Helen, Ten Years Later
Who Am I?
I carry the weight of a hundred thousand men. I drag their dead bodies around, as if they’re chained to my ankles. I walk alone among my people; an outcast, a traitor, that bitch, a prize too dangerous for my husband to discard, yet too poisonous to keep close.
I hatched from a swan egg. The swan was my father, was my god—Zeus almighty, what tales we tell here! Then again, there’s not a whole lot else to do.
You’re a mother, my therapist reminds me.
Is not, my daughter splutters.
I was the gift of a gift. Before I was given away, I dawdled over dinner, watching my face warp each time I licked farro from a bronze spoon. Meanwhile, far away in another kingdom, my figure was made to dance across a golden apple. ‘Kallista,’ it read. To the fairest.
I am fairer than fair. It helps that we women aren’t allowed to show much skin. Cleavage, yes. One breast, depends on the venue. Two breasts, only if you’re getting raped. Only for statues.
I wear my hair under purple veils that float before my face when the wind blows back to the sea. Few people have seen its natural tint, though it will go down in history as being the color of corn flakes.
I was Aphrodite’s pocket trick. My name has been bloodied by the teeth of those who tried to bite such beauty; those who spilled their liquid rust across the wild horse fields. I am the one they say circled the wooden horse laughing, when it was found on the beach.
Laughing, they say.
Whispers still follow me. The queen the queen the queen the queen the queen.
I’m the one in the gold diadem. The one in the middle, refilling her drink. The one you read about in your high school Lit class. You read me warped, in translation, out of context. I’m the one with the headache. The one dragging her feet. The one with the long face.
So long now, since I last held my lover. He’s dead, along with these hundred thousand bodies. It’s been this way for a while now, ever since the war.
So here we are, ten years later. Well, some of us that is. Those who lived.
Where’s here you ask?
Sparta, where I jot these lines. This is my ode to loss, to a whole city erased. I’m not allowed to talk about it. Not the walls, not the streets, not the songs of children, rising.
Instead I’ll talk about the ringing in my ears. It’s like when you’ve been to a loud concert, all the pipes and lyres blaring, and after leaving your head is full of fleece. Except I haven’t left. I’m still here.
Postal code 23100.
The days go by in gulps and snatches
I move from room to room. I look around, at my robes, my slaves, the unused instruments, the tasteless grapes, wondering what to do. Perhaps you’ve heard I’m a whore, but these days I straighten sheets, not untuck them.
My husband comes by, says a few things. My daughter passes swiftly, saying nothing.
The wind blows.
I drag my hundred thousand bodies, from window to window.
These hundred thousand bodies
Boiotians, Phocians, Euboeans, Athenians, Argans, Corinthians, Arcadians, Spartans, Kephalonians, Cretans, Rhodians, Magnesians, Cycladians, Trojans, Carians, Ciconians, Dardanians, Halizones, Kaukones, Kikones, Lycians, Maeonians, Mysians, Paeonians, Paphlagonians, Pelasgians, Phrygians, Thracians, and one Phrygian (he, my cow-herder).
I’ll admit, it’s an approximate number. Some say my face launched a thousand ships, but the Greek Catalogue lists 1,186. If we multiply this number by the number of soldiers aboard each vessel, about 120 by the Boeotian example, we get 142,320 Greek men alone. The Trojans fought with a smaller band of allies, let’s say 70,000 for an approximation. With a 65% death rate among the Greeks, and 100% among the Trojans, we reach 162,508. But it’s hard to say, what with the rumors of Aeneas in hiding, and Odysseus lost at sea.
A snigger from the doorway. You look so dumb, counting on your fingers.
Excuse me for being so rude
Here’s my daughter, Hermione. She’s grown into a young woman. She follows her father around, mimicking his meaty gestures, snacking on unrolled oats. She’s heavy in the thighs, with russet curls and a round, upturned nose, though they say she has my eyebrows, flat and straight like whistling arrows.
Soon she will marry. No one brings up the fact that her betrothed is the son of Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, who won’t attend the wedding because he’s dead by the hand of my second husband. A husband we also don’t bring up. (He, my cow-herder. Starts with a P.)
We hardly mention the name of my daughter’s betrothed, either, but for a different reason. It’s a long one, difficult to remember—Neoptolemus.
