The Mandrake

The Mandrake is drawn from the seclusion of earth by the leaves of her hair, by the hands of people with a death wish, or by dogs tied to her with strings.

Those who pull the Mandrake from her unlit, sodden isolation are people who want to use her to improve their lives, people who presume in her a magic they respond to with yearning. Before even laying eyes on her, they hallucinate her into an enticing shape, likely to provide happiness and glory.

They have seen her depicted in illuminations, in fragmented impressions on the pages of books. Based on her appearance, they take her to be something she is not, a creature of inestimable abilities. They fall in love in ways that cannot be sustained by reality.

When they bite her, they lose their minds, slipping into dream states so deep an incision could be made into their very skulls and they wouldn’t notice. They hold her in their enormous hands and say, “You will fix my sadness, my past mistakes, my shaking bouts of fever. I don’t care if my next life is spent in the absence of light, surrounded by ash.”

She has unsettled many people with these promises they make to themselves, yet when the time comes for her to live in their care, these same people are already overrun by madness, unable to see the truth of her root body, her leafy hair, her need to be kept watered and safe.

It is easy for her to believe in the magic others ascribe to her. Sometimes, while still packed safely in soil, she thinks of herself the way others have, and finds a tingling joy in the idea of being special. But this joy comes at a price, and she will always end up damaged, ground up completely and mixed into a drink, retrieved from the corners of the earth by a lovesick elephant, or else made into an immovable amulet, a trophy to cure someone’s stagnating libido.

Ultimately, once drawn from the earth and seen in the reductive light of day, she can’t help but disappoint. The only defence left to her when she feels the familiar tug on her quills is to go deep into the visceral part of herself, and there to conjure up a scream that will burst eardrums and arteries the moment it reaches the air, scream and scream until the grip of the desiring hand has loosened, and the tugging person, with all her unfulfillable anticipations, falls lifeless to the ground and disappears.

Woodcut of Mandragora in Leiden, 6th Century
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The Angel

The Angel has a body smooth as a pebble washed over by relentless tides, rubbed free of features by the suspended palpitation of drops he calls home. There is no hair anywhere on him, his skin is without veins, milky as jade. Nothing about him can be held on to, no part of him likely to get caught. 

His self is tectonic, contained entirely in his visible, superficial parts. Everything about him is external, even his skeleton, which is interwoven with what serves as his skin. This skeletal mesh is made from a lightweight mineral, as good as hollow. No bodily fluids course their way through him, only the ceaseless traversal of air. His body is an empty cavity, bearing no organs, no heart, no brain. Despite all this emptiness, his body is virtually unbreakable.

When he manifests in his physical form to those who are not angelic, he does so in visions or dreams, and always for the purpose of delivering a message. He has never approached someone else for the sake of communion, or the solace of intimacy, but only so as to reveal something to them. The meeting is always one-sided, and after appearing in a bodily form, adorned with human features, or animal ones, or even as a celestial cluster, he disappears again, leaving those he visited to ponder what they were just told.

His favourite way to appear is on hot summer nights, as a wavering shadow on a bedroom wall.

But it doesn’t matter which structure he uses to appear to others, because in many ways he is always unsubstantial. The world he inhabits could not contain him otherwise, and he would fall right through the limpid boundaries of his home. 

Once, the Angel appeared to a man who lived alone in a small room in a town overrun with students. The man tried to trap the Angel in one of the communal shower cubicles, and succeeded in keeping him there behind glass for nearly three days. During those three days, the man visited the Angel frequently, and sat silently watching him without asking a thing. The Angel, in his confusion, forgot to deliver the message he’d been assigned. This had never happened to the Angel before, nor has it happened since. Nothing in the physical realm has the power to trap him, and yet this man’s glass cubicle seemed to interrupt the state of things for a while. 

The Angel thinks back to this time, the terror of encountering physical resistance in a way that is otherwise totally foreign to him. 

The Angel’s body, being hollow, has a lot of room for the dance of emotions. They swirl almost ceaselessly in the cavity of his rump, like immortal butterflies with their absurdly oversized wings. While he experiences feelings on a nearly continuous basis, the Angel lacks the capacity to express them. This is fine. As a celestial being, there is no need to communicate his emotions to anyone else.

None of his emotions can be expressed in gestures or words, but they all float and knock against each other inside him, sometimes with enough force to form temporary composites. This results in confusingly mismatched emotions, which the Angel observes with a chuckle: fear coupled with erotic attraction, sadness blended with disgust, joy combined with intense regret. The Angel watches these emotions flutter and burn in a varicoloured display. 

Sometimes people ask him where he keeps his wings at night, and if they fold. How does he sleep, they wonder. 

He doesn’t respond to this, in part because his purpose is to deliver a message, not answer such proxies for existential concerns. He hesitates to break the spell; illusions are important to people, they keep their lives interesting and worthwhile. Spells promote a sense of hope in the inherent meaningfulness of the world, which is what allows people to remain vertical.

