The wind was rising; it made the last flaming torches dance and snuffed the rest out. It sent showers of sparks into the sky, new red stars against the old white ones. Sand flew into my mouth, and the men began to gather up the stools and full amphoras and prize armor.
“At first light, men, we sail!” Agamemnon called to his men.
I saw Menelaus tug on his shoulder. Agamemnon shook him off.
“It wasn’t only the temple little Ajax polluted, it was Cassandra as well,” Menelaus warned him.
“You call Cassandra polluted?” Now I could hear clearly, and so could the men around them.
“What else can you call a woman who was raped?” Menelaus sounded as if he were glad of it.
“Don’t you wish yours had been, instead of offering herself?”
“And do you know what yours has been doing, in your absence?” Menelaus taunted him. I did not think he had it in him.
“She wouldn’t dare,” said Agamemnon. “She can see—she has heard—what punishment I’ve wreaked on Troy, and on those who defied us.”
“And how has she seen it, or even heard it?” Menelaus was turning himself on the sand, and I noticed that he seemed to limp, favoring his left side.
“The beacons are ready to be fired. But the biggest beacon—smell that?” He stood on tiptoe and inhaled deeply, putting his fleshy hands on his belly.
“It’s roasting Trojans!”
“The fire is out,” said Menelaus. He was always so literal. But Agamemnon was right—Troy would burn forever.
“It was a good war,” said Agamemnon. “For us. I am proud of it, even if you are not, little brother.”
“I shall see you in Greece, then,” said Menelaus. “In only a few days. We will return to what we left so long ago. We will reclaim what is waiting for us.” Now he turned and made his way over to me, walking stiffly. Yes, he had an injury of some kind. I had not noticed it before. “Helen,” he said. “Your last night on Trojan soil, wife. I shall leave you to your thoughts. Tomorrow we sail for home—Sparta. I have thirty-one ships left. Only thirty-one, after the sixty that first touched this beach all those years ago. That is the price I—and many other warriors—have had to pay for your folly.”
I had nothing to say. I stared at him in the dull light, seeing only the changes in him, superimposed over the wavering image of him as a young man. His face was lined now, his lips set, and he moved in the gingerly fashion of one guarding a weakness, not like the young athlete of long ago. The war had taken a grave toll on his body.
I was taken back to the women’s quarters in the damp and decaying Achilles house and given a pallet to lie upon. The others were silent, except for muffled weeping. The place where Polyxena had been was screamingly empty.
My last night in Troy. Menelaus had said it. This was the last time I would pillow my head on my arms and know that beneath lay Trojan soil. But Troy was a smoking mound, and when the sun rose I would have to behold those ugly streaks of smoke still sending their tendrils up into the sky, like beseeching fingers for a mercy that would not come.
Polyxena had been brave, the last Trojan to die. I would have changed places with her, or so I wanted to believe. But I did not know if I had that courage. And now I would go back to Sparta as a prisoner.
My promise to Hector! I had failed him. I had not been able to protect Andromache. You are a survivor, he had said. But that had not availed to save anyone else.
Evadne. Gelanor. Where were they? Had they perished in the conflagration? Oh, I should have let Gelanor return as he had wished! Instead, out of my own need and vanity, I had kept him in Troy. His death was my horror.
The brooch had wept blood, drops for the dead. I had killed so many. I felt their vexed ghosts crowding around me, prowling in the ruins of Troy. Because I had loved Paris, I had killed them, and him as well.
Is this what you wanted, Aphrodite? I asked her. But she did not answer. She had promised to save me, and she had done that. Beyond that, there were no answers.
I boarded the ship—as Evadne had foreseen, and I denied, so long ago. Menelaus was laughing, his head thrown back, standing at the stern as the shore was left behind. I did not stand and watch the land recede, nor behold the smudge and smoke from the noble ruin of what had once been Troy. I did not think I could bear it.
I had my own quarters; Menelaus did not come near them. He kept to himself, his own bed up near the bow, beside the captain’s. I did not come to his, either. We barely spoke if we passed one another on the decks. Strange: this man who had been obsessed to possess me did not try, in any way, to act upon it. It was enough for him, apparently, that I was on his ship.
I felt dead. I even wondered if I might, perhaps, be dead and be unaware of it. Sometimes the dead do not know they are dead. But the stinging sea air, the dips and stomach-roiling tossing of the ship told me well enough that I was here, a prisoner on the ship making resolutely for Sparta.
What would I find when I returned? I only cared what I would see reflected in the eyes of Hermione.
We did not reach Sparta as planned. Instead, a great storm accosted the fleet, scattering us in all directions. Where Agamemnon went, we did not know; we lost sight of him. The ship carrying little Ajax sank; the gods punished him for his desecration of the Pallas Athena and her temple. Twenty-six of Menelaus’s ships were lost, and we were driven helplessly before the wind for days. When we finally reached a shore, it was a flat and sandy coastline, fringed in palm trees. We had come to Egypt.
Egypt. We staggered forth to behold a strange warm world of green, brown, and blue: the three colors of Egypt. Green along the riverbanks and the irrigation canals, brown in all the rest: the sand, the murky Nile water, the mud-brick houses. And blue above it all, a vivid and cloudless sky.
Menelaus was immediately apprehended by soldiers of the Egyptian king—the pharaoh, who resided up the Nile in a place called Memphis. We had no choice but to go with them. Most of Menelaus’s soldiers had been lost with the ships, and he did not have the means to resist.
The Nile was a broad, flat, slow-moving ribbon, very different from the Eurotas or the Scamander. The current was exactly balanced by the wind, which blew in the opposite direction at the same speed. If someone wished to sail down the Nile, he let it take him. If he wished to sail up it, he merely had to hoist a sail.
The pharaoh and his wife received us kindly, but made no pretense that we were anything other than his prisoners. They knew little of the war at Troy; Egypt was insulated against what went on elsewhere. They listened with polite curiosity as Menelaus attempted to explain about it. I noticed that he did not betray the reason it had started. Perhaps he felt it reflected too badly on him.
The pharaoh assigned us quarters together. Now I must sleep in the same room as Menelaus. I did not expect him to approach me, but I was taken aback when, as he stripped off his tunic, I saw the massive scar running from his thigh to his groin. Now I knew why he moved so carefully; he had lost part of his leg muscle.
“Staring, are you?” he snapped. “Look your fill. That’s what your Trojans did to me. Crippled me!”
“You aren’t crippled—” I started to say. He still moved, just not as a young man.
“You can’t see the end of it!” His voice was savage. “Trace its path, and you shall see well enough where it ends!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me over to him, lifted up his undergarment. “That’s what your Paris did to me. But he had already done it anyway, when you chose him.”
“I am truly sorry,” I said. I meant it. The ruins of Troy, the killing and destruction, left me with no appetite for any more sorrow or revenge. Menelaus’s deficiency could not bring Paris back, could not make children sing again in the streets of Troy. All of it was useless waste.
“A bit late for that,” he said. “A bit late. Have you not wondered why I have not sought your bed as is my right after all this time?”
“I heard you call Cassandra polluted, and I thought you felt the same about me.” I had not tried to change his mind, either. It served my purpose well.
“It is hard to look at you and think that. It is harder to look at you and know I have this . . . this impediment.” Ashamed, he covered the vivid scar and said, “Now you will tell everyone, tell them that Menelaus has lost his manhood—twice!”
“I shall tell no one anything,” I said. “We are siblings in our misfortune, playthings of the gods. Neither of us has deserved what we got.”
“You deserved it. You brought it about, for all of us.”
Should I speak what was in my heart, even though it would hurt? “I meant, I did not deserve the glory, the beauty, and the love of Paris; nor did you deserve being branded a cuckold and a lesser warrior than your violent brother.”
“Always Paris!” he cried. “Always he is here!” He put his hands on my head and squeezed. “If only I could squeeze him out, crush him out of your head.”
I pulled myself away. “He is a part of me; you cannot.”
He turned and flung himself on his bed, lying stiffly to accommodate his disability. “He paces Hades!” he muttered. “Why can he not find peace?” He coughed. “And leave us in peace?”
* * *
The pharaoh announced that we were to be transferred upriver to Thebes, where we would be more comfortable. What he meant was that we would be more remote, the better to hold us prisoners. But as far as we knew, he had not attempted to raise any ransom money for us, or even told anyone we were there.
We rode in a long ceremonial boat, gilded at its bow and stern, with a fragrant cedarwood canopy where we could watch the land slide by under our blessed shade. The sun baked the riverbanks, crocodiles languishing upon them, tails trailing in the cool water. It was several days’ sail, but at sunset on the fourth day we saw huge temples on the left bank, glowing red in the dying light. They seemed to stretch out forever, row upon row of columns. From our boat I could hear deep, rumbling chanting from across the water, as priests performed their nightly rites.
A nervous official showed us the largest temple, after we had been settled into our quarters and received by the pharaoh’s deputy. Across the Nile lay tombs, elaborate secret burial vaults. The pharaoh was already constructing his, even though he was still young, our guide told us. “For we must be prepared for that next world,” he said solemnly.
We picked our way through the vast temple, where columns larger than any tree on earth supported stone roofs. There were statues so tall their heads almost touched the ceiling—some were of pharaohs and others of their strange gods with heads of crocodiles, jackals, or hawks, bigger even than the horse of Troy. All these were tended by robed priests and priestesses with shaven heads.
“Look.” Menelaus pointed to one that had the head of a crocodile.
Farther up the Nile there is a vast city where the priests have a temple that is bigger than Troy. It has statues five times the size of a man. We must go there. As soon as this war is over. Paris. Paris had wanted to come here, and see these things, and—
Now I could not see them, not without him. I could not bear it. I turned and ran from the temple.
That night I dreamed of him. He was standing right beside me, sorrowed that he was not here. I know as well as you it cannot be, he said, repeating his words of long ago.
“Hush.” Menelaus was sitting awkwardly on my bed, shaking me. His big hands were on my shoulders, but he did not caress me.
Paris faded, slipping away in the dark.
“I heard you cry out,” said Menelaus. “It is but a dream.”
He must have heard me cry Paris, and yes, Paris had been but a dream.
“I thank you,” I said, touched that he would try to wake and comfort me, even though he must have heard me call his rival’s name.
Even though I had fled from the temple the day before, when Menelaus was summoned to meet with some officials I returned to it. Painful as it was, I felt that somehow Paris was here, or rather, that even his glaring absence from a place he had longed to see somehow made me feel closer to him. I was wandering in the cool dimness—even at scorching midday—when a boy appeared, taking my arm and pulling me to one side of the temple. I could not understand him, but he seemed sure that I had come for some purpose, and that he knew what it was.
“Seer—very wise,” he said, or rather, that was all I understood. I took my place in a little room in the vastness of the temple and waited. A woman came into the room. “Helen? I know of you.”
