The Lorelei Signal
Written by Elana Gomel / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
She walked the empty streets of yet another town, walked slowly, because her glass shoes—the last, the very last pair, she hoped—were clouding with blood that seeped from her raw feet. At first she thought it was early in the morning because there was no sun in the milky-white sky. But then she realized the transit had deposited her in a fifth-time zone. She spotted a small cafe and went in. A slovenly waitress, her coarse black hair falling in a solid mass onto her stooped shoulders, brought her a cup of spicy coffee and a stale puff-dough pastry.
Pounding music filled the cavernous room, coming from some clunky mechanical contraption she instantly despised. She was idly looking out the window, sipping her coffee (not bad, after all) when a group of laughing schoolgirls passed by. One of them looked back, her eyes the color of the sky over Thebes. Was it her daughter? She swallowed the familiar grief. No use wondering. Her daughter might pass her now and then in one of her myriad disguises: a laughing urchin, or a majestic swan; a swirl of fresh snow or a piano tune; a slim borzoi or a lady in a dress worth a kingdom’s ransom. And she would never know, never recognize her own flesh and blood or be recognized by her.
She got up and went into the bathroom at the back of the café. Standing in front of the cracked mirror, she dragged a plastic comb through the tangle of her yellow curls. In proper sunlight they still shone like gold—the coin with which she had bought her immortality. Her beauty had not withered in her endless peregrinations but grown refined, her slender body pared down to the pure architecture of her bones. Her eyes were of an even purer blue than the eyes of the schoolgirl but her skin had been burnished by the sun so that she looked almost like one of those barbarian slaves who used to serve in the Temple of her mother-in-law.
Never mind. When she found her husband, it would all be restored. Her love, her daughter, her complexion. Her world.
She washed her face, adjusted her tatty jeans and hoisting up her backpack, went out. In some fifth-time zones periods of light and darkness chased each other around like fighting cats but here the white dusk just went on and on.
She considered her options. The latest instructions, coming from her mother-in-law in a dream, as maddeningly vivid as it was obscure, seemed to suggest she had to cross a desert. Was it in this zone or the next one? Was it really a desert or some oblique symbol based on one of those childish word-games the immortals were so fond of? This was so much more difficult than the first time because there was no set task to fulfill, no definite obstacle to overcome, nothing except those horrible glass shoes, two pairs of which had already shattered on her travel-worn feet. There should be three pairs to wear out but what if the bitch, in a senile fit of pique, had decided to multiply the sacred number or had forgotten about it altogether? There was nobody to restrain her now, no higher authority to appeal to. The others were…She closed her eyes and saw giant lumps of mossy rock vaguely resembling human shapes hunched over their petrified banquet table.
The street was deserted. She suspected that were she to go back to the cafe she would find it deserted as well. She plodded on.
The sullen quiet was broken by a flapping sound. Startled, she looked up. A flock of birds wheeled over her head, their plump bodies and pointed wings black against the colorless sky. Her heart gave a leap. Doves, her mother-in-law’s flunkeys!
The doves alighted on the sidewalk in a perfect circle with her at the center. She was surrounded by pearly-gray bosoms and unblinking eyes the color of blood. Their cooing drummed in the dead air.
“What do you want?” She shouted, enraged. “Spying on me? Go tell that bitch I won’t give up!”
No response but something did happen: a sudden shift like an intangible gust of wind. The doves stepped forward, hemming her in. No, they did not. The circle was shrinking because they were growing.
Was there no end to her tricks? Wearily amused, she watched the doves balloon out. They became the size of chickens, eagles, ostriches. And still they kept on growing. Suddenly she was not amused any more. The acrid smell of bird-shit clogged her nose. The doves loomed over her, their stubby beaks drooling. She drove her fist into the nearest bird-breast but it drowned in the flea-infested down. The cooing rose to an unendurable pitch. She felt a sharp pain in her left shoulder and then a hot trickle down her back.
