You want to believe what you want to believe. You want it so much, and in order to believe it you have to trust them. They tell you something, they tell you lots of things, and: they tell you the thing that you want to believe. That they are late because of traffic. That they're irritable because it was a rough day at work. That they love you, even. Ohhh, you want it so badly. There is a part of you that stands back from it, that doubts, that doesn't think you can have anything you want and so if it looks like what you want it must be a lie. But it's so convincing, this lie, and you turn away from the light that would reveal it, you close your eyes when they kiss you so you can't see the truth of the lie, you lie to yourself almost as well as they do, until to be honest you don't see the seams any more between what you know must be true and what you wish would be. You try out different positions and convince yourself that they make you happy. They don't come home at night and they say it's not you it's me and they promise I love you you have to know that and we just need to talk and everything will be okay, and it is: they pour the honey of words all over you, the cracks are filled with this sweetness, and in that moment you believe again, you believe what you want to believe, because you want it so much.
On the other side of the story are the people you've been lying to, the people who trust you and look what it got them. Part of what you wanted to believe was that you were a truthful person, a good person, a person who believes in and exemplifies honesty and openness. And it starts small, a misleading gesture, a gift that wasn't your choice, and your lie is so small against the truth that you want to believe that it doesn't look like a lie at all, practically. Although it is. Part of what makes you uncomfortable is that even if you are being told the truth, and you're not sure, you know that what is coming out of your mouth is definitely lies.
And now what happens. Now you have to ask. Now the exquisiteness of what you believe has to be tested, because this is who you are: you are a person who can only take it on faith for so long. You'd rather be hurt by the truth than believe a lie, in the end. Who are you? you say. Do you really love me? Did you ever? And then you sit there, ice pack on your heart, and wait.
This is how we live then, walking in circles among the daffodils, their oddly human faces drooping at the riverbank. This is what we do, repeating back what is said to us, like we learned to do in psych class. So it sounds like things are hard for you right now, right now, we say, our voices are your voice bouncing back across the river, across the mountain range. We are so sad we need another word for it, beyond sorrow, beyond grief, but we push that back and focus on what you're saying because maybe that will be more interesting, and if you don't ask about us then we don't have to think about it; we're not beyond noticing it's a form of co-dependence. There was a time when we talked so much we got on other people's nerves but in your presence we are reduced to repetition, and you can only hear us say the words you say, because it's not in your nature to listen to us. So like our sisters the mirrors we are not making much, we are mostly reflecting, and what we are mostly reflecting is you though we try to tilt and lilt at a certain angle so you only see and hear what you want, the things you like about yourself, and every time you look at us or listen to us you fall a little more in love and for a second we get to imagine you're falling in love with us and that's about as close as it gets but that's closer than it gets anywhere else so we take it. Sometimes it sounds like we're singing but it's how we cry, and our tears tangle in our throats and come out sounding almost like laughter. The heat of our passion meets the coldness of your feeling; we burn for you and yet we are never consumed. It's just a constant hot longing in the cold air and the pain defines us more than our existence, we are colored in flames outside of the lines. Caravaggio came and captured some part of your beauty, the way your hair tucked behind your ear, and he left us out of the picture but then that's hardly a surprise: out of sight out of mind, as they say, out of yours out of mine. May I die before what's mine is yours, you shout at us, and we answer: what's mine is yours, is yours.
Another word for you is narcissus. Another word for us is echo. Nothing ever changes, changes, changes.
