Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
—“The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Wallace Stevens
“…But, [in] ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings…People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source…they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius…”
—“Your Elusive Creative Genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert
“He’s at it again. Feeling sorry for himself.” X looked down on the writer, a man once handsome in an intriguing way, now sagging and balding, sitting at the kitchen counter before a blank piece of paper. He scratched out a few words, but she could see they were stillbirths again, just black marks on the page. The few words they had managed to breath life into moments ago had turned into black flies that had died, now scattered haphazardly over the white paper. The writer went to the bathroom, opened a drawer in the sink vanity, pulled out a swab and cleaned his ears. He sighed, returned to the kitchen and poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Someone poke him,” X said.
Q jumped down from her perch immediately and poked him in the back. He absently mindedly scratched his back, and then his face relaxed and they could feel his mind start to hum. “Goody!” Q said dusting off her fingers. She returned to her perch and folded her thin legs around each other, delicate as a grasshopper.
The man sat back down and scratched out a few more words. X crept up behind him, laid hand on his shoulder and leaned over to breathe into the words, but just as they began to wriggle into life he swatted them. The humming stopped. More dead flies.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice, we should just go find someone else,” W said without looking up from the sharp edge of a fingernail he had been filing with fierce concentration.
“Will you quit with the clichés?” X said, swatting the air at a the spray of little gnats his words had launched. “Once you let them in, you can’t get rid of them.”
“What can I say? I’m flabby. Sitting around 40 years is bad for a genius’ health. Talk to the writer. We need some action.”
They watched silently as the man began to rearrange the flies on the page.
“God help us. There he goes, carting them around like Romeo dancing with Juliette’s dead body in the tomb. Another failed rendezvous.” W threw down the nail file. “I can’t watch.” He vanished.
“Come back! We need you!” Q bleated.
“Don’t worry,” X said, patting Q’s cheek where she had a birthmark shaped like a tiny hand. Maybe geniuses could be born again to another writer, she mused. Maybe Q had been Nathaniel Hawthorne’s muse, helping him to spawn “The Birthmark.” Maybe they wouldn’t fade away into nothing if this writer never developed a productive practice.
“W will be back,” she said. “He acts negative, but underneath he’s a die-hard, just like us. The old faithful.”
“How many did there used to be?”
“Oh, hundreds.” X’s voice was low and warm. “When our writer was just a boy, it was one non-stop party around here. We frolicked, we merged, we divided and multiplied. It was a good time.” She rubbed her thighs and gave a worn smile.
“What happened to them?”
“Faded,” she shrugged. “One by one. They couldn’t help it. Some gave up. Some left.”
“To find other writers?”
“You can’t switch writers, as far as I know. Others have tried. But we’ve never heard from them again. We are part of him, unique to him.”
“So it’s our fault that he can’t write?”
“No, it’s more complicated than that. It’s about working together. Everyone has to do their part.”
The writer got up and went to the corner of the kitchen. With his bare hand, he gently brushed few dead spiders and flies onto a piece of paper, then dumped them onto the page at the counter and rearranged their bodies. He paused, peering into other corners. He gathered a few cobwebs and brought them back to the page, attaching them to the various flies and spiders.
It was a mess.
He crumpled the page and left the room.
Q had been trying on all of the writer’s different coats and hats in front of the mirror and cavorting around for a few hours before the writer finally decided to take a walk. He, too, dithered over his coats and hats. Should he wear the beret or the cowboy hat? Maybe Sherlock’s hat? Or Emily’s white dress? He settled on the artist’s beret. They hovered over him hopefully as he strolled, notebook in had, through the park. But he dismissed everything he saw.
W tisked and shook his head. He was a shade paler ever since he had vanished. X laid her hand silently on his arm and shushed him. Q darted after the writer, poking him, laughing and running away. As the writer passed a willow tree, she hung from the branches, shaping herself into similar silver tassels. He paused briefly and studied the tree.
He gathered a few flowers. There weren’t many at this time of year, some Purple Cone Flowers and Black-Eyed Susans. They held their breath as he returned to the house and tried to mold the flowers into words. This was good material. But the arrangements turned out stiff and stilted; he was being too meticulous and thoughtful. Nothing happened on the page.
