"Gods should be exempt from human passions." -Euripides, "The Bacchae" *** Eros arrived. He could already tell he had quite a mess on his hands. There were two of them, a man and a woman, both in love with the other, though neither knew it yet. Eros plucked the string on his bow over and over (an idle gesture that annoyed friends, but helped him concentrate) while the two humans slept and the red numbers of the clock glowed in the dark. Why did he always show up for the hard ones?
The pair were having fitful dreams about each other. He pushed the woman's hair back with the tip of a golden arrow.
She wasn't really pretty, but prettiness was overrated. What could her dreams tell him? "This one is…Mia," he said. "Hebrew for 'beloved.' A graduate student. She's married, but separated. Her husband moved to the East Coast last year. "They were going to divorce, but now they're talking about reconciling. She loves him, but doesn't think he's really changed and she's not sure what she wants. Five days ago, she met…" He turned to the man.
"…Andrew. Greek, meaning 'man.' Some kind of artist, I think, but not very good. He's been in love with a woman for two years and even bought an engagement ring, but then he lost his nerve.
That was four months ago, and now he's beginning to think they're not right for each other. "His girlfriend is out of town this week, and a few days ago he went out to a party he'd normally have skipped, not admitting to himself he was hoping to meet a woman.
He and Mia hit it off and spent the whole week together, but they didn't so much as kiss until last night, even though they both knew it was inevitable they'd end up in bed sooner or later. Tomorrow morning they'll have to deal with what they've done." He straightened up, adjusted his wings, and whistled. "Well, these two are in some serious shit now. Why don't you all come out and let's talk about it?" A decision had to be made.
It was Eros' job to make sure that people ended up with the right lovers. But it wasn't his job alone; everyone who was interested had a say. Four others came. First was Nu Wa, the ancient Chinese goddess who sculpted the first men and women from clay and taught them to be lovers. She was a marriage goddess, and Eros had never gotten along with her.
She called him a bad influence, which was an entirely fair characterization. Erzulie Fréda, a Voodoo spirit and notorious flirt, came next. She wore three weddings rings—one for each of her husbands—and in any love affair she invariably tried to steal the man for herself, although she was easily bored with such efforts.
She pretended not to pay attention to Andrew as he slept, which meant she was enamored with him already. It was impossible to predict how this would affect her decision.
Ishtar, ancient goddess of fertility and sex, came, taking the form of a beautiful woman with the talons and wings of a bird. She was the only god around whom even Eros felt downright insecure.
She shared his tastes for the illicit and the outrageous, but she was dangerous for him too, because she made no secret that she wanted him for herself, and considered it a favor to be repaid every time she sided with him on anything.
Just the sight of her gave Eros an erection that amounted to torture, but he never accepted her advances. Ishtar's love was always fatal, even to other gods. Besides, she reminded him of his mother. Last was Hathor, Egyptian goddess of love and family, appearing as a woman with the head of a calf, a cobra coiled around her brow like a diadem. Eros didn't know her very well, but she seemed like a soft-touch, easily swayed by a good argument, but just as easily bullied by a bad one.
She was big on family—she was somehow Ra's mother, daughter, and wife all at the same time, which didn't make any damn sense to him—and tended to favor people settling down. This annoyed Eros, though she was such a bleeding heart he had trouble holding anything against her.
The five love gods stood around the bed in the dark and untidy apartment while the two humans slept on, unaware that anything remarkable was about to happen. The gods would talk, and then they would vote on what was to be done, and Mia and Andrew would have to live with whatever the consequences were—not that they'd know the difference.
Eros cleared his throat and plucked his bowstring again. "All right, here we all are. And here's these two. What do we all think of them?" Nu Wa shifted her coils on the floor. She had the lower body of a beautiful snake and the upper body of a beautiful woman, which Eros found immensely appealing even if she was boring and bourgeois.
"Should these mortals stay with the lovers they've had for years and nurture the affairs into marriages that will sustain them for the rest of their lives?" she said.
"OR, should they walk away from tired affairs they never really cared about in favor of something invigorating and new with each other?" said Eros. He and Nu Wa glared at each other from opposite sides of the bed. No sense pretending to be civil: The battle lines were already drawn.
"Your friend the Wine God had a hand in this," Ishtar said, picking up an empty bottle from the dresser. "I still think about him whenever I see new grapes on the vine, too green to be plucked. Do you think he still thinks about me?" Her smile made Eros tense. He already knew she agreed with him, but she might pretend to side with Nu Wa to coerce him into something, and that would mean no end of trouble. But instead she said, "These two have already fucked, so what's the point of debating it?
They're never going to forget about each other now. What's done is done: You can't put rain back in the sky." "But if you wait long enough, it goes back on its own," said Hathor.
She looked at Nu Wa in a way that seemed deferential, and Eros knew he'd lost her before this even started. "They've still only known each other a little while. In time, this will seem a fleeting thing. But if they choose one another they'll break two other hearts, and then their own. Broken hearts last longer than fleeting regrets." "There are worse things to break than a heart," Eros said. "If these two forget each other, they'll regret it.
But all right, you two think they should play it safe, and Ish and I think they shouldn't. That means…" They realized Erzulie was the only one who hadn't spoken, and each of them groaned. There was an unspoken rule never to let her get into the position of tiebreaker, or else she would milk it all night. She sat with Andrew's head pillowed in her lap, stroking his hair and making cooing noises. "Have you ever seen anything like him? Such scrumptious dreams," she said, sighing.
