MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 11
By the second week of school, my life settled into an easy rhythm.
Art was my favorite class, of course, but Italian was up there, too. According to Signora Garibaldi, I had a natural affinity for languages, which made me feel less creeped-out about understanding the gypsy woman’s language (if I really did understand her). And while I didn’t love riding the bus to school – or watching Alessi and Wayne flirt, ick – I really liked Daria and her friends. Which was good because Daria and I made the volleyball team. (Unfortunately, so did Nyx and her friends.) On the family side, my dad loved his new job, Troy made the basketball team (naturally) and Grandma Cleo would be here next week. At the risk of sounding lame, I was starting to like it here.
Miss DiPaola swooped into the art room as the bell rang, a yellow scarf looped around her neck.
“Dear students,” she said, clapping her hands, grinning from one rouged cheek to the other, “I was inspired to toss today’s lesson plan and pursue another direction.” Miss DiPaola pulled down the projection screen. “Can anyone tell me who Calliope was?”
Next to me, Valeria perked up, a sparkle in her gray-lidded eyes. “A muse?”
The hairs on my arm prickled with electric excitement. The war of the worlds begins with one Muse…
The lights dimmed and a mosaic appeared on the screen: nine portraits of young women arranged into three rows, each ringed by an intricate inlaid stone rope. The girls were similar, with their swan-like necks, slender noses and braided hair, but they were not identical. And although I’d never seen this mosaic, the girls were eerily familiar. Something about them reminded me of Grandma Cleo.
“Ah, va bene, Valeria!” Miss DiPaola tapped the top left portrait. “Calliope was the oldest of a group of sisters called Muses. Notice the small pictures over each sister’s shoulder, which represent her area of inspiration: music, poetry, comedy, tragedy, and so on. The portrait of Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry and tasked with recording the journey of heroes, features a scroll.”
That was it. The scroll. My grandma had one on her desk.
And thinking about the desk…When I was little, I would waste hours on the Persian rug in Grandma’s office, covertly skimming the ancient books in her library, and I knew every inch of her antique wooden desk with its strange carvings. The mosaic of Calliope was a dead ringer for the woman carved onto the front leg of her desk. I’d never really considered who it was, but now I had to wonder…
Was it Calliope?
“There are many works devoted to the Muses.” Miss DiPaola clicked the remote. “This is the Sarcophagus of the Muses, on display at the Loo-vra in Paris.”
“Ah, one of my favorites.” She showed us a painting of Muses dancing through a meadow in Renaissance gowns.
The air escaped my lungs and it struck me: the Muses were all dead ringers for Grandma Cleo’s eight sisters. Nine girls, if you counted my grandma.
Funny. It was the same number…
I shook my head. It was a strange coincidence.
Miss DiPaola continued, “Apollo, the Sun God, was also the Roman God of arts and music.” She drew our attention to the center of the painting, where a well-muscled man lounged with a laurel wreath on his head and a lyre in his lap. “The Muses were his constant companions, but—” Miss DiPaola lowered her voice “—Calliope was rumored to be more than a companion.”
“And now, this marble statue depicts Cleo, the Muse of History, resting on a scroll…”
Cleo? Muse of History? For a brief moment, I lost myself in the idea that my grandmother was a muse. Immediately, this theory fell apart. For one thing, my Grandma Cleo was human. So there was that. And she lived in San Diego, not Mount Olympus.
I suppressed a laugh. It was ludicrous. There was no way.
Miss DiPaola switched on the lights. “Modern artists have their own muses, too. Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick.” In my side vision, I noticed Maya place a hand over her heart. “John Lennon had Yoko Ono. Klimt, Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka and the poet Franz Werfel each had Alma Mahler-Werfel…ahem.” Miss DiPaola fanned herself with the yellow scarf. “Et cetera. Any questions?”
I wanted to ask if the Muses were real, but I kept my hand down, afraid of sounding stupid. Besides, apart from Maya and Valeria, no one else seemed remotely interested.
“Well, then.” The corners of Miss DiPaola’s dark red lips curved downward. “Take out a piece of paper. Be moved by your own muse. Draw something – or someone – that inspires you.”
I smoothed the pages of Notebook 19 and thought, The war of the worlds begins with one muse. Why did the old woman say that to me?
Maya leaned over and whispered, “What are you gonna draw?”
