When Psyche was a small child, she was pretty and perfect, with rosy cheeks and soft hair and eyes of startling depth. Before adolescence, her beauty attracted older gazes, and her parents and her older sisters banded round her, although her sisters did not understand - and did not want to understand - why the young men they courted saw their sister as equal to them.
But by the time that Psyche approached true womanhood, her beauty was so astounding that the flirtations died away. If men or women smiled when they saw her, it was as if they had been caught out in some emotion they did not want to acknowledge. These were the smiles of the guilty, who laugh out of fear. In her tenth year, Psyche felt gazes slide across her like touches, unwelcomely slow and lingering; in her fifteenth year, she might raise her head and see others flinch as though they received a blow. In a crowd, heads would turn away from her - and bow down.
Psyche's sisters married and departed for their husbands' households, but Psyche no longer needed them to protect her from lecherous gazes. The people of her city still wanted her, but they did not know what they wanted.
"A glimpse of your face, lovely Psyche," said the baker, "and I fall into a dream that lasts for days."
"I shoe horses that may take their riders over mountains and valleys," said the farrier, "and I think often of their travels to the edge of the known world; but when I catch sight of the curve of your hand on the windowsill, Psyche, I know I will never leave this city."
But if their gazes rested on her too long, they seemed afflicted, as though a surfeit of her were more than they could bear.
In the centre of Psyche's city, there was a wide, stone-walled pool, carved about the edge in the shape of waves, and in the centre of the pool there was a wet-sandalled statue, for the water always covered its feet. Tradition had it that the statue depicted the most beautiful woman in the world.
But because of another tradition, no one could tell if the statue's beauty were truly beyond compare. For generations - so long that the reasons behind it were scarcely discussed - a hood had been hung about the head of the statue, to hide the lady's face from the sun. It might be sailcloth or leather, woven rushes or fine silk, but as soon as one hood wore away, the people of the city made another, and replaced it in darkness.
One morning, carrying out her errands before dawn to avoid people as best she could, Psyche came to that statue, and stared up into the shadows about its face.
The hood that shrouded the statue was then new. It was made of undyed sheepswool, and its ties were only unwoven strands.
With sudden daring, Psyche stepped into the pool, crossed to the statue, and untied the hood. She pulled it down, settled it on her own head, and then pushed its edge back. She looked up at the statue just as morning light struck the stone face.
For the first time in her life, she had a sense of of how others felt when they looked upon her. All of the statue's features - wide, bowed lips, straight nose, full cheeks, delicately winged eyebrows - were lovely for their part, but the whole that they created was perfect, and dazzling. Psyche's gaze moved restlessly across the statue's face. She was unable to fix her eyes on any point for very long - even the statue's faint, cruel smile. There was a roar in her ears like waves breaking, and she felt a sense of longing as if for something that was, in that moment, present, and simultaneously moving ever further away.
Psyche bowed her head so that the folds of the hood fell over her forehead, to gain relief from the statue's gaze.
Let her beauty shine forth, and mine be hidden, she thought, and went her way.
But her errands were no easier than on any other day, for she heard mutters of unease through the thick wool, and felt a sense of foreboding even though she met no one's eyes.
When her father returned to the house that evening, he was fearful, and furious.
"Did you claim to rival even a legend's beauty?" he asked her. "For that is what the people say."
"No," said Psyche, and he believed her, but it did not matter.
"There is an ancient punishment for what you have done," he said, "and I cannot protect you from it."
In payment for the hour that the statue had stood uncovered, so must Psyche stand at the mercy of the elements: bound hand and foot, and set on a rock high on a cliff above the city, with neither food nor water, nor company, from sunrise to sunset.
It was done at the next dawn. The sun beat down on Psyche, and the wind, at first comforting, sucked the water from her lips, and Psyche swayed on her feet and at last fell, with her bound arms pinned painfully beneath her.
In too much pain to sleep, she might have swooned; it seemed as though she barely blinked, and the day grew darker. Clouds had boiled up from the horizon to hide the sun, so that she could not tell how low it had fallen in the west.
