My apologies for not updating sooner. I had been hoping to do some research. Anyways, thank you to my reviewers. Reviews welcome! I plan to go back and edit past chapters soon, so inform me of any errors if you see them!
Chapter IV: Mother
I did not listen to Helice. She was an old woman, after all, and did not possess all her wits. I retreated to my mother's room when I was idle enough to desire a spindle and flax. Her room was hot, and it was heavy with the sour scent of illness: perspiration and bitter medicines. My father did not send for physicians to attend to her anymore. They all said the same thing, anyway, that she was too ill—that a proper sacrifice might appease the gods enough to make her well. But my father did not want to spare a bull or even a kid.
Summer was upon the city. Its heat clung to the stones and glazed our skins. My tunic stuck to my skin; I did not need Andromeda's clay cylinders to make the hair curl at my brow. But what the heat did to me did not matter as much as what it did to my mother. Her yellowed skin became beaded with sweat. Her hair fell out of her head and her eyes, when they were open, displayed tiny threads of red. I attended to her when she called to me. Other times I drew a stool to a darkened corner, taking care that I had a light near me when it got too dark to see, and it was always dim in her room.
In the monotony of the women's quarters, I thought of my cousin Eurydice. I wished that she would come and visit me but I had not seen her since the wedding procession. It saddened me that the scrapes on my knees were only faded scars now; my skill at such games as knucklebones was dwindling. I stood before the fire once, my wooden doll in my hand. I wanted to throw her to the flames, displeased that I was the only child now. And I only carried the doll because Eurydice had one that matched.
Sometimes I closed my eyes and tried to listen for Demeter's visions. But all I heard was my mother's raspy breathing and her burdened groaning. I tried to invoke prophecy—everything Helice was certain I possessed. But I saw nothing behind my eyes but hopeless daydreams.
"You are like the wild women of the Thermoden," my mother once told me. I remembered the way she stroked my hair when her hands did not shake. "Ianthe, you are too stubborn for any man, and you are too restless to live the life of a priestess." And this was when I knew she loved Andromeda better than me. She would ask me if I preferred women. I did not answer for spite, glad that she did not know I crept into the courtyard sometimes to spy on the male servants in their rooms.
It was in the late afternoon that my mother finally stirred. She beckoned me to her with trembling fingers, asking that I push the linen to the foot of the bed. "It is too warm," she murmured, sitting up with a grimace. "Ianthe, where are my cosmetics?"
"Why do you need them?" I wondered, rising to find them for her. I found the little box that contained the white lead powder, the red for her cheeks.
"Quickly," she urged, reaching out them. Her eyes closed briefly, opening to reveal the blood-shot white. She smeared the white across the paleness of her face, and it made her look sicklier. "Call Helice to fix my hair; I am… am going to the market today."
But I did not move. "I will fix your hair for you," I offered finally.
"Your fingers are much too clumsy, Ianthe."
"I have learned," I tried. "Why do you want to go to the market? Will Father let you?"
But my mother didn't answer me; she looked dully into my eyes, smiling crookedly. "I might begin my journey to the Underworld this night, daughter, so why does it… matter what my husband thinks?" She reached out to touch my cheek, frowning the way a mother does every now and then when she finds some imperfection in her child. "When you were born your father wanted to… expose you. He wanted me to give you up for the… stray dogs, for the Hetairai who would turn you into some… flute girl."
I had heard this all before; Andromeda had heard it from the oldest servants and used it against me whenever we quarreled. "But you are a girl, too!" I would shout at her.
"It was Helice who brought you… back to me. I gave her a pair of gold earrings. I fought to keep you and your father relented—but only if I… handed you to wet nurse right away so that I could return to his bed. I cursed my womb that day so I would not have to bear the brute sons; perhaps… I cursed the rest of me too." She swallowed some more air for speaking.
"Only the gods curse," I tried to remind her. "And it is only the summer heat; your illness will pass, I know. Helice says that I am a prophetess, so I think that I may be right."
"I have been sick since you… you were a small girl," my mother scoffed. "And you do not believe Helice."
"How do you know?"
"You do not seem to believe yourself. You scoff… just as I do."
I examined my mother's face, the creases at the corners of her eyes much deeper than I ever remembered. "And… if you are a prophetess, you will have to be sent to some temple for… for some god to have you. Have you foreseen anything, child?"
I shook my head. "Nothing," I admitted. "Even though Helice says I do. She says that I might never die. Can that be true, Mother? She says that I must never speak to my cousin Eurydice again." My face grew even more forlorn at that.
"I do not… think you would like that very much," my mother said gently.
A mute servant accompanied my mother and me to the market. My father was not so concerned with letting his sick wife venture out into the streets. He waved his hand at the servant and gave his permission without saying a word. He had his other women, I knew—clever women who knew more about the world than my mother did, more than I will ever know. They amused him more than anything, and he would leave the house often to visit with them.
I was my mother's walking stick. She pressed her thin body against mine, mumbling that I was a strong girl, that a man's strength would not have sufficed. "They are rough," she had told me, frowning. Her skin was hot, and then it was cold. Her breathing became even more burdened in the dry air. She bade me to stop, turning her head a little bit to glance at our house.
"Her name is Agape," she said grimly. "But I will not waste… my last breaths to complain about my husband's infidelity. Even… even Zeus took different forms to visit all his earthly women…"
"Do you hate her?" I heard myself ask. "Are you jealous?"
"Never," she hissed, dragging her feet across the stones. "She is beautiful… yes… but she cannot… be a good wife. But then… perhaps… it is better not to be a wife at all…"
Soon the smell of spices reached my nose and the busy chatter of a crowd sounded in my ears. We were greeted by long lengths of cloth, by baskets of spices from the East, by traders selling Egyptian glass or stones the colour of the Aegean Sea. Fishermen were there from the sea, waving catches in our faces as we walked past them. There were mostly men there, gathered to converse with one another. My mother let our mute companion on his errands, but I could not go anywhere. I groaned a little under her meager weight.
"My lady…"A man dressed in a dark garment pulled at my mother's clothes. He reached across the hot ground, prodding at my mother's sandals. "My lady," he repeated. "Will you allow me to play you a song?" I recognized him then; it was the minstrel from the wedding feast. His lyre was placed at his feet. "For a coin or two," he implored, "or one of your gold earrings."
My mother allowed him a dull-witted stare. "I have musicians at my house who have some skill at the lyre," she said.
"Your name is Orpheus," I said, and his eyes widened. "I have heard you play before."
He bowed his head modestly—but I knew he had recognized me. "It is an honour, then." His calloused fingers twitched in his lap; he drew his bleeding feet under his tunic.
"You insulted my sister," I said breathlessly. There was a sparkle in my eye, I was sure.
"You know that I was not talking about your sister."
I paused, ashamed to have tried to make him believe I knew otherwise. "How do you know such things?" I challenged, my legs trembling. I could feel my mother's breath on my cheek, her rough hands grasping my fingers. I was startled when the man beckoned me to go closer to him. And so I leaned forward, my mother's body bending over my back, her dark hair tickling my face, mingling with mine.
"I have traveled from Colchis to Sparta—across the sea to Ionia. But it was in your father's house that I felt death on my skin. I saw a snake curled up on your hearth; I saw a woman dead on the banquet table; I saw you holding a dead infant wrapped in black gossamer." He pointed to the temple on the hill. "You might be safe there," he said.
"Ianthe… take me elsewhere," my mother commanded weakly.
I nodded slowly and drew away from the poor minstrel. "Goodbye, minstrel," I said coldly.