Interview With An Element: Mercury by Jacqueline M. Pérez

Tongueless, you gesticulate.

Larunda:
Where poetry fails the most, there lingers a faint echo of something we struggle to articulate.

Mercury:
Poetry can’t obfuscate a notion enough to mysticize it into wisdom.

Larunda:
(cough, cough)

From the source of the River Almo, Mercury escorts you to your prison. Your father, the eponymous river god, stands shimmering in acquiescence on the bank near his rushing waters. He watches with that infuriating guise of detachment that immortals develop over eons. The Almo gurgles plaintively at his feet, but he accepted your fate once his exhortation failed to convince Neptune to intervene. Old Neptune takes little interest in his lesser charges, particularly when they have vexed his most powerful brother. May Neptune drown in his own depths, you think to yourself. You remember when you were a little naiad, your father seemed gentle. He called you Li’l Lara. You could easily slip into his current and be carried off into the Tiber or swept into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Mere slip of a thing. Tiny kayak tumbling in whitewater. Almo seemed to feel responsible in those days. No longer. He knows the tedium of eternity and is willing to go through it without his only child. You kick against the Earth to throw it out of its orbit, but only stub your toe. You yelp. Mercury snorts to stifle a laugh.

Mercury. When he appeared that morning with his golden locks and silver limbs glimmering in the dappled sunlight on the bank, you looked him up and down. Yes, he was golden, this acorn of the mighty oak Jupiter. But, you thought, this duty he normally serves for the dead should be distasteful to him now. And yet, he looked as sunny as ever. He probably thought your long gaze meant admiration. You read mockery in his serious expression. Nursing the pain radiating from the wound in your mouth, you dreaded the 242-kilometer trek to Avernus—nearly two days non-stop hiking with this spoiled god-brat.

A glossy ibis extends its long legs and airs its feathers on a bank of the Almo. You lock eyes with this creature, both delicate and powerful. It can fly away whenever it wishes to any place it wants. It stares back at you with indifference. Your possibilities have all winnowed down to one dark abyss. Fury and shame: you feel yourself pouting.

Surely, I will die, dry up, turn to dust, you hope to yourself.

But so long as the Almo flows, you will live and suffer.

Larunda:
We want to recognize truth in poetry, to feel connected.

Mercury:
But poetry feels nothing. Poetry is a cold goddess to whom you attribute notions
she’s never considered. She embodies ideals she’s neither conceived, nurtured,
nor delivered into the screaming fluorescence. When poetry fails the most, music
takes up the slack—another goddess delightfully wrecking your plans.

Cold goddess, indeed. With those golden eyebrows waggling up and down on that silver forehead of his, metallic Mercury is blatant. Clownish but a bona fide Pulcinella. He amuses himself by reciting abominations at you—prisoner of his war on words. This realization escapes your lips in an audible sigh. The journey ahead lengthened by the effort of pantomime exhausts you, though you’ve only traveled a few kilometers.

Steady beat of your marching footfalls train the rhythm of your brainwaves—your mind drifts into a fever dream. You travel with your father in the waves. Black bullhead catfish dash away from you, wiggling their whiskers. Almo shows you tiny crustaceans and microscopic larva that support life all around you. You see how the force of the water scours the land, eventually depositing a delta rife with flora and fauna. He tells you about the circle of space and time, tells you to remember that you’ll see all of this again and again but never in the same way.

Shadowing the Almo outside the fine Servian walls built of tuff, you and Mercury pass near Rome’s Porta Ostiensis.(fn.1) One kilometer south of the venerable city gate, you pause with wistful eyes at the spot where your father’s brook joins the Tiber. Though fed by the Fosso dell’Acqua Santa, your familial waters offer you neither solace nor cure by the grace of Cybele. You sigh again. This time Mercury makes a phony sympathetic face and nods his head in the direction of Avernus as if he too has miraculously gone mute.

That’d be a miracle, by Jove. Jupiter the hypocrite. Supplanter son of Saturn. If only that Titan had swallowed you, too, you seethe.

