فصل 11

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فصل 11

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Chapter Eleven WHEN THE SUN TOUCHED the distant fields, guards arrived to collect Ariadne. The princess is wanted by her parents. They marched her off, and I was shown to my room. It was small and near the servants’ quarters. This was meant, of course, to be an insult, but I liked the respite of the unpainted walls, the narrow window that showed only a sliver of the relentless sun. It was quiet as well, for all the servants crept past, knowing who lay within. The sister witch. They left food for me while I was gone and took the tray only when I was out again. I slept, and the next morning Daedalus came for me. He smiled when I opened my door, and I found myself smiling in return. One thing I could thank the creature for: the ease between us had returned. I followed him down a staircase to the twisting corridors that ran beneath the palace. We passed grain cellars, storage rooms lined with rows of pithoi, the great ceramic jars that held the palace’s largesse of oil and wine and barley. “Whatever became of the white bull, do you know?” “No. It vanished when Pasiphaë began to swell. The priests said it was the bull’s final blessing. Today I heard someone say that the monster is a gift from the gods to help us prosper.” He shook his head. “They are not naturally fools, it is only that they are caught between two scorpions.” “Ariadne is different,” I said. He nodded. “I have hopes of her. Have you heard what they’ve decided to name the thing? The Minotaur. Ten ships go out with the announcement at noon, and ten more will go out tomorrow.” “Clever,” I said. “Minos claims it, and instead of being a cuckold he shares in my sister’s glory. He becomes the great king who begets monsters and names them after himself.” Daedalus made a noise in his throat. “Exactly.” We had come to the large cellar room that held the creature’s new cage. It was wide as a ship’s deck and half as long, forged of a silver-gray metal. I put my hands to its bars, smooth and thick as saplings. I could smell the iron in it, but what more I could not tell. “It is a new substance,” Daedalus said. “Harder to work, but more durable. Even so, it will not hold the creature forever. He is already freakishly strong, and only just born. But it will give me time to devise something more permanent.” The soldiers followed behind, carrying the old cage on poles to keep their distance. They set it clanging down inside the new and were gone before the echoes had faded. I went and knelt beside it. The Minotaur was larger than it had been, its flesh plump, pressing at the metal lattice. Clean of birth fluids now and dry, the line between bull and baby was starker than ever, as if some madman had lopped a steer’s head and sewed it to a toddler. It stank of old meat, and the cage-bottom rattled with long bones. I felt a wash of nausea. One of Crete’s prisoners. The creature was watching me with huge eyes. It rose and snuffled forward, nose working. A moan came from it, sharp and excited. It remembered me. My smell and the taste of my flesh. It opened its squat mouth, like a baby bird begging. More. I took my moment: spoke the words of power and poured the draught through the cage, down its open throat. The creature choked and lunged against the bars, but even as it did its eyes were changing, the fury in them ebbing away. I held its gaze and put out my hand. I heard Daedalus draw in a breath. But the creature did not leap for me. Its rigid limbs had loosened. Another moment I waited, then undid the lock and opened the cage. It shuffled a little, the bones clattering under its feet. “It is all right,” I murmured, whether to myself or Daedalus or the creature, I could not say. Slowly, I moved my hand towards it. Its nostrils flared. I touched its arm, and it made a huff of surprise, but nothing more. “Come,” I whispered, and it did, crouching and stumbling a little as it passed through the cage’s small opening. It looked up at me, expectantly, almost sweetly. My brother, Ariadne had called it. But this creature had not been made for any family. It was my sister’s triumph, her ambition made flesh, her whip to use against Minos. In thanks, it would know no comrade, no lover. It would never see the sun, never take a free step. There was nothing it might ever have in the world but hatred and darkness and its teeth. I picked up the old cage and stepped back. It watched me as I moved away, its head tilted with curiosity. I shut the cage door, and its ear flicked at the metallic sound. When harvest came, it would scream with rage. It would tear at the bars, trying to rip them apart. Daedalus let out a low breath. “How did you do that?” “It is half beast,” I said. “All the animals on Aiaia are tame.” “Can the spell be undone?” “Not by another.” We locked the cage. All the while the creature watched us. It made a low noise and rubbed at a hairy cheek with one of its hands. Then we swung the wooden door of the room closed and saw no more. “And the key?” “I plan to throw it away. When we have to move it, I will cut the bars.” We walked back through the twisting under-passages and up to the corridors above. In the painted hall, the breeze was blowing, and the air bright. Pretty nobles passed on every side, murmuring their secrets. Did they know what lived beneath them? They would.

