The Unlikely Muse
by Elizabeth Motich
This story was inspired by an actual dream I had at age 13. In a setting much like the one described I met with my fat, cynical, and grease-stained muse named Ralph Plotzman. While I am slightly disappointed that I was not assigned a handsome young Greek god-like muse, Ralph has brought me some success lately! I am hoping that I did not insult him by neglecting his trailer park psychic crime book idea in favor of writing a 575 page fantasy novel which sought more inspiration from Aurora, the creative force behind fantasy.
Editor’s comments: To the ancient Greeks, the Muses were beautiful goddesses of inspiration. This author’s muse, however, appears in the most unlikely of guises. Read this unusual tale of a writer and her strange source of inspiration.
I am standing at the end of a huge line that snakes around the corner. Manic people clutching manuscripts nervously whisper to each other.
“It’s good…I think it’s very good,” one man stutters, grasping his book and sweating profusely. Everyone pats him reassuringly on the shoulder.
“So is mine,” they all chant in unison.
I notice that I am one of the youngest people here. I have no book. I only know that I have told stories since I could first speak and wrote them down as soon as I learned to form letters. Large signs hang above the archway: TOGAS AND LAUREL WREATHS ARE MANDATORY; KEEP ALL STORY IDEAS TO YOURSELF; PLAGIARISM WILL RESULT IN IMMEDIATE EXPULSION. We shuffle forward and a maiden in a white diaphanous gown and a flower crown passes out togas and wreaths. Her eyes are distant, her lips a consumptive blue and her smile is wan. She reeks of the musty smell of an old bookstore. A collective sigh of awe bursts from the crowd as the giant golden doors open, revealing a sparkling hall decorated with portraits and statues of famous authors. Every well- known author in history is here. Ancients, like Plato, Aeschylus, and Homer hang next to Hemingway, Pynchon, and Vonnegut. Many of the supplicants walking through the hall stop in front of busts and portraits of famous authors and weep, bowing before them as if they were gods.
A strain of idyllic music resounds as we reach the end of the hall. Another set of golden doors opens, and we see a sign that says: MUSE ASSIGNMENT THIS WAY. We all cheer as we sense that we are about to realize our dearest dream. “It’s going to be my big break!” people shout.
I feel lost and confused and boxed in by the crowd. I have no stunning novel, no amazing short story, no screenplay; I have not written a single interesting thing in years.
“Quiet! Quiet!” screams a small, toga-clad man. He holds a long scroll and goes down the line checking people off. “Name?” he asks as he comes to me.
“Elizabeth,” I reply.
He furrows his brow and runs his finger down the list. “Goodness, you’re only 13!”
“Yes sir,” I say nervously, afraid that I will be thrown out.
“Well, good luck, dear child. Hmm…it says here that you shall write fantasy and your muse is Aurora. Lucky girl, her scribes have been most fortunate of late. I am sure you will find her er…challenging.”
I thank the man and he hurries away. I have never thought about writing fantasy. I consider myself a little too logical to write about elves and dragons.
I make my way up an ornately carved staircase and I see many types of muses escorting writers of every persuasion into cramped studies and offices. Cherubs, fairies and jolly Santa-like men giggle merrily with children’s book authors; dark men in trench coats and dames with long gams whisper to mystery enthusiasts; gorgeous muscled men and beautiful women in historical costumes woo romance writers; African sages, Chinese philosophers and Greek scholars confer with humorless tweed-clad, bearded men with pipes and severe women with their hair pulled back in tight buns.
I turn a corner and enter a dank hallway, lit only by a flaming torch. I see a foul creature seated at a crude desk made of rough planks. The sign on the desk says Mergrok, DESK TROLL. He is wearing a suit made of what appears to be stiff goat hair with an unfashionably wide tie.
“Dood day,” he slobbers and wipes some vile exudate on his tie.
“I’m here to see Aurora,” I say, shrinking away from the fetid receptionist.
“Sit der, she out to lunch,” he gurgles and appears perplexed as he studies the spreadsheet on his computer screen.
