"I'm hot blooded; check it and see. I've got a fever of 103."
Cleopatra curled up in the recliner chair, delicately tucking her bare feet beneath her dressing gown, as she flipped through the channels with the remote. Landing on MTV, she paused, her thumb poised over the button. She watched the sleek long-haired youth currently on screen undulate and scream, and she slowly, very slowly, put the remote down. She strained to see the way his taut flesh shimmered beneath the electric lights.
I should not torture myself like this, she thought, as yearning overwhelmed her.
As the singer's mouth formed an "o" over the microphone, Cleopatra remembered other lips, other times. She moaned along with him, but it afforded her no release. She drank in the video, thirstily, as each chiseled and calculated image pierced past her retina and went straight for her loins.
Finally, she could take it no longer. She sprang from the chair like a tigress and let out a long howl as she tore at her shiny black hair. She kicked the TV over with such force that its innards exploded, and she wailed along with the crackling of the tubes.
She cursed the gods who hated her.
Cleopatra had once been Queen of Egypt -- Cleopatra VII, Queen of the later Hellenistic period of Egypt. If her own life had not been enough to forever render her famous, she was later immortalized by Shakespeare and, even later, by an opulent Elizabeth Taylor performance. It was easy to see that she had once been favored by the gods, and, indeed, she had been allowed a rampant succession of reincarnations -- usually in lives of well-off women -- although none had been as ostentatious as her early life as Cleopatra.
Later, though, her lives took a distinct downward spiral when the gods had begun to grow bored and jaded with their project of the milleniums. Just before the Spanish Inquisition, the Gods, in their boredom, introduced what became a reoccurring pasttime of betting who amongst them could induce the most outrageous situation in a given era, and it was at this time that they played their first joke on Cleopatra. That lifetime, they'd steered her into becoming a Catholic nun. Given her appetites, which always manifested in her various lifetimes, she was unable to control her urges -- and after a few inept indiscretions, she ended up being one of the early victims of that Inquisition.
In more recent times, the gods seemed to delight in throwing her essence into farm girls destined for brutal marriages to Cæsars/Antonys who drove pick-up trucks and scratched themselves in public. She'd had two such short existences in just that manner, and when she died the last time, she marched into the Council Room of the Gods and told them in the most eloquent epithets she had culled from all her colorful lives exactly just what she thought of them.
The gods -- being gods -- were not amused.
They decided she needed to be taught a lesson before her next incarnation and so sentenced her to the rather dreary imprisonment known as Holding, where she would rest in limbo until they decided she could re-visit the earth in the vessel of their choosing. To further punish her, they surrounded her with many appliances of desire to instill in her a frenzied longing for those things she was so accustomed to getting in her various lives.
"We will make you beg for the smell of men," the gods had said.
As she had once been known for standing up to some of the greatest warriors in history, she tossed her mane and squared her shoulders. "Do your worst," she had seethed.
The gods checked off Hubris on her little form and sent her away to Holding to dwindle. Then the gods -- being gods -- forgot about her for a couple of decades.
The assorted eunuch imps who tended to her maintenance replaced the television set within an hour of its destruction, tsking at her beneath their breath. They were mottled little green lumps of protoplasm with limbs and opposable thumbs. They scuttled beneath her like algæ, often ignoring her if she spoke and spitting at her if she tried to touch them. Their spit was greenish-yellow, sticky, and smelled like a cross between valerian root and sauerkraut. No matter how desperate she might get for another being's touch, nothing was worth bearing that. Whenever they entered her chambers, she usually fled to the farthest corner.
"Guess what to-day is?" one of the imps announced as they started to leave. The TV had been set up and set on the Playboy channel. "Guess what to-day is?" Its voice was raspy and sing-song.
"Your lip wax appointment?" Cleopatra replied.
"No, silly girl, silly girl. Today is visting day. Visiting day! Vi-si-TING (ting, ting) day!"
"My rapture cannot be contained."
