A short account of Melusina

I am the builder, my hands flicker with the need to touch and shape and move, a magic that wants to make things in the world.

Give me two things and I will fuse them together, hammer them against each other; I will make you a house, a ship, a palace, a grave, I will plant each homeless root I find into willing, loving earth.

Siegfried loves me for this, needs me for this very part of me. Siegfried has aspirations, knows he is meant to be something better than what the present holds.

I don’t perceive time in such a way, I can’t, I am too many things at once for something like time to seem linear to me.

But I am willing to make, to give, to use the effervescence in my palms on things that Siegfried desires from life. I’ve made him many castles over time, each better than the last, and I keep doing so. Not all of my creations live up to what we both imagine, and so far none of them have kept him close to me for good.

The problem doesn’t lie with the castles; they are wonderful, I know they are, the things I make are rarely far from beautiful. The problem is what Siegfried uses them for: endless distractions, endless parties designed to get people to love him. After a while, I have to hide from the activity.

But when I hide, that’s when Siegfried sees me most clearly, sees that I carry too many selves inside me. “Can’t you just be a woman, Melusina,” he begs me, “Just be one thing and be it fully, that’s all I ask.”

*

Every seven years, like the snake who birthed her, Melusina goes into the waters and rubs and rubs her skin until it comes loose from her body and sheds itself, running off with the stream.

This is an ability given to many humans in many cultures, but in Melusina’s case this act turns her body translucent. In this state of transparency, she can assess the damage her body has taken in those seven years, that time during which she loved too much, and was loved badly in return.

She assesses the state of her muscular tissue cramped and cracked from holding on too tightly, her tired tendons and bones. Has anything become crooked or stale, are there burst capillaries or clumped veins, has anything been deformed or permanently blocked? How broken is her heart? Are her lungs spotted from the air she breathes? Has another untruth been dislodged from the basin where she keeps her fears and made its way half-way up her windpipe? Has her liver ceased to care for her? Is anything cracked and in need of mending? Are her nails so full of ridges that she cannot scratch them down a lover’s back without leaving their dust behind? Are the roots of her hair barely clinging to the surface anymore?

For the most part, Melusina’s fine, healthy still, but who knows, seven more years may reveal a very different body to the one she has now. 

Orpheus, annoyed with Rilke, is reading Tao Lin

When Eurydice, who is dead, points to her empty chest and says, “Let me go, Orpheus, there is nothing here that loves you” – believe her. There is nothing there, not even a chest, not even those words.

“Born a bard, this one,” says Rilke, and slaps your shoulders raw. Rilke is more intimate with death than you, and he wishes you could see it as a state free from yearning. Any rescuing of the dead from death is pointless. Death is their fulfilment, and having died they have no regrets.

Eurydice dead is full and dense like a pearl. The realm that holds her, if she is held anywhere, is one without memory. She does not remember you, Orpheus, she can’t. Eurydice is memory, not the one who remembers.

Like an ambitious parent, Rilke wishes you could see that this whole matter of inevitability is really in service to poetry, this great utilitarian art that makes every instance of human pain worthwhile. “But poetry,” says Rilke, “has to be conceived of as limited, needs to be written for its own sake, not for the sake of alchemically bringing about the thing the poet yearns for.” Orpheus is too proud, too torn, to imagine that his poetry comes with any limitations; he needs to believe that his words can make Eurydice become flesh in his arms again.

But when the ascent comes and Orpheus is asked to believe that through his song alone he has earned his beloved’s return from the underworld, that his song could have affected the laws of life and death to this extent, he thinks, “This is impossible. How could I ever have done such a thing? I am so deeply flawed, so undeserving of Eurydice. How could she possibly be there behind me?”

And he is right. Eurydice, in the fullness of her death, no longer yearns for Orpheus, feels nothing for him even resembling love. Eurydice has no desire or reason to follow him; Hermes is the one pushing her up that slope like a heavy crate. Even if Orpheus hadn’t turned around, would Eurydice’s love have returned? Once the indifference of death has touched the parts of the body that love, don’t they whither away? Can they ever grow back? The marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice lasted only three weeks, the poets say. All this work, just to recover three weeks of marital bliss?

