In the middle of the maze, there’s always a monster.
If there were no monster, people would happily set up house where it’s warm and windowless and comfortable. The monster is required. The monster is a real estate disclosure.
So. In the middle of the maze, there is a monster made of everything forgotten, everything flung aside, everything kept secret. That’s one thing to know. The other thing to know is that it is always harder to get out than it is to get in. That should be obvious. It’s true of love as well.
In the history of labyrinths and of monsters, no set of lovers has ever turned back because the path looked too dark, or because they knew that monsters are always worse than expected. Monsters are always angry. They are always scared. They are always kept on short rations. They always want honey.
Lovers, for their part, are always immortal. They forget about the monster.
The monster doesn’t forget about them. Monsters remember everything. So, in the middle of the maze, there is a monster living on memory. Know that, if you know nothing else. Know that going in.
They meet at someone else’s celebration, wedding upstate, Japanese paper lanterns, sparklers for each guest, gin plus tonic. They see each other across the dance floor. They each consider the marzipan flowers of the wedding cake and decide not to eat them.
Notes on an eclipse: Her blue cotton dress, transparent in the sunlight at the end of the dock, as she wonders about jumping into the water and swimming away. His button-down shirt, and the way the pocket is torn by his pen. Her shining hair, curled around her fingers. His arms and the veins in them, traceable from fifty feet.
They resist as long as it is possible to resist, but it is only half dark when the sparklers are lit, from possibly dry-cleaned matches he finds in his pocket. She looks up at him and the air bursts into flame between them.
They are each with someone else, but the other two people in this four-person equation are not at this wedding. They know nothing.
In the shadow of a chestnut tree, confetti in her cleavage, party favors in his pockets, they find themselves falling madly, falling utterly, falling without the use of words, into one another’s arms.
Run. There is always a monster—
No one runs. She puts her hand over her mouth and mumbles three words into her palm. She bites said hand, hard.
“What did you say?” he asks.
“I didn’t,” she answers.
So, this is what is meant when people say love at first sight. So this is what everyone has been talking about for seven thousand years.
He looks at her. He shakes his head, his brow furrowed.
They touch fingertips in the dark. Her fingerprints to his. Ridge against furrow. They fit together as though they are two parts of the same tree. He moves his hand from hers, and touches her breastbone. Her heart beats against his fingers.
“What are you?” he asks.
“What are you?” she replies, and her heart pounds so hard that the Japanese lanterns jostle and the moths sucking light there complain and reshuffle their wings.
They lean into each other, his hands moving first on her shoulders, and then on her waist, and then, rumpling the blue dress, shifting the hem upward, onto her thighs. Her mouth opens onto his mouth, and—
Then it’s done. It doesn’t take any work to make it magic. It doesn’t even take any magic to make it magic.
Sometime soon after, he carries her to the bed in his hotel room. In the morning, though she does not notice it now, the hooks that fasten her bra will be bent over backward. The black lace of her underwear will be torn.
This is what falling in love looks like. It is birds and wings and voodoo dolls pricking their fingers as they sing of desire. It is blood bond and flooded street and champagne and O, holy night.
It is Happily Ever.
Give it a minute. Soon it will be After.
So, say her man’s a magician. Say that when he enters a forest, trees stand up and run away from their leaves, jeering at their bonfired dead. Say that in his presence people drop over dead during the punchlines of the funniest jokes they’ve ever managed to get through without dying of laughing, except—
So, say he knew it all along. This is one of a number of worst things itemized already from the beginning of time by magicians. This falls into the category of What To Do When Your Woman Falls In Love With Someone Who Is Something Which Is Not The Least Bit Like The Something You Are.
The magician shuffles a deck of cards, very pissed off. The cards have altered his fingerprints. Scars from papercuts, scars from paper birds and paper flowers, from candle-heated coins, and scars from the teeth of the girls from whose mouths he pulled the category Things They Were Not Expecting.
Turns out, no woman has ever wanted to find a surprise rabbit in her mouth.
He finds this to be one of many failings in his wife. Her crooked nose, her dominant left hand, her incipient crow’s feet. He hates crows. But she is his, and so he tries to forgive her flaws.
