And Athena Leaped
by Sylvia Hiven
Years later, Sebastien Joivin often wondered what would have happened if he had destroyed that cocoon the first time he had seen it grow in his shelter.
He was not unaccustomed to sharing his makeshift dwelling with disgusting creatures. Cockroaches, rats and mice constantly nestled with him in the corner of the alley. Sebastien did not really mind. After all, he was no more than a gutter rat himself. A chestnut-sized cocoon did not faze him. If spiders wanted to burst offspring into his home, he was not going to stop it. He deserved the misery. Perhaps he even welcomed it. It kept his mind focused on the painful present and stopped his thoughts from straying into his perfect past.
With a grunt, Sebastien shook his head in an attempt to shudder that name out of his mind. His hangover made itself known as he did so. The pain was bearable, but not the fact that his pleasant numbness was waning. He clutched the flask in his coat pocket. He did not have to shake it to know that it was empty; he rarely went to sleep without drinking its contents first.
Forgetting about the cocoon, and trying to forget about Rhadine, Sebastien crawled out from his shelter and into the alley. His stiff legs creaked in protest as he hurried toward Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. He could feel the memories stalking him, readying to pounce. He had to catch the next performance before he sobered up, or he would fall victim to his past again.
Sebastien had frequented the theater even before Rhadine had died. Perhaps it had had a part in him falling from grace, or perhaps it was a symptom of it; but either way, he still felt drawn to it. The usher recognized him. For some reason, he always waved Sebastien inside the door without asking for the admission ticket. Sebastien assumed it was out of pity—out of remembrance of the great man he had once been—but the usher's face did not betray his motivation.
Once inside the theater, Sebastien found his way to the back row. There, he knew he would find the already inebriated audience members who would be most agreeable to sharing the contents of their flasks. Sebastien still had most of his teeth, a worn but expensive velvet coat, and apparently also a demeanor approachable enough to make him blend into their crowd. He feigned being like them; a jolly bohemian artist who was still struggling rather than one who had struggled, succeeded and fallen. Pretending was easy enough and it always led to them sharing their liquor with him.
The first act began. The bottles wandered from mouth to mouth. The fuzziness arrived slowly.
Sebastien watched the pretend-urchins on stage rape the pretend-whores in pretend-ways, but he did not even feel pretend-disdain for the performance. He didn't care, really. He was there to take advantage of the audience, not the show. When the performance concluded in the customary bloody deaths and horrors, Sebastien stumbled back toward his alley in the cold Paris night. He was numb—and grateful for it.
To his dismay, Sebastien ran into Madame Louvalle when he rounded the corner onto Rue de Douai. She owned a restaurant near his alley and she ruled the homeless bums around the block with an iron fist. Sebastien hated her. The sight of her fat countenance filled him with acid frustration.
"Monsieur Joivin!" she shouted at him as she was locking up her restaurant, her bulky bosom swelling over her corset. "Don't think I can't see you in the shadows. How many times do I have to tell you that you cannot sleep in the alley?"
Like a schoolboy readying himself for a scolding from his teacher, he stepped into the amber light of the street lantern. "Forgive me, Madame," he mumbled.
Madame Louvalle never turned down an opportunity to kick on those less fortunate than herself. "Your kind of pest is worse than a rat," she spat, waving a fat finger at him. "I have a hard enough time kicking drunk patrons out of my restaurant at night. I don't want to have to worry about drunks in the alley, too."
"Forgive me," Sebastien said again, hoping that the repetition would somehow make his words more sincere. "I will not return, I promise."
He bowed effortlessly, the elegant movement a painful reminder of the grand man he used to be, and then he continued to walk down the street and rounded the nearest corner. There, he waited for a few minutes until Madame Louvalle's plump frame wagged down the street and disappeared. When she was gone, he returned to the alley. He always did every time she tried to kick him out. It was a game they often played and it usually amused him, but tonight it only frustrated him. She had stolen the lingering effects of his drinking. Lucidity was already returning to him when he crawled into his gutter home.
Before falling asleep, Sebastien noted with fascination that the cocoon was now the size of a plum.
The next morning, the sunshine assaulted the alley. The heat stirred the smell of rotten foods and excrement into a nauseating cacophony so vile that even Sebastien's deadened senses could not avoid being disgusted by it. The bright, smelly morning jerked his eyes open. The first thing he saw was the cocoon. Once again, it had grown. It was now the size of his fist.
It bulged at him, pregnant and fat.
Perhaps it was his headache, or perhaps it was Madame Louvalle's piggish face from the night before… Or perhaps it was just exasperation. But for some reason, the cocoon angered him. With a frustrated groan, Sebastien curled his hand into a fist and punched it.
He expected it to be dry and hard, but to his surprise it was moist and pliable and yielded to his fist. There was a wet, ripping sound, and the bottom of the cocoon split wide open, discarding a black lump of something onto the ground.
Sebastien looked at the lump with fascination. It seemed to shiver where it lay. It was covered with greenish, stringy hair and it whined like an injured cat. Eventually it unfolded four limbs. Two slender arms and two willowy legs, delicate like twigs, appeared from underneath the lump of hair. The creature stretched its limbs and then rolled into a crouching position before him. Folding its arms around its legs, it rocked back and forth like a frightened child. It still whimpered in anguish.
