Never of Joy by Melissa Benton Barker
Updated: Jan 6
“She had gone by like air.
For who could see the passage of a goddess….”
I’m still here, my sea shrunk to a pale blue pool that stinks of chlorine, my castle the kind of hotel that everyone’s been to before. You could set your watch by the flight schedule. There’s a constant hum in the air, call it dread or expectation--I don’t care. My ladies have transformed into a flock of flight attendants, their uniforms the color of fire held still. There is no longer need for sorcery or stables, yet I wait for you, trapped within the wheel of time.
The gods have downsized, left me to my own devices. Here’s how I make do. My corridors are unmarked. All the entrances look the same. I call to the lost, it’s true, but I refuse to take the blame for wives and children left behind. After all, I am the one who keeps shipwrecked men alive. I give them my body, my bread, then I turn them into swine.
My suitors no longer arrive in creaking vessels. They do not break through the dark with their oars. These days, they come to me in vacuumed cars, stinking of vinyl. My parking lot is streaked with the oily rainbows that leak from their cars.
Only you insist that I meet you outside. You are not quite lost, not far from home. You open to me the door that by daylight holds your little ones inside, and into your car I climb.
The night breaks apart when you put your hand on me. The headlights are a river that parts for you. Your children’s car seats lean away in dread, and your wife melts to a blue pashmina crumpled on the passenger side floor.
I’ll try not to step on her, but I can’t bring myself to pick her up and drape her over the seat back. Far be it from me to remind you I’m not the only woman in the world.
“She cried out, then slid under to take my knees”
After you leave, I keep dreaming of you. In one dream, I wait outside the door to your home but you refuse to let me in. A storm kicks up, and I promise you I won’t hurt anyone if you’ll only open the door. I’m tired of living like a worn-out Circe, a whore cloaked in the costume of sorcery. I swear to you I am ready to live quietly. If I’m not good enough to be the woman of the house, then I’ll take my place as a ghost creaking in your walls, curled into your crawl space, folded in two beneath your floor.
In another dream, it’s winter, and a desperate animal comes scratching at the window. We both know it will freeze to death if we don’t open the door, but it’s a rat, you see, so we cannot let it in.
Later, awake, I wonder, did it die, claws curled under the ice-laced trees that guard your home?
Perhaps I’m the rat. I’m not sure there’s a better word for a woman who loves another woman’s man.
A timeless story is one that never ends. You will leave me over and over again. Each time the tale is told, it ends with the cold fact that you gone.
I try something different, slip inside you, fasten to the hook of your ribcage. I’ll hang there even as you hold onto your Penelope, all the while wondering, how will I live, once you are gone?
You and I both know there’s only one way off this wheel. The question is who goes first.
If I have revealed myself to you alone in my entirety, how will I exist when you are gone?
After you leave, I stomp the hallways, shred the walls with my grief. My ladies surround me in their bright uniforms, armor me with their flame.
The swine scream behind locked doors. The walls crack in the blistering light of being left behind.
When the ash falls, my grief has metabolized. It seeps into my bones, and I must live with it, move with it. Like most things that matter, there is no bending it to my will.
You were the only one who would not bend to me.
But there will always be more swine to tend. I feed them spare acorns and the contents of the mini-bar. They come to me because they are hungry. They come to me in their loneliness. They come to me because they are tired.
“...Now parched and spent, your cruel wandering is all you think of,
Never of joy, after so many blows.”
--quotes from Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Doubleday. 1963.
Melissa Benton Barker lives with her family in a small Midwestern town. Her work appears in Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Five on the Fifth, and elsewhere. She is currently the Managing Editor at Lunch Ticket.