Short story – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Lazy woman writes fiction. News at eleven.

It’s been a while.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

My name? Danny Sheehan. Top of the fuckin’ morning to you. You know who I am, right? Sure you do. You read the book – that heartrending memoir of an Irish childhood. All bullshit, of course, and wasn’t Oprah pissed when she found I was no more from Wexford than she was? Every suburban book club in theMidwest was bad-mouthing me so long and loud my ears should have caught fire but hey – I’m a writer. My first love is fiction. Besides, you should exercise some skepticism when you crack open a book or flip through the newspaper. Things aren’t always what they seem.

Like her. She. It.

It was St. Paddy’s night, first time I saw her. Back home on the Eastern seaboard St. Patrick’s is dumb enough, a dyed green festival of kitsch. But here? This far west it’s a fucking farce, with not even a spring chill in the air to remind you of the Old Country as you glug down antifreeze colored whiskey and flail your feet around in a kind of sub-Flatley excuse for a jig. You look around at the faces under the giant leprechaun hats and wonder why everyone acted so pissed when they found you weren’t so Irish after all. What’s the big deal, right? That big dude with the strawy hair surely speaks with a Fargo accent when he opens his huge jaw – yasureyoubetcha. There’s a beautiful girl with hairy arms and amazing tortoiseshell eyes and you don’t even need to see the gold cross around her neck to guess that this girl’s as Italian as the Mona Lisa herself. But it doesn’t matter; tonight we’re all Irish as Paddy’s fucking pig and nobody gives a shit if you’re obviously not.

But she was. She had to be, with that hair – real red. Not that red that comes out of a bottle, or that strawy red you see on the paler sort of redheads. She was wearing a big green fur hat and I couldn’t see her face but that curly red hair was down to her ass, a great banner of copper with gold lights and deep mahoganies where it waved in on itself. A woman’s hair is usually the last thing I look at, but this was really fucking beautiful, Pre-Raphaelite.

She was squeezed in beside me at the bar. She turned towards me and gave me a smile – the kind of polite, awkward, would-you-look-at-this shit smile strangers give one another when the bar’s six deep or the elevator stops working.

She couldn’t have known what that smile did to me. Seeing her face for the first time was like a jolt of electricity, a shot of pure adrenaline. She was just that perfect. She honestly was.

Her t-shirt (Tight across her boobs. Was she even wearing a bra?) said ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’.

“Are you?” I asked. I had to lean close to shout in her ear, close enough to smell the berry scent of her hair. She probably thought I was a creep but I had to try; it’s not every day you get a shot with a girl who looks like Caitlin O’Mara.

“Yes,” she yelled back, her lips brushing my ear. “And stop reading my tits.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“No,” she said, with a green-tinted grin. “You can buy me two.” She leaned over the bar and ordered a Guinness. “And put the chaser in a shot glass. Do the same for him.”

It was loud in the bar and so it took a while for me to catch her accent, but there it was. Her t-shirt didn’t lie.

She drank off the first two inches of her Guinness in a couple of gulps. Her stupid hat fell off and she laughed. She shouted something in my ear that I didn’t catch and she cupped her hand, her fingers chilly on my face.

“Depth charge,” she said. “Watch!” She dropped the shot, glass and all, into her pint. She couldn’t have weighed much more than a hundred pounds wet but the color of her teeth said she’d already been into the green-dyed Jameson’s.

“Jesus,” I said. “You really are Irish.”

She laughed again. “Fuck you. Fuck off and write Ulysses – then you can make drunk jokes.”

To this day I’ve never even read Ulysses. I told her I was a writer and she raised an eyebrow. “Ri-ght,” she said, booze-breath fanning my cheek. “Let me guess? You’ve got a blog?”

“I wrote books. Well…a book.”

“Past tense? You’re young to be washed up.”

“I’m not washed up. There was a…misunderstanding.” The music had stopped. The live band was setting up. “Crossed lines,” I told her. “Like, I said it was semi-autobiographical when I first sent out the manuscript – you know, like Sons and Lovers?”

She frowned and gazed steadily at me. She had gold flecks in her green eyes, just a light dusting of lavender shadow over her lids to bring out the green. “No,” she said. “But carry on.”

“Long story short – the marketing people run the publishing industry these days.  Their word is law and they wanted to sell my book as non-fiction.”

“I see. So you were an innocent victim. Not like James Frey. Or that other bloke…the one who claimed he was in the IRA…”

“I never claimed I was in the IRA. For fuck’s sake, my main character was named Sean…”

She laughed and finished her thought. “Danny Sheehan,” she said. “That was him. That was you?

“Okay, I’m guilty of that much at least,” I said. “But I swear to God, it’s all marketing these days. You think Twilight could have happened if someone hadn’t realised that teenage girls have way too much disposable income these days?”

