My favourite short essays were Go Carolina, Genetic Engineering, You Can’t Kill the Rooster, The Youth in Asia, The Great Leap Forward, Nutcracker.com, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa and 21 Down.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
I ran down a list of recent crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume,
I liked the idea that a part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.
Baking scones and cupcakes for the school janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing turned out to be a girl thing.
I tried to avoid an s sound whenever possible. “Yes,” became “correct,” or a military “affirmative.” “Please,” became “with your kind permission,” and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called “endless pestering” and what I called “repeated badgering,” my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything.
Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around them as best I could; “rivers,” for example, became either “a river or two” or “many a river.”
Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities
Mr. Mancini had a singular talent for making me uncomfortable. He forced me to consider things I’d rather not think about – the sex of my guitar, for instance.
Beneath my moral outrage was a strong sense of possessiveness, a fury that other people were sinking their hooks into my own personal midget. What did they know about this man?
I’d always thought of Mister Mancini as a blowhard, a pocket playboy, but watching him dip his hamburger into a sad puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and came to see him as a wee outsider, a misfit whose take-it-or-leave-it attitude had left him all alone. This was a persona I’d been tinkering with myself: the outcast, the rebel. It occurred to me that, with the exception of the guitar, he and I actually had quite a bit in common. We were each a man trapped inside a boy’s body. Each of us was talented in his own way, and we both hated twelve-year-old males, a demographic group second to none in terms of cruelty. All things considered, there was no reason I shouldn’t address him not as a teacher but as an artistic brother.
MY FATHER ALWAYS STRUCK ME as the sort of man who, under the right circumstances, might have invented the microwave oven or the transistor radio. You wouldn’t seek him out for advice on a personal problem, but he’d be the first one you’d call when the dishwasher broke or someone flushed a hairpiece down your toilet.
To me, the greatest mystery of science continues to be that a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests.
We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.
I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take… I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task.
Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist
Physically she’d been stitched up more times than the original flag, but mentally nothing seemed to touch her. You could tell Gretchen anything in strict confidence, knowing that five minutes later she would recall nothing but the play of shadows on your face.
True art was based upon despair, and the important thing was to make yourself and those around you as miserable as possible. Maybe I couldn’t paint or sculpt, but I could work a mood better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately, the school had no accredited sulking program and I dropped out, more despondent than ever.
Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant.
Speed heats the brain to a full boil, leaving the mouth to function as a fulminating exhaust pipe. I talked until my tongue bled, my jaw gave out, and my throat swelled up in protest.
It seemed as though I should play hard to get, but after a moment or two of awkward silence, I agreed to do it for what I called “political reasons.” I needed the money for drugs.
I thought briefly of checking myself into a hospital, but I’d seen what those wards looked like and I’ve always hated having a roommate.
You Can’t Kill the Rooster
We might not have been the wealthiest people in town, but at least we weren’t one of them.
The drug laws had changed as well. “No smoking pot” became “no smoking pot in the house,” before it finally petered out to “please don’t smoke any more pot in the living room.”
The Youth in Asia
When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother arranged the puppy in a casserole dish and popped it in the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. “Oh, keep your shirts on,” she said. “It’s only set on two hundred. I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.” The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.
When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother’s healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope; apparently she could resurrect only the cute dead.
When she was six months old, Mädchen was hit by a car and killed. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German shepherd, which the same Cindy thoughtfully christened Mädchen II. This tag-team progression was disconcerting, especially to the new dog, which was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor.
My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she’d stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, “Hey, you got a saddle for that thing?” When out for a walk there was the inevitable “Are you walking her, or is it the other way ’round?”
A week after putting her to sleep, I received Neil’s ashes in a forest green can. She’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her back up.
My mother sent a consoling letter along with a check to cover the cost of the cremation. In the left-hand corner, on the line marked MEMO, she’d written, “Pet Burning.” I had it coming.
