Orpheus and the Tar Pit

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

– Seamus Heaney, The Grauballe Man

Orpheus as an adult is a different person from Orpheus as a young man. It’s the bridge between the two, made from little more than knotted string, that can at times be precarious, the kind that folds in on itself and tangles in near-permanent ways.

What Orpheus seeks as an adult is internal, no longer bound to a self contained in others. Orpheus as a young man seeks love, and only external love, to make up for the widening, crumbling emptiness at work inside him. Orpheus as an adult has constructed an inner citadel in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, one whose spiralling towers and metamorphic soapstone structure is impermeable. The citadel reassures Orpheus with its timeline intimately tied to his: while people, objects, riches, and even ideas, exist on shifting, tectonic levels and will either outlive Orpheus or disappear from his presence for any reason or none, the citadel will exist exactly as long as Orpheus will, is so inextricably part of him that it has become the only reliable thing in life. There is peace to be found in this idea. 

Nietzsche, more bearded than ever, rests his dirty feet on Orpheus’s pillow and waffles on about the importance of forgetting, and of digesting one’s past properly.

The body and soul, which are in a sense one and the same in that their boundaries blur and pulsate between the visible and the concealed, are here, are his, and whatever they digest or are drawn to, no matter how intensely, will eventually pass through them without causing them to disappear. After the digestive process, drawn-out as it may be, the body is still there with its stomach and bowels. 

Nietzsche seems concerned that digestion is something people have abandoned for the sake of wallowing, of an eternal practice of chewing the cud. Orpheus can’t deny this; much of his time was spent in such a state of rumination, turning his face more and more into the long muzzled mask of a cow. For a while, taurine horns sprouted from his head. 

Orpheus has undergone so many metamorphoses that the limits of his self feel unclear, smeared with the grease of otherness. But this otherness is of a particular kind, more ethereal than a person’s simple presence. Orpheus is backed up with ideal selves, which have undermined and torn through his digestive organs for years, have made him incapable of releasing what kept accumulating. 

The mind turns life into memories, but when the soil that should cradle these memories in its darkness is overrun with writhing bodies, bloated and undead, the memories have no choice but to fall in heaps onto the surface, rotting there like Antigone’s kin in the blazing sun. Orpheus is dizzy with the fumes of slow decay. 

“You need to become empty so that you can fill yourself again,” says Nietzsche, unhelpfully. 

Franz Stuck, Orpheus, 1891

Orpheus, whose oral fixation is considerable, takes bites upon bites of the world, sucking and gnawing on it to find the precise combination of sensations and tastes that will still the rumbling inside. 

Orpheus has heard of a man across many mountains, perhaps even across many chunks of time, who suffers from the opposite problem, the inability to stop excreting. Losing control over his body has trapped that man in his own hell of increasingly destructive dreams. Orpheus wishes he and the man could meet, speak to each other of their afflictions, and find a middle-ground in which to attempt a mutual healing. But Orpheus knows that such a desire is selfish, and that the man, who finds himself chained up by greedy men who harvest his excretions for fuel, has enough to deal with without being weighed-down with Orpheus’s indigestible accumulation of selves. Orpheus comes not as a clean and single self, but as a cluster of concerns and pains, triggers and difficulties, all these things he hasn’t yet managed to shave off himself. 

Orpheus spends more time thinking about his own mouth than is perhaps advisable, and he has recently stopped trusting even this aperture, which used to be his truest means of expressing himself. The mouth is where the voice substantiates, where language shows itself with the greatest possible immediacy, where longing quivers, where food breaks in, where kisses fall together, where the beloved’s body can be tasted and indulged. 

But now, Orpheus has given up his finger-painting relation to the world, has exiled all hands from his vicinity. The wind touches him only through tissue paper, the light hits his skin only with invisible brushstrokes. Still, despite its failures, the mouth remains. Whether Orpheus wants it or not, his mouth is open to the world, a concentrate of yearning. 

In response, his environment either curls up into absence or opens itself in kind. The world wavers between petrified wood and openness, and the landscape Orpheus inhabits pits itself with holes of incalculable depth. These holes open around him with wet smacking sounds, bringing bitumen to the surface like pus, old suppurations, which both the world and Orpheus ought to have dealt with but which they chose instead to ignore, letting them ferment into hypogeal patches. Orpheus exists in a time of tectonic upheaval. 

