"No matter how horrifying anything is,
READING THE ENTRAILS
A Parable for Edgar
A tribute written for his birthday, January 19, 1996
So, this is a simple story illustrating an atheist's religious lesson. This is why I am not going to be a stickler for any regular structure, because it's by default a paradox, perhaps a conundrum, and what it really illustrates is that I'm awake at 5 a.m., trying to tell a story to Edgar Allan Poe, who is dead and therefore probably not as attentive as he ought to be. I could, instead, insist this tale was a sonnet and write well over 14 lines and make a cacophony of the iambic pentameter (call it an Industrial Sonnet, if you will). But no. I will not do that. I will insist this is a parable, and if you're really good, I may even attempt coherence.
The hypothetical force that governed the priestess's life was a fairly typical hypothetical force. After the hunters and gatherers in this far off land had set up shop by settling down and going through the usual anthropological bullshit of farming, establishing a community, and setting up various systems of commerce, religion, and government, a certain malaise settled on their descendants. For the first time in that region, people were born who never had to know intimately the lower rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; i.e., they didn't have to hunt, gather, or farm to garner their basic sustenance. Those needs were taken care of. They were free to be tormented by abstractions instead of by nature.
After the basic question of "Where is food?" is answered, there are lots who will then begin to ask "Who am I?" Although I have no empirical research data to back up this assertion, I assert that few really care who they are when they're starving. Later, of course, when they get really wacko about asking who they are and why they're here and what's it all about, there are some people who start deliberately starving themselves to induce alterations in mood, which they then construe to be a spiritual epiphany, but that's another thing. Those people tripped over the rungs on Maslow's ladder, and they're relevant in a kind of holistic anthropological sort of a way, but this story isn't about mental bulimia, if you will, but about this priestess, who — yeah, granted — has her own issues cropping up out of abstractions, but she didn't set out to go on any 30-day fasts or anything, so we'll just leave it at that.
Okay, so this priestess then. We'll call her Nahara, just because that was the name I used when I was nine and used to play in my suburban backyard where I used to imagine I was Nahara, orphaned child who was raised by tigers and coping alone in a jungle. Never mind that the "jungle" in my backyard consisted of a peach tree and a bunch of really unruly mint plants. It was a jungle, damn it, and I was the alienated noble savage archetype in it. Anyway, so I've always been fond of that name, and I guess I ought to name the priestess something, so there it is. We're going to call her Nahara.
Okay, so Nahara then. Nahara was born into this community during a fairly peaceful and bountiful period, but it was no renaissance, let me tell you. She was the third child in a family with five children — all daughters. As this community was a standard patrilineal sort of society and adhered to a dowry system, five daughters were a bit of strain, financially-speaking, and it had been decided early on that Nahara would be the spiritual beacon of the family. She would be sent off to the contemplative life at the local temple, where she would be set for life. They had decided on Nahara because she was kind of quiet, and it just seemed to make sense.
So, when Nahara was in the throes of puberty — and, thus, of proper age — they held a large banquet and kissed her many times. And the next day, they took her to the Temple doorsteps and offered her up to the Priests.
Now, you may question why I am offering this kind of story to Edgar Allan Poe, an acclaimed master of horror and terror, and I tell you this is a horror story. This is a horror parable. Nahara's story, which really begins with her life in this temple, was painted in blood on the walls of the altar room. Her story became sacred lore thereafter and pilgrims would come to this altar room to meditate on the bloody glyphs, symbols, and words Nahara had painted there in blood one day. More often than not, they usually exaggerated or misinterpreted their meaning. Some temples use really pretty pictures fashioned in stained glass to illustrate their mythos. This temple had bloody graffiti on a wall. You work with what you get.
"This is strange. I am in control again, and I will fuck it up if I don't pay attention, which is my favorite trick. Why is everything so bloody surreal? Better, I think, to think about these things than grocery lists. I'd rather live with my emotions than with my laundry." - 1986 journal
"I assume, sometimes, that there is nothing left to learn, but I am just lacking too much. These days I think about suicide with about the same enthusiasm I have for grocery lists, which is to say, a lot, but always keeping aware that it's trivial." - ibid.
"Such darkness became warm." - ibid.
Stories told in blood seem to hold more significance. It's like the time a few years back when I was walking down California Street and saw, painted in blood: "YOU HAVE TAKEN MY HEART AND SOUL - ONE." These were big letters, about a foot high (that's a lot of blood!), and the phrase was painted outside an apartment building, facing the door, so whomever they were intended for, I guess, would have to see them anytime they left their apartment. Now, there's someone who would probably have been better off living with their laundry instead of their emotions. Too bad I didn't have the patience to hang out in front of that apartment, see if I could see the dramatists behind those words, and find out what that story was, because chances are, it was a horror story, too, and I could be telling you that one instead.
