Thirteen Insubordinate Women
THIRTEEN VIGNETTES BY VESNA NESKOW
Fake News: Iphigenia to Marry Achilles
Iphigenia is partying with her sisters and her mom. She’s the princess of Mycenae, so she parties a lot. But today is special. Her mom, Clytemnestra, got a text message from her dad, Agamemnon, who’s in Aulis getting the ships of the Greek fleet together to fight the Trojans.
“Look, look!” says Clytemnestra, showing the girls the text. “Daddy’s found you a husband, Iphigenia! Look what he says: ‘Wonderful news, my dear Clytemnestra! I’ve arranged for Iphigenia to marry Achilles. This will be a great alliance. Send Iphigenia to Aulis right away with her dowry and her trousseau.’” Clytemnestra hugs her daughter; Iphigenia’s sisters Electra and Chrysothemis fall on top of them. All four women are ecstatic with excitement.
Iphigenia knows her father is important; he’s the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek army. And yet, with all the hullabaloo over the Trojans on his mind and with the responsibility of strategy keeping him awake at night, he’s still had time to find her a husband. And what a husband! Achilles, no less! He’s been on the front page of every magazine and news flash for the last two years and has been touted as #MostEligibleBachelor. He’s never been defeated in a fight. He’s strong and fearless. And all the blogs and zines say he’s the best lover this side of Rome. What a great dad I have, thinks Iphigenia, he’s thinking of me even in the midst of war. He’s found the most popular guy in Greece to be my husband. He’s the best! Go, Dad!
Clytemnestra, as excited as Iphigenia, helps her pack her trunks carefully with all the latest fashions. She has a separate though smaller trunk for her shoes. Platforms in case he’s very tall, ballerinas in case he’s short. Stilettos and sneakers, she’s prepared for every occasion. Her only worry is that Mom can’t come and she’s never made such a long trip alone. Only her nurse is going with her because Mom has to take care of Iphigenia’s three siblings and Orestes is only a baby. She hugs them all good-bye. Clytemnestra promises to buy her a separate apartment when she gets back, one right in the heart of the city where all the action is. That’s so cool, Iphigenia thinks. I have the best parents. They’re respectful, tolerant, and multi-cultural too: after all, Dad’s from Greece; Mom’s from Italy. I love being a hyphenated Greek; I hope Achilles will love it too.
The overland trip to Aulis isn’t easy. There’s an incredible wind, Hurricane Chloe having settled in for some time now just off the coast of Aulis. The wind nearly blows their chariot over several times but their driver is Agamemnon’s own loyal chauffeur and they get to the coastal city intact.
Iphigenia hugs her father and he weeps. “You’re so beautiful,” he says, “and so young.” He takes her immediately to the temple and tells her to lie down at the altar. What’s the rush? Iphigenia thinks. It’s not like it’s a shotgun wedding, or anything.
“Where’s Achilles?” she asks.
“He’ll be here soon,” her father says and beckons to a priestess who moves forward and puts a knife to Iphigenia’s throat.
“Daddy!” Iphigenia screams. “What’s this?”
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he whispers, his breath caressing her ear, “but if I don’t kill you, the gods won’t lift the wind, and I won’t be able to sail to Troy, and Greece will lose the war against the Trojans, and I’ll be a laughing stock, and all of Greece will be humiliated. I’m sorry it had to be this way. But it’s for the good of your country. Just think, you’ll be a heroine.”
“But I don’t want to be a heroine!” She looks at him in disbelief. He’s her famous father. How could he do this to her? “Daddy!” she screams. “Daddy!” In a flash she realizes Daddy wasn’t to be trusted.
Her dad nods at the priestess who immediately slits Iphigenia’s throat. Agamemnon quickly hops into the lead ship and sails to Troy where he becomes an instant hero.
Alcestis, the Good Wife
Alcestis holds her two small children close to her, rocking them. She’s scared to death but she tries not to show it to the kids. They think everything is fine at home in Thessaly. Mom and Dad are Queen and King and the dog is in the backyard of their palace, romping with a kitten. But Alcestis is worried. Her husband Admetus is dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She can’t imagine life without him. “Honey,” she cried only yesterday, “I can’t stand this. What can we do?” Now he’s gone with his friend Apollo, the god of light and truth, to petition the Fates, hoping they’ll spare him. Alcestis waits, with a heavy heart, to hear the news.
Soon Admetus comes bounding back home, Apollo in his wake. “OK!” he says, “they told me I can live!”
Alcestis hugs her husband and begins to cry as her tension is released.
“Of course,” Admetus adds, “someone else has to agree to die instead of me.”
Consternation again wrinkles Alcestis’s forehead.
“We made a great deal!” Apollo says and slaps Admetus a high-five.
Alcestis thinks they were not very good negotiators but she doesn’t say so. Instead she says, “Admetus, my one true love, I will die for you.”
Admetus grabs her by the arms and shakes her. “No, no!” he shouts. “I don’t want to hear you say that! I’ll find someone else, someone more suitable.” He turns to Apollo and says, “My old man and the old lady are one leg in the grave. One of them can take the dive for me.”
So he goes to his parents’ house for the first time all year. “Who you joking?” Admetus’s father says when he hears about the deal.
“Not on your life,” the mother adds.
“Uh-oh,” thinks Admetus, scratching his head. He goes home and collapses in Alcestis’s arms. “They wouldn’t do it,” he whimpers. “What kind of parents are they?”
Next he sends out a tweet to all his countrymen: “I’ve kept taxes down,” it reads, “I don’t inhale when I smoke. Please help.” No one responds.
Alcestis walks into the den where Admetus is staring at a blank sheet of paper. “Did you find anyone?” she asks.
“No,” he answers glumly. “People aren’t what they used to be. No one wants to be a hero anymore. I don’t know what to do.”
Alcestis gently cups her husband’s face in her palms. “I don’t want to live,” she says, “if I have to be separated from you. I’ll die in your place.”
“How can I accept that?” Admetus says. “What would I do without you?”
Alcestis caresses his forehead. “A man’s life is worth more than a woman’s,” she says.
Admetus looks at her with new respect in his eyes. “That’s true,” he says. “And even though my kingdom is small, I am king here. My people need me.”
Alcestis kisses her husband and children good-bye and, with Admetus watching sadly, she ODs on Demerol. In the instant before she sees a blinding white light, Alcestis is gripped with the fear that she’s done the wrong thing.
Hardly does Alcestis expire when CNN, SKY, ANTENNA-1, TIME, and GYNECA Magazine are out with their polls. The world is agreed: 97% think Alcestis was admirable, the perfect wife. She is pitied, therefore revered and glorified. “She was the most noble woman in the world—a devoted wife,” Admetus sobs on the world news. “She sacrificed herself for love. She was love itself.” 2% are undecided. Only 1% think she was wrong.
Helen, the Real Trojan Horse
Helen can’t peel her eyes off the TV screen. The world’s in a real mess, and they all blame her. She fell in love with Paris, Prince of Troy, and left her husband Menelaos, King of Sparta, to marry the prince. The divorce papers are on Menelaos’ desk but he’s not signing. Now Sparta, itching to start an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Trojans ever since the last arms proliferation talks fell apart, has declared war on Troy.
It’s all over the news. Menelaos is on every channel. “He just can’t stand it that he’s been dumped,” Helen cries, annoyed that her ex is in such a foul state over the divorce. Menelaos shakes his fists on CNN and sends out disinformation: he says Helen has been kidnapped.
