Orpheus sets the phone on the floor and bends over the screen, letting his face hang there as if over a pond. The shadows of imaginary carp weave below the black surface. Call your mother, Orpheus.
He tries to remember Calliope’s face, hasn’t seen it in so long, not even its traces in the mirror, his mother’s features so different from his. Calliope only writes to him these days. Orpheus barely ever hears his mother’s voice, she hides in the motionless print. She is a hieroglyph, the only one who could speak to his father and make herself understood. But the mortal king has vanished, and Calliope has gone silent.
Call your mother, Orpheus, see what she has to say.
Orpheus looks at himself in the dark screen. He lays his fingerprints on the phone and begins to dial. He waits. Only love opens access to hell.
“Hello my bag of fleas,” says Calliope. Magpies are nesting in her hair.
Apollo and his mother taught Orpheus to be lovable, his entire childhood one big finishing school. But no-one taught him how to love. How do I love, mother, when the plants in my house all thrive and die at the same time? When one of them laughs at me relentlessly for being human? When I am so trapped that I can no longer be either Orpheus or Eurydice, but am caught in the filaments of their bond so resolutely that if they were to break apart I would dissolve into formless shimmers. Is there love beyond the sensation of Eurydice, she who is the opioid euphoria of affective widening, the poppy seed of thought? Eurydice, the muscle memory of being loved, a twitch in the nervous system as I open myself up.
“Your father never liked it when I kept birds in my hair,” says Calliope. “These days I fall asleep with their talons buried in my scalp.”
“They suit you,” says Orpheus.
“Why are you calling, sweetheart?”
Calliope taught him poetry, Apollo gave him the lyre and taught him how to play. His hair is his mother’s, as is his skin, the colour of morning light flecked with poppy seed. You are perfect, Orpheus, a flawless specimen. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you. Your bones were never broken, your vital organs always took the blow. You’re goofy, you’re ridiculous, you laugh so much, you scare so easily. For years, you never entered a house through the door, windows only. For years, you spoke using no words, only sounds approximating those of a cat. Your eyes built their home close to the sea. But it doesn’t matter how clean your bones are, how efficient your kidneys. You are chaos, you know you are. To love Orpheus the way Orpheus wants to be loved transcends human capacity, and nothing is more selfish than a god.
“Mother, why didn’t you ever teach me how to be a muse?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” says the muse. “You’re not looking for some kind of lineage here, are you? Family resemblance, all this quaint nonsense about belonging?”
“Never mind,” he says.
“I never taught you to be anyone’s muse, Orpheus, because you’re not muse-material. You’re impatient, you’re a maker of things, you’re the one who goes out there looking for fuel.”
The magpies chatter and screech, wagging their tails on Calliope’s head.
“I’m tired of art, mother,” says Orpheus. “I’m tired of making things that will never bring me stillness. The more I say, the more I need to say. It never ends. I want things to be steady for a while. I want to be quiet in someone else’s arms.”
“And the more you yearn for this Eurydice, the more your yearning makes you yearn, correct? So you found a muse in this girl, this part of you that ran away.”
“No,” says Orpheus, “I haven’t. Musing is a mutual pursuit, an agreement based on which the muse gives herself to the artist, and the artist gives his heart and mind to the muse. It’s not a one-way grasping.”
Calliope asks, “Do you like orchids, Orpheus?”
“That’s a lie, baby, I know you do. Anyway, do you like the troubadours?”
“If you’re calling me a troubadour, mother, I’m hanging up.”
“You’re too smutty for that, sweetie. I just want you to think: would any of their songs have been written if the love they sang about was anything other than impossible or unrequited?”
“Poetry is meant to bring about the love that’s missing, not just whine about its absence.”
“Don’t confuse poetry with alchemy. I’m afraid our talents don’t have any bearing on the composition of the material world. You never ask me about your father, Orpheus, why is that?”
“What could I possibly learn from him?”
“Before he found me your father couldn’t live without the love of many men and women simultaneously. Always fascinated by the surface of things, the superficial virtues of people, the gifts they had and gave, but without ever letting any of them truly close. Those who came close accidentally were shut out again. He was ravenous, insatiably seeking the affection of others to mend the growing wound within. The sort of wound you’ve seen in Eurydice, the kind that won’t allow itself to shut because it provides an aperture through which to see inside oneself. These people loved your father, but none of them gave him what felt like enough, because he never gave himself to any of them.”
