They entered the city without fanfare, for they were just another trading caravan amongst many in the port of Koptos. Miri noticed familiar streets, and she led the caravan swiftly to the temple where she deposited most of her gold for safekeeping. She then sent Demetrius, one of the older boys from her retinue to rent lodgings suitable for the accommodation of the entire caravan. He found a beautiful villa near the Nile with a luxuriant garden kept by an indentured family of servants that had just recently been vacated by a centurion who had become homesick for the hills of Tuscany. The agent also mentioned the property was for sale for a reasonable sum. The sum, however, was three times the value of the property, but after some haggling between the agent and Demetrius, whose path was guided surreptitiously by Miri, a down payment was agreed upon and quarterly payments decided. The first two month's rent was paid in advance, until confirmation came from the Tuscan soldier that the terms of sale were agreeable.
When the scribe asked Miri's name for the contract. "You may call me..." Miri stopped abruptly long enough to arouse the curiosity of the agent, but as she realized suddenly her kemetic name Satemashtoreth would perhaps arouse suspicion, for news from Philae would have travelled quickly to Koptos, Setem's birthplace. "You may call me Miriam."
She instantly regretted using her real name for surely those that knew the story of the death of Settem would carry her origins with it, but thankfully the scribe had written her name in hieroglyphics, and his Egyptian ear misheard her name and he jotted her name in hieroglyphs in the margin on the contract as Meri-Amun. The scribe then wrote her name translated into Greek in the contract. Miri held her hand to her breast and breathed a sigh of relief. The gods were working for her still.
And she had won back her real name.
Although, as they had entered the town and paid the poll tax at the gate, they had seemed just another troupe of traders, the reaction of her neighbours was far from blasť. News that a beautiful redheaded woman with a retinue of a dozen young nubile boys travelled swiftly through the neighbourhood. The blood of the sacrificed lamb daubed on the lintels of the doors and windows in the villa had not even dried when several women brought house-warming gifts just to see the newcomers for their own eyes. Once the women had been introduced and welcomed, their men folk crawled from the woodwork, and the empty villa was transformed into a beehive of activity.
Thankfully, the boys managed to unload most of the cargo and store it in the upper lofts at the back of the house before curious neighbours could poke into the baskets, bags and bottles. The impromptu welcoming committee soon became a rousing house warming party. Although Miri and her household had not purchased any food from the market, there were an abundance of platters from each and every visitor, even a ram, roasted on a large spit in the courtyard.
Miri wandered about the house as a guest might, noting this feature and that, peering into each and every room to determine its purpose, and running into someone new at every turn. Her choirboys were overwhelmed for they had only recently been released from their religious cloister, and more than one was falling into the clutches of matchmakers in the crowd. She tried to avoid giving too much information about herself, and if the questions became too probing, she slipped away, pretending she had some last minute task to attend to. Finally she was cornered by Claudia, a pleasantly plump woman in her mid-thirties, and prone to gossip. More than prone, she lived for nothing else. One by one, Claudia pointed out each and every member of the party and began a torrent of tales about each.
Once she had a sense of her guests, Miri extricated herself from Claudia and began to close in on those who seemed to be astute, yet not too devious.
She descended upon the first, proffering her hand. He kissed her knuckles gallantly, the sly twist of a pirate soul shining through his smile.
"Ptolemaios at your service. I have not seen as fetching a woman as you for some time."
Ptolemaios was a vaguely handsome man, definitely masculine. His balding head seemed to add to his manliness, and did not in any way detract from his features.
Miri smiled. "Thank you kindly, Ptolemaios. Tell me what is it you do?"
Not sensing Miri was at all a woman of business or that she had already determined from Claudia he was Claudia's husband as well as a successful dealer in funeral supplies, he replied, "I buy and sell desert salts. Natron when I can, sea salt from the drier climes, but the profit in natron is quite lucrative."
"Really?" asked Miri in her most feminine manner, "You must be quite rich!"
Sensing he might be able to impress Miri by his wealth and business acumen enough to bed her, Ptolemaios began an intensely detailed explanation of the natron trade: who gave the best prices, who to avoid, how to cut it with other salts, when the best time was to sell, when was the best time to buy, and most of all how to avoid taxes on the entire enterprise. Miri had no need to feign interest for she had several baskets laded with sacks of natron a few cubits from where she and Ptolemaios stood.
Though he was carried away by the description of his business, he suddenly recovered and wondered if he might call upon her for dinner at some convenient date.
"Perhaps," replied Miri, and fanning herself with a small hand fan, she turned to her other guests. Before she could narrow in on her next target, Claudia caught Miri by the elbow and spun her in an altogether different tack. It was apparent from her demeanor that Claudia now considered herself to be one of Miri's dearest friends.
"I have someone I would like you to meet!" Claudia buzzed. "He is one of Koptos's most eligible bachelors!"
"I would-" began Miri in protest, but gave herself up hopelessly to Claudia's direction, and much to her delight was brought before a very finely dressed man of patrician bearing. And, he was completely gorgeous! Handsome, well-tanned and muscular, he moved with the grace of a cat. Eyes locked, they smiled at each other as Claudia introduced them. Lost in the dark brown liquid pools of his soul, Miri lost track of Claudia's chatter until her new friend and neighbour finally said "Well, I'll leave you two alone to get better acquainted," with more than just a note of triumph in her voice.
"Would you care to show me your garden?" he asked.
Suddenly regaining her wits from her more animal nature, Miri realized she had not even caught the man's name.
"Of course!" she replied, "Do I have a garden?"
"Of course!" replied the stranger, "A woman as beautiful as you could never be without flowers around her," he replied. "This way!"
He offered her his arm and she slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. His skin was soft and well-oiled, yet wrapped taughtly about iron hard muscle, and Miri found her thumb caressing the inside of the elbow, relishing in the slithering of her skin against his. He smelled of deep musky flower, one she had not encountered, yet was reminiscent of-
Of- of an unknown lover. A soul mate long lost whose presence still haunted her. Yet she knew she had never known such a man. The ages stretched out behind her, and his soul seemed as old as the Earth itself, as though he was perhaps an immortal wrapped in a human coil. Such was the eternity which bound them, she felt she might erupt and shatter into an infinite number of pieces at any moment. Pieces so small they could never be seen, nor all found, yet each piece would in itself blossom outward into a full flower, brought to swollen bud by his presence and each of those infinite flowers would erupt into a billion seeds which would flower and so fill every part of the Cosmos with their aroma.
"What are you thinking?" he asked.
Miri blinked and shook her head.
"Nothing," she replied unconvincingly, then changed the subject. "It is a beautiful night!" she sighed as they stepped from beneath the portico facing the garden.
Arm in arm, they descended the steps and walked beside the pool. The full moon and the stars were reflected perfectly in the still waters and the garden seemed to float on its own in the centre of the Universe, stars above and stars below, as if Miri and the stranger were walking the deck of the boat of Rei itself. Finally, at the far end of the pool, away from the flickering lamps of the house, beneath the gently swaying date palms, they sat together on a low stone bench at the edge of the water.
Miri avoided looking directly at him, for she was afraid she would succumb to her passion, and she did not wish to spoil this moment. The longer she put off her lust, the more alive and energized she became. She knew she would wait for exactly the right moment to kiss him. Exactly the right moment to wrap herself into his arms. Exactly the right moment-
A splash startled her from her reverie.
"It is a fish!" laughed the stranger. "These are sacred to Atargatis and must be eaten only at the proscribed times, and then only one at a time, for it is said if all the fish are taken all at once the spirit of Atargatis shall be consumed and she will no longer exist in the mortal plane Always the last fish must be thrown back into the Sea so her spirit is free to command the ocean! Its is she who preserves the souls of sailors lost at sea."
"You are a sailor?" asked Miri.
"A fisherman!" he replied. Miri was amazed as how he always seemed to be laughing, yet he was not. It was his soul laughing, she thought, and in a sudden flash she knew she loved him, this man without a name.
"Or at least I was! I lost my fishing boat to the Romans. There was a discrepancy between the amount I caught and the amount they thought I should catch!" He reached down and dipped his fingers into the water, and three fish swam and nibbled at his fingers.
"You must be a very good fisherman," remarked Miri as she watched the fish swim to his outstretched hand.
He laughed. "It seems that way, but these fish have been fed by human hands since they were hatchlings. It is a very simple matter!"
