Tag Archives: hades

Almost Spring

            Down in the Underworld, Hades was held captive by creepy crawly things. With the new flat screen TV turned to the nature channel, his pals Scorpion, Centipede, and Black Widow Spider looked bigger and badder than ever. And here was a chance to learn more about them. He bored his guests at dinner parties with his encyclopedic knowledge of all the creatures that lurked underground. Yet Hades was never one to keep his passions to himself. He even had a soft spot for Bears, even though they were only partial undergrounders. They reminded him of his wife.

            Persephone stood in the bedroom drinking a tall glass of pomegranate juice. Eons ago Hades had tricked her by forcing six of the crimson jewel fruitlets into her mouth, thus contracting her to live six months of the year with him in the Underworld. The other six, she was free to return to the topside world and her mother Demeter. Since the two goddesses had their share of the usual mother-daughter fights, this arrangement turned out okay. Living full time with Hades would definitely have driven her bonkers, so Persephone secretly enjoyed her double life.

            Since the magic seeds had no more power over her, Persephone indulged her taste for the tart juicy fruit and loaded up on antioxidants. She made pomegranate persimmon salad with foraged winter greens. She liked ruining her nails by tearing away at the thick leathery skin to get at the rubies inside. Especially as Spring neared, she found herself craving more and more of the fruit that changed her life.

            She set down the empty glass on Hades’ nightstand. She opened the closet and eyed the top shelf, where her traveling bag rested. It was one of those contraptions that could carry just a few choice items clutched at the wrist, or expand to contain the whole world on her back. It was, according to the mortals’ calendar, the third week of February. Still too soon to pack up for her Spring departure.

            Persephone dropped her gaze to the knitting basket on the bottom shelf of the closet. She checked and found that she had just enough of the multicolored yarn to finish the light cape for her mother. She always liked to bring Demeter something homemade, to prove that she could still be creative down in the cold and dark. For some reason, she didn’t want her mother to know that Hades had diverted a hot spring to their palace, so she would never be chilly. Demeter made much of her daughter’s noble sacrifice to keep the world in balance. She did not want to know that Persephone had a hot tub right outside the bedroom. She did not want to hear about what a fantastic and inventive lover old Hades had turned out to be. No, Demeter wanted her daughter to be stoic in Winter and released running into the freedom of Spring.

            Persephone sat by one of the many fireplaces and resumed her knitting. A few rooms away, she heard Hades laughing, having switched over to that quirky show Bored to Death. He loved Ted Danson’s character George. Hades figured himself to be worn out, yet somehow still debonair just like this man of a certain age. Clueless, but with a good heart.

            Meanwhile, miles above them, Demeter unleashed some storms and floods to clear out all the accumulated debris in the fields and forests. She loved this time of year, getting the place spruced up for Persephone. It did take some orchestration to have all the flowers burst into bloom with her daughter’s every footfall. And darn that girl if she strayed from her usual path from the hell mouth. The flowers were being fussy this year, what with their fear of having their collective bargaining powers being taken away. Demeter had to remind them they all wanted the same thing: to work together to proclaim the start of Spring. They all missed Persephone and her playful spirit. They all wanted to bloom again.

            Demeter couldn’t guarantee that the mortals wouldn’t destroy the planet, but she assured her charges that there would always be those who wanted and needed the flowers for the path of beauty they create. And down below, after the knitting needles and the TV went quiet, Hades held Persephone close in their cozy bed. Like George, he didn’t really like being a bachelor anymore, so he spooned with his wife and thought about making another deal with Zeus. Keeping Persephone year round was sounding good to him. He always felt this way this time of year.

Persephone & the Blood

They say that if it rains while the Sun is shining, the devil must be beating his wife.

The devil’s wife says,

This saying must have come from a man. Men are all so afraid of a little pain. But no one falls into the devil’s lap on happy accident. I went willingly. Open heart. Open arms. And yes, open legs. I chose the devil as my lover.

But all he could see was a woman, mortal-shaped, fragile, breakable, his queen and his wife but not his equal. Even with his fingers snaking into my hair like temptation, even when I could smell the blood on his hands, even when I clawed the skin from his back, he held my braids like kite string.

Men are all so afraid of a little blood. Women aren’t. Women have been beaten their whole lives for their bleeding sex. Choosing the beating now doesn’t make me a victim, because I want it. Not the way a bad girl knows how to take a punch, or the way a woman who has been lied to can grow to believe that she deserves the back of her lover’s hand. I want him to hit me with the same fire he kisses me awake with in the morning.

Don’t tell me a story about being trapped or tricked. Don’t tell me how I fell from grace and into love with him. I carry the Grace with me always, and give it to him, piece by piece, and no matter how it burns, he begs for more.

Hit me, like the sound of the doors to Olympus or heaven closing behind you. Hit me. Like the last time you felt the sun on your skin. Like I have never been less lost than I am right now. Hit me, like the voice of God. Hit me like I am a monster worth taming because I am. Show me the making of an perfect angel or god from my scarred ruin of a lover, red devil, horned thing, hit me like you are the devil and I am your wife and the sun is shining but the clouds are pregnant and wet with wanting and it has to rain sometime if you want to see spring.

Harvest

All she had known was rain-kissed fields, unfurling blooms and the smell of sunshine soaked earth—and her mother, her constant guardian, her omnipresent shadow. Since she was little, learning to crawl among golden stalks of wheat, she remembered her mother walking beside her, lifting her after each fall, stroking her springy curls, teaching her the names of flowers and trees. She remembered the feeling of her mother’s tunic against her cheek, the smell of warm, peeled apples and grass emanating from her hair. She’d memorized the lullabies her mother sang, felt the timbre of her mother’s voice beneath her skin. Her mother was her second skin, a comfort she grew to expect.

She knew of her mother’s brothers, hinted at in brief, bitter invective. Their names

were never spoken; she knew her mother did not trust them, that they were anathema to her sheltered creation.

With each passing year, she wandered a bit further from her mother, no longer the toddler tangled at her hem. As a young woman, her pretty face was blooming into a timeless beauty, a beauty her mother feared and dreaded. Her face would awaken desires and break promises. A collective of nymphs trailed her, always giggling, always delighted by the same things. While her mother worked her earthly, secret magic, her beautiful cousins accompanied her, gossiping about the family, gathering flowers, comparing their white arms, plaited hair, and jewels, flinging insults with sweet smiles.

She wandered beyond them, tired of their arrogant voices, yawning at the endless fields of flowers and wheat. Glistening ahead, a peculiar ruby flower blossomed, the only of its kind, beckoning—a perfect centerpiece to her floral crown. She smiled and bent to pluck it from the ground.

As the flower’s roots tore apart, the earth rumbled, rising and spitting, heaving upward a dark man and a team of black, snorting stallions.

He moved soundlessly, ceaselessly cloaked in shadow. The gloom was like an enduring garment, heavy on his broad shoulders, trailing behind him in a syrupy dark train. Eyes black diamonds, their gleam the only sign of life, shone above a heavy charcoal beard, a bramble of black and silver hairs. His name conjured inferior suppositions of his actual appearance, a name that spoken or even thought, prompted terror and disaster.

Somehow she wasn’t afraid.

The chariot passed, wraithlike; the ephemeral horses nearly floating above the earth, their black, robust bodies glossed in sweat. She held out a hand and touched the chest of the closest horse as he swept passed; his flesh was cold and supple, smooth like polished stone. The team cried out in booming unison, rising on muscled hind legs, cracking the ground as they landed. He rose from the chariot, locking her eyes in his icy stare.

The flowers fell from her hand as he approached, the crown she’d been weaving dispersing in a cloud of petals. He stopped, maintaining a fair distance between them, and breathed a low greeting. Awestruck, she watched him press her hand to his cold, full mouth. His face was pale, finely sculpted and ageless.

It seemed as though an eon passed between them, his black eyes meeting her green ones, the trees still, birds silent, the wheat standing straight as arrows. She could not detect a distinction between his iris or pupil; his eyes were cave-like, deep and black and enigmatic. Suddenly her green and fragrant world seemed ordinary, even boring. In his gaze she saw another place, somewhere foreboding and strange—but new. Heady desire flooded her limbs.

“You will be a queen, “ he whispered, his voice hollow, nearly undetectable, like a cloudless day’s rapid metamorphosis into a violent thunderstorm. “No longer a companion of nymphs or prisoner of my sister.”

She looked over her shoulder, where the nymphs froze in a twittering knot, her cousins caught in debate, and her mother a tiny spot at the field’s edges. He lifted a golden curl from her shoulder, ran the hair between his dusty grey fingers, scanning her

expression. Her eyes rose to his, her nod as delicate as a fan of perfume.

His lips managed a sober smile, and with ease he grasped her waist, lifting her before him, the horses cold beneath her tunic. She could not look away, could not hear the earth churning backward, the ghoulish cacophony of his horses, the harried panic of her cousins, the shrill scream of nymphs, and the distant, pure melancholic cry of her mother.

Instead, she only heard his promises of the rarest, brightest jewels, only found in the deepest terrain, the incomparable power she would hold over his ever-expanding domain, the ebony throne she would occupy, twin to his own. Here she would be the most beautiful, the fairest skinned, the holder of the scarcest metals. Lightly, she rested her head on his shoulder, and watched, wide-eyed as they descended, gasping at the embedded, shining gems of azure, violet, fuchsia and vermillion jutting from the clay walls, just as he’d vowed. His hand enclosed her waist, his fingers firm and shockingly cold—but gradually his temperature roiled into her body, the familiarly of warmth evaporating from her skin.

They passed a bleak, cloaked man, standing before a ferry; black rivers of impossible depths; armies of marching wraiths; soaring, iron gates, bars as thick as temple columns; and an enormous black dog, its multiple heads cocked, curious at her approach—each wet nose sniffed her, shining eyes softening. It knelt at its haunches, wagging tails belying its fearsome appearance.

He held her small white hand in his, and led her to the queen’s throne. She ran her fingers along the smooth, black material, a greyed reflection of her face smiling regally

back at her. He waited for her to sit, then bent to his knee and lowered a radiant crown upon her head, sculpted with delicately veined gold leaves, and rubies as large as anemone flowers.

He sat beside her and spoke in his strange, hollow voice.

Your mother will search for you. She will mourn you. She will fight for you, and eventually, she will find you.

He reached into his tunic and held up a gleaming red fruit; in his palm it split into halves, revealing globes of crimson seeds, as glossy as fish eggs. Mesmerized, she took a half, glancing at his cautious smile.

This can be your home, he said. Your kingdom.

She did not miss the constant supervision, the inane giggling, the overshadowing splendor of her cousins; her mother’s constant paranoia. Above, she would always be a virgin, never a queen.

She brought the fruit to her mouth, and guided a chamber of seeds to her awaiting tongue. The burst of tart sweetness elicited a pleased smile, droplets of juice coating her lips with a ruby stain. She looked up at the black abyss above them, sky and clouds fading from her memory; she could not remember the exact features of her mother’s face, the blinding glare of sunlight, or the sensation of grass on her bare feet.

Eagerly she took her husband’s hand, and consumed the remaining seeds, ravenous for more.

First Glimpse of Hades

Shudders in the chest,

palls of thrill in the air–

Upon her…..an avalanche

of fire and snow.

 
 
Contributor’s Notes: Andrea Potos is the author of four poetry collections, most recently We Lit the Lamps Themselves, from Salmon Poetry in Ireland. Her poems can be found widely in print and online.

