The Lion Bleeds Stark Epiphanies
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marblelion.jpg


1908


From the ornate lion’s head came a steady trickle of cold spring water feeding the crescent shaped pool of the ancient Roman bathhouse, whose high open windows let in the nourishing warmth and light of the Sicilian day, and outside murmurs of local women gathering to fill their pots around the well.

She had shucked free of her clothes, the stifling linen regimen of dresses and petticoats, whose layers were much more suited for the grim chill of Normandy than the balmy springs of Southern Italy. As she tested the waters, she mused to herself that such a cold bath would relieve her of the heat.

Just like the ancient Romans she had taken a turn in the hot spring already and would have thoroughly enjoyed it too, if it weren’t for the haze that clouded her brain, obscuring her thoughts with the sensations of sheer warmth and ease that the hot water gave.

Here, it was different. It was colder than she had expected—no matter. With a tentative step, her right foot entered the water, sending ripples radiating outwards, towards the tiled wall and the lion’s head fountain. The cold, the briskness of the water, smelling of pure mineral with a bit of rosemary infused, jolted her system wide awake. She felt her legs slightly buckle in response to the shock, but pursed her lips to steel herself. To tremble and flop face first into these springs would be quite unladylike and a discomforting embarrassment to the attendants who were in the eaves, awaiting at her every beck and call.

She moved further into the pool, feeling her foot step over the flowered green tiles that padded the floor. The water was almost up to her thighs now, but the pool being of a uniform shallow depth, she wouldn’t have to swim—swimming remained one of the rare pastimes that he had instilled in her.

Flicking her eyes from the marble lion, up to the frescos on the ceiling high above, she finally understood why the greats of the day built this place and made it their point of congregation. Here people would gather, under those great mosaics and frescoes of the Roman gods and figures, to philosophize about war, the human condition, democracy, love, drawing on the legendary figures that came before them: Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Caesar. She would like to think so for herself, those same ponderings that they once had, but nothing particular came to mind besides the vivifying chill of the water.

At last, she crossed the pool to stand before the stone lion, its white, lifeless eyes staring back at her, its jaw hanging just a bit open as if it were taking in the figure of a hunter, somewhere out in the plains of the strange land just south of the Mediterranean, before the figure would pull the trigger and the beast was slain.

She held out her fingers to the stream of water that bled forth, feeling it splash over her uncalloused hands, droplets running down her wrist, with stray bits of spray splashing onto her breast, sending little pinpoints and jolts down through the skin, lingering and spreading over her as she gradually moved herself into the shower.

Looking up now, through loose strands of her mussed auburn hair, shutting and reopening her eyes wide at the prominent snout of the lion, she didn’t quite see a beast anymore. In fact, behind the wild mane, sculpted in a ring and the long beard that came down to a V was her memory of Edward. Previously, those memories had been dulled by the excitement, the sights to see on the other side of the Atlantic, obscured by the menagerie of dinner parties, steamer trunks and the long train rides with her friends—the grand tour around Europe.

-

The night before, she had been struck by a dream involving Edward. She hadn’t thought of him for so long—four years earlier they had parted due to her father's return to the United States. He went off to fight in the war in Avalon and came home a different man, who had changed from a soft-spoken individual preferring to keep to himself in the company of books to a cold, distant shell. Soon after she learned, through correspondence from a close friend, that he had hurled himself off a hotel rooftop in Paris.

Her other friends had thought it strange that she would fall in love with a soldier, one that guarded a lovely countryside chateau of the French no less. As the others played croquet on the carefully manicured lawn before her, she preferred to stay in the gazebo to finish the last of the tea. It was a strange thing to be considered high society—for in the background, soldiers were posted, rifles slung over their backs, kepis kept upright, gleaming sabers at their side. They marched with a carefully choreographed precision, high kicks at each turn, a salute to the steady stream of royalty and military officers that came in the side, and to each other.

She was about to put down her empty china teacup when a man brushed the back of her chair. By instinct she turned to look. He had gone through the gazebo in transit to his next post at the gate, and bore a lean yet strong stature, with his dark mustache—in those days it was fashionable for soldiers to do so. The softness in his face was framed by darker black hair.

“My apologies,” he spoke with a faint smile. His complexion was soft, yet slightly weathered, with a distinctive scar on his left cheek, which she later came to learn was given from an old acquaintance over a ballerina. He turned away, boots thumping over the gazebo’s polished teak floor as he headed for the exit to the other side and the path that led to his next post, the Lebel gently beating against his back.

