Over to Gary:
GB: This is a piece I wrote in a collaborative exercise with other writers. My job was to craft the penultimate chapter and set Ren up for the last. Knowing Ren, I think I did a good job (RW: You did… splendid job!).
The main character is a sorceress, one of a group of nuns readying themselves for an all-out fight between heaven and hell. While they remained in their convent, she went out into the world to learn about life. She returns just as battle is about to commence.
Maybe Ren will add her final, and brilliant, chapter (RW: Has hell frozen over…? No? Oh, well, then… don’t think so. This is YOUR showcase, Gary. Anyone can read my crap on here :P).
I feel the perfection of stillness and silence. Death must be so sweet.
Not for me the susurration of bare feet on chamomile as I walk, dew bathing my skin, glittering on toenails. No more walking in intoxicating solitude. Not just now. My sisters stand before me in a semicircle. Eyes expectant, questioning, reassessing me, wondering what I have become.
There’s a deference I hadn’t expected, a weakness in them I hadn’t seen before too, but I can’t put my finger on it. Their hesitant welcomes receive no response. Something is happening within my breast. Too important or precious to ignore. A growth, a spring, a beginning, something….
A power, but what is its nature? Is it something needed for the conflict ahead?
I’m divorced from my surroundings, cut off, uninterested. A little death… sweet. Ideas, questions and answers grow in my head, spreading like shadows when the sun slides behind trees. I must discover what this power is.
Movement in me, the corner of my mouth creeps up. I know who can help me learn. I will go to her soon.
Though I stand before my sisters, it seems that I race towards them from an infinity away. My thoughts brushed aside, I raise my hands in welcome.
“Sisters, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
A voice behind me, Titan’s, “We have waited for you overlong, Lydia.”
I turn. Chamomile strokes my feet, the scent rises with the warmth of them. Looking at Titan, I feel the separation, the distance again.
Titan says, “What will you do to stop hell? What have you prepared? We have struggled alone, performed rituals and rights, called blessings and begged angels to assist us.” She steps forward. I can smell lemon in her breath. My sisters encircle me.
I tell her I have done nothing, prepared nothing and may continue to do nothing.
Dione gasps and says, “We have nurtured this land, protected the worlds. You must do something.”
Lapetus glares at me, and says, “You, with the power of blazing rock itself, would do nothing?”
She puts her hand on my arm. Cool, slim fingers. My warm hand covers them. I say, “Blazing rock, burning sulphur, you would have these fields filled with that? Why wait for demons when I can bring hell here on my own?” I squeeze her hand and look around the others as I say, “In this respect I am weaker than all of you. I can’t fight demons with weapons they would see as home comforts.”
Lapetus takes her hand away. I shrink from the despair I see around me. Rhea looks the most frightened. Hands on her pale face.
She says, “But you can banish them.”
“And they would return,” I reply, “I cannot keep them away. I may as well join Sisyphus in his impossible task.”
Tethys laughs. At last, someone who is not bitter or frightened.
Titan hisses and says, “More faulty insight from Lydia the wanderer. You are one of the few with real power, yet you speak like an ignorant and confused girl.”
“Peace, Titan. I believe there is much I can do, but first I need to speak to an ignorant and confused girl, a girl who bullied and humiliated me through my school years. She carries a demon and thus has wisdom, though I doubt she is aware of it. ”
“You have little time….” Titan starts to say.
I interrupt with, “And no choice. Please do not follow. I need to wander these groves so my answers can find me.” I take the Sisterhood stone from my head, hold it out to Tethys and ask her to keep it warm for me.
I’m walking away and the sisters’ whispers fade. Almond blossom, the heavy air sweetened by gorse, griffon vultures fly high overhead, a dead olive tree twisted, snapped and burned white by decades of sun, and my winding path to nowhere, shared only by processions of tiny caterpillars. Frightened, holding on to each other, hoping the one in front knows something they don’t.
