This is what I was told.
Our house was small and indistinct. My father was a fisherman. My mother, a midwife. They were industrious and kind, a popular couple in our Balkan village. Our village was bordered by a sea lake and a fast flowing river, caught between them. A thickly forested strip of land lying between two large bodies of water. Our village was in a clearing, a low-lying mound of earth that barely managed to keep the trees and tides at bay, but which was home.
Then I was born.
My mother was the only midwife and I was her first child. My birth was attended by an elder woman, named Batislava, who had four children of her own and was therefore deemed most qualified to cope with the screaming, delirious mother to be. Batislava and her eldest daughter shouted and cajoled me into this world, pulling me from out between my mother’s thighs, only stopping to scream themselves when they saw the bloodied red skin covering my head. The daughter, Virgilia, an inexperienced slip of a teenager, driven by some instinct, pulled it off me, and slapped me hard so that I bawled aloud. Batislava, too late, too shocked, could not stop her, and her screams turned to lamentations that I had been allowed to live. My own mother rendered unconscious by the force of my arrival was oblivious to it all.
The caul was dried in the kiln that the Valtiva family used for their pots, then it was crushed into powder. This was presented to my mother along with her swaddled baby. But my mother did not believe in the old ways and was sure the powder would make me sick. And so for seven mornings I did not ingest it, but instead, drank my milk unaware, as the pile diminished, and my mother buried it, little by little, in case our neighbours came by.
Batislava was not known for her discretion and so the other villagers came, often with gifts of food to help my mother’s recovery, but more keenly to look at the diminishing heap of powder, prominently displayed by my crib. They were reassured. My mother’s ruse worked. I would not be found dead in the scrubland, or accidentally choke on something that should never have been in my mouth. I would live and be accepted. And so it was.
This is what I remember.
I loved the smell of the bloodied rags my mother piled high to take to washing every month. When I grazed my knee, I sucked it hard, then picked the scab that formed so I could do so once more. I attended birthings from the age of eight but was ten before I saw one where the blood soaked the sheets and ruined the small rag rug we kept by the bedside. My mother told me to throw away the rug, but I treasured it more than my wooden doll, more than my knitted yellow cat, more than the blue dress my mother sewed for me to wear the church. It was perfume and promise, and after it had dried, I would press it tight against my face and inhale its metallic sense with something I now know as a kind of ecstasy. I had that rug until I was fourteen years old and wept when it was discovered beneath the old fish baskets in the cellar and swiftly thrown away while I was at the church school, one Sunday afternoon.
But by then I had learned how to make others bleed, so the loss was mostly sentimental, a grieving for the thing that had showed me what I was, what I am. My own periods started at eleven, but while I was fascinated by thick, smelly haemorrhaging, my own blood brought me no delight. I dreaded the losing of it, thought my period pains a symptom that my life was being taken from me with each passing moon. Even when my mother taught me that they meant giving life, rather than losing my own substance, I did not believe her. After all, the life they might create was a temporary, fragile, sickly one, of which those mewling newborns that disturbed our house and my restless longings were emblematic.
We lost my father to the sea when I was still a child. My mother’s skill kept us in food, clothing and shelter, but I had few friends, and there was a pervasive belief that the bad luck which had touched my family might be contagious and take my classmates fathers too.
By twelve, I longed for boys, in the way I had craved the smell of the rug, a fierce desire, one that burned and made me take a boy who was two years older me and hold his penis in my mouth, so that he spurted inside me, and left, embarrassed and ashamed. While I cried with disappointment that the ejaculation was white and salty and thin and did not taste or look like blood. The boy, whose name was Estav, told his friends, and they came, two or three together sometimes. But I was wary in my disappointment and traded them, although they did not know what they were giving me.
The kisses that became bites, made them cry out, but seemed to them to be a paltry price to pay for those small swift jerks of pleasure that I grew to despise. The blood I drew sustained and delighted me. I grew bolder until I bit the hardened cock of one of Estav’s friends so hard he bled from it, and my admirers faded away, as fast as snow in sunshine. I trusted their embarrassment more than their discretion and was right to do so. It was not until I was fifteen and betrothed that my practices, as I like to call them, caught up with me.
Serge was different from the others. He admired my hair, which was unusually pale for the region, and thick and matted and often in need of brushing. He did not mind the smell of birth that our house carried for days after each event. He was the first person to bring me flowers, dark red poppies tied with a ribbon of green, the first person to help me clean the room after a labour, the first to hold my hand, to ask if he might kiss me, to be curious about who I was and what I thought and how my every day passed one by one.
I did not bite him, of course, nor did I take his erection in my mouth, although I felt its insistence pressed against me on that first kiss and on the many subsequent. Instead I waited, because that is what I had been taught to do when it mattered. And this did to me. I fantasised often. In my dreams he ejaculated blood over me while he cried out my name in pleasure. He drank the blood from my cunt when it was bleeding and told me he felt drunk and happy with the taste of it. In my imaginings we were soul mates, blood brother and sister, drawn together then entwined by our twin desires. Had it been so, I think I might have settled for a human life. I might have been happy there, in the village of my birth, with my unsuspecting parents who never believed that the caul was anything but a membrane, the villagers who thought I was cured, the boys who thought I was strange, evil perhaps, and best avoided, and Serge, who, for the briefest of times, loved me.
