L’Espirit de L’Escalier

In this provocative and rich retelling of the Greek myth, Orpheus, the musician son of Apollo and Calliope, successfully rescues his wife Eurydice from Hades after her untimely death.

 

 

First Step

 

Orpheus puts a plate of eggs down in front of her.

The eggs are perfect; after everything, he finally got it just right. Oozing lightly salted yolks the color of marigolds, whites spreading into golden-brown lace. The plate is perfect: his mother’s pattern, a geometric Mediterranean blue key design on bone-white porcelain. The coffee is perfect, the juice is perfect, the toast is perfect, the album he put on the record player to provide a pleasant breakfast soundtrack is perfect. Café au lait with a shower of nutmeg. Tangerine with a dash of bitters. Nearly burnt but not quite.

Strangeways, Here We Come.

Eurydice always loved The Smiths. Melancholy things made her smile. Balloons and cartoons and songs in any of the major keys put her out of sorts. When they first met, she slept exclusively in a disintegrating black shirt from the 1984 European tour. He thought that was so fucking cool. Back when he had the capacity to think anything was cool.

She’s wearing it now. Nothing else. Dark fluid pools in patches on the undersides of her thighs, draining slowly down to her heels.

Her long black hair hangs down limp over Morrissey’s perpetually pained face. The top of her smooth grey breast shows through a tear so artfully placed you’d think they ripped it to specs in the factory. Sunlight from the kitchen windows creeps in and sits guiltily at her feet like a neglected cat.

Orpheus never once managed a breakfast this good when she was alive. If he’s honest with himself, it wouldn’t even have occurred to him to try.

“Darling,” he says softly, as he says every morning. “You have to eat.”

But she doesn’t, not really. They both know that. She lifts one heavy, purplish hand and drops it, settling on the only thing she does need: a peeling, dishwasher-tormented limited-edition 1981 Princess Leia glass filled with microwaved lamb’s blood. Forty-five seconds on high.

Orpheus winces. She retracts her hand. She is very sorry. She will drink it later, congealed and lukewarm, alone.

Eurydice picks up a slender and very clean fork. The problem has never been that she doesn’t want to get better. Her short fingernails have black dirt under them. No matter how she scrubs and scrubs in the sink, no matter what kind of soap she buys. Orpheus hears the water running at three a.m. every night. The trickling, sucking song through the pipes. The negative space next to him in the bed, still cold from her body. But it doesn’t matter. On Sundays he paints her nails for her, so she doesn’t have to see it. But today is Saturday. The polish has chipped and flaked. The constant crescent moons of old earth show through.

She slices through an egg and lets the yolk run like yellow blood. Severs a corner of toast and dredges it in the warm, sunny liquid, so full of life, full enough to nourish a couple of cells all the way through to a downy little baby birdie with sweet black eyes. If only things had gone another way.

Eurydice hesitates before putting it between her lips. Knowing what will happen. Knowing it will hurt them both, but mainly her. Like everything else.

She shoves it in quickly. Attempts a smile. And, just this once, the smile does come when it is called. There she is, as she always was, framed by tall paneled windows and vintage posters from his oldest shows:

Open Mic Friday at the Clotho Cafe, $5 Cover!

Singing Rock Music Festival, July 21st, Acheron, NY.

Live at the Apollo.

And for a moment, there she is, all cheekbones and eyelashes and history, grinning so wide for him that her pale, sharp teeth glisten in the rippling cherry blossom shadows.

Then, her jaw pops out of its socket with a loud thook and sags, hanging at an appalling, useless angle. She presses up against her chin, fighting to keep it in, but the fight isn’t fair and could never be. Eurydice locks eyes with Orpheus. No tears, though she really is so sorry for what was always about to happen. But her ducts were cauterized by the sad, soft event horizon between, well. There and Here.

Orpheus longs for her tears, real and hot and sweet and salted as caramel, and he hates himself for his longing. He hates her for it, too.

A river of black, wet earth and pebbles and moss and tiny blind helpless worms erupts out of Eurydice’s smile, splattering so hard onto his mother’s perfect plate that it cracks down the middle, and dirt pools out across the table and the worms nose mutely at the crusts of the almost-burnt toast.

He clenches his teeth as he clears the dishes. Eurydice stares up at him, her eyes swimming with apologies.

“It’s fine,” he says, curt and flat. “It’s fine.”

Somewhere between the table and the counter, the tangerine juice stops being tangerine juice. It thickens, swirls into silvery-gold ambrosia, releases a scent of honeycomb, new bread, and old books.

Orpheus dumps it in the sink.

 

Second Step

 

Marriage isn’t what he thought it would be.

She didn’t even thank him for making her breakfast. He doesn’t want that to annoy him the way it does, but he can’t shake it. She owes him. She owes him so much.

Orpheus remembers the days when he was so full of her nothing else would fit. And then when she was gone, and he dreamed of her so vividly he woke with her scent pouring from his skin. When nothing was innocent. Every chair just an inch to the left or right of where he’d left it the night before. Every book opened to a different page than the one he’d marked. Every lost key or wallet or watch not misplaced but taken. Every flicker of every light bulb was her, couldn’t be anything but her, his wife, calling out to him, begging him to hear her, pleading through the impassible doorway of her own final breath.

He was so young then, young, stupid in love, unaware that there were certain things he simply could not have. Limitation was for other people. All he’d ever needed to do was sing and the world opened itself up to him like a jewelry box—and she was there when it did, the little pale dancer on the velvet of his ease, spinning inexorably round and round on one agonizingly perfect, frozen foot. If the world declined to open for others, that did not concern him.

