SENSES OF CIRCE
She told me that my eyes looked like a jug of whey. She said that my tongue tasted of souring and bloating. She repeated to me that my ears were like pale tattered sails. And lastly, she felt that my hands were, if not the hands of a dead man, then the hands of a man intolerably mortal. After this, she concluded that I should no longer touch her, or hear her, or see her or taste her. I should be the most profound of unfortunates. She told me I would suffer worse than mighty Odysseus; for while Penelope waited for him across leagues of the Aegean, she would not wait, nor abide, nor be a figure of my hope. She was resolute. I was slowly, intolerably dying and she could not be blamed, she said, being what was. She was after all, a god.
I cannot say if she left in the morning, in the afternoon, or at night time. I simply found myself alone, in my tiny tepid room with its books and brazier. It was then I remembered: she was no longer with me. But the remembrance, I could not place.
It was after her exodus then, that I did my wandering over the broken spine of the South Downs. Lantern and stick and boots. Out to the public houses and in into the inns of Ditchling, Ringmer, Poynings, Falmer, Plumpton, Alfriston. All the little quiet places where, beyond the reach of the hearthlight, people would watch me from corners and crevices. In each of these places I explained about her; I transplanted my life into words so that people could understand. I explained about her being a god, about her immortality. I retold how, when Odysseus and his crew arrived on her island, she made love to him and then turned his sailors into swine. I told of her power over matter living and matter dead. Though people, I know, they are wary of heartsore strangers and of the clichés of desire, and so they thought me merely mourning an old paramour. They listened to my story and watched my balletic hands dance the air as they played out the fugue of my experience. As they listened, they sipped at their beers and traced their fingers over the dark knots in their oak tables.
When I had finished, they nodded to me and murmured, the way that churchgoers do after a service. I was of course terribly old. It was true that my ears were tattered sails and that my eyes waxed with blindness. Circe was right, after all; I was intolerably mortal. Though,intolerable for whom? I was the one that had to live with it, in the final instance.
Then the hum faded, and someone said that I had better make my way back to where I came from, before the frost set in, or the rain set in, as it always does around here. The door was opened and I was coaxed out of the inn and into the damp street outside. Behind me, through the door, I heard the throaty guffaws of the patrons. A god. The man thinks he has been with a god. And this god has left him, and will not return.
I lifted my lamp and began down the cobblestones. Slabs of light slid from the houses and gave the street a bleary patchwork. I walked on. I knew that she could, if she wished, be watching over me now. There were no stars. She could, if she wanted, make me well again. There were only the clouds rising in tenebrous columns. If it pleased her, I need not die, but could remain, untempered by age. I turned off the main street and into the slop of a lane that led up to the Downs.
My legs held a dull ache that had not receded in days and it hampered my pace as the hill steepened. I considered if my wondering and wandering were all part of her plan, a divine but myopic plan, for me only. I wondered if she could have ever felt affection for me. Since the beginning of time, she has had her men, her women. She has had her romps and ravishings, her assignations and her serenades. And she would continue. A new partner, another upon another upon until we, we humans, until we are all disappeared and then something, something else would attract her affections.
I felt the wet chalk slip under my feet. Did I feel anything for her, or did she just cause me to think that I did? I refused to look at the sky as I made my way up to the Downs. The clouds threatened rain and if it was to happen, was to rain, it would be better to feel it on the back of my neck at first, than see it squalling ahead of my storm-lantern.
I broached the Way above the village and headed east. Was the rain becoming sleet? I could not tell. It was cold, but I could not tell. She had always been so resolute. I knew that I would not, would never, see her again. But then, with what things did I have the ability to gain any knowledge at all? Ahead, I heard the scream of a fox. My senses. It was ahead of me, but beyond the light cast by my lantern. Only my senses. Perhaps it was not a fox, but some caitiff tormented like me, unhappily on the other side of mortality. Perhaps my senses could be wrong. The fox screamed again. Perhaps the caitiff was me. Perhaps I had died on this high path. The creature was just on the edge of my lantern light, an outline only. Though, I did not believe in ghosts. Just my senses.
It was close to me. I inhaled. I could smell the fox.
By Craig Jordan-Baker
Photo: Hannah Williams