LOVE IS BUT A SKEIN UNWOUND BETWEEN THE DARK AND DAWN
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
—“When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats
When I’m old, I’ll say I married in black today because I put cute ahead of lucky. I’m a modern girl, not superstitious, and I look my best in clean, black lines.
At the wedding, I blamed it on the awards dinner I have next month. If you’re going to buy one expensive dress and wear it twice, black’s the reasonable choice, right?
But now, already almost dream-soft and full of sleep, I’ll tell the real and secret story: In a depressingly not-atypical moment of wandering attention, I left my white, purpose-made, gorgeous, bias-cut, silk dream dress on the MAX line coming home from the seamstress shop after work last week. This pisses me off because I had planned to go barefoot, and had to wear heels. Because Amit and I looked like badly matched storm clouds—me in black, him in gray. And because I still have no idea where my real dress ran away to. Nobody turned it in. I can almost feel it out there, living its own life. And my ridiculous imagination is worried it’s having more fun. Dreaming freer dreams.
Amit says we must have ransomed it for the weekend’s unreasonably brilliant weather. Having paid such a high price, we made full use of the shockingly clear, high blue sky and the first smells of dirt and roses in Portland’s long, wet, and usually cloud-filled spring. We didn’t even set up the tent we had rented. Our friends poured out into the sunshine and the grass of the Japanese Gardens with their cake plates and little “Laura and Amit” bubble-wand bottles, and I wound up shoes-in-hand, dancing with my new husband in the koi pond. It was exactly what we wanted for our wedding—an old-fashioned free-for-all with friends and family who won’t ever be all together in the same place again unless one of us dies young.
I hope our honeymoon can be the same—exactly what we want, even if not how we planned it. We had planned to be somewhere over the Atlantic right now, but young graphic artists like me don’t get many chances to pitch huge ad campaigns for banks, so when my boss asked if we’d push the honeymoon back two weeks, Amit and I decided it was a reasonable sacrifice to make for such an opportunity. Now, beside me in our expensive wedding-gift-to-each-other Danish bed, he is already lost to dreams. I’m waiting for sleep to claim me, too, and overthinking it, my crazy imagination pondering what pieces of a person can wander like attention on a train, or drift off like awareness into sleep.
The wicked, peat-smoke whisper catches me just as I’m falling asleep. “Maud?”
I don’t really fall asleep. I only float up into it. I try to be graceful so my body won’t feel it’s dropping behind and jerk me awake. But how can I be falling or floating if I’m right here in my bed? And how can I be so clumsy about it, when my athlete’s body can do pretty much anything easily but dance?
In the coming wild two weeks, I will come to listen hungrily for this husky lilting whisper—and it will learn to call me by my name— but it’s my wedding night. I wanted to sleep through it.
“Are you truly mesmerized then, Maud?” The inviting Irish whisper keeps finding me—it sounds like from an ocean and a hundred years away—just as I start to lose consciousness.
No, you don’t lose consciousness when you sleep—that would be irresponsible—but I feel like I could lose mine permanently tonight, and my mind.
No, I will completely lose my heart. I’m going to look like shit at work tomorrow.
“Maud, you are entranced.” Her whisper has grown a new spine of bright, almost erotic excitement. “Submit your will to mine!”
I crave sleep the way a locked-up junkie wants a hit, but I’ve never actually heard voices before. So maybe I’m not asleep. Maybe I’m falling apart. There’s been enough stress with the NorPac pitch materializing just two weeks ago, and a wedding to plan, and putting the honeymoon on hold. I crack a lid to check for crazy.
What I see spectacularly fails to reassure me. Hellfire-blue eyes probe mine from a ghost-white face. Gaudy, bright brass posts wreathed in cloth have sprouted from the foot of our slim platform bed. Nightmares on my wedding night. Fucking figures.
