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Tender Feet of Cretan Girls, by Sarah Webb

Tender Feet of Cretan Girls, by Sarah Webb

I watch the dawn and her fingertips of rose unravel on the morning, the whole mile-wide sky like skeins fresh from the dyes of the madder root, while I stand with my toes curled over the concrete cliffs. They are cracked and slick with clinging seaweed and shell creatures and dark mold from the ocean below.

I spread a tincture of whipthorn blended with my own venom along the inside of my mouth and under my tongue especially, counting my breaths backwards as my nerves open wide, peering down the arid possibilities of the day, awaiting Her vision, teeming, impetuous.

I am undressed but it won’t matter soon enough, and besides, this era has retained its wise and founded fear of nude women appearing beside bodies of water, even ones as ancient and ugly as myself. I am a known omen not to be disturbed.

Five days ago, I took down the poster tacked above my desk of one of Giorgio de Chirico’s hundreds of Ariadne scenes. It had warped beyond appreciation. The blank building in which I lived and sold books had finally consumed the blank building within the picture. An arrangement of bare concrete has no business calling itself a dwelling anywhere with humidity, really. The walls in the house wept like a sacred image in the January moisture. The fog rolled off the Atlantic in the morning and lingered until supper, curling and corrupting my books like a tourist, and it didn’t even buy anything when it left.

Tourists did find me occasionally, when they were lost. Because the Azores are islands, visitors from elsewhere bring their colonial imaginations with them. The pastures of cattle, the pineapple plantations, the last tea field, and the taro root sprouting along the hot springs are all very much souvenirs of empire on the once bald archipelago. From downtown Ponta Delgada, tourists skimmed a map and saw that my jetty was a short walk past where the docks end. They hoped, because they were on vacation and this entitled them to fancy, that it was a sandy beach. Most Azorean coastline is, rather, rocky cliff and sea wall constructed from the same crumbling industrial conglomerate as my little home. It’s a different, thoroughly modern cousin to the mortars and cements we knew.

Tender Feet of Cretan Girls, by Sarah Webb

I believed a city that much more beautiful and enduring for the miracle of hydraulic limestone and those steadfast decorative flourishes of plaster fresco. I was intrigued by the process, by architects adding hair and blood and ash to improve the mixture.

And then, one hundred years ago, I watched an Englishman dissect a hilltop in our homeland and use the modern Portland concrete, reinforced with steel, to invent an elaborate structure on the site of our fabled lives. He built from his own designs and called it genuine, called it a resurrection, and sold the present as the past. As our past. Now I see his smug, unbaked loaf of a face in every building in every state of upkeep or neglect made of slurried stone.

Four days ago, I walked downtown to check my post office box. I set out in the midmorning during a drizzle of rain and passed the few other features on my jetty besides my home: a nightclub, a utility shed, and the great howling void of the ocean—sudden, mean, freezing cold, and gray as a callus.

As I approached the old part of the city, the streets and sidewalks transitioned from pavement to mosaics of black volcanic stone and white tile. I made my way along a sidewalk of pineapples and into a public square with a grand fountain. Nearby, an ornate wall, white with intertwining motifs of red flowers and gold stars. Then, the sloping, fading remains of an empty mansion, its grand gates and fences rusted and thick with the debris of abandoned fruit trees and untended gardens.

The white tile had become slippery in the rain. Along a side street embellished with wave and diamond shapes, I lost my balance. I fell to the ground face first, hands and knees out, and managed to bang up most of my joints and scrape my forehead. My reflexes are usually better, but this body was getting overripe.

The owner of a cafe, right across from where I lay heaped, darted out into the street and helped me to my feet. Finding no serious injury, he introduced himself as Dimas. He beckoned me inside, towards the warmth of the kitchen emanating over the lunch counter and two small tables. Seeing dry seats and smelling espresso, I nodded, muttering “Thank you, thank you,” with some disorientation.

Dimas had the television above the bar on the news. An elected leader solemnly encouraged people looking for work to simply leave the country. As Dimas dished me beef stew and bread and coffee, he told me about his daughter who had done just this.

