This is the eighth 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 seven here.
Now all that remained was to dress. Alas, that was no mean feat.
First she bathed herself in a potion brewed with strange herbs, eyeballs and fur, dung and animal limbs, to get rid of the stink of her excrement and replace it with a scent of flowers. Then she rubbed herself with an ointment to make oozing, sagging skin seem smooth and whole — the only catch of the spell was that, however she itched, she must not make a single move to relieve the sensation, or else it would fail.
Next, she reached for her corset, stained with algae from the pond, but still magical: it made her just the right height, a few inches shorter than the hero, adjusted away ill-placed pounds, created voluptuous curves.
With an irritable incantation she banished the fleas from her glossy blonde wig and positioned it on her bald head.
Finally, she wished into existence a sweeping golden ball gown with a strap of satin rosettes, rubbed her eyes to redden them as if she had been crying, and crawled gracefully to a different exit, one that did not block her way with water that would wash away her enchantments.
At the first exit she tried, though, she found a new difficulty: the roots of a tree, sticky with sap, blocked the passage. She tried an incantation to make them wither, then to crack them, then, too enraged to worry about practicality, to set them afire. None of her efforts worked, though at the force of the last, a beautiful apple fell and became wedged between branches of a root. She did not reach for it. She knew the food of this realm held no good for her.
The next exit she tried, though, was blocked by nothing more daunting than a pile of rocks, which she quickly shifted aside with magic.
She stepped out onto a soft, green lawn interspersed with flowers of all shapes and colors, and had to walk around the wall, aiming for the happy sounds of the rejoicing multitudes — not rejoicing for much longer. She arrived at the gate shortly — the distance seemed barely to exist — surprising her human memories, in which she had walked around the fortress for an interminable length of time that seemed more like hours or even days.
As she passed through the gates into the city, she looked over the people there. Soon, she was shocked dumb: she saw the face of some people she knew, coworkers of her, the human her’s, husband. The shock was enough to make her think again: what was she trying to do here? What needed to happen? She felt as if she would wither into nothing but a lie and some ashes if she stepped into the world of the house, did not understand how she had not done so the first time.
From there on, she wondered at the size of the crowd, at the diversity of faces and clothing before her. She suspected she could find anyone she thought of in that city. She paused to hear a storyteller describe how the hero had been killed by the dragon twice but fallen once into the water of life and a second time into the balm that flowed from the tree of life and been saved. Of how he was to marry his fair Companion, whose parents with all the world had been imprisoned within the fortress.
The words the water, the balm, and the sword rang in her head. She needed to conquer or distract the lizard, save herself from its poison, and — if it were possible — to do something for the people in the candles — perhaps if she could acquire those things she could accomplish this goal.
I am not going to die for you, the foreign Duessa voice spoke in her mind. He and the beast may die and be reborn, but I always live on…
Why would you die? she asked.
What do you think happens when you return to your precious House?
But you come to life every time someone looks at you, don’t you? You do it too, I’m sure of it. Or maybe you’ll live on in me.
For that precise reason, said Duessa, conveniently ignoring the argument, it is absurd to imagine taking anything from this realm into the other. I have tried to enter that outside world my own way, and it’s deadly. I see you’re wondering how I can talk to you when the other characters you just were. But falsehood is slippery, and some reader of the tale got so twisted up in trying to understand what is the true essence of a lie that I came out more alive than most of the rest of them. Enough of this!” she said, and the split between Duessa and the human self almost closed sharply.
Duessa threaded her way quickly through the throngs until she came to a small, dusty shop labeled, “Myriad Magics.”
“Archimago,” she called musically (the potion she’d bathed in sweetened her crow’s croak of a voice as well as her smell). “I’m here! You must take me immediately to the lovers, or they will be betrothed and all will be lost!”
“Ah. May I say, you look lovely enough to win over anyone.”‘
“I’d better,” she said.
The old sorcerer stood creakily, whirled around much more gracefully than she would have expected, and emerged looking like a tall, young policeman.
She immediately began playing at grief, keeping her eyes downcast and sniffing occasionally, as he shouted the crowd aside for her. She began attracting sympathetic looks as well as the usual admiring ones. She basked in the gaze of their eyes. She knew how beautiful she was, so she was fearless. She could feel their curiosity and she hoped some of the whispers were speculation–what if this beauty had been their savior George or his Companion Alfred?
Someone — the city police, perhaps, or the Alfred’s parents — had set up a great celebration in the Commons, all vibrant green grass growing beside well-trodden, litter-laden paths around tents and trailers, where people from the surrounding countryside had taken refuge. There was music playing, an exuberant orchestral number that had been written for the champions on one side of the commons, a band singing ballads about them and thanking a variety of higher powers for their victory.
Children offered them water and snacks, which they graciously refused. Only when she reached the circular clearing around the couple’s tent did she begin to feel uneasy, but she conquered her uncertainty. It was uncertainty born of the despair of the powerful old narrative behind her — there was nothing for her beyond this point except ignominy, shame, and despair. She always knew it — it was part of the torment of the ending of the tale. The narrative did not always dictate events, but its weight pulled at her.
