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I have the world’s most embarrassing parents.
No, hear me out. I realise every teenager says that. But whatever you’re dealing with, I promise mine are worse. I’m famous for it.
That’s the really annoying part about being a household name. You can’t control what people know, or choose not to know. And what I bet no one will ever mention when they tell this story, what they will conveniently forget, is that I am fifteen. Where I come from, that makes you silly and irresponsible. At least, that’s what it is half the time. When it isn’t the opposite. But that isn’t a compliment either.
Honestly, most of the time I just wish they’d make up their minds. You’re old enough to know better, they chide, but also, somehow, too young to know what you want. You’re too silly to make your own decisions, they’ll say one day, and the next, it’s time we started thinking about a husband for you. Too young to talk to boys unsupervised, but old enough for the marriage bed. Too young to decide, but old enough for a man to decide on me.
Can you imagine how boring it is being a teenage princess in the richest palace in the Aegean? We have bronze-clad armies ready to sail to war at my father’s command, half the archipelago sails to our shores to pay us tribute, but no one talks to me like I’m a human being. My mother thinks she owns me, my father really does own me, and while my life is a world apart from that of the actual slaves he owns, he’s still going to be selling me. To the highest bidder. Like a prize heifer.
Ugh. Bad choice of imagery.
Here, you see, we come to the reason for my being way out in front in the embarrassing-parents stakes. Everyone has this mortifying fascination with my mother’s bedroom preferences. Which is cringeworthy enough as it is before you even get into the specifics as to why. No kid should have to be so constantly forced to think about what their parents get up to in bed. Add in an entirely unfabricated allegation of bestiality, however, and you might start to realise that here is one reason I am glad I don’t go to school with the normal city kids.
If it had been any other kind of weird proclivity, it probably wouldn’t have got out. After all, I live in a place and a time that is really quite notorious for the kinds of goings-on that have at this point stopped raising eyebrows. And in any case, they’re the king and queen. People who know what’s good for them normally wouldn’t talk.
The problem was when the baby grew up. Because there’s really no way to pretend that the giant labyrinth you’ve engaged the best architect of the age to build has any other purpose than to imprison your eight-foot-tall, carnivorous, half-bull-half-human teenage son. I am Ariadne, and all I’m known for on this island is that my mother gave me a Minotaur for a brother.
You may be starting to realise why I find it so hilarious that my parents think themselves qualified to find me a suitable husband.
The hilarity is lost on them, however, and so the self-contradicting farce continues. As I see it, the only appealing part of the entire exercise is the possibility of getting off this ridiculous island. Escape from my absurd family drama. Escape from the place where I’m known entirely for being not just the daughter of the king and queen, but of that particular king and queen. I am Ariadne, and I will not be known just for that.
Of course the downside of this particular strategy is that it involves becoming the property of someone else instead, but it’s the best plan I’ve come up with so far.
And then one day, a ship glides into the harbour. A ship flying black sails, with Athenian colours on the mast. From that ship there disembarks a man with muscles you’d call too much if you saw them on one of the heroic statues in the palace entrance hall. He strides towards the palace and, after a brief overheard conversation, I know what he thinks he is there to do. In the same instant that I decide I absolutely despise him, it occurs to me that my ticket out of here has just arrived.
Which is how it comes about that two hours later I have performed the most mortifying display of abject adoration and vapid, simpering teenage flirting this world has ever seen. It’s so humiliating I almost can’t go through with it. But it’s worth every cringe when he comes back out of the dark mouth of the labyrinth, his tunic dark with the Minotaur’s blood, which he has only been able to spill because of the sword and string that he hands back to me as I run to meet him.
We must leave, I say at once. My parents will know.
Ah, he says, well—
You promised, I wheedle, half clutching, half caressing his scratched, bruised arm.
I sense the sigh he manages to repress. Don’t worry, I know exactly what he is. I bet the stories will call me madly in love with him. Not even slightly. He’s twice my age, and entirely in love with himself. He doesn’t have room for anyone else. But that’s not what matters.
What matters is that he sails me away from the place I couldn’t ever have escaped on my own. When we stop in on an island for the night, he looks resignedly at me, as if expecting me to throw myself at him, but I make a point of lying down on the sand some distance away. He doesn’t protest. For a moment before I fall asleep, I almost respect him.
And then the chill of early dawn jolts me awake and he is gone. Crew, ship, supplies, all gone. Fled in the night from a promise I wasn’t going to make him keep.
I don’t know how long I stand in the shallows, screaming abuse at the black sails shrinking towards the horizon. Coward, I yell. Ungrateful, cheating coward. We’re raised to wait for you to marry us, and then you’re too scared of commitment to risk so much as a thank you. I didn’t want you to keep me. I’d have left you alone the moment we landed in your harbour, let you carry on with whatever life you had before. You were just supposed to give me a chance at one too.
When my voice is all but gone, I turn away from the sea. I’ve got absolutely no way of getting away from this new island I find myself stuck on, so I might as well take stock of what I’m in for.
