Unpublishable: Banished Bodies
I spent the better part of last year invested in the public performance of pain – who is allowed to express it, where it can occur safely and where it is deemed inappropriate, which bodies are welcome to express pain and which are silenced, which words we are permitted, which venues, for how long, whose endorsement we seek and whose we reject, the shame of weeping in the open air… My studies of the public led me to religious immurement, when bodies were either walled into churches and temples by force as punishment, or by choice as proof of their devotion. In both scenarios, the religious orders walling them in exalted them for their sacrifices and performed elaborate funereal rites.
This piece has been rejected four times, and it feels right to place its failures alongside its concerns. Eyes in the walls, eyes upon them, the eyes of god – how we yearn for our pain to be seen by others, and to be believed!
– B.B., 6 January 2018, Austin, TX
It is Sunday, it is summer, it is morning, the peep holes are there, are ready, the old crusty sleeping bags upon which we kneel are scrunched up against the bones of the walls, our candy wrappers from yesterday are crumpled and scattered, the raw insulation blares pink in the light, we will one day die from asbestos and this is fine. We have clambered up the gables, as we always do, we have creaked up the fire escape and squeezed ourselves into the crawl space by way of the attic, skulking through empty squirrel nests and dropping down through the hatch like corpses into graves. Now we arrive in the walls. We exchange pleasantries. “The recurrent sunflowers on Brookstone are in bloom.” “How quaint, what a time to be alive.” “Pass the lotion, would you?” “Oh of course, what a lotion hog am I! Ha! Ha!”
Outside sprawls a downtown, abandoned. The shop windows are empty, there are For Lease signs taped to glass. The trash is brought to the curb and back by ghosts of neighbors, the idea of neighbors, but no one substantial, identifiable only by the sounds of plastic wheels scraping against the concrete. Even we don’t walk boldly down the avenues, but trickle to the house by way of alleys and smoking ruins of entire neighborhood blocks – our houses, our city, ourselves. A scrap of foil can be heard fluttering furiously in the gutters now and again, even the feral cats have fled, what kind of place is this, you have to ask yourself, and we do, we do ask ourselves, and who are we to stay here, and come to this temple again and again.
Our temple is a house situated between streets Elm and Oak. 2 bd/1 ba, vintage linoleum in the kitchen, real hardwood floors in all the rooms, though all is in disrepair except for the master. As is true with most houses, we have discovered, through trial and error, a network of crawlspaces – small walkways, tiny junctions – between the poorly plastered walls. The first floor is rotted through or inhabited by rodents, but up here in between the rooms of the second floor, our bodies find respite by pressing into curls between wooden posts and lode-bearing beams. Insulation knots the hair on the backs of our heads as we shuffle into our spaces. The small rib bones of dead mice litter the dirty floor. The wall behind us belongs to an old nursery, no longer in use, the room in front of us barely inhabited, thus we are specters in/between tombs. We begin to fondle the lengths of us, the wet buds of us, we try to warm ourselves up, to prepare.
Settle, knees in the sleeping bags. Hands folded in our laps. “Give us this day.” In unison. A clap. Congenial.
Our eyes press to the peep holes.
The scene: the same. As yesterday, as a month ago, as a year ago, and as it will be in all the days to come, until the end. The room a perfect square. One curtained window, the sky visible through a slit in the fabric, bright and violent. There is no TV. There is nothing in the glum, humming refrigerator shunned to the corner, no blankets on the bed, no dog to keep watch, not even a fish in a bowl. No slick red lover to tongue. There are no clothes to closet. There is no bedframe. The mattress slumps on the floor at the end of the room farthest from our wall; the bed has been let loose, there is nothing to hold the bed back, nothing is leashed, everything in this room is untethered and uncontained, with the exception of the urine. The urine is inside a bowl. The bowl is made of porcelain. The urine is held well by the porcelain just beside the bed. Upon the bed, prostrate as upon an altar: our god. Sleeping, fitfully, for now, on the way to states of dying and death. Our god, the bed, and the porcelain bowl of piss are all that exists inside this room. The architecture of the scene leans more towards gaunt than minimal.
Within the guts of the house, our eyes hungry for pain, we start to unzip our jeans, reach beneath our skirts. A stirring upon the altar. We stare from the space between tombs into the heart of the catacomb.
Our god awakens.
Our god’s illness has lasted for weeks, for months. Unnamed. There are no attendants for our god, shitting and pissing and bleeding and vomiting and drooling and sweating in this manner. A self-imposed quarantine: there is an assumption in place that death is imminent, and any outside help is neither possible nor practical. The quarantine suits us, it keeps us invisible, and that is convenient. Beyond the temple of the infirm, the city empties, young couples and people with money flee the graffiti and red brick for the gated communities in the woods where they can live in palaces made of windows and restore their chakras. The dying are left behind to die, with only the empty buildings and we, the voyeurs, there to bear witness. Our mission is holy. Sometimes. We are to our god as a remora is to a shark. Thus: holy. We play with ourselves. It’s a painful process. It’s difficult. In each of us sits a hard stone of shame that gathers mass as we try to become aroused. We weep. Our free hands join in solidarity. We are all here for the same reason: watching our ailing god die is the closest any of us have ever come to coming. Here we are, on our knees, in veneration and adoration. At every hour accompanying the body. We worship the exiled. We revere the bandages. The smell of piss is our incense, the body the holy miracle. We tug and rub at our limp, shameful nerves and we inch our way towards divine revelation. Is it foul? Possibly. We are foul, foul, bottom feeders, foul. Shame on us.
