Blood on marble – Commission for ‘Sibley’

1 – I must hurry. I must run.

2 – This settlement I have built is where I call home. It is where I rest, it is where I prepare, it is where I receive our guests. Our huts and wells blend in with the high hills and treacherous peaks of the Peloponnese as perfectly as ink drying on amphorae. Bustling in its simplicity, wrested free of reason and purpose; divine, man, and titan could share and sleep on the same straw beds. If only we hadn’t known the terrible wars that split us all into enemies of history. Perhaps even the hundred-armed hekatonkheires could sink as deeply into the mountain spring as I have, were it not that their size obsoletes them of comfort. I chuckle to myself, the hot waters draining my skin of wear and wound. I shake my leather flask, urging my handmaiden to pour more drink.  The decanter – never cracking because a god’s craft will never break – spills its content for my content. The fairest nymph of the Amnisodes tilts the ceramic with a grace her father never had possessed, which I tell her. She smiles, “Plato speaks only of the virtue of love between men. How high must his hubris reach, then, to never speak of the comfort between women?” “We have seen it from Olympus,” I assure her, she smiles more.

3 – “Have you even read his works?” Her voice echoes throughout the bathhouse. Against the pearly marble, only our dark skins are visible; you’d almost mistake our surroundings for a cloud. A fog of decency covers our bodies from prying eyes and writing hands, no oracle nor scribe could use us for their heinous visions or iniquitous fantasies. She splashes down next to me – “Hey!” – she sounds disappointed like always. Not in me, never in me, thankfully, but in my apathy towards the arts. “I haven’t. What man or men write, no matter how they twirl their brains over the things they can only give a name, what they think to know about a world they can’t influence, can’t possibly apply to us. We’re not like them, or I guess it’s better to say, they’re not like us.” She puffs her cheeks, I poke one of them out of habit. “But his reasoning is so sound! And the language we have bestowed, he puts to perfect use. We are subject to the same thoughts through the magic of words, after all, so to dismiss him by his nature rather than by what he has nurtured is as distant from virtue as Tartarus is to Olympus!” The hot water does much to mask it, but her red-flushed face has no other mythology to it than childish stubbornness. She is the scales to bring balance and justice, but cannot handle it when she is placed on either of the pans. It’s adorable. I laugh, upsetting her more, and kiss her forehead, which she finds even worse. “How he puts his logic to use is intrinsic to his mortal nature. Arrows require a bow for their direction. The same is with words;  hunt and talk are no more different than you want them to be.” She splashes more water into my face and shuts me up, but my mouth is open with a smile.

1 – Rocks cripple my feet, my tunic torn by branches. I can’t run fast enough.

2 – I signal for the chariot to stop. The six-horned deer rears, its gold skin reflecting sunrays filtering through the treetops. Beams of light, helpless against the splendour of my steed, bounce into the forest, as if Eos herself decided dawn would begin in this very verdure, falling on and highlighting a single grazing elk. Dead leaves lay in open graves of moss, and with careless feet, I wake them up as I descend. They scream once, reliving their demise once again, and the crumpling sound of this defilement alarms my hunt. Soldiers on the horizon, flee while you can; it has decided to bolt. My negligence costs defeat, and I complete that vile human transaction. Archery won’t save my face nor will it kill the game, it’s simply much too fast for any of my arrows. Were I to be any other godhead, I could simply demand its death right here and now. But my hunting tools aren’t blessed or enchanted; I don’t need divinity to achieve what I was destined to do – any mortal can wield my bow, wear my tunic, fletch an arrow on par with mine.

I begged my father to deny man the pleasure of honouring me, I demanded my sexuality to be locked away, all to focus on the hunt, all to acquiesce the demands of nature. Which, ironically, is a humiliation without equal, because nature is nothing. It has no face or form, no clear authority or pantheon. It shows itself through consequence alone. It cannot act on its own, and I only have mine actions to blame. Fate or the Fates, dependent on one’s disposition, they oblige nothing. They only confront you with your inadequate self. I punch the tree next to me, and my hand bleeds like a mortal.

3 – She takes my hand, lightly stroking the bandages with her own. Her amber eyes express a concern and my regret could split mountains and fill lakes – how could I dare to cause her worry? “What did you do?” She asks, disappointed. Not in me, never in me, thankfully, but in herself, that she couldn’t be there to stop it. I have been comfortable on her lap for hours while she’d been reading, now I roll my head away in shame. Underneath the olive tree she donated to Athens, in order to win the city’s favour. A silly rivalry between her and Poseidon, who offered them sea water to drink? Faced with the option between natural poison and a plant bearing food and life, they surprised all of the pantheon by not choosing for ‘death’, for once. Despite their tortured existence, mortals can be surprisingly lucid.

