Muse

Caitriona Murphy

I knew who she was the moment I opened the door. I knew what she was and what she would bring. I opened the door and let madness in. Willingly.

She had been moving towards me for weeks. I would be in town, getting messages and maybe stop to glance in one of the glass panelled shop fronts; the glass would appear to be swimming, just barely, as if her reflection had been there seconds before. I was haunted with the feeling there was something I was forgetting until I was half mad, until I had checked and double checked my doors were locked and all bills paid. In those moments between day and dusk I would see a shadow, a silhouette, out of the corner of my eye. When I woke in the middle of the night I was sure I could feel the weight of a woman on the sheets beside me.

The night she arrived was one of those special nights that might happen once a year, or once a month. The humidity had finally broken with the rain that was blessed relief. All of my windows were open so every breath I took was sulphur and wet. The air, while cooler, was still warm enough to seem almost tropical. I sat at my table, eaten alive with frustration and nerves wound so tightly I could swear my skin was crawling. I was being eaten from the inside out. My edginess was partly due to irritation regarding a woman I’d been seeing going cold on me all of a sudden. I didn’t especially care for her, I did not burn for her, but her aloofness had bothered me all the same. What was really getting to me was my writer’s block. I’d promised a story to a man and the deadline was looming; I had been paid in part and had to deliver him a first rate story. I was beginning to think I had lost it, that any gift I had for the written word was a fluke, a mistake even. The blank page stared back at me, mocking me with its emptiness. The harder I tried to conjure words the more disheartened I became. The paltry sentences that I could conjure were weak and left me unsated and irritable.

I was at a point beyond frustration, where I felt if I had to stare at those blank pages a second longer I would scream, I would lose whatever was left of my mind when there was a knock on the door. A confident round of three clear knocks on the simple wooden door.
I opened the door and knew what she was, although it went against all rational thought. My grandfather had told me tales about the leanan sidhe. They are not human, because their beauty is more powerful, more spectacular than any woman born of man. Some say they are part fairy; there is much debate whether she is evil or just unlucky. My Grandfather swore my third cousin met with a leanan sidhe once; she was his lover, his muse, a gift that enabled him to paint some of the most exquisite paintings this island has ever known, but when she left him he burnt out, unable to create, or even live, without her.

At first I thought her hair was silver, but in fact it was the moonlight reflecting on it. Her hair is so red to appear unnatural, a beautiful contrast to her white, white skin, still more silver in the moonlight. She brought the scent of the earth in with her, damp and dark and strangely sensual. My small cottage still bears the smell of it, so even in my dreams, there is no escaping her. There are no words, certainly no clichés, for the beauty before me, the beauty that leaves me speechless and staring. She stared right back, a question in her eyes. I knew I could close the door, refuse her. Instead, I opened my arms to her.

Time had lost all meaning. I could not say how long we stayed in the cottage for; days or weeks, perhaps, although it felt like months. I think weeks but it felt like an eternity, when there was nothing but the two of us, so wrapped up each other, in the madness that we had created that the outside world seized to be. Eventually, we made rough plans for time apart.

She promised me she would be back in two days’ time. I did not question where she was going. I did not care. I just had to know she would come back. When she eventually left, swearing she would return soon, I thought I would go mad waiting for her. My brain was buzzing with her; my skin held her scent and I couldn’t tell if I was alive or in the most delicious dream I’d ever known.  I promised her I would write; that I would put our time apart to good use. As I sat at my table, I wondered how I could possibly concentrate on anything other than her, when I was seized with words; I could feel them building up inside of me, the pressure, the weight of them spilling out, the need to get them down on paper so strong that I had no choice but to write page after page and it still wasn’t enough. I was consumed with stories, with tragedies and erotic words of love, my brain burning with new worlds and people and emotions and characters I felt as if I’d known all of my life. Hours later, when I finally took a break, when my brain has sated itself for the time being, I was shocked by what I read. I knew, without vanity, that it was incredible work, stories so real and intense, burning with feelings I didn’t think I was capable of, never mind writing about.
And so we fell into a pattern. She would choose when she would spend time with me.

Sometimes I had weeks on end with her, other times she could barely afford me an hour. I took whatever scraps she would give me, so ecstatic to be with her. The time we spent together made the world seem different; I was different. I was sharper, brighter, warmer. I was me but the amplified, 1000 times better version. And when she left me, I wrote for hours on end, selling my work and undulating in the praise, lost to the frenzy.
I wrote about her, to her, stories where I gave her an imagined backstory, always exotic, always regal.

As the days began to hold more dark than light, when the air was ripe with the smoky tang that promised the changing seasons, I began to tire. Not of her, never of her. Tiredness crept into my brain like an unwanted and unwelcome visitor, so that I slept later into the day, getting up to greet the dusk, instead of the dawn.  I was still writing. My stories were still beautiful and evocative pieces but instead of making me feel sated and proud began leaving me drained and weary; I would look at the words and literally see them glow with my energy. Every time I completed a piece, I felt weaker, aware of the sacrifice I had made.

One day I looked in the mirror and knew I had a choice to make. My eyes were hollow in my face, burning in my skull, emphasising the premature grey that streaked my hair. My frame was stooped and I could swear I heard my thin bones click when I moved. My leanan sidhe, on the other hand, looked better than ever, if such a thing were possible. True to legend, she was glowing with the energy and youth that had once been mine. I stopped appreciating her beauty and began to resent it; her eyes sparkled with what she’d taken, no, stolen, from me. Her raw energy and vitality was an insult that irked me instead of challenged me. The inspiration I had traded for my youth, for my life, suddenly seemed frivolous, unnecessary.  The hours I managed to stay awake I plotted ways to rid myself of her, but deep down, I knew she was a malignancy that would never leave until she had fed off all there was of me. While I was alive, I would never have peace from her.

Long forgotten stories from my youth occasionally floated back and I was sure I remembered my Grandfather telling me that unless one wanted to die, mad and raving, at the hands of the leanan sidhe, he would have to find someone to trade places with, to willingly take the leanan sidhe and all she was.

Every night, I set out on my quest. I must have asked every man I encountered, until the whispers began and people, even neighbours, began crossing the road to get away from me. In desperation, in turmoil, I sought out artists and writers from nearby towns, but the answer was always no. They had heard talk of the mythical leanan sidhe but were unwilling to sacrifice life for greatness.
So now I wait, unsure if my work is still brilliant or the ramblings of a possessed man. Some nights, when the air is especially heavy, I wonder did I invent her, was she only a symbol for the inevitable madness that is my destiny. And then I hear the knocks on my door, the sound that lets me know she is waiting for me. I fool myself that I will ignore her, but deep down I know the door is nothing more than a symbol. What has been welcomed in cannot be so easily turned away.
As always, I will open the door to greatness, to madness; waiting for one or the other to consume me.

previous reviews & comments:

'Interesting - something of the MR James/Le Fanu era about this one.'
safeharbour01, 2016

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