Voyeur: Or, Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
~ Daniel David Froid
Ernestine told me she had just returned home from her travels. “Just,” she said. “Got back this morning and I haven’t even unpacked.”
We sat inside her grubby kitchen, at a table piled high with junk. I glanced at my sister across the landscape formed by a few weeks’ worth of mail, a pot full of soapy water, another, lidded pot, made of enameled cast iron in pink, several bottles of vitamins and pills, and a couple of boxes of food, with crackers in one and cookies in the other. The boxes were closed, and no food was on offer. A small patch of space had been cleared in one corner. I made a mental catalogue of all this accumulated junk while she moved around the kitchen, making coffee. Her house, in a state of unnerving disorder, could not be blamed on her extensive travels but on her regular habits, ever feeble, as a housekeeper.
She poured a cup of coffee for each of us and sat down. Cheryl, her dog, an elderly Vizsla, brushed past us before perching on a bed in the corner. She—Cheryl—had one in every room.
Ernestine was telling me she had once again gone to the Furono system. “At least that was the plan,” she said. Lately, whenever she returned from one of her trips, she would call me and insist that I visit. Dutifully, I always did; I suppose some shred of sororal devotion lingered on in me. She never used to call me at all, until she had, in her retirement, taken up traveling. Or what she referred to as traveling. I’ll admit that I could never quite say whether, or to what extent, I believed her. And yet, after so many years of silence, silence that at times felt vaguely menacing, I welcomed her gesture. I listened with tolerance to stories I scarcely believed. They seemed to me not far off from the stories she fabricated in our youth, stories in whose telling I once partook, full of magic and secrets, incantations we whispered in the dead of night in the forest just behind the house.
As she spoke, my mind flashed to the face of our brother, who did not like her stories, who did not like to play; quickly, I cut him out of my mind and turned to Ernestine.
“That far?” I asked. “I’m impressed.”
Ernestine chuckled and lit a cigarette.
“Furono’s not my favorite, but I got a good deal. And it’s not so far, you know. Just one system over. But then I ended up going to Videro, and that is a place worth seeing.”
While Ernestine spoke, Cheryl glanced at us with a look I can only describe as beatific: eyes narrowed, gazing toward the heavens and waiting to receive a sign from God. She often looked this way, and I wondered how often she received such signs in return. About as often, I thought, as her human companion traveled among the stars.
I smiled and sipped the coffee, which was rich and strong. In Videro, the coffee is expensive but very fine—or so Ernestine says. I had never been myself. I asked, “This is good. Is it Videran coffee?”
Ernestine smirked. “Yes indeed.”
“But is it actually coffee?” I asked and looked down at the thick, dark liquid, which swirled thickly when I tilted the cup back and forth. “It just occurred to me to wonder. Are we actually talking about the same plant here? I mean, we can’t be.”
Ernestine tutted. “You have such a narrow mind. There are only so many elements in the universe, you know. Here we have a composition that is as close as anything you’d like. Closer than some swill I’ve had on Earth in my time.” Her mug was already empty, and she rose to refill it. Mine remained nearly full.
“Well. Okay then. Tell me about the trip.”
“The plan,” she said. “was to stay in Furono. I had to leave because everything moves too slowly there. And I can’t stand the people. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. They all sit around and have these lengthy, abstract conversations about what it means to exist. I mean, this is dinner table conversation. This is what they discuss with their kids! There was this little girl in the hotel where I was staying. . . . My first morning, I sit there sipping my coffee and eating some very good pancakes—and yes, pancakes, even if they were not made of good old earth flour and eggs and whatnot.” She raised a finger at me and jabbed it, once, decisively, before continuing: “And this girl comes up to me, and she asks me my name and I tell her, and I ask her hers. It seems like a perfectly pleasant interaction, and I tell her she seems like a very nice little girl, and then she says, in this lisping little-girl voice, ‘Is my niceness your perception or is it a true quality of mine? Is it an essential quality of my being?’ She went on like that, about the inherent nature of qualities, for a few minutes—minutes that felt, I am telling you, like hours. And at last I simply excused myself to use the bathroom and fled to my room. I could not bear it.”