How could I understand her? But I did. I was not sure what language she spoke, or how I knew it. I nodded. “Yes,” I said.
“We are honored that you walk amongst us, if only for a short time.” What age was she? I could not tell. “Now”—her voice turned brisk—“you have sought me out for what I can give, the famed elixir.”
I had not sought her out, nor did I know of this elixir, but I would not contradict her. “Yes,” I agreed.
“We in Egypt have long been masters of potions,” she said. “We can make you young, old, astute, forgetful—”
“Oh, give me that one, for I would forget much!”
She smiled. “Only those who have lived intensely want this potion. Those who have not lived enough desire something else to make what they have done more meaningful, magnify it.”
What if I told her? I have caused a fearful war. I have caused thousands of deaths. I am in custody to the man I fled. “Give me the elixir of forgetfulness!” I begged her. “Teach me to make it, so that I may replenish it as long as I live, for I shall have need of it forever!”
“It is very powerful,” she said. “So powerful that should you see your mother and father and children slain before your eyes, you would feel no pain.”
My mother had slain herself already, and what of Paris, dying? What of Troy, blazing? Was it truly strong enough to blot those out?
“I want it!” I said.
“As you wish,” she said, and fell to her preparations. The vial she handed me was filled with a warm golden liquid. I drank it all, quickly, as instructed. I could feel little besides a warm tingling inside where the elixir was caressing my stomach.
“Only wait,” she said. She began cleaning her implements, putting away her bottles and jars.
I reached out and touched her arm. “You promised to teach me,” I reminded her.
While she took the bottles of syrup and dried grains and little pieces of bark and explained the proportions and the order in which they must be mixed, I felt a carelessness stealing through me, a lightness. I hoped I would remember what she was telling me, for suddenly it all seemed sublimely unimportant. Yet at the same time I knew it was vitally important.
Her delicate fingers stoppered the bottle. “Now think on those painful things,” she whispered. “It is time to test it.”
I took a deep breath and thought of Troy. I could see the flames and smell the smoke, even hear the cries of the doomed, but it was as if I were beholding a wall painting. It did not send stabs of pain through me. But those were buildings and people I did not know. Bracing myself, I thought of Paris. Oh, there was still grief there, still a piercing of the heart. “It is not enough!” I said. “Give me more.”
She looked surprised. “You can still feel it? I fear more would be dangerous. Is the pain muted enough that you can endure it?”
I nodded. Perhaps it would be a betrayal of Paris were it to vanish altogether.
We remained in Egypt for seven years—impossible to believe, but that was how many times the Nile overflowed its banks, and that was how they measured years, so it was true. Who could have thought it would drag on for so long, who could have thought we could have endured it? But the elixir . . . the elixir gave me the power. It compressed and collapsed time, so that the seven years flitted away like seven days.
Menelaus was able to extricate himself from the pharaoh’s grasp after many negotiations, and we were on our way, floating down the Nile, the sail folded away, the current hurrying us along toward the sea. The women carrying water jars down the steep banks stopped to look at us, as people always did when a boat passed by. They stood, tall and erect, watching as we left their world.
Menelaus took my hands. “It seemed to me that you belonged here, that you had stayed here all through the war. Yes, that the real Helen—you—had come to Egypt, where you waited for me. What went to Troy was not the true Helen but a double, a phantom. In that way, I hate to leave. This Helen who has been here with me, that is the Helen I competed for, the Helen whose loss I grieved.” Thus he had found a way to live with it.
It seemed the opposite for me. The real Helen had gone to Troy, the Helen who had passed seven years here was a phantom, a ghost. Now that ghost would fade and disappear, and the real Helen must face Sparta at last.
We landed at Gytheum. That was very hard. It had all begun there: that innocent day I had gone with Gelanor and encountered Aphrodite; the nine days later I sailed away with Paris. As we swung into the harbor, I cast a forlorn look at Cranae, riding tantalizingly in the waves, beckoning. Our night there . . . I felt waves of remembrance surging through me, more than remembrance, desire and longing. It was no more. All vanished, all come to this: a penitent, chastised return to Sparta for the erring, captive wife.
Menelaus mounted the gangplank and stepped ashore. He bent down and poured a libation to the gods. “I thank you,” he said, “for bringing me home.” He knelt for a long time, while the men waited to secure the ship.
“Come.” He held out his hand to me. It was a command. I was to obey, go back where I had been, take that place I had left so many years ago.
Night fell. We should have stayed in Gytheum, set out in the morning for Sparta. Chariots were waiting, but they could have waited longer, until dawn. Instead Menelaus mounted one and ordered, “To Sparta! I have waited a generation, I can wait no longer! Girls born the day I left are long since mothers!” He held out his hand to me and I took my place by his side.
Going back. Going back, along the road I had thought never to travel again. Menelaus encircled my waist with his arm. “Now it all begins again,” he whispered close in my ear. “Everything is erased. It is as if it never happened.”
I looked at him, at his face covered with wrinkles, his thinning hair. “It happened,” I said. But I had no wish to make him unhappy. “What will we find?” I murmured. “I am fearful.”
“We cannot know,” he said. He clutched the hand grip of the chariot and stared straight ahead. The chariot lurched forward.
Cresting the last rise, we saw Sparta before us: Sparta, sleeping beside the Eurotas, calm and beautiful. The swift-flowing river caught the moonlight sparkle and tossed it back at us, laughing. The citadel, the hilltop palace, was easy to see from where we stood.
I clutched Menelaus’s arm. “Let us wait here. It would be better to ascend in daylight, when the palace is up and stirring.”
He frowned. “Wait outside our own palace? How foolish!”
He flicked the reins and the horses moved forward, up the hill.
It was still dark when we reached the gates. The doors were fastened shut. I saw that they were still the same red-painted wood ones I had left. Menelaus called for the guards, and they, sleepy-eyed, swung open the gates, not really caring who we were.
The grounds were quiet, the only sounds the crunching of our chariot wheels. Everything was bathed in moonlight, the sinking moon painting all it touched in cold white light.
You will return in moonlight. Yes, as I had left Sparta in moonlight, now I returned to it in the same way, as foretold.
We dismounted. Before us it was utterly still, waiting.
I walked slowly toward the building where I had lived. It was horrible that it was still the same. It should not have been. All that had passed should have been reflected in its stones. But how could it have been?
We pushed the doors open and went inside. Nothing was altered. I and Menelaus might have left it yesterday. Silently I passed down through the corridors. I reached the bedroom. Moonlight shone in, touching the bed.
“Tomorrow we will see it all,” said Menelaus. “We will see it, and know the worst. In daylight we can face it.”
The moonlight was slanting, withdrawing its fingers from the chamber. Soon it would be dawn. I did not know if I could confront it. Where was Hermione, a grown woman now? I wanted to see her, embrace her; yet I did not want to. I knew she would hate me. How could she not?
The unkind sun came up. He would not spare us. We must behold Sparta. Menelaus, apprehensive but less so than I, dressed himself and made ready. I did not know what awaited me. I was soon to find out.
My father tottered out to see us; his guards had informed him of our arrival. At first I did not recognize him—he was a bent, crippled old man. He could not hold his head up but had to peer at us sideways.
“Daughter?” he said. His voice was thin and quavering.
“Yes, Father,” I said, coming to him and taking his bony hands. Now that I was close, I saw that he was almost blind; a white film lay upon his eyes.
He embraced me, and it was like being embraced by an empty cocoon. “Daughter,” he kept murmuring. Then he pulled back and squinted at me. “You are old!” he said. “Your hair is gray!”
I laughed, for the first time since I had entered this place. “Yes, Father. Much time has passed. Or perhaps it is your eyesight?”
“I don’t see much these days, but I can see that silver is crowding out the gold in your hair. And—your face has lines.”
“You see altogether too well, then.” And my aging must be very visible, for him to see it. “Tell me, Father. Tell me what has passed.”
“My dear child . . .” His dull eyes filled with tears. “So many deaths. They are all gone—your mother, your brothers. And your sister Clytemnestra is a murderess. She killed Agamemnon the moment he returned.”
“What?” Menelaus cried. He swung around and grabbed Father.
“Agamemnon landed, with all his war booty and his . . . that woman he brought from Troy. Clytemnestra greeted him with all ceremony, pretending to be overjoyed at his return. The beacons had alerted her, and she knew he was coming. She ushered him inside with great fanfare. He went first to the warm bath she had prepared for him in a silver tub. Naked, un-protected, exulting in his return—she entangled him in a net and stabbed him to death!”
I felt a rush of . . . yes, pride. After all Agamemnon had done to her. It was justice for Iphigenia! Was this what I had passingly glimpsed in my vision?
“Now, Odysseus, he was just the opposite,” said Father. “When he returned to Ithaca—”
Must we hear about Odysseus? Would that he had been stabbed as well!
“—he went in disguise, to see what had happened in the palace in his long absence. Wily man! For the palace was beset with enemies, although his wife had remained faithful. He had to kill them all before he could resume his rightful place. Agamemnon was not so foresighted. And so he lies in a tomb, whereas Odysseus reigns again in Ithaca.”
“What of . . . the Trojan woman?” Menelaus asked.
“She was killed as well,” said Father. “Before she even entered the palace.”
Cassandra. Cassandra, another Trojan casualty.
“But who reigns in Mycenae, then?” Menelaus sounded desperate.
“My daughter Clytemnestra,” he said. “My shame! And her lover, her cousin Aegisthus. Oh, the curse on my house has been fulfilled!”
“And the rest?” I asked him, not wanting to hear any more about the curse. “There were others, returning home. And Hermione?” I remembered the dreadful taunt of Neoptolemus, that he would have her.
“Oh, they came. That son of Achilles stormed in here and took Hermione against her will, forced her to marry him. But it was short-lived. The violent man attempted to steal treasure from Apollo’s temple in Delphi, and was killed. Now people speak of ‘the debt of Neoptolemus’—meaning that as you kill, so shall you be killed.” Just as he had cruelly killed Priam at an altar, he himself had been struck down beside one.
“Hermione? Where is she?” I asked.
“Here. Here in the palace. She is a childless widow, with no hope of another marriage: her mother’s notoriety and her husband’s violence have stained her.”
Hermione—in her thirties now, alone.
“I must warn you, she is not pleasant,” said Father. “I hesitate to say this about my own grandchild, but much has befallen her.” He took my arm. “Do not attempt to see her, not right away.”
She was here, nearby. Only a few steps away. Yet I must wait. “Neoptolemus—did he not have another woman from Troy with him?” He had taken Andromache. What had become of her?
“Oh, yes, that tall woman. She escaped from him when he married Hermione, and ran off with someone—they went north.”
Andromache. Safe. I had not been able to vouchsafe it myself, but now Hector could rest.