She calls CNN to say it’s not true. “You’re not Helen,” they tell her, “Helen has a voice as sweet as honey.” Demonstrators fill the streets of Greek cities, shouting, “No to Trojan imperialism!”
The scandal snowballs the way no one expected. All of Greece is up in arms, ready to fight—they say—for Helen. But she knows her husband and his buddies are using war to cover up his shame. How would it look if people knew that Helen left her husband, the king? No, with the help of Saatchi & Saatchi, Menelaos and his pals have led a great PR campaign: in man-on-the-street interviews, Greek guys claim the Trojans are raping Greek women. ERT-1 reports that Menelaos’s brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, is leading the Greek fleet of 1000 ships, sailing for Troy. “We’re gonna cream them!” a carpenter from Aigaleo says into a reporter’s mike. “No one violates our women! No one!”
“This is crazy!” Helen says and lights up her 35th cigarette of the day.
“Helen of Troy,” the anchorman says, “will be known as The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships! A great nation honors a great queen.” He smiles a seductive news anchor smile.
Helen throws a pre-Hellenistic vase at the TV. “Yeah, sure!” she yells. “Like they’d all really go to war if Menelaos had dumped me. If he left me, they’d thump him on the back and call him a he-man. No one would cry out that I’d been violated. They can’t stand it that I have agency.”
As she watches the news reports, Helen becomes more and more agitated. “My God!” she cries. “All the Greeks are behind the jerk!” Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor, Ajax—all the famous warriors and strategists—join Menelaos under Agamemnon’s command.
“Nothing less than Menelaos’s Menelaos’s honor is at stake,” a young foot soldier says into Christiane Amanpour’s microphone.
“Honor!” Helen explodes. “They’re just afraid that if it could happen to Menelaos, it could happen to them.” She switches off the set.
Outside there’s a ruckus. The Greeks are at the gates of Troy. Helen rushes to her boudoir and puts on a killer Issey Miyaki gown. She steps out onto the ramparts of Troy and a hush falls over the Greek army. Overhead a blimp passes. On its side are the words “Demestica Wines.” Trailing behind it, a banner reads, “Freedom for Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.” The din of clashing swords again fills the air along with cries of “For Helen!” and “Helen or death!”
“Stop it!” she cries. “Stop the war!” But no one hears her above the din of metal on metal.
Back in her living room, Helen, unable to resist, clicks on the TV again. A political talk show host is interviewing Diogenes, a venerable though irreverent Greek sage, and Herodotus, the historian. “One wife more or less,” Diogenes says, “what’s the difference? There are lots of good-looking women out there for Menelaos.”
“What do you know about women?” Helen asks his image in the TV set.
“That’s not the issue,” Herodotus interrupts. “The Greeks are afraid that Helen’s beauty makes her powerful. But her beauty won’t get her a seat in Parliament.”
Helen tries desperately to get on the news, to tell her side of the story, to tell them she loves Paris, to tell them Menelaos is a macho schmuck, to tell them he’s not worth young Greek men losing their lives for. But no one gives her a chance. Instead, poets go on prime time to recite poems about her beauty. She goes to Athens and tries to talk to people in the streets. “I’m Helen of Troy!” she shouts at first, but people just laugh.
One man tells her, “You look like someone I’ve seen before.”
“Helen of Troy?” she asks.
“No, more like Aliki Vougiouklaki.* You have her eyes. Definitely not Helen.”
In the next 2,500 years, men write 30,726,542 poems praising Helen’s beauty. But Helen can’t get anyone outside her family to give her the time of day.
* Aliki Vougiouklaki (1933–1996): blonde darling of Greek film and theatre, a cross between Shirley Temple, Ann-Margret, and Charro, known for never seeming to age (how mysterious…).
Ariadne’s Red Thread of Freedom Sinks to the Bottom of the Sea
It’s the killing season, and Ariadne, princess of Crete, can’t stand it. Her father, King Minos, sacrifices young people from Athens to his monster the Minotaur. It’s gory and disgusting, typical Cretan machismo. It’s bad enough being a princess in a macho land. The men all tell her what to do, whom to see, what to talk about. She’s got a mind of her own but they won’t let her use it.
This year Theseus, prince of Athens, has come to kill the Minotaur and end the sacrifices. He’s brave, Ariadne thinks. He could be her way out of Crete. He’s handsome, too. Tumbling head over heels for him, she hatches a plan.
“I can help you,” she tells him. What she’s doing is dangerous. Going against her father, against her country. It’s treason. But she has to get away. She can’t stand this life anymore.
“You’re wonderful!” Theseus says. “So courageous!” His eyes twinkle at her.
He understands me, Ariadne thinks, and he acknowledges the risk I’m taking. How noble! Truly a fine man, she imagines.
He takes her hand and squeezes it gently. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” he says. “More beautiful than Helen. More beautiful even than Aphrodite.” He says this last in a whisper, looking around him furtively.
“I’ll help you kill the Minotaur,” she says, “if you take me to Athens and marry me.” She feels a twinge of guilt, using this beautiful, heroic man as her way out of Crete. But she’s desperate. Besides, she’s fallen in love with him; she wants to marry him. Can she trust that he’s fallen in love with her too? She’s afraid no man will marry her without some material incentive.
“I promise,” he says with no hesitation. “We’ll be very happy.”
A true prince, Ariadne thinks. He loves me.
That night Ariadne slips out the back door of the palace and scurries through the royal gardens. Theseus is waiting by the entrance to the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. Ariadne gives him a map of the Labyrinth and a ball of red thread. “Tie the thread to the door; unwind it as you go into the maze,” she explains. “When you’ve killed the Minotaur, you can follow the thread out to freedom. I’ll wait for you by your ship.” She tilts her head up for a kiss and Theseus pecks her on the lips, grabs her red thread, and heads for the entrance to the maze.
A few hours later Ariadne waits nervously at the port by Theseus’s ship. When he shows up her face brightens.
“I killed the Minotaur!” Theseus boasts to his crew and holds up a bull’s ear to prove it.
Everyone slaps him on the back; his first mate cracks open a bottle of champagne. “To Theseus’s glory!” Bubbles spill onto Theseus’s beard and tunic as he drinks.
Ariadne is radiant, blind with love. She waits for him to kiss her, tell her he loves her; but Theseus pulls her aside. “Don’t tell anyone you helped me do this,” he whispers.
Ariadne nods, wide-eyed.
“I told the guys the thread was my idea.”
Ariadne nods, wide-eyed.
As they sail out of the port of Heraklion, Theseus throws the ball of red thread overboard.
“No!” cries Ariadne. “My thread!” She tries to grab it but too late.
“What did you say? Your thread?!” Theseus glances furtively left and right for eavesdroppers.
“My memento!” The red thread sinks to the bottom of the sea. Ariadne is sad.
“You talk too much.” Theseus is angry with her. “Go to your room,” he orders. Or maybe he’s scared; she can’t tell because she’s so stunned by his words.
“My room?” Ariadne asks, perplexed. “We’re to be married. Why separate rooms?”
“Just until the wedding,” he whispers, “so the neighbors don’t talk.”
In the dark hours before dawn they reach the uninhabited island of Naxos. Theseus says they need provisions. He drops anchor and sends Ariadne out to fetch a few tomatoes and feta cheese.
“But there’s no town here!” Ariadne says. “Not even a harbor!”
“You have to walk a ways,” replies Theseus. “It’s not far.”
“It’s dark and I’m afraid,” Ariadne pleads. “Send someone else.”
