by Ana Ortiz
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. I Corinthians 15:52
I laugh as cool salt water, thickened with clots of soft sand, dribbles from my right ear and runs down the side of my face. So much for hearing the rhythms of the ocean, or for receiving messages from some other part of the universe, known or unknown, through the medium of the large pink conch I just managed to wrest from the surf. I should have known that like everything else in this space, the shell and its properties would be simple. Manipulating it has triggered no greater adventure than having to lean over and strike myself on the head – hard – to get the water out of my very ticklish ear canal. I am the Warrior Princess, I laugh to myself, I’ve got to get my licks in somehow.
The worst injuries I will probably garner here will be blisters on my bare feet if I stand too long on the un-shaded, dry stretches of sand between the sea and the rushes at the edge of the dunes. And if this tragedy should come to pass, the burns would heal by the time I returned again, anyway. There is a reassuring banality to the dangers of this landscape. I wince as a jagged fragment of shell slices into an un-calloused spot on my left heel. “Watch out for the Warrior Princess,” I mutter in mock anger at the scattering of sharp little bits of dead sea life littering the shore, at the sand flies and the ticks that rest on the rushes, and at the gulls that threateningly approach the two sacks of raspberries I’ve left covered under a stand of sea pines at the near edge of the dunes. Nothing seems to be very scared at the revelation of my identity. I will lose most of my battles here, except perhaps those against the gulls, if I am vigilant.
This is the place I found for myself once I gained some Understanding of what I really was. It’s not often that I can rest here. I know now that sleep must have taken in its grasp the imaginations of my masters, or that some pressing event in their own lives must hold them sway, of such proportion that they refrain from sparing me much thought, that they pause from putting me to the test in still another novel way. Once I Understood well, the privacy of this place and its quiet predictability became precious. Only one other comes here, and I hope she will arrive soon. I know from experience that because we are yoked together in our toil, our rest times often coincide. So far, I have been fortunate that she has chosen to join me when she can. She comes here, where we can enjoy the seaside and — as best we can — create ourselves in each other’s eyes.
The cut on my foot is smarting a bit, so it seems that defending my berries is the better part of valor, rather than continuing down the stretch of beach. Besides, she will seek me up near the pines, by the place I always store her treats and our camp supplies — I would not have her come, take a cursory look, and think that it will be one of her solitary times. As I strip off my armor and leathers, rolling them into a loose bundle that will serve as my pillow, I see a lone ant making its way off the sand with a piece of seaweed thrice its length clasped in its jaws. I carefully lay myself down and, turning on my side, watch its deliberate progress. “Admirable effort, little one,” I whisper to my insect companion, “But wait a minute… what if none of this is really happening — and, like, we’re all in somebody else’s head, and they’re making us up.” I laugh sourly at the familiar joke, as I dig my elbows down to the cooler layer of sand. It does feel wonderful to stretch out my legs, and have the warmth rise up out of the ground and creep up into the muscles of the small of my back. My hand starts to fall asleep from holding it up to block the sprinkles of sunshine that come through the pine branches from my eyes. I surrender to the impulse to close my eyes, for if sleep should take me, I can rest assured — here, no other place — that the constellation of my emotions and thoughts will be much the same when I awake.
When back on that endless day in that perpetually feuding village, Joxer first uttered the fateful words I directed to the persistent ant, I thought I had just been regaled with another example of the extremes of stupidity that only he seems capable of. How the gods had wasted good air and water on that distant approximation of a human mind! Gabrielle is also given to metaphysical speculation but, even on henbane, Gabrielle’s imaginative ramblings never sink to such pathetic circularity. Ah, but Joxer would have enjoyed the last laugh had he ever Understood. It took me so long. Over the years I had to systematically discard alternative explanations: the Fates, diverse malevolent gods, madness, a particularly effective form of torture assigned to me in Tartarus, or —my recurrent favorite — an extremely capricious and anti-social personality that I could not alter and that I imposed with the cruelest fervor upon those who loved me best. I suppose some of those discarded options could be worse than the truth.