One morning, one such hole opens in front of him while he empties his bladder into a mulberry bush. The stream running from his phallus his clear as glass, almost silent as it hits the thorns. The hole’s presence annoys Orpheus, who wishes for a semblance of stability. His internal citadel is still under construction, not yet a home, torn down each night by the same perfectionist impulses that cause people-pleasing Melusina to redraft again and again the palace she builds for Siegfried, the man she wants to look after. 

Orpheus, still homeless but with a vague idea of what an internal home might entail, does not want to be confronted with holes and their attention-seeking bullshit. He shouts a number of obscenities into the hole, expecting an echo, but nothing returns, not even a faint, whimpering reflection of his call. 

All he feels is a fluttering at the back of his throat, the sense of something tearing away, and for a moment the rustle of wings obscures his vision. 

When Orpheus opens his mouth to ask what the hell just happened, his voice is gone. Like an unsettled bat it flees with the flap of leathery wings towards a more amenable cave, and it is now lost in the bottomless hole along with his words.

Orpheus hurls a handful of mulberry blooms into the hole and heads for the deep end of the forest, kicking pebbles along the way. After an hour, he comes to rest against a mossy rock. A few paces ahead, he sees what appears to be another hole, of a black so total no light returns from it. Orpheus approaches and feels the ground sucking at his feet. The hole is surrounded by tar, perhaps even filled with it, although its centre is a deeper black than Orpheus has ever witnessed. 

For a moment, his mind is full of bodies preserved after death, able, by the grace of chemical magic, to retain their human form even after consciousness has trickled like fat from the flesh. He looks into the centre of the hole, into the complete impossibility of a reflection. This hole is the loneliest place on earth, where not even the self can be witnessed. 

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

– Seamus Heaney, Personal Helicon

The sun shuffles around in the branches of trees like an animal waking up, and Orpheus wants to escape. Whenever the sun shines his mind flings itself back towards Eurydice, towards Hamlet, towards Apollo, towards Melusina, all these impossible beings sprouting from his sides and inside his heart, who left their perforations inside Orpheus’s flesh; all these creatures who inhabit a higher realm into which they have retreated, and where Orpheus can’t follow. 

Do not take them seriously. If they retreat into heights, into distance and indifference, then Orpheus has at his disposal an entire realm of depth and intense claustrophobia. 

The earth has swallowed Henri Michaux. His body is in a process of slow decomposition as it sinks, and the gas escaping from his corpse is making the earth burp up sebaceous bubbles of advice.

“Descends,” says the wet voice of Henri Michaux, bursting from a bubble, “oui, descends en toi, vers cet immense rayonnage de besoins sans grandeurs. Il le faut. Après tu pourras, tu devras remonter.” Sink deep into yourself, it is necessary.

Come back, says a choir of spirits, cradled by the rocks and trees, only when the needs you feel have shifted, the yearning faded. Stay inside yourself, no matter how uncomfortable you may be there. Discomfort soon turns into placing one stone upon the other, building a makeshift resting place for the tired spine. Others, especially idealised others, those you trust too much without reason, cannot be your home. They will, like everything else in the world, crumble in your hands, disappoint and hurt, and leave. Some of them will not leave willingly, but they will break just the same. At least when you break, Orpheus, you won’t be left behind; all of you will disappear at once. Find comfort in this. 

“Les arbres frissonnent plus finement,” says Michaux from an other bubble, “plus amplement, plus souplement, plus gracieusement, plus infiniment qu’homme ou femme sur cette terre et soulagent d’avantage.”

Orpheus sighs, once again weighed down with well-meaning words of wisdom. But they are someone else’s wisdom. Orpheus, full of the past, full of the toxicity of echoes and evocations, full of long-gone happiness, has no space for the new, not yet. Orpheus needs darkness, and silence; he needs to be alone. There is nothing lonelier than the bottom of a tarpit infused with Vantablack. 

For a moment, Orpheus hesitates on the edge of the tar pit, and the sunlight falls in such a way that he thinks he sees the shadowy outline of Eurydice kneeling on the opposite edge of the pit.