When she is back, he dreamt then, when I have her back, I will be happy again. She will be whole and laughing and warm as August rain and she will look at me every day just the way she did when we first met, as though nothing bad ever happened. Her eyes will be the same shade of green. The span of her wrist will fit between my thumb and forefinger. We’ll go to the movies every night. I won’t even want other girls. We’ll drink ourselves into a spiral of infinite brunches. She will put her hand on the small of my back when we are photographed just the way she used to. Her smile will be full of new songs. When I touch her again, time will run backward and gravity will flee and pain will be a story we tell at parties, a fond joke whose punchline we can never get quite right. Everything will go back the way it was.

She won’t remember anything. Like in the soaps. She will be so grateful and so relieved and she won’t remember any of it. Not dying. And not . . . the rest. I will bear the weight of our past for both of us. I am strong enough for that.

 

When Orpheus wakes in the night, she is never beside him. She stands at the window, looking out into the chestnuts and the crabapples. The moon blows right through her. He can see mold flowering along her spine. Where she touches the curtains, it spreads, unfurling as luxurious as ivy.

 

Third Step

 

They have a little house on a busy street in a desirable school district. Chestnut and crabapple trees frame a chic midcentury modern bungalow in a neighborhood where poor but brilliant artists lived twenty years ago. Orpheus has other properties, more convenient to the city, more architecturally stimulating, more impressive for entertaining. But she’s only comfortable here.

Whatever comfortable has come to mean for either of them.

He bought it from a day trader who lost both legs in some kind of vague childhood equestrian incident, a year or so after the second album hit like a gold brick dropped from the heavens and money became an abstract painting, untethered to concrete expressions, a defiance of realism, meaning whatever Orpheus wanted it to mean. It still had all the custom railings, ramps, lifts, and clever little automated mobility features installed and up to code. The previous owner joked that it was haunted.

It is. And it is not.

Eurydice doesn’t handle stairs well.

After breakfast, she makes her way to the second floor studio, gripping the silver safety rail with desperate tension. Her ashen feet squeak and drag on each step as she pulls herself up hand over hand. Orpheus watches her from the foot of the staircase. Her lovely legs beneath her nightshirt, the hardened, bloodless muscles of her calves, the curls of her hair brushing the backs of her thighs like dozens of question marks hanging in space, so much longer than before.

Hair keeps growing after you die. He remembers reading that somewhere. In a green room. On a plane. It doesn’t matter. He used to watch her bound up to the bedroom, a kind of joy-stuffed reverse Christmas morning, reveling in the shine of it, of them, waiting to catch a playful peek before chasing up to catch her, two steps at a time.

Orpheus hears her fingernails crunch on the stainless steel. She hauls herself up another stair. She pulls too hard; flesh sticks against metal. The skin rips right off her palms, leaving a trail of black, coagulated sludge. Eurydice doesn’t notice. She doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t feel anything. Her grey, marbled flesh rejects material reality wholesale. Those circuits just don’t connect anymore.

“Baby. . . ?” Orpheus calls out softly.

Eurydice’s head whips around. Her eyes are not the same shade of oaken green. They are black, silvered with cataracts. But they still burn. She stares down at him. He stares up at her. They have been here before. Another staircase. Another hall. Without a handrail, without plausibly candid family photographs at pleasant intervals, without Tiffany glass sconces dripping peacock mood lighting onto their path.

Eurydice turns around to see Orpheus behind her on the stairway. Blue-violet fungus uncurls along her jawline. Silver moss bristles along the stairs like new carpet wherever she’s walked. Her pupils swallow him whole. She hears his voice and pivots toward it, instinctively, a reflex outside thought or ego.

“See?” she says in a shredded, raw, sopping voice. “It’s not hard.”

 

Fourth Step

 

They get a lot of visitors.

If Orpheus and Eurydice were a rising It Couple before, always ready with an open door and a seasonally appropriate plate of canapes and an incisive opinion on the events of the day, now they are the number one five-star-rated tourist destination for their particular and peculiar social circle. The commute doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Friends, colleagues, family, fans, people they haven’t heard from in years suddenly tapping on the windows, peering into the back garden, offering to help around the house, pick up groceries, medications, her favorite shampoo, his brand of whiskey. Anything at all, poor dears, just know we’re here for you both in your time of need.

Rubberneckers, Eurydice calls them all.

At least they bring presents.

And they ask questions. Orpheus used to get asked questions all the time. What are your influences? What was it like growing up with a famous mother? When’s the next album coming out? Sure, they were always the same questions, over and over, at a million pressers, in a thousand TV studios, but he had charming, humble, yet flirtatious answers for each one, and the interviewers always laughed.

Now it was only one question, still repeated, but with no good answer: How is your wife?

Ascalaphus brings organic fruit baskets.

Hecate brings three-scoop ice cream cones.

Rhadamanthus keeps showing up with DVD box sets even though Orpheus has told him about streaming a hundred times.

Minos brings puzzles from the Great Paintings of History series. Adult coloring books. Something to occupy her mind, keep her sharp.

Charon is forever trying to talk Orpheus into going Jet Skiing with him on a lake upstate. Come on, man, it’s not like you were a homebody before. Do something for yourself. She’s not going anywhere.

Even the rivers come, though never all at the same time. Sopping wet, clothes clinging to their skin. Acheron with an asphodel blossom in his lapel; Phlegethon smoking constantly; Cocytus in jeans, her huge bone-pale headphones keeping the lamentations piping in; Styx, runway thin, bespoke black silk from top to bottom, always asking for change; and Lethe, her wet hair dyed blue, her long lashes inviting the universe to drown itself in her.

They never say anything about the mushrooms growing in the fireplace, on the windowsills, crowding spotted and striped between the books on the shelves.

And they bring booze. Not the cheap stuff, either.

 

Fifth Step

 

What does she do all day?

Mostly, Eurydice practices fine motor control.

It was all explained to him at the time, though Orpheus didn’t want to hear it then. She has to stay active. Mentally and physically. She has to keep moving. Rigor mortis sets in again so fast. And she forgets. Not just how to move her fingers, but what fingers are and why moving is a good and desirable goal.

