From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Jane

Remember?

For so long you’ve tried to forget, or at the least, to unrecall. At first it was easy enough, sure, what with the initial shock, followed up with the waves of Inquisition-caliber pain that ripped raw and stifled any semblance of coherent thought, let alone epiphany; but cradled in the aegis of Our Lady it’s been sedative and solitude, and in between your morphine dreams, you’ve had plenty of time to think.

You still get flashes, though, once in a while: quasi-vision, weirdly surreal, as if seeing without sight wasn’t weird enough for you (God in Hell, a faceless voice had said, that night, strong hands dragging you freshly blind from the rubble); the most you can make of it is that it’s something like phantom limb — the memory of sense. Wish you were here.

The ghosts of your eyes remember, then, what it was like to see; they share with you their dream of vision. Ghosts, yes, of azure eyes. She’d called them azure. She. Up till her they’d just been blue. So your cauterized nerves twitch beneath a scar-tissue carapace and the phantoms that live where you were born with eyes show you her. It’s to be expected. What else would you recall? What else should you recall? Black balloons, a burning bridge, the neon signs down on 12th and Exupère flaring up halo behind her magnificent head.

She.

She’d cry blood if she knew how, you once said. She’d garrote the world.

The bridge burns down into water, the wheel turns.

Plain Jane, gone insane, stood too long out in the rain . . . Yes. You remember. Despite yourself you remember it all. Some things you never can quite let go.

I. Legendary.

She always said the city was her golem, but never bothered to explain this in any way that made a bit of sense, as far as you could tell. She did a lot of things, you thought, that fit well into this category. She fit into it quite well herself.

Still, that initial sighting — first impressions are everything, the Gilded Lily Cosmetics radio ad assured you only moments before, as you’d passed a run-down brick complex, seared and blackened by some fire that had cored the upper floors so that the tenement hung its dark crown halfway up the sky — had caught you, well, off your guard, to say the least.

It was the kind of voice that made you turn. So you turned, and there she was, standing there beside you, there above you, in the night, back lit by the neon sign of the Blue Phoenix Hotel, her head perfectly haloed by the O (in Hotel, not in Phoenix), street-preaching her annihilation on the corner of 12th and Exupère.

What could you do? You were snared; she was both poacher and trap. You edged in at the margin of her crowd. After a month or so she took you in.

Associating with Jane was certainly a unique experience for you, much different from the life you had heretofore been living, which by some unspoken agreement you had liquidated, thrown away. You were working with her, for her, that much you did know, but never understood just what it was you were supposed to be doing. There were meetings and pamphlets and flags waved at rallies, graffiti and posters and bonfires of currency, all vague. She wanted to stir things up, that much was clear, but you never managed to get a handle on the true aim of her ends and means. You followed her all the same.

Occasionally you wondered if this might be how the men who’d fought under Joan of Arc had felt, swallowed whole by someone else’s cause, believing because she believed, enthusiasm by contagion, never really knowing why.

But there was more. You’d watched, one day, how Jane had opened up her hand on an edge of broken glass — half a bottle she was about to fling toward a wall of riot shields — and you’d had the roll of gauze out of your pack before you’d realized she hadn’t bled a drop. You’d grabbed her hand and gaped like an idiot as the bone-deep gash knit back together, and then she’d smiled at you, all innocence, and pulled away.

Another thing: Her face changed every time you looked at it. Usually it was subtle, just barely perceptible, a half-shade of hair color, eye color, skin, so that despite the nuances you could always recognize her, but you could also always notice she had altered in some way. Absently you asked yourself, now and again, exactly what characteristics your brain had on file under Jane: certainly you could never pin her down with the dull weight of statistics — brown-eyes-brown-hair-five-foot-five — all you had to go by (and cling to) was a chain of metamorphoses, a perpetually reconstructed cartography of face and form. And yet she was nothing if not distinct.

