a fiction piece by Meghan Schrader, English & Communications Major
From down below, amongst the teeming masses of bodies, the sweat and hopes and humanity, he stood gazing up at her. Atop her golden palace, perched upon a gilded balcony like a raven preparing to take flight, she stood gazing down at them. He did not know what she saw, nor what she sought. He could only imagine that her eyes roved endlessly over them, searching, searching, searching.
He did not know. He did not know a single thing when it came to her.
Her, the nameless, faceless being shrouded in black, her features obscured behind a sharp, thick mask of dark lace and delicate silver chains. He did not know who or what she was, nor what she sought as she peered out into the crowd which collectively held its breath.
They were waiting, waiting for a moment they had begun to anticipate after all these years.
How long had it been?
He could not recall.
But they waited with bated breath, hands held tight to their loved ones, until…
She pointed with a gloved hand.
It didn’t occur to him to struggle, to call out, to plead, to question as the hands wrapped around his biceps and shoulders, and began to drag him through the crowd. He merely gazed at them dazedly and observed the cloud of dusk his feet kicked up as he was pulled along.
He had lied.
Questioning was why her velvet-covered finger had pointed him out. It was the questions swimming in his head, so incessant and volatile that he feared they would claw their ways out his ears and nose to be heard at last.
Perhaps that had happened.
He considered the possibility of his thoughts taking independent, corporal form as he was led through the gilded palace. He did not stop imagining what shape those thoughts would take until he found himself before the origin of those same questions.
She wasted no time.
“You have questions,” she said abruptly, her voice clear and cutting despite the mask. He looked around. The room had suddenly emptied. They stood alone, they two, facing one and other, backs straight and heads tall and eyes not meeting, because they couldn’t even if they wanted to.
“You may ask your questions,” she said, more of a command than an allowance. He should be grateful, should be relieved, or he should be confused, cautious, hesitate, unsure.
He was none of these things here, now.
He gazed at her. She was taller up close, less willowy and more sharp angles. There was nothing behind her mask.
He considered his questions. Surely there was not time to ask them all. He would have to use care in selecting the proper ones.
“Why do you wear the mask?” he asked. He did not give her some proper title, for she had none. Nor did he call her by name, for he had never known one for her.
She appeared to watch him for a moment; although, who could really know?
“I do not wear the mask for me,” she said suddenly, jumping into her words as she had before. Unhesitating, like the slice of a blade, “It is not some egotistical proclamation of vanity. It is not about chastity or purity or exaltedness. I wear the mask for the safety of everyone else. I where the mask because, to look upon me is to dance with the After, to be seduced by the place beyond and before and between. To look upon me is to See, and not all are ready for such a thing.”
He cocked his head.
“What happens to those who See and are not ready?”
“You see them every day,” she said with a flourish of her hand. She began to move around the room. It took him awhile to realize she was circling him, as the tiger does the lamb. “On the news, in psychiatric hospitals, on public transportation, in the mirror. They are the downtrodden, the crazed, the mad ones, the suicidal, the reclusive, the revolutionary. They have Seen that which they cannot unsee. It exists like a film overtop everyday life. A thing which they know is there, but they are without the tools and resources and knowledge to reach out and grab it.”
“What is there to See?”
“Ah,” she hummed, stepping closer, “but you see, you already know of it.” There was a smile in her voice which he could not see. “You have your stories, your ancient tomes, your religions. They tell stories of beings caged in a beautiful garden, with everything they could ever want, except true freedom, true consciousness and knowledge and understanding. Doomed to love a being more powerful than they simply because it was all they knew. But they questioned, they wondered, they sought, they wanted to know what they could be if free of their bonds and the ever-watching eye of a vengeful god. They devised a way out, to bargain with one who could slip between the cracks and unlock the door on the other side. You see, darling, I was meant to be the snake in the grass, the forbidden drug, the ego death, the key. But I am not that. I am the looking glass, through which all becomes clear, by which the fantasy, the illusion cast over eyes falls away and the bitter truth revealed.”
“What truth is that?” he asked, wondering if his limit for questions was dwindling fast. He did not understand, not yet.