But as the air chilled, it carried with it the promise of rain, and brought relief to Psyche's fevered skin; to please herself, she imagined that unseen forces tended to her with moistened cloths.
Indeed, she could not be certain what divided her imaginings from what she saw and heard. The darkness wrapped with strange speed about her, such that even the lights of the city below her dimmed and went out, as if the soothing cloths of a half-hour before had become a soft coverlet drawn above her face. She had the sensation of floating, or falling - the ground below her had receded from her senses, though that might only be the numbness of her limbs - until she came back to herself with a start, or the ground came back to her.
In utter darkness, she felt touches about her ankles and hands, and the ropes fell away.
To the rock where they had left her, at an hour past sunset, her father and the magistrates of the city came again, and found her gone.
As she prickled with returning sensation, a gentle hand began to spread balm across Psyche’s face. The liniment smelled of sweet hay and cinnamon. The hand left her for a moment; she opened her mouth in dismay, and a vessel was pressed to her lips. The water was cool. Mint had been crushed into it.
"Rest, Psyche," she heard. The voice was unfamiliar. "Do not yet open your eyes. It is dark, and there is nothing here to see, but if you make the attempt I shall leave you."
Though her throat was at first too dry for speech, Psyche soon assured the stranger that she would keep her eyes fast closed, if that was what he wished.
"Obedient Psyche," said the voice, as caressing as the hands. "You will be rewarded." So the hands spread relief across her rubbed ankles, to her wrenched shoulders, and to her raw wrists.
As her left wrist was tended, Psyche let her fingers curl to reach her companion's wrist in turn. It was the lightest of touches. He did not pull away, but went still, and nor did she press further, feeling her perception of the world shrink to that point of contact - or perhaps expand. His wrist was warm, but she could not feel his pulse. She held herself back from seeking it.
"Sweet Psyche," he said at last, "now you are frail; but when you are stronger you shall have all you wish of touch."
He stroked her hair until she slept again.
When Psyche awoke, she was alone. The furnishings in the room were spare, nor did any scattered possessions hint at another person's occupation. As Psyche wondered about such a person, she blushed; what had been comfort in the dark made her uncertain in the day.
A robe had been laid out for her, and a small meal, and a pitcher of water into which berries and mint, again, had been crushed. She prepared herself with these things, and then went out into the house.
The hallway in which she found herself might have been a corridor in Heaven. The walls were inlaid with fine, polished figures in gold, silver and copper, glittering even in the pin-prick of daylight that shone from the hall’s end. The floor was stone, but it also had inlays of emerald, ruby, lapis lazuli, and citrine, as though such jewels were no more than shards of tile. So were all the other rooms of the vast house. In some rooms, Psyche found nothing but piles of treasures; in the rooms that were more clearly appointed for use, there were still lamps and sculptures and fittings of exquisite workmanship.
At last, Psyche came to a door that led outside. To her great surprise, it was unlocked. There was not even a guard posted there; true, Psyche had encountered no other person throughout the mansion, but she had expected some precaution taken to prevent her from gathering up inestimable treasures and carrying them off.
Either the lord whose house this was did not care who stole from him, or he placed a special trust in her. Such a trust, she found, she also placed in him: she did not know why he had brought her here, but he had been kind to her.
As the day wore on, and dusk approached, she found herself thinking on the particulars of his kindness, and blushing.
When darkness fell, she heard a human step in the hallowed halls.
"Psyche," he greeted her from beyond the open door. "Put out the light, and I will come in."
"I will," she said, and extinguished it (only later, in the day, did it occur to her that she might have barred his entrance by this means). She heard his step again as he entered the room. She was suddenly afraid.
"Do not fear," he said. "I will not approach until you bid me."
"Oh - approach!" she said, startled and embarrassed.
He laughed. "So soon?" Only the movement of his breath told her that he stood in front of her. She held out her hand; he caught it and traced the healing skin about her wrist. His touch was dry, and that confused her, because it seemed that he brought her ease without any ointment. When his hand fell away, and she brought her other hand up to trace the same spot, the skin seemed soothed, smoother.
