فصل 09

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فصل 09

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Chapter Nine IT WAS MORNING, THE sun just over the trees, and I was in the garden cutting anemones for my table. The pigs snuffled at their slops. One of the boars grew fractious, shoving and grunting to air his authority. I caught his eye. “Yesterday, I saw you blowing bubbles in the stream, and the day before the spotted sow sent you off with a bitten ear and nothing more. So you may behave.” He huffed at the dirt, then flopped on his belly and subsided. “Do you always talk to pigs when I am gone?” Hermes stood in his traveling cloak, his broad-brimmed hat tilted over his eyes. “I like to think of it the other way around,” I said. “What brings you out in the honest daylight?” “A ship is coming,” he said. “I thought you might want to know.” I stood. “Here? What ship?” He smiled. He always liked seeing me at a loss. “What will you give me if I tell you?” “Begone,” I said. “I prefer you in the dark.” He laughed and vanished.

I made myself go about the morning as I usually would, in case Hermes watched, but I felt the tension in myself, the taut anticipation. I could not keep my eyes from flicking to the horizon. A ship. A ship with visitors that amused Hermes. Who? They came at mid-afternoon, resolving out of the bright mirror of the waves. The vessel was ten times the size of Glaucos’, and even at a distance I could see how fine it was: sleek and brightly painted, with a huge rearing prow-piece. It cut through the sluggish air straight towards me, its oarsmen rowing steadily. As they approached, I felt that old eager jump in my throat. They were mortals. The sailors dropped the anchor, and a single man leapt over the low side and splashed to shore. He followed the seam of beach and woods until he found a path, a small pig trail that wound upwards through the acanthus spears and laurel groves, past the thorn-bush thicket. I lost sight of him then, but I knew where the trail led. I waited. He checked when he saw my lion, but only for a moment. With his shoulders straight and unbowed, he knelt to me in the clearing’s grass. I realized I knew him. He was older, the skin of his face more lined, but it was the same man, his head still shaved, his eyes clear. Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch our attention. The merely good: you are dust to us. “Lady,” he said, “I am sorry to trouble you.” “You have not been trouble yet,” I said. “Please stand if you like.” If he noticed my mortal voice, he gave no sign. He stood up—I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that—but easily, like a door swinging on a well-fitted hinge. His eyes met mine without flinching. He was used to gods, I thought. And witches too. “What brings the famous Daedalus to my shores?” “I am honored you would know me.” His voice was steady as a west wind, warm and constant. “I come as a messenger from your sister. She is with child, and her time approaches. She asks that you attend her delivery.” I eyed him. “Are you certain you have come to the right place, messenger? There has never been love between my sister and me.” “She does not send to you for love,” he said. The breeze blew, carrying the scent of linden flowers. At its back, the muddy stink of the pigs. “I’m told my sister has bred half a dozen children each more easily than the last. She cannot die in childbirth and her infants thrive with the strength of her blood. So why does she need me?” He spread his hands, deft-looking and thickened with muscle. “Pardon, lady, I can say no more, but she bids me tell you that if you do not help her there is no one else who can. It is your art she wants, lady. Yours alone.” So Pasiphaë had heard of my powers and decided they could be of use to her. It was the first compliment I had had from her in my life. “Your sister instructed me to say besides that she has permission from your father for you to go. Your exile is lifted for this.”

