Least Likely to Become a Nudist: A Memoir: Part 6: Finding Love in a Clothes-Minded World

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Love

I was born with a cleft lip. If you’ve never seen pictures, let me just say it can get pretty ugly. Basically, it looked like a mugger took a knife to my mouth as I exited the womb. The doctors did their best to sew me up, but the scar remained. As a result of the surgery, my nose was lopsided, with one nostril higher than the other. I did not suffer any adverse effects except for some psychological damage, because kids can be assholes. “What happened to your face?” was a question I often got asked, but I played it up cool, which worked better in my teen years. “There was a gang! I fought them off the best I could.”

For years, I tried not to think about my looks, avoiding mirrors when possible, but then high school happened and a girl named Leah. She crushed me hard. I wrote her a long poem on reams of dot matrix paper and she read it to our entire 11th grade English class. I turned every shade of red with every tortured metaphor. The evidence was all over my face, literally. I was so embarrassed, I might just as well have been bare-ass naked. Of course, Leah didn’t exactly jump into my loving arms, for you see, at that time I had to worry not only about my cleft lip nose, but a terminal case of acne. Kids in the hall used to turn just to get a better look. “Shit, did you see that guy’s face?” I also wore thick-rimmed glasses and was about as plump as an animated Tim Burton character. And this was long before “I Love Nerds” T-shirts, so girls weren’t exactly lining up to ask me to the prom.

Then in Greece one year, my uncle called to me, “Hey, Hermes.” I was in my underwear at the time, and as any mainland Greek will tell you, this is the highest compliment you can give a guy. Hermes by Praxiteles is a statue from the Classical age, representing the messenger god, and like Michelangelo’s David, stands as an ideal of male beauty. Which got me to thinking. Me? Hermes? My uncle is quite the exaggerator, but he didn’t say it in an ironic way, I am sure. So I checked with the mirror and sure enough, I could find nothing hideous about me, other than my cleft lip. After that, I started to think that maybe I’d look better in the nude. At the very least, it’d draw attention away from my face.

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Hermes

By the time I was in my 20’s, now a frequent visitor to Paradise Lakes, my confidence shot through the roof. My acne was no more, thanks to a dangerous drug called Accutane; a surgery at eighteen corrected much of my disfigurement; and I’d even gained a few pounds. More than that, naturism taught me the illusory nature of beauty. But I still had a problem and it weighed on me heavily, more than my nudist secret ever did. Paradise was full of couples, but I was by myself, alone. I needed a girlfriend, someone like Nicole, or an older version of Britney, but like Mr. Lee told me, single women were a rarity. My only chance was to find someone from the outside, clothing-loving world and introduce her to the lifestyle. But what crazy girl would agree to such a thing? Keep in mind, this was before online dating and my wooing skills were nonexistent. I mean I wasn’t exactly a player. Thanks to my cleft lip nose, and extreme social awkwardness, due, in part, to being locked in my house for a decade, I’d never even kissed a girl. And the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that my nudist days were soon to be behind me. Did I really want to risk a potential relationship just to play nude volleyball in a nursing home?

Being a restaurant manager can have its advantages, especially if you’re looking for love. Is it legal to date your employees? I don’t think so. But I never really thought of myself as “the boss.” I was just a college kid looking after my parent’s business, and far from the pervert some people imagine nudists to be, I was like the Amish when it came to sex. My brother, meanwhile, who never showed interest in social nudity, hit the clubs every weekend looking for a one-night-stand.

I found it easiest to talk to hostesses, who had nothing to do but greet customers and roll silverware. That’s how I met Maria. She was Greek, incidentally, and a few years younger than me. Ideal marriage material, if you were to ask my parents. But she was a big time flirt. Now, if you’re in the restaurant business, you know when a girl casually eats from your plate or drinks from your straw, she’s not afraid of getting your cooties. We used to share food all the time and not just pizza. And as you can imagine, two forks and one- spaghetti can lead to some pretty Lady and the Tramp situations. Eventually, we ended up at my parent’s place while they were off in Greece. She was eager to toss off her pants and watch porn, and later expressed an interest in taking nude photos (of herself, not me, silly). Being ever the gentlemen, I did not think to press my advantage, but photos? What guy can pass up nude photos? Now, for all you young people reading this, imagine a time before sexting, when taking naked selfies was especially challenging. Nobody had camera phones in those days, and you simply couldn’t drop a roll of sexy-time memories off at Walgreens without getting asked some serious questions. But I had a solution. It was this new fangled thing called a digital camera. So, as Maria sat on my bed readying for our Playboy shoot, I rifled through my desk to find—where the fuck is my camera? My brother, as it turns out, had stolen it! I was sure upset at the time, but looking back on it now, I should probably thank him. Given the butterfly effect, my kids today might not exist, and I’d be far less happily married. For you see, while Maria had little trouble getting naked, she was a shallow person, often judging people by their looks. She’d have hated Paradise Lakes if it weren’t stocked with Calvin Klein models.

But Maria wasn’t my only prospect. Jaime was a waitress who seemed into me, your typical blonde, all-American girl-next-door who liked to paint. When I asked her what she thought about nudity, she remarked, “I wish clothes had never been invented!” So . . . Jackpot? Not exactly. Nudism matters a great deal to me, but there’s more to my personality, and to love. At around the same time, I met another girl at the mall who made crepes. She was short and cute and just a little bit shy, but she always seemed to smile when I asked for my usual banana and Nutella combo. Somehow, I managed the courage to ask her out, and we talked well into the night about our favorite writers and philosophers. By contrast, Maria and Jaime wouldn’t have known Jean-Paul Sartre from Britney Spears. So when Valentines Day rolled around, I knew I had a decision to make. Maria was waiting for me, because we always went out that day, but there was also crepe girl, who was smart and considerate and I loved being around her even when we just sat on her couch doing nothing. Only problem? I couldn’t have met a girl further from the nudist lifestyle had I tried. Crepe girl was fairly timid, covering her backside with a jean jacket wherever we went, but that was the least of my worries, for she was living in America on a student visa from—I kid you not—a Muslim country. Far from the carefree attitude of the Greek isles, in her country, religiously observant women cover from head to toe, and the beach is just a field for boys to kick a soccer ball around as families mill about the sand in their Sunday Friday best, with nary a bikini in sight. Heck, not only would you never find unicorn girl here, she’d immediately get thrown in a Midnight Express dungeon. Or worse.