Screams, shrieks and the rattle of chains echo from behind the door across the hall labeled “HORROR”. The door opens slightly and a bat flies out and turns circles in the hallway. It transforms into a tall man in a dark cape, who hums a happy tune as he makes his way to the water cooler. He smiles at me and goes back inside. A few moments later, a man with a stunning resemblance to Stephen King comes out, lugging a huge box of papers.
“This ought to keep me busy for a while,” he says as he walks by.
A rotund, squinting man, reeking of cigar smoke emerges from the office at the end of the hall.
“Whoa, kid, I wouldn’t go in there.” he shouts in a thick Brooklyn accent.
“That woman has kept a nasty thing in there ever since she got all high and mighty because she sent out the idea for that Potter kid’s story. She’s quite a psycho, I tell you. Filed a restraining order against me and everything. I’ve never trusted those earthy free-spirit types. I’m not seeing anyone right now. Wanna come in?”
“But…the man told me I was supposed to write fantasy and come to see her.”
“Aw, it’s your first book, you’ve never written anything serious anyway. That’s why you’re here. Everyone who’s stupid enough to try and write a novel gets assigned a muse at our fine establishment. Your writing career is…a blank page.” He doubles over, laughing at his own joke, and starts hacking and coughing violently.
“Never start smoking, kid,” he wheezes.
I nervously walk into his office.
“Grab a seat, kid,” he gestures, kicking away the chicken buckets and empty pizza boxes that are piled on the chair in front of his desk.
“I should introduce myself…I’m Ralph Plotzman, creator of such television classics as ‘Night Watch’ and ‘Topeka PI’. I specialize in crime.”
I gulp. I have never even read a crime novel!
I study his appearance. He looks like a character that might inhabit the pages of a pulp novel. Plotzman is very pudgy and florid with several long strands of black hair combed over his shiny scalp in a greasy tangle, with a bulbous ruddy knob of a nose. His cheap white short-sleeve shirt is missing several buttons and has yellow sweat stains beneath the arms. The crumpled shiny tie is stained with pizza sauce and grease and is slung halfway over his shoulder. He seems to be a very unlikely muse.
“Hey, stop looking so disgusted, and watch where you shake your head, you’re dropping laurel leaves all over the place. I don’t know why they make you wear that stupid get-up anyway. The bosses think jeans will kill the creative process or something.
Yeah, I don’t think you want to mess with old Aurora your first time out. She tends to be pretty moody. Don’t worry, though, you’ll come see her in another few years. Everyone always does…before they figure out that fantasy is a bunch of hooey.”
“Don’t you like the other muses?”
“Eh, we all have some rivalries going on. The detectives and the spies have been going at each other for years. And you really don’t want to mess with the military historians. They’re all really gung-ho with nasty tempers. See, everyone thinks their subject is the best and we’re all sure that all the ideas that we provide will sell right away and make the author lots of dough.
That’s how you climb the ladder around here.
But… he chuckles and points upwards… unfortunately the man upstairs is the only one who handles that.”
“You mean God?”
“Nah, Artie Feldman, the guiding spirit of the sales and marketing departments for the world’s publishers. We all want to be on good terms with Artie.”
“Is making money all that matters? What about changing readers’ lives with your inspirational story? Or making a difference in the world with your writing?”
“You really don’t get it, do you?” he laughed. “Maybe I should have just left you in Aurora’s office to be eaten by that thing of hers. That ‘making a difference’ crud sounds great, but if your stuff never sells, no one will see it and pretty soon you’ll be a bank teller or burger flipper or high school English teacher.”
“So don’t you want to give me a book idea? Isn’t that what I’m here for?”
“Yeah, yeah, in time. But you know, it’s customary to make some sort of…sacrifice to your muse before you receive your idea. You don’t want me to get mad or anything, do you?”
“Um, I guess not. What type of sacrifice?” I say, fearing that he is going to ask me to do something really disgusting like slaughter a goat
“Good. I’ll tell ya what. I know this little pizza place down the block. They have the best pineapple and anchovy pizza in the world. Go there and get me one of those, and hurry. I tend to get pretty uninspired when my stomach is empty.”
After a strange excursion to the regular world, I return with the pizza. My stomach turns as the odor of anchovies and pineapple envelops the room. My muse greedily flings open the pizza box and begins to add more stains to his white shirt.
