I have this flutter in my chest. Thebes, the defeated city, smolders before us, Athens already behind us, and I flutter, I flutter, I can't speak.
“It's a long way to Thrace,” Tereus says, as if he can read my mind, as if he knows what this is like: to be away from home for the first time, to see again my sister, his wife, after all this time, to meet their child. And then he smiles, because, for him, this is a victory trip.
Here, in the defeated city, in the middle of a battlefield, Tereus shows me the captured, the wounded, the dead. “These were your Father's enemies, princess,” he tells me, his voice staccato and clear so everyone can hear him. “Enemies I helped defeat.” He says this like I owe him, like he owns me. Perhaps he senses I don't understand, because he brushes my cheek with his fingertips and adds: “They were your enemies, too.”
I look around, at so much misery, at so much ruin. “They are not my enemies any more?” I ask.
He laughs. He gestures with his arm towards the ruined men, the ruined houses, the ruined fields. “They are nothing,” he says. “There is no one here any more.” He motions towards the mounds of ashes, the bodies, the limbs. “These people are no more.” And then, “They are people no more.”
Tereus stirs the soft dirt on the ground with the tip of his boot. “Our soldiers blinded the warriors they captured,” he explains, “recited the stories of Cadmus and his sown men while they did it.” This is our special, Athenian breed of irony. “You of all people should understand.”
I don't know what to say and so I don't say a thing.
“Birds caught your tongue?” he jokes.
A chorus of men follows us around, pretending to be there for my own safety. They sing Tereus' praises whenever I look away, in full-throated voices, recounting all he's done and all he'll do: how he won Procne for helping Father win the war; how he fetched me to heal my sister's loneliness in the faraway land; how he desired me on the ship, how he tore, how he cut; how he hid me away in a hut; how I wove my story into a tapestry and snuck it into his palace and to my sister's hands; how we killed his child, how we cooked, how we set the table, how we fed; what his face looked like when he saw he had become his own son's tomb; how his axe gleamed in pursuit; how Zeus—
How we flew.
We walk through the blood-drenched battlefield, my feet sinking into the land sown with salt and fabled teeth, and I wonder what it is about land that compels people to die for it. Behind our army's tents, I glimpse the piles of slaughtered horses—slaughtered by their riders, my enemies, so they wouldn't fall to foreign hands, wouldn't ride under foreign thighs. And behind the piles of horses I glimpse the lines of conquered women—of prize women and loot women and women falling in line, their bodies taken the way one takes a plate, or a loser's favourite wine jug, or a piece of precious cloth.
Speakers across the camp blare out recordings of Labdacus, the speech-impeded king of Thebes. His tongue, fractured, speaks the language of loss.
Someone has wrapped the speakers with barbed wire, so that no one can pull them down.
Later, when we will be on the ship, on our way to my sister, when the sun will have risen over the wine-dark sea, and there will be but one lonely star left in the sky, about to go out, Tereus will show me his astrolabe. “It means star-taker,” he will say, and he will talk to me of navigating the seas, and then he will sing a song, long and slow, of being a thousand million waves away from home. He'll sing it with his golden voice, and then he'll ask,
“Do you miss your sister, Philomela?”
I will lean against the ship's gunwale. The salt in the air will burn into my skin.
“I do,” I'll say. “Very much.”
I will remember her then, sitting at her vanity, in front of her mirror, the night before she was given to Tereus.
She let her head drop to the side, and then she undid the pin that held her tunic fastened at the shoulder. Then she started working on the bare skin of her clavicle, speaking love-words to her future lover, as if he were in the mirror in front of her. She said:
“Look. See how I reveal myself to you?
How I peel back the skin, the muscle, the bone—
When I was small, I used to dress up as a girl
wore a scarf over my head
pretended it was hair
wove lace onto the tender skin underneath my
When she got to the flesh of her neck, her fingers exposed her trachea and she took a deep, deep breath. It sounded like an old, rusty war siren. She said: “Can you hear the wind? It fills my lungs. I used to think I could sail all the way to the sun on wind like that.”