“She moved to Somerville. Do you know Somerville?”

I said I didn’t. He explained it was in Massachusetts, in America, and there was a big Azorean population there already. He asked me if I understood and I said yes. He complimented my command of Portuguese despite my accent. Then he showed me a recent photo of his daughter, smiling and holding a tiny baby.

“I want to close this shop and move closer to my grandchild,” he explained. “But I don’t speak much English. I’ll be a burden on my daughter. She said that Americans expect their coffee to be made by young people. Who would hire an old fart like me? What would I do with myself?”

“You could retire, and stay home with the baby,” I suggested, “so she can work.”

A long silence followed. I could see an awkward regret in his body language, maybe all the days of his daughter’s own infancy or childhood that he’d been absent. There was something he could not excuse himself for.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said finally. I nodded, pretending that I had been minding my own business. I finished my food and drink, thanked him again, and excused myself.

Finally, I made it the remaining blocks to the post office and checked my mailbox. Small packages, solicitations, and a letter. I shuffled home to read them.

Kitane wrote that she’d received a vision of a red cyprus doorway. This time she would not reincarnate in the particular tradition of us snake women. This time she would pass through it willingly.

She also attached a new version of that story about you and your father and his white bull and the Athenian boy you’re always associated with, for my collection. I set the clipping aside and I sat down in my molting armchair in the corner of my empty book shop, watching the softcovers crinkle like delicate mushrooms.

With Kitane done, there are no more snake women but me, Ariadne. That is, unless you are somehow alive. How to find you, if you’re there at all? What charm or lure exists in all my fumbling powers? You are not in a place like these buildings are in a place. You are veiled by my grief, so obvious by these letters I cannot send.

I don’t agonize about eternity much. I just want my friends back.

Three days ago, I cleaned my desk in preparation for my own reincarnation. My collection of Ariadne stories, like the one Kitane sent me, were tagged, alphabetized, and annotated in the drawers. There’s a hundred true versions of what happened to you, and to us, and a thousand interestingly untrue versions, and a thousand-thousand uninteresting untrue versions.

But I am looking for your version, a closed text, a definitive narrative, though the Ariadne I knew as a girl would laugh at me for saying so. I’d ask you, were we friends or lovers? You’d answer, If I loved you, would it change anything? And so on until I’d beg you to decide your fate was with me.

Printing has allowed for canonization, which seems antithetical to the purpose of stories: things shared in context, much more about the teller, not dried out and hung up for solitary consideration. Still, I’m clearly not immune. I use the term “retelling” because of this enormous concern with authenticity, whatever that is.

Bookselling allows me to read widely and discover new instances of the telling of you, to feel something adjacent to love. Intimacy means something very different when you’re three thousand years old and have outlived your own relevance. There is a trope in fictions. The lonely agony of the cursed immortal. An enchanted what’s-it or who’s-it keeps some fool alive forever more. I dislike these brooding characters and their clumsy symbolism. Somehow they’re always frozen at their most sexually appealing.

No, no.

I relate much more to the white-knuckled shock of survivors. It’s that feeling of having time but no future. The sense that you are part of an endangered species, but too frightened or bitter or numb or off your gourd to cooperate with the other rare beasts. So I seek out remainders and reminders, and take what I can get. An aftermath impersonating a woman, irreconcilably over-guarded and over-generous, and surrounded by citations.

I heard about a serious attempt to excavate the Labyrinth of Knossos over a century ago. I set out to a place they now called Crete, for the first time since I last saw you some three thousand years ago. I couldn’t bring myself to try until then. I knew the place had seen a hundred other countries on its surface but this English archaeologist (wealthy grave robber) by the name of Sir Arthur Evans had specific interest in our country.

I stowed away on a supply ship and slept among crates of plum pudding, ox tongue, fruit salts, quinine, chocolate, and other repulsive English delicacies. When we arrived, I slithered away undetected. The first thing I did on land was take off my shoes.

