Orpheus calls his mother, the muse Calliope, to talk about love

Orpheus sets the phone on the floor and bends over the screen, letting his face hang there as if over a pond. The shadows of imaginary carp weave below the black surface. Call your mother, Orpheus. 

He tries to remember Calliope’s face, hasn’t seen it in so long, not even its traces in the mirror, his mother’s features so different from his. Calliope only writes to him these days. Orpheus barely ever hears his mother’s voice, she hides in the motionless print. She is a hieroglyph, the only one who could speak to his father and make herself understood. But the mortal king has vanished, and Calliope has gone silent. 

Call your mother, Orpheus, see what she has to say. 

Orpheus looks at himself in the dark screen. He lays his fingerprints on the phone and begins to dial. He waits. Only love opens access to hell.

“Hello my bag of fleas,” says Calliope. Magpies are nesting in her hair.

Apollo and his mother taught Orpheus to be lovable, his entire childhood one big finishing school. But no-one taught him how to love. How do I love, mother, when the plants in my house all thrive and die at the same time? When one of them laughs at me relentlessly for being human? When I am so trapped that I can no longer be either Orpheus or Eurydice, but am caught in the filaments of their bond so resolutely that if they were to break apart I would dissolve into formless shimmers. Is there love beyond the sensation of Eurydice, she who is the opioid euphoria of affective widening, the poppy seed of thought? Eurydice, the muscle memory of being loved, a twitch in the nervous system as I open myself up.

“Your father never liked it when I kept birds in my hair,” says Calliope. “These days I fall asleep with their talons buried in my scalp.”

“They suit you,” says Orpheus.

“Why are you calling, sweetheart?” 

Calliope taught him poetry, Apollo gave him the lyre and taught him how to play. His hair is his mother’s, as is his skin, the colour of morning light flecked with poppy seed. You are perfect, Orpheus, a flawless specimen. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you. Your bones were never broken, your vital organs always took the blow. You’re goofy, you’re ridiculous, you laugh so much, you scare so easily. For years, you never entered a house through the door, windows only. For years, you spoke using no words, only sounds approximating those of a cat. Your eyes built their home close to the sea. But it doesn’t matter how clean your bones are, how efficient your kidneys. You are chaos, you know you are. To love Orpheus the way Orpheus wants to be loved transcends human capacity, and nothing is more selfish than a god.

“Mother, why didn’t you ever teach me how to be a muse?” 

“Oh, sweetheart,” says the muse. “You’re not looking for some kind of lineage here, are you? Family resemblance, all this quaint nonsense about belonging?”

“Never mind,” he says.

“I never taught you to be anyone’s muse, Orpheus, because you’re not muse-material. You’re impatient, you’re a maker of things, you’re the one who goes out there looking for fuel.”

The magpies chatter and screech, wagging their tails on Calliope’s head.

“I’m tired of art, mother,” says Orpheus. “I’m tired of making things that will never bring me stillness. The more I say, the more I need to say. It never ends. I want things to be steady for a while. I want to be quiet in someone else’s arms.”

“And the more you yearn for this Eurydice, the more your yearning makes you yearn, correct? So you found a muse in this girl, this part of you that ran away.”

“No,” says Orpheus, “I haven’t. Musing is a mutual pursuit, an agreement based on which the muse gives herself to the artist, and the artist gives his heart and mind to the muse. It’s not a one-way grasping.”

Calliope asks, “Do you like orchids, Orpheus?”

“Not particularly.” 

“That’s a lie, baby, I know you do. Anyway, do you like the troubadours?” 

“If you’re calling me a troubadour, mother, I’m hanging up.” 

“You’re too smutty for that, sweetie. I just want you to think: would any of their songs have been written if the love they sang about was anything other than impossible or unrequited?” 

“Poetry is meant to bring about the love that’s missing, not just whine about its absence.” 

“Don’t confuse poetry with alchemy. I’m afraid our talents don’t have any bearing on the composition of the material world. You never ask me about your father, Orpheus, why is that?”

“What could I possibly learn from him?”

“Before he found me your father couldn’t live without the love of many men and women simultaneously. Always fascinated by the surface of things, the superficial virtues of people, the gifts they had and gave, but without ever letting any of them truly close. Those who came close accidentally were shut out again. He was ravenous, insatiably seeking the affection of others to mend the growing wound within. The sort of wound you’ve seen in Eurydice, the kind that won’t allow itself to shut because it provides an aperture through which to see inside oneself. These people loved your father, but none of them gave him what felt like enough, because he never gave himself to any of them.”

