|She was three years old and watched fixated, for hours, as blood poured out of her father's mouth.
She knew that once they reached home the bleeding would stop, but even though they drove fast - away from town, toward the farm - nothing changed, the dusty brown landscape never varied and the dirt road simply stretched endlessly into the distance. She sat in the front (a rare privilege) next to her mother, who was driving. By peering around the seat she could see her father lying in the back of the car holding a handkerchief up to his mouth. She imagined the old farmhouse - immense, implacable and comforting with its greying thatched roof and white washed walls; but even as she conjured it into existence she could see it shrinking, contracting to nothing. This is how she came to understand the phrase 'to bleed to death'. He held a handkerchief up to his mouth and as it grew red and sodden he grunted like a hostage, bound and gagged. "Don't try to talk," her mother said as she groped in her handbag for another hanky, small and flimsy, embroidered white-on-white. All the while she kept driving, kept her eyes on the road ahead.
When her father had told her, early that morning, that they were going to town to visit the dentist who was going to pull all his teeth out she was deeply envious, imagining all the money he would get from the tooth fairy. Now in the car so far from home she feels remorse, as though her envy has animated these butchering demons of retribution.
She wants to put something in her mouth too.
"I gave them gold coins, and they ate the coins and made themselves ill," Columbus said.
He used to say to my mother when she raged, "Belt up Misery Guts!" Or to us kids when we screamed and yelled: "Put a sock in it!"
Columbus narrates in his diary the following incident: when he first encountered the natives (on coming ashore, having discovered a new land which would come to be known as America) he wished to demonstrate his good will and so offered them evidence of his pacific intentions, in the form of a gift. But they did not understand the principles of exchange. He says something like "for when I showed them swords they did grasp them by their blades and so did cut themselves." The person from whom I heard this story interpreted Columbus's actions not so much as military or political, but as a series of speech acts. He saw this narration as a proclamation, and stressed the way that Christopher Columbus is constantly declaring, witnessing, recording. Perhaps this is so, but on hearing this story I was immediately struck by something else, some other reverberation. I was struck by the act of disavowal.
I wanted to put something in my mouth too.
And this disavowal seemed to me to be embodied in the fleshy slide from sword to pen. Slide or substitution. In writing his diary, which is to become the basis of an enduring colonial history, Columbus is performing a complex manoeuvre. In the very moment of elimination, of writing 'the natives' out, he is giving an interpretation which holds them responsible. On some level, though no doubt not a conscious one, he registers guilt. And transfers it. If we think of the sword as a pen, then this is what he is saying: "they were given the opportunity and they seized it inappropriately. They wrote themselves out of history. Witness the spectacle of self-mutilation." He converts his guilt, and will proceed to try and convert (to Christianity) those to whom he gives gifts.
You put a cigarette in your mouth to stop the bleeding, as a stop-gap measure, to plug the hole and stop the blood from pouring out.
Even though you know his teeth have been drawn, his flashing
smile is false, you are still afraid. Perhaps you are afraid precisely - or
imprecisely - because you know this. And so you turn your fear to pleasure
and light up another cigarette. And write a story.