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Awarded: 11 May 2002

TRUE LIES: All X:WP characters are not mine. No copyright infringement intended, no profit gained.

LAME: So it took me almost a year after the fact to write a post-FIN piece. You shouldn’t be surprised.

NOTE: For the sake of consistency with the epigraph I used Wilde’s archaic (and perhaps just weird) spelling of John the Baptist’s name.

THANK HEAVEN FOR BETA GIRLS: governal did beta duties on this one.

EMAIL: viviandarkbloom@hotmail.com

 

APPETITE

vivian darkbloom

 

Salome: …I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion.

—from Salome, Oscar Wilde

 

 

 

 

When I danced that night, I imagined dancing only for him. I knew that if he saw me move, if he saw my body set in motion purely by love of him, then he would renounce all his beliefs, his God, his savior, his comrades. If only I'd had the opportunity. I would have tied my scarf around his throat, tethering him to me, yoked in an impossible bond. He would gorge himself on my love. I would be his only appetite.

This passion I felt when first I saw him was so deep that I imagined it had no real beginning. It emerged—fully formed, monstrously born—as Athena from the skull of Zeus (if I may be forgiven in using the barbarian gods of the Greeks in this analogy); one would expect such love to prove all-consuming. And yet, I would have been content with a mere kiss, a mere touch. He glowed, holy and pale, slim as an exotic figurine, unlike any man I had ever seen. And when I did touch him, the world suffered in comparison. The silk that I revered was no longer the expensive clothes I wore, but his skin.

But he resisted me, he rejected me. Ridicule curled from his tongue. The root of it all proved to be the sickening sham of his religion. I wanted to kiss him. I begged him for that. Begged. Had I ever begged anyone for anything before? Did I even need to? Still, he refused.

I didn't know what else I could do. And thus, here I am.

* * *

There is a great deal of confusion as to what my fate will be. My name embraces infamy but the woman behind it all is forgotten. They remember the dance and the act that followed. That's it. Many assumed I was killed immediately afterward; of the stories that circulate, that is the most prevalent ending. Perhaps it would have been better that way, because right now I sit in a cell, alone, clothes drooping in filthy finery from my body, youth falling from my bones.

Herod comes to me at night. No, I am not imagining it, and no, it's not what you think. Even though I would give it to him now if he wanted it, I would give it to him because it doesn't matter any more. In fact, it seems fitting somehow; why else did he ask me to dance for him? It all began with his appetite for me, which mocked his marriage to my mother. It seems only right that it would end with him taking what he had wanted. And while I am now like spoiled meat to him, his hunger remains. It brings him back to me. He wakes every morning because of it. He can't solve the riddle of his appetite. So he comes to me, always surprised that he is drawn to me, always surprised that I am still the same woman he detests. He speaks with me from behind the safety of the cell door; he asks what he should do with me.

Admittedly, it is rather considerate of him to ask.

"Set me free," I said last night, as I always do.

His thick, nervous swallowing was the initial response. "I can't," he finally replied.

We go through this every time he visits me. As usual, I grew bored and exasperated with him. "Well," I sighed, curling the edge of my tattered skirt in my hand, "whatever you do, don't kill me." As if this off-hand reminder will guarantee my life. Yes, Tetrarch, meet with your advisors after breakfast, review your troops, sign some bits of paper raising taxes, oh, and by the way, make sure you don't kill me today. All right? Fine, that's all then. Have a good day.

Herod was silent for a while on the other side of the heavy door—as vast a boundary as another country—and I would have thought that he left, except that his torch remained flickering outside the cell.

Then he spoke. "You'll have a surprise later."

He almost sounded pleased with himself, like a wife who has arranged and planned an elaborate dinner for her husband. "I must go."

The light vanished, and I could hear the sound of his soft tread trampled underneath rattling keys, clanking armor, and thumping boots.

It is still dark when I see light dappling the hall outside once again. The door opens quickly and a figure is tossed in, like a sack of potatoes. In the flash of light I can tell it's a boy, wearing a gray cloak. He grunts as he hits the floor. Does he think that he's alone? He must, for he says nothing. His heavy breathing is pinched into silence like a candle's flame extinguished between thumb and forefinger. Is he dead? It occurs to me I could check. It also occurs to me that I could be run through with a dagger for such curiosity. I decide to wait for morning.

