The Beautiful, Winged
P. Pennington Douros
IF WOMEN WERE sculptures, he could enjoy just sitting and watching this one be, her sensual curves a play of yearning, her essence of intrigue--a question. He liked sculptures, and poems and paintings. They were non-intimidating friends and seemed possessed of purer souls than the life that spirited his world. But she was not a sculpture. She appeared, rather, to be a ghost--a ghost of beauty, perhaps of truth and love.
* * *
Los Angles. The night of The Event. He sat in a half-lotus posture, his legs crossed, back erect, and eyes closed, on the gravel rooftop of his apartment building, meditating and preparing his being. The green fronds of palm trees and a cubist cityscape of buildings, everywhere and everywhere, surrounded his silent retreat.
Imprints of the city.
His eyes opened. The autumn night sky was lucid and black—waiting. A hazy blur of clouds encroached from the east.
The always hum of city traffic drifted from neighboring streets. An odor of boiling beef wafted from a Mexican tenant’s window, flavoring the air. Tostadas.
The soft whir of a motor. He looked up. A silver blimp floated across the dark void of the sky, magical and surreal, as in a scene from a 1950's science fiction movie depicting a vision of the future. In illuminated gold letters on the zeppelin’s shell were the words: Trompe l’oeil.
The name of a cologne. Trompe l’oeil, he reflected. The French term for an illusion that appears real or a reality that is an illusion. Perhaps all things are so, or perhaps not. How could one even know?
Eyes again closed. Sounds and scents vanished, his sizable mass gone floating in a clean space of reverberating grays, wonderful pacifying grays he nothing and no one ironically agreeable no harsh ridges and confining walls no complexities or urgent passions. Quiet. Floating. Floating.
Then. A dark shape intruded on the purity of his consciousness, on the absence, flying rapidly and erratically toward him. Black wings slashed his spirit space. A screeching caw as real as his mind. Cold gripped his muscles. The form smashed into him, a frenzy of shattering black. His eyes startled open.
He saw her, standing at the rooftop’s edge like a fluid, wind-dance shadow. Soft amber moonlight penetrated ghostly veils. Soft within, the form of a woman—tall, statuesque, soft. A contour of soft arcs and flows, soft arcs and flows, and apparently nude. Softly, ghostly nude.
The moment he saw her, he was captivated.
Her arms lifted from her sides evoking the form of a cross, her veils hanging like dark, prophetic wings. She stood motionless as in a challenge, or a tribute, to the engulfing dominion of the night, staring into its soul. Then she looked down to the streets below.
He tensed. To fly? Or to jump?
Confusion and fear whirled him. He stood and approached her, his strides cautiously soft across the rooftop’s stage, fearing to come too close lest he fatally impinge on her precarious balance.
He stopped. The specter lady turned.
His poet's mind awakened. Yes! Poet mind, now is the time. A verse surfaced, one he had penned fancying the delight of a simple man on first acqauinting his true love. Why?
In absolute defiance of his reticent nature, in one of the most diametric acts since he, with prophetic cry, was birthed into the world, he spoke the words aloud, to her.
"Vision, bond not to self, the sleep, too won. Awaken! See what spirit's this. Beauty. Love. Open deep and hold, space distance fold, and heart be."
The ghost lady looked into his eyes, entering deep and probing gently. "You're a poet," she spoke, her voice low and haunting, as if more of thought than words.
Who was she?
She was clothed in two layers, creating an eerie yet seductive duality. The exterior resembled the cloaks of a woman in mourning, long, loose, and solemn, but the fabric was gray and sheer, a shadow film falling as a spectral sheet from the top of her height to her feet. A separate piece covered her head and a veil obscured her face. Arms and legs eerily floated beneath their phantom shrouds. He imagined her shadowy, gloved hands greeting disembodied souls into their afterlife. "Come with me into eternity. Die to be born!"
She suddenly adjusted the veil over her face so it fell more evenly and pulled her black gloves a fraction of an inch higher over her forearms. The precision of her effort intrigued him.
"Perfect," she whispered. .
Through the garment’s partial transparency, penetrated by his captive vision, he saw an alluring woman, provocative as to challenge propriety, who appeared to be, but was not, naked. She was sheathed from shoulders to ankles in a flesh-hued leotard that created the baited illusion.
