They carry votive candles.
They stay until well past dark and the candles flicker like small souls. Along with the candles, they carry kerchiefs, red now with the blood of the dead. Like the worshippers of old saints, they believe the blood of martyrs will save them.
I do not believe it will save them.
I do not know what will.
They first came after the shooting in San Antonio, a city named after a saint, whose Spanish influence still sings through the stone streets along the river. Perhaps they got the idea from the old stones, from Spanish cathedrals where women voices undulate among the marble friezes. The women I’ve interviewed only say the blood will protect their children. They do not say how they know this, nor where the idea came from. I suspect in times of crisis our minds cling to any hope, however small, and in these continuing crises, kerchiefs dipped in blood and smeared over the foreheads of the living makes as much sense as armed guards, as metal detectors, as science teachers carrying Glocks.
In San Antonio they gathered along the street outside the school. They got past the police. The sounds of the shooting still hung in the air. They carried their kerchiefs like armor and they dragged them through the rivers of blood and when they came away their hands were red. They covered their childrens’ foreheads in blood and they stood praying in the light of their little candles as the sun went down, as the sirens wound down, as the wailing faded into something deeper than grief.
After the sorrow came the silence. The long halls of the school lay quiet like church, and I was reminded of blood and sacrifice, though I must say I preferred the sorrow. It has been more than thirty years since I have been to my grandmother’s church and I’ve given up trying to find the divine, but I know the wailing and gnashing of teeth is easier to understand than the silence.
San Antonio was the sixth shooting in as many days. Each time, the same: the gunshots still rattling around our inner ears as the screaming began, the old women’s voices as shaky as the sirens. They said the names of saints as they covered their kerchiefs in blood. The wailing seemed to last forever, but when the silence came down, the frozen faces of grief set in. It was then I thought of forever as a closed casket.
It was difficult to think of much else. All around the school, past the yellow tape still being strung tree to tree, students stood in isolated pockets of grief. The parents were just arriving and the police were trying to hold them back, their small shouts eaten up by the silence. Occasionally, a mother fainted, fell as if shot. A father beat his fists against the brick wall. And still the women stood silent with their blooded kerchiefs, though their mouths moved in prayer.
As I say, I’ll take the sorrow.
Three days later it was Dallas. The smoke had hardly cleared from San Antonio when we got the first call—shots fired at a high school outside Irving. In San Antonio, there had been no more than a handful of women with their kerchiefs. In Dallas, there were at least a dozen. They followed the same pattern: they got past the police, their cries like small stars on the verge of collapse. They knelt beside the bodies. They touched their fingers to the blood as if to check if it were real. They dragged their kerchiefs through it and they dabbed the foreheads of the children, who closed their eyes when they were touched. As if in blessing. A benediction. A return to the old ways, and I suspect this is because whatever new ways we have adopted have brought such slaughter upon us.
Outside the Dallas school I spoke with Jeanette S. Forty-four years old. Her daughter H. is sixteen. She heard the gunshots. She hid under a desk.
“We thought it was the end of the world,” H. said, and I suspect the women with their kerchiefs believe the end might be coming. Why else pray for salvation? Why believe in blood, in saints, in the armor of God?
We all have to believe in something, I say.
H’s forehead had been anointed with blood. She said one of the old women did it. They stood in the gathering darkness with their candles. She could not tell which one it was, for they looked alike there in the darkness among all the sorrow. She stood shaking in the cool evening.
“A bullet struck the door to our classroom,” she said. “We thought he was trying to shoot his way in.”
The shooter still lay dead where he had shot himself. No one had covered him. He was white, middle-aged—you’ve all seen this movie before. Angry at something I doubt he could explain even to himself. There will be screeds he hand-wrote in spiky script. It will blame everyone but himself. The police will find a large cache of guns, and they will blame video games or porn or Mercury retrograde, but it will be the anger—it’s always the anger.
Jeanette pulled her daughter close. I imagined the small house, the absent father, the silent dinners.
“I won’t send her back to school,” Jeanette said, and I wanted to ask about the blood, if she thought it would protect her daughter, but I knew then that the blood was only comfort in the abstract. That we believe in small, futile gestures at the same time we know they are futile, like crossing your fingers or crossing your heart—we are creatures of superstition, which may be why we believe in such a thing as salvation.
But that was before I met Miranda.
There have been, at the time this goes to press, twenty-three school shootings this year. It is, for anyone not paying attention, only April, that cruelest month. Ten of these shootings have occurred in Texas, a state that executes more people than any other state and which I can’t help but think means a correlation, if not a cause.
By the end of February there had already been fourteen, and the governor was proposing armed guards in every classroom, not just every school. Out-of-work veterans would be deployed. Drones could hover over the buildings, tanks employed in the parking lots, machine gun nests set up in the entranceways. In the wake of the shootings, a hundred proposals were made, each more outlandish than the last.
