orpheus

Another Orpheus

Issue 24 by Coda Danu-Asmara

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he did not want to be born. He clutched his fingers to his toes and refused to move, even as his mother screamed and the doctor pleaded. So they had to cut him out with a long slice across his mother’s hips. His father insisted on the procedure; his mother was not consulted; the doctor liked the feeling of a blade against fat but had told nobody; the nurse had seen it all before; and Orpheus would have struggled if he had been taught. When the knife touched flesh, his mother gasped because she was not expecting the sudden pain; the doctor ruined a new pair of pants with blood; the nurse was careful not to drop her cigarette; his father laughed while rubbing his hands; and Orpheus wept when he touched light. Taking advantage of the commotion, his father pushed past the doctor and nurse to grab his son, his half-blood creation, his rightful property. He severed the umbilical cord with the slice of a pocketknife and carried Orpheus away. Nobody who could stop him did.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he did not want to become a musician. His father had a dream vicarious, of fame and fortune, of fans cheering, loving and exploitable. He placed the guitar in Orpheus’s stubby hands. ‘You must play,’ said his father, ‘if you wish to eat tonight.’ Orpheus chose to go hungry. The only music was the sound of his aching stomach. The next day, Orpheus searched and searched the tiny apartment for food, but found none no matter where he looked. His father was a wise and thoughtful parent who had hidden it all away. When he got home, his body aching from a day’s labor, the father saw his son scrounging and foraging for what he had stowed away. He once again commanded. ‘You must play if you wish to eat tonight.’ Orpheus once again refused. On his bare bed, he felt his intestines contract and moan. He was in so much pain that he could not sleep, no matter how hard he closed his eyes. After many hours of restlessness, when the moon was higher than he had ever seen it before, he got up from his bed and held the heavy guitar in his tiny hands.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he did not want to go on stage. The lights were bright and strange, the strangers’ roars frightening and painful. He cradled his head with the calloused fingers of work and toil. Some of the other children jumped and hopped and skipped around the green room that was not green. They smiled and celebrated premature victory because they did not know Orpheus’s name. The other nameless children looked like him. Their eyes were grey with youthful age and every sudden sound caused an equal reaction. The announcer knew Orpheus’s name. He called it over and over, waiting for a response. Orpheus shivered and clutched the guitar to his chest as he stood up to pass through the veil. The other children let him pass, although they should not have. Pushing the cloth aside, Orpheus’s eyes squinted from the glare. Sitting on a folding chair, Orpheus saw a man, his long fingers folded over a clipboard. His suit was golden gilded, his hands were golden tanned, his face was golden nervous, and his smile was golden caffeine. Behind him Orpheus’s father lurked, scowling with his eyes, his potbelly jiggling. And behind him was a live studio audience, waiting to learn Orpheus’s name and take it home in their memories. And behind them, although he would never know, his mother watched. Orpheus stood in the center of the stage with shaking legs. He bowed two times but did not play. ‘You must play,’ the golden producer said, ‘if you wish to win.’ His voice sounded like sugar, good at first and then worse and worse with each addictive listen. Orpheus looked at his father, who only nodded and mouthed the same words. ‘You must play if you wish to win.’ When Orpheus put his small fingers to the strings, he hoped he had forgotten the words and the chords. But as soon as he played the first sound, he realized he had not.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he knew when his fans were in the audience. When he played, his able hands sliding up and down the guitar’s neck like a weaver on his loom, they only shouted his name louder. They could not hear Orpheus’s music over the sound of his name, but Orpheus did not mind. His band members were often jealous of his success. They wondered why only Orpheus’s name was called, why only his name was known. They could travel, go to the store, buy cigarettes and cheap vodka with a fake ID, and nobody would call out their names. Orpheus could not exist in anonymity. His only feature was his name. He was instantly recognizable and yet simultaneously unremarkable. If his name were not Orpheus, he would be nobody. As the crowd’s single cyclops eye stared at every piece of Orpheus’s name, as he sang along to his four-chord manufacture, his pop saccharine love, he wished that he too could be nobody.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he could sign it at the base of the long contract. He did not read it; he was assured that he did not need to. His father had arranged an appropriate remuneration, and he did not question it. His manager smiled as Orpheus handed back the contract. ‘You have not made a mistake,’ murmured the man, ‘as long as you play.’

