In this "climatic" scene, Lorenzo begins by fiercely resisting to recall the poet in himself while Erminia fights to liberate Lorenzo from his denial and at the same time, satisfy Orpheus' demand that she must first make Lorenzo a poet again before he returns the Sirens' voices to them. Her plan -- something along the lines of death, rebirth and homeric sex.
Lorenzo just kept shaking his head and shouting, "No!" With a desperate twist of her wrist, Erminia freed one hand and, grabbing Lorenzo by the lock of white hair, jerked his head toward her face, and planted her mouth over his.
It was unfair and she knew it.
Even a frozen poet must thaw a little in a siren's embrace. Erminia's kiss, like her voice, was unique; salty with the saliva of the ocean and acidic with the vinegar of exile. From the tip of her tongue, Erminia deposited words on the roof of Lorenzo s mouth and he swallowed them as a man dying of thirst sucks at the dew. He stopped struggling and Erminia laid her other hand against his cheek, while her fingers threaded through the lock of white hair. Lorenzo closed his arms around her waist and held her tightly.
Erminia pulled her head away, gently breaking the kiss. Lorenzo's eyes remained closed, his lips parted. She waited for him to open his eyes.
He did, slowly. But there was no joy in them. A terrible sadness lingered in his dark pupils, and she read his disappointment as he gazed at her, taking in the contours of her rough face.
"I am not Cecilia," she said.
"No," he sighed heavily. "And you are very ugly. Yet, you make me feel so strange." He rolled off Erminia and lay in the sand gazing up at the dusky afternoon sky.
Erminia chuckled. "Bread has a hard, brown crust, Lorenzo. But inside, it's soft, white, and pure. You feel strange because you look at my face and you see the crust. In my kiss, you can taste what's hidden inside."
Lorenzo slapped a hand to his forehead. "I don't understand anything any more. I must be going mad.""
"A beginning at last!" Erminia answered.
"It feels like the end."
"The end of your curse, Lorenzo, and the rebirth of your life as a poet."
"But why must I be a poet?" he moaned. "Can't I just be a lawyer? Where is the harm?"
Erminia sat up her knees drawn up close to her chest, her arms wrapped around her shoulders. What could she to say to convince this lawyer?
Lorenzo groaned, and grabbed by the waist, pulling her close to his side in a tight embrace. "Erminia, I'm afraid of being a poet again," he said. "As a poet, I destroyed everything I ever loved. My wife, my friend, my work. And damn it, I'm afraid of you. Every time I hear your voice, I want to weep for the loss of mine; every time I look into your eyes, I feel naked and unmasked."
With her head resting on his chest, she answered him. "You're right to be afraid, Lorenzo. So am I. But there is no other path out of this maze for you, except through me. And there is no other life for me, except through you. We need each other."
"What must I do?" he asked.
Disengaging herself from Lorenzo s arms, Erminia stood and started to undress, untying the laces of her bodice first and dropping it onto the sand.
"Do you see that island out there, Lorenzo?" she asked, pulling off her skirts.
"Yes." He leaned up on one elbow to gaze out at the horizon. The setting sun gilded the tiny scrap of land so that it glittered like a gold star on the water.
"You must swim out there to meet me." She yanked the shift over her head and tossed it to one side. Wind gusted over her body, speckling her coarse brown skin with sand.
"I can't swim," Lorenzo said quickly. "I'll drown before I reach you."
Naked, Erminia squatted beside him and rubbed a handful of sand between her palms. She brushed her palms clean against her thighs and raked her fingers through the white lock of hair.
"You must try, Lorenzo. Open your heart to me and follow the sound of my voice. It will carry you over the waves to the island."
"Is that all?" he asked.
"There is one thing more."
"You are making a journey to the edge of the universe. My voice is the path. But it will not bear the weight of your earthly miseries. You must follow me as empty of experience as an infant in the womb. Leave behind all memory, all thoughts of anger, of jealousy, of desire and longing. Leave behind, too, the fear of death. These are stones, Lorenzo, that will plunge you below the waves. Forget them, forget yourself, and surrender to my voice. That is how you will lose your curse and be reborn."
"Is it possible?"
