These shades along the River Styx
stand mute and melancholy
like druggies looking for a fix
to forget mortal folly.
These shades along the River Styx
These shades along the River Styx
stand mute and melancholy
like druggies looking for a fix
to forget mortal folly.
The oil lamp sits on my escritoire, before a window in my library whose pane dulls the moonlight with the webbed frost along its glass. How emblematic of my life, the small flame confined in its glass prison and the coldly frosted world beyond it. Is it not like me, that flame, as I sit behind this window and yearn to burn away the cold uniformity of the world beyond this gnostic prison? But we are both prisoners of our mortal circumstances, too soon extinguished upon our wicks to realize our brilliant potential.
The pale gaze of the moon illuminates the distant hills as Selene searches for her sweet shepherd, steeped in his dreams. I hear the genteel rabble down the hall as a pack of mongoloid idiots chittering away to vapid self-importance and anemic music. Is it not enough that I have apportioned them the entirety of my remaining estate if they would but grant me the solitude of my study? How I loathe that stilted, stiff, and ultimately dead music down the hall. It is as pretentious as it is vapid, like finely crafted machinery to reproduce sounds never intended to be enjoyed by living beings. Music should be made by men and women in the throes of desire, their fingers desperate in their unsated appetite for contours and crescendoes and tactile decadence. It should not be played by men and women who have never lusted except in grabbing a Bible to deaden themselves against their own compulsions.
Yet, it is all a diversion constructed by my own volition. I have supplied to please my wife an interminable Winter Waltz; a venue for her entertainment, whose means and manners have acclimated to my own insomuch as the routines of life demand— as Duchess to Duke— and all that faded spectrum of jaded tedium that frequents me, not unlike maggots growing in a long-buried corpse. And what have I earned in return for my generosity? The ambience of an asylum at Christmastide.
“Of course, my dear,” I had said with a tone as sincere in exasperation as a child’s is in his governess’s lectures. “Whatever you wish you shall have, insomuch as I am not disturbed.”
And yet, here she comes down the hall to pester me in my solitude. She has been, if ever anything, a persistent jackdaw intrusive upon my lucubration.
“Love,” she says. “Would you please honour your guests with your presence? They are disconsolate at your aloofness.”
“They are honoured enough,” I retort, “in your presence, my love, and have a place esteemed by my generous hospitality. They need no more.”
“Then honour me, love, by gracing me with a dance.”
I sigh, seeing my breath upon the cold pane by my escritoire, like a fog long lingering afterward. The moon is high, among the stars, and her pale, bloodless light glistens upon the snow beyond the frosted hedges of the garden. It is a cold Winter’s day, and the lights and the noises and the warmth of the inner ballroom are faraway; yet not faraway enough to afford me refuge. The air is still and chill, as if it, too, shares the languor of inert indifference that lays upon me.
“You have partners in abundance,” I say, “and many young gentlemen envious of such an honour.”
She folds her arms across her bosom. It is the symbol of her irritation, the folding of her arms athwart her heart, and were I not annoyed by the bother of her I might be amused to think of the many times I have kissed her breasts which she now enfolds. Yet, I am not amused by anything anymore.
“The scandal of your continued absence will be the talk of London!” she says.
“Excellent,” I rejoin, “for much merriment will I have provided such insufferable personages. Dance, dinner and gossip. Why, they will be preoccupied for a fortnight. I am a most generous host indeed.”
She paces to and fro, as if contemplating the ending of the world. To and fro, to and fro, behind my chair and about my library. I see her reflected upon the window before me, ghostly in the halo of the lamplight. Her shadow flickers with the sullen blaze of the hearth. Her hair recalls a crested bird, though I know not which one. Certainly not those of Halcyon. All at once she halts and tightens her fists at her hips. How women may wear corsets and exercise their emotions without swooning is beyond my understanding, or curiosity. I have always preferred the exercise of women without their corsets.
“Is this work truly so very important?” she demands. “It seems something you might work upon any other time. I am merely asking for a fortnight to help me in entertaining our guests.”
“The stipulation was that you should entertain them at my expense, love,” I say. “Are not the servants sufficiently serving in their vocations? If not, I will attend to that at once.”
“They are as adequate as always,” she concedes. “But it is in your deficiencies as host that the guests murmur rather than exude complete gaiety. Before the week is up they will be outraged…”
“Come, dear, you know as well as I that high society delights in being outraged. Offense for them is a mainstay of their daily diet, and they cannot survive without some slight to gnaw with their afternoon tea. I should not wish to deny them their crumpets.”
“It is a bitter tea you serve them now!” my wife says, her voice crescendoing in its pitch. She would have made a fine soprano had she the inclination.
“Oh, but one with sugar enough to compensate the bite,” I say, my fingers tapping impatiently upon my splayed book. “For it is as with your lovely countenance that they shall sip it. ‘The Duchess is such a saint to endure her hermit husband.’ That is what they shall say. Indeed, and then they shall invite you to London for more soirees and balls than you can bear.”
There was a touch of pain in her eyes as they blinked in disbelief above her sharply hooked nose. It is not an ugly nose; only a Grecian nose. It is one of the reasons why I married her. She reminds me of Helen of Troy, and I have ever been a man seeking what will disrupt the treatises of this banal existence. Her father despises me. Most men among his ailing generation do.
“I do not wish to be a saint,” she says. “I wish to be the Duchess. And what Duchess was ever such without her Duke?”
“A Duchess happy to have the kingdom to herself,” I say, flippantly.
Shaking her head, she leaves the library, heading down the hall to join again the stifling imbeciles she has invited to abuse the atmosphere of my home. Marriage is a matter of compromise. I have compromised for her pleasure; she should compromise for mine. If I was not of a compromising mind, I would fetch from my den my rifles and make sport of her guests. It would not be the first safari where I have downed many among a dullard’s herd of grazing beasts.
I return to my tome for a few moments. Yet, my concentration is adulterated by the ambience of my estate; its potency lessened as a consequence. It being Winter, there is a chillness to the air that calls attention to itself, distracting me from my studies. It is, of course, England herself that is distracting me. Much rather would I be on Crete in Summer than cloistered in Albion’s overbearing frigidity. And yet not even Crete would remedy this malaise of spirit that has vexed me for so long. The chill reminds me— however poorly— that I am yet alive, and I would never be happy, even Summering upon Crete, for it is an experience overfamiliar to me. The novelty of this world has worn as thin as the shroud of Christ. As for creature comforts, I am kept warm enough with a gentleman’s attire, and should I feel more in need of protection against the Winter’s spitefulness I will simply don my ulster and sit closer to the fire, perhaps at my marqueterie table with its Grecian inlay of seashells and geometric patterns. Yet, I wish to gaze upon the dreaming moon, as Endymion upon his lover, and so aspire to the metamorphoses to come while the fools down the hall prattle incessantly.
And so, embattled with imbecilic pastimes common to the myopic gentry, I attempt to read a tome concerning metaphysical transmutations; and yet the echoing exuberance of the Waltz interrupts me as much as my materialist wife.
As I read an exceedingly trite passage in this exceedingly trite tome, and am incessantly vexed by the musical accouterments of my wife’s Winter Ball, my mind loses focus and wanders, as it often does, to the various poetry of Ovid and his lascivious visions. Nor is it depravity that excites such visions to tease my attentions elsewhere, but rather numb stoicism; involuntary stoicism wrought from jaded disillusion which has vexed my life from an early age, proceeding my manhood. For I have been both gifted and cursed with excesses in life— excesses of luxuries and flesh, the sum of which has indebted my emotions to a negated form of Hedonism. That is to say, a Hedonism which knows no satisfaction in the tiresome plane of mortal experience, however variegated the continuum proves to be. Were I the arbiter of manifold forms and granted grand determination over this vapid realm, I would transpose upon the banal world the utmost expressions consistent with nothing except heightening necessities of personal gratification. Caterpillar to butterfly to fairy, such would be the successions of my corporeal intrigues until, at last, Sublimity reaches its zenith and the world would die blissfully in its own exuberance. For it is my unreserved belief that Sublimity is the ultimate purpose of this otherwise useless universe. Sublimity above all else. And yet, that is the curse and the blessing of corporeal manifestations. It is not that Tantalus could not fill his cup to quench his thirst, but that the same libation dulled upon his palate, and so the cup abstained from the rising tides lest he drown forever in the cloying blandness.
And so I sit here, at my escritoire, with a glass of French wine untouched before me while wine and cheer pour down the hall, in my wife’s crowded ballroom, where the prestigious jackanapes of London engage one another with the ebb and flow of oblivious tomfoolery, unaware of the deadening insistence of Time and Age which numb an Epicurean soul such as mine— a soul which has molted and expanded beyond its simple-minded pleasures of melody measured by a lively foot and a welcoming hand.
I arrive at the section entitled “Epistemology of the Assumed Form” when I hear the clacking footstep of a presumptuous guest intruding upon my coveted solitude.
“Duke, if you would kindly pardon the interruption, but I have a matter utmost in need of your jurisprudence.”
It is not a guest, but my majordomo, Augustus, standing beside me, gloved hands behind his coattails and his spine proper and straight, chest held outward despite his ailing age, and his broad nose raised, chin up, all at disciplined attention and focused upon my every word as if Biblical decree. Or so it may seem. What a dull life he leads. Seeing him in the reflection of the window, he appears not unlike a broad-headed bull snorting his contempt in curt issuances from a stubborn head cold.
“What is the matter, Augustus?” I demand. “Can the Duchess not handle it herself? She has always boasted of her superior judgment.”
“The matter is the Duchess, sir,” August says, snorting insolently. “She requires your assistance and is taking great umbrage at your…studiousness.”
I sigh in contempt. How can I not? “And so she sends you here to jeopardize your standing in this house? Why heed her to your own detriment, Augustus?”
Augustus sniffs indifferently— it is another of his discreet means to express his insolence.
“Sir,” he says, “she has threatened my departure from service in this esteemed household if I do not consult you, and now you threaten my departure for granting her request. How can I reconcile myself with such a perilous situation except to throw myself upon your patience and mercy for an expedient resolution?”
Augustus is in all things proper and devout in his duties, except in his tone. Whatever words might be poured in refined elegance from his mouth, their flavour is ever bitter and biting, like an overaged wine. While his words were premised in capitulations, his tone is ever bullishly snide superciliousness. My wife often urges me toward his dismissal, but I find his mild petulance amusing, in a way, whereas the carousel of obsequiousness that spins about me—as pertaining to my other house servants—galls me and prompts my hand toward violence. Abject servility is an unpardonable crime. Such a perpetrator should never be forgiven except in his or her sudden assertion of willfulness.
Augustus, I realize, is yet addressing me.
“…and so she requires your opinion, and your opinion alone.”