Tongueless.

Would that Mercury’s tongue cease to serve him, be thrown into the dirt for insects and worms to turn into detritus.

You kick the earth again. Maybe I should have thought twice before tattling. But what presumption on the part of the king of the gods to think you’d betray a sister naiad.

Maybe the king of the gods may always presume.

You glance at Mercury. He hums in a low register with a goofy smile on his shiny face as if he’s heard nothing.

Yes, god of sky and thunder, you think at Jupiter. But I only did what I knew was right. How could I have taken part in your beastly plan? How could you expect the naiads not to double-cross you?

You seem to be the only one who did so.

Good point, you cringe. But all of us naiads felt outrage for Juturna. She never once flirted with you, never twirled her tawny locks in her slender fingers when she knew you were watching her. She’d jump into the nearest rivulet to escape your groping hands. Typical god, you only saw what you wanted. When she wouldn’t comply you ordered us to help you trap her like a wild orca. That wasn’t okay by any standards except your own.

Maybe the king of the gods sets the standards.

Bah! And Juno? Didn’t she have the right to know what her brother/husband was up to? You dog, running after slippery nymphs who want nothing to do with you. Meanwhile, you have the most amazing of all goddesses for your queen—the goddess of love and marriage. It’s literally a sacrilege! Why should the queen of the gods put up with constant humiliation?

Hm. Did Juno offer any reward for your insight? Did she put in a good word for you, poor Li’l Lara? No? Didn’t think so.

Gah! Go away!

You glance at Mercury again. He grins at you.

Larunda:
Together, poetry and music are gravity. Together they are a centrifuge. And you,
merely a drop of mercury.

Mercury:
I find my path glinting in the moonlight like silver apples tumbling from a
goddess’s bushel. I am water silver, the dissolver of gold. Both my freezing and
my boiling are the coolest of my kind. And I am the only one that flows at room
temperature. Ancient rulers drank me expecting eternal life; I attacked their livers.
I transition. I harden into softness.

You, Lara, are flowing water—not an element to be dissolved. You are cool and pooling, not thickly slick like Mercury. ‘Attacked their livers,’ he says. ‘Harden into softness,’ he says. What ‘moonlight’? What ‘silver apples’? A goddess’s bushel of silver apples that come from a moon where no life exists. Through their telescopes, mortals see canals on the moon’s surface. They believe outrageous tales of giant man-bats copulating in lunar alleyways. They try to imagine a life without gravity. When the darkness comes, as it always does, they pull their woolens over their eyes and pray to the sun by one of its many names: Father Apollo, we are not what we are supposed to be, but please don’t let us die like this! The warm, gritty soil under your feet reminds you that there is a cycle, but sulking has made you lose your marker on time.

Argument: You don’t deserve bog life. You betrayed Jupiter’s trust out of resentment, not out of anger like the—

—unless resentment is a form of anger.

Thank you for not interrupting, Jupiter. It wasn’t that you didn’t value speech, Lara. Rather, you were too communicative; you even celebrated it. So, if you are doomed to sigh below the bog with the ungrateful and the sullen, isn’t it unjust? And it’s equally unjust for you to struggle for eternity in the muck with the wrathful when you were without true wrath. Does the telling of secrets when your purpose was selfless and arguably righteous merit being deprived of speech and tossed into the fifth circle of Hell? Wasn’t the real wrath on Jupiter’s part? Ripping out tongues? Who does that?

That psychopath feels no remorse.

OK. So, here you are walking with Jupiter’s son. The power differential between you and your impish chaperone is too tricky to balance. While the scab heals in your mouth, cauterized by your fury, you assesses your situation.

Larunda:
What do you ask of poetry?

Mercury:
Only one question: Why are you doing this to me?

By now, Mercury has fallen in ‘love’ (read: lust) with you. He’s watched your delicate hands and your expressiveness enhanced by the loss of your tongue. He admires your strength and resolve. And, maybe most alluring of all for the son of the king of the gods, you remind him of a kestrel trapped in his bal-chatri.