“You can’t do it!” She yelled. “It’s not part of the bargain!” But even as another peck penetrated her sleeve, she remembered that there had been no bargain.
She managed to push through what felt like a barricade of frowzy pillows and was running down the street when a thunderous whirring above made her realize the giant doves had taken to the air. Splats of guano fell around her like acid rain. She covered her head and angled toward the nearest house. But then the swirling of agitated air buffeted her, lifted her off her feet and slammed her against the hard pavement. From the corner of her eye she saw a larger shape swooping down among the cloud of panicky birds. And a dark curtain fell over her, cutting of the anemic light.
She came to lying on something warm and gritty. Sand. Sand and the sea; the deep aquamarine glow; the familiar tang of salt like a message from home. She sat up and saw an empty beach fringed by the dazzle of placid wavelets.
Turning around, she discovered a man meticulously going through the things in her backpack. She opened her mouth to protest when he looked up and shook the pack open. It had been reduced to a torn rag.
The memory of the confrontation with the doves made her wince. So undignified!
“Are you OK?” the man asked.
She looked at him closely. Medium height; dressed in faded army fatigues. Black hair, dark eyes, eagle-face: all strong angles and hard restless lines. Some of them were age; older than he seemed at a first glance.
“Have we transited?” she asked.
“If this is what you call it. We’re in a different place.”
“Different zone,” she said.
She looked around. The beach continued inland, dotted here and there with clumps of succulent plants and then rising into folds of sand-dunes. The air was balmy and crystal clear.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
She nodded. He spread a tablecloth on the sand and placed on it two apples, a flat loaf of white bread, a water-flask and some stewed vegetables in a tin can. She would not eat apples because they were her mother-in-law’s fruit. The tinned stuff was repulsive for a different reason but she was ravenous.
She caught him staring at her and smiled inwardly. The magic was there; it was just the matter of using it properly. When the quest was over; when she sat on the golden throne and held the water-mirror; when the scattered leaves of the Book of Gods were put in the right order…everything would be as it should be. Again.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Once I found myself in this…this,” he made an expansive gesture, “I don’t know who I am. Sometimes I suspect I must be dead or dreaming. It’s not my world, that’s for sure.”
“It’s nobody’s world,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She brushed the crumbs off her shirt and stretched, aware the movement set off the swell of her breasts.
“The gods have died. Most of them, anyway. When I was a child I was taught the universe is a book written by the gods and each has a chapter to him—or herself. Well, the writers are dead, and the book has been torn apart. You have zones now, pages randomly glued together. And we are moved across them by chance or malice.”
“As I said, not all of them died. Too bad.”
He looked sharply at her he really has interesting eyes, she thought, but a wrong color. He cannot be a Hellene. He shook his head.
“So somebody must set it right!”
“Yes,” she said. “Somebody must set it right.”
For the rest of the afternoon, they explored the beach. They climbed to the top of the dune and discovered a semi-desert scrubland. There was a tiny spring surrounded by low bushes with leathery leaves. So they had fresh water, and the soldier’s pack contained more tins. She made a face.
“It’s very ingenious,” he said in an aggrieved voice. “They keep forever.”
“It’s a barbarians’ invention,” she said. “They work in metal and smoke and create things that cough, and spatter, and stink. We make things of beauty.”
They bathed in the sea. As she swam, she felt the gentle nudging of rainbow fish whose school followed her around. A dolphin came and smiled at her with his clownish mouth. And when she came out, water streaming down her perfect body like liquid draperies, she felt the warmth of the soldier’s gaze on her skin.
He told her about his wanderings. Some zones he mentioned seemed familiar but most were totally strange. A white city with straight boulevards shaded by broad-leafed trees—but the leaves bled, the sidewalks twitched, and the buildings were subdivided into tiny chambers like nautilus shells. A world of purple dusk populated by midgets with scarlet mouths and dead eyes. Dragons with blunt scaly faces, their heavy dewlaps sprinkled by fresh blood as they fought over the carcass of an emaciated woman.