The night dances for me. Every minute passed is a veil falling away from my sight.

In the clarity of morning, which makes everyone look older anyway—thank God I don’t have a mirror— I see that my boy is actually a woman—small, sturdy, well built. Obviously a warrior of some kind, who has lived hard. I see it now in her face. Even in her dirty, disheveled state, her short blonde hair gleams like grain under the sun. There is a wound upon her thigh, deep and slashing, like a bloody mouth. Her open cloak reveals a bare midriff mottled with fresh, darkening bruises the color of plums.

She breathes.

However, she does not wake when the door is opened and food brought in. Water in a jug, half a loaf of bread, two bowls of thin broth. The broth, I know, is a special treat.

I nibble at some bread and watch her. Her lips, dry and cracked, move a little as she sleeps. It occurs to me she might be Amazon, even though word has been that the Amazons are a dying nation, decimated by the Romans and any man who hates women enough to kill them. And the world has never seen a short supply of those. Perhaps the surprise here is that the Amazons have existed for as long as they have. I think of Herod and what he might still do to me. It occurs to me, sometimes, to wonder why I live, why I want to live. Force of habit? Fear of the unknown?

No. If I die, I will lose him somehow. And even though there are moments when I can't bear to even think of his name—like right now—the thought of this permanent state of oblivion is even more unbearable.

Lost in these morbid thoughts, I nearly relieve myself when she sits up, feral and panting, apprehensive as a panther. Her hands claw the earth floor, muscles ripple along her torso and neck.

Her eyes are an extraordinary color. They take in me, the cell, the door, and finally, the food.

She looks at me again. It's tempting to knock over the food, the water, and dance about the cell in a frenzy. If I doubt her mercy now, then surely such an act would see my neck snapped with bare hands; her savage look impresses me that much. But a laugh—short, terrified, defiant—escapes me. She stares at me curiously. What shall she do? Beat me? Rape me?

I squirm across the cell, the disgraced hem of my dress trailing me like a mute supplicant—and when I open my mouth, expecting mocking, laughter, or even a simple protest at this invasion of my hovel, nothing comes.

Her eyes, softer now—there is a tint of hazel warmth in them—never leave me. Slowly she picks up the water jug and drinks from it. Her lips, now damp, look better—I can focus on their softness. I will kiss you, Iokanaan, I will bite your lips like ripened fruit. And I did. I kissed your lips. No more.

No more.

She rips a hunk of bread, and attacks the broth as well, dipping the crust into the bowl. She starts off eating greedily, quickly, then becomes aware of this and paces herself accordingly. Nonetheless she finishes off most of the loaf and a bowl of broth.

Food is a civilizing influence—or so I hope. Gradually I creep back to her. But she is still as blasť as an untamed cat, barely tolerant of preliminaries in a combat that she is certain to win.

I've never been what one would call a nice person. I don't do things just out of the goodness of my heart. I've done things to achieve my own goals, to keep happy those who will keep me happy. How this might benefit me, I don't know, but I find myself pushing the second bowl of broth in her direction, cautiously navigating the bowl with the tip of my finger as if she were my north star, the highest point in my compass.

She's suspicious, of course, and raises an eyebrow. After all, I've done nothing thus far to indicate I'm trustworthy.

Does she think it's poisoned? I dip my finger in the bowl, then lick it. Her brow furrows but she accepts the bowl. This too she drinks slowly.

When she is done, she looks at me again, then clears her throat. "Thank you." Her voice is soft and husky. If it were a fabric, it would be worn linen. She sits the bowl on the tray and fixes me again with those eyes. "Who are you?" She is wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. I knew it—a peasant girl. But could this be a rhetorical question, a metaphysical question that I hear, unfurling from the tongue of this solid Amazon peasant-warrior-whatever she is? Is she a great philosopher in disguise?

No. She clarifies her question: "What's your name?"

"What's your name?" I counter almost playfully, quite a radical departure from the piss-inducing fear I experienced earlier and so I heartily congratulate myself on it.

