Part 17

Muse drove to Love’s old home the next day, early in the morning just after sunrise.  She stood outside the house for a long time, staring up at the windows, making no move to go inside.  She knew that she would, eventually — that was the plan — but still she waited.  Waiting for the face to look out at her again.

It didn’t look out.

Muse grew impatient, finally, and left the shadow of her car.  She picked her way up the rotting steps and across the porch, which creaked in distress, till she came to the door.  Dust and bits of wood sifted down onto her when she opened it.

It was dark inside, but not too dark to see.  There were enough gaps in the walls and gaping windows to let in the increasing morning sunlight, and Muse made her way through the foyer with the aid of it streaming through the open door behind her.

There wasn’t much to see.  All furniture and personal belongings had long since been cleared from the house.  It was nothing more than a shell, now.  There were bits of rubbish from drifters and squatters scattered on the floor, but even they had taken most of themselves away when they left.

Muse walked through the quiet desolation, aimlessly, knowing that sooner or later she would need to go upstairs.  That is, if she really meant to find who she was looking for.  Still, she hesitated.  There seemed to be no question that she should meet this other her, this older her, this former her . . . but she did not know if she really wanted to.

She gazed up the stairs.  They did not appear very trustworthy, probably would crumble as soon as she stepped on them.  But she stepped toward them anyway.  They creaked and groaned in protest, but stayed solid beneath her feet.

Upstairs was much the same as down.  She peered into rooms as she passed, but saw nothing in them besides bird nests.

She came to the room which faced out over the front of the house, and from which she had seen the face looking down.  This room had something in it — one thing.  It was covered with a dropcloth, and about the height of a person.  Muse went to it and pulled the musty drape aside.

It was a mirror.

Muse stared back at her reflection through the clouded surface.  It was her, and no one else.  No other Muse.

She wondered if she had been seeing things, earlier.  Imagining things.  Or perhaps Old Muse had been frightened by the visit to her reclusive home and had fled.  She was, as Joy had told it, very unsociable.

She turned, with a sigh, and was about to walk away.  It was a half disappointed and half relieved sigh, but it caught in her throat when she felt her hand seized from behind.

She turned back abruptly, tugging at her hand.  She looked down and saw that the Muse in the mirror had reached out through the glass and held her fast.  She looked up into her eyes and saw them staring back, evenly.

Then the mirror Muse stepped out of the mirror.  As she crossed the glass it bended, like the surface of jelly, and flowed back into itself like water.  The Muse changed, stepping over, from young to old.  Her hair faded from brown to gray and her skin sagged into wrinkles.  Her clothes change from identical to what Muse wore, to rotting, shabby, and stained.

Muse shuffled back quickly, though she still could not free her hand.  The Old Muse said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  Can you let go.”

Old Muse dropped her hand.  Muse backed away further, rubbing her wrist.

“What do you want from me, young thing?  Bright thing?  Small, immortal, childish thing?”

“I wanted to know if you were real.  If it was really you I saw.  That’s all, I suppose.  I mean, not really.”

“Not really?  Then what do you really want?  Do you really want to disturb an old woman’s sleep, pretty little dead thing?”

Muse felt the wall up against her back and stopped.  “I’m sorry.  No.  I want to know if you’re me.”

“And who are you?”  Old Muse stopped just inches from her, scowling.

Muse gave her an apologetic little smile.  “I’m Muse.”

“That means nothing to me.”  Old Muse (she did not doubt this, not even in the face of such a denial) turned away and walked to the window.

Muse reached into her pocket and pulled out a tightly folded square of paper.  She quietly and carefully unfolded it till she held the sheet of paper she’d found weeks ago.  Old Muse heard the crinkling of paper, but only turned her head slightly, not fully admitting she was interested in what her visitor was doing.

Muse read out loud: “I see it in the morning, I see it in the evening, it haunts me at night.  Day is spent feigning life, seeing if I can pretend that all is well and I am not dead.  I am the ghost and the ghost is me.  No one else sees it, no one else knows, but the mirror shows what I have become.”

