فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Chapter Seven THE NEXT MORNING, I stepped into my father’s chariot and we lurched into the dark sky without a word. The air blew past us; night receded at every turning of the wheels. I looked over the side, trying to track the rivers and seas, the shadowed valleys, but we were going too fast, and I recognized nothing. “What island is it?” My father did not answer. His jaw was set, his lips bled pale with anger. My old burns were aching from standing so close to him. I closed my eyes. The lands streamed by and the wind ran across my skin. I imagined pitching over that golden rail into the open air below. It would feel good, I thought, before I hit. We landed with a jolt. I opened my eyes to see a high soft hill, thick with grass. My father stared straight ahead. I felt a sudden urge to fall on my knees and beg him to take me back, but instead I forced myself to step down onto the ground. The moment my foot touched, he and his chariot were gone. I stood alone in that grassy clearing. The breeze blew sharp against my cheeks, and the air had a fresh scent. I could not savor it. My head felt heavy, and my throat had begun to ache. I swayed. By now, Aeëtes was back on Colchis, drinking his milk and honey. My aunts would be laughing on their riverbanks, my cousins returned to their games. My father, of course, was overhead, shedding his light down on the world. All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone. I had a little pride. If they did not weep, I would not either. I pressed my palms to my eyes until they cleared. I made myself look around. On the hilltop before me was a house, wide-porched, its walls built from finely fitted stone, its doors carved twice the height of a man. A little below stretched a hem of forests, and beyond that a glimpse of the sea. It was the forest that drew my eye. It was old growth, gnarled with oaks and lindens and olive groves, shot through with spearing cypress. That’s where the green scent came from, drifting up the grassy hillside. The trees shook themselves thickly in the sea-winds, and birds darted through the shadows. Even now I can remember the wonder I felt. All my life had been spent in the same dim halls, or walking the same stunted shore with its threadbare woods. I was not prepared for such profusion and I felt the sudden urge to throw myself in, like a frog into a pond. I hesitated. I was no wood-nymph. I did not have the knack of feeling my way over roots, of walking through brambles untouched. I could not guess what those shadows might conceal. What if there were sinkholes within? What if there were bears or lions? I stood there a long time fearing such things and waiting, as if someone would come and reassure me, say yes, you may go, it will be safe. My father’s chariot slipped over the sea and began to douse itself in the waves. The shadows of the forest deepened and the trunks seemed to twine against each other. It is too late to go now, I told myself. Tomorrow.

