THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT XIII
Do you know that feeling when the fine hairs on the back of your neck rise up in some numinous awareness you can neither articulate nor define, you just have the sensation that something – or someone is… there?
You see a glimpse out of the corner of your eye, hear steps on the stairs, scan the room as you enter, look down the street and yet, nothing and no one is there. Your imagination plays its tricks on you again, that occupational hazard all writers have that will manifest those shadows and echoes of their mind into being and another kind of reality.
I’ve felt that way for weeks, felt as if someone hovered just out of sight, just around the corner, just down the street from where I stood. Someone leaving a lingering trace behind, a fleeting memory, a touch of another human awareness, a nearly undetectable ribbon of interwoven light and dark, a few scant molecules hovering on like motes of dust sparking possibilities forth from the sun streaming through an open window.
It was like that. I was being stalked in some indescribable way, but what it was I didn’t know and couldn’t guess until today, when finally, the return of the sun and intimations of heat became too much for even this sun-starved, workaholic writer, and I could bear it not one minute longer. I put on my boots, my Poiret-inspired fur-lined winter coat and my teal scarf, and walked to the beech woods that hug the hills and line the fiord of this town I live and write in, searching for this slippery spring I couldn’t find, trying to forget that ephemeral presence of something …or someone who wanted to elude me.
I walked out along the path that led through the woods along the fiord, seeing the patches of melting snow that clung against a few north-facing beeches, saw the green beginnings of wood violets peep through last year’s weather-blasted leaves, saw celadon shoots that would soon become star-dotted carpets of aconites on the forest floor, and the wild garlic’s emerald tide that sang its own lusty, aromatic aria with the wood doves billowing in the trees above.
They all told me the same tale, all sang the same melody despite the chilly, easterly wind:
It’s spring, it’s spring, it’s spring!
I walked through the woods until I came to a favorite bench by a bridge across a stream, out of the wind but well in the sun, until I sat down for a while to breathe in April, and suddenly, without warning, the fine hairs on the nape of my neck rose up underneath my collar, and there it was again, that interwoven dark and bright, a revealing trail…of perfume.
It was sweet as the wood doves, heady as the promise of heat that lurked underneath the leaves, lusciously dancing somewhere between rays of champagne bubble aldehyde and lemon, bergamot and a deeper, candied apricot the color of September, the faraway taste of an unimaginable, future October.
Which was when I saw a fleeting shadow underneath a beech across the bridge, and as I inhaled that perfumed ribbon in the air and the ambient perfume of burgeoning spring, that shadow froze, grew deeper, darker, ever more substantial and less spectral, until finally, it materialized, as real and as solid as the soaring gray columns of the beeches around me. A woman, impeccably clothed in a black wool suit and coat, flawlessly coiffed, impossibly, inhumanly perfect, with the April light caught in the ambery glints of her hair.
It was Lilith, Queen of the Succubi. Long dead yet never, never forgotten, she haunted me still with her presence, her story, her tragedy and her beauty, too. She walked across the bridge, her boots tapping out a steady 4/4 on the mossy, slippery boards and sat down next to me on the bench.
For a moment, we sat in silence, listening to the birdsong and the wind in the trees above, watching the squirrels chase each other on the boughs over the stream.
“Did you know,” she said after a while, “I was born only a few miles away from here, some very long time ago.”
“I did know. I promised myself, if I ever write the prequel, I would write your story, of how you came to be what you are.”
“What I was, you mean. Ah, the promises of writers, as substantial and as solid as anything I could scribble on the water in that stream.” She nodded toward the gurgling water down below us, chattering to the birds above as it rushed downhill to join the water in the fiord. “You’ll have other ideas. And an agent who tells you which ones to sell and ways to sell them, and which ones to drop.” She picked up a pebble on the ground and threw it into the stream. “You’ll move on to another life far away and other stories and other demons you’ll conjure on virtual paper to haunt your readers, whereas I…” her voice trailed off. “I’ll live between the pages of a book you wrote a long time ago and a story you told the world.” She kept her eyes on the beeches across the bridge.
“So long as one person remembers you, you are immortal,” I quoted. “You’re forgetting something. You’ll live on in four perfumes that illuminated you in four different ways.”
She stretched out her legs. “How fitting, it was four perfumes. The first, Ellen’s, that of power, initiative, will and domination, one perfectly poised and perfectly poisoned fragrant attack, Maria and Alexis’, such a velvety balance of contradiction and opposites when I see what the protagonist will do, Kedra’s majestic Babylon Noir, culmination and advantage. Fully appropriate for the Queen of the Succubi. And now…this one. Fitting, it should be the fourth, and the last of my perfumes. The number of persistence and endurance and evolution.”
As she said it, she looked up into the crowns of the trees far, far above us, where the buds on the branches echoed the intricate lace of her suit against the sky, the nearly abstracted complications of an opulent rose and decadent narcissus thrumming her floral secrets out on an April wind. Rich, beautifully evolving, endlessly compelling, as mysterious as midnight and as dark as her heart.
Down below, the stream carried our words out to the fiord and into the Baltic, out to the world and its endless, roiling oceans.