The Learning Curve
I’d always hated it when a teacher forced us to invent something on the spot. Aside from the obvious pressure, it seemed that everyone had his or her own little way of doing things, especially when it came to writing. Maybe someone needed a particular kind of lamp or pen or typewriter. In my experience, it was hard to write without your preferred tools, but impossible to write without a cigarette.
My students had been admitted because they could admirably paint or sculpt or videotape their bodies in exhausting detail, and wasn’t that enough? They told funny, compelling stories about their lives, but committing the details to paper was, for them, a chore rather than an aspiration. The way I saw it, if my students were willing to pretend I was a teacher, the least I could do was return the favor and pretend that they were writers.
The Great Leap Forward
I’d never devoted much time to envy while living in Chicago, but there it had been possible to rent a good-size apartment and still have enough money left over for a movie or a decent cut of meat. To be broke in New York was to feel a constant, needling sense of failure, as you were regularly confronted by people who had not only more but much, much more.
In the late afternoon we would often be visited by one or more of the failed Beat poets who always, very coincidentally, seemed to find themselves in the neighborhood. They were known for their famous friendships rather than the work they had produced, but that was enough for Valencia, who collected these men much the same way that her neighbors collected Regency tea caddies or Staffordshire hounds.
Somewhere along the way she’d got the idea that broke people led richer lives than everybody else, that they were nobler or more intelligent. In an effort to keep me noble, she was paying me less than she’d paid her previous assistant.
I’d never cared for any of the self-proclaimed Marxists I’d known back in college, but Patrick was different. One look at his teeth, and you could understand his crusade for universal health care. Both his glasses and his smile were held together with duct tape.
In an effort to impress his latest parole officer, Richie was trying to improve his vocabulary. “I can’t promise I’ll never kill anyone again,” he once said, strapping a refrigerator to his back. “It’s unrealistic to live your life within such strict parameters.”
I began to change in subtle ways and quickly lost patience with people who owned too many books. What had once seemed an honorable inclination now struck me as a heavy and inconvenient affectation. The conversation wasn’t as sparkling, but I found that I much preferred the stuffed-animal collectors. Boxes of records made me think that LPs should be outlawed or at least limited to five per person, and I soon came to despise the type who packs even her empty shampoo bottles, figuring she’ll sort things out and throw them away once she’s settled into her new place.
In yesterday’s restaurants it was possible both to visualize and to recognize your meal. There were always subtle differences, but for the most part, a lamb chop tended to maintain its basic shape. That is to say that it looked choplike. It had a handle made of bone and a teardrop of meat hugged by a thin rind of fat. Apparently, though, that was too predictable. Order the modern lamb chop, and it’s likely to look no different than your companion’s order of shackled pompano. The current food is always arranged into a senseless, vertical tower. No longer content to recline, it now reaches for the sky, much like the high-rise buildings lining our city streets.
City of Angels
That was the root of the problem right there. Visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than they will in New York, a city founded on the principle of Us versus Them. I don’t speak Latin but have always assumed that the city motto translates to either Go Home or We Don’t Like You, Either. Like me, most of the people I knew had moved to New York with the express purpose of escaping Americans such as Bonnie. Fear had worked in our favor until a new mayor began promoting the city as a family theme park. His campaign had worked, and now the Bonnies were arriving in droves, demanding the same hospitality they’d received last month in Orlando.
A Shiner Like a Diamond
My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughters’ physical beauty. It is, to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance with the intensity of a pimp. What can I say? He was born a long time ago and is convinced that marriage is a woman’s only real shot at happiness. Because it was always assumed that we would lead professional lives, my brother and I were free to grow as plump and ugly as we liked. Our bodies were viewed as mere vehicles, pasty, potbellied machines designed to transport our thoughts from one place to another.
Following the photo shoot, she wore her bruises to the dry cleaner and the grocery store. Most people nervously looked away, but on the rare occasions someone would ask what happened, my sister would smile as brightly as possible, saying, “I’m in love. Can you believe it? I’m finally, totally in love, and I feel great.”
