BY CATHERYNNE VALENTE
GALAHAD AND THE FISHER KING
Last night I was a lily, and very purple. I sat on the water with my toes in the silt, and my petals curled darkly up at the juniper forest. Thick violet lips reflecting the light of flickering fish deep in the lake, surfacing to nibble at my lily-flesh. But I do not taste like a dragonfly, and they never eat me entire. A flower is very still, still in a way I can't imitate in the suntime. I grow legs and fingers and breasts, and lost my purpleness. I begin to notice imperfections~ my coffee cup is chipped, I haven't made my bed in days, I stumble under the almost-raining sky like a doomed gazelle. And oh, the ocean here is not so wide or deep as I had hoped. It does not swallow me, or demand, or promise like the ocean I remember. When I am a lily I am not disappointed, the lake moves through me and I can let it.
You understand, of course. You know the nature of lakes. Water passes over you in sunlight and moonlight and grasslight and fishlight and you love it for its passage. I envy you your capacity for silence, and waiting. Do you know the Question already? Or does it wait in your mind like a hibernating bear, ready at the precise aural combination to stretch its furry legs and roar out its relief? Funny how "question" contains the word "quest" inside it, as though any small question asked is a journey through briars. You want me to push towards you, to believe in you, to want you and strive to achieve you. To be bent upon your purpose and wear white robes, passing though trees like a fiery-eyed wraith, filled with your flame. To encircle the globe with desire for you.
But a lake is a deep-within place, within a forest, or mountains. And I am by the Sea, an edge-place, the end of the world. And somehow, because it is beautiful, and sparkling, and very expensive to stand on the seashelless sand, I feel I should not be so disappointed, that I am not allowed to be. But still, I will not come to you, will not succumb to the destiny you have written for me. This is not a quest, but a battle, and my will is as strong as yours.
Let me tell you a little story. You know it, already, of course, but here in Southern California, it floats between the boardwalk shops like half a memory. You see, on the voyage home from windy Troy there was a place called the Island of the Lotus Eaters. It was on the coast of Africa. (which in the Western Mind is somehow all Sahara, all sand and desert with an occasional cheetah or jackal) But the flower-eaters island wasn't like that. It was full of green, and lakes and rivers, and beautiful, bulbous blue flowers that grew everywhere like dandelions. They covered the rocks like foam, and rippled like laughter at the base of the swaying trees. Pale, child's eye blue floated over the island, and the petals tasted sweet, like spun sugar, their fuzzy texture melting on the tongue. And the men ate the flowers, and they were always happy, and serene, and they could let the water pass through them. Through the flowers shining and dancing, through the skein of cerulean and silver-white, they thought their land was the best and the most wonderful, and no one wanted to leave. Their tall ships against the bleeding sunset seemed ugly, monstrous skeletons, which had once seemed so graceful and sleek. Happiness forever seemed to hang like a jeweled necklace in the air, the promise of an eternity without intellectualized discontented winters.
And you know, the people here remind me of that a little. There is a thought that inhabits many of us, not quite generated of our own brains, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Sand and water alone somehow constitute paradise, and to be unhappy here is sacrilegious. To think this ocean different from the others and too warm. Everyone eats the flowers and never wants to leave. And I am a soldier-sailor, I want to go home, if my ship would steer that way, home from the Crusades through the musky domes of Los Angeles, the myrrh-scented incense of San Diego. The rain beads on cafe tabletops like tears, and gold-plated hooves stamp on sanctified alleyways, the smell of palm-wind and cinnamon weaving the air. I would walk these roads, if I could, where everything is gold, threads of light leading away from you, towards release and illumination. Beyond them lies destiny as I would craft it, in the mountains and rivers I have never seen. A hermitage of the crags and meadows, devouring time.
Here, in these strange lands that lie on the homeward route from broken Constantinople, through the Red Sea and Santa Monica, gold dust covers my toes in a fine mist, it is spun out clear and pure, translucent in the windowpanes, beaten into coronas around the heads of dark-eyed women with their bundles of rushes and blue-flowered rosemary, cobbled onto the rooftops that spread out in an infinite line, like the sea. The sun turns cities into novae. In a thick stream, gold is drunk in coffee shops and eaten in musky theatres. I would pull this curtain of light over my body and hide from you forever. I can see its sheen billowing behind me like sail, making me invisible, bearing me home in a wash of sun. This, that is Holy Land, drowns in its beauty and golden lights, until there is nothing but the light, covering everything, swallowing the body and smoothing the universe to a long, gold altar cloth.
But I don't want to eat the lily, I remember what happened to Eve. Never eat the fruit another offers you. Because then I will forget what fire and darkness are. I will forget my wounds, my blood, and without my scars and sacrifice, what am I? What am I without my pain? What if I did not storm and weep and rail at the sky, if I did not leap with madness or rapture, did not pound my fists against anything? What if I did not resist? Would I know myself? Would anyone? What is I were a simple man, kind and true, full of unadulterated light, walking the earth only outside my own door, not wandering like a nomad on a bedraggled camel? What if I were not driven to do these things? What if I were not filled with desire and expansiveness? Would I be anything? Am I anything without my drive to see, to experience, to devour? What if I never despaired, never doubted, never considered the ravening advance of time, never thought of death? What if I merely yielded to you? I would not know myself, would not recognize my own sinews. The flame that keeps my flesh crackling with light, if for a moment it were calmed and turned civilized, I would cease to be. I, the thing that is I, would vanish. If I did not resist you, did not clamor against you, did not open my throat to swallow everything, as though to ingest some power to allow me to keep out the tympani of your call.
Can you see this? Or is the open hand mute within you, the creature that yearns only for the right question to be asked to release you, are you deaf to all other questions save that One? But last night I was the lily, and I was content, and forgot.
