Wednesday 24 January 2024

COLOPHONY - Short Story by Cyril Simsa



Short Story 

by Cyril Simsa


Of course, it wasn't quite the way the Good Book says. When is it ever?

First off, the palace was boring. I mean, imagine being fourteen, with nothing to do but watching the mortar crack off the walls of the royal residence at Tiberias. I was too old by then to have a nurse, and not boy enough for a tutor, so I would spend my time in the sultry cross-draughts of the towers, caught up in the somnolent jingling of the distant city and the hushed footfalls of invisible servants. On a good day, I might work up the energy to do a little point work, or I might twist my head into the deeply angled embrasures of the windows so as to watch the fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. Sometimes, I might even flip through the pictures in my mother's small collection of scrolls and papyri. Mostly, though, I just waited.

At night, it was different. Then, my mother would hold her famous banquets, and the hall would fill up with fat old men in hand-me-down finery and supercilious Roman aediles in exquisitely rumpled togas, accompanied by their own Gallic bards and Ionian soothsayers. Sweetmeats would arrive, piled high on our best silver platters, like skulls at Golgotha, while wine would flow till it compassed us about, like the mighty Jordan. And sometimes I would dance, flashing my pale arms like a spectral emanation – my mother Herodias' trophy daughter – the unstated prize in the lottery of her political fortunes. For people tell me I was very beautiful.

The second complication, needless to say, was Herod. History has dubbed me a monstrous child, but it was Herod, my dear uncle and step-father, who was the real monster... Dressing me up in gauzy muslins and dangly necklaces and inviting me to serve tea in his private rooms; chasing invisible shadows down the tapestried halls and pretending concern for my health, as he lurked by my bed-chamber; sneaking clothes out of my dresser to give to his whores. As if he had no shame.

Goodness only knows what my mother must have thought of it. I can't imagine for a minute that she hadn't long since got the measure of his lewd aspirations – not a lot slipped past her, and she wasn't the denying kind – no, not Herodias. Maybe she saw me as one more nasty little barb in the web of lures and promises by which she stacked the odds in her favour; or maybe she got some weirdly inappropriate thrill out of the whole sorry story. He was, after all, her second husband of the same name, and half-brother to the first, so who knows what kind of perverse ichors flowed through her ventricles.

Anyway, there I was on that fateful day at one of those cripplingly dull parties, and Herod started to provoke me. He had been eyeing me up all evening, which was not in itself so unusual. But somehow, today – instead of simply panting and drooling, like a crazed smoker outside an opium den – he seemed almost to be having trouble breathing as he ogled my carefully veiled bosom. Maybe it was only the heat and the dust; or maybe it was the drink and the jovial presence of the two dozen revolting lechers who were keeping him company. But in any event, I could feel his lust in the stifling air, like the steam off a salt-pan, and his bruised disappointment, swirling like little clouds of desire in the late summer sunlight. His gaze crawled over my skin like an army of oversexed locusts, while the rest of that band of hypocritical old roués looked on, with their slackly molluscan jowls and their lopsided eyes and their revoltingly sticky fingers. Things were coming to a head, I could tell. He wanted his lips on my mouth and my long, pale arms on the softly degenerate folds of his midriff. He wanted the satiny sheen of my sweat and the warm, feral scent of the little sachet of myrrh my mother had told me to hang on a thong of plaited leather in between my breasts. He wanted... But then again, I dare say you can guess what he wanted.

There came a lull in the conversation, and he clapped his hands to attract attention.

"Salome," he called in that weaselly little voice of his. "The evening drags on, and we would be entertained... Would you not dance for us, my daughter? Your artistry is the stuff of legend, and your grace would do much, I am sure, to uplift us."

Well, yes, that would be one way of putting it, I thought, repressing a sudden twinge of annoyance; though in truth, there could have been little doubt as to which parts of the company, exactly, I would be uplifting.