“Regarding what?” I say.
Augustus clears his throat impatiently. His collar has always been too tight upon his large neck, and ever seems to struggle to contain the bulge of his throat.
“Regarding the wine selection, sir.”
“By the stones of Jove!” I swear, slamming my fists down. “Let them drink the swill of swine for all it matters to me!”
Calmly—superciliously—Augustus speaks. “I will offer a choice more tempered on your behalf, sir.”
He exits forthwith, his broad nose higher than ever in the air. No doubt he believes himself a more fitting Duke in my stead, and I delight him to persist in this presumption, for I know it gnaws at him to think thus and yet be bound in service to such a man as myself; a man inferior in his estimation. Let him think so, and let such thoughts gore him in his sleep. I played the dutiful, dignified genteel for a quarter of my life, and I am finished in its stagnant, stultifying pretenses. Life is too short, and too stale, to further deaden the heart and the head with stifling manners.
Unto solitude once again, I set forth with renewed interest in my sterile tome. Yet, however strong the oarsmen, a contrary current can overwhelm the most Herculean of men. So is it with me as I burn the oil and ignore the cacophony of instruments and laughter echoing through my home. Icy moonlight through the window reminds me enviously of Endymion in his cave while Selena embraces him. How tender and gentle that repose! Body stilled, yet dreams unending and of myriad marvels! Such a slumber I desire, if only to escape the colourless monotony of this earthly realm.
So much noise down the hall! A noise of stiff, cadaverous airs! A danse macabre, for all it purports in its assemblage. Would be better were all my wife’s guests rendered satyrs and nymphs in a sylvan debauchery of old. Perhaps then the intolerable inanities of their merrymaking might substantiate itself with merit and significance rather than that niggardly imitation of copulation known balefully as “the Waltz”. Indeed, who would ever substitute nocturnal endeavours such as the tapping of toes with the tapping of shoes except in these mendacious times when puritanical pretenses reign tyrannically over all spheres of humanity? The world would be better written with the church and the brothel sharing the same back-door, if not the same nave. The pagans of old knew how and why to live life, and knew the brevity that threatened their lives every waking moment. Thus they lived awash in wine and song and fleshly pleasures that carried them jubilantly upon its powerful tide until oblivion claimed them.
And yet I cannot enjoy any such thing now; neither wine nor song nor fleshly pleasure. Passion has been failed by a prudish world. Had I a poet’s inclinations and capacities I might elevate my consciousness unto the higher realms, thereby exorcising such demons as besiege me. Alas, I have all the Byronic impulses for poetry, but neither the inspiration nor expression required to channel in wizardly fashion the passion, and so cannot supplement tedious earthly existence with the Sublimity afforded by a creative daemon.
Presently a figure approaches from down the hall. I recognize her hurried manner at once, and her lithe form. My exasperated wife.
“My love,” I say, “I have said all I will on the matter. Leave me be.”
A sibilant sigh of vexation, yet I do not close the tome, nor look to her. I will not afford her an appraisal. She is a pretty creature— naturally, for I would have accepted none contrariwise—and yet there was ever a pettish contrariness in her pretty blue eyes beneath her golden curls. I need not look at her to know this. Habit has transfigured her quite stagnant in my mind, like all other things, and that stagnancy holds fast, however dire the need for transposition. For such a pale creature one might be dismayed to witness what passions could be summoned in her seemingly frail frame. Yet, I have summoned what daemons I could from the throes of her bedchamber, and they proved satisfactory only for a time. Do not mistake me, for she is given much to le petite mort, yet the deficit is in the modality of her forbearance. She is too passive a lover to invigorate interest anymore, and has always accepted me gladly, but without the aggression that invigorates my own jaded appetite. I yet sate her appetite with every timely meal rendered, but find myself strangely hollow afterward. She is a harpy in all ways yet what I desire from her. It is a failure of the sex, or perhaps the British woman, for I have enjoyed the proclivities of women in other parts of the world. Women in the Dark Continent, for instance, dominate their lovers when in copulation. This also seems a prevalence among the American Indian squaws. The best I have experienced was a Spanish girl in Cadiz. A lovely creature, too, though alike to dusk compared to the moonlight of my wife. She delivered unto me deep pleasure, though it, too, dulled after a time, as do all things to a mind not encumbered with imbecility and ignorance.
I realize, suddenly, that my wife is yet speaking to me and I have favoured my own thoughts during her orations, as I often am disposed to do when presented with lusterless conversation.
“…it is therefore customary…No! It is vital that you greet your guests at once!”
Vital, she says. I once knew of the vitality of life; of the passions long since deceased. But I have been born of a Faustian bargain, which all knowledge of this world’s sensations exhausted with overripe experience, and so wish for a new bargain whereby the world may be transfigured anew, if such a bargain may be struck.
“My dear,” I say, “for three days your esteemed guests have been getting on without me. For three days I have been attempting— despite the inconvenience of their prattle and prancing—to get on without them. This arrangement is vital to both enterprises. Can you not understand that when I wish to be uninvolved, it is for the sake of you and your festivities? Were I to debut, I would debate, or destroy. It is as simple as that. Therefore I save you and your guests from the catastrophe of my reluctant presence, and they, in time, will save me from the catastrophe of their distractions.”
My wife is silent for some time, not unlike a hawk as it watches its prey keenly.
“You know not what wrongs you do to me,” she says quietly.
“Indeed,” I say. “But I know which wrongs I spare you.”
The Duchess leaves with her frills swishing most petulantly, like some bird of prey whose meal has escaped. It matters not. I am once again afforded time and attention toward the arcane tome. Thus, whatever censure she lays upon me will be a fruitful exchange on my behalf.
Do not doubt that I know my wife to be the angel of my hearth and home— she certainly is—and yet she fails the enterprise of imagination required to sympathize with my disappointments. She is too meek in her conduct, too, and though I loved her once, there is wanting in her manner a certain passion; a passion to recompense my own dulled passions of late. Angel though she is, I long for the night which she should doff her celestial wings and spread talons upon my body, raking deep to awaken flesh wherein to dormancy we are all resigned.
Once again I return to my rare and resplendently dull tome concerning transformations. In the lamplight I read these Greek letters with dutiful attention, and yet like light turning ordinary objects into baleful shadows, that illuminating script writhes and worms its way elsewhere in my attentions while fanciful figures prance ever in my jaded thoughts. It is not that my comprehension lacks crucially in fortitude, but that the trite passages fail to elicit appropriate phantasia. And so my mind, finding the desired effect inadequate, compensates its dearth with wandering wonderment. Often I wander, as Ulysses apart from his home, and yearn for the Siren song of madness, or the oblivion whirling within the jaws of Charybdis. Nor do I find solace in Circe’s favour, nor Calypso’s, but, at times, would gladly welcome the novelty of congress with Scylla, if only to impose upon this pale, murmuring existence the fresh roar of vivacious novelty. I am reminded of The Golden Bough, that work that is as more poetry than true portal to the Mysteries. This tome before me is the antithesis to Frazer’s work. The latter is poetic insight without truth, and this book is truth without poetic insight.
By the womb of Juno! There approaches another interloper! It is Lord Grantchester, no doubt. I know him by his peculiar footstep that tattoos most strangely down the hall, pronounced with a tap and then a slide of his stiff-legged left foot which had been crippled by a projectile from a Mohammedan in one of his many Pyrrhic battles to the South. Since his return to England he has become a notable hero, elevating his status with a lame leg and a library of war stories. Granting credibility to these tales, too, was his missing right eye, which is ever covered with a patch now. Some patrons have offered to generously provide him a glass eye, but he has refused this dubious honour outright. His patch and his lame gait allow him a certain mystique for most who do not know him. Those among us who do have his unfortunate acquaintance, on the other hand, know him to be a dreadful bore. Currently he is aspiring to be a shepherd among the tepid-blooded sheep of our nation. That is to say, he is entering the fray of politics. I wonder how he shall achieve atrocities in the House of Lords likewise to those he has achieved in combat. He has made meringues of men upon the battlefield with his myopic war strategies, blinded as he is by his own myth, and looming Cyclopean in the esteem of fools everywhere. They speak of him as if he devoured the Mohammedans by the bushel whereas the Turks routed his forces toward legendary slaughter. Had he any sense of shame he would have taken the bullet closer to his heart and so ended his incompetence against Britain once and for all.
“Duke,” he says, “we all fear for your well-being. Does the malady originate in illness? If so, may I counsel you to a nice Brandy to inspirit recovery. It is ever the doctor I favour when on the battlefield.”
“Doubtlessly,” I say, flatly. “And great is such counsel provided when countering your enemies. A sound defeat is ever assured on the one side.”
“Indeed,” he says, ignorant as always to my meaning. He can only ever see one side of things, and at that, a side always favourable to himself. “Why, the Mohammedans should have counsel likewise or they will never stand a chance against our might.”
I grow tired of his absurdities. “I am engaged studiously,” I say, “and can ill-afford time for pleasantries. Please excuse me, and enjoy the Duchess’s ball.”
His presumptuousness prompts him to stare over my shoulder, surveying my book.
“Is that Latin?” the cretin asks.
“Greek,” I reply. “They are quite distinguishable. Even to the most unlearned eye.”
“Indeed,” he says, leaning over my shoulder. “Pardon me, though, for, as you know, my vision was impaired in a valiant battle against Christianity’s foe, and so I see but poorly as a consequence. Yet, I see the difference entirely now. It is quite obvious upon closer observation. Naturally, it is Greek, not Latin. Alas, candlelight affords only the most preciously scant illumination, as you no doubt know. That is why I never read anything after nightfall and prefer my newspaper by the light of noon.”
A silence passes— vexing and meaningless and insufferable—and I plead silently to any willing god to spirit this fool away from my person. None answer my prayer.
“And what is the nature of the text?” he asks.
“Tedium,” I say. “The tedium of static forms. Ontological stagnation. Mutability in regard to diminutive matter in a constrained tapestry of being.”
“Ah!” he sighs pleasurably, as if understanding the matter— that is to say, the restrictions on matter, generally speaking. “An excellent subject, to be sure.”
He looms over me for a time longer, then turns away. I am relieved, thinking he will leave. Yet, he merely hobbles to the hearth, warming himself in its glow.
“Do you recall Lady Stonewall?” he asks after a long thoughtful pause.
I do recall such a Lady. She is a fair-faced creature with a winsome mischief in her dark eyes, though too tame to tempt my engagement once again.
“I do,” I say. “Married to Lord Stonewall.”
“Just so,” he says. “She has honoured me as her dance partner for three of the four previous Waltzes.”
“Indeed?” I say, mildly curious now. I regard him, knowing his mind, and knowing hers. Such a short, crippled man to loom so large in civilized society. “And her husband abides in some corner, nursing his knee?”
