فصل 12

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فصل 12

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Chapter Twelve WE WENT THE LONG way back to Aiaia, avoiding Scylla. Eleven days it took. The sky bent its arc over us, clear and bright. I stared into the blinding waves, the white-flaring sun. No one disturbed me. The men averted their gazes when I passed, and I saw them cast a rope I had touched into the waves. I could not blame them. They lived on Knossos and knew too much of witchery already. When we landed on Aiaia, they dutifully carried the loom up through the woods and set it before my hearth. They led up the eight sheep. I offered them wine and a meal, but of course they did not accept. They hurried back to their ship, strained at their oars, eager to vanish over the horizon. I watched until the moment they winked out, like a snuffed flame. The lion glared from my threshold. She lashed her tail as if to say, That had better be the last of that. “I think it will be,” I said. After Knossos’ sunny, out-flung pavilions, my house was snug as a burrow. I walked its neat rooms, feeling the silence, the stillness, the scuff of no feet but my own. I put my hand to every surface, every cupboard and cup. They were all as they had been. As they would ever be. I went out to my garden. I weeded the same weeds that always grew, and planted the herbs I had gathered on Dicte. They looked strange away from their moonlit hollows, crowded in among my glossy, bright beds. Their hum seemed fainter, their colors faded. I had not considered that perhaps their powers could not survive transplanting. In the years I had lived on Aiaia, I had never chafed at my constraint. After my father’s halls, the island seemed to me the wildest, most giddy freedom. Its shores, its peaks, all of them yawned out to the horizon, filled up with magic. But looking at those fragile blooms, for the first time I felt the true weight of my exile. If they died, I could harvest no more. I would never walk again the humming slopes of Dicte. I could not draw water from its silver pool. All those places Hermes had told me of, Araby, Assur, Egypt, they were lost forever. You will never leave, my sister had said.

In defiance, I threw myself into my old life. I did what I liked, the moment that I thought of it. I sang upon the beaches, rearranged my garden. I called the pigs and scratched their bristled backs, brushed the sheep, and summoned wolves to lie panting on my floor. The lion rolled her yellow eyes at them, but she behaved herself, for it was my law that all my animals bear each other. Every night, I went out to dig my herbs and roots. I did whatever spells came to mind, just to feel the pleasure of them knitting in my hands. In the morning I cut flowers for my kitchen. In the evenings after dinner, I set myself before Daedalus’ loom. It took me some time to understand it, for it was like no loom I had ever known in the halls of the gods. There was a seat, and the weft was drawn down rather than up. If my grandmother had seen, she would have offered her sea snake for it; the cloth it produced was finer than her best. Daedalus had guessed well: that I would like the whole business of it, the simplicity and skill at once, the smell of the wood, the shush of the shuttle, the satisfying way weft stacked upon weft. It was a little like spell-work, I thought, for your hands must be busy, and your mind sharp and free. Yet my favorite part was not the loom at all, but the making of the dyes. I went hunting for the best colors, madder root and saffron, the scarlet kermes bug and the wine-dark murex from the sea, and alum powder to hold them fast in the wool. I squeezed them, pounded, soaked them in great bubbling pots until the stinking liquids foamed up bright as flowers: crimson and crocus yellow and the deep purple that princes wear. If I had had Athena’s skill, I could have woven a great tapestry of Iris, goddess of the rainbow, flinging down her colors from the sky. But I was not Athena. I was happy with simple scarves, with cloaks and blankets that lay like jewels upon my chairs. I draped my lion in one and called her the Queen of Phoenicia. She sat, turning her head this way and that, as if to show off how the purple made her fur shine gold. You will never see Phoenicia. I rose from my stool and made myself walk the island, admiring the changes every hour brought: the water-striders skimming over the ponds, the stones rolled green and smooth by river currents, the bees flying low, freighted with pollen. The bays were full of lashing fish, the seeds broke from their pods. My dittany, my lilies from Crete, they thrived after all. See? I said to my sister. It was Daedalus who answered. A golden cage is still a cage.

Spring passed into summer, and summer into fragrant autumn. There were mists now in the morning and sometimes storms at night. Winter would come soon with its own beauty, the green hellebore leaves shining amid the brown, and the cypresses tall and black against the metal sky. It was not ever truly cold, not as Mount Dicte’s peak, but I was glad for my new cloaks as I climbed the rocks and stood among the winds. Yet, no matter what beauties I sought, what pleasures I found, my sister’s words followed me, taunting, worming deep in my bones and blood. “You are wrong about witchcraft,” I told her. “It does not come from hate. I made my first spell for love of Glaucos.” I could hear her mink-voice as if she stood before me. Yet it was in defiance of our father, in defiance of all those who slighted you and would keep you from your desires. I had seen the look in my father’s eyes when he knew at last what I was. He was thinking he should have snuffed me in my crib. Just so. Look how they stopped our mother’s womb. Have you not noticed how easily she twists Father and our aunts? I had noticed it. It seemed to go beyond beauty, beyond whatever bed-tricks she might know. “She is clever.”

Clever! Pasiphaë laughed. You always underestimated her. I would not be surprised if she has witch-blood too. We do not get our charms from Helios. I had wondered that myself. You are sorry now you scorned her. You spent every day licking Father’s feet, hoping he would set her aside. I paced the rocks. I had walked the earth for a hundred generations, yet I was still a child to myself. Rage and grief, thwarted desire, lust, self-pity: these are emotions gods know well. But guilt and shame, remorse, ambivalence, those are foreign countries to our kind, which must be learned stone by stone. I could not stop thinking of my sister’s face, that blank shock when I told her I would never be like her. What had she hoped for? That we would send messages back and forth in seabirds’ mouths? That we would share spells, fight the gods? That we might be, in our way, sisters at last? I tried to imagine it: our heads bent together over herbs, her laugh as she devised some cleverness. I wished then—oh, a dozen impossible things. That I had known sooner what she was. That we had grown up somewhere other than those glittering halls. I could have blunted her poisons, drawn her from her abuses, taught her how to gather the best herbs. Hah! she said. I will take no lessons from fools like you. You are weak and blind, and it is worse because you choose it. You will be sorry in the end. It was always easier when she was hateful. “I am not weak. And I will never be sorry not to be like you. Do you hear?” There was no answer, of course. Only the air, eating my words.

