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It ends something like this – her dark hair shadowing her eyes, hands clasped awkwardly around the fruit. She almost turns her face, her sinuous neck straining against the threads of fate – and it is that almost that immortalizes her among portraits of young, beautiful girls and dead lovers.
Sometimes it begins something like this: the empty echoes of la jeunesse dorée, a young, beautiful girl. The town remembers the halo around her head, her pink mouth curved up in a smile, and sighs. She disappears one day while taking a walk (“off the face of the earth,” newspapers read across the country). Her mother screams for justice, for her daughter, for mercy.
What the police give her mother is a body found buried in a field outside town, its golden hair dulled with rusty dirt and grime. How sad, the old grandmothers cluck under their breaths, shaking their heads as they gossip and chat in their knitting circles. For a week, the newspapers interview them before the town quiets down again and all that remains is the memory of a smile locked up in a dusty box of cold cases.
(For awhile, there’s a rumor whispered in dark corners and people glance hurriedly at the house across the street but nothing ever comes of it. One by one the people leave or pass away or simply disappear as if scattered by the wind but the whispers linger ever after.)
And sometimes it begins in the middle, in medias res. She still stands tall and proud with an archaic smile and one foot forward to the future but she is, oh, so tired. She watches other young, beautiful girls fumbling about her store of dreams, looking for this potion and that cream, searching desperately for beauty among an infernal sleep.
Once, she wakes up in that dangerous in-between, a woman-child who wears her beauty like iron armor. She dances in studded jeans and smoky kohl, reveling in the stares fixated on her hair swishing against her bare back, the milky skin around her navel, her slender ankles. Her smile promises secrecy, mystery, immortality – innocence.
The last is a lie and she bites her lip until she tastes the sharp, rusty tang of blood.
Desperation colors her existence, shades the darks and lights as she scrambles to pick up broken glass shards and fit them together in a portrait.
“Je ne suis pas vous,” she whispers when she finds her voice.
I am not you.
Her mother is a lovely, lonely woman. She almost reaches out to hug her mother. Almost but she is afraid to find out that she is too far gone, that her hand might close on empty air and smoke.
She lets her arm fall.
And the dance continues one step forward, two steps back. She wakes up in a cold apartment naked and shivering in a bed that isn’t her own. She rubs her face, accidentally smudging the heavy, dark lines around her eyes.
“Jesus! It’s freezing,” she mutters, wrapping a sheet loosely around her shoulders. The body next to hers shifts slightly and she leans over it. “Hey, do you have anything to eat around here?”
“Check the kitchen,” the man answers, voice rough from sleep. She slides off the bed and shuffles to the floating island on the other side of the room.
“Pomegranates!” She sounds like a child, laughter bubbling over like a spring as she triumphantly displays her discovery.
“Brought work home,” the man jokes, flopping over and leaning back on his elbows to look at her.
“From the lab?” Her hands still in their task of peeling open one of the waxy red globes.
“Local supermarket gets supplied by the company. Don’t worry, they’re safe enough. They were just modified to survive a fungus.”
“So that’s what you do all day?” She raises her eyebrow, slipping easily back into the mask of a teenaged sarcasm as she pops a seed into her mouth. “Play with life and death?”
He casts a feral grin at her as he turns to go into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. The hairs prickle at the back of her neck and she swallows slowly.
The girl grows up older and wiser this time. She is the ideal wife, a symbol of marital perfection.
“You are lucky,” her neighbors tell her when they complain about broken marriages, dissolute husbands, disappointing children. “It could be worse.”
It could be worse but it isn’t; it is only the biting taste of mint on her husband’s ragged breath as he pushes into her that night, calculated and clinical. She laughs.
The story twists and turns, creaking with the groans of shifting metal gears. For once it begins with a beautiful young boy with eyes that shine like stars. In fiery dreams smudged with charcoal and tears she feels the sickening heat of desire twisting and coiling within her stomach, sharpened by jealousy. One day she will lay claim to him forever, she knows but doesn’t dare to say aloud. Instead, she stays by his side, mouthing the words against his skin in a spell when he doesn’t notice.
Like now, with the sun overhead and the heady, sweet smell of spring blurring their vision in a haze.
“What did the prof want us to do?” The boy flops down next to her under the tree.
“Read chapters six to ten,” she answers, calmly peeling a pomegranate on the side.
“That’s, like, seventy pages!” he protests. “College is a b****, isn’t it?”
She lets out a small hum of affirmation, idly turning the pages of her textbook. Time passes quietly and she watches the sunlight and shadow dance across his face as he slowly begins to doze off.
“What are you looking at?” he asks, stretching lazily and placing his head on her lap.
“Lecture notes,” she replies, stroking his hair. “Don’t worry about it.”
His eyelids droop again and in the cool shade she waits.
One step forward, two steps back but she always looks ahead.
A tear trickles down her cheek as she sits immobile, transfixed by a mourning song.
Please, he asks. Please.
She nods ever so slightly.
Don’t look back.
When he returns, she doesn’t move again.
“Look this way,” the painter commands. She tilts her head and doesn’t dare to breathe. Instead, she focuses on the slide of blue silk against her skin and the sticky fruit in her palm. The painter is a generous lover but he has painted (idolized) dozens of young, beautiful girls. They are faceless angels with romance and tragedy in their eyes and lips.
“I will make you live forever,” the painter swears and she holds him to that promise.
She was here before the other gods in the shadow of a fear unnamed, the Iron Queen, the Destroyer. When she weeps, springs gush forth from stony ground; when she falls, all the Earth wastes away in the winter’s shroud of mourning. She is the Kore, the Maiden. She is, she is, she is…
Some of the legends say three, others say four, six, seven, maybe even eight. Only she remembers for sure but the exact number matters little. They all end in the same way, back at the beginning.
“It seems so small,” she remarks to the museum guide.
“What?” he asks, confused.
“The pomegranate,” she clarifies, gesturing at the portrait.
“It does make you wonder how so small a thing could have so great a meaning,” he agrees.
“Did it?” she wonders aloud. He stares at her, surprised, and for a moment – just a moment – he might be in love.
She smiles and continues to walk forward.