"Come closer, please," she invited him. He clasped her shoulders, and she could not be sorry for her indiscretion. She could only wonder why she had been afraid.
She touched him no more than he touched her; he did not touch her except at her suggestion. She was exhausted, and bid him lead her to sleep, before she had done more than trace his shoulders and arms, but that she did over and over, sometimes with the tips of her fingers, sometimes finding flesh to cup in her palms.
Laying her in the bed, he did not leave her before she slept, but she awoke alone again.
In daylight – eating again the meal that had been prepared for her – she reflected in a chilly way on how little she had been touched in her life, with generous tenderness, or simple kindness. Once, gazes had been violations; these touches now between Psyche and her stranger were as close as she had ever come to looking her fill on another human being, and been safely seen.
Each night began with a mere, slow brush of contact, and for a long time, their touches were chaste, except that every night Psyche wanted more and more, and nestled deeper within his arms. At last, she kissed him, and some time later – a languorously long time later – they pressed mouth to thigh, hand to breast, and belly to groin.
"Now you are my lord," said Psyche, triumphant, though her words hid a question, and he answered it with another kiss.
She had no other name for him.
Now she napped during the day, so that she needed little slumber in the night; though she slept beside him for a while, she woke long before he did. She lay awake in his bed, stroking his back so gently that he did not stir, watching over him with her fingertips.
Every morning, he woke while it was still dark. When he lay abed the longest, his skin grew hot, and he twitched with troubled dreams, or as if feverish. He never slept to sunrise. He arose, and kissed her, and made preparations for her day, and was gone.
Sometimes she rushed out after him, and strained her eyes over the hills as they faded grey, hoping to see him in the distance, but she never did. Nor were there any tracks from a horse or cart that might have sped him out of her sight.
Her days needed little preparation. She ate the food her lord mysteriously provided, and carried out what tasks the mansion afforded. She walked abroad, discovering meadows hidden along mountain trails. Though she wanted keenly to be ready in the mansion at dusk, she ventured far enough that she eventually espied the rock from which she had been taken, and a means of getting there, before she turned back.
Not everything her lord did was a mystery, or it did not seem so contrived. Though Psyche far preferred to talk with fingers, her lord did not turn aside her words. Though a conversation might begin in one minute and resume scores later – because they were lost in other things – and so progress slowly, he told her of his travels in the world outside and what he had seen there. He told her how this palace had come to be built: a retreat for a youth favoured by gods. He told her stories of the poets whose volumes were scattered through the halls.
When she expressed a wish to make her own meals, he told her of a stream, hidden nearby, where she might make a cool pantry, and he stocked it when he came. Although she pleased herself with this activity, she was dismayed: he refused all food she offered. "Your works are not amiss," he said, "but this is not for me."
"You are so perfect a man," she whispered to him, "that the moon-touched air sustains you."
"The air, and your embrace," he whispered back.
Still, her embrace was not a thing she made a gift of, or so it seemed to her. When they came together, and touch led on to touch, it seemed to lead to something that was beyond them both: an extrinsic blessing, not an intrinsic creation.
He seemed to need nothing. She wanted to give him something, even if that only meant that he would return to her the gift of accepting it.
In the day, she thought of her sisters, who had been married for many years, and what advice they might have on pleasing those who shared their households. In her heart, scales that had been delicately balanced between loneliness and contentment tipped. Her sisters were a complicated thing to think of. She did not think they had missed her when taking on their new lives. But perhaps, in this, she could approach them from the proper position of a younger sister: eager to learn from their experiences.
"I have thought, lately, of my family," Psyche said to her lord one dusk. "I should like to let them know that I am well."
His hand fell from her shoulder. She frowned. Without sight, and when they were not touching, there was little difference between the separation of an inch between them, and the separation of a league; when he was within the reach of her hands, she did reach out to him, and he to her, so for him to pull back put him beyond her.
"I fear they may think you do too well," he said at last.
