Orfea wrestled Death so regularly that she resolved the activity must generate some income.
She faced two practical problems. The first was that Death looked absurd in wrestling shorts.
The second was the knotty question of how to make the match visible to her paying audience.
* * *
Although he had modeled the shorts, Death was generally unsupportive of her plan. He enjoyed the intimacy of their wrangles and felt that publicity would impair the integrity of his work.
“What about my work? I’m broke!” Orfea shouted.
“Poets everywhere are broke these days, it’s a shame.”
“But you’re so distracting, I can’t work!”
“Don’t I get something for my mortal soul?” Orfea blustered, pointedly ignoring his comment. “Isn’t that the deal?”
“It is not.”
“And what about Faust?”
“His deal was with the Devil. The Devil is imaginary.”
For all his intangibility, Death was very proud of his reality. Orfea had often heard him proclaim himself the “ultimate fact.” She herself was undecided about reality. It depressed her. “Why won’t you help me?” she pleaded. “You occupy my time: why? At least if I made some money from it, I’d see some point in our encounters.”
“You are my favorite.”
“If I was your favorite, you’d shower me with gifts.”
“My gifts are all around you.” Death gestured magnanimously.
Orfea surveyed her surroundings. Bleakness and Loneliness had tied ribbons around their necks and, for lack of a Christmas tree under which to squat, had squeezed next to a dying bonsai on the windowsill. Decrepitude was re-doing the paint on the walls. Professional Rejection had crouched on the card table where Orfea wrote and was drooling on drafts of her sonnets. Exhaustion was finishing the last of Orfea’s coffee that he’d warmed on the hot plate. Sexual Frustration and Deprivation of Love were lying on the fold-out futon.
Orfea grimaced. “I know what gifts are. I’ve read the Bible! King David had six hundred concubines! Abraham and Sarah had fertility in their nineties! God knows how to give so that you know you’re loved.”
“God is imaginary.”
“Love is real! If you love me, why don’t you treat me nicely?”
“Who loves you who treats you nicely?”
“So don’t ask stupid questions.”
“My older brother.”
“I will appear to you in the guise of your older brother.”
“Don’t.” She paused. “You’re just jealous that he looks good in wrestling shorts.”
Feathers were ruffled.
Death hiked the spandex higher around his pelvic bone in a gesture of annoyance. The shorts were red and hung emptily in space that should have been flesh.
For all his discomfort wearing the wrestling suit, however, Death was not insecure. He had no petty or mean qualities. Indeed, he was predominantly generous and loving, even compassionate and tender, but Orfea did not give him credit for these aspects. “Orfea, come to me,” he said, spreading his wings.
Despite the generally off-putting combination of bones and feathers, Death exuded an unexpected, confident sensuality to which Orfea was not immune. To see him prompted thoughts of cold, irritating, disturbing surfaces: hard edges and prickles. But to feel him was to know relief, safety, arrival, envelopment: en-wombment.
Or so Orfea gathered from the aftereffects. Shrouded in his wings, Orfea never failed to lose consciousness, or to revive in the billowy conditions that prevail after ecstasy: the heavy-lidded, slow-limbed, cottony roll through unbounded space.
But now Orfea wanted not the comfort of the senses, but the solace of answers. “Why make the effort?” she cried, declining his embrace. “There’s nothing for me in this world.”
“I am for you.”
The puzzle of Death’s answer left Orfea dumb. She wiped her face. “I don’t want to die. Do this for me. If I wasn’t so poor, I wouldn’t feel so forsaken.”
“Then you would have no need of me.”
“Only temporarily!” Orfea urged. “We are all servants of Death; it is only a question of when we are called to serve.”
“Now who is seducing whom?” Death asked, and Orfea could hear his smile even though, of course, it did not register on his face, lacking as it did lips.
“Say you’ll do it. We’ll get you a better outfit.”
The wings retracted. “Orfea, I am merely Death. I have the same limitations as any other law of nature. We have great power, yes, but notably little in the way of flexibility. Gravity would not be half so grave if it did not operate exactly the same way all the time, and even gravity – great as it is – cannot change its nature. As it is with gravity, so it is with me. I am invisible and helpless to be otherwise.”
“But I see you,” Orfea objected weakly, all the more so because, just then, he vanished.
“What is manifest in our intimacy cannot be broadcast at large,” came his voice, reverberating gently in the deserted space.
* * *
Intimacy was not the only condition that made Death manifest. Swamps would also do it.
Orfea knew this from her first encounter with Death, which had occurred in Louisiana. She had been there on a business trip – those many years ago when she took business trips. Between New Orleans, where she landed, and Baton Rouge, where she was headed, was what the locals call the bayou, but which she knew to be a swamp.