Orpheus remembers Persephone in a power suit, standing with one strappy red heel in the shallows of the Styx and one on land, in both worlds and neither, a bridge in girl form. So terrifyingly organized. The brutal corporate efficiency of death. Handing him stacks of neatly indexed and collated instructional materials with bold graphics and a four-color print job. Don’t look at me like that. This is all new territory for us, too. None of our orientation paperwork was designed to handle it. I was up all summer. Now, turn to page six. We can put her back in there no problem, but a corpse is a corpse, of course, of course. Sorry, that was insensitive of me. Office humor. I’m not usually so . . . forward-facing with the clients. It’s just that bodies aren’t really our market focus. I’d recommend putting her on blood thinners, just to keep everything . . . liquid. And the blood, every day at mealtimes. Or she’ll forget who she is. That’s just standard. It’s the same down here. Goes with the territory. She pointed a ballpoint pen at a huge black stone drinking fountain on the beach. A long line of dead faces waited their turn to drink. He shuddered, watching blood bubble out of the spigot and into the basin. Sheep’s blood is fine. Pig is closer to human, though. Unless you can get human! No? You’re right, bad suggestion. Are you listening?

But Orpheus hadn’t been listening. He’d been looking at her. Seeing her face again, her lips, the birthmark on her throat. Everything just as it was. Seeing them on picnics, reading to each other, taking cooking classes, standing in line at airports. Seeing her sitting cross-legged in the studio listening to his new songs, her adoring eyes reflecting his brilliance back at him. Seeing their kids. He didn’t hear a word.

So now Eurydice does the newspaper crossword, to keep the neurons firing.

She cleans the house, always in the same pattern, starting with the downstairs bathroom and working her way outward in a mandala of bleach and orange oil.

She text banks for local political candidates.

She plays online baccarat and mines cryptocurrency.

She runs a couple of miles a night, hood drawn up, headphones in. It tenderizes the meat. Orpheus has tried to tell her it isn’t safe for her to be out alone. She laughed in his face.

She works in the garden, weeding out the mint and asphodel that constantly threaten to take over everything. Asphodel isn’t native, it isn’t in season, this is the wrong kind of soil altogether, but nevertheless, the white, red-veined blossoms stretch like hands toward the house.

She spins and dyes yarn to sell at the farmers market on Saturdays. She writes out the names of the colorways on little grey cards and ties them to the skeins with scraps of ribbon. Die Like Nobody’s Watching. Live, Laugh, Languish. Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Is a Tremendous Disappointment. Thanks, I’m Cured. L’Espirit d’Escalier.

It took Eurydice a year to be able to write again. And when she did, though her lettering came elegant and careful, it wasn’t hers. It wasn’t anyone else’s, either. It was just new.

But no matter what she writes on the cards, whatever color she pours into her big glass dyeing bowls, the skeins all come out the same shade of black, and no one buys them.

On Thursdays they have couples’ counseling. They hunch together on the couch so they can both be seen in the little black eye of the webcam. Orpheus talks and talks. I just want you to be happy. Why can’t you be happy? After everything I’ve done for you. You’re so fucking cold.

Eurydice never says much. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

The therapist gives them worksheets about Love Languages. Eurydice fills them out. Orpheus does not. So she answers for him.

His says: Physical Touch.

Hers says: The Soul-Consuming Fires of the River Phlegethon.

 

Once, Orpheus came home to find the crossword left out by the fireplace, every square filled in with the same tidy, alien letters.

Fuck you. I hate it here. Fuck you. I hate it here.

He tossed it into the grate and flipped the switch. The pilot lights along the fake log popped to life and devoured the puzzle, the mushrooms, the deepening, ripening mold.

 

Sixth Step

 

Orpheus’s mother comes whenever her book tours bend their way. She can never stay long. Calliope is a household name; the arts are the family business. She never stops working. She writes sprawling doorstoppers about war and romance that lounge effortlessly atop the bestseller lists. She doesn’t knock.

Calliope breezes in, all sensible heels and comfortable beach dresses, reading glasses hanging on a strand of pearls around her neck, a faint forgetful hyphen of lipstick on her teeth, a full color spectrum of pens stuck behind her ears and in her hair. She sets up a battle station in the dining room: stock to sign, contracts to go over, laptop, tablet, phone, a headset like a crown of laurels into which she dictates her next project while she bakes and cleans and runs the soundboard for her son in the basement recording studio. She brings a bag of thick, hideous hand-knit sweaters for Eurydice, who is always, always cold, even with the furnace playing at top volume. She raised Orpheus alone, a single mother in an era when that was an impossible ask, bouncing him from auntie to auntie whenever she had to hit the circuit. He adores her. She smells sharp and warm and welcoming, like a used bookstore.

And she takes over bath time.

It has to be done every night. Otherwise the mold gets ahead of them. It flowers deep in her joints, thick enough to pop her shoulder out of the socket or a tooth out of her gums. Once, in the early days, he stayed up working and forgot her bath. Eurydice didn’t complain. She never complains. He woke up and found her on the front porch holding their newspaper. The rot had colonized her eye sockets in the night. Eurydice stared at the headlines through a sheen of black mold tipped in blue spores, spanning the bridge of her nose like a starlet’s sunglasses.

“There was an earthquake,” she’d said quietly, without looking up. “In Thessaly.”

Somehow Calliope always knows to visit when Orpheus doesn’t think he can bear to lift Eurydice into the tub one more time. It’s not safe to let her do it herself. Her heart no longer has the capacity to keep everything churning along thump by thump, so a stubbed toe or a bruised elbow is a potentially catastrophic hydraulic leak. But Calliope doesn’t mind. She has enough energy for everyone. She lifts her daughter-in-law naked into the clawfoot tub and pours in bleach like bubble bath. She scrubs the little fractal spirals of mildew from Eurydice’s livid back, her hair, under her arms. The water is warm, but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t feel it.

