A brilliant and daring novel that reimagines Ovid’s Metamorphoses
In the tradition of his bestselling debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica transforms Ovid’s epic poem of endless transformation. It reimagines the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and Atalanta, and strings them together like the stars in constellationseven Ovid becomes a story. It’s as though the ancient mythologies had been rewritten by Borges or Calvino; Metamorphica is an archipelago in which to linger for a while; it reflects a little light from the morning of the world.
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Ovid was a Roman poet. An early success, he despised his own work. He sought out Aphrodite, Rome's tutelary goddess, in the hope of striking a bargain. He ended up exiled to the shore of the Black Sea.
Ovid walks at twilight through dry rolling hills. A woman is before him, trailing her hands through the tall grasses which smoke wherever her languid touch falls, blackening and writhing and turning to ash. Fire roars and pops behind them, ruddy serpents of flame seething over the hills, but she's singing a tuneless song and seems not to notice.
He's about to speak when she says, "Not literature for you, but the literary life, because you're lazy, and love company, and what you'd most like is to be famous without writing a word. Your work will be forgotten when you die, or a little before, though the memory of your persona will last a little longer."
"I know," he says. "That's why I found you."
"It would take exile," she says, still not looking back. "You'd have to give up everything. You would be transformed." He feels her waver for a moment, but then she says, "You wouldn't be willing."
"But I am," he says. "I'd give anything, everything ..." But she's lost interest, is already far ahead and getting farther, and his chance is gone, but he rallies against the inexorable momentum of events, chases after her and seizes her arm.
She turns on him like a serpent and he staggers back as the hand that touched her burns like dry wood, the fire pulsing up his arm, the black bones showing through his incandescing flesh ...CHAPTER 2
The sculptor Pygmalion carved a woman named Galatea out of marble and fell in love with her. Aphrodite brought the statue to life.
The island's high wild hills were strewn with worn marble boulders, one of which glowed for him with more than ordinary light. Running his hands over the worn, lichen-stained surface, he could feel her within, her form latent, waiting to reveal itself. The smooth marble was like skin, or what skin ought to be.
His slaves rolled the boulder into his workshop as he laid out his chisels, then left him, as he needed to be alone for his great work. He uncovered her eye first, and wished he hadn't, as it was difficult to work with her watching. He didn't know what her face would be as he cut away the marble but when he saw it knew it couldn't have been another. Day and night passed unnoticed; if he closed his eyes he could feel a pulse in the marble's veins, a hint of warm breath on his hand as he caressed her cheek. With only her feet still entombed, he felt a building excitement, as though he were on the verge of some great thing, a final revelation in stone.
He fell asleep on an afternoon of thunderstorms and intolerable pressure in the air and dreamed that Aphrodite appeared to him among foam and flame and torn flowers and as she turned away she said, Desire is always imminent. He woke then, and his sculpture was gone, just flakes of the stone on the floor and wet footprints leading out into the garden, and though he cursed and wept, scarred the floor with scattered tools, in his heart he was relieved, for he now saw she was flawed, had been from the beginning, and in the high wild hills there were other prisms of marble scattered among the ridges and valleys and in one was what he wanted.CHAPTER 3
Polyphemus the Cyclops was Poseidon's son. He abandoned the courts of Olympus. Odysseus later blinded him.
I found an empty island. I'd been wandering for years, after the war, letting ocean wash the blood away.
I made a garden of the island. I excavated pools in the shade, carved the ridges to make the wind sing, planted orchards in the valleys and shaped every branch. My tread wore roads in the hills over the centuries. Who I'd been slipped slowly away, and I felt I was becoming the spirit of the place, subsumed in its life and geology.
Sea-nymphs came in on the waves, and men, born on the wind in white-sailed ships. They marveled at being the first to find this paradise. They settled the lowlands, and I let them, though they cut down trees and scarred the earth with their ploughs and their laughter and woodsmoke drifted up to my eyrie. I could have shattered their towers and houses and driven them into the sea, but I'd had my fill of death and killing, and nymphs and men are short-lived, as are cities, so I waited.
During the days I kept to the heights, arranging the stones and resculpting the mountains, but in the evenings a restlessness sent me walking in the lowlands to watch the fires kindling in the farmstead windows.