I thought that if the gods had gifted Joxer with witlessness, they had graced me with a temperament possessing the consistency of a weathervane at the mercy of a cyclone. Was I compelled back towards domesticity in the placid Amphipolis of my childhood, or was this the time for the Destroyer of Nations to drive the weaker races to the brink of extinction? Was I powerfully called by nature to be a mother, or were babies just good to encounter during the occasional rescue mission, a challenge for those of us adept at tossing and juggling less fragile objects? But the dizzying arbitrariness went beyond merely temperament to encompass all aspects of taste and skill. One day, I would exhibit a proficiency in the arts of the bedroom to challenge the most debauched specialist working in a Phoenician bordello, the next I would find myself receiving instruction in the most basic mechanics of self-pleasuring from my best friend. The only touchstone of reliability I could lean upon was my un-failing affection for my horse.
Then the nature of corporeal existence itself started to shift in frightening ways for me. I am not speaking here of traveling beyond death, of visiting the Fields, or Heaven and Hell, and Tartarus and all those lands that lie beyond mortality. These places and states all made sense to me at the time, although I Understand now that ordinarily resurrection after crucifixion affords one greater notoriety than what I have achieved. I suppose in a way I have been granted a following. I remember the early days, in which I though I had been elevated to the Olympian pantheon in some fashion, for I was most certainly being invoked as a presence towards a greater end. Without warning I would be summoned to the most diverse and strange of circumstances, by the calling of my name. I learned, though, that my divinity was of the most passive sort, since I could see and hear the plight of my worshippers but do nothing to assist them. And what worshippers they were.
The first day that it happened I found myself materializing first amidst a group of frenetic youths, Nubian, I presumed, from their dark skin coloring. They were naked save their leather shoes and large breeches, which flapped as they jostled and jumped, excitedly attempting to gain possession of a large orange ball. The hard stone court, I remember, was surrounded by the tallest structures I had ever seen, much taller than the pyramids of Egypt, and blocking out the natural light as effectively as the if they were the high peaks of Indus. I smile now to remember how New York impressed my on that, the first of my many visits. The raucous play of the children drew my attention towards the earth again, and then I noticed her, a sullen slender figure standing at the side, a half tunic granting her little more modesty than the boys bouncing and throwing the ball. “XENA!” she shouted angrily at the knot of struggling players. “I can jump as high as Xena if you give me a chance,” she insisted with a fiery determination. And with no further hesitation she indeed flew towards them, raising up a respectable imitation of my war cry that momentarily distracted them from their game. In fact, as the scene faded before my eyes and the faintness took me up, I noted with great pleasure that she had used the disruption and her speed to her advantage, and now cradled the much desired orb tightly in her arms.
My next stop was much more troubling, for it brought me face to face with what I had always suspected was one effect of my reputation and re-known. I was on a bed, and not alone, that was all too clear. But the one who called me by name was both alone and with company. I have, in my time, come upon persons who poorly-timed or ill-placed their solitary efforts at relieving their lust, and have always averted my eyes and made myself away without drawing notice. On this occasion, though, I was riveted to the spectacle of a young dark-haired woman — quite pretty for one not blonde – clearly laboring under her sheets, to bring herself over the edge of pleasure. It was her incantation that stunned me and held me in place. “Xena, there …oh… oh, Xena you’re doing me good, doing me good,” she chanted to the rhythm of her frenzied arm movements. Yes, that’s what I do now, I thought to myself in helpless embarrassment, I do good. I just want to do good. As the spasms of release took her, her words lost some of their clarity, but I could still make out the grunted pronouncements that punctuated her hip thrusts: “Oh, coming, baby… oh Xena, your tits, oh yeah, I’m riding them…I’m coming…XENA!” I looked down at my chest tentatively. My breastplate was still intact, in place, and mercifully dry. The woman rolled onto her side, sated, as the nauseating feeling of impending dislocation once again flooded through me.