"Here!" He took her hand and dipped it into the pool. The fish flicked their tails and came to Miri. Their mouths opened and she felt the soft touch of their groping lips against her fingertips. She found the sensation erotic, for the stranger's arms were now wrapped around her, and his muscle pressed into her flesh. Just as she was sure this was the moment, his hands slipped away from her.
"I am sorry," he said, "I should not have touched you in such a manner-"
"No!" whispered Miri. She grasped his hand in hers and touched two fingers to his lips. "Don't apologize!"
"I-" he began and she pressed her fingers more firmly against his lips. She could feel the moistness of his mouth against her fingertips. Her hand slipped away from his mouth and caressed his cheek.
And with a slow sweet agony, their lips gently met...
The crowd had gone and they lay oiled by their own sweat, coiled around each other at the bottom of the garden on a bed of soft moss. Cicadas sang their love song in the warm night air and some soft cooing bird called from a faraway grove.
"Tell me a story," said Miri languidly.
"A story?" asked the stranger.
Miri nodded, not lifting her head from his chest.
"About love. About betrayal. About reconciliation. About triumph. About defeat!" She paused. "About fish!" she added mischievously.
The stranger shifted. "Ah, I know a tale. It was told to me by my grandmother. It is long-"
"We have time," murmured Miri, "We have all the time in the world!"
"This is a story told in a different way by the Greeks, but I shall tell you as my grandmother told me.
Beneath the salt waves, says my grandmother, lies the realm of the goddess Atargatis. There, from a fabulous cavern within a huge submerged mountain which serves as her palace, she rules the Sea. Her servants are creatures half human, half fish. Their origin is a mystery known only to a select few. These creatures, these mermaids, spend considerable time upon the surface, resting on rocky outcrops and reefs, and are called the Sirens by the Greeks, who believe they reside upon some mythical isle, which they do not, and are called the Lorelei by the Hyperboreans. All have voices so ineffably sublime, so sweet, and so agonizingly sad, no human can resist their call. These servants of the great Lady of the Sea live forever, yet possess no soul of their own, and when they meet a fatal mishap, they are said to cease to exist. Because of this, they are fascinated by the men who sail the seas. When a ship goes down, the mermaids swarm to the disaster, and there claim the souls of the men who drown, and carry them to the palace of Atargis where they reside with the Queen of the Sea.
But they are more than guests, they are also prisoners, for once a man is brought to the palace of the Queen, he can never leave. It is said that there are secret rites and sacrifices that can be performed to release the soul of the drowned, but only a select few magicians who reside in sea caverns along isolated shores know these words and deeds of power. And they say, the sacrifices are too onerous for all but the most dedicated and selfless human to bear. And- and, should the rites be performed incorrectly, the supplicant runs the risk of their loved one returning as a ghost or sea-wraith, foul-smelling and rotten, covered in seaweed, forever dogging the supplicant without rest. It is better, said my grandmother simply to offer libations to Artagis to ensure the well being of a lost lover than to ask for him to be returned from the deep.
But my story is not about such things, for long, long ago, one of the mermaids, Iphigenia, sat combing her hair upon the reef known to the Taureans as the Dracodentes. There, on her favourite spot, she sang. Her voice flowed from her lips like liquid silver, the notes as round and full as golden bells, a song of such crystalline beauty as to consume whoever heard it with such joy and such sadness, they would never again see the world without hearing somewhere in the unreachable distance, the ethereal melody she sang, nor ever release themselves from the rapture it produced.
As it happened, a Greek ship was passing by, and unfortunately for the crew aboard, the sailors heard Iphigenia singing, and were consumed by passion. To a man, they knew they must seek out the woman who could sing of such beauty. Too late, they heard the ocean crashing against the rocks, and before they could recover their wits, the whirling currents gripped their small ship and pushed it onto the jagged teeth of the Dracodentes.
Iphigenia turned in time to see their wooden boat being pushed onto the reef. And as the hull cracked and splintered, on the pitching deck, for a fleeting moment, she spied a young man so beautiful and so noble, she fell instantly in love with him! Her heart split into as many pieces as the hull of the ship upon which he stood. Immediately she dove into the water toward the ship, determined to save the young man for whom she had so hopelessly fallen. The only thought she had was to rescue him. She swam past other men struggling frantically underwater, their lungs filling with brine, legs and arms entangled in hawsers, ropes and chains, being dragged to a dark watery grave. Let the others take their souls, she thought as she sped through the water to her beloved.
She found him, his gorgeous eyes wide with fear suspended fathoms beneath the surface, and she embraced him in her arms. As their eyes met, all fear of death passed from the young man for he knew he had met the woman for who his life had been intended. But at that moment, his thoughts and emotions left him and he passed into darkness.
With a powerful thrust of her tail, she pulled him to the surface. Her lips closed around his and she sucked the water from his throat, then breathed air back into his lungs. Her breath became his, and he coughed and sputtered, and began to breathe on his own, though his mind had not fully returned to him.
Iphigenia wrapped her arms about him and swam to shore. She pushed him as far onto a sandy beach as she could, holding his head above the surf. She sat with his head cradled in her lap and admired the perfect features of her beloved. She did as she always did when she came above the water.
But she sang only for him. She sang of her love for him and the glories of his perfect features and his well-formed body. His clothes were in rags and had been washed away by the Sea, and she marvelled at the grace and the beauty of his form. She stroked his chest and stomach as she sang. His thighs. His calves. She had never touched a man's legs before, and as her hands traced over the curves and bulges of his muscled legs, she wondered at them, for she had only a tail.
'If it were not for this tail,' she said out loud, 'I would be able to carry him to safety, and we could live together for all time!'
At that moment an old fisherman happened by. But unknown to Iphigenia, he was no ordinary fisherman, but a sea wizard, one who lived from the flotsam which washed up upon the beaches and shores of the world.
'Why, child, what an extraordinary wish for a mermaid,' said the fisherman, 'You can swim in the Ocean as a bird flies through the air, and you never age, why would you wish to give up your tail to live with a man?'
'I love him!' replied Iphigenia, 'I would do anything to be with him!'
'Anything?' asked the sea wizard in a way, which Iphigenia, if she had not been blinded by her love for the young Greek, would have noticed, was asked in a menacing tone.
'Yes!' Iphigenia gushed, 'Anything!'
'Then take this magic elixir!' whispered the fisherman, producing a small phial from his bag, 'And by morning you shall have your wish!'
'Oh thank you,' squealed Iphigenia in delight as she reached for the potion.
The fisherman whisked the phial away before Iphigenia's fingers could grasp the alabaster container.
'There is, of course, a price!' the wizard said slyly.
'Name it!' replied Iphigenia hastily, 'Nothing could be too high a price to be with my love!'
'Your voice!' declared the wizard, 'In exchange for your legs, you must give me your voice!'
'Only your singing voice.' replied the sea wizard. 'You would still be able to speak.'
Iphigenia had not reckoned on so high a price, yet, knowing she could soon be with the young prince, she thought only for a second and agreed to the bargain.
The Sea wizard came close enough; Iphigenia could smell his fetid breath. The old man leered at her in a way that made Iphigenia uncomfortable, but she took the vial from the wizard.
'Drink it!' whispered the old man.
Iphigenia hesitated for a heartbeat, and then gulped the contents down. The wizard laughed triumphantly as he snatched the vial from Iphigenia's hands.
'Aha! Now I have your voice!' Iphigenia could hear her own voice echoing from within the small vial now in the wizard's possession. The wizard quickly stoppered the vial, and Iphigenia tried to speak but no sound would come from her throat. She was completely and totally mute! Without her voice, she panicked, and it slowly dawned upon her she may have made a mistake.
'Don't worry, you will soon have a voice with which you can speak. But you can never sing again. You will experience a little discomfort once you have your own set of legs, but I am sure you will grow used to it,' said the wizard. 'Every time your foot touches the ground, it will feel as though you are walking on knives so sharp, you will swear the blood will drain from the soles of your feet.'
Iphigenia tried to protest, but to no avail, for she had no voice. Suddenly, she was gripped by the sensation a sword was pushing up through her body from the tip of her tail into her womb. Tears welled up in her eyes from the pain, but she could not cry out, for her voice was now in the possession of the sea wizard.
At that moment a band of Taurean fishermen came down to the beach, and Iphigenia fled, for she did not want them to see her as a mermaid. From out on the reef, she watched as the men carried her lovely Greek boy back up the cliffs. As they disappeared along the road back to their village, Iphigenia was overwhelmed by loneliness greater than any she had ever before experienced.
