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Chapter Eighteen HOW WOULD THE SONGS frame the scene? The goddess on her lonely promontory, her lover dwindling in the distance. Her eyes wet but inscrutable, cast inward to private thoughts. Beasts gather at her hem. The lindens bloom. And at the last, just before he disappears over the horizon, she lifts one hand and touches it to her belly. My guts began to boil the moment his anchor was up. I, who had never been sick in my life, now was sick every moment. I heaved until my throat was torn, my stomach rattling like an old nut, my mouth cracked at its corners. As if my body would cast up everything it had eaten for a hundred years. My nymphs wrung their hands and clutched each other. They had never seen such a thing. In pregnancy, our kind glowed and swelled like buds. They thought I was poisoned, or else cursed with some unholy transformation, my body turning itself inside out. When they tried to help me, I pushed them away. The child I carried would be called demigod, but that word was deceiving. From my blood he would have a few special graces, beauty or speed, strength or charm. But all the rest would come from his father, for mortality always bred truer than godhead. His flesh would be subject to the same thousand pricks and fatalities that threaten every man. I trusted such frailty to no god, no family of mine, to none but myself alone. “Leave now,” I said to them in my new, ragged voice. “I do not care how you do it—send to your fathers and go. This is for me.” What they thought of such words, I never knew. I was seized again, my eyes blind and watering. By the time I found my way back to the house, they were gone. I suppose their fathers obliged because they feared pregnancy by a mortal might be catching. The house felt strange without them, but I had no time to think of it, and no time to mourn for Odysseus either. The sickness did not cease. Every hour it rode me. I could not understand why it took me so hard. I wondered if it was the mortal blood fighting with mine, or if I was cursed indeed, if some stray hex of Aeëtes’ had circled all this while and found me at last. But the affliction yielded to no counterspell, not even moly. It is no mystery, I said to myself. Have you not always insisted on being difficult in everything you do? I could not defend myself from sailors in such shape and I knew it. I crawled to my herb-pots and cast the spell I had thought of so long ago: an illusion to make the island look like hostile, wrecking rocks to any ship that passed. I lay on the ground after, breathing with effort. I would be left in peace. Peace. I would have laughed if I were not so ill. The sour tang of cheese in the kitchen, the salt-stink of seaweed on the breeze, the wormy earth after rain, the sickly roses browning on the bush. All of them brought the bile stinging to my throat. Headaches followed, like urchin spines driven into my eyes. This is how Zeus must have felt before Athena leapt from his skull, I thought. I crawled to my room and lay in the shuttered dark, dreaming of how sweet it would be to cut through my neck and make an end. Yet, as strange as it sounds, even in such extremities of misery I was not wholly miserable. I was used to unhappiness, formless and opaque, stretching out to every horizon. But this had shores, depths, a purpose and a shape. There was hope in it, for it would end, and bring me my child. My son. For whether by witchcraft or prophetic blood, that is what I knew he was. He grew, and his fragility grew with him. I had never been so glad of my immortal flesh, layered like armor around him. I was giddy feeling his first kicks and I spoke to him every moment, as I crushed my herbs, as I cut clothes for his body, wove his cradle out of rushes. I imagined him walking beside me, the child and boy and man that he would be. I would show him all the wonders I had gathered for him, this island and its sky, the fruits and sheep, the waves and lions. The perfect solitude that would never be loneliness again. I touched my hand to my belly. Your father said once that he wanted more children, but that is not why you live. You are for me.
