Phantasmacore

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Deianira

January 13th, 2012

by J. M. McDermott

Jealous woman, they say she bathed her husband’s shirt in the poisoned blood of a centaur. Maybe she poisoned him on purpose. Maybe she didn’t know it was poison. Maybe she didn’t care what it was, as long as it hurt the man that hurt her so much.


By our new house, at the edge of the city, there’s a park with a long, paved trail that cuts into the forest like a concrete river. From off the side of it there’s a strange concrete marker along a river. It’s narrow as a pipe, but square. It isn’t shaped like a tombstone, exactly. Written top to bottom, in plain block letters, is TESCOROW. I don’t know what it means, or what it’s for. My husband, Alcaeous, says it’s something to do with oil or gas companies, marking their lines for future workmen. He’s an oil man, and knows about these things. He says its nothing.

I don’t know, though. I’ve seen the plates his company, Juno, puts on roads and access ports. There’s nothing familiar about the TESCOROW marker. That it is far from the side of the road, near a river that touches paths along the paved trail makes me wonder how workmen would ever reach this place, before the trail was laid down through the scrub grass and trees. I’ve seen bobcats on this trail, and coiled copperheads the size of bike tires. The snakes love the heat on the concrete. They crawl up from the river to rest upon the artificial stones. I’ve seen dogs off leashes running ahead, gregarious and wild. This isn’t a place of the oil and gas men. This is a place the animals hold down against the press of the city, and maybe the trail will keep the developers from cutting down all the trees along the river.

That no one knew the meaning of the marker in the woods along the river, I loved. Let there be mystery in the world. Let there be shadows in the trees, and shambling mounds of fallen leaves that might be shamble men.

Of all the mysteries of the world, the one I like the least was where my husband went when he flew around the world to tour his pipelines and wells. He called me from hotel lobbies, never hotel rooms. He called me from airports. He rarely called me when he was alone in a room, lonely in the dark. He says he just read reports, watched TV, or slept once he went upstairs. If he got really bored he’d go to the gym, or the bar to watch sports. He never mentioned the possibility of a woman in his room. Alcaeous was the son of oil barons, shipping magnates, and the topless fashion models that clung to the deck of their ships. Of course he was cheating on me. Why wouldn’t he be cheating on me? I had a house in the suburbs big enough to fit three or four large houses inside of it. I could take a car in to the city whenever I liked to shop at expensive stores. I could drink fine wine alone on the large balcony overlooking the woods at sunset while my husband traveled the world, touring his pipelines and refineries. This is the way things worked. Marriage was a contract, like a business arrangement. And, at least when he was home, he was only with me.

When he was home.

I saw children on the trail, with paper sailboats leaning out over the water, placing their vessels into the gentle current, and then running along the sides to watch them go. The winner was the one whose ship went the farthest. I raced behind them a while, jogging to keep up with their boats. I wanted to see whose ship would sail the farthest. A fallen tree caught one of them in its branches. The boy whose ship it was, for a moment, thought of crawling out along the log, and releasing his boat. He came to his senses when the log shifted. It was a monster in the shape of a log. I saw it, and he did, too. Its branches were the heads of a small hydra. It opened one of its eyes and looked back at the boy, and at me.

The boy screamed and ran away to his friend, and the other ship.

I didn’t run. I stopped and stared. It had an ancient eye, and some of its branches were tentacles. It was camouflaged as a fallen tree, but it was something older than a tree.

“Hello,” I said.

It blinked at me.

“Are you the mighty Tescorow?”

It looked away from me, closed its single eye, and pulled all its branches together into a single trunk, like an alligator’s tail. It slipped under the water. The black moss along its back made it look like a chunk of river stones.

On the phone, Alceous said that I saw an alligator, nothing more. It must have swum upstream with the warm weather. Farther down the river, hundreds of miles away, the alligators are natives to the water. Perhaps someone had released an alligator there, hoping the creature would swim downstream to its brothers and sisters. I tried to explain about the branching tentacle eyes, heads, and the transformation into stones below the water. My husband surrendered to me. He said, “Maybe you’re right, dear.” I knew he didn’t believe me, and he wasn’t going to fight me about it from a hotel lobby in the middle of Brazil when he had a woman waiting upstairs.

There is still a mystery in the world, but my husband is no longer one of them. When we were young, I thought he was fascinating and mysterious, a vast interior country to be discovered and named and conquered. Now, I’m nearly fifty. My children are grown. I wonder what happened to the sense of mystery in my husband. I wonder what happened to the sense of mystery I held over him like an Oracle’s incense.

When he comes home, I’ll take him for a walk along this trail, and see if we can find it again. I’ll bring paper sailboats of my own. I’ll make him place one in the water next to mine, where the boys placed theirs. We will search for the transforming creature again with paper ships.

