فصل 08

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فصل 08

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Chapter Eight IT WAS SUNSET, MY father’s face already dipped beneath the trees. I was working in my garden, staking the leggy vines, planting rosemary and aconite. I was singing too, some aimless air. The lion lay in the grass, her mouth bloodied from the wood-grouse she had flushed. “I admit,” the voice said, “I am surprised to see you so plain after such boasting. A flower garden and braids. You might be any country girl.” The young man was leaning against my house, watching me. His hair was loose and tousled, his face bright as a jewel. Though there was no light to catch them, his golden sandals gleamed. I knew who he was, of course I knew. The power shone from his face, unmistakable, keen as an unsheathed blade. An Olympian, the son of Zeus and his chosen messenger. That laughing gadfly of the gods, Hermes. I felt myself tremble, but I would not let him see it. Great gods smell fear like sharks smell blood, and they will devour you for it just the same. I stood. “What did you expect?” “Oh, you know.” A slim wand twirled idly in his fingers. “Something more lurid. Dragonish. A troupe of dancing sphinxes. Blood dripping from the sky.” I was used to my thick-shouldered uncles with their white beards, not such perfect, careless beauty. When sculptors shape their stone, they shape it after him. “Is that what they say of me?” “Of course. Zeus is sure you’re brewing poisons against us all, you and your brother both. You know how he frets.” He smiled, easy, conspiratorial. As if the anger of Zeus were only a light jest. “So you come as Zeus’ spy then?” “I prefer the word envoy. But no, in this matter, my father can do his own work. I’m here because my brother is angry with me.” “Your brother,” I said. “Yes,” he said. “I think you’ve heard of him?” From his cloak he drew a lyre, inlaid with gold and ivory, glowing like the dawn. “I’m afraid I’ve stolen this,” he said. “And I need a place to shelter till the storm passes. I was hoping you might take pity upon me? Somehow I don’t think he’ll look here.” The hairs stood on the back of my neck. All who were wise feared the god Apollo’s wrath, silent as sunlight, deadly as plague. I had the impulse to look over my shoulder, to make sure he was not striding across the sky already, his gilded arrow pointed at my heart. But there was something in me that was sick of fear and awe, of gazing at the heavens and wondering what someone would allow me. “Come in,” I said, and led him through my door.

I had grown up hearing the stories of Hermes’ daring: how as an infant he had risen from his cradle and made off with Apollo’s cattle, how he had slain the monstrous guardian Argos after coaxing each of his thousand eyes to sleep, how he could pry secrets out of a stone and charm even rival gods to do his will. It was all of it true. He could draw you in as if he were winding up a thread. He could spin you out upon a conceit until you were choking with laughter. I had scarcely known true intelligence—I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift. It shone like light upon the waves, dazzling to blindness. That night he entertained me with tale after tale of the great gods and their foolishness. Lecherous Zeus turning into a bull to lure a pretty maiden. Ares, god of war, bested by two giants, who kept him crammed in a jar for a year. Hephaestus laying a trap for his wife Aphrodite, hoisting her in a golden net, still naked with her lover Ares, for all the gods to see. On and on he went, through the absurd vices, drunken brawls, and petty slapping squabbles, all told in that same slippery, grinning voice. I felt myself flushed and dizzied, as if I had taken my own draughts. “Will you not be punished for coming here and breaking my exile?” He smiled. “Father knows I do what I like. And anyway, I break nothing. It is only you who are confined. The rest of the world may come and go as we please.” I was surprised. “But I thought—is it not the greater punishment to force me to be alone?” “That depends on who visits you, doesn’t it? But exile is exile. Zeus wanted you contained, and so you are. They didn’t really think about it further.” “How do you know all this?”“I was there. Watching Zeus and Helios negotiate is always good entertainment. Like two volcanoes trying to decide if they should blow.” He had fought in the great war, I remembered. He had seen the sky burn, and slain a giant whose head brushed the clouds. For all his lightness, I found I could imagine it. “Tell me,” I said, “can you play that instrument? Or only steal it?” He touched his fingers to the strings. The notes leapt out into the air, bright and silver-sweet. He gathered them into a melody as effortlessly as if he were a god of music himself, so that the whole room seemed to live inside the sound. He looked up, the fire caught in his face. “Do you sing?” That was another thing about him. He made you want to spill your secrets. “Only for myself,” I said. “My voice is not pleasing to others. I am told it sounds like a gull crying.” “Is that what they said? You are no gull. You sound like a mortal.” The confusion must have been plain on my face, for he laughed. “Most gods have voices of thunder and rocks. We must speak soft to human ears, or they are broken to pieces. To us, mortals sound faint and thin.” I remembered how gentle Glaucos’ words had sounded when he had first spoken to me. I had taken it for a sign. “It is not common,” he said, “but sometimes lesser nymphs are born with human voices. Such a one are you.” “Why did no one tell me? And how could it be? There is no mortal in me, I am Titan only.” He shrugged. “Who can ever explain how divine bloodlines work? As for why no one said, I suspect they didn’t know. I spend more time with mortals than most gods and have grown accustomed to their sounds. To me it is only another flavor, like season in food. But if you are ever among men, you’ll notice it: they won’t fear you as they fear the rest of us.” In a minute he had unraveled one of the great mysteries of my life. I raised my fingers to my throat as if I could touch the strangeness that lay there. A god with a mortal’s voice. It was a shock, and yet there was part of me that felt something almost like recognition. “Play,” I said. I began to sing, and the lyre followed my voice effortlessly, its timbre rising to sweeten my every phrase. When I finished, the flames were down to their coals and the moon veiled. His eyes shone like dark gems held to light. They were black, one of the marks of deep-running power, from the line of the oldest gods. For the first time it struck me how strange it was that we divide Titans from Olympians, when of course Zeus was born from Titan parents, and Hermes’ own grandfather was the Titan Atlas. The same blood runs in all our veins. “Do you know the name of this island?” I said. “I would be a poor god of travelers if I did not know all the places in the world.” “And will you tell me?” “It is called Aiaia,” he said. “Aiaia.” I tasted the sounds. They were soft, folding quietly as wings in the darkened air. “You know it,” he said. He was watching me closely. “Of course. It is the place where my father threw his strength to Zeus and proved his loyalty. In the sky above this place, he vanquished a Titan giant, drenching the land with blood.” “It is quite a coincidence,” he said, “that your father would send you to this island among all the others.” I could feel his power reaching for my secrets. In the old days I would have rushed forth with a brimming cup of answers, to give him all he wanted. But I was not the same as I had been. I owed him nothing. He would have of me only what I wanted to give. I rose and stood before him. I could feel my own eyes, yellow as river-stones. “Tell me,” I said, “how do you know that your father is not right about my poisons? How do you know I will not drug you where you sit?” “I do not.” “Yet you would dare to stay?” “I dare anything,” he said. And that is how we came to be lovers.