"I cannot describe to another the height of my joy," she answered lightly, "so you need not fear their envy there. Is it your riches? Should we not reassure my father and mother how well you provide for me?"
"It was your father who gave you up to me," he reminded her.
"He did not mean for that to happen," Psyche said, troubled, and before she could add, or, if he did, might we not thank him for it?, her lord continued,
"Indeed, and I mistrust his regret."
"My sisters, then," suggested Psyche; she would be quite content with that. "Let me speak to them, and let my parents hear of me through them."
There was a long pause, while each considered, and Psyche's lord lay very still.
Then he smoothed the hair from her brow, and Psyche sighed in release.
The letters were easier to speak of than to write. Psyche found herself chary with her words. As she had said, she could not describe her nights with either accuracy or discretion, and the pursuits of her day were of solitary interest, just they were solitary endeavours.
She was hardly surprised - only guilty, and gladdened - when she received replies from her sisters demanding to see her.
"Let them come at evening," her lord said, "and take the last way up the mountain in darkness. I will guide you, but they will not know the way to come again."
Psyche met her sisters at the rock where the city folk had bound her. As she waited for them, she looked out over the city. A bird launched from the crag beside her and glided down. Psyche's look followed it as if she herself slipped into the air-stream of its passing, until it vanished among the houses and markets, as she had never been able to do, any more than she could take such an easy path through the air.
Nor did she think that she could come to the city by land with any greater ease. She had lived too long without the swordplay of gazes, and consequently was too soft to bear them again.
She was gazing out still when her sisters approached. She let their greetings wash over her before she turned, so that she did not have to receive their voices and looks at once, but this preparation was not enough. She saw that her sisters looked well, if weary. The younger of the two was expecting a child. But as they met her eyes, they grew awestruck and afflicted, and Psyche looked down. She wished for a sheepswool hood again.
But her sisters came to her, and took her hands, and looked out on the mountain with her. "Where is your dwelling?" asked one. "Surely you have not lived by this rock, for all this time?"
"I told you of my lord's house when I wrote to you," said Psyche. "You cannot see it from here, but we will reach it tonight." She led them from the meadow, glad that the path was narrow and required they walk in single file.
"Tell us of this husband!" demanded her other sister. "For you were modest and sparse in your letter, but you may speak in confidence to us now."
Psyche hesitated. "He is both rich and kind," she offered. "I am alone during the day, but he returns swiftly at night." She knew she would have to speak further if she were to get her sisters' advice, but she was unsure how to explain her lord's unusual patterns.
"Rich and kind may make up for many other things, it is true," her sister laughed, and Psyche was dismayed that even such cautious words had been misinterpreted.
Her first sister said, more kindly, "To hear he is a man at all is a relief!" She pressed Psyche's hand. "Sister, when you vanished, some wondered if the Lady of the Foam had taken you to complete her punishment."
"The Lady of the Foam?"
"Our statue, Aphrodite she is called," she answered. "Your punishment was not the only ancient law that the magistrates uncovered. When you vanished, others remembered legends. Some say that our Lady was an immortal demon who walked only at night."
"Her human form was a lie," said the other sister; "she was truly a bat, or a wolf, or a ghost, or some such thing, and that is why even her beauty was inhuman."
"Why then do we set her in a fountain?" she asked.
"The statue is not a celebration, but a warning," her first sister explained. "The legend says that to look upon her was to lose your will."
"And even your soul!" said the other sister, with relish. "They say that one of our Lady's victims, who was named Eros, lives still: a man without a heart, unable to find peace in death."
"Imagine growing ever older and not dying!" exclaimed the first sister.
"Imagine living without feeling, and doing harm to every person one encounters!" said the second.
Psyche thought: I do not need to imagine that, and she was a thousand times grateful to her lord, who had brought her all sensation, body and heart both, and whom she need not brand with her gaze.
Darkness fell, and she kindled two lanterns, one for each of her sisters. She hardly needed her own: the light of the stars and a crescent moon seemed bright to her, as her eyes were well adjusted to work in the dark.
