فصل 14

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فصل 14

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Chapter Fourteen OUTSIDE THE WINTER RAINS had begun to fall. My lioness whelped, and her cubs tumbled across the hearth on their clumsy, new-made paws. I could not smile at it. The earth seemed to echo where I walked. Above me the sky stretched out its empty hands. I waited for Hermes so I might ask him what became of Medea and Jason, but he always seemed to know when I wanted him, and stayed away. I tried to weave, but my mind felt needle-pricked. Now that Medea had named my loneliness, it hung from everything, clinging like spiderwebs, unavoidable. I ran along the beach, gasped up and down the forest paths, trying to shake it from me. I sifted and resifted my memories of Aeëtes, all those hours we had leaned against each other. That old sickening feeling returned: that every moment of my life I had been a fool. I helped Prometheus, I reminded myself. But it sounded pathetic even to my ears. How long would I cling to that handful of minutes, trying to cover myself as if with some threadbare blanket? It did not matter what I had done then. Prometheus was on his crag, and I was here. The days moved slowly, dropping like petals from a blown rose. I gripped the cedar loom and made myself breathe its scent. I tried to remember the feel of Daedalus’ scars beneath my fingers, but the memories were built of air, and blew away. Someone will come, I thought. All the ships in the world, all the men. Someone must. I stared into the horizon until my eyes blurred, hoping for some fishermen, some cargo, even a shipwreck. There was nothing. I pressed my face into my lion’s fur. Surely there was some divine trick to make the hours go faster. To let them slip past unseen, to sleep for years, so that when I woke again the world would be new. I closed my eyes. Through the window I heard the bees singing in the garden. My lion’s tail beat against the stones. An eternity later, when I opened my eyes, the shadows had not even moved.

She was standing over me, frowning. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, with round limbs and a head neat as a nightingale’s breast. A familiar smell wafted from her skin. Rose oil and my grandfather’s river. “I am come to serve you,” she said. I had been drowsing in my chair. I stared up blearily, thinking she must be an apparition, some hallucination of my solitude. “What?” She wrinkled her nose. Apparently all her humility had been used up in those words. “I am Alke,” she said. “Is this not Aiaia? Are you not the daughter of Helios?” “I am.” “I am sentenced to be your servant.” I felt as if I dreamed. Slowly, I got to my feet. “Sentenced? By whom? I have not heard of such a thing. Speak, what power sent you?” Naiads show their feelings as water shows ripples. However she had told herself this would go, it was not like this. “The great gods sent me.” “Zeus?” “No,” she said. “My father.” “And who is he?” She named some minor river-lord in the Peloponnese. I had heard of him, perhaps met him once, but he had never sat in my father’s halls. “Why send you to me?” She looked at me as if I were the greatest idiot she had ever met. “You are a daughter of Helios.” How could I have forgotten what it was like among the lesser gods? The desperate clawing for any advantage. Even disgraced, I still had the blood of the sun in my veins, which made me a desirable mistress. Indeed, for such as her father, my disgrace would be encouragement, lowering me enough that he dared to reach up. “Why were you punished?” “I fell in love with a mortal,” she said. “A noble shepherd. My father disapproved and now I must do a year’s penance.” I considered her. Her back was straight, her eyes up. She showed no fear, not of me, not of my wolves and lions. And her father disapproved of her. “Sit,” I said. “Be welcome.” She sat, but her mouth was puckered as if she sucked an unripe olive. She looked around with distaste. When I offered her food, she turned her head aside like a sulky baby. When I tried to speak to her, she folded her arms and pursed her lips. They only opened to voice her complaints: about the smell of the dyes bubbling on the stove, the lion hairs on the rugs, even Daedalus’ loom. And for all her protestations about serving,