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Far from the Greek isles

When it comes to my life, it seems, God has a weird sense of humor. There was every possibility she’d be leaving me for her homeland upon finishing her studies, or go running for the mosque should she discover my nudist proclivities. But it was worth the risk, because I loved her, even if I had to give up the things that made me who I am. I don’t know how I broached the subject of nudism, but I did, not wanting to end up married ten years still harboring a secret. Whatever her response, I knew I owed her the truth.

Love, it seems, can make you do things, stupid things, crazy things, things you’d never imagine doing. On our first visit to Paradise, I assured her that clothing was very much optional. But what made her feel awkward was everyone else. Societal norms had flipped on her, and she became the odd one out, the crazy person in a one piece. Just like my mother, she hated any appearance of impropriety. Honestly, I think she’d have loved to live during the days of poofy wigs and corsets. But when in Rome, she’d be first in a toga. So by our second visit, she got out of my Volkswagen Beetle proclaiming, “Who needs bathing suits?” and what took me years to build up the courage to do, she did in a week. My younger, timid self could never have made that jump. But love is a powerful thing.

And that’s when I realized crepe-making Muslim girl was far better than a born-nudist, because she was willing to meet me halfway. For me. For shy me, for cleft lip me, for ugly me. She wasn’t a unicorn, but something better, a girl like me. Least likely to become a nudist.

Just last week, my wife and I returned from a naturist resort in Cancun. And in case you’re not following, yes, I married that crepe girl. We’ve been together fifteen years now and, during that time, managed to pop out two clones. Both are of my wife. I mean, really, the relatives say I wasn’t even there, but that’s probably for the best. And while we’re far from the nudist family I’d dreamed about, every night when I climb into bed and look at those three identical faces, I am reminded how incredibly fortunate I am. The main thing, of course, I am loved. But aside from that, I no longer panic when the car door slams in the driveway because I forgot where I put my shorts. Around my wife and kids, I can be myself, and I think that’s what nudism is all about. Just being yourself. And we are teaching our kids to do the same. To know that they are loved, and that they are beautiful, just the way they are.

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Family

As of this writing, I am 41 years old, too old for young naturist events, and yet it has taken me this long to figure out why nudism caters mostly to people over sixty. That’s just how long it takes for some people to come out to friends and family, to overcome shame, to realize the truth. From parents, religion, and the media, we are pressured into believing that the human body is shameful and obscene, a thing to hide and be disgusted by, but that it is sometimes, paradoxically, beautiful and arousing. But this is a lie—the most prevalent lie in history. A great many more people never overcome the “shame of being human,” going to their graves fully dressed. In church clothes no less.

Perhaps in some ways, I never fully overcame my repressed childhood. My wife, who is tolerant of nudism, still makes fun of me. “That’s your philosophy,” she says, “being naked?” But nudism, I tell her, isn’t about nakedness—strippers aren’t nudists, after all—it’s about being alive. At some point in our history, in our rush to evolve and separate from nature, we’ve forgotten that life isn’t merely to be seen and heard, but to be felt as well. We have forgotten that our bodies make us what we are—human—and there is no shame in being human, or in being without clothes, or being seen without clothes. To be naked is simply to be oneself. A breast or a penis or a vagina is no more embarrassing than an ear or an elbow. Body parts are only as significant as our society makes them.

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Free at last!

Missed Parts 1 through 5? Search “Least Likely to Become a Nudist”

Special thanks to Felicity Jones and Jordan Blum for first posting this story on their blog!

The Nomad: Chapter 3

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, that I wrote in high school, circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a time when I was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past the warts, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Thank You.


 

Chapter 3

The next morning, I was quick to mount my faithful steed early, so that I would not be mobbed by my many votaries. Like the wind I did travel over land, for my stallion was of sacred and Olympian descent, and no beast or fowl on Earth could match his speed. Like the thundering of Zeus’ chariot wheels did the hooves of Thunderfoot equally quake and move with untiring and unyielding speed. By noon, I had reached the top of my mountain abode, and looked down upon all the land governed by the King.

Climbing to my humble home, I found the serenity and peace I once cherished. And yet, I was unable to meditate or be at peace. I thought, perhaps, I longed for the comfort of a woman’s touch. But I did not. And this baffled me, for as a man of nature, I had no desire for any material thing. I had eaten a good meal and did not thirst. Of the things I owned and valued, my horse and ring, I had both with me. Yet, I felt, that there was something I left behind, and that without it, I would never be whole. Within me there was an emptiness, a piece of my soul that was cold and barren. Deeply disturbed by these emotions, I prayed for a dream to reveal the secret of my longing.

I awakened suddenly that night, having drempt that I was wrestling with the son of Ares, the demi-god, Phobos, and was unable to best him. And then I noticed it, that the walls of my room were as empty and shallow as I. Till the coming of Dawn I lay restless, my feelings turned to torment. It was as though I had never known life nor lived it. I breathed and walked, and yet, felt no more living than the kouros, a man made of stone.

Looking out upon the horizon, I knew my destiny would lead me to the king’s palace, and knew without question, there I would return.

The day was warm and bright, and the chrysanthemums bloomed and the little birds sang, and I knew that Persephone had returned to her mother Demeter from her time spent in the Underworld. As I journeyed to the king’s palace, I chose to take an indirect route, so that I might cross through no village and keep unnoticed in my arrival.

When I saw the palace from afar, I dismounted and left Thunderfoot in a wooded olive grove, then threw my tunic round my shoulders and cautiously approached from the side. In this way, I hoped to find the King, so that I might tell him of my troubles without the knowledge of the old and stodgy oligarchs. As I walked, I came across the royal stables. Here were the charioteers and equestrians from Macedonia who tended to the royal mounts. It was there that I saw Clytemnestra, her rags muddied, clutching the reigns of a large horse upon which a young maiden sat, dressed in a short chiton, her golden tresses swaying in the breeze. At the sight of her, my heart raced, for I knew that it was Seline.