She squirmed within the terrible empty longing of one smitten by Aphrodite's arrow and then had the shaft snap in two deep within her bosom. A chasm that separated her from the boy yawned so large, it seemed it could never be bridged. The separation caused her stomach to tighten into a hard painful knot. In desperation, Iphigenia turned tail and swam to tell her sisters of her misfortune.
After a draught or two of salty mer ale mixed with kelp tea, her voice returned, though the tone of it seemed harsh and grating to her. As soon as they heard her tale, Iphigenia's sisters urged her to go with them to Atargatis' cave, for there, the goddess had lived a very long time and would know the right thing to do.
Atargatis was horrified at the news, and after she examined Iphigenia, she shook her head.
'It is true, you shall become a human being by the morning,' But there are some things you must know. Though you may soon have legs, you still do not have a soul, and you will age now as every mortal does. But that which breaks my heart, is you shall die within the three score and ten years of a mortal. You have sacrificed much to be with this man.
Now you have committed yourself to him, to save yourself, you must make him fall in love with you. You have three days. If your true love should fall so much in love with you that you are dearer to him than both his mother and father, then his soul shall flow into your body and you will be able to partake of human happiness, for his soul shall be as yours! But if he does not, then you will live alone in agony!'
'Is there nothing she can do to save herself?' pleaded Iphigenia's sisters.
'Of course!' Iphigenia's grandmother reached into her skirts and produced a flint dagger. 'If she plunges this dagger into the lover who spurned her, then she will be released from this spell, and free to return to the Sea and live with us again!'
Her sisters urged Iphigenia to take the knife with her, but she would not, and as dawn approached she took leave of her sisters and swam to the beach where she had last seen her true love. Now the moment of truth was upon her, and she was filled with dread. As the sun rose, her body was wracked with terrible stabbing convulsions, and her tail split in two, and sheared off like the skin of a snake, revealing two fine and extremely beautiful legs.
Immediately, Iphigenia stood up on her new legs but as her feet pressed against the pebbled beach she gasped in pain, for she could swear the stones beneath her were razor sharp flints that cut great gashes in her soles. She felt her blood spurt out from the terrible wounds into the ground. But when she looked down, she saw her feet were not bleeding, though every step remained excruciating torture. Nonetheless, with salt tears streaming from her eyes, she pressed ahead. She walked up the beach and along the road to the settlement where she had seen her love taken the day before.
Her reception by the landlubbers went beyond her wildest expectations. News of her arrival spread through the settlement like a tsunami, the fisher folk and the farmers ran out to greet Iphigenia, and fell upon their faces before her. For the sea wizard who had a day earlier given her the magic potion, had foretold of a vision, as he was wont to do from time to time. In this vision, he had said to the Taurean settlers, a maiden would rise from the Sea and become the priestess of the temple of Artemis in the village. The people rejoiced for they had for many years been without a priestess to perform the sacrifices required of them, and their harvests from both the sea and the land were dwindling little by little, so much so, they were in danger of starving. And, more propitiously, that day, a sacrifice was called for, yet no one was pure enough to perform those sacred duties. And the stranger, said the sea wizard, was a virgin as proscribed by law.
Needless to say, Iphigenia was taken aback by the reception she received from the settlers. To say she was pleased was an understatement, for immediately, under orders from the sea wizard and as was the custom for sacred personages, they lifted her from the ground and carried her in a divan to the temple itself, for the high priestess must never be allowed to alight upon the ground lest the profanity of the everyday world sully her and compromise her purity. There, they seated her upon a throne within the inner sanctum, and offered her the finest fruits of the settlement and its surrounding fields.
After serving her, the settlers retired, and she was left alone in the temple. The sudden quiet after the noisy celebrations of the excited settlers was both a relief and at the same time unsettling. Resting upon a silken pillow, her new feet no longer suffered from the terrible affliction produced when she walked and she realized as long as her feet didn't touch the ground, the pain eventually subsided. Before her was a large table upon which were the offerings of the people. Strange fruits, roast meat and bread were laid out before her, and she reached out and tried a taste of each. Though the tastes were not unpleasant, she could not decide whether she really liked them or not for the tastes were so alien to her.
'Not enough salt!' she said to herself. Her words echoed through the hypostyle hall beyond the inner sanctum.
Immediately, two guards appeared in the doorway.
'Your highness?' they asked in unison.
She stared at them blankly.
They stared back expectantly, and the moment stretched to uncomfortable proportions. Iphigenia realized they were waiting for her to speak, and etiquette demanded they not speak first. She found the concept strange for under the Sea all were equal, and order of speech was not determined by rank.
'Please,' she said, 'You need not await my words-'
They stared back at her uncomprehendingly.
'I was just saying,' she explained, 'the food does not have the salt taste to which I am accustomed-'
The two guards saluted her by banging their closed fists against their breastplates in the Roman fashion, and turned on their heels and marched from the room. Within moments, a young girl dressed in clean white linen appeared carrying a large bowl of salt and laid it silently on the table before her, then bowed her head before the seated Iphigenia in obeisance.
'I-' began Iphigenia, then sighed. 'Could you please look at me?'
'To do so is forbidden,' said the girl, not looking up.
'Would you be able to look at me if I commanded you to?' asked Iphigenia, her impatience at such protocol straining her voice.
The girl did not answer.
Iphigenia wondered how these people got anything done at all with such strange rituals hampering their progress.
'Well?' she asked impatiently.
'I'm thinking,' replied the girl, without looking up.
'Well, at least that's a start!'
'I am not allowed to look up for I will be struck blind if I do.'
'By who?' asked Iphigenia.
'By your munificence,' replied the terrified girl.
'If I turn off my, uh, munificence, would you then look up?'
'Y-you would not harm me?' stuttered the girl.
'No!' replied Iphigenia impatiently, then added, 'Of course not!' as gently as she possibly could. She wished she had her singing voice so she could simply charm the girl into looking. Having to reason with a human and persuade her by the subterfuge of logic was exasperating.
'I- I can't! ' replied the girl.
'Am I to talk to the top of your head, then?' asked Iphigenia testily, but the girl did not answer.
After a prolonged silence, the girl slowly began backing away from the dais upon which Iphigenia sat. Iphigenia smiled and watched as the girl kept inching back toward the portal to the outer hypostyle. Just as the poor girl reached the entrance, Iphigenia shouted 'Stop!' and the girl froze.
'Did I tell you could leave?' she asked imperiously.
'N-n-no,' replied the girl meekly.
'Then come back here! I wish to talk to you!'
'M-m- me? W-why would you do that?'
'Come here, and I will tell you!'
Cautiously, the girl returned. As she cowered before the dais, Iphigenia leaned toward her.
'Come closer,' she said softly.
The girl took a small step forward.
Inches away from her, Iphigenia reached out and lifted the girl's face by her chin so they were face to face, but still the girl's downcast eyes avoided Iphigenia gaze.
'What is your name?' Iphigenia asked kindly.
'Philartema, your graciousness,' replied the girl, as she bent her neck so her face was averted, though her eyes strained in their sockets to catch a quick glimpse of the new priestess.
'Look at me,' urged Iphigenia, 'Please!'
Realizing the first glance had not struck her deaf or blind, Philartema glanced up into Iphigenia face again. For a brief moment, her eyes snapped shut. Then as she remained unscathed, she opened one eye, squinting cautiously up at Iphigenia.
'I'm not dead?' she asked, then realizing the question was more than a little rhetorical, she opened up the other eye. 'I'm not dead!' she declared with more certainty. 'I'm still alive!'
Iphigenia smiled triumphantly. She had won the maid over without having to resort to the enchantment of her voice. Not that she could have at that point, but the accomplishment loomed large within her, and she realized she might have a good chance at winning over the heart of the young man who had lead her into this situation. Thought of him filled her, and a terrible pang stabbed her heart and spread right down to her newly formed toes.
'I need to know of the young man who was brought here yesterday,' she blurted to Philartema.
'Of course,' replied Philartema as if the request were the most natural thing for a new priestess to ask. 'He awaits you within the chapel!' Philartema pointed to her left to an entrance to a small alcove. 'He is chained to the libation table to be prepared for the marriage rites by the end of the week, at the rise of the full moon.'
Iphigenia could not believe her ears.
'The marriage rite?' she asked in bewilderment. 'My marriage?'