It was then that the blood didn’t seem such a bad idea. Body armor of blood. Kids enshrouded with holy Kevlar. Helmets blessed by priests who’ve spent years in the wilderness becoming more holy. Perhaps we would have tried anything.
When a man strapped with two AR-15s walked into an elementary school in Lubbock and shot seventeen children ages five to fourteen, the old women must have been thinking the same thing. It was less than a week after Dallas, and they came with their kerchiefs, with cloth embroidered in verses from the Book of Revelations:
“And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”
“For they have spilled the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”
Some of the women lay in the of the blood of the children and claimed they were holy. Others drank it, covering themselves. There were only a few then, but with their little candles they might have been trying to light the way.
I know the numbers like I know the names of the dead in Dallas. To put the shooting epidemic into perspective, the United States sees more gun deaths than every other country in the world. Last year, 33,000 Americans died by gunfire. The gun homicide rate is twenty-five times higher than other developed nations. On average, ninety-six Americans a day are killed by guns; on average, seven of them are children. Fifty women are shot to death each month by domestic partners.
In the twenty-three school shootings so far this year, 177 children ages four to eighteen have been shot and killed, along with thirty-three teachers or school staff. Besides those 210 deaths, there were 336 injuries. Outside of the school shootings there have been another 4,400 gun deaths.
We don’t seem to be doing anything to stop them.
Except, of course, the old women, who believe in anointing our children with blood.
They gathered early in Lubbock.
They found out about the shooting the way we all find out in these times: through texts and Twitter, through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. A few of them had police scanners, monitoring the airwaves, or maybe they knew when the shootings began in the same way a mother can claim to know, half a world away, when her child has died.
They were there when the SWAT team arrived, there when the shooter was found hiding beneath the bleachers in the gymnasium, the barrel of his pistol—a Sig Sauer 9 mm—under his chin.
When the last shot rang out—his, the one that ended his life—they went in. They found the children lying with their eyes open. They covered their kerchiefs in blood.
The cameras caught them this time, the first reporters arriving at the scene to see them kneel beside the bodies. Some of the teachers joined them. Some of the students joined them. They touched their fingers to the blood and touched the blood to their foreheads.
They only want protection. I do not think that is too much to ask. Our thoughts and prayers have not been enough. Perhaps only blood will be.
My grandmother’s church taught that blood will wash us clean, so maybe the old women know something I do not.
My readers will know what happened next: The clip of the women anointing the students who survived the shooting aired on a local TV station’s webpage. Within minutes it went viral.
On the video, the women would not speak. A spokeswoman for the group said they would refuse all offers to appear in interviews. They would not talk to me, despite my editor telling me the old women were the real story.
“Blood,” he said. “The old women wailing. The anointing. Go find it.” We both knew he meant that school shootings are no longer news. They have become human interest pieces. Where were you when you heard about the San Antonio shooting? Have you ever anointed yourself?
Jeanette S. and her daughter H. were among them in Lubbock. I do not know how they arrived from Dallas, how they knew, but they were there. They knelt with the others. They would not speak to me. H., I have heard, has taken a vow of silence.
The next day they marched on the capitol. They stood outside the Texas Capitol Building in silence. There were hundreds of them. Some of them still had their foreheads streaked with blood.
Others had anointed themselves with ash. All of Austin was mourning. The sign boards out front of the churches held scripture, and the sun seemed black as sackcloth. There were more children among them, and some of the kerchiefs said, “And a child shall lead them,” but there seemed to be no leader, only silence.
This time, it was better than the sorrow.
Here’s what we know: the killers come silently as cancer, as something that’s gotten inside us. They come more often on Mondays or Fridays, almost never mid-week. In the case of Monday, they’ve spent all weekend planning; Fridays, they’ve been worn down by the work week, by whatever angers have gotten inside them.
They carry military-grade machinery: AR-15s and Sig Sauers and Remington automatic shotguns. They are white, male, mostly middle-aged, as if it has taken some forty years for all the anger to build up.
I do not know what they are angry at, though we know they share a history of antisocial, sometimes violent behavior. They have been arrested for domestic abuse. They have threatened friends and family.
They all own guns, most of them obtained legally after passing background checks.
There are, of course, outliers. Wednesday shootings. Men who haven’t reached middle age. A few who couldn’t afford an AR-15 and so came armed with whatever was on hand.
I’m only trying to find correlation. I only want to know a reason. Where I grew up in South Arkansas, the saying goes that March enters like a lion and leaves like a lamb. The media had gone mad. I was one of them, middle-aged like the men who carry out these shootings, but mad at the slaughter of lambs by men who would proclaim themselves lions. No one could find the women, and the few who could be found would not talk. They had established an online presence, a web page and comment board titled “The Blood of the Saints,” but there was no spokesperson. The page listed only gun death statistics. It quoted scripture, like the sign boards out front of every church in Texas.
