Women’s Work – Connor Park

Spring is coming to Tiryns in Argolis. My herdsmen have been laboring diligently, bringing in bales of wool, black and grey, as though cut from the storm clouds. My husband, Perseus the Gorgon-Slayer, has long been away on his own errands, so his mother Danae and I have taken charge of the household. In the absence of a king, we must be our own masters.

In this land across the sea, I face duties I was never prepared for. In my husband’s city, I must be queen to a people I do not know. Though carried here on the winged sandals of the Messenger, I still cannot speak the Greek tongue.

By the New Year, Danae has promised, I will have learned enough to lead the sacred rites of the Mother and Daughter. By the harvest time, I will be queen, and my own voice will command the city. Now though, I don’t speak; I listen. While I learn my new labors, I find peace in lessons common to the women of every house.

The storms of late winter have ended, so all throughout the hills, men are shearing sheep. Within houses great and small, women are carding, spinning, and weaving to keep our people clothed. Today, after donning the grey chiton of our household, I will pick up my carding comb and listen as the housemaids speak, letting my foreignness fall away in the familiar rhythm of women’s work.

But this morning, and every morning, must begin before the mirror. Seeing my face reflected in burnished bronze as my handmaid braids my hair, the gulf between my past and present has never been wider. With my honey-colored skin and night-dark hair and hooked eastern nose, I am nothing these hill-Greeks have ever seen. When I walk down statue-lined halls to the workroom, I hold all transfixed like the stone, staring at their barbarian queen, this foreign bird their wingfoot-stranger prince brought home.

Even the kind eyes of Danae sometimes weary me, though I know she understands. It is a hard thing to be visited by a rescuer from above. The rescued always shoulders the weight of the tales told about her, whatever truth they hold. I can’t make head or tail of all the stories woven around me in my lifetime, first as a princess in the East and now as the Gorgon-Slayer’s queen.

Amid the swirl of rumor, there is one truth I will not surrender. When I was brought here naked, Danae stood close to me in the chariot of Perseus, her warm hand upon my shoulder. Though brought as fit prizes to adorn my husband’s city, as fair faces of flesh to warm his palace of stone, Danae and I have become mother and daughter. I, who never hoped to know that love, who never could trust in other women to work alongside me.

With Cressida’s hands on my head, I remember my life in the House of Cedars, where I knew no grey. There, the faces of my maidens were averted, for everyone knew me as a daughter of the goddess Athirat, She Who Treads Out the Sea. In years past, my father Cepha told me, he had been her lover. But after my birth, before I saw her face, she departed, foretelling his rise to the heights. On the strength of this tale, he grew mighty in fame, becoming King of Tyre, and marrying Keziah, daughter of the high priest of Hadad, the Thunderer. She had little use for a daughter, spending long hours each day before her mirror, and long nights in the king’s banquet hall.

There was little love between us. I kept the city between my father’s wife and me, spending long hours upon the rocks by the shoreline, while she held sway at court. I still remember her voice, the way she commanded whole rooms of proud Tyrian men with a single word. I remember that she spared few kindnesses for me. Most of all, though, I recall her hungry eyes.

In Tyre, I was princess among women, destined for high places, but Keziah, the queen, my stepmother, craved for heights still higher.

Everything fell at midsummer of my fifteenth year, before the Autumn of the Endless Storm. After the bull had been slain and libations drunk, a singer from Caphtor of Minos approached our dais. With halting speech, he asked to sing of a son of the Thunderer, a monster-slayer who killed the sea god’s lover. My father assented, and the man chanted of a woman so terrifying she turned men’s eyes to stone.

When the singer had finished, the queen and I withdrew with our maidens and walked toward the women’s wing, where we kept our separate chambers. In a common room, just before our ways parted, my father’s wife turned to me and broke our silence.

“Daughter of the goddess, look at me and tell me what you see.”

She uncoiffed her brown hair and shook it out, then fixed her eyes on mine.

“You know what they say. I’m fairer than any sea-wife that Poseidon has. I’m more beautiful than you, kissed as you are by salt and sun. Though fate has made me mortal while you claim the gods’ blood, I tell you, princess, were Athirat naked in any man’s chamber, he’d choose my beauty over hers if I walked in.”

I gasped, but she only laughed.

“I’ve seen what you refuse to understand, daughter of the goddess. The work of women is in the beds of men and gods. The sooner you learn, the sooner you will rule. Dead gods rise and curse us if it isn’t so.”

Again she laughed, and walked down the halls leaving me alone with my silent maids.

After that night, a tempest gathered over Tyre. Billowing storm clouds and fearsome winds penned our ships to harbor. Swelling seas were not unheard of in autumn, I thought at first, but the rage buffeting the Rock was unlike any I’d experienced.

I had heard rumors of lands where the sea was a raging god of tempests, but in Tyre and in the Arams of the East, it was our welcome, our fruitful womb, our mother dragon, our vanquished foe. For the first time that autumn, I learned to fear the sea.

Winter came and the tempest did not relent. In the streets, our people clamored, desperate for the seasons’ rhythm to be set right. Food drew short as the sun waned, and talk spread of seizing my father to dash him against the stones.

In the House of Cedars, I oversaw the weaving of purple, still hopeful that the storm would abate, that my stepmother’s dare to the gods had not changed the way of the world.

