Tuesday
Jul092013

On the Psyche Ward

Brooke Wonders


 

"Her shameful sickness is that she resists death. She makes trouble." —Hélène Cixous, "Laugh of the Medusa"

 

Medusa shudders when Psyche runs fingers through her writhing hair. They fuck with fists and tongues, take turns with the blindfold. This particular Psyche wears a dress of butterflies, a gift from Cupid. Medusa brushes the insects from Psyche's shoulders, hips, thighs; they flap upward, a blue-gray cloud, then resettle, wings winking at her.

Their tickling legs, the way they cluster at Psyche's clavicle in blooming corsages, at first seems erotic, until Psyche confesses she's entomophobic and can barely control her revulsion. But Cupid made me promise to wear butterflies for him always, Psyche tells her, tracing the curve of Medusa's closed eyelids.

While Psyche sleeps, Medusa licks butterflies from her skin. They flutter inside her mouth like words. [If she swallows them, is she complicit?] She doesn't stop until she's queasy and Psyche's naked. The few remaining butterflies flap at the windowpane, unable to escape. Medusa hopes they aren't poisonous.

 

Medusa lives in an asylum alongside dozens of other women, each of whom is an iteration of Psyche. Each Psyche is idealized femininity incarnate: the damsel in distress, the coquette, the spunky heroine. Inside the asylum is quiet as a museum. The floor is gray tile, the walls institution green, the doors heavy. Each room holds a low cot and a single window paned in thick glass. The windows only open from the outside. [Are these madwomen, locked up for their own good, or literal demi-goddesses in dishabille?]

 

This story has multiple rapes in it. Rapes by the dozen. They just keep happening; Medusa can't seem to stop them. It's built into every Psyche's narrative, inevitable as sunset. The rapist comes night or day, any time he pleases, through barred windows and locked doors, and in a thousand guises. Cloaked in fur. Hooded. Winged. The worst is when he arrives as vapor, invisible to the eye. Medusa doesn't know why he hovers around the asylum—it's almost always a he, though when the Psyches tell her their stories, their accounts vary wildly—but he never fails to arrive. [The Psyches can't keep their story straight. Does this mean they're lying?]

 

When I was in seventh grade, I spent study hall playing chess with a boy named John. He nicknamed me Rook, like the chess piece, and wrote me a letter asking if I wanted to be his girlfriend, if I wanted to go trick-or-treating with him and some friends on Halloween night. I said yes to both, but my mother vetoed trick-or-treating when John assured me no adults would be present. My chosen costume: Cleopatra, complete with cat's-eye makeup and a golden snake bracelet wrapped around my wrist. I was 11.

John stopped speaking to me. He was popular, surrounded by a gaggle of other girls and boys who noted his scorn and shunned me too. They slammed me into lockers, called me slut, wrote hate mail signed with the name of the shyest boy in our class and, once they'd completed the heavy mindteaser sculptures available in our talented and gifted classroom, threw them unerringly at my skull.

This is normal for junior high. My pacifist friends with girl children tell me it's gotten worse.

Less normal was my mother's reaction. She contacted the principal who contacted our life-skills coach who had a sit-down with John. Despite informing my mother that boys will be boys, said coach was forced to impress on John how, according to school policy, what he'd done constituted sexual harassment. John left me alone after that, but his friends did not. I was given special dispensation to leave the cafeteria during lunch hour, so long as I went straight to the library. I spent eighth grade devouring the horror section, finding in Stephen King's Carrie and Misery stories I could believe in.

 

This particular Psyche is made of metal and glass, her skin translucent so that Medusa can watch the pistons at work, firing the red glow of her heart. Her leather lungs inflate and collapse in imitation of breath.

"Which are you?" Medusa asks to be polite; it doesn't much matter. They tell her whatever they need from her—pleasure, pain, to be held for one night, darkness, light—and she delivers until exhaustion breaks her.

I'm the engine of plot, says Psyche. Someone comes in the night and rapes me to give men missions and mothers jealous rages and heroes someone to save. Sacred marriage. Atonement. The inner workings of the story-machine.

Medusa covers Psyche's mouth with her own to stop the litany, and keeps kissing her, even when Psyche's furnace-breath scorches her tongue.

 

Medusa stalks the halls, looking for tonight's Cupid. She will freeze him in his tracks, and in the morning the Psyches will use his limbs to dry their laundry, his pinion feathers draped in underwear.