Last night I was a silver trumpet, and I roared out the beauty of caves for you to hear. The goblet of my metal rim gleamed in dim, smoky light. My voice was crimson and it sparked like a blacksmith's forge. I thought of you, because of your silence, because of our oppositeness. It was good to be loud and colorful at last. I have felt so much gray and amorphous lately. But to be that, someone had to find me, and polish me, flick my keys with their fingers to test me out, and force air and sound out of my throat. Someone's lips wrapped around me, forcing me to sing, pushing a wash of color out of me. It leaves me pale and shaking, but scoured clean. I have made something beautiful, and it is enough. I wonder if I will always need someone else to make me useful? How used have I become to lying in a cedar box in an attic, someone's once-beloved instrument, a glimmer of metal with a corona, like a Byzantine Madonna. Someone once ran their fingers along me, almost faint with desire, the music in him rushing to bloom into the world. I once carried a universe of possibility. Before potentiality sharpened to a fine edge.
Attics are soft and warm, they do not require my loudness or my weeping notes, they require only my inactivity, so that they can settle dust over me like a lover's hand. How comforting once that was. But it is only like a lover's hand, it is not. Softness and gold half-light sings the mind to darkness. And this place, the woven gold of the California desert, is an attic that wraps you in warmth like a chain. It is good to be quiet and think, but it does not quite satisfy the belly. And to be this brazen thing, to make something red, something else must supply the air, or I am silent. You understand, of course. You, too, require another to complete you. Your purpose is unfulfilled by solitude. Alone you are an old man sitting on the pier, drinking bourbon and feeding seagulls. Alone, passing teenagers toss a thoughtless coin into your grey felt hat, half-smile in pity and leave you in the dust of their red leather high heels. But this is not you at all, you are a King and it is the quest that makes you the King-Who-Waits. It is at your feet the salamander sits, showing his glinting emerald loyalty. But sometimes I smell your cigarettes from far away.
I thought of that last night, as my trumpet-voice drank the smoke of cigarettes from quietly disintegrating club-goers, and moved through a woman's hair with such softness, such an ache, taking a black strand of it tenderly from her mouth. I wanted to show you this thing, this thing that you sacrificed. You desire only the one who finds without seeking, how can I tell you what her hair felt like? How can I give you the serpentlyric I cried out over her dark head?
You stand at the center of all human paths, but you know nothing of us, of me, who you call to yourself like a child, of the woman I touched, how beautiful she was. You don't know what it is to want, except the one who can find your temple in the forest that is not of trees.
I wish I were that one, that I was innocent enough, and patient enough, and that my hands did not bleed so.
I am not your one.
You play the harp, and your notes are silver and slinkingly soft, all glissando. You call me with this wind harp, call me to the dust of the pilgrimage path through California desert instead of Byzantium. You call me to the rim of crusader's footprints. But last night, at least, I was the trumpet, and not the kind that is mournful and low. The kind that deafens the harp.
I can't help that I am too loud. My voice would break the glass of your trees. I am all fortissimo, and I can't change the need for that thumping clamor beating at the ears. I can't always be the water and the silence that you inhabit in tortoiselight forever. I'm so sorry, because I want to know, I want to walk where you have passed, and I want to see the chalice shining through the tree-shadows. But you can't make me into a crusader. This is not my quest, not my question, not my life, not my desire. Not my fault.
Last night I was a hummingbird, and it was a thoughtless jewel of green and pink, existing in between dewmeals. I tasted the thick orange-red lips of bougainvillea like dusky honey, and the jacaranda flowers like pale cold wine. There is so much desert in California, I seize like one starved upon the beauty of a few bright things alive in the dark. It occurs to me that when I write to you of my night metamorphoses, I always tell you about drinking. Perhaps because I associate you with water, and rivers, and seas and rain. To me, you are the king of waterpaths, and I think of all the stories I tell you, you most like to hear about the liquid things I encounter. It is why you found me in California, where the sea walks in my skin. It is how I commune with you, when I drink the lakewater, and feel the damp sky on my skin, when I am immersed in the water of your mind, I feel as though I have not disappointed you, and I am with you in the night.
Because I have disappointed you, haven't I? You wait and wait, silently watching the lake ripple in blackbirdlight, and you expect that any moment I will appear out of the shadows, cloaked in white light as you always knew I would be, and rest my head on your silver knee.
I prefer my little lives to your uninterrupted living. Last night I flittered down the street that leads west to the Pacific, I reveled in the syntheticness of the streetlights which in the movies always glimmer like tiny moons, pure and perfect. But in the world outside Casablanca, they are orange-yellow, and insects thrum around them in a corona. I could have eaten a few, when they are in the light like that; they act like opium-eaters, swaying on a wind sweet only to them. But I was not (could not be) wholly hummingbird, and mosquitoes taste like bad vodka. You live in a mythical Morocco, you wrap yourself in the sea and white streetlamps. I feel their radiant falseness on my wings.
Sometimes I hate you. Your silence claws my throat, your own private knife under my ribs. You know I will come to you, even when I run and fly with shutterblink wings to escape you. You know, and I hate that smugness, even though you are incapable of such a selfish thing as smugness.
Or is it only that I want to see you without human faults? Perhaps if you are not human it will be easier for me to submit to you in the end. Then I will have had no choice, it will not be from failure of will that I yielded. If you are a King with absolute power, and not a gentle sort of steward, then it won't be my fault that I couldn't refuse to come, bearing the sun to you in my arms. It is who I am, what I was made for, for pain and the quest. If I deny it I will be driven below the waves by the weight of that denial of purpose. Is this how others will see me when all this struggle is over? Do I need you to be beautiful and sage, the father when he is still worshipped by his cherubic child? Will they need me to be perfect for them? Will they need my purity like I need yours? My inhumanity? Galahad the White, the Pure? Will a river of light be emblazoned on my shield, will that be my symbol?
But I know I am not capable of your silence, I don't want any part of this wide-gaping fate. I want to be a hummingbird, to be thoughtlessly dazzling, an aviary seraphim without the burden of paradise.
I want to be wordless.
Instead I overflow with words, offering them to you like a sacrificial bull, and if the blood runs red enough over the garlands of jacaranda, will you, Jupiter-like, release me from this?
