The Golden Muse | A Short Story

Blowing out as much air as I can, my heavy body sinks beneath the choppy surface of the lake. The sounds instantly mute, bringing with it the first moment of calm I’ve had in days. Opening my eyes, I see nothing but the cloudy silt of the disturbed lake bed from where I walked into the water. If she met me here, maybe I’d be able to hear her.

Surfacing, I walk on tippy-toes, my feet occasionally sinking into the slimy stickiness of decomposed leaves, peats, sedges, and what remains of the creatures who have died here. I imagine them sinking down, landing sideways on a giant rock to take their last gill-filled sip of water. Perhaps they look up one final time to see the sunlight casting golden rays in a circle around them, illuminating tiny dancing specks in the water—a fond farewell.

Something brushes against my left calf and my heart races with panic. It could be a plant, a fish, a water snake, or something else. I picture an ancient and ugly beast covered in grey scales, a blood-sucking descendant of the dinosaurs, disturbed by my unwanted presence in its waters. It stalks me through the murk, circling and circling, getting closer and closer.

As the idea of the creature grows and solidifies, so does my panic. I lean into it, thinking some truth might be found in the sensation. I notice how as the thoughts become bigger, the creature becomes clearer until the instinctual urge to run overtakes my writer’s curiosity. I dive under the water, kicking, twisting, and punching until I arrive in the shallows and can see there’s no monster beneath me.

Keeping my body perpendicular to the rocky bottom, I swim along the shoreline looking for small fish or tiny treasures. I resurface every few minutes to keep the cabin and the horizon within sight. Although these waters are a second home to me, I’m fully aware of how quickly the water can disorient you. When I was a child, we’d bring a bright rainbow-colored umbrella to keep on the shore so I’d always be able to find the home base.

My younger self, freckled pink, runs along the hot beach to escape under the umbrella where my mother sits reading beside a giant wicker basket of snacks. I grab a banana and some almonds and she touches my cool skin with her warm feet. I push her away.

Flipping to my back, keeping my ears under the surface, I savor the muffled silence. The white sky above remains motionless and still, empty as I am. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I have nothing written. My outline lays shredded on the cabin floor and the silence I came for exists nowhere but here below the surface of the lake. The book I wrote last year feels as if it contained all my words and truth. I have nothing more to offer. I tug at my wet hair and twirl it between my fingers, pulling and pulling.

If I could bring a pen and paper into the mirrored waters, would she slip beside me and whisper the words? I’ve lost her, my golden shadow muse, somewhere in the noise I can’t seem to get away from. She won’t return, and the madness inside me seems to be growing; an itchy sliver embedded deep within my palm, a prickly cactus of sharpness, a dentist’s drill pounding. It all feels a lot like failure.

From day one at the cabin silence has eluded me, replaced by an unexpected and unwanted presence–whispers and movements I can’t quite hear or see. A permanent shadow of sound perpetually here, but not here. I’ve wandered looking for it, seeking it out, and found only its partners–its noisy neighbors.

First, it was the trees, scrapping and clawing at the cabin day and night. I found a ladder and a saw and trimmed them back, so nothing touched the house. Then the squirrels took up leaping and scampering from the cut branches to roll things along the roof, creating a cacophony of sounds, driving the words from me. I had to cut back more and more of the branches until the trees lay ugly and bare, the pile of wood taller than me.

Then it was the sound of water dripping from faucets, the kind of noise used to torture out truths in secret basements. I turned off the water, drove into town and bought new gaskets and a plumbing book, and spent over a week fixing and fixing and fixing. The drops stopped.

But then it was the birds. Chirping and singing in voices shrill and constant at all times, driving the words from me, keeping her from me. I’d yell at them, but they’d scatter and return moments later with louder cries. I flung baking soda along the rails, boxes and boxes of it, and strung together forks to hang from the porch. I scattered birdseed far from the cabin day and night.

It worked for a time until a small brown bird made the tiny peach tree outside the front window its home. It would sing and sing, mocking me day and night. A robotic bird, unreal and unearthly. In a fit of anger I chopped down the baby tree, its single peach the size of a walnut lay on the ground and I wept. My dreams of cobblers and ice cream were destroyed in a single impulsive moment.

