Orlantae Duncan

The Gospel of Blood

For the first nine or ten years of childhood, the only book I recall being in the whole house was my grandmother’s worn King James Bible. It was the same in the house of my nana, my great-grandmother; and if she raised me, and if she had lived past thirty-two, I suspect my mother’s house would have followed tradition.1 

The creases on the leather cover of my grandmother’s bible were old and deep, like jagged fissures in a desert of black sand. The red letters of God’s word were faded ribbons of pinkish-white from years of her long brown finger tracing their verses. Something she did often, most mornings at the kitchen table accompanied by a mug of black coffee and a cigarette or in the private solitude of her weaker moments. The moments she wore in strong silences like a shroud around me and my grandfather.

My grandfather, like his father, believed in the oral tradition. The tradition of men who stayed home on Sundays, of men who knew scripture by heart from bedtime stories and lessons instilled into them from the ends of their mothers’ switches and belts. The simplest form of Christianity.2  I hated it, because it cut like heresy through the zealous justice of a child who couldn’t understand why the patriarchs didn’t have to deal with the twenty-minute drive into the country every Sunday or sit through foggy sermons accompanied by eruptions of shouting, jumping, shrieking, panting, gasping, dying—all cooled by epilogues of gossip and adult conversation.

My grandfather didn’t have to lie to her about being ready to be baptized on the car ride back every Sunday, watching the blur of trees swim by. He didn’t have to hide his fear of water.3 He didn’t have to be discreet about glances shared with other closeted boys (the ones in the choir, dressed down in immaculate purples and golds). Above all, he didn’t have to wait in the car after service with that hot tome weighing on his tiny lap, gilded edges catching sunlight to a blinding glare.

On the phone with him in my college dorm sophomore year (tipsy on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day) I told him I was done with all that. I said/stuttered/slurred that I was an apostate, though Baptists don’t use that word. I renounced it with fire and Guinness on my breath and he listened calmly, and after a pause told me I would come back. Papa came back. He came back. I, after a time, he suspected, would come back too.4 It was tradition.

I killed Christ as easily as I killed heterosexuality when I moved to the city years later. I loved myself for it afterwards.5 I wondered if my mother felt the same when she abandoned the sleeping bundle to her parents and left for her city, if she also found a substitute for family and faith in the friends she made, loved, and broke bread with before she died.6 If I didn’t leave when I did, I’m not confident I would be here to wonder.

God got her back in the end. One of the last times I saw her, yellow and skeletal with labored breaths cracking like sheets of ice, a KJV bible was open on the hospital bedside table. I dwell on that image sometimes. Saturday and Sunday mornings when I smoke a bowl, grab a coffee on my walk through the art museum grounds, listening to the four gospels on my phone as the sun peaks over the rooftops and trees.

I still don’t think I can go back. I don’t believe I can. Too much time and hurt. I know the life of Jesus better than I do my mother, or her mother, but that’s not enough for me to claim him. Or them. I would be scared even if I wanted to, but his scarlet poetry does something to help me understand us all—link us all—in ways infrequent phone calls, missed birthdays, or coming out letters can’t. Like there’s something secret within the red print, between those vague parables about fig trees and prodigal sons and resurrections. Something suggesting words can be thicker than blood, when we need them to be.7 

1 John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

2 Mark 10:15, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

3 Matthew 14:30-31, “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”

4 Luke 15:31, “And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.”

5 Mark 9:43, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell…”

6 Mark 3:33-34, “And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!”

7 Mark 2:22, “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.”

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Orlantae Duncan is a black queer writer living in Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington where he received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. His poetry and prose have appeared in Homology Lit, Cartridge Lit, Passengers Journal, Wig Wag, and others. His debut poetry chapbook, Brown Boys Speak in Tongues, is a winner of the Hunger Journal 2022 Tiny Fork Chapbook Series Contest.