Clytemnestra was instructing the princess on how to ride a horse. Seline, all the while, attempted to balance herself upon the animal riding side-saddle, and as the horse trotted, she looked as if she were about to fall. Finding this amusing, I watched as she was eventually thrown face down into the mud. At first, I thought she might rise with tears or fury. But, to my surprise, she lifted herself with laughter, and seeing this did Clytemnestra laugh also. Seline was not hurt. But her hair, face, and clothes were soiled. After that, Clytemnestra told her that she should bathe immediately, for a princess should never be as filthy as a peasant. But Seline refused to listen and tried to leap upon the horse again. She lost her footing, however, and fell now backward into the mud, and I laughed again. Covered like a hog she arose, chiton sticking to her skin, globs of mud falling from her hair. Undaunted, she attempted to mount the horse, and it was apparent she had succeeded earlier only with the help of her maid servant. Finally, after many failed attempts, she accomplished the task and for several minutes rode free.

With the wind brushing against her she raised her arms defiantely and cried out in triumph. And as I looked, I found myself sharing in her newfound joy. Then suddenly, her bare heel kicked inadvertantly against the animal’s side, and the horse galloped too swiftly for her to control. Unable to halt the beast, she tugged on the reigns managing only to steer it towards the fence.

Immediately, I broke though the wooden boards in my path and leapt onto the field to intercept them. The horse charged blindly against me, but at the final instant before impact, bucked, tossing the loosely seated girl from its back. With my godly strength, I pushed the horse aside, and caught her in my arms. Our eyes met and in hers I saw a spark of remembrance.

“You . . . saved me,” she murmured.

“Those Macedonian breeds can be temperamental at times.”

“Have we met before?” she inquired.

“Yes, I am Dynotus.”

“You were the man I spoke to last night. But if, if you are Dynotus, what are you doing here? I thought you returned to Mount Olympus, to your home amongst the gods?”

I lifted her as I stood, saying, “I do not really live among the gods. Actually, my home is quite near to here, in the Taygetos.”

She smiled and replied, “Could you . . . put me down now, please?”

“But of course,” I studdered, doing as she asked.

“So you don’t live on Mount Olympus with Zeus and Athena?”

“No, Seline, I am not a god. I am only a man.”

“My father told me of your modesty. I am grateful that you came to help. Thank you.”

Then, I looked into her glimmering eyes and fell speechless. Being the son of Zeus, I could take anything from anyone. But, in the same instance, this made me feel apart from humanity.

“You really should go and clean yourself,” I said at last.

She blushed. “Yes, I should.”

As she strolled back to Clytemnestra, I called out, “If you like, I have a beautiful horse. He can take you to a river nearby and you can bathe there.”

She turned to look at me, combing a dirt stained lock from her eyes. “I adore horses! But they do not seem to share the same fondness for me. Is he gentle?”

I cupped her hands in my own. “As gentle as you, fair princess.”

“Yes, I would like to see him.”

I then whistled loudly and summoned the mighty Thunderfoot. Seline looked at him in awe. “He is so beautiful. His mane is so soft and white. I have seen no horse his equal. May I ride him?”

“If you wish,” said I, picking her up by the waist and gently placing her on its back. It was then that I realized, no man or woman had ridden my horse but I, and it was strange for Thunderfoot was a divine animal, a gift from Zeus, and would not lend himself to mortal hands, or so I thought.

“Do you wish to see the river now?”

“Oh no! I dare not!”

“But why?”

“She knows her place!” said Clytemnestra, accosting them suddenly. “The princess is not allowed to leave the palace grounds unless escorted by her father.”

“But Klea!” Seline objected, pouting, “He saved my life! Surely I’ll be in safe hands, with him. He is the son of Zeus, after all!”

“Well,” said the maid, “I don’t know about this. I’ll have to go ask your father.”

“Go ask and we’ll wait for you here.”

When Clytemnestra was far off, Seline turned to me with a devious grin, saying, “All right, let’s go!”

“But I thought you did not want to . . .”

“That’s just because of Klea. She’s hovers over me like an albatross. I had to wait until we could get away.”

“But your father . . .,” I began.

“Oh, my father is a stuffy old man. He keeps me locked away in the palace night and day! There is so much I don’t know and want to know! I haven’t any idea of the world or of anything in it!”

“Your father is a good friend. I cannot disrespect him.”

“Please, Dynotus, I want to roll in the grass and play in the sea . . . and I want to run naked in the gymnasium like the wives of the hoplites!”

“Seline!” I exclaimed, grabbing her by the ankle, “you are a princess. Such things are not for you.”

“What good is it to be princess then? Everyone envies me, my clothes, my jewelry, the palace where I live, and yet they don’t understand; I live no differently than an outcast, than a prisoner! I want to see other kingdoms, all the ones I’ve heard about: Thebes and Athens, and Olympus! All I know is outside my window, a small part of Sparta. And this must be the most boring place in the world with all the men living in their barracks or off fighting some war. I wish I could live in the barracks too, maybe become a hoplite myself . . .”

“Believe me, you don’t want that. Besides, women are not meant to fight. Your battle is maternity, in giving birth.”

“Did Tyrtaeus write that drivel? What about Athena, she wears armor and a helmet and carries a shield!”

“That’s different. She is a goddess.”

“And Artemis has her bow. Even Aphrodite fought at Ilium in the Trojan War.”

“You know the words of Homer?”

“I memorized the entire epic poem, both the Iliad and the Odyssey. What else is there to do when you are caged in your room like some animal?”

“You’re not like any woman I have ever known . . .,” I murmured softly.

Then she pierced my soul with her eyes, blue as the Aegean and penetrating as a hoplite spear. “Please, Dynotus, we haven’t much time. Once Klea comes back, it will be too late, and I’ll never know a day of freedom.”

 

Seline rode while I walked beside her, leading her to the river. Through a dirt path and over jagged rocks we went, between the olive trees and the eucalyptus. The stream we came to dashed against many layers of jutting stones, and there I helped her to dismount as Thunderfoot began to graze.

“Here we are,” I said. “Skotino, the dark river.”

