This story is paired with Chapter XX of Bulfinch’s Mythology. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
When she is five years old, she discovers that names have meaning. She runs barefoot over the mosaic floors to Melete, her nurse. Melete catches her headlong with an arm under her ribs and knocks the air out of her. She has to take a moment to regain her breath, swallowing hard to soothe her raw throat. “What do I mean?” she asks at last. She knows the sounds of her name, knows them better than anyone, has no idea what they could mean that is not encompassed in her small warm body.
“Strong-born,” says Melete. “Because you came out kicking. You were eager for life, my little dove, and you gave your lady mother quite a time of it. That’s why she called you Iphigenia.”
It doesn’t mean princess, which is what she is, or queen, which is what she will be one day, and so she is a little disappointed. But then she wriggles free of Melete’s grip and races back down the low cool hallway to the pool where her mother keeps a school of striped combers. She dabbles her toes in the shallow water and lets the fish nibble at them, and she thinks that it might not be so bad to be born strong.
* * *
She finds Artemis two years later. She knew about Artemis before, but only in a vague sense, with no meaning or image to put to the name. But in the spring of her seventh year, the palace at Mycenae echoes with the groans of her mother, brought to bed at last of another child, and Iphigenia is not strong enough to bear that. She runs until she can no longer hear the harsh animal cries, over stone and grass, through water and dirt, up the temple’s marble steps that glow white in the sun. She catches her breath at the top of the steps, clinging to a column. Sweat trickles into her eyes; the glare of sun on white stone blinds her. When her own panting fades, she realizes she can no longer hear her mother’s labor.
Only then does she feel safe enough to look around. She glances over her shoulder, keeping one hand braced on the column to steady herself. The muscles of her legs burn with belated weariness. The glare makes her head pound. She lets go of the column and takes a dizzy step toward the inner shrines, where the sun only falls in strips and patches.
There, finally, she sees the statue. Sunlight ripples over long rounded limbs. The parallel line of arm-and-arrow is perfection; the drawn-back elbow mirrors the curve of the bow. Atop her head, her hair is twisted under a simple diadem; it is effortless, as if the goddess herself did it a moment ago, nothing like the endless ages of curling and crimping whenever Iphigenia’s own hair must be done. The goddess’s eyes are set deep and wide. Her mouth curves like her bow, stern and pure and beautiful.
No one else is in the temple. Iphigenia falls to her knees. Her heart is a frantic fluttering wing between her lungs, her soul a soft strain of music whispering out with her breath. All her life she’s murmured the words of devotion. Only now does she realize what she has been saying.
Her father’s favorite god is Zeus; her mother worships Hera and Demeter. Let them keep their domestic deities, bound to the drudgery of daily life by their own intrigues and duties. Iphigenia will consecrate herself to Artemis, the maiden huntress, the eternal girl running barefoot in the wood. She bows her head before the goddess’s piercing eyes.
When she returns to the palace, Artemis walks with her. Iphigenia can feel her presence hovering all around her, a cloak flung over her shoulders, a sentinel with bow drawn to shoot any who would harm her. The knowledge that the goddess is watching makes Iphigenia stand straighter, lift her head higher. Robed in Artemis’s protection, she stands at the doorway of her mother’s birthing chamber. She sees the newborn infant, her baby brother, tucked into the cradle of her mother’s arm; she sees the midwives fuss over them both; she sees the way all eyes glide over her, only a girl, easily forgotten.
A few hours ago, she would have been hurt. Standing beside Artemis, she feels strong enough to bear it.
* * *
By the time Orestes has his first bow, Iphigenia has been shooting for four years. When her mother refused, she took her courage in both hands and begged a favor of her father. When he refused, she tied a string to the ends of a green twig and played with it on the drill grounds until a soldier from Crete took the hint and carved her a real bow. It was sized for a child, but the stave warmed in her hand and she knew Artemis smiled on her.
Artemis has an archer brother. She wonders if Apollo smiles now on Orestes, taking his first shots on the drill grounds. He struggles with the draw of his bow; their father insisted it be a challenge. Iphigenia could count on one hand the times her father has spoken to her, yet there he stands beside his four-year-old son, walking him through drawing and sighting.
Your father was kinder, she tells Artemis. He gave when you asked.
A slight breeze ruffles the tendrils of hair on her neck, escaped from their tight coils. So ask, says the goddess.
She seizes a bow from a practice rack of them. Orestes jumps at the thud her arrow makes when it hits the target; his own arrow wilts limply off the string, clattering into the dust. Their father whirls around and sees Iphigenia ten full feet behind them, bow in hand.