Sebastien grunted. The sound scratched at his brain like claws. "What areyou?" he hissed out between clenched jaws.
The creature did not stop its rocking nor its wailing, but an answer appeared to Sebastien nonetheless. A thought, clear and concise, flashed in his mind. It was not his own.
I am Erato.
The thought was accompanied by a bewildering image. He was given pictures of frolicking creatures, winged and colorful, with streams of red hair and twinkling eyes.
Another thought invaded his mind. It was wet with tears.
I am Erato. I am incomplete.
Then the creature cried again.
It did not send him any more thoughts and images. All it did was weep. The tarry tears streaked down its dirty skin in clumps.
Eventually, Sebastien could not stand it any longer.
"Why are you crying?" he asked.
The same vision as before appeared before his eyes; little beings fluttering among trees and flowering buds. He knew them from his own poems.
"You are a fairy?"
I am, but I am not.
The creature unfolded its tiny arms, and stood up. It was female, that much he knew, but if it indeed was a fairy, it was one unlike anything Sebastien had ever imagined. She stood a few inches tall. While her small body was that of a young girl, her face seemed ancient with grief. Black tears still flowed from her angular eyes in streaks, painting her nakedness with tarry brush strokes. She was filthy and ugly and disgusting. A gutter fairy for a gutter poet.
My birth was not due. I am incomplete.
No wings. Not ready.
Sebastien swallowed hard. "I… I did it." His whisper was a statement, not a question. "I broke you."
It was just one word and it was not even projected into his head with anger. Nevertheless, remorse struck him like a lightning bolt.
Sebastien cursed his soberness. Had he been drunk, he would have been able to blame this on the liquor. A hallucination. A trick. He could claim that his mind had finally crossed that line into madness—this being was proof of it.
But he was sober, and this creature—this fairy… She was real.
You must help me, poet.
Her thought burned him. "I am not a poet," he whispered with a broken voice.
You are. I see the words you wrote, and the fame that was yours. Your mind is one of creativity and ideas. You can find a way to mend me. You must.
The creature looked at him with anger. Then her little face softened and she tilted her head. Images appeared before his eyes again, but this time, it was not her thoughts but rather his own memories that he saw.
Rhadine flashed before his eyes. His muse. From the moment he met her, poetry had exploded out his head like Athena leaping out of the skull of Zeus. He wanted to write for her forever.
Rhadine. His bride. Her unruly hair, refusing to be imprisoned by the hairpins, falling into her face as she read his poems with devoted fervor. The reward he valued the most was the smile upon his wife's face when she read his words and loved them more than she loved him.
Rhadine. Swelling with child. She chided and teased his sudden writer's block, but there was real worry upon her face. He drank then, for it made her face fuzzy and her concern blurred away. But then, the drinking would not stop.
Another flash, darker now. Their creditors, who had always congratulated him on his splendor, lined up outside his door, their faces cold and their outstretched hands demanding. The poems would not come. Absinthe would not help. Athena leaped no more.
The first innocent splatters of blood in Rhadine's handkerchief. It was the briefest flash but the most painful one.
The creature named Erato did not punish him with more memories after that. She understood well enough. Black tears welled in her eyes again.
Your muse is dead.
You still must help me, poet. You must find a way. You must help me to fly.
Sebastien let out a harrowing laugh. "Help you fly?" he said. "My sloth killed my wife. I cannot even feed or clothe myself. Now, you expect me to find wings for a broken fairy?"
You must. You must help me, and in turn, you will help yourself.
Sebastien gritted his teeth. "Stupid fay," he said. "Can you not see that I am beyond help?'
He had to get away from her. Without waiting for the next tirade of invading thoughts, Sebastien crawled out of his shelter into the hot Paris morning.
He walked towards anywhere and nowhere.
Erato's visions of Rhadine hurt more than he was willing to admit. For years they had built a life together and he had spent just as many years forgetting all the details of it. The gutter had been his friend and accomplice in the search for oblivion. Where the gutter had left off, the absinthe and witch's brews had taken over. But now, this fairy named Erato brought it all back in one swift invasion of his consciousness, and he could not get the images out of his mind.
He did not return until dawn, and even then, the flashes still played over and over in his head.
He would have rather been met by the irate scolding of Madame Louvalle than the tar-thick eyes of Erato. She was still in his shelter, pitiful in her unfulfilled glory. She huddled there with her chin resting patiently upon her knees. She had known that he would return.
He could see trust in her eyes. It bothered him.
"Erato," Sebastien said. "I am sorry that I birthed you before your time, truly. Perhaps there is a way for you to find your way home. But the poet is dead. I could not find you a solution, even if I tried. You must find somebody else."
The fairy looked at him. Disappointment and anger mixed in her eyes.
The muses help the poet. The poets help the muse. It is how it has always been.
He sighed. "What do you expect of me?"
