Alexander Beisel is a writer and illustrator. He and his wife Catelin live in the most Normal part of Illinois with their two cats: Audrey Hepburn and Mr. Bingley.
CASSANDRA LAUGHS TOO
All the talk about moving in together, all those months were faster than the move itself. Ruth initiated it by accident. Slipped up once and said “when” instead of “if,” and Aaron liked the way the word sounded. The night before the furniture arrived, the two filled an empty apartment with words like “ours” instead of “yours.” An alien vocabulary for the two of them. The first night was sweaty and dark. Aaron’s battery-powered lanterns set in the corners. Ruth’s heavy quilt spread across the hardwood.
“This thing is hideous,” Aaron said with a mouthful of pizza. It tasted the way the air smelled: packing dust. He had ordered it special for Ruth.
“My grandmother made this for me,” Ruth said painfully. Her cheeks were full of pizza,
and Aaron tried his best to take her seriously. “She stitched this for me on her deathbed, Aaron.” Her chewing filled the silence, and at length, the clop-schlop of it gave her away. She burst into laughter.
“I bought it at flea-market,” she confessed. “What’d you do with the body?”
Ruth stared at him.
“The body it came with,” Aaron said. “Only reason someone would buy this thing would be to store a dead body before hurling it into the sea.”
Ruth dragged a finger across the cheese-less pizza and wiped the tasteless sauce on his forehead.
“It’s pretty, you dick!”
“You’re pretty.” He said it with the cadence of insult. She kissed him with more sound than lips. Ruth’s eyes wandered across the room. The lantern’s white halo made the ceiling seem vaulted and cathedral like.
“Is this your—the studio then?” she asked.
“Good a place as any—you want to put your books in here?”
“In here, with you?”
“Where else, Charles?” That was his pet name for Ruth. She couldn’t remember when it started, but she knew what he meant by it. He always called her Charles when he thought she was being stupid.
“Are you crying, pretty lady?” “Yeah.”
Ruth snorted, sucking back the tears with noticeable hitches in her shoulders. She sneezed: packing dust.
“Because you don’t like my grandma’s quilt!” Aaron laughed and Ruth felt the lie in her chest. She lied to herself: she wasn’t ready to be honest. He can’t know, she thought. Not yet. I don’t even know anymore. It was hard work forgetting it all. She’d lie to him then. Cover that broken body and hurl it into the wine dark sea.
“We can put your horses in here, too,” Aaron offered.
“I have a lot of them,” Ruth said. She filled the room with bookshelves in her mind. Two—maybe three. Literature on the window side. Graphic novels by the door. Breyer mares running across the top. Anything to keep her mind occupied.
Ruth battled the stairs one at a time. Each arm was laced through the ringlets of awkwardly weighted bags, and she leveraged each step by swinging them as a counterweight. No reason to make the trip more than once, she thought. Her knees and elbows knocked against the walls.
“Shit. Damn it.”
“Do you need help?” Aaron asked. He waited for her at the top of the stairs. Aaron always asked if he could help.
“Nope—I got it.” And Ruth always refused. She kissed him on the stair landing and shuffled past him, careful not to bend her haul. She dragged her collection behind her like the wake of a ship, unloading it on the bed with a pronounced grunt.
“What all did you buy?” Aaron asked. “We haven’t even unpacked the kitchen yet.”
“You’ve got pencil all over your face.” She ignored his hovering, and began to unpack her things methodically.
Aaron rubbed his face, looked at his fingers, and then rubbed his face again.
“What are you doing?” he asked, holding open the door that wanted to close behind her. Ruth placed a thick sheet of cardboard across her grandma’s quilt. She pulled a pair of scissors from the bag before deciding the cardboard lay slightly crooked. She reset it. And again. As she emptied the bags she ticked items off her list.
Cardboard, scissors, aluminum foil, tape
She’d told him it was her system. Kept her sane, she said. If she didn’t write it down, meant it never happened.
“Do you have any Xacto blades?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah.” Aaron hurried back to the studio to find them and Ruth followed after him when he took too long to come back. The path through the kitchen was choked with boxes marked: tack, boots, old pictures. She managed the path perfectly. Huntress. When she found him in the studio, he was reexamining his sketches.