I can feel it in the house when he is home. There’s a low television hum, somewhere, or the sound of the weight machines clanking against each other. He’s older than me, and he still lifts weights every day. He still runs three miles before he has coffee in the morning. When he hunts with younger men from his company, they are often surprised at his vigor. I am, too. I lean into him at night, and it’s like leaning into a tree. I wonder at the roots of him, digging into me, and how gentle he is that I come out unbruised. When he was a young man, his first family died in a car accident. It was his fault. He was drunk. He did ten years of probation for it. He couldn’t keep any pictures of her out in the house. There’s a box of them somewhere in the attic. I’ve never walked in on him up there, with the pictures spread out before him of his lost wife. It’s like her pictures might as well be her ashes in a mausoleum. How can he treat her memory like that? It’s just as dismissive as when he agrees with me to drop an issue.

Another day along the river, I see horse riders in the woods on the other side of the river from the trail. They’re riding slowly through the thick underbrush. They are dressed like cowboys, with chaps and spurs. They don’t have pistols, but they seem to be carrying bottles of Gatorade in the holsters. One of the men was whistling something, but he was gone and out of earshot before I could pick out the tune. I should ask my husband for horses. His mother kept horses when he was young. I didn’t see the monster in the water that day, but I did see someone had pushed a rotten tree over to cross the river on foot, along the rotten wood. It didn’t look safe. I thought about doing it, just to see what was on the other side of the river, but whatever I expected I’d find was not enough of a temptation to lead me over the blackened bark and branches. I could see the kids with their sailboats running over, laughing at each other.

Then, I had a thought: what else would the monster eat. I studied the bridge carefully. I threw a rock at it, and watched it for signs of motion. There were no squirrels, here, and no sounds of people playing. Bicyclists flew past, paying me no attention at all.

The stones did nothing. I touched the log bridge with my hand. If it was the monster, it did not move. I looked up and down the river. One of the cowboys was visible, through the packed trees. He was drinking Gatorade and resting a moment. The way he sat on the saddle, and the way the horse stood, and the angle of it, I realized it could be a trick. The horse’s head could be stuffed and lifeless. The cowboy, riding in a saddle just a little too high on the animal’s back, could be a centaur in disguise, with false legs hanging off the sides of his own back.

He saw me looking at him. He smiled. He took the brim of his hat and bowed a little, like a gentleman. When the horse took up again, I looked closely at the animal’s face. It seemed stiff, like it’s neck was moving a little wrong. It wasn’t in balance with the rest of the animal.

So, there are still centaurs in the world, out past the trees, where there are no roads or travelers to bother them, anymore. With the invention of the automobile, I imagine it became easy to be a wild creature. People didn’t really go into the trees except at state parks anymore.

I didn’t tell my husband about it, because he would call it a silly whim, and then, when pressed, he would agree with me. He is a very agreeable man, my husband. He does not want to fight with me.

The next day, I stop someone on the trail, a runner who is stretching his legs against the trunk of a tree. “Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” he says.

“It’s a nice day.”

“Sure is. Good day for a run.”

“Yes. Do you come here much?”

“Oh, when I can. My wife likes me to get out of the house and get some exercise now and then. I used to be on the track team in college.”

“Have you ever seen anything strange on the trail?”

“What?”

“You know, strange things. I thought I saw an alligator the other day, but I’m not sure what I saw. Maybe it was an alligator.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen anything but snakes. Have to watch out for those.”

“Well, keep an eye out. It was something big.”

“Yeah, I will,” he said. He took off then, waving at me. The farther away he got, the more I wondered if I was going crazy, or if he thought I was going crazy. I spend too much time alone, with my husband away. I should join a book club, or a church, or a church book club. I should take classes. Rich wives are supposed to take classes.

I walked along the path, searching for signs and portents and strange things. The only weird thing was, I was there for over an hour, walking along the path, and I never saw the jogging man, again. He had either kept on into the woods, down to the end of the trail deep in the woods, or he had been intercepted along the way.

Going home, there seemed to be many signs for lost pets. Too many.

I’m making myself crazy, thinking about it.

I think I want to find the centaurs, and talk to them, and find out what is happening here, at the edge of the city. I want to see the mysteries of this world with my own eyes.

My husband flew in late at night. I heard his key on the lock downstairs. I heard him entering his security code. I felt his weight in the bed, lying down beside me, and his huge hands on my arm in the night. I leaned into him, half-asleep. I wondered if I could ever keep him here. I wondered if there was ever a way to keep him here, forever. My husband, in my bed.

In the morning, we made slow love, and ate a long breakfast. His phone kept ringing, but he turned it off. He looked tired.

