“Burning Sky” (1989) by Rachel Pollack (4489 words)
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Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines. Or maybe a compass, like the kind kids used to get in Woolworths, with a blue-black needle in a plastic case, and flowery letters marking the directions.
Two years ago, more by accident than design, I left the City of Civilized Sex. I still remember its grand traditions: orgasms in the service of loving relationships, healthy recreation with knowledgeable partners, a pinch of perversion to bring out the flavor. I remember them with a curious nostalgia. I think of them as I march through the wilderness, with only my compass to guide me.
Julia. Tall, with fingers that snake round the knobs and levers of her camera. Julia’s skin is creamy, her neck is long and smooth, her eyebrows arch almost to a point. There was once a woman who drowned at sea, dreaming of Julia’s eyes. Sometimes her hair is short and spiky, sometimes long and straight, streaming out to one side in the wind off Second Avenue. Sometimes her hair is red, with thick curls. Once a month she goes to a woman who dyes her eyelashes black. They darken further with each treatment.
Julia’s camera is covered in black rubber. The shutter is a soft rubber button.
The Free Women. Bands of women who roam the world’s cities at night, protecting women from rapists, social security investigators, police, and other forms of men. Suits of supple blue plastic cover their bodies from head to toe. Only the faces remain bare. Free Skin, they call it. The thin plastic coats the body like dark glistening nail polish.
Julia discovers the Free Women late one summer night when she can’t sleep. She has broken up with a lover and can’t sleep, so she goes out walking, wearing jeans and a white silk shirt and high red boots, and carrying her camera over one shoulder. On a wide street, by a locked park, with a drunk curled asleep before the gate, a man with a scarred face has cornered a girl, about fourteen. He flicks his knife at her, back and forth, like a lizard tongue. Suddenly they are there, yanking him away from the girl, surrounding him, crouched down with moon and streetlights running like water over their blue muscles. The man jerks forward. Spread fingers slide sideways. The attacker drops his knife to put his hand over his throat. Blood runs through the fingers. He falls against the gate. The women walk away. Julia follows.
Julia discovers the Free Women one night on the way home from an assignment. Tired as she is, she walks rather than take a taxi home to an empty apartment. She has just broken up with a lover, the third in less than two years. Julia doesn’t understand what happens in these relationships. She begins them with such hopes, and then a month, two months, and she’s lost interest, faking excitement when her girlfriend plans for the future. Recklessly, Julia walks down the West Side, a woman alone with an expensive camera. She sees them across the street, three women walking shoulder to shoulder, their blue boots (she thinks) gliding in step, their blue gloves (she thinks) swinging in rhythm, their blue hoods (she thinks) washed in light. Julia takes the cap off her lens and follows them, conscious of the jerkiness in her stride, the hardness in her hips.
She follows them to a grimy factory building on West 21st Street. As they press buttons on an electronic light Julia memorizes the combination. For hours she waits, in a doorway smelling of piss, thinking now and then that the women are watching her, that they have arranged for her to stand there in that filth, a punishment for following them. Finally they leave and Julia lets herself inside. She discovers a single huge room, with lacquered posts hanging with manacles, racks of black handled daggers along the walls, and in the middle of the floor a mosaic maze, coils of deep blue, with the center, the prize, a four pronged spiral made of pure gold. On the wall opposite the knives hang rows of blue suits, so thin they flutter slightly in the breeze from the closing door.
Over the next weeks Julia rushes through her assignments to get back to the hall of the Free Women. She spends days crouched across the street, waiting for the thirty seconds when she can photograph them entering or leaving. She spends more and more time inside, taking the suits in her hands, walking the maze. In the center she hears a loud fluttering of wings.
She tells herself she will write an exposé, an article for the Sunday Times. But she puts off calling the paper or her agent. She puts off writing any notes. Instead she enlarges her photos more than lifesize, covering the walls of her apartment, until she can almost imagine the women are there with her, or that the maze fills the floor of her kitchen.
And then one day Julia comes home—she’s gone out for food, she’s forgotten to keep any food in the house—and she finds the photos slashed, the negatives ruined, and all the lenses gone from her cameras.