“And what am I supposed to do with that information, mother?”

“Find something better, something reciprocal, the kind of bond that is based not on constant struggle but on mutual desire. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you, Orpheus. You’re a good kid, you’ve got nice eyes, you’re funny when you’re not busy moping about some girl. The myths are liars. Eurydice isn’t the only one you could ever love, no matter what you’ve seen the poets write. Eurydice is an empty hole, and nothing you throw into it will return to you. I know that more than anything you want to bring home this part of you that left, that escaped the organism you wanted to be. Don’t listen to the myths told in your name before you’ve even lived through them. Don’t let the words of others tell you who you are.”

Orpheus sighs. “My heart is tired, mother,” he says.

“Your heart is always tired,” she says. “When you were born you stank of valerian root, asleep even then. We had to breathe into your mouth four times before your lungs would open. If you’re weary, find something else to feel. There is more than one sensation in the world, just as there is more than one note on your lyre. Remember when Apollo first gave you that instrument, too heavy for you then, it licked your face with crazed delight, you fell backwards under its leaping weight. You took it everywhere. But in your adult life, I don’t think you’ve tried for a moment to live with a waking heart.”

“At least you’re not holding back,” says Orpheus. 

“So how are things going with that split self of yours, the part you lost? I take it the whole thing still feel like incurable heartbreak?”

“It’s bad, mother. I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley.”

“Tell me, sweetheart, I forget, how old are you now?”

“Depends on who you ask, mother. Last I heard I was roughly twenty-four, but the other day I could’ve sworn I was thirty-six.”

“Let me tell you something about love, Orpheus, the way we love, you and I. You are much more like me than you’d like to be. What really upsets you about this whole thing is the idea that someone might have finally earned your heart, or perhaps not even earned it, but own it. When Eurydice came along you said to yourself, this is the person who will be enough. And you gave your love to this Eurydice who was too young, too self-absorbed to need it. The part you’ve lost is gone, but you are still here. Don’t get lost in a linear idea of time, return to the spiral and remember that whatever you let go will return in different forms. Your problem is that you believed the lie your myth is telling you: that who you are is Orpheus+Eurydice, but here you are, Orpheus alone, halved and yet complete. The tail you lost is gone but your lungs still work. And yet you follow the idea of Eurydice into the depths of Hades because you can’t believe that the person to whom you gave yourself so carelessly was careless with you in return. That’s all it is, Orpheus, my smelly baby. It’s all it is, believe me. This is how we are. You have lost yourself, and yet you’re still here. Isn’t it nice when things are simple?”

Orpheus shakes his head. He wants her to stop speaking, stop making sense. He hates sense. Sense is not what poetry is made from, surely; poetry is pain and love and loss, and he is sick of himself. He wants to scratch his skin and scream on mountain tops, he wants to build a hut from animal droppings and hide in it for weeks, but he’s tired, even the expression of sadness exhausts him now. 

When he was a child, he made the rocks on the mountain weep. He played, and Echo shut her mouth for once. He charmed so many features of the world, and still he strays like a wounded animal, falling in love with absence and abstraction. Every time he walks down into Hades and makes Eurydice appear like a bubble rising from the swamp, opalescent with petrol stains, she seems like everything he’s ever wanted. 

And when she leaves, he stands alone on the slope of Hades, amidst the crumbling stalagmites. His life on earth is not that of someone living. He has lost access to the parts of him that know how to receive; his mouth is heaped shut with earth, and he excretes his love in thick black ribbons into the sea.

Calliope sighs.

“The magpies are hungry, my darling, I have to go feed them. So I’ll let you go. But there is something you need to do now, Orpheus. promise me you will. You can’t leave things suspended. You have to do the work of untying the things that have become tangled in your mind. Undo the bonds between things that aren’t meant to be linked, never asked to be linked. You’ve ended up with this muddle because all you do is seek connections between things, seek to weave a tapestry, but sometimes the wool catches things that don’t belong. You trap yourself in the pattern, you stop allowing yourself to remain open to the things that wish you well, those that are alive. You have to return now to the aching beauty of the world, with its melted ice cream skies, its dark shapes that move and never leave, and its birds that sound like glass. Love that which is here, Orpheus. There is nowhere else to be.”