I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.
Call me naive, but I seem to have underestimated the universal desire to sit in a hard plastic chair and stare at a screen until your eyes cross. My father saw it coming, but this was a future that took me completely by surprise.
Word processors made writing fun. They did not, however, make reading fun, a point made painfully evident by such publications as The Herald Family Tribune and Wossup with the Wexlers!
The word phobic has its place when properly used, but lately it’s been declawed by the pompous insistence that most animosity is based upon fear rather than loathing.
Unlike the faint scurry raised by fingers against a plastic computer keyboard, the smack and clatter of a typewriter suggests that you’re actually building something. At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.
See You Again Yesterday
living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.
The French have decided to ignore our self-proclaimed superiority, and this is translated as arrogance. To my knowledge, they’ve never said that they’re better than us; they’ve just never said that we’re the best.
Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines.
Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.
In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom.
The Tapeworm Is In
There are only so many times a grown man can listen to The Wind in the Willows, so I was eventually forced to consider the many French tapes given as subtle hints by our neighbors back in Normandy.
Make That a Double
Having undertaken the study of Hard French, I’ll overhear such requests and glare across the room, thinking, “That’s Mister Steak to you, buddy.” Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
Nothing in France is free from sexual assignment. I was leafing through the dictionary, trying to complete a homework assignment, when I noticed the French had prescribed genders for the various land masses and natural wonders we Americans had always thought of as sexless, Niagara Falls is feminine and, against all reason, the Grand Canyon is masculine. Georgia and Florida are female, but Montana and Utah are male. New England is a she, while the vast area we call the Midwest is just one big guy.
Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa
Having protection suggests that you are important. Having that protection paid for by the government is even better, as it suggests your safety is of interest to someone other than yourself.
Rather than surrender to my bitterness, I have learned to take satisfaction in the life that Hugh has led. His stories have, over time, become my own. I say this with no trace of a kumbaya. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser. When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.
WHEN ASKED “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.
Because my former boyfriend was so good-looking, I had always insisted that he must also be stupid, the reason being that it was simply unfair for someone to be blessed with both chiseled features and basic conversational skills. He was, of course, much smarter than I gave him credit for, and he eventually proved his intelligence by breaking up with me.
The New York Times puzzles grow progressively harder as the week advances, with Monday being the easiest and Saturday requiring the sort of mind that can bend spoons.
I found myself delighted by genuphobia (the fear of knees), pogonophobia (fear of beards), and keraunothnetophobia (the nineteen-letter word used to identify those who fear the fall of man-made satellites). Reading over the lists, I found myself trying to imagine the support groups for those struggling to overcome their fears of rust or teeth, heredity or string. There would definitely be daytime meetings for the achluophobics (who fear nightfall), and evening get-togethers for the daylight-fearing phengophobics. Those who fear crowds would have to meet one-on-one, and those who fear psychiatry would be forced to find comfort in untrained friends and family members.
The City of Light in the Dark
Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment, on a par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought. It’s not that the movies have gotten any more strenuous, it’s just that a lot of people are as lazy as I am, and together we’ve agreed to lower the bar.
I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag
Whenever my government refuses to sign a treaty or decides to throw its weight around in NATO, I become not an American citizen but, rather, America itself, all fifty states and Puerto Rico sitting at the table with gravy on my chin.
People are often frightened of Parisians, but an American in Paris will find no harsher critic than another American. France isn’t even my country, but there I was, deciding that these people needed to be sent back home, preferably in chains. In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.
