The intruder rides the orgasm like lightening through bone and flesh, searing a path up the spine from fingertips to head. White darkness explodes behind eyes, consuming all thought, all mind, as a bitter breath fills the mouth. Dark waves beat against the edges of skin, fear cascading into veins, pinning arms and legs to the bed. The invader enters every pore, every muscle. The woman struggles, her mind fighting devouring shadows, but it is everywhere - a suffocating blanket without an edge. The force of the attackis so strong she is helpless: leg-s become weak, delicate face red and streaked with sweat from blood pounding to her head. Her entire mind is a scream for mercy.
"My God...Please! Forgive me! FORGIVE ME!"
No one believed her when she told them. Even her Mother frowned. "It's not right to say such a thing! What will God think!" But she had seen it. That morning at church...the Virgin Mary moved Her head ever so slightly, the edges of Her mouth crinkling in approval. The face had glowed pure without blemish, without sin. The light spilling from Her smile felt warm and loving, as if the statue had descended with a kiss.The sharp jerk on her arm had snapped her away from the sweet light into the cool dark of the pews. She protested, frantically looking back to see if The Virgin followed then. But the statue stood unmoving in its niche.
She whimpered a protest, but her motherts harsh glare silenced her. During the service she sat wrapped in the smell of incense and the buzzing of the priest's voice, her small eyes kept returning to the mystery she alone could see. But the mystery had returned to plaster and paint.
The tody's thin line jerks upright, impaled on thin air, arms askew, rigid fingers extended like splinters. The narrow face is struck clean of identity, saliva glistening on the mouth and chin, teet'n furiously clamping together. The eyes snap back white in their sockets, muscles stretched like elastic bands, nearly to the breaking point. Blackness descends.
Father McManus recoiled visibly when she asked him the question. The steadfast gaze emptied of calculation, leaving a kind of numb amazement. His momentary confusion caught her completely off guard; her throat tightened unexpectedly, as she held her breath, waiting. Something like theological wariness rose to the surface of his stare.
"What do you mean?" he almost hissed, not quite answering her question.
"The snakes..." she repeated softly. "On the arms of Our Lady. I've never seen Her portrayed in quit that way. They're almost like bracelets. Very...unusual."
Father McManus exhaled sharply, sinking back into the naugahyde palm of his chair. His finger drummed a march on the top of the desk for a moment, then rested in a silent curve on the counterfeit walnut 3rain. He seemed expecting an ambush.
"Janet," he began slowly, thoughtfully. "You are...how old?"
"Sixteen. Yes. Well, I've served this church quite a bit longer than all your years and I've never seen serpents on the statues arms. Incredible. I come here everyday just to study the detail. I assure you, the snakes are there."
His gaze hardened; she felt suddenly weak and uncertain, wanting to take back what she'd said. Was this old man playing some perverse game with her, or did she really see them? Elis voice was so firm, she~d feel so stupid if it turned out to be just a trick of light and shadow, especially after having returned day after day to see them. She swallowed hard and tried to pick up her argument again.
"I'm sure I saw them," she beg-an weakly. "I'm surprised you never noticed them."
"No!" he whispered with velvety assurance, head slowly moving back and forth. "No snakes. I'm sure of thatt" The steady quiet of his denial gave it a stone-hard authority. She began retreating with a stammer.
" But I was so sure...The intricacy and detail. Like alive... "
She sank into silence.The priest's sharp blue eyes narrowed in victory, then softened to a condescending empathy.
"Our Lady steps upon the serpent, which is Satan," he whispered. "The snake is the enemy of Christ' She does not adorn Herself with symbols of the Deceiver of Men. She leads us to Her Son and Salvation."
She opened her mouth to respond one more time, but it was mere reflex. Her head fell, avoiding his eyes. There was nothing to do but quickly excuse herself from his presence. Stumbling up and out of the hard wood chair, she apologized for wasting his time. He mercifully let her go in silence.
