The Conception of Despair
Once upon a time in Aftermath, a moment cracked in half. And from that split, a pair of twin girls came to be. The pair of them grew, turning, fitting convexity to concavity, head to hollow in the shift within the close dark curving space.
Perhaps it was Defeat that started it. Looking for a fight. On the other hand, it was Desire that had begun to catch out, plucking at the heart of her sister. Grabby, you might say.
Those girls worried at one another until Desire managed to pinch away a ragged hole in Defeat’s flesh, exposing the cavity beneath. That done, she flew back with her fingers and snatched away a piece of the heart of her sister, a piece live with the insistent drive to beat—defeat defeat defeat. Jubilantly, Desire consumed her keepsake, popped it into the red O of her mouth and swallowed. Defeat smacked out in a pained fury, but the piece was gone. It rolled through chutes inside, traveled through, traveled down, into the stomach of Desire. There, the piece churned, sloughed its rhythm until pulse gave up to a one-way inward suck. The piece took in and absorbed the blood of Desire, blood dense with the viscous seep of longing.
Naturally, Defeat would not let it go at that. Twisting in a struggle for recovery, one hand clapped over the wound in her chest, she thrust the other hand out, groping in the dark. She found an opening, reached up into the innards of her sister, and scraped in search until she took hold of the piece and wrenched it out, giving loose a triumphant whoop that rang in cacophony with her sister’s shriek.
And then, silence, a still complete. Both of those girls froze, arrested.
A treasure glowed in Defeat’s grip.
A piece of the heart of Defeat imbued with the blood of Desire. That piece had transformed through an unknown alchemy, neither engineered nor imagined. A lustrous core. Iridescent in color, teardrop in shape. The smooth, firm surface. The sense of volumetric depth. The weight. As if Gravity had been seduced by some celestial body. The luminous draw of it. The magnetism of perfect containment.
Of course, each of those girls would have it for her own. The wanting one. The battling one. The tumble and the trouble they went to, snatching out for its glow in the dark, securing that treasure for a moment; the ferocity in wresting it away. Perhaps the place wasn’t big enough for the pair of them to begin with, and in the end, unruly as they grew, the confinement could hardly be sustained. Clawing at one another for possession of that singular treasure, they tore right through the curving wall, destroyed the space of their coming to be, left it lacerated, ruined. Devoid of any future?
How pretty the mother had been. Such pleasure for the visitor to study. They met safely removed from the whip and slash of the stark season during which the mother’s term occurred. Long sessions beside the freshness of the fountain in the perpetual balm of the gardens of Aftermath, with only the ever so unremarking chaperone of the old groundsman, not one to comment when he came around occasionally to putter with his clippers, guiding growth in deep beds that regenerate the soul’s array of flower.
The incline of her head, her contours, her form—great in protrusion that swelled and curved back to its resolution like the last few notes of a love song. Hair pure white from infancy. Eyes silvery gray. Skin just tinged the blue of blood flowing within.
The still; the timeless harmony of her.
She was pretty as a picture. A model subject, really, but of course, there would be no sense in painting it now.
Before and after, however, meant nothing to those girls.
Out they came in a bursting heave. Took no part in helpless infancy. They walked, they talked, and they skipped not a beat in tormenting each other. Each howled her first word in the dread accusation of naming—Desire, Defeat—and leapt her first step in assault, sure the other had won the treasure, taken and swiftly secured it somehow in the last moment of struggle in the dark.
Naked in the garden, Desire and Defeat fought themselves into a blur. The object, or subject, really, of the conflict was obscured in a funneling whirl as those girls whipped away from the prone form of the mother, the wreck of a vision as she writhed in the visitor’s lap, his hands suspended over her in a trembling hover as if to mutely work some desperate incantation.
Tandem tornadoes in neck-and-neck chase, those twin girls tore out of the gardens, leaving the soft balm behind. On they raced, hurling at one another, careening through the whip and slash of the stark season, through the park and up the slope of the lawn until the stone and mortar of Aftermath Manor was before them, and those two naked frenzied things fell to beating upon the kitchen door. It was the housekeeper that let the pair of them in, let in the double soul of relentlessness that rivaled the forces of nature.
Well. The housekeeper scrubbed the girls up as best she could, what with the profusion of noncompliant behavior, including biting, as you can imagine. Dauntless, she searched the girls’ skins on purpose to determine the difference between them. But as the scars had gone internal, the housekeeper found nothing—no difference—and decided that time would make its own distinctions. She dressed the girls in pinafores from their mother’s childhood, and turned those two wild things loose in the Manor.
Desire and Defeat, giddy in their warring ways. This one locking that one into a cold gray washroom; that one shutting this one up in the sour smelling closet under the kitchen stairs. And when one had rendered the other helpless, how she ransacked the place in jealous pursuit of that treasure, sure it had been hidden, hoarded by the other. How the pair of them tore up the carpets, overturned the bins in the pantry, ransacked the linen chest. How they disarranged the furniture in the drawing room so that it could never be set to rights, the original configuration lost to the fervor of their antics.
And when it could not be found? The pinching, the hair-pulling, the wretched name-calling. The wanting saw no pause. The battling saw no end.
Shrieking rang out in even the oddest hours, each of those girls intruding into the other’s dreams. Desire slowly smothering Defeat under an outsized bell jar. Defeat force-feeding Desire shards of glass. And the treasure, the luminescent teardrop glowing in perfect containment, always out of reach, deep in the tomb of its own counsel.
The two of them, meanwhile, were left to their own devices. What housekeeper would not wash her hands, leave those girls to their fanatic business. Leave them to their wanting and battling, their battling and wanting. Hire a nursemaid? What fool would take on the job, and besides, those girls had made short shrift of childhood, packed themselves right out of pinafores and into frocks with not a moment wasted on the transition, each avoiding growing pains by inflicting them on her sister. Out of the ABCs and into those fashion magazines.