All that ambiguity: ground that was not ground, but water; lakes that were not lakes, but mud. All that life condemned and thriving and deformed in the ambiguity: stumps of damp tree knees, filaments of grey hair-like moss, aquatic lizards with the appearance of floating detritus.
Along with ambiguity, with things not being reliably as they seem, naturally came treachery. And beauty.
And of course Death. Pleasure and danger and uncertainty are incomplete without Death, and as long as Death behaves, it’s a party.
Death behaved himself that night.
Orfea had been driving a rental car through the bayou, but the lighting was poor, and she was tired. Outside Baton Rouge, she had checked into a motel and gone to sleep.
She awoke at 4:46 a.m. with a horrendous crunching echoing in her head. Liquid spilled onto the fingers that rushed to her mouth, and she ran to the bathroom.
The abrupt light made her wince, but she could still perceive that her mouth was not bleeding. The liquid was saliva. She had not shattered a tooth.
Standing before the mirror, the greenish-hued fluorescent bulb casting a dispiriting pallor on the cheap articles of the motel bathroom, Orfea remembered her dream:
She had been sleeping in a motel in Louisiana, on her back, her mouth agape, when Death had come to her. Hovering over her, he had lowered a skeletal finger into her mouth. Her jaws clamped shut, and she bit his finger off.
The aftershocks of the crunch still faintly present, Orfea confirmed that her mouth was free of bone. At a loss to explain the palpability of her dream, she watched her reflection for signs of fear or judgment. But the expression she caught on her face was open: she was intrigued.
* * *
As for Death’s one-on-one consultations, they might be his preferred forum, but Orfea felt certain that he made group appearances.
During her fifteen-minute morning coffee break, she left the gift shop where she helped with the museum’s book sales and inventory, and she walked to the gallery where Paul Gauguin’s “Vision after the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel)” hung.
She studied it for clues.
The more she analyzed the painting’s components, the more she doubted her idea. The spectators were devotees, not fans. The wrestling had been conjured spontaneously by their prayers, not by design. No one appeared to be paying for the event. And as Death would say – in fact did say as he materialized,
“Jacob and the Angel were imaginary.”
Orfea sighed. She glanced around the gallery and noted the several patrons. She knew from experience that she alone was privy to Death’s presence, but that her voice would be audible to all. She never appreciated his attempts at conversation in these circumstances, but the urgency of introducing a practical element into her sparring with Death, of making it pay, provoked her to respond.
Gesturing with her head at Gauguin’s “Vision after the Sermon,” she whispered into her hand, “Couldn’t we do something like this?”
For a creature without ear canals, tympanic membranes, cochleae, or any other apparatus of hearing, Death had impressive aural perception; but he nonetheless ignored her question: “I know Paul Gauguin.”
“He is not a role model in financial matters.”
“He would have been rich if he’d lived longer,” Orfea countered.
“So will you.”
Orfea frowned. She knew, as did Death, that the frequency of their encounters was not a harbinger of her longevity. But she hardly thought the time available to her significant. Four months, forty years – no time frame within the human life span seemed sufficient. She would never live enough, learn enough, or read enough to write poetry well enough to make money. Nor would her salary sidelines, as she thought of her various non-artistic career paths, ever enrich her: her decline from oil services industry engineer to art book clerk represented, she expected, a permanent diminution in earnings. She had exhausted her savings, and all her efforts to marry for money had been undermined by Fortune, which had allowed her profound love, but in small doses, and with financially ruinous men.
“Couldn’t we do something like this?” she repeated.
“I am not surprised by your attraction to Gauguin.” Death nodded. “He was very successful at commercializing the intimate. Or, I should say, the supposedly intimate. I think you’ll find that you must do what he did: make it up. The real intimate isn’t very sale-able. Too destabilizing, too non-linear, too indeterminate, too hard – never a crowd pleaser.”
Orfea exhaled with frustration. “You’re always so critical of me. But you never propose any constructive alternatives. And you’re wrong, anyway: I’m not meretricious. You make it sound like I’m trying to do something cheap and vulgar, when I’m actually struggling with the most fundamental philosophical question.”
“Oh, a philosophical question, is it?” Death ribbed her gently.
“Shut up,” Orfea snapped to hold back tears. “Why wrestle with you? I don’t want to do it, but I can’t not do it, so why not die? Why exist if existence is such a burden?”
“And selling your philosophical quandary to the many-headed will relieve your burden?”
“You’re just being provocative.”
“Exposure will only complicate your pain, and exposure is necessary for profit.”
