from The City Under the Bed
Helen did like the spindle very much. He could tell by her eyes, which were golden and glinted, and the way her crown’s points tossed like little horns. Meanwhile Menelaus was delivering himself of some remarks about the shift in alliances among the Lydian thalassocrats, to which Paris valiantly spun out an answer, but the king’s attentive frown caused him to wonder if he hadn’t botched it. Quickly Paris ordered the largest gift to be ushered in, another of my recent experiments, an open cart on two wheels, entirely fitted with metal. Without stumbling, he pointed out its various features, which would revolutionize war.
“It has lately become evident that armies must be shaped anew, to accommodate distinctions in equipment among soldiers. We have forged ahead with various military innovations, not only in the area of armaments but in the very structure of the fighting corps. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that the armies of Anatolia--”
Menelaus was still engrossed in the chariot.
Paris glanced around to catch his own echo—what was it he had said? —- and took in for the first time how unlike his father’s palace this one was. Here the walls vanished into painted trees and animals. The illusion was so convincing, he almost expected Oenone to duck out from behind a tree. Tears welled up-- his latest remark was the sort of thing he had used to say before he became a prince. Not suitable at all now. But what had she called it? —poetic?.
“The shepherd who does not marry a tree can carry no tree inside him.”
The king jerked the slaves to a halt.
Nervously, Paris clarified: “That is, in order to hear trees talk, one has to stop listening.”Now everyone faced him. He colored, dove back to the coffers, knelt and rummaged busily. He determined to speak no more for the present.
When I heard Paris, I knew I had found the man to start my war, a campaign of great length and many stages, conducted on the plain below Troy. I had long had my eye on that bare expanse, and when the prince spoke so strangely, I seemed to see my idea.
Now I needed the proper thread. As for the loom, it only waited to be dressed. I hurried off to my sisters, always so busy. From far off they resemble a scribble that keens unintelligibly. But as one approaches one discerns their figures at work beneath the conjoined storm of their hair. One guides the hair between her fingers, twisting it, another takes the threads and measures them to various lengths, while the last stands by with a knife. Inside such a web you might think they would lose track of a thread, or tangle them, but this never happens, because each strand has a voice and sings. My sisters invented the vowels so that every line could parade itself as a unique delirium. From what they measure and cut, I take all I need. By twisting and knotting I supply the ululations with consonants. The unremitting cacaphony made me eager to start weaving my war.
“King, you doubtless know why I have come: I am to rectify the status of my aunt. Her cruel abduction still grieves the Trojan people, even after so many years. The happy task of effecting her speedy return has been delegated to me. I speak without exaggeration when I say her whole family anxiously awaits her homecoming.”
Menelaus furrowed his brow and feigned surprise.
“Ah? Hesione? Happily married, I believe, and the mother of, of--”
“Yes, yes, fine warrior, never complains.”
“Very like his mother! Steady, patient, not one to make a fuss. We need more women like her.” He took the younger man’s arm. “Wasn’t it your people who chained her to a rock? Naked but for her jewels?”
Paris halted. “We don’t require the return of her jewels. It is her royal person that concerns us, especially since she chose to flee from the happiness of the marriage you mention.”
“Flee? No, surely--”
“To Miletus. She swam there.”
“Miletus? Miletus... some island, is it? Or a peninsula?”
“A port where you, king of its major trading partner, have a great deal of influence.”
The next day Menelaus set sail for Crete. He left his wife to entertain his guests and conduct all business. Helen had herself carried down to the shore to see the ships off. When she returned she found Paris in the banquet hall, staring at the walls.
Without asking, she understood that he was somewhere in the painted landscape.
“Have you passed that hill yet?” she asked, pointing to a green slope in the background.
He roused himself to try to make sense of her question. He hadn’t heard her enter. She came to his aid.
“I ask because I often go that way. There’s a spring on the further side. And a grotto if you keep on, and then a valley of flowering trees.”
Paris, hesitating, aimlessly stroked a dog-headed statue.
“It’s a baboon,” Helen offered. “Menelaus brought it back from Egypt. He abhors travelling but he loves to collect things. Would you like to see more?”
He trailed her through the corridor lined with alabaster jars into a room where a wooden ram nibbled at a golden tree. A wheeled hedgehog scooted across the tiled floor to his feet and he sent it back to her. She opened a box in which pieces of amber nested, each frozen round an insect or a leaf. She unrolled weavings like feverish diagrams and mats of embroidered grass. He saw wicker masks with moon eyes, shields of every shape, circular knives, and archers’ rings of obsidian and pearl.
As he followed Helen around, Paris started to say what he thought.
“These things—- all of these things—- they must have creatures inside them.”
