Bloodletting

~ Vera Hadzic

After my husband’s funeral, I went home and took my own blood, just as I had every Sunday for the past three years. The funeral had been dismal. I’d stood there, draped in black satin and gauze, like I was made of wax—like each passing second melted another inch of my flesh. The heat was heavy as lead, and humid. Just as his coffin thumped into his grave, the clouds had split open. His family had grumbled. They weren’t used to Louisiana’s afternoon thunderstorms. But I was grateful for the rain, even though it made me melt faster.

“You did the right thing,” Michael, my husband’s friend, had told me at the reception. “Keeping his body here. His home.”

By now, I was so used to drawing my own blood that I could have found a vein with my eyes closed. The needle pinched as I slid it under my skin. The thin, plastic tube slithered down my arm. As it filled with blood, I felt it sigh. The bag swelled red. Through the window, the storm’s breath gathered under my ears. The hulking, twisted oak on the edge of our property sucked the rain into its dark wood.

The day after the funeral, Michael visited. He brought another of my husband’s friends, someone whose name I couldn’t hear. I heard only the rushing of blood in my ears.

I took them to the living room. Made them something—tea, or lemonade, or coffee. I wasn’t sure which. My gaze stuck on Michael’s face, in its creases and its curves like sap. Today, he seemed so much more alive than my husband had been, but I could see the coldness in him—the pallor of his cheeks, the gauntness under his eye. My husband had, on his worst days, seemed a sheet of paper: like if you shone a flashlight on his forehead, you’d see into his skull.

“Was it really a car crash?” said the second man. “He was getting enough—you know? And it was good?”

“You can speak plainly here,” Michael said. “We’re all—friends.”

Still, he looked out the window, at the oak tree as though its leaves were ears. As though the sunlight fermenting on the window could listen. Or as though the woodpeckers on the lawn wore wires.

“No.” I was firm. I eyed my cup. Something brown—tea. Or coffee, with cream.

“But, if the source was contaminated—”

“It wasn’t,” I said. I put my right hand over my forearm, where the Band-Aid from yesterday kissed my skin. “He crashed into a tree. Branch went straight through his heart.”

A week after the funeral, I took my blood again. A woodpecker ducked its head under the open window. Its feathered gladiator’s crest was the same color as the plastic snake crawling over my arm. The bird tilted its head: Where are you going to put it?

My husband and I had met in New Orleans. The sun gave him headaches, so he slept all day in a dusky hotel room, blinds drawn tight. I’d had insomnia. At night, New Orleans glittered like a cracked kaleidoscope. The balconies’ ironwork laced with light and color. Music, even. The stones vibrating under our feet had a heartbeat. Funny that a city’s heart could beat louder than his.

I hadn’t felt warm, or sexy, the first time he bit me. It hadn’t even happened in bed. He had carefully laid his fingers over my neck, had felt for the veins. When I replayed the moment, I always imagined an open window, whispers of blues music bubbling into our hotel room. But when his teeth broke my skin, it was something like getting a flu shot.

In our bedroom, we’d turn on all the lights. Two weeks after the funeral, the room was still cluttered with the lamps we’d bought. We had chosen the yellowest, the orangest and warmest lamps. We had a ritual, racing upstairs, twisting each knob or button, watching the lights meld into a web of gold. We pretended we were in the sun, pretended it was the sun leaking into the pores of his skin, lighting up the shadows in his eyes. He’d hold me in his arms and tell me he loved seeing me with the sun braided through my hair. I was floating, he said. The second week after the funeral, when I climbed into bed after taking my blood, I left the lights off. It seemed wrong to enjoy our false sun without him.

Three weeks after the funeral, I heard from my husband’s family. I was standing in front of the fridge when the phone rang.

“Fine,” I told his mother. “I’m doing okay.”

“That’s good to hear.” Her teeth worried her lip. “Would you like someone to come and be with you?”

She was relieved when I turned her down. I let her talk about how sorry she was while I rearranged the tiny glass bottles in the fridge doors. Whenever I moved one, the blood inside swirled into a red vortex. I poured today’s blood bag into another bottle, stoppered it gently, put it in the place of the Tabasco sauce. I was running out of space. The peaches Michael sometimes brought me had rotted. I’d left the bowl on the windowsill and watched the woodpeckers’ beaks tear the browning flesh into strips.

When Michael came next, he found me under the oak tree. His wide-brimmed hat shielded his face from the sun. It was five weeks after the funeral. The tree’s branches, thick and oiled with moss, arched low over the ground, wooden snakes. It was a tree of spaces, each branch a basket of sky. The sparse green leaves offered little shade.

“We used to have picnics out here,” I told Michael. “After dusk.”

“What about the bugs?”