Seline let her chiton slip off her shoulders and it fell as if loosely fastened, bundling round her ankles. As Spartan women did not wear undergarments, I was forced to look away, out of respect for her and her father. But she responded to me, “Do not be timid. Have you not seen thousands of women before? Do not the Spartan women show their thighs in public, and exercise with the men in the gymnasium as Lykourgos decreed to ‘produce in us habits of simplicity and an ardent desire for health and beauty of body.’?”

“It is true what Lykourgos said,” I answered. “But you are different, you are the-”

“I know. I am the princess!” she interrupted, wading knee deep into the current.

I spied upon her then as she splashed her sides gently, but her simple beauty did not manifest lust, but rather, a feeling of awe and reverence, an uplifting of my spirit as on the wings of Daedelus.

“Have you brought me here to make love?” she asked bluntly and unabashedely, a strand of hair lain wet across her cheek as she faced me.

“No!” I stammered. “I did not mean to mislead you.”

“Do you not think I’m beautiful?” she asked, river droplets glistening from her skin, revealing herself to me proudly as a sculptor would his korè.

“You are fair as any goddess,” I answered truthfully.

She smiled. “What hubris! But I suppose it’s alright, since your father is Zeus.” And then she pouted. “So then why do you not wish to make love to me?”

“I cannot,” I replied. “You are Demaratus’ daughter. It is forbidden.”

Seline and I parted ways without as much as a kiss. It was not that I did not want her. But in that she was a virgin princess, fornication with me, who was not her husband, would only defile her and make her a whore. Regardless, there was a greater than the pleasures of the flesh. I wished to wake each morning to find her resting in my arms. I yearned to share with her my home and all my life’s experiences. Yet, more than anything, I longed to do something special for her, to give her happiness, and to know that it was I who did so.

Several nights passed and I could not sleep, knowing now what it was that troubled me. One day, as I was gathering pomegranates from my garden, tortured by the icon of a bathing Seline as if stamped like a drachmae under my eyelids, a Muse took pity and gifted me with inspiration. Hence, I summoned my steed and rode to the port of Gythio where I met with Phoenician traders from Biblos. And from them I purchased sheets of papyrus and ink for writing.

For Seline I did compose a letter, the words being those of the Muse but with feelings my own, for I had little knowledge of writing. Then in the moonlight I crept along her balcony window and left the letter there for her to find. When she awoke the next morning, she stepped out on to the ledge and found a flower and a scroll. Curious, she lifted the flower to her nose and opened the scroll, which read thus:

 

With how melting a glance does she look towards me, more

Tender than sleep and death; nor are such sweets idly

proffered. But Seline answers me not, but wearing her

garland like some bright star shooting across the sky or golden

sprout or soft plume she strides with feet outstretched . . .

grace sits on the maiden’s tresses . . .

Were she but to look at me . . .

coming close to hold me with her soft hand, quickly

would I become her suppliant

 

After this, I returned one night to gaze at Seline’s empty balcony. Even in that darkest hour I found her, standing with candle in hand. And she called to me, “Dynotus, how I cherished what you wrote and read it if not a thousand times!”

“Seline, how do I find you not in dreams at this hour, when even satyrs pause their reveling to slumber?”

“Oh, but I dared not sleep for hope that you might come again unto my windowsill and this time catch you in an act of love.”

“And how do you know that it was I who sent you such doting words? Would any man be so foolish as to open his heart to a woman, to reveal his very essence and remain unshielded, like a naked breast against a spear point?”

She cast me a mischievious smile. “I did not say that they were doting words, Dynotus.”

“Then it is true that I am but the deliverer of the scroll. But the words belong to the Muses.”

“Do not the Muses come when they are summoned? Summoned by the yearning and aching of men’s hearts?”

“Tell me. Do you patrol your bedroom like a centurion watching for a thief? Is it passion that keeps you awake, or is it fear?”

“It is both. The passion that churns for you and the fear that you might not come again.”

“Then I pray this churning continue so that passion might thicken and become . . . love.”

“Dynotus, will you ask my father to marry us? I cannot know joy without you. I can’t breathe without you. I can’t live without you. The day you caught me in your arms, I knew that I would be your wife some day.”

“Should your father give me his blessing, I will marry you. Till then, pray to Aphrodite.”

“But no, Aphrodite is for love, and Hera for marriage.”

“But what is marriage without love? We should ask for both.”

“No, Dynotus! You are the son of Zeus. And Hera, his wife and goddess of marriage, despises all Zeus’ sons that are not her own. Your mother was Alcmena, a mortal woman, was she not?”

“Then praying to her will be of no use. Let us venerate Aphrodite, and that which Pandora’s Box did not release.”

“And what is that?”

“Hope.”

 

And so there I slept beneath her balcony, and when Dawn rose I did wake and enter the palace. There I sought the King, and found him on his throne. As always, Demaratus was delighted to see me. He greeted me warmly and asked, “Dynotus, my friend, what brings you here?”

Now, I was filled with fear, and kneeling before him did reply, “I have come to tell you my wish, that which you granted me the night of the banquet last.”

“Excellent!” he replied. “And for what have you decided to ask?”

“It is the one thing, the one thing that shall give me joy and happiness all the days of my life. I implore you, do not deny me this one wish!”

Demaratus laughed. “This is quite unlike you, Dynotus! Do not hesitate. Whatever you desire, I shall gladly grant. Do not fret.”

“I humbly request your daughter’s hand, your daughter, Seline.”

The King sat stunned for a moment, and then his smile turned to an angry scowl and his face pale and aged “. . . my daughter? You wish for my one and only daughter? She is the only person, the only thing left in this world that I love. Of all the women you have defiled, the only virgin, the only thing I know that is young and pure, all that I have left in the world that you have not spoiled! No! I will never allow your lecherous hands take from me my daughter! As if you could not go and satisfy yourself with all the whores in the village, you would dare come here and rape my precious Seline and make her one of them! I say never! You will see my death before your limb shall ever know the love of my young and innocent daughter! Go now and ravage a pig to satiate your appetite, and may I never suffer the sight of you within my hall again!”


