Helen. Before I could speak, I heard my name and learned that I was Helen. My mother whispered it, but not sweetly; she whispered it as if it were an ugly secret. Sometimes she hissed it, close to my ear, and I could feel her hot breath tickling my skin. She never murmured it, and she never shouted it. Murmuring was for endearments, and shouting was for warning others. She did not want to call attention to me that way.
She had another pet name for me, Cygnet, and when she used it, she smiled, as if it pleased her. It was private, our little secret, for she never used it in front of anyone else.
Just as the mists that cling to hills gradually thin and disappear, and the solid form of the rocks and forests appear, just so a life takes form out of early memories, which burn away later. Out of the swirl of jumbled memories and feelings of my childhood, I remember being at a palace where my mother’s family lived, and where she had grown up. My grandmother and grandfather were still alive, but when I try to recall their faces, I cannot. We had all gone there—fled there—because of trouble with my father’s throne in Sparta. He had been driven from it, and now was a king in exile, living with his wife’s family.
I know now that this was in Aetolia, although of course then I knew nothing of locations, places, names. I only knew that our palace in Sparta, high on its hill, was more open to the sun and the wind than this one, which was dark and boxlike. I did not like being there and wished I could return to my old room. I asked my mother when that might be, when we could go back home.
“Home?” she said. “This is home!”
I did not understand, and shook my head.
“This was my home, where I grew up. Sparta was never my home.”
“But it is mine,” I said. I tried not to cry at the thought I might never be able to return there. I thought I had stopped the tears at the corners of my eyes, but my trembling lip gave me away.
“Don’t cry, you baby!” she said, gripping my arm. “Princesses do not cry, not even before their mothers!” I hated the way her face looked as she bent down and put it up to mine. It was long and narrow and when she frowned it seemed to grow even longer, stretching out to look like an animal’s with a muzzle. “We will soon know how long we will be here, and where we are to go. Delphi will tell us. The oracle will reveal it.”
We were jouncing in a cart across land that was wild and forested. It did not look like the land around Sparta, cupped in its gentle green valley. Here rough hills, covered with scrub and scrawny trees, made our journey difficult. As we approached the mountain where the sacred site of Delphi hid itself, we had to abandon the carts and trudge along a rutted path that clung to the ascent. On each side of us, tall thin trees with trunks like needles sought the sky but gave no shade, and we had to skirt around boulders and clamber over obstacles.
“It makes the arrival all the more special,” said one of my brothers, Castor. He was some five years older than I, dark-haired like Mother, but of a friendly and light disposition. He was my best friend among my siblings, cheerful and heartening, amusing yet always thoughtful and watchful of me, the youngest. “If it were easy to find, it would not be the prize it is.”
“Prize?” Coming up beside us, puffing and thumping, was Castor’s twin, Polydeuces. He was as fair as Castor was dark, but he lived in the shadows of caution and doubt, belying his looks. “I see no prize, just a dry and dusty ascent up Mount Parnassus. And for what? For a seer to tell us what to do? You know if Mother does not like what she hears, she will just ignore it. So why bother to come, when she could just stay in her chambers, call a seer, and have a divining rite there?”
“It is Father who must know,” said Castor. “He will give weight to what the oracle says, even if Mother does not. It is his throne, after all, that is in question.”
“It is his brother who has driven him from it. Now, dear brother, let us clasp hands and vow to avoid such strife.”
“We can rule together. I see nothing to prevent it.” Castor laughed.
“If Father does not regain his throne, we will hardly be likely to follow him,” said Polydeuces.
“Well, then, we’ll make our way boxing and wrestling, win all the prizes, have lots of cattle and women—”
“You’ll always make your way, I am sure.” Suddenly the eldest was beside us, our sister Clytemnestra. “That is a great gift.” She turned to me. “Are you tired?”
I was, but would not admit it. “No, not at all!” I walked faster to prove it.
At sundown we reached Delphi at last. We had climbed and climbed, until we finally passed a spring, where others—who seemed to have come from nowhere—were refreshing themselves, splashing water on their faces and filling their waterskins. The spring emptied into a pool, a pool shaded by overhanging trees, with dappled sun playing on its surface. It was very calm there, very restful, and I dipped my hands into the surprisingly cold water, letting it restore me.
It was too late to go to the oracle, and so we spent the night in the field that lay just below the sacred buildings. Many others were there as well, sleeping in the clear open air. The stars above us were bright and cold. I looked at them and promised myself to ask my brothers to tell me the stories about them. But this night we were so tired we all fell asleep instantly.
The sun hit my eyes and woke me up very early. It did not have to peek over a mountain, as in Sparta, but flooded the sky with light the instant it rose. All around me others were stirring, folding their blankets, stretching, eager to seek the secrets of Delphi.
Father was not himself. I could tell by the way he greeted the other pilgrims around us. He spoke to them but did not seem to hear their answers. And his response was vague, beside the point.
“We must hurry, so we are first at the oracle.” He looked around at all the others, taking their measure. “Their concerns are everyday ones, not the very future of a throne.” He pushed us to be on our way.
The oracle. The future. Omens. Prophecies. Until then, I was free. I was a child of no importance—or so I believed. After this, they ruled my life, the soothsayers, the fixed limits of the gods, the parameters that defined me.
Father was hurrying toward the oracle, leaning forward against the wind in his haste to get there first, when suddenly a shriek rang out from a rock on the path. Perched on it was a crone, a woman who, in her dark robes and hood, looked more like a vulture or a raven than a person.
“You! You!” she—I swear it—cawed.
Father stopped. All of us stopped. He went over to her, stood on tiptoe to hear her as she leaned over on her rock and spoke to him. He scowled, then shook his head. He was arguing with her! I saw him gesturing. Then he came over to me and dragged me over to her.
I did not want to go. Why was he forcing me? I twisted and tried to get away.
“Child, child!” she cried in her ugly, high voice. Father lifted me, squirming and trying to escape, and held me fast. He thrust me up to her. She leaned forward and grabbed my head, and her voice changed. She began uttering strange, unearthly cries. Her hands felt like talons, gripping me so tightly I feared my head might burst open.
“Bring her up in Sparta, then!” Her voice was now a sound like the water in the pool we passed at the entrance to Delphi, distant and dim. “But she will be the ruin of Asia, the ruin of Europe, and because of her a great war will be fought, and many Greeks will die!”
“Let me go, let me go!” I cried. But Father held me fast, and the woman breathed in and out harshly, a horrible sound, half gasping and half roaring. Mother stood there, too, rooted and unmoving. My parents’ helplessness frightened me most of all. It was as though she had by some power paralyzed them.
“Troy,” she muttered. “Troy . . .”
Then suddenly the spell was broken. She stopped her labored breathing and released my head. My scalp tingled and I fell back into Father’s arms.
We continued the march up the path to the oracle, the famous one who sat in a secret place and breathed in fumes—or conversed with the god Apollo—and Father sought her out. But what she said I do not know. I was still shaking after the assault of the woman.
“The Sibyl,” corrected Clytemnestra. “She is the Herophile Sybil and she wanders about giving prophecies. She is more ancient than the oracle, more important.” Clytemnestra knew such things. She was six years older than I and made it her business to know such things. “What she says always comes true. Whereas what the oracle says—well, there are tricks to it. It does not always happen as people think.”
“Why did she grab Helen?” Polydeuces demanded.
Clytemnestra looked at him. “You know why,” she said.
“I don’t!” I said. “Please, please, tell me!”
“It is not for me to tell you,” she said. “Ask Mother!” At that, she gave a wild laugh almost as frightening as the Sibyl’s.
* * *
We hurried—or so it seemed—back to the palace of my grandparents. Mother and Father secluded themselves, conferring with the old king and queen, and I was left to wander about my barren chambers. Oh, I did not like them, and my scalp still hurt from the grip of the Sibyl. I touched it gingerly and felt the ridges of scabs there.
Great war . . . many Greeks will die . . . Troy . . . I did not know what it meant, but I knew it alarmed Mother and Father—and even Clytemnestra, who was usually fearless, the first to drive a chariot with unruly horses, the first to break a rule.
I picked up a mirror and tried to see the injury on my head. I turned the mirror this way and that, but the injury was too far back for me to see. Then Clytemnestra snatched the mirror from my hands.
“No!” she cried. There was real alarm in her voice.
“Can you see the top of my head?” I said. “I cannot. That is all I want to do.”
She parted my hair. “There are grooves there, but nothing deep.” She kept the mirror firmly clenched in her hand.
Thus it was that I learned I was forbidden to use a mirror. It was such a simple thing—a polished bronze surface that reflected back a poor image in any case. I had seen little when I held the mirror up to my head. The face I saw, fleetingly, was not the face I had imagined.
Can we envision our own face? I think not. I think we imagine ourselves invisible, with no face at all, able to blend perfectly with everything around us.
Mother looked at herself in a mirror often enough. It seemed that every time I came into her room she was peering into it, raising her eyebrows, turning her head to see a different side of her cheek, or licking her lips. Sometimes what she did brought a smile to her face, but more often it brought a frown, and a sigh. She always put the mirror down when she saw me, even going so far once as to sit on it so I could not take it up.
Was my mother pretty? Attractive? Alluring? Fair? Lovely? Beautiful? We have so many words to describe the exact degree in which a person pleases our senses. Yes, I would say she was all of these things. She had, as I have said, a long thin face, which made her unusual; in our family, the faces were round or oval. Her nose was a perfect thin blade that set off her wide-set, slanted eyes—that was what you noticed when you looked at her: those large slanted eyes, which never met yours directly, and dominated her face. The most arresting quality about her was her vivid coloring. She had very white skin, very dark hair, and cheeks that always seemed flushed and glowing. She had a long thin neck, too, very elegant. I would have thought she would be proud of that, but once when someone said she had a swan’s neck she ordered her out of the room.
Her name was Leda, a lovely name, I thought. It meant “lady” and she was always dainty and graceful, so in choosing that name for her my grandparents had given her something to grow into.
My own name, Helen, was less certain. I asked Mother one day—when I had again come upon her peering in the mirror, and she hastily put it away—why I was named that, and what it meant.
“I know that Clytemnestra means ‘praiseworthy wooing,’ and since she is your firstborn, I thought that meant that Father’s wooing had won you.”
She threw back her head and gave a low, amused laugh. “Your father’s wooing was such as he is, political.” Seeing the puzzlement on my face, she said, “I mean by that he was in exile—again!—and took refuge with my mother and father. And they had a marriageable daughter, and he was eager to be married, so eager that he promised great gifts to them if they would surrender me, and so they did.”
“But what did you think of him, when you first saw him?”
She shrugged. “That he was not displeasing, and I could abide him.”
“Is that all a woman can look for?” I asked, very hesitant, and also a little shocked.
“Yes.” She looked hard at me. “Although in your case I think we can ask for more than that. Drive a harder bargain. Now, as to the others’ names: Castor means ‘beaver,’ and indeed he has grown up to be very industrious, and Polydeuces means ‘much sweet wine.’ Your brother could use more wine, if it would serve to lighten his spirits.”
“But my name! My name!” Children are most interested in themselves. I was impatient to hear my story, the special story of myself from before I could remember, a mystery to which only Mother and Father held the key.
“Helen.” She took a great deep breath. “It was hard to choose your name. It had to be . . . it had to reflect . . .” She nervously began to twirl a lock of her hair, a habit she reverted to in times of uncertainty or agitation; I knew it well. “It means many things. ‘Moon,’ because you seemed touched by the goddess; ‘torch,’ because you brought light.”
“I was a baby. How could I have brought light?”
“Your hair was bright and shone like the sun,” she said.
“Moon—sun—I cannot be both!” Why was this so confusing?
“Well, you are,” she said. “Their light is different, but it is possible to be both. To have attributes of both.”
“But you also call me Cygnet. What does that mean?” I might as well have it all, have all my names explained.
“Cygnet means ‘little swan’—a tiny one, just out of the egg.”
“But why did I remind you of that? You don’t even like swans!” One day we had been walking near the lake at my grandparents’ and a flock of swans had made their way toward us. My mother had turned her back on them and hurried away, and Father had yelled and thrown stones at them. His face had turned red and he had yelled, “Get away, you filthy monsters!”
“Oh, I used to like them well enough,” she said. “They were my favorite birds when I was a little girl and living here with my own parents. I would go out to the lakeshore and feed them. I loved to watch them float on the water, with their lovely curved necks and their white feathers.”
“But why did you change your mind about them?”
“I learned more about them when I was grown up. My wonder at them fled.” Suddenly she bent down and took my face in her long thin hands—long and thin like her face. “Do not look too closely at something, do not come too near, or you might lose the wonder. That is what separates children from adults.” She stroked my cheek. “Believe in everything now. Later you cannot.” She gave one of her dazzling smiles. “Once I loved them, and I still love the swan in you.”
“Then I shall go and see the swans every day,” I said stoutly. “While I can still like them, before I find out . . . whatever it was that changed your mind.”
“Hurry, then. We will be leaving here soon. Your father has his throne back, and we return to Sparta. The swans come there only rarely. They do not live there, do not touch down often.”
Oh, it was good to be back! Back in our lovely sprawling palace, high on its hill above the valley of the Eurotas River, looking down over the city of Sparta on the plain. I had missed it so. I loved my chamber, with its paintings of birds and flowers on the white walls, and the old pear tree just outside my window. And all my toys were still safe in the chest, just where I had left them when we fled so quickly.
Of course, no one would take toys, but Father was most concerned to check his storerooms and see what had been plundered while his brother had usurped his throne and lived in his palace. Father had emptied the treasure room himself and hidden its goods, buried them in the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
“But you cannot guard against everything!” he said. “And I consider every tile that is damaged an outrage, every cloak that was taken a violation! He lived here, he dared to invade my palace!” Again he was getting red-faced, and Mother tried to calm him.
“Tyndareus, these are little things. The only important thing is your throne. It is here. You have reclaimed it.”
“My brother—the swine—!”
“Your brother is dead,” said Mother flatly.
“I hate him anyway!”
Overhearing these things, I wondered how a brother could come to wrong another brother so that he would feel that way. But oh! I had yet to learn of the vile things one family member could do to another. I did not understand, because I loved my brothers and sister and they loved me, and I could not see how it could be otherwise.
My life there was full of sun and wind and laughter. I had the run of the palace, I could have anything I wished. I sang and played and learned my lessons from the amiable old tutor they brought for me. I lacked nothing, desired nothing that was not to hand. I look back on that time as my most innocent, my happiest—if happiness consists of no desires at all, no concerns, a dreamless floating.
But, as will happen, I looked up one day, when my eyes and heart were older, able to discern, and saw the high wall surrounding our palace, blocking me from anything beyond it. I began to ask to be taken outside, to see what lay in the meadows and the mountains and the city. I was met with a stern refusal.
“You must stay here, within the walls of the palace grounds,” Father said in a voice that discouraged argument.
Of course, children always ask why, but he would not tell me. “It must be as I have said,” was all he would utter.
I asked my brothers, but they demurred, which was most unlike them. Castor, who was usually adventurous, said that I must respect Father’s wishes, and Polydeuces hinted darkly that he had his reasons.
I hated being the youngest! The others could come and go as they pleased, but Helen must say inside, a prisoner! Would I never be delivered, never be freed?
I made up my mind to demand that I be allowed outside. I should be taught to hunt; I should be able to go out in the mountains with a bow, it was embarrassing that I was seven years old and still had never even held one! I marched toward Father’s quarters, shoving aside the guards on either side of the megaron. I felt odd, pushing them like that, as I was only a third their size, but I was a princess, and they had to obey me.
Today the megaron—the great chamber with its open fireplace and its polished pillars, where important guests were welcomed—was dark and empty. The private chambers of the king, separate from those of the queen, which were upstairs and near the megaron, lay on one side of the palace, across from the children’s quarters. More guards appeared when I approached the inner chambers, and I shoved them aside as well.
I heard Father’s voice. He was there! Now was the time to speak to him! I would tell him of my longing to go outside the palace grounds. But then I heard my name. I stopped and listened.
“Helen,” he said. “Can we do it?”
Do what? I felt my heart stop, then start racing.
“It will mean you have to admit to it.” Mother’s voice. “Are you able to do that? For she is worth much more if—”
“I know, I know!” Father barked. “I realize that.” Now I could hear the pain in his voice. “But can we—can you—prove it absolutely? They will want proof—”
“Look at her!” Mother’s voice was triumphant.
“But there is nothing definite, I mean, beauty, yes, but you, my sweet, you are also beautiful—”
I heard her make a noise of dismissal. “The hair,” she said. “The color of the hair.”
What of it? I did not understand.
“There must be more,” said Father. “Have you nothing else?”
The silence told me the answer was no.
“How could you have been such a fool?” he cried. “You could have asked for something.”
“If you had ever had such an experience, you would know how stupid you sound!”
“Oh, so I am stupid!”
And then it ran along the same old channel as their usual arguments, and I knew there was nothing more to be learned. I stepped brightly into the room and made my request to leave the palace, see what lay beyond it. They both frowned and denied me. Father said it was because I was too young, Mother because I had everything I needed here.
* * *
I grew older. I was eight, then nine. I stayed behind the walls, but I made a habit of dragging a log over to one stretch of them and, standing on it, spying out the valley lying at the foot of the palace mountain.
At length I won a small victory: persuading Mother and Father to let my brothers take me hunting. They allowed me to go into the private royal hunting grounds in the Taygetus Mountains behind us, where no outsiders could trespass.
“We will start you off with hares,” said Castor. “They cannot turn on you, but they move fast and are a challenge to hit with a bow and arrow.”
The forest glades and mountain glens became my world. I cared less about hunting than chasing the game. I loved running through the woods. I was fleet of foot, so much so that my brothers called me Atalanta, after the woman whom no one could outrun. In the legend many suitors raced against her, but she defeated them all; only a trick of Aphrodite allowed a man to finish ahead of her.
“That Aphrodite,” Castor had said, when he teased me about my swiftness. “She will make sure you trip.”
“But, my dear sister, perhaps a suitors’ race would not be a bad idea,” Polydeuces said. “You are sure to win the first few rounds, and that will delay the inevitable.”
I sighed, leaning back against an oak tree, letting its bark press into my skin. Father had begun talking about Clytemnestra’s marriage; he said it was soon time she be wed. All the eligible young men of our surrounding area, and even as far away as Crete or Rhodes, might compete for her. For with the hand of Clytemnestra came a crown: her husband would be king of Sparta after Father—unless he was a king in his own right, and then he would take Clytemnestra away to his realm.
“In olden times, did not the losers have to die?” I asked.
“Those are the legends,” said Polydeuces. “In truth, I think men are much more cautious.”
“Then if I made it a condition for my contest . . . it would discourage men?” I said, meaning it as jest, but suddenly the Sibyl’s words many Greeks will die came into my mind. “No, I don’t mean it,” I quickly said.
As I gained skill, my brothers let me range on my own; they did not shadow me everywhere. Often when I was pursuing game I let it go, and stopped to linger in the green glades of the foothills of the lofty Taygetus Mountains. There were misty glens with carpets of moss where the sun was reduced to pale shafts seeking the ground. I loved to stay here, where it felt so private that even the sun could not penetrate.
Then I would forget the arguments I heard more and more when I came unexpectedly upon the king and queen, their sharp voices as they sparred with each other. In the forest, animals did not jeer, nor did the trees make me feel uneasy. You knew which animals were dangerous and likely to attack you. In the forest there were no secret enemies.
Nine winters had passed since I was born, and now I was almost as tall as my mother. Lately she had insisted we stand back to back whenever I was summoned to her chamber, so she could see how I had grown. She called for a stick to be laid across the tops of our heads, and would ask her attendant, “I am still taller, am I not?” and the attendant would dutifully nod. I wondered what would happen on the day the stick would tilt and I would be taller. I wished that day would never come, for I knew it would displease her, only I did not know why.
When she called me into her chamber, often it was on the pretext of asking me what my tutor was teaching me. If I told her we were learning the family of the gods, she would ask questions. At first they were easy: Name the Olympian gods, she would say. Only the twelve who live on Mount Olympus, none of the others. And I would recite them. But later she put much harder questions to me. One day she asked me to name all of Zeus’s offspring.
“Do you mean the immortal ones, or all of them?”
She gave a strange smile. “Begin with the immortals.”
I named them—Athena and Persephone, Apollo and Artemis, Ares and Hermes. I added that Hera was his sister, and that Aphrodite was not the child of Zeus but of his grandfather Uranus.
“Aphrodite was not born, strictly speaking,” said Mother with a dry little laugh. “But Zeus has made sure that Mount Olympus teems with his children. Since he will never die or step down from his throne, he need not worry who will succeed him. They can bicker and brawl to their hearts’ content, it makes no difference. None of them will die, none will have to go into exile.” She paused, settling herself down on a bench, extending her long legs beneath their thin linen gown. I could see them through the fabric, the flesh turning the white linen pinkish.
She saw me looking and smoothed the linen over her thighs. “The best, from Egypt,” she said. “I would have preferred blue, but we are last to receive anything here. It comes first to Mycenae, after it has gone through Troy and Crete and the gods know where else first.”
She was about to begin her lament on Sparta’s isolation. “Still, it is very lovely,” I assured her.
“Now for the mortal children!” she suddenly said. “Name them!”
“The ones Zeus had by earthly women? Oh, Mother, how could I ever count them all?” I laughed. The tutor had told me the most important ones, such as Perseus and Minos, and, of course, Heracles, but some were unknown.
“Someone did count them all; Zeus has singled out one hundred and fifteen mortal women to give his . . . his attention to.”
“And of course they all had children,” I said. The gods could never take up with anyone, god or mortal, and not leave proof.
“Yes, always,” she said.
“But it is so—so—peculiar that the women can’t look at the god, at least not in his divine form. Now, when he is disguised as a bull, or a shower of gold—”
“He does that for their protection! You know what happened to that foolish Semele, who wished to gaze on his divinity.”
Yes, no less a woman than the mother of Dionysus had seen Zeus in his godhood and had instantly been turned to cinders. “It was very sad,” I agreed. She seemed agitated, as if it were very important what the tutor had taught me. I sought to soothe her. “So it seems that curiosity can be dangerous,” I said.
She took a deep breath. “Just so. Now, what of the other ones, besides Heracles and Dionysus?”
I tried to remember. “They are the most famous because they became gods themselves, which is very unusual. The rest of them just die in the regular way. There’s Perseus, he lived near here, at Argos, and then there’s Niobe, Zeus’s first mortal woman, and her son Argus, and oh, Mother, there are so many of them! Zeus was everywhere, it seems, and—no, I cannot name them all.” It was hopeless. Even the tutor most likely could not. “Alcmene, the mother of Heracles, was the last,” I said. “Zeus comes no more amongst us.” For that I was thankful—no more additions to memorize.
Now she burst out into that laugh I hated. “Is that what he’s told you?”
“Yes, it is.” I backed up a step or two. She was frightening when she gave that laugh. “He said that Zeus—that that time had ended.”
“Not entirely,” she said. She opened her mouth as if to speak more, but gave a great sigh of resignation. “Now it has. Now it has. But not with Heracles. There are younger children of Zeus. Now, did your tutor point out any odd thing about the offspring of Zeus?”
I could not imagine what she meant. “No,” I finally said. “Of course, they are all lovely, and tall, and strong, and have—what is the saying, ‘more than mortal beauty’?—but aside from that, I do not know. They are all very different.”
“They are all men!” she cried, leaping up from the couch so quickly my eyes could barely follow her. “Men! All men!”
“Perhaps he has daughters, but does not recognize them,” I said. “Perhaps he feels it is not fitting to sire daughters, and so he will not claim them.” It seemed as if Zeus might believe that.
“Nonsense!” She was trembling. “He has daughters, divine ones on Mount Olympus, and he is proud of them. Perhaps mortal women did not give him any daughters worthy of him. If they did, you can be sure he would be proud of them. If he knows of them. If he knows of them!”
“I thought he knew everything.”
Now came that dreadful laugh again. “Oh, Hera fools him all the time! No, it is entirely possible he has overlooked his mortal daughter, if she has been hidden away, in a place where no one comes, no one sees her.”
Suddenly I had this dreadful feeling, as her words rang in my ears. Hidden away, in a place where no one comes, no one sees her. They had kept me hidden away, and few visitors came to Sparta, and there was so much whispering about me between Mother and Father . . . and there were the forbidden mirrors. And Mother so fierce about Zeus, so adamant about him. But no, that was a foolish fancy. All children like to think they are special, or even unique.
I suddenly remembered something. Perhaps it was what she had been hinting at. “I am descended from Zeus!” I cried. “Yes, he told me that Zeus and a nymph of the mountain, Taygete, had a child, Lacedaemon, and that child is Father’s ancestor.” I expected her to reward me, to clap and say, Yes! Yes!
She shook her head. “That was a very long time ago, and I see nothing godlike in your father. The blood has run very thin, if indeed it ever stretched back to Mount Olympus.”
She was trembling. I touched her shoulder, wishing I could embrace her, but knowing she would push me away. “Well, it is of no matter,” I said. “I cannot see how it would affect us in any way.” What happened long ago, in a story, was of no moment.
She looked very hard at me. “It is time we go to the Mysteries,” she said. “The goddesses Demeter and Persephone are bound to our family. You are old enough. We will all go to the shrine on the mountain, and there you will learn of your guardian goddess. And she can reveal much, if she so chooses.”
It was decided that we would go at the time of the celebration of the Greater Mysteries, in the autumn. I could begin my initiation now so that when I arrived at the sanctuary I could experience the secret rites in their fullest measure. Only those who had trained and been accepted by the goddesses could look upon their secret nature.
An older woman who had served my mother since childhood instructed me in private. We are forbidden ever to reveal what we learned, but I can tell of the things everyone knows. Mother’s friend Agave began by taking me on a walk through the newly planted fields, while telling the story in a singsong voice. I was forced to wear a veil to hide my face lest any of the field-workers see me. It made the clear day seem overcast. Tramping beside us were two guards, armed with stout swords. They, too, were initiates.
Though my sight was dimmed, I could still hear, and the birds and cries of human voices told me it was that exultant time of year when the earth rejoices as it warms again. I could smell the musty odor of just-turned earth, and hear the snorting and deep rumbles of oxen pulling the plow. Behind the curved plow came the farmer scattering the seeds, dropping them into the fur-row, and behind him, a boy with a mattock to cover them over again. Cawing and wheeling around his head, the crows were looking for a meal. Even the low rasp of their cries sounded happy to me. The boy yelled and beat them off with his hat, laughing all the while.
“The earth rejoices, and why?” Agave suddenly stopped, so abruptly that I ran into her. She turned around and peered at me, but she could not see me through the veil.
“Because Persephone has returned from the underworld,” I dutifully recited. Everyone knew that; you did not have to be an initiate.
“And now her grieving mother, Demeter, who withered all the blooming and growing things, will bring them back to life again. And that is why we have the planting, and the flowering of the fruit trees.”
She nodded. “Good. Yes. And might we see and hear Demeter? Walking here amongst us?”
I was puzzled. “I am not sure. If we did, I think she would be in disguise. She disguised herself when she went searching for Persephone, did she not?”
“Yes.” Agave took my hand and we began walking again, skirting between two fields—one of barley, one of wheat. Now the rows were just little green hairs, looking very fragile. “While the daughter is with her, the mother will be gracious to us all,” she said. “But when she leaves again, then it is we who are punished. The vines shrivel and the cold kills the flowers, and we call it winter.”
“And we hate it!” muttered one of the guards. “Blue toes, stiff fingers, still we’re expected to fight as if it’s summer. The fields get to rest, the bears to sleep, but a Spartan soldier must carry on.”
Agave laughed. “No wars are fought in winter, so you cannot whine about that.”
“Kings must be guarded in winter. Princesses, too.” He winked at me. “Yes, and where were Persephone’s guards that day that Hades got her? If Demeter had been a good mother, she wouldn’t have left her unprotected like that.”
“Don’t demean her or she’ll strike these fields, and you, my friend, won’t be eating,” said Agave.
“No danger of anyone making off with Helen here. The king keeps a guard on her at all times, even though she’s locked up in the palace grounds. What’s he so worried about, I ask?”
“It is best you don’t ask,” said Agave. Her voice changed. “Demeter may be in these very fields, so watch your words,” she told us all. Then to me she said, “But the correct answer to my question is just that. We might see her here. But you will surely see her at the Greater Mysteries. That I promise you.”
I felt a shiver of excitement just thinking of that. But it was Persephone I most wanted to see. She was young, like me.
Persephone chose the time of year when the days and nights were equal to come and go, from a special cave at a place called Eleusis. But that was far from Sparta, close to Athens, over the mountains from us. Since no one in our families came from there, I wondered why the goddess and her mother had chosen us to protect.
Mother told me that because Demeter was the goddess of crops and plenty, it was natural that she would favor Sparta, as our valley was so rich and fertile. We lay protected on both sides by high mountains, and through our flat green valley ran the Eurotas River, broad and swift, watering our crops. Fields of grain, trees heavy with their burden of apples, pomegranates, olives, and figs, vines twining themselves around oak trees and hung with grapes, all would please Demeter, proclaim her power in our lives.
“You saw how barren it was in Aetolia,” she said. “Or perhaps you don’t remember, you were so young. But there’s no place as lush as Sparta and our valley, no, not for all the airs of Argos or Tiryns or Mycenae. Even Pylos cannot match us.” The unmistakable lilt of pride filled her voice. “For this Demeter loves us.”
“Or are we this way because Demeter loves us?” I asked. “Which came first?”
She frowned. “Really, Helen, you are most argumentative and contrary.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You often sound it nonetheless. I don’t know the answer to why the Eurotas Valley is rich, or which came first, and I don’t think it matters. What matters is that Demeter is our goddess. She has blessed this land we rule over, and she thereby blesses us.”
“But what if we didn’t have the land? Would she still bless us?” After all, if I married and left Sparta, I would no longer be in that fertile land. Would Demeter then dismiss me?
She bent her head and closed her eyes. Was she angry? Had I offended her? She was breathing heavily, almost as if she had fallen asleep. But when she spoke, her voice was quiet and hesitant. “You have spoken true,” she said. “Often kings are driven from their thrones, lose their kingdoms. Your father has almost lost his, twice. Kings have drowned themselves in the Eurotas. In Mycenae, the family has a curse on it because of the fighting between the brothers for that throne. Dreadful things were done . . .” She gave a shudder. “Perhaps then the gods abandon us,” she said. “They do not like to involve themselves in our troubles.”
We had been sitting in the bright courtyard of the palace, caressed by the sunny day. In summer, the open area was a rustle of leaves from the ornamental trees scattered throughout, and birds, expecting food, hopped from branch to branch. They were so tame they would swoop down and strut at our feet, darting toward our toes to grab a crumb or two. Then they would chirp, jump back, and fly swiftly away, over the palace roof and far away. When she saw them flying, Mother would laugh, a thrilling low laugh, and I could look at her and see that she was beautiful. Her dark eyes would follow the flight of the birds and I could trace them by looking at her.
“Come with me, Helen,” she suddenly said. “I wish to show you something.” She stood up and held out her slender hand, weighted with rings. When she squeezed my hand, the rings bit down and hurt. Obediently I followed her, back into her quarters.
Now that I was growing older, I was aware that her rooms were furnished more richly than the rest of the palace. Usually there were few stools and the tables were plain three-legged things, their tops bare. But in Mother’s rooms there were chairs with arms, couches to lie upon in daytime, spread with soft coverlets, tables with ivory inlays, carved ornamental boxes and alabaster bowls on them. Sheer curtains shielded the room against the stabbing sunlight of noon, softening it while rippling with the breeze. Being so high meant we always caught the best breezes, and Mother’s rooms were a cool dim haven.
On one of the tables flush against a wall she kept her favorite precious items: I always saw several cups and round boxes of purest gold, and her ivory-handled mirror lay face down. Several long bronze pins, their ends tipped with crystal, were arranged side by side between them. I had a desire to grab the mirror and look long and hard at my face.
She saw my eyes go in that direction and she shook her head. “I know what you are thinking,” she said. “You long to see for yourself what is the object of curiosity for so many. Well, on the day you are betrothed, and we know you are safe, then you may look. Until then . . . I have something for you.” She opened an oblong box and drew out a shimmering piece of what looked like a cloud. But it was attached to a circlet of gold. She waved it to and fro, so that the cloth danced and the sunlight played through it. Little rainbows chased across it, disappearing in a wink. She settled it on my head, pressing the circlet down. “It is time you had a proper veil,” she said, as the fuzziness blurred my vision.
I yanked it off. “I won’t wear it! There’s no need, here in the palace, everyone knows me, I can’t bear it!” I squeezed the material in my hands, trying to ruin it. But no matter how hard I crumpled it, it refused to wrinkle. Such was the hateful fineness of the cloth.
“How dare you?” she said, wrestling it from me. “This cost a fortune. I had it woven specially, and the gold circlet could have made a fine cup!”
“I won’t do it anymore, I won’t hide behind a veil. There must be something wrong with me. You pretend I’m beautiful, but I must be a monster, to be hidden from sight. That’s why you won’t let me look in the mirror. Well, now I will!” Before she could stop me, I leapt across the room and seized the mirror. I rushed between the columns and beyond the curtains and for an instant, before she clutched my arm, I saw my face in the brightly polished surface of the bronze, saw it in the sunlight. Or rather, saw part of it—the eyes, which were fringed with thick black lashes, and the mouth and cheeks. In that fleeting instant I saw my flushed face, the bright green-brown of my eyes. That was all, for the mirror was wrenched from my hand, and my mother stood before me. I expected her to strike me or shake me, but she did not. For an instant it crossed my mind that she was afraid of me, rather than what I later learned—she was afraid of damaging me if she did that, and she took good care of her possessions. “You are not a monster,” she said, “although sometimes you behave as one!” Then she laughed, and all at once the ugly moment had passed. “Then you need not wear it here, but you must promise me you will never leave the palace grounds, not without a guard or your instructor, and in that case, you will cover yourself. Oh, Helen . . . there are many people who wish us all harm, who would kidnap a princess easily enough. We do not want that, do we?”
I shook my head. But I knew it was more than that. There seemed to be more worry that I would be kidnapped than that any of her other children would.
The days grew long, twilights lingered, and the hot blast of summer poured down on us. I could almost feel Helios in his chariot directly overhead, the heat radiating out from his pathway, drying up the earth beneath him. Under his hand the leaves, dulled with dust, hung limply from their branches, and we in the palace fanned ourselves to create our own breezes. In the stillness of noon even the white butterflies hid themselves, and it seemed that nothing stirred.
All the while I was learning the rites and secrets of the mysteries of Demeter, and it took all summer. There were so many of them—there was the story of her wandering in search of her daughter, who was snatched away by Hades as she gathered the spring flowers, which must be reenacted. The priestesses even knew which flower she had been gathering—a rare yellow narcissus. Her mother, in seeking her, had briefly dwelt with mortals and assumed the guise of an old woman caring for a baby prince. Did she wish to take him for her own son? She tried to make him immortal by passing him through a flame, but his mother discovered it and brought a hysterical end to the attempt.
“She did not understand that this would kill him, rather than make him immortal,” old Agave said.
These gods seemed to have little regard for us, I thought, and little understanding for how fragile we are. Truly they were frightening. I was thankful that Demeter was our patron, but I hoped she would not ask anything of us. It might be something deadly.
I learned to mix and partake of the special drink that was used in the rites, a barley gruel flavored with mint that Demeter drank on her sorrowful journey. We also had a sacred basket, the cista mystica, that contained ritual objects. We were given long torches that were to be carried in procession to the site, and used in a sacred dance to imitate Demeter searching in the dark for her lost daughter. I was to practice walking with it, holding it high, and then learn to dance with it in only one hand.
But there was one final thing, perhaps the most important thing. Without it I could not proceed to the initiation. “You must be of an unblemished moral character,” said Agave solemnly. “Your hands must be absolutely clean and your heart immaculately pure.”
I trembled before this order, imagining myself to be smudged and spotted by all my childish shortcomings. I know now that the only thing that bars an initiate is being a murderer, but I suppose it is good for children to start out vigilant against all failings. Even being a murderer does not keep you from the Mysteries forever, for if you atone and are purified, you may approach them once again.
If being a murderer kept one permanently from the rites, then Father could hardly be going, and he was enthusiastically readying himself for them.
I had learned, by listening and asking questions, that Father had stopped at little—I started to say nothing but that would be untrue—to regain his throne and to keep it. With enemies such as he had, he needed to be as hard as they. And the land was filled with warriors, with murderers and rivals and bad people. I smile as I say “bad people” because it became a joke with my brothers.
“There are bad people there,” they would say, when speaking of just about anywhere I mentioned. Crete. Egypt. Athens. Thessaly. Thrace. Syria. Cyprus.
“Do you mean everyone in Egypt? Everyone in Thrace?” I would say. “Surely not!”
“Oh, that’s what Polydeuces always says,” Castor would say, laughing. “But I—I would only say that there are a great number of bad people about, mixed in with the good ones. We trade with all those peoples, and without them our palace would be bare indeed. Bare, anyway, of all the luxuries Mother likes.”
“So be on guard, little sister, for all those baaaaaad people!” Polydeuces’ deep voice rumbled. Then he laughed. “Many foreigners pour in for the Mysteries, although they tend to favor Eleusis. But it is strictly required that they speak Greek, so that eliminates the uncivilized, if not the truly bad.”
The days began to shorten. At first barely noticeable, only in that we could see the stars a little sooner. Then the morning light began slanting differently into my chamber, and the winds that blew into the palace shifted. They whispered through the west side, bringing cool nights for sleeping. Now, at last, it was time to go to the shrine of the Mysteries and meet our goddesses.
We would set out at dawn, and rose even before that to partake, in silence, of the new harvest grains, and to taste the new wines. Then we attired ourselves in the gold and green tunics and mantles we wore in their honor—the color of growing things—and took up our torches. A cart, groaning with our offerings from the fields and trees, was ready to trundle away with us. By the time the sun broke over the horizon we were already in the gentle hills leading up to the shrine.
I wore the hated veil as I had promised, intoning the hymns to the goddesses I had been taught. We were not supposed to talk, but I could hear Mother and Father speaking in low voices to one another. Clytemnestra walked behind them, her head meekly downcast, but she was most likely straining to overhear them. The air was fresh and filled with the scent of reaped fields. I suddenly felt overcome with the beauty and fullness of autumn. As we made our way, the paths grew steeper, and soon the cart could not climb with us. Servants took the offerings off and bore them on slings, the fat jars of grain and the baskets of fruit swaying. The sacred basket with the ritual objects was borne separately on its own platform. As we ascended, streams of other people joined us, coming from the huts and houses in the foothills. Mother turned to make sure I was wearing my veil.
All were equal in the rites, so the people could jostle and jockey for a place near us, freely walking as our companions. Our guards—who were also initiates—kept them from crowding right up against us, and my brothers, although their lips were forming the words of the hymns, were looking around sharply to protect us. No weapons would be allowed into the sacred precinct, but for now they could have their swords at the ready.
The path began to rise sharply, growing narrow at the same time. It squeezed us pilgrims into a narrow file, and suddenly made a sharp turn around a grim gray boulder that blocked our way. I felt a shudder ripple down my body before I knew why, and then I saw it all again in my mind: the rock with the Sibyl on it, shrieking her dreadful prophecy. There was something on this boulder now, too, and I flinched, bracing myself for whatever lurked there.
Huddled around the rock, rag-clad people jeered and reviled us. “Tyndareus! Haven’t seen you at the market! Why not? You are always trying to sell your daughters, aren’t you?” yelled one.
“Only the cygnet!” cried another.
How dare they call my secret name? How did they know it?
“Look to your wife! Look to your wife!” they chorused. “Blow the feathers from her thighs!”
“What next?” Now they attacked Mother. “A bull, like the queen of Crete? Try a porcupine!”
One perched on the rock and flapped his arms, his mantle flying out. “Fly away! Fly away! The great bird has flown!”
Father and Mother kept their heads down, which was very unlike them, and made no retort.
Clytemnestra passed by them with only insults to her stockiness and big hands, and then it was my turn. They started moaning and trilling, and one tried to grab off my veil, cooing, “Does she have a beak? Does she have a beak?”
Now that someone wanted to take it, I fought to keep the veil. I clutched at the gold circlet and held it on my head, grimacing.
“She’s a fighter!” cried one. “Her face must need protecting.”
“Where’s the eggshell? How big was it?”
There was more, but I do not remember it. I hurried past them as fast as I could go without running, for I did not want to show fear, but I was trembling. As we emerged on the other side, and the taunts were directed at those behind us, I rushed to Mother.
“It is over,” she said. “We could not tell you, for it is part of the initiation to pass through a wall of insults. But you did well.” There was pride in her voice.
“Why is it necessary?” It seemed cruel and pointless to me.
“To make us all equal,” said Father. “Kings and queens must bear the insults along with everyone else, and no matter what they say we cannot ever punish them for it. That is the rule.” He laughed as if it were no matter, but I knew he would brood over it.
“It teaches us humility,” said Mother. “All people need to know the worst that is said of them, the more so if surrounded by flatterers.”
We were stopped, waiting for Polydeuces and Castor to emerge from their drubbing.
“They say we learn lessons from it,” said Father, his mouth working in that odd way it did when he was thinking. “I have just learned one: what we must call Helen from now on. We will put it about that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Yes. That is what we shall claim for her. She must keep wearing the veil, it will increase curiosity and drive her bride-price up.”
“I am far way from being married . . .” Oh, I hoped so! I was only ten years old, too soon to speak of it. “The veil . . .”
“What people cannot readily see, they imagine. They long for. They become consumed with. And things longed for are very dear, and people will pay highly for them. If there were rainbows every morning, they would be ignored. If we have a rainbow here, in you, then let us proclaim it but allow few to see it.”
Mother narrowed her eyes. “The most beautiful woman in the world. Do we dare? Dare claim that?”
Just then my brothers came galloping up, laughing and reeling. “They know too much!” Castor said. “They seem to know all about us!”
“They know what will hurt us,” I said. “I am not sure what else they know. It is simple to know what will wound a person.”
Clytemnestra looked approvingly at me. “Helen is right. To insult someone is an easy task. To rise above the insult, not so easy. We remember it far longer than we remember praise. That is just the way we are made.”
“Then it must be the way the gods are made as well, for they seem to take our praise and costly sacrifices for granted, but hold grudges for omissions and slights forever,” Father said with a grunt. He looked up at the trail. “Come, we lose time.”
Peaceful now that we were past the raucous taunting, we let the sharp air of the mountain cool our flushed cheeks. I puzzled over the angry words, the strange references. Beaks? Eggshells?
We were still climbing. The Taygetus Mountains were so high that the snow lingered on their jagged tops long past the time when the blossoms of the apple and quinces in the valley had blown away, and it came early, before the crops were gathered in. There was not one mountain but many, making a great wall down the middle of our country. On one side of them lay the fearful Stymphalos Lake, where Heracles had killed the evil birds; on another lay Nemea, where he had slain the lion with the impenetrable hide. A fierce longing to see these things seized me.
You have indeed left the palace, I told myself. Is that not a beginning? The dismal lake of Stymphalos, the other places where Heracles performed his labors, must wait. But you will see them, yes, someday you will see them.
Daylight was waning by the time we approached the sacred site, as it was meant to be. A grove of black poplars came into view, rearing above the other trees, swaying in the evening breeze, whispering their mysteries. We walked between the narrow aisle they created and then at once emerged onto flat ground where hundreds of torches flared.
“The goddesses greet you.” By my side a robed priestess held out a long slender vessel and bade me drink. I tilted it up to my lips and recognized the mint-flavored potion made of white barley harvested from Demeter’s sacred field. She gestured me toward a man standing with flaming torch, from which I must light mine. I obeyed.
My torch aflame, I was directed to join the swirling lights in the field before me, which transformed the grounds into a sky full of stars. Hundreds of devotees were dancing, turning, and weaving intricate patterns and chains of movement in the gathering dark, holding their torches.
“We dance for the goddesses,” a priestess whispered in my ear. “Do not be afraid, do not hold back. Offer them yourself.”
Surrounded by the worshippers, I found myself borne away, whether I would or no. The dark ground was uneven and it was hard to keep from stumbling, but the dancers seemed to float over the ground, and in joining them, so did I. I lost my parents, lost my brothers and sister; I left the Helen that had to wear a veil, and keep hidden, and obey, and soared free. I felt Persephone take my hand. I heard her murmur, “When they take you away, it is not captivity but freedom.” I could sense the brush of her sweet soft hand, smell the richness of her hair. Although I could not see it, somehow I knew it was red-gold.
At once everything grew still. The dancing ceased, and the priestess held up her hands. I could barely see her in the dim light.
“You have drunk the sacred beverage,” she said. “You have taken the goddess into yourselves. Now you must recite your secret promise.”
The rumble of hundreds of voices mixed, impossible to decipher. But the pledge was thus: I have fasted. I have reached into the sacred basket and, having worked therein, left a residue in the ritual basket. Then, withdrawing from the ritual basket, I have returned to the sacred one. I can recite it here, knowing that it is incomprehensible to those outside the mysteries. I betray nothing.
Satisfied, she motioned for us to make a huge spiral on the sacred dance ground. Its tip would go first into the initiation hall, and the rest would uncoil behind it. As we entered, we were to douse our torches in a large stone trough just outside the building. Each torch plunged into the water made a last, singeing protest.
Inside, it was utterly dark. A deep and dreadful dark, like the dark of the tomb, like the dark when you awaken and know not if you still live. Only the press of the other bodies around me reassured me I had not died, was not lost.
“Happy is he among men upon earth who have seen these Mysteries; but he who is uninitiated and who has no part in them, never has a good portion once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom,” a faraway, echoing voice cried.
“Bow before the goddesses,” we were directed. I felt, rather than saw, a movement in one direction, and I followed. Ahead of me I heard sighs and moans, and as I approached I could barely make out the dim shapes of statues of Demeter and Persephone. The mother, dressed in radiant color, was in front, and behind her, shadowy in black, was the daughter. We passed before them quickly, not allowed to linger, as we were herded into another, smaller hall.
An overpowering scent of flowers filled the air. I was not sure which ones, it seemed that there were several blended together. Were there irises, hyacinths, narcissus, piercing sweet and crushed? But it was not the season for those flowers, so how could the images of the goddesses have come by them?
“These were the last flowers I gathered before I was taken,” a ghostly voice spoke, floating in the heavy perfumed air. “You can feel what I felt, smell what I smelled . . .” The voice trailed away sadly.
We were plunged into even deeper darkness, as if we had descended with her into the chasm. I felt myself falling.
At the bottom, where I landed after a long glide, I was alone. I pulled myself to my feet, and fought to know where I was. All around me was black, dark, smothering night.
“This is what all those above must face.” A soft voice whispered against my cheek. “But for you—you need never come to this place of darkness. That is the fate of mortals.”
“I am mortal.” I was finally able to frame the words.
“Yes, somewhat.” Now a gentle sigh, almost a laugh. “It is up to you how mortal you are.”
The voice . . . the presence . . . I had come for the Mysteries, and they promised that the divine epiphany would manifest itself. It had happened, then. “I do not know what you mean,” I said.
“Your mother has done you a great disservice, then,” she—I knew it was a she—said. “She should tell you the truth of your engendering.”
“If you know, I beg you, tell me,” I cried. I seemed to be alone with her, having a private audience. There was no one around us. Had I fallen into a secret pit?
“You and I are sisters,” she said. “That is all I may say.”
If only I knew who she was, then I would know what to ask. “Who are you?” I murmured.
“Whose shrine is this?” She sounded displeased.
Oh, let her not be displeased! “Demeter and Persephone’s.”
“Just so. And who am I?”
It must be the daughter! “Persephone?”
Now I felt a warmth spreading out, engulfing me. “You speak true.” A great pause. “But my mother is worthy of praise as well,” she said. “And you would be wise to heed that. Even though a daughter is grown it does not mean that the mother stops requiring homage.”
At that time I did not know what she meant. Later I was to know all too well.
She stepped down, approached me. I could feel her near me. “Sister,” she murmured. “You may trust me. I will always be with you. Beware any other goddess.”
How could she think of any other goddess, or imagine I might? Her radiance, a radiance that penetrated the darkness and shone in my mind, overwhelmed me. “Yes,” I mumbled.
“And now I await others,” she said.
Of course: the goddess is always ready to attend to the next, whereas we mortals look back, at what just passed, at what we have just seen. In that, I was entirely a mortal. My eyes were blinded with the radiant vision of her, although I had never truly beheld her face. That was as she intended.
In the great hall we huddled, waiting. It was far into the night, though we had no way of knowing exactly how far it had crept. Time had flown like a raven on black wings. Everything had dropped away, and I stood stripped of all I knew, all I was, all I had felt. I was naked before the godhood, awaiting their revelation.
A light blazed; the answer came in the final ritual enacted for us. I saw the miracle, the deep kernel of the secret. From that moment on, death held no fear for me. I knew it for what it was. I could transcend it.
For a time what I had seen in the inner chamber consumed me, and I basked in the splendor of that vision long after I returned home. I contented myself with my lessons, I practiced the lyre—which I was now old enough to learn—and I was proud when I outgrew the little bow of elmwood that Castor had fashioned for me and was able to draw a larger one, as well as hunt larger game. No more hares; now I could take aim at wild goats.
The autumn faded in a blaze of glory, ebbing away, its bronze turning brown, its fruits picked, its fields fallow and sleeping. We huddled indoors, rubbing our stiff hands before the hearth fire in the great chamber, enduring the dull songs and poems of the bards who visited us. Not all singers are gifted, and those that were not seemed especially drawn to Father’s palace.
I thought the experience at the shrine would last longer, stilling my desire to see more, but by spring I was chafing at my imprisonment more than ever. Escaping for a little while had only made it worse. No matter that our palace was open to the breezes that blew across it, caressing it like the strings of a lyre. But the green valley and its little city below murmured beguilingly to me, as the forbidden always will.
Clytemnestra came upon me as I was standing on tiptoe, peering over the wall on a rock, and she grabbed my shins and shook me. I almost fell off.
“Stop craning your neck, you’ll stretch it out.” She laughed and held out her arms and I jumped into them. She was so strong she did not even sway as my weight hit her.
“Take me there!” I suddenly said. “Please, please!”
She looked around to see if anyone was listening. But we were quite alone. “Now?”
“Yes, now!” I said. “No one is paying any attention, we can be back before they miss us. Oh, please, please, you can go whenever you like, but I am kept tied up here like a slave. No, not even a slave, slaves aren’t bound.”
I could see her thinking. Clytemnestra always liked a dare.
“Unless you’re afraid?” I said, knowing she would have to prove she was not.
She scoffed. “Me?” She took a deep breath. “All right, let’s hurry!”
Looking around nervously, we slipped out the postern gate and hurried down the slope of the hill. The shade from the hill’s olive and cypress trees gave way to bright sunshine once we were out from under them, making the green of the meadows dazzling.
“It’s prettier than jewels!” I said. I ran into the open meadow, feeling the cool grass against my legs, surprised by the flowers hidden in the grasses—little purple ones, lacy white ones, clusters of pink blooms.
“Helen!” Clytemnestra’s usual commanding voice held a note of worry. “Helen!”
My head was barely taller than the stalks of grass and weeds, and I waved my arms at her. “I’m here.”
“Come out now, before I lose you,” she said. “The grass here is too high.”
We stayed on the path that led to the river, making our way down to the banks. Here, once again, we had shade—under the tamarisks and willows that grew near water, their freshly budding branches throwing shadows on banks and stream. The muddy water swirled past, turning and flipping up little flecks of white.
“The water nymph is waving,” said Clytemnestra. She seemed to remember something that made her smile.
“Which one lives here?” I wondered.
“I don’t know her name,” Clytemnestra said. But somehow I knew she did. She just did not want to say it. Perhaps it was sacred.
I came close by the edge of the water, to a place where the rushes grew. “I would like to see her.” I had to speak loudly for my voice to carry over the murmur of the water in the rushes. I stuck one toe in, and found it chilly. The snows on the Taygetus Mountains were still melting.
Clytemnestra came and stood beside me. Our reflections were rippling in the water beneath us. I bent over to see mine better, but Clytemnestra pulled me back.