Julia runs. She leaves her clothes, her cameras, her portfolios. She takes whatever cash lies in the house and heads into the street. Downtown she takes a room above a condemned bank and blacks out all the windows.
Let me tell you how I came to leave the City-state [earlier it was just “City”] of Civilized Sex. It happened at the shore. Not the ocean, but the other side of Long Island, the Sound connecting New York and Connecticut. I’d gone there with my girlfriend Louise, who at nineteen had seduced more women than I had ever known.
Louise and I had gotten together a few months after my husband Ralph had left me. On our last day as a couple Ralph informed me how lucky I was not to have birthed any children. The judge, he said, would certainly have awarded them to him. He went on to explain that it was no coincidence, our lack of children, since any heroic sperm that attempted to mount an expedition in search of my hidden eggs (Raiders of the Lost Ovum) would have frozen in “that refrigerator cunt of yours.” Ralph liked to mix metaphors. When he got angry his speech reminded me of elaborate cocktails, like Singapore Slings.
I can’t really blame Ralph. Not only did I never learn to fake orgasms properly (I would start thrusting and moaning and then think of something and forget the gasps and shrieks) but even in fights I tended to get distracted when I should have wept or screamed or thrown things.
Like the day Ralph left. I’m sure I should have cried or stared numbly at the wall. Instead I made myself a tuna sandwich and thought of sperms in fur coats, shivering on tiny wooden rafts as they tried to maneuver round the icebergs that blocked their way to the frozen eggs. I don’t blame Ralph for leaving.
Anyway, he went, and I met Louise window shopping in a pet store. That same night we went to bed and I expected to discover that my sexual indifference had indicated a need for female flesh. Nothing happened. Louise cast her best spells, she swirled her magician’s cloak in more and more elaborate passes, but the rabbit stayed hidden in the hat.
I became depressed, and Louise, exhausted, assured me that in all her varied experiences (she began to recite the range of ages and nationalities of women she’d converted) she’d never failed to find the proper button. It would just take time. I didn’t tell her Ralph had said much the same thing. I wondered if I’d have to move to my parents’ house upstate to avoid safaris searching for my orgasms like Tarzan on his way to the elephants’ graveyard.
Julia runs out of money. She disguises herself in clothes bought from a uniform store on Canal St. and goes uptown to an editor who owes her a check. As she leaves the building she sees, across the street, in the doorway of a church, a black raincoat over blue skin. Julia jumps in a taxi. She goes to Penn Station, turning around constantly in her taxi to make sure no blue hooded women sit in the cars behind her. At the station she runs down the stairs, pushing past commuters to the Long Island Railroad where she searches the computer screens for the train to East Hampton.
On track 20 she hears a fluttering of wings and she smells the sea, and for a moment she thinks she’s already arrived. And then she sees a trenchcoat lying on the floor. Another is falling beside her. A flash of light bounces off the train, as if the sun has found a crack through Penn Station and the roof of the tunnel. She tries running for the doors. Blue hands grab her wrists. Blueness covers her face.
No. No, it happens along Sixth Avenue. Sixth Avenue at lunchtime, among the push carts selling souvlaki and sushi, egg rolls and yoghurt, tofu and pretzels. Julia’s pants are torn, the wind dries the sweat on her chest, she’s been running for hours, her toes are bleeding, no cabs will stop for her. She turns a corner and tumbles into a class of twelve-year-old girls. The girls are eating hot dogs and drinking Pepsi Cola. They wear uniforms, pleated skirts and lace up shoes, brown jackets and narrow ties. The girls surround Julia. They push her down when she tries to stand up. Somewhere up the street a radio plays a woman singing “Are you lonesome tonight?” The girls tear off Julia’s clothes. They pinch and slap her face, her breasts. Grease streaks her thighs. The girls are whistling, yelping, stamping their feet. Now come the wings, the smell of the sea. The girls step back, their uniforms crisp, their ties straight. They part like drapes opening to the morning. A woman in blue steps into the circle, bright shining as the sun. Spread fingertips slide down Julia’s body, from the mouth down the neck and along the breasts, the belly, the thighs. Wherever the woman touches, the welts disappear. She lifts Julia in her arms. Slowly she walks down the street, while the crowd moves aside and the whole city falls silent, even the horns. Julia hears the cry of gulls searching for food.
