You walk, she follows. You worry that she’s not following you.
Then you worry that she is.
This is the part where you go to get her back, you can’t live without her, you feel somehow guilty she’s gone.
You are looking for a place and a man not exactly a man–a man who’s a place, a place that’s a man. He has her, but what he really cares about is that you don’t have her.
He’s untouched by the supplications of the grieving, rather enjoys it as a matter of fact. He’s casual about it, sends a pale messenger up to pose palms out, nothing to hide, nothing to blame, the thing is done. Ooh, he tells you the one time he returns your call, a whole lotta fetchin’ women in the world for a good-lookin’ guy like you, a musician to boot, count your blessings, do your charm thing.
Nobody’s going to tell you go, don’t go, no one ever tells you anything when your heart is broken and everybody knows that worse is on its way. No one but the oracle, of course, who tells and doesn’t tell, says: find your way up to find your way down.
OK, so you climb up into thin air until you see it: a short tree, unprepossessing in that way of beat-up-but-enduring things. Then just inside the cave, a neon sign, burned out except for a buzzing hot pink enter that strikes you as part invitation, part taunt. You’d see it as part warning if you were more worldly. But you’re not.
That scraggly tree has an ancient but vigorous and sentient root, it winds down and down in darkness at an angle just shy of plumb. You stay close to it though when you slip and grab at it to steady yourself, it shrieks and moans. It sometimes pushes you forward, sometimes snatches at your ankles, pulls you back.
After a while you don’t know up from down. At times you think you are falling, have always been falling, will never do anything but fall.
You’re not alone, haven’t been alone, you are remembering that birds were with you all along on the way here. Last night when you left the taverna with nothing but a skin of wine and your horn, geese escorted you, or chased you, hard to tell with geese, to the edge of the forest. Then whippoorwills calling out from scattered places, unseen, mournful. Nightingales, then a troupe of clowning ducks, their ducklings scooting off into high grasses, startling a bevy of jittery quail.
Then solitary birds. A heron, wings wide as the emptiness you feel, flying ahead of you then dropping out of sight. A raven repeatedly interfering with your progress by plunking itself down in front of you, slowing you down, then fussing at you—or laughing at you—for not moving faster. He got bored with you and flew off to cause some kind of ruckus in a stand of tall trees.
Then for a long time nothing but the wind and rocks and the sea so far away, looking gentle as seas at a distance do, blue as the eye of a newborn calf.
Later, maybe a day, maybe an hour, a falcon–disappearing, reappearing far ahead and high, hanging in the sky or doing lazy rolls, then sailing away. At dusk, martins, darting and diving near the cave and moving on.
Now, down here where you can’t see two steps in front of you, an owl. You cannot see it, you can only hear the beat of its wings, near, then very far away, then not at all. That’s when you know this darkness you are in is infinite, and it has swallowed you up.
Such weariness in this, but you get some momentum from imagining what it will be like bringing her back up, her body leaning in to yours, the missing part of you restored, her little hand clutching at her skirt, maybe she will be laughing the way she always laughs for no reason, just because she loves life and everything in it. You feel light-headed when you think about how she loves anything small and helpless, how she smells like the warm green of summer. She’s no good in the kitchen, has served you country salad every night of your married life, you won’t kid her about it so much when you get her back.
Suddenly you’re in a world that’s horizontal, saturated with a hazy kind of light. A river, dark and oily, seeming not to move at all, a grumpy boatman who curses and chides you loudly for your arrogance until you charm him with a tune to take you across. The boat has a motor that seems to be merely decorative—he cranks it repeatedly but it just spews smoke, runs for a minute, then stops, so he rows. But the rowing is also there just for show, the boat moves fast and straight as if pulled by some invisible rope. Still, it takes forever too long.
You’re the only passenger with warmth still in your skin, the others won’t leave you alone, touching you with their cold hands, murmuring in tongues you’ve never heard before. Ashore, you are so frantic to get away from them you run and slip and fall. The ground is blanketed with soot, and now it’s all over you. It’s the first time you’ve ever been in dirty clothes. There have been a lot of first time things since she’s been gone, dirt on your clothes seems so small, but it makes you feel uneasy, and sad, a sadness different from the one you’ve been feeling up to now.
The palace sprawls out in all directions, a bit grander and more lively—in a grim sort of way—than you’d anticipated. Chugging generators here and there, buzzing neon, it’s like a fair except it’s hell. There’s a kind of perpetual audition just inside the gate. Dancers, jugglers, mimes, musicians who won’t give up their livelihood when they’re dead, entertainers of the impossible to entertain. And clowns, of course, whose home base is the lower regions.
You get the gig, you’re up next, they give you a robe that glitters like a city whore. You’ve not thought of clothing much before, you think, better this robe than the besmirched things it replaces. You’re starting to recognize the uneasiness, the weirdness about clothes, it’s the feeling that you are somehow not yourself, that when nobody knows you, you could be any old body, you don’t know who you are.
Inside, the whole place is lousy with silver and gold and jewels, the things the king down here has plenty of, the shiny stuff he gets instead of love. You’re lucky snappy tunes are not the style, all you know now is melancholy, it pours out of you and winds through the air until the place is almost lush with it. There’s a slight tremor in the stillness, as if everyone is listening for things they cannot stop feeling but can never say.
And weeping. Weeping so quiet at first you think some new resonance has found your horn, until it’s weeping that has become the only sound ever in the world. You turn toward it, it’s coming from somewhere in the deep alcove where his harem sits with their veiled faces, some of them holding each others’ hands like scared children. You had not imagined that the dead mourn too.
