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Descent of the Mourningstar

by Greg Swann

In the mountains south of Phoenix there is a restaurant built atop a butte. At a perilous height, it gazes down on the fiery light of the city, serenely apart from the frenzy of the accidental, the unreasoned and the unplanned. Exquisitely beautiful, it is the oasis' oasis, the place where expensively elegant Phoenicians go to beat back their beating back of that devil of a desert. In a world without water it is drenched, as ecstatically wet as a four-year-old playfully straddling a man-made geyser. In a land where heat is the unchallenged king, and hellish light its sword, it is cool and dark, a place that quietly but firmly stops the marauding knights of nature at the door. In a city that stays alive only by a constant combat against the elements, it is a place devoid of conflict, a place where even a shout, much less a war cry, would seem wasted. It is place where man has won, won so completely he does not need to shout of his victory.

In the quiet confines of that refuge, a couple dined together in silence, not talking to each other, but still somehow communicating, letting the echoes of their past pass between them. They would have been alone anywhere, in a crowded elevator or a mobbed supermarket. But in that solitary corner their perfect bodies were a galaxy apart from this one, two stellar masses locked in a mutual orbit upon which no other object could intrude. They did not touch, and yet there was an intimacy that enveloped them, held them tight in an embrace that is what lovemaking should be, but rarely is.

They were cupped by the plush, buffed suede of the booth, as bloody red as Mars, the mourningstar. When she looked at him, her brown eyes as big and innocent as a fawn's, he thought he saw a hint of that red reflected back to him, but perhaps it had been there always... She was lovely in the way that only the truly honest can be, with a quiet confidence in her mien that was both stately and violent, like the transit of the stars. Her skin was pale and clear, the color of oatmeal in a white china bowl, speckled with the tiniest of brown freckles. The button of her nose was like a dollop of butter melting in that bowl. Her sleek dark hair fell back straight to her shoulders, where it curled piquantly, almost spitefully. She wore straight-clipped bangs over her forehead, and when she was frustrated she would blow them out of her way with a gust of breath that added to her womanly beauty by being the gesture of a young girl. Her body was small and finely formed, but something about it suggested a strength beyond that of any warrior. She was a fighter with her mind, but she seemed to communicate by her poise that she would not hesitate to become a fighter with her body, and that if she did she would triumph, no matter how powerful her opponent.

His body was very long and very lean, sinewy almost, like catgut stretched taut over the bridge of a violin. It was stripped down to the barest of essentials, with not an ounce of fat on him anywhere. His every muscle was plainly visible through his skin, through his stark, dusky clothing. He held himself as though bound, as if he had to be strapped down to remain still at all and at any moment might spring violently to his full stature. His skin was tanned to a cinnamon brown and the fine hairs on his arms and hands had long ago been bleached blonde by the sun. His hair was the color of coffee. It hung loosely about his head, a steady temptation to the breezes that blow endlessly across the empty plains. Amid that searing desert of brown the greyish green of his eyes lit his face like an oasis, and the light of his mind poured forth from them like a surging waterspout. They were the eyes of a cat, and they seemed always to see more than was visible, not just the objects of his perception but their meaning. His face was a thing cut from stone, unyielding, and the tight line of his lips seemed to be a fissure formed of a wrenching opposition. It was the face of a conqueror, and though still young, it seemed to hold within it a wisdom older than the stars themselves.

She liked looking at him, she always had. Though he was formed of a stuff harder than diamonds, she knew there was only tenderness within, the softness that can exist only behind an impenetrable armor. He had been a part of her dreams for so long that it seemed almost eerie to see him here, now, at last again in person. She knew that no part of her past could hold her if she did not let it. But he was a part of her past she had not wanted to let go...

He watched her watching him and smiled, a smile that seemed to say that he saw everything, not just her loveliness and her response to him, but the things beyond that response, the things in her that made her need him. There was no sorrow in it, but no joy either. "Can I tell you a story, Amanda?," he asked.

"I'd like that."

His smile deepened. "Maybe you should reserve judgement until you've heard it."

She thought to protest then thought better of it. "All right, Grant. Go ahead."

Staring down at the plate-strewn table, he took a deep breath and let it pass slowly from his lips. When he looked up his face was serene, but she thought she saw a hint of pain in his eyes. "This is a story about a woman I knew a long time ago," he said, "when I lived back east. A very beautiful woman, and very strong, but there was a tragedy to her life she didn't know how to resolve."

He looked at her and she felt as though his eyes were piercing her. She didn't know why, not yet.