Rilke rolls his eyes at Orpheus.

Orpheus knows, just as the poet knows, that the person he loves isn’t his wife of three weeks; the person Orpheus goes to retrieve over and over from Hades isn’t her; it is the spirit of Eurydice, the sensation of Eurydice, the opening Orpheus experienced when he first fell in love with her. The euphoria of Eurydice, this widening of himself, opened and flattened out into the world like the Angelus Novus, every aperture spread.

This sensation burrowed into him, grew a shimmering head and limbs, became a part of Orpheus that opened its mouth into a gaping need and said,

“More.”

Nothing the muses or Apollo taught him, none of the poetry, the music, the sciences of the world, not the stars or the veining in the leaves, not the way the light falls through cracks in the rock, not competing with the song of sirens on the Argo, not the softness of a warm animal’s back – none of it came close to what it felt like to fall in love with Eurydice and feel her fall toward him in return.

The Eurydice inside Orpheus is not the one who has forgotten him. The Eurydice inside Orpheus is the one who is alive, and in love. The Eurydice he carries would never be told that her beloved turned and failed in Hades and ask simply, “Who?”

Orpheus hasn’t seen his therapist in weeks, because Orpheus is protesting the fact that his therapist works out of a tiny office in a cave made from the heaving flesh of a hundred rhinos. One of the horns sticks from the walls at such an angle that coats can be hung from it.

Instead of going to therapy, Orpheus reads, which is bad for his back, his eyes, but Orpheus wants to speed up the ageing process, get it over with. He is too young to feel this old, so he works on making both sensations meet in somewhere in the middle.

For the fourth time since he got it, Orpheus is reading Tao Lin’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He reads it and thinks, yes, I too feel crushed by the shit of the world, yes, I too want to hold your face with mine. Yes, he thinks, things are straightforward and can be expressed as such, yes repetition with a slight variation can sometimes cradle the wound just so, the way adjusting your fingers while holding hands makes the sensation of connectedness more acute. Yes, he thinks, I don’t know how to love in this expanding universe, and yes I want to learn, even if it never happens fast enough. Even if my understanding doesn’t come to me at the speed necessary to turn time around and bring you back to me, back into a time before the viper left its poison in your flesh. Yes, Orpheus thinks, I have made myself so lonely, if affects my ability to distance myself from the binary.

“The secret of life is that I miss you” and that I wish I heard from you this exact sequence of words repeated and echoing out from every moment of openness:

“I’ll be right back.”

Instead, because you won’t speak, because you can’t, because you have no mouth, no lungs, because you aren’t alive enough to speak, in love enough to speak, I say it to you, over and over, each time I descend, when the time comes for me to turn around and let you go I say,

“I’ll be right back.”

Because in the process of returning to you I move with the momentum of the spinning world, with the shivering of stars.

Because returning to you makes me want to throw up less.

Because, like Tao Lin, “I want to remember you as a river.”

Because by facing backwards to where you are, I face the surge of interstellar dust, I catch it with my pores, my lungs, it whitens my hair, mixes into cement with the tears the wind whips up and it builds small castles in the corners of my eyes.

Because, like Paul Klee’s Angel, my arms are open in space, frozen wings, and my back is to the world.

Because only you are here, alive in this.

The earth rotates and I get dizzy because time passes and where you are time does not exist, and I don’t like feeling something you don’t feel, I don’t like all this unshared experience. I live my days according to the earth’s rotation with respect to the stars, because it shortens my days by four minutes, four minutes I don’t have to spend concerned that your heart and mind are lonely, somewhere in the glass jars where you left them; I don’t have to be concerned that a hard world now contains your innards and erases me from you; I don’t have to be concerned that these diagrams of self I build have already forgotten what the point of their existence was.

Orpheus worries that he doesn’t live up to his therapist’s expectations, because therapists, he was told, believe in linear progression, the ability to improve and leave behind the shell of a self that was worse, then analyse in great detail the past’s imprint on the shell, so as to make sure you never go back to being this inferior.

