After running through a gamut of emotions—anxiety, guilt, and regret—Athena’s reaction to her decision had impaled Sheila with terror. She’d read of men—and to be fair, also of women—who were so enraged when a spouse or lover left them that they became violent, which is where things seemed to be heading.
Safe in her cozy living room, Sheila had smugly wondered why the murdered partner described in the newspaper had stayed so long. Now she realized the victim might have feared that if he or she tried to leave, the consequences would be fatal.
Sheila couldn’t imagine how Athena would kill her—maybe a drug overdose, or startling her so she tumbled off the cliff. But whatever the consequences, it was too late to turn back. Unfortunately, she had no one of whom to ask advice. Since day one, the relationship with Athena had been secret, so she had no friend with whom to share her dilemma.
Initially, Sheila had benefited from her relationship with her inspirer. Was she being fair, now that her needs had been satisfied, to end the relationship?
They had been linked for more years than she could remember, though their interaction had been inconsistent. Only in her work could Sheila be depended upon for a reliable give-and-take. At the lab, checking beakers for temperature and activity, as regular as clockwork—in fact, by clockwork—she showed her fidelity.
As to her family and friends, it was catch as catch can. A long-time acquaintance had pointed out that if she didn’t take the initiative to call Sheila, they would lose touch. It wasn’t that Sheila minded meeting for coffee or going to a movie, on the rare occasion she and a friend could agree on one, but arranging social outings was never on the top of her mind.
Sheila’s mother, who lived on the eastern side of the country, had mistakenly concluded that with e-mail available 24/7—whether her daughter got home from the lab at midnight or left at dawn, she would send a message. And she could have, but there were so many other demands shuffling like anxious amoebas in line; e-mails to her mother to relay information of little interest to either of them were not a priority.
That was what made the difference with the one she affectionately called Athena. The little notes had always been a pleasurable surprise. There was never an overtone of “Why don’t you write?” or “A quick phone call wouldn’t cost you.”
She had chosen the pet name Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, because that is what she had provided: wisdom. Her insight had done the trick for her. If, in fear, she turned from Athena now, she’d be safe but incomplete.
Until recently, the connection had been smooth-sailing, with only a few minor complaints. One was Athena’s cramped writing. As a scientist, Sheila prided herself on her clear, print-like script. Unlike Athena’s scrawl, there was never any doubt about what she was saying. Never any need to read between the lines.
Another quibble was that Athena’s messages were often ambiguous and left Sheila struggling to interpret them. Once, in desperation, she had risked asking a colleague to decipher a communication. “Who wrote this?” he had asked suspiciously. She didn’t enlighten him. It was safer to keep her associates in separate compartments.
Recently, as the communications had gotten wild and the suggestions ever more bizarre, Sheila recognized that, as for most domestic intolerances, her earlier concerns had been trifling. Now, the messages almost burned her fingers. She wanted to shout, “Don’t push me.”
Sheila had considered crumpling the notes, scribbled on small scraps of paper, and flushing them down the toilet. But a proud moderate in all things, she was determined to keep her cool and not respond so dramatically. And, although the messenger was acting erratically, surely there could be no real danger.
But from the moment she considered severing relations, Sheila knew that after ten years, it would be difficult to cut off ties. Like any first love, the connection had changed her life. She knew from her sister’s tearful sagas that breaking up with a beau—pulling apart from one who had become an other-self—would be like ripping off skin.
The initial correspondence, so long ago, had startled but intrigued her. It promised a revelation that she soon recognized might be useful: an opportunity to open herself up to creative thoughts. The note had appeared on her bedside table the second night she had stayed at Friendly Bear Bed and Breakfast.
It was the off-season, and there were only a few visitors. When Sheila booked, the owner had apologized that most local sites were closed for the winter.
“That’s fine,” Sheila had said. “I’m looking for a quiet place, close to town, to have a rest…”
“That we can provide,” the proprietor had assured her. “And a good breakfast.”
Sheila hadn’t mentioned that she was escaping the scrutiny of colleagues and family to figure out how to kick-start her failing career.
Two weeks earlier, her boss had told her she was too rigid—no more than a clerk. Colleagues joked about her, saying she was caged more securely than the rats in Lab B.