I checked in for the long term at a crumbling rooming house. Visitors came and went as they pleased, without curfew, an informal brothel and drug den and place of worship and so much else. It reminded me of our Knossos, or my fantasy of our Knossos: the unraveled dream logic version conjured by three millennia of distance. I could feel the sea breeze in my bedroom with the windows locked and shuttered. At any hour I could hear women laughing, bickering, fucking, and singing. Wild flowers and sweet pipe tobacco helped mask the stench of rotting food and body odor.

That first night, I drank myself cross-eyed. I pulled at my hair and peeked out the window to watch the English soldiers and gentlemen, drunk and half out of their uniforms, come up to the side door of the building. They all had money in pocket, cigarette in mouth, and dick in hand, looking for the usual services.

I wondered if one might be Sir Arthur Evans, and if he might pay me for a fist fight instead. Violence can often suffice for closeness; I know this much about men. I reincarnate with whatever sex I see fit, and present myself according to whim as much as advantage, though what else I may be, I am always a snake woman in my practice.

I collapsed into the creaking bed frame and thin, grubby mattress. There was another occupied bed in the room. I blew out my candle and lay still, pretending not to notice she was too still and much too quiet to be asleep. In the pitch dark, I felt her watching me, letting her eyes fill up wide like ponds to receive and reflect me.

In the morning, I learned that Evans would pick his work crew at a local taverna, so I sought out the crowd. He hired both Christians and Muslims; that was his peacebuilding scheme. The solidarity, I suppose, of mutual exploitation.

The foreman rode up on his donkey, with Evans beside him on a horse. I made myself conspicuous. Someone’s child starved for my determination, most certainly.

The foreman asked for diggers, and I showed him my hands. He scanned me with his animal eyes and asked how a woman came across hands like mine.

“A long, hard life,” I snarled.

My hands have become massive and strange over the years. Every time I reincarnate, my face changes, my body reforms with its own nonlinear aging process, but it’s like my hands are ingrown. They reform the same, only knottier at the joints and beefier in the palms.

The foreman went from squinting to flinching, but could not argue with the evidence, so I was chosen along with thirty others for an initial crew of diggers, shovelers, barrowmen, waterboys, and washerwomen. I was so obviously not from anyone’s neighborhood. I am ugly and androgynous and intelligent. I am a beast. I intrigued the grave robbers. Evans himself stared at me.

I observed him in return as I walked behind the horse with the others to the site. From this I only gathered that he was not a patron of my boarding house. One invert knows another. What on earth would drive a person to excavate the ruins of someone else’s country? What reason to scavenge bones? I couldn’t get the image of a dirty, fractured skull out of my mind. I kept animating it backwards, putting the flesh back on, ringing out the dome with the bell of a living tongue.

I thought I might reclaim the graves before they were robbed. Then we arrived. Evans had a little tent set up for himself in the shade, complete with servants and a Union Jack on a flagpole. He was eager to have us get started. I was dizzy. I hadn’t eaten.

I expected to recognize the curves of the land. I expected to recognize that place as though it were merely in disguise. I really, truly believed I would look at the dry hill and form special insights.

I took up a shovel. At the end of the first week, the crew had only unearthed dirt and a little recent garbage. I remember thinking about you when I looked into the holes I had dug, thinking I might find you there instead of shadows. I remember feeling that this made sense. I remember that it was very hot and bright outside, but that I shivered.

Somewhere, buried in the subterrane of my mind, is a perfect map of the Knossos complex and Labyrinth. Somewhere are the names of every snake woman, the details of my initiation rites, my own family, my childhood, your father, your mother, the Minotaur, the gods and the heroes and the fall, and you. I strain to retrieve them, surrender to them, but nothing surfaces.

Instead, I recall the voice of a landlady from three lifetimes ago with perfect clarity, a sound more smoke and phlegm than language. I recall the best octopus I ever tasted. I recall a lengthy book I read, and sold, and the customer who bought it; an orange I peeled; a war in Byzantium; a king in Egypt; all these cumulative sensations and experiences I’ve had since.

