Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.
In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.
The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.
Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).
Sunday morning in January. Snow, ice, and thick fog everywhere, as if the clouds had wearied of floating and decided to rest awhile on a cushion of snow. My dog, a canine nonagenarian, stumbled down the front steps of the apartment building in a hurry—he needed to pee. And a gentleman can make even his old bladder wait …
… until the first lamppost. A yellow trickle slid down the grey metal and into the triangle of snowdrift at the base of the lamp.
“Good job Jove,” I said.
He sniffed at his art: he’d peed a fractal flow.
“Let’s go inside now, it’s cold.”
Jove didn’t move, but kept gazing into the impenetrable curtain of milky grey. Nothing stirred, and the air smelled of burnt frost. He started across the street.
“Really?” I said. “Now you decide to get adventurous?”
Recently, we’d only ever gone for a walk round the corner—not once did we cross the street, no way. The doberman who lived there had expressive, hungry teeth.
The fog meant few cars to worry about, but Jove and I still had to slide over deep slushy ruts. Before we reached the other pavement, I heard crunching steps. Jove halted and wagged his tail. A white-bearded man, fifty-something, dressed in bright yellow galoshes, dark green trousers and a sky-blue vest emerged from the fog and strode past us, right-to-left, in a hurry. His arms were huge, muscular, weather-beaten, like those of a cattle-owner who used to wrestle his herd for fun but was now succumbing to age and beer. In one hand he had a trowel, in the other a watering can. His head was covered in a blaze of yellow Christmas lights.
The fog swallowed him up again.
“Where’d that guy come from?” I said.
Jove dropped his butt in a squat and made the healthiest-looking poo in months. I took that for a good sign.
A week passed, Sunday morning again. Jove’s bladder acted up again. I was in my striped dressing gown, having just emerged from the shower.
Yank, yank, yank, as Jove skittered down the icy concrete stairs like a carefree puppy and I followed in my slippers. The fog was a tad thicker, the lights a smidgen softer. The snow had turned to rime on the cars. At the lamppost, Jove added a new fractal flourish of yellow. (His artistic ability had improved over the past week, and if you squinted you could see Buddha or Blessed Madonna in the patterns—depending on the angle.)
Jove started across the street.
The soles of my slippers had delicately etched chevrons intended for indoor linoleum, wood, or tiles, not places requiring winter tyres and snow chains.
But I was curious.
I’d always thought my eyes healthy, my mind sound, and I’d never met a clown or a Santa Clause in my street. My neighbourhood was safe, if a bit untidy and prone to fog more than other parts of the city. So who’d been the colourful man with the gardening equipment? And why had Jove been keen on him? Usually Jove was attracted to other humans as much as he was attracted to lawnmowers. (Seven years ago my mother mowed half of Jove’s tail off, so I don’t blame him.)
Today we made it to the other pavement without seeing anyone. Jove sniffed the overflowing trashcan and the doberman tracks; I shuddered in the cold.
Yellow galoshes coming from the right. Jove barked twice, affectionately, and dove for the man—a giant of a man, I now saw.
“By me,” the man rumbled, “watch where you tread, small creature!”
Jove whined, and slung his tail between his legs.
The man’s hair shone again today, but what I had taken for Christmas lights was actually a crown of thunderbolts. An expensive ornament, for sure.
“Out of my path,” the man bellowed. “My garden is getting away.”
He shunted me aside and sprinted off into the fog.
“He’s nuts, right, Jove?”
Jove licked my hand.
“You’re nuts too, for dragging me out here. Forget him, he doesn’t care for you.”
Today the man had two watering cans and no trowel.
If Jove forgot the man, I didn’t.
Sundays passed. All morning I would wait eagerly, peering at Jove over my newspaper. I was prepared to follow the Gardener, as I called him, into the fog, to see what I imagined would be a wonderful blooming garden in some secret greenhouse.
But Jove snoozed away on the rocking chair, blissfully ignorant of nature’s call.
At the end of March we had a day of rains then an extraordinary cold spell set in. Icicles the size of legs hung from cornices; snow covered snow; the heating broke, and I shivered with a fever all night. I’d forgotten it was Sunday until early that morning Jove trundled to the door and sat down.
“Alright, you,” I said and bundled up. He didn’t seem in a rush. We heard the doberman from across the street waking up hell with his howls, followed by shouting and scuffling and a loud crack that shut him up.
Jove lifted a philosophical eyebrow.
At the front door, the chill hit my fever on the forehead, but after the prickling in my sinuses stopped, the world regained a clarity I’d missed all winter. The snow had a crisp, frozen layer on top and a soft, creamy interior, like icing. And it glittered, all silver and crushed diamond.
The fog was gone.
But the air, the air tasted bitter, of ashes. There was a small black heap across the street.
Jove limped to the lamppost and …
… past the lamppost, past entrance number thirty-four, past thirty-six, past thirty-eight.
So that’s how it was? I followed.
I’d been wrong about the fog: at the far end of the street a patch still sprawled, fraying at the edges. As we came nearer, a smudge of dark showed in the middle like a seed in a cotton boll.
Four steps closer, five, and I felt a humid breath envelop me.
The Gardener sat on a snow mound at the centre with a dense piece of fog floating before him. On it grew fronded plants with angular white flowers. He used his trowel to dig up the plants, roots still clinging to fog-earth, before placing them in a large herbarium in his lap. The flowers he shook off gently and put aside in a heap.
Oh the joy of Jove! He bounded forward gaily to offer his licking services. The man’s trousers had been torn at the calf, and bloody teeth marks showed on the tanned skin.
The man didn’t shoo him away today.
“The doberman bit you?” I said.
“Stupid creature, wanted to slow me down, and on the last day of the harvesting season … Humph.”
The man took off his shining crown. One by one, he lodged the flowers from his pile into the small dark gaps in the circle, where they started to glow gold like the rest.
“What are those?” I said.
“Why, lightning flowers!”
Jove wagged his tail furiously. “Jove likes you,” I said.
“Of course he does. Good name, by the way, my favourite.”
On our way home, Jove made a nice big yellow splodge in the snow by the lamppost. An artistic rendering of a lightning flower in full bloom, I reckon.
“Good job Jove,” I said.
Across the street, people were standing about, shovels and bags in hand, sweeping up the charred remains of the doberman.
Who said the God of Thunder couldn’t be a gardener—lighting needs tending too.
Could you see the Quote inspiring you to write anything? I’d be curious to find out!