Prologue: The End
Time is cyclic. Life after life. Death after death. Tantalus served his son to Zeus; Atreus fed Thyestes his children; Agamemnon slew Iphigenia upon the altar. Aerope slept with her brother-in-law; Pelopia with her father; Clytemnestra with Aegisthus. Or so the stories say. Gods come and go. Pantheons transform. Divinity fades at last. Worlds burn and break and freeze and shatter. Realities diverge. Events echo through the deepest depths of space and memory. The accursed flee. Their curses follow. Until the End.
The wind is steel. Along the curvature of the plain ahead, all blends to darkness and broken stone. One by one in the void above, the stars are blinking out. They vanish in mocking bursts of laughing light, calling goodbye in taunting tones that none are left to hear. Against the night a lone figure shuffles, blacker than empty shadow. She is long past shivering as she crosses the barren expanse stretching away across the world without a sun. She will try to reach the other side before the End. The End has many names: heat death, judgment, terminus. Perhaps a new beginning, a fresh cycle. Perhaps oblivion. Perhaps not.
There is an old story that goes like this: A girl watches her mother kill her father. Sometimes the murder is justified; sometimes it can never be. She mourns in secret for an eon, until her brother returns to save her. Sometimes he saves her; sometimes he damns them both. The treacherous siblings slay their mother. This is never justified. Sometimes they must pay the price for matricide; sometimes they go free and are forgiven. Usually the Furies hound them. And Electra runs. A tingle shoots down her spine and leaves her stomach churning. Behind her the howls rise.
Blood. In her mouth and her eyes and dripping down to stain the sheets below. Ruddy light. Dwindling light. Light she must block out. The curtain falls back. And smiles thickly. Lanterns and perfume and swirling silks drift up on the ash from the street below. Hands caress her hair. Dreams ensue.
In the morning Orestes leaves, his face stern, his glance cold. He does not look back, glorious in blatant disregard and self-righteous guilt. A murmur from the floor. Pylades (who has slept alone every night since Electra’s brother returned to her) now rises, alarmed, and chases after his friend. Day after day, life after life. She shudders as a faint red glow streams into their casket of a room. This world’s star is dying. Leisurely. Swelling like a blister and gleaming darkly like dried and sticky drops of wine spilled the night before or sunset glancing off of crumbling rubble, abandoned in a hot and dusty desert. So ends today, so ends tomorrow, so ends yesterday. A last and awful refuge. She hopes it burns behind her. She shrugs on clothes and ties back her hair, trying not the taste the sickly hints of desperation rising like bile in the back of her throat. Soon she must run again. This time alone.
Her brother will be dead by now. And sooner or later They will track his scent backwards. Her features twist in a bizarre and bitter sneer. Perhaps he made it to the temple. Perhaps he confessed their crime and received absolution like the ancient tales claim. Perhaps not. She thinks not. She doubts They let him get so far, ravenous as They are. She hopes, once bloated with his viscera, They will stall in Their pursuit. She can almost feel slimy entrails sliding down her own esophagus. Sisters! Why haven’t you saved any for me? Regardless, he is gone.
Time to make her own plans. This is scarcely the first world to have sheltered her. Her brother and his companion never get as far as she does anyway. Capitulation. Regret. Ineptitude. She books them transit. She rents the hovels they squat in. She hordes funds and food and, if need be, steals and murders and whores their way from one hiding place to another. She does not need a friend, a cousin, a brother, a lover. Shame and venom sustain her well enough. She is all that remains of her wretched house and she will not let it fail entirely. They will never catch her.
Pylades returns, drained and trembling. She does not need him to speak. The howling she pretends not to hear grows louder. Closer. Her brother’s friend shakes in the open doorway. Quickly now—there is no time. Quickly now—what’s one more crime? Tick-tock, tick-tock. Her heart thumps. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Precious seconds spill from an open wound, gone forever in the gathering dusk. Tick-tock. The clock runs out. You won’t have another chance. She presses his stuttering lips against her own, wrenches one of his hands through her inky hair, plunges the other down her shirt, drawing it between her breasts. She doubts he’d resist much, even if she let him (even if her brother weren’t deceased)—in other versions of reality they might be married.
Transfixed thus, Pylades stands oblivious. Before he can breathe, before he can think, she thrusts him before her into the hall. Waiting talons tear him apart as she bolts past, running as she has never run before.
Except of course she has.
Empty silence save… the cadence of the wind, rising and falling outside in the rain. Gentle pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Paper walls and paper rooms and lichen on all sides. Up the lattice, up she climbs. Moss for footholds, weedy rungs. She comes in through the window. Feet follow feet across matted board. Pitter-pat, pitter-pat. Hushed footsteps on the second floor—hush my loved one, hush my dear. Hush to green—envy green—and damp. Skeleton branches. Early spring. Against the palace wall, the window casement. Knocking.
