The Return of Orestes

This selection is part of NonBinary Review #4: Bulfinch’s Mythology. You can get NonBinary Review #4 at the Zoetic Press website. 

It has been exactly a year since Agamemnon died—or was murdered, however you want to look at it. Mycenae Estates is being invaded today by the cream of local society, those lucky enough to have landed an invitation to the memorial event. There is a long line of cars backed up at the entry gate to the Villa Atreus. The security clearance is rigorous and every car has to be thoroughly searched. The worst part of it is that each occupant of every vehicle has to be photographed so that Clytemnestra can personally vouch for their identity via remote camera. It is rather time consuming and demeaning, but the residents of Mycenae Estates and the adjoining town willingly put up with it. An invitation to the Big House is not something you pass up.

Clytemnestra’s abode, officially dubbed the Villa of Atreus, has a commanding view of the entire compound as it stands on a the highest hill in the area. It is by far the grandest of all the houses. Everybody knows that Clytemnestra rules the community like a virtual queen and that her lover, Aegisthus, is under her thumb. Poor man.

It wasn’t always like that. Before Agamemnon was called away to the war he was the undisputed master of the house. But he was gone a long time, fighting in a conflict which many considered a foolish endeavor to begin with. By the tenth year it had become a hopeless quagmire. When he finally returned, with a heap of medals to confirm his illustrious service, his wife Clytemnestra made a good show of being jubilant. There was much weeping and embracing; the servants scrambled to prepare a feast of celebration. Zeus only knows how Clytemnestra explained the fact that Aegisthus was living in the villa with her.

It didn’t take long before the situation was resolved, after a manner of speaking. One fine day in early spring Clytemnestra, Aegisthus and Agamemnon went into the Argolid Hills for a hike. Clytemnestra had enthusiastically proposed that they experience the awakening of the land from its wintery slumber. Agamemnon was reluctant, not being much of a hiker, but Clytemnestra and Aegisthus badgered him until he finally gave in. They climbed a steep trail to the top of a mountain. The view was spectacular. It was the last view that Agamemnon would ever see. According to the story Clytemnestra gave out afterwards, he had stumbled on some loose rocks and fallen off the cliff. It had been a tragic accident. There was nothing she or Aegisthus could have done, it had happened so fast.

His body was found hundreds of feet below. The hero of the wars, who had survived every hardship and danger imaginable, ended up a mangled mess at the bottom of the cliff.

Who dared challenge Clytemnestra’s story? There were no other witnesses. Although it was whispered about in town that their explanation of Agamemnon’s death was implausible, that it was no accident, that it was just too convenient for Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to have Agamemnon out of the way–these murmurings would never be spoken openly. The Queen of Mycenae Estates was too powerful to be held accountable.

It is the custom of the land that a memorial celebration be held one year after the passing of the deceased. There had been no inquest, not even a real burial service for Agamemnon after his death. Clytemnestra made sure of that. She maintained at the time that she was too distressed to officiate at any public function, but the locals knew it wasn’t true. Everyone was aware that Clytemnestra hosted festive evenings for her cronies at the villa, as if nothing had ever happened to Agamemnon.

Yet her personal handmaiden reported (again, only whispers) that Clytemnestra suffered from frequent nightmares. The stillness of the night at the villa was often shattered by the most dreadful wailing of her mistress; sometimes she would call out the name of her late husband. By day Clytemnestra would swan about the villa, her embroidered robes swirling about her, oversized jewelry jangling, her face painted like a Corinthian streetwalker, her hair unkempt. She was a grotesque woman. But still powerful. Clytemnestra was not someone you wanted to mess with.

And then there was the daughter. Electra had been coerced into staying at Atreus Villa after the death of her father. She was treated with contempt, especially by Aegisthus who was afraid of her. The possibility of retribution, lurking around every corner, tends to make one paranoid. Electra had become just another servant in the household. Clytemnestra loved to order her about, making her do pointless, stupid things. It seemed to be a show of superiority, but it was fear and guilt that motivated the mother. She, too, awaited retribution. When and how it would come she did not know. In the darkness of her heart she actually yearned for an end to this existence in the villa—it would be a release from the torments she now endured. Oh, what she would not have given for just one night of peaceful sleep!

Hatred boiled in the heart of Electra. She clung to one hope: the return of her brother.

And then there was Orestes. He was the spitting image of his father: tall, bright-eyed, handsome, with thick curly hair the color of sand. Even before Agamemnon’s return from the war Clytemnestra had packed him off to a military school. It turned out to be little more than a prison. But there were two things that made his captivity bearable: the fact that he could harden his body and learn the skills of warfare, and the friendship of Pylades. The two cadets became inseparable. Pylades, slightly shorter than Orestes, dark and beefy, with a heart as big as all of Argos, worshipped Orestes. The two swore eternal brotherhood and were ready to die for each other.