Still, no response.

“Did you write this?  I think you did.”  Muse held out the paper, expectantly.

Old Muse turned back and looked at it for a long moment.

“What is it about?  What do you see?”

“Nothing.  I didn’t write that.  Put it away, curious nosy impertinent thing.”

Muse drew the paper back and began to fold it up again.  “You may as well lie to yourself as to me,” she said.  “And I don’t mean to be nosy, but people seem to think I’m headed down the same path as you.”

“Your path is your path and mine is mine,” said Old Muse.  “It gives you no right to barge in on me and badger with questions.”

“And what right do you have, living in Love’s house?  How am I wrong to barge in on a trespasser?”

“Are you Love, to be accusing me of trespassing?  What are you to Love, that gives you more right to be here than me?”

Muse frowned but had no reply.  Old Muse smiled, knowing she had brought the intruder up short.  She turned and began to walk toward the mirror.

“Wait!”  Muse leapt to life, following her and daring to put a hand on her shoulder.

Old Muse turned to give her a wrathful stare.  “You’re trying my patience.”

“I’ll bother you no more, if you’ll just answer this question.”

One eyebrow went up, expectantly.

Muse took a breath and dove in:

“I’ve heard different accounts of you.  Love says you claimed to have been forced by the Mother to choose one of two worlds to live in.  You said it happened to all Immortals, once upon a time.

“The other story came from Joy, who says you became tired of living and faded out of the other world.  She didn’t know where you went, but it appears that you faded out of one to stay in the other.

“For my part I think Joy’s story is more believable, not only because I have never seen the Mother and have my doubts about her existence, but because if all Immortals were forced into one world, I think it would be more common knowledge.”

Old Muse smiled enigmatically and replied, “Perhaps they all chose the other world and I alone aligned myself in this one.”

“But then what of Love and Beauty, they are older than me and yet they live in both worlds.”

Old Muse gave a shrug.  “I know nothing of Love and Beauty.”  She bowed a little, spreading her hands out as if to present herself for proof.  “As you can see.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I am saying nothing.  Either story seems fair, to me.”

“But you should know which one is true.”

“Do you think Joy to be a liar?”

“No . . . nor Wisdom.”

“Then believe that story, if you will.”

“So you still claim the other, the one you told Love?”

“I don’t know this Love you speak of, nor what I may have said to him.”

Muse paused, feeling a surge of impatience at the circles they were spinning.

“Will you go now?” Old Muse prompted.  “I am tired of speaking to you.”

“I need to know what really happened,” Muse insisted.  “It happened to you, so you must know.”

“Why?  Why does it matter to you?”  She tiled her head to the side, reminding Muse of an old gray bird, peering curiously from gimlet eyes.

“However you managed it, you live in one world,” Muse answered.  “At the expense of your Immortal Youth, obviously, but you sleep.  You get to sleep.  I want to know how.”

“I sleep all the time, young wakeful thing,” Old Muse’s eyes took on a knowing gleam.  “It’s all I ever do.  Why does a pretty young blessed thing want to throw away her life and youth to become a haggard old crone like me?”

Muse shook her head.  “I don’t.”

“You think you can be like me but better than me, is that it?”

Muse nodded.  There was no use denying it.

Old Muse laughed, a harsh, scoffing laugh.  “Not likely.  If you give up one life you give up both, poor tired thing.  Now go off and be tired somewhere else.”

“I will go off if you just tell me what I want to know.  I don’t see why you should care how I turn out, so there’s no use in hiding it.”  Muse crossed her arms and stared her down, trying to look as implacable as possible.

Old Muse was not impressed.  “I told you before.  My path is my own.  You cannot emulate it.  It’s no use to try.  You want to know how to throw your lives away, you must find your own way.”

“But—”

“No more.  Go now, I’ve nothing more to tell you.”  Old Muse went to the mirror and would not be stopped.  She turned, facing Muse, and backed into the glass.  It enveloped her and soon Muse saw nothing but her own, younger self starting back at her.

She wondered then if she had been merely talking to herself all along.

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