Philartema nodded, a smile splitting her face from ear to ear.
Iphigenia held her hand to her heart for it fluttered so wildly, she thought it might sprout wings and fly from her breast.
'I cannot believe it!'
'It is a great honour to be chosen to bed the incarnation of Adonis before his death!' gushed Philartema.
'-death!' finished Philartema happily. 'He is to be sacrificed to ensure the sins of the settlement are expiated, and pieces of him are divided amongst the farmers and fisher folk to ensure a bountiful harvest. That which is left is thrown into the Sea!'
Iphigenia was speechless. One moment her wildest fantasy was about to come true, and now her lover would be whisked away from her before the marriage bed had a chance to cool down.
'It cannot be!' she said finally.
'Oh yes!' chirped Philartema, all fear of Iphigenia, the new goddess incarnate, gone and forgotten. 'His soul will pass into Tartarus for yours and new Life will blossom from the Earth and the Sea once again.'
'And this is allowed to go on in the House of your goddess?' gasped Iphigenia in horror. 'How is such a thing possible?'
'It has always been so,' replied Philartema simply.
Iphigenia knew she must save this Adonis from his fate. Oblivious to the pain it cause, she rose to her feet and stepped from the dais.
'I will see him now!'
'It is too early!' blurted Philartema, 'He has not been purified, nor anointed!'
'I will see him!' stated Iphigenia sternly.
She marched toward the side chapel, and despite the stabbing pain that coursed from her feet as one, then the other, touched the ground, she walked into the small alcove. Philartema hovered about her like a butterfly around a ripe blossom twisting in the wind. She could not stop Iphigenia for her awe and reverence forbad her touching Iphigenia, and her duty as an acolyte demanded custom be followed. Of course, it was impossible to block the path of someone you are forbidden to touch and Iphigenia used this fact to her advantage.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom of the small chapel, through the haze of the burning sulphur and olibanum, she spied the glorious form of her Adonis lying upon the marble slab of the anointing table. The sight of him took her breath away.
'Leave me, now!' she whispered huskily to Philartema. Her voice barely managed to leave her throat. Sensing the highly charged emotion within her mistress, Philartema backed out of the chapel and rather relieved her responsibility for whatever happened was now negated, sat down thankfully on the steps of the dais to await the reappearance of Iphigenia.
The young man stirred as Iphigenia approached. She reached out and stroked his thigh as she had done on the beach, and as she moved closer, her fingertips traced a line cross his abdomen and rested upon his breast. She gazed down adoringly at him.
He stared at her quizzically for he recognized- something-something about her was familiar, yet he could not for the moment guess what. He had been close to her at one time. Of that he was sure. Or was he?
'What is your name?' asked Iphigenia, her voice still catching in her throat. How ironic, she thought, now she could not sing, the man for whom she had given her singing voice had now stolen her speech as well.
'Orestes,' the young man answered slowly. He was not afraid of her, and she sensed his bravery was genuine and not the result of insincere male bravado. 'Who are you?' he added after some sifting through distantly silted layers of memory.
'My name is Iphigenia,' she answered.
Orestes started and stared intensely at her.
'Iphigenia?' he asked.
'Yes,' replied Iphigenia, 'Why do you ask in such a manner?'
'It-' Orestes began, 'It is- well, I once had a sister of that name, but you could not be her.'
'No, I don't think I could, for after all you are a man, and I am a-' Iphigenia stopped. She had almost blurted out that she was a mermaid. She did not think Orestes would as impressed with her as a fish than he would be of her as a woman, so her mouth snapped shut in a manner which reminded her of an indignant large mouthed grouper. She wished she could be more of herself in his presence, but it was as if some presence, both ridiculous and unfortunately unavoidable, had taken a hold of her mouth, and cut it off from her brain.
'You're a what?' asked Orestes.
'No, I'm not!' Iphigenia blurted out.
Orestes seemed taken aback by the vehemence of her denial, whatever it was a denial of.
'Sorry,' he replied meekly.
'I mean, I am!' Iphigenia was hopelessly tongue-tied. 'At least I will be if-'
'If?' prompted Orestes.
'If you marry me!'
There. She said it.
But it made no sense.
'O Mother Hera! Father Zeus!' she added.
'Well, you have a talent for blasphemy!' commented Orestes dryly. 'So-' he said brightly, looking about him. 'Am I to be married to you before or after I'm sliced open like a sacrificial lamb?'
'Before!' answered Iphigenia quickly, 'No, I mean-'
'It's alright, I am ready to die!' replied Orestes, 'I have suffered in this life more than enough. Death would be a welcome relief.'
'Don't say that!' cried Iphigenia, 'I don't want you to die!'
'Well, that makes two of us, if the truth be known!' replied Orestes, 'But it seems in this case I have no choice in the matter. I am to be married against my will-'
'Against your-' gasped Iphigenia. 'You don't love me?'
'How could I love you when we have only just met? This cell is not the most conducive place to romance, is it?'
'I saved you! On the beach! Don't you remember?'
Orestes eyes narrowed as he stared at her and a small inkling of the memory of the shipwreck returned to him.
'I remember- I remember a woman. Singing! Yes, she was singing! Such a beautiful voice! If that were you, then I would indeed have no choice to fall in love with you. That was the most exquisite sound I have ever heard in my whole life! If it was you, then sing to me again, and I will gladly accept death as the price for your hand in marriage! Sing!'
Iphigenia lowered her head.
A cloud passed over Orestes eyes. 'Then I cannot marry you!' he declared firmly, 'For my heart belongs to the woman with that beautiful voice!' He turned away from her. 'I thank you kindly for bringing back my love,' he said coldly, 'But I ask you not to ask me for that which I cannot give you!'
'Enough!' replied Orestes, 'Leave me! I wish to be alone!'
Iphigenia turned sadly from her lover's side and left the chapel. As she entered the chapel, head bowed in despair, Philartema sprang to her feet to greet her.
'Iphigenia!' she cried happily, then seeing the grief in Iphigenia eyes, she grasped Iphigenia by her hands. 'What's wrong?'
'He does not love me,' she said plaintively, her mind returning to the excruciating pain flashing upwards from the soles of her feet each time they pressed upon the floor. Suddenly she collapsed, but Philartema caught her and led Iphigenia to her throne on the dais, and knelt before her.
At that moment, the great bronze doors of the temple flew open and the sea wizard entered like a cyclone bearing down upon an open harbour.
'What a pretty scene!' he sneered. 'Such devotion!'
The doors closed behind him.
Philartema instinctively grasped Iphigenia legs, as if to protect her mistress from the wizard.
The wizard smiled.
'So has he consented to the marriage rites?' he asked nastily. 'Does he know who you are, my little mermaid?'
'No,' answered Iphigenia.
'It will be our little secret then,' answered the wizard, 'It is of small consequence to me! But to the members of this settlement- if you fail to bring him to the marriage bed, then I cannot promise I can protect you from their wrath should you fail in this task! You are to collect his seed within your womb to ensure the crops for the season, before his life is taken, while his semen is still viable. If you do not conceive it will not go well for you, my pretty little thing!'
'She will succeed!' cried Philartema defensively.
'For all your sakes, I hope you are right!' replied the wizard nastily. 'You have until tomorrow!' With that, he turned on his heels and the great bronze doors opened and swallowed him whole.
'What am I to do?' asked Iphigenia in agony.
'Tell them he lay with you, then get one of the guards to impregnate you if he will not perform his duty. After tomorrow, he will be dead and will not be around to deny the act!'
'I don't want him to die!' cried Iphigenia, 'I love him!'
Philartema looked askance at her mistress.
'He has to die!' she said flatly.
'No!' cried Iphigenia, 'I will not allow it!'
'Then you will die in his place!'
'Then I will die, then!' replied Iphigenia dramatically.
'They will kill him anyway!'
'Oh Dear Mother!' cried Iphigenia. 'What am I to do?'
'Hello?' A voice echoed rather weakly from the chapel.
Iphigenia and Philartema looked at each other.
'Orestes!' whispered Iphigenia.
'I couldn't help overhearing your conversation, and I was wondering if perhaps there wasn't some-' the voice faded off.
'What?' asked Iphigenia, unable to make out his final words.
'Some water!' Orestes called out, 'My mouth is rather dry!'
Philartema grabbed a libation bowl and the two women hurried into the small chapel. With three people within it, the tiny chapel was more the size of a tomb for two than a chapel for three. Iphigenia dipped a goblet into the libation bowl and brought the rim of the chalice to Orestes' lips.