Visiting day, at first glance, perhaps sounded like a welcome respite in an existence of solitude and waiting; however, the guests who were allowed to visit her were hand-picked by the gods -- usually gleefully and usually after one too many ambrosias. Cleopatra dreaded visiting days even more than she dreaded MTV's undressed or unplugged or whatever it was. The horror the gods would choose to unleash on her was often enough to send her frantically searching for "Three's Company" reruns.
Still, the words had their desired effect. They said "visitor," so she naturally went to her dressing table. She knew Vanity was another one of the things they'd checked off on her form, and like everything on the form, she was supposed to GET OVER IT, but vanity, like hubris, had its uses. She did not understand why the gods -- certainly the most vain and hubristic creatures she'd ever encountered -- blamed their creations for taking after them when that's what they wanted in the first place. Make up your bloody minds, you twitty deities! From hours of absorbing John Bradshaw and Oprah on the TV, she meant to go into the Council Room one of these days (if they ever let her out) and explain the concept of "dysfunctional" to them. For omniscient beings, they really could be dense sometimes.
Before the mirror, she resurrected her well-known regality, applying her cosmetics and baubles in the way her maidservants had once done for her. If she was going to have a visitor, she was going to appear as the Cleopatra -- full-on. Of course, she always did this, and the gods knew that, and so sometimes they would send things just to antagonize that guise. She was especially annoyed the day they sent Wonder Woman and Isis (the 70s superhero, not the goddess), both of whom insisted that if she just clicked her bracelets three times she could come help them fight crime and live happily ever after. She told the imps to pass the message along to the gods that they really had to stop mixing metaphors. It was unbecoming.
She beheld her voluptuous figure in the mirror, accentuated in a flowing white gown trimmed with gold and jewels. Gold sandals with tiny little gems sparkled on her pedicured (self-pedicured, alas) feet. Her hair, brushed and shiny, was covered by a marvelous headdress sporting the little vulture and cobra of her beloved Egypt. Her eyes were heavily outlined in the traditional kohl, which made her feel strong -- it was difficult to cry wearing that amount of make-up. But cry was what she felt like doing, as she always did when she beheld this costume of her former glorious self. If that did not prove they had broken her, what would?
"Bring on the doom," she said to herself.
As she had no idea when the visitor might appear -- and she wouldn't have put it beyond the imps to have completely fabricated the annoucement -- she returned to the recliner. She resumed her seat in it, lowering herself onto the plaid fabric as if it were the most stately of thrones. She picked up the remote, like a sceptre, and waved it to change the scenery.
My, that boy from this band looked particularly lovely, shirtless. She stared, morosely, at his pert nipples.
She forced herself to change the channel. A margarine commercial. Much better.
"So, you are Cleopatra," a voice said from behind the grating on one of her walls. The voice, mellifluous and mocking, didn't inspire much faith in her. Her visitor had arrived. Without looking around, she changed the channel forlornly.
She knew she was going to have to get up to look.
"Queen Cleopatra," the voice intoned. "In your little studious cage."
"I don't have to talk to you, you know," she said.
"Of course you do. What else have you to do?"
She heard the voice. It was male. And she smelled his perfume -- some orange extract. They'd sent her a scented man of sorts with a smell of blossoms. She swore at the gods under her breath.
"May I introduce myself, your royalness?" the man asked. "My name is Oscar Wilde."
Cleopatra whipped her head around and regarded the face staring at her from beyond the grate. He had, all at once, a boy's face, a man's face, an old face, a pondering face. His features were sinewy, his expression, ethereal. Except when he smiled, which he did when her gaze met his, and then the expression became arrogant.
She arose from the couch. The gods had not sent a man to see her in a very long while, and last time they had, they had sent her a naked nubile dancer boy who had writhed for her, out of reach, behind that very grate. Of course, although unquestionably male, this orange-scented Oscar Wilde wasn't really a man at all, Cleopatra thought -- not compared to Cæsar, not compared to Antony, not compared to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"Mr. Wilde," she said, taking a tentative step towards the grate. "I have heard of you."
"I would be devastated if you had not!" he said and laughed.
"What puzzles me, though, is why they would send you."
"I was in the neighborhood."