So Long, Cy

(after Cy Twombly)

So long
C Y
long so sigh
in all fours
solo slitherer

C E R B E R U S  C H A L K B O A R D

muddy sneakers
polished floor
a long slide

[home? no, we’re not there, i’m not there, still in school, in front of the blackboard,
writing a hundred times, get it right, godammit, this shouldn’t be hard, maybe i’m already
in hades, can’t get out, can’t outsmart teacher—bitch-breathed, serpent-ended,
omnispective and soulless.]

so long
C Y
past a steady keeper’s hand:
a wedding band
and regal sheets
untainted
so

[virgin sheets? are they ever? tabula rasa? or always/already written? is the task to
discover what’s already there or to rewrite the new? do we black out the purity when we
write or do we make a human space in the perfect void?]

long
Y O U N G  C Y

whose balls bounced
through marble halls
danced tumblers
of liquid yellow
suns
a squirt
in discerning eye
cyclopean circles
in jagged staggers
on sober frames
time, Cy
and memory

[but whose? the greeks and romans are names only, scratched in the sand on the edge of
the sea, your paint does not reach them, nor carry me there, it keeps me here in the
everpresent of a child’s scrawl, not even a barbaric yawp but the glee of a kid playing in his
own shit—without the glee—i’m an adult godammit, too big for this chair, can’t find my
locker, books gone 100 times 100 times]

scuffed
in the crust
of profligate paint
neither Dionysus
nor Apollo
but a cerulean flow
past pallid crowds
and yawning guards

D O  N O T  T O U C H

but you married the Baroness
shat cadmium lire notes
no question of mess
taste for waste
but time, Cy
and so memory
long scuffed
the edge of a sneaker
slide
into first
base

 

Contributor’s Notes: Mark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write poems and stories and to make art out of salvaged wood. Please visit him at markkerstetter.com.

Persephone and Hades

You have it all wrong.

She hungered his howl & hiss.

 

He was a way out.

He promised to fuck her

 

in the places she couldn’t

bear to be touched.

 

Everywhere she was skin.

Everywhere she was nerve.

 

His anger a relief, a release for

the rage ripening in her virgin belly.

 

She wanted to tattoo

even his bones with her teeth.

 

Persephone danced in each one of his shadows,

praying with hip thrust, gyrating waist.

 

She burned her bra, her panties too,

urging him to rip her to

 

a million unnumbered pieces.

As for the pomegranate?

 

She did eat only six seeds—

(He needed the rest he said)

 

One for each burning thrust

that turned her to ash

 

set her finally free.

 

Contributor’s Notes: Paulette’s work has previously appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Provincetown Arts, and Rhino. She has published two chapbooks. Blues for a Pretty Girl is available on Amazon and Voice Lessons is available at Plan B Press. You can find her at www.thehomebeete.com.

Ikons, No Halos: An Interlude

Fay Devine and Tina Martin were on a six-month romp around the Mediterranean or, as I heard frequently in the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar where I met them, for as long as the money lasted. Both were nurses, and both could drink, one better than the other perhaps and both wore glasses, one light, one dark, but all the better to see you with, to borrow a phrase from the wolf.

“I’ve come to Greece to learn about deities,” Tina declared and looked at me with bright eyes full of challenge, owl-like behind large, round, wire-rimmed lenses.

I knew she would have a learning experience in Greece, especially around the Old Port of Chania where many contemporary Greek gods in tight jeans and leather jackets hung out in dense bar and discotheque scenes, each with a tale of the miraculous to unfold to her. She knew about kamaki men, for she understood completely the effects of her well-contained charms, she in her busty little mauve suede vest. Her moves were efficient, designed for effect, and she measured her words knowingly. Typical was “fabulous” or “bull” or “he was an arrogant prick.” Tina projected a no-nonsense approach to things; she’d be the nurse you wanted on the ward overseeing your recovery, knowing that if you followed her directives, you would recover because disease and death would be browbeaten back.

Fay Devine, on the other hand, you wanted to lean over you, enfold you to her bosom, and cure you with love, or guide you with morphine and gentle mystery into the arms of forgetfulness and afterwards, perhaps, heaven. She was your pudgy cousin at fourteen who at twenty-two has developed voluptuous beauty. You see beyond her attempts to conceal it. You also wish then that she were not your cousin. But I did not feel quite that way when I first laid eyes on her.

Fay Devine: such an old fashioned name, I thought, as she sat there in faded blue denim overalls with one of the bronze bib buckles about to work loose, listening to her friend hold forth in that getting-close-to-drunk state of being, more tacit, perhaps, but just as complicit, and a little looser, Raggedy Ann with hair in braids on tour in Medusa’s playground. She had full, sensuous lips that broke into a smile whenever she caught me studying her. Symmetry played about her face, her complexion the olive gold of Greek girls, but I could not then tell absolutely about her eyes. She wore shades: large dark blocks that revealed nothing about what she might be thinking, blocks that gave back only the image of my own puzzled face. The sunglasses did not bother me as much as the occasional kick she gave me under the table whenever I said something clever.

I met them the evening after some expatriate poet in this same Pan Pub had assumed for me the role of chorus. Surrounded by cronies, he sang out the name Magalee in goat-like fashion as I passed his table, at which point every one with him erupted into laughter. I grasped immediately his satiric intent. Tina and Fay had a table near the door by the statue of the satyr whose leer was a wide as his erection was long, supporting the point ever so graphically that certain forms of art tend to hype, ridicule, and humiliate.

I looked at Fay, then at Tina, then at the satyr.

“Pathetic phallusy,” Tina said, and they both giggled like naughty schoolgirls.

“Shall I spell it out for you?” she added, and they both giggled again.

“I get it.”

“Not yet, you don’t!”

The Pan Pub and its intimate congestion gave you a sense of the palpable, of limb entangled with limb, of flesh potentially rubbing against flesh. I crowded in between them. I ordered beer. Tina ordered a couple of ouzos. Introductions followed.

They were staying in a new hotel with private bathroom and shower. Tina had had it with the conditions she termed “rank” on the ferries and in certain spots they had rented, with closet sized two-stepper toilets she did not know which way to face in.

“Fay accuses me of not knowing my ass from a hole in the ground!”

I looked at Fay. Her mouth creased mischievously.

The beer came and the ouzo. When they asked about me, my orphan persona presented himself but not very convincingly and not for very long. Growing mellow together, we talked of common travel experiences like a boat trip up the Bosporus, of Mediterranean light, and winter in Chania.

At one point I looked out toward the breakwater. An old blue Citroen with four pink fenders happened to be passing along the quay and temporarily blocked my view.

Into the space it vacated came Montgomery and Magalee arm in arm.

“Something wrong, Steven?”

I shook my head and looked away. Then I looked back at Fay. A smile broke around her lips, which she licked away with the tip of her tongue.

“It’s long story, originating deep in the heart of the Old Port.”

Tina disappeared with the waiter at some point. She wanted to throw plates. I knew of no place where she might, but apparently the waiter did. This left me sitting with Fay in a bar where pandemonium could break out at any time. Take off the shades, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Fay may have looked Greek, but a stand-in for Medusa with eyes that could turn me into a statue she was not, or not quite, or at least not yet.

“Let us take us, you and I, to a disco,” she suggested suddenly, and smiled. I thought she spoke whimsically; but no, she was serious.

“Sure. Why not?”

Fay smiled again, and I could already taste the cure for love in the parting of her full and sensuous lips.

Along the quays we ambled, Fay clutching a parcel to her breast in one arm, her other around me for support, making our slow way towards Circe’s. Fay kept repeating how cool it was to be walking just so in the oldest city in Europe, wondering if any of it were true. I wondered if she wore her shades to bed as a kind of protection.

When we met the blasts of syncopated rhythms on the threshold of the disco, Fay disengaged me, and in a series of quick breaths where she seemed to be biting at the night, informed me in so many words that we weren’t going to make it, not tonight.

Two flights up, half pull, half push, and sitting stupidly at every turn, we managed to get up to my place. Her ordeal lasted only a few minutes. Expectations’ perfect parody.

I talked quietly to her, soothing her with mummers of understanding. I washed her face and hands, the bib of her overalls, and her sweatshirt. I laid her down in a shirt of mine on the sofa where, in a pseudo conscious blubbering of apology, she crashed, exhausted, into a long and enduring coma. Then I washed the parcel that she had in her paroxysms heaved across the floor.

As for the sunglasses, they remained miraculously unsoiled, and I left them on her, the least I could do to respect her privacy.

I cleaned up the floor, rinsed the sink, soaked the sweatshirt and the bib, in my own dim witted way seeking a connection between excess and catharsis. This was Greece. I went out on the balcony for a last cigarette, wondering where the old Citroen with pink fenders had got to by this time in the oldest city in Europe.

Fay Devine: not the first girl I didn’t get to sleep with the first night.

 

 

I was reading when Fay awoke, her shades angled, half on, half off. Slowly she righted them. On my table I had orange juice, a liter of water, apples, bread, and honey.

“I feel ugly,” she said, inadvertently knocking the table.

“Something to drink? Coffee? The WC’s out back. A two-stepper. Sorry! Your things are over there, drying. Take your time, Fay.”

I felt responsible for her and wanted her whole again. I wandered out on the balcony for a while. Streaks of sunlight pulled at the sky, and small waves broke across the harbor. A wind was up. Venizelou Square appeared normal, with lots of people on the go. When it seemed as though all stopped what they were doing, and looked up to see what I was doing, I retreated inside, drawing the shutters after me. I lit a candle.

“We didn’t dance, did we?” Fay said when I sat down. She was drinking water and chewing on some bread. She had changed into her clothes, but still wore her shades. She made no reference to them.

“We tangoed up the stairs, and did a bit of a twist on this floor, but, no, we didn’t make it to Circe’s.”

“I’m trying to lose a little weight,” she said as though that explained what had

happened.

“Why?”

“Look at Tina.”

“Tina isn’t here. Besides, she’s tiny. And bumptious.”

Fay laughed, and that made me happy. She took a chunk of bread, spread honey on it and handed it to me.

“I’ll make it up to you,” she said, and bit into an apple.

 

 

Fay and Tina’s hotel room overlooked Plateia 1866. Twin beds took up most of the space. Reading material on the nightstand: a travel guide and a book of myths. An open commode in the corner revealed sundry articles of clothing and now the contents of Fay’s parcel, a long dress, much like something I’d seen Magalee wear, like something stripped from a marble statue and reworked with wonder and love into vibrant blue.

I lay down on a bed. Bemused yet somehow excited, I wondered if Fay showered with her shades on. I dozed off.

When I awoke, Fay stood before me wearing the dress. Her hair cascaded down in furls in some contemporary style, like that worn by Greek girls I had watched at the cafés, or Magalee wherever and whenever. She donned a pose for a moment, then broke it with a smile. Fay Devine—immaculate, beautiful, statuesque. Hers was not the face that had launched a thousand ships. She was not the fairy tale princess that awakens from the comma with a kiss. If it had not been for the shades, however, I might have believed she was both. I soon understood what she had meant by making it up to me. And in the heat of it all, her shades hardly moved.

When darkness fell, we went out to eat. She had a limited appetite, but what she ate she savored, giving me the impression that this might be her last meal. I caught glimpses of myself in her dark glasses studying her. She took golden crusts of bread and teased out curls of taramousalada, placing one first in my mouth and then one in her own.

“Bread,” I explained, “it comes with every meal here. Can’t resist.”

“So take this bread and eat me,” she said and put a sloppy piece into my mouth.

 

 

The most intriguing thing about Fay was her mad desire to dance. Music unleashed in her a divine fury, a primitive outpouring of energy where nothing seemed to matter but rhythmic movement, as though she were the only instrument for the heartbeat of the earth. At Circe’s that night, she drew me in with an irresistible magnetism, and I succumbed willingly. I had no place to go but where she led me, nothing to see but what she showed me, a mop-headed Madonna in bouncing bibbed overalls under madding strobe lights.