'Thank you!' he said finally.
His eyes slipped past Iphigenia and ran over the form of Philartema, and Iphigenia slipped between them, though Philartema slid aside so she could watch Orestes.
'What were you saying?' asked Iphigenia in a conversational way, which immediately sounded more than trite.
'I was wondering if perhaps there were not some better way out of this predicament,' he replied politely.
'I wish there was!' sighed Iphigenia, 'But it seems we are being carried by the currents of the Erinyes-'
'Do not speak of the Erinyes!' cried Orestes in alarm.
'Why on Earth?' asked Iphigenia, 'They are merely instruments of justice. They only punish those who have committed a crime and have not cleansed themselves of it! What harm can-'
'I have no wish to invoke them!' interrupted Orestes, 'They have dogged me since-' He stopped short, for he could not bear to finish. 'It is a long story!' he said quickly as if to end the conversation.
'Tell us,' cried Iphigenia. 'Please! We have until sunrise. And that is a full night away for the sun is only just setting now.'
Orestes looked first to Iphigenia then to Philartema, then back to Iphigenia, his deep dark eyes reaching deep into her soul.
'Very well, ' he said finally.
'As I have told you, I once had a sister named Iphigenia, she the elder. Our father was Agamemnon, of the House of Atreus, King of Mycenae, our mother, Clytemnestra, and I had another sister, half way between Iphigenia and I in age, Electra. It is from her I heard of the fate of the sister I have never seen.
My uncle Menelaus was King of Sparta, and was married to my mother's sister, the beautiful and treacherous Helen. It is through her divine bloodline that Menelaus became King of Sparta. Some say he would have seized the throne with or without the hand of Helen, and her father Tyndareus simply chose the expediency of handing the throne over to Menelaus through the gift of his daughter's hand in marriage to battling to a sticky end against him. But Menelaus was a warrior and a man's man, and was honoured by the citizens of Sparta.
There are many stories of how it came about, but the long and the short of it is: Helen was abducted -some say she left without too much coaxing- by Alexander, the Prince Regent of Troy, who some call Paris. Menelaus was enraged, for without the hand of Helen, he could not in good conscience still claim the crown of Sparta. As Fortune would have it, almost every city state in Greece had reason to resent the power of the City of Troy, for it lay near the mouth of the Hellespont and controlled trade from black waters of the Unfriendly Sea. Menelaus found no lack of Greeks itching to loosen to the Trojan hold on the throat of the Bosphorus.
At the port of Aulis, a thousand ships, the best of Greece, answered his call to arms. But the tides and the winds there penned the ships against the shore, and the winds blew against the fleet. Within the assembly, only two were missing Odysseus, King of the island of Ithaca and the other, the noble Achilles, son of Peleus and the Sea Nymph, Thetis.'
Iphigenia clapped her hands at the mention of Thetis, for Thetis had always been kind to her, more than the others when she had lived as a mermaid beneath the Sea. Orestes and Philartema frowned at the interruption, and Iphigenia reined in her delight, for she had no wish to explain herself.
'Sorry,' she said meekly.
'As I was saying,' continued Orestes, 'Two of the greatest leaders of the Greek Nations were missing from the company, and it was deemed their absence was responsible for the unfavourable winds and currents.
So a messenger, Palamedes, was dispatched to Odysseus. As King, Odysseus had pledged as had the others, to come to the aid of his neighbours, but his heart was not one to take the rocky path when a cobbled one was available. He saw war as a terrible and wasteful enterprise with little to gain, and knew he would be rendered destitute by engaging with the Trojans. So at the news of the approach of a messenger, he feigned madness, for he reasoned none would ask a madman to be an ally.
So the messenger Palamedes, when he arrived on Ithaca, found Odysseus pretending madness, singing doggerels and ploughing his fields with an ass and an ox paired to the yoke, and sowing salt rather than seed. The great king's mouth drooled, his eyes akimbo, one staring to his left, the other to the sky. Despite the subterfuge, Palamedes, knowing well the wiliness of the Great Odysseus, was his match, for he seized Odysseus's infant son, Telemachus from Penelope, and placed him in the path of the plough, and to avoid slicing the child in two, Odysseus veered off the furrow and revealed to the messenger he still had his wits about him. Reluctantly he honoured his commitment to the other Greeks, and gathered his forces.
When he heard Achilles was not amongst the company he agreed to fetch him, for he did not wish to fight without Greece's most valiant and able warrior at his side. Achilles' mother, Thetis, having forseen her son would die beneath the Scaeon gates of Troy, had sent him disguised as a woman to Scyros and the court of Lycomedes. Odysseus, never one to storm the front gates when the kitchen door was unlocked, entered the city of Lycomedes disguised as a peddlar. There at the court of the king, he laid out his wares, bejewelled and golden. In amongst the women's jewellery, he had placed an ornamental sword rivalling the workmanship of Haephestus himself. As the women gathered about his display, a hand reached for the sword, and Odysseus seized it. Achilles had fallen for the bait, for Odysseus knew no warrior could resist so fine a weapon. The company of the Greeks was now complete.
But still the Ocean pushed the armed company against the land. The seer Calchus, after consulting the oracle determined a hare, sacred to Artemis, which had been crushed beneath the wheels of Agamemnon's chariot with her brood was responsible for the unfavourable winds, and only a blood sacrifice by Agamemnon to Artemis would change the direction of the winds in their favour. This man, this Calchis, of whom it is said carried a grudge against my father, decreed Agamemnon must offer his eldest child Iphigenia to the goddess, and so secure favour for their war against the Trojans. Without the blood sacrifice, their enterprise was doomed to failure.
Agamemnon was horrified. Faced with thousands of men who had committed their lives to this war, prepared to lay down their lives to ensure the return of his sister-in-law, Agamemnon could not refuse. Who would follow him into battle, knowing that Agamemnon himself shirked from the ultimate sacrifice? It was unthinkable he should refuse. Stoically, masking his grief, Agamemnon called Palamedes to bring Iphigenia to Aulis.
In a dispatch to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon wrote he had arranged a marriage for Iphigenia to Achilles in return for his commitment to the war effort, for he knew the queen would never consent to a sacrifice any of her children. He also added, due to the urgency of their expedition, it would not be necessary for Clytemnestra to accompany her daughter to the wedding for the ceremony would be short. But sweet.
Of course, when Palamedes, accompanied by Agamemnon's herald Talthybius, arrived, Clytemnestra would not be dissuaded from accompanying Iphigenia to the ceremony. So, the court of Agamemnon, to a woman -for the men had already assembled in Aulis- packed up and left for Aulis within the hour. I was but an infant, and was carried with the women to Aulis wrapped in my birth day present from my sister Electra, a red blanket, embroidered with vine leaves. Iphigenia was still working on another for me when our father called for her to join him at Aulis. She swore an oath to finish it before she was wed to Achilles, and carried it with her as she rode on a wagon. Several times pierced her fingers with the needle, spilling her virgin blood upon the purple cloth as she valiantly worked to finish the border.
Though Palamedes and Talthybius had been instructed to do everything in their power to prevent the Queen's departure from Mycenae, Palamides, who had bested the wily Odysseus, was no match for the sharp wit of Clytemnestra. Quickly, he sent Talthybius ahead of the retinue of women to warn Agamemnon of their advance.
Agamemnon, commander of the greatest force ever massed until the ascent of Alexander the Great, trembled in trepidation upon hearing the news of his wife's impending arrival. Quickly, he devised a plan and dispatched a group of armed men to bring Iphigenia to him ahead of the other women. Under pretext of wishing to consult privately with Iphigenia concerning her consort, Achilles, who rumour had it, preferred the company of men to women, though he had sired children in the court of Lycomedes while sequestered in the harem there, the armed escort intercepted Clytemnestra and carried Iphigenia ahead of the other women.
The moment Iphigenia was brought to Aulis, she was bound, anointed, and cast into the Sea. The moment she disappeared beneath the waves, they were calmed, and the winds settled toward the East. A great cheer went up through the army. The sound was so great, Clytemnestra heard it though they were some distance from Aulis. She urged her sisters to hurry, for she wished to share in the honour the men were bestowing upon her daughter. Dressed in their finest clothing, the procession of women proudly entered the city of Aulis. When she could not see Iphigenia anywhere, Clytemnestra demanded to see her daughter. She became increasingly anxious, and finally, seeing the used sacrificial implements, guessed at her daughter's fate. As she came face to face with Agamemnon, and his eyes failed to meet with hers, she knew Iphigenia had been sacrificed. Though she could do nothing in the face of the army, she swore vengeance against her husband for the death of her daughter.