“Don’t,” she said.
I felt I must see what I looked like. I found a surprising strength to push against Clytemnestra, who was so much larger than I. Her grip loosened for an instant, and in that instant I lunged forward and saw a face staring wide-eyed back at me, as startled as I was in beholding it.
I looked nothing like I had imagined, although I already knew—from my furtive look in Mother’s mirror—that my eyes were green-brown and had thick dark lashes, and that my lips were full and curved. Now I could see it all, see my face as those around me saw it.
I leaned farther over, until I almost touched the water, and then my nose did touch it, and the image broke into ripples and shards, dancing away. I held my breath and waited for it to become still, so that once again I could gaze on my image and see what others had been seeing and had been denied me, could study it and memorize it. It dictated my life, it kept me a prisoner, so should I not know what it was?
“No.” Clytemnestra pulled my arm back. “Stop, or you’ll end up like Narcissus.” She took a deep breath. “The man who fell so in love with his own reflection in the water that Apollo turned him into a flower. Is that what you want?” She kept her voice light, but she could not hide the fear from me. What was she afraid of?
“No,” I said, obediently stepping back, for she had succeeded in frightening me. “I would not want to be rooted in any one place, even a place as lovely as this riverbank.”
But once we were back on the sunny path leading to the city, my apprehension faded away. I had seen nothing, after all, but a reflection, and no face had any power in and of itself, at least no human face.
The path meandered, sometimes ranging far out into the meadow on its way to the city, sometimes turning back to hug the riverbank again. By now the sun was high enough even in this early spring to make the shade welcome whenever we walked under trees again by the water. At one point the river widened, making a dark pool. Swimming serenely on its surface were three large swans, circling one another in stately majesty, their curving necks held high, their gleaming white feathers looking impossibly pure against the murk of the water.
I stopped, holding my breath. Behind me Clytemnestra came to a halt.
“They are so beautiful,” I whispered, as if they did not truly exist and the smallest sound could make them disappear.
I had never seen swans this close before, but I was held motionless by their imperious, conquering grace. I stared and stared; they glided past as if they were spirits, never acknowledging any other creature on the river.
One of them then turned his head, swiveling it around smoothly and fixing his surprisingly small eyes on me before he swam in our direction. He was making for a grassy spot on the bank, an inviting one with irises and violets making spangles on the green.
He seemed to have a purpose, seemed deliberately to be coming toward us. Honored and excited, I stepped back one little step and grasped Clytemnestra’s hand. The swan, the largest of the three, I now saw, was not stayed by the little, distracting motion I had made.
His eyes held mine with a dark stare.
We had dogs at the palace, hunting dogs, and my father and brothers had told me, “An animal will always look away when you stare at him; he will drop his eyes first. That is because man is master over the animals. Unless, of course, he isn’t an animal at all, but a god disguised . . .”
Gods were fond of disguising themselves as animals, at least they were in olden times, when the stories we love so much were born, but this swan was of my own time. And he was bold.
He was almost up to us; he was making for the bank where we stood. His face was turned toward us; and above his black and orange beak his eyes were closeset and unfathomable.
“No!” Clytemnestra cried, and rushed forward, waving a stick. “Not again! Don’t come here again, you raping, cruel creature!”
The swan halted, then swam furiously toward us, raising his wings and clambering up on the mud, emitting a harsh sound.
He was huge. With his wings spread, he dwarfed Clytemnestra, who backed up and found a stone to throw at him. It hit his beak, turning his head.
Any other creature would have fled, but the swan attacked. Hissing, he flew toward Clytemnestra and, ramming his neck back and forth, pecked at her in a series of jabs and bites. She fell face downward in the mud and threw up her hands to protect her head. The swan trapped her and started pecking at the back of her neck and her arms, all the while making the most horrible rasping hiss, like steam escaping from a boiling pot. The other two swans continued their serene circling in the water.
I rushed forward and flung myself on the swan’s back. What else could I do to save Clytemnestra? I clawed at his feathers. They were thick and shiny and smooth, and I felt the power underneath, and the muscles. This was no pillow or cloud, but strength and glory and pitilessness under the misleading beauty of the white feathers and the grace of form.
“Leave her! Leave her!” I cried, and then I grasped the swan’s neck—a swaying tube that felt like a striking snake.
As if my hands had no strength, he turned that neck beneath them and looked directly at me. His little black eyes seemed to expand until they filled all my vision, holding me in their power.
“Stop it,” I whispered, my lips almost touching the hard beak.
The beak opened and grasped my cheek. There were little ridges inside it, tiny points, and I could feel them pinching my flesh. He held the skin gently, swaying his head a bit, as if he were caressing—or kissing. Then he let go and pulled back to look at me again. He ruffled his feathers, making them rise up and unseat me, so that I slid off. He stood for a moment, regarding me. Then he arched his neck once more and patted my hair with his head. He then turned and reentered the water, floating serenely away to join his companions.
Clytemnestra sat up, gasping and puffing. Her arms were covered in mud, and her face was smeared with river ooze.
“I curse you!” she cried after the swan.
“No!” I grabbed her arm. “It is dangerous. Do not—he may take revenge!” This was no ordinary swan.
Then she uttered mysterious words. “What else can he do?” she asked bitterly. “The deed is done.” She stood up and called out over the water, “I curse you! I curse you!”
The swans had glided away into the darkness of the shaded water.
* * *
The rest of the walk toward the city we made in silence, shaken from what had happened on the riverbank. For a moment I thought of returning to the palace, but once we were back it would be difficult for me to get out again—I would be guarded more closely than ever.
Tight-lipped, Clytemnestra trudged on, holding my hand. Her cheek was dirty where it had rubbed on the riverbank. On the back of her cloak I could see the muddy imprints of the webbed feet of the aggressive swan.
I tugged at her hand. “Please, can we slow down a bit? And could you smile? I think you will frighten the people in the city.”
She shook her head and a little smile crept up the corners of her mouth. I could always make her smile when others could not. Then she laughed, a bit shrilly. “You are right,” she said. “We can only laugh about it. Together. No one else would believe us.” She went down on one knee and looked directly into my eyes. “You must not tell anyone.”
“But why? It was so—” The words died on my lips as I saw her expression. “No, I won’t,” I said.
“Good. No one must know. It must be our secret.”
The city came upon us in a bend of the path, which had widened out and become big enough to permit carts to lumber along it. One moment we were on what looked like a country path, surrounded by meadows, grazing cattle, and gardens, and then we were passing into the city of Sparta.
It was not a very big city, I know that now, but then it seemed huge—so many buildings, so close together, and so many people. We passed through the gates—small in comparison with those I later saw in Troy—and into the streets.
Suddenly there were people everywhere, moving like an enormous beehive. They were rushing in all directions, as if they had all been summoned to a vital job at the same instant. I expected to hear buzzing, but the sounds were much louder than that—yelling and creaking and the crack of whips.
A few laden donkeys were plodding along the street, bumping against the sides of houses, lumbering under wineskins or pottery jars, but mostly there were people, people carrying baskets of grain and bolts of cloth.
“We’ll go to the market—you’d like that, wouldn’t you, Helen?” Clytemnestra asked. She stood closer to me and took me partly under her arm, as if to shield me, hide my naked face.
Nodding, I tried to wiggle free so I could see better. But her arm held me firmly as she steered me down the street.
We reached the marketplace, an area where several streets came together to make an open space. I could see rows of people sitting on the ground on mats, with their baskets of dried figs or mint leaves and their pots of honey and other foods.
There was something gleaming in one deep basket, and I bent over to peer into the dark depths of it. Far down I could see some kind of trinket that caught the sunlight, and I put in my hand and drew one out.
It was a bracelet of twisted wire, cleverly made so that part of the wire was flattened and would flash in the light.
The seller was quick to take my hand and slide another bracelet over it, but Clytemnestra was even quicker to push it off, along with the first one. She jerked my hand back.
“No, you mustn’t,” she whispered. “Come.” She tried to turn me around, but it was too late. The woman’s eyes had left my arm, an arm like any other prospective customer’s, and gone to my face to cajole me into buying. But instead of the usual banter and urging, she let loose with a shriek. Her eyes, until then seeing nothing but a possible sale, widened in disbelief.
“It’s her! It’s her!” she cried. She jumped up and grabbed my arms, pulling me toward her, knocking over the basket of bracelets and spilling their glitter all around.
Clytemnestra, muttering, pulled me back, and they began tugging at me as if I were a sack of grain.
“Help me! Help me!” the merchant called to her fellows. “Hold her! It’s Helen!”
They rose up as one and rushed over to us. Clytemnestra was stronger than the bracelet-woman and had wrenched me away from her grasp, hiding me in the folds of her cloak, but we were completely surrounded. Only armed bodyguards could have held them back.
Clytemnestra held me fiercely to her side, so tightly that I could see nothing, but I could feel the trembling of her body. “Stand back!” she ordered, her voice gruff. “Stand back, or you will answer to the king for this! Let us depart in peace.”
“Let us see her face!” a voice from the crowd demanded. “Let us see her face, and then you may depart!”
“No,” Clytemnestra said. “It is not your right to look upon the princess.”
“We see your face,” another, deeper voice said, “and you are also our princess. I say, let us see Helen! Unless she is a monster, has the beak of a swan, the beak of her father—”
“Her father and mine are the same—your king, Tyndareus. Let such slander stop,” Clytemnestra said, her voice ringing.
“Then show us!” a man’s voice demanded. “Why has she been hidden away all these years up in the palace, never showing herself to us as you have been shown, as Castor and Polydeuces have been shown, openly, coming to the city, playing in the open fields, unless it’s true—she’s the daughter of Zeus, who came to the queen as a swan, and was hatched from an egg—”
“An egg of hyacinthine blue,” another voice cried. “I’ve seen the eggshell—preserved—”
“What nonsense!” Clytemnestra bellowed. “You’ve been too long at the shrine of Hyacinthus nearby, he’s put these fantasies in your heads—”
“No, the egg is real, its shell really was blue—”
“Someone saw the swan and the queen down by the riverbank. And the swan sometimes still comes back, as if he’s lovesick. He’s bigger than the others—stronger—whiter—”
“Let us pass!” Clytemnestra commanded. “Or I’ll curse you!”
A moment of quiet followed as they considered her words. I still could not see anything, enveloped as I was in the folds of her cloak.
A voice broke the silence. “She’s a monster! That’s why you hide her!”
“A monster! A monster like the Gorgon. A hideous apparition!”
“Let us go!” Clytemnestra repeated. “Or perhaps . . . if she is a monster, I will let you see her, and that will be the curse. Remember the power of the Gorgon to turn onlookers to stone.”
A quiet murmur followed the threat. I should have felt safer, but Clytemnestra’s hint, even if was clever, hurt me. She was willing to paint me a monster, dreadful to look upon, and leave the people of Sparta believing that, rather than give in to them.
I twisted out from under Clytemnestra’s grip and flung off my cowl, baring my head before the crowd.
The crowd was a large one—a circle of people several rows deep. I had never seen so many faces.
“I am Helen!” I cried. “Look your fill!” I held my head high and braced myself.
There was silence. Utter, deep silence. The faces turned toward me, like moonflowers following the moon as she makes her nightly journey across the sky. The expressions drained away, replaced by a calm as serene as if they were under that moonlight.
Finally someone murmured, “It is true. Only the daughter of Zeus could have such a face.”
“So terrible . . . it blinds . . .” they murmured. But what they were truly seeing in my face was also the power that would set in motion so much strife and destruction.
We turned, leaving them standing there, truly like stones, as a Gorgon would have turned them, and made our way through the streets, stunned as if under a spell.
But it was I who was stumbling and under a spell. Zeus. They had called me the daughter of Zeus, said he had mated with Mother as a swan. The swan that attacked us—was he—could he be—my father?
The sunshine was still as bright, but all I could see was the white of the swan and his pitiless eyes, and the stares of the townspeople as they gaped at me and were paralyzed by looking at me. So that was what the veil was for, that was why I was guarded, and that was why Mother had hurried from the swans at the lake near my grandparents’, and that was why Father had thrown stones at them and called them filthy monsters. And that was why she called me Cygnet, little swan . . . Everything around me swirled, and I fell to the ground.
I knew nothing, until I awoke in Clytemnestra’s arms as she labored up the hill. She was gasping and panting as she clutched me against her; I was astonished by her strength and agility as she clambered over the rough path, climbing uphill all the while.
“I—I—” I wanted her to stop, I wanted to ask her about all of it while we were still alone. No one was near; we must have left the pursuing villagers behind.
“Don’t talk!” she said. The words were stern, but her voice was trembling.
“But I have to! You have to tell me, everyone knows things about me but me, even the Spartans knew things—”
She stopped and let me down. “It was foolish of Mother and Father not to tell you. They made us all promise not to tell you. As if you would not know someday. All of it—the veil, the mirrors, the imprisonment! How stupid of them!”
The gates of the palace loomed ahead; they were closed as always, but Clytemnestra cried, “Open! Open in the name of mercy!” and the doors swung wide. Just inside, she dropped me down and turned around to aid the guards in pushing the doors shut and bolting them. No one seemed to be behind us, but we could not be sure.
We thought we were safe, and Clytemnestra was just whispering to me to go directly back to my chamber before we could be caught, when suddenly Father strode from beneath the portico. He looked around, frowning, and saw us just as the gates groaned shut. In an instant he was beside us, jerking Clytemnestra’s arm.
“You’ll be punished for this!” he said. “Severely punished. You have disobeyed my orders. You”—he stuck his face up into Clytemnestra’s, and in that instant it struck me how alike they were—“are old enough to know better, and so you shall suffer the worst punishment. You”—he swung around at me—“could have been injured. You risked yourself, and put us in danger.”
“The only thing in danger is your bargaining rights with Helen, had she been physically damaged in some way,” snarled Clytemnestra.
Father drew back his hand and struck her across the cheek, but she did not budge, only narrowed her eyes. “To your quarters, to await my punishment!” he ordered her.
Surprisingly, she obeyed, leaving me with Father. He kept staring at me and I realized that Clytemnestra had spoken the truth: he was inspecting his wares for damage. Satisfied there was none, he relaxed and released me. “You also, to your quarters.” He put his hand firmly on my back to steer me.
Just then Mother emerged from her chambers and saw us. We stood and waited for her as she rushed toward us, her gown fluttering. Her face was a mask of worry. She grabbed my shoulders and began sobbing.
“Control yourself, Leda, she is safe,” Father said abruptly.
“Oh, where did you go, and what did you do?” she asked.
I must be properly contrite. “Oh, Mother, I am sorry. It was not Clytemnestra’s fault. The wrong was mine. I persuaded her to take me from the palace, I wanted to see Sparta. We went into the town, and some people saw me and got excited . . .” Mother was breathing heavily but kept silent, so I continued. “And on the way I played in the fields, and by the riverbanks . . .” I shouldn’t say it, I had promised Clytemnestra I would keep the secret, but suddenly I knew this was the only way to force Mother to betray her own, much greater secret. “A huge swan was there, and he chased Clytemnestra and attacked her, and I beat him off, and then he looked at me, and he—he kissed me.” I glanced at her innocently. “He seemed to be fond of me, for some reason. Mother, it was as if he recognized me!”
She gave a little choking cry. “Oh, how could you . . . how could he?”
“It was as if he wanted to tell me something.”
She drew herself up, as if she were issuing a command to her body. “Tomorrow morning, Helen, come to my chamber. After you have fulfilled your punishment.”
Clytemnestra was taken to the whipping place, where youths were initiated into manhood and punished with rods. I was sent to my room and given nothing to eat, and made to sleep on the stone floor rather than my bed. I also had to sleep in the dark. The oil lamps were taken away. I spent a cold and frightening night, and I kept seeing the swan and his black eyes, and the eyes of the townspeople when they converged on me. I was frightened not by what had already happened, but in dread of what I would hear tomorrow from Mother. For I would not leave her chamber ignorant of my true self. I was determined now to know the truth.
The sun was barely up when I wrapped myself in a wool mantle and sought my mother’s chambers. Her quarters were not far from the huge throne hall with its open hearth, situated so the queen could discreetly retire when a formal evening went on too long, which happened all too often.
She was just arising, and a servant was draping a soft cloak the color of old ashes around her shoulders as I came into her room. I could see that her rising was only for show. She, also, had not slept.
The new-risen sun was spilling its early light between the pillars of her room, reaching across the floor like thin arms.
“My dear child,” she said. “Here, eat something with me.” She indicated a tray holding a honeycomb and some bread. But she did not eat, and neither did I.
“Helen, I am sick with worry about you,” she said. “You knew you were not to leave the palace grounds. Certainly your sister knew that. She has become unmanageable, and it is time we find a husband to govern her. But something dreadful could have happened—something dreadful almost did happen.” She gave a little shudder.
No more evasions. The truth must be stabbed, dragged out into the open. “But Mother, what truly could have happened? Those people are your subjects, and they would not have harmed their princess. Perhaps if I were to see them more often—”
“No!” She clapped her hands together to silence me. “No.”
“It is that prophecy,” I said. I knew that somehow the Sibyl was part of the reason I was kept locked up. That and the swan. Begin with the Sibyl. “Long ago . . . when we went to Delphi . . . there was that witch, that prophetess, I don’t know really what she was, but she made a prediction about me . . . something about being the ruin of Asia, the ruin of Europe, the death of Greeks. Are you trying to prevent it by holding me prisoner?”
I expected her to deny it, but she nodded. “Yes. We hoped to trick the fates.”
In my lessons I had heard the legends: how Perseus’s grandfather had known his daughter’s son would kill him so he sent them away, to no avail—the son killed him anyway; how Oedipus had been told he would kill his father and marry his mother, so he had taken himself off to Thebes, and on the way had killed his father unknowingly and as a reward was given his mother to wife, again unknowingly. It was futile to try to avoid what was foreordained.
I remembered Father’s words: To know is to arm. An enemy seen a far way off cannot surprise. An enemy seen from a distance can be outwitted and avoided.
So far no enemy had come. But the Sibyl had not said when the trouble would come. Nor from what direction. Nor in what form. Despite Father’s brave words, it is hard to arm against something that you cannot recognize. Oedipus learned that.
“Mother, you know it is impossible to avert what has been foreordained.”
“But we must try.” She turned from me to the table where she kept her jars of unguents and scented oils and poured a little oil into one of her palms. She held it out to me, and when I nodded she took one finger and spread the fresh oil on my cheeks.
“Such lovely skin,” she said. “My little Cygnet.”
I grabbed her wrists. “Mother! It is time you tell me of what seems to be common knowledge. Cygnet. Little swan. Am I a little swan, Mother? Do not seek to divert me with talk about my gracefulness, my white linen tunics, and so on, as Father has. What is the truth of it? What is the truth of what everyone in Sparta speaks of—that you and the swan—but it was not a swan, it was—it was—” I could not say it, it sounded too presumptuous. “I saw the swan, and his feathers were shining white, a white that dazzled, like the clouds before the sun bursts through them, and they hurt my eyes.”
Mother stood for an instant, unmoving. She bowed her head and I knew she was taking counsel of herself, weighing how much truth it was wise to speak. I could see the top of her head with its shining dark hair—so unlike mine—but could not see her face, could not see the struggle taking place within her. Finally she raised her head and I knew she had won her battle. She would tell me the truth.
“Come,” she said, drawing me over beside her on her couch. She clasped me tightly to her, so I could feel her body next to mine. I waited. “Dear child,” she said, “there is no way to say it but this: When your father was away, the father of all the gods, the ruler of Olympus, came to me. He chose me, I know not why. And yes, he came as a mortal creature, a swan. To look upon him in his glory means death for a mortal, and he did not wish me to die. He departed at sunrise—just at this time, so there is no morning that comes that I do not bid him farewell again, feel his leaving. And yes, our child was born, and it was you.”
Suspicions, fears, dreams—those are not the same as hearing it for a fact. I felt dizzy, and leaned against her.
“You are his only daughter,” she said. “Oh, he has many sons, but you are his only mortal daughter, by a mortal woman. He will protect you, regardless of what the Sibyl said. That is why we sought to thwart her, for Zeus is more powerful than a mere Sibyl.”
“But . . . Father . . .”
“He knows. But he pretends he does not. Perhaps it is better that way. One must give men their pride. He calls you ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ but does not dare to admit how that can be. Of course the daughter of Zeus will be of immortal beauty, while she lives.” Her voice grew sad. “But the children of gods and mortals are always mortal,” she said. “That is inevitable. You will die as I will die. But while you live, we seek to protect you.”
I bowed my head in acquiescence. Now all was revealed; now I understood. She took a strand of my hair and held it next to hers. “Mine is of the earth, yours is of the heavens. See how it shines, full of gold!”
“Mother, did he leave you nothing?” I knew, from the stories, that the gods were hard, lusting after mortals but discarding them afterward. But sometimes they left them a token.
“Only what I took,” she said. She rose and walked dreamily toward a wall niche, taking down a carved ivory box with a domed lid. She plucked off the lid and thrust the box toward me. Inside were four long gleaming swan feathers, so pure they glimmered and gave off a light of their own, an entirely unnatural light.
Feathers. When she might have asked for the world.
True to their word, Mother and Father immediately sent out the announcement that their elder daughter, the most illustrious princess Clytemnestra, was of an age to be married. Her advantages were stressed: an impeccable pedigree—she was descended from the earliest rulers of Sparta, and with her hand might even come the inheritance of that throne—and she was of good childbearing stock, pleasing to look upon, and healthy. Nothing, of course, was hinted of her obstinate and rebellious nature, nor of her indifference to women’s tasks, nor of her physical strength, comparable to a man’s. Father said that he hoped a high bidder would come along, and wanted to open the contest to foreigners as well as Greeks.
“I’m willing to consider an Egyptian, or a Syrian,” he said.
“Egypt would be wasted on Clytemnestra,” said Mother, smoothing her hair with long nervous fingers. “The linen so sheer it floats, the enameled bracelets, the perfumes—one might as well offer them to a wolf.”
“It is true, your daughter is unlike you. I know it’s you who covets such things, and would begrudge them to Clytemnestra.” He chuckled, as if he enjoyed knowing her envy. “But, my dearest, we must think only of what the match might bring to Sparta, not of the luxuries you are missing.”
“A foreigner, no matter how rich, would be a failure. Others would look down upon us.”
I had tiptoed into their room and now I barely dared to breathe, lest they hear me.
“Let them look. Down, up, or sideways, as long as we have a connection to a rich port over there.”
“I’ve never heard of a foreigner come courting here, nor of such a marriage taking place,” Mother said. “And Sparta has no port, so how could a connection with a foreign one help us? The trade would all go to Mycenae, where it goes already.”
“Troy,” Father suddenly said. “That’s much closer, and Egypt trades through it, so we needn’t bother with an Egyptian. Besides, Trojans are richer than Egyptians.”
“Better-looking, too,” said Mother. Now it was Father’s turn to be needled. “They say they are so striking, even the gods can’t keep their hands off them. Zeus took up with Ganymede, and Aphrodite herself could not contain her passion for that shepherd, what was his name? Why, once when you were away, one came on a diplomatic mission. I entertained him alone, of course.” She smiled. “It was not a difficult task.”
I could almost feel the swan feathers stirring in the little box, mocking Father.
“All right, no foreigners,” Father finally said. “There should be enough of our own kind to choose from.”
I was about to make my presence known when suddenly Mother said, “I think it is time. Time for Helen to be seen. Then the word will spread, and when she is old enough to wed, bidding will be at a frenzied peak.”
“Yes! And we can let it be known that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world!” Father sounded jubilant, trumpeting his favorite phrase.
Mother frowned. “But wait . . . might that not detract from Clytemnestra’s chances? Perhaps the suitors will decide to wait for Helen.”
“Ummm. . . yes, that could be a problem,” Father admitted. “But it seems a shame to keep her hidden when all these people gather. When would we have such an opportunity again?”
“There are advantages either way,” said Mother. “Let us think about it, do nothing hasty.”
In the glorious summer, when the sun was at his height, the suitors came for Clytemnestra. One by one they climbed the steep hill to the palace, bearing their hopes and their gifts. One by one they were received by the king and queen, and settled in their quarters.
The rules in the competition for the hand of the king’s daughter had been observed since the days of long ago, and they were rigid. Father must feed and house the suitors until one was chosen; it was permissible for a suitor to send a representative rather than come in person, if he lived far away or was too powerful to appear as a supplicant; there might be some sort of contest, like a footrace or an archery match, although the results were no longer binding.
As I watched the parade of hopefuls arrive, I wondered where all these men would stay. Beds were laid out under the wooden porticoes, where they could sleep still partially protected but in the open air. Mother had gotten hold of every spare woven blanket and sheep’s fleece to serve as bedding, and the goatherds brought in their kids and ewes and began the slaughtering to feed the crowd. Endless jars of grain and oil were produced and the great amphoras of wine were opened for drinking and libations. It was as important for Father’s wealth and hospitality to appear limitless as it was for the suitors to pose as guardians of the door of promise.
Some twelve came—an impressive number. Among them were the prince of Tiryns, two sons of Nestor of Pylos, a warrior from Thebes, a cousin of the royal house of Theseus of Athens, and a young king of tiny Nemea. The rest sent emissaries—these came from Rhodes, Crete, Salamis, and faraway Thessaly. And then, on the last day, the brothers Atreus—Agamemnon and Menelaus of Mycenae—climbed the hill and stood before the palace gates.
Mother turned visibly pale, and her hand fluttered up to her white neck. “No . . .” she breathed, so low that only I, standing close by her side, could hear.
Father’s face betrayed nothing. He welcomed them as he had welcomed the others, with a set greeting: Noble guest, come into my home.
I knew about the curse on their house. Everyone did. In a land where we children grew up on tales of ghastly murders and betrayals, the story of the sons of Pelops still stood out, a story that had not ended yet and was therefore even more frightening.
Briefly, then: The king Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. In struggling for supremacy, Atreus killed the three sons of Thyestes, and cooked them into a stew, which he then served to his brother. In horror, Thyestes cursed Atreus and all his descendants. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
There was much more to the story, adulteries and more murders, unnatural liaisons, treachery, and lies. But now the embodiment of the curse, Agamemnon, had come to seek Clytemnestra’s hand.
Agamemnon was a dark-haired, stocky man with a heavy beard and thick lips. His eyes were oddly large and his nose fleshy; his neck was short and so his head seemed to spring directly from his shoulders. If he needed to look to the side, he almost had to turn his entire body around. I saw how muscled his arms were, hanging down by his side, and suddenly a picture of him strangling someone flashed through my mind. That he could do it barehanded, I had no doubt.
A servant behind him was carrying a long thin gold-inlaid box, holding it out like a precious sacrifice.
“Is that the scepter?” Father asked.
“Indeed, yes. Did you think I would come without it?” Agamemnon’s voice was as heavy and dolorous as the rest of him.
Father then turned to greet the other man, Agamemnon’s younger brother. “Menelaus, noble guest, come into my home.”
“I thank you, great king.”
Menelaus. My first glimpse of him. Like his brother, he was wide-shouldered and heavy with muscles. But his hair was a lighter, reddish gold, thick and wavy like a lion’s mane, and his mouth turned up in a smile rather than down in a frown. It was hard to believe that he, too, carried a dark curse, for there was nothing in his person to suggest it.
“I come, dear King Tyndareus, to bolster my brother’s courage in seeking for the princess’s hand.” This voice was plainspoken, but not rough. It was very deep, making him seem larger than he was, but it was a reassuring deepness.
“I do not understand,” said Father. “You do not come as a suitor yourself?”
“There has been too much rivalry between brothers in our house,” he said. “Has it not caused enough sorrow? No, it is enough that I may personally encourage my brother’s suit.” He bowed his head in an oddly formal manner, and at that moment he saw me. Like all the others, he stared. Everyone who had stepped into the palace, who had passed the royal family and me, had likewise been rooted for a moment. Some stammered. Others swallowed.
He smiled a little, said nothing, and followed his servant.
Thank you for saying nothing! I thought. Thank you, thank you! I was instantly grateful.
For I had been granted my wish: to stand before people without any barrier, without a veil. It had been unpleasant. After the first two men had acted as if they had seen an apparition, I became embarrassed and then frightened and then angry. I was more trapped without a veil than I had been behind one. Yet had I not requested this very thing?
The men drew lots for the order of the day of their appearance. No one wanted to be first; somewhere near the end was most advantageous. Had this been a performance with no prize in sight, then to appear toward the end would have been bad, because by then the audience would be restless and inattentive. But in this case, the man who went first might find himself forgotten by Clytemnestra by the time she had to choose.
Euchir, the young king of Nemea, had the misfortune to be first. He bore himself well. He spoke of Nemea in its valley, saying it lay far enough from Sparta that Clytemnestra could feel she truly had a new home, but close enough that she would never be severed from her family. He promised a crown that was uncompromised by other claimants or prophecies. (Clever point! The brothers Atreus must have hated that.) Then, charmingly, he ordered his trunk opened, and displayed part of the impenetrable hide of the lion of Nemea that Heracles had slain—the city’s pride.
I could tell from Clytemnestra’s face that she was not impressed. He was a sapling to her, too slight and too green for consideration. She confirmed my thoughts by declining to ask him anything, and he had to take himself and his lion skin away.
At the feast afterward, the bard plucked his lyre and sang of the deeds of Euchir’s ancestors. His voice was increasingly lost in the rising noise of the hall as more wine made men speak loudly. He glared at them; this bard was not blind as many were.
After a great long while it was over, and we could go to bed.
And on and on it went for days. After the first few, they all began to blend together. Perhaps they seemed indistinguishable to me because Clytemnestra showed no interest in any of them.
The two sons of Nestor of Pylos were as long-winded as their father, she said.
The prince of Tiryns was as heavy and gray as his city’s fortifications.
The warrior from Thebes would be awkward in a palace. He probably sleeps under his shield, she quipped.
As the numbers still to present their suits dwindled, I wondered what would happen if the last spoke his piece and she was still unmoved. Must we hold this contest year after year, hoping someone new would appear?
Agamemnon was the next-to-last to present his suit. He strode out into the center of the hall and took his stand, planting his legs like posts. His head lifted, he looked once around at all the faces, then fixed his attention on Father.
“I, Agamemnon, son of Atreus, do here present myself as husband for your daughter. If chosen, I shall make her my queen, the queen of Mycenae. She shall be honored and obeyed throughout all Argos, and I shall strive to assure that she shall never have an unfulfilled wish, if it lies within my power.”
“And what do you bring to show us?” Clytemnestra spoke.
There was a deep silence. This was the first time she had asked anything of a suitor.
Agamemnon grinned. I thought it made his face sinister, as the heavy black beard parted, revealing his gash of a mouth. “Princess, I will show it betimes.” He left his place and fetched the long inlaid box from its resting place beside a pillar. Placing it carefully in the center of the megaron, near the hearth, he opened it with great ceremony. Then he reached in and took out the scepter, holding it aloft, turning so everyone could see.
“Behold the work of the god Hephaestus!” he cried.
It looked like any other scepter to me—the length of a man’s arm, about the same thickness, too. That it was of bronze made it unusual.
“Tell me, King, the story of this scepter.” Clytemnestra was leaning forward.
“I am honored to do so,” he said. His voice resounded like thunder that is too close. “Hephaestus fashioned this in his heavenly forge for Zeus. Zeus presented it to Pelops, who then gave it to Atreus. From Atreus, Thyestes took it, and then it came to me as its rightful wielder.”
“Shall I wield it, too?” Clytemnestra was almost standing now in her excitement, and her voice also sounded loud as thunder.
Agamemnon looked startled, but quickly recovered. His eyes finally joined his mouth in smiling. “I shall have to ask Zeus’s permission,” he said. “After all, it is Zeus’s, and so far it has only passed through the hands of men.”
“Do not ask Zeus,” Clytemnestra said. “He is prejudiced because of his dealings with Hera, and will always deny the wife. I ask you.”
For just an instant he hesitated. Then he gestured to her. “Come here and take it yourself.”
I saw Father go stiff. This was against all protocol, and he moved to disqualify Agamemnon. But as he rose, Clytemnestra stepped from her place and went over to Agamemnon. Briefly they looked into each other’s eyes, testing for mastery. Neither looked away, and, still keeping her eyes on Agamemnon, Clytemnestra grasped the shaft of the scepter, closing her fingers around it.
“It seems you have decided the matter,” Agamemnon said. “Now I need not ask of heaven.”
The feast and gathering following this could not but be affected by the couple’s extraordinary actions. People were so stunned that they could not help talking about it, even if they were reduced to whispering amid the pleasantries.
“A woman has touched the god-hewn scepter.”
“Does she mean to wrest it from Agamemnon?”
“If the gods permit such a thing, does that mean that they would allow a woman to rule alone?”
I overheard all these questions nestled between comments on the roasted kid, the quality of the firewood, and the near-full moon.
I stayed close to my family, especially wanting to know what Mother thought. But, queen that she was, she betrayed nothing, nor would she speak her true thoughts where there was the slightest chance that anyone might overhear.
Father was more transparent, and I could tell by his glowering that he was highly displeased. Castor treated it as an amusement—“Clytemnestra looked regal with the scepter”—whereas Polydeuces found it offensive—“To spar in public like two boxers demeans them both.” I myself did not care for Agamemnon, but I had to admit that he brought out Clytemnestra’s fire and that perhaps they were well suited.
I left Castor and stood for a moment at the edge of the hall, where the covered porch gave way to the open courtyard and, beyond that, the moonlit grounds. Looking up, I saw that the moon had only one more night before it was full. It shone brightly, casting sharp shadows from the edge of the roof and the tall poplars swaying in the wind, the same wind that ruffled the shoulders of my gown.
Someone came and stood beside me, disturbing my solitude. I thought that if I ignored him he would turn away. Instead he spoke.
“I fear my brother’s behavior has displeased you.” It was Menelaus.
“No,” I said, feeling bound to answer. “Not displeased, but surprised. Yet it seemed to appeal to my sister, and after all she is the one whose favor must be won.”
“It was bold of him.”
“A gamble that may pay off.”
“Does boldness appeal to both sisters?”
I could look at the moonlit grounds no longer, keeping my profile to him. “I do not care for boldness for its own sake,” I finally said, turning to him.
“Nor do I,” he said. “I am not sure I am capable of it myself. I am quite different from Agamemnon.”
“As I am from Clytemnestra,” I said. “Brothers and sisters are never mere copies of one another.”
Outside in the night I heard the call of a nightingale. The warm winds of spring stirred it, the same warm winds that were stirring the hems of our garments. “No,” he said. “And sometimes there’s more in common between unrelated strangers. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are both dark-haired, and we are both light.”
I laughed. “Yes, that is one thing.” His hair was a redder gold than mine, but they were similar. And we had both chosen to stand apart from the crowd at the feast, to look out into the night: another similarity.
A long silence now descended. Although I had wished him not to speak, now that he was beside me and had ceased doing so, it felt awkward. Why did he not reply? The nightingale called again, sounding very close.
He seemed content just to lean on the little balustrade and keep looking out onto the moonlit courtyard. The edge of it cut into his muscled forearms, but he did not move them. His hands were finely made, perfect and strong. They hung loosely, relaxed. I thought of Father’s, nervous and veined like a monkey’s, and always plucking at something. Father’s were also festooned with rings. I saw that Menelaus only wore one, so that his hands looked naked for a man of standing.
“What are you thinking?” he finally said.
I was startled at his directness. “I was wondering about your ring,” I admitted. “That you wear only one.”
He laughed and held up his hand. “I need my hands to be free, not weighed down, even with gold.”
“What is on it, then? What does it show?” I could see it was incised with figures.
He pulled it off and gave it to me. In the deep hollows of the oval I could barely make out two dogs flanking a curved object. Their heads arched toward the edges of the oval, making a graceful half circle. As I turned the ring to catch the carvings in the dull light, I realized how thick it was and how much gold it held. The House of Atreus was rich; in that Clytemnestra had made a good match. Zeus gave power to the House of Aeacus, wisdom to the House of Amythaon, but wealth to the House of Atreus: I had heard that saying from Father’s lips.
“My two hunting dogs,” he said. “When we were fleeing from Mycenae, they faithfully accompanied us. They are gone now, but I keep them with me this way.”
“You are loyal to them as they were loyal to you.”
He smiled as he drew the ring back on. “Yes. I shall never forget.”
And we cannot forget, either: the reason you were driven away, the dreadful curse of your house, I thought. At the same time, he must have been remembering the unspeakable thing hanging over our house, my mother’s deed. We were both defined by our family histories, yet must not speak openly of them. I laughed, a quiet, sad laugh.
“This amuses you?” he said. “Loyalty?”
“No. What amuses me is the weight we both carry, and must not speak of. Yet you seem to carry it lightly enough.”
“I try to make it look that way.” He gave a smile, and won my admiration.
“Oh, so here you are!” A loud drunken voice cut through our privacy. “Little brother!” Agamemnon swaggered up, rubbing his belly in satisfaction, and reeled, sagging, against Menelaus. “Hiding? You should be celebrating with me. I’ve found the wife I need!”
Menelaus pushed him away, and Agamemnon swayed back and forth on buckling knees, eyeing me. “Ehhh . . .” he murmured. “Is she really the most beautiful—”
“Silence!” ordered Menelaus. “Drink more and cease your stupid babbling.”
Thus the hated phrase was stopped halfway through. I signaled my thanks to Menelaus, then slid away from the distasteful brother hanging on his shoulder, the man soon to be my own brother-in-law.
I was awake before dawn, watching the moon set behind the trees on our hilltop. The breeze was still stirring, stealing into the room between the columns. There was a faint stale scent of the megaron fire, burned out now.
Being up so early, I was able to assist Clytemnestra in her dressing. Only one more day for her to dress formally; only one more day to attire herself in what must appear to be the fourteenth different costume. In truth, she combined her gowns and mantles and brooches in changing ways to make it appear that she had many.
“Bring me the bright scarlet!” she ordered her servant as I stepped in. She was magisterial that morning, her color vivid. There was something different about her.
The servant returned, bearing a bolt of cloth so red it would make a poppy look pale. Clytemnestra smiled and picked it up. “Yes!” she said.
“It is the color of blood,” I said. Are you sure you wish to . . . to look like a warrior?”
“A warrior-man needs a warrior-woman,” she said, holding the cloth under her face.
“So your mind is still settled on Agamemnon?”
“Yes. I shall wed him. I shall go to Mycenae.” With no hesitation she stripped off her sleeping gown and stood naked for a moment before sliding the red wool over her body. She had an unusually strong body, broad-shouldered but not like a man’s. Her face was likewise strong of feature, but not masculine in the least. It was her spirit that was so bold.
“I shall miss you,” I said, my voice low. I was just realizing how much. From my earliest memories she had been there, protecting me, teasing me, playing with me. Now her chambers would be empty.
“But we knew this must happen,” she said. She was so straightforward. Her thinking was thus: I am a woman. I must wed. When I wed, I may leave Sparta. What is the surprise in that, in the what-must-be?
Her acceptance of it—of leaving me—hurt. “But Agamemnon!” I said. “What about the—the—”
“The curse?” She was pinning the shoulders of her gown. She did not reply until she had gotten them just right. Then she turned and looked searchingly at me. “I cannot explain it, not even to myself. But the curse is part of the reason I want him.”
I was horrified. “Why do you wish to bring self-destruction upon your head?”
“Because I believe I can thwart it—even overcome it,” she said, lifting her chin. “It has issued a challenge. I will take up that challenge.”
“But to bring our house into this circle of destruction! Oh, please do not!”
“Are you forgetting we also have our bad prophecies? Aphrodite has vowed to Father that his daughters will be married several times and leave our husbands—did he ever tell you that? If you intend to be faithful to your husband, then you also will be trying to challenge a prophecy, to overcome it.”
I wanted to say, Please don’t leave our house! Don’t leave me behind. And don’t marry Agamemnon. I don’t like him! But I would never voice those words. When a daughter left home to wed, there was always an empty place in the family.
“One more to get through,” she said, laughing. “And then I can have the man I want.”
The pitiful last contender, an envoy from a Cretan suitor, had little to offer and no one was paying much attention to him, so when his brief speech was over, he slunk away. He knew—as did everyone else—that the choice had already been made.
At the closing gathering, Father presented all the suitors with guest-gifts of bronze cauldrons and thanked them. Then he announced that his daughter Clytemnestra would wed Agamemnon of Mycenae.
Hearing the actual words wed Agamemnon of Mycenae was so dreadful and final, I flinched.
They were married two months later. Clytemnestra rode with great gladness in the marriage chariot that took her to Mycenae, determined to best the prophecy that had been laid out for her.
It felt lonely without Clytemnestra, and at first we kept looking for her to return for visits, as some daughters did. But she stayed mostly at Mycenae, and the journey was just long enough to give one pause in making an impromptu visit. My brothers helped fill the gap, and Father seemed content with the match he had made. He also was pleased that his “most beautiful woman in the world” ploy seemed to have taken root in the popular imagination. The rejected suitors spread it everywhere, so that it became a fervid belief in the minds of the Greeks: Helen, princess of Sparta, is the most beautiful woman in the world. This meant that from the moment Clytemnestra was betrothed, they began to ask him when I would be ready to wed. I was only eleven then, but Father put them off, not to keep me at home and preserve the last of my childhood, but to drive the price up and attract more suitors.
Mother was kinder and genuinely wanted to keep me with her a while longer. As we expected, I had finally grown taller than she. And one day she pronounced that I had eclipsed her in beauty, and she was content with that.
Looking into my face, she said, “A mother always imagines it will hurt, when she must surrender her throne to her daughter, and so she fights it. But when the time comes, it feels natural.” She smoothed my hair.
“You have lost no throne that I can see,” I reassured her.
“The throne of youth, my dear, and all the loveliness that attends it.” She tilted her head a little. “It may not happen to you at all. Your aging may be . . . different.”
Four years later, when I reached fifteen, Father decided that my own turn had come to follow in the ritual of the suitors and the choosing. But before that could take place, I wished to be allowed to follow an ancient custom, still occasionally observed in my day, of a race for unmarried girls. It was reputed to go back to the bride of Pelops—the grandfather of Agamemnon. She had raced before her wedding day with fifteen maidens in honor of Hera, the patron of marriage. Afterward the girls dedicated a garment to a statue of the goddess.
I begged him to let me enact this last rite of the girlhood and the freedom I was leaving behind. “For you know I am a fast runner,” I said.
Mother broke in. “Let her run. Let her have this day.” She looked at me knowingly. “I never had that opportunity.” She took my face in her hands. “Dear child, you shall run free down by the banks of the Eurotas.” She smiled a private smile. “As is fitting.”
Because that is where I was conceived? I thought. The swan feathers were still in her box; I had recently looked. They had lost none of their blazing whiteness.
“First you must weave a garment for the goddess,” Father said.
That was a joy for me. I had become a good weaver, and even learned to put patterns into the cloth. For the goddess I would create a pattern showing her favored bird, the peacock. It would be challenging, but yes, I could do it. With pure white wool, then green dyed from nettle and moss, then a border of blue.
It was early spring, to my mind the most beautiful time of year. Tiny leaves created green auras around the tree branches when the sun shone through. A thousand minute flowers—white, gold, purple—were winking in the meadow. Once again I stood by the banks of the Eurotas.
Beside me were fifteen other girls, all selected by their villages or their families as fleet of foot. Some were younger than I, I could tell by looking. Others were older. The day that I ran the race I was fifteen.
I had reached my full growth. I was taller than some, but not all. We were each to wear a short tunic that reached only to our knees, and which bared our right shoulder. We were barefoot.
The sun was slanting through the willows lining the riverbank when we lined up for the race. Our heads bowed, we asked the blessings of Hera and dedicated our strengths to her.
“You will race along the riverbank until you reach the boulder in the field of barley. Then turn left and run along the footpath beside the field. When you come to the end of it, turn left yet again, until you come to the two shields that will be set up as gateposts, with a thread stretched across them. The first one to break that thread is the winner,” a young priestess of Hera announced.
We each put our left foot forward, ready to dash. I felt my knees tremble. But not for fear of losing; it was for eagerness of running. At last I could run as fast and as hard as I wished with no hindrance.
“Fly!” the race-master cried.
I flung myself forward; my right leg acted as a bowstring; the trembling muscles leapt and I sprang out.
How can I describe the lightness and freedom of running free? I felt immensely strong, filled with power, and there was no barrier to it. Whatever was there, I would leap over it. I had that strength.
The river fled past; I was vaguely aware of the shaded waters flowing on my left, but I ran on. I saw only those girls on either side of me.
We reached the stone in the barley field and rounded it. Two others were still level with me. Panting, I rounded the stone and aimed at the straight path ahead. It was mine.
There was more speed in me, and my legs moved faster as I commanded them to.
Atalanta. She is Atalanta. My brothers had called me that all my life, when they watched me run. Atalanta: the swiftest woman who had ever raced.
But no one threw a golden apple in my path to distract me as Atalanta was distracted. The muddy course, and the race itself, were mine to claim. I told my chest to take in air, to breathe; I pumped my arms; above all, I called up all the strength I might have hidden in corners of myself.
One yet ahead of me. She was short and strong, her powerful legs shooting her along the path, showing muscles in the thighs bared by the short tunic. She was the one. She was the one who thought to win.
Hera, help me! I cried.
But no surge of strength came into my limbs. We reached the end of the barley field. The other girl and I swung left again; we were so close in the turn that I could see the sweat on her shoulders.
She bolted ahead, and for an agonizing few minutes she left me behind on the path. Ahead I saw the shields marking the finish.
Now, I told myself. Give it all your strength. Give it even the strength that you do not have.
I saw her back; I commanded myself to catch up to it. I told my arms to pump harder.
Was the gap closing? I ran as hard as I could. I no longer told my body to do anything; I was my body.
Closer . . . closer. Her back was getting larger. Larger.
I came abreast. I looked over at her. Sheer surprise was written on her face.
I pulled ahead of her, broke the slender thread. Collapsed on the ground. For I had run better and faster than I was able. Something all athletes understand. You have done as well as you are capable, I exulted to myself. Nay, even better. Better than your best, who can explain it?
My maidenhood was over. It ceased with the victory in that race. It was my sacrifice to Hera—my swiftness, my strength. My wind-fed freedom to race.
They were coming, approaching from all sides. Mother laughingly said that the hills were dark with them, like an army of locusts. She said it with a shudder, but a touch of pride as well.
“Truly I have never witnessed a greater number of suitors for any woman’s hand,” she assured me. She was pleased. I, on the contrary, wished that there had been far fewer of them.
Since Clytemnestra’s wooing, Father had decided that this time each suitor must present a token that spoke for his person, and display his prowess in some manner, be it by sword, spear, race, gold, crown, or promise of deeds to come.
“He will address us here, in the megaron,” Father said, pointing to the freshly painted chamber, its thick pillars shining and its hearth scrubbed. “Then you, Helen, may question him further, as much as you like.”
“You are becoming lax in your age,” said Mother. “Letting Helen speak as much as she likes!” But she said it with approval. It was only fair that I be allowed to question the man freely to satisfy myself rather than defer to Father or my brothers.
“Now, as to the men who woo by proxy—they must be able to answer as their master would. We must assume the master has confidence in the friend’s words. Perhaps the friend can even speak better than his master, and that’s why he was chosen.”
“May I ask him that?” I asked.
“Certainly, but be prepared for him to lie. After all, his task is to win you, perhaps by making his master seem more attractive than he really is.”
“I think I shall not choose anyone unless I see him with my own eyes,” I decided. “So the men who are sending proxies are wasting their efforts.”
Father laughed. “But not before they have presented their gifts!”
Now was the time to say it, the thing I had decided. “I refuse to choose anyone who utters the phrase ‘the most beautiful woman in the world,’ ” I said. “He would be doing it only to please you, and in any case, it isn’t true, which also makes him a liar.”
Father looked alarmed, but then said, “You may make that a condition in your own mind, certainly, but we will not announce it.”
Even now, to recall the suitors is to make me smile. All told, there were some forty of them. And what an assortment of men! They ranged in age from six(!) to sixty. The extremes of age were provided by two who came not to woo but to accompany ones who did: old Nestor, king of Pylos, at least sixty, came with his son Antilochus, and Patroclus brought the boy in whose household he lived, six-year-old Achilles.
There was a huge hulk of a man, Ajax of Salamis. There was a courtly man from Crete, Idomeneus, who, even though a king, came in his black-sailed ship to woo in person. There was a barrel-chested red-haired man, Odysseus from Ithaca. Men of every size and shape and character had assembled under our roof. Since each contestant would have a whole day to himself, that promised forty days of Father’s hospitality.
“We’d better pick a rich one,” Father muttered the first afternoon when he lifted the curtain to look out and see how many were gathered in the megaron. “To repay my expenses!”
Now we must emerge and take our places on the thrones to one side of the room. My hair was covered under a veil, and my shoulders were hidden as well, but still I braced myself for the predictable staring and silence when I appeared.
Dear Persephone, I prayed, oh, cannot one of them laugh? I swear, I would fall in love with him on the instant.
“Greetings,” Father said, taking his time in looking around the room.
The suitors lined every wall. Some were in shadow and I could not see their faces clearly, but there was a great variation in height. The man I later knew as Ajax stood a head taller than everyone else, and Odysseus almost a head shorter. There was an enormous man shaped like an olive-oil jar, who turned out to be Elephenor from Euboea. I had my first glimpse of Patroclus, a handsome young man, with the glowering boy pressed to his side. At the time all I thought was, what is that surly child doing here?
“You do us honor to come seeking the hand of my daughter Helen,” Father said. “Now let us pour libations before beginning the contest.” He gestured to a servant, who gave him a rhyton of unmixed wine. He solemnly poured it out in the special floor trough near the throne and asked the gods to look with favor on us.
“Who will be first?” he said. This time he made them choose their own order.
All of them stood there dumbly. Some of them were still staring at me.
“Come, come, you warriors, why be bashful?” Father said. “The first to speak is the first to be finished, to enjoy himself the rest of the time.”
Elephenor, the rotund man from Euboea, stepped forward timidly. “Very well, great king.” He bowed and looked moonstruck at me, like the people in Sparta all those years ago. “But I am no warrior.” He shrugged. “I can only say that, if Helen were to choose me, she would have the most ordinary of lives, where each day passes in peace.”
But I already had that, and longed to escape it. The rest of his suit went almost unheard, as the life he offered did not tempt me, and he was not rich enough to interest Father.
By the time his presentation was over, the smell of roasting ox wafted in, telling us it was time to go outside and partake of the feast. We approached the grounds, where many spits were turning, sending clouds of smoke heavenward. Every night Father would have to provide such fare.
“Helen!” Suddenly I was embraced in a tight hug. When I turned, I saw it was Clytemnestra. “We’ve come! Menelaus is a suitor!” Her voice was low and thrilling. “Not in person, of course. Agamemnon will represent him.” Behind her stood her lord, grown heavier and more florid in the four years since they had wed.
“Greetings, great king,” I said dutifully. I had seen as little of my brother-in-law as possible whenever Clytemnestra and I had visited. Mycenae was a gloomy place, a gray palace of heavy stone set in the wrinkle between two steep hillsides in Argos. Outside of providing an excursion—one of the few times I journeyed from Sparta, and even then in a closed cart so that no one could see me—it did not lure me. I much preferred it when Clytemnestra visited me, bringing her fair-haired little daughter, Iphigenia.
I had also seen little of Menelaus, who never seemed to be at Mycenae when I was, but Clytemnestra had always spoken glowingly of him. In a subtle way, she had been his champion all along.
“Why does he not come himself?” I was remembering our little talk in the moonlight long ago as I asked.
“Some border problems with Sikyon,” said Agamemnon. “He rode out with some warriors—we cannot know how long it will take.” His voice, never pleasant, was unnaturally loud. He always called to mind a snorting bull.
“No, he’s just bashful,” whispered Clytemnestra. “He does not like competitions. He does not fare well in them.”
“I’ll speak for him,” boomed Agamemnon. Several heads turned at the sound.
“Welcome!” Father extended his arms in greeting. “Welcome to my favorite son-in-law.”
“Your only one.” Agamemnon liked stating the obvious. “But not for long.”
