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"Blood & Breastmilk" by Robert Nazar Arjoyan

The ink was dry, she could see that, but Army decided to give it another minute before folding the paper. Smudges wouldn’t do.

Without a delivery or return address, her letter wouldn’t reach its remote recipient, basically fated to end up as junk mail by an irate postal worker and their pitiless stamp. And yet, Army had enjoyed the inspired exercise, glad to have given herself over to the initial impulse and feeling a glimmer lightened thanks to it. Maybe she’d do it again when the helplessness found newer and harsher ways to reduce her.

Army was blowing delicately on her handwriting, scanning the unvarnished words and visualizing their intended audience, when Elijah galumphed out of his room. He scripted quite a lot - it wasn’t nonstop, but it was frequent enough to warrant a mother’s anxiety. Whether he was delivering the lyrics of a song, acting out a movie scene by scene, or reciting one of his books from memory, Elijah was seldom quiet.

Thank goodness he at least had a sweet voice.

Everyone copes, Army speculated, single moms and only children included. Most times they have one another, but now and again they have nobody.

Elijah would stagger over in the middles of most nights and clamber up on Army’s far too big, far too cold California King. The way Army figured it, there’d be a day when Elijah would stop coming to bed, stop smelling like a cloud from Heaven, stop letting her so near. So they’d goof off a smidge and then fall asleep entwined, as it had been in the earliest of beginnings.

This helped shrink the largeness of her loneliness.

That morning, though, Army woke up by herself. She’d waited and waited, but he never came to glow in the gloom.

Elijah was singing the entirety of Let it Be and had reached “I Me Mine” when he plodded round the corner, pudgy arms swinging left to right, right to left. Classic Elijah choreography, Army was learning, his way of telegraphing boredom and a desire to be rid of it posthaste. From where she sat, he was bigger than life, though he stood only three and some feet.

“I want no school today! I don’t want to school, Mama.” Elijah made this all the clearer with a stout, wagging finger. There was no whine in his voice, just emphasis.

“No school, honey,” she agreed. “No more Miss Daisy.”

“Bye-bye, Miss Daisy, anymore!” triumphed Elijah.

“But I am going to find you a new school soon, OK?”

“Mama, can we say what are you doing?”

“I wrote a letter.”

“Can I read it?” he inquired, his arms no longer swinging but outstretched. Her face ticked in hesitation, enough for Elijah to comprehend.

“Elijah will use gentle hands,” he confirmed, intoning one of his many mantras while accepting the letter into a pair of perfectly sculpted palms.

“Promise me, Elijah. Listen, please, and be so gentle."

Army wasn’t foulmouthed by practice, so she was shocked when the words fucking shit slipped under the fence of her mind and went snapping towards Elijah. But she bit back then and controlled herself, choosing instead to watch the shredded missive float to the parquet floor and heap around Elijah’s chubby toes.

“Elijah… honey, you need to listen next time, OK? I told you to be gentle.”

The wheeling helplessness again asphyxiating her body and diminishing her soul.

Elijah would never hear her.

They never do.

He would only continue to-

“OK, Mama, I will listen,” he said, stunning Army. The boy turned, scripting the title track from the final Beatles album as Army collected the torn bits of paper.

“Yeah, yeah, let it be, kiddo,” she said.

Army had no wish to post a taped and tattered letter, so she rewrote it. The words, once frozen in ink, didn’t make her problems dissipate. On the contrary, they were laid before her, bare, on a single page. And they seemed small.

Her pictured pen pal was also a single mother to an only child. She had been with Army always, an immortal portrait that saw her through from childhood to womanhood to parenthood.

Army decided against wasting a stamp. Instead, she said a prayer.

With careful cursive, for her hand was atremble, Army ribboned a name on the crisp envelope and imagined it traveling the crunched roads of Nazareth, maybe crinkling over time, where it would land upon the windowsill of Mary, mother of Jesus.