His wife has woken sometimes, blinking and horrified, her mouth packed with fur. No one ever finds the rabbits. His wife looks at him suspiciously as she brushes her teeth.
Sometimes it hasn’t been rabbits. When they first met, years and years ago, she found her mouth full of a dozen roses, just as she began to eat a tasting menu at a candlelit restaurant. She choked over her oyster, and then spat out an electric red hybrid tea known as Love’s Promise. By the end of evening, she was sitting before a pile of regurgitated roses, her tuxedoed magician bowing, the rest of the room applauding.
She excused herself to the bathroom—golden faucets in the shape of swans—to pick the thorns from her tongue. And then sometime later, what did she do?
She married him.
The magician continues to shuffle his cards. He clubs his heart, buries said heart with his wife’s many diamonds, and uses his spade to do it. Some of those diamonds are made of glass. She never knew it.
In their hotel room, the lovers sleep an hour. He’s looking at her as she opens her eyes.
“What?” she asks.
He puts his hand over his mouth and says three words into it. He bites down on his palm. She reaches out for him. It is morning, and they are meant to part.
They do not.
This is meant to be a one-night love story not involving love.
It is not.
They stay another day and night in bed. They’ve each accidentally brought half the ingredients of a spell, objects rare and rummaged, philters and distillations, words that don’t exist until spoken.
They get halfway through a piece of room service toast before they’re on the floor, tea dripping off the table from the upended pot, a smear of compote across her face, buttered crumbs in his chest hair.
They think, foolish as any true lovers have ever been, that this is so sweet that nothing awful would dare happen now.
They think, what could go wrong?
And so, say his wife is a witch. A cave full of moonlight and black goats and bats, housed in a linen closet in the city. Taxicabs that speak in tongues and have cracked blinking headlights and wings. An aquarium full of something bright as sunlight, hissing its way up and out into the apartment hallway, and a few chickens, which mate, on occasion, with the crocodiles that live in the bathtub.
Say she knew about this too, from the moment she met her man, foretold the mess in a glass full of tea, the heart-shaped, crow-footed face of this woman who is nothing like the witch.
The night the two true-lovers meet, his wife is sitting in their shared apartment. Coffee grounds shift in the bottom of her cup. A yellow cat streaks up the fire escape, shrieking a song of love and lamentation. The witch’s hair tangles in her hands, and she breaks the knot, tears the strands, throws them from the window and down into the neighbor’s place, where he, wide-eyed, elderly, and stoned on criminal levels of pot, drops the witch’s hair into the flame of his gas stove and leaves it be while it shoots fireworks over the range and sets off the smoke detector.
The witch looks for allies. There is one. He’s a magician. Typically, she works alone, but she suspects her skills will be blurred by sorrow and fury.
She sees him in her coffee grounds, shuffling a deck of cards and crying. He pulls a coin from beneath his own eyelid. A white rabbit appears in his mouth and then climbs out, looking appalled, dragging with it a rainbow of silk scarves and a bouquet of dead roses. The magician lets the table rise beneath his fingers, propelled by the rattling ghosts of other magicians’ wives.
The witch has no patience for any of this. She spills milk so that no one needs to cry over it anymore. There. It’s done. It’s happened. After a moment, though, the waste begins to irritate her, and so she unspills the milk and pours it into her coffee cup. She sweetens it with a drop of her own blood, and drinks it.
She’s strong enough to kill him, but she doesn’t want to kill him.
She is not, unfortunately, strong enough to make him fall out of love. Making someone fall out of love, particularly when it is the kind of love that is meant to be, is much harder than murder. There are thousands of notoriously unreliable spells meant to accomplish just this. Typically, they backfire and end up transforming eyebrows into tiny, roaring bears, or turning hearts inside out and leaving them that way.
Once, when attempting something similar, the witch found her own heart ticking like a timebomb. This was expensive to fix, and in truth, the fixing did not go well. Her heart is mostly made of starfish these days. At least it could regenerate when something went wrong.
When the witch first fell in love with her husband, she showed him all of her spells, a quick revue of revelations.
