Been playing with blood since I was but eleven years past the first dark.

It’s when I was kissed by a boy the first time, when I got my first bike, and when the river of our Lord first ran between my thighs, kissing them skinny sticks and knobby knees like a scarlet cloud on high.

Boy was dirty. Smelled like bubblegum and sweat and kettle corn, grabbed my face and rubbed unsure desire across my lips. But that red river, that was the thing of my dreams.

Momma done hollered at me about the boy and held me close about my river, petting my hair and cooing and calling me her big girl. Dinner’s when I told momma and papa, dinner’s when we always aired things out. I’d been nervous about telling them all day, and here she was loving on me like I done no wrong. Papa just looked over his half moon glasses, shining in the light like fireflies dancing over an aching June. Papa was the distant type, a hard-working man. Never raised his voice, always kissed me goodnight, and never gave momma much grief. Always wished he showed me more love, always wished he called me a good girl or a big girl like momma did.

That night, after we all gone to bed and the crickets took over the airways, papa came to my door and stood. I woke from a dark horse of a dream with a start and he come rush to me and pat my forehead, shining with angel tears, telling me everything’ll be alright. He gave me a second kiss of the night, just like the boy had, and I giggled at the tickly hairs on his chin. Papa always smelled like tobacco and sea salt, old leather and just a bit of hooch. Watched him walk away, stumbling just a touch, and sank back into better dreams where my river ran wide and forever.

From that point on, papa paid me more attention. Got more hugs, more gifts, more bedtime kisses. He started to linger on me, rubbing my shoulders and petting my hair when we listened to our prayer programs on the radio. I didn’t pay much mind to it, save for loving every drop of sweetwater he poured in my veins. He’d be sat on the couch and me on the floor, my head between his legs, listening to the preacher spit fire and ramble on high. Momma bustled back and forth making dinner and stopping in every once in a while to listen to a psalm. Seen something flicker in momma’s eyes sometimes, something dark, but I put to figuring that she was just tired. Momma was always tired.

Those times held deep Summer, perfect for for laying outside and catching stars. Took my time to play with the neighbor girls. Diane and Kissie and Maisie. Nine and eleven and fourteen. All three sisters pretty and sweet as could be. I’d always held a special liking to Kissie – her name gave me a set of giggles I couldn’t shake when’s we first met. Diane and Maisie always rambled about the boys in our classes and at parish and holding hands and slow dancing and all manner of other things, but Kissie just rolled her eyes and twisted her hair in big loops around her fingers.

Boy who first touched my lips to his and smelled like sweet sweat never made me feel more than a silly flutter, but just being round Kissie pulled all sorts of redhot thoughts from within me, somewhere deep in my belly and lower still. I knew these thoughts was sin beyond sin but when she looked at me over her sisters’ heads and stuck her tongue out all I could think about was sticking my own to hers and tasting her til we broke. She looked like an angel, all honeysuckle hair spilling over her shoulders like a sunrise caught behind a waterfall and almond eyes that could light up the darkest skies.

We four talked on their porch til night came and heavy hush fell. Madison was a small town, a few stretches removed from the big metros in West Virginia. We liked our circle and we kept it that way. Our lil neighborhood backed right up to the hungry mouth of a great big woods our parents always warned us about. Animals roamed these parts and ran wild. Once, a little boy wandered off into the woods round nightfall and come sun the next day he was gone without a trace. Steer clear, they always said, unless you wanted a whooping, and no one wanted that.

By the time Maisie’s words turned from boys and school to going to the big city for new dresses and school dances, Diane’s eyes got to fluttering and drooping and she leant her head to the wooden rail. Maisie sighed, swooping the youngest up to her bosom, and took off into the warm light of their home, muttering goodnights and farewells. For a touch, Kissie and I sat in the cool night air, listening to frogs chirp and insects buzz, and I breathed in her sweet company. Without warning, she grabbed my hand and yanked me toward the wooded mouth, some great yawning beast of wonder I’d never dreamed of stepping near. I yelped but she just look back and caught my eye with a diamond the size of Mississippi in hers and flashed me those pearls sat so delicate in her mouth and I gave up and ran with.

We ran deep and far and I melted in her step every which way. Every time I was out of breath it felt like she blew air straight into my lungs to keep me going. We came upon this great big clearing and she jumped up and caught on a tree root, and we fell together and rolled and rolled, stopping just before we hit a patch of rock. My legs was fire and my lungs was clouds and I couldn’t see nothing but stars and the fog from our breaths hovering in-between. I remember she grabbed my face – I remember she held it so soft between velvet palms and stroked my chin and pressed sweet cherry lips into mine. I remember thunder creeping between my legs like the crack that come before crooked yellow rods. I remember red hot heat that danced on my chest and lit the trees on fire and kicked soot from their branches. I remember my river, only come this second time around, flooding my banks and coursing through my veins. And I remember hearing static voices chirp like angels reciting God’s first words and seeing God’s light itself shone down upon us in that clearing. Save it wasn’t angel voices or God’s light. It was my papa’s.

He thrown Kissie off of me, his light a glaring torch to our coupling, slurring a yell for her to run back to her daddy and momma and beg their forgiveness ‘fore he sweat out the sins of the world over her rotten flesh. She ran crying, stumbling, and I realized we wasn’t more than a stone’s throw from where we started, not twenty yards from our porches; we gone in one big circle. Then, papa set to staring at me, huffing and wheezing with the weight of the world on his shoulders and the Devil on his chest. Could smell the sour whiskey on his breath from five feet; almost taste it myself. Something evil danced through his eyes, resting in the dark space between, and I gulped stale air, the taste of Kissie distant and sick. He stepped closer, placing one boot on my knee, and pressed down just a touch.