“Hell,” I said.

He laughed, handed me another plastic bag. The fruit strained against it. Under this oak tree, I had first offered to draw blood for my husband. Right then, he would have become as translucent and sickly as stars behind smog, if he could have become any paler. But this had been a clear night, and the oak had buckled under the weight of the starlight. He’d agreed.

By six weeks, I was leaving the house more and more often. I took walks in the woods that curled around the property, waved a stick in front of me to tear down the spiderwebs that fizzle across gray-barked branches. I went alone. Spoke little if I passed any neighbors. Michael said he was glad to see me getting better. If anything, I was desperate to get out of the house. I’d stopped sleeping in our bedroom with all its lamps.

On my walks, I watched the birds coast low over the bayou, their red bellies warped by the gray-green waters. Heat cushioned my armpits. If a summer thunderstorm caught me, as it often did, I imagined that the mud suctioned a piece of me away with each step. When I got home, I drew my blood. Struggled to find a place for it in the fridge.

Eventually, Michael figured it out. It was the eighth Sunday since the funeral. At this point, the sacks of blood I filled, emptied, and refilled had become my timekeepers. The hands of a clock, a clock I couldn’t properly read.

Michael found me by the window, plastic tube whispering along my forearm. Didn’t say a word as we watched the red dribble into the fleshy sack. The woodpeckers thundered at the oak tree. I pressed a pale pink Band-Aid to my forearm.

“Didn’t know you did that for him,” Michael said finally.

I didn’t answer. Didn’t know how.

“He put you up to it?”

I shook my head. Offered him tea—I was pretty sure he preferred it to coffee. For a second, I wondered if I should offer him the blood I had just drawn. Or one of the chilled vials, one of the countless tiny bottles swaying in the fridge. Most of them, especially the ones in the back—filled before the funeral, or even before the crash—had darkened with time, turned earth-red or even black.

Michael took the tea. Slowly, he said, “I thought you were doing better. But this . . . isn’t healthy.”

“I can’t stop.” I swirled my tea.

“Can’t stop?” He tilted his head. The shadow of his hat dripped into the lines of his face. “Or can’t let go?”

He wanted me to talk to someone. A friend. Family. Therapist. Anyone, he said as he left.

I started filling the freezer with vials. I had already cut down on food to make room in the fridge. Let the fruit that Michael brought me rot. Thrown out meat. I couldn’t stop, but seeing all the vials infuriated me. They spat in my face when I opened the freezer. Reminders that there was no one to drink them all.

I took my longest walks on Sundays, after I’d poured fresh blood into vials. These walks were free from memories. What I’d cherished in the first weeks since the funeral, the warm, tingly thoughts of our meeting in New Orleans, of our hotel room, our bedroom with its fake suns, were now difficult. I stripped the memories to pieces as my stick tore down spiderwebs in the woods.

I was at my weakest after taking blood, but I relished the buzzing in my head, the way my limbs felt light and wasted in the sun. Sitting by the bank of the bayou, watching the woodpeckers skim its sun-eating surface, was a kind of peace. The bugs that took to my arms made me feel better. Someone, at least, was using the blood in my veins.

At ten weeks, I slept in the kitchen every night. Sometimes I never bothered to get out of the chair by the window, where I could see the oak tree and let the woodpeckers drum me to sleep. I dreamed of my husband. Of our midnight picnics, our made-up sunlight. The precision when he sought out my veins. The softness in his voice, its warmth and richness.

Sometimes, I dreamed of the funeral. In those dreams, I really did melt away like a wax candle, turned into a puddle by a scorching thunderstorm. His family’s lips curled in distaste, disgust. My thick, viscous self saturated the soil, absorbed by the earth: I pooled into my husband’s coffin. The steaming hot wax, all that was left of my body, was acid to his corpse. Despite my best efforts, he dissolved at my touch.

Michael no longer came alone. He always brought someone new for me to meet—people who had never met me or my husband before. Sometimes they were his relatives, people with sunny eyes and tender handshakes. Or friends who thought I should come spend a weekend with them in New Orleans. I always said no. But I started to drink more water, to speak in longer sentences. When I had trouble remembering if it was week twelve or week thirteen since the funeral, I realized Michael’s plan was working.

The fridge had been threatening to burst from all the vials I’d stuffed in. There truly was no more space. But it was my dreams that finally pushed me to empty it. After my husband’s body flaked into nothingness, it was just me in the coffin. A puddle of wax, I could hear the rain punching the ground, could hear his family’s footsteps echo as they trudged to their cars. Then, silence. As I cooled, I reformed. The coffin shrank around me—its walls resisted the push of my palms, stood fast against the beating of my feet. I wasn’t dead. I screamed I wasn’t dead.