Calliope sings to the beautiful corpse of Eurydice as she washes away the evidence of her nature. She sings like a cake rising, a dove’s egg hatching, a memory of goodness. The anthurium on the bathroom sink stretches its crimson heart leaves toward the song. So does the clay in the tiled floor. One by one, the black hexagons crack and buckle, straining to get closer to her. Even the tiny threads of fungus on the nape of Eurydice’s neck prickle like hair, erect and aware, moronically yearning without understanding toward the profound thing Calliope is.

She squeezes the sponge out against her daughter-in-law’s mottled shoulder. Water trickles backward down along her spine and forward over her sternum, and somewhere between the two, before it splashes down into the bath, it forgets to keep being water. It thickens, turns pale gold. The ribbon of bleach twists into honey. A sudden smell of apples and asphodel exhales from the tub: sharp, autumnal, crisp red skins and crisp white wind. Eurydice sobs in recognition, an ugly, stitch-popping sound. She cups her hands and lifts them to her chapped lips. But the cider-mead of Elysium does not want her. It shrinks back, the bath begins to swirl down the pipe the wrong way round, and where her mouth catches some meager slick of the stuff, it catches a cold blue flame. The faint fire spreads, burning off the alcohol, licking at her knees. Eurydice wails in horror and hunger, trying in vain to stop up the drain with her feet and suck the wine from her fingers at the same time.

Calliope strokes her wet, sweet-scented hair and nods tenderly.

“I know, my love. Marriage is so hard.”

 

Seventh Step

 

Orpheus and Eurydice met at a party thrown by his agent. A hundred thousand years ago. Yesterday. A blur of balconies and city lights and swaying earrings. A fizzing, popping, positively carbonated evening. Discontent was simply not on the guest list.

“Darling boy,” his agent had crooned, guiding Orpheus by the shoulders around a river current of oyster puffs and mini souffles and out-of-season vegetables cut to look like birds of paradise. “Everyone is just dying to meet you.” Hermes hit his stride in sneakers so white and new they glowed like angelic wings, discussing cheeks and kissing percentages, managing the room as no one else could.

And finally there she was, drifting between little clutches of conversation. Spangles and crystals the color of olive leaves shimmered down her body like rain, a thin fringe that danced every time she laughed. She wore her hair up in a complicated twist with a jeweled comb, and when Orpheus remembers this, when he dreams of it, he sees them all at the same time, overlaid like double-exposed film: the dress and the comb and the twist and the long, limp, greasy hair as it is now, strands stuck in the milky fluid of her dead eye.

“Have you met Eurydice?” Hermes’ voice trips down the halls of that other life, that correct life, the life he’d been promised. “You absolutely must, she’s a treasure.”

And she’d turned away from some studio exec pestering her and offered him her gorgeous hand tipped in gold polish. A faint blackbird of a bruise rising already on her forearm. Hearing her voice for the first time like hearing a song you just know is going to hit hard.

“Well, aren’t you something?”

And what were you doing at that party? their therapist asks later, so much later. Eurydice shrugs and stares at her knees. Cypress trees cast shadows like black arrows on her face. They never planted cypress. But thick green spear heads crowd the windows on all sides now.

She doesn’t remember, Orpheus sighs.

I’m asking her. Active listening, Orpheus. You’ll get your turn. So what was happening in your life that night? Were you in college? Working? Promoting your own music?

She was never in the industry, Orpheus says. It was one of the things I found so refreshing about her, considering her father and all.

Eurydice picks at the scabs between her fingers. Finally, she rasps: I . . . I used to sing.

No, you didn’t.

Okay, she surrenders quickly, as she always does. I didn’t. They used to fight till the rafters came down and make up on the ruins. Orpheus usually won, but he enjoyed the battle. Now he gets his way so easily.

You never told me.

Okay.

You could have come into the studio with me. Put down a backup track.

I didn’t ever sing. I can’t sing.

Eurydice, do you want to talk about the man who grabbed your arm?

No.

A small bubble of trapped gases slowly inflates her cheek.

 

But he was something. And so was she. He was famous. She was beautiful. What else did anyone need? They were young and it was easy. Orpheus saw himself as he knew he could be reflected back at him in that heated, shimmering stare. He wanted it. He wanted that ease forever. He wanted himself as she saw him.

Just because he went home with a maenad that night and had to be reminded of her name when they met again a month later doesn’t make it any less love at first sight.

Orpheus has repeatedly explained that to their therapist.

 

Eighth Step

 

Orpheus knows they’re here before he even gets to the foot of the stairs. A guitar case leans casually against the wall next to the guest bathroom, perfectly centered in a spotlight of morning sunshine. It’s not one of his. This warhorse is more stickers than leather by now, held together by memory alone.

Orpheus sighs heavily.

Eurydice’s father and his dirtbag friends don’t call ahead. They don’t bake, they don’t help with chores, they don’t come bearing takeout, and they definitely don’t do baths. They just turn up. Once or twice a year. Orpheus rounds the bannister today to find the boys all smoking around his living room, feet up on the coffee table, a random girl asleep on the piano bench, empties stacked into green-and-brown hecatombs on every surface. He recognizes the labels.

Orpheus and Calliope are merely famous. The old man is a legend. Seminal. Iconic. No one comes close to his influence, his sheer ubiquitousness. He is music.

He lounges in the big swayback armchair, a man mostly his haircut, perpetually stuck halfway between Robert Plant and David Cassidy, a catwalk in the form of a man, leather jacket, leather pants, massive paparazzi-proof hangover shades, a big golden sun stamped on his black t-shirt, herpes sore like a kiss below his lip. A face that invented magazines, a voice that filled them to the brim. He laughs wolfishly at something or other one of his strung-out friends said and puts out his cigarette on a sunbeam as though it were solid stone.