 

Want the next chapter? Previous chapters? Search the archive here: THE NOMAD

 

The Gorgon’s Lover

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Let me tell you how I killed her—how I killed the only woman I ever loved. I am a wretched thing, truly, and have little else to offer but this story. Hear me out, if you are wanting for a tragedy, but I give you fair warning: this is no tale for children or the weak of heart, but a thing to curdle the blood, to raise the small hairs of the body.
To know my story, you must know of how I came to Aea. You have heard tales, no doubt, of that fabled isle where no one knows hunger, where the women are as beautiful and as willing as the nymphs. Aea does not appear on any map, and no two sailors will agree on where to find it, but it is no myth.
In the dawn of manhood I found myself a recluse, wandering between the lands. Having never known family or a home, the world was joyless and bitter, and I unprepared for it, for the way men battled starvation. The gods are angry, people say, so these are dark times. And so life for me was a waiting for death.
War gave me hope for better days. Nibia marshaled its forces against the Dark Hemisphere. There was hope of crushing the bogrens so that men might venture forth without fear to farm what had been despoiled. Bold men and women came from throughout all Ænya, vagabonds such as I, lending their swords to the cause. In this I found purpose, and was determined to it, to win the war alone if need be.
We paraded through the streets, reveling before the first blow was struck. Fate smiled on me, or so I thought, and a new age of prosperity seemed within reach.
We pushed onto that shore of eternal twilight, fighting along the border. The first cycles were promising, merciless. We trampled over bodies, the dead stretching to the horizon, and many of the lost lands were reclaimed. The Nibian commander, his heart bolstered by victory, longed to push deeper into that sunless land, to make it so that no bogren could challenge mankind again. But soldiers who had not blinked before uncounted hordes fled upon crossing into that accursed wasteland. Our commander was accused of hubris; they said such vanity was an affront to the gods. Fearing mutiny, we were led back to the western hemisphere. Everyone was in good spirits but I, who longed to spill more of the blood of those mongrels.
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After two cycles marching across cold dead rock, the sun began to show on our faces. We boarded a ship, which seemed safest passage to Nibia as bogrens have deathly fear of water, but our eyes never met that familiar shore. The fleet met with a storm, churning, black, unholy as Hades. Debris ripped the hull to pieces and all but two joined Sargonus, God of the Sea, in the depths. I was the one. The other was a soldier and a friend of mine. His name was Valis.
We clutched at the splintered hull until our fingertips were raw and swollen, our throats parched, our shoulders simmering under the intense gaze of the sun. Adrift in misery, we longed to have died honorably on the battlefield. But we shuddered at the thought of our bodies being desecrated, used by bogrens in some perverse, ungodly ritual.
Sargonus took pity on us, or so I believed. I woke with a hard stretch of earth beneath my cheek, and in the bright blaze of morning the sand was radiant and golden and blessedly coarse against my fingertips. Within a few paces, Valis stood shakily, and I was overjoyed to see him. For a brief moment, I hoped we’d died on a good day and journeyed to Alashiya. But as strength returned to my limbs, I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but trapped in the same emaciated body. With great effort, I pushed myself from the tide coursing through the fringes of my beard, my body heavy as if bound in bronze. Wasted with hunger, my ribs could easily be counted beneath the skin. I squinted through salt lined eyelids toward brilliant clover-green hills, to icy peaks touching the sky. Was I in paradise? Ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have been.
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That night, we camped on the beach, resting against a reef which cut against the tide like the keel of a ship. When the light of morning pried open our eyes, we foraged for clams and seaweed, and after regaining some strength, I studied the zigzag rim of mountains to determine what kingdom we’d been tossed upon.
We set out for civilization on the second day, falling speechless before the unfolding coastline. The cliffs lifted from the Sea like wild, white brush strokes, and the Sea was tranquil as a pond. We could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters.
We continued along the beach, seeking a path through the rocks, till coming upon sections of colonnades jutting from the rock as if long ago abandoned. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from shore, was a half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. It was there we first glimpsed signs of life, clinging to the mountainside and all about the arms of a harbor, atop islets rising in loops from the waves: houses, gleaming whitely in the sun, with domes and doors and shutters awash in blue.
A half day trek through dense foliage and we came to a clearing of huts made of mud and straw. The islanders went about without clothing of any kind, oblivious to shame or modesty. They were adorned only in trinkets of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, and with patterns of tattooing or branding. With our clothing in tatters, we’d feared the natives might take us for vagabonds, but seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives.
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Like no other people I’d known, the islanders devoted themselves to leisure, to singing and dancing and to spinning pottery into every shape of the imagination. They moved with such gaiety, you might think their feet never touched the earth. At last I had found . . . a radiant people. For them, there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. In that moment I began to feel, in that most simple state of being, the weight of existence lift from my shoulders.
Though we could not imagine such people harming us, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. And though practicing their custom of nakedness, we resembled outcasts in that we were in need of grooming.
On the third day, Valis stole a knife of volcanic glass from a hunter, resisting the urge to cut more than a morsel from the spit where a boar had been roasting. I gazed longingly at my friend as he ate, fearing how closely I must resemble him. The greasy sliver of meat fell with a thump into my stomach and the succeeding sensation of hollowness only increased my hunger. At last we resolved to cut our beards, and when we sufficiently resembled the islanders, set out for the blue and white domiciles.
The islanders strolled past us, our emergence met with indifference, for we were no more haggard than the fisherman with his carts of tangled netting. The youth and the poor went about as freely as the primitives in the woods, but the highborn women of childbearing age went to market in pleated robes, as the men labored in kilts and sandals. Despite the urge to learn more about this strange land, we held our tongues.
