Spooky Writing Inspired by an Artwork in Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon
“Siren” by Maria Rybakova
The Cleveland Museum of Art and Literary Cleveland collaborated on a call for submissions following the theme of dark, fantastic, suspenseful, or just plain spooky writing inspired by the visionary art on view in the exhibition Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon. This short story by Maria Rybakova is one of two blog finalists accompanying the upcoming co-hosted program, Noir: Writing Inspired by Odilon Redon on Friday, October 29, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the CMA.
I saw an opera on TV. Maria Callas in black and white, her big hair, her earrings shining. A strange feeling was tearing at my heart. When Mother came home, I asked if she’d like to hear a song. “Sing for me, Fishy!” she answered.
She had given birth to me at home. I’m not on any register. At first, she kept me in a jar. Later, she bought me an aquarium and told me to be grateful. She presumed I was male but gave me a name that was ambiguous enough: Sasha. Sasha, the fish-man. She called me Fishy when she was affectionate. “Sing, Fishy!” And so, I sang: “Casta diva…Casta diva…”
Mother sat there, transfixed. I was floating in the blue LED light of the aquarium. I imagined I was a singer on stage. Maria Callas at the Paris opera, my jewelry shining, my dress semi-transparent. Mother leaned closer, for my voice was small: there isn’t much power in my gills. Yet she couldn’t break away from me. She forgot to change; she forgot to eat. She just sat there and listened, nursing a little gin or a vodka, or maybe the vodka was in her hand the next time when I sang Nessun Dorma to her. She was crying.
Mother and I share the same features: heavy-lidded eyes set close together, a long fleshy nose, our lips pursed unhappily. Yet I am a miscreant: the head of a man on the body of a fish. Whom did she mate with to produce me? She wouldn’t know. Her memory of men is muddled. She said she loved them all, but she was never very discriminating. She is naive. I can easily trick her into believing I am singing a famous opera when I have invented both the music and the language I sing in myself. I refuse to keep singing if she forgets to feed me, but she’s often too drunk and too sad to care. “We’d both be happier if we died,” she says. I am afraid she might flush me down the toilet, then hang herself with her belt. My fish tail wiggles nervously.
Mother went out and returned with a man instead of hanging herself. She must have picked him up on the street. That means — she quickly covered my aquarium with a dark cloth — that I am safe for now.
The apartment is getting filthier. She doesn’t bother to wash dishes for weeks. She hasn’t changed the water in the aquarium for months now. I can smell her dirty bedsheets when I swim to the surface. In the morning, her face is swollen and her puffy eyes are turned to slits. How much longer will her tenuous grasp on life last?
She rarely brings the same man home twice. But then there’s Andrew. He’s been here before. Andrew with a young, perky voice. Andrew, the smoker. While Mother is asleep, I feel the breeze from an open window reach under my covering. I come up to the surface under the black cloth and inhale the smell of his cigarettes. I wish I could ask him to let me take a drag. “Andrew,” I whisper. I lack the courage to cry out. He must think he heard the floorboards creak or the rustle of the tree leaves out below.
One propitious night I see Mother and him through a tiny hole that has formed itself in the black cloth. Andrew: a shock of red hair, a freckled face. He’s hardly older than twenty-five. I wonder if he likes music. He looks like he may. Mother takes his face in her hands and leeches on to him. The wet noise of their kissing. The thumping of their lovemaking. Then they pop cans open, and the smell of spelt beer fills the room. Mother will drink until she passes out. Andrew cannot keep up with her. Soon I hear her snoring. Andrew gets up and opens the window. The smell of cigarette smoke fills my nostrils again.
He flinches and looks out on the street. Then he turns his eyes to the room.
What if, when he pulls the black cloth off the fish tank, he sees the monster that I am and runs away screaming?
Perhaps he’ll scoop me up and throw me out the window in disgust.
My heart is beating hard in my scaly chest. I am ready for whatever comes.
He approaches. Slowly, the black cloth is pulled off the tank. I start singing immediately in my feeble voice, keeping it as low as possible so as not to wake Mother: O mio babbino caro…Andrew’s features are vague in the moonlight. His eyes are wide open. I see the whites of his eyes. You don’t want me to stop, do you, Andrew? I continue with Una furtiva lagrima…
A teardrop forms in the corner of his eye then slides down his cheek.
Andrew takes the tank and leaves on tiptoe, carrying me gingerly, furtively. The water quivers and so do I. Andrew descends the foul-smelling stairs and walks along the night city streets. “Will you sing for me at my place?” he whispers. Each step fills me with the knowledge of my power.
The rare passersby are so pressed to reach home, so wary of the night that they don’t stop to look at who’s floating in that small aquarium. Hey, passerby, I am your temptation, your addiction, your future destruction. You will stare at my fish tank in rapture, and beg me to sing for you. And you will steal and murder to take possession of me, and to hear my voice once again.
A strange, deformed and pitiful creature with the head of a man and the body of a fish will destroy this town. For I can sing! Let me sing for you. Don’t cover your ears. Come to me. I know you want to. Don’t resist. Let me eat your soul.
Maria Rybakova was born in Moscow and usually writes in Russian. Her novels have received several literary prizes and have been translated into German, Spanish, and French. The book-length poem “Gnedich” appeared in an English translation in 2015. After spending the 2019–20 academic year in Romania as a Fulbright Fellow, Maria completed a story collection in English (“Quaternity: Four Novellas from the Carpathians,” Ibidem Press, 2021). She also publishes reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
View this spooky artwork and more by “the prince of mysterious dreams” in the exhibition Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery through January 23.