At Easter in a small Manitoba town, little Donna Desjardins begins bleeding from her palms, then the soles of her feet, and then around the crown of her head. In The Blood Girls, Cook examines how lives are affected when the world reacts to the extraordinary with fear and suspicion.
About the Author
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Méira Cook immigrated to Canada in 1991 at the age of 26. An accomplished poet,The Blood Girls is her first novel. Méira Cook lived many years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has returned to Winnipeg after residing in British Columbia.
Read an Excerpt
The Blood Girl
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Seven days before Easter Monday, in a small town north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, an eleven-year-old girl sitting in her classroom began to bleed from the palm of her left hand.
The first sign that anything was wrong was a red palm-print on absorbent paper. Donna Desjardins sat during art class, drawing a picture of the Madonna and Child and colouring it with wax crayons when her left hand began to bleed from the palm. Her teacher escorted the young girl to the sickroom but when the school nurse washed the blood away, no wound was visible. As a precautionary measure the nurse washed the hand with disinfectant, bound it in surgical gauze and returned Donna to her classroom. Within two hours Donna's right palm began to bleed.
In fact, before she began to bleed, inexplicably, from the palm of her left hand, Donna was a healthy child. Her family had no history of prolonged bleeding or psychological disorder. Although sensitive and imaginative, she was assessed as emotionally stable. As one of three children, she lived in a crowded but, to all appearances, happy home. At first, doctors at the rural hospital in Annex reported that even when they examined her palms under magnification they could discern nothing but unbroken skin. Soon after, however, a small blister the size of a dime, the kind that grows over a burn, blossomed on the centre of each palm.
The small town of Annex where Donna and her family live, in the rural municipality of Daglunes, lies two hours north of Winnipeg, along Highway8. The bleeding occurred in the week before Easter Monday during the first of the spring freezes. That was the year of the long drawn-out thaw, with snow falling well into May. People remember that time for the inclement weather and the hordes of reporters and television crews who swooped in and set up makeshift interviews and press conferences, demanding information from medical staff and clergy alike, and speculating endlessly on the symptoms of the Blood Girl, as Donna came to be known.
On the second day, Donna began to bleed from the sole of her left foot, a day later from the right foot, and the next day blood ran from her side. Five small blisters appeared above her diaphragm and it was from these that the blood flowed in an erratic but unimpeded trickle. Three days before Easter Monday, an uneven scattering of blood droplets appeared about the crown of her head. On Good Friday, the fifth day of her experience, Donna bled from all sites simultaneously. She felt extreme pain and towards evening lost consciousness. When she woke hours later, all her wounds had closed. No scars or marks could be found on her body, and the child appeared to be well-rested and in no pain. Since that day, Donna has experienced no further bleeding.
The reporters had much with which to concern themselves. For a short week in late April, the small town of Annex became the object of tense expectation and an entire country's disbelieving scrutiny. Her mother allowed no interviews and the doctors refused photographers entry into the child's hospital room. Nevertheless, an illicit photograph does exist, testament to the ingenuity of the Press, and it was publishedto great controversy, as it happenedin the pages of the early edition of a National newspaper, only to be retracted from afternoon editions following a court order. The photograph is imprecise and blurred, but its subject gazes out at the viewer from between widely spaced, startled eyes. Indeed, the extraordinary impact of the newspaper photograph can be traced to the disparity between the camera's imprecision (occasioned, perhaps, by a photographer's trembling hands?) and the uncanny clarity of the child's gaze. That and the dark blood clotting her hair.
None of the doctors who examined her, first at Annex, and later Winnipeg, described her as a hysterical personality. Although approaching adolescence, she had not yet begun to menstruate, and her body was that of a child'sin all particulars she was undeveloped and prepubescent. Despite the painfulness of her situation, she seemed a stable and contented young girl not prone to neurosis. Her family regularly attended Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy and All Saint's Catholic Church, and Donna herself was said to identify strongly with Christ's life and sufferings on the cross. Nevertheless, and given her extreme youthfulness, there seemed no reason to doubt her, Donna Desjardins denied any knowledge of the phenomenon of stigmata before she herself experienced it.
