9:4: “When the Light Left”, by Becca De La Rosa

9:4: “When the Light Left”, by Becca De La Rosa

Moths came and went in whispers, a steady stream of them, following the same path through our house as though someone had given them a map, blueprints, a detailed architectural analysis. They came with a job to do, though it seemed that they were kind. Their wings against my face were kind. “What are they looking for?” I asked Kyro.

We were listening to Kyro’s music while he made dinner. Kyro had walls full of records. They were here when I came to this house, they kept us company in the dark. We loved Kyro’s music so much that sometimes we couldn’t help it, we had to get up in the middle of the night to push down the needle on our old record player, so the music crackled up like fire. There was no fire. Midnight, Kyro and I danced in our elegant night-shirts over the living room carpet, silently, waking no one.

“Light,” Kyro said. “They’re looking for light. Someone must have told them we have some, and they want to find it.”

“But there’s no light,” I said.

“I know.” He spread fat in the pan so it spat up hard and hot. Kyro’s face is rarely clear, but when it is, the clearest thing is the constellation of Aquila the Eagle pockmarked in white scar tissue over his cheekbone. It makes him look firm, just, logical, wise, though he is none of those things, he is only careless with hot fat.

“Where did the light go?” I asked him in a whisper.

Kyro cooked the fat black. “O far-sighted Cassandra,” he said.

“I am not far-sighted Cassandra.”

“Then what is your name?”

I turned away from him. I could not bring myself to tell him that my name was gone, lost with the light. Kyro shouted my name once, very loud, and it slammed against the window and the window shattered and it flew out like a sightless bird and now I have no name. But I did not want to upset him. Kyro is mostly a considerate housemate.

For dinner we ate dumplings made of flour and fat. They stuck in our throats like tears, but were the only things we could cook, since the light left. The light took other, more important things with it when it disappeared: plants and flowers, creatures for slaughter and sacrifice, all the blood of the world.

“We could build a moth-trap,” Kyro said, slicing his dumpling neatly with a fork and knife. “We could build tripwires and slipknots and have the whole kitchen rigged in a day, and then we could use their wings to light our fires again, we could have fires. Wouldn’t you like that? To have light?”

I looked away from him, out at the walls of our house, which, being invisible, were irrelevant; the dark let us live in a cathedral, in a loop of night sky, buried within one another’s rib cages. “You can’t kill the moths,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because,” I said, and closed my eyes, and even with my eyes shut I saw the dull outline of Kyro’s pockmark scars. “Because the moths never hurt you,” I said. It was a lie. A long time ago, or very recently, a moth crept into Kyro’s mouth while he slept and Kyro would have died, if I hadn’t heard him choking. The moths knew more than Kyro gave them credit for. They knew exactly what they wanted.

“Why do you hate them?” I asked.

Kyro wiped grease from his mouth with a linen napkin, every movement calm and blank. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, without intonation. “I don’t hate them at all.”

After dinner we danced. We loved Kyro’s music so much that we couldn’t help dancing, and there were crop-circles in the living room carpet where our dancing footsteps lived. Now and again we danced backwards. Then we saw the rain fall up instead of down, and the fat splash back into the pan, and the clock went tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick.

Kyro danced on a moth. He cursed at it and we had to stop. It is very rude to stop in the middle of a dance, but we had been too long without light to care about etiquette. I went to the record player and put on Kyro’s record. It is a nameless record, a wheel of songs in a jointless wheel. The first song is called ‘Haidinger’s Brush’. Kyro once told me that if you play this song backwards you will hear the Styx and the Lethe and the Phlegathon and the Acheron and the Cocytus, the rush of that underworld water, though when I turned the record over all I heard was static.

The song played and played, but we didn’t feel like dancing anymore.

*

In the story, Aquila is the eagle who belonged to Zeus. One time Aquila carried beautiful Ganymede up to the top of Mount Olympus to pour Zeus’s wine. Zeus drank wine made from nectar, sunlight and pollen and the sweet drop inside the honeysuckle flower. Aquila ate the mud of the mountainside. The black mud.