On her way out of the church the statue beckoned one last time. She approached slowly, heart pounding, vision blurred with a horrible anticipation. There were no serpents. The statue now seemed naked, stripped of wonder and power. She turned away, moving lifelessly to the great wooden doors of Our Lady of Intercession. They opened with a reluctant heaviness. Outside, the day was an assault of heat and burning glare. In the crush of it's streets, lt gave no quarter, showed no compassion, nurtured no miracles. At least, no miracles for her.
There is no recollection of the visitation, but it's teeth have left a deep wound. Disjointed pieces of personality struggle to fill the gaps torn out and discarded, but it is a house of cards hanging precariously on still air. Waiting....
Sunrise finds her back at the daily routine: steamy shower, make-up and clothes, a quick bite for breakfast. She senses the emptiness inside, kut ignores it. In her arms and legs there is a strange tingling exhaustion, like an itch deep beneath the skin. If it's the flu, she thinks, I'11 deal with it later, when it hits full force. The bus is late as usual, but she is too tired to be irritated. Climbing on and finding no seat, she stands solemnly in the crush of the undocumented on their way to toil in the houses and gardens of the wealthy.
She is alone in the city; her only friends the strangers she works with and the semi-familiar faces nodding "hello" in the corridors of her apartment complex. She knows none of them by name, or what mysteries their lives conceal. Loneliness is a heavy fire in her chest, gnawing- at what few scraps of happiness still cling to her life. She knows too well the void left by dreams unfulfilled, dreams buried by those you trust the most. "Daydreams ain't gonna help you get on with your life!" her mother warned her. " No dreams. No dreams for you."
The memory draws blood. Her grip tightens on the plastic leather of her purse as the bus lurches and sways. There is no recollection of the visitation, but it's teeth have left a deep wound. Dis~ointed pieces of personality struggle to fill the ~aps torn out and discarded, but it is a house of cards hanging precariously on still air. Waiting....
The memory draws blood. Her grip tightens on the plastic leather of her purse as the bus lurches and sways to its destination. The thick, cold aluminum rail she clutches supports a drained body dang-ling over...what?
Her remaining years...
The second night begins with dogs barking in the street outside. She taps the remote unit cradled in her lap, silencing the television. There are traces of pain in the frantic barking. Worry coils about her, tightening into fear. Switching off the T.V., she rises from the sofa, skin moving to the strange cadence of the commotion rising and falling in jagged waves outside her window-.The dogs begin to whimper. Her breath catches in her throat as the night reaches into the apartment with a coal black fist.
The museum had been a cool retreat from a broiling day, an oasis beckoning just beyond the glare and fumes of the bus stop. She'd stood before the steel and glass complex day after day for over a year, too hound by the chains of her daily schedule to venture up the great curved brick steps to discover what lay within.
Rituals she thought. I'm a prisoner to my own life. Today felt different. Something resembling- defiance moved within; something burning brighter than the promise of security she'd feel climbing on the bus and sweating out the suffocating forty minute ride back to her side of town. The sudden snap of rebellion had started at work with a business as usual screw-up that couldn't be swept under the corporate rug because she followed company policy, obeying the rules. Everyone was angry, avoiding even talking to her when possible.
The pattern of her entire life...
She pulled the wrinkled paper schedule from her purse and studied the tiny rows of arrival and departure times. The last bus pulled out at seven and arrived at seven-fifty. It would be dark by then, but ~ust barely so. Mer apartment was a brisk ten minute walk away. The dark red flags hanging limp in t'ne withering afternoon sun announced ''Secret India" in yellow silk letters. She stared at the wrinkled nylon for many minutes, wondering exactly what the limp pieces of cloth advertised.
No time like the present.... She boldly ascended the brick steps, payed admission, and quickly surrendered to the air-conditioned embrace oE the museum. Once inside, she became lost in a maze of watercolors and stone statues, stoppin~r at each glass case to read the tiny saffron colored cards briefly explaining the painting or ob~ect on display - Mother India's artistic legacy stolen from a hundred obscure villages all over the continent.
