Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Eleven

If anyone could have seen us at that moment I believe he would have thought we were two enemies met for a battle to the death. I know we stood like that, a few feet apart, every nerve taut, each with eyes fixed on the other in a terrible watchfulness.

And now we are coming to that part of my history on which my charge against the gods chiefly rests; and therefore I must try at any cost to write what is wholly true. Yet it is hard to know perfectly what I was thinking while those huge, silent moments went past. By remembering it too often I have blurred the memory itself.

I suppose my first thought must have been, "She's mad." Anyway, my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss - not to be endured. And to keep it shut. Perhaps I was fighting not to be mad myself.

But what I said when I got my breath (and I know my voice came out in a whisper) was simply, "We must go away at once. This is a terrible place."

Was I believing in her invisible palace? A Greek will laugh at the thought. But it's different in Glome. There the gods are too close to us. Up in the Mountain, in the very heart of the Mountain, where Bardia had been afraid and even the priests don't go, anything was possible. No door could be kept shut. Yes, that was it; not plain belief, but infinite misgiving

-  the whole world (Psyche with it) slipping out of my hands.

Whatever I meant, she misunderstood me horribly.

"So," she said, "you do see it after all."

"See what?" I asked. A fool's question. I knew what.

"Why, this, this," said Psyche. "The gates, the shining walls - "

For some strange reason, fury - my father's own fury - fell upon me when she said that. I found myself screaming (I am sure I had not meant to scream), "Stop it! Stop it at once!

There's nothing there!"

Her face flushed. For once, and for the moment only, she too was angry. "Well, feel it, feel it, if you can't see," she cried. "Touch it. Slap it. Beat your head against it. Here - " she made to grab my hands. I wrenched them free.

"Stop it, stop it, I tell you! There's no such thing. You're pretending. You're trying to make yourself believe it." But I was lying. How did I know whether she really saw invisible things or spoke in madness? Either way, something hateful and strange had begun. As if I could thrust it back by brute force, I fell upon Psyche. Before I knew what I was doing I had her by the shoulders and was shaking her as one shakes a child.

She was too big for that now and far too strong (stronger than I ever dreamt she could be) and she flung my grip off in a moment. We fell apart, both breathing hard, now more like enemies than ever. All at once a look came into her face that I had never seen there, sharp, suspicious.

"But you tasted the wine. Where do you think I got it from?"

"Wine? What wine? What are you talking about?"

"Orual! The wine I gave you. And the cup. I gave you the cup. And where is it? Where have you hidden it?"

"Oh, have done with it, child. I'm in no mood for nonsense. There was no wine."

"But I gave it to you. You drank it. And the fine honeycakes. You said - "

"You gave me water, cupped in your hands."

"But you praised the wine, and the cup. You said - "

"I praised your hands. You were playing a game (you know you were) and I fell in with it."

She gaped open-mouthed, yet beautiful even then.

"So that was all," she said slowly. "You mean you saw no cup? tasted no wine?"

I wouldn't answer. She had heard well enough what I said.

Presently her throat moved as if she were swallowing something (oh, the beauty of her throat!). She pressed down a great storm of passion and her mood changed; it was now sober sadness, mixed with pity. She struck her breast with her clenched fist as mourners do.

"Aiai!" she mourned, "so this is what he meant. You can't see it. You can't feel it. For you, it is not there at all. Oh, Maia . . . I am very sorry."

I came almost to a full belief. She was shaking and stirring me a dozen different ways. But I had not shaken her at all. She was as certain of her palace as of the plainest thing; as certain as the Priest had been of Ungit when my father's dagger was between his ribs. I was as weak beside her as the Fox beside the Priest. This valley was indeed a dreadful place; full of the divine, sacred, no place for mortals. There might be a hundred things in it that I could not see.

Can a Greek understand the horror of that thought? Years after, I dreamed, again and again, that I was in some well-known place - most often the Pillar Room - and everything I saw was different from what I touched. I would lay my hand on the table and feel warm hair instead of smooth wood, and the corner of the table would shoot out a hot, wet tongue and lick me. And I knew, by the mere taste of them that all those dreams came from that moment when I believed I was looking at Psyche's palace and did not see it. For the horror was the same: a sickening discord, a rasping together of two worlds, like the two bits of a broken bone.

But in the reality (not in the dreams), with the horror came the inconsolable grief. For the world had broken in pieces and Psyche and I were not in the same piece. Seas, mountains, madness, death itself, could not have removed her from me to such a hopeless distance as this. Gods, and again gods, always gods . . . they had stolen her. They would leave us nothing. A thought pierced up through the crust of my mind like a crocus coming up in the early year. Was she not worthy of the gods? Ought they not to have her? But instantly great, choking, blinding waves of sorrow swept it away and, "Oh!" I cried. "It's not right. It's not right. Oh, Psyche, come back! Where are you? Come back, come back."