So that day I thought myself a goddess. But a goddess of what? Of children’s games? Of stolen pleasures? Of course, this was early on. There’s very little to surprise me left under the sun anymore. Such naughty minds at work! But also such a need for the hope of overcoming adversity: that young lass who threw herself into the athletic fray against the odds remains in my memory as much as any of the elaborate orgies prepared for me over the past seasons. Of course, I’m not a goddess. I Understand that now. It wasn’t until that afternoon I took a fit and nearly killed Gabrielle that it all became clear. I looked over my shoulder, watched the battered body of the one I loved as it skipped over the rough terrain, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I was compelled to smile and drive on forward, instead of stopping the damn horse and tending to her. I mean I had gotten the tantrum out of my system the moment Ephiny’s arm snapped — everything else was such excess. Then the cliff edge. Then Illusia. It was sometime between the moment I found myself singing plaintively on the cross, and the moment I watched my doppelganger, poised to stab Gabrielle as she lay bound to a simulacrum of Dahak’s altar, explode that I had my epiphany. Gabrielle was singing? I had just tried to murder her several times? Someone out there could make us do anything they wanted to. We were pawns for someone’s amusement, and given some of the predicaments the Oympians themselves were finding themselves in, I didn’t think it was them.
With increasing awareness came more contact with the others of our kind. I had no idea of the worlds made available to me in exchange for my servitude. I derive no small pleasure from the fact that Alti has yet to figure it out; this is ironic given her storylines and how I am supposedly the denser of the two of us. Those of us who Understand know each other’s paths and adventures. Sometimes we watch or read them together in the amorphous common space we can choose to inhabit between our appearances. I tend to socialize the most with others who have resisted all this, who have taken a long time to Understand because they loved their sense of purpose. So I may sometimes have to “work” with the newer kind, like Buffy and Scully, but I prefer to sit in quiet camaraderie with the heroes who really thought they were heroes, guys like Superman and the Lone Ranger. It might be in part because of how gentle and respectful they are with Gabrielle when she deigns to join in these gatherings. Clark ruffles her hair and calls her “Xena’s little kryptonite.” They aren’t going to try and make her talk about work. They aren’t going to make her talk about anything. These older guys — they know to watch her eyes for anything she needs to say. By the time she makes it here, she’s had enough of words. There are others who come here sometimes as well: those who really lived but have since their deaths taken on a veneer of unreality. Those are the ones with the poorest attitudes, for sure, for they are outraged at the liberties taken with their lives. You should have heard Lao Tzu after they made him into an oversized comatose infant in one of his assignments. I guess I have less to lose. And if those between fact and fiction have some canon of authenticity to appeal to, to fuel their moral outrage, it is also true that they are that much more bound to the tenets of mortal reality.
Lao Tzu will never have a place like this beach to call his own. Gabrielle and I started coming here once we Understood it would always be this way, and that we would need to use all the knowledge and desires we collected as souvenirs along our twisted paths to sift out the essence of what rest and comfort might look like to such as us. The sounds of the surf, the nodding dips of the rushes as the sea breeze invites them to dance, the hungry gulls wheeling against the darkening evening sky: these are all our solace and the fruit of our elaborate conjurings. Here we find pleasure and home. I shake myself into activity, realizing that the night draws near and that a fire built and a camp well laid out will delight her. And yes, she has at times mocked my pedestrian methods for providing us such amenities — they could simply come as part of the landscape — but I have come to love the simple work of collecting the wood, tapping its weight against my hand, stacking it, and seeing the flame birthed. And these blankets — she seldom is here to see me stretch their lengths out, and shake free the sand — but I imagine that they hold in their weave some of the warmth I feel towards her, much as the sand stores the heat of the noonday sun.
I am just tucking down the second blanket roll, my back to the ocean, when a thick missile of seaweed breaks open on my shoulder with a loud splat. She is getting better at surprising me, for as she turns to race back towards the surf with a loud whoop of triumph, I can see that she has already removed her boots. Such an inpatient one, she doesn’t stop to undress the rest of the way before careening into the waves, arms outstretched as if to hug the dark blue expanse. I pull my shift up over my head, and throw it to the side — my muscles tensing in happy anticipation of the chase. In a heartbeat I cover the scant yardage of beach to the water line, and after a few hops into the bracing coolness, I am ready to plunge underwater to take her by surprise. I am rewarded for my efforts by the prize of a vigorously wriggling foot, attached to an equally vigorously wriggling Gabrielle, who squawks in protest at being upended. I wait a respectable number of tugs to let her think that her escape is her own doing before releasing her to the sea.