Last night I was a salmon. Salmon go home. They have such a powerful drive towards the little stream of algaelight that threw them forth. It calls and calls them, a siren cry that promises life and death and sex all in one. You understand, of course. You call like that, too. Salmon are silver-rose scaled, and their eyes are pupilless and strange. This is what I was, but it was winter, and the spawning season waited on the turn of equinoxes. The sea slid through me like mercury. I swam thoughtless with thick ranks of silver-rose fish, and I was not separate from them, but they were my brothers and sisters and we were one liquid arrow of movement.
Let me tell you a longer story. You know it already, of course. A woman told me this story in a tarot-reader's shop in San Francisco, as she shuffled her cards with hands like a hawthorn tree. And I think that she knew from the lines on my palm that I would meet you when I grew up, because now I know this story is about you.
Once there was a boy, and he was very bright, the most promising child in his village. His hair and his eyes and his skin were all gold, so that he looked like a young lion. His father was very proud of him, and smiled when he saw how strong and clever his son had grown. But he worried that since everything came so easily to this boy, that he would never be the kind of man to lead the clan. So one day when they boy was fourteen years old, lean and strong and skilled with his fishing-spear, his father took him away from the village, to the edge of the forest, and told him: "My son, I am very proud of you. You have become the strongest and cleverest of your brothers. The women in our village look at you with willing eyes. But though you are as tall as I am, you are not yet a man, and I fear that you will always be clever, but never wise. So you will go into the forest for seven days, and you will not take your fishing-spear. You will not take your hunting-knife. You will not take your water-skin. You will go away from the clan and seek the manhood you have not discovered in your father's house." The boy was afraid, for he had never been away from the village without his father or one of his red-haired brothers. But he knew that he should not show his father his fear, and turned silently to go into the forest. But his father called after him: "Wait, my child. Like all warriors who go into the wild, you must have a geas put upon you, a thing forbidden. Listen carefully, for if you break your geas, you will never lead the clan. Whatever you catch to eat, whether it be rabbit-flesh, or mouse-haunch, or fish from the river, you must roast it over a fire, and not touch it, or eat of it, until it has been scorched black. This is the way of your geas. Come back to me with your belly full of this scorched flesh, and you will be a man, and not merely a clever boy."
So the boy went into the forest, and he found it full of voices, the voices of trees, and streams, and the earth covered in dry leaves. For three days he could not catch a rabbit, or a mouse, or any fish, since he had not taken knife or spear. On the fourth day his belly ate at his spine, and he walked into the cold and racing river to catch fish the way he had seen the old men of his clan do to impress the boys, with their own hands and no spear. He walked into the river until it licked at his waist, and he shivered, peering into the swift water for a glimpse of silver fish. Three times he saw a fat salmon, and three times he plunged his thin hands into the water and felt the slick animal escape. He began to cry in frustration, even though he knew it was not strong or clever to cry, and his father would be ashamed. Night was coming, and he was certain that he would never have to worry about eating foul-tasting scorched meat, because he would never be a man, because he could not catch anything.
As the shadows grew long over the water, he saw another fish, but this one was thin and small, hardly the length of his hand. Once again he pushed his hands into the icy river, and this time he felt the fish firm in his grip, and he drew it out with a whoop of triumph which the oak trees heard with satisfaction. The boy made a fire to roast his victory, and soon the salmon was blistering away in the red-gold flames. The boy thought how proud his father would be, and how his broad-chested brothers would clap him on the shoulder and tease him over the size of his catch. The smell of the fish was rich and sweet, and it was beginning to blacken.
But the boy was a boy, and very hungry. He looked at the fish, which was not at all scorched yet, and with the eyes of hunger thought it to be quite black enough for him to have a little bite. He put his fingers into the fire to tear off a piece of fish, but the flames burned his thumb and forefinger, and he put them to his mouth to ease the pain.
And then the boy saw why he had been forbidden to do this. For some of the oil of the fish was on him, and when he tasted it he knew in a torrent all the things in the universe, and he understood the voices of the trees, and the river, and the earth covered with dry leaves. He knew the thoughts of his father and his mother and his red-haired brothers. He knew all the things that were and would be, and he knew that he could not now lead the clan.
So the boy went deeper into the forest, further than any of his clan had been. And he was mad for a long time, with these things scorching his mind. But one day the madness passed over him, and he was a pool of standing water with the moon on his back, and he stayed in the forest, finding his fate in the deep-within places.
And your father wept, for you never came again to the village.
Perhaps that salmon was like me, not a salmon, not at home in the fish-skin, a wanderer whose journey to the sea ended in your campfire. I journey to the sea now, that's where all these forms take me, slowly, against my will which is not strong enough, to you who wait in the forest, on the long pier in seagullight, at the end of the grey and foggy streets of Southern California. Because all these places are the same place, and I know with the certainty of an earnest seeker that the locus of the grailcastle is nowhere/cannot be sought, unless one eats the salmon and his insides are lit up by it like a silver-rose lantern.
Last night I was a pen, and it was a sigh of movement. Motion, motion, linear and serene. My consciousness focused in the brass tip, fierce and sharp, devouring the parchment in swoops and whorls of black ink, diving like a seabird, in and out of the golden sea of paper, catching fat fish of verbs and participles in my metallic beak. And swept back, the rest of me flowed like a wave of light, into a long, creamy feather tipped in scarlet, I quivered and vibrated with the shivering motion of writing, illumination, conjugation, culmination of thought, spilled in a rush onto the expanse of page. I danced with myself: tip, quill, ink, in waltzing time, Viennese in the extreme, the vanilla of silken feather as it crossed highways of finely wrought paper, crescendo, denouement, a box-step of being, tip yielding to the forward motion of statement. I yielded, yielded, to the waxy cold of the scholar's hand that deftly drove my length, his skin made phosphorescent by moonlight singing in through the iron-crossed window, shifted into cobalt by the stained glass. We swam in blue, were washed in it, purified as though floating in the hand of a river-nymph. The scholar's lashes fractured the light, casting long, sweeping shadows on the page, blue within black within blue, bars of darkness breaking the expanse of watery light, as though waves blowing forwards and back, whitecaps of my own quick steps through the lines.