“Do you?” I will ask Tereus on the ship. “Miss her, my sister, your wife?”
He will rub his forehead and he will look out to sea, and he will not say a thing.
“Are you hungry, princess?” Tereus asks. Our trip through the battlefield has worn him out and his stomach growls. Slaughter is good for the appetite.
He takes me to a tavern owned by a Theban man who sold his own people to his enemies (to us) to save only his skin. The chorus serenades us with verses torn from other people's myths: they sing of a bull who was a man who was a river who was a god; of love's poison-dipped arrowhead, its wounds impossible to heal; and of a burial shroud woven and then undone, then woven again and then again undone. I stare at a wall still standing across the tavern, its surface covered with dozens of names, scratched white on soot. Andromache, Andromeda, Alexandra, the wall reads. Lycos, Labdacus, Oedipus. And Tereus. Tereus, Tereus, Tereus, the blood-inspired king.
Tereus exchanges pleasantries with the tavern owner, who lights a candle for us and places it on the table between us. Tereus orders us fish; he doesn't ask what I want. When our food arrives on chipped white porcelain plates, he cuts the fish open for me.
“This fish fed on the flesh of our enemies,” he says.
I don't know if he's joking or not, but he laughs. The fish tastes like ashes.
He sips his ouzo and his attention shifts away from me. I listen out, wishing for birdsong to stir the heavy Theban air. There is nothing. Are there no birds left here, then? Did they slaughter all their birds, too? I want to ask this, but I don't, because Tereus is reading his newspaper, and he does not like to be disturbed. On the front page, a woman is holding the severed heads of her sons. A woman like a battlefield, sown with bones and the blood of young boys who had never seen Athens.
The thought strikes me as clear and electric as Zeus's thunderbolt: There is no limit to what a body can turn into, under the right circumstances.
I watch Tereus. He's left his captain's cap on the empty seat next to him. His grey hair is streaked with black. Thick lips under a thin moustache. His eyes—deep and cypress green—have always reminded me of forests. The golden chain on his neck catches the light from the candle, and suddenly I have another memory, from the future and from long ago, as these things tend to go with people like us: the golden chain hanging above me, moving back and forth against his manly neck, in rhythm with my pain.
And his hands. His hands I know. His thin fingers end in long, well-kept nails. He's wearing a golden ring with a black stone. I remember that ring. His wrist is wrapped with a bandage stained with blood. I asked him about it once. “An old wound,” he said, from some battle he couldn't even remember or couldn't tell apart from all the rest. “It keeps bleeding every now and then, for no reason.”
Without taking his eyes off his newspaper, his fingers fish a cigarette out of his breast pocket. He brings it to his lips, bends over and lights it on the candle flame.
“My mother used to say a sailor drowns every time someone does that,” I blurt out before I have a chance to stop myself.
He glances at me with his forest eyes. His glance means, The silly things women believe in.
Before we end our tour, Tereus decides we are to go to the theatre. An out-of-town troupe is doing a revival of Ninagawa's Medea.
What for? I want to ask. Why Medea? To entertain our soldiers with cautionary tales about the treachery of women? Wild women, barbaric women, women not falling in line. The cast is all-male, of course.
The theatre's façade has been repainted, but the inside still bears the marks of destruction, hastily concealed—piles of rubble covered with old drapes; peeling walls plastered with posters and portraits of actors now dead; marbles corroded and cracked. In the foyer, I pause before a copy of Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi—all tenebrist shadows and shocking light, the man's blood soaking the sheets, his head almost severed, his limbs bent at the elbow, at the knee, hers straight, pushing down, sleeves rolled up.
I wonder if they ordered it in especially. For Medea, for us.