“My dear brothers?” I had to ask, had to hear it all.
“They fell together. They were preparing to join the Trojan folly. But the arrows of Apollo felled them first.”
So Agamemnon had been right, with his cruel words. They were gone; we would not hunt or ride together, ever again. But I had not killed them. Almost alone of the men I knew, they had not perished in Troy. Persephone had been gracious, and did not call them because of me.
Suddenly I was so tired I could barely stand. The bright daylight swirled around me. I was back in the palace, but all was changed, and everyone was dead.
Menelaus collapsed on the bed with me. “I shall never clasp his arm again. And we quarreled when we parted.”
It took me a moment to understand that he meant Agamemnon. “We are always tortured by our memory of the last time we were with anyone, what we said, what we did not say. With Mother—oh, Menelaus, how can any of us bear what the years have put upon us?” I thought longingly of the elixir and its mercy, but no, I needed to feel this.
“We cannot,” he said. “That is why the aged are so stooped.”
I needed to see it all. The palace, with all its rooms that called out to me, each with a memory. The megaron, where Clytemnestra and I had selected our husbands. The gates, the back one where Paris and I had run away, the other where Clytemnestra and I had stolen away that day, to the city. The great meadow, where Menelaus and I had first strolled as husband and wife, and where we had seen Gelanor. Gelanor . . . gone now, too. The woods where I had hunted with my brothers, and the riverbank where I had raced, and oh! they were all still here, but the moments when they changed my life were gone, as vanished as Troy.
The Hermione tree had grown huge in the years since it was planted. Its leafy crown rustled quietly in the benevolent midsummer breeze. The horse mound, yes, that was where the evil had all begun. I must go to it, confront it, must stamp on its earth and curse it.
The mound lay a fair distance outside Sparta. I remembered how long it had taken us to reach it, my heart hammering and my whole being gripped by confusion and embarrassment. Now I retraced those steps, walking calmly, aware of everything I had missed before: the quiet valleys on either side, the dark woods, the heat of midday stilling the land.
Raise a mound to it, so that it remains a memorial to this day and this oath, Father had said. His voice had been loud and strong that day, not the cricket’s song it was now reduced to.
I saw it up ahead. It was lumpy and uneven, but it was unmistakable.
Mounds—the tumulus of Achilles, the memorial of the horse. One led directly to the other. Hideous things, ugly on the landscape.
Closer to it, the earth was higher than I had thought. I climbed up one side, aslant, grabbing tufts of grass to pull myself up. Under here, under here the bones lay—oh, the men had kept their promise! I sat down on the top of it, remembering the men who had sworn. Father had thought to avert blood-shed, and instead he had induced it.
Omens. If I were beginning again, starting out in life, I would ignore all omens, neither heeding them nor trying to disable them. If we chose to pass them by, then perhaps they would lose their power, as old gods and goddesses, no longer worshiped, fade away and lose their grip on us.
How sweetly the wind blew over these grasses, caressing them. Like the grass at Troy, that the horses fed upon. Horses. Troy. Live ones and wooden ones. Troilus and his horses, Paris riding wild horses. Hector, breaker of horses. Dead ones littering the Plain of Troy. The mysterious little horses on the island of Scyros. The slaughtered horse, sleeping here.
I sank my head down on my knees, closed my eyes. I did not know what I had expected to find here, but it had not been this slumbering, drowsy mound. I must have dozed, for when I opened my eyes the tall, swaying grasses swam in my vision and a woman stood before me.
It was no one I knew. She was looking at me with narrowed eyes, bending down to see my face.
“Not so beautiful,” she said.
Who was she? “Good,” I said. “For that old song has grown wearisome, past its time.”
“But I suppose there are some who would insist on pretending that it is still there.” Her voice was hostile, and she kept staring at me.
I did not rise, and she sat down beside me, shading her eyes.
“I heard—we all did, here in Sparta—that Helen had returned.”
So she was a woman from the town. “Yes, after many a journey.”
“Twenty-four years it has been, to be exact.” Her words were clipped, but there was something in them, something in the tilt of her head . . . I looked into her eyes. Brown eyes, staring back at me.
“Time has not passed in a normal fashion for me—the gods confused the years for all of us at Troy—but I trust your reckoning.”
“Twenty-four years means your daughter is now thirty-three. Hermione, whom you left. Did you ever think of her?”
This townswoman was bold, to question me so. I was still, and again, queen of Sparta. “Every day,” I said. “She was with me in Troy. She walked the streets with me, she warmed herself before Priam’s fire, she trudged with me to Mount Ida.”
“No, I did not.” The words were bitten off, flung out.
Hermione? I could not think. “But—you are—?”
“Your abandoned daughter!” Now she leapt up, the better to look down upon me. “The one you ran away from! Left me here like a toy that is tossed aside! Yes, I am Hermione!”
I pulled myself up, not as quickly as she. “My dearest daughter, I—”
“Daughter? I am ashamed to be your daughter. The daughter of Helen of Troy! A byword for shame!”
I looked at her. There was nothing there I could recognize from the child I had left. This woman had brown hair, brown eyes, a face that was pretty but unremarkable, and wide feet, clad in sturdy shoes, peeking out beneath her gown.
“My shame is not your shame,” I said.
“I come here often, to try to understand what began here.”
“But you cannot,” I said. “It is but an empty mound, its grasses sighing as the wind passes over it. You would have to hear your grandfather speak, see the men gathered.” I reached out; I needed to touch her. She stepped away.
“How could you have left me?” she asked. “How could a mother have left her child? And to run away with that boy, he was only a few years older than I—”
“I did not leave you. I tried to take you with me. You did not want to come. You wanted to stay with your tortoises and your friends.”
“I was nine years old! How could I comprehend what you were asking?”
“You could not.” I took another step toward her, but again she drew back. “Paris knew that.”
“Paris! Do not say that name! The name that robbed me of a mother, and drove my grandmother to end her life.”
Once she had liked him. But now he was just a symbol of her loss. “Paris—”
“I said do not say that name!” Now she turned to go.
“Wait—” I reached out for her. “Please, do not leave!”
She whirled back, drew herself up, gathered her mantle around herself. “How many times have I wished to say that to you, to beg you? But you were out of earshot.” She paused. “Long out of earshot.”
“My mother . . .” I held out my hands. “Please, tell me.”
“It was I who found her. Yes!”
As if I had been struck, I shrank back. This horror I had never imagined. I had thought it was one of her attendants, one of the guards. Not Father, not Hermione. “No—”
“Who did you think it was, then? Or did you not think of it? I came into her chamber early—she always liked to share a breakfast with me, and after you were gone, I had nowhere else to go. I went in there, even before the sun was up—and found her. She had been dead since night, so they told me, because she was so blue—and I took those cursed swan feathers and burned them up in the brazier, and if I could, I would have burned you!”
Now . . . now I must hold her. In spite of her pushing me away, I enveloped her in my arms, and I was sobbing. “That would have been justified,” I said. “The swan—let him be gone from our lives.” Oh, the glory of the gods and their brief visitations—not worth the sorrows that trail thereafter.
Hermione did not pull away, but let me embrace her. “Take me to her tomb,” I said. “Let me leave an offering there.”
The tombs lay in a partially natural cave, not far from the palace. A small grotto in the hillside had been enlarged to allow their carving. There were four of them: Mother’s, Castor’s, Polydeuces’s, and an empty, waiting one for Father.
“I come here every day,” said Hermione. “As my cousin Elektra comes to her father’s grave, and vows to avenge him.”
Little Elektra. But, of course, she would be a grown woman now. How could anyone mourn Agamemnon, least of all the sibling of the sister he had so mercilessly slain? “I am not sure what needs avenging,” I said, hesitantly, not wanting to alienate Hermione.
“That mother who took a lover!” she said fiercely. “It seems to run in the family.”
Now I could not help but smile. “It was a curse, a powerful one, visited on us. I see it has come true.” But I did not want to talk about it. All I cared about, now, was my daughter. And the tombs of my dear mother and brothers.
“Here,” she said, showing me the large stone box that was embedded in the cliff. A wilted wreath lay on top of it.
Mother. Oh, Mother. I draped myself over the cold stone. I had brought nothing—but no, that was not true. I had brought myself.
“I am here—Helen . . .” I murmured endearments as I pressed my lips against the sharp corner of the tomb. “Your Helen.” I need not tell her what had passed since we had parted. I need not tell her of the time in Troy. I need not tell her of what had befallen me since. The dead are kind that way, they do not want a full recounting.
“And here, your brothers.” Hermione was showing me the other tombs.
I knelt before them, asking them for guidance. “You always guided me before,” I said. “You taught me so many things.” I did not tell them I was grieved that they were gone; they knew that. We must not speak to the dead of things they already know. That insults them.
“A tomb waits for Father.” She indicated it. “But after me—the line of Tyndareus will die. I am its last,” Hermione said. Her voice was like a sad falling note.
“You cannot know that.” She was still of childbearing age. “There will be another husband for you. Neoptolemus was not worthy. I saw the unspeakable things he did in Troy. You speak of my desecrating my own name, but he desecrated his father’s, Achilles’s. You are free, and now someone you love will come.”
“As the daughter of Helen—” she began.
“You will be expected to be beautiful, and passionate. Are you?” Now I must be bold. I looked at her closely. Her face was pleasant, and her hair thick and shining.
She drew back, blushing. “Passionate . . . I do not know.”
“You will not until the man you love holds you.” I leaned forward. “With women, it is the man, and not the moment. That is the truth of it. With men it is the reverse.”
I had seen my daughter, and we had made tentative steps toward reconciliation. The past would always be there; she would mistrust me for a long time, but she had, warily, admitted me into the forecourt of her life. It was more than I had dared to ask.
Afraid of frightening her away, like a butterfly alighting on a flower, I did not approach her too boldly in the days that followed. I let her go about her ways, although my eyes never tired of looking at her—but only when I could look secretly. Time. Time would bring all things about. I had to believe that.
And time I had in abundance. There was nothing stretching out before me, nothing to reach for or retreat from. I looked over the palace and the grounds—so modest compared to Troy’s—and satisfied myself that they were well cared for. Little had changed—no new halls had been built, no new adornments had been added. Without Mother, Father had had no interest in such things. I wondered whether Father had ever thought of marrying again, but he told me, staring with his watery, filmy eyes, that no family would even consider marrying into the House of Tyndareus—as cursed, now, as that of Atreus.
“Then Menelaus and I make a suitable pair,” I told him. “What of the Aetolian slave girl Menelaus left behind? I remember she was with child.” I tried to make the question light and of no matter.
“She had twins. They are now grown men, still living in the palace. They were waiting all this time for both Menelaus and me to die before Hermione could have an heir. Well, they are now disappointed in their hopes of the throne. Let Menelaus award them something, send them away.”
