Writing this was an experiment (on some level, though, I suppose writing anything is an experiment). I didn’t have an end in mind, or even a beginning or a middle, when I started writing. Instead, what I had was a series of images. A larger-than-life tiger, a blue chalk arrow, a suburban backyard. The threat of death, the complication of sacrifice. I had a vague notion that I wanted to recreate Iphigenia at Aulis. That didn’t end up happening, but it will someday.
In the end, I think all I wanted was to capture the sensation of listening to a bedtime story as it is being made up in real-time. I have compiled all part of “Bliss Point” together below and lightly edited it where needed.
Sal swallows hard and squeezes her eyes shut. She pictures her sister’s cool hand on her shoulder, steadying her, helping her first to her knees, and then to her feet. She thinks of all the times she has yanked Mina up from a fallen position: Mina’s tiny feet flailing as Sal hoists her from out of the sandpit, or into the family sedan, or onto a high chair, ignoring mewls of protest. All force of authority, in which a preteen Sal had perversely indulged. She puts one hand on her chest, fingers digging into the fabric. Remorse threatens to topple her and she has to bite back, not for the first time, the impossible desire to re-do their childhood, this time with an adult’s understanding of emotional tenderness, of duty of care, of sacrifice.
The void fizzes out, as naturally and as unceremoniously as the sun vanishing under the gray line of the horizon. The girl’s face returns. Her pride, playfulness, and spirit are gone. In their place is the dun-yellow gaze of a cornered animal. Sal steadies herself on the back of the chair.
When next the girl-tiger speaks, her voice comes out in a whisper. “Do you remember game day, when we were kids?”
Sal freezes. Blood rings in a low, wet tone, in the cavern of her head. The two men immediately turn to look at them. The charade is now over, and they begin their approach with even, measured footsteps.
The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. At that, she hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament: righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.
But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it was.
The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.
“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.
At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.
“The tiger,” Sal yells back at Mina, as they run through the stubbly grass of the neighborhood backyards. “That’s what you shot, right?”
Mina nods mutely. Gone is her desire to deny. The scream rings through her mind like a struck gong.
“I get it,” says Sal as gently as their mother, and Mina reels back on the line, hooked and stung, both encouraged and profoundly dismayed by the show of empathy.
It feels good to be understood, but bad to be understandable. She wants desperately to be like Sal: an enigma, a mystery of cold gaze and muscular arms and strawberry blonde bobbed hair. She wants that steely light in her eyes, a torch that never dims, to fall into her possession.
“You’ve never liked cats,” Sal continues, and Mina smiles grimly at the accuracy of that explanation.
She keeps her eyes forward, gaze bobbing jerkily as she tries to match Sal’s pace. Mina had started out like a race horse, flush with adrenaline, but that chemical is quickly receding, leaving her hot and panicked in its wake. But Sal is immune to tiredness, gliding forward with no sign of exertion, her legs pumping with raw, fluid, impossible strength.
“Sal, I have to stop,” Mina pants, her hands coming down heavily onto her knees as she sinks to the grass of a neighbor’s backyard. Sal doesn’t say anything. A twisted magnolia watches as she immediately slides her arms under her sister’s armpits and hoists her back up to a standing position.
“Come on, Mina,” Sal says evenly, “you know you don’t have a choice.”
Sitting cross-legged on the quilted bed spread, Mina draws out the scene on a fresh page in Sal’s spiral-bound notebook. Sal lies down alongside her, her head propped up by her hand, her feet dangling off the mattress. Outside, visible in the limpid, otherworldly color that streaks through the tiny basement window high above them, the night sky is already slurring into an icy, pinkish dawn. The early light casts them in the touchable, textured chiaroscuro of a painting.
Together, the younger with her hair in her eyes, and the elder with her illegible expression, they communicate with slight changes to posture and diversions of attention rather than words. Sal watches the bobbing of Mina’s bowed head as she carefully recreates the vision, noting her focused, scrunched-up face, the precise movements of her crimped hand. In many ways, Mina behaves like an eternal child—stubborn for the sake of stubbornness—but on the rare occasions when seriousness takes over instead, it transforms her from a girl into something else entirely. Not exactly like a woman, Sal thinks, but like a pendulum finally set into motion.
Mina’s version of the tiger looks less like a beast and more like an oversized house cat, an effect further exaggerated by comically triangular ears and oddly proportioned eyes. Mina’s drawings have always been clumsy, but she never fails to get her point across. The rectangular altar is thrice-outlined in ballpoint pen, ink oozing at its corners, announcing its position as the vision’s imposing emotional center. The heart of the dream. The lumpy oval lies above it, a vaguely humanoid form which Mina is now describing as a sacrifice.
“And, to either side, this guy with a very sharp thing, and an old woman. Like a king and a witch from a story.” Mina draws them rapidly: stick figures with bobble heads and blank faces. After a moment’s thought, she scribbles in a curved dagger in the hand of the first figure, and a hood cloaking the second.
To herself, in her capacity as an interpreter of dreams, Sal thinks: Time, slicing seconds off with a knife. Death, shrouded. That leaves three meanings to elucidate before dream becomes reality: the tiger, the sacrifice, and Mina, the archer.
Waddling to the toilet at three in the morning, legs clasped as tightly as the latch to a jewelry box, she flings open the door of her bathroom, bare feet bouncing against the shock of the frigid tile. The blurry shape of the sink looms ominously. Groping in the dark, she flips on the switch to her left. Stingingly bright light floods her field of vision—but it’s not the interior of her bathroom she finds, with its dowdy fixtures and seashell wall accents, but a long, winding suburban street. She stands on the smooth tarmac, sandwiched between rows of identical two-story houses and manicured trees, all awash in the pearly, deep purple of summer twilight.
She has changed, too. Instead of polka dotted pajamas, she now wears a fleece hoodie, ripped jean shorts, and dirty off-white sneakers. It’s the outfit of an adolescent with little patience for respectability, and a strong desire to skulk around shopping mall parking lots, hood pulled up, rubbery cord tightened around her neck. Her urge to urinate, which had awoken her from sleep, has disappeared entirely. She breathes in, feeling the youth of her in-dream body as intensely as a drink of cool water. The air smells green, like lawn grass, wet from a parade of sprinklers, and faintly sweet, like fresh fruit.
There’s an arrow on the sidewalk, drawn in baby blue chalk. A few feet away, another, and then another. She follows the trail until it leads her to a house at the far-end and middle of a cul-de-sac, positioned along the street like a keystone in an arch. It is a standard, factory-made two-floor house made of white paneled wood and windows with green shutters. She inspects it from the driveway, feeling the wind play through her long hair. There’s no evidence of movement inside, but she feels antsy, expectant, as though sitting in a movie theater right before previews. She knows something is about to take place. Going around the back, stepping quietly on a path of cobblestones strewn through the grass, she arrives at the yard, where a mise-en-scène is silently unfolding.