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"What I'm about to do now involves a good deal of pain,"
Aomame said in a voice without inflection.
"It has to hurt for it to do any good."

The man paused for a moment before saying,
"If there is a pain I've never tasted, I'd like to try it."

This sounded mildly sarcastic to her.
"Pain is not fun for anybody."

"But a painful technique is more effective, is that it? I
can bear any pain as long as it has meaning."

— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

“What are you training for?” he called out to me as I collected my breath. I had never seen the man before. When he stopped at the corner of our roads, it struck me that he was large but did not seem tall, in the uncanny way that certain people’s proportions are not elongated but rather zoomed to scale. It was less that he looked vertically endowed than that he simply looked closer, like a warped perspectival drawing. He had the countenance of a sheepdog, shaggy white-gray hair and beard, something youthful but patient in his gaze. His name was Paul, he said, like the apostle. 

He told me he used to be a runner too, that every spring he would jog up the steep hill––he gestured yonder––at sunset, because just as he’d eclipse the peak the sunken sun would bob into view at the street’s nadir, a scintillating mass nestled in the valley. Every night he ran down toward it. He liked that the sun was positioned lower than he was, the defiance of horizon and planetary orientation, that he could descend into something we think of as above us. The infernal glow was sublime, those low licks of flame devouring the backdrop conifer trunks. 

One evening during his descent he saw in the distance a coruscating cluster of cellophane wings, and he picked up speed, magnetized, barreling toward the phosphorescence. It reminded him of Swan Lake, the pale shapes whirling, he told me. As he approached the swarm, huffing and glistening sour in the amber light, his eyes focused on the figures—the dragonflies, it became startlingly apparent, were not dancing or mating, but feasting. They were attacking a throng of tiny black insects, gnats or mosquitoes, stabbing through the air like javelins, metallic thoraxes curling around their helpless victims. Sidestepping to avoid the cloud of butchery, Paul burned with shame. He was horrified that he’d been so enchanted by the carnage, that he’d considered it Tchaikovskian. He scolded himself, craning his neck as the buzzing horde disappeared behind him. He couldn’t believe he had found violence to be so marvelously beautiful. 

“But it is,” I said. “The concealed meaning of a thing doesn’t change the way it looks to us. We don’t decide whether or not we find its forms compelling. That’s the problem with beauty.” He looked at me with surprise. “What I mean to say is that beauty is not necessarily goodness.” And then, “I’m not training for anything,” I said. “It’s just something to pass the time.”

* * *

Swan Lake is a ballet about illusions. The story follows a young prince who happens upon a lake in the forest. There he finds a beautiful swan who, at nightfall, transforms into a woman. An evil sorcerer, she tells him, has cursed her and the other women to become birds, that the only antidote is a declaration of true love. Her beauty, she recognizes, is her only route to freedom. 

The following day, the sorcerer disguises his own daughter, Odile, as Odette the Swan Queen, and the prince proclaims his love for the imposter. That easy to trick him! I had thought, the first time I went to see Swan Lake. Anyone who resembled her could have won his heart. Is this love? 

“Is that love?” I asked my grandmother from the velvet orchestra seat she had reserved for my thirteenth birthday. Shh, she hissed, and directed my curious attention back to the performers.

Watching from the window, the true Odette, horrified and devastated, flees. Back at the lake, the prince declares that he would rather die with Odette than live with Odile, and the two jump to their deaths, leaving the sorcerer and his daughter to be murdered. All four of them die. All men, in the end, good and evil both, exquisite and hideous, will meet the same fate. 

Odette and Odile are both derived from the same Germanic root, odo, meaning fortunate. From the ancient audaz—granted. That which is given or coincidence, not necessarily earned. The French diminutive -ette is all that separates the two characters. What they want is the same. Morality is a matter of refraction. Customarily, the same prima ballerina will portray both roles, demonstrating her versatility and finesse. The difference is a matter of faith.

* * *

Lying prone beside her, admiring the storybook mural of intricate designs that sheathed her arms and legs and climbed her neck like ivy, I asked the tattoo artist whether she herself found tattoos to be painful, and more importantly—because I noticed many of the designs were her own recognizable style—whether it hurt more or less to tattoo your own skin; I figured, on the one hand, you were expecting it (isn’t pleasure always dulled when the hand is yours?), but on the other, you had to triumph over instincts of self-preservation. Was it easier or more difficult to inflict pain on another? “I have a high pain tolerance,” she said.

