They'd like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
—Margaret Atwood, Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
“Mephistopheles,” says Faustus once, “what is a spirit?”
Mephistopheles says, “I am.” When Faustus gestures at him to go on, he raises an eyebrow, shrugs, spreads his arms, and turns on the spot, displaying his body like a girl displaying a new dress. Mephistopheles is lean and bony, burn scars marking his left arm and the left side of his face, white streaks in his hair. He wears his usual uniform, head-to-toe black, snakeskin boots. “Satisfied, my Faustus?” he says, and simpers over his shoulder. His eyes are black from side to side, without a hint of white or colour in them.
Faustus narrows his eyes. “An example is not a definition,” he says. “That’s Plato. And you can change your form so your form is not your self. You have not answered me. What are spirits? What are they made of? What do they look like?” When Mephistopheles doesn’t answer, Faustus reminds him, “You are bound to answer me. There’s a contract.”
“Oh, of course, the contract,” says Mephistopheles, and rolls his eyes. “Well, then, my Faustus. A spirit is not made of anything. We have no substance.”
“But you clearly have substance right now,” says Faustus. “I can touch you, look—” and he puts a hand on Mephistopheles’ shoulder. The devil runs hotter to touch than a human, but that’s the only difference.
Mephistopheles tilts his head and looks at the hand with his flat black eyes until Faustus takes it away again. Then he sighs an exaggerated sigh. “My form,” he says, “as you have pointed out yourself, is changeable and not my self. I can give myself substance if I please. But spirits are not matter, they are—“
Faustus’ mind is already running ahead to the end of the sentence, “—energy. Sentient energy—“
“…light,” Mephistopheles finishes, softly.
“Fascinating,” says Faustus, ideas for half a dozen experiments already pouring through his head. Not that he needs to bother with the experimental process these days, that’s what Mephistopheles is for. “So if you can choose any form, why this one? With the, you know.” He gestures.
“This is what I look like,” says Mephistopheles.
“You could at least get rid of the scars.”
Mephistopheles bows. “Would you like me to?”
“No, no, not at all, do what you like,” says Faustus. “I don’t care. Although…”
“Although?” says Mephistopheles, when he doesn’t finish.
Perhaps it’s a tactless question, but Faustus wants to know. “If you can take any form, can you show me what an angel looks like?”
“An angel is a spirit,” Mephistopheles says. “They have no substance.”
“I’m just curious,” says Faustus. “I wonder how you would have appeared before your Fall.”
Mephistopheles says, “Of course you do,” and smiles a toothy smile.
“Can you not do it, then?”
“Oh, I can do it.”
Faustus waves a hand: go on then. Mephistopheles takes a step back, and another, and sighs. He closes his black eyes and tilts his head back and up. He spreads his arms. And then there is light, light, so much light, and Faustus squeezes his eyes shut and flings his arm up to shield them.
He can still see the afterimage printed on the inside of his eyelids—a mighty figure, more than twice the height of a man, blazing white and gold. And all around it, the great soft endless sweep of feathers.
“Thank you,” says Faustus. “Thank you, stop now!” He still waits a moment or two before he dares to open his eyes again. “That was…very impressive,” he says. “Why don’t you do it all the time?”
Mephistopheles bares his teeth and answers, “It hurts.”
Faustus’ house is full of spirits, Mephistopheles’ lesser servants. They come and go making beds, serving meals, ironing clothes. Faustus’ jackets are perfectly pressed and hung up in neat rows. He eats food from all over the world, steaming hot, prepared by the personal chefs of kings and emperors and presidents. He never sees the spirits. He has no interest in seeing them. They never make mistakes, which is all he cares about. Sometimes they disturb the air a little. There’ll be a faint breeze when he enters a room as curtains pull themselves back, a fresh vase of flowers positions itself on a corner table, and the edges of books straighten on the shelves. Faustus barely even notices it anymore.
He has noticed it sometimes makes other people uncomfortable. His occasional students sit up very straight on the edges of their chairs during tutorials, and leave as soon as possible. His friends from his own student days make excuses not to visit. The only people who do come without hesitation are Valdes and Cornelius. They jealously watch every hint and shadow of magic, and take turns trying to make Faustus tell them how exactly he does it. “Oh, you know,” Faustus says. “There’s a trick to it.” He smiles. He occasionally makes a mental note to tell Mephistopheles to tone down the house spirits a little, so that he can have his less wizardly friends to dinner, but he always forgets almost as soon as he thinks of it.