“The Chaos is rising again,” she said.
It turned out he kept a diary. After some prodding he took it out, a large notebook in a scuffed leather cover, and opened it with a bashfulness she found endearing. Uncomprehendingly, she looked at the twisted characters running across the page.
“I can’t read this,” she said.
“Aren’t we speaking the same language?”
“How come we understand each other?”
“Maybe it only seems to us we do. Or maybe with all the world-pages mixed together we all have the gift of tongues now. Anyway, what’s that?”
“A poem,” he said. “I found it in the ruins.”
“What does it say?”
“The love that moves the sun and other stars.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Yes, this is exactly right!”
The sun was dropping toward the clear slash of the horizon separating the silver sea from the rose-tinted gentle sky. He put his hands on her shoulders, pulled her close and kissed her. She was gratified by this acknowledgment of her magic but that was enough for now, and with a tiny twitch of her finger she made him release her and shrink away. Seeing a mortified expression on his face—he, of course, felt that it was some failure of his manhood—she relented.
“I’m a virgin,” she said.
He blushed and stammered an apology. She laughed.
“I have a husband and a daughter. But this is one of her cruel jokes. When you have Hymenaeus for brother-in-law, it does not take much to restore your maidenhead.”
“God of marriage, he calls himself. Prurient pasty-faced little bastard.”
“And you are…?”
The sun hung just above the horizon, a soft orange ball amidst the glory of gold, velvety gray and royal blue.
“I’ve heard your story a long time ago.”
“All the stories are mixed together now that the Book of Gods has been torn. Time is broken. Chronos’ body had been dismembered, the pieces scattered.”
“What I know…you were the beauty of the family and your father sold you…”
“I met her, that Beauty who married the Beast. She’s not as pretty as she thinks. No, my father loved me and even my sisters…. They envied me, true, but I don’t think they ever really wanted to hurt me.”
The smell of olive oil, and the blue shine of the cloudless sky, and her bare feet pattering on the marble, and her sister’s scornful voice “You think you’re so pretty!” and her own triumphant laughter. “I am!”
“Our family was rich, and our city was old and prosperous, and beginning to get paunchy round the middle. Like a middle-aged man, abandoning his wife and falling in love with a teenager. They looked for a new goddess and found me.”
“They worshipped you?” He sounded scandalized by the idea and she thought, he’s a barbarian, after all.
“Yes. It’s not unusual. It wasn’t the first time a girl was chosen to be crowned and anointed in the Temple. But nobody expected her wrath.”
“The goddess of love. The ruler of nesting doves, spawning salmon, rutting deer and nursing babies. The Queen of the world. Aphrodite. My mother-in-law."
“Why does she hate you so much?”
“Because I’m more beautiful than she is.”
He looked at her with those strange deep-seated eyes and she felt a shiver of disquiet run down her spine. What was it? She did not know; she was not good at categorizing ambiguous emotions because for so long she had lived within the simple clear-cut lines of love and hate.
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said quietly.
She turned away, staring into the molten gold of the horizon.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have…You are married.”
“Marriage is a human thing. Gods don’t care. Nature does not care. As long as babies keep coming…this is all that matters. Love keeps the world on track. ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars’.”
“It is not right,” he said.
“Yes, it is. My brother-in-law Hymenaeus, he puts shackles on desire. My daughter sets it free.”
“Her name is Pleasure. Born of the union of Eros and Psyche, Love and Soul.”
“I remember, as a child, going into the Temple, genuflecting before the pink-marble statue, of the goddess, touching her draperies, trying to sneak a peek into the water-mirror she held in her hand. The water that fertilizes the thirsty soil so the crops may grow and women conceive…it is under her command. Still.”
They were lying on the blanket near the small fire the soldier had built with pieces of driftwood. The indigo sky was sown with stars and the sea glowed with a faint greenish sheen.
