It was a blessing when my blood came. At school they said it would be spots and strings but to my surprise it was a steady stream, dark red, pouring out from the corners of my eyes and puddling on the tops of my battered brogues. I held back a retch and when the urge to faint passed, I shouted for Daddy, excited, from the top of the stairs. Squinting into the light from the landing, he said: God bless us, Joyce, it’s a miracle. My mother, hunched over like she’d been screwed up and thrown away, strained to look up at me and screamed. As she fled back to her overcooked potatoes, Daddy took the crusty hanky from his back pocket and wiped the blood across my nose and cheeks, making more of a mess than there was before. He shoved the hanky into my hand. Grinning, grateful, I took in the acrid smell and pocketed the soaked cotton. Daddy strode into the kitchen, and I heard his giddy voice rise:
Hospital? She needs an agent, not a hospital.
There were to be no doctors. Daddy’s word was always final, not because he was the stronger of the two, but the weaker. My mother’s twisted spine—she’d been that way all my life—brought disability benefit into the house and gave her a quiet dignity; Daddy’s consistent inability to find work, despite trying, only made him more pathetic. Yet he ruled with a ceaseless sense of enthusiasm that nobody could bear to wrench from him. My first thought when I looked into the mirror and saw two trickles of scarlet running from my eyes had been: Daddy is going to love this.
That night, he watched me over dinner, wads of old tea towels taped to my cheeks so the blood wouldn’t drip onto my eggs. My mother fretted over the creeping red cracks in the whites of my eyes but Daddy just stared. Sometimes he smiled, and sometimes I smiled back.
The office of Oswald Merman was white and gold, a dressing room for potential starlets; a mock Versailles. All platinum blonde and crisp white cotton with a shock of electric blue beneath his lapels, Merman tentatively reached over to his phone, side-eying me like I was a glass of red wine waiting to tip. Daddy patted my arm again—to relax himself rather than me, I knew— and nodded to no one in particular, his greying head bobbing like a plastic dog on the back shelf of someone’s car. A silicone baby bib, complete with a crumbcatcher that had to be emptied every couple of hours, hung from my ears and fit tightly around my chin.
Cynthia, could you get the Vatican on the phone? I’ve no idea, you’ll have to look in the yellow book.
They were saying things like percentage cut and security detail and power of attorney. I squinted at the portrait over Merman’s shoulder to see if it was of a man or a woman. Everything was opaque and lacked edges. My hands twitched, itching to wipe and scratch at my sore sockets, but I knew Daddy needed me not to. I buried my fingers beneath my bottom. My eyelids worked overtime but still couldn’t wipe my vision clean so I closed them, letting the sound of Merman’s words distract me.
Oh. It seems to have… Mr. Parsons?
The raw liver dissolved on my tongue and Daddy nodded encouragingly, pretending that neither of us could hear my mother vomiting into the kitchen bin. Liver for lunch, kidneys for dinner, black pudding for breakfast; it was my new regime, intended to bring back the blood tears that had dried up, seemingly of their own accord, right before Daddy signed my name on Merman’s dotted line. Daddy thought it was a lack of iron, or plasma, or something or other that he’d read in the mouldy medical books now stacked in the bathroom. Mother told him it was just one of those things. Each morning he checked my sheets for stains, running into my room when he heard me close the bathroom door, then scuttling dejectedly down the stairs to my mother as he heard me flush.
Three weeks later, Daddy had cultivated quite the relationship with the local butcher, who loved his spike in profits, but my eyes were still dry, the skin around them recovering slowly. The details of my world were starting to come back into focus and it seemed like everything was returning to normal, the episode a single occurrence destined to be remembered in parenthesis. Daddy’s panicked positivity, however, could not be quelled. On the Monday, he announced that my diet was doubling. On the Thursday, I woke with a thin bolt of pain running across my torso and I spent the day in bed, tended to by my limping mother, while Daddy fed me liver smoothies and kidney soup and examined the veins in my arms when he thought I wasn’t looking.
On the Saturday, the red tears came once again, this time with errant stringy lumps that I had to pull past my tear ducts and away from the path to my mouth.
