I think I knew the ending, had a sense of it from the moment we met. I am careful with these thoughts, like going up the stairs in the dark. Certainly, I have been wronged. Although, from the instant he opened the door to me I felt the light of him that I don’t believe I imagined. He positively glowed, and so did his apartment. His very own, given to him by parents who’d lived through better prospects than we could ever hope for, though he was almost ten years ahead of me. It was summer; lit well, with plants all lively-green, though he did note, as I looked at them assembled on the windowsills, “I prefer the ones that keep themselves alive. Less stubborn ones I’m sure I’d murder. Can I get you a drink?”
He boiled the kettle, then, as the sun faded, poured from bottles. I didn’t notice them, that first meeting. They were up high, and my eyes were saucers full of only him.
“Mongrel,” he calls me, voice lowered in a rasp. Our little joke, a fitting nickname, a seduction for both of us inside this word.
The second meeting begins in the same vein, though laying eyes on them I wonder how I could have missed them from the first.
Imprisoned in the sky above the kitchen table, a static constellation of paper dolls, their skirts identical, their blank faces. Hands, holding hands, holding hands. On each is scrawled a name, as if an after-thought, an act of charity. There is something classical about them. Something sucked dry. I put it down to artistry; he has a few quirky ornaments like this, but when I drift closer, standing on a chair to read their names, this is when he tells me.
“The exes,” he says lightly. “We all have our coping mechanisms. I prefer this, to photo albums.”
I read their names. They make for quite the collection. He reads me, knows I am wondering what became of them. He speaks of them, over wine, as if they are errant schoolchildren. “Oh, Maeve got jealous of Claire, way back when. Then Megan started hanging out with Rebecca, more than me, to the point they became their own unit. We broke up, they started sleeping together.” A smile. He is indulgent, with these women-turned-paper dolls. Truly they are a child’s fantasy. It is easy to think of them as children, or dreams of them.
It’s easy, at the start. He speaks of them rarely. When he does drop a name, his words have sharp edges.
“Rebecca, though. I have to warn you. Rebecca is a flame that’s not yet faded. I really am in love. I hate to make you feel like second-in-command but…” A look, heavenward. “She has a pull on me still.”
It’s the twenty-first century. Polyamory politics, or he’s simply settling for second. I follow his lead, looking up. I think of how to say this to a therapist. “I,” strong beginning, “am in an intense relationship with women I do not know. Right in the middle of their tug-o-war.”
Delusional, thinks this imaginary therapist.
It starts in one of those early nights, before I brought the candle flames to the relationship. We have exhausted each other, collapsed into the dark. He likes it pitch black, throws an extra cover on the window to keep even a sliver of light from getting through. A timeless void, I think, gravitating towards his sleeping breath floating in the dark.
Then I am frozen. I feel a cold hand on my arm, a presence at my back. Then the hand is in mine, squeezing. I turn abruptly, striking out my arm, my hand a fist. I punch at nothing. Nothing but air, and yet I still feel, in both hands now, the cold squeeze of another. This phantom touch peters into pins and needles. I curl against him, fade back into dreamless sleep.
Sometime after that I bring over the bag full of candles. He is entertained by my candle flames, you see. Shopping bag, no frills. The candles are mostly red – red for love, red for sacrifice. Red for death, as the Celts believed. Red was death as much as life to them, because it was the colour of blood, that contradiction filling us all. I keep the bag under the kitchen table, “like a squirrel’s stash” he says, and we laugh. He really does not touch it, as if the bag is something I have buried, something only I can unearth. As soon as I notice this, over the course of the first weeks, I recognise he is right. They are as powerful to me as the paper dolls are to him, if for different reasons.