Late one night, she was up doing dishes, straining to fight off sleep as she rested her weight against the cabinets. She longed to lie down. Woolly dreams tugged at her peripherals, but her boyfriend, she knew, hated nothing as much as waking up to dirty dishes, and she couldn’t afford a place of her own, which made her his perpetual houseguest, and so here she was, quarter past 2:00, gauzy moonlight streaming in through the window above the sink as she scrubbed crescent mouth marks from the wine glasses. She extracted one from the soapy basin. As she raised it from the water, a sudden crow struck the near window, emptying her lungs, and the goblet burst in her hand. Momentarily stunned, the bird’s wings locked inward and it fell from view. She hadn’t thought she’d squeezed particularly hard, but just like that, the glass had shattered. Shards into her palm. A wave of heat, throbbing. Syrupy grenadine blood glazed the graveyard of dishes. She remained calm. Her boyfriend, hearing the crash from the bedroom, dropped to his feet and rushed toward the sound, freezing in the threshold. The blue-dark hallway backlit his broad silhouette. She stepped away from the sink, clutching her hand above her head––having heard somewhere you should elevate a wound higher than your heart to slow the bleeding, circulation and gravity––shocked, but still composed, blood pouring down her wrist, her forearm, fouling the sleeve of her nightshirt. He looked at her, at the blood, his eyes wild and red with sleep, his mouth curling. “My wine glass,” he said. Eyeing the jammy dishes in the sink, he said, “We eat on those.” Then he looked back at the tattoo artist, her right hand resting palm-up against her forehead like moribund Cleopatra, blood spilling over her face. “That’s your right hand,” he said. At last expressing concern. “How will you work?” which also meant, she knew, How will you touch me?

It wouldn’t be long before the tattoo artist would leave him. As soon as she’d recovered enough to wrap her own bandages and care for the sutures herself, she would pack her belongings in a duffle and sleep on a friend’s couch until she could sublet a place of her own. Sometimes men care about women’s bodies only inasmuch as those bodies are extensions of their own—many think of this as proprietary—or as far as those bodies can serve them. It is not uncommon for a man to view a woman’s hand as he would a wine glass.

The tattoo artist was needling my thigh when she noticed the scar above my knee. When I was young I slipped and tumbled down a flight of stairs. Three stitches and an elaborate schoolyard improvisation of war stories. I recalled my mother telling me on the drive home from the hospital that when she had been my age, a little boy in her class had thrown the teacher’s goldfish bowl at her. The explosion of glass mutilated the fish and gnarled her leg. She pulled aside her skirt to show me the scar. In the tattoo parlor, I could no longer recall what my mother’s scar had looked like, except for that it had never quite healed over, white dots where the thread had entered her skin still visible even four decades later. I could no longer recall where it was––whether her thigh or her calf or her ankle, I couldn’t say. This lapse startled me. 

I guess it no longer matters. I guess it didn’t matter in the end. She had been ashamed of her legs as she got older, her veins bulging and darkening across her once taut Irish skin. She had been afraid of what might happen to her body. What she had been afraid of was aging. The fate which became her was far worse—she did not age.

* * *

I once let the person I loved prick my ribcage with a needle a thousand times so I wouldn’t forget. A collection of dots arcing messily into two black brackets. From Virginia Woolf. The ink came in a small vial. We sterilized the needle with a flame stolen from the gas stove. I undressed and laid across the bed, my arm stretched above me to expose the flesh beside my left breast. It was a bit like figure modeling, except there was no other canvas. They cleaned my skin with a gauze pad soaked in peroxide, swiping the damp cloth back and forth as gingerly as they would were they dabbing milk from a baby’s lips. They drew the brackets first on a notepad, once, twice, perfecting the size and shape, then on a stamp pad, which they pressed to the cleaned space and peeled away, revealing a stencil to trace with the blade. They were not speaking. 

“Are you afraid?” I asked, unable to see their face from my recumbent position. A moment of quiet passed between us. I could hear the needle clink against the edge of the glass vial. They kneeled beside the bed, as though praying to me, or preparing like Abraham to make a sacrifice. Their fingers brushed the side of my face as they moved to tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. 

“Are you ready?” they asked. 

“I trust you,” I said.

“Tell me if it hurts.” 

I wondered what they meant. They had to know that of course it would hurt, that pain was central to the process, but perhaps in order to carry out the task they needed me to convince them that it wouldn’t, they needed to believe it wouldn’t, they needed me to lie. Perhaps this was love. In order to assuage their fears, I needed to believe that what they were asking instead was, Tell me if the pain is unbearable. Because this much, I knew. It would not be unbearable.