Over the weeks Louise changed from bluff to hearty to understanding to peevish as her first failure became more and more imminent. She suggested I see a doctor. I told her I’d been and she got me to admit the doctor had been a man. She lugged me to a woman’s clinic where the whole staff consisted of former lovers of hers. While Louise went in to consult the healer on duty I sat in the waiting room.
I got into conversation with a tall skinny woman wearing a buckskin jacket, a gold shirt, and motorcycle boots. She showed me the French bayonet she carried in a sheath in her hip pocket, explaining it would “gut the next prick” that laid a hand on her or one of her sisters. I asked her if she’d undergone any training in knifeware. Not necessary, she told me. Pricks train. The Goddess would direct her aim. The Goddess, she said, lived in the right side of the brain. That’s why the government (99% pricks) wanted to burn lefthanded women.
“Janie’s a little strongminded” Louise told me as she led me down a corridor to see Doctor Catherine. The corridor’s yellow striped wallpaper had started to peel in several places, revealing a layer of newspaper underneath.
“Did you sleep with her?” I asked.
“Only a couple of times. Did she show you her bayonet?” I nodded. “She kept it under the pillow in case the police broke in to arrest us for Goddessworship. That’s what she calls women screwing.”
I didn’t listen very closely to Catherine, who didn’t like the name “Doctor.” I wanted to think about pricks training for their life’s work. They probably do it in gym class, I decided. While the girls try backward somersaults and leap sideways over wooden horses the boys practise erections, and later, in advanced classes, learn to charge rubber simulations of female genitals. At the end of each lesson the instructor reminds them not to speak of this in front of their girlfriends.
Catherine didn’t find my G spot or raise my Mary Rose (I strongly identified with Henry Vlll’s sunken flagship and all its chests of gold. I cried when they raised it, all crusted in barnacles and brine. That left only one of us hidden in the murk.). She did give me some crushed herbs for tea and a bag of tree bark to chew on while I lay in the bathtub. Louise raged at me whenever I neglected my treatment. “You can’t let yourself get negative,” she shouted. “You’ve got to believe.”
In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles. Six, no, nine of the women weave in and out of sight, sometimes whispering to each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes standing before Julia and silently mouthing words in a foreign language. Across from her the blue suits rustle against each other.
Julia learns to catch bits of food thrown at her from across the room. Twice, no, three times a day one of the women brings her water in a stone bowl. A gold snake coils at the bottom. Sometimes the woman holds the bowl in front of her, and Julia has to bow her head and lap up as much as she can. Or the woman moves the bowl away just as Julia begins to drink. Or throws the water in her face. At other times she gently tilts the bowl for Julia. Once, as Julia drinks, she discovers that a live snake has replaced the metal one. The head rises above the water and Julia’s own head snaps back so hard she would bang it against the wall if a blue hand wasn’t there to cushion her.
They shave her head. No, they comb and perfume her hair. They rub her with oils and smooth the lines in her face and neck, slapping her only when she tries to bite or lick the cool fingertips sliding down her face.
Once or several times a day they take her down from the wall and force her to run the maze. The women surround the tiled circle, hitting the floor with sticks and trilling louder and louder until Julia misses a step or even falls, just outside the gold spiral. When she’s failed they yank her out of the maze and hold her arms out like wings as they press the tips of her breasts into champagne glasses filled with tiny sharp emeralds.
On the day Julia completes the maze the women dress her in shapeless black overalls and heavy boots. They smuggle her out of the country to an island where a house of white stone stands on top of a hill covered in pine trees. The women strip Julia. With their sticks they drive her up a rock path. The door opens and a cool wind flows from the darkness.
A woman steps out. Instead of blue her suit gleams a deep red. It covers the whole body, including the face, except for the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth. Her muscles move like a river running over stone. Her name is Burning Sky, and she was born in Crete six thousand years ago. When she walks the air flows behind her like the sundered halves of a very thin veil.
