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the sanguine scribe

occasionally, i just sit down and stuff comes out. writing stuff. not like i sit at the computer and drool. although it's possible i do that too. but a little while ago- a very little while ago- i sat down and this came out. i'm not exactly sure where it came from, although it was at least partly inspired by a particularly vivid dream.

the images i've used are from man ray and others and while they're beautiful, they are just slightly not safe for work. then again, if you've stooped to reading this blog at work, i'm guessing that's not very important. you can get full details on the images [as full as i have] on my pinterest board.




“Because you are a non-believer, you never will understand,” is what she told me, filmy layers of fabric from her dress winding around her legs like the barber’s rags in the wind- red stripe, white stripe, red stripe, white stripe. And like the stout fool that I am, I waited for her to explain. Better to have taken a golf club to those long legs, those dancer’s gams, better to have chopped away and fell the tree of my irresponsibly beautiful sister as she stood on the small balcony welcoming the embrace of the wind that portended the storm and thrown her in the trunk of my car and let its sewing machine motor chug us away into the remains of the sunset, now pressed low by the ominous deep slate blue clouds descending in a rigid line above the rose-copper remnants of the day.

And I can picture myself, compacted into the front seat large enough for no one over ten, fingers sore and sweaty on the wheel, trying desperately to find our way along the melodramatically winding road that shelters this farce of a home from the judgment of the street, the toy-like whine from beneath the hood sounding the alarm and cueing the human hounds to descend upon us and pick us apart, flesh from cheap European alloy, bone from toxic polymer fused in a plant whose workers probably count their shifts in the scars on their skin from the ancient, repurposed machinery that should, by all accounts, be corroding in some industrial graveyard. We would never make it. I would make it on my own, unmarked, but my sister has never left a room without the flowering of a thousand strong opinions rising to meet the sillage of her perfume.

But I could leave on my own, much as I came.

For all her leggy elegance and chiseled beauty, my sister has always been helpless, her next disaster only a perfectly curved eyelash away, her next battle pressing ever closer to the vermilion border of unwise speech and ill-chosen kisses. She looks every inch- and there are many inches- the amazon queen as she turns her velvet stare over her sculpted shoulder to appreciate how I and the room lean towards her for our next clue to the script of our evening in shadow; a broad-wing bird screeches as it passes from light into the pool of cloud, the first heavy drops punch at the French doors, but nothing touches her- and yet she is a pillar of salt, a vessel of tears awaiting hydration. And I am here to gather here up, to throw her over my shoulder and hope for the best.

Our mother’s friend Mrs. Abernathy once claimed she could see the family resemblance, but I fear she was just being kind. My family is an earthy tribe, dark and small and robust, made for toil and the world and other brown pursuits. My sister flows through our surroundings, an aquamarine river with red sparks magically held inside it.

“She has your bones, Emma,” Mrs. Abernathy said. But my mother simply shook her head and smiled her hard little smile, because she knew her bones were safe, encased inside her slabs of sinewy muscle and well-earned fat.

I am my parents’ daughter, always dark and dirty with thought, eyes shielded from the world by the greasy lenses my father’s gift of myopia necessitates. I crop my brown-black hair close so that it never threatens me with a feminine appearance, but I keep enough of it so that no one is left with the impression that I am trying to make a statement. I am trying to not think about my appearance and everything about me mutters that under its weary breath.

My sister, Colette- for the author with whom my mother was enchanted during her pregnancy, is conscious of appearances. The oxblood sheath that encases her as she struts, like a forties screen star- Crawford or Davis or Turner, awaiting her pathetic postman- highlights every perfect curve and tips slightly to the side of too revealing of her creamy breasts and shoulders, just to reassure you of the reality of the fantasy female who catches your eye and your breath with such apparent indifference. The bloody tint of her lips matches the fabric of her lips, as if she’s been feasting off her victims rather than becoming one herself, her eyes are shaded in tones of caramel and ochre that brighten the sapphire irises at their centre. I have seen her asleep, her regal face twitching under the torture of nightmares, her skin imperfect as rose petals pressed against the ground, soft bruises of experience under her eyes, and still her beauty is hypnotic. Here, prepared as she is for war, she is overwhelming. I pull my head down to reflect to avoid my eyes being burnt from resting too long.