“There is a feast this evening,” he said. “I am not going,” I said. “I am finished with the court of Crete.” “You are leaving soon, then?” “I am at the king and queen’s mercy for that, they are the ones with the ships. But I imagine it will not be much longer. I think Minos will be glad to have one less witch on Crete. It will be good to be home.” It was true, yet in those ornate corridors, the thought of returning to Aiaia was strange. Its hills and shore, the stone house with my garden, all seemed very distant. “I must show my face tonight,” he said. “Yet I hope to make my excuses before the meal.” He hesitated. “Goddess, I know I presume, but will you do me the honor of dining with me?”

He had told me to come when the moon was up. His rooms were at the opposite end of the palace from my sister’s. If that was luck or design I could not say. He wore a finer cloak than I had seen him in before, but his feet were bare. He drew me to a table, poured a wine dark as mulberries. There were platters set out, heaped with fruits and a salty white cheese. “How was the feast?” “I am glad to be gone.” His voice was curdled. “They had a singer in, to tell the tale of the glorious bull-man’s birth. Apparently he fell from a star.” A boy ran out from an inner room. I did not know mortal ages well then, but I think he may have been four. His black hair curled thick and wild around his ears, and his limbs were still babyishly round. He had the sweetest face I had ever seen, gods included. “My son,” Daedalus said. I stared. I had not even considered that Daedalus’ secret could be a child. The boy knelt, like an infant courtier. “Noble lady,” he piped. “I welcome you to my father’s house.” “Thank you,” I said. “And are you a good boy, for your father?” He nodded seriously. “Oh, yes.” Daedalus laughed. “Don’t believe a word. He looks sweet as cream, but he does what he wants.” The boy smiled at his father. It was an old joke between them. He stayed for some time, prattling of his father’s work and how he helped. He brought out the tongs he liked to use and showed me with a practiced grip how he could hold them in the fire and not be burnt. I nodded, but it was his father I watched. Daedalus’ face had gone soft as ripe fruit, his eyes full and shining. I had never thought of having children, but looking at him, for a moment I could imagine it. As if I peered into a well and far below glimpsed a flash of water. My sister, of course, would have seen such love in an instant. Daedalus put his hand to his son’s shoulder. “Icarus,” he said, “it is time for bed. Go find your nurse.” “You will come kiss me goodnight?” “Of course.” We watched him go, small heels brushing the hem of his too-long tunic. “He is handsome,” I said. “He has his mother’s face.” He answered the question before I asked it. “She passed at his birth. A good woman, though I did not know her long. Your sister arranged the marriage.” So I had not been so wrong after all. My sister had baited the hook, but she caught the fish another way. “I’m sorry,” I said. He bowed his head. “It is difficult, I admit. I have done my best to be father to him and mother too, but I know he feels the lack. Every woman we pass, he asks if I will marry her.” “And will you?” He was silent a moment. “I think not. Pasiphaë has enough to scourge me with already, and I would never have married in the first place, if she had not insisted. I know what an unfit husband I make, for I am happiest when my hands are busy at my work, and then I come home late and filthy.” “Witchcraft and invention have that in common,” I said. “I do not think I would make a fit wife either. Not that my door is battered down. Apparently the market for disgraced sorceresses is thin.” He smiled. “Your sister I think has helped poison that well.”

He smiled. “Your sister I think has helped poison that well.” It was easy to speak so openly with him. His face was like a quiet pool that would hold everything safe in its depths. “Do you know yet how you will keep the creature when it is grown?” He nodded. “I have been thinking. You see what a honeycomb the palace is beneath. There are a hundred storerooms that go unused, for all the wealth of Crete is in gold these days, not grain. I think I may make them into a sort of maze. Close it at both ends and let the creature roam. It is all dug in the bedrock, so there will be nowhere to break out.” It was a good idea. And at least the creature would have more room than a narrow cage. “It will be a marvel,” I said. “A maze that can hold a full-grown monster. You will have to come up with a good name for it.” “I’m sure Minos will have a suggestion, involving himself.” “I’m sorry that I cannot stay to help.” “You have helped more than I deserve.” His gaze lifted to touch mine. A throat cleared. The nurse stood in the doorway. “Your son, sir.” “Ah,” Daedalus said. “Excuse me.” I felt too restless to sit patiently. I wandered the room. I had expected it to be filled with more of his wonders, statues and inlay in every corner, but it was simple, the furniture unadorned wood. Yet looking more closely, I saw Daedalus’ stamp. The polish glowed and the grain was rubbed soft as flower petals. When I passed my hand over a chair, I could not find its seams. He came back. “The bedtime kiss,” he explained. “A happy child.” Daedalus sat, drank a swallow of wine. “For now, he is. He is too young to know himself a prisoner.” Those white scars seemed to flare on his hands. “A golden cage is still a cage.” “And where would you go, if you might escape?” “Wherever would have me. But if I may choose, Egypt. They are building things that make Knossos look like a mudflat. I have been learning the language from some of their traders on the docks. I think they would welcome us.” I looked into his good face. Not good because it was handsome, but because it was itself, like fine metal, tempered and beaten for strength. Two monsters we had fought side by side, and he had not wavered. Come to Aiaia, I wanted to say. But I knew there was nothing for him there. Instead I told him, “I hope you will get to Egypt one day.”