"Salome?" he added quizzically – and, for him, almost hesitantly – when he saw I did not respond.

"Salome!" hissed my mother, with a meaning look that might have intimidated a team of professional gladiators or a poorly socialised oryx.

"Salome?" Herod repeated.

There was nothing for it, then. I would have to take him seriously. With glacial calm, I did my best to adopt an expression that would convey how deeply I was considering his proposition, while I tried to decide what to do about his highly irregular obsession with the flesh of a young woman who was not only his step-daughter, but also his niece. Leviticus would have looked askance at either one of those relationships, but it seemed he was determined to pursue both. I was like one of those two-headed crocodiles that occasionally hatch out at the end of an exceptionally hot summer, which made me too good an opportunity for a seasoned old thrill seeker like him to miss.

"My dear Uncle," I replied eventually, and I emphasised the word maliciously. "It is late, and I am tired. I could not possibly do this audience justice."

But it seemed he was not going to let me off so lightly.

"Salome, dance for us," he wheedled, dignity slipping under the urgency of his concupiscence. "I will give you seven spools of golden thread from Ethiopia and ten silk tapestries from the Imperial residence in Antioch. I will give you an ivory casket of dragon's blood from distant Socotra and a necklace of Parthian smaragds..."

In the background, I could see my mother – never one to pass up the possibility of enriching herself through the efforts of others – signalling with her half-hidden hand that I should accept, before he changed his mind, but I pretended to be blind and stupid.

"No, my dear Uncle, I cannot," I insisted. "The heat and the lateness of the hour... It is quite out of the question."

"Salome, just one dance..."

His voice was rising rapidly, and his eyes had taken on a glassy look. I could tell he was losing any sense of proportion. All he could think about was his lust for my smooth, white skin and the forbidden lines of my body. It was as if he had a fever.

How far would he go?

"Salome!" He was desperate. "For just one dance, ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. Whatsoever thou shalt ask, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom..."

And that was when my sense of mischief, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call it, got hold of me, and I smiled. Charmingly and disarmingly, and with a semblance of the utmost innocence, I made my proposal...

"My dear Father," I said, and I could see that the change in my choice of cognomen had not gone unnoticed. "My father," I repeated, "I shall dance for you, then, if that is what you will. But when I am done, you will have brought to me your own severed head, garlanded with laurel and washed with spices, laid out on a silver charger... That is the price I am asking."

Well, the shock was quite something. The guests all wore carefully masked faces, as if embarrassed, finally, to be witnessing this unseemly family affair, and my mother was uncharacteristically pale and speechless. For a few seconds I was sure she hated me.

Only my uncle seemed to have come alive. His cheeks were flushed, and the tendons in his neck, contorted. Involuntarily, he had risen from his seat. He stood breathlessly, dribbling and swaying and twitching from head to foot, as if on the brink of a big decision.

It's that combination of sex and death, it always gets to them... Maybe because it is a sign of how seriously they take their pleasures; maybe only because it is absolute. They know, like Icarus, that nothing else they do in the whole of the rest of their lives will ever come close... That the experience will be unique and unfalsifiable because it demands the ultimate sacrifice.

In truth, I was not aware of any of this at the time. I didn't unravel the nuances till later... Much later. In that moment, I was completely in the thrall of my instincts; but then, I expect my uncle was, too. As my mother swooned and the company did their best to become invisible, I felt something click between the two of us. It was as if, all of a sudden, we were connected by a tunnel of flickering energy, like a meteorite shower or a lightning strike. The crackling was so intense, I was afraid it might spill over into the rest of the room – like the clatter of knuckle bones, or the expectant rattle of armour in an amphitheatre – and betray us to our mendacious spectators, whose enjoyment, it seemed, did not extend to having their gorges stirred, after all. Still, in that instant, I knew I had him... That he would do anything to gain my favour. That he was willing to die for me.

And that was when my dear mother came to her senses and broke the silence.

