Bare implements are best, a stiff-backed chair sharp against your spine and a clean wooden table with a patch of sunlight to light up the Bible you’re about to eat one page at a time, a glass of water and jar of honey in a rundown motel room. The motel’s off the highway when the tank’s on E, a place no one would think of, several hours away from your town or city. You’ll know the place when you see it, as if it’s been waiting for you all these years playing its soft adagio and tom-tom sadness, thudding out tunes with its brick forehead. You’ve been traveling to this room far away your entire life, and eating the Bible will light up your nerves until the neon lasso of the motel flickers and dies out once and for all.
You carry a lodestone of pain with you wherever you go, no matter what you do; you can almost touch its calcified roundness like a starfish stitched into your side. Go into the state of your calm breathing, which is hard won after years of quiet suffering. No one can tell you what eating the Bible will mean because no one knows; the moment of consumption will be transformed into shock waves of revelation or you’ll be reduced to sickness in the bathroom, bent over and retching into the toilet. Either way you’ll have to eat the Bible page by page, because there’s no one you can talk to anymore so you must converse with God by making Him a part of your flesh. If that means the words burn through your skin and melt away your bones and ligaments, so much the better (though the pain of it will be excruciating). No need for luggage, fancy shoes, or magazines: TV is all the distraction you will need before or after. Eating the Bible is not about words per se, just the Old Testament meeting the New, Matthew, Mark and Luke and the rest of it, like a hive of restless bees inside your mouth.
Before you start to eat the Bible, think of someone you could never reach, someone sad and wistful, someone who ended up in an asylum or retirement home or early grave; this face should serve as a guiding paradigm of what you are about to do, then promptly fade away as the words begin to burn their deep imprimatur into the lining of your mouth. The face will also give you resolve and earnestness to commence the chewing. It can be anyone, as long as he or she fulfills the criterion of a difficult love, the one who left or the one that got away. Don’t start eating the Bible because you’re hungry; tell yourself it’s the best you can do now or any other time. No one knows where you are because you’re not sure yourself. No contact numbers, leads of any kind; you just got up and left, a thin, vaporous cloud that simply disappeared. The eating will grow consequent to desire and the tingling sensation at the back of your throat as you wonder how the Bible will taste, ordinary paper or the thing that will supplant all other modes of being. Admit out loud to the broken ceiling fan of the motel room, the one that looks like a busted propeller you’re supposed to fix, that everything has led to this and there’s no turning back, the failed affairs, the growing patch of baldness, the sense that you’re followed everywhere by something you can’t name.
The room will look back at you with a bland, hangdog expression, but that’s only because it has been waiting for you your whole life. Go into it like a man seeking light inside a cave. The Bible may taste like sundown on the plains or like the time you knew once and forever that you were lost and abandoned, nowhere to turn to, nowhere to hide, no mere passing fancy or self-pity but stark ultimate knowledge; embrace that as you would the temporary shelter of a concrete underpass where you slept one night as a hitchhiker. Remind yourself that only plants can feed on light and you’re not a plant, you’re not the peaceful echo of God’s light struggling for breathing space in a devastated world. You’re on your own, and the highway sounds endless with the soughing of traffic, a mystical sound charged with the after tones of a cosmic forgiveness. Don’t expect someone to knock on the door. Room service is for upscale places. The room is drab and nondescript just as a part of you knew it would be, things frayed and falling apart, a rickety quality, woebegone, sad affairs coming to an end, late nights of solo drinking, thoughts of suicide and childhood from a constant stream of one-night guests. Have mercy on the memories of those who came before hauling their itinerant lives, watching headlights move and fade across the walls like wilting black-white flowers, like small lunar eclipses that try to speak to the stars.
The fleeting knowledge of erstwhile guests inheres in the musty curtains, the cum-stained bedspread, the threadbare sheets thinner than a skein of April snow. Rattle of the AC, the ice bucket used for loose change, joints, pocketknives, lipstick containers, used condoms and candy wrappers, car keys, peanuts, receptacle of lives on the run. Rife fucking took place on this very bed, the fucking of maniacs, lost souls, people who wanted to be children again, to beat out their brains, forget for awhile, forget forever in mind-blowing incidents of brief human contact lit up like sparks and taking place with other anonymous selves, the way they couldn’t be with their loved ones, the ones they hid from or didn’t know anymore, the ones they needed to get shut of and the ones they kept crawling back to like a crippled dog with mangy fur. You’re almost ready to eat the Bible, but approach it slowly, because the pages aren’t meant for rapid consumption. You’re down to your last $1,000 bucks but that’s more than most folks, $25 bucks a night in the motel room which gives you forty days and forty nights to eat the Bible, just eat it with no other diet or repast in mind, the honey there to grease the skids, the water for obvious reasons.
