Blood is thick. My brother, Andrew, died this past summer. He was 76.  He was witty and funny and read the classics—Dante, for example, and every page of Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Andrew was trouble. Alcoholism. Blackouts. He beat his wife. He borrowed money all his life and was never known to repay a loan. He had a nasty streak. He would stop speaking to this or that family member for years at a time. Still, he was my brother, only ten months older. He and I and my twin sister grew up together, played together for all the years of our rural childhood. The world, without Andrew in it, feels stranger, emptier. Yes. Blood is thick.

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Red stands for blood. For anger and danger. For stop. It stands for passion. It stands for lust. Roses are red; roses stand for love.

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My favorite film of all time is The Red Desert by Michelangelo Antonioni. Industrial scenery. Hulking vessels and smokestacks. A woman (Monica Vitti) lost, alienated, feeling useless, even as a mother. The Red Desert is a slow-moving painting: Antonioni actually painted the scenery, including even the grass, before he shot it. Breathtaking beauty of rust and tank and pipe and steam. The woman’s despair. Her words, finally, of self-acceptance: “Whatever happens to me, that’s my life.”

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Color words and hues (the colors themselves) may flirt, but the relationship between them is complicated.  John Gage, in Color and Meaning, relates the history of the word scarlet, which in Medieval Europe referred to a particular fine woolen cloth that was often but not always dyed red (scarlet). Gradually the word scarlet came to mean the color, not the cloth. There are, Gage points out, millions of colors and only very few color words.

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Marilyn Monroe, America’s icon of sexuality and sensuality during the 1950’s, is almost always shown in red lipstick (called, according to Google, Marilyn Monroe Red—but what was it called during her lifetime?). She is also shown wearing a red dress of the same shade, a bright, vivid red, almost a fire engine red. Norma Jeanne (her real name) had a sad life as a foster child, a sexually abused foster child, and later as an exploited actress. In resistance, she started her own film company, and produced one film before she died of a barbiturate overdose at age 36. She also studied comedy. She was also becoming a student of method acting.

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Little Red Riding Hood is an erotic story. It is a story about how family love turns into sexual love. But this is not nice sex or good sex. It is about potential violence, potential rape. Little Red Riding Hood gets into bed with a wolf she had thought was her grandma. Scary. The wolf, unbeknownst to LRRH, has already eaten the grandma. Little Red Riding Hood says, “My, what big teeth you have.” The wolf begins chasing her around the house. A kindly woodsman hears her screams and comes and kills the wolf.

I respectfully suggest a new ending for the Little Red Riding Hood story. Little Red Riding Hood has been practicing karate: Her grandma pays for the lessons. When the wolf starts chasing her, she turns around and kicks him so hard in the balls that he falls to the floor screaming, meanwhile disgorging Grandma. The woodsman comes and kindly drags the wolf away and the Big Bad Canis is never seen again. Maybe later, after she grows up, LRRH and the woodsman will meet again….

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In Seattle, our new Rem Koolhaas library has a Red Room. The building is composed of sloping glass-and-steel-truss ceiling-roofs, with interior pipes and ducts exposed. In the Red Room, you experience red and only red—red stairs, red floor, red walls, red ceiling, red doors. You experience Benjamin Moore Vermillion, Rhumba Orange, Orange, Neon Red, Scarlet, Red Door, and yes, Hot Lips. The Red Room is more red than room. It is a hallway with red doors leading to non-red rooms and with a red stairway with its red risers and red tread and red nosing (the front edge of the tread) leading to the next floor. It’s a space composed of the color red. If you want to experience red, not as a highlight or bit of lipstick, go to the Red Room. But don’t freak out. For it is a known fact that color affects our emotions. Red can switch on our brain’s amygdala to heightened anxiety or fear. Indeed, librarians say that when a person in the library who’s already on the brink freaks out and causes trouble, more times than not this occurs in the Red Room.

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Do we all have a blood-spattered story we wish we had been spared?

It is July, hot, and we are being driven in a rickety van from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Taos. We are instructors and attendees on our way to the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. The van is fully occupied. I’m in the front passenger seat. The landscape is red sandstone and sagebrush, gravelly-like with steep hills and shear drops from the narrow road that winds higher and higher along the Rio Grande into the thin air of Taos. We’re driving toward the Sagebrush Inn, slightly too fast (we are in New Mexico). Occasionally a motorcycle whizzes past, its driver unhelmeted (we are in New Mexico.) We drive past white cross after white cross, some strewn with fresh flowers. Each cross marks a death on the road.

Suddenly we see something—not good. A scooter lying the wrong way across the middle of the road. Metal debris. A stopped car with a man in it. He seems to be just sitting there. Our driver slows but does not stop. We drive past very slowly. Our driver calls 911.

A gravel and rock bank drops steeply from the road. And crawling up this bank, crawling slowly up this steep bank—a woman. Young. Her black hair pulled neatly back, not a hair out of place. Shaped eyebrows. A necklace. A low-cut blouse exposing a bit of breast. Well put together. She crawls on hands and knees up the steep embankment. Blood is pouring down her face, down her body. She is covered in blood.

Our driver seems strangely unfazed. “Send an ambulance,” he says into the phone. Then he says, “Send two ambulances.”

As we arrive at the Sagebrush Inn, ambulances are flaring past. At the hotel everyone asks, “What happened? What happened?”  “It was awful,” we said. We could barely speak.

All that week, during the writers’ conference, I obsessed on the woman covered in blood, crawling up the embankment. I could not get her out of my mind. Neither, as it turned out, could the other passengers.

