[I’ve been writing very short stories inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Here’s one of the first that I wrote.]
He is a disappointed man, and he has let his disappointment infect his children. When they were in college he told them, “Don’t worry about picking a sensible major or anything like that. I always wanted to be an artist, but my parents told me there was no stability in art, so I became a teacher. And now I’m laid off and there are all these graphic arts jobs and web design jobs, so I might as well have just done what I wanted to do. Because we have no idea what the future will be like, what kinds of things people will actually want.” His two eldest picked sensible majors anyway, and now have sensible jobs, one an insurance agent and one a nurse. But Daphne, his youngest, says she wants to be a maiden aunt.
She says it just like that, tilting her face up as if she’s looking towards an aspirational horizon and saying, “I want to be a maiden aunt,” in her calm, thoughtful voice, even though she knows it horrifies her mother.
“Talk to her,” his wife told him. “Tell her that she can’t be a maiden aunt.”
“She’s probably gay,” he said. “In my experience, when people seem to have no interest whatsoever in sex, it means that they’re gay.”
“Your experience,” his wife snorted.
“Well, why don’t you talk to her, if you think that I’m so unfit?”
“You don’t think I’ve tried?”
Daphne has been living at home since the end of college. She sits in the bay window and reads field guides, studying the deciduous trees of the midwest and the reptiles and amphibians of Florida. She seems completely content in this occupation, and when he looks at her, he feels content, too.
“Let’s have a talk,” he says to her.
“Do you have time?”
She stretches. “How about a hike?” she asks. “Like when I was a kid.” And he smiles at the thought of this, because he always brought an old propane stove along on his hikes with his children, and cooked minute rice with water from their canteens, and when he thinks of the woods, he thinks of the smell of the spice packet mingling with the odor of dirt and pine. It reminds him that he once brought provender to his family.
They leave the house. It’s mid-morning on a Monday. The warm September sun is splintered by the trees and the sky is a very light blue. He talks as he drives, salting his conversation with what his eldest daughter calls his ‘thesaurus words’. “Your mother and I hiked in the woods on our penultimate date, right before we were married.”
“What was the ultimate date?” Daphne asks.
“You said it was the penultimate date, the second to last. What was the last date, the last one you had before you got married?”
He smiles, remembering. “That’s private,” he says. He hopes that he sounds jocular. He also hops that this will entice her into some small thought of sex, knowing, of course, that it is inappropriate for him to be trying to convince his daughter of the merits of sex. “Daphne,” he says, “I understand you not wanting to look for a job, but what is this whole maiden aunt thing?”
She shrugs. “Mom says I’m just afraid of investing in my future. Any future. Like that’s a thing we can invest in. Why does it matter so much?”
“Because we want to make sure you’re properly settled,” he says, and laughs. “That sounds Victorian, doesn’t it? ‘Properly settled.’”
She turns her head and looks at him. “Why?”
“So that you’ll be happy. So you’ll have a happy life.”
She turns back to the window. “Here’s the turn-off,” she says, nodding at a break in the trees ahead of them.
There’s a little gravel parking lot, and a fenced-in dog park where a Great Dane is loping beside a woman. They pass the fence and step onto a bare path that leads into the forest. He likes moving through the woods with her, feeling his muscles loosen and his stride become long and jaunty. They cross a little wooden bridge over a creak and pause on a ridge that looks down into a meadow. Sunlight strikes them. “Daphne,” he says, “you can do whatever you want. You know you can do whatever you want, that it’s okay with me. But please stop talking about the maiden aunt thing. It distresses your mother.”
She has stopped on the path ahead of him and raised a hand to shade her eyes. She is wearing brown corduroys, and he realizes that they are the exact shade of the dirt on the path. He feels his usual self-congratulatory impulse when he notices things like that – he sees them because he has an artist’s eye. She turns and smiles at him, and he’s struck by how pretty she is, how the sunlight makes her cheeks look like the skin of a ripe peach. He wants to say more, to say, ‘You can’t waste this, who you are, by hiding it away.’ But she’s already turned her face back to the sunlight, and is looking away, across the meadow to a distant line of trees. He follows her gaze and thinks that he sees what she is seeing. Not the trees, which are beginning to turn, their tips slipping into a quiet, declining red, but at something beyond them, the indistinct outline of a future that no one can know, and that renders all choices valid.