Shrugging, I touched the tip of my pencil to the first blank page. A wisp of light radiated from the center and I followed it, shading and scratching until the faint image of a woman flowed across the page. Calliope. She stared toward the edge of the page like a boat’s figurehead, her gossamer dress billowing in the breeze. Shadows emerged and I followed those, too, rendering her face in soft, rounded flesh. An intricate braid ringed her head. On her ears, I drew delicate hoop earrings. When I was nearly done, Valeria tapped the drawing.
“Cool, you drew yourself.” Valeria nodded to my drawing and then held up her sketch, a Japanese-style manga fairy, with doll eyelashes framing oversized green eyes. “I went rogue.”
“Oh, actually, it’s not me,” I said.
Maya rummaged through her pencil box and handed me a violet colored pencil. “For your purple streak. It’s your defining feature.”
“And your hourglass necklace,” Valeria added. “So unique.”
While they watched, I added a violet streak to Calliope’s hair and an hourglass around her neck. I sat back, stunned. Valeria was right: if I changed the dress to a t-shirt, jeans and Converse, it could be a self-portrait.
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Miss DiPaola clapped her hands. “Let’s compare our muses next time. Please turn in permission slips for Pozzuoli. The field trip is next week!”
* * *
After school, I hauled a bag of art supplies through Troy’s room to his balcony and climbed up the winding metal staircase to the rooftop patio. My dad had tipped the movers to drag up a chair swing and small table set so we could eat up there. He even let me put an umbrella and easel up, claiming a small corner of the rooftop as my own alfresco art studio.
I dropped my bag next to the table and watched two crews of rowers skim across the manmade lake of Lago Patria. Birds cawed and swooped over the reed-specked water. Across the lake were fields of water buffalo, which was where the local mozzarella di bufala came from. At night, I could hear the buffalo braying through my open window, as well as the thumping bass of a lakeside disco, waxing and waning on the breeze.
It wasn’t the Pacific Ocean, but I was getting used to it.
I pressed Notebook 19 open to the collage I made on the night I met Bax, pulling the leaf from its pages.
Bax had said it looked like a treasure map. I could see what he meant, but there was no compass rose, no drawings of rivers or mountains, no “X” marking a spot. The figures, etched in a fading coffee-brown ink – a miniature bull’s eye, a crescent, something that resembles a cat – almost faded into the tan surface of the dry leaf.
What did it mean?
I set it down again, dizzy with the Romani woman’s words– your poor mother, sent to the world beyond this realm – , the faces of the Muses, the hourglass pendant, the wooden woman carved into Grandma Cleo’s desk.
Then the sudden flicker of black fabric, like a curtain closing...
I shut my eyes. In the darkness, a voice buzzed, Come here, child.
I snapped my eyes open, but the lake was gone, and so was my house. I couldn’t see anything, but the air was musty and dank. A cool, bumpy stone wall closed in on each side of me, a half an arm’s distance away. Apart from my own breathing, it was deathly quiet.
“Hello?” I whispered, gripping the walls as I shuffled forward. “Firefly?” My foot caught the side of a jar, which clattered against the stone, and soon the jar lit up. Inside was the firefly, zooming around its glass prison.
Do you know your destiny now, child? the firefly asked, its voice a hum in my mind. Where is the mark?
I gently lifted up the slippery jar, wide like a pickle jar. “I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
Speak with your thoughts, child!
Inhaling and exhaling, I thought, This is only a dream—
A dream! The firefly laughed, whirring in bright circles around the jar. You are their only hope for survival and yet you know nothing! It slowed to a halt, its glow flickering with every word. But perhaps we can make a deal, you and me… If you help me, child, I will give you what you’ve always wanted.
My head began to ache. What have I always wanted?
The firefly buzzed to the center of the jar. You want what all motherless children want.
A familiar pang of sadness tightened in my chest. My voice cracked in the darkness. “My mother?”
I chewed my lips to keep from crying and returned to speaking with thoughts. How can you do that?
Patience, child! First you must help me. Have you found the leaf?
I imagined the leaf in Notebook 19. What if the firefly could bring back my mother?
Yes, I said.
Good! Good! The firefly flapped its wings and the rapid motion began to heat the glass jar. Read it to me.
Panic washed over me. My hands started to burn, but I was afraid to drop the jar, afraid to release the firefly.
Time is running out! The firefly’s voice strained into a high-pitched hiss. Death is upon us, child!
I struggled to understand. Death? But my mother—
The jar burst into flames and slipped from my grasp, its glass crashing against the stone wall. An endless tunnel stretched in both directions. There was nowhere to run.
