It was a very hot day in June when Ovid first saw Xenia, nude and blue, on the farthest coast of the Black Sea, in the corner of the maps where sea monsters coiled and the river Ocean bit its own tail around the world; where he had collapsed upon a fallen tree trunk, his hair thick with salt and his sandals full of needles, exhausted from his journey.
Everyone on board had known who he was, giggling, jostling, pointing him out. By then his Loves and Art of Love were everywhere—not just in Rome but everywhere—the second one especially prized, being so wicked, with instructions on all things erotic, from rendezvous techniques to the most intimate rhythms. Girls murmured his words to each other as they stood before their mirrors; they arranged their hair this way and that and crouched, bare bottomed, looking back alluringly over their rumps. Oh no, that’s not your best view, they’d whisper to each other, advising as his book tongue-in-cheek coached.Your side is much better, with your thigh stretched long! His lines had become veils on the bodies of women as they strolled the streets of Rome, knowing how to deploy that full flank, that flaming nest of hair. He had set the city on fire!
But that, of course, was one of the reasons he’d decided to take this trip east. The Loves had barely slipped by, but The Art of Love … Augustus, intent on reinstating old-time morality in his new empire (after all the blood and proscriptions that had allowed him to establish it), had threatened the book with censorship before it even came out. So in a large dramatic gesture Ovid had burned the text, scattering the ashes upon the Tiber. But of course he had another copy, and, what with the demand created by all the publicity, it was secretly released later. Being rare, the books were exquisitely expensive—and that had come in handy, his funds never being as fluid as those of Augustus’s pet poets, who wrote of austere pleasures and of the magnificence of Rome. The emperor’s palace had growled at its role in the book’s success; Augustus ground his jaw and fixed Ovid with his gray eye from his stone-cold palace on the Palatine. So Ovid had decided, with the advice of Carus and Marcus and the others, that while his latest, Metamorphoses, was still at the copyists, he’d just dart off for a time.
But he was glad of it. He was edgy; he was sick of his frivolous reputation: he wanted his image transformed. Vergil, Horace—they were the true poets, gray and grave and weathered, heaven-borne already. But with Metamorphoses he thought he’d begun to shed that wearisome slick skin; he’d begun to finger live bones. And now he must continue, deepen—he must start something new. Although he didn’t know what yet, which, to tell the truth, was peculiar. Usually by the time he finished one book the next was already pecking, whereas, since completing this latest, he’d felt oddly scraped clean. But with some air, some distance: of course it would come.
It had taken two weeks in that first ship with its magnificent sails to get from Rome to Athens, another two crossing the Aegean, two again tacking north—that long, even though the winds were favorable, no magpies swooped from the left, no one dreamt of black boars, and the bulls’ entrails were always clean. Once they reached Athens, Ovid took a jaunt around the city, had a look at all the ruined statues poking their heads from the fields, remnants of Rome’s last sacking. But the weariness of it all irritated him, how handled it had been. All the monuments, artifacts, sightseers, guides. Quackery. Dust. Just seeing it made him dry up inside, made all inspiration expire. He didn’t know quite what he wanted—but it must be something more pristine, more primeval. So after a week he made the rounds down at the dock and booked passage for Asia Minor. But after a glimpse of Troy he shook his head. Troy, Troy: the very name made him tired, filled his nostrils with old, old dust. The woman, the thief, the great war: the poem. Who could ever compete. He’d always sided with Paris, anyway. Not for his wickedness, though—for his ruin.
At that point Ovid had sent his boy Lazar homeward, wishing to be alone for the rest of his blind adventure. This latest vessel, the one whose railing he gripped now as he stood watching the shadowy green hills go by, had creaked through the Dardanelles, up the Marmara, through the Bosporus, where the water flowed both ways, and had at last broken into the Black Sea.