It is lodged in her back somewhere between one vertebra and another, a small thing, sharp. It doesn't hurt at all unless it does, a slight movement forward and she feels it. The reaction is, as most are, involuntary: a gasp, wetness in the eyes; the need to do anything at all to not feel it again. She drinks to quench the fire it burns through her, the flames that lick at her heart, she drinks a river and there is nothing more to drink and still it hurts. This sharp... who put this in her? Why is it here? She cranes her neck around but it is just out of her sight, it is just beyond where her fingers can reach, that one spot, like kissing your elbow, unreachable. A man comes to tell her to stop screaming and she eats him whole and still it hurts, it is an endless pain except when she doesn't feel it at all. Days go by and she can forget it entirely, it's nothing, it never was. She even imagines that she was just feeling someone else's pain, which is a logical risk of being a sorceress, except then she reaches out in a particular way to take a specific thing that belongs to her and there it is again, the knife in her spine that twists with grief, and she is crying again until the whole village shakes with her sobs. Another man comes to tell her to try to hold it together and she swallows him before he can finish his sentence. Men. Meanwhile she is trying to do her job though it's clear that her pain has driven the less devoted customers away. This one needs a love potion; this one wants to stay up all night talking without saying a word about the actual problem. This one wants nothing except to be wanted, a mobius band of longing that she treats with alcohol and a song about shoes that can leave and don't. And still her back is sharp with anguish, the mirror won't show her what it is, and now when her fingers come close the pain is such that she can't even describe it without weeping. This is getting ridiculous. Another man comes, another, they are asking questions but it is only for themselves, what they want, she is interesting to them only in terms of what she can give them and she eats them, a pile of bones she spits at her feet the only remains. One day some day someone will come and ask her the right question, one day some day someone. Put arms around her, hold her gently, brush the tears from her cheeks, pull the thorn from her back. A thorn! Yes, that is all it is, like all horrible things it only feels big, but it is smaller than a splinter. They will pull the thorn out, lick the blood from the tip, put it in a jar with other things that used to scare her. They will laugh together. That will come later, and she will be so grateful she will give back the river. She will give back the men and call them warriors rather than bores. It's in the story, it's bound to happen. But not yet; today she mutters spells and wails, wraps her arms around herself and tries to keep her hands on grace, hopes.
You're standing in a garden, abandoned since that rainstorm, fixed in place. The world grows around you. Nobody remembers that you were there, nobody knows what you were working on, nobody cares, or has cared for years, other than you. You still care, though, so you spend the days watching the flowers grow and wishing for the thing that would free you up to return to what you were doing, to what you were made to do. Not so much a calling as a design.
One day some people come to your garden, gaze at you in wonder and surprise. The hollow sounds you make as they bang against you. You marvel at their soft bones, soft tissue, you can't even imagine what it would be like to be so vulnerable. They give you the first thing you ask for, the only thing you actually need, and you're free again. At least for a little while you are ready to go back to what you were doing before your unfortunate circumstances. But now they are telling you that something is still wrong with you. You're empty inside, they say, you don't have anything inside to give. This is not true, and anybody who was really paying attention would know this but they take you at surface value and they can't see what they think you should have, these people with their soft skin and their pumping hearts. You know it is an important thing to have, and they say you don't have it, and you believe them.
There are advantages to you. You don't burn the way they do; anger frightens you but it can't hurt you, similarly shame and jealousy. You cry easily and this hurts you in myriad ways, but tears are how the body says what the mouth cannot. Other than the ability to fiercely defend your friends you don't experience much passion and the only damage you sustain are a few dents that could be knocked out if you cared. You can remember when you were young and shiny but it doesn't seem to bother you that you aren't any more. There's just the one thing you need and the other thing you want because you've been told you don't have it.
Hold out your hand and they will fill it with velvet and sawdust only. You will be no different; you already had what they told you that you lack. It's more important to remember to ask for what you need, ask again, ask until someone understands. Otherwise you will find yourself back in that garden, rusting in place, useless to everyone.
That one secret. You know the one. The one you can't tell because everything will fall apart. It sits on your chest at night, a squatting horrible homunculus. Presses the air from your lungs. Crouches in the back of your throat and tastes like tears. You learn to lie around it, to speak lightly, to make sunshine against this darkness that is the only thing that matters because it's the only thing that scares you. Not the thing itself, not the secret; you already know what it is. You're not afraid of what you know, you're afraid that someone else will know it. It's not even that; it's worse than that. You're afraid that knowing it will change them, the way that knowing has changed you. The only good thing about this secret is that it is yours, and it has cut you from the inside like glass; why would you give this to someone else, the pain of knowing this.
And yet you want so badly to be known. You want so much for someone to want to know you. You want to be loved despite, maybe even because of this secret. And they can't know you if they don't know this, can they? You know that not telling is a form of lying. Or is not telling a means of being known and loved for who you are besides this, the lightness of you without the darkness. Or are you the darkness, and the lightness is the lie. You don't even know any more.
One day you open your mouth. You tell her, finally, the truth. You roll the stone from your throat, tell her the secret. And realize in the telling that there is so much more, the small shards that are part of the larger break. Her eyes on yours: But you've been lying to me, you've lied all this time. How can I trust anything you say now? The homunculus leans forward, touches a greasy hand to your lips, smiles at you. You knew better than to tell. Or should have known.