I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed
We paid our admission and joined the hundred-odd spectators seated on the collapsible bleachers. They were our neighbors, the people we saw while standing in line at the bakery and the hardware store. The mayor breezed by, followed by the postman and the train conductor, and each of them stopped to say hello. While others might find it stifling, I like the storybook quality intrinsic to village life. The butcher, the stonemason, the sheep farmer, and the schoolmarm: it’s as though these figures came in a box along with pint-size storefronts and little stone houses. In a world where everyone is known by their occupations, Hugh and I are consistently referred to as “the Americans,” as if possessing a blue passport was so much work that it left us with no time for anything else. As with the English and the Parisians, we’re the figurines who move into the little stone houses once the tailor flies out the car window or the cabinetmaker has his head chewed off by the teething dog. Sold separately, we are greeted with an equal mix of curiosity, civility, and resignation.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so cheap, but I rationalized it by reminding myself that it wasn’t my fault this person was trapped. I hadn’t told her to go on the ride. The management clearly had no plan for getting her down, but that wasn’t my fault, either. I told myself that my interest was compassionate and that my presence amounted to a demonstration of support. I didn’t know about the others, but I was needed.
I failed to realize that intelligence tests effectively muck with both your past and your future, clarifying a lifetime of bad choices and setting you up for the inevitability of future failure.
The Late Show I’M THINKING OF MAKING a little jacket for my clock radio. Nothing fancy or permanent, just something casual it can slip into during the wee hours. I’m not out to match it with the curtains or disguise it to look like something it’s not. The problem is not that the clock radio feels underdressed, the problem is that I cannot bear to watch the numbers advance in the heartless way common to this particular model. Time doesn’t fly – it flaps, the numbers turning on a wheel that operates much like the gears on a stretching rack.
After prison I publish a novel under an assumed name. The book is Lolita word for word, and I’m allowed to write it because, under the conditions of the fantasy, Vladimir Nabokov never existed. Because it is so magnificent, my book creates a huge stir. Reporters go hunting for the author; when they discover it’s me, I think, Goddamnit, can’t you people find anything better to do? I now have a reputation as both a dignified enigma and a genius, but I don’t want people reading Lolita because I wrote it. My masterpiece is demeaned by their pointless search for a hidden autobiographical subtext, so I give up writing, live off of the money I’ve made from careful stock investments, and quietly spend the rest of my life sleeping with professional football players.
I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing
Why would a full-grown man place a foreign object into his mouth, especially if it was brown and discovered in a rarely used suitcase?
The reference to figs was telling. My father hid them until they assumed the consistency of tar, but why did he bother? No one else in the family would have gone anywhere near a fig, regardless of its age. There were never any potato chips tucked into his food vaults, no chocolate bars or marshmallow figurines. The question, asked continually throughout our childhood, was, Who is he hiding these things from? Aside from the usual insects and the well-publicized starving people in India, we failed to see any potential takers.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits. It would’ve been all right if he’d saved my life some really extraordinary number of times, ten or thirteen or so—thirteen is a number with distinction. Orion Lake, my personal bodyguard; I could have lived with that. But we’d been in the Scholomance almost three years by then, and he hadn’t shown any previous inclination to single me out for special treatment.
If I did give in and start using malia, I’d be sailing through here borne on—admittedly—the hideous leathery bat wings of demonic beasts, but at least there’d be some kind of wings.
my great-grandmother took one look at me and fell down in a visionary fit and said I was a burdened soul and would bring death and destruction to all the enclaves in the world if I wasn’t stopped.
I would instantly trade in my room for the yurt in the woods, even after two full weeks of rain when everything I own is growing mildew. It’s an improvement over the sweet fragrance of soul-eater. I even miss the people, which I’d have refused to believe if you’d told me,
I’d explain what the void is, but I haven’t any idea. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live in the days when our cave-dwelling ancestors stared up at this black thing full of twinkly bits of light with no idea whatsoever what was up there and what it all meant, well, I imagine that it was similar to sitting in a Scholomance dorm room staring out at the pitch-black surroundings. I’m happy to be able to report that it’s not pleasant or comfortable at all.
the problem with living in a persuadable space is, it’s persuadable in all sorts of ways. When you end up on the stairs with six people rushing to the same classroom as you, it somehow takes you all half the time to cover the distance.
there’re only three academic tracks here: incantations, alchemy, or artifice. And of those three, incantations is the only one you can practice in your own cell without having to go to the lab or the shop more than the minimum. Alchemy or artifice tracks only make strategic sense if you’re someone like Aadhya, with a related affinity, and then you get the double advantage of playing to your own strengths and the relatively smaller number of people going for it.
