Fiction by Emily Kiernan




By Emily Kiernan

He sat beside her, his face turned towards hers, their shoulders almost brushing.

“I’m afraid,” Gemma said.
Eros smiled, a gentle, kindly expression crossing his face as he touched her hand.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s always like this.”
Gemma nodded. Her heart had sped up when he’d touched her.
“When did you meet Thanatos?” Gemma asked.
“Meet her?” he said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t really like that.”
“I suppose,” he added, “it was when I saw the sea. When the sea was made.”
“And when did you meet Richard?”
“In college,” she said. “I was in college.”
He smiled again, touched her hand again.

There had been a time when it was simpler, when there had existed a natural companionship and adoration that had not yet met its limits and thought itself limitless. It was a time before narrative, so they had existed in a perpetual middle and had not conceived that there was anything before or after. Eros could not, now, say what it had been like to be with Thanatos, but he remembered it as a sort of evening; a long, glistening twilight that they had slumbered through and awoken in darkness. He would say now that he loved her, loved her passionately and well, and now this was true. Away from her, within himself, his love was whole and vital, but her presence had deadened consciousness, and he had no words for what he had felt, was not sure it was even a feeling. Instead, when asked, he would say what he had done.
“I swam in the ocean for hours and days, and at night she would come to me. Then I would cease to swim and she would hold me. I would feel the tips of her fingers on my spine, and her hair would drift all around me in the water. There was phosphor in the water and stars in the sky and I would sleep but I would not sink.”
“Because she loved you?”
“Just once.”
Gemma laughed.
“Me too. He just loved me once too.” She laughed again, her hand darting to her knee as if it were the railing of a ship: while she had always known this she had never said it before, even to herself. He’d come to visit her in New York the fall after she left grad school—or had come to visit New York and stayed with her, she sometimes corrected herself—and she had known from the moment he arrived that there was something between them that had not been there before.
“I’d always liked him,” she said. “We were close, but I don’t think I’d ever so much as touched his hand. It was like a pupa of love—the same creature, but you wouldn’t know from looking at it. All fat and sticky and ugly, but innocent.”
Then for three days they had cocooned together. It was the last weekend in September, and the weather was a perfect windy autumn. She’d taken off from work and they were together every moment. She wasn’t sure exactly how it had started; nothing particular was said, no agreements made, but as they had walked side by side around the city—the Met, Battery Park, St. John’s, everything you’re supposed to see—she had known that they were suddenly, intensely together, and each word had become a stitch, a little stab followed by a pulling closer.
When he left again she cried and cried, and knew that something was gone from her that she wouldn’t get back, that something had been created in her and then taken away again, leaving an absence where there had not even been a space.
“When I talk to him now, I feel like he hasn’t gotten so much over me as past me. It’s as if I’m still like him, but he’s not like me anymore. But it could just be me. I’m sensitive. He still calls me, still comes to see me. He wouldn’t, if he didn’t care, right?”
She paused and waited for a reply, but Eros just smiled wanly.
“I lost her the moment we were most alike,” he said, “the moment we drew closest together. I was swimming in the ocean. It was night and she was near me. I was drifting in sleep in the water. There had never been a completion with us before—her presence was an absence of want, and I only desired her when she was not near. She had never—”

Loved, felt, desired, awoken.

“I was swimming in the ocean, and suddenly she drew closer to me, desired me, took me. I sunk beneath the water and she was all around me, all throughout me. I felt her hands and her hair and her body against mine as she held me and pulled me into her, and I was part of her, like her, desiring, loving, drifting, slowing, sleeping, stopping, dying. My eyes were closed and I did not see. And there, in the center of her, I became desperately afraid. I felt my body, felt it aching alongside hers. I pushed her away from me, fought away from her. I floated gasping on the surface of the ocean.”
When Eros broke the surface of the water Thanatos let go of him, her strange, sudden desire dissipated. They both knew that something irreparable had befallen them. She did not go from him right away, though now that they had found the end of their nearness it could not be long. In finding that they could come no closer they had become adversarial, opposite, and would separate. Still, for one more night she lay beside him, slumbering deeply as he whispered into her small ears.
“You are the limits of me,” he said. “You are my ending. In the ending of myself I will find you again, my dearest, my beloved.”
“I’ve got to know one way or another,” Gemma said suddenly, the force of her revolution pushing her halfway to her feet.
“Will the truth be useful, you think?” Eros asked. “Can you make something of it?”
She shook her head, more in agitation than as answer.
“I have to—I’m tired of it. I’m so tired of carrying this useless, hopeless love.”
“Maybe not hopeless.”
Gemma looked away and said no more.
In Gemma’s memory, three days were condensed into a single image of him: looking up at a statue in central park, shielding his eyes against the sun and the leaves that were falling, and she looking on with a paper cup of coffee warm between her hands and the tails of her old gray scarf blown out behind her. When she thought of this moment she would cry the way she cried at the endings of favorite movies or at the last pages of books.
“I can’t,” Gemma said, and Eros grabbed her hand and felt a small quick pulse coursing through it. “I just can’t anymore.”
He put a hand into her hair and she leaned the weight of her head against his palm.
“It isn’t worth it anymore. I don’t want it. It hurts me too much. I am so tired.”
“But you love him?”
She choked, cried, looked down. Eros reached a finger to her chin and lifted her eyes up to meet his. They were a wavering, swimming green, and behind them, his greatest desire—a blankness, a place mined out and empty, an exhaustion, a giving up. He watched the quiet surrender coming over her, watched the longed for desertion become manifest. For a moment her love and her love’s dying were together, one thing, inseparable.
“My Thanatos,” Eros said. “My darling, my beloved.”
He loved her, for that moment, deeply and well. He leaned to her, touched her, slept, and was gone.

A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, The West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Her work has appeared in [PANK], The Collagist, The Good Men Project, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Dark Sky, and other journals. More information can be found at

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