All these unfinished things I had left behind, now sprung back into life again. “I wish to see Clytemnestra,” I said. “Have you seen her since—Does she ever come here?”
“No, daughter, and I could not go to her. I did not wish to leave Sparta in the hands of the twins with all those . . . upheavals. It did not seem wise.”
“We could go together now. Menelaus will prevent any mischief.”
He sighed. “I fear I am too fragile now. I could not endure the jolting of the chariot, nor the final climb up the mountain.”
I noticed that Father asked me very little about Troy. He did not seem curious about it. Does curiosity flee with age, along with agility? Or was he, like Mother, awash with shame?
“I will make ready to go within a few days.” I was longing to see Clytemnestra, share at last all that had passed in those long years.
Menelaus was not pleased; he tried to forbid me to go. My sister had murdered his brother and lived with another man. It came too close to home.
“I do not condone what she has done; I abhor it. But she is my only living sibling, and your brother committed a great crime against her. We need not carry it further. Only remember, as you loved your brother, despite his evils, so do I love my sister. If I do not go and see her again, it adds another wrong to the great weight of the war.”
“I suppose you’ll want to take Hermione? I won’t have her around that woman!”
I had thought of it; had she not lived with Clytemnestra at one point? But I knew her response would be no. “I understand,” I said. “I will go alone—except for the drivers and guards, of course.”
He took my arm. “Be careful,” he said.
“Do you think she would harm me?” How odd that he would hint that.
“You have not seen her in many years. You do not know what you will find.”
“As was the case with you and me,” I reminded him. He looked hangdog, as he often did. “I will be wary,” I promised.
* * *
Going to Mycenae! To be there without the oppressive presence of the brothers, to be with Clytemnestra again! I did not think about Aegisthus; I did not make room for him in my mind. The day was clear and clean, and I had two chariots to carry myself and my attendants, and a slower wagon laden with gifts. I had scoured the palace for something to present; this was difficult, as there would be much the same things at Mycenae. There would be the same alabaster ointment jars, the same brown-painted handled jugs, the same fragrant scented robes. We rumbled down the steep incline and out onto the plain, dotted with plane trees and small orchards and fields of barley. No destruction here as in Troy, but the absence of men to tend things had caused a subtler ruin. Neglect stalked the land. Many of the men had not returned from Troy and it would be another generation before the land could flourish again.
Why, why had they gone? What persuasive power did Menelaus have? He must have promised them a quick resolution, glory, and spoils. None of it had happened; no one got spoils but the leaders and the few lucky ones who returned. Instead of enriching Sparta, the war had impoverished her.
My charioteer pointed to a grove of poplars by a stream. “There,” he said. “Where Menelaus gathered the army.”
He had spoken of it. What a cursed place, dooming all those who had convened around it with high spirits. I saw a large plane tree, a bit apart. That must be the one Menelaus had planted to commemorate the war. Seeing it gave me a chill. I thought of the oak of Troy, that other emblem of the war. There was nothing left of it.
Leaving the plain, we started climbing the hills, the chariots pulling out ahead of the heavier cart. Hawks soared overhead, playing in the sky.
We had to stop for the night, and we chose a little dale that seemed safe and sheltered. The birds were replaced in the sky by bats flitting out from their resting places, quick dark darts against the fading light. Safe, tired, I slept soundly. Tonight I did not need the elixir of forgetfulness.
At first light we were on our way again. But sometime in the night Menelaus’s warning words had spread inside me like a stain, and now they colored everything I saw. I felt my apprehension growing as we drew nearer to Mycenae. Suddenly everything looked suspicious. The people who watched us from the fields looked sullen. The sky lost its hawks and became dimpled with clouds.
What would I find? Now it seemed naïve to think Clytemnestra and I would meet again as if nothing had changed. I should have sent messengers ahead to tell her I was coming. I should have given her an opportunity to prepare herself, or to refuse to see me. I gripped the handles of the chariot as we lurched along.
The men were laughing and joking. For them, the day was fair. I felt my heart thudding, as if I were being chased by a pack of dogs. Something hideously oppressive hovered over us, and they could not see it, could not feel it. But that vision of mine was revealing it, and it grew stronger the nearer we got to Mycenae.
Hurry, hurry! I wanted to urge them. Perhaps we could get there before it happened. It was important that we do so. That was why I had set out on this journey on this particular day. Now I knew it.
“Faster!” I suddenly said, startling my driver. “We need to go faster.”
He smiled. “Oh, there’s plenty of time, my lady. As it is we shall arrive well before dark.”
“Too late, too late!” I said. “I tell you, hurry! Let the others follow, but let us go as quickly as the horses can pull us.”
He looked at me quizzically. “It is not good for them. They’ll overheat.”
Was my fate always tied up with horses? “Forget the horses!” I cried. “Something worse will happen—is happening—if we do not get there in time!”
He started to argue, but I was his queen. “As you say,” he grunted, and took his whip to them.
We tore up the hills, gravel flying out behind us. It was the closest I would ever come to flying, but my heart was not soaring. I was gripped by the blackest dread I had felt since the dream of Paris and the arrow.
Just over the next rise! I remembered the landscape well. Almost there, almost within sight of it. It was always invisible, tucked in its mountain gap, until you rounded that last bend, and then you could see it, stone fastness rising, blending into the mountainside.
Lathered, the horses tried to slow, but I begged the driver to keep their speed up. Everything looked in order, undisturbed. For an instant I felt both very foolish and very relieved.
Then, bursting from the gateway, a chariot rushed toward us. The horses were as wild-eyed as demons, and their driver was screaming and forcing them into a faster gallop. Behind him, on foot, people were pursuing; archers shot after him, but he was beyond bowshot range. Screams and yells carried across the hill.
“He’ll run us down,” my driver said. The narrow road would not permit two chariots. He attempted to get our chariot out of the way, but one of the wheels stuck in a rut, and we were only halfway clear when the fleeing chariot seemed to fly over a rise and make right for us. The charioteer tried to pull aside, but had to veer to one side and finally stop. He leapt from the chariot and took the reins, to guide his panting horse around us.
Blood covered his mantle and his forearms; his red hands had smeared the reins. “Stand aside!” he commanded us, pulling out a sword. “Do not look at me.”
But I could not help it. He was young, well built, and under the blood his face might have been handsome. “Who are you?” I cried. “What have you done?” Somehow it was as if my special vision gave me the right to question him. But he could not know of that, only that I had disobeyed him.
He turned slitted eyes at me, started to say Who are you? when the thing I had always hated saved me. “Helen. You must be Helen. The cause of it all, of whatever I’ve done.” But he did not plunge his sword into me.
“I have nothing to do with what you have done. I know not what it is.”
“I’ve avenged my father. It’s taken me many years, but I was only a child when he was murdered. A son must grow strong enough to take revenge, and that takes time.” He jerked his horse past us, as if he spoke of fishing or the seasons.
Murdered . . . father . . . revenge . . .
“Oh, who have you killed?” I cried.
“My mother,” he said.
It was Orestes, the baby son! “You have killed . . . your mother?” As horrible as the deed, almost equally horrible that he could speak of it calmly and proudly.
“It had to be done. Yes, and I killed her lover Aegisthus, too.” He looked dazed, and I could see now that he was not proud or careless, but so stunned he hardly knew what he did. He jumped back into the body of his chariot, now cleared of ours. “Go clean up the mess,” he said. “She’s your sister. My sister hates her, and might desecrate the body.” Yelling at his horses, he sped them into a gallop and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
I sagged against my driver. “So that is why I knew we must hurry.” I knew my words sounded foolish, as they always do in such times. There are no words big enough. “And yet we were not in time.”
The pursuing mob breasted the hill and confronted us. “You let him get away!” they screamed.
“We could not stop him,” my driver said. They moved threateningly toward him, spears, bows, and swords drawn.
“Do not waste your time with us,” I commanded them, “but continue after him. I am Helen, the queen’s sister. Pray, let me pass, that I may tend to her.”
Now they became more agitated and angry. “The cause of it all!” one man hissed. “Without you, he never would have gone away. Had he never gone away, then none of the rest of it would have happened.”
“I am weary of this,” I said. And in that moment I knew I had listened meekly to the last round of blame I ever would permit myself to endure. If this had not happened, then that would not. Yes. But how long, and how far back, could this be pursued? There was, in truth, no end to it. “Enough of it. I need to tend my fallen sister. Get out of my way.” They fell away like leaves.
Now there was no need to hurry. We waited for the other chariot to catch up with us, and the cart with its useless gifts. Then we rolled toward the fortress-palace, going as far as we could on the road, as if there were safety within the chariots. But we had to abandon them as we reached the base of the citadel, which was hidden in a cleft between two mountains. A steep path led to the entrance gate, with its lions snarling down at us from the lintel. There had never been a time when I had passed beneath them with good feelings, but now all those other times seemed happy in comparison.
How quiet it was. No guards, no workers, and the gates were gaping open like a wound, exposing the inner flesh of the palace. We entered, seeing no one about. Had they all left, pursuing the murderer? Fearful, we kept ascending, until we reached the top where the palace sprawled. It had its own gate, also standing open, and we walked through it. There were the workshops and storage houses, but there was only one thing that drew us: the palace itself. I rushed ahead of them to enter it first, alone. The eerie quiet lay over it like a fog. Then, as my eyes grew used to the dim light inside, I saw huddled forms, whimpering and choking, around something.
This must be where she lay. I approached; not until I was standing beside them did the cloaked figures perceive me. “Is this the queen?” I asked.
One of them looked up, threw back her hood. “Who are you?” she whispered. Then she shook her head. “It cannot be, but I think it is Helen.”
“It can be, and I am,” I said.
“She thought you were dead,” said the woman matter-of-factly. “Lost after Troy. Now it is the opposite—you live, she is dead.”
“What has happened?” I needed to hear it from people who had loved her, not from her murderer. Oh, let a sympathetic telling of it sponge away the horror of what Orestes had so proudly recounted.
Others in the mourners’ circle now spoke. “She was attacked and killed by her own son, in the act of welcoming him. He had been away for so many years, and had just returned, rejoicing her heart. But he had returned for only one reason, to kill her. He stabbed her when she reached out her arms to embrace him. The first thrust was true. She only had time to say, ‘Orestes?’ and then she fell. And here she lies. We covered her, but we did not touch her. To prepare her for burial, that is the task of the family. But there is no one here to do that duty.”
“Elektra?” I asked. But I remembered Orestes’s words.
“She will not perform the rites. She is even now sacrificing at her father’s grave, telling him of the murder.”
“But that is nothing new,” another witness said. “She goes to her father’s grave every morning and every evening. She pretends the purpose is to honor him, but in truth she only steeped herself in hatred and thoughts of bloody revenge. Day after day she kept him company, whipping herself into a black fury of malevolence. I truly think he himself could not hate Clytemnestra as much as his daughter did, on his behalf.”