“She was trying to make conversation,” I said, “in the only way she knew how.” My coffee had lasted for this anecdote’s duration, and, now my cup was empty, I wanted more. I stood up, prompting Cheryl to bark, weakly. She lifted her head from its pillowed recline, said her piece, and then let her head drop.
“Forgive her,” Ernestine said. “She doesn’t like sudden movements. Not at her age.” She laughed and said, “I don’t either.” After a pause, she continued, “I personally cannot bear the tedious philosophical speculations of others; I do not care one whit!” Ernestine scrunched up her face in disgust.
“You know who questions like that remind me of,” I said. My sister’s face changed, from disgust to a darker emotion. Something flashed in her eyes. I was the one who said it, yet suddenly I did not want to grant that who a referent. “Our little brother,” I whispered. Pursing her lips, looking away from me, Ernestine said nothing. My cup full once more, I returned to my seat.
“Anyway,” Ernestine said, “when I was there, I heard all about this new interstellar liner that would be swinging by before moving on to Videro. The Voyeur. It was another guest at the hotel who told me, this very tall and very thin hairless man whose name I can’t remember. But he was a human, and quite pleasant, and he said he knew the owner and could get me a discounted ticket. Now, I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, Cloris, and ordinarily a bland and pleasant man with such an offer would give me pause. To say the least.”
“I would say so.”
“Yes. Ordinarily the offer of a trip past the edge of the system, on a ship called The Voyeurno less, would be a sign that I should turn tail and run all the way home.” Now she stood up, walked to the fridge, and paused to look back at me. “Are you hungry? I’m starved.”
I demurred with a shake of the head. She busied herself, gathering things—eggs, a green pepper, an onion—to fix herself something to eat.
She said, “So I may have been tempted to see my way out. To flee. Whatever. And yet. What can I say? The devil of curiosity overtook me, and it prompted me to ask him to say a little more. And he did, he went on about how fabulous The Voyeur is. He said, ‘Anything you’d like to take a peek at, you can, if you pay for the pleasure.’ And, anyway, everyone says that Videro will dazzle you. The most spectacular sight in the galaxy.” She paused mid-chop, one hand clutching a knife and hovering over an onion. “A spectacular sight: is that redundant, Cloris? I think it is. Spectacle is inherent to any sight. Or, better: to be worthy of being seen is inherent to a spectacle.”
“Careful, Ernestine. You’re beginning to sound like the little girl from Furono.”
Her eyes glowed; she barked out one singular laugh. “The beaches—in colors you’ve never even dreamed. The cities—as tall as the sky. So he said, and I began to believe him, or perhaps it was only that my travels had left me dazed and debilitated. Interstellar journeys take a lot out of a woman, you know.”
What was there to do but wait, patiently, for her to continue? That these tales seemed to me mendacious has already been noted. The extravagant telling of tales has long been a passion of Ernestine’s—her whole life long. The first time she told me she had just returned from a journey beyond our solar system, I decided neither to argue nor to question her but to take her at her word, just to see what would happen, to see how she would proceed. With plentiful details and a coherent narrative thrust, her tale at least amused me if it did not altogether convince. As then, so now. If what she offered were lies, I accepted them anyway. Now, I waited. Cheryl rustled the blankets as she shifted her slumbrous body. Eggs sizzled in a pan that rested above flames of blue and white. My sister banged the pan against the stove and cursed. I pictured her, sitting glumly on a rocket that rattled through the cosmos, white fire trailing behind it. In my mind, Ernestine in her ratty housecoat, cigarette in one hand, straddled the rocket like a pinup girl riding a bomb as it shot across the sky, smirking and waggling her fingers at me in a patronizing wave.
“And so I went. I boarded The Voyeur.” She sat down, soon, eggs fried hard and doused in hot sauce, the edges crisp if not burnt, and for a long moment she wielded the fork as though she were about to conduct an orchestra.
“That guy, I lost him. I didn’t need him anymore. He seemed like a bit of a shady character, however useful I found his tips. The ship itself was grand. Not a rocket, sister, but a proper starship, enormous, equipped for deep-space flight, and painted the most beautiful shade of red.”
“How did you know I imagined a rocket?”