Eurydice’s hands shake against the black surface, and as she submerges them in an attempt to quieten them, they disappear completely. Eurydice, too, wants stillness, and when she looks over at Orpheus she sees his blue stained hands, raises hers, dripping with tar, and like two drenched skunks they seem to recognise each other.

In a fanciful flash, Orpheus and Eurydice fling their bodies toward each other, landing in the tar’s black heaviness. They splash the slow substance about their writhing bodies, and as they embrace they sink down towards the centre of the earth. 

Inside the tar, there is no speech, no sight, no air. They have only the weight of their bodies against each other, mediated by the viscosity of bitumen.

When Orpheus hits the bottom of the tar pit, Eurydice is gone. Silence and darkness are equally absolute. He folds his knees against his chest, where neither heart nor lungs feel a need for air, and he waits for a light to come on inside him.

He waits like this for a long time, his body held by the tar like the yolk inside an egg. You deserve to be loved, whispers the tar in its tongueless, throatless voice. You deserve to exist. But this voice is only Orpheus’s superficial reassurance, and he needs to hear something else, something more substantial. He waits until his skin seems to have melted.

“Sache n’importe où tu te trouves reconnaître ton axe,” says Henri Michaux, muffled by the tar. “Ensuite tu aviseras.”

August Natterer, World Axis with Hare, 1911

In this perfect dark symmetry, where above is below and sides bear no difference to each other, Orpheus tries to feel his own spine, the way it has warped in grief, its line compromised by sorrow, and from this line, its bent and bumpy descent from skull to tail, Orpheus constructs a new compass needle, with a magnetic north down in his tailbone, south up in his head, and as he slowly stretches out his invisible body in the tar he feels a new gravitational pull jerk at him, lure him down to where the surface is, this new world he will inhabit. There is love there, and things make sense; there, his mind is no longer sore with isolated desires, impossible hopes.

His spine shudders with a sudden navigational need, and Orpheus follows its pull. He opens his mouth wide and lets the black fluid in, lets it fill his throat and organs, his ears and nostrils, he opens himself fully to the viscous bitumen, and a composite sensation, of drowning and breathing too fast, too deeply, smears itself across Orpheus’s consciousness, momentarily erasing his fear of having lost the thing he cares about the most.

The tar sucks at his body, compelling him to stay, to remain there in silent suspension, to let his body mummify alongside prehistoric animals and murdered men. But Orpheus would not be Orpheus if he didn’t know how to ascend from the impossible.

Once he is full of tar, a reversal occurs and the tar circling within him streams back out again, out of his ears, his nose, his throat, pushing more and more of itself out of him and in this increasing lightness Orpheus rises, tail first, towards an exit. 

When he reaches the tarpit’s surface, his eyes, bloodshot from the tar, are searing coals, ruddy like a pigeon’s. Orpheus feels the shudder of something in his mouth. Something has remained in him. Against his teeth, he feels his voice twitching its oily wings. 

He closes his burning eyes and lies on the tarnished grass in the sun, and his skin aches as the asphalt dries on it. There is a realisation he has come to: it was never Eurydice down in Hades. Perspectives were misplaced, dislodged like retinas. This entire time, Eurydice was alive. It was never her moving inside deaths’s leaden clutch, unfeeling like a bug trapped in resin. It was never Eurydice who refused to cross over into life on their recurring ascents; this whole time, it was Orpheus in Hades, sedate and bleary-eyed, enmeshed in death’s delusion. This whole time, Eurydice was alive, moving at the speed of life, which seems uncannily quick from the vantage point of death. While she shot through life as a swallow, Orpheus spent years in paralysis, stuck inside the ice block of Hades, and from there he watched her shape-shift, lamenting his own stagnant point of view. Orpheus looked on and saw his own limited capacities, his mind capable only of useless repetition, the return to a past that could never heal his present. 

Now he knows. Eurydice could not help him rise from the Underworld because it is not in Eurydice’s set of tasks to do so. Orpheus is the one to whom the charming of the infernal keepers befalls, who is meant to bring the dead to life, but how can he do so when he is the one trapped? The filaments of his mind are too flimsy to hoist him up from the bottom of the well where he lies.