They called her Fury Four, your colleagues in her enigma, after the ancient Mediterranean vengeance-deities. Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone, Jane. Saint Jane, Queen Jane, also Reine Jane, Plain Jane, for the childlike jump-rope rhyme of it. They called her these things, too.

You only ever grasped the sobriquets on a basic level, on which you allowed yourself a quiet scoff at all their gaudy melodrama. Still, you could not shake the feeling there was something more to it all, some depth as yet unsounded: that you were living on the outside of a loop, wherein everyone knew everything about the minor mysteries you could never figure how to crack; that you were a bystander among initiates, a tourist in Janeland, and if you scorned to ask the natives for assistance, you reasoned, it was only because they, in turn, scorned to offer it.

On the other hand, maybe you were reading into it all much too deeply. Even in her less childish moments it was clear Jane battened on praise. Well, she’d say, wholly failing in her attempt to blush or at least look away modestly, someone has to hold up the sky. You’d blink, and the bow-curve of her mouth would shift, or the line of her neck, or her nose. Only the voice was immutable, and the depth of the gaze. And, of course, her endless war, that losing battle against everything she never bothered to name. Bruised but not broken, she’d say, tending to her people’s fractured heads, their mouthfuls of blood and shards of teeth. Discretion and valor.

There were so many things she’d say. Most of them, it seemed, were wasted breath, like puffing at dandelions, or blowing out candles for wishes that could never come.

Ghosts walk, she’d stood there shrieking that first day; this is what drew you in — this, and she herself, the sheer absurdity she radiated, like fever. She’d crackled in the flux of it. You’d paused. Eying her with what might have been pity. Looking up half-absently at the raving curiosity teetering on its plastic orange-crate, braced against the hurricane violence of its own gesticulations. Its hair flying in all directions, beckoned by the static of those ridiculous balloons she insisted on lugging around.

For her part, this curiosity, she’d spared you no glance. God sleeps, she howled. The end is near.

Another dime-a-dozen nihilist, you’d thought at first. The world’s millionth doomsayer. Sure, you thought you had her figured. But even then, with a prickling in the very back of your brain, you found yourself nursing the faint possibility that there was something more. The identity of that something became your question, your quest. It came to you only slowly, dragging in its wake an acute disappointment whose source you could neither fathom nor reasonably justify, that there might be no answers for the seeking.

#

Here in Our Lady of the Amaranth, you haven’t made many friends: socialization proves somewhat difficult in quarantine, strapped down as you are to your cot, which answers your feeble attempts at movement with the stink of old piss.

No one visits you. From time to time you entertain fond notions of an assumed death, an empty coffin, gathered friends, a gentle rain of flowers and botched eulogies. Other times you know infallibly that your return to the world is faithfully awaited, that the security guards of Our Lady must turn away visitors (however determined, however tearful) at the door.

Well, you forgive them that, you at your great magnanimous height, you with your bedpan and your weekly sponge-bath and your beautiful delusions. You whose feet only ever touch the floor on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when you are walked like a child back and forth, twenty minutes of back and forth, six paces and turn and six paces and turn, watch out for the wall — Shit. Count the steps. One two three four five six. Don’t you know this by now? to prevent your muscles from atrophying completely. Yes. All is forgiven. They are only doing their job.

And in the moments in between, usually in the dark hours (though which of your hours aren’t dark?) when the misguided mourners and the pleading would-be visitors all go off to join their kindred shadows, you peer down, though briefly, into the bottomless truth of the matter — that, in fact, there is no-one left who cares. You threw that life away some time ago, you bartered it or only set it adrift, it with its baggage of acquaintances and expectations; you severed all ties and in so doing, renounced all associations to which, for better or worse, you had sometime been bound.

As for the other, the surrogate life, the one-way ticket to Janeland — well. You were there, you saw the bridge burn. So.

Is it starting to come back?

There is one orderly here who seems to like you. You never recall her name. She is young, though, you gather this from her voice; she is plain (plain Jane, reine Ja — shut up!), you gather this from the mechanical chatter of the other orderlies: gossipy matrons, you hazard, clinging to what senses are left you.