One night, after a fight, Louise kicked the wall and ran from the house. The next morning, the doorbell woke me at 6:00. Frightened, I looked out the window before I would open the door. There stood Louise in a rough zipper jacket and black turtleneck sweater. She saw me and waved a pair of rubber boots. Afraid she planned to kick me I didn’t want to let her in but I couldn’t think of how to disconnect the doorbell. She’d begun to shout, too. “For heaven’s sake, Maggie, open the fucking door.” Any moment the police would show up.
While I buttered toast and boiled water Louise announced our plans for the morning. We were going fishing. Dress warm, she said, and gave me the spare boots she’d brought for me. I had to wear two pairs of socks, and my feet still slid around.
In her pickup truck I tried to sleep, despite Louise’s cheerful whistle. But when we got all our gear and bodies in a rowboat out in the Sound, it turned out that Louise didn’t plan to fish at all. “Now, goddamnit,” she said, “you can’t whine and get away from me. I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”
“What?” I said, ruining her powerful speech. Her meaning became clearer as she began to crawl towards me. She scared me but she made me want to laugh too. It reminded me of the time Ralph had locked us in a motel room with a bottle of wine, a bag of marijuana, and a pink nightgown. At least motel rooms are comfortable. Maybe Louise considered rowboats romantic.
I decided I better hold my face straight. “You rapist prick!” I shouted, and tried to grab an oar to threaten her but couldn’t work it loose from the lock. I snatched the fish knife and held it with both hands in front of my belly. “Keep away from me,” I warned.
“Put that down.” Louise said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“I’ll hurt you, you prick.”
“Don’t call me that. You don’t know how to use that.”
“The Goddess will show me.”
Apparently this all became too much for her. “Shit,” she said, and turned around to grasp the oars for the pull to shore. I sat slumped over and shivering. My hands clenched around the knife.
In a ceremonial hall hung with purple silk and gold shields the women tattoo a four-pronged spiral in the hollow of Julia’s neck. They present her with a blue suit. With four others she returns to New York on a cruise ship secretly owned by the Free Women. They wear disguises, like the Phantom, when he would venture out as Mister Walker, wrapped in a trench coat and slouch hat, to rescue his beloved Diana from Nazi kidnappers.
Despite the women’s clever tricks someone on the boat recognizes them. A television anchorwoman, or maybe a rightwing politician. This woman once served Burning Sky, but disobeyed her leader on some assignment. Now she comes to their suite of cabins and begs the Free Women to readmit her. They play with her, attaching small intricately carved stone clips all over her skin. She suffers silently, only to have them announce she had forgotten how to break through the wall. They can do nothing for her. She goes away, later becomes Prime Minister.
When we got back to the rental dock Louise began to lug the boat onto the wooden platform. “If you want to go home,” she said “give me a hand.” I took hold of the rope to tie it to the iron post that would hold it fast when the hurricane came.
At that moment a woman came out of the water. Dressed in a black wet suit with long shiny flippers and a dark mask that completely hid her face, she stood for a moment rotating her shoulders and tilting her head up to the sun. Her spear gun pointed at the ground.
My heart began throwing blood wildly around my body: my vagina contracted like someone running for her life. “Will you come on?” Louise said.
I stammered something at her. Louise had never heard me stammer before. “What the hell is the matter with you?” she said. Then her eyes followed the invisible cable connecting me and my beautiful skin diver. She looked back and forth between us a couple of times while a wolfgrin took over her face. “Sonofabitch,” she said, and laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know,” I said, and Louise got to see another first. I blushed.
It was certainly a day for firsts. That evening, in the sloppy cavernous apartment Louise had inherited from her grandfather, she took out her collection of “toys”: whips, handcuffs, masks, chains, nipple clips, leather capes, rubber gloves, and one whalebone corset, c. 1835. No wet-suits, but it didn’t really matter. I hope none of Ralph’s sperm remained camped inside me anymore. The spring thaw came that night, and the flood would have washed the courageous little creatures away forever.