This is, of course, a paranoid imposition. Orpheus’s therapist is patient beyond belief. But Orpheus returns, it’s what he does, he runs backwards until he bumps his head and feels a change occur, but this change is in itself an illusion.

Orpheus is hungry and puts almond butter on a piece of bread. The longing for Eurydice is always buried deep in hunger. Eurydice herself is hunger, reminding him of his embodied self, which is now alone. Strange, a body so unused to living for itself; Orpheus knows his body best when it is tensed in expectation of Eurydice. The anticipatory throbbing, the tingling in the tongue. The eyes that seek her shape in every object, the smell of Eurydice. But Eurydice is elsewhere, has retreated into abstraction, a fluid need somewhere in Orpheus’s flesh.

 

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The Walker-through-Walls (Le Passe-Muraille)

after Marcel Aymé

The Walker-through-Walls thinks of containment and concealment as the root of human unhappiness. He believes that what is inside a person ought to be visible on the outside just the same, that whatever is contained would do better to be unobstructed. His ability to walk through walls is not a matter of lacking substance; if anything, he’s come to think of the world around him as lacking substance, not being dense enough to contain his body within its predetermined limits.

Socially, as well as legally, his habits are starting to become a problem.

Exercise, his doctor tells him, eat healthier food. Most of all, work harder; you won’t be so tempted to lose yourself in spaces that never asked to have you in them. Walls are there to make sure we don’t all melt into one big blob, you see, they keep society sane, and safe. How would we get to work, how would we focus on anything but brute self-preservation, if we had to assume that anyone can, at any time, gain access to our most private spaces?

The Walker-through-Walls doesn’t want to hear of it. He pockets his doctor’s pills and already knows he will forget them in a drawer the moment he gets home.

Walls are the enemy, he says.

What he means to say is that he doesn’t understand them. He thinks of them as an oppression. He sees a wall, and where we see a limit he sees what amounts to thin air, or perhaps an opening – something to be walked through.

His first couple of walls were a challenge, there was a sense of light-headedness to the traversal. The lacking resistance caused a shiver, the way speaking to just the right person on a social evening after a long phase of isolation, opening to them and finding them opening back, feels like there are no boundaries in the entire world, that everything can be said, shared, admitted to. He sometimes forgets that this, among other things, is an illusion.

The Walker-through-Walls just wants to be loved, no, more than that, he wants to be free to go anywhere, which is what love ought to be. Being loved, he thinks, means being given the freedom to break through boundaries, combining each private cell into a large, open network of possibility.

What if you only think you can walk through walls? the doctor muses. It occurs to the doctor that he has simply believed his patient this whole time, prescribed him coagulants to solve this material issue, but what if this, like most things, is only in the patient’s head?

Would you care to demonstrate? the doctor says, pointing at a wall.

After discovering, on the other side of the doctor’s wall, a pair of business associates deeply embedded in each other’s private spaces, the Walker-through-Walls sighs and sits back down in front of the baffled doctor, saying, Look, this is my problem with it: if we have all these walls, we just end up assuming we can shut the world out. That’s the illusion.

The doctor considers prescribing an anti-psychotic and writes on his notepad something vague enough to seem conclusive: patient suffers from a profound lack of love given unconditionally during childhood, has a sense of needing to make up for others’ mistakes, and a resulting fear of confined spaces. Disrespectful of boundaries, personal or other; could easily begin to lose sight of boundaries of self and feel himself melting into the open space around him. If patient refuses medication, then he ought to throw himself into work to give meaning to his life, lest he become a danger to others.

Nah, says the Walker-through-Walls, whose movements are silent as that of a cat’s and who has snuck behind the doctor to read over his shoulder. My body has given me this gift. I intend to make use of it. To the fullest extent, doctor, mark my words.

The doctor is suddenly very tired. He hears his own exhaustion ringing in the many crystal bowls on his shelves. Justine will send you the bill, the doctor says.

The Walker-through-Walls takes his leave, walking, you guessed it, through a wall.