The clouds pass left to right on the other side of his lids. A shadow leans over him, and Orpheus knows who it is, but isn’t ready to look, to confront, not just yet. 

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Spring

There you are. Your skin’s impeccable smell, the beeswax whiff of it. The rustle of your limbs around my skull, like the turn of a page progressing along a two-voice tale. Your scent returns as a ripple. You who are my week, my gristle. Hop into the space I’ve opened between my hands, rest there in your figurative purrs. I have said before that I cannot hold these leaves open on my own, that the space I gave once deadened the brass in me, but your air still reverberates with the uncanny sensation of feathers dipped in gold.

Listen. Your whole body is a whisker. Love has caused these ribbons to tighten inside my skin, hold me upright in false and disconcerting ways, and your response was this: yes, I too am tired of running, running in this way that feels like falling between loosened sheets of earth. Yes, you said, my whole body is a whisker. Let me give you the water I’ve wrung from my hair, cup your ears and catch its languid syllable curd. Begin a benevolent trade between soil and atmosphere. Yes, I too am tired of the blackened wick, the missing glue between things. We have seen what your eyes can do; we have both been on the cusp of your fire.

Exquisite

You told me to go through the garden and find the thing that was most like myself, and so once I was alone I walked through the vegetation, looking. I walked through the high grasses and my feet folded their blades into more complicated shapes. I walked and the pebbles flicked out from under me. I walked close to the water, past reeds that gorged themselves on its pools, past driftwood with intricate reliefs, rocks intensely veined, birds rotund with song. I walked past exquisite lilies, past the structural devotion of pines, every part of me looking in this beauty for a resonance.

After a while, the rain fell hard into my hair and I hid in the undergrowth, crawling between streams of ivy, my hands smeared with lichen and wiped clean again by neon pads of moss, until a low clearing emerged and I leaned against the striated bark of a cherry tree. Its cauterised marks embossed themselves into my back and this damaged being seemed to me such an obvious mirror I decided this was it. Having completed my task, I closed my eyes until the rain let up. 

But when I crawled out after a while to hold my hand into the air and check for drops, I saw further down the path a cluster of dried grey twigs growing bare, clipped and idle from the earth, and the part of me that wishes I could just exist in my true and unadorned mediocrity felt understood. I weaved myself, with great cost to my personal boundaries, between the brittle twigs, making my body as boneless as it could be, and there I breathed the shallow breath of deferral until the day went dark and you returned to me. When you asked me what I had learned, I told you I would have to think about it deeply, and tell you once I understood.

Not like now

heaven is insufficient / you know too well it’s paradise

you want // where we are bodies, extemporised and full

of melting splinters /// fondness consumed

amidst animals and trees, our colours all coiled

in embrace //// you think the white light of love is a quiet

bath of bliss, so immaterial, the inscrutable

everlastingness of it ///// paradise is heaven

with lungs, but you say there is no return

to a place of breath and sublimity ////// our grunting cannot blend 

with the birds’ capacity for speech, not in the damp 

chill of the shade after our dying /////// you bit me, and I know

I bit you in turn, betraying pale matter below

the sun-reddened skin //////// not here, and not now

paradise is incarnate, but this ongoing heaven

is bland, a doorway of bodies / peeled off

and hung up like garb //////// that which we want

is deep / and bright / and unlikely

it already slipped once / and you

tore out your lungs / saying

////////// that was enough

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.

Orpheus and the Flayed Man

Orpheus is distraught. A man without skin lives in his dreams. Orpheus knows this is because too many of his thoughts focus on limitations, on the boundaries of the self.

Trapped inside his own skin, in his unique consciousness, Orpheus has no chance at communion with others, not even those he wants the most. 

Eurydice swims in her set of underwater chambers, moving pebbles with her mouth. 

The muscles around the man’s eyes resemble the rings on a felled tree trunk. Orpheus watches them twitch. 

The bare musculature is an embrace, the twist of jungle vines around the tender skeletal trunks – in all things, Orpheus sees what he is lacking. 

In his dreams, the skinless man stalks across the landscape Orpheus is attempting to inhabit. The landscape has released its logic. The shadows thrown by its elements are golden, as are the pupils of animals, reflecting light rather than absorbing it. 