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he knew why his band members were beating him. Their breath stank as they kicked the boy not yet man. Orpheus did not cry because his father told him that crying strains the voice. ‘You will never make it solo,’ they said in unison. ‘You need us. You will never be remembered without us. Your name will be forgotten.’ His band members laughed and kissed and danced and drank and left Orpheus on the ground. They were wrong. Now nobody knows their names.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he was not surprised when three women were waiting in his bed. He did not know their names; he knew no names but his own. They rose from the covers and performed his songs. They did not cease no matter what he did. He ate his usual dinner of toast and Ambien, and they sang. He showered his oily skin, and they sang. He rested in bed, and they sang. They sang, they sang, and they sang, with their scaly arms wrapped around his neck and legs. He let but did not love. He knew the name of his love already, and it was not them. They had no names.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he knew his father’s name as well. The receptionist nodded and told him room forty-five, ward c, floor twenty-one. She knew his name but asked for it out of politeness. Orpheus thanked the woman and went to the elevator. He would have ridden in silence if the elevator did not play his song, the newest single from his fifth solo album. He exited on floor twenty-one, walked toward c, and opened the door of room forty-five. His father was there, on the bed. He was wearing headphones and did not notice Orpheus enter. Orpheus sat by his side and waited for the song to finish before introducing himself. ‘I did not hear you,’ his father said, ‘I was listening to your music.’ Orpheus already knew, but he let his father speak uninterrupted. ‘All those years ago,’ his father continued, his voice wheezy, dying, uncreative, ‘I never expected such success. I never expected such fame. You have made me proud, prouder than I could ever say.’ Orpheus still said nothing. He was taught well. ‘But I have wronged you, in some ways. I sometimes have taken money – spent it for good causes, for charities and concerts and merchandising – but taken it. I have sometimes been distant. I have sometimes forgotten your birthday. But despite it all, I have always been your biggest fan. I was always there for you when the times were tough, I stuck with you and built you into what you are today.’ Orpheus’s father weakly gripped his son’s arms. He was so large, his father thought. He could no longer be controlled. ‘Do you forgive me, for all that I have done?’ Orpheus did not forgive him but did not say so. Instead, he nodded. His father cried a bit, from happiness, in his expensive hospice bed. His name was forgotten.

Because Orpheus knew his name,

he tried to avoid meeting Eurydice. He knew her name before she introduced herself. This surprised him. For the first time, he knew how all others felt, knowing his name before he had a chance to say it. She sat in the hospital café, alone as he was. They had gazed at each other for many days in a row until, with a long-crooked finger, she called him over. Orpheus wanted to ignore her, for he knew her name, but he found that he could not. ‘You have looked so hungry.’ She always spoke like whispering. She gave him a piece of hospital cornbread that was too hard to eat but he did so anyway. As his teeth chipped from the bites, she chuckled softly. ‘You do not only need to play, Orpheus.’ He looked at her and said, ‘I know.’

Because Eurydice knew his name,

she knew that she was doomed to be with him. She did not believe in love at first sight, and it is true that she did not love him when they first met, but she knew the power of names and fate. Her mother too was dying. Her name has since been forgotten. The only scraps left are memories, of walking in the park by the evening sunset, of how large her soft and tender hands were. As a child she watched her father and mother kiss for the last time, although she did not know it then. It was sharp, sudden, and distant. Her father could not be there, that night she met Orpheus. Although he had loved his wife, in a way, he was busy, too busy to watch his wife die, and Eurydice was too scared, too scared to watch her mother die, and so she was left to die alone.

Because Eurydice knew his name,

she found Orpheus’s name in her phone contacts. The phone rang twice before he picked up. ‘We should no longer see each other,’ he said softly. They met in Central Park later that evening. He was thirty minutes late, and she forty-five minutes early. While waiting, she sketched a picture of a tall oak tree with a single stroke of charcoal. It had a single hanging leaf, the last survivor of autumn. Just as she was about to leave, she saw him wandering shyly, appearing only just as the sun faded. She scolded him and he apologized. She scolded him again for apologizing and he apologized again. She shook her head in mimicked anger. She brought his hands to her cheeks. His fingers were cold and calloused, but she did not mind. The rows of empty trees echoed with musical laughter of chirping crickets and cooing pigeons. Their eyes were closed in passion when the golden leaf slowly drifted to the ground.