Blech. C’mon, Jupiter—is my eternal suffering fair recompense for you missing out on a dalliance? As if ripping out my tongue weren’t vengeance enough, must you also condemn me to breathe mud with the sullen under the Stygian marsh with my anger bubbling up through the clogged waters? Or to wrestle at the muddy surface with the wrathful? I will have neither speech nor hope where the rivers of the lost converge—a naiad in a river of unspeakable anger, condemned like one of the Avernales, those infernal nymphs. So, I’m either to be forgotten in the depths with your brother Pluto, or I’m to suffer the lusts of your spawn, Mercury. How, in Time’s torturous spiraling, can I volunteer myself as Philomela or Lavinia?(fn. 2) On this road, this fork you offer is a knife. The imbalance alone should cause shame even to the king of the gods.

At least you have a choice.

A choice! O, that’s rich.

Larunda:
You think poetry intends?

Mercury:
Not only to me; to all. Poetry has never and, paradoxically, has always evaded. I
once glimpsed a poem—at least I thought I did—but it dissolved at my touch like
light in the gloaming. A poem is an elemental thing, like me. But, like gold,
silver, aluminum, I can’t hold it without making it into an amalgam.

Would this philistine know a poem if it hit him over the head? To the Phlegraean Fields!

Already in the breeze you detect a hint of the sulfur spewing from Vulcan’s home, the Solfatara. Vulcan, another of Jupiter’s rotten progeny. (They’re everywhere.) Where Vulcan lives, west of Naples, are two dozen volcanic structures—lakes boiling in craters, mountains upchucking rock and ash. The scent makes you recall the Campanian Ignimbrite explosion, Vulcan’s last great tantrum. When juxtaposed with how the inhabitants tried in vain to outrun 700-km/hour pyroclastic flows, your current situation seems less urgent. And your proximity to the salty Tyrrhenian Sea is a strange comfort now that your freshwater Almo streams far away. You glance at the sky and notice a wandering albatross that seems to be following you. For a moment, you hope but remember not to bet on signs.

Hope is a taxidermied thing.

You make fast progress despite Mercury’s incessant flirting and prancing. He tries to coax a smile from your lips, as if they were not caked with dried blood.

To Avernus!

You walk sandwiched between sea to the west and forest to the east. Ahead Avernus looms, that land without birds, that volcanic crater beloved of Mephitis with her noxious vapors. Meanwhile, on and on, Mercury cajoles. Your stomach churns as you look at his silvery hands.

What will they make of me?

Larunda:
But metals can’t speak. They don’t feel. So, how do you emote?

Mercury:
Because we reflect. You see a version of yourself in our polished surfaces. But
poetry is the mirror that lies.

Succumb to Mercury and live in his trap or deny him and sink into the thick marsh of the Underworld. Will he force you if you refuse him? Will he force you and send you down to Pluto, anyway? No. You count on his arrogance. He would rather think he’s won you over with his twinkling charms. He’ll choose lust over blood.

He is no mirror, no polished surface reflecting, but glass as transparent as the wind in his wake.

You remember how difficult it was as a girl, how your Almo had to scare off the lascivious old gods and men who would hound you if you wandered too far from your river. You didn’t understand. All you wanted was to watch the water flow to the sea. When you grew stronger, Almo left you to fight your own battles. You did fight. Now it seems to you that this so-called power that goddesses and women are supposed to have over males, immortal and mortal, wins you nothing but reason to fear them. No matter what you do, they perceive your behaviors as conniving and manipulative. When you are kind, they call you a flirt. Then they fume when you escape from their clutches. When you defend your honor with aloofness they call you ‘bitch’, when all you want to do is to keep yourself safe. It feels like drowning in a bay and drifting farther from the shore. You think you should be able to swim the distance, but there is a confounding current pushing and pulling you outwards, sideways, and around in circles.