She smiles a little, which goes a long way in sloughing years off her face. "I asked first," she reminds me gently.

"Yes, you did, didn't you?" I stare at my hands, watch the fingers of my right one twirl and gavotte upon the stage of my left. "I danced for the King of Judaea." I pause, allowing her to take in this information. "That's all you need to know, really."

Her lips part, and the shadow of recognition falls upon her face. Was she informed of my act before she was placed in here? Or did she know my story before setting foot in our country? Has the news of my deed spread across the known world? Perhaps it's not surprising; a severed head is always a good story. No. I will not think of this. I will not think of this now. No more, Iokanaan. As they severed your head I severed my lust. The moment I took your head was the moment I threw it all away—freedom, desire, you, the whole bitter entanglement of it.

I am a little disappointed in my guest: She is neither enraged nor repulsed. She pities me, I see. So this grand gesture of love earns nothing more than a small, petty emotion? And it was wasted, so marvelously wasted, upon you as well, was it not, Iokanaan? From which simple-minded tribe does this blonde barbarian come from? "Are you an Amazon?"

"Yes. An Amazon Queen," she adds quietly.

Runt of the Amazon litter, most likely. "You?"

She smiles again. "That's not an uncommon reaction."

I cannot control a snort of laughter. It's really undignified, but I am sitting on a dirt floor in a prison with some barbarian who has the audacity to lie to me, so I feel no shame in it. "Well! How shall you prove it to me?"

"I don't know. If my word isn't good enough for you, what is there? Do you expect a tiara?" She gestures at her lithe body, her cracked boots, her dirty cloak.

"They should give you something." A piddling act of kindness for the day: I am outraged for her.

"There's a mask, a staff...." She trails off, shrugs, as if she can't be bothered to even mention them. These things—marking her as royalty, distinguishing her from the mud and blood of the masses—are apparently unimportant to her. It confirms that she is either a liar or a madwoman.

"And what is your name, Amazon Queen?" I struggle not to sound mocking; obviously, behind those alert eyes, is a quick mind. And the smarter the barbarians are, the quicker they are to anger.

Yes, I see she is not amused. "Gabrielle."

But this is too much. I burst out laughing. Initially she appears quite angry, yet just as rapidly as that anger appears it's gone, replaced by some sort of rueful resignation. "Named after the great Greek bard, then?" When I was young, my mother told me stories of the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard. Sometimes ambition got the better of me and I had mother’s slaves enact various scenes from the scrolls she read to me. My directing career ended after a somewhat disastrous attempt to stage the famous ladder fight between Xena and her nemesis Callisto; my Xena—a portly eunuch named Ashurbanipal—fell and broke his neck. Mother was quite cross. Ashurbanipal was one of her favorites.

No matter.

But now I have a real live Gabrielle! How exciting! Her jaw shifts, and she speaks carefully. "I suppose you wouldn't believe it if I told you I am that Greek bard."

"No, I wouldn't. I'm not that foolish, dear." I pick up the water jug—a disgusting old stone pitcher—and try to sip from it without the foul rim actually touching my lips.

Again, she shrugs.

As if I am some idiot in a tavern, confronted with an even bigger idiot who refuses to see common sense, I cannot resist her indifference. I slam the pitcher down on the ground. "So you would have me believe you are the Gabrielle of Poteidaia, chronicler of the Warrior Princess, Amazon Queen and warrior?"

"Yes. Believe it or not."

"Oh—and I neglect to mention—also the lover of the same Warrior Princess." I throw out that salient little fact, to see if she really has the stomach for this charade, even though all Amazons are said to go in for that sort of thing. The stories my mother told me, of course, were not explicit in that manner, but only a fool couldn't see what was going on, threaded in the lines of the stories.

"Yes." This she affirms emphatically, without hesitation, obviously caring that I believe, more than anything else she has said, that she is the beloved of the great Xena.

"I see."

Her eyes flare at that. But as she shifts her leg, she winces. There is a small shoulder bag—a pouch, really—visible from under the cloak. She pulls a piece of cloth out of the bag and sloppily binds the thigh's wound.

"So where is she?"

She must know her task is useless; she needs stitches. Nonetheless, she is immersed in it. "Hmm?"