She heads back towards the beach, casting a teasing look over her shoulder to check if I am still in the game. Of course I follow, but stop halfway to her to shake the seawater out of my hair in my best wet shaggy dog imitation, the one that always makes her laugh at me. She is so amused that she doesn’t react when I resume my pursuit, and she barely has time to turn away before I tackle her and roll, bringing her to rest in my arms in water just a few hand-widths deep. Her cheeks are speckled with flecks of dried sand that twinkle in the reflection of the setting sun. “Your sand freckles are giggling at me, Gabrielle,” I growl menacingly as I reach for one of the sensitive spots beneath her ribs and start to tickle. Although I have the advantage as we wrestle under the insistent beat of the waves, she soon enjoys the satisfaction of hearing me beg for mercy, my hands retreating to bat hers away from my body. I always let her win.
I let her pull me up out of the surf and we make our way up to the pines, where our camp stands out as a fiery oasis in the oncoming desert of night. She scoops a handful of raspberries into her mouth before shedding her wet and sand-logged clothing, which she lays carefully atop a pine branch, then meets my eyes across the fire. It is the moment of questions, and of deciding how much we want to know. If we have been together, there is the option of trying to make sense of it together. If we have been apart, there is the option of trying to make sense of it together. And although it would be simple enough to find out what the moments since our last time at the beach have held — such information is easy to acquire for those who Understand — Gabrielle and I have pledged each other a right to privacy rare among our kind.
“Where were you?” she hazards. “Comedy. Lots of fighting. Sight gags. Some mistaken identity stuff — nothing out of the ordinary,” I drawl. I am lying and she knows it, but she lets it pass. There is no need for me to pollute the evening with the images of my warlord sword plunging into the belly of a screaming pregnant woman, watching the fetus spill out amidst the bloody tangle of entrails, and kicking it like so much refuse towards a waiting hungry pig that was witnessing my enraged reaction to being refused the keys to the defeated village’s treasury. “And you, love?” I force out, as I invite her to rest against me on the blankets. “Sex with Amazons. Lots. Pretty good for you not being there,” she teases as she runs a finger across my check. She’s telling the truth and I know it, and I let it pass, accepting that there are worse things that could happen to her. In fact, I am deeply grateful that she has been off having sex with Amazons.
It seems to me sometimes that Gabrielle is a magnet for some of the harshest burdens that are laid upon us. I mean, I am the robust heroine and receive my share of tortures and losses, but I seem to be confectioned of rubber: my resilience of body and emotion is exemplary. If truth be told, the arrows — literal and metaphorical — directed towards me — are all ones I am capable of catching. Gabrielle, on the other hand… I mean, I don’t remember the last time I was raped, but it’s the odd shift that goes by without it unfolding at least once for her. It’s as if it’s not quite so entertaining for it to happen to me because I’ll just shake it off. And although we have both lived the kicked-in-the-teeth sickness of grief and betrayal, there’s a way in which it just cannot break me the way it does her. I never really expected too much from myself or others anyway: if there was some grace to be found in the world — like the grace of Gabrielle in my life — well, that was an undeserved gift that I had no calling to miss if it was taken back. But Gabrielle. Well, I always thought they were clever to name that kid of hers Hope, because damn if that isn’t what they drain out of her in periodic bloodlettings as a sacrifice for their titillation.
It was hard to miss this discrepancy in how we are treated the last time we worked together in our originators’ playing minds. As the story board neared the end, I absented myself briefly to the place where my comrades had congregated, anxiously watching what they expected to be the finest moment in a long collaboration of wills mortal and ethereal. As the ending scenes unfolded I readied myself for what I knew would be my inevitable rebound from adversity, an artistic monument to the triumph of self-determination. But the lines scrolled out to an ominous “Fade to black. End credits.” Silence swept across the gathering as they absorbed the severity of what had just occurred. ” I don’t get it,” blankly confessed the Lone Ranger. That guy never could connect the dots. “Their originators just separated them for good in the back story,” helped out Tonto, as usual. “It never happens to the couples it should come about for.” He smiled indulgently at the masked man at his side. “Won’t happen to us, sidekick,” reassured the Ranger, patting the darker man’s thigh. That guy never could connect the dots. “I have to get to Gabrielle,” I said. And I knew where I would find her.