At last, I’m near my ignorant and confused girl. A new and night-time world replaces the grove. I’m walking through wet, narrow alleys. Little shops, boutiques and cafes. Streetlights reflect from cobbles. Bare feet on cold, slimy stones, not my favourite combination. People stop, point at me and stare. I am not dressed for this. I turn into the first shop that sells clothes.
Why the door has a bell is a mystery, the wailing hinges drown its sound. I close the door and deaden the sound of rain.
Incense, thick, almost choking, a mass of skirts and dresses, reds, blacks, some have metal stitched into them. Chains and tangled wires. I smirk into a full-length mirror. I’m going to enjoy this little adventure.
Another door opens and a short, round woman enters. Her face more lined than olive bark. She sways from the hips as she walks towards me. She shouts, “Marcus, one for you!” Her arms go out, like she’s going to hug me. All the lines crumple around a wide, toothless, grin.
“Beautiful,” she says, “beautiful.” I’m not sure what she is talking about until she strokes my robe. She makes odd noises of wonder and asks me what it is. I tell her I have no idea. Strong hands spin me round and she makes ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ noises as her fingertips run over the fabric.
She turns and shouts, “Marcus!” again, and tells me how useless Marcus is. He can design perfection and dress women in it until angels weep with joy, but after seven in the evening, he’s drunk and downloading pictures of naked men. She says she will have to dress me herself. Shrewd eyes take in my empty hands and lack of pockets.
“You have money?”
“You want to give me your gown?”
“Take it. I need clothes.”
“And you will have them, my beauty. Spin around, I need to see you move.”
I spin, and faster when prompted. Faster still when given a firm shove from her hands on my shoulder and buttock. The world blurs. My dizzy eyes register the entrance of a lanky man in a skin-tight tee shirt that stops short of his studded belly button. His black jeans, that look as if he’s attacked them with splashes of neat bleach, cover thin hips and long legs. I think the rest of the bleach went on his hair.
The woman says, ‘Marcus, imbecile.’
He’s holding a full bottle of red in one hand and a nearly empty one in the other. He puts them down on a counter, sweeps pins, scissors, buttons and chains to the floor, and sits himself on a pile of receipts.
He shakes his head and says I move like a girl and goes on to say I need hard clothes to make a balance.
I must look a bit blank, because he retrieves his bottle, waves it at me and says, “Without balance, without interweaving of extremes, a woman cannot stun.” He goes on to mutter that women should never be allowed to choose their own clothes, what do they know?
I tell them I don’t have much time.
His palm crashes down on the glass of the counter. Pins scatter. He says, “Then we get it right first time.” He jumps down and thrusts the bottle into my hand. “Drink this and take your gown off.”
I glance at the woman and say, “I’m not wearing anything else….”
She waddles to the door, locks it and pulls the blind down. She says, “Take it off, you’re safe with my bent son. He wouldn’t know what to do with you if you laid on the carpet and spread your legs.”
Marcus rattles things on clothes racks and tells me not to worry, he doesn’t do girls.
Fine then. I lift the bottle to my lips and empty the dregs. The woman takes it from my hand, saying I drink like a man.
I slide my gown off and stand stark naked in front of two strangers. Marcus dumps clothes on a sewing machine, opens the other bottle and looks me up and down… his eyes lingering here and there.
His mother stamps and whirls round, “She’s a customer!” But she is smirking. There’s a warmth between these two.
Weird. I felt a small flush, a thrill. Time to get a grip. Marcus throws a pair of trousers at me.
“But too soft, too vulnerable. You need to make them look dangerous.”
I’m fumbling with black plastic-like trousers that seem three sizes too small. They stretch as I draw them up my legs. No frills or softness here, just a material that clings so tight nothing will be left to the imagination. Another thrill. What are these people doing to me? Marcus’ mother helps me with the fastening. The waist is studded with sharp blue stones and grey metal. I’m leaning over struggling with the catch. The weight of my breasts makes me feel self-conscious again.