I start, bit by bit, to realise there is some ‘process’ those dangling bodies had been through. Some process of unbecoming. So I unearth my blood-red candles and he looks on as I light them, all curiosity. He watches as I hold my hand out, a secret hobby of childhood. I keep my fingers there, hovering, until my painted nails blacken, until the tips of my fingers are singed. Other times I hold the flame close and let the wax drip onto my hand, turning the skin briefly pink underneath, trickling into miniature stalagmites, cracking as I move, or on the occasions I get rid of it by sliding a knife underneath. Sometimes I see only the flame. Sometimes I look him dead in the eye.
I stun him with this persistence. He requests this performance frequently. This brings me a sense of satisfaction for a time – I have him fascinated, I am witch victorious unlike those weaker, paper girls. On occasion, though, I tilt my head skyward and see them floating above the table. They also captivate him, when he thinks I do not see.
My friends, my darlings. Colour in your clothes, why don’t you. You’re bleached of everything. So bleached you glow. Paper girls or paper dolls or paper gods.
I am tired, that’s it. Delirious on the exhaustion, and on him, him and his body. We stay up into the small hours, he and I, drinking in each other’s words, or flesh, to the grey light of dawn. So I am tired. Every night now I force myself not to look up, above our dinner table, to see them dancing on air. In breezes they could be either dim, dreaming ballerinas or dangling corpses. Hazel, Rebecca, Claire, Maeve, Megan, Aisling. Names I’d read, only the once, burned into my mind as good as the flames to my hand.
There are other nights. Many of them. When I sleep and wake in the sunlight to his face, his smile like a mother’s.
“Want to know a secret?” he will ask, and confide his thoughts, or his past, or speak of Rebecca.
Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. Funny, when it comes to him, I am willing to stick needles just about anywhere. I might even stick one into Rebecca, should I ever see her, to help my case, or ruin it. I am only required to be precious for him, and this is as easy as a smile back. He is not demanding, in this respect. In lots of ways, I cannot fault him. But there are rare days… agonising days… when he is silent. When I can see him, putting me on the shelf in his mind. De-commissioned, invisible for the day, though at hand should he decide I am of use again. At first, he ignores me until I feel close to tears, hastily lace up my shoes, take myself away. When I return, sometimes days later, he is all smiles and tender kisses, as if it never happened. Later I simply stay, becoming just as stone-cold until one of us decides to chisel at the other with forced small talk, or by taking out the chopping board for dinner.
At night I cook or take out the candles, hoping for his attention, to be of use to him. I recognise, by now, I must be of use to him. I become elaborate in this mission, topping dishes with parsley, skin with wax. I think this is why we hallucinate religions. I want to say it to him, because people betray us but gods cannot.
My friends tell me I’m losing weight, becoming feather-light. I am only aware of my body for how it compares to his – he is scarecrow thin, my scarecrow man. He will not meet them, the friends, nor has he introduced me to his. Anxiety, and all. So we pass the time, happily together.
I will not say alone. My hands are cold. My hands are tingling. Sometimes I feel I am clasping them together. Sometimes I feel a phantom squeeze. Sometimes, they go blue from the cold.
I light another candle, warm myself. I look up, where the bodies sway. I imagine tearing them up, feeding them to the flames. But something about them is sacred. I understand, why he keeps them.
“You want too much control,” he says, one day, in one of his brooding moods. I hadn’t expected him to speak to me at all this early, so when he does it almost sounds like foreign language. “This,” he says, vaguely gesturing, “it’s all mine. Remember that.”
Then he takes his scarf, goes on a walk, leaves me. Not alone. I wish, alone, returned to mongrel-status. Simply a stray he picked up on the street as a whim.
Not one of those paper bodies. I hit the switch of the kettle, ignore that when I turn my back on the table, I feel there is someone right behind me.
Pure mongrel. A name to remind me I do not belong. At least, in this definition, I am safe. Was safe, by myself. To be a lover is to be terrified, here – to be among many, and feel myself vanish. Mongrel. He hasn’t called me that, for a while. What does it mean? I can’t help it, turning to look, as if they’ll give me an answer.
Above the table they shimmy, those identical, twiggy legs, like they are laughing at me. We are headed towards autumn, into harsh weather, and there must be a draught somewhere.