“Armenoohi, you are late,” stated Ofik, the tiny woman at Army’s front door with crossed arms and wrinkled nose.

“I know, Mom, sorry. I was talking with Elijah’s OT. He had a really good session, actually, and they were doing this-”

“Oof, why do you waste your time with that? Oh-tee, you tell me, speech therapy! They are lying to you for your money. Only God can help with-”

“If you can’t, I don’t know, tie your shoes, someone’s gotta teach you, right? You have to learn. Or do you think God will stop everything he’s got going on and come tie them for you?”

“Watch your mouth, shameless! Who raised you as heretic, hah?”

Army remembered her letter then, and Mary. Had the Holy Mother ever felt exasperated by Holy Motherhood? A handful of days had come and gone without mail from two thousand years ago and while no mail from two thousand years ago would come, Army had faith.

“You should take him to see Father Movses,” advised Ofik, claiming omniscience more readily in her ascending age and wielding it freely.


“For help.”

“Jesus, he’s not possessed, Mom, he’s- he’s just a kid who-”

“Your mouth!”

Just a kid who needed fine tuning, Army was trying to say - it’s what the pros told her, anyway. But each time Elijah swiped a paw or swung a fist at his helpers, Army choked, the ruthless thumbs of humiliation and inadequacy crushing her brittle windpipe.

“Mama, can I have pancakes?” asked Elijah from the lawn.

“Of course, baby. Do you want to be my sous-chef?”

“Ye-yus!” answered Elijah as he got to his feet, dry grass clinging to his round knees. Army adored him in shorts, the contour of his thighs leading down to his calves, somehow made smoother by a fine carpet of peach fuzz. His perfect chompies, she secretly designated them.

Standing atop his stepladder, Elijah was pretty handy with the ladle and rather adept at flicking a whisk. It brought Army such a surge of pleasure to see her child succumb to the process of making pancakes, to still and do. She could see him down the line of time, cooking like this for his own family. Army poured the goo into the skillet and helped Elijah flip the flapjacks.

“He should have it a healthy lunch,” Ofik offered.

“This is healthy.”

“I want to cut,” said Elijah, reaching for the knife.

“No, sweetheart, that’s a grown-up tool. We’ve talked about this, remember?”

“How this is a healthy lunch? All fat, sugar, nothing nutrient.”

“I want to cut!”

“Oh, Elijah, use your quiet voice, please. My ears hurt when you yell like that.”

“Mama… can I cut, please?” Please came out pwiz.

“Thank you, baby, good listening. I really wish you could, and when you’re big enough-”

Elijah began to squawk, an abrupt litany of harsh chords which never failed to sink Army’s resolve. It had become her most hated sound.

“No, Elijah, no that! You listen to Mama when she say no first time!” Ofik said.

“Mom, that’s not what we-”

“I want to cut!” screamed Elijah, clubbing his approaching grandmother.

“Bad boy, Elijah! Being very so bad,” screeched Ofik, matching his volcanism.

“Hey!” yelled Army as gray filmed over her sight. “Absolutely not, we only use-”

Too fast to stop, Elijah yanked the knife from the cutting board and slashed it down on the steaming food. “Can I want to cut pancakes!”

The kid’s shrieking pumped Army’s head with helium. She needed to pop the thing off her shoulders and toss it rolling across the avenue and down the street, where this animal wailing would become faint and maybe vanish altogether.

“Elijah, honey, let’s take some calm breaths together, please.” Army began her slow inhale as she inched closer and closer with hands poised.

“I no want breath no more!” he replied, the lunch a sloppy confusion.

Army brightened her voice and pitched it higher. “Ooh! I have an idea, Elijah! First, Mama cuts the pancakes, then we watch Sesame Street. First, pancakes, then, Sesame Stre-”

Elijah whirled around at the promise of his favorite TV show, slicing the knife through space and across Army’s wrist. Upon seeing blood flow down his mother’s arm, Elijah dropped the knife.