It was a still twilight, clear and warm, as the ship sailed out of Trapezus and began to curve along the Black Sea’s eastern shore, the outermost shore of the world. It sailed past shadowy hills and gorges, sheer black cliffs, pebbled beaches, citrus groves. It moved easily, silent, as the current of this sea flowed counterclockwise; you could just go round and round. Ovid stood on the deck, long fingers gripping the railing, Roman-gray eyes peering into the green hollows and mists. All day he’d had a feeling, the very faintest stirring, that here, at the end of the world, he would find what he sought.
It must be something sharp, he was thinking. He drummed a finger on the railing and watched a blood-clotted jellyfish pulse through the water. Like a woman’s severed head, he noted, like poor Medusa. He thought a moment of the snaky-haired woman, seeing her, singular, fierce, and pitiful, before him. My next subject must be singular, like her, he thought; nothing as promiscuous as those last works have been.Promiscuous: he underlined the word in his mind. So many bodies, so many passions. No, he wanted something etched sharp, all alone. A few ideas had been coming to him the farther east he’d sailed, and he’d scratched them quickly into the black wax of his tablets as the ship had pitched and sails had flapped; he’d tucked them safely in his satchel, which he’d sat on henlike throughout the long voyage. Henlike, him! He nearly laughed down at the billowing jellyfish as it disappeared in the wake. Henlike—with his long legs and hawklike nose! But Ovid nearly meant “egg,” didn’t it? An egg with all its perfection and potential, its hint of beginning-and-endness, and the fine surfaces, too, the pale sky of a robin’s egg, the porphyry of an ostrich’s … A surge rushed through him: it had been gathering in him ever since he woke, this hopefulness, this feeling that he was on a trembling edge.
The Black Sea—he looked out in all glinting directions as the sun began to melt behind him. It was famous, and famously double, with a live, fish-swarming surface, but depths that were said to be cold and dead, where absolutely nothing lived and even drowned bodies never corrupted. This region—Pontus, Phasis, the Bosporan Kingdom—was notoriously female and monstrous, and fishy, too, biformed, unreal: you could see it on the maps. Amazons were said to live here, missing a breast but armed. Just beyond the reach of Augustus, the place was ruled by queens; the men were eunuchs; the women ate their own babies. But it was most renowned for the mythical witch Medea. The one who’d chopped up her brother, chopped up a king, chopped up her own children—out of sheer raging jealousy. She’d even burned alive the princess who’d rivaled her. And there was the goddess they worshiped up here, that mermaid with two fish tails for legs, who lured men into caves. Ovid shivered with disgusted pleasure and let a hand hover near his own nether parts, through his blowing linen, as he imagined the position of orifices, the feeling of her scales. But she had wonderful breasts—you saw it in all the bronze things made like her, the doorknobs and mirror handles and so on. Imagine the excitement of passing your hands from those full breasts, down her sides, in at the supple smooth waist, and then swelling out at the hips, feeling the texture change from skin to delicate scale. Was she cold? Or more like a snake, warm and lissome, winding about your legs?
This sea was so clear—there, a bright school of fish! It darted green, turned silver, vanished in the darkness. Of course, the place was best known in greedy Rome for the sturgeon and caviar that were shipped in by the ton. Ovid licked his lips and let the thought of tiny tart eggs pop deliciously in his mouth. He lifted his arched nose to the cool evening breeze. A fantastic place! An inspiring place. He was sure of it.
Up the coast from Ovid’s ship, in a stilted house alone in a cove of black pebbles, Xenia was entering her accounts for the week, her glassy hair glowing in the lamplight, her yellow-and-gray eyes intent.Pharmakal, Magical, Alchemical: her chart was long and ambitious, with rows of tiny drawings that were codes for secret tasks. This week there’d been one future seen, two babies immunized against murder, a love spell cast, a dream sent, and a litter of spiders cut from an Egyptian sailor’s thigh: that had been spectacular. It needed a new category, so she drew something small between Worms andRashes, although she considered it a little Exorcism, too; beside the picture she printed an x. That sailor had been horrified, staring down at his blossoming groin. But really, she thought, it was beautiful, all those tiny green legs!