It was relief. I did not have to create. The salve of his icy hands on my feather-spine, flowing over me in a blanket of snowy flesh, silencing my voice grown so hoarse with speaking, with screaming over the sea to be heard. He slid me through words, through the alpha and the theta, through the wide forest paths of chi, the violet shadows of omega. He made his letters carefully, small and delicate, dipping me into his little clay pot of ink which swirled around and into me in a rush of glistening darkness, like the Nile through the throat of a crocodile, glutted my mouth with black, with thick, with the absence of light. It flowed in and out of me with equal ease, in inklight and moonlight, and I could let it because I did not initiate motion, because I was an instrument and not the voice, the ever-sounding voice that could not afford silence for a second, else the world would fail. I could release something nameless and accept the passage of liquid through me, and its pouring of self onto a valley of dry and rasping manuscript. The glyphs formed so beautifully, shimmering slightly before drying, the cuneiform magic of their arch and fall sang through me.
And yet how strange to be vertical, held upright like a heron poised on one leg, maintained in a tall line, the mast of a ship catching wind and expelling storm. How strange to feel inkblood draining out of me, all sensation focused downward as the vellum received my raven-throated exhalations. Horizontal is the direction of dreams, of the otherworld, of sharp-hoofed Time and the eventuality of death. Thus we lie on slabs and mounds of furs, on cots and grasses. We lie and gaze upwards into a sky-mirror, there to see ourselves become fantastic, become legend. Verticality denied me this, I could not cast upward to the sun. I was timeless in the hand of icicle-skin, without present, in motion so slidingly that pause by death or dream was inconceivable.
Is this what you feel, out beyond the breakers, beyond the desert and the stream? You do not move, but are in motion, shaking with it, sylph-like in the water-shadows and reeds? Your tentacles and umbilici snake out over the miles of earth and sand, coils of bodylight snatching at the air to find a remnant of me still gasping in the wind. I want to shake you, as I have been shaken by you, to see the lake ripple behind your eyes and demand, demand, demand, "Why are you drawing me?" My voice is pathetic to my own ears, a whimpering, sheeting tears, child's wet-nose "Why me?" Why is my figure so circumnavigated in your mind, so realized and defined, drawn as surely as a an angel out of Raphael, shaded and colored by your palette alone? Why am I bound to you?
It isn't worth anything, protestation. In these metamorphoses how rarely do I have pockets for a few dismal coins, but no lump of copper or silver would make a single cry of negation a thing of substance or meaning. I know it, I know it, I know why this road was built, why it goes forward and not back, what lies at its end. I am peeled like a raw almond, bright green, down to the pure whiteness of fruit, so that you can take my skinless and shivering form into yourself and make me like you. Purity flows from your hand like a curling vine, and you will have me white or not at all. Purification, purification, scouring the sands of rivers dark and hushed from my arms, pulling the mosaic teeth of ritual crocodiles from my feet streaked with the black mud of the Delta. My body is restful and leaping and rippling like the lake that bore the sword, but it cannot yet birth such a thing.
I hate what you want to make me. You encourage my limbs, seduce them into rigidity, into dissolution, into the silver aurora of a blade, beguile the line of my lips into the twisted gold of a hilt. Or is it the stem of a Cup into which you would have my body form itself? My mouth open to the heavy sky in its silent howl to mold the agate and ivory bowl of the chalice? Are the very fingernails of my hands to comprise the milky jewels of its rim?
Yes, I am angry. I have floated like a barge of lashed birch-wood on the fantasy of my Will, and you steal it from me. Every time you smile beneath the curtain of your briar-beard, every time your face goes benevolent and sorrowful my hatred rumbles like a sheet of tin. If I shrink into the corner of a cinnamon-scented cafe, if I bury my face in a chipped green cup so that the steam will encircle and hide me from you, you appear before me to ask in infinite gentleness if I want another. If I recede behind a bookcase in the Library, examining the binding of Hemingway, you materialize to tell me that silence is mandatory in such places. I cannot escape you and I will never forgive you that. Only in the nights as I flee into shapes and lines not my own, do I find respite from your compulsion and sympathy. You see in me some core of purity beneath all that does not exist. You will allow me no humanity.
Last night I was a glass of beer. I was foamy and golden, and slender and bitterearthy. I think I was a microbrew of some kind. I sat on a coaster with a picture of a mallard flying low over a marsh on it. The marsh was wet with spilled bourbon. I sat for a while the woman who bought me talked to her suitor, laughing synthetically and stroking her swan-cheek with grape-colored fingernails. I wondered if I could taste myself while she regaled him with tales of her corporate dragon-slaying. If I could taste my own liquidlight, then I would know myself, whether the foreigners I feel was by the brewer's design. But while I mused on the taste of myself, the woman stopped trying to be seduced and sipped me in silence. I felt the warmth of her throat, the slickness. I sighed into the heat of her body, letting desire pass over me in sunlight and moonlight and grasslight and fishlight, and I did not try to hold it with both hands. Soon I had passed of necessity from the beerself to the glasself,
and I rested in my own emptiness,
foam clinging to my cupbody. I was transparent, the clarity of my bones was sweet, and I reflected a myriad of eyes, like a crystalline Argus. And for a moment, in this glass in an antediluvian bar, in the hands of a sad and lovely woman whose belly cried inside her I was the grail, open and clear. For a moment that slid away as quickly as a strand of beerfoam, I was no longer my own ever-striving self, but a chalice of blown glass, yawning to encompass the sky and the sea, floating in dolphinlight, I was not a questing knight with tobacco-stained hands, I was you, the king in the forest, and I wept into my own lake, watching the ripples expand into fractal infinity. And then I was not a glass, or beer, or a lily, or a fish, and the grailight was gone. I was alone in the dark, and even the alcoholic fishermen who dread their children had dragged themselves home. I crumpled in the shade of a brick building, my belly betrayed my grief and I vomited the Pacific into the street, my throat flaming~ I was the Chinese boy who drank the sea, and I gave it back and back until no more would come and still my body convulsed in anguish for the moment I could not keep. In fear for my sanity, in fear that I was a hallucinatory Fool with the black dog at my back, who dances in beerlight alone on the cliff edge to the tune of a man who may not/I want not to exist.
And I was ashamed of this so-human act.
So this is the end of the quest.