She crouched on the floor of the apartment, and opened her closet full of cave, let the bats and goats and ghosts come pouring out into the room, and he laughed and told her she might need an exterminator. She crumpled herbs from ancient hillsides, and in their dust she planted seeds shaken carefully from a tiny envelope. She watched him as the flowers bloomed up out of nothingness. Each flower had his face. She wasn’t sure he’d noticed. She pointed it out, and he said, “Thank you.”
She worried he was not impressed enough. They stayed together.
At night sometimes, she took down buildings brick by brick, all over the city, but left their bedchamber untouched.
The witch is busy too. She has things to accomplish. She has no time for fate. She doesn’t wish to let her man go off into his own story, giving fate as his reason.
Fate is never fair. This is why there is such a thing as magic.
The witch picks up her phone and calls the magician. She monitors him in the coffee grounds as he answers. He’s dressed in a full tuxedo and most of a sequined gown. He’s sawed himself in half, and is carefully examining the parts. The witch could have told him that this’d yield nothing in the way of satisfaction. Years ago, just as she met this man and learned about the other woman in his future, she dismantled her own body, and shook it out like laundry, hoping to purge the urge to love. It hid, and when she replaced her skin with cocoa-colored silk, the urge to love got loose, and hid elsewhere.
She never told him about the woman he’s meant to meet. Men were often blind. He might miss her.
Love was blind too, though, and this was the witch’s mistake. Had he been blind and deaf and mute, he’d still have met the other woman, in the dark, in the silence.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be done.
“Meet me,” she says to the magician. “We have things to do together.”
Together, the lovers walk through a cemetery holding hands, laughing over the fact that they are tempting fate by walking through a cemetery holding hands.
Together, they walk through a torrential storm, heads bent to look at each other’s rain-streaming faces.
Together, they have faith in traffic.
Together, they fuck in the stairwell, on the floor, against the bookshelves, on the couch, in their sleep, while waking, while dreaming, while reading aloud, while talking, while eating takeout first with chopsticks and then with fingers and then from each other’s fingers, and then?
Lover’s arithmetic: test to see how many fingers can be fit into her mouth, how many fingers can be fit inside her body. Test to see how many times she can come. They chalk it up on an imaginary blackboard. She lays still, her hair spread across the pillow, and comes simply by looking at him.
Together they compare histories, secrets, treasures.
Together, they’re reduced to cooing and whirring like nesting birds, junketing on joy.
Together, they try to doubt it.
It’s no use. There are too many ways to break a heart. One of them is to tear that heart in half and part company. And so, they don’t.
“Fate,” he says. And it is.
“Magic,” she says. And it is.
“Meant to be together,” they say, together. And it is.
Careful. There need be no mention of star-crossing, not of Desdemona and Othello, nor of Romeo and Juliet. Not of any of those people who never existed, anyway. Someone made those people up. If any of them died for love, it’s someone else’s business.
Together, they compare fingerprints again, this time with ink. He rolls her thumb over his page, and looks at the mark, and they memorize each other’s lines.
Together, they say, “Forever.”
Look. Everyone knows that forever is, and has always been, a magic word. Forever isn’t always something one would choose, given all the information.
And so, the magician and the witch hunch over a table in the neutral zone of a Greek diner, brutalized by a grumpy waitress and bitter coffee. Outside, the sky’s pouring sleet. Inside, the ceiling’s streaming fluorescent light. The witch’s taxicabs patrol the streets, crowing miserably, wings folded. Too nasty out there to fly.
The magician is in formal dress, including top hat. The witch is wearing a fleece blanket that has sleeves and a pocket for Kleenex, and though she’s managed lipstick, it’s crooked. She’s wearing fishnet stockings, which the magician suspects are an illusion.
Neither witch nor magician are in top form. Both have head colds, and are heartbroken. Each has a sack of disaster.
The witch coughs violently, and removes a tiny, red-smudged white rabbit from between her lipsticked lips. She holds the rabbit in her hand, weighing it.
The magician stares steadily at her, one eyebrow raised, and after a moment, the witch laughs, puts the rabbit back into her mouth, chews, and swallows it.
The magician blinks rapidly. A moment later, he chokes, and tugs at the neck of his tuxedo shirt, where his bowtie was, but is no longer.