My stepson, Megapenthes, is betrothed as well, despite the state of the Greek economy. We’re throwing a double wedding for Hermione and Megapenthes, and I shall honor the bastard of my husband’s mistress as if he were my own. It’s okay that my husband lay with Pieris and Tereis, but not okay that I loved P—.
Please don’t tell anyone I mentioned his name. Even my therapist cringes when I say it.
I tell my therapist in confidence about the hundred thousand bodies I’m dragging, and she reminds me that everything I say will be repeated to the king.
My king is Menelaus. My life is over, and yet each day I wake to another dawn, spreading her rosy fingers.
Recession, or, the state of the Greek economy
Everything is spent. Traded for bronze shields, for horses, for arrows with flinty tips and spears with good-grip handles, then sent off to Troy.
The storerooms are bare. What is here now, what was not traded, was stolen, like the Turkish tiles installed in the guest bedroom, and the slave girl my husband took, who learned to lick his face like a puppy to make him moan, though I’ve also heard he never stopped saying my name when he came. When he comes. He still comes to my bed some nights (I know the bards would like to know). I lie still and know him by the sound of his padded feet on the floor, and by his breathing, wheezy from a battle-bruised lung.
What was not stolen was burned. Women and children, their skin sliding off like popping wax. They say ash comes from fire, from wood. Not in Troy. When Troy burned, the gods nailed the charred bodies inside of me. Now I am the wooden horse, holding deadly secrets.
When I tell my therapist this, she asks for proof. The gods love you, she says, offering me a stick of mastic gum. They do, she insists, chewing thoughtfully. Or else, why would you still be here?
The gods who favor me—Zeus, Poseidon, fickle Aphrodite—they let me live, thinking life is victory. When I walked into the waves a year after the war, weighed down with marble shards, Poseidon smelled my perfume and sent his nymphs to lift me out, draping my body over a dry bed of coral. The gods who loathe me—Athena, Hera—they laugh to see me live, knowing life is torture. That all I want is to be put down like a dog, an untrainable bitch who plays nice, then chomps.
Living is a stone pushed uphill. Let me chase it down to Hades.
Instead, I take inventory, writing up a dowry for my daughter, from the used and stolen goods.
~ hardly-chipped pottery
~ my hand-me-down robes, the seams let out
~ terra cotta gardening pots
~ three knife blades of various metals (good for throwing)
~ sharp pins and clasps (good for eye-gouging)
Hermione picks up my list. You’re disgusting, she mumbles.
When I find the list later, she’s added three new items:
~ free tickets to see the Dishonored Beauty Queen! Come on down to the Amphitheater to see the Crazy Spectacle, Depression Incarnate, aged behind her own bars of Shame! Helen of Who-Cares, with a wax-like pallor, but don’t be fooled folks, this stain of a human who calls herself my mother is in the flesh!
~5 bronze coins if you slap her in the face!
~10 bronze coins if you get her to leave me alone and send her to her room (though if you’re a strapping blonde in leopard skin, she won’t take no for an answer!)
In the mail
Despite the fact that the Mediterranean is wide, our ships slow, and navigation tools dubious, we receive fairly regular mail here in Sparta. Mostly hate mail, mostly for me.
Today I open a letter and find scrawled several names:
The widows and orphans of Greece blame me for these deaths.
I blame myself too, I want to tell them. I know these men. I watched them fight, and sing, and dig, even before I began dragging their bodies around.
I don’t write back. What would I say?
Who started it
Like most stories, there are different versions. I assume you already know about the pledge at my wedding, Hector’s good aim, Achilles’ ankle. Some say: It wasn’t actually about Helen, they fought over shipping taxes. Others: If only the wolves had found Alexander. If only Cassandra hadn’t been cursed, if only Iphigeneia. If only the wind had blown the other way—listen. This is not about fairness, or who started it, or the fact that I wasn’t really abducted. This is about the hundred thousand men, what you’d do for love, and the strange ringing in my ears.
Who am I?
Yesterday at the agora, a woman approached me and said, Who the fuck do you think you are?
Who am I?
Already they are making reproductions of me. Paintings, songs, little wooden figurines. Me, with my robes falling off: Abduction of Helen. Me, on a horse: Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World. Me, looking gloomy among a bunch of people I’ve never met: Helen on the Ramparts. Me, just me: Helen of Troy.