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Orpheus and Melusina share a moment

‘In love one perceives directly using one’s hormones and one’s stupidity

– Lisa Robertson, About 1836

Orpheus lies between Melusina’s legs, her feet pressing and drumming on the flesh of his arse. “You’re so tense,” she says, “What’s up with you?”

Orpheus chews on a corner of the purple blanket, then spits it out and looks at her face. “I’m thinking about what it must be like to have the head if a cow.”

“On your neck, or just to possess it? Heavy in either case would be my guess.”

“Do you think my father loved me?” asks Orpheus. “Do you think I’m irreparably fucked up?”

“You are the most distractible person I’ve ever had inside me, I swear.”

He sighs and leans his forehead on her chest.

“How should I know?” she says. “I haven’t read your myth.”

“I know, I forget.”

“You forget that people can’t read your mind.”

“Yes,” he says, “but not because I’m self-absorbed, just because sometimes I have a hard time telling the difference between myself and other people.”

Orpheus’s body has sucked Melusina’s body into it, his skin sticky as a frog’s, and she struggles to free herself.

“I need to get some water, Orpheus,” she says. “Sea-creature stuff, you understand.”

Orpheus lets himself fall back on the bed, arms spread out.

“Let the water run for a while,” he says. “It comes out green at first, then it goes clear.”

She walks to the bathroom and in the light he sees the scales on her legs have grown back. When she comes back with green water in a yellow mug, he sits up and holds her by the waist.

“Stop being so nice to me,” he says.

“Fuck you” says Melusina.

“No,” he says, “not like that.”

She takes a sip of water, leans over his shoulders, and lets the water trickle from her mouth down his spine. A dark stain grows on the mattress.

*

Orpheus stands at dusk under a sky full of dirty pigeon-coloured clouds, holding a beaker of sage tea to his solar plexus, and he watches the moisture from his face run up into the sky, sucked back into the clouds, where all water lives.

*

Orpheus strokes Melusina’s oddly yellow hair while she licks the skin below his navel.

“Sometimes,” he says, “I wish you could drop this thing with Siegfried, and I leave Eurydice to rot down there in her barren sulk, and we just stay like this forever, a rolling mass of bodies in the afternoon heat. What else is there to hope for besides this? Leave the struggle of the self behind and just open to something unrelated.”

“You know,” says Melusina, “if I were watching this whole thing unfold, I’d want you to end up with me too. But I know you’re not going to let this girl go, no matter how pointless idealising her is, for some reason you’ve got your mind’s claws in her.”

“There’s no-one like her in the world.”

“Yeah. Not even her.”

*

For days, Orpheus has been blowing yellow phlegm from his nose. Its consistency gets thicker every day, the colour deeper, and by the fourth day the blowing sound is deafening.

“Something deep inside me has become dislodged,” he thinks. “I must be healing an ancient wound, who knows.”

*

“What about Siegfried?” he asks Melusina.

“My myth makes things easy on me as long as I know how to be patient. I’m so many years into undoing the tragedy that occurs between me and Siegfried, I’m starting to understand everything. He needs me. Without me, he won’t become who he’s meant to be. It’s a matter of saving him from his own fecklessness. I didn’t make the rules, but I have a duty. I’m the part of him that brings about the person he needs to become. But Siegfried isn’t dead. Siegfried loves me, he just doesn’t know how to keep me yet. My magic is well spent there. I build the castle, and he inhabits it. But no matter how many times you go down to find Eurydice in Hades, even if you manage not to turn around, she won’t be the Eurydice you love. She won’t be the affectionate and electric person you knew. That version of her will never return. What you’d bring to the surface would be the dead-eyed zombie of Eurydice, who wouldn’t remember you or care about anything you are.”

“I know that,” he says. “But at this point this approximation is all I’ve got.”

“Stop chasing her.”

“I can’t. I’m a dog, Melusina. I chase the things I love, endlessly. I’ve never managed to be a cat, someone who just walks away from loss to go lick his asshole in a corner, pondering the bitterness of life. I’m a dog, a hopeful piece of shit creature, bouncing at the slightest whiff of promise, the merest thought that the thing I seek might be close again. Eurydice’s love is never far enough away not to seem close to my dog nose, my dog ears, because her love, even just the illusion of her love, is part of me. I know what it feels like to be wanted by Eurydice. Who she was when she loved, when she was alive, fuels every part of me. Did I mention I’m a poet? As such, I can’t accept her death because she is the part of me that makes what I do worthwhile.”