“It’s a love story,” she said. “Everyone likes a love story.” Her voice was amazing, musical with that whiskey roughness over the r’s. “Aren’t you even going to ask my name?”

She told me and I sang a couple of bars of ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’ at her. “It’s spelled C-A-I-T-L-I-N,” she said. “Irish spelling. We do it to fuck with you.”

“So can I take you home, Caitlin?” I said. She raised an eyebrow, obviously amused rather than annoyed, but I leaned closer to sugar the pill all the same. “I’ve got some seriously good shit if you want to smoke.”

She shook her head and gave me a playful shove. The band struck up the Londonderry Air, the eternal maudlin song of St. Patrick’s night. You could see chests swelling, eyes moistening and everyone getting ready to sing “Oh Dannyboy, the pipes the pipes are ca-lling,” and then they’d forget the rest of the words and keep singing anyway.

Caitlin rolled her eyes. “Ugh. I hate this song.”

“You hate it? How the fuck do you think I feel?”

That got me a laugh – a real belly-laugh. She laughed a lot, my Caitlin. She wasn’t like those beautiful girls who go through life trying not to smile in case they get wrinkles. As I later discovered, Caitlin was not and never was in the wrinkle business.

“Let’s go to the desert,” she said.

“I thought we were going to my place?”

She screwed up her nose at that. “What? And sit around getting chonged and staring at the walls? You starve your muse, Daniel.”

Nobody had called me Daniel since my grandma died, but I didn’t correct her. Daniel, I decided, would be her name for me, just hers.

You can tell I had it bad already, can’t you?

I was good to drive – only a couple of beers, and I hadn’t touched that appalling ‘Depth Charge’ thing she made me buy her. When she saw I wasn’t going to drink it she’d chugged it like a fratboy and then sang too loud to the radio all the way out to the Mojave. I didn’t know what she wanted out here. It was pitch dark and goddamn freezing but I’d have done anything to be near her.

“Listen,” she said, leaning back in the front seat and closing her eyes. “Just listen.”

“To what?”

“Everything. Nothing. It’s just rocks and dark sky. We could be on the moon.”

A coyote howled in the distance and I saw the shadow at the corner of her mouth deepen. “No we couldn’t,” I said, with slow pretend patience. “Not unless that coyote was wearing a space-suit.”

She snorted with laughter and passed me the joint, coughing. “You don’t get it,” she said, her voice wet and throaty. “Life is so short – so short. You’re here for a fraction of a second, a blink, a heartbeat. That’s why you have to leave something behind. Something great. Something special.”

“Like what?” I asked, in a high, breath-held voice.

“You’re the writer,” she said. “Figure it out. Ask your muse.”

“I don’t have a muse,” I said. I’d encountered writers who talked about muses, but they were mostly whackjobs of the common-or-garden crystals and Birkenstocks variety – a breed as common as rats here in Southern California. “Why? You think I should get one?”

“Sure,” she said. “My freelance rates are very reasonable.”

“Okay. Cool. So what do you think, Muse?”

“I think you’re hogging the spliff. Gimme.”

I wish I hadn’t got so high that night, so that I could remember her better. Even after everything, after I found out what she was, she was so damn lovely that first night, squirming under the blanket as she fought her way out of her skinny jeans. She shrieked like a banshee when I put my icy cold hands up her t-shirt, her tits warm and squashy – definitely real. I’m surprised we didn’t freeze to death out there. By morning my feet were as cold as stones and Caitlin complained that even the backs of her eyeballs felt chilled.

“I have to pee,” she said, reaching down for her boots, these pointy pixie boots with a million buckles both of our fingers were too cold to fasten.

She said ‘fuck it’ several times and stepped out of the car with those dumb little boots flapping around her bare ankles and wearing nothing else but a t-shirt and a blanket around her shoulders. She stepped into a pool of rising sun and looked up at the sky. “It’s warm right away,” she called, and threw the blanket back to me in the car. She turned around to face me and the strip of hair on her bush was as red as the newborn sun.

“Don’t look,” she said, and then gave me a look so knowing, so deep down fucking dirty that my blood decided keeping my internal organs from freezing wasn’t so important after all.

“Unless you really want to,” she added. She squatted in the sagebrush right there in full view, spreading her thighs so that I could watch her pee. No woman had ever let me see a thing like that – with all my old girlfriends we’d had strict unwritten rules about bathroom privacy. Caitlin made it clear that no matter how gross, how depraved my curiosity, she would humor me the way she did then, squatting over a dark spot on the desert.

She moved in within a week. I was so stupid – the words ‘green card’ didn’t even cross my mind. Not a lot crossed my mind, come to think of it, nothing that wasn’t Caitlin, Caitlin drowsing in bed with a fist curled over her cheek, Caitlin small-headed and sleek in the shower beside me, Caitlin on her knees, on all fours, straddling me in the bed, on the sofa, on the kitchen table. She led dead-of-night skinny dipping expeditions to the pool, and one night persuaded me to go outside to do it on the balcony, even while this homeless guy wandered back and forth below us with his shopping cart, muttering all the while.

