The Metamorphoses of Narcissus

Issue #164

I lay on the drowned grand piano, naked, my head that of a chess-horse, my hands and feet stumps oozing black-green blood onto the keys.

“Beautiful!” the voice I knew so well thundered above me. “Beautiful! Come here, Oinhoa, I am sheer genius.”

“Isn’t she... uncomfortable?” a gentler contralto responded.

“Why would that matter?”

And it didn’t matter. This was not my blood; it was but part of glamorous transfiguration. I was beautiful, or I believed I was. What did it matter, the beauty a woman was born with, my long fair hair that was now a wooden horse’s mane, my hands and feet that had once moved in the dance so skillfully? Beauty was a construction, a blueprint geniuses dictate to mere mortals who could not know for themselves what it meant.

I had come to the Royal Conservatory of Halispell as a mere girl from the border provinces with a talent for dancing, with the faint hope of finding a genius mentor and inspiring him—it was undoubtedly a ‘he’—to re-shape me, to transfigure me, into something other than the raw material of a Hestland village girl.

Fool that I was, I had thought the mentoring would be in dance.

The woman who had stood in a corner near the stage and watched me dance at my first year-end recital had seemed nothing extraordinary. Her simple pale-blue dress made her merely a splash of color from the stage, something to spot on when I spun, my head always returning to that splash to keep from losing balance and orientation. After the recital, when I was basking in the applause—not as much as for the true stars of the class, I knew; I was at the time a second-rank dancer, and I nurtured the hope of a mentor to send me to the first ranks—when she approached me, the face above the blue dress was plain, lacking classical features, and she moved like one untrained, her posture that of a pine tree among the slender palms that were my fellow dancers.

“I am Oinhoa,” she said, and the name triggered a vague familiarity. “You danced beautifully, and you have a beautiful body. My husband wishes to speak to you. Would you join us at the Butterfly for a glass of wine tonight?”

The Butterfly Lounge was a bit far from my lodging, and more dear than my student stipend’s means. She must have spotted my quickly-masked dread. “It will be on us, of course. My husband is very interested.”

“Who is your husband?” I asked, and immediately felt like an ignorant provincial at her look of surprise.

“You’ve heard of Avardi, I’m sure? The....” still smiling, she seemed to search for an adequate word, and finally settled on “...artist?”

And now only focusing on her blue dress once more kept me from losing balance and orientation. Every man and woman at the Conservatory read Arts Today, and Avardi’s face was on this month’s cover in full glamour, shifting from himself to the breathtaking transfigurations he wrought. Here was a man who knew no veneration or limits, who proudly declared that he would not just challenge but annihilate the fossilizing artistic traditions. We girls had quickly passed the magazine around in the dressing room, whispering at the dynamic-captures, before the dance artistic director, gracefully withered as a century-old lemon tree, furiously confiscated it.

But even before I had seen any of his art, I had read the old men in the monochrome papers railing that the moral fiber of our youths would be destroyed by this Avardi-ism; he had replied with Moral Fiber,” a mocking composition of oat bran, excrement, and naked models that even Arts Today had not dared to print a picture of, but we all wanted to see.

He had his choice of models, of performers in his static and dynamic transfigurations, the girls had whispered; he could choose the best. So this was his muse, the woman who had left the richest man in Europa for him, whom he adored such that he signed his own works, “Oinhoa-Avardi,” taking her name with his.

The taxicab slowed before the fire-opal facade of the Butterfly, but my heart and stomach kept going faster. My only presentable dress, a simple black one, seemed all the more drab in these glittering lights, and I imagined that perspiration that my lightning-fast sponge bath had missed was still painting the crevices of my skin. In the few seconds I had before I had to follow the cool, confident Oinhoa out of the cab, I surreptitiously rubbed my calves because I’d had no time for a proper cooldown. Who was I, a dancer good enough to be accepted to the Royal Conservatory, good enough to have small solos, but clearly not among those destined for stardom? I had heard my teachers comment that I might make it as a corps dancer, fated to transform into one of a faceless mass with one objective: to be the same as all others.

As all other details of the inside of the Butterfly Lounge turned into a faceless mass in my mind when at the corner table I saw Avardi himself, real to the last hair.

If a small corner of my mind did note that he was shorter than I had imagined, and his voice was overly loud and had an unpleasant grating edge, the rest of me overrode that. His costume, a robe from an Eastern priest of three hundred years ago, the pantaloons of a Caltavan lord from four hundred, and shoes of crystal and paper from the imagined far distant future, clashed defiantly with the Butterfly’s aristocratic decor and decorum. I remember little of what actually happened that evening, except how seahorses and crab claws had sprouted out of Oinhoa’s dress and my own, how the wine had flowed like blood and my body wanted to dance to its pulse more than to the music, and how my heart had raced, wanting to itself break free of chrysalis and spread wings into the wind.

