“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”
--Homer, The Odyssey
The first time he saw her, it was like a dream, out of the corner of his eye.
He was mowing the small, scrappy patch of yard behind his house, and when he bent down to pick up a fallen branch lying in his path, he noticed movement: a white, ghostly flickering behind the shed. He stood up, and let the old mower sputter and die. In the silence and the heat that followed, he stood there, wondering if it was his imagination. Then, as if in a trance, he walked towards the shed to investigate. Nothing.
Pierus rubbed his head, wondering if he was losing his mind. These days, he often got lost in his thoughts, his long, melancholy daydreams. He forgot what he was doing, and why; he dwelt in a mental world of anguish, a world without time or meaning. After all, he was still reeling from his ugly breakup with Fidel, his partner of seven years. He still felt nauseated every time he remembered walking in on that scene of betrayal two years ago…
Pierus opened the door to the shed. Actually it was more of a small building in its own right, spacious and well-insulated. He had once used it as a painting studio. Once...but that was before, when things were good, before his heart had been ripped out of his chest, and with it, his ability to paint. Now his easel was in pieces in the corner, beneath a heap of old canvases and dusty, unused art supplies. I’ll never paint again, he thought, bitterly.
He decided he had imagined the ghostly figure, but later that evening, eating his microwave dinner alone on the couch, Pierus saw her again. This time, she was unmistakable: a voluptuous woman in a diaphanous, flowing toga was standing on his front porch, looking in through the window. Startled, Pierus dropped his plastic bowl, spilling mac and cheese on the shag carpet. The woman smiled at him, and leaned partially through the open window. He could see through her filmy garment; her firm, white breasts rested on the window frame like pieces of fruit.
“Hello, Pierus,” she said, in a lovely, low voice. As she spoke, he swore he could hear faint music, like the slow, sensual plucking of a harp.
“H-hello,” Pierus said. He licked his lips nervously; they had gone very dry. He felt strangely aroused and excited, yet unable to move.
“May I come in, Pierus?” the woman asked again. He couldn’t speak, but nodded his head.
The woman glowed with pleasure, and she brought her glow into his squalid, dark little house, illuminating the room with a warm, golden light. She sat down beside him on the couch and the touch of her hip against his felt like a burst of sudden fire, a match striking against the side of his body! And still, he couldn't move.
“H-how do you know my name?” Pierus asked weakly, as the woman began to run her hands along his thigh. The hot, tingling sensation was unlike anything he had ever experienced, and he knew at once she wasn’t human.
“I’m your muse,” she said. “You can call me Clio. I think you already know me.”
Her voice was so low and soft, he had to lean towards her to hear it. She continued to lightly stroke his body, his thigh, his torso, his shoulders, his neck…
“I do know you,” gasped Pierus, remembering in a flash something familiar, perhaps a time when he was painting, long ago, when he was really inspired in his studio…
“But…" he rambled on. "You...you were just something in my mind. Not…not a real body.”
There was no denying her substance and reality now. She was so very close to him.
“Will you let me love you?” she asked, her breath was hot in his ear, her lips nearly touching his. His whole body wanted to say yes. He trembled with excitement.
“Clio,” he said, feeling a little awkward. “I’ve never…well… I’m gay.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Clio said. Her voice was even lower now, changed, in fact, to a man’s voice, just as her body changed, as smoothly and naturally as a river flowing, into that of a young man, glowing with strength and virility.
“Answer me,” Clio said, insistently. It was a command, the sort uttered by divine beings to mortals since ancient days:
“Will you let me love you?”
“Yes,” Pierus said. He couldn’t say anything else.