I walked with heavy feet to the end of the pier last night, and looked into the sea which is the rim of the western world, and wondered when I accepted that this was inescapable. I still hate that you did not think me strong or clever enough to turn from this road. (And of course I was not) But there on the pier was a little fisherman's hut, white paint curled back by sea wind, and it glowed softly in porcelainlight. I stood outside for a long time, and the door seemed to grow to Alice-enormity, to much for me to dare. I felt and still feel that this is all too big for me, that I am a salamander before the throne of the King of Spears. The threshold mocked me, and whispered that I was a very clever child, the strongest and cleverest of my brothers, but I would never, never be wise, there is no forest deep enough to purify me, my madness will last and last. So in the end it was pride that drove me through the door, that I would show myself to be pure enough, just barely, to finally see you.
And there you were,
not so powerful-looking, an aging man, but not infirm, the gold of your hair not quite conquered by snow. You sat in a deep leather chair, your left hand held an ancient fishing-spear, your right held a cup of living glass. You looked at me with laughing eyes, and I saw a sleek bear moving behind them. You could not speak, that was not the ritual, it was mine to ask the question you have desired. But you laughed because you understood, of course. You know the nature of quests. You know that this has been the question, all these words to you on the road to this temple/hut. You know that my fighting has burned this body hollow, and made it ready for this. You know that the end of the quest is silence, only the quest is the sound and dancing and galloping toward.
And so I reached out, able to do nothing else but dare this thing, and touched the rim of the cup/lake.
And the burning filled my vision.
And the sea swallowed my voice.
THE ORACLE ALONE
You enter a room, cool and dark, tattooed with shadows cast by brocade curtains and sheer veils over the mirrors, the floor stone and cobbled, and she is there. Installed in a demure corner with her feet bare. Perhaps you think to yourself nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi...perhaps the tumbling rainclouds and crushed rubies of those ancient words shoot through your mind like a hunting hawk, all sleek wings and talons. You look at her, brushing a long strand of dark hair from her face, and for a moment her profile is the classical phantasm you expected to find. But she is younger than you thought, there are no lines that assure the presence of wisdom, no oragami folds in her crane-neck, no silver arrows piercing her hair. She is smooth and curved as the spine of a harp. And now that you have come all this way, the fact of her youth and those liquid eyes frighten you, and you do not want to know what she portends. She spreads her hands on the velvet table-cover, the light slants in from a dusty window in this high tower, and she is illuminated like a manuscript, a tongue of gold dust and cobalt. You do not want her to open her mouth, you are certain that moths and infant crows flutter within, behind her terrible lips. It is the mouth you fear, that likeness of a door, a crevice sinking deep within blue glaciers. Oh, little one, she wakes all your secret night tremors, she is the serpent chasing you down hallways, she is the drowning sea, she is the laughing moon. Her hands have drawn seven thousand ash-wood bows, and all found their mark in the flesh of your liver. She ululates, undulates, abrades your corneas, from her little corner she bends all the roads you've ever known towards her. If she were old it would be better, you could accept a crone. She would have been less annihilating if you been able to guess the date of her death from the lines on her throat. But her throat is perfect, long and lithe, and out of it will issue bats singing arias and owls like treble clefs. She is all darkness, enveloped in a body of light so full and thick you could plunge your hands into it and be purified for a century. She has not moved, but you have, you have orbited her and fallen and escaped and fallen again. She is the fulcrum, and you swing from her like a fat copper pendulum, the arc of you a glowering black line on the floor of the world. Roots have ripped out of your feet and anchored you before her, great thick ropes of her silence diving thorugh the earth like playing seals, and you want to move towards her, but cannot. You have paid you admission and she is yours for the moment, her mouth, round and clear as a crystal ball, is bought, to exhale stars into your palm and tattered asphodels into your chest. It is full of dragonflies. The buzz makes you drunk, and you waver a little, wanting, for a moment, to run and hide in any cavern that will bear you. But that maddening strand, that lock of blackness, the slick of her hair wafting onto her cheek like a bruise, will hold you to her forever. She brushes it away again, uselessly, into the long mass gathered at her neck, and looks at you quizzically. So you do the only thing that was ever possible, you walk to her, three steps (it had seemed so much farther) and you sit beside her pale skin and dusty green eyes, the shade of a bottle of wine in the cellar. And you do not know why the words that fly up to your tongue like soprano diamonds are Greek, except that once in a classroom with a view of the sea you read Eliot and wept. Those same tears fall now, hot and bright as Mars in the summer sky, the secret crimson of passion. "Sibulla, ti theleis?"
"Sibyl, what do you want?"
And she inclines her head like a heron, looking at you with eyes full of pity and warning, of oracles and tombs, of oceanic tides and lunar scirrocos. She blurs like an impressonist landscape through your tears as that seraphic mouth opens and her voice, voice of blood rivers and continental drift, a voice like the crest of a September wave. She answers you in that same organdy-emerald tongue, vowels like milky breasts and consonants pregnant with swords. "Mou teknon, ti klaleis?"
"My child, why do you weep?"
And it begins, and you listen, and she speaks.
I came of age during the plague years.
Every night I would stand in front of my great carved mirror and raise my arm over my head, grip my shoulder lightly. I pressed oystershell fingernails into my skin, feeling for the embryonic lumps, the soon-to-be purple buboes I was certain were seething just beneath the vanilla smoothness, a smoothness waiting to play me false and erupt. I turned my head, feeling the night wind on my neck, blowing in through the frosted window. In those days the night sky seemed to me to be the great raised arm of some dark woman, her armpit and the first curve of her black breast, and the stars glowered, punctured lesions of plague ruining her perfect flesh, the great red autumn moon a blood-filled contusion.