“If it were a job, there’d be a reason! ‘I wrestle with Death because it’s how I put food on the table!’ And, yes, having food on the table would relieve my burden. It’s the only condition that’s within my control to improve!”
“You’re fixated on money,” Death pronounced.
“I am fixated on living!” Orfea objected. “But it’s too goddamned expensive.”
“Love greatly distracts from the costs.”
“What love?” Orfea demanded. “I’m dying for its lack.”
“I love you.”
“What can that possibly mean? I don’t want to die!” Orfea cried.
“So you can’t accept the love that exists for you,” Death chided tenderly. “I am hurt, but mostly to witness your pain.”
“Is destructive love better than no love?”
“Is death so bad?”
Orfea narrowed her eyes. “No,” she said simply. “Not with options like mine. That is why you come, and that is why you enjoy wrestling with me: because what you offer is the only paradise available, and I don’t want it. You enjoy taunting me because eventually I must acquiesce–”
“–Never. Never would I taunt you–”
“–so I concede. I don’t enjoy this fight as you do. There’s nothing here for me but loss. Allow me to profit, or end it now.”
Death was moved.
Orfea, by the way, was wrong in her analysis of his delight in their combat, for Death’s victory was not assured. Granted, of course, that Death would – at some future point – prevail over Orfea’s lifeblood, but such inevitability did not count for Death as a victory, merely as his function. Rather, Death stalked a different quarry: her understanding.
This pursuit was a fresh development in Death’s experience. Death hadn’t historically considered himself in need of understanding. He didn’t court it, and he minded not if it was withheld. Indeed, calumnies spread about him bothered him little. Even after “Death be not proud,” Death considered John Donne – when he considered him at all – merely someone he knew: no hard feelings.
Yet Orfea’s face had upended Death’s complacency. Of resentment, fear, fury, and resistance, he knew. He had witnessed humiliation, debasement, and misery. Both defiance and cowardice were familiar. All had left him unperturbed. But what woman interrupts a metaphoric rape-death with the snap of her jaws, and then looks at you with interest? The innocence of Orfea’s curiosity was unprecedented. She carried neither club for defense nor grudge about her violation. She wanted only to know the nature of the being that had entered her. Death was riveted.
And, as previously mentioned, Death was moved. If Orfea’s compassion drained, he would face failure, for the need she had ignited was not yet met. He was bound to her now and, like her, he must risk and relent to triumph. “Orfea,” he sighed, “you have so little regard for limitations. You ask what has never before been done.”
“I have limits, too,” she said softly.
“Are you sure you want what you ask?”
“Is your end not more properly fame?”
“Does fame pay?”
“Nothing posthumous is relevant.” Orfea ignored what might have been Death wincing, although reading his facial expressions was obviously a challenge without the normal indicators. “I want a life dignified by the income to pay for it. I want an income dignified by the work done to earn it. I want work dignified by a reason for its accomplishment.”
“You think if we wrestle publicly for a paying audience you will have that dignity?”
“I cannot accept this. You want, essentially, to be a carnival performer?”
“What a pejorative characterization–”
“–You want to be a wrestler of Death?”
“Will you grow a beard?”
“If you wear the wrestling shorts.”
“Even if I were able to grant your wish, the result would not be as you desire.”
“Will the result supply the rationale for our time together?”
“Will the result also be profitable?”
“Then that is my desire.”
“You have no doubt you’ll not look back from this moment?”
“Then,” Death said regretfully, “we must move forward.”
On returning fifteen minutes late to the museum shop, Orfea’s manager terminated her employment. Cited as causes were her perennial tardiness and frequent absenteeism, her oft-occurring soliloquies in front of the “Vision after the Sermon” and the upset they caused patrons. The word “unhinged” was used in conjunction with the word “poet.”
* * *
Death walked into a bar. Gravity was drinking alone. Death ordered a whiskey and bought Gravity another vodka. The bartender complained that Gravity had been bringing down the happy hour, and Death obliged by saying, “You’re killing me.” These social conventions dispensed with, Death addressed Gravity on weightier matters:
“These humans are tiresome.”
“Oh. I pay them no attention.”
“But you must get appeals! ‘Please, let my airplane fly.’ ‘I beseech you allow us to breach the atmosphere in our spacecraft.’ That kind of thing.”
“I have a black hole that handles those matters.”
“If only I had the luxury… I must deal with them myself. Admitting my powerlessness is always uncomfortable. They invariably want what I can’t grant, and I hate saying ‘no.’”
“It’s just discipline. You should be used to it by now. Do you have a cigarette?”