Caitlin blended in with surprising ease, considering she was so beautiful as to stand out in a crowd. Before anyone knew it she was part of the furniture, dressed in white silk and wide brimmed hats, smiling hello to Shopping Cart Guy and the passel of twentysomething beauties who lolled in the apartment complex’ hot-tub and swapped bitter stories about auditioning for reality TV.

She made me shut myself in my bedroom to write, but all the while I’d be listening to her humming to herself as she puttered around the kitchen, my curiosity piqued by the incredible smells that came floating under the door. When she called me to eat the dining table was like something from Beauty and the fucking Beast – I never figured out how she got everything out on time, perfectly cooked, perfectly chilled. She served caviar and champagne breakfasts, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. I told her laughingly that she spoiled me – I was from Philly; my experience of fine cuisine was from the Italian neighbourhood. So after that it was peppers and eggs, sweet tomato sauce, and the greatest eggplant parm you’ve ever tasted. She’d spent some time in Italy, she said.

I had no idea how much she was spending on this food and when I did broach the subject she just inclined her head and said “You’ll write another bestseller soon, won’t you?” And that was that. How could anyone say anything in the face of such trust, such beautiful faith?

And like a miracle, the words began to come. I started to write again. So much for those ex-girlfriends who nagged me for not having ‘a real job’. They’d come back from their bank or data-entry job, bitching and whining, complaining that I spent all day scratching my ass and watching TV.

“You’re only as good as your last book, Danny,” said Marion, my most recent ex. (She’d been an English Major at Harvard and fancied herself an intellectual.) “And quite frankly your last book was only mediocre.”

So much for those joyless bitches. If they’d fucked me and fed me the way that Caitlin did then maybe they would have been picking out gowns for my Pulitzer prizegiving. What can I say? She really lived up to her claim. I started out grinding out a recalcitrant five hundred words a day, hating every painful second. Within a fortnight I was writing five thousand words a day, hammering the keys with my spine on fire while Caitlin hung around the kitchen in her underwear and hummed. It was weird, the way she hummed. Sometimes there was a tune to it, other times it was just a sort of low, background noise, contented, like a purr.

Finally I had enough to call my agent about. She’d stuck with me, perhaps because she felt guilty about the marketing angle that led to me being labelled a liar and a fraud. Sabrina never felt guilty enough to call me and ask how I was doing, but at least she hadn’t dropped me. I guess.

I hadn’t called her either. It showed. When she turned up to see me at my apartment she’d gone from blonde to brunette and lost maybe fifteen pounds. Worse, she was holding a baby’s car seat in one hand and had the baby tucked under one arm. “Hold that,” she said, shoving the plastic seat at me. I took it so that she could prise away the baby’s fat starfish hand from her necklace, a chain of blue enamel butterflies.

“This is all fucking Prop 8’s fault,” she said, settling the kid back in the car seat on the floor. “When Elizabeth said she wanted a kid I was still so mad about it passing I was like ‘Okay – let’s show those dumbass breeders how it’s done’.”

She straightened up and stretched her spine, grimacing with pain. She hadn’t asked about me. Before Caitlin it often felt like my fate in life was to be surrounded by women who barely even acknowledged my existence. Even Ma was busy.

“You know what?” said Sabrina. “You can keep all that heteronormative marriage-and-babies bullshit. Fuck it all. I shoulda stuck to dropping X and partying like the Hundred Days of Sodom – that’s what these right wing kooks think we do all the time anyway, so why the fuck not?” She sighed, rubbed the nape of her neck and yawned. “So. What’s occurring?”

I pitched the book – a cool, British gangster story set inLondon. Very now, very sociopolitical. Sabrina was not buying.

“Danny, have you even been to London?” she said.

“Once. Enough to get the local flavor.”

“Right,” she said, and sighed. “What about you, Danny? Your own experiences, your childhood. Write what you know – there’s a reason every single creative writing class on the whole goddamn planet hammers that lesson home.”

“I guess I’m the exception that proves the rule,” I said. “My childhood was really fucking dull – a tale of too many sisters interspersed with the occasional football game. If my Dad wasn’t busy digging up some dead guy, that is.”

Sabrina stared at me. “Your Dad did what?

“He worked for the local government,” I said. “Did exhumations and stuff. Cemetery clearances. Space is at a premium in those city cemeteries, so after a decent length of time they clear out the old bones – kinda throw them all together so they can put in new graves.”

She was still staring at me. “That,” she said. “Is so fucking fascinating.”

“Don’t patronise me, Bri…”

“I’m not. I’m serious. That is way more interesting than yet another gangster story.”