Aquila was not a good bird. The days of his long life spread out like a banquet and Aquila snatched at their red meat. He ate the liver of Prometheus and Prometheus was reborn whole and Aquila ate his liver again, again and again, and it was tender and glossy as a newborn baby, richer than fat and flour, and in a different story Aquila was one of the cruel birds Hercules hunted, one of seven impossible tasks, and Hercules was a man who knew what he wanted.

If Kyro is Zeus, then I could be Ganymede. I’d climb up and down the stairs for him in my deep-green dress, and uncork his wine, and call him ho basileus. I would be the tallest wine glass for his honeysuckle wine. But I am not Ganymede and Kyro is not Zeus, and so I don’t know who we are.

*

Kyro followed me into my bedroom. He sat on the edge of my bed, and when he tried to kiss me the moths flew up into his face, beating their wings against him. Their great wings washed my face in air. They were heavy as sheet metal. “No, Kyro,” I said.
“Swift-spoken Cassandra–”

“My name is not swift-spoken Cassandra.”

Kyro pulled me onto the bed beside him. His touch was a downwards tug and my name was gone already, I was afraid to go down any further without a thread to guide me back, without anyone following. “No, Kyro,” I said again. “You have your own bed to sleep in.”

The moths did not like Kyro, but they loved me. They settled in my hair and on my collarbone, which was the perfect size for them to rest on, as though my shape was carved specifically to be a chair for moths. They rustled like dead flowers.

Kyro looked up at me, in distaste or in hunger. He shut the door on me, my moths, my room, but he left a smudge of mud on my skirt, a clutch of fingerprints, and now I was a crime scene dusted for evidence, now I belonged entirely to his presence. The moths came and licked up Kyro’s dirt with long light tongues. They peered at me, shyly. “Where do you come from?” I asked. The moths said someone had sent them. “Who has sent you?” I asked. The moths said I had known him once, a long time ago; we had been close as earth and roots, and he had too many names for them to possibly remember. “Try,” I ordered, but the moths are nervous when put on the spot. Instead they recited for me their own detailed lineages, all of which began with Far-Sighted Cassandra, Linear Cassandra, Cassandra Disregarded.

I spent the night fashioning bird feeders out of the lightbulbs we no longer used. If there were birds, they could come to swing on lightbulbs full of seeds or nuts or dried bread and they would be living decorations and our house would be the brightest house. There are no birds. The moths tried out the bird feeders, experimentally, but found them too grand and chilly. Downstairs, music played over and over. The second song on Kyro’s record is called ‘Aphrodite’s Fire’. It is the second saddest song in the world, and also the one with the best beat. When the light left I lay on the floor and listened to this song over and over and I thought I knew what it was like to be nothing, an infinite nothing. It was like this.

The moths and I slept finally. We were uneasy about sleep. Our dreams had grown dark, recently, and intricately plotted. But we had each other, the moths and I, and the moths sat in a military row on my collarbone, and we faced our dreams together.

*

There are many stars in the constellation Aquila, but only three with names. Their names are Altair, Alshain, Tarazed. Altair means the flying one. Alshain means falcon. Tarazed means punica granatum, it means far-sighted Cassandra, it means when the light left. In the long history of the sky these stars are children. They have lost their mother. She was carried across the river of the Milky Way, or swept off by a current, or she picked up her skirt and her dancing shoes and ran.

*

By morning the moths were gone. They knew the hours of the day, even the lightless hours. That morning Kyro came down to breakfast in his masquerade costume. “Take it off,” I said. “You’ll set fire to your feathers on the stove.” Kyro took off the costume. It sat beside us at the dining room table, watching me through the empty eyeholes over its beak. The record was stuck on the third song, the song that plays when you take your toaster into the bath, and it would be unwise of me to say its name. I lifted the needle to stop it skipping.

“Why are you wearing that dress,” Kyro asked, “dark-hearted Cassandra?”

I stood over him, and my hands in their gloves recalled his hands at my neck. “My name is not dark-hearted Cassandra,” I said quietly. “And you should not say it is. You should never say something like that. Why,” I said, “why would you say that?”
Kyro pressed himself back in his chair, and his eyes were big and black. “I thought-–”

“You didn’t think.”

