The Muse

Cynthia C. Scott

Leon and I were sitting down to breakfast when she approached us on her hands and knees, sniffing the floor and mewling like a cat. She shifted back and forth and gazed up at me. That would have been enough but she overdid it by rolling up her eyeballs, flicking her tongue, and pawing the linoleum with her fingers.

She was trying to get my sympathy. But I had made up my mind and there was nothing she could do to change it. The best thing to do was to ignore her. 

I sipped from my cup of coffee and asked Leon about the game last night and whether our team had a chance to go on to the pennant. He looked up from his tablet, where he was watching post-game highlights, and frowned. 

“Since when were you in to sports?”

“Just making conversation,” I said.

The child was now rolling on the floor and pulling at the two plaits she wore, tugging them so hard she ripped one from her head. I gasped and nearly dropped my cup. I had never seen her behave like this before. She shook the braid at me and released a bloodcurdling scream. The plates and silverware rattled and flopped. I grabbed a saucer and spoon before they tumbled to the floor. 

Leon grimaced. “Will you do something about her?”

“What am I supposed to do? She’s angry at me.”

“Can you blame her. You plan to kill her.” He grasped his tablet, which was scuttling toward the edge of the table.

“She knew that from the beginning,” I said defensively. “I never lied to her about that.”

The child rolled on her back and started to howl. She tossed the braid toward the ceiling. It landed like an amputated limb after an explosion.

“She’s having a tantrum.”

“I can see that.”

“And it’s annoying.”

“Ignore her. She’ll go away.”

Leon sighed heavily and gave me an exasperated look. 

“It’ll be done with after today,” I promised. 

He didn’t look terribly convinced.

I didn’t blame him, and neither of us could blame her. She didn’t ask to be brought to this world with its suffering and unpredictability. I gave birth to her as a sacrifice. She came reluctantly. I tried to coax her with pretty things: grosgrain ribbons and little stuffed teddy bears; baby shoes and socks with lacy tops. I gave her spotted jelly beans, tangerines, and seashells I collected from the beach. 

None of these things enticed her. She hid in the shadows, cowering and shivering like a wide-eyed orphan. The world was too noisy for her. The flat screen frightened her. Leon’s Xbox positively terrified her. I had to turn off my phone and stay away from the Internet to get her to come out into the open. Finally, while working in the garden, I discovered she loved the ground and everything in it. Clumps of dirt, little round pebbles, sticks, tree bark, leaves. She’d stuff them by the handsful into her mouth and swirl them around like she was gargling mouthwash. Her tiny square teeth crunched down and snapped on the sticks and pebbles. She was never satiated. Always she wanted more.

I started keeping on my desk little vials of dirt and a collection of rocks and large, shapely oak leaves. They became talismans for her and myself.

She’d come secretively into my office, first peering around the door frame and then hiding behind the chair. I never acknowledged her for fear that if I did she’d run scuttling back into the shadows again like a crab after the rock it had been hiding under was lifted. Before long, she came into the room and sat in the chair, watching me openly and curiously as I wrote.

“What are you doing?” she asked. It was the first time she’d ever spoken to me. Her voice was soft and child-like, yet had a certain maturity as well. A wise old soul.

“I’m telling your story,” I replied.

This pleased her. I soon learned she liked telling stories too. So I asked her to tell me one. She told a story about a little girl who liked to eat rocks. She loved to eat them all the time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She loved rocks so much she didn’t want to eat anything but rocks. But then she ate too many rocks and had a tummy ache. The end. I laughed and said that wasn’t much of a story. It had no plot. No narrative arc. She became sad and I regretted my honesty. I assured her it was a beautiful story and she became happy again. 

“Tell me another,” I said. “But this time I want a real story.”

“But that was real story.”

“Well, then just tell me another story.”

She smiled and told me a story about the day she was born. When she was born, she opened her eyes and saw the world. It was a big world and very scary. She wasn’t sure where she was and how she came to be. Then she saw a face. She became curious about the face. The face was lovely and friendly and often smiled at her. When she laughed, the face laughed. When she frowned, the face frowned. When she hid her face with her hands, the face did the same. This made her very happy and she laughed again. The face laughed with her. She loved the face. But one day the face went away and she was sad. She looked everywhere for the face, but the faces she saw were not the one she fell in love with. This made her very sad and she cried. The end. 

“That’s a nice story,” I said.

“Tell me the story you’re writing.”

“It’s a story about you. You look for the face that you loved, but could never find it. You searched everywhere and tried to find the face you loved in the faces of the people you met. But none of them could ever replace the face you loved. You searched and searched, traveling through thick, dark woods and crossing streams and fjords, and climbing the tallest mountain in the world. When you reached the peak of the mountain, the rest of the world tumbled out before you as far as your eyes could see but the face you loved was nowhere to be seen. Yet you refused to give up and continued on your journey. Then one day, you found the face you loved. You weren’t certain at first it was her, and you were very scared and suspicious. The face you loved wooed you with ribbons and seashells, but you did not trust her. Then one day, she gave you rocks and sticks and dirt to chew on and you knew then she was the one.”

“What happened next?” she said, bouncing in her chair with an exuberance that was enchanting.

“The face you loved wrote down your story. And you became immortal in the story. This made you very happy. So you laid down and died.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very happy story.”

“It is a bit sad, but it’s true.”

“Not all true stories are sad.”

“No. But we relate to the sad ones more.”

“I want a happy story.”