“He did not accompany his wife,” Lord Grantchester says, flushing red as scarlet upon a letter. “He has taken ill.”
“At his age it is only natural,” I say. “And a young wife must have her freedoms, particularly when so young a Lady as Lady Stonewall. I am sure Lord Stonewall would be grateful to know his young, pretty wife is being attended by a man of such high honours as yourself.”
He does not note the sarcasm in my voice, being deaf to such tones, and instead nods vigorously as he stares into the flames.
“Exactly my thoughts,” he says. He drops his gaze and fidgets restlessly on his good leg, experiencing a moral dilemma from which he seeks— I have no doubt—some deliverance. He stands with his hands behind him, as if bound and awaiting the firing squad.
“You should return to Lady Stonewall,” I say, impatient to have the fool away from me. “Doubtless, she is wanting your company.”
“Indeed,” he says, inhaling and exhaling like a near-drowned man. “Indeed. Indeed.”
He hobbles toward the hall, pausing at the threshold of my study. He sighs, then says, “Egyptian women were never so enigmatic.”
He leaves, his brow troubled now by his own behaviour more than ever by the innumerable dead he had through his incompetence sewn throughout Khartoum. He has made a garden of Earthly Delights by such dragon-tooth men, and yet he fears the sex of a woman. Rightly so, I should think, for Lady Stonewall is wiser than most men of any age. Why else would she marry a man breathing dust from his imminent grave? Nor has Lord Stonewall any hope of producing an heir by her, thus leaving her unspoilt for the next fool she seeks to ensorcell. She is as Aphrodite marrying Hephaestus, yet taking idiotic Ares abed. Had I not partaken once before of her dalliances I might do so again, but I’ve no interest now— not even in the most brazen of women. I am beyond such established fare. The world’s banquet of women is bland to me, however freshly procured from the vine.
I take a moment to contemplate the situation. Lord Grantchester is enamoured of the Lady Stonewall, and she encourages this fixation, knowing her husband is bound for Charon soon enough. Happy woman! You are a slippery, fanged thing, and twist yourself around any man you fancy to lose in your coils! A delicious Delphyne, that she-creature of prophecy, you are serpent-tailed and encoil a man, head to toe, root to head. There was a time I fancied you, and you I. But as all things in my dreary life, such glories fade and all that remains is taedium vitae.
Nonetheless, Lady Stonewall is a credit to her sex. Too many British ladies are of that bloodless marble stiffness so perfectly captured in Frederic Leighton’s abhorrently lifeless paintings. Indeed, like those paintings there is beauty to be had in their elegance and preciseness, yet where is the flush of passions? It is as if they had, one and all, been drained by vein of their crimson life force, leaving only cold porcelain shells. Even his paintings of bare-breasted Andromeda languishes beneath the tyranny of his serpent, and seems too soon to swoon with a morbid pallor rather than writhe with the living pulse of fright. That is not to say that I have, in the past, never enjoyed hastening the pulse of such coldly marbled women to bring a darkening flush to their alabaster flesh. Indeed, it was a pastime cherished for a season. I delight in nothing more than rendering to life the glass-eyed dolls that enumerate so many corners of London. Now, however, it is but a fancy that leaves me as cold and bloodless as they. All life for me is a feeble imitation of life now. A pantomime as uninvolved as it is disbelieved.
As I think of it, I would consider Leighton the antithesis of Pygmalion, for he took women of living flesh and rendered them cold, immobile ivory. But that is this age we live in. It is the Age of Lifelessness. Morality is the calcification of the soul; the rigor mortis of the sensual life. Meanwhile, there have been so many technological revolutions— locomotives, telephones, and, now, automobiles—and yet no revolutions of the flesh. Bound by our anatomy, we seek to bind ourselves evermore, but now in unfeeling steel to transport ourselves from one banal location to the next in a long life of dulled experiences. Nor did the Age of Reason transform the flesh alongside the mind. Perception and knowledge have changed, yet sensation remains stagnant by inborn limitation. There are those who, in the self-loathing passion of Oedipus, willfully blind themselves to the wretched reality into which we are born, gouging out their eyes with either drink or dogma or domesticity. What cowards these individuals be, and the world is rife with them. I am no such person. I gaze into the eyes of our Mother Sphinx and dare to dream of a better lover; a lover more lioness than sandstone rigidity.
My wife approaches yet again, as a harpy besetting that wretch, King Phineus, as he attempts his meal. And how many attempts have I made of this dull banquet before me? So many, and yet she snatches away my attention with her covetous claws and fierce beak.
“My love,” she says, “Lady Chatterley is insistent upon speaking with you. She is inconsolable. Lord Hemingworth, too, wishes to speak to you. Come the Summer he hopes you will join him at his estate for a weekend of hunting.”
“I haven’t the time for either,” I say. “Send them my regret or regards or whatever false feeling would be appropriate.”
“This will not do, love,” my wife says. Irritation heightens her voice, though she attempts restraint. “You shame us both.”
I take up my glass of wine and drink deeply from it— not for sake of thirst, but to have something to stay my tongue lest it speak irrevocably. The French wine is bitter; familiarly bitter.
“So you do not wish to go hunting in the Summer?” she says. “I would have thought it something keeping in your interests.”
“I will not leave my estate in the coming Summer, or any Summer,” I say, “unless there is someone worthy of my devotion.”
“Am I not worthy of your devotion?” she asks, her tone bitterer than the wine.
“Are you to go hunting at Hemingworth’s estate?” I ask. “Is that the cause of your keen interest?”
“No,” she says, “but it should please me to visit with Lady Hemingworth while you are happily engaged in hunting. I…I want to see you happy, my love.”
“Then you can see to that happiness immediately,” I say, “and leave me be.”
She walks to the hearth, staring into the fire and sighing heavily. Her nose, in profile, is as a raptor’s beak. I am reminded of Dante’s Inferno, thinking of the Forest of the Suicides.
“And so you wish me away?” she asks. “Shall I visit our friends alone, then? What would they say? What would I say to pardon your stubborn absence?”
“Whatever excuse comes to mind,” I say. “Or no excuse at all. It means nothing to me whichever you deign to do.”
Her face hardens in the firelight.
“You wish me away while you linger here. No doubt so you can entertain your little harlot during my absence.”
She is close to tears now, which is a sign of anger rather than sorrow. Oh, but that is just one of many of her feminine wiles.
“My dear, you know I have tired of her as I have tired of all the others. Nor were their enjoinments to supplement in your affections or passions. No, I am a man of surfeited appetites, and so all is colourless and tasteless in my estimation, even as I condescend to animal pleasures with women of a fallen nature. It is no slight toward you, nor toward them. All life is Byronic languor to me now.”
“Oh, how I wish you would not say such things,” she says. She shakes her head, and her blonde locks, and then hurries to the hall. She pauses at the threshold. “You may not love me, but you could do much if only by pretending you do.”
I do not contradict her, for I wish for her hastened departure. And so it comes to pass that she returns to her guests down the hall, in the ballroom, and I am left to my solitude once again, reading as dutifully as before, which is to say, intermittently plagued by petty distractions. The Duchess is not incorrect. I do not love her. I do not love anything, including myself. Neither do I detest her, or myself. It is this reality that I detest. So long as it reigns indisputably over us then I will detest it. Alas, I cannot escape it— this waking nightmare that is tedium. So much means and wealth at my beck and call, yet nothing affords me true relief. Epicurean pleasures have dulled in their piquancy. I am as the Chinaman in his crowded opium den, requiring more and more of my sweet poppy fumes to deliver me from the dark reality I live until, at last, I surrender to its final plume of pleasure, passing away into a dreamful Oblivion, not unlike Endymion in Selene’s arms.
The pleasures provided by my privileged life have been Protean, with a plenitude of Nereids both innumerable and indulgent, but even the most virile tides must ebb, their froth dissipating upon the languid sands. Thus has it been and thus do I wish Desire herself, Aphrodite, would stand astride her seashell and beckon the waves to swell once more.
What am I but an aspirant to Protean powers? Usurper to that tyrannical demiurge who binds Man to his limited scope of gnostic iteration, heroically seeking to replace his imminence so as to manifest myriad transformations in measure apace of my dissatisfied sensibilities—to liberate human form from that gnostic devil and his abominable banalities enumerating monotonously this bland plane of existence, thereby instilling unto all the novelties and innovations wherefrom come invigoration—of caprice and genius to liven a dreary routine of flesh, Platonic expression and spirit overmastering flesh with a method to madness and madness unto form innumerable and manifold and ever revelatory.
Some self-proclaimed poet attested to the feeble doctrine that Greek mythopeia existed simultaneous with banal normality and that the observer might witness thereof if applying the proper advancement of insight. What a deluded fool! All is excrement and worms in this faded tableau of grotesque corporeal ontology. He attested, too, that all poetry and beauty and indeed Sublimity becomes commonplace where ingratitude dwells in aspect of the furrowing worm in the bruised fruit. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in it, but truly he was a man of limited means and vision, for my appetite outsizes all presence fare provided only insomuch as fare be meted in undue measure and insipid flavor.
How many such self-proclaimed poets have scoured the spheres as I have to seek such phantasia equal to jaded imagination? Perhaps if such people lived longer they would experience enough to understand the ineptitude of reality and, therefore, cease their pestilent evocations. Had I rosewater tears enough to swell and flood my eyes, I would not even then see what they render in their nascent consciousness as anything but effluvial nonsense.
I am reminded of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s need to celebrate Art, engage it, and ruin it as he brought it low to man’s mortal realm. Quite insightful for a sodomite. Then again, are we all not repressed in our need to live the passions our souls clamber toward in futility? I think of my wife, and all of the women upon whom I have sought invigoration; all of those puckering, parting lips which I have trespassed upon in lascivious ways never dared spoken thereof in polite society, let alone a Christian one. And by a Christian society I suggest the society of the Hypocrite.
Someone approaches from the hall. I know him by his rhythmic step. I see him in the reflection of the window, a tall shadow in the light of the hall. He steps forward and is carved into relief by the light of the hearth.
“Sir, there is an urgent matter needing your attention,” he says.
Sometimes I fancy Augustus as his namesake, Augustus Octavius; that is to say, stiffly obsessed with all of his moralistic prudishness and strict observances of decorum while I, a Nero, lounge beneath his sneering disapproval. Rome does not burn, least not in this cold heart, but I would gladly burn my entire estate to ashes if it would only stir some unexplored corner of my own bosom to beat once again in exultation, however brief and futile. Perhaps I am more Marc Antony, concerned with Cleopatra more so than actual power, and soon to fall upon my own sword.
How his eyes flash with silent fury, as a bull trapped behind a prison of stone, gelded and impotent in his rage.