Of course, he knows it won’t last. He’s read many stories like his, about people with extraordinary talents who are eventually humbled by the laws of nature. Incidentally, his ability to walk through walls also seems to work on books; he can reach his hands through their covers and as his flesh sinks through the pages he reads the stories they contain. He can feel the inside of a book in such a way that beginning and ending overlap, and when he thinks about his own story he knows a part of him is already stuck inside a wall with no way to get out, his body encased so fully in the concrete that he can’t even speak. There is no air to breathe, to hum with. No-one can be alerted of his paralysis, and there will be no help. He knows part of him is already there, trapped, the last thing on earth he wants.

He also knows that the only person he will allow himself to love is someone who is imprisoned, unable to leave the confinement of her home. Better yet, someone so trapped inside herself by self-doubts and past wounds that there is nowhere for her to go, and she exists in total static suspension. Someone he can visit every day, someone who will find his powers miraculous and share his view that they are a gift, who will feel healed by his abilities.

It has happened to him before that he reached through another’s skin, right into her solar plexus, and squeezed her quaking heart in his hand.

Does he think it is better to love than to be loved? That freedom is the ability to come and go without fear of what might be waiting there, or what might be missing? The Walker-through-Walls sits with his back against a wall and imagines robbing a bank, but only briefly because the  mere thought of it causes his back to melt through the wall and he hits his head against the floor of someone else’s home.

Orpheus gets distracted

During the past couple of months I’ve spent increasing amounts of time in what my therapist calls the ‘Sandpit of Archetypes’, where I play with archetypal figures as if they were my dolls. Since Nanowrimo, I’ve begun to weave bridges between my arche-puppets, to see if they bring something out of each other that wasn’t there before, although in all honesty, all I’m probably achieving at the moment is more of the same.

Grief has a way of knocking your mind full of holes, which has kept me from spinning my thoughts as far as I wish they went. But I don’t think the archetypes mind too much, they just want to be played with.

Anyway, here is my precious baby Orpheus, intercepted by my favourite castle-building sea-witch Melusina, who seems to be taking a break from Siegfried’s crap. 

*******************

Orpheus has lost count of the times he has gone down to the Underworld, carrying a mound of increasingly artificial hope on his back, so as to reconstruct the lacework between himself, the part that wants to love, and Eurydice, the part of him that cannot trust, cannot open herself to the world. Worn out from the recurring descent, Orpheus has automated his mourning; his emotions change so quickly, and with each step, that he has, for the first time in ages, lost interest in logging them. His feelings skid across the ice, they are so fast, so fleeting – they are no more to him now than the buzzing of flies.

Orpheus emerges from the Underworld, where he has yet again lost Eurydice to the depths, had to watch her slide back into the dark, and here he is the bright light of day with his lids pinched together because after each ascent the sun seems harder to bear, its heat less like nourishment and more like paper cutting into a pre-existing wound.

Each time he comes back up to life for air, Eurydice’s silent refusal rings in his ears, I cannot love, not now, not you, not the world. Orpheus can’t make himself whole again because his missing piece, Eurydice, listens only to the poison in her foot. We were hurt once, we will be hurt again. She isn’t wrong when she says this, but her approach creates nothing but inertia. 

*

And here he is now, up here in the waking world, where birds call to each other and the wind makes music in the trees, Orpheus hears a new voice, unplaceable, one he hasn’t heard before. The voice is saying:

“Take a seat, Orpheus, take a break. You’ve been doing this for, how long now? I’m not saying you have to stop, but it might be time for a change, no, a little distraction from this business of being Orpheus so relentlessly.”

Melusina’s eyes are like lichen glowing on a tree. They don’t burn Orpheus’s eyes the way the sun does, and so he sits on the ground and listens. Melusina has found her way into his story, somehow, and he doesn’t ask how. You don’t ask a witch how she does things, or why.

“We both belong to our damage, our myths,” she says, “and we know this, so maybe we can help each other out, just this once, change masks and bodies, let our roles become translucent for a while. What do you say?”