Theseus strokes her hair. “You’re so good at choosing the best tomatoes.” Then he adds, “My love.”
Ariadne walks and walks, but no town. So she goes back to where the boat was moored, but no boat. Theseus’s ship is gone. “Theseus!” she cries out, but there’s no one to hear her.
On the horizon a glimmer of dawn dilutes the inky sky to gray. There she sees the ship, its sails unfurled, gliding away into the night, leaving Ariadne behind.
“I’ve been tricked!” she screams. “He hates me for helping him.”
Her cries echo across the empty island. The god Dionysus hears her and comes to her aid. He’s not afraid of her or her father. His only incentive is Ariadne herself. If he can’t be human, Ariadne thinks, divine will do. They marry, have lots of kids, and are happy. When she dies, he turns her into a constellation. Ariadne twinkles in the sky forever.
Prophet or Whistleblower, Cassandra Is Ignored
Cassandra is writing a valedictory speech for her high-school graduation. “Our generation of women,” she writes, “can accomplish anything we set our hearts on.” She believes this not because she’s daughter of Priam and Ekavi, rulers of Troy, but because she thinks women have come a long way.
At that moment a flash of light comes out of nowhere and a tall man appears. He smiles and says, “I am the god Apollo and I want you as my love slave.”
“Get away from me,” Cassandra says and pushes him.
Apollo smiles sweetly at Cassandra and says in a saccharine voice, “Your eyes are deep pools of onyx.”
“Oh, brother!” Cassandra rolls her eyes and looks away.
“I want to take care of you,” Apollo tells her.
“I can take care of myself,” she answers. “And I certainly don’t want a man patronizing me. My generation of women can accomplish anything we set our minds to.”
Apollo circles around her. “I’m so crazy about you,” he says, “that I want to give you a special gift.”
Cassandra perks up with discrete interest. “A gift?” she asks. She’s heard that guys give girls gifts when they like them.
“The gift of prophecy,” Apollo booms.
“Prophecy?” Cassandra looks at him quizzically. She has no idea the gift comes with strings attached. It doesn’t occur to her Apollo wants sex in return for his gift.
“You can foretell the future.”
“That would be interesting,” Cassandra concedes.
She hardly has time to think about just how interesting it might be; this guy grabs pussy faster than Donald Trump. Apollo waves one hand over Cassandra and slaps his other hand on her breast.
“Hey,” she yells, pushing his hand off her breast, “get away from me or I’ll smack you with a sexual harassment charge so fast you won’t know which way is up!” Cassandra still doesn’t get it; she thinks she can resort to the law. She turns to run but Apollo grabs her arms roughly and pins her down faster than Brock Turner tackles an unconscious woman. Suddenly Cassandra is frightened; she’s never seen anyone so furious or so violent. It occurs to her that civil rights may not be sacred. Human rights may not pertain to women.
“I’m a god,” Apollo says, “so I can’t take back a gift. But I’m terribly displeased. I’ll make it so that no one believes you.”
“No one believes me anyway,” Cassandra cracks back.
Apollo spits into her mouth.
“Yuck!” she screams. It occurs to her that she’s been naïve.
“There!” Apollo says smugly. “Now, whatever comes out of your mouth will be tainted.”
Cassandra begins having bad dreams. “The Greeks are going to attack us,” she tells her family.
“You know nothing about politics!” they laugh at her. Cassandra has a bad feeling in her gut.
Three days later her brother Hector announces at the dinner table, “The Greeks are going to attack us.” Her father, King Priam, immediately calls together his council of advisors.
“I told you so first!” Cassandra shouts, but her mother shushes her up. What’s wrong with them? Cassandra wonders. Maybe they didn’t hear me when I said it. She breaks out in hives; her mother tells her to go to Elizabeth Arden for a facial.
Cassandra’s anxiety mounts. Some time later she has a vision that terrifies her. “Hector will die,” she says; but no one pays her any attention. Cassandra screams at her father to bring her brother Hector back from the battle; he sends her to her room. When Achilles kills Hector, the Trojans grieve but no one remembers what Cassandra said. She cries her eyes out. “What’s happening?” she asks, but she’s alone in her room and no one answers. Cassandra develops a tic in her left eye.
Soon the tide turns in favor of the Trojans. The Greeks bring them a peace offering: a large wooden horse. “What a great sculpture!” Priam says.
Cassandra rushes to the ramparts to see the gift. She’s learned that gifts aren’t always what they seem and she cries out in warning, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”
“Don’t block the peace process,” the Trojans answer.
Cassandra can’t stop her right arm and leg from jiggling nervously.
“Hysterical girl,” her father says.
“Stop tapping your foot!” her mother orders. “It’s getting on my nerves.”
In the night the Greek army climbs out of the horse and kills the Trojan warriors. Cassandra’s brother Polites shouts, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” just before he’s slain by a Greek. Why didn’t they listen? Cassandra thinks to herself. What’s wrong with me? But she says nothing.
“Did you hear what he said?” Priam cries to his wife. “Our son Polites was so smart!” He thumps his chest and repeats, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”
I have gone crazy, Cassandra thinks.
The Trojans lose the war and Cassandra is claimed by Agamemnon as war booty. She struggles and screams, “I’m of a new generation of women! We can do whatever we want! You can’t force me!” But he puts a knife to her throat and takes her home to Mycenae. Now the dreams are coming hard and fast, day and night. Cassandra has a permanent taste of bile in her saliva. Her hands don’t stop trembling. “We’ll be killed,” she says to Agamemnon. Her heart beats fast. I’m too young to die, she thinks.
“Shut up,” he snaps at her. “Females are good for one thing.”
Cassandra turns to the Mycenaeans. “Agamemnon and I will die!” she yells.
“Shut up, stupid girl,” they say. “You want to get yourself killed?”
She begins to feel the energy drain from her. “Listen!” she implores but they all turn away. That night Agamemnon and Cassandra are knifed to death. He goes down in history as a hero; Cassandra, as a hysterical whistleblower.
Eros Has Done Medea Wrong
She’s killed her kids! Medea retches in the bathroom. She’s killed her kids.
She walks slowly to her room and pulls out a small suitcase. Packs only the most necessary items. She goes back to the kids’ room and stares at the small bodies on their beds. Peaceful. Unmoving. She runs to the bathroom and retches again. Then she returns to packing her suitcase for exile.
Medea knows what exile means. It’s the life of a leper. An exile in ancient Greece is worse than a slave. A pariah with no future, that’s what an exile is. That’s what her husband Jason had planned for their kids. No, she couldn’t allow them to suffer like that.
Oh, it had started out all hunky-dory between her and Jason. Before she realized he’d actually planned his conquest of her so she’d help him amass wealth and a kingdom. He rode into town with Eros at his side. Medea looked at Jason, Eros thwacked a love arrow into her, and Medea’s been madly in love with Jason ever since. Even now, she has to force herself not to look at him because the damn arrowhead makes her go all soft and gaga. She has to admit, she thought they lived pretty well those first few years. Here’s the back story.
After Eros embeds his love arrow into Medea, no other man exists for her but Jason. They get married, have a nice house with a white picket fence. And they have kids. Medea—a sorceress, half-human, half-goddess—brews potions that Jason uses to vanquish his enemies and make the right kind of friends. Pretty soon they give up the white picket fence house for a McMansion. Then that’s traded in for a nice castle with a moat and ramparts. It’s small, only 43 rooms, but Jason thinks it’s OK for them and their two kids. Besides, it looks good on the hilltop and there’s enough space for his Rolls, his Jag, and his two Hummers, as well as the Smart car Medea uses to go to market and buy the herbs she needs for her potions. Jason has really come a long way; he’s king of a small kingdom in Greece. But it’s not enough. He’s become more and more greedy.