Smoke, bitter and acrid: another house down the street must be burning. We smell it burn, we and our god. We hump the insulation to the beat of the structural collapse. The hours pass.
Our god shouts, wracked by a spasm, and we feel a tingling behind our ears as we hit the next levels of our own pitiful arousals. We rub, breathing heavy at our peepholes. In the room, plaques of psoriasis rise up in a cloud, settle once more like a light dusting of snow upon bare, enflamed skin. The piss, painful to pass, fills the bowl with dark amber. We are not allowed to know what it is the banished body has been afflicted with – that information has been redacted. We have tried to guess. A venereal disease, an Old Testament plague, leprosy or syphilis or even the big one. But really, what does it matter whether we have the name of the affliction or not? Will it affect our levels of sympathy? Is there a hierarchy of illnesses we care about built in our minds? Surely not. It feels somehow more moral to leave these questions unanswered. Grotesque, the mind, the body, the need.
At noon, the bells scream. A period of deafness ensues for us all. All across the city, houses become ash.
Our god is feverish. No way to rest the cheek, bloom of pain, the abdomen, the mouth, the heart, cankers the truest form of physical insult added to injury. Our god’s mouth swells will canker sores. Starve the cankers all dry, wet buds, our god will beat them submissive. The effort is so beautiful and pure. We smile to see it.
Now we settle back onto the sleeping bags and rest for a moment. The physical tolls of our veneration are high.
“I will rinse you with ocean and flush you with charcoal, such beast which stalks my unpainted door.”
Our god doesn’t speak this way so often. We wonder who is being addressed. An unease ripples throughout the crawl space. The sores on the body of our god laugh like lithe young cherubs, theirs is the kingdom of flesh and they hold the whip and here is their creature which pulls at the yoke, and our own cherubs twitch at their slick yokes, raw but ready again. Our god bites a finger to trick the mouth, suffering, suffering. We push against the partition, we keen. Song of songs.
Time walks across the floor and up the wall, broad beams of time, thick cream of wasted hours. Pustules tighten, burst. Add to the sweat, urine, shit, drool, blood of the bed.
A tapping. Our god looks up. There is a shadow of a bee on the window pane. We pause mid-tug. The bee knocks once, twice. An angelic visitation! Weakly, our god thrusts open the glass. The bee enters the tomb. We can see from its distinctive puff that it is a queen, separated from her hive. She dances around our god, performs a hesitant two-step on the rim of the urine bowl, and then she alights, flying higher and higher in consecutive circles, weaving around the paddles of the dusty ceiling fan, when suddenly she is snatched from the air by a spider’s web. Our god squirts another stream of dark green shit onto the mattress and watches, shivering, as the wings of the bee sputter, as the woolly abdomen jerks back and forth, faster and then slower and then even slower still. Our god turns away, weeping, the asshole burns, weeping, the bee quiets, weeping. This is a private moment.
How sick we are, you’re thinking, watching us watch them on your own little screen. Who is watching you? Who watches the watcher? What do we get out of this, you’re wondering, watching us watching bodies, houses, bees? What do you get out of it, your pants to your knees? Trying to climax in the intestines of the house of death, in neither room nor hallway but secret forbidden space? What are you trying to raise from the dead?
Our god wakes again at midnight. True light is gone; electric street light bathes the room in static. Where once there were boils, there is now a rash, raised and red and running the length of all the extremities. Our god’s illness is progressing. We pet the insulation, dreaming of contact.
If we were allowed to ask for things. But we are not. Allowed. Fingers tenderly wrap around the waist to press the inflammations. And crawl up inside ourselves, and pull, and press, up, down. Our god’s shitting has ceased. At long last. There is finally nothing left inside. The body is now just an empty vessel. Such relief. And we spill, we drip down our fingers with readiness.
To be able to call oneself an urn.
A truck bursts into flame in the street down below. Who made it so? And who leaves it to burn? And whose eyes watch it now?
The whole world is burning, the coral is dead, your cherished coral, you didn’t know until now that you loved it but now you know it’s so and even we, your voyeurs, feel the loss. Rise again! With stiff red veins, with royal subaqueous plumage! Hours of light once caught it just right. Its head below sea and the sky above flaming in rhyming ways. On a morning so calm the impatient eels could burst, when the waves hiked their gowns with a storm’s flirtation. Salt water sewing your wounds back together. So proceeds the nightmare. You walk on the sand, to clear a path through the fallen branches, and this is how you find out your coral is dead, head torn clean off at the regal neck / thistledown afoot / you try to speak but find you cannot. Coral, coral. You wince, touch, tongue, and the sea floods your mouth. Your beloved stepping out from the alcove of dead, blood on lips, obsidian in hand. “It was just a joke,” says the beloved, and laughs for a month, and you must sit in the darkening water and let the tide push you back and forth.
