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the mother of beauty

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ὠνείδισας δὴ τοῦτο Διονύσῳ καλόν.

You reproach Dionysus for what is his glory.

--The Bacchae, Euripides

 

The first time he comes to Hampden the leaves on the ground crackle beneath his feet. He’s been in Paris for months, itself not warm at this time of year, but Hampden is something else entirely. The air is thick with the scent of snow just about to fall, and his hands are blue with cold inside his gloves. The campus is still and quiet and dusted with the white of early morning frost. The trees are nothing but Egon Schiele sketches, twisting up into a grey sky that, despite its dullness, somehow still manages to be beautiful. Birds do not sing and no freshmen call across the quads, but something clenches in his chest that he has not felt in years in answer to a question Hampden College does not have the tongue to ask him. Julian Morrow has been running for a very long time, to or from he does not know, and although the decision should not be a difficult one, it is, all the same.

“I do not require pay,” he says, instead of the thousand other things gated behind his white, straight teeth, and when he gets into his car to drive along small, winding roads which will eventually lead him to the city once more, he does not look back.

 

 

His first summer in Rome is at the age of nineteen. It would have been earlier, but his parents have always preferred Florence to the eternal city, and so it is alone, and almost a man, that his feet find the ancient pathways of the Forum for the very first time. It is nothing like what he expected, but exactly what it should be. The sun beats down, turning the back of his neck a hot, angry pink, and he stays there for hours, thinks drunkenly Caesar died on this floor. Later, he could not tell you how he found the cafe, or the boy, but he finds his legs tangled with olive skin beneath hotel sheets at three in the morning, his lips still burning with kisses and bruises on his wrists. He gets up and throws open his window shutters and watches Rome yell, affronted, at the sky for daring to rain, and he saw the face of the gods, a god, today, but he could not tell you where if he tried.

 

 

“We did it,” says Henry Winter, a set to his jaw that makes Julian’s stomach twist like he’s had too much Château Lafite, and he opens his mouth to answer his greatest, most loyal of students, and for the first time in many years, no sound comes out.

 

 

Those who can do naught else, teach. This is something his father used to say, with a cruel twist to his lips, for his father was a writer who rubbed shoulders with the Lost Generation, who spoke French like a native and whose photograph was taken in a dozen Parisian cafés. His mother was a beauty, professionally lovely, an heiress from Connecticut whose French had a curious, Bostonian twist, and her eyes skittered over her father’s face like water over glass.

Julian Morrow was always supposed to be a somebody, and it’s not until his third summer in Rome, twenty-four and tan and smoking cigarettes on his balcony, that he realises that he was born a somebody, and there is nothing his father can do about it, either.

 

 

Euripides feels like drowning.

He’d known about tragedy, in a vague sort of way, but at school he’d read Plato and Xenophon, his education roundedly Classical but focused more heavily on the Roman poets, as was his prep school’s wont. Yale had brought more of the same, and it’s not until his semester abroad at Oxford that he learns that he was missing something, that, indeed, there was anything to miss.

It’s a Special Lecture, the beautiful boy beside him hungover and the room eerily, threateningly still. The man who stands up is a theatre director, or so Lane van der Sar had told him, and his voice fills the room like blood into a needle, sucking all the air with it as it goes. It is not plaintive, does not beg or plead, is not contrite or soft or loving, but makes his skin turn to gooseflesh and his heart beat faster.

It’s the penultimate choral ode of The Bacchae, and it sounds like god.

“One hell of a show, eh, old boy,” says Lane, and Julian’s tongue is wet and hot and silent. (He fucks Lane that afternoon in his room at Queens, the fire still beneath his skin and itching between his shoulder-blades, and when he comes it feels nothing whatsoever like a release. He knows he's chasing something, something made of flesh and bone and blood, but-- it's something more. A simple, terrible thing: it's something more.)

 

 

The second time he comes to Hampden, it is spring, and the ground beneath his feet is damp and cold. He steps from his car, dragging his trunk behind him, breathes in and in and in, finds he does not miss New York.