He comes to Medea one day and says he has to have more territory to make friends and influence people. He’s been networking day and night and he finally got the ear of the King of Corinth. Wouldn’t it be nice to become King of Corinth himself? In fact, he’s just got to become King of Corinth. The fate of the Western World depends on this. Medea doesn’t agree, but the arrowhead tickles her ribs and her love for Jason bubbles up again, making her all hot and crazy for him.
So Medea sets about to prepare a magic potion for her husband to help him win over the King of Corinth. She stokes the fire under a huge cauldron, sweat trickling down her neck into the cleavage of her support bra. She doesn’t notice how greedy Jason has become. She doesn’t notice he hasn’t paid her a compliment in quite a while. She doesn’t notice he hasn’t kissed the kids goodnight in over a month. She’s been too busy taking care of them herself and slaving to make more magic potions so Jason can acquire more land, more riches, more supporters. More, more, more. He’s insatiable. He won’t stop until he’s entered the ranks of the 1%, and even then… Medea keeps stirring the cauldron, never lax in her wifely duties. She’s so busy working for Jason that she never has time to notice that other wives are not paving kingdoms for their husbands. They are, however, sweating over hot cauldrons. All she knows is that she must do this for him. He’s her husband. She must. It’s her duty.
“Wife!” Jason bellows one afternoon as he walks into the kitchen and turns on the A/C. “Turn off the stove. Enough of your smelly potions.” (As if he didn’t profit from these smelly elixirs.) “I have another plan.” He puffs on his cigar. “I just had a meeting with the King of Corinth and the truth is that all the potions in the world won’t do the trick. Because what the King wants is for me to marry his daughter Creusa. It’s the only way to forge a true political bond, the only way for me to acquire more power. Don’t worry. The best of the English houses do it all the time.” (Like she’s thinking about comparative monarchist shenanigans, inter-imperialist strategic plans, or the exact magnitude of Jason’s power.) “I’ll colonize Corinth,” he says, “and then move down to Sparta. To hell with Menelaos.” Medea is speechless, her face pale, her jaw quivering. Jason smiles. “Don’t worry, my love. I have to divorce you, but I’ll make sure that you and the kids are comfy in exile.”
Comfy in exile! Exiles are outcasts. No one will have anything to do with them. They can’t live; they can’t even beg. They’re tortured and eventually die a horrible, brutal death. She knows Jason will pay alimony the first month or two, but then he’ll conveniently forget. Her kids will die of starvation. If they aren’t stoned first. Or boiled in oil.
“It’s the only way, my love,” Jason says, shoving a finger into her cleavage to tickle her then making a face when he realizes how sweaty she is. “You know you’re my one true love. I’ll always love you. But you have to make sacrifices to get ahead in this world. It won’t be bad. You’ll have the children. Just think: my sacrifice is huge; I’ll be without you and the kids.”
Medea hears Jason’s words but she’s like a deer trapped in the headlights. She can’t speak. She feels like a cage has slammed down around her. All she can think of is that she still loves this prick and he’s leaving her after all she’s done for him.
“I know you understand,” he says to her, “this is what we’ve been working for all along, you and I.”
Suddenly she can’t bear him, but she’s stuck with Eros’s arrow in her heart. Damn Aphrodite, she thinks. Damn Eros. Damn Jason. What can I do? What? What? She has no friends in this foreign place. Exiled first by her dad for helping Jason, now by Jason. It’ll be much worse for the kids. They’ll have no protection in this ancient land of fossils where exiles and out-of-wedlock kids are used for target practice by the Greek NRA. She wishes she never set eyes on Jason. She’s utterly furious. What can I do? she keeps repeating. How can I save my children from slavery?
Three days later Medea’s hit by inspiration. “Of course!” she says. “I’ll smash all his hopes. I’ll drive him into the ground. I’ll kill Creusa. He’ll never become King of Corinth. He’ll have no sons of Corinth.” She lunges for the Chanel No. 5. Spritz, spritz, spritz. She empties the expensive perfume and fills the bottle with a secret poison. She calls it Love Potion No. 9. Away she flies to Creusa, the bride-to-be.
“You need the best French perfume for your new lover,” Medea says to Creusa, flashing the Chanel bottle. Creusa immediately recognizes the label and sticks her neck out. Medea sprays her robe, sprays her neck and arms. The poison seeps into Creusa’s skin and she falls dead on the spot. Medea feels a pang of satisfaction, a surge of power at acting on her own volition and not by commandment of god or father or husband, the momentary elation of vengeance. But, remembering Jason’s betrayal, her bile keeps churning. She’s disgusted at herself for loving him still.
Now comes the hard part, the second half of her plan. Medea wrings her hands. “Oh, god, how can I do this? But I have to save my kids from others who will kill them mercilessly. There is a fate worse than death, and that’s what their father has planned for them. At least my babies will have a sweet death. And I’ll dash Jason’s hope of creating his own dynasty. I’ll kill his children.”
What she must do is the hardest thing in the world. Medea goes to her two kids and hugs them. She sings them a lullaby until they fall asleep then gives them a magic potion that kills painlessly. She wishes she could take the potion herself, but she’s a half-goddess; it would have no effect. She goes to her lab and packs up her herbs, then holes up in her bedroom where she sobs all night.
In the morning Jason storms Medea’s chamber. “If you weren’t a half-goddess,” he bellows, “I’d kill you here and now!”
Medea steps into her golden chariot, not daring to look at Jason, feeling the sting of the pernicious arrowhead—Eros’s monstrous arrow misused by Jason—lodged in her heart, and rides away. Wherever she goes, she’s exiled. She never enters the Hall of Fame with Agamemnon, Odysseus, and the rest of the boys.
Circe’s Potent and Impotent Magic: No Defense Against Locker Room Talk
Circe hammers the No Trespassing sign into the rocky soil in front of her pier. Now there’s a Keep Out! sign every 20 meters all around the island she owns. She looks up and sees a boat on the horizon, floating towards her. “Drat!” she says. “Intruders, again!” For Pete’s sake, her reputation precedes her: they know very well her island’s off limits. They just don’t obey. Isolation is Circe’s defense. She’s had one bad relationship after another; she keeps falling for the wrong men, needy guys that she takes care of, and she can’t defend herself. Circe no longer trusts herself with men, so she’s created her own fortress to protect her solitude. Only, they won’t leave her alone.
Some 20 sailors tie up the ship and walk down the pier. They look at the sign. They look at Circe. And they step ashore. “Is this your island?” they ask.
Circe nods and taps the sign.
“That’s cool, Ms.,” they say. “We believe in a woman’s right to property. We’re liberated. We support our women friends in their struggle for self-empowerment and equity before the law and before society.”
They sniff the air and begin to walk towards the house. Circe too smells the aromas wafting down from her kitchen.
“We used to be insensitive to women’s issues but now we support them all the way.”
“Oh, brother!” Circe mutters and rolls her eyes upward; she whips out her magic wand. “Don’t fuck with me.” Bop! bop! bop! she creams each one on the head. Oink! oink! oink! they squeal as Circe turns them into pigs. Jesus! The lengths she has to go to just to protect herself. She shoos the swine into the sty behind her house and goes back to her botany lab to continue to work in peace on her experiments. She’s been cross-pollinating two herbs to develop a remedy for rheumatoid arthritis. The quiet and serenity of her island help her concentrate.