Finally, in midwinter, the king consulted with the high priest of Hadad, father of the queen. In the viscera of the bull, they read the signs. Hands still dripping with gore, the king burst into my chambers.

“Daughter,” he said, fixing his gaze on mine, “we know now how to tame the sea.”

“Tell me, father, what work have the gods given you?”

Cepha averted his eyes.

“It is not I whom the gods have chosen. They demand recompense for the boasts of the queen: one flowering, untouched daughter in exchange for peace.”

How strange it is, I thought, and still am thinking, that gods impose their will with harm. How unjust it is that divine rage unmoors us from all that we know.

I had known no man. I had never married nor been given in marriage. To save my people, I would have to be given to the sea, would have to give up what I had never known. Casting my gaze over the waters beneath my window, where darkness stood over the face of the deeps, my heart understood then what Athirat knew as she wept over the body of Tammuz.

If ever she was my mother, surely she would save me, but if I perished, I would perish.

Looking directly into my father’s glistening eyes, I spoke, giving agreement with the command he spoke as if fated.

“I will go down to the depths. Only chain me to the seaward rock, so that I will not run.”

Cepha looked at me, marveling, and said only, “My daughter,” and I replied,

“My lord.”

On the next morning, I bared my shoulders in the Greek fashion and shaded my eyes with kohl. I would perish in the garments and aspect of the bride I would never be.

My handmaids accompanied me on the road to the western shore. With a bronze chain, they wordlessly bound me and departed, with bowls of burning myrrh.

I waited with no sun to tell me the passing hours. About me, the winds howled. Above me, the clouds poured torrents. I waited for Athirat to come, to show her face at last and tread out the sea once more. After hours exposed, my waiting was vain. The storm raged on and the sea continued to exceed its course.

I wondered then if the gods take notice of my kind at all, or if in the end, I was no different from any of my handmaids, silently fulfilling the work she is bidden to do.

From the sky, lightning flashed. I heard a shout in the thunder, speaking in a language that I did not know but somehow understood.

“Fear not, maiden! I will save you.”

Tumbling through the sky was a ruddy man on winged sandals, carrying a blood-dripping bag. I did not reply. If he loosed me now, I knew that my people would die in the tempest.

“Keep still!” he said. “I’ll make you mine.”

His voice was a command I had to heed. From that moment, I have not recalled my name, taken from me by the careless words of one who wore the sandals of Hermes.

I saw the man standing before me, his figure set against the still-raging sea. He raked my chains with a great scythe, loosing me from the rock.

I wailed aloud, falling onto the sand. He swept me into his arm, into the sky.

“I have unchained you, thwarting your wicked father. Now you will be my bride.”

As we rose through the skies above Tyre, I saw my father and his wife standing with a company of soldiers on the high place below, utterly still. Looking closer, I realized that they were statues of stone. The man who loosed me was the hero of the singer’s tale, the Gorgon-Slayer, Perseus.

We flew swiftly west, soon escaping the storm. The wingfoot prince, Perseus, was taking me back to Greece, to his mother’s city, which soon he would conquer, avenging at last his dishonored name. Believing that any son of Danae was fated to kill him, her father had locked her in a tower with no doors.

But locks, Perseus said laughing, cannot bar Zeus. The Greek Thunderer had come upon Danae through a window, falling in his skybolt and filling her womb. After Perseus’ birth, her father had cast them both onto the sea to drown, but they had lived to wander. Perseus, after long travails, was coming home.

With the help of his divine siblings, he had travelled far to kill the Gorgon, wearing divine sandals that swayed hearers to his voice. In the bag at his side, he carried the monster’s head, which turned all who saw its face to stone. With it, he would rescue his mother and become a king in his own right, a king of great deeds, a hero.

We made landfall in the hard hills of Argolis, where a band of men lay waiting in the wild olives. Led by my husband, they seized the city. Perseus entered, draped in purple, with Danae and me behind him in his triumphal chariot. Soon after, we were married, and just as soon he left. No mere household can satisfy a son of Zeus, he said.

So Perseus left us to pursue new boasts, new conquests. I have carried his child these months; several of the handmaids show the signs as well, but I don’t speak of it. I will not shame them for a master who had his way with them, for I know what it is to have no say.

In the hill fort of Tiryns in Argolis, in my husband’s absence, I have taken the name Andromeda, “of men, the ruler.” When certain men voiced protest, Danae silenced them, and made the household our own. While her son goes out to play at manhood, she has taken the measure of the city and holds the reins, teaching me to see what she sees.

When the New Year comes, in the time of harvest, I hope to have enough Greek to go out into the hills and take part in the rites of the Mother and Daughter. I once might have hoped for a glimpse of Athirat, the mother I never met, but I know now that she will remain hidden, shrouded in mystery. What trust I have is in parents I can see, who hear my voice and answer.

Nevertheless, word comes now that the sea has calmed near Tyre. I have not seen it, but I believe. I know that I too have trod out the sea, unhindered by my savior from the sky.

The storm that seemed a boundless divine curse and the rescue that was my doom have brought me into a new life. From within our walls of stone, my mother and I are beginning to set right a kingdom neglected by men who leave to slake their thirst for deeds.

It is a quiet work we do in the household of the Gorgon-Slayer, but it is ours.

Connor Park is a writer and editor currently working at The Horn Book, a children’s literature review in Boston.