The doors of the house were broad oak, banded with iron. They swung easily at my touch. Inside the air smelled of incense. There was a great-room set with tables and benches as if for a feast. A hearth anchored one end; at the other, a corridor led away to the kitchen and bedrooms. It was large enough to hold a dozen goddesses, and indeed I kept expecting to find nymphs and cousins around every turn. But no, that was part of my exile. To be utterly alone. What worse punishment could there be, my family thought, than to be deprived of their divine presence? Certainly the house itself was no punishment. Treasures shone on every side: carved chests, soft rugs and golden hangings, beds, stools, intricate tripods, and ivory statues. The windowsills were white marble, the shutters scrolled ash wood. In the kitchen, I ran my thumb across the knives, bronze and iron, but also nacre shell and obsidian. I found bowls of quartz crystal and wrought silver. Though the rooms were deserted, there was no speck of dust, and I would learn that none could cross the marble threshold. However I tracked upon it, the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood regrew overnight. In the pantry there were jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full. Among those empty, perfect rooms, I felt—I could not say. Disappointed. There was a part of me, I think, that had hoped for a crag in the Caucasus after all, and an eagle diving for my liver. But Scylla was no Zeus, and I was no Prometheus. We were nymphs, not worth the trouble. There was more to it than that, though. My father might have left me in a hovel or a fisherman’s shack, on a bare beach with nothing but a tent. I thought back to his face when he spoke of Zeus’ decree, his clear, ringing rage. I had assumed it was all for me, but now, after my talks with Aeëtes, I began to understand more. The truce between the gods held only because Titans and Olympians each kept to their sphere. Zeus had demanded the discipline of Helios’ blood. Helios could not speak back openly, but he could make an answer of sorts, a message of defiance to rebalance the scales. Even our exiles live better than kings. You see how deep our strength runs? If you strike us, Olympian, we rise higher than before. That was my new home: a monument to my father’s pride. It was past sundown by then. I found the flint and struck it over the waiting tinder as I had seen Glaucos do so often, but never attempted myself. It took me several tries, and when the flames began to catch and spread at last, I felt a novel satisfaction. I was hungry so I went to the pantry, where the bowls brimmed with enough food to feed a hundred. I spooned some onto a plate and sat at one of the great oak tables in the hall. I could hear the sound of my breath. It struck me that I had never eaten by myself. Even when no one spoke to me or looked at me, there was always some cousin or sibling at my elbow. I rubbed the fine-grained wood. I hummed a little and listened to the sound being swallowed by the air. This is what it will be all my days, I thought. Despite the fire, shadows were gathering in the corners. Outside, birds had begun to scream. At least I thought they were birds. I felt the hairs stir on my neck, thinking again of those dark, thick trunks. I went to the shutters and closed them, I latched the door. I was used to the weight of all the earth’s rocks surrounding me, and my father’s power on top of that. The house’s walls felt to me leaf-thin. Any claw would tear them open. Perhaps that is the secret of this place, I thought. My true punishment is yet to come. Stop, I told myself. I lit tapers, and made myself carry them down the hall to my room. In the daylight it had seemed large, and I had been pleased, but now I could not watch every corner at once. The feathers of the bed murmured against each other, and the shutter-wood creaked like the ropes of ships in a storm. All around me I felt the wild hollows of the island swelling in their dark. Until that moment I had not known how many things I feared. Huge, ghostly leviathans slithering up the hillside, nightworms squirming out of their burrows, pressing their blind faces to my door. Goat-footed gods eager to feed their savage appetites, pirates muffling their oars in my harbor, planning how they would take me. And what could I do? Pharmakis, Aeëtes named me, witch, but all my strength was in those flowers, oceans away. If anyone came, I would only be able to scream, and a thousand nymphs before me knew what good that did.

The fear sloshed over me, each wave colder than the last. The still air crawled across my skin and shadows reached out their hands. I stared into the darkness, straining to hear past the beat of my own blood. Each moment felt the length of a night, but at last the sky took on a deepening texture and began to pale at its edge. The shadows ebbed away and it was morning. I stood up, whole and untouched. When I went outside, there were no prowling footprints, no slithering tail-marks, no gouges clawed in the door. Yet I did not feel foolish. I felt as if I had passed a great ordeal. I looked again into that forest. Yesterday—was it only yesterday?—I had waited for someone to come and tell me it was safe. But who would that be? My father, Aeëtes? That is what exile meant: no one was coming, no one ever would. There was fear in that knowledge, but after my long night of terrors it felt small and inconsequential. The worst of my cowardice had been sweated out. In its place was a giddy spark. I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.

I learned to braid my hair back, so it would not catch on every twig, and how to tie my skirts at the knee to keep the burrs off. I learned to recognize the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral. I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac, and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the harbor safe for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud. I stroked the glossy brown scorpions who braved me with their tails. Their poison was barely a pinch. I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail. At night I went home to my house. I did not mind its shadows anymore, for they meant my father’s gaze was gone from the sky and the hours were my own. I did not mind the emptiness either. For a thousand years I had tried to fill the space between myself and my family. Filling the rooms of my house was easy by comparison. I burned cedar in the fireplace, and its dark smoke kept me company. I sang, which had never been allowed before, since my mother said I had the voice of a drowning gull. And when I did get lonely, when I found myself yearning for my brother, or Glaucos as he had been, then there was always the forest. The lizards darted along the branches, the birds flashed their wings. The flowers, when they saw me, seemed to press forward like eager puppies, leaping and clamoring for my touch. I felt almost shy of them, but day by day I grew bolder, and at last I knelt in the damp earth before a clump of hellebore. The delicate blooms fluttered on their stalks. I did not need a knife to cut them, only the edge of my nail, which grew sticky with flecks of sap. I put the flowers in a basket covered with cloth and only uncovered them when I was home again, my shutters firmly closed. I did not think anyone would try to stop me, but I did not intend to tempt them to it. I looked at the blossoms lying on my table. They seemed shrunken, etiolated. I did not have the first idea of what I should do to them. Chop? Boil? Roast? There had been oil in my brother’s ointment, but I did not know what kind. Would olive from the kitchen work? Surely not. It must be something fantastical, like seed-oil pressed from the fruits of the Hesperides. But I could not get that. I rolled a stalk beneath my finger. It turned over, limp as a drowned worm. Well, I said to myself, do not just stand there like a stone. Try something. Boil them. Why not?