Nahara's teachers taught her prayers, invocations, and torment. She had come to the temple with a blush of ignorance and hope, which often amount to the same thing, and began to wear bells on her ankles to affirm her existence. She listened to her teachers, extracting from their pious words the foundation for her own piety, which her youth and ignorance (and hope) twisted around her like the stranglehold of a vine, mutating into a base of self-loathing and doubt. Sacrifice became a key word for her, something she felt she had never had done. She had endured no hardship. She hadn't suffered enough in her life. She was unworthy in the eyes of her gods, she assumed, because she had made herself unworthy in her own eyes.
"If only I could suffer," she lamented.
For years, for years, she lamented this thing and tormented herself mercilessly. The priests encouraged this and, even in the depth of this suffering, did not stop her, but instead agreed she had never suffered in her life. Weaving the hairshirt of fortune, she lamented her lack of misfortunes.
And, in this, forgot to live.
One day, in the Temple, she was alone, sweeping the front steps when a blind man with one leg came up to the steps. So pleased was she with the sublime misfortunate man, she bade him to sit down on the steps and fetched him breadcakes and wine. To ply him with these would lessen her own fortune, her unconscious surmised
The blind man said, "Isn't the sun beautiful?"
And Nahara looked into the sky and said, "Yes," although she did not know what beauty was.
After the blind man had eaten her food and drunk her wine, he bade her good-bye and wandered off. She watched him hobble away with his walking stick. Seized with a sudden curiosity, she chased him.
"Pardon me, good sir, but may I ask you something?" she asked.
"Yes? What is it?"
"I mean no disrespect, but how did you come to be the way you are?"
"I was born," he replied.
"You were born that way?"
"Blind and one-legged?"
"Oh, that," he said. "I thought you asked how I came to be the way I am."
"But that is the way you are."
"I don't notice it anymore. Just like you don't notice your misfortunes."
"My misfortunes? Why, I have none!"
"But you do, my dear. You are not present on this earth. You wear bells to affirm your existence. Without them, no one would know you were here."
Nahara fell silent, wondering whether to be awed by his commentary or insulted by it. But as she'd insulted herself all her life, she barely had the capability to be insulted by another. So, instead, she fell into silence. The man laughed at her.
"Do not believe anyone else. Your soul needs to be polished." And with that, he walked off, and Nahara let him go.
This incident plagued Nahara henceforth. Everything she had learned came into question, and she became so afraid, she put more bells on her ankles. "I am here, I am here, I am here," she chanted to herself during prayer time, but repetition did not make a believer of her.
She became despondent and stopped eating.
Malnutrition soon overtook her, and she caught a fever. Delirium racked her. When she recovered, she shook from anger at the suffering of her life, at the suffering of never living. She shook her fists at the priests and refused to pray.
She said to them: "I suffer from the bondage of not knowing how to say what I mean, and the madness of meaning what I don't know."
She decided it was time to make a real sacrifice. She brought a calf to the Temple's altar room and slit open its throat. She dabbled her fingers in the warm blood and began to write on the walls. With its blood, this is what she wrote:
Afterwards, she cut off her feet, so the bells would fall off, and subsequently bled to death.
That is Nahara's story. Unriddled with unmeaning, it just was. Twisted as the stranglehold of a vine. You work with what you get.
My hands slit open the throats of ghosts.
Written in Nightbreak, a bar on Haight Street: "My eye is trembling - this anxiety is getting to me. I can't scream. I can't move. I sit alone among FISHCAKES! AND?!? My feet are falling asleep." - 1986 journal.
"I lived someone else's life once - a movie - someone else's movie - and this is bad, this time, and I can't know what I am doing because that would be taking control and someone should slap me, but not Lorrainne." - ibid.
"In some ways, everything is easy. It's just a matter of where you put your feet. But I am quiet and hesitant." - ibid.
The guts do not move much anymore. But I think they are beautiful. I am not Nahara, and I still have feet.
There's a ritual that's been going on in the cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried for years now. Generations even. On his birthday, every year, a cloaked figure arrives in the morning and lays upon his grave a rose and a bottle of cognac. As this has been going on for much longer than one human lifespan, the theory is that this ritual was passed down through a generation or two. No one (as of yet) has approached to the cloaked figure to ask. I consider it miraculous that no one has interfered in these individuals' special ritual, and I hope they never do.
I have never seen Edgar Allan Poe's grave, but since I was 14 (the same age Nahara was when she entered the temple), I have celebrated Edgar Allan Poe's birthday. As I'm 34 now, this means it's been twenty years. I try to write him a tribute every year, and this is this year's offering. My journal from 1986 got involved as I came across it in a drawer when I was looking for the photographs from a previous year's Poe party. Thus, ipso facto, it became a part of the augur. You work with what you get.
And, now, at last, I can tell you the moral of this parable, which I also found in the entrails of my 1986 journal: "I speak in three tongues. All of them say the same thing: 'I'm hungry. I'm cold. I want a drink.'"
A drink. To Edgar, with love and horror.
This story originally appeared in SINS OF COFFEE, Issue #13, 1996.