Hermes returned often in the years that followed, winging through the dusk. He brought delicacies of the gods—wine stolen from Zeus’ own stores, the sweetest honey of Mount Hybla, where the bees drink only thyme and linden blossoms. Our conversations were pleasures, and our couplings were the same. “Will you bear my child?” he asked me. I laughed at him. “No, never and never.” He was not hurt. He liked such sharpness, for there was nothing in him that had any blood you might spill. He asked only for curiosity’s sake, because it was his nature to seek out answers, to press others for their weaknesses. He wanted to see how moonish I was over him. But all the sop in me was gone. I did not lie dreaming of him during the days, I did not speak his name into my pillow. He was no husband, scarcely even a friend. He was a poison snake, and I was another, and on such terms we pleased ourselves. He gave me the news that I had missed. In his travels he passed over every quarter of the world, picking up gossip as hems gather mud. He knew whose feasts Glaucos drank at. He knew how high the milk spurted in Colchis’ fountains. He told me that Aeëtes was well, arrayed in a cloak of dyed leopard skin. He had taken a mortal to wife, and had a babe in swaddling and another in the belly. Pasiphaë still ruled Crete with her potions, and had in the meantime whelped a ship’s crew for her husband, half a dozen heirs and daughters both. Perses kept to the East, raising the dead with pails of cream and blood. My mother had gotten over her tears and added Mother of Witches to her titles, swanning with it among my aunts. We laughed over all of it, and when he left, I knew he told stories of me in turn: my dirt-black fingernails, my musky lion, the pigs that had begun coming to my door, truffling for slops and a scratch on the back. And, of course, how I had thrown myself upon him as a blushing virgin. Well? I had not blushed, but all the rest was true enough. I questioned him further, where Aiaia was, and how far it was from Egypt and Aethiopia and every other interesting place. I asked how my father’s mood waxed, and what the names of my nieces and nephews were, and what empires flourished new in the world. He answered everything, but when I asked him how far to those flowers I had given Glaucos and Scylla, he laughed at me. Do you think I will sharpen the lioness’s claws for her? I made my voice as careless as I could. “And what of that old Titan Prometheus on his rock. How fares he?” “How do you think? He loses a liver a day.” “Still? I have never understood why helping mortals made Zeus so angry.” “Tell me,” he said, “who gives better offerings, a miserable man or a happy one?” “A happy one, of course.” “Wrong,” he said. “A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf. If he can afford it, he will buy you a hundred.” “But surely,” I said, “you have to reward him eventually. Otherwise, he will stop offering.” “Oh, you would be surprised how long he will go on. But yes, in the end, it’s best to give him something. Then he will be happy again. And you can start over.” “So this is how Olympians spend their days. Thinking of ways to make men miserable.” “There’s no cause for righteousness,” he said. “Your father is better at it than anyone. He would raze a whole village if he thought it would get him one more cow.” How many times had I gloated inwardly over my father’s heaping altars? I lifted my cup and drank, so he would not see the flush on my cheeks. “I suppose you might go and visit Prometheus,” I said. “You and your wings. Bring him something for comfort.” “And why should I do that?” “For novelty’s sake, of course. The first good deed in your dissolute life. Aren’t you curious what it would feel like?” He laughed, but I did not press him further. He was still, always, an Olympian, still Zeus’ son. I was allowed license because it amused him, but I never knew when that amusement might end. You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite. Spring passed into summer. One night, when Hermes and I were lingering over our wine, I finally asked him about Scylla herself. “Ah.” His eyes lit. “I wondered when we would come to her. What would you know?” Is she unhappy? But he would have laughed at such a mewling question, and he would have been right to. My witchcraft, the island, my lion, all of them sprang from her transformation. There was no honesty in regretting what had given me my life. “I never heard what happened to her after she dived into the sea. Do you know where she is?” “Not far from here—less than a day’s journey by mortal ship. She has found a strait she likes. On one side is a whirlpool that sucks down ships and fish and whatever else passes. On the other, a cliff face with a cave for her to hide her head. Any ship which would avoid the whirlpool is driven right into her jaws, and so she feeds.” “Feeds,” I said. “Yes. She eats sailors. Six at a time, one for each mouth, and if the oars are too slow, she takes twelve. A few of them try to fight her, but you can imagine how that works out. You can hear them screaming for quite a ways.” I was frozen to my chair. I had always imagined her swimming in the deeps, sucking cold flesh from squids. But no. Scylla had always wanted the light of day. She had always wanted to make others weep. And now she was a ravening monster filled with teeth and armored with immortality.