One of the girls once told me I was the color of upsettingly weak tea, which isn’t even true but has occupied a niche in my head ever since, as persistent as a vilhaunt.
People seem to have no trouble convincing themselves that I’m dangerous and evil even when they aren’t actively looking for reasons. Of course, I could have killed him just by draining his mana, but I didn’t want to actually become a maleficer and then go bursting out of this place like some monstrous butterfly hatching from a gigantic chrysalis of doom to lay waste and sow sorrow across the world as per the prophecy.
There’s no such thing as a sick day in here. Staying in the residential halls all day just means that whatever things are making their way up from below for the nighttime feasting get a midday snack. No one stays in unless they’re all but dead anyway.
If you happened to look too long at a sliver of papyrus while going past, the school might decide you were now studying that language, and good luck figuring out the spells you’d get then. People can end up spell-choked that way: you get a dozen spells in a row that you can’t learn well enough to cast, and suddenly you can’t skip over them anymore to learn any new ones, even if you trade for them. Then the spells you’ve already learned are all you’ve got for the rest of your life.
If an aisle is taking longer to walk, there have to be more bookcases on the same subject, and the more books the library has to dredge up out of the void to fill them. If you’re going slow enough to look at all the spines, you’re almost sure to find a really valuable and rare spellbook among them. So the school is almost sure to let you make progress instead.
It’s not that she thinks he’s the product of irresistible historical forces or anything. She says it’s too easy to call people evil instead of their choices, and that lets people justify making evil choices, because they convince themselves that it’s okay because they’re still good people overall, inside their own heads.
Scholomance decides how to reshuffle the walls to hand out the extra space. The only way you can deliberately change to another room is if you take it, and not by killing someone. You have to go into their room and push them into the void.
The unwritten rule is, if you fix a broken piece of school furniture, you get dibs on it for the rest of the term. The rule goes out the window often enough when there’s someone more powerful on the other side,
And this time was worse, because I couldn’t make excuses for them. All these years, whenever someone took advantage of me, shoved me out of the way, left me exposed, for their own benefit, at least I’ve been able to do that. To tell myself that they were only doing what anyone would do.
That’s all that magic is, after all. You start with a clear intention, your destination; you gather up the power; and then you send the power traveling down the road, giving the clearest directions you can, whether it’s with words or goop or metal. The better the directions are, the more well-traveled the road, the easier it is for the power to get to where you want it to go; that’s why most wizards can’t just invent their own spells and recipes. But I can blaze a trail to Mordor anytime I want,
We’re cannon fodder, and human shields, and useful new blood, and minions, and janitors and maids, and thanks to all the work the losers in here do trying to get into an alliance and an enclave after, the enclave kids get extra sleep and extra food and extra help, more than if it was only them in here. And we all get the illusion of a chance. But the only chance they’re really giving us is the chance to be useful to them.
It felt strange to have that thought, like it didn’t belong in my head. It’s always mattered a lot to me to keep a wall up round my dignity, even though dignity matters fuck-all when the monsters under your bed are real. Dignity was what I had instead of friends.
when a construct goes malicious, one of the first people it heads for is its maker, and anyone around them who might have contributed to its creation. It creates a tidy vulnerability that helps the construct suck out their mana.
Oh, how I’d enjoyed all that sweet crisp righteous anger, my favorite drug: I’d nearly ridden the high straight into murder. This sensation felt murky as sludge by comparison, thick with exhaustion.