It’s her monthlies, said my mother. By God, it’s her curse.
Daddy got me a bruised Bible from the local charity shop and an off-white dress that touched the tops of my toes. To watch him working, creating, brought a warmth to my face; he’d always been an inventor on the side. When I was two, it was a stuffed toy with a heat-pad stomach and a clock inside that burned my thigh and gave me tinnitus. Just after I’d started school, it was an electrical washing-up device with robot arms that fell into the sink and caused a kitchen fire. When I was five years old my mother lost her eyebrows in a complicated incident involving a mechanical set-up that pulled the sheets back every morning. But he needed the hope, the belief that someday his name would be attached to something great, so we kept our mouths shut when he sunk more of our savings into his projects and negated the house insurance time and time again.
But Daddy, I told him, I can’t see the words, as he showed me the passages that he’d underlined during a sleepless night of planning. He read the verses to me as he fed me orange juice and Pop Tarts, a sweet treat after so much offal, and I got so good at repeating them back between sugary mouthfuls that neither of us heard my mother’s frantic yelps until she’d been calling for thirty minutes. With no one to help her reach the wall-mounted rail that allowed her to get out of bed, she’d stretched too far and fallen, her cheek grazing the unvarnished wood of my parents’ bedroom floor. We hauled her up to her feet but her spine, robbed of its morning exercise, had locked itself into an angry question mark, an exaggeration of her normal condition. I wrapped my legs around her and massaged the spaces between her vertebrae. Daddy said that once we’d made it to our meeting, she could take the car and drive herself to the hospital.
Merman had told the others waiting in his antechamber—six-fingered boys, morbidly obese teens, women with well-groomed facial hair—that he wasn’t taking any more appointments. They trudged out mournfully as the three of us followed Cynthia, who seated us briskly, then dispensed sugary black coffees that we had not ordered and did not want. Merman asked Daddy question after question. My mother, unwilling to leave me, held my hand, her eyes closed, her palm spasming in pain from time to time. Cynthia, disgusted with the job now taking her away from diarising and coffeemaking, swabbed the sore flesh under my eyes and apologised curtly before sealing the cotton in a test tube and noting the date on the label. I stood up and she patted me down, running her hands between my aching breasts and up my back to feel for plastic lines or other trickery. She patted my shoulder and nodded. Seeing that we were done, my mother uncurled herself and slipped her arm around my waist, unburdening some of her weight, as she led me out to our Volvo.
Apologies, Angelo, I heard Merman say to Daddy as my mother and I left the office. I’ve got to be sure; too many court cases these days, you know. Now, let’s talk scheduling.
Before I could say anything to the hospital receptionist, my mother reached across the desk, grabbed both of the woman’s grey hands and said, Please, you’ve got to help my daughter. There were gasps as the strangers on the plastic chairs forgot their personal maladies and turned around to look at me. The receptionist, shaken, led us straight through to an examination room. My mother talked over me every time I tried to insist that we were there for her, the agony in her back. One doctor came, then two, then other fuzzy figures in white coats and blue scrubs filled up the less distinct corners of the room. My virginity was taken on crunchy hospital paper by a smooth piece of cold metal, with a mass of medical staff staring between my spread legs and my mother holding my hand. The hysteroscope projected a moving image onto the plasma screen by my head, but all I could see was a mass of flesh that looked like it was crawling. I stared at the ceiling until the cold thing slid out of me, unsure of whether to feel ashamed, embarrassed or proud.
Well, it’s just the strangest thing. She’s wired perfectly, Mrs. Parsons. The lining’s all there. It’s just not coming out where it’s meant to.
My mother asked if I’d have babies still, and though the doctor said that he couldn’t see why not, someone right by my head huffed and said, I think someone’s got other plans for that girl.
They prescribed me drops for my stinging eyeballs and arranged an appointment with specialists from the mainland. A week later when the letter dropped on the mat, Daddy barely glanced at the headed paper before he tore it into pieces with a pained grin on his face, saying through gritted teeth, But Darling, you’re going to be famous!