Kyro ate his breakfast in silence, bent over his plate. For a moment I felt wild and savage and my hands knotted into fists and I dreamed of something nameless and terribly, unspeakably sweet, but then the song called ‘Prisoner’s Cinema’ played like a ballet and Kyro and I laughed and kissed and made up. He does not mean to hurt me, I said to the sightless walls. He is only confused. All this dark would confuse anyone.

A long time ago Kyro and I slept in the same bed at night and he guarded me in all the unsafe hours and our names were long and regal. I owned my skin and my epithets, and my lineage was a thousand thousand years long. Back then there was light for our windows and there was fire for our coal and I had a job to do. No dark ever trapped us like a winding tunnel back then.

After breakfast Kyro went into his room to work. He never told me what he was working on, but all day I heard him hammer and saw. I swept mud from the floor and the walls and the cupboards. My gloves moved quietly over soil. And deep, deep in the back of the cupboard, my gloves found something hard and round. I pulled it out and polished it on my dress. “It seems to be an onion,” I said, and although there was no one to hear me it did seem to be an onion, wrinkled and yellow, the shape of a heart instead of a circle. I said, “I believe onions to be very piquant, do you agree?” The moths flew from the darkness to my shoulder, and they agreed, despite their caution. “I am so hungry,” I whispered. I wrapped the onion in a piece of newspaper. I hid it in my skirt.

*

Aquila the Eagle was a dangerous bird. He was a broken-clawed bird, a golden-eyed bird, a dark-winged bird, a dark-hearted bird. Hercules, the immeasurable army of him, killed Aquila for a reason. Each story murders Aquila over and over. The eagle took only what he wanted and he was never cruel, he fought like a hunter. But some things need to be killed now and then, no matter their intentions. A cull for balance. That’s just the way the world works. When Aquila died the gods set him in the stars with Cygnus the Swan and Lyra the Vulture. They did not converse. Birds have their own detailed hierarchies. The gods ordered Aquila to pull the seasons in the grasp of his beak. Knotted in his fierce grip, the sky spins over the earth, and so it is Aquila who brings the dark, in the dark time of year.

*

We ate dinner in our evening finery: cravats, kid gloves, coattails, petticoats, jewelled dog collars and jesses. Our silver cutlery against the plates sounded like cruel wit. Kyro frowned down at his exquisite cufflinks. “You might have informed me,” he said, motioning to the rows of moths settled on my shoulders, “that we were to expect company.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a thoughtless mistake.”

“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Kyro.”

Kyro murmured something, and then he said a name, but it wasn’t my name, it was wild-eyed Cassandra. “That’s not my name,” I said. Kyro didn’t hear. He had tilted his head towards the living room, where the music still played on a terrible loop. There was a song on the record called ‘Crying the Neck’, and I believe this to be the song that halts oceans in their paths until they dry to shelves of rock and salt. I believed myself to be tired of the endless night and stasis and the dirt of Kyro’s fingerprints over my best dresses. “When I am queen we will listen to my music,” I told Kyro one night. He had smiled at me. “That’s why you will never be queen,” he said. A door slamming shut.

We danced. Kyro pressed his hands to the bend of my back and he said we needed no one but each other, we didn’t need anyone. He ate my bright liver over and over. I said, “When I’m queen –” but Kyro pushed me away. The expression on his face was natural disaster.

“You will never be queen,” he said.

The grandfather clock in the living room measured our dance steps like a metronome. Clocks lived everywhere in Kyro’s house, thousands of them, great sweeping halls of them, all the clocks in the world. He built them himself, from dust and particles, welding our discarded selves in his workshop so that they could come back, reformed, and keep our footsteps steady. I stepped out of the dance. Kyro gasped, shocked, but I walked to the grandfather clock and snatched the pendulum up in my fist. The pendulum had a round white face. Its two eyes, sad as orphans, blinked up at me slowly, and the down-turned mouth whispered a word that might have been my name. I tore the pendulum from the skeleton of the grandfather clock. Kyro watched me go.

