Salome and Circe by Jane Flett
Salome and Circe
Salome is leaden with routine. She drags a washcloth across the sticky kitchen counter and feels her arm snag. Another day has unfolded between these four walls, walls which never seem to crack or crumble, never swoon back into the soil, leaving the house—and her—agape. Salome doesn’t know what she’d do if this happened. Still, it would be some kind of a surprise.
It’s the fourth night this week that Johann has not come home from work, and all Salome can do is tidy herself into a well-made bed, fall into a fitful sleep, and wait for the moment he clatters inside. He will snarl into the blankets, damp stubble insistent against her neck, and she will roll onto her back. His knees will thud against her thighs.
At least, Salome believes this is all she can do. Salome hasn’t yet considered there are a dozen destinies licking at her belly with feathered snake tongues. Salome has resigned herself to a fate she is convinced is her own. This is her first mistake. Of course, there will be many more.
Circe is lying on a velvet bedspread, drawing a swatch of silk between her fingers. The silk is a sickly pale green and embroidered with dragonflies; it catches the light and tosses it, kittenish, in the air. On the bedside table is an empty bottle of bourbon waterfalled by red wax, an almost full bottle of bourbon with no cap, and a small golden bowl engraved with lions. The bed smells of frankincense, cinnamon, and cigarettes.
Circe is not drunk yet, but she is toying with it—snagging the edges, pulling the threads. Her legs are freshly shaved; her armpits are thick copper thatches; her wrists and hipbones are anointed with oil.
If she can just tug herself from the bed and out into the night, there will be trouble waiting. Of this, she is sure.
Circe and Salome meet. How is not important: Sometimes worlds apart take a tendency to collide. Perhaps they meet in a bar with fog on the glass. (Though, really, when would Salome escape to the bar?) Perhaps Circe appears at Salome’s window, pawing it like a cat, knocking over a row of milk bottles as she recedes into the night. (She’s the type, isn’t she, to pad down an alleyway at dusk?)
Perhaps they are both walking down a cobbled street, and Circe notices something in the downturn of Salome’s chin: a tendency for submissiveness and servility. Circe lets the green silk scarf unwind from her neck, and it slithers onto the ground. Circe walks on, her calling card cast, and Salome picks it up and calls after her.
“Excuse me! I’m sorry, I think you dropped…Is this yours?”
Circe turns around, green eyes glinting. The same pale green: Circe has purple dragonflies leaping in her irises, silver-crackling wing-beating lashes.
“Yes.” Circe smiles and takes the end of the scarf and draws it towards her, silken electricity, a pale green thread that binds them across centuries and intent. And then Salome lets go and the silk is in Circe’s hands and Circe runs a small pointed tongue against the tips of her teeth. “It’s mine.”
Johann arrives home. Salome is lying awake and swallows a mouthful of saliva every time his foot falls on the stairs. Her mouth tastes bitter—something is curdling deep in her belly. She tastes anchovies and cat dust and wine left out too long in the sun.
Thud. Johann is coming up the stairs. Salome turns over onto her side and holds the tip of her tongue between her teeth. Creak. Johann is in the bedroom. Now Johann is throwing one heavy thigh over her hip, his thick fingers pinching at her softest of spots. “Jo—” she starts, but his hand is already clasping a handful of hair at the nape of her neck, pressing her face to the pillow.
“Oh, baby,” he says. “Oh, you’re such a good girl.” As he pushes inside.
Circe presses her lips against Salome’s ear. Her breath is hot; her breath laps like a gentle summer tide. “Salome.” (It is a name that suits being whispered, that inhales and exhales with ease.) Haven’t you ever thought you deserve better than this, Salome?
Salome hasn’t. Salome has resigned herself to the fact that this is as good as it gets, as it ever will be. But she allows herself a small thing: the pleasure of Circe’s lips against her ear. She holds her breath, convinced that holding her breath will not kill her. Nothing need be decided right away. Time can be spun and pulled like molten wax. She can wait.
Or perhaps she is wrong. With every exhale of Circe’s breath, this thought wisps around the lobe of her ear. Are you sure, Salome? Maybe time can’t wait. Maybe time has already gone on far too long and you must leap upon this moment with fists.
Circe is dancing. Her hair is tumbling down her back and her lips are real. She is atop a tiger; she clutches golden sceptres in her fists; she tastes of coconut and persimmon and gin. She turns every which way and each way she turns is another beautiful face. Circe disperses advice like rain.
“Are you sure?” she asks. So many people seem not quite happy. So many situations that could be torn through and cast asunder. By the time the words have left her lips, she has already forgotten they were there.
Circe is having the time of her life. She grins, and a pure white energy bursts out of her teeth. The dragonflies crackle. Circe perceives colour as a hot wet thing in her mouth. Circe sees each person as a taut suspension bridge hanging over misty water and she walks out, she walks on, one foot after the other.
Johann slumps across the bed, chest wheezing like a broken accordion: the buttons stuck, the leather cracked, the bellows full of dust. Sour clods of air escape his mouth. Clods of ale and cigarette butts and onion.
Salome looks at this man and thinks of all the nights she has waited. The ivory handle feels weighty in her palm. She is comforted by its heft. And when the tip of the blade first slips into his gullet, it is almost as if it is not her hand moving at all.
A door creaks. The party is spinning and Circe is exhaling streamers: red green blue yellow pink black gold. Salome steps inside. Her eyes are triumphant. The muscles in her pale arms twitch, for the plate she holds is heavy. Salome looks Circe in the eye and glitters, unrepentant. She has never been this beautiful.
Johann’s eyes are empty: the loose, wet irises of a gutted fish. His lips are closed, his hair is dark and matted. The gristle of his neck is dripping.
Salome looks Circe in the eye and smiles a shy smile. She holds out the plate like a debutante extending a hand for the first dance of her summer ball. “I did it,” she says.
The partygoers gasp.
Circe raises a manicured hand to her lips. She lets her mouth fall open into a perfect round O. Oh, oh, Salome. What have you done?
Salome pauses. Then she steps forward again. Circe, be my lioness, be my black widow, finally—we’re free to run. But Circe shakes her head. Somewhere beside them a woman is screaming, and Circe looks at Salome and says, “Oh, how could you do this? Oh, Salome, what have you done?”
Salome drops the plate and it clatters on the floor and Johann capsizes forward onto his face. She takes a step back, shaking her head. “No, no. Circe. You said—”
Circe bites her bottom lip and lets her eyes go wide. Circe blinks twice; the dragonflies beat their wings.
And just before they all close around Salome, grabbing her arms, pinning her down, the waters of the crowd part. Circe is standing alone. She is looking at Salome and at the head on the floor. She is laughing.
© Jane Flett
Jane Flett is a philosopher, cellist, and seamstress of most fetching stories. Her poetry features in the Best British Poetry 2012 and is available as a chapbook, Quick, to the Hothouse, from dancing girl press. Her fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio, performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and published in PANK, Word Riot, and wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions. She is one half of the riot grrrl band Razor Cunts and the poetry editor for Leopardskin & Limes.
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