Without this meaning-making glue, people would collapse into a spreadable mass, and the Angel knows it would be cruel to tell them the truth, that he doesn’t have wings, that the feathery offshoots they see unfurling behind him are no more than the waste products his body sloughs off in its efforts to make itself lighter and lighter, that it is these very waste products that keep him light and that they are no more palpable or noteworthy than the clouds that wash him clean.

The Angel knows how easy it is for humans to get confused about their own narratives, a confusion born from the visceral heaviness of their ability to wish. This is perhaps the only emotion the Angel cannot feel: the closes he gets to wishing is feeling erotic attachment towards something, which can occur towards anything at all, material or not; but even so, because no emotion is ever expressed, there is no room anywhere in the Angel’s psyche for regret, an emotion he knows is human, and tied to the ability to wish.

He has seen the power of wishing in humans, when their whole bodies are arched towards the sound of the thing they desire. He watches these domed, flexible bodies, and worries that one day they may snap in half from their unresolved urges. 

The Angel takes his job very seriously, though the work he does is more of a vocation, truly something of a calling. The most consistent part of his appearance is the voice through which he conveys the message he is given. His voice is the most important part of his performance, because he knows that humans, whether they admit it or not, are drawn to or repelled by the content of language based on the sounds that contain it.

Each time he appears, he rounds off the edges of his voice, muffling it into a pleasing blur. Because he is empty of organs, he speaks the way a trumpet does, using an external breath, which passes in compression through his ringing body. The breath entering him exists all around him, and never stays inside him long enough to become part of his person.

Aside from his purpose, which lies in delivering a message, doing the bidding of an unreachable, disembodied force, the Angel has a lot of free time, not that he is bound to such concepts. Still, he divides his own infinity, so as to make it more bearable. He opens his eyes at the same time each day, then closes them again after a determined chunk of time has elapsed so as to create an artificial night. The Angel likes to segment what is otherwise as unstructured as a clear sky. Infinity is made more bearable by the interruptions and seemingly serendipitous patterns of clouds.

The Angel knows that what is most beautiful about him is not his appearance, but the movement of air as it passes through his crystalline body, rushing through his inner void on its own fluttering path. The only good the Angel ever does is temporarily shape the air he inhabits. 

Salvador Dalí, Angel, 1958

Obligatory Flashback Sequence Starting From Mildly Distorted Reality

The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, an earlier point in the myth, before he learns to cradle himself properly, before his arms and feet are stained a deep blue, before he learns to resist the past’s pointless call.

Orpheus is furious with the ugliness of the world, its inability to charm him back towards it. No effort, the world an old wife who has stopped trying. No blossoms in the trees, no warmth in the sand, the air so bland he worries his sense of smell has atrophied.

“Dr. Mother,” says Orpheus, slumped in his therapist’s chair, with his untied boots and naked chest, wearing only his coat woven from hair collected by brushstroke from the backs of a hundred gibbons, “Dr. Mother, listen. I have tried to improve myself, I have tried to let go of self-doubt, of accumulations of yearning and anxiety, but it’s too hard. Compared to the present, the past has so much more allure. Do you know who I ran into the other day? A girl I hadn’t seen in years, with whom a short-lived fling had long passed. Of course, even though this girl precedes her by half a decade, I compared her to Eurydice, then as if to punish myself for the thought I let her lead me by the hand into the nearest park and I fucked her under an overturned canoe. Not saying any of this is true, but isn’t it fun to say? This attachment to my myth has ruined my ability to distinguish between figment and reality. Do you think, Dr. Mother, that my entire life is made up of lies that exist in the world for no reason other than because the words composing them hold each other by the hand just right?”

Dr. Mother replies, “I thought we agreed, Orpheus, to keep your poetry out of our sessions. There is no place in psychoanalysis for balladry.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So tell me again, and tell me the truth this time. What happened to you this week? Did you see anyone?”

“No, although I did run into an unusual number of wild dogs. For most of the week, I hung from the ceiling by my left ankle, until the colours of the world became inverted. It was nuts.”

“Orpheus, enough,” says Dr. Mother. She doesn’t usually smoke, but suddenly there is a cigarette in a red holder between her lips.

“You’re being very unprofessional,” says Orpheus, and feigns a cough. The truth is, he hasn’t felt a thing in the back of his throat for months, certainly not enough to warrant a cough. In fact, come to think of it, his entire mouth is numb. His palate is still coated with his longing for Eurydice. “Smoking in front of a patient,” he says. “You know how suggestible I am.”

“You’re not a smoker, Orpheus, and I am. My nerves are frayed. Just look away until I’m done.”

Orpheus sighs and slumps deeper in his chair until only his head rests on the seat, and he stares up at Dr. Mother’s lofty ceiling. In many ways, he is younger than he looks.

“So there I was, hanging from the ceiling,” he resumes. Dr. Mother throws a lighter across the room, nearly missing his forehead.

“Fine,” he says. “I did absolutely nothing, saw nobody, had no opinions about anything, least of all myself, spent hours smelling my own armpits, as you do, and then for a moment, just a very short moment, I thought about the future, which is so uncertain now that my hands no longer pulsate with magic and my brain is out of room for words, and at that thought a constriction in my torso echoed so violently I think most of my organs must have been rearranged in the process.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Fuck off,” says Orpheus.