I was there, and I stood between my mother's legs, too young to comprehend; yet I knew from that moment, the House of Atreus was cursed. I shivered though my mother had wrapped me in the blanket which Iphigenia had been embroidering until that fateful day.'
Orestes paused and brought his chained hands up and slipped the purple robe from his shoulders. 'It is that blanket which serves me as a robe. You see, here along the border the sign of Pisces sewn so lovingly in a repeating pattern except for the last-'
He held the cloth up so Iphigenia and Philartema could examine it.
'The head is complete, but the tail-'
He paused, and Iphigenia breath caught in her throat and her heart skipped a beat.
'The tail is missing!'
The sight of the unfinished fish filled Iphigenia with a terrible foreboding, for she knew that her very hand had sewed unfinished fish, though she could not for the life of her imagine how it could be. Her mind retreated and reached out. Reached out for that which it needed more than any other. Her Soul. She yearned for her soul, and knew she would never find it for it had been absorbed by Atargatis. That which had been Iphigenia, the sister of Orestes now dwelt within the life essence of the mighty Atargatis. Enough of the memory of who she had been returned for her to begin to speak.
'Iphigenia, your sister was thrown by the lieutenants of Agamemnon and Menelaus from the cliffs above Aulis, but she did not perish as all had thought. Her soul, the sacrifice, was taken by Artemis and joined to the divine ether of which the gods are formed to a small portion of Atargatis, Queen of the Seven Seas. She died regretting she had not finished the blanket for you to remember her by. And for that thought, for that selfless devotion, her body Artemis spared, for the goddess had no taste for a human sacrifice, and joined the unfinished tail of the fish that was the image within Iphigenia's mind before she died. So, she became a mermaid and swam far away from Greece until she came to the palace of Atargatis, the undersea Kur Bet of the Ocean.'
'But how do you know that?' asked Orestes in amazement.
'She is a Seer, silly!' interjected Philartema, 'How else would she become a priestess?'
Orestes was not entirely convinced, Iphigenia could see that by his eyes, but she did nothing to set the story straight, for she realized now, her sacrifice to the Sea Wizard had been to no avail, for how could she now win the heart of this stranger, knowing they were brother and sister? She had sacrificed her immortality for nothing.
'You are just trying to humour me.' suggested Orestes, hoping to find out the truth of Iphigenia tale. 'If she had not died, then the fate of my parents and my long suffering are all for nothing!'
'The fate?' asked Iphigenia. 'Are not Agamemnon and Clytemnestra still breathing?'
'They live only in Hades, for they are both dead!' replied Orestes grimly.
'But how can that be?' asked Iphigenia.
'Agamemnon by the hand of Clytemnestra and she by my hand!'
'Y-You killed my- You killed Clytemnestra?'
'My tale only begins with the death of my dear sister Iphigenia,' replied Orestes. 'After the sacrifice, the winds blew east, the Ocean calmed and a thousand Greek warships sailed for Troy.
The love and respect my mother held for my father turned now to hatred and spitefulness. She sent me away to live with the family of Pylades, my cousin, for my features reminded her so much of my father, she feared she would throttle me in my sleep. After I was gone, she took a lover, Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon. He was not of the same mettle as my father, and perhaps that is why she chose him.
The war against the Trojans lasted ten years, and my father was the first of the great chieftains to return. And when he arrived, my mother welcomed him as though she had been faithful to his memory, and all were amazed, for the people of Mycenae had expected Aegisthus to meet Agamemnon in battle on the beach. Some say Clytemnestra had a mind to rid herself of Aegisthus and return to my father's side, but there is no knowing of where the truth in this matter lies.
If she had a mind to forgive him, it vanished as she spied him in the company of the Trojan princess Cassandra, daughter of Priam. The army had given her to my father as a prize of war. Cassandra was a brilliant seer. Never wrong. Yet her curse was that none ever believed her prophecies. At the sight of her, Clytemnestra's face drained of colour and her eyes hardened, and Cassandra swooned.
My mother then invited Agamemnon into the palace and the doors closed behind them. Cassandra recovered from her faint and pointed in terror at the doorway.
'What horror is this?' she raved, 'Why have you brought me to a house so cursed? I would rather die than be taken into such a household! Even now, I smell the blood of its inhabitants! I hear children crying! Crying for the wounds that bleed! A father feasted here, and the flesh, his own children! Woe to those who step through this portal of blood!'
At that, a great cry rang out from within the palace and the doors flew open, and slaves, servants and courtiers alike fled wailing from the palace.
Cassandra disappeared into the palace crying, 'This madness has to stop!' over and over again, but her words were cut short by a blood curdling scream.
Finally, silence. Then, clutching her double-edged battleaxe, dripping with blood, Clytemnestra walked calmly from the palace.
'All is well.'
Her very words!
'All is well!'
Agamemnon lay dead, as did Aegisthus.
'Here lies my husband! Struck down justly! He fell and as he gasped his last breath, his blood spouted and splashed me with its dark spray, a dew of death as sweet to me as heaven's honey rain when the cornfields sprout. Dead is the monster, who with sheepfolds full, pigs aplenty and kine which could not be numbered, chose to slay his daughter for a charm to calm the Thracian winds!'
She slew both husband, mistress and cuckold that day, though some say Aegisthus lived on, but I know he did not, for I would have slain him myself had he been still in my father's palace when I stood at its gates.'
'You slew your own mother? How could you do such a thing?' asked Iphigenia in horror.
'An eye for an eye!' stated Philartema.
The girl was beginning to annoy Iphigenia. 'Don't you have some purification ritual to perform, or something?' she asked pointedly.
Philartema, if she got the point, showed no signs of it.
'Not for a while. I want to hear the end of this tale!'
'My sister Electra,' continued Orestes, 'who had remained at the palace, fled during this altercation, and sought sanctuary in the temple of Apollo. She feared the ire of my mother, for what reason I cannot say, but there is some talk she had turned the eye of Aegisthus from the Queen to herself. At any rate, she feared for her life, and now her only hope of surviving was in acquiring me as protector.
Securing the confidence of a priest of the temple, she sent word for me to return in disguise to Mycenae. Her letter told of Clytemnestra's treachery, of the cuckold Aegisthus who had connived with my mother to murder my father. She told of grievous wrongs to her person at the hands of Aegisthus. Raped right under my mother's nose and with her consent. Such horrors as made my blood boil, though even now I doubt them!
Were that I could know the truth, that I could see the world through the eyes of the gods and thus ascertain the veracity of a man's heart! And a woman's! But it is not so, and so I suffer for my sins even now!
Nonetheless, what's done is done and cannot be undone! With my faithful cousin Pylades, my only true friend, I flew to Mycenae as swiftly as my horses would carry me! There we arrived at the temple of Apollo, and such was my state, I determined I should seek advice from the oracle there, and after the appropriate sacrifice, I sought the words of the oracle.
There, a vision of my dead father appeared to me. I know it was him for it was as if I were staring into a dark pool and seeing my own reflection projected over twenty years time.'
'Did he speak?' asked Iphigenia excitedly.
'Yes! Yes, he spoke! And yet I wish he had never uttered a word to me for his words bound me to my unnatural course!'
'But his words?'
'What did he say?'
'I am thy father's spirit, doomed for a certain time to walk the night, and in the day, confined in eternal flames, until the foul crimes done in the days of my life are burned and purged away. But I am forbidden to tell of the secrets of my prison house! Ye Gods, a tale I could tell, whose lightest word would harrow upon thy soul; freeze thy blood fast; make thy two eyes start from their sockets; thy knotted locks to part and each hair stand on end like quills upon a fretful porcupine! But this eternal suffering cannot be revealed to mortal ears of living flesh and blood.
But listen! Listen!
If thou didst ever love thy father, revenge his murder most foul and unnatural!'
These were his very words! They are burned forever into my thoughts and stamped upon my tongue!
'Name the murderer!' I cried to him, 'Whoever has done this foul deed shall fall beneath my sword this very night!'
'A serpent has stung me in my very orchard, an incestuous, adulterate beast born of witchery! The shameful lust of my most seemingly virtuous queen has brought me to this end!'
'Father, do not keep me in suspense any longer,' I cried, 'I would do this thing!'
