The Last Satyr

The satyr apologized to whatever powers cast him into the human world as the last of his kind. He apologized for despoiling, yanking, mewling. For adopting the language and mannerisms of every woman he touristed, for “shedding on the camp bed,” for “sundry pharmaceutical trips.” For his preference for the wives of easily dissatisfied men.

It was on the curdling skin of the swimming pool that the satyr caught sight of the future—his thick ugly hairy body, and his eyes wincing with pain. He told himself he did not want to know what at some future moment he could be wincing about. The waters flashed and sparkled and the future disappeared, filling instantly with the reflection of a diving board.

No one in the last half hour had so much as wetted a fingertip in the swimming pool. Those people who were here earlier set their drinks on glass tabletops. They let the early evening spill around them, looking into their drinks and then into the pool, as aspen leaves drifted onto the water’s surface and spun. They never knew he crouched in the shrubbery. Eventually, they crumpled their cocktail napkins and pushed back their metal chairs and left.

Fortunately, the remains of their drinks had not been collected. He could feel the thin lips of the woman who sipped from the rim of a scotch. He tossed down two fruit slushes, more ice than rum, and a daiquiri that was held between the forefinger and thumb of an executive assistant with a fever. He lurched onto a reclining chair. He let shadows and light drift over him from a window in a building past the walkway.

After a while he noticed, half-dreaming, that a woman stood on the other side of the window, inside the building. She had to be looking through reflections—the reflections of the room behind her cast in the window, the further reflections of the glass tables the satyr was surrounded by at poolside.

Then she did something astonishing that startled him into pure panicked wakefulness. She waved. The window banded with new shadows, and she stepped backward.

The satyr clambered off his chair, loping to the bushes on the side of the pool farthest from the building. His thighs soon ached from crouching. When he was satisfied that the woman would not appear, he edged out and stumbled to a reclining chair. The ground rose. He felt like a chord was plucked inside his head.

The expulsion of breath beside him nearly caused him to reel out of his chair.

“Hey, boy,” a woman’s voice said. “I can hardly watch them anymore. Can you?”

Her expectancy corkscrewed into him. There it was—that human pressure, as if they couldn’t leave anything alone, nor could they see what he actually was. “The pace people keep. They dance like weevils.” She raised her chin in the direction of the window. “Look at them. People are never more revealing than when they dance. Not that I can dance anymore, but at least I acknowledge my limitations.”

The satyr nodded. He wondered if in the darkness he could pass for an unusually hairy, hunchbacked man.

The woman stared at him so intensely that he feared she might become alarmed and scream. He could see it: men would barrel out of the building. Already he could feel their fists digging out clumps of his hair. Blood welled from the corners of his eyes. Every hair on his ancient body was as sensitive as a cat’s whisker. If they knocked his head against the table his jaw would snap. The old injury to his knee woke up, and the satyr groaned.

“My feelings exactly,” the woman said. “I was sick to my stomach and in bed all day. For a while I felt like running away from my own stomach. Then I was fine at 8:30 tonight. Just like that . . . This is my retirement gift—this trip. They gave me a party last month. It was awful. You start to realize that your funeral will be like your retirement party: the same people thinking they’ve got something on you just by surviving.”

She looked up at the night sky. A breeze swayed the aspen. The sound of a piano floated in from the restaurant. “You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat you when you can no longer hurt them,” the woman said. “I guess it was all my fault. I worked in Personnel. In the end there was hardly anyone I hadn’t hired.”

She patted her thigh and stared at the satyr as if she expected him to scoot over close to her. “Chester. At my retirement party he recited Yeats. ‘That is no country for old men,’ he said. He meant, This is no company for old women. This is not your company, Louise. Then he went on about ‘those dying generations.’ And then ‘an aged man is but a paltry thing.’ Die, I thought, you can die now, Chester, you bastard. We’re waiting. And then it came: ‘a dying animal’—and he meant me.”

Somewhere, a door opened and closed with a faint crackle.

“You never know what uses you’ll be put to,” the woman was saying. “Even Yeats. What a marvel Yeats was. But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. And oh yes: There is not a fool can call me friend, and I may dine at journey’s end with Landor and with Donne. You hear lines like that and it’s easy to forget what a randy bugger he was.”