Mephistopheles, of course, is the most obvious of them. He’s invisible a lot of the time, but it isn’t in him to be discreet. Faustus banishes him to the other room when he’s trying to read, because he paces, back and forth, snakeskin boots clicking on the floor. His black eyes are full of something sullen and grim, his face is set in an expression just short of a snarl, and it’s… annoying. And distracting. Faustus could command him to stop, of course, but Mephistopheles is a prince of hell, not some minor imp. Faustus doesn’t grudge him his pacing as long as he does it out of earshot.
Sometimes, right on the edge of sleeping, Faustus thinks he senses other unearthly beings, not Mephistopheles, not imps either. They seem to live in his room. They don’t bustle around doing busywork, they just wait and watch. At first he thinks there’s only one, but later it seems more like two. On the edge of his hearing he sometimes hears whispering. He can never tell if they’re talking to each other or to him. He drifts asleep with their faraway voices in his ears.
Oh, but Helen, Helen.
Already a few days after he gets her Faustus thinks he was mad not to think of her sooner. Helen is wonderful. She’s very young—slim and lovely, white-armed as in Homer, with hair like spun gold. She wears white all the time, and Faustus conjures gold bracelets for her arms and gold necklaces for her slender throat. She talks to him. Her mind is as fine as her body; she can converse about anything, and the questions she asks him are interesting ones. And she seems to fill the whole house—Faustus hears her bare feet on the stairs, her laugh floating up from the kitchen, her sweet voice like heavenly bells as she sings nonsense songs to herself. She’s flesh, real flesh. Faustus never knew how empty the house full of spirits was until there was a flesh-and-blood woman in it. Helen touches things, trails her slim fingers along the edges of tables, strokes the fine material of her dresses. She is a sensual, physical being. She even eats. Faustus sits across the table from her with his food going cold in front of him, and has eyes for nothing else.
In the evenings the three of them sit together in the drawing room, Helen sewing and chattering nineteen to the dozen, Faustus answering her questions and making jokes to hear her laugh. Mephistopheles sits on a footstool in a shadowed corner and says nothing. It’s a pleasant change from the feverish stalking about he used to do. Now he doesn’t jump up to walk, or drum his fingers, or tap his feet. If his eyes weren’t open, staring at nothing, Faustus would think he was asleep.
Do devils sleep? He means to ask but keeps forgetting.
Sometimes Helen demands music. She pulls Faustus up to dance with her when the house spirits start to sing. She sways and laughs in his arms, her white feet tapping and twirling. Sitting in his library in the daytime Faustus can hear her upstairs. She’s constantly wandering from room to room, pacing, pacing, pacing.
One night Faustus catches Helen up to him, all her white and gold softness against him, her face buried in his shoulder, her fair head fitting perfectly into the curve of his palm, and he murmurs, “It’s like I’m holding an angel in my arms.”
Helen shudders against him. Faustus is encouraged. She’s sweet and bright and innocent but so poised. She seldom shows anything as simple as feminine vanity. “An angel, my darling,” he repeats. “You’re a—a being of light, barely human at all, if you could see yourself. You’re so beautiful, so golden. You shine.” She must be vain. She’s clinging to him. He puts a hand under her chin and tilts her little face up to kiss. Like always the kiss seems to set her on fire, turns her wanton and hot in his arms. She’s wilder than a whore and more magnificent than a goddess. It’s terribly exciting. He pushes her against the wall. Her chemise rips at the shoulder under his hands. She hooks one leg over his hip and rubs herself up against him in one smooth long lovely writhe. Faustus can hardly think for wanting her.
He knots his hands in her golden hair and gasps into her mouth. “Angel,” he whispers, “angel, angel, angel,” and Helen cries out in her passion.