In the first week of March, in the middle of a tornado warning, a man in Mena, Arkansas, walked through the thunderstorm and shot fourteen teenagers who were hiding from the storm under their desks. It was the first appearance the women—the Blood of the Saints—had made outside Texas, but dozens appeared in that small Arkansas town.
By the middle of March they had spread to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. I want to say something here about the Old South, the adherence to religion and the strangely violent nature of those who profess to follow Jesus, but I’m only trying, again, to find some reason, other than the availability of guns, for all the bullet holes in the brick walls of our school system. For men who believe their anger justifies their actions. For women who believe blood is the only armor that can save us. For politicians who believe the only choices we have are either thoughts and prayers or fortifying ourselves inside the walls we have created.
The gun has become a distinctly American idea. Gunpowder may have been invented in China, but American independence was bought by minutemen with muskets. The Winchester Model 1873 is the gun that won the west, along with the Colt Single Action Army Revolver which, as the saying goes “Made men equal.” Samuel Colt got a boost in sales during the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War, in much the same way Colt’s Manufacturing Company now sells more AR-15s after school shootings and foreign insurgencies.
Connecticut was once called “The Arsenal of the Nation,” and Colt, Ruger, and Mossberg firearms are still manufactured there. It was Colt who claimed that guns were peacemakers, in a letter to Charles Manby in 1852, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, gun manufacturers still quote him on it. We believe that if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns, that an armed society is a polite society, that it’s better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it.
Of course, none of these things are true. The minutemen may have played a part in American independence, but only as part of a well-regulated militia. The West was won by the railroad as much as any handgun, and we’ve mythologized the cowboy, forgetting about the systematic slaughter of Native Americans by overwhelming numbers of Army soldiers. Guns can only become peacemakers by killing the opposition, which fits no definition of peace I can come up with. Perhaps it is better to have one and need it. But statistics show that for every person defending himself, thirty- four others die by firearm, so I’d say it’s the other way around.
There are 300 million firearms in the United States, almost one for every living person, though the dead will have to do without. Eight states have official state firearms. Arizona adopted its state firearm—the Colt 1911 Single Action Army Revolver—less than four months after US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a constituent rally. When Utah adopted the M1911 pistol as its official firearm, the state representative who sponsored the adoption said the pistol captured a portion of Utah history. “Even bigger than that,” he said, “it captures a portion of American history.” What will history say about the years we watched men walk into our schools and shoot our children in much the same way we used to shoot buffalo from the windows of trains and leave them to rot in the sun? We can call up all the slogans we want, can quote history out of context, can even call guns peacemakers, but the only truthful slogan I can come up with
is that this happens nowhere else in the world.
I was in our regional newspaper office when the news broke of Blaine, what will come to be known as the worst school shooting in American history, at least until the next one. I’d been staying in the San Antonio area— call it an old reporter’s hunch—expecting (knowing?) there’d be another shooting. The first report came old-fashioned, over the airwaves, shots fired at Our Lady of Mercy High School. All police respond. All of them, right now. The woman’s voice sounded frantic, even though they are trained not to let any emotion creep into their calls.
Blaine is less than thirty miles from our office. I was in my car in minutes. I monitored the radio as I drove—more calls for police, for SWAT, for firemen, for the FB-fucking-I—but I was thinking of the old women, of my grandmother’s church and the red carpet and red-backed pews. I was thinking of blood.
“Grief,” that old editor once told me. “People want grief. They want to feel sad about the suffering of others because in some strange way it makes them feel better about themselves. Leave the feel-good stories for the back pages. The front page is for horror.”
The horror had arrived, I thought when I got there. The police were set up around the school. SWAT had just arrived in their black masks. Uniformed officers were keeping back the gathering crowd while the air went still like in the moments before a storm. The old women were arriving, too, climbing out of cars with their kerchiefs, their hands worrying one another, only a few at first, then dozens, appearing as if called to prayer.
We all stood across the street. The school looked like a cathedral. Next to it the church soared overhead like all our human sorrows. The police leaned over their cars with their guns drawn. SWAT was prepping to go in, and more and more cars were arriving, but there was no sound, not from us, not from the school.
I went over to talk to the police. The shooter, a cop who couldn’t have been more than twenty told me, was still alive, and as he said it the staccato burst of a machine gun came from inside. The old women’s voices went up.
They had their handkerchiefs ready. Farther down the street I heard a scream like an eagle and realized parents were arriving.
That old editor had a lifelong stamp collection and ’70 Chevy pick- up he wouldn’t get rid of because his dead wife was with him when he bought it.