Mount Aurunci beckons to the east as you two pick your way around the coastline near Formia. You hear the steady beat of a woodpecker, sense the sluggish slithering of salamanders in the hills. A little further ahead yet, past bustling Minturno, across the brackish delta of the Liris River.(fn. 3) An escape into the forest thirty-five hours into this arduous journey from Latium into Campania by a quick detour east at Mondragone. Up to the sleeping Roccamonfina with its dense chestnut trees, home to blue rock thrushes, larks, and shrikes; you think of the long game, your future limpid as the Liris. You dissemble. It’s what you’ve learned to do best.

Larunda:
And you?

Mercury:
I’m a lawyer. Quicksilver, I find a way. Where poetry fails, a poem lies in wait.
Poetry is not the poem; the poem is the ideal of poetry. A poem is justice. Ideals
do not exist as tangibles, but we aspire to them.

Lawyer? More like executioner. Lying in wait, indeed. Water is what finds a way, not metallic sludge.

Nevertheless, Mercury finds his way into your unenthusiastic embrace. His silver fingers are as welcoming to you as the thought of an eternity in a salt flat. Or a Stygian marsh, for that matter. As Mercury poisoning sets in, your mind leaves your body. You swim through your beloved Almo, tugging the whiskers of the black bullheads and teasing the common carp. The sun warms the rolling surface waves that sparkle in its rays. You hear the giggles of fauns playing in the grasses that billow in the breeze along the banks. Overhead a great spotted cuckoo shouts, his clamor shaking you out of your own dream back into the nightmare of golden Mercury’s belching thrusts. Did he call you ‘goddess’?

As if being acknowledged for what you are factually is a compliment?

The world blurs. The sky seems to you a mosaic of Jupiter standing before you in all his glory. You bring your hands up to your temples and press, trying to keep yourself present, but you sink. The earth quakes. The oaks menace. You are cowering by the Almo and your father is nowhere in sight.

NAIAD BITCH! His voice explodes in your ears, taking up every ounce of your mental ability to process. His eyes flash with crimson fury. YOU, tiny goddess, will never defy me again!

He pronounces “tiny goddess” with a cold sneer that shrinks your heart. You want to protest, but no words will form as if your tongue has already resigned. The earth shrugs up mountains around you, the waters of the Almo recede to a trickle, and a fiery haze engulfs you as Jupiter’s mighty arms reach forward. Before you can comprehend what he means to do, his salty fingers are inside your mouth. You try to cry out, but your voice is stifled by what feels like a bolt of lightning followed by a nauseating sensation like your esophagus is being pulled inside out. Through Jupiter’s gritted teeth, cruel laughter escapes and fills the air as he yanks from your mouth his hand holding the entire length of your bleeding tongue. You collapse in a near-faint as your heart tries to resume rhythm. Jupiter strides away from you holding his right arm high in the air. His eagles are swooping down from the oaks to eat out of his hand, tearing off shreds of what was once your tongue. Then all goes quiet.

“Nice!” Mercury coos at you.

You are back in the now. The deal consummated, Mercury flashes golden grins at you while you reassemble. You brush gritty sand from your hair and smooth your silk tunic, the waves of fabric covering you like the waves of regret you choke back. Under Mercury’s glow you feel the scarlet of shame and anger rising on your cheeks. The world in slow-motion starts to approach normal speed. Beside a nearby hummock, hidden in the brush, you detect a corn bunting guarding its nest. You sniff the sulfur-laced breeze drifting in from the south and wipe your eyes. Inside your mouth your phantom tongue strains to form the one word you long to pronounce more than any other in this eternal moment:

Pyrite.

Mercury wouldn’t get the quip, anyway. And a deal is a deal. Mercury, the failed psychopomp, installs you in a cottage in the woods among chestnut trees, away from oaks to hide you from Jupiter’s wrath. Mercury thinks to keep you for himself. That is, when he’s not distracted by Flora chasing the sun with her violets and roses. Mercury in retrograde.

Larunda:
So, poetry is stuck here with us?