We finished our meal, and I walked the dark corridors back to my room. The evening had been pleasant, but I felt roiled and muddy, my mind like river-silt stirred up from its beds. I could not stop hearing Daedalus talking of his freedom. There had been such yearning in his voice, and bitterness too. At least I had earned my exile, but Daedalus was innocent, kept only as a trophy for my sister and Minos’ vanity. I thought of his eyes when he had spoken of Icarus, that pure, shining love. To my sister, it was no more than a tool, a sword to hang over his head and make him her slave. I remembered the pleasure on her face when she had ordered him to cut her open. She had had the same look when I had stepped through her door. I had been so consumed with the Minotaur that I had not seen what a triumph this had all been for her. Not just the monster and her new fame, but everything that went with it: Daedalus forced into complicity, Minos cringing and humiliated, and all of Crete held hostage to fear. And me, I was a triumph too. She might have summoned others, but I had always been the dog she liked to whip. She had known how useful I would be, dutifully cleaning her messes, protecting Daedalus, seeing the monster safely contained. And all the while she could laugh from her golden couch. Do you like my new pet? I give her nothing but blows, yet see how she runs to my whistle! My stomach burned. I turned away from my cell. I walked as a god, unseen, past the drowsing guards, past the night servants. I reached the door of my sister’s room and stepped through it. I stood over her bed. She was alone. My sister trusted her sleep to none but herself. I had felt the spells when I passed the threshold, but they could not stop me. “Why did you summon me here?” I demanded. “Let me hear you admit it.” Her eyes opened at once, keen, as if she had been expecting me. “It was a gift, of course. Who else would have enjoyed seeing me bleed so much?” “I can think of a thousand.” She smiled, as cats smile. It was always more fun to play with a live mouse. “What a shame it is that you can’t use your new binding spell on Scylla. But of course you would need her mother’s blood. I don’t think that shark Krataiis will oblige you.” I had thought of it already. Pasiphaë always knew where to aim the spear. “You wanted to humiliate me,” I said. She yawned, pink tongue against her white teeth. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “of naming my son Asterion. Do you like it?” Starry one, it meant. “The prettiest name for a cannibal I ever heard.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. He can’t be a cannibal, there are no other Minotaurs to eat.” She frowned a little, tilting her chin. “Though, I wonder, do centaurs count? They must have some kinship, don’t you think?” I would not be drawn by her. “You could have sent for Perses.” “Perses.” She waved a hand. What that meant, I could not say. “Or Aeëtes.” She sat up, and the covers fell from her. Her skin was bare, except for a necklace made of squares of beaten gold. Each one was embossed: a sun, a bee, an axe, the great hulk of Dicte. “Oh, I hope we keep talking all night,” she said. “I will braid your hair, and we can laugh over our suitors.” She lowered her voice. “I think Daedalus would have you in a minute.” My anger spilled its banks. “I am not your dog, Pasiphaë, nor your bear to be baited. I came to your aid, despite all our history, despite the men you sent to their deaths. I helped you with your monster. I have done your work for you, and all you give me is mockery and contempt. For once in your twisting life, speak the truth. You brought me here to make me your fool.” “Oh, that requires no effort from me,” she said. “You are a fool on your own.” But it was reflexive, not a real answer. I waited. “It is funny,” she said, “that even after all this time, you still believe you should be rewarded, just because you have been obedient. I thought you would have learned that lesson in our father’s halls. None shrank and simpered as you did, and yet great Helios stepped on you all the faster, because you were already crouched at his feet.” She was leaning forward, her golden hair loose, embroidering the sheets around her. “Let me tell you a truth about Helios and all the rest. They do not care if you are good. They barely care if you are wicked. The only thing that makes them listen is power. It is not enough to be an uncle’s favorite, to please some god in his bed. It is not enough even to be beautiful, for when you go to them, and kneel and say, ‘I have been good, will you help me?’ they wrinkle their brows. Oh, sweetheart, it cannot be done. Oh, darling, you must learn to live with it. And have you asked Helios? You know I do nothing without his word.” She spat upon the floor. “They take what they want, and in return they give you only your own shackles. A thousand times I saw you squashed. I squashed you myself. And every time, I thought, that is it, she is done, she will cry herself into a stone, into some croaking bird, she will leave us and good riddance. Yet always you came back the next day. They were all surprised when you showed yourself a witch, but I knew it long ago. Despite your wet-mouse weeping, I saw how you would not be ground into the earth. You loathed them as I did. I think it is where our power comes from.” Her words were falling on my head like a great cataract. I could scarcely take them in. She hated our family? She had always seemed to me their distillation, a glittering monument to our blood’s vain cruelty. Yet it was true what she said: nymphs were allowed to work only through the power of others. They could expect none for themselves. “If all this is so,” I said, “why were you so savage to me? Aeëtes and I were alone, you might have been friends with us.” “Friends,” she sneered. Her lips were a perfect blood-red, the color all the other nymphs had to paint on. “There are no friends in those halls. And Aeëtes has never liked a woman in his life.” “That’s not true,” I said. “Because you think he liked you?” She laughed. “He tolerated you because you were a tame monkey, clapping after every word he spoke.” “You and Perses were no different,” I said. “You know nothing of Perses. Do you know how I had to keep him happy? The things I had to do?” I did not want to hear more. Her face was naked as I had ever seen it, and every word sharp as if she had spent years carving it to just that shape. “Then Father gave me to that ass Minos. Well, I could work with him, and I have. He is fixed now, but it has been a long road, and I will never go back to what I was. So you tell me, sister, whom should I have sent for instead? Some god who could not wait to scorn me and make me beg for crumbs? Or some nymph, to mince uselessly across the sea?” She laughed again. “They would both have run screaming at the first tooth. They cannot bear any pain at all. They are not like us.” The words were a shock, as if all this while her hands had been empty, and now she showed her knife. Sickness flooded my throat. I stepped back. “I am not like you.” For a moment, I saw the surprise on her face. Then it was gone, like a wave washing clean over sand. “No,” she said. “You are not. You are like Father, stupid and sanctimonious, closing your eyes to everything you do not understand. Tell me, what do you think would happen if I did not make monsters and poisons? Minos does not want a queen, only a simpering jelly he keeps in a jar and breeds to death. He would be happy to have me in chains for eternity, and he need only say the word to his own father to do it. But he does not. He knows what I would do to him first.” I remembered my father saying of Minos, He will keep her in her place. “Yet Father will only allow Minos so much license.” Her laughter clawed at my ears. “Father would put me in the chains himself, if it would keep his precious alliance. You are proof of that. Zeus is terrified of witchcraft and wanted a sacrifice. Father picked you because you are worth the least. And now you are shut on that island and will never leave it. I should have known you would be good for nothing to me. Get out. Get out and let me not see you again.”