she did not offer to carry a single dish. There is no need to be surprised, I told myself. She is a nymph, which means a dry well. “Go home, then,” I said, “if you are so miserable. I release you from your sentence.” “You cannot. The great gods have commanded me. There is nothing you can do to release me. I am staying a year.” It should have upset her, but she was smirking. Preening as if in victory before a crowd. I watched. When she had spoken of the gods exiling her, she had showed no anger, and no grief either. She took their authority as natural, irresistible, like the movements of the spheres. But I was a nymph like her, and an exile too, a daughter of a greater father, yes, but with no husband and dirty fingers and oddly dressed hair. It put me in her reach, she reasoned. So I was the one she would fight. You are being foolish. I am not your enemy, and pulling faces is no real power. They have convinced you—But even as the words formed in my mouth, I let them go. It would be like Persian to her. She would not understand it, not in a thousand years. And I was done giving lessons. I leaned forward and spoke the language she understood. “Here is how it will go, Alke. I will not hear you. I will not smell your rose oil or find your hairs about my house. You will feed yourself, care for yourself, and if you cause me a moment’s more trouble, I will turn you into a blindworm and drop you in the sea for the fish.” Her smirks were wiped away. She blanched and pressed her fingers to her mouth and fled. After that she kept to herself as I had ordered. But word had spread among the gods that Aiaia was a good place to send difficult daughters. A dryad arrived who had fled her intended husband. Two stone-faced oreads followed, exiled from their mountains. Now whenever I tried to cast a spell, all I could hear was rattling bracelets. As I worked at the loom, they flashed in and out of the corners of my vision. They whispered and rustled from every corner. There was always someone leaning moon-faced over a pool when I wanted to swim. As I passed, their snickering laughter washed against my heels. I would not live that way again. Not on Aiaia. I went to the clearing and called Hermes. He came, smiling already. “So? How do you like your new handmaids?” “I do not,” I said. “Go to my father and see how they can be taken away.” I feared he might object to being sent on an errand, but it was too amusing for him to miss. When he came back he said, “What did you expect? Your father is delighted. He says it’s only right that his high blood is served by lesser divinities. He will encourage more fathers to send their daughters.” “No,” I said. “I will take no more. Tell my father.” “Prisoners don’t usually dictate their own conditions.” My face stung, but I knew better than to show it. “Tell my father I will do something awful to them if they do not leave. I will turn them into rats.” “I can’t imagine Zeus would like that. Weren’t you already exiled for acts against your kin? You should beware further punishment.” “You could speak on my behalf. Try to persuade him.” His black eyes glittered. “I’m afraid I’m only a messenger.” “Please,” I said. “I do not want them here, truly. I am not being funny.” “No,” he said, “you are not. You are being very dull. Use your imagination, they must be good for something. Take them to your bed.” “That is absurd,” I said. “They would run screaming.” “Nymphs always do,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a secret: they are terrible at getting away.” At a feast on Olympus such a jest would have been followed by a roar of laughter. Hermes waited now, grinning like a goat. But all I felt was a white, cold rage. “I am finished with you,” I said. “I have been finished a long time. Let me not see you again.” If anything, his grin deepened. He vanished and did not return. It was no obedience. He was finished with me too, for I had committed the unpardonable sin of being dull. I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs. From time to time, I could sense him just out of sight, finding my nymphs in the hills, sending them back flushed and laughing, giddy from the great Olympian who had shown them favor. He seemed to think I would go mad with jealousy and loneliness, and turn them into rats indeed. A hundred years he had been coming to my island, and in all that time he had never cared for more than his own entertainment. The nymphs remained. When they finished their terms of service, others arrived to take their place. Sometimes there were four, sometimes six or seven. They trembled when I passed, ducking and calling me mistress, but it meant nothing. I had been put in my place. At a word and a whim from my father all my vaunted power blew away. Not even my father: any river-god had the right to fill my island, and I could not stop him. The nymphs wafted around me. Their smothered laughter drifted down the halls. At least, I told myself, it was not their brothers, who would have bragged and fought and hunted down my wolves. But of course that was never a real danger. Sons were not punished. I sat at my hearth watching the stars turn through the window. Cold, I felt. Cold as a garden in winter, gone deep to ground. I did my spells. I sang and worked at my loom and husbanded my animals, but it all felt shrunk to the size of ants. The island had never needed my hand. It prospered on no matter what I did. The sheep multiplied and wandered freely. They ambled over the grass, nudging aside the wolf pups with their blunt faces. My lioness stayed inside by the fire. White fur stained her mouth. Her grandchildren had their own grandchildren, and her haunches trembled when she walked. A hundred years at least she must have lived with me, pacing at my side, her life extended by the close pulse of my divinity. A decade that time had seemed to me. I assumed there would be many more, but one morning I woke to find her cold beside me on the bed. I stared at her unmoving sides, my brain stupid with disbelief. When I shook her a fly buzzed off. I pried open her stiff jaws and forced herbs down her throat, chanting one spell, then another. Still she lay there, all her golden strength turned dun. Perhaps Aeëtes could have brought her back, or Medea. I could not. I built the pyre with my own hands. Cedar it was, and yew, and mountain ash that I chopped myself, its white pith spraying where the axe blade struck. I could not lift her, so I made a sledge out of the purple cloth I had used to wind around her neck. I dragged her through my hall, past the stones worn smooth by the pads of her great paws. I pulled her up to the pyre’s top and lit the flames. There was no wind that day, and

the flames fed slowly. It took the whole afternoon for her fur to blacken, her long yellow body to burn down to ash. For the first time the cold underworld of mortals seemed a mercy. At least some part of them lived on. She was utterly lost. I watched until the last flame was gone, then went back inside. A pain was gnawing in my chest. I pressed my hands to it, the hollows and hard bones. I sat before my loom and felt at last like the creature Medea had named me: old and abandoned and alone, spiritless and gray as the rocks themselves.