Not many people can say they've lived in the same house all their life. No, the word home, through all its transformations, through all my journeyings, has never meant anything less for me than a house with green shutters and an open-faced look. In my imagination the front door is always ajar, the Lalique vase my mother brought with her is full of St. Joseph's lilies trumpeting through the noon, and the house itself is flooded with light. At moments like this I don't think I have a story to tell. Perhaps at most the shape we Rhutabagas have made on the map of the world in our separate journeys. Grandpa worrying his way through the barley fields, through mustard and rye and the sweet bye and bye of flax, his mouth turning in on a drawstring so that the farther north he travelled the more he clipped off his words at the root. Then my father built this house, squared off the fields with chicken wire and ploughed them into thick corduroy furrows. What was it father used to say to my brothers when they left, one by one, to work in the cities? No matter where you are, you are here. My father was a man of some discernment, as fond of a well-turned phrase as he was of a nicely shod foot. He, at any rate, is still here, a benevolent spirit, he hovers above the threshold blowing smoke into these dim rooms from the ghosts of the cigars he was so fond of.
From the kitchen I can smell butter cooking, a thick yellow heat, the sound of a wooden spoon knocking against the side of a bowl. My companion, Regina, is busy today, a somewhat more corporeal genu loci, she leans against the stove, stirring and tasting, catering to her careless eleven o'clock hunger. She and I talk often of nature because it is something about which she is vehement and I am skeptical. Nature, she says, has perfect balance. For me, this is not something that has practical application. Although I was raised in the country, as mamma would have said, I have always known, yes, deeply and succinctly, that what leads to death is only information. And God being absent in all this is not helpful, not kind.
I have always liked books more than people, although I have never trusted either. When I was young the world began at the edge of the page and real life was something that happened after father ordered me to shut that darned book, girl, and do your chores. My brothers called me a bookworm and worse but their voices dimmed between the rustling of pages as I fell like Alice into language, my skirt whirling above my head. I read my way through a British girlhood of stately homes and bone china, of fox-hunts and buttered toast and suitors who looked as well in their riding habits as in formal dress. Outside, the wind rubbed maple leaves to rag, the prairie sun crawled across my legs as I hung between earth and sky on the hammock father strung between two hitching posts, and read about ruined abbeys and rolling hills and hedges thick with something called larkspur. Behind my oblivious head flowering bushesnot larkspur, not hawthorn, not yew. They were not in any of my books.
Where was I? My thoughts are so disordered these days. Aah yes, nature. Well it is useful, for one thing, as a system of correspondence, the ground against which to measure what is truly human. Regina, for instance, in all her human splendour of jut and flaw, Regina who has just brought me a cup of lemon tea and an oatmeal cookie. (One is very sour, the other very sweet. Neither is just right.) For me, Regina, with her dense flesh, is the giant rhizome that grows beneath the ground all summer until, ohAugust, when she gains great pumpkin inches as you watch. What I want to say, what I keep distracting myself from saying, is the fact of her, Regina, in my kitchen, a tired woman with black fingerprints beneath her eyes, her skin thin and chaffed with sleeplessness. Her movements are filtered, she puts a clenched fist to the small of her back, stretches in that bone-weary, shoulder-heavy, running on oilrags and bottom of the grease-barrel way. There is something in her languor, her hopelessness even, that inclines to the horizontal plane. I have known Regina all my life and, as is the way with such friendships, seem at this moment not to have known her at all. Where does the loss of love begin? What is the opposite of passion? Patience, passivity, fish-fingers, the Sears catalogue, white socks, the bingo. The way she pushes the vacuum cleaner about these days! A slow, deliberate oblation, bend and slide, bend and slide.
I watch her, half in admiration. No, more than half. She, at any rate, has perfected the practice of living as an adventure of the body. My own body these days feels slack, loose-boned, stuffed with sand. Not merely old but blunt. I thought writing this memoir would hone me, draw me tight and taut, set the blood to flight just below the surface. And who knows, it might still happen. These days fiction is no less credulous than autobiography.
I am sorting my life, keeping it at bay, writing down dates and times, shrinking chaos to the size of a trim white page. Lists promise order, a life lived with decorum and propriety. And still time to fill the vases with flowers, still time to read the newspapersboth the Annex weekly and the city dailytime to smooth them down, fold them up, and set them out back for the recycle bin. And yes, it's hard writing now after all these years. Not just metaphysically either, my hands taciturn with arthritis, and my eyesight equivocal. I manage well enough with the help of the magnifying glass Daniel Halpern brought me, along with his folders of transcripts, notes, interviews, and lists. As for the pain in my joints, I take two of what I call the bumble-bee pills that Ginny prescribed, and which come in their suggestive yellow and brown gelatin capsules from Turkle's Pharmacy in town.
Virginie Waters, who is the town doctor, lives in the small log cabin that father built for the labourers over the harvest month. Since then I've had Geisler knock down a few partitions, build cupboards and install electric heating panels on the walls, so that with a lick of paint here and a couple of my own rag-rugs there, the place is warm and hospitable even during our hard, crackling winters. This last winter, for instance, I hardly saw her except when she sat reading in her window late at night, the lamp throwing alluvial shadows against her neck. Like the rest of us, she has had a hard time this year, a moth-woman caught behind glass. The mystery that gripped our town is still saline in her veins. This evening she came in soaked to the bone after one of our curt spring showers. This is not the kind of town where people carry umbrellas.