There were a thousand spells in my mouth ready to go: I could have killed all five of them with a word, or for variety’s sake I could have imprisoned their minds and made them my helpless slaves.
If someone’s giving you a hard time, that’s your problem; if you’re giving someone a hard time, that’s their problem. And everyone else will ignore any situation that’s remotely ignorable, because they’ve all got problems of their own.
And all of that was what induction meant to everyone. A tiny infusion of hope, of love and care; a reminder that there’s something on the other side of this, a whole world on the other side. Where your friends share whatever has come to them, and you share back.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
On the Nature of Gods
Conditions, constrainment. These were novelties to my father, and gods love nothing more than novelty.
My aunt had said that some of the lesser gods could scarcely bear to look at him, but I was his daughter and blood, and I stared at his face so long that when I looked away it was pressed upon my vision still, glowing from the floors, the shining walls and inlaid tables, even my own skin.
We gods eat as we sleep: because it is one of life’s great pleasures, not because we have to.
His eyes darted whenever I addressed him. I realized with a shock that I knew such gestures. I had performed them a thousand times—for my father, and my grandfather, and all those mighty gods who strode through my days. The great chain of fear.
“In my kingdom of Colchis, I have done such things and more, much more. Called milk out of the earth, bewitched men’s senses, shaped warriors from dust. I have summoned dragons to draw my chariot. I have said charms that veil the sky with black, and brewed potions that raise the dead.”
I was used to my thick-shouldered uncles with their white beards, not such perfect, careless beauty. When sculptors shape their stone, they shape it after him.
Of course she had. She was a poisoner at heart; she wanted to be sure I came as villain, not savior.
My sister laughed, her most silver-fountain sound. It was calculated, like everything she did. Minos raged on, but I was watching her. I had dismissed her coupling with the bull as some perverse whim, but she was not ruled by appetites; she ruled with them instead.
My brother, Ariadne had called it. But this creature had not been made for any family. It was my sister’s triumph, her ambition made flesh, her whip to use against Minos. In thanks, it would know no comrade, no lover. It would never see the sun, never take a free step. There was nothing it might ever have in the world but hatred and darkness and its teeth.
“That is absurd,” I said. “They would run screaming.” “Nymphs always do,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a secret: they are terrible at getting away.”
On Grandiosity & Violence of Settings and Beings
But he liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.
Her face was gray and pitiless, as if cut from living rock, and from her back dark wings lifted, jointed like a vulture’s. A forked tongue flicked from her lips. On her head snakes writhed, green and thin as worms, weaving living ribbons through her hair.
My flesh bubbled and opened like a roasted fruit, my voice shriveled in my throat and was scorched to dust. The pain was such as I had never imagined could exist, a searing agony consuming every thought.
It was the forest that drew my eye. It was old growth, gnarled with oaks and lindens and olive groves, shot through with spearing cypress. That’s where the green scent came from, drifting up the grassy hillside. The trees shook themselves thickly in the sea-winds, and birds darted through the shadows. Even now I can remember the wonder I felt.
Until that moment I had not known how many things I feared. Huge, ghostly leviathans slithering up the hillside, nightworms squirming out of their burrows, pressing their blind faces to my door.
All who were wise feared the god Apollo’s wrath, silent as sunlight, deadly as plague. I had the impulse to look over my shoulder, to make sure he was not striding across the sky already, his gilded arrow pointed at my heart.
But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth.
I could feel it. That unwholesome air had thickened, coating everything with an oily heaviness. Miasma, it was called. Pollution. It rose from unpurified crimes, from deeds done against the gods, and from the unsanctified spilling of blood.
The story was so ugly, so outlandish and disgusting, that it felt like a fever breaking. If I was trapped on this island, at least I did not have to share the world with her and all her kind.
On the Human Condition through Their Eyes
No one had ever confided so in me. I drank down every story like a whirlpool sucks down waves, though I could hardly understand half of what they meant, poverty and toil and human terror.