“You think she’ll make out okay?” he asked, pointing to vitruvian diagrams of Ruth’s characters. She’d wrote voraciously stories that she’d never finish. She’d read them aloud to Aaron to check for syntax errors, and he’d draw them in spectacular detail. The walls of the studio were papered with them in various stages of completion. Characters and creatures Ruth had conjured that meant something once. Enneas was her favorite one so far. She’d explained to Aaron that Enneas was a genetically engineered soldier equipped with personnel armor and he’d crafted her into an icon, and hung it from every surface of the studio—pinned to the walls like specimens. Portraits. Exploded view of her armor. Aaron had seen right through her, she realized. Read her words and turned it into something real. It was always real. It was just mine. Only mine. The ink was still drying on the Bristol board: Part I: The Medusa, it read. Below the title, Enneas gawked at the eponymous death machine towering over her. She’d likely never escape. How could she?
“Shit—sorry.” He rifled through pencil cups and ink washes for a fresh blade. She found the list she’d forgotten. Left it underfoot of a model elephant he’d named Ruth. He never played anymore, and she wondered what happened to all the soldiers that marched with her once.
new meter, test strips, glucose—cherry
“Here you go.” Aaron handed her the blade, point first. “Are you sure I can’t help?” Ruth took the blade carelessly and hurried back to the bedroom, tripping on a box marked: Nimrod’s Arrows.
“Alright—what are you doing, Charles?” Aaron was watching her from the door frame, careful not to cross the threshold. Ruth struck down another item on her list.
“J’ewel’ll shee.” She used her teeth to cut a length of tape. Aaron watched her for a minute, curious. Maybe concerned.
“Maybe try the blade instead of your teeth?” The words came out laced with laughter. Something like doubt. She measured a length of cardboard in her mind. Used her wingspan to compare the tape with the cardboard.
“Do you want a tape measure, Charles?”
“No! Now go—it’s a surprise,” she said. Aaron raised his hands as a sign of surrender. He left without a word, but they shared a smile before she closed the door in his face. He spoke through it.
“You’re not wallpapering are you? If you’re wallpapering, might I advise against yellow?” Ruth laughed. “Fuck off,” she said.
Ruth covered his eyes with her hands. They were shaking at the edges of her fingers.
“Annnddd…open!” She tore her hands away from his eyes and sat on her grandma’s quilt.
“It’s a camera obscura…” she whispered. The bedroom was dark, the windows blocked out by the wide sheet of cardboard. She had taped it over the window, foiled the edges where the light bled through, and cut a pinhole through the center. All the light of creation flooded through it. The university skyline was cast across the high spaces of the bedroom. Upside down. Filtered through the dull light of the evening sun. Like stained glass.
“Isn’t it awesome?” Ruth asked. She pressed her palms together and squeezed her hands
between her knees. She was close to giggling.
“You turned our bedroom into a camera obscura…” Aaron was startled.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I love it, Charles.”
Ruth stood to kiss him. She hated the smoking but loved when he tasted like it. We’ll look like a Picasso when we fuck, now. The clock tower fits his face. But he’s hard to kiss in this light. Her lips fell on the XII that folded around his. He was waiting there for her. She gripped a tuft of his hair, forcing his head down but he was already moving that way. Ruth shuddered.
Ruth thought the drug store harnessed some sanitary white light that oddly made her feel
sick. A dingy, humming thing that managed to complement the medicinal smell in the air. She skirted the cashier--don’t have time to talk with Marge. Always too friendly, she thought.
Straight to the pharmacy where Derrick--no, Dominic? D...something—D something always used her name to say hello.
“Ruth—back again,” D something said. She looked for a nametag but D something didn’t wear one. Had a sticker instead that read “Ask me about Flu-Shots.” She wondered what she’d wear if a sticker had to sum up her occupation. Ask me about literature. Ask me about French. No. I don’t remember enough of it. Ask me about the patriarchy.
“Hey…you. I called about my prescription?” Ask me about comics. Fuck it—ask me about Cthulhu. Oh—no! Horses! Ask me about horses!
“Yes, ma’am. I’m getting it now. Be just a minute.”
“Okay.” Ask me about accountability. Fuck, I need to eat.
TP, shampoo—little bottles pens-blue, black, red glucose—cherry flavor.
Peppermints for Sophie
Ruth rounded the aisles, stopping at the "As Seen On TV" products. She grimaced at the
knee straps and elbow straps and those back straps that Shaq used to sell. Knock-off sodas. Knock-off candy. Peppermints for Sophie Cheap toys. Wonder if Aaron needs this for his game. I’ll wait. Christmas lights. For his studio! He’ll hate them—basic bitch. Who cares. Ask me about yoga pants and pumpkin spiced lattes and neck scarfs.