Regina has just come, ostensibly to take away my empty cup, but I suspect her of an encroaching and fraudulent curiosity. She will not, for instance, take my arthritis for granted, but fusses over my hands, rubbing in lotion, massaging my fingers. And while it is true that I have begun to wear gloves in all seasons (even typing these notes on the old Smith and Wesson manual I used when I began my book on the true North), my motives are strictly medicinal. I have read, for instance, in one of papa's old Reader's Digest magazines I think, that heat is emolutive. Besides, I am trying to slow down, to enjoy the slight resistance of my leather gloves as I smooth them, the perishable taste of tea.
Recently I began to re-read all the highly coloured romances and poetry of my youth. But there is a difference, this time I am a gentle reader. When I was young I would tear the inside out of a book as if it were a loaf of bread hot from the oven. Jaw locked, knuckles white, I would have wrested sense from those densely printed pages by force, if need be. Now that I am older I read slowly, luxuriously, as if time alone can distill meaning from the page, each word a mouthful of brandy to warm against the palate. The phrase gentle reader pleases me because of how it was used in the last century. As if it were possible, now as then, to imagine a reader's ear pressed up against the tilted page. Today the book in my hands flutters as if to invite the tribute of a head drooped gently above its pages.
I first began to write after I lost everything elseyouth, ease of mind and body, even gravity. Now I renew, periodically, my dues. I have asked Regina to turn on the radio. Something by Brahms filters through these dim rooms, the strings following each other in tightly interlocking sequence like silver links of chainmail or the scales on a freshly caught fish. Along the way I began to realize that we are all connected, not just to one another but to the elements, the mineral deposits of time. Forgive these fanciful digressions, I am an old woman in a dry season, trying with words to approach my psychosomatic death.
Take Regina, for example. I first knew Regina when we were girls together; Mina Isaacs, the Hukic girls and me, Molly Rhutabaga, in our brief, our frantic spring. In reality, Regina was not one of the Hukic girls, she was an Arnott from the valley but she came to live with the Hukics after her mother died. There was some blood connection, I believe, between Alisha Hukic and Regina's father. Certainly she lived in the Hukic farmhouse on sufferance, but later, when Alisha Hukic got too sick to remain on the farm and took up residence in the Care Home under the ministrations of old Doc Isaacs, Regina began to take on a certain substance in that household. I : remember, she cut her hair from "sit on it" as my mother used to say, to watch out ears you're comin' through. And quite soon after that she began to grow into her body, her bones sinking deeper into flesh like honey, eased, although if you didn't know any better, and few did, all you would notice was that she was putting on weight.
She was unfailingly soft-hearted, was famous for scraping dead animals off the highway, giving them a proper burial. I came across her once fashioning a memorial cross from two twigs. Her mouth was pursed with absorption, the point of her tongue just visible. But her eyes when she looked up were blank. Something was absent, missing, nothing there when you looked up after the shadow had passed. People were always asking her, where's your accent from? As if it were separate from her. That was the impression she gave, as if she were an unlikely collection of spare arms and legs and flying hair, held together by nothing so much as centrifugal force about the fulcrum of a migrant heart. And you couldn't blame a body for sounding foolish when they were in the process of being fooled, could you?
Mina, Molly, and Regina, we were girls together, our hearts stirring for the birds that left, flew south. Mina and I married early because that was expected of young girls in those days. I married Robert Dunning because he asked father for my hand with such uneasiness that I knew he expected to be refused. I did not want to encourage such pessimism so I married him. As for my father, he drew deeply on his cigar. Then, with the smoke billowing dramatically from his mouth he roared, yes, yes, take her hand, take the rest of her, just don't bring her back! For her part my mother said, if you love him, go with him. I did and then I no longer loved him and so I left again. Besides, I missed this house.
The Brahms concerto is coming to an end, the cellos weeping, the violinist sobbing into the crook of her elbow. I remember the weight of his long blond jawbone and the plates of his shoulder blades as he bent over the farm accounts, agitated, then resettling. As I looked at him wings, the pages of a book, years, seemed to rush through the air. When I left I took nothing with me but my books, the name I was born with, the clothes on my back. Sometimes I think he just distracted me from the loneliness of living in one body. I remember sitting at a window, the trees in the avenues still bruised by the spring. They held the world in their branches, faithfully, treacherously. There is a lesson to be learned from this. I have become o woman who sits at a window, who watches.