Odysseus had told me that Penelope’s pains began so faintly, she thought them a stomachache from too many pears. Mine dropped from the sky like a thunderbolt. I remember crawling to the house from the garden, hunched against the tearing contraction. I had the willow draught ready, and I drank some, then all, and by the end I was licking the bottle’s neck. I knew so little of childbirth, its stages and progression. The shadows changed, but it was all one endless moment, the pain like stones grinding me to meal. I screamed and pushed against it for hours, and still the baby did not come. Midwives had tricks to help the child move, but I did not know them. One thing I did understand: if it took too long, my son would die. On it went. In my agonies, I overturned a table. After, I would find the room torn apart as if by bears, tapestries ripped from the walls, stools shattered, platters broken. I do not remember it. My mind was lurching through a thousand terrors. Was the baby dead already? Or was I like my sister, growing some monster within me? The unremitting pain only seemed a confirmation. If the baby were whole and natural, wouldn’t he come? I closed my eyes. Putting a hand inside myself, I felt for the smooth curve of the child’s head. It had no horns, no other horrors I could tell. It was only stuck against the inner opening, squeezed between my muscles and my bones. I prayed to Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. She had the power to loosen the womb’s hold and bring the child into the world. She was said to watch over the birth of every god and demigod. Help me, I cried out. But she did not come. The animals whined in their corners, and I began to remember the whispers of my cousins in Oceanos’ halls so long ago. If a god did not wish your child to be born, they might hold Eileithyia back. The thought seized my careering mind. Someone was keeping her from me. Someone dared to try to harm my son. It gave me the strength I needed. I bared my teeth at the dark and crawled to the kitchen. I seized a knife and dragged a great bronze mirror to face me, for there was no Daedalus now to help. I leaned against the marble wall, amid the broken table legs. The coolness of the stone calmed me. This child was no Minotaur, but a mortal. I must not cut too deep. I had been afraid the pain would undo me, but I scarcely felt it. There was a rasping sound, like stone upon stone, that I realized was my own breath. The layers of flesh parted, and I saw him at last: limbs curled like a snail in its shell. I stared, afraid to move him. What if he was dead already? What if he was not, and I killed him with my touch? But I drew him forth, and his skin met the air, and he began to wail. I wailed with him, for I had never heard a sweeter sound. I laid him on my chest. The stones beneath us felt like feathers. He was shuddering and shuddering, pressing my skin with his wet, living face. I cut the cord, holding him all the while. See? I told him. We do not need anyone. In answer, he made a froggy croak and closed his eyes. My son, Telegonus.
I did not go easy to motherhood. I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows. Yet all my preparations were not enough. In those months I had spent with Odysseus, I had thought I’d learned some tricks of mortal living. Three meals a day, the fluxes, the washing and cleaning. Twenty diaper cloths I had cut, and believed myself wise. But what did I know of mortal babies? Aeëtes was in arms less than a month. Twenty cloths got me only through the first day. Thank the gods I did not have to sleep. Every minute I must wash and boil and clean and scrub and put to soak. Yet how could I do that, when every minute he also needed something, food and change and sleep? That last I had always thought the most natural thing for mortals, easy as breathing, yet he could not seem to do it. However I wrapped him, however I rocked and sang, he screamed, gasping and shaking until the lions fled, until I feared he would do himself harm. I made a sling to carry him, so he might lie against my heart. I gave him soothing herbs, I burned incenses, I called birds to sing at our windows. The only thing that helped was if I walked—walked the halls, walked the hills, walked the shore. Then at last he would wear himself out, close his eyes, and sleep. But if I stopped, if I tried to put him down, he would wake at once. Even when I walked without ceasing, he was soon up, screaming again. Within him was an ocean’s worth of grief, which could only be stoppered a moment, never emptied. How often in those days did I think of Odysseus’ smiling child? I tried his trick, along with all the rest. Held my son’s floppy body up into the air, promised him he was safe. He only screamed louder. Whatever made the prince Telemachus so sweet, I thought, it must have come from Penelope. This was the child I deserved. We did find some moments of peace. When he finally slept, when he nursed at my breast, when he smiled at a flight of birds scattering from a tree. I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well. He was not happy. A moment, I thought, I only need one moment without his damp rage in my arms. But there was none. He hated sun. He hated wind. He hated baths. He hated to be clothed, to be naked, to lie on his belly, and his back. He hated this great world and everything in it, and me, so it seemed, most of all. I thought of all those hours I had spent working my spells, singing, weaving. I felt their loss like a limb torn away. I told myself I even missed turning men to pigs, for at least that I had been good at. I wanted to hurl him from me, but instead I marched on in that darkness with him, back and forth before the waves, and at every step I yearned for my old life. I spoke sourly to the night air as he wailed: “At least I do not worry he is dead.” I clapped a hand to my mouth, for the god of the underworld comes at much less invitation. I held his fierce little face against me. The tears were standing in his eyes, his hair disordered, a small scratch on his cheek. How had he gotten it? What villain dared to hurt him? Everything that I had heard of mortal babies flooded back: how they died for no reason, for any reason, because they grew too cold, too hungry, because they lay one way, or another. I felt each breath in his thin chest, how improbable it was, how unlikely that this frail creature, who could not even lift his head, could survive in the harsh world. But he would survive. He would, if I must wrestle the veiled god myself. I stared into the darkness. I listened like wolves do, pricked for any danger. I wove again those illusions that made my island look like savage rocks. But still I feared. Sometimes men were reckless in their desperation. If they landed on the rocks anyway, they would hear his screams and come. What if I had forgotten my tricks and could not make them drink? I remembered the stories Odysseus had told me of what soldiers did to children. Astyanax and all the sons of Troy, smashed and spitted, torn to pieces, trampled by horses, killed and killed so they would not live and grow to strength and one day come looking for their vengeance. My whole life, I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and powers more than others thought I deserved, all the things that draw the thunderstroke. A dozen times grief had scorched, but its fire had never burned through my skin. My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.
I fought on and he grew. That is all I can say. He calmed, and that calmed me, or maybe it was the opposite. I did not stare so much, think so often of scalding myself. He smiled for the first time and began to sleep in his cradle. He went a whole morning without screaming, and I could work in my garden. Clever child, I said. You were testing me, weren’t you? He looked up from the grass at the sound of my voice and smiled again. His mortality was always with me, constant as a second beating heart. Now that he could sit up, reach and grasp, all the ordinary objects of my house showed their hidden teeth. The boiling pots on the fire seemed to leap for his fingers. The blades slipped from the table a hairsbreadth from his head. If I set him down, a wasp would come droning, a scorpion scuttle from some hidden crevice and raise its tail. The sparks from the fire always seemed to pop in arcs towards his tender flesh. Each danger I turned aside in time, for I was never more than a step from him, but it only made me more afraid to close my eyes, to leave him for an instant. The woodpile would topple on him. A wolf who had been gentle her whole life would snap. I would wake to see a viper reared over his crib, jaws wide. It is a sign, I think, of how addled I was with love and fear and no sleep, that it took me so long to realize: that stinging insects should not come in battalions, and ten falling pots in a morning was beyond even my tired clumsiness. To remember how, in the long agony of my labor, Eileithyia had been kept from me. To wonder if, thwarted, the god that had done it might try again.
I slung Telegonus against me and walked to the pool that lay halfway up the peak. There were frogs in it, silver minnows and water-skimmers. The weeds were thickly tangled. I could not say why it was water that I wanted at that moment. Perhaps some relic of my naiad blood. I touched my finger to the pool’s surface. “Does a god seek to harm my son?” The pool shivered, and an image of Telegonus formed. He lay wrapped in a wool shroud, gray and lifeless. I started back, gasping, and the vision broke to pieces. For a moment I could do nothing but breathe and press my cheek to Telegonus’ head. His faint wisps of hair were worn away at the back with endless fidgeting in his cot. I put my trembling hand to the water again. “Who is it?” The water showed only the sky overhead. “Please,” I begged. But no answer came, and I felt the panic climbing my throat. I had assumed it was some nymph or river-god who threatened us. Tricks of insects and fire and animals were just at the limits of a lesser divinity’s natural power. I had even wondered if it was my mother, in a fit of jealousy that I might bear new children when she could not. But this god had the strength to escape my vision. There were only a handful of such deities in all the world. My father. My grandfather, perhaps. Zeus and a few of the greater Olympians. I clutched Telegonus against me. Moly could ward off a spell, but not a trident, not a lightning bolt. I would fall to those powers like a stalk of wheat. I closed my eyes and fought back the strangling fear. I must be clear and clever. I must remember all the tricks that lesser gods have used against greater since the beginning of time. Had not Odysseus once told me a story about Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, who had found a way to bargain with Zeus? But he had not said what that way was. And in the end, her son had died. My breath felt like sawblades in my chest. I must learn who it is, I told myself. That is first. I cannot guard against shadows. Give me something to face and fight.
Back at the house, I made a small fire in the hearth, though we did not need it. The night was warm, summer waxing to autumn, but I wanted the smell of cedar in the air, and the tang of my herbs which I had sprinkled over the flames. I was aware of a tingling on my skin. Any other time I would have taken it for a change in the weather, but now it seemed curdled with malice. My neck bristled. I paced the stone floor, cradling Telegonus against me until at last, exhausted from his wailing, he slept. It was what I had waited for. I laid him in his crib, then drew it close to the fire and set my lions and wolves around it. They could not stop a god, but most divinities are cowards. Claws and teeth might buy me a little time. I stood before the hearth, my staff in my hand. The air was thick with a listening silence. “You who would try to kill my child, come forth. Come forth, and speak to my face. Or do you only do your murdering from the shadows?” The room was utterly still. I heard nothing but Telegonus’ breaths and the blood in my veins. “I need no shadows.” The voice sliced the air. “And it is not for such as you to question my purposes.” She struck the room, tall and straight and sudden-white, a talon of lightning in the midnight sky. Her horse-hair helmet brushed the ceiling. Her mirror armor threw off sparks. The spear in her hand was long and thin, its keen edge limned in firelight. She was burning certainty, and before her all the shuffling and stained dross of the world must shrink away. Zeus’ bright and favorite child, Athena. “What I desire will come to pass. There is no mitigation.” That voice again, like shearing metal. I had stood in the presence of great gods before: my father and grandfather, Hermes, Apollo. Yet her gaze pierced me as theirs had not. Odysseus had said once she was like a blade honed to a hair’s fineness, so delicate you would not even know you had been cut, while beat by beat your blood was emptying on the floor. She extended one immaculate hand. “Give me the child.” All the warmth in the room had fled. Even the fire popping beside me seemed only a painting on the wall. “No.” Her eyes were braided silver and stone gray. “You would stand against me?” The air had thickened. I felt as though I gasped for breath. On her chest shone her famous aigis, leather armor fringed with golden threads. It was said to be made from the skin of a Titan that she had flayed and tanned herself. Her flashing eyes promised: just so will I wear you, if you do not submit and beg for mercy. My tongue withered, and I felt myself trembling. But if there was one thing I knew in all the world, it was that there was no mercy among gods. I twisted my skin between my fingers. The sharp pain steadied me. “I would,” I said. “Though it hardly seems a fair battle, you against an unarmed nymph.” “Give him to me willingly, and there need not be a battle. I will make sure it is quick. He will not suffer.” Do not listen to your enemy, Odysseus had once told me. Look at them. It will tell you everything. I looked. Armed and armored, she was, from head to foot, helmet, spear, aigis, greaves. A terrifying vision: the goddess of war, ready for battle. But why had she assembled such a panoply against me, who knew nothing of combat? Unless there was something else she feared, something that made her feel somehow stripped and weak. Instinct carried me forward, the thousand hours I had spent in my father’s halls, and with Odysseus polymetis, man of so many wiles. “Great goddess, all my life I have heard the stories of your power. So I must wonder. You have wanted my child dead for some time, and yet he lives. How can that be?” She had begun swelling like a snake, but I pressed on. “I can only think, then, that you are not permitted. That something prevents you. The Fates, for their purposes, do not allow you to kill him outright.” At that word, Fates, her eyes flashed. She was a goddess of argument, born from the bright, relentless mind of Zeus. If she was forbidden something, even by the three gray goddesses themselves, she would not simply submit. She would set about parsing the constraint down to its atoms, and try to eke a way through. “So that is why you have worked as you have. With wasps and falling pots.” I regarded her. “How such low means must have galled your warrior spirit.” Her hand glowed white on her spear-shaft. “Nothing is changed. The child must die.” “And so he will, when he is a hundred.” “Tell me, how long do you think your witcheries will stand against me?” “As long as they need to.” “You are too quick.” She took a step towards me. The horse-hair plume hissed against my ceiling. “You have forgotten your place, nymph. I am a daughter of Zeus. Perhaps I cannot strike directly at your son, but the Fates say nothing about what I can do to you.” She set the words in the room precisely as stones in a mosaic. Even among gods, Athena was known for her wrath. Those who defied her were turned to stones and spiders, driven mad, snatched up by whirlwinds, hounded and cursed to the ends of the world. And if I were gone, then Telegonus… “Yes,” she said. Her smile was flat and cold. “You begin to understand your situation.” She lifted her spear from the floor. It did not shine now. It flowed like liquid darkness in her hand. I stepped back against the woven side of the crib, my mind scrambling. “It is true, you might harm me,” I said. “But I have a father too, and a family. They do not take lightly the careless chastising of our blood. They would be angry. They might even be stirred to action.”