The words, my words, lay within the silence, I’m certain of it. They lay with her within the curves and folds of her shadowy dress, waiting for the moment of peace to settle for her to creep on padded feet behind me and breathe into my neck and whisper to me the story I know is so close. I’ve found it and her before, but now it’s simply too loud.

From Sunday to Saturday, from Monday to Friday, the days blend into days, and the sounds blend into sounds. She won’t come until it’s quiet, and I can’t find words without her. They are locked inside a box within a box and the key lies in the silence I can’t find.

Diving down into the water I begin digging through the muck, struck by the idea the key lies here. My fingers feel inadequate and I wish I’d brought a shovel or some kind of underwater ax. I shove items into the pockets of my bathing suit skirt, surfacing to fill my lungs and then returning to dig and scoop, dig and scoop.

Eventually, my body and breathing become weary and I surface to find the white sky has turned dark. A small sliver of the moon sits surrounded by tiny twinkling stars mirrored in the black water around me. The mountains have released the sighing breath of night, and the cool air makes my body react with gooseflesh and shivers.

A sudden disorienting panic hits me and I swim as fast as I can, items falling out of my suit and returning to the muck below me. I’m haunted by the idea of hands in the water reaching for me, grabbing at me, taking the key back, and by the time I reach the shore I’m sobbing and far from where I’d left my towel and shoes.

Running across the sharp pebbled beach, ignoring the pain in my feet, I focus on the golden light of the cabin. I’d left one window uncovered and the hooded desk lamp has transformed the dull curtains into bright yellow beacons. I run and run, up the dark wooden steps and into the familiar musty smell of our family cabin.

I wrap the nearest quilt, a remnant of my mother’s last stay here, around my shoulders, and trembling I throw logs into the large brick fireplace. I rub my wrinkled hands along the blanket until they are dry enough to twist the pages of an old National Geographic magazine into cones to light. I scrape a match along the edge of the box and press the reddish flame into a gray photo of a gnarled gargoyle with pointy ears and watch the word Paris turn to ash.

When I sit on the floor, the items from the lake poke into my sides. I pull them out and lay them in a line across the hearth—Barbie head with matted brown hair, a bright blue fidget spinner turned rusty but still able to move, several bottle caps from various cheap beers, an “I Love You a Latte” pin missing the back, and a bright silver ring.

It’s the last item I think could be the key. I wipe it on the blanket and try it on several fingers and find it only fits my pinky. It’s a simple thin band, with no markings, dainty but heavy. I hold my hands closer to the fire to warm them and look at how the metal ring reflects back the orange and red light. The whispering sounds pulse around me. I wish they’d stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my shadow stretching out, a thin skeletal version of me. I follow it down the hall and into the bedroom, strip off my wet clothes, and stand naked before an upright golden mirror. I don’t recognize myself in the dim light leaking in from the fire down the hall, the flickering body of a woman I might have known at some point, but who looks nothing like me anymore. I stare into the mirror version of my hazel eyes and have the terrifying thought I might do something like wink, or my eyes might suddenly becoming not my own.

I’m about to scream, but instead, I twirl my hair with my left hand and pull until several strands break free. I let them fall to the floor and notice the tops of my shoulders are beet red with small blisters forming under the skin. I grab a sample bottle of aloe from a drawer beside the bed, wondering if it has an expiration date, and rub it into the inflamed skin anyway. The cool gel makes me feel feverish and sick. I’m veering off course. I’m not me. I don’t like this and I wonder when I last ate something.

My shadow dances along the wall and I slip on warm pajamas and follow it. I’m sleepwalking or dreaming, moving through thick clouds, heavy and drunk. I sit at my writing desk by the front window, open a blank journal page, and put the pen on the paper. Hovering, I sit still for seconds, minutes…hours. A prickling sensation begins at my toes and travels in a rush up my body. All the nerves feel dull and alive at the same time—on alert. The pen begins to move.

“The golden shadow…”

The tiniest flicker of hope left inside dances with joy at the words, at the feeling of her behind me. She presses further, our bodies merge into one, the shadow takes the pen and writes an entire page and I know as it flows from my hand it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.”

With a snapping feeling, my body lurches back and then forward. I hit my head on the desk with a thud. She’s gone. Some sound has chased her away and I scream, the sound traveling out of every pore of my body, emptying me of everything. My heart pounds and I begin to sweat and shake.