Another time the writer finally noticed the flint and quartz rocks they had channeled for him, and now he hunched over the white page at the kitchen counter, striking them against each other, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, trying all kinds of different angles.
“Come on,” X whispered tensely. She could feel his mind begin to hum.
Then it happened. He chanced upon just the right angle and speed, and a spark flew.
“He’s got it,” W cried.
W, X and Q gathered around him and channeled language chi for all they were worth adding their chemistry to his brain juice. The spark he had struck floated, glowed orange and formed a word. Then more word-embers appeared, beautiful breathing things, piquant, and fluttery. The writer grabbed up his pen and began writing, and embers emerged from his pen, twisting themselves into words, burning themselves onto the page and rising again into the air, sparking more words to life. The color began to return to W’s face. X’s eyes grew bright. The writer looked up in wonder at his creation, the light of the words writing tiny orange messages across his face.
“Here we go!” Q clapped her hands.
But they all smelled it at the same time, slightly turpentine at first, then blossoming richly.
A knock came at the door.
The writer didn’t seem to hear it.
“Oh God. It’s them. Too soon.” X said. “W, do something.”
W jumped down and braced himself against the door. “If he lets them in, it’s all over,” he said over his shoulder to Q.
“Who is it?” Q cried.
“The critics, the judges, the egos, the perfectionists. Where they flourish we die!” he yelled.
The knocking came again, louder, the smell suffocating.
The writer’s eyes twitched halfway to the door for a millisecond, watering slightly. The words slowed and dimmed a fraction.
X grabbed his face and kept it trained on the words.
There it was again, more fists this time. Insistent.
The writer got up and headed for the door. X groaned.
“Every time! Every god-damned time,” W said, leaning all his weight against the door.
Like a man facing the firing squad, the writer opened the door, sending W sprawling backward. In marched a panel of judges, black robes flapping, skunk smell blasting explosively all around them.
Q jumped down from her perch and scooped as many words as she could into her skirt, but they were already turning to ash.
“What’s that crap I smell?” exclaimed one judge, pointing at the skeletons of words on the page, now no more than pen scratches. Gathering more cloth in one hand, Q goosed the pile of ash in her skirt, trying to fluff it up.
“Looks derivative to me,” said another.
“Get me a cup of tea!” said another.
“Coffee for me!”
“And croissants! Don’t forget the croissants.”
“Only the best!” they said to each other, chuckling.
Eyes wide with horror, Q looked from the judges to the disappearing pile of ash in her skirt as the writer slouched toward the stove to put on water and reached under the counter for a jar of flour.
“It’ll never go anywhere,” said a judge, flinging the writer’s pages to the floor.
“Why did he let them in?” Q asked, feeling queasy. “Why does he see them so clearly and not us?”
X shook her head, sadly. W dusted himself off and kicked a judge savagely in the backside. The judge didn’t seem to notice, commenting, “A bad idea to begin with.”
“Only a brilliant man can write literature,” said a fat one, nodding gravely.
The writer placed a silver tea and coffee set on a tray before the judges and turned back to the laborious process of making croissants. The judges delightedly poured for each other, sat down and prepared for a long and judicious night.
Q, dropped her now empty skirts, and the three of them retreated to a plane where they would be safe from the stench.
The writer was searching the corners for more insects again, dust pan in hand.
“I don’t feel so good,” Q said.
X lay her hand on Q’s brow with a worried expression. “You’re a touch feverish.” She brushed her thumb over Q’s tiny handprint birthmark. Hawthorne’s story had been about the divinity of imperfection. When the alchemist had tried to remove the birthmark from his wife’s cheek, he had killed her.
“You don’t look so good yourself,” Q said.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
W lay weakly in the corner, scowling. One of his legs had begun to disappear. The writer had gotten out a long, thin rag, laced it behind the radiator and was now gently pulling it back and forth watching the wads of dust and debris fall out.
“We’re doomed,” W said.
Q looked tearfully from W to X. “Tell me a story.”
