Ted Morrissey — “Weird Soliloquies”

First. When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain? We six really, for we carry too the fate of our phantasmal familiars, messengers from those murdering ministers. The dark shape of his shadow sits at my shoulder whispering, murmuring, urging just out of view. He sows fear of Fife, warns of Fife’s unmothered machinations, flashes and rumbles revelations, forecasting the past we’ve always known: the look, the tone, the posture projecting peril. Paterfamilias. Which turn of time is worse? The untimely death of a youthful father, or his longevity and the lengthening of the long black nights of menace which stretch into morning, into months—where the brightness of day is only associated with black bunting and mourning dress. Clothes the color of the bruise around mother’s eye and the one ringing brother’s arm. Arm, arm and out. But there is no out. No one knows. Perhaps some suspect, Rebecca’s father, Dr. Higgins, Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds, who watches mother with a careful, lupine keenness, on the street, in church, almost piercing the pew where we sit, father and mother on either side, brother and I in between, the smell of sacred wax, sweat, and secrets all around. Rebecca’s father’s words fall upon us, his sermon soaking us steadily, pressing my hair against my neck, plastering my skirt against my thighs. (Like this storm, whose contours are seen solely in revelatory flashes.) I look three pews ahead at the back of Rebecca’s blond head as she sits with the usurper, Frankie, a friendship at first forced by her father, but now embraced and feverishly felt. More than usurper: thief, bedlamite, whore. She should be sent out, banished, but instead is held dear in spite of her insolence—she has no love of this place, this church, this faith—only of Rebecca and the anticipation of her corruption, her downfall, her destruction. It is as plain as the past, if only they would open their eyes to it, see the fate which frolics before them, like naked satyrs and nymphs, carousing and copulating in the ritual spring rain. But we shall reclaim Rebecca, the only one who quiets the chaos of our darkness, who calms our storm-surged sea. Rebecca, our past must stretch into a future without the usurper, the thief, the whore. She must return to my bed and forsake the bedlamite. The shadowed head at my shoulder whispers it is so, his chafed lips brush my ear, his charnel-house breath clouds my cheek, his pestilent presence pricks the sides of my vaulting purpose. But Frankie mustn’t know our feelings: our false face must be a fair mask, our foul design a marvelous mystery.

Second. When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won. Whose bloody babe be this? Surely not mine. Yet he laments to my milkless breast, dissatisfied with my denials of motherhood. Just as Shirley has tried to deny me Frankie. Why can we not all three be friends, as bound as sisters? Fate after all has delivered us here, to this desert place, where Blight has stood his baneful watch upon our battlements since this forsaken place was settled. But we must acknowledge, the babe and I, the blight was brightened when Frankie came. Frankie who wore her pain as a challenge, who seemed to neither need nor want friendship, indeed affection, when really the bottom of her need had fallen so far she’d lost touch with its terminus. Perhaps the bloody babe who mouths a maternal warning is the dead brother that took Frankie’s mother too, both untimely ripped from Frankie’s life, and her father’s: his wound remains open and bloody for anyone to see. The seller of seed harbors a barren soul. Frankie’s hurt lay deeper, in some dark, sealed-off corner, a hidden space where scar tissue could be probed only if one searched persistently enough. Over time she shared the burden of her scarification, which in the night would ache with the pain of the old wound. (Lightning breaks a corner of the sky as wind-driven drops prick like icy shrapnel.) Perhaps the bloody babe is Frankie’s, or Frankie herself, or both—akin to God’s being the Father and Son—a twist Frankie would riotously reject. The bloody babe’s whispered words carry the motherless warning, as well as an interjection to be bold and well-resolved: single-minded, vicious even, in our determination. If so I must hold it dearer still, for fear that Shirley and her phantom familiar will wrest Frankie from me, and Frankie’s love, for she must feel the same burning star, a new and bewildering combustion in my breast—something a boy was to evoke, yet it flares at the heated touch of Frankie’s hand, the defiant focus of her eyes, the lilt of longing in her tongue. We must deny our denial, the babe and I. We must embrace that amorous ember, even if we are burned beyond recognition.

Third. That will be ere the set of sun. Darkness has been descending on Rebecca and Shirley’s friendship, an unlikely thing from the start, due only to geography, as improbable as the forest uprooting itself. Instead of Birnam, here it is Hollis Woods, where Rebecca and I clasped hands and hearts for the first time, in the dank cave where legend alleges Lucifer lives. Shirley holds onto her old friend with a breathless anxiety. I understand: the fearful foreboding of loss, the acidic anticipation of isolation. Just as this child clings to me, with his needled bough and crown of thorns promising what appears a bright future but the flash is only the foretaste of doom. He is the age my brother would be, should be. There was a name chosen but father will not bring it to his lips, as if a poisoned chalice, as if the poor child’s name were a malediction—yet the silence and secrecy are their own kind of curse, their own sort of sentence in our house, where emptiness is an unfailing reminder of loss, a deafening herald of death—as absent of life as abandoned Dunsinane. Indeed, a museum to grief whose central exhibits dominate due to their absence, like an elaborate frame whose canvas has been slashed and stolen to reveal the cracked plaster behind, the stained paper beyond. Rebecca, however, has begun to fill that space, especially when she sleeps beside me, her shoulder and hip and thigh kissing my shoulder, hip, thigh beneath the blanket. Sometimes I fight sleep to prolong the thought of her presence, the awareness of her arrival in my life. An unlikely slice of luck, of happiness (as unexpected as that flash of lightning now, as surprising as the pricking drops of wind-driven rain).

“Weird Soliloquies” extends the narrative of Ted Morrissey‘s novel Crowsong for the Stricken, which won the International Book Award in Literary Fiction, as well as the American Fiction Award, from Book Fest, and was a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. His most recent books are the novel Mrs Saville (2018) and the monograph A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report (2019). Visit tedmorrissey.com and follow @t_morrissey.

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