“It was she who summoned Orestes here so that he might be her arm and do the killing. Now it’s he who will be pursued by the relentless Furies, but what is that to her? No, she’ll not prepare her mother for the tomb,” one woman said, finally answering my question.
“Then I shall,” I said. “And willingly.” I bent over to pull the cover away, dreading to see, yet I must begin. Slowly the cover slid past her head, past her shoulders, down to her waist. Her long hair covered her face, but the blood painted her from her shoulders to below the waist, and made a thick dark pool underneath her, a pool that her fingers clutched. “Oh.” I flinched. Gently I tried to brush her hair away, but the ends of it were stuck in the blood. Finally I saw her face, eyes wide open and staring in surprise. Surprise at seeing Orestes at long last? Surprise at the pain of the knife? Surprise to be dying? Gently I closed the lids. Some warmth still lingered, but the cold stones would soon rob her body of the last of it.
“Two sad reunions,” I told her. “Had ours been first, then perhaps the second might have had a better ending.”
A shrill voice cut through the chamber. “Or ended with two deserved deaths rather than one.” I swung around to see someone coming toward me, a young woman dressed in sad black robes like the others, but with a sneer on her face.
“Why, you must be Elektra, that gentle creature I have heard so much about.” I was surprised at the sharpness of my own response. “Sweet, loving, and kind.”
“Ask my father, he will tell you that is so. Ask her and she will say otherwise. It all depends on who is speaking.” She was now close enough that I could see all her features—heavy and dark like Agamemnon’s. For an instant I felt I was confronting him again.
“You and my mother are true sisters,” she said. “Adulteresses and husband-leavers.”
“As the curse on our father foretold,” I said. “It is a grief to have daughters who are married many times, that I admit.”
“Married?” she jeered. “Is that what you called it?” She drew herself up proudly. “I would like to wield a knife and send you to join her.”
“But you are too much a coward for that,” I said flatly. “You lurked and plotted and waited for years but had to send for your brother to do the deed. Bah, what a pitiful false warrior you are.” I hoped to goad her into trying to strike me, for I was sure—in spite of her younger years—that I was stronger than she. I wanted to fight with her; my heart cried out for an immediate punishment for her, and I wanted to be the one to deliver it. It was not noble, but, gods help me, that was what went through my mind. And she, already furious, lunged at me. She was easy to overcome, and I flung her against the wall and pulled her head back by her hair. Panting, I said, “Your father would be ashamed of you now. You have no more strength than an old incontinent dog. But then, he was a blusterer, too. So perhaps he understands.” I let her go before I might smash her head against the stone wall, committing another murder in the hall. I recognized, with shame, that I had used her in this way to attack her father, which I had long burned to do.
“Go!” I ordered her. “Leave us, so you do not vex your mother’s ghost.”
The attendants had sat speechless all this while, stunned. When Elektra picked herself up and fled from the room, they murmured, “Good. Now we can proceed.”
“Where is the body of . . . him?” I asked.
“Outside,” one of them said. “He was preparing a sacrifice of welcome. Orestes ran him through from the back with a spear, and he fell onto the altar.”
I shuddered. “A fine pair, this brother and sister.” The best of the children, then, was the one Agamemnon had had the folly to sacrifice, Iphigenia, leaving these two monsters. He had never been very intelligent. Or perhaps he felt Artemis deserved the best and he must offer it. I shook my head. No more thoughts of that man, nor of the war. They must not be allowed to pollute the rites of burial.
She already had a tomb, beside Agamemnon’s. The idea of her resting beside him seemed wrong, but I told myself that she had had years to prepare another tomb for herself, so this must be her chosen place. As the attendants and I drew the shroud up over her face, I whispered a final goodbye. “Thank you for taking me to Sparta that day,” I said. “Thank you for showing me a world outside our gates. I shall never forget.” We scattered wildflowers over the shroud—some of the same ones I remembered from the fields that day—and then we had the melancholy task of sliding the heavy stone lid in place. We strained to do it, but in the end it moved under our own strength and we did not have to ask for help.
The years passed, but not as they had in Troy, when what seemed to be loose, fluffy days were spun into tightly wound yarn, compressing time. No, in Sparta it was the reverse. The threads untwined themselves, spread out, so that one day seemed like ten. So I use weaving and spinning terms to explain my life in Sparta. I spent, it seemed, so much of my time with the weaving and spinning, although I produced nothing of beauty like the lost tapestry I had created at Troy.
Seasons came, seasons went, suspended in that floating timelessness. Father died; after hearing of Clytemnestra’s fate, he seemed to shrivel, shudder before what he felt was the fulfillment of the curse brought down on his house. There was only a faint sorrow at bidding him farewell. In truth he had departed long ago.
Now everyone from Sparta was gone. Mother, Father, brothers, sister. Only I, Helen, was left, and my only surviving family was Menelaus and Hermione. Menelaus and I lived in peace with one another, a shuffling, old-person’s peace—the peace that descends when all other concerns have either died or fled. Like ancient, stooped warriors, we looked at one another across the battlefield—strewn with perhaps our betters who nonetheless had not survived—as comrades.
Comrades was all it could be. Never again would we be husband and wife in the true sense. Companions, wary friends, battle veterans, fellows, yes, all those things. But not lovers, nor even true husband and wife. Troy and its wounds—physical and of the soul—had seen to that.
There was comfort in that, a finality. I could reach my hand out to Menelaus and resolve to help him through the long years ahead, letting him lean on me if need be, expecting him to let me do the same.
And Hermione? The years likewise softened her toward me. As we worked side by side with spinning, weaving (those woman tasks again! thank the gods for them!), seeing to the needs of the palace, I came to know her, and she came to know me.
She was not like me. One’s child never is. But until your child has grown to maturity, you cannot believe it. Your children are part of you forever, from the moment of their birth, therefore you imagine you are part of them as well. But they are entirely apart, seeking their own secrets and bearing their own disappointments. If they choose to reveal them to you, you among mothers are fortunate.
With watchful eyes I saw Hermione as she went about her ways: disciplined, lonely. She was pleasing to look upon, but no man wanted to look upon this daughter of the wayward Helen and widow of the cruel Neoptolemus. Through no fault of her own, she was a pariah, as she had lamented.
She seemed to accept it; she accepted things better than I. Perhaps that was the Menelaus in her, the non-Helen. As I said, she was not like me. Eventually she even became, if not truly affectionate toward me, cordial and pleasant.
And then Orestes came for her. Orestes, so different from the dazed, mad killer I had encountered on the road from Mycenae. This man was reserved, self-assured, polite. He sought out Menelaus to ask for Hermione in marriage, coming as a supplicant.
He and Menelaus withdrew and I was not privy to their words. I knew not what passed between them until they emerged from the chamber and Menelaus muttered, “I am satisfied.” But then Menelaus was satisfied with everything now. Later—after Orestes had been treated to the traditional guest-friendship and put in a lofty chamber for the night—Menelaus told me he had at length atoned for the murder. The Furies had pursued him, so that he cut off his thumb to appease them and performed many other demanding deeds until they were finally satisfied. He had been tormented, under two irreconcilable mandates: to avenge the death of his father, and to honor his mother. It had come close to driving him mad. Perhaps he had even become mad for a time.
“It is over, Helen,” Menelaus said. “It is finally over.”
Yes, everything was over. I looked at him, seeing an old man where once an eager strong suitor had stood. But what did he see when he looked at me? Something equally fallen.
“Is it, then?” I asked, thinking he meant our story.
“Yes,” he said. “The curse on the two houses ends now. Hermione is innocent of it, and Orestes has paid its dues, laid it to rest. Think of it—our grandchildren can be ordinary people. No curses, no half gods, no prophecies. How I envy them!”
“They will have a freedom we did not have,” I admitted. But the glory would have fled.
We gave Hermione to Orestes, performing all the rites. She was happy, delivered from her house of widowhood and bleakness. She had always fancied him, she confided to me (confided to me! what an unlooked-for gift she bestowed in that intimacy, little knowing what it meant to me), ever since they were children.
“Some things come out right,” I told her. “Sometimes we are given our fondest desires.”
They had a son, Tisamenus. Hermione asked me to attend her, and I did, joyously, although a midwife was nearby. I held my grandson in my arms even before his mother, gazing on his wrinkled red face and giving thanks for the dull years that had allowed me to be with Hermione and had placed her son in my embrace. A marriage, a birth: things I thought the horror of war had vanquished forever, now quietly resumed.
“He will not be a hero,” she said, cradling him. “He will not be called to walk in high places, but merely to do his duty in the ordinary way of mortals.” She looked at me. “Mother, can you be content with this?”
I leaned forward and stroked her hair, a gesture she rarely permitted me. But this was a precious moment. “I have had enough of heroes,” I assured her. “Tisamenus will have a better life without treading in that realm.”
Menelaus stepped into the chamber. “The age of heroes is over,” he said. “And I, for one, do not mourn its passing.”
Hermione looked up at him, her face full of compassion. “Father, trying to be a hero almost cost you your life, and deprived me of a father.”
“All those heroes,” he said dreamily. “All gone. We, not quite so heroic, are here to behold the sun.” He bent to look at Tisamenus’s face. “I can wish no better fortune for you. My grandson, do not be a hero.”
The age of heroes had truly passed, and Tisamenus could not be one even if he burned for it. A great bronze wall had been erected around those old heroes, it descended from the sky, and no one could lift it or trespass there. Each age bestowed its own glory, but the age of my grandson could not be the age of Menelaus.
The war at Troy seemed to grow in song, poetry, and story all the while. As it faded from living memory, it grew larger and larger. Men claimed descent from one or the other of the heroes, or, failing that, anyone who had fought in the war, which now assumed the stature of a clash between the gods and the titans.
Were you at Troy? assumed the solemnity of an oath, and Where were you when the Trojan War was fought? became a condemnation if the answer was, Elsewhere.
Troy, Troy. The world was in love with the Trojan War, now that it was safely over.
There were fewer and fewer veterans of that war still alive. We saw them seldom. Once or twice Idomeneus came visiting, as did two of Nestor’s sons. Old Nestor had returned safely and taken up the reins of kingship smoothly, but others were not so fortunate. Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, now a grown man, had stopped in Sparta once to inquire about his still-missing father, who later returned to find Ithaca in a mess. Diomedes, as far as anyone knew, was ruling in Argos. But news did not reach over our mountains easily, and increasing banditry on the roads cut traveling drastically. Our world shrank, cupped in by our mountain ranges, neglected roads, fallen bridges. The more isolated we became, the more people wanted the tales of the Trojan War, when the Greeks had mounted their glorious overseas expedition. It was balm to those who could not travel even within Greece. The Trojan War was supposed to enrich the Greeks, but they were now more impoverished than ever. Who had been served by the shining piles of booty on the beach?
