5 Greek Refusals: A micro series
Because the princess was dying of love for the suitor, the suitor who was so athletic and so strong, the great suitor who despite the princess’s would not love her back—because when he spurned her, she determined to kill herself—
No. No she did not. She would never kill herself again, not for this suitor or any other.
Because after her husband died writhing in his poisoned robe, she did not cry at what she had done, or if she did cry it was not enough for us, or if it was enough then still we fumed when she refused to take her own life. I was tricked, the older said, blaming not herself but the dying centaur who gave her the poison, that husband-shot beast who told her it was a salve made to guarantee not death but monogamy. After all, how many times had her husband cheated, how many children had he sired by other women, by women and nymphs, dryads and witches, other creatures of the forests and marshes?
Her anger was righteous, her violence accidental—and if now her husband were dead by her hand, the older said, then surely she was not doomed but set free.
Because after the virgin prince firmly explained his refusal to sleep with the younger, he expected her to die of lust and longing, as all others had—but instead she simply took no further notice of him, spending her days as she always had: at her loom or upon her harp, or else smashing her mallet against loud-clacking croquet balls, her blows sending the bright orbs spinning across the prince’s father’s vast palace lawns. How angry the prince was at her refusal to be affected by him, how in his anger he followed her everywhere, begging her to die, whining out his reasons! Hadn’t her heart been broken? Didn’t she wish to put pen to paper, to write out a false accusation against him, then kill herself, so that their story might be fulfilled, so that when the prince’s father came home the prince would be exiled for crimes of passion never committed?
Pen to paper, the prince cried, then poison to lips! I demand it!
The prince believed he deserved a tragedy, but the younger didn’t care, didn’t listen. She was done listening to him and to all men like him, done dying for them too. In those days, there was so much fresh sunlight to feel upon her skin, so much bright birdsong to hear and sweet breeze to smell, so many harp chords she wanted to perfect, and always there was so much croquet to play, so much satisfaction in smacking mallet against ball, the satisfying thwack of the mallet so much like how she imagined it might sound when at last she tired of the prince’s whining, when finally she took her tool to his crying skull.
Because surely, the king thought, his daughter would understand they needed the north wind to cease its blowing. And anyway, aren’t all a king’s children the king’s possession, shouldn’t the king spend from his treasures how he wishes? And so the king promised the younger sweet marriage, and so she dutifully she arrived arrayed in her wedding dress—how beautiful she was, how perfectly she made the picture of Greek girlhood.
The fool, the fool! Too young to marry, she should have known better—but wasn’t she also too young to die?
What girl expects her father to tie her to the altar, to approach her with bloody blade and burning pitch to put her to the sacrifice?
What girl but a girl in tales.
In one telling, the king killed the younger, the north wind ceased to blow, the king’s fleet sailed off to ten years of failure followed by a single night of victorious battle. But in our tale, the tale told right for this book, the younger escaped, saving her life and dooming her father’s fleet. Perhaps she took the north wind’s place, sinking the fleet herself; perhaps she transformed, becoming an albatross flying overhead, ill omen dodging the arrows of men. Or else, in my favorite of the possible tellings, she had invited her older to attend her false wedding, and thus it was the older’s army who saved her, all the brave women who rode beside her, who had named the older daughter their Achilles, who called themselves her Myrmidons, a company of great soldiers who fought for no man or king, only women, only queens.
Because the older’s husband died so bravely, the gods that in those days still were reluctantly decreed he could visit his wife one more time. Soon he returned to the living lands to haunt the older’s house, the house that was now only hers, the husband’s shade clattering her dishes, unfolding her laundry, making himself known by tapping spectral code against her bright-washed walls, by knocking askew the paintings hung in her hallway. Everywhere the older roamed, she wore the mourning clothes, black on black; but nowhere did she acknowledge her husband’s return, no matter what trouble he made for her.
After the widow began to court other suitors, the dead soldier manifested with new anger, breaking heirloom furniture, shaking the high bed in which he had once slept, where now his supposedly mourning wife dreamed sweet dreams without him, about another. Due back in the underworld on the third day, he manifested fully to demand she kill herself, so that he wouldn’t be lonely in the land of the dead—and when she refused, claiming that she had loved him in one life, all the life she had promised to him, what could he do but leave her be, to watch her strip off her mourning clothes and begin to live again, to live on as he could not?
Because he said they were not married. Because he said he could leave at any time. Because Zeus had bade him to go, or else Jupiter, or else some other god who was always the same god, the god of all men who preferred questing to husbandry. The older suffered his excuses, then made her own complaint: had she not given him all of herself, her household, her kingdom? What now was she to do in his absence? Was he to become a hero, she a mere spinster abandoned, some crone aged and unloved, not married enough to ever even become a widow, even if he came home carried upon his shield?
In another story, he said, I sailed upon my ship while you stayed here in your palace. And by night I looked back at this mighty city, and saw at its heart a great column of flame burning. Then I knew you had killed yourself, that it was your funeral pyre I witnessed, for you knew I would not come back, for you would not live without me.
But this is not that story, said the older, shaking her head, waving away his suggestions of death. What did Zeus ever do for me, the older said, that I could not do for myself? Was it Jupiter who gave me my crown, my kingdom, my many warrior-women? Am I not a queen all my own, great giver of gifts, grave avenger of slights? Am I not ruler of all the domain I can see from my high castle, a kingdom of no more men, not now or ever again?
Before the night was through, the disloyal suitor was sentenced to banishment and exile, his armor stripped, his sword and shield broken, his men put to the spear. So what, so what, the older cried, as in her harbor the suitor’s ships burned, so what do I care if this means Zeus is denied a hero, if this means Jupiter has no champion, if this means no more great men of Greece land on no more foreign shores?
Matt Bell’s next novel, Appleseed, is forthcoming from Custom House/William Morrow in 2021. He is also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
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