"He's sensitive: the heart of a poet. He's going to feel so tragically guilty about all of this in the morning. Do you think either of his women are good enough for him, really?" Ishtar rolled her eyes. "Maybe we should be finding someone else for him," Erzulie said. "Someone as beautiful and noble as he is. I'll look after him in the meantime. I'm sure that with a little of the right attention—" Ishtar jumped in.
"If she's going to do this all night then I'll switch sides just to shut her up." Erzulie's eyes lit up and soon all of the gods were shouting (except for Hathor, who quietly pleaded for order). Eros pinched his brow. Sometimes he hated this job. Things had been so much easier in the old days. Stupid melting pot. Eventually, he and Nu Wa managed to get the meeting back in hand between the two of them, though in the meantime Erzulie had suggested three different curses she planned to lay on Ishtar the next time her back was turned, and Nu Wa had accused Eros of "wearing a green hat." (She obviously meant this as an insult, but evidently it lost something in the translation.) The argument had at least gotten Erzulie off the stage.
She'd still be the tiebreaker, and it was still anyone's guess which way she'd jump, but at least she wouldn't go on all night. Nu Wa settled her coils on the floor again. "We've talked long enough. We all have other work to do. Are we at a decision?" "I sure am," said Eros. "Me too," said Ishtar, already bored. Hathor nodded. Erzulie pouted. In a minute they'd vote, and whichever way it went would change a handful of human lives forever.
Eros looked at the couple, still fast asleep in each other's arms. Well kids, I'll give it my best shot, he thought. Although to be honest, my best shot isn't what it used to be. *** Sunlight woke Andrew, and when he rolled over Charlotte threw an arm across his naked chest and curled up against his side.
It was a good morning for sleeping in. A good morning for— Wait. That wasn't Charlotte. Charlotte was still at that conference in Nevada. And this didn't look like her place. Or his. That meant… "Oh shit." Mia stirred but didn't wake.
That's right, they'd stopped for a drink at that new wine bar downtown. They had such a good time they'd gone in together on a bottle, and then she invited him back to help her drink it. And then… "Oh shit," he said again.
He looked at Mir again. In her sleep, she had hugged the covers around herself, like a puffy cocoon, but one round shoulder was still visible. Her complexion was so pale that her white skin seemed luminous. Last night, in the near-dark, she'd practically glowed. Now the morning sun painted her gold, and his cock stirred to attention for, but he shut that valve as tightly as he could. He was already in enough trouble. Andrew got up and found his pants.
He discovered he'd turned his phone off at some point, which would look suspicious if Charlotte had tried to call him. He held his breath, expecting a barrage of late night texts and voicemails, but there was nothing.
That was a relief, at least. But today was Wednesday, which meant Charlotte's flight was due back this afternoon. (It also meant he'd slept through his first two classes, but that seemed such a petty problem that it barely counted.) How was he ever going to look her in the face?
How was he even going to look at himself in the mirror? Wait a minute, the mirror… He ran to the mirror on the closet door, checking himself front and back. All clear: No bites, no scratches, no hickies. Thank God. Then he spotted Mia's eyes peeping over the covers. She must have seen his routine. He expected her to laugh at him, but she didn't. He crossed his arms over his naked chest. She flopped over on the bed. "Well," she said.
"It really happened." "Yeah." She got up and pressed herself against him. It was an odd feeling, sharing a shame only they two had. It made him feel even closer to her, which of course didn't help anything one damn bit. "I actually don't feel that guilty," she said. "Is that awful?" "No. I mean, why should you feel bad?
You didn't cheat on anybody." "Ian." "You're not really together. Doesn't count." "Hey! Who are you to tell me my infidelity doesn't count?" She punched him in the arm. "I'll feel bad if I want to." "Except you don't." "But I could.
Just as bad as you." "Okay." A pause. "She's coming back today." "I remember." "So…" She shushed him. "I won't get in the way. You won't hear from me." "It's not like that." "Yes it is. And that's fine. I knew what I was getting into." "We can still be friends." She gave him a look that said, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn't fooling anyone, then kissed him on the cheek.
After a second, she kissed him again, on the lips. A few seconds later they were still kissing and then, haltingly, stumbling back to the bed, slowed by the increasingly frantic touches of each other's lips. They landed in a heap and curled around each other. She was still naked; he had only his pants on, which they lost in a hurry.
The morning sun had heated the sheets to a crisp, inviting coziness. This is a terrible idea, Andrew thought. Last night was bad enough, but now we're not even drunk. Charlotte's plane touches down in five hours. I'm late for everything, and if we don't stop now— Mia broke off.
"Do you want to stop?" "God no." "Me neither." They dove back into each other. This is wrong, Andrew thought. This is really, really wrong.
But I don't care. Andrew pressed Mia's wrists into the headboard while she squirmed, then buried his face against her neck, kissing and nibbling until she squealed to stop, stop, stop. He kissed her, then retreated, kissed her again and retreated again, making her strain after him until finally giving in and laying a long, slow kiss on her, with the tip of his tongue tickling hers.
Even first thing in the morning she smelled and tasted clean and natural.
Charlotte always smelled like one thing or another: perfumes, soaps, incense. Mia smelled like Mia. Her skin was hot under his lips. She rolled him over and climbed on top, using the headboard for leverage to keep him down.
He rolled her tiny breasts against his palms, the memory of doing the same thing last night bobbing to the surface. Harder, she'd told him then, so he did it harder now. He was afraid her pale skin would bruise, but she turned out to be more resilient than he'd have guessed. (Or maybe I'm just not that strong he thought, suddenly sheepish.) Her dark nipples stood out. She raked her nails down his chest but was juuust careful enough not to leave any telltale marks.