People were swirling around us in the great open courtyard, some faces seen easily in the yellow torchlight, others in shadow. There were so few women; a handful of contenders had brought sisters or cousins, but the men had mostly come alone. I noted that many of the warriors had brought their gear; presumably they planned to use it in their trials.
“Hail, great king of Sparta!” The red-haired, thick-chested man appeared next to Father and held out a cup in salutation. “And most gracious queen,” he added, bowing to Mother.
“Hail, Odysseus of Ithaca,” said Father. “What surprise do you have hidden under your helmet for us? What display do you have in mind?” He held out his own cup, which was promptly refilled by a slave.
“Why, none, Your Highness,” said Odysseus. “I know I cannot compete with these wealthy men who have come from all over Greece and across the Aegean Sea. Ithaca is a poor island, rocky and barren. No, I can offer nothing.”
“Oh, come, now,” said Father. “You did not come all this way from your island off the western coast to offer nothing.”
He grinned. “Only advice, sir, only advice. And it is to benefit you in making your choice.”
Father groaned. “Advice I have aplenty. Pray spare me advice, if you wish to remain my friend.”
“My advice will enable you to keep the men gathered here your friends. Without it, there will be enmity.”
Father looked up sharply. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean that the losers may not accept your choice. They may turn these weapons from tools of friendly competition to instruments of deadly intent.”
Mother gave a little intake of breath and brought her hand up to her throat. But she kept her eyes from widening or blinking.
I knew we—Father, Mother, and I—were hearing again the shrill voice of the Herophile Sibyl crying, Because of her a great war will be fought, and many Greeks will die! But Odysseus had not heard those words; he could not know.
“And what is your proposal?” Father asked, looking keenly at Odysseus.
“Ah! Before I reveal it, I must ask your promise for something in exchange.”
Father grunted. “I knew it. You do in fact want something.”
“I do. But not the hand of Helen. I am not worthy”—he looked at me and smiled—“but perhaps I could join your family in another manner.”
“Oh, speak up! Spit it out, whatever it is you want!” I could tell Father was troubled by the ugly prospect Odysseus had raised about the disquiet; it was filling his mind.
“I would like you to speak on my behalf to your niece Penelope,” he said. “It is she I long to wed.”
Father looked relieved. “Is that all?”
“To me it is everything.”
“Very well. I shall do my utmost for your suit. And may the gods do the rest! Now your part of the bargain!”
“It is simple. This is the way to avert any trouble. You will announce that all the suitors must swear an oath to uphold Helen’s choice of husband, to be content with it. If anyone should seek to disrupt the marriage or dispute it, then all the others will make war on him.”
“But why would they agree to that?”
“Because, men being men, each will imagine himself the winner, and enjoying the benefits of this oath.”
“You said ‘Helen’s choice,’ ” I said softly.
“That is right, little beauty,” said Odysseus. “It must be your choice. That way no one can hold it against your father.”
“But that’s unheard of!” said Mother.
“I am sure she will listen to the wise advice of her parents,” said Odysseus, all but winking. “But in the end”—he turned to me—“it is you who must speak the words. The words that say, ‘I choose you to be my husband.’ ” I felt a strange excitement at the prospect of it.
Odysseus slipped between two large men and disappeared.
A tall, wrinkled man, his head bobbing, was weaving his way toward us, turning adeptly to slide between people. He never stopped talking to a man trailing alongside him.
“Ah, to behold you again is worth the journey from Pylos,” the wrinkled man said, throwing his hands up in exultation. “Ah, and along the way, there were repairs on the road, we had to take a detour. Although it was not as rough as the time in that battle with the Epeans when my chariot wheel came off—do you remember?—no, you were too young, you were not there. Well, it seems—”
“Greetings, King Nestor,” said Father, when Nestor had paused to gulp in a breath. “We welcome you. But we thought you had a wife already!”
One who, preferably, was deaf, I thought.
“Oh, I do, I do! It is my son who seeks a wife. Antilochus here!” He clapped the young man on the back, and his son winced in response.
Antilochus was of medium height, with one of those faces that are inherently pleasing—whether by expression or the contours of the nose, cheeks, and eyes, it is hard to say. It was a face I felt I could trust.
“And what do you plan as your part of the competition?” asked Father abruptly. He was still distracted by what Odysseus had said about the strife.
“What, and ruin his surprise?” Nestor shook his finger at Father. “Really, Tyndareus, I’m surprised at you! You know better!”
“You’re not my father, Nestor. Pray don’t scold me!” said Father.
“I will either demonstrate my swift running or drive my chariot,” said Antilochus. “But I will not say which yet.”
“Oh, he’s the swiftest—wins races all the time . . .”
Father moved away, leaving Nestor talking. I could barely keep myself from laughing out loud.
The night air was cool and soothing, and overhead the stars were coming out, looking like specks of silver dust. Some of them were blotted out by the clouds of smoke rising from the fires for roasting the meats. The breeze stirred; soon I would need a light cloak.
“I’ve never lost a race; no, nor a wrestling match, either . . .”
“What? You haven’t been to the oracle at Dodona? Pity! Where do you go, then?”
“I’ve found a shrine that doesn’t require any blood sacrifices; the goddess accepts grains and milk instead. Saves me a fortune! Do you want the location?”
How amusing it was to stand absolutely still and listen to these snatches of conversation, the revealing little snippets of people’s concerns.
“When’s it to be ready? By Hermes, I’m about to faint!” The jug-shaped Elephenor came by, rubbing his stomach. He let out a rumbling hunger-burp that he did not trouble to hide. He sidled up to one of the fires and eyed a platter of meat that the servants had begun carving from the roast and snatched a piece dripping with fat. He tore it with his hands and then dropped pieces of it down his gullet.
“No!” Suddenly at his side was a boy who barely came up to his waist. “Stop it! That’s rude!”
Elephenor lowered his head and peered over his waist to see who was speaking. “What?” he muttered, his words choked by the meat in his mouth.
“I said it’s rude, to help yourself like that! Are you a thief? You act like one!” The boy was glaring at him.
“Who speaks to Elephenor of Euboea thus?” Elephenor swallowed his food quickly.
“Achilles of Phthia,” the boy said.
“Who in Hades is Achilles of—Phthia?” He made phthia sound like a loud spit.
“Son of Peleus and the goddess Thetis!”
“He needs a lashing, whoever he is.” Elephenor turned away, wiping his greasy hand surreptitiously on his garment.
“I saw that!” the boy yelled.
Elephenor whirled around, like a big melon, and bent down. “Enough from you!” he said. “If you don’t shut up, I’ll lash you myself. Where’s your mother?”
“I told you, she’s a goddess, and—”
“Hush, Achilles!” A tall youth appeared. “Leave this man alone.” He turned to Elephenor. “Excuse him, please.”
“No, I won’t. He’s a loudmouthed brat.” Elephenor drew himself up. The grease stains were smeared darkly on the side of his tunic.
“He’s a loutish thief!” Achilles cried. “I hope you don’t think the princess would ever hold your greasy hand!”
“Enough,” said the boy’s companion. He had a calming effect on him.
“All right, Patroclus.” I was surprised to hear the boy give in so easily. Suddenly he saw me. “It’s Helen!” he cried, pointing at me.
“Oh. Yes.” Patroclus nodded to me. “Princess, I fear to speak to you privately ahead of my time. I would not be presumptuous.”
I liked him. “It would seem pretentious not to. Or—what the word you are so fond of, Achilles?—rude to pretend we don’t see each other. Besides”—I felt emboldened by Odysseus’s plan that I should make my own choice—“I am free to speak to anyone, at any time everyone is gathered here.”
“I must be one of the youngest of the suitors,” said Patroclus. “I would not wish to be seen as speaking out of turn.”
“Well, how old are you?” Now that he had mentioned it, I had to ask.
“Fourteen,” he admitted.
He looked older than that. I said so.
“No wonder!” said Achilles. “He killed a playmate when he was even younger, and his father brought him to live with me and my father, and made him my squire. So he’s been treated like a man for years!”
“It was an accident,” said Patroclus softly. “I didn’t mean to harm him.”
“But blood once spilled must be avenged,” I said. “I am glad you found safety.” I knew all about the blood feuds, the relatives that had to even out a death, even an accidental one. Only fleeing to another land, and seeking purification from a god, would avert more killing. Hoping to lighten the mood, I said, “You are not the youngest, then. I’ve been told there is a genuine suitor here who is ten.” Somehow I suspected that around Achilles, the mood was never light.
“You would have to put him in a storeroom and let him mature, then,” said Patroclus. “Like wine.”
We laughed, and the evening seemed gentler.
Libations poured, places taken, faces fresh from rest, and Father standing beside his throne in the megaron, forty men waiting to hear what he would say.
“One of our guests spoke yesterday—the noble Elephenor.” He nodded toward the man, who was now wearing a clean robe. “Many more will speak in the days to come. But before any other man takes his place before us, I must announce that I have decided to add another condition to the contest.”
Now an uneasy silence fell over the group, so lighthearted an instant before. I watched Father, thinking how sure he always seemed, wondering what it would feel like to be so certain of all my actions. He did not seem to mind changing the rules after the contest was under way.
“There are some forty of you; thirty-nine will be disappointed. Disappointed men sometimes do not accept results they dislike. With such strong and trained warriors, this might lead to ugly strife. I want everyone here to return to his home as able-bodied as when he left it.”
In the pause that followed, some men began muttering, but as Father started speaking again, a hush fell over the crowd. “Therefore,” he continued, “I want it to be clear who has chosen: Not me. It will be Helen herself. And surely you can accept the choice of the woman you claim to love.”
Everyone stared at him. This was unheard of. Was he a coward, afraid to make a choice and stand by it? Hiding behind his daughter?
“This is Helen’s wish.” Father looked at me. “Helen?” He motioned to me.
I stood. “I will choose my husband.” I spoke slowly. “As I must pay the price for a wrong choice, I will be doubly thoughtful, doubly careful to safeguard my own happiness.”
Father looked satisfied. I sat back down, gripping the arms of the throne, my hands cold.
“But I demand something further,” Father said. “All of you must pledge to respect Helen’s choice, and should anyone—anyone, no matter who he be—dispute it or attempt to disrupt it, all of you must defend the chosen man, with arms, if necessary.”
“What?” cried Ajax of Salamis, a gigantic slab of a man. “You insult us!”
Instead of arguing, Father just cocked his head. “Perhaps, although that is not my intention. I have my own prophecies to consider, none that you need know, but this will assure peace. Believe me, it is for your own good, whether you know it or not.”
“You must go and take the oath now,” said Father, “before we proceed any further. Any man who does not wish to follow me to the solemn site may withdraw his suit.”
The whole company followed Father out of the megaron and from there out of the palace. Three priests led a horse to be sacrificed. He was a sturdy little horse from Thessaly, but now his strength and his blood would be poured out in order to bind these men and to prevent a war—the dreadful war that only Father knew about.
Some hold that fates are fixed, and that even Zeus cannot alter them, while others feel that they are more fluid than that, and ever-changing. But when a gruesome fate awaits us, it is in our nature to try to change it, or, at least, not to walk willingly toward it.
It was a long distance from Sparta; I had not expected to walk so far. We went in silent procession down the long hill, past the city. A crowd came out to watch us pass. It seemed unseasonably chilly, and I shivered inside my light wool gown. I walked between Father and Mother, with Castor and Polydeuces behind us. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon were just behind them.
Father looked grim as he trudged along, and Mother no less so. It was clear that with each step they took, they felt as if they were challenging the oracle, trespassing the will of the gods. Yet they had to do it.
A shady clearing against the side of a rocky hill with a thin cold waterfall on one side: just the sort of place a tree or water nymph would call home. Dark cypresses ringed the edge of the glen; the ground was spongy with moss.
Silently, as if in a ceremony for one of the Mysteries, the men made a circle around the clearing. Father took the reins of the horse and led him into the center. With a trembling exhalation of breath, the horse shivered and his hide twitched, little ripples passing across it.
“Proceed.” Father nodded to the priests. They stepped forward with bronze swords and knives. One twisted the horse’s halter, forcing his head back to better expose the throat, while the second stroked his withers and murmured calming words. Then the third moved swiftly, taking one long sword and slicing the horse’s neck open in one motion. The horse reared but could make no sound; he fell to his knees and his head pitched forward, hitting the ground with a crack. Spouts of blood erupted from the neck, so much that the head disappeared beneath its red torrent. A cloud of steam surrounded the flood as its warmth met the cold air, and a horrid thick metallic smell filled the air.
A pool of blood surrounded the horse; he lay sprawled as if on a red sail. When several moments had passed without the horse moving, Father nodded again to the priests. They walked across the circle of blood and began dismembering the horse, using short knives to sever limbs and joints and lay open the insides. The only sound in the clearing was that of their hacking and sawing, of sinews snapping and joints ripping, of soft tissues gurgling as they spilled their contents.
Methodically, the priests arranged the pieces in a circle, then withdrew, their legs bloody up to their knees, their cloaks soaked with gore.
Father raised his arms. “Take your places,” he commanded the men. “There are enough pieces for all of you. You must each stand on one of the pieces and make your solemn vow.”
Even though many were warriors, the men looked uneasy at this ghoulish request. Glancing at one another and then back at Father, slowly they came forward and put at least one foot on part of the bloody carcass.
“I do swear before this company and all the gods on high Olympus that I will defend Helen of Sparta and her chosen lord against anyone who seeks to wrong them,” they intoned together in their deep voices.
“Thus shall it be,” said Father. He turned to the priests. “Bury the horse,” he said. “Raise a mound to it, so that it remains a memorial to this day and this oath.” Then, with a smile, he said, “Come now, let us return to the palace.” The smile was almost the worst thing of all, as if he had played god and succeeded in altering our fate.
Afresh day, cleanly created for us by the gods, the remains of the horse moldering under a heap of earth.
We gathered again for the contest to continue in our tidy and warm megaron. It was the turn of Ajax of Salamis to speak.
Agamemnon was sitting with the men, but Clytemnestra was beside me and Mother on Father’s right hand.
“He probably cannot even speak,” Clytemnestra whispered into my ear. “There is something so . . . bestial about him.”
I agreed. He was a huge man; most men would not even reach his shoulders. His outsized head with its oddly small features did resemble the head of a bull. Under his thick unruly hair there might be tiny horns. I shivered and thought of the Minotaur, that ghastly offspring of a woman and a bull.
Ajax took his place; in adjusting his cloak he managed to sweep it into three men’s faces. They fell back, pushing others behind them.
“My pardon!” Ajax made a stiff bow, his body like a creaky hinged door. “Great king, queen, princess . . .” He went on and made his formal declaration. He was Ajax, son of Telamon, king of Salamis. “I am very strong!” he said, stating the obvious. “And why am I so strong? Because of Heracles! Yes, Heracles visited my father once, and spread out his famous lion skin and stood on it and decreed to my father that his newborn son should be as strong as the skin!” Ajax looked around proudly. “Yes, in Nemea they still have a patch of the skin, but I was formed by its strength!” He nodded, pleased with himself. “And I have a special shield. It’s called . . . the Shield of Ajax.” I could not help myself; a small laugh escaped from my lips.
He looked puzzled at the amusement. “But, Princess, that is what it is called. It’s made of seven layers of bull hide, and—here, let me show you!” With surprising nimbleness, he darted off to get his shield.
Now everyone openly laughed. But they hushed when Ajax returned, hoisting his gigantic shield over his shoulder. He planted it in front of him, where it stood like a tower. “Tychios, the best worker in hides, made this from the skins of seven bulls. And over it, there is a layer of bronze. Nothing can penetrate this!” He thumped it up and down on the floor.
“Why would a woman care about his bull-hide shield?” Clytemnestra said with a giggle. “Truly, do men ever understand what appeals to a woman?”
“Thank you, Ajax,” said Father, shouting over the banging of the shield. “Now, what do you bring as your prize for Helen? Unless it is to be the shield?”
“I—Great deeds! I offer great deeds! My prowess in cattle-rustling. Cattle equal wealth. I can deliver many heads of cattle, all stolen from the people of Troezen, and Epidaurus, and from Megara and Corinth and Euboea.”
At that Elephenor cried, “You offer to plunder my lands! How dare you!” and rushed over to Ajax, who brushed him off like a bothersome insect. The rotund man, seemingly so difficult to budge, went flying.
“Ajax . . .” Father chose his words carefully. “It is not appropriate to offer stolen goods as a bride-price.”
Ajax looked confounded. Behind him Elephenor was getting to his feet, ready to assault again. “But prizes won in battle are the most precious of all!”
“Salamis is not at war with Euboea, nor Corinth, nor Epidaurus,” said Father. “Have we not just taken a vow to avoid strife and war?”
I rose and looked at Ajax. I gave him what I hoped was a compensating smile. “I wish no violence ever to be laid at my feet,” I said.
“Oh!” Ajax’s face grew almost as dark as his beard. “Well, then, if you spurn the great Ajax . . .” He swirled around and dragged his shield after him, then pushed his way through the crowd and stalked out.
“You’re well rid of him,” said Mother. “Imagine the tempers he could get into. Imagine being on the receiving end of them.”
That was not something I cared to imagine. I was content to let the bullman retreat and leave Sparta.
The third day of the contest: the suitor was Teucer, the half-brother of Ajax, also the son of Telamon, but evidently born after the telling visit of Heracles. He was of average size and strength; no lion-skin promises had been made on his behalf. I liked him better for it.
I studied him carefully. His looks were pleasing, and he was of a goodly age—perhaps some five or six years older than I, making him twenty or so. There was gold in his hair, and his eyes were green-flecked.
“Oh, those Trojans!” Clytemnestra purred. “No one can compare to them in looks.”
“He isn’t a Trojan,” I whispered back.
“He’s half Trojan,” she replied. “And if this is what one looks like when he is only half Trojan, I’d like to see a full-blooded one!” She sounded hungry.
“Who is his mother, then? He shares a father with Ajax.” I should have studied all this, but there were so many suitors, and all their lineages were so complicated.
“Hesione,” she said. “The sister of Priam, the king of Troy. She was kidnapped by Heracles and taken off to Salamis and given to Telamon. A long time ago.”
“Has she been kept a prisoner all this time?”
Clytemnestra shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps she grew to like Salamis and didn’t want to return. Perhaps she is fond of Telamon.” She rolled her eyes.
As it turned out, Teucer’s skill was archery, and his demonstration was most impressive.
The fourth day. Already this was becoming wearisome. Had it not been for Clytemnestra’s presence at my side and her evaluations and comments about each man, it would have been unendurable. This fourth day, Idomeneus, king of Crete, took his place facing Father and us.
He was a bit older than the others had been; from the story of his life on the island kingdom and the battles he had fought, I assumed he was in his early thirties—at least twice my own age. After declaring his lineage—as a grandson of the mighty Minos—and recounting his wealth and the title as queen that he could offer me, he was confronted by Father’s asking, “Most kings do not come in person; they send an envoy to represent them. This is all the more true when the distance is great, and Crete is four days’ sail from Gytheum, our nearest harbor. Yet you have come all this way.”
Idomeneus just smiled, not defensive at all. “I do not trust to rumors or to other men’s eyes. I wished to come in person to see for myself this Helen of Sparta, who is reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world.”
I stood up, trembling. “Sir! That is not true!”
“That I wished to see you in person, that is true.”
“I am not the most beautiful woman in the world! You must stop this!” I looked around, pleading with all of them in the room.
Idomeneus looked saddened. “Princess, you are.” He said it as if he were pronouncing an incurable illness.
And by this time it felt like one. Silently I sank back down in my seat.
“What do you bring to offer Helen as your wife?” Father asked.
“I bring her the title of queen of Crete. I lay Crete at her feet, Crete to share with me, a goodly kingdom that is rich in pastures, in olives and vines and sheep, surrounded by the deepest seas, protected by our ships. “We are a proud people, Princess,” he said to me. “Come and live amongst us.”
“And what is your skill?” Father went directly to the point.
“Words, mighty king. I tell epic tales, fit them to verse. My lyre is best played by a more talented bard, but I taught him the words.” He indicated a young man who until then had remained quietly in the shadows of a column, clutching his tortoiseshell lyre.
The bard took his place beside Idomeneus, and although it was full daylight and no wine had been drunk, the beauty of the poem and the music moved us first to silence and then to tears. He sang of the love of Adriadne for Theseus, and the bravery of that hero.
But I could not choose him. Had I not promised myself that anyone who spoke the “most beautiful woman in the world” words would be disqualified? And, appealing as he was, he lived far away and the thought of being separated from the rest of my family by a wide stretch of ocean frightened me.
* * *
The moon, a crescent to begin with, grew full and waned and became a crescent again, and yet the contest dragged on. By that time we were so weary of speeches, of roasted ox, of wine, of lyres and archery and chariots and footraces, we vowed never to indulge in them again once this was over.
Agamemnon, who had gone home to Mycenae after the first few days, returned to be the final contestant, speaking for his brother.
Stocky, thick legs spread wide in challenging stance, he stood beside the megaron hearth, his manner impatient.
“My brother Menelaus has trusted me to speak for him. A humble man cannot sing his own praises, even when they are deserved. And my brother is a humble man.” He made it sound like a fault. Or perhaps he just meant that his brother’s humility was now inconvenient for him, Agamemnon. “But of all men, he has least reason to be! His lineage is of the noble House of Atreus!”
There. He had flung out his greatest liability as if it were his greatest asset. The House of Atreus—its founder Tantalus, and his son and grandson Pelops and Thyestes.
“Yes, we carry a great burden, but so does Atlas! Atlas bears the world on his shoulders, but we bear the burden of the curse of a brother to a brother: that of Thyestes to Atreus. So be it. He cursed all of Atreus’ sons, forever and in all generations. But no mortal has the power to do that, only the gods. And Menelaus and I are living proof of that. We hold no enmity for one another—quite the contrary. We are close as brothers can be, and would go to one another’s defense on the instant. I am pledged to protect him, and he, me. The curse is dead!”
I saw Father tighten his lips and frown. Beside me Clytemnestra was silent. Did she believe this?
Agamemnon looked around, gauging the expressions in the room. But the faces were guarded. “Princess, at your feet he will lay the precious stores of oil and grain and robes and gold that fill the vaults of Mycenae, as well as twenty black-hulled ships and the spoils of the islands we raided. Besides that, there are all the cattle of the Plataean region.”
He was promising more wealth on his brother’s behalf than he himself held.
“And as a final bride-price, he dedicates the entire city of Asine, lately captured from the Tiryans.”
Now the room stirred, and I saw anger flush across the broad face of Menestheus, until then the suitor with the greatest pledge. He was from Athens and immensely wealthy; he had pledged ships and palaces and gems, but nothing like this. He was outbid.
“Had my brother a kingdom, Princess, he would pledge it all to you.” Agamemnon’s dark eyes bored into mine until I almost felt pain at the back of them. “I myself hold the kingdom of Argos and Mycenae, but on his behalf I pledge it all, all except the title itself.” He paused. “He offers you all he has.”
“And much he does not,” muttered Clytemnestra.
“With his body he will defend you, with all his treasure he will endow you, with this necklace he will wed you.” Agamemnon then drew out a thick chain of gold, its heavy links clanking as he held it up, its bright unmistakable luster proclaiming that its gold was pure. True gold is a piercing, almost garish yellow. He turned, holding out the necklace, so that everyone in the room could see it. Then he stopped, facing Father and me.
“This is most generous,” was all Father allowed himself to say.
Fortunately, I was not required to speak.
“Now for your feat . . . ?” Father pressed.
“It is not my feat, but Menelaus’s. Here it is: If you choose him, Princess, he will present himself here and undertake any task you set him. He will complete it, though it take all the rest of his life.”
“But it is a requirement that he perform it now!” Father rose. “All the others have.”
“What the others have done is perform a limited exhibition. What my brother proposes could require a lifetime—or, at the least, a warfaring season.”
“You are asking for one man to compete on a promise, while the others performed for our eyes. There is no competition that cannot be won in the imagination, and a promised feat is always perfect.” Father’s fists were clenching. He was ready to disqualify Agamemnon.
I rose. “Father is right. A promise is not a deed. Therefore let him prove himself. Let him—”
“Princess, the condition was that you have chosen him first.” To my shock, Agamemnon interrupted me.
“As I am the prize, I set the conditions,” I snapped back. “If he is really so eager for me as you claim, then he will comply. Let him race from Mycenae to Lerna, where Heracles slew the Hydra, without stopping. It is a full day’s walk, but he must not walk, he must run. Bring me word how he does. Mind you, if he stops and rests, or slows to walk, he has lost.”
Agamemnon’s face flushed dark. I could see his mouth working, fighting not to spit out words of fury. “Very well,” he finally said in a low, cold voice.
Around the room spirits now lightened. I had set, they believed, an impossible task for Menelaus. How could an ordinary man run so far without stopping?
But I had not specified how fast he must run, and I had already known that Menelaus was a strong runner. He did not remember, but Agamemnon himself had told me at Mycenae while bragging about his own hunting prowess. He had complained that Menelaus seemed more content to chase the quarry than to slay it, and that he was capable of staying on his feet and running all day.
So I aided Menelaus in his suit. Some might even say I fixed the contest, but that is not true, for he had given me leave to choose whatever feat I wished. Did I want him to win? Even today I cannot answer that.
“You have prolonged the contest,” grumbled Father. “Who knows how long this will take now? Menelaus may be far away, and—What came over you?”
“I could see that you were ready to dismiss the suit.”
“You were right. It was absurd. Does Agamemnon think just because he’s king of Mycenae he doesn’t have to follow the rules?”
“Clearly that is the case. But we should not punish Menelaus on his behalf.”
“Menelaus is a fool if he chose Agamemnon to speak for him, and that alone should disqualify him!” Father barked. “It was most revealing of his character, his judgment—or lack of it!”
“He is right, dear.” Mother was standing beside us. “For the most serious decision in his life, he chooses his hotheaded, arrogant brother to speak for him? A poor choice. A very poor choice. What does it say about Menelaus?”
Now I felt compelled to defend him, to defend my soft-spoken companion in the moonlight. “Who else could he have chosen? Would it not have seemed most peculiar had he bypassed his brother the king and chosen someone else?”
“Why didn’t he come himself ? Anything would have been better than Agamemnon, I don’t care how stumblingly he speaks.”
“He doesn’t speak stumblingly!” I said.
“Why, child, are you defending him?” Mother pressed.
“I’m not!” I cried. “I don’t even know him!”
“I’ll tell you why he didn’t come,” said Clytemnestra, pushing herself between us. “He was afraid. He was afraid he would fail, and then he could not live with himself. He could not trust his words, his feelings were so strong.”
We all stared at her. She went on.
“He wants you more than anything in the world,” she told me. “Menelaus does not want things, not like Agamemnon, who is greedy for everything he sees. Menelaus is content. But since he saw you, all those years ago, he finally found something he wanted. He was too afraid that he would lose it for himself.”
“So he would allow another to lose it for him?” I was incredulous.
“He thought Agamemnon, not caring so desperately, would actually speak better.” Clytemnestra paused. “I know this. I heard them talking. I have kept silent until now, so you could make up your own mind. But now, apparently, you have.”
“No, I haven’t! Let me see first how he runs!”
Deep night. Alone, lying silently on my bed, my chamber attendants—more like companions than slaves, in truth—stolen away to pallets of their own, I allow myself to relive the extraordinary closing day of the contest.
It has not been as I imagined. I had longed for the end of it all, for the ceremonies and the presentations to cease. I was weary of judging men, of noting every nuance in their words, and more than that, of what lay beneath their words. Clytemnestra’s constant jokes and cynicism had worn thin, and I could feel the mounting strain on Father and Mother. For me there was the fear of making a wrong choice, for I wasn’t simply choosing a man, I was also choosing a way of life.
Father was right to question me about what I had demanded of Menelaus, but I had no good answer. I was curious about Menelaus. His absent presence lit my imagination and created a man I was hungry to know.
The night is chill, as nights in spring are. Yet I am so restless I keep throwing off the light wool covers and shivering in the darkness. Through my mind troop the suitors, in a ghostly file, looking at me accusingly.
Choose me . . . look with favor upon me . . . I can give you . . . I am the best . . . I risk all . . .
If I choose one, will they truly all go away? So they had vowed, bloodying themselves with the slain horse to do so.
I do not want to marry a king. I do not want to go away to some foreign city or realm. If I marry someone less than a king, he can stay here with me in Sparta. I will not have to leave all that I know, family and home. As if by magic, the kings vanish from the ghostly line.
I do not want to marry someone much older than I, or much younger. Someone older would treat me like a daughter, being either strict or stupidly fawning. Someone younger would defer too much to me, and would know less than I. Out fly Idomeneus, Menestheus, Patroclus, and the ten-year-old from Corinth.
I do not want to marry anyone whose face—or the rest of him, for that matter—does not please me. Instantly the fat man from Euboea careens away, followed by a number of others whose looks displease me for one reason or another. Among them is Odysseus, although I know he is not a true suitor in any case. There is something in his eyes that makes me uncomfortable; I do not trust him. Although he affects a careless, amiable manner, I can see the calculating opportunist in him. Penelope was welcome to him.
I open my eyes and lean against the frame of the window, gazing once more out into the night.
There are still too many left, too many still to choose from. I cannot do it, and there are only a few days left until the contest must end. Oh, help me!
To whom have I cried?
“Oh, my dear goddesses, please look down and help me choose.” I search the heavens as if I believe I will see them. All I see are the scattered stars wheeling around me.
“Hera, sweet goddess of marriage, guide me! You who hold marriage most dear, be merciful to me. Beautiful Persephone, who left maidenhood with such a struggle, help me in mine. To go from maid to wife is no light matter, and you were torn. Take my hand and guide me.”
My senses strain, but I feel nothing in the black expanse.
For long moments I stand shivering in the dark, waiting to feel their presence. The perfume from the fruit trees comes to me on puffs of wind, like the goddesses’ breath.
I turn and seek my bed, believing all is well. But I had forgotten to include Aphrodite, I had slighted the greatest goddess of men and women and their love. As my father had once neglected her, thereby incurring her wrath, so did I.
“He is on his way!” Clytemnestra grasped my forearm in a painful pinch. “He didn’t stop at Lerna! He’s still running, coming directly here!”
“All that distance?” It seemed cruel, and I would never have set that task for him.
“He is determined to meet your test and to go beyond it,” she said. She released my arm. “I didn’t know he had it in him.”
We were surrounded by people; the suitors were still on hand to await the judging, but boredom had sowed its seeds and everyone was eager for distraction. Menelaus and his race were providing it. Now ears strained to overhear us. I had been told that the men had taken bets as to whom I would choose, and therefore anything they might overhear could help their odds.
“Come.” I motioned to Clytemnestra and we retreated into the guarded inner courtyard of the palace. Seated on a low bench, we spoke in whispers.
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“I just meant that Menelaus has seldom shown much passion about anything. So this is a surprise.”
I could not imagine that it was for love of me, as he really did not know me. We’d had only those moments in the night long ago. “So you think he covets the throne he will get from Father?”
She tilted her head and considered this. “Perhaps. To live in Agamemnon’s shadow might have been difficult all these years, although he never showed it. He is a hard man to know.”
“Perhaps he only wants to brag about winning me.”
“My dear, they all do.”
“So he is a lackluster fellow, one who shows no passion?” I pressed her.
“Usually. Of course, Agamemnon has enough passion for both of them, and too much passion is as bad as too little.” She glanced around and lowered her voice even more. “But he does not even have a mistress. He never avails himself of any of the captured slave women, never requests any as his lot when spoils are divided.”
I was apprehensive. “Could it be . . . does he prefer men?”
“No. No men, either.”
“Has he taken a vow to Artemis? But grown men do not—”
“What are you two whispering about? You look like conspirators!” Castor bounded out of the palace toward us.
“We are,” I said. “We are forced to be.”
“Well, have you made your decision?” he asked, grinning. He crossed his arms and waited. “I won’t tell, I promise.” He made a silly sign of a solemn vow.
“Who would you choose?” I asked him. I did value his opinion, and up until now both my brothers had kept remarkably quiet about the contest.
“It would depend on what sort of life I wanted,” he said. “A quiet one—a warfaring one—a wealthy one—I’m not you, little sister.”
“I haven’t chosen yet,” I admitted. “I have eliminated some impossible ones, but there are still far too many left.”
“Dear, you should be flattered. No one in living memory, or even in legend, come to think of it, has been sought by so many.”
“No, I’m only confused,” I said. “I don’t really want to be married at all, but I know I must.”
“Don’t go away!” said Clytemnestra suddenly. “Don’t leave us!” She shook her head. “I’ve tried to say nothing, but just now, the thought of your going so far away was painful. I was lucky, Mycenae isn’t very far, and we’ve not been separated, but—oh, I don’t think I could bear it!”
Her outburst shocked me. Even Father and Mother had not said as much, seemingly resigned to losing me. I was deeply touched.
“Dear sister,” I said, embracing her. Castor came and put his arms around us both. I looked at them, flooded with emotion. “It would be impossible for me ever to love anyone as much as I love you, my family.”
Even as I said the words, I could hear Aphrodite, the one I had scorned, laughing at me—her laughter cruel and mocking.
“They’ve sighted him.” Mother came into my chamber before the dawn. I opened my eyes in the semidarkness to see her bending over me. She touched me lightly.
“So soon?” I murmured, pushing up on one elbow. I wanted to delay the inevitable; my future was beginning to claim me already.
“Child, little Cygnet,” she whispered, sitting down beside me on the bed. She drew me up and held me close to her.
“Oh, will no one rescue me?” I cried. Oh, I did not wish to be married! I did not want to go with a man. But at the same time, I wanted to be free to see the world without a veil, to be released from this cage where I was being held. Only marriage could open this trap, lift the bars, and let me out. Yet, in truth, I would choose neither a cage nor a man, but run away from both.
“That is what the suitors wish to do,” Mother said. Her face betrayed her sorrow. She wished to be rescued, too, from this onrush of time that, in taking away her youngest, made her old. A woman whose daughters have married is no longer a woman to catch Zeus’s fancy. That, too, would end for Mother, even the daydream of it. The feathers would turn yellow—if not yet, then soon.
“But they will change everything!” I cried.
“Only one of them will, child. The rest will go home and change some other woman’s life.” She brushed her tears away and smiled. “Thus has it been always.”
“I’ll stay close to you!” I promised. “I won’t go away!”
She smoothed my hair. “You must not choose a man for that reason. You must choose the one who appeals the most to you, not just one who will consent to live here in Sparta.”
“We must be up to receive Menelaus,” I said, rising.
The goddesses would, must, guide me. I had to believe that.
Mother looked knowingly at me. “Wear your most flattering gown, Cygnet. But I have a feeling you would have without my telling you.”
I selected a gown and robe of the sheerest wool, a blush of dawn-pink. I had been told since childhood that it was my most flattering color. It wrapped around me like a mist. I put on gold and amethyst earrings and a heavy gold bracelet. No necklace; that would spoil the effect.
When I left the chamber and walked out onto the raised porch, my gown and robe swirled around my ankles like mist and made me feel like part of the dawn.
“He’s reached the outskirts of Sparta,” said Polydeuces, returning from the palace gates. “He will be here before the messenger can come and go again. Shall we throw open the gates and welcome him?” The rising sun struck his golden hair, and for a fleeting moment I thought how handsome my brother was.
“Yes!” said Father, coming up behind us. “That young man deserves our salute.” He clapped his hands and motioned for servants to open the bolted gates that stood, poised, overlooking the steep road up from the river. “He’s put me to shame. I don’t remember what I did for your mother, but it wasn’t running for days and nights.”
It was not what you did in the beginning, I thought, but what you did later—overlooking the whispers about Zeus.
Castor joined us, then Mother. Clytemnestra, always a late sleeper, was unlikely to be up before the sun.
We stood at the gates, looking down the slope. Far below we could see the misty green of willows overhanging the riverbank. The meadow path was lined with curious people; I could see them milling down below, perhaps not even knowing why they were there. Then the sound of cheers and clapping, and a figure was moving, slowly, along the path, lifting his legs painfully, his arms swinging.
“He isn’t very fast, is he?” asked Polydeuces. “He wouldn’t win any crowns from our contests.”
Always so critical, my golden brother. “We have no races that go on for days,” I said. “I doubt that anyone else—even you—could run continually so long.”
“We’ll know his tale when he arrives,” I said. And, as a runner, I was eager to hear it. I wanted to know what it was like to run over rough ground, boulders and hills and soggy meadows, and not stop. It was a different sort of running, not about speed but endurance.
“I can beat him!” Beside me that strange child, Achilles, had suddenly appeared. He dashed out through the palace gates and bolted down the hill. I saw him meet up with Menelaus at the bottom of the hill. The dark boy turned on his heel and began to race Menelaus up the slope. He had all the speed of someone who had rested all night and only had a short distance to go. Pumping his arms, he passed Menelaus, throwing gravel up in his wake.
Legs flying, Achilles flung himself back through the gates, panting, then turned triumphantly, hands on hips. “I’m faster!” he crowed.
Father paid him little mind, merely nodding and ushering him aside. Achilles started jumping up and down to attract attention. But all eyes were on the laboring Menelaus, doggedly climbing the hill. He was barely running at all, and seemed so weary, his feet barely left the ground.
From the corner of my eye I saw Patroclus come out and make a fuss over Achilles, doubtless praising him. In any case he calmed down; Patroclus knew what to say to the excitable boy.
Closer now: Menelaus was just coming up over the last crest before the palace gates. For a moment he disappeared from view, then suddenly his reddish hair appeared, catching the sunlight, making an aureole. He gasped and stumbled toward his goal, his legs still lifted, still running, his chest heaving.
He burst through the gates, then spun and almost lost his feet. Great tearing sobs of gasps came from his mouth. He staggered and would have fallen, but Castor grabbed him and held him up. His eyes rolled upward and he was about to faint. Without thinking, I rushed over to him and helped Castor to hold him up. He was limp and so covered with sweat he was slippery like a new-caught fish.
Just before he fainted, he looked directly at me and murmured something I could not make out.
Now the contest was over. Now I must make my choice, with no delay—if Father hoped to have any resources left from his extensive hospitality for all the suitors. I would not be so thoughtless a daughter as to drag this out one day longer.
But yet again I had the dreadful, throat-closing feeling of being hurried along, forced to walk a path I was not ready for. I discarded my dawn robes and had myself prepared for the evening ceremonies. My women removed the airy gown of day and brought out the robes of night—blue and dark as the sky just before full night comes.
“My lady, you are lovely,” one said.
“My hair ornaments,” I said.
“Yes, my lady.” She brought out the twisted wires of silver, with their tiny ornaments, and patiently fastened them into my hair, which I let fall free over my shoulders and my back. “The silver shows well,” she said. “Gold gets lost in your hair, since the colors are so similar.” She unstoppered a bottle of narcissus flower oil and rubbed a bit across the bend of my elbows and along the sides of my neck. “I don’t want it to stain the necklace,” she said. “Which one shall you wear tonight?”
Silver and deep blue—what would go with those colors? “Perhaps the clear one, the crystal?” Let everything be icy and clear tonight. If only my thoughts could be as well!
After I was bedecked, I dismissed both attendants. I stood for a few moments alone in my chamber. I still did not know what I would do, who I would choose. But I would make a choice. I must end this uncertainty, for myself and everyone else. I took several deep breaths and then walked slowly out the door, entering the private courtyard that the inner rooms gave out onto. I looked up at the sky, feathered now by the fresh tree leaves.
I searched for the constellation of the lion, my dear constellation that told the tale of Heracles at Nemea that I loved so, as if somehow the answer hid itself in the bright twinkling of the stars, as if I could decipher something there.
Oh, what must I do? I had to choose. Over and over I begged Hera and Persephone for their guidance. But nothing came. Then a dull resignation mixed with determination, like that of a soldier facing a stronger enemy, stole over me. Very well. I must choose. I would choose. I would shut my eyes and whomever I saw first in my mind, that was the one.
I heard a crunching of gravel in the courtyard, and the image of Menelaus running up the hill filled my vision. Some person, all unaware, walking nearby, had thereby decided the matter. Yes. It would be Menelaus. It was meant to be Menelaus. Now my reasons tumbled over one another like unruly children. Had I not been granted that special private meeting with him long ago? Obviously the gods had arranged it. Had I not felt something for him even then? And now had he not proved himself superior in the task I had set before him? And was our hair color not similar? Even that now seemed imbued with secret meaning.
Menelaus. I felt relief. I even felt warmth and contentment. I took a deep breath and turned to carry out my duty.
The megaron was barely large enough to hold everyone, and they all were jammed in. A small fire was lit against the chill of the night, but the heat of the crowd made it unnecessary. As I walked in, everyone looked at me and a hush settled over the company. Father held out his hand and drew me over to him beside the throne.
Everyone had eaten earlier, devouring oxen and sheep and downing seas of wine, and they looked quite content. They now stared back with dull eyes, the eyes of men satiated. Good. They would accept my decision placidly.
Father stood and made the customary libation—poured out to honor Zeus, the liquid made a harsh sound against the dust as it struck.
“My daughter, it is you who must make the choice,” said Father. “Have you reached a decision?”
“I have,” I said. The unknown walker had made it for me, conjuring the image of Menelaus in my mind. I moved forward, ready to speak to the company.
“Then, my dear?” Father stood and put his arm around me.
I looked out at all the men. The upturned faces stared back at me. Patroclus. Idomeneus. Ajax. Teucer. Antilochus. Agamemnon and Menelaus, so many, many more who I have not described here.
This was the moment. Whatever I said, whatever steps I took, would bind me forever. Father placed a wild olive wreath in my hands.
“Crown him,” he said.
Only at that moment did I realize that he had not asked me my choice; he did not know, either; he trusted me to select the man who would succeed him on the throne. “Thank you,” I said.
I walked toward the group. I felt the hem of the robe stirring around my feet, felt the faint pulses of heat coming from the fire, but I walked on, like someone in a dream.
“You are my husband,” I said to Menelaus, placing the wreath on his head. I did not dare to look at his face. I did not need to see him now. Having made my decision, I did not want any last-minute feelings to intervene.
“Princess!” He knelt, and his lovely head bent forward, almost losing the wreath.
I drew him up. “Rise,” I said. “Stand here beside me.” He did so, and still I did not dare to look at him.
“My daughter has spoken,” said Father. “Let us all rejoice!”
A resounding cheer tore through the megaron—relief, release. It was over.
Menelaus squeezed my hand, turned to me.
“Princess, I am not worthy,” he said. Still I feared to look at him. I could not gaze on his face. He noticed.
“Princess,” he said, “it is not my face you should be afraid to look upon. I am just an ordinary man. If I can gaze at your face, which takes more courage, then you should have no fear of looking at mine.”
Before we could speak further, Father came over and embraced Menelaus. “Son!” he said.
Castor and Polydeuces also made their way over. If they resented losing the throne to Menelaus, they did not show it. Had both Clytemnestra and I left Sparta to marry, they would have inherited Father’s title.
“Welcome, new brother,” said Castor.
Polydeuces clapped him on the back. “We’ll race sometime, you and I,” he promised. “But you’ve won the race that counts.”
Mother took both his hands, and Clytemnestra embraced me. “Now we will be double sisters,” she whispered. “Oh, I’m so happy.”
“When will it be?” asked Agamemnon. “You can take a newlywed journey to Mycenae and stay with us—in privacy, of course.”
“Soon,” I said. “As soon as all arrangements can be made. And there will be few of them, as all the family is already here.”
Suddenly I felt ready to embrace my future, and rushed to meet it.
The gods themselves chose the day—the warm height of spring, when the countryside was erupting with life. We would pledge ourselves in the private forest stretching behind the palace. Father and Mother had wanted it in the little enclosed courtyard, but as I had gazed on that every day of my life, I wanted another place for this sacred moment.
For this day I would wear my finest golden robes, and the evening before, I fasted and dedicated myself to the marriage. I did everything—O you gods, I did!—to ensure that this marriage would be blessed.
The grove was hushed; the sweet murmur of wind in the uppermost branches of the trees was soothing. Mother and Father escorted me into the clearing. My face was veiled with the sheerest linen, as I was guided toward the place where the rite would be held. I felt as though I were walking in a dream, for it could not possibly be true, what I was doing. But when they lifted the veil, there was Menelaus beside me. He smiled hesitantly, his face pale.
A priestess of Persephone, to whom our family was loyal, would conduct the ritual. She was young and her mossy green gown seemed the same shade as the ground beneath her feet. She looked first at my face, then Menelaus’s.
“Menelaus, son of Atreus, you stand here in sight of all the gods of Olympus to pledge yourself,” she said. “You seek to take Helen of Sparta to wife.”
“Yes,” said Menelaus.
“You do this knowing all the decrees of the gods through their prophecies—upon your house, and upon the house of Tyndareus?”
No, he didn’t know the prophecy of the Sibyl, how could he?
“Yes,” said Menelaus. “We are right with the gods.”
She held out a garland of flowers and bade him bind our wrists together. “As these flowers of the field are twined together, so must your houses be.”
She nodded to one of her acolytes and a gold pitcher was brought and placed in her hands. “The sacred waters of the Kastalian Spring at Delphi,” she said. “Bow your heads.” She poured some over us. “May this impart wisdom.” She unwound a bright red thread from around her waist and told us to touch it. “Whosoever touches this has touched the belt of faithfulness and will remain true.” She motioned to another acolyte and she circled around us, carrying a bowl of smoking incense. “Let the prayers ascend.”
We stood in silence. I had not so far been asked to say a word.
“Close your eyes and circle one another,” she ordered us. Slowly we shuffled past one another. “Forever after, you will be within one circle, one house.”
Still no words, no promises, were asked of me.
“She is yours,” said the seer abruptly. “Take her hand.”
Menelaus reached out and grasped my wrist, in the ceremonial gesture indicating someone taking a wife. It harked back to the days when a man abducted a woman for marriage; now, of course, it was symbolic.
But Menelaus had another, private gesture. He motioned to his servant, who brought forward a carved wooden box. Opening it, Menelaus drew out the big gold-linked necklace that Agamemnon had flourished. Reverently, he lifted it up and put it over my head. It sank down around my neck, so heavy it felt like a yoke. Its lower links fell below my breasts, tangled in my hair—the great weight of marriage, and of what I had entered into, tugged earthward.
The gleam of the gold and its thickness dazzled the onlookers. I might say it blinded them—all they could see was the yellow and the glitter.
Back in the palace, the marriage feast began. The entire central portion of the palace, with the megaron giving out onto the private enclosure, had been transformed. Cut branches of flowering myrtle and roses twined around the columns, clouds of sweet incense rode the wind, and great stacks of braided flower garlands awaited the guests. Everyone must feast, everyone must rejoice before setting out for home, back to their gray-walled fortresses and sea-dashed houses.
Now I must walk with Menelaus, not Father. Forever after, it must be Menelaus, and not Father. Hesitantly I held out my hand and he took it. He must have felt the cold in it.
Pulling gently, he drew me to him. He pressed me against his cloak, whispered, “I cannot believe that you are mine, that we will see each other every morning as long as we live.”
Nor could I. “We must think only of tonight, and of tomorrow, the first morning to come,” I said. It was all I could manage. And I did not know what to think of them. I was not prepared, I could not imagine how to live through them.
“Now, my brother!” Castor interrupted us, but it was not unwelcome. Menelaus turned to him. We still belonged to others, at least for now.
I embraced my mother. Was she trembling, or was that my fancy?
“Dear child,” she said. “I am happy for you, and happy for me, that I shall not lose you.”
“You will always have me near,” I said. And that was a comfort.
Father came to us. “It is done,” he said briskly. “And well done.” He gestured around to the company. “They will go home content. And I will be content that they have gone home!”
The sweet sound of flutes rose through the human voices.
“This is your wedding day,” said Mother.
I felt tears starting behind my eyes.
“So look about you, see everything, remember it, hold it close to your heart.”
What did I see? A great company of men, the disappointed suitors. There they were, the lives I might have had, had I gone with those men. There were many cakes—poppy, linseed, sesame, honey, sweet oil—laid out on the tables. There were piles of the sweetest dried figs—as it was not the season for fresh—and dates from Egypt and barley bread and honey from a mountain near Athens. There were slices of roast meat of all varieties—ox, kid, sheep, heifer—still steaming on their platters, just sliced from the turning spits. There were huge amphoras of the best wine, some from as far away as Mount Ismarus in Thrace, and so many lined up that our stores seemed inexhaustible, trumpeting our generosity.
But all of it faded—the music, the talk, the food, the wine—as I was terrified by the realization: I am married. I, Helen, was a married woman.
What does it mean to be married?
We went away. We went away in a chariot just at twilight, making for Mycenae. Menelaus took the reins and I stood beside him, and the horses made for his home. We rattled down the hill—on the gentler side, the path that horses and chariots could descend. The guests ran out after us, pelting us with quince apples, with myrtle leaves, and then, in a shower from heaven, thousands of braided violets. They landed in the chariot, they struck our feet, and we crushed them underfoot, releasing their delicate slight scent.
Menelaus’s quarters in the gray citadel of Mycenae: a great winding labyrinth of stone passages and little rooms, each with its own hearth. The attendants welcomed us gladly, and lit the fire in the chamber that had been laid, awaiting Menelaus’s return.
We were alone. Just he and I, standing in this chilly stone chamber, watching, awkwardly, the fire lapping against the wood. We were as stiff as the wood, as unmoving as the stone around us.
Menelaus finally spoke. “Helen . . .”
I turned to him. “Yes. I am here.”
Silently, he enfolded me in his arms. He was much taller than I, and when he enveloped me, I was pressed against his chest and all the rest of the world was black.
“I cannot believe my fortune, that you chose me . . .”
I turned my face up to his. I had never kissed anyone before and did not know what to expect, what to do, but it felt natural.
We kissed. He embraced me, pulled me tight against him. It was so odd to be touched this way, to have someone be so familiar with my person. Now this stranger was putting his mouth on mine. It frightened me and I felt trapped.
Now his hands were clasping the sides of my face, pulling me up toward him, as if I were not close enough. His fingers got caught in my hair, pulling it, and it hurt. But I dared not cry out, say anything. Somehow I sensed that if I did so, this first time, I would insult him.
“Helen . . . Helen . . .” he was murmuring, and his breath was coming faster.
I felt nothing. Nothing but my heart pounding in panic. Stop! I wanted to say, but I knew it was hopeless, and at the same time I felt foolish. What had I truly expected, when I asked what it meant to be married?
“Helen . . .” He stumbled toward the wide flat sleeping place that sat in one corner of the room, spread with fur pelts and fair linens.
I followed him; I let him take my wrist (again, the old symbolic gesture). I was short of breath. I did not know what to do, only that there was one dread test left to me, this test that must be passed in private.
Softly, he led me to the flat linen-spread surface, and knelt on it, drawing me after him. My hands felt icy. I breathed slowly.
Do not think about it, I told myself. I folded myself by his side.
“Helen . . .”
He reached out to pull away my gown. I stiffened and wanted to stop him, but I commanded myself, Do not interfere. He has the right to touch you, to take off your garments.
Do not think about it.
The fire was flickering, making snapping noises. Menelaus seemed glad to notice it, to comment on it. Then he turned back to me.
“My dearest,” he whispered. His hands stroked my shoulders. I shuddered at the touch, but willed myself to stay still. “My dearest . . .” His words were lost against my throat.
He drew the last of the clothing separating us aside. I felt chilled, embarrassed, vulnerable. Let this be over!
He was holding me, he was . . .
Oh, I cannot relate it. It was painful, and invading, and then it was over. So quickly.
“Helen . . .” His head rested against my shoulder. “Helen . . .” With a great sigh, his voice trailed off. He slept.
In the teasing light of the fire, when he was absolutely still, I moved and drew up the soft woolen covers. It grew cold in the chamber. I slid as far away as I could, pulling the covers after me.
The day stole into the chamber cold and gray. The glorious sunshine of the day before had fled, and I felt the encroaching, encircling grasp of the stone walls like the heavy weight of Menelaus’s arm flung across my shoulders.
He slept, his light-lashed eyes closed. In the dim light I could study him, watch his face—the first time I was able to do so.
