The Guardian’s Head – The Story Behind The Story

The Guardian’s Head

(Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #186, November 2015, edited by Scott H. Andrews.)

In the Story Behind “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus,” I mentioned how I ended up learning Spanish because we had irreconcilable differences with the Russian school after one year. But in that time, one of the Russian language and literature teachers there, Stella, did become a family friend, and for many years afterwards she gave me lessons in Russian language and literature, the equivalent of what would have been taught at a Russian school. Including Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Blok, Akhmatova. And of course, Pushkin, including his long poem “The Bronze Horseman.” About a young man losing his mind when his beloved and her family perish in an autumn flood.

Stella was from St. Petersburg, and dearly loved the city, and she once gave me a gift that I still have — a book called Legends and Myths of St. Petersburg, which collected the urban legends and true histories associated with its various monuments, buildings, bridges and neighbourhoods. Of course, the Bronze Horseman, the great equestrian statue of Peter the Great that Catherine the Great commissioned from French sculptor Etienne Falconet, has many detailed entries. There I learned of Marie-Anne Collot, Falconet’s eighteen-year-old female apprentice, who sculpted the head of Peter the Great in a single night after Falconet himself despaired of doing it.

Many details in my story are from history. The horses that had to pose rearing for the sculpture really were named Brilliant and Caprice. Catherine the Great was a proto-feminist, although only for women of noble birth, and she did take power in a palace coup (although killing the emperor with a golden snuffbox happened in the much later coup that deposed her son Paul). And Peter the Great really did order the head of his beautiful English mistress Lady Mary Hamilton preserved in formaldehyde after her beheading — although I elided the fact that her crime was infanticide, secretly killing the babies she bore him as she was trapped by her own circumstances. The idea of prisoners being left in cells to drown in a flood comes from the most famous legend about the death of the Princess Tarakanova, who pretended to be a granddaughter of Peter the Great and thus have a better claim to the throne than Catherine, and was imprisoned by Catherine in the Peter and Paul Fortress. In actuality, she died of tuberculosis there, but the myth endured.  And yes, Falconet and Collot’s gold and silver medals were real.

I first wrote a version of this story around January 20, 2012 — one of my first short stories, and perhaps the first one I looked at and thought that I could try to sell this. It was, however, quite different from the version you just read: only about 3000 words, without the character of Yevgeny (although I did include the Falconet-analogue’s son, as the real Marie-Anne Collot eventually became her master’s daughter-in-law), and with so little dialogue that Lumarine didn’t even have a name.

I did not do much with the draft until coming to Clarion in the summer of 2014, and meeting our first instructor Gregory Frost. As he was interested in both my arts stories and stories inspired by Russian history, I showed him what I now think of as “The Guardian’s Head 1.0,” and he kindly pointed out several structural flaws it had due to my influences; see “The Aventine Formula” for details. (He suggested rewriting it in third person as an intermediate step, but that was one piece of advice I didn’t take him up on. Some people are natural third-person tellers and some are natural first-person tellers, and I am one of the latter.)

I was distracted by other things until October 29, 2014, when I decided to try making a few revisions to that draft in the morning — and ended up writing nearly all day like a woman possessed, turning it into a much longer story (4600 words at the time, about three-quarters of them new). Yevgeny came in, and shared his name with Pushkin’s protagonist. After a few more rounds of revision, finally I got an acceptance from Beneath Ceaseless Skies in late January 2015 (as it was similar in tone to “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus”, BCS was the first market I sent it to). The final version, having grown longer with each revision, is 5800 words.

It came out the following November, an appropriate season for autumn floods.

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