Her ass ground in a circle on his lap while his erection throbbed.
Life would be easier if we just let downstairs make all the decisions, he thought: no guilt, no regret, no hesitation. "Slowly, slowly, slowly," she told him, although she was the one deciding how fast they went, lowering herself down on him a little bit a time.
She was amazingly wet. The cool, cloying sensation made the tip of him tingle as they slid together. When she was all the way down she squeezed him between her legs, trying to keep him perfectly still while she moved, first around and around, then up and down, bouncing once or twice to get a feel for it. She was tighter and smoother than he was used to. She rode him with her eyes closed and mouth parted in an O, talking in such a low voice that it sounded like a hum without words.
Andrew's fingers bunched the sheets into knots. Behind her eyelids, Mia's eyes rolled back. The air trapped between them caught fire. "From behind," Mia said, turning and gripping the foot of the bed. Andrew rose (somewhat clumsily) to his knees, grabbing her ass and pushing against it, letting the length of him slide between her cheeks before going lower and pushing in again. She buried her face in the mattress. Andrew's eyes and fingertips took in her curves and lines, trying to memorize every inch.
This is it, he thought. There won't ever be another time. I have to remember everything now. Even with that in mind he still couldn't quite put everything he had into it. Guilt, and an irrational sense of being exposed, made him hold back.
She responded by grinding into him harder. "More," she said. He reached under, groping her breasts again. Perspiration glistened on her back, like diamonds against her skin.
The rush of blood in his ears shut out every other sound (including, mercifully, his own thoughts). Mia was gushing wetter around him and the sensation triggered a surge at the base of his cock that swiftly ran up the length and then spilled over, onto and into her.
The strangled elation of the moment grabbed hold of him and didn't let go until both of them fell over, burying themselves in the bedding so that it muffled their cries. He reminded himself to breathe, as normal life and normal thinking swam back into focus. We really should not have done that, he thought. And then: But I'd do it again.
Their fingers laced together. The pulse in her wrist was still going. He felt his heart break, but he stamped it down. None of that, he told himself. This is hard enough as it is.
*** Eros was unhappy. This wasn't like him. Disappointments, when they came, were always fleeting things, and then he was on to the next prospect. It wasn't in his nature to dwell, but this latest bit of business came with a particular sting.
It was Thursday night, and he fluttered around eavesdropping on Andrew with Charlotte, the woman who, thanks to Nu Wa, would soon be Andrew's wife. (He still hadn't given her the ring, but he would eventually.) They were having a romantic dinner for two at her place (sushi from Tekka) while she alternated between news about her business trip and assuring him how glad she was to be back with him. "I think we have a future in that market, I really do," she said.
"Uh huh," said Andrew. "Tim still isn't convinced, but you know how he is: scared of his own shadow half the time." "Uh huh." "But he'll come around. Growth attracts growth, am I right?" Eros looked into her dreams. Charlotte: French for "woman." Older than Andrew by four years.
They met at the wedding of a mutual friend Andrew barely knew, seated together because he'd arrived without a date and her own had cancelled (appendicitis). At the reception, after too many drinks, she'd taken him to the gazebo for a little hot and heavy time, and from then on they were an item. She liked his photography aspirations (even though he wasn't very good).
A boyfriend who was some kind of artist made her feel more interesting. And he was low maintenance, there when she needed but easy to do without when she needed time to herself and her career (social media for commercial real estate companies). She was happy. Andrew was happy (or at least, happy enough). Everyone was happy, except for Eros.
It made him miserable. "What about you?" Charlotte said, "what did you do while I was gone?" Andrew didn't even flinch.
"The usual stuff: class, work, shot a little. Mostly just hung out." Inside, tiny barbs of guilt stabbed him over and over, but he ignored them. "Poor thing: You must have been lonely." She fed him slices of sashimi with her fingers.
She was a soft, curvy woman, someone who enjoyed soft and pampering things. Andrew could be one of those things: An accommodating accoutrement to make life better.
It would be an easy love for them both. They'd never fight, rarely disagree, and always say flighty, pleasant things to each other. They'd stay as happy as they are now, Eros was sure. But they'd never be anything more. Andrew would go his whole life letting someone else take the lead for him. Charlotte would think about herself more and more, because no one would be around to challenge her.
In a few years Andrew's one and only infidelity would become a faded memory of a person he no longer recognized as himself, and that would be that. The two finished the sushi and started to get cozy. Eros left. On the other side of the city, Mia was alone at a table in the library, face lit by the white-gray wash of a computer. The screen was full of numbers and letters—chemistry, Eros thought, although he wasn't sure. He studied chemistry of a different sort. Now and then she'd click over to another window, where she exchanged messages with her husband, Ian, in short, tentative phrases that were laden with vulnerability.
Ian: Gaelic for "gift." They'd met as teenagers but became lovers later, mostly to satisfy their sense of curiosity about each other. The marriage had been an impulse, and fallen apart when she learned he was having affairs, which she took as permission to have some of her own.
They soon blamed each other for their mutual unhappiness and parted. Ian hadn't changed—in fact, half the reason he was trying to renew things with Mia was for an excuse to leave the woman in Boston he was sleeping with now. In a week or two, Eros was sure he'd propose coming back to California, Mia would accept, they'd make a big show of reconciliation and be happy for a few months, and then go right back to two-timing each other.