The wind came up and then died. The smell of chlorine crept into the satyr’s nose. The woman whispered to herself. Gradually her voice grew audible and she said, “I let him have his moment of fun. I could have recited my Frost imitation and directed it at him: Whose accounts these are I think I know. He keeps a cheap whore in a bungalow. Even a half wit, say, an accountant, must think it queer—the way he keeps so much in arrears. Two accounts diverge and I—I’ve made copies of every one of his files—and that will make all the difference.”

The wind was back. The satyr adjusted his legs with relief. A breeze passed across the wet stubble around his lips, and he let himself think about women he had known . . . The gentler the woman, the more her dreams led her life for her, sprouting city parks and luxury resorts and residential complexes. Such women were like nymphs. Except that nymphs are in disguise permanently, drawing themselves up into tree bark, into lavender, into clover. If you were lucky, a nymph materialized. Even then, even as marbled tissue, in another second she was as hollow as a reed. At the most licentious gatherings—rose petals and oils, fat dribbled into the open cavities of corpses, at those ceremonies in which human men degraded bodies—nymphs stood apart. Suddenly he saw the face of the woman before him as if it were swept under water, a surprised face disappearing, at the exact moment she was caught. Yes, he might have known her. That might be what her problem was.

Being here, the woman was saying, reminded her of that cruise with Les, before being tugged back into port. Who could tell when either of them wasn’t drunk? They were out on “the high seas,” as Les said, where everything dipped and swelled. Back home in the condominium, a new widow only a month later, she felt it again: a rocking in her body, as if the sea were lodged permanently in her blood.

She was talking so quietly that he tilted his head to hear her. Oh no, she was saying, she never guessed her life without Les would be so awful—like drowning perpetually. And no one saw her, no one noticed. If they could see her suffering what would they do? Nothing. Everyone suffered. So what? She was lucky. Very lucky. Everyone just wanted her to retire. The barbarians gave her a party. And what holds her heart together? Les—they don’t make them like that anymore. “The end of a line,” she said.

The satyr didn’t think the woman would ever stop talking when abruptly she stood and patted the top of his head before he could flinch away. She lost her balance and grasped at the wadded fur of his shoulder blades with her feeble, half-hollow hand. “Even so,” she said. “Even so. I hate my own self-pity. You’re almost a comfort to me, you almost are.” She sighed. “Do you belong to anyone?” She felt around his neck. He twisted away from her. “Be a good boy and let me check if you have a collar. All right. Have it your way.”

On the walkway past the pool the woman turned and cried out, “You’re a good boy. Yes, you are.”

When she was out of sight the satyr rested his head on the glass tabletop.

It was she who touched his shoulder. He hadn’t meant for it to happen. How could he be blamed? His gift to a dying woman was a restless heart.

He walked to the edge of the pool, kicking away a pair of flip-flops. He looked into the water and closed his eyes, opening them again. The image he saw in the pool before the old woman came out was his own reflection—now. It was himself, his shadow reflected by torchlights at the pool’s edge.

A white towel was coiled on the cement. Someone had swum in the pool today for almost an hour. In his mind he saw her—a scar on her thigh from a car accident. Her cell phone rang on one of the glass tables on the other side of the pool. She dropped her towel on her way to answer it.

Something tugged at him and he looked into the water. The future rippled across the length of the pool, like a dolphin coming toward him. The satyr saw everything that would happen, saw himself scratching at the woman’s door until she let him in. Saw himself climb up onto the bed to match his breathing to hers. As if he were hovering close to the ceiling of the hotel room, he saw the old woman’s mouth fallen open. Her brown-veined arm flung across the animal lying beside her on the bed. In the morning the woman from housekeeping would find the woman and her dog. The unmistakable stillness.

It was inscribed in fate, in an ancient light, by the gods no one anymore could hear. There were gods of love among them, and they allowed him what they allowed themselves. They would not let him die alone.

About Lee Upton:
Lee Upton’s fifth book of poems, Undid in the Land of Undone, was published this year by New Issues Press. She has short stories forthcoming in Epoch, Conduit, Gargoyle, and Short Fiction. She is the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.