Every night is a different sort of sameness. I am a blonde, a brunette, a redhead. I am plump or willowy, shy or brazen. One night, I’m a girl he spied in the market stooping to heave a basket of apples onto her hip. Another, I’m a friend’s wife whose well-formed breasts lingered in his mind long after he forgot her name.
Three months ago, I went to pray in the garden of Love. I left bread and cheese and wine at the statue’s feet, all I could sneak away from my family’s larder. I knelt before the statue and spoke his name over and over again in a haze of longing and despair.
That night, I opened my eyes in a dream to find myself staring at those elegant stone toes made flesh. I tried to raise my head and made it no farther than a calf so white it glowed like the moon before I was forced to drop my eyes back to the floor.
I heard Love’s voice like the throb of my own heartbeat. “You weep most prettily, mortal, but I’ve had tears and tokens left at my feet by a hundred lovelorn women just like you. Why should I heed your call?”
“Because I love more truly than they do,” I whispered. “Because I’m worthy.”
“Are you? Then prove it. If your love is more than just a girlish fantasy or a lustful craving, then walk into my temple tomorrow. There is a circle of fire around my altar, and upon the altar is a single golden apple. Walk through the flames and take the apple, and bring it to lay at my feet in the garden. If you truly love him, then you’ll have what you deserve.”
“Thank you, gracious lady,” I murmured, keeping my eyes on the shell-like crescents of her toenails. “I’m grateful.”
“Don’t be grateful yet. I haven’t given you anything, nor will I give you more than you’ve earned.”
And before I could speak again, I woke to find myself in the same humble house, beneath the same thatched roof, and all memory of those ethereal feet fading into sleepy confusion. Still, I hadn’t forgotten her words. I got up and dressed with care, putting on a gown of fine red linen, and walked down the dawn-kissed streets to the temple of the goddess of love.
It wasn’t until I mounted the steps and saw the flames that I faltered. They licked the air like hungry golden tongues, dancing in a fire bed that made a neat circle around the altar in the temple’s heart. I could feel the ripple of that heat against my skin from across the floor.
I closed my eyes and pictured my beloved: dark blue eyes and a lion’s mane of golden hair, thick-thewed and broad-shouldered. I did love him. Ever since our eyes first met and he’d bobbed a nod at me as he rode out with the other warriors, he was all I could think about. And when he came into my father’s shop for the first time, I barely managed to stammer a few words to him as I handed him fresh loaves wrapped in brown paper, tied with an unnecessary flourish by my own doting hands. If that wild shimmering like stars fizzling in my belly was not love, then I didn’t know what love was.
But still, I didn’t want to burn for him. Every image I summoned of the fetching curve of his lips or the amused flash of his blue eyes melted into a vision of my skin withering and my hair wilting into shriveled patches. I stood there, trembling, while the fire leaped and danced as if celebrating the moment that it would feast upon my flesh.
If my love was true, the flames would not harm me. And I couldn’t imagine that my love wasn’t true. But I still couldn’t make myself move.
It was then that I noticed the young acolyte standing just behind the altar. She bore a basket of apples over her arm and the stiff posture of someone who had been on her feet for hours. She was an attendant, I guessed, there to replace the fruit after a successful supplicant bore away the altar’s current treasure. Something in my restless stirring caught her eye. Unwillingly, her gaze strayed from her indifferent vigil to rest on my face.
“Please help me,” I whispered. “I can’t fail, but I’m terrified of the fire.”
Her brows quirked, her lips tightening. Her eyes flashed nervously around the empty temple.
“I can’t live without him,” I urged. “I don’t know what to do.” Without thinking, I held out my hands beseechingly.
Sighing, the acolyte picked up the fruit from the altar and tossed it over the flames with a flick of her wrist. I snatched it from the air before it hit the ground. She set a new apple on the altar, and then her movements stilled back into a perfect seeming of a statue with tired, bored young eyes. Gratefully, I bowed and scraped my way back out of the temple, and then I hurried off to leave my token for the goddess.
That night, when I closed my eyes, I was unsurprised to reopen them to the sight of those shapely white feet.
“There have been many women like you who have come to my temple, looked at the flames, and doubted how much they loved the men they sought,” the goddess said calmly. “And as they tried to imagine risking their lives for these men, they realized from the strength of their doubt that they must not love as truly as they’d thought. They went home and grieved the loss of a pretty dream. And then they cast their eyes around again until they found another. Men they would walk through fire for, but never had to, because these men loved them enough that it was never necessary. Very few stepped across the flames to take the fruit. Even fewer still tried to steal what they did not earn.”
I was shaking, though the goddess never raised her voice. I tried to form an apology, but the shifting of her feet in my vision made me falter. I knew it didn’t matter, in any case. She had no interest in my excuses.
“Everyone who comes into my temple gets what she deserves. You will be to him exactly what he is to you until I decide otherwise.”
The next morning, my parents woke to find me missing from my bed. They sent my brothers running through the streets, asking our neighbors if they had seen me and checking for me out in the fields where I liked to go sit and read. They searched for days before they finally gave up.
For myself, when I woke next, I was standing before my beloved, my fine, golden-haired warrior with his mischievous smile. He swept me into his arms, bore me to his bed, and made love to me until the sun came up. Then he woke up.
Again, the next night, he dreamt of me, clad in the skin of some new woman who had caught his eye. He had me against a wall, his lips sweeter than honey, the muscles in his back rippling beneath my hands. And like that first passing fancy, I faded away the moment he opened his eyes to go on about his day.
So it has been for these past few months. Every night, I am his, but I am never me. I am the siren, the vixen, the shy milkmaid. The fantasy without substance, a plaything with no existence outside of his dreams. By now, I take no pleasure at seeing his shape fill my doorway, at feeling his hands on my skin.
I know better now than to steal what I haven’t earned.
© 2017 Amanda Kespohl
All Rights Reserved.