The plan was simple. At the right time Orestes would return to Mycenae Estates and enact the revenge he had been longing for every minute since the murder of his father. Electra had managed to keep him abreast of developments. One of the maids in the villa could be trusted to smuggle out letters and, in turn, deliver incoming notes from her brother.

But first Orestes needed approval for his plan, divine sanction for the violent acts he was conspiring to commit. These were heavy deeds, not undertaken lightly if one wished to avoid incurring the wrath of the gods. He resolved to consult the Oracle.

It wasn’t easy escaping from the military compound but, with the help of Pylades, he managed to slip away in the middle of the night. He traveled incognito north, with Delphi as his goal. The bus was rickety and uncomfortable, packed with locals on their way to market, along with their chickens and their goats, as well as the usual pilgrims. At last the bus arrived at the foot of the hill where the Oracle of Delphi was situated. Orestes cleaned himself up as best he could at the holy spring and climbed the Sacred Way up the hill. The place was swarming with tourists and supplicants hopeful for an audience with the Pythia (for so the oracle was called here). Very few pilgrims got to see her. There was a national lottery, of course, instituted to make access to the Oracle equitable, but there was also the possibility of wangling permission from the capricious priests who guarded the ancient precinct. Bribery was not an option at this shrine. Orestes stepped up to the one who looked like the head priest. He said: “I am Orestes, son of Agamemnon of the House of Atreus. I ask the blessing of Apollo.” The priests were at first too flabbergasted at the mention of the name of the hero Agamemnon to say anything. All three of them simply nodded their assent and stepped aside. Orestes entered the shrine.

It was so dark he could barely see anything. The very walls of the ancient sanctum seemed to exude the pungency of thousands of years of burnt incense. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could make out the figure of an old woman shrouded in black, seated on a tripod.

“O revered Pythia,” he began, “hear my supplication. Grant me the wisdom of Apollo. I am Orestes, son of Agamemnon who fought valiantly in the Great War and was murdered by his whore of a wife and her lover. I seek to avenge the murder of my father. Grant me your wisdom.”

A gravelly voice, measured but sure, issued from the dimness. “I know who you are and what you ask.” There was a pause, then a different voice sounded, clear and strong.

“O mortal, the god hears your prayer. Listen well to what I now say to you: Slay the two who committed the heinous deed. Atone for death by death. Shed blood for old blood shed.”

Apollo had spoken, Orestes was certain of it. He bowed deeply and exited the temple. On his way down the hill he passed T-shirt shops and trinket stalls but didn’t really notice them. The pilgrims on the way up saw that Orestes was someone who had been touched by the god and they made way for him. His resolve was firm; he would go to Mycenae Estates. Somehow he would get in, confront Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and render justice. There was only one thought on his mind now: vengeance.

The one-year memorial event at the villa afforded the perfect opportunity. Orestes sent word to Pylades to meet up with him in Tiryns, the nearest town to Mycenae Estates. The clever lad also managed to slip away under the cover of darkness. Their reunion was sweet. Orestes outlined his plan and Pylades agreed to participate without the slightest hesitation. They managed to get jobs with the catering company that was hired to take care of the reception at Villa Atreus. The manager of Cytherian Caterers thought that the two lads would make fine waiters. Good looking wait staff always enhanced the experience. And their comely presence provided the added advantage of deflecting attention away from the otherwise mediocre food that was served by his company.

As menial laborers of a trusted firm, the personnel of the catering company didn’t have to undergo the usual scrutiny at the gate to the villa. The van they were in was waved through by the security guards. Electra didn’t know if Orestes would show up, but she fervently hoped that he would somehow appear on this ominous day. The very idea of this event turned her stomach. The audacity and hypocrisy of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus commemorating the death of a man they had murdered left her in a simmering rage.

Orestes and Pylades blended in with the other wait staff. They wore crisp white shirts and black bow ties, carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres and drinks around the great hall. Orestes spotted Clytemnestra immediately—she was impossible to overlook—and avoided that side of the room. She was animated by the several glasses of champagne she had already guzzled and did not so much as cast a glance in his direction. Aegisthus moved from one group of guests to another, no doubt boring them with his inane chatter. Everyone pretended to look thrilled at being there.

Orestes maneuvered himself into a position to approach Electra. She was dressed in black, as always, and looked utterly forlorn. No happy chitchat for her. She was alone.

