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Olympus Knows I've Failed
Words by Dan Szczesny
Image by Bryan Crump
Modeled by Lexia Talionis
*Editor's Note: Previously published in Lit Select Magazine.
I await judgment, locked in my own mind.
My source of energy and life, my imagination, has been stripped from me and now all I see is white fog, a sort of hazy blur. If I stay perfectly still, in my peripheral vision, I can see the dance of life, the movement of ballet, the crescendo of orchestra, a long, morning landscape where the sun dimpled dew broadcasts eternity. But if I try to conjure the images, they fall apart like dust and that damned blur returns.
This is my father's fault, of course, this confinement of the imagination. I can still see, obviously. My vision isn't gone. I push some stray strands of ivy off my forehead and warily eye the waiting chambers. For two thousand years, along with my eight sisters, I have created. Not to put too fine a point on it, but every time you laugh, that's me. When Hesiod was writing about the Golden Age, or the Coen brothers were creating Fargo, that was me. Even now, when you step out onto the edge of the Grand Canyon and you feel your heart swell and tears start to fall, me. You're welcome.
But I'll leave the vanity to that idiot Narcissus, I feel neither pride nor entitlement when it comes to my work. But it is my job, and now I am left helpless all because for one day, one moment really, all I wanted was to make someone sad instead of happy.
“So you snuck into Mel's mind, and just stole her birthright,” my husband's voice says, breaking me out of my thoughts. He's the only man who has ever been able to read my mind. My heart immediately feels like bursting, but I try to stay cool.
“Please, Apollo, stole? Borrowed. And this birthright storyline is nonsense, you know that.”
He's dressed in a dark blue suit, tie-less, white shirt, open two buttons down. He takes my hand and it's like a thousand tiny electrical charges surge through my body. It never gets old.
“I know,” he says. “But rules are rules. Your role as a muse is black and white.”
I sigh and wonder if he even understands the irony of his words. He's gorgeous, and has a kind heart, but sometimes he is quite dense.
“So, what can you see, exactly?” he asks.
I close my eyes and focus on my gift, trying to bring up colors first, the most basic beginnings to creation and the palette I use the most with babies and children. But Apollo is quite right this time. All I'm getting is white and black, streaks of drab monotones. I can feel the vibrancy underneath, but it's like my father has masked my imagination. I'm handcuffed to monotony and dullness. In my mind, I strain against the restraints, but it's like trying to move fog—the second I push a handful away, more takes its place. I give up and open my eyes.
“Nothing,” I say, my own tears now beginning to fall. “No colors, no humor.”
“This will be worked out,” he says, with a smile that flares like the sun and burns into my soul, and I realize with horror that even that is lost to me. I just can't feel pleasure. “You'll see.”
At that moment, my brother, Hermes, arrives, looking bored and out of place in a Hawaiian shirt and running shoes. “Dad will see you now.”
“What's his mood like?” Apollo asks.
Hermes shrugs. “Pissed.”
I swallow hard, take a deep breath and prepare to meet my fate.
I've always tried to avoid my father's receiving hall. That's where he works, first of all. Second, getting an audience with him there usually meant you did something wrong. Wait, let me rephrase that. Seeing Zeus here means that he thought you did something wrong.
Normally, the accused would enter alone, but Apollo isn't having any of that and brushes the attendants aside with a wave of his hand. Nobody is willing to tell him to leave my side and I'm grateful for that.
The hall is enormous, of course, and it takes us five minutes to walk its length to get to his throne. My father hasn't updated it for two millennia. No color. Pure white marble; it's like the Romans never existed. Or, you know, Tim Gunn. He still wears white robes and sandals. He says that's what humans expect him to look like so that's who he'll be. Not that he ever actually lets any of them see him. Last time he set foot on Earth the Titanic sank and he's never forgiven himself.
“He's so old-fashioned,” I mumble, but Apollo hears me and snorts.
“He has a reputation, Thalia, he can't just be running around in black T-shirts all day. You could have dressed a little better for this.”