But they wouldn't bother separating again, instead just going back and forth between betrayals and reconciliations for years, and then for decades. In their way, they'd still love each other, and maybe even feel closer for all the hurt they caused, because they'd understand one another in a way no one else could.
But they'd never learn anything. Mia would care less and less about herself and more and more about her work, using her oddball marriage as a crutch to pretend she wasn't neglecting that part of her life.
Ian would chase progressively younger women, and get into more and more trouble because nobody would respect him enough to intervene. Eventually Mia would forget about that one, shy guy she met years ago, who had briefly made her want real affection again but whom she'd never called because she didn't want to hurt him with all her baggage… "Unless you call him now," Eros whispered in her ear.
"Right now. If you call, he'll answer. He's not brave enough to call on his own, but if you call first he'll definitely pick up." Mia's hand drifted toward her phone, but stopped. Eros, arrow in hand, whispered in her other ear. "There's no harm in a friendly call. Say you're just checking up on him. Ask if he wants to have coffee on Friday.
Tell him to tell Charlotte he'll be home a little late because he's meeting a friend, and that way he won't feel like he's keeping secrets from her. Come on, you want to do it. If you don't call then you'll just keep thinking about him…" Mia left the library, dialing the number before she was even fully out the door.
The night fog had rolled in. She got an answer after two and a half rings. "It's me," she said. "Is it okay to talk now? Good. I just wanted to check on you. I was worried about, you know. Everything's fine? Good, that's good. How is…? Good. Look, I…" "'I have a little extra time after class tomorrow,'" Eros said in her ear. "I have a little extra time after class tomorrow. Do you want to get coffee? Just to talk. Charlotte? Well, tell her you'll be late because you're meeting a friend.
That way it's not sneaking around. Yeah, sounds good. Six o'clock? See you then." She hung up. Eros slung his bow over his shoulder. He shouldn't be doing this, of course. The assembled gods had rendered their judgment, and he lost. He should move on to other things. But Nu Wa and the others were all busy elsewhere, and not likely to notice him doubling back. Humans cheat all the time, Eros reasoned. Why should they get to have all the fun? *** The café was one Andrew had never been to, a combination wine bar and coffee house, which didn't really make sense to him.
Mia sat at the table nearest the door, the first thing he saw when he came in. When she stood up he had a dilemma: What was the proper greeting?
Hug? Handshake? Vague wave? She settled it by giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. He ordered a latte. He actually hated coffee, but felt like he should order something. Mia was drinking tea and he immediately wished he'd thought of that. At first neither of them knew what to say. She broke the ice with: "I've missed you. I know it's only been two days. Is that weird?" "No. I mean, probably. But I missed you too." "So we're weird, then." "Yes." "How is…I already asked that, you said she's fine.
If you're going to ask about Ian, he's fine too." "I wasn't really going to ask." "That's okay, he's not really fine." Andrew held his drink with both hands, feeling the heat on his palms. "I'm glad you called," he said. "But I'm not sure what we're doing." "Can we be friends? I know there's a whole thing, but can we ignore that?" "I guess, yeah. I mean, don't really have a lot of friends. I have a relationship, and that's about it." "I don't even have that." "Friends is not really what you want, is it?" "No, but I'll take it.
I don't want to cause trouble. I was going to butt out of your life completely after this week, but…I don't know. Something made me change my mind." "I tried to get you off my mind but I couldn't." "Maybe it's just not meant to be?" "Or not not meant to be. How do we decide?" "First we have to be less ambiguous." "Ambiguity is our friend right now.
If things got more definite, I'd have to leave." At the next table, the server opened a wine bottle with a distinct POP. They both jumped a little. "Good point," said Mia. "Forget specifics. In fact, forget that we're even here. Or that we know each other? Who are you, strange man sitting at my table?" "I forget. Names are too specific anyway. Unseen, Eros sat the next table, fiddling with his bowstring. He couldn't help but smile. Their little human idiosyncrasies were stupid, but he enjoyed them anyway.
He was a sucker like that. Neither of them believed this "just friends" business for a second, but since when was it a crime to lie to yourself?
He could just keep arranging innocent get togethers for the two of them, and sooner or later, of their own accord— "EROS!" He jumped.
His bowstring snapped. "Shit," he said. It took him a moment to recognize the woman shouting at him: Hathor. Today she looked like a normal woman, sans calf head. It was a good look for her, although he'd have preferred to see it without the expression of scandalized fury.
She practically hauled him up by his ear. "So this is where you've been. Why are you meddling with these two?" "Meddling is my job." "But you know the rules." He shrugged out of her grip, sat down again, and began restringing his bow. "Hell with rules. Democracy is a pain in the ass. Who came up with that, anyway?" "The Greeks." "Still a pain in the ass. Are you going to rat me out?" Hathor opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, then closed it again. Eros flexed his wings.
"All right then. Want a drink?" he said. "Just because I'm not going to tell on you doesn't mean you're not in trouble. You have to stop this. You'll wreck both their destinies if you keep leading them around by the nose." "Would that be so bad?" Eros said. "Look at them: You see how natural and lively he is when he talks with her? You see how thoughtful and affectionate she becomes when she's with him?" Hathor looked doubtful.
"Well, all right. But at least MORE lively.
MORE affectionate. It's a relative thing. They'll grow into it. Tell me they're not good for each other." Hathor considered the couple. They were still talking and teasing. They did look happy.
"But they've got no future," she said. "This won't last forever for them." "Who needs forever? Why do we always have to be setting people up for forevers?
