I will become the next big thing
'I will light myself on five
Its time to get out of bed
And be the Starchild I can be
A billion light years away
Someone's thinking the same thing
But he's already turned to dust
And the starlight I see
Is a billion light years old
A ghost just like the rest of us.' - Song link
Benny had only been given one present in his life: a book. It was in good condition, but smelt of dust and coffee as old books always did.
His grandmother had given it to him when he told her he had magic, she simply reached up and passed it to him with a silent nod and then walked away and out the back door. He carried the book with him everywhere. It wasn’t a spell book per se. It wasn’t an academic book, it was just a book filled with stories. A book filled with what the world could be, filled with how the world was so different in one’s dreams. He had read it every night when he was little; when his mother was drunk on cheap wine, when his father disappeared in the dead of night. He read the book to himself every night and he dreamed. He dreamed of knights in shiny armour on grey horses, he dreamed of fair away lands and hidden caves filled with treasure. Then he got older, and his thoughts were consumed by his mother; was she dead? Was she simply asleep?
The amount of times she forgot his name. The name she gave him.
Was she going to come home tear-stained and smelling of men. Was she going to disappear without a trace? It didn’t surprise him when she did. It didn’t make him blink. He simply packed up his bags and put his book at the bottom of it, because, after all, everything he had read was simply stories; there were no knights to save the damsels. There were no caves filled with magic in real life.
Unicorns, dragons, fairies and magic. Love, trust and hope were all mythical creatures saved for storybooks.
Yet, studying the design that Townes had given Benny for Beth’s dress, he found himself drawn back to the book his grandmother had given him all those years ago. He flicked through until he found the story; the story of Layla and Majnun. He thumbed the old pages tenderly, his tongue between his lips until he found what he was looking for,
‘ I did not come seeking fire yet I am all flame. Layla, our love is not of this earth ’. He had always loved the grandiosity of such a statement. To claim one's love did not belong to this earth, it was all magic.
Love was magic, Benny thought. Or vice versa. Both illusions. One lying to the other, and the other letting them do so.
He sighed to himself, reading the passage, then looking back at the drawings and tracing his fingers over the sketches in thought. Townes wanted this to showcase Beth, to show she was no longer a girl, but was now a woman. Now she held a room whereas before she was a puzzle, people didn’t know why they wanted to look at her. They just did. Now, however, everyone knew exactly why they were looking, and why they couldn’t pull their gaze away from her, but now the world knew her and now they wanted to see her.
Benny cracked his knuckles, rolling his shoulders and closing his eyes. He could see it in his head as he kept one hand on the drawing and he breathed life into the image before him; Beth clad in her red dress, no more diamonds. Now she would wear silk and the flames would shape her body, the ends of the material would look like embers, never entirely still. He felt his hands become heavy and quietly corrected himself - he didn’t want the material too heavy, she didn’t need to be weighed down by jewels and silk. She was already eye-catching. Benny opened his eyes and held the dress before him. He knew he would need to watch the performance to truly make the fire come alive, but for now he was happy. His fingertips ran along the bodice of the dress.
Beth Harmon was not of this world, and she had set them all on fire.
Beth groaned quietly, opening one eye and seeing the sun high in the sky making her hiss. She felt tender, the sun always burned her too hard. Her skin felt like paper and her bones felt like glass under the heat of the star. If she remained there too long she was sure she would combust completely.
Beth chose to remain silent, not wanting to wake for Annette or for Townes.
“Beth, we need you to take Apollo out.”
“I don’t work during the day.”
“He’s gotten himself into a state,” Townes chimed in. The door still remained closed between them but she could feel his agitation.
“I don’t work during the day, Townes,” she repeated, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, I know. But we brought you something, to help.”
