TRIPTYCH ON THE THEME OF FLESH
"With him all joy is interlaced with the
memory of mourning but that is what it
is to be flesh..."
(Brighid, "Gadreel's Lullabye")
He didn't think about it. There was too much going on, too many worlds to save, or to lose. His friends had recognized him, right away, had not hesitated to know him for who he was, even though he was dressed in robes and even though he'd looked at them with a stranger's eyes. They'd known him. Jack had said a name. It had leapt out of him on a breath, curled at the end into a question. But it hadn't been a question at all. Jack had known him instantly.
So it was an easy thing to know himself.
It was like sitting in a familiar room just before sunrise. It was like watching an alien landscape coalescing in the creeping light of morning until the landscape wasn't alien anymore, but simply his room. The ogre under the chair was only a duffle bag. The leering face was just a pattern of shadows in the folds of the flag in the corner. Soon, the room was his room and all the things in it were his things and he didn't have to touch them to know it.
All he had to do to know himself was to sit quietly and let the sun rise. It was as inevitable as daybreak. His mind filled the space of his body the way the light filtered in through the curtains and claimed the room.
It was simple. And it wasn't. For instance, the palm print reader at the first checkpoint on Level One didn't recognize him. On the first day topside when he came back to the base after an afternoon spent breathing Earth's air--the scent of leaves brown on still-green grass--he'd laid his hand on the reader and the alarm had sounded, the light had turned red, and the airman on the desk had detained him. The airman knew him, of course, but the machine didn't, and that's what counted.
So, they'd stood in the hallway, the airman on one side of the desk, Daniel on the other, and waited while Jack negotiated with powers higher than both of them to get Daniel back into the mountain. Not one for small talk, the airman had stared ahead, nodding in response to Daniel's stiff attempt at a joke about palm readers and fortunes, and nodding again when Daniel fell silent. But the airman didn't know that Daniel had died down there, twenty-eight stories below their feet in a concrete bunker with a hole in the middle of it that led to everywhere. He didn't know that the skin that the palm print scanner had memorized had long ago sloughed away, had blistered and bled and screamed at the touch of air, even, let alone a gentle, comforting caress. He didn't know that the palm that the machine had just rejected hadn't even existed two months before, that two months before, the man standing on the other side of the desk had been nothing and everything, a coalescence of light on an alien landscape, chafing against the limits of infinity.
Jack had come back to collect him. Daniel had had to be fingerprinted again. And then the computer had refused to accept the new data because it could not log two sets of fingerprints for the same individual, no matter how minute the differences were between them. So, he had a choice: override the old file and replace it with the new, or keep the old file and begin again, in parallel. Daniel couldn't quite explain why the first option was not an option. The new fingerprints were entered, now under the heading: "Daniel Jackson-01."
It was an inconvenience. It involved paperwork and signatures and corrections and more signatures. He'd squeezed this in between all the things he was doing to stop Anubis from destroying the world.
In other words, he'd been busy. So he hadn't thought about it. He hadn't let himself think about it because you don't get anywhere by sitting around doubting that the sun was going to come up.
But then on one day of downtime weeks after the incident at the first check point on Level One, he paused, stumbled across the fissure between action and stillness, and suddenly his bones were hollow and echoing and mazelike, and he ricocheted within himself, looking for a way out.
He found himself at last sitting on Jack's front step. He looked up when Jack's shadow fell across him. His hands loose at his sides, not reaching but ready to, Jack shifted his weight, letting the slanting, honey light back in again, and Daniel looked down at his own hands, turned them over carefully like they were exquisite shards he'd patiently prized from between layers of ancient, reluctant stone. He held them up to Jack.
"What is this thing?" he asked, balanced on a ledge above a sheer drop to noplace.
Jack's hand reached then, took his. "It's you, Daniel."
"Prove it." The challenge was taut, vibrating like a bowstring. It was hope snared by the thin wire of fear.
Panel 1: There Once Was a Man
"In the moonlight when he sleeps
you trace where you think the scars
should be, feel them in memory:
Jagged, silver-skin where wings were,
when he was less than flesh and
more than man and a galaxy of grief."