“But when you saw her, was she like that? Like her Temple statue?”
“No, not at all. She was surrounded by stinking pigeons. She was stark naked, no draperies, and her body was running to fat. And her face was hungry—not the hunger of passion but of a perpetual petty dissatisfaction. She was getting old, like all of them, like all the gods, and she hated that. The gods have no memory; they are creatures of desire. But with their end approaching they suddenly desired the one thing that was denied them: the past.”
The whispery silence was shattered by mighty splashes. Broken water cascaded off a giant body in a waterfall of stars. The beach was suddenly alive with thrashing orange tentacles, coiling and whipping through the air. The soldier jumped up but Psyche stopped him.
“It is the Kraken,” she said. “He no longer obeys her.”
The soldier tried to push her behind his broad back but Psyche stepped forward. A tentacle as thick as her waist wound itself around her. She patted the rough, pitted skin. The tentacle withdrew and the Kraken submerged again, leaving behind luminescent streaks of disturbed plankton.
“You see?” she said. “Her allies are abandoning her. She is old and spent. She can no longer make the ocean brim with fish and the air thrum with birds. She has lost her own desire and cannot kindle the desire that keeps the world alive. I can!”
The soldier turned away from her.
“Yes, they left me on the mountainside, tied to a post. It was after the drought, the fire, and the famine; after the oracle made it clear the goddess of love was outraged at the upstart girl taking her place, and demanded a sacrifice.”
“A human sacrifice?”
“It’s done in Hellas.”
He snorted disapprovingly. They had slept briefly. Now there was a little graying in the east and she could see his face better: a hard face, lines like scars, the face of a man on speaking terms with death. But now Death was dead as well, Hades slumped on his black throne.
“After the first hour of weeping and cursing I decided I was not going to let her see my tears anymore.”
“To fight well you need to hate your enemy,” he said.
“I was bored. Seems strange being bored while you’re dying but so it was. I amused myself by watching the birds. Swallows, finches, robins. Only doves did not come. Well, they would have come later, together with vultures.”
The soldier nodded.
“I imagined myself growing wings and flying away. Then I must have fainted. But I saw the darkness in the sky, the winged shape coming toward me…”
She fell silent. The sky blossomed in sullen reds and pearly pinks.
“Why did he lock you up with nobody for company?”
“It’s not true!” Psyche cried. “He built a palace for me! It was a wonderful place, filled with pearls, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds! I had Smyrna figs to eat and Thessalian wines to drink! True, I had nobody to talk to because the slaves had their tongues cut out. But who needs talk when you have love?”
“You must have,” the soldier said dryly, “because according to the tale I know, you asked him to bring your sisters over.”
“I did not ask for them! He must have arranged their visit to please me.”
“Didn’t quite work out,” the soldier pointed out.
“It was my fault! I should not have listened to them! A fool’s words are poison.”
“What did they say?”
“They wanted to know who I was married to.”
“Rather natural, don’t you think so?”
Psyche turned away, pouting.
“Sorry,” the soldier apologized. “My manners are not great, I know, but when you spend most of your time with molten metal and burning fire you lose the knack of talking to ladies.”
She went on with her tale, even though something in what he had said nagged at her.
“They tried to convince me I was making love to a monster. I knew it was nonsense. The bedchamber was always pitch-dark, true, but I knew every inch of my lover’s skin. I could have picked him out by touch in a crowd of thousands.”
“It could have been an illusion,” he said.
“Of course. But my pleasure was not an illusion and neither was the baby in my womb.”
“Because I wanted to know. Oh, he talked to me. He refused to give me his name or tell me who he was but we talked. I did not have much to say then, a naive girl just out of my father’s house with vague dreams and unfocused ambitions. But he told me wonderful tales: about speaking flowers and singing bees; about strange slimy creatures at the bottom of the sea that carry imperishable flame in their flesh; about birds crossing oceans to find a home that no longer exists; about lovers separated and reunited. He was sweet and wistful. He was not like them, the other gods; he was born in their twilight and inherited none of their swagger and brutality.”