He was my friend, my ally. I had sensed that from the moment I met him; and if one must marry, then let it be to a friend. That I had felt uneasy at the final surrender that was part of marriage should not undermine the rightness of my choice.
He breathed in, out, sleeping carelessly. He had done so much to win me; now he rested.
Like Heracles after his labors, I thought, and giggled. A man must rest.
But the labors of last night . . . why had I found them so off-putting? I was supposed to swoon at the ministrations of Aphrodite, but they had left me unmoved.
Aphrodite. I solemnly invoked her in my mind, not daring to murmur the words aloud. If by any human failure or weakness I did not call out to you at the time I desired guidance in choosing my husband, please forgive me. Your greatness may have blinded me, so I looked past the most obvious goddess of all. I, Helen, beg you to come to me now.
For a life without passion will be too long, even if it is short.
Menelaus stirred and looked at me. He moved his arm—its dead weight lightened as it came to life again. Then he reached out both arms and enfolded me.
“Dear Helen,” he murmured. “Now it begins. Our life together.”
I laid my head on his shoulder, smooth with its relaxed muscles. “Yes. May the gods grant us a blessed one.”
All would be right. It would have to be. I had chosen, and there was no going back.
Clytemnestra and Agamemnon arrived the next day, although before that we had ventured out into the palace and played a bit with their daughter, pretty Iphigenia, sturdily walking, and babbling away with words that were enchanting, even when they were incorrect.
“Well, well!” Agamemnon chuckled, as he did everything, loudly. He had an ugly gleam in his eyes that he tried to mask, but it was unmistakable. He kept looking at me, looking at Menelaus, narrowing his eyes. I knew he had spent last night with us in the chamber, in his mind at least—the chamber that he had promised us was ours in privacy.
Menelaus tried to keep his face expressionless—out of respect for me, I suppose. But what would he say when he and his brother were alone, as would happen sooner or later? Clytemnestra, too, was eager to speak to me in confidence. I dreaded it; I wished they would go away. I did not care to speak of it; I felt it would be a dreadful betrayal of Menelaus. Or was it a betrayal of myself?
“And after you drove away in the chariot, and everyone’s hands were stained from the flowers and fruit they had tossed after you, we went back into the palace and . . .” It had been quiet after we left, with the strange hush that descends after great bustle.
“And now,” said Clytemnestra, holding her arms wide, “you have all the years of your lives to be together!”
“I wonder how long that will be?” asked Menelaus.
“Do you mean, how long will you live?” Agamemnon demanded.
“Yes, I suppose that’s what I mean. People in our families do not live a long time.”
“How morbid! Why would you speculate about that today, of all days, Menelaus?”
“I was just . . . wondering how many years of happiness I’d be granted.”
“How old is the oldest person you have known—or known about?” I asked Menelaus, trying to steer the subject onto more cheerful ground.
Agamemnon answered. “I suppose Nestor, and he isn’t all that old. There was a man in Argos who claimed to be eighty—a wizened little cricket of a human who lived in a tiny house. I saw him once, with Father. But of course no one could prove how old he really was.”
“Do you think anyone could ever live to be a hundred?”
“No,” said Menelaus. “That would be impossible.” He smiled and took my hands. “But fifty years of happiness will equal a hundred dull years.”
We stayed in Mycenae for ten days, and Menelaus showed me all his haunts and the secrets of the landscape. The citadel itself was built halfway up a hill between two mountains, and from its ramparts you could see the sea—something we never could do in Sparta. The first time I saw it, a flat shining expanse, I cried out in excitement. I had never seen the sea.
“My love, how can that be?” he asked.
“I was kept locked up,” I said. “It was . . . it was for my own protection.”
“Now I will protect you,” he said. “And if you wish to see the sea, you may look your fill.”
“Can we go closer? Even sail on it?”
“Let us go closer first,” he said. “Sailing can come later.”
There were caves in the high hills where he and Agamemnon had played as boys, and where he still knew hidden entrances, overgrown with vines. I liked imagining him as a boy, wondered what he had looked like then.
He showed me the great storeroom of the citadel where the treasures of his house were kept—huge stores of olive oil, of finely woven cloth, of gold and silver, and of bronze tripods and armor. The armor had been captured from various foes in raids and battles, most forgotten now, remembered only for the spoils they had yielded. They gleamed on in the dark of the storeroom while their owners had long ceased to gleam.
“Take what you like!” he said, gesturing around the room. But I had no desire for any of it. When I did not reply, he opened a cypresswood box and took out a gold goblet.
“My wedding gift,” he said, presenting it to me.
It was as large as a bucket, and very heavy. “This is not for mortals,” I said. “Unless it be Ajax of Salamis.” My arm ached with holding it. It had a pattern of little circles stamped all over its body and its handles were pleasingly curved. I handed it back to Menelaus.
“I said it is yours.” He pushed it back at me.
“You have already given me wedding gifts,” I said. “Truly, I am content.”
“I want you to have something from my father’s house,” he said. “Atreus won this in battle, and he always prized it. My mother kept it by her place at feasts, and now you must, too.”
The gold was warming under my hands, and I saw I must not refuse. But still I was loath to take it.
Menelaus took a strand of my hair and wound it around the cup. “The same color,” he said. I could see the pride and possessiveness in him as he entwined his cup with my hair. “Oh, Helen!” he said. “You never saw the sea, you could not look upon it. Now I will take you there. You can have your fill of it now.” He leaned forward and kissed me.
Our last night in Mycenae: cold, as I suspected all nights were there, even in high summer. We ate together at a long wooden table, and I dutifully kept the large goblet by my place, although I never could have drained it. Menelaus kept refilling it, as if to secure it to me. Afterward we lay back on pillows in the megaron and enjoyed the warmth of the fire and the sweet music of the bard, who sang of battles and brave deeds of men who lived before our times.
“Always before our times,” said Menelaus. “The age of heroes is over, now that Heracles is dead.”
“How do you know?” said Agamemnon. He never missed an opportunity to question or contradict. “Did the heroes themselves know they were living in the age of heroes? Did it have a big sign saying, ‘All ye underneath, know that you live in the age of heroes’?”
“Agamemnon, you sound so stupid sometimes!” Only Clytemnestra would dare say that to him, although I had thought it. She laughed.
“It’s not a stupid question! I think heroes make their own age,” he said.
“And only later, someone calls it the age of heroes.” He looked around, his eyes again seeking mine. I wished he would stop it. I dropped mine. “It is not over yet. Not if we decide it goes on.”
“You need to fight mighty foes,” said Clytemnestra, “and I don’t see any about. Heracles killed them all off.” She leaned forward and tickled his ear. “No, my lion, you will have to content yourself with cattle raids and minor skirmishes. That is the problem with times of peace. But who would wish otherwise?”
Agamemnon grunted and brushed her hand away as if it were an annoying fly. But Clytemnestra, feeling playful, kept on.
“Cheer up, my love,” she said. “Perhaps a dragon will come along and menace a city. Or another sphinx.”
“Stop it,” Agamemnon warned her. “I won’t be teased.”
His raised voice caused the bard to stop singing, tuck his lyre under his arm, and steal away.
Back in our cold chamber, we would huddle under the wolfskin covers that overlay the wool blankets. Menelaus would encircle me with his strong arms and begin to murmur endearments, moving against me ever more insistently.
I had not overcome my revulsion for the sexual act and continued to fight the impulse to push him away, to put both my palms on his wide chest and shove.
In the past ten days, something alarming had become clear: I hated to be touched. I had never realized that before, as anyone touching me had done so only in a passing manner. Even my mother, when she embraced me, did not linger, nor did she invade my person. My attendants, when I bathed, averted their eyes and used sponges to apply the perfumed oil and the olive oil to rub on my back afterward. My brothers draped their arms carelessly over my shoulders, but only lightly, and only for a moment.
This was different. And my aversion to it was growing; I was not becoming accustomed to it. I dared not show it and found for the first time in my life how difficult it was to pretend—something I had never had to do. I knew without anyone telling me that I must, at all costs, keep it from Menelaus. But how could I, forever? For a little while, yes, but . . .
Where was Aphrodite? Why did she spurn my abject apology? Without her I would never cross to that other land, that fabled place where women not only welcomed such behavior but sought it out and . . . sometimes . . . instigated it themselves. Every morning I begged her to come to me in the evening; every night it was clear she had turned deaf ears to my plea. As Menelaus moved closer to me, his breath warm against my ear, I was as cold inside as the waters of the Styx.
In the sunlight it seemed of much less import, of course. The next morning, as we jounced in our chariot toward Sparta, it was easy to forget the secrets of the dark. I looked at Menelaus’s strong forearms as he stretched them out to hold the reins; now—perverse goddess!—I found them appealing, now that they were not reaching for me.
“Our new quarters will be waiting,” he said, flicking the reins. “What shall we find, do you think?”
While we were away, Father and Mother were readying our apartments, the place where I would live as a married woman. My old chambers, the chambers of girlhood, would be left behind—until I had a child of my own to fill them.
“They are on the east side of the palace,” I said. They had stood empty for many years; I had heard stories about a great-aunt who had lived in them with a pet monkey and poisonous plants. The monkey had eaten some of the leaves and died—but she, with her knowledge of herbs, had given him an antidote and he had recovered. Or so the tale went. We children were forbidden to explore the rooms.
“Morning sun,” he said. “Good to wake up to.” He laughed and flicked the reins again, and the horses leapt forward, making the chariot lurch; the woven leather-strap floor bounced. I clutched his arm to keep my balance, and he looked fondly at me.
We were keeping to the green lowlands of the river watering the valley of Mycenae, leading to the coast. We passed through Argos and by Tiryns with its high walls. We would keep the sea on our left for a good long time before turning inland toward Sparta. I could hear the roar of the waves against the shore and smell the salt air; two small boats were bobbing farther out. I had a great wish to set sail and feel the water all around me.
“You have sailed, have you not?” I asked Menelaus.
“Oh, yes. To Rhodes—Troy—Crete. My grandfather is in Crete, and we used to visit him often.”
“Someday I wish to meet him,” I said. But what I really wished was to see Crete. I would have gone to meet him there even if his grandfather had been a parrot.
We jounced along in silence. Then I said, “And you’ve been to Troy? Is it as splendid as everyone says? Is it true that jewels encrust the walls of the palace?”
“Nothing like that,” he said, amused. “The walls look like any other walls, except for the paintings on them. The colors are very bright, brighter than ours. Perhaps that started the rumor about jewels.”
I wanted to ask him about the handsome men there but thought it would sound peculiar. “Do the people there look like everyone else?” I finally asked.
He laughed. “Yes—how else should they look? Hair made of leaves or five ears?” The chariot lurched as we swerved to avoid a rock. “They seem well fed and strong,” he said. “They have that look—that look of a people who are proud, though. A people who know they command not only themselves but also the land around them. Even the king, old Priam, is an impressive figure, almost unnaturally strapping and youthful. He has fifty sons! I suppose making them keeps him young.”
“Are they all by the queen?” Surely not! Unless she had had a series of twins.
“No, but ten of them are.” He laughed. “Come to think of it, the queen is surprisingly sturdy to have survived all those births. Perhaps there is something about Troy . . .”
Eventually we left the coast road and turned east, climbing into the hills. The horses strained and the chariot creaked; the wheels ground into the gravel and the hard-packed earth. Occasionally we rumbled over little bridges built of boulders—rough but better than becoming stuck in a streambed.
Even in late spring, the peaks of the mountains were snow-covered and blue; Sparta lay nestled between two big ranges, the Parnon and the Taygetus. I had not realized how green and fertile my land was until I saw the drier and rougher places en route; truly Lacedaemon, the region where Sparta lay, was a blessed place.
“Your new home,” I said to Menelaus. “Is it not a fair exchange for Mycenae?”
“Even were it not as magnificent as it is, it is better to be first in a small place than second in a large one.” Behind his light words lurked the years of being shaded by Agamemnon’s bulk and the prospect of remaining there forever. I had freed Menelaus, even as he had freed me—freed me to remove my face veil and move about in the world. Now—why, now I could even go into Sparta myself, walk the streets!
“My dearest,” I said, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. At that moment, I felt overcome with warm love for him.
As we passed through the palace gates, everyone was out to welcome us—the runners had seen us approaching as we rolled alongside the riverbank.
Father, Mother, Castor, Polydeuces, my dear old attendants, even the palace dogs, cried out in greeting. We were swept out of the chariot and into embracing arms. Home. We were home, a home that would now be different.
“Helen, you left us a maiden and now you return a married woman. It is only right that we present you with the tokens and emblems of your new station.” Father spoke the words that began the traditional ceremony in which a Spartan woman is recognized as an adult about to enter her own household.
We were standing at the threshold of the apartments Menelaus and I would share.
As my father called them out, my mother presented me with the items befitting my station one by one. First, the cloth that would replace my maidenly robes: an intricately woven fabric with glittering silver-blue threads worked into it. Next, a large silver brooch to fasten the two edges of cloth at my shoulder. And finally, the earrings.
Mother handed me a cedarwood box that held two huge circular gold earrings with open weaving and little spikes decorating the rims. They were so heavy they could not be worn through the earlobes but must be suspended by wires behind the ears: symbol of my womanhood.
“I thank you,” I said, lifting them from the box and cradling them in my palms.
Father took them and fastened them properly on my ears, pushing back my hair to do so.
“Wife,” said Father, “last of all, present our daughter with the signs of her womanly toil.”
Mother brought forward a little silver basket on wheels to hold yarn ready for weaving. Inside it were four balls of the finest wool yarn in natural white, dark brown, and two dyed colors: delicate pink and lightest blue. There was another basket of unworked wool, needing to be spun.
“Spinning and weaving belong to the realm of women’s secrets,” said Father. “It is proper that your married life begin by invoking the three Fates; Clotho, the spinning fate; Lachesis, who assigns to you your fate; and Atropos, who represents what you cannot avoid. The three goddesses who control the span of a mortal life, from birth to death.”
I took the baskets and clasped them to me.
“And now,” said Father, “all rites being done properly as should be, pass into your new quarters and take possession of them.”
I took Menelaus’s hand and we stepped over the threshold into what would be our new home.
Inside, the sheer linen serving to shade the windows blurred the light and gave everything a blue tint, like earliest dawn. Swimming in the haze, we could make out the tall chairs, stools, and three-legged tables scattered about the painted floor.
“Look!” I cried, pointing down. “Patterns! We’ve never had them before.” They must have been painted while we were away. They made the room seem very rich. And now my eyes saw the paintings on the wall—water lilies, reeds, and birds. “Oh, how lovely.” I would never grow weary of looking at them.
I saw that the high-seated chairs were inlaid with spirals in blue-enameled ivory; their footstools had a matching pattern.
In the adjoining room Menelaus’s bedstead was heaped with the lightest fleeces over a fine linen sheet. A brazier filled with cedar and sandalwood made sweet warmth.
Menelaus held out his arms and I went into them. He clasped me tightly to him, so tightly that I could feel the warmth of his chest through his tunic and mantle. He bent his head down toward me. He was turning toward the fair-spread bed.
Now! Surely now I would feel my heart leap, at least feel a spreading warmth that would make me desire him.
But instead I heard noises coming from just outside the windows, reminding me that others were nearby. The moment’s possibility was gone. I slid away from his grasp and pretended to go on examining the new chamber. I did not dare look at his face; I could not bear to see the anger or the disappointment there. I thought I heard faraway laughter: Aphrodite’s?
Only one last custom to be enacted before my new life would truly begin. Down by the Eurotas, Father and Mother transformed the broad meadow into a field of celebration and welcomed all of Sparta, so that Menelaus could encounter the people he would come to rule someday.
The open fires in the field were crackling; above them oxen were turning, roasting. Anyone who thrust a cup out would have it filled with Father’s finest wine. Townspeople thronged the meadow, the artisans to spread out their pots and jewelry, the weapons-forgers their knives and swords. Housewives offered their barley-meal cakes and fig paste; would-be bards plucked their lyres and sang. I saw shepherds, swineherds, and goatherds milling about. Far on one side of the field athletic contests were in progress—boxing, wrestling, and running. Anyone from Sparta or the surrounding area could compete. I was thinking nostalgically of my last race as a maiden. Today only boys and men were on the field. Beside them horse breeders offered their animals, hoping for a sale. Ours was not the area for the finest horses, but one took what was available.
Menelaus and I wandered in and out of the crowd. I felt the eyes upon me, but with his arm around my shoulder I knew freedom for the first time. I need hide no longer. I grasped his hand and squeezed it. He could never understand how grateful I was.
“Fortunes! Fortunes!” We passed an elderly woman who plucked at our clothes with her clawlike hands. “Fortunes! Fortunes!” she rasped.
“Let go! Can’t you see—” Menelaus began. Then he realized she was blind, her eyes sealed like an old leather purse. He recoiled.
“Potions!” a woman beside her said. This one could see, all too well: her sharp black eyes looked like a bird of prey’s. “Pay her no mind. Whatever the fortune, a potion can undo it!” She thrust a vial into my hand.
“Don’t. It’s poison,” said another voice, calmly. “You’d need an antidote before you walked fifty steps.” The speaker was a man. “Halia, really, are you still trying to peddle that deadly potion? And to our future queen? What’s wrong? Don’t you like her?”
The woman drew herself up. “It was for the use of the queen,” she said. “You did not give me a chance to explain further.”
“So the queen can poison her enemies? Why don’t you give a demonstration of its powers? Otherwise we might think you are passing off plain old sheep’s fat.”
Menelaus was staring at the man who had appeared so suddenly, wearing a dusty red cloak.
The potions-seller shrugged. Without any hesitation, she grabbed her companion’s dog, which had been dozing beside them on the ground, and smeared its muzzle with the cloudy paste. The dog growled and licked its lips.
The enigmatic man raised one eyebrow and looked down at it. “These things can take a while,” he said. There was a restrained humor, or judgment, hanging on his words. In some way he was baiting the woman; or perhaps he was teasing, or perhaps he did not care in the least. His tone of voice could be interpreted any of those ways.
The dog lurched up, unsteady on its feet. It made aimless little circles before sinking down again and starting to whine and tremble.
“Better have the antidote nearby,” the man said.
The dog’s owner began shaking it, crying out.
The potions-seller was calmly rummaging through a basket, finally producing a little bottle of liquid. “Ummm . . . here it is.” She pried the dog’s salivating mouth open a crack and poured the liquid into it.
“Very impressive, Halia,” said the man. “I see you know your plants. What was that . . . nerion?”
She glared at him. “I’ll not tell you all I know.”
“And what did you use to reverse it? Juice of the belladonna?”
“I said, I’ll not tell you!”
Menelaus and I began backing away, and the woman protested. “After all that, you won’t buy?”
The mysterious man had disappeared. Menelaus and I looked at each other.
“Did we really see him?” I asked.
“One can’t be sure,” said Menelaus. “Somehow he was more disturbing than the poisons. I can explain poisons, but he seemed to have an extraordinary knowledge of such things.”
“We don’t know that, not really,” I said. “All we know he knew was the woman’s name and how two poisons worked.”
“I had the feeling he knew much more.”
“Aha! Here you are, hiding yourselves in this humble section!” a commanding voice boomed out behind us. We whirled around to find ourselves face to face with Odysseus. He was grinning—his marriage to Penelope had been approved and the wedding day set. He had what he wanted. “You’re in disreputable company.” He indicated the fortune-teller and the potions-seller.
“Did you see that man who was with us a moment ago?” asked Menelaus.
“No, why?” Odysseus was hitching up one shoulder of his tunic and adjusting his hat. “Was he a pickpocket?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Then what’s the concern?” He laughed. “So. You look content.” Now he reached up to put his arm around Menelaus’s shoulders. “I must congratulate myself on supporting your suit. Have you had any rumbles of discontent from any of the leftover suitors? The vow we took in that bloody field should put a stop to any mischief.”
“When is the wedding?” asked Menelaus. “I heard about the footrace. Of course you won.”
“Of course. I made sure of that.” He winked. “Suddenly I outstripped all Penelope’s suitors. We will wed before the moon is full again. Then I return to Ithaca, with my bride. Her father, of course, is not eager to let her go. But I don’t wish to linger here. I want my island again. I like its rocks and loneliness.”
Two men passed us, both preposterously handsome, one older and the second in that first flush of maturity when a boy is just turning into a man. The man was golden-haired and the boy very dark, with thick eyebrows. They were not villagers but soldiers, I could tell by the way they walked.
“Well, well,” said Odysseus. “Where might they be from? Mount Olympus, perhaps?”
Returning to Father’s side, I saw that newcomers had joined him. A company of soldiers surrounded him, decked out in linen breastplates and carrying short swords. A swaggering fellow with a shiny face and gloating expression had his ear.
“Whoever they are, we’ll smash them,” he was saying. His fellow soldiers nodded, murmuring.
What was he talking about? Who needed smashing? We were at peace.
“Your place will be ready by tomorrow,” Father said.
“You Spartans are too trusting,” the blustering soldier said. “It’s high time you had some protection. Why, it’s said you don’t even have spies.”
“If a king is just and his soldiers strong, it doesn’t matter what evil the enemy is planning,” Father said. “Therefore we don’t need spies. Whatever they are planning will come to nothing.”
There was a short low laugh behind me. I turned to see who it was but saw only more of the soldiers. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a dusty red cloak. That man again! Why was he here?
I grabbed Menelaus’s arm. “Get hold of him!” I whispered. “The man—he’s a—he must be . . . a spy. For whom?”
Menelaus turned and looked, but the man seemed to have disappeared once again.
“Now, Lynceus, will you as general be content to share the barracks with your men?” Father was asking the bombastic man.
Lynceus nodded condescendingly.
“If you value your throne, Tyndareus, I would keep him in full view in the palace, not out of sight in a private barracks,” came a quiet voice from the throng around Father.
“Who’s speaking?” Father craned his neck.
The man in the red cloak stepped forward. “I seek only to offer some commonsense advice,” he said. “Something I am sure you would have seen for yourself before long.” But by then it might have been too late, his tone hinted.
“I said, who’s speaking?” Father insisted.
“I am Gelanor of Gytheum.”
“A seaman? A harbormaster?” Gytheum was the nearest seaport to Sparta, although to reach it by nightfall you would have to set out shortly after dawn.
“Neither of those, although my father goes to sea.”
“Why haven’t you followed him?”
“More interesting things happen on land.”
“Name one!” the truculent general bellowed at him.
“Man,” said Gelanor. “Man happens on land, and he is infinitely more interesting than fish.”
“You haven’t answered me,” Father said. “What is your livelihood? You don’t have the look of a soldier.”
“Nor a swineherd,” whispered Menelaus, and we both stifled laughs. The man did not stink, after all.
“I make things . . .”
“What things?” demanded Father.
“I make things happen.”
“What sort of an answer is that? Are you a magician?”
Gelanor laughed. “No. All I meant is that if someone wants something, I can help him bring it about. Only”—he held up his hands—“by my wit and experience. I have no magic arts. Nor do I traffic with the gods. I have found, august king, that the mind is the only magic art one needs.”
Father shrugged. “Here’s another mad fellow.” He waved him away. Then the general whispered in his ear, and he turned back to Gelanor. “Perhaps I can use you . . .”
* * *
We wandered away from the soldiers with their unappetizing leader.
“What is all this about?” I asked Menelaus. “Why has Father taken up with these men?”
“Their leader is a man looking for a war,” said Menelaus. “Perhaps it is useful to have such a person about.”
We politely refused the slave weaving about the crowd refilling cups. The sticky-sweet wine was overpowering and needed watering down.
“But there is no war,” I said. “So what shall Father do with him?”
“Perhaps feel safer,” Menelaus said. “That fellow does not look as if much would get past him.”
“Which fellow? Gelanor or Lynceus?” The general or the man in the red cloak?
“Both of them. Gelanor’s mind is sharper and Lynceus’s arm is stronger—an interesting contest, if ever it came to that.”
“But as long as they both serve Father, they will work together.” I meant it as a statement, but it was more of a question. Menelaus did not answer it.
We were approaching the tent where the bards were performing; the sweet sounds of the lyre strings carried through the air.
Sparta was known for its music-making and its poets, and I was eager to hear them. This was all part of my new freedom. I was eager to taste it all, to gorge on every new dish.
“Don’t listen to him.” A dark little man standing near the tent entrance made a disparaging gesture. “He loses all the contests.”
His music sounded well enough to me.
“And I suppose you win them?” asked Menelaus.
“Indeed,” he said with a shrug, as if to say, Winning against such people is hardly a victory.
“Let us judge this man for ourselves,” I said, edging toward the entrance.
The bard inside was just finishing up; he was singing of the mighty deeds of Heracles, especially his victory over the Nemean lion.
“. . . the claws! Oh, so sharp that they alone could cut the hide! Oh, the strength of Heracles, beyond the ken of mortal man! Oh, Heracles!”
“I think the fellow outside was right,” whispered Menelaus, echoing my own thoughts.
Soon he was ushered off, and the stranger we met outside took his place. He looked at us as if to say, Now it will be worth your while.
“I shall sing of something that has happened in our time,” he said, bowing, taking his lyre in hand.
“Heracles was but a little while ago!” someone objected.
“True, but this is nearer.” He plucked at his mantle where the brooch was pinned, adjusting it like an athlete preparing for a contest.
“I, Oeonus of Therapne, will sing of the marriage feast of King Peleus of Phthia and the sea goddess Thetis.”
“That may not be wise,” someone muttered from the back. The voice was low, but the man heard it.
“Bards must sing of what is true, and that is not always wise.” He took up his lyre and began. He did have a pleasing voice and his skill on the instrument was impressive—it seemed to be part of his own speech. He lost himself in the words and it seemed as if he were feeling them from within himself.
Then the silvery notes died away.
The listeners roared their approval of his song.
As he made his way out, we stopped him. “You were right,” I said. “About both yourself and the other singer.”
Just beyond the tent a man was holding forth to a crowd of interested onlookers. He held up a wooden box with a handle on it.
“It works! It works!” he proclaimed. “No more mice!”
“A house snake is better,” someone said.
“Oh, it’s true.” His face broke into a smile. “Nothing beats a snake for ridding you of mice. But can you keep a snake? He’s here one day, vanished the next. When you most need him, he’s slithered away.” He patted his box. “Now, this is always waiting. You bait it like this”—he lifted the door and put a morsel on it—“and the trap works like this.” He touched it with a twig and the door slammed shut. “Take two!” He held another aloft.
But no one bought his wares, and the man trudged to another group.
“Tell me, friend, have you been at this long?” Menelaus asked, falling in beside him.
“Only a year or so,” he said. “Before that, I was—I had a most unpleasant job.”
“Can you tell me what that was?”
“I was the one who took the babies to the Taygetus Mountains.”
The Spartan babies deemed not worthy to live—whether because of weakness or disease or merely a bad prophecy—the ones who were put out to die of exposure on the slopes of the mountains. No wonder he had changed to making mouse-catchers.
“Did you ever . . . try to save them?” I asked.
“Twice or thrice,” he said. “If the baby was doomed only because of a prophecy, and if there were shepherds or hunters about who could take it home and care for it. But that happened seldom.”
“What about those stories of bears and wolves suckling the babies?” I asked. Everyone had heard them.
He shook his head. “A she-wolf would eat them. A she-bear would probably kill them with a swat. That’s all they are—stories.”
“Who does that duty now?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Someone. They always find someone.”
Shuddering, we turned aside. We did not have far to seek for another pull at our attention as we reached the edge of the athletic field.
A panting group of young men had just crossed the finish line of a race and now they reeled on the grass, tumbling and gasping. The sun hit their glistening bodies, the sweat marking out every muscle, shining it like buffed stone. Against the green of the new grass, their youth seemed eternal, fixed, guaranteed forever.
Mocking that was an older man leaning on a staff nearby, watching them. He was massaging his knee, then swinging it to and fro to loosen the stiff joint.
“Oh,” he muttered. “Oh, that hurts!” He smacked the knee. “Damn ointment-sellers, charlatans!” He bent over and sniffed the knee. “It stinks, but it doesn’t work!” He picked up a little clay pot at his feet and thrust it at us. “Take a whiff!” he commanded.
Menelaus sniffed at it and winced. “Friend, you are right. What a stench! Reeks like rotten goat guts.”
“It probably is,” the man grumbled. “They sold it as ground pearls and oil of narcissus, and so it smelled the first day, but now . . .” With a hiss, the man threw it over his shoulder. It flew far, surprisingly far.
He glanced back at the young athletes. “As they are now, so once was I,” he said knowingly. “Don’t believe me? My javelin arm is still strong, and once I could have raced any one of these lads into the ground. Twenty years ago, back when Agamemnon was first born.” He paused, thought a moment. “Well, more like thirty years ago,” he admitted.
“That is better,” said Menelaus. “For my brother Agamemnon is nearer thirty than twenty. Even I am nearer thirty than twenty.”
“Menelaus! Forgive me, I should have recognized you.” The man bowed from the waist.
“Tell me, friend,” said Menelaus, “you say you were a famous athlete thirty years ago. Where did you run? Against whom?”
“I ran for Sparta in many races, as far away as Argos and Nauplia,” he said. “I even beat Callippus of Athens in the double stadia twice. My fans carried me through the city on their shoulders.” His voice first swelled with pride and then grew soft at the cherished memory of a vanished time and a vanished strength. “I boxed, too,” he said. “Won a few bouts. Paid for it, too.” He indicated his scarred ears, peeking out from under his graying hair. “I was a better runner,” he admitted.
“Tell us your name,” I said.
“Eudelus,” he said.
“Eudelus, Sparta should be proud of its son,” Menelaus said.
“It was—once,” he said. He looked over at the athletes on the field, up on their feet now, drinking refreshing water and carrying the winner about on their shoulders. A crown of meadow flowers hung askew on his head.
“Save that crown,” he said. “My lad, save that crown.”
We mingled with the crowds and as darkness fell, the crowds began to thin, leaving a smaller group to gather around the fires and eat more, then linger to hear the bards, who never seemed to tire. But the artisans, the mouse-catcher-sellers, the fortune-tellers, and the athletes disappeared, and just as the moon rose, the royal party returned to the palace, the new contingent of soldiers accompanying us. The walk back up the hill was a pleasant one in the early evening, lit by torches and caressed by the wind whispering as it passed over us.
Father and Mother paused before we went our ways to our separate quarters.
“Behold your kingdom!” Father said. “Today you took stock of it and it took stock of you. Did you like what you saw?”
“Indeed,” said Menelaus. But his response sounded oddly distant.
“I liked being able to see it, at long last,” I said.
“Little Cygnet, now you may glide on the waters all you like,” said Mother.
Back in our chambers, lamps had already been lit, and sweet-scented herbs had been crushed in a dish to make the air fragrant. I was happy and excited; surely now that excitement would carry me through, lift me aloft on a tide of desire, as the athlete had been carried on the shoulders of his fellows. The events of the day would propel me into Menelaus’s arms and straight into the sun of his desire. My coldness would melt in that sun.
But it did not happen; the moon, that cold goddess, looked down on our silver bed through the window and her chill air banished love.
And now my life was beginning—or was it over? I had so longed to be free, and that happy day down by the Eurotas I thought that time had come, but Menelaus, in opening the door to one cage, had merely ushered me into another. I could not help but think of the mouse-catcher and his traps. Menelaus, who had appeared at first so strong and uncomplicated, now seemed taciturn and mysterious to me, keeping his thoughts locked up inside himself. He spoke, but he did not speak of anything vital; he was pleasant, but in a remote way. I had thought he would be my friend; instead I had a protective and stolid companion. A friend can be a companion, but a companion is not necessarily a friend, as I was discovering.
Artemis, the cold virgin goddess who guides the moon, had looked down upon us in our chamber after that lovely day in the meadows and must have taken pity on us. She somehow must have persuaded the gracious Demeter, who presides over fertility and loves the house of Tyndareus, to grant us her blessings in spite of the absence of Aphrodite in our bed. She was able to do so because passion is not needed for fecundity, nor does fertility invoke desire—although the two usually keep company.
Three months after the marriage, I was with child.
No one thought I was too young. I would be sixteen when the baby was born, as Mother had been when she bore Clytemnestra, nearly as old as Clytemnestra was when she bore Iphigenia. Even I did not think I was too young. It seemed entirely natural to me that I could suddenly become a mother. It did not require wisdom, it only required love and strength. Or so I—and everyone else—believed.
Now the door of my cage slammed shut in earnest. Menelaus treated me as a fragile bird whose nest could blow away in a day’s breeze. He forbade me to wander the slopes of the Taygetus Mountains alone, warned me not to run fast, and as for playing and wrestling with Castor and Polydeuces, who still involved me when their wine was not watered enough, he was adamant that that must cease immediately. I was to be protected and quiet. Those were his orders. Only the smile and gentle tone in his voice when he spoke of it betrayed how pleased he was.
* * *
Mother was fluttering and flustered, as if the idea of a new grandchild were both thrilling and unsettling. It meant she was older; it also meant that her lineage would go on. At times she was solemn, warning me about all the dangers of birth and infancy. At others she was giggly and giddy. “Zeus,” she burst out one day, “is to become a grandfather!” She clapped her hands to her mouth and laughed. I did, too.
“Mother . . .” I chose my words carefully. “I know I am mortal. And so must my child be. But do you think . . . do you believe . . . that Zeus might bestow a special blessing? The truth is, I know nothing of how the gods treat their grandchildren.”
“I fear they lose interest in them,” she said sadly. “Just as they do with mortals they have . . . been temporarily taken with. But the glory of the gods remains in the lineage. That, little Cygnet, cannot be taken away. It is ours forever. Our reward, if you will, for risking ourselves.” Then, briskly, “Let us think about names . . . and you need a midwife, the finest that Sparta can offer . . . they know many things, things I do not. There’s a woman—she has magic hands, she’s never lost a child, nor a mother . . . I’ll send for her.”
Nor a mother. Stark words, a stark reminder that I was not like a tree, a peaceful tree that never yet died of bringing forth a pear or an apple.
“Call me Piele, ‘plump,’ ” the bulb-nosed woman pronounced. “Everyone else does.” She put her hands on her hips and inspected me. “I saw you once already,’ ” she said as a disclaimer. “I watched that maidens’ race. So don’t think to blind me with your beauty. I’m not concerned with your face, but with your inner organs. And I’ll warrant they are the same as anyone else’s. In any case, we can’t see them.” She paused to take a breath. “The question is: are they working properly? That’s all we need be concerned with. Lie down here on this bench and let me inspect!”
Dutifully I stretched myself out and let her knead with her fingers and put her ear against my belly. Her hands were gentle, even if her manner was not.
“All seems to be in order,” she said, grunting as she lurched back up to her feet. “You say you expect the babe in the depths of winter?”
“No, more toward the end of it.”
“Good. I could not struggle up the hill were it covered in ice.” She sighed and settled herself down on the bench next to me. “Now, my child, you must be sure to eat only the foods that ensure water, not the ones that are fiery and might incite early labor. That means no leeks, no vinegar. Sorry, it means a very dull plate.” She shrugged. “But what you want is a dull labor. A very dull labor. Well.” She stood up. “Send for me whenever you have any questions.” Leaning near my face, she whispered as if it were a secret, “Most people know nothing about birth or babies. Do not listen to their foolishness! Always ask me!”
Piele was a godsend, and patience itself when it came to answering my many questions about childbirth. But on the most important question of all—why my silhouette had not changed—she could only answer, “It varies, my dear, it varies.”
But I wondered if it was the goddess part of me that was keeping me slender for so long. And I wondered, too, if it was possible for a woman with any goddess in her to die in childbirth. Did it protect against that? And I could not ask her that, as she would have no experience with it.
Menelaus acted more like an old woman than my mother did, fussing and fidgeting and warning me against dangers. He draped his arm protectively about me whenever we were together. Once he even tried to make me wear the dreadful heavy gold marriage chain as if for protection, but I made him leave it in its box. I could not bear its weight.
Next he began to collect arms and armor for what he assumed would be a son. “He’ll be a warrior,” he said, holding up a newly worked bronze shield and sword, presenting them proudly.
I ran my hands over the finely inlaid surface of the sword hilt—depicting warriors chasing a lion, in gold and silver. It gleamed in the early morning light. All swords gleam beautifully when you first see them, before they are used for their deadly business.
“And what shall we name . . . him?” I asked.
“I have the name already!” he said proudly. “Nicostratus! It means ‘victorious army.’ ”
“I know what it means,” I said. “But must he bear the weight of such a name?”
Menelaus looked downcast. “I can think of no higher honor.”
“What if it is a daughter?”
He shrugged. “Then she should be named after something pretty—a flower, a nymph.”
“I was thinking of Hermione.”
“‘Pillar-queen’ ? Why?” He laughed.
“Because I want her to be strong. The sort of woman others look to for support. A great ruler.”
“Who says she would rule at all? No woman rules alone.” He seemed petulant as he packed the sword and shield away.
* * *
Menelaus withdrew after that, and seldom called for me to join him in his bedchamber. He said it was out of care for the child, that he wanted me to be alone so it would not be harmed, but I wondered what he was doing when he was by himself all those nights. He seemed morose; at times I would find him wandering in the halls of the palace, looking pensive. He always gave a wistful smile as he brushed by me.
After a time I grew more awkward and bulky and felt more and more constrained, but my puzzlement about Menelaus grew as well. He was not happy, so it seemed, but I did not know why. He had wanted to marry me, had performed that spectacular feat to win me, and now was about to have an heir. He would inherit the throne of Sparta. Yet he walked in gloom. It could not be the lack of passion in our marriage, surely. A man would not notice its lack as much as a woman.
No, I concluded. It had to be something else.
Perhaps he had found life with us the same as life with Agamemnon, always following behind. Father was king here, and what was Menelaus to do? Had he no purpose other than to order new armor and wait for Father to die? That would break a proud man like Menelaus, faster since he was also a kind man and would never consider speeding along his inheritance.
But if I spoke to Father, asked him if he might be willing to share the throne, even as a formality . . . perhaps he might consider it. And that could go a long way toward freeing Menelaus from the grip of his dolor.
I sought him out one afternoon as he was just dismissing foreign merchants from Gytheum. Leaving the palace, they chattered and clutched the gifts Father had presented to them as they descended the hill, their bright robes making them easy to see even from a distance.
“Syrians,” Father said. “They are always so loud—both their voices and their garments. No wonder they wanted to make arrangements to procure some of the purple dye from our shores. But I am not sure I wish to deal with them. I can get a higher price from the Egyptians.”
“Oh, Father, always looking for the highest price!” He would never change; one thing I admired about Menelaus was that he seemed unconcerned with such things.
He smiled and held out his hands to welcome me. “Would you prefer that I look for the lowest one?” He laughed. “That is no way for a king to think.”
“It’s being a king that I have come to talk to you about,” I said. He had made it easy for me.
“How so? You can never be one, dear, so you needn’t concern yourself with the duties of kingship.” He drew himself up. “And I myself am healthy, so you have no worries there.” He did look strong and vital, younger than his years.
“I am grateful to see that with my own eyes. No, Father, it’s Menelaus I wish to discuss. He’s young and healthy, too, and yet is forced to be idle. It is eating at his spirits, I fear.”
Father gave a snort. “He needs a war! What else is a young man to occupy himself with? A warrior needs a war. This peace is what’s distressing him. That’s only natural.”
“Peace is a blessing.”
“To women and farmers, but not to men,” said Father. “Men need action. Without it they wither away. Now, me, I’ve had my wars and my fights, and now can rest content in the megaron and listen to bards. But Menelaus—find him a war.”
“I can’t create a war.”
“I’ll listen and see if I hear of any battles nearby he can indulge himself in. All the Greeks do is fight—there’s sure to be one going on this very moment.”
“Let him share some of the duties of being a king with you,” I said. “That would be better than a war.”
“I am not sure a man is fit to be king if he hasn’t fought in a war.”
“Menelaus has fought, in battles around Mycenae,” I reminded him. “Oh, could you not make him a co-ruler?”
He looked at me gravely. “You must truly care for this man,” he said.
“He is my husband,” I said. “I want to help him.”
“I will consider it, but I make no promises,” he said. “And I warn you, the consideration may require a very long time.”
My slenderness was gradually replaced by fullness, but it was a rounded and graceful fullness. As the year revolved, as each crop and beast followed its appointed time—the ewes dropped their kids, the olive trees bore their fruit—I felt cupped in the hand of our Demeter, watched over by that benevolent goddess of the crops. When she began to grieve because her daughter had departed from the warm earth, I prepared myself for her absence. But by that time I had learned what I needed from the midwife, had gathered all the things necessary for the care of the baby, and surrounded myself with all the people who loved me. I need not fear the goddess’s abandonment.
The darkest time of the year came and went. The sun began to rise farther east and set farther west, and climb a bit higher in the sky, although it was still cold and damp. I knew my time was nearly here, and I had readied myself as much as I could for something I only knew would be nothing like what I expected—an impossible thing to prepare for.
The old midwife was right: it was unmistakable.
I had been at my loom, weaving what I thought was a complicated pattern (that was before I saw what they did at Troy), when I felt a slight twinge. Still I kept on weaving, kept bending down and feeding the shuttle and telling myself, No, not yet. This might be only a flutter or a false start.
But the twinges persisted and grew stronger. Excited, I put down the shuttle and sought out Mother.
“Oh, Cygnet!” she cried. “Come quickly into the birth room. I’ll send for the midwife!”
She led me into the room, kept deliberately bare and unfurnished. There was nothing in there but a hard wooden bench, blankets, and some jugs and buckets. I clutched at her hand and climbed up onto the bench. Looking about me, all I saw was bare whitewashed walls.
“There is no purpose in having beautiful wall paintings,” she said. “They will give you no pleasure and afterward whenever you looked upon them you would shudder.”
The waves of pain came crowding in on one another, coming now so fast they overpowered me, and soon I was gasping.
I looked up and saw Piele’s face. “Get hold of yourself!” she barked. “You cannot fall behind now. It will be a long time until you can rest again!”
“How long?” I cried.
“A long time!” she said. “A great long time!”
It seemed an eternity, but those who were there said it was only one night and part of a morning. I saw it grow dark—lamps and torches had been lit, so it was hard to tell—and I thought I saw it grow light, but I was seeing little by then. There was a window in the room and I believe it changed color, but I cannot remember. What I do remember is the acute pain and how I cried out, “Father! Can you not spare me this?” and when the pain continued unabated, I knew that my mortal side was by far the stronger one within me. A goddess would not feel the agony I did.
At last, after a great crest and surge of pain, it abruptly stopped.
“It’s here!” the midwife cried. “It’s here!” Dimly I heard something—a scurrying, a murmuring. But no cry. Then it came. A loud wail.
“Helen has a daughter!” Piele cried, holding up a loud red bundle.
A daughter. “Hermione!” I whispered. My pillar-queen.
Piele placed her in my arms and I looked at her little wrinkled face. Just at that moment she opened her mouth and showed her tiny pink tongue. Her cries grew louder.
“Dear one,” I said. I welcomed her with all my heart, and felt at that instant nothing would ever sunder us. We were one.
Later that morning, after we had been moved out of the stark birth room and to our regular quarters, Menelaus hurried in to see us. He held out his arms, and smothered us in them.
“Here is Hermione,” I said, pulling away the encircling cover from her face.
He gazed at her face in rapture. Finally he spoke. “She takes after her mother,” he said slowly, his voice a mere whisper.
“Almost as beautiful as Helen was when first I beheld her,” said Mother. “Almost.”
Later Mother sat by my side and handed me a hard little object of brown clay. I held it up and saw that it was a doll, with red paint outlining its head and eyes and the pattern of its dress. From the bottom of the clay skirt, sturdy legs, which were secured with a peg, dangled.
“It was yours, Cygnet,” she said. “Now it can be Hermione’s.”
The sun shone on our shoulders as we stood in a small circle around a fresh-dug hole in the earth. There were two priestesses of Demeter, one holding Hermione, and the rest of us spread out on either side. Beside the prepared hole a little plane tree was waiting to be planted, its leaves already drooping a bit.
Father stepped forward. “We have a new member of our family, the first of the new generation to be born here in the royal palace of Sparta. In her honor, we will plant a tree, which will grow along with her. When she is small, she can play at its base. When she is older, she can measure herself against it. When she is a grown woman, she will see it attain its growth as well. She can sit in its shade and enjoy its gifts. And when she is old, she can be comforted that the tree is still in its vigor and youth.”
He took a spadeful of earth and threw it, ceremoniously, into the hole. Then one priestess came over and poured a libation. Mother leaned over and buried something in the earth. Castor and Polydeuces did likewise. What had they bequeathed to the tree? Menelaus laid a dagger in the hole, saying that the man who wished to claim his daughter would have to recover it. Last of all, I stepped to the rim of the hole and scattered flower petals. Little Hermione just looked on solemnly.
The gardeners set to work, moving the little tree and setting it aright, then mounding the earth around it. They emptied great jugs of water around its roots, pronouncing it to be thirsty. “But it should thrive!” they predicted.
Father then took his place before the tree. “Now that Helen and Menelaus have brought forth a child,” he said, “I see the line will continue. And being a bit weary of my duties, I wish to appoint Menelaus to take the helm as king of Sparta, by marriage to Helen, queen of Sparta by rights of descent.”
Father! I had not wished him to abdicate, only share some of his duties with Menelaus. I was shocked.
“I do not wish to grow old on the throne and dodder,” Father said, before anyone could object. “The throne’s scepter belongs in a young man’s grasp. It is he who can most savor it and guard it. No, I am not old . . . but how will I know when I am? They say—the wisest men say—that in old age you feel no different than when you were young. So what—or who—will tell me when it is time to step down? No one. Now I feel in my heart it is time, and I will obey myself. Better that than to bow reluctantly before another’s decision.”
I looked over at Menelaus. He was as stunned as I was; nay, much more so.
“Your Majesty—” he began.
“I have spoken,” said Father. “And the king’s dictate is binding.” His eyes caught mine and he gave an almost imperceptible nod.
The ceremony continued, but I heard little of its conclusion. I was lightheaded from the force with which the heavy mantle of responsibility had been dropped on me as well as Menelaus.
“Menelaus,” I said quietly when we were alone. “Father’s generosity has left me dazed. You are ready to be king, but I am not prepared to be queen.”
“You will be a magnificent queen,” he said. “I must strive to be worthy to stand by your side.”
“Stop such talk,” I said. “You will be a king worthy of Sparta.” He would be fair and generous; he did not have any of Agamemnon’s ferocious self-absorption and ambition. His thoughts would always be of what was good for Sparta.
“So we go forth to claim our scepters?” My voice was shaky.
“We do what we are called to do,” he replied, as he put his arm around me. He had not recovered from the surprise; it was too early yet to tell if he was pleased.
The scepters were ones that had been fashioned in the palace workshop—a shaft of ash with each end sheathed in finely worked gold. The conferment ceremony was equally simple. Father and Mother, each clutching the scepters, gave them to us with only a few words. Father acknowledged that Menelaus was his chosen successor and that all men must obey him. Mother handed me her scepter and said, “I have longed to give you this since the day you were born. I knew it was your fingers that should grasp it. And now the gods have answered my request, and it is yours.” She thrust it out to me, and I took its slender shaft in my hand.
“Rule well and wisely,” said Father.
The witnesses—my brothers, the commander of Father’s palace guard, the treasurer of the kingdom, the head scribe, the priestesses of Demeter—all nodded to indicate their acceptance. Then I saw a face among them that puzzled me. It was Gelanor of Gytheum—the spymaster Father had recruited at the great festival of the kingdom when first I married. The man who knew about poisons. How had he attained such a high position that he was present at this solemn ceremony?
I had the feeling that he knew exactly what I was thinking. Especially when he shrugged. I found myself staring at him, longing to ask him what he was doing here.
But when I looked for him after the ceremony, he had vanished, as mysteriously as he had appeared.
I had arisen that morning as a princess and I retired to my bed as a queen. I prayed that I would be able to carry out the duties faithfully. Immediately my life now demanded daily audiences in the megaron, and my attendants were increased so that I had six of them—three young and three older.
I had a wet nurse for Hermione, but still I nursed her as long as I was able. Holding her close was something I was loath to relinquish, even after it was clear I was not providing enough nourishment and she would not grow properly. I consulted with Piele about my nursing and she responded by bringing more of the cheese she had recommended in my pregnancy.
“For cheese is but curdled milk, my lady,” she said. “So to bring forth more milk, cheese is the best way. You could drink flagons of goat milk, but I know you do not care for it.” I did as she urged.
Menelaus found me cutting up a platter of the cheese, putting it on slices of cucumbers. He teased me about it, saying that I would turn into a great wheel of cheese.
“But it is for Hermione!” I said.
“Helen,” he said, “why don’t you just give her over to the wet nurse?” He took one of the slices of cucumber with the cheese atop it. He tasted it and then shook his head.
Was he happier now? Certainly he was busier, and had less time to brood. But he had no more time for me, and sometimes we seemed as formal with one another as we were with the foreign envoys that we received in the megaron. He did not come often to my chamber and when he invited me to his, our coupling was tepid and forgettable: pleasant enough, like that light wine from Rhodes, but like that wine, it did not make you lose your head. You could memorize a list afterward or drive a chariot without swerving.
I stopped petitioning Aphrodite and ceased thinking about it. It was not to be part of my life. Well, I could exist without it. No one ever died for lack of Aphrodite, but many had died from the surfeit of foolishness she invoked. I should be thankful I was spared that.
I did not feel well. I had not felt well for some time, but it had happened gradually . . . a headache, a lassitude, a weakening of the limbs, a loss of appetite. Then my hair began to fall out, and when my chamber-woman combed it she held big chunks of it in her hand.
“Often women lose hair after childbirth,” she said, seeking to reassure me.
I knew that. But it was now six months later, and the hair loss was increasing. And then there were the other symptoms.
I looked long and hard into my polished bronze mirror. My face looked strained, and I thought I saw blotches, but the mirror did not offer a good reflection. Polished bronze is not even as good as water in giving you back your face.
I peered into water basins, but the light was too bad—for always my head was blocking it—to show me a true portrait of myself.
But day by day it was growing more difficult for me to do the things I must do. I did not sleep well, and all day I had the sensation of dragging myself from one thing to another.
I first spoke to Menelaus about it, but all he could say was, “Consult a physician.” I did, and he suggested I spend the night in a temple of Asclepius. But the nearest temple was several days’ journey away at Epidaurus.
One day, after drooping my way through my public duties and then seeking a seat in the shaded portico, a man came over to me.
I had not spoken directly to him since the festival. I shaded my eyes and looked up at him. “Gelanor of Gytheum, is it not?” I said.
“The same, Your Highness,” he said, bowing slightly. Then he looked straight at me with those eyes that missed nothing. “You are not well?” he asked.
“Just tired,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Again his eyes held mine. And there was no deference in them, no groveling. “I fear you may have been feeling this way for some time.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have been present at many ceremonies.”
“Yes, and how has that happened? When Father first met you and indicated an interest in you—”
“What you mean is, ‘How did a humble man from Gytheum rise so quickly’—don’t you?”
“Well—yes.” I was a bit taken aback by his bluntness.
“I had skills the king needed, and valued,” he said. “The former king, that is. The new king has yet to discover my . . . talents. And so I may be departing for Gytheum before long.” He paused. “But I am concerned about your health.”
“Oh, you needn’t be—” I began, turning my head in what I hoped was a lighthearted gesture. A clump of hair fell out.
Palace protocol demanded that it be ignored. Gelanor bent down and picked it up. “This is alarming,” he said.
“It is?” My voice rose. Everyone else had sought to soothe me about it.
“Yes. This sort of hair loss usually means . . . poison.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right, I remember, you are the expert in poison!” I attempted to laugh.
“Fortunately, yes,” he said. “There is nothing mysterious about poison. It is quite obvious when it is employed.”
“If you have eyes to see,” I said.
He gave what I was later to know as his characteristic sad smile. “It should not take trained eyes to spot this,” he said. “Now tell me your other symptoms.”
I had recounted them to the court physician, only to be told to go to a temple. But Gelanor listened attentively. He wrote nothing down, but I knew it was all being entered into the records of his mind.
There was only one thing left for him to ask: When had it begun?
It was hard to tell, since I had been weakened by childbirth and the recovery took some time, thus disguising the true onset of the illness.