Over the weeks that followed, Pierus’s life completely transformed. Clio visited him every day, sometimes several times a day, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, awakening in him a passion that he never knew existed. This passion transcended the sexual, and like a tremendous dam breaking, it spilled over into his creative life. He wrote poetry in the mornings while he made his coffee, he started playing the saxophone again (something he had abandoned in high school) and he even began writing songs for it, jazz music that just started coming into his head as frequently as daydreams. In the evenings, he wrote erotic short stories, and he even began to work in earnest on a serious novel, an historical fiction piece about the fall of Troy. On Saturday nights, he started going dancing at El Fuego, a gay dance club not too far away, where he invented some pretty smooth dance moves, impressing even the younger, hipper guys. He also poured his creative energy into cooking exotic meals and delicate French pastries, singing and dancing in the kitchen with his apron covered in flour. And Clio was there, always, glowing and smiling, sitting on the kitchen counter, dangling long, lovely, bare legs.
But most of all, more than anything else, Pierus painted. He was on fire! He felt like his veins ran with liquid fire; beneath his breast he felt flames of creativity, unquenchable flames, burning night and day, a continual, fierce burning that brought more pleasure than pain. He wondered if his skin felt hot to the touch, or if smoke might be rising from his body. He was constantly amazed to find himself still alive. How could any mortal live with such a flame inside him? It must be a miracle.
He cleaned and dusted out his old shed, fixed up the easel, and stretched a dozen large canvases. All day long, he painted, and Clio was there. She brought him cool glasses of water and ideas for paintings, which she would whisper softly into his ear, describing images in his mind that were so tantalizing and fresh, they just had to be made manifest!
To hell with Fidel, Pierus thought. I can’t let him stop me from making art! His joy was almost too intense to bear, and yet he kept on painting! A lot of his paintings were fresh interpretations of old, historical paintings, European battle scenes with rearing stallions and men with long swords. But there was a twist to them: the men wore contemporary clothes, and the battle scenes were riddled with anachronisms: assault rifles, bombs, and modern refugees. Dark with political commentary, the paintings were immediately popular on social media. The owner of Illiad, a local art gallery, sent Pierus a message on Facebook, asking if he would consider having a solo show. Of course! Pierus was giddy with success.
And he was giddy with Love. For a mythological being, Clio was so real, he was just like a real person. Pierus’s friends were beyond jealous of this new, golden, translucent-toga-wearing boyfriend. One night, his friends Jeff and Dante were visiting, drinking wine on the couch of his studio while he painted. It was a warm summer night, and fireflies flew in and out through the windows. Dante played gentle chords on an old guitar. Everyone was tipsy and laughing, and Clio went into the house to get another bottle of wine.
“This is amazing,” Dante said. His eyes flashed enviously in his dark, handsome face. He set down the guitar and stretched out his long, muscular legs with careless elegance, resting his feet on the coffee table. “I’m jealous, but of course, I’m happy for you. We were so worried about you after you split with You Know Who.”
“We really were!” said Jeff, who was short and a little chubby, but very sweet. “And when you gave up painting, it was just awful! It’s great you’re doing it again.”
“But, is Clio…is he really a muse?” Dante asked. “Like, from ancient times?”
“Yes,” said Pierus, not setting down his paintbrush, but painting the sky with bold, fluid strokes. The canvas revealed a sky of penetrating dawn light and dramatic, stormy shadows. “She…er…he…brings me ideas. Paintings, poems, songs, stories… I can’t explain it. It’s just…well…it’s hot.”
Pierus himself was looking sexier than ever: rugged, lean, and muscular, with a new, fierce confidence. His black eyes shone with passion as he parried with the canvas, holding his brush out like a fencing sword.
“I can’t believe it,” Jeff gushed. “Your art--- what you are doing is amazing. And a real live muse? That is just too dreamy!” He sighed, gazing wistfully at Pierus’s painting. Jeff was a painter, too, and once he had had a crush on Pierus, long ago, back in art school. But poor Jeff had been artistically “blocked” for years. His eyes filled with tears of self-pity when he saw his friend’s masterpieces lying in unashamed, wanton splendor all over the studio.
“Yeah, it’s dreamy all right,” said Dante, grinning lustfully. He picked up the guitar again, thoughtfully searching for a new melody. “I wish I had a muse. You’re a lucky devil, Pierus.”