Toe to heel, heel to toe. On the balls of her feet she goes walking. Toe to heel, heel to toe. Creeping always forward. Mist descends over the garden and spreads itself across the roof: a thousand tendrils of a thousand serpents. Slowly. Methodically. Several hours earlier, she hid Orestes in a closet while their mother was getting drunk. Now she waits, edges forward, kneeling at the top of the stairs, calves against the carpeting of ribbed bamboo and dull ebony. A carrion bird, she hunches, lurking—looming over the aperture in the floor. Ready. Tense. She watches.
The moon rises above the fog, catching the silhouette of the garden maple outside and magnifying it through the parchment walls, thinner-than-thin. A single frail leaf blows softly through the open window, and scuds to a halt, smearing condensation across the wood. From somewhere out over the murky trees and overgrown shrubs, an eerie, mournful call floats through the chilly evening air, moist with feeble rain and low-lying cloud. She stiffens.
At the base of the stairwell a woman stands proudly. Coiled locks like oiled worms squirm about her forehead and wriggle down her back. Medusa made mere mortal. The woman takes a step and stumbles, cursing and staggering until she seizes the banister, clearly intoxicated. Her robes sway, dark emerald velvet set with flecks of jade, her eyes, outlined in malachite, stare ahead unfocussed. Mother dearest. Her daughter, perched above, drips poison from her glare. From another part of the house a bell rings, profound and faint. The inebriate grimaces and the wardrobe behind her rustles.
It is over very fast. Her end and death. She senses nothing. No one comes to aid her. Her sometime partner, sometime king already slumps under the courtyard hedge, his head smashed in from behind with a greenhouse stone, wielded by a weak yet vengeful stepchild. Long thin fingers tremble, still rusty with clay and gore. Their keeper sighs with melancholy, secreted above the stairs, and slithers back out the window to wait for her brother, dropping to the loamy ground below.
He finds her in the garden, tossing seedpods at the bush where Aegisthus rots, and mutters lowly.
“It is done.” She gazes up at him, her savior and damnation. The stars peek out at last and hang, suspended in her overcast eyes—little wells, stygian and somber.
“No my love, it is just begun.”
He holds her tightly, deeply, long. Too long for comfort, though neither pulls away. They stand entwined, a short eternity in the soaking wreck of a sodden garden. And then he braces himself and covers her ears against the rising storm, the billowing smoke, the infantile howling….
Papa comes home today. Strong and tall with violet eyes and feathers in his hair. An eagle emblazoned on his airship in amaranth. She wants to see his armor shine. She wants to hear his booming voice. The City in the Sky falls to pieces, shrieking through the air. She wants Papa to tell her how it splintered and sit on the porch, catching chilly crystals and eating peppermint.
The blimp docks above, floating in the air and wintry sun. Puffs of steam turn to icy vapor, high above the housetops. Trumpets sound. She runs to find her little brother, dashing down alleys and up fire escapes, over tiled eaves and through tunnels far below. She bumps a picture of her grandfather off the wall. She trips and scatters her brother’s model triremes all across the floor. She nearly steps on the skittish family cat; it hisses unconvincingly.
Orestes is playing with tin soldiers and rolling spare gears around the kitchen. She rousts him with the promise of a peppermint stick, shoves him into a clean shirt, wipes the dirt off his forehead, and threatens to beat him if he doesn’t wash behind his ears. This has no effect. She wins him over with the offer of a weekend trip to one of the moons next time they can borrow Uncle Aegisthus’s blimp. She doesn’t like Uncle Aegisthus very much, but she likes his blimp. It isn’t as big as papa’s and the design is no longer fashionable, but Uncle lets her and Orestes ride in it when mother isn’t around. The temptation of the airship is usually enough to make her behave at family dinners and keep her brother from sneaking his windup mice into mother’s sock drawer. She caught one once, bronze and shining with a million spinning parts, and tried to feed it to the cat, but Nurse stopped her and explained that automatons, tiny as they may be, are no food for real, flesh-and-blood felines. The cat promptly disappeared under the bed. Later, she crushed the mouse with a brick outside to see how all its gears and springs worked, but only succeeded in sending a shower of mangled metal bouncing across the street.
Papa brings a strange creature back with him: slim and downcast with hollows under her eyes. From the City in the Sky. Alone of all the returning, she doesn’t cringe under the circling sleet or slip on the frozen puddles before the door. She wears a shift of pale lilac and her chestnut hair is piled oddly on her head. Electra likes chestnuts. She likes to scorch her hands, pulling them freshly roasted from the fire, and pop them, whole, into her mouth. She likes lilacs too for that matter, though they aren’t as good to eat. Papa calls the creature Cassandra. Mother snarls something worse behind her hand—something that, if Electra repeated it, would cause Nurse to rinse out her mouth with lye. Uncle Aegisthus is nowhere to be seen.
As the sky turns purple, Papa sits with her out on the porch. They catch snowflakes on their tongues and nibble peppermint sticks and giggle together, co-conspirators. Eventually Papa goes inside and from the shadows a slender shape emerges. The strange creature. Drawn and morbid, she looks down at the girl, so doomed and unaware, and after a while speaks in simple worlds Electra cannot understand.