“The stories you told me weren’t happy.”

“That’s different.”

“Why?”

“Because it just is.”

She scowled at me, then climbed down from the chair and started to walk away. I asked where she was going, but she tossed her braids and ran. That was the first time she became difficult.

Every day she would come by my office and tell me more stories. In her stories she became many things: a cat, a snake, a giant bird. In others, she became nothing at all. I’d write her stories down on a notepad as fast as I could, but I had a hard time keeping up. 

“Slow down,” I said. “Can you repeat that?”

“No. I’m tired of stories. Now I want to take a nap.”

And she closed her eyes and went to sleep. 

Each day she grew more and more obstinate. I asked her to tell me more stories, but she took naps or chewed on the rocks I gathered for her from the garden. The crunching was enough to drive me insane. Chips flew from her mouth and landed on my desk. I swept the wet residue away. I couldn’t think and had a hard time concentrating on my work. I told her to stop, but she kept shoving rocks into her mouth and crunching obstreperously. 

Sometimes she wanted to play games. While I counted to twenty before I looked for her, she’d hide under my desk, behind the chair, or the curtains. She wasn’t hard to find at first. She’d be exactly where I’d hear her giggling or shouting, “Catch me if you can.” But it became harder as the games wore on. She’d hide in places I never thought to look: the kitchen cabinet, the drainpipes, a tube of toothpaste. Always she’d win, jumping out of her hiding place and announcing her victory with a smug grin. The games became tiresome and I told her so.

“Come here and sit down.” I pointed to the chair near my desk. “Now I want you to tell me stories.”

“No,” she said. “I’m tired of stories. I want to play another game.”

“Tell me a story right now or I’ll––”

“Catch me if you can!” she shouted, and off she’d run.

I chased her. We ran throughout the house and then, into the garden, and back into the house again, she always a few steps ahead of me. She was swift on her nimble legs, while I huffed and panted and struggled to keep up. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned smugly again, knowing I was no match for her. But I was wily and determined. She slowed down to mock me. “You can’t catch me,” she sang. But that was where she made her mistake. Just as she was about to dodge me, I grabbed her by the arm and lifted her off her feet.

She wriggled like a cat in my tight grip.

“Let me go. Let me go,” she screamed.

I carried her back to my room and to the chair by my desk. I was about to sit her down and demand that she do as she was told when she turned right before my eyes into an enormous yellow bird. She had a wingspan that stretched six feet in length and a tuft with bright red feathers that crowned her head. I was startled momentarily as she spread her beautiful wings and started to take off. Quickly I grabbed her long tailfeathers and off we went. 

We flew out of the window and over the garden, soaring above the treetops and houses below. She dove and banked in an attempt to shake me loose, but I held on. The wind drew tears in my eyes and rushed through my nostrils, but I was far too elated to be frightened. I shouted with joy as we flew over the city and between the tall skyscrapers and factories. Down below, people went about their business through the maze of streets and thoroughfares, as tiny as insects scurrying on foot or in their toy cars and buses. I yelped and waved to a bewildered man leaning out of an office window.

We flew over the beach and across the ocean. White caps rolled across the green surface. The bird flew low enough so that the spray speckled my cheeks and lashes. Seagulls cried tears of happiness. A dolphin leaped out of the water and waved its flipper at me. I laughed as the bird circled and flew back inland.

The tailfeathers I had been holding fell loose and down I went tumbling into a park below. I landed in a tree. Its thick foliage let me down gently toward the ground. The bird was gone, but I still had its tailfeathers.

I went home and put the tailfeathers on my desk beside the vials of dirt, rocks, and leaves. I wrote a story of my adventure. But the story had no ending. 

“My story has no ending,” I told Leon.

“Maybe it’s not supposed to.”

“This story has to have an ending. It won’t make sense without one.”

“Ask the child,” he said. “See what she thinks.”

But the child refused to help. 

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because if I help you, then you won’t want to play with me anymore. You’ll kill me.”

“But that’s what happens to all stories.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“But I can’t let you go on like this forever––unfinished.”

“Then if you kill me, I will come back as a ghost and haunt you.”

“Then that is how I will end the story.”

I sat at my computer and started writing my ending. When the child saw what I was doing, she turned into a ghost. She howled in the night and played tricks. She caused my computer to crash, flicked the lights on and off, hid my keys. She pulled down the bedsheets while Leon and I slept and slammed doors shut. She interrupted our Sunday breakfast with her caterwauling.

“This has got to stop,” Leon said.

The child was still rolling on the floor and howling. But when Leon spoke so commandingly, she stopped and stared at us. The one remaining braid on her head had come unloose and was twisting into coiled snakes. She waited and watched for what I was going to do. Leon waited and watched for me to do something as well.

I finished my coffee, then got up and went to my office. I rebooted my laptop, opened the file to my story, and began writing. The child came into the room and screamed.

“Don’t don’t it!”

I wrote the last sentence of my story and pressed saved. The child screamed again and fell to the floor.

I ran to her and lifted her in my arms. She looked ashen and weak. When she opened her eyes, I smiled at her.

“There is the face I thought I lost,” she said.

I stroked her hair and told her it was going to be all right. I told her that this was not the end. One day, someone will read her story and she will be born again. 

“Like a phoenix you’ll rise up and soar through the skies. And you will live forever.”

“For ever and ever,” she said.

“For ever and ever,” I said.

And with that, the little girl smiled and closed her eyes.

2,459 words

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