Melusina laughs and kisses his collarbone. 

“Was your father mortal?” she asks.

“In more ways than one.”

“How about your mother?”

“Muse. Better than me in every way.” Orpheus strokes Melusina’s scales. “Before she had me some say she made the sirens. Can be vengeful at times, but mostly she’s great. You’d like her, I’m sure.”

“I might,” she says. “I think you should talk to her about all this.”

Orpheus squeezes Melusina’s thigh. “I like that you’re here.”

“That’s a start,” she says. “Beats waiting for Siegfried inside a rock.”

*

There is a moment in the dream when Eurydice returns. The sky is yellow and purple, and in the bushes the cicadas make their hind legs scream. In the dream, Eurydice’s approach is silent, but her entire body smiles. She wraps herself around Orpheus’s back and they lie warm against each other in the midst of settling dust. It has been so long since he heard her heartbeat that he listens to it for hours before he can turn around. When he turns, he wants to bellow out his happiness, because Eurydice is still there, she hasn’t vanished, her hair shorter than before, her eyes the shape of intimacy. “Make me waffles,” she says, and, “Can I take a shower?” He nods and holds her against him, closer and closer until they are inside each other, their shapes overlapping into one and they both sigh with relief at what their bodies wanted to feel for so long. They merge into a sphere of stillness, their limbs like waving rays. Now and then, they push further into each other and every part of them shivers. On the trees, in long honeysuckle rows, the empty shells the cicadas left behind cling lifeless to the bark. The sunlight loses itself in a hollow exoskeleton. The wood they lie in becomes a house, its rooms filling with people, their distracting paths jittering like ants. Eurydice fades, her eyes go silent and she looks at Orpheus as if he were a hole. The distractions never cease, the whole room is loaded with noise, the air flees into the corners, and Orpheus lies there knowing this has all happened before, just like this but in different words, and he cannot give in to the revolt inside him, no matter how much he wants to he cannot change was has already occurred.

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.

Two Sirens – Orpheus Changes Shape

Siren (detail from Ulysses) - Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens (detail)

The_Siren

John William Waterhouse, The Siren

The world is in constant strings. Perhaps one day, Orpheus, after the women’s unmet desires have torn your beautiful body to shreds, after your severed head has floated long enough in the sea with your lyre tied by the invisible filaments of loyalty to the lobe of your ear, the salty water will gather organic matter and refashion you a body; a body like the body of the one who loved you right, Melusina, a body of in-betweenness, nautical and feminine. The water will mould you into the thing you spent so long chasing.

Your hair will have grown long, released its approximate curl, your skin washed soft and silver by the water, your legs will end in fins and scales. Your voice will return once the water builds you a torso and a pair of lungs. You will spend your days twisting your tail underwater, swimming with more ease than the souls dragged down the Styx. You will sit with lilac water in your veins, perched on sun-warmed rocks to sing songs without words, searching the waters for Persephone. Your song is a seeker, it is limpid, pleading no longer.

Imagine your body, Orpheus, washed clean of agitation and dread. When you loved Melusina’s brief sun, it was because you knew Hades would come to an end, by which time you would become someone like her, you knew the shape her body had come from. It took Eurydice slipping away in a seemingly endless recurrence for the self to craft itself. Mending takes place within the boundaries of the tear. The Underworld is no place for poets, but the skies and waters are.

Your lyre, the patient dog, returns to your arms and gives you its strings. Everything is as it was, returned to the wordless calm of a time before Eurydice’s ankle fell prey to tragedy. Love is once again a possibility. The body is new, the rawness under the skull appeased. All this to look forward to, Orpheus, when your body escapes repetition’s toughened grip and takes on a silence of a different kind.

The Mummy

She used to be someone important, when her body was fresh and unwrapped. Now she can’t remember, the mirror can’t remind her, and her subjects and suitors are dead. Or maybe not dead, exactly; they have vanished into indifference, leading their own lives somewhere in the ether of otherness.

She is more remote from the world than most; her skin is not a sensory separation from the outside, but it is thick like leather, a real exoskeleton at this point, a fortification around flesh and bone, and around this leather lies a further layer, cotton gauze, golden with the passing of time.