Later that evening, when his friends had gone home, Pierus lay in bed with Clio, humming a tune to himself. Such an enchanting new melody…
“Oh God, I’ve got to write this song down!” he cried. He jumped up and grabbed some composition paper and a pencil, and started to compose the song. “What key should it be in, Clio?”
Clio was a woman tonight, stroking his back lightly while he composed.
“E flat,” she whispered in his ear.
It went on like that for a few more moments, with Pierus humming, and jotting down notes and chords, while Clio stroked him all over his body, slowly building up that familiar sensation of tingling and heat. Pierus almost couldn’t concentrate, he felt so good.
"Wait, wait--" he pleaded. She stopped, then spoke.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you something, Pierus,” Clio said.
“What?” he asked, still concentrating on the song. Maybe he would call it Clio’s Song.
“I have some friends who are…like me,” she said. She paused, considering, then continued. “Would you feel comfortable letting them love you, too?”
Pierus turned around in bed to face her, propped on his elbow. His whole body was electric with the sensations from Clio’s touch, or perhaps it was the melody of the new song growing inside of him, he didn’t know or care.
“What do you mean?”
Clio seemed shy for some reason, a strange emotion to see on such a divine, illuminated face.
“Well, I told my friends about you,” she said, “And they want to meet you.”
“I told them how easy it was for me to love you, how good it was…” she was touching him again, lightly, down his chest. “And, they want to love you, too. They need to.” She looked at him, and when he looked into her eyes, he realized how very ancient she was, thousands of years…He was dizzy with awe.
“Well, sure,” Pierus said. “I mean, of course! I’m in your debt, you’ve given me so much. If you want me to meet your friends—“
“I want you to love my friends,” she said.
“And by love you mean—“
And she showed him what she meant.
Summer was ending, and Pierus bought an electric heater for his studio. He was just setting it up when Clio knocked lightly on the door. Clio was a man today, and beside him was another beautiful, radiant being, of ambiguous gender.
“This is my friend, Erato,” Clio said. Pierus stood up and held out his hand. Erato shook it, gently, but firmly, and the touch sent an electric current of pleasure all down Pierus’s body. And with the handshake, an idea for a love poem came violently into his head; it was almost as forceful as a physical blow! He staggered back.
“Excuse me,” Pierus said, breathing hard. “I need to write this down, just a moment…” Now that he was getting creative ideas all the time, he had pens and notebooks lying about everywhere, so he could capture inspiration at a moment’s notice. He began to write….
I think sleep is upon us. Shall we kiss? –
And just then, Erato stepped forward and embraced him, kissing him lightly on his lips, and sending a thousand more lines of poetry into his mind like electric sparks. Pierus didn’t know whether to yield to this kiss, or struggle against it. He wanted, he needed, to write down more of the poetry, before it slipped away forever…
“Oh, you are fun,” Erato said, and chuckled, a throaty, sexy chuckle as Pierus struggled. “Clio, you were telling the truth about this man! He’s so receptive! And I'm glad...it’s been so long…”
“I know,” Clio said, smiling contentedly, yet a little sadly. He gave Erato a knowing look. “It’s been far too long for all of us…”
“I should let him write his precious poem,” Erato said, releasing Pierus with an impish grin. “I am the muse of love poetry, after all.”
That night, exhausted and spent, Pierus lay in bed, reading his poem aloud to the two muses who lay naked on either side of him. He realized his poem was somewhat like a Roethke poem, mirroring its form and cadence. But so much of creativity is like that, he thought. This endless flowing together of ideas, inspiration bleeding into other inspiration, and the debt is endless, sweet and endless...
And still, the muses waited, quietly listening.
I think sleep is upon us. Shall we kiss? –
My lover turns and draws the evening close.
If he but sighs, a river changes course.
He makes the water lonely for the moon.
He murmurs of the moonlight on the rocks
Through banks of high grass, running like a fox.
“There’s more,” he sighed. “But I’m too tired now.”