Death purchased a pack of cigarettes from the bartender and satisfied Gravity’s request. As he lit Death’s stick, the bartender complained that Death smoking a cigarette at the bar would ruin the establishment’s tobacco sales. Gravity inhaled with satisfaction and genially advised the bartender to F–(=G*[m1m2/r^2])–off.
“The worst part,” Death continued, savoring his cigarette, “is the way the attributes they project onto you seem to stick.”
“Anthropomorphization. It’s a bitch.”
“To think after all these millennia, I feel myself transforming under their scrutiny and expectations. What is that – that’s the observer effect, isn’t it?”
“You just need a vacation.”
Death stared at Gravity, and Gravity stared at Death, and then they both shared a hearty laugh. Neither had enjoyed a vacation since, well, the inception of the universe. The notion of a vacation was quaint.
“They observe you all the time,” Death remarked. “How do you stand it?”
“Oh, I just ignore them.”
“If you’re so immune to anthropomorphization, why are you smoking a cigarette?”
“My mother weaned me too early from breast feeding.”
And they laughed again.
“But you must,” and here Death rested his brow bone in his skeletal hand, “at least appreciate how hard they try to understand you and to describe you accurately.”
“Never occurred to me.” Gravity shrugged. “I just keep them grounded and don’t fuss with their physics. It’s all wrong, anyway. No point in discussing it.”
“I envy your detachment.”
“But you can’t care,” Gravity insisted. “Your case is hopeless. They’ll never understand you. They demonize you. Not one would believe that you’re the nicest of any of us irrefutable facts of reality. Take me, for instance. I’m an ass, I don’t mind saying. I’m stubborn: it’s my way, or find another universe! No reason to change, really. But you, you’re decent. You really care. That’s why you give their lives the only meaning they can have. But they’ll never see it. They can’t see it. You’re invisible.”
“I know.” Death nodded glumly. “And I just promised a woman I’d wrestle her in public before a paying audience.”
Gravity gaped. “You’ve gone and fallen in love, what?”
Death sighed sadly and slapped his other skeletal hand against his skull.
“There, there,” Gravity said, disapproval mixing with sympathy in his tone. “You’re just overworked. You’re imagining things.”
“Why must I be imagining that I’m in love?” Death muttered defensively. “Why can’t I evolve, just like every other being?”
“Because you’re not alive. You’re Death,” Gravity reminded him. “And if you didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have invented you. You’re not some construct they concocted to fill visceral needs–”
“–like God, exactly, who metamorphoses as their needs change. You’re immutable.”
“I don’t feel immutable.”
“Was not Pluto in love when he abducted Proserpina? Did not love power the song with which Orpheus mastered Pluto’s emotions and thereby persuaded him to release Eurydice?”
“–I know, I know: imaginary.”
“–a god, a projection of the human mind. He’s got nothing to do with you.”
“What’s happening to me?” Death moaned. “I’ve made a promise on which I cannot deliver.”
“Easily remedied,” advised Gravity.
“Have anti-invisibility devices been invented along with anti-gravity machines?”
Gravity smirked. “Just kill her.”
* * *
Orfea’s older brother, Naso, had no need of poetry readings. Poetry readings, after all, are merely the last resort of poets incapable of finding women elsewhere, and Naso had no need of finding women. They found him. He looked good in wrestling shorts.
He looked good on Roman promenades, in courtrooms and theaters, at racecourses and banquets. He looked good splayed across a bed. Even when Naso’s girlfriends found him splayed across their beds with someone else, male or female, their fury was always tempered by the pleasure his beauty afforded.
And he was generous. Older women as well as young came to him and received a welcome from which they arose rejuvenated. He befriended their husbands, advised their brothers, and wrote an advice column for a liberal free paper.
He regretted that his looks and his generosity were of such limited assistance to Orfea. She had beauty enough her own, and Byblis she was not: she appeared to be the planet’s sole female uninterested in his receptivity to taboo. He blamed her anti-depressants.
When, after her frantic call to him – she was broke again, he found her, heavy-lidded and slow-limbed, on her fold-out futon, he assumed barbiturates. No one, he wailed inwardly, was broke enough for the pharmaceutical industry. He cradled her, resisting relinquishing her, as he must, to call for emergency assistance.
But she revived, and when her breathing stabilized and her mumbling resolved to coherent speech, to his surprise, she announced a poetry reading. Her own.
“You’ve published a poem?”
“No, it’s just a reading.” She said it without resentment of his reminder of her failure to publish.
“At a…?” His resources failed him.
“At a what?”
“Poem store?” Naso was as yet unversed in bookish women.