The "Secret India" in the exhibition's title referred to tribal cultures and religions practiced outside the Hindu mainstream; the beliefs and rituals of backwater villages with one foot still firmly planted the stone age.
There was a sobering barbarism to many of the devotional figurines and implements: cruel ceremonies of self-mutilation and blood sacrifice. Holy criminals who broke social taboos and rose from bloody executions to the status of minor Gods and villag-e guardians. Secret altars where bandits and murderers prayed for divine assistance in seeking their victims.
How had India survived as a coherent culture all these years standing upon such a chaotic foundation? There were no sweet, angelic Mary's to watch over and guide the faithful, only dark g-oddesses of death and plaque - the endless cycle of creation and destruction played out ayain and again in stone, prayer and sacrifice.
If any tenuous cosmic order existed, it lay in the hodge-podge of festivals and rites marked upon the lenyth of the year like the blurred little numbers of a bus schedule, pulling order out of chaos like a rabbit out of a hat. The thought crept up on her before her mind could censor the sudden burst of heresy and drive it back down below the level of awareness: Does God need all the prayers and rituals to exist, or does God act throu~h the rituals, using human flesh to mediate the chasm between worshipper and divine?
Religion...or manic? Father McManus would frown severely and advise her Mother to keep an eye on her. She has far too much imaqination! She checked her watch: six forty-five. She'd dallied too lon3 at each display, throwing away what little time she possessed savoring the strange beauty of each watercolor and statue. She looked frantically about, quite lost in the museum's dark labyrinth. She glanced down again:
Picking an arbitrary direction, she hurried across a room of watercolors and gouache on paper, blindly following the partitions enshrining the exhibit. She saw a glass door at the end of a corridor, daylight spillin3 in bright streaks on the faded green carpet. She raced towards the light. Dead end. The door opened onto a small enclosed garden -with a serpentine brick walkway.
Turning to retrace her steps, she thought about taxi fare back to the Valley, praying- the bus would be late as usual. Raciny through the museum, she discovered the path of the exhibit turned out to be a convoluted circle snaking back around to the entrance. She started for the wide glass doors, then froze at a dead stop, s-taring at the stark, standing figure poised just feet from where she first walked in. Something she'd missed.
A simple statue....
Two, maybe three feet tall, cu-t from naked stone, weathered and smoothed by centuries of exposure. A hideous hag dancing upon a prostrate corpse, gaunt lips pulled back over long, crooked teeth, emaciated arms poised serene and graceful upon the still museum air, holding sword and noose and severed human head. Frozen in an eternal dance of death and destruction. She stared numbly at the limbs of statue, something cold and ancient brushing the nape of her neck. Upon the hard stone were serpents, coiled like bracelets around bony wrists. Like the Virgin Mary.
A rush of forgotten memories spilled over her in wave after furious wave, driven hard by some mysterious connection she'd couldn't comprehend. The force of the realization was so overwhelming there was little she could do to stop lt, to protect herself from the onslaught. The room shimmered and moved around her like a cat stalking it prey. She felt a terrible pull in the hollow of her stomach. Running to the doors, she flung herself out into the oppressive glare of a hot summer day, away from the smothering darkness of the museum. A hiss of hydraulics rattled the air and she ran up the steps into the hot crush of the waiting bus and back into the safety of her llfe.
It is the dresser that causes every muscle in her body to contract in shock, squeezing out what little strength remains. She sits up mechanically on the edge of the bed, heart pounding, staring at the silent mystery. Everything on the scarred wood dresser has been rearranged: brushes, combs, makeup, perfume bottles; all the assorted paraphernalia of "getting on" with the world now stand lined up in odd little patterns possessing a vague sense of meaning, one floating just beyond the reach of comprehension.