Hermione appeared content with her life, and Orestes doted on her. He had seemingly been cured of all the wildness, the madness that had seized him, and appeared sunnily placid. He trotted about after Menelaus, observing his duties and behavior as king, knowing that he would follow him. The two royal houses had united forever, binding their curses in the past, where they could not spill out to taint the future. Their little son Tisamenus showed flashes of his other grandmother, and in him I felt Clytemnestra and I were clasping hands once again. That this great peace could have grown from the bloody stalk of Mycenae was a miracle.
Just as was the peaceful existence of Menelaus and myself, passing quietly in the palace.
Menelaus still enjoyed hunting and he liked to take his grooms with him, as well as Orestes and little Tisamenus. He said he wanted the boy never to remember a time when he had not known how to hunt. If only my brothers were here, how they would have loved to teach him! I tried to speak of them, to keep their memory alive in the family, but it faded relentlessly. Thus do we pass away, slipping out of mind.
It was a high summer’s day when they all set out, packs of hunting dogs yelping and leaping in eager spirits, spears glistening, grooms carrying buckets of extra arrows. Tisamenus had a little hunting cap with imitation boar’s tusks, made of tightly rolled wool, adorning it. His fat little legs would tire soon, and Orestes was prepared to carry him on his shoulders. Menelaus looked stronger and straighter than I had seen him in some time; lately he had taken to stooping and was too eager to sit down, so this was a welcome improvement.
“We’ll be gone a few days,” he said. “We’ll go into the Taygetus foothills, at least, and see what we get.”
In other days I would have gone with them, but now I was just as content to stay behind. I could have kept up, but it would have been an effort, and that would have spoiled it.
How old was I now? It was hard to know, because of the odd passage of time while we were in Troy, but I must be over sixty. I did not care; I had long ago stopped caring. Still, sometimes it was a shock to remember it.
They were not gone three days, but at twilight of the second, a mournful procession mounted the hill up to the palace in the twilight. I could see that they were carrying something, very carefully; it was not a stag slung carelessly and proudly from a pole. No, this thing was contained in a blanket, laid straight in a makeshift litter.
I flew like I had in the maidens’ race all those years ago, as fleet as that lost girl. I knew it was Menelaus, and when I saw him lying there, staring up, I hated my gift for knowing.
“Poisonous serpent,” said Orestes. “He stepped on it.” He pulled back the cover and showed the swollen ankle with its angry red fingers streaking upward.
Menelaus’s face was rigid, but his eyes moved back and forth with fear. Helen . . . he tried to say, but his lips seemed locked.
I took his hand and squeezed it. “Do not talk,” I said. “Save your strength. We have antidotes . . .” But did we? Oh, if only Gelanor were here. Gelanor. I still missed him, still mourned his loss. He would know what to do. I sent a slave for our own physician and for medicines. Attendants carried Menelaus to the bedchamber and laid him gently on the bed. I covered him with our finest wool blanket, as if that would save him.
Helen . . . he kept trying to say.
Hermione came running up the stairs. “Father!” she cried. She embraced him, laid her head down on his chest. She did not cry, lest it upset him. But later the physician pulled her aside and shook his head. Little Tisamenus tried to climb up on the bed and Hermione had to pick him up and take him off.
I stood in the corner, biting my fist. I had had no premonition of this. Their hunting trip seemed innocent enough. My special sight did not reveal all things to me, just some things. What good was it, then, if such a big thing slipped in undetected?
I was trembling. I thought I was past all that, past caring, no matter what happened. But I was wrong. Menelaus was dying and I was infinitely sad. I, who years ago had railed at his very existence, now grieved at what one careless step had brought him to.
No one can live forever. We know that, and we also know that some deaths are better than others, but often our deaths come in ways that seem to have no part of us. Menelaus, the warrior, should have died on a battlefield, not in bed of a snakebite in his seventies. So many in our family had died at their own, or their children’s, hands. Such a quiet death for Menelaus. But then, he had always been the quiet one.
The antidote and ointment did no good, as I knew they would not. As full night fell, I pulled a stool up to sit by his side, and Hermione sat on the other side. His restless eyes kept flicking from one of us to the other, and he looked both frightened and resigned at the same time. He kept trying to speak but was unable to get the words out. Both Hermione and I tried to assure him it was not necessary. Still, there seemed to be something he very badly wished to say.
I bent my head down to be as close as possible. “I am listening,” I soothed him.
“Helen,” he whispered, “Forgive me.”
I squeezed his hand. “I think we have long since forgiven one another, have we not? Trouble yourself no more.”
“No . . . I must tell you . . .”
“I know it all, my dear friend.”
“No. I killed your sacred snake. I had him killed, in Troy, because . . . it was the only thing I could do in my hatred. I couldn’t kill Paris, so I killed . . . him. Forgive me. It was cruel. And now he has his revenge. I die by snakebite.”
The beloved household snake, so horribly killed. I would never forget it. “It was you?”
“One of my spies.” He looked plaintively at me. “Say you forgive me. I think”-he sighed-“that is the only deed from the war that I regret. Strange, isn’t it, when so many men were killed, that I lament the death of a snake?”
“He was innocent, and not part of the war, so killing him was a crime.”
“I knew it would frighten and wound you.”
“Say you forgive me, Helen. Please. I must hear it before . . . I go. Before he takes me in retribution.”
“We did many hurtful things to one another, and yet we are not by nature hurtful people. I forgive you, as I hope you forgive me my wrongs toward you.”
“There weren’t any. Except . . . the one.”
Now I smiled. “That is a monumental except.” I felt something change in his hand, some heaviness creep across it that was not there before. “Go in peace,” I said. “Go with all forgiveness, and care.”
He relaxed, and even his lips seemed released into a smile. “Yes,” he whispered. He breathed out, but not back in.
Hermione screamed and fell across him. I stepped back and closed his eyes. Might he have peace in his journey.
“My lady, it is time.” Someone was touching my shoulder. “You have slept overlong.”
Troy . . . I had been in Troy . . . The dream . . .
“I know it is difficult, and sad, but you must rouse yourself. Menelaus can be interred but once. And today is that day. My condolences, my lady. Be strong.”
When I wept-but not just for Menelaus-the attendant of the bedchamber put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I know you sorrow for him. But still, you must-”
Yes. I must. And then, after that, I must again do what I must. And I would be strong. I had no fear of that.
There had been a place Menelaus had loved, in those early days of our marriage. It was on a hill high above the Eurotas, looking down upon Sparta and across to the steep mountains. Tumbled stones hinted that once our family’s palace had stood there, and Menelaus had spoken of building another one where we might retreat. It provided magnificent views and, being so high, would be easy to defend. But we had never built it; inertia and familiarity with our old palace had stayed our hands. And after Troy, he had not mentioned it, as if he had put all those old dreams aside. Now he would rest there, in his new palace at last.
I had ordered a tomb structure built of finest cut blocks of stone. It was no easy task, for stone-cutting took time, and carrying them up the steep path was difficult. But I knew Menelaus would wait; he had waited so long for this palace. His ghost would not vex me, for he would understand why his entombment must be delayed.
And now all was ready. The funeral pyre had long since been kindled, the bones gathered and placed in an urn of bronze, the funeral feasts-for there had been several of them on successive days, marking the progress of his shade toward Hades-held. Menelaus was ready for his last journey, and I could rest content that I had fulfilled all his wishes, even those he had not dared to speak. My vision, my knowledge of the thoughts of others, enabled me to do so-a good side of the gift that so often had brought pain.
I was dressed in my finest robes, my most delicate gown, my richest jewelry. We would follow the funeral cart in our chariots, I in front, Orestes and Hermione behind me, little Tisamenus held by his nurse in a third chariot. Creaking, we descended the steep hill, then made slow progress in the meadow path alongside the Eurotas. (Oh, those meadows, where Clytemnestra had taken me, the hill, which Menelaus had labored up, and Paris and I had careened down-good memories? Painful? Bad? Now they all blended together, became one, part of what made Helen, Helen.) There was a place where the Eurotas, swift-flowing as it was, spread out and became shallow and fordable. The funeral cart lumbered across it, the water coming almost to the top of its wheels, but it emerged safely.
More nimble, the chariots crossed easily. I looked upstream. There were no swans there, just the clear water. I had not seen swans since my return. Perhaps they came here no longer, like many things that happen only at a special time.
At last we reached the summit, and I was pleased to see the integrity of the structure I had ordered so hastily built. Its stones never betrayed the quick labor that had gone into them; they were well carved, sharply cut, oblong, as long as a man’s arm span. Three tiers made a pyramid, as high as-I suddenly knew-the evil horse of Troy. Perhaps even higher, perhaps as high as four men.
The sky was deep blue above it, with only a few moving fluffy clouds to tell us it was a sky rather than a painting, and behind the Menelaeum-as I meant to call it-the Taygetus Mountains of Sparta rose spiky and jagged. We had not had time to plant trees, but the natural pines hugging the summit had not been disturbed, and the wind sang through them, sending their pungent scent to us, stronger than incense.
There was an opening in the structure to receive the ashes, a little passageway and a stout door. We would place the remains of Menelaus there after the invocations, the farewells. There was another niche for my own ashes. But they would never reside there, that I knew. So in their place I would leave my silver distaff, a symbol of my duty that I was soon to forsake.
It was I who must convey the urn to its destination. I took the polished bronze in my hands, in wonder that it could contain a man, and all that made him a man. Behind me, Orestes supported Hermione, bent double with grief. The solemnities must be obeyed, and in silence we stepped toward the opening prepared for it. I reached in and felt for the place, setting down the urn. It was so small, such a tiny place. But it would serve, when all else was fled.
The masons, who had been waiting beside the pines, now stepped forward to mortar the stone in place, seal Menelaus behind it. This was the palace where he would reign for eternity.
Stifling a sob, I turned away. I could not bear to think of him there.
But, truth be told, I could not bear to think of any of us contained in the darkness of an urn. Mother, Father, my brothers, all of them were now dust. It must come to this for me as well. Even if it were true I was the daughter of Zeus, mortal offspring must die. Achilles, Sarpedon, Penthesileia, Memnon, all rested in the tomb, despite their godly parentage. Zeus had promised me otherwise, once. But I had ceased to believe his easy promises.
Quietly we descended the steep path, leaving behind the glorious building and its setting. The whistling wind bade us farewell, the pines bowed in token formality.
Menelaus’s journey was over; my final one had yet to begin. When we returned from the lofty hill of the Menelaeum, I endured the last, prescribed funeral feast, presiding over it as protocol demanded. I would honor my duty until the end, lest anyone say I shirked or neglected one jot of what was required. And thereafter-I would be free.
