Disclaimer: Well, I'm certainly not Shakespeare.
Author's Note: There's a touch of vanity at work in this story; "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is my high school's fall production this year. There is also a touch of Christian Bale worship, since the man plays a sexy Demetrius, and no mistake. I didn't know it was possible to be attractive while saying things like, "I had rather give his carcass to my hounds." But he manages. Hell, he managed to be sexy in all-over black kevlar and bat ears.
That last bit is so far from relevant it really should ask for directions.
The Fruitless Vision
by S. Risen
They have been married for seven years, and still Demetrius speaks to her in poetry. She is his lark with the sunrise and his nightingale with the stars. Her skin is palest alabaster and her hair is gold spun fine. Aphrodite herself looks on with envy.
It is only true in the manner of lovers' flattery—which is to say, he believes every word of it and she believes in his belief. Helena has examined herself in still water and she knows what is what. Her cheeks are dusted with freckles, her hair has more in common with straw than with gold, and her figure has never returned to her since her second daughter was born. She is not an ugly woman by any reckoning, but nor is she the cold, exquisite statue Demetrius adores.
On late, lazy mornings she has tried to explain this to him, tracing stretch marks and pointing out moles for his examination.
"Look, here. A burn scar from a cooking fire," she says. "Or here. I scraped my knee and didn't allow it to heal properly."
He only smiles indulgently, taking her tenderly by the wrists and telling her again that to him she will always be perfection itself, distilled from sun and moonlight.
It has only recently occurred to her, after ten thousand lines of verse, that the woman he describes is so separate from her that she could be almost anyone. Perhaps she is one of the servants—the saucy kitchen hand or the girls' young nanny. Or maybe a face glimpsed in the street and burnt into his memory. Perhaps she is Hermia.
Midsummer has come to Athens again, burnishing the temples with long afternoon sun and glittering in the leaves of Helena's private garden. It is a tame oval of quiet fountains and gently tended laurel trees, littered with her daughters' wooden dolls and clay figurines. Some nights Helena falls asleep there and dreams that the grass cushioning her shoulders is the velvet moss of wild undergrowth. The stars turn to fairy lights and she moves off through panes of moonlight in search of Demetrius.
The air trapped between ancient oaks smells earthy and moist, and the sound of her feet in the brush is exhilarating. Well-born girls do not mess about in dirt and brambles, but mettlesome women might. She stumbles toward a sliver of dawn in the trees, hoping she has found her way out of the wood.
In her exhaustion, the light seems to squirm out from under her gaze. She has almost gotten the hang of looking at it from the corner of her eye, but every now and then she forgets herself and looks it straight on. The light flickers out.
The memory of the original chase holds a strange magnetism for her now. There is a beautiful view from the temple where she was married, and it spills down onto the broad stretch of wood where she once wandered in a wild dream, pursuing a man who did not love her. The only sense Helena can make of that night is that the gods wrought some lovely miracle to turn Demetrius' head. For years she has required no more explanation than his gentle assurances.
"You were beautiful in distress—I couldn't do otherwise," he tells her, twisting a lock of her straw-colored hair around his finger. "My heart came home to you."
Somehow this is no longer enough.
This morning she wakes with the sun, sighing as the cool mustiness of her dream wood dissipates. Clean sunshine and an arm across her hip take its place. Helena stretches sinuously, and the arm shifts.
Today she is Demetrius' fair nymph, lither than Atalanta, wilder than Daphne.
"That sunrise beyond the hill, in all of its glory, can never compare," he whispers. Compare to what? Helena asks mutely.
But when a metaphor sticks going down or a murmur sounds a flat note, Helena does not complain. After breakfast Demetrius departs—to where, she does not ask—and she escapes to her garden and paces beneath fragrant laurel leaves.
All she needs to do is follow her feet back and forth. Her eyes fall slowly closed, and when she opens them again the laurels tower like pines and the lavenders coarsen to ferns. She feels so close to her lovely miracle that she can almost sense its nature.
But then it passes, and Helena sinks down beside a lavender shrub, face tilted to catch the particular angle of midmorning sun. She can never hold the wood together around her for long.
Dinner is quiet at best. Thetis and Hermione come to the table hand in hand with their nurse, to whom Helena is distantly polite. Both of the girls are pink with a recent scrubbing.
"You're both so clean," Demetrius says dryly. "I can see your faces. I was wondering whether they were still there under all the dirt."
Thetis inclines her head respectfully as she has been taught. Hermione parrots the gesture. Then both girls sulk resolutely through the rest of dinner. Helena sends them off to bed before she herself has finished eating, watching them out of sight around the doorway.
"What troubles you, princess?" Demetrius says gently.
"You remember the night we spent in the wood, long ago?" she says quietly.
"Of course. It seems a dream even now."
"It can't have been," she insists, shaking her fair head.
Demetrius gives her that indulgent smile again. "And why not?"
"Because something changed between us, and I can't remember how."
"Nor I. Good sense prevailed, perhaps?"
"Then it prevailed with the speed of Hermes," she says lightly. "I only wonder what made you change your mind."
For a moment, a shadow of confusion and doubt hovers over his face—why did he make her his bride?—and then he smiles assuredly and says, "You were lovely in the moonlight."
In the failing light of evening she slips out of the house, wrapped in a thick cloak. She finds the trees just as she remembers them—cool and imposing—and she smiles at the sound of the first dead leaves under her sandals. On her third step she wonders why she has come. On the fifth, she wonders how she will find her way back. On the tenth, she realizes it was foolish to come at all, that she will not find any answers hidden in an oak knot or skulking under an arch of pines. But she takes an eleventh step nevertheless.
The darkness thickens around her. She walks with care, pushing through branches that catch on her cloak and stepping gingerly out of crawling vines that wind around her ankles. A length of spidersilk clings to the bridge of her nose and she paws desperately to get it off. Soon she is lost, and her shaky faith in her feet is getting shakier.
But there is a sliver of daylight ahead of her, just as before. If she can only reach it, there should be a sign from the gods or at least a memory reawakened. There should be some grand revelation.
The night wears on, and instead there is only Helena tripping over tree roots, calling for Demetrius.
In time she rolls over in the lush grass of her garden, staring up at the stars and shaking all over. She is surprised to find herself crying.
With her cloak pressed to her mouth to muffle the sound of sobs, Helena stumbles for the house. She nearly turns her ankle on something rounded, hard, and half-buried in the thick grass. It is a beautifully made clay horse whom Thetis has named Moonlight. His near foreleg lies beside him, split cleanly from his shoulder. Helena sighs, collects the pieces, and goes indoors.
It is still dark when she wakes beside Demetrius. She treasures the peace and lies quietly, considering his sleeping profile. She can hear Thetis wailing in the nursery and Hermione screaming competitively nearby. They must have found Moonlight already. Demetrius stirs at the noise, then squints drowsily at the ceiling. His eyes focus on her, he opens his mouth—
"Good morning," she says, and presses a finger to his lips.