The person you’re pretending to be
At night, when the wind stops blowing off the Aegean and we need a distraction from the heat, we play cards. My favorite game is Ílion Poker, a game I taught to my handmaids.
I shuffle the deck and pass each player a card. Now, without looking, hold yours up, face out, and stick it to your forehead. It’ll hold with sweat, though if you have tiny pores like me, a bit of fish grease will work fine. Glance around the circle. Ask yes-or-no questions about the person you’re pretending to be.
My maid Alkippe goes first.
Am I a nymph? A god? A man?
Am I known for my hair? My singing?
Do I come from Samos? Thrace?
Come on, you know who you are! It’s obvious!
Did I get chained to a rock and raped by a sea monster?
And did I like it?
Wait a minute, what kind of a question is that?
…Who am I?
Out on the porch, under the purple sky, I glance at the faces around me. I fold my hands in my lap and silently pray for an earthquake, a tidal wave. Nothing horrendous, just something strong enough to wash me away. Let the others go on playing.
Phylo’s turn now. I beckon the serving boy to pour more wine, always more wine. If he refills my cup before I empty it, no one can count how much I consume.
Does my name start with an H?
Did I cut off many heads of the hydra? No?
Huh. Who could I be?
I swallow more wine. While Alkippe’s method was meticulous, my maid Phylo has no instinct. She swoops from guess to guess like a bird gone batshit. Then there’s Adreste, my least favorite maid, curled up on her stool, self-satisfied, murmuring clues.
Perhaps you’re… an unsympathetic character?
Oh! squeals Phylo. I know this. Hold on, hold on.
Adreste shoots me a look. Perhaps you’ve… seduced a strange man? Perhaps you’ve convinced his father to keep you, despite international abduction rules?
Perhaps you even slept with this father? Perhaps you slept with the whole family, fucked them over the way Theseus fucked you up, when you were a kid.
I drain my wine.
Ooh ooooh, Phylo says, screwing up her eyes. I know this…
Perhaps you’re a dimwitted, feather-headed fuckface? Perhaps you’re bird spawn? Perhaps you’re… at this very table?
I throw my card down and push back my stool—it clatters across the tiles—and everyone goes quiet. Adreste smiles triumphantly. I scream something, I can’t hear what, not with this damn ringing in my ears, then stomp off, lurching a little, as if back on the boat that took me from here, as if back in Troy when the fire burned so hot it roared, until the serving boy comes out of the shadows and takes my arm, keeping me upright up as my vision goes black. I push him away and say I’m fine.
I’m fine, I scream.
Out on the porch, Phylo whispers: I don’t understand. We gave her an easy card this time.
The next morning Hermione slides the mail in through a crack below my door. I lie in bed, counting the bolts of dry lightning in my head, hungover.
More names. Woe, from the widows of Greece. They write:
The curtains blow, part, sigh.
A bean’s worth of rebellion
I hide the letters in the pockets of my robes. Robes that hug my flanks and flare at my feet, highlighting the bronze ring on my second toe. So much bronze these days. Melted shields and helmets of our conquered enemy, coiled and welded to adorn. This is the Bronze Age, after all.
As Hermione prepares for her wedding week, powdering her nose, rimming her eyes in kohl, I prepare myself, covering my skin in tiny tattoo constellations. Orion on my scapula. Cassiopeia around my upper arm. Aquila on my ankle. Gemini on my temples. Taurus on my hand. It’s you, I tell my husband, my palm open like a forgiver. Taurus the bull, the big bully.
By noon the next day the tattoo parlors are full, and the smell of liquid metal fills the air, nickel and bronze and titanium dioxide. People stay home while the ink sets. Stupid people of Sparta. I take a long bath, washing off the blackberry juice. On the first night of celebrations, I leave my room last, my skin bare of ink and jewels. I outshine all the men and women, even the bride.
There’s still a bean’s worth of rebellion in me.
At dinner, in front of the emissaries and nobles and royal navy, I lower one strap of my robe, little by little, until half a nipple peeps out like a waxing moon. I glance around with big cow eyes, balefully, until Megapenthes says, Uh, Dad?
