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Salvifici Doloris

For a long time, we didn’t believe, or if we did, it was only in moments of veiled anguish: the flickering shapes of fictional children lashed to fictional posts, my yoga teacher’s Sanskrit invocation for the happiness of all beings everywhere. Sometimes we caught something glittering out of the corners of our eyes, but it vanished the second we looked at it, blinked out like a prism-thrown rainbow the moment we held out our hands.

We read about the man who wandered through Moscow in his underwear with an icon pinned to his chest. We saw Juliet Binoche give an interview in which she talked about meeting angels. We thought they were crazy. We thought we might like that, if that happened to us. The fact was nothing happened to us. What had been going to happen—the flood that destroyed our house, brought our city to its knees—had already happened, and our personal Act of God had barely transcended the actuarial. Now that we were back on our feet, thanks to the insurance money and our own hard work and nothing else, we looked out at the rest of our lives, and it was like looking down a long, low-ceilinged room, the ballroom of a one-star hotel or a school auditorium, maybe. Everything was calmly, artificially lit, and we had plenty of room to run, jump, whoop across the smooth, waxed floors, and so what was there to complain about? We were lucky. Look at us, with our lives and limbs, our jobs, cars, children, bags of groceries, party invitations. We were “happy,” except sometimes when we caught these chinks—flashes of a hard yellow light—and we remembered the sky.

Elsewhere, it was a time of maniacs. Planes flown into buildings, mountaintops. Women with bombs strapped under their clothes. Boys killing their classmates, killing little children and teachers. Mass murder in African malls, on Norwegian Islands, in theaters while Batman glared down from the screen. Men dressed in robes and veils stabbed pedestrians in a Chinese square, beheaded journalists . Snipers on roofs picked off protestors as they stood under banners in the streets. Uncles went around shooting their nieces in the head because they had been seen holding hands with boys. Policemen with real guns went around shooting boys with toy guns. We couldn’t understand it. Of course not. Who would do such a thing, you’d have to be deranged. But our un-understanding was less comfortable than that: Such passion. Such conviction. Contemplating it, we thought we knew what it would be like to be hit on your head and not remember your name.

* * *

Mardi Gras that year was rainy and cold. In front of the house on Napoleon, the neutral ground had been dug up and then covered over again by the huge machines that for years had been crawling towards the river with their thumping and dust and seismographs, laying drain-pipes big enough to drive two busses through, side by side. Still, we went out in the middle of the morning in time to see Rex roll by, a portly man in rhinestone-encrusted satin and white tights, waving from high on his moving throne. We watched the cold rain trickle down his bald forehead, out from under the crown perched on his skull. He waved his scepter over us, and the rainwater pattered heavy on our umbrellas like holy water. We huddled together, the kids yelling for beads, which, when they came, pelted our hands and teeth as if we were being stoned.

“Let he who is without sin…” you said, pulling the flask out from the inner pocket of your fishing slicker.

I just sipped from the thermos of hot milk punch, my eyes focusing on the rain, so fine as to be almost a fog in the nearest plane of my vision. On the street, the dukes were clipping past on their borrowed horses, the smell of manure rising out of damp, un-brushed coats. One of the dukes—purple satin handkerchief over his face, plastic poncho over his sequined robes—handed riding crops to the girls. The horses tossed their heads. When the queen came gliding by in her scallop shell, you lifted your flask, saluted her, drank. Your eyes, as usual, were glazed when you turned to me, said, “Sorry,” and then ran across the second lane of the avenue. An oncoming car braked, jinked towards the curb. I pulled our son into myself, holding his face to my belly so that he wouldn’t have to watch you be killed (a thump, your bloodied body rolling heavily down the dented hood) but you weren’t killed, you swerved in your sprint through the florescent net barriers around the oak trees and up the stairs to the house.

Back when I was still working intake, we used to make fun of the indifferent everyday suicides we saw on the streets, the bicyclists in black clothes at night, the cab drivers ripping through traffic at ninety-five miles an hour. You had a theory about them, that they were actually more afraid of death than we were, that they taunted it, got up in its face the way a little dog will snarl at a Mastiff safely leashed to its owner, as if to say Don’t fuck with me. Please? Please, don’t fuck with me. I know now, though, that they just understand it better than we do, not because they have more to be afraid of but because they see it better, engage it more completely, have their noses rubbed in it daily, out there in those weed-covered yards, under the boiling sky.

Anyway, after you went inside, I kept standing there, watching. Float 3: the Boeuf Gras, decked in garlands, headed for the slaughter. Float 4: the Butterfly King. The naval brigade in their whites twirling bayonets. Men in loose T-shirts with extinguished flambeaux. Damp kids with tubas. Rain dripped from the brims of the tractor-drivers’ baseball caps; rain tapped against the papier-mâché flowers. The kids’ necks were bowed under fistfuls of pearls in every color. The mountain of mud got wetter, sloppier. I sipped on the thermos of brandy and milk, and the rain pooled in the bottoms of my duck boots. It was cold, but that seemed not to matter. The street sweepers ground by, and I looked around for the children, but they were gone.

from my short story, “Salvifici Doloris,” published in

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