But when I search the time where you should be, there’s response without action, tone without setting, mood without plot. All I possess of witnessing what happened to our lives and our love first hand is reflex and residue. Some days I forget to bathe and eat and sleep because I’ve been reminded of what I know but cannot think. I flinch, retreat within myself, lose time.

In my first thousand years, I was proud to have no trace of what must be shattering grief, a pride in what I thought was maturity, because I still did not yet understand that I am a great wounded bundle of coping mechanisms.

Then I thought I might cure my loss vicariously. I considered having children just long enough to wonder, envision, worry, despair, and discard the idea for the hundred fiftieth time. I’ve impregnated and been pregnant. Nothing seemed to take. I am outside the ability to place hope onto any other life.

I’ve known many children who grew up to maim and murder other people’s children, without so much as eating the bodies. It’s a senseless waste. People seem best equipped, historically, to breed tyrants. I am no different.

In those blackouts, those blank spaces, in the deepest base of my nature now, is but a pit of hungry serpents, eating their own young.

Two days ago, I dreamed about the poppy red yarn we dyed and wove with for our ceremonial skirts. We were good enough to turn sheep hair into something that draped around the moving body like flames. I saw after-images of the color as I dressed. I had a day or two, at the most, before it would be crucial to shed. Rain clouds loomed at the edge of the sky.

I hurried to the post office with my collection wrapped in two plastic shopping bags and tucked underneath my coat and against my chest. I would make copies of every entry, waterproof them, and mail them to trusted contacts in different corners of the world.

I passed by Dimas’ cafe. He came rushing outside as though I might slip again on cue and placed his body squarely in my path.

“Miss Isadora, my friend,” he addressed me, and I kept as neutral an expression as possible. If I lost my temper in public, I risked exposing my true nature to the town, and further complicating things.

“Mister Dimas,” I responded, and stepped aside to keep going on my way.

“I enjoyed our conversation from before,” he continued. “You are such a talented listener. I was wondering, I’m going to check on some business of mine near Furnas tomorrow. Do you want to come? There are two seats on my scooter.”

“And why would I do this?”

“It’s not bad alone,” he said. “But it’s better with company. We’d go along the coast and then up.”

“I know the way to Furnas. I’ve walked it.”

“It will be a treat then. The scenery is prettier when it goes by fast, but you’ll want to wear gloves. It can get very cold.”

If he threatened me, I would sink my teeth into his arteries and plunge venom into his veins and eat him whole. Maybe there would be a pit stop, a remote clearing, and I would obtain added energy for the tasks ahead of me.

“I suppose I have tomorrow free,” I said, sizing up his culinary appeal.

“I am delighted to hear it.” Dimas did look sincere. If it was a come-on or a trick it was a bold one. “I have a second helmet. And, you would have to hold onto me.”

He held up both hands in surrender when he said this.

“I don’t mind,” I said to him. “Some fresh air could be invigorating.”

“I will come pick you up,” he said as I strode off, and I nodded without turning back around, set to obtain my mailing supplies, but he did not impede me any further that day.

Sir Arthur Evans moved the fruitless dig uphill after the first weeks, and we unearthed a plaza and a room around a set of alabaster stairs descending into it, with a chair and a basin carved right into the stone.

Evans would appear from his villa at the end of each day and stroll among our findings, personally burdened with returning significance to every ceramic sherd. We would all wait for him to do this, caked in dirt and sun-tired, our feet blistering and our backs sore.

Tender Feet of Cretan Girls, by Sarah Webb

When he surveyed the plaza and stood in the alabaster room, basking in his own genius, he burst forth with giddy congratulations to the whole crew. He announced that we had discovered “Ariadne’s dancing floor” and “Ariadne’s throne room.” He mandated that we throw a festival. He meant to uncover, in our line dancing, residue of esoteric Minoan rituals. This was something the Cretan people, he believed, were too close in proximity to understand.