And Menelaus says, My wife, kindly put your clothes back on.
But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen enough to know I can still make men and women sit up in their seats, make their stomachs flip, their pussies drip, make their minds wander restlessly back to me, back to me.
The next time I do it, dropping my strap lower, Menelaus grabs my upper arm and drags me to my chamber where he throws me on the bed. I let my body go limp and slither to the floor while he looms over, one hand on my throat, a half-chewed caper caught in his beard, and he moves his tunic aside with one hand and squashes his small pinkness up inside me, up where I’m wet like the wine dark sea. I’ve made myself wet, exposing myself.
He knows this, because he says, You want a reaction, huh? That what you want?
When it’s over I put on my long robes and pat his head and stroke his beard. I’d do it either way, rape or no rape, if I loved him or because I hate him.
He pretends like this is love
Otherwise, he’d die in the face of such beauty. He told me so, on our wedding night. Either he would possess it or die. It, not me, something else, something on my face.
And he might as well have it, this last thing that’s left among the bronze. He cannot know that violence has already taken me, washed me back to Troy, nor that I welcome it each time. I ride the horse of death into a phantom city, and hope to die among the hundred thousand ghosts who drag me down in the night and suffocate me between the sheets.
In the distance
The next day, Telemachus visits.
We spot his ship in the distance, docking at Lakedaimon. We follow the small procession across the brown hills with our eyes, as we move from room to room. I recognize him before he steps across the threshold. Dirty blond curls, Odysseus’s dimples, Penelope’s frame.
Any other guest
But for a while, we treat him like a stranger, following the codes of xenia. He sits at the high table during feasts, looks around at the torches, the tiles. I serve him personally, bread and beef loin, and I send Phylo to pour wine into his golden goblet. He follows the direction of my finger, takes in my whalebone bangles, the lines at my eyes, the curve of my neck. He has heard about me. Not just legends but real stories, from Penelope. His gaze is kind, curious. Not like the friend he brought along, Peisistratus, son of Nestor, who’s more of the dark, dangerous type. Whose eyes are gloomy, familiar. The eyes of someone who wants something.
After what went down last night, I pretend not to notice his gaze on me.
The men exchange stories: the old man of the sea, a one-eyed giant, a pig sorceress. Secretly I’m thinking I identify with Circe. We try to shield Telemachus from the worst of the rumors, but eventually we’re all sobbing. Not just from sorrow, but laughter, too. He’s funny. Like his dad.
At some point I step out onto the back porch, unsure what to do with all this fresh air.
Phylo joins me, handing me the day’s mail, asking if she should mix some Egyptian tincture into the next batch of wine. A little liquid sunshine, so the boys sleep well tonight. Why not?
I nod, watching the stars.
Phylo whispers: Do you think he’s still alive out there?
Back inside, I tell a war story of my own, how Odysseus snuck into Troy disguised as a beggar. I bathed him personally, oiled and dressed him and swore not to tell the Trojans until he returned safely to the beach.
Menelaus laughs loudly, and I pat his broad knee. We are the picture of comfort and ease. All, Yes my wife, and, My husband who lacks neither brains nor beauty.
I can tell that Telemachus wants to know how we’ve reconciled since the war. He can’t see yesterday’s bruises on my neck in the flickering torchlight. He can’t see how I lie through my teeth. I can tell that his friend Peisistratus restrains himself from asking what everyone else but thick Menelaus is thinking: If you were so willing to betray the Trojans’ secrets to Odysseus, why didn’t you give yourself over to the Greeks completely?
I take a small bite of beef. A long sip of wine.
Peisistratus’s eyes carve away at me.
The thing is
I did give myself over completely. But when I slept with Odysseus inside the walls of Troy, it didn’t mean a thing. We were just two old friends who found ourselves in each other’s company. Well, found ourselves might be a bit rich. He snuck in looking for me. But we were two old friends who missed the same thing. I’d watched him fight day and night on the battlefield, so that one day he might return to my cousin, Penelope.
In the middle of bathing him, I dropped the pot of oil I’d been holding. Odysseus took it up and began, unexpectedly, to bathe me.
I felt myself splinter in two. Two Helens, one already a replica, a wooden figurine. A version of myself whittled in a posture of love, still capable of being wooed, not yet broken with fear. Still not aware of what horror my beauty would do.