Free to rise up and follow what I had been called to do. There was a part of Sparta that still tugged at me, saying, Do not desert your post. But I knew Orestes would rule well. Oh, I grieved that I must leave Hermione again, but I would leave her fulfilled and contented, my friend as well as my daughter. And I was growing old-not enfeebled yet, but perhaps soon. I might become a burden, an embarrassing beggar, at the feet of my own daughter, as I aged and became frail. I would spare her that.
I announced my intention to leave Sparta. I hoped not to reveal where I was bound, but that was a foolish hope on my part.
“Troy?” Hermione’s hands flew to her throat. “Oh, Mother . . .” She stifled the How could you?
“I have had a dream.” Dreams dignified all things, gave us permission to pursue them. “I am commanded to go.”
Orestes merely nodded. “The gods send us where they will.” More practically, he said, “Will you notify us as to when we may expect your return?”
“Yes, if I may,” I said. I did not think it likely I should return. But I was obedient to the gods. They might decree it.
In those last days I walked about the palace, as if anointing, consecrating each place I was about to leave. I walked down the steep hill and wandered in the meadows and into the streets of the town of Sparta. The townspeople looked at me, knew me for who I was. But even the most beautiful old woman in the world, the supreme example of autumnal beauty, could not move them, so attuned were they to youth.
I should relish the freedom, the deliverance from the bondage of my beauty. Time had set me free. But I felt a weighty sadness at their failure to see any beauty beyond the most conventional.
Bidding farewell to my daughter and grandson was the most difficult. It is always people who clutch at our hearts, not towns or shrines or duty. I could only console my raging confusion and grief by telling myself that we would meet again. I must believe that. I would.
In Gytheum, the ship was anchored, waiting. Gytheum. Where it had all began. Had I not taken that journey with Gelanor, then . . .
Oh, the old woman’s curse! To have lived so long, made so many choices, that everything is a reminder, a tapping on the wrist, saying, Had I not done that . . .
I mounted the gangplank. Whatever awaited me, I could endure it, welcome it. My life was not entirely frozen in the past yet. There was an unknown before me-a privilege usually reserved for the young.
“Cast off!” I ordered them. “For Troy!”
The voyage was uneventful, and although I did not fly or float as I had in the dream, it seemed as if we were skimming over the water magically free of hindrance. We put in at various islands, but by my own stern orders we did not drop anchor at Cranae or at Cythera. Those were so holy to me that any revisiting would seem a desecration.
The winds sang in our sail and the oarsmen could rest for long stretches; the winds seemed eager to bring us to the shore of Troy. We made the crossing very quickly.
Standing and shading my eyes, I saw the distant shore of Troy pulling us toward it. At first it was only a long gray line, the place where the beach welcomed the sea, but as we approached I could see all the things I had in the dream, the narrow band of water that is the Hellespont, the heights where Troy had stood.
Rowed ashore, we splashed through ankle-deep water, stepping onto that beach I had once thought never to see again. Gentle little waves were lapping on the shore, which was empty. Nothing remained from the invasion-no huts, no fences, no ship debris. It was as if the Greeks had never come.
Now that I was closer, I could see the blackened stump of what had been Troy in the distance, looking like a dark thumb or a mound. Nothing moved around it. The tumulus marking the tomb of Achilles reared across the plain. It was not as tall as I remembered. Wind and weather must have worn it down.
Nothing was left of the miserable house where I and the other captives had been held, but I knew exactly where it had been. And here, on the beach, I could point to the place where they had piled up the treasures they had ripped from Troy, a tottering heap of bronze and linen and pottery. Seagulls strutted there now, and foamy waves washed over it, their bubbles winking and glistening in the sand, ephemeral jewels, imitation of the stolen Trojan ones.
“Where to, my lady?” My attendants looked around, puzzled. “This way?” They pointed to Troy.
“No. Not yet.” I would circle it, visit the plain, sit by the banks of the Scamander, trudge back to the foot of Mount Ida: first see all that had surrounded Troy, edge my way toward it until I had the courage to confront it, behold my dream.
How quickly the fields had recovered. As we walked through them, pushing aside waist-high grasses and wildflowers, I looked in vain for any remnants of the hundreds of bodies of men and horses that had once strewn the fields. I would have thought such a field of death would never vanish. But vanish it had.
This part of the plain flooded in winter, but crowding upon it, at its outer edges, plowed fields and vineyards began. I could see crops growing green under the warm sun, see farmhouses. Here and there oxen were plowing. Carts, half filled with produce, waited in the fields.
On to the foothills of Mount Ida. We passed the springhouse where Troilus had been slain, passed the troughs where once again women were washing, the distinctive slap of their clothes against the stones singing in the summer air. They laughed shrilly as they sprayed one another playfully with water.
The ground rose, and stony outcrops told us we were nearing Mount Ida. Would the hot and cold spring fountains still be there? We rounded a bend and I saw them, the stones crumbling, but the hot water still tumbling out, with its cold twin gushing beside it. Behind it wound the beginning of the path up the mountain. The path I had traveled twice with Andromache.
“A moment,” I told my guards. I had to draw away and think of her, wherever she had gone. Oh, Andromache, I pray that you are content. Happiness is impossible, but contentment, yes, that is within reach. I picked a stem of white wildflowers and scattered their blossoms in her honor.
I turned back to my guards and then in the distance I saw the little house from my dream. It was of stone, its tiled roof neatly shining, and surrounded by olive trees. Who was in it? Why had I dreamed of it? Yet I knew my special sight had granted me the vision, and I must honor that.
“There.” I pointed at it. “We go there.”
It seemed to recede before our eyes. It was much farther away than it looked, sitting surrounded by its fields and masked by the olive trees guarding it. Nothing stirred in the noonday sun; no dogs barked or laborers looked up. But it was too well kept to be deserted. Someone lived there.
We entered the welcome shade of the olive trees, their branches shivering in the slight breeze. The house was in shadow. I told them, “Wait for me.” I must go alone-to what, I did not know.
The door was a stout one of painted wood. I knocked on it once, twice. If the door did not open, I would wait. But the dream must not be denied. I was compelled to follow it. I had come all this way to do so.
It did open. A woman stared out at me. I had never seen her before. “What is it?” Her voice was sharp.
“I do not know,” I said. I could give no other answer. I should have prepared one. How foolish.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I am Helen of Sparta, late of Troy.”
Now the door swung open wider. She gaped at me, frowning. “It is even so?” she asked.
“Yes.” I pulled my head covering off my hair. But that gesture no longer guaranteed recognition. Helen, the Helen who had called a thousand ships to Troy, would be eternally young. She was in stories and poems, so she must, perforce, be so in life.
She kept looking at me. Then she yelled, “Gelanor! Gelanor!” and rushed from the door.
I was left standing in front of it. Now I knew why I had dreamed of this house.
An elderly man came to the door. At first I did not recognize him, nor he, me. Then we burst into laughter and fell into one another’s arms.
“You are alive! You are alive!” I was choked with sobs. I clutched him to me. “I sought you in the streets of Troy, I went to your house, oh, I did everything I-”
“Hush,” he said, laying his finger on my lips. In that gesture we were lovers, as we had always truly been in some deep sense-lifelong comrades forged in a bond of utter trust and loyalty. “I know you would.”
I pulled back from him, looked into his dear face, the face I had thought lost forever. “How did you know that?”
“Because I knew-know-you.”
Stirrings and foot-tappings around us reminded us of the presence of others.
“Yes,” said Gelanor, pulling away. “I wish to present my wife, Phaea.”
“Wife?” I said. “Truly, you must tell me how all this has come about. I last saw you in Troy, the night before the horse was pulled inside. I know nothing since.”
“Come in, take a place at our hearth,” Phaea said. “So many years means that it will be a long tale on both our sides.”
Their little house was tidy and had unusually large windows, making it bright inside. At first glance I did not see anything that would tell me Gelanor lived there-none of the boys’ junk and treasures he used to collect. Perhaps that belonged to the old life that had perished in the Trojan flames. Or marriage had changed him.
Phaea handed me a cup of broth. For an instant I hesitated to drink it, as if by doing so I would shatter a spell, for all this still seemed like a dream. To eat or drink was to embrace where I was as real, bind me there. Defiantly, I sipped it, suddenly aware of my hunger. It was rich with the taste of lamb.
“Now, Persephone, you must remain with us. You have eaten something.”
Gelanor cocked his eyebrow in that old way. We had been thinking the same thing. It made me smile. They let me finish the broth before telling their story. She spoke a version of the Trojan tongue that was difficult for me to follow. But I was delighted that I could understand as much as I did.
Phaea was the daughter of a herdsman in the area. They had been forced to supply the Greeks with meat; a neighbor who had refused had been killed outright. Secretly they had also provided meat, milk, and hides to the Trojans, but risked their lives to do so. As long as the southern gate was approachable they were able to enter that way, but as the Greek hold on Troy tightened, they were barred from the city.
In the final attack on Troy, they had kept well away, praying they would be spared. Their home was not far from the temple of Apollo-the one beside the springhouse-and they intended to seek sanctuary there if necessary, as that temple was neutral ground between the two sides. Not that the Greeks always honored such things. They hid in their house until they saw the victorious Greeks gathering on the seashore, then they ran for the temple.
Inside the temple Phaea had found Gelanor, dazed and suffering from burns. He was sitting in the underground chamber, his arm draped over the feet of the Apollo statue, staring dully at the opposite wall. At first she had been afraid he was either dead, with his eyes still open, or mad. When he turned his head, his expression was so dreadful she thought this poor man would have done better to die. She brought him food and, when the Greeks had gone, took him from the temple and nursed him back to health in her family’s home.
For a long time he did not speak, and her father thought he had lost his wits. He lay in bed, staring, and, even after he was walking again, seemed not to be able to perform even simple tasks. They could not trust him to herd the sheep. They assigned him to gather olives and apples near the house. He could manage that.
“All this while he did not speak. I did not even know what his language was. I did not know if he could understand us.”
“It was your Dardanian dialect,” Gelanor said. Beneath the teasing I understood the pain of that time. “Such a silly accent!”
She leaned over and playfully pushed him. “It is the most noble of accents. Did not Aeneas and his kin speak as I speak?”
“What happened to Aeneas?” I could not help but interrupt their banter.
“He has never been seen again,” she said.
“I saw him alive, fleeing down the street in Troy,” I said. My Trojan language was reviving. “I called to him, but he did not answer. I was told by Ilona, when we were miserable prisoners on the beach, that his wife Creusa had died. But beyond that I know nothing.” Aphrodite had promised to save him-but had she?
Gelanor sighed. “There is so much we shall never know, endings that we cannot pursue. But mine is simple: Phaea and I were married-after her father was satisfied that I was not half-witted-and we have lived here in peace for many years. I have felt myself to be, in some way, a guardian of Troy. Of what is left of it.”