“I… puwmtsh a twee,” words muffled by her dress, a complete misuse of language is my reply; I don’t want to talk about it. “What?” She laughs with a snort, lovely as always, though she thinks otherwise. “I punched a treeeee…” Her finger, hard and calloused, circles my shaved head. “You get mad so easily. And you don’t know how to deal with your own bouts of anger. It’s a miracle most of your skin is left unscarred, though I don’t mind the ones you do have…” Her voice trailed off and I roll back up to see a red-flushed face, barely poking out from underneath her parchment scrolls.

“What are you reading, anyway?” “Oh! It’s poems.” “Bah. I never understood the arts. Actions speak louder than words, language only befuddles meaning and intent I find.” “Well, if all you need to convey is hunting, archery, and childbirth, sure. But you of all people should know the chaos of incomprehensibility! The frustration of not knowing how to know how you feel! And there is no experience more resonant, more connective than finding a word or phrase to act as quiver to contain those effervescent arrows of thoughts. As if the threads of fate bind you to the farthest celestial sphere.” “I like it when you get excited like that. I still don’t understand, though.” She exaggerates her thinking face, letting out a ‘hmm’ so deep it feels like judgment is being cast on me. I don’t wait for her verdict and begin to judge myself in her stead, again never letting go of the miniscule possibility I have wronged her (mental self-flagellation lets us repent in our own unique ways, ways that absolve us of action, that make the reality of consequence bearable).

“[That man is peer of the gods, who

face to face sits listening

to your sweet speech and lovely

             laughter.

 

It is this that rouses a tumult

in my breast. At mere sight of you

my voice falters, my tongue

is broken.

 

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in

my limbs; my eyes

are blinded and my ears

            thunder.

 

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts

me down. I grow

paler than grass and lack little

            of dying]”

 

“…What?”

“Sappho! Poem of Jealousy*, that’s what it’s called.” “What’s it about?” “Um. Jealousy. It’s called the Poem of Jealousy.” “Really? I mean, I didn’t understand a word of it.” Thinking about language has never been your strong suit.” “Hey!” I puff my cheeks and she pokes them out of habit. “Just imagine, my huntress, the mortal emotion. To feel both its anger and its fear, combined to form a worsening. Thunder within one’s bosom, silence strikes the tongue as a bolt of Zeus’s wrath, a paralysis outside of the realm of natural philosophy; something more powerful than anatomy envelops, overwhelms you. Fire spreads across your body, you choke on the smoke of your own smouldering skin, your own thoughts and reason buried underneath Vesuvius. Water breaks out, torrential floods from the eyes, melancholy builds up in your throat, death suffers less than this, all because she’s with someone else.”

“Oh. So you and Paris.”

She pushes me off of her lap.

“I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. I—“

She soundlessly leaves.

I feel mortal; deathward.

1 – I trip and fall. I clutch the parchment in my hand.

2 – I never knew why the three of them cared so much about what the goddess of discord thought. It seemed too deliberate, “this golden apple, a prize for the most pulchritudinous,” I could see her angry smile failing to hide her intentions. Eris tossed the fruit at their feet, falsely promising knowledge and truth, inspiring later tales of fruit-based deception and betrayal. She sauntered off, leaving malice in her wake. Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. My Athena. I had never thought of her as vain, I thought I made her feel the most beautiful every time we’d been together. Of course I can’t help but feel pity for myself, I just stood there and watched, I was paralysed. Perhaps she thought it was justice – it seemed only logical she’d be given the apple. I certainly wouldn’t disagree. Yet there was something ravenous about the scene: three goddesses, so far removed from their own godhead, just to claim an arbitrary title and an inedible fruit. They almost fought, but Aphrodite remembered just in time that Athena also governed war and glory in battle. A shame, I would have loved to see them get destroyed by my strong lover. Something I helped her become, mind you – our relationship flourished because I was her personal trainer for a while.

So they decided to bring it up to Zeus, who suddenly felt awkward picking favourites. He suggested a third party, a mere human, unaffected by deeper meaning, who would be “honest and fair”, that’s how he put it, but he meant ‘who would be superficial’. It repulsed me! Athena, judged by someone who didn’t, couldn’t know any better, who had no understanding, who hadn’t shared those laughing fits, tickling each other with paint brushes while designing her aegis, who didn’t bring her warm wine and candles late at night while she worked to bring justice to people who didn’t deserve it, who couldn’t even draw maps from memory of the rivers in her skin while she sleeps.

Yet all I did was stand there, lips quivering like a nervous bowman, as three goddesses desperately tried to win over one man’s eye. Hera kissed his neck and pressed herself against him, offering him a kingdom to span Europe and Asia. Athena, at his feet, more subservient, more erotic than I was ever privileged, tempted him with wisdom and skill in war – the very techniques I had taught her. Aphrodite, who looked as divine as beauty would allow, sucked on his lips and proffered a single woman as Paris’s bride. And the fool agreed. I feel a tumult inside of me. A terrifying, emotional chimera, particular to me that’ll never see mythology. The head, a roaring lion, is anger and outrage, my own bias be damned, the audacity he wouldn’t choose Athena. The body of a swan, sleek and flush like a gust of wind, a heavy sigh of relief leaving a trembling body, Icarus could have yet lived had I been there, soaring higher than his own pride on my breath alone. Its tail, not even an animal, but the thorny stem of a flowerless rose, pricking and bleeding me with regret and sadness, that she wouldn’t come to me. I would call her beautiful. All that Paris’s judgment has revealed, however, is that Athena takes the truth in my voice for granted. I flee. Back home. Our home.