I frowned. This was all strange, very strange. What was important enough to make her go to my father? And if she needed more magic, why not summon Perses? It seemed like some sort of trick, but I could not understand why my sister would bother. I was no threat to her. I could feel myself being tempted. I was curious, of course, but it was more than that. This was a chance to show her what I had become. Whatever trap she might set, she could not catch me in it, not anymore. “What a relief to hear of my reprieve,” I said. “I cannot wait to be freed from my terrible prison.” The terraced hills around us glowed with spring. He did not smile. “There is—one more thing. I am instructed to tell you that our path lies through the straits.” “What straits?” But I saw the answer in his face: the dark stains under his eyes, the weary grief. Sickness rose in my throat. “Where Scylla dwells.” He nodded. “She ordered you to come that way as well?” “She did.” “How many did you lose?” “Twelve,” he said. “We were not fast enough.” How could I have forgotten who my sister was? She would never just ask a favor, always she must have a whip to drive you to her will. I could see her bragging and laughing to Minos. Circe’s a fool for mortals, I hear. I hated her more than I ever had. It was all so cruelly done. I imagined stalking into my house, slamming the door on its great hinge. Too bad, Pasiphaë. You will have to find some other fool. But then six more men, or twelve, would die. I scoffed at myself. Who said they would live if I went? I knew no spells to ward off monsters. And Scylla would be enraged when she saw me. I would only bring more of her fury upon them. Daedalus was watching me, his face shadowed. Far beyond his shoulder, my father’s chariot was slipping into the sea. In their dusty palace rooms, astronomers were even now tracking its sunset glory, hoping their calculations would hold. Their bony knees trembled, thinking of the headsman’s axe. I gathered up my clothes, my bag of simples. I closed the door behind me. There was nothing else to do. The lion could take care of herself. “I am ready,” I said.

The ship’s style was new to me, trim and low in the water. Its hull was beautifully painted with rolling waves and curving dolphins, and by the stern an octopus stretched its snaky arms. As the captain hauled at the anchor, I walked up to the prow to examine the figurehead I had seen. It was a young girl in a dancing dress. Her face bore a look of happy surprise, eyes wide, lips just parting, her hair loose over her shoulders. Her small hands were clasped to her chest and she was poised on her toes as if music were about to start. Each detail of it, the curls of her hair, the folds of cloth, was so vivid that I thought at any moment she truly would step into the air. Yet that was not even the real miracle. The work showed, I cannot say how, a glimpse of the girl’s self. The searching cleverness in her gaze, the determined grace of her brow. Her excitement and innocence, easy and green as grass. I did not have to ask whose hands had shaped it. A wonder of the mortal world, my brother had called Daedalus, but this was a wonder in any world. I pored over its pleasures, finding a new one every moment: the small dimple in her chin, the knob of her ankle, coltish with youth. A marvel it was, but also a message. I had been raised at my father’s feet and knew a boast of power when I saw it. Another king, if he had such a treasure, would keep it under guard in his most fortified hall. Minos and Pasiphaë had set it on a ship, exposed to brine and sun, to pirates and sea-wrack and monsters. As if to say: This is a trifle. We have a thousand more, and better yet the man who makes them. The drumbeat drew my attention away. The sailors had taken their benches, and I felt the first judders of motion. The harbor waters began to slide past us. My island dwindled behind. I turned my eye to the men filling the deck around me. There were thirty-eight in all. At the stern five guards paced in capes and golden armor. Their noses were lumpen, twisted from too many breakings. I remembered Aeëtes sneering at them: Minos’ thugs, dressed up like princes. The rowers were the pick of Knossos’ mighty navy, so large the oars looked dainty in their hands. Around them, the other sailors moved swiftly, raising a canopy to keep off the sun. At Minos and Pasiphaë’s wedding, the huddle of mortals I had glimpsed seemed distant and blurred, as alike as leaves on a tree. But here, beneath the sky, each face was relentlessly distinct. This one was thick, this one smooth, this one bearded with a hooked nose and narrow chin. There were scars and calluses and scrapes, age-lines and cowlicks of hair. One had draped a wet cloth around his neck against the heat. Another wore a bracelet made by childish hands, and a third had a head shaped like a bullfinch’s. It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad? “May I bring you a seat?” Daedalus said. I turned, glad for the respite of his single face. Daedalus could not have been called handsome, but his features had a pleasing sturdiness.