“Hmmm . . . yes, very clever. Disguise it, mix it in with a normal recovery.” He sat back and frowned. “Who has been closest to you during this time?”
There was Mother, of course. And the three new attendants. And the midwife, who had taken such good care of me. I could not think any one of them would wish to harm me. No, that could not be. It was impossible . . .
“Do not think of the personality of the suspects, but only of their possible motive and their access to you,” Gelanor said.
“Must you call them ‘the suspects’?” I asked.
“That is the first step in seeing them as they are. Forget their names, forget their kind words, and transform them in your mind to ‘the suspects.’ ”
“That is horrible!” How could I do that?
“That will uncover the truth. What is horrible is not labeling someone ‘the suspect’ but what they, under the guise of trust, are seeking to do to you.” He leaned over and whispered, “They are not interested in whether your hair falls out or not. That is just a side effect of the poison. They mean much greater harm than that. And look to your daughter.” He stood up abruptly. “I will examine some things in your chamber, with your permission. And also, with your cooperation, I will test the foods brought to you. Please, without attracting attention, save samples for me. And watch. Remember there may be more than one—several may be working together. Make sure no one suspects that you suspect.”
So I surreptitiously and cleverly—so I thought—secreted bits of whatever I ate and turned them over to Gelanor, sometimes meeting him at the palace portico, other times leaving them wrapped and hidden beneath a certain rock in the garden. I looked carefully at all those who served me, and I could not begin to discern who was the culprit.
My three young attendants: Nomia, who was the daughter of the chief of Agamemnon’s guard; Cissia, the daughter of one of Mother’s lifelong maid-servants; Anippe, about my age, whom I had known from my cradle. It was possible the latter two might have had some grudge against me, but I could not fathom what it might be. As for the first, she surely would not jeopardize her father’s position—Agamemnon was not noted for his mercy.
The older ones: Philyra, wife of Father’s head archer; Dirce, a priestess of Demeter, who maintained the goddess’s shrine in the palace woods; and Eurybia, wife of the leading citizen of the town of Sparta below us. Why would any of these women wish to harm me?
There were the palace cooks—one must not overlook them. And there were other ways to be poisoned besides food. There could be tainted ointment, lethal smoke from fires or incense, poisoned wine or water. My clothes could have been imbued with some sort of poison. There was, after all, the shirt of Nessus that had killed Heracles.
A thousand things to think of. A thousand things to prevent!
Gelanor laughed. But “those are only means of last resort,” he admitted.
Well, that was a relief. Because once I started trying to analyze every single thing I came in contact with, the task loomed as Olympian.
“You want to know why,” he said. Yes, I had, but I had not asked that. “The reason is simple. These other methods dilute the poison. Think about it. Poison wafting about in smoke—ineffective. You would have to be enveloped in it for hours at a time. What happens when incense fills the room overmuch? We flap cloths and force it out. And putting drops of poison in bathwater—not enough. You would have to bathe for hours in pure poison. As for the clothes—unless you have poison from the Hydra, as Nessus did in his blood, it is a very ineffectual way of trying to kill someone. Someday evil people will perfect poison so that only a tiny drop is needed to kill,” he said. “But that time is a long way in coming.”
“What about poisonous snakes?” I asked.
“Yes, the snake has perfected that. But I know of no one who has been able to tame snakes and teach them to kill. And I know of no one who has been able to milk a snake to extract the poison. If he could”—Gelanor’s face lit up—“then all he would have to do is smear a drop or two on a cut of the victim. Did you know that you could drink a cup of snake poison and walk away as sound as ever?”
“How can that be?” I asked.
“Swallowing it does not harm you,” he said. “Only if it gets into a wound. So the snake creates its own wound to make sure. Therefore I think we can discount these other poisons, although anything is possible. But food and drink are the most likely. Continue to watch them.”
Once I began to suspect people, everyone began to seem dangerous. There was the man who brought jugs of heated water to fill the bathtub—was it ordinary water? There was the man who perfumed the oil that went into the tub, which floated in shiny, sinister, drops upon the water. The scent—of lilies—had always pleased me. Now it seemed a death odor. Perhaps Gelanor was right in saying that poisoning by bathing was not likely—but was it impossible?
Or perhaps it was on the wooden combs my attendants used to comb through my hair? And lately—they had pricked me several times when fastening my bronze shoulder brooch.
Dressing, I slid my feet into my goatskin sandals and noticed how slick the leather was—could it be polished with some poisonous substance? I stared at it, trying to see any suspicious powder.
As for the food, I could no longer eat any of it, and I asked Menelaus himself to fetch me water from the spring so that I would have my own supply.
Menelaus was the only person I could be sure of. At the same time, I had to pretend that I was eating and drinking as usual, which entailed so much deception I did not know how long I could go on with it. Spitting out the wine when no one was looking, moving food around on the plate to make it look as if I had eaten, were not easy to do convincingly.
“Menelaus, I am ready to do as your physician so wisely suggested some time ago. I must go to Asclepius!” I had to get out of the palace.
“Yes, my dear, I can see that you have not improved. And . . . these demands of yours, about the water . . . ?” He looked so eager that for an instant I thought, Is it you? And then realized that he was hoping this all meant I was with child again.
“I must go so that what we hope . . . can happen,” I assured him.
“Will you take Nomia and Eurybia?”
“No!” I must get away from them. From everyone here. “It is—I have been told I must go alone.”
“By Apollo,” I lied. Menelaus would not argue with a god, as he would with Gelanor. Apollo, as everyone knew, could cause sudden illness with his arrows. Perhaps he was in back of this—or so Menelaus might think.
“I will take a bodyguard of soldiers,” I said. “I shall be safe enough.” I regretted that I could not confide in Menelaus. Once I had thought I could, that he would be my true friend as well as my husband, but he had turned out to be only my husband, and I did not now want to invite him to raise a premature alarm.
Gelanor would stay behind, observing. I had left him enough samples of food and drink and ointment to keep him busy. He had also fabricated an arrow-testing experiment for Menelaus’s archers that would provide an excuse for him to be on the palace grounds at odd hours.
As I made ready to go out to the waiting chariot, he grasped my forearm. “Be careful. Keep your senses about you, even as you sleep, if possible.” His usual smile had faded, revealing the worry in his eyes.
“I shall,” I assured him.
Now, after a long dusty journey, I stood in the dimly lit stone hall where the altar to Asclepius stood. Before it were offerings left by supplicants seeking help from this god of healing. The sacred serpents, companions to Asclepius, coiled around its base. Tame, fed by the priests, they only betrayed their life by an occasional movement.
I was almost too weak to stand erect; I could feel my knees trembling, and when I held up my hands, my arms ached. But I raised them higher and spoke directly to Asclepius, that man whose gift not only of healing but even of bringing back the dead had angered Zeus and Hades, as he was intruding on their domains. So Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and here he lay, in Epidaurus. Even his bones had power, however, and he continued to heal from the grave.
“Restore me,” I whispered. “Reveal to me what I must know to recover.” I bent down and added my offerings to the others heaped about.
One of the priests came over to me, moving as silently as one of the sacred snakes.
“Helen? Helen of Sparta?” he whispered. He had recognized me. Even in my present ravaged state, I could not pass as just another suppliant.
I nodded in assent. “I have come to seek a cure,” I said.
“The other patients will retire to sleep outside,” the priest said. “But you should remain here, near the god’s altar. Wait, and he will come to you.”
The floor was hard stone, but I felt safety and peace here at the foot of the altar.
The dim light gradually faded completely and the great stone chamber grew dark as a moonless sky; small votive lamps here and there provided only twinkles of light, like stars.
Creeping as close to the altar as possible, I stretched out on my thick traveling cloak and lay still. The soft pulsing of the little lamps seemed to keep time with my own heartbeats, and I fell asleep.
I felt a cold current. It was coming in two streams, twining themselves around me. I swam up through layers of sleep and fought to open my eyes, but they were being held shut. There was something cool and scaly over them. Then I felt it move, sliding forward. I felt my ears being touched, being tickled by something flicking against them. I dared not move. Was all this part of a dream?
A hard rounded object was burrowing against the opening of my right ear, while the other ear was being—caressed, soothed, licked. Cautiously I moved my right arm up behind my back where something heavy was lying on it, and felt the rounded body of a snake.
The sacred snakes! The sacred snakes had come to me and were curling about my head . . . licking my ears with their tiny darting tongues.
This must be a message, must be symbolic. I was honored that they would come to me. Asclepius had answered my plea, but how? I could not understand the snakes, if they were trying to tell me something.
They coiled around me a long time, and only slithered away when the hint of footsteps vibrated across the floor. Dawn must be coming; the priests must be making ready to come inside.
Raising my head up slowly, I watched the serpents retreating back to the unhewn stone altar, their pale backs glistening in the faint light from the few oil lamps that had not burned out. I lay there with racing heart, unsure of what exactly had happened.
When the unmistakable sounds of morning flooded into the shrine, I knew I would have to rise. I folded my cloak and stood up. There were two priests already at the altar. They were setting out dishes of milk for the snakes.
I went over to them. I wanted to tell them what had happened, so perhaps they could explain it. At the same time, I did not want to betray the secret meeting between the snakes and me—if it was a secret. Perhaps it wasn’t. I did not know. I did not want to make a mistake.
“They came to you,” the first priest said.
How did he know?
“It was revealed to me. I know them, and they know me. Daughter, do you know what it means?”
“No,” I admitted.
“With the permission of Asclepius, they have transmitted three gifts to you.” He paused. “Now you must discover what they are.”
All the way back to Sparta, in the bumping and jouncing chariot, I felt light-headed. I kept clutching my head, as if I could rattle it and have answers come tumbling out like dice. What gifts had the serpents bequeathed to me? How would I recognize them? In what form would they manifest themselves?
As I held my hands over my temples, I felt the sparseness of my once-abundant hair. The gifts of the serpents were not to be spurned, but the reason I had come to Asclepius, my weakness, was more pressing. I had received no knowledge about it, but in spite of my dizziness, I did feel somewhat better. The trembling in my arms and legs was due to excitement, not weakness. It was not such an effort to stand erect.
The countryside passed before me, but I barely saw it—I, who had so longed to see beyond my circumscribed world of Sparta. Now I was so shaken and preoccupied, I was unable to feast my eyes upon it and was only dimly aware of the rocky hills, the high-tinkling bells of the sheep, the sweet sound of the rushing streams. From the heights I spied the sparkling sea, which I could never see from Sparta, but it meant little to me now.
Instead, I was consumed to know what Gelanor had discovered in my absence. What a relief it would be if he had pinpointed the source of the poison and discovered the culprit. If only it were so!
We arrived back in Sparta late on the third day of traveling. Menelaus, Mother, Father, all rushed to greet me and all but drag me from the chariot.
“You look better,” Mother pronounced. “Your color has returned.”
“Yes!” Father concurred.
Menelaus encircled me with his arm and, murmuring endearments, steered me toward our apartments.
Suddenly there was a shout from the chariot. The grooms, taking the reins of the horses and removing the mantles and floor covering, let out a yelp.
Pushing Menelaus aside, I rushed back to the chariot. There, coiled in one of the mantles, was a small pale snake—a baby. It reared its head, looked at me, and flicked its tongue.
“This must be one from the sacred precinct,” I said. “Somehow it entered our chariot when we left it standing beside the building at night, and hid itself there.” It was as if we had been given our own sacred snake. “It belongs near our family altar,” I said. “I will assume its care.”
I followed Menelaus back to his chamber, but quickly asked if Hermione was well. He assured me that she was.
“And you, sweetheart, you do look better,” he said. “The roses are back in your cheeks.”
I went into the nursery and picked up Hermione; she slept so soundly that the movement did not awaken her. Yes, they were right. She seemed healthy and her color was good.
“Oh, thank all the gods!” I said.
“Apollo has spared her,” said Menelaus solemnly.
Not Apollo, I wanted to say. My enemy, whoever he or she is.
It was not until the next day that I had an opportunity to speak to Gelanor in private. I had spent the time resting in my chamber, the curtains drawn to keep the glaring light of noon out. I let the food the attendants brought sit; eventually the flies found it and that was my excuse for not eating it.
He came into the darkened chamber and took a seat on the little bench by the shaded window.
“You look better,” he said, echoing the others.
“I feel stronger,” I said.
Instead of ascribing my cure to Asclepius as all the others had done, he said, “That means you have not been exposed to the means of the poison for at least six days.” He shook his head. “I am sorry to report that I have been unable to discover the source of the poison. I tested all the foods you gave me, all the ointments, and the obliging animals I gave them to are as frisky as ever. I wiped the shoes and took the flowers from the vases and inspected the incense burners. I even tested the fleeces on the bed and the bedding and your robes. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“The combs? Did you test them?”
“Yes, I did.”
“The points of my brooches?”
“But it is somewhere! We know that. And once I was away from it—wherever it might be concealed—I began to recover.”
“I am at my wits’ end,” he admitted. “I cannot think of anything I have not inspected or tested.”
My attendants were especially high-spirited as they dressed me on my second morning back.
“While you were away I thought of this fillet for your hair,” Cissia said. “It will grace your forehead and lift your hair.” She slipped the cold metal around my head and it felt like a band of death. But nothing stung.
“Thank you,” I said.
“And these new robes,” Anippe said. “This dye is such a pale pink, like the inside of a seashell, and you always favored that color.” The robe was fastened around me and I felt nothing.
“Your bracelet,” said Eurybia, waving my favorite bright gold snake bracelet. She twined it around my upper arm. I thought of the other snakes, the real ones, and their twining.
“Thank you,” I said. I had always been fond of that bracelet; now I knew why, now I knew my affinity for the creatures, and they for me.
The next day I did not feel so well, and the day after that I had slipped back even further. I prayed to Asclepius to renew his cure, asking him to extend his power beyond his burial place at Epidaurus, and I made sure the snake was well looked after at our family altar. But it was all to no avail—day by day I felt the weakness creeping up upon me, leaching me.
I forced myself to dress every day and go out, if only to anger my enemy. Every day that he or she saw me walking about the palace grounds (oh! what willpower it took to do that, and do it without shaking) would arouse anger, and possibly carelessness and desperation. Then the poisoner might become bolder, and easier to detect. If only I might survive the boldness!
Gelanor visited me at the time of twilight, when I was lying listlessly on my couch. I could barely hold up my head. In fact, I could not, and rested it on the pillow.
“Forgive me for my rudeness in not sitting up,” I said. Even my voice sounded shadowy to me. I tried to raise my arm in greeting and found it difficult. Tremblingly, I peeled the arm bracelet off, as if that would lighten my arm enough to make a difference. I laid it on a tray, where it rocked back and forth, the gold glinting, the carved scales of the snake catching the shadows and the light. They were very realistic. I marveled at it.
Gelanor was tense and looked worried. “I cannot seem to find the means to stop this,” he said.
In the dark hours of the night I was terrified, but now I wished to at least appear brave. “It may be beyond our ability to find,” I said.
He looked around the room. “What can it be? It must be something you come in contact with. It should be obvious—something that rubs up against you. But I have tested the bedding and the clothes—” His eyes suddenly came to rest on the snake bracelet. “Did you take this with you to Epidaurus?” he asked.
“No. I did not want to wear jewelry before the god, and it is foolish to travel with anything valuable.”
“Hmm.” He picked it up and held it this way and that, letting it catch the light. “How many days were you free from wearing it?”
“At least seven.”
He rose suddenly. “I am taking it. That will assure you don’t wear it tomorrow. If anyone asks, tell them you must have lost it. Then look to see who searches for it the hardest.”
He hurried from the chamber clutching the bracelet.
The sun stole into my chamber. I watched as the light threw long fingers across the floor and gradually made the curtains glow with power.
But I had no power. I was as drained as an empty wine flagon and my arms hung limply over the side of the bed. My eyes could still discern the lovely light patterns and my mind could think upon them, but my body was all but useless.
Who would want to do this to me? For I did not believe it was a god. It was another person.
It must be someone who was envious of me. I was a queen, I was—rumored to be—daughter of Zeus. And the eyes of others who beheld me reflected their belief that my beauty was unnatural and disturbing. I was imprisoned by my own good fortune, my unasked-for gifts, and made a target for others’ discontent.
But this was all their fancy. Had anyone lost anything because of me? Anyone who was near to me? I could not think of anyone.
And the things they could easily see did not reveal the lacks in my life as Menelaus’s wife.
My attendants, chattering and happy, trooped in to dress me. Philyra swirled the gowns around in the air. Dirce made a show of selecting the proper sandals. And Nomia looked through the jewelry box.
“These earrings, I think, the ones with amethyst,” she said. She held them up, dangling them.
“And your favorite, the gold snake,” said Eurybia. She poked around searching for it. Finally she looked up. “It does not seem to be here. Did you lay it down somewhere?”
“I don’t remember,” I said casually, noticing her concern.
I watched as she began methodically searching the box, and then the surfaces in the chamber.
“Oh, it does not matter, Eurybia,” I said.
“I am only looking hard because I know how fond you are of it,” she assured me.
“Oh, you needn’t trouble yourself,” I said.
That afternoon, on my slow but determined walk, I chanced upon a campfire where shepherds were roasting meat. I asked them for some—for I knew they could not be involved—and had the first meal free of worry I had had in a great long time. The burned lamb was the most delicious meat I had ever tasted. It was free of evil.
When I awoke the next morning, my arms were not so limp and I felt a bit stronger. During the day I made a point of seeking out the shepherds again, and eating as much as I could, so that I could decline the offerings at our palace meal.
Again, the next morning, I was stronger. Some fallen hair still covered the pillow, but my arms and legs were no longer tremulous.
I went to my loom. I had become quite a good weaver, creating new patterns to tell stories. A repeating abstract pattern could be lovely, but how much better to illustrate a tale. I was depicting one of the labors of Heracles—the one in which he confronted the Hydra of Lerna, the many-headed monster with one immortal head. The twisting necks gave a pleasing symmetry, enabling me to make a better picture than using another popular motif, the octopus. The octopus had only eight arms, whereas the Hydra had a hundred heads. Weavers shied away from the Hydra because she was evil, but as an artistic pattern, she was superb.
Suddenly Gelanor was beside me.
“I have it,” he said.
His words were a shock. Without knowing it, I had given up hope of discovering the source of my ill health.
He waved the snake bracelet. “This is it.” He said.
I took it from him. “Careful,” he said. He raised one eyebrow as I took it gingerly. “But first—are you feeling stronger? And how often did you wear the bracelet?”
“I—most days, I think. It was one of my favorite pieces of jewelry.”
“As I thought. Very well. Look at its underside.” He took it back and spread the spirals apart. “This should be smooth. It is not. Look at these grooves.” He stayed my hand. “Do not touch it. Look here. See the scratches and uneven surfaces within it? Someone has made those hollows to put poison in, knowing it will be in contact with your skin for at least all the daylight hours. I found a waxen substance in them and tested it. It was filled with poison. Your skin was drinking it in.”
“No!” I said, taking the bracelet back. “No!”
He thought I was lamenting over the evil use of the beautiful bracelet. “We can make you another one,” he said.
“It is not that,” I said. “It is—this means it is someone close to me.”
“Yes,” he said. “It is.”
We like to imagine that only those who do not know us would wish us ill. To think that those we walk among, eat with, laugh with, hate us and plan to harm us, is soul-chilling. An enemy disguised as a friend is the deadliest of all.
Menelaus visited me, eager to show me the specially weighted arrows that Gelanor had designed for him.
“That man,” he said, shaking his head. “His mind is always searching, ferreting. I am thankful he is working for me rather than my enemies.”
“Which enemies?” I asked, I hoped offhandedly.
“It’s just a figure of speech,” he said, rising and stretching. “But they say there is no one whose death is not a relief to someone.”
A chill passed through me.
“So in that way, we all have enemies.” He looked about for Leucus, his body-servant. “Where is that lad?”
Lying in bed the next morning, I watched, with slitted eyes, my own attendants gather in the chamber. There came Nomia, slender and tall, invariably—sometimes, I had to admit, gratingly—cheerful. Her father was the opposite: one of Agamemnon’s most glowering soldier-guards. Perhaps she had determined to be pleasant after a childhood darkened by her father’s pique.
Next were Cissia and Anippe, both of whom I had known since childhood. I had always found Cissia’s sensible placidity soothing, the sort of antidote I longed for after my upsets and excitements. I relied on her more than I liked to admit, if only for a foil to myself. And Anippe had shared my love of dolls and clothes.
Could any of these three hate me? Or could they be acting under the orders of others?
Who would be relieved at my death?
They were moving about the chamber, opening the curtains and filling pitchers of water. Their sweet voices murmured to each other.
No, it could not be either of them!
Next came Philyra, the wife of Father’s chief archer, to whom at this very moment Gelanor’s arrows were being presented. She, like me, had fair hair, and we had often laughed about the subtle difference in color. She had flattered me by proclaiming mine to be pure gold, whereas hers tended more toward the red-gold of sunset. “I think the sunset is more precious,” I had said. And I had truly thought her hair to be the lovelier.
The priestess of Demeter, wise and proper Dirce, strode in. Dirce’s presence always overpowered anyone else in the room, and today was no different.
I watched the moving shadows in my room. It seemed that I could see more than I normally could; my vision was taking in more than it ever had before.
I could not see anything in these five women that would cause alarm.
Last to arrive was Eurybia, because she had to come all the way up the hill from the village. She was a heavy woman, muscular, with a head of hair that must have weighed so much she needed her neck to be as thick as it was to carry it.
She bent over me, detecting that I was awake.
“Dear Helen,” she said, “are you feeling better today? Oh, please tell me you are!”
I raised up on my elbows. “Yes, Eurybia,” I said. “I believe so. I hope so.”
She smiled. And as I saw that smile, I saw something more. I cannot describe exactly what it was, but there was something else.
I swung my legs out of bed, and she offered her hand. I took it and stood up. The chamber swam, but I commanded my legs to stay straight.
My attendants all swarmed around me, and helped support me. They brought out my clothes and offered me many selections, omitting the ones that would wrinkle badly when I—sooner or later—had to lie down. They offered trays of jewelry—large chunky necklaces of agate and rock crystals, anklets of fine gold. Tactfully they did not bring out the tray of gold hair ornaments, which would get crushed when I lay upon a pillow.
“Your bracelets,” said Anippe, holding up a tray of them.
They all looked too heavy. I waved them away.
“We still have not found that snake bracelet, have we?” asked Eurybia. “It is light to wear and does not . . .” What she meant was, I could lie down while wearing it, if need be.
“No, we have not,” I said. “Perhaps it was stolen.” I looked around at each of them, one at a time.
When I got to Eurybia, I knew. It was something—something I could see beyond just what my eyes were receiving. I heard her words, but now it was as if I had a secret translation of them, and of their true meaning.
“But we must find it!” she said.
“Why?” I said. “There are many other pieces to choose from.”
“Yes, of course.” She quickly looked away.
Now. Now was the time to do it, now, in front of the others. I would never have been so bold before, but that was changed, too.
“Eurybia, why are you trying to kill me?” My voice was so unnaturally calm it did not even sound like mine. “I know it is you.”
That was the gift of the serpents, I suddenly knew—I could discern character in times of danger, almost as if I were a god. That was what they had given me.
My sudden attack caught her off balance. “I—I—”
“It is you!” I pointed at her.
The others just stared.
“Why have you done this?” I confronted her, calling on all my power to appear strong and not shake.
I expected her to deny it, to say that it was my illness that was causing me to speak so.
Instead she drew herself up and put down the jewelry tray with great dignity.
“So. I am doomed. I will die anyway for threatening the safety of the queen. Very well. Let me tell you, you blind, stupid girl. Yes, girl. For you are only a girl, yet you have had the entire world handed to you! And why has all this come about? Simply because of your face. I wanted to see you up close, to see what it was that entitled you to all this adulation. What I see does not impress me. So I decided to remove it.”
I fought for words. “Is that all?”
“No! You weren’t content with all the worshipping of your looks, but you were greedy and had to take things from other people. You didn’t need to win that race! You had everything else. Why did you take it from my daughter?”
She was the mother of the girl I had beaten in the maidens’ race!
“She would never have become queen. She never would have had forty suitors, coming with big bags of gold. She’s as mortal as they come. But her speed—she would have always been able to cherish the memory of winning that race. You robbed her of it!”
“I didn’t rob her,” I said. “I won it. I was a faster runner.”
“Yes, because you cheated.”
“You were Zeus’s daughter. Of course you had extra speed.”
“No, I didn’t. The child of a god—even if that is true—is mortal. Didn’t you know that?”
“They are fleeter, they are more lovely—they aren’t like the rest of us.”
“Can’t you understand?” I pleaded with her. “Imagine all that anyone ever talked about was your face. Would you not want to be recognized for something else? I knew I was a fleet runner, and I needed to run. If your daughter had been faster, she would have surpassed me.”
“No!” she said. “You cheated.”
“What kind of poison did you put into the snake bracelet?” I asked her.
The others in the chamber had been shocked into silence.
“I won’t tell you,” she said. “It has long served my family. And just because you, with your special powers, have found me out—”
But it was Gelanor, with his human powers, who had found her out. I was immensely glad, like Menelaus, that he was not working for our enemies.
I called the guards. “Take her away,” I said. “Take her away.”
Father, and Menelaus, would want her executed. I did not. All I wanted was some assurance that she—or an accomplice—would never have access to me again.
Now it became clear to me—finally, and what sweet knowledge this was—what the serpents had blessed me with: prescience, which is its own kind of wisdom.
Clytemnestra had come for one of her ever more frequent visits, and we were sitting together under Hermione’s tree. Or perhaps “under” is a bit exaggerated; in the five years since it had been planted, it had grown higher than my head, but its lower branches were still too close to the ground for us to sit directly under. We were stretched out on the sweet meadow grass beside it, having our favorite picnic fare, watching our girls play on the hill below us, running and throwing a ball. Iphigenia was eight and my Hermione was five.
“Ah, she’s a runner like you,” said Clytemnestra. “Look how she’s catching up to Iphigenia.” Both girls were running as fast as they could, tearing through the grass. I shivered, remembering my poisoner.
“My racing days are, I fear, over,” I said. It was indeed a pity that women’s contests ended with marriage.
Clytemnestra seemed restless to me, and she declined the rest of the wine. That was how I knew. “Why, you are pregnant!”
She nodded. “Yes. Agamemnon is pleased, of course, for he hopes for a son, a son he wants to name Orestes . . . ‘the mountaineer.’ Zeus only knows why he would choose that name. He does not come from the mountains.”
“Perhaps he believes that the name will somehow bring about the event. That Orestes will scale high mountains.”
She laughed. “He just wants a warrior son. I think . . . he is eager for a war. He is bored, I can tell. Overseeing a peaceful kingdom does not satisfy him.”
The one thing most rulers prayed for was peace, I thought, deeply grateful that in the five years that Menelaus had been king of Sparta, things had been quiet.
“Of course, he does not endure deprivation patiently,” she said, almost under her breath.
I knew what she meant, and that familiar flash of jealousy tore through me. She meant that she and Agamemnon, in the bedchamber . . . But I would not think of it.
Over the years I had tried to disguise my cold bed from Clytemnestra, believing it to be a form of disloyalty to Menelaus to reveal it. What passed—or did not pass—between us in the dark was private. But it grew harder and harder to pretend, especially when I should have been knowledgeable about things I knew not of. I was surprisingly good at pretense, but I hated it.
“Yes!” I attempted a knowing smirk.
“I am afraid that he will satisfy himself with one of the slaves around the palace,” she murmured.
“If so, he will forget her the moment you come to him again.” Oh, let us leave this subject, before—
“You have never had this worry about Menelaus?” Her eyes searched mine.
“I—I—” I could feel blood rushing to my cheeks.
She laughed. “Oh, forgive me! I forgot how modest you are. You should be beyond this . . . this reticence.” She paused. “After all, you’re twenty-one and have been married for six of those years. What else can we married women speak of?”
Oh, anything else! I thought. Please, anything else! “Well, there are our children . . . I see that Iphigenia is a gentle girl, but the poetry she composes to accompany her lyre is worthy of . . . well, Apollo must inspire it!”
She nodded. “Yes, she is a poet. I treasure that; it is rare. Truly, as you said, a gift from Apollo.”
Just then the two girls came running up, breathless, and threw themselves on the blanket.
“She always wins the race!” said Iphigenia, pointing at Hermione.
“Just like her mother,” said Clytemnestra. “But come, you can do things she cannot. Like compose for the lyre.”
Iphigenia smiled and brushed a strand of hair from her sweaty forehead. She was a pretty girl, with the dark curly hair of her father and the clear skin of her mother. “Yes, I like that best.”
Hermione rolled over, holding her skinned knees. She spent most of her time outdoors, and would not go near a lyre. Her uncles, my brothers, delighted in teaching her to ride and shoot. My little doll, given to her by Mother, lay neglected.
Menelaus doted on her, but of course he was assuming she would eventually have a brother. “Oh, my dearest one,” I said, leaning forward and running my hand through her curls. Her hair was bright gold, like mine, and we sometimes played at mixing strands and trying to separate them based on color. We couldn’t, of course, but it made us feel close to see that our hair was identical.
I looked over at Clytemnestra and felt something . . . something dark and oppressive. It was that unasked-for gift from the serpents, illuminating, hinting at things in people’s hearts. I could see something around them, could hear echoes from deep inside them. Now I saw it with Clytemnestra.
I had seen too many things I wished I had not, in the years since the snakes had licked my ears; I had been given insight into private matters that should have been barred from me.
And the priest had said there might be three gifts. Thus far only this one had manifested itself. But perhaps, I consoled myself, there would be no others.
“Clytemnestra, dear sister”—I almost held my breath in saying it—“is anything amiss?”
“Why, no,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
So it was not yet, not yet. And pray Zeus, it might never be. But the color that surrounded her was dark and murky. A chill of fear passed over me, like a wind blowing over a field.
Dead winter. Nothing could move on the waters—ships were lying ashore, their hulls filled with rocks to keep them stable on the pelted seashore, and only the most brave—or foolhardy—would risk actually voyaging on the high seas. Between cities the roads were ice-bound and slippery, and few would venture out. Menelaus and I were among those few. Agamemnon had summoned us to Mycenae—for what we knew not. The message was vague.
The ground between Sparta and Mycenae lay bleak and the forests were leafless. Hermione tugged at my cloak. “I’m cold,” she said. I could feel her shivering next to me. I peeled off the fleece that rested on my shoulders and fastened its thickness around hers.
“There, now,” I assured her. “If this can keep a ram warm in the field, it can help you.”
She smiled back at me. Eight years old now, and still our only, treasured, child.
“What does Uncle Agamemnon want?” she said.
“We don’t know,” I answered. “Perhaps he has a surprise.”
“I don’t want a surprise from Uncle Agamemnon,” she said. “He is scary. But I like seeing Iphigenia and Elektra.”
In spite of Agamemnon’s hopes, the baby had been a girl. They named her Elektra, meaning “amber,” because her eyes were a lovely golden brown. Iphigenia was eleven now, but unlike other girls her age, she seemed content to play with her younger cousin. I wondered when Agamemnon would insist on arranging a marriage for her—and to whom.
Ahead of us, golden in the fading winter sun, I could see the carved stone lions guarding the gateway of Mycenae, rearing over the entrance. I always felt a mixture of awe at their splendor, and dread at what awaited me once I was past them. Mycenae was not a pleasant place to visit, in spite of its grand vistas across the mountains and out to the sea. The palace squeezed me, squeezed me between heavy walls built of enormous boulders and guarded ramparts, and the air was always heavy and damp.
Once past the lions, we made our way up the steep path that led to the main part of the palace, perched on the highest part of the hill.
A flock of retainers surrounded us as we climbed. Someone had run ahead to alert Agamemnon, and now he stood at the top of the pathway, the sun behind him, a great looming figure.
“Welcome! Welcome!” he cried. He swung into view, no longer obliterating the sun. It made him smaller. He stepped forward to embrace Menelaus. “Dear brother!” he cried, clapping his back.
“Brother!” Menelaus echoed back.
Together they mounted the great staircase that led up to the palace courtyard.
We were seated in the megaron in the heart of the palace. A wide hearth held a lively fire, with heaps of pungent cedarwood upon it, and the smoke—not all of it escaped through the round roof-hole—perfumed the air in the hall and softened the faces of the people gathered there.
Agamemnon still had not revealed why he had summoned us, but from the rank of the guests—all kings or chieftains of nearby cities—I knew it was political. He seemed distracted, nervous, in spite of his attempts to be jovial. The serpent-vision I had been granted enabled me almost to overhear his own thoughts. They were angry and confused. Yet he smiled and smiled.
He made sure we all had gold cups to drink from—each of them shallow, decorated with circles and swirls, and smooth and glorious yellow, a bright, happy yellow, as only gold can be. Since there were over thirty of us in the megaron, this advertised his wealth, as he thought, discreetly.
His guests were Palamedes of Nauplia, Diomedes of Argos, Poliporthis of Tiryns, and Thersites of Corinth, as well as a number of others I did not recognize, as they had never visited us in Sparta. Agamemnon strode amongst them bluffly, slapping their shoulders, throwing his head back and roaring like one of his lions at the gateway.
Menelaus stood about, looking lost. He did not relish such gatherings, being a quiet and private person. I kept myself by his side. Taking his hand, I intertwined my fingers in his. I felt a wearisome need to protect him.
There were few other women present; women were not usually admitted to such gatherings. Clytemnestra and I were the exception: Clytemnestra as the host of Mycenae, and I because Menelaus would not be parted from me, and I was sister to Clytemnestra.
“Ah, my friends!” Agamemnon bellowed. “Welcome, welcome! I am touched that you would come all the way here in the dangerous travel time of winter.” He looked about. “Drink, eat! I slew a late-season boar and it has hung and cured to perfection, so I share it with you!”
More boasting about himself, I thought.
“It is roasting even now!” He stood, swaying slightly in his thick boots, his fur-clad shoulders making him look like a formidable bear.
Clytemnestra came over to us, trailing her long robes. “That man has no sense of time,” she muttered. “It will be hours before it is ready. I told him to start it earlier—”
I leaned over and kissed her cheek. “No matter, dear sister. We are happy just to see you. We did not come for the boar. Indeed, we are not sure why we have come—aside from an opportunity for Hermione to see her cousins again. Perhaps that is the most important, and lasting, thing that will come of this.”
She rolled her eyes. “Agamemnon wants to assess the support he can count on.”
“For what?” Menelaus asked. “Everything is quiet. We are at peace.”
“Agamemnon does not like peace,” she said.
“But surely he does not mean to provoke war? And with whom?” Menelaus was upset by the sudden news.
“He has entangled himself with the cause of Hesione,” she said. “Which is foolish,” she hastened to add. “Although the Trojan king claims otherwise, Hesione seems perfectly content to live in Salamis with Telamon. It has been almost forty years since she was taken from Troy.”
“Troy,” muttered Menelaus. “A place better left alone. All that happened in another generation, and although some may call me coward for it, I say the happenings of the day should be confined to that day and time, and not spill out and contaminate another.”
Clytemnestra raised her eyebrows. “How radical!” she said. “But sensible,” she allowed.
Agamemnon walked up and down the megaron, his rough features illuminated by torches stuck in wall sockets. In some lights he was handsome; in others he looked like a satyr. Perhaps it was the beard and the deep-set eyes.
“The boar is coming, I say, it is coming!” he said, holding up his arms. “But friends, while we wait, I must exhort you to think upon the wrongs done to us by the insults of the Trojans. That aged princess of theirs, Hesione, sister to their king Priam, was awarded to Telamon of Salamis years ago. But they never cease agitating for her return! They even threaten to send out a party to rescue her. They say she was taken against her will, by Heracles. I say, nonsense! She shows no desire to return to Troy.”
The loud voice of Thersites broke through the crowd. “Has anyone asked her?”
“I assume her husband Telamon has! Or her son, the matchless archer Teucer!” Agamemnon yelled. He threw back a cup of wine.
“Could she speak freely before them?” Thersites persisted.
“Surely after forty years—” Menelaus began.
“Women cannot always say what they wish.” To my surprise, the voice was mine. I had not meant to speak out. But it was true.
“What do you mean?” My brother-in-law rounded on me. All eyes were fastened on me.
“I mean that a married woman, who has regard for her family, for her husband and child, cannot always frame the true feelings in her heart in words—for they may be contradictory.” I took a breath. “The love for one family does not smother the love for the first one.” I had been fortunate—I had both my first family and my chosen, second one about me. But that did not always happen.
“She has forgotten Troy!” Agamemnon pronounced. “She has proved it by her actions.”
“Conflicted loyalties can cause great pain—and lead to silence,” I said. I saw his brows contract. I did not relish his attention, but how could I remain quiet? His misconceptions might lead to bloodshed, for clearly he had convened these warriors in hopes of rousing and using them.
“If the Trojans persist in making these accusations, we’ll answer them with warships and with bronze!” he cried. He looked around to see who would echo his cry. There were a few halfhearted cheers.
“Troy is arrogant,” said Thersites. “It lurks beside the Hellespont and hinders our trade farther in, all the way to the Black Sea. I’d be just as happy if it vanished.”
“It isn’t about to vanish,” said Agamemnon. “It will persist, as a spear in our sides, until we make it vanish.”
“Troy has many allies surrounding it,” said Diomedes. “They would come to its aid.”
“Stop!” said Menelaus. “You talk as if a war is a given. There is no reason, no purpose, for a war with Troy. It is cheaper, to be frank, to pay whatever bribes and tolls they require than to muster an army. This is the way of trade—barter, taxes. They were given their position near the Hellespont by the gods, just as we were given ours on the Aegean. We must respect that.”
There was a low groan in the room, although Menelaus spoke intelligently. Intelligent objections were not what they wanted—not in the flickering torchlight and the half shadows and half-truths floating about in the wintry chamber.
“So you just want to sit in your great hall in Sparta, warming yourself by the fire, and die with no glorious deeds to be recited when the funeral pyre is lit?” Diomedes asked.
I felt Menelaus stiffen beside me. He had to answer. “I believe . . . I believe . . .”—he searched for words—“that whether there are glorious deeds to be sung at a man’s funeral depends upon what tasks the gods set before him to test his character. We accept the cup the gods give us. We must. Peace is also a gift.”
“Bah!” cried Diomedes. “I can fill this cup with whatever potion I desire!” He lifted his golden cup high.
“But the cup itself was given you by another.” Again, it was my voice speaking. I could not bear his cockiness. “Perhaps you are not as free as you would wish.”
He glared at me, and then at Menelaus, as if to say, Curb your wife!
“Leave quivering old Priam alone,” a voice sounded from the back of the hall. Perhaps the mood was turning; perhaps Menelaus’s sensible advice was seeping into men’s minds.
“Priam! He’s an old fool. A decadent potentate from the east. He has fifty or so sons—all lodging in his palace at Troy,” Agamemnon said.
“Is that a reason to attack him?” asked Menelaus. “Let him have his fifty sons!’ ”
He hid it well, but I heard the pain in his voice. Fifty sons—oh, let me have one. Only one! All men wanted sons. Menelaus ached for one.
“It’s not seemly,” muttered Agamemnon, also sonless.
“I heard he just added another,” Palamedes said. “A grown one.”
“Oh, one of those slave offsprings?” Poliporthis laughed. “A king’s halls are full of them.”
“This one is different,” Palamedes persisted. “This one, a legitimate son, was cast away because of a bad omen, and has returned to claim his inheritance. And he cuts a pretty figure, they say, with prowess in contests of all sorts, as well as a stunning face. They call him Paris, ‘pack,’ because he was tucked into a pack when he was being taken out to the mountain as a newborn to die.”
“Oh, how affecting!” Thersites bowed, sneering. “What a lovely story!”
“So old Priam sits happy on the lookout of windy Troy, knowing he is safe!” Agamemnon all but spat. “What matter whether he have forty-nine sons or fifty, whether one is pretty or not?”
“What matter to you, Agamemnon?” a strong voice spoke out. “You speak non—you speak without thinking.”
No one told Agamemnon he spoke nonsense—no one except Clytemnestra. And then not in public. Agamemnon glared, searching the room for the man who had spoken. “It matters to me because Priam is the brother of Hesione. It is he who keeps reminding the world that she was taken from Troy—by Greeks. He hates us!” Agamemnon lowered his chin, as he always did when he was crossed, looking like a truculent bull.
“That’s your imagination,” said Menelaus. “I have heard he is an even-tempered and sensible man, not given to hatred.”
“Well, if he’s sensible, then he should fear us!” Agamemnon motioned and two men emerged from the shadows—an older one with a shiny face and a gloating expression, and a younger one with much hair and dark slashes for eyebrows. I had seen them before—where?
The older one was carrying an armful of protective clothing and armor, and the younger one bristled with weapons—spears, swords, arrows, and shields. Perched on his head was an impressive helmet made up of rows of boars’ tusks.
“Lynceus, show them what you’ve brought!”
Obligingly, the man spread out his linen breastplate, his bronze greaves and helmet, and one huge winding spiral of metal to cover a fighter from shoulder to thigh. It would also require superhuman strength to move and fight in it.
“This outfits the warrior,” he said proudly.
“I have a storeroom full of these,” said Agamemnon. “I am prepared for any challenge.”
“It seems you may issue the challenge yourself,” said Diomedes. “Once you have such weapons, do they not raise their own cry to be used?”
“Better that than to be needed and be lacking,” said Agamemnon. “Now, Cercyon, show the rest of it.”
The young man quickly obeyed, kneeling down and displaying the weaponry at his feet. “Ah, but the best course is to have such superior weapons that the enemy never has a chance to strike.”
He motioned to a group of swords and daggers at his feet. “Long swords are too awkward. A shorter sword is better. Stronger. It won’t suddenly crack and leave you unprotected. And it’s meant for thrust-and-cut rather than just the old-fashioned puncturing. Of course, a dagger is the best for close fighting.” He brandished one, relishing its heft. “But the disadvantage is that you must be close.” He laughed.
“The ideal would be a weapon that could kill from afar. In fact, if you look at swords, you can see that each improvement is an attempt to kill at a greater and greater distance from the body of the attacker.” Suddenly Gelanor was standing beside the young man. “What you want is a long sword that also slashes. That would be a warrior’s dream.”
Why was he here? Had Agamemnon taken him from Menelaus’s service?
The thought of his no longer being in Sparta was intolerable. We would demand his return. How had Agamemnon recruited him?
“Your boar-tusk helmet.” Gelanor pointed at it. “Very pretty. But we have better things now.”
Cercyon looked crushed. He pulled it off and squeezed it.
“You need something more rigid to protect your head better,” said Gelanor. He stood over the display of arrows and their bows. “Arrows need to fly farther,” he said.
“Arrows are a coward’s way of fighting!” said Diomedes of Argos.
“Oh? How bullheaded! No, my friends, arrows are but the next step in the long and unfinished story of war weapons. They allow you to kill from far afield. If you do not perfect them, someone else will.”
“What is the farthest an arrow can shoot and kill?” someone asked.
“With these bows and arrows, seventy paces. But with mine, you can hit a target three hundred paces away.”
“Impossible.” Agamemnon stood beside him. “I have great faith in Gelanor, but this is impossible.”
“The problem lies in your bows,” said Gelanor. “The arrow can go only as far as the tension in the bowstring. If you could stretch the string farther back, to your ear, or even farther, your arrows will astound you.”
“We don’t have such bows, nor bowstrings,” said Lynceus.
“Not yet. Let us build them. It can be done. And fairly easily, I think.”
“So you don’t actually have these bows?”
“No, but I am confident they can be made. Using hair with the sinews, to increase the spring—”
“Bah!” Lynceus grabbed the bow that Cercyon had put on the floor. “This is good enough for me!”
But Cercyon tellingly pulled Gelanor aside to question him.
“I’ll embrace any method that kills more Trojans!” said Agamemnon. “Just show me how to get them!”
After the men stopped swarming around the weapons, they were removed and a bard was summoned into the hall. I was able to go to Gelanor’s side and whisper, “Have you deserted us?”
He looked at me, his peculiar half-smile in his eyes, not his mouth. “Never, my lady. I stand always ready to deflect your enemies.”
Because no enemies had reared their heads since the poison episode, I had seen little of him. “You must not stay in Mycenae,” I suddenly said. “I order you to return to Sparta with us.”
Now his mouth smiled. “I obey.” He laughed. “Agamemnon’s pay is bad. And he clearly does not mean to pursue any of my ideas. They will cost too much, and the man is stingy.”
The bard stood in the hall, waiting for the company to grow quiet. He clutched his lyre and shut his eyes. Outside, the wind was gathering itself and I could hear it tearing around the corners of the building. Someone threw more wood on the fire, but all the same the cold was creeping in, stealing between the stones.
“Sing of the voyage of the Argonauts,” someone said. “Jason and the Golden Fleece.”
“We’re heard that a hundred times,” said Cercyon. “No, do Heracles and the Hydra!”
A groan rippled around the room. “No! Boring!”
“Do Perseus! He founded Mycenae, so they say.”
“Perseus and the Medusa!”
“No!” Agamemnon shouted. “Sing of Priam and his quest for his sister Hesione.”
The bard looked sadly at him. “I know not such a song, sir.”
“Then compose it! Do you not have the Muse at your call?”
The bard looked uncomfortable. “Sir, it is a story without an ending. Such is not suitable for an epic song.”
“Then let us write it, by all the gods!” cried Agamemnon. “Then you can sing it well enough!”
* * *
The fire was dying down, and no one threw more wood onto it. Outside, the wind was ferocious, and guests were eager to get to their beds, to pull a warm fleece over themselves, wrap their arms around their shoulders, and hope for sleep.
Menelaus and I were assigned to the best of the guest chambers, the ones we had occupied on our wedding visit. When we stepped out of the megaron, we were slapped by a wind so strong and cold it felt like a garment of ice, with a hint of sleet. We shivered and huddled together as we made our way across the passage leading to our chamber.
To be here again, after all that had passed in the intervening years . . . But in truth, I cared not; I was so sleepy I could barely see anything.
Menelaus was groaning, as always, to indicate how tired he was. He took off his fur, removing it from his shoulders, but they seemed no less burdened.
He stooped. I had never noticed it before, but he was bent over—unlike that eager young warrior Cercyon, who had stood as straight as a quivering new sword. Menelaus was older, of course, although no war had sapped him—only time.
His stooping was dear to me. His weakness drew me. I stood beside him, compassion for him brought on not from his strength but from his human burdens.
Dear Menelaus. I did care for him.
We embraced; we lay down together. I felt him near me, my dear friend, my lord. But what followed was the same as always. Aphrodite had failed me again; she had withheld her gifts. There remained the gifts of love, respect, devotion, that the other gods had showered upon us. Lying in Menelaus’s strong arms, I thought wistfully that I must content myself with them. I was fortunate to have been granted even these. And had not Menelaus been my ally since the beginning? That was our start, and that would be our finish.
Seeing Sparta come into view, spread out along the banks of the Eurotas, my spirits rose as they always did. My city was fair, open, set in its groves of trees—it was everything the cold, guarded Mycenae was not. Both palaces were set high, but ours was a golden beacon over the plain.
Hermione was happy to be back home, where she could roam in the open corridors. All that was missing for her were cousins for playmates; there were the children of the attendants and slaves about, of course, but no one of her own blood. She confided in me that this time Cousin Iphigenia did not seem so interested in playing, that she had accumulated a collection of ivory combs and bronze mirrors and perfumed oil, and spent much time in arranging them.
“Well, she is near the age when she might have to marry,” I said. “I suppose she is only making ready for it, in her own mind.”
“And Elektra is too little, she’s a pest, and no fun. She’s just annoying; all she does is ask questions.”
I laughed. “That is what being three means,” I said. “So did you.”
She shook her head furiously, making all her curls dance. “No, no, I didn’t!”
“There’s no shame in it,” I assured her. “Better to ask too many questions than too few.”
Questions . . . I had so many myself. Why did Agamemnon want war so badly? Was he bored, and this was what bored men did? Was he jealous of Priam, with all his sons? Did I want Menelaus to go to war? Would my life be more interesting, or less, if he were gone?
Winter clung with bony, gripping hands to the land, squeezing it pale and lifeless. As we shivered in our mantles and kept the braziers lit indoors, I had the irreverent thought that Demeter did not need to go to such extremes lamenting the loss of Persephone. As soon as I thought it, I hastily begged apology; not knowing the pain of the loss of a daughter, I did not want to provoke the goddess into allowing me to find out.
Gelanor asked leave to return to Gytheum, saying that with little to do here in Sparta he should use the time to gather up the purple-bearing shellfish along that seashore so that when the traders came calling in the spring his family would have a ready supply of them to sell. He said harvesting them was not so difficult in foul weather, if you could be sure of a warm fire afterward.
“Even the Phoenicians do not sail in this weather,” he said. “But they’ll be the first ones out as soon as the storms break.”
I did not want him to go; I always found him so amusing to talk to. The women in the palace talked only of weaving, marriages, deaths, and children; the men only of hunting, trade, and war. Somehow, although Gelanor would speak of these things, it was as if he were standing on a high rock and describing them from above, rather than being part of them, or having any concern for the outcome. Suddenly I had an idea—something that would cure the boredom of both of us. “Take me with you!” I said.
He just looked at me quizzically. “So you can scamper on the rocks and gather the shellfish?”
“No, so that I may see Gytheum. And the sea. I’ve never stood on the shore, nor heard a wave.”
“You are queen of the dry land,” he said. “And so you shall remain, until Menelaus takes you out on the sea. Isn’t his grandfather from Crete? Why don’t you go there with him?”
“His grandfather is ailing, and Menelaus”—Menelaus himself did not like the sea, I realized, and avoided sailing anywhere if possible—“goes there as seldom as possible.”
While we were talking, a gust of wind blew my head covering off. Gelanor laughed. “I’ll take you to Gytheum when the worst of these winds are gone. Now you would only be drenched in sea spray and chilled to death, and Menelaus would execute me for robbing the fair Helen of her health.” He squinted out at the horizon, pretending he could see the sea. “Poseidon loves this time of year, when he can rage and stir up mountains of water and waves, but prudent people keep far away from him.”
“Then why are you going?”
“I never said I was prudent, and anyway, enforced idleness has a way of destroying prudence.”
Menelaus was amenable to my going; he trusted Gelanor. I would say he trusted him like a brother, but I had the feeling that he did not trust Agamemnon, not completely. His only condition was that I wait to accompany him until the worst of the winter storms were past, and that I not take Hermione with us, and keep two bodyguards nearby.
In truth, Menelaus seemed amenable to most things these days; he had a calm air about him. Perhaps at last he was finding that being king satisfied his talents. “Bring me one or two of the shellfish when you return,” he said. “I understand that they themselves have no color at all, but only release that purple fluid when they are crushed.”
“I will,” I promised, my blood singing at the thought of walking beside the sounding sea, at last.
There is a time of year when winter and spring lock themselves in a wrestling match and take turns throwing one another: first one is down, then the other. One day is cold, the next warm. The cautious leaves stay furled; the more reckless open themselves to the sun. At such a time Gelanor and I set out to Gytheum, a very long day’s walk, the bodyguards trailing behind. But I welcomed it, and wore sturdy shoes and a warm cloak. I knew enough to take a face veil. I was used to people staring, but Gelanor was not and it would be a nuisance as we tried to cover the ground as swiftly as possible. I wanted to pass with no hindrance.
“Well, you are quite a sight,” said Gelanor as I joined him just before the palace gates.
“What do you mean?” I looked down at my feet and my cloak.
“I have only seen you bedecked as a queen,” he said. “Never as a wayfarer.” He smiled. “Come!”
He must have had doubts about my ability to keep up, because by the time we had passed the site of Artemis Orthia—that dark and mysterious place where boys had to undergo secret physical trials—he stopped, pulling out a skin filled with water. “My, my,” he said. “You certainly can move. I am a bit out of breath.”
“I once was a runner,” I said. But that seemed long ago.
“Ahh,” said Gelanor. “I am thankful, then, we are not competing.” He passed the water to me.
On down the dirt path to Gytheum. At first we kept to the valley of the Eurotas; the river, swollen by melting snow and spring rains, sought the sea as we did. Along the way were villages, small farms. The fields, sown in late winter, showed barley and emmer, already knee-high. No one paid any attention to us, which delighted me. I said as much to Gelanor.