The front-of-house staff fawn over Tereus as they usher us in. We have VIP seats—newly sewn purple velvet and elevation, so everyone can see us—we a spectacle as much as anything that happens on stage. Our chorus of men scatters in the stalls and waits for the performance to begin. Silent, for once.
Tereus rests his hand on my knee. The black stone on his ring catches the light just so. He will keep his hand there through the entire performance.
Before the lights dim, he explains to me that Medea's is a story about love. This is after the trip from her homeland to Greece. After she killed her brother and chopped him to pieces to slow her father down, but before she killed her boys.
I've seen it all before. So many Athenian plays are set in Thebes, but this one takes place in Corinth. It would be too much otherwise, wouldn't it, too much of a wound, this close to their defeat? The theatre-ruined Thebes against the backdrop of the Tereus-ruined one.
In the scene where Medea renounces her love for Jason, Tereus leans towards me and tucks my hair behind my ear with a familiarity that implies he's done this a thousand times before, and that he can do it a thousand times more. He tells me that, in the theatrical vocabulary of this troupe, placing a roll of red ribbon inside an actor's mouth signifies an expression of love. His voice is loud; he doesn't bother with whispers, and nobody dares to shush or correct him. On stage, Medea is pushing her fingers inside her mouth so deep I think she'll gag. She draws out a wide ribbon, red like blood, like fire, like the colour of Athenian dowry. My hand flies to my lips. The chorus of Corinthian women throw back their heads and reach into their mouths too. Out come the ribbons, one by one, infinite, in long, gliding gestures. The women spew out their love, meter after meter, regurgitate it, choke on it.
In the end, Medea flies to the sun. She remembers the Black Sea, the plundered father, the pieces of her brother, and weeps.
It's dark already when we leave the theatre. I can no longer see the ruin, but the smell of blood and burning lingers in the air. The sky is pregnant with suns.
“A pleasant night,” Tereus says. He turns to me. “Did you enjoy the play?”
I am distracted by the distant sound of water falling from great heights. “Are there waterfalls in Thebes?” I ask, knowing full well this land has always been a valley.
“We ripped the Earth apart and all the Ocean's waters sipped through the middle,” says Tereus with his voice of gold, and the chorus laughs the cruel laughter of victorious men.
I think about the names of the women on the wall. Andromache, Andromeda, Alexandra. Warrior names, harsh names, names that recite the repelling of men. If these women had bodies still, they would be barbed wire. If they turned into anything still, it would be barbed wire.
And I think about the names of men. Lycos, Labdacus, Oedipus. Wolf names, wounded names, names that carry pain.
I share my thoughts with Tereus. I want to ask what his name means. “Tereus,” I whisper. I choke on his name. My cheeks burn like I'm lit with fever. He laughs.
Finally, we sail. On the ship, I look up at the night sky, and the women in the stars recite their stories to me: the daughter chained to a rock; the women turned into bears; the sisters turned into doves and then turned into stars. And then they speak my own story back to me, not in choral verse sung with conviction but in half-breaths and sighs and whispers. Can anyone hear them but me? Can anyone hear them but us?
Tereus drinks with his chorus of mates while I listen to the waters of the world pooling towards the broken core in the middle.
Then, later, I steal into the captain's quarters. Tereus sleeps the victor's sleep, sprawled on his bed, drunk on his victory. I glance at his star-taker, locked in its gleaming case, and then at the display of dead birds, collected over many years—lines of sparrows and finches and nightingales pinned carefully to the wall above his bed.
I walk closer to the bed, the flutter in my chest stronger than ever. If I could sing now. If I had wings now, my mind starts, but it stops short of my ending. I take it all in: his axe resting next to his pillow, his breath laced with aniseed, the star-women still speaking their faint light through the windows of his room. I make up my mind.
Philomela, I tell myself. Philomela.
I take his axe and then I take his head.
I never get raped.
He never takes my tongue.
We never kill his child, my sister and I.
No god ever turns us into birds.