small textlarge text

Nicola Belte

Smoke Surfaces in Slumber

"Suffering is the ancient law of love; there is not quest without pain; there is no lover who is not also a martyr." Heinrich Suso


It seems to have been night for days, but now, I see sparks; infinity exploding across the blackness. I don't know if it's without, or within.

• • •

They took The Dragon's hands, his livelihood, like they did with the thieves, for taking what wasn't theirs. But I was his.

"Don't cry," I told him, silently, with the tilt of my chin and the clenching of my jaw, and the stone dust on his cheeks stayed dry.

You should have listened, they told him, as they took the axe to his wrists, as they made him watch, as they walled me up, alive.

• • •

The night that I was born, two workers on the cathedral fell from the spire to their death; their falling screams meeting my mother's shrieks like crows clashing in a folding sky; blood seeping into the sweat-soaked mattress as rain chased it through the cobbles.

I was a bad omen, they said, I should have been drowned, held in the freezing river until I was as bloated as their righteousness, as blue as the bruises on a sinner's whipped spine.

My mother heard, and she called me Hope. They hated that.

I grew like a pale flower on the moon, taller than the daffodils, but always orbiting on the outskirts; their eyes eclipsed by coldness, cataracts that concealed their fear; their superstitions stones that pulled down their smiles.

"Don't you have anything better to talk about?" My mother would ask them, pulling her arm around me, pulling me near.

• • •

They made me an anchorite in alabaster; made me a spectacle, sat me in the market square amidst the damp hay and the captured horses, and let my husband slap on the first layer of mortar.

"Gargoyle," he growled, starting at my feet, as the men jeered and the women hissed, growing louder and louder, all trying to drown out the din of their own whispering sins that would wake them up at night.

I was to be the thing that I was inside, distorted, twisted by animalistic desires, evil; all lascivious tongue and bulging eyes, my mouth a moue, spewing out the satanic lusts within me.

"Whore,' my husband said, spitting on the ground as he sat back to watch as the mortar hardened and set; as the sun silently blazed, the eye of a sultan's mute wife upon the concubine.

• • •

"He's a good lad" my mother said, the sheen of fever on her forehead; her words gambolling over each other like spring lambs, sensing the soft pad of winter through the fading forest. "I don't want you to be alone, Hope, when I'm gone."

I squeezed her hand, using the other to wring out water from the cloth that I pressed against her cracked lips.

"I don't love him," I said, simply, thinking of the clumsy butcher boy who'd follow me around with his lumbering gait and his ruddy cheeks; thinking of the way that he'd slide a blade through the belly of a sow, and never think twice about it.

"Marriage isn't about love," she said, and I nodded, pretending to understand what my heart never would.

She thought that nobody else would want me. I thought so too. Then.

• • •

"I don't know how to be a wife," I told him, staring out over the fields as his saliva dried on my neck, as his grunts echoing in my ears startled my dreams from the eaves.

"You'll learn" he said, gruffly, still annoyed that I'd pushed him away; him, after all that he'd done for me. Then he forced himself to soften, stroked my hair, kissed me on the cheek, smiled.

He isn't a bad man, I'd tell myself, as I cooked, and cleaned, trying to accept his lust that lolloped across our lives with the slow, steady gait of toads; its tongues around my ankles; its sticky fingers under my nightdress, clammy as death; always on the sweep-skirts of my soul, staining the spotless walls, smearing the floors.

"There's something wrong with you," he told me, buttoning up his trousers "you'd think I was trying to kill you". And I nodded, cried, apologised, he was right. I thought of those other men, those who took their fists to their wives, who wiped affection from their lips like it was froth from barley beer, and I'd convince myself that I had it good; convince myself that I just wasn't that way inclined.

Then The Dragon came to town.

• • •

"Are you sorry, Hope?" they asked me, as they reached my shoulders.

"No." I replied. I was tired of lying.

• • •

He was a stone-mason, William, and he was as unloved as I. They called him The Dragon because his skin was covered in scales; rough, perfect diamonds that glowed red and orange in the light.

He'd eat his lunch by the river, away from the other workers, and I'd feel his heat on the back of my neck as I squeezed the freezing water from my washing, feeling each droplet prickle against my skin; hearing every bubble gasp to surface; every arched twig snapping in the forest.

He waved at me as I carried the load back, and my face burned red, already knowing what I pretended I did not.

I met him the next day, as dawn broke.

• • •

Slowly, I turned to stone. They wanted me to beg, cry out; to wrest myself from the concrete constricting me, but I stayed still, kept my screams inside of me, cradled them, for if they'd taken everything else, my silence would be mine.

They left holes for my eyes; holes so that I could breathe, so I could see and feel the life that I'd been denied. I was to reflect in my shroud of stone, to suffer for my sins, to pray to the god that I'd wronged, to plead with him for mercy.

They twisted loops of rope beneath my arms; the arms that they'd tied behind me, and began pulling, winching me up towards the spire, raising the demon to cast others out, me, a symbol of sin; a reminder.

• • •

"Don't you know what they say about me?" I asked the Dragon, as his forked tongue flicked across my stomach, down to my thighs.

"You're beautiful" he replied, entwining his fingers in mine.

The Dragon saw the angel in me; he set it free. His touch carved me out of myself, and in his amber eyes I'd walk around what he'd found, staring in, amazed at what he saw: me, clean and strong and pure.

I unveiled myself in public, careless of their jealous eyes; too proud, too glorious to drape the shame that would have saved me across my shoulders. As he pushed into me, my cries would drown out the peal of bells, would chime against the angry hearts of those who stood outside my door, salty-lipped and still; listening, needing, wanting, hating.

• • •

I see sparks, infinity exploding across the blackness. It's within, and without.

I feel The Dragon begin to rise; feel him lifting himself up from the pool of blood as wings, glorious red wings, split through his skin, tearing apart the shoulder blades that I'd rest against; the prow of a ship that had led me back to myself.

I feel the fire that he put inside me; feel the stone crumble around my chest, the cold night air on my fingertips, unable to douse the kindling wicks.

I hear screams, the tremendous whoosh of wings; each beat an exhalation, a surfacing; and I swoop through the flames, dropping, turning, burning; knowing that with him, or without him, that I am The Dragon, and that I will not fall.

➥ Bio