“Would you care for some refreshment?” he asked, placing himself right in front of her. Of course, the voice was familiar. She looked into his face quizzically. Orestes had combed his honeyed locks over his forehead as a sort of disguise. He now pushed back the hair that revealed the scar, the one he earned when they were playing as children, when he had fallen on a sharp rock and hit his head. Electra gasped and lit up with the recognition of seeing her dear brother in front of her. Orestes, anticipating this moment, quickly put a finger to her lips, forbidding her a word. “You must get Aegisthus into the kitchen. Tell him there is an emergency with the food, tell him anything. The hour of vengeance has arrived.” That was all he said before moving toward the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. On the way he gave a sign to Pylades who nodded knowingly. Electra, now transformed by elation, made her way to her stepfather. He was too dense to notice anything different.

Aegisthus, his ample form swathed in his finest blue silk robes, his fat fingers adorned with the gaudiest rings, felt himself quite the lord of the manor. He was at first perplexed at Electra’s request. What did he care about the doings in the kitchen? He had paid good money to have all that taken care of. He was also reluctant to remove himself from a gaggle of townsfolk who surrounded him, each of them trying to outdo the other in expressions of obsequious flattery. As annoying as the interruption was, he thought it should only take a minute or two of his precious time. He excused himself from his guests and headed for the swinging doors.

Some of the wait staff were in the kitchen, replenishing their trays with food and drink. It seemed odd to Aegisthus that two of the waiters were bent over the chopping block, intently examining its surface. Pylades straightened up as the older man approached, informing him that there appeared to be a growth of white mould on the wood.

“Really? Mould in my kitchen? That can’t be good!” Aegisthus bent down to have a closer look. As soon as he did so Orestes grabbed his hair and slammed his stepfather’s head onto the block. Aegisthus was momentarily immobilized.

Meat cleaver in hand, Orestes delivered a mighty blow to the fat neck. “You who shed the blood of my father, who laid with my mother, your own blood is now spilled here. The gods have commanded it.” With another two blows the head was severed completely from the body which then fell lifelessly to the floor with a great thump. Orestes placed the head on the chopping block. Its eyes were bulging in horror, the tongue lolling out on one side. It was a grisly sight. There were screams and dropped trays.

From inside the hall Electra knew exactly what had happened and her heart leapt with joy. The sounds of commotion coming from the kitchen caused the guests to cease their chatter. The daughter approached her mother, advising her that Aegisthus needed to see her immediately.

Clytemnestra had her own suspicions of what was going on. She put down her glass and entered the kitchen. She was met with the most appalling sight: the severed head of Aegisthus was on the chopping block, and next to it stood her son Orestes, meat cleaver in hand, his white shirt now splattered in blood. Electra had entered behind her to block any escape. Clytemnestra knew that this was the reckoning; there was no evading it now. Except for one last ploy.

“My son,” she wailed, “I am the mother who brought you into this world, who nursed you at this very breast.” Here she pulled apart her robe and bared her chest. “Have mercy on your mother!”

This speech only served to infuriate Orestes. “You adulteress, you whore, you shameless murderess of my father! You have been cursed by the gods, and now you will pay the price for your hubris!” With that he lunged at her with a carving knife and plunged it into the very breast that had nursed him. Clytemnestra shrieked and fell to the floor, writhing in the death agony. Orestes watched with a sense of satisfaction. He breathed deeply, finally released from the burden he had been carrying for a year. When the body had at last stopped its twitching he entered the hall, bloodied knife in one hand and meat cleaver in the other.

“The murder of Agamemnon is avenged!” he cried, brandishing both weapons triumphantly above his head. The blood of his victims ran down his arms. The assembled guests watched in stunned silence.

At first there was a smattering of applause, then it grew to a thunder as the guests realized that the political winds had suddenly shifted. Those who were the most zealous allies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus made a mad dash for the exit. They found their egress blocked by a young man (wasn’t that one of the waiters?) who was wielding a hunting spear. Pylades had simply taken it down from the wall. Who would have thought it could still be put to such good use? The ferocious look on the young man’s face showed that he meant business. He let the women go but he ran through every male who attempted to escape, every last one of them.

When all the bodies had been removed, all the floors and walls scrubbed, and each room of the Villa of Atreus purified with the appropriate rituals, Electra and Orestes took possession of their rightful home. Of course, Pylades was invited to live with them and he gladly accepted the offer.

Things would be very different now at Mycenae Estates. The townsfolk would no longer have to cower in fear at the paranoid and sadistic whims of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Justice had prevailed, sanctioned by the wisdom of the gods. The curse of the House of Atreus had finally been lifted.


NBR4MeutersmallJohn Mueter is an educator, composer, pianist and writer. His short fiction has appeared in various journals. When not writing stories he teaches at the University of Kansas.