A brilliant and daring novel that reimagines Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica is available now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
In the tradition of his bestselling debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Mason transforms Ovid’s epic poem of endless transformation. It reimagines the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and Atalanta, and strings them together like the stars in constellations—even Ovid becomes a story. It’s as though the ancient mythologies had been rewritten by Borges or Calvino; Metamorphica is an archipelago in which to linger for a while; it reflects a little light from the morning of the world.
Atalanta was beautiful, and a hero in her own right. She didn’t want to marry. Aphrodite and Death conspired against her.
I was born with a beauty more than mortal and stood a head taller than the tallest of men. Every morning I went hunting in the hills, and I was always happy; I had friends then, the daughters of my father’s courtiers, who rose with me at first light and tried to keep up. After the hunt we’d sprawl in the grass and watch the sky fade, and as the world lost its light it seemed every day would always be the same. They said my grandfather had been a god, and that it skipped generations, but I could never bring myself to care.
One day my friends and I were swimming in the river and I saw Hypermnestra smiling and staring into nothing as she wrung out her hair. She looked hunted when I asked what she was thinking, so I pressed her, and she admitted she’d taken a lover. I saw that she was lost, though we had all made promises, and for just a moment the future was colored by fear. “Get out of here,” I said quietly, my contempt just contained; she clambered dripping up the bank, pulling on her chiton as we stood in the shallows, watching her leave.
She had her wedding in the Aphrodite temple in the woods. The old women wept and the little girls scattered flowers as I watched from the trees where the silence was such that I heard my pulse beating. There was an uncanniness in the stillness and a silent woman with shining golden hair watched me at a distance through the shadows of the branches but I recognized her face from the statues in the temple and ignored her as I did all wicked spirits and soon she disappeared. That night I thought of Hypermnestra and hoped even then she’d come back but the next morning I slept late and when I woke she’d already gone off to her new life of dullness and care, and as the week passed I heard nothing, and my mind drifted.
It wasn’t long afterwards that my father asked me to walk with him. He said nothing on our first lap around his garden, and then, wringing his hands and looking away from me, he said it was time to think about a wedding.
“Whose?” I asked.
“Yours,” he said.
My rage bloomed coldly and with deadly precision I said, “I will never marry.”
“But you must,” my father said, desperately reasonable, smiling foolishly.
In a flat, lethal voice I said, “I’ll marry the first suitor who can out-run me, and be the death of all who can’t.”
He didn’t mention it again, and I thought the crisis was past, and that everything would stay the same, but it wasn’t long before another friend got engaged, and then another, and by the end of summer they were leaving me in a trickle and the next year they left me in a flood but by then I’d learned not to let it touch me. There were young girls just old enough for the hunt and I tried to talk to them but we hadn’t grown up together and they were strangers who in any case seemed to be afraid of me, and soon I was hunting in the hills alone. For a while my rage came in gusts, and I was pitiless and killed wantonly, but it soon passed, and I forgot them.
I started spending most of my time in the hills, letting weeks go by without speaking, and sometimes felt I was becoming an animal. What I’d said to my father had faded from my mind but word must have gotten out because one day I found a young man waiting for me at a cross-roads. I saw the fear rising in his eyes as I came nearer—he’d believed in my beauty but not in my size—but he’d been raised to be brave and to strive relentlessly for victory. He said his name was Hippomenes, and his voice shook as he started in on his genealogy but I interrupted, saying, “Here are the terms: we race down this road to my father’s gate. If you win, somehow, then that’s one thing, but if you lose I’m going to put this arrow right through your heart,” and I turned an arrow in my hand so that the razored bronze glinted in the sunlight; I’d only meant to scare him but saw that the threat had been a mistake—he’d been wavering, but I’d touched his pride and now he was going to race.
We ran down through the hills and for miles over the plain and then into the shadowed wood. He was an athlete, and we were side by side all the way. When my father’s house appeared in the distance he put on a final burst, and he actually thought he was going to win, but in fact I’d kept pace with him only so he wouldn’t give up, sneak off, and say he’d challenged me with impunity; even so, it rankled that he’d briefly thought himself my equal, and when we were twenty yards from the goal I blurred past him effortlessly and touched the gate-post. He’d been sprinting flat out and was still slowing as I turned to draw and string my bow in one motion. As I nocked an arrow a shadow fell on the world, though the sun was high in the cloudless sky; I’d killed many animals but never a man, but what, I thought, could be the difference, and I seemed to see him with greater vividness as he flung up his arms and shouted “No!” as I shot him in the heart.
He staggered backwards into the arms of a boy whose skin was white as marble, his blue veins glittering in the sun, and as he looked at me his stillness gave way to a longing and an avidity that made my skin crawl and no one had to tell me his name was Death. The blood reek was nauseating so I ran for it, Hippomenes’ ghost close on my heels, squeaking and gesturing urgently like there was something he’d forgotten to tell me when he was alive, so I went all the faster, running for hours, sweat streaming, lost in motion, till I came to a fast river and dove into its green flow. I’d heard ghosts can’t cross water so I stayed in the river till dusk and then I crawled shivering onto the far bank and fell asleep in the sand.