Her place is beside her mother, silent and pale and pretty–but she has sworn herself to Artemis. She lifts her chin. “Have I hit the white, sir?” she calls to her father.
He stands motionless. He does not quite see through her; he is too angry to pretend she doesn’t exist. Beside him, Orestes begins to cry. Their father strikes him across his fair curly head with one open hand. “Is that how a man behaves?” Agamemnon demands. “Even your sister is a better shot than you. Draw again.”
Her hands itch for another arrow. Now that excitement has faded from her eyes, she can see that she has not hit the center of the target. Her arrow, fired in haste with a speeding heart, has struck the second circle from the white center. Forgive me, lady, she thinks. I have failed you.
Another breath of wind, stronger than before. It carries Orestes’s childish shot awry, sending it nose-first into a tuft of grass. In spite of herself, Iphigenia smiles. The gods’ messages are never hard to read.
* * *
She sees her aunt–Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world—only once.
She is thirteen, three months new to her cycle, when Helen visits Mycenae. It is on the occasion of Clytemnestra’s third lying-in; no longer pregnant herself, Helen arrives to help and to celebrate. Her own newborn, a girl, is back in Sparta with a wet-nurse.
Helen comes to Mycenae with a great train in tow. Iphigenia does not see that. She is old enough now to assist in the birthing room herself, and accustomed enough to being overlooked that she does not run away again. It is a shock to see her cool reserved mother red-faced and swearing on the birthing stool. It also shocks her that the midwives swear right back, and dig their fingers into the soft flesh of their queen’s arms and thighs, and even laugh when the only alternative is to scream. Birth is a woman’s battlefield; she did not expect to find women linked as close in camaraderie as soldiers.
For the first time, she wonders at her oath to a virgin goddess who will never know this blood-forged bond.
Then Helen (the fire, the torch, the light that burns the eye) appears in the doorway.
Iphigenia stands frozen, a sweat-damp cloth in her hands, streaks of blood drying between her fingers. Helen is taller than any woman she has ever seen, with a swan’s neck and hair like the sun. She stands at rest like a statue of a goddess, her scalding blue gaze sweeping over the blood-stained, disheveled women before her. She smiles when she finds her sister.
Clytemnestra—the schemer, the cunning one—rears up from the birthing stool as a contraction releases its grip on her. “You came,” she says, her voice torn with shouting.
“I wanted to,” says Helen.
Iphigenia’s mother has time for a short harsh laugh before another contraction lays her low.
Helen directs her women to help, but Iphigenia notices she never touches her sister with her own hands, nor does she step farther into the room. Instead she waits on the edge of things, watching the battle like a hawk, a serene and darkly amused presence in the back of everyone’s mind as they grapple with the foe, which is death.
They nearly lose them both. The child is turned the wrong way inside the womb. It is too painful to reach inside and turn it. It must be turned. It is dead. There is blood, an ocean of it, pouring from between Clytemnestra’s thighs, and carried along on the tide a tiny infant, blue covered in red. One midwife seizes it and cleans its nose and mouth out with a hollow reed; Iphigenia and the others wipe up the blood, shove cloth between the queen’s legs, coax and sing and shout and slap her awake.
The child cries out then, a thin piercing wail, and Clytemnestra forces herself back into the world of the living. The blood slows; the afterbirth slides out; three midwives carry the queen back to her bed. Iphigenia finds herself holding her new sister in her archer’s arms: the two princesses of Mycenae, alone with each other and the white-faced woman in the doorway.
Her mother falls asleep before she can name the baby, and the king is out hunting. So the task falls to Iphigenia. She thinks of the moment they thought the child was dead, a corpse cradled inside a living thing. She names her sister Electra, after the prized amber stones that sometimes carry an ant or a spider, many centuries dead, inside their glowing core.
* * *
She takes her mother’s place in the hall while Clytemnestra recovers. It is a joke. She is slight and small with an angular face; she vanishes, seated between her royal father and her golden aunt. For once, Iphigenia welcomes her invisibility. It gives her a chance to study her aunt.
In all particulars, Helen is a perfect queen: beautiful, gracious, charming, and majestic. She plays the part far better than Iphigenia’s own mother. But that it is a part, Iphigenia never doubts. There is something wild in Helen’s heart, something chained strongly down that nevertheless lashes free a bit at a time. A throaty laugh, a sideways glance, even a tilt of the head that lets the fire dance just so on bare white skin. No wonder she didn’t come into the birthing room. Helen is already at war with herself.