But at least I must be sleeping. And the bed I’m dreaming is better than mine. It smells more of smoke than fabric softener, and I am tired. Tired enough to dream about sleeping, anyway. I nuzzle into my dream bed’s warm, intimate softness, wishing I’d imagined myself under the covers. It’s chilly. But I’m sinking into the crisp outdoor smell of woodsmoke, and the warm, interior scent of someone else’s body. Not Amit’s, which should trouble me. But I’m coming unmoored—mind from worry, muscle from memory. I’m floating up. Adrift.
And overthinking it still.
Dammit. I have got to get out of my head.
But if my carefully compartmentalized, pinned-together, modern self really falls apart, where will the pieces land? They’ll wander off, I guess. Not sluts or renegades, just pilgrims, hunting their truth, or god, or you.
“Only keep your eyes closed, Maud,” the Irish voice whispers. The mattress bends to buoy her weight perched on the edge, and infant-soft fingers fan my cheek. They spin into my hair, running through it, teasing out long strands with a hungry tenderness.
I wear my hair short, and it’s way too curly to finger-comb without swearing.
“Maud, you are mesmerized,” she whispers, her breath quick and trembling. She turns her ear to my mouth, and I struggle to keep the slow and steady breath of sleep. Her lips blaze my cheekbone to my lips, and open, whispering, “You will not remember this.”
She kisses my mouth once in a slow luxury of stolen sensuality, and a delicious pull blooms between my legs. Hell no, I’m not forgetting this. This dream shows more imagination than I knew I had.
“When you wake up, you will remember only what you have seen with your soul’s eyes,” she whispers. Her voice strokes my lips. I want to kiss her back, but she clearly wants me asleep. So I peek instead, just enough to see the BBC miniseries loops and coils she’s worked her hair into.
Okay, she’s right about the closed eyes.
My slammed shut eyelids and her old-fashioned clothes create a silent movie flash of jumping, jerky movement. All I need now is organ music and a man weeping in the dark theater. But it’s only her voice again. “When you wake, Maud, you will have no bodily memory at all. Although you may realize you love me more than you knew before.”
Her lips grow less tentative, the tip of her tongue reaching. My fingers and belly, my breath and mouth are too awake to fake it anymore. Maybe I’m dreaming this creepyVictorian bedroom, complete with oversexed ghost, out of guilt for postponing my honeymoon, but it’s only going to help me make it up to Amit in the morning.
I cave open under her kisses, into the entwining sheets and luscious smells. I kiss her.
The sound she makes is something between a gasp and a moan, and for a moment she does not move. I reach my mouth for more, and she kisses me again, with a new decadence on her lips. Despite some desultory dabbling in college, I’ve never had such a powerful effect on a woman—on anyone, really. I’m impressing myself.
“I had not thought your physical body could respond to touch, your astral body having left it,” she says.
I have no idea what this means, and I don’t care, riding the deep erotic current rising in my belly. Float me back to the liquid blossom kisses.
“And it has left, has it not, Maud?”
“Stop calling me Maud,” I whisper. Such a ridiculous, old- fashioned name.
“Maud’s spirit left.” She’s clambering off the bed. “But some other voice speaks through her.”
I curl into the comfort, away from the crazy. I want more kissing, but I’ll settle for the drift back into drowsy unerotic. Anything but waking up to stare, sleepless, at the cold Portland skyline out our massive, modern window.
“It must be the ghost of Maud’s dead father,” she mutters. “How peculiar. I only made a show of conjuring him, but here he is all the same, devil damn it!”
This is why I prefer not dreaming. Dreams’ dark and restless whispers carry you away into deep and deeper water. Can’t I ever just stay shallow and sexy?
She clears her throat with a fussy cough. “Captain Gonne, I regret to inform you, you are dead.”
Talk about peculiar.
“Sir, you died two years and two months ago this day.”
Through my heavy lids, her delicate face hovers, fringed with smoky wisps of hair the same indeterminate auburn ash mine would be if I didn’t dye it darker, to a deep, sleek black.
“I believe you knew my father, sir. John Jameson, the whiskey distiller? Do you have a message for your daughter, Captain Gonne?”
Well shit, it’s a guilt dream. Whiskey and daughters. I’ve been clear with Amit: I’m not sure I want kids.