“A guest has broken your mother’s antique vase,” he says, as if a judge sentencing a man to the gallows. “I believe you should address this issue personally.”
“I think it is of no concern to me,” I reply. “Why should it be?”
Augustus fidgets and snorts, reminding me of a bull confined to its pen, yet stomping impatiently about; angry at its prison.
“It belonged to your mother,” he repeats, “ and it dates to the Ming Dynasty. Sir, if not personally concerned, you should have a vested concern for the history it represents.”
It is my time to snort in contempt. “History is a long shadow bearing no tangibility upon me or my concerns,” I say. “I feel its imminence no better than the Present.”
“But sir!” he growls.
“Must you be so bullish, Augustus?” I say. “I have told you I have no interest in it, nor interest in anything else. Let all my antiques be shattered until they are dust drifting on the wind. It means nothing to me. All form is ephemeral, you thick-headed ox.”
Augustus’s broad nose wrinkles, the wide nostrils flaring. His tulip-shaped ears spasm beneath his crown of horns, and he bellows irritably. His hooves clop down the hall.
His insolent manner is ever emboldened by his aversion to my admittedly Hedonistic propensities. How it nettles him to be subservient to a man of my make and means and manners! Yet, I am no Mogul with his indulgent harem arrayed endlessly around me like pretty little satellites with which to while away the tedious, idle hours. True, I have enjoyed an orbit of Ladies and mistresses, but never for long. Reality itself impoverishes even the most precious of jewels in any crowned life. However pretty and picturesque a woman’s visage— and indeed vying with Dawn in splendid aspect—even so, she cannot contend against the Morphean imagination while impoverished as all such creatures are in thrall to this banal world to which and of which and from which we are born.
Resplendent and myriad must be the mold of Vulcan’s smithy or else it is as a thing of fleeting appeal and appeasement. Were I, thus, a poet, my transmutations might reward reality its unglimpsed marvels with keener credulity. But I am not, nor have I the capacity for such miracles. What wondrous wizardry is worked by wringing from empty air magnificent images and form, and what disappointment when what was wrought withers to pervasive void when the mind’s eye falters to sustain it, and the hands fail to grasp its intangibility to form it from formless flashes of insight. The illusion remains thus, a phantom on the periphery of existence; a wish without woven being.
That is not to say that I have never tried. Once upon an age I, too, was mesmerized by mysticism. When the flesh failed the lofty spheres of Sublimity, I sought elevation through spiritual means. The Dionysian Mysteries. The Sex Cults of Shaktism. Seeking a witch-doctor from the Amazon, I partook of the “soul vine”, a tea made from the leaves held sacred by his tribe. The visions inspired no awe, but only tantalized my curious consciousness more, ultimately disappointing me as the visions dissipated like so much ebbing froth, leaving me in the grotesque descent into la purga. I have partaken of such nectar of gods from all over this insipid world, and found them weak, waning, and wanting.
How tedious and tired this tome, and thus how true, for it is easily presumed that such tedious, tired prose must have been written by a tedious and tired scholar who was quite worldly, the world itself being tedious and tired, and so the truth herein recorded, contemplated, and bore out in all of its tired tedium must be truthful. And yet, it is a book of fancies, and seeming fantasies— a magic tome I read to enliven the tedious and tired world it purports to explicate in all of its minute machinery so as to engineer it anew.
And this magical tome must be true, for it is written with stern sense, and sterile feeling, and this world is so deprived of feeling at its core that this tome speaks to that truth mercilessly, unadorned, and without even slightest embellishment to elicit feeling or ease the digestion thereof. Compared to Ovid— so rife with poetically heightened feeling and being nought if not genius counseled by feeling and a paragon of truth— and this tedious tome champions itself with its bland tedium. Yet, how I long to subsume the one work with the other, which is to say, the one world with the other. Let this bland, sensible, tedious and tired cosmos be unseated by a phantasia of feeling long desired and long denied.
Yes, this tome must be true, for its magic incantations are so banal. Were I but more disciplined in my erudition I might achieve something worthwhile, but I must confess myself lax in all matters of edification and industry save for those which concern the flesh. Alas, as an overwrought intellect may dull the mind, so too does too much carnal enlightenment dull the lips and skin and loins. To think that I have followed Folly and all of her delicious vices, only to return to a regretful state not unlike Erasmus in the depths of despair at the end of his long ascetic life! How ironic to press the spectrum at one border and to arrive at the opposite threshold! It is the most cruel of paradoxes devised by Nature. And yet the fault lies with the inescapable paradigms of this accursed planet, formed as it was by crude hands in want of greater inspiration, or perhaps braver, bolder Willpower.
Desire, for my jaded tastes, is not Aphrodite in her plain human form, but an enchanting Echidne, her hypnotic tail swaying, scales glistening lustrously in and out of shadow and moonlight. Furtive horror and pleasure unified and manifest. Perverse as it may seem, I often wonder if only a gorgon’s figure and gaze should suffice to entice my desires once again, for they had proven in all other venues flaccid of purpose in these, my most jaded of times. What a terrible age this is. It is the Age of Ennui, layered as our ladies are layered in stiff artifices that render the victim incapable of breathing freely and so soon to swoon. They need only disrobe, peel away the layers until their silk shifts remain, thereby assuming the freedom of the bacchantes in their himations— a single layer to tantalize and to easily doff at a moment’s whim when passion should rule the hour and invite itself unto a life like a fairy godmother to transform the rags of existence into the satin of sensuality.
The grandfather clock chimes deeply, as a faerie gong, to proclaim the midnight hour, and yet it does not signal the end to the evening’s festivities. The musicians play as ever before, and the dancers fling their insipid laughter down the hall like a flock of birds to peck most obnoxiously at my brain. I am of a mind to make an appearance at last, and to recompense their jubilation with extravagant repudiation. Yet, before I may indulge this compulsion my eye alights upon a keenly interesting passage in the mystical tome which awakens my curiosity once again in its full luminosity.
Reading with renewed interest I find passages concerning a certain Minoan magus and the invocations employed to conform natural phenomena to unnatural configurations. The invocations are not, themselves, of particular potency; rather it is the act of reading certain script from a scroll that transforms in accordance to the reader’s whims. Any script suffices, given it was written using a certain ink extracted from a particular creature in the sea. This, I can only surmise, must be a cephalopod, for the passage asserts the need of both ink and the ability for such a creature to mutate its morphology at will. Having read extensively about various marine life, I know this likely alludes to the squid, even if the text seems to strangely hint at a being of human intellect willingly offering its protean ink to the magus. It hints at a few Greek words with which I am unfamiliar and, thus, I cannot fathom their meaning. Words such as “Yog Sothoth” and “Nyarlathotep” and “Cthulhu”. Indeed, they seem more in keeping with Egyptian words than Greek. But that is no matter. The Hellenes and the Egyptians had a rich history intertwined together. Why, it was only last year that I visited the recently discovered Temple of Bast on the island of Delos. I had sought sensual visions there, aided by a mushroom wine, but only found a bland Summer awaiting me.
The author also claims that the very words in this tome were recorded in the same ink and would, by their potent power, manipulate form and function as one pleases. This cannot be so or I would have observed such an influence hitherto and attributed it accordingly. Indeed, this seems literary grandstanding on the part of the author.
Time’s pendulum swings slowly as I read the author’s exultant self-indulgences, championing himself like some magus Machiavelli in need of a patron.
Suddenly feeling utterly irritated with the presumptuous author, I am ever more irritated when I hear Lord Grantchester approaching me once again, his arrhythmic footstep announcing his slow arrival like a graceless cur in attendance.
“I have need of your guidance, Duke,” he says, his voice a booming bass in the hollow barrel of his broad chest. “Lady Stonewall is acting most…unusually.”
“In what manner?” I say.
“She is very…forthright, sir,” he says, his voice gruff and echoing. “I would almost dare say improper, but I hold her in too high of esteem to denigrate her so heartlessly.”
I look up to see that Lord Grantchester is wringing his massive hands, his single eyebrow arched with distress over a single eye soon to glisten. His head hangs forward from his thick, knotted neck, both in dejection and to avoid brushing the ceiling. The club hanging from his leather belt is stained crimson, as if with lingonberry jam. To think such a killer of men could be afraid of an assertive woman! It amuses me, albeit mildly.
“Lady Stonewall is a married woman held in high esteem,” I say, “and so, by reputation— which is tantamount to actual character in a civilized society—cannot be anything other than what she most certainly happens to be.”
My assessment perplexes and shames the giant, one-eyed man wholly, the small brain within that massive head unable to divine my meaning.
“Yes,” he says at length. “Of course. Naturally so. I should think her thus always as she should be.”
Grantchester lopes apishly to stand before the hearth. The flames flicker and flare, throwing shades from his profile out onto the tiled floor and Persian rug, and I cannot help but fancy such shades of the many dead men clambering futilely in the underworld to rise and drag that fool down below with them. A competent general must navigate war as Ulysses did his ship between Scylla and Charybdis. This imbecile, however, plunged his ship into the whirlpool time and time again only to find himself on the golden shore of Calypso’s island, held in veneration and unconditional love by the British people. And yet, he is more Polyphemus in his idiocy than ever the wise and dastardly Ulysses.
“Marriage is a sacred bond,” he mutters to himself, his voice soft as wet gravel. “And I can ill afford a scandal now…”
Listening to his moral deliberations, I cannot help but think of Man and Monogamy and all of the multitudinous complications such dynamics bring. I have never truly been attached. Even when I was attached to the Duchess, I was ever unattached. Whether by one woman or by a harem of women, I am never attached. When engaged, I am never truly engage. “Engaged”, “attached”, “bound together”: these are presumed societal obligations…modalities…which, if not observed, enumerate minor nuisances in a modern life. Yet, how much simpler life would be without such artificial constrictions. True, they were enforced by necessity where wealth and heirs were concerned…but why should any of that matter to one such as myself? May I procreate a thousand little cherubic children—and should they all die from Need—it would be as meaningless to me as any church edict or moral lecture.
“And her husband…” Grantchester continues to mutter. “He is a fine man. As fine a man as any other in London. And a good patron. Yes. He has lent support to me on more than one occasion. But…he is old…closer to Heaven than to the coming year, as they sometimes say…what good is it to his wife to be saddled to the side, so to speak, because the wagon is rattling apart at its last timbers…”
What needless torments Man invents for himself. Astonishingly so, insomuch as the unimaginative herd is scandalized by such liberties of acquaintances and intimacies. Indeed, intimacy is not so intimate in my estimation. To rut between a heaving bosom is to be no nearer to that quickening heart than to the moon beyond the windowpane.
Grantchester turns to leave, then hesitates, his broad, hairy shoulders sagging despondently as if he is lost.