With the memory of boar still on our palettes, hunger continued to gnaw at us, but Valis and I were without anything to barter. We could not hope even to kill for food, as our weapons were lost to the depths.
Coming upon the city center, we were taken aback by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never witnessed such architecture. Three temples stood, mirroring one another, forming a square. Joy and wonderment and hope mixed in our throats, believing that, as in our own places of worship, the temples must serve as houses of charity.
We made our way to the east temple, eager to hide from the sun amid long columns of shadow. Strange gods of stone frolicked along the pediment, but we did not hesitate to pass under the threshold where the air was cool and crisp.
What came to greet us loosed our hearts like racing horses. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond measure, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. They were in states of undress, in hanging silk and peels of gold, in peacock feathers worn in ways that excited our curiosity. Their beauty overcame even the bray of my stomach, reminding me of another, long forgotten hunger. Valis and I were welcomed with butterfly eyelashes, with gestures of hand and hip. What the priestesses discovered must have been pleasing to them and I suppose that even in our haggard state Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older women spoke and we were led into a cavernous space.
We lifted sun beaten eyes to the welcoming lips of a nude goddess. Between her ankles, in a mosaic of splendorous hues, was a clear pool. Without a word, they proceeded to strip off their loose garments, stealing imagination from my mind, and like children we were led to bathe. Fingers soft and white as pearl brushed against me. Hands from many bodies probed my war ravaged frame like serpents seeking to feed. With every caress—a hard day’s marching, a night shivering in hunger, a friend wailing in blood—one by one the memories left me like dead leaves in the gale.
We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace. Of the other two goddesses we did not bother ask. We were mesmerized by beauty. And my friend and I were given everything a man might crave, food and clothing, and a warm body to spill our seed.
The nightly orgies became all, and our hearts were enslaved. The women explored each perverse action with abandon, indulgences of which I am too shamed to describe. How many succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I dare not count. Every eye and lip, bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names unspoken, unremembered.
This was my poison, as deadly as any bogren’s dagger. The moons came and went and came again, and I no longer waited for night with zeal but dreariness. As for my companion, he never tired of his new existence, continuing into each night as if his lust could only grow out of depravity.
Though my body was restored, a great gaping emptiness was left in me, as if I’d been torn open by a mortar. Despising the wretch I had become, I longed to hold a sword again, to hear the dying of my enemy. Driven mad by the sensation, I abandoned my sanctuary to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses. The central temple was the most grand, a shrine to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Only women served the goddess, their beauty paling before what I had known, but unlike those whores who knew to satisfy only the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise in philosophy and astronomy. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.
The third temple honored Maki, of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self . . . and my greatest cause for grief.
***
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Her name was Midiana. Hers is the face burned under my eyes, the image that shines alone in the darkness.
The goddess in her battle helmet, with her sword and shield of serpents, possessed a hard, somber beauty that made me feel intimidated. At Maki’s heel, a priestess was kneeling with bird seed as snow-white peacocks, camouflaged against the stone, nipped at her palms. She was half in silhouette, the shadows playing across the nape of her neck where the torchlight touched her. Her hair was black as pitch against the gleaming white of her chiton, every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. When she noticed me, it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips and dark amber eyes—so much like a bird’s eyes—I feared to go blind dare I stare too long.
The priestess was in shock, scattering seed everywhere as the great white birds scampered after it. To my inquiries, she responded with measured and quavering lips, as her forearm hid the sight of me. I’d feared such a reaction cycles ago, upon first engaging the islanders, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of Aea. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the temple, and I felt suddenly ashamed, for I’d grown accustomed to not wearing clothes. She went on to tell me that no male was to step foot over the goddess’ threshold, that even the white birds sacred to Maki were female. Confounded by the extreme difference of customs, I could do nothing but apologize and take my leave.
As morning crept under my eyes, I realized sleep had not taken me the whole of the night. And I knew, like the bee born knowing of the flower, the hollowness I’d long suffered was for her—that nothing could fill the gaping in me but her presense.
Mystified, I returned to the east temple, to find comfort in the company of my old companion. But by that time, he was no more the proud warrior who’d slaughtered bogrens by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I found him on the steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing like a fool at some base amusement. I pitied what he’d become, but had not the strength to tell him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened, and I told him of the beautiful priestess girl and my pining for her. As a remedy, he invited me to a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join him.
The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rosewater, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame. The women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please, but to the abasement of my pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. I had cycles in which to spill my seed, but again I felt, more than ever, that sense of repulsion.
I abandoned the temple, restless and alone beneath the great moon. The bright turquoise disc seen by kingdoms near and far reminded me of my wandering days, and the vast spread of constellations looked distantly on me in my isolation.
Dressed in a borrowed chiton, I found her in an orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives into a basket. But she did not know me. Was I forgotten so quickly? How awful that seemed when I’d studied her every line for hours, grating thin my brain with the thought of her!
With greatest care to not mangle her language, I offered her my name. It sounded oddly from her lips, my name echoing in her exotic, dulcet inflection like a butterfly painted in vibrant colors I’d never before seen. As politeness was custom, she introduced herself also; ­Midiana, she told me she was called, but it was more than a name to me; it was a magic word, a secret spell of power. Tradition forbade her from speaking further, she explained, but after decades of peace and prosperity the law had become lax. Nevertheless, she made it known that I was never to touch her—that to graze a single of her hairs was sacrilege. Foolhardy as a man is in his youth, I did not heed the little wisdom that was in me, but persisted.