I used to sit on the fountain-rim with a young boy in the Square, under the pale-cheeked fountain-statue of a beautiful selkie-woman with water flowing over her classical face, half born from her shimmering seal skin, her long hair like the very kelp-braided sea, her hands peeling the length of grey sheathing from her marble thighs. Her eyes stared blank and unblinking, perfect eyebrows carved delicately. The impulse always floated in me half-realized to touch her sloping cheek with my pink child's hand, to feel the roughness of the stone and the warmth it absorbed from the gold of the afternoon sun, to make her real by the contact. I so wished her to be real. I think I might have wanted to comfort her; the expression in her white eyes seemed the gentlest conceivable, breaking with sorrow for the earth and sea, the wild anguish of a woman forever torn in half. I sat on the rim of her fountain with a boy with orange-blossom eyes, a willowy creature without a name, and his skin smelled like a wheatfield strewn with the sweetness of fallen apples. He was blonde like the silken wheat and blonde like the yellow apples and blonde like the ocean sand. The boy had slender legs and a fine, aquiline nose, and all in all recalled a deer paused below a cypress tree, tensed in the moment just before bounding away.
When no one was looking I would lift my thin blouse, exposing in a blush-inducing flash the light brown of my girlish nipple, and ask him with a quavering voice whether he saw anything. His dark eyes flickered over me, appraising. Sometimes he pushed his fingers into my flesh painfully, sometimes he would just glance and assure me I was not sick. But every time he would smile and softly say, just as your pet says:
"You are fine. You will live forever."
I used to run away to a wide field full of long grass and dense hedgerows. Around my pale toes the soil was black and wet, sodden with March rain, rich and velvety, oozing under my heels, swelling beneath my arches. I was transported by the chocolate soil, its sinuous sheen. Crocuses pointed upwards all around like candles with young green leaves, unopened purples and whites. I would run far from the willow-framed square and its sorrowing fountain, far from myself, and pause there in the mud and silver-green grasses like Eve below the Tree. I ran to expel the scream that roiled and churned inside me, the cry that threatened to rip out of my larynx and tear my bones. In those days I was a scream embodied, saliva and tears pouring from my shaking mouth into the earth. I did not yet know the color of apples or Indian serpents, only the tightness of quavering pink lungs, uninfected lungs, plump and blushing organs clear of any blemish in their polished interior. Against a great gnarled oak tree, feeling the texture of its trunk like a second spine, I sat cross-legged in the late afternoons, roots extending down into rain-soaked deepnesses. Into the sky-mosaics of pearl and dove and dusky ash and cream-tipped waves of pussy willow softness I stared, tremulous with the fear that the color would never change, never shift or contort, searching for the black line of a bird to break the endless expanse, as though the breath of my soul depended on the shattering of the sky. I waited in my own incubatory warmth no less than the crocuses and dormant tulips, thick with the desire for change, restless beneath the unvaried veil of cloud, trying to move the long strands of cirrus-mist with the sheer kinetic force of my need.
The boy sat beside me, clasping my small hand in his small hand. His face was half-lit by the clouds, gentleness of elephant skin light playing on his cheekbones, so high and noble, the arches of medieval buttresses. I remember him always in profile, a dark-browed angel, the glint of quartz deposits in his marble skin, gazing steadily at the horizon as though the line of his olive-eyed gaze could penetrate the secrets that lay along the linear flow of sky. I suppose I loved him, though he never asked me to search his body for lesions. I cannot even recall how many days we spent under the water-shadows of the fountain, in the grass-pillows of the field, though they seemed then and still seem innumerable. The coughing and retching of the world dissolved into the wind. But the examinations of flesh and sinew continued separate from the taut-skinned drums of pounding plague.
The fear of a flat-palmed slapping hand sounding a low note across my throat flowed on faithfully. It became a game, even after the hottest forked flames of sickness had blown over and what remained was merely the mass graves, the pits with long, mushroom-colored limbs stacked within like the rotting bricks of a misshapen pyramid, the tangled once-gold hair of women like handmaids meant to accompany some monstrous pharaoh into the silver sky and the storm. Hollowed cheeks like jackals echoed loudly in those ashen faces, covered in squares of bravely bright green grass. Later, when I learned geometry, every angle I measured with my clean plastic protractor seemed to be that of a bruised and broken elbow, the acute angles of riddled bones to haunt all the calculations I ever made.
It was only a game, for him to probe my neck and my arms with tremulous seriousness, as though some latent epidemic lay under my skin, straining to burst the confines of my body. His eyes trickled over me with such earnestness, such tenderness, as though my wretched skin might break. In the rainy sickle-bladed stalks of grass we laughed as softly as the susurring leaves, wrapped ourselves in woolen lengths of silence, watched whisperingly the sky and the trees.
We were young by the sea. The salt and kelp towers, foaming terraces, portcullis of coral and brine. Below the flowered balconies pounded the ineffable blue of the ocean, petals like rose-stained feathers drifting down onto its mirrored surface. The sea bore away the wind of the plague, carried it off into the soft cloud-drifts. The sea scoured us clean, made our skin perfect again. The stairs like a shower of peachstones down to the surf became polished and merry again, bright as brass banisters. The universe of our twinship, our two-ness, the low-population cosmos of our lives seemed slide back into the familiar leather gloves of health and flushed cheeks, of hair streaming in the flapping breeze and laughter like the songs of white pelicans.
Of course I never caught the plague. If I had, perhaps the boy would have stayed with me, feeling that I needed his clinical expertise, his gentle fingers, his eyes boring holes into my uninfected skin. If I had begun to perish beautifully, with a trickle of sparkling ruby blood at the corner of my beestung child's lips, perhaps he would have waited for me, knowing how I needed his clean fingernails and quiet voice, he would have stayed because he would have known how I loved him. He would have stayed and told me I would live forever even as the blood vessels burst in my rose-leaf eyes.
When he died I tried not to think of his body being the color of mushrooms. I know, know now forever that I passed the terrible knives of plague into him, that every time he touched me he took the disease out of me and into himself, purifying me every time his fingers pushed into my muscles and bones, making me smooth and white and clean, taking all the purpled darknesses that never rose up like tiny volcanoes into his fawn-limbed body, dying of the sickness I never contracted. But I knew, secretly, that I was a carrier, and bore like infants the black strains of death within me, the only children I would ever have. That I would live forever by virtue of the demons I harbored, and bring affliction like a silent choking seafog to every boy that ever lived. Every boy I loved would cough up a glut of blood onto my white dress and apologize weakly before he collapsed into an ecstatic seizure of death. I knew always that I had killed him, killed him, killed him.