One day at dusk I saw a shadow picking its way over the hills. It stopped, hesitated, then approached me, and I saw it was a woman. Men rarely saw me even when they walked right by so I didn't move, and was amazed when she looked up into my face and said, "They say there's a giant who haunts the hills, but I never believed it."
I said nothing, but she reached out and touched my hand. I hadn't spoken in years, but I found my voice and said, "Go home."
"What's your name?" she said. "Do you have a home? Are you all alone here?"
I could have left and let her wonder if she'd dreamed me, but the night was settling, and the lights were glowing in the houses, and the dark closing in, and I found myself starting to talk. I told her how I'd shaped the island and its beauty. I told her of my long journey through the seas, of the war that came before it, of the cataclysms, the shattering violence, the fallen giants mistaken for mountains, of my family and their enemies and their overweening pride. I went on for hours, and only when the moon was rising did she put her hand on my knee and say her name was Galatea, and she'd see me again. I sat there alone, remembering her hand's pressure.
I waited for her every night. I talked as though ridding myself of all the words accumulated over the years. She spoke rarely, but I thought she saw in me a way to escape the limits of her life.
I knew not to look in still water or mirrors, but found a pool and stared at my face. Deep wit, indomitable strength, the scion of a great house — in the balance they're as nothing beside ugliness. Happy are the young, the careless, the lovely.
One night when it was late she put her head on my lap, which I tried to ignore. I spoke at random, then kissed her. Fragrant hair, pliant mouth, the sudden knowledge of the taste of her. She tried to pull away but I held her close. She thrashed like a fish, her tunic tore and then I was left holding a piece of cloth as she ran down the hill into the dark. "Galatea!" I bellowed, and in the valley below the farmers' dogs started barking.
She didn't come back the next evening or the next. I tried to tend to my forests and my mountains but my mind would wander. All this over such a small matter, I thought. She'll be old in decades, dust in a century. Go through the motions of work, I told myself, and soon you'll be working in earnest.
I walked the ridgelines when the sun rose, scanning the fields and the beaches. Every day I walked the same route, and every day I didn't see her. Where my sight-lines were occluded I tore out trees and knocked down escarpments so all the island was visible but still I saw nothing.
One day in the hills I found Tiresias the seer, blindly watching the flight of passing gulls. When I approached he cried, "Nobody1 will be your undoing!"
"I ask no more," I lied.
He said, "Nobody will mock your agony!"
"In fact, Galatea hasn't been kind."
"Galatea?" he said. "Today is the day you forget her."
I said, "Wine speaks louder than the god today."
He said, "It will happen in the cove with the rip, which you passed an hour ago, so they don't expect you to return," and then he walked away mumbling to himself, following the wheeling flocks of birds.
I went back to the cove, and the seer was right; there was Galatea, entwined with her lover in the sunlight on the hot sand. They were utterly absorbed in each other. I should've slipped away and vanished but my pride, which I'd thought I'd mastered, rose up and I thundered her name.
Her lover sprang to his feet. He was brave, poor fool, fumbling in his clothes for his sword, but I crossed the beach in two strides and swatted him into the cliff where his head left a corona of bright crimson on the sandstone.
She knelt by his body, her voice ragged as she called his name — Acis — though his skull was shattered into fragments like a mosaic. Then she was upon me, battering my abdomen with her little fists; I disgusted her and always had — I was loathsome, unlovable, contemptible and weak, and the rest was lost in sobbing.
It was the first time I'd seen her naked. She wasn't the flawless eidolon I'd imagined, with her quaking flesh, tangled hair, running nose and misery. My gaze settled on Acis, who looked surprised. I closed my eye but still saw his blood glistening on the pale rock. "Listen to me," she said.
I fled. I went up to the ridgeline but she pursued me, picking her way up the slope, so I put more hills between us. I came to a beach and still I heard her calling me so I walked into the water, breasting through the waves. The seas are shallow there, and though I'd thought I'd stay forever I left my island behind.
I waded through the ocean for days. I had dolphins for company, and distant ships, and storm-clouds, and, always, Acis' face.