I left myself in the bath and followed him to bed. He filled his mouth with my skin. I filled mine with promises, words, a lovely Ithacan tongue, transporting me to a rocky island full of sheep and figs and poppies. But I can’t pretend Odysseus flitted through the walls of Troy just to taste me. He untied horses. He slaughtered a straggle of Trojan soldiers on his way out. Everything he’s done has been calculated, crafted. Everything, until now, when he steered his boat off the map completely.
Perhaps he’s sleeping with a Phaeacian princess tonight. Perhaps he’s lying among fish spines at the bottom of the sea.
I clung to him, cried on him, and then I spied for him, because he soothed me. When my Trojan prince came back from gambling, Odysseus was already fastening on his precious brooch, the gold one Penelope gave him. My love, my cow-herder, saw Odysseus and crumpled to the leopard-print rug, useless, a dead man, or nearly.
When Odysseus left, I went to my lover. My love, on the rug. If I’d known that’d be the last time he let me hold him. That my betrayal would outlive his life, that we wouldn’t have time for forgiveness. So long, I held him. So much longer, since.
What was he like, Telemachus is asking. My father—what was he like?
I think: fabricator, manipulator, sex addict, egoist, destroyer of lives and families.
I say: I’m sorry, I wish I could remember.
Nothing wrong with my memory
After supper I unroll mattresses on the back porch and cover Telemachus in fleecy blankets. The tincture creeps along his veins until he is asleep. I smooth the curls from his forehead, then whisper, he was just like me.
In the hallway
I run smack into Peisistratus. Or rather, his knife. It hits the buckle at my belt, veers sideward and slices open my arm. Before I can yelp, my mouth is stuffed with parchment and my eyes are banded shut.
Antilochus, he hisses. Antilochus, remember him?
It takes a moment but then I do. He was the most handsome of my suitors. When he fought for the Greeks at Troy he ran at the front of the pack, sure-footed, joyful, raising his helmet to wink at me up on the wall. A second later fate brought Antilochus to his knees.
Peisistratus presses his blade against my throat, and as my blood begins to bead, he cries loudly: Antilochus, who died too young—
Melanippus, I choke out, through the paper in my mouth.
His hand trembles. What? No, Antilochus, you slut.
Ablerus, I say. And now the names are rolling out, the names of those Antilochus killed, rolling as they did into the pit we dug: Atymnius, Phalces, Thoon!
Antilochus, Peisistratus says loudly, I avenge you, eldest son of Nestor—
Let me see you, I choke out.
Peisistratus moans loudly but I feel his hand hesitate, then the blade draw away, and he pulls my blindfold down.
His gloomy eyes are the same as his brother’s. One pair of eyes, come to haunt, from among my hundred thousand bodies.
Now kill me, I whisper.
We awake in the early hours, in the grain cellar, our clothes off, legs intertwined, my nipples like pickled lupini beans against the soft hair of his boyish chest. I see all this through the light coming in through the door, which immediately shuts.
Brushing off the barley stuck to my thighs, I extract myself stiffly, collecting my robes. Something falls away. A long grey strand of hair.
Down at the harbor, Menelaus squeezes Telemachus in a bear hug, promising we’ll send news, telling him to never give up, working himself into tears, my husband. Telemachus is released. He bows quickly before me, but won’t meet my eyes.
When the ship passes beyond the cliffs, I hear a giggle behind me—Hermione.
Do you think, she says, he saw something?
A couple of clarifications
We trek back to Sparta, high on our donkeys, trailed by dirty children. Whispers follow me. The queen the queen the queen the queen the queen…
Listen. I don’t need you to like me. I’m not asking for forgiveness. My hair is not the color of corn flakes. But I have a question, because I’m sensing hostility. What would you do differently?
While tidying up, I find a soggy wad of paper, the same one Peisistratus used to gag me. Unrolling it, I find another letter. I hold my breath, and read:
You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m a queen too, just a minor one down in Carthage, though I prefer my reputation as a budding epicurean. I’m currently working on some city planning, and though I don’t usually ask strangers for advice, I bet you saw a number of city-states on your honeymoon. I’d love to have your thoughts on my designs, included below. Look forward to hearing from you!