“Let me rephrase that. Are you still in love with Eurydice?”

“What do you think?”

“Orpheus, we won’t get anywhere if all your answers are either lies or sarcasm. I want to help you, it’s what you pay me for.”

“Fine. What was the question?”

“Do you still want Eurydice to return to you?”

“That’s a different question than the one you asked me earlier, but I’ll take it. Yes, Dr. Mother, I do. Twice a day, up and down with vigorous strokes, lasting between two and five minutes.”

“Orpheus, normally I’d say that this is a safe space, but as you can see, I’ve succumbed to my nicotine cravings, this is not the time for your inappropriate shenanigans.”

“Brushing my teeth is inappropriate?”

“Let’s talk about something else. How is your family?”

Orpheus lets out a sigh so long and loud his body slides from the chair onto the floor.

“How’s work?” Dr. Mother asks.

“You said no poetry.”

“Do you mean to tell me after all these years we have run out of things to talk about?”

“I’m in love,” groans Orpheus. “What the fuck do you want to talk about?”

“Your goals, your self-development. Your mother, if necessary.”

“In love with a ghost who thinks Hades is the place to be. This old tale again, as if it’s scored into my flesh. What sort of goals do you foresee there, Dr. Mother? What kind of self-development, for her or me? My mother would be proud, I can tell you that. This whole mess is perfect muse-material.”

Dr. Mother slaps the side of her chair as if berating a badly-mannered dog.

“Listen, you impossible child,” she snaps. “For years I have humoured your bullshit, enough is enough. Forget about Eurydice for a second, forget about what you think you feel. Sit down on your fucking chair and act like a human being, if you can remember how.”

“Jeez.” Orpheus drags himself back onto his chair and hangs one leg over the armrest. “What is up with you today?”

“Sit properly,” says Dr. Mother.

“I am. Still growing into my parts, I’ll have you know. Honestly, you’re never this weird. What’s going on?”

Dr. Mother stubs out her cigarette against her phone screen. “I read my daughter’s diary last night.”

“Oh, Dr. Mother. What a stupid thing to do.”

“I know.” Dr. Mother waves her hand at the tiny plume of smoke rising from her singed screen. “She is such a smart girl, but the men she involves herself with… I don’t understand how you can go so wrong.”

Dr. Mother closes her eyes the way only an exasperated mother can.

“I blame the parents,” says Orpheus.

Dr. Mother threatens him with a throw pillow, then sighs.

“Speaking of badly chosen men,” she says, “we haven’t discussed Hamlet for a while. Why is that?”

“Because, first of all, it’s in the past, and also it’s disruptive to my myth.”

“I thought the past had so much more allure.”

Orpheus groans. “That was back when I was lying to myself. You need to keep up.”

“Wouldn’t it be useful to start disrupting your myth? Isn’t your attachment to Eurydice based on some very restrictive assumptions?”

“I don’t know,” says Orpheus, picking his toenails. “I wouldn’t call it attachment. Anyway, I vote for talking about what hurts in the present, not what hurt back then.”

“We should talk about the past, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother, suddenly back to her true form – this is psychoanalysis, after all. Dr. Mother puts the cigarettes away and opens a window to clear the fumes from her melting phone screen. “Eurydice isn’t where it all began.”

***

The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, much earlier, before Eurydice, when his name wasn’t quite Orpheus but something else, when the love he felt was as consuming and voracious as a swarm of flies.

His food tastes of nothing, the people he sleeps with make no sound, the pages he turns reveal the same words as the ones before.

Orpheus is in love with Hamlet, who is somehow always otherwise engaged. Blablabla, my father’s ghost visits me in my sleep, blablabla, I may have to enact my revenge on a murdering uncle, blablabla, I’ve got to finish this report for my scientific assistant post tomorrow. Oh, I’ve got an essay due on Monday, I was once hurt so badly I don’t remember how to love, and on top of everything I need to apply for MA funding within the coming month. Nightmare.

Orpheus, who is always something of a child, even more so at that age, isn’t always this much of an asshole. At first, when Hamlet catches his eye, Orpheus is a delight. He sings the most enchanting songs he can muster, writes every word of his juvenile poetry addressing Hamlet’s gentle body and beautiful mind. He spends hours listening to Hamlet’s wild ideas, future plans, and endless complaints. He behaves the way Orpheus behaves when he is in love, opening his heart wide and bathing the entire world in his incandescent charms.

So many of his thoughts pertain to Hamlet, who has no use for them. Every inch of his skin is open to Hamlet, who is left cold by its touch. In his immature passion, Orpheus has no weapon against Hamlet’s disinterest except his own loveliness, which crumbles in the face of apathy, and Orpheus’s heart crumbles along with it.

Hamlet sits in their university library for hours without speaking a word to Orpheus, because Hamlet isn’t sure if it’s Orpheus he wants or someone else. After all, the girl who left him might return, and in the meantime there are all these other girls with bright red hair who look so charming when they laugh at his jokes.