Eventually I found another island, remote and barren, less lovely than the first and not good for much but goats and solitude. I carved Acis' image into granite cliffs over the beach and made a shrine to him.
The island's people started coming to the shrine, offering jam and the first fruits of summer in hopes of a good harvest, many children, success in raiding. I go to the shrine at night to see how his image has weathered and to pray that his ghost will forgive me and his memory fade.CHAPTER 4
Athena was the protector of heroes. She was partial to the intelligent. Odysseus, king of Ithaka, was her protégé.
He was always in my eyes. I stayed near him through the war, as a gull over the waves, a soldier in the line, a heat mirage on white sand. I turned arrows, spooked horses, crumbled his enemies' vertebrae in my hand. Nestor saw me, and might have known me, but, wise with years, said nothing.
There was a night when all the other Greeks were asleep in their tents and we two sat alone by the remnants of a beach-fire. The smoke obliged me to sit close to him. I was a young Cretan captain that night, someone he barely knew. He rarely mentioned Ithaka, but that night he spoke tenderly and at length of home and his Penelope. I didn't mind, for our bond was of another order.
"And what about you?" he said. "Is there someone waiting at home?"
"There is someone," I said.
"Peer or protégé?"
"Both," I said, and regretted it when he looked up at me and I saw that he was thinking.
"Someone younger than you, in need of your help, but his virtue such that, if it weren't for an accident of birth, you would be equals — yes?"
"Your understanding is deep," I said.
"Is he the kind to talk in riddles, or love someone who would?"
I became very still.
He poked the embers with a stick. Gulls floated in the moon-glow over the surf. "In such affairs," he said, "there are no dynastic issues, so it doesn't matter whether he was born prince or villein. My boy, I have no dog in any Cretan hunt, and there's no reason for you to hide anything from me. They say I'm insightful, so, come, tell an old man your trouble."
"I have to go now," I said, and vanished into the dark.
* * *
Troy would have fallen within a year, if I'd let it, but a stone, a fog, an order unheard can make nothing of near-victory, and Odysseus remained with me on the long beach between the looming battlements and the sea. I'd never been so happy.
* * *
I was sitting in the dunes one night when the sand was stained with white light and there was Aphrodite, floating before me, naked, her skin as pale and radiant as the moon. One hand hid her sex and the other her breasts and her head was turned away in what I thought was modesty but I saw her lips part slightly, saw that one hand crushed a nipple, that the other was moving. The end of my cut seemed to come at the same moment I drew my sword, but as I'd hit only air I turned and cut again, the blade biting deep into the sand. I looked around, sweating, but the span of beach was dark, silent, deserted.
* * *
Troy tottered; its heroes died, its allies slipped away in the small hours and its strong rooms stood empty. The Greeks could feel that their hour was at hand but when they approached Troy in force it seemed to recede before them, dust clouds rising up to hide it, its defenders as insubstantial as ghosts, their arrows biting out of the churning whiteness. The more insistent Argives ploughed on ahead, isolating themselves, and I gave them what they'd have found soon enough.
* * *
Poseidon found me by the breakers in the moon's darkness. "How long will this go on?" he asked, redolent of cold and brine.
"This?" I asked.
"This war," he said, "this war you are dragging out past all reason."
"The issue is complex."
"From what I've heard, it's tolerably simple."
"Is it? It must be simple indeed, to be so clear to you." It was a cloudless night but the sky crawled with lightning, showing him my face, and he took a step back. Thunder reverberated down the beach.
"Mortal squabbles aren't worth my time," he said, departing.
* * *
In the end, the city couldn't be saved. I'd known from the start that I was only buying time but still it pained me to watch the Trojans drag the horse within the walls, the great gate swing silently open, the ancient houses kindle, the Greeks rush in. They prowled the streets with knives and torches, more wolves than men, and the Trojan womens' prayers rose up with the smoke of their dying city, imploring my mercy, and though I pitied them, I did nothing, for I'd gone away, walking on an island without a name where waves roared on a barren beach and I practiced what to say to him.
