My mother said to me – ‘Don’t have sex with the gods.’
I said, ‘Why not? It’s an opportunity for a girl with nothing going for her.’
My mother said, ‘Look what happened to Daphne.’
I looked. Anybody who wanted to could see Daphne on the way home from school. She was by the side of the road, green and glossy. She had given Zeus the run-around, ridden in his car, gone to the movies with him, but when it came time for the kisses and the touching, her mother had always told her that good girls didn’t do that. Good girls couldn’t be god girls.
If you wanted to get married and settle down, if you wanted some respect, if you wanted to be true to your sex, sex was not what you did.
So Daphne, who was not doing sex, did the opposite and ran away.
There she goes, her feet in her sandals scuffing the path through the playground where the gods hang out looking for girls. Then she zigzagged into the woods, darker and deeper, her feet leaving prints like an invisible animal.
Zeus ran after her – he was a pursuer after all, and Daphne should have remembered that. He ran, knowing he could easily catch her, but he didn’t hurry because he wanted the chase, and he wanted her tired, a bit scared, in his arms. He wasn’t a bad god, but he was a god – i.e. total sex.
We all knew that about the gods – that they were total sex.
Daphne was running, thinking about what her mother would say, wondering what would happen if she got pregnant, worrying about school, worrying about money, and everybody knows you can’t have sex when you are lying there worrying about everything that isn’t sex.
Zeus was not worrying. His prick was so hard it was ahead of him like a dowsing rod. He’d dowse for her. He’d drill her like a well of water, and when she’d flowed she wouldn’t worry anymore. She’d spill. She’d be wet.
He wanted her to like him.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending.
He was close. She fell. He was on her. She pulled away. He grabbed her. He kissed her. She, in the time it takes to remember, in the time it takes to forget, kissed him. There was a second of surprise. Something happened. Anything might have happened because a world of gas and bubbles and heat was washing between their mouths. Then the known killed the unknown, and he was a god and she was a girl.
It follows that she turned into a tree.
Calling for help from the goddess Gaia, her white legs fused so tight no one would ever part them. Her speed slowed. Her arms stretched, her head turned in one shift of yearning. Her smooth skin, wet with sweat, was glossy with plant oil. She tried to speak but spat out a leaf. The lovely rustle of her as she moved moved in the breeze. Her green eyes were shiny as bay leaves. They were bay leaves. Laurel Nobilis. She had become a different kind of Daphne.
Zeus pushed himself into the tree of her. She smelled part tree part girl; aromatics and skin. Her leaves still had little hairs from her legs and arms, and where the stem split, where her sex had been, there was sap on his fingers. He licked his fingers. He kissed the leaves. He felt the tree around him, his big confident feet planted at the base of her. She leaned into him and whispered something. It might have been regret.
So on the way home from school when everyone had gone and no-one was looking, I went up to Daphne, who’d been dug up and re-located by the school as a warning to the rest of us, and I said,
‘Daphne, why did you do it? I mean – why didn’t you do it?’
Daphne shuddered in the wind. ‘If I had gone with Zeus, nobody would have spoken to me again.’
I said, ‘But nobody speaks to you now – you are a bay bush.’
She shook her leaves sadly. ‘And I had my future to think about.’
Daphne leaned her greenness nearer to me. ‘He would have left me. He was only after one thing.’
I picked one of her leaves and chewed it.
That night I went for an under-age drink at the Swan. It’s run by a woman called Leda who bought it out of her compensation money when she was raped by Zeus. In the old days the gods could get away with it, but now you can call a lawyer on a no-win no-fee basis.
Leda has tattoos and lives with an ex-model called Helen Troy. A god rammed Helen’s mother, and Helen for all her beauty, has a lot of testosterone. She does most of the heavy work at the Swan, and the men who drink here respect her. She doesn’t respect them; all that fighting over a piece of tail. She says it was awful being a sex symbol; she would rather have sex – smell, sweat, the agony of intimacy.
She fixed me a cocktail – White Puma – and sat butt sideways on a stool.
‘I met Leda in Rehab,’ she said, ‘We were both on drugs – what else is there to be on when you’ve been multiple-fucked by a swan, as in her case, and blamed for destroying a whole city, as in my case?’
‘It was the gods,’ I said. ‘No-one blames you.’
‘It’s funny.’ She said, a short Scotch cupped in her long fingers, ‘how we live in no-fault culture that is also a blame culture. My experience is that the no-fault applies to the men, and the blame applies to the women. But you can’t say that post-feminism. And maybe I am just bitter.’
‘You’ve made a new life.’ I say, because I am the cliché-generation.
‘Leda wakes up every night flapping her arms like wings. The judgement was fair – Zeus admitted the swan-work, paid up, went on holiday till the talk died down, and Leda was left to live with it. When you start a new life the past comes with you because there is nowhere else for it to go. One day they’ll rent an island where you can send your past so that it doesn’t have to live with you. But until then…’
‘Maybe, yeah, you are just bitter,’ I say, because I have watched too much daytime TV. I don’t want to say these stupid things but there’s a space in my brain where the complex things should be. I just don’t know how to think.
Leda comes over to join us. She is a skinny white skinned girl, her white skin downy, her eyes black like malachite, and her white-blonde hair cut short and feathered. She looks like a swan. She slides her long arm round Helen Troy’s neck and twists her hand to feel her face. I realise she is blind. I never knew this.