Caitlin came in at that moment, all smiles, carrying a tray of fruit teas and homemade blueberry muffins. I watched the two women sniff around one another like wary animals, until Sabrina twisted the knife by saying “So you must be Caitlin. I’ve heard almost nothing about you.”

Caitlin laughed and looked at me. “I think an artist is allowed to be self-absorbed,” she said.

“Takes all sorts, I guess,” said Sabrina. “I have no idea what you see in him.”

Caitlin sat down on the couch beside me, her thigh against mine. “Oh, he’s an ongoing project,” she said, squeezing my knee.

“I know!” Sabrina waved at the bookshelves. “Books, even. So he’s finally reading?”

“I’m still here,” I said.

“Daniel reads,” said Caitlin, looking as bewildered as an elementary school mom who had no idea her kid was still having to be told not to eat the paste. “First night we met he was talking about Sons and Lovers.”

Sabrina arched her thin eyebrows. Sons and Lovers had been her idea, her marketing pitch – push the semi-autobiographical angle, she’d said. I’ve never read Sons and Lovers. Worse, Sabrina fucking knew it.

“Sure,” I said, trying to regain some dignity. “I’ve read Tolstoy.”

There was a deathly hush in the room. I knew I’d said the wrong thing (I could have sworn it was Tolstoy.) because Caitlin’s thigh kind of hardened against mine – no longer a comforting press, but tense, like the way a cat tenses when it wants to be set down. Sabrina was staring at me with her cup of foul, medicinal smelling tea halfway to her open mouth. Even the goddamn baby was staring at me.

“Lawrence,” said Caitlin, in an ashen whisper.

The baby grinned and squealed. Sabrina fussed with it to cover her embarrassment. “Look, I think I can sell this,” she said, in an artificially bright let’s-wrap-things-up voice. “But you really need to think about where you came from, Danny.” She must have felt sorry for me, because she kissed me on both cheeks as she said “And read some fucking books. Gawd.”

When I went back to the living room, Caitlin was still sitting on the couch. She was wearing jeans that day – jeans, a simple white shirt and a necklace of Tiger’s Eye chips I’d bought her on a day out at Venice Beach. She’d never looked lovelier or colder.

“Are you a real writer, Daniel?” she asked, speaking so slowly I could hear every sweet, separate musical note in her voice.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. I’m a New York Times Bestseller.”

“Right so,” she said. “Does that mean anything?”

“A lot of people seem to think so, yeah. Have you been on the New York Times Bestseller list?”

“No,” she said, standing up. “But I’m not a writer, am I? It’s not my job to write books. I’m just the little woman who sucks your cock, cooks your meals and washes your fecking underpants…”

“You don’t have to,” I said, my voice rising. I never could stand that martyr act. “Nobody made you.”

She threw up both hands. “You don’t even know, Daniel,” she said. “You don’t even have the first clue about what you’re talking about. You’d better write something – you’d better write something real, true, solid…”

“…I’ve just written a fucking novel! What the hell more do you want?”

“Right,” she said, with a snort of disgust. “English gangsters?”

“Yes,” I said. “People like English gangsters. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – like, how much money did that make?”

“Lock, Stock was a fecking movie, you illiterate prick!” She screamed the words in my face. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t write novels by picking out bits of films and putting them back together – do you even know how a novel even works?” She backed off, chewed her thumbnail. “I can’t live like this, Daniel. I need something more substantial. You have to give me something more substantial. Otherwise I’m going to get…ill.”

“I don’t owe you shit,” I said, laughing at her nerve. “I’m just living my life. You came along for the ride.”

Caitlin gave me a long, glacial look. “Are you really that stupid?” she said, her voice once again slow and soft with anger. “You don’t know what I am? You don’t know what this is?” She pointed, her index finger alternating between me and herself. “I marked my god-damned territory right there in front of you and you still don’t see it, do you? I told you.”

“I don’t…”

She let out a huff of humorless laughter. “No,” she said. “No, you don’t, do you? Jesus suffering fuck, I’ve picked meself a dud.” She wound up her hair and sighed. “Well, we’ll just have to make the best of it, Daniel. Now go and write.”

“How can I write now?” I said. “I’m upset! Besides, apparently I’m too much of a moron to put…”

Write,” she said.

I don’t know how she cut me off like that. She didn’t even raise her voice. But there was a tone in her voice that was strangely commanding for all her voice was so sweet. And right then I wanted to write, like a dog that drools when you ring a bell. More to the point, I knew I had to.

Back in High School I read William Blake. (I read. Just not what they wanted me to read.) Tyger, tyger burning bright. All my life I wondered how the fuck a tiger burns, but right then, when she was looking at me, all red and gold with those green, green eyes, I knew. She burned. 

She was hungry.

I closed the bedroom door before she opened her mouth.

