Born in 1792, Percy Shelley lived to just a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, yet during that short time, he managed to secure a reputation as one of the preeminent lyric poets of the Romantic era. Best known today for such classic verse as “Ozymandias” and “To a Skylark,” Shelley was quite the rebel and free-thinker for his time, espousing atheism and nonviolent civil disobedience and taking up with sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin while still technically married to his first wife Harriet. After Harriet conveniently drowned herself (in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, no less!), Percy wed Mary in 1816.
Despite having multiple premonitions of his own death and having never learned to swim, Percy had a perverse, almost pathological penchant for sailing in small, open boats. His pastime proved his undoing in 1822 when his craft evidently capsized during a storm and drowned him.
A quintessential Romantic, Percy Shelley possessed an appropriately morbid sensitivity. Indeed, the ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati in June of 1816 was inspired, in part, by one of Percy’s panic attacks. One stormy night, Lord Byron had been spooking his friends with a reading from “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. According to John Polidori, who was present, “the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s [sic] mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighborhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression.”
With that image in mind, consider yourself warned about the content of the story that follows. NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS EXPLICIT AND DISTURBING IMAGERY! WE PROMISE!
THE ORBS OF ERATO
Percy Bysshe Shelley
(as channeled by Stephen Woodworth)
She enters the villa from the courtyard, through the doors I have left open for her.The night, once racked by tempest, has become utterly still and clear, the nimbus dissolving to unveil a brilliant moon. Its beams frost her nude form in spectral white, the limbs sinuous as animate marble. Though the air is bitterly cold, no gooseflesh stipples her polished skin. Hair as wispy and lustrous as spider silk floats about a face so fine as to be featureless, its eyes shut, and she moves with the slow deliberation of a somnambulist. I am reminded again of the figure of blind Justice, but know that she is neither blind nor just.
I do not remember falling asleep, and yet the sudden, awful cessation of thunder has awakened me. I rise from my chair in the parlor and shamble toward the open doors, and I hear nothing in the smothering silence—not a footfall, no, nor even my own labored breath or beating heart.
She steps across the threshold into shadow, and I can see only her silhouette haloed in moonlight. Yet I can feel her nether gaze upon me as she waits with imperious bearing. I extend my hand to her in helpless invitation, and she, the guest, leads me to the bedchamber, as though I were the sightless one.
A single candle sits in a holder on the night table, and its wavering flame makes the rumpled sheets of the four-post bed appear to pitch and roll like an uneasy sea. She reclines on the down mattress, her eyelids still shut as if already in slumber. And that is when I see them—those other eyes that have no lids and never shut. One on each breast of her exposed bosom, the white of the eye like an aureole, a cornea in place of a nipple. The pupils contract in the candlelight, and the limpid orbs peer at me in languid expectation.
Under their stare, I grow faint, sickened, my head numb as the blood drains from it. When she raises her arms to summon me, however, I cannot refuse, nor tear my gaze from that of her nether eyes. Wearing only my nightshirt, I crawl forward like an infant, over the foot of the bed and onto her supine form. Despite my revulsion, I kiss and caress her stone-smooth bosom with insatiable ardor as the eyes follow the ministrations of my mouth. The pigment of their irises appears to shade from one hue to another, now green, now blue, now gray.
She grips me with the longing of a lamia, but she has come to nourish, not devour. As I touch my lips to her throat, to her jaw, to her cheek, the eyelids beneath her fine brows peel apart. Out of each opened eye peeks the iris of a reddish-brown aureole, its pupil a puckering nipple. I feel the flutter of lashes on my tongue as I lap at an exposed teat.
She lifts her breasts with her hands so that the nether eyes may continue to watch me. My mouth probes deeper into the hollow of her open eye until I suckle at the teat in desperate hunger. A taste sweeter than honeydew tingles my tongue, heady and dreadful and delicious, and it feels as if the milk flows not from her body but from the mind and soul behind that exquisite, implacable face. My brain dizzies with an intoxication of lurid visions and strange music, and I succumb to a drowsy numbness.
When I recover my senses, I am alone in the bed. The taper on the night table has melted into a frozen fountain of wax, its wick extinguished, and a haze of wan daylight shafts through the bedchamber window.
Far from lassitude, I feel an irresistible agitation. My skull is bursting, words leaking from its fissures. I jump from the bed and rush to my writing desk in my dressing gown. Verse gushes forth faster than I can capture it with ink and quill. The precious, elusive words threaten to skitter away, and I scribble madly to imprison them on the page. I write until eyes and arm and head are sore and still fail to catch all the fleeing rhymes.
Then the rapture dissipates like a vanishing dream, an ode half-finished on the paper in front of me. I am left with only a ghastly emptiness, a hunger that claws at me as if my stomach were full of rats.
I must see her again.
Night after night, I leave the doors open wide, but she comes no more. My mind is as blank as the sheets of foolscap that litter my writing-desk. Has she found another lover, one more worthy to nurse?
The thought is unbearable. I curl upon my bed and teethe my thumb, bawling, a babe bereft.
Copyright 2016 by Stephen Woodworth
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