I know the "hmm" so well—its artifice of stalling, like a note grotesquely trilled by a flute, cloaked as absentminded condescension. Does this intense, focused creature really have no idea of whom I speak? Dear Gabrielle, I am fond of you already. I will play along, I will trail behind you, pied piper of oblivion. "Xena. Where is Xena?"

"She will come for me."

"But you don't know where she is."

She is pulling tightly on the bandage, lips pressed together in fierce concentration, strangling her own flesh—the skin around the bandage is whiter than the cloth itself.

I cross my legs daintily, suddenly demure in front of this woman. Her animal vitality seems to drain me of my own sensuality; I am unsure of my own beauty, clumsy and plain as a cow, thinking that any man in the world may very well pick this unwashed savage over a princess, a daughter of Herodias. "Are you so sure?"

"Am I so sure of what?" Her voice is harder.

"That she'll rescue you. Maybe she's—"

She looks up—quite effectively silencing me—and suddenly I believe everything. There is so much in that one glance—more than I have ever been spared by anyone close to me—that I see the story of her life there, the story I became so familiar with in my youth. She is the child in love with words, the girl who wanted adventure, the misfit who wanted love, the seeker of a divine truth, the woman who found her soul, the survivor who lost it all. As water becomes snow, mist, torrential rains, she is all these things, yet fundamentally, elementally, she remains herself. If I can see this, then anyone who has ever loved her will recognize this.

"No."

She is stretched over the wounded leg, poised like a diver in some strange position, pouring her body, her belief into that one syllable.

The sun mimics this gesture; light gradually fills the cell from the high, barred window.

"She will come for me."

* * *

A healer arrives later in the day. He cleans her wound and stitches it. She bears it with the stoicism of someone who has not only been cut with a sword many times, but has also repeatedly tended to such injuries in others. She is given some sort of medicinal tea. Then she falls asleep.

She sleeps into the evening, as darkness layers itself upon us. Usually I wait until the cell is black with night before I waste lighting the meager candle that I possess. Herod permits me to have this light; it's a liberty that I don't take lightly. I roll the candle between my fingers—cold, white, almost glowing in the dark.

It reminds me of his skin. When I first touched him he flinched, as if I were the Whore of Babylon. In fact, he called me that—daughter of Babylon. To her credit my mother was amused. But I wasn't. I was a virgin. I suppose I still am, though I feel he took something away from me. He soiled me with his rejection. He, who fought desire, who hungered for nothing but his God, ruined me. I want to tell him that. I want to tell him how ironic it is, how, even in death, he is not pure of flesh. He corrupted me.

But I can't do that.

The shift of her breathing—from pacific calm to jagged wave—startles me. She is awake, perhaps escaping from a dream that, surprisingly, is worse than the black reality of a prison cell.

"Are you still there?" Her voice is plaintive, childlike, and divorced from the image of the commanding, dangerous woman I first saw this morning. Who does she think she speaks to? Me? Her lover?

I could say nothing. But I don't. "Yes."

She says my name with a beckoning softness.

He never said my name in this manner. In fact, he never said my name. If your beloved never speaks your name, do you cease to exist? "What?"

She asks one simple, horrible question: "Why?"

My voice is my only shield, my only protection, but she will be relentless, I know. "What do you ask?"

"Why did you do it?" she croaked.

A dangerous question. It makes me think. I detest that.

"You killed what you loved."

"No."

"But yes. You did. You did not perform the act itself, but it was your wish, your desire which brought about what happened to him."

"No. I don't believe that."

"Your desire had consequences."

"No."

She sighs. I clear my throat and grope for the water pitcher, almost empty. "I did not kill him. I merely asked for his head. I killed my hunger for him, for his love."

"But don't you see, it is as if you took the sword and"—she falters, choking on the mere thought of it—"killed him yourself. Don't you see? Do you think it's what he really wanted?"

"But I could have given him everything he ever wanted, everything he ever needed."

"Do you really believe that?"

There is such yearning in her voice as she tries to convince, to blanket us both in her confusion. She pretends that she does not comprehend the mysteries of appetite and the lengths a woman will go in order for satiety.

Or does she? "But it didn't really—stop, did it?"