*

So I wrote. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was writing. I wrote for hour upon hour until I couldn’t straighten my back without my shoulders creaking, until my eyeballs felt as though they’d been peeled and my brain felt like a wrung out sponge.

Sure, it sounds hilarious, doesn’t it? A skinny little girl like that holding a big man like me virtual hostage behind his laptop? (I was twice her size back then, believe it or not.) But it wasn’t funny – not funny at all. I knew if I stopped writing and she’d stop her steady dynamo hum then she’d get cranky and I’d see that tyger-tyger look in her eyes again, the threat of carnivorous teeth.

There was no question of her moving out, either. That would have required the pretence that we were in some ordinary relationship that had gone awry. Like she said, she’d marked her territory, with books and scented candles.

She was always hungry.

I fed her page after page but she still complained. “This has no texture,” she’d complain, pushing away the computer. Or “This is bland – I’m not expecting James Joyce but couldn’t you master even the most basic literary allusion?”

And on really bad days? “Fuck you in your eyeball, you pitiful, talentless hack.”

Critics no longer held any terror for me.

I started smoking again – I was so stressed out. She hated the smell and sent me out onto the balcony, and that became my sanctuary, those five, ten minutes puffing away furtive as a crackhead (The only way you can smoke in Southern California.) and watching Shopping Cart Guy rumble and mumble past.

I thought I could satisfy her with mere volume – I wrote twenty thousand words a night some night, hopped up on so many Red Bulls that my heart felt like a trapped butterfly. I got published – five novels in a year, but it was still no use. She got skinnier, edgier. Her eyes got hotter and brighter and she cried over her precious books, fondling them like lovers.

One night I gave in to curiosity and looked at the books. Sons and fucking Lovers was there, naturally. When I opened it there was a note tucked into the laminate slipcover, old paper, like dead autumn leaves. There was a poem of some sort – a hackneyed, flowery thing about a knight named Sir John and a lady named Jane. It was written ‘To “Clara”’ and signed simply ‘D’ and I knew, on the same lizard-brained level that I knew she was a predator, that it meant something bad.

I opened the next book – The Wild Swans at Coole. This one had something written on the inside cover – something not English. Gaelic maybe. Leanan Sidhe.

“Lawn she,” said Caitlin, or something like it. She seemed to come out of nowhere. Her eyes glittered and she was very pale, except for a hectic red flush high on her cheekbones. She wore a short white satin nightdress, so clingy it even highlighted the dip of her lovely navel.

“Why don’t I read these?” I said. “I could learn. I could learn to write and then you’d get better and…”

“Then what?” she said. “I’d leave?” She shook her head sadly and took the book from me, closing it. “Doesn’t work like that, Daniel. Besides, it’s too late. There isn’t time for you to read the books you’d need to read to become even a good writer. I’d starve in the meantime.”

“So find someone else,” I said. “Leave me and find someone who can give you what you need – whatever it is you need. I don’t even know anymore.”

She pressed the book of poems to her breasts and sighed. “I can’t,” she said. “Much as I’d like to. I have to see this thing through to the end – that’s just how it goes. How it’s always gone.”

“What thing?”

“Our deal,” she said. “I’m your muse, Daniel. You have to feed me.”

“What? What deal? I don’t remember a deal.”

“You ate the food I put in front of you,” she said, sliding the book back onto the shelf. “If you eat the food of the sidhe you’re in their power – you’d know that, if you had even an atom of the sensibilities of a storyteller.”

I’d had enough of her shit. I didn’t care if she killed me. I flicked my cigarette lighter and held it under the spine of a book. She looked appalled for a moment then she folded her arms and simply watched. The flame flowed off the book until the lighter became so hot I had to drop it. I scrambled to pick it up, frightened that the carpet would catch fire. Caitlin stood over me, her legs apart. She wasn’t wearing anything under the nightdress. Once that view would have sent me crawling between her feet but all I could look at was her face, white in the candlelight. The sharp ridges of her cheekbones gave her grin a goblin quality. If I’d seen teeth between her thighs I wouldn’t have been surprised.

I stopped writing. She said she’d starve if I did and that sounded like a good deal to me. To compound the insult I started reading – not her idea of the canon of literature, but garbage – dumb, throwaway trash. She groaned at the heaps of cheap paperbacks, bad romance novels, sci-fi novels with green, big titted women on the covers. She actually seemed to shrivel in their presence.

Caitlin grew even thinner. Her beautiful hair came out in handfuls. She started to cough. “You don’t want to do this,” she said, through dry lips. “Trust me, Daniel – you won’t like what’s going to happen if you do.”

I laughed at her. “Right,” I said. “Something worse than being in thrall to Tinkerbell’s evil fucking twin? Why don’t you clap your own hands if you believe in fairies? – see where the hell it gets you.”

