This is the seventh installment of Duessa, a 12,000-word allegory (of sorts). I’m posting a new installment on each of the twelve days of Christmas, wrapping up on January 5th. See the previous six here.
Lacking a solution to either the problem of the candles or the problem of the lizard (she could feel that its jaws were too strong to pry apart) she glanced to the side for a third time.
Pain was the last thing she was conscious of as she entered the picture a third time, and it was the first thing she felt on arriving. A different pain, though — stabs of it every time she rustled and brought scabby, itching skin in contact with itself or the overhanging rock. Her gut ached: she had explosive diarrhea; her tail — her tail!? The rest of her seemed human enough — was covered in dripping excrement and the whole hollow under the jutting rock where she was hiding stank with it.
She’d had a human name outside the picture, in the mirror room, but now the name he’d lightly called her — Duessa — felt truer. Duessa did not fit like a name given at birth — in this form she had never had such a name — but like a curse that was true. Duessa, doubleness, two-facedness, deceit. She felt great power in herself. Great seeming beauty, strange knowledge. Oh, she was mighty, for a fox-tailed witch hiding in a hole.
These things fit her at first like a cloak, then like a skin. Her thoughts became one with this other’s, this Duessa’s.
As always, she had imagined — dreamed — as she watched the warrior fighting the dragon that was at once her master, a mindless symbol, and her greater self — that it and she were too mighty for them. The light’s warrior was putting up his usual valiant fight, but the dragon was lithe and leathery always escaping. She stood by as always, rapt, the useless fool.
Not she in this iteration, though, Duessa realized, looking more closely– they were both men, this time. They came in all sizes, shapes, colors, and genders. They were usually lovers — these two seemed to be — but not always. She’d seen them as parent and child, best friends.
And there! Damn them, the writhing mass of dragon breathed its last, and something, as always, died in her with it. But, again as always, she lived on to deal with the humiliation of the wedding.
Dreams, oh, yes, dreams. Cruel dreams, with them. She always wanted one of them, the warrior. As much as she loathed him, if not more. Shameful, horrible desire that sent her crawling under rocks to ogle him even as he tried to destroy her dragon self.
He wanted her too, when she came in her splendor. But it was almost always to betray him that she appeared to him thus, because she never wished him well, no matter how she wanted him. And no matter what happened between them, no matter why he had parted from his Companion, the Companion was always first in his heart.
What did the hero love that Other for that he did not love her?
The question sparked a memory, a near-silent voice from an anonymous, tormented face: “What do they love her for, as they do not love us?” Not about some perfect Companion, about her — or else, something alien in her whispered, about some irrelevant human from a land where the sun shone and the power of choice was real, at least a little real, for everyone.
Which one am I, the witch in the picture or the human becoming her? she asked herself, panicking. The answer, unhelpfully, seemed to be both. She reached for the human memories instead of Duessa’s and discovered first the lizard’s poison in the sumptuous mirror room; everything there seemed too real and momentous to approach mentally — then a brilliant light like the one that shone from the hero, the light’s warrior, infinitely less inimical, but, even more than the castle he dwelt in, too great to comprehend or approach in memory — then a knot of misery and envy almost a shadow of Duessa’s. Then, finally, a digital clock’s green neon glow, a child’s voice, unintentionally mocking her for her failure to wake, a rock bottom of bitter laughter: Screw this, just wake up, idiot–
But precisely as this thought sounded, a spray of water tumbled down over the mouth of her hole, soaking her, and the question of her identity ceased to trouble her for a time. She raised her face into the water, through it — the sores on her face burned, then became blessedly cool. A booming, rushing voice within the waterfall said, “The water, the balm, and the sword: therein lie your salvation.” She wished she could crawl up and bathe in it, but then they might see her as she was– intolerable.
Meanwhile, as the warrior and his love were climbing to the fortress, something even stranger was happening all around — something they either could not see or took for granted.
Starting from the point where the warrior’s sword had pierced the dragon’s throat, the dusty, ashy earth was cracking like a coat of mud and crumbling into green fields full of wildflowers. The crack spread as far as she could see, horizon to horizon, and even into the pale sky, where the uniform gray-white cracked into brightly illumined white clouds and a clear blue sky. The rough stone walls of the fortress, meanwhile, cracked to reveal marble walls and a great door that burst open. People poured out, cheering and screaming, carrying banners and signs, to welcome the couple. The sunlight glinting off the warrior and his companion no longer lacked a source: a brilliant midday sun shone down on everything.
The waste must have been only in her mind.
More important than plants, the shouts indicated that the lovers were marrying: just as she suspected. This was not to be tolerated. She felt she could kill them a thousand times over that one act and still remain enraged.
She retreated deeper into the cave, into the realm that was really hers, though disturbed by the sound of the waterfall above.
Now she is the Duessa from the Faerie Queene–a repulsive witch who enchants the hero to be her companion for a while (also the Catholic church or falsehood generally).