He was the last one to die in our city, and since he was from a good family, he was buried in his own, private grave, a fine marble figure of St. Francis
cradling a fawn and a Beloved Son epitaph, with only the acute angles of his singular bones to haunt all the calculations I ever made.
ACHILLES AND PENTHESILEA
Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, fought against the Greeks during the Trojan War. Legend has it that Achilles, the great hero of the Greeks, fell in love with her at the moment his spear pierced her heart, killing her.
pear trees bloom above me like hydrogen bombs phosphorescing into the slanted hours like a memory of skin pounding white hammers bursting sky-vertebrae the press of your oily thighs against crushing against mine your sweat like a sonic boom your hollow-point fingers straining for my throat–
and her face is the sun spinning and flaming like boiling gold and the catapult of her hair curdling the wind and her eyes are biting my lips and her blood like paint covers her in light covers me in her and I want to stop I want to kiss her I want her hands on me I want to hang her face from my belt–
greasy hair whips hard collarbones snapping you grunt bare your teeth and the dull dumb weight of skull scouring my helmet to sawdust under the branches shaking beating the drum-sky white combatant flowers dropping razor-leaves like fallout on sour muscles and pentagonal bodies and I came from the horse-eaters and the lemon groves and the forest primeval and a bed I never owned and it is over over over here in the mud and blooming trees–
and there is a bead of sweat like a bullet at the hollow of her throat her barrel-mouth hanging open and I am sorry for her because I cannot lose but she is beautiful and I want to stop her beauty like a sleek silver watch and gnash the gears between my teeth I want to rescue her from me but I am the leading man and in the end she is nothing but a body–
the slow spear and the heart gripping it like a hand arterial blood sucking and gasping trying to say and tear open and tell you in a red smear that you don't love me only my death the burn-black and the shutterblink vanishing act that I am not I am not it is only my wreck of ligaments and joints like jewel-boxes you want to open me and pour in darkness like milk eat my death because I erase yours in my embalming flame you want to see my pupil dilate to infinite exposure to clutch the bas-relief of you over me pushing your spear in and in and in and your bayonet in my pretty blue eye and your hand on my hair–
and I am sorry I am sorry because I loved her there at the end wearing her death like a dress but that is the way things are in the end she is not the inginue and I could never take her home to mother she is not she is not anything in the end and I am sorry her bones were so white and her blood was so warm I am sorry–
slough into the black mud and sounds stop and the flowers keep falling like shrapnel and breath hoarse you brace a sandaled foot against my ruined breast tear back your spear and wipe it clean–
In the stories you tell
I am always the witch and the whore,
in high leather boots and a pointed hat,
painted hands like spun sugar tipping
a dozen little pink mouths
full of peppermints and breadcrumbs
blushing to their ears when we touch
and they taste the candy hut on my lips,
the butterscotch banisters and marzipan walls
the chocolate rafters you have dreamed of
every night for a decade. Industrious boy–
you work so hard at the tale of how I,
black-winged and too terrible to imagine
covered you with my body like a honey glaze,
drowned you in miles of my licorice-hair,
how the moon cut her wrists in a blue bath
and disappeared for three whole nights
while you burned in my kiln of cinnamon breath.
Your flesh bubbled and boiled in all my scented oils
and draped in my limbs like dripping toffee
you howled to escape. You'll tell them all,
how I kept you in my wicked little oven
of shortbread and caramelized sugar,
how the fire turned your fingernails black
(and here you display your ruined hands
with a dramatic flourish--the crowd gasps--)
and how you never loved me–
you fled from my claws into the wild wood.
They are impressed, of course, by your heroism
and this has been your gold-star act for years,
dressing me up in black satin and barricading me
into that honeycomb house,
a darling villain with a first-rate broomstick.
You cannot tell them that you still dream about
that simple morning when the mist
was like kettle-steam
and I was gone.
For ten years you have lived it over and over
clutching it like a sweat-stained photograph:
The last of my black dresses sweeping over the forest path
like a wing.
ALGORITHM FOR FINDING THE SHORTEST PATH BETWEEN TWO POINTS
I held back her dark hair like a bundle of trout
while she vomited up the Mississippi
full of clattering paddlewheels and brown-limbed silt,
stroking the soft knob of her spine like an orchid
holding her in pear-skin arms,
bracing us both
with a foot against the cheap drywall.
That was the first time--
when the sheets were raw and white as birch bark
and she ruined my green velvet skirt
with ragged fingernails.
The moon cut her fingers like a sheet of paper
and the second time
under the light of her wounds
I planted a tangerine tree in her navel
pushing the agate seed deep with my tongue
so that when I lay over her
the branches pulled me in and the smell
of citrus scalded my lungs.
I swallowed her like peeled fruit
and the dark dusty leaves played
chinese checkers on our damp skin.
The last time her mouth
was full of letters
powder blue airmail envelopes
parchment paper and crabapple ink
and as my hair flooded over her freckled belly
like spilled wine
I could taste on the inside of her thigh
the pressed violets
she would send me next year
the cab fare to the airport
and the wool scarf
I would find in six months later
behind the oak headboard.
I walk through El Dorado with petroglyphic hands
following the gold-backed desert birds
the gangrene of you growing in me like a child
marbled green and salmon-gilled
a bundle of fisted claws below my diaphragm,
clutching and slashing the fat, blue-veined umbilicus
that binds us, the Rapunzel-braid of gleaming flesh-rope
swollen with our blood.
Under my Mojave eyelids your guttering light
swimming-pool chemical green
expanding like a bloom of squid ink over my lashes,
the whistle and cough of you
irradiating my body
mummified in miles of that cancerous lamplight
choleric emerald beating out our story in morse code
the long flash and the short cry,
how you would not look at me
my dull dark hair and tangled medusa-limbs
how you could see, even then,
when I gripped the sun-stalked grass with darling fingers,
you did not want me to be yours.
Still I cannot exorcise your black belly from mine
though I dig at my navel with a goldminer's axe
spilling out such pretty reds and pinks into the pan
the liver of glinting quartz and sandy viscera–
still I cannot separate wound from wound
to stamp out your crawling shadows
like moon-bellied scarabs
with a smooth leather heel.