I barely restrained my impulse to eat him. I looked at this “dancing floor” and into this “throne room” and tried to remember the true layout and functions of our palace-temple. Every time I thought about it, the facts degraded.

An American filmmaker came to see “the real Labyrinth” and find inspiration within it, as so many artists did in those early years. He arrived with his arsenal of cameras, canisters, splicers, tape, assistants. My roommate took notice of him immediately. Her name was Eleni. I understood the trajectory of her ambition, and she begged me to attend the dances with her to catch his attention.

Eleni, her wide and quiet eyes in the dark, grew boisterous in the sun. I sensed she was new to being on her own and had important people looking for her. Whether this was a family, a fiancé, or a jailer was anyone’s guess. She had a way of getting things for free without having to steal, a charisma I lack, and I respected how she wielded it. She could read and write and told me that she wanted, more than anything, to be an actress.

Hand in hand on the dancing floor, we leapt into the air and spun, coiling and circling each other but always returning to a circle. We were barefoot and spry, performing whole-body prayer, hers crying out. I was midair, upside down for the entire experience as far as I know, my sweat wicking away in the hot wind, my hair hanging down to the stone like an escape rope, my tender feet holding up the sun. The filmmaker was delighted. Evans beckoned us to return to the line and behave more authentically.

I fixated on uncovering my own knowledge of the space. I remembered remembering. The more I obsessed, the more copies-of-copies replaced my certainty, until I dissolved any chance at reclaiming that legendary hole in the ground.

I had come to Crete and joined the Evans excavation in order to lord my expertise over him, and pocket sacred objects before they could be whisked off to the Ashmolean. Instead, I spent half a lifetime wiping sweat from my forehead and rubbing the sting of dust from my eyes with my monstrous hands. I watched as this man redesigned the rubble he found into impossible, triple story complexes of poured concrete and “restored” frescoes—really images entirely of his own direction with the modern hand of a father and son painting team.

At least I got my fill of British soldiers now and then, swallowing the ones who gave my boarding mates more trouble than profit.

The filmmaker left one autumn with his exposed rolls, his dance studies, his arsenal, and Eleni. He did eventually make a film about your story. She played a beautiful and treacherous Ariadne, who meets a tragic end, captivating the collective hunger of the viewer to witness a sex object destroyed.

I suppose she eloped willingly, though we slept together once, at her suggestion, the night before she left. With every kiss and caress, the deeper I pressed into her, the further from me she became. Outwardly, she appeared satisfied and tenderized, though I seemed to be, above all, nullifying rather than answering some question for her. I understood that I was helping her to leave. This was a relief for me. My focus, my center of gravity, was elsewhere, too.

Yesterday, before dawn and all through the morning, I purged my facade of a home, my veneer of a shop, my suggestion of a life. My next dwelling might be a mud puddle, a hay pile, the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Anything but that molding concrete bunker from this dying age.

I brewed a tincture of whipthorn and venom and set it aside to steep. By midday, little remained inside the building except my Ariadne collection, bundled neatly, transforming all those excerpts, fabrications, and forgeries into a sacred text.

What am I without them? Without you? What else but this graphomancy can reaffix my memory, can answer me when you do not?

I heard the putter of Dimas’ scooter, approaching then idling outside. I threw on my coat, stormed outside, and climbed onto the back saddle of the canary yellow Vespa. We headed east along the coast, through the outskirts and into the pastures and villages. It was a cool, humid afternoon with plenty of wind even before we got up to top speed.

Some village houses were like my own. Others were bigger, older, had brick foundations and barn roofs. Most were a quick, uneven slab of material with a leaking roof. A building, even a hideous and clumsy one, expresses some kind of narrative, about the future as much as the past.

Dimas steered us inland, and I leaned my body with the turn and glanced as far behind me as I could. The dark ocean and the misty grounds of a church and monastery shrunk to a backdrop and then vanished. My knees ached from straddling the bike. The air whipped the warmth out of my hands and sound from my ears. I tentatively rested my chin and then my chest against the back of his hunched shoulders.