There was a cry from behind her. "What is it?" one sister asked the other, as they stopped.
"Some thorn-tree," said the sister who came last. "It scratched my neck as I went past."
"Let me see," Psyche said to her wounded sister. "And you, sister -" to the other - "go up the path a little way - we are almost at a clearing, and there is a stone where you may rest."
She examined her sister's neck with careful hands; there was a smear of blood, but it had already ceased to flow. "You will be well," she said. "Let us go after our sister."
When they reached the third sister, she greeted them with an embarrassed laugh. "Would you believe that I too met with a thorn-tree," she said, showing them a pierced wrist.
Psyche felt alarm, but said nothing. She had not remembered that the path was overgrown by any such plant that would do harm. But they were nearly at their home, and the wounds were not serious.
Psyche had cleared a set of rooms of the most extravagant of the treasures, but her sisters still marvelled at what they saw. "Your husband must be a dealer in antiquities," the first suggested.
"Oh, how unworldly a thought: surely he is a brigand, who stops travellers on dark roads, or climbs into citizens' houses at night!" the other laughed.
I know he does no ill deed at night, thought Psyche, but she only said that she did not know her lord's business, except as it concerned her.
She dreaded further awkward questions, but to her surprise, her sisters were almost too tired for curiosity. Very shortly after taking food and wine, they pleaded exhaustion. "You are pale," said Psyche solicitously. She checked her sister's neck and her sister's wrist again, but the marks they had acquired on the walk were cool, the skin almost clammy rather than irritated; she feared no infection.
She led them to the suite she had prepared and, though she paused for a moment, she locked the door behind them; should their sudden weariness reverse herself, she thought it would be best if they did not discover all the house's treasures at once.
She went to her own chamber as wakeful as her sisters were weary. She did not go to her lord's bed for the purpose of sleep, but for the day's second awakening. Now, to dispel her confusion about how she should speak of him, she described him to herself with her hands, and he sculpted in turn her own flesh, which was as obedient under his hands as clay.
They did not speak until they almost dozed.
"What shall I give them?" Psyche asked him.
"Any treasure you like," he answered. "But make a show of your generosity. Do not load them down as if it were nothing to you."
"And what shall I give them to say of you?"
He lay flung over her; his ankles and hers were entwined. "It it not enough that they can speak of your contentment?" he said. "Shall I not speak through you?"
She laughed. "I shall not share your kisses," she said.
"Tell them I am very old, and lustful," he said, laughing too. "Tell them your nights are spent in hell, as your days are spent at leisure, so they shall not envy your gold."
"It is too late," said Psyche. "I told them you were kind."
"Then tell them nothing of use," he said. "They will not know it, so they may have my name: Eros."
Psyche could not help it: she flinched.
"What is wrong?"
"I am surprised," she said. "It is as with kisses: shall I hardly receive a gift for you before I pass it on?"
"I did not know it mattered to you," he said. "You never needed to name me to another until now. Until now, you were happy to call me your lord, and your joy, and your solace."
"Eros," she whispered, dissembling. "I shall like to say it."
"And I shall like to hear it, Psyche," he said, and for once the caress of his voice felt overwhelming, as if it did not glide over her skin but underneath it, grasping at nerves and bone.
But it was his name, not hers, that echoed in her ears. Tell them I am old he had said, but she could not smile. She could not sleep, thinking of it. Though her lord lay peacefully, she eventually rose to pace through the hallways. But steps did not calm her.
No: she must have proof one way or the other. She took up the lantern her oldest sister had used on the climb, and lit it. It was shockingly bright, the metal decorations across the walls glittering so fiercely that it was as if she had kindled the whole house to flame. She found a cloth to dim the lantern, and then another one to cover it completely, and entered her chamber again.
Before she uncovered the lantern, she stood a moment and listened to Eros breathe. Surely the light would not tell her any new thing: his skin was as soft as her own, and she had mapped every dimple and mole, and every scratch or mark that an ordinary day's pursuits had brought him. He could hardly be horned or scaled. Yet, Her human form was a lie, her sister had said. Would she catch Eros out in a lie by catching him unprepared?