When they first found each other, Orpheus and Eurydice rubbed their pasts against each other, to see which parts this process might heal. In the fading light, their bodies, panting and warm, fell side by side into the sand. Eurydice placed a handful of sand on Orpheus’s skin and rubbed it into his legs, his arms, his back and torso. He returned the favour until their skins glowed with awareness, as new and receptive as an infant’s.

The flayed man in Orpheus’s dream cannot blink. He can only watch without pause, without release. 

Skinning is not an improvement on exfoliation. Skinning deadens the impact of touch.

Despite the impression of opening, removing the skin is in fact a closing.

In losing your skin, you lose the membrane allowing you to feel another’s caress. Left behind is only a raw, impotent mass, unable to engage or receive. Too much has been removed, and you become untouchable.

The dripping muscles on the flayed man’s stomach twitch.

Eurydice has arranged her pebbles in hexagonal patterns, befitting the vibrations that rise from the bottom of the lake.

Orpheus turns over to seek a cold patch on his mattress, scratching and chewing the pillow in his sleep.

Hieroglyphs for the Child

Before it was born, the child’s life was imagined in great detail, written out in many early drafts, then hammered into a final contract.

A number of categorical details were settled on from the beginning, chiselled into the walls of the sandstone nursery, painted with different tones of wax and clay, imperatives the child was expected to bring about.

Walk across the desert back in time to the nursery wall. Do you remember how to read the language that precedes the alphabet?

If you think you can, refer to the wall and remember your imperatives.

Follow the lines strung between the pictographs. 

You will be a girl. You will be beautiful. You will be a poet. You will study other people’s thoughts. You will not defile your body in any way. You will find someone worthy of you. Your eyes will be as ours are, one good one bad, but your hearing will be absolute, pitch-perfect, and whenever you raise your arms it will be to conduct the orchestra tethered to your fingertips. You will be funny but not silly. You will not disappoint anyone. You will speak many languages. You will cause other people to praise you. You will be tall, no, ok, well at least you won’t be short, ok, so you fucked up on that, but at the very least you won’t be overweight. Your body will be as we tell it to be. Your mind will not lapse. You will not disappear. You will be drawn to other countries. You will not disappoint. You won’t have sex on our sofa. You won’t have sex in our house. You won’t have sex with anyone unworthy. You will always be able to give a reason for your behaviour. You won’t take drugs, you won’t smoke, you won’t drink, you won’t damage the flesh you were given. You won’t have a single useless skill. Your skin will be soft and clear. Your body will be limber. You will sharpen your mind using the symbology we pass down to you. You will not hurt yourself. You will not hurt yourself. You will not hurt your violin, you will see the wooden stick of the soul in its hollow body and honour it as if it were a living being. You will not shout at your mother. You will not shout at your father. You will respect your teachers as if they were your parents. You will not shout or swear outside of the jesting context. You will go to circus school to hone your body as a theatrical object. You will learn to speak clearly without mumbling. You will not make mistakes. You will not make mistakes, there is no time. You will never forget that your parents are always about to die. You will never forget a thing we tell you. People will know your name, and through your name your father’s name, and his father’s name. You will be as useful as a boy. You will write and your words will be made visible. You will be lovable. You will not chew your own flesh. You will not be ashamed of your body. You will be a girl. You will be a girl. You will not grow hair in abject places. You will not be ill. You will look beautiful at all times. You will not destroy yourself in any way.

Before it was born, the child, half-formed in the womb, clamped its toothless mouth around the fractal growth of hands and sucked, pressed its gums down into the fragile mass of skin and bone; the child chewed the hands until the work of growth started to regress, the child chewed itself back into an abstract clump of thought, back into cells, back into egg and spermatozoa, back into the union that brought it forth. 

You will not pursue that which doesn’t yield results. You will not hang on to useless things. You will not have self-annihilating thoughts. You will like yourself at all times. You will find worth in the things you were given in your childhood. You will contemplate death and meaninglessness only from the ivory safety of philosophical abstraction. You will be utterly self-assured. 

Above all, you will be happy. 

Jimmy Ernst, Observation VII, 1965