She paused now, pen in hand. And the blue light?
Wings beat in her ribs as she thought of it. To have found that mineral last week, deep in the gloom of the pine woods—a crumbling pale stone, perfectly dull—yet to have seen something in it the way she saw these things, divined. She’d hurried home, powdered it, calcined it, mixed it with egg white, shaped a small bar, and placed it the next day in the sun. And waited. When the sun set, she put the bar in a box and waited again, until it was completely dark, until the waves grew quiet. Then, in the darkness, she opened the box.
Now those wings beat wildly. For when her fingers had tipped up the lid, a miraculous blue glow had flowed into her room. She’d leapt from her chair, exultant—as if she’d created the moon itself! She’d stood there, heart pounding, in that blue glow, wanting to bolt into the world, to show. She could streak over the dunes and through the woods to the Phasians—but the Phasians … they would only fall silent, as they always did. They’d stand around her in that holy circle, touch their fingers to their brows, lower their cloudy eyes. It has nothing to do with holiness! she’d shout—but then that circle, shocked, would shuffle away, and there she’d be, alone.
So she’d simply stood there, in the plain room, gazing at her sliver of moon, until the light had faded.
Outside, the waves were breaking on the pebbles; the pebbles gently clattered; the flame of her oil lamp bent with her breath. Xenia looked at her chart and rolled her pen slowly back and forth over it. That blue light may have faded, but that she had drawn it at all from dull rock: as miraculous as the brilliance of a peacock emerging from a white egg. For to extract light hidden in stone was close, so close, to extracting life. Yes, she drew near … Manipulate nature, find the essence of life!—the alchemical axiom blazed across her chart. Already she could undo almost any sickness, turn black antimony into silver, transform a sullen boy into a lover. She knew what tricks lay in the tissues of plants, what colors were hidden in metals—sleepiness in hellebore, the craving for love in henbane, blue in iron, bright yellow in lead, vermilion in mercury. And somewhere—finer than earth, water, air, and fire, yet hovering inside all four, perhaps in color or light itself—was the quinta essentia, the substance of life.
To find the quintessence, to conquer death. Xenia shut her eyes and imagined again what she always imagined: how she would do it—and then how sought after she’d be! How her celebrity would rise billowing like a saffron veil from her shoulders and fly across the seas until she was known clear to the Pillars of Heracles—and how she would be sung.
Outside, the waves were gently breaking, rolling in forever. She looked through the rings around the flame, into the stretching darkness. All that sea, all that heavy earth, all that gassy air. She felt at once foolish and small. Of course, she would never find the quintessence. Furthermore, no one would ever know about anything she’d done or all the extraordinary things she could do. She was at the end of the world and would die here, melt back into the elements she imagined ruling. She looked at her chart, her preposterous chart, and rolled it up, tying around it the ribbon she had once dyed with sea purple, extremely hard to extract.
Her room was quiet. The oil flame glowed. The waves sighed as they fell upon the pebbles, and the pebbles clattered. Xenia sat still and counted the beats in her ribs until she couldn’t stand it. She was twenty, and although she’d seen the futures of all eighty-nine Phasians, she’d seen nothing of her own but darkness, and suspected that meant she’d die young. She held her hands over the flame, her fingers glowing red, shut her eyes tightly, and then looked up—at the moon, and the Bears, and the Virgin, and Venus. Spring Venus, so clear and brilliant, melting away the silver moon. Venus, whose name was alchemical for copper; Venus, whose name meant love.
Venus made me her subtle love-artist …
The words whispered themselves in Xenia’s mind, and her fingers crept to the scrolls of poems beside her chart, the scrolls that were nearly as magical as her own.