“Tell me,” he said. “I have never wanted to ask you, as I did not want to be intrusive. But—what is it like to be stared at, no matter what you do?”
“Horrible!” I said. “Dreadful past description!”
“But what of the opposite, the person who wants to be noticed and is always invisible?” he asked.
“How can I know of this? How could I compare them?”
“It is my opinion that these invisible people cause all the trouble in the world. They want to be looked at, and do anything to command attention. They kill, they make false accusations, they brag and lay claim to deeds they have not achieved.”
“That is a harsh judgment,” I said. “Sometimes a very visible person wants even more. He or she is greedy.” I thought of Agamemnon, clearly chafing at his quiet life in Mycenae, though he was its king. “And many simple people are happy with their lives.”
Gelanor grunted. “Still, show me a man who feels overlooked . . .”
* * *
By late afternoon we faced a very high ridge of hills, rearing up like a fence. The sun, hanging over them, made them look formidable. “Just over this, Gytheum and the sea await,” Gelanor said. “And we don’t have to climb them. There’s a pass.”
We trudged over the pass and there, spread out glittering before us, was the sea. It was enormous, spreading out wider and longer than any land. The horizon twinkled far away. It was truly a kingdom: the kingdom of Poseidon.
Just before sunset, we reached the rocks, where the surf was dashing, despite the clear day. “At dawn tomorrow we’ll be back here,” he said. “That’s the best time for gathering.”
I inhaled the odd smell of the sea, a strangely metallic odor, from the seaweed and moss on slippery rocks.
We spent the night at the home of Gelanor’s family. They tried not to stare at me; Gelanor tried not to boast in any way that he served me. They were open and simple people. I could sense that Gelanor was nothing like them, and that was why he no longer lived there.
Cold, dark, wet. Gelanor had insisted that we come down to the shore at this hour, before dawn broke. He was ready to wade out into the water to gather the shellfish while I waited on the shore and watched.
“You said you wanted to do this.” He wagged his finger.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “Until I can no longer find any purple-bearing shellfish.”
I was to mind the sack where he would store the captured shellfish. I tried to guard it carefully, but after some time, when he had vanished behind a set of rocks, I moved it to where it would be safe and he could find it, and clambered off the slippery rock and made for the shore. I could not sit there any longer, staring out at the horizon, though the sunrise had been glorious. I was shivering and soaked by the sea spray.
I decided to walk along the shore, picking my way carefully between the rocks, hoping that the movement would warm me. I ordered the guards to stay with Gelanor. I shook my legs and tried to walk briskly. There was not another human being to be seen anywhere; it was still too early for fishermen to be out. I watched as the waves broke amongst the rocks and then reached along the beach like searching fingers tipped with foam, frothy and white.
I could see a small island offshore not far away. It was covered with trees, trees that bent with the wind; the island seemed to call out to me.
I walked and walked; the sun came up, hitting my back and warming me at last. Then I saw something ahead on my left, a cave or opening where a cliff appeared on one side of the shoreline. I made my way toward it, I know not why. As I approached it I felt a warm wind coming from inside.
Impossible, I told myself. Caves are colder than the outside air. But I sought it out, stumbling into the dim recess of its mouth. It was warm as summer in there.
The warmth grew. A soft wind caressed me. It smelled of roses. Roses like wild ones I had come across in the fields and meadows—the ones with a hundred petals, the ones that bloomed where they would and perfumed the air, but resisted gardens, refused to grow there.
Roses did not grow in caves! They sought sun, they needed sun!
My heart was hammering. I could hardly breathe. I clasped my throat. The air around me was permeated in roses, was pure roses. I fell to my knees immediately. I knew this was from the gods.
I bowed my head and shut my eyes—less out of reverence than fear. What was I going to see? I could not bear it.
“My child,” a voice whispered. “Listen to me. I have called you. It has been a long wait. Your father disdained me, neglecting my offerings. And you yourself, on the eve of your wedding, forgot me. How could you? As far as marriage goes, I am the goddess without whom you cannot thrive. Hera? Oh, forget her! She knows nothing of what binds a man and a woman. Why, she cannot even satisfy Zeus! She has begged to borrow my belt, which bestows desire.”
“Aphrodite?” I whispered.
“Yes, my child,” she said. “You are my very likeness. I have tried to forget you, because of your and your father’s insults to me, but I cannot. It is not often that a mortal woman is nearly my equal, but you are. So we are kin, and I have come to acknowledge that at last.” She paused. “Come inside. Come inside the cave.”
I had never liked caves and grottoes; they frightened me. But I obeyed and stepped past the rocks guarding the true opening of the cave. Instead of darkness, it was suffused in a glowing light, and the air grew even warmer. A burst of color erupted on either side—banks and banks of roses, all in full bloom, reds as deep as wounds, pinks as delicate as the lining of shells, as exuberant as the swirl of clouds at sunset, crimsons the match of any field poppy. Petals fell as I watched, in a gentle shower. The floor of the cave was carpeted with them, carpeted so deeply that their cool smoothness caressed my ankles and I waded in them.
“Show yourself to me,” I murmured. I needed to see her, to see this goddess.
“That is dangerous,” she said. “To see a god or goddess face to face can kill a mortal.”
“Is it always so?” I so longed to behold her.
“One never knows,” her soft voice said. “Sometimes it is safe. But for you, dear Helen—is it worth risking death? Zeus, your father, would be angry at me if I caused it. You are his only daughter by a mortal woman. He dotes on you. I dare not incur his wrath. Yes, even we goddesses dread it! So, my child, you must take me on faith. But someday, perhaps, you shall gaze safely upon me.”
What did she mean? That I would become a goddess, go to Mount Olympus?
“Do not assume that, for few go to Mount Olympus.”
Her reading of my mind was swifter and more thorough than that ability which the sacred serpents had bestowed upon me, but it was the same gift, in kind.
“Pass before me,” I begged her. “Let the roses stir.”
She laughed, a laugh that was rich beyond honey and deeper than desire. Or rather, it was all desire in a single sound. The roses trembled and moved, and their petals fell. “There,” she sighed.
“Why . . . have you summoned me here?” I asked her, after I had inhaled the wondrous fragrance.
“My child, you summoned me.”
“You have long sought me, wished for me. My lack in your life—deliberate, I now confess—has been a torment to you.”
“No, not a torment . . .” I had, after all, learned how to live without it, something I had never tasted. Can one truly miss what one has never known?
I heard her low, thrilling, intimate laugh.
“Oh, do not be ashamed. Many people have sought me, many have cursed me—when I ignored them. But you! Oh, I think you should not dismiss gifts you know not of. Those who dwell in a cave—I surmise that you do not care for them—might belittle sunlight, but they have no experience of it. So I need show you what you lack in your life. You lack me, and it is a grievous lack.”
“Then give me your gift. Touch me with it. Open my eyes.” I hoped that sounded humble enough; and as I thought that, I smothered it. She could hear thoughts.
“Gladly. With all my heart.”
“What must I do?” I beseeched her.
“Stand very still, close your eyes. Reach out and touch roses on either side. When you return to the seashore, wade out into the water and wait for a foam-laden wave. Let it wash over you, drench you. Then you will be suffused with me.”
I extended my arms and grasped clusters of rose petals, crushing them. An explosion of scent flooded the air.
“Close your eyes,” Aphrodite said. “You need your other senses now.”
As soon as I closed my eyes, I felt the warmth of the air, inhaled the intense rose smell, heard the whisper of her voice more clearly.
“I touch you,” she breathed by my side. “I give you my vision. Zeus is your father, but I am your sister. And I will never depart from you. I shall be at your side all your days.”
Did I feel anything? A glow, a warmth? No. I only heard her sweet whisper.
“Open your eyes.”
I opened them and the roses were brighter than before; they pulsated with a richness I had never imagined. I looked up at the ceiling of the cave; its dark and shadowy recesses seemed rich and mysterious and full of infinite promise, not dank and cold.
“You now see things through the veil of Aphrodite,” she said. “It is a different vision.”
I sensed that I was being dismissed, that the goddess was through with me.
“Oh, no,” she assured me. “You are my chosen, my daughter as well as my sister. Why . . . I have never had a daughter. About time, I would say. Did you know, gods and goddesses usually give birth to males? So you are alone in being a female among us.”
“But I am not a goddess!”
“But nearly so,” she sighed. “And many will treat you as such. You have certain privileges reserved for us.”
“What are those?”
“Oh, when others would be killed or traded—” She stopped and laughed. That disarming laugh! “But I forget—you mortals like surprises. That is why the oracles speak in riddles. To tell you too much is to spoil the suspense.” She paused. “I would not rob you of it.”
And then, suddenly, she was gone. The cave was dark and dripping. No roses. No warm air.
Why do the gods depart so abruptly? To tease us, to punish us, to laugh at us? I was forced to stumble out, feeling my way. I wanted to grab her shoulders, shake her, say, How dare you treat me this way? But there was no recourse. The gods were as they were; we mortals were as we were. Sometimes we could speak and understand one another; usually not.
Time had not existed, had not passed, in the cave, but when I emerged it was midday. The sun was high in the sky, turning the ocean into a mirror. I returned to the spot I had left. I could see the collecting sack was still safe; I was thankful for that.
Gelanor was standing near it, hands on hips, looking everywhere for me. I waved at him, although, truthfully, I did not wish to speak to him or anyone else. I wanted to sink down alone on the sand and think of what had happened to me.
“Helen! Helen!” Gelanor was waving his arms, signaling to me.
I walked toward him, feeling the soft give of the sand beneath my feet, smelling more acutely than ever before the sand—sea—salt.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“It was cold and so I left the sack—in a safe place—and walked to warm myself.”
“I told you it would be cold!” he scolded.
Oh, what matter? I wanted to tell him. All those things of ordinary life have passed away.
I came abreast of him. “What have you gathered?” I knew it was a question I should ask.
“I got many.” He patted the bulging sack. Then he wheeled on me. “What’s wrong with you?”
I stared at him. “Nothing. Nothing.”
“You act like a sleepwalker.”
The sun striking the rocks was glorious. They seemed more than rocks, they seemed some special offering of the gods. Why had I not seen it before?
“Nothing,” I repeated. “Nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.” He grasped my arm. “You are ill.”
Just then a huge wave surged offshore—rearing itself up, it crested and raced toward us. I tore away from him, ran down into the tide, stood braced and waiting for the wave to wash over me, arms upraised, as Aphrodite had commanded me.
“No!” Gelanor cried, running after me.
But he was too late. The huge wave engulfed me, swallowed me up in a great green swallow. I gave myself to it, and it was warm, as warm as the breath of someone’s mouth against my neck, as warm as water that sat out in high summer in a clay jar in sunlight. And half of it was foam, light frothy foam, foam that enveloped me, bathed me. The wave receded and I stood coated with foam, white as a spirit.
“You are mad,” said Gelanor, encircling my shoulders with his strong arms. “This water is lethally cold . . .” He stuck his hand in it. “It’s dangerous.”
Couldn’t he feel its warmth? Or was it warm only for me?
He insisted on enveloping me in a blanket and hurrying me up above the water line. “Whatever has come over you?” he asked, shaking his head, dabbing the foam off me.
I said nothing. The foam had anointed me. I was now Aphrodite’s. But it was our secret, our private pledge.
Far off on the horizon, the outlines of an island showed itself. I realized I must think of something to say to Gelanor, something innocent. “What island is that?” I asked.
“Cythera,” he said shortly. “It is two days’ sail from here with a fair wind.”
“It beckons me.”
“It is where Aphrodite was born, where she was washed ashore on a seashell, emerging from the foam. Better to have your sights on nearby Cranae.” He pointed to the island just offshore that had intrigued me. “It is far easier to attain.”
The way back seemed short; perhaps I also had fresh strength in my legs. Gelanor had put the shellfish into a stone tank near the shore filled with seawater for his parents to sell to the Phoenicians when they arrived. He had gathered heaps of them; they almost filled the tank.
“Better than farming,” he said. “The dye itself will fetch ten to twenty times its weight in gold.”
I had selected two fat ones to show to Menelaus, and we were carrying them carefully in a sealed jar of water.
Now I eagerly looked at the landscape as we walked through it, the guards trudging a respectful distance behind. We were climbing the hills that screened Gytheum; when we passed beyond it, the sea would vanish from sight. Oaks and yews clung to the slopes, stubbornly pointing skyward. I heard the goat bells of herds that grazed on the hills; I saw their keepers sleeping under the trees, dozing in the shade.
“Let us stop,” I asked Gelanor. I had an overwhelming urge to sit down on this hill near the goatherds; why, I did not know.
He looked at me quizzically. “We have barely started,” he said. “Tired already?”
“No, not tired.”
“I wish to linger a few moments,” I said, and sat down. I leaned against the trunk of an old myrtle—sacred to Aphrodite—and closed my eyes. The high tinkling sound of the goatherds’ bells played like lyres in the air. A pungent, sweet smell of wild thyme rode the breeze.
Suddenly time and place vanished, as it had in the cave. I kept my eyes shut—had not Aphrodite told me they interfere with the other senses?—and stilled the racing of my heart. I let my mind drift free; I smelled the scents around me, heard the sounds, felt the hard, pebbly ground under my feet. I saw another mountain, a higher one, with green meadows and wildflowers and butterflies playing in and out; I heard the splashing of a stream, falling down into a pool; I felt the shady coolness. Somehow, too, I smelled cattle, their hot, thick scent, and heard them low—so different from the bleats of sheep and goats. And then I saw—somewhere in my head, in this waking dream—a herdsman sleeping, dreaming, his head pillowed with green grass and meadow flowers. He had a smile on his face. And I could see inside his dream, and that there were goddesses parading before him, three of them.
In the man’s dream, he rose and conferred with Aphrodite. I could not hear what passed between them, but there was smiling and agreement. Then the goddesses all vanished and the man awoke, rolling over and sitting up. He clasped his knees with his hands and sighed.
“We must get up,” Gelanor said. “We have a long day’s walk.”
Yes. We must go. I stood, the images still swirling in my mind. These goddesses—that herdsman—the steep mountainside with its cascading streams—what had they to do with me? As we descended from the hills—not really mountains—the fields and forests around us were very different.
It was past sunset when we reached Sparta. The last trudge up the hill to the palace seemed very long, coming at the end of the journey. As we passed through the gates, I saw Agamemnon’s horses and chariot in the outer courtyard, and smelled roasting ox. We had visitors, official ones.
Exhaustion gripped me. My feet were dusty and aching from the journey; all I wished was to send for a quiet supper in my quarters and retire. I turned to Gelanor. “Oh, no,” I said.
He shook his head. “My lady, this is where being an ordinary man is more desirable than being queen. For I may rest and you may not.”
“It is not fair!” I said.
He laughed, and leaned over to kiss my cheek. “Courage!” he said, saluting me.
Should I go to my chambers and wait to be summoned? Or should I go directly to the megaron and have it over with? I decided it was best to go to the gathering. Once I reached my chambers it would be hard to leave.
I walked through the open porch and the portico of the vestibule and entered the great megaron. To my relief, there were not many people there.
Menelaus hurried up. “Dear wife, we have had some tragic news.”
Agamemnon followed him. “Our grandfather Catreus on Crete has died. We must go and make obsequies for him.” He held up his hands to check condolences. “It was not unexpected. And he has lived a long time, longer than our father.” He drew in a heavy breath. “But we must delay for nine days.”
“Why is that?” I did not understand.
“At the very same time that I received the news of Grandfather, these . . . visitors . . . appeared. We have two conflicting protocols. One is that a family funeral must be attended; the other that a foreign guest or envoy must be entertained for nine days.”
Menelaus nodded. “So I will hold them here, feast them, and so on. Agamemnon will return to Mycenae and ready the ships for our journey to Crete.”
Crete! “May I accompany you?” I asked. I had so longed to see Crete.
“No,” said Menelaus. “You are not of his direct blood. Besides, I must leave you here in charge of Sparta while I am gone.”
“But Father or Mother—”
“No. You stay here.” Did he say this to satisfy Agamemnon?
“Who are these envoys?” I was not to go to Crete. Would I ever see anything? Even the journey to nearby Gytheum had required special permission.
“They are from Troy! Troy!” muttered Agamemnon. “One is Priam’s son, the other his cousin. Paris and Aeneas.”
“Troy?” I found it hard to believe.
“Indeed. They came on an embassy about their aunt Hesione. Priam sent them. I see he fears war!” Agamemnon chuckled.
“Or perhaps he thinks it would be foolish, and hopes to lay all this strife to rest,” said Menelaus.
Such a possibility did not please Agamemnon, yearning for war, even one based on an old woman content with her lot. “Bah!” He laughed and turned a smiling face to me. “Come. Come and meet them.”
Menelaus held out his hand and I took it. Together we entered the hall.
He had not asked me about the shellfish; I hoped Gelanor could keep them alive until morning.
The two visitors were standing by the open hearth in the middle of the megaron. They turned, almost in unison, as we approached. One wore a deerskin and the other a purple-dyed mantle held over the shoulder with a brooch.
They were both handsome—one was dark-haired, with almost perfect features. (No wonder; later I was to learn he was Aphrodite’s own son.) But it was the other one, the light-haired one, broad-shouldered and tall, that I stared at.
It was the herdsman in my dream. And he was staring hard at me.
“Paris,” he said, inclining his head.
“Aeneas,” said the dark one.
They were like gods. They were gods. That was what they said of the Trojans—that they were so beautiful even the gods themselves carried them off. Trojans are most like to gods of all mortal men in beauty and stature, Aphrodite whispered to me, as she brushed by me in the evening like a moth, delicate and white.
I struggled for speech. Then I berated myself. This was absurd.
“Helen,” I said.
“The immortal Helen,” Paris said. His face seemed lit with a glow of gold.
“No, not immortal,” I said. “I shall perish as everyone else.”
All this passed in an instant, but our words did not matter. We kept looking at one another. For the first few minutes I wanted to tell him my dream of him on the mountain, ask him what it meant. But even that passed away, as a great stillness fell upon me and I was content just to look at him.
“We are come in the name of peace,” he said. “We are distressed that Priam’s inquiries about his sister have been so rudely rebuffed.”
Even his voice resonated, lovely as the pipes of Pan in glens. “But she is content where she is,” I said.
“Helen is not to speak of political matters.” Agamemnon’s harsh voice cut across the night. “My brother and I are the ones empowered to negotiate, not his wife!” Obedient, subservient laughter rose from around the room.
“I am a woman,” I persisted. “And I think I can speak of what women feel.”
“Her feelings are immaterial!” bellowed Agamemnon.
Paris and Aeneas kept silent; I thought the more highly of them. But I could not keep my eyes from Paris. For the first time perhaps in my entire life, I felt desire course through me. I wanted to possess him, devour him, take him away in a chain and have him always at my command. At the same time I wanted to give him anything he desired; anything. And I wanted to be with him every instant. And so far we had not spoken a single private word.
Oh, Aphrodite! I cried in my thoughts. You are indeed the most powerful goddess, you have subjugated my sense and my thoughts and reason.
Yet I did not wish to be freed. I felt more alive than ever before, even as I was an abject prisoner.
I walked, as lightly as a nymph, back to my chamber. Had I felt weary? No longer. Now I felt as fleet as I had the day I raced beside the banks of the Eurotas, but I wanted to run toward Paris, not away from a starting line.
Dreamily I let the attendants remove my clothes, attire me for sleep. I raised my arms, reaching for the ceiling; I felt them untying my hair, letting it fall down my back. Light robes swirled as they dropped them over my head down to my ankles.
“Dear Queen,” one said, gesturing toward the bed, bowing. Then, impulsively, she reached for an alabaster vial of rose oil, unstoppered it, and stroked some of the oil across my throat. “Until the true roses bloom,” she said.
Oh, but they had. They had! I took her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” I said.
I lay down, pulling the linen over me, aching to be alone, to think. I shut my eyes, and went back to the cave and the roses and the foam and the anointing. And then, the dream and the herdsman in it. The herdsman who was here. But he was no herdsman, he was a prince of Troy. None of it made sense. My head spun.
Paris. His name was Paris. Had I not heard earlier . . . somewhere . . . of him? Paris. Yes . . . that child who had been exposed, set out to die, and who had later returned to his father, Priam.
But why would they want to leave him to die? He had no blemishes, he was not impaired. Why would a mother and father expose such a son? Sometimes a daughter might be exposed, her only fault being that she was a daughter. But a royal son . . . Of course, Priam had so many, he need not miss one. Had not an omen been mentioned?
To think that Paris might not have lived. I could not bear even to contemplate it, to think it was only chance that he lived, and breathed, and was here in Sparta.
Paris. Why was I drawn to him and not to Aeneas, who was also handsome? I could not say; only that the sight of Paris had . . . inflamed me, that was the only word for it.
A loud noise made me open my eyes; a thump as something was thrown down; Menelaus was tossing his mantle with its heavy brooch onto a chest. So he had come to me tonight. The attendants had left a lamp burning, and in the dim light I saw him standing, stretching, his skimpy tunic leaving his broad, muscular shoulders to gleam faintly. I saw them move as he lowered his arms.
Had Aphrodite touched me in regard to him? At last, could I see him with eyes of desire? That would be far better than anything else, far, far better. Give me that Aphrodite vision, bathe my vision of my husband in it! Let me be one of those fortunate wives! Let the net of desire fall over my faithful husband, Menelaus!
He came closer. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, how would I see him?
“You have had a long journey,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed; it gave under his weight. “I hope you have enjoyed it?” His voice was warm and soft.
“Indeed, I have. And we brought you”—I opened my eyes—“a sample of the shellfish, as you requested.”
“Thank you.” His voice was gentle. He reached over to touch my cheek.
I recoiled. It was all I could do not to shudder.
The net did not fall over him. It was exclusive to Paris.
“Oh!” I cried, close to a sob. I did not want this to be the answer, Aphrodite’s cruel answer. I turned away.
We lay side by side, quietly, as we did so many nights. I drifted away into dreams—but slight, fractured things—and kept emerging out into consciousness, like the moon sliding out between clouds. At length I felt so wide awake that I stole from the bed and put on my mantle.
I did not know where to go, what to do. I could not stay in this chamber for fear of making noise and waking Menelaus. The rest of the palace slept in darkness; the guards kept watch outside, but everything else was quiet.
My fingers trembling, I pulled open the door and slipped out. Immediately I felt calmer. I merely needed to be alone, truly alone, for a time. I needed to think, not to have to speak to anyone. Gelanor was very dear, but he examined everything and asked questions. Menelaus—no, I could never tell Menelaus.
Perhaps I should go to the shrine of—no, it was the gods who had caused this. But . . . the household altar, the shrine where the sacred snake lived, the snake I had brought back from Asclepius’s temple . . . yes, that might be what I sought. There was no particular god there, just the spirits of our house and dynasty.
I walked out across the portico; the rising moon made long shadows of the pillars. I walked through them, a forest of shadow-trees with bright clearings.
The small, circular marble room nearby, with its altar in the center, glowed with reflected moonlight. Two votive lamps flickered on the floor. I sank down on a bench along the wall and clasped my hands in my lap.
Yesterday’s honey cake offering for the snake lay to one side of a lamp. I had been diligent in taking care of him, as I had promised. He had grown a great deal in the eight winters since he had come here. And he was fond of me; at least, I liked to think so. It is hard to know what a serpent thinks. But he always glided out to see me. Where was he tonight? Perhaps he slept, as all the world did.
This was the first private breath I had taken since the cave had beckoned me. I wanted to transcend myself, the palace, Menelaus, even Aphrodite herself. You, my pet snake, you are the only one I want to touch and speak to, I thought. And as if in response to a command, he glided out from behind the altar.
I got up and came over to him, being careful to move smoothly, with no jerky movements—snakes do not like them. I bent down and stroked his slick head.
“My friend,” I whispered, “I rejoice to see you.”
He raised his head up and flicked his tongue.
“You protect our household.”
No answer from him; but he did move over toward me and approach my feet.
“Oh, I cannot even tell you what has happened,” I murmured to him, “but I know you guard our household and you will warn us if there is any danger.”
He reared himself up and, surprisingly, coiled around my ankle. Then he tightened his grip.
“Dear friend, can you not speak more clearly?” Was he trying to warn me? I reached down and tried to uncoil him, but he clenched even more tightly. It became painful. “I cannot translate what you are saying,” I told him. “But you must release my foot. You are causing me distress.” I tried again to uncoil him. His strength was surprising. I could not unwind him without injuring him.
A soft voice came from the shadows. “He is trying to tell you something.”
No. Even here, even here I could not be alone. I whirled around.
“Who is there?” I demanded. The snake still clung to my ankle.
There was no answer. Only the shuffling of footsteps. Then, out into the dim, white-tinged light, stepped Paris.
“Oh!” My hands flew to my mouth.
He came closer. I could not breathe. “Oh,” I repeated mindlessly.
“Shall I help you with the snake?” He knelt down and touched it, gently, but the snake had already loosened himself and was moving away. Paris leaned forward and kissed my ankle, at the place where the snake had been entwined. His lips were warm and set me to boil. I snatched my foot away.
“He—he is gone,” I said. It was all I could say.
Slowly Paris straightened himself and stood to his full height, a goodly height. He looked down at me.
“I came here because I could not sleep,” he said. Ordinary words.
“Nor could I.” More ordinary words.
We could not sleep. We could not sleep for thinking of one another, but who could say it?
“Yes,” I finally managed. “Yes.”
“Helen—” He paused and took a very deep breath, a breath meant to stop the next words. But it was an inadequate dam; the words spilled over it. “You are all they say you are. Oh, you know that all too well! How many foolish fumbling mouths have spat it out? Yes, your beauty is . . . godesslike. But it is not your beauty that draws me, it is something else, something I cannot even frame in words.” He looked up at the dark ceiling and laughed. “You see how it robs me of speech, how it cannot be expressed? But not being able to express it makes it no less real. I feel you, Helen, in my deepest part, and yet I have no words to describe it.”
“I saw you in a waking dream,” I told him. “I saw you on a mountain, in a meadow, with goddesses.”
“Oh, that was a foolish dream,” he said quickly. “But if it made you think of me, then I must be grateful for it.”
“I am married.”
“I know that.”
“And a mother.”
“I know that. That is what makes it so unthinkable.”
“The gods delight to sport with us.”
He was standing there, all desire gathered into one being. I reached out, embraced him. He was no dream; he did not vanish. He clasped me to him, and he was so real his arms around me hurt in their strength. I kissed him. His lips unlocked a rush of desire in me, the first I had ever felt.
I had longed for this, hungered for it, imagined it, but never tasted it. Now it exploded with all the gush of sweet fruit fresh from the tree, of honey new-smoked from the hive, too rich for use.
“Helen,” he murmured.
A moment longer and I would have lain down beside the marble altar and taken him to me. But no, it was all too soon, and I tore myself out of his arms.
“Paris,” I said. “I do not know—I cannot—”
“Do you love me?” he asked. Only four words. Four simple words. He stood there in all his beauty and asked them. They were, after all, all that mattered.
“Yes.” I choked. “But—” I turned and ran away.
How could I love a man I did not know?
But I did know him. I had known him since the beginning of the world, from its very formation. Or so it felt. I knew him better than I knew Menelaus, better than I knew Clytemnestra, better, in the deepest sense, than even I knew myself.
Yet I did not know him, truly, at all! Only through Aphrodite did I know him. And what sort of knowing—true or false—was that?
What are they really here for?” I asked Menelaus sleepily as I opened my eyes and saw him fastening his cloak. My head ached; I felt as if I had been struck on the back of my neck. I could not believe that what I remembered about the night had really happened. Surely it was a dream. I reached down and touched my ankle, and it was a bit sore from my encounter with the snake. But even if I had gone to the shrine, perhaps I had been walking in my sleep. Now Menelaus would turn to me and say, What is who here for? I don’t know what you mean, and I would sigh in relief.
“King Priam sent them,” he said. “That’s what they claim. Word of Agamemnon’s mutterings have reached Troy, evidently. So they came on Priam’s behalf to request that Hesione be returned to her native home, or at least that they be allowed to speak to her.”
I sat up. So it was true. Trojans were here. “And were they?”
Menelaus snorted. “No, of course not. Agamemnon could not allow that. Hesione would say she was content, then Priam would have to stop lamenting about it, and Agamemnon would have nothing to complain against Priam about.” He sighed. “The young men, to their credit, do not seem exactly on fire to free Hesione. I suspect they came to humor the king, and to see Greece. Young men like to roam.”
I stood up and clapped my hands for my attendant to come. “I am sorry about your grandfather,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “As soon as this entertaining is over, I go to Crete. Protocol . . .” He shook his head. “Of course, guests are sacred, and obligations must be honored.”
Yes. Even when someone was dying, or had died. We all knew the story about how King Admetus entertained Heracles in the palace even though the queen was dying, because hospitality demanded it. Heracles only found out there was anything amiss when he heard the slaves wailing.
“Yes,” I said. “Such is custom.”
Nine days for Paris to be our guest. Nine days . . . I was afraid to come out of my chambers and see him again. I was equally afraid not to see him again.
So that Agamemnon could be quickly on his way, it was decided to hold the traditional ceremonial feast for the guests that night. So—any dream I had of hiding in my quarters was gone. I gave orders that the food be prepared, and the cooks worked from noon on with no rest. I set the servants to work decorating with budding branches of wild pear and almond trees, and ordered the most skilled players of the lyre from the town to present themselves at twilight. I sent word to Mother, Father, and my brothers, as well as Hermione, that they were to be present. It no longer felt strange to summon my mother and father; I had walked in the sandals of a queen, worn the gold diadem long enough, that I truly presided over the palace. I made sure I issued all these commands from my own chambers; I did not want to venture out into the rest of the palace yet, lest I encounter Paris.
The hour of twilight, the time of the blue light and what some called “first dark” had come. The sun was gone, and in his wake the bright star of Aphrodite gleamed on the horizon, white and full. A light wind, warm and soft, sprang up from the south.
I needed to dress, and I allowed my maids to choose something for me; I scarcely knew what it was. Truly it did not matter; I wished to be invisible, and had I a robe that made that possible, that was what I would have chosen. As it was, I had to endure the weaving of gold ornaments into my locks, the fastening of the gold diadem with its sun-spiral patterns across my brow, and the murmurs of appreciation for it all.
“You are so oddly quiet tonight, my lady,” said one of my attendants. “I believe we could put a sow’s bladder on your head and you would not object.”
Her chatter set me on edge. “Oh, do be silent,” I told her. I saw her give the other attendant a look, a raised eyebrow.
Full dark had come, and torches were blazing in the hall. I heard the musicians playing, saw the light spilling out across the vestibule entrance. I took a deep breath and stepped forward. I had barely walked three paces before I could feel my head throbbing behind the diadem.
Inside, I saw Mother holding Hermione’s hand, pointing out the strangers.
“Dear daughter,” said Mother, turning to me. “I think this is a good way to teach Hermione about courtly feasts. After all, she is nine, and her lifetime will include many of them.” Mother and I had long since stopped alluding to the possibility of Hermione having a brother or sister.
“Mother!” Hermione bowed to me. “You look—you look like a queen!” My daughter usually only saw me in my everyday attire, as we played together in the palace or took walks.
“She is a queen,” said Mother proudly.
“As are you,” I reminded her. I bent down and smiled at Hermione. “As you someday will be, Princess. It is not so difficult. Why, it only means wearing special clothes occasionally. For the rest of it, a queen’s life should be like any other’s, only it should be able to bear being watched more closely.”
“Why is that?” Hermione asked. She knitted her brows.
“Because many people watch a queen and, sad to say, they look for faults in her.”
“They’ll find none in you!” she said stoutly.
I could not help but smile at her wholehearted loyalty. O, let me be worthy of it! “Oh, as you grow older you’ll see faults aplenty,” I assured her.
“These men,” said Mother. “I like them not.” She was frowning in the direction of the crackling hearth fire of cedar and sandalwood that perfumed the air. “I fear they are here to spy upon us, that Priam has sent them to find our weaknesses. I think he means to attack us.”
“Over his elderly sister?” Her suspicion surprised me.
“We all know that is just an excuse,” she said. She drew closer to me and I could smell the faint scent of lily, her favorite oil. “Troy finds us tempting to invade, and Agamemnon has already decided in his heart to attack Troy. Oh, I am filled with fear!” Her soft voice trembled. “I smell a war not far away.”
I remembered the weapons and war talk not long hence at Mycenae. “I pray you are wrong,” was all I said, while my heart felt a chill.
“Come, I want to see them!” Hermione was tugging at my hand.
Menelaus turned as we approached, his face filling with pleasure. He opened his arms to welcome us. Just beyond his embrace I could see Paris, standing stiffly. I could only see part of his face, but from that glimpse, I felt the hot and cold run through me. It was still here. It had not vanished with the night. It was no dream.
“Our honored guests,” Menelaus said, stepping back slightly and turning me toward them. “Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, and Aeneas, prince of Dardania and son of—”
“Oh, please no,” said Aeneas quickly. He was actually blushing.
“—Anchises,” finished Menelaus. He turned to me. “Helen, I was speaking to them of my own voyage to Troy.” He squeezed me closer to him. “Yes, in my youth. I am familiar with it. Tell me.” Oh, he was straining so hard to be bright and cheerful. “The citadel on the crest of the city, the shrine to Athena—I remember it so well—is it the same?”
It was Aeneas, not Paris, who spoke. “Oh, yes. The shrine with its sacred image of Athena, the one we call the Pallas Athena, remains as it was first built. We honor it with festivals and sacrifices.”
“And are the heights still so windy?” He laughed. “Of course they would still be, if my memory serves. Winds do not change. Once I set down a leather pouch—heavily laden, I can tell you—on a bench near the oak growing on the northwestern edge of the summit. I thought ridding myself of the weight would help me to keep my footing. As I watched, the wind moved the pouch to the edge and finally toppled it over. It hit the ground with a thud.”
Paris laughed. “It has been that way since I have been there.”
That voice. That inimitable voice! I heard it again and my heart sang.
“He hasn’t been there long enough to know about the winds.” An ugly voice intruded itself. Agamemnon was speaking. “Have you?”
If he expected Paris to shrink before this slap, he thought wrong. Paris just smiled and laughed, as light as a butterfly. “No, I haven’t.” He turned to the rest of us, confiding, “All my life I’ve been a prince, but I’ve only known it a short time.”
“And why is that?” Agamemnon persisted.
“My fortune reversed itself overnight,” Paris said. “But let us wait until everyone can hear. It is a tale that wears out in much retelling.”
Agamemnon grunted. He flourished a gold cup filled with wine. “I trust everyone has wine?” he asked pointedly. Our guests’ hands were empty.
Menelaus went into a flurry of apologies. I cringed to see him doing so.
“There is wine aplenty if the guests will just avail themselves of it.” I was glaring at Agamemnon as I spoke.
“I sense that the guest gifts must be presented or we shall never proceed to the feast itself.” Paris gestured to one of his Trojan retainers. “I cannot accept another moment of hospitality at the hand of the great king and queen of Sparta without offering my profound respect.”
Two men struggled into the hall balancing a tall bronze tripod, exquisitely fashioned. Its three feet had eagle claws grasping globes, and from them rose braided legs to hold a wide bowl for offerings.
“No fire has ever touched it,” said Paris. “It has waited for you.”
Menelaus stepped forward and stroked one of its legs. I looked upward at the subtly convex bowl crowning it. It was truly a work of art.
“Magnificent,” said Menelaus.
“I am pleased that it has found favor in the eyes of the king.”
“The artisans of Troy are cunning.” The heavy voice of Agamemnon—as heavy as the weariness at day’s end, of a tedious cousin, of an overstuffed bag.
“We pride ourselves on our skill,” said Paris. “But it is all at your service.”
This effusion was revolting. Yet it was customary. Now Menelaus must present him with our gift—something smaller that he could carry away easily.
I give you Helen, my wife. Here, take her. You will find her of finest workmanship. I trust she will please you. Menelaus takes me by the wrist and leads me to Paris.
I saw it all in my mind, in a perfect picture. Oh, if only it could have been so simple, so easily accomplished. For it came to that in the end.
Two of our slaves rolled in a large bronze cauldron. Paris and Aeneas affected surprise and pleasure.
“This, too, has never seen the touch of fire,” said Menelaus. It was all part of the ritual of gift exchange. A never-used vessel was of the highest value. No one ever used the vessels hereafter, either. They stored them as proof of how they were esteemed by others. The most precious materials and skill were thus lavished on things never to be desecrated by actual use.
Then lesser gifts followed. Swords, bowls, goblets.
“And strongest of all, stronger than bronze,” said Menelaus, “is the sacred bond between host and guest, xenia. Zeus himself sets the rules for it, the rules of trust and honor.”
Paris and Aeneas bowed their heads.
“Now let us go in to feast,” said Menelaus, raising his arm in signal.
One end of the megaron had been laid out with a long table where we were to seat ourselves and eat. Ordinarily we ate at many small tables, even with a large company, but Father seemed keen on being able to hear all the conversations and miss nothing.
The long table—a huge board propped on trestles—seated the Trojans, the present royal family, and the former royal family. My brothers joined us, belatedly seating themselves, murmuring apologies. I was seated between Paris and Menelaus. I dared not ask that Paris be moved, but I longed to. The nearer he was, the more difficult it was for me.
“My sons,” said Father. “Castor and Polydeuces.”
“The famous wrestler and boxer,” said Paris. “It is a privilege to meet you.”
“Paris is a boxer,” said Aeneas, from the other end of the table.
“No—” Paris shook his head.
“Oh, but he is. Or rather, he claimed his inheritance through boxing.”
“Really? Tell me!” Polydeuces, the boxer, said.
Paris rose and looked around at the company. His knuckles rested on the table and I felt the table move. “I promised you, King Agamemnon, to tell you of my late coming to my father’s household. This is part of the story. But I fear our dinner will be greatly delayed if I tell it all.”
“It will only increase our appetite,” said Father. “Whereas if we wait until our bellies are full, we may be dull of hearing. Pray, tell it.”
Paris must have smiled; I could not see his face, but I could hear it in his voice. “Very well. I shall try to make it short, unlike bards, who string out a story for days.” He took a breath. “I was raised as a herdsman on the slopes of Mount Ida,” he said.
“The mountain near Troy where Zeus was raised,” intoned Hermione, who had spent much time learning all these things. “It has many goodly springs and flowers.”
“Indeed, Princess,” said Paris. “That is why I was happy there. I tended cattle and—”
“He routed a band of cattle thieves when he was little more than a boy,” said Aeneas. He nodded toward us. “He is too modest, he will never tell it all.”
Paris shook his finger at Aeneas. “Quiet, or we shall never get through the story. I discovered that I had a way with bulls. I could control them, and soon I was sought after for local bull-judging contests. I had a reputation for fairness, that’s why. And then one of my prize bulls was taken from me to be sacrificed at Troy in a tribute. I lost my temper—I loved that bull, I had raised it from a calf! Why did the selfish king of Troy demand him? I decided to follow after, to compete in the tribute games, and win the bull back.” He bent over—he was still standing, although the rest of us were seated—and took a long drink of wine. Looking up, I saw his throat moving. I quickly looked away.
“My father tried to stop me. I did not know why. He warned me against going to Troy; he told me to forget the bull. ‘The king’s whims are law, my son,’ he had said. But nothing more.
“I brushed this aside, and set out for Troy. Out on the plain before the city gates a contest field was laid out. I had never seen such an elaborate thing—all my races had been barefoot through mountain meadows, but these were formal, along a track. Still, I was so angry about the bull, I entered them. And I won. Anger gave my feet wings. And then there was the final contest, boxing. I had never boxed before, but, as I said, anger pushed me forward. I won that as well. But I do not know if I could ever repeat it. I do not understand how I accomplished it. I had no training, no method.”
“He accomplished it through courage rather than skill,” said Aeneas. “That was the fair judgment. But it qualified him as the champion of the tribute games. And he was ready to ask for the bull as a prize when suddenly the sons of Priam turned on him and tried to kill him, they were so angry at being defeated by a herdsman, a rustic from the mountains. Only when his father—who had followed Paris there—begged them to stop because he was their brother was all revealed.” He took a breath. “I mean, that he was not truly his father but had merely raised him. Paris was the son of King Priam. So, after it was proved, Priam said, ‘Better Troy should fall than that my wonderful son should be lost again.’ And thus the household of Priam gained a son.”
“As if he did not have sons enough,” said Agamemnon.
If he heard it, Paris took no notice. “Aeneas, dear cousin, I see you will not allow me to recite my own story. So be it.” He took another drink of wine. “I might have taken longer and detained these good hosts even longer from their food. This we must not have!” He sat down and set his goblet on the table.
“Why had your father King Priam cast you aside? Why were you lost in the first place?” Of course it was Agamemnon who asked that, the indelicate, unspeakable question.
The servers were bringing in platters of food—boiled goat and mutton, roasted wild boar—and we had to suspend our talking as our plates were filled.
“Because there was—”
A second set of servers appeared, bearing herb-flavored sausage, and then pots of honey smoked from the hives, and bowls of wild figs and pears, and finally containers of goat cheese and nuts.
People began to talk to their companions, talk of pleasant, inconsequential things. But Agamemnon’s voice cut through the murmurs. “Tell us, good prince. Tell us why your father cast you out of the palace,” he persisted.
“Mmmm . . .” Paris was chewing the meat.
“Oh, young man, seek not to evade the question!” Agamemnon tried to sound jolly.
Paris took his time finishing the mouthful of meat and at length said, “If you are determined to have it, here it is, though I fear it may sound the wrong note in this happy company. There was an omen about my birth, an omen that said I would be the destruction of Troy. So they sought to prevent that.” I could hear the tiny tremor in his voice. Curses to Agamemnon for forcing him to say this—this which must cause him distress!
“So that is what Priam meant when he said, ‘Better Troy should fall than that my wonderful son should be lost again,’ ” said Father. “I see.” He wiped his mouth. “Well, that’s a brave father!”
“Now, wouldn’t you do the same for us?” teased Castor, leaning toward Father.
Father laughed. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’d be better off if I’d sent you off to the Taygetus mountains, like other parents do bad children.”
“Well, you would have had to send both of us,” said Polydeuces. “We do not tolerate being separated.”
“It doesn’t happen very often,” said Agamemnon. “Royal families hardly ever expose infants nowadays. Only the most dreadful situation would require it.” He took a long, slow drink from his cup, then set it down slowly, precisely. Then he gave Paris a riveting look, settling back in his chair.
Mother, beside him, looked at both the guests and asked brightly, “And are you married?” But I knew the question was not innocent and was meant for Paris, not Aeneas.
“Yes, madam, I am,” said Aeneas. His dark hair shone like a raven’s wing as he dipped his head politely, catching glints of the torchlight. “I have the privilege to be married to Creusa, the daughter of King Priam.”
Mother raised her eyebrows. “My, my. The son-in-law of the king himself! But isn’t—wasn’t—there a prophecy about your descendants ruling Troy, and so—”
“Enough, enough prophecies!” Paris waved his arm in dismissal. “They take away our appetites, our appetites for this fine food, and make us rude guests.”
So far I had not really looked at him; because he was so close beside me, I could not see him unless I turned my head completely around. I started to do so and caught Mother staring at me.
“And are you married, Paris?” she persisted.
“No, I am not,” he said. “But I pray daily to Aphrodite, that she will send me a wife of her choosing.”
Castor burst out in a laugh that made him spray wine out of his mouth all over the table. He smeared it around, attempting to clean it up. “Oh, oh, my boy, you have quite a sense of humor.”
“He’s so used to saying it, I think he’s come to believe it,” said Aeneas. “He just keeps repeating it whenever his family urges him to marry.”
“He isn’t old enough,” said Menelaus. I realized those were the first words he had spoken during the meal. “He is intelligent enough to know that.”
“How old are you, Paris?” Mother asked, with that artificial brightness. Why had she taken a dislike to him?
“Sixteen,” he said.
Sixteen! Nine years younger than I!
“A mere lad,” said Agamemnon. “But then, that’s what cowherds usually are—lads.”
“He isn’t a cowherd!” I said.
“Oh, but I was a cowherd, and a very good one, too,” said Paris quickly. “Those were dreamy days, there in the mountains—the cedars with their blue and purple shadows, the south wind in the trees, the waterfalls and meadows of flowers—yes, memories I cherish, those days with my cattle.”
“Is that Zeus mountain very high?” asked Hermione.
“Yes, very high indeed, and big, wide, with lots of little mountains around it. Mind you, it’s not as high as Mount Olympus, which no man can climb, but it’s high enough to get foggy and cold and let you lose your way.”
Just then there was a flourish and a special course was announced. One of the slaves, a pretty girl, gestured toward a cauldron being wheeled in and said, “The famous black broth of Sparta!” A slave behind her set out bowls for each of us.
The black broth of Sparta: supposedly it could be stomached only by true Spartans.
I had grown up drinking it, and did not find it distasteful, although even I preferred clear almond broth. The blackness of the broth came from swine’s blood; its pungent taste from the vinegar and salt mixed with it. The slave ladled some into my bowl and sprinkled it with goat cheese. The characteristic odor of the soup, reminiscent of standing downwind from a fresh sacrifice, wafted up from the bowls.
When Paris and Aeneas were served, all eyes fastened on them. They both smiled, but after the first sip Aeneas looked to be in pain. He held the liquid in his mouth and had to command his throat to open and accept it. Then it was Paris’s turn. He turned the bowl up to his mouth and I could hear him gulping it down. Then I saw the empty bowl set back on the table. He had swallowed it all in only one gulp.
“Ah,” he said. “Justly famous.”
I knew he must have swallowed it so swiftly to avoid savoring and actually tasting it.
Mother motioned to the server. “More for Prince Paris,” she said, and his bowl was refilled.
“Your kindness is striking,” said Paris. He picked up the bowl and held it in his fingers. “And what of the others?” he asked. No one else had a second helping. But it would not have mattered; we were inured to it.
“I’ll have some,” said Agamemnon, holding out his bowl.
There was no help for it, and Paris drank his down. I could sense his throat trying to close, but he mastered it.
“Bravo! Bravo!” said Castor. “And he didn’t even grimace.”
“I suppose you must be used to rough fare, having grown up in that cowherd’s hut,” said Mother. “This is probably dainty to you.”
“No, madam,” said Paris. “Hardly dainty, but distinctive. And in the hut of my foster father we ate well enough, simple food, but simple is best—closest to that which the gods give us.”
“So you are most at home in huts?” Mother could not have sounded more puzzled and disapproving.
“I can be at home anywhere,” said Paris. “Even in a foreign place like Sparta. Fortunate, isn’t it? The world is my home.”
“Yes, that is fortunate,” said Menelaus. “That means you can never be an exile.”
A noise near the hearth behind us caught our attention. I turned, just as Menelaus said, “Here are the dancers! Let us leave this table.”
Ten lithe boys, wearing only short tunics, stood in line, holding balls in each hand. Their leader bowed to us and explained their dance; they came from Crete. At the mention of Crete, Menelaus sighed. Soon he would be sailing there.
At a hand clap, the dancers began to weave and move swiftly in a pattern that seemed very intricate to me, coming together in a circle, then falling back, then exchanging places in an elaborate design. Just when it seemed most confusing and complicated, they began tossing balls to one another, catching them as they moved, so the dance was a swirl of movement and color. Their skill at throwing and catching while moving was breathtaking.
We stood around them in our own circle, and I was on the side opposite from Paris. I could only glimpse him through the movement; in the dull light he was almost hidden.
The dancers pranced out of the hall and the singers filed in, clutching their lyres. Bowing, they looked around and addressed us all, saying the usual things about not being worthy, and so on. Menelaus waved his arm impatiently for them to get on with it. This was the part of a ceremonial feast where everyone was ready to depart but custom demanded extensive entertainment, and the higher-ranking the guests, the more extensive.
The singers stood straight as the columns in the hall, holding their lyres out and closing their eyes. One by one they sang, sweet songs of dawn and dusk and the beauty of the stars. Paris had crept closer to me; now only Hermione was between us. I saw her pull on Paris’s hand and point to a lyre.
“That’s made of a tortoiseshell!” she murmured.
“Yes, indeed,” said Paris brightly.
“That’s wrong!” said Hermione, her voice too loud. “They shouldn’t kill them for that!”
Paris bent down and made a “quiet” signal to her, but she went on. “I have them for pets. People shouldn’t kill them for their shells!”
“Not even for sweet music?” said Paris.
Paris now knelt on one knee. “And where do you keep these pets?” he asked. “Will you show them to me?”
“They’re in a secret place,” said Hermione.
“But will you show me? I am a special visitor.”
“Yes . . . they’re only secret from the singers, because I don’t want any of them to steal my pets!”
“Tomorrow, then? Do you promise?”
“Yes,” she said, bowing her head and feeling very important. “But you must meet me here, at midday, and I’ll take you.”
“May I come, too?” I asked her. I did not know about these secret tortoises.
“No,” she said. “You’re friends with the singers, you might tell them.”
“I’m not friends with them. I’ve never met them before.”
“Oh, let her come,” said Paris. “I promise she will not tell anyone about them.”
“How do you know that?” said Hermione. “You aren’t her!”
Yes, I am, his mouth soundlessly said.
“All right,” said Hermione. “If you really want her to . . .”
The singers were finishing up, at long last, and we could end the evening. The foreign guests each had to make a little speech, and so did Father and Menelaus and I. I merely said, politely, I was thankful that the gods had sent them to us.
The next morning I watched Menelaus standing listlessly while his attendant helped him dress, bringing out several tunics and mantles before he selected one. He set others aside to take with him to Crete.
“Do you not wish to go to Crete because you dislike traveling by water, or because the death of your grandfather saddens you?” I asked.
“Both,” he said.
“Then you can be happy that he reached the end of his life quietly,” I said. “You know that common wisdom—until the last day of life, we can count no man fortunate.”
“Yes, I know. Fortunes reverse themselves overnight. Thus we are always in a race to the grave, to get there unscathed.”
From outside, the spring noises of birdsong and playing children intruded into the chamber. “Oh, let us not be so gloomy. Life is more than that. They also say that our best revenge against death is to live each day and extract its joys to the full.”
“Like stepping on a grape?” Menelaus laughed. “My dear wife, when did you become such a philosopher?”
Since Paris came. I seek to explain it all to myself, to set it in ways I can grasp . . . I smiled back at him and shrugged.
Menelaus would be busy that day, preparing for his journey. His usual attendants came in, as well as women. One of them—that pretty girl I had noticed presenting the black broth—brought in a small locking box that she claimed was waterproof.
“For the voyage,” she said, smiling.
I was wondering why a kitchen slave was now bringing personal items, when I received a message from Mother, requesting that I come to her chambers.
* * *
I found her at her loom, surrounded by skeins of dyed wool. She had several wheeled baskets arrayed around her, each holding different colors; I saw light blue, pale pink, bright red, yellow, and a startling deep purple, made from the type of shellfish Gelanor had collected. I thought of the live ones we had brought back to Menelaus; by the time he had seen them, they had died. I bent down and picked up one of the balls of yarn, this one a green as dark as cypress.
“What story are you telling?” I asked her.
“The unfinished story of our house,” she said. Her face, fuller with the years, was not soft today. Its lines and planes seemed etched.
“Where have you got to?” I moved beside her, trying to see the pattern.
“As far as I dare,” she said. She looked around to be sure we were alone. “And you have gone as far as you dare, if you do not wish to destroy the tapestry of our family!”
My first thought was, She knows! My second was, But there is nothing to know, it is all in my mind and heart. No one can see into that. My third was, How can I answer this? I gave the predictable, giveaway reply: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
She got off her stool beside the loom. “Oh, please, Helen. You are talking to me. Leda. Leda. I say Leda, not Mother. You understand.”
Yes, I understood. Leda, the name forever linked to the Swan. I nodded. I was exposed. At least it was by my mother, by someone who had faced something similar, and before any damage had been done. Nothing had been done! I assured myself.
“Zeus is different,” she said. “A husband will tolerate Zeus. It cannot be helped. But . . .” she blushed. “Oh, to think I must discuss such things with my daughter!”
“Mother . . .”
