فصل 13

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فصل 13

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Chapter Thirteen IT WAS SPRING AND I was down on the eastern slope, picking early strawberries. The sea-winds blew strongly there, and the sweetness of the fruits was always tinged with salt. The pigs began squealing, and I looked up. A ship was making its way towards us through the slanting afternoon light. There was a headwind against it, yet it did not slow or tack. The oarsmen drove it straight as a well-sent arrow. My stomach turned over. Hermes had given me no warning, and I could not think what that might mean. The vessel was Mycenaean in style, and bore a figurehead so massive it must have altered the draught of the ship. A pair of black-rimmed eyes smoked on its hull. I caught a strange, faint odor on the wind. I hesitated a moment, then wiped my hands and walked down to the beach. The ship was close to shore by then, its prow casting a shadow like a needle over the waves. I counted some three dozen men aboard. Later, of course, there would be a thousand who claimed they were there, or who invented genealogies to trace their blood back. The greatest heroes of their generation, that crew was called. Bold and unshakable, masters of a hundred wild adventures. Certainly, they looked the part: princely and tall, big-shouldered, with rich cloaks and thick hair, raised up on the best their kingdoms had to offer. They wore weapons the way most men wear their clothes. No doubt they’d been wrestling boars and slaying giants from their cradles. Yet their faces at the rail were pinched and tense. That smell was stronger now, and there was a heaviness in the air, a dragging weight that seemed to hang from the mast itself. They saw me, yet they made no sound and gave no signs of greeting. The anchor dropped with a splash and the plank followed. Above, gulls circled, crying. Two descended, arms touching, heads bowed. A man, broad and muscular, his dark hair lifting in the late breeze. And—it surprised me—a woman, tall and wrapped in black, a long veil flowing down behind her. The pair moved towards me gracefully and without hesitation, as if they were expected guests. They knelt at my feet and the woman held her hands up, long-fingered and bare of any adornment. Her veil was arranged so that not one strand of hair showed beneath it. Her chin stayed resolutely down, concealing her face. “Goddess,” she said, “Witch of Aiaia. We come to you for aid.” Her voice was low but clear, with a musicality to it, as if it were used to singing. “We have fled great evil, and to escape it we have done great evil. We are tainted.” I could feel it. That unwholesome air had thickened, coating everything with an oily heaviness. Miasma, it was called. Pollution. It rose from unpurified crimes, from deeds done against the gods, and from the unsanctified spilling of blood. It had touched me after the Minotaur’s birth, until Dicte’s waters washed me clean. But this was stronger: a foul, seeping contagion. “Will you help us?” she said. “Help us, great goddess, we are at your mercy,” the man echoed. It was not magic they asked for, but the oldest rite of our kind. Katharsis. The cleansing by smoke and prayer, water and blood. It was forbidden for me to question them, to demand their transgressions, if transgressions they were. My part was only yes or no. The man did not have his partner’s discipline. When he had spoken, his chin had lifted a little, and I had glimpsed his face. He was young, even younger than I had thought, his beard still in patches. His skin was raw from wind and sun, but it glowed with health. He was beautiful—like a god, the poets would say. But it was his mortal determination that struck me most, the brave set of his neck, despite the burdens upon him. “Rise,” I said. “And come. I will help you as I can.”

I led them up the pig trails. His hand clasped her arm solicitously, as if he would steady her, but she never stumbled. If anything, her feet were surer than his. And still she was careful to keep her face down. I brought them inside. They stepped past the chairs and knelt silently upon the floor stones. Daedalus might have carved a lovely statue of them: Humility. I went to the back door, and the pigs ran to me. I put my hand on one, a piglet not half a year old, pure and unspotted. If I were a priest I would have drugged him so he would not take fright and struggle, marring the ritual. In my hands, he went limp as a sleeping child. I washed him, tied the sacred fillets, wove a garland for his neck, and all the while he was quiet, as if he knew and agreed. I set the golden basin on the floor and took up the great bronze knife. I had no altar, but I did not need one: anywhere I was became my temple. The animal’s throat opened easily beneath the blade. He did kick then, but only for a moment. I held him firm until his legs stilled, while the red stream poured into the bowl. I sang the hymns, and bathed their hands and faces in sacred water while fragrant herbs burned. I felt the heaviness lifting. The air grew clean, and the oily scent faded. They prayed while I carried away the blood to pour over a tree’s wrinkled roots. I would butcher the body later and cook it for their meal. “It is done,” I told them, when I returned. He lifted the hem of my cloak to his lips. “Great goddess.” She was the one I was watching. I wanted to see her face, freed at last from its careful custody. She looked up. Her eyes shone bright as torches. She drew off her veil, revealing hair like the sun on Crete’s hills. A demigod, she was, that potent mix of human and divinity. And more than that: she was my kin. None had such a golden look except the direct line of Helios. “I am sorry for my deception,” she said. “But I could not risk you sending me away. Not when I have wished all my life to know you.” There was a quality to her that is hard to describe, a fervency, a heat that went to your head. I had expected her to be beautiful, for she walked like a queen of the gods, but it was an odd beauty, not like my mother’s or sister’s. Each of her features alone was nothing, her nose too sharp, her chin over-strong. Yet together they made a whole like the heart of a flame. You could not look away. Her eyes were clinging to me as if they would peel me. “You and my father were close as children. I could not know what messages he might have sent you about his wayward daughter.” The force in her, the certainty. I should have recognized who she was at first glance, only from the set of her shoulders.