When she was younger, she fell for rows of men, and each of them responded in worthy terms to her obsession. Then came the one they expected her to bring to the throne, the one who said, ‘Why worship this one god when there are so many to choose from?’ He ran from her and disappeared into the desert, taking his love with him. 

The first thing her mother the queen said when told the news was this: ‘What did you do to make him despise you? How could you, my daughter, fail to bring us back a king?’ 

This question burrowed deep into the princess’s nose and began, over time, to slice chunks from her brain until the entire skull’s chalice was clean as a bowl.

The question tore into her chest and lifted out her lungs, her stomach and gall, all of her organs, each placed by worried servants into separate jars, leaving the princess with only her heart. A useless, hyperactive pump of a heart.

Doubt stuffed the princess with fragrant linen and buried her in salt until her skin was thick and impermeable. By then, the mother had died, buried alongside her husband, the sun king, their bodies wrapped in worship of Aten.

The servants rubbed the salt from the princess’s skin, which was now tough as bark around her bones, her limbs sucked dry. At that moment, she was beloved by Aten, but she didn’t care: she wanted another’s love, and she, the princess, had been told no. In response to this, she felt the sun had done enough shining in her mind.

Let the organs that receive the sun be numbed and separated, let the skin that tingles from the light be reduced to callous and indifferent leather, let the lungs that breathe his warmth be taken and plunged in cold, dark water.

Let the stomach, who eats the sun’s lush crop, live in a foodless prison, let the kidneys who clean the body’s water like a pair of springs be forever removed from sunlight’s decontaminating touch.

Piece by piece, the princess refused herself to the sun, who had so entranced her parents, saying, ‘If you will not give me his love, then you shan’t have my body, which is worth so much more than a soul.’ The princess knew that only bodies can love, that souls without bodies feel nothing but dispassionate bliss.

After forty days, the servants wrapped her skin and flesh in bandages to keep the rot away. Her priests came, chanting and applying further balms. They stood around her in formation below the supervising jackal head. The princess became impatient. She was a mummy now, and there was much to do.

Without organs or brains to weigh her down, she picked up tremendous speed, and returned to her practice of rattling the sistrum. Exasperated by the slowness of her scribes, she took to making her own inscriptions on grave sites, writing a different version of her life’s story on each tomb.

In one, her body had been mummified from a fall into a glacier, the cold turning her skin to leather.

In another, she was murdered on her father’s throne, and wrapped in salted linen for seventy days.

In a third, she died in the desert while howling at Aten, the sun; she stood with her mouth open and her eyes weeping until not a drop of liquid was left in her.

In a fourth, her body slid into the acid waters of a bog and was recovered only weeks later by her betrothed, who had changed his mind about celestial matters. By that point, so the anointed princess wrote, it was of course too late – the age of Aten was beginning to wane, and all the other gods had begun to grow back inside the soil of the mind – and her skin could no longer let anything in.

In a fifth, she was swallowed whole by a jackal and lived inside his body for the duration of his canine life, and by the time his death came her flesh had merged with his, so she stood up on her hind legs and walked through the desert until she reached the ocean, drinking salt water until her heart turned to stone. 

This is the state she’s chosen for herself: mummification so as to avoid feeling as much as she previously has. Her numbness delights her. For a few months, she buries her new body up to the neck in sand, feeling neither thirst nor itch. The sun pummels her empty skull and she permits it, day and night in the fragrant desert.

She imagines the sharpest pain she can fathom, a hook ripping through the soft belly of a crocodile, the pain of desire unrequited, left to pulse on its own with no-one to radiate out towards, and even this pain has no physical effect. Her body has become unfeeling, and underneath the mask on which her features are painted, she conceives a smile.

In seventy days, she has become untouchable, untouched. Her hollow body is filled with linen, flowers and air. She is a bird in the sand, under the sun, she is resin. The violent rays hit her gauze and no longer burn a thing.

The Mermaid

The Mermaid has spent too much of her life with water in her ears, the pressure of several underwater atmospheres weighing down on her, and sometimes she forgets which element she is currently in. On land, she whispers; underwater, she shouts. It confuses everyone.