Why can't we just give them something good here and now?
Isn't that just as important?" He could tell by the look on her face she was going to get mad again, so he put up his hands and grinned.
"Okay, okay, you're right: Who am I to tamper with the fate we all decided on? I apologize. I let myself get carried away. I'll drop it." "…what are you up to?" "You don't trust me? Do you want an oath? Fine: I swear on Tartarus' gate I will not put the two of them into bed ever again. That should satisfy you." "It does," Hathor said, though she sounded doubtful. In this light, and in her less bovine aspect, she reminded Eros a bit of his mother.
Why was he always thinking that when it came to women? "I just hope you know what's good for you," she said. "Nu Wa is a powerful goddess, and she's not the only one who has it in for you.
Don't go gift wrapping trouble." "I didn't know you cared." "Me neither. As long as I found you, I could use some help. Tlazolteotl is back in town, and you can imagine the trouble it's causing.
Even Ishtar says she's out of control. Everyone else agrees that the best thing to do…" Eros nodded along, but he wasn't paying attention.
Mia and Andrew were still talking, but he'd stopped paying attention to them either. All he was thinking about now was the thing sitting on the next table. It was nothing special—garbage, really. But as soon as he saw it, he knew it was the answer to all of his problems. It was a wine cork. *** The vineyard of the Wine God isn't hard to find (although finding your way out is another matter altogether). The place hadn't changed since the last time Eros was here: green fields, shade, dancing women dressed in fawn skins.
It wasn't like an earthly vineyard, with plants in straight rows. Constantly inebriated satyrs lolled and sang drunken ballads on the far hills. The realm of the Wine God was a wilderness, thick with overgrowth, and Eros hurried through it.
There wasn't much in the world he was afraid of, but he knew what was good for him. Dionysus himself was tending some of the vines in a far corner of the place when Eros found him.
A lion slept nearby, and the Wine God stopped his effortless labors only long enough to pet the creature now and then.
He nodded at Eros, as if he were expected. "Cousin. Should I order a revel in your honor? No, I see you're here for business. You didn't used to be so studious." "My work is making lovers, and lovers make children, and children grow up to be more lovers. The more I do, the more I have to do later. It's the way of the world." He set down his bow and arrows on a soft spot. The music of the wine press put him at ease, although he knew it was dangerous to relax in this place.
"I was hoping you could help me with something," he said. A woman brought him wine in a bowl. "I've got a problem: Two lovers. I lost the judgment, but I've decided I'm going to go over everyone's heads on this one." "Why?" "Because I damn well want to.
Isn't that a good enough reason?" "It always has been for me." Dionysus sat and took wine for himself. The lion moved to his feet and purred as he stroked her head. "I can't do it alone: Too many big names in the way. But you could do it." "It's true: I fear no love god, great or small, nor any coalition of them. But lovers are your business. Why should I bother?" Eros considered Dionysus. His divine cousin looked like a beautiful, baby-faced youth, wearing nothing but a crown of ivy, the degree of man still working the taste of his mother's tit out of his mouth.
If you didn't know better, you'd think he was a pushover. Eros knew better. All gods abided by certain rules, except for the Wine God. He was the god of reveling and divine ecstasy, and no one could bind him.
That made him dangerous, because he was a god who would do absolutely anything. Eros chose his words carefully. "First, because you had a small hand getting this couple together to begin with. Second, because I'm asking you, as a favor between cousins and old friends. Third, because you're like me: a rule breaker. Too many stuffed shirts are getting their way these days.
It's time to cut them down to size, and you're the man to do it. What do you say?" Dionysus kept his eyes on Eros while he gave his bowl to the woman in the fawn skin to refill. (When his fingers touched hers she cried out, as if in pain.) He drank the entire thing in one go and when he came back up his smile was so bright he nearly glowed.
"All right, I'll do it" he said. "But for this to work I need to be in a place of power, somewhere in the human realm." "A temple? There aren't any temples to gods of our sorts these days." The Wine God smiled. "Aren't there?" *** It was a big stage, outdoors, in the eucalyptus grove, and the audience sat on stone benches on the hillside.
This was a play of mostly student actors, so the crowd would be a few hundred at best. Still, they seemed enthusiastic. The sun was going down and the stage lights were coming up and the opening night audience buzzed. There was something in the air. Andrew cradled the camera around his neck.
It felt heavier than it ought to. He'd wanted to bring one of the old non-digital jobs, but he needed to be able to shoot in low light without a distracting flash, so he brought the Nikon Charlotte got him last Christmas. He'd invited her, but she was working late—or was it dinner with clients late? Something non-negotiable, apparently. "Have fun without me," she said. It was an easy job: Just a few photos of the performance, a favor that paid. No pressure at all. So why did he feel nervous?
Taking a few test shots of the crowd, he noticed everyone else seemed keyed-up too. Everyone was drinking the wine. He took a careful sip from a plastic cop of Resnia and nearly choked: It was so strong it all but popped on his tongue.
What was in this stuff? But once it settled, the wine made him more relaxed than he'd ever been in his life. A thousand pounds of stress eased off his shoulders. He had a few more drinks. That was more like it. Even his shots seemed to come into focus easier now.
He felt a touch on his elbow. In the dim twilight it took half a second to recognize Mia peeking at him from over the brim of a cup just like his. "Hey stranger," she said. Andrew almost swallowed his tongue. "Hi. Wow. Hi. You look nice." "Thanks. You look the same as always." "What are you doing here?" "My cousin had a ticket, but she came down sick.