“You are Aeëtes’ child,” I said. I searched for the name Hermes had told me. “Medea, is it not?” “And you are my aunt Circe.” She looked like her father, I thought. That high brow and sharp, unyielding gaze. I said no more, but rose and went into the kitchen. I put plates and bread on a tray, added cheese and olives, goblets and wine. It is law that guests must be fed before the host’s curiosity. “Refresh yourselves,” I said. “There will be time to make all clear.” She served the man first, offering him the most tender morsels, urging bite upon bite. He ate what she gave him hungrily, and when I refilled the tray, he chewed that as well, his hero’s jaw working steadily. She ate little. Her eyes were lowered, a secret again. At last the man pushed back his plate. “My name is Jason, heir by rights to the kingdom of Iolcos. My father was a virtuous king but soft-hearted, and when I was a child, my uncle seized his throne from him. He said he would return it to me when I was grown, if I gave him proof of my worth: a golden fleece, kept by a sorcerer in his land of Colchis.” I believed that he was a proper prince. He had the trick of speaking like one, rolling words like great boulders, lost in the details of his own legend. I tried to imagine him kneeling before Aeëtes among the milk fountains and coiling dragons. My brother would have thought him dull, and arrogant besides. “Lady Hera and Lord Zeus blessed my purpose. They guided me to my ship and helped me gather my comrades. When we arrived in Colchis, I offered King Aeëtes fair treasure in payment for the fleece, but he refused. He said I might have it only if I performed a task for him. The yoking of two bulls, and the plowing and sowing of a great field in a single day. I was willing, of course, and accepted at once. Yet—” “Yet the task was impossible.” Medea’s voice slipped between his words easy as water. “A ploy designed to keep him from the fleece. My father had no intention of giving it up, for it is a thing of great story and power. No mortal, however valiant and brave”—at this she turned to Jason, touched her hand to his—“could accomplish those things unaided. The bulls were my father’s own magic, crafted of knife-sharp bronze and breathing fire. Even if Jason yoked them, the seeds he had to sow were another trap. They would become warriors springing up to kill him.” Her gaze was fixed passionately on Jason’s face. I spoke, more to bring her back than anything else. “So you contrived a trick,” I said. Jason did not like that. He was a hero of the great golden age. Trickery was for cowards, men not bull-necked enough to show true courage. Medea spoke quickly over his frown. “My love would have refused all help,” she said. “But I insisted, for I could not bear to see him in danger.” It softened him. This was a more pleasing tale: the princess swooning at his feet, forswearing her cruel father to be with him. Coming to him at night, in secret, that face of hers the only light. Who could say no? But her face was hidden now. Her voice was low, aimed at her own clasped hands. “I have some small skill in those crafts you and my father know. I made a simple draught that would protect Jason’s skin from the bulls’ fire.” Now that I knew who she was, such meekness looked absurd on her, like a great eagle trying to hunch down to fit inside a sparrow’s nest. Simple, she called that draught? I had never imagined a mortal might perform any magic, let alone such a powerful charm. But Jason was speaking again, rolling out more boulders, yoking the bulls, plowing and seeding the field. When the warriors sprang up, he said, he knew the secret for subduing them, which Medea had told him. He must throw a rock among them, and in their rage, they would attack each other. So he did, yet Aeëtes still did not yield the fleece. He said Jason must first defeat the deathless dragon that guarded it. Medea mixed another draught and put the worm to sleep. He ran for his ship with the treasure and Medea as well—his honor could never permit him to abandon an innocent girl to such a wicked tyrant. In his mind, he was already telling the tale to his court, to wide-eyed nobles and fainting maidens. He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due. She must have sensed my displeasure, for she spoke. “He is honorable indeed, for he married me upon the ship that very night, even with my father’s forces in pursuit. When he has his throne again in Iolcos, I will be his queen.” Was it my imagination, or did Jason’s light fade a little at that? There was a silence. “What of the blood I washed from your hands?” I said. “Yes,” she said softly. “I come to it. My father was enraged. He set out after us, his witchcraft drawing the winds to his sail, and by morning he was very close. I knew my spells were no match for his. Our ship, however blessed, could not outrun him. One hope only I had: my younger brother, whom I had taken with us. He