Orange blossoms under a hot summer sky.
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
"She's too pretty."
"What has that got to do with it?"
Delia didn't answer, she looked determined and Blake knew that look.
"I suppose we can just put the ad in again." He said resigned. "Don't think any of the others were suitable."
Delia lit a cigarette and stared at the sugar bowl. The minutes went by as they do. Blake fidgeted with his cup of cold coffee. He tried to remember what she looked like. He was very short sighted and tended not to notice obvious things like people's faces. Tones and timbre of voices were his forms of recognition, shapes and height and an elusive code of scent. He supposed he was probably peculiar in that way. But it worked for him. He looked closely at Delia. He knew her face well but that was only because he had been looking at it for three years. Others said she was beautiful but he found beauty hard to discern in humans. To him beauty was abstract and obtuse, something he found under a microscope or in the richness of mathematics.
Delia was speaking again. "I don't want to waste another weekend interviewing people. I suppose we should give her a try."
Blake nodded, thankful that the decision was made.
He thought of her and remembered that she smelt like orange blossoms under a hot sky.
Delia made the phone call before she changed her mind and then put the phone down hard. She couldn’t understand why she felt so piqued.
Delia looked at herself in the hall mirror; shiny red hair, green eyes like the sea, smooth moonstone skin. She was beautiful, always had been, and always would be. But some tinge of doubt nestled within. As a child she had been the pretty darling, as a teenager the object of male fantasy, now as a twenty something she was sophisticated and stunning. But what about next year, or the year after? What about when she was thirty? When she was forty, fifty? What then? Somewhere along the line beauty would leave her, would she be aware of the moment or would she be oblivious?
What would she do? Mirror, Mirror on the wall. Who is the loveliest of them all? The mirror remained silent. Delia had always had sympathy for the wicked queen. She had understood her motive even as a child. She would've done the same.
Raven moved into the vacant room later in the week. She didn't have much: a bed made of white wicker, a chest of drawers, a rack for clothes, a bookcase, a small trunk of old stuffed toys, a framed painting of a haunted-looking house on a dark river. Raven walked on silent feet, she was quiet and distant and mostly not there. She studied full time and worked four nights a week. Weekends she spent in her room, reading heavy tomes, scribbling notes and typing away on an ancient typewriter.
The house was full of the fragrance of orange blossoms under a hot sky, and Blake would smile and feel a sublime sense of happiness, and Delia's forehead would crease into lines of annoyance as she tried to understand what was causing her this feeling of displeasure. Some days she would stand in Raven's room and stare at the walls. She has no mirror, she finally noticed. For some reason Delia found this even more disturbing.
The weeks went by, the rent was paid, the bills as well, groceries were bought, floors were swept. The household settled into its accustomed rhythms. Raven walked on silent feet, her presence light and airy as though she were made of those elements herself. Blake would smile at her dreamily as he ate his breakfast. Delia would watch her through half closed eyes. See her hair, shoulder length and dark like a raven's wing, her eyes that were neither brown nor green but some uncommon shade that fell in between, her skin fragile and fair. And Delia would feel threatened by something she could not articulate. Threatened as if by some unseen storm that lurked on the other side of the horizon on a still summer's day. She would grow edgy and leave the table and shower and rub in her creams and check her face for wrinkles or imperfections. Mirror, Mirror on the wall, she would whisper.
Spring was short and sweet and became summer far too quickly, a hot dry summer. The days arid and long, the nights breathless and disturbing, and the house seemed to breathe as though through a veil of orange blossoms, the scent was everywhere, sensuous and overpowering. It dripped from the shower faucet, flavoring the water that ran down their bodies, drenching their hair, and filling their pores. Delia began wearing heavy oriental perfumes: thick, heavy opiates, but to no avail. She kept all the windows open, the back door as well but as she slept she would dream she was running through a never ending orchard of orange trees, the tiny white flowers sprinkling the ground at her feet, entangling in her hair, filling her mouth like dust.
One morning, Delia threw a jar of marmalade through the window, the window was open so the damage was contained to the jar only, it smashed on the pavement and the thick tangerine jelly collected on the path like the entrails of a weird creature. It was soon covered by a mass of black-bodied ants and yellow striped wasps. Delia left the house and didn't return for three days. Blake finished his breakfast and smiled dreamily. Raven went to her room and typed up an essay for her psychology class.
Delia returned home with a man who moved temporarily into her room. He was American, on holidays from California. He had those golden blonde Californian looks: bleached hair, tanned body, perfect white teeth. He seemed to bring some peace to the household; Delia seemed to be calmer, more content. She would rest her copper head against his broad shoulders; encircle his chest with her pale limbs.
Blake would smile dreamily and think of long strands of DNA that spiraled away into infinity. Raven would walk on her silent feet. The house smelt like orange blossoms on a hot afternoon.
One evening found the four of them outside. The air was still it felt thick like treacle; the sun was almost below the horizon but heat radiated up from the paving stones, from the tired brown grass, from the newly painted house boards. Everything one touched was hot. They sat sipping water or wine or beer. Delia and Sam sat on the chairs, smoking cigarettes and whispering.
Blake sat on the tired brown lawn and read a book. Raven lay beside him, she was wearing a short dress of creamy cotton, her eyes were closed. Her limbs stretched out from her body, marble white. Delia studied them, they were completely hairless, utterly smooth, but not artificial or contrived, just naturally that way. She has no body hair, Delia thought; she's like some stature. Delia felt her legs, her skin was scratchy, the short hairs blunt and irritable.
She abruptly went inside and had a shower and shaved her legs, and under her arms, and then rubbed on cream so she was covered by a sheen of moisture. She went outside again still feeling hot and irritable.