We were the only couple there, which made this scene of frenetic engagement all the more absurd, especially with the disc jockey at the bar chain smoking cigarettes and yawning. Mirrors made it seem as though the two of us filled the place. Only once did Fay, her forehead beaming with perspiration, remove her glasses, but she gave nothing away. Her eyelids were portals shut before the uninitiated, her long lashes, veils. All part of the game, and I played along most agreeably. I had developed theories about why she kept the shades on, the most disturbing being that she had a glass eye that saw deep into my future. All I knew for certain, along with Fay’s palpable imminence, was that I needed to change my shirt. Fay Devine—the essence of opulent female energy that seduced from the ankle up.

 

 

Fay asked me to leave the lights off when we got to my place, so I lit a single candle. Her mood had altered. Shadows flickered, playing out like private thoughts against the coming dawn. For her it must have been doubly dark.

“You could’ve been with Tina,” she said, sitting down next to me, her voice low, almost a whisper. “She liked you. I could tell. She said there’d be guys like you.”

I did not know how to take what Fay said, but I had the impression that she was holding back tears, and that vulnerability would assume some melodramatic form and ruin what had been up till then a perfect day. She reached for my pack of Papastratos and with the flame of the candle lit one. I watched her almost fighting the cigarette, blowing out smoke like so many phrases that would not work.

“Yeah right, guys like me,” I said, getting up. “We’re all kamaki when it comes down to it.”

“That would make it easier. No, you’re different. And I don’t just mean you’re a dreamer. I like you, and I like being with you. And you don’t ask dumb questions about why I do the things I do. Last night and today have meant everything to me. I love the bread thing, want more of it, can’t get enough, but—” She twisted out what remained of her cigarette.

“But?”

“But maybe you think I’m just using you. Or does a guy not think that’s possible? I’m confusing you, Steven Spire.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a female has confused me.”

“You seemed so, well, depressed when you first walked into the Pan Pub, before you let loose a little. Vulnerable, even. Like you had just lost your best friend.”

“Right now, you’re my best friend,” I said, not wanting to get into details about either Montgomery or Magalee. “Right now, what’s here in this room is all that matters. So let what there is of that candle burn.”

“But certain things are implicit, aren’t they? We have only so much time, I think that’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Yes, but it’s Greek time. Go ahead, use me. I won’t object.”

“Even to wearing sunglasses in bed? You never questioned them, not even once.”

“Yes, I did, Fay, right from the moment I sat down and you kind of kicked me. At the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. So—”

“So why the shades? Well, it started out as a joke when Tina and I were with two

Israeli soldiers on leave in Tel Aviv. Tina’s idea. This whole trip was Tina’s idea, but I’ll get to that. To see how long I could wear shades before some guy asked me to take them off. Then it was how many days I could go.”

“Like a challenge?”

“Exactly. Then it became an education. Tina made the connection, when the ‘wasn’t he an arrogant prick’ started in earnest. Mediterranean men. Tina loves puns. She called the game pathetic phallusy—nature mocking the size of the male ego. The more I went along with it, the more her ridiculous theory, a control thing she said, proved to be true. I really began to enjoy the role. Woman of mystery! But I’m not mysterious, and it’s all more of a joke than anything else.”

“Oh, but you are mysterious, Fay Devine.”

“Not very. I’m rather obvious.”

“Not when you can make me feel like a character in a Ray Bradbury tromp l’oeil.”

I wanted at that moment to tell Montgomery about Fay. “Beat this story, beat this little bit of your mythic in the quotidian!” But then, I reminded myself, he already had. I preferred to stay with the here and now; and taking her hand, I asked: “Are you fey?”

“That’s what Frank says.”

“Frank? Who’s Frank?”

“I’m engaged to Frank.”

“Lucky Frank!”

“Well, sort of. Doubt comes over me, you know, premonitions. We’re supposed to get married next June. He’s interning now. Hates dancing. Loves Barbershop. Tina says he’s wrong for me. She’s known a lot of men, Tina.”

“Tina’s something else.”

“Gives as good as she gets. Got us into trouble a couple of nights, but managed to escape unsavory, wolfish characters with big smiles and bad teeth. We’ve been friends since high school, though travel with her has had its moments. I’m sorry for putting you through all of this when we could be breaking bread.”

As dawn light began to filter into the room and diminish the power of a single candle, Fay removed her sunglasses. She looked at me with dark, laughing eyes, full of assurance and contentment.

She kicked something under my chair, then stooped to pick it up. A gift from Montgomery before the rift.

“Neat owl. One eye is broken.”

“It’s kind of like a blink, Fay.”

She kissed my eyes shut, and in so doing allowed me to hold on to my illusions. Fay moved like the sea outside my window, and I moved with her, our bodies on creaking springs of ecstasy. We were joined at the hips and joined at the lips, unable to part. In flushes of erotic sweetness she worked a mystical enchantment that rendered me just about senseless. Then the paradox of physical separation, our tremulous and shivering nakedness touched by January whispers sweeping under doors and through cracks in a building centuries old where love and hate and life and death were memories and replays of memories, making us mindful of what passes for immortality during these ever so human moments in time. Then Venus on the rise again, her form the whole horizon. And had I been able to consume Fay entirely like so many luscious loaves of bread, it would not have been enough. Too much was never enough. Or did I flatter? Not her, my perceptions of her and the mystery that cloaked her there standing naked before me.

Montgomery had not lied; he had only told part of the truth.

 

 

Tina led us into Skridlof Street. Tina looked at everything, but had nothing in particular she wanted to buy. I contented myself just watching her try on earrings, necklaces and rings. She was pert and pretty and decided.

Fay had sandals in mind, and I loved to watch her model different pairs, and purses too small for her, and satchels too awkward, and lace up boots she had no intention of owning. But mostly I was happy just to listen to her murmurs, and fondle her with my eyes in wistful glances across the heaps of woven things or between the stacks of pungent leather. I prized her most among the copper pots and brass scales and candleholders in the shops of the tinkers. At times when fingers of golden light caught her on the brow, I wanted to cast her in bronze. She was so beautiful. Only art could hold that beauty forever.

“In here,” Tina directed, “I love this stuff. It’s fabulous.”

Faces of saints looked out to us from behind the golden mists of the beatific vision. They followed our progress in the aisles of the living through the candelabras, the censers, the lamps.

“These things fascinate me,” Tina said, picking up an ikon of John the Baptist.

“This makes me want to examine my values. Consider redemption as a real possibility.”

“Feeling guilty again?”

“Oh, Fay, you’re such a pagan! Where’s your sense of beyond the flesh? Everything here’s so orderly. It’s all about resurrection, isn’t it?”

“Too artificial. Too austere.”

“Steven?”

“Too challenging for me, Tina. The complexity of Byzantine metaphysics. I agree with Fay.”

“Besides,” added Fay, “I prefer Steven’s resurrections of the flesh.”

“Fay, you really are a pagan!”

“No halos here.”

I had not paid too much attention previously to these religious shops full of dusty ikons. I had always seen faces of the apocalypse, previews of the Second Coming looking from windows out into a street like Halidon and its passing traffic, narrow heads with wide eyes full of longing.

“All right, Fay, forget the philosophy. I like them as art. Figures contemplating the future through veils of gold. Nothing more.”

“Well, that settles it then,” Tina decided, leading us out.

On the shelves of the store next door, a different kind of dust had settled. Sitting behind his desk, a man with a leer for a face looked Fay and Tina up and down and then all over. His generous arms welcomed us in to view his extensive pantheon.

Helmeted, owls attending, wise Athena observed from on high as we moved about. In the likeness of Botticelli’s Venus, a naked white Leda glanced sideways at the long, up-thrust neck of the swan at her feet. The Bull of Minos stared above the heads of Minoan figurines.

“That racked-up snake goddess, very interesting,” said Fay.

“Oh, Fay, you’re so—”

“Special winter price!” said the man from a few feet away.

Demeter, next, a sheaf to hand. And near her, but not that near, Persephone.

“I like her the most,” said Fay, touching Persephone.

“For such a sweet little goddess,” said Tina, “she can be such a bitch. From what I’ve read, that is.”

“No, it’s the lost then found thing that I like.”

“Like what this trip is all about, Fay? Here today, gone tomorrow? I’m just kidding, Steve.”

“I still like her, Tina, like the idea of her.”

“For you I make special price,” offered the man as we made our way to the door.

We kept a leisurely pace along the lane. In one of the leather goods shop, I bought for Fay the sandals she finally settled on. In another shop, she and Tina tried on belts, some two and three and four inches in width, and the shape of time was redefined. She flirted at length with the young salesman, while the older woman at the counter rolled her eyes in a variety of telling ways. Time with Tina had to be measured in seconds and minutes and be full of quips and lover’s fallacies, a twist on Greenwich time. With Fay, and regardless of what was implicit, seconds, minutes, days, nights, all flowed out of Greek time.

“Get a load of that!” Tina broke out, pointing into the display window of a men’s underwear shop. “What a joke!”

An eight-inch marble statue of Zeus in classical pose: his little bearded face all frown and determination, he was throwing a thunderbolt, decked out in a miniature pair of double stitched, form fitting blue briefs.

“That’s pathetic,” I said.

“Yeah, pathetic phallusy,” Tina said

“No, I really mean it’s pathetic.”

“Steven, you’re such a purist!”

Tina left us at the end of the row, saying that she would catch up with us later.

 

 

The fantastic little Citroen with the pink paint job was parked near the entrance to the market.

“How about an apple?”

“Touch only what you intend to buy, Fay. Otherwise—”

We poked along eating apples, like innocents with an allowance to spend and everything at our fingertips, but we were spending with our senses, taken with the aesthetics of arrangement designed to lure and seduce. We sat down for coffee at one of the booths in the east sector near a kiosk. Display racks within easy reach revealed cat calendars and cleavages, smiling Cretan mountain men leaning on crooks, sandy bare bottoms of the summer time beaches, and various other scenic views, including many of the Old Port. Fay bought a postcard depicting the laughing countenance of a goatherd

“For Frank,” she said, and began writing. I picked up a postcard of the market and penned a few impressions as a memento for Fay. She kicked me under the table after I read her the line about the two of us poking along like innocents through the sawdust and the blood.

 

 

Tina left a note saying said that she would be at Erato’s, that we should join her and her beau (a Gallic euphemism for Greek kamaki, the note explained) to enjoy a program of Bach advertised for that night. We went to The Stygian Cave instead. That become the pattern for our nights together: we always had the opportunity to hook up with Tina, but managed to do so only once, the night a waiter from the Pan Pub got into a shouting match with a waiter from Circe’s that Tina dubbed the wolf. Other than for a few hours here and there, Fay and I were inseparable, and we played out the same themes with unplanned variations: different cafés, different walks, different tavernas, different positions, but the same imminent lips, the golden brow, the deep, dark eyes, and my same eager willingness to transcend time.

During those few hours here and there, when Fay returned to her hotel, I returned to my room and my intermittent journal scratching where I recorded impressions of her and detailed the places she took me to, places I thought possible only in the arms of Magalee. I cursed the words that failed to hold the realities and I remembered how Montgomery once complained about the impotence of language. I tried to get beyond images of Fay in a blue dress dancing barefoot with anklets on. Fay with gold dust on her brow. Fay like Raggedy Ann in faded overalls, hair coifed by Medusa. I strove desperately for other awakenings, tried to recapture the experience of how, whether in darkness or in light, fingers, knees, tongue serve to open up interior spaces, to rediscover the already known, the already known many times over that nonetheless begs to be rediscovered.