She ran her fingers along the magazines, noticing they transitioned into dime novels about Amish women fucking faceless cowboys. Ask me about metonymy.
She was too close to the register by now. Marge could probably see her, and then she’d be trapped in another polite conversation. She leered over the aisle toward the register. Marge wasn’t working today. They’d hired someone. He didn’t say anything. She didn’t know how long he’d been watching her.
He was stone. Just watching her. There was no guilt in him at all. He’d forced it all inside her.
Sixteen again. Fingers raked and ripped. Desperate, clumsy things. No—I said no. No! Don’t! Helpless. The stars from the bed of a truck. Blurred. The rise up and down. Up and down. Six times. Sick—Sickening—Sickened—just waiting for it to be over. Six times, up and down, up and down. Finished—drive home—silent. And I kissed him after.
“Customer pick up.”
Wounded. You should have known.
“Customer pick up.”
Stupid girl. Broken.
Aaron was bent over his drafting table, lost in his work. His pen scratched and clawed across a woman’s face. She was terrified of something he hadn’t drawn yet. Something lurking just beyond the edges of the Bristol board. Ruth knew what it was. She wrote it. And she wasn’t sure she understood it like she once did.
It’s cliché—what the hell was I thinking? I can’t end it with a ticking clock. Might as well be a mirror catalogue: scars, cellulite, hand graces protruding belly—nothing but metonymy. Nothing but a body--cliché. He’s staring at me. What’s he thinking?
“What are you thinking?” Ruth asked.
“Nothing.” Aaron told her once that a man’s natural state of thought is nothing. Blank. Void.
“I believe that.” Ruth turned away from him. Cold.
He said a woman’s mind was like all the stars in that void. A matrix of gravity and light. Bending and folding around the edges of time. Ruth said she’d love to think as he does—not thinking. What would that be like? Lonely, I bet. Cold. Silent. Like the sea, maybe. I’d drown in all that nothing.
“I don’t know,” Ruth said, pacing. “Ending the chapter with a ticking clock?” Ruth was already bored with Enneas. Not board. Through with her, though. As she’d written it, Enneas’ next chapter ended with a bomb’s ticking clock. She’d crossed it out and replaced it with a self-deprecating note: Lowest. Common. Denominator. She clicked her thumbnail against her mug. Arrhythmic at first. But gradually it found its place.
Aaron looked back to his drawing and gingerly stabbed at all those horrified faces rendered in grayscale. The pen fell from his hand, rolling along the surface of the drafting table. Ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky. The guard caught it before it could hit the floor. Ticky-ticky-ticky-kloc.
She heard the groan from his stool as he stood and the shuffle of socks past a tower of stacked boxes. Already her boxes were becoming furniture. The important bits are done at least: the books have a home.
Press-wood bookshelves filled her studio and made her collection look grand. All alphabetized by author. Organized by genre. She filled them with all her favorite stories about women swooning on the moors. Dying of broken hearts. Each of them were beaten and scarred with Ruth’s consistent margin notes:
victim “fallen woman” = antonomasia
uxorious—no feminine equivalent
Mad women in the attic. Blighted stars all. And Ruth loved them all for what they were: cliché. Cliché cliché cliché. As she looked around his studio, she wasn’t sure what that word meant anymore. Stuffed in boxes like coffins. Tombstones shackle the soul in place.
cliché isn’t something we’re tired of. It’s something we’re tired of hearing.
Once victim, always victim. That’s the law.
Aaron staggered back into the studio sipping loudly from a mug. He set his cup down atop a box labeled Hail Satan. He nudged the box. It breathed out heavy, clanking noises.
“What’s even in here?” Ruth heard him but was far away. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Far away. On the banks of Allan Water, None so gay as she. He sipped his coffee again. She clamped the book shut.
“Anyway—the clock—I think we need to change it,” she said.
He watched her lips fold under her teeth, listened to her fingers play atonal music against her ceramic mug. She was somewhere out in the universe; lost in space in search of Hesperia.
He told me it was like watching stars being born. But it’s like a crashing wave. Up and down. Up and down. Rise again. Fall again. But I’d drown in all that nothing. On the banks of Allan Water, None so sad as she.
“Why?” Aaron asked.
“Why no clock?” He wriggled past the boxes on his way to his desk and touched Ruth’s hips as he passed her. He didn’t notice her flinch.
“Because, it’s cliché and—I don’t know—Enneas shouldn’t be dictated by time.”
Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb . “I feel like she’s better than that.” Aaron sipped his coffee again.