She had her plan, though — she would exploit this voice from the waterfall and her evasive, heady memories of the world beyond.
Archimago, still looking entirely the policeman, went forward to negotiate her visit with the couple. She took the opportunity to converse with the members of the crowd that stood nearest. She chatted benignly with them while dropping a carefully enigmatic comment about George.
Finally, at Archimago’s beckoning, she approached. When she was sure she was out of the hearing of the crowd, she let out a low sob and said, “I know how you must feel after everything I’ve done. You must realize that I would never have dared approach you if it were not on the gravest of business. But I come not on my own behalf but on another’s. An Outsider’s.
“Continue,” George said shortly, a confusion of feeling on his lively pink face. Bitterness, mistrust, yet a glimmer of hope — of what? Friendship? Was he really that stupid?
“In me she can remember only a little of the Outside, but we were told by a voice in a waterfall to procure ‘the water, the balm, and the sword.’ These things will save the Outsider from certain death Outside.”
The trouble in his face increased. He plainly did not trust or even believe a word she was saying, but the Outside had a strong claim. After all, it was the home of their mysterious “proximate creators.” “Let me talk to Al,” he said.
The two conferred in inaudible whispers in the next room. He would.
“We will give you the sword on three conditions,” he said. “You must return the sword by nightfall, whether you have managed to use it or not.”
“Very well,” Duessa replied. She hoped eventually to claim the sword as a bribe, which would be harder, but not impossible, if she were to fulfill the conditions.
“You must not speak a word until you have returned the sword.”
“As you wish,” she said cautiously.
“Third, realize that if you break your word, we will strip you in front of the assembly, so all will see what you really are. And don’t doubt that we will know. We have the magic to see you from afar.” His expression told her that this was not a lie, quite, but that he was not nearly as certain of his power as he was trying to sound. She almost refused flat out, but instead took his uncertainty into account. If she wanted the sword, which she might well, depending on its properties, Archimago could make a perfect replica. “I agree to your conditions,” she said.
He presented her with the sword belt, a bottle for the water, and a jar for the balm.
She and Archimago, whom she had spotted standing unobtrusively in the corner of the tent in the guise of a shadow, left the market quickly, unspeaking. When they began to approach his shop, he murmured a spell of silence and undetectability, quickly summoned up some imps and spoke with some greater powers, and conjured a simulacrum of Duessa to continue wander out to the city’s edge. He and the real Duessa made haste to his shop, where he drew the sword and tested it. Finding powers they could not isolate, they decided she should keep and use the original for her own purposes and return the replica.
Then there was the hope of getting Outside. Archimago agreed that establishing a way between worlds would be a victory in theory, but he had no trust it would be done in any way that would suit their purposes.
He insisted that the items must be collected (she herself initially had no such feeling, merely wishing to flaunt the sword, but, as always, his dreams stretched higher). First he sent out two imps, one with the bottle and one with the jar, but both came back unable to approach the site. Next he told her to collect them herself — but to bring them to him before trying anything she might be instructed or intuitively led by the cohabiting Outsider to do. He insisted as well that she must not touch the water, the balm, or the sword’s metal. She agreed.
Thus prepared, she left the shop after altering her appearance to be spared recognition, either through whatever magic George and Alfred possessed or by those who were interested in the strange beauty who asked to speak with the hero — or those who had seen her simulacrum. She left through the gates unobserved and explored the mountainside (covered in sagebrush, grass, and blooming forget-me-nots). The first spring she encountered seemed to be the one. There was a little stone path leading to a pool of water that poured over the entrance to a cave — her cave? She placed the glass bottle’s mouth in the water but, in so doing, splashed the tiniest bit onto her wrist. She had unwittingly enjoyed this strange water unclothed, but in her disguises she found it burned more than all of her sores put together. She dried her hand on her dress quickly, but it took much longer to stop burning.
She found the magnificent Tree of Life, laden with beautiful fruit, shortly thereafter. From a wound in the trunk flowed the balm, thick and clear. She was more careful as she used a broken-off piece of bark to scoop a little of the miraculous sap into the jar. Unwittingly, though, she had stepped in a puddle of it and ad to remove her golden high-heeled shoes to get out of it.
She set off to make her barefoot way back to the city. But a passing wind cried in her ear, “Drink! To be saved you must drink!” She shuddered at the very thought and made note of the instruction to tell Archimago. But she had the briefest flash of the dim mirror room, rich and splendid, followed by an instantaneous memory of lying with him — not the hero, at least, but what the hero was a shadow of, the figure of the Light. And in that instant, the story she was part of and the role she played in it became too clear to bear. She’d always imagined that she was more than it, but it turned out to be yet one more lie. She drank down the water in one gulp and screamed, reaching out for the slightest relief from anywhere, as she melted into a pile of filth.
This plot in this chunk feels a little (maybe a lot) strained to me, but… In the Faerie Queene the Redcross Knight fights the dragon for a day, is more or less killed, falls into the water and is revived, fights the dragon another day, again is more or less killed, falls into the balm and is revived, fights the dragon another day, and wins–just as the storyteller here repeats. In it, too, Duessa attempts to stop his marriage to Una, his true love (also possibly truth or the church).