“How can every pore be an erogenous zone?” Fay asked, shivering, licking what had to be morning dew from above her lips.

“Because in spite of what you might believe about yourself, Fay, you are so beautiful.”

An illogical answer, perhaps, but true.

I wrestled with logic and language, making every effort to deal with Fay’s question truthfully. To understand what motivated her to say I was a satyr with angelic appetites. Or why her quivering eyelids moved me to tears. Or why her face, such a beautiful face, could furrow as though in agony and foreshadow darker things. Her heartbeats, the heaving of her breast, her cries of pleasure made me fearful. Fearful because I could not possess her completely.

I ripped out many journal pages.

And when efforts proved futile, and when eyes opened at dawn to see the arrangement of exhausted passion, ripped out pages passed for truth.

“Do Botticelli’s Venus,” I said as she rose to stand naked and trembling. “Or something classical.”

I wanted to work imprints of eternal beauty into what had blossomed between us,the better to capture her and it beyond the forms of time. And when I remembered the ikons and what Tina had said about them, I realized I had been developing my own sense of veneration, ethereal perhaps, but also of this world, tracing lines of former deities, human figures shaped by perfection, carved in marble or cast in bronze.

She stood contemplating the moment, then draped the sheet about her artfully and holding over her right shoulder the plastic water bottle she had taken from the table, assumed the appropriate form. She closed her eyes and became rigid. I held her thus in my mind, statuesque as always, but removed and unmoving, idealized, like bronze, like marble, like stone. Half willing her to remain that way forever, half afraid that she would, I held out open arms to her. She broke the spell completely when she jokingly asked for her shades.

“Your turn,” she said after I had enfolded her in my pea jacket. “Do me the satyr from the Pan Pub!”

Then time resumed its old resolve.

“If I write, you’ll write back?”

“Postcards. But if I don’t write to you, I’ll write about you and how you used me.”

Implicit things. I knew, however, that I was letting her go because she was not a real goddess. And I could not capture her in stone.

A Gypsy family and its little trained bear were entertaining travelers amidst the noise and confusion of the Chania bus station. People with bags and boxes and bony elbows pushed their way through the seams, and shouted over the sound of horns and the squawking of the PA. Buses were everywhere they could be, taxis and automobiles just about everywhere else.

Having secured the seats that she wanted, Tina waved, blew me a kiss, then plunked herself down out of sight. Framed by their window, Fay raised her shades, smiled, pressed her lips to the glass, pulled back and then dropped the shades back on her nose. I held up the candle she had given me just before boarding the bus. In response, she bit off the end of a loaf of bread.

A Gypsy boy stood before me, his tambourine extended top down for collection.

He grinned as I searched my pockets for change. And then, as quickly as diesel fumes can make eyes water, Fay Devine was gone.

 

The old blue Citroen with flying pink fenders turned right off Gianari. I followed it down Halidon back into the heart of the Old Port.

 

Where Lost Things Go

Katherine had plans when the ghost got through, her birthday party on Friday and a date with Henry on Saturday. But near midnight on Thursday, the phone rang, terrifying her, in the way of sudden noises shattering sleep. Kate lifted the receiver and the hairs on her arm stood on end. The electrical charge pulsed through her like an ancient heartbeat. He had been missing her for weeks, sending messages through the computer and into her phone to which Kate hesitated to respond.

“Come here,” he said. “It’s so close, and I’m seriously starved for good conversation. These guys I’ve been with, they’re so tedious.”

Katherine breathed. She was prepared for Christopher to be in New York, a brief magical moment she had looked forward to for nearly a year. But this other city was more dangerous. It was a city that didn’t exist for either of them, and so anything could happen. It frightened her in the way that the ghost’s sheer existence should have.

“You can’t imagine,” the ghost said.

“My party is tomorrow night,” she said.

“Oh. Well. You don’t have to. I wouldn’t want you to upset your plans.”

Kate looked out her dirty window into the street, harshly lit by a single street lamp, and still said nothing. She wanted to go, but she was afraid to want. It always lead to disappointment.

“But it’d be wicked if you were here, Katie. And I have these two days between shows.” He breathed and it sounded like promises and sadness. “With nothing to do. The road gets a little lonely.” He laughed. “But no worries.”

Katherine did what he wanted because nothing real made her feel anymore. She was fairly sure she was broken.

She dreamed of him that night. They were wandering through Grand Central Station, and even though she kept putting him on trains, they kept winding up on the same platforms together. The metal clocks above the marble archways always read 3:21 and she always knew it was Christopher, not because of what he looked like—because that changed, from her mother to a girl from her fourth period class, to her brother and then to a vague approximation of Christopher—but because of the deep feeling of peace that was the cessation of time when he held her hand or brushed the hair out of her eyes. When Kate woke up, she expected him to be in the bed beside her. She had read that ghosts don’t sleep, but will happily lie next to the living. She stretched her arm out to hug him and found air. Waking up after doing that always felt empty, like the day was too long and cold to fill all by herself.

***

Christopher had a wife and family in England. He said he didn’t remember her name, but when Katherine was lost between their worlds and tried to anchor herself by asking questions, he’d only say they still celebrate the anniversary. They make a family pilgrimage to the cemetery to pray and look morose, to leave rocks on the tombstone as reminders of the solidity of the living. Living is fascinating and terrifying to the dead; mostly they prefer not to remember, because to juxtapose the two is to realize how security and death go hand in hand.

Christopher will not say how he died, but when he lies beside Kate in the hotel rooms and then her bed, with his eyes closed, he shakes and whimpers. She wonders if he is remembering the times he incessantly walked the road of loneliness, because maybe he wasn’t ready to be dead, she thinks. It would be too awful to think that none of the dead were content, that death was just a concentration of the dissatisfactions felt on earth. To quiet him, she puts her hand on his belly, the way she did to Barley when he had nightmares and ran in his sleep, but Christopher pushes her hand away roughly and jerks to, as if he really has been sleeping.

“You talk in your sleep,” she says.

He blinks. “What do I say.” His eyes are blue stars, half veiled in the eggshell early morning light.

“Your wife’s name,” she says.

“Zelda never told me I talked in my sleep. She was a deep sleeper. Like the dead.” His grin creeps up, the way St. Michael’s Cemetery does as Kate speeds along the Grand Central Parkway.

“Ha. You said you didn’t know her name anymore.”

“Matilda?” He tickles Kate and grins the irresistible grin. His fingers are a feather storm. She giggles.

“Francine? Constance?” He laughs a British laugh and she curls into him.

“What were you dreaming?”

“I don’t dream,” he says.

“Tell me.”

“Katie,” he whispers meaningfully. She knows it isn’t real. “Kitty cat Katie.” It is hard to deny him.

“Everyone dreams,” she says. She will look up ghosts and dreams later to see if this is his particular dilemma or the truth for all ghosts. He is her font of endless fascination.

***

Katherine wonders if her mother is bored or at peace, if she will grow lonely. And if she is lonely, whom she haunts. Right after her mother died, Katherine wanted to be haunted, but the psychics she went to never realized she had a dead mother. They asked if she was an aspiring actress or told her that one day she would speak before large crowds. Not a one ever asked, “Did you lose your mother?” As if she were wandering through a mall somewhere, or along an unnamed highway. Like she was retrievable.

Katherine liked to think of Diana as sleeping between stars, so heavily, the way she loved to on their couch after dinner, or after she had made dinner, but before Katherine’s father had come home to eat. She could believe that her mother enjoyed death, the peace and stillness. Diana would be too tired to haunt her. Even in life, she would say she was too exhausted to entertain Katherine’s latest drama. Still, sometimes, when Katherine wanted to talk to her again very badly, and it was dark and the energy in the room hummed, she would be afraid, and wish away all her wishing to be with her mother. Years later, when the mediums realized she had no mortal mother, they said, “Your mother is always with you. She’s with you now. She’s worried about you.”

Katherine never felt it.

She wondered if her mother had sent Christopher. An emissary. He was easier to accept, with his British hair and his smile that looked like the root of all mischief. He began by making little things disappear, like letters and books, old plans, incomplete dreams and socks. He left dirty glasses and remnants of songs in the oddest places, on windowsills and in plants. He dropped crumpled up bits all over her apartment and scrawled tendrils on envelopes and in the steam of her bathroom mirror. He laughed about everything. He didn’t scare her.

She dreamed of him and felt the contentedness of his loving her well before she began to see a sandy-haired man in crowds and on subways who always disappeared before she could walk up to him and introduce herself. But he was there. She felt the bliss that was the knowledge of his omnipresence. It was a blanket that made it easy to be alone. Easier.

Then one day in a September rain, he didn’t disappear. He hovered near Katherine, amidst the crush of a Doves’ show, marked by a circle of solitude almost three feet in diameter. Katherine approached him, certain it would be like the other times, or that when she spoke to him he would have no teeth, or make a comment about her breasts, only call them tits, or in some other way annihilate the perfection of his presence. Only he didn’t.

She asked him a question, and in response, he laughed his undeniable laugh. “Yes,” he said.

“Want to come hang out with me and my friends?”

She introduced him around the circle of girls she had come with, none of whom recognized his significance or interrupted her conversation long enough to let him register. They all retired to the stadium seats, but his three-foot circle remained; only now Katherine was inside of it. She wondered momentarily whether her friends knew where she was, but then succumbed to Christopher’s propinquity in a way that made time, space and matter irrelevant.

He spoke about music and traveling in a voice that was haunting and handed her a CD of songs he had written. He searched her face for recognition and she realized how long it had been since she had looked anyone in the eye. It was more naked than sex, this staring. She looked down at his handwriting, uniform and square, obviously artistic, then waved the disc gratefully in the air before sliding it into her bag.

“I’ve never seen New York before,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve slept the entire time I’ve been here. Too much energy. Too much to do. Have you ever gone up the Empire State Building at night and just looked at the city?”

“You can die from not sleeping,” she said. “I think it takes nine days or something like that. The chemicals in your brain start to break down and eat each other. Then you go into a coma. Then you just go away.”

He laughed at her like she was mad and madness was adorable.

“I’m pretty much a zombie if I don’t get at least eight hours every night. I come from terminally sleepy people,” she continued.

“You took your jacket off,” he said and ran an icy hand down her arm. She shivered pleasantly. His chill felt familiar. “It’s cold out. It’s November,” he said.

He wore two sweaters and a leather jacket. Katherine wore a sleeveless top. Ghosts were always cold and brought the cold with them like a present no one wanted. It was part of their charm. Their lack of humanity.

“It’s September,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows. They met in a bushy V above his nose. It should have been repulsive; instead it was being added to the rather long list of his attractions.

“Isn’t it?” Katherine shook her head to try to find some sort of equilibrium, to stop sliding down the slope of attraction to him. “I just feel like we’ve known each other for awhile.” She blushed. “Like forever.”

He grinned with his eyes in a flash that you would miss if you weren’t utterly smitten. “Forever’s a long time.” His teeth were like the upside down crooked fence outside of her mother’s cemetery, arched like a half-moon.

“Do you want to talk to my friends?” she said, to try to save herself.

He laughed again. It sounded like flicking empty glasses with a fingernail. They looked over his shoulder at her friends who were drinking beer and eating pretzels and talking about a marathon. She let her chin rest on his shoulder for a half blink that felt as deep as a week. “I think I prefer having you to myself,” he said.