“Her scales scintillate like the stars,” he says. “They are the most appealing of her features, I think. Yet, her slitted eyes are beautiful too. She is the most darling creature I have ever known.”
This affection confessed, the cyclops hobbles down the hall, cracking the tiled floor as he passes.
Once again I look beyond the window, seeing the Corinthian columns in my garden gleam in the pale midsummer moonlight. Cherubim perch upon the capitals and the collapsed pediments. Vines grow up the marble trunks, seeking sunlight which will never come. The garden grows riot with hyacinths and cypresses. Had I Daedalus in my employ I should set him upon reality itself, rendering through his genius the world in a stranger, more mythic aspect of dimension and routine. The mystagogue of this tome— so conceited with his own delusions—is a charlatan, I so conclude.
I have never been one to let my passions carry me with wild chariots. Rather, Hippolytus lost control for having been overly strict with his own reins, and whipping his horses too vigorously. Despite my desire for desire, I have, in truth, ever been a man rehearsed in temperance. After all, it is ever a matter of time and place and intention, and so long as all are reconciled, even a Pope may lord modestly in a bordello without fear of overwrought passions— for such passions belong in a bordello, and thus are confined to time and place and intention. Wine may flow freely, and loins also, at a Bacchanal and should be estimated a success in moderation and propriety, for orgies are not equivalent to the routine hours devoted to other banal modalities, and, so, are of an accord with currencies exorbitant in other circumstances, but not in the circumstance whereof they are portioned. And why should such considerations of values not be made? Does not the soldier kill in times of war and refrain in times of peace? To slay another human being is considered abhorrent in schedule-addled London, whereas how we celebrate Lord Wellington for killing many Frenchmen in his war against Napoleon. There are many among the gentry who admire the French and Lord Wellington in turn, all while failing to acknowledge the contradiction of wartime prejudice and peacetime appreciation. Why, then, should bacchants be shunned for appropriating their pleasures when a proper circumstance is provided? It is just another among the infinite inanities complicating the waft and weave of life.
Someone lingers at the threshold.
“By the dark womb of Demeter!” I exclaim. “Have I any hope of peace this night?!”
My wife inhales sharply, then steps forth like Andromeda into the surging tides as the dragon looms.
“My love,” my wife says. “This will not do. The guest are absolutely despondent from your continued absence.”
I listen to the music echoing down the hall, and the idiotic clamour of voices from my wife’s guests, and in no measure diminished or diminishing in mirth or music. There is nothing wanting in their revelry except, perhaps, genuine joy. My presence would not change that.
“My dear,” I say with growing irritation, “they seem to carry on well without me. To the contrary, I am morose and would likely hinder festivities with my present disposition. Verily, I would determine it an affliction catching and would ruin your evening as a plague upon everyone’s morale.”
“Or the conviviality of your guests would catch in you,” she counters. “That is what sways you from joining us. You cannot enjoy anything anymore. You behave as if life were some duty you must observe begrudgingly, and it upsets me to no end.” She takes hold of my forearms with her clawed fingertips, attempting to wrest from my tome my attentions. Looking up at her, I see her feathered brow sadly furrowed and anxious. Her beak is sharp and tears each word from the tense air surrounding her.
“My dearest,” she says, “it would do my heart well to dance with you.”
Though her words postured from a stance of pleading, her tone— much as Augustus’s—exacts something contrary to import: a vexation bordering ire which she reserves solely for careless servants. But I will not yield in this battle of wills. My mind, and body, are rooted wholly in place. All else must change around me, in accordance to my will.
“Dearest,” I say with due frigidity, “if you should wish to dance with me, I will indulge you at the proper time. We shall dance beneath the sheets if you so desire it, but I will not waste precious oil by light of this argument. A great many more whales are hereby imperiled.”
Her countenance is ever lovely, especially when furious. My wife is a beauty like Scylla in the eviscerated furs of a dog-faced fidelity and faith. She glares at me for a time, not leaving immediately, her reflection glowering in the glow of my lamp and the fire-and-frost glass of the window. Rather, she stands by, tapping her taloned feet while her white feathers are ruffled roughly around her neck. Yet, she cannot tarry long or else risk neglecting her guests. So, with a frustrated flap of her wings, she returns down the hall, her tail feathers jutting out angrily above her shanks.
Prometheus is chained to the mountainside of Olympus, feeding his beaked torment as a slave his master while wallowing in what could be as he gazes toward the summit, so far away. That is the emblem of my suffering; of my woe. Reality chains me while I yet aspire to ascend to greater heights, and tedium, its torturer, wheels around again on easy wings for its timely feast. The hours! How dreadful they are when beset with the carrion birds of boredom.
It is a grotesque irony that we should strive toward Sublimity only to achieve futility in the realization of its dizzying heights— heights thereafter diminished by experience, not unlike the wish of possessing a fox in all of its wild beauty only to kill and mount it, and thereby transpose its vivacity into a lurid dead thing of lifeless inertia. It also reminds me of desiring a vestal nymphet whom inspires desire to propel us into wooing her virginal trust, and thus losing what was coveted all at once in the petal-strewn bed. To gain and to thereby lose— that is the dilemma of the Sublime. Pleasure and apathy. Exultation and disappointment. Love and disillusionment. Evanescent ecstacy. Fleeting fantasia. It is the beauty of the Asphodel; Hades drawing Persephone down into his darkened halls, thinking to beautify his dead world and only, by so doing, darkening the fair face of his beloved.
There was a time when I played my own Hephaestus, devising instruments of pleasure to employ upon women, and also pain. When the former lapsed in elicitation, such as were preferred by the Marquis de Sad, but now all such diversions pale; all the world bereft in its manifold diversities.
Having explored the full spectrum betwixt pleasure and pain, I have found all wanting. To mine more would be to torture a cadaver, or to deflower a whore. There is nothing new in any of it. This is an age of plenty that is paradoxically bereft of substance. A cornucopia of empty, shallow necessities presided over by our overlarge Queen and her inbred children. It is good her German bullock is dead, or else she would spread her legs and expel of her imbecilic brood upon the earth.
Do not mishear me. I have attempted to supply the cornucopia of my life with things of substance. There is no greater collection of divers oddities, rarities, and specialities to scandalize the common purveyour of perversities than herein assembled. And, yet, how so much bores me, the most especial of finds around the world recompensed with listless indifference.
Nor is my heart a sealed vault closed to the world. It is as easily accessed as my library— more so, in fact, for it is as a tired old museum freely admitting all, yet while crowded with many coveted things it proves to be of value to all except its curator, for I see nought except trinkets and antiques which are worthless in their static state. Better would it be to take cudgel to such dusty ceramics and make a vivaciously shocking scene of chaos over which the curator might at last exult in its differentiation, rummaging through the rubbish like newfound treasures. Thus will I shatter this world’s stifling confines and create from the disorder a divine bliss for myself entailing salvation for a world-weary curator of curiosities.
And who is this now, shuffling again into my sanctuary?
My sharp-beaked wife!
“Beloved,” she says. “Lady Blansworth wishes for us to attend a festival in Cornwall in the Spring. It will be a lovely affair. Her husband’s villa is one of the finest in all of England.”
“You may go on our behalf,” I say.
“Love,” she says, her chest heaving with great upset even while she struggles to retain a calm, measured voice, “it is my desire that you should accompany me. It would be such a delight to see the countryside together.”
“I am in no mood to leave the estate,” I say firmly, “certainly not so I might spend a month with Lady Blansworth and be subjected to the torment of her idiotic laughter. Moreover, you will enjoy Cornwall infinitely more were I not present to cast my gloomy shadow over the outing.”
The Duchess is silent for a few moments, and I see her reflection in the candle-brightened windowpane. Her eyes are wide with what appears to be anger, and pain, and I know she is, once again, to create drama where none should exist.
“You are no doubt infatuated with another crumpet!” she says, her voice shrill and near to squawking. “That is why you wish me to leave and you to stay!”
Her bosom heaves with the burden of her passion, up and down, as the pistons of a locomotive accelerating along its tracks.
“My dear,” I say, wearily, “you know I am not infatuated with anyone or anything anymore. It is all a bland tableau to me, from sunrise to sunset. Cornwall would be no different, and I would only ruin your pleasure as a consequence of being there with you. Express your regrets to Lady Blansworth…if you must. Yet, you must not express regrets on my behalf, for that would be an intolerable lie.”
She is inconsolable, weeping and squawking, her feathers ruffled wildly as she hoists her petticoats and dashes down the hall. Were she so passionate in the bedchamber, then perhaps my heart might spark with feeling for her anew.
If my wife has made a scene, I do not hear, nor does it intrude upon the festivities of her guests. Rather, they are evermore fervent in their inane laughter while the musicians devolve to strangely pastoral accompaniments for their Waltzes, such as would be concordant with a peasant’s bonfire revelry. Mad piping of flutes and scrambled stroking of strings. It pleases me no more or less than their previous attempts.
O! This tedious tome! Should Heracles committed himself to this labour he would never have achieved any of the rest, for he would have been forestalled permanently here, in these scribbled straits of insipidness. And yet, the alternative rears large and inescapable. As between Scylla and Charybdis, I am between a rock and a hard place, and thus must ford forward the arduous narrow channel before me. The novelties of existence wane. The methods of sensuality stagnate. The means of pleasure wallow. Nor could Elephantis— with all of her legendary expertise in regard to human congress—lecture me except to sleep with whatever elucidations were hers in the time of Antiquity. It is not the manner, but the means of congress that is wanting presently. So long as the medium remains the same, the method will be ever restricted, and thus insipid.
Restless beyond discipline, I sigh and rub my strained eyes. Pushing myself up from my chair, I walk to the hearth and stand before the fire. It is too hot for a fire, now, and so I extinguish the flames with a readied bucket of water. At last I fulfill the Duchess’s wish and condescend to venture down the hall toward the ballroom.
The breeze through the colonnaded hall is warm, slipping through my himation with a lover’s fondness. I pass Augustus in the hallway. He has engaged a maid, rigorously rutting upon her, the force of which shakes various vases and amphoras from their pedestals and shattering them upon the floor. The large bull-headed man does not mind their ruin, but is solely occupied with the nymph and her stooping figure; her wanton moans. He bends over her with his massive form, his bullock horns raking against the foliated canopy overarching the hall.
I can hear the sounds of pleasure rising in a delicious cacophony.
At last I arrive at the ballroom, finding a grove bathed in radiant moonlight. Satyrs rut upon eager nymphs while fawns blow upon lascivious flutes or strum licentious lyres. The moans of the nymphs and the growls of the satyrs compose a music complementary to that of the fawns. Nude figures arrayed around me, I recall my many visitations to the more forbidden parts of Amsterdam and Delhi. Figures writhe with pleasure, or collide with passionate impact, or wallow in sensual ecstacy, their flesh stained with spilt wine and spilt seed and a thousand lashes by tongue and tooth and engorging lips.