How they consumed the glossy pages, flipping through with the toss of a jet black braid, the roll of a gem blue eye, the lick of a dark red lip.
Those vapid volumes littered the gloom of the library. Ill-gotten gains, of course. Stolen, no more and no less, from the Postal Carrier. Poor creature, obliged to call at the Manor once in each season, the stark and the raining, to make the long detour by way of confirmation that there’s nothing to deliver. Nothing coming, nothing going. No solace but a visit in the kitchen with the housekeeper before taking up the satchel, heavy with mail for the regular route that lies a far cry from Aftermath. Lighter that season, you can be sure. Indeed, the poor thing dozed off as the housekeeper chitchatted on, back turned, busy with the putterings of upkeep. And those bad girls pounced upon the opportunity to rifle, depraved with the longing conquest of acquisition.
Printed material was the least of their thieving. Outrageous, those mail order outfits the pair of them took to wearing about the Manor. Purple feathers and gold lamé; cheap red lace and transparent sequins. Tasteless, scanty, and soon reduced to rags, furthermore, the way the pair of them squirmished over one tawdry item or the next, leaving bits all torn and ruined as if a feather-tailed, sequin-scaled beast had been slaughtered, plucked, and ravenously consumed.
Yet how the two of them paraded, still, each a hissing audience to the other.
Time ticked on in Aftermath. The stark season gave way to the raining, and within the walls of the Manor the wanting and battling raged, the battling and wanting, vanity mirroring, doubling, doubling.
What housekeeper could hope to maintain the kitchen in any kind of order, what with the pilfering of this item or that for an endless succession of do-it-yourself-at-home beauty regimes. They made off with measuring spoons and mixing bowls, the mortar and pestle no less! Caught red-handed! Yet no slap on the wrist would deter those filching girls. How they clogged up strainers and ruined spatulas with the gunk of concocted ointments, face masks, hair packs. What housekeeper could maintain the glass un-smudged and the silver polished, the way those girls seized upon the slightest reflective surface to preen, to watch the progress of cold loveliness as it sculpted with harrowing cuts.
But why linger on their beauty? Why finger with the tongue the flawless white skin that gleamed as Desire turned slowly this way and that before the washroom mirror, carefully posing at each angle, her long smooth neck the perfect pedestal to her head topped by the intricate, sculptural, up-done coif of her hair, black coils braided then twisted, bound round and round in a high pile. She lifted a white arm, fingers arrayed, circling the majestic affair. Defeat watched at the keyhole, sure, sure as spit that the luminescent teardrop, the treasure of waking and dreaming struggle, lay within the maddening do, secreted, protected by the aura of blue black gloss.
Tears of frustration gave way to a scheming rage. Defeat descended to the kitchen in search of a weapon. A bloody digression. Economically stated, the housekeeper, who’d been busily snipping the truss from a bird about to be carved, took the wrong stand at the wrong time. Her kitchen shears? Absolutely not! She would not surrender her tools, not on any account. And she paid for this error with her hands to the wrist. The poor woman’s good sensible working hands, held down upon the chopping block with the strength of Defeat gone maniac, then severed with a crazed whack of the carving knife. Would that it had been the hands of the clock.
Desire emerged from the washroom to encounter Defeat, who, letting out a cry like unto the wails of the malevolent dead—I’ll have your head—attacked her sister with that ill gotten pair of kitchen shears. Desire fled, and Defeat chased, snapping viciously, her own hair flying out, a streaming black battle flag. Through corridors, down the stairs, into the kitchen, past the unfortunate housekeeper crumpled on the floor in shock and a slick of blood. It was in the pantry that Defeat cornered her sister, trapped her up against the window. In the frenzy that ensued, attack and defense indistinguishable, those two hellions slashed in a vicious tangle until the double mass of their black hair snarled on the pantry floor and the shears were abandoned in favor of throttle. Biting, shrieking; the crash of glass and out the window they hurled, into the pour of the raining season, two mad, shorn girls heaving across the lawn and down the slope in a spiking, spitting, drenched plunge.
On they careened, leaving the weather of Aftermath behind, coming to the soft balmy conditions of the gardens internal, those far removed. Past the fresh flowing fountain and ancient flora flourishing. Stem and leaf of a green unchallenged by jealousy; blossoms the white of absence unjudged by loss; the scent of hope without delusion. The battle, meanwhile, began to exhaust, lapsed into pushing and shoving, then a bit of name-calling that likewise petered out, devolved to a listless silence. They shuffled on, tramps in the rags wrought by discord, wandering, empty. Emptiness, finally, as animal understanding: That the treasure over which they had ever fought was ever lost.
A piece of the heart of defeat imbued with the blood of desire. That luminous core, left behind. Left to layer for its own protection. Left to its own gestation.
Deeper the wandering took them, until they reached a modest gate at the outlying edge of the gardens and passed through, finding themselves given up to an untended meadow with a low stone wall running along its far edge.
It was toward the stone wall the girls headed, trudging quite heedlessly over the mother’s grave, now spottily grown over by tannish grass. Thus Desire and Defeat crossed the limen of Aftermath. What became of either of them, beyond the wall, is a matter of some speculation.
It was the old groundsman that heard the cries. He tracked the sound, or rather let it pull him, through and through the gardens, and then through the little gate to the site of the mother’s grave. He began to dig with his trowel, then with the rake of his hands as the cries grew louder. Faithfully he dug, removing bluish earth until the body of the mother was revealed—cool and casketless, her arms rounded, hands clasped as if to frame the gaping cavity of her belly.
Within, an infant struggled for voice.
Evan Harris lives in East Hampton.