He glances sideways at the witch, and then fishes a black bat from his own mouth. The bat is wild-eyed and frothing, its wings jerking with fury. It has a single black sequin attached to its forehead.
“Are you ready to stop fucking around?” asks the witch.
“Yes,” says the magician, humbled, and the bat in his hand stops struggling and goes back to being a bowtie.
The waitress passes the table, her lip curled.
“No animals,” she says, pointing at the sign. She sloshes boiled coffee into each of their cups.
“What do you have for me?” says the witch.
“What do you have for me?” says the magician. “I love my wife.”
“We’re past that. You’re not getting her back, unless you want half a wife and I want half a husband. Look.”
She pulls an x-ray from her bag. It’s a bird’s-eye skeletal of two people entwined in a bed, her back to his front. In the image, it’s appallingly clear that their two hearts have merged, his leaning forward through his chest, her heart backbending out of her body, and into his.
“How did you get this?” the magician says, both fascinated and repulsed.
The witch shrugs.
She hands him another image, this one a dark and blurry shot of a heart. On the left ventricle, the magician reads his wife’s name, in her own cramped handwriting. “Hospital records from forty years ago,” she says. “None of this is our fault. He was born with a murmur. Now we know who was murmuring.”
She passes him another photo. He doesn’t even want to look. He does.
His wife’s bare breasts, and this photo sees through them, and into the heart of the magician’s own wife, tattooed with the name of the witch’s own husband.
“What’s the point, then? Revenge?” he asks, removing his tailcoat, unfastening his cufflinks, and rolling up his sleeves. There’s a little bit of fluffy bunny tail stuck at the corner of the witch’s mouth. He reaches out and plucks it from her lips.
“Revenge,” she repeats. “Together forever. That’s what they want.”
She pulls out a notebook. When she opens the cover, there’s a sound of wind and wings and stamping, and a low roar, growing louder. Something’s caged in there, in those pages. Something’s been feeding on forever.
The magician smiles weakly and pours out the saltshaker onto the page. He uses his pen to carve a complicated maze in salt. He feels like throwing up.
“Something like this?” he says, and the witch nods. She feels like throwing up too. No one ever wants things to turn out this way. But they do.
“Something like that. I’ll do the blood.”
“I could do it if you don’t want to,” the magician volunteers, not entirely sincerely. That kind of magic’s never been his specialty.
“No, I owe you. I ate your rabbit.”
He rummages in his sack of disaster and brings out a pair of torn black lace panties. A bra with bent hooks. A photograph of a woman in a blue dress, laughing, giddy, her eyes huge, her hair flying in the wind. He looks at the crow’s feet around her eyes. Side effect of smiling. Crows walk on those who laugh in their sleep. He tried to tell her, but she did it anyway.
He pushes his items to the witch’s side of the table. The witch rummages in her own sack and removes a razor, a t-shirt ripped and ink-stained, a used condom (the magician suppresses a shudder), a gleaming golden thread. She suppresses the urge to smash the t-shirt to her face and inhale. She suppresses the desire to run her wrist along the razor blade.
She signals to the waitress. “Steak,” she says. “Bloody. I don’t normally do meat, but I get anemic when I do this. And a martini.”
“Two,” says the magician.
“We don’t serve steak,” says the waitress. “You can get a gyro, if you want a gyro. That’s probably chicken.”
The magician flicks his fingers, and the waitress pirouettes like a ballerina.
A moment later she returns with a white damask tablecloth, and two lit candles. Two plates of prime float out of the kitchen, smoking and bleeding. The fluorescent lights flicker off. The witch and the magician raise their glasses in a toast.
They toast to “Forever.”
And even when they say it, it is, as it always has been, a magic word.
The monster, newly uncaged, runs hands over new skin. The monster opens a new mouth and learns to roar.
She fell asleep holding his right hand in her left. She wakes up alone. There’s a playing card stuck to her left breast. It is not the Queen of Hearts. It’s a two of spades.
She’s in a hospital.
Her husband is a magician. Her lover’s wife is a witch. She knew better than to do this, this forever. But here she is, and here’s a nice nurse who asks her what she thinks she’s doing when she asks for the return of her shoelaces and belt and purse strap.