She is a hunter, Iphigenia thinks, the first female hunter she has ever seen. Cut her free and she’d run wild into the forest, shaking her hair loose and climbing trees with her legs dangling bare in the sunlight. But for all that, Artemis’s hand is not on her. There is a frenzy to Helen’s hunting that the deadly archer goddess cannot condone. Helen has no cool-headed instincts, only the thrill of the chase, the fever of pursuit.
Iphigenia does not know whether Helen chases herself or someone else. She suspects that Helen will never stop chasing.
Helen leaves a week later for Sparta. Iphigenia will never see her again.
She sees herself instead. Watching Helen has made her think of beauty. She can see flashes of it all around her now. Her mother’s favorite attendant has a swift light step that makes her look like she is floating. The thick hair coiled behind Melete’s head reveals the line of her neck and shoulders, as graceful as Iphigenia’s own bow. The curl of fingers around a wine cup, the soft swell of breasts beneath a linen dress, a sudden perfect smile. Iphigenia is learning what she sees as beautiful.
She learns, too, that she sees differently than the others. Her mother’s unmarried women talk constantly of men, of his arms or his legs or his face. Iphigenia knows every man whose name passes their lips. She looks at them with new eyes, eyes that are learning to see beauty. She cannot see it in them. They leave her unmoved. They are powerful, and that compels a second look. But power for its own sake is not beautiful.
What about Artemis? she wonders then. Surely her beauty lies in her power.
She goes back to the temple and kneels before the statue. The truth comes to her with the same clear force as a bolt of lightning, thrown sharp and brilliant to strike the waiting earth. All that she has recognized as beauty is cast in the mold of the goddess. Proud lean lines, strong bones, a rare elegant curve: human beauty, for her, is rooted in the form of Artemis. And yes, her power is the key to her beauty. But it does not stand alone, as a man’s power does. Iphigenia follows the line of the goddess’s eyes, sighting forever down her arrow. She is the protectress of the young, the patron of those who cannot yet fight for themselves. She is beautiful because she loves the weak, because she takes them to her heart and stands between them and the world.
As she took Iphigenia. As she has sheltered her for eight years.
Something unfolds in Iphigenia. There is gratitude, there is worship, but those are the smallest parts of what she now feels. This breathless singing joy has no name. There is no word that can encompass it all: the sweetness and the ache of it, the glorying in beauty and the desperate loneliness of feeling what cannot be shared. It leaves her dizzy on the floor of the temple. She stares at Artemis. She can hardly breathe.
She would not have dared before she felt it. But now, holding this perfect painful beauty around her like a cloak, she thinks she will break if she does not dare. She stands on shaking legs, reaches out, curls her hand around the goddess’s ankle. The stone is cool and smooth beneath her fingers.
She has dared, and Artemis has not struck her down for it. It must be holy, then, this swirl of feeling. It hurts, but she thinks it may be a pleasure to bear this kind of pain. It must be holy. It must be right.
* * *
The messenger comes from Aulis in all haste, collapsing on the threshold of Clytemnestra’s chamber. Iphigenia brings him a cup of wine; he bolts it down as though he were dying of thirst. Only when she refills the cup, and he drains it again, does he hold out the letter from the king and croak a few words of explanation.
She has heard of Achilles. Everyone has heard of him, never more so than now, when he seems to be the key to her father’s great expedition to recover her wayward aunt. She does not want to become a warrior’s trophy, less than the tusks above his hall but more fiercely pursued. She does not want the scratch of new beard on her face as he kisses her. She does not want to fight the woman’s battle yet.
She tries to tell her mother. I am too young. “I was married younger.” I will not see him again until the war is over. “All the better; you’ll make his household yours.” I am sworn to Artemis. “Don’t be ridiculous.” I am afraid. “You’ll soon get over it.”
She is swept along on a vast and terrifying wave of preparations, cresting higher and higher above the surface of her earlier life. If she narrows her eyes, sometimes she can still see the sun-dappled face of the goddess. But she cannot feel Artemis with her anymore. She supposes that Artemis has withdrawn, as she does from all young brides, to be replaced by restless Aphrodite and patient Hestia. She has never been in more need of protection, but she tells herself that it is her fate, like so many other girls, to submit to her father and her husband and her duty. She tells herself it is foolish to yearn for the freedom of the hunt. She sees herself clearly now. She is no huntress; she is prey, and all the strength in the world will only let her run so far before the arrow strikes home.
Aulis is a sheltered harbor, a peninsula of water flanked on three sides by land. Hundreds of black ships ride at anchor, a moving bridge crowding the surface of the water. They face southeast, ready to sail out with the wind. Iphigenia has time for a brief dazzling glance before her women bundle her into the litter they have brought from Mycenae. They rode most of the way, to save time, but now that they are within sight they must behave properly.
