Orpheus in Hades: A Story

by KAY CICELLIS

1

IN THE beginning there was nothing. There was not even — as is sometimes the case before a face appears — a name, an announcement, some borrowed adjective or distant report to throw a seed of reality before the event, no matter how arbitrary. Perhaps that will in part explain what followed later: from the very first, that face owed nothing to me; I had no part in its creation.

And so there was nothing. Out of this nothing the face appeared; suddenly it was there. I first saw it at a party, in late summer. Ah yes . . . and now I remember, now I realize how frivolous it is to say there had been nothing before the event. Perhaps nothing is an impossibility. Thus I remember that there had been something after all: an idea, a notion, at the time of the face’s appearance; although I must admit that it was not prior to the event, but simultaneous with it. A resemblance — that’s what it was; a vague resemblance to a woman I had once known. So at first it seemed as if the face had not come out of the blue, but out of the past.

The resemblance, I think, lay in the shape of the head, especially at the back. The hair was rather short, a greenish yellow like unripe cornstalks, straight on the crown and unevenly, suddenly frizzy at the ends: a bad permanent wave. I recognized not so much the color and texture of the hair as the casual negligence with which it was worn — a negligence that contained not a trace of arrogance or waywardness—a good-tempered negligence which allowed this woman to do all the things women are expected to do to their hair — going to the hairdresser’s, etc. — while reserving herself the right not to bother about the results.

Watching her smiling contentedly, with her hair well behind her, I thought of that other woman I had once known and said: “How strange, I could have sworn she was in America.” But I was pretending; I knew this was not the same face. Yet fear, miles in advance, already made me cling to the one little thread which could have attached that face to some known context.

She came near me. I saw a turquoise earring, rather vulgar, in the lobe of her ear, between two stiff, distinct wisps of hair; and a golden tooth gleaming at the dark, inward turn of her smile— throwing an entirely new light on the matter. These I had never seen before—the earring, the tooth; they were too particular to be repeated. I had to give up pretending. I had to face the unknown.

Yet I still clung to my thread; only it was a different thread now: not resemblance, but comparison. “Now I see . . . the mouth is wider; and it puts a note of beatitude, a suspicion of stupidity which I could never imagine on the other woman’s face.” But at that very moment she stopped smiling, the looseness which let in the possibility of stupidity disappeared, and my thread was lost.

It was my last thread. After that, I floundered. I did not lose my head completely. Quickly, I hooked myself on to her eyes: gray and flat, quite shadowless, with a pale pink dot in the corner. When she turned her face to the light, the line of her lashes lost its emphasis and her eyes seemed weak and watery. But when she moved into shadow, the lashes resumed their role, giving the eyes proper contours, giving them a rawness which enlivened the whole face. Then I could see how long her eyes were, how pointed at the corners, and how they gave a meaning to her temples. Then I struck out for the eyebrows, with their white oily roots, so strong that the last hairs, where the eyebrow ended, curled like small wire hooks. Then the nose, and the chin, and the infinite variety of the skin. I was no longer trying to associate, to relate, but simply registered methodically — which is the process I usually follow when I want to understand (and conquer) an interesting picture at an exhibition of painting.

I even danced with her, putting my cheek against hers, in the hope that the sense of touch might help to complete my mastery over this interesting picture. But the moment my face touched hers, the moment my eyes were covered by her hair, I felt as if an insuperable obstacle had arisen between us and I had lost in one stroke all my painfully acquired knowledge. I could remember nothing; the face was gone.

“This is a stupid record, and the rhythm so heavy, so dull,” I said. “Let’s go and talk.” I moved her towards two armchairs in a corner of the room, made her sit down opposite me, exactly opposite, and quickly rewrote all my notes. I sighed with anticipation. “Soon it will be all over; I will have got the better of it. I will take my notes away with me; and I shall reconstruct her face in my mind whenever I wish, whenever my imagination requires some small plaything to exercise itself upon. Soon . . . soon, it will be over. I am already getting slightly tired, I might even say bored.” But I am conscientious by nature, and decided to finish the job.

By midnight, when the party began breaking up, the face was at last completed. Each detail had been assimilated, each position marked. I was about to turn away, contented and full, when I noticed that a new process was now taking place, mysteriously, without my participation: the details were merging together into a whole; they began working upon each other, influencing and altering each other in a continuous and fluid interplay. The eyes spoke to the mouth, the nose prompted the cheeks, the forehead fought with the eyebrows, and vice versa. The face was indeed completed. It was alive. It was unique.

