I’m beautiful—on the inside


I’m not a particularly attractive person. I’m your typical middle-aged schlub, someone you wouldn’t look at twice on the street. But I have a secret: there’s a part of me that is spectacularly beautiful, and every once in a while I get to take it out and admire it.

Tonight, while I was preparing dinner, I slipped and gouged out a small chunk of my thumb with a knife—it stung for a moment, but it was nothing serious, just large enough and deep enough to bleed copiously. It was gorgeous. It welled in cycles with my pulse, and it was like I was dripping rubies. Brilliant, scarlet rubies polished smooth that would splash and sparkle when they hit the countertop. I love the color. Fresh blood has that brilliant slick red hue to it you just don’t see anywhere else. I watched the pretty fountain for a while, and then I washed it and bound it up; the bandage slowly got more and more vivid. That’s the real me, this colorful, jewel-like thing imbedded in a clumsy, unattractive package.

I know it sounds morbid, but really, I’m harmless. I used to do animal surgeries, and blood would be all over the place, and in those circumstances all I wanted to do was stop it, quickly. And I don’t enjoy seeing other people’s blood at all. In those rare cases where my kids injured themselves and bled heavily, I’ve even felt faint. And no, I never want to injure myself intentionally—I don’t enjoy pain, for one thing—but I can observe myself fairly dispassionately.

I once had a particularly serendipitous opportunity way back when I was a grad student. I had tossed a few dissecting tools in my backpack after a day in the lab, and a scalpel punched through the fabric and just the razor sharp tip was poking out (stupid and sloppy, I know, I’m much more careful now). When I put the pack on, my hand brushed against it. Perfectly, delicately, the tip sliced open the skin of the back of my hand, a razor kiss going precisely deep enough to cut all the way through the dermis. I scarcely felt it. I looked at my hand to see the skin cleanly parted for several inches, and almost no blood at all; I could spread the wound open and look right inside, to see smooth pale pink muscle and paler connective tissue, all bunching and sliding as I moved my thumb. There was a lovely person under there! I put my hand under a dissecting scope and admired the elegant machinery for several minutes before common sense interfered, and I carefully washed it up and taped it all together. It healed very cleanly, and now I have this hair-thin, tiny scar on the back of my hand as a memento.

I’ve never been tempted by the piercing and tattooing and scarification fads, but man, if there were a way to install translucent windows in flesh, I’d consider it…until my wife reached over and thwacked me in the head, that is.

I guess this is a confession: I’m dreadfully vain. Not the kind who looks deeply into mirrors (mirrors make me vaguely uncomfortable, actually, and I avoid them), but the kind who is still convinced that he possesses a stunningly spectacular self, a virtual Adonis hidden away only a few millimeters from where anyone would be able to see it. I have this job where I have to perform in front of audiences fairly regularly—teaching is show business, you know—and one of my little confidence-building rituals before I have to go out on stage is to take a moment and visualize myself: firm tubes of smoothly streaming, rich red blood; cartilages like oiled pearl; a liver with the sheen of polished mahogany; intestines coiled and rippling; plump and furrowed brain carefully swaddled in delicate arachnoid and tough dura. That’s me. And damn, but I’m splendid, and I can strut out there and do my job.


  1. Caledonian says

    (turns very pale)

    That’s… horrible. Just horrible.

    At least squid aren’t involved in any way. (Hmmm, I wonder how the Vampire Squid from Hell responds to human blood.)

  2. Scott Simmons says

    I find the comment about other people’s blood interesting … Way back in high school, when the guidance counselors gave all of those career aptitude tests, mine always came back with the same recommendation: medical doctor. To which I always responded that they must have left off the question, “Do you faint at the sight of blood?”

    But when a friend of mine accidentally slashed one of my fingers to the bone playing with a butterfly knife (don’t play with knives, kids!), I wasn’t faint, just fascinated. Looking at the different layers of tissue living under my epidermis that I’d never even imagined before. I dunno, maybe I could have gotten over that if I’d tried …

  3. flounder says

    I popped my shin open skateboarding once. I hit it on a handrail, and the skin was so tight that it pulled back and my bone was exposed, with only tiny drops of blood coming out. It was so cool, took 40 stitches. My friend nearly passe dout looking at it. I was in this small town in Wyoming. We went to the emergency room and there was no one around. We were yelling emergency and finally this nurse pokes her head into the window from outside and flicks a butt out into the parking lot and comes inside. She said they rarely got anyone coming in unless it was rodeo season.

