Color of Nothing
Content Warning: This piece contains graphic sexual content that may disturb some readers.
They say Francisco de Goya, in his delirium, painted it on the black walls of his final home. Clouds obscured his vision. No sound registered in his ears. Madness knocked on the door. After Goya’s death, the painting was stripped from the wall, put on a canvas, framed in heavy, black wood, and hung in the Prado museum. That’s where I first saw him. “Saturn Devouring his Son”. Putrid brown flesh wraps the gaunt bones of the lumbering Titan, strong hands sinking into the body of his child. Despite its size, this grotesque figure does not hold my gaze. Neither do I get lost in the inky black shadow he emerges from. Nor do I focus on the crystal red blood dripping from his mouth and grey beard. No. I am fixed on his eyes. They are the eyes of a man who knows he has no choice, stark white and black staring out at the fast approaching void. They are the eyes of a man who is so terrified of losing himself, that he sacrifices his humanity. They are haunted, terrified.
They are desperate.
He is desperate.
I know these eyes.
These are my eyes.
I found myself lying on the crimson carpet of my church’s sanctuary. The question of how I got there or why my shirt was gone didn’t cross my mind. All I knew was that I was absolutely not supposed to be there, and the unnaturally red carpet was growing brighter. It felt wet against my bare back. I looked down the aisle in front of me. My eyes combed from the stairs to the wrought iron gate they led to, emblazoned with a gold Alpha and Omega. They rose further to the granite altar, clothed in lenten fashion. Behind it I saw that great, pastel colored stained glass portrait of Jesus, spreading the good word to all the peoples on the Earth. But something was wrong. The image of Jesus was moving towards me. My heart filled with terror. He didn’t look like the benevolent teacher I’d seen just moments before. He was unclothed and dripping blood from crown and palm. He was splayed out as if on a cross. His eyes were white. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I began to move away, towards the doors in the back, pushing with heels and elbows as my eyes remained fixed on the visage in front of me. I was trying to drag myself away from that sightless gaze, but I kept slipping. I recognized now why the carpets burned bright crimson. Blood. A host of whispers erupted from behind him.
In the bowels of a Church you sick soul!
Rot! Do you know the rot in his soul?
In the bowels you say?
No! I screamed in my head in reply. It wasn’t my fault. She made me.
The voices ignored my pleas. They advanced, whispering to and nudging each other about foul deeds and rot. The clamor knocked me flat on my back.
A voice appeared in my head. A haggard Jesus began to wake. Run.
With that, blood poured from his eyes and wounds, covering his alabaster face. The tide of blood rushed down the aisle and I drowned in a pool of the son of God’s tears.
I awoke in my bed.
I can’t shake the eyes.
I had that dream three nights after I got the words “noli timere” tattooed on the inside of my right arm. It means “do not be afraid” in Latin. It’s the last thing Seamus Heaney told his wife before he died. I liked that. I liked that it came from a place of love, and I wanted that sentiment forever on my skin. It took four hours with a sewing needle tied onto a broken pencil dipped in calligraphy ink. I watched with fascinated horror as pools of red blood rose to the surface and were replaced with the deepest black. As the needle broke my skin, I thought back to that story. I thought back to what happened just four years before. I thought back to the girl around whom this story revolves.
My memories of that love-forsaken year are moth-eaten, riddled with gaps and holes. Time jumps to and fro, rejecting its linear constraint. I remember certain moments with the utmost clarity and others not at all. There’s no sense that I existed in those gaps of memory, just utter absence of experience. But I do remember some things well, and each of those memories are pervaded with a specific color that defines my understanding of what happened. I live most of my life in dark blues and soft purples. These are comfortable. These are where I make my home.
Rarely do I see black.
Begin with brown.
Northeast Arkansas is not beautiful. Sure, it’s a part of the natural state, but it’s that part of “natural” that reminds you even the flora and fauna can be dull. There are no verdant forests or magnificent mountains. There’s just loess, those barren windblown dust deposits as far as the eye can see. The entire region reminds me of that period between Winter and Spring after the snow has melted away, leaving the dead grass behind, but before the new blades push through. Spring sings no promises of new growth there. The only guarantee is the year round blight of winter. And brown. Lots of brown. I met the girl in a brown church. It was small and made of brick in typical Episcopalian fashion. The youth group room was square and wood-paneled, each wall lined with tattered couches. Where we donned our acolyte robes was down the stairs across from the main entrance. Our white crosses and ropes and robes waited patiently for us in open closets. The sanctuary had crimson carpet and pastel stained glass. She had brown hair. What struck me most about her was how she looked at me. She didn’t see me for the boy I had clearly been a year previous. She looked past my frame, drained of its baby fat, yet to be replaced with adult
muscle. She didn’t hear my cracking voice, only the occasional low note it found. I was thirteen. She was sixteen and her gaze made me feel like a man. She’s asymmetrical to a tee. The left side of her face was near perfection. High cheeks set against a sleek jaw. A delicate nose that just barely curved up at the end. Lips with an ever present curl. Her right side was a different story. She knew it, too. She hated how bulbous her nose was on that side. She despised her fuller cheeks set with a lone dimple. Her lips fell flat and straight, pointing away from a single deaf ear. She looks like Hel, the Norse goddess of the lifeless plain where the sick and decrepit go after they die, unable to reach the glory of Valhalla. The daughter of Loki is split down the middle, with one half of her face bright and beautiful, full of life and rejuvenation. The other half is dead and rotten, full of pestilence and decay. That’s how she struck me. I liked that she saw me as a man and she liked that I only saw the left side of her face. The love was inevitable.