She had long resisted the idea of love at first sight—thought the concept was dead the moment that she stepped out of the realm of fiction. Countless times she had met various suitors put forward by her father, the Ambassador Maythorne, and they never worked out. All turned out to be vain men—full of themselves, shunning books and the philosophies that their own fathers tried to instill in them, sneering upon the world and always, each in his turn, waving off her proposals of deeper talk in favor of getting in bed, to the point where she would flee down the steps of mansions and grand ballrooms, half-stumbling on her pointe shoes to get away from them, resigning herself to remain alone and avoid bringing herself further trouble.

He seemed different, however, she thought. With the stature and composure of a military man, strengthened by hard marches over mountains and plunges, rifles clacking into woods, he wouldn’t be the type of man to turn to drink to ease his troubles away. In fact, she would come to learn later that he did, indeed, refrain from smoking and drinking as well. It blockaded his mind, he said, from proper thought.

“Can you please join me, so we could talk awhile?” she had called after him.

“Perhaps after my rounds are over,” he replied, curiously cocking his head up in surprise at her American vernacular accent, and then he said, “the barracks are where I would be.”

-

And so began a love unlike any other she had experienced before. He was apprehensive at first. He had never expected her to follow through after the approach, but several days of short small talk before his rounds and passionate, drawn out nights together, he began to open up, growing more talkative about his life, his wishes.

“I’d like to pose a question, if I may. What is love, Miss Maythorne?” he mused as they lay upon her bed, on one of those nights, staring up at the inlaid plaster ceiling of the chateau. The moonlight filtered in through the porthole window above the dresser.

“What is love?” she murmured, feeling his chest, pressing up to her back, slowly rising and falling with every breath. “It’s just that: love. Endowed by a muse high above, I suppose.”

“I’ve read…I’ve read somewhere,” he curled up tighter around her, “I’ve read somewhere once that it is the synapses of a mind that fire off and draw emotions. But let’s say, someday…someday if the mind falls silent, does that mean that such love, such passion, is gone?”

“Taken by the throes of death, old age, or…by another man?”

He was silent for a long moment, and when she finally turned herself over to face him, she found he had been lost in thought.

“What is it, Edward?”

He shook his head, smiling at the ceiling, before turning to gaze at her.

“What you said,'' he whispered, “as a soldier…that poses another set of intriguing questions, Miss Maythorne.” He gave her a peck on the cheek before falling asleep.

In the morning she awoke to him buttoning up his tunic in front of the mirror. The Lebel rifle had been leaned up against her dresser, next to boots laced and ready. When he caught her reflection, rousing from her sleep, he stepped about to face her, kepi cap over his heart, saying:

“The barracks are where I would be.”

-

And so she went, recounting in the haze of so many past memories, slipping out of her bedroom that night, light on her feet, she was younger then, running past the guest room that hosted her father, Senator Maythorne, treading light, feeling her toes spring over the soft grass of the lawn, looking both ways around the grounds of that royal French chateau, eyes scanning the darkness and glimmer of the shapes on the garden wall, gazebo, fountains, for the night watchman’s lantern, should he come around and inquire why a guest was sneaking out.

The barracks lay at the far end of the grounds and appeared illuminated. There was Edward, sitting down on a crate outside, rifle disassembled. With a grunt, he extracted a glimmer of brass from the chamber before looking up at her, dressed in a nightgown, slightly shivering in the night. The rifle stock and bolt were instinctively put down, and he reached for the clasp of his night cloak.

“I never expected that you would come out here,” he said as he draped the dark blue cloak around her and affixed it with the clasp, stamped in ivory with the cameo of a lion. “Heavens forbid, dear, that you even remembered me.”

Those words stopped her dead in her tracks, and as she turned her head to stare into his chestnut eyes that she found sharp and alert. Even in the darkness, she could have sworn that something was at work behind them.

“What happened?” she finally said, “I don’t remember you…this distant.”

He incredulously shook his head, adjusting his kepi cap, which she noticed had been situated jauntily. A slight breeze blew through the empty chateau, flapping the cloak that she now wore. The crickets were silenced.

“I have always been like that, can’t you remember?” he whispered and smiled, a smile that she thought seemed a little bit overdone. “Perhaps it was the fog of years gone by.”