Despite this, Hamlet has abstracted from all bodily pleasures and made desire into a completely intangible pursuit, to be led only by the ego in an immaterial realm. He writes love letters to Orpheus, writes poetry, endless lines of worship and erotica, but when they are alone, Hamlet won’t so much as touch him. Orpheus’s body is Hamlet’s fantasy, and as such it must never be consumed, only praised and made love to in words. Orpheus, up on his pedestal, is exhausted by having to hold a pose his agile, living body isn’t meant to hold, his body which wants only to be touched and stroked and played with, but which Hamlet will only caress through language. Hamlet’s mouth and Hamlet’s hands do not understand their purpose, and reduce themselves to verbalisers.

Slowly, Orpheus fades away inside his unreciprocated needs, until after years of this, Hamlet shows up at his door and says, “Why did you leave?” Orpheus says nothing. He builds a fort from blankets to cradle their bodies and offers Hamlet tea, then holds his hand while Hamlet weeps out his exasperation. The next day, Orpheus gives in and says, “I love you Hamlet, I never stopped,” which is true, and Hamlet’s ego is satisfied for a while.

But it isn’t enough, and soon Hamlet is drawn back into his own tumultuous self, and the easy admiration he receives from others. Turns out it’s not just the prospect of a duel that makes Hamlet feel queasy, but anything resembling a twosome. The person Hamlet needs to be is always elsewhere, always out of reach, and there is no room there for Orpheus, who wants reciprocity, to play his lyre and write his poetry, and whose need for physical closeness is too great for what Hamlet will allow himself to give.

***

“What was it that hurt you about Hamlet, Orpheus?” asks Dr. Mother.

“That whole unshakeable sense that none of what occurred between us was up to me. He removed my body from our bond, made my needs irrelevant and turned me into an idea,” says Orpheus. “I didn’t exist to him, not in my embodied form.”

“Do you think you exist, Orpheus? Physically, I mean.”

Orpheus slaps his thigh, once, then again, and again, and again, until Dr. Mother says, “I get your point. What I mean is, do you believe you deserve to exist physically in a way that compels those you love to engage with you? Don’t you feel you are somehow always a burden just by virtue of having a material presence, and physical needs?”

“You know,” says Orpheus, “you’re not supposed to validate my narratives this way. It’s bad form. I’m in a psychically vulnerable state.”

“I’m sorry,” says Dr. Mother. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me today.”

“Your daughter is sleeping with bikers, I believe. Happens to the best of us.”

Dr. Mother rubs the bridge of her nose. “The most recent one is apparently a knight and falconer. I just don’t know where she digs them up.”

“Can we get back to my story, or do you want to switch seats?”

“Go on.”

“Yes,” says Orpheus, “I carry damage. Yes, I once chose someone who exacerbated my fears about being rebuffed in my intensity and needs. Yes, being with Hamlet somehow confirmed my fear of never being a priority to the people I cared about the most. Yes, for years I forgot what it felt like to have a body, to be an agent in the world, to desire and be desired. But I was also young, prey to more insecurities than I could handle, and Hamlet stabbed right into those unpleasant wounds for three continuous years. In a way, it’s remarkable I came out of it able, and willing, to keep desiring, and wanting to be desired. That I came out of it willing to keep trying.”

“I’m very happy to hear you say that, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t still know how to pick ’em.”

“We all do. Of course we choose those who match our wounds, how could we not? Those vulnerable parts of us that fall in love are also the parts that need the most healing, the most care. Sometimes, those we fall for cause our wounds to deepen, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, and if we accept their goodness, there will be a rare few who help us decontaminate all that festering hurt and redress our narratives, allowing the lesions to slowly heal.”

“I should be so lucky,” says Orpheus.

“You aren’t all that bad at healing yourself, Orpheus. You’re just impatient. Sometimes I worry you’d rather care for the wounds of others than give that attention to yourself. Why? Is it because in others the reward is more visible than in yourself?”

“Eh,” says Orpheus. His lids feel heavy. “Who’s to say.”

“You understand, don’t you, that Eurydice isn’t Hamlet, and vice-versa?”

“Yes, yes.”

“And the pain of losing Eurydice isn’t the same as the pain of Hamlet failing to love you,” says Dr. Mother.

“I know that. You’re the one constantly drawing comparisons.”

Outside, the sky has darkened to indicate the end of their session. Dr. Mother’s eyes are glazed over, her mind is already elsewhere. Orpheus can’t blame her, this has been his own condition for a while. The myth is slowly coming apart, undoing the rigidity of its seams, and all of its elements are now floating in free association, and already new matter is growing inside the widening spaces. The last thing that remains is Orpheus, loving Eurydice, this thought of her that will not fade from his mind, the gentle vibration of her that lives in his flesh.

Replicating Eurydice

After Pop Psychology appeared in his dream, Orpheus finds himself in a helpless state, like a rock on the floor of a lake pushed into patterns by the current, like standing next to someone who is skinning a rabbit. Orpheus calls a friend to calm himself, but when the friend is busy he goes out for a walk instead. 