She appeared about twenty-seven years of age and evolved maturity; her body tall, about five-feet-eleven, strong yet soft, toned with discipline yet gentled by gracing curves. Her legs were perfectly sculpted as would complement any model.
The leotard’s top plunged into cleavage offering an enticing glimpse of the robust swells of a guiltless bosom, intolerant of confinement. A narcotic scent, musty yet sweet, as that of a beast in heat, lingered around her.
He inhaled a deep breath and trembled, frightened by the vision of this beguiling woman carrying a strange specter of death. Game, or not?
A peculiar, hushing breeze blew across the rooftop.
He feared to look closely at her face, but he did. It was framed by brunette hair cascading down beyond smooth shoulders. He leaned closer, attempting to defeat the veil’s obscuring. The woman eyed him curiously, grinned, and slowly lifted the veil.
She rewards my interest with a vision.
Her face. Of a rather common visage, yet, a quality. A beauty he could not define; he, a poet. A beauty trapped. Never defined. An aesthetic trap, he thought. "Be wary of aesthetic traps," he had once been told by a wise elder. "Odd words to tell a poet and an artist," he had responded but had never forgotten the advice.
Here was such a trap—even more precarious, an aesthetic trap that was a woman! Her flesh was subtly hued with a slight pale of vulnerability, her cheeks soft and her nose delicate, her lips petite crimson pillows.
Eyes. That defined. noun 1: An organ of vision. 2: That gateway to the soul. Never had he seen such immense and dark eyes. 3: May evoke the fear of looking into the mystery of life itself. Absurd! He looked. The mystery. 4: A magic that pierced a black emptiness, illuminating the world, his clandestine world, with a light. 5: A madness.
"Damn!" he mumbled. He took a step back and, for a pivotal moment, examined the entirety of the woman before him. She seemed a woman in mourning for the death of herself or the beautiful woman she had once been. She now carried the illusion of that woman with her, hidden beneath an apparitional veil, entombed in some secret fate. It was a perplexing and provocative sight, especially to be found on the rooftop of his generally intrigueless building.
The overall image she evoked was that of a woman inside the ghost of herself.
"You're a poet," she reiterated in her somber Dietrich-like voice, aborting his reflections. She smiled winsomely.
He stood mute, remembering the poetic lines he had just spoken, surprised that he had spoken at all.
His words dragged self-consciously like boulders through mud. He looked down at his shoes.
"And a shy poet at that. A master of words with few words." Her voice was now elevated to a height above the grave.
Was it her?
Then, Guy sensed it. He intuited that it was about to occur and pointed to the night sky above. "Look! I can sense it. The Event, it approaches."
"Ah yes!" She responded. "The entire Western Hemisphere waits. Perhaps the heralding of a new age. Perhaps the end of the world."
"It doesn't excite you?"
She shrugged. "Many things excite me. But let’s experience it and see." She looked up into the heavens.
He looked, silent, waiting.
A distant star, white and pristine, in the wondrous and terrible night heavens, went supernova. Exploded. A fiery sphere of orange and gold dispersed into a radiating luminance of blue-white. A brilliant, virgin sun appeared in the ebony sky, bringing a peculiar, surreal day to the night. Both spectators and the entire City of Angels were cast in a phantasmal blue, yet ironically warm, illumination. For a moment, the world glowed.
Scientists, having observed particular and revealing changes in the star’s topographic activity, had predicted it would supernova that evening.
Time suspended. The poet and the ghost woman stood enraptured on the rooftop, staring at the celestial phenomenon. There was no sound or motion.
It was one of his Moments.
He raised the Minolta camera hung over his shoulder. In that magical juncture of death and rebirth, of rare and consummate unearthly beauty, he took the woman’s picture.
The light spoke to him. "See! It is she."
The sun-star dimmed, its light ebbing into the black. Dark returned to the night. It had been the first time in thirty-two years, since the year of his birth, that such a celestial spectacle enthralled the eyes of the Western Hemisphere.
The ghost lady’s gaze remained fixed on the heavens. Then she turned and smiled.
"Wow! It was extraordinary!"
"Yes." He looked into her eyes.
She glanced down at the rooftop and then back up. Her shadow veils shivered in the breeze.