His lips were so thin. And—when I kissed them—so cold. I wanted to taste his holiness.

It was too late that I discovered this amaranthine aspect of appetite, its constant renewal, unbending, unyielding, undying. And she too knows this. While I am grateful for the mask of night that hides my face, I cannot help but believe that she sees me with total clarity. Like an arrow her voice seeks out my heart and pierces it; she touches my shame.

I don't light the candle.

* * *

The days and nights blend as if I am dancing, faster and faster, out of control, helpless, spinning wildly, a dervish of time. The black of night and the glare of day are swirled into a fine gossamer web of gray. This world is perpetual twilight to me; I will always remember it as such.

At the behest of the healer—presumably in the interest of keeping clean the wound—she is permitted an opportunity to bathe. In privacy, away from the cell. When was the last time I saw my own bath chamber? My attending slaves, the water sheeting down my body, the glint of bath salts upon the water like the finest jewels?

I thought—since her arrival—that perhaps my nocturnal visits from Herod had permanently ceased; this is not the case. He capitalizes upon her absence to visit me in my enduring twilight. So clever, Herod! And so needy. I have poisoned your heart, clouded your mind, sickly sweet, with forbidden honey.

"So what do you think of her?" His whisper is as thick as fog. I can taste his breath in the air: a ripe susurration of wine and fruit dangling before me, a mockery of the life I once had, all of it just out of reach, as if I am Tantalus. (Ah, again, the barbarians and their legends. They do tell a good tale.)

"Interesting."

He laughs. "And is that it?"

"Well, she is mad, Tetrarch, surely you see that. You must feel that."

"Oh. Oh yes. Of course."

"Yes. You know."

His mocking, almost jovial tone dissipates quickly. "I know nothing anymore," he hisses. "Love is hate, pleasure is pain, life is death, fidelity is sin. You have changed everything—everything. Surely you see that." He flings my words back at me. "The omens. I should have heeded the omens that night. There was blood upon the floor. I slipped in it. Do you recall? No, of course you don't. But I slipped in it. I was marked by blood. And there was the moon, so full, so clear, so—wanton in its movement across the sky, like a woman seeking a lover. And then the wind, like a terrible beating of wings, like a bird struggling for freedom—"

He goes off like this every once in while. It's tedious.

After a while, he comes around again to the subject of Gabrielle. "So you think she's mad?" He is incredulous.

"Madness is other people, Tetrarch."

"Yes," he replies slowly, "it is true, is it not?" He grunts as he stands; I can hear the click of his jewelry as he moves. "You should enjoy her company then. And she will enjoy yours. I make a gift of her to you. She is your companion. For as long as you both rot in that cell."

"Until I die?"

"Until you die."

"Do you give your word? Your oath?"

Talk of oaths—like talk of omens—will bring him back to that night, the night that I danced for him. He swore he would give me whatever I wanted. Could a king break an oath? I found out. "What is it," he begins—the wonder of it all spills over in his voice—"that I ever saw in you?"

I want to hack through his simple, stupid neck with the dullest knife I can find.

"Give me your word, Herod, as you did the night I danced for you."

"No, you filthy whore, not again."

"Give me your word."

"You're a cunt. He was right about you. And the Nazarenes, they were right about him. For he knew. He knew right away what you are. You are as common as mud, every inch of you is corrupt."

"Give me your word."

"Why does it matter so much to you?"

"Give me your word."

He stops, breathless, then releases a cry; it’s a crack of lightning across a humid summer sky—clear, aching with promise, all too brief. He speaks as a broken man. "I give you my word."

"How kind of you," I reply. "How very kind."

* * *

The heat of the day is lost upon us. From the barred window, so very high that only a trio of tall acrobats could reach it, there is morning, clear and strong, offering only a stingy benediction of light.

She stares up at the window. Then she paces in a circle around the cell, looking at corners, touching walls, and once again gazes to the window.

What follows is even more peculiar, and performed with such astonishing quickness that I wonder what I missed when I blinked. She begins to run in a circle around the cell, faster and faster, gathering speed until she leaps onto one wall, ricochets to another, and from there launches herself at the window.

Her hand, splayed against the dun-colored wall, narrowly misses the ledge by a scant inch.