"Oh? Sentenced to Holding, too? However did you offend them?"
"However did I not?" he said and laughed again. "But no. They forgive me my offenses. They have no choice."
"Then why are you here?"
"To visit you, my Queen of the Nile."
"And why would you want to do that? Are you so curious?"
"Heavens no! I took a bet with a minor demon that I could seduce you."
"You? But you're a fag!"
"Heavens, your royalness. Such langugage."
"Sorry. I've been watching cable for the last ten years."
"And, besides, dear lady, the bet was that you would be seduced, not I. And may I point out, I am not without knowledge of either the female mystique or the female anatomy. Although both, with any prolonged exposure, become quite tiresome."
"What makes you think you might have anything to offer me? I am used to a more -- um -- sturdy sort of suitor."
"Get off it, Queenie. You've been without any sort of companionship for nearly 30 years. I'd hazard to guess you'd find a lampost beguiling."
Cleopatra pursed her lips. Throughout the conversation, she had inched closer to the grating until she was now pressed up against the wall, one hand entwined with the bars. "Well, your methods of seduction are certainly novel."
"You would rather I'd brought posies?"
"Posies? I am more accustomed to being offered kingdoms."
"Well. Now. Whatever would you do with a kingdom in that tiny room?"
She stared straight into his eyes, her glance unwavering, and replied, "I would rule it."
Wilde laughed, clapping his hands together in appreciation. Cleopatra scrutinized him, looking at his dark clothing: the silk morning coat, the knee breeches, the shiny silk stockings. As she perused his form, she was startled to realize she was trying to picture exactly what he looked like under those clothes. She quickly averted her gaze, returning it to his eyes, which watched her furtive eye movements with more mirth than she could stand.
"This is all very pretty," she said, "but if you mean to seduce me, hadn't you ought to open the grate? I'm not about to do it through the bars."
"Dear Queenie, I mean to seduce you, not fuck you! 'Gads, television has certainly eroded your grasp of nuances."
"Well, I'm seduced. Now go away and collect your winnings. I can't do this anymore."
"Oh, so much the pity. I was just starting to enjoy getting acquainted. This is hardly a triumph."
Cleopatra dropped her gaze and her hand from the grate. Without looking back, she slunk back to her recliner. Vanquished, she ripped the headdress from her head and threw it at the TV.
"You won't play with me anymore?" Wilde asked.
"I've had enough."
"I quite think you have."
His tone had turned serious, almost sympathetic. Cleopatra turned to look at him, and all traces of mockery were gone from his face.
"I did have another task entrusted to me coming here," he said. "Other than the bet, that is."
"And? What was it?"
"They told me that I had but to carry a single phrase from you back to them, and they would release you finally."
"Ah." She picked up the remote and changed the channel back to MTV.
"I don't know the phrase they want, dear Queen. You'll have to supply it to me if you want your freedom."
When alive as Cleopatra, she had preferred the asp's bite to being dragged back to Rome as something to be dragged behind Octavian's triumphal chariots. Here, she wasn't even allowed the luxury of such a choice. She mewled along with the song on the video, contemplating this indignity.
"Queenie?" Wilde said after a few minutes.
Summoning what was left of her pride, she arose out of the recliner, flicking the television off with the remote. She dropped the remote in the chair. Then, turning, she walked as if on a whisper towards the grate, her head aloft, her demeanor like one approaching the gallows. When she came to the grate, she clasped both hands onto the grill.
"Approach me," she said.
Wilde, intrigued, approached the grate.
"One kiss," she said.
He leaned his face towards her, and their lips barely brushed together. She breathed deeply of his smell.
"Tell them" she said, "that I beg for the scent of orange blossoms."
"Orange blossoms," she confirmed.
NOTE: This story originally appeared
in Brainchild: What I Did This
Summer at the Gulag.
Image used in Header is "Cleopatra & the Peasant" by Delacroix. To learn more about the author, Mordantia Bat, please check her Bio on the
Image used in Header is "Cleopatra & the Peasant" by Delacroix.
To learn more about the author, Mordantia Bat, please check her Bio on the Editors Page.