Clytemnestra climbs inside the litter with her and draws the curtains. Instantly Iphigenia finds it hard to breathe. She flicks a corner of the curtain aside and leans back toward it, sucking in the sharp salty air.
“It will be a hasty wedding,” says her mother. “But there’s no reason it can’t be a lavish one, for all that. You will marry with great ceremony, never fear.”
Never fear. Such a thing for her to say.
They pass in triumph through the camp: gray tents pitched as far as the land stretches, dotting the coast on both sides. The only sounds are those that her own bridal party makes, the creak of harness and clash of timbrels and giddy laughter of women, but those are so loud that she notices nothing wrong. The swaying of the litter makes her stomach swirl like leaves in the wind. She digs her fingers into the cushions and does not move. She is strong. She was born strong. She will endure.
She has never felt more alone.
The litter jerks to a halt. Her mother steps out first. Iphigenia uncurls herself from the litter, stepping unsteadily into the blinding sunlight. She catches at the first arm to present itself, never mind whose it is, and half-sightless lets her companion lead her where he will. Her eyes have stopped watering by the time she realizes there are no bridal songs, no cheers, no rose petals falling on her head. She stares ahead through the sun-dazzle in her eyes.
There is her father, standing beside an altar. There is no statue on the altar, no god to bless her marriage. She looks up. She does not recognize her companion; she has never seen her uncle Menelaus, he of the runaway wife. She does not know why he is crying.
“What are you doing?” says her mother, behind her, a long way away.
They are close enough now that she can see her father’s face: Agamemnon, the steadfast, the one who will not flinch. “Hold her,” he says. She hears her mother shriek; she feels her uncle’s hand tighten on her own. She still does not know what is happening, only that this is no wedding.
Then there is the knife in her father’s hand, and the empty altar waiting for the sacrifice, and she knows what it is to be strong but not strong enough.
“I made an oath,” her father whispers. She does not care. She made an oath once, to Artemis, and she was ready to break it when he asked. But he is steadfast; he will not break his word.
She remembers an arrow, two rings off the white. He will not break. She asks anyway. “Please,” she says. “Father, please.”
He does not look at her. His eyes are fixed sightlessly on what must be done.
She whirls then, ready to run, but her sandals scrape in the gravel and her uncle’s hand is an iron fetter on her arm. She is wound about with bridal clothes, weighed down with duty. This is not a day to run free. She fights anyway, kicking, scratching, crying out like a wild beast, crying to her steadfast father and her scheming mother and at last and always to the goddess. Forgive me my betrayal. I need you now. I am not strong enough without you.
The stone of the altar is sun-warmed against her back. One sandal has fallen off; the other dangles by a strap. Four men pin her arms and legs; her father stands over her, his blade at the ready. She can feel her own pulse running riot in her throat, pumping its last few seconds of living blood. Sunlight glitters on the bronze blade as it descends.
She does not feel the cut.
Soft numbness surrounds her. She is weightless in its cradling arms as if she floated, rocked like a restless infant. Is this death? she thinks. Is this what I feared? She opens her eyes.
Opens them and sees a face she never thought she would see again, light and shadow both. The eyes are not marble now; they are green as leaves, with pinpoints of light in their dark depths. She did not know that the stern beauty of that face could become so tender.
A sun-browned hand cups her cheek. The archer’s calluses are gentle on her skin. “Forgive me, Iphigenia,” says the goddess.
“Am I dead?” she asks.
Artemis shakes her head. And Iphigenia can see now that she wears only one sandal, that her green dress is torn at the shoulder and smeared with dust. She carries the struggle for life with her. She is still alive. “You stopped the wind,” she says, staring at her goddess. “You held the ships back. You told my father to sacrifice me.”
Artemis never cries. She does not cry now. But she takes Iphigenia’s hand in hers and kisses the palm, with its own archer’s marks to echo hers. “I’m sorry you were afraid,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t wait for you any longer.”
Iphigenia stands then, and pulls Artemis with her. They are engulfed in a cloud: of course it is a cloud, what else could feel so soft and cool and weightless? They are high above Aulis, rising higher and higher, and Iphigenia is not afraid. This is a wave she will ride forever. She feels strong enough, now, for anything, and so she takes in her two hands the face of the goddess whose name means safety, and draws the beloved head down for the kiss that will make her immortal.
Elizabeth Zuckerman’s work has appeared in Timeless Tales Magazine, and the anthologies Rapunzel’s Daughters (Pink Narcissus Press) and Playthings of the Gods (Drollerie Press).