 

 

The twins are a riddle to match even the mysteries of kult. They are one but are not, the echoes of a Catholic boarding school he thought he left behind him long ago. A fractured Trinity, and he cannot quite work out where the fault lines lie. Is it through the heart of the redheaded boy who looks at Charles like he hung the moon; scarred into Henry’s body, where Camilla’s hands touch him, soft, over his dark suit? He watches and is thrilled by it, for although his god is not one he prays to, it would appear that he answers him all the same.

 

 

It was not one thing, but many. A failed love affair in Paris, the woman he almost married in Madrid, his father dying in a hospital room in upstate New York. He was almost forty, the sand of his life slipping through his fingers and his hunger for more of it impossible to quench. He’s running, the way he’s always been running, but he still doesn’t know what he’s running from. His father’s dead and his mother is more distant than ever, her letters signed with kisses but his phone calls to her always going unanswered, and he’s almost forty and he’s not bored but he’s tired and something-- something has to change.

 

 

“Isn’t she beautiful?” says Charles, as he pours Julian’s wine, an expression not-at-all brotherly spreading across his face like a sunset.

Julian says nothing, sips at a fine Italian red, smiles indulgently. Oedipus loved Jocasta, after all.

 

 

Magister, Henry calls him, in the silence of his rooms, a word he permits him to speak but maybe shouldn’t, as they both know it’s little more than what a Roman slave called his master, but Henry speaks it the way the priest at Julian’s boarding school consecrated the Host, his lips closing around the syllables like pomegranate seeds and Julian thinks of feet following him into the underworld, does not correct him.

 

 

He gives them the same speech he always gives them, in some form or another, opens their eyes, takes their hand and leads them out of the Cave, watches them blink in the light and revels in it, marvels that they react the same way every time, twenty-somethings too young to have read de Sade and too jaded to believe in any god-- beauty is terror, and pain is terror, surrender and sacrifice and even, too, death, but but but-- that one he’ll come to regret, in time.

 

 

I think you liked the power of it, reads a letter Henry writes to him, postmarked just before his death, and he burns it unopened, because some things he knew all along.

 

 

“Gods do not bend their knee to mortals,” says Henry, a long, scraped line on his face and hands which until a mere few hours earlier were red with a dead man’s blood digging into Julian’s thigh. Julian does not tell him, will never tell him, that he has done this so many times before, but this is the first time the god has answered.

“The gods of the ancients were not meant for modern men,” says Julian, although he has spent his life preaching the opposite, and it is not until he says the words that he realises the awful truth: this, too, he knew all along.

 

 

Summer in Hampden, marks from Henry’s nails in long, Linear B lines down his back, champagne under the stars and Eliot shouted to him from the lake in which he never swims. Francis is witty in French and Henry austere in Latin, the echo of Camilla’s slow smile, itself a drug, and Charles’s hand that's never far from hers. Bunny’s booming laughter and that shy boy following him everywhere like a dog.

Henry, catching him alone for a minute, whispering into his collarbone, “The Aristoteles to my Alexandros.”

He does not answer, which, it turns out, becomes a theme as damning as Hamlet’s inaction. (Inaction, there’s another one.)

“Whatever are you doing out here?” comes Charles’s voice, and Henry does not notice Julian's silence. (This, sadly, is a theme that will not remain unchanged.)

 

 

After two years, he no longer remembers the first name of that Papen boy. Ten, and the red of Francis’s hair has begun to fade, as, he is sure, it also has in life. Twenty and he cannot shake off the memory of Camilla’s smile, identical and yet utterly distinct from her brother’s, or how Henry’s voice was always harsh in the early morning, his hand upon a bone china cup of tea and his eyes shining as if they were made to look only at Julian’s face.

He’s sure he’s forgotten many things. He’s even more sure that there is nothing else which he wants to remember.

 

 

I love my brother, says the only letter from any of his students that Julian will ever read, but I love Henry, too. Imperfect, not aorist, continuous, never finished. It’s more than you can say, I am sure. You never finish what you start, Julian, but everything is always finished when you leave. I know that now.

Julian burns it as he burned the others, in the fireplace of his large, white, ornate mansion in upstate New York, and then spreads the ashes in the yard, and tells himself that the wind which picks up and stirs the dark, glorious ivy which curls around his windows as he does it is just his imagination, nothing more.

 

 

Live forever.

The harshest truth Julian Morrow has ever had to learn, but never to teach by anything except example: anything can become a curse, given enough time.