Desperate to find new solutions to her work challenges, Sheila had come at problems from every door she could imagine. But her vision was limited. There might be a door as small as Alice in Wonderland’s that she was missing. With her career on the line, she had headed out of town to think things over, not expecting to be contacted by a secret correspondent—Athena—a savior who arrived to lead her to triumph.
The first day at the B and B, Sheila had done everything by rote: ate breakfast, walked on the beach, and checked the one gift shop, open only half days, for a souvenir for her mother. The second day, the B and B owner had insisted she drink a large rum toddy to warm herself against the cold sea breeze before setting off. Cheered by the alcohol seeping through her tired body, Sheila wandered along the shore, no destination planned. Her thoughts began to float contentedly. She smiled at a stranger with a small, warmly clad dog and talked to a girl with a multi-colored outfit, confident that she would not meet either of them again. Indulging in supper with a carafe of wine, which the owner was proud to describe as a local award winner, Sheila had gone to bed mellow. Upon waking, she discovered the first communication.
When she found the note—leaning against the bedside lamp—her first thought was who had written it? She suspected that it was one of the regulars playing a trick, but the owner had insisted no one could have entered her locked room.
She tossed the message in the garbage bin only to retrieve it later—feeling superstitious for the first time in her life—and already suspecting there was a clue in the message. On initial reading it seemed to say “Bive me the bun”, which she later deciphered to read: “Give me the sun.”
After her week’s holiday, Sheila returned to work. Having relished the open country, the uncluttered beach, and the soft white winter sun, the lab was dark and confining. She turned up the light level, and when that didn’t provide the desired brightness, cranked open the blinds—long secured shut—to let in the sun, as instructed. Her spirits rose; she felt more hopeful.
A few days later Sheila was astounded to find she was not the only one to blossom with additional light. Her specimens, snug in their dishes, had woken. The results were astounding. Hardly believing her eyes, Sheila called a colleague in a southern country, they adjusted the time and light factors in special growth, and presto: the results were astonishing. As often the case, the factor that made the difference was small and, once noted, seemed obvious, but she and her colleague had had the wit to note it, and then provided the supporting research to explain the success. The result was a hefty grant and surprised compliments from her colleagues.
That was the first of numerous occasions when Athena gave her the tip or prod to try something new: “Defy gravity” was another message which when she finally deciphered it led Sheila to another breakthrough, and leap forward in her career.
That was all fine and good, and she appreciated the guidance, but now things had gone too far. The notes were confusing and disturbing.
She was successful—a tenured professor—and didn’t need these silly messages like “Flee…watch your heels…leave well behind.”
It was time to cut the cord and the best place to do so was to go back where it all began: The Friendly Bear Bed and Breakfast.
The owner—now stooped with age—didn’t remember her but provided a rum toddy on request. In the morning, the note read; “Destroy me not, no.” Sheila snatched up the paper and burned it in the fireplace.
That night she wrestled to get some sleep, haunted by a presence in the room and fearing that her decision to cut the ties might be dangerous. In the morning, there was no note, but the blue china vase on the dresser was smashed. Noting that she had left the window open, Sheila blamed the wind.
The next day, the note, which she ignored, sported a lopsided smiley face, and read, ‘Can we see friends?’ On the following morning she worked to discover her clothes knotted, and her shoes thrown to the dusty corners under the bed. Her complaint to the owner that someone was playing tricks during the night resulted in rolled eyes. The woman pointed to an ancient mariner dozing in a corner chair, ‘He couldn’t make it up the stairs and don’t imagine I knot guest’s clothes.’
No, of course not. It must be Athena, angered by her cutting off correspondence. Perhaps she should have chosen to end the affair at home. After all, it was at the B and B that it all started; maybe that was the problem. This was Athena’s base.
Sheila strode up and down the beach, tightening her scarf to protect herself from the harsh wind. She knew now that Athena would not depart without a fight. Athena was not only the goddess of wisdom; she was also the goddess of war. And in a fight with the goddess of war, Sheila feared she would not prevail.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Published in Fragments of Chiaroscuro Dec.2015, Vol.1. Issue II.