The following is excerpted from Amanda Michalopoulou's novel God's Wife translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito. Amanda Michalopoulou is the internationally acclaimed author of several books of fiction, two of which have previously been published in English, I’d Like and Why I Killed My Best Friend, both translated by Karen Emmerich. Patricia Felisa Barbeito is Professor of American Literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design and has also translated The Interrogation.
He was waiting for me in front of the stage. Unlike my drawing, He wasn’t holding a bouquet, only two large candles. Dressed in a white suit, His eyes alight again. What a mysterious being! I couldn’t take my eyes from His face: resplendent, enchanting, full of confidence and something else, fearsome and unfathomable.
Offering me a candle, His hand touched mine without touching it, like before in the room. He helped me up the stairs to the stage. To impress Him with my piety, I whispered the Prayer of the Hours, “Surround us with Your holy Angels, that guided and guarded by their host, we may arrive at the unity of the faith, and the understanding of Your ineffable glory.”
He stared at me in surprise. “Ineffable glory?”
“That’s what the prayer says. My aunt taught me.”
“Ineffable glory,” He repeated, bemused. “You think?”
And then, as if remembering that this wasn’t the time for such talk, He added, “OK, OK we have time for this.”
“There’s something else. May I ask one more thing?” He turned to look at me.
“May my parents attend the wedding?”
“There are to be no witnesses at the wedding. It’s an act of faith.”
He didn’t say they couldn’t attend because they were dead, but rather because it was not done. I thought that maybe later He would allow me to see them.
“Are you ready?”
Heart beating, I imagined what it might be like to kiss God, to bury myself in His arms. For a second, I wondered whether He had a tongue, a chest; if He knew how to sigh. The candle burned my fingers. Music came from the Forest, a babel of murmurs and chirpings. The Angels said something in their incomprehensible language and God burst into laughter. I glanced up at Him inquiringly.
“I’ll explain later,” He said.
Now, looking back at the ceremony, I realize that the promise of eternal communion was mere words. God lives forever and remarries when His loneliness demands it. He meets my grievances, my concerns, with silence. To Him, each and every personal question is a betrayal.
We expect everything of God, and I more so than anyone. The more crises we experience in public, the more vulnerable we become. That is why there is validity to how strangers see us. It’s from such strangers that we learn the shocking, life- changing truths about ourselves. Please don’t think me blasphemous, but I dare say the same applies to God. It’s as if every time we curse, cry, or bid someone farewell we are airing His failings. We are constantly betraying Him. Even though I’m afraid that my husband is betrayed primarily by Himself.
In my narrative, I have not yet found a way to distinguish between the creature I once was and what I am today. I fear that the burden of what I know punctuates my narration and predisposes you, my reader, to certain foregone conclusions while draining me of my old vitality. Even though it appeared as if I knew what I was doing back then, in reality I didn’t know anything. And even though it may now seem like I have lost my mind, I know more than I ever did. I’ve been witness to untold wonders, learned all there is to know about the creation of the world. I know that at times Angels’ wings fill me with joy and at others, with terror. And that even God can be inconsolable.
I suppose you’ll say: perhaps what you see in His face is your own lack of consolation. Perhaps I see what I want to see; in other words, a God who resembles me. You are both right and wrong. He has changed, but that white sustenance—Despair—is as essential to His nature as it ever was. He came from darkness—it shapes everything He is.
I no longer remember the pure love I felt for Him, so it is impossible to describe the past through the lens and impact of that love. I hope to approximate it for the sake of this story, but not to go so far as to depict dependence as a virtue. You see, I no longer believe that a vulnerable heart is something worth striving for. Religion trains people in the art of this dependency, as does marriage. Oh, what on earth am I doing? Here I am, holding forth and splitting hairs like a pedant boring the pants off guests at a cocktail party or reception. I have never been to a reception, but I’ve read a lot about them in novels. Enough, at least, to know that I will never have that kind of conversation with you.
As a matter of fact, the two of us will never speak. You will have to make do with my monologue. And I, in turn, will try to anticipate your questions. Perhaps at this point you’ll want to ask: You no longer love Him? Is this why you’re betraying Him? I am not betraying Him any more than He is already betraying Himself. I know of Him what He wants me to know. In regards to love: now I love Him with an intensity greater than ever, to the point of distraction. Yet I also hate Him with a passion—I want to destroy Him.