My husband’s dead, I said to the coffin. Not me.

But the earth had swallowed me up.

When I woke, it was the first Sunday since the funeral that I didn’t take my blood. I piled the vials into cardboard boxes, loaded them into the back of my car. Trundled up the sun-beat, dead-beat road to my favorite curve in the bayou, where I usually sat with mosquitoes and watched the red-bellied woodpeckers. I was tempted to throw each box into the water, to watch the vials sink. Instead, I opened them up, uncorked each bottle, and spilled its dark, shining liquid into the bayou.

It must have taken me hours, but I didn’t feel the time. I heard my own pulse as thick red liquid clouded the water, bent into itself in sleepy, heavy curls. Soon, the bayou started sounding like my husband’s voice. Viscous and slow, he said, I love you, I love you, I love you. He said, I’m coming back. He said, Wait for me.

Hours and hours must have passed because the sun had softened to molten orange, clinging to the tops of trees like globules of juice. And the water—I wondered if I was hallucinating. The slow current inched quietly along, all of it blood-red. All of it. As red as the plastic tube that meandered so often down my forearm. As red as an artery in my own neck. I couldn’t look away.

The woodpeckers spiraled down from the trees, perched on the lower branches that twisted above the water, or by the bank. Their beaks shone, golden scythes in the fading sun.

Down cut the scythes, into the red water. Again and again, drinking up the blood, my blood.

Some of them were red-feathered already—the others matched before long. They descended upon the bayou in droves. For the first time, I couldn’t hear a single one pecking against the tree.

I drove home. My fingers left luminous, sweaty prints against the steering wheel. First, it was only a couple, fluttering in the darkening sky, flitting by my mirrors. By the time I pulled into our long, sandy driveway, the oak tree was groaning under their weight. They fell silent when I stepped out of the car. Not even their red-soaked feathers rustled as I ran inside.

I slept fitfully, curled up and tangled in my own limbs on the chair by the kitchen window, the chair where I sat every Sunday to draw my blood. When I lay in my husband’s coffin, I heard his voice inside my head. Felt it trickle through my bloodstream. Mingle with the wax of my flesh.

Why have you stopped? he would ask. Don’t you know I need it?

Awake, I was chilled with sweat. I wore it as a blanket, a film over my body. Colder than his touch had ever been. As the night went on, the woodpeckers swarmed the oak tree, lined the windowsill. Their beaks clacked against the glass. Their talons clamored against the wood. Their feathers whispered in my husband’s voice.

They were here for my blood. Didn’t they have a right to it? I began to think they were some part of him, some leftover part of my husband that had peeled away from his body when he’d been impaled.

I couldn’t force myself to cry. I could hardly force warmth into my fingers and toes as I limped to the door, threw myself onto the porch. The simultaneous beat of hundreds of wings made a cylinder of sound around me. They tussled for space on the railing, hooked their claws to the beams above my head, hopped boldly on the deck. My knees dug into the wooden boards. My arms were as contorted and gnarled and aged as the oak tree, the one in the edge of my vision. I felt I might burst from all the blood in me, all the blood straining against my skin, begging to go out. A single prick from one woodpecker’s beak might split me open.

But in all that time, the night had bled away. That was the sun rising, crawling along the spines of the trees ahead, flooding the gaps between them. The sunrise ate up the grass like fire, pooled into my palms like wax, like honey, and held me tight. It was red, redder than blood, redder than the woodpeckers’ bellies, redder than how I’d felt when I heard how my husband had died. I had a redness in me, too. A redness just as burning, just as powerful, just as alive. A redness that belonged to me. I wanted to keep it.

The birds didn’t make a move, or a sound, as I stumbled to my feet and leaned against my doorway. I let the sun, the real one, wipe away the gray in my face.

I boxed up the lamps in my bedroom and left them in the attic. My memories of my husband still ached, and I still loved them. But the weeks gained meaning again. I donated the equipment I’d used for drawing blood.

Some days, I went for walks in the woods—alone, or with friends. Often, I had lunch with Michael. And some weekends, I went to town, or to New Orleans, and let the city unravel me as it had before. Let its streets beat in tandem with my own pulse. The woodpeckers would never be far behind. They would caper on the filigree balconies, or hammer at the trees when I passed underneath them. Sometimes, they flew overhead, circling. Waiting for something I wouldn’t give.

Occasionally, I left peaches for them on the windowsill.

Occasionally, I watched the sun rise.

 

Vera Hadzic is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario. Recently, her work has appeared in Hexagon MagazineIdle InkOkay Donkey Magazine, and elsewhere.

She can be found on Twitter @HadzicVera or through her website, www.verahadzic.com.

 [ issue 4 :  fall 2021 ]