But soon she has another visitor. A kind-looking man with a beard and an intellectual demeanor walks up her path the next morning. His curly hair is graying and his face is deeply lined. He’s obviously lost. Circe takes one look at him and is afraid, afraid of what she’ll do.
She tries to be strong. “Did you see the ‘No Trespassing’ signs in the harbor?” she asks.
“No,” he says and she knows he’s lying. “The name’s Odysseus. I don’t know where my men are, the sailors from that ship.” He points to the ship moored at the pier.
As Circe lifts her magic wand, she notices his eyes are the deep blue of the Aegean. I’m strong, I can resist, she tells herself and taps him on the head but nothing happens to him. Oh, shit! Circe says to herself. This one’s been talking to Hermes. He’s used a magic herb from that pusher’s garden. Circe feels herself slipping.
Odysseus puts a hand on her shoulder. “Help me,” he says. “My heart is broken. I’m bleeding. I’m an open wound. Only you can save me.”
“Okay, okay,” she says. She feels herself falling, falling, falling prey to his seeming weakness. He needs her. She cannot resist. She knows it’s wrong; she knows she should run; but she can’t. She’s so strong and competent; that’s her weakness. She can do anything for him.
His voice turns velvety as he looks her up and down. “Turn my sailors back into men,” he instructs and Circe does it. “Now how about a hot meal and wine?”
All Circe can think about is that the man looks ravaged, like he’s on seven drugs at once. His eyes have the half-closed look of an alcoholic. They are sad eyes. I could make him well, Circe thinks. No other woman has had my magic. He needs me. I’m the right woman for him. Besides, he’s so strong yet so vulnerable; his pain makes him more handsome. With that thought she falls in love with him.
The man with a face like a ravine moves into her bedroom and lives there one year. He and his men eat Circe’s food, drink her wine. Circe gives birth to a boy who looks just like Odysseus. That’s when Odysseus hightails it. Circe is devastated. For months she doesn’t eat.
Finally one day she gets up and thinks, How could this have happened to me? She gathers her force and turns her attention to two tasks. Once again she takes to her scientific experiments in botany. And she dedicates herself to bringing up her son Agrius to respect women and value them as equitably as men. Unfortunately, she’s not the only influence: on TV and the Internet, at school and in the workplace, even the most powerful women get short shrift.
An Arranged Marriage; or, the Phaedra Syndrome
Phaedra paces the floor like a caged panther. She’s bummed out because she was bartered in an alliance between Crete and Athens. Her brother, King Deucalion of Crete, gave her in marriage to Theseus, King of Athens, and Theseus is a rapacious schmuck. He treats her like a servant, bellows for her whenever he needs servicing, then throws himself on her like she is a piece of meat. Grunts a few times then rolls over. But he was supposed to be a good catch because he’s always in the news, a man of money and power. Theseus is more than twenty years older than Phaedra; her brother, like most Greeks, believes this is smart: gives the man the upper hand, keeps the little lady in line. I hate these arranged marriages, she thinks.
Theseus flings open the door of her room one morning—at least she got separate bedrooms—and forces himself on her. Afterwards he says, “I’m going hunting. I’ve sent for my son Hippolytus to take care of matters at home while I’m away. Be a good girl.” He pats her on the rear, gathers his spears and a drum, and zooms into the forest in his Hummer.
Talk about lack of trust. He sent for his son to take care of matters at home! How humiliating that Theseus put her stepson in charge of her. Besides, Hippolytus is Phaedra’s age, hardly more experienced than she at running a household.
Phaedra slowly gets up and takes a long bath. She perfumes her sore body and wonders what desire for a man might be like. She doesn’t have to wait long. At lunch Hippolytus strides into the dining room. He’s gorgeous and he doesn’t even seem to know it. Strong arms and legs from so many sports. Soft curly hair and a sweet face. He might be a nice guy, after all. Someone who could be caring and gentle. Protective. Phaedra wants someone to care for her so badly that she sees these qualities in Hippolytus. She begins to fantasize about him, dream about him. But it makes her feel terribly guilty. She is, after all, his stepmom and she knows her feelings are wrong. She gets relief by talking about it to her nurse, who thinks Phaedra deserves to be happy; she believes Phaedra should be with someone more her own age. Hippolytus is young and energetic; he loves sports and a good laugh; he’d be great for Phaedra, the nurse thinks, much better than old man Theseus. So the nurse tells Hippolytus that Phaedra has a crush on him.
Oy! He goes crazy. “You’re disgusting!” he throws a tantrum at Phaedra. “How can you think of sex with me? You’re my stepmother! You’re loathsome!” (“I didn’t say anything about sex,” the poor nurse tries to explain.) Hippolytus slams the door of Phaedra’s bedroom as roughly as Theseus would have, as hard as a four-year-old would. (This guy was supposed to be taking charge of the household?!)
Phaedra is shaking. Guilt flushes her face crimson. Something inside her pounds with a strength she cannot resist. “The shame!” she cries, shaking in anger and humiliation. She paces the four walls of her bedroom. “I’m done for!” Back and forth. Back and forth. “He turned out to be as horrible as his father!” Back and forth. Back and forth.
Images of Theseus claiming her as his property fly through her brain. She knows the story of how he seduced her older sister Ariadne into betraying her family and then abandoned her on an island far from home. Phaedra paces in anger. She was a small child then, but she lost Ariadne, who was like a mother to her. Injustice pounds at Phaedra. She keeps pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“What choice do I have?” she wails. “What can I do?” She can’t divorce Theseus; he’d kill her first. “All the decisions in my life have always been made by men!” She hits her head against the wall and pounds the pillows on her couch. “He won’t even let me wash the dishes without supervision!” Then it dawns on her that she can act—an act all her own. There is one thing alone over which she has control and which will give her back her power. Her life itself.
But first she will exact vengeance on Hippolytus for his nastiness, for his lack of humanity. She will exact vengeance on Theseus for his tyranny, for the horrors he’s made her suffer. Calmly she writes Theseus a note: Hippolytus raped me, it says. Horror breeds horror, she thinks without a pang of guilt about her lie. Then she hangs herself from the rafters, a smile on her face.
Theseus comes back from his hunt, his Hummer piled high with deer and boars dripping blood. He reads the note and roars with anger. He banishes Hippolytus. Then he shouts to his buddy, god of the sea, “Poseidon! Kill him!”
Poseidon contracts a sea monster for the hit; Hippolytus dies. But Artemis, the protectress of wild things, feels for Hippolytus, a fellow hunter and sportsman. She holds a few channeling sessions with the doctor Aesculapius and they bring Hippolytus back to life.
No one bothers to revive Phaedra.
Io Is Too Cowed to Embarrass a Man
Io glances left and right, her movements quick and furtive. She’s very young, a priestess to Hera, queen of the Olympian gods. She’s still in training, so one of her chores is to do the laundry. She’s down at the river today, pounding linen tunics on the rocks, but her mind is on the old man who’s been stalking her. Io feels guilty about it: after all, he’s her boss’s husband. She wonders if she’s done something to encourage him; but she doesn’t want to embarrass the man by asking him, and she can’t tell him he’s a schmuck. After all, he’s much older. And he’s her boss’s husband. And he’s king of the Olympian gods. And she’s just a priestess-in-training.
“I’m Zeus,” he roars at her, “lord of the gods. And I like fresh young things!”