“Mama, are you OK?”

“No!” she barked at him, sharp and short.

Tears pooled and Elijah placed his hands behind his ears, another coping strategy. In spite of her son’s excruciating exposure, it had come too late. Army couldn’t smother her bellowing.

“You hurt Mama, Elijah, you hurt me very badly! You cut Mama’s wrist!”

During her nine months, Army was cautioned by a succession of women that pregnancy would sow a terrible power which she would reap after the harvest of birth. She filed the warning away as merely another tale wives tell.

Until that moment.

Frightening clarity prised her apart and delineated the difference between motherly intuition and genuine telepathy. Army could see Elijah’s quaking thoughts through his shimmering eyes. He was scared of her monster face and wanted it gone. In between a mouthful of blubbering, he began to speak the words to one of his beloved Beatles tunes, hoping to calm his Mama and make her happy again. But she was too weak to restrain herself, so she raged, and he wasn’t strong enough to keep from crying, so he sobbed.

“Ok, Armenoohi, you go outside now. Go. I will take care of Elijah. Right, my boy? Come, come to Ofik Tati.” Ofik’s former frigidity melted in the fluid motion of her protecting embrace. Army wanted nothing more than to make it right with Elijah, but every single nerve in her body was pressing her to get out of the house. She listened to her remolded mother and turned away from her sniveling son’s sodden cheeks. Army hustled off, gripping her cut arm, when Elijah howled an endless Mama from behind her braided back.

It was a far worse stabbing.

Outside, Army’s skull shifted and moaned. Some of herself seeped out through a battened hand and splashed. Her breath was half-hearted, shorter and frailer with each huff. She was going to faint, she knew it, not from loss of blood, but of will. She was so tired.

Before the cramping black tunnel could take her out absolutely, Army’s swiveling vision caught something, a shape, resting upon the garden wall.

She shambled over to it and realized with stupid lucidity that it was a kind of envelope.

Army trailed a red finger along its surface but the paper didn’t feel much like paper at all. The texture was coarser, as if composed of sandy beads rather than a single blank flatness, and fastened with simple twine. Army noted that she could somehow read the foreign letters scrawled across the parchment, her own name quilled in loops and angles she’d never before studied. One grand eureka flared up before darkness dragged Army down, and it was this:

Mary wrote back!


The Bible in Army’s hands was new, even if its contents were old. She seldom read the tome anymore, given her unique vantage point. But there was time before breakfast, and the kids were playing in the back, so she cracked it open. Army fiddled through her purse for a cheap pair of off-the-rack readers - as years wore off the calendar, so too did the muscle of her eyes.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Why would a newborn need gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Mary posed this very question to Army in one of their earliest exchanges. No one had brought her a thing other than the unsolicited mantle of motherhood. The scene itself, as captured in the Gospels and memorialized on Christmas lawns, was wholly accurate. The men who’d trekked across barren deserts under the guidance of some silly star barely acknowledged Mary, who’d been skittering around consciousness on bales of sour smelling hay. She was given short shrift, seen as little more than a womb, much less a mom.

Actually receiving replies from Mary was shock enough for Army, but strip away the raiments, type up the stories in English, and the chasm between millennia would shrink to a crack. Mary’s frustrations were shared not only by Army, they also blighted an appalling number of women.

“Grandma, whatcha reading?”

“Hmm?” Army reentered the living room and the passing present. Her granddaughter was blurry so Army removed her pharmacy specs.

“All the better to see you with!”

“Big Bad Wolf!” giggled the little girl as Army stole her into a hug.

“Yes, Vashti, and I’m going to eat you!”

That carefree laughter teased a fresh species of bliss from Army’s soul. Vashti’s small hands clutched Army’s slate-colored hair and the flash of pain sent her flying back three decades.

She was grabby, like her dad.