“How were the pipes?”

He smiled. He took a long sip of his coffee. “It is as if the oil will never end. There is so much of it. As soon as it starts to run down, it becomes cost effective to burn sand to melt the oil out of it. The pipes are fine. Better than fine. I should retire.”

“You would get bored.”

“I would,” he said. He put his coffee down. “But not because of you.”

“Do you want to go for a walk today?”

“Your mythical alligator? Yes. Let me get my gun.”

It wasn’t unusual for him to carry a gun. It isn’t a shocking thing to say. We were wealthy beyond many people’s wildest dreams, and there was always risks associated with that. Kidnappers. Thieves. Protestors and activists that go too far. I do not carry a gun, but he does. He carries it everywhere it’s legal. It’s a normal thing for us, and without it he would feel like he had no wallet or watch. He’d feel a little naked without it concealed in his belt.

So, he carries a gun.

We walk to the trail. It’s a nice day. The sun was bright. The wind was gentle and cool. We walk to the trail, and I peer over the edge constantly, holding my husband’s hand, searching for signs of the unknown things of the world. I showed my husband the strange marker, TESCOROW.

“It could be an oil or gas line. I’m sure of it.”

“Weird, though, isn’t it? I mean, look at where it’s placed. Right along the river, by this trail. It’s not old, either.”

“It is strange. Perhaps it is a cemetery marker. Perhaps it is a dog who died, and he liked this trail. The owner loved the dog, and buried it here.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. It was my turn to dismissively agree.

“Is dog,” he said, very Greek for a moment.

Nothing else was on the trail but grass and breeze and joggers and dogs. We didn’t even see a snake or a bobcat. Perhaps the dogs had chased them all back deeper into the woods.

And home again in the sort of comfortable silence that comes from thirty years of marriage. We did not need to tell each other what we were doing in the house. We wandered into the kitchen to make paella. I wandered into the bedroom to shower and put on a house dress and water plants.

While he was cooking, his cellphone rang more. He wandered into the backyard to answer it, because he still believed his signal was stronger in the yard, even though it wasn’t any stronger anywhere. He had a good cellphone. It had a good connection anywhere in the world.

A late lunch on the balcony, I lit candles. I smiled and sipped white wine. The paella was like eating a tidepool. All the lost sea creatures trapped in the drawn away tide, boiled in the sun with rice the color of golden sand and sunlight.

“Tell me about your first wife. Tell me anything about her.”

He choked on his rice. “What is this? What?”

“Tell me about her. I want to know about her.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m your wife, and I want to know about her.”

“It was many years ago. Many years. Long time. Eat paella. Do not concern yourself with the past. It hurts too much. Please.”

“Then hurt. You can cry in front of me. I’m your wife, Allie. You’re supposed to cry with me sometimes.”

“I cry all the time.”

“I know, and it doesn’t bother you to cry a little about the television and the news and all the people that died in that Tsunami you didn’t know. You never cry about someone close to your heart. Tell me about Meg. You never cry about her. You never cry about me. You wouldn’t cry about me if I was gone.”

He threw his fork over the balcony. He stood up from the table and stormed inside the house.

I waited. Nothing happened. I stood up gingerly, and walked into the house.

“Tears are nothing.” he said. He was holding a bottle of whiskey like it was a gun and he was shooting himself in the mouth with it. He was drinking from it. His anger came from nowhere I understood. I’m his wife. I’m supposed to know his moods. Did he lose workers he knew? Accidents happen on oil lines. Did people die and I didn’t hear about it?

“I don’t want to see you drunk,” I said.

“It was an accident. I’ve paid for my sins. I held their broken bodies in my hands. How dare you talk to me like this.”

“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “I don’t want to be here if you’re just going to get drunk.”

“I pay for this house. Is good house. I pay for it. I work hard for it.” He sat down in a chair. He wasn’t shouting. He was talking to himself, falling softer. If it was his house, why wasn’t he ever here for any length of time? His house was just another hotel, with another woman inside of it to comfort him.

I put on tennis shoes. I took keys with me so he couldn’t lock me out of the house.

When I closed the door, I locked it. I whispered into the door. I want a divorce.

It was his house. It was in his name. I didn’t want it. I never wanted big houses, fancy cars, a business spread out all over the world like a hydra. I just wanted a man to love me. I just wanted to be loved. Real love, and that’s all. I didn’t want to be alone all the time.

I walked down to the trail, then. TESCOROW was still there, a marker without meaning, in the woods beside a river. The log bridge was there, now, beside the marker. It had migrated to the marker.

“Hello?” I said. “Are you the creature I saw, or a log bridge?”