“A bit ironic, how imagination works in such nefarious, diabolical ways.” This time, she turned to look straight at me. I was struck yet again how much my creation resembled me, and then again, not at all. “I mean, ironic, is it not, that it took a woman to understand the Devil – at least as you did – and it took a man to understand my motives and reasons, and then captured them in a perfume?”
“Well, I’m not surprised. Neil is exceptional at that. It’s what he does so beautifully, and so successfully. Perfumes are hardest of all to articulate, unless you know how.” I shifted on the wooden bench, and now, I supposed we looked nothing more nor less than two friends chatting on a bench in the sun on a spring afternoon.
“You do that well. This…” she breathed it in deep, “is a Lilith to remember. That narcissus! Is it narcissus? The illusion of vanity, or just its reflection writing on water, on hopes and dreams that are just as substantial. The rose to tell another tale, that once upon a far-off time I did love and I did care, and I was not so evil nor so unforgiving.”
“I think it’s funny that we always need to explain evil,” I said. “We have to understand it, understand its motivations, and the evil we can never comprehend is the evil that has no reasons, no rhyme, no…rationale except its own existence.”
“You’re right, of course.” She breathed in again, and in the air, the rose faded to a memory as the narcissus drew up smoke and mirrors, more illusions and mysteries, was it tobacco, subversively, seamlessly folded into Lilith’s depths, a touch of arcane labdanum, the unifying theme of all the Devilscents, and coumarin – all grassy, new-mown hay, lighting its own bonfires beneath narcissus, the fires it took a woman like Lilith to inspire.
“Except sometimes” she pushed her hair back over her shoulder, “evil is a necessary counterpoint to good, like dark to light, to make us appreciate what we would otherwise take for granted.”
If evil were the sum and total of this lascivious, decadent drydown, it would be hard to imagine it as anything bad.
“Like antagonists in suspect first novels,” I said. “They have to be bad to make the hero look good.”
“No,” she stated, with a flat finality, with shades of her former resolute self and to my complete surprise. “They have to be bad to get the hero to move, to get the story to evolve, or otherwise, what story is it? Who would read it? Human lives and real life stories are plenty banal enough. Readers want to live vicariously, want to feel that thrill of suspense and the awe of the unknown, because so much of it has been eradicated from your lives.”
“You’re right.” I was not so arrogant, I couldn’t concede that much. It was impossible to be arrogant on such an April afternoon.
She stood up. “Of course, darling! I always am. So what was I, caught in the liquid filigree of this perfume of Neil’s? Was I that paradox of femininity, the sweet and the light, or the deeper, darker floral heart? Was I all illusion, as all characters in novels must be, yet an illusion you somehow made real? Or did Neil do that, explicating all that Lilith of the Succubi must be, should be – less a villainess for the ages and more…a tragedy of beauty? I’ll tell you. But first, you must make me a promise.”
“A promise? To the Queen of the Succubi? That sounds like a dangerous prospect!” I laughed, laughed since I knew where this was headed, I knew Lilith that well.
“Yes!” Her face was so earnest, her voice so adamant, I felt it as much as I breathed it in that perfume of promise and deliverance, of enigma and explanation. I rose to my feet, and instantly, she grabbed me by my collar. “Promise me…to take it out into the world, promise you won’t let this hope die, promise me I’ll live on forever after today.” She looked me right in the eye as she said it, not as the Lilith I had known and feared for so long, but as the woman she must have been one very long time ago, not so far away.
There was nothing else I could say. I thought – in that heartbeat from one moment to the next where all possibilities lie, where stories are written, where everything, everything changes – of all my fears of failure, and all my black and far bleaker terror of success, and then, I knew it. I could feel it in my bones and in the wind, feel it in this liquid filigree of a perfume and its potential.
She walked toward the bridge and began to cross it, and as she did, as the wind carried her perfume with her, wrapped her warm in her secrets and her story, she grew more and more transparent, more and more ephemeral, like the breath of a narcissus in April. I saw her go, felt that perfume fade with a pang in my heart, for I knew I would never see her again except where I saw her first – in that dark place in my mind I never knew I had until she told me through my words.
“So what was it?” I shouted into the wind. “What were you?” My voice sounded haunted, misplaced in this spring wood of beeches and flowery covenant.
I heard a laugh as a puff of wind blew her away into the air, blew her perfume into a limitless blue sky.
“You didn’t know?” she called out, from beyond the bridge now, gone with her evanescent perfume, her own promises and portent. “Tell Neil – he got it right! That I’m all of this and one thing more, one thing you should have known.”
As if the trees wanted the answer too, the wind quieted down, the birds in the trees stopped singing for an instant, even the burbling stream ceased its song and Lilith’s voice was all I heard.
“A necessary evil!”
She laughed again, laughed with all her smoky promises, laughed like that narcissus must have at the wonder of the spring, and was gone.
The stream carried out her words and her perfume into the fiord, into the Baltic, and into the ocean of the world.
Illustration: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, ‘La Mort Parfumée’ (1921), pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint on paper, The Hunterian Gallery, Glasgow, Color edit by me.
With profound gratitude to Neil Morris, and to Lucy, who inspired this review in a recent Skype conversation.