The king is in fine silks and purple linen, an imposing figure despite the fact that he’s festooned with bling and chewing on a little stick. He’s watching you sidewise like some canny bird, though when you stop even he seems moved unless he’s just screwing up his face, you hope it’s sorrow enough to pinch some pity out.
That pretty girl he stole and enslaved and crowned sits beside him, the life in her so damaged by the atmosphere she looks like a statue that needs new paint, except for her face, fixed forever in her maidenhood. Her kidnapper husband is stroking and patting her the way one would a dog or a cat. He will never understand you. But she does.
She is saying something to him so quietly you cannot catch its tone even inside a silence so long it seems to have fixed everyone here into a state of waiting that’s not waiting, what’s left when death strips the world of anything worth waiting for.
He is staring at you now, an up and down you take as appraisal, being unfamiliar with the look of cynical amusement, a look just a shade short of contempt. He barely moves his hand and suddenly there’s a girl standing next to him, pulling at a veil that seems to grip her face. And there she is, the bride you’ll love forever, gazing into space, seeing nothing, not even seeing you.
He’s speaking to you now, but you cannot recognize it as speech, it sounds like an army of rough wagons moving over a rocky field. You turn your face to him and watch his lips. He’s telling you to go, he’ll send her along after you, don’t look back or she’ll be gone for good. You cannot understand a word he says, till his queen steps forward to repeat it, and even then it’s not as if you are hearing, it’s as if her mind is in your mind. Do you understand, do you understand, the girl-queen says. You nod, you think you nod, you turn, you go.
You don’t see the shades that follow you, lean toward you, gather round you, reach to touch you. You just see the fear on the ferryman’s worn-out face, he’s never paused to think how many he has ferried here, he’s not accustomed to company on the trip back. When you’re aboard he scrambles to push off, swats at a few of them with his oar, and almost tumbles in, it would be funny if you didn’t have someplace to get away from, someplace to go.
You might as well drown yourself in this oily river, so little do you understand where you are and what’s transpiring. You’ve never felt shame, but now you are ashamed of what you are thinking, you are thinking, I am alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. You don’t know yet, but you will, that it’s not necessarily true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, what doesn’t kill you makes it impossible to live.
You have what you came for, but you don’t have what you came for. You don’t know what all this means.
It’s not that no one has ever told you no, though that is true, it’s that you’ve never had to ask for anything. You know what giving is, though like much else, it’s come so naturally to you that you’ve never even thought of it as giving. What you don’t know, among the many things you don’t know, is what it means to ask or to be given or to get. You know only what it means to lose something precious and to feel it has been taken from you, you don’t yet know all the things you lose along with that.
And you’ve never felt envy or malice or spite, so you can’t see it in others, you just don’t get it. Later on you’ll know Mistah Hades has given you nothing. He’s simply made a wager: you bet the dead can come to life, he bets they cannot. He has won already, no matter what you do, you lose.
The way back up is more treacherous than the way down. You can hear her behind you, though it sometimes sounds as if several people are whispering and shushing. You walk, she follows. It is driving you crazy not to turn and embrace her and never let her go. When you climb, you worry that she has to crawl. When your foot slips, you worry she’ll fall. At every turn in this knotted path, your fear that you’ll lose her again grows, now you are learning hope’s always nearby twin is despair.
You try to turn your mind to the past that you hope to resurrect into the present, well, the better present you anticipate up top. In your mind she’s running up from the river, laughing with her friends. Their clothes are damp and clinging and their hair is wet and crazy askew. They’re pelting each other with chinaberries. When they see you, they blush, knowing she knows something with you they still dream of. Still, there’s something worrying in this memory, the light’s not right, they don’t really see you, they are seeing the man who chased her into the grass where the snake was, you are seeing what happened when you weren’t there.
You cannot keep your mind away from what you cannot turn to see. You worry the way is too hard for her, you worry that she cannot keep up. You worry that she’s not following you.
And then you worry that she is.
If someone follows you, even if she is following you, who is it? When you saw her back there, she didn’t even know who you were, maybe doesn’t know who she is, or who she was.
Who knows what contagion has touched her skin or what embrace or how much her soul has been worn away. What misfortune she might bring. What having a dead girl on your hands might mean. Even if you bring her back, you cannot make her live. Even if you have her, she is no longer yours.
The girl you lost cannot be the girl you are bringing back, cannot be the one following you. And it’s hope that she isn’t following that makes you turn. And there you are. She’s gone.
You are fixed on the spot by your solitude, vast as the darkness where you are. Then you go on, it doesn’t even cross your mind to go back down and try again, you go back to the place you came from. But it’s just the end of everything, the end of your youth, the end of your life, now you’ve metamorphosed into that other creature, the one made for mourning, the one made for death, there’s just no way for it to be noble. The old man is down there laughing, chewing on his stick, fingering his bling, looking sidewise at his stolen bride, thinking that even if she is a bit too alive for him, he has her, has more than you. It’s just his sense of humor. This sadness you have, so deep and so wide–it’s what you get for living when she’s dead.
Not much more for you in the way of charming stones and trees or causing fierce things to let go their prey. You’ve got things yet to lose, not that you care very much about that.
Still alive, you’ll haunt the world you knew, you’ll keep to yourself, you’ll let things slide. Someday soon, but not tomorrow, those damp maidens and nymphs she loved to swim with in the river will mistake your sorrow for indifference. Besotted with themselves, they’ll take your solitude for scorn, and they will rip you limb from limb and throw what’s left away.
Altered image. Original image: a detail from Corot’s Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld</i<, 1861, Museum of Fine Arts Houston. http://www.mfah.org/art/detail/corot-orpheus-leading-eurydice-underworld/.