They lowered the saturated needle to my ribs and let the tip rest on the surface of my skin. We both inhaled. I could feel their diaphragm rise against my back. They pressed gently, briefly, as though dotting an i, and I knew the impotent mark wouldn’t stick. “You have to go harder,” I said. They didn’t say anything. They lifted the needle, and I waited. When they brought it back down again, there was no hesitation. Like hammering a nail. Two sharp pops where they broke crucial layers of dermis. I knew from piercing my own ears that one had to feel for both ruptures––one when you broke the surface, the second to sneak the ink beneath the layers that would heal themselves. I kept my breathing even and did not cry out. I would not let them know what the pain was like. “Did you do it yet?” I joked, like a stoic child awaiting vaccination. “Yes,” they answered, too nervous for sarcasm. The pain, as I had anticipated, was not bad, but it was persistent, unignorable. 

As the hour dragged on, they settled into the procedure, their movements becoming mechanical, perfunctory, as though they’d forgotten my body was alive, and they increased the pressure and frequency of the pricks in spite of the ensuing irritation. They stopped asking whether I wanted a break. I wondered if they had begun to enjoy the power. I wondered if there was an eros in the penetration. They used paper towels to wipe away the blood every few minutes, and did so roughly, like a busboy scrubbing grime from a cast iron. I did not flinch. I could not see their handiwork, and would have to wait until they had finished to regard the new permanent addition to my body. Finally, when they were satisfied, we went to the mirror to examine it together. 

They stood behind me, staring at the reflection of my face, while I stared at the brackets. They were uneven, staggered to make space for the line break in the novel, the skin around them inflamed and dirty. “Thank you,” I said. “They’re perfect.”

* * *

Brackets worship the unsayable, the implicit, that which defies language. 

Derrida suggests that to speak or inscribe something is to commit a violence against the multitude of possible meanings. Language is negation. Deposition, the phase change from a gas to a solid, draws molecules closer together and expels energy; something must be lost in order to become visible. In language, two things cannot be true simultaneously. But only in language.

It is unclear to me even now whether this didn’t merely provide an alibi for our cowardice. 

There was providence, we maintained, in preserving silence around ambiguity. 

For a long stretch of history, they once told me, blue did not exist in any language. (In its absence, Homer famously described the sea as wine-dark.) We were crossing the park, the last of golden hour’s half-light filtering between the gingko leaves. They told me mentions of the color first appeared in archival materials from Ancient Egypt. Righteous or unimaginative, early civilizations refused to name colors they could not themselves create, and blue pigment proved the most elusive. “That’s what this is,” they said, pausing against the iron gate. “Our relationship, a color that has not yet been named.” 

What if, I wondered then––and still, now––what writhed beneath that preciousness was the utter lack of control.

Without a word for blue, the humans of antiquity may not have been able to perceive the color at all. It is held by some that the naming of the color is what enabled our eyes to perceive it. When presented with a set of twelve squares, all of which were green except for one, which was blue, the Himba tribe of Namibia could not detect the outlier. 

And yet, Derrida writes, There was in fact a first violence to be named… the loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself, except in its own disappearance.

In truth the loss of what has never taken place. Incapable of appearing to itself, except in its own disappearance. 

The crepuscule. The penumbra. It was an approximation of something like love, but it was not love. This was what they told me. Asymptotic, mimetic. It sure felt like love to me. A presence which has never been given but only dreamed of. I conceded that perhaps I did not know the difference; it was possible they understood something I did not. And anyway, it was not something I could argue my way out of––if it couldn't be expressed with words, it couldn’t be acknowledged. Or criticized. In this way, it protected itself. In this way, it was dangerous. A skittish specter I had to trust was behind me. Orpheus was wrong to look back. Eyes closed, we opened toward one another, mirrored gates of an enclosure, keeping contained the same emptiness. We insisted we both knew what existed between the brackets, between us, but in my heart I was never sure. If we both knew, why couldn’t we say what we knew. It was this precarious question, this logical inconsistency, that threatened the entire enterprise of our intimacy.

Was it wisdom, Woolf writes, Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh?

In the preface to her generously porous translation of Sappho, Anne Carson writes, “brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.” I don’t know if I want to imagine freely if it means nothing is really there.

… for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.