Oh, she thought to herself. Oh . The magic green tablets he gave her during the day when the sun made her bleed. Those tablets numbed the call to return home, those tablets made the knife in her heart become a dull ache. She hadn’t taken one in a few days, but she pulled herself from the bed and grabbed her trousers and shirt. She hated the day, she hated the brightness. A star of her kind was not meant to be seen by blue skies, only the sun could hold such privilege. She had told Townes that and he simply laughed, and told her that a star as beautiful as her was to be seen every hour of every day. But she was not the sun, she did not burn as it did. The sun scorched the land and set fires to the earth, Beth guided travellers home lost at sea and lit the night sky when all seemed lost.
Beth just ached for it to be night time. She tucked her hair under the tweed cap Vasily Borgov had given her; she had a deep feeling he knew she did not belong to here, because he handed her the cap and murmured in Russian.
“I loved someone like you before.”
She had just smiled politely and moved on, pretending she didn’t speak his language yet what he had said echoed in her head. She was grateful for the cap, it did shield the worst of the sun from her eyes, and didn't make her feel as exposed.
“Beth, are you going?”
“Yes, Townes. I needed to get change, I doubt you want me riding Apollo naked around the circus,” she muttered.
“Well, there is the story of Lady Godiva.”
“She will not be recreating Lady Godiva.”
“But Townes, I look marvellous,” Beth answered, opening her door and pulling her boots on. She knew the horses were no longer her job, but she adored them. The herd of six that brought her unending happiness. Apollo was her favourite, with his too-wide eyes and his long ears and shaky muscles. She looked at the pair before her: Annette was holding Apollo who indeed looked a nervous mess, his breath in short pants and his body heaving.
“What has upset you?” she whispered so no one could hear her except Apollo, taking the reins from Annette and touching Apollo’s cheek, his coat damp with sweat. “Easy, sweet one. Easy,” she soothed. Beth took a deep breath, then exhaled, being sure that Apollo heard her. He always listened, she found. His ears twitched towards every noise, his eyes held too much knowledge to know that every sound was a hint at danger. Beth bounced onto the horse’s back, settling her weight in her heels and taking the reins. She could feel the tension in Apollo, so she took another breath.
“Are we ready?” Beth’s head whipped round when she saw Benny roll up on Zeus, one hand on the reins and, naturally, a cowboy hat on.
Of course he could ride a horse. Of course he wore the fucking hat too.
“Why is he coming?”
“Zeus needed exercise too.”
Beth looked at Townes, her mouth slightly ajar. “He can’t possibly know how to ride.”
“He does,” Townes sighed. “He does. And Zeus does need a ride before the show tonight, he’s been acting up.”
Beth took a deep breath, dropping her chin to her chest, then rolling her shoulders back. “Fine, whatever. Keep up, cowboy.”
“This isn’t my first rodeo, Foxy,” Benny answered with ease. She gritted her teeth at him.
“I will put you in a ditch and they will never find your body,” Beth hissed at him.
Benny simply answered by blowing a kiss at her.
Benny, it appeared, did know how to ride a horse. And was irritatingly good at it. She hated how he got Zeus to arch his neck, how he got the perfect canter.
She hated how Benny was good at horse riding.
She hated how he was doing it with such careless ease, with such a calmness to him.
“If you keep pouting so hard, you’ll have wrinkles,” Benny observed.
“I won’t get wrinkles. I’m too beautiful.”
“Medusa said the same, then she had a hair full of snakes,” Benny answered with a shrug.
“The myth of Medusa has been twisted,” Beth answered, trying to focus on Apollo and relaxing him but Benny didn’t stop, he instead kept going.
“Don’t lecture me on classics, I know them well enough,” Benny muttered. “If you’re angry I’m here, take it out on Townes. Apollo is already a wreck enough, and you’re gripping the reins like it's a tug of war.”
“If I don’t he’ll take off.”
“Please, he’s a lamb,” he scoffed
“Well, if you’re so great, you ride him,” she challenged. She truly prayed that Benny would say no, but instead he pulled Zeus to a halt and swung himself off and looked at her expectantly.