She was born to nineteen year olds coked out of their minds. Dad sobered up and got a job as a librarian. Mom was a different story. I suppose her broken home left her stuck in infancy and she saw in my serious disposition the maturity she desired. I saw in her the childhood I wanted to stay in forever, saw her as a barrier between my young soul and the adult world. Maybe that discrepancy is to blame for our behaviour. Maybe that’s why a small death was destined for me.
I let her in the side door that first time. I think it was late December, that would explain the rush of cold night air. I let her in through the side door and led her down the hallway to my room. She locked the door. I don’t remember how we got to the bed. I don’t remember where my shirt went. I don’t remember her getting on top of me. I do remember the look in her eye when I told her I loved her. She told me she was ready. Wait. I told her I was scared about making too much noise. I told her I was scared I’d get her pregnant. I told her I didn’t want to.
Don’t be a bitch she laughed and slapped me on the right side of my face. I smiled. That was familiar. Comfortable. She slapped me again, harder.
Really, I don’t want this. Slap.
No. Stop. Stop. No. No, no, no! Slap.
I could have thrown her off me, could have used the eighty pound weight difference to my advantage, but I didn’t. The point had been made. Her open palm found itself clenched into a fist and battering the side of my face. She only punched me once, but that was enough. I went limp but stiff. Black blood serpentined down my nose and across my neck before finally pooling on my hairless chest. I soaked it up with my right palm, tangled it into her hair. I didn’t want her to see me bleed. I didn’t let her see me cry.
Inky black takes over from there. Thick. Warm. Impenetrable. I can see neither out nor in. I am floating freely in a world of tar, letting it rush into my lungs with each haggard breath. It blankets me. Softens the blow. I recognize that I cannot claw my way out from these depths, but why would I want to? I am alone here. I am safe. I lay there and every fold of my brain is filled, until my memory, saturated with blood black as tar can hold nothing else. I die and she finishes. The girl left out of my bedroom window, stealing away with a piece of me in her back pocket.
I don’t remember anything else after. My memory of the following months is missing. Absent. I recall nothing until-
The second time, she came directly to my room. She crawled through the open window. I don’t remember how we got to the bed. I don’t remember where my shirt went. I don’t remember her getting on top of me. She asked me why it wasn’t working and I told her how tired I was. She got angry and slapped me. I laughed. She slapped me again. I cackled. She slapped me a third time and that drew enough blood for her purposes. My body obeyed her command. I closed my eyes and retreated inward. I found myself in a hole, awash with sticky, wet, red blood. Rage sat by my side there. All I could hear was the pounding of life in my ears. All I could see was red behind my eyelids. I remained floating in vitriol until she finished. That hole in my head still smells like hate and a faint honeysuckle scent she let waft in from the night air through a still-open window.
It must’ve been spring.
I began to treat myself how I’d been taught, how she treated me. Piece of shit. My grades slipped. Piece of shit. My Mom asked me why my face was always swollen, was I getting enough sleep? Piece of shit. I broke my body, battering my skull and crown with a closed fist until I bruised blue. I would stare at myself in the mirror, watching blood drip onto the white bathroom counter as it trickled down my cheek. Who is this poor shell of a man? My rage burned hot and I was dying of thirst. I yearned for a place to end my pain, a place to release my blame.
I went to church.
I ignored the sanctuary and steeple. I ignored the youth group room and ringing bell tower standing tall in the evening summer sky. My mind was fixed on something below. I went down. I went down to the bottom of the church, and brought the girl with me. I stopped where we donned our acolyte trappings. The white robes and ropes and crosses waited patiently for us in open closets. I took off her clothes. She helped me out of mine. This time, the choice was mine. I needed the room to know. My back was against the wall. I had nowhere else to go. I was desperate. I stared blankly at the fast approaching void, and let rot fill my soul. I took her there, in the bowels of the church. I let my red spew onto hallowed ground, and became awash with the color of nothing.
Time jumps forward.
The streets rush by, devoured by a white Jeep. I am visiting Northeast Arkansas for the first time in four years. I look down at my right arm. Scar tissue obscures half of the message inked into my skin. My tattoo says noli no longer. It just reads timere. “Be full of fear”. My best friend from middle school is in the driver’s seat, delivering me safely to my AirBnb from a party that got a little out of hand. I’d done dabs for the first time in my life. I’d greened out. I blink as the asphalt disappears under the horizon of my eyes. Each time my eyelids touch, the afterimage of yellow street lights remains projected on them. The stamp of these streets on my eyes takes on form. I I see a shape.
I’ve seen this shape before.
It’s an aisle. An altar. A cross.
The shape of my nightmares. I see it here.
And there is something behind that shape.
A pair of eyes.
I can’t shake the eyes.
My eyes close with a soft blink. I rotate my left arm at the shoulder then press my thumb against my index finger. My right arm begins to move. My neck and chest twist left. My legs unfreeze, moving tentatively as a fox stepping out of a bear trap. I am not stuck. I walk out of the museum, emerging into a world topped by a deep blue sky.
I pity Saturn, poor shell of a man. He wasn’t given the chance to choose his final resting place. Goya trapped him emerging from the shadows, hanging on a wall surrounded by a prison of gold and black. Eyes forever open, awash in the color of nothing.