“We were only about twenty-one when we first locked eyes.”

“Oh, yes, I remember now.” He circled her, and she couldn’t help but feel like a zebra, defenseless against the lion. His walk, sharpened by military bearings and movements, previously fluid, now resembled more of a drunken lurch, jerky, unrefined, and she thought to herself how strange it must be, for a military man as he was, who did not drink, to walk like that! From the fathoms of her mind came back even more memories.

-

She found out he loved to swim—the lake, a quarter’s day’s walk or an hour's carriage ride away, was his favorite spot on the rare days he was fully relieved of duty. He took her out there once, under a birdwatching trip. The day had been quite chilly when they started out on the walk, but eventually warmed up to a balmy heat.

“I joined the military to see faraway lands,” he said as they walked along the dusty country road. A satchel swung by his side along with the Lebel–orders had come for soldiers to carry it with them beyond the chateau, for the tremors of war had slowly but surely been showing, “I never could have known, Miss Maythorne, that I would be guarding a chateau not too far from the town where I had been raised.”

“It must have been a dull life before I saw you, then.” She let out a small laugh.

“Oh, that’s for certain. Truth be told, Miss Maythorne, I feel more at ease in your company than my guard friends. It was amusing before, sure, to hear them talking about their own loves, who are grounded in cities and towns a ways away from the chateau. Such profound points were made about the subject while they drank, smoked and played cards, reading letters aloud. But…well, I’m afraid that ever since the telegrams have come, they have turned the drink, tobacco, and cards into their new loves.”

“What for, Edward?”

“Have you heard the news? Arguments with Avalon over lines on the map, arbitrary meridians spanning mountains and fields that haven’t been touched in a century or more. They say it’s going to lead to war, but they’ve been saying that for so long that if it even happened, I would be back at the chateau within a couple months or so.”

The lake was a reflective canvas of green and blue hues against the mountains which rose above the water pines, beyond which lay Avalon. They settled down in a secluded spot on a small sandbar on the far side, well away from the boathouses and bustling waterside taverns.

They laid on the sandy banks in their swimsuits, in ease after a swim and light lunch, watching the distant wisps of steam launches and pleasure cruises prowling the lake. Hearing the far off warbles of a loon, she couldn’t hold the question back.

“What’s war like for you?”

“War?”

He raised his eyes from the little cairn that he was building with pebbles.

“War.”

“I must admit that I have never seen battle before, Miss Maythorne. They have gotten me through the motions of it, sure.” He squeezed her hand. “To treat my rifle as a…a necessary extension of myself, to march in a column, to signal from the mountaintop with a flag as a semaphore to the flying machines and heavens above, I imagine these things will come into play should we go to war with Avalon.”

“Shouldn’t…I wish I had better words to phrase this, but shouldn’t you be more worried about the storm clouds brewing?”

“We fought them before, in the days when knights and noblewomen still roamed the earth. They brought with them six thousand strong, and when we pushed them back over the mountains they were reduced to only one thousand. Our side departed with two thousand, and returned with roughly a thousand and a half, victorious.”

“But we never returned with half, didn’t we?”

“Half. Half is a trivial sum,” he quickly said. “If we had won with minimal casualties before, I would imagine that we could do the same now. They say that the Avalonian military is horribly outdated, still using the old line muskets and square formations, centuries old. What a little lovely war that’ll be on their hands, to put them into their place!

“And,” he smiled and leaned in, “how lovely, it is, Miss Maythorne, to have you as my love!”

Before she could add other thoughts on her mind, their lips met halfway and she decided to not push it. The Lebel sat a few yards behind them, leaned against a tree, breech open, the glimmer of a brass cartridge peeking out from the shadow of the chamber.

-

“It’s quite certain, Miss Maythorne,” he continued, “that I shall be dragged straight into the depths of two battles, one that we shall win and return victorious, and the other I shall never return from. I know that over the course of nights, days, we lay together, talking about all manners of things: law, order, the natures of war…even love, a love that is quickly lost in the fields. I shall tell you, now, that in war, there is no such thing as love, law, emotion…my men’s brutality…my brutality, reigns supreme over anything else. All left of their lives and all their preparations, will be bodies on the ground, twisted, broken, torn. Ligaments, tendons, muscles, will be just parts reduced to mere strips, picked over by the buzzards and left to decay.”