"Some have succeeded. Many have not." She shrugged. "It's up to you." She turned toward the water. If he did not follow her, then this would be the last time she would swim out to her island, the last time she would sing as a siren. She tried to hold fast the image of Anthemoessa, where the water broke against the shore into thousands of tiny shards of light. She shivered as she walked into the surf, the waves stroking white fingers of foam down her thighs. She waded farther out until the sand under her feet began to slip away and she was swimming.
Turning on her back in the deep water, Erminia let the salty ocean burn away her carapace. Fish tugged at the fingertips as it dissolved along its center seam. Freed of the skin, she dove beneath the surface and swam for the island. Shoals of anchovies, their bright bodies glittering in the last burst of sunset, followed in her wake, shaping a golden path through the blue-green sea.
Lorenzo sat on the shore and stared at the golden path trailing toward the island. He was still dazed by the heat of Erminias unexpected kiss and by her naked body as she knelt next to him. Her breasts were large and pendulous, with a ring of dark hair around each nipple. There were scabs on her shins and dirt in the creases of her knees. The thatched hair of her sex was long and tangled like the pelt of an unkempt animal. He should have been repulsed by her, but he wasn't. A heady scent wafted from her skin, from her breath, from the faint beads of sweat on her upper lip. It carried the clean odor of the sea and a perfumed mixture of apricots, dried roses, and honey. Tension stirred in his loins. But the moment he had reached out his hand to her, she was skimming the waves in the sea.
Lorenzo stood, a hand to his brow. He watched her turn on her back and he saw the moment the skin dissolved away from the shimmering white body beneath. White as the moon, he thought, his throat constricting as he tried to whisper the lines. White and smooth as the flesh of the scallop. Another pain forbade him to speak. The curse imprisoned him and he doubted that he could ever tear through the bonds of hatred that Cecilia had laid upon him.
How could he free his voice again? How had he lost it in the first place? Was it Cecilia's fault, or was it his own selfishness, as Erminia had said? He had loved Cecilia, hadn't he? Yet all he could remember now were the words that had described her, the poems that had surfaced when she drifted into his studio and waited for him to speak to her. He had become famous for his work. Actors took his poems and wove them into their improvised plays. He had heard Isabella Torelli, the great Innamorata of the Libertini, speak his poetry in her exit speeches, capturing the audience with her voice and his words. He owed all of his success to Cecilia. Who could say that he did not love her?
Yet there remained a niggling thought like a stone lodged in his throat. Without Cecilia, could he still be a poet? Was it fear then, and not her betrayal, which had enraged him so on finding her in the arms of his friend? Was it fear that if he lost her, he would lose his words, his fame, his very identity? Perhaps Erminia had been right to say his love was selfish. He had used Cecilia to drive his thoughts into the spheres of poetry where she herself would not, or perhaps could not, enter.
Lorenzo tugged on the lock of white hair and then brushed it savagely out of his face. Cecilia may have cursed him with her dying breath, but he had wrapped her curse about him, silencing the poet rather than confronting his fear of failure. Just as he had used her in life to speak, he used her in death to remain silent.
Could he write as he once had without her? He might, if he could surrender himself and follow the siren's voice across the water. does a man lose himself in the ocean, except by drowning. Could the power of the sirens voice truly keep him afloat? And what of the stones of memory, could he free himself from their weight?
Lorenzo shucked off his boots, untied the strings of his hose, and peeled them down his legs. A full moon was rising to take the place of the disappearing sun. For a brief moment it was red and bloody, vivid as a wound in the fading twilight, but as it lifted higher into the night sky its violent hue faded until it was as luminous as a mirror, reflecting the calm of the sea. Lorenzo pulled his shirt over his head and waited for the siren to sing.