  4. Jeffrey says

    I have a scar the webbing between the ring and middle finger on my left hand (on the bit towards the ring finger)

    It came from a miscue with a knife in the kitchen when I was much younger. I cut myself, and feel that curious “cold where I shouldn’t feel cold” and the tingle of pain nerves just waking to the damage done.

    I looked, and there under a few millimeters of skin was a seperate layer, colored a wonderful purple. I marveled at it until it began to bleed like a sonuvagun.

    Definitely my favorite scar.

  5. Left_Wing_Fox says

    My Dad’s fascinating this way. He’s absolutely fearless when dealing with blood and injury: split scalps, broken arms, popped-off fingernails… But he cannot stand watching doctors treating my brother or I. He can’t even watch a doctor give me a booster shot in the arm without fainting.

  6. John M Price says

    Back in the day as a kid, I had the rare wart. Being tired of one on a fine summer day, I bit it off my hand. It, too, bled well.

    Being the curious kid I put the side of my now wart free, bleeding hand into a measuring cup of water. I was fascinated as the blood ran in a straight line with small, round balls evenly spaced down the red line. I presumed corectly that these spurts were related to my pulse.

    Yes, I was a weird kid.

  7. poke says

    Now we have this on the new site you need to bring back “My heart-warming tale of self-affirmation” too! Some people might not be disturbed yet!

  8. David Harmon says

    I remember as a kid when I stubbed my toe so it bled, my response was to run (unevenly) for the microscope… My first sight of red blood cells! These days my usual reason for bleeding is that my cat wants attention NOW. Second most likely is sharp edges inside computer cases. (OK, I live a sheltered life….)

  9. Dawn says

    This reminds me of one of Sylvia Plath’s poems that I had to read and recite back in high school. Don’t remember much of it,(although I still remember odd phrases here and there) but she, too had cut her thumb and wrote about the bleeding. Maybe my fascination with it is one reason I became a nurse….

  10. Kapitano says

    Do you know the films of David Cronenberg? In interview I once heard him say that people tend to think of the ‘person’ in terms of the external contours and colours of flesh, and indeed their choice of clothes, but that the internal organs are just as much part of the person as the face. He was saying his films reflect this view.

    Personally I regard the human body as a prototype that the designer never got around to developing into a finished product. There’s so many things that can go wrong, and all that peristalsis and complicated digestion – you’d think god could have been neater.

  11. CCC says

    When I was a kid and they were taking blood sampels every month or so in school (I think it had something to do with the flu shot tests my mom had signed me up for) I used to love to watch the blood fill the tube.

    The phlebotomist would always instruct me to look away, but I always ignored them, I didn’t want to miss the best part!

  12. natural cynic says

    Sigh, I wonder how fascinated with blood you would be if you were a diabetic and had to produce a small puddle of blood 5 or so times a day to check blood glucose. It gets real old, real fast.

  13. Lummoxia says

    I understand exactly how you felt watching the rubies fall. It’s always riveting when you see a part of yourself that you know is there, but is seldom exposed. Well, except when it really really hurts….

  14. G. Tingey says

    Many years ago. I fell off a horse, whilst riding bareback.
    Fortunately, the ground was very slippery (that’s why I fell off – the horse slipped) and he wasn’t shod.
    His hoof came down on my RH third finger, and split it open to the bone.

    Didn’t feel a thing – nerves cut.
    Blood everywhere.
    Got to stables, washed it under tap, wrapped in (PURPLE) bog-roll from car, and drove to hospital.
    They wouldn’t beleive me when I said I had aburst finger, and would they please get a LOT of lint, and then stsitch it up.
    They believed me when i unwrapped it though.
    Even now, I have a tiny area at the tip of that finger, with no touch sensation.

  15. David Harmon says

    Also, PZ, you do bring a unique perspective to the idea of “body-positive”! ;-)

  16. says

    I’m reminded of the times (yes, there has been more than one, alas) where I’ve accidentally stapled my thumb. The curious thing is that it didn’t hurt in the slightest until I looked at it. I felt that I had done something, and waited a bit and then looked, and saw that I’d punctured my thumb. Then, and only, then ow. Curious.