She looked at him hard. His pupils dilated into the faint blue of his eyes and he stopped smiling. It was strange to think he had ever been human. There was too much to him, as if he came from the Renaissance or Bethlehem. He sang and composed, played piano, guitar and the harp. He had read Wuthering Heights by candlelight in the courtyard of a Tudor grange because it was more Romantic that way. He played football and had beautiful hands, thin and long with nails bitten to the quick. He knew who Foucault was and brought him up in conversation without seeming pretentious. His father was a failed rock star and his mother was a saint who loved him best of all her boys. It showed on him in the way he glowed with something like the expectation of love, which is always golden. Golden like it had never entered his mind that the world wouldn’t want him. The sky behind him was orange and death blue above the horizon of the East River.

“How long are you here?” She felt like time was closing in on them. She thought for a second she could see through him to her friends beyond, lighting cigarettes now and gesticulating with them to punctuate useless points.

“Not exactly sure. Not long.” His voice broke a little and he smiled a sad smile, like he knew a lot of things she would never know.

“You aren’t real, are you?” she said. “You’re too perfect.” She rested her head against his shoulder. He was warm and wintry all at once. “I always find boys who aren’t real. Boys who disappear.”

“Sometimes a day can last forever,” he said. “It all depends on how you look at it.” He put his finger below her chin and made her meet his eyes. He stared at her as if he would kiss her. The last bits of day winged around their shoulders like autumn butterflies and Kate yearned toward him with a feeling that was dusty and just pulled down from the top shelf. It made her breath catch in her throat.

But then he didn’t.

They watched the rest of the show, drinking watery beer and leaning in to knock heads and exchange silly observations. He smelled like the first boy Kate had ever kissed and she looked for excuses to touch his skin because it sent sparks through her fingers and left stains that felt like shivers. She wished he was real, that he could stay for longer or that she could disappear with him to wherever it is the dead go, but she knew it couldn’t be. It never got to be the way she wanted.

***

Katherine cannot remember what she wore to her mother’s funeral. She knows she went shopping specifically to have something appropriate for the occasion, but she can’t remember what it was, and when she’s feeling morbid, she looks down at her black dress or gray sweater and slacks and wonders, “Is this it? Is this the one?” She never goes to the cemetery, but when she does, it always seems to be raining. A pissing drizzle like in London. She tiptoes through the soaked, sadly groomed grass that should be allowed to overgrow and tries to feign sobriety. She and her brothers leave rocks on the tombstone. Sometimes, to make Timmy smile, she takes rocks off of other stones and places them on her mother’s. She winks and Timmy gives her a thumbs up, as if their team has just gone up a field goal in the last 20 seconds. Danny hugs the tombstone while he pretends he isn’t crying. This prompts Kate to throw the grave an air kiss and spend the entire ride back to the city wondering whose genius idea it was to put stones up to remember bodies.

At her mother’s wake she tried to hold the corpse’s hand and it felt like stone, but when her mother had been in the coma in a rented hospital bed in their living room, her hand was warm like bread and soft. Kate could sit beside the bed in the afternoon shaft of sunlight, listening to Celtic music and every few minutes her mother would squeeze her hand, which meant, “I love you. I always loved you. I love you.” Kate could have kept her in that coma forever.

Or a little longer.

***

Months after the concert, Kate decided to visit the ghost’s parents in England. She looked them up and phoned to say she was a friend of Chris’ from University, from her year abroad, and they extended an open invitation. Yorkshire is known for its hospitality. When she arrived, after taking two wrong trains and misreading a few signs in the tiny city, his mother bled into the background of their sprawling Tudor grange while his father teased her mercilessly. When she walked through the ancient wooden doors, Edward barked, “Who the fuck gets lost in Leeds?” She knew it meant he liked her, and she cozied up to him as if she were his favorite cat, nestling into the crook of his elbow and basking in his taunting.

At lunch, they sat at a round table where everyone talked at once and Edward passed her pickles, olives and pasta salad. His hands were callused, and he was solid like a bricklayer. He made fun of the way she cut with her right hand, then put her knife down to switch to her fork to eat. “Americans,” he said gruffly. He smiled at her with his eyes. He had longshoreman ways and the certainty age leant him was comfortable and familiar. Reminiscent of the ghost. It felt like a fuzzy blanket.

Across the table, the ghost appeared next to his widow and looked for all the world like death. Her name was Ethel or Gertrude or Clare. They all meant small, round and domestic, easy and uncomplicated, supportive, not draining. She was dead boring, Katherine was sure. She was even kind to Katherine, as if it had never crossed her mind that Katherine was dangerous. Or maybe it had. Maybe this was how Mays and Marys waged war. Silently. Smartly. Without passion.

The ghost watched Katherine flirt with his father and discovered no excuses to touch Enid or Eunice, whom he sat beside as if she were a tombstone with an empty blank for his name. Katherine felt fraught with compelling horrors, like a siren that sings men to their deaths. This was all she had to hold onto at the perfectly circular table of perfect couples, Edward and wife, at cross ends, Christopher and his widow, his brother and a girl, and another brother and another girl with hair like a horsetail.

Edward refilled Kate’s wine glass without her asking, and she didn’t know if it was this or the subtle sense that everyone at the table was somehow lying to themselves that made it all seem so muzzy and vague. She had the distinct feeling that she was the only one who was really alive. And she was angry with herself for being uncertain whether she was glad she was just visiting or if she would like to stay forever and learn how to die as well.

This sense continued down in London where the ghost walked along the Thames with her and went to the Tate with her, and crossed bridges with her and sang her songs and played his guitar for her and traveled up and down escalators either above or below her, always turned to talk to her, while the widow went to work and made money that went to candles and prayers for the dead. She possessed a peace and certainty that Katherine had been sure only existed in the grave. Katherine wondered what the ghost found compelling in this, and secretly believed that the widow’s passivity was the ghost’s impetus for haunting Katherine, who was nothing if not dramatic. Tiringly dramatic.

In the widow’s apartment, photographs fell from the wall to the floor, shattering, and once a glass hovered above the kitchen table. The widow never suspected the ghost, but Katherine knew. The widow’s lack of insight or speculation was another mark against her in Katherine’s book. It balanced out her hospitality, hosting a long-lost friend whom she must have suspected was once Christopher’s lover. A girl whom his spirit preferred to that of his wife.

On a bright, cloudy Wednesday, while the widow was at work, Katherine and the ghost found a portion of the river that they both agreed looked like Paris, and shared sandwiches and beer from Tesco on a forgotten bench dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson. London was letting Kate go in a few days and she was pretending this wasn’t so.

“You only have so much time, you know what I mean?” the ghost said.

She nodded. His shoulder nuzzled against hers. All week she had been collecting accidents of intimacy and analyzing their character. This seemed intentional yet platonic. Or maybe just intentional. She knew ghosts grew envious of the living. This could be his subtle way of stealing her spirit. She didn’t really mind. He could have it. That was what living was about—letting go. The ghost had no idea, with his talk of music and life after death, as if he were Shakespeare.

“And I want to make my mark,” he said. “I want to leave something behind. Something important, you know what I mean? I think about my music incessantly. It drove her crazy sometimes. But she understands. She’s really understanding of my music. I shouldn’t have said that.” He handed Kate the bottle, brushing her cold fingers with his, and watched the river.

“You really think that makes you eternal? That you live on after death because your songs live?”

“Well, yeah.” He said it like Kate was dim.

“If you believe your body rots, then what do you care what happens with your songs? If you’re dead, you don’t care. You don’t anything. You don’t be. A song isn’t a person. Trust me. You can’t kiss a song. Or hold its hand.” Kate chucked a sandwich crust at English pigeons and wished the day would grow grayer. It seemed like the sun was going to come back out.

“Thanks, Kate,” Chris said. He made an ungrateful face.

She could forget so easily that he was dead; she preferred to pretend he was her boyfriend and that the few moments they could find to be with each other were all the time in the world. She had an amazingly easy time of fooling herself in his presence.

“Maybe I didn’t mean it,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe my mom cares.”

“You think romance is the most important thing in the world,” Christopher said. “Maybe that’s why you’re alone. You want it too much.”

She looked at him sadly and he relented. It was so awful how even he could misunderstand her.

“So what’s the secret, Kat?” he said. “If I’m the one who’s wrong?”

The river ran gunmetal gray under the bridges, reflecting buildings from forever ago and from the age of space eggs.

“All time happens at once. So you’re never dead. Or you’re always dead. It just depends how you look at it,” she said.

He looked like he was going to kiss her, smiling the special smile that adored her madness but stopped one breath short of understanding, hovering in a way that was nicer than complete understanding, because complete understanding would lead to boredom and death. But he didn’t. He took her wrist, softly, as if it were his, with the fingers of a lonely ghost, and looked at her watch. “She’s going to be out of work soon. We should find a phone.”

He sat nearly on top of Kate in the tube and then on buses where he shared music with her, touching his ear to hers, and almost held her hand late at night in a bar, and touched his knees to hers underneath tables and leaned into her on his widow’s couch, smelling like salt and possibilities, the scent of cemeteries on summer nights, but always, always disappeared when she had to go to bed.

Ghosts.

Kate cried the night before she left London anyway, listening to the song he had written for her on repeat. She brought three days of torrential rain back to New York. It had been almost sunny in England in every town she went.

***

When the season of death approached a second time, the ghost grew insistent. He used the radio and the telephone. She skipped her own birthday party to meet him in an enchanted hotel room where he greeted her soaking wet in a towel. She didn’t touch him, in her winter coat and red woolen stockings. She had her reasons. They were intellectual and she knew, even with her sad intellect, that they would never stand up to her emotions. Her emotions were barbarians.

“This place is the best yet,” the ghost said. Outside the window were a golden dome and a Georgian hotel. She wandered to the edge of the room and sat in the window, pressing against the cold sky. The ghost had invited her to heaven. The room was half windows; they were part of the clouds. Katherine knew it wasn’t real.

As Kate waited for him to get ready, she realized that the ghost was different, not so golden, loneliness apparent in the curl of brown hair at his temple and the curve of his fingers when he lay on the bed and picked out a tune that sounded as light and ephemeral as fairies. He said he’d never felt more alive. Maybe it was true. Maybe living took the life out of a person. He seemed worn out and lonely, not so much like the ghost she had known at all. Kate told herself that this made her like him less, but she knew she was lying.

They watched a movie in the hotel and Christopher touched knees with her under the blankets, then took his shirt off for the massage he asked for, and ultimately plied her with three bottles of good white wine at a sidewalk bar, and finally, when none of this worked, said simply, “Don’t you want to hug me?” in the back of a fast-moving cab. Because Kate had told herself it was best to leave the dead alone. She had told herself this when Christopher called, told herself this as she cancelled her party and drove four long hours down, pretending it was under protest and somehow beyond her control.

But the incarnation was completed when Christopher tilted her chin up in the fast-moving cab and kissed her, kissed her into the street and onto the elevator and against the hallway wall and in the window to the sky where they talked about his father and her mother and got lost in conversation, until he kissed further words away, and slowly her confusion slid aside (so it could consume her more completely upon its return) and she had to acknowledge that maybe she wasn’t really broken after all.

Katherine decided they were only alive because death loomed just outside the windows and she finally admitted that in this world, eternity can only last for a weekend, otherwise it turns into the tediousness of sleep. So she didn’t let herself cry as the orange gold sun set inside the hotel room and Christopher played the magical song and she noticed that his perfectly white shoulder had eleven freckles and he smelled like heaven and bread and she would never be so happy again in her life, even though she wanted to be and everything in her was pushing and yearning and longing. She had reached her peak.