“I prefer to stand,” I said. I gestured to the prow-piece. “She is beautiful.” He inclined his head, a man used to such compliments. “Thank you.” “Tell me something. Why does my sister have you under watch?” When we had stepped on board, the largest guard, the leader, had roughly searched him. “Ah.” He smiled slightly. “Minos and Pasiphaë fear that I do not fully…appreciate their hospitality.” I remembered Aeëtes saying: Pasiphaë has him trapped. “Surely you might have escaped them on the way.” “I might escape them often. But Pasiphaë has something of mine I will not leave.” I waited for more, but it did not come. His hands rested on the rail. The knuckles were battered, the fingers hatched with white nicks of scars. As though he had plunged them into broken wood or shards of glass. “In the straits,” I said. “You saw Scylla?” “Not clearly. The cliff was hidden in spray and fog, and she moved too quickly. Six heads, striking twice, with teeth as long as a leg.” I had seen the stains on the deck. They had been scrubbed, yet the blood had soaked deep. All that was left of twelve lives. My stomach twisted with guilt, as Pasiphaë had meant it to. “You should know I was the one who did it,” I said. “The one who made Scylla what she is. That is why I am exiled, and why my sister had you take this route.” I watched his face for surprise or disgust, even terror. But he only nodded. “She told me.” Of course she had. She was a poisoner at heart; she wanted to be sure I came as villain, not savior. Except this time it was nothing but the truth. “There is something I do not understand,” I said. “For all my sister’s cruelty she is not often foolish. Why would she risk you on this errand?” “I earned my place here myself. I am forbidden to say more, but when we arrive in Crete, I think you will understand.” He hesitated. “Do you know if there is anything we can do against her? Scylla?” Above us, the sun burned away the last shreds of cloud. The men panted, even under the canopy. “I don’t know,” I said. “I will try.” We stood in silence beside that leaping girl as the sea fell away.

That night we camped on the shore of a flourishing green land. Around their fires, the men were tense and quiet, muffled by dread. I could hear their whispers, the wine sloshing as they passed it. No man wanted to lie awake imagining tomorrow. Daedalus had marked out a small space for me with a bedroll, but I left it. I could not bear to be hemmed in by all those breathing, anxious bodies. It was strange to tread upon earth other than my own. Where I expected a grove, there came a deer thicket. Where I thought there would be pigs, a badger showed its teeth. The terrain was flatter than my island, the forests low, the flowers in different combinations. I saw a bitter almond tree, a flowered cherry. My fingers itched to harvest their fat power. I bent and plucked a poppy, just to hold its color in my hand. I could feel the throb of its black seeds. Come, make us into magic. I did not obey. I was thinking of Scylla, trying to piece together an image from everything I had heard of her: six mouths, six heads, twelve dangling feet. But the more I tried, the more it slipped away. Instead I saw her face as it had been in our halls, round and laughing. The curve of her wrist had been like a swan’s neck. Her chin would tilt delicately to whisper some morsel of gossip in my sister’s ear. Beside them, my brother Perses had sat smirking. He used to toy with Scylla’s hair, winding it around his finger. She would turn and slap his shoulder, and the sound would echo across the hall. They both laughed, for they loved to be at the center always, and I remembered wondering why my sister did not mind such displays, for she allowed none near Perses but herself. Yet she only watched and smiled. I thought I had passed those years in my father’s halls sightless as a mole, but now more details came back to me. The green robe Scylla used to wear at special feasts, her silver sandals with lapis lazuli on the strap. There was a gold pin with a cat at its end that kept her hair up from her neck. She had it from…Thebes, I thought. Thebes of Egypt, some admirer there, some beast-headed god. What had happened to that bauble? Was it still lying on the grass beside the water, with her discarded clothes? I had come to a small rise, crowded with black poplars. I walked among their furrowed trunks. One of them had been struck recently by lightning, and the bole bore a charred, oozing wound. I put my finger to the burnt sap. I could feel its force, and was sorry I had not brought an extra bottle to gather it. It made me think of Daedalus, that upright man with fire in his bones. What was the thing he would not leave behind? His face when he had spoken of it had been careful, his words placed as if they were tiles in a fountain. It must be a lover, I thought. Some pretty handmaid of the palace, or else some handsome groom. My sister could smell such intrigues a year away. Perhaps she had even ordered them to his bed, as the hook to catch the fish. But as I tried to picture their faces, I realized I did not believe in them. Daedalus did not seem like a man newly heart-struck, nor an old lover, with a wife of many years molded to his side. I could not imagine him in a pair, only singular and alone. Gold, then? An invention he had made? I thought: if I can keep him alive tomorrow, perhaps I will find out.