Lord Grantchester looms large among the glade, Cyclopean in size and attacking Lady Stonewall with his priapic excess while her coils envelop him, so rapturously engaged. Nightmarish and divine, it excites in me pleasure— for a moment— and then becomes a commonplace thing once again.
All of my wife’s guests are here— their attentions indivisible—but my wife is yet unaccounted among the Bacchanal. I do not know if I feel relief or regret at this discovery. Perhaps I am naught but a vessel of apathy.
And yet, a briny breeze teases me through the moonlit grove, away from the hedonistic congregation.
It is too late to continue my studies, for I feel the moon cresting over my thoughts. Conversely, I am not exhausted sufficiently to retire to bed. Thus, I choose to venture beyond the Dionysian flutists and outside, into the garden for a moonlit stroll and fresh air. There is dew upon the grass, gleaming like pearls in the moonlight. Where the shadows fall from the tall trees the dew is like the glinting winks of shades. Dew glistens upon the lips of wild flowers, too, the pink petals most suggestive. Through the hall of trees I come to a vast field, rolling in sinuous, sleepy waves downward, toward the vast ocean. The frothy waves whisper huskily as they throw themselves upon the sand, beating a lusty rhythm of desire and self-destruction.
I hear the shriek of a large bird, and a woman, and a shadow descends upon me, eclipsing the pale moon. My himation is rent away and my body lays vulnerable upon the white sand. The shadow mounts me with an insistent hunger, driving the plush of her loins astride my own and spreading her wings as if to herald the moon haloing her crested head. Her spine arches, her large breasts press outward, toward me, and her talons grip me, bleeding me as she beats a frenzied rhythm of carnality upon me, pelvis to pelvis— lips to stem, core to root. My wife, the Duchess, shrieks in both anger and pleasure and possession, her feathered head turned upward, mouth agape, eyes wide.
She screeches, flapping her wings furiously, her feathers ruffled from wingtip to shoulder and even unto the crested mantle of her head where her golden feathers are as a cowl over her squawking face. Her breasts— bare of feathers—hang large and heavy, nipples erect like cherries swollen near to burst. Curiously, my hands press against her swollen breasts and I feel my blood stir hotly. Desire wakes, if only for a moment, and as she tears my flesh with her beak and talons I exult in knowing once more the gratification of carnality conferred.
Yes! At long last! What I have missed for eons it seems! Ardor! Passion! Sublimity! Her talons tear at my chest while she spreads her wings, rocking to a hedonistic rhythm that awakens my heart like a locomotive’s cold engine aflame once more as it lurches upon its tracks! The quickening of pulse! The excitement of flesh! How it enlivens me while she plunges her beak into my surging heart. I see, now, her appetite, twin-beaked as it is, and it must be satisfied. Yes! I long to satisfy it, for in its terrible throes will I find passions rekindled! My love! My wife! We must exult in Sublimity, even unto a final breath. Morpheus and Thanatos are of the same lineage, root to stem. Cronos and Aphrodite likewise, as violence unto rapture! I welcome the transcendence of the flesh! I welcome the ardor of finality! Take your fill, my love, with both beaks digging deep! The metamorphosis becomes you! The phantasia becomes me…
What would that goddess of Victory think
to see the little children laboring
beneath the scrutinizing gaze of their
as they construct shoe after shoe
for these grown men
playing little children’s games
to the lionizing shouts of
Is this the
her name now invokes?
Is this the glory
as the crowd goes wild
and another child slaves away
their fleeting childhood
so overgrown man-children
can play games
into their forties,
cradled in their laurel crowns
in a deified retirement
the sweatshop children will never know?
It is a black mark
upon the glories of the modern world.
Hector has fallen
and neither love of home or Troy
has saved him.
Hector, for whom to stand tall was
needful defiance imbued with virtue and
steeped in his love and principles,
yet nonetheless abandoned
on the sands of Troy, on the sands of
by gods and by graces,
by the Fates,
and dragged about by threaded heels
in cycles of mockery.
A good man, whose blood quickened
only in defense of family,
and now Empty Pride pulls at
while in ruthless aspect,
grim visage beneath plumed helm
and teeth gritting in bestial spite
to drag Hector’s dignity
around that which he loved
and died for;
fallen and demeaned by the
whom the Fates blessed unjustly
to echo through eons
Hector has fallen.
He fought for brother and wife,
for son and father and home,
for all things worthwhile;
he fought for goodness itself
and yet he has fallen
to he who fought
for sake of pride and echoes and
to write with the blood of goodness
on the black shores of Styx
to comfort his hollow shade
in the huddled darkness of
Hector has fallen,
so why should I,
of frailer make,
ever hope to aspire beyond the
of the fickle Fates?
There is nought but blood
cycling around that which we love
as we dissolve into the
of the forgetful sands.
Hector has fallen,
and a Prideful Shade stands triumphant
for a time
yet will fall beneath him
as a shadow thinned
beneath the glorious sun
cradled in the ruins of Troy.
Hector has fallen,
and so too shall we all,
whatever indignities await us.
What fickle gardeners all gods be
that punish by pruning the young stem
for the trespass of the ancient tree
even as fruit is offered to them.
How inert thy heart be now in repose
beneath the reign of his luminous love,
having been chased from out of thy maiden clothes
and thus sheltering with leaves above.
Was it stench of blood billowing outward
like snake wherefrom all prophecies were spilled
or was it thought of Apollo’s touch that spurred
thy limbs harden so as to not yield?
Victory was thine, of dubious sort,
in laurel leaves crowned with thy frightful flight
and crowning all whom of Olympian sport
competed for favor in his light.
But I also wonder if since thou grow
with thy crown proffered to the light to tease
thy pursuer with what he would never know,
are not thou like other trees?
Beware the witch’s hex of corn
that is bane to the Great Spirit—
so dangerous for the Native-born
that they had much cause to fear it.
In rotund bellies of white oak
charred by the cruel kiss of fire
and aged by the neverending spoke
of the seasons, Time’s turning gyre,
the drink doomed them all, by and by,
with its sweet Calypsodic taste—
the firewater spirits fly so high
while Native souls wither and waste.
And how generously it flowed!
Like venom from a spiteful fang
or Lotus nectar from the abode
of the Cyclops, that one-eyed gang
who coveted their fat-flanked sheep
for which hunger ached in each man—
and Natives passed on, as if asleep
beneath both flock and searching hand,
Not all could escape, nor so many
returning to the life they knew,
but were wholly lost, each, when he
drank deep of the forbidden brew.
And what of men driven mad so
to drink that which both drowns and slakes
and leaves parched, a drunken Wendigo
whose walk creates terrible quakes?
Was a cup of Lethe, brimming,
that made shades of the tribes;
their songs forgotten, their minds dimming,
their history gone—all for bribes
which cost them all more than the worth
as the intoxicating pox
of liquor rose in a drowning surf,
like hot blood spilling at peace talks.
All empires have been born of more
than mere bloodshed and death and strife;
to crush a people takes more than war—
kill their culture, their way of life.
Thus, while Odysseus was lost
far from his family and hall,
the Natives paid a heavier cost,
exiled on waves of alcohol.
So whiskey was the siren song
that subsumed the songs of their souls,
calling them to Conquest’s coral throng,
their bones sinking within Time’s shoals.
Kate sat on the subway train, cradling her cell phone to her ear and chatting to Angela about the weekend.
“And you’ll never guess who Sophie went home with Friday night,” she said, her green-as-envy eyes glittering with glee. “Nick Satterly! Yes, Laura’s Nick! They both shared a martini, and several beers, and then Nick gave Sophie a ‘ride home’. To his place, of course. What? No, you know Laura was out of town over the weekend. Some business with her brother.” Kate shifted her cell phone to her other ear, crossing her legs. She could feel her pantyhose chafing her unpleasantly beneath her skirt in her unmentionable place. “No, I’m not jealous,” she said. “Why would I be? I’m not his wife. Laura, on the other hand…”
She fell silent as a woman sat down next to her. On the subway Kate expected someone to sit next to her, eventually, but this woman set off her alarm bells. She had frazzled black hair, dark black eyes, and dark black eyebrows in a long face with narrow slits for a nose. She wore a black dress and was covered like a Christmas Tree in gaudy, cheap Dollar Store jewelry that looped and dangled from her in mad disarray. She looked like a crack-head Cher with a rat-king nesting in her hair. Kate’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“…Well, Laura will probably be mad,” Kate finished lamely, too distracted by the woman to be colorful or hyperbolic about the weekend affair. She listened to Angela for a moment— her excited gasping and wondrous hawing—and then answered her subsequent question. “No, I’m the only one from the office that knows. You, Ben, Arthur, Madeline—everybody else left the bar early. Only I stayed behind and saw them leave together. And then Sophie called me Saturday morning, giving me the low-down. And it was a new low for her, for sure. Down, down, down low…”
Kate tried to giggle, but realized that crack-head Cher was staring at her. Kate turned away from the strange woman, presenting her back as a barrier of privacy. The woman did not seem to take the hint. Rather, she spoke to Kate freely.
“Who is Sophie?” she asked. Her voice was husky, like heady smoke. She smelled of strange, earthy incense—burning fragrance within a deep cave. “Is she your friend?”
Kate sighed in irritation. “What is it to you?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief and continuing to talk to Angela. “No, not anyone important. Just some weird lady on the train…”
“You do not speak of her as a friend would,” the woman said.
“Stop harassing me, you rude, smelly crack-whore,” Kate snapped. “Or I will call the police.”
“Deep underground here?” the woman said. Her look of skepticism was replaced by a small, mysterious smile. “This is my world. No one comes unless I wish them to. I am the Pythian priestess.”
“You are a wacko, is what you are,” Kate said. “She’s a druggie,” she then explained to Angela on her phone. She turned toward the woman again, puffing up with anger and righteousness. “I am not going to give you money,” she added. “I don’t even carry change on me. And if you think I am going to give you my credit card, you are badly mistaken.”
The woman’s small smile widened to reveal bright white teeth, flashing all the whiter in the sooty ash that overspread her pale face. She reminded Kate of a gypsy, or the stereotype of a gypsy. Her teeth were so long and narrow that it looked like she had no gums.
“I find no worth in any such thing as that,” the gypsy woman said. “I do wonder about your worth as a friend, however.”
“How dare you!” Kate exclaimed, sliding down a seat away from the woman. “And for the record, Sophie and I are not friends. We are coworkers.” She spoke quickly into the phone. “But Angela and I are besties. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then it is very unprofessional,” the woman continued. She slid closer to Kate upon the subway seats, crowding Kate against the end of the row. As she slid nearer her cheap jewelry rattled and the fabric of her black dress hissed. “But who am I to say such things? The world is run by unprofessional people. Unprofessional gods, at that! Did you know that prophecy is simply gossip between the gods? It is true. Gossip is divine. Gossip becomes true, even if it isn’t, because the gods demand that it be so.”