The sky is a screech of blue acid, and Orpheus walks under it, squinting. His breathing is laboured from the dream, his chest cluttered with a nameless concern for the things he loves. 

With each step, Orpheus observes an instability in the ground beneath him, which feels flimsier than it normally does. Orpheus knows that this may be his doing; his frequent descents into the Underworld have caused a thinning of the membrane stretching between life and the realm of the dead. 

The thought of Eurydice appears in his mind, a sensation with so immediate an impact that the membrane tears under his feet. Orpheus slips through the rift and comes crashing into Hades, where he lands loudly in a silent stream.

He rises from the water and sees Hades on his throne, his face hidden behind a newspaper. It is nearly Spring, and Persephone is somewhere in their chambers, packing up her bags. This is a hard time for Hades, Orpheus knows, when Persephone disappears for six months, a temporary reversal of Orpheus’s own situation with Eurydice. 

“Women, eh?” he nearly says, then stops himself. He and Hades are on what seem like familiar terms, but who can say how far these things can be pushed with the God of the Dead. 

Instead, Orpheus puts up his hands and says, “I’m not here on purpose. I won’t try to bring her back with me, not now. The ground just seems a little unstable up there.” 

Hades waves his hand and points him in the direction of Eurydice. 

Susan Rothenberg, Head and Bones, 1980

From afar, Orpheus sees her, surrounded by spirits. At first, he assumes she is caught up with friends, or even lovers, which seems odd for insular Eurydice; as he comes closer, he realises the others are copies she has made of herself. The bodies are facsimiles of hers, replicated to near perfection, all moving of their own accord. They seem caught up in a set of tasks with the single-minded determination of worker bees. 

As he approaches them, Orpheus catches one of the copies’ eye, and as she stares back at him, a smile widens on her face. For the first time since she died, Orpheus sees Eurydice’s features beam at him outside the context of dreams, and in response every organ in his body gushes and shakes. His heart collides with itself.

The copy approaches. From up close, he can tell she isn’t Eurydice; she is more translucent, with a more silvery skin than the real one. The copy stands in front of Orpheus and reaches out her gossamer hand, which she rests on his cheek. The feel of her body is like walking into a bathroom after someone else’s shower. On her face is an expression evoking nothing but love. Seeing this is too much to bear, and Orpheus closes his eyes, exhausted by what is happening to him.

The real Eurydice has noticed her copy gone astray, and soon she is standing behind them. Her blank face shows no recognition of Orpheus, no care for his presence. She places her hand on the copy’s neck, whose scruff stretches like that of a kitten when Eurydice picks her up. The copy lays her head placidly to the side and deadens her gaze, dangling there like a small animal between its mother’s teeth as Eurydice carries her off.

Orpheus stands there in the aftermath, torn by what seemed possible before it was taken away.

He knows that Eurydice is not Eurydice, cannot be Eurydice, because Eurydice keeps herself elsewhere. Eurydice is the refraction of Eurydice, the phenomenon of Eurydice, but the true Eurydice would be here, with him, if she were anywhere. The true Eurydice could be thought into a future in which the myth is resolved, broken apart and made new, with two coalescing yearnings instead of just one.

Eurydice, with her blind eyes and body empty of yearning, empty of love for Orpheus, returns to the many selves she tends to. Orpheus stays put and watches her for a while. 

He wonders why he ever turned around, in that very dawn of things, turned to face the first instance of Eurydice, when it would have been so easy not to. Comparatively easy, of course, in the context of everything he knows now. Why did he turn around? It would have been simpler not to. He could have done what he always does and stared straight ahead, at the winking projection of himself in his future, reducing Eurydice to an unknown, a person like any other in the world. It would have been so easy not to make her Eurydice.

He wonders where he would be if he’d simply refused to see. But Orpheus knows that, as was the case with Oedipus, whose familiar fate plunged him into that same leaden dusk, that when the constellations predict what you will see, you are no longer given the option to avert your gaze. 

Orpheus couldn’t help but look at Eurydice, because the very act of turning around to face the object of desire, even as it is still unknown, no more than a stranger, is the function of poetry. 

Orpheus would not be Orpheus without Eurydice. Eurydice herself doesn’t give a damn and yet the fact of Orpheus remains. Eurydice may remain in Hades forever, may never, like a self in a cursed mirror, return his gaze, may stare endlessly backwards at an other, but the fact remains: Orpheus needed to see Eurydice in order to become Orpheus.

There is no stable symmetry here, their bond is not a sphere, not the unbroken surface of a lake. Divergent pressures drive them both, and their paths leave a trail of vortices in their wake.

Sweet Eurydice, in her detached contentment, is unruffled. Eurydice pines after something just as pointless. She has rooted herself within the deepest ground she knows, a realm in which people are reduced to their most distant forms. 

In life, Orpheus feels everything too acutely, and has no means by which to numb himself. It is Eurydice herself who carries out their myth, who keeps the tragedy unchanged.