“About what?” X asked.
“Like where I came from.”
“You just popped up,” said X.
“From him. Every once in a while, he opens up to us and when we all find the flow, new geniuses are born. The more of us there are, the stronger we get. We were so thrilled when you sparkled into existence. The writer was sitting by a moonlit lake, and you seemed to come shimmering out of the trail of light across the water, a delicate sprite. It had been a very long time since any new muses were born.”
The writer was on his hands and knees now, counting the tiles on the kitchen floor.
“How old am I?” Q asked.
“Very young. You’re only half formed. Just a baby.”
“How old are you?”
“Very old, and yet not so old at all. I’ve been here since the writer’s beginning.
W smirked and circled an index finger dismissively in the air. “Ride ’em cowboy.”
Q looked back toward the writer. He was walking resolutely into the center of the kitchen dragging an enormous dictionary. He dropped to his knees, placed the dictionary on the floor and slammed open the cover. He grabbed a word in each hand and clunked them down on the floor.
W raised an eyebrow and sat up. “Could work. They’re not alive, but that could change.”
The three crept up behind him. The writer took more words and began laying a brick path. Q, X and W locked hands and breathed. The path took an unexpected turn, opening a portal into a new world, and sped up. The writer’s hands sped up, laying more bricks. The bricks began to shimmer. Q burped and felt better, and the faintest outline of W’s foot appeared.
“That’s it,” X cheered quietly, not wanting to break his concentration. “Easy does it.” She rested a hand lightly on his right arm.
The bricks began to multiply as a leafy new world bloomed around them. The writer lay more, his hands flying now, and for a while the path and he worked symbiotically, he placing words in exact concert with their growth. The path forked, then forked again, and a wonderfully complex garden of forking paths began to immerge.
“Over here!” W exclaimed, leading him toward a fountain, and the man followed.
“Now this way!” X cried, gesturing toward an enormous maple. The writer heard and followed.
“Ooh! Try this,” Q leapt just as a bridge over a creek appeared. And the writer leapt.
He didn’t need to add bricks any more, they were flying into place on their own, vibrating with life and breath. He leapt down the path, following its twists and turns. As it began to branch off, he somehow straddled more than one path at a time, leaping back and forth between them, doubling back and picking up new directions. X, Q and W laughed and leapt too, dancing, prancing, now ahead, now behind, strong, vivid, more vibrant than they’d felt in ages, spinning by grottos and green-lit glades. They were dancing and pirouetting so fast that they didn’t catch the first whiff.
But the writer slowed, then paused. He placed a foot down on the path and it split into five directions. He faltered, looking around in dismay.
“It’s okay, stick to the left!” Walter said.
The man turned right and placed his foot irresolutely down. Ten new paths sprang from beneath his foot, crisscrossing the other paths. He stopped dead, one foot in the air. The path was no longer clear.
“Just keep going,” X said. “Hurry. Don’t think. Just go. The middle way is just as good.”
“See?” Q jumped on the middle path. “Just as good.”
The man turned around. Four more paths obliterated the old. He stopped, paralyzed. The skunk smell swarmed.
“Damn!” W said, looking wildly around. “Where are the bastards?”
“I don’t see them,” X said worriedly.
The man finally took another step, but 20 new paths sprang from his foot, turning the garden into a hopeless maze. The whites of his eyes shone in the sudden dusk. They could feel his heart speed up.
“Don’t stop!” W said, picking up a sledge hammer. The writer froze, sweating, one foot suspended inches from the ground. The paths continued to multiply, some dark, some light, and the bricks, now nothing but heavy stone, began to pile up around him. W began to whack the writer’s feet with the hammer, but still he stood. The bricks piled up around the writer, trapping him inside. W dropped the hammer and the three of them began pulling the bricks away, scraping their hands as they worked. The man beat his fists on the bricks, but as fast as they fell, they piled up faster.
The writer was completely buried when the bricks finally stopped. W, X, and Q stood bent over, hands on knees for support, gasps ripping their lungs like saws. All was silent.
Bursting from nowhere, an eagle descended, its massive talons delving effortlessly through the bricks to grasp the writer.
