“Virgin Sacrifice” by Alice Yang

When she is thirteen, her best friend learns about Joan of Arc in her theology class, which comes with attending Catholic school and going to Sunday Mass each week. Which is to say that when she is thirteen, she learns about Joan of Arc, and she decides that the voices in her head are God’s and that death is beautiful. So she lies on her bed that night and makes herself into a martyr, into a victim, into the sacrificial lamb that she longs to be. And when her mother comes into her room to turn off the lights, she is dreaming about the shrine they’re going to enclose her incorrupt body in—somewhere where the tourists can glance at the preservation and marvel but not see the rotting inside. So at thirteen, she is God, she is Joan, she is the wriggling ewe on the altar being held down with the knife point above it. Which is all to say that she is a thirteen-year-old girl, and she craves hurt.

The two girls are sitting on the beach, though beach is a generous term. It is a strip of sand that stretches before the Elizabeth River, barely fifteen feet wide. Water laps at the shore, soft, slow, beckoning; it is a white noise that drowns out the occasional passing car whose tires rumble against the gravel road. It sounds like the end of September, a contained siren song of river and suburbia. It sounds like how it’s always sounded since they’ve been coming here for five years. The college kids at the nearby university had a bonfire recently. The circle of stones, a lingering smell of burning which the river keeps wafting over to them, broken beer bottles that no one bothered to pick up—all evidence points to them. She picks up a fragment of glass and holds it in her hand. She looks at the sinking sun through it, the tall cranes that take up the horizon—Crane Island, all the kids call it. She’s pretty sure it’s not an island, but no one has driven out there to find out. She looks through it, and her vision becomes amber, becomes warped, becomes delightfully unreal.

Be careful with that, her best friend says.

I know, she replies. And she is careful. She holds the piece and traces the jagged edges lightly with her index finger. She thinks, If I put just a little more pressure I would bleed. The pad of my index finger would split open like a red bloom, like a poppy. She puts the tip of her finger on the sharpest edge but doesn’t press.

What are you doing? her friend asks, the alarm in her voice rising imperceptibly.

Nothing, she says at last, tossing the piece of broken glass into the river. It sinks with barely a ripple.

She is sitting at the kitchen table that night, dark hair pouring over it as she leans over her Latin textbook. Her mother is cooking dinner, chopping up cilantro and green onions. The smoke from the stovetop drifts, making her mind muddled, cloudy. All she thinks are smells and smoke. In the fog, she sees the vivid glint of the knife reflected against the bright kitchen lights as her mother chops, chops, chops. She cut her finger on that knife once, when she was four and digging around the kitchen. Her parents were out gardening, their heads tucked together as they dug up weeds. Wide-brimmed hats meeting each other’s edges. Next to them, a pile of weeds that always got discarded, the ones with the small purple blooms she liked to pick for the vase on the porch. She had stumbled upon a knife in the drawer on the left of the sink and didn’t know what it was until she ended up with a diagonal cut across her thumb. A phantom pain throbs at the skin that had split. She wonders why humans are so easy to cut into, why flesh is so willing to give way.

It is not so much that she longs for pain, for red bubbling up to the surface of the broken skin. It is more so the idealization, the aftermath. She thinks that if people can see her hurt—visible signs of her hurt, not just the things that she keeps in her mind—maybe she will be sanctified. They’ll paint her with a golden halo behind her head like the Italian painters used to. And then maybe, when she is bathed in that gold leaf, painted on canvas in dark oils, maybe then she’ll be enough.

Her mother walks over and brushes her hair from out of her face and says, 小梦想家, 你在想什么呢?

Little dreamer, what are you thinking of?

Nothing, she says and returns to her book.

When she is seventeen, her mother begins telling her she is beautiful. She blushes each time, her hands running through her hair, pushing it back like a nervous tic. And suddenly, she begins to feel seen, like people’s eyes don’t glaze over her as they scan the room, like they linger on the back of her neck until the hairs stand up. Seen is not always good, but seen is better than unseen. And somewhere inside her, the thirteen-year old girl, the one that wasn’t beautiful, asks, Why do they only care if you are beautiful? But she buries that voice beneath her lungs, crushes it inside her ribs. What did she know?

