The Triptych Altarpiece of Harriet Westbrook Shelley by Miles Williams Mathis (used by permission of the artist)
Descent (Harriet Westbrook Shelley, 1816)
Early December and the moon bloats with milky light. Hyde Park sleeps, silvered in ice that wraps the naked elms-- all the lampposts and curved benches. Inside her, heaviness like the thick silt and mud on the Serpentine’s bottom. What creatures, she wonders, burrow in that cold silence? Through winter? Or waiting, still as held breath, for a death that moves, cell by gilded cell, toward each purple, thickening heart?
She thinks there must be bliss in such surrender, cradled in a hush of fallen leaves, the dull shimmer of fish scales like faraway stars, each thing transmuted but sustained. She knows bliss is mindless, unconscious of what possesses it, a lesson learned at Shelley’s side through pewter clouds of opium smoke, the two of them pressed, hip to hip, lungs swollen with oblivion’s heavy breath. And will the weight of water be the same as it opens inside her?
It is the memory of that sweet forgetfulness which has brought her to this moment, just past sunset, the hem of the ivory dress soon to be her shroud, caught on the balustrade as she stands on the bridge lip’s slight declension. She thinks about the soldier she met in June, how, in his fumbling rush he’d only partially disrobed. And the sound his medals made—like faint applause-- when his body shuddered above her.
Later came the queasy, seasick mornings, the dark, almost bruised areolar blush—and now the flutter and kick of the small swimmer beneath her belly’s dome. This secret she can no longer keep. She pauses, not from fear but from desire, holds her breath in and then, in, to build a greed deep in her lungs so they will not refuse the water’s cold intrusion. One moment. One last unbidden intake of breath on its slender plume. One more glint of silver and then a simple
the blue of her chenille walking shoes going black in the water’s wick, a hoop of ivory skirting, brief air trapped in the swell. Then the darkening velvet belt, swollen breasts, shoulders, corded throat, the delicate loveliness of her face going under, mouth open—swallowing new atmosphere.
Frigid. Mindless. The Serpentine pours through blood-thick lungs, the shocked and clamoring heart. When she goes still, that other heart thrums a few moments more, being no stranger to water. Though soon enough the silk-thin veins will carry only what is vacuous…as may be the bulk of any bliss.