The Free Women order Julia to go alone to her apartment and renew her professional contacts. At first she finds it hard to function without her instructors. She hates going out “naked,” as she thinks of her ordinary clothes. With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.
Gradually the dream fades. Julia stops dressing up in her Free Skin at night, she goes on holiday with a woman reporter who asks about the tattoo on Julia’s neck. Julia tells her she got it to infiltrate a group of terrorists. When the woman falls asleep Julia cries in the shower and thanks the Virgin Mary for her deliverance. She wonders how she ever could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.
An order comes. Something simple, maybe embarrassing a judge who suspended the sentence of a man who raped his five-year-old daughter. Something with a clear moral imperative.
Julia takes off from work to decide what to do. In a cabin in the woods she tries on her Free Skin and lies in bed, remembering Burning Sky’s face, and the way her fingers looked extended into the air. She remembers lying with the other women in a huge bed, how they slid in and out of each other, while their bodies melted inside their blue suits. She remembers hanging from silver manacles, remembers dancing to the heart of the labyrinth.
Julia returns to the city and locks the blue suit in a metal cabinet. The day of her assignment passes. She falls into a fever, attended by her reporter friend. When she recovers and the woman has left, Julia opens the cabinet. Her Free Skin has vanished. In its place lies a Chinese woman’s dagger, five hundred years old, with an ivory handle bearing the same spiral sign that marks Julia’s neck. Terrified, she waits for retribution. Weeks pass.
And so I left the City of Civilized Sex in one great rush on the back of a skindiver. Now that she’d preserved her record Louise lost interest very quickly, but at least she gave me some leads to “your kind of trick,” as she delicately put it. I didn’t know whether she meant the lovers or the activities.
I discovered not only a large reservoir of women devoted to farfetched sexual practices, but several organizations, complete with buttons, slogans, jackets, and conflicting manifestoes. After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but their hunger for community. Had I left the City only to emigrate to another nation-state?
It wasn’t so much the social as the sexual conformity that disturbed me. Everyone seemed to agree ahead of time on what would excite them. I began to wonder if all those people in the Land of Leather really liked the same sort of collar (black with silver studs) or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism, and gave up her dreams of finding leather clothes and objects of exactly the right color, cut and texture.
As my imagination began to show me its tastes I became more and more specific with the women who tried to satisfy me. That first night with Louise she could have tied me up with a piece of filthy clothesline and I wouldn’t have complained. A few months later I was demanding the right ropes (green and gold curtain pulls with the tassel removed) tied only in particular knots taken from the Boy Scout Handbook.
And even that phase didn’t last. For, in fact, it’s not actions that I’m hunting. No matter how well you do them they can only approximate reality. City dwellers believe that fantasies exist to intensify arousal. Out here in the Territories the exiles should know better. I want to stand on a tree stump and yell through the forest, “Stop trying to build new settlements. Stop trying to clear the trees and put up walls and lay down sewers.” I want them to understand. Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.
Julia’s life becomes as pale and blank as cheap paper. She goes to bars and picks up women. They all go away angry when they get back to Julia’s apartment and Julia just sits on the bed, or else goes to the darkroom and doesn’t come out. Julia returns to the ritual hall. She finds it replaced by a button factory.
She drives out to the beach on a hard sunny day in December. Ignoring the cold wind she strips naked and walks toward the water, both hands gripping the Chinese dagger. She raises it to the sun to watch the light glint off the blade. But then she notices flashes beyond the knife. Small spots on the horizon. As she watches, they grow larger, become blue sails, then a row of boats coming out of the deep. Each one contains a single woman. The sails rise out of their shoulders like wings. They call to each other like birds, their voices piercing the wind. When they land they detach their skins from the boat masts and the plastic snaps back against their bodies.
Julia falls down in the wet sand. A wild roaring in the Earth drowns out the sea as the six women lift her to her feet (six is the number of love, with Julia they become seven, the number of victory). They wash the mud and loneliness from her and dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.
The only true happiness lies in obedience to loving authority.
Charles Moulton, speaking as Queen Hippolyte of Paradise Island to her daughter, Princess Di,
Wonder Woman Comics, c. 1950