When she is seventeen, she and twenty of her classmates spend a month in Germany on an exchange. It is her first-time drinking, and she dutifully writes down every drink she has each night. Her journal becomes nothing more than one limoncello, one Guinness, one amaretto shot. Each entry growing longer and longer—a shrine to her first encounter with alcohol, with the buzz, with the way her head feels each time she goes outside and tilts her head back and sees stars. Whirling and lovely and fleeting. She thinks maybe she has conjured up this month in her head, sitting on a rooftop with too much alcohol burning her throat. Because, for once, she is beautiful and people listen to her and entertain her silly ideas like, Let’s wake up early and walk around Heidelberg or let’s dance in the streets and then go sit on the roof. And deep inside her, the thirteen-year-old girl is devouring all of that attention, swallowing it up as easy as one mojito, one shot of vodka, two jello shots.

The night before they all have to leave, the Germans throw a party in the woods. There is a small wooden cabin with sticky floors and too much to drink, and that makes it easier to forget how small and sticky it is. People filter in and out, between the trees, speaking in the dark, cradling their drinks to their chests. And she has had six jägerbombs, two limoncellos, too much to drink so she is careening out of the cabin into the woods, where she throws up for the second time that night. And when that’s all said and done, she looks up and the trees are spinning, the stars are spinning, and they leave tracks of light in her vision. Someone is grabbing her shoulder and she looks at them, her eyes unfocused and dilated.

Bist du gut? Are you okay? he asks, but he doesn’t take too much time waiting for an answer because suddenly he is kissing her and dragging her to a bench somewhere—where did that bench come from?—and she stumbles behind him because everything in her head is muddled and cloudy.

She thinks, Please stop, please get off of me, please do not, please, please.

She says, I’m waiting for the right person, for someone I love. But he laughs and asks, Hast du ein Kondom? And she is just saying, Nein, nein, nein, but he pretends not to understand her. So this is where she stops believing in God. This is where she is wrenched out of her girlhood, even though she naively thought that she had shed it back when she was thirteen, fourteen. She is lying there on the bench, looking up at the black pine trees, and thinking, I just bit my tongue and now my mouth is full of blood, like a poppy growing in my mouth, it tastes like rust, like pennies, like the pennies I used to throw in wishing wells, they are all rusting now, I wish I could drown in this blood, I wish I could die right now, please, please. Please.

So she falls apart. She becomes undone. And she wonders, how many girls does the blood-fat summer take like this, how many in these woods, how many right here on this bench that appeared out of nowhere, how many of them wanted to hurt like I did? That night when she is sitting in the bathtub, naked and cold and unable to wash the dirt off her skin, though it is red and raw from trying, she realizes she is not God. She is not Joan. She is just the lamb, sent out to slaughter. 

The autumn this year is unusually cold. It is a dry chill, and the crickets stop singing by mid-October—the air as silent as a whole-note rest. She is standing on the platform, waiting for the next CTA train, her fingertips numb from turning pages, raw even under the heat lamp. Amidst the darkening sky, her breaths cast a pale contrast.

The rumble of an approaching train causes her to look up. Across the platform, a man who has been watching her shoots her a wolfish grin. She feels the book slip from her red fingers, and her eyes never leave him as she kneels to pick it up. Blue eyes, glass lenses reflecting the evening. The train rushes past, and in the spaces between compartments, she watches as this man shape-shifts into another boy. Living, moving, crawling on top of her, and in her panic she wonders if German will erupt his mouth asking, Bist du gut? The words snaking between the tracks to reach her, to climb inside her ears, the echo of the original from years before pressing against the eardrum.

She finds herself scrambling on the ground to stand up and jerks herself to the other side of the heat lamp. The faint warmth spreads across her back. She screws her eyes shut, listens as her train leaves the platform. Then the next one.

In southern Virginia, there were no children on bicycles, wheels tonguing summer tar in neighborhoods. To get anywhere, there was only driving. By age eight, there were paths worn into her brain, familiar twists of the I-64 that wound their way within her head. When she did begin driving, it was done without looking.

Perhaps this was not altogether true. It was a fifteen-minute bicycle ride to the neighborhood of Tidewater, where most of her friends lived, but it was through a bad neighborhood—her mother’s word for Black, though she’ll never admit it—and going around this neighborhood took an hour. She had tried it. So for her, there was only driving. Most of her peers got their permits at fifteen, licenses at sixteen. There was something about this town that was suffocating, where every destination needed to be driven to with your parents breathing down your neck, or, in the case of these permit drivers, in the passenger seat. So when she received her license, her real license, it was like being handed the golden ticket to freedom. And she checked the box next to organ donor, so she felt a little less selfish, a little more like a martyr.