From a distance, fate looks very much like a choreographed dance.
The issue is whether I’ll succeed in describing the love I felt for Him at the beginning of our relationship. Chances are, I’ll fail. I don’t remember what it is to love purely, to want to rise to another’s requirements, to drop all the playthings of one’s life and blot oneself out—gleefully, voluntarily—to make room for love. This kind of guileless love, of awestruck, fawning admiration is reminiscent of the doggedness of religious devotion. It is unleashed—allegedly—when we aspire to transcendence.
I don’t know if I am making myself clear—am I? I’m talking of the idealized love we dream about when we place our hope in God without ever having met Him, about love as a trial by fire. We long for someone to reward us for the sufferings of our trials, and that someone is our Heavenly Father. We believe that salvation is found in directives sent to us from above, because that’s the way we are constituted: we need directives for everything. But this too is a conversation for receptions, or a visit to a convent.
From a distance, fate looks very much like a choreographed dance: gestures obeying the dictates of random-patterned chance. At school, our mathematics teacher told us about the problem of the higher powers. She used to say that if you roll the dice enough times, millions and millions of them, eventually you will get all possible combinations of numbers.
After the ceremony, we sat in the front row to receive the Angels’ presents and blessings. First, they knelt in front of Him, then they placed their unearthly limbs on my knee. In my arms, they laid the bouquets of flowers they had brought with their gifts. The flowers’ scent reminded me of the sickly-sweet smell of the wreaths at my parents’ funeral. Half buried under their bouquets, I begged them with my eyes: Take them off me! Please, take them off! Two Angels helped me pile the flowers on two nearby chairs.
I was watching the Angels carefully, trying to stamp their faces in my memory. The two Angels who had helped me were indistinguishable. So was the first Angel, the one I’d grabbed and shaken in the laundry room. Surrounded by an abundance of feathers, their features seemed to instantly dissipate, melt away. They were expressionless and identical—a horde of celestial clones. At some point, God offered me His arm. I got up and we walked side by side, trailing a procession of Angels bearing gifts. In the distance was my new home. A white, domed four-storey building. I hadn’t seen it when I descended the twisting staircase because I hadn’t turned to look back.
How I longed to share the news with someone, anyone! I pretended that I was in the square with my old classmates, talking about our latest infatuations. When it was my turn, my friends asked what was going on in my life. I shrugged nonchalantly and said: “I’m already married, but I can’t say to whom. He’s extremely famous and He likes His privacy.” They rattled off the names of actors and soccer players. I pitied them their provincialism.
Such vainglorious thoughts weren’t worthy of the wife of God. I resolved to try to live up to my new responsibilities as soon as possible. I resolved to practice the type of grafting I’d seen on the Angels, but instead of wings and shoulder blades, I’d be grafting humble thoughts over my prideful ones. Yes, I would sprout wings of a different kind.
My recent husband was a gracious host. He showed me around my new home, leading me from room to room. He opened doors and stood back to let me pass. At one point, in my excitement, I exclaimed, “My God!”, and He turned, thinking I was addressing Him. In every room, I laid my hands on the furniture, the curtains. He just stood there, and I didn’t know whether my effusiveness pleased or wearied Him. I ought to be more spontaneous, I thought, and not worry about what He’s thinking of me.
Now, the House has lost its allure. It feels like an empty shell that bears witness to my failure, my joylessness.
The Heavenly House was all black and white. Armchairs, sofas, velvet pillows. Dark wooden tables, candles and candle sticks, net curtains. Everything was functional, symmetrical, simple. There were no mirrors to be seen, nor anything purely decorative, or wrong, or in the way. My husband asked my opinion about every little thing. He encouraged me to change whatever struck me as unpleasant or inconvenient. “No, no,” I insisted. “This is the house of my dreams. When I lived in an apartment with my parents and later with my aunt, I always dreamed about a house with an interior staircase. Truly. A house like this one.”
Now, the House has lost its allure. It feels like an empty shell that bears witness to my failure, my joylessness. It screams of the struggle between body and spirit, familiarity and estrangement. Armchairs yell, “Why are you sitting?”; doors shriek, “Go on, move your ass!” I have no other place to go, no other table to write on, no other bed on which to rest and sleep.