When I left for a two day writers’ conference I felt sure I was leaving her to die. There was hardly anything left of her. Her tits were wrinkled skinbags and her skin was so thin that it had broken out in sores over the bony parts of her sagging ass. She’d stopped talking several days before – now she just looked at me, her burning, hate-filled eyes following me around the room as I packed and lit one cigarette after another, blowing smoke in her direction. When she coughed now, she spit up blood.

In a way I guess I got what I deserved, didn’t I?

It was easy to be cruel when she was right there, staring at me. When I was with her it was kill or be killed, but maybe distance made me sentimental. Maybe it was all those earnest, pale-faced girls with their notebooks and signed copies and dreams of becoming the next J.K. Rowling – who the fuck knows. All I know is that when a tiger’s safely caged you can appreciate its beauty and its power in a way you can’t when the fucking thing is snarling in your face. It becomes just a big, handsome kitty cat. You can even pity it, this thing that would bite your throat open without a second thought. You can love a tiger, from a distance.

That was why I cried off the second day of the conference and flew back toL.A., swearing I’d write War and Peace and a side dish of Lord of the fucking Rings if that’s what it took to make her better again. I’d beg her forgiveness, write her a masterpiece. We could get the good times back, we could. I loved her, you see. Still do.

She was way ahead of me. When I got home the apartment was empty but spotless, the way it had looked in Caitlin’s heyday – cushions plumped on the couches, shelves dusted, the air perfumed by a great spotted spray of daylilies. I stepped out for a smoke and to look for her, but there was no sign of her or anyone. A shopping cart, stacked high with newspapers and pop bottles, stood abandoned under a streetlamp.

I heard the door open inside the apartment. Caitlin was as plump and beautiful as she’d ever been, her red gold hair wound up in a big clumsy knot at the back of her head, so that her neck looked impossibly slender, swanlike. She carried a paper bag of groceries in her arms, a big green sheaf of parsley against her pink and white cheek. “I had a feeling you’d be home early,” she said.

That was the moment I knew. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew. Shopping Cart Guy was never going to abandon his treasure like that – the poor bastard was a bad case of the packrat instinct gone crazy, a mobile episode of Hoarders. Some of those newspapers looked like they dated back to Watergate and we could all hazard an unpleasant guess at what was in those plastic bottles. And that black-brown crust deep under his fingernails and in the seams of his hands? Yeah – that was probably exactly what you thought it was.

I knew right away what smell those lilies were masking.

“Take a shower,” said Caitlin. The jars in the fridge door chimed as she put in a bottle of white wine to chill. “Dinner will be about twenty minutes. I’m making stroganoff.”

I stared at her. She smiled and unwrapped a package of steak – good steak, juicy. Blood pooled on the white paper. My eyes were drawn to the cupboards behind her. “You were dying,” I said. “When I left you. What happened? You find another writer?”

She shook her head and started cutting the steak into strips. Like all good cooks, Caitlin kept her knives very sharp. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “I can’t just find another writer like that. I have to be done with you first.”

I wasn’t in the mood for another one of these conversations about fairy rules. I’d read some about fairies since she told me what she was – not much, but enough to know these vicious little fucks had teeth. “Caitlin,” I said, slowly. “What did you do?”

“Nothing,” she said, with perfect, Stepford sweetness. “Why? What did you do? Did you write, at your conference? While I was here. While I was starving to death because you wouldn’t write me so much as a sonnet?”

Her voice was rising and the knife was bright, but I had to know. I flung open the fridge in a clatter of pickle jars and Pinot Grigio – and there it was, next to the bundle of parsley, the ball of the hip bone still red.

I’d learned something from my Dad, from the boneyards. I knew a longbone on sight. “That’s the femurs,” he’d say, whenever I drew skulls and crossbones on my schoolbooks. “The thighs. Longest bones in the human body.”

I leapt back from the fridge and puked in the sink. Caitlin cleared her throat and asked politely if I would like a glass of water.

I spat. “You killed him,” I said, through dry heaves. “You fucking ate Shopping Cart Guy.”

She shrugged. “You saw the shape I was in, Daniel,” she said. “I was hungry.” She put down her knife and drifted over to the fridge to uncork the wine. “Now go take your shower. And check your e-mail – Sabrina called. She’s coming for dinner tomorrow. I thought a nice osso bucco – what do you think?”

I picked up the knife. The wide mirror-like blade was only slightly dulled by a thin film of beef blood.

The first thrust missed her entirely. She shrieked and side-stepped, but her ballet slipper slithered on the tile and she fell. I grabbed her by her hair. She flailed and fought, but she stopped as soon as she felt the knife point on her neck.

“So you can die,” I said, thinking her mortally afraid.

She swallowed, very carefully. “Listen,” she said. “We can fix this.”

I pressed the point against her skin. A drop of blood ran down her white throat, down between her breasts, staining the edge of her peppermint pink sweater. “No, we can’t,” I said. “Motherfucking osso bucco?