Army rose and kissed Vashti atop her head. She followed her granddaughter into the kitchen where Elijah was plating their pancakes and singing a song to himself. Any stranger witnessing this wouldn’t blink twice at the scene. It was something normal. But a kid doing it?

That steamrolled the naturally pressurized process of childrearing to a blister.

Army thumbed her scar, the one Elijah had given her by mistake. The accident took place on the day when Mary’s first reply appeared. And that’s what it did indeed do: it appeared. The makeshift envelope occupied a slice of space where a moment before there had been pointless vacancy. What made Army weep with relief was Mary’s confession that Jesus also scripted - though the way Army’s brain translated the magically penetrable Aramaic was scriptured. From Genesis to Malachi, the scamp wouldn’t stop - couldn’t! It would drive Mary berserk. Army laughed out loud while wrestling with her tears. Turned out too that both boys gnawed their mothers’ nipples bloody and raw while breastfeeding. When a blushing dawn stirred Army from the best sleep of her life, Mary’s letter was still on the nightstand.

The helplessness which permeated those budding years was replaced by different-natured worries: will he make friends, how are his grades, should he try sports, does he have any artistic leanings, can he figure out how to shave, is he going to college, won’t he ever just listen, who is this new girl, can we afford a wedding, are they ready to buy a house, will he be a good dad?

Have I been a good mother?

Army didn’t discuss or dissect these things with such fervor as she did with Mary. Each sentence formed a rising staircase to the bowing frame of Mary’s portrait, the very one that had kept watch over Army all her life. The Holy Mother stepped free from the fixture of suspended animation and became an everyday mom. Army read nothing about any fantastical manifestations of his heritage, simply the things that would be unloaded off the stooped shoulders of any mama doing their duty.

The correspondences were ordinary. That’s what made them special.

Mary had only just begun to confide thornier developments in the latter letters. A sullenness would float up in Jesus's eyes that evidenced either growing pains or an awakening prescience of the man he was fast becoming. Mary was keyed into the situation and it was starting to scare her. Jesus stood at swords’ point between simmering anger and enormous love while Elijah designed landscapes for a living and inherited his grandpa's bad knees.

Army finished every crumb of her only son’s breakfast and bid the family adieu.

“I love you, Mom.”

“Love you too, my honey.”

They kissed goodbye and a dab of syrup stuck onto her cheek. Seeing him settled spoke straight to the deeps of her soul. Vashti begged Army to hang out and accompany them for an afternoon of apple picking. “Oh, my gosh, I would love that, little buddy, but not today. Gotta get in touch with a pal.”

On the drive home, Army began to draft a letter in her head: at the small desk facing the north window, a fresh sheet of paper from the printer waiting to be marked, her favorite fountain pen at the ready. The last time she had assumed this position was the previous year, to tell Mary of Ofik’s passing. Before the cancer finished her, Army divulged the collected communication. She assumed the revelation might hush her mother into a happy death. But much to Army’s surprise, Ofik didn’t trust them to be authentic.

For Army, the connection to Mary was nothing other than a matter of trust. A matter of faith. Writing that first, harried letter had been the best thing she’d ever done.

Next to having Elijah, of course.

“Mommy’s home, Boaz,” Army rang out as she locked the front door and slipped off her shoes. The cool of the parquet floor was a blessing but the chill of her kitchen tile was magnificent. Army planted herself for a second as the keenness crept its way up her body.

After a second or an hour - time had become oilier during her eight years of empty nesting - she went to the fridge. The ring on her index finger pinged against the metal of the door handle and fluted a high D, Boaz’s favorite note. Army grabbed a carton of oat milk as the English sheepdog drifted in and exploited his eyebrows in a fashion that slew Army every time.

“Oh, here,” she said, tossing Boaz a wad of string cheese.

Libation poured, Army lifted the the cover of a cake dome. Boaz barked his fancy and caused Army to jump. She turned to admonish.