"She wanted love very badly," he went on. "Wanted it in the way that only the largest of people can want it, as a reward and as an expression of the worthiness to reward. She knew she deserved the highest and most passionate adoration, the deepest and most tender worship. She looked for it everywhere, without ever stopping to rest. But she never found it..."

An expression of puzzlement overtook her face, but he didn't give her time to reflect upon it.

"She was strong and vibrant and very eager, like a proud little puppy, bursting with the joy of life. But she was a puppy in a warehouse full of mannequins, racing along from dummy to dummy, looking for someone who would play with her and tease her and cuddle her warmly in his arms. She didn't know they were dummies and she couldn't understand why she found no one to respond to her."

She knew, now, but said nothing.

He nodded, acknowledging her recognition. "When she found someone she thought she could love, she would imagine him as the most heroic of creatures, a slayer of giant-slayers, an emperor of emperors. She knew she was worthy of that kind of man, and so she assumed that the men who were attracted to her were worthy of her. She would imbue them in her mind with all sorts of enormous characteristics, massive strengths, heartbreakingly noble deeds. She was a goddess, and in the privacy of her mind she imagined that all her men were gods..."

She said nothing, just sat there looking at him, the faintest hint of wetness in her eyes.

"But they weren't gods, not even close. They were just ordinary men, some still boys, and they didn't want to have to live up to her greatness for the sake of a quick kiss between football games. It was no fault of theirs, really. We are each of us what we make ourselves, and they didn't feel any strong pull to make more of their lives. Some tried to live up to her expectations, but there was no real hope of success. Hercules himself could not have lived up to what she would have demanded of him."

The tears were welling in her eyes now but she did not brush them away. And she did not flinch when he continued.

"She never saw that. Again and again it happened to her, but she never saw quite what was going wrong. She would meet a new man, imagine him as a giant, then fall deeply, passionately in love with that imagination. She would be so good to him, so loving and giving, so ideal. And he wouldn't see it at all, wouldn't even know what she was doing. But after a while she would begin to see him, see him for what he really was. Not a god, but just another man."

By now the tears were trickling down her cheek but still she did not stir, did not pull her eyes away from his.

"And she would become so angry, so frustrated, so disillusioned. She was so much of an ideal woman, and she couldn't understand why her men were so--no, not evil, something much worse--so ordinary... There would be a bitter break-up, and then she would have to spend a long time putting herself back together. And then, when she was well again, and whole, she would meet a new man and start the process all over again... That's all I know of the story so far. How do you think it ends?"

She was crying openly now, her firm body wracked by silent sobbing. But her eyes were still locked to his and when she spoke her voice barely cracked. "How did you know all that?"

He said nothing, just smiled in a way that held no happiness yet was not polluted with the contempt of pity.

"But I never told anyone that!"

"I know..."

For a second her sobbing deepened and she almost choked on her words. "But how did you know?!"

He smiled again and that was enough. She knew how he knew, the same way he knew everything. By looking not at what he saw but what was behind what he saw. He nodded slightly, as if to underscore her recognition.

"I..." She stopped herself but knew she couldn't, knew she could never lie to him, never hold anything back. "I thought you were the one..."

"I know you did." He said it simply, but she sensed something beneath the bare simplicity.

"So, why didn't you...?" The question drifted away.

"I was married then, Amanda, or the next best thing. It meant a lot to me."

"But..." She didn't want to let herself but knew she had to. "But would you have?"

He nodded. He knew it was more than simply what she wanted to hear, he knew it was the truth. "Not just would have, but should have, no matter what it might have cost me."

Though there were still tears dribbling down her cheek, the smile that lit her face was like the dawn of a cloudless day. She tried to respond, but there was something blocking her throat, something hard and massive and burning hot...

They had dawdled over dinner and coffee, and it was very late when they stepped out on the terrace and looked out upon the sea of lights and the blanket of stars. They leaned against a railing, her hand atop his, and for a long time neither spoke. Finally he broke the silence with a small laugh.

"What is it?," she asked.

"Something that happened a long time ago. You won't find it very funny."

"Try me."

"Okay," he said. "I used to have a briefcase, if you can believe that. It was never any use to me. All my work is in here." He pointed to his head.

"Then why did you have it?"

"Someone gave it to me, an old boss. He liked me, and when I left the company he gave it to me. It was a very fine piece of work, hand-tooled leather, and it had belonged to his father."

"He shouldn't have given something like that away," she said.