Now and again she appears on the periphery of your awareness, the object of this casual malevolence, she is evidenced bearing trays and basins, wheeling a ponderous cart that creaks in one axle and emits a faint laundry smell; it is she, principally, who changes your bedpans, wields the plastic spoon in its shallow arc from your plate to your mouth, unfastens you from your cot (Wednesdays, Saturdays) and helps you to your feet and lets you lean against her while your blood redistributes itself and still is there to guide you for the twenty minutes while you pace your graceless cage, rediscovering the boundaries of your very own little world, six steps and turn.

She does all of this with a certain unintrigued tenderness, a warmth alongside a distance, tracings of a budding or otherwise thwarted maternal instinct with no outlet save these modest ministrations.

In any case it was she who had drawn the curtain across the room on your first day, talking to you softly — knowing you were far beyond hearing her, at that point, she must have known — in a valiant effort to drown out the muttering of the doctors, huddled ominously at the foot of the cot, while you lay strapped down, even then, in an agony that had climbed to the height of synaesthesia. The doctors inventoried in a dizzying palette of violets and greens. The eyes, gone; the sockets, cauterized. What in god’s name — Such agitation in the voices, soaring up and up, peaking high pure neon and then falling, falling, quelled, bottoming out through endless canopies of blue. You could taste their discomfort, like burning.

After some moments the young orderly had drawn the curtain, compartmentalizing you from the awful kaleidoscope of their discourse. Then recrossed the room, the cage, and came to you; the failed mother in her unfolded one cool hand against your face. (A smell of dust rising from gravel.) To shield you doubly from the sound, she sang, and drowned the world in variegated grey.

As if you hadn’t known. As if you hadn’t seen it coming, that night on the bridge. That other, earlier night under the fluorescent nimbus of 12th and Exupère.

And the orderly is there with your sedative when you wake up screaming at two in the morning, three in the morning, four. She pities you, you know, and she doesn’t think you belong here in Our Lady. You’re not crazy, she says. You’re — you’re haunted. You see ghosts although your eyes have burned away.

No, you reply. I don’t see ghosts. Would it were that simple.

II. Winter-Take-All.

Time passed, or was perceived to. Leaves burned and fell beneath the weight of long rains, then longer snows. The old year winged away with a mass replacement of calendars and the widespread illusion of change.

Humanity is the afterbirth of something greater, said Jane, and then she drew you aside, one finger on your lips. Hush. Listen.

Dutifully you listened, eyes shut, and heard nothing but the sigh and whisper of falling snow. Opening your eyes you looked at her: smiling, closed lids aflutter, that finger still on your mouth like a seal or benediction. I don’t hear it, you said, backing from her touch. What?

The city, she breathed. Her finger still raised against nothing. The golem’s heart. It’s beating so loud. So loud. Shh.

Later on she told you her favorite story, one you were sure you’d either read or had read to you in childhood. It was the one about the man who wanted to bring a red rose to his lover, but had only white roses in his garden; and when his friend the nightingale heard him lamenting, she crushed her breast against the thorn of a white rose, dyeing the petals with the last of her blood.

You don’t understand, she said afterwards. But maybe you can see. This is what I do. I am the nightingale; the city is the rose.

Then who is the man? you asked, but she didn’t hear.

And that was the night she burned the bridge.

#

A recurring dream of yours, for which you blame the barbiturates and the twilight and various fevers at intervals. In it, Jane steps down out of the mirror and comes at you, wearing your face, anachronistically armed with a long quick blade, bright and dark, catching light and flinging it away. Somehow you are armed as well, identically. You move and she moves with you. Clumsily you swing the weapon upwards, up and forward, inexorably toward its twin, which is moving, being moved, in precisely the same angle at exactly the same pace. Inevitably they cross and fall away. You stagger slightly, watching Jane stagger slightly. The synchronicity is flawless, shadow-tight, tighter. Your every movement is mimicked, anticipated, counterbalanced, primed, negated, complemented, traced in absolute symmetry. You tire quickly. First you give ground. Then you give up. Disgusted, terrified, you shut your eyes, you sheathe the blade. And without looking you turn. You walk away. Only after several ceilingless moments do you dare the fleetest backhand glance. Still walking you look over your shoulder and see Jane looking over her shoulder at you looking over your shoulder at Jane looking over her shoulder still walking away.