Lagoa do Fogo on the road to Furnas, in the heart of São Miguel, is a deep, marvelous cerulean lake nestled in a valley of volcanoes. The hot springs there are diverted along with a cold water source into a bathing park, and oxidized iron in the surrounding soil turns all of the water the color of spiced oranges. Buried pots of stew cook in the boiling mud. Dimas slowed along one side of the lake.

It hadn’t occurred to me to ask what business exactly he had up here, especially in the off season. We continued on through the town, some woods, a field of sheep, and finally pulled over in front of a tiny parish and graveyard. The sun broke through the overcast haze as Dimas dismounted the scooter and approached a plot in the graveyard.

I hopped down and stretched my old bones and waited at a distance. Did he want me to hold some immaterial weight for him, or simply witness the state he was in?

“Miss Isadora,” he began—so I stepped forward. “I’m moving to Massachusetts to live with my daughter, and I don’t think I will have it in me to make visits back once I do. Not while I’m alive at least.”

“Are you threatening to haunt me?” I teased.

“Definitely,” he said. “Haunt, or send mail.”

“Well, good luck with that. I am moving on as well, so your ghost will have to find me.”

“Retiring too? Where is your family?”

I scratched at my arms and ashen scales flaked off. My skin was taut, itchy, gray.

“Mm,” I shook my head. “No family anymore. I think.”

“Not even a cousin’s cousin?”

“I’m the very last one.”

Dimas looked at me hard-lipped and aghast.

“How do you bear it?”

“Oh, so I should kill myself instead? No. I’m still learning to live well. Any thought of dying well is premature. Give me another thousand years, at least.”

Give me until the sun swells to an angry, deadly red and swallows the whole planet.

Dimas gestured at the ground.

“This plot has my wife’s family.” He pointed to each marker. “Those two are her parents, there is her brother, and here she is.”

“Saying goodbye?”

“No, apologizing.”

“Oh, you pitiful creature.” And I felt that immaterial weight of his after all and deliberated how to grapple with it. “You needed a confessor. This is why you asked me along, isn’t it?”

“I cannot deny that is one way to see it.”

“Then out with it.”

“I was indifferent to my wife, and she knew it. I married her for her family, and nothing else. There.”

“They were wealthy?”

“No. I was in love with her brother.”

“Ah. Well.” One invert knows another. “Did he love you back?”

“I don’t know.” Dimas stood in silence for a moment. “I had my one life with my wife and my daughter, and this other life with him. He would speak to me like a brother-in-law in every other setting, but say nothing at all when we were passionate. It was like he needed to keep his words and actions in separate worlds, just as I had to divide my own world between him and his sister.”

I waited while he wept for several minutes.

“Am I a bad person, Isa? Am I a coward? What if I had controlled myself? Been devoted to one or left them both?”

“And what if you had?” I snapped. He looked so pathetic, I salivated. “If I absolve you, can we leave? Would a different life resemble how you imagined it? Weren’t you all cowards? Isn’t the world ultimately hostile towards unmodeled happiness? Did anyone force your wife to marry you?”

“No …” He said. “She wanted a baby. A daughter, in fact.”


Dimas half nodded and half shrugged.

“Don’t you ever wish you’d been just a little better, or more useful? Isn’t there anyone you could have just been kinder to?”

I laughed with all the bitterness in me, Ariadne, which was hardly fair to Dimas. Yet, in the hideous release of that air, I jostled some small ache in the middle of my chest that had sat so long I hadn’t realized I was carrying it anymore. All at once, there it was, come loose and rattling about in my ribs, hardening my throat and my humors and the very glands of my venom. It was a memory, forgotten, and then retrieved, and then it exploding in a great starburst of anger, so that like Dimas, I stood there, possessed and weeping.

You took me by the wrist, before I could scratch my tattoos again.

“Stop it,” you whispered. “It’s gross. Your arms will rot off.”