The woman then folded her arms, each hand grasping the other forearm. Her skeletal wrists were entwined with many coiled circlets that clanked and jangled like bells.
“Since gossip is divine,” she said, “I will bless you, Kate Huxley. By the deep womb of Delphi, may you speak a sibilant sibyl’s song. May the twin-headed snake seek you in your most private moments…and places.”
Kate stood, then— losing all patience—and walked to the other end of the subway car. When she sat down she glanced back, but the gypsy woman was no longer sitting where she had been. Kate paid it no more mind. Instead, she took up chatting with Angela where she had left off, telling her all of the scandalous details about the affair over the weekened. She became quite happily lost in the lurid flow of it all and never reflected a moment enough to wonder how the weird gypsy woman knew her last name.
Kate did not stop talking to Angela on her phone about Nick and Sophie until she was face to face with Angela on the tenth floor of their firm’s office building, and even then she simply turned off her cell pone and spoke to Angela about them directly.
“He did not even pay for her Uber ride,” Kate said, laughingly. “Can you imagine?”
Angela smiled in mild amusement. She was very tall and skinny. “You know Nick’s always been that kind of guy. I think he has dated every woman in this building at one point or another. Not me, of course, but…well…others.” She eyed Kate’s pink sweater sideways while they both walked to their own corner of the floor. Behind them the maze of cubicles spread wide beneath florescent lights. Beyond the windows the sun rose sullenly between the crowding skyscrapers.
“But I’m sure Nick treated the other women better than Sophie,” Kate remarked. Her smile was somewhat bitter. “She said he didn’t even cuddle afterwards. He just sort of…ahem… he just rolled over and…hack…went to sleep…”
Hand to her chest, Kate coughed and hacked.
“Are you all right?” Angela asked.
Kate waved away her coworker’s concern. A moment passed, and so did the congestion. She continued speaking as before.
“What was she thinking?” she said, laughing sardonically. “As if Nick would use her for anything but a few jollies over the weekend! She’s not even sure…huck…that he wore…ack…a condom…”
Hunching over, Kate coughed and gagged, finally expelling something long and slimy from her throat. It slipped out and fell to the carpeted floor in a sinuous heap of scaly coils. Looking down at it in surprise, Kate saw that it was a snake— a small scarlet snake with pearly white fangs. It slithered toward the elevator. She watched it go with a feeling of relief, and an anticipation of mirth. She did not feel disgust or horror, nor did Angela show any.
The elevator doors opened as the snake reached them, and the snake coiled around Sophie’s ankle as she stepped out from the elevator. She did not seem to see it, but her face twinged as the snake bit her calf muscle through her silk pantyhose. Kate paid the snake no further mind, nor did Angela comment upon it at all, and the two women turned to greet Sophie as she walked slowly toward their habitual corner of the office.
Sophie appeared out of sorts and anxious. Her hoop earrings jittered like June bugs on a hot windowpane. Normally she wore makeup, but not today. Her face was sickly green with snake venom.
“Laura’s not here yet, is she?” she asked them.
Kate looked to Angela, and Angela shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not supposed to come back until tomorrow. Nick is here, though.”
The look of betrayal on Sophie’s face did not faze Kate in the least. The serpent bit at Sophie’s leg and foot several times, nearly tripping her as she stood upon her wedges.
“Kate,” she said, “you promised not to tell anyone.”
“I only told Angela,” Kate said. “And she’s my best friend. Just like you. Besties trust each other. We’re supposed to share everything.”
Sophie glanced nervously around the labyrinth of cubicles.
“I don’t want anyone else knowing about it,” she said, red-faced and heaving beneath her blouse. “I could lose my job. Nick could, too.”
Kate took Sophie by the hand. “There are plenty of other things to talk about,” she said. “And people. Did you know that Joe Plitschy in Accounting is getting fired? Hank Danforth told me that Joe bungled a few thousand dollars’ worth of numbers in the Hawthorne account. Some people think he’s addicted to pain meds and…hack…he doesn’t think of anything…blahaock… except taking them…”
Bending over, Kate coughed up another snake. It was orange, like fire, and it slithered toward a cubicle on the far side of the cubicles. Neither Angela or Sophie remarked upon it, though they clearly saw it. Kate continued talking as before.
“Anyway,” she said. “They are going to let him go at the end of the day.”
“I always liked Joe,” Angela said. “He reminds me of one of my dead uncles. Not the creepy one. The one that liked to give presents because he had no family of his own.”
“It was probably that back surgery,” Sophie said, still looking nervous as the snake loosened its fangs from her ankle. “I bet he has been in pain ever since returning from medical leave. Sitting at a desk without lumbar support doesn’t help. Even my back hurts sometimes.”
“Weekend activities can make things worse, too,” Kate said, making the snake at Sophie’s ankle bite her again.
Angela opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment saw Joe Plitschy hobbling toward the men’s restroom.
“There’s Joe there,” she said.
Joe’s face was bright red and his brow had broken out in a cascade of sweat. He was a rotund man—misshapenly so—and his girth twisted awkwardly with each cumbersome step he took. The orange snake which Kate had expelled had encoiled his chest. He held a hand against the wall for additional support.
“Going for his pills, I’ll bet,” Kate said. Her eyebrows hopped eagerly and she left the corner of the office, heading to Hank Danforth’s office. Leaning into his office from the door, she spoke to him briefly, then returned to Angela and Sophie. Danforth stepped out of his office and watched Joe Plitschy go into the restroom. He waited a moment and then went into the restroom himself.
“All things in due time, Kate,” Angela said, crossing her arms irritably.
Kate shrugged. “It’s for his own good.”
Shortly afterward, Hank emerged from the restroom. A minute or so later, Joe emerged, his eyes to the floor. He walked more slowly than before. The snake had tightened its coils around his chest, and had buried its fangs deep into the middle of his spine. The balding man cringed with every biting step as he went to his cubicle to pack his things. Eyes from the other cubicles followed him quizzically, then sympathetically. But no one said goodbye to him.
A few minutes later Kate, Angela, and Sophie went to their cubicles. The workday began for everyone except Joe Plitschy.
Kate had a lot of business to attend to. Not official work-related business; but social business. She was a confidante for many people in the office building. Ironically, she had earned this dubious station by sharing with everyone what others had shared with her. People felt like they could trust her because she trusted this and that person with another person’s secrets. Even now, when she was supposed to be filling out data tables and spreadsheets, she spent her time reading emails and sending emails concerning salacious information. She felt the snakes roil and coil in her chest, writhing with restless anticipation.
As the workers sat at their cubicles, working on their computers and reading emails, there rose many whispers between the cubicles among that peopled maze. The whispers were hushed, but together sounded like many snakes gathering in a sibilant storm.
Lunchtime came, and with it whole rivers of snakes spewing from Kate’s mouth. The multitudinous tangle in her chest uncoiled and spilled from her throat impossibly, like clowns from a clown car. Occasionally she hacked up a large nest of snakes—like a cat coughing up a hairball—and set them loose on the whole HR department, rolling among the cubicles like a pinball in an elaborate machine until it gradually unwound itself, leaving snakes everywhere to await the return of the workers from their break.
For Kate the release felt good. Thrilling. Cathartic. Orgasmic. Each expulsion of a snake was a tectonic rapture. She was the nexus, after all; the convergence and the floodgates of the garrulous flow. She spoke serpents into the world, and it pleased her to do so.
Everyone had a mess of snakes to struggle with as they returned to their cubicles. But no one had more snakes than Sophie as she returned to her desk. Her head hung heavy with snakes. She bowed beneath the weight of them, staring at the ground like a forlorn Medusa. No one spoke to her except Angela. Kate spoke about Sophieincessantly, and subsequently Nick and Laura.
Nick did not seem to mind any of it. He wore his snakes like trophies as he smiled his All-American golden boy smile and joked around with the other guys in the Acquisitions department. He was invulnerable. This did not so much provoke Kate’s ire toward him as much as provoke her ire toward Sophie and Laura. Laura was not there to protest, and Sophie was too overwrought to do anything about the snakes. And to try to fight against them did nothing but antagonize them. The more she tried to disentangle herself, the more riled the snakes became, biting her in waves of discontent.
And then things became worse. To everyone’s surprise, including her husband, Nick, Laura arrived for the latter part of the day. She appeared unhinged, and not only from apparent jetlag. One of her friends in HR had notified her of the affair via email. Everyone expected her to confront Nick and Sophie, and she did, hysterically. Nick hurried her to his office where the door muted her sobbing and screaming minimally. Meanwhile Kate crept nearby, listening at the door. Angela attempted to call her away, but Kate only smirked. There was a mixture of mischief and malice upon her face as she listened.
And then, abruptly, Laura was standing there, looking like a wartime refugee in the florescence of the overhead lights. Her blonde hair was disheveled. Her blouse and skirt were wrinkled and hitched up and down like she had been fighting herself. There were distraught tears streaming from her eyes, yet the look on her face was simple, overwhelming horror. She looked more like a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer rather than a victim of Monday gossip.
“How could you do this to me?” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick and I are getting a divorce now.”
At first Kate did not know to whom she addressed the question. Her surprise gave way quickly to supercilious disavowal.
“Sophie is the one that did it to you,” Kate said. “She slept with your husband.”
“Lots of people have slept with my husband,” Laura said, her voice hollow. “I don’t like it, but it’s the way we work.” The mournful dismay in her blue eyes hardened into ice. “But you…you had to talk about it. You had to spread it around where we work. We don’t have privacy anymore about it. You’ve shamed me more than Nick ever could. Everything is ruined.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t feel any shame about not being able to please your man,” Kate snapped. “You and Nick need to separate. You’ve needed to for a long time. If you had any self-respect you would know that, and do it. Right away.”
“I was happy,” Laura said, ignoring Kate. “We were happy. Happy enough for me. But then you ruined it. You ruined everything with your forked tongue.”
“You should have had your own house in order,” Kate said, smiling with faint satisfaction. “You should have had more self-respect.” She spoke loudly, then, so that everyone in the labyrinth of cubicles could hear her. “You should have divorced Nick for all of the other affairs he’s had. But you just let him walk all over you, and fuck whoever he wanted. You’ve got…hlack…no one…glack…to blame but…ack…yourself…”
Kate bent over, her hands on her knees while she heaved. Her neck bulged and her face reddened and then darkened to purple while her mouth stretched unnaturally wide. A giant python disgorged from her throat, landing heavily upon the floor. It slithered toward Laura and encoiled her. Laura shook her head slowly, ruefully, and let the snake have its fill. She could barely breathe.