I could not sleep that night and was late to rehearsal, the first of many I was late to before I started missing them altogether. What did it matter, the endless practicing of stag leaps and wolf spins and peacock poses to the tinkling of a grand piano, when I had been the stag and the wolf and the peacock and the grand piano, had been them at the bottom of the sea and in midden heaps and in rivers of cheese and when kissing a basilisk and an icosahedron while hanging by my ribcage from the pendulum of a clock? In contrast with the color of the Avardi studios, of the sea cliffs and the city ports where he created his transfigurations, with the flashing of capture-bulbs from the swarming journalists of the arts and culture worlds, the Conservatory where before I had so yearned to merit dissolving into the corps was grey and drab and empty. One would call it a soulless land of machines, but I knew what soul Avardi could breathe into machines. It was the old putrefying art of choreography, representing the hollow rotten legacy of the centuries, and exactly what Avardi fought against.

And so I got my stipend suspended, and then myself expelled, for the Royal Conservatory of Halispell had no space even in its corps for dancers who did not deign to learn the choreography. I slept now in a corner of Avardi’s studio, thinking my blanket on the floor superior to the entire room I previously had. I would spend the time when he wasn’t transfiguring me holding the tools for his series of transfigurational portraits of Nimrod, the new president of Caltava. This new head of state had not yet joined the others in paying his respects, but his genius at social transformation in his country, razing ancient mansions to raise new towering public buildings and erasing hereditary classes to affirm a meritocracy for all Caltavans, fascinated Avardi as akin to his own genius at transfigurational art; he even dropped hints of perhaps going to Caltava himself.

There was no shame in expulsion, Oinhoa told me quietly, herself ensuring that there was enough food left from their meals for me. Avardi himself had been expelled from the Academy of Arts when he was younger, and from the Transfigurationists’ Guild a few years ago, soon after his first cover of Arts Today.

She did not say why, and I did not ask. I knew it was because the Academy’s and Guild’s minds had been lead-sealed as coffins against his new Art. Now he was on the covers of Arts Today and with kings and presidents and dynamic-picture magnates queuing to shake his hand, and where were they? I was right to expel myself from that cocoon.

Now, in front of the arts critics whom the first-rank girls in my classes would have tied themselves into double knots to dance for, I stood, smiling, motionless in full arabesque, wearing nothing but a bandage binding my breasts, while Avardi explained to them that breasts can be detached from the concept of beauty, a woman without breasts, see, was still as beautiful. I would smile, my muscles taut as for a dance, still always keeping my eyes on Oinhoa’s simple colored dresses, so as not to lose my balance and orientation.

The critics, though, seemed inattentive that evening, in the grand hall with the gurgling chocolate fountain; the roast pig, apple in its mouth as customary, seemed the only eye that met mine. Avardi was unveiling to them his new project, an exploration of beauty, a ripping of it apart and reassembling in a whole new way for this new world. “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus,” it was called, after the ancient transfiguration of that beautiful hero. There had been many other projects of his, he declaimed in his crowd-cutting glass-shaking voice, tying to that period of history before humans learned to control transfiguration: Actaeon turning into a stag (I had been that stag), and Daphne into a laurel tree (I had been that laurel tree), and Io becoming a cow (that project had used another model, which made me sick with envy as he brought it up, yet I kept smiling). But the metamorphosis of Narcissus was one particularly dear to his heart. “For am I not a narcissist myself?”

Yet for once, the big men and women in their suits and ties and dresses transfigured in order to grow the currently fashionable lilies were not fascinated by his glamour, or my beauty. Perhaps the lack of breasts does change a woman for the worse, but it was not a more beautiful woman they looked at, nor even at their wine and untouched chocolate and roast pig.

Instead, they kept glancing towards the doors, their eyes following the messengers who would glide in, trying to be unobtrusive, and hand Hyacinthus Rudaikins, the editor-in-chief of Arts Today, a small note with the farwriting office stamp. I had rarely seen guests receive messages during such events before, and I could not recall ever seeing the guests unfold the messages immediately. But Rudaikins’s taut posture seemed to defy anyone who would dare censure him for breach of etiquette.

My curiosity was cracking through my identity as a work of art. Instead of looking at Oinhoa’s dress I looked at the farwriting forms, each one trembling more than the last in Hyacinthus’s large hands.

“It is a work that at last breaks the shell of being human, of being material,” Avardi thundered, for the first time audibly straining to regain the centre of attention, “and strips away our limitations, makes us one with Art. Makes us one with Art!” he repeated. “Makes us....”

Hyacinthus threw down the last note, the hasty scribble on it ending in a blotch of ink. “Ladies and gentlemen. Nimrod has just invaded Hestland.” The editor-in-chief seemed not to need any effort at all to suddenly drown out the artist’s cry, even in as terrifyingly calm a voice as he had then, flat and still as the water reflecting Narcissus, and as uncaring. “Fifteen villages have been air-bombed in the last hour. There may be three thousand people dead.”

I tried to stay focused on Oinhoa’s splash of pale blue, to stay Art, not a shell-bound, limited human.

“Tanks are rolling towards Halispell. We are at war.”

My parents were killed in the first bombing of the invasion. After I had barely written to them in the past year, brief and vague, never mentioning Avardi. I sobbed helplessly as I re-read my mother’s last letter from the week before, she still so blithely convinced that I was becoming a dancing star. She died never knowing that her daughter had lain naked in front of a genius, with the full complicity of his wife. (Though we had never touched each other. My adoration of him was something beyond sex, and he would no sooner carnally desire me than he would a block of wood or marble.)