She let out a little scream, her eyes overflowing with tears. “Daniel, please,” she said. “I can release you. There’s a way out of this. We can undo it. We just have to go to the desert, to where we made the deal…”

“Where you tricked me, you mean?”

“Yes, yes. Alright. But we can fix it…”

“You’ll leave me alone?”

She gazed up at me. Her lips were white. “You’ll never see me again,” she said. “I promise. I swear it. On anything you want.”

I didn’t make her swear, but I did make her drive. I kept the knife to the back of her neck as I led her through the parking lot. She cried and complained she’d never been a good driver, but that way I figured she’d go careful. I lowered the blade and nudged it against her side through her sweater. If she screamed, I told her, I’d stick her in the guts.

“I’m not wearing the right shoes for this,” she sobbed – typical woman. Her little ballet pumps were too slippery for the gas pedals and she stalled us more than once so that the traffic slowed, honked and blasted at us.

“You can stop this,” I said. “Stop crying. This is all your fault.”

“I can’t help it,” she said, tears drooling down into her lap. “It’s what I am, what I’ve always been. You think it’s been easy for me?”

We were out, finally, heading out onto the freeway. “Easy for you?” I said, giving her a prod to let her know who was in charge.

Caitlin smiled. She stomped her foot down on the pedal and the car leapt forward with a screech of tires. I panicked, stabbed at her, but she had anticipated me and shuffled off to the side, one hand on the wheel. “Stab me at this speed and we’ll both die,” she said. “You wanna take that chance, Dannyboy?”

Her smile was glassy, her teeth too bright. I watched the odometer creep higher. She’d lied about being a lousy driver – she was Steve McfuckingQueen. “Let me tell you how it was for me,” she said, horns roaring around us as she tore through traffic. “You’re here for an instant, the blink of a bloody eye. Eighty, ninety years – if you’re lucky. Not me. I’ve been doing this for I don’t even know how long.”

She reached up and yanked the band out of her hair. “I know,” she said, with another quartz-chip smile. “I look good on it, don’t I? But it’s not much of a payoff, to tell you the truth. You want the truth, Daniel? The stone cold bleedin’ unvarnished truth?”

I nodded. Those teeth. Jesus. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bone in the fridge.

“I hate writers,” she said. “I am sick of the lot of youse. Centuries of listening to you piss and bitch and whine and fucking moan. ‘Oh, it’s so hard – I have to spend all day playing with my invisible friends like a feckin’ child. I don’t have to be a responsible adult. I’m creative. I’m special.’”

She gave the pedal an extra stomp. We were already doing well over a hundred. I’m not ashamed to say I screamed at that point.

“Ah, shut your foul whining,” she said. “You aren’t even good. I’ve had the best, you know.Lawrence– he was one of mine. Sucked him dry in more ways than one. And a shitty lover, would you believe? He was all talk, that one. Little Johnny Keats – now there was a lover. My God, he’d go at it like a bull and then cough for half an hour. The brightest ones always burn out the fastest.”

We were in the desert now – blank blue skies overhead. The crash barriers gave way to empty roadsides scattered with Coke cups and plastic wrappers. I was going to die out here – I felt sure of it.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like,” she continued. “Listening to them complain. Did I ever tell you about Yeats? That Billy Butler got me good, so he did – knew his mythology, wrote me name on the flyleaf there. If they learn your name before you catch them then you have to serve them. Them’s the rules…”

“Caitlin…” We were going so fast we might as well be flying. One slip, one skid, one fucking Twinkie wrapper and we would rocket and flip into the air.

She just smiled sadly and pressed the gas some more. “You have no idea how I grew to hate the name of Maude Gonne,” she said. “His wife, his kids, his fame – didn’t give a sweet goddamn about any of it. Just kept on and on about bloody Maude. And Shelley…let me tell you…the most selfish prick you ever…”

I’d known it was coming, so that when it happened it was like slow motion. The truck came blaring, chromed, towards us. She was hugging the center of the road and swerved. Then it was just like wheeeee, flying – a moment of suspended animation as your body braced for the crunch.

I was conscious the whole time, upside down and around, the grinding and tearing of metal near deafening. I knew my legs were broken. All I could think of was my phone – I had to have my phone. It had all my numbers in it.

It saved my life, such as it was – that phone. I think I blacked out for a moment when the world stopped whirling and screaming around my head. I was lying in the sagebrush. Bits of car were scattered all over the rocky face of the desert, a smashed door beside a pale pink ballet shoe. Caitlin lay further away. She had no head. There was just a puddle of matte red, soaking into the sand where her neck ended.

I remember thinking I wonder if I can get a signal out here? and then I don’t remember much of anything.

*

There’s not much more to tell. Is there a moral to this story of mine? Who knows. Figure it out for yourself. I’m done.