I walked back through those corridors. My mind was bare, my skin bristling as if it would rise off my flesh. Every noise, every touch, the stones beneath my feet, the splash of fountains from a window, crept evilly upon my senses. The air had a stinging weight like ocean waves. I felt myself a stranger to the world. When the figure separated from the shadows of my door, I was too numb to cry out. My hand fumbled for my bag of draughts, but then the distant torchlight fell upon his hooded face. He spoke so softly only a god could have heard. “I was waiting for you. Say but one word, and I am gone.” It took me a moment to understand. I had not thought him so bold. But of course he was. Artist, creator, inventor, the greatest the world had known. Timidity creates nothing. What would I have said, if he had come earlier? I do not know. But his voice then was like a balm upon my raw skin. I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be. “Stay,” I said.

We lit no tapers. The room was dark and warm from the day’s heat. Shadows draped the bed. No frogs sounded, no birds called. It was as if we had found the still heart of the universe. Nothing moved except for us. After, we lay beside each other, the night breeze trickling over our limbs. I thought of telling him about the quarrel with Pasiphaë, but I did not want her there with us. Outside, the stars were veiled, and a servant passed through the yard with a flickering torch. I thought I imagined it, at first: a faint tremor shaking the room. “Do you feel that?” Daedalus nodded. “They’re never strong. A few cracks in plaster. They have been coming more often lately.” “It will not damage the cage.” “No,” he said. “They would have to get much worse.” A moment passed. His voice came quiet through the darkness. “At harvest,” he said, “when the creature is grown. How bad will it be?” “As many as fifteen in a moon.” I heard his indrawn breath. “I feel the weight of it every moment,” he said. “All those lives. I helped make that creature, and now I cannot unmake it.” I knew the weight he spoke of. His hand lay beside mine. It was calloused, but not rough. In the darkness, I had run my fingers over it, searching out the faint smooth patches that were his scars. “How do you bear it?” he said. My eyes gave off a faint light, and by it I could see his face. It was a surprise to realize that he was waiting for an answer. That he believed I had one. I thought of another dim room, with another prisoner. He had been a craftsman also. On the foundation of his knowledge civilization had been built. Prometheus’ words, deep-running as roots, had waited in me all this time. “We bear it as best we can,” I said.