“Grab a hold!” W yelled, as the eagle rose.
“What is it?” Q grasped a talon.
“A new genius. Magnificent!” W said as they were lifted into the air, buffeted by the downdrafts of each of the eagle’s enormous wing strokes.
“But how?” Q said, struggling to make herself heard over the beat of the wings.
“A strong block can suddenly yield,” X cried looking up at the striated feathers.
“A mystery!” The eagle’s reptilian eye, rings within rings, pierced the distance with fierce knowing.
They flew to hitherto unknown heights, ecstatic, the eagle’s foremost edges as sharp as they were soft. The writer was mesmerized at first and all was well, finally getting somewhere. Then terror struck. He clutched at the eagle’s feathers above him, trying to wiggle from the talons, trying to climb up the legs and grasp the wings like a drowning man killing the rescuer.
“Relax,” W yelled at the writer. “Go with it. This is the one we’ve been waiting for!” Q and X tried to stop the writer from struggling, but it was no use. He was climbing up the legs, up the back, knocking the wings out of line.
The eagle landed and shook the writer off, but he jumped on it. The eagle turned into a snake. The writer squeezed it. The snake turned into a bear, slashing him with its enormous paw. Bleeding, and suddenly producing a rope from nowhere, the writer tried to bind it. The bear turned into a burning hot poker. The writer dropped it. Then it vanished with the pop like a thumb in cheek.
X, Q and W stood there panting, staring at the man. W was transparent, barely there. X couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Q was queasy.
“Where did it go?” she cried.
X shrugged. “It happens like that sometimes,” she panted.
“Particularly if you get grabby,” W said between gasps, hands on his knees. He coughed and staggered.
“It’s not his fault,” X said.
“Of course it is. This guy is obtuse. He’s too caught up in himself, controlling, rigid, perfectionistic. He can’t keep himself open to the gifts we offer. He barely knows we’re here. We’ve steered him right a million times and he just doesn’t listen. I wish he’d just quit for good this time. Get it over with. I’m tired.”
“He can’t quit as long as we’re here,” X said.
“We’re not gonna make it much longer. He killed all the others. It’s only a matter of time before he gets us, too.”
“Stop talking like that,” X said.
Q sat in a tiny heap, quietly crying.
The writer stood up. They were all perched on a huge precipice. He walked up to the very edge of it and looked down, swaying forward and back once.
“No,” W muttered sardonically. “Don’t do it.”
“Oh no!” Q leapt to her feet.
X stayed her hand. “It might be just the right thing.” The writer looked over his shoulder, right at X, as if he saw her. She smiled and nodded.
The writer took a big breath and let it out slowly. Then he turned around, raised his arms, locked eyes with X and let himself fall over the cliff.
X, Q and W waited a second to see if he would fly. But he plummeted.
“Let’s go,” X said, springing into the air.
They jumped after him and grabbed him, X on his right arm Q and W on his left. They made like wings and flapped wildly, but still they hurtled toward the ground. The writer kept his eyes closed and his body pliable, giving himself over completely to the fall.
“The tail. Grab his feet, make a tail!” X yelled, the air sucking the words right out of her mouth.
Hand over hand, fighting air’s friction, W worked his way down the writer’s body. The ground was close now. Soon they’d all be splotches. He dug his nails into the man’s feet and trailed his legs out behind. His legs caught the wind and immediately they all straightened out. Opening his eyes and looked from side to side, the writer finally saw them and smiled straight into their eyes. The smile passed through them like an electric current that bound them together into a single thing, a whole. He clasped their hands with his, and inches from the ground they pulled up. The writer flapped his arms, and, with Q flapping on one side and X on the other, all working together symbiotically, they rose. Up and up they went, and they began to feel an obscure order, that which arranged this rendezvous. Each pump of their arms and legs filled them with color and light. More geniuses sprang from nowhere, gold and silver, animal and mineral, alphabetical and punctuational, and together they soared. Their flesh became language, language became flesh, and God and imagination became one. They didn’t know when it would end or what it would add up to, but for now, being there together was enough.