Damage

I have resisted saying anything about the pieces I post here, letting them stand or fall on their own merits. But I feel I ought to say something this time.  I wrote this piece almost 20 years ago.  Lately I’ve been doing some research that brought me back to this, and I thought I should clean it up a bit and post it. I don’t think it’s pleasant, but it still seems important, at least to me.

*    *     *

He pulled the knife slowly down his forearm.  There was a breathless pause before the redness began welling up, starting towards the elbow and following the knife’s path to the wrist.  He turned a smile, full of conflict and pain, towards her.  “This is what it feels like.”

He paused for a moment’s thought, then continued.  “No, wait, this feels better.  This is manageable.  I can react to this.  I can watch the blood drip off my arm, entranced by gravity’s inexorable pull.  I could, if I desired, clean, disinfect, and bandage the cut.”  He brandished his arm at her.  “This I can fix.  I know how to deal with it!”  His voice was getting dangerous, hysterical.

She wanted to turn away, avert her eyes from a sight so distressing that she had no words for it.  But her eyes were transfixed.  The whole cut was oozing blood now, and it traced paths down his arm. He continued to glare at her, and she felt the heat of his stare burn into her forehead.  But the blood wouldn’t release her eyes.

“So what do you think?”  His voice was calmer now.  But the danger was still there, just deeper, more subtle. There was no response she could give.

“What are you, mute?”  Still calm.  “There is a perverse pleasure in watching this kind of mutilation, isn’t there?”  The question stung her, but still she could not speak, could not look away.  “It is mutilation.  I have no illusions about that.  I don’t pretend that it’s art.  Or a political or social statement.  It’s damage.  Inflicted on my body.  By me.  Damage.  Nothing more.  But nothing less.”

Finally, she broke the spell.  Her eyes met his, though they still burned with red hues.  He seemed to be melting away, dripping down like his own blood. Yet, he continued, almost as though he were delivering a lecture to a distant, passive audience.  His eyes didn’t even seem to see her.

“There are a lot of ways we damage ourselves.  So many varieties of mutilation, that it would be impossible to try to catalogue them all.  Each of us does violence to ourselves every day.  Most ways are unrecognizable.”  Even his voice grew distant.  Almost as if he were merely reporting some mundane facts discovered by someone else.  Facts he didn’t even fully comprehend.  She shuddered under the weight of his words.

He didn’t stop.  “Damage to the soul is easier for us to ignore.  We don’t see it as obviously.  As readily. Until it comes exploding up at us in some violent or crazed explosion.  Then we label the result of such damage evil.  Even then, we tend to ignore the actual evil.  The real damage.  The horrible price that has been paid.

“When we mutilate our bodies, it’s easy to recognize. We can heal the wounds. The injury itself is easy to notice, to treat.  When we mutilate other bodies, that, too, is easy to recognize and treat.  We understand those wounds.  They’re visible.  They’re tangible.  We label the mutilation ‘evil’, and the mutilated ‘victim’.

“Even then we still miss the real cause, the real damage. The mutilation of our souls.  We do it to ourselves, everyday.  We lie to ourselves.  Just to get through the day.  We tell ourselves that we matter.  That we are important.  That we can affect our lives.  That we don’t hurt ourselves in little ways all the time.”

She finally found words.  His speech demanded an answer, though he had asked for none.  “It doesn’t have to be that way.  Not everyone damages themselves like that.  We can be honest with ourselves.”  She believed it.  She needed to believe it.

His vision suddenly refocused on her.  “This is honesty!  This is what being honest leads to.  An even greater damage!”  He stood.  All the anger from his last words drained out of the air as soon as he turned away from her.  “No.  Better not to be honest with yourself.  Better to never think about the state of who you really are, what you really want.  Better to be ignorant.”  He left to go clean and bandage his arm.

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