In a following moment of quiet, he suddenly felt an urge to look deep into the reborn night sky, the vastness beyond the cloak, above their tiny presences and the sprawling city and the whole of the world, and he did. Its space was immense and lonely, its minuscule stars exquisite. It was a clear and brisk night in the City of Angels. Angels. He felt its cold, and its light. Its all.
He spoke. "What . . . who are you?"
The ghost lady again looked down, as if saddened. With a faint, Mona Lisa smile, she slowly and enigmatically nodded her head.
Yes, a trap, he thought.
"You wish to hear my tale? After such celestial beauty and wonder, you wish to hear my tale?"
The night city became even more silent. The stars flashed a signal.
She knows my answer. "Ah, yeah."
The specter lady gazed into the air as one in search of a long-abandoned memory. He shuffled. He and the night.
"I am nothing, a void," she spoke. "A vacant space that can exist as nonexistence or be filled with any fanciful or terrible creation. I am the Minotaur and the unicorn. I am the Empress of the Universe, the vision of all beauty, a tarmac road, and a speck of dust. I am the curse and the inspiration, life and death."
"And I am a song, the plaintive song I sing. A voice in the air."
She sang, her voice resonant and haunting.
"Lover come, my port’s open to thee.
Rest now, and touch me sweet.
Die, and live anew in me.
Lover come, my port’s open to thee."
Suddenly he shivered; an unexpected sensation, as of dissolution. He scrambled inside, pressing boundaries back into place. Something is happening.
"And I am evil, a killer," she persisted. "Perhaps of a person, or an idea, or a dream." She perused her surroundings, appearing disconcerted. "Perhaps life, or this world. It may have been today or months ago, or centuries past. It may even be right now in this moment. That violation turned me into a ghost. Karma, the innate tendency of the universe to create balance. Or it was justice or amends. I became the ghostly form you see." She paused. "Or the form you don’t see since it’s a ghost. It’s also, of course, rather beautiful. And quite enigmatic." She nodded, twice. "Yes, it must be enigmatic, and yet nothing could be clearer. Do you understand, Mr. Poet Man?”
He shrugged. "Ah, maybe, or maybe not. But it probably doesn’t really matter, right?" He grinned. "You sound like a character in Alice in Wonderland."
She shrugged, then grinned, then removed a glove and offered her hand.
He accepted her hand and shook it gently, rejecting the common conviction that a man’s handshake should be firm and assertive. That was not how he felt. Her hand was soft and warm.
"I’m Anna, a performance artist and evolving actress."
Anna. "I see. That makes sense."
"I tend toward the fanciful, even the Shakespearean, in many things," she elaborated. "I believe I was born in the wrong century." She frowned resignedly.
"On no, definitely not!" He grinned, then twitched. "Why are you on the rooftop dressed like a sexy ghost? Is this a performance?"
"I wear personas. They are metaphorical costumes that express aspects of reality or life."
"You were so close to the edge. You weren’t thinking of jumping, were you?"
She answered without altering her now stoic expression.
"Actually, yes. I often think of suicide and death. To die, or not, is one of the most relevant of questions. But would I have jumped this night? No. I know because I’m still here. Although, with The Event, it might have been an exceptional night to die." She smiled, partially.
"You have a grim side."
"Yes. What is your name?"
"Hello, Guy. That’s a basic name. Have you a nickname?"
"Ah, no. Only Guy."
"Then, I do believe we should give you one."
The corner of her mouth cocked. “We are both artists, correct?”
"Then we must create. Let’s see.”
Her face became an absolute of intention, her eyes looking skyward as if beseeching the heavens for inspiration. "Heavens, speak!"
Guy thought she looked cute.
"You are a poet. You obviously have a degree of being. I can perceive it. How about Poetic Guy Being?"
Guy’s face illuminated. "I rather like that. Poetic Guy Being it shall be. Thank you."
"Well then, we must have a poetic name for you as well." Guy’s poet mind searched. "How about Anna, Spirit of the Shell?"
She cocked her head. "Close. Make it Spirit of the Persona."
"That’s good," he concurred. "Perhaps even better, Anna Spirit Persona."
She smiled, the warmest yet, which actually meant, but a little warm.
Becoming defined, he thought.
"Well, Poetic Guy Being, Anna Spirit Persona is most pleased to meet you."
She again extended her hand and they shook.