I stand on wobbly legs and follow the sound, a bloodhound tracking the scent through a dark and dangerous forest. I feel the rage inside at having the words taken away, a bubbling tea kettle screaming and screaming. The faint sound seems everywhere and nowhere. I circle the rooms, down the hall, and back.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

It’s in the hallway! I press my ear against the wall until I find the exact spot and realize, with horror, it’s the sound of a pen writing on paper. My words are inside the wall. Someone has stolen them, taking them from me, and I need them. I need them more than I need to breathe or eat or be. I bang on the wall and scream, but the sound continues without pause.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

I scrape and scrape with my fingernails until I’m able to pull at the flowered wallpaper, tearing off a wide strip and throwing it on the floor. I pick at the uneven wall underneath until I’m able to form a tiny hole. I run to the writing desk, grab my gold pen and press the tip into the hole, twisting and twisting until it pops through. I press down hard, like a lever, until a chunk of plaster falls to the floor.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.”

Using my hands, I tear off the rest of the wallpaper and the crumbling bits of fibrous material as fast as I can. Throwing it all around me, I’m no longer aware of the why. My knuckles and fingers bleed, but I continue to rip and tear until I’ve uncovered the entire stretch of wall between two light-colored wooden posts. In the center of the blank wall, a black shadow oozes and bubbles out like oil, running down the wall in a thick stream.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

I scramble backward and fall against the wall behind me, sliding down until I’m clutching my own knees and rocking. The shadow moves slowly, like thick molasses across the floor, growing in size and shape until it becomes a grotesque twisted version of me. It leers tall and thin in the hallway, reaching with spindly cold fingers toward my face. I feel it reaching through nothingness, into nothingness, dragging me toward its thick dark madness.

The scratching sound fades, or maybe simply never was. The shadowy shape before me opens its mouth to reveal sharpened black teeth, a cartoonish Jack-O-Lantern, dripping down onto me the whispery sounds of fear and anger. It’s louder than ever before, a pulsing and grating sound, and I cover my ears and continue to rock in place.

Time seems to stand still in this moment, a frozen nightmare of my own creation. Knowingness eventually prickles along my back, bringing with it the vision of a small girl with pigtails. Her tiny voice begins to whisper in my ear, speaking of kindness, and worth and begging me to fight back. I’m sitting on the back fence of the home I grew up in, singing as loud as I can to the passing cars. The world needs to hear my voice. I have something to say.

The singing becomes louder and louder and I feel her wrap her golden arms through mine. We are one. I feel through the debris for my pen and stand with it held out in front of me. The shadow doesn’t shrink, but I grow. I stand tall and firm, my resolve larger than my fear has ever been, and I thrust my pen as hard as I can into the silhouette before me. It shatters, the darkness dissolving into tiny puzzle pieces of nothing, running down the walls and into the floorboards. It’s gone or maybe it never existed at all.

Holding the pen firmly in my hand, I walk on steady legs to the writing desk and set it down. Sunrise dances through the cloudy sky as I step onto the porch to listen for the sounds of the world. I don’t need to cover my ears anymore.

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

You inspired me, yet you feel so far away

Words float around, bubbles of colored vapor

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

Endings, beginnings round and round I caper

Lost in dark along the perfectionists highway

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

You inspired me, yet you feel so far away

Author’s note: My inspiration for this story came while writing at the coffee shop this week and looking down to see the golden shadow of my pen on my journal page. My mind was filled with images of shadow creatures, muses, and the idea of madness. As I began to write, the story took me to the lake and to the idea of needing silence to create. As the story progressed a bit of “The Shining” crept in and I had to resist the urge to have her hack the wall with an ax. You can probably also see the influence of Edgar Allen Poe with the sounds in the wall. Thank you, as always, for reading and if you feel so inspired, please let me know what you thought in the comments below.


Short Story Challenge | Week 15

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a writer with noisy neighbors. We had to include the words dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample.


Write With Us

Next Week’s Prompt: Newlyweds on their honeymoon

Include: cockpit, selfie, kayak, thought bubble, picnic table, wander, propose, shiatsu, motherhood, temple


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

Meeting Trouble

Bright colored houses line the narrow street. I pass a red table covered in perfect white sand dollars, twisting trees, succulent gardens, a weathered wooden door set into a wide brick wall, and a mural of black-and-white faces curving toward the sky. 

I’m drawn here time and time again.