Orpheus thinks about Pop Psychology, who always wants to save others from themselves, and whom Orpheus could never save because her decisions were often as bad as his. It makes him smile to think that she found a temporary happiness somewhere, but he knows it didn’t last. Occasionally, the future can be read in the same tense as the past.

Orpheus, the son of Gods, suspects he would like to see himself, too, as a God capable of saving others – saving those he loves. 

But Orpheus is not a God, and those he loves cannot be saved, least of all from the choices they’ve made for themselves; even if he could reach into their lives, Orpheus, who is mortal, with a mortal mind and fallible impulses, wouldn’t know which decisions are right. There is no teleology emerging from the sybil’s footprints that Orpheus consults, not when it comes to their lives, nor his own. The myth has always been an excuse. 

Orpheus talks Gardening with Pop Psychology

for A. S.

You are what you love, not what loves you.

Donald Kaufman, Adaptation, 2002

In a dream, Orpheus meets his friend Pop Psychology, whom he hasn’t seen in years. She has secured a table for them at her student bar, near a window overlooking the sandstone campus. The courtyard is filled with pigeons fighting over the many food scraps the students leave behind. Orpheus and Pop Psychology sit face to face, sipping their drinks; water for him, and a beer for her. She looks just as she did when he last saw her; the same gold and lavender features Orpheus bears, except for her hair, which she has dyed the colour of slate. Unlike Orpheus, whose hair is a mess of strings, and whose clothes never make the most of his build, her appearance is coherent and neat.

“How’s life?” she asks. “I see you still don’t drink.”

“And you still do.”

“Unlike you I don’t have control issues,” she says.

“I don’t have issues,” says Orpheus, slurping his water loudly, which he knows she hates.

Pop Psychology looks at Orpheus’s indigo-stained hands.

“What happened?” she asks.

“Nothing,” he says. “I’m grieving.”

“What for?” Her nails are long and dark, smooth as roller rinks.

“I’ve lost Eurydice.”

“Haven’t we all,” she says. “Where’d she go?”

“Self-imposed stint in Hades. Committed herself to the place a few weeks after the wedding, when a viper bit her ankle. Just walked in there as if it was a detox centre and said, ‘This is where I’ll be from now on. Everything else is too much for me.’”

“So she’s not lost, exactly, just gone.”

“That distinction doesn’t help my grief.”

“Do you visit her?”

Orpheus sighs. “As often as my heart can bear it. Sometimes I let a few visits slide, and during my absence she appears to me in dreams, so vividly that awakening to reality without her feels impossibly painful. But the more often I visit her, the less she seems to see me, as if her memory of me is fading away.”

“So why are you on a date with me?” asks Pop Psychology.

“This is a date?”

Pop Psychology shrugs and takes a sip of her beer. “Well, they say anything’s a date in a dream. I’ll tell you something we have in common. I’ll tell you in a few minutes and you’ll see that I’m right. Are you still writing? How’s the music?”

“Don’t ask. I come here to rest, you know.”

Suddenly, the expression on Pop Psychology’s face is very serious. “I know it hurts to want something so much, Orpheus.”

“I feel doomed, sometimes, you know.”

“I’m sorry, buddy. I don’t know Eurydice, but she sounds like a person who’s not done grieving.”

“Grieving?” says Orpheus. “She’s the one who left.”

“The grieving we all go through when we’re releasing our past. Her healing cycle may still be incomplete, and whenever she opens up, she sees that things inside her are raw and unfinished, and it freaks her out. You were like this too, remember?”

“Was I? Are you sure?”

“I remember it vividly,” she says. “You were convinced that the pain of past loves would replicate itself in new ones by default. At the same time, you kept hoping the past would somehow return to make amends and close the painful loop. Then one day you woke up and realised you’d closed it yourself. Remember how bright and vivid the present suddenly felt? Maybe Eurydice is just like you; she, too, has lost a part of herself in the past, and is trying to rebuild herself. She may just be slow at licking her wounds. The cold and isolation of Hades slows you down if you let it.”

Orpheus drains his water. “So what has she lost?”

“Who can say? Everyone leaves different parts in his past.”

“What did you left behind, Poppy?”

“I think we’re a lot alike, Orpheus, we have been for a long time. We both love very intensely, very deeply, with great focus. But for a while, I was different. I loved someone who hurt himself, again and again, stuffed himself with pills and left me to deal with the aftermath, again and again. Someone I came home to each day to find he had beaten himself to a pulp. While this man’s need for me was great, while he was ravenous for the soothing I could provide, he himself had very little to give. I emptied myself out to this person for years, drove him to the various hospitals in which he stayed. I understood that this was all I would ever be to this man, nothing more. I was not an equal but a carer, a parent. I loved him but received so little in return that one day I was utterly empty, and because I had nothing left to give, I disappeared.”

“I remember,” says Orpheus. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know that now. But I spent years wondering if I’d behaved selfishly by leaving, by choosing my sanity over him. I began to shut people out, allow close to me only those who were so dull, stable and uncaring they seemed safe, because those people would never need me like this man had needed me. My capacity for love had become a dangerous thing, and any sensitive person I felt drawn to reminded me of the emptiness I still felt.”