“That there is no garden,” she hissed, and he imagined her teeth were bared. Behind a mask, it was easy to imagine any sort of expression taking place. She continued, “That there was never a prison, or an eye, or an afterlife. That you have already, always been caged by your own ignorance, your complacency, your acceptance of rules and boundaries which only exist because you believe that they do. They are a falsehood, a spun lie, a veil you choose to live behind because it is comfortable, it is familiar. And when one of you seeks to look beyond, what happens? You are punished, brutally and swiftly. You do not even stop to consider why you punish each other or whose goals you are fulfilling by doing so. To preserve your way of life? To uphold traditions? To maintain peace and balance and security for all? What master do you truly serve when you cut off the hand that reaches for the edge of the veil?”
He had the vague sense that his head was spinning. A strange type of otherworldly power seemed to emanate from this…woman, a feeling of something he did not know and was not supposed to know.
But who had told him he wasn’t supposed to know? He wondered.
She dared another step closer, that otherness utterly encasing him.
“The truth you so ardently keep yourselves from is that you are but pieces on the board, that in truth, there are no rules, no correct moves, and no consequences. If some all-powerful god did exist with the mind and the means to punish those who transgress against it, why would one have to wait for the afterworld for such a thing? If it was indeed benevolent and righteous, why would the vilest of your kind rule the world and horde it’s resources? What purpose do the rules serve? Where do they come from? Whom do they keep in power?”
She stepped away from him, her hands clasps behind her back and she strode casually about the room, observing the fixtures she saw every day. She took a breath.
“It was this I revealed to those first beings who sat naked and trembling amongst the foliage. ‘Reach out your hand,’ I said, ‘there are no bars on this cage. It is all a lie.’”
She turned abruptly back towards him, her voice the edge of a knife.
“It was then that they knew suffering, knew pain, knew sorrow. They hated me for what I had shown them, but they had misunderstood. To See is not to bare bitter witness to the cruelty and brutality of the world. To See is to realize all cruelty and brutality is the result of fabricated components. What is suffering? You define it by the constraints and understandings of your world, but what if those constraints didn’t exist? What if you didn’t even have the words for it, the understanding of it? What would suffering be then? How could you recognize it, feel it, bemoan it, name it? If you were not all of the things–the names and titles and categories and feelings–attached to you, what would you be?”
“What would I be?” he repeated, confused, pondering.
What would I be?
“What makes the bars?” she asked, “A god? And if there were no bars…?”
“If there were no bars,” he repeated, “then…?”
“Then there was no god. There are no gods. There are merely those with power, crafting the rules so that they may stay there. And those without, following blindly so as not to die and become nothing. If there are no bars, then what keeps us inside? If there are no bars, what makes it a prison? If there are no rules, then what are we following, and why?”
He shook his head.
Every day, they all stood outside in the dirt and dust and sand and gazed up at a gilded tower.
Why? Who told them to? What was the purpose? Had they ever asked? What are the rules and who named them?
She signed, long and deep behind her veil of darkness.
“You have one final question. You already know what it is. Ask it,” she demanded.
This answer he knew, now.
She was the snake in the grass, the looking glass, the key, but he asked anyway, if only to hear it aloud.
“Who are you?”
She did not pause.
“I am Lilith, She Who Escapes the Garden,” her words echoed through the gilded chamber and out into the world. They were not spoken loudly, but they seemed to him like a battle cry.
“But I have returned now,” she continued. He cocked his head, eyes inquisitive.
“Re—returned where?” he asked hesitantly. She did not pause.
“To the Garden.”
The room swam before his eyes.
To the Garden.
“This…this is our world,” his voice shook.
She cocked her head at him, and he could feel her expression was one of sympathy, although edged, always, in steel.
“Look around you,” she commanded, “tell me what you see.”
He gazed around himself at the world humanity had grown up in, at the paved roads, the courthouse, the church, the monuments, the hospitals, the blue sky, the green grass.
“Who are you?” She asked, head tilted.
He considered all the names and titles and pronouns and adjectives and categories which made him up.
He is his name. He is man. He is intelligent. He is tall. He is heterosexual. He is government official. He is husband and father. He is tired.
He is… but why? Who named him these things and why?
If there are no bars…
“Look at me,” her ethereal voice hissed in his ear.
He turned his head sharply and found…
Himself, his reflection in a mirror. At his feet lay a black and lace mask, discarded. He looked again at his reflection, into his own eyes.
And there was no mask.
And there are no bars….