Marcus is behind me, pulling my arms vertical and slipping something over them. Over my head, shoulders and down.
His hands stroke the material. Is it coincidence that they brush my breasts? And that he presses himself behind me? No, I don’t think so.
“What an arse,” he says, whips the top off and takes it to a sewing machine.
I’m speechless. His mother pushes me into a velvet-covered chair. She turns and opens drawers. As she does, the contents of each one bulge up and overflow, cascading to the floor as she digs around.
Marcus says, “I’m an arse. I’m… I need… where’s….” He’s lost in his sewing and furrowed brow. I half expect his tongue to stick out with the intensity of his concentration. A man at a sewing machine, his whole mission to make me look stunning. How sexy is that? There are new worlds to be discovered in every person, and in me.
His mother pushes my head back until I see the netting hanging from the ceiling. My face is abraded by something coarse on a cold sponge, warming with the intensity of her effort.
“Ssh,” she says, “lie still. Be quiet.”
The hum of Marcus’ machine, his mother mixing pastes and powders, the smell of incense. I’m short of time.
Marcus throws skimpy things at me, helping me struggle into them. His mother pushes me down again and again. A bottle of wine is pressed to my mouth so often….
Stuff going on my eyebrows, eyelids, eyelashes, lips. Mother is all kindness, industry and skill.
Did I just call her mother?
Chains thrown around me, finishing touches to my face and nails. Marcus is doing things to my feet. Trying shoes on. Did he just kiss my foot? No. that’s silly. Was that a tongue between my toes? I give in. Relax. Let it happen. Is this is heaven or hell?
I’m standing between Marcus and his mother. We’re looking into the long mirror. I’m black and silver. I’m blue. I’m grey.
But not a nun of the Order – not like this.
High heels, short everything, skimpy everything. I realise I was always like this inside, but never that confident, bold…. I smirk and say, “Outrageous.”
How can a change of clothes and makeup do this? There are whole new lives to be discovered… new identities, changes beyond belief.
Marcus’s mother utters a moan and says, “Perfect. I don’t remember anything this good.” Her arms go around me and she sobs, like I’m her daughter about to get married. Only no one gets married like this. You get men like this, lots of them, but you get married dressed like you only met one. You wear white to say so.
The bottle of wine is thrust to my lips again. It doesn’t matter if I spill it over plastic and tangled metal.
I’m dizzy, I hold the bottle away from me, hoping Marcus will take it. He doesn’t. I hug his mother and ask her name.
She says, “Just call me mother, mum… I don’t care.”
What is happening here? How did everything get so intense, so intimate? I haven’t drunk that much, have I?
Is it the way he looks at me? He jokes but acts like he’s not joking, not interested in me. Is that because he is, or because he’s just playing? How can he be so confident, like he knows how to pull all my strings?
Mother works the key of the shop door, frowning with the effort of it. The door wails again, like there’s a ghost trapped and tortured in the hinges. I’m looking out into the dark, the lights and the hissing rain. Marcus’ hand adjusts my hair. His other brushes my bum, like it’s an accident, returns and stops, like it’s not.
He murmurs, “Come back soon, pretty lady.”
What has he done to me? Do I kill him, or rip his clothes off and run my tongue round his belly button?
My legs, my whole body moves in a new way. I’ve never worn stilettos and they’ll take some time getting used to. They smack into the cobbles like they want to break them.
I’m walking away from Adonis and mother earth. Why am I thinking of her as a mother in law already?
Get a grip, girl. No don’t. There’s a niggle… what is it?
The world should be full of men like him. No it shouldn’t. There must be a balance, a weaving of extremes. How can you know the pleasure of that burning intimacy if you haven’t experienced the cold desolation of indifference?