Lately, her nightmares are all of a metal table under a flickering fluorescent light. She is still clinging to consciousness when they perform the autopsy, prying and ripping open the ribs to examine the spread of decay, the sepsis. They are going to save what organs they can, but when they peel her open, there is a forest under her sternum. So overgrown, that some of the trees have rooted in her lungs, piercing the tissue, so that whoever receives the lungs next will cough up bloody pines from their mouth.

When she wakes, the skin of her arms seems to remember the chill of the metal, and the smell of the harsh chemicals stings her nostrils.

She is sitting on the carpeted ground outside an auditorium, waiting for the doors to open. On the left sleeve of her red knit sweater, she finds a loose thread near the cuff and begins to pull. She twists it around her little finger, watching as the tip of the joint becomes pale and swollen, before the line snaps—a long spindly red strand that floats slowly to the floor. The toe of a brown loafer fills her vision, covers the thread with a definitive step, and her eyes dart up to meet this intruder.

You know you can go in now, he says.

He has the most easy smirk, true easy, sure strokes of Matisse canvases easy, sleepy like the soft version of The Smiths “I Know It’s Over” that Morrissey never recorded, that only existed in this half-smile. This was nothing less than the grin of the cat that ate the canary, but for the sake of space, we will call him C.

Oh, she murmurs. And C, who doesn’t seem to hear her, pushes open the doors and walks right by her, the red thread clinging to the underside of the loafer like an arterial vein. Somewhere, she recalls a bedtime story. A distant whisper of 姻缘红线* .

And she thinks, we are connected now by a red thread of fate, and this comes only a few times in life.

Winter in Chicago is not soft, not the White Christmas she had once imagined; instead, violent torrents of snow cover the ground, washing away the landscape’s features. She retreats inside of herself, finds refuge in the damp warmth of her chest. She spends her days inside her own ribcage, counting the ribs over and over again: one, two, three, twenty-four. It is like this when she hears the news.

The student society she and C are both a part of is meeting in a classroom where the heat is uncomfortably high—even for the brutal winter—and layers must be shed. This club verges into the territory of elitism, letting in only a handful of people with each recruitment cycle. When she sees the list of the new members, she stills. Cold metal, scalpel, pine trees, nein, nein, nein. When the club lets in two students—known rapists on campus—she is hurled back into this bottled memory, the image of the dark circle of pine trees sears itself onto the back of her eyelids. Distantly, she hears the door slam hard, and she blinks, reality blossoming before her again. In front of her, she sees the chip in the white paint of the wall from where the door was thrown open before it was thrown shut and then a retreating dark figure through the window. The room swims with silence, and she scrambles not a second later to follow. Her hand finds the wall of the hallway, this tether supporting her legs, grounding her, as she stumbles outside onto the steps of the building. Poppies, pennies, blood in her throat that threatens to choke her. She pushes past the doors, her lungs immediately seeking deep breaths of the cold Chicago air. C is standing there; he takes her in, gasping like a drowned man, and something flashes across his face. They exist in silence as her breath slowly evens out.

He lights a cigarette and exhales the smoke through his nostrils. In that moment, she is reminded very much of a dragon preparing to torch an entire city, tending to the hearth in its throat. He purses his lips, offers it to her, and she finds the strength to shake her head.

In between inhales he says, They’re never going to apologize for what they’ve done to us. They’re never going to understand us.

Us, she repeats dumbly, softly. So C knows. Of course he knows. So they are survivors together, victims—she doesn’t care about the specific terminology. What it means is that they are made from the same rotten memories, and now her bones ache when his do. The ankle he broke twice, once in Paris, the deep scab on his right elbow that never quite healed.

She watches silently as the last of the cigarette burns to the filter, when what she really wants to say is, Sorry about the pain in your chest; I wish I could make it mine.