“Most gods have voices of thunder and rocks. We must speak soft to human ears, or they are broken to pieces. To us, mortals sound faint and thin.”
Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch our attention. The merely good: you are dust to us.
My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.
It did not matter if Penelope and Telemachus were kind. It did not matter even if they stayed for their whole lives, if she were the friend I had yearned for and he were something else, it would only be a blink. They would wither, and I would burn their bodies and watch my memories of them yellow and fade as everything faded in the endless wash of centuries.
On the World through Circe’s Eyes
I could do what I liked at those times: light a torch and run to see the dark flames follow me. Lie on the smooth earth floor and wear small holes in its surface with my fingers. There were no grubs or worms, though I didn’t know to miss them. Nothing lived in those halls, except for us.
The thought was this: that all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.
I did not mind the emptiness either. For a thousand years I had tried to fill the space between myself and my family. Filling the rooms of my house was easy by comparison. I burned cedar in the fireplace, and its dark smoke kept me company. I sang, which had never been allowed before, since my mother said I had the voice of a drowning gull.
Because I knew nothing, nothing was beneath me. My powers lapped upon themselves like waves. I found I had a knack for illusion, summoning shadow crumbs for the mice to creep after, making pale minnows leap from the waves beneath a cormorant’s beak.
It was a novelty to me, noticing the expressions shaping themselves on my face, the movement of the words across my tongue. So much of my life had been spent plunged up to the elbows, tacking now here, now there, spattered and impulsive. This new feeling crept over me like a sort of distant sleepiness, almost a languor.
But his voice then was like a balm upon my raw skin. I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.
I wished then that we had conceived a child together, to be some comfort to him. But that was a young and silly thought: as if children are sacks of grain, to be substituted one for another.
He had sat at my hearth showing no hint of anything but charm and smiles. What resolve that must have taken, what vigilant will. But no man is infinite. Exhaustion stained his face. His voice was hoarse. A knife I had named him, but I saw that he was sliced down to the bone. I felt an answering ache in my chest.
There were pleasures there, but in truth the greater pleasure was after, when we lay together in the darkness and he told me stories of Troy, conjuring the war for me spear by spear.
When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world. It was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together: his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.
My wife, he always said, when he talked of her. My wife, my wife. Those words, carried before him like a shield. Like country folk who will not say the god of death’s name, for fear he will come and take their dearest heart.
“Nothing she says has a single meaning, nor a single intention, yet she is steady. She knows herself.” The words slid into me, smooth as a polished knife. I had known he loved her from the moment he’d spoken of her weaving. Yet he had stayed, month after month, and I had let myself be lulled. Now I saw more clearly: all those nights in my bed had been only his traveler’s wisdom. When you are in Egypt, you worship Isis; when in Anatolia, you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.
It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke.
The Fates lured and tricked. They set obstacles to drive you into their toils. Anything might serve them: the winds, the waves, the weak hearts of men.
The man I had lain with so many nights, dead from the weapon I had sent, dead in my son’s arms. The Fates were laughing at me, at Athena, at all of us. It was their favorite bitter joke: those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats.
“No god may undo what is done by the Fates or another god.”
On Circe’s Son Telegonus
I used to do small spells in his presence, hoping one might catch his eye. But he never showed even the faintest interest. Now I saw why. Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it.
I thought of all the hours I had carried him there, his skin against mine. I had wanted him to walk freely in the world, unburnt and unafraid, and now I had gotten my wish. He could not conceive of a relentless goddess with her spear aimed at his heart.
When he was a child I used to make lists of all the things I would do to keep him safe. It was not much of a game, because the answer was always the same. Anything.
His face, so full of its bold hopes, made me feel old. His youth had swelled in him, ripening. The dark curls hung into his eyes, and his voice had deepened. Girls and boys would sigh over him, but all I saw were the thousand soft places of his body where his life might be ended. The bareness of his neck looked obscene in the firelight.