* * *

“I’m just trying to find a good vein.” The neophyte nurse poked and prodded my translucent arm. I had low blood pressure, from the anemia, from the deliberate starvation, which made it difficult for her to locate a viable source. Hurting yourself made it more difficult to be helped. I nodded, then winced as the needle slipped and the soft concavity of my elbow tore like gossamer. She gasped. “I’m sorry,” the young nurse said. “I’m so sorry, I—“ and darted from the room, knocking a box of tissues off the table in her haste. I stared at the pool of dark liquid that collected in the shallow of my arm, examining how the green vein leaked red. 

* * *

It was still early, a scrim of mist and mosquitoes lifting off the lake, when I found Paul in front of his house, bent over like a scythe in the foliage. He was gardening. I announced my presence quickly, hoping not to startle him. He didn’t stir, his back still arched as he tugged spindly weeds from the dirt. 

Without turning his head, he acknowledged my approach. “Mind lending a hand?” 

I walked over to the soil. “How do I know which ones are weeds?” I asked, staring at the verdant plot. 

He stood up and brushed dirt off on his shorts. He was wearing a stained Iggy Pop T-shirt whose collar bore a lattice of moth holes, and no shoes. “Rip out the ones that don’t belong,” he said, as though that were clarifying. None of the plants seemed necessarily not to belong, they were all green shoots with leaves, many of them flowered, but I watched him as he kneeled to pull a cluster of errant dandelions and clovers from the mulch and toss them into the road. It was the American erotics of tidiness. Puritanical, playing god on fears of wildness alone. I trudged to the edge of the flowerbed, figuring the fringe would be the best place to make a learning mistake. The first plant I reached for had green serrated leaves like mint, but nothing resembling a blossom or bud and so I presumed it an obvious target for removal. It was no herb I recognized, and not colorful like the irises or daisies, not flamboyant like the coleus, not delicate like the wormwood or lamb’s ear. As soon as my fingers reached around the stem, the tiny, previously unseen hairs made themselves known, injecting the nettle’s defensive acid into my skin. The sting was immediate. I flinched and withdrew my reddening hand. “Fuck,” I hissed, examining the hives blistering across my palm. Nothing about the plant’s appearance had threatened the ensuing burn. Paul eyed me over his shoulder, then down at the foliate malefactor by my feet. Smugness crept into the corners of his eyes. “Urtica dioica,” he said. “Stinging nettle.”

In his kitchen, Paul ran a dish cloth under cold water and handed it to me across the butcher block where I was sitting. “I thought only the beautiful ones were poisonous,” I said, thinking back to grade school biology, Gatorade-blue frogs, electric speckled octopi, butterflies with faces on their wings, cacti with brilliant red spikes like rose thorns. He turned off the faucet and leaned against the sink, folding his arms across his chest. 

“Do you agree with Keats?” he asked me. 

“What?” I said.

“The other day. You said beauty isn’t a moral good.” 

“Well,” I said, pressing the cold compress against my burn, “I never said truth was, either.”

* * *

As the tattoo artist rolled her sleeves past her elbows, I noticed a fresh-black tattoo on her forearm. It was a sleek and intricately detailed dragonfly. “Born killers,” she said, following my sightline. “The assassin king of insects.” My eyebrows raised, skeptically. “They catch more than 95 percent of the prey they target, making them the most accurate and deadly hunters on earth.” I admired the illustration, the six slender legs, the outspread wings like veined stained glass. There were no pincers on the majestic creature, no fangs, no talons. It was all beauty, all and only. 

“I guess it is in their name,” I offered, squinting and tilting my head, trying to imagine the animal capable of violence. 

“Yes,” she said. “From the Romanian draco. For devil.” 

I considered it for a minute. “But they can’t be evil just because they’re successful.” 

She didn’t say anything. 

I looked down at my stinging thigh, where she was just wiping away the final smudges of ink. Glaring through the angry pink skin was a resplendent Athenian chariot, rendered in a series of delicate black lines, the cart drawn by two magisterial stags. The symbol and carriage for Artemis, daughter of Zeus, sister of Apollo. Goddess of the hunt. Goddess of the wild. 

“Is what why you got the tattoo?” I asked. “Strength?”

She grinned. “I wasn’t going to brand a sniper rifle on my wrist, but the idea is the same. I like the way it makes me feel. The potential for violence is hidden, but immanent.” 

I wondered, if we could never fail, would that make us evil? And then, whether evil was a virtue of omnipotence, limitlessness, or if morality existed outside of that, whether success at the expense of any number of prey was not a matter of morality––which favored the weak––but a matter of luck. 

Whether beauty itself was the luck, and the luck violence. 

Odile and Odette, both derivatives of the same fortune. 

I’m not training for anything. It’s just something to pass the time.


image: Aaron Burch