Mercury:
Powerless as a mere demigoddess, a mortal. The poem she dreams about birthing
is the justice we all dream. We can inhale and exhale a poem. It is a vapor.

Protean Mercury visits less and less often as the decades unfold, much to your relief. You adapt to your bucolic life, even as Mercury pops in from time to time bringing gifts of poetry which you devour and new technologies which you ignore. Your offspring, the Lares (twins as silent as you and as swift as Mercury) are your companions and joy. But on rainy days, you send to Jupiter anonymous polemics woven of bitter poetry. Your poems travel with the bleaks and tenches in the Liris and with the eels all the way into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Larunda:
And dreams?

Mercury:
You write a poem in your dream. When you wake up, you reach through the
scrim of sleep for your tablet. But as you begin to write down the poem that you
know is in you, it begins to fade. You squeeze your eyes shut to try to remember
the verses that hover there in the periphery. You can approximate their dimming
echoes. And even in your arrogance of believing that you’ve nailed it, the voice
inside berates you for missing it.

Heedless of Mercury’s conceits, poems pour from you. You sneak down in the night to streak the waters with bile, feeding your acrid verses to the fish. Cloaked in new moon’s darkness, you bathe in the Liris. As the cool water flows over your skin you remember the Almo so distant now. A night bird rustles nearby, and you tamp down memories of a past that has forgotten you.

Among his oaks, old and forgotten, Jupiter hardly notices your churlish fish. He spends his faded days longing for the past and cursing whomever may be at fault—Janus or Chaos, he can’t be sure. First, the emperors decided they were gods. Then they replaced old Jove with the Syrian god Elagabalus, followed soon by the cult of Sol Invictus. Finally, St. Augustine and Christianity put the kibosh on the whole multiple-god-filled enchilada. Everything about the world tastes acerbic to Jupiter. Encountering a few bitter poetry fish seems unremarkable.

Hidden in the woods, you wonder: How bad could it have been in the Underworld?

It’s a bit late for that, Lara.

Larunda:
The poem never was?

Mercury:
You have to live without it.

You wrap yourself in the solitude of your silence to embody the evolution of your mythology: Tacita, Muta, Mania. But the legends of Latium as well as the passage of time, which mortals watch like sparrowhawks, mean nothing to you. You have no notion of how forgotten are the immortals. Avernus being all but empty these days, the area surrounding it thrums with the symbols of commerce that Mercury promised his worshippers. You, Larunda, could simply swim away but instead remain steeped, infusing the Liris with your manic poems. Once keen to avoid the Stygian morass, you have built your own swamp out of lyric verses mucked up with resentment and isolation. Mired in it, you’ll spend eternity bent on proving Mercury wrong.

Dear J.(fn. 4)

I would be a dagger
To the god on high
You should not be

Blessed in maroon
And blood, harbinger of death
So I’d steal your breath

From your gaping mouth
Black as coal
You’ve nothing to say

That season I mounted
Your son by the stream
To endure hideous freedom

An empty tinkling then
Eyes to clouds
Killed me

As when selfish
Out of my throat
You ripped my tongue

Now I hide in forests
Gazing at fair Luna
Becoming the moon.

–Sincerely, the silence

##

1. When later the Aurelian walls replace these, the gate will be known as the Porta San Paolo because it opens to the road that leads to where Saint Paul né Saul of Tarsus is said to be buried under St. Paul’s Basilica Outside the Walls.

2. Rape victims in lore and literature whose tongues were cut out by their rapists. See Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

3. This is the branch of the Liris that has been joined south of Monte Cassini by the Gari (also called the Rapido) and is to be called in later years by a sort of portmanteau, the Garigliano.

4. After Kazim Ali’s poem of the same name.

 

——

Jacqueline M. Pérez writes poems and short stories in the southeastern United States when she is not farming or arguing with people in court. Her writing has appeared in past issues of the Brasilia Review and also in publications such as Otoliths, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Eunoia Review, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Angry Old Man Magazine.