It began softly, floating over the water with the hushed as a lullaby. Lorenzo strained to hear it, taking small steps toward the shore. The cold waves slapped at his feet; the warmth of the voice lulled him into the surf. He smiled, entranced by the beat of the waves rocking like a cradle against his shins. A woman's hand seemed to lead him forward. "Trust mne," the voice crooned. "I'll not let you come to harm." Lorenzo waded up to his knees, the lullaby recalling memories of childhood: the lump of dough handed to him as a sweet, the rounded breast against which he laid his head. His mouth parted in surprise as the misty specter of his mother, her arms outstretched to catch him, emerged from the white foam. Her form gathered strength in the moonlight and became solid. Lorenzo held out his hands to greet her and then, remembering Erminia's warning, pulled them back, acknowledging that his mother was dead and his ache for her long past. The pearl face nodded in sad surrender and the ghost turned to a vapor over the water. As he passed through the shredding fragments of mist he shivered at their soft, cold touch.
The song segued into a new melody and Lorenzo waded deeper into the restless sea. His mother's dulcet song became a loud chorus of women's voices, trilling over the water. He heard the chiming of bells and the clash of cymbals as around him the mist coiled into the slender forms of women dancing in a circle. Lorenzo gasped as another memory claimed him. Here was his youth, when the pretty girls of the noble houses laughed and danced around him. Oh, how he remembered the flame of agony when one rejected him, and the flame of joy when another received him. Lorenzo shoved against the waves, thrusting into the deepening water to join them. Their small cold hands pressed against his bare chest and the sand was sucked away from his heels.
He tumbled headlong into the sea, unable to stand, the waves tossing him like a bubble of glass from a fisherman's net. His arms scrabbled to keep his head above the white, foaming water. His teeth chattered as the chorus of girlish voices grew more strident. Their song drove the waves higher around his struggling shoulders as they spun wildly, gathering the white spume into their foaming skirts. The waves whirled and Lorenzo cried out with despair as other memories rose from the ocean floor.
Memories of Cecilia, memories of murder, memories of unbearable grief, rage, and silence.
The currents of the whirlpool strengthened and Lorenzo spun in a hollow cone of white water. With every turn, he sank deeper into the throat of the whirlpool. Animal fear inspired him to kick his legs and paddle his weakening arms against the inexorable tug of the water. And all the while, the women's voices sent arrows of painful memory into his heart. As Lorenzo swallowed water and his limbs became numb, he knew he had been betrayed. It was the siren's voice that had shaped this fierce funnel of water; it was the siren drowning him in the cold, dank waters of his own memory. She had lied to him! She had lied!
"Who has lied?" sang a voice. Lorenzo gazed up through the water and saw a woman whose cloud of hair swirled around her head as she drifted high above him like a shadow.
"Erminia! Help me!" he cried, reaching out through the wall of churning water.
Even as he tried desperately to thrust his body toward her, he was sucked downward into the narrowing neck of the whirlpool. The siren's song rose to the high-pitched howl of a woman's rage. Water cascaded inward from above, spilling into the hollow opening and filling it up like a glass. Lorenzo caught his last gulp of air as the water closed over his head.
The woman's shadow appeared beside him through the moon's slanted light, then sank below him, her hands grabbing at his heels to pull him deeper into the water. Through the rushing in his ears Lorenzo could hear the shrieks of the siren's voice, the hammering of his terfied heart, and the blood pounding in his temples. He looked down and saw a woman's waterlogged face. He fought against her grip as she seized him by the thighs. Small pearls of air escaped through his pressed lips.
In rage and fear, he thrashed wildly. The woman tightened her grip, sliding her body along his torso until her face was close to his.
"No!" his mind shouted as the woman closed her mouth over his to suck away the last of his air. His eyes wide open, Lorenzo saw that it was not the siren who had seized him under the water. It was Cecilia, her beautiful face harrowed by death, her eyes shell-white and her skin eel-grey.
Forget your past, Erminia had warned him, and do not fear death. Forget anger, despair, and even love. Follow my voice.
Amid the lullabies, the chorus of girlish tauntings, and the howling of his dead wife, Lorenzo prayed that there was one voice that did not belong to his memory. But to make out the siren's voice amid the cacophony of his scattered life, he had to forget. Twirling defenselessly in the foaming water, Lorenzo understood. Death was the only path to such forgetting, the only way to hear the voice of the divine.