Eurydice’s face had at last come into its own.

2

Eurydice’s face was not a picture; I soon grew convinced of that. I had to go back to it, again and again. “Am I in love with Eurydice?” I wondered. And my mouth went dry, for in that case my plight was horrible indeed: I was in love with Eurydice, yet I had nothing but her face to go by.

I depended on it utterly. I turned to it like a sunflower. I hardly ever kissed her, so as not to lose sight of it. Or when I did, I kept my eyes open, roving anxiously over her own closed eyes, her attentive forehead, her nose, slightly squashed by the pressure of the kiss, exasperated that I could not see more, thinking only of those parts of her face which my mouth kept concealed. My hand acquired a habit of always gripping her hair at the back, and tilling her head upwards to me. I often hurt her in doing this. Then she would wrinkle her nose and bare her teeth, so that I could see the color of her gums. And I would grow so absorbed in this new aspect of her face, this fresh transformation, that I would forget to free her from my grip, although God knows I loved her and had no wish to harm her.

1 turned to her face like a sunflower. I followed it in all its movements, questioned it untiringly.

It was not a particularly beautiful face. But delight or repulsion were as alien to my contemplation as they are to a man looking at a map. The unattractive features of her face—for instance, the small, white, hard liver-spots that spattered her left cheekbone — were as important to me as her eyes, or her nose, whieh were often beautiful. They fascinated me with equal intensity.

No, it was not a particularly beautiful face. It was not an enigmatic face either. It expressed her emotions unambiguously, without any unusual wealth of nuances: smiling when she was pleased, darkening when she was cross, thinning out when she was afraid, and so on.

It was an ordinary face. But there it was: I had nothing else to go by.

I tried to make her talk. I listened attentively, trying to find in her words some other reality which would free me from the narrow boundaries of her face. I tried to make contact with whatever lay behind her face. But — perhaps because her words, too, were very ordinary—what she said could only reach me through her face. Her face was the constant interpreter, the ever-present mediator. When she said she loved me, it was not really her actual words or the expression she put into them, but the tiny bubble of saliva which burst upon her lower lip as she spoke that finally made me grasp what she had said. And when she spoke of other matters, of her difficulty in understanding a book, or her dislike of a certain friend, I had to count the lines between her eyebrows, the number of times she flicked her eyelids before I could understand the difficulty or the dislike and give her a sensible answer.

I tried listening to her with my eyes closed. It was as if I had suddenly gone deaf. The words flew about the room with the inconsistency of flies: making sudden leaps, jumping over each other, colliding, running away, or simply falling, falling. Sometimes they even seemed to be coming from different parts of the room. The lines of her jaw — with the help of her chin — alone were capable of making a complete sentence; the twitch of her eyebrows alone capable of placing an adjective in its right place.

I could not believe anything she said unless I looked at her first.

On the other hand, there were times when her face, her silent face, offered me meanings and intimations far more important than anything that could be told in actual words. Sometimes these intimations were not even about herself; they were unrelated to either of us. They belonged to some other, rarefied sphere, had the taste of things which have never been put into words. There were times when her pallor had a cosmic significance, when the nakedness of her temples pointed the way to a religion; and certain evil distortions of her face reflected the division of stars, ancient destructions reverberating without end.

These were only glimpses; but glimpses which could reach me through Eurydicc’s face alone.

3

ALL the time that I lived with Eurydice, I was only separated from her once. That was when I had to go to Thrace on business.

I was absent a week. Strangely enough, I did not think of her at all for the first three days. Then on the fourth day I evoked her: Eurydice, Eurydice — hoping that the four syllables would form a pattern of their own, a linear, inhuman pattern which would owe nothing to the geometry of a human face. But the syllables fell away in a circle and framed the face of Eurydice like the letters on a coin. And on this round coin her face remained stamped during the rest of my stay in Thrace, unchanged.

This afforded me a certain peace of mind. Washing my face in the morning, drinking wine, or lying in bed, the stamped face governed me unadventurously, like the sun over my head. I did not dare question this fixity; I did not dare listen to the voice which said that life is made of more current stuff, and that one may only write a name on the edge of the sand. I clutched my coin and cried triumphantly: “Eurydice! I remember you!” My memory held her; her existence was no longer restricted to the narrow spot which her body occupied on earth.

When I returned home, I found her sitting in an armchair with a book on her lap. She was not reading, her face was turned to the window. Seen from the door, her face was as I expected it: the profile on the coin, the straggling hair, the long pointed eye, the nose and chin, centers of her pallor; the chin, which was rather weak in profile, but when seen from the front was delicate as the tip of an egg.