“What the hell happened?” I ask, exhaling rather heavily, aware of the two perfect tears trembling at the precipice of her eyes. I rub my hand roughly through my scrub of rat-brown hair and try not to look at her. “I thought you were done with this lot?”

And that is when she tells me again that I’ll never understand.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Colette,” I answer, launching that ugly “fuck” at her and cutting a glance in her direction so that I can see the twist of her mouth when it hits. “He’s married, you knew this, you just lost your job and you have bigger things to worry about than trying to chase some fantasy life.”

“You don’t understand,” she pouts.

And it’s true, I don’t. All the tragic affairs, the literary, melodramatic, doomed affairs of my sister’s life are closed off from me, like the books I read or, when I’m too tired, the television shows that entertain me as I drift to sleep over a glass of woody white wine. When I was young, I remember seeing my parents kiss as they decorated the tree at Christmas. I was outside, Colette and others with me, frolicking in the snow, my skin sticky with sweat and sleet and snot and I saw them, entering middle age and still mad for each other, embrace and kiss and laugh with the heartiness that marked everything they did. I stared as they continued, laughing, running tinsel around obliging evergreen branches and I hoped to see more. I pressed my face close and saw them laughing still as they disappeared in the fog of my breath on the glass pane. And thus it is with Colette and her affairs. I am forever the snot-nosed little sister, hungry face pressed against the glass.

This one, she says, is different.

“They’re all different, sis,” I chide her. She puckers her lips a little and turns her sculpted face so that the shadows embrace the hollows of her cheeks, so that I know she is reflecting.

“I love him.”

“I know, I know. And it hurts.”

“You don’t-“

I wave her off so that I don’t need to hear once again that I don’t understand. We’ve established that.

“Just come home with me. You can stay there until you find something new-“

She turns full on so that I can see the fury burning in every cell of her flawless skin.

“A new job,” I correct myself quickly. “For god’s sake Colette, with your debts and the expenses you run up and everything you’ve been spending to run with this crowd-“ I shrug to end the sentence, to indicate my contempt for the meretricious décor and the entire veneer of class these people have plastered over themselves. I find it too easy to imagine the uncomfortable expressions of our parents wandering from room to room in this nouveau riche nightmare, each bauble begging you to ask its pedigree, each adornment calling out its own utter lack of functionality. In my increasingly uneasy gut, I know Colette imagines it too and that it feeds the stream of tears that flows unceasingly inside her.

“He loves me.”

“No, honey, he doesn’t.”

I say this every time and not once have I meant it. They do all love her. How could they not? They do see her face as they slough off the waking world in the hopes that they might entice her to visit them in dreams. Their bodies open for her, their skin weeping and the follicles of every hair turning, alert towards her when she’s near. I’ve seen that look, that defenseless, desperate look on the face of every chosen one and never once would I admit it to her. Because what I cannot tell her is that this is not enough and she could never understand how that could be.

My sister loves large, loves on a wild and unsafe scale, her love is the passion of Plato, the passion that most of us experience only as a shadow on the wall of our cave and even then it threatens to overwhelm us. Her feelings are a forest fire and consume everything around them, first of all the ill-suited object of her affection.