“Creatures? I’ve never seen any. I often enter them myself. You know, one grows tired of landscape. Still, one needs to get away. Here, look at this—“
She handed him a slender flask.
“That,” she pointed to the surface like combed feathers, “isn’t painted on. It’s part of the substance.”
He turned the little object over. Helen was describing the experience of being inside it, but he didn’t hear. The flask felt warm. He knew he held the sea and the sea was flying. He regarded Helen, so still, arms at her sides, quite symmetrical. In the silence, the walls and windows fell into place.
Helen set the flask aside and picked up a stone disc with a hole at the center. Except for the dogs and gazelles prancing around its inner edge, it resembled the discus of the games. Paris turned it over, no bigger than his hand. He wondered how to throw it.
Smiling and kneeling, she poked a dowel through, spun it as for a fire, and let the toy careen away, dogs galloping, gazelles leaping.
Paris watched her till it circled back between them. By then the banquet hall was whirling and he was the master of the chase. As the toy teetered, he discovered he still knew how to breathe. Light hung from Helen in shadowy folds, deepening her almond color. Her waist seemed impossibly small, the gazelles must be responsible.
“You’re very quiet,” she said.
“I am? No, I’m not.” He stooped for the disc. “In fact, I talk too much.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’re very kind."
“And you understand landscape.”
Paris recalled Oenone.
On deck, he watched the shore waste away and vanish into a bank of cloud. Helen had descended to see to the proper stowage of all they had brought along: the gilded chairs and funerary beds, the faience menagerie and portable pavilion. Paris had overseen the wrapping of fragile and unwieldy objects such as the falcon head with headdress, the basin containing an ornamental boat, the pink granite coffin. After a while he had stopped asking what she meant to do with so many treasures; she had informed him tersely that she knew what she was about. Hadn’t she been abducted before? -- by no less a personage than Prince Theseus, when she was only a girl-- so she was acquainted with the procedure. Evidently it was incumbent upon the abductor to help himself to treasure as well. There were forms to be observed, he could see that-- and besides, she had argued, the more he appropriated, the less easily could her departure be construed as flight.
“Think of me as an object,” she had told him, “or if you can’t-- all right, I know you can’t -- think of all these objects as other Helens.”
So he had gone back to packing the ebony and ivory draughts pieces, the papyri, the golden ewers, the brazier engraved with writing, the travelling shrines and decorated jars. Helen plugged gaps in the stowage with small items cunningly wrapped to fit into odd spaces-- the more snug the stowage, the less the ship would roll-- her horror of seasickness acting as inspiration. When Paris ventured below he met a solid wall of variegated color amidships. Swathed objects snuggled in the boxier interstices; while long, narrow crevices bristled with writing instruments and combs. The ship sat noticeably lower in the water than on the voyage out-- and this despite their leaving behind all of Paris’s gifts. Helen had hinted that it would be shabby to take those.
Helen? Looking back, I can fairly say that my happiest time as a mother was the period before Helen was hatched. No one knew of the hyacinth egg deposited in its little nest of string, that I found in the sedge. I hid it in the folds of my dress and hurried home. Later that day, I returned for the nest. When I picked it up, the string unwound into a toy scourge, six tiny braids glittering with flints. This token should have warned me; I should have given up the egg then and there. But its color was always changing. It seemed to have been made out of sky. I had to know what would emerge from it.
I cradled it in a bed of moss, a little piece of sunset or dawn.
As I say, those were my best days with Helen, before I knew what she was. But when the shell cracked, and a baby muscled out, I knew how to be a mother. But I kept the fragments of shell, and the scourge, wrapped up and hidden.
She was so dazzling an infant, it was easy to guess her father. At that time she never grieved me. While she played, I examined the shards of her shell, which still swarmed with vaporous light. I thought how lovely it would be to have other eggs, all different. Every day I would go for a solitary walk in the marshes. And almost immediately, Zeus, who reads every thought, came to me as a swan. We passed an hour in the tallest grasses. Not long after, to my intense satisfaction, I produced a large, shapely egg. Its color-- a very even pale green, with russet speckles-- could not compare with Helen’s, but I refused to be disappointed. I warmed it assiduously, and eventually my twin boys jostled each other so roughly, they burst out. They shook their downy heads and flailed their arms, bent backward and gaped. This contrasted so sharply with my daughter’s precocious composure that I was taken aback. Not for the last time. I grew increasingly curious as to who had actually produced Helen. For obvious reasons, I could ask no one’s opinion, so I decided to consult an oracle.
I would have liked to travel to Epirus or Dodona but I knew Tyndareus would never permit it. I had to content myself with the local oracle, which was widely considered reliable, if occasionally obscure. However the shrine had recently acquired a priestess, so that one was no longer constrained to receive a response in the rustle of leaves or the burbling of water. These old ways demand an interpreter, whose discretion must usually be bought. Now I could ask my question and receive a direct, verbal answer. It would be very private, and I could go and return in an afternoon.