    I also have a habit of telling people I enjoy how their brain is arranged, too … good materialist I am. :) But I must say I have never complemented someone on their kidneys or their liver … hmm …

  17. says

    “teaching is show business, you know”

    Oh, YES! I wish all aspiring primary-grade teachers would take voice-training and theater classes.

    The cool thing about blood is how deeply complex it is. I can’t think of many liquids where there’s that much going on.

    Once when I had fallen victim to an industrial accident, which ripped open the pads of my fingers exposing the bone and tendon underneath, I moved the fingers in and out, and thought to myself; “Oh, good, the adducting tendons are still attached.” Blood ran down my arm and off my elbow. They guy at the machine next to mine had to go home early that day, feeling quite ill.

  18. Ed Darrell says

    Somebody asked Red Smith if he didn’t find writing with a daily deadline to be difficult. No, he said: “I sit down at the typewriter, open up my veins, and the words come out one drop at a time.”

    Much about life that is precious shares characteristics with other precious stuff.

  19. says

    There was a time in my late teens when I split the top of the first knuckle (I think; the one between the finger and the palm) of my right-hand middle finger open on a sword in a sleepy moment (don’t ask). I got to admire my tendon moving back and forth within the deep gash as I flexed my finger, but even more I appreciated that I was looking at a tendon, rather than two ends of what had been one tendon. (I didn’t remember whether that was adducting, abducting, flexing, or extending, though I certainly would have gotten it right on a multiple choice.) Then I calmly went off to find a band-aid, or maybe a butterfly bandage.

    Funny thing is, though, when it involves getting poked with needles, I tend to pass out, or at least grow rather faint, no matter how little pain or blood is involved (case in point, ear piercings). No conscious unease about it at all, except the awareness that has developed since the first time (in biology class, when we were supposed to take samples for blood typing, no less) that I’m likely to pass out. And I’m just fine with other forms of pain and blood loss, quite calm and casual (well, excepting the kidney stones, but that’s different), as long as nothing needle-like is involved.

  20. j says

    Okay, so I’m incredibly late in commenting on this post. I read it a long time ago, back when I was still a lurker, but after rereading it a few days ago, I felt compelled to comment.

    This post really spoke to me. It is simply beautiful. I feel the exact same way when I cut; it is so exciting to see my own blood. It is even more fun to let the cut bleed until it coagulates.

    Also, the Sylvia Plath poem another commenter referred to is entitled “Cut.” I love that poem.


    What a thrill –
    My thumb instead of an onion.
    The top quite gone
    Except for a sort of hinge

    Of skin,
    A flap like a hat,
    Dead white.
    Then that red plush.

    Little pilgrim,
    The Indian’s axed your scalp.
    Your turkey wattle
    Carpet rolls

    Straight from the heart.
    I step on it,
    Clutching my bottle
    Of pink fizz. A celebration, this is.
    Out of a gap
    A million soldiers run,
    Redcoats, every one.

    Whose side are they one?
    O my
    Homunculus, I am ill.
    I have taken a pill to kill

    The thin
    Papery feeling.
    Kamikaze man –

    The stain on your
    Gauze Ku Klux Klan
    Darkens and tarnishes and when
    The balled
    Pulp of your heart
    Confronts its small
    Mill of silence

    How you jump –
    Trepanned veteran,
    Dirty girl,
    Thumb stump.

  21. Sarah says

    My pet iguana bit me on the ankle about seven years ago, I remember that it started to hurt only when the doctor went to work on it. I remember how the wound looked, I could see the layers of bloodless skin, and moved my foot around in a circle to watch them shift, and the opening stretch. And when it was all stitched up with the black wire, it became ugly.

  22. XX says

    I already knew that from your writing. Now if I could just figure out how to be that way myself.

  23. Bruce says

    But how many here are both male and geeky enough to have checked out their own sperm under a microscope? They really do swim, in a random sort of way. Its kind of awe-inspiring to see your own.

  24. BeccaTheCyborg says

    This is still the most sensual piece of writing I’ve read in ages. I bookmarked it ages ago, and just decided to re-read. I recently spent a stay in the hospital, and got to watch all the imaging and tests I had, and found it fascinating and flattering, and thought of this essay while I was watching my heart via ultrasound.

    Thank you for the stunning writing.