Worlds divided us . . . I was like a bird who loves a fish, and the sense of awkwardness was like a fist in my gut. Did she look away from me with disgust for my sex, or fear for her god? Were her words, tipped with ice, out of indifference, or something more sinister?
Keeping at arm’s length, I raised an empty basket and a rake. We worked alongside one another in silence but for the subtle swish and thump of dropping olives. My forearms became sore and my brow sweaty as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter and higher. She, all the while, moved lightly as a moth, her bare feet turning in a kind of dance to each tree.
With five bushels full and only the bright green of unripe fruit left on the branches, I chanced to ask of the island and of her religion, and of things already known to me so that I might listen to the song of her voice. Like a cleric eager to convert one to their faith, her tongue came unknotted, and she began to explain many things.
Maki delivers punishment to those who blaspheme her or her sisters, Zoë and Irene. The goddess also protects the island from foreigners. Ships wandering close to Aea are split apart by storms. I am ashamed to admit that, even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon my own lost crew. Love for my fellow comrades paled to nothing before her beauty. Both sexes worship idols of Maki, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods. As in every aspect of Aean culture, the female is dominant. Even in war, women go into battle. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess can never be touched by the male sex.
After a little while—or was it many hours?—no more questions could bridge the distance between us; and her eyes—in which I’d found sanctuary from the cold hard surfaces of existence—drifted away from me. I became an apparition beside her, of no more consequence than the moonlight in her hair. Her indifference, and my powerlessness, gnawed at my innards until I could suffer it no longer, and with little ceremony I crept off into the night.
For some days I continued to lend her my hands. When cloistered in the temple, I awaited her from afar. Once, she shooed me away, so that other priestesses not discover me. At any moment she could have had me banished, and it gave me hope when she did not.
With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I found comfort in solitude, in roaming the hills and the dry brush wilderness about the outskirts of the city.
One day she was in the courtyard with a sword. Her movements were graceful, hypnotic, but of little use in battle. I knew the priestesses of Maki were warriors, but peace had dulled their skills. Their training was now ritual, more art than war. She took great care presenting the sword to me, and I resisted the urge to brush a fingertip against her. The hilt was exceedingly ornate, looping patterns etched in gold and jade, like the bands about her forearms. Her face watched me from the mirror surface of the blade. I showed her how to use it, how to kill with it, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared to snap it in twain. Each thrust was to a vital part of the body: the underbelly, the knees, the part of the neck that separates the head . . .
Midiana was fascinated, and it was not long before the thread of her questions turned to me and my origins. She confessed in never knowing battle, and when I related tales of the Nibian War, she quivered with horror, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. At birth, a priestess is chosen to be raised in one of the three temples, but Midiana was not, nor could ever be, a warrior.
We practiced swordplay until our shadows stretched across the courtyard, and I dared to ask if it was not sacrilege to change her fate, to perhaps become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.
When my eyes touched sight of her again, she drifted through the temple’s colonnades burdened and insignificant between the massive stone columns weighing upon her. And then she chanced to lift her gaze to see me and was weightless again. Love radiated as the sun upon the world, and as her eyes lingered on mine, more was spoken between us than any words can convey. We were separated by ten paces, mouthing words of affection, and then she was called away.
When the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on in hushed, frightful voices. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the pillars of the gazebo where we sat. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, having doubted the depth of her love for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no apprehension, but soaked up my words as if she could not survive otherwise. I vowed to return and to sit by her, till my limbs no longer carry me, if only to adore her with eyes and ears. With that, she tore at her robes as if burning in them, letting the once noble cloth in tatters, and embraced me. I did what was in my nature, touching wherever her fingers led me, and no part of her remained sacred.
We found warmth in the cool twilight air. With the sun behind Infinity, we were as united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my reasoning, and like removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, my fear for her great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.
Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, freely exploring every facet that made us man or woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.
What possessed us so? What devils of lust turned us to madness? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay wet and breathy in each other’s arms. I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such shuddering fear I cannot ever hope to forget,
“. . . What have we done . . .?”
Wisdom erupted from my brain into my consciousness, but it was for naught, for what I witnessed then was a terror beyond comprehension. Sensing some motion in the corners of my eye, my head froze upon the ceiling, fixed upon the scowling face of a living, breathing idol.
“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted, like a fish on an invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it. Midiana’s figure convulsed like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her fair flesh was turning hard and pressing up through the skin: scales. As I stood, powerless and desperate, the goddess’ words hammered in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN: UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”
I reached out, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following her transformation as if to steal her beauty in memory. But she stumbled away, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted, with great reluctance and despair, to be hers. She begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her new form, my love endured, but I knew that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana . . . so I abandoned her, looking back once to see a shadow across the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