She turned to me. “Hoilo, welcome home,”she smiled. The roundness of her face struck me like a blow. It was as if I had never seen it before. Yet there had been no break in the lines of the eye, nose, and chin as her head turned from profile to front. They had flown on smoothly, like a pencil across a globe, so that I could still see clearly, in her full face, the markings of the coin I had treasured. Yet this face was unlike anything I had imagined. It was unique; it was alone.

Oh, I nearly went into a frenzy then. I cried to her to go away. I called her back.

I tried everything, everything. I tried changing her face. While looking at her I would imagine her hair black instead of yellow. I would remove her turquoise earrings, hide her cars. I would give her thin, arched eyebrows. I would change the order of her teeth — hoping that in this revolution some stable element would survive, some intangible essence which ordered form had kept hidden from me. It was no use. In spite of their fluidity, the features of her face were chained together by a power stronger than reason or imagination.

I tried photographing her — in every attitude, in every light, in every mood. Then 1 spread the pictures on my desk, fan wise, and examined them passionately, hoping to put my finger on the missing link. I never found it. The photographs fitted perfectly together, but Eurydice was not there.

On our wedding night, Eurydicc had turned off the light, smiling—and I had cried out aloud in fear. I had thought, then that it was because I did not know her well enough. After that, we kept a lighted candle by our bed, so that I could look at her before dawn.

One night I fell a strange nostalgia for that first fear of darkness. It attracted me like a necessary evil. It stood before me like a sealed door: I knew it was the only way open to me. “Eurydice,”I begged her faintly, “put out. the light now.”

All night long I held her to me in the darkness. Her body was a beautiful, mute surface. “ Eurydicc, come close to me, Eurydice, speak to me,”I said, but it was as if all my other senses — with the exception of my eyesight—although functioning perfectly, were in no way related to me. They worked on their own, brought me no harvest.

Yet I did not light the candle. My eyes were so tired. I had lived on them so long. Day after day, night after night, they had used themselves in a huge and futile task — bringing me my daily bread, my daily crumbs of Eurydice. And now they were terribly tired.

“Why wasn’t I blind when I met you?" I cried to her. And I had a wonderful vision of a Eurydice diffused in every particle of dust, a Eurydice existing simultaneously in every room of my house — in every place on the map; a Eurydice who would speak to me from the east or the west, north or south, but whom I would always hear as if she spoke within my own immense and invisible head. She would envelop me like air, or she would become a little, little grain sunken bright in the well of my being. Perhaps I would not even be aware of her, because I could be where she was, and she where I was, and there would be no way of knowing the difference. Perhaps I could even be Eurydice. . . .

I saw the dawn coming and hated it for the first time, and longed for blindness. “Perhaps if I keep my eyes closed long enough,” I thought, “I shall find Eurydice.”

4

AND yet when the moment came, I had to look back.

During the long, long ascent towards the light of the day, I felt her walking steadily at my back and could not set her free in the darkness. Like an evil stain, I rubbed and rubbed at the consciousness of her presence at my back. But it would not go out.

Perhaps if they hadn’t placed that torch in my hand ... I held it shaking, for long hours, knowing its terrible power: the power to make Eurydice’s face visible to me, to show me whether she was glad to be coming back with me after her mortal illness, to show me whether her absence had altered her. I called to her desperately as I walked, my eyes fixed on the fatal torch, I questioned her. But her voice came to me muffled; perhaps because of the great depth of the regions we were crossing.

And so the moment came when I had to turn round and look upon her face once more.

For I had nothing else to go by.

Eurydice’s face was taken away from me — shattered to bits by a hand grenade, or some other infernal machine, what does it matter? Now it is gone, nowhere to be found. During the days that followed the explosion, I kept a picture of her in my mind. It was beautifully vivid, but I trembled in my heart, remembering the fixity of the false coin of Thrace. Yet I clung to it all the same, because it was all I had.

Then even this solitary picture began to disintegrate. Her hair lost its greenish tinge and became long and wavy, beautiful. I knew I was lying, lying, but I could not help it. Then even the beautifulness fell to bits. She lost her earrings, her ears, and her nose, and her chin. They did not go at once, but for a time kept appearing and disappearing — and I like a mad shepherd trying to gather his sheep. Until they were gone for good. I found nothing behind them: only a white canvas.

Now I still have her eyes — they are gray, blue, green, sometimes brown . . . and utterly meaningless. Soon there will be nothing left at all; and the white canvas will merge back into the wall.