Greek yogurt and packaged salads and didn’t clean out the refrigerator, which began to smell sweet and stagnant.
“I hate watching you do that,” she said. I was eating pomegranate seeds, one by one on the tines of a fork, crunching them like small bones.
“Sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t. I was thinking about San Pantaleo, an Italian island where the Carthaginians had sacrificed children by fire. Archaeologists knew this because of burials on the beach, infants’ bone fragments in jars, mixed with animal bones like something monstrous, like the necessity of their killing had been embedded in their bodies.
“You know you can’t eat just fruit forever,” Anneke said, almost tenderly, “right?”
There is an extent to which you love a terror that colonizes your life. There is an extent to which it becomes sacred because so much of your selfhood has been pushed aside for it, as saints pushed their quiet, dimly lit selves out of the way to know God was there.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, because I loved her. Then I ate the other half of the pomegranate, seed by flushed seed, popping them against my tongue, because I didn’t love her enough. You could say that everything that followed was inevitable.
Anneke left me soon after I began eating the house: digging wooden splinters out of the kitchen table, gnawing on them like toothpicks, and swallowing balls of papery lint off the fleece throws. We hadn’t had sex in three months. I didn’t mind. I waited for her one night after work with an expensive candle lit, hair freshly washed, new silk lingerie. Lazy and smiling, she put her hand between my legs, and I bit into her bottom lip and tore. We fell out of love in the bathroom, she shouting through a paper towel clamped to her dripping mouth, me lightheaded and rapt, absent language, tasting her pain like biting a penny. My teeth hurt in my sleep. She took the car the next morning before I woke up.
So I became an anchorite, snow in the forecast. It was a good day to wall oneself up alive, fill the bathtub with salt for mummification, forget how to be lonely. I took Anneke’s Greek yogurt out of the refrigerator and poured it into the sink. I stood in front of the windows in the living room, unhooked the bra I had slept in, saw a rim of darker skin around my breasts. It looked like I had drawn on my naked chest with Sharpie: cut here. I could have breakfasted on them with orange juice. In Sicily, on Saint Agatha’s feast day, they bake minni di virgini: iced buns, topped with a cherry, each of them a severed breast.
It had occurred to me before that my body was edible, and that good, fresh food was what God would make of martyrs—Apollonia spitting out her baby teeth, Catherine’s stump of a neck flowing with milk, squirming like a killed chicken. I had read about anorexia mirabilis, the secrecy of starving girls, whom God nourished with manna from heaven. I was unclear on what manna was. Something like oatmeal. I wondered what they had actually eaten.
I spent most of the week in the bathtub, gulping cold water from the faucet like a dog, humming, and eating my hands. I had already had a habit of chewing my nails, biting them down to the quick, the blood silting my teeth Popsicle-red. I stripped the skin meticulously from my cuticles, chewed and swallowed it, floating in what I guessed must be a state of grace. The blood was the color of pomegranate seeds or the lurching sight of roadkill with its bowels exposed, instruments of divination. When I was thirteen and learning Latin I wanted to be a Stoic and an ornithomancer. I wanted to know the mountainous folds of God’s thoughts in the flight of birds, and to have thoughts that were like God’s: slow-moving, patient, universal.
Once the stubs of my nails were too short to be excavated I moved on to my fine hairs, eyelashes first, and the dry skin of my knuckles. Anneke’s hands had been large and handsome, clubby with the turquoise rings only sold at rest stops in New Mexico. The smell of her shower gel in the tub, lemon and basil, invoked a sad nostalgia like a myth, as for a prehistory before and without language. When we took showers together she had washed my back, and with her fingers inside me I felt like Saint Theresa, clutched limply like a doll in the huge soft hand of God, broken by an arrow of love.
She had been so beautiful with that wound in her mouth, small and sore as the punched holes of the stigmata, a view into the weird technologies of her insides. The last exhibition I had seen at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery had included a picture of a Christ on the cross a great deal more concerned with being holey than holy. His face was a thin black gap, his hands clawing, his groin like a pitted fruit. His blood was the only source of light in the painting. The label said the painter had strapped one of his students to a cross, to paint the anatomy of the tortured from life. I thought about pushing roofing nails into my hands and feet, and about how much pain a person would need to endure before a false miracle became a true one.
I moved out of our place before Anneke could try to contact me, to St Catharine’s, Ontario, a half-hour drive and another country across the Falls. My new apartment was chilly and clean, good for the maintenance of purity. I made the drive at three a.m. when the roads were empty and trimmed my hair in the rearview mirror, extending my tongue to catch the threads, which trembled, cool, in my mouth like ice chips. Before I had decided God was asking me for something specific I had looked at myself with the feeling of seeing my reflection naked and violated. My body's material fact was a siege machine, a declaration of war. Now I was in love with myself for the first time, a silly, euphoric, skin-hungry, teenage love. I posed in front of the mirror and touched my face, blinked and watched a shivering mystic, a victim of God and lightning, blink back, with alarming eyes that shone like teeth.
She was hungry. What can a good woman, a woman who is good at womanhood, be hungry for? I don’t know. I know something that is no longer a woman can be hungry for skin, light, a penny, a ripe pomegranate, wonder. You are a thirsty child in the middle of the night. You take a raw chunk of joy out of God's flesh and he forgives you before you are born. You chew into God's bright wrist bone, and he says with affection, Go ahead.