A Cathedral of Myth and Bone – Kat Howard

He wrote me into a story again. I told him to stop doing that, aδer we broke up. In fact, it was one of the reasons that we broke up. I mean, being a muse is all well and good, until you actually become one. Τe εrst time it happened, I was ζattered. And it wasn’t like my normal life was so great that I was going to miss it, you know? So getting pulled into that world—a world he had written just for me, where I was the everything, the unattainable, the ideal—it was pretty powerful. When he εnished the story, and I came back to the real world, the εrst thing I did was screw him until my thighs ached. It was our first time together. He said it was the best sex of his life. When I asked him if someone had ever fallen into a story that he had written before, he said not that he knew of. Oh, sure, he had based characters on people he knew, stolen little bits of their lives. A gesture, a phrase, a particular color of eye or way of walking. The petty thievery all writers commit. I asked what he had done differently this time. “I was falling in love with you, I guess.

You were all I could think of. So when I wrote Marah, there you were in my head. Always.” I hadn’t fallen into the story right away, and I didn’t know what happened in the parts where Marah didn’t appear. Reading the finished draft was this weird mix of déjà vu and mystery. Apparently inspired by my real-world sexual abandon, the next thing he wrote me into was an erotic novella. Ali was a great deal more flexible than I was, both physically and in her gender preferences. I really enjoyed that story, but one night I tried something in bed that Ali thought was fun but that he thought was beyond kinky. After that, the only sex scenes he wrote me into involved oral sex. Men can be so predictable, even when they are literary geniuses. Maybe especially then. Τe next time he wrote me into something, I lost my job. It was a novel, what he was working on then, and when he was writing Nora, I would just disappear from my life as soon as he picked up his pen. For days, or even weeks, at a time, when the writing was going well. He said he didn’t know what happened to me during those times.

He would go to my apartment, check on things, water my plants. When he remembered. When he wasn’t so deep in the writing that nothing outside registered. I was always in his head during those times, he said, at the edges of his thoughts. As if that should reassure me. It happened faster. He would begin to write, and I would be in the story, and I would stay there until he was finished. Τe more I lived in his writing, the less I lived in the real world, and the less I remembered what it was like to live in the real world, as a real person, as me. When the writing was going well, I would be surrounded by the comfortable, warm feeling that someone else knew what was going on, was making all the decisions, was the safety net under the high wire. Everything was gauzy, soft focus, fuzzed at the periphery. I could have an adventure without worrying about the consequences. Aδer all, I was always at the edges of his thoughts. Until the day I wasn’t. Everything froze, and I was in a cold white room, full of statues of the people I had been talking to. I walked from person to person, attempting to start conversations, but nothing happened.

Walked around the room again, looking for a way out, but there was nothing. Solid white walls, ζoor, ceiling. It was a large room, but I could feel the pressure of the walls against my skin. I walked to the center of the room and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. Waiting. Have you ever had your mind go blank? Τat space between one thought and the next when your brain is just white noise, when there is not one thought in your head—do you remember that feeling? Imagine that absence extending forever. Τere’s no way of escaping it, because you don’t know—not don’t remember, don’t know—what you were thinking about before your brain blanked out, and so you don’t know what to do to get it started again. There’s just nothing. Silence. White. And there’s no time. No way of telling how long you sit in that vast, claustrophobic white room, becoming increasingly less. I never was able to εgure out how long I waited there. But suddenly I was in a room I had never seen before, back in the real world, and he was there. Τere were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and grey threading through his hair.

Writer’s block, he explained to me. He had tried to write through it, work on other projects, but nothing helped. Finally, that morning, he had abandoned the novel as unworkable. I asked if he had tried to bring me back, while he was stuck. He hadn’t really thought of it. That was when I broke up with him. He had, I discovered, become quite successful while I was away. A critical darling, praised especially for the complexity, the reality, of his female characters. Speaking of Marah in an interview, he described her as his one lost love. Τe interviewer found it romantic. I found the interviewer tiresome. Being lost was not romantic at all. Parts of me stayed lost, or got covered over by all those other women I had been for him. Sure, they were me, but they were his view of me, exaggerated, slightly shifted, truth told slant. I would turn up a song on the radio, then remember that it was Ali who liked punk.

I abandoned my favorite bakery for two weeks when I convinced myself that I had Fiona’s gluten allergy. For three months, I thought my name was Marah. During all of this, there were intervals of normalcy. But I still felt the tugs as he borrowed little pieces of me for his εctions. I would lose my favorite perfume, or the memory of the εrst time I had my heart broken. Tiny bits of myself that would slough away, painlessly. Sometimes they would return when he wrote, “The End.” More often, they did not. I reminded him that he had promised not to write about me anymore. He assured me he hadn’t meant to. It was just bits, here and there. He’d be more careful. And really, I ought to be flattered. But then a week of my life disappeared. I loved that short story, and Imogen was an amazing character, the kind of woman that I wished I was.