And furthermore, she is right about this one. Where others have fallen like dry wood before her, he has melted like steel, hotter and more dangerous. All those other faces have died a little as they realized that she would never be theirs, even as they believed that this had been their decision. This one’s kinetic grey eyes glowed with an anger I’d never seen, a hatred of a world that allowed both of them to exist without allowing them to be together. He’ll kill us both before he lets her go. He’ll slit our throats in front of the wife he claims to love and probably does, by the standards of most people’s emotions. He’d slit Colette’s throat and watch in ecstasy as the ribbons of blood spread around the mother-of-pearl pendant on her neck, a present from our parents that she takes out only when her heart is truly thrashing. And for that one moment he would know the most ineffable peace, of having her well and finally within his power without having to lay the rest of his life upon the altar.

And then he would shrivel and contract, an apple left in the sun, all rubbery and lifeless, his blood stilled at his moment of triumph.

Yes, this one is dangerously different.

“Explain it to me again, what exactly is going on here.”

I do not need to hear it again. I need to buy time to figure out how to ease her from the trap he’s laid around us.

“I guess it started with my job,” she begins glumly.

Colette can’t hold a job any more than she can hold anything else without destroying it.

It’s not that she’s stupid- wouldn’t that be too perfect: the toady, intellectual sister teaching at the university and the beautiful sister with the wind whistling through her ears. I hate to admit it, but if her combustible disposition didn’t constantly knock her from one interest to another, Colette would likely be judged smarter than me. She sees through things where I need evidence. The truth whispers in her ear as she strolls in the open air and waits to talk to me at the end of a maze.

After six months at her last job, she was considered for a promotion at the same time that her existing position would cease to exist. It might have looked promising. The people there loved her. The woman at the head of her division treated her as she would a favourite niece. Her immediate supervisor had been almost embarrassingly thankful for her quick intellect among a gang of juniors trying to find their way.

To some, it might have been surprising that instead of choosing her, instead of going with the favoured insider, that they reached out to a chubby, shiny-faced thing with curly brown hair and round glasses and limited knowledge of their business. But not to Colette and not to me. We know too well the winds that start to churn in her midst. We know too well that those who embrace her do so to keep her in her place, that those who extend their arms do so to hold the door open that she might pass.

These people see what she is and while they insist that they adore her, their horror of her curdles in their gut. Questioning only makes them angry, because they are unable to explain this animalistic hatred for someone they have every reason to love. In this case, her indignant refusal to accept their decision got her pushed from her job weeks earlier than planned, amid a clatter of excuses that made no sense in singular or en masse. One youngster remained in the office, planting mines for the newly anointed, her form of protest at Colette’s dismissal.

My sister has no friends, only enemies and worshippers. And me.

“I was so angry with them, I wanted to hurt them, wanted to hurt that whole place…”

Some things, only Colette can do.

Burning with humiliation and a sense of injustice, she descended, as she always had, to the core of her problem, setting fires amidst the fragile environment. She went raging into the office of the man in charge, the man who owned this company, the man who set the music to which all the others danced. Of course, he’d no involvement in this decision, because he wasn’t the sort to become overly preoccupied with the work being done, so long as there was profit in the end. He kept others employed so that he didn’t have to think about these things, so that his work was all broad strokes from a great height, great, bold strokes, he thought, across an ever-expanding canvas. 

He’d met Colette before. Perhaps even she wouldn’t have dared intrude unless she’d had a hook in him already. He’d seen her work and it had been enough to give him pause, enough to awake some recognition in him that he was lucky to have her, that he should keep her, although, at first, perhaps, he thought only of his business and the perpetuation of his idyllic life.

I’d met him before, although that might be making it sound like more than it was. I’d seen him before. I’d stopped by to meet her because we were going out to dinner and the young thing who worshipped at her altar hung close to the door, her blue eyes inclined every moment towards Colette and nothing else. I’d come by early but the women to whom Colette answered, who would soon push her out the door while swearing they had the best of intentions, didn’t mind and seemed to grow more downy and maternal with each syllable and asked me too often if I wanted tea, or if I would have a butter cookie or if I could tell them stories about Colette when she was younger.