Anytime I’m within an hour from San Francisco I must make the trip.

Each time it feels like a sort of pilgrimage.

Today is no exception.

The line snakes out the small door and I cue up behind several groups of people talking quietly to each other. It’s windy and blustery. Pulling my sweater tighter around my shoulders I wonder if everyone in line has come for the same reason.

Her.

The owner of Trouble Coffee, Giulietta Carrelli.

Since hearing her story on NPR in 2014, I haven’t stopped thinking about her.

She calls her shop Trouble in honor of all the people who helped her when she was in trouble. It’s more than a coffee shop—it’s a movement with a manifesto. Everything from the menu to the artwork has meaning and purpose; all designed to help her manage her schizoaffective disorder.

To oversimplify, there’s cinnamon toast for comfort, coffee for communication and speed, and coconuts for survival. Her cups say “Thrash or die” or “Live fast, die old” in her own handwriting. She’s cool, interesting and inspiring.

I feel a kindred spirit with her despite having nothing in common and not actually knowing her. I’m magnetically drawn to her and her space.

It makes no sense.

The shop has been remodeled since I’ve last visited and when it’s my turn to enter the small building my eyes sweep over the new black and white motif. There’s splashes of pink and yellow, artwork, books, photographs, and a collection of cassette tapes.

I love the new space.

Then, I see her. 

She’s making coffee with cutoff jean shorts, a headscarf, and her quite recognizable tattooed freckles on her cheeks. It’s like seeing an apparition or a ghost and it temporarily stuns me.

It’s her.

For years I’ve traveled here and thought about her, but this is the first time I’m seeing her in person.

I’m unprepared.

I feel weird and transfixed.

I know her life story, yet I don’t know her at all.

It’s an uneasy feeling; a false intimacy of a creative muse I’ve never met.

Her shop has become synonymous with art for me and somehow tied to my own creativity. I’ve watched it from afar, following her and her dog on social media, and somehow feeling part of her movement.

I can’t explain any of it.

I watch her now, in person, with a mix of awe and self-consciousness. Part of me wants to bolt, and perhaps I would have a year ago, but I don’t. I step forward and order cinnamon toast and an oat milk latte from a young man I barely look at. 

I can’t take my eyes off her, and for some reason, she locks eyes with me and smiles. I pull down my mask for a moment and smile back.

She switches the music to her favorite band, talking to me as she does. She rattles off the name and I nod as if I know it, but I’m too stunned to hear it fully.

She tells me she accidentally met her musician idol outside his concert years ago. She didn’t have tickets and when he arrived she did not recognize him and they began chatting. When she realized who he was she felt terrible embarrassed. She laid on the ground to try and hide from him. He laughed.

“I can see you,” her idol said.

He let her sell merchandise and gave her a ticket to the show. They became friends.

It was a funny story, told well and I wonder if there’s something in my eyes telling her the story was for me and for the moment I was experiencing with her. 

It feels as if she’s saying “I see you.”

I say nothing.

I barely breathe.

She shares a few more stories with me in the effortless way she does and I can’t stop smiling. She’s so cool and wonderful—exactly as I knew she’d be.

So we jumped up on the table and shouted anarchy
And someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox
It it was California Dreamin’
So we started screamin’
On such a winter’s day

We end up singing part of Punk Rock Girl together for a brief magical moment before she hands me my coffee.

“I have to tell you I love you,” I say.

My face turns red. I didn’t mean to say it out loud. I don’t know what I wanted to say, but certainly not the weird and creepy thing I did say.

She laughs and looks at me in the way people who can see you fully do—a penetrating gaze which oddly doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

“You don’t know me,” she says. “Do you?”

It could have felt stinging or biting, but it felt more like “you don’t know me yet.” She smiled and her blue-eyed gaze felt approving and kind.

“Thanks,” I say.

“See you around,” she says.

Holding my coffee and cinnamon toast out in front of me, I walk into the biting wind and barely feel it. In a daze I pass the same landscape as before but I feel less removed from it now.

The last few months I’ve been making huge efforts to step fully into my creative self and to be vulnerable and seen.

It feels scary but right.

Seeing Carrelli was the message I needed. 

I’m on the right track. 

She saw me and I saw her.

I didn’t shrink and I didn’t run.

Two palm trees cast their feathered shadows across the sidewalk and my new blue converse.

It feels amazing.