“Aaron—you’re drinking your coffee at me.” He turned on his stool without a word. They sat in silence, their pens screaming in chorus with one another. Aaron crossed through more failed panels. Ruth:
Read: Lit Crit chapters 6,7 Tess chapter: 14 Revise: Ennead Part II (clock doesn’t work)
Doctor: new meter, test strips, pump
“I don’t know,” Ruth said. She was answering something else in her mind. Some new
doubt, some new question that no one had asked her. She’s not supposed to be just another blighted star. She’s not a victim—you’re not supposed to say victim—she’s a survivor. “I don’t want—I don’t want this to be just another story.”
Aaron turned. Ruth hadn’t moved from the window. She was watching her toes wriggle in her gladiator sandals. Like the lumbering dead rising from the wine dark banks of Styx.
“So—no clock then.” She heard him but it was white noise. Like waves crashing. He can’t swim. He never learned how. I think I’d drown in all that nothing. Better to stay on shore with all the old men missing limbs and the widows missing...Widows walk the widow’s walk.
“I don’t know—no—I don’t know.”
Aaron sighed and scrubbed his greasy fingers through his hair. “You’re the writer,” he said, resigned. His smile was bruised with gray and black fingerprints, his face streaked in a way that resembled war paint. War with something leviathan. Something you could destroy but never defeat. Ruth licked her fingers and scrubbed at the war paint. Her fingers were calloused from all the needle pricks, her palms clammy. She kissed him and sat atop a box facing her bookshelves. She’d marked it: The ghosts of dead gods. Aaron cut a new page of Bristol board to shape. The cutting and biting of the blade stretched out across their silence. I’d like a garden, I think.
Store: Seeds: Azalea, Anemone, Sage, Violets.
“What if we keep the clock?” Aaron asked. “We just give it a twist. Something the reader doesn’t expect.”
“Yeah.” It just didn’t work. Too cliché. She’s supposed to be a warrior—a strong woman—strongwoman—master of her own destiny. The world isn’t something that happens to her—it’s something she owns, something she can control. God! It’s fucking hot.
Ruth couldn’t read her list anymore.
⇪⇨⇨◀↕ ⇦↙⇨⇦⇨▽ ↹↕↓↙ ⌃⇨▲⇨
“Did you hear me?” Aaron was mouthing the edges of his pen. He was desperate for a cigarette. So weak that he can’t go five minutes--
“When was the last time you ate?”
“I ate already.”
“When was it?”
“I don’t remember.” I don’t need him.
“Let’s get you some food. Where’s your meter?”
“I said I’m fine.” I do need him. I need him—what does that mean? I hate that—I hate that I need him.
Ruth stood immobile, watching the autumn scatter the summer to the winds. Her eyes couldn’t settle on one aspect of her reflection. She watched as Aaron took up her fingers and pressed a needle to them.
His hands are filthy. Schtick. I don’t feel them anymore. Too many sticks. I don’t even have fingerprints anymore. All those ridges and valleys, all that DNA coding, all that physiology slaughtered—death by a thousand cuts.
“Heh!” She stood petrified, laughing at her own reflection. Cliché.
No fingerprint left. Might as well have never had them at all. Born as no one. As nothing at all. Jane Doe.
“You know, Aaron, I think I’d drown in all that nothing.” Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet-deet.
“Jesus, Ruth. Come on—in the kitchen—let’s go.”
It must be low.
“Fine—wait here then.”
He worries too much. Uxorious. There’s no male equivalent.
“Come on—I need you to eat this.” It tastes horrible.
“No, no—the whole thing, Ruth. Ruth—the whole thing—come on. Goddamn it. Ruth? Can you understand me? Do you know where you are?”
It’s all just white noise. I can hear it. Like the ocean. I can see it but it’s all fog. Fog on the ocean. Leviathan deep. The widow walks the widow’s walk. Chiasmus. He always worries too much.
Ruth could smell her own sweat. It cut along the sticky ridges of her chest as water cuts through a vale. She sucked on another glucose packet: orange flavor; a sad, synthetic thing brewed up by chemists who must have only ever read about oranges. Her face burned and she couldn’t know if it was from the seizure or embarrassment.
“I’m so sorry, Aaron.” She could feel tears in her eyes. Embarrassment then.
“What are you sorry about, pretty lady?” He pressed a cold compress to her chest. The shock of it hurt in her mind.