“There he is!” Apollo brays. “Big O! We were just talking about you, weren’t we, boys? And where’s my beautiful baby girl this morning?”

“She’ll be up soon,” Orpheus mumbles.

Apollo pats his ribs for more smokes. “Call her down. Lazy cow-eyed lump.” He finds one and jams it unlit between his teeth. “I’m up every morning at the crack of dawn, you know. No excuses. Sleep is for the dead, kiddo!” He catches himself and grins sheepishly, a grin so pretty even Orpheus finds himself trying, once again, to like the man. “Whoops. Awkward. Don’t want to offend. You know how sensitive the youth are these days. Can’t say anything anymore. Oof. I’ll want a drink. You want a drink, mate? Probably need a drink before she . . . ah . . . before that.” He digs in his pockets for a light. “How’s things, anyway? Everything back to normal?” Apollo’s eyes glitter suggestively. “Back in the saddle, so to speak?”

Orpheus stares. He coughs out a hollow laugh.

One of the old gang leans forward from the depths of the plush grey couch. He winces; his stomach’s wrapped in sterile pads and medical gauze signed by the whole band like a cast. Prometheus flicks a lighter for Apollo’s wobbly cig.

“Yer a life saver, thanks,” the legend mumbles.

Dionysus heads for the kitchen. Orpheus tries to tell him they barely keep anything in the house, but he opens the fridge with a Hey, hey, hey straight out of afternoon reruns. Row after row of wines so old they could draw a pension. The crisper drawers packed with Harp lager—the old man doesn’t do wine. His sister favors Blue Moon, but they haven’t seen her since the wedding.

It’s always like this. Prometheus and Dionysus and Pan, hiding his horns under a fedora, along with whatever nymphs they were shacking up with that week. Ransacking the house, talking about themselves and the old days until you wanted to rivet their mouths shut.

Apollo throws back a beer in one long swallow and gestures for another as they wait for the dead to rise. “When are you going to start touring again, son?” He taps out his ash onto the sleeping girl. She’s gorgeous, but they always are. The grey flakes drift down to land on her necklace, a chain of silver laurel leaves looping around her perfect, warm, and living neck. Orpheus stares. He can see her pulse faintly beneath her skin. He’d almost forgotten people’s bodies did that. She smells like a river, a forest. Alive.

“Don’t want to wait too long between albums. I should know. Can’t go radio silent just because the going gets a bit uphill, eh? Gotta get back out there.”

“I couldn’t stay cooped up like this.” Dionysus shudders as he upends a bottle into his gullet. “This house gives me the creeps. And I think you’ve got a serious mold problem.” He wrinkles his nose at the ceiling. A delicate charcoal filigree mars the drywall. Orpheus doesn’t have to look. He knows. He’ll call someone. Tomorrow. Soon.

Orpheus grimaces. Pan glances up from his endless scrolling through whatever hookup app he’s on this time. Swipe, swipe, swipe. “You can always open for us. The fans would lose their minds.” Swipe. He lowers his voice. “You can’t stay cooped up like this, poor thing. It’s not healthy. Life goes on, yeah? There’s only supposed to be five stages of grief. What are you on, stage twenty? Does she even . . . does she even know you’re here?”

“Of course she does,” Orpheus snaps defensively. But she steps out behind him as soon as his voice hits the air.

Eurydice’s face glows with health. Her lips shine ripe and red. Her cheeks blush. Her hair shines. Bare, tanned legs delicate as knives beneath a loose skirt and the oversized mustard-colored sweater Calliope knit for her, a friendly cartoon snake on the front and gnoqi seauton, y’all! sewn on with black thread in a circle around its winning smile and forked tongue. Orpheus’s chest throbs. It is her, it is her, as she always was, as the sun made her, as he dreamed of her over and over until it wore a groove in his brain. She clasps her hands to her chest like a little girl. Moves her shoulders up and down slightly so it looks like she might really be breathing. But she isn’t. Of course she isn’t. It’s all a show, all for him.

Apollo looks nauseated. His throat works to keep the bile down. He looks his daughter up and down, his dancing warm eyes gone distant, flat, glassy. The words he doesn’t say hang in the air between them. I thought you would be different this time, but I guess not.

She forgot to do her hands. Her father can’t help but goggle at them, fish-colored, embroidered with black veins. She ran out of foundation, couldn’t find her gloves. Prometheus goes to open a window—there isn’t enough Red Door in the world to fix the smell, rich and putrid and earthen.

“Why don’t you play us something?” Dionysus suggests.

None of them can take it, they’re so fucking fragile. Orpheus hates them. He hates her. He hates how hopeful she gets. Every goddamn time, and for what? They’re so empty, they need something pouring into them all the time just to escape knowing it, into their mouths, their eyes, their ears. Music is just the sound of time blowing across the lip of their nothingness.

Eurydice never puts on the makeup for him. She’ll take off the glossy, thick wig as soon as they go. The contacts, the fake lashes, all of it. A pile of girl on the floor.

“Yeah, come on, give us a little song,” Apollo agrees eagerly. Anything, anything to avoid having to be here and now. “You must be getting brilliant material out of this whole mess. Deep, experiential stuff. Raw, authentic, blah blah blah, the whole aesthetic. I’m here for it. Front row center. Can’t wait to hear your new sound. Hey, you can even play my ax if you want.” He signals for Prometheus to go get it from the hall. The titan hops to it like an eager spaniel. Would you like that?”

Orpheus doesn’t want to do it. He knows what will happen. So does she. But Eurydice’s blown-out pupils bore into him from behind green contacts. She can take it. She doesn’t mind. Anything, if it’ll make Dad happy.

Apollo puts his guitar into Orpheus’s hands. What is he supposed to do, then? It is an instrument made of forever. It is the beginning and end of song. Eurydice fixes her silvered eyes on her father. She puts her cold, heavy hand on his knee and the great man flinches. He fucking flinches.