Then she is sliding down the wall and crashing to the ground, where she lands before me, awkwardly on bended knee, like a suitor from heaven.

But my suitor bleeds! Is this how the Amazons romance one another, dear Gabrielle? Opening their wounds and revealing their hearts floating upon a river of blood? Her stitches are ripped, her mangled flesh oozes red into the dry dust upon her leg. Her expression trembles as she struggles to maintain her warrior demeanor, her cherubic lower lip quivers endearingly.

Of its own accord, my hand reaches for her hair, but then wavers, battling the foreign sensation of compassion. Of course, it is not so far removed from mercy, and that is what I gave to you. I saved you from a lifetime of loving me. From the filth, the banality of a day-to-day life, of flesh touching, of time passing, of watching my beauty dry up like a dead flower. You had nobler goals in mind.

The blonde hair is thick, coarser than I imagined, yet my fingertips create eddies upon its bright surface. "I did give him what he wanted."

Her beautiful eyes, glazed with pain, cannot quite focus on me. "What?"

"It is easier to die than to love."

She close her eyes to this. I drop my hand.

I fetch the water pitcher from across the room, and dump the contents on her wound. She growls and hisses as the water extinguishes the fire of her pain.

"There are bars up there, in case you hadn't noticed," I inform my madwoman.

She tilts her head back, eyes still shuttered against the world, against me. This cell is her world now, I am the prominent star in her cosmos, and how I pity her for that. "I know," she murmurs. "But I wanted to have a look at the window. The bars could be loosened. No prison is perfect."

"It depends on which prison you speak of."

Now she looks at me.

Perhaps I will tell Herod to release her. For what is inside her mind is worse than this cell, worse than being here with me.

"I know," she begins slowly, "that you think I am insane, that I'm a fool."

"I have never said that."

"You don't need to. I see it in your face. I may be insane, but I'm not an idiot."

"If you believe she will rescue you, then why do you attempt escape?"

"I can't just sit here and do nothing."

The exertion has left a sheen of sweat upon her face.

"If you're hot, remove your cloak," I suggest. She has worn it, like armor, since her arrival.

She shakes her head.

"No?" I prod, as if she is a recalcitrant child. The back of my hand grazes her slick forehead. "You're burning up."

She moistens her lips, then swallows. "Good."

"No. You can't want that."

Her voice cracks. "Don't I?" The tone of it defies me to contradict her. Like a stubborn drunkard hopelessly outmatched in a tavern brawl, she staggers to her feet. She touches the sleeve of her cloak to her face. That's when I notice her face shines with grief and bright tears shake in her eyes, like jellied stars.

It was foolish of me to dump the entire pitcher upon her leg. But I'm certain if I ask for more water, it will be given. We must be kept alive for this—the continual hunger for what we do not have. And do we deserve that? If we are not insane yet, when will it come? This appetite is the path that leads into the madness. To want a truth other than what we see in front of us, to crave a life or a state of being that is irretrievable, lost. Still, we go on. We wake every morning because of it.

I may hate myself for it later, but I rip two strips of cloth from the already ruined hem of my dress. I press one against her wound, then I dab at her eyes with the other. "We—can't have you getting ill. You don't want to be ill when she comes for you, Gabrielle. I will have them bring the healer again. Take off your cloak. Rest."

Her face softens, her anguish slackens. She is somewhere far away. "Yes."

"Yes?" With brazen intimacy I cup the back of her neck and push at the heavy wool covering her.

"All right."

I smile. The cloak puddles at her feet like gray mud and my hands slide from her. She smiles too, but uncertainly, as if she were a child unsure of reward or punishment for dropping her clothes on the ground.

When she turns around to look up at the window once again, I see it. The tattoo covering her back is monstrous in its beauty, it appears to leap from her flesh, as if a vision torn from a dream, a dance spiraling into the unknowing, blind excesses of ecstasy. As I danced for you, every movement a different gradation of my desire. Even when I close my eyes the colors, hauntingly indelible, remain in my mind.

My eyes are still closed when she speaks, her gentle voice and firm belief entwined with the burning image of her flesh. "She will come for me."

We wake every morning because of it.

Finis


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