The poems had rushed among the Phasians from mouth to ear in memorized snatches ever since the fabulous books had been traded to someone this spring by a Greek sailor for a few bags of salt. Books sailed all the way from Rome, books by Rome’s most famous, most fashionable poet—the Phasians had been dazzled, beholding the crimson slipcovers and black edges and gleaming bosses. For they’d heard of Ovid from the merchants and sailors who came their way, his image like a god, or even Caesar. They’d been dazzled by the sheer sight of the books and then, when Xenia had deciphered the Latin, shocked. At last they’d been transformed, a new consciousness like light falling upon them, their clothes worn differently, several desperate efforts made to control their snaky hair. Within weeks there wasn’t a Phasian girl who hadn’t crouched over a pool of water and turned herself this way and that with newly quizzical eyes. Goat girls, Ovid would call them. Don’t be a goat girl from the Caucasus—be sure to shave your legs! Xenia had engraved that, burning, in her mind, when she’d pored over the books in private. For in the end the Phasians had given them to her, as she was the only one who could read, let alone read Latin.
Now she saw again the tantalizing world they conjured illumined in the dark: a woman with complex hair creeping like a cat through the purple night, a man climbing in a bedroom window, a sly message written with a jeweled finger in wine, a brilliant stage strewn with saffron—and that beautiful Corinna, her clothes fallen away, teasing in shuttered light … The sheer intoxication of that subtle society, of art, of intricacy, of Rome. But, above all, Ovid. She saw him again, as she always envisioned him, with a wry face, clever long hands, what she half imagined as leathery wings. He flew in windows, and dryly laughed, and fled again, mercurial. So brilliant, so urbane—but within his words was something achingly earnest, something that pierced Xenia’s heart: Oh god, don’t let my name, my work, sink into oblivious waters …
Because why write poems if they’re not read? It’s like dancing in the dark.
It was. She shut her eyes and there opened inside her, like the voluptuous petals of a poppy, the excruciating sense that between her and this poet was a secret kinship, and a terrible desire that he see her and know: like Amor spying Psyche from the heavens, and sending down a breeze to carry her off.
Outside, the waves gently broke upon the pebbles, and the pebbles clattered. Slowly Xenia returned to her plain room, to herself, to her heart beating in her ribs. She looked down at the scroll, at Ovid’s words written so far away, and after a moment noted that a few eyelashes had fallen; she dabbed them up and dropped them into her pink fish-leather bag. She rolled up the scroll, slipped over it the crimson cover, and tied around it the silky gold cord. She combed her hair carefully, as she always did now at night, gathered the strands, tucked them into her bag, and knotted it. For a moment she held both hands to the lamp and turned them slowly around. Sure that they were clean, unhurt, she took her bronze mirror, stepped out of her dress, and looked carefully at the rest of her body. Unmarked. She blew out the lamp and got into bed with the pink bag.
In the darkness she nudged the bag close, so that those stray elements of herself could not wander again at night—if that was what had happened. Part of herself had slipped out, it seemed, or something else had slipped in. She still did not understand it, but she’d had to use a shell that terrible morning two weeks ago to scrape the blood from her nails. Although there hadn’t been a scratch or a bite on her body, nothing sticky between her legs—just blood on her fingers, and a few red smears on her sheets.
With the bag pressed to her stomach, she began to drift. In the moonlight her skin was so white it shaded to a milky blue, her hair a glassy halo. Outside, the breeze lifted, speeding ships over the seas. The Caucasus pines swayed like mourning women, their scent mixing with that of the seaweed floating on the waters that rose and fell. Xenia’s fingers relaxed upon the bag, her mouth opening slightly. Her brow furrowed, her breath quickened, for she had fallen into the dream from which she always woke shivering. Again it was black and windy, and she was small, her face at her mother’s damp neck. The basketbobbed on the water, cold at her legs as she was lowered in. Her mother looked at her with hollow eyes, her mouth so dark and red. She nearly smiled, but didn’t quite, and put a trembling hand to Xenia’s cheek—but then Xenia felt again a shocking surge, and her throat constricted in her screams as she went floating out alone upon the sea.