was my father’s heir, and I had thought to exchange him as a hostage for our safety. But when I saw my father at his prow, shouting curses across the water, I knew it would not work. The killing rage was plain on his face. He would be satisfied with nothing but our ruin. He spoke spells in the air, he lifted his staff to bring them down upon our heads. I felt a great fear run through me. Not for myself, but for blameless Jason and his crew.” She looked at Jason, but his face was turned to the fire. “At that moment—I cannot describe it. A madness came over me. I seized Jason and commanded him to kill my brother. Then I cut the body into pieces and threw them into the waves. Wild as my father was, I knew he must stop to give him proper burial. When I woke from my fit the seas were empty. I thought it had been a dream until I saw my hands covered in my brother’s blood.” She held them out to me, as if in proof. They were clean. I had cleaned them. Jason’s skin had gone gray as raw lead. “Husband,” she said. He started, though she had not spoken loudly. “Your wine cup is dry. May I fill it for you?” She rose, moving with the goblet to the brimming bowl. Jason did not watch, and I would not have noticed if I were not witch myself: the pinch of powder that she dropped into the wine, the whispered word. “Here, my love,” she said. Her tone was coaxing as a mother’s. He took the wine and drank. When his head rolled back, and the cup would have fallen from his hands, she caught it. Carefully, she set it upon the table, and took her seat again.

“You understand,” she said. “It is too difficult for him. He blames himself.” “There was no madness,” I said. “No.” Her golden eyes pierced mine. “Yet some call lovers mad.” “If I had known I would not have done the rite.” She nodded. “You and most others. Perhaps that is why suppliants may not be questioned. How many of us would be granted pardon if our true hearts were known?” She took off her black cloak and laid it over the chair beside her. Her dress beneath was lapis blue, bound with a thin silver belt. “Do you feel no remorse?” “I suppose I could weep and rub my eyes to please you, but I choose not to live so falsely. My father would have destroyed the whole ship if I had not acted. My brother was a soldier. He sacrificed himself to win the war.” “Except he did not sacrifice himself. You murdered him.” “I gave him a draught so he would not suffer. It is better than most men get.” “He was your blood.” Her eyes burned, bright as a comet in the night’s sky. “Is one life worth more than another? I have never thought so.” “He did not have to die. You could have turned yourself in with the fleece. Gone back to your father.” The look that passed over her face. Like a comet indeed, when it veers to earth and turns the fields to ash. “I would have been made to watch while my father tore Jason and his crew limb from limb, then been tormented myself. You will pardon me if I do not call that a choice.” She saw the look on my face. “You do not believe me?” “You have said many things of my brother that I do not recognize.” “Let me introduce you then. Do you know what my father’s favorite sport is? Men come often to our isle, looking to prove themselves against a wicked sorcerer. My father likes to set the captains of those ships loose among his dragons and watch them run. The crew he enslaves, stealing away their minds so they have no more will than stones. To entertain his guests, I have seen my father light a brand and hold it to one of those men’s arms. The slave will stand there burning until my father releases him. I have wondered if they are merely empty shells, or if they understand what is being done to them and scream inside. If my father catches me, I will find out, for that is what he will do to me.” It was not the voice she had used with Jason, that cloying sweetness. It was not her gleaming self-assurance either. Each word was dark as an axe-head, heavy and unrelenting, and my blood drained at every blow. “Surely he would not hurt his own child.” She scoffed. “I am no child to him. I was his to dispose of, like his seed-warriors or his fire-breathing bulls. Like my mother, whom he dispatched as soon as she bore him an heir. Perhaps it might have been different if I’d had no witchcraft. But by the time I was ten I could tame the adders from their nests, I could kill lambs with a word and bring them back with another. He punished me for it. He said it made me unmarketable, but in truth, he did not want me taking his secrets to my husband.” I heard Pasiphaë as if she whispered in my ear: Aeëtes has never liked a woman in his life. “His greatest wish was to trade me off to some sorcerer-god like himself who would pay with exotic poisons. None could be found except his brother, Perses, so he offered me to him. I say my prayers every night that that beast did not want me. He has some goddess of Sumeria he keeps in chains for a wife.” I