*

Confusion is a great place to be, the faith healer says.

They both know the path they’re on, the inevitability of it. They will try their entire lives to fix something that cannot be changed, to regain the love of a part of themselves that has forsaken them. Eurydice is the part of Orpheus that will always be submerged, will always withdraw from love, the part that won’t leave Hades no matter how much Orpheus struggles. Siegfried is the part of herself Melusina will never cease to please, do right by, the part that can never be satisfied. So why not give in to each other for a while, leave aside their myths, the paths they will later have to return to. Melusina has no bearing on Eurydice, no interest in Eurydice’s damage; Orpheus cannot explain or make up for Siegfried, and Melusina doesn’t want him to. 

*

Crossing over and putting your own myth on pause is a risk, the shrink advises. You know you can’t escape the repetition you are always working your way through. The thing you escape will find you again, no matter whose story you hide in.

But what sweet release it is to imagine a moment in which they can be something else, act as a roadblock in each other’s automatic progression. Cut through the fog of repetition and eternal recurrence, screw up this whole inconclusive trundle. Rip them for a moment from their fate and see if it leaves a mark, see if it changes the way of things. Rub them against each other, see if their sparks transform the scenery from forest to desert, see if they can clear what’s overhead to reveal a night sky full of stars.

Confusion is wonderful, the faith healer says, because all bets are off, and there are no maps telling you where to go. 

*

Melusina says: “I think it’s time we suspended what we’re carrying and found some solace in each other. I know you Orpheus: you get distracted when you’re not rewarded. You think of yourself as a patient man, patience is your virtue of choice, not your singing, which is beautiful, not your body, which is love. Patience is how you love, and yet your patience traps you in a deadlock with yourself: the part of you that seeks connection versus the part of you that wants, above all else, to protect herself in isolation. Such a long-lasting stalemate, don’t you think? And so familiar to me. Couldn’t we both use something else to wipe the slate, something to spark a fire in the palms, a stomping rage inside the lower parts, remember what the body feels like when it tangles up with another’s limbs. Let’s step into each other’s myths, Orpheus, see what things are like outside the deadlock. Let’s give this to ourselves now, Orpheus, to each other, during this lull in our patterns, this waiting time before we head back down into our respective Underworlds – yours in Hades, mine a castle on a hill – before we return to fighting for the parts of us that refuse to yield, back to the ache we nurse so ceaselessly. This is the time to remember what it feels like to mourn without sorrow. To bite a lip that isn’t your own, nor Eurydice’s in dreams.”

Orpheus nods and walks through the door she holds open for him, a passageway she clawed from the air with her hands, which are magic. He walks through to see another wood there, similar to those he knows, yet different, further north, its greenness lusher, and not a juniper in sight. There is no sea salt in the air, this is a landlocked kingdom.

This is the wood Melusina inhabits, and around her are valleys hollowed from the gentle slopes of black and leafy hills. It is in these woods that Melusina waits for man after man, each one of them Siegfried, all of them waiting to be Count, all of them impatient men wo repeat Melusina’s painful pattern, men who have no patience with who she can be, who she is becoming. Siegfried is distressed by transition, by what wavers and mutates. Each version of Siegfried who finds out how erratic Melusina’s physical form is, blending human and serpent and bird and fish, chases her away in fear, cannot find in himself the ability to love such a confusing being. And yet it is this person Melusina must return to each time, Siegfried after Siegfried, until she comes, with each successive involvement, closer to an answer. 

*

David Cronenberg, who is in many ways a fish, says: “Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p.7)

Melusina and Orpheus look for themselves in the pain of a no, look for themselves in every instance of reaching out to Eurydice or Siegfried respectively, and in this repeated no they look for the part of their psyche they are missing, have been missing for so long, and they look, most of all, to understand. Their path, they tell themselves, is scientific, but even this motivation cannot save them from becoming tired, becoming discouraged, becoming bored.