“I don’t belong here,” she says, in a very calm voice.
“Then why do you think you are here?” asks the nurse, in a voice equally calm.
Her wedding ring is missing too, but she doesn’t miss it. Her mouth tastes of rabbit and overhandled playing card. Where historically she has felt sympathetic to her husband, to his oddities, to his pain, she now begins to feel angry.
She looks down at her left hand and feels her lover still there. She looks at her ring finger, and sees something new there, a bright thing in her fingerprint.
A red mark. A movement, spinning through the whorls, slowly, tentatively. Someone is there, and the moment she thinks someone, she knows who it is.
She brings her fingertips closer to her face. She looks at them, hard. She concentrates. One does not spend years married to a magician without picking up some magic.
His eyes open. He’s freezing. His blood’s turned to slush and he remembers that time, when he did his girlfriend a significant wrong via text message. She salted him, limed him, and then drank him with a straw for seven hollow-cheeked minutes.
Last night, he held his lover in his arms, and kissed the back of her neck. She curled closer to him, pressing her spine into him.
He heard the crowing of taxicabs in his dreams.
There are looping, curving walls on either side of him. Above him, far above, the sky is dazzling, fluorescently white.
A flash across the heavens of rose-colored clouds. They press down upon him, soft and heavy. They depart. A rain of saltwater begins, and splashes through the narrow passage he inhabits. He hears his love’s voice, whispering to him, but he can’t find her. Her voice is everywhere, shaking the walls, shaking the sky.
“I have you,” she says. “You’re with me. Don’t worry.”
But he can’t see her. He’s frightened.
Something has started singing, somewhere, a horrible, beautiful, sugary roar. He’s suddenly hit by a memory of fucking his wife, on the floor surrounded by flowers that had his face. They both failed to come, bewildered by lack. It was years after the beginning, back then, but still nowhere near the end.
“I have you,” his beloved whispers. “You’re safe with me. I know the way.” He wonders if he’s imagining her.
The walls shake around him. He can feel her heartbeat, moving the maze, and his own heart returns to beating a counterpoint, however tiny in comparison.
He opens his hand and finds a ball of string in it.
The witch and the magician fumble in the car on the way to her place. Her sleeved blanket is rumpled. His top hat and tuxedo have turned to ponytail and hoodie. He may or may not be wearing a nude-colored unitard beneath his clothes. Old habits.
“Unbelievable dick,” she says, not crying yet. “He deserves this.”
“Believable,” he says. “Some people are idiots. She deserves this. I think maybe she never loved me.”
He’s looking at the witch’s black curls, at the way her red lipstick is smeared out from the corner of her lip. He’s thinking about his rabbit, working its way through her digestive tract. She’s still wearing the fishnet stockings he’d thought she conjured.
“It’s hard to make fishnets look right,” she says, turning her face toward his. Her eyelashes are wet. “They’re complicated geometry.”
He pulls an ancient Roman coin from behind her ear, clacking awkwardly against her earrings. She looks at him, half-smiling, and then pulls a tiny white rabbit from out of his hoodie. He’s stunned.
“It seemed wasteful to let it stay dead,” she says.
He puts his shaking hand on her knee. She moves his hand to inside her blanket. He takes off his glasses. She takes off her bra.
There are still people in madhouses and mazes. There are still monsters. Love is still as stupid and delirious as it ever was.
The monster in the middle of the labyrinth opens its mouth. It starts to sing for someone to bring it what it wants, its claws trembling, its tail lashing, its eyes wide and mascaraed to look wider, its horns multiplying until the ceiling is scratched and its own face is bloody.
The monster screams for honey, for sugar, for love, and its world comes into existence around it. Bends and twists, dead ends, whorling curves and barricades and false walls, all leading, at last, to the tiny room at the center of the maze, where the monster lives alone.
The other thing that’s always being forgotten, the other thing that no one remembers, is that monsters have hearts, just as everyone else does.
Here, in the middle of the maze, the monster sings for sweetness. As it does, it holds its own heart in its hands and breaks it, over and over and over.
© 2012 Maria Dahvana Headley