But Orpheus’s fingers do not move on the strings. He doesn’t want her to know. He doesn’t want her to hear. I haven’t done anything wrong, he tells himself. But nothing in him answers back. So he begins to play a slow, lilting version of an old Smiths song. For her, for them. “Pretty Girls Make Graves.” A good joke or a bad one. Who cares? Just let it be over. The voice that moved rocks and trees to life and even the fish to dance fills up a living room with wallpaper twenty years past chic. The girl on the piano bench opens her startingly green eyes.

He’s not even through the first verse when he sees it. Eurydice trembling, vibrating, barely able to hold still. She’s shut her eyes. Her jaw clenches so hard they can all hear teeth cracking. But she does not, cannot cry.

Her fingertip blossoms with blood. Real, living blood. Just under the skin. It goes pink and brown, the nail a little round moon, warm, soft. The rest of her hands remain skeletal, ashen, mouldering. But her fingertip wakes to the sound of his music, like the rocks, like the trees, like the fish of the stream and the sea.

Finally, she cannot bear it. She cannot be a good girl any longer. She howls in pain. She claws at the living tissue. Her eyes roll back to find some path away from anguish. She drags her hands down her face, smearing away the careful makeup, the meticulous lip. Chunks of flesh come away. Orpheus stops; the color ebbs away. The nail blackens again, little lightning bolts of mold snaking back up out of the cuticle.

Her family scatters like raindrops.

Orpheus and Eurydice sit alone in an empty room.

The carpet has turned into long silver grass. A wind from somewhere far off shakes tiny seeds into the air.

 

Ninth Step

 

Orpheus has tried to touch her a thousand times. She has never said no. She has never covered up or cried or told him she needed time. She’ll let him do anything he wants.

But he doesn’t. Not often. Not anymore.

Once she slid into bed with him and the touch of her flesh shocked him almost into the ceiling. She was as warm as the earth in July, hot, even, the air around her oily and rippling. Orpheus wept with relief. He kissed her over and over, drinking her up and in, so grateful, so stupidly grateful and urgent and needy. She was back and she was his and it would all be fine now, it would all go back to the way it was and when he sang to her she would dance again, she would dance and drink her juice and eat her eggs and maybe they would get a cat. A big fat orange tabby and they’d name it something pretentious and literary nobody else would understand. I knew you were there, he whispered into her hair. I didn’t doubt it for a moment. You’re always there.

Only afterward, when he was brushing his teeth, did he notice her slick silver hair dryer left plugged in by the sink. He felt the barrel. She’d run it so long the metal was still almost too hot to bear.

So when Orpheus starts sleeping with the maenad from his agent’s party again, he tells himself it’s not his fault. It’s not her fault, either. It’s not even about her. He tried. He really tried this time.

Let me hear the new song, the maenad says, and rolls over toward him, tangled in sheets like possibilities, everything about her so alive she glows. Her apartment is so clean. No grass or mushrooms or fine purple mold in the ceiling roses. She runs her rosy, licorice-scented fingers through his hair.

And when Orpheus sings, it doesn’t hurt her, not even a little. I love you, the maenad breathes as she climbs on top of him. You’re amazing. You deserve so much more than this.

 

Tenth Step

 

Every night at nine thirty sharp, Eurydice opens her lavender plastic birth control compact and presses down on the little blister pack with the day of the week printed over it.

In those moments, Orpheus always wants to ask her what she’s thinking, why she bothers, what’s the point. But he never does.

A pomegranate seed pops out. She closes her eyes when she swallows it.

Orpheus goes to the coffee shop down the road most mornings. He gets a latte for himself and one for Eurydice, then drinks them both on a park bench between here and the house. Cinnamon on top. No sugar. He likes all the sugar himself, but that’s what she used to drink. So that’s what he drinks now forever.

He tells the cute young barista behind the counter his name. She has a nose piercing and huge brown eyes like a Disney deer. She spells his name wrong on the cup.

“No,” he says with his most charming half-cocked grin. “Like the singer.”

“Who?” the girl says innocently. “What singer has a weird name like that?”

Orpheus puts the coffees down on his bench. He squints in the sunshine. Watches some kids fight over the tire swing. Pulls out his phone and jabs at the keyboard with his thumb.

Are you around? I need you. I want you.

She texts back right away. Quick as life.

When he gets home that night, he has to step over the green-black river that churns through the foyer, separating the land of the living room from the land of his wife.

 

Eleventh Step

 

It’s afternoon and there are crabapple blossoms all over the front walk like snow and a smart knock at the back door.

Orpheus feels a rush of excitement prickle in his chest. He knows the face on the other side of the glass. His friend. Maybe his only real friend. The only one who gets him completely, who understands what he’s had to go through, who can make it an hour without saying something that makes Orpheus want to punch them in the mouth or beg them to take him away from this place forever.

“Hey, fuckbrains,” Sisyphus says fondly as Orpheus turns the bolt and lets him into the kitchen, sporting three days of stubble, ripped jeans, steel-toed boots, and a faded black T-shirt that reads Rock ’n’ Roll Forever in white letters with lightning-bolt tips.

And a dog. Three dogs, actually. German shepherd puppies, maybe four or five months old, all gangly teenage limbs and ears that don’t know how to stand up straight yet.

“Hey, crackhead,” Orpheus answers. “They give you a day pass?”

The pups sniff at Orpheus. They gag and growl, showing tiny bright teeth. They look past him as one, curious, black-nosed, alert. Past him toward the brand-new river of ash slowly flowing up the hallways.

The ash weeps audibly.

Eurydice hovers behind her husband in another of Calliope’s grotesque sweaters. This one with a doofy purple horse and menin aiede qea. Three canine heads tilt toward her at precisely the same time. One dog. Three bodies. They move like a stutter.