I look down at my Morrissey T-shirt and black jeans. “It's a phase,” I say. “I look good in black, though, don't I?” I nudge him, trying to be adorable.
He turns toward me and puts his strong hands on my shoulders. “Thalia, I would love you if you wore tree bark, and I know you are trying to make light of this, but we need to be careful here. Try to be serious for once.”
This time I do laugh. It's odd to understand what is funny but not be able to feel humor. My voice carries up into the column-lined roof. “That's how I got into this mess! All I wanted was to be serious for once!”
“Thalia!” My father's voice booms like an earthquake. I can feel the floor shake. Even Apollo shuts up quick. “Stop your chatter and come here!”
We walk the remaining hundred yards in silence, our steps echoing on the marble. There are a few handmaids around and a half dozen of Rhea's attendants circle my father, as though to protect him from — what? Me?
And then I see her. My sister Melpomene is sulking to the right of my father, looking forlorn and mopey. Jeez, even for the muse of tragedy, she's really playing it up today.
“Really, Mel, you even bought your sad mask?” I say. “Like anyone here doesn't know you? What a drama queen.”
“She actually is the drama queen,” Apollo whispers in my ear, and we both burst out laughing.
“Enough!” Zeus shouts, and everybody cowers. and down on earth there's a minor tsunami in the east Pacific. “For the love of—look what you made me do, daughter. Can someone ask Poseidon to take care of that, please?” One of his attendants runs off and my father turns his attention back to me.
Apollo and I are silent and my father gathers his thoughts. He rubs the bridge of his nose and I suddenly realize he looks older than I remember, which is just wrong given that he doesn't age. Maybe it's just stress.
“Apollo,” he begins, “why are you here?”
“She's my wife, Zeus. Her side is where I belong.”
My heart swells and I wish my father would shut down this imprisonment so I could feel love toward my husband.
“I could have you removed,” my father says.
Apollo steps forward and says, “No. You couldn't.”
“Stop!” I shout. “Both of you! Even after thousands of years, you still insist on a pissing match. This is about me, father, I can speak for myself.”
“Fine, Thalia, this is about you,” he says. “How do you plead to the charge of theft?”
I step forward, lift my head high and say, “Not guilty!”
“Preposterous!” My sister, like usual, looks like she's about to cry. “You took my birthright, you entered my heart and stole the very pulse of life, you stole my sadness.”
“For five seconds, Mel! Good grief, you make it seem so much worse than what it was.”
“You violated me,” she whispers in that drama voice her and our mother used to practice down by the Hades; all baritone and meaningful whispers. Such crap.
I can see my father is going to let the two of us duke this out. Of all my eight sisters, Mel and I never got along. Our jobs were too opposite, too unable to compromise. Being a muse is trouble enough. Zeus knows how prickly human comprehension can be, how easily dissuaded from the light. And when you think about it, Mel and I are actually competitors.
But, and here's the catch, I'm rarely taken seriously. People die. Boom, that's Mel. Earthquakes happen. Puppies drown. Hamlet gets stabbed. All Mel. Boo-hoo, woe the human condition. But that's child's play.
Try making someone laugh. Or even better, try making someone cry tears of joy. But I know there's no reasoning with her. All emotions this one. So I try to take another tack.
“Look, Mel, I'm sorry. I guess I've just always been curious about the other side. And honestly, I've been a little bored lately.” I regret the words even as they are leaving my mouth.
All three of them, Mel, Apollo and my father, say “Bored?” at the same time.
“Well, not bored, just, you know, looking for something different?”
Mel just turns toward our dad. “What am I supposed to do with this, Father?” she asks. “Bored? Like, what, a human teenager? How repellant.”
“Are you bored with me, Thalia?” Apollo asks.
“No, husband, I assure you of course I'm not—”
“She must be punished, father!” I hear Mel say, and that makes me lose it.
“Punished, Mel? I can't feel, do you even know what that's like? Nothing, not love, not beauty. I can't even tell a joke! I climbed into your empty little head for five seconds and because of that, I've been dry for two days. Is that fair, Mel, is it?”