“I don’t have a daughter.” I can hear the irritation in my voice, feel it prickling me awake.
One night, when I couldn’t sleep, Amit told me about an old literature prof of his who said dreams were where we explore our fascination with what’s difficult. Or maybe it was books. Either way, we meet our demons in some imaginary place, whichever it was, so they won’t destroy our real lives. It makes sense, I guess, to dream adultery on my wedding night.
“Not Maud. Not Maud’s father?” Her voice sounds like an empty aerosol can.
I open bleary eyes, and struggle through the heavy, twisting bedding to push myself into the sinking pillows piled behind me. I’m waking up, but the dream is not receding.
“What the fuck?” I mutter.
She stares at me with flaming eyes. I have no idea what she sees, but my own gaze is whipping from the convoluted vase of peacock feathers behind her, to the fireplace, to the God-help-us-it-really-is wallpaper where my plate-glassed city view should be.
My fear is mirrored in my nightmare’s face. “Those aren’t Maud’s eyes!” she whispers sharply, backing away. “Some evil spirit has possessed you!”
I am waking up in a different body, in a very strange place, but my breasts, swollen, full and unfamiliar, weigh pleasantly on the sluggish body that does not want to sit up. The massive, bright bed is piled with blankets and canopied with webs of lace and ruffled flounces.
“We were playing at séance. I untethered Maud’s spirit. But I didn’t summon anything! You—You shouldn’t be here!”
I thoroughly agree.
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m at home. Asleep. In Portland.”
“Portland Gaol?”The trembling Victorian nightmare gapes at me.
Now this is just ridiculous.
I push at the twisting sheets winding like water plants around my hips and legs, and lug my unresponsive body upward. I stumble to my feet, but I’m too tall, and everything is wrong. Auburn pours down my back and over my mounded breasts. I’m wearing a corset. I can’t breathe. My mouth makes a noise like tearing metal. My loft is gone, my husband is gone, and my too-awake dream rises in solid potted plants on every side of me. Green, aggressive stalks reach for wallpapered walls, which vanish upward into shadows or soot stains.
There are never ceilings in dreams.
I can’t remember my husband’s name.
But I’ve known this strange woman since childhood. I know her mother’s and her brothers’ names.
“You can only be a lost soul or a devil,” she whispers. “Nothing else floats free.”
I stumble in my unfamiliar body and crash into a parrot cage. The birds shriek, and my hair—no, not my hair—falls into my eyes. Panic claws along my arms. I tear at the lace buttoning my throat, as the third woman I’ve ever kissed edges farther away, backing herself toward the fireplace. She looks so close to coming completely unhinged that it forces a kind of calm on me.
“Okay,” I say in the slow, controlled voice we save for cornered cats and other people’s children. “Let’s be reasonable. I’m not Maud, right? We both know that.”
She takes another, imperceptible step back, but her lower lip slips from the fierce grip of her baby-small teeth. “Anyone looking at you would swear otherwise,” she whispers.
It’s cold out of bed. I’m not fully dressed and trailing tangled blankets and complicated layers of underclothes. But rather than tear the bunching fabric from my too-large, too-soft body, I stand the parrot cage upright again, and look around the cluttered room. Everything is layered. The windows are robed in velvet over linen over lace. Every flat surface is draped with tiers of cloth and crammed with lamps or flowers, tiny portraits in ornate silver frames or fragile porcelain figurines of peasants.
Shivering in the chill out-of-bed air, I run my hands over an equally upholstered body that is equally alien, although I feel my touch across its exposed skin acutely.
“I’m in another body,” I whisper. “This one isn’t mine.”
“No.” I barely catch the whispered answer from where she’s backed herself against the velvet-draped mantel. Her hungry eyes trail my hands. “Maud would never touch hers so.”
“What’s your name?” I ask, but insanely, I know the answer. Her name is Ida Jameson. I remember climbing deep under the rhododendron of Dublin Castle with her when we were girls. We dreamed up mansions and husbands for ourselves in the leaf-roofed hollows between the huge old trunks and bottom branches.