“You wanna sin, girl? You wanna know the Devil’s world on your flesh?”.

I shivered, voice a lump in my throat, shaking my head back and forth and begging forgiveness with my eyes.

“You wanna feel the wrath that you done brought on your family, the stinkin’ sin of a whore’s tainted breath?”. No question in his voice, no hesitation in his boot. He pressed down harder.

I yelped. “Papa, you’re hurti-”

“Girl, you don’t know pain til you wrung out true sin”

Peace said, he stepped down his full weight and I felt my knee splinter like old wood. I’d taken sprains and bruises in spades but I never heard my own bones crack like that. It grabbed a scream with greedy fingers deep within my belly and poured it white hot on the forest ground, but papa was ready and scooped up my heat and poured it right back into me. He was on me in a hair second, one sweaty, oily hand clamped over my mouth like a steel piston skirt. I swallowed my scream and felt it rocket back and forth in my body, spreading hurt wherever it touched. In the distance, beyond papa’s head, soft yellow lights come flicker on. But he held fast and strong, and after a few moments, the lights went dark again.

Papa taught me true sin that night. Sweating and squealing like a pig caught in barbed wire, he shone a light on my wrongs. He wrenched open my drawers and let the Devil set down his keep to call home.

When he was done he left me in the dirt, nothing more than warning to be home ‘fore morn. He left me shivering and broken and cold, my dress yanked up over my head and the stars above blinking sorry songs for a deaf sky. I blinked along, shedding tears to the wayside. I begged the sky to open like a wound and take me in, for Jesus to come down and bless me whole again and wash away my sins. I begged the forest to trot out its great horned beasts and demons and drag me to its belly and swallow me up. But I knew my mortal words was outside Heaven’s reach. I was nothing but sin in broken flesh. I stumbled on a screaming knee over to a big ash tree at the far edge of the clearing and collapsed. My river was dripping down my thighs in uneven patterns, spreading across my bruised skin in black swirls, color snuffed out by a pale moon. Blank mind to clawed fingers, I started drawing patterns, fingerpainting like we used to in Ms. Addelson’s kiddie class. From my Father, His Daughter, and my Bloody Spirit, I traced shapes and symbols my eyes never laid claim to. Stars with too many points stretched arms beyond boxes turned a quarter til noon. My fingers danced and danced til there was no white space left on my tired skin, and then danced some more, connecting dots where there was none to be found. The lines shone bright and deep on my legs, burning with loss and desire for more. I was so wrapped up in making my canvas beautiful and whole again that I didn’t see Her at first.

She walked on two legs with the grace of whispered words, feet sliding between blades of grass. I didn’t notice Her until She was upon me, and I looked up and breathed Her in with my whole self. She come with no flesh, pulsating openly in the night air, every bone and tendon and muscle exposed for the world, red and white and blissful. She got no eyes but I could feel Her gaze, loving and soft and gentle as breeze. She set a feather-soft palm under my chin and spoke inside my mind and told me not to feel pain anymore and I didn’t. This form, my Red Angel. She took my pain and fear and brokenness and breathed in me new life I’d never dreamed of. She took my hand and lifted me on Her back and I done clutched tiny trusting child hands round Her neck and felt Her bleed into me.

We was inside my home, backdoor ajar. Living room, soft warmth through sick gesture. Up the stairs, forgotten path. Past my bedroom, its womb empty and torn. At momma and papa’s door, and then through it without opening. She look upon papa, his fat form heaving like a happy pig in the dark. She grabbed him up, shaking the snores out and bringing a ruddy face back to reality and he choked on his dreams. He screamed a small child’s scream but She snuff that out real quick, tearing tongue through cartilage and ripping his bottom jaw in two. As She set to digging freshly open claws into spaces between ribs, I crawled up on the bed and scooted back into momma’s cold, stiff arms. I seen the broken lamp and momma’s wrecked skull when we came in. I seen the blood on papa’s hands and sheets and though I love momma fierce, my Red Angel took away all my pain and I felt nothing but love.

Papa struggled and heaved through the blood spilling in his lungs, begging with bloodshot eyes, but She just ripped and tore and wrung out the sin. In the cold embrace of momma’s arms, I watched my Red Angel paint constellations with papa’s blood that hung in the cold, electric air of the room, and I seen a beauty I never laid claim to before. When She squeezed him hard and his eyes popped out their sockets and lay on his cheeks like little grapes, when She reached in and beckoned out his spine with a sound like a big wooden spintop, I clapped my hands together and I squealed. I giggled harder and harder with each moon-white bone that came popping out. Finally, She let him down like a lil doll, stretching the skin tore from his back in big swoops, just like an angel. She strung him up like a pretty lil decoration over the window and bless the house with the loss of his sin. I placed a finger over both of momma’s eyes and closed them for the final time. Momma was always so tired. Red Angel scooped me up and brushed leaves from my hair and said without saying that I was a big girl, a good girl, cooing over and over. She led me from the house down into the yard and She kiss my palms and took off into the night. With no pain in my knee and rest in my heart, I took to wandering into that forbidden wood, and I been wandering since.

Been playing with blood since I was but eleven years past the first dark. I seen things and felt things I’d’ve never laid claim to before my Red Angel come spreading sinewy wings over damaged hills. I’ve danced circles in wildfires with all manner of Hell’s sweetest creatures and sung lullabies to slow-moving mountains and I been free this whole time.

Once a month, when my river come flowing and hounds start lapping at my heels, I trace symbols and patterns of stars with too many points all cross my thighs. Even with their arms stretched beyond boxes turned a quarter til noon, my Red Angel ain’t been back since the day She took away my pain. And though I miss Her and I long to see Her sweet reds and whites again, I know she out there helping another lost soul find their way.

Part 2