Myths Do Furnish a Room

Francesca Abbate

"And then it was May, time to let the grapes grow and fish anchovies;" or so it went for centuries in the town of Collioure, which attributed its escape from the plague of the 14th century to its huge stockpiles of salt. The fish were filleted "with no tool other than the swift nimble fingers" of the townswomen: the salting itself, being no light matter, was a man's job.

At the Parthenon in Greektown, Not Baby's mother—when she wasn't singing along to Exile's "I Want to Kiss You All Over"—picked through the fried smelt appetizer young Not Baby wouldn't touch. Now that's, she said, a sexy song—not that you know what that means. But Not Baby, her childhood otherwise a ferrying between one life and forgetting, did know: sexy was what happened when her stepfather wasn't (which was half the time) around.

Noon summons its cavalry of clouds, the wind's having its way with the alley's garbage cans, tick tick the clock-work rain. Not Baby's just finished pulling the tallest weeds (she hopes) from the small plot in front of her duplex when a woman in pink tights emerges from the apartment building opposite and takes a frying pan to the windshield of her boyfriend's white Chevy.

Inductive reasoning, yes, Not Baby granted earlier this morning when reading that the "contemporary" architecture in the background of the Pompeian mural depicting Helen and Paris right before they elope proves that "the myth of adultery...was relevant to 'real life,' too." Still, there's something funny about the historian's logic she can't yet put her finger on.

Anything—bulls swans rays of light, her stepfather, trading paintbrush for cigarette, said the last time she visited. Behind him, in the portrait he called "Field Day," her mother was a horse-headed, bird-tailed thing, ankles staked in grass, sun at her throat, her lizardess shoulders, antennae fissuring a yellow sky.

I considered "A Tale oft Told" but I think, he added, that's been taken.

The region's well on its way to having one of the wettest years on record (and its worst soybean crop), but for now the sun's brought the wasps back, thirsty, to weave gold of the grass, the potholes glean, the big crumbs of safety glass on the road blink like tears warded off. Between the cobblestones of ancient Rome, Lucretius writes, "in a puddle no deeper than a finger's breadth.... you would fancy you saw clouds far down below you and a sky and heavenly bodies deep-buried in a miraculous heaven beneath the earth."

On the duplex's buckling wood steps, Not Baby leans closer to eavesdrop on the memory of the Parthenon's owner whispering to her mother against a backdrop of hills, olive trees, viney temples—his black hair grazing her teased and piled and pinned near-beehive—and all this reflected in the floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite her mother keeps glancing in.

"Bad news," her Engineer interrupts on his daily after-lunch call from the office, though it was inevitable that one of her favorite neighborhood business's revolving billboard slogans—"Eat Ma Baench's Healthy Herring and You Won't be Swimming with the Fishes"—would be replaced by—really?—a mermaid.

Not Baby, at the bottom of the rabbit hole of memory, hears only an abandoned salt mine's nothing—the surface behind the surface, fossils of shellfish, marine life, etc.