Pasiphae had seen a vision and declared a state of waiting for King Minos to return after seven years of travel, trade, and pillage. We all stayed high above the docks, looking like a flock of harpies in our open bodices and poppy red skirts and capes, all those gold rings, bare feet and lean muscles from leaping over bulls for fun.

Pasiphae, the only one in murex-purple, stood on the walls at the far edge of the garden, cupped hands shading her eyes, fixed on the horizon for signs of the fleet.

“I’m not painted, I’m engraved,” I whispered to you, waving my arms, and you laughed through your nose with a little snort. The gold pins fastening your hair glittered beneath the vines.

“I’m a cuneiform tablet,” I continued. “I’m scrimshaw.”

I wanted you to keep laughing, to never stop laughing, to exist forever in that half moment as a plump, happy girl with a clear purpose, with self possession.

Pasiphae shouted something I did not hear. We all gathered by the wall outside the shade and climbed it to look. Blue shadows bloomed around our feet in the late sun. We watched the ships arrive, and the dignitaries swarm to meet King Minos.

They were all Minos, him and his father and all of their fathers before that. Officially, there had only ever been one king, the same demigod reincarnated for the whole length of our national memory. I knew nothing of your family life yet. To be a princess seemed terribly glamorous, but there had never been an incarnation of Minos with an interest in his daughters. You came to the snake women the same as the rest of us, she-runts and step-children, unfit for marriage, obsessive, posturing, amoral.

Against the wash of battered bodies from the ship’s galley, Minos conducted his procession in a black tunic, with a gigantic white bull on a chain at his side. He looked stark and infallible against the grizzle of his sailors and his slaves. The bull had aura of purpose behind its eyes. It looked right at us and I heard you gasp, and I felt you shiver, and you withdrew from the crowd to be alone. I scratched my arms, and they wept a yolky fluid.

Dimas and I ate lunch at a small restaurant in Furnas, and I saw on his crinkled face an expression of resolution where there had been agony just hours before. My hostility and cynicism must have read as intelligence and wisdom to his generous nature.

He smiled at the server with a mouth full of cake.

“This is the best food I have had in so long,” he remarked, spraying wet crumbs on the table, the floor, himself, me.

It could be that simple for him, that elegant. But though I, too, felt the bleary release of a good cry, no comfort came. Unlike Dimas, I did not know who or what exactly my tears were for. The weight in me remained. I poked at the bun of my hamburger, wishing I had devoured the easy prey across from me before losing my appetite altogether. If my next life were to be any different, I thought, I would have to know a slaughter from a sacrifice. The change would have to be my own.

Oh, Ariadne.

You can grieve for the possible futures you eliminate by making an important choice, even when your choice is undoubted. Choosing is extremely powerful magic. Its power derives from the death of what is not chosen.

“As a practitioner,” Pasiphae once told us, “do not take for granted that all power derives from death, unless you are a god—and you are not a god.”

Dimas took my giant hands in his own. He said nothing of their size or deformity, nothing of the thick crust of dead skin loosening off them and ready to slough.

“Thank you, my friend, thank you,” he said. “You have helped me.”

“All I did was yell at you,” I replied.

“Yes, yes,” he said, nodding. “Thank you, again.”

A sensation of pinpricks of crept throughout my belly.

Dimas insisted on paying for lunch, and drove us back into the city with his helmet visor up, singing tunelessly into the whiplash of cold air. He dropped me at the jetty.

Just before dawn, I undressed and walked outside to the edge of the water with my tincture and my collection. I set it down on the cliffside and imagined it an altar, then tore each one into ribbons and devoured every scrap. I cleansed my mouth with the whipthorn and venom.

The sky, sea, tiles, bricks, containments and remainders, bled away. For a moment I heard the faintest static of the crashing waves and the whistle of airplanes, and then I was elsewhere, elsewhen, beyond the veils of consensual reality.

A marble complex with twisting hallways and hidden passages. A pair of bovid horns, polished and hollow, with gilding over the serrations where they were sawed from the carrion of their owner. They are vessels resting on a pedestal painted with a motif of monsters. The monsters are dying or slain, but as if by sudden will. There’s not a hero or a weapon among them.