Sisyphus sinks into the breakfast nook, a heap of handsome limbs. He rolls a milky gray marble over the tops of his tattooed fingers, back and forth, back and forth. His left hand says prde. His right says fall. He nods at the dogs and mumbles:

“Well, I had an idea.”

Eurydice holds out her blood-purple fingers to the puppies. They advance slowly, uncertainly, huffing her ashen, green-veined hand. Then they fall all over her, snapping the leash, their movements identical, licking her face, wagging great shaggy tails they haven’t grown into yet, howling in recognition and joy. Eurydice beams, grave dirt showing between her teeth, caking her gums.

“I thought, you know . . .” Sisyphus says sheepishly, holding one of the leftover cans of Harp between his threadbare denim knees and cracking it with one hand while the other rolls his marble knuckle to knuckle to knuckle. “Emotional support dog. Worth a try.”

“You thought that would make a good emotional support animal for my wife,” Orpheus deadpans as the three hounds loll in Eurydice’s lap, their furry bellies as white as death.

Sisyphus gestures with the beer. “Hey, Cerberus is a good boy! He’s had loads of training. Sit, stand up, shake a paw, do not chew souls, do not let the living cross into the realm of the dead, the whole package. And nothing spooks him.” His voice softens. “He wanted to come. He misses her. They got to be quite good friends, you know. Nobody pays much attention to the old fella once they’re settled in. But not our girl. She brought him snacks.”

“The fuck does he eat?” Orpheus asks.

“Kindness,” Eurydice growls. Cerberus licks her nose and whimpers in furry ecstasy. “Don’t we all,” she says into his downy ear.

Sisyphus rolls his stone back and forth. “She took him for two walks a day, every day, and not short ones, either. All down the new riverfront walks, along the Lethe and the Phlegethon and the Acheron.” He glances toward the sobbing hallway, but Sisyphus is far too polite to say anything. “She let him stop and sniff whenever he wanted. The shops and galleries started leaving out bowls of water for him.”

“I never heard about any of this. What shops?”

Sisyphus lifts an eyebrow. “Didn’t you have a look around while you were down there, man? See the sights while you were in town?”

“I was a little busy.”

“Who is that busy? It’s hell. You weren’t even curious?”

Eurydice laughs hoarsely. It is not a kind laugh, and Orpheus doesn’t like it at all. She would never have embarrassed him like that in the old days.

“Well, yeah, shops. Saltwater taffy and glass bowls and shit. Revitalization. It’s Persephone’s whole thing. You do not want to let that woman get bored. The saltwater still comes from the rivers, though, so it’ll make you forget or be invincible or relive every lamentation of your life just the same. It’s just . . . nicer now. Oh, and her yarn. All the shops carried it. They couldn’t get enough. She called each lot the funniest things, had us all in stitches. Even Clotho had a standing order. So soft! And the best colors. I made this shirt out of it. Do you like it?”

Whose yarn?” Orpheus asks in confusion.

“Who do you think?” Sisyphus laughs.

Eurydice heads out the side door without a word. The dogs walk primly on their leash, heeling perfectly and staring up at her in abject adoration.

“Be honest, man,” Sisyphus says, leaning forward. “How’s it going?”

Orpheus’s eyes burn and his chest crushes in on itself. “It’s like I don’t even know her anymore.”

“Well, I mean, yeah.” Sisyphus chuckles.

“What does that mean?”

“Look, I love you, you know that. But did you ever really know her in the first place?”

“What kind of bullshit is that? She’s my wife. How can you even ask me that, after everything I did to get her back? Just to be with her again? Of course I knew her. Know her,” he corrects himself.

“You didn’t know she had a dog.”

“What happened down there . . . it isn’t important, don’t you get that? It was a horrible dream. A bad trip. I don’t want to know about it. Neither does she. That’s all behind us now.”

Sisyphus shrugs. “Okay, what’s her mom’s name?”

Orpheus blinks. “It . . . I don’t know, it never came up. But that’s not fair, it’s not like I don’t know her family. Her dad’s around all the time. He’s never mentioned her, either.”

Sisyphus sighs, gets up, and helps himself to the vintage Star Wars glasses in the cabinet. He picks Lando. “Where’d she go to college? What was her major? She have any siblings?” The dead man looks around awkwardly for a moment before Orpheus snatches the glass out of his hand.

“I’ll do it,” he snaps. He gets a blood bag out of the fridge and sticks it in the microwave for forty-five. They stand on the ceramic floor while the machine hums toward its inevitable beep. Deep green mold crawls through the cracks between tiles under their feet toward the river in the hallway.

“A little bleach will probably take care of that,” Sisyphus says quietly.

“Yeah,” Orpheus mumbles, pouring the blood out for his friend. “You’d think.”

“I don’t mean to pry—”

Orpheus laughs in his face.

“But did you ever ask her?”

“Ask her what?”

“If she wanted to come back.”

“Why the hell would I ask her? Nobody wants to be dead. I did the right thing. For us. For her. You were there. It was heroic. I was selfless. I was strong.”

“Were you? Or could you just . . . not accept that something pretty was taken from you? Did you know her? Or was she hot and rich and uncomplicated?”

“Fuck you,” Orpheus whispers.

“Okay, okay. Calm down. I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just asking questions.”

They sit in ugly silence, letting the sunlight through the dusty, spore-spackled windows say the things they cannot.

“How’s the new album coming?” Sisyphus asks finally.

Orpheus grabs the rough cut out of his bag, sliding the disc across the table. A fine mist of silvery pollen puffs up in its wake.

Upstairs, asphodel flowers explode out of their bed, a detonation of white-and-red petals like blood and skin. They spread and spread, tumbling onto the floor, nosing the curtains, suckling the wallpaper.