Her art history professor still uses a slide projector, paintings flush against the drywall of the classroom. Illuminated and half present—half paintings. It is week four of the semester, and she has already dropped down to two classes, which makes her a part-time student. So she has been transmogrified, become a ghost, floating numbly through campus between classes. She does not believe in the supernatural, but some days, as she walks through the thick layer of snow, she thinks she is becoming transparent, a Lady in White slipping through the trees. The White Lady is a harbinger of death. So is the fetch.

Her best friend is no longer Catholic. Long gone are the weekly masses, replaced with paganism—meals shared with deities, spells cast around the Wiccan wheel of the year. Lately, it is Irish folklore she’s taken a shine to, the sinister tales of changelings and banshees. Which is to say that she is learning about Irish folklore, and she believes more in fairies than God, in the profanation of Holy Scripture. This is my body, taken back, broken for You—no, you. The fetch is a supernatural double in Irish folklore, like the doppelgänger, like the simulacrum. It is a herald of death, its presence trumpeting an end.

The lectures this week are focused on the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Specifically, on Caravaggio and connoisseurship—the art of authenticating and attributing paintings—which means intensive study of his style and technique. She thinks she might be failing the class because of how little she is listening. Her professor’s voice is a soft, fading monotone, occasionally pulling her back to the surface of reality. Mostly, she fixates on the paintings, attention diverted only by the click of the projector’s carousel. Conversion of Saint Paul, Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, swinging onto the wall in procession. What she sees is that Caravaggio’s art is made of darkness and light, that the moments he chooses to depict are of extreme agony. Pain bubbling on the oil of the paint, birthing eternal suffering. There is a dichotomy in his composition: illuminated faces, near glowing, surrounded by an encroaching and detailed darkness. It is like looking at the world in flashes of lightning, thirty microseconds committed to canvas.

In the coffee shop where C works, she leans against the cool marble counter, tapping her fingers against the surface. It is a slow hour before closing, and she watches as he buses the tables, wet rag scraping up the coaster rings of cups. Tucked underneath her arm is a library book on Caravaggio, pages folded down in forbidden dog-ears for her upcoming essay.

They still haven’t looked over our amendment, she comments. The one they had drafted that demanded the immediate exclusion of members with sexual assault charges leveled against them. He makes a sound that is part bitter, part scoff.

Of course not, he says, This is a world that caters to rapists.

She lets out a small, strangled laugh at this, then goes quiet, taken aback by the sound. She feels guilty for laughing and dips her head into the book. The book falls open to Caravaggio’s 1599 painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes. C glances over as he slips behind the counter.

Dark, he appraises, very bloody. The left page is taken up by the painting, where a girl in white drives her blade through the tendons of a man’s neck, erupting blood and agony. Suspended is his cry, the notes stuck to the dark oil of the canvas.

It’s Biblical. Old Testament, she replies, It’s all bloody.

He shrugs, losing interest. One last glance at this violence before he goes to clean the espresso machine. She returns to the open book, the right page dominated by columns of text. Nestled in the text is a small reproduction of a similar painting for the reader to compare its style to Caravaggio’s; underneath, the caption reads: Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1620.

Her essay is supposed to be on Caravaggio. Not on his contemporaries and certainly not on a female painter whose body of work was created after his death. Still, she finds herself in the gloomy upper floors of the library, where the art section is housed, head bent over the single book on Artemisia Gentileschi. The draw was her Judith, in the facial expressions, in the composition. She believes all paintings speak, that Caravaggio’s are brief snapshots clawing for your attention, that Gentileschi’s are screaming to be seen.

The story goes like this: Artemisia Gentileschi’s virginity was pried from her by her painting tutor when she was a teenager. She was tricked into going to his room, thrown onto the bed, and legs kneed apart. Her father sued the tutor, and there, in the courtroom, Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews to verify her testimony of the rape. It was during this year, the year of her attack and trial, that Gentileschi began her Judith. The book of Judith in the Old Testament tells of the Jewish widow Judith, who catches the attention of Holofernes, the Assyrian general who has besieged her city. Besotted, Holofernes invites Judith to his tent, where she, along with her maidservant Abra, plied him with wine and severed his drunken head with his own sword.