Now wherever she goes, Io is on the lookout for him. She’s too scared and humiliated to tell anyone about it. She’s heard that Stronger Together is an effective mantra, but in the face of a determined demagogue, she’s not convinced. Her father is Inachus, a river god who founded the temple to Hera in their town of Argos. For a tiny moment she considers telling Dad about Zeus, but immediately nixes the idea. Oy, Io thinks, all he’d need is for his daughter to create a scandal and make a laughing stock of the king of the gods, no less. She must have done something wrong, she thinks. But she feels bad for Zeus: he’s humiliating himself. No, she can’t tell anyone. It would be too rude, a slip of a priestess calling attention to how badly the god-king is behaving. Besides, her parents don’t really pay much attention to her; she can’t upset them.
Things get worse. Zeus slips into Io’s dreams and he’s absolutely frenzied. She’s afraid to go to sleep but still he comes to her in whispers that buzz around her ears like so many angry wasps. Io can’t stop crying all day. She screams at night. Suddenly her parents begin to worry; they think of sending her to Dr. Freud in Vienna. But that would be too humiliating.
So there she is, pounding away at the laundry in double-time when Poof! he pops out of nowhere, saliva streaming from the corner of his mouth. “Fresh, fresh, fresh!” he shouts gleefully and tries to grab her breasts.
“No!” Io yells, holding her laundry basket to her chest. She’s trembling, her face pale with fear.
Zeus puts his hands on her buttocks and squeezes. “I’m a celebrity. Girls love celebrities.”
“Stop!” Io screams and jumps away. She runs in one direction but Zeus pops up in front of her. She turns and runs the other way, and there he is again, blocking her way. He keeps bouncing around her, left and right, more agile than Michael Jordan.
“Ha, my lovely pussy cat,” he laughs a harsh, raucous laugh, “you like this game, I see.”
Suddenly there’s a gush of air and for the first time Io sees fear on Zeus’s face. He waves his thunderbolt and wraps the Earth in a blanket of clouds so dark that they turn day into night.
“Oh, no!” thinks Io, “what do I do now?” She doesn’t dare move for fear she’ll bump into him.
“Zeus!” a woman’s voice booms out of the clouds, “I know you’re up to your tricks, seducing some helpless girl.”
Io recognizes the voice of Hera, Zeus’s wife and her goddess-boss, and doesn’t dare breathe for fear she’ll be discovered. Her heart pounds against her bones and the veins in her temples jump like whirling dervishes.
She hears the wind as Hera whooshes by her. Io starts to cry, and then she knows, she can feel, that Zeus is standing right by her. But instead of touching her, he screams into her ear, “You cow!” Suddenly Io has four legs and is mooing. Is this some South American story? she wonders. No, actually Zeus had already gotten judicial advice from Aeacus (Zeus is acutely aware that it always pays to be chummy with a Judge for Hades), who was golf buddies with Judge Persky. “Is she drunk?” asked Judge Aeacus. “No,” Zeus said, “she never drinks.” “Is she unconscious?” “No. She’s always wide awake and washing laundry down by the river.” “Did she say No?” “Yes.” “Hmm. You could always wave your magic thunderbolt and turn her into a cow. Cows have no rights of consent.”
So that’s what Zeus does. He turns Io into a cow.
The cloud disappears and there’s Hera, staring into Io’s huge watery eyes. Io can’t stop crying and her thin legs are trembling enough to topple her. “I know what you’re up to, Zeus,” Hera shouts at her husband.
Io feels sorry for Zeus. What’ll happen to him if his wife finds out? Maybe, Io thinks, I should have slept with him. He clearly needs me. He’s king of the gods; I owe it to him.
Zeus shakes his head and says, “I didn’t do nuttin’. That’s not a girl, it’s a cow. I did not have sex with that cow!”
Hera slides her hand over Io’s rump. Io gulps and tries to steady her shaking flanks. “Soft and smooth,” Hera mutters, “must be pretty young.”
Io hopes Hera will forgive Zeus and they’ll both disappear and leave her alone, but instead the First Goddess says, “What’s a cow without a gadfly? A gadfly shall pursue you!” Hera decrees, and she turns to Zeus, “And you’ll never be alone with her again!”
She barely disappears when Zeus, with a smarmy grin, shouts, “Fresh, fresh, fresh,” goes poof! and turns himself into a gadfly.
Io cries out in terror, and the big fat gadfly buzzes down and plops itself on her fat white rump. “Ouch!” Io screams but no one listens.
Io flees lumberingly across mountains and plains, through the Ionian Sea. But the gadfly with the huge erect antenna keeps nuzzling her hind end, plunging his stinger into her hide. She goes to sleep crying at night and wakes up exhausted in the morning only to resume her flight.
Finally one day Zeus turns himself back into a man and slaps Io on the rump. “It was good while it lasted,” he tells her, “but you’re getting stale.”
He calls to Hera and tells her, “I’ll never do it again. Never, never, never!”
So Hera turns Io back into a woman and nine months later Io gives birth to a son, Epaphus. She spends the rest of her life as a single mother.
Atalanta Is Hacked
Atalanta breathes in deeply, holds her breath, then slowly lets it out. She runs along the path through the forest, counting to steady her breathing, to give rhythm to her sprint. Yes! she thinks, I love this feeling! Pump, pump, pump. She fills her lungs with air. Yes! The forest is my home, she shouts. Her physical strength fills her with a sense of her own power. Pump, pump, pump. Her muscles stretch and flex. Atalanta runs faster than any other human being. She’s one of the best hunters in the world and excels at most sports. This gives her great pleasure. It makes her independent; it gives her power over her own life.
Now she’s pushing up her already rigorous training. Atalanta is under pressure. The world—especially her father—wants her to marry. It’s unseemly for a woman to be so independent, to have more power than a man, they say. Men bang on her door, demanding entry.
“I don’t bother you, so don’t bother me,” Atalanta reasons. “I’m not a homebody and I don’t want to marry.”
They keep on banging. “Okay, okay!” Atalanta finally says, “I’ll marry the first guy who beats me in a marathon.” She knows no one can beat her.
“But if we win, you have to give up sports and hunting,” they say, “and become a housewife.”
“And if you lose,” Atalanta shoots back at them, “you die.” That should keep them away, she thinks. But she’s stunned that man after man tries to outrun her and goes to the slaughter. The will to tame a woman seems to be stronger than the will to survive. Atalanta shrugs her shoulders and lets the breeze ruffle her hair.
Unbeknownst to her, a stud named Hippomenes turns to the gods for help. Aphrodite, goddess of love, believing in the strength of numbers, adores converts. She gives Hippomenes three magic apples made of gold: the magic is that no one can look at one without wanting it.
The day of the marathon arrives. Atalanta’s ready, her muscles and sinews rippling gently down her arms and legs, her body relaxed and her mind calm as it always is before a meet. It’s this inner calm that gives superiority to her strength and swiftness. The gun pops and off she goes, immediately outstripping the others. Halfway through the run, she and Hippomenes are the only contenders. Piece of cake, she thinks.
Atalanta sprints lightly, her carriage upright, her arms gently pumping at her sides. She’s hardly broken into a sweat, just a few light beads along her forehead. Behind her Hippomenes grunts to keep up. He reaches into his backpack and flings something.
From the corner of her eye Atalanta sees a flash and glances over to the side of the path. An apple.
But not just any apple.
The most beautiful apple she’s ever seen, glittering and beckoning. She feels an unfamiliar tug inside her.