After that, there was no time for school. With just twenty-one days until my inaugural performance and only seven potential show days per month, it was rehearsals from the moment my tears dried to the moment they came again. I started to think of time only in cycles of twenty-eight days. Merman closed his offices and came over every morning, calling me things like Our Starlet and touching the ends of my hair. My mother stayed in the kitchen while I recited verses in the glow of a makeshift spotlight, but she made me a cucumber eyemask to soothe my aching sockets and defied Daddy’s carnivorous diet plan by feeding me cold carrot juice every night. Daddy and Merman broke the lock on my diary to check the dates of my cycle and draw up a schedule, and on day twenty-seven of that month I was christened and reborn; the name in neon lights was Amelia Magdalene.
All press is good press, beamed Merman as he paced excitedly around me, brandishing a national newspaper that, they told me, had my school photo on the front. He and Daddy were too busy planning PR responses to tell me what it said, but my mother had taken a break from our rehearsals to read the whole thing out loud. A reporter had paid our next-door neighbour a grand to steal the liver-smeared blender from our kitchen, and the resulting article was a blizzard of insult and conjecture, calling me a fraud and Daddy a liar.
We’ll put up the ticket prices by half, said Merman. You’re a bona fide star now, girl. He grabbed me by the shoulder, then grimaced as he wiped my mess from his forearm. I could still catch the shimmer of him in the dim light of the dressing room as he swam around in the near dark, a siren for those seeking salvation. He and Daddy disappeared into a shadowy corner and said things like defamation and libel and great publicity. I closed my sore eyelids and let the words of the Lord, recited by my mother, drown out the cold phrases of business.
It turned out that Merman was right. We moved to larger venues, auditoriums that had no ceilings and theatres so old that they had no lifts. My mother had to drag herself up spiral staircases behind my growing entourage. After I’d been on the evening news, Daddy bought me designer glasses with the name of a footballer’s wife on the side. They shielded me from the lightning bolts of cameras and, as Daddy put it, protected our best assets. With every show, details dropped away and my depth perception suffered. My mother taught me to see by feel, running my hands over the dressing tables and plush sofas in every new city, keeping my fingers away from my face lest I ruin the perfect streams.
We touched down in France on a Tuesday. The flights had been booked so that I’d already be bleeding, ready for the press on the runway, but we arrived late after a delay of six panicked hours when the miracle had declined to begin at its scheduled time. I could see too much; the light was more than I had glimpsed in months. I clutched my boarding pass and willed the tears to come. Daddy prayed and Merman barked at anonymous assistants, ordering them to bring ten feet of plastic tubing and an IV bag. Airport authorities fussed and snarled in the doorway of the first-class lounge and were shooed away by the lurching lump of my mother. I lay down with my head in Daddy’s lap and drowsed off while Merman measured my torso. When I finally blinked awake, the world was shadowed once more and a cheer went up in the room. Three hours later we landed in Lourdes, the heat of the air making my tears drip faster as my mother described the thousands waiting on the airstrip. Their weeping hymns brought up the goosebumps on my arms and made me hold Daddy’s hand a little tighter.
There were three performances a day, each one attended by two hundred more than could really fit into the Church of Our Lady, or so I was told, and though the verses had been burned into memory by my mother’s ceaseless repetition, I found that my role was much smaller than I’d imagined. I stood in my darkness, arms slightly turned away from my body, and I let them all watch while my uterus lining ran down my face in thick furrows and the priest’s words echoed around me. I spoke only when prompted, a few lines about forgiveness, and held my palms out to be kissed by the mouths of a thousand faceless strangers when the priest pushed me to my knees at the edge of the stage.