I woke up two weeks later, just like they do on TV, with a doctor shining a pin torch in my eyes. “You’ve been very lucky,” he said. “The crash investigators think you were doing over a hundred and twenty when you went off the road. If I were a religious man I’d be convinced of a miracle.”

“But you’re not, right?” I said.

“No,” said the doctor, whose name was Cho. “You’re just an exception to the rule. Look at it this way – you’ll never be short of an anecdote at parties.”

I thought this was a weird, callous thing to say to someone whose girlfriend had been decapitated, but he’d just given me more morphine and I was too woozy to talk.

“You are such a fucking moron,” said Sabrina, who came to see me with a bouquet of blue irises and several welcome bottles of ice-cold Evian. “What possessed you two assholes to take your latest Taylor-Burton turn out onto the fucking highway?”

“A little sympathy would be nice,” I said.

She made a snorting sound in the back of her nose and bent over me with the cup and straw. “Oh, you’re lucky you’re hot right now,” she said. “Otherwise I would be so mad at you. You see those three dozen white roses over there?” She paused significantly. “Oprah. She wants to make up. You’re going to be on your ass for a while, Dannyboy, so you’d better Stephen King the shit out of this car crash, okay?”

“Tasteful,” I said. “I should exploit the death of my girlfriend?”

Sabrina straightened up and frowned. “Caitlin? She hasn’t been to see you yet?”

“Caitlin’s dead,” I said, as if I could make it real by saying it. Right then I knew I was fucked, that all her screams and tears with the knife at her throat had been nothing more than a bluff while she figured out her next move.

“Who told you that?” asked Sabrina. “She’s fine.”

“She had no head.”

Sabrina’s frown deepened as far as her Botox allowed. “She had one when I saw her. She’s the real miracle – your Dr. Cho cannot figure out how the hell she walked away from that with nothing more than a few scrapes and a real bad case of whiplash. Talk about the luck of the Irish.”

I knew. She walked in the next day – bruised around the face and neck but with a black velvet band around her neck, hiding the line where her head had come off. Dr. Cho was with her and they were having an odd, jerky conversation about how black velvet chokers had been all the rage in the Nineties. Caitlin nodded along with him.

“Of course, you were probably just a baby,” said Dr. Cho.

She nodded again, as if she had spent those years innocently crapping her pants in front of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead of devouring writers’ lives for shits and grins.

Cho turned to me. “You’ve been very lucky,” he said, again, with a professional gravity I didn’t like one bit. “No reason to think your luck won’t hold out, so we’ll do what we can…”

I liked his tone even less. Caitlin sat down on the edge of my bed and squeezed my plastered fingers. “You have to be very brave, Daniel,” she said.

And then came the words. Shadow. X-ray. Biopsy. Authors don’t get consumptive and cough themselves to death like Keats any more, but when the leanan sidhe get sick of you? You still get sick.

“All those cigarettes,” said Caitlin, weeping prettily.

She plays the concerned girlfriend so well, for all she’s done with me. “I’ll go to the east coast,” she says, “When…”

She doesn’t finish, but I know what she means – when I’m dead. When the cancer’s burned itself out and taken me with it she’ll take off, latch onto some thirtysomething douchebag named Jonathan, currently feted for having written some smug book that’s just impenetrable enough to be deemed smart. Good fucking luck to her. Let her tear through the Jonathans. They’re welcome to her, this tender little monster who talks about my death with love in her eyes and brings me homemade soup. The nurses dab their eyes and sigh when they see us. Everyone likes a love story.

10 responses to “Short story – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  1. Only you could have written this. It’s wonderful. (If anything, you’re too good: there are a few points when I read it in your voice, not that of Danny Sheehan from Philly.)

    Something about the paragraph structure reminds me of the better William Gibson shorts.

    Thank you.

  2. Aw, thank you! It needs another editing pass or two, I think. There’s some clunk at the beginning – I always find the first thing I write is always the worst, because I’m not quite in the story yet or completely familiar with the characters.

  3. This is exceptional writing. I’ve grokked your writing for years on the blog. Plainly put, this is a brilliant, vivid story. You are a master of simply hewn characterisation and the inner monologue.

    You’ve made my week.

  4. Holy shit, man!

    I know where you took the inspiration from, and oh. my. gods. You kicked alchemical ass on this one, because you turned total shit into purestrain GOLD. Just wow.

    • I know! – the ‘original’ story was one of the worst things I have ever read in my entire life, and I’ve read some very, very bad porn in the line of professional duty. I took it on knowing that there was probably no way I could actually make it WORSE. Thanks for commenting.

  5. My dear, what a lovely surprise to find this waiting for me to devour. You’ve done your usual great work, really nice characters, wonderful dialogue, and a nice twist on an age old myth. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Excellent work- a nice intense twist on old mythological tropes. Glad I stumbled on it.

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