I touch the horn-cups and the darkness brimming within them ripples. I bring one to my nose to discern the aroma. It is not sea water, or poison, or potion. It is not wine, or blood, or medicine.

I drink and find myself in another room. Everywhere around me are the cold bodies of the dead. They are a hundred fifty generations dense and piled atop one another, stored neatly like grain baskets and amphora. Their eyelids are open but their eyes have been replaced with orbs of copper, silver, gold, iron, stone, lapis lazuli, ruby, ivory. I look for you among them but I cannot find you there.

I do find Kitane and her blank expression, two perfect spheres of mercury.

“So soon?” I ask her, to no effect, of course.

I drink again and find myself in another room. Everywhere around me are the warm bodies of the living. They are consumed by their work. The weaver rips her yarn out and starts over, but she is smiling. The potter smashes his wares, the glaze still wet, and sets back down by his wheel with a gleam of mischief. An inventor turns out marvel after marvel and sets them aflame, laughing and prancing around each immolated genius. I look for you among them but I cannot find you there.

I drink again and find myself in Her incomprehensible presence. I cannot perceive Her, not yet, not until She wills it, but I feel Her dividing my existence. I refract into triplets, the sacred impulses of living, dying, and reproducing. There are no simple opposites, no dualism or dichotomy. Persisting consorts with negation and multitude. A white hot, piercing absence; a rich black mulch of abundance; a difficult prism of stasis.

My nerves burn, my blood boils, and my skin sweats and thickens. The horn-cup drops and I collapse. My organs liquefy and pool out from every orifice. My bones soften to jelly. My heart becomes a hard thing, like a tumor and then like a stone, until it bursts out of the limp hollow of my insides, and expands. It grows into a whole self. I am newly perpetuated, flush with blood and mucus. All is too loud and too bright. I am weak, except for my hands. With them, I cannibalize the sour remains of my old body for nourishment.

There in the acid of my former belly are all the tattered assertions about us, the chewed and distilled bits of myth from my collection. This world that keeps you alive assigns so much contradiction to you. A thousand-thousand iterations of Ariadne. How well I know each one. Ariadne is a painting, a poem, an opera, and a session of psychoanalysis. Ariadne is the dream of a foreign archeologist swallowed whole in his sleep by a monster. Ariadne is remembered by her sisters in ophidian sorcery. Ariadne is culpable for the fall of Knossos. Ariadne is mad with love. Ariadne is self-destructive. Ariadne is abandoned. Ariadne is unrecognizable. Ariadne is unmarried. Ariadne is a way of talking about the past. Ariadne is a way of talking about women. Ariadne is furious.

Have I not kept track of you well, my love? Or have I reduced you, just the same as countless others, by doing so?

In a moment I will return to that keeping world, renewed, reborn. The serpent is eternal and shrewd. The Goddess will grant me my new life, for the sacrifices I have made.

When She reveals Herself to me, She is towering and muscular and bare chested. A lioness sleeps in Her braided hair. A golden serpent winds around each long, bronze arm. She picks the horn-cup from the ground and holds it in one hand, like it were the the most delicate little thorn. In Her other hand, its twin, still brimming. Questions simmer in me. Questions rife with ingratitude and yearning froth forth in the vulgar limits of speech.

She smiles, and just to witness it, I am at once broken and in bloom. I weep and tremble at Her feet. I feel Her reassemble my existence, allow my feeble and repulsive reincarnation to return through the veil. Before I wake to an unfamiliar morning, I see only Her face. Her eyes are dark as caves, an endless and indescribable fecundity, the blackness that is beyond blackness. I look for you inside it but I cannot find you there.

Julian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer living in Salem, Massachusetts. In 2016 they and their partner were artists-in-residence for a “Science Fiction and the Human Condition” themed residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska. Their work can be found on their website,, and they tweet @JulianKJarboe.
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