We upped the schedule to six shows a day, my eyes settling into a quiet but constant pain that coated the inside of my skull. I touched a fingertip to my cheek and licked the wetness there to know if the show could still go on; it stopped tasting metallic on day eight, though Daddy said we’d been blessed with one more day than normal because we were doing God’s will. That final day in Lourdes was one long performance. The priest took my hands and placed them on the broken bodies of those with unworking limbs and skin ravaged by disease, their pustules and bedsores oozing beneath my fingertips while they told me of week-long journeys from Israel, Australia, Ireland and beyond. Twelve thousand, someone said, as silhouettes came and went before my outstretched palms. Daddy brought me ice-cream and juice, the sweetness punctuating seven sour days of steak tartare and the body of Christ, and as I felt the warmth of the sun burn through stained-glass windows I prayed to keep feeling the glow of Daddy’s happiness.
Seven weeks later I realised that we weren’t going home.
I never saw Italy. The tyres touched the tarmac on day twenty-eight of my ninth cycle, to give us time to settle in before the main event and recover from the righteous insanity of Guatemala. Daddy gripped me, quivering with joy at having finally become somebody, the father of a miracle child, as he described the hordes of believers raising their hands from their eyelids to the skies in worship, thanking the Lord himself for his blessing. Not a word reached my ears, though, as I was lifted by thick biceps into a vehicle—an armoured limo, Merman said— and handed a glass of something fizzy that tingled up my nose. My mother pressed my hands against the walls of the hotel, which were patterned with velvet, and she told me that within the grand suite there were rooms enough for each of us, though Daddy slept atop my covers, waking hourly to check with the large men at my doorway. The next morning, I woke on my back with my arms straight out from my shoulders and still not touching the sides of the mattress, adrift in an endless sea of decadence. All the light had gone from the world, though, even the shadows, even the shapes. My eyes were weeping, but it tasted yellow, of pus, and my mother coughed out an embittered cry when I staggered, unseeing, from my haven.
There must have been a number of different doctors, all speaking in tongues, none saying a word to me. Merman yelled at translators at the foot of my bed as gloved fingers dabbed and touched and bathed and anointed me. The weathered skin of my mother’s hands, the skin of a hard life, rested on my forehead. I listened to the constant low moan that had replaced her voice.
Just make it stop, will you? snapped Merman. Not antibiotics, we need something that will work right now!
Arguments broke out and I clutched my mother’s thigh, willing myself into sleep so I didn’t have to hear. I woke to the rustle of sheets that smelled clinical, the clatter of metal instruments and the aggressive heat of lamps not far from my face. With a little pressure and a nick on my inner arm, they told me to count back from ten, and by four I fell into a woolly unconsciousness. When I came around, there were tight, stinging lines under my eyes, the flesh throbbing. Someone applied a drizzle of liquid that burned right through to my ear. A heavily accented voice spoke just before tablets were put in my mouth and my throat was rubbed to make me swallow as if I were a recalcitrant cat.
The drainage was successful but the infection might still come back. She’ll need the medication for at least ten days, but I urge you to cancel the meeting. That girl needs a hospital, not a blessing.
The next morning the metallic taste dripped into my mouth and my tear ducts ached. I pulled gently and removed thick clumps of menstrual blood from just below my eyeballs, my face still puffy and painful, my mind still cloudy and warm. My body and head were covered in a coarse material, the thick cotton cutting around my neck. Sharp fingernails applied thick-scented lotions and powders to my face as Daddy and Merman spoke to the press outside the door, and I giggled a painkiller giggle, tickled by the way the brushes caught on my eyelashes. In the early afternoon, a man called from beyond the door and my mother kissed my forehead, halting as if she was going to say something before scurrying away from my bed. A swarm entered the room, the voices all male, and hands carried me out to a car. I couldn’t quite grasp onto anything, couldn’t quite shake away the fuzziness in my head, and I wondered if it really was Daddy weeping next to me, kissing my hands and calling me an angel. When the car pulled to a halt, delicate fingers dabbed the clotted blood out of my painted eyes and led me out into the harsh sun.
Our steps echoed off marble walls as we entered the building, the searing heat giving way to astonishing cold. I let myself be taken, hushed voices whispering Holy Father and Your Grace, and when I was put onto my knees I kissed the warm metal on the fingers in front of my mouth, as I had been told to do. She’ll be a saint, said an accented voice, and I thought, Daddy must be so proud.