Sam was talking to Raven. "I used to live on an orange plantation when I was young. Used to help pick the fruit, big juicy oranges the size of footballs. The best part was in the early summer when the blossoms were out. The whole place would smell divine and I would think this is what heaven will smell like. There isn’t anything that smells as good as the smell of orange blossoms."
Delia walked over to Sam and emptied her glass of wine over him. The liquid dripped down Sam's face. He smiled lazily.
"How did you know I needed cooling down?"
Delia threw the glass at him, he ducked and it hit Blake instead. It broke on his left temple and cut him above the eye, he seemed dazed as the blood dripped down his face. Raven led him to the bathroom and washed his cuts. She came back outside and stood in the doorway. Sam had the hose on and was standing under the nozzle laughing as the water ran down his face, his chest, his legs, drenching his shirt and shorts. Delia was staring morosely at him.
Raven shut the door and took Blake into her room, put him to bed and slept on the couch. Sam left the next day.
The situation shifted after that, it became different, the players were still the same but their parts had altered. Delia began to spend all her free time with Raven. She would lend her clothes, buy her jewelry, braid her thick black hair into unusual shapes, read her poetry that she found in obscure ezines. Raven would accept these offers quietly and silently. She would smile distantly. And Delia would look at Blake venomously as though he was the problem and she would follow his movements through half closed eyes that radiated hate. Blake became withdrawn and moody.
The house stopped smelling of orange blossoms. Autumn came with gale force winds and lashings of icy rain. The heat and aridness of summer was thought of nostalgically as people huddled close to heaters adding extra layers.
On the night of the equinox things came to a bitter close. The time was approaching midnight. Delia sat on cushions directly facing Raven who was curled up in the armchair. Delia's hair was cut shot with spiky tufts around her neck. There was menace in the way her fingers played with the strands around her face. Blake sat on the couch alone, his head was bent and his hair hung over his eyes. He was fiddling with long colored ribbons that Delia had given Raven. He wound them around his fingers, first the red, then the yellow, then the blue, then the silver and lastly the green. They became hopelessly entangled.
Delia watched his hands trying to dislodge them. She felt a mounting pressure grow from the base of her neck and grip her intensely as though invisible fingers were slowly strangling her. She jumped up and ripped the ribbons out of Blake's hands. She stood shaking with anger and something else.
"Why can't you keep your hands off what belongs to me?" She shouted at him.
Blake looked up, the scar above his left temple stood out starkly against his skin. He looked confused.
"But they don't belong to you. You gave them to Raven."
"You just can't help it." She spat. "You just can't leave it alone. You sit there all bleary and depressed like a sad dog. You ruin it all.”
Her voice dropped to a baleful whisper. "You don't realize how much we hate you. Despise you. Do you?"
Blake looked at Delia and then over to Raven, his eyes pleaded with her.
"She hates you too." Delia said gleefully as he turned to face her again. "Yes. She does. She hates you so much that if she hated you any more you would whither and die."
Delia began to laugh, a horrible cruel cackle.
Raven stared at Delia impassively. She stood up and walked over to Blake with silent steps. She took his hand and led him to his room. Before leaving him she gave him a tender smile. She closed the door and Blake stretched out on the bed and dreamt he was a child again, lying in a pram under an enormous tree that scattered tiny white petals over him, petals that smelt delicious and fragrant.
Raven returned to the lounge room. Delia was standing in the middle of the room. Raven walked over and took her hand; she led her into the hallway and to the large ornate mirror that hung above the telephone table. The only light was that which spilled out from the lounge room, it only just dissipated the gloom. Raven stood behind Delia and looked into her eyes through the mirror.
Raven touched Delia's hair.
"You have beautiful hair."
She touched her eyelids.
"You have beautiful eyes."
She touched her lips.
"You have a beautiful mouth."
She ran her fingers down her neck.
"Your neck is beautiful."
She unbuttoned Delia's blouse. Her fingers slid over the white skin, over Delia's bare breasts.
"See how beautiful your breasts are."
Delia looked into Raven's eyes through the mirror, she noticed how black her hair was, how strangely luminous her eyes seemed, how red her mouth was.
"But are you really beautiful?" Raven whispered into Delia's ear.
"Let's see. Let us look into your heart."
Delia looked into the mirror, all around the darkness was becoming thicker and deeper. Raven wasn't behind her any more, she could feel her breath but she couldn't see her face. She wanted to look away from the mirror, to turn and find Raven who stood so close she could almost feel her. But her eyes wouldn't leave the mirror, the dark glass of the mirror, and the darkness was slowly covering her, at first like an opaque veil, but soon it was thicker and blacker and she could not see anything. She could not see herself. There was nothing. Only the darkness.
She heard Raven's whisper. It seemed far away. It whisked the air with a fluttering sound like the wing of a bird, the wing of a raven.
"Your heart is black." The whisper covered Delia and then it too was gone.
Blake and Raven smiled at each other over the kitchen table.
"We should get the first call very soon." Raven squeezed Blake's hand. Blake nodded dreamily. He thought back over the week, Delia had moved out so fast he had not even seen her to say goodbye. All she had left was the mirror in the hallway. It was cracked in six places, which was why she probably hadn't taken it, Blake had thought. He had thrown it out. Somehow it had seemed corrupted or foul although he couldn't understand why.
"I'm sure we'll find someone nice." Blake said.
"I have no doubts." Raven agreed.
The phone rang and Raven went to answer it. Blake stared dreamily into his coffee. He smiled and felt happy again. Outside the frost covered the paving stones and the long blades of grass. The trees stood stark against the icy sky, a pitch-black crow sat forlorn on one of the branches. Inside the house was warm and smelt sweetly of orange blossoms under a hot sky.
©AliceGodwin 1996 ~ Extra-Territorial: stories and poems from the Northern Territory Literary Awards - NTU Press