I had a little pride, as I have said, and that was good. More would have been fatal. Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands. By rights, I should never have come to witchcraft. Gods hate all toil, it is their nature. The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills, and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain. No fingers are ever chafed, no muscles strained. Witchcraft is nothing but such drudgery. Each herb must be found in its den, harvested at its time, grubbed up from the dirt, culled and stripped, washed and prepared. It must be handled this way, then that, to find out where its power lies. Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again. So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind? I cannot speak for my brothers and sister, but my answer is easy. For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay. Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt. At first, of course, all I brewed were mistakes. Draughts that did nothing, pastes that crumbled and lay dead on the table. I thought that if some rue was good, more was better, that ten herbs mixed were superior to five, that I could let my mind wander and the spell would not wander with it, that I could begin making one draught and halfway through decide to make another. I did not know even the simplest herb-lore that any mortal would learn at her mother’s knee: that wort plants boiled made a sort of soap, that yew burnt in the hearth sent up a choking smog, that poppies had sleep in their veins and hellebore death, and yarrow could close over wounds. All these things had to be worked and learned through errors and trials, burnt fingers and fetid clouds that sent me running outside to cough in the garden. At least, I thought in those early days, once I cast a spell, I would not have to learn it again. But even that was not true. However often I had used an herb before, each cutting had its own character. One rose would give up its secrets if it were ground, another must be pressed, a third steeped. Each spell was a mountain to be climbed anew. All I could carry with me from last time was the knowledge that it could be done. I pressed on. If my childhood had given me anything, it was endurance. Little by little I began to listen better: to the sap moving in the plants, to the blood in my veins. I learned to understand my own intention, to prune and to add, to feel where the power gathered and speak the right words to draw it to its height. That was the moment I lived for, when it all came clear at last and the spell could sing with its pure note, for me and me alone. I did not call dragons, or summon serpents. My earliest charms were silly things, whatever came into my head. I started with an acorn, for I had some thought that if the object were green and growing, nourished by water, my naiad blood might give me some help. For days, months, I rubbed that acorn with oils and salves, speaking words over it to make it sprout. I tried to mimic the sounds I had heard Aeëtes make when he had healed my face. I tried curses, and prayers too, but through it all the acorn kept its seed smugly within. I threw it out the window and got a new one and crouched over that for another half an age. I tried the spell when I was angry, when I was calm, when I was happy, when I was half distracted. One day I told myself that I would rather have no powers than try that spell again. What did I want with an oak seedling anyway? The island was full of them. What I really wanted was a wild strawberry, to slip sweetly down my irritable throat, and so I told that brown hull.

It changed so fast my thumb sank into its soft, red body. I stared, and then I whooped with triumph, startling the birds outside from their trees. I brought a withered flower back to life. I banished flies from my house. I made the cherries blossom out of season and turned the fire vivid green. If Aeëtes had been there, he would have choked on his beard to see such kitchen-tricks. Yet because I knew nothing, nothing was beneath me. My powers lapped upon themselves like waves. I found I had a knack for illusion, summoning shadow crumbs for the mice to creep after, making pale minnows leap from the waves beneath a cormorant’s beak. I thought larger: a ferret to frighten off the moles, an owl to keep away the rabbits. I learned that the best time to harvest was beneath the moon, when dew and darkness concentrated sap. I learned what grew well in a garden, and what must be left to its place in the woods. I caught snakes and learned how to milk their teeth. I could coax a drop of venom from the tail of a wasp. I healed a dying tree, I killed a poisonous vine with a touch. But Aeëtes had been right, my greatest gift was transformation, and that was always where my thoughts returned. I stood before a rose, and it became an iris. A draught poured onto the roots of an ash tree changed it to a holm oak. I turned all my firewood to cedar so that its scent would fill my halls each night. I caught a bee and made it into a toad, and a scorpion into a mouse. There I discovered at last the limits of my power. However potent the mixture, however well woven the spell, the toad kept trying to fly, and the mouse to sting. Transformation touched only bodies, not minds. I thought of Scylla then. Did her nymph-self live still inside that six-headed monster? Or did plants grown from the blood of gods make the change a true one? I did not know. Into the air I said, Wherever you are, I hope you are finding your satisfaction. Which, of course, now I know she was.