Once again, one of those clear images invaded his mind. This one was not of his lost past, but rather, of her forfeited future. It showed the frivolous dance of her sisters, mothers and daughters; the joy of the world, the muses of all, whispering perfection into the ears of every artist, singer and composer in Paris.
But Erato was not there. She would never join that dance. She would never muse anyone to write, or sing, or compose, least of all him, unless he mended her and helped her to fly.
Find me wings, she imaged pleadingly. Find me flight, and I shall find you truth.
For days, they were at a standstill. Erato stayed in his shelter, which by now had become their shelter, curled up in a corner. As far as his five senses were concerned, she made no nuisance. His sixth, however, constantly felt her thoughts impressing upon his; images of Rhadine, images of her own world where she belonged, images of wings, ever-fluttering, ever-flying. Not even the deepest of intoxication could save him from the constant bombardment of Erato's mind. He knew that in a way, she was all the prayers he had prayed in his pathetic loneliness. She was the lifeline he had asked for. He knew she could lead him to the truth he had once lost… Yet he was afraid.
So, he ignored her for days. He even left the shelter when her thoughts were too angry for him to handle. He could not take that guilt.
He slept upon park benches and on cold, bare ground, but Erato could reach him with her thoughts even when he was blocks and blocks away from the alley. There was no hiding from her wrath.
On the fifth day after her arrival, her fury was overwhelming him. Her mind pushed itself into him with such anger that he stumbled across Paris in white, hot pain from her scathing consciousness. He did not realize that he was in the park until he smelled the familiar scent of tall grass and sun-kissed roses. It smelled exactly the same way as when he had proposed to Rhadine there years ago. Le Parc D'Ailes. Their park.
The little park lined the Seine. The winds still combed the silky grass in slow, caressing strokes. He remembered Rhadine's hair spread out over the grass as he kissed her. The memories were still there, lingering, like a covered, forgotten portrait of a perfect life. Butterflies danced in scattered harmony around the river's edge, partnered by the breeze.
They looked like lonely wings, purposeless. Seeing them, everything became so obvious.
The next morning, Sebastien brought Erato to Le Parc D'Ailes. She clung to his neck with her thin arms. She was so light that he could not feel her weight where she was seated on his shoulder.
"I found your wings," Sebastien said to Erato, pointing at the cluster of butterflies.
Those creatures can fly me home?
There was hope in her question, but also doubt.
"Why not? They are lithe, like you. Image to them what you image to me. You can woo them."
Sebastien sat down upon the grass and let Erato down as well. With trepidation, the gutter fairy approached the butterflies that fluttered above the grass. Sebastien felt a sting of guilt as none of the butterflies would even consider her. The fairy sang, she pleaded and she begged, yet her grimy hair and unsightliness frightened them. Each time she reached for them, they flared their wings with contempt.
She returned to him, defeated.
They will not have me, she lamented. Why would they? I am as filthy and broken a fairy as you are a poet.
"You are soiled."
With trembling hands, Sebastien reached inside his pocket. The flask was heavy with liquor. Enough, he knew, to keep him comfortably numb for days, yet not enough to make him write a masterpiece. Not ever.
Erato seemed to know what he was thinking. She tilted her angular head. Her tears streamed faster now, but with hope.
Pour it over me, poet, and it shall clean you and me both.
Sebastien opened the flask. The odor of the alcohol, which before had soothed him, now smelled sharp and sobering. He hesitated for a moment.
"Erato," he said suddenly. "Are you real? Or am I just a mad poet?"
Erato's thought seemed to smile at him.
Does it matter?
"No, I guess not."
So Sebastien emptied the flask's content over Erato.
What had once been amber cognacs, brown whiskeys, clear vodkas and green absinthe flowed over her hair and face. The liquid cleaned Erato's body as efficiently as it had tainted Sebastien's soul, and the tarry blackness flowed off her limbs. Underneath, her nakedness dazzled and she beamed at him with gratitude.
Her chase was easy this time. Now all the butterflies tried to charm her, but she searched long and well. Finally, she came upon her chosen stallion. Blue and brilliant, he searched the nectar of a poppy, but Erato easily distracted him. She leaned in to the butterfly and told him all her secrets, her sights and dreams, making promises of honey and sweetness in her world beyond.
The butterfly agreed, tantalized by her charms.
Erato wrapped her arms around the butterfly's neck. As if she was weightless, the butterfly carried her upwards. Higher and higher it soared, until the pair of them were merely a blue flutter far away. Erato's laughter pearled in the sky and she sent a sincere promise into Sebastien's mind.
Farewell, poet. I am leaving you. But I am not.
Then she cast images upon images upon him; of fairies and fays, of fawns and phantasms. Her grateful gifts rained down upon him in cascades of creativity, enough to fill pages upon pages with endless poems. Athena leaped in his mind, over and over.
Erato was complete.
And somehow, so was he.
Sylvia Hiven says: Born and raised in Sweden, I threw caution to the wind and moved to the United States when I was twenty-one years old. I currently reside with my husband in Atlanta, Georgia, where I work in the hotel management.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
What inspires me is the wonderful feeling of seeing words come together on the page in a cohesive tale, and have readers connect emotionally to my stories.