“I don’t know—I’m really sorry.” It shouldn’t have happened. I should have seen it coming. Stupid. I hate that I have to care about it. I hate that it’s part of me.
“Do you want to sleep?”
“No.” It’s alien—not alien—it’s me—it’s my body and my body has betrayed me. Just
something else in me that’s betrayed me. I don’t even have fingerprints for fuck sake—hacked off and sold—no—stolen.
“Why are you crying? It’s okay, pretty lady. Everything’s okay.”
“I feel…broken!” Ruth said. The words came forced, well known but never said. “You’re not broken, Ruth. You have diabetes. Lots of people have diabetes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of—”
“Not just fucking diabetes, Aaron!” “What then?”
“I just…I hate that I have no control. I don’t even own my own body.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t fucking get it.” “Tell me, then!”
“I don’t want your help, Aaron.” I’m not going to be your burden. “I’m not a damsel for you to rescue.”
“I’m sorry—I just wanted to—” “Don’t. It’s my problem.”
“No—it’s our problem, Ruth. You’re not broken, pretty lady.”
“You don’t know…”
Like a wave. Up and down. Up and down.
The evening was cut-up and scattered across the clouds. Purple and blue bruises. Orange and pink wounds at the edges. The moon just watched it all from the far side of the green hills.
The university’s horses grazed up there.
Ruth fed them three times a week for extra cash. Vacation, she called it. Aaron hated it when she’d do it at night. Said it was dangerous. Dangerous was lying in bed just waiting to feel it all again.
Sixteen again. And all that skyline hanging upside down above her. Cathedral light and that mote of packing dust that mimicked sunbeams. Just like the oranges—life for someone who only read about it. Jane Doe.
She rounded the rings and parked by the tack room. The horses all knew her car and trotted down the hills in a blur of painted light. Like a mistake someone had tried to color over. Palimpsests. All braying and crying. She shook off the tears and turned off the engine.
“Hello, ponies,” she whispered. Chaucer forced Socrates and Biscuit to yield. He poked his dumb grey face through the fence and waited for Ruth to bring him the peppermint candies he wasn’t supposed to eat.
She offered him a peppermint, and when he took it she pressed her face against his, blowing hot air against his muzzle. The candy cracked and popped in his toothy mouth. Never made sense to me: Horses the children of Poseidon. Horses don’t swim and Poseidon doesn’t ride. Athena might have been better. No. Fuck her—poor Medusa. Artemis. The only real goddess if ever there was one. Ask me about man-made religion.
“Sophie Girl!” Ruth called. She never came right away. Ruth always had to find her in her stall where she waited impatiently. She couldn’t walk anymore. Feet all gone from
Cushing's. Only half a paddock now, too. All boxed in and she finds a smaller box to hide herself in.
“Hi, Sophie Girl!” Ruth breathed against Sophie’s face. Sophie snorted in reply and Ruth
chuckled at her stubbornness. She was old and tired. Unwilling to admit she was happy to see Ruth. If for no other reason than to be fed. Ask me about nothing at all.
“It’s very good to see you again, Ms. Sophie.” At least she’s not lying down again. Wish I could ride her. Feet are already at an 8—she’ll be lame at 10. I can’t ride her. I can’t even take her around the ring anymore. She’ll be lame soon.
“Not lame—you’re not lame, are you Ms. Sophie?” Ruth began to braid Sophie’s mane before deciding she didn’t have time to do it all, and it was all or nothing.
Ruth threw a flake of timothy hay into the feeder and Sophie reached out her neck and
picked at it with a mouth that was all incisors now. I’ll give you two flakes—you’ve earned it. Since you can’t even graze anymore.
Ruth ran her hands down Sophie’s back, touching her dock as she left her behind to feed. She walked the perimeter of Sophie’s paddock, kicking over clumps of dirt where the harrow chains had ripped out the grass that once grew there.
Ruth balanced herself on the rotten planks of the fence and read while the light lasted.
Tess chapter: 14
The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.
The night metastasized and Ruth began her walk back to Sophie’s stall. She passed the tractor that had scoured Sophie’s field. The harrow was up-righted and the chains hung over the fence like a gallows. Thick hanks of grass clung to the rusted loops. Ruth watched Sophie turn out and walk into the evening with careful steps. Her withers hitched with each step, her legs bowed out. Sophie laid down before the harrow and snorted in the dust. She craned her neck and pecked out the bits of grass that clung to the chains.
Ruth knelt beside Sophie and brushed her forelock out of her eyes.
“I know, Ms. Sophie,” she said. “I know.”