Out of water, the Mermaid becomes light-headed, and quick to dismiss her strengths, choosing to see only the ways in which she falls short. Her body, she thinks, is too dissonant in its composition to be the object of love. The Mermaid often wishes she were a fish, and although many of her features call to mind those of a fish, her tail contains the reproductive organs of a mammal, and her scales are only a mammalian approximation, based on hasty evolutionary guesswork. A worthy body, she thinks, is one that makes sense, like those of her terrestrial cousins, or else the sleek blubber rhombus of a dolphin or whale; those, she thinks, are harmonious compositions.

She envies humans whose bodies seem carved from a single piece. The Mermaid’s tail is, of course, impossible to ignore, even when she hides it under a long skirt. She doesn’t really have a gait and can only slither. Lithe as she can be underwater, the Mermaid is cumbersome and unwieldy on land, not the sort you take out dancing.

Most of what she does involves lounging, and while her sexual appetite is voracious, she doesn’t take much initiative beyond fanning out her fins and batting her lashes. While she possesses something akin to gills, the Mermaid still needs to come to the surface for air. Her mass of long, diaphanous hair conceals two small blowholes below her neck, one to each side of her spine. When she comes up to breathe, seagulls pick at her gossamer hair, which is heavy out of the water, the way wet sponges are.

The truth is, she is physically ill-equipped for life in either element. No matter where she is, her movements are those of a creature who doesn’t quite belong, an imposter of sorts. Underwater, her skinny forelimbs and simian hands can only helplessly slap the water as her tail propels her through it, and the lack of fatty layers on her upper body means she feels everything too intensely, even there in the thicker element. Unlike her terrestrial cousins, who are endotherms, warm-blooded, the Mermaid thermoregulates like an ectotherm. She spends much of her time basking so as to store heat in her small body for the inevitable cold of the watery depths. Every day she lies on sunny rocks, eyes closed like a lizard’s, batting away the courting of seagulls.

Because her material existence is steeped in the other-worldly, the Mermaid can find heat in something as abstract as love; an intense bout of affection can warm her small body for months.

Humans give much attention to her wide-boned face and soft, enormous eyes, to her mouth which many men want to sink their hooks into, but the Mermaid finds it difficult to accept their interest. She worries about the way being out of water makes her smell. Her fears all amount to loneliness, understandably so, as very few of her own kind remain, scattered across the seas. Many fall in love with humans and leave the waters for good. The Mermaid, too, feels closest to humans, feels drawn to them, yet she knows she can only engage them for a while before encountering their limits. Eventually, humans become disinterested, or too aware of her otherness, of the fact that her skin doesn’t feel or smell as it should, the fact that she doesn’t have two legs that spread.

On land, it takes the Mermaid a long time to process what occurs, and she feels dull compared to the rapidity of her underwater movements. None of what she is underwater can translate onto land.

Humans consider water an object of ingestion and utility, and they consent to its presence in their lives as long as it isn’t dirty or uncomfortable. They like the way it looks in photographs. The Mermaid wonders if humans know the teeth the water has, the way life inside it often feels like being eaten and absorbed by a large, limpid organism.

There is much about the Mermaid that is translucent: her nails, hair and teeth. Even her tail is see-through when held against the light; looking in, one sees her reproductive organs, and then emptiness surrounding a ladder of bones. All this translucence only makes the Mermaid feel more forgettable. She is only half woman, after all, her other half a bad imitation of a fish.

In humans, the eye is the most see-through part of the body, and at the back of their eyes one can see right into their vascular system. Unlike much of her body, the Mermaid’s eyes are dense, covered by a thick membrane that makes it hard for her to see what is visible to humans right away.

They look at her opaque, baffling eyes, and fail to see through to what they might call a soul.

People quickly tire of the Mermaid’s appearance and find there is nothing they want from her after their initial curiosity is satisfied. Who needs their life weighed down by a creature who sleeps in a shallow bath, who carries salty smells into the house, who needs to disappear for stints in the sea, lest her skin dry out? What draws them in initially is the novelty of her shape, her hair clear as glass, the feel of scales under their hands.

They ask her to demonstrate her various breathing skills in a hastily filled kitchen sink. They ask her if she likes raw fish, if she ever just swims around with an open mouth. She abhors this question, and what it implies.

They ask her to sing to them, something they’ve heard about sirens. When they realise her voice is nothing but a fractured scream, they frown, and then forget to call her the next day.

 

 

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. 

*