On the last day of Hermione’s wedding festivities, the men leave on a boar hunt, and I plait my daughter’s hair. I try to think of advice as I rub in the pomegranate molasses, greasing her tresses shiny as a coin.
She watches her reflection, eyes narrowed like her father’s. She never thinks herself beautiful.
I want to tell her that this is just a phase, that she’s still finding herself, that the teenage years hurt with the ache of a hundred flesh-eating fish, that I know honey, I know. I want to tell her that beauty is not perfection. That it has more to do with the way you hold yourself, with where you put your feet. That life is mostly pain, and beauty won’t change that. But I know she won’t listen.
Better to send her down to the beach, where she can learn from the tides that even the sand must put up with being continually rolled over. Better to hold the tip of a candle flame, to try to keep it from flickering.
We hear hooves on stone, down in the courtyard, followed by one last bray, a wet slice, and a whoop. I pin my favorite seashell into Hermione’s hair, then clasp her shoulders tightly.
Kallista, I tell her. To the fairest.
In the banquet hall
I fill and refill my punch glass until my stepson reaches out an arm. Enough, Mother, he says. You’ve had enough.
Empty nest syndrome
The days, the windows, the bodies, the sea. Everything carries on, fast and slowly.
Despite the fact that Odysseus is still lost at sea, our mail arrives consistently. More widows, more names. And the accusations. You bitch. You whore. Where is your honor? Where is your prince? What did you do this for?
I alphabetize the names into a clean ledger, thinking of what I would say if I wrote back: We are all Helen. Helen of the swan sex, Helen of Sparta. I may have taken Troy but you can take my place. Go on, the throne is empty.
Instead I sit at my desk and respond to Dido
The city plans look fabulous, I tell her. I recommend high walls, from which one can watch the sea at night. Has she considered a public garden?
Still writing, I don’t know why, I tell her of my heavy ankles, my obsession with drowning, the hundred thousand bodies.
She writes back
Really, a hundred thousand? Did you count them all? She tells me of her pyromania, and asks if I know a guy named Aeneas. A Trojan, apparently, just come to Carthage. I didn’t know there were any more.
I settle down
In my spin class, I spin the wool just so, the way a good Mycenean woman should. I drink green thistle juice and get seaweed massages and black sand exfoliants. I dye my hair with berry juice and wing my eyes with kohl. I go on a high-fat, low-carb yogurt diet (no pita, please) and hike the Eurotas Valley hills before the sun comes up, before the peasants can glimpse my face. I leave traces of myself everywhere, drops of sweat in the crevices of rocks, globs of saliva in the dry dirt, puddles of urine in the leaves that will turn to mulch, eyelashes in spider webs, toe nails in the spring water pools where I strip naked and spread my body wide and flat like the stencil of a human, like a bird in the sky, like a cave drawing. I float.
I pour pitchers of wine to emissaries. I do squats, rolling the cellulose right out of me. I send my slaves down to the agora to buy melons. I pray in Artemis’s temple. Make me strong, I say. Make me strong so I can carry these bodies more willingly. So when the time comes, I can carry us all away.
I stop seeing my therapist. I stop calling my slaves ‘slaves’ and call them housemaids, because it makes everyone more comfortable. I free these housemaids and tell them to run far and fast into the hills, until they’re forgotten.
I write letters to my daughter. Say hi to the hubby for me.
To Dido I write: Aeneas… curly-haired, Laomedon nose, rather single-minded? If we’re talking about the same Aeneas, I warn her, he’s a sneaky guy. Which isn’t always a bad thing, or he wouldn’t have snuck out of Troy alive. But he’s not someone you want to trust with finishing the city mural, if you know what I mean.
That’s him! She writes back, and for a moment we both smile, across the Mediterranean, glad to have things in common.
Besides my cousin Penelope, whom I betrayed, and the Trojan princess Cassandra, who only half-counts because she was crazy, Dido is my first real friend. She likes me for who I am, not for what I look like. I know because we haven’t even exchanged likenesses yet.
I write: Paris always said of Aeneas, That cousin will go far. Be careful, I write, but also, let yourself go a little?
With my husband’s approval, I visit the Oracle at Delphi. She tells me that my stepson Megapenthes is planning on exiling me.