Actually, I think she's just hung over. She offered it to me and, well, I'm not usually into theater, but for some reason I wanted to go. Sit next to me?" "I shouldn't." "Oh, is Charlotte here?" "No, I just have to get in position.
To shoot the stage. My cousin is in the play. She wants photos." "Shame." The conversation floundered for a second. He strained for something to say. "Do you know what this play is about? I have no idea," "I cheated and looked it up before. Let's see…" Mia thumbed through the program and, in spite of his objection a second ago, he sat next to her, leaning over her shoulder to follow along.
"The Bacchae. It's about 2,400 years old, so there's that. It's about Dionysus—he's the god of wine. Also the god of the theater." "Why both?" "No idea.
But the play's about him. He comes back to Greece after being gone a while, and drives all the women insane." "Why?" "So they'll worship him. It's what he does. Mostly it's just a big party. All the women go out into the forests to dance and sing and run around half-naked. Nice work if you can get it.
But the king gets angry, because the women in the royal family are out there too, plus he doesn't believe Dionysus is a real god." "Then what happens?" "Let me think: Dionysus disguises himself as human and meets the king, and gets the king riled up, and then he gets him killed. All the women tear him apart.
Messy. "Dionysus sounds like an asshole." "Pretty much. But that's the way things were: Gods got angry. If people got in their way, so much for them." "Why would people worship gods who were pricks?" "The world was a hard place. Maybe gods who were pricks made sense." Eros floated over the amphitheater.
So far, so good: It was a beautiful night in the park, both his turtledoves were here, and no competing divinities had come to spoil the fun.
Now to check on the Wine God. He found his cousin behind the stage, surrounded by a dozen young women in costumes that made them look very much like the women in his vineyard. None of them could see him. "Hello, Eros," he said.
"Everything is ready." "Good. Glad to hear it. Super. …you're not planning anything crazy, are you?" Dionysus looked at him. "I'm just curious. I appreciate you getting my back on all this. I'm just—" "Everything will be satisfactory.
Enjoy the show and let me take care of it." "Gotcha. Do your thing, man. Don't mind me." He fluttered away. Opening night jitters were pandemic. Five minutes until curtain and everything was in place, but the stage manager was waiting to see what would go wrong. There was always something to go wrong on an opening night.
When an antsy looking stagehand approached him, he felt a sense of relief. No problem was ever worse than the wait leading up to it. "Beau can't go on," said the stagehand. Almost no problem. "Can we do it without him?" the stagehand continued. "He's the lead. The first 70 lines are his. This is opening night. No, I don't think we can do it without him. What's the problem, exactly?" "It's better if I show you." Beau was in the equipment van, seemingly inert.
At first the stage manager was worried he might be dead, but then he belched in his sleep and rolled over. The smell coming off him was like a wino's gym bag. "Jesus, he's drunk." "You don't know the half of it." "I never really understood the phrase 'stinking drunk' until now," said the stage manager.
He was too amazed to even really be mad. "What the hell were you guys drinking?" "Just wine. Half a glass, I swear. It's the same stuff we're serving to everyone. Everyone drank it, and we're all fine, but Beau…well, just look at him." Beau was chewing one of his sandals in his sleep, like a dog gnawing a bone.
The stage manager took it away. "All right, alert the understudy." "Understudy?" "Surely we have one?" He flipped through his notes. They must have assigned it? They couldn't possibly not— "Excuse me," said a voice from behind them.
"I'm the one you're looking for." The stage manager didn't recognize the man: He was a babyish, fair-haired kid, almost too young looking to be working here at all. But there was something about his eyes, or maybe his voice.
He was already wearing the costume, though, and he looked good in it. "You know the part?" said the stage manager. "Better than anyone." "Okay, you're Dionysus. We've got donors in the crowd, so break a leg." "What a charming suggestion." The orchestra finished tuning.
The audience hushed. Andrew took his position, camera ready. Mia sat in one of the rear rows, splitting her attention between the stage and him. Eros hovered nearby, unseen. He was nervous. He wasn't used to being nervous, and that made him even more nervous. He plucked his bowstring.
Whatever was about to happen, it had better work. The play began. The women of the chorus came on, dressed as Maenads, all fawn skin dresses and crowns of ivy. Their hair and makeup were supposed to make them look half-mad and dangerous, but tonight they seemed a little too well suited for the role, and those in the front rows leaned a bit away from the stage, alarmed.
The women all danced, and the gyrating of their hips, the sway of their breasts, and the way their hair whipped from side to side made the men in the audience sit up straighter.
The actor who came on with them was a beautiful, golden-haired boy, with a crown of real ivy and a lion skin tied around his nubile body. Some people in the audience (mostly women) gasped when they saw him. Andrew tried to take a picture but froze; Mia stopped halfway through taking a sip of wine. Stepping downstage, the boy actor said: "I am Dionysus." Eros spat out his wine.
"But I've disguised myself as a mortal man and come here, with all my women who dance my rites, to teach the people of this land how to honor me," he continued, his voice carrying all the way back to the back row and then up and out into the night, like birds escaping a cage. The audience stirred. There was something strange about him. He was round-faced and childlike, but his voice was strong and deep, and the redness of his lips looked beautiful and obscene under the stage lights. The chorus seemed agitated being so close to him, twitching and lolling.