Keep moving, she tells herself. She breathes to the count of eight. But an unfamiliar voice whispers to her that she must have the apple. It’s not far from my reach, she thinks, and I’m well ahead of Hippomenes. I’ve got time. She scoops up the apple and is still ahead of him.
A while later she spies another apple; without thinking about it, she runs out to get it. It’s further away from the track than the first apple, so she has to sprint to get back in front of Hippomenes.
Now they’re neck and neck. Soon, however, Atalanta easily pulls ahead. She sees the finish line in front of her, but oh, what’s this? Another apple. Shiny, lovely, golden. A force takes over and she veers to the right, running into a clump of bushes to retrieve the desired object.
Now she breaks into an all-out run. Her heart pumps fast, her breath is shorter, sweat pours down her face and neck.
She reaches the finish line, but Hippomenes is already there, waiting for her and holding his first place trophy in one hand, the other hand stretching out to her with the second place trophy: an apron.
Oh, no! Atalanta thinks, and a strange feeling she doesn’t recognize invades her. I’m trapped. Obliged to keep her word, Atalanta marries him and her days of athletic victory and freedom hunting in the forest are over forever.
Penelope Weaves a Love Shroud
Penelope’s got an ulcer. It’s been 20 years since her husband, Odysseus, left her to go to the Trojan War. But the war’s been over ten years and he still hasn’t come home. Instead, all she keeps hearing are stories about his adventures; they’re all over the Internet and Facebook. Everyone at home on Ithaca thinks he’s a marvel, their idol, second only to JFK. Among the exploits that supposedly make him a hero are stories about the women he’s shacked up with and the kids he’s had with them—Calypso (five years, three kids), Circe (one year, one kid), and now Nausicaa—like he’s trying to prove Darwin’s claim that all men do is spread their seed for the propagation of the species. Penelope lives with the humiliation, but the whole island thinks Odysseus is way cool. All they talk to her about these days is how lucky she is to be married to him. A war hero. All that power.
Penelope thinks of Nausicaa—a 14-year-old!—and a few megatons of acid gush into her ulcer. “Jesus!” Penny shouts into her closet so the neighbors won’t hear. “He’s turned into Humbert Humbert!”
Outside in the living room of her palace, a horde of men lies around, drinking Penelope’s wine and eating her out of house and home. They all want to marry her. Penny’s foxy all right but she knows they’re not hot for her slim hips or her ruby red lips. She owns—rather, Odysseus owns—a hell of a lot of land, all of which she’s been managing for 20 years to the ring of an enormous profit. She can’t run the guys off her land: they could start a war against her. And she can’t give in to them: they’d wrest it all from her—the land, the business, everything she’s worked so hard to build.
Penelope wishes she could divorce Odysseus but she knows she can’t: she wouldn’t get a fig tree from the settlement. Besides, even if she did, who would go trekking through Scylla and Charybdis to make him pay alimony? She probably wouldn’t even get alimony: he’d say she was unfit, turn her son against her, and she’d be out on the street. No, it’s clear to her she has to stand by her man.
As for the annoying suitors, she had a brainstorm about 18 years ago. She couldn’t very well bring in the militia: unseemly for a woman to be so bellicose. So, she told her suitors she couldn’t marry anyone until she wove a funeral shroud for her father-in-law. She weaves during the day but unravels her work at night. The men in the living room are too stupid or too drunk to notice that it’s taking a hell of a long time to weave a simple funeral shroud.
Penelope is tired. She hates the damn loom, hates the squatters. True, there have been a few over the years that she wouldn’t have minded doing it on the oriental with. She remembers that cute blonde from Salonica who breezed through town about seven years ago; it would have been nice to roll in the hay with him. But she knows better. She’s always restrained herself. Odysseus’s spies are everywhere; he’d surely find out. And the neighbors, the ones who adore him, would brand her as a loose woman. No wonder, they’d say, Odysseus had to seek consolation in the arms of Nausicaa. No way, José. He’d come back and throw her out, probably slit her throat. No matter that she makes net profits soar every year. She’d lose it all. She’d be on the street, a pariah, lucky to get welfare. No, she can’t go down that road.
Besides, she likes being a businesswoman; it helps her fight the sense of helplessness. She walks the orchard daily, checks the books, follows the stock market. She’s done well; the place is reeking with olive oil and retsina. She gets orders from places like Oslo and Omsk for huge shipments of figs. She knows every clause of the pact she’s made: her perk is that she gets to manage his property while Odysseus is away; his is that he can do whatever he wants. So she swallows her pride and stands by him, however humiliating his affairs.
A raucous pool party creates a din in the palace, but Penelope puts in earplugs, pops a few Ativans, and sleeps fitfully. The next morning a beggar rings her bell. He asks her for food and she invites him in to eat. The beggar is actually Odysseus in disguise (not exactly impatient to jump into his wife’s arms). He’s heard about the men fighting over his wife and he wants to make sure the goods aren’t spoiled. He won’t take back used property.
But now he’s happy. Thanks to his anti-terrorism contacts in the CIA and the network of wiretaps they set up way before the Patriot Act, he’s determined that Penelope hasn’t had sex in two decades; he’s reaffirmed in his position as head of the household he hasn’t tended to in 20 years. “Dearie,” he says, revealing himself to Penny, “I’m so relieved to see there was no hanky-panky going on here. You’ve proven to the world what a good wife is.”
Hanky-shmanky, Penelope thinks to herself. He doesn’t mention what a good CEO she is. She wonders what STDs he’s contracted over the past 20 years.
Odysseus lopes into the living room where the suitors are helping themselves to platters of roasted lamb and carafes of retsina. “She’s MY wife!” Odysseus roars and runs his sword through each of the suitors. He grabs Penelope around the waist with one arm and kisses her. For the next ten hours straight he tells her stories of his exploits in the Trojan War and on the high seas while she stifles her yawns. Then he announces that he has to leave right away to find—of all things—a country where no one has heard of the sea. He throws the stash of self-defense items he amassed during the war into his Hummer: a case of C-4, two Uzis, a bag of grenades, a bazooka, an array of handguns, and three trunks of ammo. He grabs the lunch box his wife has prepared for him, pecks her on the cheek, and zooms away in a cloud of dust. Penelope saddles her mule and sets off toward the orchard to do her daily rounds and enjoy a moment of peace before the next wave of suitors hits her dining room table and Internet stories of Odysseus’s exploits once again begin flashing across her screen.
A Thirst for Justice Makes Clytemnestra a Nasty Woman
Clytemnestra, Queen of Mycenae, sways on her feet. Her anger is so great that she doesn’t know where to turn. For ten years she’s not been able to forget that her husband Agamemnon killed their daughter Iphigenia, sacrificing her to the gods so that his luck would change and he could lead the Greek naval fleet in battle. Now he’s on his way back home from the Trojan War, all puffed up because he won, and Clytemnestra can’t stand the thought of seeing his face again. On top of it all, he’s bringing a young girl with him, Cassandra, the spoils of war.
Clytemnestra knows what it feels like to be the spoils of war. Agamemnon grabbed her for his own when he savaged her hometown in Italy. He killed Clytemnestra’s first husband, King Tantalus of Pisa, and their infant son. She’s never been able to stand the man. She remembers being forced to marry him, the rush of disgust and fury. Rebellion and helplessness at the same time. Clytemnestra shivers. “The man is ruthless,” she cries in the privacy of her room, “and relentlessly narcissistic.” He’s being hailed as a hero, but she knows that his sense of vanity and entitlement know no bounds.