Most people expect a priestess to be unlike the rest of us, and this one was no exception. Clearly a foreigner, she was so large, it seemed impossible she should balance on the tripod, which was positioned over the spring, beneath the oak. But she sat there very lightly, wearing not a stitch, her face painted with elaborate spirals so that her expression could not be read.
I did not trouble myself with preliminaries. I had washed in the antechamber and anointed my hair with oil. I carried a basket of pheasants which I untied so they could strut. Then I demanded:
“What will become of Helen?”
I had fully intended to ask a different question, but this one just popped out. And I couldn’t rephrase it, for the seeress had already gone into a trance.
As I walked home, I tried to feel clear, but without much success. I rehearsed the oracular aria as well as I could, searching for her reply. The only sound she had repeated had sounded like “tree,” but drawn deep down into the throat. She had delivered that one syllable emphatically. I had learned long ago that one must make the most of what one is given. “Tree,” then, it was. I fixed my mind on that.
Of course, the word from which I mistakenly construed Helen’s destiny was Troy. At that time I’d never heard of it, I’ve never bothered myself with men’s business. But now that Helen has thrown away all the effort I’ve expended on her, not to say vulgarized it, and become merely the world’s most beautiful woman, who has precipitated the world’s longest war, I can freely confess what I feel. One must never hope for anything from one’s children, lest they fulfill that hope in some nightmarish way. I had wanted her to be a goddess. No one can say that I was not ambitious for her. I flattered myself that I discerned her strengths, and did for her everything that I could.
To begin with, I saw to it that she spent as much time as possible out of doors. This had the unfortunate effect of completely removing her from other girls’ company, but there was no remedy for that. Now that I see my whole plan was mistaken, I can also see that her unconventional upbringing harmed her reputation. People will think that a girl who spends time outside must be asking to be carried off—- in fact, she was learning about trees. She even emulated them. I would look out the window and see her very still, balancing on one foot, her arms outspread. The birds would alight on her, and try to nest in her hair. I had no reason at that time to doubt that I had understood the oracle.
All went along as planned until Helen was seven, at which time I decided she was old enough to begin officiating in public ceremonies. I don’t mind saying that at this point in her life Helen made me very proud as a mother. The day that she was to offer the sacrifice at the Temple of Upright Artemis, she looked so lovely, and was so poised, I couldn’t doubt but that I had managed as well for her as if she had been entirely my own. Then suddenly-- and it all happened so quickly-- there was crashing and clattering, shouts and screams—- two men rode straight into the sanctuary, trampling everything, caught my child up and galloped off.
What could I do? The message that arrived later, from Theseus—- for it was he-- assured us that Helen’s training would continue at Aphidna, where she would live with his mother until she was ready to be his wife. My Helen, married to that old man! When I heard it, I cried.
When I had recovered myself a little, I took some comfort in going on with my plans, and as I regained my calm, I saw there was reason to hope. Helen had already grown beyond my own ability to prepare her for her role, and if she were to be taught elsewhere, did it really matter?
As for Theseus, he might well be killed before he could marry her.
It was easy to see she was going to be a beauty, but that was the least of her virtues. For one thing, her beauty verged upon ugliness, teetering extravagantly upon the brink; and for another, it was constantly changing, so that just as one decided that its strangeness was pleasing, it altered completely and one was taken aback. I never tired of watching Helen. Indeed I begrudged the hours lost to sleep. And she returned the compliment by never tiring of learning. She grew exhausted but very rarely bored. I could tell she needed rest by the muddying of her color, by the blurring of her contours. Sleep sharpened and clarified her.
Not until Helen’s tenth year in Troy did I begin to concentrate upon her. It was after the roof collapsed upon her children by Paris-- three little boys-- that Helen drew my attention. By that time Leda had given her up; it had been years since they had exchanged messages. But when the children died, after Helen’s first expression of grief, her demeanor changed to wariness. She seemed to feel something pressing, that wouldn’t leave her alone; no matter where she went, it stayed close, invisible.
It was very interesting, how she refused either to be afraid or to ignore the presence. When I saw her fiddling with the shards of her own shell, I knew she was pondering her origin. Although Leda had never told anyone what she had found in the marshes, rumors as colorful as the hyacinth egg abounded. I could see Helen had begun to doubt Leda’s account of her birth. Meanwhile the presence squeezed her. As she gazed on the roiling plain or retreated indoors to find Paris’ armor strewn on the floor, while she spoke to him unhearing, the presence hovered unmistakably.