"That's what I thought, but when people have their minds set on giving you something, there's no way to talk them out of it. Anyway, I took it home and when I opened it up, I saw there were keys inside."


"Yes," he said. "A little ring with two keys on it. They looked like keys to a set of luggage, or maybe to a file cabinet. It could be they were the keys for the briefcase, I never checked. They weren't my keys, so I left them there. I kept meaning to bring them to my old boss, but whenever I saw him, I'd always forget to bring them along. For years they were there, down in the corner of that case. Every once in a while I'd wonder what mystery was forever locked away because I had those keys..."

"What did you do?"

"Forgot about them, mostly. They weren't mine, and yet I couldn't throw them away. So they just stayed there, down in the bottom of the briefcase. It seemed to me that they were married, in a way, the case and the keys. Neither really wanted the other, and yet they couldn't be separated. I abandoned that case, when I was getting ready to move out here. I left it out where some homeless person would find it. I'm sure he makes better use of it than I ever did."

"Why does it make you laugh?"

He smiled. "Those keys. They'll haunt me for all of my days. I think about some poor wretch trudging around with that case, filled with his pitiful possessions, and somewhere down under all that debris is a set of keys. And he's afraid to throw them away, too!" He laughed and she joined him in it.

They were silent for a moment, but then she looked up at him, her eyes clear and deep, with just a hint of glassiness from her tears, now nearly forgotten. She said, "Grant...?"

"No, Amanda. Not yet."

And so they were quiet for a long while, with just the hum of the distant city and the buzz of insects to speak for them.

"'The stars are my nightdreams,'" he said, his eyes on the star-spattered sky, his tone making it clear he was quoting.

"That's a beautiful image."

"Isn't it?"

"What does it mean?"

"I don't know... Someone gave it to me. She wanted me to make a story out of it. I carried it around for a long time, but I found I could do nothing with it."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not mine," he answered. "It's like those keys. I can't embrace it, and I can't push it away. So I'm stuck carrying it around, not really able to do anything with it. The story is hers, not mine, and I can't write it for her."

She looked at him a long time before speaking. "Is that bitterness in your voice, or just melancholy?"

"Neither. Awareness, mostly. The recognition that I can't always do the things I might want to do for people."

"Does it make you resentful?"

"No," he said. "Not resentful. Wise, I hope, but maybe that's too much to hope for. I think it just makes me human..."

"I like people who live their dreams in the day."

He looked at her, the intensity of his gaze punctuating his words. "So do I."

"Grant?" She took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. "Grant, I think I could..." She wasn't sure why, but she knew she couldn't finish.

"I know you could," he replied, not helping her at all.

"...Could you?"

It was a long time before he spoke. "I don't want to be another disappointment to you, Amanda."

"Oh, but you wouldn't be!"

"Are you sure of that?"

She wasn't, not completely, so she said nothing. They stood there, content to be touching, watching the night unfold.

After a while she lifted his arm and sighted down it. "Follow that line," she said. "That's Mars." The red planet looked to her like the bloodshot eye of a starving wolf.

"I know."

"The star of the warriors...," she mused.

"And of those who mourn them. That's who you are, isn't it, Amanda? Mars, the god of war..."

She nodded. "And you?"

He said nothing, just smiled. As they watched, the mourningstar seemed to descend before their eyes, making its slow, lazy transit down the pre-dawn sky, another reminder of the coming of Summer. When he finally spoke, it didn't seem to be of the same subject, but she knew somehow it was. He said, "I'm through mourning..."

She didn't want to speak, didn't want to interrupt whatever might be going on in his mind, but she couldn't stop herself. "Which god are you?"

"I'm Mars, too," he said, suddenly joyous. He turned to her and clasped his big, bony hands about her waist. He picked her up as if she weighed no more than a pencil and swirled her around the terrace. "And Mars needs women!" He laughed, and though his voice was rough and deep, it sounded to her like the bell-pure peel of a boy's rejoicing.

She laughed with him, a laughter that was more than happiness, more like the release from bondage. When he put her down she reached up to him and embraced him as tightly as she could, as though to bond them together forever. She kissed him slowly, thoroughly, as only a woman who has fought for her freedom can kiss.

Dawn was creeping up through the mountains in the east, but they didn't see it. They saw only each other, as they had longed to see each other for years, but could not permit themselves. As they walked away together, they didn't notice it when the coming of the Sun overtook the bloody red mourningstar, didn't notice when it winked out of view. They were living their dreams in the day, and they did not see that the mourningstar had descended. Maybe not forever, but for now...

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