I’m in a terribly bad mood. Today, even the air in this laundry room is like poison. At the beginning of a plan everything seems easy; it’s wreathed, so to speak, in the aura of divine grace. Now I must enter that small room without windows all alone. Blindly, I dig a well within myself, seeking words that I’ve forgotten exist; words that mean something. I draw them out and examine them as if they were precious stones: Love, Faith, Freedom, Atonement. I find a word that warms the cockles of my heart: Rebellion. I believe in it like I once believed in Him. I will keep my nose to the grindstone, to my writing. My rebellion will be a practiced and carefully planned one.
I haven’t yet described the House to you. I must go on, because if I leave it, it will leave me. It’s so easy to abandon myself—Oh, I am the master of self-abandonment! I lie in bed and focus on a spot on the ceiling. I stare at it and let myself sink, fathoms-deep, into God’s timeless universe. Muddy water rises in the room, slowly, torturously, threatening to drown me.
On the ground floor are kitchen, dining room, rooms for the help. On the second floor: bedroom, laundry room, and bathroom (for me, of course, God has no need of a toilet). On the third floor is the only room I may not enter, the Conference Room where my husband meets with the Angels. On the final floor is His Study, the domed room. During the post-wedding tour, it was closed. “We’ll look in another time,” He said. “If we go in now, I’ll get distracted and it will hold things up.” He’ll get distracted? By what? Why is He using that word? Is He trying to play down the distance between us? Ah, a tell-tale sign of His feelings for me, I thought. So perhaps He does think about me the way I think about Him. Is He mulling over which word I prefer, which reaction? Does He smile like that at the Angels, or only at me? I tried imagining Him in His Study, sitting there scribbling our initials over and over, love-struck. Immediately afterwards I saw in my mind’s eye, as life-like as can be, His mouth twisted into a grimace: Ha, got you! Do you really think I need a space like that, a room of My Own?
What if it was all staged? What if He had arranged the House that way out of compassion—or, even worse, hypocrisy? What if the rooms were designed just for me? Spaces where I might lean back against a sofa, eat, pee. I immediately dismissed this thought. In order to live with Him I had to shake off the doubting Thomas inside.
Why do my present anxieties insist on interrupting my story? Perhaps because my husband has disappeared without warning. As soon as I finish writing for the day, I climb up to the Study. I knock, but there’s no answer. I open the door: no one. Only dome and books, His bergère, Wittgenstein’s ladder, rose-tinted windows through which the day’s dying rays flicker. Where could He be? Is He punishing me because I abandoned Him first? Or is this His way of asserting His power?
I never thought Him a hypocrite. I want you to know that my gratitude for the Heavenly House was immediate and genuine. I used to call it “our House,” “my House.” Rooms, pillows, frying pans reminded me of my mortality, of my need for clothing, food, caresses. Occasionally, I was a bit more clearheaded about it: the House was obviously built for the very first woman He’d fallen for. As much as He rejects the word “fallen,” so do I stubbornly cling to it.
“Tell me about Your wives,” I insist. “How did You choose them? What was their skin like, their eyes, their voice? Which one was the cleverest, which one the nicest? How many were there? Where are they buried?” When I pepper Him with such questions, He finds an excuse to leave the room. God’s way of saying that the conversation is over.
We heaped the wedding gifts in the living room, where I was to open them at my leisure. The Angels had given me decorating books, classical music records, silk pajamas, air fresheners, a teapot, egg cups, a plush bathrobe. I had resolved to open one gift a day, but couldn’t hold back. Within three days I had opened them all.
Our ceremonial wedding candles stood in two metal brackets in the bedroom. On our wedding night, my husband switched on His bedside lamp. He leafed through a book on the arts of the Renaissance. I did not know what to do, where to put my hands. I had not brought a book to bed, and it did not seem right to turn my back to Him and go to sleep.
“What did the Angels say during our wedding to make You laugh.”
He looked up from the book and smiled. “Oh, nothing, a joke: a fellow says, ‘My wife and I were perfectly happy for 30 years. Then we met each other.’”
From God’s Wife by Amanda Michalopoulou translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Dalkey Archive. Copyright © 2019 by Amanda Michalopoulou. English translation copyright © 2019 by Patricia Felisa Barbeito.