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

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.

The Minotaur

To love—is to see a person as God intended him and his parents failed to make him. To not love—is to see a person as his parents made him. To fall out of love: is to see, instead of him, a table, a chair.

Marina Tsvetaeva – from Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922

What a thing to say: You exist because the man who is not your father refused to kill the animal who is.

What a thing to say, also: You exist because someone made your mother fall in love with a creature that could not love her back.

What a thing to say: The only way to keep you alive is to keep you locked in an architectural puzzle you will never successfully escape because you are a child.

Marina Tsvetaeva says it is worse to fall out of love than to not love in the first place.

To not love is to simply see someone as devoid of potential.

To fall out of love is to reduce a person to an object, no longer worthy of attention or love.

The Minotaur knows himself; he knows he is the embodiment of being fallen out of love with, this most passive, most hopeless of states. To have come from the entwined urges of love and desire, and to have failed to become an improved sum of their illustrious parts, how can he make up for such a crime? Yes, he thinks, this maze is the environment most suited for me.

The Minotaur knows he was loved for a while, at least the intention was there. He was cradled and fed. But his development was unpredictable, and he grew into his bull parts. Disappointment flogged the air.

The Minotaur senses his own body as a wound. When a sword or arrow pierces him, he feels as though a part of him were doubled up, and healing, finally.

The Minotaur is as God intended him, but here is where the trouble begins, because this God intended him as a punishment, punishment of a man who refused to kill.

The Minotaur is not as his parents intended him, because his parents intended very little besides their own urges being met.

The Minotaur remembers playing with Ariadne, who sat high atop his prison walls, and sent down a ball of twine whose end she was holding. The Minotaur fell on his back and played with the ball like a cat, while Ariadne looked out over the sea and told him each time she saw a man or a bird fall from the sky.

The Minotaur does not resent Ariadne; he understands that love is dumb, that love’s object can only ever disappoint.

The Minotaur isn’t hungry, but he eats because what he is given arrives in front of him infused with the intent of being eaten, resigned to its death.

The Minotaur does not know what others mean when they run from his strength. If he were strong, he thinks, the endless halls he wanders would not hold him so hopelessly.

The Minotaur spends most of his time waiting, and pacing, and thinking. Sometimes he thinks about the colour green, like the mould that grows on his walls. He thinks that in all the years he can remember, he has never eaten a single flower; he eats only flesh.

It was Ariadne who told him, ‘You’re not a bull. A real bulls eat flowers.’

The Minotaur waits and watches the clouds pass by in the sky high above. He knows that all knowledge of the future is hope. He knows that, sometime soon, Ariadne will save him.

The Gorgon

The Gorgon’s aim is to fasten pleasant or important things to the layer of timelessness that exists beyond the flowing streams of time. She is a kind of archivist of life, she records her conversations with her friends, keeps boxes and shelves full of tapes in her basement. She keeps a log of her emotions in a large red notebook on her coffee table.

What the Gorgon fears most of all is ageing, the passing of time. She enjoys the arts of petrification, which momentarily pour time into an immobile form, pinning it in place. This is an illusion she delights in. The Gorgon is an amateur photographer, sometimes a sculptor. Her favourite material is sandstone, for its warmth and permeability. She likes the idea of water and air flowing through even those things that seem immune to the passage of time.

She takes pictures of everything around her, except herself, because she needs to think of herself as unbound to the laws of material existence. She knows that to be embodied means being subject to entropy; she, too, will one day have to disappear. This enrages the Gorgon to the point where she can’t sleep for days, lying fuming on her bed with only the snakes on her head for company.

The snakes themselves never sleep. They sense the Gorgon’s thoughts, while she cannot read theirs. She can’t communicate with the snakes beyond feeding them, and snapping her fingers angrily if one of them forgets itself and bites her hand. The Gorgon never forgets a bite, and she keeps tabs on each snake. 

Sometimes it upsets her that those snakes are closer to her thoughts than anyone else will ever be, those creatures whose only mode of response consists of twisting, snarling and hissing.

When the Gorgon feels something strongly, or has intense thoughts, the snakes hiss and shake in time with the contents of her mind. The Gorgon feels exposed, not because she worries about other people decoding her thoughts via the snakes’ interpretative dance, but because she knows she carries her emotions on her crown, so visibly it makes people uncomfortable. In order to learn more about her own thoughts, the Gorgon mounts cameras to her ceilings, and spends hours rewatching the tapes of the snakes’ dance, trying to read it like a language, but the snakes form too many crossing lines and the Gorgon gets too tired to make sense of their gyrations. 

In order to protect the people she likes, she wraps a band around the snakes and ties them together in a snapping bouquet behind her head. She carries an open rucksack full of mice so the snakes can feed themselves discreetly while the Gorgon socialises.