“Even with Zeus, it was not easy,” she said. “Things were never the same again with your fa—with Tyndareus. They try to forget, they try to overlook it, but how can they? Could you overlook such an . . . excursion . . . by them?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. Women were expected to, I knew that.
“But this Paris! A child, and the child of foreigners, possible enemies. Oh, I can see how he might dazzle one’s eyes—but Helen! Think!”
I cannot think, thanks to Aphrodite, I thought. I can only feel. I smiled feebly at her.
“I know things have not been . . . passionate with Menelaus. In the past Aphrodite was angered at Tyndareus; perhaps she is taking revenge on him through you. Such is the behavior of the gods. But I beg you, sacrifice to her, seek her favor. She will listen to your request.”
No, the cruel goddess only listens to her own desires, I thought. For some unknown reason she has come down to me and enveloped me. She fulfills her secret reason, I suffer. Such sweet suffering! I sighed, and Mother looked sharply at me.
“Oh, Helen!” she said. “Do not cast yourself away on this . . . boy!”
I was tempted to say, At least he’s human, and not a swan! But I held my tongue. Instead I embraced her, clasping her close to me. “Mother,” I whispered, “it is both a pity and a joy that we are so much alike.”
“Helen, no . . .” she murmured against my neck.
“Would you take it back?” I asked her. “That is the only real question.”
“Yes! Yes, I would! It changed too many things.”
“Then you would make me not to be.” I was stunned. If that would truly be Mother’s choice, then I had been cast away, too, like Paris.
Thus Paris had already caused me to sever a deep link to my family, in my own mind. So far it had not happened outside that realm of the mind, my sad farewell to my mother. Outwardly everything was preserved like figs floating in honey; inwardly the substance was altered, translated into something utterly different.
I waited in the shadows of the colonnade around the forecourt. The shadows were short: it was noon. I nervously fingered my bracelets, distressed about what Mother had said.
Hermione came strolling up, hand in hand with her favorite attendant, Nysa. As always, the sight of her buoyed my spirits. Her long hair spilling out of the little fillet she always wore, her ready smile, touched me. Daughter of my heart. Can any daughter truly know what she means to her mother? Perhaps I had been hasty about Mother; perhaps she would not really have forgone the encounter and erased me. But why had she said it? If it was to quash my feelings for Paris—
“Paris!” Hermione squealed, much more delighted than she had been at seeing me.
But he was closer to her own age . . . a boy! Mother called him a boy!
“Hello, little friend!” Paris was kneeling in front of Hermione, his golden head bent. “I am eager to see these creatures that you hold so dear,” he said.
“Hello, Paris,” I said. Without standing, he raised his head and looked at me. Our eyes locked together. His were a deep amber, the color of a certain kind of brown honey that glows if held up to the sun.
“We are to go on an adventure together,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Yes.” I took a deep breath. “Hermione will lead us.”
Hermione must be with us. If we fled—why was I thinking of this?—she must come with us.
Flee. Leave Sparta and flee? But I was the queen. The queen did not flee. Why was I even thinking of this? He had not asked me to flee.
But what else can happen? I thought. He cannot stay on here as a guest.
No, no, it is impossible! I shook my head.
“Mother, you look possessed!” Hermione giggled. “You are shaking and jumping when there is no reason.”
Possessed. Yes, I was possessed.
Paris laughed, a golden laugh. “Come, I am eager to see your pets.” He steered her away, so that she was looking down the path, before he turned back to look at me.
The way through the palace woods quickly seemed as secret as the hidden pen itself. Tall trees closed overhead, their tops whispering. Early spring flowers poked up through the forest floor, white against the shade, where they would bloom and fade unseen. I let Paris and Hermione go far ahead of me; I wanted them to get to know one another. I prayed that she liked him.
But why? Helen, why? It can have no purpose. Yet the fearsome roar of Aphrodite in my soul was as loud as . . . as loud as a waterfall I heard off to one side of the path.
I slowed my steps and turned to see where it might be. The sweet sound of flowing water always drew me. There seemed to be a grotto of some sort in the dim light ahead. Strange I had never discovered it in all my wanderings.
A breeze was murmuring with cool breath from that direction as I approached. I saw a gushing spring tumbling over rocks to empty into a deep oval pool, where its ripples spread out to stony edges. All was green, black, and white—green plants, black pool, white spray. And then, movement: the flash of human flesh.
Lovers were hidden here! I almost laughed at my own shock. Was I still so innocent? If I moved, they would surely see me and freeze. Feeling benevolent, I did not wish to disturb them. I was content to wait to make my escape. I sat down and held my breath. My only concern was that the path to Hermione’s pets might branch off and I would not know which to choose. Oh, let these lovers be quick about it! I thought, then chastised myself for being so uncharitable. Their voices drifted over to me, amplified by the pool.
“I feared you would be cross,” the woman was saying. There followed a silence.
Then, “No, I am happy. Happy beyond my telling. The gods smile on me at last, if they grant me a son.” That voice—it was that of Menelaus!
“Or perhaps two. I think there may be two in my womb.” I did not know this voice—or did I?
“That is too much to hope for! I am content with one.” Oh, it was Menelaus! No mistake.
I saw a stirring across the pool; bushes moved and I glimpsed an arm, a back. I could not think. I backed away, hoping they would not see me. But the bushes had closed over them again.
I stumbled back onto the path, running now to catch up. Menelaus. Menelaus and some woman. Who? It must be a palace servant, a slave girl. That girl who lingered at the feast, who brought Menelaus the locking box for his sea-journey.
Instead of horror, or betrayal, or lamenting, How could he? Why?, my first feeling was a rush of relief. I was free. Menelaus and his slave girl had set me free. Had Aphrodite arranged that as well? How well the goddess knows everything about us!
I ran and ran and eventually caught up with Paris and Hermione. I stopped and caught my breath.
“How you run!” said Paris, looking at me. “Your tunic flying out behind you, white against the deep shade of the forest—you could be a wood nymph.”
“Mother was a runner,” said Hermione. “When she was young,” she added.
“And how long ago was that?” asked Paris, winking. “A long time?”
“Before my wedding, when I was fifteen, I raced—and won. But once I married . . .” I shrugged.
“You could still beat them all,” said Paris.
“I will never know,” I said. We continued on the path. Menelaus! I could not cast the image from my mind. Everything I knew, everything I assumed about him, had been turned into disarray.
Then, suddenly, I was angry with him. Why must he add this complication? Then, just as suddenly, I started to laugh, and Paris and Hermione turned around. I had been overtaken with wild love, longing, desire for a foreign prince, and I blamed Menelaus for making things difficult?
Had any other queens fallen into a mad passion for a stranger? I could not think of any; but then, I was not thinking well. Phaedra’s passion for her stepson Hippolytus—also brought about by cruel Aphrodite—was within her own family. I could think of no other examples of what might befall us. Poor Phaedra killed herself, and Hippolytus was killed by Poseidon. But I would not kill myself, nor would Paris commit suicide. Why should we?
“Hurry up!” Hermione was gesturing. “And stop that silly laughing, Mother! If you don’t stop, I won’t let you see them!”
“Yes, my dear.” I joined them on the path. “My daughter, you have ventured far from the palace.”
“I wanted a secret place,” she said. “And my uncles hunt throughout the forest, so I had to find a place where they would not come. A place where no game could be. It’s a stony place, a place only tortoises would like.”
“Yes, they do like stony places,” said Paris. “There are many of them around Troy.”
“Near the sacred mountain of Parnassus there are many large ones, and they are all sacred to Pan,” said Hermione solemnly. She seemed so wise and old. Oh, my child . . . but are you old and wise enough to survive what must come? I was thankful she was as clever and mature as she was, beyond her years. But even so . . .
“We must make an excursion there someday,” said Paris. “I myself am longing to see this famous Parnassus.” He added softly, “There are so many things I wish to see. I think I could live forever and not be content, as there would still be things unseen before me.”
“Here we are,” cried Hermione. We rounded a bend in the path and came to an improvised pen made of branches and logs. She leaned over the edge and her voice rose in happy excitement. “Oh, oh! You have been naughty!” She climbed over the fence and disappeared from our sight. But Paris and I sought each other, drinking in one another’s image. His face filled my eyes, my soul, my mind. I could not take my eyes from him. He was looking back at me, silent. Already we did not need words.
Hermione’s head popped up. “Here he is, my prize one!” She was clutching a large tortoise with a scarred shell. “His name is Warrior!”
I looked at the creature. When faced head-on he looked disgruntled. His beady black eyes, set far apart, stared straight ahead with Olympian disdain. It is all the same to me, what you do, his expression implied. I wondered fleetingly whether a god inhabited him. The gods are all like that, I thought. They look at us, but they are never moved.
“And why do you call him Warrior?” asked Paris. He seemed genuinely, infectiously, interested.
“He battles the others,” said Hermione. “They hit each other like rams, and try to turn each other over. He just keeps on and on; he hammers away and always wins.”
“Perhaps you should have named him Agamemnon, after your uncle,” I said.
“Or Achilles,” said Paris. “That youngster—oh, he cannot be any older than I—who has already got such a reputation for fighting.”
“How have you ever heard of Achilles?” Could he mean that aggressive child who had come with Patroclus and the other suitors?
“Oh, in Troy they are much preoccupied with noble deeds at arms,” he said. “It is a passion in Troy. And this Achilles has made a name for himself, even reaching across the sea.”
“For what, I cannot imagine,” I said. “He was a horrid child.”
“Horrid children make the best warriors,” he said. “That is why I shall never make a great one. I was not horrid enough.” He laughed, and all the joy of a summer noontide was in it. Was I in love with him, or with his glad grace, his bask in the sunlit side of life? There are such people, rare people who promise to open the portals of secret joy to us.
“Here are more,” she said. “Come and look!” We leaned over the side of the pen and saw a carpet of moving creatures. They were all different sizes—some as small as an oil lamp, others large as a discus. They all wore a pattern of yellow and black, but no two bore the same markings.
“Why do you like them so?” asked Paris. “I must confess, I never thought about them one way or another.” He climbed over the fence easily and bent down to stroke the head of a venerable-looking one.
“I don’t know,” Hermione said. “I found one in the garden and he was so . . . I don’t know, calming. I could sit and look at him for a long time. He seemed so . . . wise. Like nothing could ever bother him or upset him. I want to be like that!”
I longed to ask, What upsets you or bothers you? But Paris said, “We all wish to be like that.” Perhaps we must not examine too closely, look too hard, at another. Even at our own child.
“Even grown-ups?” asked Hermione.
“Yes. Especially grown-ups,” Paris assured her.
Hermione gathered leaves and flowers for the tortoises, putting them in a big heap. The creatures moved slowly over to them and began eating, their leathery jaws clamping down on the greenery. It was very hard not to laugh. Finally I said, “I am sorry, my dear, but I do find these animals amusing.”
Hermione stroked one’s back. “I’ll never let them use you for a lyre!” she promised it.
The way back was lazy; we strolled along. I kept thinking of Menelaus and the slave girl, wondering how long this had gone on. My anger and amusement had drained away, and only curiosity remained. Aphrodite must have led him into it, as she had me. Perhaps it was her delayed punishment of Father for her grudge against him. We would never know; we could only accept. We had no power to do otherwise.
As Hermione walked along, head held high, I said, “Good, Hermione, that is the way queens walk. Isn’t it, Paris?”
He cocked his head. “My mother doesn’t have so much spring in her step,” he said. “Of course, she’s older. Much older. She’s had nineteen children, sixteen who live.”
Just the thought of it was head-spinning. “Nineteen!” How did Paris feel about his mother and father, truly, knowing they had put him out to die? How could he overlook that, forgive it, forget it? I never could have. I had been hurt by Mother even hinting at renouncing her encounter with Zeus, which she may not even have meant.
“Of course, whether Hermione is a queen or not depends on whether she marries a king,” said Paris. “If she marries a . . . a tortoise-keeper . . .”—Hermione giggled at this—“then she’ll only be Queen of the Pen.”
“Oh, she’ll be queen,” I said. “In Sparta it is the woman who holds the title. Her husband becomes king through her.” As I made Menelaus king. Well, my slave girl, you need not think that your child will ever follow Menelaus onto the throne, as he has no power to pass it on, I thought.
“Interesting,” said Paris. “Unusual.”
On our way back into the palace, we passed the Hermione plane tree. It had grown tall enough to give good shade now; its leaves were just opening, and it would spread out in the summer sun. But would I be there to sit in that shade?
The palace looked the same, but suddenly I was a visitor, joining Paris, seeing all through his eyes. This colonnade . . . these stout gates . . . the way the shadows of the pillars stretched out across the courtyard . . . all known to me since my earliest days, now newly foreign.
Preparations for Menelaus’s journey to Crete were complete. Tonight marked the end of the ninth day since Paris’s and Aeneas’s arrival, and now no custom need hold Menelaus here.
Menelaus. The slave girl. I could not get the image of them from my mind, but it was an image bereft of any pain. Menelaus was not the faithful spouse I had supposed. Perhaps he, too, was tired of waiting for Aphrodite to anoint our union. I could not blame him.
The curtain was pushed aside and Menelaus stepped in. He was dirty and sweat-stained, and he quickly peeled off his tunic and kicked off his sandals, heading for the bathhouse.
I did not wish to talk to him, lest I betray what I knew, what I had seen. I merely nodded as he hurried through. As soon as he was gone, I summoned my own attendants and had myself dressed for the supper that I knew would be the last. Even so, I was surprisingly careless of my attire. Anything would do. The only thing I paid attention to was my jewelry. It seemed oddly important that I wear my favorites—my chunk-amber necklace, my gold cuff bracelets with the hunting scenes, my hanging drop earrings, delicately fashioned of gold filigree.
The sun vanished and deep blue twilight stole into all the chambers like a fog, until the yellow of oil lamps banished it. We gathered around a smaller table on one side of the megaron; the dark rest of the hall gaped like a cave around us. No singers this time, no dancers. Just the few of us—Father, Mother, my brothers, Menelaus, Paris, and Aeneas.
“What message will you take back to Troy?” Menelaus asked Paris.
Paris shrugged. “I received different ones from you and your brother,” he said. “But neither of you seem inclined to let us speak to Hesione, and my father will be unhappy about that.” He raised his heavy gold cup and studied it as if its decorations held something of great import.
“Is that truly why you came?” asked Menelaus.
“Why else should we have come?” Paris sounded surprised.
“My brother was of the opinion that you were spies,” Menelaus said.
Paris and Aeneas both laughed. “As if we would come in person for that!” they said, almost in unison. “As you must know, there are plenty of spies about, experienced ones, and we need not be so obvious.”
“Ah! But no spy would have an invitation to our private table here,” said Menelaus.
I wished he would hush. He sounded so heavy-handed, so obvious. For the first time I saw the familial resemblance between him and Agamemnon.
“There may be less revealing talk here than at a mess hall or a ship,” said Aeneas. “Royal tables are not known for divulging information.”
“I have admitted you to my palace,” Menelaus said. “I have let you see what no other spy would see.”
Oh, let him stop!
“You have dined with my wife, an honor sought by many,” he continued. “You have looked upon her famous face.”
“You make me sound like a prize sow,” I said. I was angry at him, angry at his clumsy threats and brags—and now he was dragging me into it. “Here!” I leaned over the table, looking directly into the face of Aeneas. I could not do so to Paris, as he was seated right beside me. “Look your fill!”
Aeneas coughed and drew back, embarrassed, as any polite person would.
“Helen!” said Mother.
I sat back down and glared at her.
Menelaus cleared his throat and raised his goblet. “I merely meant that I have taken you into the bosom of my family,” he said.
“Yes,” said Paris. He had spilled a bit of his wine on the table and was drawing patterns with it, like a child. “Yes.” Then I looked down at what he had done: written Paris loves Helen in the wine, bright against the table.
My heart stopped. What if someone saw? I moved my left hand up and smeared it, but I saw Mother looking. At the same time I was overwhelmed by his daring.
Then out of the corner of my eye I saw my wine cup—the special one, the one Menelaus had given me as a wedding gift—move as Paris slid it over to himself and took a slow sip, placing his lips exactly where mine had been. I was shocked into frozen stillness, holding myself rigid, searching the faces and eyes of the others for a response.
“We shall be returning to Troy forthwith,” said Aeneas quickly. He had seen. “Our ship is waiting at Gytheum.”
“Not near Mycenae?” asked Menelaus. “I thought you landed there.”
“We did,” said Paris. “But our men have brought the ship around the Peloponnese so it is close and we do not have to track back to Mycenae.”
“I leave from Gytheum myself,” said Menelaus. “In fact—it is time. Forgive me, but I must take my leave shortly.”
He had waited the exact nine days, and not an hour longer. I suddenly hated his preciseness.
He drank his last wine, spoke some farewell words, then indicated that we must all leave the table along with him.
I turned to speak a formal parting to Paris and saw his lips forming the silent words, The sacred snake. I closed my eyes to show I had received the message: I must meet him at the altar of the sacred household snake.
In the meantime I must tread stately steps and follow Menelaus to his chamber to wish him farewell. He strode off quickly, leaving me behind.
I followed, slowly. It was quiet now, so quiet, in the palace.
I entered his chambers, which were strangely darkened, although one or two lamps burned in the far corner. But I heard a low murmur of voices coming from the connecting chamber. I stole over to the door and listened. I dared not look in and betray my presence. I knew well enough what it was. Perhaps I merely wanted to confirm what I had seen earlier in the day, vindicate my own decision.
For a moment the voices stopped and that meant the people were kissing and caressing. No ordinary conversation stops in midsentence—only the murmurs of lovers.
Then they resumed. Oh, I hate to let you go . . . Take care upon the high seas, have you sacrificed to Poseidon? . . . No, it is you who must take care, you carry my son . . .
I peeked around the doorframe and saw them—Menelaus and that woman, that slave woman who had brought him the decorated locking box. And hers was the same voice I had heard near the waterfall.
I stepped into the room. I said nothing, but I let the curtain fall behind me, and its sound made them jump. Two startled faces turned toward me. Menelaus pushed the woman—did she have a name?—away.
“Helen!” he gasped. He looked horrified; she looked annoyed. “It is not what it seems,” he blurted out.
Still I said nothing.
“I swear, she means nothing to me—”
Poor, foolish Menelaus. What a cruel, stupid thing to say in front of her. For a moment I sided with her. But in truth, I still felt nothing.
The woman shrank back, whispering, “How could you?” and stole away, sobbing, running for the door at the far end of the chamber. Menelaus did not follow, or pay any attention.
Instead, he turned directly to me, holding out his arms. “Oh, my dearest Helen, please, please—this means nothing—I beg you, forgive me—oh, please . . .”
I stood there like one of the pillars in the courtyard. How could I go to his arms when I myself had transgressed already in a much greater way? I loved Paris, was mad for him, although we had barely touched. Menelaus had lain down with this woman, but his loyalty was uncompromised. Who was the greater adulterer? And if I embraced Menelaus and “forgave” him, what would he think later of my hypocrisy?
“Oh, Helen, please—oh, do not fix that stony look upon me—I will make it all up—I will sell her, send her away—I care not, nothing matters but you . . .”
Still I could not speak, but out of honesty, not calculation. It only served to spur him on to higher emotion.
“I esteem you above all things. Nothing—not even the gods, may they forgive me—means more to me. I will give you my life . . .” He continued holding out his arms.
I should have gone into them. But I could not, and call myself honest. And above all, I had to be honest to myself. “Menelaus, you must depart. The ships await. You must go.” I turned away. I could do nothing else.
“Let the ships wait!” he cried. “My grandfather is dead already.” Now his obedience to rituals vanished.
“Your brother Agamemnon is sailing with you. You cannot disrupt ceremony and protocol for a . . . personal matter. Go with the blessings of the gods. And mine.” I smiled wanly at him, then turned away.
Oh, let him not follow me! Let him depart! I fled beyond our chambers and back out into the courtyard to elude him. But there were no footsteps behind me.
He, too, was relieved to defer all this.
Neither of us realized it would be deferred for nigh on twenty years, and that we would meet again only at Troy, with the fires of destruction blazing around us.
I waited a long time in the courtyard, standing beside a flowering tree. I heard the retainers come for Menelaus, heard him depart. I thought I heard him hesitate, looking for me. But then he was gone, and the sounds faded away as the men marched out of the gates.
The sanctuary of the sacred snake . . . I was free to go there now. No one could question my movements or behavior. I passed through the courtyard, and into the farther reaches of the palace until I came to the little shrine. It was empty.
I was relieved. I so badly needed to sit and think. And if I were to leave, I needed to tell the household guardian snake why, and why he could not come with me.
How could I leave all this? It was part of me, my own self. I sank down on the stone bench and waited. A flickering votive light illuminated the altar. The honey cake and the saucer of milk were there, but there was no sign of the snake.
I felt a great calmness stealing over me. It was done—whatever happened, it was done. How odd, to say that something that had not yet come about was done. Yet I felt that truth deep inside me. Perhaps it had already been done before I was born.
A small movement, a twitch. The snake was coming. He glided out from behind the altar and raised his head, looking about him.
I was overcome with a love for him. He had pledged himself to me, and my family, leaving his life at Epidaurus behind. As I must leave this life behind. The snake would understand. I bent down and told him about it. He looked at me and flicked his tongue out. He had given me his blessing.
“How can I ever say what I love best about you?” Paris was standing at the far corner of the little chamber. “Perhaps it is that you treat all creatures about you as worthy.”
I stood up, flew into his arms. For a moment there was nothing but frantic embracing and kissing. I reveled in the feel of his arms, in his shoulders, his flesh.
At length he pulled away, held me at arm’s length to keep me from burrowing in his arms. “Helen,” he said. “What shall we do?” He paused. “It is all up to you. I will take you with me to Troy, but it is you who will leave all this behind. For you it is loss, for me everything is gain. Therefore I cannot make the decision.”
Odd how, although we had never spoken directly of it, we both knew this was the only choice. Stay and part, or flee and be together.
“I cannot let you go!” I cried, clinging to him. No, let the whole earth perish, let the palace of Sparta crumble to dust, but do not let Paris live his life out of my sight.
“But what of Hermione?” he asked. “You are a mother. You are another man’s wife, yet I have managed to set that aside in my mind. Wives can be replaced; mothers cannot. Believe me, I know.”
“We’ll take Hermione with us!” I said. Yes, let that be the answer!
“But you said that she is to be the next queen of Sparta,” said Paris. He was more levelheaded—or feeling more guilty—than I. “How can you deprive Sparta of that?”
“We’ll ask her!” I said. “Let her decide.”
“Helen,” he said slowly, turning me around and looking at me. Those eyes—those golden eyes, honey-deep even in the lamplight. “She is nine years old. Can you force her to make such a decision? Any child of that age will decide to go with her mother. It does not mean that is what she would choose later.”
“You cannot lay such a burden on her shoulders, a burden she will question for the rest of her life.”
“So we should just steal away? Leave her with no farewell?”
“A farewell, yes. But do not ask her to make a decision. She will hate you for it later.”
“How can I leave my child?” I cried.
“Because you love her, and would not expose her to danger,” said Paris. “And you love Sparta, and will not leave it bereft of a queen.”
“But she will not know that! She will not understand.”
“In time, she will.” He clasped me to him. “In time, she will. Just as I did about the actions of my mother and father.”
But had he truly? They had left him out to die!
“Helen,” he said. “If we are to leave, we must do it now. When Menelaus discovers it, there will be . . . turmoil. We should leave as quickly as possible after him, to get the greatest head start. Everything is at the ready. It must be tonight.”
“No! Not tonight! Not on the heels of Menelaus!”
“Yes, on his heels . . . but we will sail in a different direction.”
O all the gods! Tonight, while Mother and Father slept, and my brothers, and Hermione—!
“Whatever it is, it is always too soon,” said Paris. “We are never ready.”
I looked at him in wonder. “You are only sixteen. How can you know that?”
“My sixteen years have been filled with unexpected turns and reversals,” he said. “I have been jolted out of one comfortable life already,” he said. “It was painful. But that gives me more experience in this than you.”
“You left a family but not a kingdom,” I said. “Nor did you leave a wife.”
“I left a way of life, a belief that I was one man when in fact I was another,” he said. “And true, I did not leave a wife, but a companion of the mountains, a woman who loved me. But she did not belong in the palace. Helen, sometimes there are hard choices to be made. I know many people try to keep both ways, but sometimes you cannot. Is it me, or Menelaus? It is that simple. I cannot claim your loyalty. That belongs to him. I can only appeal to whatever brought us together. Aphrodite and her magic—or her poison.”
The snake was gliding out across the floor, and he reached our ankles. He twined himself about them, binding them together. I felt his cool smoothness linking us.
“The sacred snake has spoken,” I said. “He indicates that ours is the true union.”
“I knew that,” said Paris. “I only wanted you to realize it as well.”
We parted; he to rouse Aeneas for our escape, me to say my private farewells. If this were an orderly departure, we would have been taken by chariot down to Gytheum with a royal escort in broad daylight, after a ceremonial leave-taking. As it was, we would have to steal the chariots in the dead of night; we would have to use the speed of the chariots to arrive in Gytheum by dawn and sail away. No leisurely walking this time; we could not afford that.
How could they get the chariots and the horses without alerting the guards? I shuddered. I must leave that to them. If they were caught . . . of course it would be they accused of theft and dishonesty, they who must bear the punishment.
“Don’t fail!” I whispered to Paris, gripping his arm. “We cannot afford to fail. We have only this one chance.”
“It will be difficult,” he said. “Aeneas and I do not even know the layout of the royal stables and chariot house. And we cannot make any noise.”
“Do not think of the difficulties,” I said. “Do not, for an instant, think of them, or you will be undone. Now go, my love. Think only of its being done, and what lies before us.” I turned away, but not before I pointed in the direction he must go. I watched him steal away, a shadow in the moonlight.
The moonlight. Was that a help or a hindrance? It meant we would not stumble about and did not need to light torches. It also meant that our movements would be visible as we descended the hill and onto the roadway beside the river. It meant that any Spartan who was sleepless and watching out his window would be able to tell the searchers what direction we had traveled.
The moon, round and dazzling, hung in the middle of the sky like a white torch. Shadows were short; everything was bathed in an eerie cold light, making things that were soft and rounded by sunlight sharp and hard. It was impossible, of course, but things actually seemed clearer than in daylight.
The palace . . . every flagstone, every carving on the doors, every jutting corner of the roof was burned into my consciousness. Now I paced it, looking my last at it. I wanted to touch each post, each doorknob, and bid farewell.
All was hushed. All was holding its breath. I looked at the entrance of the great building.
You will return. And in moonlight.
Where had those words come from, whispering in my mind? The snakes of Asclepius . . . was that another of their gifts? Could I discern the broad outlines of the future? Oh, let it not be so. It would be a curse rather than a gift.
And yet the overwhelming feeling remained. I would return here, walk these paths again. Beyond that, nothing. No knowledge.
Never mind! I told myself. Those are phantoms, spirits of the future. Tonight there is work to do, action to take.
I glided—as silently as one of the snakes—into the rooms of my mother and father. They slept soundly. The guards outside slept as well, and I did not wake them. The reflected moonlight showed them well enough, breathing evenly and lying calmly upon their beds, the thick fleeces spread over them for the still-cold night.
I bent over them. I looked at them, then shut my eyes to call up their images, then looked again to fix them in my mind.
I longed to lean over and kiss them, but I feared to wake them. My heart ached. “Farewell, Mother and Father,” I bade them silently. “Do not condemn me, do not hate me.”
I turned away; I could bear to stay no longer. I made my way into the chamber of Hermione. I meant to say my silent goodbye, but when I saw her, I knew I could not leave her.
I leaned over her, looking at her sleeping peacefully, a slight smile on her lips. She was so lovely; she was so much a part of me, and my days with her were not finished.
I touched her shoulder. “Hermione,” I whispered.
Slowly she opened her eyes and looked at me. “Oh . . . Mother,” she murmured.
“Hermione,” I said, speaking in as quiet a voice as I could, “would you like to go on an adventure?”
She sighed and wiggled around in the bed. “I don’t know . . . what?” She was still half asleep.
“Paris and I are going to visit his home. It’s far away, across the seas, in a place called Troy.”
She struggled to sit up, but failed. She was still drowsy. “How long will you be gone?”
“I—we don’t know,” I said. “That’s the thing about adventures—when you go, you do not know how long it will take. Usually it takes longer than you expect.”
“Oh,” she said. “No, I don’t think I want to go.”
No! She couldn’t say that. “But Hermione, I want you with me.”
She shook her head stubbornly. “No, no. I don’t want to leave. I have my friends and my tortoises that I have to take care of and I don’t really want to see Troy. I don’t care about Troy.” She smiled and stretched her arms over her head.
“But Hermione—I will miss you so much. I need you to come with me.”
“But what of Father?” she asked. “Is he coming, too?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, well, then. You’ll be back before long.” She giggled.
No, I wanted to say. No, I won’t. But I could not. “Oh, Hermione. Please come.”
“Oh, let me think about it. Why are you waking me up to ask me?”
“Because I must leave now.”
“In the dark?”
“Yes. It has to do with the ship . . .”
She flung her arms around me. “I can’t go now, not in the middle of the night. It’s dark. I don’t want to.”
“But there’s a full moon. We can see very well.”
“Mother, I don’t want to go on your adventure,” she said. “Full moon or no.” Her voice was firm.
“Hold me, then,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and the tears contained within my eyes. I could not tell her anything further. I could not explain. I could only say goodbye, and clasp her to me one last time. Yet surely it was not the last time.
No. You will gaze on her again, hold her to you. But she will be a grown woman, older than you are now.
The vision of the future, the mystery I had been granted. A blessing, then, a blessing. I would hold her again! That was all I needed, all I asked to know.
“Goodbye, my love,” I whispered, pressing my cheek up against hers.
“Oh, Mother . . . don’t be so serious . . .” She lay back down and was instantly asleep.
Sobbing, I left the chamber. I leaned against one of the moonlit columns until the scene before me stopped swimming in my tears and my vision cleared.
Aphrodite must have stolen down between the columns, because I could hear her gentle urges and whispers.
What else do you need to know? Your daughter will be waiting . . . you will not lose her . . . now you may seek your destiny with Paris . . .
Cruel goddess! I shot back at her. To you and the undying gods, time is nothing. But to us, us mortals, it is everything. Twenty years is a long time to us, ten, all those years that mean nothing to you. We change; Hermione long hence will not be the little girl snuggling, drowsy and warm, in her bed, flinging her arms around me, talking of tortoises. But all that is of no matter to you!
No, it isn’t, she admitted; I could almost see her shrug. And you are giving it too much importance yourself. Do you wish to grasp at all that life can allow for you mortals, or do you wish to hang back, say “I cannot, alas, I am not strong enough”?
Strength has nothing to do with this, I argued. It has to do with decency, and honor, and all those things you seem not to comprehend.
Then I abandon you, she said. Goodbye, Helen.
I could feel, for an instant, her leaving. I could feel her draining away, leaving me dull and colorless, as my life had been before the roses. No! I cried. No, don’t leave me!
Very well, then. Do as I say. Let us have no more of this nonsense, these second thoughts. Go to the stables! Paris is waiting. Obey me! Or . . .
With a wrench I tore myself away and ran toward the stables. The palace was behind me. I passed the plane tree, with its reaching branches and its thickening trunk. Tree of my marriage, new-planted when I was a bride and new mother. I shielded my eyes from it and ran on.
Aeneas and Paris had harnessed horses to two chariots. They were busy loading their goods onto them when they looked up and saw me.
I had never felt more unearthly or detached from my surroundings. I was leaving. I needed to take some of my possessions. I could not take Hermione, I could not take my sacred snake. Perhaps I was possessed with a sort of madness, a feeling that I must take something, something beyond my person and the clothes I was wearing. “I will take my jewels,” I said. “They are mine. And some of the palace gold. I am queen; they are mine by right. We may . . . we may need them!” I bolted back into my quarters, scooping up boxes of jewels, even the hideous heavy gold marriage necklace, although if I had been thinking clearly, I would have shunned it as an evil omen. Then I went into the palace treasury and took gold goblets and platters, stuffing them into baskets. I dragged them back into the stables.
“Helen!” cried Paris. “This is madness! They will slow the chariots!”
“I must take something!” I shrieked, until Paris put his hand over my mouth to silence me. Peeling it off, I said, “I must have something, I must take something. You forbade me my daughter!”
Paris shook his head. “I told you all the reasons why she should not come. I did not forbid you. I have not that power.”
No, it was not Paris who had denied me. It was Hermione herself. “We need these things!” I said.
Paris tried to take them off the chariots. “They will call me a thief, and I am no such thing. Or rather . . . I steal only the queen. Nothing else. We have gold aplenty in Troy.”
Aeneas stayed his arm. “She needs to take them,” he said. “She is, after all, the queen. These things are hers by right. And she wishes not to be a supplicant or a beggar but to have means of her own. She does not wish to cast herself as a refugee upon the shores of Troy.”
Paris shook his head. “It will slow us down.”
“If it soothes her and quiets her spirits, let it be.”
I watched as Paris deferred to his older cousin—an unusual thing in youth. Yet Paris was wise in unexpected ways. “Very well,” he said, and shoved the baskets back onto the chariot. “Now come!” He leapt into the chariot and motioned for me to join him. Aeneas took the second one, and we urged the horses forward, out of the stable and away from the gate.
“We cannot go through the main gate,” I said. “The guards will stop us and question us. I can command them to open the gates, but why let them know what we are about? There is another, little-used back way. Here.” I pointed toward it.
Thanks be for the bright moon! We could find the rutted pathway that led around the palace; it waited to join the main road until it reached the banks of the Eurotas. The way was steep, but we were able to traverse it. The rich goods, stuffed into the baskets, jounced and pinned our feet to the floor of the chariot. The hill rushed past us; it was going too fast, too fast, and I could barely glimpse the dark trees around us, let alone grieve over the leave-taking.
Flat ground: we were on the meadows that bordered the river, running the chariots through the wild fields, searching for the road. We jumped and flew over dirt clods and gulleys; with each jounce we wanted to cry out, in fear and exuberance for this mad venture, but we had to remain silent. The city lay just ahead and we must get past it. The walls were high and in the searching moonlight I could see the shadows between the giant boulders forming them, deep and secret. I murmured something about their strength to Paris.
“Wait until you see the walls of Troy!” he said. “They are smooth and three times as high as this—this childish defense here!” He waved dismissively at the rounded stones. “No handhold or toehold on the walls of Troy!”
Now we had found the road and were rushing alongside the Eurotas, which was also rushing, swollen from the melting snow in the mountains. I could see white foam upon its surface.
How different this was from my leisurely walk with Gelanor. Then we had trudged along the path, stopping to eat and drink and rest whenever we wished.
Gelanor! What would he think when this news reached him? was my horrified thought. Then the next quickly followed: It is Gelanor they will send to track us down. And he will find us. But will he find us in time?
“Hurry!” I urged Paris.
On the flat ground, we made the horses gallop. The chariots flew behind them, sometimes leaving the ground. Overhead the moon swam in and out of clouds. When it emerged, the landscape lay clear before us like a finely carved scene. When it disappeared, our surroundings became a dream—indistinct, fading, changing.
With the horses, we reached the sea well before dawn. Had we been on foot, we would still have been a long way off. The sea, the rocks—the cave of Aphrodite, where all this had started. Was it even still there? Had it existed at all? I craned my neck to try to see it, but it was lost in the shadows amongst the rocks upon the shore. And perhaps I should never gaze upon it again. The first time it was magic; any other time it might be just another cave, empty and dank.
“The ship awaits.” Aeneas pointed to a large vessel anchored nearby.
A small boat came to transport us to the larger one. My foot left the sands of my homeland as I stepped into it, dripping water. I watched the trailing drops, falling with finality.
I boarded the Trojan ship. My first ship, the first time I had ever left land. I had nothing to compare it to, but it seemed a fair one. All the men lined up on deck to salute Paris and Aeneas, and the captain bowed. “My princes, only tell me where to steer us, and there we shall go.”
“Cast off from here,” said Paris. “We must leave these shores as quickly as possible.”
“It is dangerous to sail before we have full light,” said the captain.
“But we must get away!” said Paris.
“There is a small island a piece out,” said the captain. “It is called Cranae. We could anchor there, out of sight, and set sail in daylight for farther ports.”
“Then do so!” said Paris. “Do so!”
We negotiated the heaving seas around the island of Cranae; even I, as unknowledgeable as I was about the sea, saw that a small island near the shallows of shore had more turbulent waters around it than farther out in the sea. It took great skill for the captain to bring the ship in on the far side of the island, on a shore not visible from land.
“They cannot glimpse us here,” he said. “Any search party will think we have sailed far away.”
I looked at the eastern sky, still dark. “We will rest here ashore,” I said. Indeed, I was exhausted. We had not slept at all.
In the dim light the island was sheltering and hushed. It was covered in tall trees, trees that swayed in the stiff breeze. Here and there were clearings, for fishermen must come here sometimes, but no one lived here.
“Build a shelter,” I said to Paris.
“We have tents on board,” he said.
“Have one sent,” I said.
I stood, waiting, while it was brought from the ship. Paris insisted on dismissing the men and setting it up himself. “I know well enough how to do this,” he said. “I’ve built many a shelter in my day.”
“More than your princely brothers at Troy, I’ll wager,” I said. I thought of pampered royal sons, unable to loft themselves from a couch.
He gave me a quizzical look, but continued setting up a makeshift tent.
Eventually he stood before it and ushered me inside.
“My queen, your quarters are ready,” he said.
I crawled in through the tiny opening. Inside, it was dark, even though the skies outside had started to lighten. He had unrolled blankets and even made pillows for us out of linen bags stuffed with clothes.
“Is this what you use at Troy?” I asked.
He laughed. “No. You must have heard that Troy is known for its luxuries. No, this is the proper fitting for a vagabond, a pirate.” He patted the blanket. “Are you not tired of being a queen? Sample what it is to be a run-away, having to live in the fields.”
I sank down on the blanket. I was so tired, this rough blanket on hard ground was as welcome as swans’ down. I was so exhausted I could not think, could not turn over in my mind the momentousness of what I had just done.
I rolled over on my back. Paris was looking at me, propped up on one arm. Outside, I heard the crashing roar of the waves against the nearby rocks.
“On a small island the noise of the waves is ever-constant,” said Paris. “Wherever we go, we may not escape it.”
“They provide a welcome chorus,” I said. And indeed they did. The resounding repetition of wave crashes was like a drumbeat, a drumbeat that drowned out all thought. The loud waves, the hissing, long withdrawals, pounded in my head. I looked at Paris, but even his face wavered before me.
I am here, I thought. Here with Paris. We have left Sparta behind. Everything is gone—everything but us. I reached out and encircled his neck with my arm, drew his face down to mine.
Paris. I kissed his lips, those lips I had watched forming words as he teased Hermione, parried insults from Mother. I had seen them lingeringly caress the rim of my wine goblet. I had watched them as they moved, wanting to feel them against mine, having only tasted them that once, briefly. They were everything I had desired, drawing me further into his world, himself. I pressed him to me. I felt his strong young body against mine and I laughed aloud.
“What?” he asked.
My head fell back against the blanket. “Oh, I cannot decide what I wish to do with you,” I said, stroking his cheek. “I want to touch you, I want to revere you, I do not know what I wish!”
“Do not revere me,” he said, his breath close to me. “It is too distant. It is what I should be doing to you, but I wish instead to touch you.” He lay down beside me and encircled me with his arms.
At that, all thought of revering and worshiping went out of my head. The touch of flesh on flesh set all else in motion. I shivered with the actual touch of him. In the wonder of it, I did not even stop to marvel at it, at this thing I had never felt before, had prayed for, had begged for, had longed for. It was here, here, and so resounding that it overwhelmed me. I laughed again.
“What is it? Why are you laughing?” Paris murmured. He was afraid I was laughing at him.
“Only at the joy of the gods,” I said. “Only at the joy of the gods. They bless me at last!”
Laughter-loving Aphrodite . . . yes, they called her that. She smiled on lovers, but she also knew, in her wisdom, they must laugh.
“Make me your wife,” I said, pulling him toward me. Oh, let him! Let me be a wife at last!
Around us the waves grew louder, making it difficult to talk. I had to put my mouth directly up against his ear for him to hear my words. We were in our own citadel, our own fortified city, encircled by waves and rocks and the cries of water dashing against them.
All that had been denied was now, suddenly, granted me: Aphrodite was a generous goddess. I ached, I throbbed, I pulsed with desire for Paris. The slightest hesitation, the slightest barrier between us was insufferable, I must tear it away. I must have him, I must have him in the extreme, nothing else mattered. And the glory of it was worth the loss of a kingdom, the loss of all.
Afterward we clung together, bound in whatever awaited us. What was done could not be undone. But who could think of undoing that magnificence?
I lay looking at the tent ceiling in the darkness. This is what people speak of. Oh, my deepest thanks, Aphrodite, for granting it to me. I know now that to die without tasting this is truly not to have lived. In this, and this only, have we lived: to feel all, to dare all, to try all.
All the remaining night the stars wheeled around us as we drowsed and woke and embraced over and over again, until there was no telling the waking from the sleeping or our rest from our lovemaking. I could glimpse the sky through the openings in the rude tent Paris had set up for us, the draped cloaks sagging and revealing the heavens. Enveloping my ears was the constant sound of the sea. All my senses had been touched by newness: my eyes with the unknown vista of Cranae and of Paris, unclothed; my nostrils with the scent of the special wildflowers of this island, and the smell of Paris’s skin with my face pressed against him; my hands, the touch of his body, so slender and warm, so different from Menelaus’s; my tongue, the taste of his neck when I kissed it; my ears, the murmur of Paris’s voice, slow and sleepy, barely discernible above the noise of the waves.
The night lasted seemingly forever, much longer than an ordinary night. I knew that the gods could make days or nights longer if they chose, and perhaps that was Aphrodite’s wedding gift to us.
Gradually the stars faded and the sky turned gray. In the growing light I could see my dearest one sleeping, could study his every feature. I thanked Aphrodite for giving me this opportunity, for I had never had the chance to truly look at him, or rather, to look my fill. Our time together in Sparta had been passed in the company of others, others to whom I could never betray myself, so I never let my eyes linger on him.
I felt no shame, no remorse, nothing but a wild excitement and happiness; a happiness beyond happiness, a fine ecstasy. I was free. I had seized the gift dangled before me, I had passed the test of courage, the test of whether I truly wanted this prize. Now my life would begin.
I forced myself to stand up and, throwing on a cloak, I left the tent, left the warmth and protection of it. Outside, the wind was ripping through the pines and blowing dust along the path. Dark clouds scudded across the sky. I stood on tiptoe and looked out to sea. On the other side of the island I could have seen Gytheum, but already I did not want to see it. I did not want to look for the movement of men on the shore, searching for me. I wanted to look out across the open water, to the horizon as far as I could see.
But when the sun rose, emerging from the waters and turning them into a glittering golden pathway, shapes swam out of the mists. And far away on the horizon I could see an island floating. That must be Cythera. Gelanor had told me about it when I had sighted it from Gytheum. Suddenly I wanted very badly to get there, as he had told me I could not. I wanted to do all the things that I had been told I could not.
“Would you leave me so soon?” Paris was standing behind me, and he clasped me to him from the back. I felt his strong arms encircle me. For a moment, as I watched them twining, I thought of the sacred snake. I bent my head over and kissed his forearms.
“Never,” I said. “I will never leave you.”
“Nor I, you,” he said. “Nor I, you.”
“Awake, I see!” Aeneas’s voice interrupted us. “That’s good, we need to get under way.” He walked up to us. I could see him searching our faces, intensely curious as to how our hours had gone: those hours which would cost everyone so dear. Out of habit I banished the expression from my face so it could not be read. “We need to be far away before the hue and cry is raised. They are probably just now waking up and missing us.”
I pictured Mother opening her eyes, yawning, and turning over; Father swinging himself out of bed; Hermione still dreaming. Hermione. I would not think of her now!
As we boarded the ship, I caught sight of the figurehead and laughed: it was Eros. “How came that to be carved?” I asked.
Aeneas glanced at it. “Paris commissioned it,” he said.
We cast off. The men raised the square sail and we ran before the southwest wind, blowing us toward Cythera. To speed us along, the rowers fell to as well. We were heading for the open sea.
“We’ll have to spend the night on the high seas,” said the captain. “We have no choice; there is no anchorage between here and Cythera. Pray to Poseidon that we don’t reach the tricky currents while we are still in the dark.”
“What do you mean?” asked Paris.
“Cythera is a dangerous passage,” he said. “Lots of shifting currents and hidden rocks. Those are the natural perils. Then there are pirates, but they tend to stick closer to shore. There’s a saying: round Malea and forget your home. We must pass to the west of the Malea promontory to reach Cythera.”
Paris hugged me. “My dearest, you wanted adventure,” he said. “And we shall have it.” He steered me toward the railing. “If only we could make love on the high seas. Now, that would be a challenge, with all the bucking and rolling. Like making love on horseback, I should imagine.”
“What? Have you?”
He laughed. “No, but it would be a very Trojan thing to do.”
Now he turned and looked carefully into my face. “You really don’t know, do you? Did they not let you learn anything? What about that palace wizard, that man who knew so many things? Didn’t he teach you things?”
His accusation, true as it was, hurt: hurt because it was true. “Gelanor taught me many things, but only the things that I had occasion to ask him. He was not my tutor.”
“I’m sorry. I did not mean to accuse or belittle. It’s just that—well, Troy is famous for its horses. My brother Hector is known as ‘Breaker of Horses.’ So of course, in Troy, there are many feats of horsemanship. Probably somewhere there is someone renowned for his ability to make love on a galloping horse.”
I laughed. “Then I suppose the ship will be good practice for us. We can dazzle everyone with our prowess when we reach Troy.” Aphrodite had made me ready to hide away with Paris again, and it had only been a short while since we had held one another. The goddess made me like a devouring fire. I was concerned that we have privacy on the ship; I whispered my request to Paris.
For an instant he looked embarrassed, as his eyes swept around the ship with its large crew. It was a man’s domain, a place where there would be little privacy and no niceties. “I was only joking about the practice for the horses. I—I think we must wait until we reach shore. There is no way that we can have more than a small place to rest, and no possibility of shielding ourselves from all these eyes.” He gestured toward the rowers at their oars. He pinched my shoulder. “Helen,” he murmured, “you will just have to control yourself. We must wait.”
“Wait. All I have done, all my whole life, is wait,” I said.
He laughed, to show he was teasing. “Let us hope this passage will be quick, then. Waiting is a most exquisite form of torture.”
The waters grew rougher as we left Cranae behind; the island, with its clumps of trees, grew fainter in our wake. The winds began to buffet us and the rowers had to strain as the ship listed. As we made our way out into the open water, all the land seemed equidistant, faint images on the horizon to the left, right, and ahead of us. Gulls followed us, wheeling and diving, crying loudly, their calls snatched away by the winds.
“Lower the sail,” the captain ordered at sunset. “We need to slow ourselves in darkness, and besides that, we do not want to pass anywhere near Malea at night. We must be fully alert and able to see when we make that run.”
Shivering, I sank down in a protected place near the rear of the ship. Paris brought me food; the ship was well provisioned, as such provisions go, but they were cold and meant to be eaten as quickly and unceremoniously as possible, washed down with wine. I took a long drink, laid my head back against the side of the ship, and started laughing. To think I had imagined this voyage as a place of private indulgence. How naïve I was! How sheltered I had been—not even to know what a voyage would be like. How much I had to learn!
Paris brought a blanket for me to wrap myself in and use as a pillow. He was treating me as I treated Hermione. But here he was the elder; he was right, in some ways he had lived longer than I, if experience constituted longevity.
“Close your eyes,” he said, kissing my eyelids. “I will keep watch. Of course, I don’t think there will be any pirates, not in the dark, but I won’t sleep.” Poor Paris—his voice betrayed how tired he was. Neither of us had had true sleep that night on Cranae.
I squeezed his hand and tried to relax on the swaying, rolling ship. I felt as though I were suspended in a hammock, being rocked by a giant hand. I tried not to think of the depths of cold water under me. It did not help that the captain had said, “Only three fingers’ width of wood separates us from the sea.”
Sheer exhaustion forced me into a kind of sleep, as though my head were being pushed down into the realms of dreams. I cannot recall any of them, and for that I am thankful. Had there been omens, I could not have borne it. I did not want any omens. I was mortally tired of them. They had ruled me from my birth—nay, before it. Now I left the omens behind, as I had left Sparta.
Let me live each day as just a day, I thought. Let me see neither more nor less than just what is contained in that day.
Paris still held my hand. This was sufficient for me, all I would need.
* * *
Dawn rose. I was stiff and cold; my hands felt numb. Lying beside me and under the blanket was Paris.
“I thought you were going to stay awake all night,” I whispered, touching his ear with my lips.
“I did,” he said. “I only lay down when it began to get light. The seas were clear.” He sat up, shaking his head. “Only one more day to go.”
Until we arrived at Cythera. And then . . . but now I was not to think in those terms. I was to think only of the day’s voyage to Cythera. And once on Cythera, to think only of that day there, and then . . .
“Here comes the dangerous part,” said the captain, striding toward us. “We’re in the worst part of the currents, the ones that sweep through the channel, and we’re approaching Malea. Look there. You can see Cape Malea away on our left, and Cythera straight ahead.”
I stood up, my legs quivering. The wind smacked me in the face, stinging cold. I could see the headland of Malea, and dead ahead the mountain of Cythera. It had resolved itself out of the mists of a dream.
“At last! At last I shall set foot on it!” I said.
“Not so hasty, lady,” said the captain. “There’s them to get by first.”
“What?” Paris asked.
“Them.” The captain pointed to a small ship, barely visible, near Malea.
Paris laughed. “That little thing? It will never catch us, and even if it did, what matter?”
The captain shook his head. “Did you not know, Prince, that pirate ships are small and light? They have to be, for speed and hiding. And this has all the look of a pirate ship to me. I don’t think it’s an innocent fishing boat, although it may be disguised as one.” He turned to the rowers. “Faster! As fast as you are able!” He motioned to the crew. “Sail up! Sail up! Let’s harness this wind!”
The men rushed to unfurl the sail and hoist it high, and it jerked as it filled with the impatient wind. The ship flew over the waves. The suspicious boat was left far behind.
The captain seemed to relax a bit, but he kept squinting astern, keeping the boat in his sights. He motioned to the men manning the steering oars to turn right, and they did. Then, a few moments later, he ordered them to turn left, quickly, and they obeyed. A dark look spread across his face.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s pirates, all right. They are altering their course whenever we do.”
“Mightn’t it just be a smaller boat using us as a safe means of charting a course?” asked one of the younger men.
“Possibly,” the captain admitted. “And now that we have the wind, and a larger sail than they do, we are outdistancing them. If we are fortunate, then we will reach Cythera far ahead of them.”
“But we’ll have to camp far inland,” said the man. “Pirates raid coasts and carry people off!”
“Then we’ll have to go up the mountain and live there for a while,” said Paris, his lips close to my ear. He made it sound like a paradise there, a retreat where we could linger for a very long time.
“The pirates like to swoop down on festivals where women and unarmed men are celebrating,” the young man wailed. “My aunt was carried off that way; we never saw her again.”
Pirate raids furnished most of the slaves sold for household work; in peacetime, without any war captives, pirates supplied that need. I shuddered.
“Courage, lad,” said the captain, not unkindly. “It’s harder to take a whole ship of men. There’s only one woman aboard, and she’ll fetch such a ransom that she will be safe.” He winked at me. “Faster!” he ordered the rowers.
But Cythera was farther away than it seemed, or perhaps we had been carried away to one side by the current. As the sun neared the horizon, Cythera was still a distance away. And then the wind, abruptly, stopped, as if it were descending beneath the ocean with the sun. The sail fell slack, hanging limply, uselessly. Our speed dwindled, and we moved now only by the power of the rowers.
And the mysterious following ship now grew larger behind us. When the wind was blowing, our bigger sail had carried us over the water faster; but without the wind, their rowers could propel their lighter boat faster. They were catching up, and no matter how hard our rowers strained, the gap between us was closing. I clutched the railing of the ship. Was my freedom to end after only a day? Were one night and one day with Paris all I was to be granted? Was I to be captured, trussed up, and sent back to Sparta like a penned animal?