I had kept the face of the world veiled from him. I had painted his history in bright, bold colors, and he had fallen in love with my art. And now it was too late to go back and change it. If I was so old, I should be wise. I should know better than to howl when the bird was already flown.
“I cannot accept that,” I said. “My son must live.” There is no must to the life of a mortal, except death. ” Athena had been barred, yet there still remained all the ordinary dangers of the island, rocks and cliffs and stinging creatures that I had to pry from his hands. Whenever I tried to reach for him, he would run, darting and defiant, towards some precipice. He seemed angry at the world. The stone he could not throw far enough, his own legs, which did not run fast enough.
He was a great river in flood, and I must have channels ready every moment to safely draw his torrent.
The men scarcely ate. They were growing towards him like vines to sun, their faces awestruck, competing to tell him their stories. I watched, wondering at where such a gift had hidden in him all this while.
There was a sort of innocence to him, I thought. I do not mean this as the poets mean it: a virtue to be broken by the story’s end, or else upheld at greatest cost. Nor do I mean that he was foolish or guileless. I mean that he was made only of himself, without the dregs that clog the rest of us. He thought and felt and acted, and all these things made a straight line. No wonder his father had been so baffled by him. He would have been always looking for the hidden meaning, the knife in the dark. But Telemachus carried his blade in the open.
I thought of the land Athena had described. The rolling hills, crowded with their heavy fruits and fields of grain, the bright citadel he would build. He would hand down judgments from a lofted chair in its sunniest hall, and men and women would come from far and wide to kneel to him. He will be a good ruler, I thought. Fair-minded and warm. He will not be consumed like his father was. He had never been hungry for glory, only for life.
Thought Provoking Aphorisms
However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.
It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.
“It is not fair,” I said. “It cannot be.” “Those are two different things,” my grandmother said.
“Anyway, he is eager to imagine how such strength may be used to his benefit. His worry is over Zeus. He must paint us just right: that we are threat enough that Zeus should think twice, but not so much that he is forced to act.”
I understood something then. My sister might be twice the goddess I was, but I was twice the witch.
Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.
Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.
I loved his certainty, his world that was an easy place of right action divided sharply from wrong, of mistake and consequence, of monsters defeated. It was no world I knew, but I would live in it as long as he would let me.
Long ago, in my wide bed, I had asked Odysseus: “What did you do? When you could not make Achilles and Agamemnon listen?” He’d smiled in the firelight. “That is easy. You make a plan in which they do not.”
Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.
Beautifully Crafted Sentences
I imagined her infernal voice, howling out my name. I imagined manacles rattling on my wrists and the whip striking from the air. But my mind could imagine no further than that. I had never felt a lash. I did not know the color of my blood.
I do think he loved me a little. For before I could say the thousand humiliating things in my heart, all the proofs of passion I had hoarded, the crawling devotions I would do, I felt his power come around me.
But when he turned to me, I felt the shock of that old love between us. It was only my father’s presence that kept me from hurtling into his arms.
I should say goodbye, I kept thinking. But my cousins flowed away from me like water around a rock.
The fear sloshed over me, each wave colder than the last. The still air crawled across my skin and shadows reached out their hands. I stared into the darkness, straining to hear past the beat of my own blood. Each moment felt the length of a night, but at last the sky took on a deepening texture and began to pale at its edge.
I had forgotten how vivid she was, how beautiful. Even in her pain, she commanded the room, drawing all the light to herself, leeching the world around her pale as mushrooms.
Daedalus did not long outlive his son. His limbs turned gray and nerveless, and all his strength was transmuted into smoke. I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
Yet, as strange as it sounds, even in such extremities of misery I was not wholly miserable. I was used to unhappiness, formless and opaque, stretching out to every horizon. But this had shores, depths, a purpose and a shape.
Overhead the constellations dip and wheel. My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands. All my life I have been moving forward, and now I am here. I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest. I lift the brimming bowl to my lips and drink.