As Ovid tossed in his tent and Xenia drifted, far away, back around the coast of the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, across the Aegean, and up on the Palatine in Rome, Augustus’s granddaughter Julia lay waiting in her lion-legged bed for her husband, her contempt concealed by the dark. Her urine had been sniffed by the old nurse each morning this week, and today had been decreed the day. So her legs and underarms had been smeared with black wax, and the hairs had been pulled out, through all of which she’d held her face in a smile—the one that had served her each month for a year now, behind which nothing could be seen. There had been the baths, warm, hot, cold, warm, all those efforts to arouse and melt her; then the massages with scented oil, the slaves’ hands running up her stripped calves; then he, too, the husband, Aemilius, had been given a bottle of oil, with whispers of how to apply it: all of this stipulated by the official physician, so probing with his bronze speculum, so enthused by the inner topography of the emperor’s granddaughter. Had he really never seen the damage?
Julia smiled now, in the dark, feeling her teeth shine like a dog’s—she smiled despite the oil’s cloying smell, despite Aemilius’s rough fingers, whose prints she imagined impressing her smooth inner skin like brands. Had there ever been, she wondered, a female zone more hostile. But female zone was an ancient term, all embroidered with Aphrodite. She wouldn’t use it, then. Vagina. Meaning sword sheath. She thought the word hard, in her mouth.
Now, leaning over her heavily, Aemilius put aside the oil, the bottle clattering on the floor; he must have imagined he’d properly prepared her. And with no further ado—the stabbing. As if someone could possibly like this! Julia winced and concealed her wince at once in a lascivious moan. His monstrous face, rearing above her in the dark, she regarded through her lashes. His eyes were shut, mouth hanging open, and his soft belly began to beat upon her, as did, somewhere, his testicles. She could not imagine why he had been chosen. Obedience, blood, she supposed. He looked down at her, eyes black and drunk; she swooned in response. Then he shut his eyes again, and she shut hers, too, as the stabbing became—oh, it was sharp.
God! she thought, trying to tighten herself against it, to conceal that she did. God, Mother! Why did you leave this to me? Oh, but unfair to think this, she knew. Her eyes stung; everything stung; she dug her nails into the mattress and bid herself think herself away. Her mother had been exiled by Augustus for her alleged adulteries ten years ago, when Julia herself had been only thirteen, just beginning to bleed, not knowing yet where her own blood would take her. Oh my mother, she thought, as again Aemilius ran her through: you did as you were told! And with three husbands, too, for you were married off again and again. Augustus wanted boys, having been so disappointed by you, his only child. And you bore them!
Julia could see her brothers now in the flashing darkness behind her lids: young boys with narrow, olive-skinned faces, their eyes nervous beneath the imperial fringes. They had been managing, they had been growing, but then the eldest had so strangely died at just the age he might assume power, and the second—how odd—he’d died, too. The third had been exiled last year, shipped off for an unspecified crime.So, Mother, all your boys put out of the way. Could it be because Augustus dismissed his first wife when she bore only you, and married Livia that very same day, and this new empress came pregnant already?
So why am I being bred, too! When Livia’s son is waiting! But she knew why, of course: she was Augustus’s blood; her loins were the most valuable.
Her loins: now, in the dark, Julia nearly laughed aloud. These precious loins and all that was in them she would rip out with her own hand rather than let them bear fruit for Augustus.
At last Aemilius was finishing. The final stab came, so violent that she felt herself rip and could not restrain her cry but cloaked it quickly in something sounding like pleasure. Then the final shudder, and he fell upon her, his mouth open at her ear. The smell of him, of his wetness mingling with her own, the fishiness, the stench of cut onions, of blood.
“This time for certain,” he gasped in her ear.
And she gasped back, “Yes.”
THE LOVE-ARTIST. Copyright 2001 by Jane Alison. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.