“We are alike you know, but even I am sorry for you. So long, so long. So far, so lost. All for nothing. All is nothing.” A shade passes.
“You don’t scare me,” says Electra. Something like pity wells up inside her and she stretches out her last peppermint stick. The corner of Cassandra’s mouth twitches ruefully.
“The sun rises late these days. If one knew where Uncle Aegisthus moored his blimp, one could slip away before dawn, before anyone noticed the absence.” She sucks plaintively on the peppermint, surprised at the small kindness, despite her gift of prophecy, “If I cared about my little brother, I would keep him within sight tonight.”
Electra cuddles under her down comforter. Orestes snores on the window seat beside her, the unfriendly feline tentatively curled under his arm. The strange creature’s warning is gone, replaced by a fuzzy, warm sensation. Papa’s home! All is well. So she sleeps until the howls wake her.
The original at last. Gaudy light and azure sky and the lapping waters of a long-lost sea, ultramarine from dizzying heights. Soft words, gentle words, phrases shaped like silver and copper and new life growing towards the sun. All descriptive, illustration, alluded imagery: sinuous steps of a child dancing through meadows skip past the shore, resting in subtle shadows of shining forest, seeping sylvan. Topless towers topped again, columns raised aright upright, and clouds like marble—unmarred white. Fluted lyres, streams like bells, the crash of waves as if through shells, as if afire. Poetry and prose. The hours all to gossamer. Seemingly Beginning… or near enough.
Vision, recollection, or a test of time travel: grass beneath her feet, a girl in flowering skirts ahead, waltzing with the wind. She has to ask when the child stops innocently dancing long enough to look up.
“Are you the first Iphigenia?” The motive for so much hollow hate.
“Perhaps, sister.” Maybe not; we’ll never know for sure.
“Is this the Start?”
“YesNo.” From Iphigenia’s mouth it is one word. She takes her sister’s hand.
They wander through the woods, not quite aimlessly, Iphigenia leading. The midsummer sun catches her carefree curls, setting them to filigree, bouncing up and down on a mild gust. The forest seems to brush the sky, a tender touch as olive turns to turquoise. Surly seagulls cry beneath chalky cliffs and soar up, their complaint reaching ears high above. The shadow of a hunting hawk hovers over the surrounding foliage and skims away out over salty sand.
Iphigenia points ahead to a sparkling pool, all but obscured behind a row of cypress, and dashes off, pulling her wayward sister behind. The siblings stand on the edge, gazing down as miniature currents perturb the surface. An apparition takes shape. Ripples spread: the whole dark history of their house played out in flickering reflection.
Time is cyclic. Life after life. Death after death. Tantalus served his son to Zeus; Atreus fed Thyestes his children; Agamemnon…. Aerope slept with her brother-in-law; Pelopia with her father; Clytemnestra…. Or so the stories say. Gods come and go. Pantheons transform. Divinity fades at last. Worlds burn and break and freeze and shatter. Realities diverge. Events echo through the deepest depths of space and memory. The accursed flee. Their curses follow. Until the End.
Images bleach and are no more. Water stills. Finality. Iphigenia raises her head, confused. Rounded rosy cheeks and trailing trellis curls and big green eyes, like fresh-sprung leaves, wide and questioning.
“What does it mean, sister?” Time is cyclic. Inky hair shakes sadly in the breeze; she cannot answer, but Iphigenia does not seem to mind.
“I have to go. I’m to be married this afternoon. Father needs me now.” A cheerful smile to match the cheerful sunshine falling through the canopy. Death after death. Once again, she has to ask.
“Young Orestes, young Electra—where are they?
“Oh, they’re not in this story.”
“But it’s their story.”
“Not yet.” Iphigenia prances away. Sprightly—a faun between the trees. Agamemnon slew Iphigenia upon the altar; Clytemnestra killed her husband; Orestes murdered his mother; Electra…. She turns away.
The screaming starts as blood stains snow-white robes and sea-green stone, already smooth from centuries of sailing off to war. She cannot run fast enough. As it must, the howling follows.
Epilogue: The End
Time is cyclic. Mother, father, sister, brother? World after world. All the blood that’s stained my hands? Cosmos after cosmos. Titans, mortals, gods, and ghosts? The accursed flee. Why am I alone, the last? Their curses follow. Why am I the End?
She has crossed the plain. All for nothing. The last star is gone. All is nothing. Fate has not been kind. So long, so long. So far, so lost. Behind her, barren waste dissolves. The End has many names. Ahead her vision blurs. Perhaps a new beginning, a fresh cycle. Perhaps oblivion. A curse fulfilled, outrun. Perhaps not. After so nearly forever. So ends today, so ends tomorrow, so ends yesterday. She lies as nothing, broken under an impossibly dense and midnight void. Her end and death….
This is how the Furies find her. And the howling swoops and dives, descending. And begins anew.
Image: Saronic water / Agua sarónica by SantiMB.Photos