Just as I passed,
Turning my head to search his face,
His own head turned with mine
And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes
That stopped my blood. His voice
Came at me like an echo in the dark.Weldon Kees – Relating to Robinson
Orpheus sits in a stone desert with his mouth stitched shut. The sky above him has been a milky grey for weeks, the sun anaemic and low on the horizon, barely holding on, sometimes dipping back beneath the line the way the back of a whale descends into the sea.
Two fennec foxes are keeping Orpheus company, patiently waiting by his side. Their enormous moth-wing ears twitch, and sometimes their amber eyes rise with concern towards Orpheus’s silent face. They worry for him, his disinterest in food and water, and the deep blue stains on his hands which have now spread to the soles of his feet.
The fennecs worry about their own feet, too, unaccustomed to the hardness of rock, which is wearing down their claws beyond what the gentle exfoliation of sand used to do. They know that Orpheus is the cause of the petrification of their desert, which used to be made from the rolling, shifting multitude of sand, a moving ground made from millions of beads, all of which Orpheus has cooked into dead, immovable slabs with his fire.
Because of his vow of silence, the fennecs cannot ask Orpheus to explain what happened, but still they seek to understand. They know they have to wait until Orpheus undoes the stitches on his mouth.
With their enormous ears, the fennecs listen to what happens inside Orpheus’s face. They hear the words he cannot say, won’t allow himself to say. They hear language trapped behind his lips, inside the cave of his hungry mouth, words he speaks incessantly, to himself, and to Eurydice.
The impossible emulsion between him and Eurydice seems to Orpheus an impetus to keep whisking, Orpheus whisking the burning air in front of so many obvious windmills, and here he sits after the fact of a fire fanned by him alone, mouth sewn shut in repentance by his own hand, with two desert foxes for sole company.
He speaks to the foxes not in words, but by means of the dry length of a reed, which he drags in sound-producing shapes across the stone, making dry, scratching noises that crackle and hiss in the fennecs’ ears, noises they both dislike and understand. The fennecs are here because, like Orpheus, they speak the language of drought.
A change needs to occur. Love each other less violently. The fennecs know this as well as Orpheus does. Don’t let your fire devour Eurydice.
The stitches on his mouth are only temporary, while he looks within to see what’s wrong. The reed trembles in his hand, vibrating against the stone. Now that he has artificially and violently closed the demanding part of himself, the gaping hungry mouth sewn shut, Orpheus’s needs have ceased to be physical.
Along his sagittal plane, the suture running from the top of his skull to the base of his tailbone is distending, showing Orpheus, with very little room for doubt, that the incongruences inhabiting him can no longer be sustained. For too long, he has repeated the same pattern, brushing aside any evidence of his continual failure. It is time, now, for something else, a change he has been dreading, because unlike superficial changes this one goes deep into the flesh, into what he has taken to be his identity for so long.
What the desert stones tell him through the scratching of the reed is this: Orpheus, you need to grow up. Let go of the fire. Its heat doesn’t belong to you. Return to your liquid state, remember the wetness that you are. A creature of water. You cannot live among all that fire, it has left you parched, dried you out with its relentless heat.
Orpheus knows his selfishness, his impetuous drives. A child of immortal parents, he has never learned to open himself up to the needs of mortality, the fragility that comes with being human; his own mortality unaccounted for in his behaviour. He knows his childish rashness, the selfish way he loves. Orpheus has spent so many years on fire that he has forgotten what it feels like not to burn. Orpheus on fire just wants to put a pin in the world.
Drain yourself of heat, remember what it feels like to live submerged in your own internal rivers. Remember the slowness of water, and how it cleanses, and how it smoothes the surface of all things given enough time.
His fire, he knows, hasn’t just devoured him, but also Eurydice, whose need is quiet delicacy. Beautiful Eurydice, who has no use for fire. Eurydice, who deserves to be loved in a manner accommodating her gentleness, the silence she craves. Loving Eurydice involves a permissive cradling of her need for withdrawal.
It isn’t as easy as saying that Orpheus doesn’t know how to love, it’s just that he pummels the ground with the intensity of burning grass, and when Eurydice retreats he balloons out to chase her. No better than a child, Orpheus’s damage left him unable to see the act of retreating for what it is: a moment of reflection and self-care.
The lesson is to let go of the fire.
Behind the stitches in his mouth, Orpheus vows to stop imposing his ideas of love on the beloved. More than that, what he needs is to let go of his myth. The myth and its specifics are restrictive, deadening to Orpheus and Eurydice alike.
When Eurydice retreats, it is instinctive, because Orpheus’s wild energy is as exhausting as the fumes of a fire, and Eurydice needs time to recover from the vortex of Orpheus. Here are two mortal titans with opposite wills: Eurydice doesn’t cause damage, acts in self-preservation. Orpheus has no off-switch, no instinct for retreat; instead, he clings so tightly that his body hardens into flint, setting fire to the delicacy of the filaments that flow between him and Eurydice.
Orpheus knows he cannot sustain his own fire. His parched heart wants nothing but water, the return of spring. He wants to stop trampling the fragility of affection with his clumsy limbs. Orpheus wants to feel wetness coursing through him, remember the tenderness of love, the sort that neither crushes nor crowds. Orpheus wants to learn to love in this expanding universe, expand into water and quiet maturity, away from fire and juvenile speed.
The filaments between Orpheus and Eurydice may have been burnt irreparably, but all Orpheus can hope for now is a more grown-up version of himself.
The fennec foxes lean their tender muzzles on Orpheus’s knees. Love, they say, needs to occur on the other person’s terms. Love the other person as she needs to be loved.
Orpheus traces a circle for them on the stone. “Yes,” he means this gesture to say, “I will learn to listen, the way you do, with your infinitely gaping ears, my mouth will shut finally, my lyre will be buried in the sand, no more poetry, no more repetition, this myth has not set me up to be a loving person, but I will undo this myth, I will undo myself, I will be better, different, I will no longer hurt Eurydice.”
The sky is heavy white as a bowl of milk, and the fennecs lap at the air around their heads. If you do not teach me I shall not learn.
Orpheus will sit in silence until his touch becomes attuned to the delicate world. He becomes unwilling to perform the fiery eruptions of desire.
Love gently, quietly. Lay the child to rest and let the water creature grow. Your past of blazing wildness has no place in the world. Dryness has worn you to shreds, hardened the world around you to uncommunicative stone. If you don’t learn to love now, you will not recover, you will deteriorate until you are no more than sand.
Orpheus watches the last of his fire crackle on the blue of his palm, then closes his fingers on the flame. Its destructive power has no place here, no place in his heart, where he wants only Eurydice, who is gentle and kind, who deserves better than Orpheus’s break-neck propulsion, which hurts like arrows.
Orpheus opens his ears to silence, his eyes to absence, his heart to himself. The water wells up in his eyes, his sinuses, under his armpits, and Orpheus smiles behind the stitches because this is a start, a sign that the water can still return. Love is a gesture, a gift.
Slowly, the heat drains from Orpheus, the wildness in him flattens itself down to the gurgle of a stream. Fire is not a shortcut towards intimacy, there is no such thing.
He feels humidity rise in his skin, and small droplets of milk seem to fall around him from the sky. They land, round and white, on the rock, and the fennecs jump to their feet to lap up the liquid they are given.
Orpheus sits with sutures still around his mouth, and waits. Change takes silence to occur. He will sit this way until his body adapts to its new, slow and rippling orbit.