Two years ago the thought occurred to you as a lilting notion drifting down from nowhere, “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” The thought was like a knife passing through butter. You were walking by a scrap yard, and sea gulls wheeled above it cutting up the sky; you thought for all the waste and mangled metal that a better world was possible, but you had no idea where to turn: “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” You were sure that the sounds of falling metal made peace and holiness all the more precious. You lived close to a polluted river a few blocks away: “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” This after a painful divorce from your high-school sweetheart who left you for a younger man, a guy with bright yellow hair like the paint on a No. #2 pencil: “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” You’ve done a spell of drinking that would drown a catfish, gallons of whiskey with every passing month until you were sure your liver was made of stainless steel, as you saw the world through an amber twilight lit up by the signal flairs of your scrambled mind: “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” Your car is your last refuge, the one place where you can really breathe way out on the highway, out of the range of any other place, “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.” You pray in the dark before daylight in your bathrobe because the hours leading up to dawn are fraught with danger, passing needles and pins back and forth like seething spirits intent on destruction: “I wonder what the Bible tastes like.”
The doorknob of the motel room is rickety in your hand, as if it will fall apart any second like a glass globe. The two windows side-by-side on the second floor overlook the parking lot, a beat-up GMC van and a mud-colored Trans Am. Your car is on the end, a white Ford Escort with 102, 000 miles on it. Beyond these is a creek with upturned shopping carts and shredded trash bags, debris that makes you think of the moon. No one lives in the motel but figures of movement-passing-forward, people on the run as if the past is hauling its nuclear cloud after them, trailing them by mere days or hours. Even the local phone book looks like it’s been paged through hurriedly so many times that the numbers are blurred together like a cartoon in your mind. For the next month or so the motel will be your home, its forlorn energy like hoops of invisible moon doom bleaching out your mind. The motel room is like the space inside your skull vacant of thought or emotion, a skull within a skull, a bleached horse skull in the sun, Georgia O’Keefe, circa ‘31.
You’ll need this austerity to turn once more to the Bible. It’s framed in a rectangle of sunlight, light within a light, and this is just one of the many reasons why you’ve traveled here on your secret and sacred mission to eat its pages after wasting your life. You want it to burn inside your mouth in prophetic fire; you hope it will wash away all that is not true so that you can eat the Bible and give way to its clarity in a gradual or sudden transformation that will turn you into something, anything else. You know the Bible like a runaway kid hooked on dreams of another life, another love, somewhere far away from where he came from because home was too painful and raw, fraught with human ugliness and abuse, addiction of every kind with mindless hours of reruns, walking into the night hoping to be picked up by a stranger.
The poignant, inescapable facts are these:
You’re lost, empty of all ambition but to make life strange and singular again.
The importance of your tender throat cannot be overemphasized, the sleeve you’ve used many times to choke back the tears. Let them fall freely now.
The Bible will taste more than mere paper, more like dark currents of electricity moving throughout your body in bolts of divine wattage, becoming sparks and mantra, pops and downed power lines waving their catastrophic wires.
Because you are a sweet and desolate pilgrim, hope to you is made of threads so thin that you see them spanning the void like filaments of a soft bright light.
Your mouth is like the space of a canyon, raw and baked by the sun.
You are finally willing to eat the Bible because everything else makes you sad.
Now the room is waiting for you. There are no sounds of weeping or sobbing or bodies banging against the headboard next door. Later you’ll hear moaning and the beating of flesh. Right now the curtains glow softly, like a cream color made out of the gauze of a vaguely troubling dream. The phone sits by the bed in criss-crossing grids of discrete temptation, the desire to call someone or the desire to be called. Put a towel over it gently to take away any doubt. Stand in the room and see the Bible in its rectangle of burning sunlight; its steady gaze is a reckoning you must pass through. Your mind is already yielding to this one true necessity as everything else falls away. The period of preparation is over. The false layers of your previous life start to fall away like the iridescent scales of a fish. Nothing else is now required of you. Your whole body thrums and vibrates to the hollow spaces inside you. Walk to the table and sit down. Take a deep breath, a sip of water. You’re ready to begin.
Eat the first page.
Robert Vivian is the author of C__old Snap as Yearning, a collection of essays. His essays, poems, and stories are forthcoming or have appeared in Georgia Review, Harper’s, Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Glimmer Train, Turnrow, New York Quarterly, and several others. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in New York City. He currently teaches writing and literature at Alma College in Michigan. (updated 2004)