“The wide and deep grooves of familiarity, worn into the paths that a mind daily treads, may occasionally be mistaken for telepathy.”
“Ah,” I said, and felt faintly embarrassed as the image of Ernestine straddling the rocket flickered in my mind once more. One might have thought, from the look on her face, that she had uttered God’s own word. Even if she had, stubbornness would still forbid me from admitting it. I began to sort the mail on the table by category: bills, circulars that I would take home and recycle myself, and other. Ernestine’s face spasmed for a moment: surprise, irritation, or gratitude? However she felt, I continued my sorting.
“And so I boarded the ship and went straight to my room. Rather small, yes, cramped and dark, but this was an adventure, and adventure often yields privation, which demands fortitude, which I have in abundance. The berth was truly no more than that, a small enclosed bed with scarcely enough room for my trunk. But it met my minimum needs, and what could I do but be grateful? Sleep beckoned, even in those unideal conditions, and I duly gave in. But the next day I awoke ready to take on my favorite role: voyeur!”
“Laugh all you want, Cloris. I have always been a great watcher of people, an outside observer, and relish what I learn from that purview. To board The Voyeur seemed almost too perfect, rather too suited to me, and the gentleman was right that what it offered was, simply, everything: everything you could ever want to see. Now, of course, much that comprises this ‘everything’ was simply shocking, disgusting, crude, and lewd. I did not wish to observe the act of copulation, nor did I wish to glimpse nude bodies writhing to the beat of an unfamiliar music.”
“Ernestine, you boarded a cruise ship—pardon me, a starship—called The Voyeur. It sounds sleazy as hell to me. What would you expect but that sort of thing?” The mail before me lay in three piles. The vertiginous stack of circulars teetered on the verge of collapse. I divided that pile in two and folded my hands before me, awaiting a response.
She glared above her empty plate. I noticed that her housecoat had a yellow stain on its collar but did not dare point it out.
“Oh, Cloris,” she began, settling into a familiar argumentative mode. “You’re a real pill sometimes, you know that? Excuse me, but have you ever bothered exploring the galaxy around us? You’d find that lots of people elsewhere have minds quite a bit broader than yours—less inclined to sleaze. And you will have to take it on faith that there was much else there to draw the eye and mind for us voyeurs of nobler calling, a few of the carnal pleasures notwithstanding. If you don’t want to listen, to give me your attention sans judgment—well, you can feel free to go home and return to your macramé. Or whatever it is you do to fill your time.”
In silence we met each other’s eyes. A long minute passed and then another. I stood up and walked to the sink, where water flowed weakly from a rust-stained faucet, and tried but failed to erase all trace of coffee from my mug. Back at the table, I sighed and waved my hand, prompting her to proceed.
“A zoo full of alien creatures—but you probably wouldn’t care much about that. A library, granting access to the greatest volumes known to the galaxy. I couldn’t help but slip a copy of my own book in there. Fortunately, I rarely leave home without a spare. I could go on, but there was one thing in particular that really drew me in—one thing I wanted to tell you about.” Her voice quavered for a moment, and something in her manner shifted. It seemed that her muscles tensed; she grew defensive or wary. Then she cleared her throat and resumed.
“I spent all day wandering the ship, going in and out of the zoo and the library and the coffee shops and so on. And at the end of the day I wanted a meal, and maybe just a little drink to calm my nerves. So I asked around, and the word was that there was one bar you just couldn’t miss. That’s what they said. The name of this place was Scopophilia. It took me quite a while to find—way at the other end of the ship, the opposite end from the sleeping berths. It looked funny. The lighting was dark, but all the walls and the tables and chairs, everything, were in pastel colors. The pastel and dim lightning made it feel sort of eerie—haunted. It’s been my experience that interior decoration on other planets is often disarming. Really, all judgments of taste—they differ so much from one species to another.
“Anyway, a young person led me to a high, round table near the back. I had to ask to be seated closer to the stage, and she complied but not without a look of disdain. Oh well. I had arrived just in time for the show, and I was not about to miss it because some gaggle of aliens in front of me were blocking my view. Onstage, a heavy black curtain made its squeaking way into a recess in the ceiling. No light shone; whoever stood there stood in shadow. But, soon, a thin trickling spotlight cast the performer’s face in light, and I could see her pale and blue-toned skin, covered in garish makeup; her long flat limp blonde wig; her diaphanous garment, which might have been a sheet, cheaply sewn into a dress. If you could call it a dress. A voice resounded from somewhere behind me; the emcee said, ‘And now, Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.’