“I hate you all,” she said faintly. “I hope you get what you deserve. I hope it comes back to bite you on the ass before it’s over…”
She disappeared into the snake’s unhinged jaws.
Kate entered the Ladies restroom. It was the last break before the end of the workday and she needed a moment to take a breather and relieve her bladder. She sat in a stall, tinkling and texting, and soon heard two women enter the restroom, talking. She knew them immediately. They were Angela and Sophie. They did not use the stalls, but stood near the sinks, Angela’s high heels clopping loudly on the bathroom tiles.
“I still feel bad about Laura,” Sophie said. “Friday night was…unplanned. All of us were at the bar and then you guys all left and I had had too much to drink. Kate was hitting on some random guy, trying to show off. I hate her sometimes. And Nick…Nick was so nice to me. I knew better, but I just felt so…so lonely. I hadn’t even been out on a Friday in over a month. I have no life, you know? I’m a loser. A guy hasn’t paid attention to me in forever. And then Nick was so nice and sweet and one thing led to another and I just…I feel awful.”
The water faucet hissed on, and Kate could hear Sophie splashing her face with water.
“Shit happens,” Angela said, “and then you die. We all make mistakes. Several mistakes in a row, too. It’s like playing a scratch-off lottery ticket. You win the jackpot— or Nickpot, I guess—and you are as surprised as anyone.”
“That’s for sure,” Sophie said, sighing. “Drink too much, sleep with a coworker, then tell another coworker about it. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have told Kate anything. She talks too much.”
“That’s because she has no life, either,” Angela said. Kate could virtually see her smirk through the stall door, so strong was the twist of her lips on that sharp tone. “And don’t feel bad about Nick and Laura. Their marriage has been doomed for a while now. You’re not the first woman he has taken back to their marriage bed for a one-night-stand. Last year he and Kate slept together. A couple of times, actually. She wanted him to leave Laura. But he wouldn’t do it. She was just another side-piece. Kate told me about it. Several times. Wouldn’t stop crying over him. God, I dreaded those phone calls.”
“She liked him that much?” Sophie said, incredulous. “But why? He wasn’t even good in bed. I’m not even sure I had an orgasm. It was over so quick…”
Kate did not see the snake slithering under the stall’s door, raising its head toward her spread knees. She was staring at her phone instead, but her mind was attending the conversation at the sink.
“Who knows why?” Angela said. “Kate’s always wanted what other people had, even if it wasn’t that good. Or maybe she hates Nick just like she hates herself and wants the both of them to be miserable together.” Angela tittered like a snake would if it could. “Whatever the reason, Kate is super-jealous of him and whoever he is with; whether it is Laura or some other girl on the side. She didn’t get over him as well as you have.”
“That’s just…sad,” Sophie said.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Angela said. “Afterward she was so upset that she tried to make Nick jealous. She went and got blackout-drunk at a bar and woke up with some guy. He never even told her his name. He left shortly after they had both woken up, but he left a gift for her to remember their romantic evening.”
Angela paused for a long time, and in the meantime Kate felt like she was falling down into the depths of the earth. Things swarmed over her in that terrible darkness.
“Kate has HIV.”
Sophie’s sharp intake of breath was a hiss, and Kate flinched painfully at the revelation. The snake speared itself into her womanhood and slithered its way into her womb.
“Kate has HIV?” Sophie said, aghast. “But she seems so healthy.”
“She’s on really expensive drugs to manage it,” Angela said. “She’s actually running out of money. I gave her a loan myself to help pay for her rent.” Angela tittered again. “It would be a shame if everyone at the firm found out about that, wouldn’t it? But then again, it might be divine comeuppance, too. She’s always been a busybody. Ever since college. Probably ever since she learned to talk. She doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
The restroom door opened and the two women left. Kate sat in the stall, stewing in her own venom. Bitterly she stared at nothing, her cell phone loosely gripped in her limp hand. Deep within her, the snake coiled in upon itself, constricting itself into a knot of self-loathing and hatred and despair. It was a two-headed snake and it entwined itself balefully, each end trying to eat the other in an interminable struggle. She wished she had never spoken it into existence.
Artemis, her heaving virgin breast
racing hard upon the hunt, the hilltop crest
bathed in moonlight with nimble nymphs thronging
their Mistress of the Moon, all limbs longing
for the twanging of the trembling bows
and Fall’s leaves flying, red-feathered as arrows
cast down upon the wild, bush-battling boar,
shadowed by her hounds, swift upon the moor.
Yet, here, a young man, seeking the hard-won heart
of Chastity herself, ever untouched and apart,
runs fleet-footed as that winged spirit, Hermes,
upon the mercurial midnight breeze.
He is dusk-faced and dark-haired as nocturnal Nyx,
and the Huntress thinks him one of Aphrodite’s tricks,
but then he downs the boar with a single arrow flown,
marking himself in her heart—him, and him alone
The nymphs gasp and giggle and tease their virgin Queen,
but she dismisses them with a murderous mien,
scattering her nymphs to the pools, glades and trees,
leaving her alone with this man built like Achilles.
She dismisses her hounds, their tails all tucked under
and running up the mountains, rumbling like thunder.
Artemis then hails the young man, so fine of frame,
and reaches out to him and asks him his name.
“Any name you wish,” he says, “is a blessing to me,
so long as it is the name you whisper lovingly.”
Artemis blushes, as does the Moon above,
for the Moon swells, as does her heart, with a virgin’s Love.
“It feels as if I have known you my whole life,”
she says, “and it would please me to be your wife.”
The young man doffs his quiver, his crown, his bow,
and his himation, standing naked before her, toe to toe.
He says, “Let us marry one another as they did of old,
with the union of our temples, the enigma of our mold.”
How fit in form they are, chest to chest, link to link,
embraced and enjoined and bound unto the brink,
but just before the climax reaches its exultant high
and the stars and the Moon all fall from the sky,
the dark-haired stranger glows with a familiar light
and the Mistress of the Hunt knows this is not right.
Pulling free from him, she looks at her lover anew
and sees her own features reflected with a masculine hue.
“I do know you of old!” she cries aloud.
“As I you,” he says, shameless and proud.
“I have warned you, sister, of trusting mortal men,
for you are the virgin goddess of the Vestal ken
and to corrupt your temple with a mortal’s seed
would be to trade the holy flower for a sinful weed.”
Horrified, ashamed, Artemis screams for her hounds,
and aims her bow to cleanse these defiled hunting grounds.
Her twin brother, Apollo, takes to the air meanwhile,
his face twisted with a rogue’s lecherous smile.
“I will talk to Father of this blasphemy!” Artemis cries,
“and he will take your tongue, your manhood, your eyes!”
Apollo’s hair fades fair, lightening to a golden-brown
and there shines upon his head a radiant crown.
“I am the seat of Knowledge,” he says, “and upon my brow
there reside all things known, and I know you best, now.”
“I could crown you again,”Artemis screams, “if I could,
with arrows made from Hydra teeth and primordial wood!”
He pays her no mind, flying away to Mount Olympus
where all the other gods watch, laughing, from each nimbus.
Left alone, Artemis weeps for her thankless role,
Knowledge always costing the Virginity of the soul.
In Dante’s verse the Suicides
became trees beset with Harpy claws
that broke branches and rent their sides
for defying the most “selfless” of Nature’s laws.
As I walk along this forest track
and hear the ice-limned trees all scream
and snap and splinter— crack, crack, crack—
I wonder what, exactly, was Dante’s scheme.
For trees do not themselves slay,
but fall by insects, blight, and weather,
harried by things beyond their say,
one alone, or many together.
Rooted in place without hope
to move against natural assaults
nor able to adjust, compensate or cope—
wait, perhaps we do share the same faults.
After all, what can a man really do
when his brain is insect-eaten and blighted
except let self-destruction fell him, too,
powerless against the Harpies of his head?
Goddess of memory,
holding vigil for
an embalmed life
in the catacombs of the
wandering as an exile
from her own shadow
weeping for yesterday:
you are in want of
to be as
in restless winds
or corpses caving inward
with burrowing insects,
She wearies so
beneath the weight she carries,
like Sisyphus pushing his heavy stone
up a hill of remembering
only to let it roll down once again
What stone does she carry except
her own calcified heart
hardened with the density of its
The years have not been kind to her,
for she remembers them,
and they pull at her like
greedy to suckle
the same teat.
Passing through a forest
she cannot fend off the shades,
longing for the River Lethe.
Hippolytus clenched his chariot reins
in fists so tight they seemed to choke
desire itself and, thus, recurring pains
from an id restless with each spinning spoke.
But as the wheels ground along the beach,
frothy with the sea’s lusty surges,
a bull emerged from the tidal reach—
a beast born of suppressed urges.
The horses bucked as if struck mad,
frothing at the mouth like the sea,
and though dragged, it was not so bad
since Hippolytus felt it chafe sweetly.
Trampled, at length, beneath his horses,
Hippolytus felt as if he had been ridden
by Phaedra in thrall to resurgent forces
which was quite thrilling, it being forbidden.
I have been suckling on a
nourishing myself on
as I watch others welcomed to mount the
and don the Golden Fleece
to outshine the rest of us.
Wanting to set fire to their
I bury dragon teeth
and pray for an army to rise
on my behalf,
whetting a hydra’s fang
for the assassination
of modern day kings and queens
whose works wear thin
my tolerance, like
Medea’s poisoned dress
eating away at Corinthian pillars.
Green with envy,
I retch at the renown they reap,
the overstocked stores of their
earned by a baffling conceit
and charlatan charms
as thousands genuflect before these
and so I hammer at their feet,
debased as I am beneath them,
chiseling with the hydra fang
in the vain hope of razing their looming pantheon
to the level ground.
See their bland temples
crowded with admirers?
See how their cultists rally behind them
when mortal measure falters
beneath godly pretense?
As Heracles laboring in the
I wish to wash away their
with the two rivers of
spite and reason,
and yet I see the refuse being gathered up
by Lotus Eaters who have lost all sense of
as they hold a grand banquet
and celebrate the chefs of such wondrous
I gag to think of it,
sampling their bovine expulsions.
None would be fit a beast
to have its throat slit
in honor of the Muses.
Keep down, venom!
Burn as lime
in a clay kiln!
The coals need flame
and the salt is just right—
become a Brazen Bull Boiler
that burns itself inwardly,
remolding with molten emotion
a purpose ablaze with merit.
until aught remains but
a flaring ember
against fateful obscurity!
Does not the sun burn with envy
unwilling to share the sky
with so many other suns?
So, too, the resentment
in this heart.
Yet, heed how these
of malignant envy
yield fertile lands of plenty
with teeth-sown soil…