“Okay” he mumbles, in between bites, wiping his mouth with his tie. “Now I’ll tell you your assignment. You’re going to write a crime novel. It’s got a great plot… there’s this white teenage psychic named Shanel that lives with her black grandmother, Hattie, who collects Indian dolls and…
”I’m dubious about his definition of “great,” noticing all the posters for B-movies he “helped” with, and the stack of discount rack paperbacks on his desk, but I listen intently anyway, figuring that angering a muse really cannot be good.
“So…there’s this serial killer and he has an axe, and he whacks the girl’s head off, and while her body’s lying there, gushing blood…”
“Wait!” I say, “I really don’t mean to offend you, but I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Eh, you’ll grow to appreciate it. Here, take the manuscript.”
He shoves a large stack of typed pages, stained with various sauces, into my hands.
Just as I am getting up to go, the door bursts open and a cloud of strong floral perfume floats through the air. I sink back in the chair and choke, and then stare in awe at the elegant, but wildly dressed woman who has appeared.
“What are you doing to the poor child, Plotzman! She is just a little girl. You can’t expect her to write one of your filthy, bloody, books.”
Before he can scream at her, the woman yanks me into her office and shuts the door. Her office is decorated with figurines of unicorns and dragons. Posters displaying sword and sorcery epics cover her walls. Her miniature pet dragon makes an odd purring sound and curls up on my lap.
“Never trust men, dear.” She says, twirling a strand of black hair around her finger. She is dressed in a purple caftan and gold bracelets wind around her arms. Her pointed ears are visible beneath her mass of long dark hair. She is truly something from a fantastical world.
“Um…okay” I say. “Are you going to want something in return?”
“Oh, later, later. First let me tell you about your book.”
She spins an incredible story of mythical lands at war, and the races that inhabit them. I am spellbound as she describes the exciting exploits of the heroic warrior-princess and when she reveals the surprise uplifting ending, I squeal that this is all that I could ever dream of writing.
She hands me the manuscript, and smiles ethereally. I thank her and take it from her. “We’ll be in touch,” she chirps. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my breathing class”. She wafts down the hall and I stand up to leave.
Mr.Plotzman appears, red-faced and agitated. He scowls at me and runs down the hall puffing and wheezing as he chases after Aurora.
“Hey, she can’t have two muses at once! I found her first.”
“Step away from me, buddy. I have a friend with fangs and tentacles who hasn’t fed in six thousand years”.
“Okay, lady, this is the last time you threaten Ralph Plotzman. I’m packing heat, you bimbo. Do ya want me to send you back to the Summerland?”
“Stop, stop! Both of you are going to have to collaborate for my sake. It’s going to be tough, but I think we can do it.”
They stop and leer at each other than turn toward me with angry scowls.
Aurora raises one eyebrow “And what do we get for this? You are just a child after all, and a first time author.”
“True, but there’s always a chance. What if I do succeed? Then you’ll both have bragging rights forever. And your plots are great. You can’t let them go to waste!”
“Eh, what the heck,” Plotzman says, waiting for Aurora’s reply.
“I’ll try…I suppose” she says.
We sit together at a huge oak table, in the largest and most extraordinary library I have ever seen, hidden in a chamber of the muse building. The odd couple throws out plot ideas and squabbles quietly, making a noble effort to try and work together.
“How about focusing on a tribe of warrior women whose aim it is to defeat a dark lord and his followers who revel in oppression, injustice, and traditional gender roles?” Aurora says cheerfully.
Plotzman digs his fingernails into the table and mumbles under his breath, “Please, spare me,” as he pleads to the heavens.
“Can there at least be one bloody scene with lots of screaming and vivid descriptions of heaps of severed limbs?”
Sunlight pours through my bedroom window, and I wake up. “Was that only a dream?” I think, blinking and rubbing my eyes.
On my desk I find a half-eaten slice of pineapple and anchovy pizza and a bottle of floral perfume. I shake my head and then sit down at the computer and begin to type the first lines of a novel that came to me in a dream.
“At least I know who to thank now,“ I laugh.