“Now, that’s a subjective judgment if ever I’ve heard one, not least because we spectators represented a good number of worlds, all of which, one might think, would have more to offer in the realm of beauty than this bedraggled performer. Nonetheless. We were there to enjoy the pleasure of looking, and I assumed that Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, not only offered a worthy prospect but enjoyed being looked at.”
At this point, Ernestine’s voice began to quaver. Her eyes roved around her kitchen and settled on her dog. Despite her apparent disapproval, despite her terse tone, it was clear that something that night had disturbed her.
“She sang. If you can call it singing. She sang a strange song that seemed a little familiar, though I could not recall having heard it. Something about how magic dances on a clock, how time is the magic length of God.” I murmured “Buffy Sainte-Marie,” but Ernestine ignored me, went on: “She didn’t move at all, really, just barely swayed onstage in her terrible, booming voice. No: she incanted. She was reciting a spell on the unwilling masses. If you have not registered the fact, Cloris, she was a drag queen. And her voice pierced me like a needle, and it stung that badly. Oh my god. The thing is, Cloris, the thing is that I noticed, as she sang, that she looked remarkably like . . . She had blue skin—the slate-blue color of a corpse—and a terrible blond wig, but, when she moved in the spotlight, I saw it. She was the precise likeness, beneath false skin and hair, of him. Branson.”
Ernestine, ever steely, looked suddenly so desperate. As though the cold night had come to claim her and found her bare—defenseless. As though the galactic paths she traveled had been totally evacuated. As though she had seen our brother.
My face must have been a mirror of hers. She said, “I had thought that he was . . .”
I nodded. My mouth felt dry. The room around us contracted, disappeared, and we floated alone with the remains of what we had thought to be unassailable truth.
My sister nodded. “And yet. There he was, I swear it. And doesn’t that name just sound like him? ‘Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.’ The entire epithet, every time; no abbreviations. No compromises!
“Was beauty,” Ernestine asked in a voice that was soft, shorn of its typical brash confidence, “our perception—we in the audience—or was it an essential quality of her being? She looked like a corpse; perhaps she was dead, and her body lived on in some other state we scarcely understand. She. Or he. Branson. I swear it was him. He was singing of the magic length of God and swaying, very gently, on his feet. And it was a very pretty thought to imagine that Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, was looking right at me as she swayed. But such a thought ended in conjunction with the song, and that is when she fled the stage; the lights went up; the show was declared, by that selfsame master of ceremonies, to be over. Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, had departed, and so had he.”
Ernestine clasped her hands before her plate. She sat and said no more. Cheryl stirred behind us. And, after a very long spell of quiet, I said, “Ernestine.”
“Is there more to the story?”
“There is not. The end has come. I retreated to my berth and slept all night. The next day, I found a trader whose little ship would depart that afternoon and bring me very close to Earth. I just got back this morning. Haven’t even unpacked.”
She stood and ambled to the sink, where she deposited plate and fork. From one pocket of her housecoat her hand drew out a purple leash, which she clipped to the collar around Cheryl’s neck. After some exaggerated stretching, Cheryl followed her companion to the door. The thick sourness of dread suffused the air as I sat at the table, looking at the piles of my sister’s mail. She and the dog left me alone with the faint sense that Branson could be here with us, except that I knew that to be impossible. An image surfaced that I would have preferred not to see: his face, his face, his face.
When at last Ernestine and Cheryl returned from their walk, neither of us spoke. Her face looked drawn, nearly corpselike. It seemed to me that her gaze was fixed on a point so distant it might have been that alien sun. For a moment the image occurred to me—a flaming star that sped our way and swallowed us whole, obliterating not just us and the house that held us but the entire wretched planet. And it occurred to me to speak it aloud and allow it to sit there between us, though I did not indulge the impulse.
