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Zeus was the original Peeping Tom, hiding himself to watch human or divine maidens while they bathed. He particularly liked following Artemis and the nymphs who attended her on her hunts. One nymph in particular appealed to him. Callisto was her name. Zeus longed to lie with her, but he had to be careful. For one thing, Artemis was a force to be reckoned with, and any male who met her in the woods could count on trouble whether he was mortal or divine. For another, Zeus had to contend with his wife, Hera. She was always prying into his affairs.
But Zeus was resourceful. Not for the first time, he disguised himself for the purpose of seduction. He had disguised himself as a swan to lie with Leda, and he had stolen Danaë’s virginity after taking the form of a shower of gold. He really had to congratulate himself this time, though. When Callisto trailed a little behind the other huntresses, Zeus changed himself into the mirror image of Artemis herself. Callisto didn’t suspect a thing until well into the seduction, by which time it was too late for her.
Zeus also batted a thousand when it came to reproductive success. He had been with Callisto only once, but she soon discovered that she was pregnant. It wasn’t long before Artemis noticed poor Callisto’s swelling belly and exiled her from her company of virginal huntresses. Hera observed this from afar, and although Hera hadn’t caught Zeus in the act, she was pretty sure who the father must be.
Hera had the bad habit of blaming the victim. She was furious at Callisto for catching her husband’s eye and turned her into a bear. Her plan was to have Artemis come upon Callisto, mistake her for an ordinary bear, and kill her. But Callisto still had her wits about her and hid from her former mistress.
Zeus saw all of this. He didn’t dare to interfere directly, but he did arrange for Hermes to follow Callisto around. When she gave birth to a boy child, Hermes took the infant to be raised by a foster mother. In time, the baby called Arcas grew into a young man. When he had seen sixteen summers, he was out hunting one day. Callisto had been hiding from the greatest of all hunters through all these years, but when she caught scent of her son, she knew who he was. She lost all reason. She burst from the undergrowth where she had hidden and rushed toward him, growling his name, longing to embrace her child.
To Arcas, she was an attacking bear. He raised his spear.
Zeus, still watching the mortal world from afar, was appalled by what was about to happen. A son slaying his mother, even unknowingly, was one of the greatest sins imaginable. Before Arcas could launch the spear, Zeus hurled both mother and son into the sky, where they became the constellations we know as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
And that, dear readers, is a metamorphosis tale, a story well suited to flash fiction. The structure for such stories is straightforward and pivots on a single point: someone is permanently turned into someone or something else. Before the metamorphosis is the story of what led up to the transformation, and often the story lasts long enough after the transformation to consider its significance.
Classical mythology is loaded with stories of metamorphoses that explain the origins of celestial sights or the habits of earthly plants and animals who were once human. But a story of metamorphosis doesn’t always have to work along the classical pattern. One section of my collection The Keyhole Opera consists of metamorphoses, and I fiddled with the pattern. In one story, a goddess who starts out as a celestial body is given human form and a life on earth. In another, the scraps of fabric that a quilter has never gotten around to using comes to life after the quilter’s death.
The sample story for this column, “Sea Anenomes,” is actually the most traditional of my metamorphoses, featuring a classical god who, irritated by the behavior of mortals, teaches them a permanent lesson. As long as the story is about the causes of a lasting transformation, and as long as that transformation seems meaningful, the reader is likely to be satisfied.
There is one risk to writing a metamorphosis story, and it refers to the phrase teaches them a lesson. The temptation in a metamorphosis story is to tell the tale of your class enemies, your ideological enemies, your artistic rivals or irritating relatives getting what they deserve. That’s probably going to result in a weaker metamorphosis than you might otherwise write. Why? Because fiction is a poor vehicle for delivering justice or winning arguments. (It might be good for delivering revenge, but revenge hardly ever overlaps with justice.)
No doubt you’ve heard the advice before: If you want to preach, write a sermon. We don’t read fiction in order to make up our minds about vital issues. Or at least, we shouldn’t. Fiction can win no arguments with skeptical readers. How could it? Fiction is the ultimate stacked deck. Nothing happens in the fictional world unless the writer, the dictator of that fictive reality, makes it so. Sure, fiction can get us worked up about the writer’s version of reality. Historical fiction can even infuriate us about what bastards the English were. Or the French. Or the Americans. Or the Russians. Or the Hungarians. (Everyone takes a turn in history being the bad guys, it seems.) But surely you wouldn’t convict a nation or a generation on the basis of fictional testimony, would you?
When I taught undergraduate creative writing, I’d be reminded of fiction’s weak powers of argument at least once a year when a student would write an Issue Story. The story would be fiercely pro- or anti-. The characters who agreed with the writer’s view were good, and the characters on the other side were bad. Only the good guys were smart and argued well. Only the good guys had really thought about the issue or had deep feelings that the reader could understand. Usually the Issue Story was about abortion, but not always. Usually the abortion stories were pro-life, but not always. The only thing reliably true about these Issue Stories was that they were awful. Half of the characters, the ones who represented the other side of the issue, were flat and unrealistic. As a result, any reader who identified by that side of the argument felt misrepresented.
A story of metamorphosis in which Bad Guys Get Punished will perhaps earn the writer cheers from those readers who have the same enemies, but it will fall flat for readers who identify or sympathize with the supposed bad guys. The stories that I most enjoy reading, the stories that I hope to write, are stories that treat all their characters with compassion. The Issue Story that I never saw in an undergraduate class was one where I couldn’t tell, by the end, what the author’s own position was, where the thoughts and feelings of characters of both sides of the issue made me care about them.
Writing compassionately about all of our characters deepens our fiction. A sympathetic bad guy who is destroyed in the end is tragic. He’s also more real to us than a straw man erected only for the hero to knock over. Even in flash fiction, where there may only be room enough to create a character as a type, compassion for even these flat characters will make the story more convincing.
“Sea Anenomes” is my own version of an Issue Story. It does express some mockery of the idea that some kinds of sex or affection are “unnatural,” but the story is not an argument to be won or lost, and I certainly hope that readers who disagree with my opinion can read the story with pleasure. I hope that even the abbreviated characters in this story do not seem to paint people as less than what they are.
In flash fiction, even in satirical, we have enough words to express something more compassionate and fair than Bad Guys Lose.