remembered the stories Hermes had told me: Perses and his palace of corpses. Pasiphaë saying, Do you know how I had to keep him happy? “It is strange,” I said, the words weak even to my own ears. “Aeëtes always hated Perses.” “Not now. They are closest friends, and when Perses visits they talk of nothing but raising the dead and bringing down Olympus.” I felt numb, barren as a winter field. “Does Jason know all this?” “Of course he does not, are you mad? Every time he looked at me, he would think of poisons and burning skin. A man wants a wife like new grass, fresh and green.” Had she not seen Jason flinch? Or did she not want to see? He shrinks from you already. She stood, her dress bright as a cresting wave. “My father pursues us still. We must leave at once and drive on to Iolcos. They have an army not even he can stand against, for the goddess Hera fights with them. He will be forced to turn back. Then Jason will be king, and I queen at his side.”

Her face was incandescent. She spoke each word as if it were a stone she built her future with. Yet for the first time she seemed to me a creature clinging to a precipice, desperate, its claws already slipping. She was young, younger than Glaucos when I had first met him. I looked at Jason, drugged, his mouth hanging open. “You are sure of his regard?” “You suggest he does not love me?” Her voice sharpened in an instant. “He is still half a child, and full mortal besides. He cannot understand your history, nor your witchcraft.” “He need not understand them. We are married now, and I will give him heirs and he will forget all this like a fever dream. I will be his good wife, and we will prosper.” I touched my fingers to her arm. Her skin was cool, as if she had been walking a long time in the wind. “Niece, I fear you do not see all clearly. Your welcome in Iolcos may not be what you imagine.” She drew her arm away, frowning. “What do you mean? Why would it not be? I am a princess, worthy of Jason.” “You are a foreigner.” I could see it, suddenly, as plain as if it were painted before me. The fractious nobles waiting at home for Jason’s return, each jockeying to match their daughter with the new-made hero and claim a piece of his glory. Medea would be the one thing they would agree upon. “They will resent you. Worse, they will suspect you, for you are the daughter of a sorcerer and a witch in your own right. You have lived only in Colchis, you cannot know how pharmakeia is feared among mortals. They will seek to undermine you at every turn. It will not matter that you helped Jason. They will push that aside, or else use it against you as proof of your unnaturalness.” She was staring at me, but I did not stop. My words were tumbling out, catching fire as they went. “You will find no safety there, no peace. Yet still you may be free from your father. I cannot undo his cruelties, but I can ensure that they follow you no further. He said once that witchcraft cannot be taught. He was wrong. He kept his knowledge from you, but I will give you all I know. When he comes, we will turn him away together.” She was silent a long moment. “What of Jason?” “Let him be a hero. You are something else.” “And what is that?” In my mind I saw us already, our heads bent together over the purple flowers of aconite, the black roots of moly. I would rescue her from her tainted past. “A witch,” I said. “With unbound power. Who need answer to none but herself.” “I see,” she said. “Like you? A pathetic exile, who stinks of her loneliness?” She saw the shock on my face. “What, do you think because you surround yourself with cats and pigs, you are deceiving anyone? You do not know me for an afternoon, yet you are scrabbling to keep me. You claim you want to help me, but whom do you really help? ‘Oh, niece, dearest niece! We will be the best of friends and do our magics side by side. I will keep you close, and so fill up my childless days.’” She curled her lip. “I will not sentence myself to such a living death.” Restless, I had thought. I was only restless in those days, and a little sad. But she had stripped me to my skin, and now I saw myself in her eyes: a bitter, abandoned crone, a spider, scheming to suck out her life. Face stinging, I rose to meet her. “It is better than being married to Jason. You are blind not to see what a weak reed he is. He flinches from you already. And you are what, three days married? What will he do in a year? He is led by his love for himself—you were only expedient. In Iolcos your position will rest on his goodwill. How long do you think that will last, when his countrymen come crying that the murder of your brother brings a curse to their land?” Her fists were clenched. “None will learn of my brother’s death. I have sworn the crew to silence.” “Such a secret cannot be kept. If you were not a child you would know it. The moment those men are out of earshot they will start their gossip. In a day, the whole kingdom