Liz’s brother mouthed a hot lightbulb long enough to get third-degree burns when he was six years old. The bulb, fixed in a desk lamp Liz’s brother had situated on the floor, glowed eerily, naked without a lampshade, asking to be consumed. On his hands and knees, he crawled to the lamp and rose, looming over it like a lion in the circus awaiting the cue to engulf his master’s head in its jaws.
Liz was there, she’s told, but Liz was young and only remembers it like a great eclipse punctured by a squeal of pain and swollen lips. Burns on her brother’s mouth told a story of tenacity; he really tried to hold the flaming orb captive for as long as he could stand it. Maybe the sensations of pain took longer to reach his brain because the bulb was white-hot or maybe he thought it’d pass or maybe he needed a reprieve from the light and the tradeoff was worth it.
Maybe it was something else. Maybe.
Their mother sent him to school anyway and the nurse called home in hushed horror, as if scraping her syllables on the back of her throat could adequately convey the feelings a little boy’s flaking flesh invoked in her. “His lips are black and cracking,” she whispered.
“Wasn’t there a myth like that?” Liz asked her mom many years later. “A dog who tried to eat the sun and that’s why we have night or winter or something?”
“I don’t fucking know,” her mom replied and flipped on the T.V.
In Norse mythology, the wolf son of Loki, Fenrir, has two wolf sons of his own. These sons, Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, will swallow the sun and moon, respectively, during Ragnarök—the apocalypse of the Norse gods.
In Chinese myth, tiangou, an evil canine god, eats the moon and causes an eclipse before he regurgitates the moon and peace is restored. The god Zhang Xian staves off the always-waiting tiangou and is the god of birth; he protects sons from the dog deity.
But Liz didn’t know any of this then, and so she said nothing.
When their mom returned from retrieving Liz’s brother from the nurse’s office, his mouth open and black, their mother filled a plastic shopping bag with ice and placed it in his hands.
“Hold that to your mouth,” she instructed.
But when he did, the white-hot pain he hadn’t felt before seared through his black lips, into his skull and lungs, and back out of the gaping, cracked hole of his mouth.
The bag dropped to the filthy tile and Liz watched her brother cry as the cubes shifted in their embryonic sack, primordial waters dirtied by the floor beneath. In an instant, Liz’s brother stopped crying, kneeled, and placed each hand flat on the tile, shoulder-width apart. His large, dark eyes were vacant, as if something had wiped his tears away and, in the process, removed everything else, too.
The Chiqutoan Manasi people of eastern Bolivia believed the sun to be an opulent, charming idol while the moon, his sister, was not worshipped or commented upon readily. Similar to Greek’s Apollo, the lauded poet, and Artemis, the virgin huntress—although, Artemis had her own cult and wasn’t actually the moon, just its ruler.
According to Old Norse legend, warrior-shamans called berserkers and úlfheðnars entered dissociative states during battle. Clothed in the hides of bears (berserkers) or wolves (úlfheðnars), the warrior-shamans’ dissociations signaled their transformations from men into divine predators.
They dissociated to protect themselves—but Liz didn’t know this then.
With wide, unfocused eyes, Liz’s brother smacked his forehead into the tile floor with the channeled effort and force of an army trying to bore open the great doors to Valhalla. The sound of flesh and bone hitting tile was a simultaneous thud and slap, one that Liz still thinks about when she reads the stories of ancient bodies brutalizing one another.
There are always differences; nothing seems to precisely explain Liz and her brother, no matter how hard she looks. But she keeps reading myths and legends, searching for archetypes to explain why little boys hurt themselves to not feel pain and why little girls make themselves feel nothing. Most myths and old tales are versions of this story, she’s found.
Brooke Knisley is a disabled writer and composition instructor. Her work has previously appeared in Empty Mirror, Jellyfish Review, Entropy’s WOVEN series, Hippocampus’ Writing Life, and more.