Erato rubbed Pierus’s feet, and Clio stroked his brow.
“Sleep,” they said to him, lovingly, with real tenderness.
The weeks went on, and Clio brought more friends, more muses. Eventually, there were nine of them, just as Pierus had suspected: Melponene, the muse of tragedy, Euterpe, the muse of music, and all the rest. Pierus passively welcomed their love and attention and creative inspiration. They mostly appeared in female bodies, but weren’t particularly attached to these. They were used to being spirits, not bodies, and they all had a very playful attitude towards matters of the flesh. It was all a game to them, and the purpose of the game was art. The muses continued to bring him gifts of inspiration: Pierus had more ideas than he could have ever believed was possible: paintings, novels, stories, poems, songs… on and on…
He awoke in bed each morning surrounded by the nine muses, all stroking him lightly all over his body, causing him to be in a constant state of tingling sensations: excitement and pleasure and inspiration. He loved them, all nine of them, and they loved him. They loved him. He could hardly bear the intensity of their love.
It turned out there were more than nine muses.
“Oh that’s just a myth,” said Thalia, a plump, sassy little muse whose kisses inspired belly-laughs. Pierus was sitting beside her on the couch, writing a script for a one-man comedy show.
“I thought you were a myth,” Pierus said, pinching her gently on her belly. She roared with laughter, and tickled him under his arms.
“I am a myth,” she said, “But that’s changing the subject. What I mean is, there aren’t only nine muses. There aren’t ninety-nine muses. Nor nine thousand and ninety nine muses….”
“Oh…” Pierus sobered up. “You mean---“
“There are so many of us,” Thalia said, tickling him lightly again, this time on his thigh, getting saucier with each word. “And we all want you. We all want you to love us, to listen to our ideas, and to make them real.”
“But,” Pierus said, “I’m only mortal. I can’t possibly make any more art… can I?”
Thalia stopped and grabbed his face, pinching his cheeks with her soft hands.
“You decide when to stop letting more muses into the house,” she said. “But just make sure you keep me!” And she bit him lightly on the ear.
“Oh!” Pierus gasped in surprise as an idea for a series of hilarious cartoons popped into his mind.
“Did you like that?” Thalia purred.
But Pierus was already scribbling down his cartoon on an old receipt, oblivious to Thalia’s gaze of adoration.
Despite the cool, autumn air, Pierus was feverish, tossing about in bed. The sheets that bound him were all sweaty. The muses watched him with concern as he cried out in his sleep.
“I can’t!” he cried. “No more! It hurts!”
“Wake up,” Clio said, pushing him gently. “What’s wrong?”
Pierus opened his eyes, looking haunted. “I have to write it down…another idea…a painting…a poem…my screenplay! Wait--where's my easel?!” He started to cry. The nine muses instantly surrounded him, stroking his feet. Euterpe played her flute, and Melponene brought a cool glass of water from the kitchen.
“I knew this would end badly,” Melponene sighed happily as she handed Pierus the water. She loved tragic scenes. Clio shot her a severe look.
“Knock it off, Melponene,” Clio said. “Now Pierus, what happened? Are you ill?”
Clio was wiping away his tears, stroking his back. Pierus sat up in bed, drank the water, and looked at the nine beautiful, glowing faces around him. They all looked sad and concerned.
“It hurts,” he said finally. “All of these ideas. The pressure of them, pulsating inside of me, building and building. It never ends! The feeling is strong. It feels like my soul is on fire, like my skin is filled with sparks. I can’t rest, I can’t sleep. I have so many ideas. I…I’m just exhausted. I don’t think I can live like this!” He was about to cry again. He shook uncontrollably, his teeth rattled.
“Hush, hush mortal,” Clio said, stroking his hot brow. “You should have told us sooner! We’ll protect you. No more muses, we won’t allow any more. And we won’t bring you more ideas than you can bear…just tell us, we’ll listen! And, and---stop playing that flute, Euterpe! It’s not the right moment.”