Not a soul in sight. Grey waves, grey sand, grey driftwood languishing beached along the tidemark. The bleached, sea-smooth gnarls look like unburied bones picked clean by seagulls. I’m trying not to project, but just now it’s hard not to imagine finishing up like that. I am Ariadne, and no one will even know I’ve died.
Something odd happens to my awareness; it’s as if I’ve skipped a few seconds. One moment I’m alone in the breeze on a shore made colourless by the bleak light of dawn. The next, there’s an explosion of cymbals and shrieking flutes, a chariot drawn by tigers careers to a halt in the sand in front of me, and from it springs – a god.
There’s no doubt that this is what he is. I know his name at once. The musical entourage is a dead giveaway, for a start, but even without it there could be no mistaking the wreaths, the garlanded staff, the eyes it hurts to meet, the sinuous, fluid form that never quite stays still. Of all the gods who could have taken an interest, it had to be the one with the talent for bewitching people.
Hello, he says, come with me. You were abandoned by the man Theseus. Become the consort of Dionysus.
One minute ago I would have said any way off this island would be fine by me. But not this, not this. Belonging to a god? It would be like being a flame that is never allowed to go out.
Why do you hesitate? he asks. I will give you anything you ask for.
His eyes stay on me even as he continues to sway to the music, his body an unbroken, ever-changing wave, every part of him moving except for his head, which stays statue-still as he watches me. The motion of his entire body is centred around that transfixing dart of a gaze, making me think of a bird of prey that beats its wings every which way against the wind in order to stay absolutely still, its eyes riveted on the hapless creature below.
His stare is so intense that I have to look away. No one could hold that gaze, not without beginning to succumb to what it holds. Still I say nothing, but once I’m no longer being pierced by those eyes, I realise that his words do at least bear thinking about. Take him? Never. But take what he offers?
I’m not stupid. I’m not going to be trapped into agreeing to binding conditions. But there is no if in what he has said. And I know that if I’m going to survive on my own, I could use a head start. I am Ariadne, and I will not end as bones without a name.
Steeling myself, I look back at the god. I still don’t know what I’m going to say, but it would be unwise to let him know that. Then my eyes flick past him, towards the entourage, who’ve finally stopped their racket to listen. And it comes to me at once.
Your tigers, I say. Give me your tigers.
He can’t hide his surprise. Without the music, he’s actually stopped dancing.
You’re a god, I continue. I bet you don’t need them. Me, I’m stuck here unless I can catch a lift. Can they walk on water?
He answers before the question registers properly. Yes, they can.
It’s as if that power in his eyes has gone dormant, and I can see him thinking. Wondering where he left the loophole. Really, you’d think being a god would make his thoughts beyond mortal comprehension, but actually they’re now written across his face just as clearly as anyone else. It’s exactly like watching Theseus looking for his way out. Except this time I’m a move ahead instead of behind, and he knows it.
The silence stretches out so far that I realise I know how this is going to end. Stupid, I rage in my head. You think you can outwit a god? Haven’t you learnt what happens to people who try to do that? This is a god who makes people other than themselves, who has only to shake his staff to make them dance to his tune. It doesn’t matter that you outsmarted him. He isn’t bound by words, or by what you want. Just like all the others, he’ll explain that you’re too young to know that and take what he wants anyway.
And then he smiles and steps aside. Well played, he says.
I think I do a fairly good job of looking as though I knew he would do that all along. Without a word I stalk past him and step up behind the tigers.
I don’t want to ask him how to control them. I wish I could, but then I would owe him. Instead, I glare defiantly at them as I pick up the reins. It’s just horses, I tell myself. Really furry, stripy, feline horses. I can drive a chariot with horses. How different can tigers be?
But they’re growling and lashing their tails. They know I’m not supposed to be there.
Then he realises. He takes them by the chin, one in each hand as if they’re kittens, and they can’t look away. You are hers now, he tells them, and the growling stops. When he straightens up, I nod at him. I can respect him for that.
Taking the reins into one hand, I pull my diadem out of my hair and chuck it down in the sand without looking where it falls. That is not how I will be known now. As I wheel the tigers round to face the empty shore, a bubble of joy dares to start swelling under my ribs.
May I take this? he asks.
I turn back. He is crouching in the sand, hand poised over the diadem.
Do as you like, I reply. It isn’t mine any more.
And I let the tigers have their heads, and we charge away across the sand.
There’s a flash from behind me, and I look back. The god is no longer holding the diadem, but high above him, bright even in the brightening sky, are seven stars in the shape of a crown. Not the crown it was, the one I inherited, fashioned by the royal line, but a shape that is entirely my own. Seeing me look, he calls after me.
So you will always be known.
About Alice Ahearn
Alice Ahearn is a writer and PhD student researching women’s translations of Latin poetry. Her writing has been published by the British Fantasy Society, The Incubator magazine, and Lightfall Literary Agency in The Obsidian Poplar. She has also reviewed for Culture Calling and Culture Whisper, and she was shortlisted for the 2017 Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize.
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