I sang often in those days, for it was the best company I had. That morning it was an old hymn in praise of farming. I liked the shape of it on my lips, the soothing lists of plants and crops, of crofts and cotes, herds and flocks, and the stars that wheeled above them. I let the words float in the air as I stirred the boiling pot of dye. I had seen a fox and wanted to match the color of her coat. The liquid foamed up, saffron mixed with madder. My nymphs had fled the stink, but I liked it: the sharp stinging in my throat, the watering of my eyes. It was the song that caught their attention, my voice drifting down the trails to the beach. They followed it through the trees and sighted the smoke from my chimney. A man’s voice called out. “Is anyone there?” I remember my shock. Visitors. I turned so quickly the dye splashed, and a burning drop fell on my hand. I smeared it away as I hurried to the door. There were twenty of them, wind-rough and shiny from sun. Their hands were thickly calloused, their arms puckered with old scars. After so long amid only the smooth sameness of nymphs, each imperfection was a pleasure: the lines around their eyes, the scabs on their legs, the fingers broken off at the knuckle. I drank in their threadbare clothes, their worn faces. These were not heroes, or the crew of a king. They must scrabble for their livelihoods as Glaucos once did: hauling nets, carrying odd cargo, hunting down whatever dinner they could find. I felt a warmth run through me. My fingers itched as if for needle and thread. Here was something torn that I could mend. A man stepped forward. He was tall and gray, his body lean. Many of the men behind him still had their hands on their sword hilts. It was wise. Islands were dangerous places. You met monsters as often as friends. “Lady, we are hungry and lost,” he said. “And hope such a goddess as yourself will help us in our need.” I smiled. It felt strange on my face after so long. “You are welcome here. You are very welcome. Come in.” I shooed the wolves and lions outside. Not all men were as unshakable as Daedalus, and these sailors looked as though they had known shocks enough already. I led them to my tables, then hurried to the kitchen to bring out heaping platters of stewed figs and roasted fish, brined cheese and bread. The men had eyed my pigs on the way in, elbowing each other and whispering loudly their hope that I might kill one. But when the fish and fruits were before them, they were so eager they did not complain, nor even pause to wash their hands or take off their swords. They bolted and shoveled, the grease and wine darkening their beards. I carried more fish, more cheese. Each time I passed they ducked their heads at me. Lady. Mistress. Our thanks. I could not stop smiling. The fragility of mortals bred kindness and good grace. They knew how to value friendship and an open hand. If only more of them would come, I thought. I would feed a ship a day, and gladly. Two ships. Three. Perhaps I would start to feel like myself again. The nymphs peeked in from the kitchen, eyes wide. I hurried over, sent them off before they were noticed. These men were mine, my guests to welcome as I pleased, and I enjoyed seeing to all their comforts myself. I set out fresh water in bowls, so they might wash their fingers. A knife fell to the floor, and I picked it up. When the captain’s cup was dry, I filled it from the brimming bowl. He lifted it to me. “Thank you, sweet.” Sweet. The word set me back a moment. They had called me goddess before, and so I believed they thought me. But they showed no awe or religious deference, I realized. The title had been only a flattering courtesy for a woman alone. I remembered what Hermes had told me long ago. You sound like a mortal. They won’t fear you as they fear the rest of us. And so they did not. In fact, they thought I was the same as they were. I stood there, charmed by the idea. What would my mortal self be? An enterprising herbwoman, an independent widow? No, not a widow, for I did not want some grim history. Perhaps I was a priestess. But not to a god. “Daedalus once visited this place,” I told the man. “I keep the shrine of it.” He nodded. I was disappointed at how unimpressed he was. As if there were shrines to dead heroes all over. Well, perhaps there were. How would I know? The men’s appetites were slowing, and their heads lifted from their plates. I saw them begin to look around, at the silver on the bowls, the golden goblets, the tapestries. My nymphs took such riches as their due, but the men’s gazes were bright with wonder, searching out each new marvel. I thought of how I had trunks filled with down pillows, enough to make them beds on the floor. When I handed them over, I would say, These were meant for gods, and their eyes would go wide. “Mistress?” It was the leader again. “When will your husband be home? We would toast such fine hospitality.” I laughed. “Oh, I do not have a husband.” He smiled back. “Of course,” he said. “You are too young to be married. Then it is your father we must thank.” It was full dark outside, and the room glowed warm and bright. “My father lives far away,” I said. I waited for them to ask who he was. A lamplighter, that would be a good jest. I smiled to myself. “Then perhaps there is some other host we should thank? An uncle, a brother?” “If you would thank your host,” I said, “thank me. This house is mine alone.” At the word, the air changed in the room. I plucked up the wine bowl. “It is empty,” I said. “Let me bring you more.” I could hear my own breath as I turned. I could feel their twenty bodies filling up the space behind me.