Beth huffed, doing the same and handing the reins to Benny, then vaulting onto the back of Zeus. She watched carefully, Benny pressed his forehead to Apollos, talking so softly to him and kindly. He bounced onto the back of the grey horse, running both his hands along the horse's neck before slipping his feet into the stirrups.
“My grandfather broke horses,” he explained. “He told me, horses are wild creatures and deserve respect. For it’s only on their terms that we ride them.” Benny slowly collected the reins and shifted his weight, clicking his tongue. “Horses grant us the ability to fly when we are not able to. Watch,” he instructed, turning Apollo into the field before them. Benny had only one hand on the reins, something Beth would never have done with the horse, and yet she had never seen Apollo so at ease. Benny kept talking, smiling and clicking, letting the horse shift between paces. Benny took both his hands off the reins, extending them and standing out of the saddle as Apollo cantered a circle.
Beth was mesmerized. He was not of this earth, with his unnatural calmness and honesty. She knew he lied through his teeth, she knew he had created this persona for the world to see.
But he was a magician and all magic was, at the end of the day, was an illusion to hide something from the world. To hide what the magician didn’t want you to see and often it was the truth. Benny had created this to hide himself from the harsh gaze of the world. He conjured a person who didn’t care, yet held the attention of everyone in the room. He held their attention so he could watch them, to see what they were doing. No one could hurt you if you seemed indestructible. And that was what Benny created, a cowboy who no one messed with and everyone knew, everyone kept at an arm's distance for him to continue the illusion.
She watched, and despite herself, she smiled. She dropped her head so he wouldn’t see the heat rising in her cheeks.
“Your issue was you kept expecting him to do something. Why does he have to do something? Why can he not just be a horse?” he asked, riding back beside her and giving Apollo a pat.
“I didn’t know you were a horseman.”
“Beth, I’m anything D.L. Townes wants me to be as long as he keeps paying my wages,” Benny smiled. She hated how carefree he looked on the grey.
Like a knight in shining armour.
The green magic pills Townes had given her were in her bloodstream - she could no longer hear her sisters in the sky and the world felt fuzzy. Benny pulled Apollo to a halt next to her, brushing his hair out of his face and looking at her. He truly looked at her, his eyes focused and deep. A first, Beth felt it was unnerving. No one gazed at her with such intensity. It felt as though he was studying her, every curve and shape on her body he seemed to examine as if committing her body to memory. The question he asked put all her thoughts away because he was not admiring or studying her.
“Are you high ?” Benny asked, looking at her. And truly looking at her.
“What does it matter?” she asked, squaring her shoulders. She heard Benny scoff at her, actually scoff.
“No wonder you couldn’t ride, you’re fucking flying.”
“Townes gave me them,” she answered, trying to defend herself. She was not going to be lectured by him. Yet, he continued on.
“And that makes it ok, does it?” he asked, shaking his head. He cast his eyes to the sky, as though he had seen this story unfold before and then quietly he asked. “When will you start living for yourself?”
The comment caught Beth off guard, flooring her almost. Did he truly know she wasn’t living her life here?
When I return to the sky, Beth thought to herself, I do not belong to this mortal coil. I am from the night sky. I let him do it because I do not know what I am doing myself.
“I hardly see how it concerns you,” she snapped. The dull ache to return home seemed to pierce her for a split second before easing. The green pills truly were magical.
“It concerns me because you put Apollo at risk. The slightest misjudgment on your half, Beth and he could get injured. What good is a circus pony who has a limp? What good is a circus pony with scars? Then we’re down a horse, then a good horse is wasted.” Benny shook his head, running his hand over his face. “Take account of you. No one can tell you how to live your life, but I do advise against throwing it down a bottle or into a pill packet.”
Beth swallowed. She felt tender, as though his words had whipped her. She glanced at him, and then to Apollo. She knew what he said was true. She knew it.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, only half heartedly and more for Apollo.
“Beth Harmon? Apologising? Next pigs will fly. Don’t waste your time with apologies. They get boring,” he mumbled, softly steering Apollo round and looking at her. “Time to go home now. Or Townes will be worried.”
