To be chosen as a muse is an honor, it is the highest position a working-class woman like me could hope for. And yet, I find myself irked by the men who visit me for inspiration. These men who call themselves artists and scoff at my own creative endeavors. These men who feel entitled to my body. Little by little I grow to resent them. I grow to resent what they represent. And I grow to resent my own position as muse, a tradition that spans back to Ancient Greece with the original nine. These muses were goddesses but relegated their roles to mortals, choosing twelve girls.(They must have grown tired, as I do). And so the tradition has continued with those already appointed choosing their predecessors. I was chosen, after one of the newly appointed muses died unexpectedly. Losing a young muse unexpectedly is thought to be a sign of impeding catastrophe, and so the ensuing search for another appointee begins almost immediately.
The day after the death of the muse Colarina, I received a letter inviting me attend the burial ceremony. In cases of sudden death, the muse is chosen immediately following the burial. When the replacement muse is chosen, celebration ensues. It is a cruel tradition, but at the time I found it endearing. Even then, death was a phenomenon I glimpsed from afar.
I remember holding on to that scrap of paper tightly, as if it might disappear. This was my first time being invited to a burial ceremony and this letter would be my ticket.
I woke up the next morning at the break of dawn, the burial scheduled to begin soon after. The letter did not specify a dress code. I put on my best frock, the edges of it exceedingly off-white. I would have to make do with what I had. The shoes I had borrowed from a cousin, and they pinched my toes. I gritted my teeth when I tried to walk in them for the first time. By the third time, I could walk and smile at the same time, even if the smile was strained.
I arrived at the burial feeling under-dressed in comparison to my companions, who strutted about in their finery, in dresses with jeweled necklines and material that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. How could I have foreseen that my own poverty would endear me to the other muses who perceived it as simplicity. The muses were dressed similarly to me, in simplistic dresses, a few in slacks. The muted colors of their clothing similar to my own, in a sea of burgundy, cobalt, and magenta.
The burial itself was short, a few words were spoken by some of the muses and a moment of silence descending upon us. In that moment, I felt the urge to leave, to return home. I thought it was my own nervousness, but now I see it as a sign. Maybe it was Colarina herself, warning me from beyond the grave. I can only imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t been chosen, if I had left before they had chosen me. I suspect it would not have changed drastically from before. Another unfortunate girl would have been assigned to my post. I would continue to be a nobody. I miss being a nobody.
“Sister, you seem to be deep in thought. Are you working on one of your compositions?”
Kaarina’s words pull me out of my thoughts, her voice a soothing, melodious timbre. Kaarina is my favorite among the muses. Her kindness and consideration know no limits and she has cared for me like no one else. While the other muses pay no heed to me, Kaarina has taken me under her wing. She seems to see me for who I am, even as the others seem to perceive me as a poor replacement for Coralina, a faulty, flawed copy.
“I was remembering the day I was appointed,” I reply blankly. I’ve never heard any of the other muses complain, and sometimes it seems as if I am the only one with such blasphemous and illicit thoughts. If the others knew, I would be called ungrateful, marked as unworthy of the position. I keep my dissatisfaction a secret, even as I suspect it is evident on my face, written all over my body and even apparent in the contours of voice.
“Yes, I remember that day vividly,” Kaarina replies with a smile on her face, even as I glimpse a deep sadness in her eyes.
I bite my lip, a question frozen on my lips, but thawing steadily. I hesitate, unsure if I’m allowed to ask about Colarina. Her name has yet to be uttered by any of the muses since the burial, a year ago. But I’ve become obsessed with her. I scour my new home searching for signs of her, or for hidden messages. Every crack becomes suspect, every mark on the wall a sign, every strewn scrap of paper a potential message from her. I suspect Colarina was like me, unsatisfied with her post, uncontent with being a muse. So I search for her, searching for someone I can confide in. I continue to hold on to the illusion that it was Colarina who tried to warn me the day of the burial and that we are somehow connected.
I cannot hold the question back any longer, it slips from my lips. Kaarina draws her hand to her lips as if I have dealt her a blow, but before she can cover her mouth a sob escapes. And then there is nothing but silence and a breaking of eye contact, Kaarina’s eyes downcast.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” I say, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Kaarina is my only friend I have, and I fear scaring her away.
“One day, I’ll be able to talk about her,” Kaarina responds, surprising me.
A cryptic message if I ever heard one, but I avoid probing further.