“Can no one stop her?” “Zeus could, or your father, if they wished to. But why would they? Monsters are a boon to gods. Imagine all the prayers.” My throat had closed over. Those men she had eaten were sailors as Glaucos had been, ragged, desperate, worn thin with fear. All dead. All of them cold smoke, marked with my name. Hermes was watching me, his head cocked like a curious bird. He was waiting for my reaction. Would I be skimmed milk for crying, or a harpy with a heart of stone? There was nothing between. Anything else did not fit cleanly in the laughing tale he wanted to spin of it. I let my hand fall on my lion’s head, felt her great, hard skull beneath my fingers. She never slept when Hermes was there. Her eyes were lidded and watchful. “Scylla never was satisfied with just one,” I said. He smiled. A bitch with a cliff for a heart. “I meant to tell you,” he said. “I heard a prophecy of you. I had it from an old seeress who had left her temple and was wandering the fields giving fortunes.” I was used to the swift movements of his mind, and now I was grateful for them. “And you just happened to be passing when she was speaking of me?” “Of course not. I gave her an embossed gold cup to tell me all she knew of Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia.” “Well?” “She said that a man named Odysseus, born from my blood, will come one day to your island.” “And?” “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the worst prophecy I’ve ever heard,” I said. He sighed. “I know. I think I lost my cup.” I did not dream of him, as I said. I did not braid his name with mine. At night we lay together, and by midnight he was gone, and I could rise and step into my woods. Often my lion would pace beside me. It was the deepest pleasure, walking in the cool air, the damp leaves brushing at our legs. Sometimes I would stop to harvest this flower or that. But the flower I truly wanted, I waited for. One month I let go by after Hermes and I first spoke, and then another. I did not want him watching. He had no place in this. It was mine. I did not bring a torch. My eyes shone in the dark better than any owl’s. I walked through the shadowed trees, through the quiet orchards, the groves and brakes, across the sands, and up the cliffs. The birds were still, and the beasts. All the sounds were the air among the leaves and my own breath. And there it was hidden in the leaf mold, beneath the ferns and mushrooms: a flower small as a fingernail, white as milk. The blood of that giant which my father had spilled in the sky. I plucked a stem out of the tangle. The roots clung hard a moment before yielding. They were black and thick, and smelled of metal and salt. The flower had no name that I knew, so I called it moly, root, from the antique language of the gods. Oh, Father, did you know the gift you gave me? For that flower, so delicate it could dissolve beneath your stepping foot, carried within it the unyielding power of apotrope, the turning aside of evil. Curse-breaker. Ward and bulwark against ruin, worshipped like a god, for it was pure. The only thing in all the world you could be certain would not turn against you. Day by day, the island bloomed. My garden climbed the walls of my house, breathed its scent through my windows. I left the shutters open by then. I did what I liked. If you had asked me, I would have said I was happy. Yet always I remembered. Cold smoke, marked with my name.

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