by Traci Brimhall
We were too drunk to go to the movies like we’d planned, so my friend and I stayed at the bar and pretended to be wiser than we were, more in love with the world, more humble than we felt. “We are all creatures of want,” he said to me, and I was glad we were side-by-side and not looking at each other when he said it. He was an actor. He wanted to convince me of something. I didn’t believe him, not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt like I was always outrunning something rather than reaching for something. Fear, we are creatures of fear, I wanted to say back but didn’t. I knew better and stayed quiet. I give away my secrets so easily, but that’s one I kept.
The first time I saw Ugolino and His Sons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt that terror I knew so well rise up in me and press against my ribs until I had to lean in and look harder. I didn’t know the story then. I only saw how Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux had carved the fingers of Ugolino’s sons so that they dug at his marble flesh, their bodies circling him, their bald eyes hungry. Ugolino stared out, perched above me, his own hands tugging at his cheeks and the corners of his mouth. The toes of one foot flexed and scraping at the other foot. His whole body tense. A solid nerve. Nearly alive. I didn’t know what his sons were offering him, but his anguish was clear, and in my own fear I wanted to commit the unthinkable and break my teeth on the meat of his calf.
Of course I’d read Dante’s Inferno before I encountered Ugolino and His Sons, but who can remember the catalogue of suffering? Who can name all those poor, condemned Italians in Dante’s tour of hell? I only learned later what Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was showing me, why my terror grew so ravenous in me that I almost violated that sculpture with my mouth. Those boys circling, those sons reaching and crying out and pulling at their father’s flesh were trying to give themselves to their father. Condemned in a tower to death by starvation, his sweet children offered him the flesh that he’d given to them, to let their deaths help give him life for at least awhile longer, and that grimaced face, those tortured feet, that desire so plain for his love to be stronger than his hunger.
How unnatural, I thought, for a child to give their life for the parent. It’s meant to go the other way. A parent should die for a child. Besides, how could a parent live with the grief of a child gone? Could a father tear the muscle from the bone with his teeth and praise that sacrifice? Could he want what life was left to him?
Another man on another night brought me to the Met on a date and said, “Take me to the piece in here that you love most.” I don’t know what he expected. I don’t know if he, too, meant to talk to me about want, but I showed him Ugolino and His Sons. I don’t remember what he said, but he probably he expounded on history, corrected the myth and said that when the bodies were tested later it was proven that there was no cannibalism in the tower. Ugolino and his sons died of starvation as they were meant to, but the blood in my ears doesn’t believe it. The Ugolino before me knows it’s only a matter of minutes before he picks up the fainted boy at his feet and starts to chew.
But sometimes I think my friend in that bar was right. We are creatures of want. We want to drink more than we want to go to the movies. We want to pretend we are wise about desire. We want to show our first dates our terror and say: See? See what we are asked to sacrifice? We want them not to run from us in the middle of a crowded museum when we talk about a sculpture’s magnificent toes.
I want to think transubstantiation could work both ways, that a boy’s blood could become wine in his father’s mouth, that his body could become warm bread as he says: Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me. I want to think I could die for my father like a god, like a gift.
I came around to want when I saw Peter Paul Rubens’ Cimon and Pero. Like so many images, it arrived without its story. An old man with his hands behind his back. A young woman in a sumptuous dress, her breasts exposed. The setting grim, a cell, two Roman guards in the window. And that old man’s face hidden in the young woman’s breast as he sucks the milk from her body. The story is an old one. Done and redone since Roman times when it was emblematic of charity, of filial piety, of a daughter offering herself to her father.
It wasn’t fear I felt when I saw that painting. No, not terror knocking against my ribs, but want. The weight I carried high in my breasts fell, and I knew I needed to find my son so I could relieve us both. A thousand miles away my mother was dying, and I could offer nothing but a phone call and a Mother’s Day present sent early enough to reach her when she could still speak and say Thank you, and How beautiful.
In the painting by Rubens, the father condemned to starvation has a paunch that makes me suspicious. As if he’s not yet desperate. Or perhaps Rubens meant the sacrificing daughter fed her father so well that he’s become more like an infant, fat and happily rotund. In the window, those soldiers. In other versions of this image, the daughter stares lovingly at her father’s balding head. In some, she seems to be looking out the window in fear. In Rubens, I see a pleading, perhaps her own fear, believing she’s been caught. But in the story, it is only by being caught that the father is given mercy. The soldiers see an act of charity they had never fathomed before and let the father live.
I saw that painting, and I wanted more than anything to cross the merciless distance and at least offer, at least hope God had some pardon for my mother. Not blood on the lintel, but milk, and the angel of death might pass over.
Now I kiss my son’s bruises and offer ice and Star Wars band-aids. We are healthy, uncondemned. One night after we mix our ingredients and bake, and the cookies are cooling on the counter, my son stares into the dark window of the oven and asks: Can you turn that light on so we can not see that nothing? I think of Ugolino’s pupil-less stare, what he must’ve felt as his children clung to him, the nothing he feared, the nothing he wanted, the nothing gnawing holes in his teeth. The room smells so sweet. I am full and hungry at once. Yes, I tell him. Not because I’m afraid, but because I want. I want to not see the nothing. He keeps his face against the window, and I turn on the light.