Eros put a hand over his face. Oh shit. What had he done? "I've traveled to all lands in the east, bringing grape-bearing vines with me to the sun-drenched plains and the bleak mountains and the richest, most exotic lands of Asia and Arabia," said Dionysus, looking every single person in the front row in the eyes. "Now, here, I'll drive the women from their homes and make them run in the forest, dress in the skins of deer, carry staffs of ivy, and dance under the pines, to prove that I am a god, powerful and terrible." More murmuring.
Some people shifted in their seats, while others (women) stood up. The actor's voice intensified the potency of the wine in everyone's blood.
The stage lights became brighter—or was the light coming from the actor himself? The women in the chorus stepped off their marks, crawling and writhing at his feet. Their eyes rolled as they twitched and clawed their bodies. "That's why I've transformed myself to a mortal shape.
You, my women who worship me, my beautiful barbarian priestesses, go and beat the drums and raise your voices high, so that everyone knows we've come." "Yes: I've come to dance," said one of the chorus actors, scraping her body over the stage.
"I've come to cry out in glorious celebration of the great god." A woman in the audience whispered, "Is this…is this how it's supposed to go?" "I have no idea," said Andrew. He wanted to take a picture of the actor playing Dionysus but he simply couldn't. The camera might as well have weighed a thousand pounds. "I've come to sing," said another woman in the chorus. "Everyone, hear the hymn of the great god and know that I celebrate his holy power." "Blessed are those who know our ways and join our Bacchic revels," said a third.
She peeled her costume down, exposing her naked breasts. Several others did the same. "Put on your ivy crown and flaunt your green yew." "Taste the sweet fruits." "To the mountains and the streams: Everyone dance!" Offstage, the stage manager frowned.
Those were the right lines, but why were women in the audience saying them? He felt a headache coming on. He also felt like he should stop the scene, but also that trying would be dangerous. Possibly even fatal. Twilight came into the sky. One by one, all the women in the audience stood up, reaching out to touch the feet and robes of the boy onstage. Other actors came on to say their lines when they were meant to, but they all looked stunned and afraid, and none of them could finish.
The women of the chorus became louder. "The land flows with milk. The land flows with wine. The land flows with honey from the bees." Every woman in the theater chanted along now. "He holds the blazing pine torch high, sweet smoke burning like Syrian incense. He dances and runs, stirring the straggler and leading them out.
Join us! Celebrate the god of joy!" The dam burst: Women pushed and kicked to get to the front seats, and those already there crawled onto the stage. Most clawed their dresses off, tearing fabric and spilling buttons and pearls.
They poured wine onto their naked breasts and let it run in glorious streams, their hair flying free. One woman peeled herself out of a cream-colored gown and threw away jewelry as she pulled herself up onto the stage and crept to the feet of the Wine God, kissing his ankles and calves.
Eros flew to the stage and grabbed his cousin by the arm. "Dude! What the hell are you doing?" "What we planned. The Frenzy is on these women: Now my power here is absolute, and no god can interfere. Do whatever you want without fear of interruption." "But this is way too much heat. I wanted to get this done quietly. Do you have any idea what's going to happen to me when word gets around?" "I'm the god of revels. I do what I want. Are you going to stop me?" The Maenads forgot the actor king and turned on Eros.
The night air grew thick with murderous intent. He threw up his hands. "Whoa! You know what, never mind. It's cool. Do your thing, bro. I'll show myself out." "Do," said Dionysus. Eros flitted off the stage. By now the whole grove was in chaos. The men were all catatonic. And the women…well, none of them were having a dull evening, that was for sure. Eros looked at his bow and his arrows, helpless.
"Mom is going to kill me when she finds out about this," he said. Suddenly he remembered his job. He zipped into the crowd and found Mia. She'd had lousy seats, and was just now approaching the melee, dazed and stumbling. Eros put his hands out to stop her. "Take it easy, girl. Why don't we just have a seat and wait for…wait for…oh, where the hell is he?" Andrew couldn't take his eyes off the scene in front of him: writhing, crawling women, nude and half-nude, baptizing each other with bowls of beautiful, crystalline wine, whites that gleamed and reds so deep they were almost black.
They fell over each other to lick the precious droplets up. Lips and tongues and fingers and breasts became stained. The grove was a writhing carpet of bodies. He felt desire stir but also heard a shrill, panicky voice of alarm in his head warning him to stay away. In the reflected glare of the stage lights, the women's nails and teeth gleamed, and their loose manes made them look like wild animals. Andrew was sure that they'd tear him apart if he got too close.
Still, it was tempting. His feet wavered, taking a curious half-step forward… Someone grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. Through the dreamy, unreal miasma of the wine and madness, the stranger looked like…a man with wings?
"Andrew, buddy, can you hear me?" "Yes?" "I think we should go check on Mia. That sound like a good idea? Check on Mia?" "Um…if you think so." "I do. I really, really do." The two were easy to lead, though they tripped over their own feet, like zombies. Eros found a tree far away from the Bacchanal and sat them down. They started to come back to their senses, though they still looked a bit tipsy and uncertain. He snapped his fingers in front of their glazed eyes a few times.
Finally, he made them both join hands, and gradually they focused on each other. "Mia, can you hear me? Well…look, you're not going to remember any of this except for one thing: From now on, you're going to be completely honest with Andrew, always. Andrew, that goes for you too. Do both of you understand?" They nodded, but neither of them were looking at him.
They only had eyes for each other. It was like watching little light bulbs go on over each of their heads. Andrew felt like he couldn't breathe. When he finally could talk, all that came at first was mumbling.
