She recognizes her. Camouflaged by the brilliance of the light bursting beyond the pulpit. Her familiar. Her outline against eternity, the head, and shoulders, and arm descending. Her hand upon the tiller, the stern and rudder in the shape of a dorsal fin against which an indeterminate scene unfolds, as if on the polished surface of a shield. On the other side of the fin, the brown hull of the boat itself. A hull most human-like, the face of an aged, bearded man, his pupils glowing pinpoints of light, his mouth open wide, very wide, cavernously so. A sea god perhaps, or the ocean who swallowed the dead, or the bard of the dead themselves, who did not go gently but, instead, sing at the top of lungs no longer. Trying to catch the harried attention of the living. The dead are protean, shapeshifting. Some of them come walking out of the light, magi from the East bearing symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Leaning forward, impelled by the bill and breast of a great white gull.
Bowing their heads, standing on a bluff of time, they pour out their gifts, balm for a world racked with destruction and death and difficult to fathom: slave, martyred saint, burst of light, third party ducking behind the frame. Standing together, statue-still, the magi compose the neck, jaw, face, and forehead of a woman with eyes revealed, once again, only by glowing pinpoints of light. Is that you, Sophia? You, gazing at a dervish with winged sleeves whirling in the widening gyre of time?
Her dervish eyes wander back toward her familiar heading into the brilliance of light beyond the pulpit. Sailing to Byzantium. Queen of Cities, Nova Roma, Constantinople, crossroads of trade routes from China, the Middle East and Africa, magnificent monuments of sun and shadow, aqueducts, wondrous waters of the Aegean and Black seas, jewel of the Mediterranean world. But, what of the wars of conquest and re-conquest, the climatic change, the displaced populations, the soldiers and their supply trains, and the grain ships and grain carts sent as tribute? The hungry, grain-clinging, flea-ridden rats riding everywhere across the empire and into the heart of the great city.
Soon, in his Secret History, the Byzantine historian Procopius would be writing furiously of fevers, swellings, delusions, comas, and deaths, both immediate and protracted—graveyards, burial pits, and trenches bulging with corpses, of humans and other mammals, who slipped through the hands of the doctors trained at Alexandria or who never had access to a physician. Procopius laid the blame on the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, declaring him an evildoer upon whom divine wrath had been visited. Justinian’s plague that, in time, killed more than 100 million people. The Byzantine Empire’s immune system was compromised. It never recovered. It collapsed. The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, Italy would become not so much “artifice of eternity” as of time and death. Finito. Finito. Finito. Birds of prey fly over cypress trees of Byzantium, Ravenna, the next empire, and the next.
Contemplating the magi, the sea bird, the woman with her hand on the tiller, the curving hull of the boat forming a chin by stern and rudder, the dorsal fin defining one side of a countenance—she begins to perceive a notable face. A face, mosaic of light and shadow, the tip of the nose below the magi’s feet, the lips above the chin of the hull. A face of someone in an altered state. Knowing the distance of “an ocean apart.” Sensing the mystery of being drawn, inexorably, to who knows where. The sea bird being called back to the shimmering.
Under the auspices of a gull and that light that may have startled her with its brilliance at the end of a long night, her familiar sailed. Indeed, she is sailing. She is sailing waters both stormy and calm. But not to Byzantium. Rather, into the sound of the wind in the cordage. Or was it the wind that rattled the window pane near her bed as she turned to one side after her bath on that March morning? Into a reverie of a sky that never left her despite being trapped by time and circumstance, by a decaying empire, by a body fading and blanching like the dying coral reefs of the world’s oceans. Into the memory of an invincible summer, even on that barely spring morning she stopped breathing.
Flash fiction by María DeGuzmán
María DeGuzmán is a scholar, conceptual photographer, and music composer / sound designer. Her photographic work has been exhibited at The Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, MA, USA), Watershed Media Centre (Bristol, England), and Golden Belt Studios (Durham, NC, USA). She has published photography in _Abstract Magazine_, _The Grief Diaries_, _Coffin Bell_, _Typehouse Literary Magazine_, _Map Literary_, _Two Hawks Quarterly_, _Harbor Review_, _The Halcyone_, _Gulf Stream Literary Magazine_, _Ponder Review_, _Alluvian_, _streetcake: a magazine of experimental writing_, _Galdrar_ of Tempered Runes Press, and _The Closed Eye Open_; creative nonfiction photo-text pieces _Oyster River Pages_ and _La Piccioletta Barca_; photo-text flash fiction in _Oxford Magazine_, _Bombay Gin_, _SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices_, and _Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts_; photo prose poetry in _Landlocked Magazine_; poetry in _Empty Mirror_; and short stories in _Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas_, _Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature_, _Sinister Wisdom_, and _Obelus Journal_. Her SoundCloud website may be found at: https://soundcloud.com/mariadeguzman.