The leaves on the branches fluttered into life. Flower buds like hundreds of tiny heads yawned open, curled into glorious red, and curled back into the blackened stem as if never there.

“Do you want me to cross you?”

It did nothing. I heard the sound of horseman riding at a gentle clip along the trail across the river. One of them slowed and smiled at me. His saddle was so high up the horse’s back, I knew.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Hey, what’s wrong with your horse?”

“What?”

“It’s head looks funny!”

He smacked the side of it. “So it does. That log looks pretty flimsy if you’re thinking of crossing.”

“I don’t trust it, myself,” I said. “But, I’d love to cross.”

“Well, now, I might be able to help you with that. If you’re up for it.”

He turned his stiff-faced animal towards the water. He kicked the sides of the beast.

He was a centaur, I knew. He was going to carry me over the river, and away from the house and the oil company and the whole, boring mess I had made with my husband. I’d live in the woods with him, eating wild roots and hunted game. He would have a penis so large it would make me scream in pain, like being destroyed. It would be so hard, and so wonderful. It would be more brutal than anything my husband had ever done to me. I’d be tied to a tree, and hung there, with my arms braced with ropes, and some bench or bar to take the huge weight of him. I’d be unable to walk. I’d be broken like a horse. When he was done with me, he’d feed me to the river.

He smiled, and picked his way across the rocky water. The river was deeper than I expected, going all the way up to the knees on the fake body that draped below the saddle. He looked so friendly, with such a broad, wide smile. Maybe we’d only be good friends. Maybe he’d let me ride him like a horse, and he could take me to the top of the mountains where the eagles still flew wild. He didn’t leave the water to hold his hand out to me, next to the log bridge.

“Hop on,” he said. He winked at me.

I was doomed, and I knew it. But, this was the only way to know anything more about the mysteries of the world. I took his hand. I took my place upon the false saddle, in front of him, where his strong arms held me like a damsel in distress. Across, then, to the other side of the water, and his powerful animal body below me, stronger than a ship, thrusting through the black water.

At the other side, I heard my name shouted out, and a man so angry he could kill me.

The gun, my husband’s gun.

Was he aiming for me? Was he aiming for the centaur?

We fell, the beast and I, on the rocky shore on the far side of the river from the man that fired a single bullet.

The monstrous bridge, an alligator now with a hundred heads, tried to stop my husband from running to us.

There’s blood. Someone is screaming. It’s me. I feel no pain. Someone is not screaming. He is trembling. His back leg is lamed.

The thrashing waves, and the monster of the water, and I saw my husband grappling all its heads at once in a powerful squeeze, upon its back like riding the hydra.

The horse is dead. The man on the horse is dying. He ‘s crushed under the weight of the false head. He’s bleeding all over me.

Was the bullet for me, or for him?

The hydra screamed in death, like a thousand songbirds flying away in fear.

My husband grabbing at me, muttering some in Greek and some in English.

He pulled me from the back of the beast. The blood is not mine. The horse and rider, a bullet passed through the leg, and into the beast. It had bled out. It was still bleeding. His arm was moving.

My husband fired a bullet through the horse’s brain. Sawdust shot out from it. He fired again, this time through the rider. The whole animal stilled.

I had never seen so much blood.

My husband, the slayer of horses and slayer of men, killer of the hydra and the Nemean Lion, the man who wrestled death and won, and did so many great and glorious things I could not count them all, dragged me by the hair into the woods on the other side of the river. He struck me with the gun so hard the world spun away from me, and I could barely think. He took me, there, with the centaur’s blood all over my disheveled clothes.

“Mine,” he said. “My wife!”

I’ll never leave him. I knew that then. I would be his until I was dead. I would never know anything but that, until I was dead, and I could leave him.

When the centaur’s blood made him sick, I lit candles on the alter to pray for his death.

When he died, I wondered if it was my fault or his. I wondered what I would do in that huge house, all alone, and he was gone to a world more mysterious than the oil wells, and a darkness blacker than the oil.

I lived a long time, then, by myself.

I was lonely for a while, but then I got used to it, and my children came to visit sometimes.

I sold the house. I live in a small house to be close to by my granddaughter.

I tell them stories about a happy dragon named Tescorow, who helps the children of the world play games and trick their parents.

My sons and daughters don’t understand what happened to their father.

Nobody really talks to me anymore except my grandchildren.

When I pull Megara’s pictures down from the attic, with her children, I arrange them all around me and look at them. She had bruises on her arms in most of them. Her children always seemed to have bruises, too. There’s one where the boy has a black eye and he’s standing in his father’s shadow, staring at the camera as if afraid it will reach out and bite him.

The obituaries for my husband ran all over the world. He was a glorious man. He was well-respected among the leaders of men. My husband, the glory of Juno.

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