I try to push my way into her mind again, wanting to punish her, wanting to steal more, to take that stupid mask and smash it to bits, but I can't even get angry. I scream the words with no feeling. There's nothing there, but it's still exhausting and I can feel my feet giving way under me. The last thing I remember is falling into Apollo's arms and thinking how strong he is.
When I open my eyes, the first person I see is Melpomene.
“’Bout time,” she says.
She's stripped off her muse robes and is wearing a yellow sundress and sandals. She looks nice, actually. I always envied her black, curly hair.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You passed out. Nice move, by the way, something out of my play book. Did you steal that too?”
“I didn't – what?” I don't even know where to begin. “I didn't pass out on purpose, Mel?”
She just turns away. I get up, uneasily, and look around. We're in my father's library, surrounded by the best minds of the living and godly world. Mel has a Steven King book on her lap. I always loved it here, so much creation. I run my fingertips over the shelf dedicated to Shakespeare. Nice man. Pity he didn't write a single damn one of his plays. I stop at Hamlet.
“Father always loved that one,” I say. “Always thought it was your best work.”
Mel shrugs. “He always thought that As You Like It had ... merit.”
And incredibly, we both start giggling at that and suddenly we're just sisters again.
“I'm sorry, Mel, really I am. How can I make this right?”
She sighs. “You can start by giving me back my Morrissey shirt, obviously.”
I sit down next to her and slide over and she leans her head on my shoulder. I wish I could tell her a joke, like I used to.
“I'm still trapped, Mel.”
“I know, this isn't over. Father says that I'm to deliver your punishment.”
A cold chill runs up my spine. “What does that mean, Mel?”
“He wants me to give you what you want, not just a taste like you had, but all of it. He wants me to give you this for a full day, but I'm not going to do that because you're my sister and I love you. I'm only going to give you a minute.”
I stand up, unsure how to feel. Giving me what I wanted doesn't feel like punishment.
“And then I can have my insight back, after this? After only a day?”
“One minute,” she repeats. “That will be enough.”
She draws a long breath and sits up. “I guess now is as good a time as—” But I'm already there, inside her soul, and as the power and devastating responsibility of the Muse of Tragedy comes pouring over my heart like an unstoppable water fall, I immediately regret my longing.
The pain comes in endless waves. Isolation. Depression. Panic and a deep relentless self-loathing. I have always thought of my job as being a conductor, as standing in front of a sea of creative souls and directing their energy toward warmth and release, each overwhelming feeling of joy an instrument to be focused and finely tuned.
But this. There is no joy. How do I bring light and passion to the heart of a mother who lost her only child? To a blind musician who can no longer play, thinking of suicide? I steady myself, trying to pick out one soul among the millions that I can touch. I sort through the agony, pushing aside those I know I can't help. It brings me to my knees.
And then I see her, feel her. I can feel my own sister, Mel. She's forlorn and heartsick, worried and deeply sad, and it's because of me. Of all the souls she must watch over, of all the poor fools she must let go, Mel is hurt and in need of inspiration because of me?
My time, thankfully, is growing short. I can't imagine staying here for a whole day. I reach out, through the chaos, to my sister and focus my attention on her pain. The process is the same as channeling the joy, but it all feels so much more desperate.
I feel so lost, I think I'm crying myself, but I do the only thing I know how to do. I push deep into her mind, and tell her a joke.
I open my eyes to the sight and sound of my sister's laughter.
“That was it,” she says between fits of giggles. “A knock-knock joke? Oh my God, Thalia, tell me again how you managed to inspire the Brooklyn Bridge?”
I'm frozen between the pain I just felt and the joy in realizing I have my gift back.
“And about our father, no less!” Tears run down her cheeks. It's been a while since I witnessed Melpomene's smile.
I throw my arms around my sister, and sob.
“Oh, honey, it's ok, it's going to be fine,” Mel says.
And there we sit for a long time, holding each other, the laughing Muse of Tragedy and the crying Muse of Comedy.