I open the door and you're there which is surprising and not. There's an awkward moment and I step back to let you in but you reach forward, your thumb along my jaw and it fits like it always did and my head tilts into your warm fingers like it always did; our palms and our mouths and our same-colored eyes are mirrors, and here we are. You say, I realized that I loved you; I realize I still love you. Then I realize something for myself, which is: this is not real. My life is not a fairy tale, because those stories aren't real, not for me, even when I wish super hard that they were.
I mean, listen: I'm biased. You can unroll the tapestry before me but if I slide my foot into the slippery story and stay we know perfectly well how my part ends. I chop off my heels and toes to try to be what is wanted and when my deception is discovered nobody says, oh the sacrifices you made for me. When the birds spill my secret, the blood pooling in my shoes, you know what happens? The pitch-perfect prince says: hey actually I think I love that other one, your sister; let's turn the carriage around and get her. So I have maybe less than the usual desire to participate. I'm acknowledging that. But if you think I didn't want it, if you think I didn't burn for love the same as everyone else it's because I lied about it, because I knew where it would go and where it would end, my eyes plucked out to punish me for my desires.
So yes I am predisposed to hating the story, the fairy tale future and the happy ending I can't win, hating all of that out of self-preservation if nothing else. I see that. I used all my power of myth and wore out my dancing shoes, sewed nettles with my bleeding hands, and then ran and escaped across the bridge of one hair instead. I never expected a white horse or your prodigal love. And I took myself out of these stories a long, long time ago.
*this is a revised version of something I wrote four years ago, so if you've been playing along at home long enough that it seems familiar that's why. It wanted fixing.
I've always been good at seeing below the surface, the shadows in the water, the fingers of seaweed pulled and pushed by the tide. Human behavior, too, has generally been a matter of standing very still and just watching until the sparkles stop dazzling you and you see the fish that disperse and then swim back with cautious curiosity or the perfect curve of shell at your feet. Even when the person doing something doesn't know why, if you are quiet and watchful it generally becomes clear. We are animals, after all, and a little study is all that's required. I think sometimes one reason I like television is that the actors are told what their motivation is, and when you watch a good actor they telegraph their intent even when the words contradict that. He tells her he loves her but we know he's lying because of the way his eyes flicker away from her. For example. And now when I see your eyes flicker away even as your lower lip kisses your top teeth, the V of love, I know it's a lie. The thing I don't know is the motivation for it; that's hidden from me still. Lately I find myself increasingly lost, and I'm confused because this used to be my strong point. Why because money. Why because death. Why because shame. Those were the most because causes, so obvious, but I used to be able to see the subtle ones, too, as clear as water. But suddenly the water is always murky, clouded with garbage, my feet cut into ribbons with sea glass and I can't hear anything but the roar of the waves.
She pulls you up from the waves onto her island and into a cave, the walls are cool and smooth in the summer and velvet warmth in the winter, she pulls you in and sets you back against brocade pillows that she wove on a golden loom, your head cradled in the crook of her arm, candles flickering against the walls which are covered in vines and bird's nests, curved around you, safe as skulls in this cave of thoughts and she hums to you, music that you like but cannot quite recognize, and there you are. This is the cave that she has created for you, and as long as you stay there everything else fades away, nothing is as safe as this place, which smells faintly of cinnamon and cedar, she doesn't feed you from her proffered hand exactly but this is the feeling, of being cared for, cared about. She tells you stories about the chattering birds as if they are real, and you watch them together, fascinating plumage. The things that interest you interest her and finally you find your mind relaxing, blooming like the vines that climb the walls, with clusters of ideas. And yet just like the first cave you emerged from, eventually you will want to leave, will wonder about the world beyond this one, and you start to imagine yourself a god, and why not smash these walls, even if smashing them destroys the person who created them.
Silly you, to have read so little mythology. It's easy to smash the walls, they were only ever her light creation, a shelter, a diversion. Sooner or later we all re-enter the world except some people know how to make small islands within it, filled with moments, warm laughter, sweet music, sharp teeth, soft skin. Enough attention to make you feel like a god. But nobody is a god here; there was just a moment where everything was beautiful. A moment created for you and free to be destroyed by you, if you want to, when you want to. You could be happy here forever, or for seven years, or you could leave, take your restless heart and push off into the wine-dark sea. She'll even help you leave. It is your story, after all.
And she settles back into her cave, humming, a knowing smile plays across her lips as she re-seals the wall where you tore through it and in the morning she takes a book and some headphones down to the beach and sits on the shore, watching the rosy fingers of dawn light the waves, waiting for the next wounded animal to love back to health.