She heard the acid in his tone as he spoke. And for once, she understood it.
Beth Harmon did not perform that night. Benny heard the murmurs, the quiet gasps and the speculation. He rolled his eyes at it all, choosing to ignore it. He grabbed the dress, putting it away neatly and walking to her trailer, knocking gently.
“Beth?” he called, listening but no answer. He frowned at that, trying to peek through the keyhole. “Beth? I have a dress for you. Can I come in? Please?” he asked, but again no answer. Benny looked around carefully, then twisted the door handle and opened the trailer, closing it behind him. He placed the dress on the chair, walking through the tiny room. He could tell Beth lived here, it stank of cheap alcohol and cigarettes. Yet the walls caught his attention. She had carved constellations into the wooden walls, scratched and painted over them. He ran his fingers over the markings carefully, feeling the roughened wood.
Then the retching noises started. He frowned, walking towards the wardrobe and pulling the curtain back and there she was on her knees, holding a basin before her and throwing up.
“Beth?” he asked, kneeling down and brushing some hair from her face. “What happened?”
“A star died,” she choked out, throwing up again. He frowned at that; what sort of bat shit drugs was she on now? A star died? Really?
“I hear her,” she breathed. “I hear her crying. It is so awful. So awful.”
“What can I do?”
“I need the green pills,” she gasped, tilting her head upwards. “Gods, stop. Please .”
Benny had never heard such desperation in someone's voice. And he had seen a person beg for his life once before being killed and even he didn’t sound that desperate.
“Beth, I’m not giving you the pills.”
“ Please .”
“No, no. It’ll only numb the pain, then you’ll have to face it tomorrow. Here, I’m here,” he whispered, sitting on the floor and taking her hand, tracing the heartlines on her palm. “Let me tell you the story of the witch and the farmer.”
“I don’t want stories, I want it to stop .”
“Would you listen to me? Listen. Focus,” his voice firm, “Listen to me, deep breath. The witch had cursed the lands, calling the farmers father a bad man. And in those days, there was no greater insult than a bad man.”
“You’re a bad man,” she snapped, hoping throwing the insult at him would get Benny to leave. Benny however, was not so easily swayed.
“Thank you. And so, the farmer's son had been left with this. The cursed land where no harvest grew,” Benny traced a circle on her palm. “Every night, for a thousand days, the farmer's son went to the witch and got to his knees and begged her to reconsider. On his one-thousandth day, the witch stopped and looked at him.
‘Why do you come?’ she asked him.
‘Because the land is all I have. You have money, you have men. You have the earth, the sun and all in between and I only have the land that you cursed. I am not my father’s son, I am a good man. How can I prove to you I am?’
‘I will give you a bird,’ the witch said. ‘I will give you a hawk for you to raise and if he flies away, then you have proved you are not of worth and the land will remain cursed.’ The farmer's son agreed, and so he took the baby bird to his house, and he fed the bird every morning, noon and night. He didn’t know that the witch sang for the bird every night to come to her, yet he stayed. He didn’t leave. She summoned the bird with every inch of magic she had, yet the bird did not come. She came to his house, her eyes filled with rage.
‘What magic do you possess? He is my bird, he comes when I call.’
‘I know,’ said the son. ‘I also know he is blind, and so when you didn’t look, I took your gloves so he could smell you, and convinced him I was you’.
And so the witch was so impressed, she conceded not to lift the curse for the full year,but for only half. And that was how winter came to be. To remind us that the gods can take what they gave us in the blink of an eye,” he explained. The vomiting had eased, but she still looked in pain.
“Morella,” Beth whispered.
“Her name was Morella. And his name was Conri, the King of Chefs. If you tell that story, you should give them their names.”
“How do you know it?”
“I was there,” she whispered. “I watched it all from the sky,” she breathed, looking once more at the sky then dropping her head. Benny remained silent, watching as she slipped into a sleep.
She was not of this earth.