*

The aim of the experiment, if there is one, is fuelled by the masochism of the scientific mind: to return again and again, like a Hegelian self-consciousness, to that which says no to you, refuses to yield, which like a glass flower fools the eye and cuts the palate to shreds; that which looks edible but cannot be bitten without shattering, without a violent disappointment. In the name of science you return to it and make it happen to you over and over, to see, not if you can make it yield, make it say yes instead, but to see why its refusal tears these clumps out of you, to see where in your body this no hurts the most, and why it feels the same each time it occurs.

“The point,” says Martyn Steenbeck about science-fish David Cronenberg, “is to follow the experiment or hypothesis through to the end, unrestrained by social or political consideration.”

The reason this is permitted, is because Orpheus operates in a dream, Melusina in a tale. They are returning something to its wholeness, something that may never have been whole, but they know wholeness can never be attained without admitting that parts of oneself will always be hidden in others, where they may have been for much longer than we imagine. Eventually, both Melusina and Orpheus will have to abandon distraction and return to their quests, their experiments, repeating again and again the patterns that are theirs alone.

*

Orpheus says: I’ve spent so much time with my ear pressed to my own sternum, and yet I know almost nothing, except for all those things I’ve wrapped in words, concepts of my needs and thoughts, what I think I know myself to want. And all of a sudden there is Melusina, who knows nothing about me, knows only what she sees, and she says, ‘I don’t think you’re scared of being unloved, you’re scared that once you are loved in return you’ll realise you don’t know how to act, that every word you say seems heavy or wrong, you’re scared that once you are loved you begin to doubt yourself immensely, your abilities, your temperament, you start thinking you’re a monster, you think “I’m not worthy of this person’s love, they must be mistaken, they can’t possibly love me and know what they’re doing, they must think I’m someone else.”

Her arms fall around me and she says, “No-one can know you the way you want to be known, Orpheus. Nobody wants to. It would be like wanting to know water, wanting to know it as if it were a person, beyond knowledge of its chemical composition. Wanting to know what water dreams at night, if it has aspirations, what its relationship with its father was like.”

And her voice is such that I don’t care if she’s right or wrong, what matters is that she puts me somewhere in an imbalance of comfortable and ill at ease, and she smells like seaweed and her hair is split like lightning at the tips, I feel the calluses on her hands and think, so what if I don’t know where this is going, so what if Eurydice and I are trapped in an endless cycle of denial, so what if love is never more than a whiff of God that wants to quell His absence.

*

The setting of Melusina’s world changes when Orpheus enters it, though of course he doesn’t know this: shadows have a lilac shimmer like Orpheus’s eyes and hair, no longer the rich gold of Siegfried’s shade. Melusina notices the air is cold and light with Orpheus here, not the dense and temperate wafts that curdle around Siegfried’s fiery frame. Orpheus has brought tenderness into the atmosphere, a playfulness that Siegfried cannot find, Siegfried who says, “I don’t know who or what you are, you’re too many things at once. I’m just trying to run a county here.” And Orpheus, who’s seen it all, who’s been to Hades so many times now that he’s surprised when rivers aren’t full of flames, the air for once not veined with wailing souls.

They sit and drink the coffee Siegfried won’t allow himself to drink.

They touch each other’s bodies the way Eurydice will not let herself be touched.

*

Remember, says the therapist, the enormous, underlying grief, so large that even standing right on top of it you could not see the outline of its face, could only see the texture of earth instead of skin. It’s not Eurydice who will make you feel whole, it’s learning to be without her, to let her stay in Hades for as long as she needs. The grief you are both dealing with in your own ways is primal and eternal; you can’t shake it from your bones nor write about it, put it into words, but it is what has driven you from copy to copy of the same person, it has rubbed you into the most translucent version of yourself, into someone who, for fear of hurting, eats only sand and leaves, drinks only his own piss, whose hands touch only his own skin; but Orpheus, before you head out into the plain to have what’s left of your scraggy little body mutilated and torn, think again that each small pain, no matter how displaced, is a manageable way to mourn that unfathomable death. Get distracted, Orpheus, create some chaos for a while. Remember what it’s like to be rewarded. In time you will return to yourself, your Eurydice. You will return to caring for that which eats only itself. 

*