She retched here too, more than once. I could see her shoulders spasmodically heaving as I walked up behind her as she knelt on the sand. At first I thought that somehow she had become very ill, for there was blood on her lap, filming over her hands and wrists, and pooling against her knees. Then I looked more closely and saw the crimson-tinged feathers clinging to her fingers and skirt, and the rent pieces of seagull carcass on the ground before her. Bewildered, I crouched beside her, tentatively placing my hand across her nape. A long moment passed between us, as I watched tears course down cheeks stained with drying spots of blood. “Gabrielle, what are you doing?” I managed to ask. She whispered her answer down to the mess strewn before her. “It was going to die anyway, Xena. It was lame.” When she finally looked up into my eyes, I searched in vain in those beautiful green rooms for the solid soul who had kept me in steady companionship through all the shifting kaleidoscopes of circumstance, costumes and characters. I still don’t fully understand why, because the gods know we have faced and will face worse fates than that saga of Japa, but she has never been the same since.
She lies draped across my lap now, her sleepy eyes reflecting the flames of our campfire into copper. We have feasted on good bread, and the berries have all but been depleted. I edge down to whisper softly into her ear the promise that I hope her next day will hold, and the one I can’t make true for her. “Someday they will write a story for you that will just be a day of running on the beach, with bags of raspberries cached under the scrubby pines past the dune line, that you can visit as often as you like and eat your fill. And there won’t be any monsters hidden under the surf or poisons in the berries or pirate ships set to round the end of the bay and stop your play. It will just be running and berries, Gabrielle, and nothing more.” She smiles and shifts restlessly in my lap, stretching her arms up so that her fingers tangle in my hair. I wait to read the direction of her need, since — here — I have become the storyteller, the cook, the lover, and the instigator of games.
It seems the Amazons have left some vestiges of sexual hunger in their wake, since she draws me to her mouth for a long kiss that evokes a low moan from her chest, but these desires are clearly warring with the inertia stoked by the warm fire and our full bellies. I know I can reconcile both urges tonight, and pull her so that she sits up against me, her back to my belly, tucked between my legs. As I snake a hand over her leg and down into the bed of soft curls, I use the other to impulsively draw up a blanket over us, not trusting that even from the darkened sea, eyes and ears might not be poised to rob us of this quiet intimacy. She doesn’t last long tonight, and comes hard against my hand, gasping as I hold her close to me, anchoring her flight. “Right behind you,” I kiss into her shoulder, and with a few more rocking strokes of my body against her still-trembling buttocks, I follow her into oblivion. I allow us to fall back onto our bedding, and almost immediately I notice the change in her breathing as sleep takes her.
I don’t know how much later it is when my body alerts me that she has left my side, and I awake, full of trepidation. I am relieved to find her still here. Illumined by the moonlight, she sits at the edge of the blankets fingering the conch I picked up earlier in the day, running her fingers in spirals against its ridges, before lifting it up to her ear. “You’ll just get sand in your ear, Gabrielle,” I chuckle. “There’s really no ocean in there.” She reaches across my body to where my gear is laid out, and takes up the chakram, then hacks at the shell so that the top of the crown is cleanly severed. “Aw, Gabrielle, you broke it. It was so pretty — it reminded me of you, that’s why I kept it.” “No, Xena,” she smiles, as she grinds down a few rough edges left on the break with the side of my weapon. “You’ll like this. Those Amazons today — they were in the new lands, in South America. Their trading partners were maroons, escaped Nubian slaves who live in new, free villages. They use these to call each other to battle and to ceremonies.” I am intrigued, for these are more words than she’s strung together in some time, and I hear in her voice just a hint of that irrepressible spirit that first drew me to her.
She stands up, still nude, and walks a few paces away from me towards the water, before raising the conch to her lips. When she blows, I am initially surprised by the noise: it is a magnificent baritone howl that fills the night. Gabrielle’s breath fills the long-dead crevices of the structure, stretching it beyond its original purpose and form. And then I just sit in wonder and watch my two beautiful vessels – both irreparably broken — together raise up a cry that reminds me that I am — here and now – more than my bondage, and less than what it is possible for me to become.