***

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Waves crashed against the reef, collapsing over my waist in a cold frothy mist. I’d often visit that rock to listen to the waters and remember my life before Aea. The shore was at thirty paces, and I could still see the depression of our camp in the sand. More than ever, I longed for peace in my soul, for the freedom from worry granted in death. If only I were as fortunate as my Nibian crewmen to never again know the burden of living!
Without her, I was an empty shell, without will, without a soul. But guilt was my tormentor, for I was to blame for Midiana’s affliction, I who envied the loveliest ilm in the garden, having ripped her from the roots so her loveliness decay. Maki, that cruelest of gods, found fault in the innocent. I deserved to be cursed . . . I who had wallowed in that cesspool of flesh, in that den of whores . . . what had Midiana known of such debauchery?
Alas, there was no sacrifice to make to undo this evil. I cried until my throat gave out, so that my own gods might hear, yet they were deaf to me. As the echo of my anguish carried out to Sea, something glittered in my sight. Embedded in a reef, beaded in the salty spray, was a familiar length of silver. Had the gods taken pity on me after all? Seeing my old sword again conjured bitter joys of bloodshed. Torn between those twin tidal forces of existence, between thoughts of love and thoughts of death, the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, I vowed by my sword she’d not live a monster.
I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me and I succumbed to delirium. The sword burdened my shoulder with more weight than ever on the battlefield. Had I grown weak since coming to the island? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that pulled on me? Never had I lifted my sword with the intent to murder; how could I turn it against one I adored? But was any part of her still my Midiana? Would she recognize me, or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?
Clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a gloom over the rooftops and gardens and fountains, the deepest part of the storm looming above the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was now evident, to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen them.
Above the Temple of Maki, the storm churned angrily like some living thing, like a black whirlpool in the sky. Thousands were gathering there, and the shadows were thick as pitch, revealing each face in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil for a procession of the dead. Only their shuffling feet broke over the rumble of the sky, as the people were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But the islanders kept at a distance as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart throbbed with guilt to see it, a people of such free spirit, of such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable like the condemned marching to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to them. I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but such emotion was beyond their capacity.
They parted to let me through like docile sheep. Deep into the crowd, I came upon a chain of priestesses, linked wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized their faces and was ashamed, remembering what they had done to me, and I to them. Zoë’s acolytes were there also, as were the women from the befouled temple, yet all stood united in the same pure white garment with gold lace about their ankles and hair. Love and Wisdom and Virtue stood together, penitent before the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, every face was statuesque, every chin high and proud, no woman less than another. The Priestesses of Aea were joined in a ring like rigid columns beneath an invisible circular temple, their chanting a low murmur of contrition.
Others looked on with reverence, their eyes glazed with zealotry, but I was far from owing respect to that god of cruelty. I pulled a young girl out of her ritual, demanding to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” she told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.” She looked as frightened and helpless as the rest. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn and world weary, as a mother with aged children, the perverse rituals I’d known of her seeming unthinkable. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she murmured. “We tried, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you.”
“Let me go,” I cried, but they would not let me through the ring, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.
I cut through the web of thorns and crossed into that vast, cold lair. With my sword tight against me, I moved inward, the mosaics on the walls turning monstrous in the flickering light. Rows of fluted marble flanked my sides. Barrel arches beckoned to infinity, like when a mirror reflects upon another. Like a prowling thief I searched the temple, hiding from pillar to pillar. My friend I could not hear, nor Midiana; and I dared not call out for fear of what might answer. In the deadening silence, my breathing was like a windstorm, the crackling and popping of unseen torches like thunder.
The memory of Midiana’s beauty contested with my dreadful imagination, and I recognized the morbid curiosity in me, to look wide eyed upon what she had become. But the deeper I probed in the gloom of the temple, the more the thought terrified me. How grotesque can a living thing be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for death is a trifling thing, a peaceful repose, but to lose one’s sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.
Answering my thoughts, I crossed upon a long shadow and the silhouette of a man. I knew it to be Valis, but what I discovered struck me with both awe and despair. Valis stood, ashen as the marble at his feet, his every follicle a thorn. Did the shadows deceive me? No. I looked into his face, into pupils like inkblots fixed in the chalk white orbs of his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him only to snap my hand away, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone. Like weathered flagstone, I expected his arm to break off should I touch it again. And then the inkblots moved, and I leapt, catching a scream in my throat.
My love for him bolstered my courage, and placing my ear to his marble cold lips, I bid he speak to me.
“I came to look for you.” It was so subtle a sound that I doubted it, whether coming from him or my own skull. But then he was pleading, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”
His final breath escaped with those words, and I grieved for my friend, for his senseless death on my behalf. There was no denying that he was victim to Maki’s curse, that upon seeing my priestess, Valis was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone. Stricken by his fate, my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might burst out of me completely. One thought kept me from breaking my vow and fleeing, and I spoke it aloud, so the walls echo with her name. Love remained, greater than any fear.
Turning in search of her, something crept beneath my feet with such a noise that the hairs on my neck pricked in warning, and then a human shape, familiar yet strange, silhouetted the light from the adjoining hall. My sweat turned to ice and my spine became limp as straw. I could do nothing but run, gripped by such dread I worked my feet awkwardly across the floor like a crippled soldier.
Where was I headed? Back to the comfort of daylight? But already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed for deafness, imagining what such a creature might be to make that sound, and I accepted Valis’ wisdom, never turning to face what chased me.
The temple became a maze of shadows and flames and fluted colonnades. Gasping at air like a dying fish, I found shelter by the one torch still burning, before that scowling idol of Maki. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.
I had hoped the monster to avoid the light, to hide its ugliness in darkness, but her shape was already forming about my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And that awful voice came again, and I could no longer deny it . . . the sounds it had been making—over and over amidst those tortured syllables—was my name.
“Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”
“Midiana!” I cried weakly, ashamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers.
Her answer was acid in my ears, “I am no longer she, but the guardian of the Shrine of Maki.”
Redemption was beyond me, yet I fell to my knees, my hands as blindfolds, begging that she show some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and my remorse.
“Look at me!” she wailed, her shadow suggesting a darting, slithering motion, “See what you’ve made me!”
Embattled by love and pity and shame and remorse, I wept. I wept and like a madman beat at my naked breast.
It—or she—moved within my circle of light. I could sense her presense, creeping like maggots, her tortured voice riddling me with gooseflesh, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .! Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together forever.”
Only then did I come to understand, with a sickness growing in my heart, the full extent of Maki’s curse—for our love had not been abolished, but perverted, twisted into a thing unrecognizable and repulsive. Cast into madness, I screamed, throwing down the torch stand. But the fire still flickered from the mosaic, and by chance she hooked my eye, and I saw where the light crept over the rough surface of a reptilian thing with cream-colored fish eyes in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned as if blinded by a wasp’s stinger, but I could still feel her caress drawing lines of blood across my shoulders. If not for the sword at my ankle reminding me of my vow, I might have stood there forever, blinded and quivering in her embrace.
To be done mercifully, I knew, was to be done quickly, but even then, even then, I loved her. And in that moment’s pity, something writhed about the edges of my sword, a tangle of braided serpents, their fangs pressing like needles into my lips, nose, working their way through my clenched eyelids. Her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood. I was paralyzed, the sword unwieldy in her embrace. But then I remembered the torch stand, and righting it with my heel, the monster recognized its hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled. I struck at her. The blade lodged into hard flesh and cold blood oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have torn the sanity from any man, yet I blotted all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, struck again and freed my love.
As the monster fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With Midiana’s head removed, the goddess’ curse was lifted. She looked peaceful, asleep in death. I cradled her head, washing her brow in tears, and with every kiss upon those rose red lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst.
Too brief a time was given me. Her face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. Like a knife in the sternum, I realized what I had paid for my obsession. Of this life which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis and Midiana . . .
The world was now empty and I wished for nothing but to bring my sword to my throat, to join my friend and my lover. But I had more evil to do. Lifting my sword from the multicolored tile, I made for that scowling idol. Sparks rained down from the goddess’ marble heel as I attacked it, over and over, as though the tower of stone could die.
My hatred was spent upon Maki until my arms gave out, but it was their woeful gasps that made me surrender.
“Enough!”
The High Priestess of Zoë, my tutor of the Aean language, was watching me. Every priestess, from every temple, was with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”
Something monstrous stirred in me, at the reverence for that evil deity, at the lack of bereavement for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned to the idol and they moved against me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across their pure white garments. One of them had been my lover in the Temple of Irene.
At the sight of the massacre, I awaited their rage, their hatred. I wanted nothing more than to die at their hands. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was not known to them.
“You disrespect this holy place,” the High Priestess said, “you do not accept the Tenets of Maki; and yet, did you not partake in the ceremonies of the flesh?”
I was dumbfounded by the question, and ashamed, and my sword grew heavy at my fingertips.
“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which grants us peace.
“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”
That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. When dawn broke upon my restless eyes, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails.
***
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