Noisy lace up boots, tinkling chains and men staring at me from beside women who tug their sleeves to distract them. Heaven is a narrow side street and light rain, a wet cat picking its way between puddles, the cry of a baby from a high window, the smell of hot oil and garlic blasted from an extractor fan.
Time to get to work.
I’m not going to let any more demons into this world, there’s enough already. In fact, I’m going to meet one right now.
Here’s the Viridian Gallery, small, gaudy and filled with people eating canapés or looking at paintings.
I’m presented with a glass of wine and a bone china plate of squishy stuff in pastry. No thanks. People beam at me. People in expensive clothes. People drunk on wine and art.
The smell of burning metal hits me. I do fire well; it’s my element. I weave through a knot of people standing between a fierce white light and me.
There she is, my tormentor for so many years, her face thinner, older and lined. She has more energy, more purpose than I would ever have imagined. Her eyes turn on me; it’s like being caught in the headlights of a skidding car. Out of control, heading for you. She doesn’t appear to recognise me.
She grips my wrist and points to a piece of steel lying in a small forge. White fire blazes at one end. Flames burst into life and die in the same instant of superheated blast.
“What do you see?” She asks, and goes on before I can reply, “You see black metal at one end. People that never wake up, cold, no passion, no life, no light in their souls… dull, wasted lives. But here in the middle, the people are warm, awake and brightness is alive inside them. They glow. And here, people burning bright, burning away, living on the very border of life and death: the brilliance, the genius, the torture and the suffering.”
She pauses for breath and I say, “I see balance. Each part of the metal is as it should be, as it wants to be.”
She closes her mouth. I’ve stopped her words for a moment. I add, “The cold metal is slumbering, the hot is full of vitality and joy.”
“It’s dying!” she says.
“And death can be sweet.”
She jerks my arm and points to a painting, saying, “It’s still death, and no one faces it without fear. Fear is pain. Look at that painting. What do you see?”
Well, the first thing I see is she’s signed it ‘Astrid.’ So, she’s changed her name. Can’t blame her really. The next thing I notice is an eye-twisting, stomach-churning cacophony of colours and angles. It’s not a painting I’d want in my house. In fact, it’s one I’d rather have not seen ever. I look away.
Oh, I get it; she’s good, bloody good. I open my mouth to speak and shut it again. She’s stopped my words.
She jerks my arm with each syllable as she speaks, “It’s life, it’s death, the terror and the demons that drive us.”
That’s my cue. I say, “Well, speak of the deōfel….”
And he’s at my throat. Like he expects to surprise me. He thinks I can’t see him. I felt him in her him years ago.
It’s no fight. I have perfect balance now. It’s what I’ve been looking for, what I felt a glimmer of when I stood before my sisters. I can’t strike with balance, but even a demon of his terrifying power can’t shake it. He bounces off. It’s no effort to push him through fire and back to hell.
That gives me an idea….
I burst out laughing. The joy of everything coming together in my mind erupts in splutters and howls of mirth. The artist, still holding my wrist, is laughing too. For her it will be with relief. She won’t know what’s happened, but she’ll feel a lifelong burden has lifted. Her hands go onto my shoulders, our foreheads press together.
I could laugh like this for ever, but I’ve work to do.
I pull away and say, “Bye, Chrissy, nice seeing you again.”
And I’m going to mess it right up.
It’s easy to get lost in streets you’ve never been in before, but dark and rain soon give way to sun and the perfumed groves and I’m back with my sisters.
I’m strong, full of peace, full of fire, at the tip of white-hot: ready for battle.
Stilettos grind against yellow stone in the path, chains swing. The sun and breeze play over skin that should have been exposed years ago.
My sisters… faces of bewilderment, recognition, shock. Tethys gasps as she looks me up and down.
Yes, girls… nurture, care for, protect, this is what you do….
Titan’s mouth opens, but only one word struggles out and hangs alone in the air.
I’m grinning so wide I think my grey-painted lips will split.
“I’m going to hell. Who’s coming?”
© Gary Bonn 2011