Lorenzo stopped kicking his legs and let his body go limp. He let Cecilia hold him, her legs clamped around his waist as she pulled him down. Her hair formed a clinging shroud over his face and her tongue darted like a fish in his slack mouth, stealing air. Dimly, Lorenzo heard the multitudes of voices collapse into one pounding roar that he realized was the last protestation of his heart.
Out of that thundering noise, his ear plucked the fragile voice of the siren, a single, serene note, clear and pure as the light from distant stars. Memory could not cling to its smoothness and all mortal yearnings were fulfilled by the divine completeness of its sound.
Lorenzo tuned his ear to its call and surrendered his life. Pain ebbed from his body as he allowed himself to die. He sensed Cecilia's watery body grip him harder as he slipped through the tight clench of her embrace, buoyant and free. They separated, though their bodies were still trapped by the spiraling current of the whirlpool. Lorenzo no longer heard Cecilia's howls, no longer remembered the grief or the shame of her death. The voice of the siren bore him slowly through the water in a net of silken notes. Cecilia drifted past him, the features of her face eroding, her hair a dusky shadow. A pale hand of bleached bones clutched at him, but the fingers dissolved before they could reach him.
The sea went dark and Lorenzo breathed in the cold salty water of the ocean. As he exhaled, remorse and bitterness, love and ambition, escaped from his throat in a thin stream of white bubbles. He floated in the rocking water, carried by the siren's voice, that one sustained note, without pause, without breath, without end.
Out of the darkness of the sea, a pinpoint of light sparkled and then another and another until the sea had evaporated into a velvet sky, brimming with radiant stars. Lorenzo gazed at them with quiet wonder. Had he left the sea and the maze? Was he only a spirit now? The siren's voice shaped wings. His sluggish arms lifted from his side and he was flying, his fingertips brushing the streaming light of the stars and setting them to ringing. Chords of music chimed, one vibration harmonizing with another, until the whole night was crisscrossed with glimmering ribbons of sound. Lorenzo flew through the bands of light, his body pierced by the music of the spheres.
Suddenly, she was there beside him, the white flash of her body curving around him like the arc of a dolphin's back. She circled him, her skin slippery where it brushed him, her body gleaming in the darkness. Leucosia, the shining one. She floated before him, bright as the moon, and he saw her parted lips smile as her song continued to hold him in its silvery net. He was no longer flying, but floating upright in the night sky, twirling slowly, his skin glistening with the iridescent star dust. She draped her arms around his neck and he stared into her sapphire eyes, dazed as something returned to him, something he had abandoned in the dark sea below. It was an emotion, stowed away in the far corners of his heart and now released. Happiness. Tenderness. Love.
And then came the words, solid as clay, giving him density and weight.
Lorenzo plummeted from the sky, his passing a bright streak across the darkness. Down he fell, burning in the dark, his mouth open in soundless surprise as the sea reached up with white foaming limbs to receive him. He felt the cold shock of water and the heaviness of the sea as it reclaimed him. He sank quickly, a hot fragment of heaven cast into the water, the steam boiling around his diving body.
At once, Erminia was there reeling him in by his white lock of hair. She tugged at it and Lorenzo thrashed in sharp pain like a hooked fish. His heart was pounding again and his body clamored, awake to its need for air.
Erminia tucked her hands into his armpits and pulled him quickly to the surface. He broke through the foaming waves with a loud gasp, then coughed and spluttered, the sea rushing from his mouth. Erminia swam with him toward a rocky shore where the waves rattled over pebbles. His limbs felt cumbersome as the sand floor of the sea lifted under his feet. He tried to stand, but his knees buckled in the surf and the rocks cut the tender soles of his feet.
Lorenzo staggered like a drunk in the shallow surf, gasping and sneezing saltwater. He heard the clear ringing sound of Erminia's laughter and turned to find her floating easily in the water like a seal.
"Well, my poet, what say you now?" she asked.
Lorenzo gazed down at her blazing face, dizzy with the tangled rush of emotions and words. All the poetry that he had denied now roared in his thoughts demanding to be shouted aloud to the world.
He threw back his head and laughed. Then he lunged through the water, stamping his feet and slapping at the waves until a veil of white rain showered his head.
"Chiara soave angelica divina!" he shouted, snatching at handfuls of sea spray.