The moon was passing overhead, and the night with it. Daedalus’ voice spoke again in my ears. Her teeth are long as a leg. Cold fear ran through me. What had I been thinking, that I could stand against such a creature? Daedalus’ throat would be ripped open, my own flesh snatched up in her mouths. What would I become after she was finished with me? Ash, smoke? Immortal bones dragging across the bottom of the sea. My feet had found the shore. I walked it, cool and gray. I listened to the murmur of the waves, the cries of night birds, but if I am honest I was listening for more than that: the quick rush through the air that I had come to know. Each second, I hoped Hermes would land poised before me, laughing, goading. So, witch of Aiaia, what will you do tomorrow? I thought of begging him for help, the sand beneath my knees, my palms upstretched. Or perhaps I would knock him down to the earth and please him that way, for he loved most of all to be surprised. I could hear the tale he would tell later. She was so desperate, she was on me like a cat. He should lie with my sister, I thought. They would like each other. It struck me for the first time that perhaps he had. Perhaps they lay together often and laughed at my dullness. Perhaps all this had been his idea, and that was why he had come this morning, to taunt me and gloat. My mind played over our conversation, sifting it for meaning. See how quickly he made one a fool? That was what he desired most of all: to drive others into doubt, keep them wondering and fretting, stumbling behind his dancing feet. I spoke out to the darkness, to any silent wings that hovered there. “I do not care if you lie with her. Have Perses too, he is the handsomer. You will never be such as I am jealous for.” Perhaps he was listening, perhaps he was not. It did not matter, he would not come. It was the better jest to see what extremes I would try, to see how I would curse and flounder. My father would not help me either. Aeëtes might, if only to feel the flex of his power, but he was a world away. I could no more reach him than I could fly into the air. I was even more desolate than my sister, I thought. I came for her, but there was no one who would come for me. The thought was steadying. After all, I had been alone my whole life. Aeëtes, Glaucos, these were only pauses in the long stretch of my solitude. Kneeling, I dug my fingers into the sand. I felt the rub of grains beneath my nails. A memory drifted through me. My father speaking our old hopeless law to Glaucos: no god may undo what another has done. But I was the one who had done it. The moon passed over us. The waves pressed their cold mouths to my feet. Elecampane, I thought. Ash and olive and silver fir. Henbane with burnt cornel bark and, at the base of all, moly. Moly, to break a curse, to ward off that evil thought of mine that had changed her in the first place. I brushed away the sand and stood, my bag of simples hanging from my shoulder. As I walked, the bottles rang softly, like goats shaking their bells. The smells wafted around me, familiar as my own skin: earth and clinging roots, salt and iron blood.