That wasn’t the point. Τe point was he had stolen me from myself again. I was just gone, and I didn’t know where I went. And there were more things about myself that I had forgotten. Was green really my favorite color? I ζicked on the computer, started typing madly. Everything I could remember about myself. But when I looked over the εle, there were gaps that I knew I had once remembered, and duplications of events. Panting, I stripped oΦ my clothing and stared at myself, hoping that my body was more real than my mind. But was that scar on my knee from falling oΦ my bike when I was twelve, or from a toosharp rock at the beach when I was seventeen? Was that really how I waved hello? Would I cry at a time like this? Anyone would, I supposed. I tried to rewrite myself. I scoured boxes of faded ζower petals and crumpled ticket stubs, paged obsessively through old yearbooks. Called friend after friend to play “Do you remember . ?” When I remembered enough to ask. To know who my friends were. It didn’t work.

Whatever giδ he had or curse that I was under that let him pull me into his stories, it was a magic too arcane for me to duplicate. And still, the gaps in my life increased. New changes happened. I woke one morning to εnd my hair was white. Not like an old woman’s, but the platinum white of a rock star or some elven queen. I didn’t dye it back. Τere was a collection published of his short εction. He appeared on “Best of” lists and was shortlisted for important literary prizes. I forgot if I took milk in my coffee. He called, asked to see me. Told me he still loved me, was haunted by memories of my skin, my voice, my scent. I missed, I thought, those things too. So I told him yes. It took him a moment to recognize me, he said, when I walked across the bar to meet him. Something was different.

I told him I didn’t know what that might be. He ordered for both of us. I let him. I was sure he knew what I liked. Τere was a story, he explained. He thought maybe the best thing he would ever write. He could feel the electricity of it crackle across his skin, feel the words that he would write pound and echo in his brain. He had an outline that I could look at, see what I thought. He slid a slim folder across the table. I wondered aloud why, this time, he would ask permission. Τis one was longer. An epic. He wasn’t sure how long it would take him to write it. And aδer what had happened the last time, when I had . Well.

He wanted to ask. I appreciated the gesture. I drummed my fingers across the top of the folder but did not open it. A waiter discreetly set a martini to the right of my plate. Funny. I had thought that it was Madeleine who drank martinis. But I sipped, and closed my eyes in pleasure at the sharpness of the alcohol. I said yes. To one more story, this masterpiece that I could see burning in his eyes. But I had a condition. Anything, he said. Whatever I needed. I wanted him to leave me in the story when he was finished. He told me he had wondered if I might ask for that. I was surprised he hadn’t known.

He nodded agreement, and that was settled. We talked idly through dinner. Occasionally his eyes would unfocus, and I could see the lines of plot being woven together behind them. I wondered what he would name me this time, almost asked, then realized it didn’t matter. Τen realized I wasn’t even sure what my own name was anymore. Grace, maybe? I thought that sounded right. Grace. He started scribbling on the cover of the folder while we were waiting for the check. I watched him write. “Rafe fell in love with her voice first, tumbled into it when she introduced herself as . ” The Saint of the Sidewalks Joan wrote her prayer with a half-used tube of Chanel Vamp that she had found discarded at the Τirty-Fourth Street subway stop. It glided across the cardboard—the ζip side of a Stoli box, torn and bent—and left her words in a glossy slick the color of dried blood: “I need a miracle.” You were supposed to be speciεc when asking the Saint of the Sidewalks for an intervention, but everything in her life was such a fucking disaster, Joan didn’t know where to start. So, she asked for a miracle, nonspecific variety. She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up.

Τen lit the required cigarette—stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a bar—with the almost-empty lighter she had εshed out of the trash. You couldn’t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. Τat was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint. Joan took a drag oΦ the cigarette, then coughed. She hadn’t smoked since her senior year of high school, and she’d mostly forgotten how. Τankfully, she didn’t actually have to smoke the whole thing. Cigarette burning, she walked three times around her prayer, then dropped the butt to the sidewalk and ground it out beneath her shoe. Then she waited to see if her prayer would be answered. Other people waited too, scattered along the sidewalk where the saint’s εrst miracle had occurred, with their altars of refuse and found objects, prayers graΪtied on walls or spelled out with the noodles from last night’s lo mein. Τe rising sunlight arrowed between the buildings and began to make its progress down sidewalks lined with prayers. Τis was how it worked: if the sun covered your prayer, illuminating it, the saint had heard you. Τere was no guarantee of an answer, but at least you would know you had been heard. For some people, that was enough.