"An angel indeed. Some have called me so!" Erminia said, and rolled her body in the water.
Lorenzo sent a fresh spray of foam into the air. Then he held his hand aloft, his gaze fixed on the star-bright eyes of the siren. More words came to him. "With her, there is a different kind of love; in all others, spears of hope and fear murder the heart. In her, desire seeks no further than to be content in her presence!"
"Bravo." Erminia laughed. "But perhaps I may be honored by more than a worshipful glance?"
She coiled around him, her face half-hidden in the water, blowing bubbles. Lorenzo felt her body bump into his legs.
"O'Dio," he shuddered, as she slithered between his legs and then rolled to face him and spout a fountain of water over his stomach.
Lorenzo dropped to his hands and knees and crawled forward in the shallow water toward Erminia's shimmering body.
"Breasts of snow, thighs succulent as the flesh of scallops, skin more radiant than moonlight blinding the lover to all else but her glory—"
"Bella, bella," she encouraged.
"Sweet song of binding, life in the seas of man's bitter drowning ..." He couldn't stop talking, the words like a fever heating him. Waves rippled around him, pushing him toward Erminia until he was beached on her outstretched legs. She raised herself on her elbows and, gazing down the length of her body, gave him a frank grin. Lorenzo felt her legs part. She raised her knees out of the water, reached down, and drew him up to her chest.
He groaned a line of poetry, his body delighted by the cool sensation of her breasts against his chest, the wet press of her thighs around his buttocks, and the curved mound of her belly filling the hollow beneath his stomach. Words came faster and more passionately to his lips. Her eyes sparkled and she planted small kisses on his chin, his throat.
"Oh, divine hand erecting proud masts, carry me from the torment of death into your celestial spheres!"
Erminia gave a happy shriek of pleasure as Lorenzo, guided by his poetry, entered her.
For an instant the words faltered in his mouth, unable to express the astonishment of his body awakened again to the intensity of sex.
"Don't stop," Erminia commanded, digging her fingers into his shoulders.
"Love exerts its force on me—"
"Oh yes." She sighed.
"And rocks my life with storms upon the deep—"
Erminia arched her back out of the water and clung to him, the sand churning beneath them.
"And drives my fleeing spirit, rising from death into this tranquil harbor—"
"Not so tranquil now!" she countered, and bit her lower lip.
Lorenzo couldn't decide which was reaching its crescendo first, his body or the poem that wouldn't stop unfolding from his lips.
"And I, encircled by such storms of gripping sighs—"
Erminia's legs tightened around Lorenzo's waist and he moaned, struggling to speak the next lines.
"Lose my way in the dark shroud of night. But howling winds are calmed by her divine tongue's sound—"
Erminia licked the sea spray from his neck.
"And I, my spirit roused by her singing voice, ascend into a star-flamed heaven—"
If there was more to the poem, Lorenzo had lost the ability to speak it. The water steamed from the heat of Erminia's thrashing limbs. Her gasps and sighs surrounded them in a green mist that turned blue and finally flared into a dazzling white curtain. Her embrace boiled away the edges of Lorenzo's physical awareness and transformed his body into waves of light. It flamed so fiercely in his belly that he cried out in delirious agony, and for one long moment, he imagined himself dying again and transported to the edge of the universe by the workings of the siren's body.
He returned from those spheres slowly, gradually regaining the edges of his body, the cool water slapping against his thighs, his cheek resting on Erminia's wet and glowing breast.
"Am I alive?" he asked.
"Very much so." Erminia chuckled and sprinkled cool water over his back.
Lorenzo closed his eyes, a profound weariness settling in his limbs. He felt Erminia turn him over in the surf and tow his weary body into deeper water. His hands sculled the water weakly and he tried to open his eyes.
"No, my poet, sleep," she whispered into his ear. "I will bear you back to the far shore. Tomorrow, when you wake, we will continue through the maze."
"Must we leave here?" he mumbled.
"Yes, my poet. This island is only an illusion of the maze, and no more home to me than the rude village where I lived in exile. Sleep, tesoro mio, sleep."
"As you command," Lorenzo answered, and let the siren's arms bear him across the rocking waves of the open sea.