‘Swan pecked her eyes out,’ explains Helen Troy. ‘Judge awarded her $50k per eye.’
‘I can see it,’ said Leda, ‘the swan was beautiful and gentle and strong and still. I was bathing in the river and as I ducked under the water I saw those strong webbed feet parting the current. I saw the green-weed-wet-white underbelly of the swan. I wasn’t afraid. Then as my head burst back into the sunshine, the water pouring off me like time, the rest of my life pouring down my shoulders in floods of time, and me standing still in that river of time, not understanding that all my past and all my future had dammed up into this moment and was now pouring out, through, past, over me, so that I would always be in the place and never there again, as all of this happened, and my life was caught in one water-drop, the swan covered me.
‘The swan mounted my back, and anyone who saw must have seen a woman with wings, the great white spread of him out-folded as he used his neck as a noose. His neck made a loop around my neck, his beak hard under my ear, and he lifted me like that out of the water in a beating of wings. The webs of his feet were one each side of me, on my thighs, slightly parting them for grip.
‘We rose vertical, then he dropped me on the bank, not letting go, and for a few moments we didn’t move at all. A swan’s heartbeat is fast. I felt the fast of his heart under my shoulder blades.
‘He entered me from behind – not as a swan as a man, and I enjoyed it. He was slow at first and he had to push and because I was on the ground I let him drive me into the cushiony grass. I was pushing as hard as him because I wanted sex.
‘And they never tell you that, the smug people who tell you they told you so… they never tell you how much you want sex.
‘And then I did something stupid. I turned over and I looked at him, as he changed like a trick of the light – swan/man/man/swan. I pulled him onto me but I looked at him, and in the looking was the agony of intimacy.
‘He reared up. Feathers fell from him. His long soft heavy neck hardened into a cosh. I tried to move. It was too late. No desire now, only fear and rage. Pain. The black beak plucked out each of my eyes and I screamed through my open sockets. He broke my pelvis with the force of his thrust. When they found me the ground was litter-deep in bloodstained feathers.
‘They blamed me. You looked at a god, they said, and the gods come in disguise.
I listened to Leda and Helen Troy. I wondered how anyone finds closeness when violence is so near to it. Maybe the gods come in disguise because they know that – that it is better to take what’s there, take what you can, than risk yourself for what will burn you or break you.
Daphne and Leda are the opposite extremes of want – she risked nothing, and became less than human. I mean, it’s great being a bay tree if that’s your lot in your life, but it can’t be fun for Daphne. Leda was unlucky – she wanted nothing, and then because she surprised herself into wanting more, she risked everything. She got hurt.
I don’t want to be either of them.
Helen Troy was too beautiful. The kind of woman men want so much that they destroy everything just trying to rid themselves of the way they feel. When you feel a lot it’s so scary you want to smash up. If you are a man, it is easier to smash something on the outside than it is to feel what’s happening inside. Women know it’s inside, and so that’s what they smash. They smash themselves.
Me, I don’t want to smash up, but I don’t want to be smashed either. Everyone I meet is really saying the same useless stuff. They say, love is everything, throw yourself off the cliff for him. They say, love doesn’t exist. Get the money and the house.
The lovers all die of betrayal and a broken heart. The non-lovers live longer and hate everyone.
Is that all there is?
I said to Helen Troy. ‘You should dig up Daphne and re-root her here.’
Helen said, ‘That’s a nice idea. She could go in a lead pot by the door then at least she’d have company. No one wants to be alone.’
‘Should’a thought of that before she turned herself into a tree’ said Leda, who believes she has suffered more than anyone.
But Helen had gone for a spade, and she told me I could get a ride home in her truck. I got in. I liked the old red leather seats, ripped in places like wounds that don’t mind being wounds.
The sun was setting in flakes and bars. The first stars were coming through the sad singing blues of the sky thick with late-homing birds. The stars looked like hope to me. They are two thousand years-away light and nothing in the universe travels faster than light. You would need a lot of patience to travel across time so fast and for so long bringing light.
If love is going to be done differently I will have to do it. I don’t mean as a messiah-thing, I mean as a me-thing. I want to look into your eyes and not get blown up. I want you to see me as I am and not destroy me. I don’t want to retreat into plant life, or have the same bad dream every night. I don’t want to watch a city burn because I was there.
‘You’re just a kid,’ says Helen Troy, glancing at me as she tunes the radio. ‘A romantic kid.’
She wants to be kind and she slips her arm round me along the bench seat of the truck. I’d like her to touch me. I want sex. They don’t tell you that … I shift myself to get a better feel from the diesel throb of the unsprung truck. I like the feel of everything, just now, tonight. I feel hope like the stars.
I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes I was lying on my back on the seat and outside I could hear a spade rhythmic digging in the ground. I lay still, listening, thinking. Now the stars were very bright through the glass.
I unzipped my jeans and crooked my knees, my hand moving easily to the rhythm of the spade. A shooting star could lodge in me now and in nine months I’ll have a baby I can throw back into the sky the way that happens to the kids of the gods. My shining son will be a reminder of what I did, but I won’t regret it. And I think that is the only clue; don’t regret it.
Love me let me love you come near me get inside me carry me let me carry you risk it risk everything the stars have been travelling this light all this time let you lie on your back legs open and see it really see it so that it touches you. Touch me.
The star-shot world of the gods.
Artwork © Michael Salu