But my dearest childhood friend shakes her still baby-soft curls at me. “I must not tell you! We have kissed. If you had my name as well, it would be enough for power over me.”
“That’s cool,” I say, striving for a calm, grown-up voice. “Let’s start over, okay? I know we can figure this out. What did you say about a séance?”
Her mouth trembles. She’s pressed against the fireplace, and I worry about how close she’s coming to the grate of burning coals with the elaborate fabric bundle perched on her ass.
“Did you hypnotize Maud so you could kiss her?” I suggest.
Ida’s sharp little teeth catch her lower lip again, but the pretty lilting whisper doesn’t waver. “Maud’s beauty—your beauty—is the kind born only once a generation.”
She’s not much younger than I am, but innocent tears gather beneath her tender black lashes and tug me toward her. Maybe I really won’t remember this. Maybe I’m always such a sensualist in my sleep.
Ida’s burning blue eyes, so bright they’re almost white, meet mine recklessly. “No woman—here in London or back in Ireland—none of the European beauties compare to you.” The tip of her tongue pokes through her trembling lips, vaguely snakelike. Somehow threatening.
“Beside you,” she whispers, “any woman is in shadow. And every man aflame.”
I want to take the hands of this timid, lustful side of myself and hold them, but she’s twisting them behind her, so I just step a bit closer. Her eyes dart from my face to the fire behind her like a wasp between flowers. “We can think this through together,” I promise, but I’ve already figured it out.
It’s guilt. For not taking my honeymoon right after the wedding (but the bank pitch will be huge for my whole tiny agency if we land it). And for marrying a man I’m not ass-over-elbow crazy in love with (but crazy in love is still crazy, and I’m never doing that again). Still, it looks like I’m conflicted enough to dream myself into this madefor-fucking body trying to calm a paler, frightened, too-thin version of myself. Apparently some body image bullshit, too. Fuck.
“Start at the beginning,” I suggest.
Ida nods her delicate, wary head, but doesn’t say anything. Does some part of me really feel this backed into a corner? So I ask her, “Ida, are you in love with Maud?”
Her face washes ice white. Her eyes never drop mine, but they fill to overflowing. She nods.
“I don’t think she knows.” It’s my clumsy attempt to comfort her, but saying it, I’m certain it’s true. “No, she doesn’t know. She loves you, of course, but she’s in love with someone else—a man.”
A tear shatters down Ida’s dimpled cheek. “Who?”
“A Frenchman,” I tell her.
His name is Lucien, but I find I don’t want Ida to know this. I feel Maud’s rain-soaked arm beneath his scalding mouth.
“Are you going to kiss me again?” she asks, misreading my shiver. Her eyes dance wide and restless again.
In the moment before it happens, I know I’m not this crazy, and I turn away from her whispering, inviting lips. I am stumbling back as she whips the little silver-handled fireplace broom from behind her back. She brings it arcing, with all her slender strength, directly at my head. I step back. My foot catches in the tangle of bedclothes and long skirt.
I’m falling. And if it didn’t all ignite in exploding roses of pain, I would be laughing. I’ve just literally been hit over the head by a dream.
Fair enough, Ida-my-Id. I get it.
I stagger into a little wooden writing desk which showers paper on the re-up-ended parrots.
“Return to Hell, devil!” Ida shrieks.
The bird screams offer the same suggestion.
I will wake up beside my new husband, and chalk up my headache to hours of dancing on nothing but champagne and frosting.
I hit the florid carpet with my face and knees.
I’m not the sort to fall apart. I’m the girl who didn’t try suicide once in four years of art school. I never get carried away. But okay, maybe I have some things to work out. My arms splay and my thighs fall open on the blackening rug.
I have fallen. Asleep.
The rising dark hides the carpet’s color. The parrot voices grow further and further away, screaming with their green wings that it’s crazy to reason with your dreams. And I drift into a blackness spotted only by a swimming, dreaming crowd of stars.