Our god awakes and shivers. We shiver, too, fingers pruny. We share a look of wonder. We have entered the stronghold of the mind and pillaged our god of dream. We have ascended.
Our god looks down. We peer, our eye sockets pressed to the skin of the house. Here we are enacting our greatest violence of all, the house heaving beneath our touch. With our new knowledge, we are privy to the skin flora blossoms on every inch of the body’s fabric. We tug at our groins and we whisper their names: staphylococcus epidermis, propionibacterium acnes, corynebacteria, acinetobacter johnsonii, clostridiales, streptococcus mitis, staphylococcus warneri, staphylococcus aureus, pseudomonas aeruginosa, thousands of bacteria opening the tight buds of their everlasting, transient forms. Whole, infinite, bodily poppy fields. We intercept visions from the mind of our god, visions of feet pressing down on the dark water of a lake, of a neck being licked again and again, visions of cloth unspooling to reveal a rib cage, a watermelon falling to the ground and bursting its bright meat onto the hot pavement. We groan loudly, we hold nothing back, we are so aroused with this gift of all-vision, oh the precious sight, oh the precious knowing, we call you by name, streptococcus mitis, we open ourselves to the dreams of the banished, we become gods, we are gods, the body of the house begins to flush with our mounting arousal.
Our god looks down upon the endangered ecosystem of the flesh, and the bacterial petals peel open in prayer, and here in the fading, smoky light of a summer Sunday evening full of the deaths of creatures and houses and human bodies there is purity. The revelation of the self! We can all weep to look upon this. How close, the precipice of orgasm. Come unto us! Come unto us! O!
Our god looks at us. “You.”
We jump from the peepholes, startled, our hands still. We tremble. Is this real? Are we seen? We lean in once more. Our god is looking at us. Skin bright and mountainous, cutaneous growths swelling up and down the naked torso. A leg is lowered with great effort onto the floor. A kneecap smacks the wood. Now palms, pressing down. And the head, reared back, holy eyes upon us. Our god crawls from the altar towards the wall where we hide, boils bursting and spattering the floor with streams of pus. Our god screams in pain, this is miraculous, once bedridden and now powered forward, we sob at the beauty, our fear of the beauty. A retch, the promise of vomit, but no: a sword, of golden hilt of inscribed blade, falls from the perfect, diseased mouth and clatters to the floor. The sword is gripped in hand, gleaming, and our god continues crawling, blade scratching the wood floor’s varnish. Now we can see the thighs in all their complexity, we see that the rash has somehow formed into the shapes of horses, rosy horses at full gallop across the flesh. A rash-unicorn is chased by a rash-fox, a rash-copse of birch looms cool in the groin. Our god has been transformed by decay into a tapestry. Treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of the divine, blood follows pus and our god slips and slides through a milky pink flood to get to us, parts the waters to get to us, o the effort to get to us, the penitents, the church we have been made into, we weep and cheer, our god can see us so we needn’t hide in shame anymore, we may clash the cymbals of our hands and sing the songs of the victorious coming upon the gates of heaven, suddenly we are all more aroused than we’ve ever been, we are hardened and long, we are puffy and slick, we pulse so loud we can ourselves drum, we press and hug and hump and keen, our eyes still upon our god o god our god o o god!
We climax, at last, in long, violent ropes of release. It is more beautiful than we could have ever dreamed.
Our god reaches the wall. Our whole world becomes one eye, glaring at us. Aflame.
“Come,” pants our god, “gather around for the great banquet of God.”
We weep and praise.
“To eat your fill of the flesh of kings,” our god continues, and beats a bloody hand against the wall. “The flesh of generals.” The beating continues, suddenly we feel uneasy. “The flesh of horses and those who ride them.” The wall feels as though it will give at any moment. We begin to scramble down the chute of the crawlspace away from the eye, our come leaving snail trails on the sleeping bags and the particleboard floor. “And the flesh of all people.” We hear the sound of wood splintering: the blade of the mouth-sword carves a slit into the wall. “Both free and slave.” A bloodied hand, flesh torn from the wrist, bursts through the slit and shatters the plaster and insulation, the body shoving into the crawlspace, our domain, our womb of worship, we scream and weep and hold one another. “Small and great.” Another punch of the sword, the slit widens, becomes a mouth.
“Please!” we cry. “Were we not the eyes of god, shall we not be rewarded in your kingdom?”
“I am merciless” – our god heaves the broken, banished, battered body through the hole, drops the weapon, raises a bright bloody face in our direction, glares, smiles – “with those who turn me” – our god crawls, where can we go, our god stalks us like prey, we are a mass of writhing bodies, our genitals bare and enflamed and vulnerable to attack – “who turn me into a market. You foul, festering beasts.”
From somewhere in the refuse, our god finds a match. We shiver, a unified mass of horror. A flick. A flame. Our god lights the insulation. The house begins to burn. All the houses all around us begin to burn. Everywhere is final fire, revelation.
We watch each other. We give our god what is owed, what is asked for.