In a tide pool I saw the tension in my jaw and the battle-light in my eyes — I had the look of a raptor about to dive — so I laid down my arms and armor and stood there in linen, groping for sweetness. I was all elbows and knees, naked without my sword, but embarrassment would do better than a murder-face. Penelope scowled up at me from the water, then Helen, and, for an instant, Aphrodite, but even in war there's a time for honesty. I put an orchid in my hair, trying to get it to stay with fingers that had turned thick and clumsy; there must, I thought, be an art to it.
While Troy burned and the Greeks rioted Odysseus was in his black ship getting ready to go home. I watched him work from the shadows of the creaking hold, drawing out the moment, foolishly happy just to look at him. When I finally appeared he smiled, noticed my bare shoulders and empty hands, and started drawing inferences. I was committed.
He valued eloquence, but my speech came out in a rush. I offered him everything. He listened, chin on hand, nodding, looking away from me, like I was explaining a plan he needed to remember.
When I finished there was a pause, and my life seemed to be hanging by a thread, and then he laughed in my face.
I am the terror of heaven. Swift thinking. Giant-breaker. Queen of citadels. Deluded in judgment. Risible to men. Worthless to heroes. Widely despicable. I thought of the vast emptiness of the sea, of mountains undulating endlessly, of the silences there, of the darkness settling over the world. I could have killed him in an instant — he's fragile, as all men are fragile, though I think he doesn't know it, but instead I embraced him, and kissed him, once, and didn't kiss him again, and then I vanished.
* * *
I sat on the beach as his ship raised anchor, dwindled, disappeared, and soon all the Greeks were gone, leaving only a few dispirited Trojans lurking in their city's ruin. They saw me sometimes, and called me the white lady of the dunes. The wind brought rumors of his suffering but I didn't move — he would have thought I was still trying, that he had abased my pride, that I was no warrior, that I was nothing more than a woman in love. So I sit here through the seasons' turning, motionless, watching the sea.CHAPTER 5
Circe was a witch and the daughter of the sun. She had the gift of prophecy. Odysseus bested her and became her lover. Medea was her niece.
Dawn finds me on my island's highest eminence, watching my father's rays redden the world. The air is of such clarity and my gaze so piercing that I see every stone and blade of grass on the islands laid out below me like a map; miles away, the mainland is equally visible; through my father's gift of prophecy, so is the future. My eyes scan over the sea and finally settle on lovely Scylla bathing her long limbs in a saltwater pool. Glaukos watches her from a cliff-top but if she sees him she gives no sign unless she moves the more languidly, aware of how her skin glows like sun on wet sand. Tomorrow, Glaukos will despair and sail to Aiaia where he'll climb the long stairs to my high house and beg me to use my power to help him win her. My voice carefully level, I'll ask how can she refuse him when she isn't as fair as him, not as fair by half, at which he'll look blank and say she smiles when he ventures to kiss her, suffers him for a moment, then runs away laughing. I'll frown like a thunderhead and say he shouldn't waste himself on her, for isn't my beauty greater, and besides I'm immortal, and in any case I know all, at which he'll stammer that he hadn't meant to, that he'd merely intended ... Before he can start the long voyage home I'll fly through the air to Scylla's mirror-clear pool and in secret night defile it with a dreadful poison that will make a horror of her beauty, and the burgeoning of her long necks and shrieking misery and unappeasable hunger will in some way be a prologue to the suffering of Odysseus, who isn't yet born, some of whose men will die in her gullets decades from now as the tide of his disasters bears him toward my island. Forewarned of me, he'll counter my witchery with moly and demand that I swear by Styx not to harm him as I watch him watching me with the tip of his sword-blade thrilling the skin above my jugular. We'll love briefly and then he'll go back to the sea, and though much of this will be my own doing, all of this is inevitable, and for all my wisdom I don't know why I'll act as I will act, or who I am.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Metamorphica"
Copyright © 2018 Zachary Mason.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Note on the Star Map,
PART I: APHRODITE,
PART II: ATHENA,
4. Athena II,
PART III: ZEUS,
13. Athena I,
22. Philemon and Baucis,
PART IV: NEMESIS,
27. Medea I,
28. Medea II,
PART V: DIONYSOS,
PART VI: APOLLO,
PART VII: DEATH,
42. Orpheus Dreams,
43. Orpheus at the End,
PART VIII: APHRODITE, CONTINUED,
Also by Zachary Mason,
About the Author,