She had me in her arms at once. "Maia - Sister," she said. "I'm here. Maia, don't. I can't bear it. I'll - "

"Yes . . . oh, my own child - I do feel you - I hold you. But oh - it's only like holding you in a dream. You are leagues away. And I . . ."

She led me a few paces further and made me sit down on a mossy bank and sat beside me.

With words and touch she comforted me all she could. And as, in the center of a storm or even of a battle, I have known sudden stillness for a moment, so now for a little I let her comfort me. Not that I took any heed of what she was saying. It was her voice, and her love in her voice, that counted. Her voice was very deep for a woman's. Sometimes even now the way she used to say this or that word comes back to me as warm and real as if she were beside me in the room - the softness of it, the richness as of corn grown from a deep soil.

What was she saying? . . . "And perhaps, Maia, you too will learn how to see. I will beg and implore him to make you able. He will understand. He warned me when I asked for this meeting that it might not turn out all as I hoped. I never thought . . . I'm only simple Psyche, as he calls me . . . never thought he meant you wouldn't even see it. So he must have known.

He'll tell us . . ."

He? I'd forgotten this him; or, if not forgotten, left him out of account ever since she first told me we were standing at his palace gates. And now she was saying he every moment, no other name but he, the way young wives talk. Something began to grow colder and harder inside me. And this also is like what I've known in wars: when that which was only they or the enemy all at once becomes the man, two feet away, who means to kill you.

"Who are you talking of?" I asked; but I meant, "Why do you talk of him to me? What have I to do with him?"

"But, Maia," she said, "I've told you all my story. My god, of course. My lover. My husband.

The master of my House."

"Oh, I can't bear it," said I, leaping up. Those last words of hers, spoken softly and with trembling, set me on fire. I could feel my rage coming back. Then (like a great light, a hope of deliverance, it came to me) I asked myself why I'd forgotten, and how long I'd forgotten, that first notion of her being mad. Madness; of course. The whole thing must be madness. I had been nearly as mad as she to think otherwise. At the very name madness the air of that valley seemed more breathable, seemed emptied of a little of its holiness and horror.

"Have done with it, Psyche," I said sharply. "Where is this god? Where the palace is?

Nowhere - in your fancy. Where is he? Show him to me? What is he like?"

She looked a little aside and spoke, lower than ever but very clear, and as if all that had yet passed between us were of no account beside the gravity of what she was now saying. "Oh, Orual," she said, "not even I have seen him - yet. He comes to me only in the holy darkness. He says I mustn't - not yet - see his face or know his name. I'm forbidden to bring any light into his - our - chamber."

Then she looked up, and as our eyes met for a moment I saw in hers unspeakable joy.

"There's no such thing," I said, loud and stern. "Never say these things again. Get up. It's time - "

"Orual," said she, now at her queenliest, "I have never told you a lie in my life."

I tried to soften my manner. Yet the words came out cold and stern. "No, you don't mean to lie. You're not in your right mind, Psyche. You have imagined things. It's the terror and the loneliness . . . and that drug they gave you. We'll cure you."

"Orual," said she.

"What?"

"If it's all my fancy, how do you think I have lived these many days? Do I look as if I'd fed on berries and slept under the sky? Are my arms wasted? Or my cheeks fallen in?"

I would, I believe, have lied to her myself and said they were, but it was impossible. From the top of her head to her naked feet she was bathed in life and beauty and well-being. It was as if they flowed over her or from her. It was no wonder Bardia had worshipped her as a goddess. The very rags served only to show more of her beauty; all the honey-sweetness, all the rose-red and the ivory, the warm, breathing perfection of her. She even seemed (but that's impossible, I thought) taller than before. And as my lie died unspoken she looked at me with something like mockery in her face. Her mocking looks had always been some of her loveliest.

"You see?" she said. "It's all true. And that - no, listen, Maia - that's why all will come right. We'll make - he will make you able to see, and then - "

"I don't want it!" I cried, putting my face close to hers, threatening her almost, till she drew back before my fierceness. "I don't want it. I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Do you understand?"

"But, Orual, why? What do you hate?"

"Oh, the whole - what can I call it? You know very well. Or you used to. This, this - " and then something she had said about him (hardly noticed till now) began to work horribly in my mind. "This thing that comes to you in the darkness . . . and you're forbidden to see it.

Holy darkness, you call it. What sort of thing? Faugh! it's like living in the house of Ungit.

Everything's dark about the gods . . . I think I can smell the very - " The steadiness of her gaze, the beauty of her, so full of pity yet in a way so pitiless, made me dumb for a moment.

Then my tears broke out again. "Oh, Psyche," I sobbed, "you're so far away. Do you even hear me? I can't reach you. Oh, Psyche, Psyche! You loved me once . . . come back. What have we to do with gods and wonders and all these cruel, dark things? We're women, aren't we? Mortals. Oh, come back to the real world. Leave all that alone. Come back where we were happy."

"But, Orual - think. How can I go back? This is my home. I am a wife."