Orfea smiled tenderly as she poured hot water over a used tea bag and proffered Naso the mug. “My darling…” She sat beside him at the card table. “…who would love you if I did not?”
“Am I so hopeless?” Naso asked agreeably.
“Yes,” she answered amicably.
“And all the declarations of love I receive, they are meaningless?”
“Superficial, yes.” Orfea detangled her hair with her fingers.
Naso observed her nostalgically. “Because they come to me in a bed rather than a library?”
“Because love depends on more than freedom from bodily pain and pleasures of the senses.”
“It does?” Experience had not tutored Naso in lessons of any elaborate complexity. Success is great idiot maker.
Now Orfea detangled his hair with her fingers. “Of course it does. Love must transcend ambiguity. A poor appetite for uncertainty extinguishes love and deprives us of the only infinite we may know – an inexhaustible curiosity to know what might yet happen.”
“What might yet happen, Orfea?” Naso took her hand from his hair and pressed it quickly to his lips. “To me?” he dared whisper as she rose and retracted her hand.
Smiling, she tugged at her shift and turned to face the cabinet that held what few articles of clothing she owned. “There is nothing in this world that does not change.”
* * *
Naso took her shopping so she might impress at her poetry reading. He treated her to four hours at a day spa, where she had a bath, shampoo, haircut, facial, manicure, pedicure, and leg waxing (they were efficient). He bought her expensive ash-and-saffron eyeshadow and oversaw its application at the cosmetics counter. He indulged her desire for a filmy, wrestling-suit-style chemise. He fed her grape tomatoes and olive oil, fresh ricotta and celery, oysters and smoked salmon, honey and figs.
That evening, with Orfea draped on his arm, standing on the red mat in the entryway of the Coliseum bookstore, Naso mused on the oddity that, only this morning, he had recognized that she was dying: now dusted in glitter, fragrant with essential oils, Orfea could rival any immortal.
Naso greeted the man in the striped jacket at the door and graciously paid for two tickets. Naso waved away all objections that the poet’s entrance must not be ticketed. He insisted on a donation.
Upstairs, the scene of the poetry reading was not as Naso had imagined it. Lecterns, book shelves, eyeglasses, folding chairs, orthopedic shoes, and snoring husbands had all figured in his fantasy, but none were present. The wrestling ring, its base a pine box, had been beyond his ken. The baying crowd – demanding blood – was unexpected. Nor had he anticipated the gallows in the corner.
“Poetry readings are high stakes,” he surmised. He could not entirely disapprove of hanging bad poets.
Naso felt no fear. Surely, he was witnessing theater.
What Naso witnessed after Orfea climbed into the wrestling ring remains a matter of debate. The human mind, lodge it in the breast or head, is readily duped: meditation and medication alike alter its accuracy. And, after all, as we all know, Jove is imaginary.
Yet Jove, or something Jove-like, was there. Not that any mind in the crowd perceived Jove, but who among them failed to hear the beating of wings, and feel the brush of feathers against their cheeks? Who escaped the flying shreds of the torn ropes, the stubborn taste of iron on the violated tongue? Who avoided burning shame for the wrestler in his absurdly fitting shorts?
Who forgot the stench after the inexplicable replacement of the poet’s older brother with a carrion lily?
And who did not tremble and prostrate themselves when the vanished poet resisted her own transformation long enough for her disembodied voice to reverberate riotously, chanting the verses she had become:
By Death – tormented with uncertainty –
I am unfurled by what I cannot know.
Death’s comfort lies in torment meant to be,
with my tormentor / mentor I do go.
His nature I beseech him me to teach,
Surprised, I feel his love and know his kiss.
A peaceful-violent pinnacle I reach,
I know not death, but metamorphosis.
Uncertainty I find I tolerate,
Joy snatched, postponed – the grief I cannot bear.
The cycle’s certainty I come to hate.
That joy will come again, I do not care.
A supplicant twins Hope and Fear do lose,
By Death’s love transformed into my own muse.
Maya Alexandri is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stockholm Review of Literature and The Light Ekphrastic. She is also an organizer of the Amplified Cactus performance art installation series in Baltimore, Maryland, US. She has lived in China, India and Africa, and has worked as an actor, lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and emergency medical technician. She is currently writing a novel and a cycle of short stories. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com .
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Orfea Wrestles Death”
We like stories that are different, and author Maya Alexandri has certainly given us that. It’s not the usual fare by any means. We loved the tongue-in-cheek humor here, and the conversation between Death and Gravity is particularly amusing. It makes one wonder whether Ben Franklin should have reconsidered the wording in his quote “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”