In my room, I sat on the tilted bed. I smoothed my dress. “One must never leave a dance half-danced,” I told the moths, and they nodded their many jewelled heads, for they were well-acquainted with the conventions of the ballroom. “But there are more important things,” I said.

The pendulum’s pale shape fit in my hands like a heart, my own. It sighed and murmured. “Who are you?” I asked it. “Why are you keeping time for us in Kyro’s living room?”

It smiled at me, kindly, but did not speak. The moths pooled around the rim of its face, peering down into it as though they wanted to drink from its milky depths.

“How long have you been kept here?” I asked.

The pendulum said nothing.

“What is my name?” I whispered.

The pendulum opened its coin-round mouth. “Fennel,” it said.

I considered. I was not a serpent-eared Cassandra, nor a nut-hollow Cassandra, but nor was I a Fennel. “You are thinking of someone else,” I said politely.

The pendulum laughed, a tickle in the palm of my hand. “I did not mean you,” it said.

The moths nosed aside the skirts of my long evening dress, to where I had hidden the onion from the cupboard, fastened with twine around my thigh to hide it from Kyro. Up close, it did look like an onion, after all. “Do you think it’s poisonous?” I asked the moths. The moths had nothing to say to me, and I was hungry, I had left dinner unsatisfied, so I peeled the fennel bulb’s brown skin and ate it like an apple, delicious, liquorice-scented. The moths fluttered over my mouth to steal a taste. Their small sighs kissed my lips.

The door slammed against the wall, scattering plaster. Kyro slid into my room. He carried his wood saw in one hand, his hammer in the other, and his mouth was a vicious arc. “What have you done?” he demanded.

“Kyro?”

“What have you done, you storm-minded Cassandra?”

“My name is not storm-minded Cassandra.”

“What terrible thing have you done?” he shouted. His voice cracked into a shriek.

The moths sat in luminary rows on my wrists and my collarbone. Their gaze was inscrutable, a wall of nuance, slight and watchful; their breath spoke the many angles of my name, and I could almost hear it. Lying face-up on my bed, the pendulum hummed softly to itself.

“I ate the light,” I said.

Kyro dropped his hammer, but did not seem to realise. Light swarmed and rang inside of me. I opened my mouth, and it washed shape and colour over everything, turning the moths into stained-glass windows. The pendulum, murmuring nonsense words, opened its mouth and swallowed a mouthful of light. “Spring,” it said. “Summer. Autumn. Winter.”

I licked the last of the fennel’s juice from my fingers. “Your names?”

“Not mine. My name is Moon.”

Moon, the moths whispered. This was something I remembered, a curious word that belonged to my own vocabulary. “Moon,” I repeated.

Kyro reached for me. “We were together,” he said desperately, harshly, “all I wanted was for us to be together.”

“You don’t even know my name.”

“Please,” he breathed. His fingers hooked into talons.

The last song on Kyro’s record is called ‘The Staff of Hermes’. It is in a foreign language, and so is a mystery, like all the best songs; but upon reflection I believe it is a song about time’s return to a seasonless world, a song about fields and flowers, sacrifice and foresight, light cupped in the black bowls of fireplaces and light high over forests and oceans. It is a song meant for both day and night. A road outstretched. A linear kingdom for a returning queen.

I moved towards Kyro. Every pendulum in the house arched to me in longing, every hour hand, every minute hand, an ecstasy of time, and it was mine, it was my name. Kyro beat his wings against the door frame. The moths, bright as constellations, descended on his fallen feathers and devoured them. Kyro’s scream rose to the ceiling beams.

“Run,” I told him.


Becca De La Rosa lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is currently studying Ancient Greek at university. Her stories have been published in Strange Horizons, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Sybil’s Garage, and Clarkesworld, among other places. You can find her online at www.beccadelarosa.com. She says:

This story was inspired by a number of Greek myths and mythological characters, and by an article in a science magazine about time and the telling of time, and by living in a house that fills up with moths every summer, all summer long.



One Response to “9:4: “When the Light Left”, by Becca De La Rosa”

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