'You swear upon the name of Zeus?'
'You swear upon the crown of your own head?'
You swear upon the head of your children?'
'On the heads of all of Greece, I swear!'
'It is your mother, Clytemnestra who has struck me down!'
I could not believe what my ears had brought to me! My own mother? How, indeed, could I strike her down? She who bore me from her womb! She who suckled me from her breast! I cried out in agony for the curse on the House of Atreus seemed to never end! Were we doomed to act out tragedy after tragedy until the End of Days?
I was bound by my oath to strike down my mother!
My father's ghost vanished, and there before me stood Electra. So fair and innocent! We rushed into each other's arms, and drank the sweet wine of reunion, covering each other with kisses, and arm in arm left the temple of Apollo, to join with Pylades on the steps of the temple mount.
We retired and laid our plans for both Pylades and Electra insisted I was bound more by my oath to the spirit of my sire than devotion to my dam. Yet I was wracked by guilt and indecision, and bade them leave me for awhile. I, alone wandered onto the battlements of the city and under the stars considered my fate. I drew my sword and spoke to it in words that were not my own but some bard's from my courtly days. Yet I had not the courage to take my own life and quickly made my way to where Pylades and Electra waited my return.
With a heavy heart and heavier feet I trod the path to my mother's gates, and called out to the guards. 'It is I, Orestes, come to seek out my mother Clytemnestra!'
The doors to the palace slowly swung open. I had hoped to be faced by a thousand armed guards and go down in glory fighting men, but it was not to be. I could not so easily be released from my vow! No one barred the way. Still, I hesitated, and a woman appeared alone in the entranceway.
She had resolved to do battle with me for she was armed with the very double-edged battle-axe with which she had struck down my father. I drew my sword, yet did not take on a battle stance.
'It seems, dear boy, you will kill your own mother.' she said calmly.
'I wish it were not so, but I have resolved to revenge my father's death, and it is you who have taken him from me!'
She shook her head sadly.
'It is the gods who have willed such things, not I!'
'Who are you to speak of gods?' I challenged, my anger raised.
'Orestes! Orestes! Do not do this thing!'
I raised my sword and feinted, but she struck away my blade with a swift arc of the axe. For a moment I faltered. I determined to end my life by my mother's hand, and I left my neck open to the blade as she returned her stroke, but she saw my sacrifice and the horror of taking her own child's life struck her at the last moment, and she let go the handle of the axe and it clattered against the floor.
I had swung to parry the blow, and chopped upward, but before I could change the direction of my thrust she grasped my sword arm and stepped into the point of the blade. The force of my attack drove the sword into her breast to the hilt, and her beautiful red blood sprayed onto my face and chest, and my mother died in my arms!'
Tears filled Orestes eyes and washed his cheeks. Iphigenia reached up and gently wiped them from his face with the edge of her robe.
'Dear brother,' she whispered gently, 'Dear brother, do not weep, for we are beyond weeping now! Tomorrow we will both die, and the curse of the House of Atreus will die with us!'
'O God!' declared Philartema disgustedly. 'You two are going to spoil the sacrifice tomorrow! We haven't had a good sacrifice for years! I was so looking forward to this one!'
'Who is this bloodthirsty little creature?' asked Orestes.
'My name is none of your concern!' replied Philartema, 'you had better fulfill your obligations or all Hell will break loose! You'll die a very slow death if anything goes wrong!'
Iphigenia turned to Philartema.
'You are going to help us escape!' she said firmly.
'I don't think so!' retorted Philartema, 'I know which wineskin offers the best wine, and helping you escape doesn't really do anything for me!'
'O but it does,' replied Iphigenia. 'You see, if you don't help us, I shall tell everyone that you did help us, and that you were the one to lay whatever plan we might come up with to get out of here!'
'You wouldn't dare!' challenged Philartema.
'Wouldn't I?' Iphigenia grasped Philartema by her linen dress and pulled her closer. 'Would you care to wager your life on it?' she asked menacingly.
Philartema wavered and gulped.
'Alright!' she said finally, 'you win! I'll help you get out of here but you have to take me with you. I have no wish to be skinned alive!'
'Done!' said Iphigenia triumphantly. She looked at Orestes.
'So what's the plan?' he asked.
She realized she had no plan. 'I thought you might have one handy.' she said to him.
'Me?' he asked incredulously, 'How in the name of Zeus did you imagine that?'
'Well, you're the man! Men always have a plan!'
'You two are pathetic!' sighed Philartema disgustedly.
So the three of them sat and thought.
After considerable time, Iphigenia looked at Orestes.
'Well?' she asked.
He shook his head. 'Nothing!' he said dejectedly.
Philartema rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.
'What?' asked Iphigenia.
'Nothing!' replied Philartema in disgust.
They returned to thinking.
After a few moments, Philartema brightened.
'I got it!' she said brightly.
She hopped down from the altar where she had been sitting. 'Before daybreak, the guards will come for this Greek guy, and escort him to the river to purify him. He has to be washed in the river so the two waters will be mixed together when he is dumped into the Ocean!'
'So?' asked Iphigenia.
'You and me have to be washed too!'
Orestes and Iphigenia stared blankly at Philartema.
'So we can get away from them there and swim somewhere!'
'Somewhere?' asked Iphigenia.
'Wherever!' said Philartema impatiently. 'Do I have to think of everything?'
'Can you swim?' Orestes asked Philartema.
The light dimmed in Philartema's eyes, and she looked at Iphigenia sheepishly. 'Well, it seemed like a good plan!'
'No! No! It is a good plan! I can swim! I'll carry you both!' said Iphigenia.
'Right!' Philartema said sarcastically, making a face.
Iphigenia suddenly realized without her mermaid's tail, she might not be able to swim at all. 'Perhaps,' she added meekly.
'If only I had a sword,' cried Orestes, 'we could fight our way out of here!'
'You'd be cut down by the guards in a second!' declared Philartema, 'Though, perhaps a man like yourself might last longer than most!'
'I thank you for your confidence,' replied Orestes darkly. 'If I could at least undo these chains...'
'No problem!' piped Philartema cheerily, 'The key is here on the wall!' With that she slipped past Orestes in the passage between the stone table and the wall, her slim body a fingersbreadth from his face, and the smell of her flesh filled his nostrils with desire. As she turned to pull down the key to the great lock, her thighs brushed tantalizingly against his cheek.
An upwelling of jealousy cut like a knife into Iphigenia heart and she shuddered, but she held her tongue. Despite knowing now she was Orestes' sister, the seeds of desire for him had already been sown, and now she suffered doubly for it, for she knew now she could never make him love her the way she desired.
She had sacrificed everything to be with Orestes, and now she had nothing! Nothing! Only her legs, and each step they took was agony. She had no soul, and within a few short years she would die; his soul would not flow into her body and she was forsaken of human happiness, and his soul would never be hers! And she was doomed to live alone in agony! All this she felt during the brief exchange as Philartema distracted Orestes. The magnetic attraction between her younger brother and the temple maid cut through Iphigenia's broken heart like a jagged flint knife.
Philartema meanwhile, had unlocked the chains that bound Orestes to the altar. In a flash he leapt from the alcove into the temple, his muscles as tight and sinewy as of a cat. Philartema followed behind him, the excitement bubbling from her young body in a way that made Iphigenia grit her teeth in abhorrence. She was altogether too perky now the fires of chemical attraction had begun to burn between her and Orestes. Brother or no brother, he's still mine, dammit!
The pain in her feet seemed to be stronger now she was alone in the small alcove, and the despair of her situation seemed to bear down upon her like an intolerable weight. Her back ached. Her shoulders ached. Her feet felt like they were caught in a razor sharp iron vise.
Her agony was complete. Alone in the alcove, she despaired of avoiding tragedy, and she collapsed onto a bench in a niche in the wall. There, to her surprise, she saw parchment and quills. She looked about and realized the niche was actually a small writing cubicle for a scribe or copyist to work out of the way of the hustle and bustle of temple business. In a flash she decided, though she could not bear to tell Orestes the facts of her true nature, she would write down her tale and give it to him in the morning. And so she did.
