As a boy, Narcissus was a pudgy kid with constant sniffles and a habit of manipulating the various hollows of his body to simulate farting. But in the summer of his fifteenth year, the baby fat melted away, he outgrew his allergies (if not his obnoxious habits), and he emerged as beautiful as hammered bronze. With his sea-foam eyes, long muscles, and jawline like an artist’s stroke, he drove the whole village crazy—young and grown, boys and girls alike—and they endeavored to return the favor. At night, virgins fretted outside his bedroom window. Old men composed poems for him, crumpled them up in embarrassment, and then flung these poetry wads at Narcissus as he drew water from the village well.
All this attention irritated the boy, who could no longer goof off with his friends without catching a pack of girls staring wordlessly at him, craning their necks like daffodils toward the sun. “What do they even want?” he would rage, but when his friends attempted to demonstrate via some sticks and a cleft in a gnarled olive tree, Narcissus waved them off. These guys had gone strange, too. When they weren’t vying to be his “wingman,” they were wrestling him with more grunting and less giggling than in the old days.
Already a bit of a homebody, Narcissus took to staying in the hut with the curtains drawn, but somehow this increased his appeal. Tents popped up in the yard like fungus. All his mail was pre-opened, his garbage strewn around the street like entrails to be read by a prophet.
“Pick a virgin, any virgin,” his mother urged him. “Take yourself off the market.” Her boy was on a bad trajectory, she knew. All this fuss would attract the attention of the gods, who did not smile upon celebrities. Plus, it was hard to concentrate on her weaving with all the virgin-wailing outside. It was a matter of time before someone went mad, maybe her.
Narcissus stole up behind her at the window, wrapped his arms around her thick waist, laid his head on her shoulder. “You’re the only one for me, Ma.”
He didn’t mean this in a creepy way, but still, who knew how the gods would hear this line? “Be serious,” she said.
“About them.” She pulled away and pointed toward the yard, where grown men were riding horses fitfully back and forth. “This problem isn’t going to take care of itself. Either you do something about it or it’s going to do something about you.”
He blinked in mock innocence. “What problem?”
She gave him a hard look, and Narcissus gave back a breezy grin, though at the same time he squeezed his palms together to produce a series of high, shaky farts.
The problem did not go away. Tents multiplied. At night, the keening sounded like a cloud of cicadas. Narcissus hardly slept, and only poked at his porridge. Anyone else would have looked racked and ghoulish, but the regimen only sharpened the boy’s cheekbones and made his eyes appear larger. “He’s so soulful I can’t take it,” wailed one virgin before throwing herself off their roof. Whether the girl actually wanted to end her agony or just attract the boy’s attention and sympathy, no one knew, but she accomplished neither, mainly because the hut was only six feet tall and the ground was tenderized from perpetual pacing and weeping. She landed in the dirt with a doughy thud. “Bury me,” the girl said, folding her arms and closing her eyes. “Bury me here, so my vigil can continue anon and forevermore.” His mother grabbed a shovel, but Narcissus stopped her before she reached the door. “This has to stop,” she said through her teeth.
“Not like this.”
“Like how, then?”
He didn’t answer, but he didn’t let go of the shovel, either. Eventually she released her grip with a hissing curse, but not before coming up with an answer of her own.
That moment, that decision—she would come to regret it more than anything, but just then she didn’t see any better options.
The next morning she called Narcissus to her bedside, asking for a little help in getting to her feet. What was the problem? Nothing, nothing, just a stomach bug, a touch of food poisoning, probably, though it might be typhoid. All she needed was a little fresh air and exercise, which she would get on her walk to the well. What was that? No, no, she couldn’t ask him to go. She knew how he hated going out in public, and besides, she’d be fine once all these spots stopped swimming in her eyes—
She put up a struggle as he pried the jug from her hands, then she let go and fell back on her mattress as though dead.
After hearing his sandals scrape into the courtyard, she lifted a curtain and watched him wade through sleeping vagrants. When an old man grasped at his tunic, he pulled away, his hair tossing and shimmering like honey wine, eliciting fresh waves of moaning from the waking virgins. “He sneered at me!” one cried like it was a blessing. Enjoy it now, sluts, thought his mother.
When Narcissus came back to the hut, his mother jumped out of her room and swung a clay pot at his face. She meant to break his nose, but the pot smashed into the door frame, splintering the wood and pulverizing the clay.
Narcissus tripped back over the threshold, eyes full of dust. Strange hands tore at his tunic, dragging him to the ground. Groaning filled his ears and then a mouth was on his mouth and he couldn’t breathe. Striking out blindly, he made it to his feet and stumbled toward the woods, leaving his tunic behind with the grasping crowd. His tears made a paste in his eyes, and he ran with his hands in front of him so he wouldn’t crash into a tree. He swayed through the grove until the keening faded behind him, then he found a pond and knelt down to wash his eyes.
That’s where he was when they came through the woods, whipped up with wanting. The surface of the pond was still, and the boy was looking down. He never looked up, even when they fell upon him.
Afterward, a bard made up a tale that was an instant hit in the village, basically because it exonerated the mob. In this guy’s version of events, the god Nemesis cast a spell to make the boy fall in love with his own image in the pond, bringing him the pain of unrequited desire he had kindled in everyone else. In that story, Narcissus was a supreme tease who got what he deserved, which was nothing less than death and eternal imprisonment. It ended with Narcissus in the underworld, lying on his side, still looking at his reflection in the river Styx.
His mother heard this story years later—after she buried his bones by the pond and planted flowers on the grave, after she barricaded herself in the hut and tried to burn it down while praying loudly for the embers to fly to every thatched roof in the village, after wandering through seasons and cities until she ended up in the backwaters of Crete—and for the rest of her life she tried to come up with her own story to displace the specious one, but she could never work out the ending. What made him stay at the pond when he heard the keening? Did he wash his eyes? If so, what did he see in the water? The most beautiful boy? Or just a pair of eyes that didn’t want to devour him?
Did he, in an effort to soothe himself, sneak a hand under his armpit to produce a familiar sound—and when no sound came, try the backs of his knees, the crook of his neck, all the old hollows, now too rigid and lean to give anything but a flat hiss?
Did he see at last that it had to end?
In the end, she was only certain of one thing: he was looking down because his reflection was the still point in a churning universe, his eye the eye of a whirlpool. He didn’t look at the swarm. He held his own gaze, unflinching, as he was ravaged.
Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he is the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indianapolis, where he teaches at Butler University. This story is part of an ongoing project he thinks of as A Brief History of Lying. Follow him on Twitter at @furunati.