“I am glad for your happiness, dear friend. And Evadne?”
He shook his head. “I think she did not survive that horrible night. So few did.” He paused. “And you? I know you were dragged away by Menelaus. But beyond that I have heard nothing. I feared he had kept his promise to his men to kill you in vengeance.”
“Menelaus was not a man of vengeance,” I said. “In that he was out of place amongst the Greek leaders. He had a tender heart, but they made him ashamed of it. He promised to kill me once we returned to Greece, but we did not return directly there. We spent many years trying to return. Seven of them were in Egypt. Then we returned to Sparta. There I have been, all the remaining years.”
He gave a cry, a protest. The old Gelanor spoke. “Oh, how did you endure it?” he said. “To return there, to live with Menelaus-”
“You are not the only one with potions, my friend. In Egypt they taught me how to mix an elixir that protected me from all feelings. And thus I endured those years. But that is over. I left those potions behind. I am longing to feel . . . all that I need to feel.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I could not allow myself to for a very long time. And it will be worse for you. How could you dare to come back here?”
I looked at him. “How could I not?” I shook my head. “It is my heart, my very self. Am I not Helen of Troy?”
They provided a bed for me to rest, and for several days I lived with them, all three of us pretending we were simple people, herdsmen and farmers, with nothing beyond that weighing upon us. We had never known anything but the slow passage of seasons here on the edge of the Plain of Troy, never had any concern beyond when the sheep needed to go to higher pasture or whether the beaters had left too many ripe olives on the branches. Would that not have been lovely? But had it been true, we would not have been ourselves and we would have betrayed the cry of vanished Troy, all those ghosts calling to us.
At last I commanded the courage I needed to go to the city of Troy. I must see it all, must revisit it. Gelanor and I set out walking across the plain, leaving behind his household in its sheltered grove. I noted that he moved briskly, for an old man-for that was what he now was. I smiled, remembering Priam and Nestor and how old I had thought them, when they were younger than we were now. But they had looked old, I thought, and moved as old men. Surely we did not!
Gelanor directed me toward the shadows of Mount Ida. “First we must go here,” he said. “If you would see all, you must see this.”
For a long time I did not know where he was taking me, but I was content to follow him. I was still dreading the final sight of ruined Troy, and anything that served to postpone it I welcomed. We passed through groves of olives, their silver leaves all a-tremble, and fields of barley, bowing under the hand of the passing wind.
Finally we rounded a bend in the path and I saw something white gleaming before me. It was large and square. Around it dark cypresses waved, telling me it was a tomb. I felt Gelanor take my elbow to brace me.
“The last casualty of the war,” he murmured. “Few come here. She would want you to.”
I saw wilting flowers at the base of the tomb, dried enough that I knew he was right; these were old. “Who . . . ?”
“Polyxena,” he said. “That poor, useless sacrifice.” He stopped and looked at me. In that instant, I saw the old Gelanor, spirited and questioning. “In this lies all the evils of that evil war.”
I approached the tomb. There were carvings there, but I did not look at them. Instead I knelt and laid my hands on the cold stone. She lay in there, a morsel to feed Achilles’s hunger and vanity. I bent, letting my forehead touch her tomb. “Polyxena,” I murmured. “Yours was the greatest sacrifice of all.” She had gained nothing from the war, not a single shining moment, and yet she had lain her neck bare like a doomed lamb. There were so few witnesses to her death. Would she be honored? Or would the injustice extend to people coming to Achilles’ tomb in ignorance of hers? Paying homage to him and ignoring her?
We made our way to the tumulus of Achilles, some distance away. Tufts of grass covered it, and there was a discreet altar at its feet. Gelanor circled it, allowing me to take it in in its entirety. It dwarfed poor Polyxena’s.
“People come here to sacrifice and pour libations. In the years since his death, his reputation has grown.” He shook his head. “Hector does not have a tumulus. But when we go into Troy, or near it, I will show you what has happened with Hector. There is a statue of him, and people sacrifice there as well. In fact, statues are sprouting all around Troy-it’s the Egyptian influence, all those statues-and the heroes of the war are being honored. It is a good thing. For Troy must-it must!-live on in the memories of men. There was too much bravery, and too much suffering, for it to vanish without remembrance.”
“Paris?” I dared to ask. “Did his tomb survive?”
Gelanor shook his head. “It was too near to Troy. The fire, the destruction . . .”
I gave a cry of despair. Not even a tomb!
He put his arm around me. “Did you not have a private place, a place that you can reclaim?”
Such places were all inside Troy. All consumed. I shook my head. And then, slowly, I remembered. That day we had gone out with the horses. He had taken me to the quiet place by the banks of the Scamander.
“We did not have the chance to spend much time outside Troy,” I said. “But there was one place-we were only there once, and I never thought there would not be others, as time went on-I paid little attention-”
“Find it,” he said. “Remember it.”
I nodded. “I will try.” I thought hard, but I could not pinpoint the place. “Perhaps I can find it again in a dream,” I said. “But before that, Troy. You must take me into Troy.”
He looked at me with that old hard examining look. His eyes might be circled with wrinkles, but his gaze was as strong, as searching as ever. “Are you ready? Are you sure you can endure it?”
“No,” I whispered. “But I must try.”
Together we approached the ruins of Troy. They loomed larger and larger on the plain as we walked resolutely forward. The first thing I saw was: no walls. The mighty, high walls of Troy had fallen. A bit of their lower courses were still there, only a third of their original height. They guarded only jackals and cawing birds. The towers had vanished. Their stones were scattered like forlorn children at what had been their bases. And burnt the topless towers of Ilium. That dreadful phrase that kept playing through my mind, that had come to me unbidden years ago.
“Come.” Gelanor was picking his way amongst the stones. Where the mighty south gate had been there was only a gaping hole, and we stepped through it easily. It was nothing like my dream, where everything was intact but deserted. Here all was ruin-blackened, broken, destroyed.
I shielded my eyes. “Take me away,” I said. “I can bear no more. Troy is truly dead.” And I wept for it, only sorry that my weeping could not be deep enough, could not express the sublimity and the loss of Troy.
He guided me gently through what was left of the streets, the streets that had once been alive and thronged with people. Only when we were outside, sitting beside what was left of the walls and the Scaean Gate, did he say, “You are wrong. Troy lives.”
I bent my head over my knees, crying. “No. You have seen it. Troy is gone, swept away.”
“And now begins to live,” he said. “I tell you, the story of Troy will live long beyond these pitiful, fallen stones.”
“So many cities, so many kingdoms, have risen, fallen. Troy is just another.”
“I cannot believe that the extraordinary deeds and persons of Achilles, Hector, Paris, and you will disappear. These were different than all those others. Different from Theseus and the Minotaur, different from Jason and his Argonauts, beyond the destruction of Andromache’s city of Thebes.”
I smiled. At that moment I felt so much wiser than he. “Dear friend,” I said, “they all felt thus-felt they, and their valiant deeds, could never vanish.”
He had one thing left to show me. He did not tell me what it was until we mounted the steps of a small marble temple modestly hidden behind a grove of sacred plane trees, well out of sight of the ugly mound of dead Troy.
“What is this?” I asked.
“I think it is what you have been seeking,” he said. “Are you ready to behold it?”
I looked into his gold-flecked eyes, squinting now with the lowering sun. “You are always full of riddles,” I said. “Can you not speak plain for once?”
“Ah, that would spoil it,” he said. “Why should we alter what has been our way since the beginning?”
“Because this is the end?”
“Ends should not differ from beginnings,” he said. “To do so would impugn the truth of one or the other. We must keep our integrity.” He turned me toward the pillars. “Look upon it.”
I left him and slowly mounted the steps. It was a small shrine, such as dotted the Greek countryside. But I could feel my heart beating faster. This was no ordinary shrine, or he would not have brought me to it.
There were pedestals with objects displayed upon them, and offerings beneath. They were all from the Trojan War, things I had not thought to see again. There was a knife of Hector’s, a sandal of Polites, a comb of Troilus. And then, the largest of all, a shrine dedicated to Paris.
It held his armor! His armor, which I had allowed to be awarded at his funeral games and which I had lamented as lost ever since. It was all there-his helmet, his breast plate, his sword. With a cry, I rushed toward it, touched them.
“I knew you would want to know they were safe,” Gelanor said.
Tears spilled down my cheeks. “I berated myself for letting them pass into other hands,” I said. “But at the time, my grief blinded me.”
“Whoever took them honored them,” he said. “That is why I wanted you to see them.” He stepped back. “I will leave you alone with them.” He touched my arm. “Farewell.”
“What do you mean?”
Sadly, he shook his head. “Our brief reunion was all I dared ask. I knew it could not last, if I was honest and showed you what I must.”
“I still do not know what you mean,” I told him.
“You will,” he said. He retreated into the shadows.
I approached the pedestal, boldly took and clutched the tarnished bronze helmet in my arms. If not I, then who?
Dearest helmet, which had protected the head of Paris, I thought as I clasped it. Paris, so long ago. Would he even recognize me now? He had died a young and vibrant man. I was now an aged woman.
Yet I was near him. The nearest I could get to him. Paris, I have come all this way to honor you, I told him. I left Sparta once again and sailed to Troy. It was not a voyage of love and excitement as ours was, but it brought me here. And here I am, as near to you as I can come in this mortal life, a life that still binds me. I sat for a long time, recalling with all my might our time together, calling him forth. If you are not here, I know not where to seek you. I sat for what seemed an eternity before I set down the helmet. I thought the helmet was lost to me. I gave it away after your death and bitterly bemoaned my folly. But now I have it. Some things can be recovered. Some things can be restored.
But, Paris, some lost things we seek forever. I seek you. Come to me. If you are not here, where are you? I sat and waited. I was docile in the hands of the gods, the gods I had so often railed against.
I closed my eyes. I could feel the sun, pouring into the shrine, upon their lids. That was beguiling, luring. It said, There is nothing but this. Only the sun, shining this day. Why seek anything else? Why look beyond this?
Paris. Paris. Are you still here, in any semblance? Even as a ghost, a shade, I will welcome you. I want nothing else!
I squeezed my eyes shut. All was silence. And then I felt a gentle touch on my fingers.
“Do not look,” a dear voice said. “Do not open your eyes.”
They started to flutter open. A sweet touch held my eyelids down. “I told you, do not open them.” There was a brush along my neck, my cheek. “Ah, to touch you again.”
“Do not torture me,” I said. “Let me look full upon you.” I opened my eyes.
Then all fell away, and I saw Paris standing before me. Paris in all his glory-young, handsome, and glowing. Where have you been all these years . . . what has happened since . . . and where are we going? All surged through my earthly mind. And none could be answered.
“Helen,” he said, taking my hand.
“Paris, I come,” I answered.