When she drove home in the dying Sunday light, she remembered the way Christopher had haunted her for several nights prior, possessing her phone when she was out with friends or Henry. The ghost had a way of expecting your full attention, and then, if he didn’t get it, pretending it didn’t matter and he was happy you had a life. But really, all his “no worries,” and his “I don’t minds,” amounted to an obvious sense of entitlement to any love he thought he wanted, which was any love available. She hated the fact that she knew he deserved it, too. Christopher was deeply, unfairly loveable. He did things that human beings didn’t know how to do. Like he accidentally dialed her number when she was five minutes outside of the city. When he realized it was Kate, and asked, “Why did you think I’d be calling you so soon?” she replied, “To check on me?” Once the idea had been presented to Christopher, he called her three more times to make sure she was okay before she got home. He made her crazy.

***

Katherine hated November. She didn’t know if her mother had died on November 8th or 9th because it had happened at 3:21 AM when Kate was sleeping. Things that she found out right after sleeping never became clear. In fact, they sometimes grew into fairy tales or premonitions, as when in college, an ex-boyfriend would prank call her in the middle of the night and she would come to believe that the twisted things he said were predictions of her future or messages from the dead. It was as if when tearing the veil between sleeping and waking, she would stumble onto the mysteries of existence, mysteries that still remained somewhat muddied, because they had to be digested and analyzed while conscious. When the phone rang in the dead center of that night in November, Kate knew her mother was dead, so she didn’t answer. It didn’t make it not happen, but when she was sleeping, it did. Her father said he sat alone with the body until the sun came up and the morticians arrived.

***

Time with the ghost had called all of reality into question. There were the usual penalties to pay, the week following his disappearance when Katherine succumbed to the sleeping sickness every night at 7:03 PM, to dreams that were sweeter than waking life, and then the other nights when she lay awake in bed, examining the darkness, well aware that nothing actually exists, not the way we think it does. Not with any sort of solidity.

She started having a hard time remembering if the things that had happened, actually had, or if she had dreamt them. Part of this she blamed on the sleeping sickness. Some of her dreams, too, were becoming confused with events that other people could corroborate. She couldn’t remember what Christopher had worn to the cello concert in St. John the Divine, though she could remember how he looked glancing over his glasses at her, exactly the way he would look at 63. But she didn’t know if they had walked along the Hudson and said it felt like Paris or if she had dreamt of them saying that on the Thames. She told her colleague, Renata, that she felt like she was coming unstuck, “You know what I mean?” she said.

The ghost had said “you know what I mean” after almost every sentence when he was passionate. Though when he did it, Kate noticed it and knew that if a real person had done it, it would have bothered her, she didn’t mind the way it was creeping into her own vocabulary, or the way her body had started to smell like him after he had disappeared. She took these occurrences as signs that would point to some eventual significant meaning. She collected them.

“What are you talking about?” Renata said. “Do you feel all right? You look a little pale.”

Kate looked at her nails. They were all uneven lengths and the cuticles were growing.

“You know, you haven’t seemed totally yourself lately,” Renata said.

“I told you about the sleeping sickness,” she said.

“You made that up, though. That’s not real.” Renata opened the paper tray on the copier and stacked two new reams of paper without even looking. She studied Kate.

Kate liked this. The scrutiny. The ghost had really seen her, in a way she hadn’t been perceived since before her mother died. People in her department never believed Kate’s illnesses. They told her she read too many Victorian novels. Whenever she said she didn’t feel well, they asked if it was the TB again and laughed. Even before the ghost, Kate had only had one foot in everyone else’s reality. This is probably why she had seen him in the first place. She had never mentioned him at work when he was haunting her, only when he vanished. And then she called him Christopher. Her friend from England with the angelic voice. She didn’t let anyone know he was a ghost.

***

She only felt strange being back with Henry the Sunday after Christopher dissolved into the nighttime sky, saying, “I’ll see you when I see you,” the lovely curve of his back turning away from Kate into the swirl of a revolving door, and Kate thinking the thought she always did when the ghost went away. “I don’t want to remember, because maybe this is the last time. Maybe I’ll never see him again.” She didn’t want a shabby memory of a revolving door turning to tatters in her mind from incessant worrying.

Then she wandered back to Henry’s apartment. She had known the ghost was fading. She would reach for his hand sometimes and feel her own fingers, how cold they were. Christopher would smile sadly. When he told her stories about his band or his wife, she cast her eyes down and away. Chris said she reminded him of Bob Dylan. Petulant. Moody. They pretended to laugh, but they were eating her frustration. It was a meal they consumed at the gunpoint of his departure. And she could explain none of this, because part of the haunting made her choked on her own words. The ghost made her achingly aware of all the limitations of human love.

It was the ghost’s idea that she should say goodbye to him and then go to Henry’s. Chris seemed worried about her, the way her grandfather had in the dream where he handed Kate the block of emptiness that was her mother’s death. Worried, but unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it. The ghost could be like an angel sometimes, an angel with a devilish streak.

They sat on Bleecker Street drinking their last glasses of wine and Kate tried to keep her passion tightly in her hands like a squirming mouse while the ghost told her she should take vocal lessons, and spend time with people who were more her kind. Girls walked by in legwarmers and the gray sky hovered near their heads, waiting to deepen into black.

“What if I didn’t live across an ocean? What if it were some other world?” she said.

She knew Chris thought she should be content with friendship. In some sick, ghostly fashion, he valued friendship over romantic love, because it was immune from vagaries. He cultivated bloodless attachments for their solidity. Chris smiled the sad smile and didn’t answer. She knew they had somehow torn the fabric of friendship, anyway, and it would never be the same. It was one more thing Kate couldn’t save.

“What if it was an alternate universe and all the stuff we can’t control was suddenly perfect? What if you were alive? Or we were dead together?” She hadn’t been going to say it. She didn’t want to admit, even to herself, that it was what she really wanted. Even if it was sometimes boring, even if it meant that single moments lacked a poignant intensity. She could deal with that. All she wanted now was an answer that would feel like a worry stone in her pocket, something she could touch when she was scared or very alone.

A motorcycle rumbled past, shattering the air. Kate flinched. The ghost did not. He stared at her with eyes that said he wouldn’t give her even that. She sipped her wine. Across the street, a man in a light jacket twirled a metal pole, retracting a summer awning. “Well, anyway, I don’t think I’m going to sleep with Henry tonight,” Kate said.

“That’s just crazy,” the ghost said. “Why would you deny your boyfriend sex because of this? We don’t really exist.”

So she arranged to wind up at Henry’s. She even pretended to look forward to the ghost’s disappearance, bustling around her apartment while he packed and jokingly instructed her on the proper way to roll socks. Kate said little to him after the accusation of insanity. She remembered how the ghost had made her promise not to pick a fight with him just before he left. He knew she had a deep bag of tricks developed to ward off the pain of loss. But before Christopher disappeared, he did not invoke the promise and their final moments were silence.

***

Henry was wedded to his work and didn’t seem to realize or care that Kate had indulged in a torrid affair with a ghost. When she got to his apartment he didn’t see her, because he was halfway inside his computer. She tried to push herself close to him to remember reality, but she felt nothing, not a single shiver. And then she was sure the real world was ruined for her forever, like a garden that still existed for everyone else, but that she had lost the magic words to find. Like her ghostly friendship. Like her mother. This made Kate glad. It was concrete and certain. It was only right that the ghost would mean something lasting. Henry didn’t break her heart down the center with beauty and finitude and the beauty of finitude. He didn’t make her feel eternity at all. She discovered he even had hair on his back. She left for home knowing it was over.

But reality resumed, even though Kate didn’t believe in it, just because so many other people were fervently, devoutly making it so. The power of combined belief was causing Henry to still phone Kate. And now she felt strange that she didn’t mind, because he still didn’t melt her heart or dissolve her edges the way the ghost had. He took her to dinner and held her arm when they walked in the street. He made strange noises when they made love, but never became her, not the way the ghost had. They never made the kind of happiness that closes your throat and constricts every cell, so that you know what death will feel like, and that you’ll want it. Kate’s moments with Henry never deepened; she didn’t know why she still talked to him. It made no sense.

She tried to remind herself how heavy and complete she had been when she meandered through the city as if it weren’t hers, because it had been new to the ghost — how he had mashed a water bottle into the shape of the Chrysler Building and made her laugh, and how the streets that used to only be the places she hung out in college were now Chris’s wonder-filled stories of Dylan and Kerouac. How time hadn’t existed, except as the black edge of all her happiness, the tinge that made her know it would end, and made it better and more important because it would end. Now she was light and confused. Everything since the haunting served to overwhelm Kate. Her response was an emotional coma.

When she was in the moments she loved, she knew they would pass, and when they were gone it was like they never were. She wanted to be haunted again, but slowly, the sheets she hadn’t changed and the towel she wouldn’t wash, the couch where he had played his guitar and the kitchen table where he had made dinner, were all losing their hold of him. Chris wasn’t a powerful or even persistent ghost. He had no staying power. She decided to tell herself the ghost wasn’t real. He is not anywhere else, confusing another girl’s boundaries or plunging her in mysteries. He doesn’t exist.

***

When Kate was sure that the ghost was truly gone, was in the place where the dead do not haunt and their voices don’t slip through, not even over airwaves, she also gave up Henry and his promise of a living death. She imagined this place was something like a dilapidated English mining town, where the women are shades and all of the couples stay together forever, because they have no passions to tear them apart. Kate saw it in dreams. Sometimes, in the dream, she sat at the edge of a fast moving stream with Christopher. The air around their shoulders was orange and gold, heavy with the promise of rain, and their seat was primordial, wet and dark like a Druidical forest, as the gray water rushed. Chris was Kate’s mother. And the Eiffel Tower loomed behind them like a threat. They shared a sandwich, and when their warm fingers touched Kate felt small and safe, like a bean or a pea.

“It’s only natural to miss Paris,” the ghost said. Kate cried because she didn’t miss Paris and she didn’t think her mother understood. She pressed herself against the pleather of the backseat of a fast-moving cab as the beautiful world raced through the window behind them, every building the shape of a memory. The ghost pushed the hair out of Kate’s eyes. His fingers were warm and soft and he wanted to hear everything she had to say. He found Kate’s hand, a little butterfly fluttering near her chin. The ghost’s hand was bread and stone, the same consistency as eternity.

Venus’ Web

Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity.—Henry James

The spider had been working on her web since dawn, excreting the long threads of silvery string that extended across the expanse of the window frame. The glass had been broken long ago and cardboard was the only thing dividing the world outside from the converted warehouse loft. Shimmering strands of sunlight cascaded through the cracks between the pieces of weatherworn cardboard illuminating the surface of the web with prismatic refractions. The spider dangled lazily. A slight breeze from the window danced her until a gigantic thump caused the windows to shake. The ancient tape gave way to the force of the quake and the cardboard was knocked loose. The filaments of the web hyper-extended and then broke under the weight. Barely escaping, the spider scuttled up to a vacant corner of the room and began to weave again.

Francesca stood before the block of marble that had just been delivered, inspecting its perfection. As she strode around it, her hands ran across the unblemished surface lovingly as if she were stroking a beloved pet. A gentle hum coursed through her fingers into her bones and dissipated throughout her body. The virgin stone beamed a brilliant shade of white under the glare of the florescent lights that were buzzing overhead. She felt a pull; whether it was in her heart or her stomach, she was not sure. It was the same pull that she felt each time that she looked at a blank canvas or mound of clay.

The loft was overcrowded with haunting paintings and extravagant sculptures that Francesca had created over the years. The walls were covered with charcoal drawings of sullen faced girls that all resembled their originator. Lining the staircase that led to her bedroom, there were enormous, richly colored, oil paintings with layers of texture so passionate they made their subjects seem almost alive. Boring tables and matching chairs were painted in vibrant shades to disguise their blandness. Even the ceiling wore a celestial mural. Francesca longed to make ordinary things somehow extraordinary. Her life seemed like a series of obsessions that overtook her, each a new perversion of her current state of truth. It was not just an expression when she created her art. It was a need that outranked all others.