And while I was waiting there, politely declining tea and cookies, trying unsuccessfully to make conversation with the besotted girl with the blue eyes while Colette nonchalantly finished a rather complex analysis she could not bear to leave, he came by. He spoke mostly to the senior people, the people above Colette, but he paused to compliment her on what she had done and waited for her to separate herself from the puzzle on her screen to look on him and thank him for his words. And in that moment, I could see the start of his sickness. In that moment, I believed that he might start throwing things, or singing, or setting the office alight, so that he could once again have her attention.

But that was only a shadow of what I saw when I arrived here tonight.

Colette, remembering that he had valued her on some level, had rushed to see him, stormed his office like a besieging army and had let loose with volleys of insults, vitriol and threats no man of power could permit inside the walls of his castle. Her fury turned him into an enemy, into something that opposed her and, as he rose to counter her, he momentarily became her equal and all the evil that has brought us here was begun.

She claims not to know how shouts and recriminations turned to sexual passion, like a turgid television movie plot, but I suspect it’s because, for her, they are never really different to begin with. She went to see him with all her passionate banners flying and the change that had occurred was relatively minor. She had presented herself as a danger, a threat, a challenge and that remained.

I’d heard about it in the sort of breathless, manic phone calls I’d come to expect when she was off in one of her romances. It wasn’t much. They’d argued themselves out over his desk and she’d gotten nothing. Nothing but his undivided attention. That night, returning home to the house she’d been renting from an Italian professor she’d met through me who was taking a sabbatical overseas and was innocently sweet on her and willing to let her have it for far less than he could have gotten from anyone else he’d approached, she’d sensed  the dark, sleek form of an expensive sports car in her peripheral vision, but chosen to ignore it.

She’d almost made it to the threshold when he finally lowered the window and called to her, like he was summoning a streetwalker to ask her how much. How much was perhaps what he should have considered as he stood staring into a face quivering with hatred and curious desire. How much? He should have asked, long before I arrived at his palatial home to settle the bill.

Certainly not the first time she’d hooked herself a married man. Perhaps the fourth or fifth. With Colette, it was always something. Her love couldn’t grow unless there was the chance a man could choose her over everything, over his whole life and so she chose married men, men with children, men with commitments in far-flung parts of the world, men with complicated conditions that they would have to dismiss to be with her. And never once had any of one of them succeeded. They all tumbled, in their frailty, under the weight of their conditions and allowed themselves to be sucked out with that tide, away from her and into an ocean of hopeless, unceasing sameness.

I’ve run into them, long after they’ve allowed themselves to be drawn out to sea, safe from her rocky shore and marveled at the blankness in their eyes, the dimmed-down light that they emanate. All that was alive in them rests with her and she devours it as she mourns them. Each and every one.

Not this one.

Somehow, the two of them got caught out by prying eyes, eyes connected to the company that believed they had shown her the door, but now found her fluttering still on the stoop, taunting them from a distance and casting her shadow over their lives in a way they had never imagined. The woman they had chosen over her seemed to be tripping over herself at every turn. The boss’s stare, enflamed with lust, was on them constantly and all of them knew that their heads were tipping sleepily into the noose Colette had prepared for them.

And so they had sought the council of the only one they knew might help them. At first they’d threatened Colette with it, but when she laughed them off, they’d had no choice, but gone to the man’s wife, gone and broke her heart, because no even though he’d always played the rake, even though she knew he’d been unfaithful, she’d turned away because it had always been in other places, single incidents with other women, other girls, young, pretty things who stumbled towards him hypnotized by his looks and his money and then sent stumbling away.

Here stood Colette, nearly her same age, in this same city, calling him to her again and again, so much in the open that even his underlings new of it.

And the women had called Colette, screaming and cursing and calling her a whore and Colette had reacted in the only way she knew how- by reaching out, by denying, by offering an olive branch of friendship and swearing that there was some jealous plot afoot, all the while impressing her supposedly jaded lover even more with her cool wits.