Hermes returned. I no longer thought that he had conspired with Pasiphaë. It was only his nature to vaunt his knowledge and laugh at what others did not know. He lounged in my silver chair. “So how did you like Crete? I heard you had some excitement.” I gave him food and wine, and took him to my bed that night. He was handsome as ever, keen and playful in our couplings. But a distaste rose in me now when I looked at him. One moment I would be laughing, and the next his jests turned sour in my throat. When his hands reached for me, I felt a strange dislocation. They were perfect and unscarred. My ambivalence, of course, only encouraged him. Any challenge was a game, and any game a pleasure. If I had loved him, he would have been gone, yet my revulsion brought him back and back. He pressed hard to wrap me up, bringing gifts and news, unfolding the whole tale of the Minotaur to me without my asking. After I had sailed away, he said, Minos and Pasiphaë’s eldest, Androgeos, had visited the mainland and been killed near Athens. By then, the people of Crete were restive at having to lose their sons and daughters every harvest, and were threatening revolt. Minos seized his opportunity. He demanded, as payment for his son, that the Athenian king send seven youths and seven maids to feed the monster, or else Crete’s mighty navy would bring war. The frightened king agreed, and one of the youths chosen was his own child, Theseus. This prince was the mortal I had seen in the mountain pool. But my vision had not told me all: he might have died, if not for the princess Ariadne. She fell in love with him, and to save his life smuggled him a sword and taught him the way through the Labyrinth, which she had learned from Daedalus himself. Yet when he came out from that maze with his hands covered in the monster’s blood, she had wept, and not for joy. “I heard,” Hermes said, “that she had an unnatural love for the creature. She would go often to its cage and speak softly to it through the bars, and offer delicacies from her own table. Once, she got too close, and its teeth caught her shoulder. She escaped and Daedalus sewed up the wound, but it left a scar at the base of her neck, in the shape of a crown.” I remembered her face as she said, my brother. “Was she punished? For helping Theseus?” “No. She fled with him after the creature was dead. Theseus would have married her, but my brother decided he wanted her for himself. You know how he loves the ones with light feet. He told Theseus to leave her on an island, and he would come to claim her.” I knew which brother he meant. Dionysus, lord of ivy and the grape. Riotous son of Zeus, whom mortals call Releaser, for he frees them from their cares. At least, I thought, with Dionysus she would dance every night. Hermes shook his head. “He came too late. She had fallen asleep, and Artemis killed her.” He spoke so casually that for a moment I thought I’d misheard. “What? She is dead?” “I led her to the underworld myself.” That lithe and hopeful girl. “For what reason?” “I couldn’t get a straight answer out of Artemis. You know how ill-tempered she is. Some incomprehensible slight.” He shrugged. My witchcraft was no match against an Olympian, I knew it. But in that moment, I wanted to try. To summon up all my charms, to throw my will upon the spirits of the earth, the beasts, the birds, and set them after Artemis, until she knew what it was to be truly hunted. “Come,” Hermes said. “If you cry every time some mortal dies, you’ll drown in a month.” “Get out,” I said.

Icarus, Daedalus, Ariadne. All gone to those dark fields, where hands worked nothing but air, where feet no more touched the earth. If I had been there, I thought. But what would it have changed? It was true what Hermes said. Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

Hermes came back, as always. I let him. When he glittered in my hall, my shores did not feel so narrow, the knowledge of my exile did not weigh so heavy. “Tell me the news,” I said. “Tell me of Crete. How did Pasiphaë take the Minotaur’s death?” “She went mad, is the rumor. She wears nothing but black now in mourning.” “Don’t be a fool. She is only mad if it suits her,” I said. “She is said to have cursed Theseus, and he is plagued and plagued since then. Did you hear how his father died?” I did not care about Theseus, I wanted to hear of my sister. Hermes must have been laughing as he fed me tale after tale. How she had forbidden Minos from her bed, and her only joy was her youngest daughter, Phaedra. How she was haunting the slopes of Mount Dicte, digging up the whole mountain searching out new poisons. I hoarded every tidbit like a dragon guards its treasure. I was looking for something, I realized, though I could not say what. Like all good storytellers, Hermes knew to save the best for last. One evening, he told me of a trick Pasiphaë had played upon Minos in the early days of their marriage. Minos used to order any girl he liked to his bedchamber in front of her face. So she cursed him with a spell that turned his seed to snakes and scorpions. Whenever he lay with a woman, they stung her to death from the inside. I remembered the fight I had heard between them. A hundred girls, Pasiphaë had said. They would have been serving maidens, slaves, merchants’ daughters, anyone whose fathers would not dare raise a fuss against the king. All extinguished for nothing but petty pleasure and revenge. I sent Hermes from me, and closed my shutters as I never did. Anyone would have thought I was casting a great spell, but I reached for no herbs. I felt a weightless joy. The story was so ugly, so outlandish and disgusting, that it felt like a fever breaking. If I was trapped on this island, at least I did not have to share the world with her and all her kind. Pacing by my lion, I said, “It is done. I will think of them no more. I cast them out and I am finished.” The cat pressed her cheek upon her folded paws and kept her eyes upon the floor. So perhaps she knew what I did not.

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