Because Eurydice knew her name,

she filled out the marriage license with no issue. The ink was red. She chose that color in particular. Orpheus also agreed it was fitting. He took the pen with a trembling hand and signed his name under hers. He drew her face close. As she kissed him deeply, filled with ineffable love, she realized that a last kiss need not be sad.

Because Orpheus knew her name,

he knew what to scream when she fell onto the subway tracks. He always thought it would happen slowly, that he would have time to react, but her life was severed faster than a frayed string. The L train continued to snake its way through the tunnel without stopping. He ran beside it, trying to call out in anger and rage, in hopes that she could still be saved, but he found himself breathless, so that he could no longer shout or scream. He stopped at the end of the platform, panting. The train slithered by, his tuxedo’s tails flapping in the breeze. He walked back to the center of the platform, at the orange warning platform, right where she fell. His curiosity held back his fear. He peeked over the tracks. There was no sign of his love, no blood, no gore, no arms, no legs, no breasts, no head, no mind, no beauty, no joy, no secrets, no vows, no speaking. He looked at the tunnel, stretching into endless darkness ahead. He carefully dropped down to the tracks, his guitar held closely in his left hand. If he wanted to see her again, he must only sing and play. His fingers danced first in triple time, a Hungarian waltz. He was coming for her.

Orpheus sang her name.

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

He was a named ghost, wandering in the dark, with only the spotlight of song to guide him. He would make sure that every single creature in these tunnels knew her name. Three red-eyed rats watched this strange stumbling figure, ankle deep in sewage and garbage. They clicked and chuckled and thought of ripping him to little pieces. They had taken many in their time, first the little lost sparrows, then the wandering children, then once even a lost subway driver. None passed by their ravenousness. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

The rats followed him then, lined up and marching. For once in their little tittering lives, they were silent, listening. Orpheus pushed forward. The murky water had started to reach his knees; it was cold and stagnant and clung to his skin like hot mud. Orpheus was so determined that he did not notice his skin sloughing off. His legs should have fallen to pieces, and his bones should have turned to jelly. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

He had wandered in the tunnel for hours without ever closing his mouth. The plump rats were panting in exhaustion behind him. As long as he kept singing, they were too enthralled to stop. He would not stop. It was what he must do. The cavern began to open bit by bit. Eventually, it widened fully as Orpheus entered a room with dim light that seemed bright to his changed eyes. Hundreds of trains, silver carriages softly glimmered, their colorful letters and numbers like epitaphs, the train graveyard. Entering, he rose from the water onto dry land. The rats followed, gulping. This was the one place that was not their kingdom, the one place where they had feared to tread. The three looked at each other and thought to turn back. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

The rats skittered and scurried as Orpheus carefully walked over rusted and jagged scrap metal. One mistaken step would end him in pieces, but he knew that he would not trip. He sang in time to his footsteps. He must not stop. He looked at each train, briefly, seeing which was the one that took Eurydice from him, but none he saw matched the description. It did not bother him. He knew he would find her, as long as he played. As he reached the center of the silver tombstones, he heard a strange roar that nearly drowned out his singing chords. He turned, briefly, continuing to play. Two pairs of orange eyes emerged from the broken doors of an abandoned Q train. He saw the long snout, the rows of teeth, the splayed legs, and the white scaly skin. This was the alligators’ turf, and they came to witness the rare intruder before devouring him. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

The alligators followed closely behind the rats, their ancient gait awkward in the rough terrain. In the far distance, at the very edge of the bed of sleeping trains, he saw the grey circle and the fateful L therein. He picked up his speed as his animal quintet struggled to catch up to him. There, caught under the wheels, her face pale brown, lay Eurydice, unbreathing. He crouched down beside her, took his hands off the strings, and held her soft hand. He thought to kiss her, but, while he had stopped playing, he knew he could not stop singing. He could not stop singing her name, now that she was dead. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

With a faint gasp, she opened her dark eyes. She smiled, faintly, and brought his hands to touch her face. ‘Don’t stop,’ she mouthed, and he did not. As he pulled her to stand, he realized that she was cold, so painfully cold. But he would not let go. He turned away from her as he walked back, pulling her along. In his free hand, he held his guitar by its neck. He no longer required it. He needed only to sing. As they found their way back, his song started to change. He started to sing of days in the noonday sun, of laughing from alcohol until they curled into a together ball, of age, of really growing old, older than a young person can actually conceive, an age especially inconceivable for Orpheus. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

