This is the second installment of Duessa, a 12,000-word allegory (of sorts). I’ll post a new installment on each of the twelve days of Christmas, wrapping up on January 5th. In other news, note that my website now has a static writing section with samples from a three of my bigger projects.
A fire, low and sweet, banked for the long night. To touch it was to burn in every atom and remain whole. Or the flames were the red petals of a rose unfolding.
In her dream, she awoke. A touch burned pure and gentle in her. It said she was loved with a certain, personal love as effortlessly considerate as it was unhesitating.
She opened her eyes. She rested in someone’s arms under soft sheets, in a confusion of shadowy color: the curtains of a four poster bed, jewel-toned, embroidered with half-readable pictures in silver and gold thread that caught flickers of firelight from outside. She realized that she did not know who was embracing her. She could not bear to move for a long time.
Eventually, she started to lift the person’s arm and move away. She moved so slowly in fear of waking the person that by the time she had finally lifted the arm a single inch from her chest, she could barely stop herself from shaking. After that she could not say how many minutes — perhaps even hours — it took her to arrive on her knees, aching, but the person appeared to sleep soundly through it, loosely curved around the spot where she had lain, hand still in hers.
As she looked at the person she was transfixed. The precise pressure of fingers on hers, the curve of the shoulder, the planes of the cheeks as the light played over them — all of that was exactly, easily right. No ,right wasn’t it, or not all of it. It was that, sleeping, still, silent, the person was so living and expressive as to make ordinary people seem automatons. Or that the small, fragile shape gestured toward infinite starlit spaces, great meanings she could just begin to fathom.
She did not know whether the person was male or female. She could see either, both, in the bones of face, the stretch of the muscled arm.
The person was smiling, just a little bit, a careless, loving smile that offered everything he — she — was. The smile made her want to cry, _no, don’t give it away, you’ll be hurt, destroyed, you’re precious, be _careful_ _. But that was wrong. The hurtful things would break on the person’s innocence, not the other way around. The smile enfolded her in layer upon layer of beauty. She felt something hurtful in herself begin to crumble on it. But she remembered the smile was not for her at all. It did not know her. She really was one of the destroyers.
As this came to her, he opened his eyes. Something in her decided he was male, though she knew it was insufficient.
“What is it, love?” he said. “It’s still night.”
“Nothing,” she said quickly. Her voice was more musical than it had ever been. Her nothing sounded absurd in it. “Just–please–” She looked for a lie and could hardly believe the whine that came into her mind instead: _I want to be here forever. Go back to sleep, I want to look at you._ “You’re so beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” Sitting up, he laughed but stopped immediately when she did not join in. “But what’s wrong?”
Before she could answer, though, he realized: she wasn’t the person he loved. She was someone else, in the Beloved’s body. His face went blank with shock, and his presence dropped away. The room was huge, foreign and unyielding in its reality, and he was now known least of all, a blank brightness, his hand on hers a blazing vice, she a speck.
“Who are you?” He searched her face with all-seeing eyes that could not pierce her disguise. “_What_ are you?” He reached up with his other hand and traced her cheek with it–not roughly or even forcefully, but the skin was cold and stinging under his fingers and quickly began to burn. She felt that he had tried to peel it off. As the pain bloomed, she cried out and scrambled to the foot of the bed, cradling her cheek.
She stopped at the curtains. Not, she realized, almost with horror, because she was afraid of being lost, though she was. No. She wanted to keep looking at him. “What are _you_?”
“I am of the light,” he said, neither kindly nor unkindly. “And by the light, you must explain yourself.”
“I don’t know anything– I just woke up here, that’s all I remember.”
“I see.” He held out the hand she had held. “But we can find out.” She started forward, froze. Longing for his touch, afraid that he would burn her. She did not understand, in some deep part of her, how the love they had shared and the pain belonged to his single form. “Please come here. I won’t harm you.”
“You already did,” she said, crawling over. “What are you going to do?”
“Not every hurt, perhaps, is harm. I will you home, if I can. May I heal that?” He touched her left hand, which she was still cupping over her cheek. She flinched and then cursed herself when he pulled back. “Shall I?”
She dropped her hand. “I don’t care. Yes. Will you?” She hesitated and then took the plunge: “Just don’t make me go. I’ll do anything–please, is there something I can do?”
Stupid. How could she stay, if he brought the person he thought she was back? But he said, more gently, “Yes, always. Why do you want to stay?”
“Because–because–” She said it again, because she couldn’t untangle her dread of the past from her longing for what she had known on waking from gnawing adoration of what he seemed now. “You’re so _beautiful_.”
“The light is beautiful,” he said, the quiet music of his voice now reticent, tactful. “And much more besides. I am not sure you will find it easy to bear, though. Don’t you wish to go home?”
“I’d rather do anything.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said. “But — if you want to be with me — perhaps you can bring me something.”
“Poor Duessa — wherever you come from.” He laughed softly, and reached forward as she trembled. He cupped her chin in one hand and set the other on the burn. Pain dissolved into warmth. “You might say that I will ask the whole world of you: you must go down the staircase outside this door into a hall hung with pictures ten flights down. Turn right at the first hallway you see. At the end of it you will find a room where the candles are always kept burning. There is a table in the center. Bring me the globe that sits on the table.”
“The deceiver who would be my Beloved. There.” He ran his fingers over her cheek and let go. “Take the candle off the wall for light. If you find it — and come back — and still wish to be — you are welcome with me.”
“How? What will that mean?” she asked, forgetting her fear and laying hold of his arm. He closed his fingers on hers for a moment, laughed.
“Oh, a great many things — serving the light, dying in it, striving, certainty, questioning — and being answered. I can’t explain it to you. Come back, and then we’ll talk.”
For a moment she hesitated to touch the exquisite curtains. But she pushed them aside and stepped onto a thick rug. A large white candle in a wall sconce lit the room. A stone floor chilled her feet. A great old wardrobe loomed over her. She could barely reach the candle, and, when she lifted it, its flame shrank terrifyingly, darkening the room, but it did not go out.
She did not want to leave him without the light and offered it back to him, but she knew she needed it more. But when she opened the great wood door and stepped out, his room wasn’t dark at all: a greater light now flooded the narrow, bare stone landing from behind her, sunny, rosy, golden, and steady. She wanted to look back but didn’t dare. Instead she started down the stairs.
There’s a scene in the first book of the Faerie Queene where the hero, the Redcross Knight, leaves his true love because a false copy of her declares its love and longing for him at night (apparently this is scandalous behavior?). This scene plays off that one.
The rose that is fire comes from George MacDonald’s Princess and Curdie books, though something of the sort also appears at the end of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
I wasn’t sure about making the light genderless at first, because my mind (and the parts of culture I’m exposed to) haven’t yet formed strong archetypes of a light figure (or much anyone else) that transcends gender, but I figure it’s not too late to start trying to teach myself such archetypes, and what better place to start than the divine?