“Sorry,” Euterpe said sheepishly, putting the flute down on the nightstand. All the muses then stood in a circle around their beloved artist, holding hands and looking worried.
“What do you want us to do?” asked Clio, finally. “Should we leave?”
“No!” cried Pierus. “No! God, no! Just give me the strength to bear it…all this…this pressure…” He was shaking again, and sweating.
“I can give you strength,” Clio said, climbing into bed beside him. “It’s going to be all right, more than all right. It’s going to be indescribable.”
“And the pressure?” Pierus asked, as Clio kissed his neck, his collarbone...
“Let me handle it,” she murmured.
The other eight muses blushed and turned aside.
The night before the opening reception at Illiad, Pierus had a small party at his house for intimate friends and muses.
“A toast!” cried Dante, raising his champagne glass. “To celebrate our friend’s good fortune! To Pierus!”
“To Pierus!” everyone cried, raising their glasses enthusiastically. Everyone was having a wonderful time. Some of Pierus’s jazz friends were playing music in the corner, the song he had written in E flat: Clio’s song. Dante was dancing with Erato, and Pierus felt happy about that. He knew it wouldn’t be long before Dante started writing poetry, maybe love poetry, something epic…
Then he noticed Jeff. Jeff was miserable in the corner, sulking in the shadows. Pierus approached him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s not fair!” sniveled Jeff. He’d been crying and drinking. “You have all these muses! And what do I have? Nothing. Why do you need all these muses? I don’t even have one. I haven’t been able to paint for years!”
“Oh, is that all?” asked Pierus. He handed his friend a tissue. “Don’t you fret. I’m sure I can fix this. Why…the muses love artists. They just love us. I’m sure they’ll love you, too.”
Later, he went over to Clio, who was managing the bar.
“Do you think one of the muses could give some attention, er, some love, to Jeff?” he asked. “He’s an artist, too. He could use a muse.”
Clio stopped making mojitos, and set a bunch of fresh mint down on the bar counter. He turned to look Pierus directly in his eyes. Clio’s eyes were serious, beautiful, and intense. Once again, Pierus had that realization that he was looking at something much, much older than he could understand. Something truly ancient and noble.
“Pierus,” said Clio, reaching out his hand, and drawing him close. The millimeter of air between their bodies sizzled with desire. “Pierus, I have been trying to get Jeff to love me his whole life. All my friends have. We have tried and tried. He wouldn’t welcome us. He wouldn’t even acknowledge us! That’s why we love you so much. You let me in, remember? When I asked you, leaning in your window, you let me in!”
“Oh, but…that was nothing—“ Pierus began. But Clio stopped him with a light kiss on the lips.
“It was everything.”
This time the kiss was longer, and more intimate.
Pierus woke at dawn, after the party, excited for the opening reception that night. Yet, even as he anticipated it, he was forming ideas for a whole new body of work for his next show. And a song was coming...No stop, he told himself. First, he wanted to write the rest of the love poem….
Clio was lying beside him in bed, just starting to open his eyes, his body glowing, adding to the light of dawn, to the holiness of the bedroom.
Pierus took out his pen and notebook and began to write:
We wake together; we wake hip to hip.
He searches and he finds a parted lip.
He cries out like the wind across the grass;
He presses down, the earth will let him pass.
He knows the only truth, and makes it known:
The artist never finds himself alone.
I feel his presence in my daily breath
In the slow-filling forces of the earth.
He moves as water moves and comes to me,
Pulled by the currents, leading to the sea.
If you've enjoyed this story, you can read some other art-related short stories that I've written:
Head of a Woman: a desperate woman has an intense experience with a da Vinci drawing at the Met Breuer
Echo and Narcissus: inspired by a Poussin painting; a myth retold
Boticelli's Weird Party: inspired by Boticelli's Primavera, a woman confronts the idea of Beauty
Breaking Up With Chagall: I've met someone else...his name is Rembrandt...but I can't leave you...
The Conversation: an artist awakens, within the context of a Matisse painting and a marriage