“So what did you do?”
“I hid an oil lamp in the bedchamber. And when he fell asleep I lit it.”
A feeble flame flaring in darkness and his face and body swimming up from the shadows. This redeemed it all: anger, frustration, fatigue, dingy inns, monsters and sunless days; they were all redeemed by that one moment of vision. If only she could make it the end of her story rather than the beginning…
“Did you scratch yourself on one of his arrows?”
“There are no arrows, it’s a superstition. My husband does not spill blood. A touch of his wings is all it takes.”
“Does he have wings? How could you possibly not know it while sleeping with him?”
“He was my first man,” Psyche shrugged, “how was I to know how it’s supposed to be? But they were so lovely, his wings: huge, soft and rosy-white, spread on the bed like a pile of Persian silks. I wanted to stroke them, to find out how they moved, to feel the muscles that roped them to his body.”
“But then a drop of oil fell upon his bare arm,” said Psyche, getting up and turning away to stare into the sea that was growing dim as clouds veiled the sky. “You know the rest of the story. How he was burnt and had to fly away, under his mother’s curse; how I followed him, swollen with my baby, to the abode of the immortals; how I faced my mother-in-law and forced her to set three tasks at the completion of which I would be reunited with my husband; how I fulfilled the tasks with the help of kind creatures, large and small—and trust me, it was not easy to haul the water of life in a bucket when my own water was about to break—and how the goddess had to wake her son from the enchanted sleep and allow him to embrace his wife; and how my divine daughter was born. I’m tired of talking. Do we have anything to eat?”
“So what are you doing here?” the soldier asked.
Psyche did not answer, squinting into the pearly space where the cirrus-shrouded sky and the gray sea melted into each other. It was marred by moving dots.
“Doves!” she cried. “We have to move!”
The soldier shook his head.
“These are gulls,” he said.
“Still,” she insisted, “we’re going to transit soon. We’d better be prepared. I don’t want to be stuck in a fifth-time zone again.”
“There are four times of day but there are zones in which a fifth is added. It is the worst: muddled and ambiguous, neither light nor darkness.”
The soldier started packing. She saw he was putting her spare clothing into his backpack.
“Hey!” she protested.
“You did not answer my question,” the soldier said. “In the tale I know you were reunited with Eros and accepted into the company of the immortals. The story was over. Finished. So how is that you’re here and alone?”
Psyche bit her lips, tasting the ocean tang of blood. What does it matter? She told herself.
“It’s the second time,” she said.
“The second quest?”
“Yes. I told you, she hates me. And when the other gods died—the Sky-Father and his wife Hera—there was nobody to restrain her. She is the Queen now. You see the results.”
“So she did it again?”
“Yes. Took my daughter, separated me from my husband, and sent me on a new search for him.”
The soldier straightened up.
“So,” he said, “you’re tramping from zone to zone, attacked by monsters, fighting giant birds, wearing those things—are they really glass? And all for this Eros, this boy wonder. And where is he? Hiding behind Mummy’s skirts on Olympus?”
“Shut up!” Psyche flushed with anger. “You have no right to speak of him this way. What do you know? You’re just a barbarian!”
“I may be,” said the soldier levelly, “but I know what I see.”
She turned her back on him. He came over and put his arms around her. Psyche buried her head in his shoulder, angry with herself for the tears that had always flown too freely, the heritage of the fierce temper tantrums of her childhood.
“Don’t cry,” the soldier whispered. “I love you.”
“Don’t say that!” she cried. “How long have you known me?”
“How long did it take you to fall in love with Eros? Do you even remember his face?”
She disengaged herself.
“We’d better go up the dunes,” she said without looking at him. “Transits are easier when you are on a higher ground.”
They trudged up the slippery sand slope and Psyche tried to explain.