Francesca glared into the stone. She knelt before it in penance, silently begging this marble to unveil its secrets. She always found this part of the creative process was one of the most frustrating, waiting for inspiration. She ached for the release, the beauty of creation. She could feel an idea swim almost to the surface of her mind and then dive back down into the depths of her subconscious where she could not reach it. For hours she just stared at the stone imagining all the things it might become, a blank surface with infinite potential. The statue’s fate was firmly in Francesca’s hands, and it was not a responsibility she took lightly.

She sometimes thought as Michelangelo did, that the media had already picked its own form. That is to say, that the fate of the marble was already somehow engrained in it, all she had to do was find the underlying structure and reveal it to the rest of the world. Art was not something that she made so much as it was something that she found.

She tried to feel it, to tap into the reserve of intuition to find her inspiration. As her eyes relaxed and her body loosened, the world went silent. She could no longer hear the hum of the lights or the rumble of the cars passing outside. She was no longer bothered by the wails of neighborhood children screaming or any of the other ordinary sounds of life that paraded within earshot. She felt almost like she was slipping out of her own skin. The rest of the world seemed somehow much dimmer than the mound of rock that sat in front of her. It was illuminated in a soft light that clung to it, giving it the ethereal radiance of an angel.

It was as if the stone became fluid in her mind, free from the confines of reality. She contorted the form into a hundred flowing images. One idea transformed into the next without her even being aware of the mutation. She saw a lion, an elephant, a siren, and many more but none of these struck her. They seemed an endless procession of the shells of forms that did not inspire the requisite passion to become a work of art.

Just when she was about to turn away, it came upon her like a revelation. The face of Venus, exiled, encased in the stone, and Francesca was instantly spellbound. This marble would become the image of beauty, the personification of perfection, the goddess of love, a symbol that had survived for millennia after the fall of her empire. Francesca heard the voice of Venus echo from the hunk of marble, pleading with the single word, “Help.” Venus’ lusty eyes danced in Francesca’s mind, burrowing into the archives of her psyche and unraveling throughout her soul. She thought of all of the art that Venus had inspired over the span of her history. She could not count the number of renditions of the goddess that she had seen in various museums, not to mention Venus’ continued appearance in poetry and plays. Francesca was awed by the idea. She saw Venus as an ever-evolving entity whose diversity of guises only underscored her constant reemergence. The divination of such perfect beauty shook Francesca, and she longed to become a part of Venus’ evolution.

Francesca sat at a table facing the block of stone. The radio lulled her into a trance with the rich timbre of Natalie Merchant singing My Skin. She sketched at an enormous piece of paper, planning her first cuts. A quiet, husky voice whispered instructions to her under the sound of the music. The sultry resonance of the words guided her pencil until she was certain of each amputation she would have to make. The voice of Venus enraptured her and without even being aware of it, Francesca stood up and strode towards the marble with an old saw in her hand.

The world outside her loft went on, but she would not leave, and why should she want to? In this place, she felt like a goddess herself. Francesca cut away the superfluous chunks from the marble, working the saw back and forth so vigorously that her arms pounded with an aching that never ceased. Her back was stiff and tiny blisters erupted on the back of her knuckles from grasping the saw. Her hands were so dry they felt like they were covered in crumpled parchment instead of skin. Her eyes were so strained from staring that all she could see was the blur of white rock. She continued her work each morning despite these discomforts and went to sleep only after she had become so exhausted that she could not continue. A voice always disturbed her slumber and whenever it called, she descended the stairs to attend to the beckoning of her muse. Francesca worked all day every day, ignoring the calls of prospective art buyers and the queries from local galleries. She did not even listen to their messages. When the doorbell rang, she did not answer it. Venus was all that mattered right now.

The days began to meld together, an endless jumble of events that were no longer marked by the sun’s position in the sky but by the progression of Venus’ rebirth. Francesca thought perhaps if she could just finish, she might know some semblance of peace. The weight of her revelation felt heavy now, a burden and an obsession. It felt like an extension of ravenous lust but it had a draw deeper than lust and harsher than love. It was the insatiable tug of passion mingled with irrepressible power of creation. Francesca found this particular mix so intoxicating that her simple awe of Venus became fanatical reverence. Venus was not some idea in her mind, the goddess sat before her, demanding her devotion, giving her a purpose.

Francesca often said that creation, in all its forms, was something sacred. A revelatory, numinous kind of experience unlike any other she had ever known. Art was where she explored all of her sadness, all of her rage, and all of her love. Long ago, she discovered that in all the exhilarations and irritations of creating something, there comes a strange sense of peace. Not just peace but purpose as well. When someone asked her once why she painted, she said that she had never picked up a paintbrush without learning something about herself.

Art, as far as it has the ability, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master, so that art must be, as it were, a descendant of God.—Dante Alighieri

A set of six spinnerets exuded with a viscid fluid that miraculously turned to silken threads upon contact with the air. The spider wove these threads with the diligence of instinct and the artistry of Arachne. It is sometimes said that spiders wove the veil of illusion that separates this world from the next or that they wove the very fabric of reality itself. Either way, this was her purpose, to weave. She had to weave to catch her prey. She had to weave to have a place to live. The spider spun with the patience of a being that did not know that time existed or that work was ever done.

Francesca did not want to be disturbed. She did not want to see anyone and did not want to do anything except work on her Venus, but necessity eventually caught up with her. The teeth of her saw had become too worn, it had never really been the proper instrument for the job. She had not worked with marble since art school.

Francesca looked down at her wrinkled clothing and wondered how long she had been wearing it. She removed her baggy t-shirt as she climbed the spiral staircase that led to her bedroom. She was usually very organized but the whole loft had been in an advanced state of chaos since Venus moved in, and the bedroom was no exception. Clothes were strewn over one side of the bed and all over the floor. Simple things like laundry were not important anymore.

Normally, Francesca took pleasure in taking a shower, but she took no pleasure in this shower; it was a means to an end. She wished that she did not have to leave. She wanted more than anything to stay with her muse. She tried to think if she had anything else to use to cut the stone, but there was nothing. She got dressed quickly, not paying attention to what she was doing. As a result, her shoes were mismatched. She did not even notice until she was selecting a saw from one of the lower shelves of an overcrowded aisle. Francesca saw Venus all around her, she could hear her muse whispering to her, summoning her to return.

Suddenly the whole store seemed to get smaller. She felt trapped by the rows congested with shoppers and clerks. The harsh wail of a child crying flooded her ears and drowned Venus out for a few lonely seconds. Francesca could not stand it. She had to get out of there and back to her muse. The line at the front of the store stretched on forever, and all the lines around her seemed to be moving much faster than hers was. She watched the middle-aged man in front of her hand the pretty, young blonde behind the counter his business card as he said,

“I’d love to paint you sometime. You’d make a ravishing goddess.”

Francesca wished that she had not laughed out loud, but she could not help it. The girl behind the counter blushed and would not look up until the man left the store. Francesca looked at the girl but it was Venus’ eyes that she saw shying away from her, it was Venus’ hand that took her money, and Venus’ voice that wished her a good afternoon.

The drive home was horrible. Stoplights seemed to take an eternity and the harsh glare of the sun was so brilliant that she could not see. Cars appeared out of nowhere and blocked her progress at every turn. Speed limits of twenty miles per hour were imposed at various intervals due to their proximity to schools. All of this annoyed Francesca so that she felt exhausted when she returned to her sanctuary. She grabbed the pile of mail that was spilling out of the box on her way inside but she did not bother to look at it before she threw it on the table. She was back at Venus’ side. Finally, she had a good saw and the job seemed much easier after that. Eventually what remained was the squared figure of a woman. It was a far cry from the flawlessness of Venus, but it was a start.

Francesca grasped the thick handle of her chisel and angled it. She pounded the mallet, striking the blunt end of the chisel. As the wooden shaft of the instrument passed through her grasp, a splinter severed from the surface and lodged itself in her palm. She screeched with pain. As she plucked the sliver of wood from her hand, she thought it was a small sacrifice for the birth of a goddess. She put on a pair of thick leathery gloves before she resumed. The stone clanked and clattered under the force of her renewed assault. Great portions of the marble were reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes.

She chiseled away the edges to reveal the smooth outline of a goddess. With intricate taps, she uncovered a rough face, a main of long, twisting tendrils, the orbs of her breasts crowned with tiny bumps that would become the nipples. Francesca stared at the primitive form that stood before her and thought she heard a purr escape from the jagged contour of Venus’ lips.

Francesca filed the smooth curves of her Venus, scouring the edges away. Dust scattered around the loft and hung suspended in the stagnant air until white powder blanketed all that she possessed, even her own body. Her dark brown hair was flecked with particles of perfect white and the cold concrete floor was slippery. She replaced her protective glasses with a bright red motorcycle helmet but somehow the dust still found its way inside, causing her eyes to itch and a few random sneezing fits.

Francesca was devoted to Venus but patience was not a virtue that she came by naturally, it was an act of discipline. Patience itself had become a sort of art form, excruciating and exhilarating at the same time. She hated to wait, but the longer she spent working on the sculpture, the more she fell in love with it, and the more she fell in love with it, the fiercer her devotion became.

As she brushed the excess dust from the statue, she felt Venus lead her eyes downwards as if to point out that the breasts were not a perfect pair. She resumed with her chisel. When they were re-filed, Francesca’s gaze was led down to the toes. They looked too masculine, she descended upon them, determined that they should be smaller and rounder. She scratched the tiny indentations of the toes until even the toenails were flawless.

Once she stood up, Francesca caught a sight of herself in the mirror across the room. The reflection that stared back at her was not the face of the woman she remembered being, nor was it the face of her irrepressible muse. Francesca was a beautiful woman, but there were dark circles with the beginnings of little creases marking the edges of her eyes. Her hair was a tangled mess of mahogany waves, piled carelessly and held in place by a broken brown barrette. Her skin looked pale and greasy and there could be no mistake, she smelled. Her clothes were the same ones she had been wearing since she bought the saw. Her belly growled. She looked down at it with disgust. She had no desire to eat but it was clear from the sounds that her stomach was making, it was time.

Francesca made her way through the clutter of the kitchen. Every dish that she owned seemed to be sitting in the sink. The air was rank with the thick scent of rotting food and mold. She had lit a bunch of Patchouli incense to try and cover the smell; now the stubs hung with coils of ash curling across the dingy white countertop, and nothing in there smelled like Patchouli. The only thing left in the refrigerator was a variety of condiments, an assortment of very old milk, and fermented juices. She picked up a granola bar and hurried out of the room. She hated it that she let things get so gross, but that was not important just now, Venus was calling. She ate with the robotic gestures of indifference. She could take no pleasure in the act. Time that she spent eating was time that she had wasted.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance direction, which thou canst not see.
—Alexander Pope

The spiders had one master and her name was Nature. She did not succumb to the passions of humanity when she met her mate. He danced around her web, courting her with movement. His legs twitched with rhythmic ticks that announced his intentions without the bother of language or the loneliness of love. He caressed her arms with his until her hind legs spread to accept him. There was no talk of love, lust, or beauty. No lies or guilt to forbid them from the act. Above all things instinct drove them, gave them purpose. They were not planning for the future, they were creating without the hassles of intent.

Francesca began the process of sanding. She sanded at the toes for ages, polishing the nails to a glossy shine. She eroded away the lines that the file had left on the stone and smoothed out the curvature of Venus’ muscles. She traded her sandpaper in for finer and finer grades. The electricity was turned off, but this scarcely bothered Francesca. She continued her work, often lighting candles in the darkness so she could see. Frequently this gave her headaches from the strain on her eyes, but she never stopped working, Venus would not allow it.