Clytemnestra has been ruling in her husband’s absence, consolidating and strengthening her forces, finding bulwarks against Agamemnon wherever she can. She’s taken a lover, Aegisthus, who has sworn to exact revenge for a wrong Agamemnon did him.
“Aegisthus!” Clytemnestra calls to her lover. “Agamemnon is returning to Mycenae.” They go to the throne room just before Agamemnon walks in.
“Hi, honey,” he says, “I’m home.”
He’s followed by a young woman with strange eyes reminiscent of the sea itself. Clytemnestra stares at her. Then she stares at her husband.
“We had problems in our marriage,” Agamemnon says, “and I needed Cassandra. But I’m confident the three of us will get along just fine. We’ll go see a marriage counselor.” He sits on the throne and looks at his wife. “You’ll love her. You understand, don’t you, dear?”
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus cross the room.
“Who’s he?” Agamemnon asks, only now noticing the other man.
“We had problems in our marriage,” Clytemnestra says, “but I’m confident we’ll find the right solution.”
Realization dawning, Agamemnon reaches for his sword and roars, “Adulterer! Out of my house!” But before he can grab the hilt, Aegisthus pins his arms to the throne.
Clytemnestra bends over her husband. “You have about as much time as you gave Iphigenia to realize what’s happening to you,” she says and plunges a dagger into his heart. “Now we’re even,” she mutters.
Twenty years pass. They aren’t good years. Clytemnestra feels guilty for killing the father of her children. But what choice, she keeps asking herself, did I really have? It was a just killing. She’s afraid for her children; she knows it’s not good that their mother killed their father. They’ll have complexes. I’ll get them therapy, she thinks. But she doesn’t have that chance. Her son Orestes, only a small boy when she murdered his father, is secretly whisked away from her. There are those in the palace who are afraid of her. They think she’ll kill her son in fear he might want vengeance for his father’s death. As a male, he could get away with murdering his mother; so it stands to reason that Clytemnestra would be afraid of Orestes. No one’s worried about her daughters, Electra and Chrysothemis; they figure Clytemnestra knows the girls won’t kill her because as women they’d never get away with it. So they reason that she wouldn’t kill the girls but she would get rid of Orestes. Kill her own child?! Clytemnestra is aghast at the thought.
But one day, Orestes, now grown to young manhood, rides into town and knocks on the palace door. Clytemnestra opens the gate; Orestes walks right in like he was a Menendez and slices up his mother and Aegisthus with his dagger. Aegisthus dies immediately, no pain.
Clytemnestra takes longer. She stumbles on the marble floor of the palace entrance. “What have you done, son,” she croaks with her last breath, “blood begets blood. You’ll pay with your life. See what’s happened to me.” She slumps dead on the marble floor.
Orestes, a post-modern man, hires the best lawyer in town, who gets him off the hook. His defense is one of justified homicide, based on Clytemnestra’s having killed his father, a great Greek commander and hero of the war against the Trojans. No one mentions the justice that Clytemnestra sought.
Antigone Functions on Principle; an Autocrat Functions on Narcissism
Antigone, Princess of Thebes, is caught in the worst family feud in history. First it was her mom and dad, Jocasta and Oedipus. They found out they were actually mother and son—and they had four kids! So of course (what’s a mother to do?), Jocasta killed herself; Oedipus didn’t go that far but he blinded himself, all the while muttering, “She understood me like no one else” and “How good it is until you know.” Jocasta’s brother Creon took over as regent until one of Jocasta and Oedipus’ sons—Antigone’s brothers—could step up to the throne of Thebes.
But now Antigone’s brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, are fighting for the throne. What a mess! Polyneices, with an army from Argos behind him, is marching against Eteocles in Thebes.
Why do men go to war to get what they want? Antigone wonders. Why not talk things over? It’s all that testosterone they keep pumping out. She’s worried about the boys, and with good reason: they end up killing each other. So neither will be king. Lot of good war does.
With no male heirs left, Creon becomes king. To make a show of his new lifetime position and his power, Creon passes a law that says Polyneices can’t be buried. He was a traitor, the logic goes, because he left Thebes and came back with a foreign army to fight against his brother, who had stayed in Thebes. Therefore, Polyneices fought against the city of Thebes (what is that but Creon, its king? Forget about Greek democracy!). As a traitor, he can’t be buried. Whoever tries to do so will be killed. Creon, fresh from a diplomatic mission to Texas, is enamored of the death penalty. It’s a mark of his power. He thinks he’s terribly modern.
Antigone is stuck. If Polyneices isn’t buried, his soul will forever wander the world with no rest, no peace—a fate too terrible to imagine, like being kept from sleeping. It’s so unfair. Antigone doesn’t care who was right. They were both her brothers; they must both rest in peace. To hell with Creon’s pride. Besides she’s Creon’s favorite: would he really kill her?
Antigone goes to the cemetery, glancing left and right as she pushes a heavy wheelbarrow. Her shoulder jerks and twitches. A vein in her neck pulses repeatedly but she keeps moving. In the wheelbarrow are a shovel and a sack; in the sack is her dead brother Polyneices. At the far end of the cemetery where her mother is buried she begins to dig. Three hours later she’s still digging, grateful for her reverential use of Body by Jake tapes—she’s developed huge biceps and lats. She feels strong. Finally she’s done. She goes home and sleeps peacefully.
In the morning Creon comes barging into her bedroom. “How could you do it?” he shouts. “How could you bury Polyneices against my orders?!”
“He’s my brother,” she answers.
“He drew a sword against my kingdom!” Creon growls.
“That’s the difference between you and me,” Antigone says. “You’re a barbarian and I’m civilized.”
Creon clutches his head. “What am I to do?” he wails. “I love you like you were my own child, but I’ve made a vow to the city. To Thebes. You have to die.”
“Now, that really makes sense!” Antigone says, but he doesn’t get it. He’s upset; she’s upset.
Antigone goes to the ACLU; they say, sorry, it’s the law. The Human Rights Commission promises to start proceedings, but it’ll take 15 years. The UN claims national sovereignty—not their jurisdiction.
Outraged, Antigone takes to the streets, pacing in front of the palace. The placard she holds says “Demand Justice” on one side, “Fight Oppression” on the other. Around her left bicep a white armband with a black fist is tied tightly. “Let our dead live in peace!” Antigone cries oxymoronically. “Resistance is the answer!” She loves her Uncle Creon, even though he’s an ass. “One, two, three, four, Uncle Creon, don’t close the door,” she chants, trying to change his mind.
Creon comes to the balcony. His face has developed more sags than Boris Yeltsin’s. “I’m sorry, Antigone,” he says, “but my word is sacred.” He nods to his police chief and Antigone begins to tremble.
“This is crazy,” she yells. “I’m your favorite kid!” She’s arrested and walled into a cave. As the light slowly disappears, Antigone begins to cough.
A few days later Creon relents. “Free her!” he orders.
The guards tear down the wall; but inside the cave Antigone, preferring a quick death to slow suffocation, has already hung herself.
Vesna Neskow, author of six travel guidebooks, has written guides on art and art exhibitions. Her short stories and features have been published in France, Italy, and Greece. Vesna’s TV scripts for CBS Productions and independent studios have been broadcast nationally (PBS, A&E, Disney Channel) and in Italy (RAI-2). Among Vesna’s translations is the Jacques Perrin film Oceans. Recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship, Vesna is the founder and poetry curator of “Pesma,” a Serbian poetry and song series. Vesna was president of Four Way Books for ten years; presently she serves on the Board of the Guild Complex.