“Do you remember,” asks Orpheus, “all those nights we sat on that bench near the duckpond and talked about cannibalism?”

Pop Psychology smiles. “I do,” she says. “I miss those days.”

“Me too. Things seemed so much easier then.”

“Do you remember” asks Pop Psychology, “the man we met near that pond, who told us that after a relationship ends the self is like infertile earth for a while, that you have to work hard to figure out what will still grow after the scorching, and for a while not much will. And then, with time, because there is always seed floating in the air, things once again begin to take hold, a self emerges in patches, but it seems too good to be true, and you become jealous and guarded, draping yourself over this plot of earth in which small seedlings have again begun to tremble, and anyone approaching it you fend off with a snarl. ‘Not again, you think, it was too hard getting things to grow again, it took so long, my plants are not ready yet to withstand being trampled by an other’s feet.’ This is normal, of course, the man said. But sometimes we are so busy cowering over our young and tender garden that we don’t see that, among those approaching us, some carry fertiliser, eggshells and coffee grounds, that among them some have greener thumbs than we do. It’s a fragile place, the man said, and it’s hard to let anyone back in.”

“Vaguely,” says Orpheus. “We met a lot of strange people then.”

“I thought of that story years ago,” says Pop Psychology, “when I was hesitant to open myself up to someone new, a man who wanted to love me. I resented the hell out of that story then.”

“Why?”

“Not for any good reason. I just thought such allegories were holier-than-thou bullshit, useless while you’re in the thick of it. Who in their right mind would, in the midst of a crisis, act in unguarded ways, based on emotional growth? That’s when our instincts kick in, and our instincts often follow old and useless patterns. That’s what it was like for me, too, and I felt rebellious then, so deeply human.”

“What happened with the new man?”

“For over a year,” says Pop Psychology, “I made him suffer the wrath of my most smug and self-righteous humanity. He was wrong, I decided, for wanting me, for seeing the good in me even though I saw myself as only half a person, a wreck. I told myself that there were so many things I had to achieve before I could run the risk of losing myself to someone else again. I was determined to brush him off, the way I had anyone else who’d approached me. But the man stayed, quietly, calmly, with his bag of fertiliser in his hand, tending his own garden in silence next to mine, only offering gentle reassurance every once in a while.”

“Wasn’t he angry?” asks Orpheus.

“Maybe he was, but he never seemed angry with me. After a while, realising he was still there, I began to look over at his garden and saw that there, too, much had been devastated and scorched. But unlike me he didn’t drape himself jealously over the few sprouts he had growing, but simply sat next to them, made small adjustments to the looseness of the earth and the shadow he provided, and left the whole thing out to be seen just as it was.”

“What were you scared of?” ask Orpheus.

“Losing what I’d spent so long rebuilding, this self that didn’t yet amount to the person I wanted to be. Love seemed like a distraction, and I wanted only to focus on my achievements, my solitary stability; those were things that felt a lot easier to hold on to somehow. Love was slippery, and involved another person’s whims, and I wanted to be selfish after having spent so long unable to put myself first. I thought about what it had felt to witness another person break down in front of me so many times, and I knew I couldn’t do it again.”

“Oh Poppy.”

“I know.”

“What did the man say?” asks Orpheus.

“Surprisingly little. He listened, mostly. He listened to a lot of my fears, anger, and unrelated complaints. He listened to my silence, too, sometimes for weeks. He listened to the things I said to try and drive him away. He listened to my self-loathing and misanthropy. He smiled at me in return. Sometimes he’d lay a finger gently into my palm, the way you do with a baby when it has nothing to hold on to. Sometimes, if a plant in his garden had a flower to spare, he’d pick it and hold it out towards me. His flowers were so different in colour to mine, so strange in their shapes, but beautiful.” 

“Did you ever open up to him?”

“I did,” says Pop Psychology, “after a while.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted him. Because I’d grown stronger by then, and was learning to trust that he wouldn’t fall apart like the other man had. I’d looked into him and seen a gentle stability cradling all his chaos.”

“Did he still want you?”

“He showed me every plant that had grown in my absence; he let me touch every single one of their leaves. I think he saw me clearly. I don’t understand how, or why, but he did. He just reached into what was difficult and broken about both of us, as if it were easy. Whatever he found, it never made him run. He sat with it and held it in his heart.”

“Were you happy?”

“Don’t underestimate how good it feels to be seen by someone, and see them clearly in return. Don’t underestimate how good it feels to be loved by someone whose spirit resonates with yours. Yes, Orpheus, I was happy. Until, well, you know.”

“I know,” says Orpheus. “I’m sorry.”

They sit quietly for a while, holding on to their empty glasses. Outside, the clouds are purple and green, and the ground is covered in the agitation of birds. Orpheus looks at Pop Psychology’s placid face, the darkening in her eyes, and the gentle smile, as if chiselled into the bone. 

He lays his hand on her forearm. It feels as solid and quiet as touching a tree. “I’m really glad I got to see you, Poppers,” he says. “I was sure you had died.”

She looks up at him, then out of the window at the bobbing layer of wings.