In general, it’s hard for her to meet new people, because right away she worries about their mortality. Getting close to anyone means needing to ask, “What if they disappear?” which is the way all things on earth must go. She is known to freeze any person she meets into a pillar of worries and first impressions.

She rarely ever relaxes, tells herself she doesn’t know how. But sometimes the light of day falls at an angle that feels absolute, the boiling inside her hushes, and her body feels covered in the thinnest layer of resin, keeping all of her contained where it belongs. In those moments the Gorgon, who in many ways is still so young, feels immortal, the way only those who have never experienced dying can.

The Centaur

“I’m annoyed, yes,” says the Centaur, “thanks for asking. I’m annoyed because the only questions non-centaurs ask me are about sex.”

Specifically, questions about the mechanics of centaur sex. People only ever want to know what it’s like to process with what appears to be a human brain, stuck inside a human skull, the expression of sexual urges manifesting in the lower parts of a horse? 

“In other words,” the Centaur says, “they want to know what happens to the human need for tenderness when my horse genitals only seem to want to fuck.”

“Is it wrong for people to be curious?” his unnamed companion asks.

“No, but it makes me think about things I shouldn’t have to spend so much of my time thinking about. My body is my territory, and I try my best to be comfortable in its material reality. But when people keep raising these questions I become worried, because I start thinking, well, what if there is something wrong with the limits my body imposes on me?”

His worry is an anatomical one. Due to the way the lower horse body is built, the most straightforward way for the Centaur to have sex is to mount his mate from behind, equine forelegs digging into the flanks, hind legs trembling on the ground. This in itself is not an issue; the problem lies in the expectation, brought into the Centaur’s mind through external sources, of combining sex with tenderness, closeness, and intimacy.

Here is the human torso, awkwardly perched on top of all this equine shuddering. During sex, the human heads of the Centaur and his mate are so far apart from each other they barely seem involved in the same activity. They feel it all occur in their horse parts, their minds detached, disappointed in their human need for intimacy. Their human arms cannot reach each other; in fact, none of the human parts touch while the hippic features get each other off.

“One time I bent across her horse spine to kiss the part where her human back begins. She turned around and stared at me, and she looked genuinely disturbed by what I had just done. The human parts simply aren’t meant to touch. People don’t understand that, but it’s true.”

Still, what the Centaur has a hard time admitting is that he sometimes yearns for an intimate embrace. Such an embrace can only take place outside of a sexual context. Centaurs can be tender with each other, but only when their human torsos face each other and their equine genitalia are as far apart as possible. Otherwise, the tenderness fades and a carnally driven disconnection begins.

The Centaur, who now doubts everything about his sex life, feels trapped in the irreconcilability between his sexual urges and his desire for intimacy. He doesn’t know how to admit this to people, and it makes him feel inadequate.

“Sometimes I think we’re just badly built,” the Centaur says, munching a carrot to a pulp. “We have no book of instructions on how to properly use our anatomies, or how to be happy.”

“I don’t think anyone else does, either,” his companion says, yawning. “I guess the trick is to just make it up as you go.”

A month ago, the Centaur fell in love with a nymph, who is delicate and tender, whose skin smells like tree bark, and whose heart and hands are at peace. He is afraid of hurting her small body with his, afraid that she will show impatience with his conflicting drives, or, even worse, that she will be too forgiving of them, leading him to become complacent about his shortcomings. His human face wants her kisses, but when he kisses her, his carnal urges take place so far from their heads that they might as well not exist.

The other question he gets is about his heart. By all accounts, his heart is human, stuck as it is inside a human chest.

“Isn’t it true,” those non-centaurs ask, “that a human heart couldn’t possibly live up to the arterial demands of the equine body, especially when aroused or absorbed in gallop? Aren’t you always a breath away from cardiac arrest?”

“Reassuring, as you can imagine,” he tells his companion, before realising she has gone to sleep.

The Centaur folds his arms behind his head and stares up at the stars, wishing people asked him about other things, such as his interest in environmentalism, his moral aspirations, or whether he prefers grass or hay. The answer is neither. The Centaur eats dung beetles. He devours them whole, delighting in the way their gleaming shells crunch under his teeth, making his ears prickle.

The Werewolf

Contrary to what fairytales have to say, the Werewolf gains no additional powers from the largeness of her features. Her hearing is fine, perhaps even too good depending on the context, but her eyes have gone dull from trying to maintain their focus on two conflicting lives at once, her human life, out there on the surface, and her life as a wolf, abstract and hidden.