Minos was frugal with his ships, and now that the monster was contained, he made me wait on his convenience. “One of my traders passes near Aiaia. He sails in a few days. You may go then.” I did not see my sister again, except from a distance, carried to her picnics and pleasures. I did not see Ariadne either, though I looked for her at her dancing circle. I asked one of the guards if he might take me to her. I did not think I imagined his smirk. “The queen forbids it.” Pasiphaë and her petty vengeances. My face stung, but I would not give her the satisfaction of knowing her cruelty had hit home. I wandered the palace grounds, its colonnades, its walks and fields. I watched the mortals as they passed with their interesting, untamed faces. Each night Daedalus knocked secretly at my door. It was borrowed time, we knew it, which made it all the sweeter. The guards came just after dawn on the fourth day. Daedalus had gone already; he liked to be home when Icarus woke. The men stood before me, stiff in their purple capes, looming as if I might try to break past them and escape into the hills. I followed them through the painted halls, down the great steps. Daedalus was waiting amid the chaos of the pier. “Pasiphaë will punish you for this,” I said. “No more than she does already.” He stepped aside as the eight sheep Minos had sent as his thanks were herded onto the ship. “I see the king is as generous as ever.” He gestured to two huge crates, already loaded on the deck. “I remember you like to keep yourself busy. It is my own design.” “Thank you,” I said. “You honor me.” “No,” he said. “I know what we owe you. What I owe.” The back of my throat burned, but I could feel the eyes watching us. I did not want to make it worse for him. “Will you tell Ariadne farewell for me?” “I will,” he said. I stepped onto the ship and lifted my hand. He lifted his. I had not fooled myself with false hope. I was a goddess, and he a mortal, and both of us were imprisoned. But I pressed his face into my mind, as seals are pressed in wax, so I could carry it with me. I did not open those crates until we were out of sight. I wish I had, so I might have thanked him properly. Inside one were undyed wools and yarns and flax of every kind. In the other, the most beautiful loom I had ever seen, made from polished cedar.

I have it still. It stands near my hearth, and has even found its way into the songs. Perhaps that is no surprise, poets like such symmetries: Witch Circe skilled at spinning spells and threads alike, at weaving charms and cloths. Who am I to spoil an easy hexameter? But any wonder in my cloth comes from that loom and the mortal who made it. Even after so many centuries, its joints are strong, and when the shuttle slides through the warp, the scent of cedar fills the air. After I left, Daedalus built his great maze indeed, the Labyrinth, whose walls confounded the Minotaur’s rage. Harvest piled upon harvest, and the twisting passageways grew ankle-deep in bones. If you listened, the palace servants said, you could hear the creature clattering up and down. And all the while, Daedalus was working. He daubed two wooden frames with yellow wax and onto them he pressed the feathers he had collected from the great seabirds that fed on Crete’s shore, long-pinioned, wide and white. Two sets of wings, they made. He tied one to his own arms, and one to his son’s. They stood atop the highest cliff of Knossos’ shore and leapt. The ocean draughts caught them, and they were borne aloft. East they went, towards the rising sun and Africa. Icarus whooped, for by then he was a young man, and this was his first freedom. His father laughed to see him diving and wheeling. The boy rose higher still, dazzled by the sky’s vastness, the sun’s unfettered heat on his shoulders. He did not heed his father’s cries of warning. He did not notice the melting wax. The feathers fell, and he fell after, into the drowning waves. I mourned for that sweet boy’s death, but I mourned more for Daedalus, winging doggedly onwards, dragging that desperate grief behind him. It was Hermes who told me, of course, sipping my wine, his feet upon my hearth. I closed my eyes, to find that impression I had made of Daedalus’ face. I wished then that we had conceived a child together, to be some comfort to him. But that was a young and silly thought: as if children are sacks of grain, to be substituted one for another. Daedalus did not long outlive his son. His limbs turned gray and nerveless, and all his strength was transmuted into smoke. I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

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