3 – Welcome home. Um. How was your day?” “Don’t talk to me.” “Didn’t get what you wanted, huh?” Nothing. No response, not a word. The only reaction is a shiver running along her spine. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Let’s sit down and talk about this. About… Paris. I know. And I need to hear you tell me we’ll be okay.” “We won’t.” “Athena…?” “I came here to pick up my stuff and leave. There’s nothing you can do to change my mind.” “You can’t just decide that. What did I do wrong?” “More than you care to remember. You’ve hurt me, Artemis, but you won’t know what or when it happened. You’ve been clinging to us, holding onto one of Clotho’s threads, not realising it’s about to snap. So you pull yourself up, believing you can reach the top, never stopping to think that what you have in your hands is a single string. If you won’t let go, I will wrench it from your hands.”

1 – I break open the entrance, injuring my hand as I did before.

2 – And with that, she slams the door behind her. I suddenly understand Sappho’s poem, but not as words of jealousy. I feel it as loss; fire, thunder, water. I blaze through the forests, my first show of my divinity, ruining entire ecosystems using the anger only a goddess could comport. Thunder from my throat, striking my followers who have done nothing wrong; they endure it, for they have no choice but to, nobody is in a position to calm me down, nothing makes me okay. I now see what Athena meant. Then the water. The endless tears. None of the classical elements could help me cope with my own fault.

Time, the secret fifth element, however, does. Though Chronos has been dead for ages (ha!), he’s still helped me more than the rest of my dysfunctional family. Eventually, and after many apologies to my servants, I got back on track, what I was supposed to do. Which, honestly, isn’t that different from the ‘fire’ and ‘thunder’ portions of my emotional outburst. But feeling not as furious and conflicted and suffocated while doing it, I guess. It just happened; I realised I was better. No longer mortal. Whatever part of me had been made vulnerable and killable, became worthy of worship once again. Though I must confess, during that time, I found myself drawn to the arts. I even wrote some things, in the effort to sluice my own thoughts out of me, the poem as conduit for my chaos. Of course I wasn’t that good at writing, so I, hm, won’t spare a thought on them.

3 – “How is she?” “Listen, I appreciate the gesture, but she’s the last person she wants to see right now. She’s… been through a lot, and needs people she can     really trust.” “We were lovers. I can comfort her, Apollo.” “Can you?” His expression darkens, avoids making eye contact. His rhetorical question stings: the god of medicine and healing would know better. “I only told you because I guess you two have a history, and you deserve to know or something. You didn’t have to come here. You shouldn’t have come here.” “Who is it?” We both perk up, heads turning towards the bedroom door. There she is. A mess. Without thinking, I run up to her and embrace her. “Athena. I’m so sorry.” “Why are you here.” Not even a question, more like a death sentence. I back away, scared. “Um. Your brother told me.” “Apollo,” she scowls through and behind me, “we’ll talk later.” A ‘tch’ followed by footsteps and a door closing. “Athena, I heard about what Hephaestus did. I just, wanted to be there for you.” “DON’T say his name.” “Sorry.” “And you are not someone to provide me with succor. I will be fine without you, I have been fine without you. Stay away. Get out.”

I proceed to do so. As I leave, I hear an awful, defeated voice. “I am the goddess of justice. Then why was there no justice spared for me?” I stare at her backside for what feels hours, and they probably were. Some poet or philosopher will write a beautiful story about this. But it feels anything but beautiful. “You need to go.” It isn’t Athena’s voice, but her brother’s. Finally back after stepping out. “Okay. Um. Bye.”

∞ – My handmaid enters my bedchamber. I’m covered in furs and pelts, lavish and almost aristocratic. I turn around from my desk.“Did you want to take a bath together? I was writing, but I’ll make an exception tonight.” I chuckle. No smile answers mine. She slips me note, hesitant to speak. She leaves. Riddles have never been my strong suit, so I open the paper with presumably a hint on it. I burst from my chair, knocking over a ceramic decanter. It falls to the floor and shatters – what is made by gods will break by gods. I wish I could have been born Hermes just to have his speed. But no wind could carry me fast enough to my destination, to her house.

Blood on marble, sin on holy. There she is. Leaning on her shield, its pure gold now an imbrued red, and embracing her spear, holding it as firmly and intimately as she has never held me, while it impales her. I let the parchment in my hand fall on the silent floor and kneel down next to her. She is beautiful.

 

 

*Translation: William Carlos Williams (1958)

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