“And what am I supposed to do with that information, mother?”
“Find something better, something reciprocal, the kind of bond that is based not on constant struggle but on mutual desire. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you, Orpheus. You’re a good kid, you’ve got nice eyes, you’re funny when you’re not busy moping about some girl. The myths are liars. Eurydice isn’t the only one you could ever love, no matter what you’ve seen the poets write. Eurydice is an empty hole, and nothing you throw into it will return to you. I know that more than anything you want to bring home this part of you that left, that escaped the organism you wanted to be. Don’t listen to the myths told in your name before you’ve even lived through them. Don’t let the words of others tell you who you are.”
Orpheus sighs. “My heart is tired, mother,” he says.
“Your heart is always tired,” she says. “When you were born you stank of valerian root, asleep even then. We had to breathe into your mouth four times before your lungs would open. If you’re weary, find something else to feel. There is more than one sensation in the world, just as there is more than one note on your lyre. Remember when Apollo first gave you that instrument, too heavy for you then, it licked your face with crazed delight, you fell backwards under its leaping weight. You took it everywhere. But in your adult life, I don’t think you’ve tried for a moment to live with a waking heart.”
“At least you’re not holding back,” says Orpheus.
“So how are things going with that split self of yours, the part you lost? I take it the whole thing still feel like incurable heartbreak?”
“It’s bad, mother. I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley.”
“Tell me, sweetheart, I forget, how old are you now?”
“Depends on who you ask, mother. Last I heard I was roughly twenty-four, but the other day I could’ve sworn I was thirty-six.”
“Let me tell you something about love, Orpheus, the way we love, you and I. You are much more like me than you’d like to be. What really upsets you about this whole thing is the idea that someone might have finally earned your heart, or perhaps not even earned it, but own it. When Eurydice came along you said to yourself, this is the person who will be enough. And you gave your love to this Eurydice who was too young, too self-absorbed to need it. The part you’ve lost is gone, but you are still here. Don’t get lost in a linear idea of time, return to the spiral and remember that whatever you let go will return in different forms. Your problem is that you believed the lie your myth is telling you: that who you are is Orpheus+Eurydice, but here you are, Orpheus alone, halved and yet complete. The tail you lost is gone but your lungs still work. And yet you follow the idea of Eurydice into the depths of Hades because you can’t believe that the person to whom you gave yourself so carelessly was careless with you in return. That’s all it is, Orpheus, my smelly baby. It’s all it is, believe me. This is how we are. You have lost yourself, and yet you’re still here. Isn’t it nice when things are simple?”
Orpheus shakes his head. He wants her to stop speaking, stop making sense. He hates sense. Sense is not what poetry is made from, surely; poetry is pain and love and loss, and he is sick of himself. He wants to scratch his skin and scream on mountain tops, he wants to build a hut from animal droppings and hide in it for weeks, but he’s tired, even the expression of sadness exhausts him now.
When he was a child, he made the rocks on the mountain weep. He played, and Echo shut her mouth for once. He charmed so many features of the world, and still he strays like a wounded animal, falling in love with absence and abstraction. Every time he walks down into Hades and makes Eurydice appear like a bubble rising from the swamp, opalescent with petrol stains, she seems like everything he’s ever wanted.
And when she leaves, he stands alone on the slope of Hades, amidst the crumbling stalagmites. His life on earth is not that of someone living. He has lost access to the parts of him that know how to receive; his mouth is heaped shut with earth, and he excretes his love in thick black ribbons into the sea.
“The magpies are hungry, my darling, I have to go feed them. So I’ll let you go. But there is something you need to do now, Orpheus. promise me you will. You can’t leave things suspended. You have to do the work of untying the things that have become tangled in your mind. Undo the bonds between things that aren’t meant to be linked, never asked to be linked. You’ve ended up with this muddle because all you do is seek connections between things, seek to weave a tapestry, but sometimes the wool catches things that don’t belong. You trap yourself in the pattern, you stop allowing yourself to remain open to the things that wish you well, those that are alive. You have to return now to the aching beauty of the world, with its melted ice cream skies, its dark shapes that move and never leave, and its birds that sound like glass. Love that which is here, Orpheus. There is nowhere else to be.”