The next morning the men were gray and silent. One oiled the oarlocks to keep them from squeaking, another scrubbed at the stained deck, his face red, though whether from sun or grief I could not tell. In the stern a third with a black beard was praying and pouring wine onto the waves. None looked at me—I was Pasiphaë’s sister, after all, and they had long since given up any thought of help from her. But I could feel their tension pressing thickly into the air, the choking terror rising in them moment by moment. Death was coming. Do not think of it, I told myself. If you hold firm, none will die today. The guard captain had yellowed eyes set in a swollen face. His name was Polydamas and he was large, but I was a goddess, and we were of a height. “I need your cloak,” I said to him, “and your tunic, at once.” His eyes narrowed, and I could see the reflexive no in them. I would come to know this type of man, jealous of his little power, to whom I was only a woman. “Why?” he said. “Because I do not desire the death of your comrades. Do you feel otherwise?” The words carried up the deck, and thirty-seven pairs of eyes looked up. He stripped off his clothes and handed them to me. They were the finest on board, extravagant white-combed wool edged with deep purple, sweeping the deck. Daedalus had come to stand by me. “May I help?” I gave him the cloak to hold up. Behind it, I disrobed and drew on the tunic. The armholes gaped and the waist billowed. The smell of sour human flesh enveloped me. “Will you help me with the cloak?” Daedalus draped it around me, fastening it by its golden octopus pin. The cloth hung heavy as blankets, loose and slipping from my shoulders. “I’m sorry to say, you don’t look like much of a man.” “I’m not meant to look like a man,” I said. “I’m meant to look like my brother. Scylla loved him once, perhaps she still does.” I touched the paste I had prepared to my lips, hyacinth and honey, ash flowers and aconite crushed with the bark of walnuts. I had cast illusions on animals and plants before, but never upon myself, and I felt a sudden, plunging doubt. I forced the thought away. Fear of failure was the worst thing for any spell. I focused instead on Perses: his lounging, smug face, his puffy muscles and thick neck, his long-fingered, indolent hands. Each of these I summoned in turn, willing them into me. When I opened my eyes, Daedalus was staring. “Put the steadiest men at the oars,” I said to him. My voice had changed too, it was deep and swollen with divine hauteur. “They must not stop for anything. No matter what.” He nodded. He was holding a sword, and I saw that the other men were similarly armed with spears and daggers and crude cudgels. “No,” I said. I raised my voice for the whole ship. “She is immortal. Weapons are useless, and you will need free hands to keep the ship moving forward.” At once came the rasp of blades being sheathed, the thunk of spears set down. Even Polydamas, in his borrowed tunic, obeyed. I almost wanted to laugh. I had never been given such deference in my life. Is that what it was like to be Perses? But already I could make out the faint outline of the straits on the horizon. I turned to Daedalus. “Listen,” I said. “There is a chance that the spell will not fool her and she will know me.

If she does, be sure you are not standing near. Be sure none of the men are.”