The composition of Gentileschi’s Judith and Caravaggio’s is nearly the same. The figures, however, are very different. Caravaggio’s Judith is young, doubtful, her erect nipples visible through a transparent white shift. Beside her is Abra, rendered an old crone who looks on. In Gentileschi’s Judith, Abra is Judith’s equal, holding down a flailing Holofernes to expose the tendons of his neck. Meanwhile, her mistress saws, blood gathering in rivulets on the white sheet beneath him. Judith’s forearms are tensed, brow furrowed, working at her gruesome task. Eyes painted dark, painted to say, I have tasted the worst that can happen

Caravaggio did not know this pain; Artemisia Gentileschi knew it too well. Trauma had made Gentileschi a master. It had made C cruel, volatile, and reckless, bordering on anarchic. It had made her into a coward. They are two sides of the same coin, a simulacrum of one another. She begins wondering whose death his appearance foretold.

She and C, the two society presidents, and the Accused are sitting in a small classroom facing one another. Their amendment fails, by majority. When the other four leave, triumphant, she turns off the lights and closes the door behind her, stumbles, sinks onto the linoleum floor. She’ll have bruises on her knees for weeks, but all she can see is Artemisia’s Judith, both her hands clenched around the blade as it sinks into flesh. The pain is a removed sensation, and most of her energy is now focused on just staying upright. Distantly, she feels C’s arms wrap around her.

Savior, she thinks, some dark, twisted Holiness. Without faith, this is what she clings to, leans back into his hold. She starts seeing God in everything, in this comfort, in his brutal anger. In the fluorescent hallway, their two bodies are inseparable, grasping onto one another. She remembers how in childhood, children used to prick their fingers, press their blood against the other’s. Wound against wound, as if to say your blood is mine now. There is tension in his grip, and his jaw clenches as it rests on her shoulder.

No soul will go dark enough for you, she realizes. Her hand slowly meets his, resting over the veins there. Okay, she thinks, then I’ll be a slaughterhouse, your killing floor. Together, they almost spell complete.

They are over before they even begin. She has long resigned herself to that fact; in the meantime, she settles for what she can get: knees barely touching one another, the brush of a finger as he passes her a cigarette, arms bumping into one another as they walk side by side. Sometimes she looks at him and wonders how he does it, how he hides the wreckage so well. Over the course of the next year, she often finds herself thinking this, staring at him from across a set table, his smile the same even as the setting shifts. Between them, a deep, shared sadness and anger. She’s become so familiar with it she can’t tell it from love.

On the train from Fez to Marrakech, she suffers from heatstroke. Sick to her stomach, dehydrated, hungry, and a little in love, her shallow breaths punctuate the stale air of the train car. From beneath her half-lidded eyes, she focuses on the gold rings on his left index finger, traces the blue lines up his arm, and wonders where the veins end. In her infatuation, she had begun to think that maybe—just maybe—those veins ached for her too. So in the bustling and narrow alleys of the Old Medina, she had found a delightful silence; all the thoughts that plagued her mind, even the pangs of addiction, grew quiet around him, grew still. Those three days of drinking in the barest dregs of affection: for a few nights, they slept in the same room, and she craved those moments when she would turn and find him facing her, a crooked sleep a foot away on the other hard, threadbare bed. It did not matter that the mosquitoes and their bloodlust had plucked welts on her face, that her clothes reeked of the cramped seven-hundred-year-old house, that in the confined pathways men smiled at her like she was a fresh cut of bleeding meat. Fez had somehow become her favorite city, because for a minute she was able to pretend, to entertain the notion that this transparent stillness would last forever—filled with the breaths of his sleep which she matched.

In the throes of heatstroke, the desert sun licks her skin through the train window. She is startled by a sudden image, a distant picture in a textbook of Joan of Arc burning and laughing at the stake, her body taut and ready for the holy war. And she wonders what she would burn for, what she would turn her flesh to ash for.

She shifts her head from the window to the boy in front of her. She thinks that she finally knows.

* A Chinese legend, where the gods tie an invisible red cord around the little fingers of those that are destined to meet.


Processed with VSCO with a4 presetAlice Evelyn Yang is a writer from Norfolk, Virginia. Her short fiction has been published in the Sino-diaspora magazine, Sine Theta. Alice recently graduated magna cum laude from the creative writing program at Northwestern University, where she was awarded the Edwin L. Shuman Award for Outstanding Senior in Creative Writing. She also studied English literature at the University of Oxford and interned at HarperCollins her junior year. Her work explores themes of race, violence, and intergenerational trauma. She will be pursuing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University.