It was one day during that time that I found myself among the thickest brakes of the forest. I loved to walk the island, from its lowest shores to its highest haunts, seeking out the hidden mosses and ferns and vines, collecting their leaves for my charms. It was late afternoon, and my basket overflowed. I stepped around a bush, and the boar was there. I had known for some time that there were wild pigs on the island. I’d heard them squealing and crashing in the brush, and often I would find some rhododendron trampled, or a stand of saplings rooted up. This was the first one I had seen. He was huge, even bigger than I had imagined a boar could be. His spine rose steep and black as the ridges of Mount Cynthos, and his shoulders were slashed with the thunderbolt scars of his fights. Only the bravest heroes face such creatures, and then they are armed with spears and dogs, archers and assistants, and usually half a dozen warriors besides. I had only my digging knife and my basket, and not a single spell-draught to hand. He stamped, and the white foam dripped from his mouth. He lowered his tusks and ground his jaws. His pig-eyes said: I can break a hundred youths and send their bodies back to wailing mothers. I will tear your entrails and eat them for my lunch. I fixed my gaze on his. “Try,” I said. For a long moment he stared at me. Then he turned and twitched off through the brush. I tell you, for all my spells, that was the first time I truly felt myself a witch.

At my hearth that night, I thought of those prancing goddesses who carry birds on their shoulders, or have some fawn always nuzzling their hands, tripping delicately at their heels. I would put them to shame, I thought. I climbed to the highest peaks and found a lonely track: here a flower crushed, here the dirt turned a little and some bark clawed off. I brewed a potion with crocus and yellow jasmine, iris and cypress root dug at the moon’s full height. I sprinkled it, singing. I summon you. She came rippling through my door at the next dusk, her shoulder muscles hard as stones. She lay across my hearth, and rasped my ankles with her tongue. During the day, she brought me rabbits and fish. At night she licked honey from my fingers and slept upon my feet. Sometimes we would play, she stalking behind me, then leaping up to grapple me by the neck. I smelled the hot musk of her breath, felt the weight of her forepaws pressing on my shoulders. Look, I said, showing her the knife I had carried with me from my father’s halls, the one stamped with a lion’s face. “What fool made this? They have never seen your like.” She cracked her great brown mouth in a yawn. There was a bronze mirror in my bedroom, tall as the ceiling. When I passed it, I scarcely knew myself. My gaze seemed brighter, my face sharper, and there behind me paced my wild lion familiar. I could imagine what my cousins would say if they saw me: my feet dirty from working in the garden, my skirts knotted up around my knees, singing at the height of my frail voice. I wished that they would come. I wanted to see those goggle eyes of theirs as I walked among the dens of wolves, swam in the sea where the sharks fed. I could change a fish to a bird, I could wrestle with my lion, then lie across her belly, my hair loose around me. I wanted to hear them squeal and gasp, breath-struck. Oh, she looked at me! Now I will be a frog! Had I truly feared such creatures? Had I really spent ten thousand years ducking like a mouse? I understood now Aeëtes’ boldness, how he had stood before our father like a towering peak. When I did my magics, I felt that same span and heft. I tracked my father’s burning chariot across the sky. Well? What do you have to say to me? You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you. No answer came, and none from my aunt Moon either, those cowards. My skin was glowing, my teeth set. My lioness lashed her tail. Does no one have the courage? Will no one dare to face me? So you see, in my way, I was eager for what came.

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