#

That January night has never really left you. No matter how hard and how far you push it from your mind, the memory is resilient and probably stronger than you, and it always boomerangs right back into place. Sometimes this takes a while, but eventually it finds its way back home, it finds its way back to its cot up in the attic of your brain, where it stirs now and again in sleep.

It feeds your nightmares, of which you have many. It informs all your fears. So that you wake up, some nights, smelling scorched flesh in the darkness, sweating buckets and convulsing top to toe against the restraints and hollering blue murder to overwhelm the screams in your head. Then there are merciful orderlies with syringes, and flaring attics of silence where you tread water like ink till you are mainly half-convinced you’d dreamed it all, that the sun will rise again and you will be whole and happy in all your five sound senses unforsaken and the world is very very good.

Yes. It must have been a dream. You consult your common sense and realize there is no other option worth considering. You sigh, you shift slightly in your sleep, you tread the tepid sugar-water of inertia. But in the morning, once the soporific angels have all left you discarded, you only know the sun has risen when the orderly snaps open the blinds and good-mornings you with toast and tea, and the light edges in on the margins of the room and grazes its million million eyelashes against your skin. You, you’ll never see the sun again.

#

Jane came to you that night in a mask made all of glass. I want you to stay home tonight, she said. Keep off the streets. Away from the river. Relax. Watch some TV.

Your raised eyebrows. Reflected in the mask. Incredulous. TV?

But all you could say was, The river?

The river, she repeated. And the bridge.

The bridge. It was a wonder of suspension cables, a real city-linker, eight lanes spanning the wide black river where the shadow-bridge, the twin-bridge, the doppelganger-bridge slept in the depths like the souvenir of some drowned city. Treading water. All of it lit up by night like a carnival, a double constellation joined at the roots, ricocheting from air to water, cast back unto itself perpetually: Siamese twins. I’m not telling you this because in my heart I want you to go, she said. You remember she reeked of kerosene. I don’t do reverse psychology. I’m telling you to stay away because you are not ready.

You said nothing, only looked at her. The look must have been telling, for she gifted you the brief charity of her glance — that strange Jane-charity, heralded only by recognition, in any one or all at once or none at all of its practical applications.

With her charitable eyes she chewed you up and spat you out on the sidewalk.

Once more she said, You’re not ready.

And then she walked away.

You shrugged at her retreating back, deferred, but of course you went — just in time to show up just too late for the opening act, which would have been Jane dropping the match — actually, hurling the Molotov cocktail toward the nearest girder of the bridge, where it exploded, triggering the mechanism she’d rigged up at one point or another (how all of this had gone undetected was wholly beyond your reckoning): a pairing of bombs, twins — quadruplets, as mirrored in the still-placid black water — which detonated within milliseconds of each other and blew out the cables. But that wasn’t all. The wiring zigzagged westward, toward the center of the bridge and past it, far down beneath the lights of the suspension, further lights picked out in the blackness, improbable pyrotechnic carnations. The crippled bridge, its spine snapped, shrieked but held on —

— But you learned all of that later, or otherwise surmised it, in any case long after the fact. You arrived on the scene while her followers, by tens and then dozens and then hundreds — you knuckled at your eyes and blinked but they didn’t disappear — piled onto the paralyzed bridge like lemmings: they must have come from every corner of the city.

And the city, Jane’s golem, Jane’s poor white rose, fought back. It started to snow, hard and fast and out of nowhere, snow like you’d never seen. Helicopters, rushed in to airlift everyone out, were first lightly salted, then blanketed, within five minutes blinded till they’d no choice but to bank sharp and peel away.