I respected Helen for realizing, well before I did, that her real mother had come to claim her. Who knows why she waited so long? She had just been preoccupied. War puts a strain on the more extreme goddesses. Or perhaps she thought Helen’s life had grown top-heavy with pleasure. Helen didn’t feel it, but many shared that opinion. She was the linchpin of a great conflict, men died for her every day, she was loathed and envied, but she constantly exerted herself to rip the veil away.
The collapse of the roof upon her boys manifested her mother. From that moment her unacknowledged parent imbued the air. Then the day was set for the single combat between her husbands.
During the preceding week Paris had encountered a peculiar beauty wherever he went. She was very oddly tricked out, carrying a little wheel, a crown of interlocking stags on her head. A purple scourge hung from her girdle and she used an apple bough as a staff, from which golden fruit peeked out disturbingly. Whenever Paris caught sight of her, wherever he was, he quickly left.
He always wanted to hurry back to Helen and ask her who this could be. But any mention of female relatives agitated her, and this woman resembled Helen so much, he couldn’t think how to omit the fact. So he decided to say nothing. He had long since resolved to give up congress with deities-- even me, who could have answered his questions-- not that he knew the stranger for an immortal, but he harbored suspicions.
So the days up to the battle slipped by in a stream of curious evasions. People started to remark upon his unceremonious leavetakings, for which he concocted detailed excuses—- forgotten appointments, intimate itches, objects he had promised to return and then failed to bring-- until the morning he strode out to face Menelaus alone. The woman with the apple bough did not join the crowd that lined the street to wish him luck. He imagined he had succeeded in losing her.
After the animals were slaughtered and the priests backed away, the two warriors swore promises and squared off. Menelaus made a few feints, and warmed to his task. His muscles rippled like ropes and found their intention like grappling hooks. He trawled forward, reflections mounting his breastplate. His helm caught the clouds and whirled them around. His forearms yawed like weedy billows, his thighs flexed like sailors tangled and pushing. Then his lungs surged up behind his eyes like two ships, his bones sprung like javelins in the wind, and his tendons twisted like storm sails. Cries like seabirds moaning across metal poured out through his teeth, which glittered like spear-points.
Paris braced himself, marshaling the flock of his will. His hair bristled over his shoulders like a thornbrake. Each of his muscles nosed its neighbors intently, drinking deeply at a secret source. Strength mounted through his legs like goats up steep terrain, determination teemed in the fold of his chest, and sweat flung away like dew. His crest seemed an unshorn stampede, his face curdled as though spiked with horse-blood, his eyes pulsed like burrs caught and enflamed, and his galloping heart churned milky foam from his grimace. His cry was a whole mountain bleating.
Helen never saw Paris’ attack, for his ferocity wafted her mother’s presence so close, she fainted. I almost didn’t recognize Nemesis, who is quite striking, precisely the way that Helen is. A glimpse sufficed; how could anyone ever have believed Leda? I suppose it was because when Nemesis appears, she comes disguised. Yet tardy appearance is an aspect of her beauty: she never arrives before it is too late, and enters unannounced, to claim the moment beyond appeal. Who would have expected her in the hideous paroxysm of Paris? I was impressed not only by her timing, but by her lack of vanity.
Helen reacted to the appearance of her mother by crawling under the bed.
Paris had constructed a bed in the shape of a swan. It hung from the ceiling by chains. The fleeces cascaded onto the floor. At night in the windy citadel, the swan seemed to be nesting.
When she needed to think, Helen retired to bed. Sometimes she took with her the pieces of her own egg, which she had stolen from Leda, and held them up to the light. For the changeable beauty still subsisted in the broken wall. Unnamable hues shuddered across the hyacinth field, and consoled Helen, for what exactly she didn’t know.
Upon waking from her swoon on the battlements, she resorted to her secret comforts in a more extreme manner. She gathered up the pieces of shell, lifted the fringes and slipped under the bed.
She had never ventured there before. The space extended oddly far. After she had found a comfortable way to lie, she noticed a crack in the floor. It ran parallel to her body, dividing at her waist into two branches which rejoined by her knees. Inspecting the crack, she found it curiously deep, and much wider than it had appeared at first. Indeed it was a substantial fissure that split the area under the bed into two vague regions with a smaller, leaf-shaped one between them.
Helen unwrapped the pieces of shell, which now seemed a much deeper blue. Sorting through them, she selected the one with the sharpest edge, then tugged her hair out of its coil till it unwound over her shoulder. With the keen edge of shell, reaching as high as she safely could, she sawed until the whole fistful of tresses detached. She laid it out and separated the long, thick wavy hank into bundles of a finger’s width. Then, one by one, she spread the bundles lengthwise in the chasm, until the hair appeared to be flowing between embankments.
She reclined and watched the waves, fixing her attention on the spot where the river divided, where the island resembled the prow of a ship.