Serge hated Estav. Estav was a bully and while Serge was not one to be easily bullied, he despised what he saw as cowardly victimising of younger kids, including his little sister, Ivana. Ivana was physically large for a girl which gave her an air of being braver than she actually was. Estav, with the sixth sense of a hunter, knew her vulnerability, and pulling her down in the fields one day, squeezed her breasts so hard they were bruised. Ivana did not tell her brother, but she told me, and I passed the information on, thinking I would not be sorry to see the boy who had been the source of my first dissatisfaction, and the architect of my secret reputation among his friends, punished for it. Serge acted as I expected and beat up Estav. He came to me afterwards, in the woods behind our house, and I licked his bloodied fists, and kissed him so hard, he drew back for the first time ever. He thought I did it for love of his sister, in gratitude for the wrong he had righted, but, in truth, those broken knuckles filled me with a desire so intense that I cried because of it, rather than for pity at his state. For days after I was distracted. My mother said it was time I was wed and would not let me near a birthing because she said I was hopelessly forgetful. I was half mad with longing. The space between my thighs burned and felt swollen day in, day out, so that at night I pressed my fingers there, expecting release of the kind I had heard women speak of, but none came. I was ignorant and innocent, thought that perhaps I needed a man to be released, and through it all, for no reason at all, beyond my daydream fantasising that it simply had to be, looked to the day when Serge would fill me with his bloody semen.
Serge was moved by my pity and proposed to me before that week was out. I agreed to a wedding and as was the custom in our village at the time, my mother, my only parent, met Serge’s uncle, his guardian, for he too had lost his father but to a now forgotten war. The ceremony was arranged.
I carried poppies, like the ones I had first been gifted. I wore a dress that was the colour of unripe strawberries that had been my mother’s on her wedding day, and Serge gave me a ring of copper that made my finger green, within hours of us jumping over the fire and being wrist tied.
While we danced to the music of two pipers who had been brought in from the town, Serge whispered, with shining eyes, that I was the first person he had ever felt really belonged with him. And because he said belonged ‘with’ and not ‘to’, I loved him even more, something I had not thought might be possible. I did not tell him. My desire, which he mistook for shyness, rendered me mute, held me taught and craving. This, I thought is what it means to want someone. This is what Serge means when he says he wants me. Love is this. I sneaked off while everyone was dancing, as if I was going to relieve myself among the trees, telling Serge to follow me after just a minute or two. Behind high bushes, I did not crouch to pee, but instead pressed my hand against my vulva and waited, desperate. He didn’t come, couldn’t, because he was waylaid by some distant family, arriving late and apologetic, with gifts for both of us. When I returned to the party, still aching, I saw him, helpless and hapless, mouthing apologies, his eyes mirroring the frustration I felt course through me.
So it was, until the right time, the evening time, after the festivities, when the cart that would take us to our own home, wooden and hastily constructed where we wished, a clearing five miles distant from the village, was filled with what little we had and we clambered onto it together.
We didn’t make it to the house. Serge pulled up the horse when we were far enough away from everyone to be neither seen nor heard. He did so wordlessly, but also with an odd calm, tying the horse carefully, while all the time my body was singing out for him. I remained sitting on the cart until he reached up his hand and helped me down. When I was there beside him all the steadiness left him too, and he was upon me. He lifted up my dress and pulled off the loose drawers that were the only thing I wore beneath it. I loosened his belt and pulled down his breeches so that he stumbled slightly, in my haste. I had held a score of boys in my mouth but my virginity, as much for fear of censure and the promise of a lifetime of loneliness because no one would take a spoiled woman for a bride, was intact. Serge pushed hard to enter into me, and came within seconds, but when he pulled out and I saw that blood as well as semen made a caul for his cock, I cried out with release and pleasure and the realisation of my hope. Serge was ecstatic too. Back in our cart, he grinned and giddy upped our horse, seeming impatient for our homecoming and the bed that awaited us there. This was the happiest moment, I have ever known. This. Set it down. Through aeons. Centuries, decades, years, minutes, seconds, this joy, the promise of being sated for as long as I needed to be, as we needed to be. Without knowledge of my own difference, caught up with the sweating, heaving, sticky release of humanity. Still frustrated but in the knowledge that soon I would not be. The next time it would be slower, and the next time was less than an hour away.
At our home, we did not trouble to unload the cart but Serge lifted me over the threshold, in the old tradition and carried me straight to the corner where our bed had been placed. In time, if children came, there would be sheets around it to afford us privacy, but for now, there was only us two and our couplings and cries could fill the room. We undressed hastily, half helping each other, but mostly just pulling off our own clothes. I spread my legs, sitting on the edge of the bed and he pushed me back with one hand while guiding himself into me with the other. It was slower this time and I took pleasure in the insistency of him, and when he shouted out and I felt his warm wetness, I thought of his blood entering me, and cried out too, expecting the physical release to come as I did so. But when he pulled back the only red marks were the faint traces of that first penetration. I bent down and took him in my mouth, eager to taste him, but instead of blood, the metal tang, the sweet sour smell, there was only the taste of my own blood and the thin salty stickiness of semen.
I bent down to his penis and licked it clean, shuddering, then saddened, because I knew the blood was mine alone, and all he carried, all he gave to me, was that white salty slimy weakness, and all my fantasies were no more than that.
He took my crying for some kind of loss of maidenhood, or perhaps from happiness, I never knew. But I was already crying for the loss of him. I had loved him, but the longing in me was more than I could bear or hold or even understand then, young as I was. I stood up as if to wipe myself, but confused him by going out to the cart, naked as I was. I saw the surprise momentarily on his face. When I returned I had his hunting knife, and with a skill that I did not know I had, I drew it across his neck, so that the blood spurted and showered over me, and I screamed with the pleasure of it, howled with the release, then pressed my mouth against his gaping, bloody throat, and drank.
Only afterwards, when the blood had dried around me and I had licked spatters from his body, when I had sucked the soaked cloth of the sheet beneath him, like a newborn at a nipple, did I realise what I had done. I knew who I was, what I was. And I abhorred the truth of it.