In the kitchen, I put a hand to one of my draughts. You are being silly, I thought. They were surprised to find a woman by herself, that is all. But my fingers were already moving. I took the lid off a jar, mixed its contents into the wine, then added honey and whey to cover the taste. I brought the bowl out. Twenty gazes followed me. “Here,” I said. “I have kept back the best for last. You must have some, all of you. It comes from the finest vineyard on Crete.” They smiled, pleased at such solicitous luxury. I watched every man fill his cup. I watched them drink. By then each of them must have had a cask in his belly. The platters were empty, licked clean. The men leaned together, speaking low. My voice felt too loud. “Come, I have fed you well. Will you tell me your names?” They looked up. Their eyes darted like ferrets to their leader. He rose, the bench scraping on the stone. “Tell us yours first.” There was something in his voice. I almost said it then, the spell-word that would send them to sleep. But even after all the years that had passed, there was a piece of me that still only spoke what I was bid. “Circe,” I answered. The name meant nothing to them. It dropped onto the floor like a stone. The benches scraped again. All the men were rising now, their eyes fixed on me. And still I said nothing. Still I told myself I was wrong. I must be wrong. I had fed them. They had thanked me. They were my guests. The captain stepped towards me. He was taller than I was, every sinew taut from labor. I thought—what? That I was being foolish. That something else would happen. That I had drunk too much of my own wine, and this was the fear it conjured. That my father would come. My father! I did not want to be a fool, to make a fuss for nothing. I could hear Hermes telling the tale after. She always was a hysteric. The captain was close now. I could feel the heat of his skin. His face was rutted, cracked like old streambeds. I kept waiting for him to speak some ordinary thing, to offer thanks, ask a question. Somewhere in her palace, my sister was laughing. You have been tame your whole life, and now you will be sorry. Yes Father, yes Father—see what it gets you. My tongue touched my lips. “Is there—” The man threw me back against the wall. My head hit the uneven stone and the room sparked. I opened my mouth to cry out the spell, but he jammed his arm against my windpipe and the sound was choked off. I could not speak. I could not breathe. I fought him, but he was stronger than I had thought he would be, or maybe I was weaker. The sudden weight of him shocked me, the greasy push of his skin on mine. My mind was still scrambled, disbelieving. With his right hand, he tore my clothes, a practiced gesture. With his left, he kept his weight against my throat. I had said there was no one on the island, but he had learned not to take chances. Or perhaps he just didn’t like screaming. I don’t know what his men did. Watched maybe. If my lion had been there, she would have clawed down the door, but she was ash upon the winds. Outside I heard the pigs squealing. I remember what I thought, bare against the grinding stone: I am only a nymph after all, for nothing is more common among us than this. A mortal would have fainted, but I was awake for every moment. At last, I felt the man tremble, and his arm loosened. My throat was crushed inward like a rotted log. I could not seem to move. A drop of sweat fell from his hair onto my bare chest, and began to slide. I became aware of his men speaking behind him. Is she dead? one of them was saying. She better not be dead, it’s my turn. A face loomed over the captain’s shoulder. Her eyes are open. The captain stepped back and spat at the floor. The jellied glob quivered on the stone. The drop of sweat slid onwards, carving its slimy furrow. A sow shrieked in the yard. Convulsively, I swallowed. My throat clicked. I felt a space open in me. The sleep-spell I had been going to say was gone, dried up, I could not have cast it even if I wanted to. But I did not want to. My eyes lifted to his rutted face. Those herbs had another use, and I knew what it was. I drew breath, and spoke my word. His eyes were muddy and uncomprehending. “What—” He did not finish. His rib cage cracked and began to bulge. I heard the sound of flesh rupturing wetly, the pops of breaking bone. His nose ballooned from his face, and his legs shriveled like a fly sucked by a spider. He fell to all fours. He screamed, and his men screamed with him. It went on for a long time. As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.

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