Perhaps it was better that way. I do not know.

Avardi’s home and studio, and he himself, were commandeered by the War Office. He was sent away to apply the art of transfiguration to hide potential targets from the bombers. I could prove no connection to him or Oinhoa that would let me follow them, and I did not have the spirits to try.

I volunteered as a nurse, as one way to prove myself useful. My hands were still clever and my back still strong. I took the too-quick course of training, easily: bandaging I knew from winding dancing shoe ribbons, stitching up wounds from the sewing my mother taught, and as for preparing patients for transfigurational surgery, few could match my expertise in that from the patient’s perspective.

I made my patients comfortable, because I knew how they felt.

And so six months into the war I found myself in what had once been a town, transfigured into bombed ruins, and into our mobile hospital they brought him in on a stretcher. A young man, round plain face that reminded me of Oinhoa, now nearly bloodless with shock, both of his feet stumps oozing blood as mine had been that day on the drowned grand piano. Only this time the blood was red and real and his.

Dancers do not like to look at those with crippled feet; it arouses too primal a fear. In Halispell, I would avert my eyes from a beggar on the street with crutches, or from the characteristic limp of those whom only wooden transfigured prostheses allowed to stand again.

I had changed. I had bandaged enough horrible injuries before; I had learned to look at them, even at the feet. Yet this time as I dressed his stumps for the surgery, I found myself looking at his eyes instead, his clear blue eyes laughing even as he gritted back the pain.

“I hope the new feet they give me have nicer toes,” he joked. “I had mighty ugly toes.”

“Beauty is a construction,” I replied, unable to suppress a smile as my voice sounded so different saying these words, “to be dictated by geniuses to the mortals who do not understand what it means.”

“Does that mean, sister, that if you call me beautiful I will be?” he asked with a sudden chuckle, and then gripped the side of the camp bed as the laughter brought on another wave of pain.

“Does that make me a genius?” I was more eager to distract him than truly thinking about it.

“That, and beautiful too,” he replied as soon as he could get the hiss of pain through gritted teeth. “If saying so dictates it, I name myself a genius and dictate it. Avardi can name himself a genius, why not me?”

I had already heard many men call me beautiful and profess love; they tended to, when I’d saved their lives. I had not taken it seriously before, but this time, something made me keep returning to him after the surgery whenever I could be spared. To say his name, Ceyx, and support him in the nights when he would get out of bed and try to walk on his replacement feet that will never again let him dance, not even when he held me and we tried to dance together. Transfiguration could do many beautiful things, but it could never replace the original.

We married an hour after his discharge. It was war, and he would be evacuated as a decorated invalid; I was the one risking death, and we did not put things off. But we both survived the next three years, seeing each other when possible, writing when not. I never again postponed writing a reply letter.

When my tour of duty ended with the war, I returned to my husband in the now-liberated Halispell. I took him to see the Conservatory that had been hit in the last bombing raid before liberation, the wing with the rehearsal rooms caved in, the floors on which I had furthered my ambition now buried beneath charred rubble. They would be rebuilt, the Queen and city government vowed. We would take the students back. I knew, holding Ceyx’s hand, that even if the record of my expulsion had burned with the rest in the firestorm, I would not go back.

Avardi’s studios that I remembered were completely gone. The newspapers said that much of the art collection survived, as it had already been moved and the studios used as a temporary hospital when the bomb had hit them. The art had escaped the shrapnel; the people had not.

The Butterfly Lounge had avoided all the air raids unscathed, belying its fragile appearance. We entered, and I saw him at the corner table where once my dress had sprouted crab claws. Avardi. His hair gray now, the famous piercing eyes dimmer, yet they lit with recognition at my face.

“Oinhoa!” he cried out, though, not my name, and I realized that I had never heard him say my name. He may never have bothered to know it.

“Where is Oinhoa?” I asked, reluctant to move from my husband to this man. The long days and nights when I had pined for him terribly now seemed strangely drained of color and meaningless.

“Nimrod’s brutes killed her.” Avardi’s voice was flat as Hyacinthus’s voice had been, in a litany he must have repeated many times. “During the occupation. Caught her carrying ‘The Metamorphoses III’ out. Stood her against the wall and shot her in the head. And set fire to the work.”

The bartender set down the glass he was polishing to respect the silence that stretched between us.

“Come,” Avardi said at last. “With you, I can make ‘The Metamorphoses IV.’”

“Do you even know my name?” I said, shuddering.

“I weep for Oinhoa.” It was as if he didn’t hear me. “But with the Metamorphoses, we can....”

I put my shoulder under Ceyx’s and helped him turn, matching my dancer’s walk to his irregular strides as we walked away. Outside, the sunlight turned the crystals in the rubble into a thousand dancing rainbows, like the shimmer on a butterfly’s wings, like a transfigured creature about to be born anew.


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Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Besides Beneath Ceaseless Skies, her fiction has also appeared on Tor.com. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

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