And his passion for her deepened.

And Colette came to befriend his wife, straining under the fatigue of years of pretending that her traveling husband’s infidelities were no big deal.

And the women who sought now openly to destroy this beautiful angel of vengeance who had been thrust upon them followed, and kept notes, and took photographs and plotted among themselves.

And at the end of the year, there was a company party planned, something his wife had always hated, so she invited her friend to cheer her up a little. And many of the revelers found themselves at the boss’s oversized home, the home their work paid for and the pack of witches watched Colette and slyly let her know what evidence they had and the boss watched Colette, his eyes seething with a need for her, a need that was surging ahead of the conditions he had imposed on the affair and his wife watched her husband watching Colette, her friend, whose honesty she hated herself for doubting, but doubted profoundly and Colette, unafraid of the ill winds blowing around her, excused herself to call her sister, who she would so much have liked to join them.

“So that’s where we are,” she finishes dryly.

Yes. This is where we are, I think. They all want her blood, they all want to tear her apart and somehow I must find a way to pull her through the eye of the needle behind me. I am her cover, a grey blanket under which she can escape.

She’ll retreat to the place she now calls home, or to my place to lick her wounds and under normal circumstances, her lover, despite the fact that he is the one who ended things, will desperately call to her through whatever means he can, to explain, because he will be unable not to try to explain, but in truth he will simply be unable to resign himself to being without her. And she will eventually cast off her mourning veil and speak to him and he will be scarred by the fact that she is somehow miraculously healed in a way that he will never be.

But this one is different.

This one will never be able to see her healed, I know that already. His conditions are severe: he cares deeply for his wife and also for his money and to run to ground in Colette’s embrace will deprive him of both. Worse yet, Colette’s mad friendship with his wife has made her an enemy in his fight.

But he will never give her up to the demands of his conditions.

The witches hover and tease releasing what they know.

The sad queen of the castle waits to have her faith shattered, but clings to her opponent.

The king surveys and claims everything as his own.

My sister raises her elegant nose. She is anticipating the blood in the air.

“Just leave with me, don’t have any more to do with this lot. They turned their back on you, you should do the same. Come lock yourself up safe with me and wait for the rest of this shit to blow over.”

“It’s too late, you know.”

Yes, I think, this time it is. Things have progressed too far, sunk too deep and the coming storm is inevitable. They all demand it, her included.

“I just want you to be-“ But I can’t finish the sentence. I want her to be safe, but no place can ever be safe with my sister in it and that is something I cannot bring myself to tell her. I watch the air fall heavily into her and pass out again, her chest fairly buckling under the effort.

Her breathing is a symphony, each section its own beautiful whole: the light pizzicato of each breath as it trembles on her lips at the outset, the plunge into the sad adagio as her lungs expand to greet it. The mournful rest before the climactic exhale. I’ve laid awake nights memorizing each chord, each plaintive note, wondering how I could write the music from memory, without ever finding an answer.

Each breath changes a note in the sequence, a slight tremolo is added or a silence punctuates where once a chord was held. I will never be able to commit that music to paper, though I might try every hour of my life from now on.

And that has always been the case, for just as I feel I might understand its whole, I am suddenly without it, her breathing having built and fallen to an echo and nothing more. I wait in the darkness for it to commence again only to realize that the air has claimed her once again for itself, her existence having been drained from the halls of the world and leaving in its wake a grey absence, an endless, hovering note, begging for an ending.

The others, having grown bored with amusing themselves downstairs, filter into the room with me, their faces already demanding what their voices have not yet found the words to ask.

“She’s gone,” I say, trying my best to make it sound inconsequential.

But I’m too aware of the fact that the void created by her absence has sucked out parts of them as well, parts they will not let go without a fight.

If I were a believer, I could follow her out there.

But I am me and I am here with what remains of them.

I could have left on my own, much as I came. But no longer. 

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