She wrote this tale in the exact manner I have told it, for my grandmother would have left none of the narrative out, and swore to its veracity. She indeed finished writing, and sealed the letter she addressed to her brother Orestes and entered the temple proper to present him with it, but she could not find him. Not at first-
Lamp high above her head, she hunted high and low for him amongst the columns and barriers within the temple sanctuary. Finally, beneath the altar she found the object of her quest- sleeping with the temple maid Philartema, wrapped together, arm in arm, their legs entwined, his head resting upon her breast. That they could have been engaged in such pleasures as she could only imagine while she agonized over her letter filled her with fury and she was about to throw the lamp, oil and all upon the sleeping couple when the door burst open and the wizard appeared leading a retinue of local dignitaries, secular and theological.
The communal gasp, which arose at the sight of the stranger embracing a common servant girl, showed they shared Iphigenia emotions, though for different reasons. The gasp was of sufficient volume to awaken Orestes and Philartema, who blinked in the morning streaming in through the open doors. They did not quite comprehend the gravity of their situation at that moment, though Iphigenia did.
'This is not what you think-' she began, but sounded as convincing as every cuckold and adulterer who had ever uttered the phrase, for it was as she thought as well.
'Oh good goddess!' cried Philartema, and scrambled away from Orestes as if she had been sleeping with some foul insect, and brushed his essence from her clothing as if he secreted slime like some disgusting slug.
'No it's not! I never touched her!' he protested. He looked to Iphigenia for support.
This of course, had no impact whatsoever on the priesthood arrayed before them. Their sacrifice had been tainted by contact with the servant girl. Three steps up from and about to become a slave. They were not quite sure of how to deal with the offence for in living memory the spirit of the corn within the stranger had never been defiled before.
Sensing their indecision, Iphigenia began talking without knowing what she was about to say, but knowing definitely whoever held the floor held the advantage.
'The stranger has been rendered unclean. He has been tainted by the touch of Philartema, but it was-' here she paused to collect some sense, '-not her fault! Yes, that's right! It was not her fault-'
Hairy priestly eyebrows twisted at her like skeptical caterpillars pasted on wrinkled brows.
'-for she had no choice to comfort him, for he- he killed his mother! By accident! By accident! But he did kill her! Not that he wanted to, but, as I said it was an accident! And he touched-' she glanced about her.
'She touched- I mean, he touched- the holy image of Artemis! And -' She had reached an impasse.
'And it must be cleansed of the taint of-' prompted Philartema.
'Matricide!' continued Iphigenia, 'It must be cleansed of matricide! As must the stranger! But not in the river! In the Sea! They must be cleansed in the Sea. Only the brine of Poseidon can wash away the taint of sin from the image of the Great Mother and her Consort. We must go to the Mother Ocean!'
Sagacious heads nodded in agreement, and soon, a grand procession of notables with Iphigenia, Orestes and Philartema in their midst began a dignified processional march to the Sea. The cult image of Artemis was brought out from the inner sanctum and, gilded and white, shone brilliantly in the morning sun. Heads turned and excitement bubbled up in the crowd in the wake of the holy retinue. This was an event not seen by any as could remember.
The image of Artemis was set at the edge of the water and Iphigenia announced she and Philartema would cleanse the sacrifice first. They each took Orestes by the arm and lead him into the surf. As they walked out towards deeper water, their backs to the onlookers, they began furiously whispering to each other.
'Now what?' demanded Philartema.
'How should I know? snapped Iphigenia.
'Well, we'd better think fast!' said Orestes as the water reached his waist.
'Look!' cried Philartema, pointing out to sea.
There, rounding the headland to the bay, was a ship.
'A Greek ship!' exclaimed Orestes.
They were now up to their armpits, and Philartema definitely had to bob up and down from the sandy bottom to keep her head above water.
The Taureans on the shore were yelling for them to come back, for, though they made a habit of seizing strangers and sacrificing them, a ship full of Greek warriors was something else again. Nonetheless, a few braver souls plunged into the surf to capture the trio who now floundered in water, which now swallowed them up.
Then, and amazing thing happened. Unseen hands bore Iphigenia up, and carried her to the surface. Thetis herself had carried Iphigenia to safety, and the Sea Nymph thrust the flint dagger into Iphigenia arms.
'Do it now!' she urged Iphigenia, 'Stab Orestes!'
'I cannot!' cried Iphigenia.
'You must! I can only rescue one this day, and I have chosen you. If you bury this dagger within Orestes, you will return to your mermaid's form. You need only spill his blood! Return him to the Greek ship for it is his cousin Pylades who commands it. They will stem the flow of blood from the wound and he will not die! It is the only way!'
After a brief moment of hesitation, Iphigenia grasped the hilt of the dagger, and taking a deep breath, dove beneath the surface. Once again, she found him, his gorgeous eyes wide with fear, suspended fathoms beneath the surface, and she took him in her arms. As their eyes met, all fear of death passed from Orestes for he knew he was in the presence of the woman for who his life had been intended.
His eyes widened in horror as too late, he saw the dagger rise above him and felt a hot searing pain as it plunged into his shoulder. His blood spread like a ruby mist in the turquoise water. At the same moment, Iphigenia felt a tingling in her legs and in a flash she felt the flick of her tail.
She was a mermaid again!
Quickly, she wrapped her arms about Orestes and, with a powerful thrust of her tail, carried him to the surface. Her lips closed around his and she sucked the water from his throat, then breathed air back into his lungs. Her breath became his, and he coughed and sputtered, and began to breathe on his own, though his mind had not fully returned to him.
The Taureans had launched one of their swift fishing boats and rowed towards them. The Greeks aboard their ship now realized something was amiss and exhorted the Iphigenia and Orestes to swim towards them. By now, the entire fleet of the Taureans had slipped into the water and were closing fast on Iphigenia and Orestes. The Greeks seeing they were outnumbered hauled in their sail and began to turn the prow of their craft seaward.
'Wait!' called Orestes between mouthfuls of water, 'In the name of Zeus, wait!' The captain of the Greek ship turned and stared out over the bulwarks and, shading his eyes, squinted into the sun.
'Orestes?' he called out.
'Pylades!' called Orestes, 'Pylades! It is me, Orestes!'
Without hesitation, Pylades leaped overboard and swam toward the two desperate fugitives. The oarsmen of the Greek ship marked time in the surf, and the three swimmers reached the grappling hooks of the Greek sailors just as the first of the Taurean boats drew alongside.
Looking down at her tail, Iphigenia realized she could not go with her brother and former countrymen and released her grip on the side of the ship and sank beneath the waves. The cool green waters filled her lungs and the caress of the brine brought her relief from the pain she had felt for those long three days, and soon the Greek ship carrying her beloved Orestes was far out to sea. His memory of his adventure amongst the Taureans was said to have been very vague, and he often referred to it as 'that dream'.
Filled with a deep mournfulness, Iphigenia floated through the ocean currents until she reached the Dracodentes, and recognizing the place, she surfaced and climbed up upon the rocks. She pushed her hair back and from old habit opened her mouth to sing.
And to her surprise, her voice flowed from her lips like liquid silver, the notes as round and full as golden bells, a song of such crystalline beauty as to consume her with such joy and such sadness she would never again see the world without hearing somewhere in the unreachable distance, the ethereal melody she sang, nor ever release herself from the rapture it produced."
The stranger smiled at Miri. Her brow was creased.
"What is the matter? Is the tale not to your liking?"
"No, no!" replied Miri quickly, I was just wondering what happened to Philartema."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "Philartema! Of course! She floundered in the waves and was eventually hauled into one of the boats where she ranted so pathetically and convincingly of magic and sorcery and the treachery of the gods, that she was spared her life, though none in the village quite trusted her after that to be of a right mind. She had a string of husbands and lovers, none of whom stayed for more than a brief time. It is said she was afflicted by daemons, and on stormy nights she could be seen standing on the rocky shore calling them to her. They told her of the future, and it is said she could guarantee a good catch or a bountiful harvest just by mumbling a few chosen words. My grandmother says she used her affliction to great advantage as a seer and died a wealthy woman with many, many children, for each of her lovers left her with a child as a memento of his visit. All of her children were as obsessed by the sea as she was, and as soon as they were able, man or woman, they became sailors and spread over the seven seas, settling in every corner of the Earth.
Philartema was, my grandmother says, the progenetrix of our family, and she- and I- are direct descendents of hers."
At that moment the first of the early morning wagons rolled thunderingly, creakingly, sqeakingly by the garden wall, and without a word the two lovers dressed. As the stranger was almost at the garden gate, Miri called out to him.
"Wait!" he turned and looked back at her.
"I don't even know your name!"
With a flourish of his robe, he was gone.