Francesca dunked a fresh piece of sandpaper into a bowl of lukewarm water and began scratching it gently across the sculpture’s face. As she stared into the eyes of Venus, she noticed that they were slightly crooked. She picked up her chisel, only perfection was acceptable. She chipped away the lines of the face and tapped out a smaller nose and a pair of perfect eyes. They tilted upwards slightly so that she looked like she may have been related to an elf. Francesca remodeled Venus’ features to reflect the image of perfection that lingered in her mind’s eye. She was not a classical statue like the kind one might see from ancient Rome or Greece. Nor was she the plump muse of Botticelli. She had the slightly jaded features of a modern woman. Her face was long and thin, vaguely sunken in as if she were malnourished. The twist of her smile suggested some deliciously mischievous plot was brewing in the depths of her soul, and something about her eyes made her seem somehow impenetrable.

Francesca appraised the face lovingly as she filed it into sharper detail. She sanded the definition of beauty into the face and when she was satisfied with the smooth arch of the cheekbones, glassy sheen of the eyes, and full curl of the lips, she stood back to admire the effect. The face was indeed flawless but the goddess could not be so easily satisfied. Taking in the beauty of Venus’ visage, Francesca felt her eyes tugging away from the face to the thick stalk of Venus’ neck, over her chubby arms, to the hefty curve of her belly, around her ample hips, and down the stout camber of her thighs. She decided the body of the goddess looked a little plump under this new, slimmer, facade.

She started at the shoulders, fading them into lines that reflected the slender curves that the goddess demanded. She followed these lines erasing the details of the neck, to create them anew, with fainter, more feminine creases. She glided down the arms bestowing them with frailty. She slid to the fingertips, where she refashioned the shallow indentions of her fingernails, giving her longer, skinnier fingers. She transformed the hips, which led her down the legs, ebbing away the excess flesh of the thighs. The form of the goddess surrendered to leaner calves and ankles. Francesca returned to these areas with sandpaper and refined the shadows of the muscles, smoothing out the scrapes that marred the surface of her skin.

Once the legs were perfect, she revisited the breasts. Touching them up with some light sanding to reveal the areolas and the shadow below the breast, where the folds of her skin met her ribcage. From there, she made her way down, shaving the love-handles, and redefining the abdomen. She sloughed away the surface, creating the intimations of a washboard stomach. It was nearly finished, she thought excitedly. She looked over the sculpture spellbound for a moment; this was the most beautiful thing that she had ever created. Everything was perfect except the belly button. Francesca paused for a moment and wondered if it really mattered, she intended to dress the goddess in her own little black dress and no one would even see it. She decided that Venus would never approve of such an oversight.

Francesca spent over an hour gently etching at the navel before she heard it. The chisel had found a flaw at the core of the marble when she tapped it a bit too hard. A sharp crack echoed through the loft as the body of Venus split and the two halves crashed onto the cement floor. Shattered fragments of the crumbled statue littered the ground, a heap of white rubble and dust. One of Venus’ perfect eyes was staring blankly up at Francesca, desolated by the destruction of her own image.

Francesca stood suspended above the remnants of her masterpiece. She felt as if a part of herself was missing, lost forever. She was defeated, bound by her own imperfections, and she hated herself for them, convinced that she had betrayed her muse somehow. Her mouth tasted bitter and tears perched on the brim of her lashes ready to drip. It felt as if all of the breath had been knocked out of her. She was gasping, intoxicated by her misery and drowning from the burden of an unrealizable vision. All of her sacrifices meant nothing, her devotion had betrayed her, and now the statue was ruined. The face of Venus haunted her and the image of the goddess taunted her with the unobtainable virtue of perfection.

Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.—Leo Tolstoy

A fly whizzed through the air, disturbed by the quake of Venus’ fall. It toured the scene of the tragedy before ascending. It circled the room until it met with something strong and sticky. It was caught in her web, but the spider did not move. She hung on a string next to an enormous egg sac, worn and withered from the exertion of spinning. She thought it was the most beautiful web that she had ever woven, not because it was aesthetically pleasing but because of how much it had cost her to weave it. The fly flailed against the gummy cords shredding them in his fit, but still the spider did not move to secure him. Her tiny form had gone limp. Francesca felt the grief inside of her climax and then die at the same instant that the spider had perished. Miraculously, the veil of illusion was lifted and the catharsis of Venus reborn.

Six months later, Venus stood guarding the lobby of a little old theater on Banks Street. Red paint had been added to the thick glue that pieced her back. It seeped through the cracks, coloring her imperfections so it looked more like she was falling apart than glued back together. She was left naked in this state. Prying eyes appraised her flaws while waiting for the show to start and at intermission. Some people found her grotesque, others intriguing. When Francesca looked at Venus, she thought the statue was still perfect, not because it was beautiful but because she believed that it reflected truth. A bronze sign gilded the end of the clamshell that the goddess was standing on. It said, Venus’ Web.

What is most beautiful about life is that it is imperfect.—Jennifer Alexander

Voicemail Message 233

placed at 1:15,
to listen press the star key:
I imagine the ocean raw in September.
Names, not necessary,
but stamped indicting all.

No Chris,
I’m not asking to come down anymore
or up eleven stories to find you
craving a strip-down-dance-wrestle-sex
(sober though).
To lie then on your floor while you descend
to cocktails and friends,
“They’d bore you Jon.”

Like funhouse mirrors propped
on the backs of Fates,
through a shot glass smashed,
I sit on your white plank throne
watching the crash of someone on my shores.

He, Jim, brings his “kids,” an ark of pets.
A bed of leashed lizards,
collared dogs, one cockatoo perched,
a meth boyfriend in the back spare room
found living in his Toyota.
Another stray. “But no,
he hasn’t fucked me in three months;
he’s more of a roommate than anything.”

Jim calls nightly
much like I once did to you.
Oh what a strain!
I don’t want you, I whisper
as you I’m sure did.
You don’t want me, chanted secretly
down telephone lines to New Orleans.
When threatened
like a bitch defending her runt of a pup
he slanders your name.
You’re the bronzed knight
on a tarot pulled
when he’s confronted
with my plot-less metaphors.

Jim,
I’ve been led to the water’s edge
but fail to jump in.
I’m the one who takes off.
When anyone calls me
more than once a week
I freak.
I hull up planks
and drag my anchor aboard.

I unearth the stringy roots
used to leave faint impressions
like disappearing tracks
of sandpiper feet
on coastlines shifting.

“But (sob) Chris (sob)
the way you (sob) chased (sob)
and Chris (sob) strung (sob)
asshole (sob),”
said sans his Southern twang
and queer wit.

The bedroom puns are lost
sunken in the sags
of forty something skin
on a bed somewhere
in the French quarter.

Jon,
in the beginning you harped
on disappointment,
the careless handling
of others by others.
Setting bulbs of poison oak
laying tracks
of Venus fly traps,
whistle blowing breaths
stored early on.

The words flowed
from your pitcher lips
like honey wine
hornets still in twitching.
Wishing just wishing,
Chris would be the exception
to the spouted.

An earthen concoction buried deep
where Adam and Steve
did first meet.
Love caught at the base of the trunk.
The seed steeping
into a swirling sap
cupped in a jar of clay.

For Chris and I
to find one day
lapping up
till death parts.

But Chris,
your home is in the news;
all alarms and sirens’ whine.
A Philly nymph
bought a one way ticket
for a one way swim
left her waitress skin
to skim
atop sea foam,
surfacing at your feet.

In Atlantic City there are syringes
in with the summer waders.
Washing up are bags of fat.
Rotting like jelly fish sacks,
they burst beneath your ATV wheels
penetrating sun shades.

You blink in AIDS
and Old Age.
They follow Fear
to the optic nerve-ways
to your starfish of a brain
its legs tangled, tucked,
curled like the fingers
in the fist of a stillborn.

Cupid had in his party
the avenging angel
of Love unrequited,
When it’s not reciprocated,

Enter Anteros
a face of knotted teary sleeves
a dagger always drawn,
never sheathed.

He just arrived
so don’t pick up.
Just let this ring
leave me to a voicemail slot:

Hear this.
Hear me.
I cannot help if
I don’t feel the same for Jim
as I do for you Chris.
(I hope your listening.)

The blade lifts
with a familiar scent,
the crust of someone else, recent
in the last few hours.
Grains of sand fall
from the clenched god’s hand.
As he lays me down, I ask,
“You didn’t happen upon,
the death before this one,
a condo where a lifeguard slept?”

A nod and I float
on my stomach,
arching my back as it slides in sharp
its Chris
its Chris
its Chris
but its not.

.

“Voicemail Message 233” was previously published in Ganymede.

Magdalene in Sunglasses,

beloved of God,
hangs on mean streets,
a loose-legged girl,
wearing fishnet hose, stiletto heels,
brown lilies in her hair.

At the laundromat
she rendezvous with her lover,
rose-yellow radiance
streaming from his limbs.

She lifts her shades to meet his eyes,
and washes his feet
with sweet detergent,
her hair a lavish towel.
Peter, John and Thomas
demand a pimp’s portion,
don’t believe she’s seen him
with her mystic eyes,
or that she caressed the face
of her mummy redeemer.

She just blows them off,
because through it all,
she stood with her man,
held his body, lost and bleeding.

In an upper room,
Magdalene strips off her glasses,
kneels on the floor
near her beloved,
kissing holes in His hands.
Sacred breath,
the flame descends
to light her cigarette.
Magdalene inhales,
draws long
to keep from rushing things.
.

This poem is published in Songs from the Bone Closet, Braniff’s book of poems and short fiction available from Stone River Press. Her novel, Step Over Rio, is forthcoming from The Way Things Are Publications.

A Weekend in Hades

It starts with the creak of oars in murky waters,
blood rising to the surface like goldfish.
The weeds are wild with the hair of the dead.

Small price to pay for a weekend in Hades.

We get off at the next stop,
drunk with excitement, like all tourists.
Then we remember we forgot our camera.

The half-dressed guide swivels around us high-heeled,
barking out orders, whipping the group into shape.
She looks like a three-headed dog
snapping at the end of its chain.

We are all apparitions, these women and men,
dressed in our best clothes among raging flames.
Some of us go barefoot
for the sheer experience of it.

* * *

The look on Hades’s face is unforgettable. Persephone
has a hard time refraining from laughter.
Cerberus did it again—ate up all the tourists.

And now, with the hot season over, and Hell
entering its winter stagnation, with sinners
huddling beside the huge cold vats, waiting
like eastern Europeans for some unlikely sparks,
their luck thinning with each passing day,
Hades will have to admit: the company’s going bankrupt.
The necessary apologies are issued, tickets
returned, then, the news: we’re going home!

* * *

The dead crowd the passage between darkness and light.
At the end of the tunnel people are chanting.
It happens quickly—the light grows opaque,
then disappears. No one knows who is responsible
for what. Someone requests a head count.

We quickly discover that Lazarus is missing. Again.
He’s done this before, he knows the ropes,
the secret trail, the way back to the body.

Naturally, people are angry.
Why should one soul get all the perks?
Something must be done about it—a petition,
a firm request for an audition.
Lots are cast among the elderly and the children.
There’s always the chance that age or innocence
may earn them another reprieve.
The blind old guy with the staff stumbles back
into the underworld. We never see him again.

The rest of us wait. Someday
the rock will be moved. Someday the light will slice
this solid darkness, and someone—
a god, perhaps?—will call us forth
into the livid, unholy body of our dreams.