The refrain stayed the same. As the singing Orpheus worked his way back through the mud and the slime, he held his beloved’s hand behind him. He was too focused on guiding the way to look back, but he knew that she was safe, as long as she was in his grip. The rats and the alligators still followed close behind. They could not leave him as long as he sang. They were too ensnared by the beauty of the music to stop, so much so, that they began to accompany him. The rats’ teeth clicked, and the crocodiles’ tails swished in time to the beat. Eurydice did not join in. She could only listen. As the group crossed through the river of sewage again, dragging their slow feet through the muck, all the creatures of the subway had come out from every strange and mysterious crack to see the commotion. Hundreds of rat and mouse eyes glowed with curiosity, hundreds of pigeon wings flapped in confusion, and hundreds of flushed goldfish nibbled at his feet. What strange sounds he made, how odd. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

Orpheus and Eurydice emerged from the dark tunnel followed by a long line of animals. Early commuters, bleary eyed and tired, had heard the sound of the song long before the couple appeared. Many had thought it was the sound of an obnoxious train-goer, blaring his poorly crafted beats through cheap speakers. Conversations and headphones rose in volume in order to drown it out. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

Orpheus was helped from the tracks by hundreds of passersby. They had left their phones and books and friends behind. They must listen, just as Orpheus must sing. The crowd then pulled Eurydice to stand. She smiled, bowed slightly, and thanked them. They did not hear her over the sound of the song. After Orpheus made sure that he still had Eurydice’s hand in his, he made way for the stairs to the outside air. There, he could stop singing. Behind him, a train loudly creaked into the station, but not a single commuter got on board. The conductor looked out the window in shock and confusion. Before he realized what he was doing, he too clambered out of the window and started to follow. As Orpheus climbed the stairs, waves of people parted for him. With every step, his entourage grew. At the top of the stairs, at the rusty turnstiles, police officers, hearing the commotion, came to quell the crowd. Waving batons and guns, they screamed for quiet and order. And yet...

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice...

Orpheus walked through the gates unopposed. The world followed. Only a stairwell separated them from freedom. He felt the breeze on his cheeks, like the soft fingers that had caressed him in the park. The roar of the city, the honking cars, the screeching brakes, the fights in every human language, fell silent for a few seconds as Orpheus’s song echoed over and through New York City. He reached the top of the stairs. The autumn air was cold and unfamiliar. Turning around, he saw his beloved Eurydice smiling there. Seeing her like that, after thinking that she would be gone forever, he could not help himself. Throwing his guitar to the pavement, he embraced her and drew her in for a kiss,

and Orpheus stopped singing.

The silence of the world that had bowed to him continued for a few seconds, but as soon as Earth realized that the enthralling music had ended, the harmony of the group broke down into the cacophony of the individual. Commuters cried out in fear and anger as they realized they were late to a variety of important events: work, school, job interviews, dates, and side dates. Those screams were dwarfed by the cries of a schoolgirl, her leg trapped in an alligator’s jaws. The rats and pigeons declared an all-out war, the cooing and clicking the standards of battle as fur and feathers mixed in a melee. The train operator came to his senses just as he heard a loud crash: a train collision downstairs. But none of that mattered to Orpheus. He knew none of their names. He was still moving to kiss Eurydice when he felt her body, suddenly so heavy, so dead, collapse in his arms. Panicked, he realized what he had done. He opened his mouth to sing once more, but no matter how thick he weaved the tapestry of sound, the chaos behind him drowned it out. Eurydice looked up at her love, crying and pleading with a god who had never intended to save her. ‘Do not worry, Orpheus,’ she said. ‘I knew your name, and you knew mine. It always had to be this way, since the beginning of time.’ She raised his right hand to her cheek. ‘Nobody will ever forget our names.’

She was right.

Orpheus’s voice was too filled with tears to keep singing any longer. As he brought away his hand from Eurydice’s cheek, he realized that she had placed something there. He opened his palm to find a piece of paper, folded neatly into a triangle. He opened it to find a picture. It was a sketch of an oak, covered in thousands of leaves.

About the Author

Coda Danu-Asmara

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Coda Danu-Asmara is an emerging fiction author, currently working in Madrid in the humanitarian sector. Coda's previous work has been published in Thrice Magazine.