(Brighid, "Gadreel's Lullabye")
There once was a man named Jack O'Neill. He was a good man, and if sometimes it was hard to find the good in a situation, you could look at Jack and know that he wanted what was right. What was right, however, was a subject of much debate.
Jack liked lots of things. He liked fishing. He liked steak and beer and the colour the sky turned when the sun was still below the rim of the Earth--or earth, if he wasn't at home--when the light was diffuse like polished antique silver, the sky grey and pearly and without sharp edges to hurt his eyes or to remind him that he couldn't stay poised forever between the past and the future. Sometimes, the moon would be floating on the surface of the lake, then, and he would sit down on his haunches at the end of the dew-wet dock and watch it, a mug of coffee cupped between his palms, his breath curling out of his mouth, silver air on silver sky.
He liked efficiency. He liked vigilance and alertness, being able to see in a 360 degree circle, knowing where all the exits were. He didn't like the way the event horizon felt as it took him, made him feel like sugar dissolving in water, or, sometimes, like Alka Seltzer, but he liked what it stood for and where it led, especially when it led home.
He liked the feeling of a P90 in his hands, its weight pulling on the strap around his neck. Not because he had any particular liking for guns, but because as long as he had it, there was a chance. A chance to escape. A chance to complete a mission. A chance to do the thing he liked most, sometimes, which was saving the world.
He'd saved the world on a few occasions, and a few other worlds, too, walked up to Armageddon more than once, looked at it, unflinching, turned it over in his hands like a hot coal, and quenched the fire before it could spread. He'd walked into a jungle to find Daniel. He didn't save the world that time. Just his world. He figured that this act of selfishness was acceptable, because the world at large owed him. As he ran his thumb across Daniel's parched and broken lip, as he looked at the hollowness in his eyes and the bruises and the telltale burns, he decided that the world owed him, owed them both.
So they didn't go back to the SGC right away. There were doctors and tests and travel arrangements. There was a hotel room with a lattice shutter over the window that let the cool night air in, and a fan to blow it in lazy circles around the room, across Daniel's bruised body, raising gooseflesh that Jack smoothed away with his calloused hands. He liked that Daniel let him do this, let him put his lips against his throat to feel the flutter of his heartbeat, let Jack rise and fall against him, gentle with withheld fear, let him test his strength against him, to test the life in him again. Let him in.
He liked standing behind him at dawn while the airman loaded their luggage onto the plane. He liked looking at Daniel's silhouette, soft in that antique silver light, blurred by weariness and the heavy, wet air, rough edges worn away by the rasp of Jack's beard against his skin. He liked the way Daniel slumped low in the seat, huddled in the rumble of the engines, his eyes closed, his legs crossed at the ankles and sticking out in the aisle, his hair spiky and a bit staticky against the vinyl of the seat back. He liked the way he slept, his head tilted toward Jack's shoulder, but not touching it. He liked the way his closed eyes said that he knew that Jack was a good man, that Jack knew all of the exits, that he would walk up to Armageddon and quench it before it could burn.
Panel 2: "Tear Our Pleasures With Rough Strife"
"his fingers tangled so tightly in yours
there will be bruises, but you've grown
accustomed to bleeding beneath the skin"
(Brighid, "Gadreel's Lullabye")
Jack's fingers left furrows in the soil. The furrows were eight, four on either side of Daniel's head, a crown of earth and spaces. The two of them were twisted together at the edge of a cliff, Jack looking down, Daniel up. Pebbles they dislodged fell and made no sound. The laws of gravity were against them. Jack could feel the gritty, black sand under his fingernails, could feel the space opening up beside them only three feet away, the long way down lurking in his peripheral vision like a blue whale just beneath the surface of the sea. They wouldn't fall into that space; it would rise up and swallow them. He dug his fingers deeper into the soil, seeking stone.
Above them, someone else's sky pressed them down, a heavy hand on his back, between his shoulder blades. He locked his elbows. His breath spilled out against Daniel's face without restraint, raspy panting sharpened, like his whole body was sharpened, by adrenaline, honed by the near miss, the "almost" that was three feet away from them shaped like a crevasse, a slash of mouth the planet laughed through. Laughing now, the planet tried to shrug them off. Jack bent his elbows and let his chest fall against Daniel's. There was no stone to grasp beneath the soil, so Jack became a stone. Laughing, the mouth widened and the precipice crumbled until the space was only two feet away from Jack's shoulder and the "almost" tipped toward "probably," the yawing vertigo of certainty in the second before loss.