"Hey. Hi. I don't know how to say this, but…" "I know," she said. "I mean, I know exactly what you're going to say, and…" "You too?" "Me too." They kissed. The little hollow of the tree cradled them.
Mia's hands traced the line of Andrew's back, all the way down to his rear, which she gave a squeeze just for the hell of it. He jumped. It was cute. She slipped her other hand down to get another feel.
He certainly was enthusiastic tonight. Andrew glanced over his shoulder. "Should we? We're right out in the open…" "Everyone else is." "I don't understand what's going on at all." "Neither do I. Let's not worry about it. Kiss me." Meanwhile, Dionysus left the stage and went down into the people, bringing his Maenads with him. Every woman he touched with his ivy staff became an animal in heat. The younger and the older alike stripped, and found their bodies more beautiful than they'd ever remembered.
The touched themselves, exploring the softness of their naked skin, cupping each breast in the palm as if weighing it, fondling the outline of their legs and thighs and calves and then flinging themselves back into the grass and shouting out to trees, feeling free and mad and alive. Then they'd fall on each other, eager to feel more, long and untamed hair spreading underneath those who laid back and hanging over the shoulders of those who got on top.
Soft breasts pressed together as open mouths met. Hands and fingers found each other, wrapping in knots. Nearby, they were dimly aware of what the others were doing, and the wet ache coming on urged them on to the same thing.
But not yet. It could wait until the time came. What a wonderful thing, to be free and not to have to think about anything except this moment and the feel of warm flesh, the taste of good wine, and the music of moans and cries. How good the grass felt against a bare back, and how much better still it felt to touch the pale white or dark brown limbs of a sister nearby and feel her body with yours and then taste her lips.
How good to always find another and another, for the circle grew wider and wider. Some danced alone or in groups while standing, and others danced with one another in twos or threes while lying on the ground. How comforting to know that a great god watched over all of it and was pleased, and that no one would defy him by breaking up the revel.
There were men nearby, but they did nothing. That was how they showed their respect to the god: By fearing him enough not to interfere. If anyone dared, his blood would fill the mouth of every sister here. But they turned to more pleasant thoughts, like the touch of a sister as she put her hand on a knee, sculpting the length of the leg with massaging fingers until the heat and want spiked. Would she go higher? Would her fingers dare go where they were wanted most?
Another kiss, harder than the others, and then the agonizing relief of a touch just where it was truly needed. Oh yes… Eros toasted his cousin. "I've got to hand it to you. You always do throw one hell of a party." "It's a lot of responsibility," said Dionysus. "But someone has to do it." *** Sunday morning.
Mia's bedroom. She and Andrew lay together. "So…you'll do it?" she said. "Tonight." "I'm sorry. I know it's going to be hard." "Don't be sorry.
Besides, you have to talk to him." "Yeah, but that will be a phone call. Not as bad. He'll be relieved anyway. I mean, he'll still get mad, but just for show." "It's not too late to change your mind, you know," said Andrew. "Yes it is," Mia said.
Eros watched from the fire escape, reclining on the railing. He didn't have his bow or golden arrows. Instead, Hathor had them, and a long silver chain with a lock wrapped around the entire bundle. She watched through the window too. "What do they remember?" "Not much," said Eros. "They think they got very drunk and blacked out, which is basically true. Most everyone else in the audience thinks the same thing. There were a few drunk and disorderly arrests, and a big scandal for the theater company, but no real harm done.
…well, all right, a couple of the actresses from the chorus have come up missing, but that will get sorted out. The Wine God does whatever he wants. All I did was point the damage in a direction that worked for me." "That's not all you did," Hathor said, inclining her head toward the two inside.
"What's the word on them?" "You win. I mean, you're still busted, and you don't get these back." She hefted the bow and arrows. "But we're not splitting them up." "I thought Nu Wa would scream and cry to get things put back the way she wanted them." "Oh, she did, believe me.
But the rest of us figured this pair had enough of gods meddling with their destiny. Better to leave them be. She peered through the window at the man and woman who had been the cause of so much furor: So young and so naïve, both of them. "Why these two?" said Hathor. "Why did it matter so much?" "I just like them, that's all. And I like getting my way." "But there have been plenty of times you didn't get your way before.
What was special now?" Eros shrugged, shedding a few feathers. He didn't like the way she was looking at him. "I have a theory," Hathor continued. "What you said that night, about how they'd both regret it if they forgot each other? I think you've got regrets of your own, and you don't like seeing them happen to other people.
That's what touched a nerve about this couple. Am I right?" Eros sat up. Beneath them, on the city street, a long snake of traffic honked its way along. He looked Hathor in the eyes for a long time, looked down at his feet as if groping for the right thing to say, and then… He grinned.
"Nah. What kind of regrets would a guy like me have? I'm the god of love." "We're all the god of love." "I guess that's true." He winked at the couple through the window. Then he flapped his wings and floated up until the entire city was a great, sun-kissed panorama of glass and steel and people below him.
Hathor followed. "How long am I suspended for?" he said. "I'm not sure there are any numbers large enough to express the duration." "Doesn't matter. I'll be back before you know it. A little vacation in the meantime sounds nice. What about you, my dear?" He slipped an arm around her waist.
"Feel like going somewhere pleasant? A few weeks in the tropics? where we can get to know each other on a strictly non-professional basis? What do you say?" Hathor looked shocked. Then she grinned. She took an arrow out of the quiver, considering its golden tip, turning it between her supple fingers and peering at Eros around the dove feathers in the fletching.
And then… She threw it away. "Keep dreaming," she said.