I dream of their procession, vague impressions of what they must have been before their unbecoming. I try to conjure faces, but all I can make out is the women-shapes, hand in hand, smooth white dresses covering knees, smothering busts. Distorted girls in summer clothes, as if I’m looking through a fogged-up window. They step closer and closer, and yet I can’t make out their faces, their details flickering in and out like changing flames, so that they cannot be called with any confidence, women, girls, or even beings.
Even though I can’t read their changing faces, they seem formal despite their white clothes. Funerary. I think of medieval children singing that song, that song about death by plague that carries on for centuries, from mouth to mouth. Or perhaps, hand to hand in that running-circles dance. Ring around the rosie, a pocketful of posies. These paper girls continue to advance.
Instead of shrinking away, I want to reach out to them. I feel cold. I feel nothing. He hasn’t touched me, in some days. I want their touch to make me real, but I can’t move. I open my mouth to speak to them, and finding no sounds I mouth the words.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Ashes. I hold my hand in the candle flame for longer this time. I do not burn. He does not watch, typing at his laptop. I flex my hand, a few times. Grind my teeth. Something of this is audible to him, and his eyes dart up to my face.
“It’s perfectly normal to want to blame me for your feelings, whatever they are, but is it rational? Is it fair?”
“I hear them, ya bastard. I see her, and what you’ve done to them all. What you’ve done to Rebecca,” I say, pointing with the red line of the candle, above. I spit the words like a mouthful of thorns. Hear, see, these words are not quite right. Sense would have been more accurate, but once the thorns were pulled from my tongue I had to have them all out. “I don’t expect you to believe me. You don’t know how I feel,” I say, hand upon the flame. Not burning. “You don’t know how I felt.” I am past tense. I stand before he can stop me, onto the chair, raising the candle flame to that hand, that waiting hand. I will take down these false icons, put them out of their half-life misery. Assassinate them –
Flame catches, sputtering upon that white, waiting hand –
He moves. Kicks the chair. There is pain, and then there is that cold hand in mine, becoming warmer, like a kiss on the cheek.
Hand-in-hand, they dream, they stand. What, then, is my name? But I’ve been foolish. This is a memory; an accidental revision. I look down upon the scene. The door opens. He steps inside, followed by some mousy-haired brat. This one spies us almost instantly, brow furrowed as she asks the inevitable question.
“Aisling,” he says to the newcomer. “That’s the last one. She had a lot of…agency. Too much, really, to handle, to get close to. You two are very different. Though I think I’m still somewhat obsessed with her. Not to make you feel second fiddle, but just to warn you. That’s why I keep them, I think. Just memories, all of them.”
She smiles a smile that disappears when he turns to pour the wine. Her hazel eyes are burning. Already she wants to set us aflame, remove us neatly. Already, she is what we all were, once-upon-a-time. Her eyes stray to one of my left-behind candles he has lit. Ashes, ashes.
Memento mori. A half-death, this immortality. We watch the newcomer, on some days sweet guardians, on others vengeful harpies, depending on the memories we dwell on. Memories are all we have, stories we tell and retell. Memories, and the hands we hold. I hold Rebecca in one hand, and in the other… this newcomer. She is my anchor to the floorboards I only dimly remember. Day by day, I feel my grip on her hand tighten, hers becoming more solid in mine as she fades from his. I feel her breath as my breath. This is the covenant – hand in hand, we go.
He stares at us, while no one is with him. When she goes out for groceries, or to spend the night in her own bed. He sits and stares, this scarecrow man. He says nothing, eyes like daggers or all mournful puppy-dog. He makes the occasional offering, lights one of my candles, toys with the turquoise bracelet Megan left behind, switches on the fairy lights Claire loved, or unearths the lace underwear Rebecca left him as a parting gift. We are his blessings and enemies. I wonder where is it I have gone to, and how he has marked me. I wonder if I am unmade, or simply transformed beyond myself at his altar.