The firefly bolted toward me. You will read the leaf… and you will bring me what I need, it hissed. Or you will suffer the consequences, like your mother…
I startled at the sound of Troy clunking up the metal staircase and banged my knee against the table. Markers spilled across the top.
My heart was racing, but I was back on the roof. Rowers yelled to each other across the lake. Buffalo brayed in the setting sunshine.
It was just a dream.
I crouched to pick up the markers. The firefly is a figment of my imagination, I told myself. I have to remember that.
But why would my imagination issue an ultimatum?
Read it to me or you will suffer the consequences… like your mother…
The leaf lay still, illegible as ever. I tucked it between the pages of Notebook 19 as my brother loped toward me in his basketball jersey.
“Writing about your booooyyy-friend?”
“Jerk.” Although happy to see him, I chucked an uncapped red marker at him like a dart. It got him straight in the heart, leaving a red mark.
“Whoa, lucky shot.” Troy plopped onto the metal chair swing. Heels dug into the deck, he rocked back and forth, surveying the view.
“Yeah, but…” I sighed. Maybe now was the time to tell him everything, about the firefly and the gypsy and the resemblance between the Muses and Grandma Cleo’s sisters. “Troy, this’ll sound crazy, but—”
Troy wasn’t listening to me, his eyes on the faint volcano cone in the distance. “Is that Vesuvius?”
I followed his gaze to the ancient volcano, a watchful sentinel ablaze in the setting sun. “Yeah,” I said, then a passage in one of Grandma Cleo’s old books came to mind. “Did you know this entire region is called the Campi Flegrei, or Phlegrean Fields? It means fields of fire.”
Troy made a face. “The what? Phlegm Fields?”
“Phlegrean, not phlegm. This whole place floats on a mass of molten lava. If you look at Naples on Google Earth, it actually looks like a caldron.” I formed a bowl with my hands. I felt ill suddenly, as a vision of the firefly flashed in my mind, then images of chains and black robes and endless, dark tunnels.
“Oh my God.” Tears welled up at the edges of my eyes.
Troy stopped rocking. “You okay? You’re kinda freaking me out.”
Why was I getting so emotional? It made no sense whatsoever, and yet I couldn’t stop. My hands trembled and I searched for the right words: there’s a firefly tormenting my dreams, the gypsy woman said the war of the worlds begins with one muse, and our great aunts look like muses…
“I…I’m just having second thoughts about the field trip next week, I guess.”
“Hmmm.” He nodded, mulling this over. “Explain.”
“Um… some girls in my art class told me this area is the gateway to the Underworld. And… supposedly…” I gulped, “there are ancient underground tunnels from Pozzuoli that lead to it.”
“You mean,” Troy swiveled toward me, slowly, “we’re all… gonna… DIE?”
He pitched a pillow at me, laughing.
My emotion became a lightning fast reflex. From several feet away, my hand reached up and grabbed the pillow, which then nailed Troy square in the face before I even knew I threw it. He yelped in surprise and we stared at each other for a long moment, both of us puzzled, probably because I’d never caught him off guard before. For a second, his face flashed concern and he exhaled deeply, as though at a loss for words. Then he grinned and sat back in the chair, cupping his hands behind his head, elbows out.
“Troy?” I wanted to chicken out, but I could hear the firefly in my head: If you help me, child, I will give you what you’ve always wanted… “What if…” I started. “What if we could bring Mom back? Would you do it?”
“That’s a weird question.” Again, Troy’s face contracted, his eyebrows a worried, wiggly line. “But yeah, of course. Why?”
“I… I don’t know. There’s a myth about a guy going into hell to find his dad.” I sighed. “I guess the Underworld tunnels got me thinking about it.”
He leaned back and the chair swing squeaked as he rocked. “Listen, E, you can’t believe all that mythology stuff. You’ll make yourself crazy, thinking some god is controlling, like, the weather or traveling or the sun. Or that some old volcano stinks because of a war between gods. See? I sound crazy even saying it. Myths are just stories, that’s all.”
I nodded, staring back at Vesuvius.
“C’mon, let’s go to the pizza place.” Troy stood and stretched his arms up and out. “Grandma’s coming next week. You can talk myths and gods and freaky, weirdy-boo stuff with her. Until then, stop thinking so much. It’s messing with your head.”
I exhaled. “You’re right. I’m imagining things,” I said, gathering my art supplies.
“Besides,” he said, leading me down the stairs, “if we’re together, nothing can happen.”