She took the outer cover from the lamp.
She gasped - in relief - to see a human face. It was not quite as she had imagined it. It was more beautiful. And yet...
Her lord's beauty was like that of the Lady's statue, difficult to look on - and in a way that Psyche could not name to herself, it was stony like the Lady too. There was a fixedness to his face, a sameness to the skin across his temples and nose and throat, as though all had been made in the same moment, rather than changing and growing and developing different textures as did an ordinary person's skin, as though no change were possible.
And she had scoffed to expect horns, but her lord was winged. Vast wings, spined and webbed like a bat's, spread from his shoulders out into the shadows - or from the shadows into his shoulders, for as even this dim light beat down on them, they seemed to writhe and shred and dissipate as if they were made of mist.
Psyche had never touched such wings.
He turned restlessly. She reached out to touch his arm, and found it hot, as it was when he lay in bed the longest before the dawn came. She took her hand back, meaning to cover the lamp again and ponder what she had seen, but when she withdrew her touch, Eros' eyes opened.
Perhaps she should put the lantern out, but she did not do so. She could not bear the thought of his eyes, open, looking through the darkness at her, though she might not see him. She placed the light on the floor.
"Beautiful Psyche," said her lord.
"Beautiful Eros," she said, for he was. She looked steadily on him, since now she might, and she did not know what would follow. But his eyes were difficult to look into, as the sun on snow, or the dazzle of pale clouds.
"Willful Psyche," he said, "can you look on me without pain?"
"Yes," she said, though she lied, for already it was difficult.
"No," he said, "I see you cannot."
"Who are you?" she asked. "No - what are you, for who I know, my lord."
"Monstrous, immortal, winged, thirsty," he said, "casting love and fear, bending men's minds, haunting their nights."
"Mortals' blood is my only food."
"You drank of my sisters," she said, "as they came here."
"They suffered no harm for it..."
He laughed. "Do you seek to excuse me?"
"My sisters named you to me," she confessed, "on the way here: they spoke of Eros, Aphrodite's thrall."
"Aphrodite fears you," he said. "She made me immortal, and it is in my power to make you immortal also. My power, but not my will; hence this bargain that she has permitted me."
"Why not your will?" she said.
"I am a monster," he said.
"You love, and are beloved."
"Yes; and as you look on me, you cannot believe anything else," he said.
She saw that the misty wings, that writhed in the light, were tattered; if this gave him pain, he had made no sign, but she suspected it had, because his skin was growing mottled everywhere the light touched, and his expression was still calm.
She put out the light, and spoke into darkness. "Am I enthralled now?"
"Perhaps," she heard. "Perhaps from looking on me, and perhaps from trust."
"That is no enthralment," she said, "and if it is, I choose it. I have always been a monster; make me one like you."
"It does not matter," Eros said. "I was glad to look upon you, but as you see, I have paid for it. I must leave now, or the dawn will catch me here. Take what treasure you want, and go with your sisters. There is only one creature who can heal me of these injuries. That is she who made me, and she may choose to destroy me instead."
"She dare not," said Psyche.
"Or you will avenge me?"
"Yes," said Psyche. "You may be immortal, but it is clear that you have weaknesses. If your Aphrodite destroys you, then I will come for her. You may go from me, but I will follow, and I will find you in time."
"You think you know what I am, but you do not, yet," he said. "Follow your sisters' legends; assume that the worst are true. There are books in this house, too, that will give you surer horrors."
"I will follow them," said Psyche. "And I will follow you."
She heard him stand up. He put his burning hands on her shoulders, and kissed her, and then moved past her to the door. "Psyche, who would be a monster," he said. "If you learn all there is to learn of me, and still you seek me, you will have become one already."
"Then make me one of your kind," she said, "when you are well and we are together."
There was no response. She knew, from his departures and returns, how quickly he could move, so she did not call after him: he would already be gone from the hall. She only thought, as fierce and loud as a shout:
I was already a monster! Let Aphrodite fear me!