The Perils of Polarity

When I met her, my ears heard the sound of a fuse catching fire. Nala was a long, cat-like shadow, her smile like sunlight breaking through clouds. Her voice—low, wicked, a little husky—set in me a conflagration.

And the miracle is that she saw the same in me: body to body, heart to heart, mind to mind, we wove ourselves together from one sixday to the next, and the web was done. One line on a calendar made us belong to one another.

We rented a flat above a bakery and set up facing benches. To the scent of baking bread we drank our coffee and planned our research. To the scent of baking sweets—and the occasional whiff of sulfur, or jasmine, or charcoal—we conducted our experiments (Nala’s handwriting was small, precise, square; mine betrays my finishing-school education, all curlicues and flourish). To the tang of yeast we fell on one another like the starving. I will never be able to smell dough without the memory of her flavor—salt, lemon, and smoke—without the image of her mouth moving over me, her dark hands splayed over my breasts. To walk past a bakery makes me ache with sorrow and desire.

Nala was cold-natured and would sprawl on top of me at night, her head pillowed on my breasts, her long dark limbs spread out as if she were holding me down. I’d put my arms around her and she would mewl in her sleep, wriggle a little.

She was my stilt-woman, my crane-woman, all arms and angles. Her skin was dry, and on winter mornings she would rub warmed oil over herself until she gleamed like polished mahogany. She was cold and I was warm, and even head and a half shorter, I could envelop her, all my skin to touch her, to warm her, to love her. My dragonfly love. My sweet.

We lived in such contentment: loving one another, working hard and well, walking arm in arm to the market on sunny days, laughing over the backgammon board when it rained. I would not have dreamed that so much joy could be contained in such a quiet life.

We created a substance that waterproofed silk but when used as a fumigant also eased catarrh. The profits from this made our attic more comfortable. Home and Nala. Warm fires in winter, money to both eat and work.

But they would not let us marry. Like to like was as normal as air but not sanctioned by the Church. Nala’s nephew got married, and then my niece. I returned home crying from our back corner seat in the cathedral, where no one would speak to the prodigal alchemist. Nala could never bear my tears. She curled her long arms around me, dark to light, thin to plump, tall to short, and I wept in misery that we could be so happy, but the only family we would ever have was each other.

“I would marry you if I could,” she said.

Again I heard the sound of a fuse catching fire.

Who needed the Church when we had our own work? Ours would be an alchemical marriage.

Like to like, drawn together, so we constructed our ritual of magnetite and seedlings. Nala wore a red dress, I wore blue. We set reservations at a fine restaurant to celebrate afterward. We strewed flowers on the bed; we braided them in our hair.

And in our excitement, we forgot the basic property of magnets.

Nala lit the gel fire under the vessel of wine. I twined the young rosemary plants, tied them together with red string. I placed them in the vessel as she dropped the magnets in. Arms linked, we placed our mouths at each end of the wide bowl and drank.

Light flared. I do not remember sound, though my ears rang. My body ached, and even from the floor the proportions seemed wrong. With my eyes streaming, I crawled toward Nala, hardly able to see her, faintly hearing her cries. I crawled to her and then was flung away. I hit my head on the workbench.

Five, a dozen, a hundred times we crawled to each other, weeping, moaning with pain and confusion, only to be thrown apart.

Nala was a dark woman, spider-thin and tall. I was a little plump dairymaid, pale as the moon.

Like to like, we made ourselves as magnets, in which only opposites are drawn together. As we had been.

Now both of us are middling round, middling dark, middling tall. Alike as sisters, we sit at either end of a park bench and find that we cannot speak of all we have lost. She asks about my new flat, all the way across town. I ask about her teaching job.

We made ourselves too alike to touch, and there will never be any comfort again.


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