will know, and they will shake your trembling Jason till he falls. ‘Great king, it was not your fault the boy died. It was that villainess, that foreign witch. She carved her own kin, what worse evils does she work even now? Cast her out, cleanse the land, and take a better in her place.’” “Jason would never listen to such slander! I delivered him the fleece! He loves me!” She stood fixed in her outrage, bright and defiant. All my hammering had only made her harder. Just so must I have seemed to my grandmother when she said to me: Those are two different things. “Medea,” I said. “Listen to me. You are young, and Iolcos will make you old. There is no safety for you there.” “Every day makes me old,” she said. “I do not have your years to waste. As for that safety, I do not want it. It is only more chains. Let them come at me if they dare. They will never take Jason from me. I have my powers, and I will use them.” Every time she said his name, a fierce eagle love flashed in her eyes. She had him in her grip and would clench him till he died. “And if you try to keep me,” she said, “I will fight you too.” She would, I thought. Though I was a god, and she a mortal. She would fight the whole world. Jason stirred. The spell was fading. “Niece,” I said, “I will not keep you against your will. But if you ever—”

“No,” she said. “I want nothing more from you.” She led Jason to the shore. They did not pause to rest or eat, they did not wait for dawn. They drew up the anchor and sailed into the darkness, their path lit only by the veiled moon and the unwavering gold of Medea’s eyes. I kept among the trees, so she would not see me watching and scorn me for that too. But I need not have bothered. She did not look back. Out on the beach, the sand was cool, and the starlight dappled my skin. The waves were busy washing away their footprints. I closed my eyes and let the breeze move over me, carrying its scents of brine and ocean-weed. Overhead I felt the constellations turning on their distant tracks. I waited there a long time, listening, sending my mind out into the waves. I heard nothing, no sound of oars, no snap of sail, no voices on the wind. But I knew when he came. I opened my eyes. The curve-beaked hull was splitting the waves of my harbor. He stood on its prow, his golden face outlined against the dawning sky. A pleasure rose in me so old and sharp it felt like pain. My brother. He lifted his hand and the ship stopped, hanging perfectly still in the waves. “Circe,” he cried over the water between us. His voice rang the air like struck bronze. “My daughter came here.” “Yes,” I said. “She did.” The satisfaction shone on his face. When he was an infant, his head had seemed to me delicate as glass. I used to trace its bones with my finger while he slept. “I knew she would. She is desperate. She sought to bind me, but she has bound herself. Her fratricide will hang upon her all her days.” “I grieve for your son’s death,” I said. “She will pay for it,” he said. “Send her out.” My woods had gone quiet behind me. All the animals were still, crouching to the ground. As a child, he had liked to lean his head upon my shoulder and watch the seagulls dip to catch their fish. His laugh had been bright as morning sun. “I met Daedalus,” I said. He frowned. “Daedalus? He has been dead for years. Where is Medea? Give her to me.” “She is not here,” I said. If I had turned the sea to stone I do not think he could have been more shocked. His face bloomed with incredulity and rage. “You let her go?” “She did not want to stay.” “Did not want to? She is a criminal and a traitor! It was your duty to keep her for me!” I had never seen him so angry before. I had never seen him angry at all. Even so, his face was beautiful, like the waves when they lift their storm-heads. I could still ask for his forgiveness, it was not too late. I could say she tricked me. I was his foolish sister, who trusted too easily and could not see into the cracks of the world. Then he would come ashore and we might—but my imagination would not finish the thought. Behind him at their oar benches sat his men. They stared straight ahead. They had not stirred, not even to brush off a fly or scratch an itch. Their faces were slack and empty, their arms covered in scars and crusted scabs. Old burns. I had lost him long ago. The air whipped around us. “Do you hear?” he shouted. “I should punish you.” “No,” I said. “In Colchis you may work your will. But this is Aiaia.” A second moment’s true surprise on his face. Then his mouth twisted. “You have done nothing. I will have her in the end.” “That may be true. But I do not think she will make it easy. She is like you, Aeëtes, as oak to oak. She must live with that, and so, it seems, must you.” He sneered, then turned and lifted his arm. His sailors moved their joints as one. The oars beat the water and carried him from me.

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