“Eros and Hymenaeus have no father. She needed no male because she was a force unto herself, equal sister to Sky-Father. But now she has become a malicious tub of lard. The world has fallen apart because the force that binds it is no more.”
“‘The love that moves the sun and other stars.’ But Eros is Love. So where is he?”
Psyche grabbed his hand, pointing upwards. A jagged black line appeared in the sky. The line widened and the dune they stood on shuddered, sloughing rivulets of sand.
“Transit is coming!”
He hugged her hard, squeezing the breath out of her.
“We’ll go together!” he shouted.
And they did.
So this was the desert.
They stood in the wilderness of red stone under the lowering sky of purple and orange. The terrain was folded and wrinkled like the skin of an old animal and colored in the shades of drying blood. There was no sun; the light was heavy as if ready at any moment to congeal into darkness. Twisted spires of rock thrust from piles of rubble.
Somehow they had lost their clothes and all their belongings during the transit. They faced each other naked, a man and a woman. The syrupy light painted the soldier’s chest hair black and tinged Psyche’s body with rose. The glittering fragments of the glass shoes shone on the ground.
“My things!” she cried.
“You don’t need them now,” he said, “You’re coming with me.”
“I need to find my husband!”
“Your husband is dead.”
“Yes,” Psyche said. “He is dead because I killed him.”
Scarlet drops of blood like scattered jewels on the rosy wings… She turned away, staring into the furnace of the sky.
“He would not protect me. He would always take her side. He spent more time with her than he did with me and our daughter. I did not know you could kill a god. I wanted to teach him a lesson. But the gods were dying anyway…”
She felt the soldier’s hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll protect you,” he said gently. “You see, it’s all done now. Your quest is done. You are coming with me.”
“You’re not a god,” she said.
“I will make myself a god. Look!”
He spread his arms wide and a glow of liquid silver flowed over his body from his toes up, subtly changing his proportions, streamlining him, smoothing out the bumps and valleys of old scars, melting his arms and solidifying them into the elegant scythe shapes of narrow wings fringed with metallic feathers and then flowing over his face like a veil and covering it with the shining bird-mask, its sharp alien features washed with blood as it reflected the red light.
“Icarus!” she cried in recognition.
He inclined his head—the liquid metal of his body as pliant as flesh.
“My love,” he said.
She stepped back.
“No!” she said.
“I am Psyche. The Book of Gods has been scattered but one story still endures: the tale of Soul’s search for Love. As long as the story continues, there is hope. If I give up the sun will go out and the stars will fall from the sky. But if I find him, if I take his mother’s place on the golden throne, the world may still be restored.”
“He’s dead!” Icarus cried.
“When Death is dead, who is to keep him in the eternal darkness?”
“I can give you wings,” he said.
“I have wings of my own,” she said. “Yours will burn but mine will endure because they are the wings of desire. And desire never stops.”
A distant rumble started in the hills, coming closer, gathering momentum, and the earth shook, as if the enormous animal on whose hide they perched were waking up. Shards of rock flew, the sky darkened.
Psyche opened up her arms and sprang into the air, borne on the iridescent butterfly wings that sprouted from her shoulders as frail as a soap bubble, shivering in the violent wind. But they bore her up as the terrain underneath convulsed and shattered, gaping fissures crisscrossing the hills, converging upon the silver figure that stood still, his face lifted up to her.
“How do you know I am not him?” he cried.
Startled, she tried to bank, to turn back. But the wind picked her up and hurled her into the star-studded void over the clashing pieces of the world; of light and dark; of seas, cities, and deserts; of birds and fish; and dying gods and spawning monsters. Caught in the maelstrom, Psyche flew on, tears drying on her face.
Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. Her stories appeared in Apex Magazine, New Horizons, Mythic, and many other magazines, and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including Apex Book of World Science Fiction. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019).
She has lived in four countries, speaks three languages, and has two children. She is a member of HWA.
She can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter