فصل 02

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فصل 02

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Chapter Two WORD CAME THAT ONE of my uncles was going to be punished. I had never seen him, but I had heard his name over and over in my family’s doomy whispers. Prometheus. Long ago, when mankind was still shivering and shrinking in their caves, he had defied the will of Zeus and brought them the gift of fire. From its flames had sprung all the arts and profits of civilization that jealous Zeus had hoped to keep from their hands. For such rebellion Prometheus had been sent to live in the underworld’s deepest pit until a proper torment could be devised. And now Zeus announced the time was come. My other uncles ran to my father’s palace, beards flapping, fears spilling from their mouths. They were a motley group: river-men with muscles like the trunks of trees, brine-soaked mer-gods with crabs hanging from their beards, stringy old-timers with seal meat in their teeth. Most of them were not uncles at all, but some sort of grand-cousin. They were Titans like my father and grandfather, like Prometheus, the remnants of the war among the gods. Those who were not broken or in chains, who had made their peace with Zeus’ thunderbolts. There had only been Titans once, at the dawning of the world. Then my great-uncle Kronos had heard a prophecy that his child would one day overthrow him. When his wife, Rhea, birthed her first babe, he tore it damp from her arms and swallowed it whole. Four more children were born, and he ate them all the same, until at last, in desperation, Rhea swaddled a stone and gave it to him to swallow instead. Kronos was deceived, and the rescued baby, Zeus, was taken to Mount Dicte to be raised in secret. When he was grown he rose up indeed, plucking the thunderbolt

from the sky and forcing poisonous herbs down his father’s throat. His brothers and sisters, living in their father’s stomach, were vomited forth. They sprang to their brother’s side, naming themselves Olympians after the great peak where they set their thrones. The old gods divided themselves. Many threw their strength to Kronos, but my father and grandfather joined Zeus. Some said it was because Helios had always hated Kronos’ vaunting pride; others whispered that his prophetic gift gave him foreknowledge of the outcome of the war. The battles rent the skies: the air itself burned, and gods clawed the flesh from each other’s bones. The land was drenched in boiling gouts of blood so potent that rare flowers sprang up where they fell. At last Zeus’ strength prevailed. He clapped those who had defied him into chains, and the remaining Titans he stripped of their powers, bestowing them on his brothers and sisters and the children he had bred. My uncle Nereus, once the mighty ruler of the sea, was now lackey to its new god, Poseidon. My uncle Proteus lost his palace, and his wives were taken for bed-slaves. Only my father and grandfather suffered no diminishment, no loss of place. The Titans sneered. Were they supposed to be grateful? Helios and Oceanos had turned the tide of war, everyone knew it. Zeus should have loaded them with new powers, new appointments, but he was afraid, for their strength already matched his own. They looked to my father, waiting for his protest, the flaring of his great fire. But Helios only returned to his halls beneath the earth, far from Zeus’ sky-bright gaze. Centuries had passed. The earth’s wounds had healed and the peace had held. But the grudges of gods are as deathless as their flesh, and on feast nights my uncles gathered close at my father’s side. I loved the way they lowered their eyes when they spoke to him, the way they went silent and attentive when he shifted in his seat. The wine-bowls emptied and the torches waned. It has been long enough, my uncles whispered. We are strong again. Think what your fire might do if you set it free. You are the greatest of the old blood, greater even than Oceanos. Greater than Zeus himself, if only you wish it.My father smiled. “Brothers,” he said, “what talk is this? Is there not smoke and savor for all? This Zeus does well enough.” Zeus, if he had heard, would have been satisfied. But he could not see what I saw, plain on my father’s face. Those unspoken, hanging words. This Zeus does well enough, for now. My uncles rubbed their hands and smiled back. They went away, bent over their hopes, thinking what they could not wait to do when Titans ruled again. It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.

Now my uncles were crowding into my father’s hall, eyes rolling in fear. Prometheus’ sudden punishment was a sign, they said, that Zeus and his kind were moving against us at last. The Olympians would never be truly happy until they destroyed us utterly. We should stand with Prometheus, or no, we should speak against him, to ward off Zeus’ thunderstroke from our own heads. I was in my customary place at my father’s feet. I lay silent so they would not notice and send me away, but I felt my chest roiling with that overwhelming possibility: the war revived. Our halls blasted wide with thunderbolts. Athena, Zeus’ warrior daughter, hunting us down with her gray spear, her brother in slaughter, Ares, by her side. We would be chained and cast into fiery pits from which there was no escape. My father spoke calm and golden at their center: “Come, brothers, if Prometheus is to be punished, it is only because he has earned it. Let us not chase after conspiracy.” But my uncles fretted on. The punishment is to be public. It is an insult, a lesson they teach us. Look what happens to Titans who do not obey.

My father’s light had taken on a keen, white edge. “This is the chastisement of a renegade and no more. Prometheus was led astray by his foolish love for mortals. There is no lesson here for a Titan. Do you understand?” My uncles nodded. On their faces, disappointment braided with relief. No blood, for now.

The punishment of a god was a rare and terrible thing, and talk ran wild through our halls. Prometheus could not be killed, but there were many hellish torments that could take death’s place. Would it be knives or swords, or limbs torn off? Red-hot spikes or a wheel of fire? The naiads swooned into each other’s laps. The river-lords postured, faces dark with excitement. You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see. On the appointed day, the doors of my father’s receiving hall were thrown open. Huge torches carbuncled with jewels glowed from the walls and by their light gathered nymphs and gods of every variety. The slender dryads flowed out of their forests, and the stony oreads ran down from their crags. My mother was there with her naiad sisters; the horse-shouldered river-gods crowded in beside the fish-white sea-nymphs and their lords of salt. Even the great Titans came: my father, of course, and Oceanos, but also shape-shifting Proteus and Nereus of the Sea; my aunt Selene, who drives her silver horses across the night sky; and the four Winds led by my icy uncle Boreas. A thousand avid eyes. The only ones missing were Zeus and his Olympians. They disdained our underground gatherings. The word was they had already held their own private session of torment in the clouds. Charge of the punishment had been given to a Fury, one of the infernal goddesses of vengeance who dwell among the dead. My family was in its usual place of preeminence, and I stood at the front of that great throng, my eyes fixed upon the door. Behind me the naiads and river-gods jostled and whispered. I hear they have serpents for hair. No, they have scorpion tails, and eyes dripping blood. The doorway was empty. Then at once it was not. Her face was gray and pitiless, as if cut from living rock, and from her back dark wings lifted, jointed like a vulture’s. A forked tongue flicked from her lips. On her head snakes writhed, green and thin as worms, weaving living ribbons through her hair. “I bring the prisoner.” Her voice echoed off the ceiling, raw and baying, like a hunting dog calling down its quarry. She strode into the hall. In her right hand was a whip, its tip rasping faintly as it dragged along the floor. In her other hand stretched a length of chain, and at its end followed Prometheus. He wore a thick white blindfold and the remnants of a tunic around his waist. His hands were bound and his feet too, yet he did not stumble. I heard an aunt beside me whisper that the fetters had been made by the great god of smiths, Hephaestus himself, so not even Zeus could break them. The Fury rose up on her vulture wings and drove the manacles high into the wall. Prometheus dangled from them, his arms drawn taut, his bones showing knobs through the skin. Even I, who knew so little of discomfort, felt the ache of it. My father would say something, I thought. Or one of the other gods. Surely they would give him some sort of acknowledgment, a word of kindness, they were his family, after all. But Prometheus hung silent and alone. The Fury did not bother with a lecture. She was a goddess of torment and understood the eloquence of violence. The sound of the whip was a crack like oaken branches breaking. Prometheus’ shoulders jerked and a gash opened in his side long as my arm. All around me indrawn breaths hissed like water on hot rocks. The Fury lifted her lash again. Crack. A bloodied strip tore from his back. She began to carve in earnest, each blow falling on the next, peeling his flesh away in long lines that crossed and recrossed his skin. The only sound was the snap of the whip and Prometheus’ muffled, explosive breaths. The tendons stood out in his neck. Someone pushed at my back, trying for a better view. The wounds of gods heal fast, but the Fury knew her business and was faster. Blow after blow she struck, until the leather was soaked. I had understood gods could bleed, but I had never seen it. He was one of the greatest of our kind, and the drops that fell from him were golden, smearing his back with a terrible beauty. Still the Fury whipped on. Hours passed, perhaps days. But even gods cannot watch a whipping for eternity. The blood and agony began to grow tedious. They remembered their comforts, the banquets that were waiting on their pleasure, the soft couches laid with purple, ready to enfold their limbs. One by one they drifted off, and after a final lash, the Fury followed, for she deserved a feast after such work. The blindfold had slipped from my uncle’s face. His eyes were closed, and his chin drooped on his chest. His back hung in gilded shreds. I had heard my uncles say that Zeus had given him the chance to beg on his knees for lesser punishment. He had refused. I was the only one left. The smell of ichor drenched the air, thick as honey. The rivulets of molten blood were still tracing down his legs. My pulse struck in my veins. Did he know I was there? I took a careful step towards him. His chest rose and fell with a soft rasping sound. “Lord Prometheus?” My voice was thin in the echoing room. His head lifted to me. Open, his eyes were handsome, large and dark and long-lashed. His cheeks were smooth and beardless, yet there was something about him that was as ancient as my grandfather. “I could bring you nectar,” I said.His gaze rested on mine. “I would thank you for that,” he said. His voice was resonant as aged wood. It was the first time I had heard it; he had not cried out once in all his torment. I turned. My breaths came fast as I walked through the corridors to the feasting hall, filled with laughing gods. Across the room, the Fury was toasting with an immense goblet embossed with a gorgon’s leering face. She had not forbidden anyone to speak to Prometheus, but that was nothing, her business was offense. I imagined her infernal voice, howling out my name. I imagined manacles rattling on my wrists and the whip striking from the air. But my mind could imagine no further than that. I had never felt a lash. I did not know the color of my blood. I trembled so much I had to carry the cup in two hands. What would I say if someone stopped me? But the passageways were quiet as I walked back through them. In the great hall, Prometheus was silent in his chains. His eyes had closed again, and his wounds shone in the torchlight. I hesitated. “I do not sleep,” he said. “Will you lift the cup for me?” I flushed. Of course he could not hold it himself. I stepped forward, so close that I could feel the heat rising from his shoulders. The ground was wet with his fallen blood. I raised the cup to his lips and he drank. I watched his throat moving gently. His skin was beautiful, the color of polished walnut. It smelled of green moss drenched with rain. “You are a daughter of Helios, are you not?” he said, when he had finished, and I’d stepped back. “Yes.” The question stung. If I had been a proper daughter, he would not have had to ask. I would have been perfect and gleaming with beauty poured straight from my father’s source. “Thank you for your kindness.” I did not know if I was kind, I felt I did not know anything. He spoke carefully, almost tentatively, yet his treason had been so brazen. My mind struggled with the contradiction. Bold action and bold manner are not the same.

“Are you hungry?” I asked. “I could bring you food.” “I do not think I will ever be hungry again.” It was not piteous, as it might have been in a mortal. We gods eat as we sleep: because it is one of life’s great pleasures, not because we have to. We may decide one day not to obey our stomachs, if we are strong enough. I did not doubt Prometheus was. After all those hours at my father’s feet, I had learned to nose out power where it lay. Some of my uncles had less scent than the chairs they sat on, but my grandfather Oceanos smelled deep as rich river mud, and my father like a searing blaze of just-fed fire. Prometheus’ green moss scent filled the room. I looked down at the empty cup, willing my courage. “You aided mortals,” I said. “That is why you are punished.” “It is.” “Will you tell me, what is a mortal like?” It was a child’s question, but he nodded gravely. “There is no single answer. They are each different. The only thing they share is death. You know the word?” “I know it,” I said. “But I do not understand.” “No god can. Their bodies crumble and pass into earth. Their souls turn to cold smoke and fly to the underworld. There they eat nothing and drink nothing and feel no warmth. Everything they reach for slips from their grasp.” A chill shivered across my skin. “How do they bear it?” “As best they can.”“As best they can.” The torches were fading, and the shadows lapped at us like dark water. “Is it true that you refused to beg for pardon? And that you were not caught, but confessed to Zeus freely what you did?” “It is.” “Why?” His eyes were steady on mine. “Perhaps you will tell me. Why would a god do such a thing?” I had no answer. It seemed to me madness to invite divine punishment, but I could not say that to him, not when I stood in his blood. “Not every god need be the same,” he said. What I might have said in return, I do not know. A distant shout floated up the corridor. “It is time for you to go now. Allecto does not like to leave me for long. Her cruelty springs fast as weeds and must any moment be cut again.” It was a strange way to put it, for he was the one who would be cut. But I liked it, as if his words were a secret. A thing that looked like a stone, but inside was a seed. “I will go then,” I said. “You will…be well?”Did he smile a little? Perhaps I only flattered myself. I was trembling with all I had done, which was more than I had ever done in my life. I turned and left him, walking back through those obsidian corridors. In the feasting hall, gods still drank and laughed and lay across each other’s laps. I watched them. I waited for someone to remark on my absence, but no one did, for no one had noticed. Why would they? I was nothing, a stone. One more nymph child among the thousand thousands. A strange feeling was rising in me. A sort of humming in my chest, like bees at winter’s thaw. I walked to my father’s treasury, filled with its glittering riches: golden cups shaped like the heads of bulls, necklaces of lapis and amber, silver tripods, and quartz-chiseled bowls with swan-neck handles. My favorite had always been a dagger with an ivory haft carved like a lion’s face. A king had given it to my father in hopes of gaining his favor. “And did he?” I once asked my father. “No,” my father had said. I took the dagger. In my room, the bronze edge shone in the taper’s light and the lion showed her teeth. Beneath lay my palm, soft and unlined. It could bear no scar, no festering wound. It would never wear the faintest print of age. I found that I was not afraid of the pain that would come. It was another terror that gripped me: that the blade would not cut at all. That it would pass through me, like falling into smoke. It did not pass through. My skin leapt apart at the blade’s touch, and the pain darted silver and hot as lightning strike. The blood that flowed was red, for I did not have my uncle’s power. The wound seeped for a long time before it began to reknit itself. I sat watching it, and as I watched I found a new thought in myself. I am embarrassed to tell it, so rudimentary it seems, like an infant’s discovery that her hand is her own. But that is what I was then, an infant. “Well enough,” he said. “What is your name?” “Circe.”The thought was this: that all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.

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