In many ways, this double life of keeping herself as a pet isn’t that hard; hers is a society in which canine paraphernalia abound. The Werewolf’s day-to-day life has become easy, routinised, domesticated. On regular days, the animal spirit inhabiting her gentle and well-behaved vegetarian body is no more disruptive than a little dog. But the monthly full-moon transformations are a challenge, she dreads the loss of control when her human mind disconnects and the wolf takes over for the night.

Despite the human mind’s unconsciousness, somewhere inside the Werewolf it still throbs with anxiety, the way a worried parent stays up fretting over a teenage daughter out by herself at night.  The Werewolf is increasingly worried about her wolf’s safety and well-being. She worries about the state of its teeth, and whether it is likely to get into fights with the neighbourhood dogs. What she really wants is to protect it from anything bad happening to it, despite knowing that the real danger in all this emanates from the wolf itself.

To avoid conflict, she has taken to boarding up her windows on full-moon nights, locking away any delicate objects such as pillows, expensive decorations, and most of her clothes. It is difficult to maintain a lifestyle devoted to loveliness when you’re inhabited by this kind of violence, no matter how deep below the surface it usually dwells.

On full moon nights, she prepares the flat, leaving bowls filled with dog food all over the place, including a few fresh cuts from the butcher’s.  She loathes the feel and smell of meat, but will do anything to keep her animal busy while she is asleep inside it.

A few times a week, she feeds herself dog food. The first few times she threw up from the texture, and the taste, but she kept going because she felt a sudden placidity in her ferocious parts. Feeding the approximation of a wolf inside a human body has proven difficult in the past; if she sticks for too long to her preferred diet of variations on chickpeas and cabbage, the wolf body, even though submerged for most of the month, begins to protest and affect her ability to be fully human. Eating dog food at regular intervals seems to placate the wolf until the full moon, when it breaks out of her like a rash, a glove turning itself inside out.

Sometimes she buys cat food instead of dog food because the flavour profiles are more varied, as if people assign cats more subtle palate than dogs.

Although it only appears physically once a month, the wolf fills her thoughts for most of the remaining days, her conscious mind ruffled by the reverberations of its somnolent presence. Sometimes, out of nowhere, she feels a surge of wild heat, a carnal ravenousness to which the boundaries of objects become a blur.

Over the years, the wolf has slowly become the primary part of her identity. She provides for it, shops for it, worries about it, plans ahead for it. Other people struggle to sustain her interest, especially if what they ask for cannot be subsumed under the wolf’s needs. In relationships, she forgets to feed the other person, cooks almost exclusively for the two selves she carries. She has little left to give to people who aren’t part of her anatomy.

It isn’t that she’s an uncaring person, but with every passing month, with each new transformation, her canine part encroaches further on her human self, on who she thinks she is. The physical transformations have begun to leave their marks; some of the coarse hairs no longer withdraw into her human skin, and the lower end of her spine, which extends into a tail, no longer fully retracts, and she now has an extra vertebra poking out of her lower back.

Loneliness isn’t much of a problem. Having so much of yourself to care for takes up a lot of time,  and when she does feel isolated it is because she is burdened with the care of a dependent no-one else can help her with. She wonders what her life will be like when she grows old. Will the wolf age at the same pace as the human? Will the ageing human body be able to sustain the animal force, or will they both break apart in their ability to coexist?

Among her friends, those who haven’t lost patience with her tend to live in other countries, and she calls them once a week to give them her news, and to hear theirs. Those friends aren’t subjected to her transformations, to the way her body smells for hours afterward, to the panic caused by her heightened senses, which only dull again after a few days. They don’t know about her flat with the custom-made window boards, the pantry full of cat and dog food, whose slightly rotten smell has seeped into her walls and which she tries to cover up with aromatherapy diffusers, making her flat smell like a mix of meat and flowers. They don’t know that she spends most of her time transitioning between her life as an unknowable wild animal and a private, vegetarian woman.

Once, she brings home a woman she cares about, and they spend the night together, forgetting the full moon in the sky. When she feels the transformation coming on, the first thing in her mind is despair.

“No,” she thinks, “not now, not with this person who never asked for any of this.”

She leaps onto the balcony and loses consciousness. When she comes to, the woman is gone, including her things, as if she was never there to begin with.

The Werewolf worries for a long time about this woman, who looked at her so tenderly that evening, who stroked her cheek so gently, exuding a kindness the Werewolf had all but forgotten. She worries the woman has witnessed her transformation and run from her, that she will never call again because opening herself to someone like her is too great a risk. Part of her also worries that, during the time when her human mind was knocked down into the bowels of herself to make space for the animal mind to emerge, the wolf body tore the woman to shreds and made her things disappear.

There is no way for her to know. The woman cannot not be reached, has no phone, and the Werewolf has no idea where she lives.