“Let’s not speak of it, Orpheus,” she says. “The dream is nearly over. This is a nice moment, too nice for sadness, which will return soon enough. I, too, am glad to see you.”

Eurydice makes a decision

With the sutures still on his mouth, Orpheus makes a slow move back towards domesticity. He heads to the supermarket for household supplies, and as he hovers beside grapefruits in the cold and artificial air, he sees someone who might be Eurydice.

The figure lingers before the shelves, oblivious to Orpheus, whose feet are naked on the tiles. 

Perhaps she does see him, in the corners of her eyes, no longer lidless like those of a fish, her skin no longer bearing the shimmer of scales, but nothing about her posture concedes the difficulty of being in the presence of a person you once loved, then gave up on. 

Bracha L. Ettinger, Eurydice n. 5, 1994

It’s hard to tell real from fake in the droning supermarket light, but this person, whether or not she is Eurydice, seems very much alive, not a trace of Hades on her clothes, which are clean and unruffled. Her hair is warm and dry, her hands unmoving. She seems of normal density, human, with commonplace skin and forgivable instants of distraction, all in all very much like a person who never died, never suffered the ordeals of a myth. There seems to be no viper’s bite on her ankle. 

Orpheus watches as she crouches next to her basket, hesitating between recycled toilet rolls and some which are not, and in his crowded mind’s hearing he makes out the words that will be said to him several days after this by a well-meaning friend: 

Eurydice is not meant for you. She isn’t an inevitable part of your story, or linked to you in some mystical way. She is not a soulmate the world’s tides have flung into your hands. Like anyone else you ever loved, no matter how intensely, Eurydice is no more than an accident. 

Bracha L. Ettinger, Eurydice n. 45, 2006

Orpheus doesn’t approach the tender figure wrapped in her coat, only watches as she rises with the recycled rolls in her hand. He cannot say if Eurydice is more or less important to him knowing the crossing of their paths is, and has always been, accidental. 

He knows that what matters is not whether placing his hand on this person’s shoulder reveals her to be Eurydice, whom he loves, or a stranger, whom he knows nothing about and understands only in terms of their shared humanity, but the fact that Eurydice, where ever she is, doesn’t want to be alive and will not return to him, and that what this means isn’t that Orpheus is doomed to repeat the myth he has been repeating all this time, but that the world isn’t based on a foundation of symmetry, of reciprocity, no matter how much Orpheus, in his limited understanding of things, wishes that it were. 

The Aquarian

Your vision was fine. The clouded spots weren’t on your cornea but on your mind’s eye, which saw me clearly at first, then moved sideways towards interpretative paranoia. I wasn’t perfect, you decided, not yet. I needed to be improved on if I was to survive in the world you saw surrounding us. 

Many times, you saw the fire lick my bones, and thought that fire cannot help but consume, and like your namesake constellation you poured water over me to keep me from burning myself down to ash.

But my fire wasn’t a consumptive one, and although I bet that’s what they all say, I maintained that my fire was under control. My fire was as cleansing as a fish pedicure, I said, removing the surplus from my corium so as to refine sensation, clarify my feelings in the way I, prone to clutter, needed so badly. 

Again and again you doused me in refusal, in nightmare scenarios and do not’s. Every other word dripping with limits and impossibilities.  

My own cornea began to develop nebulae, its own galactic stable of them. These were my own hang-ups and blind spots into which I began to step even as I sought to avoid them. 

When you collapsed against the door of a parked car after the two excruciating hours during which the unseemly wolf-child hair was electrocuted from my body follicle by follicle, the day was sifted and overcast, but somehow I remember the sky above us being dark and full of stars. It was the first time I understood that you were going to die.

My nebulae run backwards, too, they burrow down into my memories. 

Sometimes, a red light appears in my mind from the gaping black of a silent stage, and I feel my entire body wet with animal fear, inconsolable, the way it felt after the hot and whirring needle burned its way into every one of my pores. When the red light appears, round like the circular illusion of stars, the space beneath my temples falls silent. 

Your constellation contains no brightness; all you have are reactive patches of gas and dust. Your body is etched into the night sky with several nebulae expanding around ageing stars. You, yourself, spent my whole life as an ageing star.

My life starts with the summer solstice. It makes me yearn for brightness and clarity. But my yearning is comical, to be ridiculed: my stars arrange into the shape of a crab, crushed under the foot of an overeager muscle-man tasked with a dozen labours. It goes without saying that this man’s constellation does not bear bright stars.

At the heart of me lives a beehive, Praesepe.

At the heart of me, the buzzing never stops, perhaps so as to make up for the fire you drenched with paternal worry until the flames eventually stopped growing back, like my wolfchild hair, burned from my pores until only a few remained in the charred soil with enough follicular strength to come back every spring.

At the heart of me, the beehive hides from this world in which smoke is only the suffocating element of fire.

It is in water we will suffocate, or perhaps in smoke, but not in the clarity of flames, and not in the earth which, like ageing bones, is so full of holes for light and air to shine through that even the most loving efforts will not manage to pack it tightly around the stem of a growing plant.