"I’m happy to meet you too. This is a day for spirits and goddesses." He did not know why he said that.
She peered at him curiously. "That’s an interesting remark. I rather like it, Poetic Guy Being." She glanced up at the amber moon. "The moon waits quietly. Time, that strange friend and foe. I must retire now. I have to work in the morning. I work at the Wanton Muse Bookstore. Bills to pay, you know. The real world is such an imposition."
"You don’t go to work dressed like that, do you?"
She glanced down at her gown. "Actually, yes. I like playing roles. It’s fun and . . . revealing. The bookstore’s kind of artsy and hip. The customers enjoy my personas. I believe they wonder, ‘what and who will that strange woman be today?’ It helps business, which, of course, pleases the management. I’m home free. Besides, the world’s mad anyway. No one gives a shit."
He tried to conceal a grin, but couldn’t. "Yes, I understand, and I think you are . . . a lovely and provocative sight."
"May I take another picture of you? My camera’s set for night shots." Guy raised the Minolta.
He stared. "Because I think you’re intriguing and attractive, and I would like to have some pictures of you from the first time we met."
"First time? You think there will be others?"
"Well." He shrugged and shuffled, and then straightened and fortified. "There may be, if we choose to create that."
Her lips hinted at a smile. "Good enough. You’re a photographer, too?"
"Of an amateur sort. I like to take pictures of the city and its people. Los Angeles and its peculiar angels. It makes the place feel more like home, and it creates at least the illusion of a family."
Anna brightened. "Yeah, I know what you mean. In spite of its masses, L.A. can be a lonely place. That urban irony. Feeling alone among millions."
For a moment that pushed beyond the momentary, they stood silent, looking at each other. A mellow concordance. Defined, Guy thought.
"Yes." She said. "You may take my picture."
Anna stepped back to provide his camera a complete view.
"To the left more." He placed her so the moon glowed above her. "The moon accents you graciously." You are as a painting.
She glanced up and agreed.
"You have the touch of an artist," she spoke sensitively. "An aesthetic sensibility at work. It gives more beauty to our world."
Then she partially lifted her arms in the gesture of a beckoning as if, ever so slightly, communicating: "Come to me."
An undertow. It excited and disturbed him. In the gentle wash of moonlight, Anna again looked erotic and commanding, and vulnerable, behind her protective veils. As he focused his camera, the image evolving from an abstract blur to the sharp reality of this splendid and intriguing woman before him, a vague foreboding haunted his enchantment, clenching at the hollows of his stomach.
He snapped the picture that he knew would be a prize in his collection—the woman, the ghost, the mystery.
"You’re welcome. I have to go now. It’s been nice. We’ll talk again. Bye."
She stepped away, her motions hesitant. "Bye, not bye," she whispered and then appeared confused, and then annoyed, and then not. She stopped and turned.
"Guy, tonight was an Event." She smiled, partially.
He nodded and smiled, partially. "What apartment are you in?"
A moment. "401. We’ll talk again, OK?"
"OK, Anna Spirit Persona. I’m in 504."
Again she smiled, but embracing.
"Goodnight, Poetic Guy Being. You seem a good, although odd, soul." She paused, hesitant. "I like good, odd souls."
Guy watched her walk across the rooftop. He noticed the night seemed more vivid and purer than it had before, more real. Colors intensified and the scent of nearby lawns and flowers smelled especially fragrant and pungent. Pigeons sweeping by overhead seemed . . . a poem.
Guy suddenly perceived that he was perceiving. He thought it wonderfully peculiar. He distinctly heard a dog bark three times and the bells of a distant ice cream truck playing a Scott Joplin ragtime jingle, unusual for that time of night.
Walking away, Anna’s eyes brushed across the night landscape that now appeared more alive and vital. Lights sparkled and sounds reverberated, all enhanced into a poetic mirage. She turned and sent him a final wave and smile.
Then she turned and grimaced. "No! No! Hell no," she spoke, hushed, her expression confused.
Guy felt encouraged by her wave. He watched her elegant and mysterious, real yet illusionary shadow form disappear into the darkness of the doorway. Then he watched longer, as if preserving her afterimage. Anna is an intriguing and beautiful woman and appears, also, to possess a good, although odd, soul. Guy liked good, odd souls.