I carry you with me,
papery tumor crunching at my corinthian bones
crumbled capitals under your asbestos teeth.
But following the migration of thirsting birds
the blaze of their papyrus backs
my mouth full of jagged opals
I eat a bread-crumb path away from you,
cast a dozen left-handed auguries,
beating corncakes on hot stones
as though I were beating your ruined flesh.
It is a slow dissolve,
a fade to purifying black,
scouring myself of you--
grinding my criminal face into the salt flats
and leaving you
in a wreck of skin
translucent and glittering
to the sallow-cheeked hawks.
The Oracle at Rhode Island
her hair snapping in the snow
like willow branches
removes a measured toe
from the froth and juniper spray of the Atlantic
clattering lobster and gulping mackerel
fall from her yucca bell heels.
Kelp-ringed fingers carefully
fold a red paper napkin
and lay it alongside a little cairn of quahog shells,
knead a poultice of moss and wild basil
and paint thinner
to seal up her fluted sternum
where she is separating like
the perforated edge
of a past due electric bill,
knowing the taste of what is coming
like laurel leaves in her mouth.
She cuts a winter coat from a Franciscan's cowl
washes it in ashes and lye
and cutting waxen wind with her lashes,
covers her hair.
She unbolts her oleander mouth
and begins to eat the broken
yellow lines of US 95 South,
swallowing the K'un hexagram:
the earth opening like the belly of a mare.
Snow hunts us
bleach-breasted and with thighs
cupped to receive our night-teas
oolong and peppermint in roadside crockery
refusing to say that
this is a descent
out of the New England
we made grinning
with clay-spattered hands--
where our bathtub would not drain
and the ceiling was cracked
where we had a wooden fruit-bowl
and clay saki-cups
where I cleaned the mirrors
and the bed-sheets
where we let stray kittens sleep
on our kitchen table
and I kept violets in a silver vase
where the last leaves clung like red envelopes
hiding barnacle-tongued fortunes
to the knuckled elms.
A hoarse rope is sawing her belly in half
she vomits white cardamom
and oyster shells
into the floorboards of a 1986 Dodge pick-up.
Mangled guard rails
wrap around her waist
like a coin belt.
The road is entering her,
moving its tarred body over her legs
her chrysanthemum back
arches under the weight
of asphalt and broken glass
and the sky like a cut throat.
From her black sleeve she draws
and slices her finger on its lunar edge.
It is not her card, but his–
Under stars like shattered teeth
we leave the Ozarks
snow falling like milk from a glass pitcher
on hulking black hipbones and jaws
jutting at our shoulders.
You touch my denim knee when you downshift
and the plains open out like a book of the dead
frozen and sparkling
in our headlights.
We are bringing the winter west--
scowling snow hounds us
bearing black branches
mixed with myrrh in rose quartz
mixed with bits
of my bone and your hair
calcifying in the dark.
(It is over, it is over
and we are traveling to a place
where you can allow yourself
to leave me behind--)
The hawthorn trees have spun
a second skin of ice
and you take a picture of me
knowing it will be one of the last,
laughing under their boughs like silver skates.
She binds her breasts with tea leaves
stuffs darjeeling and orange pekoe down her throat,
dragging winter behind her like a penance.
She becomes a paper mache
Yuki-Onna, Lady of Snow and Death
on agate knees
in classical dress
her body becomes a hymn
calling storms out
from the ventricles of the moon
to drown the highway spooling out before her
like black rope.
She flicks a brown stream of earl grey
onto the concrete
charting in nautical miles
the polygonal fortune
of her own path westward–
the aesthetic of the left woman.
Cutting a eucharist from her kidneys
she offers it to her lover's tongue,
double-vision bending her like
an obscene origami.
He takes it warmly thinking
it is a coin for the Coke machine.
We skip Las Vegas.
A line of hotel swimming pools
like coronal sapphires
through the Arizona palm trees
and in the coral-pillowed morning
your skin smells like sweat and chlorine.
We sleep through two alarms.
While you run to the corner cafi
for coffee with two sugars
and banana muffins
I stand with eyes like fists
at the window
(we are already separating like cream)
watching the sun burn its alphabet into the sky.
The woman weeps skullcap and mugwort
staining her lap with
penitential water rings
that seethe into her skin
like boiling oil.
She smashes her rune-stones against the windshield
screaming through the blood
of her hands.
California takes us in
lying under the latitudes
like a fat golden seal.
There is bougainvillea
spilling over lemon leaves
and we eat blood oranges
from your grandmother's tree
quietly on the beach.
Your body folding against mine
fears to say
now that the snow is gone--
it is the end.
Gold dust seeps from our palms.
The blown veils of cloud attend as
I begin to tell your fortune
on the sand of crushed topaz--
the wind shuffles the cards with tattooed hands.
The road surrounds us
like a dark nova
but it is over
covers my heels
THE ORACLE AT MANHATTANeyebrow-ringed sibyl standing blue
The U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and elements of her battle group were deployed January 20 on exercises off Iwo Jima.
It is not clear whether they will be directed to the Persian Gulf at the conclusion of those exercises.
Under lime trees
bearing their green fruit like leering babies
I stand in Persean sandals
and a ridiculously red dress,
watching the grey-haired sea
laugh as it swallows you whole.
My face breaks open along poles and meridians--
I have no bones.
the sun drives a howl of wind through my womb.
Dusk-leaves slice my throat,
a thousand tiny crescent-cuts--
my voice dyed black as a gun barrel
I fire my choked 5 inch cries
over the breakers.
Bronze shells clatter at my ragged feet.
What grinning earth
can my pretty gold sandals touch
that will not be washed by waves
flaunting their foam like summer whites?
Where can I escape
the taste of your absence
like old batteries?
Under lime leaves
like a salmon net
I stand in a cap of darkness
and silver earrings,
clenching my body tight
against thudding sea-boots
whose ice-blue heels scald my breasts.
You are gone
every coffee-and-fried-egg morning.
The sea shrugs and is satisfied.