Sisyphus rolls his stone across his knuckles, patiently, endlessly. With his other hand, he touches the disc and knows every song in a moment.

“Wow,” Sisyphus whispers. “Oh, wow.”

 

Twelfth Step

 

Orpheus decides to leave on a Wednesday. Not markedly different from any other Wednesday. She can have the house, he doesn’t care. He stops giving her the lambsblood in the morning. It’ll make it easier, he tells himself. She’ll forget. She won’t suffer. I’m not hurting her. Not really. I’m doing what’s best for both of us. Fuck the house, fuck the cars, fuck his outstanding record contract. None of it matters. If he doesn’t come back, that’s just fine. But he doesn’t know how to start. Where to go. What to take. This isn’t his gig. It isn’t anyone’s gig.

Orpheus asks his mother. She tells him the obvious: the entrance to hell is always in your own house, silly billy.

The house didn’t have a basement when he bought it. It sure does now. A door between the studio and the library that was never there before. A door and a long, long staircase leading down into lightlessness.

 

Mold has colonized the house. Tiny blue mushrooms on the fireplace. Carpets of pink fuzz climbing the stairs. Black water flowing past the front door. Weeping ash rippling down the hall. A gurgling stream of fire between the kitchen and the dining room. Asphodel everywhere. Ambrosia in every takeout container.

The rivers visit all the time now. They don’t even speak to Orpheus anymore. They just go straight to her.

Eurydice doesn’t clean anymore. She and Cerberus lie in a pile together and watch the country inside the house grow by candlelight. When Orpheus asked if she felt like pulling her weight on even the most basic level, she turned her head like a stone door and stared in the direction of his studio, panting like a wolf.

Cerberus doesn’t let him into her room anymore. If he tries, the three pups growl and drool and their eyes flash green in the dark.

 

Orpheus sings for his wife. He sings for an audience of two: of death and death’s great love. The most important studio boss there is. He sings everything she ever was or could be. He sings every moment of their life together, every kiss and whisper and quiet joke, every intimate space that opened between them like dark flowers, every good day, because they were all good days. He sings her heart out. He sings what will become his comeback anthem, a song no one can get out of their heads, topping the charts for years, used in every film about love and loss and even an anti-depressant commercial. Orpheus strips Eurydice of Eurydice and transforms her into a song so perfect death gives up and life buries him in laurels.

The song of them, that she never hears. He simply never thinks to play it for her. It’s his. His best work. Besides, she never asked what he sang to get her back. He’d have shown her, if she’d asked. Probably.

And what he sang for her and only her, what he sang before the great starry unweeping face of death, is sitting on a rough-cut demo in his leather bag as he walks out of his house on a Wednesday years later, in a padded envelope with his agent’s address on it.

 

“Do you still love me?” Orpheus asks her Tuesday night, the night before he leaves her. She sits on the porch with her dogs, putting together a puzzle of Starry Night.

Eurydice runs her fingers over the black half-assembled chapels and cypress trees. She hasn’t had lambsblood in two weeks. Sometimes she forgets she is dead and starts screaming when she sees herself in the mirror. But today was a good day. They watched TV together. She watched Cerberus play in the backyard. One of him ate a bee. She laughed.

“I see my love for you as though it hangs in a museum,” Eurydice says slowly. “Under glass. Environmentally controlled. It is a part of history. But I am not allowed to touch it. I am not allowed to add anything new to it. I am not even allowed to get close.” She puts a golden star into place without looking up. “Why didn’t you turn around?” Eurydice whispers.

Orpheus tells the truth. “I knew you were there, baby. I never doubted it for a minute.”

Children yell and play in the neighbors’ gardens, high-pitched giggles fizzing up into the streetlights. “You didn’t know. You assumed I was there. Behind you. Like I’d always been there. Behind you. You couldn’t even imagine that I might not do as I was told, that I might not be where you wanted me to be, the moment you wanted it. That was my place, and you assumed I would be in it. What in your life has ever gone any way other than as you wished it?” She glances toward the house, toward the demo still sitting where Sisyphus left it. “And now you have what you want from me. What you always wanted. I am no longer necessary. And yet. I am still here.”

Her hand settles down on the leftmost puppy. Cerberus wears three weighted coats, to help with his anxiety. Maybe Orpheus should have gotten her one. He thinks of that now, and dwells on it long enough that there’s no easy way back into the conversation, and Orpheus just tells her to shut the lights off before she goes to bed.

 

 

Orpheus and Eurydice step blinking into a summer’s day. The blue of the sky throbs in their eyes. He takes her into his arms and swings her around. You’re back, you’re back, and it’ll all be as it was, you’ll see. I saved you. I did it. Aren’t you happy? Baby? Put your arms around me. Don’t you want to?

 

 

Orpheus walks down the porch steps of his house. It is dusk, and he can smell everyone’s dinner. He can see all their lights, the illuminated windows of their worlds. Owls are heading out to hunt. Business on the west coast closes in an hour.

Orpheus stops on the stair. For a moment, just a moment, he thinks that perhaps she is there. Asking him not to go. Eurydice as she always was, adoration in human form, the way he remembers her. The way she should have been. Maybe it will all be all right, and this was just the last test, the last barrier between life and death.

His phone buzzes in his pocket. He knows without looking that it’s his maenad, warm and rosy and waiting.

Orpheus turns around on the staircase. For old time’s sake.

Eurydice stands in the window, watching. Acheron and Phlegethon kiss her cheeks, lay their heads on her shoulders. She smiles with such tenderness, but not for him. She shuts her eyes in their embrace.

Orpheus straightens his shoulders. He turns away. He has places to be. A maenad. A record. He has a life. He has a legend to become. He knows it’s all there, just waiting for him.

Behind him, asphodel devours the house whole.

 

“L’Espirit de L’Escalier” copyright © 2021 by Catherynne M. Valente
Art copyright © 2021 by Clarissa Susilo

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