She stiffened.

“You’re not the real Edward, are you?” she felt her voice grow louder. “We only separated because my father had to be recalled, and not because of the war…so, for me it was back to America, back to the mansion on Telegraph Hill…rest assured, I still thought of you.”

He let out a sneer.

“Who said I was Edward…your version of Edward?”

His face transformed from that of a young man into something otherworldly, mustache and short hair growing longer, tendrils of his mustache morphing into a beard, from a brown to a gray, stopping in a V. His hair, likewise, grew into lengthy, wild curls, covering his entire forehead and sprouted out until they covered his ears. His hands clasped, closed in on themselves, and splayed open, shaking.

Her eyes glanced down at the lion clasp of the cloak, and then back up to face him, she took an involuntary step back.

“When we touched land behind those high mountains, through that endless parade of supply wagons and gun carriages, in a matter of days, we advanced into battle. I remember bashing my rifle stock against the head of an Avalonian. That sickening crunch when that young man fell, his shako adorned with the plumage of peacock feathers dropping into the mud, trampled by boots, hooves…next thing, while spreading kerosene to burn down a barn… I remembered. I remember lying in bed with you in that chateau, posing that question about love…whether it was taken by Death itself or by other men. The notion reminds me of the old philosophers. They speak to each other in vain in those baths about the foundations of government on which the blood of men mix, pool…”

Her eyes settled on the Lebel rifle, lying on the crate next to the barracks. In its current disassembled state and distance, she wouldn’t have time to pick it up, figure out how to feed a cartridge into the chamber, raise it and pull the trigger.

He continued circling around her, murmuring other things, unintelligible things, only a matter of time before he would pounce upon her, slam her down upon the grass in a flurry both of the joy and the yearning to hide a broken man, haunted by the cries of dying men and the final pulse of humanity in the midst of those fields, trying to show her that he, indeed, still had the tune, the music of old inside him when in fact the record had been smashed, smashed to pieces long ago.

Edward’s old military cloak rustled as she sprinted for the disassembled Lebel, and as she glanced behind her, the figure, that was her first and only true love, was snarling and charging her.

She felt her hands close around the worn, chipped rifle stock, and thought it was strange that it had been impeccable before they met. For a fleeting moment, she could have sworn there was a stain, a far darker crimson mixed into it than the wood grain could ever show. She raised it, ready to brain him as he was nearly upon her.

The cloak billowed out behind her as she slammed the wooden stock into his head. He was thrown back and collapsed to the ground. Tossing aside the rifle stock, she bent over his still body, and with a finger traced the outlines of the weathered face and beard, over the mouth, where a mustache used to be before the war. She felt something else coating her hands now, his blood, running from his mouth like a slain lion, sticky, congealing, real.

-

Before she went down to the baths that morning, she had lain on her bed, momentarily paralyzed by those exact thoughts….dreamlike qualities beyond the likes of watercolor paintings, confounded by the twisting, worming terror ebbing into her flesh.

But as the new day began, and maids, attendants, her other traveling companions, high society acquaintances, from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the like came in and out, busying her with conversation about the day, about their day trip down to Rome which she turned down for what was meant to be a lovely soak and dip in the old Roman baths.

The apprehensive feelings faded, as fleeting as they came to her, standing in the cold pool, once used by folk of old who witnessed those great philosophers speak for perhaps the final time before throwing on their garments and sweeping back into the bustling streets of time and obscurity.

Staring up through the water that showered her head, now acclimatized to the chill, at the blank, dull eyes of the lion, she instinctively knew too, that time, cascading over her, would wash her away as Edward had been. It was a terrifying feeling, but one that surprisingly comforted her.

She, too, would one day be gone from the earth as the soldiers, Edward, the men that once congregated here would go, in a casket, which would one day turn, implode, and become one with the soil again. It was those thoughts of mortality, knowing the liminality of love…emotion, the brutality of the scavengers, other men, that awaited to spring beyond death, that drove all lives ever onward.

Those musings ceased when she drew out from the cold stream of water, and gently padded back towards the lip of the pool, feeling the water’s motions ripple out and in with each swish of her legs.

Climbing out of the pool, she reached for a cotton towel to dry the last of the brisk water off of her body, casting a final eye up to the frescos of dead men high above, before snapping a finger for the attendants to bring over her corset and petticoats.

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