“Now, Bo, don’t be ridiculous. Let’s use a gentle voice, alright? Almost made me drop this, silly mutt. You don’t get anything by barking, do you?”

Army couldn’t help but grin - it was a shaggy Elijah.

“Listen here: I’ll cut you up some chicken when we sit for dinner, understand? And in any case, it is a well known fact that you, sir, are no fan of coffee cake-”

The frayed envelope on the countertop hadn’t been there a second ago.

Her fingers groaned on their hinges and lost all strength, surrendering the glass to freefall. No letter of Mary’s had ever materialized inside the house. Always it was the garden wall. More, their arrival conjured feelings of gladness in Army.

Today’s surprise placed in her heart a weighty angst.

Did people attribute visions to the third eye? Army couldn’t remember, didn’t have the bandwidth in her gray matter to conclude. Whether it was her third, fourth, fifth, whichever eye, her aperture was tearing wide open, like it did in this same kitchen long ago.

Army was seeing Mary, a hunched and twisted form clutching herself at the elbows. She was rocking, penduluming on pounded earth, the dust of it plastering her sopping mouth. Mary’s robes were heavy with blood, such quantities they had sponged. She had been similarly gore-covered when she became a mother, only then, it had been her own and it had meant life. Now, with each squeeze of herself, Mary’s hands wetted anew, freshets of her baby’s death dribbling crimson across her wan skin. She’d held him so close at both moments, his hopeful entrance and his hopeless exit, inhaling that first sweet breath and the final dying exhale. They’d killed her child, hammered him to a tree with dull and rusty nails for the pleasure of vultures. Army was hearing Mary now, understanding in the uncanny way she had for thirty years, and she was mumbling about how Jesus hadn’t listened, how he never listened, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t listen, how he never fucking listened.

Army joined her tears with Mary’s and wreathed their cries into agonizing harmony. She wept for her companion, for the pain no parent should suffer, and for the foolishness of children.

And then it stopped. The light outside hadn’t much changed and from her place on the floor, she could still see the angled tip of the envelope.

She reached out a tremulous hand and seized the string of draping twine. Army read and reread and read again.

They’re going to execute him. Please tell me what to do, Army.

She got up and saw Boaz sitting there, whimpering.

“Good boy.” She scratched the inside of his ear with an arthritic knuckle.

There, faithfulness. The fulcrum Army’s entire existence depended upon. It had done away with her husband, it had brought her boy to bloom, and it had inexplicably led her to Mary. She knew that Jesus was meant to be sacrificed but how could she in good conscience tell Mary that?

Certainly not as a mother and definitely not as her friend.

Army took her oat milk and banged it onto the writing desk, facing north. She pressed pen to paper too hard and caused black ink to burst. Her motions were emphatic, razored strokes. Army implored Mary to take her son and run, to fade into the nighttime wilderness. She reminded Mary of her third cousin, the bounty hunter from Armenia who’d helped locate Jesus when he was studying abroad in Nepal. The man was resourceful and useful - contact him! Tell Jesus to wed Magdalene and give you grandchildren and just drop all that nonsense about God.

He was her son and no one else’s.

If Army took even a moment to proof her rant, she’d trash it for fear of perdition, so she stuffed it into an envelope and let it be. Army’s oatmilk had grown tepid, undrinkable.

Ofik had been right: Armenoohi was a heretic.

No, nuts to that.

She was a mom.

Army dropped her letter in the nearest mailbox as she’d done so many times before, not with a stamp, but with a prayer. She hoped he would do the right thing and keep Mary’s heart intact, as any son should. But Army no longer had such faith.

She walked back home to Boaz under soft twilight.

Robert Nazar Arjoyan was born into the Armenian diaspora of Glendale, California. Aside from an arguably ill-advised foray into rock n roll bandery during his late teens, literature and movies were the vying forces of his life. Naz graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and now works as an author and filmmaker.

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