And today, after all this time, here in this place, it is past spring. After the first here-today-gone-tomorrow days, the town finally tossed in its lot with the trees and exhaled discrete green breaths. One day it was nearly-nearly, and the next summer was already past. Regina came to "do" for me after her boarder reported a strange smell and the sound of hair growing in the crawl space below her kitchen. Later we found out that it was only the bodies of gophers tenderly stacked above ground, waiting for the first spring thaw to be buried. But after our recent scandal it has been generally agreed by everybody, from Virginie to our Priest, Father Ricci, that Regina Arnott requires discreet supervision. Besides, she is an inoffensive guest and a storyteller of some fortitude. What is more, she understands, as I do, the way our lives intersect with cutlery and garden salads and the weather channel. This cup with its glaze of lapis lazuli, for instance, placed in the world exactly so, to hold down a corner of the day.
It is perhaps time to speak of Halpern. Daniel Halpern came to our town as a journalist after the first blood miracle. It was his job to be skeptical, a task undeflected by his inclination to the most craven forms of adoration. Shortly after we became friends he told me that he had always longed to live out a life of stone, a noncommittal life. We were drinking sherry in the living room, I invited him to dinner because Father Ricci had hinted that he was several cuts above the ordinary, that he had read Aquinas, that he was, in short, deserving of my gentle and diffuse goodfellowship. I took up the Father's half serious, mostly not, suggestion with enthusiasm, more to lighten my own oppression than to allay his. Life in this town often has the appearance of boredom. I was anxious to learn more about this oddly haunted stranger, with his hunched gait and his carefully curtailed smile. It was in the living room, as I say, while sipping sherry, that he confided to me his petrified longings. I grew up in this country you know, he said, but it's not like coming home again.
It had been an odd day for me too, a slump in the middle, lethargic about the edges. Now, with the lamps lit, the shadows were geometric in their clarity. A shadow from papa's silver clock threw itself over his face and throat, drawing his left side towards darkness. I felt exasperation and then relief, the latter rising to the surface like the colours in an oil slick. He helped himself to cold salmon and began to describe what he called his lamentable susceptibility to love. Because this inclination and his resistance to it were equally strong, I knew we would become intimates. By the time we were eating papaya with port off mamma's coral dessert plates, and the candles had thickened about their wicks, our friendship had spanned decades.
It may surprise you to learn that we hardly spoke of the blood girl, the story he had come north to rout, and for whose rigours of spectacle and satire he was so clearly ill-suited. He had read my book, and so we talked of the muscular rivers of the North. I remember he said something like, you have to go to the North to imagine the North. Perhaps I have it a little wrong, but it caught my attention. There was something elegiac about him, one felt that in him the soul's pale stone was newly quarried. That he was in pain of some kind was clear, but whether it was metaphysical or the other kind I did not try to guess. He had about him a melancholy that so exactly suited my own need in a companion that I hardly dared inquire as to its cause. Not precisely sadness but a wax imprint of sadness, like a footprint in wet sand.
I don't mean to be evasive. It's true that we spoke once, not so much of Donna Desjardins as of his incredulity in the face of her wounds. At first Halpern snorted through his nose as if imitating a hard-assed reporter. Either it's an elaborate hoax, he told me, flinging up his hands to announce his unwillingness to take part in such messiness, or it's a medical condition that hasn't been discovered yet. I watched the fire in the small hearth imprint itself on the surrounding shadows. Nothing is inexplicable anymore, he continued, just difficult to name. There was a note of pleading in his voice but I paid no attention. What is it that makes you so uneasy, Halpern? I asked. But he had already drawn silence fastidiously about him. There is something about excess that he can't forgive, a lack of restraint he finds impossible to approve. Come on boy, I teased, get off your high Protestant rocking-horse!
He visited often after that and we embarked on a friendship of almost perfect inequality, he was the boy with kind hands to rub my mind to life. The world to me is, has always been, tactile, a surface inviting the hand's imprint. He came to me after it was all over, his arms piled high with folders and files. Here, he said, make of it what you will. Then he left. When I was twenty, I thought the world was effortless, my place in it assured. Now I am hesitant, tentative, without wonder. I am the woman to whom others come with their stories. I am a woman who sits at a window and watches, then closes her eyes.
What follows, gentle reader, is a story cobbled together from journal entries, transcripts, memory, interviews, coincidence, newspaper articles, desire, imagination, correspondence, and invective. Above all, any resemblance to characters living or dead is both impure and unintentional. Imagine you are somewhere dark shot through with a single arrow of light. Someone has put this book into your hands, it is a project in Braille. Put your fingertips to the page. There. There....