“No!” I cried. “No, no!”
They were close enough now that we could see how many were aboard—some thirty or so, all grim-faced. There did not seem to be a captain; it was all rowers. Perhaps all pirates were equal, or all could take turns in being the captain. I supposed it was necessary, since so many must get killed on raids.
“Arm yourselves!” Paris and Aeneas ordered their men. The Trojan soldiers fastened their corselets and breastplates and put on their helmets. Now, surely, at the sight of armored men, the pirates would turn away. But no, they kept coming, coming even faster, as if they were gleeful that a true fight was in the offing.
As the waters grew shallower near Cythera, the pirates came alongside us. Now, instead of slowly patrolling the waters looking for an opening through the rocks to beach the ship on shore, the captain had to order the rowers to continue pulling their oars to keep us away from jagged rocks while we took a stand against the pirates. They would, of course, try to force us onto the rocks. Our situation was a pirate’s dream.
Paris pulled me into the middle of the ship, between the two banks of oarsmen, and surrounded us with soldiers. “You must be in the middle of the middle, protected on all sides!” he said. I could hear a scrabbling sort of sound—the pirates were scaling the sides of the ship, climbing over. Then piercing yells—from the pirates, meant to terrorize us. Then the ship began rocking madly as the men fought, battling on every little scrap of space. Large as it was, I feared the ship would tip on its side into the sea, take on water, and sink. At one point I was thrown to my knees as it listed suddenly to the left, when the fighters piled up there. I clutched at the boards beneath my fingers and clung to Paris’s leg, and all the while I could see nothing, protected by the wall of men guarding me.
The noise rose—screams of pain now mingled with the war cries, metal hit metal, wooden oars were smashed, and someone brought the sail down, so it enveloped us all, making the men fight as if in a net. I lost my grip on Paris’s leg and then I lost Paris. He was gone, and the solid circle of soldiers around me broke up, and as I rose I saw the melee on the ship, the men caught in the sail, the others fighting desperately, the dead bodies lying where they fell, some draped across the oars. I saw Paris and Aeneas slashing at pirates together, saw Paris spit one with his dagger—Paris looked as surprised as the pirate at his success. The man sagged and grabbed at his belly with fluttering hands, and I saw then that he was no man but a boy. He died with surprise still on his face. Had this been his only foray into the world of plundering? Was this his first day as a pirate?
Paris saw me nearby and yelled, “Get away! Get away!”
But where could I go? The entire ship was a battle scene, from the figurehead to the stern, with the rowers trying gamely to keep rowing as soldiers fought all around them. Some had abandoned their posts to join the fight, others were disabled by the fallen sail. Somewhere in the midst of this was the chest with the Spartan treasures in it; I had not thought of it until this late. Had anyone gone near it? But no, it was safe under the sail. I looked around wildly to see where I might escape the fray, but all I could do was dodge and slither around the grappling men.
Again the ship listed, so sharply water sloshed onto the deck; several men were washed off and now the armored soldiers fared the worse, as the weight of their corselets dragged them down. Some hit the rocks with a dull metal clang; the pirates who hit sent up a spray of red. The sucking of the waves around the rocks mingled with the groans of the dying men to make a long mournful moan. On board the din of fighting rose to the pitch of a screaming wind.
Slowly the greater numbers of soldiers and their better arms began to best the invaders. More and more of our men crawled out from under the sail to join their brothers in the fight, and finally the last two pirates were cornered up near the bow of the ship. Aeneas and another soldier were pinning them down on the railing, and a crush of other men piled up behind, so much that the pirates were more likely to be suffocated than to be killed by the daggers of Aeneas and his companion.
Aeneas barked orders that the others were to back away; catching his breath, he demanded, “Who are you? Where is your hideout?” he asked one of the pirates.
The pirate shook his head and refused to answer.
“Talk or you’ll die,” said Aeneas.
“I’ll die, talk or not,” he said. With a stunning display of cunning and skill, taking advantage of the tiny space between himself and his captor, he suddenly twisted himself free and leapt onto the Eros figurehead. There he crouched like a cat.
“Trojans, I see,” he cried, mockingly, sweeping off his hat. “And what brings you so far from home? Pretty armor you have, and pretty soldiers, too. And a pretty treasure to go with the pretty woman, I’ll warrant.”
Aeneas lunged forward, almost flying through the air, and grabbed the pirate’s leg. But the man kicked free and retreated farther out on the figure-head, while Aeneas lay sprawled just out of reach.
“Farewell,” said the pirate. “I throw myself on the mercy of Poseidon.” With that, he flung himself off into the water. Muttering, Aeneas peered over the side and shook his head.
“Disappeared,” he said.
In the confusion with that pirate, attention turned from his companion, still pinned against the railing. With a cry, Paris suddenly ran forward and stabbed him. This time neither victim nor killer looked surprised. The pirate grunted and slumped forward, and Paris pulled out his dagger and wiped it on his tunic, his face grim.
“Oh,” I cried, rushing over and embracing him. He clasped me to him with trembling hands.
Death lay all around us, bodies like fallen flowers on the blood-soaked deck.
We waded ashore, leaving the men to clean up the ship and dispose of the dead. But walking through the churning waters, we had to pass between floating bodies bobbing on the surface, and once I stepped on one that had already sunk to the bottom. It was still warm, and when my foot touched it I cried out. Paris grabbed my arm and steered me past it.
The waters grew shallower around my legs; now I would not step on anything hidden. Suddenly Paris let go of my arm and leapt ahead of me, jumping over the waves and rushing to the shore. “Now!” he cried, holding his arms wide. “Stop. Stand there.”
I could not imagine what he was doing, but I halted and looked at him.
“There. Don’t move. Don’t ever move.”
Was he mad? I could not stand there forever. I took another step.
“Now I have seen her,” he said.
“Aphrodite coming forth from the foam, the foam where she was born,” he said, holding out his hand to draw me onto the beach. “This is where she came ashore, you know.” He flung his arms around me. “And in you I have seen her.” He started kissing my neck. “But you are more lovely yet.”
“Do not provoke her,” I whispered. But I knew that she had already heard. And behind us I could feel the gazes of the men boring into us. While they threw dead bodies overboard and scrubbed the deck free of blood, these young fools were embracing. That was what they saw. At least they could not blame me for the pirate attack itself.
So I had reached Cythera, where I had set my sights. But how different the arrival than what I would have wished.
We camped deep inside the island, leaving only a few men to guard the ship. They broke up the pirate boat and sank it, after stripping it of anything useful—ropes, baskets, oars, and the few remaining weapons. Quickly they made basic shelters and gathered wood to set a fire; they built a big one, placing some of the wood from the pirate boat close by to dry out. The sun had set on us during the fight, and now the light was fading quickly. In a few minutes the stars would be out.
They passed around wineskins and we all drank from them. Usually—I assumed—there would have been tired, lazy talk, reliving the day’s journey, planning the next. Now they all sat dully staring at the fire, saying nothing. The silence, except for the snapping of wood in the fire, was not unwelcome. I feared what they would say if they could truly speak their minds.
What they were thinking was, Helen brings death. I had not been gone from my home more than a day and already we were surrounded by dead bodies. Was it my fault? No, how could it have been? But fault and cause are not the same thing. If honey attracts flies, the honey is the cause of the swarm. But it is not the fault of the honey, it is merely its nature to attract flies.
Was it my nature to attract death? The Sibyl and what she had said . . . many Greeks will die.
Were the pirates Greeks? I quibbled to myself. Perhaps they weren’t. But the one who had spoken to Aeneas—he sounded Greek enough.
“Glum, glum, my fellows.” It was Aeneas who spoke, as if he had overheard me thinking about him. “Cheer up. They say a journey that starts badly ends fairly. And it did not end as badly for us as for the pirates.” He laughed; a forced laugh at first that grew genuine as some of the men joined in.
“Here, here,” one of them said, squirting wine into his mouth, then passing the wineskin to the man beside him.
“Now!” One of the others grabbed a piece of wood from the pirate boat and heaved it onto the fire. It sizzled and spat from the water still within it. “Burn. Burn so we have something useful from you.” He spun around and said, “Isn’t it unusual, instead of taking something, the pirates have left us something?”
“No loot, though,” another man said. “Apparently we were the first victims to be attacked. It would have been better if we were the last—then we’d have inherited their booty.”
The first. He was probably right, then: that boy was probably on his first foray. Death was always ugly, but ugliest in the young. I shuddered.
“You dispatched a couple,” said Aeneas, pointing to Paris. “Your first, I assume? Not much killing before you came to Troy, I’ll warrant.”
But much killing afterward. Who whispered that in my mind?
“Yes. It was . . . easy.” Paris looked down, embarrassed. “It isn’t supposed to be.”
“Who said that?” one of the men said. “It’s a lie that it’s not easy. It’s one of the easiest things in the world. That’s why there’s so much of it.”
The captain joined in. “It’s especially easy when you know he’s about to kill you.” He roared with laughter. “But you made such a mess of my ship!” Another gust of laughter. “Can’t you men kill more cleanly?”
“Let us hope that the clean-scrubbed decks will see nothing else the rest of the journey,” said Aeneas. “Let us pass to Troy as quickly as possible.”
“We will have to pick our way in and out of islands almost all the way to Troy,” said the captain. We’ll be able to anchor and put ashore, but we won’t be safe until we reach the bay by Troy.”
I wondered how long it would take to reach Troy. Strange, I had not asked before, and now I realized even under the best of conditions it would take many days. Was someone following us? How long would it be until Menelaus found out and came in pursuit? He was still on Crete; he would remain there for the funeral games. Someone might sail to Crete to tell him, but by the time they reached him he would be almost ready to return. Suddenly I laughed. Why, he had not even arrived at Crete yet! We had left at the same time, and Crete was much farther than Cythera. I felt safe. We would be safe in Troy before he could rally any followers.
“What’s so amusing?” Paris leaned over.
I could not tell him I was laughing in relief that my husband was not a threat. “Nothing . . . I was just laughing out of weariness.”
“Yes, let us go to our tent.” He did not need much encouragement, nor did I. I did not want to remain at the fire much longer.
This time our tent was more substantial, with wooden supports from the planks of the pirate boat and drapings of goat-hair cloth. Paris still left an opening in the center so we could breathe the fresh night air. He had spread the ground with heavy wool blankets and set our cloaks atop them. The treasure trunk was resting within our sights.
“Not that I don’t trust the men, but . . .” He smiled. “What do you think of our palace?” He gestured proudly.
I leaned back against him. “I think you have learned a great deal about setting up tents in just a day. By the time we reach Troy, you will be the best tentmaster in the Aegean.” And it was true—he was clever and obviously resourceful. He will learn, I whispered to myself, and everything he learns will make him more and more outstanding among men, until there is no touching him. I excited myself just thinking of it—of the young man beside me and the man he would grow into.
Even though the tent was chilly, we would kindle heat from naked bodies that would not shiver from cold but from desire. Again that wild desire swept over me that made me want to disappear into him, and at the same time to caress every piece of him, to worship his body.
Paris sank down on his knees and pulled me with him. Delicately he unpinned the shoulders of my gown and the fine wool fell off, light as a baby’s breath. Then his own breath replaced it, warm and caressing, on my shoulder. Oh, it was sweet as the murmuring wind that passes over flowery meadows.
I tilted my head back, and my hair fell all the way to the makeshift pallet, like a column. He plunged his hands into it, tangling his fingers in it, squeezing it.
“Your hair . . . your glory . . .” he was saying faintly. His voice sounded far away and was hard to hear. His hands in my hair pulled me backward. He toppled with me and playfully took handfuls of my hair and covered my face with them. “Now you cannot see,” he said.
It was so dark in the tent—and we could have no lighting because of fire danger—that I could not see in any case, but the hair was a strange mask: warm from his hands, thick and heavy with a scent that only now I realized was my own. He parted it and kissed my lips. My hair fell away on both sides.
I loved the shape and feel of his lips—they were curved like a hunter’s bow, and smooth as only a young man’s could be. Menelaus’s were harder and unyielding, and in those fleeting moments I wondered if Paris’s would become inflexible in time, but now they were soft and spoke only of pleasure. I could—I would—never tire of kissing them.
He slipped his arms under my shoulders and I ran my hands across his back, delighting in the feel of each muscle and sinew.
“Cattle herding must be arduous.” I heard my own voice giving form to my thoughts. It was true: he had grown a warrior’s body from everyday tasks. The things that normal men do in a day’s job may be harder than a prince’s training. “It is good you did not become a prince until you had first been a man.”
From somewhere I heard a drowsy laugh. “I was always a prince. I did not know it.”
I pulled him closer. “Your cattle knew it,” I said. “Animals know.”
“You are very silly sometimes,” he murmured. Then all banter ceased, as our bodies silenced us.
“Paris,” I said, “Paris, I and all my fortunes are yours.”
I gave myself to him with all my being, and took him with all of mine. I could not hold him close enough. We rolled over together on the mantles, cold from the air around us, and tumbled over and over until we rested on the bare ground. “Now,” I whispered. “I can wait no longer.” And it was so—my body was on fire, and I must have him.
“Nor I,” he murmured.
There was no one time, no one coming together. Even in the darkness, the tent seemed to glow with red and yellow and the colors of desire and the sun. When at last we fell back onto the blankets and pulled the mantles over us, it was only because we were perfectly and utterly fulfilled.
Yet sleep was beyond me. I gazed outward through the opening in the tent and saw the diminished moon only now high enough in the sky to shine through to us. A bright shaft of light fell onto Paris, illuminating his sleeping face.
His face was so perfect it would arouse the envy of the gods. I raised myself on my elbow and looked upon it. His eyelids were closed and he slept deeply. Beauty. What an exacting master or mistress it is over us. What I hated others doing to me, I was doing to Paris.
I tore myself away, rose to my feet. I pushed aside the tent flaps and went outside, wincing at the first brightness of the moonlight. It threw shadows from the moving branches on all sides of the tent. I stood on tiptoe and drew in my breath—the air was cold and pine-scented, bracing. I could hear the sea, but it was far away. This was a much bigger island than Cranae, with forests and animals.
The moon overhead was eaten away on one side. Just so much had it lost since the night Paris and I had run away. It was a relentless mistress of time, measuring our life together.
The dawn came up around me, stealing across the sky, draining the moon of its light, turning it into a milky ghost fleeing toward the west. The sea seemed white as well, stretching away on all sides. Somewhere, out of sight, lay Troy.
I had no picture in my mind of Troy. I had words: Rich. Strong-walled. Broad-streeted. Windy. But still that did not tell me what it would look like. Nor how it would feel to be there. Nor what I would find amongst the people there.
The tent flap moved; Paris stepped out, rubbing his eyes. The rising sun struck his face, making him wince, turning his skin to gold. He shook his head and looked about him. Seeing me, he came over and embraced me.
“Are you not cold?” He took his mantle and placed it around my shoulders. Not until then had I realized I was chilled.
“Thank you,” I said, leaning back against him. The chill fled.
Together we wandered over the island, exploring it. It was large, so much so that when we were walking through its woods or climbing its hills it was easy to forget that we were on an island. It was richly forested and filled with running brooks, and the birdsong made it seem magical.
“It is a fitting place for the birthplace of Aphrodite,” I said, as we passed the white ribbon of a tumbling waterfall making for a green pool far below. It seemed the most delightful garden of pleasurable things I had ever seen.
We found a grove of myrtles, huddled like a family of women: there was the old matriarch, standing tall and wide above her daughters and grand-daughters, who were more slender and were still flowering. The scent was so rich I could almost touch it.
“Here. Here it is,” said Paris. “The place where we must build her shrine.”
We began to search for stones to fashion an altar for her, to honor her. We found them in plenty lying in the streambed and scattered about the myrtle grove. Heaving them up was another matter, and it took all our strength and maneuvering ability.
“Perhaps we should call some of the men,” I said. “They could do this easily and quickly.”
“No,” said Paris. “It must be built by our hands alone.” And so we struggled all afternoon, moving and arranging the stones. But by sunset we had a lovely altar underneath the overhanging branches of the old myrtle. They encircled it protectively.
Paris’s hands were torn and raw from the rough stones. I took one and kissed it. These hands had killed men during the pirate raid, but their wounds came from attempting to honor Aphrodite. Aphrodite was more demanding than Ares, then.
“Now we must consecrate the sacred grove,” he said.
I looked at our half-empty wineskins. We had drunk a great deal to quench our thirst while we labored for the goddess. “Will she be satisfied with our leavings for her libations?” I wondered.
“We shall not be giving her only these libations, but the one she most prizes.” Paris took the wineskin and solemnly emptied it out on the ground, invoking her presence. Then he turned to me.
“You know the rite the goddess treasures,” he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. “We must do it in her sight and before her sacred altar.”
I started to demur, but then the goddess herself overpowered me again, coming to us in the rustling of the myrtle branches. I could hear her laughter just beneath the murmur of the leaves. I could almost see her, half hidden in the shadows.
Consecrate my grove, my child, she whispered. Make it holy by what you do here. She pushed me toward Paris and I fell into his arms.
At once it was as if the hard ground were replaced by the softest grasses of a meadow, and as we sank down into it, crushing it beneath us, the scent of a thousand tiny flowers filled the air. In bruising them we rubbed their perfume upon us. We were the two most blessed people on earth, or so it seemed under the spell of the goddess. Each gesture was filled with infinite grace, each word was music, our coming together a dance of beauty, as we joined ourselves together as man and woman. In our earthly tent the night before we had stoked a fire of happy, unthinking animals; now, in the soft filtered daylight of the sacred grove, we were creatures of the air and heavens.
Later I lay back, looking up at the blue sky. I turned my head, reached over, and stroked Paris’s cheek. He sighed with delight.
I could still see the goddess, a dim image hovering just at the corner of my sight. And behind her, another form: a darker one, one that crowded close to her and vied for her attention, draping his arm over her shoulder. I saw the shield. It was Ares, her lover. Then he stepped forward and took his place beside her, boldly. She tried to push him back, but he would not retreat. She smiled at me as if to say, I tried to banish him, but he insists on being here.
The god of war, hand in hand with Aphrodite. She had called me, and then he had followed. We each had our lovers. What had I expected? If I had mine, hers would invite himself along as well.
Suddenly the grove was no longer a place where I cared to linger. He was here, that ugly god, ruining the beauty around us. I sat up and began to seek my discarded gown. Paris withdrew his hand.
“What is it?” he asked, puzzled.
Could he not see the hateful war god? “Aphrodite has brought another,” I said. “I do not wish him to gaze upon us.”
“What—who—?” Paris scrambled to collect his clothes.
He did not know. He could not see. Fortunate Paris.
“Come,” I said. “We have honored the goddess. Now we should go before darkness falls.”
“No, let us stay here all night and celebrate her rites!” Paris eagerly embraced me.
“No,” I said. We must leave this place. I stood up and reached for my mantle.
There was a movement in the bushes behind us. Had Aphrodite and Ares taken human form? Oh, we must prepare ourselves! I clenched my fists and tried to still my racing heart. We would not, must not retreat. Gods hate a coward.
The sound in the bushes grew louder. Something was thrashing about, breaking the branches, muttering. Then, out into the clearing, Gelanor appeared.
Had Aphrodite stepped out, I was prepared. Even had Ares accompanied her, I would have stood my ground. But now I staggered back, shocked.
“No!” I shrieked. This had to be an apparition.
Another person emerged from the bushes, brushing herself off—an old woman, with a face like a winter’s apple.
“No!” I cried again, grabbing Paris and pulling him away.
“What a disappointing welcome,” the Gelanor-apparition said.
“Go away!” I cried. “You cannot be real!” Yet a few moments ago I had welcomed the phantom image of Aphrodite.
“You know better than that,” he said, walking toward me. “Living people remain in their flesh. Only dreams and gods are smoke and visions. Perhaps you have seen too many visions of late?”
I covered my eyes with my hands. When I raised them again, he would be gone.
But when I peered out between my fingers, he was still there, and only an arm’s length away.
“Helen, this is very foolish of you.” He took my arm, and his hand was all too real, and it pinched my wrist. “You must return to Sparta with me, before Menelaus knows any of this. It is not too late.”
“No!” I pulled my arm away. “Never!” Then, staring at him, I blurted out, “How did you come here? How did you find me?” Yet had I not known from the beginning that it would be Gelanor they would send after me?
“She did,” he said, indicating his companion. “She knew you had gone—she saw you visit the household shrine and then she heard the noises in the stable. She saw the two chariots tearing out down the hill.”
I stared at the old woman.
“She has poor eyesight, but she has the other sight.” He shrugged. “It is a talent I lack—you know I rely only on my own reasoning—but you are right, my reasoning could never have led me here. Except . . . you were so curious about Cythera. So perhaps we each were led here by different means.”
“So you were not . . . sent?”
He frowned. “No. I did not go near the royal quarters—I had no reason to. Doubtless your mother and father and daughter have discovered your absence, but if you return now you and I can concoct a reasonable explanation. Or it need not even be reasonable. People believe what they wish to believe, what soothes them. They do not question, especially when the answers to the questions might be painful.”
So. I could undo it all. I could have had my adventure with Paris, could have proved my daring to myself, and be none the worse. I had not thought to repair the damage so easily. A transgression with no price.
I looked over at Paris, at his face. His mouth framed a smile. “Go if you must,” he said. “I shall treasure what I was given.”
I went to his side. “No. I shall not go.”
“Helen, please!” Gelanor shook his head. “Think. Only think.”
“I have thought, and thought, and thought. All those years at Sparta, I thought.”
“You will not return?” He sounded forlorn.
“I cannot. To return is to choose death.” But why had Ares appeared in my new life? He had never been there before. And he trailed death. But must I leave all my old life behind? Perhaps I need not. “Gelanor—come with us. Come with us to Troy!”
“What?” His face registered—what? Surprise? Disgust? Horror?
“Yes. Come with us to Troy. Oh, please do!” Suddenly I wanted him above all from Sparta to accompany us. I had missed him more than I knew. “Oh, Gelanor, I need you with me! You can do much good in Troy, you can be . . .” I knew not what, but I knew I needed him.
“I have no wish to go to Troy,” he said. “Neither should you go. It is a dreadful mistake, it is wrong!”
“I am going, wrong or not!” I said. “That said, come with me!”
“Go with her.” The old woman suddenly spoke. Her voice was like an echo down a well.
“Who is she?” I rounded on Gelanor.
“Why, she is the old wool-carder from the palace,” he said.
I barely remembered her. Perhaps that was because I did not venture into those quarters often.
“Oh, my lady, I remember you well.” She answered my thoughts, not my words. “I have seen you grow up.”
I tried not to dislike her, though she had laid bare my secret escape. Had it not been for her, perhaps Gelanor might never have found me.
“I brought you something you should not have departed without,” she said, holding out a rough hemp sack.
“What is this?” I said.
“Open it,” she ordered, walking toward me with extended arms. There was movement inside the sack.
I did not wish to obey, but I did, curious. I opened the mouth of the sack and saw inside the household snake. “Oh!” I cried.
“You will need him in your new life,” she said. “He will advise you, protect you.”
But . . . I had trusted the snake to guard Hermione, to keep her safe in my absence. And now he could not! A dreadful fear for her, and her future, swept over me.
I reached in and stroked the snake’s head with trembling fingers. “Do not forget my daughter,” I begged him. To her, I said, “Tell Gelanor again, he must come with us.”
She shook her head. “I have told him once. He has good ears. He has heard.”
“Two on a foolish quest do not halve the foolishness,” said Gelanor. “No, I cannot come. Come back with me.”
“Just as you cannot come with me, I cannot come with you. But you have not told me how you found me.”
“Yes, I have. Evadne knew where you would be. She was granted an image of the island in her mind. We knew you would be going by sea, for Paris had a ship. She described the island, and I knew it for Cythera. We set out at once.”
We stood, stubbornly staring at one another. “Join us at least for the night, before you return to Sparta.”
“I suppose we cannot leave until morning, anyway. It was dangerous enough in full light.” He sounded angry that he had to stay even another moment, and he turned his head away as if he disliked looking at me. We took a few steps before he said, “Perhaps you and your paramour ought to finish dressing yourselves before you set out.”
Only then did I look down at my breasts, partially uncovered. I had not finished pinning my up gown when these intruders had arrived. “You came upon us without our knowledge and interrupted—”
“Not that, at least!” Paris laughed merrily.
“No. Aphrodite spared us that sight.” Perhaps Paris, not knowing him well, did not hear the sarcasm in Gelanor’s voice, but for me it was insulting. I was shaken and angry that he had found me so quickly; at the same time, his having come this far, I might as well have him with me at Troy. And the fact that he did not wish to come angered me further.
Using makeshift torches in the growing twilight, we found our way back down the hillside to the camp. Little was said as we walked; we were focusing all our attention on our footing as we descended. I took the arm of the old woman to help steady her; it felt as fragile as a brittle, dry stick. Paris held the sack with the snake, cradling it in his arms. He had a fondness for the snake, I knew, because it had favored us—something no one else was likely to do. Gelanor’s stern arrival drove home to me the consequences of my flight; Gelanor was right in that if I returned now, much trouble could be averted. And what awaited us at Troy? Were the Trojans likely to welcome me? They might see me as fair exchange for Hesione, but did anyone in Troy really miss Hesione but her brother?
The men jumped up as we approached. “What’s this?” they cried. Three rushed over to Gelanor and surrounded him with swords. “A surviving pirate?”
Gelanor laughed. “Nothing so wild and scary,” he said. “I am just a craftsman from the court of Sparta. You flatter me, taking me for a pirate.”
They circled him, their blades out. He did seem flattered, as men of the mind always are when they are taken for dangerous men of the sword. “It is true,” he said. He looked toward me to tell them.
“Yes,” I said. “He is from Sparta. He and this woman have chased us here out of loyalty to Menelaus.”
“For a craftsman, you must be an expert sailor,” said the captain, coming over to him, ordering his men to lower their weapons. “This is no easy passage.” “I grew up in Gytheum,” said Gelanor. “My father is a fisherman.”
“Ahh,” said the captain. “I see.”
“Odd how certain skills one thinks forgotten can return in crucial moments,” said Gelanor. “We beached on the other side of the island; the current took us there.”
“Returning will be a different matter,” said the captain. The currents are against you, as are the winds. Unless you have a huge sail and many rowers . . .”
For the first time since I had known him, I saw something take Gelanor by surprise—unpleasant surprise. Had he not considered the return passage? Or had he assumed he could persuade the captain to turn his large ship and take us all back to the mainland? Perhaps he been so bent on his goal he did not think of anything beyond that. What had driven him to pursue us so furiously?
“I will manage,” he said stiffly.
The captain motioned for us all to gather around the fire, which was already blazing. “You are welcome here,” he told Gelanor and Evadne. The wineskin was making its rounds, and someone handed it to Gelanor. He took a deep swallow and passed it on.
Aeneas came over to us. “Who did you find?”
“He found us,” Paris said. “Someone from Helen’s court, coming to take her back. But he wasn’t sent, he just came on his own.”
Aeneas glanced down at him. “Brave man,” he said. “So the alarm hasn’t been raised yet for our flight?”
“Gelanor and this woman left by daybreak, only a few hours after we did. Of course, by now we have been missed—all of us,” I said.
“Who is this man?” asked Aeneas.
A meddler, I thought. My dear friend, too. “He serves as an adviser to Menelaus on many things,” I said. “He is very clever.”
“Well, what sort of things?”
“Oh . . . weaponry, supplies.”
“He’s a military man?”
“No, not a soldier.”
“I don’t understand,” said Aeneas. “If he isn’t a soldier, how would he be expert in soldiering? Why would his advice be valuable?”
“He just knows many things,” I said. “I told you he was clever. I cannot explain it any further than that.”
“We could use such a man in Troy.”
“Exactly what I told him. But he refuses to go. He just wants to return to Sparta.”
“You are a stubborn man, Gelanor,” said Paris, raising his cup to salute him. “But as one myself, I must honor that.” He took a long swallow of wine.
“Is your loyalty to Menelaus so absolute, then?” asked Aeneas.
“My loyalty is to Helen,” he said. “The court at Sparta without her has no hold on me. So I shall search elsewhere for a place to employ my talents.”
“Come to Troy, then!” said Aeneas.
“I said my loyalty was to Helen,” said Gelanor. “I did not say I was owned by Helen, going wherever her fancy took her.”
Suddenly I knew how to reach him. “Gelanor,” I said, “the best service you could do for both Menelaus and me would be to accompany us to Troy and then return to Sparta to report that we have arrived safely. That way you would have seen me to the end of my journey and also stayed loyal to Menelaus, able to set his mind at ease. He will know then exactly what has happened and not be at the mercy of rumor and guessing, and can act accordingly.”
Act accordingly. What might he be moved to do? No matter. The walls of Troy were high and strong. And we would be safe inside them by then.
I took a deep breath and looked into his eyes, innocently, I hoped. “Is this not the most reasonable course of action, the one that will satisfy everyone’s honor?” Reason never failed with him; let it prevail now!
Instead of answering me, he shook his head and made a sound of annoyance, sitting down on the sand and joining the men around the fire. He had not said no. He was delaying his answer. Once he gave his word, I had never heard him change it. “What food are you offering a hungry man?” he asked.
Soon everyone was eating and talking. The men had explored the island during the day, and the captain and some of the soldiers had repaired the damage to the ship from the pirate attack, and hasty landing, making ready to set sail.
“It’s ready, men,” said the captain. “Now the true voyage can begin!”
“The dangerous part, you mean,” said Paris.
“What, weren’t the pirates and the bad current dangerous enough for you?” asked Aeneas.
“It’s all dangerous,” the captain admitted. “But if we are in favor with the gods, we should arrive safely enough in Troy.”
“What route will we take?” Aeneas asked.
“We’ll go from here to the island of Melos—from there to Andros. And from there, Scyros, and then to Chios—”
“Chios?” Gelanor asked.
“Yes, Chios. And then we are right upon Troy. Each jump will involve night sailing again. It’s risky, but there is no other choice. The distance between these islands is too great. And I am thankful for the islands, because without them we would face too long a stretch over open water between here and Troy.” He took a deep draught of wine and wiped his mouth. “So drink up tonight, get your fill of lying on the earth.”
Soon all had drifted away to their sleeping places. Overhead the sky was clear and the stars friendly and white. But out on the open sea, with only blackness under us, how much comfort would we find in them?
The winds were brisk when we arose and went down to the beach in the early dawn. “A good sign,” said the captain. “Let us be on our way!” The men were loading the wineskins and sacks of grain on board.
I looked around for Gelanor. But he was not there. I was disappointed but not surprised. More than anything, I was sad I would never see him again. And I worried about his safety in sailing back to Sparta alone. Would he not even speak with me before we parted?
A rustling by my side surprised me, and I turned and saw Evadne, her face almost invisible in the folds of her hood. “The snake and I are coming,” she said. “He would have it no other way.” She patted the bag affectionately. “This morning we were able to catch some mice for him, and that will satisfy him until we reach his new home.”
I was touched that this woman, whom I had barely known all my years in Sparta, was willing to make this journey with me. So she and the snake would be all of my old life that would travel with me. That and the gold and jewels. But the woman and the snake were more precious. “Thank you for coming,” I said.
“Everyone aboard,” ordered the captain, and we filed down to the side of the ship and one by one climbed over the sides and took our places. Just as the last of the soldiers were mounting the ship, someone banged on the side.
“Let me speak to the captain!” Gelanor demanded. I peered out and saw him standing there, cloaked, looking impatient.
“Yes, what is it?” the captain sounded equally impatient. “We must sail straightaway.”
“You said you were going to Chios,” he said.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” he snapped.
“Can you promise that?”
The captain laughed, but it was not a happy laugh. “Ask Poseidon. Only he can promise that.”
“Is it your solemn intention to go to Chios, and put in there?”
“Yes, how many times do you need to hear it?”
“All right, then. I shall come.” He jumped up on the boulder the soldiers were using to climb in and joined us. He did not look at me or Paris, but took a seat a distance from us.
What was so special about Chios? I asked myself. Whatever it was, apparently it meant more to him than all my pleas that he come with us. It meant more to him than me. I glared at his back. Well, then, let him have Chios and whatever was on it!
The sky lightened and turned a clear ringing blue. We sped across the waves toward Troy.
Oh, that journey, that journey. In it I was suspended between my worlds, outside any world at all, for life on a speeding ship has no bearing on a life elsewhere. Each day held its own wonders, each night its own dangers, and so there was never a moment of feeling less than vibrantly alive. Each day seemed five years’ worth of newness, yet it passed in a flash like a dream.
Our first stint, to Melos, was a very long one, and the wind failed us halfway there. The rowers had to put their strength to the oars and keep rowing at night. As it came into sight at last, the captain warned us that Melos was also a haunt of pirates, who hid in the sea caves at the base of the towering cliffs. But we passed unhindered into the curved, protected bay and beached at last in a fine harbor. Eagerly we climbed out of the confines of the ship and frolicked on land, stretching our limbs and waving our arms and whooping with joy. Paris and I danced a little dance on the sands. Evadne took the snake out of his bag and draped him around her neck and sang. Aeneas challenged Paris to a race along the seashore. Gelanor walked off by himself to inspect the seashells along the tide line.
We stayed there for several days, replenishing our water and exploring the island. I had never seen anything like it—the strange rock formations, and black stone from old volcanoes. Gelanor seemed especially interested in that—he collected shiny sharp pieces of it, saying this was obsidian and it made good knives. “Good when there’s no bronze to be had.” It was almost the only thing he had said to me since we had left Cythera. I made a polite, cool response, and moved away. I was still stinging about his strange turnaround in voyaging with us, and his silence about it.
In contrast to Gelanor, Evadne was very talkative, although she tended to mutter and mumble the way old women often do. I could not tell how old she really was—she seemed Sibyl-like to me and I wondered, truly, how long she had been at Sparta. Could she have been there all the way back to the reign of Oebalus or even Cynortas? She kept her eyes shaded with an overhanging flap of her head covering, saying that the bright light bothered her.
On the third day we were suddenly confronted with a crowd of islanders. The news of our arrival had spread and they came to see us. I was not fast enough in covering my face and so it caused the usual gasps and gapes. We must go before it got worse. So we left the island, thankful that we had filled up the water skins first.
“Always a problem when you travel with Helen,” Gelanor told the captain. “Next time you can expect it.”
Did he mean to be funny? I did not find it amusing. But Paris laughed. “A problem every other man in the world would love to have!” he said, embracing me possessively.
On we sailed to Andros, another long journey. On the way we saw other islands where we could have put in, but the captain warned us that would slow our journey a great deal. “I know we are all eager to reach Troy,” he said.
The night sailing was difficult—it was impossible to sleep, and so when we reached Andros at twilight the second day I was thankful we would be spared another night at sea. Night was falling rapidly, but in the failing light I could see how majestic the island was, how high the mountains.
So it proved in the daylight—magnificent slopes, covered in green forest, with waterfalls tumbling down the gorges. “There’s even a river or two here,” said the captain, “good water for us. It’s unusual for an island to have rivers.”
We rested there for several days, rejoicing in the simple pleasures of being able to walk freely, something I had never appreciated before this voyage.
On to Scyros. When we reached it we would be at the halfway point of our journey. It was a small island, with two mountains rising up like breasts on either side of a flat area. We had not even brought our ship up to shore when soldiers appeared on the shore to question us.
“This is the island of King Lycomedes,” their commander called. “Who are you? In whose name do you come?”
Paris started to answer, but Aeneas hushed him. “I am Aeneas, prince of Dardania,” he said. “I am returning to my home from an embassy to Salamis.”
“You are welcome, Prince, you and your men,” the commander said. “We shall escort you to the palace.”
Oh, no! Now we would be discovered, and our route known. Or—worst of all!—we would be captured and detained. Paris could lie about his identity, but when they saw me . . .
I went to Aeneas and spoke into his ear. “Beg for a bit of time. Say we must attend to something or other on the ship.”
“Good men, let us recover a bit. It has been a tiring journey,” Aeneas called.
“You can refresh yourselves at the palace. There are hot baths there, dainty food.” They planted themselves stubbornly beside the boat.
“Here.” I felt a tug at my cloak. Evadne was beside me. “Smear your cheeks with this.” She slipped a little clay jar into my hand. “It will age you.”
“Forever?” That seemed a drastic remedy.
“Until you wash it off,” she said. “I call it my Hecate-cream. It is a gift from the old goddess herself.”
I think you are that old goddess, I thought suddenly. How did I even know this woman was a human and not a goddess? I could not be sure she had ever even been in Sparta. And for her to appear so oddly, along with Gelanor, and carrying the sacred snake . . . I was cold with apprehension.
“A wool-carder learns much about skin and how to treat it,” she explained, as if to soothe my fears. “There is a substance in wool that preserves youth. Look at my hands.” She held them out, and indeed they were smooth, the hands of a girl—in contrast to her wrinkly face. “There are other substances that mimic age.” She pressed the jar into my palm. “Hurry, my dear.” The soldiers were peering into the ship. I bent down and smeared my face with the thick gray clay. It spread surprisingly easily, and I could barely feel it on my skin. “Pull your hair back,” she said, taking it roughly in her hands and twisting it up in a knot. Then she took a coarse wool scarf and wound it about my head to hide my hair completely. “Remember to bend as you walk. Forget your usual walk. Now your hips ache and your feet are swollen.”
I was barely finished with this transformation before we were being herded off the ship and marched on a path up the mountain, to the palace perched at its summit. I tried to remember to hunch over and walk painfully. I even requested a stick to lean on. Paris kept abreast with Aeneas and I hobbled along with Evadne.
Suddenly we were on a smooth plateau and the palace appeared before us—polished pillars and a shaded porch fronting a wide two-story building. Courtiers scurried out and ushered us in, under the shaded gallery and into the smaller courtyard. The climb had been a steep one and it was not difficult for me to remember to pant and keep bent.
Soon the king appeared, hobbling out. He was as old as I was pretending to be. “Welcome, strangers. You will dine with us and spend the night,” he said.
Now there must be a long ceremonial dinner, presentation of gifts. I was thankful that protocol forbade his asking us our names or our business until after the dinner—that would give us longer to rehearse our stories to ourselves.
He led us into the great hall, and suddenly we were surrounded by a host of young girls, like a flock of butterflies. “My daughters,” he said. “I have more daughters than any other king, I’ll warrant.”
“No sons?” asked Aeneas.
“The gods did not send me that blessing,” he said. But he held out his arms to embrace several of his daughters, laughing. “What the palace lacks in warriors, it makes up for in beauty.”
The banquet was as all banquets—ordered, predictable, mildly pleasant. Has anything of importance ever happened at a banquet? I was seated with the women and girls, since I was supposed to be a member of Aeneas’s entourage of no special rank. The king’s eldest daughter was on one side—her name was Deïdameia and I guessed her to be fifteen or sixteen. Her gown was a light creamy green. Again I thought of a butterfly. Beside her was a girl who looked older and bigger, but I had been told specifically that Deïdameia was the eldest. This girl said little and kept her eyes down. The arm that emerged from her tunic when she cut her meat seemed oddly muscular.
“Pyrrha, can you not speak to our guests?” Deïdameia coaxed.
Pyrrha lifted her eyes and for a moment they looked familiar to me. Then she blinked and seemed to struggle for words. “Have you had adventures along the way?” she asked in a low voice.
“Once we ran into pirates,” I said.
I started to tell the truth but then realized I must not indicate we had been anywhere in the vicinity of Cythera—too close to Sparta. Instead I said, “Near Melos.”
“There was a fierce fight, but our men beat them.”
“By Hermes, I’d like to have been there!” she said fiercely.
“Oh, Pyrrha!” Deïdameia gave a tinkling laugh.
Pyrrha wanted to know all about the weapons the pirates had used, and what type of boat they had used to overtake us. But she was interrupted in her string of questions by the launching of the ceremonial part of the dinner. Gifts were presented from Lycomedes to Aeneas, and Aeneas proffered some bronze from the ship. Then, and only then, did Lycomedes ask, “And who are you, friend?”
“I am Aeneas, prince of Dardania.”
“Welcome, Prince Aeneas!” Lycomedes said in a quavering voice. “And who have you with you?”
Paris stepped forward, “His cousin, good king. His cousin Alexandros.”
The king nodded. “And these others—your guards and attendants, yes?”
“Yes,” he said. He did not introduce Evadne, Gelanor, or me, except to say, “These are trusted servers of my counsel and chamber.”
“You are all most welcome,” the king repeated.
Afterward there were hours to fill, and the king arranged an exhibition of dancing acrobatics for us, with boys and girls leaping over ropes and flipping themselves across the backs of carved wooden bulls, using the horns to vault themselves over.
“In Crete, they say, they leap over the horns of real bulls,” said Paris.
“Too dangerous,” said the king. “I prefer that all my acrobats return home without blood.”
One of the dancers slipped under a rope when he missed his beat to jump it, and pretended nothing was amiss.
“I saw that!” Pyrrha’s rough voice rang out.
The words were spit out just as ones I had heard once before. I saw that. Three simple words, but spoken with singularly distinctive disdain and venom. I saw that.
“Saw what?” the king asked, but his tone said, That’s enough, Pyrrha.
“I—Oh, never mind!” She hunched her shoulders and turned away, going to lean against a pillar.
How tall she was. Taller even than the king. Had his queen been exceptionally tall? I went over to her.
“Go away,” she muttered.
I was shocked at this rudeness. One never ordered a guest to go away, especially one older than oneself. Before I could utter a word, she turned and glared at me. And I recognized the eyes of Achilles, that angry child I had last seen ten years ago mingling with the suitors in Sparta.
A boy! A boy disguised as a girl, here on the island of Scyros. Why? No wonder he was angry, having to pretend to be a girl.
As he looked at me, I saw that he also recognized me. Helen—his mouth silently formed the word. Helen!
“Shh,” I said. “Say nothing.”
Then we both began to laugh, trying to stifle ourselves. Achilles disguised as a girl looked out at Helen disguised as an old woman servant. And neither of us could ask why.
Just then the courtyard was filled with clattering, and we turned to see the king’s youngest daughters trotting in on tiny horses, clutching their manes. We both looked to the courtyard. Even standing on tiptoe, I had trouble seeing over all the heads crowding around, but Achilles would be able to see easily.
“These miniature horses—where did they come from?” I asked him. But there was no answer. I turned to see that he had gone, slipped silently away from the column.
I pretended to watch and applaud the riders, but all I could think of was, Achilles is here, in hiding! Did the king know? Did Deïdameia? Did anyone besides me?
Now I remembered Paris telling me that Achilles was already spoken of in Troy. But in what way? He could not be older than sixteen. That would make him the same age as Paris. How could he have made a name for himself as a warrior, with no wars to fight? There were always local skirmishes and disputes, but a great soldier does not arise from such.
And a great soldier is not of a character to hide among women!
The little horses were trotting in circles around the courtyard to loud applause. To me they looked as horses shrunken down to fit the children, a magical sight.
“These horses come from wild herds farther down the mountain,” said Deïdameia. “No one knows why they live only on this island. Even if they are descended from some that were brought here and escaped, where were they brought from? No other place has such tiny ones.”
“Perhaps the brisk sea air or special plants here stunted their growth.” Gelanor was standing beside us, staring intently at the horses. This was just the sort of puzzle he liked.
I longed to whisper the secret about Achilles into his ear; my confusion about it overpowered my lingering pique at his earlier behavior. But I could not. Somehow I knew that this knowledge was a secret I must keep to myself until we had left Scyros. Achilles trusted me with it, as I trusted him with mine.
We could not linger on Scyros, unless we fancied day after day of the king’s hospitality. By dawn we were descending the hill, accompanied by servants bearing supplies for us, and by midmorning we had set sail for Chios. When we were safely away, and the wind billowed the sail, I flung off my head covering and splashed seawater on my face to wash off the Hecate-cream. I was tired of being old. How wonderful to be able to wash it away!
“Thank you,” I told Evadne. “Your quick thinking and your help saved me. Saved me from . . . being Helen.”
The island was receding behind us. When it is out of sight, I thought, I will tell Paris and Gelanor about Achilles. But even when Scyros dwindled and disappeared on the horizon, I could not. And I hoped that, far behind me, Achilles likewise respected my own secret.
Chios meant more night sailing, and through rough seas almost due east. We clung hard to the stays and handholds to keep from being thrown out, but even so we were drenched as the waves broke over the sides of the ship. Shivering and miserable, we stared at the horizon, hoping to see Chios. But all we saw was the rising sun, shining out over the heaving waves.
I began to feel seasick, an illness that I had been spared up until now. “Look out at the horizon, my lady,” Evadne told me. “Lift your eyes away from the waves. And here, suck on this.” She handed me a salted piece of pork. “Salt helps.”
The bitter taste of the meat seemed to promise more stomach-churning, but she was right; somehow it countered the seasickness. I kept my eyes fastened straight ahead, over the waves, and was one of the first to see Chios when it emerged from the mists of twilight.
Like the others, it had mountains; unlike the others, it was very large, a massive piece of land lying just off the coast—the coast where Troy itself lay. This would be the end of the floating, free run that I had had—like the race I had run before my marriage. In one I had flown over the grass, in this I had flown over the sea. Now all that must end.
Grateful to be ashore, everyone disembarked. There were people here on this island; it was known for its fine wine. I knew I would have to disguise myself again, but surely that could wait. Surely no one would find us before morning.
A camp was set up, and speedily: this being our sixth stop, we had become expert in what to do. Soon we were sitting around the fire, waiting for our food to be done, drinking our wine—which was turning sour now.
“Perhaps we can refill our skins here at Chios,” said the captain. “That would improve matters!”
“What do we have to exchange?”
“A lot of leftover bronze,” said Paris. “We came well equipped with gifts.”
“A cauldron for an amphora. Sounds like a fair trade.”
The wine, on top of the residual seasickness, made me light-headed. The stars overhead seem to turn slowly as I watched. My head fell back on Paris’s shoulder. I remember nothing more about that evening.
I was one of the first to awaken and leave the tent shelter. I walked down to the sea and let the steady rhythm of the waves help clear the fog of sleep from my mind.
“You won’t see Troy from this side of the island.”
I turned to find Gelanor standing beside me. The noise of the sea had drowned out his footfalls.
“I am not sure I wish to see Troy,” I replied.
“A little late to think of that.”
“You’ve turned into a scold. As soon as we reach Troy, you can turn around and go back. That is what you want. So you must be pleased that we are within a short journey of your escape.” Let him go. Let him leave. His presence had been oppressive on this voyage.
“I haven’t yet had what I want from this journey.”
“What is that?”
“I am about to grasp it today. I will head south and find it.”
“A certain kind of shrub that produces a sweet sticky gum. It grows elsewhere, but only here does its sap harden naturally if the stem is bled.”
I was disgusted. So that was what made him change his mind and come on board. That was what Chios offered him—a tree sap.
“Come and see,” he said. “It will be fascinating to find. I think there could be many uses for such a substance. It could serve as incense in place of expensive myrrh, or as an ointment, or as syrup, or—oh, when I smell and taste it, I’ll know.”
“I have no interest in it,” I said.
“Oh, Helen, once you would have. Do not change, do not take on the lightness of . . . those you associate with.”
“He is not light!”
“So shall we wait and include him?” Gelanor looked up at the sun. “However, it might be a long wait. He does not emerge from his tent until midmorning sometimes.”
“No. It would be too late to start then.”
“I thought you were not coming.” He laughed. “Oh, do. It would be a good stretch of your legs. They must be cramped from sitting so long on the ship. I know mine are.”
So it was decided. I was going with him. It had been a long time since we had walked side by side—since the fateful trip to Gytheum.
Chios was a lovely island, but less green than Andros. Fewer tall trees meant that the wind whipped across it faster. I fancied that the wind came from Troy—brisk and energetic. The hillsides were covered in scrub and bushes.
“How will you ever know the bush you seek?” I asked him.
“I’ve seen its dried leaves,” he said. “I will recognize them. And we may see cuts on the trunks where people bleed them for the sap.”
As we walked along, I saw bright yellow and pink orchids in the limestone crags. “I’ve never seen so many,” I said, bending down to pick one. I tucked it behind my ear.
“Nor I,” admitted Gelanor. “This island must favor them.” Suddenly he stopped and grabbed my arm. “There!” He pointed to a nondescript bush. Then he hurried over to it and knelt down, inspecting the leaves. Taking out a small piece of the sharp obsidian from Melos, he made a neat cut across the stem. Immediately a clear sap oozed out.
“Now we wait.” He sat down beside it. “For how long, I don’t know.” He pointed out across the sea. “But look, while we wait—your new home.”
I shaded my eyes. The water was bright and the sun was reflecting off it, making a glare of everything around it. But beyond it—yes, there was land.
“The land of Troy,” Gelanor said. “Fabled Troy.”
I could tell nothing about it, save that it had hills and was somewhat green.
Beside me, he laughed. “What did you expect? Walls of gold?”
“There has to be a city before there can be walls, of gold or stone. I see no city.”
“That’s farther away. This is merely the region surrounding Troy, its neighbors. The Carians, the Lycians, the Mysians. People just like anyone else. Disappointed?”
“That—or relieved.” In truth I did not know.
“Oh, come, now—you did not turn your world inside out to find yourself back among ordinary people.”
He did not understand. He had never been touched by Aphrodite. He could not see that it was Paris—Paris, not Troy or the Trojans or walled cities—that called to me, held me fast in a net. To those whom the goddess had never visited, all this was incomprehensible. So I merely smiled and said nothing.
“Look!” He was turning around and scrambling over to the bush. The sap had turned amber-colored and formed little beads. Gelanor broke one off and rolled it between his fingers. It was springy, and when he squeezed it, it plumped back into its original shape. He sniffed it, then handed it to me.
I played with it and tried crushing it. When I mashed it, a delightful scent filled the air, much like smoky incense. But when it resumed its shape, the odor vanished. I nibbled on it and found the taste to be stinging, much like pine sap.
“What wondrous things people could do with this!” he said. “If we find the collectors of the sap, we’ll ask them what they use it for here on Chios. I know it is traded abroad, but only for mending things or making them watertight.”
I hoped we did not see anyone. It was so tiresome, being Helen. It was likewise tiresome pretending not to be Helen.
“So now you’ve seen it,” I said. “What you endured the long sea voyage for.” I could not keep the bitterness from seeping into my voice.
“Oh, Helen, you know better than that.”
“Or perhaps you just could not face the dangers of sailing back through the Cythera channel by yourself. The captain painted a black picture of it. So you hid your fear with this excuse of wanting to come to Chios. Now you can safely return over land. A long way, but doubtless you will find many rocks and trees and poisons along the journey to entertain you and make it worthwhile.”
“Helen.” He was looking hard at me. “You know better than that,” he repeated.
“No. No, I don’t.”
“Must you force me to say it? I had changed my mind, and yes, you are right, I needed some coloration for it. I could not let myself be seen as an indecisive, silly boy. But the reason I had changed my mind was that I needed to see you safe to Troy.”
I laughed. “Did you not trust the captain, and Aeneas and Paris and all those soldiers? Are you better protection than they?”
“Perhaps not, but I had a bond of honor with myself. I said there on the beach of Cythera that my loyalty was to you, not Sparta. Leaving you there would not be an act of loyalty. Quite the opposite. So I have come all this way, and I will stay until you are ushered inside the walls of Troy.” He took the ball of resin back from me. “So you see, you have been angry with me all these days for no good reason.”
I shook my head as if it were of no matter. But I felt secure again. My friend was back. Indeed, he had never gone away, except in my own mind. Keeping him in Troy . . . that would be another matter. Another challenge.
We waited and collected a small bag full of the mysterious sap, then walked back to the ship. As we passed a wooded site in the hills, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling for the significance of this place, that it would be of immense importance to me, to Paris, to all of us. I stopped and stared at it. There was nothing there. No hut, no herds, no garden, no people. Yet someday there would be.
“What is it?” asked Gelanor. “You are staring at nothing, at the empty air.”
“No, not empty.” It was thick with something.
“Is it evil?”
“No. It is—it is glorious. Something wonderful will come from here.”