Of course I did not believe her story. And after Ernestine gave Cheryl a treat and lumbered to her chair and sat down once more, I felt moved to say so. Perhaps the surge of perversity that then pulsed within me should have encouraged me to pursue a line of inquiry or to deny her stories outright, to insist that she was an inveterate liar and charlatan (which she was). But instead it drove me to take a different tack.
Hands clasped, eyes sure, I looked at my sister and said, “Ernestine, what really happened after you returned to your booth? Why don’t you tell me the end of the story?”
She gave one miserable shriek of a laugh. “I gave it to you; you’ve got it!” Her face took on a bleak cast as she sighed and lit a cigarette.
“Couldn’t you have smoked that outside?”
She shook her head, a firm no. “If you want the end of the story, dear sister, then why should I not oblige? Once the show ended, we began to stand up. Some of us, I presumed, would stay to chat and drink and do the other things that patrons do. But self-restraint is my watchword when I travel the galaxy, and no energy remained in me for such leisurely pursuits. My little sleeping chamber beckoned, and in that direction my feet swiftly took me. The halls of The Voyeur are narrow and, at that time, they were dimly lit—evoking the night that did not exist for us, then near no sun. Rather, nothing but night existed. Anyway, scarcely any others traveled those corridors; for a time I had the feeling, stoked by the show at Scopophilia, of having slid into an empty world.
“As I left, I happened to spy the master of ceremonies shuffling away, in the same direction that I was taking. The temptation to follow him rose within me, but a more direct approach seemed wise. I sped up and soon overtook him.
“‘Sir,’” I called, combating distaste at his tiny form, which resembled that of a pill-bug, though he stood as upright as I did. And he evidently possessed vocal cords of some sort or another. Or made use of a technology I could scarcely imagine, which permitted communication, as well as the deception of my senses. Would he—I dared wonder—roll away if frightened? He stopped and waited for me to speak. And I did: ‘Where did Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, scamper off to? I would like to offer her my deepest and most profound respects.’”
“The pill-bug continued to stare. And I heard a voice, which to my ear now sounded distinctly robotic. He said, ‘Oh. That’s a hologram. We just use her for the shows. There’s no real person.’”
“I said, ‘A hologram? But surely she must be based on a real person—a simulacrum of the real, composed of light and strings of code, no?’”
“The pill-bug replied disappointingly: ‘I don’t know, lady. We’ve used her for years.’ And then he turned and began to walk away, ignoring me as I called after him: ‘But how could I find out?’
“I made my way to the berths. I entered mine and slept. And now. The end. The real end.”
“That’s all, Ernestine?” I asked. I felt ready to stand up and leave.
“That’s all, sister. The genuine end. I am afraid, Cloris, that what I have given you is no more than a shaggy dog story. A tale to entice you—but one that has neither moral nor point. One whose mystery is perhaps irresolvable.”
“Well, that’s true. There was no reason to tell me any of this. To bring up all of this about—about Branson. Completely unnecessary.” I rose and moved to retrieve my coat.
Ernestine had begun to mutter. Perhaps she meant me to hear, but the feeling struck me that I was eavesdropping, intruding on an intense and sudden privacy. She said, “Is it only when we believe ourselves most in control that we are most caught within time’s trap? You see the shadow, the shadow, the beast within the shadow, the undying flame that burns at the heart of the darkest well in the world, and you think a way out is imminent, no? But delusion, utterly absolute, forms a hard and impenetrable shell around the sticky sorrow at the center of every single sorry life. I wonder whether she knew it, whether she understood the fundamental nature of our condition.”
At that point she stopped, and she cleared her throat, and she lit another cigarette and looked my way.
“Do you understand it, Cloris?”
I sighed. “No,” I said. My coat bedecked my shoulders. My bag was in my hand. The front door stood only a meter or so away, as the crow flies, though it suddenly seemed as distant as whatever desolate planet The Voyeur might now idly circle.
Ernestine cleared her throat and said, “I don’t either. Not a whit. I’ll call you after my next trip. I’m sure you’d be eager to hear all about it.”
I smiled, made a gesture with my head that could have indicated yes or no or something altogether ambiguous—even I am not sure where my intentions lay and what it was I wanted her to see—and left her there alone at the table.
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Post Road, Black Warrior Review, Lightspeed, and elsewhere.