The news was not good. The helicopters from Albuquerque had not been able to land, something about updrafts. There were two fatalities.

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Dictionaries define red as the color of blood. Other definitions: the color of fire. The color of rubies.

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Red ocher (iron oxide) was the oldest red to be used in art. It is a naturally occurring clay earth pigment. Its redness is made by hematite, the reddest of the iron oxides. It is found in ancient cave paintings, rock paintings, and burial sites in France, Spain, South Africa, Wales, Australia, Brazil, Mexico. It is found in association with the Red Paint People of Maine and with the Pueblos of New Mexico. Native Americans of widely differing cultures used it as a body paint—ceremonially or every day or to go to war.

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“It is the color of Christmas, blood, Irish setters, meat, exit signs, Saint John, Tabasco sauce, rubies, old theater seats and carpets, road flares, zeal, London buses, hot anvils….” (Alexander Theroux, “Red,” in Primary Colors). Christmas, in our stressed-out, hardworking, habitually yelling, impecunious farm family, was a day of peace and happiness and bacon, eggs, and biscuits for breakfast. One Christmas morning, the Three Big Kids—me, Pammy, and Andy—went rhapsodic with delight at seeing three brand new bicycles parked in front of the Christmas tree. We did not yet have the skill of bike-riding, but we spent the day walking our bikes around the farm, introducing our bright red bikes to the cows, the dogs, the barn cats, the geese, the horse, the pig…

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Fire’s red, it’s said, though often it burns orange, or yellow streaked with red. Wildfires have been raging, partly due to climate change, especially across the West. In 2018, in the United States so far (I am writing in October), there have been 49,658 wildfires that have burned 8,148,950 acres. Right now in my state of Washington ten major fires are burning (National Interagency Fire Center). Think of the squirrels, the rabbits, the bears, coyotes, wolves, foxes. Think of the trees.

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Upon a winter’s evening, I love to read by the fire with a glass of red wine.

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For red wine, we may thank the Greek god Dionysus (called Bachus by the Romans), who brought humans wine.  In praise of Dionysus, a hymn in The Homeric Hymns goes: “And so hail to you, Dionysus, with your many grapes!/ Grant that we joyously reach this season again/ and then after this season many more years.” And so I thank Dionysus. And I also thank Michael at my local wine shop, City Cellars, located in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Michael knows as much about wine as Dionysus did, I’m sure of it. He and his assistant, Lesslie, researched and found me the one red wine that does not give me a headache: La Carraia Sangiovese Umbria, from Italy. To you, Michael, to you Lesslie, I lift my glass.

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Red connotes power. Michel Pastoureau notes in Red: The History of a Color that the early popes wore red. Emperors wore red. Feudal kings wore red. And in the late Middle Ages common mortals were prohibited from wearing red. In our own day, according to a Teaching Company lecture on “red” by William Lidwell, red signals aggression and dominance, and several studies have shown that, given competitors equally matched in skill and strength, the one wearing red is significantly more likely to win.

I myself detest the color red. Especially fire-engine red. I would never wear it. In a crowd I would rather be eyes and ears, not seen—but seeing.

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A few of the many red minerals are beryl, corundum (ruby), cinnabar, garnet, hematite, tourmaline, and zincite. The philosopher’s stone is red. The Red Stone was legendary, alleged to turn base metals into gold. In the worldview of Carl Jung, it was an archetypal symbol of wholeness.

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Jung composed his iconic Red Book beginning in 1913. The beginning of what he also called his Liber Novus (New Book) coincided with his break with Freud. In The Red Book Jung recorded his waking visions and reflections on them. In October 1913, the year before the outbreak of World War I, he had a vision of a terrible flood that covered all of northern Europe, with yellow waves full of rubble and the deaths of thousands. This vision recurred and “Once I saw a sea of blood over the northern lands.” He experienced terrible anxiety. He wrote: “And I thought my mind had gone crazy.” Still, he felt he was communing with his deepest self, his soul, so with trepidation he continued. With the outbreak of war in August 1914, Jung came to believe that his visions of death and blood had foretold war, and following from that, the visions produced by his unconscious represented forces that transcended the individual.

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We each contain nine pints of blood. Our life-blood. Blood receives oxygen from the lungs and transports oxygen through the arteries to muscles, organs, brain. The oxygen-depleted blood’s return trip, ferrying carbon dioxide to the lungs, is through the veins. My brother had something wrong with his liver, and something wrong with his gut. He had something wrong with his lungs. He had something wrong with his heart. We thought he should have died years ago. We thought he would never die. When Andrew Brian Long died on the morning of August 28, 2018, we were shocked.

Blood is red due to iron in the protein hemoglobin, the part of blood that hitches to oxygen. (Plasma is the carrying fluid; white blood cells fight invaders; platelets clot.) The heart pumps our lifeblood so it’s no wonder that it stands for life, for love, for all we take to heart. “Will you be my (heart-shaped) valentine?” “I love you with all my heart.” “Don’t break my heart.” Or, as Zelda Fitzgerald said, “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”

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Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, science, fiction, and history, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. Her how-to-write guide is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Second Edition, University of New Mexico Press). Her work appears widely and her books are: Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press), Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Poets, and Other Creators (Coffeetown Press), and Crossing Over: Poems (University of New Mexico Press). She is also author of Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her awards include a National Magazine Award. Her science column, Science Frictions, ran for 92 weeks in The American Scholar. She earned an MFA from the University of Washington and serves as Founding and Consulting Editor of www.historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.