The spear still hovered off the floor, but she did not heft it. “If there is war, Titan, Olympus will win it.” “If Zeus wanted war, he would have sent his thunderbolt against us long ago. Yet he holds off. What will he think of you destroying his hard-won peace?” I saw in her eyes the click of counters, stones tallied on this side and that. “Your threats are crude. I had hoped we might discuss this reasonably.” “There can be no reason as long as you seek to murder my child. You are angry with Odysseus, but he does not even know the boy exists. Killing Telegonus will not punish him.” “You presume, witch.” If it were not my son’s life at stake, I might have laughed at what I saw in her eyes. For all her cleverness, she had no skill at concealing her emotions. Why would she? Who would dare harm the great Athena for her thoughts? Odysseus had said she was angry with him, but he did not understand the true nature of gods. She was not angry. Her absence was only that old trick Hermes had spoken of: turn your back on a favorite and drive him to despair. Then return in glory, and revel in the groveling you will get. “If not to hurt Odysseus, why seek my son’s death?” “That knowledge is not for you. I have seen what will come and I tell you that this infant cannot live. If he does, you will be sorry for it all the rest of your days. You are tender to the child and I do not blame you for it. But do not let a mother’s doting cloud your sense. Think, daughter of Helios. Is it not wiser to give him to me now, when he is barely set into the world, when his flesh and your affections are still half formed?” Her voice softened. “Imagine how much worse it will be for you in a year, or two, or ten, when your love is full-grown. Better to send him easy to the house of souls now. Better to bear another child and begin to forget with new joys. No mother should have to see her child’s death. And yet, if such must come, if there is no other way, still there may be recompense.” “Recompense.” “Of course.” Her face shone bright upon me as the forge’s heart. “You do not think I ask for sacrifice without offering reward? You will have the favor of Pallas Athena. My goodwill, through eternity. I will set a monument for him upon this isle. In time, I will send another good man to you, to father another son. I will bless the birth, protect the child from all ills. He will be a leader among mortals, feared in battle, wise in counsel, honored by all. He will leave heirs behind him and fulfill your every maternal hope. I will ensure it.” It was the richest prize in all the world, rare as the golden apples of the Hesperides: the sworn friendship of an Olympian. You would have every comfort, every pleasure. You would never fear again. I looked into that shining gray gaze, her eyes like two hanging jewels, twisting to catch the light. She was smiling, her hand open towards me, as if ready to receive mine. When she had spoken of children, she had nearly crooned, as if to lull her own babe. But Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom. Children are not sacks of grain, to be substituted one for the other. “I will pass over the fact that you think me a mare to be bred at your whim. The true mystery is why my son’s death is worth so much to you. What will he do that the mighty Athena would pay so dearly to avoid?” All her softness was gone in an instant. Her hand withdrew, like a door slamming shut. “You set yourself against me then. You with your weeds and your little divinity.” Her power bore down on me, but I had Telegonus, and I would not give him up, not for anything. “I do,” I said. Her lips curled back, showing the white teeth within. “You cannot watch him all the time. I will take him in the end.” She was gone. But I said it anyway, to that great empty room and my son’s dreaming ears: “You do not know what I can do.”
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