She notices some things are missing. Without tninking, she leans over to glance in the wicker basket tucked against the side of the dresser. A11 the cast out odds and ends lay in a confused heap on top of a crumpled nest of cellophane and wadded up tissues. She sits for several minutes, staring at the collection as the implication begins surfacing out of the numb surprise blanketing her mind. Her mouth curls with an unwelcome smile: an involuntary grin from the gallows. She feels some greater memory hidden behind her confusion, just out of sight, out of mind. Another part of her she never suspected existed.The thought of some unsuspected facet of her soul taking charge of her body brings a fist of nausea hard against her stomach. She closes her eyes. Tight.
"Mother of God help me...."
Reaching into the basket, she plucks a small plastic desk calendar from the discarded pile. The months have been ripped out, leaving jagged ribbons of paper to mark the missing year. She runs an inquisitive fingertip over the rough edge, nausea rampant in the pit of her stomach. She grips the sides of the bed to steady herself, eyes closed, gulping cold morning air into her lungs. She drops the calendar.
"My God..." she whispers.
The house of cards collapses. Outside, the morning grows warm, streaking the curtains with brilliant slashes of sunlight. She doesn't call work, she simply sits on her bed, watching the day crawl across her window. The phone rings several times; she ignores it. Something has vanished within her, some enigmatic strength she once nurtured deep inside, one always capable of holding back the storm. She is mindless of the malevolent hours twisting the shapes of trees falliny on the window shades. Abandoned. Forsaken. Waiting...until the light fades away, and the room descends into darkness.
The night returns with renewed fury. The force of its entry casts out a soul no longer human, no longer necessary. The body dangles on strings falling from invisible hands, obeying alien law and logic. Eternity is threaded through tortured flesh, binding each convulsion to a fallen world, each shudder to the embrace of desire and terror.The seizures pass and the Eye of the World opens. After pulling off her clothes, she staggers to the kitchen to pluck a black handled boning knife from the cutlery block, returning to the living room mindlessly clutching the weapon.
The raw, angular body jerks stiffly erect, legs together, arms raised, slashing at the air with long, spasmodic arcs. Her stare is scalded red with fury, corners of the mouth drawing back in rage. From deep in the throat comes a whisper - hollow, harsh. Like the scratch of a cockroach scrabbling over paper. The language is a guttural hiss issuing from the dust of a hundred lost civilizations. She spits the words on the quivering air like a klack cloud slo-wly spreadiny to engulf the room, the world. A ragged cadence grows faster and faster til the rush of words necomes a rasping pulse bea-ting the air like furious wings.
She stands for hours, consumed by black fire, until her womb fills with blood that spills down the white columns of her leg-s -with slow, red tendrils. Towards morning the wrathful Presence grows calm. The stiff poise of the arms relaxes, hands dropping to sides. In the eyes, the storm is receding; the once fearful lines of her face sink into lethargy.
She returns the weapon to its place in the kitchen, pulling the stained night g-own over her head. She drops it where she stands. There is little left of who she was: her body is empty now, a well rehearsed movement of flesh soing about its duties out of sheer momentum. Little remains in the dead grey eyes - an occasional glimmer resembling emotion, a wisp of memory, but nothing lasting.In the bathroom, she fills the tub with straight hot water, gently entering, washing the dark streaks from her legs. Resting in silence, she lets the rising- clouds of steam carry away the hurt and anger. She is a weary, benumbed island surrounded by pink ocean.
A small island without a mind. Drying off, she turns to stare for a moment at the last swirls of water disappearing down the drain. The grey eyes fill with tears for a reason she can no longer comprehend. In the cool dark of the bedroom, she lies down naked on the blue floral sheets and falls asleep. She sleeps without waking or moving for three days and nights. She sleeps without dreams, or hope, while outside her window the weather turns bright and golden all over the world.
On the fourth day, the oceans rise and take back the land.