The snow neared the burning bridge and melted instantaneously, gallons and gallons until tires skidded, squealing, and those of Jane’s people on the east end of the bridge were up to their ankles, helping the city’s people to escape. She was there, though, and her feet were dry.

She stood there amidst it all, surrounded by water and fire and the terrible screams of the city’s people and the vastly more terrible silence of her own. She watched, she in her glass mask, reflecting the disaster back upon itself thrice: in her eyes, in the mask, in the waiting water below. Her face was contorted. From your distance you could not identify this rictus as a grimace or a grin, but then as you neared, you heard, inexplicably, amid and above all the rest, that quiet laughter. Her people were her blood. She’d broken the golem’s back and dyed it redder than any rose.

You neared, and she was smiling.

And then she saw you. She turned and actually waved. Somehow the cops hadn’t noticed her yet, they were too occupied in shuttling bystanders off the bridge, but they’d find her in time. Well, you wanted at her first. You wanted to go at her with your fists. You stormed over to where she stood, still waving, now twirling in a little dance, and you grabbed onto her and shook her hard, wanting suddenly to hurt her, remembering with a madman’s disappointment how you’d never seen her bleed.

Wake up, she said. It’s all a bad dream.

And the mask exploded, and the lights went out.

III. The House That Jane Built.

Well, they dug you out of the rubble, out of the detritus of the crumpled bridge, out of the screams and the carnival lights and the sound of her voice. Wake up. Still they haven’t found her. And deep down you know they never will. It’s you– victim, accomplice, scapegoat — that’s strapped down to the piss-stained cot.

Never despair, that’s what Jane would say. Despair of despairing. She would say, There are languages that have no equivalent for giving up. Take a page.

Jane.

It’s not as though you don’t tell them. A bitch in a glass mask, you say, you yell it in their faces, and sweet needles appear on the scene to kiss you softly goodnight but still you’re screaming, though your tone diminishes, and a million miles above you the orderly sighs with detached relief as you go head over heels upward down the black well where you swim and swim until you’re fished out by the rumor of the sun.

Sure, you’ve told them all you know, you’ve told them a hundred times over. It’s no use: you’re not listened to well here. Why should you be? Besides, Jane always knew better than to wear the same face twice. Maybe, wherever (whoever) she is now, she’s wearing your eyes. God knows someone’s got them, and it isn’t you.

Even so you do, you see things still: you see fire flaring out down into water, and the figures scurrying like ants in all directions as the bridge fell to its knees. You see the black river, the hands gone down waving like pale starfish, and all the evidence of Janeland swallowed whole.

What was she? You never knew. Her people, perhaps, had been right. Fury Four, making her peace with oblivion. Well, she’s gone now.

Or is she? Her voice certainly hasn’t left you. She whispers to you in your sleep. The nightingale and the rose. Which are you?

You don’t disclose these things.

And after time — suns, moons, blossom, blight, snow, and the wheel of constellations: hearsay, all, all — you begin to understand.

It gets so quiet here, in Our Lady of the Amaranth, termed Anathema by some, and for reasons easily imagined, if not outwardly observed. Your rehabilitation is despaired of. The months blur past and still you wake up nights, drenched and straining, screaming your lungs out, the empty sockets of your absent eyes staring into the darkness, into the void that can only be seen without sight — your heart slamming itself against the cage of your ribs.

Suddenly you tilt your head like a dog’s, listening. You hold your breath. That sound

The city’s pulse, you hear it now, a sobbing throbbing clockwork that shakes the Amaranth to its transient roots. Beyond your ragged breathing it pounds away:

Jane.

Jane.

Jane.

The heart of the golem. It’s beating so loud. So loud.

Hush now.

Hush.

Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, the cutest baby in the universe, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, GUD, Goblin Fruit, Lone Star Stories, Farrago’s Wainscot, and Idylls in the Shadows, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Desideria, is available on Amazon.

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