The second time we heard shots, SWAT made ready to go. I was drifting closer to the old women, who were filtering among the arriving parents, offering them handkerchiefs, though I didn’t know if it was to dry their eyes or to dip in blood.
I was still trying to decide when SWAT went in. They had lined up beside their black van. The old women fell to their knees. The parents wrung their hands and held one another in their worry, and I thought we might be stuck in this moment forever, looping back again and again, always on the cusp of some recurring cataclysm.
Then the SWAT captain’s voice cracked through the silence like a gunshot, and they went rushing forward. One of them held the door and, oddly, I thought of the small kindnesses we have lost as a country.
They disappeared inside. I do not know how long it took them to find him. I did not have the diagram of the school I have now, with small points of red ink to show where each student had been shot, where each of them had died. Most of them were in the hallways. The shooter had waited until classes were changing, and most of the dead lay in the hallway near the front door, which means SWAT had to step over them when they went in. Some of the classrooms had been barricaded, and some of the students took whatever weapons they could find—rulers, chairs, books, for God’s sake— and stood by the doors.
He did not come for them. The carnage, surely, would have been much worse. He carried an AR-15 with twelve 30-count clips and two Sig Sauer P226 Legion 9mm handguns.
He went to the gym, where the senior girls were at PE. The profiles will say he hated women, which makes me wonder what he would have said about the old women on their knees outside praying that he not be shot, that no more carnage come for this country.
They were still praying when we heard the shots fired. He had already killed as many as he could in the gym. Those still alive had somehow locked themselves in a bathroom. He was attempting to shoot the door open when SWAT got him. The dead lay all around the gym. I imagined them staring sightless at the ceiling. I watched the old women kneel beside them. I heard the cry of trumpets. I heard the herald of the last days on this earth, and my vision turned black as sackcloth as all the blood rushed away from my heart.
I don’t know how we made it past police or even if we did. Perhaps I was in a vision, one as black as mine would soon be. But I followed the old women into the school. I watched them kneel beside the bodies of the dead. I saw their kerchiefs come out, saw them turn red.
Miranda Alvarez was among the old women. I would find out later her son had been shot in San Antonio in 1976. That for years she had lived alone, sitting in silence trying to understand why evil existed. What to do about it. When grief was so consuming she could not even turn on the TV for company.
Around the time Reagan was shot, she began embroidering handkerchiefs. She did not know why. By the time I met her in 2018 she was so old her hands shook, but she had embroidered several thousand handkerchiefs with various Bible verses, most from the Book of Revelations. She had thought at one time to send them to the families of those shot, but she kept them. She did not know why.
It was Miranda who first began showing up at school shootings. She heard over the scanner of the shooting in San Antonio and remembered her son, killed over forty years before. So she went to the school and knelt beside the bodies. She does not know why she touched her handkerchief to the blood. Nor why she touched the blood to her forehead. Nor why other women began following her.
Nor why any of this happens. Nor why here. Nor what we have done to have such judgment visited upon us, if judgment it is—she doesn’t know.
She only knows she thinks she can help. That the only way to protect our children is to cover them with blood. So the angel might pass over the door. So the blood of the lamb might protect them.
So the saints can be called upon.
So the next shooter might see them and think them already dead.
She is not a religious fanatic. She thinks God will help only if we help ourselves. She told me she was tired of thoughts and prayers, that a week before her son was killed in 1976, he had taken communion, had entered the church, had confessed.
“He should have been protected,” she said, “if thoughts and prayers offered protection.”
She also told me she would touch the foreheads of every child in this country if she could. And she tried, standing outside Our Lady of Eternal Mercy in Blaine, Texas. She was waiting when SWAT began to lead the students out. They were crying and doubled over in grief, but when they came to Miranda with her blood-soaked rag, they stopped. She put a hand on each shoulder. She touched each forehead with the blood of their classmates, and none of them flinched away. I could say they were in shock, and maybe they were, or locked so deep in grief they may never come out. But maybe they only know the answers are not coming from government or school officials, so only the blood of saints can save them.
I can’t say how long it took. The parents, the police, the firemen all stood and watched as Miranda anointed each student. They filed past her, silent now, and into the arms of their parents. It was dark by the time she finished, or maybe the day had only dimmed, the way the Bible says happened when Christ stood on the cross. The other old women—hundreds of them— gathered her to them and led her away, back to her small home where she once lived with her son before the angel of death came for him.
“Grief hurts people,” that editor told me, “but hope hurts more.”
So here’s your hope: one old woman trying to protect children by covering them with blood. One old woman trying to do what our government won’t. One old woman in the face of grief larger than this country, louder than all the guns in the world.
Photo courtesy of satanoid; view more of his work on Flickr