"But darling, that's ridiculous," she yawled, like the Trumpet of Doom. "Give her the head of John the Baptist instead."

The sigh of relief was palpable. Only my uncle and I were disappointed, I think, as we watched the firefly brilliance of our link fade away into nothingness.

I knew from long acquaintance that there was no arguing with my mother, when she had worked herself up into a rage, and so I danced; and the rest, as they say, is history. Or it would be, if some silly old do-gooder hadn't taken it upon himself to cut out the spicy bits.

Later on, life had its way with me, as it does with most of us. I ended up being married off to another uncle of mine – Philip, his name was, son of some small town Cleopatra, who was no match for her namesake... Honestly, these petit-bourgeois families should know better than to name their children after empresses – especially when they'd never have the gumption to follow through on a political dispute with an asp – and Philip was neither more nor less inconsequential than might have been expected. He was the kind of man who would make a boulder seem talkative. All the same, that one day, I knew, Herod had been mine. And his dubious company. And my dreadful, scheming mother. I had had them all in the palm of my hand, and nothing can take that away from me.

People often tried to find me in the following years to "pay their respects", to use a quaint, old euphemism. There's nothing quite like cruelty, fame, and death to act as an aphrodisiac, especially when they come spliced with a whiff of incest. It got a little tiresome, after a while, and so, when Philip died, I changed my name and moved to Armenia; but for all that, the tributes kept on coming. Indeed, even now, in the twenty-first century since the Saviour's birth, I find they lust after me still.

It's true that this is of limited practical use in the afterlife, but it's curious that, after all this time, it is the wild women of the ancient world who draw the eye of the Decadent, not Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Not the self-denying saints or the austere patriarchs, but myself and Lilith and the Lamia. The shapeshifters and the free spirits.

There was a time, back in the 1890s, when we were very much à la mode in the salons of Paris and Vigo Street – when every opening night was overrun by hoofed boys and scarlet-headed temptresses and you could scarcely visit a private view, without encountering half a dozen symptoms of the "new and beautiful and interesting disease"... But before that, it was the Romantics; and before that, the Hermetic philosophers and the Renaissance.

There have always been those who long for the shimmer of the dragonflies over the lily ponds of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the blinding light of the sun on the Sea of Galilee; for the mysterious caverns of the Land of Colophony or the moth-white blooms that line the banks of the Styx. Women of the shadows and young men of the twilight. Cosplay and lavender.

Now, my dear, what brings you to my altar? A dance? Why yes, I can dance. But the consequences... You do know that, once you set off down this path, there's no going back? Very well, then. So if you could just lie back and let your breath whisper, like the fountains of Samaria, we'll get started.

Yes, that's right, let your mind go wandering. Let the shades of the past come flooding into your heart, like peacock feathers swept over a cataract... You'll have the very best of dreams. As red as the dawn and loud as velvet, with skies as clear as amethyst and poetry like death. As deep and dark as the reflection of the stars in the obsidian blade of sorceress and startling as the eyes of Heaven.

You'll see.


No doubt it will be one of the pirates on the sea of dreams,

black as the rock on which errant ships dash their timbers;

cruel and beautiful, face outlined as if by pale candles

in the dark ebony mirror at midnight.


– Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951),

The Three Mages (1907).


Cyril Simsa is an Anglo-Czech writer (born in London to Czech parents, now living in Prague), with works published in both languages. He started writing in his mid-teens, contributing to a range of small press magazines and fanzines, later moving on to produce translations and articles for Foundation, Locus, Fantasy Macabre, Wormwood, and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, amongst others. Since he returned to fiction writing, he has had stories in Albedo One, Electric Velocipede, Ideomancer, Darkness Rising, BFS Horizons, and elsewhere. His short story collection is Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe (Brighton: Invocations Press, 2014).

TECHNICAL NOTE: the citation from Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, originally written in Czech, is in the public domain; translation by Cyril Simsa, so there are no issues with rights. 

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