Planning on, or will? I ask. I’m thinking of the letters. How will they reach me?
The Oracle shrugs.
What about Odysseus? I ask desperately.
The Oracle eats a goat kebab, one I brought as offering, then starts writhing around, which means it’s time to go.
I make secret plans
Just-in-case-I-don’t-die plans. I request a forwarding address, a tricky affair, since I don’t know where I’ll be heading.
Who do I think I am?
Yesterday in the agora, while weighing out several legs of lamb, a woman slapped me across the face. The queen the queen thwack—?
I swayed like stirred fish stock. Slowly, I raised my hand and slapped my face too. I slapped it again. Again.
One final blow
When I don’t hear back from my new friend for a while, I begin to doubt her authenticity. Was she just another hanger-on? Did she get a hold of one of those wooden figurines? Worse—did she grow bored of me?
I hear the news at breakfast, while peeling a fig: Dido has died, burned alive on her own funeral pyre. The last thing she saw: Aeneas’s ship sailing away.
We were never married, he purportedly told her.
So what? I want to shout. You louse! You good-for-nothing lover! She changed her life for you! She moved rocks for you!
I can’t breathe. I slip out of the palace and run uphill in broad daylight. I raise my fists at the sky and shout Aphrodite! Aphrodite, you motherfucker! Come out and face me like a woe-man! I’m fucking done!
A bird squawks. Then, nothing.
I trudge downhill.
I try to kill myself, running a bronze fork across my neck, and when I don’t die at least I manage to disfigure myself. At least I make a mark that is my own. The fork is taken away.
I say no prayers and chew lotus leaves to fall asleep.
I dream. For days and days I dream of an island where no one can touch me. Where I am nothing and everything—rock, salt, marble, sky.
So you couldn’t find Sparta
Perhaps you were looking for a big city. But we’re in the sticks over here. Really rural backcountry. 25 miles from the Aegean, in the Eurotas Valley.
We have an agora, a stoa, a theater, a sanctuary for Artemis and a temple for Athena. Do drop by, before I go.
I pack my bags
I wait by the door. Everyone who passes shakes their head silently. They’re not to talk to me. Menelaus and my ex-therapist agree.
You asked about the views, the weather.
I’ll write you from my marble tub, while I treat a yeast infection with a sheep’s milk bath.
The sun rises early between the cleavage of the hills, vessel-red, breaking up the blue-veined arteries of shadowed footpaths. The sky is rutted over by Apollo’s carriage wheels, and as he passes he wakes the goats who bleat, scattered across the steep hard hills, harder and browner than Aphrodite’s nipples, whose eternal beauty never touched this place. The Eurotas Valley is common, dusty, good for nothing but trudging.
From my marble tub I thank the goats for their simple beauty, which is innocent and does not belong to me. They trot uphill and ring their bells, perhaps in surprise, as dawn with her rosy fingers does the same thing she’s done since the dawn of time.
The days are blinding—no way around that. Intolerable, indifferent days, they are not for humans to master. Not even for us demi-gods (or demi-humans, as Achilles once joked darkly). The days are for the cold wine oceans and the tips of the tall trees and the barley fields that shudder and squeal when tickled by the breeze. The days go by, pounded flat below the palms of the best phyllo dough maker, who sweats her own ocean up there in her hut on the hill.
The kids count donkeys, pick grapes. I pick tiny white flowers from the toxic daphne tree, preparing what might be—if Zeus permits—my last drink.
But Mount Olympus won’t have me, and my maids Adreste and Alkippe come in, throwing out the poison. I live to see another dusk here in Sparta. Before it sets the sun will blaze and trample.
I sit on the terrace with my ouzo and softly melting ice cubes. Adreste parts and combs my hair, counting the gray. I circle names in the crossword, names of the men I carry, men who died for me, for these two arms and this tangle of hair:
Ajax the Great
Ajax the Lesser
In your last letter, you asked about the views, the weather.
Three thousand years from now, time will bleach everything, until there’s nothing left but rocks and columns. And under the moon even the most complicated things will begin to look black and white, like a sketch, like a tragi-comedy, like the broad strokes of some old story.
KAYLEN BAKER is an alumni of Columbia University’s M.F.A. program, currently writing and translating in Paris, France. She has previously published her work in Broadsided Press and Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.