If your prayer caught εre, if holy smoke curled up from its surface as the sun shone down on it, that was a sure sign you had been blessed. Heard and answered, and your intention would be granted. A miracle. If she just had a miracle, things would be better. Joan didn’t need to watch to follow the progression of the sun. Cries of disappointment and frustration were common. Gasps of joy and gratitude much rarer. Everyone had theories about how the saint chose to grant prayers. Some said it was whether she liked the altar or the things you used to make your prayer. Others said she could feel the need in your heart and mend your broken life that way. Joan hoped it was the latter, since it wasn’t like her hasty scrawl and εlthy cardboard were that impressive. Certainly not compared with what was next to her—a salvaged player piano, painted with neon daisies, tinkling through a double-time version of “Music Box Dancer.” Though really, Joan hoped the saint had better taste than to pick that one. She tapped the toes of her leδ foot on the sidewalk as she waited, just below the cigarette. Maybe it was bad form to be impatient about a prayer, but Joan didn’t care.

She just wanted to know. Plus, she really had to pee. Τe sun crept closer, the light crawling over her ancient Docs. It licked up her legs, over her chest, illuminated her hair, a brief halo. Τen paused, on the sidewalk again, inches from her prayer. Joan bit her lip hard. Come on, come on, come on, she chanted inside her head. Please. A drop of rain. Τen another and another. Τe sky greyed, then grew storm-dark. Τen opened, rain sheeting down. The worst of all possible signs. Soaked to the skin, Joan ran into a coΦee shop. She shouted her order as she passed the counter so she could use the FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY toilet.

Aδer she washed her hands, she rubbed the smeared mascara—waterproof, her ass—from beneath her eyes. Well then. No miracle. She would figure out something else. • • • Τe voices woke Joan the next morning. A crowd of people outside her apartment, congregating on the sidewalk, on the steps. She angled her head to better see out her sliver of window. Τere were the beginnings of altars, but these were made to honor some sort of saint she had never seen before—coΦee cups and lipstick cases, worn Docs and tights with holes. Τe hair on the back of her neck stood up. Joan checked her Book of Hours, but there were no saints scheduled to appear on her street today. It wasn’t a feast day either. She shruηed into a thriδ-store kimono, worn at the hem and wrists but its embroidered peonies still bright, and went down to see what the fuss was about, hoping she was wrong. Cries of “Our Lady of the Ashes!” and “Our Lady of the Lightning Strike!” greeted her as she opened the door. Τe people outside had smeared ashes on their faces, were waving scorched pieces of cardboard like holy relics. Most had painted their lips with dark lipstick.

Τe front line of them fell to their knees before her. “Oh, fuck no,” Joan said, and fled back into her apartment. • • • Joan hadn’t been online to do more than check her email in over a week. Nine days ago, she had discovered that her (now ex) boyfriend was cheating with her (now former) best friend, which would have been bad enough on its own, but Joan had still been drunk and angry enough the day aδer to punch the asshole who liked to grab her ass when they were in the elevator together. Except. Said elevator was at work, and said asshole was her (now former) boss. Joan had gotten fired. On reflection, it had not been her finest twenty-four hours. In the wake of all of that, she hadn’t wanted to scroll through social media feeds full of pity and snark, or pictures of the happy new couple—because, of course, the best friend and the boyfriend were in love—so she hadn’t looked at anything. She did now. She had run fast enough ahead of the storm that she hadn’t seen it happen, but lightning had struck the cardboard on which she had written her prayer. Had scorched it, but had not consumed it. Even stranger—although the cardboard had been prayer-side up, her words had been seared onto the sidewalk, still in the same shade of elegant goth Chanel lipstick she had scrawled them in. Nothing else had been touched. People were already calling it a miracle.

Apparently, every major department store in the city had sold out of Vamp, it was back-ordered online, and tubes were going for upward of $100 on eBay. Joan closed her laptop. “Τis is too weird,” she said. She looked out her window again. Τere were even more people out front. She shruηed into a hoodie and pulled the hood tightly over her hair. Τen she slunk out of the back of the building, holding her breath against the stench, and very carefully not looking at the spatters and smears as she passed the dumpster. Τings were even crazier on the street where she had made her oΦering yesterday. Her rejected oΦering. Because whatever this was that was happening, it was not how the Saint of the Sidewalks worked. No one had ever heard of her making a new saint before. Ash-smeared people wearing bloodred lipstick waved scorched pieces of cardboard. Some were calling out, “Saint Joan of the Lightning! Strike us!” Great. Not only did they know where she lived, but they knew her name. Joan pulled her hood tighter over her head and walked as fast as she could back to her building.


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Updated: 9 August 2021 — 16:20

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