Coiling beneath him, Daniel wrapped his arms around Jack's waist and threw him sideways, tearing the world from Jack's clutching hands, and they rolled, once, twice, stopping with a jolt against the cliff face on the other side of the ledge, Jack looking down, Daniel up. The space loomed and reached for them, but they turned their heads away and refused to go, Daniel tilting them sideways, pushing hard with one leg to lever them, angling them against the pull of nothingness, Jack's back against stone, his chest against breathing, dirt under his broken nails. In the light of someone else's sun, Daniel's eyes were green.
With a final surge of spite that knocked Daniel onto his back again, Jack on top of him, the planet settled into silence and the long way down was only air and distance, inert, no longer alive, predatory, hungry.
The radio crackled. Carter's voice. Jack's eyes asked Daniel a question.
In answer, Daniel spread his hands on either side of Jack's head, a crown of flesh and spaces, and pulled himself up to Jack's face. Locking his elbows again, Jack braced to take Daniel's weight, opened his mouth to take Daniel's tongue. They stayed this way, almost motionless with tension, counterbalanced, poised, until their arms trembled with the ferocious strain of the kiss. Finally, Daniel sank his teeth into Jack's lip, and let go. Collapsing onto one elbow, Jack keyed the radio.
"Yeah, Carter." He paused to lick blood, sweet with fear and pleasure, from his lip. "We're alive."
Panel 3: Breathing Slowly, After
"you know: in this moment he is yours as
you are his, your bodies married in a
sacrament older than words, older than
worlds, older than stars"
(Brighid, "Gadreel's Lullabye")
It all comes down to the words. The chest heaving, the skin sibilant with sweat, even these are words. This hand resting on his hip is a conversation. Words. Letters strung like beads on a necklace, or sounds tumbling one after another from the open throat, pebbles slipping from between fumbling fingers into a pool of muddy water. It's about the words that soothe with their smooth coolness and then turn on edge and slice you open, your sigh leaking out like blood, staining the world with the sign of your susceptibility to penetration, to betrayal, and your willingness to risk. To risk everything.
Words like crumbling monoliths left by a forgotten sentience on a planet with many suns, each solidity casting multiple shadows. Maddening. What do you mean? The monoliths say nothing and everything. They say what they say. But you walk in and out of shadows. Polysemy: multiplicity of meaning. Shadows of many suns. Poly. Seme. Semantics. Seminar. Seminary. Seminal. Dissemination. Something teeming.
At the root, deep down in the dirt with the grubs and the seeping water that tastes somehow still of clouds, deep down in the core of bones where blood is made, it's about the words. Before there was anything, there was the word, or so the story goes. There was the word, and there, at the seminal moment, the tongue curled around the sound that made it, slick and needing, and chaos contracted in an orgasmic convulsion and coalesced brightly and lay gasping as the world bloomed outward, teeming.
Before anything there was the word, but the word was always flesh. Feel it on your tongue. Words: the sticky residue of passion, signs of the one caress that went too far, the one that pushed you and the universe over the edge so you could never deny the passion again because it's written gleaming on the skin of your stomach and he can see it, touch it, taste it if he wants to. And he does want to. His fingers trace out your name there, a glistening trail from past to future that still somehow tastes of chaos and of clouds.
Before there was anything there was the word. When he stood on a planet abandoned by an unfathomable sentience, shifted his lithe and capable weight among the silent monoliths, squinted up at them and joked that they were shouting: they were so upright and insistent about something. When he turned, lips smiling crookedly, the light of many suns behind him, he had only one shadow, and you knew. You knew then that before anything there was the word and the word was flesh and the flesh said YES.
"He turns and kisses you;
His mouth tastes of stars"
(Brighid, "Gadreel's Lullabye")
Notes: These vignettes have been sewn together using Brighid's poem, "Gadreel's Lullabye," as thread. The thread is golden and too rich for the scraps, but I'll dedicate this to her, anyway, and hope intention counts for something. So, thank you, Brighid, for writing. Thanks also to Aces, Martha and Otter for beta and for being generally inspiring.
Feedback welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.