The mist came first. It closed in wet and heavy, obscuring the cliffs, then the sky itself. We could see little, and the sound of the sucking whirlpool filled our ears. That whirlpool was of course the reason Scylla had chosen these straits. To avoid its pull, ships must steer close to the opposite cliff. It brought them right beneath her teeth. We pushed on through the thick air. As we entered the straits, the sound grew hollowed, echoing off the stone walls. My skin, the deck, the rail: every surface was slick with spray. The water foamed and an oar scraped the rock-face. A small sound, but the men flinched as if it were a thunderclap. Above us, buried in the fog, was the cave, and Scylla. We moved, I thought we did, but in such grayness it was impossible to tell how far, or fast. The oarsmen were trembling with effort and fear, and the oarlocks creaked despite their oil. I counted the moments. Surely we were beneath her now. She would be creeping to the cave’s opening and smelling out the plumpest. The sweat was drenching the men’s tunics, their shoulders hunched. Those not rowing crouched behind coils of rope, the mast base, any cover they could find. I strained my eyes upwards, and she came. She was gray as the air, as the cliff itself. I had always imagined she would look like something: a snake or an octopus, a shark. But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth. Her eyes were fixed on the men, oblivious in their sweating fear. She crept closer, slipping over the rocks. A reptilian stench struck me, foul as squirming nests underground. Her necks wove a little in the air, and from one of her mouths I saw a gleaming strand of saliva stretch and fall. Her body was not visible. It was hidden back in the mist with her legs, those hideous, boneless things that Selene had spoken of so long ago. Hermes had told me how they clung inside her cave like the curled ends of hermit crabs when she lowered herself to feed. Her necks had begun to ripple and bunch back on themselves. She was gathering to strike. “Scylla!” I cried with my god’s voice. She screamed. The sound was a piercing chaos, like a thousand dogs howling at once. Some of the rowers dropped their oars to cover their ears. At the edge of my vision I saw Daedalus push one to the side and take his place. I could not worry for him now. “Scylla,” I cried again. “It is Perses! I have sailed a year to find you.” She stared at me, her eyes dead holes in gray flesh. From one of her throats came a strangled sound. She had no vocal cords anymore. “My bitch sister is exiled for what she did to you,” I said, “but she deserved worse. What vengeance do you desire? Tell me. Pasiphaë and I will do it.” I was making myself speak slowly. Each moment was another beat of the oars. Those twelve eyes pinned me. I could see the stains of old blood around her mouth, the shreds of flesh still hanging from her teeth. I felt my gorge rise. “We have been searching out a cure for you. A powerful drug to turn you back. We miss you as you were.” My brother would never have talked so, but it did not seem to matter. She was listening, coiling and uncoiling along the rocks, keeping pace with our ship. How many oar strokes had passed? A dozen? A hundred? I could see her dull mind working. A god? What does a god do here? “Scylla,” I said. “Will you have it? Will you have our cure?” She hissed. The breath from her gullet was rotten and hot as a fire. But already I had lost her attention. Two of her heads had turned to watch the men at their oars. The others were beginning to follow. I saw her necks bunch again. “Look,” I cried. “Here it is!” I lifted the open bottle in the air. Only one neck turned back to see, but that was enough. I hefted the draught and threw it. It hit her in the back of her teeth, and I watched her throat ripple as she swallowed. I spoke the spell to change her back. For a moment, nothing happened. Then she shrieked, a sound to crack open the world. Her heads whipped, and she dived towards me. I had time only to grab hold of the mast. Run, I thought, at Daedalus. She struck the ship’s stern. The deck popped like driftwood, and a length of rail tore away. Splinters flew. Men were tumbling around me, and I would have fallen if I had not been gripping the mast. I heard Daedalus crying orders but could not see him. Already her adder necks were rearing back again and this time, I knew, she would not miss. She would strike the deck itself, crack the ship in half, then pluck us from the water one by one. But the blow did not come. Her heads smacked into the waves behind us. She jerked, lunging against the water, snapping those huge jaws like a dog fighting its leash. It took my muddy brain a moment to understand: she had reached the end of her tether. Her legs could stretch no farther from their hold in her cave. We were past. She seemed to realize it at the same time I did. She screamed in rage, slamming our wake with her heads, throwing up huge waves. The boat tipped, gulping sea over its low sides and back. Men grappled at the ropes, their legs trailing in the water, but they held on and each moment we were further away. She beat the cliff-side, howling her frustration, until the mist closed over her and she was gone. I leaned my forehead against the mast. The clothes were slipping off my shoulders. The cloak dragged at my neck, and my skin prickled with heat. The spell had ended. I was myself again. “Goddess.” Daedalus was kneeling. The other men were ranged on their knees behind. Their faces—thick and haggard, scarred and bearded and burnt—were gray and shaken. They bore scrapes and lumps from being thrown across the deck. I scarcely saw them. Before me was Scylla, her ravening mouths and those dead, empty eyes. She had not known me, I thought. Not as Perses or anything. Only the novelty of my being a god had momentarily checked her. Her mind was gone.

“Lady,” Daedalus said. “We will make sacrifice to you every day of our lives for this. You have saved us. You brought us through the straits alive.” The men echoed him, murmuring prayers, their great hands lifted like platters. A few pressed their foreheads to the deck, in the Eastern style. Such worship was the payment my kind demanded for services rendered. The bile rose in my throat. “You fools,” I said. “I am the one who made that creature. I did it for pride and vain delusion. And you thank me? Twelve of your men are dead for it, and how many thousands more to come? That drug I gave her is the strongest I have. Do you understand, mortals?” The words seared the air. The light from my eyes beat down upon them. “I will never be free of her. She cannot be changed back, not now, not ever. What she is, she will remain. She will feast on your kind for all eternity. So get up. Get up and get to your oars, and let me not hear you speak again of your imbecile gratitude or I will make you sorry for it.” They cringed and shook like the weak vessels they were, stuttering to their feet and creeping away. Above, the sky was cloudless, and the heat pinned the air to the deck. I yanked off the cloak. I wanted the sun to burn me. I wanted it to scorch me down to bone.

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