 

Shapes in which Medusa has petrified Cupid, with stories the Psyches have told her about each:

A bear: This Cupid is fiercely protective and quick to anger. Psyche feels safe with him but fears his temper. He's hurt her before. He doesn't know the sharpness of his claws.

A unicorn: This Cupid is harmless, quiet, the boy next door. Psyche's childhood fantasy of what a boyfriend could be; they hold hands, cuddle, trade quick cheek-pecks. Until he begins to pressure her—he's such a nice guy, surely she owes him.

A man, winged: Cupid flits in and out of Psyche's life but when he chooses to alight, the sex is passionate. He swears he'll leave his wife soon, if she can just be patient. Psyche wonders about the wife, if she's a Psyche too, trapped in some other ward, waiting.

A beast: Cupid as acquaintance rapist. He wears many faces, whichever gets him what he wants. The beast is kind before he turns cruel; he alternates between human and inhuman. Psyche is terrified of him.

The asylum is littered with obscene statuary: In the fourth-floor hallway, a bear curled in the fetal position, cock erect. In the cafeteria, a misshapen beast reared on its hind legs, chest stuck through with a dozen arrows. Beneath the window in room 34, a smashed man with tiny wings. Medusa caught Cupid with one foot still on the sill, half-man, half-mist, Psyche naked beside him, covering her eyes in fear. He'd fallen backward, then shattered on the tile floor.

Half the asylum's rooms contain lapidified Cupids. Medusa is good at her job, though she's unsure if her racket is protection or vengeance. Once, she found a broad-winged Cupid standing alone in the stairwell, no Psyche to be found. He was masturbating with his eyes closed. He didn't stop, even when she shouted, even when she held his eyelids open and his gaze met hers.

She avoids those stairs now. If she ever finds a sledgehammer, that'll be the first statue to go. [Each time it's an open question: will Cupid riddle Medusa with arrows, lop off her head and bag it, to be used to petrify any Psyche stupid enough to run? Or will he again be turned to stone in her sight?]

 

Medusa's not sure if any of the Psyches love her, really, or like her at all, really, or if to them she's a rapist-murderess-villainess, a hideous wingless girl-Cupid crowned in serpents. Between rounds of fucking, they tell her they appreciate her efforts. All she knows is that when she's in their bed, no one else is. [That's what she wants to believe.] They could be lying. The fact she doubts is further evidence she too is a Cupid.

 

When I hit college, goth culture was ascendant. I spent my weekends at dive-y clubs hung with black lights and abstract metal sculptures, dressed to the nines in velvet and vinyl. My eyes lined in Cleopatra kohl, lips stained a dark purple, with spikes at my throat and wrists, I stalked the dance floor in six-inch platform boots. At the time, goth-dom seemed like a way to square feminism with my love of high femme: DIY drag wedded to counterculture. Now this seems the crudest self-deception. I may have bought my togs from Tucson Thrift and altered them myself, but I was still constructing an identity via consumer objects while convincing myself I was oh so radical.

 

"We have internalized this horror of the dark," Psyche tells Medusa one night, after Cupid has come and gone uncaught.

Medusa strokes her golden tresses, lips sealed in a thin line.

Psyche buries her hands in snakes and pulls Medusa to her. "My desires have invented new desires," she whispers. A serpent strikes, leaving two round fang-marks in Psyche's thumb, and she gasps in pleasure. This Psyche likes pain, a detail Medusa files away for later. So many small, daily pains that Medusa can't save her from, not even the smallest.

 

[Where does theory end and lived experience begin?]

 

Medusa's heart is made of stone; exposure to too many Psyches has inured her. You're nothing to me. I'm no different from a thousand other Cupids. She can't stand their pain; if she empathized sincerely, she'd crack in a day, and then who'd feed them, look after them, sweep the wing feathers from their beds each morning so that when they lay down, bruised and guilt-ridden—was it something I wore? Something I said?—they could finally get some rest? [What women hasn't accused herself of being a monster?]

 

Medusa makes the rounds. Noises this way, the soft sounds of lovemaking. If it's a winged Cupid and if the Psyche seems happy, she'll let them be. She braces her shoulder against a door and leans; it gives silently. Cupid has an arrow cocked, pointed straight at her left eye. His eyes are closed.

A little to the left, says Psyche, and then she's frozen, kohled eyes locked on Medusa's, her plum-lipped mouth a tiny o.

Medusa hopes he doesn't miss.

 

 

 

[Note: several lines of dialogue are repurposed sentences from "Laugh of the Medusa."]