"Wife! Of what?" said I, shuddering.

"If you only knew him," she said.

"You like it! Oh, Psyche!"

She would not answer me. Her face flushed. Her face, and her whole body, were the answer.

"Oh, you ought to have been one of Ungit's girls," said I savagely. "You ought to have lived in there - in the dark - all blood and incense and muttering and the reek of burnt fat. To like it - living among things you can't see - dark and holy and horrible. Is it nothing to you at all that you are leaving me, going into all that . . . turning your back on all our love?"

"No, no, Maia. I can't go back to you. How could I? But you must come to me."

"Oh, it's madness," said I.

Was it madness or not? Which was true? Which would be worse? I was at that very moment when, if they meant us well, the gods would speak. Mark what they did instead.

It began to rain. It was only a light rain, but it changed everything for me.

"Here, child," said I, "come under my cloak. Your poor rags! Quick. You'll be wet through."

She gazed at me wonderingly. "How should I get wet, Maia," she said, "when we are sitting in-doors with a roof above us? And 'rags'? - but I forgot. You can't see my robes either."

The rain shone on her cheeks as she spoke.

If that wise Greek who is to read this book doubts that this turned my mind right round, let him ask his mother or wife. The moment I saw her, my child whom I had cared for all her life, sitting there in the rain as if it meant no more to her than it does to cattle, the notion that her palace and her god could be anything but madness was at once unbelievable. All those wilder misgivings, all the fluttering to and fro between two opinions, was (for that time) quite over. I saw in a flash that I must choose one opinion or the other; and in the same flash knew which I had chosen.

"Psyche," I said (and my voice had changed). "This is sheer raving. You can't stay here.

Winter'll be on us soon. It'll kill you."

"I cannot leave my home, Maia."

"Home! There's no home here. Get up. Here - under my cloak."

She shook her head, a little wearily.

"It's no use, Maia," she said. "I see it and you don't. Who's to judge between us?"

"I'll call Bardia."

"I'm not allowed to let him in. And he wouldn't come."

That, I knew, was true.

"Get up, girl," I said. "Do you hear me? Do as you're told. Psyche, you never disobeyed me before."

She looked up (wetter every moment) and said, very tender in voice but hard as a stone in her determination, "Dear Maia, I am a wife now. It's no longer you that I must obey."

I learned then how one can hate those one loves. My fingers were round her wrist in an instant, my other hand on her upper arm. We were struggling.

"You shall come," I panted. "We'll force you away - hide you somewhere - Bardia has a wife, I believe - lock you up - his house - bring you to your senses."

It was useless. She was far stronger than I. ("Of course," I thought, "they say mad people have double strength.") We left marks on one another's skin. There was a thick, tangled sort of wrestling. Then we were apart again; she staring with reproach and wonder, I weeping (as I had wept at her prison door), utterly broken with shame and despair. The rain had stopped. It had, I suppose, done all the gods wanted.

And now there was nothing at all left that I could do.

Psyche, as always, recovered herself first. She laid her hand - there was a smear of blood on it; was it possible I could have scratched her? - across my shoulder.

"Dear Maia," she said, "you have very seldom been angry with me in all the years I can remember. Do not begin now. Look, the shadows have already crept nearly all the way across the courtyard. I had hoped that before this we should have feasted together and been merry. But, there - you would have tasted only berries and cold water. Bread and onions with Bardia will be more comfort to you. But I must send you away before the sun sets. I promised that I would."

"Are you sending me away forever, Psyche? And with nothing?"

"Nothing, Orual, but a bidding to come again as soon as you can. I'll work for you here.

There must be some way. And then - oh Maia - then we shall meet here again with no cloud between us. But now you must go."

What could I do but obey her? In body she was stronger than I; her mind I could not reach.

She was already leading me back to the river, back through the desolate valley she called her palace. The valley looked hideous to me now. There was a chill in the air. Sunset flamed up behind the black mass of the saddle.

She clung to me at the very edge of the water. "You will come back soon, soon?" she said.

"If I can, Psyche. You know how it is in our house."

"I think," said she, "the King will not be much hindrance to you in the next few days. Now, there's no more time. Kiss me again. Dear Maia. And now, lean on my hand. Feel for the flat stone with your foot."

Again I endured the sword-cut of the icy water. From this side I looked back.

"Psyche, Psyche," I broke out. "There's still time. Come with me. Anywhere - I'll smuggle you out of Glome - we'll go for beggarwomen all over the world - or you can go to Bardia's house - anywhere, anything you like."

She shook her head. "How could I?" she said. "I'm not my own. You forget, Sister, that I'm a wife. Yet always yours, too. Oh if you knew, you'd be happy. Orual, don't look so sad. All will be well; all will be better than you can dream of. Come again soon. Farewell for a little."

She went away from me into her terrible valley, and out of sight finally among the trees. It was already deep twilight on my side of the river, close in under the shadow of the saddle.

"Bardia," I called. "Bardia, where are you?"

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