Years passed and my father became an old man but I didn’t age so much as turn golden. I used every day, and loved velocity, but somehow the time seemed to go missing, the past was full of long swathes of nothing, as though familiar islands had disappeared into the sea. Now and then men came to try for me but most apologized when they saw me and stalked stiffly away; some pretended not to know who I was, acting as though they’d met me by chance while out walking. I often dreamed of the ghost of the boy who’d tried to be my lover, and I wanted to know what he’d wanted to say; whenever I saw him he was standing in the fields in the shadows of clouds and smiling at me but when I talked to him he’d only shake his head, and I’d wake with the feeling of loosing the arrow in my hand. Sometimes I saw the woman with the shining hair watching me from the wood, and when I did I stopped and waited, daring her, for I knew I was the direst thing in those hills, but she’d always just smile at me, as though she knew something I didn’t, and then vanish.
I saw Melanion in the distance at the cross-roads on the hottest day of the year. I could have gone around him but saw no need to cede the road and didn’t want it said I’d retreated. Up close I saw that he was a tall man, and beautiful the way that horses are; he didn’t flinch when he saw me and a shadow settled on my heart as he looked into my eyes and said calmly that he knew the terms and wanted to race.
We started running and it was less like a race than like keeping him company. He was one of the fastest men I’d seen, though no match for me, and when we finally came under the cover of the wood I shot ahead, leaving him to plod on alone. Half a mile later he rounded a bend and found me waiting in the middle of the road. “Go home,” I said. “No one saw you come, and no one will see you go. Tell people you couldn’t find me, or that you changed your mind, but in any case go.” I was offering him his life but instead of leaving with it he stepped forward and said, “No one will see…” The golden-haired woman was holding her breath as she watched from the trees and he was so close I could smell his sweat and then his fingertip brushed my clavicle. For the space of a breath I did nothing, and then my knife flashed through the air toward his cheek. He staggered back, sobbing, half his face slathered red; “Run for your life,” I said, and he did.
It wasn’t long until the day I woke early to shadows that seemed sharper and a new watchfulness in the hills. I was angry as I went out into the cold air with my arrows clattering in my quiver, for I knew, as animals know, that I was being hunted, and I wasn’t
surprised when I saw someone waiting at the cross-roads. He was little more than a boy, standing there, and as pale as the moon, blue veins glittering in the long early light. As I steamed in the cold I felt his chill.
He said, “Race with me to your father’s gate.”
“What are the stakes?” I asked.
“If I win, you come to my kingdom.”
“And if you lose?”
“Then every morning will be the first day of summer, and your friends will come back and never leave again, and everything will always stay the same.”
Despite the glittering menace behind his words I couldn’t keep from grinning, and my heart was light as I said, “Go.”
He was as fast as the west wind, and I loved him for it, and I ran flat out from the start. My shadow flying over broken stones in the waste by the road and the air was my medium as I pushed off from the dust for to run is to fall and I fell without end as the road had no end and in that morning I was outside of time, and untouchable, and I left him behind.
I streaked on for miles, alone and lost in motion as I shot over the plain and into the wood and there was only the sweet sting of my breath and the chaos of passing branches. It had been a long time since I’d seen him and I heard no panting, no pounding feet, no sound in the wood but birds singing and the wind, and my skin felt electrified. I finally slowed on a rise and looked back—I could see miles of road behind me but there was nothing there, not even a plume of dust.
I started walking toward my father’s house, somewhat nonplussed to have beaten the great adversary so easily. This is victory, I thought; the sky was beautiful, the first in an infinite succession of beautiful skies, and I smiled because I’d won everything and I knew I was capable of anything at all and then I noticed that the woman with the shining golden hair was keeping pace with me in the wood. “What do you want?” I called in high good humor, and I wondered how long she’d been following me, and then I saw that she was beckoning. I looked back down the road— still empty—and when I looked back she was disappearing into trees. “Wait,” I said, pushing into the foliage, my heart beating wildly, and I thought she’d gone but then I saw a flash of white among the leaves, and I pursued as she retreated, the branches whipping my face. I found her chiton pooled on the bare earth, and then I burst into a clearing where the light dazzled me, and there she was, right before me, close enough to touch. The world fell away as my eyes followed the lunar surface of her skin to the sun burning on the golden apple in the delta of her thighs.
* * *
When I rose from the grass she was gone. I’d closed my eyes for a little while but it didn’t seem like it could have been very long, and I could still see the depression in the grass where she’d lain. Then I remembered I was racing for my life, which might be forfeit already. I threw on my tunic and tore through the trees to the road and though the sun was lower in the sky there was still no sign of him but for all I knew he’d long since come and gone. It occurred to me to run away and not come back but it wasn’t in me to flee and I told myself to make the best of my disadvantages and ran flat out for home. When I finally saw the gate-post he wasn’t there, in fact no one was there at all; it was just another day, the cattle lowing in their paddock, and somewhere children shouting. I nocked an arrow and waited for him all that day, determined to wreck him, but he didn’t come that evening or the next or in any of the long days of the summer which was the sweetest I’d known, as sweet as the wine I started drinking, as sweet as the mouths of the girls and the boys. I was more often in company, and ran less, and it wasn’t long before I noticed that my wind wasn’t what it had been, and I wondered if somewhere I’d made a mistake, but soon I was distracted because against all expectation I married, for love, I thought, but love faded, but it didn’t matter because by then I had a daughter to whom I gave everything, and she looked much like me, if not quite so tall, but soon enough she ceased to need me, and once I heard her tell her friends that her mother had been an athlete once, though now it was hard to see. She married and went away, and then my husband died, and I spent my days working in my garden and walking in the hills where I’d once run, until the day I came home and found Death waiting at the gate-post.
Excerpted from METAMORPHICA: Fiction by Zachary Mason, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Zachary Mason. All rights reserved.