They stumble to bed tripping over each other. Faustus can’t stop kissing her and kissing her as he bears her down into the pillows. My angel, he calls her, my celestial delight, my shining star—and it seems to him that there is light all around them, it seems as though she’s blazing. If heaven existed it would be like this. Helen digs her nails into the back of his neck in the height of it, and the sweet lines of pain cut through the pleasure and redouble it. Faustus is lost.
There’s a moment during it all when he looks down into Helen’s eyes and he thinks they’re black from side to side. But when he looks again they’re Helen’s blue eyes still, eyes a man could drown in. Faustus tells her he loves her as he falls into a doze. “Sleep, my Faustus,” Helen murmurs. Something huge and soft folds around him, like feathers, like wings.
It’s a dream, of course.
The room is full of shadows. Two spirits hover on either side of Faustus’ bed. They look almost exactly alike, one fair, one dark. The only light comes from the fair spirit’s figure. It’s a very gentle glow. She is talking to Helen, who lounges beside him with the blankets caught up around her body and a hand curled possessively over Faustus’ shoulder. The other spirit, the fair one’s dark double, is barely paying attention.
“He’s in love with her,” says the fair being. “He feels love for her, real love. There’s still something there—“
“He feels lust,” Helen says, and Faustus blinks in the dark and wonders how he got confused, because it’s not Helen at all, it’s Mephistopheles, with his voice that rumbles and snarls. Helen’s voice is a celestial chime like ringing bells. Since it’s a dream he doesn’t trouble himself wondering how Mephistopheles got into his bed. Dreams are odd. “He can’t love her. There’s nothing there to love. She’s a doll.”
“Not just a doll,” says the fair spirit.
“Fine, a puppet, with a puppetmaster. I do my work.”
“An angel,” she says. “You’ve made her an angel.”
“You were very inspiring,” says Mephistopheles, with a vicious, smirking twist in his voice. “Have I mentioned how much fun it is for all of us having you in this house to keep us company? All your delightful holier-than-thou posturing, we really appreciate it. It’s a tribute. I based his final whore on you.”
“Not on me,” says the angel softly. “You’re the one who puppets her.”
There’s a moment of heavy, furious quiet.
Finally Mephistopheles laughs, low and bitter, right by Faustus’ ear. “So I made her what I once was,” he says. “A beautiful beautiful lie. What’s your point?”
“Please,” says the angel. “For what you once were. He can still love, he’s still worth saving. If he could only hear me…”
“…he’d ignore you,” Mephistopheles says, and he lets go of Faustus’ shoulder, swings his legs over the edge of the bed and sits on the side. Faustus lies on his back looking straight up. He can see huge spiky shadows in the dark above his head. Wings, he thinks dreamily, pleased with himself for the deduction. They are the burnt and broken remains of a gigantic pair of wings. He can even smell, very faintly, the horrible acrid scent of scorched feathers. “Give it up. He’s mine.”
“Ours,” murmurs the silent angel, the dark one, without glancing up. “Our lord’s.”
“Ours, mine, he’s not yours. You’ll never win him back.”
“Don’t you pity him?” says the good angel.
“Pity?” says Mephistopheles, his voice rising. “Who pitied us? He’s a mortal. He’s a nothing. What has he done to deserve eternal bliss?”
“That’s not the—"
“Why should he have it when I can’t?”
There’s a moment’s silence, and then the angel holds out her hand and says, “Only repent, lord of Hell.”
“No one asked you to work overtime,” Mephistopheles snarls. “Don’t talk to me.”
Faustus is beginning to wonder if this is a dream at all. He says out loud, testing, “Helen?”
And immediately the two spirits vanish, and Mephistopheles with his spreading ruined wings, and the only people in the room are Faustus and Helen. It’s not actually dark. There’s a soft red glow coming from the coals in the fireplace. Helen rolls over in his arms, yawns and says, “John? What is it?” She has the loveliest smile.
“Only a dream,” says Faustus.
“What did you dream?”
“I thought a good angel was watching over me,” Faustus says. Helen watches him silently. “She was very pretty,” Faustus tells her. “Almost as lovely as you.”
“And?” says Helen after a while.
“And nothing,” Faustus says. “Just a dream. The worst part was I thought you were gone.” He hugs her close.
“I’ll never leave you,” Helen says. Her eyes look dark in the flickering light. “I’m yours.”