Fiction · 07/01/2009

Four Variations

for (the late) Sir James George Frazer

Hear this read by the author, with music by Benjamin Rush Miller


He gripped a corner of the sky and peeled it off the walls of the world to go where no man has gone before. Behind the sky was the same sky, same dry/wet, blue/gray variations, the mesmerizing metamorphics of clouds. Being and nothingness as always being and nothingness. Isn’t there more? He asked, peeling the sky off the walls again and again, always the same sky.


Pandora’s Box

The doctor told her not to open the box of her mother’s ashes: the ashes of the dead are fatal to the living. Nonsense, she thought: this is an old wives’ tale. So she opened the box and emptied the ashes into her mother’s fish pond because the fish had loved Mother. First, the fish died; then the rains came. The rains came furious fierce and drove the pond into the house and when she fled the house followed her till she was climbing the walls of the world. The house of water home of her dead mother destroyed everything in its wake, including The White House; swallowed the President while he was watching Survivors in Syria. It was too late to realize that doctors aren’t always wrong. Lightning struck her till she was nothing but ashes.


Diana and Actaeon

Amidst sequoias and pines, in a circle of illuminated moon, he discerned for a millisecond the scent of the goddess, a heady brew of heavenly manna and menses. He told his mother: There is something divine in the forest. I will track it down. But Mother warned: Never attempt to trap a deity, my son. Gods are not meant to be discovered and thus disrobed and forests are divine without divinities. Stick to the deer; they eat our grapes.

(Of course, he didn’t listen. Who listens to mothers?)

He returned to the circle in the forest. He returned to the edge of every evening he returned to catch the scent of her. Sometimes the aroma was powerful, other times subtle and distant. It was always fleeting like the sound of light.

He forgot to hunt boars and deer. He forgot his mother and his ale, growing pale and absent. He grew so slight his sightless betrothed eloped with a bodybuilder with a flat nose and eyes like underlines. He grew so silent, falcons hightailed in fear. He stood like a vacant house with masticated walls, the arrow in his quiver quivering, the bow bowed in grief for an inevitable death that had not yet passed.

Yes, finally once the scent of her was so overwhelming it led him straight to the goddess. She was bathing in the Russian River, simply a woman on water, her silver hair trailing her one-dimensional face like the long train of a wedding gown. Simply a perfect one layer woman who wished to be alone, her eyes were closed. She was dreaming of Pan, that old goat, his dexterity with the flout, cuisse de canard confit en croute.

He stood behind a bush, paralyzed, bushed he barely stood on trembling legs, thinking no regrets, suddenly life! Thinking: pomegranate breasts, skin aglow with ascending moonlight. He barely stood then fell to earth, making no more noise than a twig, but breathing with the loud density of sorrow and hope. Breathing like an ill wind in a season of tsunamis.

She heard and plunged beneath the water. Seventy-seven hand-nymphs appeared to encircle him till the goddess emerged with armor and archery, pierced his heart with her own — oddly sharp for a moon. He turned to deer, turned to boar, turned to salt the river claimed for the sea.



She held him tight, as if he’d slip back into her if she let up as if he’d never again emerge.

The dread of prophecy gripped her. So slight he was, she thought her breath might blow him away. His eyes were still cloudy but his mouth was like that of her true love: Dionysian lips, lush curved, as though he’d been breastfed on a tropical planet, suckling manna, mamma, mamma’s manna.

She kept him to herself so utterly the neighbors muttered. She is doing something bestial, the mothers said, as they sat in the parks with their babies, letting them eat worms in the dirt.

It’s not natural for a mother to cling to a child so completely. We must tell the authorities for the child’s sake.

The wards of the State came unannounced with the police, in the middle of the night found her in bed, she and baby in fragranti delecto, a DSM state of agitation mater mania: preferred prescription: delete. So they took her away and locked her up, as a case, classified unnatural danger. Inside walls they kept her inside a self that was no longer hers to keep.

They took him away, to be eaten by vultures, she said there was a prophecy, kept on saying.

Persistently, they shocked her memories out of her, first the words and tongue and feel of her true love, second, the warmth and sensation of her baby, his quiet thoughts, he of her own body humming, alive. She clung to memory of baby till it fell like a dead tree in an abandoned forest. It was only years later, some time after her release into the world, that dust mites of memory returned.


He saw her on the quai, throwing sprats at seals.

I know you, he said.

Then tell me who I am, she replied, knowing full well who he was, without knowing that she knew.

He started to speak but his mouth was full of fish, said something that sounded like mer. Perhaps he mistook her for a mermaid, despite her silver hair and breasts like empty cabbages. Everyone knows that mermaids don’t age.

I don’t understand who I am, she told him. Not when your mouth is full of fish. Especially so swallow first, please.

She noticed that his paunch drooped to his feet and he was wearing no shoes.

It’s breezy chilly, she pointed out. Please cover your feet with my hat. My feet are shivering.

When he took her hat and bent down to place it on his feet, a minion of minnows swam out of his sweater. He now looked frail and flushed.

I’ll tell you who you are if you’ll tell me who I am, he said. His red whiskers quivered as he lifted his hands to twirl their curls.

You are a man who plays nervously with his red whiskers and says he knows me, she replied. You are a man in bare feet who talks with fish in his mouth. You will come to a bad end from choking on fish bones unless I am vigilant. You are poetic but foolish. You have red hair like my first true love and olive green eyes like mine, though sightless. You are probably my second true love.

Oh, mother! It really is you! He exclaimed, hopping up and down inside her hat.

And that is how they found each other.


Carol Novack is the publisher of multi-media Mad Hatters’ Review, a former Australian government grant recipient and criminal/constitutional attorney in NYC. She’s the author of a poetry chapbook, collaborative CD, and collaborative digital film. A collection of Ms. Novack’s short fictions, fusions and poems, Giraffes in Hiding, will be published in 2010 by Crossing Chaos. Works may or will be found in numerous journals, including 5_trope, Action Yes, American Letters & Commentary, Diagram, Drunken Boat, Exquisite Corpse, Fiction International, First Intensity, LIT, and Notre Dame Review, and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, Heide Hatry: Heads and Tales, and Online Writings: The Best of the First Ten Years. Her works have been translated into several languages and her blog can be found here. This story previously appeared in Tears in the Fence.